Monday, 29 August, 2005

Toastmasters club speech contest

Toastmasters International is an organization that is dedicated to helping people improve their public speaking skills.  There are over 10,000 clubs worldwide, and it's likely that if you're in even a small city there's a club near you.  The clubs provide a friendly and helpful environment where individuals can practice speaking, listening, and thinking effectively--all essential skills no matter what your field of endeavor.

I suppose I'm better than average at speaking in front of a group, but I know that I can use some improvement.  Debra and I visited the local Toastmasters club last month and joined after our second visit.  The following week the vice president of education asked for participants in the club's speech contest and, being the kind of person who jumps in feet first, I thought I'd give it a go.  So tonight I competed in the humorous speech category and in Table Topics--short (one to two minute) impromptu speaking.

I learned an important lesson tonight in knowing the audience.  My speech was The Military School Way, a humorous look at my first day in military school.  It got a few good laughs, but the speech wasn't right for the audience.  That speech is appropriate at one of my school reunions or perhaps among a group of former or current members of the military, but most people couldn't relate.  My speech depends on the audience having experienced the military way of life.  The topic was appropriate, but the speech itself was not.

It came as no surprise to me, after seeing the other humorous speech and seeing the audience's reaction to mine, that I did not win the contest.  Nevertheless, I did reasonably well, managed not to fumble too much, and learned a lot while preparing, practicing, and delivering the speech.

Table Topics is an altogether different kind of speaking.  The idea is to speak for one to two minutes on the topic presented to you.  You have no time to prepare.  For the contest, all of the contestants went out of the room and were called back in one at a time and asked the same question:  "What is the first thing you know?"  My answer, in brief, was "hunger."  I obviously don't have a transcript of my answer, although one of the club members video taped the entire contest and I might transcribe it here after I've viewed it.  I managed to place second in the field of four contestants.

I'm very happy with my performance in both categories.  I didn't win, but I made a good showing and enjoyed myself.  If you're interested in improving your public speaking, I strongly recommend that you visit a local Toastmasters club.  They're always happy to have visitors.  You can find a club near you by visiting the Find a Club page at toastmasters.org.

Saturday, 27 August, 2005

Prior planning saves the day

We shipped our first milestone release last night, so I got to think about something other than 3D graphics editing today.  My ham radio emergency services group (WC-ARES) is scheduled to take part in assisting a nearby county with some communications needs on Monday, so I spent part of the day getting all my stuff ready.  One part of the preparations involved programming the frequencies that we'll be using into my radios so that I'm ready to go first thing Monday morning.

It's a good thing I went through this today.  One of the frequencies I had to program was 442.225 MHz, and neither of my radios would let me because their frequency step sizes were set to 20 KHz.  The closest I could get was 442.220.  I had to dig out the radio manuals and figure out how to set the frequency step.  If I had not prepared today, I would have arrived at the site Monday totally unable to participate in the exercise.

As a bonus, I threw the radio manuals into my equipment bag.  There's nothing like being out in the field, wading through eight levels of menus on an itty bitty LCD screen, trying to figure out how to make a radio do something that I know it can do.

My aerospace instructor used to remind us often of the seven Ps.  Proper Preflight Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance.  Minus the "Preflight," it's true in almost everything.

Monday, 22 August, 2005

WordStar's commands were mnemonic?

While pondering mnemonic devices again this morning, I remembered WordStar's (in)famous command set.  Depending on who you talked with, WordStar's command keys were either the greatest thing since the invention of the microchip, or they were cumbersome, non-intuitive, and generally the worst possible user interface ever devised.  I tend to lean towards the former opinion.  Wikipedia has a reasonably good discussion of WordStar and its user interface, including the mnemonic nature of commands.  It's helpful to look at your keyboard and envision the "diamond" when reading about the command set.

I contend that the cursor movement commands served as mnemonics for physical memory.  Ctrl+D moved one space to the right.  Ctrl+S one space to the left.  To move an entire word, the commands were Ctrl+F and Ctrl+A.  Keys further from the D/S "center" moved the cursor a further distance.  No, Ctrl+E to move up a line doesn't make a whole lot of sense in the mind, but it makes perfect sense to a touch-typist's fingers after only an hour or so of practice.  To this day, I can navigate a document faster using the WordStar diamond than I can by taking my right hand off the home row to find the cursor movement keys.  Ctrl+Q, Ctrl+C goes a whole lot faster than Ctrl+find the End key wherever it is on this keyboard and then relocate my right hand on the home row.

While I'm on the subject of WordStar, I've heard a story that I haven't been able to verify.  When Phillipe Kahn was asked why he chose to use the WordStar command set in the first version of Sidekick, he said that he asked a lot of people for their editor preferences.  Almost everybody had a different first preference (back then it could have been Emacs, vi, Word Perfect, WordStar, Brief, Leading Edge Word Processor, or who knows what else).  But almost everybody he asked knew WordStar and named it as their second preference.  I don't know if it's true, but it smacks of truth.  Certainly every microcomputer programmer I knew back in the late 80s was proficient with WordStar.

If it is true, it's a great bit of applied research:  the command set might not be everybody's favorite, but everybody in the target audience would be able to use it without having to learn any new keystrokes.  Pretty darned effective if you ask me.

Sunday, 21 August, 2005

Why mnemonics work for me

I was surprised to learn that some educated people discount the benefit of mnemonics.  "How can it be easier if it's more stuff to learn," is a common argument.  Invariably, these people don't quite grasp the intent of a mnemonic, which is to serve as a small key that unlocks the memory of the detailed information.

There's no doubt that memorizing the mnemonic and the information that it unlocks takes more space in the memory.  But that's not a problem--the human brain has way more storage capacity than anybody's ever used.  At least, it seems to.  The problem isn't storage space, but rather retrieval.  And often we "know" some piece of information, even know where it's stored.  We can retrieve it, but we can't decode it.  It's the "tip of the tongue" syndrome.

For example, everybody learns the names of the five Great Lakes in elementary school geography.  But for the life of me I couldn't reliably recite all of their names.  That is, until I remembered the word "HOMES" and attached it to the Great Lakes file in my head.  Now, if somebody asks me the names of the Great Lakes, I remember HOMES and can recite:  Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior.  The same happens if I have to remember the colors of the rainbow:  Roy G Biv becomes red, orange, yellow, etc.

Other mnemonics aren't quite as easy, and doubters just don't understand how I can say that "Do Green Snails Have Slippery Backs, Doc" is easier to remember than the names of Snow White's Seven Dwarfs.  I remember the names of the dwarfs, but I can't reliably recall them without first picturing those green snails and thinking "Do, Dopey.  Green, Grumpy.  Snails, Sneezy.  Have, Happy.  Slippery, Sleepy.  Backs, Bashful.  Doc."  Another good one is "Kings Play Chess On Fine Green Silk" to remind me of plant and animal classification order:  Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species.

With sufficient usage, the mnemonic becomes unnecessary.  For example, I ended up using ITU phonetics often enough in military school, as a pilot, and in ham radio that I no longer have to rely on that goofy mnemonic rhyme that my friends and I made up more than 30 years ago.  I can just rattle them off.  But I don't have to recite the names of the Seven Dwarfs often enough to dispense with the green snails.

The reason the green snails and the green silk work for me is because they paint an image in my head.  When asked for the names of the dwarfs I can "see" somebody asking a doctor if green snails have slippery backs.  The dwarfs' names by themselves just don't paint that picture.  Granted, it's more to remember.  But storage is virtually unlimited.  Might as well use the space for a more efficient indexing scheme.

Saturday, 20 August, 2005

Spam Rant #273

While I'm on the subject of spam (see yesterday's entry), today I started receiving a type of message that I haven't seen before:  pitches to buy the complete season or the entire library of a particular TV series on DVD.  And we're not talking about M*A*S*H or Saturday Night Live or some other series that I might be interested in.  No, they're trying to sell me DVDs of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, a series that I vaguely remember seeing advertisements for but certainly never watched.  The other shows they're offering are even more obscure.  I just don't get it.

I've also noticed that the porn spam has pretty much leveled off and gotten much more amateurish.  Rather than sending me a few pictures and a slickly-worded (as slick as can be expected, considering the message) pitch, I just get plain text with a bunch of deliberate misspellings designed to fool brain dead spam filters (Thunderbird's being one such, unfortunately) and promises of "the best hardcore action on the net!"  Oh, my aching delete finger.  I'm still getting dozens of pitches designed for life insurance and annuity brokers and every day wonder how I managed to get on that list.  And I never even inquired about getting a 3.2% home morgtage (no, I didn't misspell that), but I keep getting messages from people who say that my application has been approved.

I honestly do not understand spam.  I can't imagine that there is anybody dumb enough to fall for one of those cheap loan deals, penis enlargement pills, or any of the dozens of other scams that come through my Inbox every day.  It just boggles the mind.

Yes, I've been in a bit of a ranting mood lately, haven't I?

Friday, 19 August, 2005

Thunderbird's Spam Filter

I'm becoming increasingly annoyed by Thunderbird's spam filter (see also August 5) to the point where I'm seriously considering junking Thunderbird and using my email provider's Web mail interface as my email client.  At least the Web client's spam filter appears to learn.  Thunderbird's filter is catching from ten to twenty percent of my spam, making the filter almost useless to me.  It's certainly not worth the trouble of marking 100+ messages per day as Junk and then having to delete them from the Junk folder.  I've said before that I don't enjoy handling a message more than once.  As it stands, I'd be better off letting all of the messages through and just hand deleting them.

I do have reservations about using the Web client for email.  First, I won't be able to review or reply to messages when I'm offline.  No more downloading messages from the server right before getting on an airplane and then drafting replies at 35,000 feet.  Truth to be told, that's not a major problem now, as I'm not traveling much these days.  But I do like to review mail messages offline from time to time.  I also don't fully trust my hosting provider not to lose my email.  Although I've stopped saving every significant (i.e. non-spam) message I receive, I still do archive quite a bit of stuff.  I'd hate for Sectorlink to burp up my email again some day and not have a recent backup.

And, as I pointed out in Why I don't like browser apps, I have many reasons for disliking Web client interfaces.  I probably could get used to the Web client for email, but I just know that every time I used it I'd be wishing for something better.

By the way, I have used POPFile.  I didn't particularly like its browser interface, either, and it did some very strange things when I was using it with PocoMail on my Windows machine and also with Evolution on my Linux machine.  I came to distrust POPFile.  Perhaps I should give it another look, but I really dislike the idea of putting another program between my email client and the mail server.  It's just two more communications channels and more possible ways for things to break.

I like the idea of Thunderbird's trainable spam filter, but the implementation is lacking.  Or perhaps I'm doing something wrong.  Tonight I'm going to download and install the latest updated version of Thunderbird and reset my usage data to see if I can re-train the filter.  I hope that fixes the problem.

Wednesday, 17 August, 2005

Emotional Vampires

While I'm on the subject of emotional immaturity, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention what I call emotional vampires--people who purposely do and say things that are intended to elicit emotional responses from their victims.  Emotional vampires are skilled manipulators who can spot emotionally immature individuals and turn them inside out, usually by lavishing false praise to bolster the victim's mood before thorougly demolishing the person with a single well-placed insult and reveling in the raw emotional response.  I suspect that most people have encountered a fair number of emotional vampires over the years.

The curious thing about these emotion suckers is that they are as emotionally immature as their victims.  They appear incredibly secure as long as they have somebody to torment, but in a group of emotionally secure individuals the emotional vampire gets frustrated.  Then he gets angry and starts to bleed emotion like a spoiled three year old throwing a temper tantrum.  Few things are as pathetic as a grown man or woman getting visibly upset because their childish manipulations are ignored.

I know that it's terribly irresponsible of me, but from time to time I get a deliciously evil sort of satisfaction by playing the unwitting victim, letting one of these idiots start his game and reacting as expected to the lavish praise and condescending compliments.  With just a little practice it's incredibly easy to see when the manipulator is about to move in for the kill.  When the intended coup de grĂ¢ce is finally delivered, a cold stare and a calmly delivered mild insult results in a blank look followed by a stream of screaming incoherence.  That's the time to walk away chuckling.  I know it's childish, but it's fun sometimes!

The responsible way to handle an emotional vampire is to ignore him.  If you're lucky he'll go somewhere else.

Tuesday, 16 August, 2005

Emotional Terrorism

In his posting of August 1, Fr. Sam Bassett describes what he calls Emotional Blackmail--a whining "don't say that because it hurts my feelings" comment that one would expect from a 4 year old throwing a tantrum, but not from an adult who is participating in a supposedly logical and reasoned discussion.  If you encounter this behavior, your best course of action is to halt the conversation and walk away.  There is no reasoning with some people.

A more blatant type of emotional blackmail that I call emotional terrorism has bceome much more commonplace and even socially acceptable to the point where it's difficult to go through the day without encountering it.  I call it the "you made me" argument-- "you offended me," or "you make me feel as though".  These and similar statements are used, often unconsciously, to shift emotional responsibility from the person feeling the emotion to some other person or thing.  It's the adult equivalent of blaming and ranks right up there with "the devil made me do it" on the scale of credibility, and leads to comical incidents like this.  Or they would be comical if people didn't take them so seriously.

Social commentators often remark on the decline of personal responsibility for individual actions, but I never hear them mention the almost complete lack of responsibility for reactions.  It's as though emotional outbursts are forgiven or even encouraged and the person or thing to which the individual is reacting is somehow to blame for the results.  No, No, and No!.  We are responsible for our reactions just as we are responsible for our actions.  Emotions are supposed to be input to be considered, not triggers that precipitate immediate, unthinking action.

The key point that most people these days seem to be missing is that they have the choice to be offended or not.  It's up to the individual to decide if the weather, the stock market, or somebody's comment affects their happiness.  Emotional maturity, a trait that is sadly lacking in most adults, involves understanding that your happiness is up to you, that if you feel offended it's because you choose to feel offended.  "You made me..." becomes "I feel offended when you say that because..."  That places the responsibility for the feeling squarely where it belongs, and allows for reasoned discussion of emotional issues that otherwise would devolve quickly into screaming tantrums and physical violence.

Not so simple?  Try this exercise.  Picture yourself walking down the street, minding your own business, when a heavily tattooed individual who looks like a human pincusion with orange, pink, and green hair steps in front of you and says, "you're the ugliest person I've ever seen."  I'm betting that all but the most insecure of individuals would find that at least mildly humorous, and many of us would burst out laughing.  But now imagine your spouse saying the same thing to you in all seriousness.  Only the emotionally crippled would be unaffected by that.  The reason for the difference in reactions has nothing to do with what was said.  The responsibility lies within you, because you value one person's opinion and find the other's irrelevant.  I will grant that a spouse who says something like that is unimaginably cruel, but that doesn't shift responsibility for your reaction.

I'm not saying that it's easy.  It's difficult sometimes to accept the responsibility for the way that you feel and the way that you react to people and events.  But it's the only way to live in a civilized world.

Sunday, 14 August, 2005

Random Laughs

  • Somebody got my site with the search term "what does foxtrot uniform charlie kilo mean?"  I wonder if this person found the ITU Phonetics and made the connection.
  • One of the A-list blogs I ran across on TTLB is Go Fug Yourself.  Don't be put off by the name.  It's really not a porn site.  Here we have two women playing fashion critic for the stars.  They have some very funny things to say about some of the hideous clothing worn by people who should know better.  The women are mean, but their victims deserve it.  Oh, and they also give credit where credit is due.  Salma Hayek is just ... wow.
  • Jeff Duntemann posted the recipe for Jeff & Carol's Vague Buffalo Spaghetti Sauce, in which he manages to poke fun at recipes, pretentious wine snobs, bad science fiction, and a whole host of other things while explaining how to make what sounds like a delicious spaghetti sauce.  I'll have to give this one a try.
  • Yet another funny from Jeff:  the most frequently stolen traffic sign in Austria.
  • NK News is a searchable database of North Korean propaganda.  This site supposedly has nearly every article posted on the Korean Central News Agency's Web site, in English and Spanish, going all the way back to 1966.  I don't know if it's real, but it was worth a few chuckles and a howler or two.

The blogosphere (it's an ugly coinage, but nobody asked me) is big.  Huge.  So big that I suspect nobody really knows its full extent.  Technorati, an acknowledged leading aggregator site, says that it is currently tracking about 15 million blogs.  Last year it was tracking 3.5 million.  Last year in How Big is the Blogosphere, I posted links to some of the other aggregators.  A new one since then is Rojo, another RSS aggregator and online community.  There are dozens more.

All of the blog community sites claim to have the most recent or most pertinent information indexed.  You couldn't prove it by me.  For example, if I search Technorati for "jim mischel," I get 19 results.  Not one of them points to my blog.  And I've submitted my blog to Technorati many times.  Heck, I even had that silly Technorati logo on my page for six months.  If I search for "mischel", three or four of my blog entries from last year show up on the last page of 150 different links.  Searching for "duntemann" returns 44 entries, none of which point to Jeff Duntemann's site.  I've seen similar results on Feedster, blo.gs, and others.  These guys might be doing a decent job of indexing the A-list blogs, but they're crap when it comes to anything else.  I'd be a little more understanding if a Google search for "mischel" didn't return my site on the first page of results.

Recently I ran across The Truth Laid Bare (TTLB), which is widely regarded as the definitive blog ranking system.  I'm not sure yet exactly how it works, but it appears to use a combination of "pings" from other Web sites, and maybe some text scanning to track which blogs are getting hit how often, and who is linking to whom.  TTLB rates blogs in the ecosystem, using such names as Insignificant Microbe, Crawly Amphibians, Large Mammals, and Higher Beings.  I thought I'd see about my ranking, so I've submitted my blog and have included an indicator of my status over on the left navigation pane.  As of this writing I'm an Insignificant Microbe.

If you take a look at TTLB's ecotraffic page, you'll get an idea of how blog traffic is concentrated.  Fewer than 10 of the tracked sites garner more than 100,000 visits per day.  Only the top 50 get more than 10,000 daily visits.  Only 450 get around 1,000 visits per day and fewer than 2,500 of the tracked blogs get even 100 visits per day.  Blog traffic is highly concentrated towards the A-list blogs, most of which appear to be (gag!) political commentary.

One of the reasons I'm trying this experiment is to see how many actual blog page views I get.  My RSS feed counts for almost one half of the daily visits to the site.  I want to see how many people are actually viewing my blog pages.  I guess we'll find out if my TTLB Ecosystem ranking increases to Multicellular Microorganism.

When I first heard about it I thought it was a joke.  Planned Parenthood Golden Gate (San Francisco) has created an eight minute animated cartoon featuring a Superhero for Choice.  You'll need QuickTime to play it.

This brilliantly executed bit of propaganda opens at a news stand on a street in San Francisco.  The headlines on the papers announce "Safe is Sexy."  A woman speaks, addressing the camera and giving us the basic Planned Parenthood speil about safe sex and "a woman's right to choose."  It's a little lopsided, but that's to be expected.  And then the fun begins.

The woman turns into a superhero, complete with skin-tight body suit, mask, and flying equipment.  First stop, a neighborhood street where a Snidely Whiplash-looking and sounding character is telling a group of youngsters (they look to be maybe 13 years old) that the only way to prevent pregnancy is abstinence.  The kids, who have obviously been "educated," let the character know that there are other ways to prevent pregnancy.  But when he mentions sexually transmitted diseases their response is "We don't plan on getting an STD."  Then the superhero shows up and drowns Snidely in a trash can filled with ... well, you need to watch it.  I'm still wondering how the kids plan to prevent STDs.

I think you get the picture, so I won't go through the entire cartoon.  Anti-abortion demonstrators (they're not called "pro life") are zombies straight out of Night of the Living Dead, and the Senator is a Bible-thumping Moral Majority stereotype who doesn't believe in the Bill of Rights.  Everybody who disagrees with the message presented is White and warped, and everybody who agrees is Black, bright, and happy.  The cartoon paints every abortion opponent as an unthinking abstinence absolutist (the Justice scales, for example, are titled "Choice" and "Ignorance") and implies that "a woman's right to choose" is explicitly guaranteed in the Bill of Rights.

This is propaganda at its best and comes at almost no political cost to Planned Parenthood.  It's just one more thing for the organization's opponents to raise a stink about, and it gives the supporters one more thing to gloat over.  For most people, it's just another act in the circus.

What bothers me most about the cartoon is the idea of it being presented to children (early teens and younger) as educational.  There is nothing educational about it.  The message presented is "do whatever you like as long as you have your safe sex kit from Planned Parenthood."  That's not the message I would have expected from Planned Parenthood, an organization that actually does a credible job of counseling people on reproductive issues.

Thursday, 11 August, 2005

Losing weight by eating at McDonald's?

McDonald's just has to be loving all the attention they're getting.  First some goofball spends 30 days eating nothing but McDonald's food and then making a movie about how it made him sick and he put on 30 pounds.  Super Size Me has to be one of the dumbest "documentary" films ever made.

Now people are setting out to prove that it's possible to eat healthily at McDonald's.  Merab Morgan of Raleigh, NC spent 90 days eating only at McDonald's and lost 37 pounds.  Another woman, Soso Whaley of Kensington, NH, spent three 30-day periods eating at McDonalds.  She dropped 36 pounds, from 175 to 139, and has made her own film, "Me and Mickey D" about it.  Get full details from the AP story People Try to Lose Weight at McDonald's.

A shocking revelation:  it's not the products on the menu, but rather the choices one makes from the menu that determine whether eating fast food will be harmful to your health.  Can we put the "evil corporations making us fat" arguments to rest now?  Please?

Tuesday, 09 August, 2005

Rubbadukky cycling sock

I'm in an odd mood today.  Thought I'd post a picture of my favorite cycling sock.  I wore this pair of socks out after a few years and haven't seen them in the store again.  Nor have I been able to find them on the Web.  Debra got me something similar last year, but they don't fit quite as well and they don't get near the comments that these did.

(You can click on the picture to get a larger image.)

Monday, 08 August, 2005

Now what day is that?

In the chapter on remembering numbers, the authors of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Improving Your Memory provide an interesting use for memorizing a 12-digit number:  a "first Sundays" list.  The idea is that if you remember the day of the first Sunday in each month, then you can easily determine which day a particular date is on.  For example, this year the first Sunday in October is on the 2nd.  If I wanted to figure out what day my birthday (October 27) lands on, all I have to do is start adding weeks.  The second Sunday is the 9th, then the 16th, and 23rd.  Four days later is the 27th.  So my birthday is on Thursday this year.

That's a pretty cool trick, but I'd have to memorize a first Sundays list for each year.  Taking into account leap years, there are 14 possible 12-digit numbers that I'd have to memorize.  And then I'd have to remember which one goes with which year.  That seems like way too much work.  There is a better solution.

If you know what day is the first Sunday of January, then you can easily compute the first Sunday of each month by memorizing only two 12-digit numbers:  one for leap years and one for non-leap years.  The concept is very simple:  you know that if the first Sunday in January is the 2nd, then the first Sunday in February will be the 6th.  Every time.  And if January 4th is the first Sunday in the year, then February 1 will be Sunday.  If you know the first Sunday of the year and whether or not it's a leap year, then you can determine all of the other first Sundays by simple modulo-7 arithmetic.

Below are the first Sundays lists for 2004 (leap year) and 2005 (not a leap year).  The first number for each month is the date of the first Sunday in that month.  The second number is the offset from the first Sunday in January.  I'll explain below how to use the offset.

Month20042005
Jan4/02/0
Feb1/46/4
Mar7/36/4
Apr4/03/1
May2/51/6
Jun6/25/3
Jul4/03/1
Aug1/47/5
Sep5/14/2
Oct3/62/0
Nov7/36/4
Dec5/14/2

In 2004 the first Sunday in March fell on the 7th, as shown in the table.  You get 7 by adding 3 to the first Sunday of January (the 4th).  This gets a little tricky with February, for example, when the first Sunday was the 1st.  What do you add to 4 in order to get 1?  You add 4, of course, and then divide by 7 and take the remainder.  That is, 4+4 = 8.  Divided by 7 gives you a remainder of 1.

In order to calculate the first Sundays in any year, then, you need to memorize the offsets (the numbers after the slash) in the table above for each month.  Then, if you know the first Sunday of January, you can easily determine the first Sunday of any month in the year.  If you're willing to remember one other rule, all you have to memorize is one 12-digit number.  The rule is:  if it's a leap year, then subtract one from the offset for each month after March.  Take a look at the offsets:

Normal Year:0 4 4 1 6 3 1 5 2 0 4 2
Leap Year:0 4 3 0 5 2 0 4 1 6 3 1

For months after February, the offsets for the leap year are one less than the offsets for the normal year.

I'll leave the memorization of the number 044163152042 as an exercise for the reader.  You might want to consider remembering "January 0, February 4, March 4, April 1, May 6, etc."  That way you can go straight to a particular month without having to scroll through the digits in your head.

Update 08/09:  Something else I realized while I was experimenting with this technique is that you can use it to work backwards to the first Sunday in January.  For example, today is Tuesday, August 9.  So Sunday was the 7th--the first Sunday in the month.  I know from the memorized table of offsets that I add 5 to the date of the first Sunday in January to get the first Sunday in August.  So if I subtract 5 from the first Sunday in August I end up with the first Sunday in January--the 2nd.  From there I can just use the system as described above.

The result is that you don't need to remember the first Sunday of the year.  All you have to remember is the offset table and the "subtract one" rule for leap years.

And one more thing:  That all works fine for the current year, but what about next year?  Last year?  10 years from now?  It's a little more difficult to do in your head, but the idea is simple.  In a normal (i.e. non-leap) year, the first Sunday of next year is the day before the first Sunday this year.  So, for example, this year the first Sunday fell on January 2.  Next year it's January 1.  In a leap year, the first Sunday of the next year is two days prior.  In 2004, the first Sunday was January 4.  So to compute the first Sunday for the year 2009, you would do the successive subtractions:

First Sunday of 2005 is January 2
subtract one to get the first Sunday of 2006:  January 1
subtract one to get the first Sunday of 2007: January 7  (a little modulo-7 arithmetic there)
subtract one to get the first Sunday of 2008: January 6
subtract two (2008 is a leap year) to get the first Sunday of 2009: January 4

Working backwards is similar, but you add.  And remember on leap years you add going into the year (i.e. from 2009 to 2008, you add two).

By the way, that technique works for computing the day of the week for any date, but the leap year rule is applied differently depending on whether the date is before or after March 1.

Saturday, 06 August, 2005

Tax free weekends and school funding

This weekend is a Sales Tax Holiday in the state of Texas.  State sales tax will not be collected on certain items of clothing sold between August 5 and August 7.  It seems that the primary purpose is to allow parents to make "back to school" purchases.  School starts here on August 11.

If the Sales Tax Holiday is indeed meant to save parents money (about eight percent) on "back to school" purchases, you'd think that school supplies also would be on the list of items that aren't taxed.  I guess that would make too much sense for the Legislature to consider.  We wouldn't want people to buy a year's supply of pencils, paper, glue, and scissors without paying tax on them, would we?

Speaking of legislative incompetence, we're now in the middle of yet another legislative special session.  For at least the past two years the Texas Legislature has been trying to reform the way that schools are financed.  The current "Robin Hood" plan that attempts to put the same amount of money, per student, into each school district is highly unpopular and not terribly effective.  When the regular legislative session closed without a new school funding plan, the Governor called a special session that was supposed to be dedicated solely to addressing that problem.  That 30-day session closed without a new school funding plan, but the legislature did manage to improve their health plan, cut other state workers' benefits, and generally do everything possible to make the voting public wonder why the hell we even have a Legislature.

The problem we have is that school finance currently is tied to property taxes, and property owners are becoming increasingly annoyed by the ever-increasing taxes.  Texas has no state income tax, and instituting one would be very unpopular.  The Legislature is left with the impossible job of lowering property taxes and increasing school funding without raising sales taxes or instituting a state income tax.  How anybody expects to increase expenditures and decrease income is beyond me.  But watching the Legislature is somewhat amusing.  Plus, if we keep them focused on school funding they'll have less time to come up with innovative ways to squander our money on other things.

I installed Mozilla Thunderbird the day I got my laptop--about three months ago.  I'd been using Thunderbird on the old system for nine months or so, and had been very happy with it.  Overall, I'm still happy with the program except for one thing:  its junk mail filter seems to be brain dead.  I mentioned previously (see May 25) that I'd noticed a large increase in the number of junk emails coming to my account.  For some reason, Thunderbird's junk mail filter can't reliably eliminate many of those messages.  My spam count has fallen somewhat since May--from about 150 messages per day to about 100--but of those 100, Thunderbird's filter might catch 30 of them.  Granted, I haven't seen a false positive in quite a while, but you'd think that the filter would learn a little better than what it has.  That's why I go through the exercise of marking the email as spam.

One problem is that Thunderbird has a "white list" option that prevents it from marking as junk any email that's from an address that's in the address book.  Since both Debra's and my email addresses are in my address book, any mail that's ostensibly from one of us will not be marked as junk.  But that only identifies a handful of messages every day.  I still haven't figured out why the filter can't identify and mark as junk the many almost identical messages I get daily for viagra and other drugs, live Web cams, life insurance leads, and Russian-language text that means nothing to me.  Why doesn't it learn from my marking a message as junk?

Wednesday, 03 August, 2005

Using mnemonic devices

I'm about halfway through a book called The Complete Idiot's Guide to Improving Your Memory.  I bought it half on a lark just because the title made me chuckle, but I really am interested in improving my recall.  The first half of the book (the part I've read) is a discussion of the brain, how memory works, different kinds of memories, and other related topics.  I guess the idea is that the authors are laying the groundwork so that we can better understand how the techniques that they describe in the second half of the book actually work.  I'll see in the next few days as I move into that part of the text.

I did look ahead a few chapters and found that their first technique has to do with mnemonics.  That got me to thinking of different mnemonic devices I've used through the years to remember things.  The one that comes immediately to mind is ROY G. BIV (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet): the colors of the rainbow.  Others are in the form of stories.  For example, I remembered the formula for sulphuric acid with this little rhyme:

What Sally drank she'll drink no more, for what she thought was H2O was H2SO4.

Mnemonic devices are good for remembering longer things, too.  When I was earning my Aviation merit badge in Boy Scouts we had to memorize the International Phonetic Alphabet.  A handful of us came up with a story to help us remember:

Alpha said Bravo to Charlie in Delta who heard an Echo and saw a Foxtrot across a Golf course at a Hotel in India.  Juliet walked ten Kilos to Lima.  Mike died in November.  Oscar, his Papa, lives in Quebec.  Romeo lives in the Sierras and does a Tango in his Uniform.  Victor drank Whiskey and took X-rays while watching the Yankees play the Zulus.

It's nonsense, but it worked.  I even used it to help some of my classmates at the Air Force Academy learn the ITU phonetics.  And I still remember it more than 30 years later.

You can find mnemonics all over the Web.  Search Google for "mnemonic favorite" and browse the results.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued a press release today forecasting a 95% to 100% chance for an above-normal 2005 Atlantic hurricane season.  They're expecting 18 to 21 named tropical storms, with 9 to 11 of them becoming hurricanes.  The mean is ten storms with six becoming hurricanes.  That's a lot of storms.

There's plenty of discussion on the Web linking this increase in tropical storms to global warming, but no reliable data to back it up.  The number of storms varies widely from year to year, and doesn't appear to go in any kind of cycle.  With less than 100 years of accurate data, it's pretty difficult to say whether we're experiencing a real trend, or if the last few years are just anomalies and things will settle down next year.

If you're interested in tracking storms, check out the National Hurricane Center's site, and also the U.S. Navy's tropical cyclones page.

Monday, 01 August, 2005

An old friend finds me on the Internet

I got an email a couple of weeks ago that had the subject "I remember you from the Marine Military Academy."  That in itself isn't very surprising, as I'm pretty involved with the school and I have a page about the school here on my Web site.  If you search Google for "Marine Military Academy" or "Jim Mischel," you're going to find my site.  I regularly get email from guys I knew at the school.

I also get mail periodically from parents I've met during my visits or who are considering enrolling their sons at the school and want to talk to somebody who attended.  I'm happy to help out in any way I can.  As I've said numerous times before, I strongly believe in the school's goals and methods.

But this email was different.  It was from a woman (she was a girl then, about two years younger than I) who I dated when I went to school there.  I was totally floored.  Of course I remembered her, once I read her maiden name.  It's not like I dated or even knew many girls in Harlingen.  She said that she'd visited Classmates.com, saw my name there, and thought she'd search Google to see if she could find me.  I'm flattered that she remembered my name, and very happy that she sent me email.

If you're at all interested in getting in touch with people you went to school with, you should at least sign up for the free part of Classmates.com and other such services.  They won't publish your email address, but if you have any kind of Web presence at all then people who see your name and remember you will have some chance of getting in touch.

The Internet really is a wonderful tool for finding people.  All the interconnections make serendipitous discoveries like this far more possible and likely than they would be otherwise.