Monday, October 31, 2011

Friday, October 28, 2011

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Monday, October 24, 2011

Friday, October 21, 2011

Trash Day

Thursday, October 20, 2011


As another election season threatens to overwhelm us with noxious campaign ads ("I'm Mitt Romney and I approved this mixed message"), it's useful to remember the value of complexity.

Yes, that's right.  Complexity. I know there's a popular slogan, "Keep it simple, stupid," or KISS, that some people take religiously.  But remember what Einstein said: "Everything should be kept as simple as possible, but no simpler." In other words, some things are just NOT simple.  Government is one of them.

It's easy to be drawn in by simple slogans.  "Drill, baby, drill!"  "9-9-9," "No new taxes," etc.  These are the basis of what are now called sound bites. But to think that a workable policy can be built around these simplifications is just ... well, simple-minded. There's so much going on in the world.  The economy depends on many U.S. and International conditions.  That, in turn, affects jobs, dependence on foreign oil, etc.  And those then further effect the economy.  Everything is circular.

So when you hear someone offering simple solutions, you can be pretty sure they're just that ... simple.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Supermodels Exposed

Ever look at an organization chart? It shows the reporting relationships among employees or members of some organization. Usually there’s a box at the top for the head honcho. There may be several boxes below that for people who report to the honcho, and more boxes below those for their employees.

We might look at this and nod, and think “Yes, this is my understanding of the organization.” It may even have some predictive power. It might indicate who to ask for approvals. A box labelled “T.B.D.” suggests that someone will be transferred or hired to fill that opening.

But it’s just a model! It’s a logical construct … a way to visualize relationships. People don’t actually work in boxes. (Well, they do in some organizations.) And there are no lines connecting them. The org chart is an abstraction of certain properties of how people relate to each other.

Likewise, our concept of how the planets orbit around the sun, and the moons around the planets, is just a model … an abstraction. We think of these huge physical bodies all travelling on neat ellipses year after year, but there are no neat ellipses. Actually, the moon orbits the earth, which is orbiting the sun, which is also travelling through the galaxy, which is moving away from the center of the universe. So instead of ellipses, the planets and moons follow intertwined helical paths, spiraling through space.

And even that is just a matter of point of view. In fact, the heliocentric model of planets orbiting the sun is no more real than the geocentric model of the sun and planets travelling around the earth. It’s just easier to visualize and to do the math. Really, heliocentrism is not so much a discovery as an invention … an invention of a model that’s easy to predict from.

These models need constant maintenance.  New discoveries make us revise these models, or even throw them away altogether.  Relativity may have to be refined or replaced as a result of the new evidence that neutrinos travel faster then light.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Friday, October 14, 2011

Thursday, October 13, 2011


Even a quick look at history shows that from the dawn of civilization or earlier, there are have always been people who try to gain power over others, and then to secure and increase that power. Sometimes they use religion, sometimes armies, and sometimes just money. Combinations of these tools are also effective.

History also shows that populations are generally pretty tolerant of these power-grabbers, and will put up with a lot of abuse. Most people seem to want just to get on with their lives, raise kids, find a comfortable lifestyle, etc. As long as they’re able to do that, they accept the fact that others wield great influence and control over their lives. Erich Fromm’s Escape From Freedom suggests that we actually like having someone else in charge, since making decisions about everything is very challenging.

However, there’s some threshold of control beyond which a population will rise up and try to overthrow the powers that seem to be oppressing them. One way to look at this is a pendulum swinging between freedom and justice. Freedom, at its most extreme, means no government interference. People do whatever they want, which tends to lead to wealth and power getting concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people.

Justice, on the other hand, means there’s some government that’s trying to mitigate unfairness by making and enforcing laws, and by collecting taxes to pay for infrastructure and services that are broadly useful: roads, schools, military, etc.

There was a time a couple of centuries ago when political philosophers thought these extremes could be reconciled by having elected governments that rule with the "consent of the governed," but that myth's been largely exploded.  Elections and elected governments are still owned by big money and power.

So all this Occupy This and Occupy That activity is the result of a widespread feeling that things have swung too far in one direction, the direction of freedom and concentrated power, and it’s time to push the pendulum back towards justice. The protesters don’t seem to have a plan for pushing that pendulum, but sometimes just raising consciousness is enough of a start.

A few weeks in, this movement seems to be gaining support rather than fizzling out. Judging from history, either the movement will gain some political power, or it will lead to violence.

I wish I could think of something funny about this.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Monday, October 10, 2011


Friday, October 7, 2011

Lights Out

Thursday, October 6, 2011

First Reaction

In her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross describes the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance.  But when I heard the news of Steve Jobs's death yesterday, my first reaction was definitely anger.  I had just come up with a decent bit of Steve Jobs-related humor, and spent at least several minutes tinkering in Photoshop to produce it.  (See below.)  Why couldn't he have waited a week?

But after further reflection, I realized something important.  Really, The Tech Curmudgeon comes from many years of watching technology, especially computers and software, evolve and grow in importance.  I've seen computers go from highly specialized equipment that requires climate-controlled rooms with raised floors to devices that many of us carry in our pockets.

Throughout this period, the vendors of technology have always been all too eager to sell us whatever gadget or innovation they can devise, with no regard for consequences. Ever gotten a spam email?  Or a virus? Ever cursed at a gadget or piece of software for being too difficult to use, or too unreliable? Ever noticed that you spend more time maintaining your computer than you do using it? Technology vendors have always gone for the bells and whistles, rather than for the satisfying experience.

They just didn't get that computers are not mops or toasters or even coffee makers. We don't merely use computers.  We have relationships with them. They're life partners!

But Steve Jobs got it.  If he's known for anything, it's for the sheer elegance of Apple's products. The whole field of user experience design is illuminated by these products and the concept they realize of bringing joy, and not just utility, to the user.  With the passing of Steve Jobs, the world has lost its greatest exponent of technology joy, and product joy in general.

Which means The Tech Curmudgeon will have a lot more material.

Ok, here's the somewhat lame and now thoroughly tasteless bit of humor ...

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Five Feet of Poetry, Please

Poetry is measured in feet. There are different kinds of feet. Shakespeare wrote in iambs, a foot with one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable, like the word behave.  For example:

Was ever woman in this humour wooed?

You could break this line into 5 feet, where each foot has the pattern unstressed(x) stressed(/).

Was EV | er WO | man IN | this HU | mour WOOED?

So it's called iambic pentameter ... it's made up of iambs, and there are 5 of them in a line. It's said that iambic pentameter is a natural rhythm for English speakers.

We invent a lot of new language these days ... words, names, abbreviations, chat-speak, etc. For a long time, three-letter acronyms (TLAs) were popular ... FBI, CIA, INS, ATF, etc. (Hmmm. Maybe they're only popular for government agencies.) Each of these is pronounced like: xx/ ... two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed. That, in poetry, is called an anapest. We still use TLAs like gtg and brb.

But two letter acronyms are gaining in popularity. Many people use FB (like the full name, Facebook, a trochee (/x)) and G+ (an iamb, (x/), unlike its full name, the anapest (xx/) Google+).

Of course four letter acronyms force us to use at least two metrical feet, more if one of the letters is a 'w' (/xx, a dactyl). That's bad news for TV and radio stations east of the Rockies, where the call letters all begin with 'W'. This is why the ubiquitous "www" prefix either gets shortened to "dub dub dub" or omitted altogether when pronouncing the domain name. (Personally, I'd rather hear it abbreviated as "wah wah wah.")

As I mentioned earlier, we're making up monikers and abbreviations to try to find available domain names that will be memorable. Be sure to try saying the name out loud a few times to confirm that it's reasonable to pronounce. The "dot com" part itself is an iamb, so it may affect any name it gets attached to.  becomes /x/xx/ ... two dactyls followed by an iamb.

If you want word-of-mouth traffic, it has to be pronounceable.