Sep 09

Usage note: Line of succession

I saw a blog comment today that referred to the Speaker of the House of Representatives as “third in line” for the presidency. No, the Speaker is second in line. The Vice President is first. The President is not “in line” at all. He is already President. You can’t be “in line” for an office you currently occupy.

I don’t know why so many people get this wrong. Even Babylon 5 made the same mistake, misstating the line of succession for Emperor of the Centauri Republic.

As a professional writer and editor, I have a lot of gripes about English usage. I may as well vent about them here. I thought of categorizing them under Gripes, but I decided to give them their own category.

Aug 29

Dropped from the Dow

I saw a headline stating that Exxon Mobil is being dropped from the Dow Jones Industrial Average, and I clicked the link because I was curious to know why. I learned that Exxon Mobil has been a part of the Dow since 1928, making it the oldest member. So what happened?

As I read the article, I realized that I had misunderstood what this means. I was confusing it with being delisted from a stock exchange, which usually means that your company is circling the drain and its stock is almost worthless. (This happened to one of my former employers, Pliant Systems, in 1999.) But the Dow is a stock index, not an exchange. Basically, it’s a bundle of stocks that are selected to represent the American economy as a whole. As such, it needs to be updated as the economy evolves.

This particular update was triggered by an impending Apple stock split, which would alter the blend of manufacturing and technology stocks in the index. So the Dow is adding some tech stocks: Salesforce, Amgen and Honeywell. Also being dropped are the drug company Pfizer . . . and my current employer, Raytheon Technologies.

That was a bit of a shock. I’ll try not to take it personally.

Aug 29

Return of the Commodore 64

I missed out on the popular Commodore 64 computer entirely. I was alive at when it was unveiled in 1982, but thanks to my father’s eagerness to adopt new technologies, my family had already had a home computer for several years. Also, I was in college at that point, and since the 64 was primarily a game computer, it would have been a distraction from my studies. (I had also owned an Atari 2600 game console, but I gave it to my brother rather than bring it to college with me.)

When I acquired my first computer in 1983, it was an Apple //e. And in 1987, I traded that one in on my first DOS machine, an XT clone. From that point onward, I owned a series of DOS and Windows machines (and in recent years, a couple of Chromebooks). The entire Commodore 64 ecosystem was a road not taken.

But it holds the Guinness world record for highest-selling single computer model of all time, so I have occasionally wondered what I missed. I could always buy a vintage 64 on eBay, but I don’t relish the challenges of getting an obsolete computer to work in today’s world. Fortunately, there will soon be a better way: the C64, an authentic replica that looks and works almost exactly like the original .

The C64 comes preloaded with 64 Commodore and VIC-20 games, and includes a joystick controller. You can also write your own programs in Commodore BASIC. But it has USB ports and an HDMI port, so you can connect it to modern-day displays and other peripherals.

I’m tempted to preorder one (it ships in November) just to find out what the fuss was all about. But I live in a small apartment, and I already have five computers here (including the two work laptops that don’t belong to me). I’m not sure where I would put it. Still, it would be fun to have.

May 03

Twin cities

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.

Nov 23

Blog repaired (again)

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.

Jan 27

Thoughts on the Apple iPad

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.

Jul 24

Video on demand

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.

Feb 08

Prophecies: sound-cancelling earplugs

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.

Feb 08

Blog repaired

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.

Jun 17

Male programmers considered harmful

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