Thursday, November 17, 2005

Is Engineering Boring?

Lately I've begun to think that maybe engineering is a bit boring. I know that sounds funny to most of you. It's like a member of the bomb squad pondering whether defusing bombs is dangerous.

I associate the words "boring" and "engineering" to an undergraduate class I had with Professor Dourman. (Do I need to mention that's not his real name?) His first lecture seemed very promising. He motivated the course pretty well. But thereafter, the professor would deliver the entire lecture seated next to his desk, quietly reading his handwritten course notes that we all had a copy of.

At least half his students were completely asleep -- the kind of rock-solid, drool-on-the-chin variety of sleep that indicated either serious sleep deprivation or severe boredom. Miraculously, no one snored.

I don't think I ever lost consciousness in that class. I would dutifully fill a cup with steaming hot black coffee* beforehand. And I'd buy myself a large cookie to save for the last twenty minutes, should I still find myself awake by then. I had to time the eating of the cookie just right. If I ate it too soon, I'd most certainly crash before the end of the class from a sugar letdown. If I ate it too late... well, that wasn't ever going to happen, was it? After a month, I started bringing three cookies to the class. So I managed to stave off anything more comatose than a semi-hypnagogic state.

Now that I write about this class, I realize that it wasn't the most boring one. It turns out that the material the professor droned on about was novel and even a bit cool. The really boring classes were those in which I already knew the material.

I'd start the semester in one of these classes fully engaged, hoping to catch the professor's mistakes. But as the semester ground on, and as my workload from other courses increased, I would study other subjects or work on various term projects.

This problem, wherein lack of novelty leads to boredom, was actually a precursor to my current plight -- the ho-hum ordeal of supporting my employer's manufacturing department on the many dozens of products I designed over the last thirteen years.

I don't mind answering an occasional support question. But the product we make is highly specialized and difficult to manufacture. No two parts come out exactly the same. So each part needs to be honed (metaphorically speaking) by a skilled technician, who is supervised by a knowledgeable engineer. This is tedious.

I vacillate between INFP and INTP on the Myer-Briggs scale. I need to express myself creatively, and I need to do so in isolation from others. I do not care to make decisions or reach concrete conclusions. Deadlines don't concern me -- I sneer at them. I care much more about the process than about the outcome. And if I cannot learn while doing something, it's not worth doing.

So cut that manufacturing umbilical cord and let me loose on design work. I might just discover something great, like the meaning of Life, or better yet, how to make engineering exciting.

* The cafeteria sold a hot dark brown liquid that looked just like real coffee but tasted like you were sucking on the sharpened end of a pencil. If the caffeine failed to keep you awake, you could count on the taste to give you a jolt.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Just Say "No"

In one of the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" works, New York City is described as a place where it's best to answer "No" to three out of every four questions people ask you.* Douglas Adams wrote that back in the early eighties, well before the first "Windows" was released. Yet it applies so well to our modern day Windows operating systems.

Consider what you go through today to install software.

"You must agree to the following End User License Agreement. Blah blah blah... Do you agree?"

"Yes." [Replying no here means you can't install.]

"Would you like to install Active Desktop?"


"Would you like to make this your default browser?"


"Would you like to sign up for our mailing list so that we may pester you with annoying HTML emails that contain web tags?"



Now that End User License Agreement, or EULA, is a truely annoying thing. The difference between Spyware and "Legitmate" Spyware is that the latter comes with a license agreement that tells you that it monitors your activity and calls home about it. So it's important to at least skim through license agreements before agreeing to them.

And I do. I really do. But it's getting harder to find time to do this, especially since I use many programs that get updated once every few months.

So I was intrigued when I learned about a tool called EULAlyzer (which I first learned about from this CastleCops newsletter article) that "can analyze license agreements in seconds, and provide a detailed listing of potentially interesting words and phrases."

I plan to try it out just as soon as I finish reading its EULA. :)


* Well, I recently re-read all five books in DNA's HG2G trilogy. I came across the "answer 'no' to three out of every four questions people ask" idea in "So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish". And it takes place in San Francisco, not New York (in which, I suspect, you'd be better off answering no to every seven out of eight questions...), when Arthur and the fetching Fenchurch travel all the way to visit Wonko the Sane. -LG 2006-03-04

Friday, November 04, 2005

Technology and Real Estate

Technology has played a big role in streamlining the process of buying a house. But that's not what this article is about. It's not a subject that interests me. And I don't know too much about it.

Rather more interesting is understanding how technology has changed the desirability or suitability of a house. Actually I don't know too much about this either, but it's fun to think about.

Let's start with the well-known real estate joke. You know the one: What are the three most important things to know in buying real estate? Location, location, location.

But it's no joke. Location is important. And historically, technology has had a tremendous impact on this. Consider how a boon in shipbuilding encouraged sea-faring communities to flourish and allowed colonization of foreign shores. Advances in rail transportation enabled settlers to spread west across the USA. The invention of the gasoline engine and discovery of oil reserves led to whole communities founded near oil wells and refineries.

Our needs for water, food and a temperate climate can be met with technology. The better it is, the more adverse conditions we can overcome.

Today we see major cities such as San Francisco developing wireless Internet infrastructures. This is done as part of a revitalization effort. An Internet user might save about $1000 each year in such a place. A smart home buyer will assess the quality of his cell phone reception when shopping for a new home.

Think about the place you live in. What do you like about the dwelling or area? Perhaps it's near a major highway, railway or busline? Maybe you can listen to several cool radio stations that come in clearly. Or maybe you're like me, you just appreciate reliable electricity and telecommunications services. If so, you can thank technology.

Technology or its after effects can make a location less desirable, too. Pollution can shut down entire communities, as in the case of Love Canal. Pollution also takes the form of excess light and noise, which detract from quality of life. The fear of cancer from electromagnetic radiation discourages people from buying homes near high voltage power lines, which, along with cell phone towers, are an eyesore.

Are there things you don't like about the place you live in? Is it so hazy that you can't see the stars at night? Are your neighbors making lots of noise on Saturday mornings with their lawn mowers and leaf blowers? Are the roads too congested and do they have too many red traffic lights? You can blame all this on technology.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Google Print Beta

John Moran wrote about Google Print in his most recent column. So I decided to give it a try.

First, I tried to search for an excerpt from the Quote du Jour. It would be nice to provide you with a link to the quote's context, I thought. I entered "Wonderfully ingenious" (sans quotes) into the textbox and clicked Search. I quickly got 1110 separate hits. But the first 40 were not from the Quote du Jour, and I got tired of clicking "Next."

So then I tried, "indicating the automatic ticket machines," which is another excerpt from the Quote du Jour, but I got only six hits, and no keepers.

I suppose one reason Google Print is in beta is because Google hasn't scanned in a complete set of printed material. Or perhaps the reason Google hasn't scanned in a more complete set of printed material is because the service is in beta.

Surely, they've scanned in the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" books. Well, I tried it out. I entered, "discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here." This returned 51 pages. The first four hits had the exact quote that I had in mind. Oddly, not one of them was from the Douglas Adams book that I obtained the quote from. Instead, the hits were for books that quoted the Douglas Adams sentence. One book, ""Encarta Book of Quotations," had a total of fourteen quotes from various books by Douglas Adams.

It's an impressive start. I hope Google continues to add content. It will tremendously enhance the World Wide Web.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Bankruptcy Law Fails to Keep Creditors in Line

NPR's report on the new bankruptcy legislation, which goes into effect in less than two hours, piqued my interest.

First, is the timing of the bill. Why now? People have been going bankrupt for years. But now that consumer debt is at an all-time high, and both inflation and interest rates are poised to increase, lenders are worried about losing their shorts unless bankruptcy laws are revised.

Second is how the report mentioned that consumer advocate groups opposed the legislation because it lets lenders off the hook. I agree. You'd think if a company were going to lend money to someone, it'd make sure the person seems responsible enough to pay back the loan. But that's not happening. Just sift through a week's worth of junk mail and count how many offers you get for home equity loans and credit cards. Lenders are saving money by failing to properly screen applicants, and now they've gotten the government to enforce payment.

What the bill/law should do is penalize the "worst" lenders in some way. Here's how. Whichever lender has the "most money" in default should be forced to forgive those debts. By "most money," I mean the highest ratio of money in default to total loan money in any given month. This makes it fair for large lenders.

So in November, when Capital One complains that it extended $1M to customers and $100K cannot be paid back, the government can respond, "Sorry, but no other company has anything as large as 10% of its loans in bankruptcy court. You're an irresponsible lender, and you're not entitled to get it back."

This might lead to a stalled economy. After all, our economy is fueled by irrational credit spending. But it might also lead to lenders that take an interest in its customers.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Thursday, October 13, 2005

My Harry Potter Alter Ego

You scored as Severus Snape. Well you're a tricky one aren't you? Nobody quite has you figured out and you'd probably prefer it stayed that way. That said you are a formidable force by anyone's reckoning, but there is certainly more to you than a frosty exterior and a bitter temper.

Discover your Harry Potter alter ego

...created with

Sunday, October 02, 2005

List of Books I've Read Recently

Click to jump to my LibaryThing catalog, which is up-to-date as of August 2008, or view the list below, which I've stopped maintaining in June.



Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Fun Things on the Internet

Let me take a break from road design issues and a write about some free fun things you can do on the Internet.

There are many MMORPGs to choose from, but not many are as free and addicting as Maple Story, produced by Wiznet of Korea.

While you're waiting for that 200MB download to finish, why not play an online game of 20 Questions?

Tired of that already? Give notpron a try. It's billed as "The hardest riddle available on the internet," but to me it resembles a scavenger hunt.


Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Avon Mountain Road Design

Forgive me for obsessing over this, but I'm writing again about the Avon Mountain crash. This time I have an open response to Toni Gold's op-ed piece, titled "Designed to Kill," which was published in The Hartford Courant on Sunday.

Ms. Gold begin strong. A title like "Designed to Kill" certainly is eye-catching. And it actually starts out the way I started a rough draft of my first Avon Crash blog article. "It was only a matter of time before a horrible crash would occur at the intersection of routes 44 and 10 in Avon...." Here's someone whose profession it is to teach "context-sensitive design to highway engineers" who agrees with me.

But as I read on, I realized that she doesn't get it. Her grand "solution" is to replace the intersection with a roundabout.

Yes, that's just what I want to see at the bottom of a steep grade while I careen wildly out of control -- a roundabout. (That's sarcasm you're reading, in case you can't recognize it.)

Of course a roundabout causes motorists to slow down, but only if they have control of their vehicles in the first place. But if a roundabout had been in place at the time of the crash, the truck would have collided with the roundabout's barriers, plus any vehicles that might have been negotiating the circle. If the truck were to have collided with the bus in the circle, it would've broad-sided the bus, and several of the bus passengers would've been killed.

I had hoped that someone who teaches highway engineers how to design roads would have more sense than to propose putting a roundabout at the bottom of a mountain. But this is a case of someone with a hammer who views everything else as a nail. Her "expertise [is] in transportation for livable communities," according to her bio. Unfortunately, the bottom of a steep hill is no place for a livable community, let alone an intersection.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Poor Road Design

Well, I lost my bet. But I'm glad.

I'm referring to a comment I made in my previous post. I predicted that no one would blame the Avon Mountain crash on poor road design.

Yesterday, callers to a Hartford-based radio talk show echoed certain points I made earlier. One caller said that the only way to prevent a re-occurrence is to move the road. Another caller pointed out that our quaint, winding, New England roads are merely 400-year-old Indian trails that have been widened a bit and paved. They're unsuitable for our modern cars and trucks to cruise on safely. These remarks imply poor road design.

This is encouraging. But the voices that really matter are those that represent the DOT. Yet I doubt we'll get an honest assessment from them, as that would lead to a backlash of litigation. Instead, they'll quietly study their options and make some small changes.

Wanna bet?

Friday, July 29, 2005

What Caused This Devastating Crash?

The investigation into this morning's fatal crash in a Hartford suburb (alternate link) has only just started. But emergency personnel speculate that a truck that was traveling down Avon Mountain had a brake failure. It lost control and crossed into oncoming traffic.

I can predict what the investigation's outcome will be. The blame will rest on some combination of excessive speed, mechanical failure or operator error.

I bet you no one will blame the road.

The road (and intersection) is designed to produce just this kind of accident. No rational-minded person would decide to place a large intersection at the bottom of a steep hill, just where vehicles would be at their highest speed, and then angle the road in such a way that those cars are aimed at opposing traffic.

In fact the road over Avon Mountain, like many roads in the Northeast, was established back in colonial days. Early settlers used it to get over the mountain. As more powerful vehicles came onto the scene, the road was widened and paved, but not substantially redesigned to accommodate the faster traffic flow.

The governor's response was laughable -- reduce and enforce the speed limit. I'm sorry Ms. Rell, but a truck that's lost its brakes isn't able to do swat about its speed. Someone needs to either move the intersection or flatten the road before the next killer truck descends the mountain.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Media's Portrayal of MGM vs Grokster

The media's soundbites on the Supreme Court's decision on MGM vs. Grokster would have you think that the movie industry "won." You get the impression that the next news item might be:
Emboldened by its victory over Grokster and StreamCast Networks, the music industry announced two new lawsuits. The first is directed at the Internet. "Grokster's illegal activity was made possible by the Internet," music industry spokesman Don Verrilli said. "It's totally without merit," responded the self-proclaimed inventor of the Internet, Al Gore.

The second lawsuit was filed against the Almighty Creator. "In creating the Universe, the Almighty established certain fundamental constructs, which enabled the phenomena upon which the Internet and Grokster are based. This cannot go unpunished." The Almighty had no response.
In fact, the Supreme Court merely overturned the decision by 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that ruled that the file sharing software was legal. The Appellate court's decision was based on the 1984 Sony Betamax case, which the Supreme Court said could not applied to the case.

The Supreme Court's decision doesn't mean that Grokster and StreamCast Networks's Morpheus are now illegal. Instead, it means that the case will need to be retried. MGM will have to demonstrate that Grokster and StreamCast Networks actively induced its customers to use the software for copyright infringement.

For more facts on MGM vs. Grokster and StreamCast Networks, please visit IEEE-USA's copyright infringement policy page.

Note: The articles at the following web pages were referenced for this blog post:

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Geek Code

The Geek Code is a succinct code that helps geeks identify themselves. In updating my geek code, I discovered that not much has changed since December of 2001.

This is what My Particular Geek Code looks like:

Version: 3.12
GE/CS d+(-) s: a+ C+++$ !U P+ L>++ E+>+++ W++(--) N !o K- w++(---) !O !M !V !PS !PE Y+ !PGP t !5 X-- R tv-- b++ DI+++ !D G e++>+++ h---- r+++ y?

More Outlook VBA: Toggling Grouping

In Am I Lazy or What? I described code that I wrote to add one of four signatures to an email message.

On Tuesday, I got tired of navigating the bowels of Outlook's menu system just to briefly turn grouping off and on. Grouping is a new, nifty feature in Outlook 2003.

So I wrote the following code to toggle grouping, and I customized my toolbar to add a button that invokes it. The code uses the XML property of the View object. The XML property is very cool. It looks like I can do a lot with it.

Sub ToggleGrouping() ' (c) 2005 Luddite Geek
' Provide a way to toggle item grouping.
' 06/28/05 Created.

Dim myOlApp As New Outlook.Application
Dim myOlExp As Outlook.Explorer
Dim myOlView As View
Dim strView As String
Dim i As Integer, j As Integer, n As Integer

Set myOlExp = myOlApp.ActiveExplorer
Set myOlView = myOlExp.CurrentView
strView = myOlView.XML
i = InStr(1, strView, "<arrangement>")
j = InStr(i, strView, "<autogroup>")
i = j + Len("<autogroup>")
n = CInt(Mid(strView, i, 1))

If n = 0 Then
Mid(strView, i, 1) = 1
ElseIf n = 1 Then
Mid(strView, i, 1) = 0
End If

myOlView.XML = strView

End Sub

The code on this page is provided free of charge. The author assumes no liability for any undesired effects it might have. Users may freely distribute the code only if this disclaimer is included. Users may not claim the work as their own.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Marketing + Technology = Featuritis

While I was desperately trying to find a way to avoid the heat on Sunday, Kathy Sierra was writing Featuritis vs. the Happy User Peak, a great companion piece to my Technology as Marketing article. Of course, Kathy has never read my blog, but I'm glad she posted her work. She did a much better job of getting my point across than I could!

Monday, June 06, 2005

Book Review: "A Short History of Nearly Everything"

At 560 pages, Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything" is anything but short. That is, until you consider that it really is the history of Everything.[1] In fact, Bryson's gift for understating book titles, as employed for "A Walk in the Woods" (in which he chronicles his attempt to hike the entire Appalachian Trail) is in full swing for this work.

It's a bit of a choppy book. But it's not easy to segue from the formation of, say, mountain ranges to the formation of Life, without sounding like a parody of Airplane.[2] Besides, we seem to lack quite a bit of hard evidence for most of Earth's history.

Otherwise I liked this history a lot. At times, I thought I was reading Douglas Adams, except that the scientists in an Adams novel wouldn't be as outlandish as the ones we owe our understanding of science to. The end, where Bryson discusses extinction, reminded me a great deal of Adams' "Last Chance to See."

But Adamseque examples appear even earlier on in the book. When Bryson discusses the 1918 flu epidemic, he describes an experiment in which 62 prison inmates are purposely exposed to people infected with the deadly strain. Not one even came down with the flu, yet the doctor who conducted the study became ill and died.

If you're the type who tends to worry about things that can go wrong, this book definitely will send you over the edge. Not only is our tiny planet the only place in the Universe we know of that can support our form of life, there are actually very few places on Earth that are hospitable. Even worse, though, is that the Earth is overdue for a spell of inhospitablility. And there'd be very little time to even prepare[3] and no escape. What are these things we're overdue for? A collision with a big asteroid, the blowing of a huge volcano in Yellowstone National Park, a magnetic reversal[4] are just a few of the things we have to look forward to. And it's not as if we can just run on over to Magrathea to pick up Earth Mark II if anything breaks.

[1] Everything scientific, that is. Imagine if he decided to include the history of religion, art and the Rolling Stones?

[2] Like when the guy says, "What happened? Tell me everything from the beginning." And the goofy guy says, "The Earth cooled. And then the dinosaurs came...."

[3] You might ask, "How would you prepare for an asteroid strike? Put a paper bag over your head? You can't do anything about it." Well, you could max out your credit cards buying all kinds of crazy stuff. You might bump into me at Walmart buying out their line of lava lamps.

[4] "What's so bad about a magnetic reversal? You can just turn your compass around 180 degrees when hiking," you might say. Actually the magnetic field shields us from harmful solar winds. The reversal might be a slow process, with a gradual decline of Earth's magnetic field to zero, and then a gradual increase in the strength of the opposite sense field. We might have enough time to build up an entire industry around radiation-proof clothing.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Am I Lazy or What?

Sunday's Dilbert cartoon might strike a nerve in some engineers. But why? A good engineer is a lazy engineer. The computer was invented because Charles Babbage got tired of calculating logarithms by hand.

Having written that, I'm proud to announce that I spent the last three hours automating something that used to take about five seconds. Yes, I know, but I do it a lot. Those five seconds add up. And now it only takes one second.

Here's the deal. My employer upgraded Outlook from 2000 to 2003 yesterday. But it didn't upgrade the other Office applications. I had used Word as my Outlook message editor, and I used its AutoText feature to add signatures to my emails. Since Outlook 2003 doesn't use Word 2000, I was forced to investigate Outlook's signature facility.

Outlook was thoughtful enough to allow for multiple signatures, and I thank the developers for that. But they failed to allow a proper method for selecting them with a keystroke. I was able to use keys, but look at the sequence involved: Alt-I S M x ENTER (where x is the first letter of a signature name.)1

So I wrote a macro that allows me to choose one of my four signatures from a listbox. So now it's either Alt-S ENTER (for the default signature) or Alt-S x ENTER, a savings of two or three keystrokes. And that means extra time for blogging. :-)

The code for this automation can be entered into two text files called module1.bas and userform1.frm. I recommend first adding the module and creating the user form in the VBA editor. Add a listbox and two command buttons to the form. Their names should be listbox1, commandbutton1 and commandbutton2, and the form should have the name userform1.

Here's what should go into module1.bas:
Option Explicit

' Supporting code for selecting message signatures.
' Copyright 2005 - 2006 by Luddite Geek,

Sub SelectSig()
Load UserForm1

End Sub

Function HTMLize(strBody As String) As String
' Replaces vbCrLf with <br />
HTMLize = Replace(strBody, vbCrLf, "<br />")

End Function

Here's what should go into userform1.frm:
Option Explicit

' Signature Chooser Code
' Copyright 2005 - 2006 by Luddite Geek,

Private Sub CommandButton1_Click()
' Based on

    Dim objItem As Object
    Dim thisMail As Outlook.MailItem
    'On Error Resume Next
    Set objItem = Application.ActiveInspector
    If Not objItem Is Nothing Then
        If objItem.CurrentItem.Class = olMail Then
            Set thisMail = objItem.CurrentItem
            If thisMail.HTMLBody = "" Then
                thisMail.Body = thisMail.Body & ListBox1.Text
                thisMail.HTMLBody = thisMail.HTMLBody & HTMLize(ListBox1.Text)
            End If
        End If
    End If
    Set objItem = Nothing
    Set thisMail = Nothing
    Unload UserForm1
End Sub

Private Sub CommandButton2_Click()
    Unload UserForm1

End Sub

Private Sub UserForm_Initialize()
UserForm1.Caption = "Luddite Geek Signature Chooser"
CommandButton1.Caption = "OK"
CommandButton1.Default = True
CommandButton2.Caption = "Cancel"
CommandButton2.Cancel = True

ListBox1.ColumnCount = 2

ListBox1.AddItem "Work"
ListBox1.List(0, 1) = vbCrLf & _
                      "Work Signature Line 1" & vbCrLf & _
                      "Work Signature Line 2" & vbCrLf & _
                      "Work Signature Line 3" & vbCrLf & _
                      "Work Signature Line 4"

ListBox1.AddItem "Home"
ListBox1.List(1, 1) = vbCrLf & _
                      "Home Signature Line 1" & vbCrLf & _
                      "Home Signature Line 2" & vbCrLf & _
                      "Home Signature Line 3" & vbCrLf & _
                      "Home Signature Line 4"

ListBox1.AddItem "Blog"
ListBox1.List(2, 1) = vbCrLf & _
                      "Blog Signature Line 1" & vbCrLf & _
                      "Blog Signature Line 2" & vbCrLf & _
                      "Blog Signature Line 3" & vbCrLf & _
                      "Blog Signature Line 4"

ListBox1.TextColumn = 2
ListBox1.ColumnWidths = "60;0"
ListBox1.ListIndex = 0

End Sub

1 The keystroke sequence in Outlook 2010 is worse. It's Alt-N AS S and then you need to use the arrow key to select from the list of signatures. Pressing the first letter of the signature name no longer selects it.

Edited on 2006-07-06 to add requested code samples.
Edited on 2013-08-05 to update link to Dilbert cartoon and footnote 1.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Movie Review: Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

I didn't have high expectations for Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (HG2G). When I finally saw it, I loved it immensely. It's so much more enjoyable than the other movies I saw in a theater recently: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (awesome, but too serious), The Spongebob Squarepants Movie (too long and far-fetched), Million Dollar Baby (too serious, too long and way too depressing), Whale Rider (too average). HG2G is the gold standard, AFAIC. Any movie that doesn't poke fun at something every ten minutes or so is too out-of-touch for me to relate to. If you're a screen writer and you can't find at least a dozen things to poke fun at, especially with Life The Way It Is, you can't consider yourself too clever or perceptive, can you?

One concern I had prior to seeing HG2G was that it would leave out important bits. Well, it did, of course, but it didn't seem to matter. One omission is the lovely quip about hyperspace that Ford makes to Arthur in previous versions of HG2G. They've just hitchhiked aboard the Vogon spaceship and are about to leap into hyperspace. Ford, trying to prepare Arhtur for the unpleasantness of hyperspace, says, "It's a bit like being drunk." Arthur asks, "What's so unpleasant about being drunk?" "Go ask a glass of water."

But there were also new things, such as the Point of View Gun.* In one of the best of Trillian's scenes, she wordlessly fires the gun repeatedly at Zaphod. With each blast, he tells her how she feels about dragged throughout the galaxy with the idiot who was responsible for blowing up her planet. But her face conveys her despair more eloquently.

As well, Arthur's daring rescue of Trillian on Vogosphere brought to mind the stark scenes in Terry Gilliam's Brazil, right down to a battle with a beaurocratic behemoth.

Little gems are sprinkled throughout, in some cases literally. The jeweled crabs that Vogons love to smash to bits are wonderfully portrayed as tiny, emotive, sentient critters. When the Heart of Gold pod lands, one delightedly scrambles over to greet (or perhaps be rescued by) whomever might emerge, only to be crushed by the hatch that swings down on top of it.

Compared with the BBC series, the new Trillian and Zaphod characters are far better. NPR's review cleverly compared the half-brained Zaphod, President of the Galaxy, with George W. Bush. It's a great, topical device. And the BBC's Trillian was never developed properly. So the new Trillian is a welcome relief.

The new Arthur has more depth, too. When Tricia tells him she wants Arthur to go with her to Madagascar, you really squirm as you sense Arthur's fear of giving up his comfortable (but banal) existence for the girl of his dreams.

The reviews I've come across praise Alan Rickman's role as Marvin as the real star of the movie. Well, the new Marvin was fine, but I think the BBC Marvin was very well done. And if you don't blink too much, you might get a glimpse of him on the shop floor in Magrathea. Likewise, I didn't see much improvement in the new Ford Prefect.

So go see HG2G if you haven't already. And if you have, see it again!

* The Point of View Gun might have been featured in the HG2G Radio Series.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Universe 1 - Me 0, or How Not to Upgrade a Hard Drive

Back in the good old days of DOS, upgrading to a larger hard drive was a breeze. All you had to do was this:
  1. Physically install the new drive as a slave.
  2. Do FDISK to create one or more partitions.
  3. FORMAT /SYS the primary partition.
  4. FORMAT the extended partitions (if any).
  5. Copy all the files from the old drive to the new.
  6. Physically swap the drives, setting the new one as master.

The word "reinstall" was not in the vernacular. There was no such thing as a registry.

Windows 95 changed all this for the worse. The upgrade procedure became:
  1. Perform a full backup of the hard drive.
  2. Physically install the new drive as a master.
  3. Insert Windows Setup CD and run it.
  4. Install a minimal OS.
  5. Install backup/restore software.
  6. Perform a restore.

Well, okay the number of steps is the same. But the equipment list grew to include backup software and media, and a Windows Setup CD.

Back in the early days, backup software wasn't robust enough to handle the registry. And the backup / restore process can be as much as one hundred times slower than directly copying from one hard drive to another. So folks just started over from scratch, reinstalling all the applications and then copying data files from the old hard drive.

I suspect this inconvenience is by design. It prevents casual software piracy.

Since Windows 95, Microsoft has released Windows NT, Windows 98, Windows 98 SE, and Windows 2000, which is what I'm using at work. Microsoft has pointedly ignored all these opportunities of making things right.

By now you've guessed that I'm about to rant about my attempt to upgrade my computer's hard drive. You guessed correctly. I was at zero bytes on C:.

I know a little bit about the administrative tools that come with Windows 2000. Disk Manager has some nice features. It allows you to remove, create and extend partitions. You can reformat drives and change drive letters. You can even mirror drives. With all its capabilities, I was sure I'd be able to upgrade the hard drive without agonizing over a backup / restore procedure.

So I wrote a thirteen step procedure that would safely and quickly move three partitions (including the boot partition) from the current disk to a new disk. It looked great. The IT guy nodded enthusiastically. And it worked flawlessly, up until the very last step.

That's the thing that bothers me about the Universe. When it plays tricks on you, it waits until the last possible moment to steal the cheese from the end of your maze. In my case, everything went exceedingly well until it came time for me to create the mirror. You see, Disk Manager will mirror disks or partitions only for the Server version of Windows 2000. Users of Windows 2000 Professional (of which I am one) who wish to create a mirrored set will instead wail and gnash their teeth.

And the thing is is that practically each step in my procedure required a restart of the computer. In two cases, there's even a complete shutdown and power down to reconfigure the disks. Just imagine the time it took for me to get to step thirteen!

But not all is lost, I convinced myself. (Or maybe the Universe convinced me.) A fall-back plan presented itself. Having successfully moved everything over from the other two partitions, I could delete those partitions and extend the boot partition.

I am soooo clever.

Now to use Disk Manager to extend a partition, you first need to convert the partition from a Basic partition to a Dynamic partition. That's because only Dynamic partitions can be extended. The thing is, though, that once you convert a disk / partition to Dynamic, you can't go back.

But why would I need to go back? I proceeded to convert the disk, clicking OK to a rather ominous message about having to live with whatever consequences might arise from doing the conversion because it can't be undone, and "are you really completely sure you want to convert, because it really can't be undone? I really mean it this time, too." And so on. "Oh give me a break," I retorted, rolling my eyes. I am not a wimp.

Still, I was a bit unnerved by that message. There has to be a reason for the grave tone of the warning. I thought about this while waiting for what I thought would be the final restart. I mean, people get paid a lot of money over at Microsoft. They're not going to waste it by writing a grave warnings unless they're really, really warranted, right?

With the restart complete, I logged back on and breathed a sigh of relief. "There, everything's working," I consoled myself. Now to fire up Disk Manager, extend the partition, and bask in the glow of a larger boot partition. Sigh, life is good. I love being clever. I get such a sense of satisfaction knowing that I can work around every conceivable obsta....

What's this? "Extend Partition" is still grayed out. There must be some mistake! It's a Dynamic partition. It says so. Determined not to let the Universe get the better of me, I opened Disk Manager's help file (for the first time) and felt my neck and spine contort as I read the following paragraph from the section titled "To extend a simple or spanned volume":
  • You can extend a volume only if it contains no file system or it is formatted using NTFS. You cannot extend volumes formatted using FAT or FAT32.
  • You can extend a simple or extended volume only if the volume was created as a dynamic volume. You cannot extend a simple or extended volume that was upgraded from basic to dynamic.
  • You cannot extend a system volume or boot volume.

Arrrrrgh! Are they serious? I cannot extend a boot volume?!? What's the point of providing an option to Extend a Partition if it won't work on a boot volume? That's the only kind of partition you'd need to be able to extend!! Arrrrrgh!

I compose myself before heading over to the IT guy, the guy who assured me that I'd be able to extend the partition. After all, if I strangle him, there won't be anyone to backup / restore my hard drive.

"Um, Andy? It says I can't extend boot partitions." "Uh huh. Well, you could use Partition Magic, as long as it's a Basic disk. Partition Magic doesn't work on Dynamic disks."

I was silent. Silent in the manner of someone who's busy containing an exploding mind.

"Um, Andy?" I was surprised at how calm I sounded. "You told me to convert the disk to Dynamic so I could extend it."

I don't remember his response. I wasn't able to hear anything with all that exploding going on in my head.

So I went back into Disk Manager and asked whether it was even remotely possible to undo that little conversion to a Dynamic partition. It would be okay, right? I did only a few hours ago. The paint isn't even dry yet.

That's the Universe you hear laughing.

Then I confirmed that Partition Magic indeed does not work on Dynamic partitions. Actually, I thought it was nice of the Universe to let me confirm that so quickly. I guess It felt sorry for me and decided against letting Partition Magic start up, offer an "Extend Partition" option, and proceed to wipe out the hard drive. Although it would have been hilarious, I'm sure.

To describe in detail how I finally got more space on the boot partition would be disappointingly anti-climatic. And I don't want to appear too smug, lest the Universe find a bit of cheese that it forgot to steal from my maze. I'll just briefly mention that I was able to move everything over to a new drive with nearly ten times the capacity of the old. I used Norton Ghost to avoid the tedium of backup / restore. The fact that Norton Ghost needed to be installed on C:, which was already filled to capacity, was a nice touch, don't you think?

Well, everything seems to work just fine. Nearly everything. I just can't seem to run the defragment utility. But I'm sure I can work that out some how. After all I'm clever, and I'm not a wimp.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The Hitchhiker's Guide Personality Test Results

Zaphod Beeblebrox

You are perfect and nothing bad ever happens to you! You dirty, rotten liar. Your brain is obviously only there to keep you from recognizing the boring realities the rest of us call life. Hopefully you have installed a second head; someone has to be your friend.

My test tracked 1 variable How you compared to other people your age and gender:
free online datingfree online dating
You scored higher than 11% on dentity
Link: The Hitchhiker's Guide Personality Test written by donquixotic on Ok Cupid

Saturday, April 30, 2005

Free Computer Security -- FireFox

I have a lot of ranting to catch up on. But I just read John Moran's FireFox recommendation, and I had to concur. We'll somehow manage to work it into this Free Computer Security series.

Yes FireFox certainly is free. And it provides security in the same sense that a Volvo provides safety. Driving (or riding in) an automobile is not safe. But if you have to do it, do it in a Volvo. Similarly, browsing the World Wide Web is not safe. But if you have to browse the Web, FireFox is a good choice.

FireFox may not be completely invulnerable to exploits. Just read the FireFox 1.x bulletins at Secunia to see. But at least it's not tightly integrated into the Windows OS as Internet Explorer, the Yugo of browsers, is. That means Spyware is less likely to take root and germinate.

FireFox's ability to suppress unrequested popup windows means you don't need a separate popup blocker program.

Many exploits involve tricking users into thinking they're on a site other than the malicious site they're actually on. So the SpoofStick extension was created to address this. SpoofStick displays the domain name of the website at the top of the browser window in bold, green letters. (The font color and size are configurable.) This makes it easier to tell if you've been redirected.

But remember, the safest computer is one that's not connected to the Internet[1]. If your tolerance for risk is very low, you'll not have a modem or NIC in your box.

On the usability side of things, I happen to prefer FireFox's tabbed browser concept. If you've always used Internet Explorer, tabbed browsing might take some getting used to. Here's how it works. Instead of having one button on the TaskBar for each open web page, there's just one button on the TaskBar for the main browser window. If you have multiple web pages open, you select the one you want by clicking the appropriate tab or cycling through them with Ctrl-Tab. Microsoft Excel can be configured to work this way. Microsoft calls this Multiple Document Interface, or MDI. I call it cool. (Just one thing. To make Ctrl-Tab switch to the most-recently used tab rather than the next tab, install the LastTab extension.)

Give it a try!

[1] Actually, the safest computer is the one that's never turned on.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Book Review: "Better Off : Flipping the Switch on Technology"

A funny thing happened when I went to the local library to look for "Better Off : Flipping the Switch on Technology," by Eric Brende -- the computerized card catalog database was inaccessible. I guess the situation was more ironic than funny. Either way, it had me longing for those arrays of oak drawers filled with index cards.

Eventually the librarian was able to look it up and put it on hold for me, not without remarking on the irony of the situation.

I don't usually go to the library to look for books. Instead, I look for what I want online and go just to pick it up. But I was there with my daughter and decided to take a look-see.

I first read "Better Off" a few months ago. My wife had checked it out accidentally, thinking it was something else. Then she gave it to me to read.

The main idea behind the book is that technology places a barrier between a person and the outcome of his effort. When that barrier is removed, the person finds meaning and even euphoria in his labor. A minor point is that any time that's saved by using labor-saving devices is either wasted or is spent in maintaining (or paying for) the technology that saved you the time.

After absorbing numerous books that poke fun at technology, I enjoyed reading one that when so far as to do something about it. The author turns his back on it and lives for eighteen months in an "Amish-like" community. (I sometimes wonder if he thought about subtitling it "Flipping the Bird on Technology.") The fact that he wrote about his experience made me want to write about my experiences with technology. So reading the book partly inspired me to create this blog.

But this book left me puzzled, so I decided to re-read it. I hardly ever re-read a book after only a few months. But I can't help thinking that the author was suffering from burn-out from his graduate studies and thesis work. As well, just before completing his program, he was involved in an accident that was severe enough to leave him temporarily debilitated. This, too, I believe explains his romance with (and eventual marriage to) his live-in caretaker.

The other reason I wanted to re-read it because I came across a study[1] recently that seemed to suggest that such conditions as ADHD and autism were non-existent among the "native" Amish. But the only commentary on youth is that their courtship is scripted and predictable. And with the exception of one child who was born with a genetic disease, there seems to be no need for medical care.

He seems to suggest that people would be better off with the lifestyle he chose. But the people he lived with relied on products that were made with the help of modern technology. Such products include the metal in their gardening tools, for example. Watch steel-workers and miners leave for the farm and wave goodbye to your ability to work the soil.

So he flips the technology switch off, but keeps it within reach for when it's needed.

[1] The Age of Autism: The Amish anomaly, by Dan Olmsted.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Technology - No Place for Wimps

My co-worker gave me this hat a few years ago. The hat is resting in front of my flat screen monitor at work, on top of a 120GB hard drive and a Sandisk Flash Card Reader. Below it lies a sticky note with an address and some part numbers and a neat American Wire Gauge slide rule reference of wire sizes.

That KDS monitor is nice and clear, BTW.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Free Computer Security -- Firewalls

Any computer that's connected to the Internet needs a firewall. It doesn't matter if you have only a dial-up connection. I'm on dial-up, and my computer sometimes is targeted for port scans. In fact, my first two computer calamities probably were caused by malicious Internet activity.

I was running Windows 98 back then and playing an online RPG. I'd leave the computer connected to the Internet several hours at a time while I played or downloaded updates. One day the computer failed to load Windows, and I discovered that the SYSTEM directory was empty.

I repaired the system and went back online. About six months later, the computer suddenly became very sluggish, and a program that I was unfamiliar with (probably a service) was maxing out the CPU.

Then I did two things. First, I set my hard drive up to dual boot Windows 98 and NT 4.0. NT would be my primary OS, while Win98 would be for my daughter's games. Second, I installed a firewall.

At the time, three free firewalls were popular: Sybergen Secure Desktop, Tiny Personal Firewall, and Zone Alarm. Zone Alarm seemed to be the most popular so I installed it. It was easy to use and hid my computer's ports from the Internet. And I haven't had an Internet-related problem since.

But the astute reader will notice that I referred to Zone Alarm in the past tense. I almost hate to mention this, because Zone Alarm is a very good program. But remember how I wrote that I was playing an online RPG and that I was on dialup? I discovered, through a lot of trial and error, that Zone Alarm interrupted the connection to the game every thirty to sixty seconds for about five seconds. And its "disabled" mode didn't change that. The interruptions went away only after I uninstalled Zone Alarm.

So that prompted me to try Sybergen Secure Desktop. That program was just about as easy to use, hid my computer’s ports just as effectively as did Zone Alarm, and it didn’t interrupt my gaming experience one bit. I recall running a port scan while playing. Everything worked fine, and I’ve kept it on my system.

Sybergen Secure Desktop now is called Sygate Personal Firewall. And it still runs on WinNT 4.0 (SP6).

Once you install Zone Alarm or Sygate Personal Firewall, you’ll need to configure it. Configuration is an ongoing process since these products will block a program’s access if that program has been changed. But I like to tweak things even further. I find that the default settings for "allowed" programs is too relaxed.

First, I like to restrict the remote port numbers that things connect to. For example, my web browsers are allowed to connect only to remote ports 80 and 443, which are standard ports for HTTP and HTTPS, respectively.

Second I like to set everything to client-only communication so that any remote-initiated attempts to communicate with these programs are rejected.

Third, I use FireFox as my default browser, but keep Internet Explorer for those ASP-type pages that are unreadable with anything else. (Internet Explorer was required to file my income tax claim at When I need to use IE, I get the website’s IP address using Ping and then allow IE to access only that IP address. Otherwise, IE stays blocked. Ditto for Outlook, since email gets routed through a couple of proxies before arriving at Outlook. (These proxies will be the subject of another installment of Free Security Programs.)

I’ll post the URLs of my favorite sites that do port scanning in the comments section, below. But not right now – later, when I stand a good chance of keeping my eyes open.

(Psst: I never did try Tiny PF.)

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Geek Test Result

I didn't score as high as Tirsden, but that's probably because I don't have time to be a gamer....

The Deviant Geek
You answered 76% of the questions as a geek truly would.

You're a geek and you know it. You've got all sorts of fringe hobbies and socially unacceptable tendencies. Chances are, whenever possible, you hate to be grouped with other people and sometimes go out of your way just to be different.

You're smart too. You're more willing to depend on your own brainpower to solve problems, instead of relying on others to pull you through life. You probably read a lot, and generally enjoy learning new things.

So what's it all mean? You may be considered by some to be uncool, but you probably don't care either. In social situations you may be either slightly passive or slightly loud (geeks always fall into the extremes). In a nutshell, you answered enough questions correctly supporting a geek philosophy to be considered a more potent geek than 60% of the population.

My test tracked 1 variable How you compared to other people your age and gender:
You scored higher than 68% on geekness
Link: The True Geek Test written by ambientred on OkCupid Online Dating

Cool High-Tech Thing -- Free Computer Security

Securing your computer might be tedious, but it need not be expensive. In fact there are a number of excellent free security-related applications to make you and your computer feel at ease.

Let's start with Anti-Virus. Grisoft delivers a free anti-virus solution with its AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition, which is free to home users. I had switched from Symantec's Norton AntiVirus (aka NAV) for these reasons:

  1. The Annual Virus Definition Subscription Fee. Paying this entitled the user to download virus updates for one year. But if you ever reformat your hard drive within that year (which I did twice) you'd either have to pay the fee again or you'd have to contact customer service to receive a special unlocking code in order to download more updates.
  2. Sluggish Performance. NAV slowed my system down quite a bit. It was so annoying, I wound up disabling its real time mode of operation and its email scanner. So I used it only for performing manual scans. Even those took a long time.
  3. No More Support for Windows NT 4.0. The home edition of NAV fails to list NT on it list of system requirements. In fact, just before I switched to AVG Anti-Virus FE, I'd been using the Enterprise Edition of NAV, which apparently even supports DOS. (Sometimes it helps to have a friend in the IT department at work.)
  4. "LiveUpdate" Blocked by Firewall. Every time I wanted to update the virus definitions, I had to download the entire 5+MB universal virus definitions file and install it manually. That's because the program's internal updater, called "LiveUpdate," failed to make it through my computer's firewall. If only they'd give me a range of IP addresses to open up (aside from to But they had too many different servers providing the updates.
AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition can be downloaded installed and registered for free. Users can easily get differential updates for free. It runs crisply on my Windows NT 4.0 OS. In fact, scans take so little time, I was at first skeptical that it was anything more than a program that popped up a message box to say the file has no viruses.

Coming next... free firewall discussion.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Deadly Body Odor

Yet another example of misuse of technology -- the Genetically Altered Scent project.

Researchers discovered a way to modify the DNA of a common bacterium so that the waste it produces has a pleasing scent. The idea was to introduce this strain of bacterium into the armpit regions of test subjects, who would be required to forgo deodorants, antiperspirants and anti-bacterial soap for a ten day period. At the end of the study, the subjects would don a cotton pad under each armpit and perform some light exercise. The pads (along with pads from a control group) would be sniffed by another group of participants who would designate each pad as either "pleasing" or "disagreeable."

If the study was successful, Genetically Altered Scent, or GAS, would usher in a new line of designer fragrances.

Unfortunately, the study had to be halted due to a complication. About thirty percent of the participants who hosted the modified bacteria developed a severe rash. A few of these actually had to be hospitalized and undergo intravenous antibiotic therapy. Apparently one of the modified genes turned the bacterium into an aggressive organism, similar to deadly flesh-eating varieties. Luckily no one died or suffered permanent damage.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Cool High-Tech Things

When I made the leap from MS-DOS to Windows NT in 1997, I continued using the DOS version of Norton Commander for a while. Norton Commander (NC) was a wonderful file manager for DOS, and even the clunky DOS version was more useful to me than Windows Explorer. NC would display the contents of two directories side-by-side and provide a command prompt. (Cygwin provides something similar called Midnight Commander.)

However, one big problem was that NC wasn't made for a multitasking environment. When other programs tinkered with files in a focused directory, NC blithely ignored those changes.

Symmantec no longer supported NC, so it was time to search for a Windows file manager to replace it.

I found one of the most awesome pieces of software -- Servant Salamander, by ALTAP, which is short for Alternate Applications.

I've been using some version of Servant Salamander daily for about seven years. It's stable, intuitive, feature-packed and useful. ALTAP continues to add features and just released Beta 8.0 of version 2.5 on Friday.

I have a lot of cool programs on my computer. Servant Salamander is one of the coolest.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Weather in New England

If I had to rank things in order of increasing slippery-ness, I'd put snow at number three, mud at number two, and ice at number one.

During yesterday's backyard Easter egg hunt, I had a chance to compare all three. Fortunately, no one fell, and the dog and house are still fairly clean.

Douglas Adams on Technology

Here's some brief, witty commentary on technology from Douglas Adams. These snippets can be found in The Salmon of Doubt, which I just finished reading.
  1. Anything that is in the world when you're born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
  2. Anything that's invented between when you're fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
  3. Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

We notice things that don't work. We don't notice things that do. We notice computers, we don't notice pennies. We notice e-book readers, we don't notice books.

We are stuck with technology when what we really want is just stuff that works. How do you recognize something that is still technology? A good clue is if it comes with a manual.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

How to Prevent School Shootings?

In the aftermath of every tragedy, it's natural to ask, "How could we have prevented this?" Many schools installed metal detectors after Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed fellow students at Columbine High School nearly five years ago. But the metal detector at Red Lake High School didn't prevent Jeff Weise from killing seven classmates last week.

Is the answer more technology? There are those who will advocate for more.

I hear that Jeff Weise fit a profile. He was a quiet loner. That will lead scientists to wonder whether there's a genetic marker that predisposes someone to such violent acts as mass murder. If we can identify at-risk youths, we can prevent the next tragedy.

This is preemptive thinking. We were preemptive in getting rid of Iraq's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and its non-links with terrorists. What's to stop Patriot Act proponents from preemptively detaining a bunch of Goth school kids?

Of course this cessation of rights won't start with school kids. It'll start with the lowest of criminals, a class of criminal even the ACLU won't want to defend -- the sexual predator.

John Couey, who confessed to molesting and killing 9 year old Jessica Lunsford, is the ideal poster boy for genetic testing. "Hey before we put you in prison you need an exam. Just wonder what a bit of your DNA might look like in my handy Genome test kit?"

Perhaps this is already being done on numerous sexual predators nationwide. Once the data is collected, a correlation is made. And then you start being preemptive.

The Human Genome project wasn't initiated with the idea of segregating people based on their DNA. But that's the way it goes with technology. Once you put it out there, you can't control how it gets used.

So now I hope you'll excuse me while I rid my wardrobe of every article of black clothing I own....

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Why This Blog (Part 2)

At the end of Part 1 of Why This Blog, I referred to our daughter. Here's an excerpt of my journal that features our daughter:

On Saturday (12/15/01), my wife and I took our daughter to The Farm to have breakfast with Santa Claus and the Grinch. We called in advance to buy tickets, and we were thrilled that "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" was broadcast on television the night before; furthermore, we were happy that our daughter seemed to enjoy certain parts of the animated special.

We arrived and were told that we should gather eggs in the chicken coop. The "snowman" showed us to the coop, which was about the size of a large living room and was filled with chickens and straw. Our daughter collected the eggs and placed them in the basket that my wife held. I just walked around a bit and took pictures. After we got outside, a strong wind blew the snowman's hat off, and our daughter chased after it. I picked it up and gave it to her, and then she gave it to the snowman.

We took the eggs to be graded. Our daughter placed them on the machine one-at-a-time. Then we washed our hands and went to have breakfast.

I sat down with her while my wife went to get three plates of food. There were scrambled eggs, sausage and pancakes. As we ate, the Grinch came in and foraged in the garbage can for food! Our daughter was hysterical with laughter! "The Grinch eats garbage! The Grinch eats garbage!" she shouted between fits of laughter.

Then Santa came over and said hi to us. He asked our daughter her name and what she wanted for Christmas. "A hobbyhorse," she replied. That's what we've been brainwashing her into wanting for about a month.

Soon after that, the trolley ride was announced. The Grinch drove the tractor that pulled the trolley. He drove by his "reindeer", which were panels of wood cut into the shape of reindeer and painted appropriate colors. After the seventh reindeer, we came upon Rudolph. This was a deer-like mannequin suspended on a wire so that it "flew" as we rode past. The red nose blinked.

After the trolley ride, we visited the animals. We've seen the horses, emu, llamas and sheep before. But this time there was a goat with two babies. They were black and about the size of our puppy, but taller and less long. But they were shy and agile, so it was hard for us to get a good picture with them.

Stay tuned for Parts 3, 4 ....

Bluebird House

Bluebirds are making a comback in the Northeast. Some have been spotted in our town. So my wife, who just started a new job, bought a bluebird house today, just like the one pictured on the right. This is made by Woodlink. It's from their American Tradition Series, and it's called simply "Bluebird House."

Edited to add:
  • I mounted the little house on the trunk of a yellow birch tree. The ground is too frozen to drive a special pole into, which is what's recommended.
  • Check out the North American BlueBird Society's website.
  • Copyright to image of bluebird house most likely resides with Woodlink.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Why This Blog (Part 1)

Many events led up to my starting this blog.

Journal writing is in my blood. My first handwritten journal entry appeared when I was in the seventh grade. How long ago was that? I just did the math in my head. It can't have been that long. Thirty years?

My first attempt at putting my journal on a computer failed almost immediately. It was back in the mid 1980's, before we even had personal computers in my department at work. The popular home computer at the time was the Commodore 64. And that's what I bought. The word processor it ran could display only half a screen at a time, 40 of 80 characters. Switching from the left of the page to right wore me out very quickly.

What I really wanted to do was write sections of text and then link to them from other sections of text. I hadn't heard of HTML yet. But if I did I would have wanted to use it.

Another ten years went by. And then my employer's LAN became established, and we had dial-up Internet access. If you think 56K is slow, imagine 56K shared among ten people. Despite the slow access, I established my first web page. A lame first attempt, it merely consisted of a list of links.

It wasn't that I couldn't think of content. Rather, I couldn't think of a way to bare my soul and remain anonymous. (As soon as I finished it, I sent an announcement to everyone.) So I let it collect virtual dust.

As our daughter started to grow and do interesting things, I became more interested than ever in journaling. I committed myself to writing it on computer. This time I had HTML to work with, and a wonderful text editor that understood HTML syntax.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Technology as Management

I work for a company that proudly bills itself as a lean manufacturing company. That's a euphemism for "a company with too few managers because we're too cheap to hire more." So at every opportunity, they manage with technology.

One example is how they decided to limit Internet access and game playing among the hardworking, hourly workers who assemble and test our products, and upon whom our livelihood depends. The big boss doesn't want them to fritter away valuable time. Time is money, and all that. He also prefers to sit in his office rather than walk among them.

At the time, I was a "sort of" member of the IT team. The first thing we did was install Microsoft's System Management Server (SMS). We did this not to address the time frittering issue, but because SMS was really cool. We loved playing with SMS.

My favorite aspect of SMS was the way it would run programs at certain times on remote computers. I used it to deploy virus updates, before we switched to an enterprise virus tool.

SMS could also restrict certain users from running certain programs at certain times of the day. So we used it to restrict Internet Explorer, Solitaire, Freecell, Minesweeper, and so forth.

Of course, it was easy to circumvent SMS restrictions simply by renaming the restricted file names. One could rename IEXPLORE.EXE to MSACCESS.EXE, for example. I knew this at the very beginning. I'm not sure whether the other IT guys did. I didn't bother to mention it. I felt that anyone smart enough to figure this out should be rewarded. I knew that the big boss didn't know this. He seemed satisfied that we had an answer to his issue, a technological answer in fact.

So we went on like this for a good while. And I'm proud to say that we had only one case of virus infection (Melissa), and I shut the email server's service before it spread to other computers.

But SMS was a resource hog. If the network was busy or the server was slow, we'd experience a frown-inducing delay before running any application because the computer needed to wait for SMS to say, "Yes, you can run the program this time (but don't make a habit of it.)" So when we hired the full time IT guy, he brought in an enterprise virus tool and eradicated SMS.

The new guy approached this issue differently than we did. He took the request seriously. He was determined to make his solution work. What he did was this. He renamed IEXPLORE.EXE to something else, and set its folder's local permissions to deny access. He omitted the standard games from the installation. And he set peoples' local accounts as user accounts as opposed to administrator accounts. That's to prevent them from installing games or other web browsers.

By then, programs had evolved to offer HTML-based help, which required IE. Restrict IE, and you restrict access to help. Although I mentioned this to him, it wasn't until I told him I needed everybody to use IE that he came up with a new idea. He set the IP address of the default gateway on certain computers to a bogus value. The default gateway is the address of the computer or router that traffic needs to go to in order to get on the Internet. If that address is not known, a computer cannot access the Internet.

This is the current method of limiting Internet access. IE is free to open local files or network-based files. Yet no programs can access the Internet. So it has the added benefit of preventing "malware" from "phoning home."

As nice as this seems, there's still a problem. Suppose someone who's allowed to access the Internet needs to use one of the restricted computer? No dice.

Anyway, this "locking the cookie jar" technique of barring Internet access really does ensure people won't waste time on the Internet. That's because they'll be wasting time figuring out how to gain access! As well, it sends the message, "We don't trust you to do your job. We'd rather micromanage your job rather than support your growth." It's how you treat children.

Why not be smart about this? If people are so bored (or addicted or lazy) that they'd rather fool around on the computer and risk losing their jobs, treat the boredom (or addiction or laziness.) Have a merit-based reward system in place. Make sure they always have work to do (but not too much).

Monday, March 07, 2005

Technology as Marketing Follow Up

Frivolous technology that's used as a marketing tool results in an Arm's Race of Technology as manufacturers try to out-do their competitors. We consumers encounter expensive, feature-bloated products instead of the basic, trusty, inexpensive things we've grown up with. It may be that eBay will turn out to be a Luddite's best friend. Some of those quaint, clever gadgets we're so familar with are no longer made. Expect to see eBay affiliates opening brick-and-mortar shops soon.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Technology as Marketing

I'm about as suspicious of technology as I am about email from Nigeria. That's because technology is the snake oil of the twenty-first century. Adding new "bells and whistles" to something, regardless of whether they're needed, is considered a good way to get consumers to buy something they already have.

For example, if you manufacture coffee makers, there are a limited number of circumstances under which people will buy your product:

0. Their old coffee maker broke and needs replacing.

1. They finally moved out of their parent's house (or divorced) and need one of their own.

2. They need to give a practical gift.

3. A new one will make life much easier.

Over the first three circumstances you have little control. (Well, actually, you could ensure that their old coffee maker breaks if they bought your old model and you made it cheaply enough. But then who would be daft enough to buy the same brand of coffee maker that broke? Then again, if all your competitors also made their coffee makers nearly as cheaply as yours, all you'd have to do was make sure the thing outlasts the warranty. Or you could simply market the same coffee maker under a few different brand labels.)

Where was I? I seem to lost my train of thought. So while I'm looking for my train (and wondering where my luggage has gone off to) let me explain the business with starting the above list with zero.

I wanted to present content in this blog with a good balance between Ludditism and Geekiness. But I'm a bit concerned that there may be much more Luddite than Geek here. Of course, the fact that this is a blog should help balance things out. It's not like I'm scratching this into parchment under candlelight with India ink and a nib. No right-minded Luddite[1] would dare go near a computer let alone build a blog using one.

What does this have to do with my zero-starting list? I think I can answer that. Starting at zero is something programmers do. If we have a list (or array) of ten to "iterate" through, we go from 0 to 9, not 1 to 10. I do know the precise reason for this, but to explain it would diverge even more from coffee-making than ever. So let me wrap this up by convincing you that programming habits pervade my being to such an extent that they leak out into daily life, if you could call this a life. And thus I am a geek. QED.

Now then, I was leading up to the idea that if you want someone to buy your coffee maker, and that person already has one, you have to convince that person that yours will make his/her life better. In the absence of technology, you might achieve this by making the coffee maker look more attractive in some way by some combination of redesign and advertising. You'd pay a gorgeous model to appear in a commercial while using your coffee maker. Then you'd pay her some more to make bedroom eyes to a bleary-eyed man who was using your coffee maker during another commercial.

Or, you could use technology. It's cheaper than a model. And some people are tired of gorgeous models, especially the homemaker who has to get up a 5:00am each weekday and get three children off to three different schools before racing to work, hopefully remembering to drop the fourth child off at daycare on the way.

So what you do is hire a couple of engineers to add a few features, like the ability to tell the difference between a weekday and the weekend in order to automatically brew at 5:00am on the former and, say, 5:10am on the latter. (Don't forget, her kids have soccer on Saturday and Sunday school on Sunday.) And you add another feature where it knows if any particular weekday is, in fact, a holiday. And another feature that keeps the coffee maker's clock synchronized to the NIST atomic clock in Boulder CO. Because you know and I know that Super Mom doesn't have time to set her coffee maker's clock every time junior presses the GFI Test button and cuts off the power to it. More importantly, she knows it.

But what she doesn't know is that your coffee maker doesn't know the difference between really important holidays such as Memorial Day, and those lesser ones such as Veteran's Day, with the difference being that her work place doesn't open on Memorial Day but does open on Veteran's Day. She also doesn't know that the coffee maker will utterly fail to synchronize with the NIST atomic clock because the signal is too weak. Worst of all, she doesn't know that if she forgets to add the water one night, it'll try to brew anyway the following morning, turning the hot plate on under an empty pot. And that night will happen to be the one that the kids are sleeping over at their Gramma's house so that Mom can sleep until 8:00am. Except that she'll awaken at 6:37 when her smoke alarm pierces her precious sleep.

But that's a good thing, because then she'll need to buy another coffee maker!

[1] "Right-minded Luddite" is, of course, another oxymoron.