Why I Support NPR

NPR closed “All Things Considered
with a story on Fox’s upcoming
Tonya
Harding-Amy Fisher
boxing match. Then
show ended, and local NPR-guy Norm Howard came on to announce traffic and weather.
“And that’s why we ask for your contributions,” he said in his dry baritone.

I’m not sure if he meant, “because we provide you with hardhitting high-quality
stories like that one,” or “because otherwise, our staff will have to scrabble
for a living any way they can, hint, hint.” Either way, it was pretty darn funny.

OK, so you want even funnier than those pranksters at NPR?
Well, how about C|NET? Today they had
a guest article on web services.
The author was Frank Moss, who came out swinging at Microsoft, IBM, Sun, and BEA
(how sad that everyone’s forgotten about HP). After jeering at the big vendors,
Moss says (warning: marketroid language ahead, may not be appropriate for sensible readers):

Okay, that’s the pain–now for the pain reliever.

What I see emerging is a new layer of vendor-neutral software that sits on top of the Web services platforms from all the major players–the “Web services automation” layer. [Emphasis mine]

Hmmmm, I thought. What the heck is “web services automation”? This would
require further research.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to go too far.
Moss is CEO of Bowstreet, a software
company that “unleashes the power of web services”. Here’s an excerpt from
a helpful page titled, “Our
solutions
“:

What is the Bowstreet Business Web Factory?

The next-generation web services automation system, which works across
heterogeneous web services platforms and provides the capability for modeling,
assembly, dynamic change management and mass customization…
[Emphasis mine]

Well, OK, I still have no idea what a “web services automation” system is. But
surprise, surprise — Moss is selling one!

Yes, yes, I know. C|NET and all the rest of the industry rags aren’t even close to
legitimate journalism. They are merely conduits of
FUD and
advertisement. But sheesh, they could try a little harder. Keep
up a pretense, you know?

All Hail Liquid Nitrogen

I did it! I compiled the Dada Engine!
So far I only have it working on the commandline on my webhost’s server.
I haven’t gotten a chance to do much much than run the default scripts.
But I have a new toy to play with… oh boy oh boy oh boy…

From the Yeah, what I said department:
Michael Lewis asks, “Are
Enron Workers Owed Anything?

For the most part, workers held shares voluntarily and could have sold them, and diversified their
portfolios, at any time. The reason they didn’t is that they were greedy: They had seen Enron’s
stock rocket and decided the smart thing to do was bet that it would keep rocketing. It’s sad for
them that it didn’t, but should the rest of us be responsible for them, any more than we feel
responsible for people who sunk their life savings into TheStreet.com Inc.?

Finally, what no science major should be without:
1001
things to do with liquid nitrogen
. Boy do I miss liquid nitrogen.

A Liquid Nitrogen Haiku

In a vapor wreath

my palm is shielded from the
frigid droplet’s sting

My favorite item on the list is the first one, making
ice cream — although fer crissakes, you can use better ingredients than
yogurt (as the site suggests). Here’s a
more
sensible recipe
… should you just happen to have a dewar lying around.

Save Ken Lay!

Listen up, people.

We know Ken Lay isn’t such a bad guy. We know that

according to Linda Lay
, he’s a decent, upright individual.
And despite that undeniable fact, the arrogant
international press sees
fit to insult this fine American entrepreneur in his time of need.

Well, I’m not going to stand for it.



Amazon Honor System

Click Here to Pay Learn More


I urge you all to click on the box above right now and
give what you can to the Kenneth and Linda Lay Emergency Relief Fund. I know
that in these days of terrorism, war, and crony capitalism, it’s sometimes
hard to see that we are all just human beings, doing our best
to live, love, and make ends meet. Doesn’t poor Ken deserve that chance, just
like the rest of us? Prick him, does he not bleed?

Together, we can make a difference.

Lessons from the Slopes

I just got back from a ski trip to Big Bear (with a brief stopover in
Santa Barbara to visit Rachel). Joining me on the trip were Nancy,
Mike,
Eric, Susan, Byron, and Karen. My philosophy is that all
trips are in some way educational. On this particular excursion to
exotic Southern California, I learned the following:

  • Rachel is doing fine, but she has become very annoyed with another
    graduate student who is working with her on the same giant project.
    “I’ve decided to use my knowledge from my sociology classes to crush her,”
    Rachel said. No, Rachel, no! You must learn to use your powers only
    for Good, never Evil!

  • Rachel’s husband Ben seems to be doing just ducky. He always seems
    to be doing just ducky. I think I’m not very good at reading him.

  • It is good to know friends who have friends who have large cabins
    with vaulted ceilings in which you may stay for free.

  • Lucky Charms are, cup for cup, healthier than Kellogg’s Raisin Bran.
    Lucky Charms are equal or better in every vitamin/nutrient category,
    and they actually have fewer calories. The one category where Raisin
    Bran wins is fiber: 28% RDA to 7% RDA. But who needs regular BMs
    when you can have purple horseshoes and red balloons?

  • Skiing in 50 degree weather is really nice, aside from the occasional
    slushy patch.

  • Skiing in rental boots is not so nice, particularly when they give
    you blisters on your calves.

  • Proficiency in Boggle does not translate into proficiency in
    Scattergories (vindication for the domain-specific knowledge
    theory of intelligence?)

  • The official legal way to refer to
    insider
    trading
    ” is to call it a “Section 10(b)-5 violation”.

  • Contrary to popular myth, in blackjack a “bad” third base player
    does not affect the odds
    of another player winning or losing. Consider the following example:

    Dealer is showing 12, and so will bust if he draws a 10.
    The deck has N cards:  
      G   "good" cards (tens), 
      N-G "bad" cards (non-tens).
    
    If the third base player stays, the dealer's odds of busting are
    simply G/N.
    
    If the third base player hits, there are two cases:
    
      Case 1: a G/N chance he receives a "good" card.  There are then G-1 
      good cards left, so the dealer's odds of busting are now (G-1)/(N-1).
    
      Case 2: a (N-G)/N chance he receives a "bad" card.  The dealer's odds
      of busting are now G/(N-1).
    
    The total odds of the dealer busting are therefore:
    
      (odds of Case 1) x (odds that dealer busts given Case 1)
        + (odds of Case 2) x (odds that dealer busts given Case 2)
    
    Or:
    
      (G/N) x (G-1)/(N-1) + (N-G)/N x G/(N-1)
    
    which is, putting everything under a common denominator:
    
       G x (G-1)   (N-G) x G
       --------- + ---------
       N x (N-1)   N x (N-1) 
    
    which is, expanding and cancelling terms:
    
       G^2 - G + GN - G^2      GN - G       G x (N-1)     G
       ------------------  =  ---------  =  ---------  =  -
            N x (N-1)         N x (N-1)     N x (N-1)     N
    
    Which is the same result as if the third base player had stayed.
    

Alexander the Great

It looks like there’s going to be an Alexander the Great movie coming to
theaters around Christmas 2003.

The good news is that the part of Alexander will be played by Heath Ledger.
The bad news is that the part of the director will be played by Oliver Stone.

Ledger is a brilliant choice. Right age, right talent, right looks.
As for Stone… considering his total disregard for historical fact,
I shudder to think what he’ll do with this one. Particularly since
if anything, we Americans know less about Alexander than we do about
JFK or Nixon.

I learned a new metric unit of measurement today:

milliHelen
the amount of physical beauty required to launch one ship; 1/1000 of a Helen

Lord knows that one’s going to come in handy.

Damning Stephen King

Well, this is just sad. I’ve been running the Kenneth and Linda Lay
Emergency Relief Fund since the month began, and how much have we
received so far? One dollar. One stinking dollar. What’s the matter
with you people? Where’s the compassion? Where’s the love?

There’s a rather
stupid article on Stephen King’s retirement
up at Salon.com. The article isn’t
quite as bad as the
“Lord of the Rings”
vs. “Star Wars”
article that appeared last month, but it’s close.

Let’s give the author some credit: he is brave enough to admit that he likes
some of Stephen King’s work. True, he establishes right at the beginning
Stephen King is at best “unpolished”… and he feels he has to sprinkle a little reference to
Tom Wolfe here and a firsthand account of a New Yorker
awards ceremony there, just so we know his literary street cred is intact. But
at least he lays the groundwork for a real critique — you can’t reduce his article to,
“Stephen King sux!” So that’s something, at least.

Still, this sort of damning-with-faint-praise really gets under my skin. Why
is it each time a “literary” writer refers to a
science fiction, fantasy, horror, romance, or mystery novelist, they have to play
footsies? “When I was a child I just loved Writer X — golly, she was
such rip-roaring fun!” God forbid you should come right out and say, “I like Terry
Brooks!” “Orson Scott Card is A-OK!”

(For the record: I’ve never been all that fond of Stephen King’s fiction,
and Terry Brooks was only rip-roaring fun when I was a child. There, now that
my street cred is preserved, let’s move on…)

Anyway, the really silly part comes on the second page, where the author tries
to portray King as estranged from his fans, hiding behind legal warnings:

Consider the series of questions and answers his Web site, StephenKing.com, provides
for fans. “Will he read my manuscript?” Nope. “To avoid any litigation problems, he
has been advised by his agents not to look at any manuscript that has not been accepted
by a publisher.” Does he accept story ideas? “To avoid any litigation problems, he has
been advised … ” Can he help find an agent? “There being some legal problems with this … ”
You get the picture. King has built a tall, spiked, wrought-iron fence around himself, and hung a
“Beware of (Rabid) Dog” sign on it.

Eh? I’m not aware of any published author who reads strangers’ manuscripts,
accepts strangers’ story ideas, or helps strangers find an agent. If you know
of one, let me know, because I sure could use someone to
hold my hand while I find an agent…

No, King is absolutely right about the legal problems, but let’s face it:
he’s being polite to use that as an excuse. I can’t imagine how many
submissions he would get from his millions of fans if he offered to read
manuscripts… but I know it would put poor,
overworked Tim to shame.

I dunno. Salon.com must really be in its death-throes, publishing obtuse
articles just to provoke a response. After all, these days they’re presenting
product press
releases as journalism
. It’s all downhill from here.

That’s about it. Oh, except I bought a copy of Windows 2000 and did a clean install on
my PC. I thought that would solve certain issues once and for all, but it doesn’t
seem to have helped a bit. And here I was being good, not buying a cracked version of the OS.
I hate, hate, hate, Microsoft. That’s the last cent I pay them, ever.

Edit, April 2003: Hang in there, Evan-from-February-2002. Salvation is just around the corner…

Ruthless Sons of Bitches

According to a USGS
report on US gemstone consumption
, the numbers for 1999 and 2000 were the following:

Stones (cut but unset) 1999 2000
Carats Value (US$) Carats Value (US$)
Diamonds 19.2 million 9.16 billion 19.5 million 11.3 billion
Emeralds 5.04 million 183 million 22.1 million 176 million
Rubies & Sapphires 11.2 million 239 million 12.9 million 241 million

So in the U.S. market in 2000, cut-but-unset diamonds were worth (per carat)
72.8x more than emeralds, and 31.0x more than rubies & sapphires. Interesting.

Yesterday Dad cooked rack of lamb for dinner. It was just us guys — Mom was out
of town, and Sarah had an “emergency birthday party” to attend.
We mostly told stories about Grandpa and talked about
IntraOp. Good news — they’ve just
signed a new manufacturing deal with a new company.
Hopefully the new partner, unlike the old one, won’t simply renege on their
contract because they judge that course of action to be more profitable.
So that’s one problem down. Now for more funding…

It’s been so frustrating to watch IntraOp limp along so undercapitalized
for so long… always, there’s never been quite enough money to manufacture
that next machine, hire another sales rep, … you name it, they didn’t have it.
It was particularly painful during the Internet boom, where you had companies burning through
ten million dollars a month with no business model whatsoever — while IntraOp
was spending two orders of magnitude less money, and selling a real product that
cures cancer (and for a actual profit, imagine that!)
I think Dad’s problem is that he’s too honest. “How can I ask someone to invest
in a company without telling them exactly what they’re getting into?”

What’s happening to our family? Grandpa George was a successful businessman. On
the other side of the family, my great-grandfather was even more successful
(because, as my uncle says, “he was a ruthless son of a bitch.”) But we Goers
and Harmans and Kellstedts seem to be losing our edge. My fathers and uncles
have struggled mightly to get their businesses off the ground. and my sisters
and cousins have shown no interest in entrepreneurship at all.

Over the last few years I’ve read maybe over a hundred magazine articles
that have extolled the virtues of The American Entrepreneur: being tough and fast
and smart and blah blah blah. The funny thing is that the real
entrepreneurs that I’ve spoken to all tell me the same thing: at any moment,
your small business could be crushed. A big company will just take over the
market and squash you. Or someone will rip off your patent, or
refuse to pay for inventory, or renege in some other way. The sad part is,
for a small business it doesn’t matter whether you’re in the legal right. As
Mike likes to point out, justice, like medicine, is
expensive. You might win your lawsuit, but it’ll probably be far too little,
too late to save your livelihood.

My impression of the entrepreneurial world? It’s not really about being tough
and fast and smart (although that helps). It mostly has to do with luck. And
it probably has something to do with being a ruthless son of a bitch.

That’s why I like writing. The luck part is clear enough, but the son-of-a-bitch
part is completely optional.

Rope ‘em and brand ‘em

M’ris reminds me why we need engagement
rings. “Silly Evan,” she says, it’s because “paying off med school loans doesn’t
give a physical mark saying, ‘Hands off! This woman is property!’”
Sheesh, I can’t believe I forgot about that.

We then discussed alternative solutions for the problem:

Mris:  >> Maybe a tattoo would work....

Me:    > Now *that's* using the ol' noggin!  The only problem is, 
       > the tattoo idea needs to hit "critical mass" in the public 
       > consciousness, otherwise it won't act as a deterrent to all 
       > those unscrupulous predators out there.  Kind of a 
       > chicken-and-egg problem there.

M'ris: Ahh, but the tattoo just needs to be on the forehead and 
       read "taken."  Subtlety is quite overrated.  Then as the custom 
       evolves, it can become simply a t or something like that.

When I brought up this issue with Mike, he immediately
launched into a discussion of property law. In the 19th century, some whalers
would hunt whales by firing harpoons from shore. However, there were
many whalers, and when you’d shoot a whale, it would dive, swim off for a while,
and then beach itself and die. There was no way to tell who owned
the carcass. So each whaler had to decorate his harpoons in a distinctive manner.
(The decorated harpoons were called, “waifs”.)

I’m not quite sure what this has to do with marriage, and I’m not sure I
want to know.

In Other News: On Poker Night this week, we only had three people (two of our
regulars were out of town). So there weren’t enough for poker. However, our host,
Page, has been trying to get us to play
Mordheim
for a long time now. I admit, I had been cool to the idea of playing Mordheim — I’m not
really into miniature-strategy games. But Page finally wore me down — “You can play
a squad of human mercenaries, undead, rat-men, battle nuns…”

Battle Nuns?! Why didn’t you say so in the first place!

So it turns out that basic rules in Mordheim are easy to learn, set-up is fast,
and the game has a cool 3-D aspect to it. And the best part is that a match takes
less than two hours (even if you choose to fight until one side is
completely wiped out — or as we call it, “To the Pain!”TM).

Anyway, I am proud to report that my crack warband of Battle Nuns carried the day
against Page’s foul undead legions. Once again the Pants of Evil have been yanked
down by the Mocking Hands of Justice! Page, good sport that he is,
commemorated the battle in a news report.

Finally, last night I saw Monster’s Ball
with Mike, Nancy, and Sam in downtown
San Jose. It was a decent
flick (I loved the nearly wordless ending scene — Halle Berry can act.)
Unfortunately there was a jackass right behind us who had an inappropriate laugh or
comment every minute-and-a-half. Yes, these jerks are in the artsier theaters, too.

Nancy then took us to Picasso’s, where we ordered tapas and a bottle of wine.
M’ris! Wake up, pay attention — they had tapas! I found tapas! And this reminds
me, it’s time for another winelog entry:

Campillo, Spain, 1996 Crianza: ¡Bueno!

Diamonds are a girl’s best friend?

Happy Valentine’s Day! I just finished reading an interesting
Atlantic article,
Have You Ever
Tried To Sell A Diamond?

Until the late nineteenth century, diamonds were found only in a few riverbeds
in India and in the jungles of Brazil, and the entire world production of gem
diamonds amounted to a few pounds a year. In 1870, however, huge diamond mines
were discovered near the Orange River, in South Africa, where diamonds were soon
being scooped out by the ton. Suddenly, the market was deluged with diamonds. The
British financiers who had organized the South African mines quickly realized that
their investment was endangered; diamonds had little intrinsic value — and their
price depended almost entirely on their scarcity.

And thus, the DeBeers cartel was formed. DeBeers completely
controls the world’s diamond supply, maintaining artificial scarcity and
artificially high prices. Those who defy the cartel (like
Zaire in 1981)
suffer the consequences.

But who cares? Diamonds are a luxury item. No one forces you to buy them… right?

Nope. Every American man is expected to spend, at a minimum, two months
salary on a diamond engagement ring. Two months salary (before taxes?) on a
pretty rock that should be about as valuable as jade or amber. And why,
pray tell?

Because DeBeers says you should. The culture of buying staggeringly expensive
diamond jewelry to cement your engagement did not exist until sixty years
ago
. But in 1938, DeBeers created
the “Diamonds are Forever” marketing campaign, and the rest is history.
In twenty years, the American psyche was transformed. At the end of the 1950s
DeBeers was able to crow,
“Since 1939 an entirely new generation of young people has grown to marriageable age.
To this new generation a diamond ring is considered a necessity to
engagements by virtually everyone.”

Not that any of this is news. The Atlantic article I cited dates back to 1982.
Economics and marketing professors have used the DeBeers cartel as a
case
study
for years. It’s a fascinating issue, from an academic perspective.

Unfortunately, there’s no avoiding the result — you can’t get married in this
country without giving your sweetie the biggest, bestest rock you can afford.
End of story. Even questioning the idea makes me sound cheap, doesn’t it?
That’s how ingrained the whole thing is.

Listen, I’ve got no problem dishing out the cash… if that’s what it takes to prove
my undying devotion, so be it. I just resent that a ruthless cartel is forcing me
to spend money on a near-worthless object. (And let’s not
forget that these days, there is no way to know if you are buying a
conflict diamond“, which
is the sanitized way of saying “thugocracy diamond” or “rape-and-murder diamond”.)
All I’m saying is, why not spend the money on something positive? For example:

“Darling, I can’t imagine spending the rest of my life without you. And to cement
our relationship, please do me the honor of allowing me to pay back the next two
years of your med school loans.”

Or how about:

“Darling, I can’t imagine spending the rest of my life without you. And to cement
our relationship, I want to give you a really special gift.
Let’s go get your teeth straightened, like you’ve always wanted!”

Who knew I was such an
incurable romantic?

Florida Funeral

I wasn’t going to comment on my grandfather’s funeral in Florida, but I’ve changed
my mind. Just a few words on the rabbi:

  • He was over an hour late. This was due to traffic — although one of the
    mourners, coming from the same direction, managed to make it nearly on
    time by taking backstreets.

  • He arrived wearing:

    • a white jacket and shirt
    • black pants
    • black shoes with large gold buckles
    • a yellow tie, askew
    • a deep orange tan


  • My aunt had given him some anecdotes about my grandfather the day before.
    She was concerned about whether the rabbi had gotten everything down
    properly, because the conversation happened over a cell phone, while
    he was driving. My aunt took him aside right before the ceremony to make
    sure he had everything straight. It was a good thing she did — he had everything
    completely mangled.

  • The non-mangled eulogy wasn’t a big improvement. He managed to get my
    grandfather’s Hebrew name wrong, and he mangled a few of the dates. (Grandpa
    came to the States in 1920, not 1912 — a significant distinction, because he
    spent those eight formative years starving in war-torn Poland.)

On the other hand, he drove off in a Mercedes S500 sedan. I can only surmise that the
whole late-to-the-funeral, wear-tacky-clothes, and offend-the-grieving-aunts-and-cousins
gig is, at some level, working out for him.