Monday, January 31, 2011

Snow Job

We make up stories about who we are, and then we buy into those stories.  We believe them.  That's how culture and even identity get formed.  Here in New England, a popular story is that we're a hardy stock, descended from the Puritans.  We take pride in all the hardships we face and overcome.  Adversity builds character.  That's how we can endure an 86-year drought for the Red Sox.  And that's how we rationalize putting up with New England winters year after year.  We're tough enough.  Only wimps live in California and Florida, or root for the Yankees.

But I'm a transplant.  I've only been here three decades, and that makes me a newcomer.  My ancestors were anything but Puritans, and I grew up in comparative ease and comfort.  And yet I, too, have bought into the whole stalwart Yankee myth.  I think of myself as one of those tough individualists, perhaps leaning on a hoe silhouetted against the sunset, who doesn't run away from foul weather.  That why, at the end of January of one of the snowiest winters on record, I'm still without a snowblower.  (Actually, I don't own a hoe either.)

But enough is enough.  Facing another foot or so on top of the fathom of snow we've already had this winter, I'm ready to cave.  I'm ready to trade my stalwart Yankee yarn in for a gasoline-powered, blast-my-way-through-anything, kick-the-snow's-ass kind of guy story, probably sporting a red plaid jacket and John Deere cap.  I'd look good.  There's just one problem ... there are no snowblowers to be had.

I guess my fellow New Englanders have already given in, for the retailers exhibit large open spaces with snowblower-shaped indentations in the floor.  An on-line purchase will not arrive in time for tomorrow's squall, so I'm frantically combing the "for sale" ads and neighborhood email lists to find a working used blower.  I'm sure I'll find one eventually ... some ancient machine whose best snowstorms are behind it.  Then each storm, you'll see me out coaxing it to start, and trying to cajole it through one more snow bank ... one more icy ridge from the wake of the street plows.

Then, of course, I won't be either the indestructible New England farmer or the John Deere-clad nature-conquerer.  I'll just be Charlie Brown, nursing along his pathetic little Christmas tree of a snowblower.

Friday, January 28, 2011

What to make of it

I mentioned CafePress yesterday, and I've been looking at their site more closely.  The business model is that you can upload graphics files, and create a "store" where people can buy stuff that bears your graphic.

What's interesting is what the stuff is.  It used to be they just printed your design on t-shirts, mouse pads and such.  That's not surprising.  The technology to turn designs into printed stuff automatically has been around for a long time.

Then they added coffee mugs and other objects.  That seems a little more challenging, since the objects don't always have flat surfaces.  You can't put mugs through a printing press.

Actually, they can print on a decal and transfer it to the cup, or any other suitable surface.

Now the bear looks difficult, but if you look carefully, you can see it's just wearing a t-shirt.  (Do they have machines to put printed t-shirts on bears?  Or is there a sweatshop somewhere full of underpaid workers struggling to put teeny little t-shirts on stuffed bears?)

Now these places are offering embroidery.  That's pretty impressive.  Turning a design into an embroidery pattern is challenging.  As you can see, some designs are simply not going to work well.

There are technologies around the corner that can make three dimensional objects from electronic files, so you'll be able to have custom figurines, parts, or whatever.

But the really odd thing is the choice of apparel that CafePress offers.  Can you imagine a greater turn-on, for example, then the official Tech Curmudgeon thong?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

All the news that fits...

Ok, I haven't posted much this week, but I did come up with a new logo, shown here

for those of you who read by feed.

This design is now available through CafePress.  The select few (very few) who read this blog can now proudly proclaim their peculiar proclivity (Say that three times fast!) with genuine Tech Curmudgeon t-shirts, mugs, tote bags and other types of schwag.  (All proceeds, after CafePress takes their cut, will go to help struggling bloggers who have yet to make a dime off their blogs despite having posted some arguably pretty funny stuff.)

And if I see you wearing or displaying this logo somewhere, I'll give you a one dollar (US$1.00) bill!  (Offer good while supplies last.)

Monday, January 24, 2011

The News in Depth

My friends know me to be a person of great depth.  I've always been enchanted by stereo-imagery, a.k.a. 3D.  As I kid, I loved the View-Master, with those little round reels of eye-popping cartoon characters, TV shows, and (ugh!) scenic tourist attractions.  I kept my View-Master and reels long after my sane friends had outgrown theirs.  In fact, I have them still, and then some.  I now cherish the once despised scenic reels.

Years later, I discovered that many hobbyists  (more than I could count on my extremities, even taking my shoes off) were actually doing their own stereo-photography, using special cameras or two regular cameras plus some extra gadgets.  I spent years scouring eBay for 50 year old, klunky, manual stereo cameras that cost more than my first car.  There had been a stereo-photography fad in the 1960's, and many of these cameras were still in circulation.  They had no auto-anything, and what's more, the commercial stereo slide making services had disappeared.

If I wanted to make stereo-slides to view, I had to have my film developed uncut and do it myself.  Many an evening I spent hunched over a light box, cutting postage stamp sized film chips, carefully aligning them with fractions-of-millimeter precision, and then pulling my hand away, usually with the oh-so-carefully-placed film chip stuck to my fingers.  Turns out you have to align the images very carefully, or some people whose eyes are not double-jointed get headaches and nausea.

Being a stereo-photographer was like being a Red Sox fan ... you had to be a bit of a masochist.

Then along came digital cameras and even ... gasp! ... digital stereo cameras!  Fujifilm leads the pack with the FinePix REAL 3D W1 and W3 cameras.  Completely automatic (with manual controls if you want 'em), and completely pocket size.  It was more than a stereophile could have dreamed of.  And a couple of other companies seem to be jumping on the bandwagon too.

And as if that weren't enough, there are now 3D capable HD TVs on the market.  What an age!

And yet I am concerned.  Apart from loosing the mystique of being the oddball stereo nut, I'm afraid 3D TV will open us up to yet more intrusive advertising.  Can you imagine having your nose tweaked by that smug Geico gecko?  Or having your living room filled with little floating animated Mucinex boogers?  Or Michelin's adorable road-kill zombie critters?  How about having that box of Depends thrust right in your face?  Or being stuck in the midst of the sex-offending, indecently exposed Cialis couple in their lawn bathtubs? And that's not even considering the programs themselves!

3D TV?  I'll look into it.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Where are the snows of yesteryear?

Here in New England, we still enjoy the quaint tradition of a good old-fashioned snow day.  On these occasions, snow (See Fig. 1) falls from the sky, covers the ground, and causes everyone to drive faster.
Fig. 1 - Snow

Families can partake of such wintry pleasures as shoveling the driveway, trying to start the car, and running out of windshield de-icer.  After all this outdoor frolicking, we come indoors for hot chocolate, which warms our cockles and momentarily diverts the children from Facebook.

As the day draws to a close, we gaze, entranced, out the window at the beautiful landscape swathed all in white (with only a few patches of black and yellow), and sigh at the thought of the next day's commute.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The New New Economy

Let's learn about the new economy.  The current new economy results from the discovery that real estate is not as real as we once thought.  This replaces the previous new economy from a decade ago, now known as the old new economy, which was the result of discovering that the Web is just a fad we'll outgrow.  That one supplanted the earlier, or older new economy (“the economy, stupid”), which, in turn, replaced the prior oldest new economy of the early 1980's.

Each of these new economies is marked by a change in the value of something.  Theoretically, it's a change in the value of work (w) performed by you (u).  Whatever work u do will diminish in value (v), and u will have to work twice as hard (2w).  In fact, making ends meet, which is already geometrically impossible, will become even more difficult.  To survive in this new new economy, u will probably have to take evening classes in Web design (d), grow a goatee (g), and say things like “S’up?” (↑?).  Even with all of that, there are no guarantees.

U.S. politics plays a great role in these economic cycles.  Specifically, the status of the economy can vary depending on who's in power: the Republicans, with their “take no prisoners” attitude, or the Democrats, with their “wait ... what?” attitude.  Under a Republican government, wealth is transferred to the rich, who obviously know how to handle it.  Under a Democratic one, it's transferred to the government, which doesn't, but has good intentions.

But that's a topic for another lesson.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Falling Far From the Tree

So once again, there's shuffling and speculation about the health of Apple's Steve Jobs.  He's taking his second medical leave of absence in two years, and the high tech world is abuzz with questions.  Will he come back?  Who could be his successor?  Who can give Apple the kind of creative vision that Lady Gaga will undoubtedly bring to Polaroid?  Is the world ready for a digital camera made of meat?

Since Polaroid, an imaging company, has signed Lady Gaga, at least nominally a musician, perhaps Apple, now partly a music company, should try to attract a visual artist.  Steve Jobs, as the largest shareholder in Disney, should be able to pull this off.  Might John Lasseter, writer of the Toy Story movies and director of  2/3 of them, be a good fit?  Or Spider-man mogul Stan Lee?  Or even Calvin & Hobbes creator Bill Watterson?  It's about time we heard from him again.

Of course, the next head of Apple should be someone who's very creative, perhaps someone whose background includes both art and theater.  Someone who understands technology, who holds an advanced technology degree and has worked for both hardware and software companies.  Maybe an Apple outsider, who can bring a fresh perspective.  Someone who can provide the maturity of experience, but who still thinks like a kid.  Mainly, someone who has vision, and can communicate that vision.

I'll be by the phone.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The More Things Change ...

In the old days, I would sit in front of something like this

My screen looked like this

Reading an email message looked like this:

Now I sit in front of something like this

The screen looks like this

And my email looks like this

But do I get any more work done?  Possibly, but the additional work is basically just what it takes to keep everything looking so spiffy.

Oh, and now I telecommute, so that cake in the kitchen is hours away by plane.

Friday, January 14, 2011

At the Crossroads

Everybody's talking about how polarized the U.S. is politically.  The main divide, of course, is between The Left (aka Liberals, aka Blue Staters, aka Progressives), and The Right (aka Conservatives, aka Red Staters, aka Regressives?)  To understand their differences, think of the country as a highway, with lots of roads feeding into it.  A very busy highway.

Now if you're already on the highway, zooming along, the last thing you want is traffic lights.  They'll only slow you down and cause jams.  Of course, if you're trying to make a left turn, and there's a steady stream of on-coming traffic in the other direction, you might appreciate a left-turn signal once in a while, but generally, if you're on the highway, you want to avoid turning left.

On the other hand, if you're on a side street, trying to get on the highway, or even just get across it, you're probably going to wish for a light.  The traffic zooming along on the highway never lets up, and no one will let you get on or across.

Now the Red Stater would say, "Traffic lights are bad.  It costs taxpayer money to enforce them, it creates bureaucracy, and it just slows down everyone on the highway.

The Blue Stater says, "There are an awful lot of people who can't seem to get on the highway.  We need more traffic lights to give everyone an opportunity."

Then the Red Stater retorts, "Hey, there's a light about 12 miles that way.  Why can't people just get on there?"

Blue Stater: "But that takes them 24 miles out of their way!  Think of all the extra gas they would waste doing that all the time!"

Red Stater: "I knew you'd work the gas thing in there somehow.  You and your precious little environment."

Blue: "Not my environment.  Anyway, we're getting off track.  The real problem is that you just want to keep the highway for Mercedeses and Lexuses.  Lexi?"

Red: "And you want it overrun with Hyundai!"

Blue: "At least people can afford them."

Red: "But they can't accelerate enough to get on the highway."

And so on.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

To Your Health

Around this time of year, a lot of attention is paid to health.  It fills the lifestyle sections of newspapers.  It's discussed endlessly in "news" show segments and morning programs.  And, of course, there are oodles of magazines and books on the subject.

I'm not against health.  I think it's ok.  But in the U.S., health is not a state of being.  It's an industry.  And like all industries, the health folks are out to hook us and reel us in.

Take those shoes with the rocking soles that are supposed to give your legs a workout as you walk in them.  Any shoes that get you to walk more are good for your health.  Want more of a workout?  Wear heavier shoes.

By the way, these shoes are often called MBT shoes.  That stands for "Masai Barefoot Technology."  In what universe is "barefoot technology" not an oxymoron?

How about diet and weight-loss programs that crop up every month?  I think there's really only one diet rule you  need to follow:

If you know you shouldn't eat something, don't eat it.

Let's face it ... you know that slice of pecan pie a la mode is not going to improve your circulation.  You know the Brussels sprouts and asparagus are a lot better for you than the chocolate chip muffin and the non-dairy dessert topping.  These books and articles aren't telling you anything new.  And they're not going to have any new tricks for getting you to follow the rule.

[Added Jan. 13, 2011]
And just in case you don't know what to eat or not eat, there's a wonderfully useless graphic called the food pyramid.  

The food pyramid was always a pretty strained metaphor.  The idea was that since the top of a pyramid is smaller than the base, the bad foods go at the top, because you're supposed to eat less of them, and the good foods go nearer the base.  Get it?  The bad foods go at the top?  The apex?  The peak of the pyramid?  Unfortunately, we normally associate the peak of something with good or winning.

But it doesn't matter, because later revisions of this graphic abandon any connection with a pyramid whatsoever.  It's still called that because that's the USDA's idea of marketing.  Food pyramid.  Catchy, huh?  So now, the diagram is really a bar graph, wedged into the shape of a triangle just so they can still call it a pyramid.  Your tax dollars at work.

Yet the media keep bombarding us with interviews, book reviews, discussions, etc. about how to stay healthy.  Want to stay healthy?  Turn off the TV, put down the magazine, and get moving.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Cold Reception

I mark the beginning of cold season in my traditional manner. I've got the sore throat, runny nose, cough, stiffness and headaches. But I've also got about an octave and a half at the low end of my vocal range.

This is an opportunity not to be missed. I immediately launch into song:

''You'll never find
 As long as you live ... ''

My wife wants to know why a common cold always turns me into Lou Rawls. I can't explain it to her. She's a soprano, not a basso profundo. It's just something a man's got to do.

''You'll never find
 As long as you live
 Someone who loves you ...''

At this point, I break off into a fit of uncontrollable coughing. The mood is broken. My wife groans.

I could switch to "Luke, I am your father," but even that starts to get old after a few dozen repetitions. Darth doesn't really have any good long speeches. "This is CNN" isn't much better.

Othello's good, but a bit too obscure for today's audiences. "It is the cause. It is the cause, my soul. Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars. It is the cause." My son rolls his eyes.

I want to know how I can get my voice to sound like this all the time. There must be some way, since clearly the apparatus can produce this sound.

They should make a karaoke album for guys with colds. All the great basso hits: "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine", "Old Man River", that "Don't talk back" line from "Yackity-Yack" ... there must be dozens.

My wife and son now groan in unison. We're a very musical family.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Cool Gadgets

When I first heard about the LG refrigerator with a built-in LCD TV, I was pretty skeptical.  It seemed like the height of American laziness and self-indulgence ... the kind that's ridiculed in the movie WALL-E.  But after further consideration, I think appliance makers are missing some real opportunities here.

After all, the refrigerator has long been pivotal in two important household functions ... food storage and communication.  The large metal surfaces of the refrigerator have always provided an ideal spot for posting dentist appointment reminders, cub scout calendars, postcards from Aunt Mary, and, of course, children's artwork.  Everyone in the house opens the fridge every day, so important messages can be reliably conveyed.

Moreover, the fridge is a pretty large, imposing appliance, central in most homes.  It gets people's attention.  It has a flat top for storing rarely used serving trays and keeping the cookie jar out of reach, and at least one large exposed surface that's maybe 12 or 13 square feet or more.  Of course, the bottom foot is too far from eye level to serve as anything but a place for the cats to rub their cheeks.

Yet, despite the LG TV, and some boring energy conservation stuff, the refrigerator has remained "uncool" as an appliance ... just a big box in the kitchen.  I'd like to see some more innovative uses.

For example, what about a built-in phone?  With cameras?  Most people have a phone near the fridge anyway.  Wouldn't it be great to chat with your mom while rummaging through the leftovers?

Or how about, in addition to the TV, a screen for surfing the Internet?  You can look up the nutritional information on the leftover Kung-pao Chicken you're about to down, or browse for recipes that combine cauliflower, beets and one piece of steak pizzaiola.

An audio system would be good.  With your head in the fridge, you'd get great acoustics!  What a way to cool off on a hot night.

The refrigerator is probably also the most essential appliance in the house.  You can live without a dishwasher, or washing machine and dryer.  Even without a range or microwave.  Ok, maybe not without a microwave.  But how about combining the microwave and refrigerator into one appliance?  You could program it to thaw and cook the roast while you're out.  And if you forget to program it, just use that built-in phone to call the fridge with instructions.

The Consumer Electronics Show is going on right now in Las Vegas, but it's all predictable stuff like 3D TVs and tablet computers.  But what do you think all the conference attendees would want in their hotel rooms when they get the midnight munchies?  An iPad?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

No Place Like Home

From the entire lexicon of nerd words, I think the most misused, overused and abused must be home.  Sure it conjures up images of comfort and security and good cooking, but as Thomas Wolfe observed, "you can't go home again."

In the early years, home meant a user's personal folder ... the place where his or her documents, settings files, etc. were stored.  It was denoted $HOME, or simply ~/.  Of course, saying there's no place like ~/ lacks romance.

I think it was in the early 1980's that keyboards began to sport a home key.  That was when computers got personal, and having such a key made them seem more folksy and down-to-earth.  Of course, the home key didn't actually take you home.  Mostly, it just scrolled to the top of whatever document you were working on.

In the early 1990's, the Web came along, and people started talking about home pages.  The home page was the starting point of a Web site, the page you'd see first, and which could take you to the other pages on the site.  So browsing someone's Web site was like visiting their home.  Bring gifts.

Meanwhile, Microsoft began to distinguish "Home" and "Professional" editions of its software.  They figured "Home" users might naïvely shoot themselves in the foot, whereas "Pro" users would do so knowingly.

More recently, Microsoft decided that the familiar Office user interface, the one that garnered the hearts and minds of millions, helping make Microsoft the juggernaut it became, the interface that made Office nearly ubiquitous on administrators' desktops, and forced the competition to imitate respectfully ... yes, that interface should be scrapped.  They replaced it with a set of ribbons, activated by tabs at the top of the window.  The advantage to ribbons is that all the clear, unambiguous text that used to be in menus was replaced by pretty little pictures with one or two word titles.  And, of course, one of the tabs is labelled "HOME."  In Word, this brings up a ribbon of the more common typography options.  Somehow, seeing "Calibri (Body)" does not conjure thoughts of home for me.

Of course, I'm waiting for the control that whisks me back to the farm in Kansas, with Auntie Em by my bedside.  Then it will all seem a horrible dream.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011


At this time of year, people are oddly inclined to impose strict sanctions on themselves, in an effort to improve their health, wealth or moral character.  There's a feeling that a new year provides an opportunity to start with a clean slate, as if the past never happened.  At some point down the road, we'll be able to say "Hey, I've been smoke/alcohol/fat/whatever-free since '01!"

I've written before about anniversaries, and how they really don't mean anything.  The year is simply the time it takes the earth to travel its orbit around the sun and, coincidentally, slightly more than 365 days.  But ok, I'll grant that it's convenient to mark holidays and anniversaries around this, mainly because the weather's usually pretty consistent.  How could we dream of a white Christmas if it sometimes pops up in August?

But if you're going to make resolutions at some fixed point in the year, why not make it your own personal anniversary ... your birthday?  Other life milestones (drinking, driving, voting, AARP membership etc.) are tied to birthdays, so why not treat your personal goals the same way?  Then you can tell those folks in the future "Hey, I've been self-indulgence free since I turned 30," or whatever.

This would help to spread the virtue around throughout the year.  It would relieve the overcrowding at health club parking lots, but also lessen the January slump in sales of cookies and cakes.

My birthday is about halfway through the year, so this system really works for me.  Each January, I decide to scrap my New Year's resolutions, deferring them to the much more logical birthday event.  Six months later, I can just as convincingly justify waiting until the start of the new year.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Predictions for 2010

It's now safe to make predictions for the year 2010.  (Ok, so I'm not a big risk taker.)  Here are my top ten:
  1. In a stunning reversal, Republicans decide the Obama health care reform bill is the best legislation ever.  The controversial provision requiring Americans to buy health insurance is seen as precedent-setting.  The GOP immediately goes to work drafting laws that require Americans to buy cars, high-definition TVs, and real estate in Florida.
  2. Apple rocks the world with the invention of a phone that not only doesn't fit in your pocket, but can't be used as a phone.  They sell millions.  In response, other phone makers develop Google Android devices that offer all of this plus a near complete lack of application software.
  3. A group of Chilean miners invents a way to avoid campaign advertising.  Rights are acquired by Disney, the reality-avoidance company, in exchange for E tickets.
  4. BP invents a new way to harvest oil by drilling holes in the ocean floor and waiting for it to wash up on the beach, where it is collected by government workers and volunteers.
  5. Economic woes cause world-wide hardship as millions of homes and jobs are lost, school budgets are slashed, and Republicans are forced to cut back on Grey Poupon.
  6. To everyone's great surprise, Middle East peace talks break down as Palestinians continue their practice of sending rockets and bombs into Israel, and Israelis continue their practice of building housing.
  7. The long-awaited, next-to-last, no-we're-not-finished-milking-this-yet, and other-hyphenated-adjectives Harry Potter movie is released.  We learn that Harry, the most famous and awesome wizard in the world, with the most evocative back story, still can't score with the witches.  (Spoiler Alert: In the sequel, he will hook up with Christine O'Donnell.)
  8. American voters express their frustration with politicians who don't act on their ideas by electing politicians who have no ideas.
  9. A bunch of celebrities die.
  10. Blogging, especially the snarky, sarcastic kind, makes a huge comeback.
Happy New Year!