Monday, December 25, 2006

The True Meaning of Christmas

It finally clicked in me -- the True Meaning of Christmas.

It was when I heard the Christmas story retold for the fourteenth consecutive time, at last night's Family Christmas Eve service, at our local church. The Pastor had read Luke's Gospel, and then he expounded on it.

He started by describing Luke 2:1-7 in more detail. The reason that Jesus, Mary and Joseph were staying in a stable is that there was no room at the inn. That I've known since I was a child, but nothing more.

The rest of it needs to be appreciated against a backdrop of adult experiences. The child I was did not bother to wonder why they needed to find an inn.

The Pastor explained that Joseph needed to haul himself (and the pregnant woman he was engaged to) 80 miles, by foot, from his home in Nazareth back to Bethlehem in order to be counted in the census. So he could be taxed.

That's my wife and me, Joseph and Mary. Not only do we have to undertake some pain-in-the-ass journey for some poorly-planned government bullshit, we have to do it when we're about to give birth. All for the ultimate pleasure of paying taxes. This is jury duty on a Grand Scale.

To make the story more interesting, Joseph is caring for a woman whose child she carries is not even his.

And this is the way the Universe works. Even God's Children cannot escape suffering the idiocy that this world has to offer.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Time Magazine Person of the Year (What Else?)

As soon as I heard that Time Magazine's Person of the Year (POTY) was "Me," I knew I had another sarcastic blog entry to write. By now, this entry is but one of many that pokes fun at Time. And if you want to listen to great commentary on the topic, redirect your browser to today's commentary by Bill Langworthy on NPR's All Things Considered.

I'd rather not waste much content on Time. POTY noise actually rewards Time in the end, even if it's criticism. I just want to point out that choosing me as POTY (along with hundreds of thousands MySpace teenagers who are either horny or lonely or both) was plain laziness. If Time had done a little research, they'd've discovered the term blogosphere, which might've led them to this special issue of Communications of the ACM. And somewhere in this two-year-old, well-researched set of papers would be the person or team responsible for creating the technology that enables us POTY winners to blog.

If it sounds like I'm angry at Time, it's because I am. Aren't I supposed to receive some monetary award? Because I didn't. Hello?

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Build My Own Universe? Are you Joking?

Okay, I finally accept that my elementary-school-aged daughter can design her own web page and probably make it look a whole lot nicer than this site. But could the next generation one day build its own universe?

Incredibly, some physicists think so, according to this feature on NPR's All Things Considered:

This is a cool page, not just for the feature article, but for the related links. The one bit of disappointment I feel is that I wish this came out nearer to April Fool's Day. That way I could fool people into thinking that something is a joke when, in fact, it's actually real.

So I wonder if our Universe was once created by a team of ambitious physicists in a higher level universe? What if they have to shut down their experiment due to lack of funding? Or what happens if a student overheats a Twinkie and in the process accidentally destroys the lab while attempting to redo one of the Twinkie Experiments?

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Recommended Website: Pandora

When I was a kid, my favorite thing was to buy a new record from the music store and play it on my home stereo for the first time. Discovering new songs, or hearing played-out songs anew, was magic to me.

So I was thrilled when I found out about Pandora. (Thanks, Tirsden!) This site helps you find music you like. You give it the names of a few of your favorite songs, and it creates a playlist of similar songs. As you rate the suggestions, the resulting "Radio Station" starts to provide you with fresh, enjoyable music.

Curious to know what kind of music I'm into? Check out Hard to Pin Down Classical / Progressive Folk Rock Radio. Some of Pandora's choices are pretty cool. Others are quite a stretch, although it's usually fun to hear them. I guess I can sense some similarity between Blue Oyster Cult and Renaissance. And I had no idea Todd Rundgren jammed like that (The Ikon).

Edited on 2006-10-11 to add this list of Radio Stations...
  1. B-52's Radio
  2. Funky Electric Bass Radio
  3. Hard to Pin Down Classical / Progressive Folk Rock Radio

Friday, September 08, 2006

Promoting the Field of Engineering

The website touts itself as a resource that should help pre-college students decide whether engineering is good career choice for them.

The link that immediately caught my eye was Engineering Life Profiles. The target page is titled "Life of an Engineer," and it sports a list of links to the job descriptions / professional biographies of seven practicing engineers.

As an eletrical engineer, I was curious to read the profile of Carl Allison (Electrical Engineer).

Mr. Allison is employed by Walt Disney Imagineering, which is hardly a typical destination for an average engineering graduate. I'm glad that he's happily employed producing things that entertain people. Unfortunately, many engineers wind up in a cubicle dungeon, spending days just poring over one parts list after another in order to identify and replace pure tin-leaded components with components that have leads plated with palladium silver. And this is for some space hardware hardly anyone will ever see. There are engineers that spend their entire careers studying the long-term reliablilty of resistors, or think of ways to reduce the cost of an assembly by a few cents.

If you're a pre-college student who thinks engineering might be a good career, make sure you talk to a few engineers first. Don't just read glitzy promotional websites and think that's how your life will be. Try to shadow a few real engineers during the summer before your final year of high school. Although the summer camps that TryEngineering has listed are probably too oriented to having fun, they're probably better than nothing. They at least help you determine whether you have the aptitude for cool design and problem-solving aspect of engineering.

Friday, September 01, 2006

The Highs and Lows of Being a Luddite Geek

It isn't easy being both a Luddite and a Geek. Each encounter with new technology evokes a Dr. Jeckyll / Mr. Hyde response. Sometimes it's quite strong, like the day my new, computer-controlled boiler was installed.

The old boiler was installed when the house was built, about 1950. It still was heating water very well, but over the last few winters, it wasn't maintaining pressure. And a few weeks ago, it started to leak intermittently from the circulating pump.

Here's how both the Luddite and the Geek in me responded to the new boiler.

So the guys took out the 60-year-old furnace yesterday. It was still delivering steaming hot water, as it had always done faithfully (except for the times that the igniter and transformer had to be replaced).

They put this new, computer-controlled thing in its place. After it's all connected, filled with water and pressurized, they flip the switch, and guess what. Nothing. The burner doesn't fire up. Nada. Zilch.

The guy tinkered with it for three hours, until 7:30pm actually, and then said the piece of crap module was bad.

My wife was especially upset. Not only did she not have hot water last night and this morning, her formerly-white kitchen floor is filthy, the light beige carpet on the stairs and landing is smudged with greasy, sooty footprints, and our daughter has a cold and needs a nice, steaming bath.

What on Earth compelled me to buy a boiler with a computer in it? All it has to do is switch two relays on and off -- one for the burner and one for the circulating pump. How hard can it be? I can't believe I spent more on this than my car.

If you ever want to ruin a good, reliable piece of equipment, add a computer to it.

Things didn't go too well yesterday, that's for sure. Well, the owner came today. He couldn't believe there was anything wrong with the computer. So he tinkered with it for a while. When he realized he wasn't getting anywhere, he tried to jury-rig it to bypass the computer controller. Fortunately his helper noticed something peculiar about one of the jumpers on the controller. It was not connected! Bingo. Connect it up, it fires right up, and we have burning hot water.

[days go by...]
Over the past few days, I got to go through the manuals that came with this feat of engineering. I navigated the menus and chose one of the week-long day / night programs and altered it to our family's schedule. This will ensure that our boiler won't turn on at night during "summer mode" when it's not needed. And in "winter mode," it will govern at what times the temperature setback should kick in / out.

With its temperature sensors for outdoor and indoor air, plus knowing what the room setpoint temperature is, it's able to taper the boiler temperature as the room temperature reaches the setpoint. It follows one of a few pre-programmed heating curves that adjust based on the outside temperature. And the outdoor temperature sensor can be used to switch the unit between its summer and winter modes. The temperature at which it makes the switch also is programmable.

It delivers hot tap water the same way it heats the house. As the water in the tank reaches the setpoint (which, of course is user-adjustable) the boiler can shut down since it has enough remaining heat to finish heating the water.

I tried lowering the hot water setting to 125F, but I noticed that the dishwasher's heating element was coming on. So I set it back up to 130F (where the installer had left it) to keep the dishwasher's electricity use down.

The first time I took a shower, I was really impressed. It's just like at the health club. No more turning the faucet toward the hot position as the shower progresses. I set it, and it stays. Wow. And forget about turning off the heat ten minutes before taking a shower. The computer will give priority to heating tap water over heating the radiators.

You want to know a secret? I paid more for this boiler than my car. But it's worth it. I'm not queer or anything, but I really want to invite my buddies over for a shower.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

OpenOffice 1, Microsoft Office 0

Today was not a good day, computer-wise. Thankfully, the problem was with my work computer and not my home computer, even though the two are very similar in setup.

First I noticed that Excel wasn't able to use the "Save As" dialog box. I was trying to save a CSV file as an XLS file, something I do regularly. But Excel would just hang when I tried it this morning. It would also not import text files.

It was nearly lunchtime, so I mentioned it to the IT guy. He gets in the driver's seat and I go off to lunch. But first I use another computer to do the Excel job I couldn't do on my system.

After lunch, I see that he's still at it. He says it's not just Excel, but all the Office apps are messed up. And Windows Explorer Tree View doesn't expand network branches, so it's not just Office. But he doesn't know what to do about it.

We've already tried to "Repair Office" and uninstall and reinstall.

So I decide to test his theory that it's more than Office. I tried the Save As in NotePad, Adobe Acrobat 6.0 and Visual Studio 6.0. They all work. So Office is messed up, I'm sure. I don't care about Explorer -- I don't use it anyway.

But then I notice that I can't send inter-office e-mail, whereas before I could. I can receive it, but not reply. And I can't download from my ISP's POP mail servers. So whatever fix the IT tried to apply, it probably broke the mail client. Oh well -- I can live without e-mail for a short while. After all, I am part "Luddite."

But I can't even *save* a Word document, and I need to use it. So I downloaded and installed OpenOffice and easily created my "Word" document with it.

I can get by with OpenOffice only for a short time, though. I do need to create new Excel documents that contain VBA code, something I doubt can be done with OpenOffice.

As I wonder what caused this, I can only guess that it was the new scanner driver and software that I installed on Friday afternoon. Maybe if I uninstall it I might get MS Office to work again. But I'm guessing the mail client is thoroughly hosed....

Monday, July 10, 2006

Cell Phone Angst

What is it that spurs people to get a cell phone? In our case, it was separation anxiety. More precisely, it was my wife's concern over losing our daughter to School.

As the dutiful family provider, I made sure that this new vital piece of technology was in our hands and working properly before the first day of school.

And I did a great job. I had come across a great online deal from AT&T Wireless back in 2001. I ordered the phone and service sometime during Labor Day weekend and received the phone on Tuesday. I was impressed with this ... er ... impressive service.

The only problem was that AT&T didn't own any base stations in our area. Nor did they have any stores nearby. And customer service was reluctant to give us the address of the nearest base station, perhaps as a security policy. So activating the phone was tricky. Eventually, I drove through various towns until I happened to cross into home territory. When the phone finally connected, it registered itself on the network, and I was able to use it.

The phone worked extremely well in our home, and I saved lots of money on long distance by using the cell phone instead of the land line. I liked the idea of calling my wife from the supermarket to ask her whether Land-o-Lakes Swiss Cheese would be okay to substitute for Finlandia Swiss. Unfortunately, there was no signal at our daughter's school and at our church.

The phone's battery out-lasted the contract, but it did fail. Rather than buy a new phone or get an upgrade, I canceled the service and got a new plan, along with a new free phone. Even though the separation anxiety was gone, the cell phone had become indispensable, at least to my wife.

Eventually, AT&T was forced to give up its wireless service. SBC's Cingular service took over. By then our contract had already expired. But we continued with the new phone and the same service on a month-to-month basis.

By this time, my wife was using the phone as a pager for her new on-call job. She was not hesitant to point out its short-comings, the biggest of which was that she couldn't get a signal inside certain buildings. But it gave her some freedom away from home and allowed her to respond to work calls while gardening or walking the dog.

One day in May, her work place complained that when they called the cell phone, they got a message that the number was not in service. When I called Cingular, they traced the problem to a billing issue. Specifically, the credit card that they were charging to every month had expired. Rather than notify us, they did the sensible thing and shutdown the service. (That's sarcasm, BTW.) After I pointed out that they should've called us before shutting off the service (which is used to provide on-call medical service) I was told that I wouldn't need to pay the $25 reinstatement fee.

So with that behind us and the contract expired, we had only to wait for the battery to fail on this new phone. I was intrigued when Cingular (now owned by AT&T) sent us a upgrade offer. We could replace the phone and increase from 120 to 400 minutes for a one-time fee of only $19.99, probably less than the cost of a new battery. I could see the catch, though. They were hoping the new phone's additional features would cause us to use the service more. The new phone was capable of Internet access and could do IM, both of which require premium service.

It was Independence Day weekend. As I mulled this offer over, my wife's work place called our land line number to tell us that they couldn't connect to the cell phone. Instead of ringing, they would get our voice mailbox, as if the phone was turned off or out-of-range. At first I thought that maybe the voice mailbox was configured to intercept the call. But after navigating the voice mail menus, I couldn't find a problem.

Customer service remarked that there were service problems in our area. They expected that it would be cleared up within 24 hours. But in order to add our account to the list of the ones needing service, I had to give them three phone numbers that failed to ring the cell phone. Well, the work place was One. And our land line was Two. Cingular also tried (and failed) to ring the cell phone. Could they be Three? No. I was supposed to call someone right away and ask them to call me back. On a lovely summer Saturday afternoon. On Independence Day weekend.

The one person I was able to reach directly couldn't actually hear me because of all the noise at the pool. I gave Cingular the number anyway.

After twenty-four hours, the problem still was not fixed. I encouraged my wife to turn her hostility away from me and direct it instead at Cingular. They placated her by telling her it would be fixed on July 5.

On July 5, she called again. This time they explain that the problem is with the phone. It's obsolete. "How old is that thing, anyway?" they ask, oblivious of the fact that they gave it to us less than three years ago. We would need a new phone, and it just so happens that we have an upgrade offer to take advantage of. Isn't that nice? (More sarcasm.)

We complained about the coercive tactics used to get us to upgrade, which pissed off the customer service clerk and got us a reduced upgrade fee. If it were up to me, I'd've canceled the service. But my wife has been brainwashed into thinking that she cannot live without a cell phone.

The new phone, BTW, has only a few ring tones, two wallpaper images, and no free games (other than demos). Of course we're welcome to buy additional content. This is the epitome of progress -- develop new ways of getting more money from the customer.

Outlook "Signature Code" Added

Back in June of 2005, I bragged about how I spent a few hours to write Outlook VBA code that eliminates a few keystrokes. I had a request for that code a few days ago, so I decided to edit that post to add the code. This link will take you to the edited post.

I should point out that I no longer use that code. I had lost it when my work computer was upgraded, and I failed to back up the source in a reasonable location. Too lazy to re-invent the wheel, I deigned to add signatures the MS Outlook way, using Alt-I S M X Enter. Besides, after a security patch was applied, Outlook would force me to respond to a warning every time I ran that macro. And anyway, when adding the signature to replies, I would always have to move the signature from the very bottom of the message to the point just after the end of my response and before the quoted message. (I'm pretty sure I can fix that, actually.)

So the code you see in the edited post came from an hour-and-a-half session I spent to recreate the code -- a Saturday night pursuit of geeky leisure.

Monday, July 03, 2006

The Ideal Career Path

I just read Sacha Chua's "On programming as a career" post and had to stop what I was doing and write about it.

I understand the feelings that went into her post. I've been trying to strike a new career path for myself -- something with more of a human element. The thing that thrills me is computer automation, especially applied to design processes, data processing and administration. The thrill has two sources. The first is from overcoming the challenge of making the automation succeed. The second is from seeing smiles when my coworkers experience the relief that comes from knowing they don't have to repetitively point and click through several silly menus to accomplish something.

My ideal Masters Degree would be in "The Automation of Computers to Make Life Easier For the Poor People Who are Stuck Using Them."

It doesn't have to involve computers, actually. I plan to involve them in my career path only because I believe I can make more money in a field that incorporates them. I could be nearly as happy serving as an efficiency expert, helping people to live better.

Suppose someone is intent on making a fried egg for breakfast before going to work. I might suggest that she take the eggs and butter out of the refrigerator first thing in the morning. Then after she has showered and is ready to cook, the eggs aren't as cold and will cook more quickly and will be less inclined to stick. And the butter will be soft enough to spread easily.

But I've learned that not everyone likes being told how to do something. If my wife has any say in the matter, I would be better off staying out of her kitchen and woking on a computer.

How would this play out on a computer? Well, if I knew someone who enjoyed instant messaging with friends on different servers and who liked to keep up with a few RSS feeds, I might suggest they use Miranda IM, the Swiss Army Knife of IM clients. It can work with ICQ, AIM, MSN, YIM, IRC, Jabber and GoogleTalk. Plus there are numerous add-ons, one of which can make it report feed updates. And it's Open Source. The only reasons it's not today's killler app are that it lacks marketing push and it doesn't require a hardware upgrade to run it.

Anyway, good luck to Sacha, and to myself. If you have any advice for either of us, let me know!

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Net Neutrality

The US Senate is debating S 2917: Internet Freedom Preservation Act, which would prevent ISPs from giving preferential treatment to content providers that pay. They are also debating S 2686: Communications, Consumers' Choice, and Broadband Deployment Act of 2006, which would greatly reform telecommications laws and allow for a tiered Internet.

Apparently, telecom providers want to compete with cable television providers, and they want content providers to subsidize their effort. The first bill mentioned above would seek to prevent that. The second would facilitate it.

For a really well-fleshed out article on the subject, check out "Speed Bumps on the Information Highway," by Tom Abate, Chronicle Staff Writer. This FreePress page provides more arguments in favor of Net Neutrality.

I recommend this sarcastic article, called "Net Neutrality Has Ruined the Web," for those who understand something about electronic communications.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Recommended Website: Arachnoid

"Should I have an award for good websites?" I asked myself. If I did, I'd want to give the first to Paul Lutus. Eventually, I decided that giving out awards to good websites should be left to someone a lot more prestigious than myself. So I'll just humbly recommend my favorites. The first one, Arachnoid, was created by Paul Lutus.

I first came across Arachnoid when I was looking for software to perform time synchronization. I think this was way back in 1997. A quick search brought up AboutTime, which I downloaded from Arachnoid. Other interesting downloads include the web page editor Arachnophilia, and his personal finance program, PLCash, both written in Java to be useful on many different platforms. Most downloads are neither shareware or freeware. They are Careware, an idea I very much favor.

Articles abound on Arachnoid. Find out Why are computers so hard to use?. Discover Creative Problem-Solving. Read his opinions on psychology, which include a comparison of Asperger Syndrome and Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Learn more about humans from this Interview with an Extraterrestrial.

Downloads are not all you can find at Arachnoid. Check out the tutorials, which cover Calculus, HTML, C++ and even an explanation for why the night sky is dark.

What makes Arachnoid so great is the sense that its author cares a great deal about our world and its inhabitants. He works hard at making the Internet, and the world at large, a better place. Visit now!

Friday, June 09, 2006

Update on Firewalls

In my post Free Computer Security -- Firewalls, I raved about the free Sygate Personal Firewall (SPF) last year. Since then, Symantec bought Sygate. Unfortunately, this means that the free firewall product is no longer available.

I still have the old SPF install file. I could've installed it on my new computer. But using unmaintained security software is like building a fence with rotten wood and letting it fall apart.

What firewall did I install? I settled on Outpost Firewall Pro. I haven't heard many endorsements for it, but I heard no negative comments, unlike Zone Alarm. One thing about Outpost is that it is not free, although you can download it and try it for free for 30 days. The initial license fee is $39.99, and annual updates after one year is $19.99. (But if it turns out that Germany has the most shutout games in this year's World Cup, I'll get the annual updates for free. See this promotional page to understand why.)

If you're committed to using a free product, you can try Zone Alarm. You can also try Jetico Personal Firewall, which I discovered after installing Outpost. Version of Jetico was given the Gold Award by Firewall Leak Tester on March 11, 2006, based on its ability to pass leak tests. One thing Firewall Leak Tester doesn't do is give any indication of how stable each product is.

While I'm at it, let me give you some firewall testing resources.

  • Again, there's Firewall Leak Tester, which not only publishes test results, it also offers a directory of tests that you can run on your own system. And there's plenty of advice, too.

  • The home page of Gibson Research Center, and their Shields Up test in particular.

  • Various tests on the PC Flank web site.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Amazing New Game Under Development : Spore

I read about Spore on Brad Neuberg's blog, "Coding In Paradise." This is what he posted about Spore back on April 12:
Spore is shaping up to be one of the most amazing games ever; it's like a serious work of art and science mixed together, artificial life. Check out a video.

Why can't I just quit work and volunteer as a beta tester?

Broadband Internet Access at Last!

I haven't felt this great since ... since ... since ... I don't know when. The reason is that I successfully installed DSL service on Monday. I verified the download speed to be 2.4Mbps at DSL Reports using their Speed Test. I no longer have to spend about half my online time downloading updates to all my security programs.

The service is provided by AT&T / SBC in cooperation with Yahoo. I signed up at a promotional rate of $17.99 for 1.5Mbps service for twelve months ($29.99 thereafter). The modem was free after a $45.00 mail-in rebate. Installation was a snap. The computer already had the NIC, so all I had to do was install filters on all the analog telephone devices (including the dial-up modem) and connect the modem. The most difficult part was reading the 18-page membership agreement.

I hope this means I'll have more time to post. But I suspect that I'll just goof off and get back into online gaming.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

My New Computer

I bought a new computer, a Dell Dimension 3100. It came with 2.8GHz P4 processor, 1GB RAM, 80GB HD and a 17" flat panel display with 1280 x 1024 resolution. I like it.

But I was a bit surprised (in a bad way) about a few things.

First is that the hard drive is a new type: ATA serial. So the extra drive bay couldn't accept the HD from my old computer. Fortunately I was able to temporarily hook up the old drive in parallel with the CD drive long enough to copy over some documents.

The second surprise is the lack of serial / parallel ports. I had saved $30 by not buying a modem. I have three already. But when I got the new box, I knew I wasn't going to be using them. Two are external modems that connect to the serial port and one is an old internal modem on an ISA card. (The new computer has no ISA slots.)

The absence of serial ports means the mouse and keyboard are USB.

Fortunately, my printer can connect with either parallel port or USB.

I added $30 for a 3.5" floppy drive. I learned (at work) that if you don't order it installed, the case doesn't have a mounting bracket for it. :) I can't live without a floppy -- it use it to synchronize my home and work systems.

It came with Windows XP Home, which I replaced with Windows 2000 Professional after completely reformatting the drive. I'm just not ready for XP. I'll wait until a few more service packs come out. :-)

I do like the system very much, especially the display and the case, which is easy to open and work on. Overall I'm very happy with it. Now I need a new work computer!

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Curious Quotations

Every so often I come across some short bit of text that underscores the stupidity of technology. I enter that text as the "Quote duJour."

Here are the previous selections:

"In a medical breakthrough, a Houston-based team of surgeons, working for seventeen hours in a risky, first-of-its-kind operation, are able to separate a twenty-one-year-old woman from her cellular telephone. She expires within hours, but doctors report that the phone is stable, and they expect its condition to improve dramatically 'once it finds a new host.'"

- from page 124 of "Dave Barry's History of the Millennium (So Far)," by Dave Barry

"Feudalism was based on a 'ladder type' of organizational structure, similar to Amway. You started out on the bottom rung, in the position of serf. This was not an easy job, but if you worked hard, followed the rules, did not complain, and were a 'team player,' after a certain period of time you fell off the bottom rung and died."

- from page 2 of "Dave Barry's History of the Millennium (So Far)," by Dave Barry

"'See, I can time them perfectly,' the [traffic] light said with satisfaction. 'I get hundreds of them each day. No one gets through my intersection without paying his tax in gas and rubber.'"

"'Go blow a bulb!' the car growled at the light.

"'Go soak your horn!' the light flashed back."

- from pages 187 to 188 of "Centaur Aisle," by Piers Anthony

"...there is a theory -- advanced chiefly by Steven Johnson in his 2005 book Everything Bad is Good for You -- that interactivity with machines and virtual worlds is making people smart in new and important ways.... Evidently, the neurotransmitter called dopamine (associated with craving) responds with high excitement when there is seeking and searching to be done. Johnson is specifically referring to -- and defending -- the attraction of video games, but I think the science applies also to the mental habits that attach to people who spend a lot of time on the internet or learning unfamiliar systems. 'Where our brain wiring is concerned,' he writes, 'the craving instinct triggers a desire to explore. The [dopamine] system says, in effect, Can't find the reward you were promised? Perhaps if you just look a little harder you'll be in luck -- it's got to be around here somewhere.' Games playing may have negligible effects on our morality or understanding of our world, Johnson admits, but it trains the brain wonderfully in decision-making. 'Novels may activate our imagination, and music may conjure up powerful emotions, but games force you to decide, to choose, to prioritize.'"

- from page 80 of "Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door," by Lynne Truss

"Say you phone a company to ask a question and are blocked by that Effing automatic switchboard. What happens? Well, suddenly you have quite a lot of work to do. There is an unacceptable transfer of effort. In the past, you would tell an operator, 'I'm calling because you've sent my bill to the wrong address three times', and the operator, who (and this is significant) worked for this company, would attempt to put you through to the right person. In the age of the automated switchboard, however, we are all coopted employees of every single company we come into contact with. 'Why am I the one doing this?' we ask ourselves, twenty times a day. It is the general wail of modern life, and it can only get worse. 'Why not try our self-check-in service?' they say brightly. 'Have you considered on-line banking?' 'Ever fancied doing your own dental work?' 'DIY funerals: the modern way.'"

- from page 24 of "Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door," by Lynne Truss

"It would be nice if we were taught as children a bit about how to actively use our brains, instead of just carting them around like spine-mounted lint rollers, hoping a few things stick."

- from page 88 of "Prisoner of Trebekistan: A Decade in Jeopardy!," by Bob Harris

"I was never even much of an engineer. What formal training I did receive was made useless by time itself. The 'advanced' computer language I studied as a sophomore was obsolete by the time I was a senior. Soon after my graduation, technology had accelerated so much that I might as well have studied Plowing With Oxen, Posing Naked On Ceremonial Pottery, or Things To Do With An Armored Codpiece."

- from page 6 of "Prisoner of Trebekistan: A Decade in Jeopardy!," by Bob Harris

"...the day someone pulls the plug out of the bottom of the universe, the chain will lead all the way to ... some bugger saying 'I just wanted to see what would happen.'"

- from page 136 of "Thief of Time," by Terry Pratchett

For years radios had been operated by means of pressing buttons and turning dials; then as the technology became more sophisticated the controls were made touch-sensitive -- you merely had to brush the panels with your fingers; now all you had to do was wave your hand in the general direction of the components and hope. It saved a lot of muscular expenditure, of course, but meant that you had to sit infuriatingly still if you wanted to keep listening to the same program.

- from page 96 of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," by Douglas Adams

"Simply fabulous," he whispered, indicating the automatic ticket machines. "Wonderfully ingenious."

"They're out of order," said Harry, pointing at the sign.

"Yes, but even so..." said Mr. Weasley, beaming fondly at them.

- from page 124 of "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Book 5)," by J.K. Rowling

The following three snippets can be found in The Salmon of Doubt, by Douglas Adams:
  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 23, 2006

TaxFreedom Not What it Seems

Last year I discovered a way to file my federal income tax return electronically for free using the online income tax forms on the intriguingly-titled website (Please see this post.) This year Intuit improved the website to support non-IE browsers. But it also imposed a fee for individual taxpayers whose adjusted gross income is greater than $50,000.00.

This fee seems to flow down from the IRS. It's discussed on their Free File page.

Intuit offers two other options. The first is called "Essentials," which costs $9.95. The second is "Deluxe," which costs $19.95 ($39.95 after March 31.)

Unfortunately, after I filled out the free form and was ready to submit the data, Intuit informed me I'd have to upgrade to the "Deluxe" version. It didn't offer "Essentials" as an option.

I suppose it might have something to do with the complexity of the return. I needed to enter some extra 1099 forms of an unusual nature. And as a home owner, I chose to itemize deductions. I later found out that a $9.95 package can be used only for 1040EZ returns.

Well, I need to use an online service. I have little choice. Microsoft stopped supporting Windows NT 4.0 quite a while ago. As a result, tax preparation software no longer supports Windows NT. And paying an H & R Block moonlighter $200 to enter data into their program is an outrage.

Anyway, good luck with your tax-filing endeavors!

Saturday, March 11, 2006

One Step Closer to the Computerized Brain?

In testing my link to IEEE Spectrum, I was intrigued by this month's feature article, Psychiatry's Shocking New Tools, by Samuel K. Moore. The article describes how "electronic implants and electromagnetic pulses are picking up where psychoactive drugs have failed."

Medical science is still in the dark ages as far as I'm concerned. True it's not unscientific to poke at something in a systematic way and observe a result. If it can be repeated enough times, a scientist can establish a new method for obtaining that result. But this is terribly inefficient and inelegant. How long will it be before we know how the brain works and can correct the root causes of mental illness?

The new tools described in the article seem to be nothing more than modern day leaches and lobotomies. I can't wait to see what eventually "picks up where electronic implants and electromagnetic pulses fail."

Friday, March 10, 2006

Bogged Down Blog

Why is this blog so devoid of new articles? My head is full of ideas. But my calendar is full of _____ .

Yet I've struggled to keep the sidebar up-to-date, especially the reading list. Today I'm excited to announce two blog-like items for the list: a link to Clair Ching's tech blog and a link to editorials by Robert Lucky.

Robert Lucky is the Art Buchwald of electrical engineering's flagship periodical Spectrum. If you have the time, I encourage you to read his latest column, "Wordsmithing." It's real. It's funny. It's crazy. It's life as an engineer.

And what of Clair Ching? Well, I came across many of her posts in the emacs-wiki-discuss list and finally decided to check out her blog. When I read Getting acquainted with stuff on the CLI: Mplayer, my heart went pitter-patter with devotion. Could she be my soul mate? Don't tell my wife.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Introducing The Luddite Geek Award for Dubious Design

I was so inspired by reading "The Darwin Awards III: Survival of the Fittest," by Wendy Northcutt, I decided to launch my own award.

But I was even more inspired by the first award winner, the Bissell ProHeat 8910 Series upright carpet cleaner, which I purchased in October.

This machine is compact and economically priced. With the cost of 1/2 day rentals approaching $45, this thing would pay for itself after four uses. It includes an upholstery kit that can also be used on stairs. The website proudly displays the Consumers Digest Best Buy award.

So what's the problem?

The tank-in-tank, which enables the machine to be sleek and compact, is the problem. The tank-in-tank is clever, really. A flexible bladder sits inside a rigid tank. Fill the bladder with clean hot water. It expands when full and slowly shrinks as the water is used up and while waste water is dumped into the rigid tank.

At least, that's what it's supposed to do. Unfortunately, the bladder becomes permanently deformed from hot tap water. Once it's deformed, you need a funnel to fill it because the opening has shrunk. And it can hold only about a quart of water, enough to do about eight square feet.

When I complained about this to their customer service department, I was told that the maximum recommended water temperature is 120 degrees Fahrenheit. (By comparison, our home's hot water runs a bit hotter, because we use a dishwasher and heat our home with hot water. It's set to between 180 and 195 degrees.) I requested a new bladder made from a better heat-resistant material. They didn't have that. I explained that the manual doesn't mention any maximum temperature. (And if you check out the web page, it still says that it "...heats hot tap water up to 25 degrees hotter....") We compromised. I settled with them sending me a new tank-in-tank for free. So I cannot complain about customer service, at least.

Now I still have a bad feeling about the cleaner and the company. I can't help it. How am I supposed to make sure the water I put into the bladder isn't too hot? What troubles me even more is what kind of engineer or product designer would consider 120 degree water to be hot? I guess this is the result of out-sourcing. It was probably designed in some village where the water is heated with camel dung.