Thursday, 31 July, 2003
I was perusing the July/August edition of Software Business Magazine this morning while I was toasting my breakfast bagel. The quality of writing and editing in this magazine is surprisingly bad—something I'd expect for a controlled-circulation (i.e. free) periodical, but not something that people are expected to pay up to $36 per year for. Every once in a while, though, you find a jewel in the trash. In this issue's Executive Strategy column, Brian Turchin describes the success of Mercury Interactive. Mercury Interactive is in the business of selling testing software, and is one of very few software companies that has sustained growth and profitability over the last seven years. The article describes four of the success strategies revealed by the current (since January 1997) CEO. Number two on the list of success strategies is "Have R&D personnel discover customer needs first-hand."
This has two primary benefits:
Rather than sitting back in their dark offices coding what they think is cool, developers meet with customers, see how customers use their products, and learn why customers find certain features important, hard to use, or superfluous. Programmers working on development tools don't necessarily need to do this because they're typically using the tools that they're creating. But a programmer working on a financial package or survey tool must understand first-hand what the customer is doing and how the customer is applying the solution that the developer is creating.
In many (most?) software companies, developers often have an adversarial relationship with Sales and Marketing. Sales complains that the developers aren't delivering what the customer wants, and Development complains that Sales wants stupid features that are too hard to implement and useless to customers. By putting developers on the front lines, they see what customers want and as a result are speaking the same language as the Sales and Marketing folks. This puts the developers in the enviable position of being treated like heroes by the Sales team because they've delivered exactly what the customers are asking for rather than a cool new useless feature.
Wouldn't it be nice if all software was developed that way?
Wednesday, 30 July, 2003
I bought a Microsoft Notebook Optical Mouse today so that I can more easily use the laptop on a day-to-day basis. The laptop has a single mouse/keyboard connector (i.e. you can plug in one or the other), but it has two USB ports. So I bought a USB mouse and I'll use the old Microsoft Natural keyboard that I've been using at the office for years.
The mouse came with a "Getting Started" guide: a 20-page (including cover) 4" by 4" stapled pamphlet. Of those 20 pages, three contain instructions for connecting, using, and cleaning the mouse. Three are blank (due to the way it's stapled), and five cover regulatory notices, support, and warranty. The remaining seven pages—41% of the printed pages—contain health warnings and a "Healthy Computing Guide" that has all kinds of tips on how to use the mouse "safely". In addition to the expected blurbs about proper postures and taking frequent breaks, this helpful guide also urges us to "Be Healthy:" eat a balanced diet, get adequate rest, exercise, learn to manage stress, etc. It's absurd. The Nanny State has gotten completely out of hand.
Monday, 28 July, 2003
This is one of my favorite cycling shirts. It pretty much sums up my conditioning over the past few years. I get on the bike in spring, get in reasonably good shape, maintain it throughout the summer, and then slack off in mid-October the first time I feel a chill when I go out to ride in the morning. I typically put on 10 or 15 pounds in the winter, and then lose it all by the end of the summer. This isn't particularly good, but that's the way it is.
As I was getting dressed to ride the other day, I realized that most men who see me wearing this shirt chuckle, ask me where I got it, and say "I gotta get me one of those." Most women don't comment at all, although quite a few roll their eyes and give me That Look. (If you've ever been married you know the look I'm talking about.) I don't usually make gender-based generalizations, but here I think I've stumbled on an essential difference between men and women: I've never met a woman who would wear a shirt that says she's old or fat.
Sunday, 27 July, 2003
I picked up the movie S1M0NE at Blockbuster on Friday. I remember seeing trailers for this last summer, but it was in and out of the theatres so fast that I didn't have time to see it. When it finally came out on DVD, it seemed to be rented the few times I remembered to look for it. The guy at the rental counter told me once that the movie didn't do well at the box office, but it's been a steady rental since it appeared on DVD.
To recap the movie: Al Pacino plays Victor Tranasky, an obscure movie director (both he and his movies are obscure) who's had his fill of temperamental actors. A nutcase computer hacker who loves those movies creates a virtual actor computer program. Then he dies and leaves his program to Victor. Victor uses the program to create Simone, who stars in his film and becomes an overnight sensation: doing video interviews, photo spreads in Playboy, etc. Initially, Victor is delighted and somewhat amused by the reclusive Simone's stardom, but soon it begins to affect his life. For example, in one scene a woman wants to sleep with Victor in an attempt "to be closer to Simone." It all unravels in the end, of course, but I'll not spoil it for you.
I thought the movie was brilliantly done. It's funny, and touching, and takes great big swipes at popular culture and the whole business of celebrity. Al Pacino's performance was dead on–I can't imagine anybody else being cast for the role. I can understand why the movie didn't do well in the theatres, though. It probably hits a little too close to home for many people, by pointing out (without actually saying it) how ridiculous it is to idolize movie stars and pop singers, and by making people realize just how easy it would be to do something like this: dupe the entire world by creating an entirely fictitious "person."
The movie really is quite good. I highly recommend it.
Friday, 25 July, 2003
This week has been a good test of the new laptop, as I've spent significant time writing, doing Web research, and coding. I had expected to need an external keyboard, mouse, and monitor in order to work comfortably, but I've found the laptop itself surprisingly useful. I'm still a little lost without a separate numeric keypad, and I didn't realize how much I depended on the menu key on my keyboard (adjacent to the right Ctrl key) until it wasn't available. The mouse nipple on the laptop (between the G and H keys) was much easier to get comfortable with than I thought. Overall, I'm quite happy with the machine. And fast? I'm reminded of 20 years ago when I bought Turbo Pascal to replace the Pascal MT+ that I'd been using on my Osborne I. The combination of more memory and a faster processor makes for an 80% decrease in compile times. Plus, I can listen to music and do some background processing without interfering with my development work. No major complaints.
On the subject of my old Osborne I, you can pick up a Dell Latitude C840 for under $1,800. The Osborne I cost $1,800 in 1981. This industry never ceases to amaze me. For 20 years, the computer I've wanted cost right around $2,000. Capabilities increase and prices stay the same. I wonder how long that can continue.
Wednesday, 23 July, 2003
Monday morning I reported to the Williamson County Court for my first ever experience with jury duty. It's a mystery to me how I've managed to miss out on this uniquely American experience for so many years. We went through all the preliminaries, including being paid a whopping $6.00 for my effort, and I was assigned to the District Court for a felony trial that was to start after lunch. But the case was settled over lunch (the defendant pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 20 years in prison), and I was re-assigned to the County Court with instructions to report back today.
I got another $6.00 this morning, and 18 of us were ushered into the court room, given instructions by the judge, and introduced to the attorneys who each were given 30 minutes to interview us. I found the entire process somewhat amusing. The attorneys say they're looking for people who are open-minded and can form their own opinions, but then they ask questions that are intended (both in content and delivery) to identify the prospective jurors who can most easily be lead by the nose. After a 15 minute recess, they called us all back and selected the six who were to sit on the jury. It's just as well that I wasn't selected, I guess. I have a low tolerance for the kind of crap the defendant's attorney was trying to shove down my throat.
Tuesday, 22 July, 2003
Since I posted my TriTryst pages, I've received a steady stream of messages about the game–mostly thanking me for posting the installation instructions for Windows 2000 and Windows XP. Most interesting to me is that all but a handful of the messages are from women who say things like "TriTryst is the only computer game I play," or "this game is my stress reliever, please help me get it working!"
Contrary to what many people think, women do play computer games. They're not terribly interested in first-person shooters, though, and many find resource management games like SimCity and Civilization too complex to be relaxing. The women I know like puzzle games and pinball. I see this not only in responses to TriTryst, but also in discussions I have from time to time. Women prefer games like Bejeweled, Collapse, and Freecell that are simple, easy to understand and play, and not particularly stressful. The problem for game developers is that women tend to find a game or two and play it for years—much different than teenage boys and men who play one first-person shooter after the other, always looking for the next coolest thing. Game developers have been trying to tap into "the women market" for years with female protagonists in FPS-type games. Instead, they should look at developing more engaging and more beautiful puzzle-type games.
Monday, 21 July, 2003
In the world of bicycling, this year's Tour de France is high drama. It's had more chills, spills, and thrills than some NASCAR seasons. The first stage featured a mass pile-up that ended the Tour for a few riders and broke Tyler Hamilton's collar bone (as I mentioned last week). One of the leading sprinters crashed out of the final sprint at the end of the third stage, as did another rider at the end of stage six. The Tour's leading sprinter abandoned the tour on the first hill of the mountains. Joseba Beloki, one of the primary contenders for the overall lead crashed spectacularly and quite painfully at about 45 MPH on a descent, breaking his leg and causing Lance Armstrong to ride across a rocky field in order to avoid becoming another casualty. Jan Ullrich, who was not expected to be a big contender this year, was amazing in the stage 12 time trial while Lance Armstrong dehydrated and lost over a minute and a half. Armstrong went down again today when a spectator's souvenir bag caught his handlebar, and his subsequent recovery and comeback to win the stage was amazing. And all through it, Tyler Hamilton slogs along with his broken collar bone, keeping himself right there in the top 10 overall.
Those of you who think bicycle racing lacks excitement should check out some of the stage reports and video clips. See my July 13 entry for links.
Sunday, 20 July, 2003
Unreasonable people have really got me down lately. Aggressive drivers, fat people suing fast food companies, smokers suing tobacco companies, illegal aliens complaining that they can't get medical care or social services, isolationists who want to keep us out of the world and the world away from us, Democrats who think the solution to society's problems is in my wallet, Republicans who think that the solution to societies problems is in my personal liberty, Libertarians who think the problem will go away if you ignore it, special interest groups of all kinds who insist that government protect "rights" that don't exist, people who wear too much perfume, parents who won't control their kids, etcetera, ad barfo. Recently I've come to believe that the world's population consists of a handful of decent people and a giant mob of inconsiderate, rude, pushy, loud, obnoxious idiots. Two years ago I found it funny and just ranted about it. A year ago I tried to ignore it because I had other things to worry about. Now I'm beginning to believe that my inability to just "brush off" the idiots is a major contributing factor to my frequent (although less frequent than a few months ago) bouts of depression (if that's the right term). I used to rant about things to blow off steam, but lately I've been too tired to work up a spit. It's a vicious cycle. Blech. I need to go live in a cave for a while. Or at least stop reading the paper and listening to the news.
Thursday, 17 July, 2003
It's like Christmas in July. My employer today gave each of us consultants a new toy: a Dell Latitude C840 laptop. It features a 2.4 GHz processor, 512 MB of RAM, 40 GB hard drive, built-in Ethernet and 802.11b wireless card, and a display that provides a crisp and clear picture at 1600 x 1200 resolution. They even pre-installed just about everything we need on them. The thing runs like a scalded cat! Visual Studio .NET is much more usable on it than on the 440 MHz Pentium 3 I've been using for the last four years. They even included a real good video card so I can play SimCity 4 the next time I need to go on a long trip.
I was kind of surprised to see how well this display does 1600 x 1200. I've been looking for a reasonably-priced flat-panel display to replace the monster 21" CRT I have at home, but it absolutely must support 1600 x 1200 or better resolution. Seeing the laptop's display, I would have expected to get a good desktop model for a lot less than I've been able to find. I've seen some models under $1,000 that say they support this resolution but their "optimum" is usually 1280 x 1024, and the higher resolutions look terrible. I'm willing to pay a bit of a premium for a flat panel display, but certainly not a 150% or 200% premium. I really like the Viewsonic VP2xx series products, but not for that price.
Sunday, 13 July, 2003
Today was the eighth stage of the 2003 Tour de France. This year marks the 100th anniversary of "Le Tour," although it's only the 90th running. The Tour was suspended during the world wars. I'll refrain from speculating on the outcome of a bicycle race through a war zone.
It's been an interesting week of racing, but I'll spare you the details. If you're interested, check out www.letour.com, www.lancearmstrong.com, www.velonews.com, or www.cyclingnews.com. All have very good race coverage. I especially like the web cast live coverage provided by Outdoor Life Network.
Okay, just two details:
- Lance Armstrong took the overall lead today, although he's yet to win a stage. Everybody thought he'd stamp his mark on Alpe d'Huez like he did two years ago, but he rode conservatively to save his strength. He doesn't have a commanding lead over the entire field, but he did manage to put some serious time between him and many of his rivals.
- Tyler Hamilton broke his collar bone in a big crash during the last kilometer of the first stage. Everybody thought that he would pull out of the race, but he's continued to ride every day. Today he managed to stay with Armstrong throughout the stage, and is now in 6th place overall. Some in the Tour have nicknamed him "Superman."
Saturday, 12 July, 2003
Debra and I watched The Terminator and Terminator 2 last night on VHS in preparation for this morning's trip to the theatre for the most recent episode. If nothing else, Terminator 3 definitely is a Terminator movie: lots of action and cool special effects with just enough plot and drama (but not too much) to make it a semi-coherent story. I'm real tolerant when it comes to action movies, but this one had a few major bloopers that should have been caught before being released to the general public.
Early on in the movie, TX (the most advanced Terminator type) controls a posse of emergency vehicles for the first big chase. How does she gain control? Nanotechnology, of course. Sorry, but I couldn't buy it. It still takes physical force to turn the wheel, and some kind of camera or other sensing device to see where they're going. Watching driverless police cars and ambulances hurtle through the streets was too much.
Late in the movie the two lead characters are going to fly a private plane (it looks like a Cessna 172) north to attack the Skynet central core. The airplane itself is prominently featured during the encounter in the hanger, and any pilot will notice and remember the airplane's tail number: N3035C. When they finally escape the hanger and take off, the camera zooms in on the airplane in flight: a blue and white Cessna 172 with tail number N3937F.
In one sense, these and similar bloopers are minor matters when compared with the major hurdle of time travel. But I can accept the possibility of time travel for the sake of an escapist action movie as long as ordinary everyday things work like I know and expect them to. I won't say that it ruined the movie for me–I still enjoyed it–but these things did jar me out of the fantasy. And that's something no story (regardless of the medium) should ever do.
Friday, 11 July, 2003
The New York Times ran an article today reporting that some food manufacturers are trying to revamp their offerings to include more healthy foods. Or, to be more correct, foods with smaller portions, less fat, and fewer calories. The article makes the case that these companies are trying to stave off a barrage of lawsuits. On this, I'd have to agree. But the article crosses the line between journalism and advocacy, and verges on big business bashing. When I read crap like this I wonder how the New York Times ever got the reputation for being the source for news.
There's no doubt that there's an obesity problem in this country. And there's absolutely no doubt in my mind, or in the mind of any thinking person, where the responsibility for that problem lies. That's right, squarely on the shoulders of people who choose to overeat, and parents who refuse to control what their children eat. Labeling food and grading products according to their nutritional value will have the same effect on this problem that warning labels did on cigarettes: none. People will continue to eat too much or the wrong kinds of foods, refuse to exercise, and blame "big food," the government, and genetics for the ill effects of their irresponsible lifestyles. Next thing you know, the California legislature will pass a 50 cent tax on any meal that contains more than 10 grams of fat. After they've collected that for a few years and people continue to get fatter the State will begin the process of extorting money from fast food companies, ostensibly to pay health care costs for the millions of uninsured fat asses who somehow have enough money to eat at McDonald's but can't afford to buy healthy food. It sickens me to see this playing out.
Wednesday, 09 July, 2003
Time again for my annual credit line increase. Every year, courtesy of my credit card company, I get an unsolicited increase in my credit limit. Two years ago (see July 18, 2001) they raised my limit to the extent that I could replace my truck if I wanted to. This year it's only a few hundred dollars less than the annual salary for my first programming job. I just don't understand why they do these things. I use the card for convenience, not for credit. I pay the balance every month. There is no evidence that I'm going to start spending irresponsibly, and yet the credit card company keeps trying to entice me. I still haven't figured this one out.
Monday, 07 July, 2003
When Microsoft released Windows XP, they included a new licensing feature. You have to activate the software before you can use it. When it's activated, the software examines the system on which it's installed, makes note of the configuration, and registers with Microsoft's site. (Yes, I know that's somewhat simplified.) In any case, if you change your system configuration (upgrade the hard drive or video card, for example), Windows will tell you that you need to re-activate. If you do that more than once or twice, the software won't automatically re-activate—you need to talk to a Microsoft representative to tell them that you aren't installing on a second machine. I have two friends who regularly make changes to systems, one of whom hates this new licensing scheme, and one who thinks it's great. I thought their contrasting viewpoints were interesting.
Ken is a gamer. He's always upgrading his system, and having to call Microsoft to re-activate the software whenever he switches out the video card drives him nuts. He's gone back to Windows 2000 because of it. He'd love to use XP, but the licensing is just too much of a burden.
Dave works for a company that sells and services computers. He configures computers for clients, maintains the office machines, and is always testing new hardware. He's on the phone with Microsoft on a regular basis to re-activate a license on one machine or another. And yet, he doesn't mind. Why? Because it keeps him and his business out of trouble. With the new licensing scheme, there's no way that he can be accused of installing a single copy of Windows XP on multiple computers. That's a big win for him, because he's "inherited" clients from integrators who played fast and loose with licensing previous versions of Windows and left him to clean up the mess.
What do I think? In the three years I've had this particular system, I haven't opened the box once. The new licensing scheme would be no burden at all as far as I'm concerned. I don't think. I'll let you know once I install this copy of Windows 2003 on my server.
Sunday, 06 July, 2003
Back in April I mentioned the possibility that some spam messages are encoded communications sent to millions of people in order to mask the identity of the receiver and possibly the sender. Here's another possibility: spam as a method of destabilizing society. As more people get email and everybody gets more spam, we're wasting huge amounts of time and effort deleting it, blocking it, and bitching about it. The cyber terrorists who have hatched this evil plot are smart enough not to bomb the system with unmanageable amounts of spam right off, but rather are slowly increasing the amount.
Dropped in a pan of boiling water, a frog will do whatever it can to get out. But if you put the frog in a pan of warm water and slowly increase the heat, the frog will stay there and die. The spam terrorists are using the same technique—slowly increasing the amount of spam until it makes a serious dent in our productivity. They know that if they bombed our systems with unmanageable amounts of spam right off, we'd do something right now to prevent it. But by starting light and slowly increasing the amount of spam, they can disrupt us for a long time, and make it very difficult for people to agree on when enough is enough.
I just have to come up with reasonable (even if far-fetched) reasons for the increase in spam. There just can't be enough stupid people buying penis enlargement pills or human growth hormone to make even the low cost of spam worthwhile. Can there?
Saturday, 05 July, 2003
A few fitness tidbits for your consideration:
- Active people have 25 percent fewer colds than couch potatoes.
- Several species of small animals live longer if they regularly consume fewer calories than usual. Recent studies show that this might also be true of humans. Yes, going hungry once in a while might be good for you.
- A recent Mayo Clinic study shows that people who have a positive outlook on life are generally healthier than people who have a dark outlook. I'd like to get more information on this one. I wonder if the study really shows that unhealthy people have a dark outlook on life. That is, which is the cause and which is the effect?
- Finally, people who have short tempers might be more sensitive to pain. Their bodies produce low levels of endrogenous opioids (like beta-endorphin), the brain chemicals that suppress pain.
Friday, 04 July, 2003
While I was in Arkansas, my only Internet access was through my brother's Arkansas.net dialup account. I never encountered a busy signal, and the connection was usually at 50,667 bps–apparently a good connection speed for dialup access. I only encountered two problems:
Something—either the ISP or some software—would disconnect me without warning if I didn't refresh a Web page every 15 minutes or so. This normally wouldn't be a problem since very few Web pages take more than a few minutes to read, and even then I wouldn't mind having to reconnect after taking that long to read a page. But the silly thing would disconnect me even if I was chatting over Yahoo. Now what's that all about? I started setting a 10-minute timer and refreshing a Web page whenever it went off.
The other problem is Web sites. They're too big. Yahoo, CNN, MSNBC, Slashdot, and many other popular pages are way too big for dialup access. And yet, dialup users make up a majority of users on the Internet. I'd sure like to see Web site designers make pages for people who access them, rather than for the people who have local Ethernet connections. (I'm one to talk. It looks like this page would take 30 seconds to come down at 56K bps.)
Thursday, 03 July, 2003
Off on another trip, hopefully my last one for a while. Debra and I are leaving today for Sacramento, where we will meet with various aunts, uncles, and cousins from my mom's side of the family for a reunion on Saturday. I won't have a computer with me. No email and no Internet. How will I survive?
Wednesday, 02 July, 2003
Today I went to the cardiologist for a stress echo cardiogram. This is the last of the tests to see if I have the same problem that killed my dad 11 years ago and caused my brother to have heart surgery. I showed up at the appointed time and met the technician who took me into the back room. While she was shaving a half dozen or so areas of my chest in preparation for the EKG electrodes, she asked me a few questions about my own assessment of my health and explained the procedure. She then had me lay down, and took some sonar pictures of my heart beating while I was at rest (heart rate about 60 beats per minute). By comparing the heart's function under load (i.e. at a high heart rate) with its function while I'm at rest, they can determine if there are any significant blockages.
Here's the fun part. The doctor came in, turned on the treadmill, and I started walking. He kept me talking while I was walking; mostly, I think, so that he could tell if I started to get into trouble. He also was watching the EKG during this time to see if anything abnormal showed up. Every three minutes the treadmill would speed up and the incline would increase. It doesn't take very many increases to have you jogging up a pretty steep hill at a reasonably fast pace, and after 12 minutes I was ready to quit. No wonder, as I found out later. When I'm riding my bike I make it a point to keep my heart rate below 180. My heart rate was 186 beats per minute when I came off that treadmill.
It's almost a disappointment to go through all that effort just to find out that nothing's wrong with me. At least, the stress echo cardiogram didn't reveal any problems. Doc says it's about 90 percent accurate. That is, in about 10 percent of cases there are problems that the test won't reveal. However, given the other test results, my lifestyle, and my general good health, he's confident that I'm okay. I concur, and I suspect my insurance company wouldn't be too happy with more tests, either.
I'm a little disappointed, too, that they couldn't give me an AVI or other digital picture of my heart working. Heck, pregnant women get sonar pictures of their babies, don't they?