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.

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.

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.

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.

Bathroom technology 3

I remembered this commercial for some odd features:

Here are the things I noticed:

  • The bears communicate through telepathy. Their mouths aren’t moving when they talk. That would appear to give bears an advantage over us non-psychic humans.
  • They have to decide how much bathroom tissue to use first. Under the bears’ system, they have to predict how much they’re going to need ahead of time, and then go off and do their thing. I would guess that very early on, humans saw the folly of such a system (if indeed any humans ever bothered to even try it). I for one have never been a guest at anyone’s house and seen the TP out in the hallway where you had to make a prediction and take some before entering the bathroom.

It’s really a happy ending. Any concerns one might have had about intelligent psychic bears gaining dominance over us humans are eventually quashed. Any species who would use such an obviously inefficient system is clearly no match for us.

Unauthorized information and software development

So what information are we talking about here, and who has to authorize it?

Software depends on knowledge to make something work. As a house is built upon its foundation, software is built on certain types of knowledge that the developer believes to be stable.

Much software is written with a certain operating system in mind. For example, someone might have started out to write a program for Windows. How does the developer know how to make a program that will run on Windows? Well, Microsoft provides documentation on how to do this, and based on this documentation, the developer can access features in the operating system and produce a program that works correctly. This type of information is referred to nowadays as an Application Program Interface (API). If someone creates software (such as an operating system) that is intended to be used by other software, they generally document an API that gives this other software some reliable knowledge to build on.

So how can this information be “unauthorized”? Let’s go back in time to the early 1980s. At that time, a home computer was likely to be one of these:

  • Apple ][
  • Atari 800
  • Commodore 64
  • IBM PC (at first this was more of an office machine)

Of these, only the IBM PC has true “descendants” to this day. In fact, it is possible that someone could have written a program to work on an early IBM PC, and this program could still run on a modern computer. (I know this for a fact, as I wrote such a program.) How could this be?

Back in the early 1980s, IBM published the source code to its BIOS (Basic Input/Output System). This code contained copious comments (comments are text that doesn’t do anything computer-wise but provides the reader of the code with information). These comments documented the API of how one could write programs that worked on an IBM PC.

As a quick digression, it took some creativity for someone to figure out how to legally create an IBM PC “clone” that could run programs compatibly. Source code is generally considered the property of its creator, and it would have been illegal for someone to take the source code of IBM’s BIOS and copy it into their own BIOS. IBM published the source code but they still owned a copyright to it. So these “clone” creators wrote their own document containing only the API information, and passed it off to their own developers who were strictly forbidden from looking at the IBM source code. It turned out that it was legal for them to develop their own BIOS with the same API as long as they were not actually copying their code from IBM’s source code.

Anyway, software developers are a creative bunch, and wanted their programs to work as well as possible. This created a bit of a controversy. IBM had some functions in the BIOS to create text and graphics on the screen, and they said they wanted developers to please use their API to create their text and graphics. If they did this, IBM would guarantee that the same API would work for future IBM computers that hadn’t been invented yet.

But developers decided to ignore this request from IBM. They could look at the BIOS source code and see the workings of these text and graphics functions. The developers found that if they accessed the graphics hardware directly instead of using IBM’s API, their programs would run noticeably faster.

The developers were taking a risk here. Hypothetically, IBM could invent a new graphics card and change their graphics hardware completely. Along with this, IBM would also have to modify its BIOS code to work with this new graphics hardware. If developers used IBM’s API (as IBM had asked them to), their programs would continue to work. But if developers accessed the graphics hardware directly, their programs would no longer work with these hypothetical new graphics cards. If the developers complained to IBM, then IBM could say, “We warned you that you should have used our API. You should have listened to us.”

What actually happened, though, was that developers had almost universally decided that IBMs BIOS functions were too inefficient and slow. I recall having to decide how graphics should work in a program I was writing, and by this time it was considered “accepted practice” to access the graphics hardware directly. I decided to jump on the bandwagon and follow the crowd, abandoning the BIOS graphics functions like everyone else. If IBM ever radically changed their graphics card, I wouldn’t be any worse off than all those other developers who made the same decision.

In fact, the hypothetical situation never happened; IBM never changed the way their graphics cards worked. Maybe this was to make things easier for themselves. But another factor could have been that accessing the graphics hardware directly had become such widespread “accepted practice” that IBM was essentially trapped. Who would upgrade to IBM’s new graphics card if it wouldn’t work with any existing software?

So the “accepted practice” had won a victory over IBM’s documented API. As other manufacturers started to make their own graphics cards to use in these “clone” PCs, they all stayed compatible enough with IBM’s original design that existing software still worked.

But wait a minute, you say. Several paragraphs ago, I said that some of this old software would still work on a modern computer. But surely graphics cards have changed substantially in all those years. If I wrote a program in 1985 that accessed the graphics hardware directly, how can it still work over a quarter of a century later?

The answer is that this “accepted practice” won out in a bigger way than anyone would have expected. Back in the early 1990s, Windows 3.0 and then 3.1 quickly became the new standard for office computers. And Microsoft did a very clever thing. They knew all about the “accepted practice” of accessing graphics hardware directly, and they built into their operating system the appropriate stuff so that all of these old programs still worked!

I must admit I was rather stunned the first time I saw an old DOS-based program that I wrote using the “accepted practice” run perfectly fine inside an “MS-DOS window” in Windows 3.1. On an old IBM PC, my program occupied the whole screen and controlled the graphics hardware entirely on its own. But here it was running inside a window along with other windows running different programs that were on the screen at the same time. Windows 3.1 intercepted my program’s accesses to what my program “thought” was the graphics hardware, and it did the “equivalent” things so that my program would run correctly in a window!

***

So does this mean that you should use unauthorized information? No, it just means that IBM didn’t have the authority that it had hoped. The information was in a sense “authorized” by common practice, so in just this special case, the developers won out by ignoring the rules.

Oh, but despite that, it’s really really bad to depend on unauthorized information. Not that you’d know that from this story, but most of the time, “unauthorized information = bad”. Oh, and besides, “the exception proves the rule,” so, um, right, this story really shows that if you depend on unauthorized information, it would be bad. Yup, you’d definitely want to not be doing that. If you did, it would be like, all risky and stuff.

The slide rule

Out of all the millions of people reading this, I’ll bet only a small percentage know what this is: 

slide rule

Identify this object

The title of this post may have given you a clue: it’s a slide rule. But if you don’t already know what a slide rule is, that may not tell you much. If you saw the movie Apollo 13, you may remember a scene where the people at Mission Control had to do a calculation, and they took out slide rules similar to the one pictured above. 

Basically, this is how technical folks calculated things before calculators were invented. I never used a slide rule except as a novelty item; by the time I had to calculate anything professionally, calculators were commonplace. 

To understand how a slide rule works, imagine two one-foot (or 30 cm) rulers that are mirror images, placed so that the measurement scales touch: 

Math with rulers

Put two rulers together

If you push the top ruler two inches (or cm) to the right, as in the picture above, you can look under the 3 on the top ruler and see a 5 on the bottom ruler. Congratulations, you have just used a really lame method to calculate 2 + 3! 

A slide rule works essentially like this, except that the numbers are spaced according to their logarithms base 10 instead of their plain old values. The scale starts at 1, and ends at 10, smushing the numbers together more as they progress. From 1 to 2 is about 30% of the whole scale, while from 8 to 10 is only about 10% of the scale. 

So what, you say. Well, when you add logarithms, it multiplies the numbers that they’re the logarithms of. So if you used the lame ruler addition technique with logarithmically scaled rulers, you’d push the top ruler so its left edge (where 1 is) lines up with the 2 on the bottom, and you would find that the 3 on the top ruler lines up with a 6 on the bottom ruler, and now you have used a lame method to multiply 2 x 3. That’s basically how a slide rule works. Actually it’s a rather clever idea. 

2 x 3 = 6

2 x 3 = 6

What about numbers that aren’t between 1 and 10? Just move the decimal point. You’re on your own to figure out where the decimal point goes. Also, how accurate can the answer be? Not very; you can only get the first three digits or so. You can use a thin line on a movable clear piece of plastic to help judge exactly how the numbers line up. Accuracy is especially bad if your answer starts with an 8 or 9 (since those numbers are crammed together in the last 10%) and less bad if it starts with 1. 

Fancy slide rules have more scales. Some have a log-log scale (the logarithm of the logarithm) that lets you do exponents, sine and cosine scales, square root and cube root scales (logarithms stretched by a factor of 2 or 3), or multiplication scales with the 1 in the middle somewhere so you don’t have to slide the rulers quite so far sometimes. 

Slide rules seem antiquated now, but they must have been useful in their day. One shouldn’t underestimate the power of such simple tools. After all, they did help bring astronauts back to Earth.

Bathroom technology 2

It boggles the mind to think about the improvements that innovative individuals have managed to implement with the simple toilet paper roll. There is one such innovation I found particularly intriguing.

At first I thought it was an anti-theft device, somewhat like the protection on some paper towel dispensers.

Certain towel dispensers store paper towels in a stack where the trailing edge of each one is folded within the next one. You pull out a towel through an opening in the bottom of the dispenser, and because of the interfolding technique, the edge of the next towel automatically gets pulled out for the next person to conveniently grab.

These particular paper towel dispensers have a lock on the top. Clearly this is an important security precaution. Without the lock, someone could just grab a stack of paper towels en masse in just a few seconds. With the lock, someone can still steal lots of paper towels, but they really have to work at it, taking them one towel at a time. I can easily imagine this thwarting many potential bathroom criminals. It would be tedious to have to acquire their loot one towel at a time. I’m sure they simply don’t have the patience for that sort of thing.

But I digress. The amazing invention I’d like to talk about has two rolls of toilet paper in a single dispenser. But wait, there’s more. There’s a clever interlock mechanism. The cutaway view below attempts to depict this mechanism:

Toilet Paper Dispenser Mechanism

The clever TP interlock mechanism

The picture shows a top view cutaway with the bottom of the picture being the front of the device. The enclosure containing the two rolls is open in the front. Suppose that the sideways-L gray piece were not there. Then our sinister bathroom criminal could just swipe the two rolls of toilet paper out the front of the contraption in one fell swoop. But the gray piece is actually a sliding door. As shown, it covers the left-hand part of the front opening, so that only the right-hand roll is accessible. But the part of the gray piece between the rolls is the clever part. As long as there is paper on the right-hand roll, the door can’t be slid to the right, because the paper is in the way. But once the roll is used up, then, presto, just like magic, the interlock mechanism now allows the door to be slid to the right to access the left-hand roll!

Now our devious bathroom criminal is foiled. In order to steal the two rolls of toilet paper, he’d have to take one, and then slide a door to the other side, and then take the second roll, rather than being able to take the two rolls en masse. I’m sure most bathroom criminals don’t have the patience for that sort of thing.

As if its anti-crime protection weren’t enough, I suspect there is also an anti-germ purpose behind this contraption. These days people are much more germ-aware, and protection against stray germs could be an additional motivation to keep the second roll enclosed until it is needed.

Bathroom technology

Printed on the front of an electric hand dryer in a men’s room:

  • Shake excess water from hands
  • Push button to start dryer
  • Rub hands vigorously under warm air
  • Dryer shuts off automatically

Written in by hand below this:

  • Wipe hands on pants