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Twin cities

May 3rd, 2014 • RantsNo Comments »

When Marie and I were newlyweds, our first home was in Columbia, SC, near the university we both attended. A couple of years later, we moved across the river to West Columbia. The two cities were really just parts of a single metropolitan area, but it made sense for them to be different cities (with their own names and governments) because they were in different counties. The Broad River was the boundary.

But when I was a child, I lived in Monroe, LA, which was also part of a “twin cities” metropolitan area, with West Monroe on the other side of the Ouachita River. However, the river was not any kind of legal boundary; both cities were in the same parish. It was really just a single city with a river running through the middle. So why were Monroe and West Monroe separate cities (with different names and governments)? I’ve never understood this.

And my mother’s birthplace makes even less sense. She was born in Kansas City, MO, which is adjacent to Kansas City, KS. But not across the river! The Missouri River does run through the Kansas City metropolitan area, but it flows from west to east. The boundary is the state line between Kansas and Missouri, which runs north to south. So why do both cities have exactly the same name when they have to be different cities because they’re in different states?  And why are they both named after Kansas, when the one in Missouri has three times the population of the one in Kansas? It makes no sense.

Blog repaired (again)

November 23rd, 2010 • BloggingNo Comments »

After not posting anything for almost a year, I decided it was time to revive this blog. The first step was to update to the latest version of Movable Type, but that proved more difficult than I expected. In fact, it was impossible. I was able to install the files, but the script that was supposed to upgrade the database just wouldn’t run.

This wasn’t the first time Movable Type had left my blog in an unusable state. Clearly, the time to switch to WordPress had arrived. I had to reinstall the old version of Movable Type in order to export all the blog’s content to a text file, but after I did that, WordPress was able to import that file and recreate all the blog’s posts, comments, and trackbacks. I’m still experimenting with themes, so don’t be surprised if the appearance of the blog continues to change for a while.

Thoughts on the Apple iPad

January 27th, 2010 • TechnologyNo Comments »

Apple has announced the iPad, and reactions from pundits of every stripe are now flooding the Web. The verdict is mixed at best. Apple cultists are of course proclaiming this to be the Second Coming. One of my Facebook friends shrieked, “EVERY e-book reader just became obsolete. EVERY tablet PC just became obsolete. EVERY netbook just became obsolete. EVERY low-end laptop PC just became obsolete.” Nicholas Carr declared that “the PC era ended this morning at ten o’clock Pacific time,” explaining that “what made the moment epochal was not so much the gadget itself – an oversized iPod Touch tricked out with an e-reader application and a few other new features – but the clouds of hype that attended its arrival.”

I’m sure I wasn’t the only person reminded of the euphoric hysteria that accompanied the launch of the Segway in 2001. Before the Segway’s unveiling, when it was still known only as Ginger, rumors ran wild. Some people speculated that it was an antigravity device. After the true nature of Segway was revealed, Steve Jobs said it might be more important than the personal computer, and that cities would be redesigned around it. Instead, it because a curiosity and the butt of jokes. And the investors who funded its development lost all that money.

For those of us who weren’t intoxicated by Jobs’s clouds of hype this time around, the iPad is distinctly underwhelming. Among the commenters at Gina Trapani’s Smarterware blog, the consensus was “Meh.” Jay Garmon dismissed the iPad as crippled by the iPhone OS, which he called “one feature that’s billed as a benefit but may prove to be more of a bug.” On YouTube, numerous people reposted videos of the CES demo of Lenovo’s U1 tablet, saying that anything iPad does, U1 does better. And after declaring the PC era ended, Nicholas Carr calmed down and admitted that the iPad has numerous drawbacks:

It still, after all, is a tablet – fairly big and fairly heavy. Unlike an iPod or an iPhone, you can’t stick an iPad in your pocket or pocketbook. It also looks to be a cumbersome device. The iPad would be ideal for a three-handed person – two hands to hold it and another to manipulate its touchscreen – but most of humans, alas, have only a pair of hands. And with a price that starts at $500 and rises to more than $800, the iPad is considerably more expensive than the Kindles and netbooks it will compete with.

In today’s announcement, Steve Jobs presented the iPad as a device that “bridges the gap” between smartphones and laptops. A couple of weeks ago, I might have agreed with him, but that’s when I was using a Windows Mobile smartphone with a tiny, non-touch screen and a difficult-to-use thumb keyboard. Now I’ve owned an iPhone for eight days, and if you ask me, there is no gap between it and my Acer netbook. In fact, there’s quite a lot of overlap. I’m already using my netbook less now that I have a smartphone with a multitouch display, WiFi capability, and apps that replace all of the functionality of my late lamented Palm PDA.

I don’t doubt that some people will find the iPad useful. But I can’t imagine myself as one of them. With no multitasking, no camera, no Flash support, and no tactile feedback for typing, it can’t replace a netbook for everyday tasks like surfing the Web, writing e-mails and text messages, or using Skype for a video chat. It can’t snap photos, place phone calls, or fit in your pocket like an iPhone. And the pundits who are calling the iPad a “Kindle killer” are mistaken. Yes, the iPad’s video display is gorgeous compared to the Kindle’s shades of gray — but in daylight, a backlit color screen is unreadable, while the Kindle’s e-paper display is bright and clear. And the iPad’s battery life of ten hours (according to Jobs) is no match for the Kindle’s two weeks of reading time. There’s also the price: for the $500 starting price of the iPad, you could buy two Kindles.

Sorry, but this oversized, overpriced iPod Touch just doesn’t live up to the hype it’s generated. The iPad is pretty, but it isn’t going to change the world any more than the Newton did.

UPDATE: Adolf Hitler has similar reservations about the iPad. I’m not sure whether to be pleased or deeply disturbed.

Video on demand

July 24th, 2009 • Internet, TechnologyNo Comments »

I finally got around to watching the movie Serenity recently, and I was startled to find that it contained unmistakable references to Forbidden Planet. When I asked Ruth (our household’s most passionate Browncoat) if she was aware of this, she told me that she didn’t really remember FP. I had shown it to her at some point, but probably a decade or more ago.

Obviously, I needed to screen it for her again, but we didn’t have a copy on hand. Netflix didn’t have it for instant viewing, and to my astonishment, they didn’t have it in their DVD inventory either. A search of the DVD department of Wal-Mart also came up empty. And when I went to the local Blockbuster, they informed me that none of the stores in the area had this particular film.

As a last resort, I went to Amazon.com. They had new and used DVDs for sale, but it occurred to me that I should check their Video on Demand first. (Yeah, I know “digital downloads” is redundant, but that’s what Amazon calls them.) Bingo! Amazon has the movie as a download that you can either buy or rent. For $2.99, I was able to rent the movie and send it to my Roku player without getting out of my chair. Five minutes later, Ruth and I were watching it in our living room.

I know some people have been using Amazon VoD for a year or two, but this was the first time for me, and it was awesome. I love living in the future.

Prophecies: sound-cancelling earplugs

February 8th, 2009 • PropheciesNo Comments »

Ben recently made me aware of this article about earplugs that protect the hearing of soldiers:

British troops getting ready to deploy to Afghanistan are being issued with electronic sound-cancelling earplugs designed to let them hear what they need to — orders, conversations, enemy footfalls — but prevent hearing damage caused by explosions, gunfire and so on.

Science fiction author Larry Niven predicted this technology in 1975. From his story “The Borderland of Sol”:

“Earplugs,” said Ausfaller, holding up a handful of soft plastic cylinders.

We inserted them. Ausfaller said, “Can you hear me?”

“Sure.” “Yah.” They didn’t block our hearing at all.

“Transmitter and hearing aid with sonic padding between. If you are blasted with sound, as by an explosion or a sonic stunner, the hearing aid will stop transmitting. If you go suddenly deaf, you will know you are under attack.”

The real-world earplugs are slightly better than Niven’s; instead of cutting off all sound, they can simply reduce it to a safe level. (So you can hear the explosion without suffering hearing damage from it.) But apart from that detail, Niven’s description was spot on.

Blog repaired

February 8th, 2009 • BloggingNo Comments »

Finally! After months of not being able to update this blog, I have overhauled the software on my site so that I can start posting again. I don’t know what happened last year, but the Movable Type software on my server got screwed up so badly that even completely reinstalling it didn’t fix the problems. The blog still looked normal, but when I logged into the Movable Type console, parts of it were scrambled and nonfunctional.

I knew that I would have to back up my files and then delete Movable Type completely, wiping the slate clean. Then I could install MT from scratch, restore my old blog posts from the backups, and hopefully go on from there. All I needed was the spare time to work on it. Unfortunately, I was involved in plays continually from August through December of last year. And since then, other things have demanded my attention.

But today, I finally was able to spend a whole day backing up and obliterating my old MT installation, installing the latest version, and then restoring my old data. Everything seems to be working now.

I hope to get back into the habit of regular blogging in the days and weeks to come, and to give this site a makeover. It looks dusty and neglected. Time to blow the cobwebs out of here.

Male programmers considered harmful

June 17th, 2008 • Rants2 Comments »

A couple of weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal published an article about the practice of documenting computer programs by including comments in your code. More specifically, it’s about how male programmers are arrogant jerks who refuse to do this, while female programmers are “considerate of those who will use the code later.” The article — written by a woman, and citing only one source, a female executive at Ingres — is dripping with sexist bigotry and condescension, including a jaw-dropping statement that “there’s a big need to fix testosterone-fueled code at Ingres.”

Judging by that article, you would think that including comments in your code is something that female programmers invented, and that males do only if their female superiors nag and browbeat them.

Of course that’s totally false. When I took programming courses in the 1970s, my instructors were all male, and every one of them insisted that we document our code properly with clear and readable comments. If we failed to do so, we lost points on each assignment. Our programming textbooks all emphasized the importance of documenting your code. Every one of those textbooks was written by men.

So what we have here is nothing less than historical revisionism. Proper commenting of code was invented and championed by men in the earliest days of programming, but now Rebecca Buckman and Emma McGrattan want to rewrite history so they can claim that programming was a realm of “testosterone-fueled” barbarism until the women showed up and explained to us, in words of one syllable, how to do it properly.

This article claims that even today, men deliberately obfuscate their code “to show how clever they are.” I think that any programmer who actually did this would be asked to stop, and if he continued, he would be disciplined and eventually fired.

I also think that any male vice-president of engineering who expressed scorn and contempt for female programmers, and who was quoted by the Wall Street Journal as saying that “there’s a big need to fix estrogen-fueled code”, would be instantly fired.
Source: Dr. Helen

Astronomically expensive

May 14th, 2008 • TechnologyNo Comments »

Sending text messages costs too much. Compared to what, you ask? Well, a scientist at the University of Leicester points out that texting costs four times as much per megabyte as downloading data from the Hubble Space Telescope.

Prophecies: video phones

May 5th, 2008 • PropheciesNo Comments »

It’s become a cliche to joke about how, even though it’s now the 21st century, we still don’t have jetpacks or flying cars. But it’s funny how some of the other futuristic concepts that we first encountered in science fiction have become realities, and they sneaked up on us so gradually that we didn’t even notice when they arrived.

Video phones, for example. As a grade-school pupil in the 1960s, I learned that “Picturephones” had already been invented, and in fact they were demonstrated at the 1964 World’s Fair. But they never actually showed up in people’s homes. The explanation I always heard was that nobody wanted them, but that was only part of the truth: in the 1960s, the technology for making video phone calls would have been terribly expensive, and few people would have found the benefits worth the cost. Whatever the reason, video phones remained in the realm of science fiction for the next several decades. (Remember Heywood Floyd’s video phone call to his daughter from a space station in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey?)

But a few years ago, it dawned on me that this technology wasn’t science fiction anymore. I was at a holiday gathering of my wife’s family in Charleston, SC, which was attended by almost everyone descended from her parents (four generations in all, comprising several dozen people). The notable exception was one of my wife’s nieces, who had married a Navy guy and was, as a result, in Hawaii. She and her husband and children were not able to attend the gathering in person, but they were able to participate in real time over the Internet. The computers at both ends had inexpensive video cameras (“webcams”) connected to them, and AOL had recently added videoconferencing capability to its instant-messaging client. Setting up a two-way video connection between South Carolina and Hawaii proved to be quite simple, and the conversation went on for several hours, with family members in both locations taking turns in front of the computer.

I don’t think anyone really thought of this as a “phone call”, probably because the participants weren’t talking into a handset. But in fact, this was indistinguishable from the Picturephone future that we were promised in the 1960s, except that it didn’t cost anything in addition to the AOL subscription fee the family was already paying. And, in fact, they were using AOL over a dial-up connection, so it really was a phone call. Video phones had arrived with no fanfare at all.

Sunlight and vitamin D

April 15th, 2008 • Health, ScienceNo Comments »

A concerned reader writes to the science section of the New York Times to ask: “Am I still getting vitamin D when I’m outside on a gray, cloudy day?” The answer from the Times explains that your skin needs exposure to ultraviolet-B rays in order to synthesize vitamin D. Unfortunately, this is the same ultraviolet-B that causes sunburn and skin damage. Finding the optimal exposure time is complicated, especially when the amount of UV-B energy is affected by factors such as cloud cover and latitude.

To strike a balance between useful exposure and protection, the N.I.H. recommends an initial exposure of 10 to 15 minutes, followed by application of a sunscreen with an S.P.F. of at least 15. The institutes say this much exposure, at least two times a week, is usually sufficient to provide adequate vitamin D, though some researchers suggest it may not be enough. At the earth’s northern latitudes for much of the year, and at the midlatitudes in winter, the sun does not stay far enough above the horizon (45 degrees) for the angle of the sun’s rays to guarantee an efficient ultraviolet-B bath.

So even if you follow the NIH recommendations to the letter, the resulting UV-B exposure still may be too little or too much? Sorry, but I’m not going to waste my time on a process as inconvenient and unreliable as this.

Fortunately, I don’t have to. Vitamin D is available in pill form in any grocery store. Yes, your skin can synthesize it, but it doesn’t have to. The pills are inexpensive and convenient; why not use them? You get exactly the right dosage every time (regardless of cloud cover or latitude) and there’s no risk of sunburn or skin damage.

There are plenty of good reasons to go outside and let the sun shine on you, but nobody should feel obligated to do so in order to get enough vitamin D. It simply isn’t necessary.