Tom Pittman's WebLog

(or something like that)

2007 March 8 -- Cutting It Off

I'm a problem solver. It offends my sense of order to take something of value with a slight defect and smash it to smithereens. The car ran out of gas, push it off the cliff. I don't like that commercial, sledge-hammer the TV. As one person recently put it, "saw off ... unhealthy relationships." I have this hang-nail, amputate the hand. Headache? No problem that can't be solved with a chainsaw to the neck. I guess that says something about his sense of value, that his personal comfort is worth more than what he is destroying. The Golden Rule has it the other way around.

I have been reading the prophet Jeremiah lately, and it seems that God is into sawing off relationships too. Jesus explains it in connection with the Lord's Prayer, that God mostly does it to people who do the same thing to other people. That's rather scary. Psalm 37 reminds us that apparent success -- even "blessings" from God -- are temporary and no proof of eternal destiny. "I prayed about it," she told me, "and divorcing him is the right thing for me to do." Nevermind that God hates divorce.

Me, I'd rather be more forgiving than God -- just in case Jesus happened to get that connection right. But it does leave a knot in the pit of my gut when I'm the hand that got amputated. sigh I need to get used to being hacked off by people who don't understand their own eternal peril. **It happens. sigh

2007 March 6 -- Manga Anime

I was at the post office on a Saturday morning and remembered the new game store opening up a couple blocks away, so I went in to affirm the owner with a visit. It was a madhouse. I guess that's good. In any case, he was happy with business.

He rents out game consoles by the hour (for in-shop use). I watched as a young client wanted to rent a GameBoy, the last in his display case. Unfortunately the batteries were dead and he was out of fresh batteries. So I offered to make a run over to Wal-Mart and pick up some more. In appreciation he let me borrow some previously-viewed DVD movies he had on sale. Many of these movies have a game theme, such as a movie version of an electronic game.

The first movie I watched was Noein, actually five episodes from what appears to be a Japanese TV program dubbed into English. They never explained the title, but the last episode had them spell the word out on a Ouija board. Perhaps subsequent episodes explain it. I went online to see if somebody did there. I didn't find anything, but the reviews thought highly of this series. The reason the title is interesting to me is that it's a Greek word (I read Greek) meaning "to think", and I wondered if that was significant.

I had read -- mostly uncomprehendingly -- about manga and anime, so I was delighted to get this insight. The story line is a little weird, kind of like Matrix, where these other-dimensional characters penetrate the earth searching for our human protagonist, in this case a 12-year-old school girl, Haruka. The term "anime" is Japanese for animation, and "manga" is Japanese for comics; the video is comic-style animation kind of like Yogi Bear. Most modern American animation is a 3D attempt to reproduce reality in computer graphics, but still a little too regular, too smooth; Manga anime makes no such attempt. They use a low frame rate, so the images just bounce from frame to frame -- for example, Haruka running is depicted by her head alternately up and down, inching across the screen at perhaps four frames per second (movie frame rate is 24fps, so most motion is visibly smooth in the American animations).

The essence of fiction is to portray something that is not quite real life, but these fantasy stories (both Noein and Matrix) go beyond the normal suspension of disbelief. The result makes the story difficult for me to relate to. The older sci-fi I used to read suspends a small part of science to explore human reactions in this artificial world. Fantasy suspends a much larger chunk of reality -- I guess for the same purpose, but it's harder for me to get into the characters' minds.

2007 March 3 -- Telephone Tax

My software project is stuck, so I took some time off to do my taxes. There's a new line 71 "Credit for Federal Telephone Tax Paid" so I read the instructions, which (new this year, they tell you what page) seems to say it's only for if you had bundled telephone billing. My phone bill separately lists long-distance and local calls, so I assumed this refund doesn't apply to me.

Last night I got into a conversation with a guy who announced that for the first time since he retired, he was getting money back, due to the phone tax refund. He remarked on some news item where millions of people were not claiming the refund. If they read the instructions for 1040, I'm not surprised.

I got curious, and Googled the phone tax refund. There, near the top of the list was an IRS FAQ on the topic. They were rather more clear that separately billed long-distance was also eligible.

I don't think the IRS is deliberately misleading the public with their 1040 instructions -- although a case could be made that they have a conflict of interest on this point. It's just that tax law is so complex and messy, it's really hard to get it right.

2007 February 26 -- Learning My Lesson

I was going to call it an "educational opportunity"...

Lesson #1: Never ever say anything negative about anybody for any reason. Not even behind their back, because whoever hears you will know that you say negative things about them behind their backs too. Don't even think it, because "as a man thinks in his heart, so is he." I find support for this policy in the Bible:

Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable -- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy -- think about such things. Php.4:8
I learned the policy 27 years ago, and it has worked well for me on those occasional encounters at church and with distant family.

The only trouble is, the people who teach that message can't live it. The Apostle Paul (who wrote that verse) and the prophets of God didn't live it. Jesus Christ and God Himself didn't live that policy. There must be something wrong with it.

There is something wrong with it: it places relationships ahead of Truth. And the people who try to make it their moral absolute end up with neither relationships nor truth. They can't even give their employer an honest day's work.

The prophets of God were pretty ornery guys. Jerry said that the prophets "prophesied war, disaster and plague against many countries and great kingdoms" -- and plenty of ordinary people, too. Prophets promising peace are mostly wrong [Jer.28:8,9]. Jesus called the religious folks of his day hypocrites. They still are today. Those are pretty negative things to be saying. Is that bad?

It is if you want to keep your job and your friends and your life. Jesus got himself crucified for saying things like that. I haven't lost my life yet, but at least I'm in good company.

So I try to mind my own business. However, if you have a mammon problem, you'd better not ask me to tell you the truth. It will spoil the day for both of us.


2007 February 23 -- Running Away

The back-page column in InfoWorld I was reading today describes "The Making of an IT Pro". The key insight offered was, "while I hadn't solved the problem, I hadn't run away either." The author concludes that hanging in there is what makes a true IT professional.

When I was in college, one of the part-time jobs I had to pay for books and stuff was washing dishes at the local YWCA lunchroom. It even came with a free lunch. After I had been working there for several months I learned that the lunch wasn't free, I was to pay for it with the first half-hour of work. Somehow it had not registered with me that I was not supposed to report that half-hour on my time card. I couldn't handle the fault, so I gave notice and never cashed the last two paychecks, which I figured approximately covered all the lunches I had eaten but not paid for. The uncashed checks messed up their books for a whole year.

I'm an adult now, and I try to face my problems and work them out with the other party instead of running away. The trouble is, most people are still in the running away mode. It leaves a lot of unnecessary collateral damage, like those uncashed paychecks, except now I'm on the receiving end.

Sometimes I think if God has a sense of humor, and if we both -- I and the former colleague who ran away instead of dealing with our problems in a mature way -- if we both make it into Heaven, I wonder if God will insist we must work together there in Heaven for the first thousand years or so, sort of like a parent telling the kids, "You two stop fighting and get along." It seems to me that reconciliation only happens these days when the parties can't run away, when they need the job or some such, like that poor guy in the InfoWorld story who couldn't afford to quit. It used to be that marriage was one of those can't-run-away situations, but not any more.

I don't think God is into running away from difficulty, but He will let you run if you want to. It's just that "away" is not toward Heaven. That's scary.

2007 February 22 -- Demonizing the Opposition

It has happened to me enough times, it must be a natural law or some such. I suppose I probably do it too, but my selective memory conveniently brought no examples to mind.

What happens is that somebody gets caught with their hand in the cookie jar. Their first reaction is to find some equal or greater fault in their accuser. Maybe it's that sporting spirit: "The best defense is a good offense." I suspect it has more to do with what I call "The Prisoner Exchange" where the guilt is equalized all around, then everybody forgives everybody, and they live happily ever after, no need for admitting any real guilt, nor for true repentance. That's so undignified.

I have a problem with it: it's not Christian. Christianity -- the real thing, not the fake version practiced by most Americans -- requires confessing your faults, repenting of them, and being forgiven. There's nothing there about equalizing the guilt.

Thinking about my own situation some more, I did come up with a couple cases in the not-too-distant past where I was wrong. I immediately and sincerely apologized. I hate doing that, so I mostly try really hard not to let it happen. Many people go on the principle that "it's easier to ask forgiveness than permission." Me, I try to do it the other way around, often to the annoyance of my superiors. But it does afford me a clear conscience when the finger points. And not much else. To wit:

I guess I can also think of some demonizing events I was party to, but only in reaction to the other party starting it with false accusations. The one freshest in my mind began with me doing what I in good faith thought he wanted, and he took offense, saying I was attacking him. I'm not paranoid (how does that joke go, everybody really is out to get me :-) so I dug into my archives and found where my first comments on the topic were directed to a third party he had called to my attention. I did not at that time know he had adopted the position as his own, but he later admitted it. So I gleefully told him he had brought it on himself. Probably not the most politic thing to say, but the situation was already hopeless. Not even a prisoner exchange could be engineered. sigh

Memo to myself: Don't do that. The Christian reaction is to accept the undeserved cruelty without fighting back.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven -- Jesus

2007 February 21 -- Losing a Friend

He invited himself into my life, and then after a while he invited himself out. No big deal, "friends" come and go.

He said he wanted to be in an "accountability" relationship. Silly me! I believed him.

The American church is organized by and for the exclusive benefit of MBTI Feelers. Thinkers are welcome in the same way thieves and murderers are, on the condition that they leave their prior life behind. The Thinker/Feeler distinction is the only MBTI category with a significant gender correlation, and people are beginning to notice. The Christian Men's Movement is a valiant effort to do something about the problem. Some of their ideas are helpful, most only feminize the "girly men" in the churches even more. Accountability is one of their ideas; it sounds good, but it's a fraud.

The Great American Religion -- not to be confused with Christianity, which it isn't -- is self-reliance (autonomy), and it pervades the American church as much as it does all other parts of the economy. Accountability is anathema to autonomy. Accountability means that God has the right to tell people what to do and think, and if you get it wrong, it's somebody else's duty to remind you that you are off-base. Autonomous, self-reliant people don't want to be told what to do. Anybody who tries to hold somebody accountable to God's Word is called "self-righteous". People don't want to be told what to do.

What Feelers value most is "relationships" by which they mean unconditional affirmation. Accountability, if it means anything at all, means disaffirming the sociopathic behavior in people. So what the Feelers really want when they say they want accountability is to be affirmed in their desire for accountability without actually being held accountable. That doesn't mean they want to stop doing wrong things and thus earn that affirmation; they just want you to tell them they are OK. That's not honest, but most of them acknowledge being hypocrites.

I have my own moral flaws, but dishonesty is not very near the top of the list, so I am ill-equipped to detect it in other people. My best bet is to watch for when they accuse me of it, because only dishonest people assume others are dishonest. In this case it came too late.

"Woe is me" the prophet said, "my wound is grievous; but I said, Truly this is a grief, and I must bear it." Jer.10:19

2007 February 10 -- WebTV

I saw a glowing review in WIRED magazine. That should have been a clue -- sort of like I knew "Air Force One" would be a good movie because TIME magazine panned it -- so I downloaded some theBurg episodes and checked it out.

They call it a sitcom. I call it lame. This is about a half-dozen losers in a seedy part of town with nothing better to do than try to be "hip". I couldn't watch more than a couple episodes in one sitting, it was too depressing.

There is this in its favor, that they are releasing it under the "Creative Commons" license (CCL), a sort of GPL for entertainment. Maybe that's why the content is so bad: GPL is based on a Marxist philosophy, which is without viable economic merit. In other words, there's no way for quality talent to make a profit from it, so the talent goes elsewhere for money to live on. The Burg website admits that they are doing this on the cheap (nights and weekends), and have other day jobs for income. The plus side is that CCL encourages its owners to make the content available, rather than locking it up in impenetrable digital rights encryption. The result is that I was actually able to view the episodes.

Linux, which is released under GPL, is pretty much as lame as theBurg, but it does one thing for me that WinXP and my aging MacOS cannot, which is play movies downloaded from the internet. The first half-dozen episodes of theBurg helpfully offered it in MP4 format, which I download to my Mac, then transfer over to the PC offline (I have a very secure "air gap" firewall that absolutely protects the PC from net malware), then reboot into Linux to watch it. The last couple episodes they offered only in QuickTime and Windows WMV formats. This Mac is too old for the version of QuickTime they used, but sometimes I can fool Linux into playing QT by changing the file name. No luck this time: it froze the Linux system hard dead (I had to power it down to reboot). Don't let anybody tell you Linux is more stable than WinXP or whatever. It's not. However, while the regular Linux movie player couldn't handle the QT movies, they had a somewhat more limited QuickTime player that could show them in a tiny window. The WMV format only played sound on a black background, but at least changing the name didn't crash the computer.

Fortunately, theBurg is not worth watching, so I'm not overly inconvenienced by these limitations.

2007 February 8 -- Gender Crisis

Last week's issue of InfoWorld (mail gets out here to the boonies 3-5 days later than the rest of the country, sometimes even longer for magazines) editorialized about the "Gender Crisis in IT". Steve Fox notes that women in information technology (IT) are now at 27%, down from 36% in the 1980s. The situation has not changed much since I last commented on it two years ago, but some of the whining feminists are getting smarter.

One of the columnists in the same issue, more as a filler for an otherwise too-short column, admits that IT is very meritocratic, and that inviting more women into IT makes good business sense "because women are better at collaboration." That may be true, and to the extent that our computer systems projects need to be collaborative, it would be good to have women on the team. In fact, if collaboration is so important, I would expect the women to outperform the men, and drive the men out of the field, the way they did (and continue to do) in nursing and stenography. It isn't happening.

As important as good people skills are in this industry, that's not what is in short supply. It's not what drives up the price of labor (making the field attractive to women and other wannabes). The hard part of the job is still the technology, not the people skills.

So far the evidence suggests a (possibly slight) gender difference in information technology skills capability -- just as there is a significant gender difference in physical strength (think: athletic skills capability) and verbal skills (think: secretaries) and people skills (think: nurses and bank managers). Some things women are better at; others men are better at. That doesn't make either men or women "better" people, just different.

2007 February 1 -- Life Isn't a Game

Playing with the Wii game console at my friend Chris' house last night led me to an interesting insight. Their games were oversimplified: any motion you made with the wand which approximated -- sometimes not even very closely -- the motions of a person playing the real sport, were converted into (nearly) expert game moves on the screen. When I wrote my own video game, the first cut was absolutely unplayable. The physics was (nearly) perfect and the player had full control over the racket stroke, like a real tennis player, and could also accurately position the on-screen player for where you anticipated the ball would be. Of course the player had to run over there ("plop, plop, plop"), which took time. Controlling those actions on the buttons of the controller took a lot of practice -- far more than any game player is willing to invest before they expect to see a winning score. The only way I could make the game playable in our instant-gratification market was to make a lot of assumptions about what the player might want to do, then do those things automatically. The Wii games worked the same way. The more sophisticated computer games gauge the player's skill level and quietly adjust the difficulty of play so that it is neither too easy nor too hard.

Real life isn't like that.

Not everybody can step up to the plate and hit a home run after a couple minutes of practice. In fact, just about nobody can. Hitting home runs, bowling strikes, getting the tennis ball over the net and into your opponent's court -- nevermind on the far side of the court from where he actually is standing -- these are difficult skills that take months and years of practice, not minutes.

Anything worth doing takes a lot of skill and effort and practice. If it's easy, then everybody can and does do it, and where's the sport in that? Part of the evening entertainment last night was "American Idol" on TV. You know how I feel about the entertainment value of people behaving stupidly, and this had that problem. Most of the contestants imagined themselves to be great singers and performers. They were awful. Unlike video games, the computer didn't make up for their bumbling.

Computer programming is like that, too. The easy programs have all been written. All that's left are the hard ones, the programs nobody has succeeded at writing yet. I'm writing one of those. It's a language translation program. It is very difficult to use, not at all like a video game. Translation by humans is not easy -- see the definition for "translation" in my paper "Meaning-Based Machine Translation" for some of the problems ordinary people might have, trying to translate from one language to another. What I'm worried about today is that the professional linguists, the people who do know how to translate, these people will come to a software program like mine and expect to have it translating in a few minutes, like a video game.

Real life isn't like that.

2007 January 31 -- Wii

I've been reading a lot about the new Wii (I think it's pronounced "we" as in "Whee!") game console. I took a pizza over to the house of my friend Chris who runs the game store, and we played some of their built-in sports games. It was an interesting insight.

When I wrote my tennis game, the graphics pixels were much bigger, but I put a lot of effort into credible avatar motion and control. In the Wii version of the game, the ball comes to you, and if you move the wand at the right time, you hit it. Baseball was even more just timing: I could move the wand in any direction at all, and the bat swung and hit the ball -- unless I was early or late, which was most of the time, because there's very little to cue the ball distance and velocity. When you are pitching, the wand buttons let you choose one of four pitch types, but not ball velocity. Similarly, the strength I used to swing the wand/bat did not have a measurable effect on how far the ball went. Sometimes it went near, sometimes far (I got the only home run of the 3-inning game with a mild twitch of the wand), and whether it got caught as a fly or gave the batter a base also seemed very random.

The bowling game was a little fussier about what kind of motion it accepted. I tried a little wrist action, which worked perfectly OK in the other games, but it chided me for not swinging my whole arm.

Somewhere I read that the wand has "force feedback." I could not imagine how it was going to offer any resistance to your motion, and I was right. It vibrates a little now and then.

According to the reviews, the wand has a full 6-axis motion detector, but the games did not use all that information. There's a reason for that. I made my tennis game too accurate, and it was unplayable. They could make the Wii games very accurate, and they would be realistic for a real tennis or baseball professional, but unplayable as a video game for amateurs like the rest of us. Nintendo is in the business of selling game consoles, not training future tennis and baseball players. If you go through the motions that we've all seen on TV, then the game software will make the screen avatar play a credible game, by filling in the blanks more or less at random. The players will score and get the feeling that it's a good game.

Chris tells me that his customers are asking for the Wii console, not the Playstation with higher resolution graphics. I believe him. When you are playing a game, you don't have time to appreciate hi-res graphics. The starter games we played tonight had quadriplegic avatars -- no arms, no legs, just little round bodies floating in the air, and a bat floating nearby. Once you get into the game, you hardly notice. Maybe when you are watching TV the high resolution might help, but I download the low-resolution version of the movies, and (except during a stampede or out at sea, when everything is moving so the pixels get to be extra large and blocky) I enjoy it just fine. I sure wouldn't pay what they are asking for HDTV.

2007 January 30 -- Downgrading to Vista

The tech media is full of the new Microsoft operating system "Vista". Like all good media that make their money on ad revenue, the praise is heaped in great piles, like manure at a farm. Like all new bloated software upgrades, you can expect it to run slower than WinXP.

The review in PCWorld confirms that -- buried in the text, where they admit "Overall our test apps did seem to run slower with Vista. On less-expensive or older hardware, the difference was pronounced." But the 72-point article title put a different spin on it: "Vista: Not Slow". The large-print heading on their comparison table boldly proclaims "Apps run faster on 32-bit Windows Vista." What they really mean is that 64-bit Vista is up to 25% slower than 32. Anybody who knows how computers work knows that 64 bit processing is almost always slower than 32, because there's more data to push through the skinny little wires.

So why spend more money for Vista?

Well, if you want to see their pretty graphics (which you need to buy a new expensive computer to use), yup, Vista will suck some dollars out of your pocket for pretty graphics.

If you are using Microsoft software to access the internet -- shame on you! -- maybe Vista is a teensy little bit more secure. And maybe a lot less secure, because it locks out the 3rd-party security software.

If you like your computer phoning home (to Redmond) without your permission, yup, Vista does that.

Also, if you have a bunch of mission-critical software, Vista gives you a golden oportunity to support the American GNP by upgrading all the software which no longer runs in Vista.

InfoWorld reminds their corporate readers that Vista is probably not worth the upgrade unless you are installing Office 2007 at the same time. Their reader survey showed more than 2/3 of corporate IT departments planning to wait a year or more before installing Vista. I think they know something.

2007 January 22 -- Power to the People

I was working at the computer in California when the "pretty big one" (earthquake) hit Loma Prieta, some 40 miles away. I felt the rocking and made one of those quick decisions that I'm not good at: Do I save my work? No, the power might go off during a write, which could corrupt everything. Besides, I regularly save the current work every 10 or 20 minutes, so at most I would lose a half-hour of work. Ten seconds after my decision the lights went out. Power was out for 25 hours.

Ten days ago I started up a 3-hour run to rebuild a data file -- as I add features to the software, I keep needing to add supporting data to the file the program uses -- and settled back while waiting to watch one of those freebie movies I downloaded. Ten minutes into the movie everything went black. Absolutely pitch black, not even street glow coming in the windows. This was no transformer on the pole outside blowing up with an audible "pop" as happened a couple times last year. That left the lights on across the street, and I could still see the Mickey Dee arches in the distance. This time there was nothing.

I had already turned on the electric blanket to preheat -- these new electronic controllers are not as smart as the old "click-click" thermo-mechanical switches, and the bed needs more preheat time -- so I climbed into bed, clothes and all.

The power came on at 3am, so I got some more work done the next day -- and lost it again at 7pm. This time it was out for three days. Back on briefly, then out for another three days.

It's cold outside, not a balmy California October like the earthquake in 89, but cold. They heat the houses here with electricity. My computer runs on electricity. The water heater is electric. Some people have propane tanks, but there is no utility gas like they have in California. Toward the end of the week everybody around me had electricity except the two-block square where my house is. I called the electric company to see how far down the list of repairs we were. She couldn't tell me, but the next day a guy on the repair crew called to ask about particulars ("Is the electric feed to the house damaged?" No, it's underground). I got the impression he was evaluating triage. The corporate call-taker had told me two whole neighboring towns were still completely out. The far side of town was still mostly out, and the residents there are less well-off. I may not be gainfully employed, but I can afford a motel; they cannot. I can live with that.

I spent most of the week huddled in the dark under five blankets in bed. I got in some reading (by day, or by flashlight) and a lot of thinking and planning, and more than the usual amount of sleep. When I needed to be out the next day, I spent the night in a motel. I think of it as a $70 warm shower. Both times the power came back on while I was in the motel. I could have slept in my own warm bed -- but I didn't know that. Oh well.

Power is back on. Today I went and priced gasoline generators. $300 is cheap insurance.

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