Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Why Apple laptops cost more: The power connector.

We went to Fry's Electronics today to look for a new laptop or netbook, as we do every couple of years. I was astonished (as I am every couple of years) at how cheap these things are.

Except for the Apple laptops. Apple laptops cost about $450 more than comparable Windows machines.

I examined every single laptop on display, about 50 of them, to determine what would make an Appple computer worth $450 more than a Windows system. It's not the software (I use both, and other than a pretty spinning ball Apple's got nothing on Windows). It's not the lack of a right mouse button (or even a left mouse button), I'd be willing to pay Apple a little extra to put a right mouse button in.

It's the power connector. Apple can charge an extra $450 because they're the only computer brand that makes a decent power connector. It doesn't flop around. It doesn't break. It's got no moving parts.

Every goddam Windows machine I examined had nearly the same flimsy power connector, one you can feel wiggling around inside, and you just know that after connecting and disconnecting 5 times a day (the national average I just made up) it's mean time to failure is going to be 174 days (a figure I just made up based on experience: on both of our last two Windows laptops, that power connector was the first thing to fail).

Apple can charge an extra $450 because of its power connector.

So here's a billion dollar idea for the some bright Windows brand: make a better power connector, spend an extra 50 cents on it if you have to, then charge a $450 premium. The first manufacturer to do this will bring in an extra $1 billion dollars of pure profit in the first year (plus or minus twenty bucks, if the sales, stocking, manufacturing, legal, and shipping numbers I just made up in my head are correct).

You're welcome.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

In praise of Douglas Crockford, genius

We don't spend enough time praising the genius inventors who make our lives so much better, especially while they're still alive. How I regret not sending praise to Norton Buffalo, inventor of the Buffalo Wing, before his recent passing.

So today I praise Douglas Crockford, who gave us JSON(.org) as a way to share data between computer systems.

Back in the day, there used to be a lot of pressure to use a complex XML format any time you wanted to send data between one computer and another. More time was spent writing and debugging XML parsers than really getting work done, and when person A's program didn't work with person B, more hours would be wasted arguing over who got the XML wrong.

Meanwhile, anytime a real programmer would informally talk to another, they'd scratch out on a whiteboard some pseudo-code that looked like simple programming notation. If there were no suits around they might even program their systems to work directly with the pseudo-cody-looking text (bypassing XML altogether because no authority figure was watching).

But whenever a manager or committee got involved they would insist that XML be used because it was "the standard" and how professionals did it. You could argue until you were IBM-Blue in the face about the easier approach, but you'd know that the argument would get nowhere, and you'd just cave in and do the XML.

Until one day Douglas Crockford had his stroke of genius. He created the name JSON for this sourcy-looking data notation, and, most importantly, he created the website JSON.ORG.

From that point on, when someone would insist that you work in XML, you could say "I prefer JSON, it's an accepted standard" and you could point them to the JSON.ORG website saying "See, it's got a .org website and everything."

End of problem.

And that's what a genius does: Ends problems. Thanks DC.

P.S. I don't really know if any of the above is true, and don't feel like taking the time to do any fact-checking, but it's one of my favorite stories so I'm sticking to it.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Don't believe everything you read on Wikipedia

We found a spell on Wikipedia for undoing the hex that turned our doggy into a pumpkin. It didn't work as advertised. Now poor Tzunami is a cake. She looks delicious. We better find a way to undo all this black Halloween magic soon, or she's in danger of being eaten.

Got milk?

Pumpkin Dog

Some kind of Halloween magic turned our doggy, Tzunami, into a pumpkin. Very sad, scary, and man-bear-piglike all at the same time.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

My first video mashup.

I just got new video editing software, and I’ve spent all day learning to use it.

My first project is a mash-up of dozens of Sarah Palin speeches, carefully spliced together to look like one seamless press conference. By merging so many different statements, taking them totally out of context, and then recombining them in a completely random order, I’ve managed to make Sarah Palin look like a total idiot who speaks in incoherent non-sequiturs.

The result of my cutting-edge video editing is hilarious, if I do say so myself. Witness:

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Feed the world? Or not? A moral quandary.

When I retired two years ago, I planned to enjoy my time the same way many other retirees do: by starting a garden. In a small patch of land I set out to grow enough fresh food to feed Amy and myself. La la la, oh happy times.

Turns out it’s a lot of work growing food. With one problem after another, I never could grow enough to feed us (now you know the secret to our slim figures). I was feeling bad about myself for my failure. What was I doing wrong? I knew that we had at least as much land and water and fertilizer as a small family farmer anywhere in the world did—a family of five in Somalia, for example. How do they feed themselves when I can’t? Hmmph!

So I jealously looked into their secrets for gardening success, and it turns out they don’t have any. Their secret is to go hungry, or fight their neighbors, or become pirates, or die.

I looked into the issue some more, and found out some unpleasant things. For instance, there are currently about a billion people going hungry. Each year about 8 million people die directly from hunger, and many times that number are dying indirectly from the results of food shortage: everything from weakened immune systems to shortage-based civil wars to atrocities going under the name of ethnic cleansing.

How was I supposed to enjoy my retirement with so much suffering going on? What a bummer!

So for the past couple of years I’ve been working on solving the world hunger problem. In that time I’ve developed “fertibeaux”. Fertibeaux is both a fertilizer and a sequence of cultivation techniques that can greatly increase the productivity of almost any kind of land (I’m leaving out the technical details of fertibeaux for reasons that will become apparent shortly). With fertibeaux, an acre of good soil can easily produce enough food to feed ten families (25 if they are vegetarians). Even under the worst conditions (sandy, alkaline soil fed with scant, salty water) fertibeaux, and a lot of hard work, can grow a lush crop that would put a Kansas cornfield to shame.

These two years of development and experimentation have convinced me that with fertibeaux we can easily feed our world of 7 billion people ten times over. No problem. We could feed 70 billion. No problem.

No problem?

Then I saw the problem. Just as I was about to publish my fertibeaux results, gleeful that I’d solved yet another worldwide catastrophe and could finally enjoy my retirement in peace, I saw the problem: Because we will be able to comfortably feed 70 billion, I’ve no doubt that the population will quickly balloon to 70 billion. It should take about 100 years. It might be a tad unpleasant then, with so many humans filling the land that there won’t be much space for any other species. But so be it. Most of those species are already doomed anyway.

The problem comes when we’ve depleted the most important natural resource that is fundamental to fertibeaux (and which I’m keeping a secret), which should happen in, oh, about 100 years.

The way I figure it, here’s what happens if I release my secret fertibeaux: world hunger is solved; next year 1 billion people will be saved from suffering, as will many billions for the next century; 100 years from now there will be 70 billion people happily living on fertibeaux-based crops, then they’ll run out of fertibeaux; 101 years from now most of those 70 billion will die of starvation (although the exact causes of death will be listed as “disease” or “civil war” or “ethnic cleansing” or “biofuelicide”).

So here’s my ethical dilemma. Do I release fertibeaux now, and so relieve suffering for 1 billion people next year and many years after that? Or do I destroy all knowledge of fertibeaux and save the lives of 70 billion people 100 years from now?

Retirement is ethically challenging.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Big Bank Theory

Timmy tossed another brick of dollar bills into the fire pit, as the rest of the boy scouts huddled together for warmth. “Next time it’s someone else’s turn to get fuel for the campfire.”

“I was just thinking. Do you ever think we’ll run out of dollars to burn?” asked Kyrell. Kyrell was always asking questions like that. He asked a lot of questions, but never gave answers unless he knew the answers. He was weird that way. Nobody liked him. “I mean, look around, they’re everywhere. We burn them whenever we want. Last week they clogged the sewer so bad the water ran out…”

“I didn’t have to take a bath for a week,” shouted Mofanda, the funniest girl in the boy scout troop, and everyone laughed, except for Kyrell who was still puzzling through his question.

“Nobody makes dollars. They don’t grow on trees. So we’ll run out of them someday, right? Where did all these dollar bills come from?”

The scouts sat silent for a minute as they pondered. This was a rare silence, and pondering was a rare activity, but Kyrell had asked a rarely good question.

“My grandpa told me, once,” said Shanto, shyly and quietly. It had taken her a full thirty seconds to convince herself to talk. “I asked him where the dollars come from. He said he’s an econonominist, and so he knows. Grandpa’s a very great man. And rich, too,” she was speaking louder now, filled with the pride of her grandfather, “he’s so rich he has over 10 billion followers! So he knows.”

“No one has 10 billion followers,” Timmy cut her boast down to size. “That’s over half of the entire planet.”

This quieted Shanto for a while, but Kyrell prompted here and so eventually she continued. “Well, anyway, he is awfully rich even if I don’t know exactly how many followers he has.”

“Grandpa told me about the dollars. He said that back when he was young dollars used to be money. You could buy things with them, even big things like houses. I thought that sounded silly, because that’s what followers are for, but grandpa said, ‘no, before we traded in followers, dollars where our currency,’ and I know it’s true because grandpa is an important econonomist.”

Shanto was quiet again, but everyone was staring at her, and she remembered she hadn’t answered the question yet.

“Grandpa said they used to keep the dollars in banks. Great big banks. Bigger than from here to that Gatorade tower. But there was a secret the banks weren’t telling people. They actually didn’t have the dollars they said they did. One day the government realized that those giant banks where just giant empty buildings, with hardly any dollars in them at all.”

“So where’d all the dollars come from?” asked two or three scouts at once.

“Grampa said it was a crisis. The banks would fail if they were just big empty buildings, and the president and everybody said they were too big to fail. So they had to fill those big banks with money, ‘cause grampa said ‘nature absorbs a vacuum.’ The government went to work printing dollars and stuffing them into the bank buildings and I guess it was like when you blow up a balloon too fast because the banks ruptured and dollars flew everywhere and just made a big mess. So that’s where all the dollars come from!” Shanto pressed her lips and pretended to blow her nose on a twenty she found on the ground so the others couldn’t see how much she was beaming with pride.

The topic of conversation quickly changed to latrines and teleweb shows and other things of importance to scouts. Kyrell didn’t join the conversation because he was deep in thought over what Shanto had said. Eventually Kyrell interrupted an argument over whose dad had more followers, and blurted: “That doesn’t make sense. If dollars where flying all over the place, and dollars where their form of currency, then everyone would have way too many dollars and they would be useless. It doesn’t make sense. What good are dollars if there’s so many of them that they blow up the banks and are blowing around everywhere?”

Nobody liked Kyrell, and his stupid thoughtful questions. So they grew silent and looked at Shanto so she could put him in his place. It took a few minutes for her to get over her shyness again, but they were patient, and they really disliked Kyrell.

“Grandpa told me about this, too. He said that by the time the gigantic banks blew up, dollars were already worthless and the world had stopped using them anyway. China, who owned most of the dollars that hadn’t really been there so I don’t know how they owned them but they did, were the big bosses then and China said the world needed a new worldwide currency. Everyone agreed and, naturally, everyone started using followers.”

That made perfect sense to everyone, even Kyrell.

Monday, February 23, 2009

"Congratulations. You now understand the stimulus bill."

There's an email named "Congratulations. You now understand the stimulus bill." working it's way around the web and in blogs. There's one version here. The condensed version is this: An economics student asks his professor to explain the stimulus bill. The professor teaches by example as he has the student take one bucket after another from the deep end of the swimming pool to the shallow end, accomplishing nothing.

But that's not the full story. In passing from inbox to inbox this internet meme has somehow lost the second half of the story. Which follows:

This economics student had another professor to whom he posed the same question. This second professor also had a pool at home and also told the student to come to his home for a weekend project. This pool was at the base of a small hill in the professor's backyard. It looked like the small hill had at one time been lush and green and well-manicured, but since there'd been a drought for the past two years it was just dirt.

The professor told the student, "take a bucket of water from the pool, carry it up the hill and dump the water." The student did as told. "Take another bucket..." and so on. After a while the confused student said, "Why are we doing this? the water just runs down the hill right back into the pool. We're accomplishing nothing except, perhaps, to make your pool water dirty."

The professor said "come back and lets do it again next week."

This went on for a couple of months. Finally, the student was tired and exasperated. "Professor, I've been carrying water from your pool up that hill for two months, but hardly any of of it ever stays there because it almost all just flows back into the pool. The amount of water hasn't changed. The level of the pool hasn't changed. This has been totally unproductive."

The professor said, "look at the hill. what do you see?"

"Grass," said the student, "grass and flowers and bushes and weeds. Two months ago it was just dirt, and now it's a garden."

"Congratulations. You now understand the stimulus bill."

Sunday, February 15, 2009

An Elevated Conversation

I’ve long held firm to three cherished elevator fantasies. In the first fantasy, I’m trapped in a broken elevator with a beautiful woman. As it heats up she’s compelled to remove one item of clothing after another, as I do the same, until we’re overcome by circumstances and treat each other to hours of anonymous sex. In the second fantasy, I’m trapped in a broken elevator with an ice-cream delivery person. As the elevator warms we’re compelled to eat all the ice cream before it melts into a gooey elevator mess. The third fantasy goes one step beyond the first two. I won’t go into much detail, but it involves a broken elevator and a beautiful ice-cream delivery woman. I always thought that any of these three scenarios would be the most interesting thing I could ever possibly experience in a broken elevator. Until last Tuesday.

Last Tuesday I stepped into the elevator at the county courthouse. Just before the door closed a woman jumped in. She was beautiful and dressed to the nines in a fancy black lady suit. (I was dressed to the ones or twos, in sandals, jeans, dirty shirty, and dirtier jacket.)

Before the elevator had made it down an entire floor, it stopped with a small jerk, and the lights went out, soon replaced by the weaker glow of an emergency backup bulb.

“Elevator’s broken,” she said.

I had trouble getting any words out. I never thought I’d actually be in fantasy #1, otherwise it wouldn’t be a fantasy, now would it. I thought back, and couldn’t remember if there’d ever been talking during broken-elevator-scenarios, so I wasn’t sure what to say. “Um, huh, what?”

“Elevator’s broken,” she said again.

“Yeah. Look’s that way.”

“It’ll be broken for a while,” she said as she sat down, knees bent to retain her lady-like dignity in her short suit-skirt. “We may as well get comfortable. Tell me, what brings you to the courthouse?”

“Jury duty,” I said. “But I’m sure I won’t be selected. I never am.”

“Is that why you’re dressed like a slob, so you won’t get picked?”


“And is that a large bird dropping in your hair?”

“Toothpaste, actually. It’s to help make sure I don’t get picked. If things get too far I plan to yell ‘Tesla was wrong, they don’t call it Washington A.C., long live the backers of the united front!’ and then put some toothpaste—better yet, bird dropping--on my finger and brush with it.”

“Good plan.”

“Thanks,” I said, feeling more comfortable my temporary companion. “What brings you to the courthouse?”

“I’m a lawyer with Weinstock & Dajani, the biggest and smartest law firm in the late 22nd century. I’ve traveled back in time to file a class-action lawsuit against PG&E, Chevron, and the California Public Utilities Commission, on behalf of the people of my time. We’re demanding $46 trillion dollars in damages.”

I said “OK, I’ll play along. This could be fun. Damages for what?”

“For causing loss of crops, loss of land, loss of life, loss of species, flooding, disease, and general worldwide devastation.”

“You’re talking global warming.”

“Exactly. Non-stop dissemination of carbon and other elements into the atmosphere in your time has caused havoc in my time.”

“And so you think the answer is for lawyers of the future to travel back in time to sue utilities and energy companies all over the world?”

“Not all over the world. For the rest of the world we send back scientists and engineers to explain the situation, and those countries cease their harmful ways. But that approach doesn’t work here. In the U.S. the only approach that works is lawsuits.”

“There’s no way California can come up with $46 trillion dollars. So even if you win, you’ll lose.”

“We’ll win, all right. And they’ll pay one way or another. But we’ll never see a cent so my time-travel work is always pro bono.”

“I don’t know what ‘pro bono’ is, but it sounds sexy when you say it.” OK. I didn’t really say that last one because I’d honestly forgotten about the whole sex-fantasy thing and was now caught up in her fantasy of time travel. Instead I said “Nice story, but you can’t travel back in time; the laws of physics say you can’t.”

“As I told you, I am from biggest and smartest law firm. The physicists didn’t stand a chance enforcing their laws once we brought them to the witness stand. We can time-travel whenever we want, provided we get a TT warrant from any Palestisraeli judge.”


“Correct. In about forty years the Israelis and Palestinians will form a single nation of Palestisrael. They’ll channel their intense and creative hatred toward each other into a shared intense and creative hatred toward the rest of the world. Within four decades Palestisrael will become the financial, civil, cultural, and legal center of the world.”

“Now I know you’re lying.”

“Fine don’t believe me. I don’t care. We don’t have much time, so I’ll be brief. I’ve already won my case. In order to avoid a payment that will bankrupt the people of your time you’re going to have to act now prevent the damage so that we won’t have cause to travel back and file lawsuits. You’re going to have to stop using fossil fuels. You’re going to have to switch to alternative energy sources and, until you do, use much less energy. That will include frequent blackouts for the next fifteen years, the first of which is currently happening and will continue for another forty-three minutes. I’ve read your blog in the internet archives, and I know what you like. So if you want to get on with the anonymous elevator sex we’d better get started.”

On the one hand, she was clearly crazy. On the other hand, she had already removed her jacket and was starting on her skirt.

Then she reached into her case and brought out a cup and two spoons. “I brought ice cream…” That sealed the deal.