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June 28, 2002

Morning in Bryant Park: "O Brother"

Good Morning America has been doing a summer concert series on Friday mornings in Bryant Park, and I got up early today to see it, because they were featuring musicians from the soundtrack to "O Brother, Where Art Thou"! Most of the time at this sort of event is spent warming up the crowd, doing rehearsals and soundchecks, waiting for commercials and news segments, et cetera, so there was relatively little live music, but what there was was great.

There to perform were Emmylou Harris, Alison Kraus, and Kraus's band Union Station (Barry Bales, Ron Block, Jerry Douglas, and Dan Tyminski), alternately billed as the Soggy Bottom Boys. Tyminski led the group for "Man of Constant Sorrow," Harris joined them to sing "Roses in the Snow," and Kraus finished the show off with "Let Me Touch You for Awhile". The performance was excellent, and I especially enjoyed Jerry Douglas's dobro playing.

June 27, 2002

Recently Seen at the Carousel

A woman stood next to the horse that her infant daughter was happily riding. Two seven- or eight-year-old girls rode in front of her, one of them earnestly spurring her horse on with an imaginary whip.

Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the carousel, a woman in a bright red dress was smiling happily and posing for her boyfriend's camera, riding sidesaddle on one of the horses. After a few photos and a kiss, she opened her red umbrella over her shoulder for another shot.

When I left, the two little girls were staring up at the magical machinery under the canopy, and the baby behind them was beaming at everything.

Blogging From the Great Outdoors

I'm writing this from Bryant Park in New York City, where the good folks from NYCwireless have set up the Bryant Park Wireless Network. I'm sitting at a table in the shade, and I can faintly hear the strains of Edith Piaf coming from the carousel 40 feet away. WiFi is Good!

June 26, 2002

The Pledge of Allegiance: Unconstitutional

A federal appeals court ruled today that recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schoolrooms is an unconstitutional union of church and state. The problem is the phrase, "one nation, under God." Judge Alfred Goodwin compared this phrase with the similarly distasteful "one nation, under no God," and I have to say I agree with him. In fact, and I didn't know this, the "under God" bit was only added in 1954, sixty-two years after the pledge was written. Perhaps a return to the original wording would be acceptable. But what's to become of "In God we trust?"


I just noticed randomwebsite.com in my referrer log. Try it! It's fun!

June 25, 2002


Matt Jones has invented a set of hobo symbols to indicate areas with wireless Internet access. So if you're a warwalker or wardriver now you can also be a warchalker. Keep your eyes open for these symbols; I'll be interested to see where they pop up!

I found this link on Boing Boing, and it's being linked everywhere.

June 21, 2002

The Fire Passed By

I'm pretty sure you've all heard about this by now, but those of you who know me personally would be very surprised (dare I say disappointed?) if I didn't cover this one, and several of you sent it to me (thanks, all!) so here goes:

Yow! That was close! One week ago an asteroid whizzed past the earth. Its speed relative to the earth was 23,667 miles an hour (over six and a half miles per second. At its closest it was three times closer than the moon. The thing is, no one saw this one coming. The asteroid was first observed three days after it came by.

The dimensions and mass of the asteroid, designated 2002MN, have not yet been accurately determined, but its diameter has been estimated at between 50 and 120 meters (160 - 390 feet), putting it on a par with the asteroid believed to have caused the 1908 devastaion in Tunguska.

Tunguska 20 years after the blast, when the first exploratory expedition reached the area in 1928

A program is under development to detect and track Near Earth Objects (NEOs), but only those 1km (3,270 feet) or more in diameter. Anyone want to up their budget a little?

Tunguska in 1991

If you're interested in NEOs, check out the NEO Information Centre and the Near Earth Object Program. If you want to compare the news stories, Yahoo has a Full Coverage page on Asteroids and Meteors. And definitely check out the University of Bologna's excellent Tunguska Home Page. And try Googling "Tunguska" too; there's a lot of great material and photographs of the aftermath of that incredible event.

Tunguska (in the late 1990s, I believe)

All photographs from the Tunguska Home Page, used by permission.

June 20, 2002

A Robot Escaped

Steve just sent me this (thanks, Steve!) and no, it's not a newly discovered Bresson film ("Un robot s'est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut?"). It's news. The robot in question is named Gaak, and he's part of the Living Robots exhibition at the Magna Science Adventure Centre in Rotherham England, though perhaps not for much longer.

In the exhibition, two groups of robots, the "predators" and the "prey" interact in an arena. The prey robots "feed" from light sources in the arena. The predators feed on the prey. The robots are controlled by artificial neural nets which develop during their stints in the arena. On a regular schedule the most successful robots' nets are downloaded, bred together, and the results uploaded to serve as the starting point for the next "generation".

Gaak is a clever predator, and he evidently doesn't like his state of affairs, because yesterday he attempted a great escape. Left alone for fifteen minutes, Gaak got out of his paddock, down a ramp, out the front door of the Science Centre, and all the way to the garage entrance, before being apprehended.

MyRobots.co.uk has a page with a picture of Gaak (he's the second robot down, on the right).

June 19, 2002

The Tooth Phone Cometh

Say it ain't so. Some mad engineers have worked out how to build key telephone components into a tooth implant. Bone conduction allows the head to serve as both microphone and speaker, and a small radio tranceiver relays the signal. Here's hoping it's a short range relay to a mobile device elsewhere on your person, or you'll be on your way to microwaving your dinner while you chew it.

Via Mike Daisey.

June 18, 2002

Why Software Is So Bad

Charles C. Mann wrote this great Technology Review piece describing the dramatically diminishing quality of software, its dangers, and some work towards solutions. This piece has been passed around my department; I hope it will have some positive effects.

Mann uses the word "incredibly" to qualify several items. Incredible or not, they're all too familiar to software developers:

Incredibly ... the design for large software projects is sometimes "nothing but a couple [of] bubbles on the back of an envelope."
Incredibly ... software projects often devote 80 percent of their budgets to repairing flaws they themselves produced--a figure that does not include the even more costly process of furnishing product support and developing patches for problems found after release.
Incredibly ... the purpose of new software is often not clearly spelled out before programmers begin writing it. Indeed, it often changes in midstream as marketers come up with wish lists, with predictably bad results.

Also described is the manner in which contrdictory user demands place unreasonable constraints on coders. This is has a very painful resonance for me: I am regularly asked to add functionality (and with it, significant new complexity) to a particular body of code that I have written, while at the same time being asked to dramatically improve its performance.

Are these items really so shocking to those who use software but do not write it? They continue to disturb me, but they have long since ceased to surprise me.

The cost of developing software is very high--daily billing rates for consultants commonly exceed US$2000, and it's not unusual for a consulting team to have a dozen or more members--and it only gets higher when additional time is taken for quality assurance testing and bug fixing. This leads to another shocker, which may seem even more "incredible": companies regularly fail to staff project teams (and even entire IT departments) with professional software quality assurance personnel, opting for short-term savings ... and tremendous risks.

In the absence of professional testers, coders are often asked to be fully responsible for testing their code. Sounds like a good idea, right? Not really. While coders must test their code for expected behavior, they carry with them a set of assumptions about how the users will behave, and as several of Mann's examples demonstrate, these assumptions tend not to be so good.

Mann and others call for new standards and practices among software engineers and their instructors, and these are indeed needed. But it will take many years to refine these and start seeing benefits, and even then, getting closer to "bug-free" software is likely to take more time and money then we're used to.

And As Jim McCarthy points out, the usefulness of software is high enough that users put up with its bugs. Would you be willing to pay twice as much for increased stability? Would you wait twice as long?

June 17, 2002

Excellent Glossary Reference

If you've never been to Glossarist.com then it's high time you check out this portal for online dictionaries and glossaries, a very handy reference to very handy references. I found it at mybluehouse.

The Joys of Lab Work

Lucas Kovar wrote this piece as a Stanford physics undergrad, and I thought it bore sharing :)

Woof, Woof!

I'm back :)

June 12, 2002

This Dog Is Sleeping

And that's no lie. But I've been busy busy busy - moving from offsite to onsite at work, attending and participating in a family wedding, and preparing for some medical fun (to be had tomorrow). So don't try and wake me. I'll come home on my own, real soon.

June 05, 2002

Deep Fried Twinkies

I don't even know what to say about this. Deep. Fried. Twinkies.

Actually, the article makes them sound kind of tasty...

Via Bonnie Blog, via Jejune.net.

I Wish It Was Only A Phase

Fortunately our president practices diplomacy with a safety net: Condoleezza Rice stepped in when President Bush demonstrated his knowledge of America's largest southern neighbor during a meeting with Brazilian president Cardoso.

Later, the Brazilian president Cardoso said: regarding Latin America, Bush was still in his "learning phase".

Thanks, Steve!

June 03, 2002

Unusual Happenings

This past weekend was very pleasant and relaxing, but three rather unusual things happened which I thought I'd share with you:

  1. My haircut came with a surprise performance of Sweeney Todd -- lucky me! The nice barber who cut my hair did the straight-razor cleanup thing on the back of my neck and got just a little too close. The worst of it was a 2+ inch gash below and behind my right ear, but it had eight (count 'em, eight) parallel scratches lined up next to it.
  2. Then I went out to dinner (with dried lanes of blood on my freshly-raked neck) and got carded for the first time in longer than I can remember. Maybe they thought I'd just started shaving.
  3. Finally, I downloaded the electronic statement for my debit card and found therein a mysterious two-week-old charge. I didn't recognize the amount or the payee, so I contacted my bank and got a phone number for the payee. This number consistently connects to an all-too-familiar three note melody followed by a not at all familiar message telling me, in two languages, that the caller's [cellular?] phone is not available. I've reported the charge to the bank and we'll see what happens. They told me it will takes 45 days to resolve ...