The Thick and the Thin

Congratulations! This is the first installment in the exciting series, “The Thick and the Thin,” and You Are There!!

So anyway, I was going out to lunch with someone, and I observed a wooden letter “M” sitting in her car. She explained that “M” stood for “Mom” and that this was a Mother’s Day gift from her daughter. The wood was the same color on both sides, and she commented that it was not obvious which side was the front and which was the back. I said, “But this side is obviously the front.”

“How can you tell?”

“By the thin and thick lines.”

“Does that matter?”

“Yes, one way is forwards and the other is backwards.”

“How do you know?”

“Um, I work with fonts and stuff.”

Variations of the letter M

Variations of the letter M

The wooden letter looked somewhat like the letter at the top of the picture. The left-hand and right-hand copies show what the wooden letter looked like from the front and back.

OK, so like, suppose you’re some guy from ancient Rome wearing a toga. Your task is to chisel the letter “M” into a hunk of stone. Suppose that it doesn’t have to be a refined “M” but it can be a more informal “M” as shown in the bottom of the picture above. Your chisel is shaped basically like a giant flathead screwdriver. And you hold it at a certain angle as you chisel. Suppose that you hold the chisel like this:


Chiseling a stone

Chiseling a stone

You can see that with the chisel constantly held at this angle, a line going diagonally up and to the right will be thinner, and a line going diagonally down to the right will be thicker. So your “M” will look like the one on the lower left of the “M” picture.

Later on, your chiseling skills become more advanced and you can chisel out a fancy “M”; as you can guess, your “M” will resemble the one at the upper left of the picture. In fact, that “M” is the correct one, as you can easily verify by examining a letter “M” in this blog post.

Entertainment value of spam

Much spam starts off with some horrible misspelling of a word, so that it won’t be an exact duplicate of every other time they post the same thing. But it does have entertainment value, I think, which is enhanced by the misspelling.

Can I just say what a aid to find somebody who actually knows what theyre talking about on the internet. You undoubtedly know how you can convey an issue to gentle and make it important. Extra folks need to learn this and understand this aspect of the story. I cant imagine youre not more standard since you undoubtedly have the gift.

Um, yup, I always strive to be a aid to those extra folks. Maybe someday this can help me to become more standard.

I simply nedeed to thank you so much once more. I am not sure the things I would’ve undertaken in the absence of those hints discussed by you regarding this industry. It had been a frightful issue for me, nevertheless coming across your specialised tactic you managed the issue forced me to weep for contentment. Extremely thankful for your service and as well , believe you know what a powerful job your are doing teaching the others with the aid of your web site. More than likely you haven’t come across any of us.

Wow, I feel honored. Though it is a major goal of most writers, so few of them succeed in forcing their readers to weep for contentment.

And the wonderful positive critiques continue:

I rlealy appreciate free, succinct, reliable data like this.

You Sir/Madam are the enemy of cofnsuion everywhere!

Pin my tail and call me a donkey, that rlaely helped.

Normally I’m against kliling but this article slaughtered my ignorance.

It has been a while

Hi, folks, it’s been a while. Actually, about a year.

I have just been cleaning out my RSS reader. I had sorted the various feeds into folders, and there are some feeds in one folder that I actually still read, and many feeds in other folders that I haven’t read in a long time. I decided it was time to go through them all to see what was there.

My RSS reader allows one to “star” certain blog entries as being especially noteworthy. I thought that it might be interesting now to look back over these specially tagged entries and see what things had captured my interest back through the years. But I found that in the olden days, I would often “star” something that looked interesting but that I didn’t want to take the time to read at the moment. Of course, doing this over time resulted in an increasing backlog of “starred” items to read “someday.” And for a while, that is very much what happened. Finally about three years ago it seems that I came to my senses and “starred” items in a more reasonable fashion.

In order to clear out the blogs from my RSS reader that I didn’t read anymore, I decided that I would save links to any “starred” items that seemed worthy and then unsubscribe from all the blogs that I no longer read.

More than half of the blogs that I no longer read were left unread for a good reason: they were not being updated! Some of them hadn’t been updated in two or three years. So, following my plan, I looked for the “starred” items in order to save links to them. Quite a few of the “starred” items did not exist any longer. Some of their domains were gone entirely. A few of the blogs had moved to different domains, but since I hadn’t been reading them anymore, I didn’t know to follow them as they moved.

I thought that at least regarding writing frequency, I’m doing better than some of the blogs that I had once considered my favorites. After all, it’s been “only” a year since I’ve written, and I still have the same domain as I’ve had for the past ten years or so (though its content has varied drastically through the years).

The demise of incandescent light bulbs

Someone phoned me last year to tell me that GE closed its last incandescent bulb factory in the United States. This was a surprise to me. I had dabbled in those new-fangled CFL bulbs that were supposedly so efficient, but I had some difficulties with the ones I tried: (1) They started out very dim and it took a couple of minutes after you turned them on for them to reach their full brightness. (2) They did not respond to dimmer switches. Someone had pointed out a third drawback, that the bulbs contain mercury, so if you ever break one, Bad Things will happen. I can’t remember the last time I broke a light bulb (if ever), but items (1) and (2) are issues that you’d deal with every time you used the bulbs. And to add to that, I got a whole bunch of “daylight-colored” CFL bulbs. The color of their light is really creepy, so I had to swap them out for those now-antiquated incandescents.

But wait, how could this be? The last incandescent bulb factory in the United States? The article in the Washington Post actually heavily qualifies this (qualifying words are underlined): “The last major GE factory making ordinary incandescent light bulbs in the United States is closing this month.”

Also, I had only recently found a type of light bulb that I really liked (made by GE, oddly enough): the GE Reveal. The color of its light is very nice. You can easily sort out dark blue, black, and dark brown items of clothing to its light, something you can’t do with ordinary incandescent light bulbs. But was my new favorite bulb type already obsolete? Now I was worried.

Further research uncovered that legislation had already been passed to phase out incandescent light bulbs, apparently all the way back in 2007! And the phase-out starts in January 2012, which is right around the corner! GE assures me on their website that they’ll be right there with the latest technology to work around the limitations of the old-fashioned CFLs.

Apparently this sort of thing has been happening all around the world, so the US is just jumping on the bandwagon. I had no idea that a technology that had not quite matured was going to be essentially forced upon us. And if I wasn’t happy in 2010 with the state of CFLs, they must have been even worse back in 2007 when this legislation was passed.

Well, it’s a done deal now, so there’s nothing to do but hope that technology accelerates enough to give us some decent light bulbs. Only time will tell.

Structure of books

Can you make a point succinctly?

It’s not easy to be precise enough in one’s words to do this. Sometimes when I write something, the first draft sometimes ends up being too long, rambling, and not succinct enough. I’ll then make another pass through to edit out any redundant phrases or sentences to tighten it up. Sometimes after too much editing it will be difficult to think clearly about it, and I’ll set it aside and look at it again the next day. This particular post was sitting in the queue for quite some time.

Sometimes I read non-fiction books to get information, and I like the feeling that I’m learning something useful from the book.

Certain non-fiction books are specifically trying to present information to the reader, and if one of these books seems especially interesting or useful, I might go back over it again and take notes. This process helps to review the information but also lends some insight into the way the book was written and its structure. Sometimes I notice these things:

  1. Some books of this type have a clear hierarchical structure. They’re often divided into major parts, each with several chapters. Even without this hierarchy, they may have an introductory chapter to outline the topic and then a chapter for each item in the outline. I like this because when you’re reading it you have a sense of the structure that the information is fitting into. Also, it usually means the author had a good sense of the structure of the material and took the time to convey this.
  2. Some books of this type are more precise than others in making their points. Sometimes this isn’t evident on a first reading, but when I try to take concise notes I can see that the author was a bit wishy-washy about saying something definite. I wonder if this happened because the author didn’t know how to define things any better and hoped that some vague references would be enough for the reader to figure it out. Or maybe the author didn’t notice that the definitions were not clear. Or perhaps the author was in a hurry and couldn’t be bothered to make the effort to express the point precisely.

It’s great if a book does well on both the large-scale structure and the details. These qualities might be apparent even on the first reading; if so, the information was well suited to be presented in book form, as the structure and all the details are crucial to getting the point across.

If the top level structure is lacking, it’s difficult to grasp the scope of the material and hard to evaluate it; the reader feels lost and disoriented.

If the details are lacking, it feels like the book is largely padding and isn’t quite able to convey the information precsely; maybe the author had to stretch things out to fill the whole book, or could have edited it down to be more succinct and to the point.

I do have specific books in mind that have both qualities, and some that are lacking in each of the two. But those will be topics for another blog post.

Life before Google

At one time the TV show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” was so popular, it was on TV every night. And it turned out that anyone could play along with the game in real-time on their web site, and we were determined to try it.

Online, we could answer the questions right along with the contestants, and we got more points if we answered faster. And there was a wonderful brand new search engine that should get us the right answer more quickly. And no, it wasn’t Google, but I think Google might have been part of it. This search engine used several other search engines and showed a bar graph of all the results it got. Surely we’d get the right answer faster using all those search engines instead of just one.

Unfortunately, all that using multiple search engines seemed to do was make the search very slow. In a timed game, slow searches didn’t help us.

It was quite a bit later before one of us discovered that Google found the right answer most of the time in a fraction of a second. Sitting and waiting 20 seconds or more for all those search engines seemed pointless. If the answer didn’t come up in Google the first time, we could try a second search query, and still get our answer before that other multi-pronged search engine had found anything.

Even though I remember it, it’s hard for me to imagine that there was an Internet before Google. There were a bunch of slow, inefficient search engines which weren’t likely to help you find what you needed. So how did you find things on the Internet? Why, you simply used the item pictured below. I actually have this, so I know it exists. I swear, I’m not making this up. It’s not a PhotoShopped image. This item really existed.

The Internet Yellow Pages

An anachronistic book

The cover tells us a lot of interesting things. They printed over one million of these books! And looking at the picture on the front tells you the vast diversity of things you could do on the Internet; you can see some exciting objects orbiting the earth. Behind the earth are some sort of dark red rays. Maybe we’re floating in space and the earth is eclipsing the sun, and we can see the sun’s rays shooting out from behind the earth, and we used a special filtered lens so the rays appear dark red on a red background.

Anyway, just look at the excitement that awaits you on the Internet! Orbiting the earth, you can see an envelope, a baseball, a telephone, musical notes, a newspaper, a floppy disk, three aces from a deck of cards, an artist’s palette, and a thick purple book with five pages whose title starts with “HAN”. To show how global this truly is, you can see a thin dotted line bouncing across Canada all the way to Japan. And to show how easily we can access these exciting orbiting objects, a bunch of purple dots come out of Juneau, Alaska hopping all the way out to the purple book. (I’m not sure about the places; the shapes of the continents only vaguely resemble ours.) And no less an authority than The Wall Street Journal tells us how vital it is that we use this book:

“…a must-have book for anyone who wants to explore the vast reaches of the Internet….Don’t venture into the ether without it.”

–The Wall Street Journal

Technology and style

The slightly less young among us remember how computers have changed over the years. Even if we limit our thoughts to what we now call a “PC” (which used to be called “IBM compatible” or a “PC clone”), there have been changes.

IBM’s original design for its popular “AT” computer was gray and beige, and when compatible desktop computers first became available in the late 1980s, the official color of computers was beige. This carried through to computer accessories such as keyboards, mice, printers, and scanners as well: everything was beige. (Even the first Macintosh computer was gray-beige-ish.) Did someone declare that computers shall be beige, and everyone just had to comply? Or maybe people just took it for granted that computers are obviously beige, and that’s just The Way Things Are.

This beigeness continued throughout the 1990s. As the 90s progressed, companies of all sorts were now trying to sound modern by including “2000” in their product or company names. “Gateway 2000” was a popular maker of (beige) computers. The Shell gas station on the corner offered three grades of gas, called “SR-2000”, “SU-2000”, and “UR-2000”, or something like that. Also, to emphasize how modern we all felt, every company suddenly decided to use a curved “swoosh” in their logo. Yes, these were exciting times.

The guy at the local donut shop kept asking me about what was going to come of all this “Y2K” stuff. I realized that it must be vastly over-hyped. If your bank gave you a 30-year mortgage anytime after 1970, their computers already had to know how to store dates after the year 2000. I half expected that from time to time, other common programming bugs might come into the news. Maybe some important piece of software would cause a newsworthy mishap because its loops went one iteration too far, and then there would be an “off-by-one” craze. There could be a lucrative business in having software certified for being completely free of all off-by-one errors in its loop counters.

Anyway, at some point in the early 2000s, someone rethought the beige thing and decided that henceforth, all computers shall be black. Later on they decided to cut them some slack and allow some silver parts as well. Peripherals were allowed to have bits of gray or beige as decoration. (Since then they’ve decided to allow other colors, especially in laptops.)

As I recall, sometime after that, LCD monitors became the norm. I once owned a CRT monitor from that era that was colored black and silver. But soon even the guy to whom I usually gave all my technological surplus no longer wanted any CRTs. I actually had a black and silver CRT monitor, and it went to be recycled because nobody wanted it.

Having a clear memory of the black computer revolution occuring first, being followed by the LCD revolution, I was surprised upon going through some old items around the house to have my memory jogged by finding not one, but two of these things:

A real anachronism

A real anachronism

I had totally forgotten about this! I would have thought this to be an anachronism, since we all know that the edict of blackness came before LCDs, but yet there it is.

Life and the Prisoner’s Dilemma

Sometimes another person does something that you’re not happy with. At times you might not even know exactly what they did, but something they did made you unhappy.

Maybe you’re thinking, “I would like to know how to deal with people when they do things that I’m not happy with. But how do I know whose advice to believe? If only there were a mathematically proven technique that I could use with complete confidence.”

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

The classic story of the Prisoner’s Dilemma involves two suspects. The police don’t quite have enough evidence to convict either of them. So they offer each guy a deal if he rats out the other guy.

Here’s how it works. If suspect A gives the police information that they can use to convict suspect B, they let suspect A go free and suspect B goes to jail for a year, as long as suspect B keeps quiet. Similarly, if only suspect B provides information about A to the police, A goes to jail for a year and B goes free. But both A and B provide the police with information about each other, they both go to jail for three months. And if neither suspect gives the police any information, the police hold them both for only a month and then let them go.

How should suspect A decide what to do? Well, suppose B remains silent. If A gives the police information, he’ll go free! If A says nothing, he’ll be held for a month along with B. So if B is silent, A is better off giving information to the police.

But suppose now that B does give the police information about A. If A also gives the police information, he goes to jail for three months (along with B). And if A keeps quiet, he goes to jail for a year! So if B provides the police with information, A is again better off giving information to the police rather than keeping silent.

So regardless of whether B gives the police any information, A spends less jail time if he talks than if he remains silent. So logically, A should rat out B for his own benefit.

Here’s the strange part: the same logic applies from B’s perspective! So if both A and B do the logical thing, they both give information to the police about each other and end up spending three months in jail. But this is somehow not the best outcome for either of them. If only they had both kept quiet, they’d only have had to stay in custody for one month, not three!

Repeating the process

Now suppose that A and B made some decision (we don’t care what, for the moment) and one or both of them spent some time in jail, and now they’re both free. You’d think they’d learn from their mistakes, but you’d be mistaken. They both get arrested again! And the police offer them both exactly the same deal as before!

Now what should they do? The logic isn’t so clear-cut, because each person knows what the other one chose to do last time. At any rate, they both make some choice, and one or both of them again spend some time in jail.

Well, now they’re done, right? Surely by now they’ve figured out that crime doesn’t pay. But yet for a third time they find they are both arrested and offered yet again the same deal by the police.

So given that this situation could get repeated endlessly, what strategy should they use? Let’s call their two choices “cooperate” (that is, remain silent) and “defect” (that is, rat out the other guy to the police). If they both always cooperate, they both keep going to jail for only a month. But at any time, one guy could defect, and if his friend remains silent, the guy who defected goes free! Of course now his friend may not trust him anymore and may not be so willing to cooperate in the future.

A computer simulation

One could simulate this situation on a computer easily enough. This would make it easy to repeat the scenario many times.

You could write different programs or “apps” to use different strategies. One app could always cooperate. Another might cooperate most of the time but defect occasionally. Yet another app could add up the total number of times the other guy defected and base its decision on that. Another app might randomly cooperate or defect at its whim. You could then have these apps go against one another and see which app spends the least time in jail.

Someone did just that! A contest was held, and people submitted their apps and they all competed against each other.

And was there a winner? Yes, there was! The most consistently winning strategy was called “tit for tat.” This particular app starts out by cooperating, and after that it does whatever its “opponent” did on the previous iteration. The “tit for tat” app beat many other apps with more complex strategies.

This app was aware of what its opponent did, but it had a short memory. A defection by its opponent would be “retaliated” against with one defection, and then “tit for tat” would go back to steadily cooperating as long as its opponent did that too.

The final answer

So it’s now been mathematically proven what you should do when someone does something that makes you unhappy.

Well, partly, anyway. It doesn’t say what action you should take initially.

But the winning “tit for tat” app clearly shows this: if someone did something you didn’t like and you’ve already done something about it, the best thing you can do after that is to let it go.

The value of things

Recently I watched some episodes of a TV show called “Storage Wars.” The show is about people who bid on the contents of storage units. These room-sized units are being auctioned off because the original owners of the contents didn’t pay the rental fee for a certain number of months.

The rules are as follows: at the start of each auction, the bidders get five minutes to look into the unit. The bidders can look from the outside but they can’t go in or touch anything. After the five-minute examination, the bidding begins, and the unit is sold to the highest bidder. The final bid is usually between $100 and $1500. The new owners hope to sell the contents for more than they paid. If they’re lucky, they can make thousands of dollars in profit on a single storage unit.

But if they make thousands of dollars in profit, it means that someone stored thousands of dollars worth of stuff in a storage unit, and then couldn’t afford to pay for the storage!

Typically the rental of a storage unit costs $150-$700 per month depending on the size. So it would appear that the original owner of the valuable stuff made a huge mistake. Selling the stuff would have paid for several months of storage. Not only that, selling the stuff would remove the need for storage entirely.

What’s going on here

Why would someone do this? Well, even among the show’s regular cast of bidders, not everyone bids on every storage unit. The bidders own different types of stores and they have different resources for selling things. They’ll only bid on a unit if they think they would be able to sell the contents. So perhaps the original owner simply didn’t have the resources to sell their stuff.

I could almost see that as an easy way to get rid of unwanted junk; put it all in a storage unit and just walk away.

But still, why did the original owner store these things in the first place?

Price and value

In many stores, each item has been pre-assigned a price. We may imagine that each item has a “true value”; if we think the asking price is close to that “true value” we may decide to buy it. But sometimes the “true value” isn’t so clear:

  • In some environments (certain street markets, for example) it is expected that bargaining will take place. Even here, at a car dealership, nobody expects to just pay what it says on the sticker; there’s a complex bargaining ritual involved.
  • At a deli where I grab lunch, a bottle of water costs $1.50, but in the supermarket I can get a package of 24 of the very same bottles of water for $6, maybe even $4 if it’s on sale.
  • I asked someone once about the value of some old tools, and he said, “There’s no correct answer. They’re worth whatever someone is willing to pay for them.”

On the TV show, when the bidders get a storage unit, they don’t always know the value of the stuff. Often they take things to an expert in some field, such as a jeweler, a comic book store, a museum, or whatever. The expert can tell them what someone would be willing to pay for their stuff, and they accept that as its “true value”: whatever someone is willing to pay for it.

Value isn’t what it used to be

One does hear about cases where old stuff is worth even more than you’d ever imagine. But the value of stuff can also dramatically decrease over time. Just being old doesn’t automatically make something valuable.

Different mindsets may be at play here. If you had lived during the Great Depression in the 1930s, it would make perfect sense to save certain things because you literally might not be able to afford to buy them later if you needed them. If your parents or grandparents are of that era, you may have absorbed some of this mindset. Consider too the increased amount and effectiveness of advertising in recent years, and one can begin to imagine why many people nowadays hoard their stuff.

Sometimes getting rid of old stuff feels “wrong.” How can something that was once valuable now be junk? But the aggregation of stuff itself decreases its value. As unwanted clutter, things can have a negative value! They can eat away at the ambience and livability of your space.

More about hoarding in a future blog post…

Water memory

On more than one occasion I had a plastic bottle (which I had bought originally containing bottled water) that I was refilling at a water fountain, when a passer-by informed me, “You shouldn’t be doing that. When you refill a plastic bottle, the plastic releases evil chemicals into the water.”

Knowing the universal truths of “natural = good” and “man-made = bad”, I was of course quite concerned about this. These evil chemicals were almost certainly man-made.

I queried my informants as to whether I should be concerned about evil chemicals having leaked into the water that had already been in the bottle when I bought it. They said no, it was only when the bottle was refilled that one should be concerned.

Only one explanation could be consistent with what I was being told. This technologically advanced bottle must be specially designed to bond with the original water that it contains. When you refill it, the bottle must access its water memory and do a comparison. If it finds a mismatch, it says to itself, “Hey! This water is not the original water that I contained!” And that’s when it releases the evil chemicals.

Maybe this special programming is an anti-piracy safeguard. The water manufacturers probably lose huge amounts of money due to water piracy, and this allows them to keep their prices low, passing the savings onto us, their loyal non-pirate consumers.

From all the talk about PET and BPA and whatnot there still doesn’t seem to be a clear consensus about this stuff. I’m so glad these random experts were around to properly advise me.