PS... A Column

on Things

By Paul E. Schindler Jr.

Some things are impossible to know, but it is impossible to know these things.

I have a day job. So every word of this is my opinion, not that of my employer. This offer IS void in Wisconsin. Except, of course, that some material in this column comes from incoming e-mail; such material is usually reproduced in the Sans Serif type font to distinguish it from the (somewhat) original material.

To Pay For This Column Voluntarily
Tales of Teaching 2004
Tales of Teaching 2005

May 9, 2005: P.S. A Column On Things

May 9, 2005 Vol. 7, No. 18

Table of Contents:

General News

  • Rae at Brandeis
  • Marlow in Leiden
  • The Power Of Coincidence
  • Political Notes

Computer Industry News

  • Craig Reynolds' Technobriefs


  • None


  • None


  • Dern on Vanity Publishing, Dan Grobstein File

General News

Rae at Brandeis

Rae is finishing her sophomore year at Brandeis; she will be home this week. She reports:

My room has several microclimates. My window isn't properly sealed, and this is problematic when New England decides it should be 34 degrees all May. So, I did some home-made insulation with my tissue box.


There's nothing like packing up almost your entire room in boxes and suitcases to signal to your brain that you are indeed leaving. Well, this last week has been so unfun (weather-wise and studying too much and socializing too little wise) that I think that's made it easier to leave. Well, finals week is doing what it should being all academic-like. The first week of next semester will counterbalance it with high spirits and shenanigans. Oh, the cycle of the academic year.

Marlow in Leiden

Marlow is doing graduate work in Leiden, Netherlands. Her latest report:

[April 30] was Queen's Day, the biggest of Dutch national holidays... I'd met up with A and her boyfriend. We went down to the concert at the Museumplein [in Amsterdam], but we didn't see the two acts we wanted to see most. Mainly we just stayed on the edge of the crowd and drank beer.

It made me feel old not to want to go directly into the thick of the crowd, but then the music wasn't that good and I didn't really need to get closer to it. The sound system was pretty weak for a concert of that magnitude.

One of the main points of Queen's Day is that everyone can sell anything on the streets, so its like a big flea market. Apparently lots of kids do it in the morning, I saw that a little here in Leiden, but mainly just the professionals in Amsterdam, even though there were more of 'em. Also kids had set up carnival games, one group of three twenty-somethings was raking it in with a throw an egg at me if you can stand for a euro an egg.

Once the group got too huge we obviously had trouble moving and making decisions, so people kept peeling off.

I stayed and had a couple more drinks [classmates]. We had no trouble catching our train back to Leiden, even had seats for the trip, so all the stuff we'd heard about before about the station being closed down and drunk people blocking the tracks never really materialized. There were a lot of people, and it was a long day, and it was a little chaotic, but for the most part it was like the other Dutch holidays I've seen only with a lot more orange.

[ed. note: Leiden to Amsterdam is about equivalent to Concord to San Francisco on BART]

The Power of Coincidence

Richard Dalton and I have been friends since 1979. In that year, Steve Johnson, a co-worker and friend from Bank of America, advised me (in my role as a reporter for Computer Systems News) to profile a computerized weather system his friend Richard was marketing. In 1983, we even spent nine months together in working in his consulting company. Turns out, we may have met before that, or at least seen each other. After last week's call for Tom Rutledge information, Richard writes:

The longer I spend on this planet, the more convinced I am that coincidence is the most under-appreciated source of energy we have.

In recounting your B of A experience, you mentioned that you and Tom Rutledge gave a presentation at the 1977 Bank Automation show in New Orleans. Turns out I was there as well, managing trade show logistics for a small Mill Valley company, Custom Financial Systems Inc. We were selling a demand deposit accounting system to credit unions, probably the only one ever written in FORTRAN.

As luck would have it, the large-scale HP minicomputer we were to use for demos at the show was shipped to Houston, not new Orleans and it took most of the show before we retrieved the hardware and fired things up. I'm not surprised I didn't bump into you.

Political Notes

From the Sunday New York Times

May 1, 2005
The War We Could Have Won

... In 1974-75, the United States snatched defeat from the jaws of victory

Who is this guy? "Stephen J. Morris, a fellow at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, is writing a book on the Vietnam War in the Nixon years."

His book, it appears, explains how in 1975 the U.S. snatched defeat from the jaws of clear overwhelming victory in Vietnam with adverse consequences (from the defeat not from the prior activity) extending to this day. It seems the book will be advertised as non-fiction, raising the theoretical possibility of some other author of real non-fiction suing under Intellectual Property laws for unfair competition.


This week's winner of the Speaking Truth to Power award--even more impressive because the power he is speaking truth to is not government, but rather fanatic anti-taxers:

It's time to redo the 'revolution'
C.W. Nevius
Everyone says it. Proposition 13 is the third rail of California politics. Any politician who touches it will see his career go up in smoke. Well guess what? It is time to touch the third rail.


Letter from Europe: British Elections

After an extended absence, my good friend Larry King is back with political analysis, which he boldly wrote before election day. Read the whole essay; it is good dry humor.

I'm not sure what I can tell you about the British elections except that Labour will win and nobody will care. Mainly, we'll all be glad the whole tedious business has ended. Campaigns here are mercifully short, six weeks from the time the prime minister calls an election until the actual vote, but this time it's been a long, long six weeks.

Even the press have had a hard time churning out their customary sneers, innuendo, distortions, and fantasies. They've barely bothered to concoct the usual hysterical warnings of imaginary dangers if the wrong man gets elected or outlandish promises of innumerable benefits if the right one wins. When British reporters can't stay interested long enough to get hysterical, you're dealing with a seriously boring situation.

The hacks can't get around one glaring fact. The Conservatives haven't got a hope in hell and the Liberal Democrats have somewhat less.

Computer Industry News

Craig Reynolds' Technobriefs

SHIFT trike-bike: this is the coolest bit of down-to-earth mechanical engineering I've seen for a while. A vehicle for a kid in the age of transition from a tricycle to a bicycle. The SHIFT trike-bike is both and supports this traumatic childhood right of passage. See this AP article, a more in depth press release from Purdue and this on the international design prize it won.

Google maps traffic conditions: I saw a blog item about data on road conditions available as an RSS feed and wondered how long it would be until some wag merged this into Google Maps. Too late, as I read down the comments on the blog post, it had already been done. Here for example is a map of traffic conditions around the city of San Francisco. You can do normal Google Maps navigation, and you can click on the Alert and Incident icons to get more detail.

Passwords for passwords: almost any easy to remember password is bad practice. Its bad to use descriptive phrases, its really bad to reuse the same memorable password in several contexts, and it really really bad to write down your passwords. (I've been guilty of all three on occasion.) One solution is a secure personal password manager on your machine, basically a file of IDs, passwords and URLs -- locked with a master password. Mac OS X has Keyring, Mozilla/Firefox has Password Manager, etc. But those don't help if you are visiting Aunt Agatha in Ashtabula and you want to check your bank account from her computer. A very nice web-based solution was recently posted by Nic Wolff. It simply munges together the "master password" you enter along with a descriptive phrase (often the domain name of the site needing the password). It does this on the fly so does not require the encrypted master list of passwords back on your machine at home. See also this Password Strength Meter.

Space science: catching up with sci-fi: it made my blogability detector light up to notice two articles in the same day comparing recent advances in space science with science fiction: Ohio Lab Tests Space Propulsion System (" technology, something that existed solely in science-fiction novels a decade ago...") and Scientists: Life on Mars Likely ("...Not so long ago it was unthinkable for respectable scientists to talk about life on Mars. Such talk was best left to X-Files fans...") Also this week, the first direct visual observation of an exoplanet: Planet 'seen' around distant sun, and Twelve new moons for Saturn bringing it to a total of 46.

B&W now New and Improved! The image processing operation that converts a color image to gray scale ("black and white") would seem pretty well trod ground. After all this has existed in some sense since the invention of B&W photography in 1816. It turns out that clever people using computers can do better. The paper Color2Gray: Salience-Preserving Color Removal will appear at this summer's ACM SIGGRAPH conference. The authors convert color to gray scale in a way that preserves contrast and boundaries between visually distinct parts of the image, something a B&W photo cannot do. If you like this sort of thing, see these other SIGGRAPH preprints.

Technobits: Support DMCA Reform - Help Pass HR 1201! --- patent trolls --- RIAA seeking "Grossly Excessive Penalties" --- Business Inaction Could Lead to Cybersecurity Law --- Bringing the Internet To the Whole World (cf Negroponte's project: here and here) --- more city-wide WiFi? --- ultrawideband WiFi --- Google searches for quality not quantity --- Creating electricity with wind and wire.






Dern on Vanity Publishing, Dan Grobstein File

Publication here last week of a New York Times article on vanity publishing brought this response from published science-fiction author Daniel Dern to the published non-fiction author who writes this column:

If you're going to talk about "self-publishers" you should also include a note on the downside, namely the dubious-at-best "vanity press" who allege to be paying attention, but will, it turns out, not read submissions at all (carefully), as the Saga of Travis Tea's Atlanta Nights shows.

Dan Grobstein File

Ted Rall's take on Ann Coulter.

Inspired by my search for Tom Rutledge, Dan writes:

I used to go to a desktop publishing conference in Orlando run by "TypeWorld", a publication edited by Frank Romano who also conducted the seminar. This has to be early '80s. Frank is "the" authority on printing and printing history and is a distinguished professor at Rochester Institute of Tehncology "the" printing school. He put vendors up on a panel and had them answer apples to apples questions. There were programs that came up with all the features currently in desktop publishing such as moveable guides, pasteboard, pen tool, story boxes, graphic boxes. They just guessed wrong on the OS and disappeared without a trace. PageMaker and Quark took their interface and built their programs for Windows and killed the old typesetting/paste-up business. Just about anything that is published nowadays is done in Quark or InDesign. This guy invented the interface and he's disappeared.

I saw Frank Romano at a trade show about 15 years ago and asked him if he knew what had happened to the guy who wrote the program (whose name I remembered back then). He didn't know.

Also March 17, 2006 will the 50th anniversary of Fred Allen's death. I hope somebody does a story or documentary on him. It seems to me that today's comedy would be completely different without him. The sketch comedy on Saturday Night Live has his stamp of topical humor. The Mighty Carson Art Players is a rip-off of the Mighty Allen Art Players (which may come from something else -- I don't know). The opening monologue on the Tonight Show discusses what's in the news. The other radio comedians had a persona and got their jokes from the situations the star of the show got into.

Nat Hiken (who wrote Sgt. Bilko and Car 54 Where Are You) was Fred Allen's head writer before he left to go out on his own.


New York Times

  • OPINION | May 2, 2005
    Op-Ed Columnist: >From 'Gook' to 'Raghead'
    A soldier talks about his time in Iraq and the amount of gratuitous violence that was routinely inflicted by American soldiers on civilians.

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