Thursday, November 27, 2008

No Addictions Here

The "Fast Company" web site has an interview with neuroscientist Sam Wang about the addictive nature of email.


Interviewer: We live in a world of interruptions from email, PDAs, cellphones, computers and so on. What are the big challenges to brain performance with all this gadgetry?


Wang: One problem with these interruptions is they’re rewarding us the way a social interaction is rewarding. It’s thought that whenever a small rewarding event happens, our brains release little bit of dopamine, which is a signal that something interesting is happening. Email is a social reward that’s distilled into this thing that pops onto your screen. It’s quite literally a little bit like crack. As a result, there’s sort of this addictive quality to email. One piece of advice that I’ve been toying with is to use email as a reward for finishing a task, as opposed to letting it sit on your desk all the time.




I remember when email was rewarding. And I remember when Instant Messages were rewarding. I even remember being excited about somebody calling my desk phone. But now email for me is primarily a drain. Nobody emails just to say hello or tell me about themselves. People don't IM just to say hello, or call just to chat. Family, church folks, and clients and co-workers contact me for one reason: to ask me to do work for them.

It's great to have a job, and to be asked to help. I like being helpful, and in that sense it's rewarding to get things done. And if I get too far behind on email, people are angry. But I'm not sure I receive the social reward bit Wang is talking about.

Humanity's Servant: The Early Adopter.

Early Adopters Suffer, but they probably deserve some sort of award for the testing services they provide.


Not all users have had the same success, however. Others report the only surefire solution was to have their MacBook Pro's logic board replaced or have their system swapped out for one manufactured more recently. In these cases, the problems disappear completely, leading some to believe there is a hardware-related issue with an early batch of the notebooks.

From an AppleInsider article, Apple Investigating Graphics Issues On New Macbook Lines

I know somebody has to go out and buy the very first model of a brand new design. And those people do the rest of us a service.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

"I wasn't expecting this level of detail on this call"

It's odd when I'm on a conference call that includes two or three not-
very-technical managers, and one of them says, "I wasn't expecting to
get to this level of detail on this call. Maybe we should plan another
call later just for the techies."

There are times when that's appropriate -- for example, if the
discussion of finer points is impeding progress to determine overall
goals. But in many cases, such as my call this morning, the overall
goals have already been determined. The only thing left is finer points.

I can't quite empathize with this response. Perhaps they just don't
want their time to be wasted. Maybe it's because the non-technical
people feel out of their element.

In some cases, the finer points of detail are critical to the overall
picture. A tiny missing feature can be the undoing of grand plans, or
a tiny detail can save a huge amount of effort, or add immense
efficiency.

Friday, November 21, 2008

That Caribbean Christmas tree smell

My work site here in Rio Piedras just set up their Christmas tree. It was recently alive, and it smells Christmasy.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

One Year

Yay! One year ago just now, Oren was born. He was seven weeks early,
and we were really surprised to meet him so early. Hayden had been a
real trooper at the hospital; she showed incredible bravery, I think.
Having a baby looks scary.

We've had a lot of fun getting to know him this year. He's walking
around now, taking corners on two feet, chattering all the time. He
likes it when I spin and toss and flip him around, and he likes
sitting on my shoulders. Everyone says he's a "good", "easy" baby.
People love to comment on his blue eyes.

One lady at Baptist Village in Lake Park, Georgia, told my Mom that he
has "dancing blue eyes". She was a school teacher, and she said that
the little boys with "dancing blue eyes" are always exciting. Or
mischievous. Or maybe it was rambunctious. Anyway, something like that.

We got him a toy piano for his birthday -- but don't tell him yet!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Knowing where I am

DIRECTLY ABOVE US-1, TRUITTS PARK, DELAWARE: Hayden and I had our TomTom One XL GPS receiver stolen. We replaced it with a refurbishedTomTom GO 720.

DIRECTLY ABOVE VILLAS, NEW JERSEY -- This is the first time i've had a gps receiver that seemed to work in an airplane. The One XL

DIRECTLY ABOVE BURLEIGH, NEW JERSEY -- didn't pick up the signal when I had tried. Also, my external Magellan RS-232-serial-connected model that I used to use on my laptop didn't pick up a signal either. As an aside, Delta used to list GPS receivers in the "never permitted" category of electronic devices. Now it's not mentioned at all. Flashlights aren't listed either, and they're allowed.

DIRECTLY ABOVE ATLANTIC CITY, NEW JERSEY -- But this model works. We're going 549 mph. It can pick up 11 satellites; I think it needs five to function. It's actually really fun to see where we are, and generally follow the course of the plane.

I wonder if they were really concerned about RF emissions from the satellite receiver, or if it had something to do with controlling knowledge of the passengers.

Why did the "Blackberry" ever happen?

TERMINAL 2 TARMAC -- There's a New York Times article this morning about Barack Obama's devotion to his Blackberry. They expect he'll have to give it up. It's odd to me that the Research-In-Motion (RIM) Blackberry beset both the Windows CE / Mobile world, and the PalmOS Treo world.

What they have is called "push" email: your email comes to your phone as soon as it's available. You don't have to log-in and ask to download it.

For some reason, the other guys failed to see this was important. Either of them could have exploited IMAP IDLE, an Internet protocol that accomplishes the same thing, but with an ordinary email account instead of a fancy Blackberry account. For example, "Chatter Mail" for Palm does this.

Perhaps the reason is an accident of the cell phone companies' pricing. Unlimited data access as part of a cell phone plan hasn't always been available. My phone has unlimited EV-DO, so using Chatter Mail on my Treo 755p carries no monthly cost.

When Blackberry came out, I'll bet they had to rely on something else -- maybe GPRS or some such. Or maybe they encode emails into SMS texts. They built something to work in a more-constrained environment than the one I'm in today.

Still, Blackberry is a major force now. It's an example of how technical decisions and self-limitations at established tech companies can create an opening for a new member.

Maybe the next president can just get an SSL-IMAP account to the mail.whitehouse.gov server.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The importance of memorization

"What's the difference between Math and Computer Science?" I was standing in Dr. Boyd's office doorway when I asked.

He pondered for a minute, then said, "There's more memorization in CS."

I was surprised. After all, we computer geeks pride ourselves on the way we don't memorize things. We make the computer memorize things for us: software remembers our procedures, and variables remember our momentary values. We believe in just-in-time information; we'll go back to google or some other reference to get something we just used.

A contributor on the System Administrator's Guild (SAGE) discussion list, sage-members has something like this in his email signature:

It's not what I know that matters,

it's what I remember in time to use.


Really, in systems administration -- routers, switches, firewalls, servers, telephony gateways, printers, and other devices -- what you've memorized is very valuable. I don't know of anybody who uses flash cards. But when it gets right down to it, if you remember the procedure to quickly login to some device, check its status, and do common things on it, you'll be be more effective.

My boss, James, uses the term "muscle memory" to describe it. It's like you the commands for getting around in the device are somehow programmed into your hands. Maybe this is one reason I like text-based command line interfaces (CLIs): I can just remember commands, like "write memory" rather than moving my mouse some random distance and clicking through three menus.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Greater of Two Evils

Barack Obama was elected to be president yesterday. I learned the results before Hayden and I fell asleep last night.

In other news, 55 Million US voters voted against him; that's 46% of those voting. I just wish we had a chance to vote for somebody that we could actually support, instead of just going to vote against Obama. McCain pushed me out of the "straight-talk express" back in 2000:


Austin American-Stateman, January 9, 2000: "By most accounts, McCain has worked hard to wrest control of the party away from social-issues conservatives while seeking to increase his own power."



Minneapolis Star Tribune, March 5, 2000: Rod Grams, who also enjoys the support of Christian conservatives, said McCain made a mistake alienating a core GOP constituency. "There was no need for this. It's going to be hard to heal some of these wounds ... You can't win a Republican nomination without Republicans."



Philadelphia Daily News, January 3, 2001: John McCain, who criss-crossed New Hampshire during the GOP presidential primaries in his "Straight Talk Express" bus and won the heart of reporters, ... sounding dangerously pro-abortion to social conservatives - who promptly helped to hand George Bush the GOP nomination. ...




Campaigning for the Executive as a Legislator

Both Barack Obama and John McCain campaigned on legislative matters; i.e., to do the things they want to do, you have to pass laws. The president is allowed to propose legislation, but in my memory, the president does little legislating. Presidential promises are rarely things the president can actually do directly.

The biggest effect the chief executive has is in the executive branch. Barack Obama's biggest effects will be made by his cabinet secretaries and other executive officials. It's the decisions they make, and the way they conduct their jobs.


New York Times, February 26, 1994: The Surgeon General, Dr. Joycelyn Elders, said today that Medicaid must have been developed by "a white male slave owner"



Washington Post, August 2, 1995: Attorney General Janet Reno yesterday steadfastly defended President Clinton's role in the Waco tragedy




Let's not forget Clinton's CIA chief and Secretary of Defense, on whose watch Osama bin Laden's power grew to threaten the US in New York City. (No, it's not their fault -- the fault for terrorism lies with the terrorists.)

Perhaps fortunately in most cases, the President's legislative aspirations are muted, while his executive tools are expanded. And the President does hold a lot of power, because a lot of people -- 36,408 people work for the executive branch -- are in the President's employ.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Pocket Pliers and Unexpected Catfish



I've carried a Gerber Clutch pocket tool most of the past year. It's got a knife, pliers, and a few other gadgets. I'm a father now, and it seems like a father should always have a knife and a screwdriver.

Last Sunday, at the New Community Church fall festival at the Hart's farm, I got a chance to justify the pliers. We had a nice cookout and played some music. The Harts have two small ponds where folks fish. Several from our church were making use with rod and reel. The evening autumn sun set slowly, and the cooler air revealed a mist over the water.

Hayden, Oren and I jumped on the last hay ride of the day. Oren sat in my lap most of the trip -- I didn't have my jacket, and he helped me stay warm. Mr Hart drove at a moderate speed all around the lake.

As we neared the picnic area, we spotted comotion. A boy fishing with his Mom had something on his line. He couldn't see it yet, but we all knew it was bigger than the hand-sized bream he had been catching!

Finally, we saw it emerge: a catfish roughly twelve inches long. It was too big for us to eat; the meat would have tasted bad. But it was a great fish to have caught.

The 60-something Mr Hart stopped the tractor and went to help. "I didn't know there were any more of these in here!" he said. The fisherman's mom said, "we just wanted to release it -- but I don't have any pliers to get the hook out of its mouth!"

I needed no more invitation. I handed off Oren to Hayden, jumped over the side of the hay wagon to the ground. Unfolding my Gerber Clutch (tm), I was unsure whether I wanted to remove the hook.

My only other hook-removal experience was in 2001. Chris Vaughan and I were fishing at the Whatleys' pond in Cook County, Georgia. Chris caught a nice big bass -- but the hook was deep inside. The bass had swallowed deeply before the hook set. So removing that hook was something like surgery. We struggled with the needle-nose pliers for what seemed like an hour. The poor bass was out of the water a long time -- though we did see it revive a bit after the successful operation.

Fortunately, the Hart's catfish had been more careful when it took the bate. Mr Hart delicately handled the fish with the expertise of a man who has clumsily handled a catfish in the past, and now finds himself handling another. The hook was in the fish's lip -- if fish do have lips, and my pocket tool was up to the task, and within a minute, the catfish was free to return to its bottom-feeding duties.

So carrying a small pair of pliers did turn out to be smart.