Testosterone Poisoning on Highway 85

Driving to work this morning, I was squirting some particularly resistant goo off the windshield. About when I had partial success, the BMW behind me zipped around, pulled in front of me, squirted their windshield washers, then changed lines to get onto 280. Sigh. It is sad when someone needs vengeance about tiny things. I somehow doubt that driver will have a long and happy life.

He did help get more of the goo off my windshield, though.

Trash Talk from Historians

Remind me not to get in a position where a historian can unload on me. The History News Network at George Mason University did an unscientific poll of historians rating the Bush presidency and Bush gets the sharp end of the pen.

In a similar poll four years ago, 81% classified his presidency as a failure. Now, 98% do so, with 61% rating it the worst in history. One of those who placed him in the bottom third thought that it was too early to work out his exact placement in the bottom five alongside Buchanan, Johnson, Fillmore, and Pierce. Another felt that only Buchanan was worse.

The comments are even more damning than the raw numbers. My favorite diss is the unnamed historian who observes that George W. combines the worst characteristics of other failed presidents—”the paranoia of Nixon, the ethics of Harding and the good sense of Herbert Hoover.” Ouch.

Very Fine Junk Science and Public Health Blog

Wow, just found Junkfood Science. Rigorous debunking of public policy about health. The recent articles focus on the childhood obesity overreaction, but I was drawn in by this carefully researched article on EMF regulation and MRI exams.

That article starts off with people freaking out about Wi-Fi, but moves on to the EU publishing EMF exposure rules which effectively prohibit MRI tests. This is a double whammy for that technology. It started off as “Nuclear Magnetic Resonance”, an accurate term which scared people because it sounded nookyooler and might make them radioactive. The industry reacted nimbly and renamed it “Magnetic Resonance Imaging”, simultaneously preserving their profit and making a valuable diagnostic tool available to the ignorant.

Long article, but plenty of data for why the precautionary principle is bad policy.

Reading Tolkien Aloud

Several years ago, I read The Lord of the Rings to my boys. My wife took an occasional night, but I did most of them. I wanted to reread the books before I saw the movies, and the guys were ready, so we did it. It took four and a half months.

Tim Bray just did the same thing and his son is the same age as one of mine was.

I was very surprised at how The Fellowship of the Ring flowed when read aloud. I’d read The Hobbit to the boys the previous summer, and it was OK, but this book was really a step up. I’m guessing that J.R.R. read it to his wife until he got it right. He was a Beowulf scholar, so reading tales would have been natural for him. There is a story of him starting off the year proclaiming Beowulf in the original for the entire lecture.

Also, I never noticed that Tom Bombadil spoke in rhyme until I read it out loud. Hmm.

I did skip a very few spots when reading the books. There is a really long committee meeting where they are organizing the fellowship at Rivendell and things bog down. The Hobbit has this problem, too, when everyone gets together at Bilbo’s and just keep talking. Committee meetings don’t seem to work for reading aloud.

I also skipped a few gory bits in The Return of the King. And, that book didn’t read as smoothly as the others. The language got a bit fussier. Too many kings talking to each other, perhaps. At heart, it really is a novel of the heroism of the common people (“little people”?), so it works better when the merchants and farmers are in the spotlight.

Since Tim Bray links to a cool map of Middle Earth, I’ll link to something for those who are bored with gingerbread houses, The Battle of Pelennor Fields executed in candy. Take that, Tim. And my slipcased edition from the 70’s have the big fold-out maps anyway. And a price tag that I lettered when I worked in Waldenbooks, befofre bought it with the employee discount. So there. Physical media have such a different history than bits.

One other thing — the whole book is written at a walking pace and reading aloud seems to be the right speed. Only the bad guys and magicians have horses (Nazgul, elves, and Gandalf). Going fast is either very bad (you are being chased) or very, very good (you are on Shadowfax). There really is a lot of walking in the book. Tolkien did not like cars, so it may be that his writing follows the pace of his walking and cycling through England.

Overall, it works very well read aloud. Find an eight year old kid and try it.

Are Websites Dead?

About four years ago, our website design consultants (at my previous job) sent me a survey. One of the questions was “List the websites you visit frequently.” I was quite surprised to realize that there were no websites that I visited frequently. Six months earlier, I had installed, then purchased, a copy of NetNewsWire and I had almost instantaneously switched to reading RSS feeds (or even better, Atom feeds) instead of surfing the web.

Note: NetNewsWire is now free. I don’t even mind paying them back then.

Four years later, I still don’t visit any websites regularly. These days, I even ditch web feeds that aren’t full-content, like The Economist’s Democracy in America. Well, except for Daring Fireball, and that is a big compliment.

This is fine if only I do it, but if lots of people follow suit it is a nasty turn of events for ad-supported websites. Way back in 1996, Infoseek couldn’t make a go of it as a subscription website and invented and patented banner ads. Twelve years later, we are talking billions of ad dollars.

Seriously, the web does not exist without advertising. Google is an advertising company (duh!), just like Infoseek was. 25% of the staff at Infoseek were in ad sales. 70% of Google works on ads. RSS feeds don’t show ads. This cuts off the oxygen supply for the whole web.

I suggested explicit Atom support for ads, but that didn’t get any traction. Now, I see separate “sponsored by” entries in two of my feeds. Hmm, one of them is Daring Fireball.

Computing Al Fresco

At work we have a small covered patio on the first floor, not so far from my cube. I just moved out here with my PowerBook and coffee for a change of scenery and to smell and hear the second good rain of the season. The construction crew is walking back to their cars in twos and threes, an occasional car splashes through the parking lot, and I’m typing another search idea into the wiki.

Taking Away “The Doughnuts” (Little Basin)

HP is selling off Little Basin, their company-owned campground near Big Basin State Park. It is sad, but completely predictable. Little Basin summed up a simple, crazy idea, that execs and employees might enjoy spending time together.

I haven’t seen much reaction that this is a blow to the HP Way. It is more like the last throes. HP has been losing the HP Way tradition for nearly twenty years. HP had the strongest culture of any place I’ve worked and they’ve done the least to maintain it.

When I started at HP in 1985, we had “the doughnuts”. They weren’t actually doughnuts, but cookies and fruit brought up from the cafeteria at 9am every morning and put out in a couple of central places on each floor. The story was that either Flora Hewlett or Lucille Packard (I forget which) had started out baking cookies for her husband and co-workers and that the tradition had just stuck.

It wasn’t extravagant, the cookies ran out in about ten minutes, but it was enough to get my twenty-something butt to work by 9:00. More importantly, it was often a quick stand-up meeting for the group and it was a chance to meet people from other groups. If you wanted to talk to someone, you had a pretty good chance of doing that if you hung out by the doughnuts for ten minutes.

The doughnuts were a cultural tradition with a rich and useful social function. Giving food and sharing food is powerful — it is an ancient tradition of hospitality and a sacred duty in some religions. It was the caring hand of Bill and Dave’s family extended to every employee in every division of HP. We were all family.

We used to joke, “You’ll know it’s over when they take away the doughnuts.” Some time around 1990, it was over. It was supposed to be a temporary austerity measure, but there wasn’t a time limit, and the doughnuts came back as a Friday-only thing and as a special thank you. Or maybe a Monday-only thing, I don’t remember and it didn’t matter, the tradition was broken. It was especially clueless to take them away as a “we’re all in this together” symbolic sacrifice, then bring them back as a paternal treat.

The hard part of culture building had been done. We had a daily ceremony, useful to the organization and grounded in corporate myth. But the execs blew it. They killed it for a reason that everyone knew was lame, then brought it back in a way that severed the connection. Now it was just doughnuts, not The Doughnuts. How could they be that dense?

It wasn’t just the doughnuts, it was a hundred clueless things, one after the other. Canceling picnics, switching from engraved clip-on name badges worn where you could read them to laminated cards worn backwards on a string, restricting flex time, the list goes on.

Even then, long before Carly Fiorina, the execs had lost touch with what employees really did. Bill & Dave’s offices were right up against the cubicles in Building 3U, but the new execs had their own isolated Mahogany Row on one side of a floor in Building 20. The execs had already stopped doing “management by wandering around”.

At one point there was a crash project to build a PA-RISC processor in ECL (Blackbird) and the prototype, with really loud fans (ECL uses lots of power) was in some regular cubes right across from Bill & Dave’s old offices. I doubt that they would have minded having real engineering going on across the aisle, even if if it was noisy. The might have joined us at the doughnuts to see how it was going.

Today, HP seems to have given up on even maintaining the pretense of the culture. The HP Way has disappeared from the current HP website, leaving only the Corporate Objectives as the “philosophy and objectives” of the company. The phrasing in this 1992 copy of The HP Way is all about the people, “earn the trust and loyalty of others … passed from one generation of employees to another … shared among all HP people.” The objectives were what we did, the HP Way was how we did it.

As Mike Cassidy said, HP is doing “the wrong thing the right way.” They are selling Little Basin to an open space trust with the plans to add it to Big Basin. They are selling it cheap at $4M, but honestly, that is in the noise when you have $100B in revenue. Why not just give it away? “Citizenship” is still on the Corporate Objectives, I just checked.

If HP has lost its way so seriously that selling off Little Basin is the right thing to do, then I can’t argue with the decision. Making some coin on the deal just removes all doubt.

My So-Called Life, A Dozen Years Later

Last week our family watched (on VHS!) the pilot for My So-Called Life, the 1994 TV series. Most of it went over our twelve-year-old son’s head, but I was blown away. Even though I’ve seen a lot of the episodes multiple times on MTV marathons and I knew the acting was excellent, I was just amazed at the screenwriting. It is fluid, natural, wonderfully paced, visual, and the voiceovers even fit. There is a dinner scene where four people have four agendas, and they are all talking past each other. There is a montage of a single school day, with the teacher asking a question “What is the purpose of plasma?” followed by an answer “Because it is written in the first person” from the next class. Angela gives an honest response to The Diary of Anne Frank then realizes she has just sounded completely shallow in front of the whole class.

The whole thing should just collapse under the weight of the craft (Citizen Kane just about does that), but it soars.

Why? Because it is true to high school life. It is proof that at least one person grew up and did not forget what it was like and wrote it down.

Spock Challenge Has Some Nasty Problems

The Spock people search engine is running a competition similar to the Netflix Prize. The Spock Challenge started at 9 AM this morning (April 16th), runs for four months, and has a grand prize of $50,000.

Unfortunately, the criteria for winning is not clear, so you don’t have any way to tell whether your code is getting better, or even what “better” means. Here is the explanation of “How Winner Will be Determined” from the rules.

The winner will be be the Software Submission, that in the discretion of the judges selected by Spock, most elegantly and efficiently resolves the problem of conflation in data collected for search applications such as Spock’s.

Looks mysterious to me. Is there only one solution and they are just shooting for clean fast code? They can’t write clean fast code themselves?

If you are lucky enough to win with the unclear goal, you lose control of your source code and even your algorithms and patents.

Upon acceptance of the prize, the winning Software Submissions and all source code and algorithms related thereto becomes the sole and exclusive property of Spock. You agree to take such actions as are desirable to Spock to vest such ownership interest in Spock. Spock may use, reproduce, display, offer for sale, sublicense and otherwise exploit the winning Software Submissions and their source code as it sees fit in its sole discretion.

Compare that to the terms in the Netflix Prize rules, especially the “non-exclusive license”:

After qualifying for either the Grand or Progress Prize and being verified by the Contest judges, as a condition to receiving either Prize, the winning individual and/or team must grant to Netflix (including its affiliates and subsidiaries, employees, agents, and contractors), an irrevocable, royalty free, fully paid up, worldwide non-exclusive license under the Participants’ copyrights, patents or other intellectual property rights in the winning algorithm (“Winning Algorithm”) to reproduce, distribute, display, and create derivative works from the Winning Algorithm and also to make, have made, use, sell, offer for sale, and import products that would otherwise infringe the Winning Algorithm. Except as encompassed in the concept of “have made”, this license will not include the right to grant further licenses or sublicenses.

Let’s see, a non-exclusive license for $1M or total control for $50K. That just sounds greedy. Why would anyone enter this? With the Netflix Prize, you could start a business. With the Spock Challenge, you don’t even get a down payment for a condo. Remember, you’ll be spending a chunk of it on patent searches to make sure you own those algorithms before selling them to Spock.

Spock’s lawyers need to go back to the drawing board on this one. Put together a clean, fair contest with a prize that matters.

Disclaimer: I work at Netflix.

Update: I found the criteria for qualifying on Spock’s learn more page. The criteria for winning are still a beauty contest.

A comment in the discussion board has pointed out that this “sole and exclusive property” requirement makes it hard (impossible?) to use open source code in your submission.

I Made a Second Grade Girl Cry

I made a second grade girl cry. It wasn’t pleasant, but I was following the lesson plan. I was helping with Ability Awareness Week, a program for elementary schools to make it really clear that people have different abilities. This exercise was threading Cheerios on a string while wearing socks over your hands, with an adult (me) urging you to hurry up. Urging in a pleasant, encouraging tone, but without leaving enough time to finish the job. It was a painful experience for both of us, but it was worth it to experience what it is like to have a disability.

Ability Awareness Week teaches elementary school kids about varying abilities by experiencing a disability, then following up with classroom discussion. The simulations are tuned to grade level. It is a great program, and not too hard to implement. You need a commitment from the principal and teachers, plus a few parent volunteers. The volunteers are easier to get than you might think. You’ll need a few supplies — Cheerios, socks, button-up shirts, some cardboard and mirrors for the dislexia simulation — nothing too expensive or difficult. Our school disctrict’s supplies were assembled as an Eagle Scout project.

Try it at your school. There is a wonderful manual for implementing it. We are all temporarily abled. If we’re lucky, we’ll live long enough to join the disabled.

A Crippling Calm?

On a backpacking trip to the Pecos Wilderness in the 70’s, my Dad and I stopped to chat with a wilderness ranger. We swapped stories of course, and he told us about a hiker who had taken off his boots and socks for an afternoon nap. While the hiker slept, the shade moved, and when he woke, the high-altitude sun had burned his feet so severely that he could not hike back out. The ranger had helped evacuate him.

So you can imagine my horror when I read this on the back of a package of Tazo Calm Herbal Infusion

A single cup of Tazo Calm has been known to have the same effect as sitting for 45 minutes in a mountain meadow on a sunny day with your shoes off.

No thank you. I prefer to be able to walk after I drink a cup of tea.

That Web 2.0 Video

By now, you’ve probably seen Michael Wesch‘s Web 2.0 video. Normally sober people are linking it and the designated cheerleaders are loving it. Me, I’m kinda disappointed. I expect some critical thinking from professors, not just a valentine to the latest buzzword.

The beginning of the vid is OK, basically defining terms and some exposition, with decent visual storytelling. The initial bit about digital text being non-linear isn’t convincing, since it is described in a linear medium, and the “writing as animation” trick was done so much better in “Why Man Creates” by Saul Bass in 1968.

Then we get a tour of RSS readers and blog posting, though I expect that part only makes sense to people who already understand it.

Around 2:55, we see, “Who will organize all this data? We will. You will.” Well, I don’t need Web 2.0 to give me more unorganized data. Not a real step forward. The great benefit of blogs and Wikipedia is the return of the human editor. I can subscribe to an organizer that I trust. I don’t have to organize it myself.

Right around 3:20, it starts quoting Wired and goes off the rails with rampant anthropomorphism. Four fragments are butted together to read, “When we post or tag pictures […] we are teaching the machine […] Each time we forge a link […] we teach it an idea.” Wow. That is some heavy-duty mythology, something I’d expect an anthro prof to analyze, not parrot.

Let’s get this straight. We don’t “teach the machine” and it doesn’t “learn”. We write and link. People write programs to read the text and images and links and to make measurements from them. People write algorithms to pull some information out of those measurements, information useful to other people. The people learn. The people teach each other. The machines are machines and the people are people.

Finally, the vid ends up with “We’ll need to rethink love/family/ourselves.” Really. I think not. I’ve been on the Internet for nearly twenty-five years, I was IM’ing my girlfriend in 1984, and I’ve needed to rethink each of those words, but not because of mail(1) or Usenet or Mosaic or Movable Type. It was because of people that I love and that love me.

VisitorVille: Little People in Your Website

This is a weird approach to website stats. VisitorVille displays your website stats as people getting off the bus, walking around, and going into buildings. It looks almost as exciting as playing Zoo Tycoon. But kinda neat.

I wonder how it shows site search, maybe someone taking a helicopter to another part of the city? I want a jetpack!

The client is Windows-only, so I guess I won’t be trying the demo. Too bad.