Friday, December 19, 2003

Airport Departure Display Shows Windows Error Message; How Do I Click "OK"?

You know those monitors at the airport that show when flights are supposed to depart? The ones you stare at in case of delay? Imagine if the display was your Windows desktop computer -- and it's showing an error message. That's what happened to me recently.

My Christmas trip to Alabama began at the Lansing airport. LAN is very small as airports go: a handful of airlines offers a handful of daily flights. The only direct flights are to hubs such as Detroit, Minneapolis, Chicago, or Cincinnati. Northwest flies a couple of DC-9s in and out but the other flights are turboprops or regional jets. LAN struggles to compete with Detroit Metro and with Flint Bishop – and often loses.

The airport authority hired a new director several months ago, and he’s taken some visible steps to spiff up the facility. He’s added a new business center, joined the local airlines in a “Fly Lansing” marketing campaign, and launched a Web site. I noticed on this trip that he’s also replaced aging CRT flight status monitors with plasma screens.

The new monitors are a welcome improvement; the old displays at LAN were showing their age. The screens suffered from “burn-in” so severe that they were barely legible. There wasn’t much screen real estate to work with, so they jammed in abbreviated information. It was kind of like the old days, when airport monitors showed video images of real push-pin white letters on black felt backboards. Actually, it was worse; those old black and white monitors were more readable.

Sadly, on this trip there were many more occasions to stare at the new monitors than I desired. My Holmesian powers of observation told me that the flight to Detroit obviously was going to be late: there was no jet at the gate about 10 minutes before usual boarding time. I knew that the plane was supposed to fly in from Detroit and then turn around and fly back. If it was more than 45 minutes late, I'd miss my connection, so I really wanted to know the status.

As I was checking and re-checking the monitors, I noticed what appeared to be a Windows dialog box with an error message on screen. My wife says I should've pressed the OK button to see if the message went away.

Googling the error message reveals that this is probably a Visual Basic application, and the programmer either is looking for a file in the wrong place (e.g. his own hard drive) or a separate error causes a needed file to be missing on the server driving the monitors. In any event the programmer failed to code up an error handler; too bad, because all the essential information appears to be on-screen. I wonder if someone at is reading this?

I told this story to my buddy Chuck Severance who had an even better tale: recently while driving on an LA freeway, he spied a billboard that was in fact a giant monitor screen. Nice if you can afford it; the billboard can be updated instantly. But there's a downside: technology goofs in ways that paint or paper cannot. In this case thousands of passing motorists stared at a strange error message -- obviously a Windows error display writ large.

This isn't a life or death application -- though you do hope air traffic control displays never behave this way. So what's the answer? Hire better programmers? Test more carefully? Use some other programming environment besides Visual Basic? Somehow I bet those old push-pin letters with a camera pointed at them never suddenly emitted a strange Windows error dialog box.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

The Hilarious Snowglobe

My buddy Gabe Goldberg forwarded this link:

One friend proclaimed this "The funniest thing I've ever seen on the Internet." If you think about it, many of the funniest "Far Side" cartoons were funny because they took a metaphor a little too seriously. The effect of the Snowglobe is much stronger if you have sound (headphone or speakers) enabled the first time you try it.

Saturday, December 06, 2003

Memo to TiVo: How to Handle Long-Running Events

November 17, 1968 was a red-letter day in the life of an NBC TV executive named Dick Cline. With a minute showing on the clock and the Jets leading the Raiders, he ordered a national football broadcast to cut away to a scheduled showing of the movie Heidi.

The only problem is the Raiders scored two quick touchdowns and millions of viewers were angry.

Dick Cline and his peer TV execs learned an important lesson that day: never cut away from a live event that has millions of eyeballs watching closely for the outcome. Of course that means that when you're covering an event whose time span is unknown, your regular schedule will have to slip. As a viewer if you want to record the event, you don't know when it will end.

TiVo lovers have learned to avoid time-shifting frustration by padding the recording time for sports events. An idea hit me today on how TiVo could handle that problem.

TiVo downloads the starting and ending time for scheduled programs, which works well because most of television is rigidly scheduled. But we don't know how long a sporting event will last in 2003 any better than in 1968.

But TiVo could solve this. All you need is a way for the TiVo to determine when the event actually ends. That wouldn't be that hard to accomplish; for instance, the TiVo could interrogate a special Web site that keeps up with actual ending times. You also could encode the information in the NTSC video signal, much as TV Guide schedules are downloaded to my RCA television. For the latter, you'd need the cooperation of a broadcaster.

You could even imagine TiVo recording breaking news in this manner; a special signal would tell it a special bulletin had started, and the recording would last until the end of coverage signal.

Meanwhile the new NFL Network is going to get even with Heidi:

Elsewhere: The new NFL Network, so far available only to DirecTV subscribers, will commemorate one of the horrors of TV football history at 9 p.m. Monday when it shows the movie Heidi.
The telecast of the movie will include interviews with Delbert Mann, who directed it; Dick Cline, the NBC executive who ordered the switch from the game to the movie, and Jets cornerback Johnny Sample. You'll also get to see the two touchdowns that weren't televised.

The telecast may also pay Heidi back for interrupting football. An NFL Network spokesman wouldn't promise that all the movie will air.

Sunday, November 23, 2003

Detroit News Quote: Michigan Dems to Caucus over the Internet

The national Democratic party has approved the use of Internet polling for conducting the state Democratic Presidential caucus in February. The plan is controversial: some complain that this gives an unfair advantage to those who have better Internet access. If you support Howard Dean, who's used the Web to organize supporters and donors far more effectively than other candidates, you like the plan. Other than Wesley Clark, all the other contenders for the Presidential nomination denounce it.

My friend Mark Grebner, far more expert about elections than I will ever be, says the concerns are misplaced because:
-- The instructions for voting online are mailed to caucus voters along with a paper ballot. Voters can vote by mail, in person, or online.
-- This is not a secret ballot. If there were allegations of fraud, the record of how an individual voted could be reviewed during a challenge.

Along with Grebner and myself, the piece quotes the Michigan Secretary of State, Terri Land, and others. Land opposes Internet voting for general elections. I agree wholeheartedly. This is a different situation. It's a party caucus, not a primary or a general election; if you worry about caucuses representing the will of party members, go immediately to Iowa and do not pass Go. The Michigan Democratic caucus scheme lets you vote by mail, by Internet, or in person at hundreds of union halls and other sites statewide. No one among the party faithful is disenfranchised or disadvantaged.

See this article excerpt:

Richard Wiggins, a senior information technologist at the Michigan State University Computer Center, added:

"Nothing in the world of computing is ever 100 percent secure. Security experts would say, 'How much risk are you willing to undergo and how much are you willing to spend to see that people only vote once
and that votes are correctly tabulated?'

"But we can't be 100 percent assured that whatever system we use cannot possibly be tampered with."

Michigan's chief election official, Secretary of State Terri Land, said she's not interested in statewide Internet voting any time soon.

"There are so many different ways bad things could happen," Land said.

Mark Grebner, an East Lansing-based voter list consultant, countered that potential for tampering is minimized partly because voters must identify themselves.

He added that most voters are likely to use mail-in ballots, diminishing the digital divide issue.

Thursday, November 20, 2003

What happened to the IT Skills Shortage?

Today's news included an estimate that half a million IT jobs vanished last year. This put me in mind of a conversation with some friends a few years ago, when companies large and small were hiring programmers from overseas because they couldn't find enough skilled workers.

I remember arguing with one friend that post-Y2K and post-improved productivity, the skills shortage would vanish. Here's what I said to her in an e-mail:

Date: Tue, 11 Apr 2000 15:25:09 EDT
From: Rich Wiggins
Subject: ITAA says IT worker shortfall now at 850,000
In-Reply-To: Your message of Tue, 11 Apr 2000 12:23:30 -0400

>yes, but when the "webification" occurs, there will be some other new IT
>initiative to which e-commerce technologists can transfer their skills.
>That is the way of the IT world. We've been doing that (retraining and
>redeploying talent) since forever.
>-----Original Message-----

Well, as it happens Microsoft says they feel the pain, too:

But I stand by my claim. This IT stuff is gonna get easy, it's
gonna get integrated. The Web is going to be as easy as
running a fax machine, including Web-integrated databases.

So I challenge you, XXXX XXXXXX, to a bet. I bet that as
of April 11, 2005, there is no reported IT skills shortage.
I bet their may be a white collar talent shortage, but
that's for people who are literate, who have basic
management skills, or people who can manage technology.
But the shortage of programmers and programming project
leaders will be gone.

I bet you $100, or a share of XXXX stock as of that day,
whichever is worth more. :-)


Sadly I was off by a few years. Not only did the bubble burst and IT jobs vanish, but my friend, herself an employee of a high tech company, was laid off several months ago.

Saturday, November 15, 2003

Our cat is radioactive; self-styled thyroid expert has the facts wrong

Our cat Sophie is radioactive right now.

Let me explain. She was recently diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, a condition that can afflict humans as well as cats. It's a common condition in older cats; usually a benign tumor causes one of the cat's two thyroid glands to go into overdrive, producing far more hormone than the cat needs.

This is one area in which a cat is superior to humans. (Wait a minute! If you ask Sophie, she's superior to all creatures in all ways!) With the human, the thyroid is a single gland shaped like a butterfly and wrapped around the windpipe. (Remember from high school anatomy that the "isthmus" is the part that's around the windpipe, connecting the larger parts on either side?)

Whether a human or a cat, treatments for hyperthyroidism include medication, surgery, or radiation therapy. The standard radiation treatment is to administer radioactive iodine. In cats or humans the body sends iodine to the thyroid. It's very rare for both of the cat's thyroids to be diseased, and the radiation attacks the gland that has the tumor.

The cool part is that the thyroid that isn't diseased doesn't get zapped but the other gland does. The healthy one has been dormant because the pituitary has been shouting "Hey! Enough thyroid hormone already!" After a while the good gland wakes up, and in a month or so Sophie will be neither hyper- nor hypo-thyroidic.

Only 1% of cats require supplements after radiation treatment, and 97% are cured. By contrast, it's common for humans to produce too little hormone after treatment, requiring supplemental hormones for the rest of their lives. (Some people think the first President Bush ran a lethargic re-election campaign in 1992 because his supplemental hormone wasn't properly calibrated after he had radiation treatment for hyperthyroidism.)

We had Sophie treated by Dr. Judy Violante, who operates one of only a handful of clinics in Michigan licensed to perform the procedure. She administered the medicine to Sophie and kept her in a lead-lined room for 4 days. Dr. Violante explained that the authorities, including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, police their procedures very carefully.

We picked Sophie up this morning. Dr. Violante went over the safety procedures for us. We have to be careful for a couple of weeks; the half-life of I-131 is 8 days. We have to wash our hands and be careful to flush her waste:

W H I T M A N, Mass. — Be careful what you do with your radioactive cat poop.

William Jenness agreed to pay a $3,856.47 fee for mishandling his cat Mitzi's litter box.

Jenness took Mitzi, 11, to a local clinic to treat her hyperthyroidism. The treatment involved giving the feline an injection of radioactive iodine, and Jenness was given strict instructions to flush his pet's waste down the toilet, rather than throw it out.

The funniest part was when the vet brought out a Geiger counter and went close to Sophie so we could tell she really is a radioactive cat. The meter jumped at the sound leapt from tick... tick to tickety-tickety as she approached our newly hot feline.

Sophie was glad to be home after a few days' absence but Judy is understandably shy about petting her; you've got to wash your hands frequently. I told Judy "Geez, you're avoiding Sophie as is she were radioactive!"

There is a lot of good information on this topic on the Internet. I was surprised to find one self-styled "expert" getting the facts wrong. The author's ignorance of cat anatomy is an object lesson in the risks of Googling without a skeptical mindset. Herself a thyroid patient, she writes about the cat as if it had a single gland as humans do:

The thyroid is a butterfly shaped gland located on either side of a cat's windpipe....The main way cats develop hyperthyroidism is due to development of a benign tumor, known as an adenoma, in their thyroid gland.

Unfortunately the author confuses human and feline anatomy. The single "butterfly" gland describes the human setup, not the cat's. The author also states that the radioiodine is injected into the cat; while that's a common scenario, Dr. Violante administered an oral dose to Sophie using a pill pusher.

The author, one Mary Shomon, has written a lot about health issues; she authors the Thyroid section of Her other qualifications include writing the 1993 Washington, DC bestseller, "The Single Woman's Guide to the Available Men of Washington." She also says "I have a Bachelor of Science degree from Georgetown University in Washington D.C." Er, a BS in what area?

You would think that would choose someone with scientific or medical credentials to cover health matters. A friend once told me that the "guide" on Mexican cooking is a numbskull who knows very little about Mexican cooking. In that case the risk is obviously minimal. If's guide on thyroid disease has no relevant credentials (beyond having had thyroid disease and writing a lot) then you've got to ask how serious they are about providing authoritative information. My dad had an electrical engineering degree, became an aerospace engineer for NASA -- and also had heart disease. All respect to my dear departed dad, if he'd written about heart disease I wouldn't take his words as medical advice.

Reminds me of the old skit on NPR where the guy gives a whole bunch of bogus science info and then says you can trust him because "I have a master's degree ... in SCIENCE!!" No thanks, Ms. Shomon, I'll get my information from veterinarians and from trusted university sources.

Saturday, October 11, 2003

Automated syndication doesn't replace an editor

Curious what ESPN pundits might say about today's football game between Michigan State and Illinois, I went to and drilled down until I found the Michigan State team page. Look what I found:

The two articles are from October 8, and they have nothing to do with Michigan State. Obviously some automated syndicator robot has found "Michigan State" tangentially mentioned in these articles, and serves up irrelevant content to the reader.

ESPN's main presence is of course cable TV, but they syndicate content for their Web site as well as their magazine. The Web presence needs a smarter robot or a human editor.

Thursday, September 25, 2003

"We helped Jetblue do something unique with their data"

Whenever a major plane crash kills passengers, airlines routinely shut down all advertising -- out of respect for the victims -- and out of common sense. They should remember to check the online advertising inventory they've already got running.

Recently we learned that the upstart airline Jetblue had secretly shared personal passenger information with a small Alabama data mining company doing terrorism research for the Army. Jetblue fell all over itself apologizing to its customers.

Days after the news broke, en route to some information about viruses and worms, I stumbled upon an online ad where Unisys brags about how it helps Jetblue manage its passengers' data in a very personal way. Here is the ad in context of the Internetweek article where I found it:

... and here is the actual animated GIF:

In this case, no one died, but Jetblue's reputation took a major hit. I bet that even if Jetblue tried to cancel all online ads, it forgot that Unisys was touting how it helps Jetblue manage passenger data so well. Yes, Jetblue "treated their customers like people"-- like people whose personal information should be shared with small consulting firms for their data analysis research. Who looks dumber here, Jetblue or Unisys? Ouch!

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Sun loses Joy; IBM ad mocks departure

Bill Joy has resigned from Sun Microsystems. In the Washington Post, the IBM banner ad that comes with the story accidentally mocks the end of Joy at Sun:

The layers of irony abound:

-- Bill Joy almost singlehandedly took Unix from the university and minicomputer realms and put it on small boxes. This (along with the PC revolution) eventually killed DEC, and it did huge harm to IBM. Sun's proprietary Unix stole billions in business from IBM's proprietary mainframes. It's deliciously ironic to see IBM advertise open-source Linux next to Joy's epitaph.

-- IBM's new ad campaign personifies the Linux as a 9 year old boy. Bill Joy was the real, breathing brilliant 22 year old graduate student at Berkeley who knew BSD Unix deeply enough to translate it into a commercial product.

-- There is a real "Linux", Linus Torvalds, who was himself a Finnish grad student when he created Linux. In 1982, Joy worked to create a proprietary Unix. Less than a decade later, the real Linus worked to create an open source version of Unix.

-- IBM markets Linux on servers that are descendants of its mainframes the ran VM, or Virtual Machine, operating system. IBM nearly killed VM in 1983 when it foolishly implemented an "object code only" policy. Now IBM uses VM technology to run multiple virtual copies of its open source Linux distribution.

-- The "Edison of the Internet" label is especially ironic, given that Sun rose and fell with the best of 'em on the Internet bubble -- and that Linux (made possible by the Internet) is now eating Sun for lunch.

The Post quotes others in tagging Joy as the Edison of the Internet. That title is wildly excessive. Bill Joy will be remembered for commercializing Unix on small boxes, and for inventing Java. Please, many brilliant minds (e.g. Vint Cerf and Bob Metcalfe) contributed to building the Internet.

Saturday, August 16, 2003

You Can't "Fix the Grid" - All Networks Share Risk

There's a very insightful op-ed piece in the NY Times about how
the interconnectedness of the power grid exposes entire regions and
the nation to risk. He argues you CAN'T just "fix the grid" --
the network implies risk. (Think about last week's Microsoft
exposures on computers worldwide...)


We're All on the Grid Together


Once power is fully restored, it will take little time to find
the culprit: most likely, it will be a malfunctioning switch or fuse, a
snapped power line or some other local failure. Somebody will be fired,
promotions and raises denied, and lawmakers will draw up legislation
guaranteeing that this problem will not occur again. Something will be
inevitably missed, however, during all this finger-pointing: this
week's blackout has little to do with faulty equipment, negligence or
bad design. President Bush's call to upgrade the power grid will do
little to eliminate power failures. The magnitude of the blackout is
rooted in an often ignored aspect of our globalized world:
vulnerability due to interconnectivity.

We're All on the Grid Together

Friday, August 15, 2003

State Capital in Darkness; Detroit Free Press Is Clueless

The power outage that affected the Northeastern U.S. and much of Ontario also left Cleveland and Detroit without electricity. The Detroit Free Press

reported that most of the rest of Michigan was blissfully sanguine

There's only one problem: they forgot Lansing, the state capital. Lansing's city-owned utility, the Board of Water and Light, did lose power. The BWL also serves some areas outside the city, including East Lansing. (Michigan State University makes its own power which remained on.)

The outage caught Governor Granholm in the middle of a staff meeting and affected state office buildings. GM had to shut down automotive production. (Lansing hosts major GM factories.) Lansing City Hall was evacuated. The Lansing State Journal had to borrow the news room of the MSU newspaper, the State News, in order to produce a single skinny section of the Friday paper.

In short, the capital was as dark last night as Detroit was.

You can imagine how the Freep made this error: the reporter, Sheryl James, called a PR flack at Consumers Energy, and asked what other parts of the state were affected. (Consumers and DTE are the main electric utilities in Michigan.) Consumers said "actually things are pretty good." James obviously didn't bother to ask anyone in state government -- who certainly would've known the lights were out -- or the Freep's own Lansing bureau.

The New York Times managed to produce a complete, thick Friday edition and get it delivered to the Lansing area. It includes a map showing all major cities with reported outages. Lansing and Kalamazoo are listed, along with Ann Arbor and SE Michigan. Gee, if the Times (whose newsroom ran on generators overnight) can report accurately on Michigan cities, shouldn't the Freep be able to as well?

Wednesday, August 13, 2003

Google Pays Homage to Alfred Hitchcock

Google periodically updates its logo with a cute graphical reference to a holiday or event. Today's Google logo pays homage to Alfred Hitchcock (and one of his movies, "The Birds").

Not knowing the significance of August 13 and Hitchcock, I went to the Internet Movie Database for the answer. Yup, Hitch was born this day. IMDB offers
other events in movie history that occurred on August 13.

My wife Judy, far more intuitive than I, figured Google would give a clue. The logo is a link to a Google search for "Alfred Hitchcock" which would eventually yield the August 13 answer.

It's fun to look at

other Google holiday logos

Ever wonder who the artist is that makes these cute, minimalist logos for Google? Here's the scoop:

about Google's logo artist.

Tuesday, August 12, 2003

ABC News Ad Is Cruelly Relevant

Google, Yahoo and everyone else are racing to see who can do the best job of delivering "relevant" advertisements, sometimes with funny results.

Recently a pair of college students disappeared. The young Michigan couple was supposed to meet one set of parents in Maine after a stay on Cape Cod. Instead, they vanished. Their credit cards and cell phones abruptly stopped showing activity. Police in two states started a massive missing persons search. Both sets of parents were distraught, wondering if their kids were even still alive.

The couple turned up in Florida when a cop ran a routine license plate check. It's still not clear why the young folks did this. The relatives were relieved -- but puzzled and upset.

Here's how ABC News' online site began the story. Note the embedded advertisement:

Sunday, August 10, 2003

A Spelling Note for the Christian Science Monitor

This morning I sent the Christian Science Monitor a letter to the editor correcting a sadly common mistake. Will their copy editors take notice?

Your news item on burning old weapons in Alabama refers to residents
as "Alabamans". Just as you call someone from Florida a Floridian, or someone from Carolina a Carolinian, or someone from Canada a Canadian, you call someone from Alabama an Alabamian.

If those examples don't resonate with your reporters and copy editors, then this mnemonic might help: a follower of Christ is called a Christian, not a Christan.


Army rids itself of leftover weapons of mass destruction, distributing plastic sheeting to Alabamans nearby.

Monday, August 04, 2003

Lansing State Journal: Who Pays for Home Tech Installation?

The Lansing State Journal ran a piece for Monday's edition about how consumers are willing to pay to have computers, high speed Internet, and high end audio/video set up in their homes.

Points of interest:

-- 35% of folks who buy high-end A/V pay to have it installed; only 5% of PC buyers do likewise.

-- Comcast is test marketing a service to set up a home network; Ann Arbor is part of trial; Leslie Brogan says Lansing market may follow soon.

-- Best Buy and Gateway are into the home equipment setup biz.

Lansing State Journal Article: Who Pays for Home Tech Setup?


Great New Wi-Fi Hotspot Locator from Kensington - Doesn't work!

Kensington is marketing a credit-card size Wi-Fi detector. I bought one on a lark. The theory is you whip this tiny toy out and press a button to see if there is a nearby hotspot.

So far, it's useless. I haven't been able to get it to detect a working 802.11b network in a local coffee shop, or an access point at work, or my 802.11g network at home.

So like a good customer I went to their support site. Their FAQ answer on this topic is a hilarious jumble of technobabble and personal advice. (If it doesn't detect WEP networks and if it doesn't work with 802.11g, it's pretty much useless.)

From Kensington's knowledge base:

There are 2 possibilities: 1) Your work has an encrypted network,
by design the wifi finder will not detect networks that do not want
to be detected. The wifi finder will detect a peer to peer network
at your work site but you had better check with your
helpdesk/IT manager before setting up peer to peer wireless networks -
this can compromise your companys security and maybe even your job!

2) Your work is using a recently upgraded form of 802.11g. Network
speed helps productivity so it is likely your IT manager is always
looking for ways to go faster. The wifi finder design uses a
version of 802.11g prior to that standards finalization. It is
possible that your network has been upgraded and wifi
finder does not yet know how to look for that network protocol.
Look for updated Kensington wifi finders coming soon.

Saturday, August 02, 2003

U Michigan Grad Student Steals Passwords via Keystrokes

A U Michigan grad student used keyboard logging to steal faculty and student accounts. I'm told he used software keyboard logging as well as a hardware logging device that plugs into the computer's PS/2 port and accepts the keyboard cable.

He screwed around with his victims in a variety of ways, canceling one student's job interviews etc. He even tried to extort a student into trading sexual favors for tutoring.

In a similar case, someone installed keyboard logging software on public PCs at Kinko's in NYC. That person sniffed passwords for months.

Encryption of Web or e-mail obviously doesn't work against keyboard logging.

Are any public terminals safe to use?

Fox 47 TV in Lansing

interviewed me about the case and the risks

Detroit Free Press article.

Friday, July 25, 2003

Google and Blogger

The conventional wisdom is that Google's acquisition of Pyra Labs, the progenitor of Blogger, means big things... Does it? Maybe!