Jeanette said I got a phone call today, from some woman wanting to know if I needed help with web stuff for my new domain. Just what kind of enterprise was "fortboise," anyway?

She gave the caller the polite but curt sendoff we offer to most solicitors, and hearing the story, I was a little amused and brushed it off, too. Must be like the patent trackers, who send out offers to sell plaques within a few days of patents issuing. (I rather appreciate that as it's remarkably effective notification.)

But... how did she get my phone number? It could've been old-fashioned sleuthing, I suppose, and I'm not unlisted or anything. It makes me wonder just where all I've provided that information, and who was happy to volunteer it.

Too bad she didn't spend the effort on actually taking a look at the site, and figuring out who was doing what, why, and what sort of "business" this is.


It's done! Bought the fortboise.org domain, and migrated my site from Earthlink to Westhost.

I've got nothing against EL - as mass-market, overpriced bundlers of net access and small personal sites go, they're fine. (And if you want to sign up, you could give me my first referral credit. :-)

But given my initial web experience - running my own server on an hp-ux machine since 1995 - the lack of access and control was always annoying. Converting my pages away from SSI and back again cost me a couple days' worth of scripting and detail cleanup work, that could've been better spent on something else, for example.

Yesterday's steady parade of rain showers made it a reasonable day to work on it (although a walk in the rain, among Palo Alto's October fruits and flowers was a real delight), but today has sunshine (for a while?) in between the stacks of cumulus. Time for a bike ride.


Dave Winer complained (justifiably) that the Business Week article on "Microsoft's Big Bet" did not make it comprehensible just what .Net was.

My complaint is that writer needs an editor.

The metaphors run thick and fast: Launch, reinvent itself as a titan, top brass, bucket brigade, raising flags, cash cow, marrying technology, hitch a product to another, separate battles within one jihad, different fiefdoms, seismic shifts, epoch, revolution, milking the past, mining the future, troops are on board, but much to be ironed out, the devil in the details, Hatfield and McCoy feud, Whew.

Then, when the opportunity for a really powerful metaphor comes along, it's lost in mediocrity:

To Gates, the only business that could work for Microsoft was one that represented what he calls ''a singularity.'' In science, a singularity is something that is distinct.

I take it the writer doesn't have a degree in science. Science has many "distinct" somethings, but few singularities.

A black hole, for example, is a singularity. Gates wants products that--like a black hole--have such an intense gravitational field that they draw others to use them. The more people used it, the more powerful it became.

Black hole, yeah. Gates wants his products to suck customers, competitors, and everything else into his universe. The more people who "used it," the more powerful he becomes. But the suckees (or is it suckers?) do not become more powerful, just sucked.


Normally I don't reply to spam, but I confess, you hooked me with this one. Who is "we"? How come you don't really seem to know what the URL for my site is? And most especially, what do you suppose my "product area" is that will benefit from your bringing me loaves and fishes?

"Waiting with baited breath"
Tom von Alten

(I, too, have taken great care to provide this message. If you wish to be excluded from all future mailings please click reply and type "I apologize for sending you spam" on the subject line.)

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Testing the Test

...The study, issued by the RAND Corporation, a research organization in Santa Monica, Calif., found that Texas students had demonstrated greater improvement in recent years on the state's Texas Assessment of Academic Skills exam than on the leading national assessment test. The report said these "stark differences" in performance raised "serious questions" about the credibility of the state test as a meaningful gauge of academic progress....

From the New York Times


Mets win! Woo hoo!

It's as much a mystery to me as it may be to you why I care, or why I get tense in a tense game situation, feel good when they win, or bad when they lose.

"They" is a wildly relative term, of course. I pay attention to "them" because of the situation, or the color clothes they wear, and if they get to the big show, I'll remember a few names and faces and playing styles, and get animated talking about them.

If things go badly (as they did for the team I was really following, the SF Giants), I can lose interest, and even be glad for a merciful and quick end to the spectacle. But by the time it comes to the World Series, I seem to be able to care. I like the Braves because I grew up in Milwaukee and saw Eddie Mathews and Warren Spohn and Hank Aaron as a member of the Knothole Club. I like the Brewers because they came to Milwaukee. I liked the As when Ricky Henderson was so much fun to watch. (I think base stealing is the most exciting part of the game.) I like the Indians because Omar is so good, and so much fun to watch. I like the Mariners because Seattle is close to Boise.

Why do I like the Mets? Probably has to do with that perennial underdog thing they had going through the 60s, and because the Yankees have won enough times, puhlease.


New York's a long way from home, but I still like the World Series. All things being equal, I seem to like to root for the underdogs, although I have noticed that being a spectator is more fun when "your" team wins. (I don't even mind a lopsided victory if my team wins it.)

After watching Roger Clemens dominate the Mets for eight innings last night (after his truly classless bat throwing incident in the first inning), I figured there was no point in watching the top of the 9th, with the Mets down 6-0.

It just goes to show how wrong you can be.


The Guggenheim and the Hermitage together in Las Vegas (NY Times). Reminds me of how thrilled I was by Steve Whatsisname's "museum" in the Bellagio, at least until I found out about the admission fee. His "greatest hits" approach to art seems perfect of Vegas.

But those two together, just created a vision in my mind...

Combining the Hermitage and the Guggenheim


My brother pointed out that today is another "hugs and kisses" day: X/XX/00 in a loose amalgam of roman and arabic numerals. Of course the last one was just ten days ago. And another in ten days, than rather a long wait for the next one, but you can still carry on unofficially.

Jeanette met a new resident from Chicago, an engineer for Sun systems. The new arrival told a coworker that it was such a beautiful day, she was almost ready to sneak away on her first day of work!

I got a good belly-laugh at that story. The joke is that the weather is beautiful here every day. Why do you think there are so many millions of people jammed in here, and perfectly ordinary houses that go into 7 figures?

Today was a good example. A few more clouds than usual, and it even sprinkled on me a little bit on my way from work. I left early, so the two of us could celebrate Jeanette's birthday by attending the dedication of a beautiful clock scuplture by Maya Lin at Stanford's Science and Engineering Quad.

We rode our bike over, and by the time we came home in the late evening, the sky had cleared just enough for a beautiful sunset, with the temperature never moving away from "pleasant."


Email's back, thanks to... Microsoft! Their free program, Outlook Express, that is. If I'd still had that copy of Pegasus I'd downloaded, I probably would've switched to it, instead, but OE was handy, and pretty much just worked. (It was a little spooky, until I remembered that I'd used it once before, some months ago.)

So, forget about finding online support for anything beyond the stunningly obvious. The first line of defense is "reboot" and when that doesn't work, "reinstall," or do something else. I suppose "buy a new computer" comes after that.

The only thing I don't like is that OE thinks email should have a proportional font, whereas having been using it for most of two decades, I know better.

So, three debates in the can. I couldn't watch much of the last two, they were just two awkward and painful. I have this thing about averting my eyes to avoid seeing people embarass themselves.

I did find it interesting to watch the piece-wise metamorphosis as the handlers adjusted the candidates' behavior after the pundits shredded them in the post-prandial analysis. I liked Gore less and less, even as I don't think I could like Bush less than I already do.

Don't promise me everything, for God's sake. Find the appropriate role for government, and let's figure out how to do that well.

It's not killing people, for starters. And it shouldn't be about putting so many in jail, either.

20-year-old Marisa Buchanan, quoted in the NY Times:

"I found myself leaning towards Bush at the end, although I must admit I still don't like him. I've always had the impression that he says what other people tell him to say. But he seemed tonight to mean things, like when he defended his position on the death penalty. He appeared very sincere."

Somehow, sincerity on a desire to kill people doesn't attract me.

Well, you've probably already made up your mind, and if not, you've probably already read more takes on the debates than I'm prepared to give you. Besides which, I've already voted, so I'm immune to any more persuasion. Something to be said for an absentee ballot - cuts short the campaign!


Outlook went mysteriously south in the middle of fetching my mail last night. Now it just hangs with that moronic monologue box with the letters circling the earth. (Note to software writers: there is no animation so cute that it's not annoying after the 12th viewing, let alone the 12 hundredth.)

It's a mystery; it had downloaded 3 of the dozen or so messages on the server, and then just circled forever. I killed the process, tried to restart. When that didn't work, I rebooted the computer.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

I tried being reeeeal patient. I tried the [Cancel] button, and it doesn't do a damn thing. One button on the "dialogue" box, and they can't even make that work. It's so sad.

I removed the "service" to my ISP and reinstalled it. I checked my wife's installation (different profile, same computer, same program), and that works. I tried Microsoft's website, and after thrashing around its IgnoranceBase, I got to the point where they'd let me tell them about my problem - for free!

But first I needed a freakin Passport, Microsoft's attempt to own everyone's login on the 'net. I went through the motions, waiting to see a request for something I didn't want to give them, and ever so reluctantly signed up.

Ok, back to that incident report... Next I need the product's ID number. Gee, I don't think I can get that because THE PROGRAM IS HUNG DOING THIS "DELIVERING MESSAGES" B.S. The only way back is to kill it and restart the computer...

I actually did that, after getting buoyed by watching an episode of That 70s Show

Their Product ID parser couldn't deal with the '-' characters that their Product ID display shows me. With the number retyped without the dashes, it says, whoop! This is an O-E-M version, bud, we don't support that. Here, try our directory of OEM support numbers...

Long past my 30 day warranty (is that really what they said?) from Micron Electronics, they offered a "consultation" service, with no guarantee of a solution, for only $1.99 a minute on a 900 line. Yeah, right.


George W. and the big lie:

It's one thing to say you went to Texas with DeWitt and have it turn out you did go to Texas, but not with DeWitt. It's a slightly larger prevarication to say you spent $4,700,000,000 when really you only spent about a quarter that much, and somebody else made up the difference.


A visit to a local historical museum today took me back to the golden age of mechanical engineering. The print shop's curator/operator explained the motivation behind the Linotype machine before he demonstrated it in action. It used to be that lines of type were assembled letter by letter, into words. When a line was filled, various width spaces were mixed and matched in order to justify the line. Then the next line assembled... incredible tedium, but worth the effort to realize the printed word.

Nevertheless, this was clearly an opportunity for improving productivity. One attempt had magazines of the individual letters, and delivered them to a conveyor in response to keyboard input. When a line limit was approached, the total length of the words was gauged, and a selection of 13 different sized spaces used to justify the result. (About now, I'm thinking "ragged right!" but even then, the lines would have to be padded out to make a tight "box" for handling the assembled type, and making impressions from it.)

He said that Samuel Clemens lost a bunch of money investing in that scheme, when the Linotype's superior technology took over the market.

The Linotype machine and its caretaker at the Palo Alto Museum of
 American Heritage

This machine also has keyboard input (lower right, behind the stack of books), but it handles letter molds rather than letters themselves. The molds are queued up under the trapezoidal plate at the top, and drop down the chutes into the track when the corresponding key is pressed.

The spacers are adjustable, so that when a line of molds is queued up, it's mechanically squeezed to the proper length, and the spaces are shrunk as needed. That happens just to the left of the incandescent light, and then a shot of the molten alloy of tin, antimony and (mostly) lead is poured in to make a one-piece "line o' type."

When it's cool enough to hang together, it's spit out into the output tray (bottom, just left of center), where the lines collect in order, and can easily be assembled to a column, and columns to a page.

The machine operator doesn't have to wait for the casting process; he can be working on the next line. The spent molds are conveyed back to the top, and a lead screw guides them across the magazines, where their backside keying allows them to drop into the proper slot, recycled on the fly, as new lines are typed up. The raw material input was an ingot of the pot metal, chain fed into the melting pot. It must have been a wonder to behold for someone accustomed to assembling letters one by one.

These days, our letters are lighter - light , in fact - as we key them in and assemble them into lines, justify (or not), and spit them out into the world... as more light.

As a mechanical engineer, I couldn't help think about all the hard work, ingenuity and invention that went into the machine. It was revolutionary, a triumph of the art. And now, it's almost perfectly irrelevant, a fascinating museum piece (and a toxic waste problem), a hobby, an amusement, a wonder to behold.

And everything I've worked on will seem just as perfectly irrelevant a hundred years from now, I imagine.


Friday the 13th, and nothing went wrong where I live. But then I'm not superstitious, I think that makes a difference.

Mr. Bush has made an important political discovery. Really big misstatements, it turns out, cannot be effectively challenged, because voters can't believe that a man who seems so likable would do that sort of thing.

Paul Krugman lays out the math of Social Security in terms even W. could figure out. If he wanted to.

Meanwhile, this story from the Palo Alto Daily News (my emphasis on the last line):

Roundabouts suggested for Embarcadero Road

Embarcadero Road could be shaved down to two lanes and pocked with traffic circles under a proposal Palo Alto plan- ners say will reduce traffic without caus- ing gridlock.

Planners say building three round- abouts between Highway 101 and Alma Street will allow them to reduce Embar- cadero Road from four to two lanes with- out clogging traffic. The plan will be con- sidered by the city’s Planning and Trans- portation Commission on Nov. 8.

"The time it takes motorists to travel on Embarcadero won’t change. It might even be a little better," said Joe Kott, Palo Alto’s chief transportation planner. Plan- ners had once proposed putting seven roundabouts along the road, but the $10 million price tag dissuaded them. Elimi- nating two lanes and installing three roundabouts, which would be located at Waverley Street, Newell Road and St. Francis Drive, would cost around $3.5 million, Kott said.

The roundabouts will allow traffic to flow more smoothly than intersections with traffic lights. That should ease the problem of line-ups at lights sometimes plugs up Embarcadero Road, Kott said.

The removed lanes would be replaced by bike lanes on each side of the street, Kott said.


Interesting take from Salon on the question "Did Gore invent the internet?" canard. Gore's mannerisms are bugging the oppostion, and even his supporters wish he could get that exaggeration thing under control. It doesn't bother me, because I see it as an artifact of his clumsy public speaking, not an attempt to deceive.

Like all politicians, he craves to tell people what they want to hear, and to feel the positive response that that brings. Clinton is really good at that sort of thing. Gore is hamstrung by his essential bias toward declarative statements, and the tendency to enlarge on facts. Bush? He's more in the feel-good, party-boy vein with Bill Clinton, ironically. He mostly is not troubled by an excess of facts in his head when he tries to tell people what they want to hear.

It's interesting to see how others react. I can just about feel Dave Winer's blood pressure rise, listening to Gore "...reciting his slogans over and over. And when his adversary is speaking, keep your mouth shut and listen attentively, as if what he was saying is important, because it is."

I wish I could experience true indecision on this, but W. grates on me the way Gore grates on Dave. They both did too much sloganeering (and W. has a lot of damn gall to be complaining about Gore's fuzzy math.

But as usual, Maureen sums things up better than I:

On the networks you could find the flatlining show you didn't want to watch, the tantric debate between the Insufferable and the Insufficient.

New subject, food for thought: In Defense of the Delete Key.


First thing this morning, at work, voicemail from our neighbor, too distraught to beat around the bush.

"Mr. P is dead."

Our beloved tomcat, who moved in on us 9 years ago, persisting against my chasing him away a couple times to protect our queen, and quickly winning us over with an affable, affectionate and fierce feline style, is no longer alive.

Bright green eyes, and the amazing energy of life.

The vet who "fixed" him said he was about 2 years old back then. Without being at all precocious, he probably sired some of the other cats living on the west bench these days. After recovery, he spent more time at home, and we were delighted to find out that his front paws were actually white, rather than grey.

We lived in his neighborhood, it seems; he got the most regular care and attention at our place, but there were others who could and would look after him (or not protect their pet food well enough). He was portly, even piggy at times, tending toward the phlegmatic, with a penchant for a certain chair, and plenty of sleep.

I took this picture of him less than 10 days ago, and I just happened to get lucky. He hopped up on a nylon tarp that matches his eyes, and gave me this level-headed, friendly, slightly curious, but calm gaze. I was the focus of his attention; he was the focus of mine. Talk about photogenic!

He was a powerful force in the neighborhood, the prime cat for several houses around. Plucky. A real pip.

He would wait for me to come home from work, he would trot up to meet me when I walked up to the house, he would come when I called. He was pleasant to almost everyone, always ready with a friendly rub from the side of his head.

Of course, he could be prickly if you petted him a little too far from his head and shoulders, or even just a little too long. Sometimes he would sit in my lap while I tried to read around him, and just purr like crazy, and after he'd had enough, he could give me a swipe hook without missing a beat. Testing the limits of his playfullness was best done with heavy leather gloves on to even the odds.

We're going to miss him. Mister Personality.


The thing that bugs me about having a camera is that it has a way of making you see the world reduced to a picture to be taken.

This morning as I rode to work, the marine layer was solid in one part of the sky, breaking up in another, and like so many boundaries, the place between was vibrant and filled with energy.

Marine layer breaking up over Peter Coutts road

I had my camera, and I was looking for the right tree silhouette to put in the foreground, looking behind me, looking off to the side, while I glided along Stanford Ave. next to the morning commute traffic.

Probably not a good thing that I'm so comfortable in traffic that I can just glide along with it and don't have to look where I'm going much... but the sky was really fascinating me, and I kept waiting for just the right combination.

I was running out of likely trees about the time the sun was lighting up the edges, and driving the dynamic range beyond what a CCD was going to handle, even as it made the scene more interesting than ever. I tried a shot with auto settings (I think), maybe doing a spot metering in the foreground shadowed trees and then pointing to the sky, then tried again with brightness up (or was it down?)...

That didn't work, but the first one at least captured what was happening with the clouds. I did my best to lighten and color up the foreground with Corel Photopaint.


Have you used speech recognition software yet? Some of it is pretty interesting. Yesterday, I got to recite my 12 digit AmEx number to a machine, which echoed it back to me and asked for me to confirm with "Yes" or "No." The answer was "yes," it got all twelve digits correct.

It would be interesting to have that program to play with, and experiment with some different accents. But with only ten possible choices -- an extremely limited domain -- it's not too surprising that software can do a pretty good job.

I got a copy of Dragon NaturallySpeaking with the Corel WordPerfect Suite a couple years ago, trained it to my voice, and used it a few times. It's fascinating to work with, if not a huge productivity boost for me. (I'm pretty good at typing, and stopped looking at the letters on the keys so long ago I can't remember what that was like.) It's not compelling, but a 2-year newer version (and a 2-year newer PC) are doubtless quite a bit more compelling in its ability to parse out connected speech. (Ironically, the "verdict" from the reviewer mentions that "it did have encounter difficulties with number handling.")

Of course, it doesn't understand me. (Almost no one does. :-)

I thought about all this when Jeanette and I had a brief exchange just before I went to work today, regarding the 2001 stickers for our license plates. I said,

If you use the car, put these stickers on.

She replied,

I don't plan to, but if I do, I will.

Perfectly intelligible, completely communicative, and it needed no elaboration, no more words. But can you imagine a machine parsing it, and apprehending the meaning, in, oh, a second or two?

Maybe someday, but not today.


Tom von Alten      tva_∂t_fortboise_⋅_org


Thursday, 08-Mar-2001 20:43:09 MST