Thursday, December 29, 2011

Scalability

When I started as a computer professional, we used minicomputers.  They were called "mini" because they were only as big as two or three refrigerators, and four times as noisy.  They had to be installed in special climate-controlled rooms, with raised floors for all the cabling and air conditioning.  We used to run what we called application programs.

Then the whole world went to personal computers. These could fit on a desk, with plenty of room left over for a pencil or a paper clip. The computers themselves weren't so big, but you needed room for boxes and boxes of floppy disks. And these disks contained applications. Not application programs. Just applications.

Now I carry the equivalent computer power in my pocket. One in each pocket, actually. We don't need floppies. Everything's in The Cloud. And those programs? Now they're just apps.

Next I suppose everything will be implanted surgically.  The user interface will be just to think of what you want. Of course, it will be hard to drive with all the "Updates are available" messages popping up in our heads.  But so what?  They'll drive.  There'll be an A for that.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Classics

I think it's great that Amazon has a Kindle app for iPhones and Android phones.  I can carry a hundred books in my pocket, and read them whenever I'm unavoidably detained, such as at the doctor's office, dentist's office, optometrist's office, barbershop, etc.  You get the idea.

Of course, I rarely get more than a few pages into one of the classics (They're free!), so I usually wind up starting over again for each new appointment.   I've read the first few pages of Ulysses dozens of times, and I still haven't made it to Lilliput despite countless embarkations.

The drawback to this is that catchphrases get stuck in your head like unwanted melodies, and then pop out at the most inopportune times.  More than once I've had this exchange:

 - Peter?
 - Call me Ishmael.

I have an odd tendency to refer to people as "you fearful Jesuit," with no regard whatsoever to their religious affiliations.

Shakespeare is plentiful in the land of free lit, and is chock full of juicy, tenacious phrases.  So why do I keep falling back on "It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing?"

And, of course, these linguistic baubles are most likely to pop out the moment I finally get in to see the doctor, dentist, optometrist, barber, etc.

 - How have you been?
 - It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ...
 - What seems to be the problem?
 - It feels like my gall bladder is divided into three parts.

I wouldn't mind this patina of literacy, but, like a Tourette sufferer, I have no control over when these utterances choose to interject themselves.  Drink me.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Three Generations

Your grandparents ...





Your parents ...





You ...


Monday, December 19, 2011

Geek Morality

The most rigid moralists in the world today are not religious leaders or conservative politicians. They are the computer geeks, especially the ones who have been using computers and the Internet for 10 or 20 years (or more!!)

They have rules for everything. For example, nice looking formatted email is bad. Email has to be plain text, looking like it just rolled out of your typewriter. (Google it if you don't know what that is.)

Email should look like this: Not like this:
Hey, Max. Want to grab lunch? I was thinking either Changsho or Mary Chung. What say?
Hey, Max. Want to grab lunch? I was thinking of either:
  • Changsho, or
  • Mary Chung
What do you say?

And email with pictures?  Horror!

Also, when you reply to an email, you may not top-post (put your reply above the excerpt from the message you're replying to). This is a grave sin among knowledgeable geeks. Email has to read from top to bottom in chronological order, like some ancient scroll.

Using Flash to liven up a Web site is strictly taboo.  Web sites should also look like typewritten documents.  Except for the links.  Those can be blue.

But the worst sin of all is usability. Usability may mean more people can actually benefit from the technology, but it's always at the expense of performance. Nice looking Web pages take longer to download.  Understandable commands take longer to type. Worst of all, usability means that practically anybody could be on the Internet. Even non-geeks!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Letters From The Editor

I've wanted to do a letters feature for a long time. It gives me a chance to respond to comments and questions from this blog's readers. There's only one problem. There are no comments and questions from readers. Nothing at all, unless you count the offers to increase my girth.

So, I'm going to have to write my own. Here, then, are my letters from the editor.



Dear Adoring:

Thank you indeed for the high praise. It's very gratifying to know how much this blog has changed your life. As to how you too can become witty and wise, my recommendation would be to support this blog by buying merchandise at CafePress.com/TechCurmudgeon. You'll fit in with any intellectuals when you're wearing one of our "non-shrink (too much)" t-shirts, or drinking from the "non-shrink (at all)" tall coffee mug.

Or just send donations via PayPal.

Best regards,

Tech



Dear Peeved:

When the Eiffel Tower was first built, many Parisians considered it a blemish on their city, a garish pile of industrial scrap. Yet today it's regarded as one of the most beautiful and romantic sites in the world.

So give Windows Phone a chance.

Sincerely,
Cur



Dear Want-repreneur,

Certainly the world of mobile apps is exciting. It's a growth area today, and sure to continue for the foreseeable future. In addition, mobile apps tend to be highly interactive and fun. So here's how to get started writing them:

  1. Google "how to write mobile apps."
  2. Read some of sites in the search results.
  3. Do it.
As always, Tech Curmudgeon is happy to provide detailed technical information like this. More technology just benefits all of us.

Yours,
Mudgeon


Well, I'm afraid that's all the space we have for this week, but keep those cards and letters ... well, just keep 'em. We'll be back with more next time.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Friday, December 9, 2011

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Wozymandias

I met a salesman from an antique shop
Who said: "I have for sale an Apple ][
That has one drive for tapes and one for flop-
Py discs to store what's valuable to you.
There's also an enormous twelve inch screen
So you can read the symbols and the signs
As they appear, on black, in shining green
Some forty letters wide, twenty-four lines.
It has one quirk, if anyone should care.
When booted up, a message it displays:
'Look on my AppleWorks, ye, and despair.'
I guess this old thing has seen better days.
This thing that once had power to excite -
Now just a memory (4 kilobyte)."

George M. Kōan

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Military Honors

Throughout history, the highest honor that can be bestowed upon a military leader is to make him or her the namesake of a chicken dish.  Think of General Tso, who defeated arch-rival General Gau in a fierce battle over naming rights. Or that other peerless military leader, Colonel Sanders. And I'm sure that someday, we'll all be able to enjoy a delicious meal of Petraeus Poultry.

But it's hard to ignore the irony of this. After all, "chicken" is the last thing most of these commanders would want to be associated with. So why do we accord them this particular honor?

The answer, it turns out, has absolutely nothing to do with the question. Rather, the answer is about the use of the term GAAP in financial statements. Seriously? GAAP? That stands for "generally accepted accounting principles."  That's the closest we can come to dictating how accounting should be done ... it should be "generally accepted." No right or wrong. Just do it the way most people do it. It'll be fine.

That's similar to the way health insurers decide how much they're willing to pay for a procedure. Look at the fine print. They'll pay "reasonable and customary" charges. Not "that's how much it should cost," or "that's the cost of time and materials."  Just "reasonable and customary."  Yeah, that's what the doctors down the street are getting for an MRI, so I guess it'll be ok for us too. No wonder health care costs are out of control.

The other reason for skyrocketing health care costs is, of course, our determination to violate every known guideline of preventative medicine. Bacon double cheeseburger? Yeah, gimme two. And a large order of fries. And a gallon of Coke. Better make it Diet Coke. Exercise? Yeah, I gotta carry all this crap in from the car. Oh, wait! I can just eat it in the car! All this despite the fact that beef is literally a synonym for complaint.  What's your beef?

That's why military personnel always seem so fit and trim. It's the chicken.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Friday, December 2, 2011

News Roundup

Following eviction from its downtown location, the local protest movement has decamped to a nearby home, where it has become known as Occupy Steve's House. Steve Metzger (31), of Greenville, says he's "pleased and proud" to have the tent city in his living room.  Pauline Metzger (27) admits it can be "inconvenient, especially when I'm nursing the twins." The twins could not be reached for comment.

* * *

Perennial Republican runner-up Mitt Romney said today that he had a revelation after talking to a prominent immigration scientist, and that now, like his rival Newt Gingich, favors allowing undocumented aliens who have been in this country for years to remain, provided they have WalMart cards.

* * *

Senate Republicans blocked a Democrat-backed measure to extend payroll tax cuts, saying it would only benefit people who work for a living.

* * *

Euro-zone countries tentatively adopted a plan to buy tons of gyros and souvlaki, and millions of barrels of Ouzo, in order to help debt-ridden Greece. German Chancellor Angela Merkel commented that the European Union is unsure how to proceed with other troubled economies, however.  "We already have lots of tapas and pasta."

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

How I Met Al

When I poked into Joe's Americium Barium Grill, I wasn't looking for Mr. Uminum, but he fixed me in his steely gaze. I felt my spirits zinc. He was tall and bronzed, and spoke in a tinny voice. "If I had a nickel for every time you coppers have the brass to come here looking for me ..."

"Ore ..." I interrupted. "I might be looking for that missing mineral shipment from Bolivia, but that's none of your bismuth."

"I oughta fill you full of lead..."

Ironically, he never finished that thought.  A sudden power surge forced us both to reboot.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Friday, November 25, 2011

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The 1%

There was a great graphic in XKCD yesterday, depicting the scale and distribution of money in the U.S.  However, because of it's scope and completeness, it may have obscured one issue which is at the heart of the whole Occupy Wall Street movement.

According to Forbes (quoting UC-Santa Barbara professor G. William Domhoff), the top 1% of the country controls 42.7% of the financial wealth, which looks something like this:

Monday, November 21, 2011

Friday, November 18, 2011

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Sunday, November 13, 2011

From Paper to Pixels ...

Storybooks then ...

Storybooks now ...




(Go to the Web site to get the effect.)

Friday, November 11, 2011

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Monday, November 7, 2011

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Idealets

In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry and his friends visit the Department of Mysteries at the Ministry of Magic.  Part of this office is taken up by a vast storeroom in which prophesies are kept in glass spheres, like the proverbial crystal ball.  Like memories that get replayed in a Pensieve, the prophesies appear, in the movie at least, as wisps of smoke.

What would be immensely valuable to humankind would be the ability to keep ideas archived and available for immediate consumption. After all, in the long run, the only thing of value our species has produced is ideas, and perhaps the occasional realization of some of them. Some ideas are captured in objects that represent them ... buildings, machines, works of art.  But many are stored only in the limited transcriptions into books, musical scores, recordings, etc. These require time and some amount of cognitive effort to transmit their contents. You have to read a book or watch a movie or listen to music. Who's got time for that?

Mort Gerberg defined a cartoon as "instant communication of a funny idea."1  Of course, technically it's not instantaneous if you have to read the dialog or the caption, but it's probably as close as we've been able to come. So I think we should place greater value on cartoons as the ideal medium for preserving our culture and intellectual heritage.

And, needless to say, we should honor cartoonists above all others.

1Gerberg, Mort, Cartooning: The Art and the Business.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Out Of Your Way

There are two kinds of people in the world: human beings, and airline passengers. The first group occasionally smiles, relaxes, and seems to enjoy itself. The second group looks like the bedraggled, snow-covered protesters at Occupy Wall Street, but with less optimism. At least the protesters have some room to spread out.

Look at it another way: Even meat eaters often balk at consuming veal because of the inhumane (inanimate?) way the calves are treated. The calves are kept in pens so small they can't move for their entire lives, so they won't develop any muscle tone which might make the veal chewy. Yet airline passengers are confined in the same way for many hours at a time. Travelers are also herded like cattle, and given a good deal less to eat. No wonder they're moist and tender at the end of a long trip.

In short, I'm proposing a new organization ... P.E.T.A.P. - People for the Ethical Treatment of Airline Passengers. Hmm. Maybe we can get some celebrities to pose naked for us.  I mean for ads, of course.

In Edward Albee's play, Zoo Story, the character Jerry says, "Sometimes it's necessary to go a long distance out of the way in order to come back a short distance correctly." I'm not quite sure what he means by that, but I think it has something to do with air travel. Or not. I don't know. I read the play a long time ago.

The point is that even with all our modern technology, we still have to endure horrible conditions in order to travel by air. I think I speak for a lot of us. We are searched, corralled, herded, confined and forced to listen to seat belt buckling instructions.  And we can't even use my cell phone.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Friday, October 28, 2011

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Monday, October 24, 2011

Friday, October 21, 2011

Thursday, October 20, 2011

K.I.N.T.S.S.

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.

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

Occupied

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

iBelieve

Friday, October 7, 2011

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 ...

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. TechCurmudgeon.com  becomes /x/xx/ ... two dactyls followed by an iamb.

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