Friday, December 31, 2004

a lit crit

RDK writes:

a nice lit crit, methinks

a short one about Gimpel the Fool character and Isaak Singer

nice quick read.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

The Graphing Calculator Story

What an absolutely great story. - The Graphing Calculator Story

from Guerilla Software Development via CNET:

"This story is almost too cool to be true. A contractor working for Apple in the early 90s developed a graphing calculator application that took full advantage of the new PowerPC processor, but his project was cancelled while the software was in its early stages. He was out of a job, but his ID badge still worked. So he kept coming back to work, at no pay, for months, hiding from management, to finish the job, and dozens of Apple employees pitched in to help. In 1994, his app, "Graphing Calculator," shipped with the OS."

read the whole thing. It is a little long, but worth it.

listening to

Listening to Abba. There is something to it. There is also something to admitting to listening to Abba. Abba. I can even spell it backwards. "Waterloo, could not escape if I wanted to".

Perhaps the best historical analysis I have seen this week.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

New blog member introduction


My name is Slava F. and I am an alcoholic blogger. Con Tendem has given me a chance to try out blogging, and perhaps split some of the duties. I am interested in writing slightly longer ruminations, Con is not. I have a bit of time, maybe, he does not, for the foreseeable future. I am sure the three readers that faithfully visit this website will forgive us for sharing this weblog.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Noteworthy: Yahoo maps offer live U.S. traffic conditions | CNET

Yahoo maps offer live U.S. traffic conditions :

In a milestone for Internet-based traffic services, Yahoo has beefed up its existing mapping services to allow customers to plot a route from one local destination to another, and overlay traffic data such as road speeds and potential delays.

The new service can be found at

very neat.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

noteworthy: use of force against demonstrators

In some places and some time leaders order soldiers to fire on crowds and protestors and other times and places they do not. Financial Times has a short story that talks about the potential for use of force in the Ukranian Elections last months. They do not go too deep into why force was not used, but it still pretty interesting.

[hat tip a fistfull of euroes]

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Noteworthy: some concept cars

Some concept cars from CNET

Readworthy: NYTimes Essay - We Love Them. We Hate Them. We Take Them.

A well-written and touching essay about medications. Essay: We Love Them. We Hate Them. We Take Them.

Noteworthy: France shows off tallest bridge

France shows off tallest bridge:

The Millau bridge over the River Tarn in the Massif Central mountains is more than 300m (984ft) high - taller even than the country's Eiffel Tower.
Seven slender piers support the roadway, rising into seven graceful pylons bound to the bridge with what look like cobwebs of steel, our correspondent says.

picture of millau bridge

very cool

Friday, December 10, 2004

Photo note: I do not understand the magic.

What exactly is the magic described in this NYT article:

"The camera, called the R-1 (R for Ross), looks oddly rigged, like something out of Dr. Seuss, and almost like an antique viewfinder camera on legs. In fact, Mr. Ross pulls a cloth over his head and the back of his contraption when he takes a picture. But with this camera that he concocted out of 60-year-old camera parts, mirrors, a microscope and other items - none of them digital - Mr. Ross has taken photographs on 9-by-18-inch negatives that when slowly processed by hand and digitally scanned contain 100 times as much data as the average professional digital camera.

For example, in the mountain photographs that Mr. Ross took in Colorado - of Mount Sopris, near Carbondale - shingles on a barn appear in sharp focus 4,000 feet from the camera, as does a tree on a ridge four miles away. "

I guess I am not sure what is special about the camera - 9x18 is 162 square inches (162 (sq inches) = 1 045.1592 sq centimeters). D70/D100 Sensor is Regular digital camera has a sensor the size of 3.6972 sq centimers (23.7 x 15.6 mm) that means his camera should, technically produce 282 times the resolution, given imperfections in lenses, etc, I can see how this is 100 times the resolution -- but what of it? Is not this just taking a really large format camera and then scanning the result really well? What is the special part of it?

I just do not get it.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

update on Achilles

In an earlier post I mused a bit about the question raised by Brad DeLong:

Let me put it this way: who would you rather have standing beside you when spear meets shield--Achilles, Hector, or Odysseus?

Mark Kleiman has some additional thoughts here and here.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Roger L. Simon: Dumb and Dumber

Roger Simon, writes in his post Dumb and Dumber:

"The headline at The New York Times reads 'What Corporate America Can't Build: a Sentence'. But if you read the article, you find that corporate America is trying to correct the linguistic weaknesses of its employees who were not educated at school. Of course, to the 'highly literate' headline writers at the Times, it is naturally the corporation's fault."

... Try as I might, I did not see the Times writer make any such statement. Frankly, given common attitudes towards pieces critical of american anything, NYT was damned. If they blame schools, people like me immediately open a salvo on how NYT and the "liberal agenda" is in league with political correctness promoted by NEA so that bad teachers who only want more money and less work and who are not accountable to anyone, etc. can teach our children about sex and nothing else. If the NYT dared to blame corporations I have a rant prepared to decry the assault on this bastion of virtue, the one thing that makes America great and the envy of the rest of the world - the corporation.

Luckily, the article avoided these common "liberal" pitfalls. In fact, other than conveying the sense of a dramatic increase in non-verbal communications, and therefore a need for much stronger business writing skills from people whose occupations did not require those skills previously, the article does not say much else. As almost every journalist writing a daily newspaper seems to do, the author is inclined to hyperbole and cheap shots. For example, the memo of a systems analyst below:

"I updated the Status report for the four discrepancies Lennie forward us via e-mail (they in Barry file).. to make sure my logic was correct It seems we provide Murray with incorrect information ... However after verifying controls on JBL - JBL has the indicator as B ???? - I wanted to make sure with the recent changes - I processed today - before Murray make the changes again on the mainframe to 'C'."

I suppose that since her supervisors found the message incoherent, it must be, but I certainly think it makes enough sense to be useful as a quick status update the email almost certainly is. I would be very surprised if "Murray" did not understand this email, or if "Lenny" became confused by it.

Perhaps it would make sense for the NYT to be more critical of the timelines given to people to complete their work that do not include the time to compose and edit long emails. Certainly, I find, most software projects do not properly account for the amount of time it takes to create documentation and artifacts necessary for an orderly development process to go forward. Nevertheless, pulling a knowingly poorly executed sample does not prove anything about the general state of the workforce business writing.

In fact, I am inclined to celebrate. Is not this issue a sign of good things? Employees are spending less time doing manual labour and more time doing things complex enough to require to be written down? Moreover, some people might be more comfortable writing in Cobol, or Spanish, or Hindu, than English, and others have been promoted on merit and on-the-job performance, not their academic credentials. Would not that be an overall good thing? Clearly employees see this as a minor obstacle to overcome for their otherwise already productive and valuable employees and are providing them with the opportunity to improve in an area they are deficient in. And employees are seeing the problem and stepping up to it in the best American traditions both Mr. Simon and NYT can celebrate. Is not that all a good thing?!

very nice poem

through ArtsJournal: About Last Night:

You're browsing through a second-hand bookstore
And you see her in non-fiction, V through Y.
She looks up from World War II
And then you catch her catching you catching her eye,
And you quickly turn away your wishful stare
And take a sudden interest in your shoes.
If you only had the courage—but you don't.
She turns and leaves, and you both lose.

Rupert Holmes, “The People That You Never Get to Love”


HBS: The New Competencies in IT

Interesting Article @ HBS - HBS Working Knowledge: Technology: The New Competencies in IT

I have been having similar thoughts and discussions about the changes in staffing requirements that are coming down to our clients, and subsequently affect my employer - an IT consulting firm. The move on the part of the client to outsource a lot of the actual technical implementation work, but concentrate much more heavily on managing their own projects, as well as to improve their management of their vendors (like us) also changes the profile of the teams we put into the field. Needless to say this is a ripple effect that is going to propagate through every level of the IT industry and every type of a service or product provider.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Fast Company Now: comparative hours worked in different countries

Fast Company Now points to numbers from national geographic showing how much people in different countries work in general:

The current issue of National Geographic Magazine features an interesting one-page piece entitled "A Work-Weary World." The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development tracked the annual hours worked around the world in 2003 and came up with some interesting findings:

* South Korea, 2,390
* Czech Republic, 1,972
* Poland, 1,956
* Greece, 1,938
* Mexico, 1,857
* Slovakia, 1,814
* Australia, 1,814
* New Zealand, 1,813
* Japan, 1,801
* Spain, 1,800
* United States, 1,792
* Hungary, 1,777
* Canada, 1,1718
* Finland, 1,713
* Portugal, 1,676
* United Kingdom, 1,673
* Ireland, 1,613
* Italy, 1,591
* Sweden, 1,564
* Austria, 1,550
* Belgium, 1,542
* Denmark, 1,475
* Germany, 1,446
* France, 1,431
* Netherlands, 1,354
* Norway 1,337

I tried looking up numbers of whether the hours worked have an inverse relationship to the overall tax burden in the country, but best I could come up with where numbers here, and which did not show a particularly obvious correlation to my theory. I will admit that I graphed the two series, but did not run any statistical analysis on them, and my evaluation was a purely visual observation of the time worked vs marginal rate graph. Moreover, I did not really want to see the marginal rate per se - I wanted to see the overall tax burden as described in this OECD Observer article which concluded:

So where does our analysis of ?all-in? tax rates lead? One lesson is that the gaps at the margin between top income earners domiciled in various OECD countries are narrower than often imagined and certainly not as wide as the headline rates show. In fact, the marginal top rate in most countries rises substantially when considering the all-in rate of taxes on income, to 61% in France and Turkey, 62% in Denmark and Sweden, 65% in Japan and 66% in Belgium. The highest all-in rates for taxpayers in the United States fall in the 40?48% range, depending on the State where they are resident.

That puts the gap with their counterparts in Sweden, which most people would see as the quintessential welfare state, in some cases at as low as nine percentage points. But before European countries gain too much confidence from this, US income earners can point out that taxpayers in Sweden and most other OECD countries in Europe move into top rate brackets at much lower income levels than they do.

What do we learn from this as far using tax rates to predict some level of the hours worked per worker? Not much, I dare say. Culture, the type of economic opportunities, level of country's economic development and stability, and perhaps the state of the pension system might dictate a lot more about the hours worked than a simple look at the marginal rates.

interesting article by Brad DeLong

interesting article by Brad DeLong - The Best of the Achaeans. I like the conclusion too:

Let me put it this way: who would you rather have standing beside you when spear meets shield--Achilles, Hector, or Odysseus? With Hector, the man of honor, you will wage war when you should--but you may well lose. With Achilles, the man of skill, you will win--but you will wage war all the time, whether or not you should.

With Odysseus, the man of strategy, you will wage war only when you can win--but will you always be happy with your victories?

I think I would take my place beside Odysseus. But who should I take my place beside? It is an interesting question...

I do not know.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Photo: great image


I do not want to reproduce the photo here as it was not posted here, but I urge the readers to take a look. A seemingly simple picture and composition, but when done so cleanly and with so much energy - it becomes something else.

Book Note: System of the World

3rd Installment of the Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson. This is a grand book, and a fitting end of an uneven, but largely good 3,000 page trilogy spanning 50 or so years of the Scientific Revolution.

Various people have already written reviews of this book. So I would like to focus on some of the aspects that struck me as particularly interesting. The first of those is the marked similarity of the dialog style to Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon which really deserves a wider audience, IMO. Both authors set their novels in similar times, Stephenson's novels being set a bit earlier, and with similar characters as main protagonists.

It is probably an overgeneralization to claim that The Rev. Cherrycoke (a silent partner of the surveyors) is overly similar to Dr. Waterhouse as a character, but they both serve the same narrative purpose. It is also hard to compare Isaak Newton as a historical personage to just about anyone, but insofar as both novels (do not all novels do the same?) aim to deal with permanent conditions of what makes us human and place their protagonists in the 17th and 18th century, employ deliberately archaic-sounding Barock [sic] spelling and phrase construction, delve into mathematics and astronomy to the depth not usually seen in popular novels, etc. - it is fair to say that anyone who has read both books would note the similarities very clearly. Perhaps it is inevitable that the works be similar if they cover so much of the similar territory, and I certainly do not wish to paint that as a negative for either author. I, for one, have enjoyed the similarities, and reveled in the details.

Another author whose books, indeed whole sets of books, the Baroque Cycle is strongly reminiscient of is Alexander Dumas. I will take credit for thinking that even before reading the short thanks and attribution to him by Stephenson at the end of the book. The narrative setup is quite similar - a minor historical (or in this case fictional) character is inserted into an environment rife with intrigue and great historical personages. As we do not have a day-by-day accounting of their lives it is easy to imagine them meeting our minor character and the kind of conversations and adventures they might have shared. So on one level we get a nice historical romance in the same vein as "The Three Musketeers". As any such good book it also doubles as a minor history textbook, introducing us to characters and events most people likely sleep through in their school days, or never get a chance to meet at all while preparing for generic exams for courses covering 5 millenia of history in 12-20 weeks at 3 hours per week.

What makes Stephenson's effort worthwhile, IMO, is that overall the trilogy works. As a fairly avid fantasy genre reader I am used to 900-page volumes and 5-10 volume-long epics. However, most of them take many years to write and rarely are able to sustain any kind of momentum for very long. Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series is an excellent example of that. One can point to Asimov's Foundation or Herbert's Dune, and of course Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series as examples of successful epic sci-fi or fantasy cycles. Indeed they were - and that's why they are so famous. Of course, the ability to create an adventure that will be able to sustain its momentum over a few thousand pages was perfected by Dumas, and so some of his best cycles such as the D'Artagnan Romances: or the Valois romances are just as famous as the epics listed above. And just look at those dates! All of these came out whithin a span of 3 years and this is not even an exhaustive list of what Dumas published during that period.

I am not sure if Stephenson is going to make the list of masters above yet, but he certainly comes close. Another aspect worth of respect is that the whole trilogy came out within a space of 18 months or so. Given the amount of research and plot entanglement and disentanglement - that is a very impressive achievement. And it is all done with a fun spirit, which earns him major bonus points. By comparison, I am now reading the much-praised Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell, and so far am finding it rather slow and dull (page 250 of 800). Interesting to see how similar books in so many respects, competing for a highly overlapping audience (I think), can be so different in fluidity of the language and narrative. Perhaps I am just judging the Susanna Clarke's book too early, but so far the comparison is definitely not in its favor.

Links referenced in this post can be found here -

pps. Other reviews (not yet read by me) from Review of Books website


Today is Monday. Nevertheless, I woke up unsure of the day of the week. Perhaps this should tell you about my weekend, and if so, what it tells you is a lie. My weekend was just fine. Still, I felt unsettled and unsure until after a couple of hours in the office. Perhaps there something wrong with me. In any case, if you can read the words below, you would get a better idea of how I thought my day was going to go -- words by Mikhail Shcherbakov from the song titled "Woke up this morning"

ps. I am sorry I do not have the literary and vocabulary capacity to translate this song into English.

gambling with lasers

very cool ploy reported by BBC.

"A laser scanner linked to a computer was allegedly used to gauge numbers likely to come up on the roulette wheel.
They allegedly used the scanner to judge the speed of the ball on the roulette wheel and hence the number most likely to come up.

The paper reports the gamblers were able to do the calculations swiftly enough to place their bets as required before the roulette wheel has gone round three times. "

The russian version of the article says the laser was built into a cell phone. Very neat.

One of the reasons this seems like a good con to me, is that it does not really rely on luck, specifics of a particular table, conning of the casino personnel, or anything else. The action was easy to rehearse and test in private, or with small amount of money placed in other casinos. Engineering at its best, IMO.

new headphones

Got new headphones. They are earbuds, which is not my favourite thing in the world, but I really wanted to be able to just wrap them around my iPod and put the whole thing in my pocket without breaking anything. So far, I am not crazy about them - I think I have to spend more than $20 for something really nice. Just thought y'all might want to know.

microsoft wallop

a link from "Future Now" led me to this interesting website. There is a lot of speculation about the usability and value of the new Microsoft blogging tool called "spaces", but the "Wallop" product seems a lot more advanced and interesting. Of course, Microsoft has the tendency, often observed in other companies as well, to mutilate a great idea on its way from the lab to the customer. Still a product that allows one to:

"... share photos, blog, and interact with your friends. Wallop is a research project that explores how people share media and build conversations in the context of social networks. "

looks very interesting. I am sure Microsoft is not the only company or group working on this. What other examples are out there?

Friday, December 03, 2004

John Udell has a very strong point about enabling self-service application in his latest post. It comes as a response to someone commenting on the annoynce of having to fill out same forms, over and over again, in hospitals:

When a family member underwent a series of minor medical procedures recently, I got a front-row view of the hospital's data entry systems. As I'm sure is also true elsewhere, it wasn't a pretty picture. The ordeal begins at the registration desk where, no matter how many visits you've made recently -- perhaps even on the same day! -- you're required to "verify your information." It's always bugged me to listen to someone read off, from a screen, such facts as date of birth, address, employer, and insurer. But when the procedure is repeated at the surgical registration desk, it becomes a flagrant HIPAA violation. Anyone within earshot is made privy to information the hospital has sworn to safeguard.

Once you're admitted, each exam room and lab that you visit requires its own consent form. They're all identical, so you wind up repeating the same information that you just painstakingly verified, scribbling it onto one piece of paper after another.

John adds:

We normally think of self-service as a way to reduce cost. Push people to the web, and you can reduce or eliminate human operators. But that view short-changes the affirmative value of self-service. It's a way to restore some of the dignity that is otherwise eroded by institutional protocols. Customers who control their own information feel less helpless. Operators freed from data entry become available for a job worthier of human talent: good old-fashioned customer service.

so very true. Let me repeat it again in bold letters: "...value of self-service. It's a way to restore some of the dignity that is otherwise eroded by institutional protocols. Customers who control their own information feel less helpless. Operators freed from data entry become available for a job worthier of human talent: good old-fashioned customer service."

Thursday, December 02, 2004

T3 is coming

Noah Shachtman writes in his defensetech newsletter:


Hunting for guerillas, handling roadside bombs, crawling across the
caves and crumbling towns of Afghanistan and Iraq -- all of that was
just a start. Now, the U.S. Army's squad of robotic vehicles is being
prepped for a new set of assignments. And this time, they'll be
carrying guns.

As soon as March or April, eighteen Talon robots armed with automatic
weapons are scheduled to report for duty in Iraq, as part of the
Army's Stryker Brigade. Around the same time, the first prototypes of
a new, unmanned ambulance should be ready for the Army to start
testing. In a warren of hangar-sized hotel ballrooms in Orlando,
Florida, military engineers this week at the Army Science Conference
showed off their next generation of robots, as they got the machines
ready for the warzone.

"Putting something like this into the field, we're about to start
something that's never been done before," said Staff Sergeant Santiago
Tordillos, waving to the black, two-and-a-half foot tall robot rolling
around the carpeted floor on twin treads, an M249 machine gun cradled
into its mechanical grip.

This is both impressive and scary. He has more details in his Wired article.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Bloglines - Stranger than fiction.

Bloglines user has sent this item to you, with the following personal message:

Item follows below.

Jonathan Schwartz's Weblog
Jonathan Schwartz's Weblog

Stranger than fiction.

In General

Who would've thought the world would come to this? Funny.

My view, it's not a blogger that makes a blog effective. It's authenticity. Everything else is just along for the ride.

Their Morals and Ours

very interesting article on Trotsky, Revolution, and Keynes' excellent response to it: Their Morals and Ours

Notes: Keynes on Trotsky: Granted his assumptions, much of Trotsky's argument is, I think, unanswerable. Nothing can be sillier than to play at revolution if that is what he means. But what are his assumptions? He assumes that the moral and intellectual problems of the transformation of Society have been already solved--that a plan exists, and that nothing remains except to put it into operation. He assumes further that Society is divided into two parts the proletariat who are converted to the plan, and the rest who for purely selfish reasons oppose it. He does not understand that no plan could win until it had first convinced many people, and that, if there really were a plan, it would draw support from many different quarters. He is so much occupied with means that he forgets to tell us what it is all for. If we pressed him, I suppose he would mention Marx. And there we will leave him with an echo of his own words "together with theological literature, perhaps the most useless, and in any case the most boring form of verbal creation."

Trotsky's book must confirm us in our conviction of the uselessness, the empty-headedness of Force at the present stage of human affairs. Force would settle nothing no more in the Class War than in the Wars of Nations or in the Wars of Religion. An understanding of the historical process, to which Trotsky is so fond of appealing, declares not for, but against, Force at this juncture of things. We lack more than usual a coherent scheme of progress, a tangible ideal. All the political parties alike have their origins in past ideas and not in new ideas and none more conspicuously so than the Marxists. It is not necessary to debate the subtleties of what justifies a man in promoting his gospel by force; for no one has a gospel. The next move is with the head, and fists must wait.

wow. so good.