Friday Jan 15, 2010

Barbie's Next Career

While I don't follow her myself, I'm told Barbie has had over 120 "careers" since her introduction in 1959. Well, it is time for her to choose another, and Mattel wants to hear from you. Please vote for Computer Engineer Barbie! That is clearly much cooler than any of the other choices offered. Vote here.

Igniting the Earth's Atmosphere

As part of background research for a blog entry I'm working on, I went looking for the name of the Manhattan Project scientist who was tasked with calculating whether an atomic detonation could ignite the Earth's atmosphere and burn everyone on the planet to cinders. His name was Hans Bethe and he apparently concluded the bomb would not ignite the atmosphere. But according to the Wikipedia article on the Manhattan Project, Edward Teller co-authored a paper that also examined this question.

That paper, Ignition of the Atmosphere with Nuclear Bombs, was declassified in the 1970s and it is available as a PDF for your perusal here. I recommend reading the Abstract on Page 3 and the three concluding paragraphs on Page 18. The final paragraph, which I hereby nominate as a monumental understatement, reads as follows:

"One may conclude that the arguments of this paper make it unreasonable to expect that the N + N reaction could propagate. An unlimited propagation is even less likely. However, the complexity of the argument and the absence of satisfactory experimental foundations makes further work on the subject highly desirable."

Apparently, the "satisfactory experimental foundations" were achieved at Trinity site. Had that gone wrong, it would have brought an entirely new meaning to the term "test coverage."

[This just gets worse: As my friend Monty points out, the paper is dated August 1946. The Trinity detonation occurred a year earlier, in July 1945.]

Tuesday Nov 10, 2009

Patagonia: The Department of Redundancy Department

I recently received an email promotion from Patagonia, the upscale purveyor of adventure clothing and gear, which invited me to visit one of their stores in person (how quaint) and enter their 2009 Holiday Giveaway. Reading the first paragraph of the official rules, I began to wonder if the typical Patagonia customer has landed on their head once too often while adventuring and the company therefore feels it needs to cater specifically to this demographic. Here is what I read:


BUYING WILL NOT HELP YOU WIN. NO PURCHASE NECESSARY. A PURCHASE WILL NOT INCREASE YOUR ODDS OF WINNING. Your chances of winning without making a purchase are the same as the chances of someone winning who purchases something.

Tuesday Mar 24, 2009

3rd Iraq Aviation and Defense Summit

Yesterday I received an email invitation to participate in the 3rd Iraq Aviation and Defense Summit in Virginia next week. I wonder how I possibly could have ended up on a mailing list for this event, which features some very high-level Iraqi military and government speakers and offers the chance for one-on-one meetings with them. Even this doesn't seem like a feasible explanation.

I didn't attend the 1st or 2nd Iraq Aviation and Defense Summit so I assume I will not be missed at this event.

Thursday Mar 19, 2009

Bread and Circuses from Washington

Last time I checked none of greed, stupidity, or towering egotism were illegal in the United States. And yet I suspect that is the extent of the guilt of many of the AIG bonus recipients who are currently the target of national ire and political postering.

Yes, it is annoying that these people have received bonuses under the current circumstances. And, yes, they should all be investigated and prosecuted if criminal wrongdoing is uncovered. But absent proof of that, what possible legal argument could be made for abrogating their employment contracts or, even more absurd, passing special legislation to seize their bonuses through taxation?

Don't misunderstand me: Every single one of these fracking morons who did something illegal should go to jail. And for a long time. But let's remember: crime first and then punishment.

What the outraged politicians in Washington would like you not to notice is that much of this wrongdoing on Wall Street occurred at least in part due to very poor regulation and enforcement on the part of our own government agencies.

Juvenal was right -- and our leaders are savvy enough to know it. So, on with the show!

Monday Mar 02, 2009

Toothpaste I Can Live Without

It's amazing what you might find on product labels these days. Take for example the tube of complimentary Aquafresh Extreme Clean toothpaste in my hotel room. It includes the following caution along with the directions for use: "If you accidentally swallow more than is used for brushing, seek professional assistance or contact a Poison Control Center right away."

Saturday Jan 31, 2009

Google: So Sorry, but the Web is Closed Today. Please try again tomorrow.

Google seems to have effectively shut down the web today, at least for people who routinely use Google to find content.

If you do a search, you will see virtually all (all?) search results flagged with the hyperlinked phrase "This site may harm your computer." Don't bother clicking on that since everyone on the planet is clicking it and the servers can't handle the load.

If you instead click on a link to visit a site found by your search, you will be taken to a Google page telling you that the site may harm your computer. It supplies additional information, including the advice that you can continue and visit that URL at your own risk. While they show the URL, they do not make it clickable so you need to select that text and paste it into your browser to visit the site.

So, for example, if you search for "Sun Microsystems" you cannot get to through Google because of this problem.

UPDATE: Just after I posted this, I could see Google rolling back whatever broken code they had deployed. Repeated searches for "Sun Microsystems" would randomly and less frequently return search results that included the "This site may harm your computer" tag. At this point, I am no longer seeing the problem.

Google's apology and explanation is here.

Thursday Dec 18, 2008

Amazon: Ship(ment) of Fools?

I realize Amazon is, like its namesake, a high-volume operation. And I realize this can lead to some seemingly bizarre behavior in the quest to streamline operations. Even so, the amount of sheer waste of materials I've seen in some recent shipments boggles the mind.

Today my wife received a medium-sized box that included forty linear feet of inflated plastic packaging material to fill the mostly empty box and prevent the (unbreakable items) from moving around during shipment.

Yesterday, I received a box that was roughly 12" X 4" X 9.5" or about 456 cubic inches. Inside was one hard-plastic, unbreakable object that was 0.75" X 1.75" X 1" or about 1.3 cubic inches. By volume about 0.3% that of the box. This could easily have been sent in a padded envelope, but instead a sizeable cardboard box and additional plastic packaging material were all wasted to ship this item.

Yes, everything is recyclable, but that does not make this practice acceptable. Especially when one considers the volume of Amazon's operations worldwide.

Friday Oct 10, 2008

Paypal Refuses to Pay a Merchant on my Behalf

Here's a weird one. Correct me if I'm wrong, but the primary value of Paypal is that it hides my credit card details from merchants I choose to do business with. Am I right?

Imagine my surprise when I saw the error message below when I tried to complete a recent purchase using Paypal:

Ummm. HUH? What definition of "hide" includes the vendor having any idea whatsoever what kind of credit card I'm using?? So long as my credit card is valid and acceptable to Paypal, why should it matter what kind of card it is? I called Paypal to find out what had happened.

The representative was not forthcoming, but from what she told me it sounds like Paypal has a specific agreement with this merchant and that agreement had not been updated by the merchant. She mentioned something about a commercial entity user agreement and told me she wasn't allowed to explain further because it would expose merchant information. She suggested I contact the vendor and explain that I wanted to use a Mastercard to make a payment to them via Paypal--presumably to encourage the vendor to re-up on their Paypal contract. She couldn't explain why this related to Mastercard in particular.

The rep agreed with my summary: That some sort of dispute or issue between Paypal and this vendor was preventing me from doing business using Paypal as an intermediary.

That ain't right.

Tuesday Sep 30, 2008

Buddha's Message to Washington Politicians

Look not to the faults of others,
nor to their omissions and commissions.
But rather look to your own acts,
to what you have done and left undone.

Friday Sep 26, 2008

The Joy of Christmas

I realized this evening when pondering the desirability of having Christmas cookies available year-round, that the graph below captures a truth for many adults. Think how fondly you might view Christmas while munching on a Santa cookie sometime in June versus how you will feel in the weeks approaching Dec 25th.

Tuesday Sep 02, 2008

Another Worm in My Apple: iPhone 3G Woes

[generic iphoto shot]

I thought I was smart to wait for the second version of Apple's iPhone after having suffered through a host of early-adopter issues with my first-generation Mac Book Pro. Apparently not.

Up until last Saturday, I had been mostly satisfied with the iPhone 3G, having resigned myself to the poor battery life, the intermittent switching between Edge and 3G networks, and the occasional Failed Call. Even with these problems, the iPhone experience had been a compelling one for me.

On Saturday, I went away for the holiday weekend. On Saturday afternoon, all of my 3rd party applications -- both free and those I had paid for -- stopped working. Every such application would immediately exit after I launched it. Power cycling had no effect. I could not try re-syncing until Monday evening when I got home, though in retrospect I could have tried deleting the apps and downloading them again from the iTunes store (though with the Edge/3G flipping I'm not sure I would have wanted to try that.) In any case, syncing to my Mac Book Pro did not help. So I deleted the applications and tried to sync again, hoping this would clear the problem. No joy. This time, iTunes complained my computer was not authorized to use any of the applications I had previously downloaded and refused to reinstall them on the phone.

I called Apple support and we fixed the problem by re-authorizing my computer and then completing a sync that reloaded the apps, which now seem to be working again. The rep told me this is a known problem that sometimes needs to be fixed by deleting the apps from both the iPhone and the computer and reloading them from the iTunes store (which keeps track of purchased apps so you do not need to pay again.)

Just before calling Apple, I had two Call Failed incidents during one conversation and had to switch to a landline to complete the call. Not a great advertisement for a phone or for either Apple or ATT, I'm afraid.

Friday Aug 01, 2008

Redmond: Still Banging Rocks Together

I never published the following blog entry, which I wrote in October 2007, prior to Apple's release of Leopard, the latest version of Mac OS X.

I find the fanboy enthusiasm a little embarrassing now given how much pain and suffering Leopard inflicted on me and many others up until recently when the 10.5.4 (FOUR!) release finally seems to have fixed things. It took Apple eight months to fix what they broke! Shame on them, but at least they fixed it. Fanboy exuberance aside, the main point of the original blog entry is still valid so I decided to publish it.

The original entry...

Last night I watched Apple's Leopard preview video, which highlights a few of the major new features which will be included in their upcoming operating system release.

This morning I read some advice for Windows users in PC Magazine and was struck by the contrast. A reader had asked how to read the information on the blue screen of death before his machine rebooted. As Loyd Case noted, "it is strange that a screen meant to convey critical system error messages should disappear before the average human could possibly read it, much less copy down the often huge amounts of information on it."

Never fear: As Neil Rubenking explains in the same article, "you can keep that blue screen visible. Right-click My Computer, Choose Properties. Click to select the Advanced tab (or the Advanced system properties link in Vista). Click the Settings button in the Startup and Recovery pane. Uncheck Automatically restart, Click OK | OK. Now the blue-screen information will remain visible on your screen until you force a reboot with Ctrl-Alt-Del."

They really are still banging rocks together up in Redmond, still hoping someday they'll figure out how to make fire. Meanwhile, Apple is kicking butt and delivering an absolutely unparalleled and increasingly jaw-dropping user experience to its customers.

Tuesday Jun 24, 2008

Josh Simons, CEO Sun Microsystems

I received a phone call yesterday morning from a firm claiming to be preparing a plaque recognizing Sun's selection as one of the 20 best large companies to work for in Massachusetts by the Boston Business Journal. They wanted to send a mock-up of the plaque to me for my approval. A weird request to make of a random engineer in a 30K+ person company. Figuring this was some sort of headhunter scam to extract additional information from me, I asked how they had found my name and phone number. Whereupon she asked, "Aren't you the CEO?" I responded by giving her Sun's main phone number in Burlington and suggested she call there for help.

I had a good laugh about this with Eric, the engineer in the office next to mine. As it happens, Eric's office is across from our mailstop. While talking with him, I was idly sorting through my mail when I came across a piece with this mailing label:

The sender of this letter has nothing whatsoever to do with the firm that had just called me about the plaque. Oh boy. I have no idea how this happened and I can't imagine what kinds of mailings, phone calls, and invitations I'll now receive as a result. Jonathan, see you in Davos? :-)

Thursday May 29, 2008

Idiots with a Voice: The Paisley Plot

Apparently, black and white scarves are "out" this year. You can wear one, but beware being labeled a terrorist or a supporter of terrorists by paranoid "pundits" with apparently nothing better to do than spew absurd crap like this.

Even if we allow that what looks like a paisley scarf to me is, in fact, a kiffiyeh, so what? Millions of people wear these every day. And millions of them are not terrorists.

I'm pretty sure Sirhan Sirhan was wearing pants when he shot Robert Kennedy. I want to assure the practitioners of political correctness that I in no way support the idea of assassination by wearing pants.


Josh Simons


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