Tuesday, August 31, 2004

The MSG Sketches

Maybe you've heard of the LSD Sketches? These are sketches performed by an artist under the influence of LSD during government-sponsored drug tests in the 1950's.

I've just uncovered yet another government drug experiment. The MSG Sketches document that experiment...

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Stem cells? It's about time

I don't like people driving down the road chit-chatting on cell phones as much as the next guy. These fools endanger everyone's life to urgently discuss the swirly foam shape in their lattes. But lately everyone has been up in arms, talking about how to stem cells. John Kerry mentioned it 20 times at the DNC--saying when he is in office he fully intends to stem cells. I think it's a worthy cause, so I came up with a few of my own ideas on the whole stem cells issue.

To stem cells, you gotta go right to the source. What is it in DNA that makes some people want to talk, chat, guffaw, trade hot air, evangelize, cry woot!, and bluster about? Find that out, my friend, and you have the key to stemming cells. Luckily, we've got the human genome mapped, so it ought to be simple to diff politician DNA, for example, with software engineer DNA.

Once the DNA smithy's locate the proper gene and sweater combo, they will need to preemptively X-out the talkative/senseless part, replacing it with pensive, type-quiet, still-water-runs-deep personality. This might be a little controversial, but I think they need to zap the yap-gene while the egg is still in the blastocyst phase, before the embryo has developed arms, legs or other organs. I know this sounds cruel, but you can't risk waiting for the embryo to grow a mouth--by then it's all over. Depending on the parents and hereditary factors, it might even be necessary to turn on the 'small ears' switch. It's been proven that people with small ears have to strain more to hear and say "Huh?" a lot, reducing their tongue-flapping frequency by 25%.

The DNA approach stems cells at the source, but we can go even further and stem cell sales. Cells are entirely too cheap. They often sell for less that the cost of the raw materials used to make them. That used to be called 'dumping' in the 80's, but for some reason it's okay now--maybe because Japan's economy has been in the dumps for the last 15 years? It's time to stem sales of cells, no more sales..you have to pay full price. Watch how that'll stem cells.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Enhanced Dirt

Dirt has a spell over me. I'm enchanted with dirt's dirty properties. The Japanese have a saying that 'old men admire rocks', meaning they can respect something that has outlived them many times over. Old nerds admire dirt, meaning they're weary of the virtual world and want to get dirty.

These days we seem to live more in the virtual than the physical. We email people we've never shaken hands with, we talk in digital streams that drop the nuance of our voices and sometimes even the words. In virtuality there is a loss of physical constraint: distance is meaningless; time can be endlessly divided to create more time; assets can be cloned without loss of quality. We've so lost touch we resort to emotion through punctuation-- F*CK! Even computer representations of the 'real' world feel too clean. Computer graphics are getting better in this respect, but virtual worlds are still just the surface, way too clean, too sharp, too freakin' THIN.

Dirt is thick--you can plunge your hands into it and there's more underneath. You can smell dirt and, if you're like the gullible neighbor kid from my youth, you can even taste dirt. Dirt has grit and working with it gives you grit..I prefer 60-grit dirt. In the virtual world there are no consequences for anything, nothing sticks. Dirt sticks. The more you mess with dirt the dirtier you get. But at least you feel connected to something real. You're touching all the ancestors of the universe, maybe pieces of stuff created in the BIG BANG!, stuff that has wandered eons to get here, bumping into asteroids and interstellar dust and cruising past spiral galaxies and through the cosmic foam to wind up in your back yard along with the dog doo.

Programmers and engineers spend most of their time trying to create organization where none exists, structure and logic in a universe that is ruled by inevitable entropy. Dirt is the ultimate result of entropy--when something decays to the level of dirt you can bet entropy has pretty much won. And entropy is going to win in the end. So sometimes it's nice to give in to entropy, to embrace it, to take a cozy dirt-nap once in awhile--nothing permanent, mind you.

But not everyone loves dirt or finds it perfect the way it is. The problem with dirt is that it's partly made of the same stuff that computer chips are made of--silicon. Nano-technologists are already figuring out how to make lazy dirt do more stuff. What kind of stuff?

Well, they envision little particles that self-assemble and grow into larger forms-- more complex machines that can self-replicate using the raw organic materials that dirt provides. They envision these little machines being powered by thin layers of photoelectric materials that will convert sunshine directly into energy.

Since it's hard to directly control these little micro-devices individually, scientists are only defining general organizational rules and a few simple behaviors. This gives the dirt-bots the flexibility to optimize their structure over a period of generations. Such small structures can be fragile, but the beauty of the nano-approach is that when a micro-machine fails, it simply decays into its constituent parts--mainly dirt. If there are any large pieces left that don't decay, a set of simple machines designed for this purpose decompose it further. In this way, the nano-factories do not produce pollution per-se; they simply release raw materials back into the dirt.

I must say, it's a pretty elegant cyclical system that the nano-technologists have put together. But I stand by my original statement--please leave dirt alone. There are so few refuges from the virtual world these days, we need to preserve them while they're still around. Besides, it creeps me out to imagine-- when I'm taking my final dirt-nap-- all these little nano-creatures crawling over me, breaking me down into dirt for their little factories--hey, wait a minute...

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Outlook Bandwidth Dial Plug-in

I recently saw a great new plugin for Microsoft Outlook. If you’re like me, you get tons of email each day. The problem with Outlook is that you only get metrics on how many emails are in your InBox (and other folders) and how many of those emails are unread. What I would like are some more metrics on how much email I manage each day…how much I file away, how much I delete unread (spam), how many emails I get from certain people, the average time an email sits in my InBox, how many emails am I only cc:’d on, how many people do I cc:…you get the idea. If I had that kind of information I could judge whether I was managing my email effectively and work on improving my email efficiency. Well, this new plugin tracks *all* that stuff and more. It even provides graphs of the metrics over time so you can see how you’re doing for the week or month.

This plugin would be wonderful if that’s all it did, but it does even *more*. The plugin takes the metric information, and Tivo-like, it starts to build a picture of your overall email bandwidth. The company that makes this plugin claims the process used to derive your personal overall email bandwidth (OEB) is patented, but describes it as an active stochastic process that uses a rule-based AI system starting with standard information-worker profiles, and then customizes the profile using pattern recognition software. All in all, it’s a pretty fast system and also pretty effective. Within a few days I had a consistent OEB (shown as a solid blue line on the bandwidth graphs) and I could see how my day-to-day actual email bandwidth fluctuated around that norm.

Now comes the really cool part. This plugin works with Microsoft Exchange, the email server software. Using your OEB, you can define an OEB Dial. The concept behind the OEB Dial is that when people send you more email when you’re already at your OEB limit (i.e. you have no available email bandwidth), the Exchange server will automatically reject the email back to the sender with a customizable message. The default message is “You have exceeded {your name}’s email bandwidth, please try again later.” Using the custom options, you can let the sender know an estimated time when you will have more bandwidth. For example, “…please try again in five days.” That would be an extreme example though.

The plugin writers have even realized through practice that there are a certain few people in your organization who use most of your bandwidth—you probably know who I’m talking about. To control this (somewhat) they’ve added an OEB Dial per User control. So, for example, if Joe Schmo is using most of your bandwidth with silly questions he could answer himself, you can allow him only 2% of your OEB. After he exceeds that, he will get the message (default, can be customized): “Joe Schmo, please ask someone else your inane question, I’m trying to work here and you’ve exceeded my OEB for today.”

I could go on and on about this product-- I think it’s the bee’s knees (that’s Australian for ‘cool’). If you want to try it out, go to the Microsoft Office Marketplace or Google, and search for: Outlook+Bandwidth+Dial. It will change how you look at email the way Tivo changes how you watch TV. Try it.

Friday, August 13, 2004

The HURRICANE is coming!

“Bob, you know that tropical storm 1000 miles east of Florida? It just got upgraded to a HURRICANE!” Thus begins the most rabid two days in local news coverage. Even though the storm could hit land anywhere from Brazil to the Hamptons, panic must be incited, streets must be emptied, insurers must cancel policies. And Channel 6 is just the station to get it done…if the HURRICANE doesn’t blow the roof off your house, their hyperbole will.

“Hello everyone, this is Dr. Dave with your 2 day forecast. We have some bad news. A HURRICANE is on its way and this is all we'll be talking about for at least the next 2 days. For those of you tracking the storm, here’s the single point that we use to locate a storm that is several hundred miles in diameter. That’s how accurate our radars are! This point identifies the eye of the storm—of course, the eye is defined as where there is no storm, but moving on.. let’s cut to Sandy down at the Walmart where our intensive coverage has caused a run on water, food, and batteries.”

“Hi, this is Sandy down at the Walmart on the corner of Andrew Street and, as you can see, there are two old ladies whomping each other with canes over the last gallon jug of water. We’ll be monitoring this situation closely. Now back to Dave in the studio.”

“Thanks Sandy. Speaking of water, we expect 100% humidity tomorrow. Now let’s go live to Ryan who has taken up residence on the site of the HURRICANE’S first landfall, give or take 500 miles.”

“Hi Dave. As you can see, we have sunny skys and there is not even a breeze at the moment, but within 48 hours, give or take 24 hours, I will have a rope tied around my waste and my feet will leave the ground as the HURRICANE force winds try to blow me away. Despite the danger of being cut in half by flying road signs, I will stay strapped to this pier throughout the storm in the hope that someone at the network affiliate will notice me. Now back to you.”

“Thanks Ryan. Folks, that’s just one example of how we needlessly endanger our reporters in order to improve our ratings. Now let’s go to Tamantha who’s live at the Mayor’s office where the Director of Emergency Services is holding a press conference.”

“Thanks Dave. Let’s listen in...”

“We are instructing all people to stay off the roads after 2pm. There will be high winds and it’s just really scary. We have the most advanced equipment available to deal with downed powerlines, fallen trees, and stopped up toilets. However, since I just declared that no cars can travel after 2pm, we will be unavailable to help you until Monday between 10am and 5pm. So remember, don’t be a victim. And if you live in a mobile home, rest in peace.”

“Well, there you have it, good advice from the Director of Emergency Services—don’t be a victim. Now let’s go back to Sandy at the Walmart to check on the water riot.”

“Thanks Tamantha. The cane-whomping has stopped for the moment…I think the old bags are exhausted. However, they both have a grip on the last gallon of water available in the entire state. I think this could be a fight to the death if the HURRICANE doesn’t get them first. Now back to Dave in the studio.”

“Thanks Sandy. Speaking of water, we expect to get 6 inches of rain within 2 hours which will cause massive flooding in low-lying areas. And since Florida is a glorified sand bar, that means pretty much everywhere. Now lets go to Dr. Bill at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida.”

“Hi there. We’ve just upgraded the HURRICANE from a category 3 to a category 4. In practical terms this means a mobile home will now be carried 50 yards further before it explodes into a hail of sawdust and tin. But we’re here in a waterproof bunker with 4 foot thick walls, so don’t worry about us. The latest location of the HURRICANE is directly over Cuba, an island we know little about but believe is either uninhabited or inhabited by people that don’t matter very much. Now back to our local stations.”

“Hello folks, this is Dr. Dave. We have a startling development concerning this HURRICANE. For more news that’s too serious for us to report on locally, lets go to our national affiliate.”

“Good morning. This is Tom Brokecow with…the news. We have just learned that Michael Moore has hastily put together a new home video he is calling The HURRICANE?? This docu-drama clearly implies that this HURRICANE is no HURRICANE. It is, in fact, an evil plot by President Bush, using Chinese cloud manipulation technology, to wipe out Cuba and all the trailer-trash Democrats in Central Florida in one fell swoop. This devious strategy has put the state of Florida firmly in the hands of the Republicans and, once again, Bush has stolen an election. Senator Kerry, devastated by this end-around, has run off to his rich wife’s house in the Hamptons with close ‘friend’ New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey. A spokesman says they are just holing up and preparing for a long HURRICANE party.”

Sunday, August 08, 2004

Baseball bats and terrorists

Normally I don’t care about politics except to throw out the occasional cynical comment or two. I’ve been cynical since 1973, when they replaced a whole summer’s worth of Romper Room and Captain Kangaroo with the Watergate hearings. There’s nothing like listening to endless testimony from Ehrlichman and Mitchell-- when you were expecting Mr. Green Jeans and Mr. Moose-- to make a kid cynical.

However, a post by Evilwhiteguy, pointing out Kerry’s asinine statement about running a ‘more sensitive war on terror’ brought up some suppressed memories of my time in the Army. I had intentionally blanked out those memories-- from the time I got off the bus at Basic Training to that glorious last day four years later when, during the exit process, some scumbag stole the clothes out of my suitcase-- but this ‘sensitive war’ thing brought back memories of my tour in West Germany.

I was in Germany, West Germany then, for 3 years-- around the time when the Red Brigade and other terrorist cells were sporadically car bombing US bases in Europe. I don’t really care why they were targeting us; it’s all the same isn’t it? Some little guy feels powerless so he lashes out any way he can. Ultimately, the little guy wants to be a big guy and have some kind of power, some kind of control. Never, it seems, is any terrorist fighting for the freedom of individuals to make their own choices.

Anyway, I worked at a network control station, relaying information to a network of mobile Pershing missile units. Our site was not mobile, it was fixed, occupying of about 10 acres in a German forest, with plenty of little deer and wild boar wandering around the RLP antenna field.

Now, our leaders knew these people were out there targeting us. Every month or so, someone would drive a car up to the gate of a military base and blow it up (literally the gate and maybe a few guards). They had even bombed some radio installations, knocking down an antenna at another site. So our leaders put as on alert. They had us patrol the perimeter of our 10 acre site night and day…carrying baseball bats. I’m not kidding…BASEBALL BATS.

The thinking was that since tensions were high, if we had real guns and real bullets a dumb soldier might get jumpy and accidentally kill some poor German out hiking through the woods. I’m not saying that wouldn’t have happened; there are some dumbasses in the military, no doubt. But we were in Germany to do a job, our radio site and our lives were in danger, and we kept our weapons and ammunition locked in a safe while we walked around the fence…with baseball bats. I don’t know about you, but I doubt terrorists would have respected our commands to “Stop! Or I’ll…sswingg batter-batter sswiingg.”

If (and that’s a big capital ‘IF’ that depends on many factors and should be weighed very carefully), but IF you’re going to commit to fighting a war, even a war on terrorism, then fight likes it’s a war. Don’t make it more sensitive-- war is not sensitive. Don’t make it safe for the enemy-- make it as safe for your troops as you can.

(Ah, if only there were blogs back then. Now back to my real pastime, commenting on how the proliferation of Half-Baked technology will soon lead to an 8 hour work week.)

Friday, August 06, 2004

Don’t get up

Why bother moving anymore? Motion, discovered by Newton in the 1600’s, has become outmoded in a few quick centuries. Maybe Newton’s First Law, ‘an object in motion tends to stay in motion’, should be repealed? I still need Newton’s Third Law, ‘For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction’, however. That’s the only thing keeping my ass from falling through the sofa.

I think my motionless day is similar to any other tech worker’s. I get up, get the paper, sit down, and read awhile. I get in my car, which I’m careful to park inside the house to avoid that long walk outside, and drive to work. While the car itself is traveling at great speeds, I’m just sitting there, not really moving too much. I used to reach for the radio controls, but then car makers put them on the steering wheel. I used to curl my cell phone, but now its-hands free, so I don’t dare touch it. I heard people used to have cars with clutches, which sounds like a good leg workout, but alas I have an automatic.

When I get to work I take the elevator to the second floor and plop down in front of the computer in my cube. On breaks, I sometimes pace the diagonal, 11.31 feet. I used to walk to meetings, but we have NetMeetings now, or video conferences. I always wonder about video conferences—does it really help communication to watch the remote people slouch-gazing at a spot two feet right of everyone in the room? Anyway, if I get hungry I got my mini-fridge right there. After awhile I’m sitting my way back home again.

I normally take care of dinner, walking to the door to pay the delivery guy. The delivery guy’s whole job is about moving…so we don’t have too. For entertainment there’s self-programmed TiVo, maybe a (FedEx’d) DVD, or surfing the Internet. I used to take a breathless walk upstairs to get on the computer, but a wireless router and laptop solved that nicely. To recover from sitting around so much I lay in bed sleeping for eight hours at a time.

On the weekends I play a little golf for exercise. Golf consists of riding around in an electric car and swinging a 4-ounce club 25 times an hour for four straight hours. It’s exhausting, but my body is a temple and if you’re going to have a temple make it a big one.

What did people used to do that required movement? I have fond muscle memories from those bygone years, so I wrote a wistful little poem…

Ode to Motions Lost

We used to walk to the store
—now we walk to the door.
Cut some wood, start a fire,
—we got temperature control, just turn it higher.
Maw, intruders! Fetch the gun
—calm down; just push the panic button.
Kids, go outside and play!
—Mom, we *are* playing...GTA.
Walk to school?
—Hey! We’re home-schooled, fool.
Run around the track
—are you crazy? I’ll have a heart attack.
Have a breakdown with your car?
—don’t sweat the jack, call OnStar
Run through the airport to catch a plane,
—now every airport has its own train.
Hike up a mountain, just because its there?
—we’d rather bungee and let gravity give us a scare.
Want to find a bride or groom?
—go hang out for awhile in a chat room.
Take a trip or visit home?
—no need, just send pics direct to my cell phone
Turn off the lights before taking a napper?
—don’t get up, I’ve got the clapper
Go to the hospital when you ache or break?
—how d’ya feel anything when you never move, Half-Baked?

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

I-Robot vs. I-Pod vs. I-Monkey

Human survival depends on paranoia. We just know there’s some malicious creature out there ready to fight us for the helm of Spaceship Earth. But Alien vs. Predator has been done already, so I'm fretting over the latest terrestrial threats instead: I-Robot, I-Pod, and I-Monkey.

As a species, we’re just smart enough to realize we’re stupid…stupid enough to create robots and computers that want to kill us, ala The Matrix and I-Robot. Suprisingly, even Apple’s cutesy I-Pod just recently achieved consciousness (I-pod Therefore I am), and apples have been a problem for humankind since the Genesis days, so we must take the little devil-gizmo seriously. Finally, we have the recent news about a monkey walking Planet-of-the-Apes upright: I-Monkey. Its one thing for Disney to anthropomorphize animals, it’s quite another for animals to anthropomorphize themselves. If a monkey walking around bolt-upright doesn’t make you sit bolt-upright in the middle of the night screaming "Get your filthy paws off me you damn dirty ape," nothing will.

But of these latest competitors to the human race, which is the most likely to replace us?

Let’s consider the I-Pod first. I say it’s got no chance against humans simply because it’s already too philosophical…’I-Pod Therefore I Am.’ When’s the last time you met a philosopher that could fight? Plato could barely whip the shadow puppets on his cave wall. If the two-day old I-Pod is already spouting this kind of crap, imagine what it’s going to be like after a few years of Moore’s Law evolution? It’ll convince itself that life doesn’t matter anyway-- we’re all just energy patterns on some existential plane of purity. All we have to do is put hemlock within arms reach, sit back, and wait. Either that or let the RIAA continue its fratricide on all music recording devices—either way, I-Pod is out of the picture.

So that leaves I-Robot and I-Monkey. Ruthless as they are, both of these enemies have a code they live by. For robots it’s the infamous three laws:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being, or, through
    inaction allow a human being to come to harm.

  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings
    except where such orders would conflict with the first law.

  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such
    protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Apes have only one law:

  1. Ape shall not kill ape.

I-Monkey’s law is clearly more dangerous for humans-- they don’t even mention us. They’re obviously self-centered wife-coveting beasts that will have no compunction about wiping us out. I-Robot’s code has a Go-To in it which is just sloppy programming. Score one for I-Monkey.

I-Monkey and I-Robot both have great jumping ability, tending to ricochet off walls and ceilings faster than a drug-crazed NBA star. This would put us at a severe special effects disadvantage except for one thing: we always start a war with carpet bombing. Carpet bombing just happens to eliminate all walls and ceilings…so all that fancy jumping is for naught, Ha! I-Robot and I-Monkey tie on physical ability.

As we know from the Planet of the Apes movies (which were sent back in time to warn us of an alternative future), I-Monkeys have an organized class system. In this system Gorillas are the warriors, Orangutans are the scientists, and Chimpanzees are the liberal trouble makers. This system greatly simplifies communication…you don’t have to spend a lot of time in conversation to figure out if you’re talking to a militaristic murderer, an over-educated baboon, or a commie sympathizer...you know just by looking at them. I-Robots, on the other hand, all look the same but speak different languages. Some read bytes right to left, others left to right. Its true they’re all internet’d together to create a massive intelligence, but who’s in charge? Google claims to be the great unifier, but can you really respect a leader named ‘Google’? Score two for I-Monkey.

Now you might argue that I-Monkey is not intelligent, but I disagree. I believe I-Monkey took the evolutionary slow road on purpose. They’re out-waiting us like we’re out-waiting the I-Pods. They know we’ll eventually self-destruct like a cheap MP3 player. Meanwhile, scientists are protecting their habitat, teaching them sign-language, algebra, and how to make primitive weapons. I-Monkey even slipped one of their sleepers/trainers into the Whitehouse. Another point for I-Monkey.

I think it’s clear by now that I-Monkey is a superior foe, one that we probably do not have the stamina or will to defeat. So there’s only one option…we need to get out of here. Luckily, scientists predict we’ll find a suitable planet in about 20 years. Meanwhile, the next time a chimp at the zoo gives me the throat-slash sign, I’m going to pee in my pants.