Friday, December 30, 2005

French fry Spam casserole -- yum!

While skimming my Spam folder in Gmail, I was surprised to see the new RSS headline offer this link:

French Fry Spam Casserole - Bake 30-40 minutes

Categories: Main dish
Yield: 8 servings

1 pk Frozen french fry potatoes, -thawed (20 oz)
2 c Shredded Cheddar cheese
2 c Sour cream
1 cn Condensed cream of chicken -soup (10 3/4 oz)
1 cn SPAM Luncheon Meat, cubed -(12 oz)
1/2 c Chopped red bell pepper
1/2 c Chopped green onion
1/2 c Finely crushed corn flakes

Heat oven to 350'F. In large bowl, combine potatoes, cheese, sour cream, and soup. Stir in SPAM, bell pepper, and green onion. Spoon into 13x9" baking dish. Sprinkle with crushed flakes. Bake 30-40 minutes or until thoroughly heated.

Yum. Time to pre-heat the oven! Memo to Google: don't tie the RSS content to standard folder names. I don't want an ad for trash bags when I visit my Trash folder, and I don't want insulation when I visit my Drafts folder -- and I sure don't want a recipe for Hormel Spam with french fries when I visit my Spam folder!

Monday, December 26, 2005

"The Onion" on new TSA security guidelines

I first discovered "The Onion" in paper form while on a trip to Madison, Wisconsin, where it originates, years ago. It was hilarious but was a tabloid for the Madison market Since then they've grown into a regional print rag and an international Web presence. And they are always a hell of a hoot. So when the Transportation Security Administration came up with new rules allowing scissors with blades up to 4 inches, some people were puzzled... And here's the Onion's take, hilarious as always:

Click to see full size image


Sunday, December 25, 2005

New movie "Firewall" starring Harrison Ford

First "The Net" and now "Firewall" -- the Hollywood movie machine tries to make a thriller out of things Internet. Ford plays a security executive at a bank who's pitted against an evildoer who steals Ford's identity and kidnaps his family. It's not clear to me that there are many cases involving both identity theft and kidnapping, but what the heck, it's Hollywood.

Click to see full-size image.

I'm looking forward to a whole passel of major motion pictures with Internet-related titles:

  • Switch
  • Router
  • Hub
  • VPN
  • SSL
  • HTTP
  • The File Transfer Protocol
  • Spam
  • VoIP
  • Wi-Fi (and its sequel, Wi-MAX)
  • XML (and its sequel, XSLT)

And, of course...

  • Blogger
All coming soon to a theater near you.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Sun-Times uses "Ebert" as menu item; Endgadget uses "Paris Hilton"

For some time I've been amused that the Chicago Sun-Times includes something unexpected alongside the usual News, Sports, Entertainment, Classifieds, etc. links you'd expect from a newspaper: "Ebert" is a main choice. Usually menu choices correspond to a section of the paper, not an individual writer. But Roger Ebert is so incredibly popular that he probably accounts for a huge fraction of the visits to, so they must have figured "What the heck, he's big enough to be his own section." (Insert rude remark about Ebert's girth here...)

Tonight I stumbled on this: Endgadget, a site that reports news and rumors about consumer electronics, has their own special menu item:

Yes, that's right: right there with cell phones, Ipods, and gadgets, we find Paris Hilton. What does Paris Hilton have to do with consumer electronics? I can't think of a direct link, but I bet a lot of the gadget nuts who click on this site are also prone to click on that link, driving up Endgadget's ad revenue. Sort of like the ads for strip joints in the sports section of the newspaper.


But now, there's more...

An old song from the 70s posits that "Everybody Plays the Fool -- Sometimes" ... and my colleague Justin Thorp has outed me as the fool. I followed a Google search to Endgadget, a site I thought I'd seen before. But the authentic gadget site is

Google reveals 37,000 fools like me, out of 7 million who link to the real site.

It might be worth Engadget's effort to buy, or anti-cybersquatter halt, Endgadget. Or maybe they think we fools should be left to our own devices -- so to speak.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Rumor: New Apple laptops won't support Firewire

There's a rumor out there that Apple will no longer support Firewire in the next generation of laptops, due early in 2006. Apple and Sony pioneered the standard, which provided high-speed transfer between camcorder and computer.

The PC industry had finally promulgated USB, but it was shockingly slow compared to Firewire. Hence we ended up with computers and devices that support both Firewire and USB.

But the rumor is that Apple is dropping support for Firewire.

Good grief, what's next? Apple computers running on Intel processors?

Monday, December 05, 2005

Careful with those captions

Tonight a local TV station, Channel 6 in Lansing, showed the sportscaster with a graphic in the background showing a baseball pitcher in mid-throw. The caption said:


I thought I recognized the pitcher. It's John Smoltz of the Atlanta Braves, a native of Lansing. Huh? This guy has a totally clean image.

Turns out Channel 6 caught up with him when he was in the area watching Michigan State play basketball. And the interview was Smoltz' opinion about steroids, specifically baseball's new anti-steroids policy, which Smoltz endorsed ringingly.

I wonder how many people misconstrued the story to be that Smoltz himself was "on steroids"? Pays for the caption guy in the control room to choose words carefully.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Emily the Cat Part Deux: the Feline Flies Home

The intrepid cat from Wisconsin made her way home, courtesy of Continental Airlines, which provided Emily and her handler a business class seat. A very clever move on Continental's part.

In case you haven't experienced business class on an international flight: it is far superior to "first class" on a domestic flight in the U.S. The gourmet meal happened to be salmon. Emily wouldn't eat it. She preferred the French cat food that her handler had with him. Now that is a spoiled cat. I doubt that Pet Supplies Plus in Appleton offers imported French cat food.

Surely this story will bring a Disney movie. News outlets from the UK to Australia to South Africa picked up Emily's story. I think people are hungry for happy penguins and other good news.

I laughed when a Wisconsin TV station got the story wrong. They reported that Emily flew from Paris to Milwaukee. Continental Airlines may have given Emily and her handler $12,000 worth of business class seats, but they didn't create a new direct flight from Paris to Wisconsin. Emily flew to Newark, and took a 50 seat connecting flight to Wisconsin.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Video showed dangers of turkey fryers pre-Thanksgiving; news footage shows reality

Several years ago Whirlpool recalled millions of microwave ovens, including our Sears-branded model, for reasons not made clear. I did a bunch of digging and found that a filter tended to cause grease to accumulate, and there had been something like 17 cases of the microwave emitting smoke -- zero injuries, zero property damage.

In the last few years turkey fryers have been popular items on the market -- standalone frying baskets on stilts. Before Thanksgiving, Underwriters Laboratories (UL) distributed video demonstrating that these things are incredibly dangerous. You've got a vat of hot oil perched precariously. If it tips, you have a fire. If you put an unthawed turkey into it, it explodes. They warned that these things could burn your house down, and they provided vivid video evidence.


No doubt UL made this video available to TV networks and local stations prior to the holiday. But no one covered it. They covered "the busiest travel day of the year" and "the busiest shopping day of the year."

It turns out that in at least one city. the turkey fryer nearly destroyed a house, causing over $150,000 damage.


Question for national and local TV producers: do you really think about, and analyze, new stories, or do you just pull up last year's Thanksgiving stories and recycle them?

Question for the Consumer Product Safety Commission: do you really think through relative risk of product safety? I can't imagine how the microwave recall that affected me and millions of people saved a single life. But it seems clear that these cheap fryers pose a clear threat. How do you rank risk? Why haven't you acted on this obvious risk?

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Google Print is now Google Book Search -- but the French may object

Google has renamed Google Print. It's now Google Book Search, which probably will make more sense to the public. The new home page looks like this: Click so see full size

And here's the new address:

Now look at the French version of the home page:

And here's the URL for the French site:

Google is taking a lot of heat (inappropriately in my opinion) for starting the Google Books project with mostly English language collections. The French may also grumble about using the English word for books on the French site.

Ah, well, at least they spelled "images" right.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Nice seating chart for Wharton Center -- 60 miles wrong

This month we've been to the local performing arts venue, Wharton Center, twice -- once for Ravi and Annoushka Shankar, and last night for Lyle Lovett and three other excellent singer/songwriters.

I wanted to check the seating chart for some other concerts, and, being lazy, went to Google and searched for:

wharton center seating

And I found this chart by a third party ticket broker:

Having been at Wharton Center last night, I think the chart is accurate. But maybe not: it shows Wharton Center as being in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Famously, Michigan State University is considering adding a new medical school in Grand Rapids, but the rumor that the Wharton Center will move 60 miles northwest from East Lansing is a new one.

But there's more: on another page, we move the Wharton Center from Grand Rapids, Michigan, to Grand Forks, North Dakota (look at the blue title bar at the top):

Elsewhere, TickCo correctly shows Wharton Center in East Lansing. Memo to TickCo: this is why we use database-driven sites. If your Web site shows three locations for one venue, you need to embrace database management.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Northwest makes "gift" a verb and "dine" a noun

Northwest Airlines is in serious trouble: they are bankrupt, and their stock, once worth over $30 a share, is now worth about 50 cents a share.

Never mind their financial woes; they are busy assaulting the English language.

For months now I've cringed whenever NWA urges me to "gift" frequent flyer miles to some person or charity. We've had an English verb for this for centuries, and the word is "give," not "gift."

But now Northwest, in concert with its partner "Dining for Miles," adds insult to injury. This program gives (not "gifts") you frequent flyer miles when you use a registered credit card at a participating restaurant. A new promotion gives you extra credit for each -- I am not making this up -- for each "dine."

That's right. According to Northwest Airlines, "gift" is now a verb and "dine" is now a noun.

There is a reason why I own the Internet domain

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Thoughts on home, and homecoming, from Beth Williams

Beth Williams, a native of Decatur, Alabama and a Tulane librarian, wrote quite an amazing essay for the daily newspaper in my home town. Really lovely, evocative prose:

condition of Big Easy before and after Katrina

By Sara Beth Williams Special to THE DAILY

Home. It is where I am now, and it is where I have, in some ways, never left.

Whether you've spent only days or years away from this river valley, you know what I mean.

You know it when you cross the little bridge over some other creek bed in deepest, hottest July and the coolness rises up like an Alabama blessing. You know it wherever you are along the eastern migration route on a late fall day, when you look up to see the Canada geese in their old formation against the cumulus clouds.

You know it when, in a dream, you come into a landscape that is green, and rolling, and so lush with shadow and promise that you first believe it must be a sort of paradise, but then you recognize it as the place beyond the "No Trespassing" sign where you once escaped with your giggling co-criminals, tearing your bellbottoms on the barbed-wire fence, carrying a few contraband beers and a pack of Salems, to share.

You know that it actually exists, or did, somewhere out near a dirt road on Burningtree Mountain.

"It actually exists!" you say to yourself. And you are amazed with this lovely dream that is real.



Thursday, November 10, 2005

Judith Miller: Time's Up

So The New York Times finally had the cajones to get rid of Judith Miller. Good riddance to the woman who sexed up (as the Brits would say) stories of WMD in Iraq, helping give the Bush Administration the cover they needed to launch that misbegotten war.

Yes she went to jail to protect a source, but Judy Miller is no hero. I hope she and Jayson Blair spend long hours together chatting about their journalistic careers.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

On Google Print and the digital Library of Congress

Roy Tennant and I continued a discussion we began in 2001 on the topic of massive library digitization projects. Roy is one of the leading experts on digital libraries; I am a dilettante who likes to ask tough questions.

Our venue was Internet Librarian. Roy and I first discussed this issue at the 2001 conference. He was in Monterey at the event; I was in Maastricht debating from afar. We continued the conversation at Computers in Libraries in D.C. the following year, and, in light of Google Print, resumed the debate at IL 2005 back in Monterey. It's a friendly debate:

Courtesy of the mysterious "Distant Librarian" up in Alberta, you can hear audio of Roy Tennant and me debating the merits of Google Print. (23M MP3 download.)

You can also download my Google Print presentation at Internet Librarian 2005, entitled: "Google Print: Making the Virtual Library Real -- An Extended Conversation Between Roy Tennant and Rich Wiggins"

Monday, October 31, 2005

A savvy, plugged-in young traveler

We'd boarded our flight from San Francisco to Minneapolis. A flight attendant escorted a young girl -- maybe 9 or 10 -- to a seat across the aisle from me. She seemed a little pensive, if not a tad apprehensive. A woman in her 20s was next to her, and I thought maybe she'd take the lass under her wing (so to speak) but she didn't.

As we taxied I asked the youngster if she'd ever flown before. "With my parents" she said. I asked if she was OK for takeoff. She said yes, with a thin smile.

During the flight the girl pulled out an Ipod Mini and listened to music, then watched a movie on a portable DVD player, and tried to get her cell phone to work. (No, I did not tell her you're not supposed to use cell phones in flight. And the plane did not suddenly veer off course into Alberta, no matter what the FAA, the FCC, and Northwest might claim.)

At one point she asked me what time it was. I looked at my analog watch, adjusted for Central time, and told her. I kidded her about having all those gizmos and none of them could tell her the time. She laughed.

When we landed, she confidently called her aunt and her mom on her cell. Obviously Mom, aunt, and child were all in sync, long before the plane reached the gate.

Gone are the days when an unaccompanied minor on a commercial flight just gets a pat on the head and a piece of plastic airline insignia to wear. This kid was plugged in. It reminded me of the old Thurber story:

The Little Girl and the Wolf

by James Thurber

One afternoon a big wolf waited in a dark forest for a little girl to come along carrying a basket of food to her grandmother. Finally a little girl did come along and she was carrying a basket of food. "Are you carrying that basket to your grandmother?" asked the wolf. The little girl said yes, she was. So the wolf asked her where her grandmother lived and the little girl told him and he disappeared into the wood.

When the little girl opened the door of her grandmother's house she saw that there was somebody in bed with a nightcap and nightgown on. She had approached no nearer than twenty-five feet from the bed when she saw that it was not her grandmother but the wolf, for even in a nightcap a wolf does not look any more like your grandmother than the Metro-Goldwyn lion looks like Calvin Coolidge. So the little girl took an automatic out of her basket and shot the wolf dead.

(Moral: It is not so easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be.)

Friday, October 28, 2005

If your cat goes missing, be sure to check the neighborhood -- and France

CNN reports that Emily the cat went missing in Appleton, Wisconsin ... and showed up in France.

You'd guess that in this day and age maybe the Internet or DNA testing had something to do with her recovery, but the low-tech solution of a collar with a name tag led folks in France to call Emily's vet on the telephone.

Friday, October 14, 2005

David Brooks exposes Harriet Miers' shallow rhetoric

David Brooks spent most of his column inches in The New York Times on Thursday letting Harriet Miers speak for herself. He quoted verbal mush from a column she wrote as president of the Texas Bar Association:

"More and more, the intractable problems in our society have one answer: broad-based intolerance of unacceptable conditions and a commitment by many to fix problems."
Or this: "We must end collective acceptance of inappropriate conduct and increase education in professionalism."

Or this: "When consensus of diverse leadership can be achieved on issues of importance, the greatest impact can be achieved."

Or passages like this: "An organization must also implement programs to fulfill strategies established through its goals and mission. Methods for evaluation of these strategies are a necessity. With the framework of mission, goals, strategies, programs, and methods for evaluation in place, a meaningful budgeting process can begin."

Or, finally, this: "We have to understand and appreciate that achieving justice for all is in jeopardy before a call to arms to assist in obtaining support for the justice system will be effective. Achieving the necessary understanding and appreciation of why the challenge is so important, we can then turn to the task of providing the much needed support."

See (but as of late you have to belong to the club, TimesSelect, to read certain NYT content).

I understand Brooks' misgivings. He wants a conservative with a brain, an intellectual who can marshall an argument, on the Supreme Court. There are plenty to choose from, and Bush picks his personal lawyer who happens to be down the hall. She's never written a law review article, and, from these samples, appears to write meaningless mush.

One of the leading lights of conservative legal thinking is Michael McConnell, son of Mitch McConnell and a 1976 Michigan State graduate. I recall one day in an economics class the professor talking about the determinants of economic growth of a given nation. He said that history showed that given the right inputs -- natural materials, an educated populace, transportation infrastructure, geography -- that nations lagging behind tended to catch up to competing countries.

One student immediately said "Then the Marshall Plan wasn't necessary." This was a logical conclusion, but I don't think anyone else in the room had come up with that thought, including the prof. It was a fairly heretical thing to say about one of the most important examples of American generosity in the 20th century. I'm pretty sure that student was Mike McConnell.

I doubt Harriet Miers would've come up with that notion that day.

The Nobel in Economics went to a professor who studied game theory. For the Democrats the game might be rejoicing in approving a nominee who is just a nice Republican lawyer who will never marshall a strong legal argument.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Way cool app visualizes naming trends

Jason has risen and is now falling as a favorite name. Brittany and variants follow a similar track. It turns out that the name you pick for your child is a matter of fashion. And an IBM researcher has built a very cool Web site to present his work in a very cool interactive and visual environment.

I attended the first JavaOne conference that Sun put on, circa 1995. It was an amazing event with rock-star openings for folks like Gosling.

But I was never convinced that client-side Java made sense. This is one app that is way cool. My only question is whether the author could have done something so cool using other technology.


Thursday, October 06, 2005

"Decimate" doesn't mean what reporters think it does

From today's New York Times:

Since 1997, bird flocks in 11 countries have been decimated by flu outbreaks. So far nearly all the people infected Â? more than 100, including more than 60 who died Â? contracted the sickness directly from birds. However, there has been little transmission between people.

The word "decimate" means something quite specific: to reduce the enemy's army by 1/10th. The Romans killed one out of ten soldiers in order to teach a lesson.

Think about it: "decimate". As in "decade" or "decimal" -- involving digits, or parts of 10.

Licentious dictionaries accept as a third meaning "to reduce drastically especially in number".

Thus even Governor Blanco of Louisiana gets that meaning wrong. She claims in her speeches that Katrina "decimated" New Orleans. Katrina wrought havoc on the city, and caused tremendous damage. But, thankfully, Katrina did not cause the huge loss of life the mayor and others predicted. Not even close to one in ten.

Katrina did not decimate New Orleans, and the 1918 flu pandemic, however horrible, did not kill 10% of any population.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Google / Sun Partnership: Cataclysmic, or More Fluffy Hype?

The tech world anxiously anticipated the press conference with the CEOs of Sun and Google. Many thought that this was the anticipated announcement of Google Office. We envisioned an Internet-based way to create, edit, store, and share the equivalent of Word, Powerpoint, and Excel documents.

Instead we got a promise that the companies would work together. The most concrete example was that you'd be able to download the Java Runtime Environment (JRE) with the Google Toolbar.

Sun has a long and rich history of over-hyping Java. I attended the first JavaOne conference and have followed the story since then.

The London Sunday Times reported in 1995 that Bill Joy said that “Javatization” could "end Microsoft." He said that “Java could spell an end to Intel’s rule as king of the chip world." He predicted that within a year there would be tens of thousands of Java applets to download.

Wow, that was really prescient. Ten years later, Microsoft remains dominant in operating systems and office software, AMD is struggling, and Apple is switching to Intel CPUs. And on the desktop, Java is insignificant. And Bill Joy has retired.

Ten years later, Sun is still hyping Java as a client-side solution. The. truth is, Java never caught on as a client-side technology. Java enjoys moderate success as a server-side, platform-independent programming environment.

If this announcement is about adding 20 megabytes to the downloading of the Google Toolbar in order to get the JRE on desktops that lack it, this ship will sink in the harbor.

The irony is that Google rocked the world with Gmail, showing us that Javascript can do so much more than validate numeric fields in a form box. But Javascript is very different than Java; your browser has it built-in, whereas Java is now something you have to download. Google doesn't need Java on the desktop to do awesome things. And if the anticipated Google Office requires JRE on the desktop to function, it too is dead in the water.

There is a saying that "you can't sail to all ports at once." Google is doing everything from trying to provide free Wi-Fi in San Francisco to helping a company whose sunset was obvious years ago. Has Google lost its compass? Did it ever really have one?

Friday, September 30, 2005

Flak jackets and Ebay

The Huffington Post cites a Yahoo News article by former soldier who served in Iraq. He tells the tale of a soldier who joined the march to Baghdad wearing a flak jacket that his mother found for him on Ebay. And what advertisement do you suppose shows up alongside that article?

Click to see full-size screen shot.

Those ad robots do some funny things at times. A more sophisticated robot would have changed the Clothing image to a flak jacket.

It is remarkable how US soldiers have to outfit themselves, given what we're spending on this war. A marine who took part in the invasion told me that he bought a consumer GPS device at Best Buy before he shipped out. He said it was much more convenient and user-friendly than the government-issued mil-spec GPS, which was large and heavy and had a clunky user interface.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Gmail serves Hallmark ad while displaying ... Hallmark ad

A friend celebrated her birthday recently, so I sent her an online card. I used Hallmark's free e-card service. I've used them before, so I'm on Hallmark's mailing list.

So it wasn't a surprise that I received an ad via e-mail from Hallmark. What did surprise me is that Gmail served up an ad from ... Hallmark. I wonder what Hallmark paid for that ad. Quite an irony to pay for a targeted ad that's keyed off of your own content.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

30 days hath September, but Sony hath 31

For years now I've used Imagestation to host my photos on the Web. They are trying to turn this free service into a revenue generator -- or at least achieve cost recovery. I've got gigabytes of images stored online for free.

Now they want me to convert to "Silver" membership at $9.99 a year, half off for the first year.

Really, it's not a bad deal. But they've given me until September 31, 2005 to decide.

The only problem with this: September hath 30 days, not 31.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Something's rotten about these apples

Apple Computer has been bombarding me with mail urging me to buy a Mac so I can get a free Ipod Mini. Actually, my household already has a Mini, and its hard drive died a month ago. More importantly, Apple has released the Nano, which is solid state and a fraction of the size of the Mini.

And Apple has removed the Mini, only about 20 months old, from its catalog.

The Mini was a remarkable piece of engineering. The Nano blows it away. Apple was courageous, and wise, to replace the Mini with the Nano.

Everyone understands the purpose of a fire sale. What I don't understand is why Apple is pushing an item no longer on its catalog -- a product prone to hard drive and battery failure. If the "free" Mini comes with a warranty, it's going to cost Apple big bucks in the long run.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Camels invade campus of a large Midwestern university

Suddenly, there were camels on campus at Michigan State University today.

The vice president for university relations, Terry Denbow, found a new friend.

As did a computer nerd:

But an MSU student discovered absolute, unconditional, true love:

Click to see full-size images. For the complete collection of photos of the camel invasion, please see . You have to subscribe to Imagestation, but it is free.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Ipod Mini, reborn diskless

As predicted, but sooner than expected: Apple replaces the Ipod Mini with a diskless wonder.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

From Agony to Ecstasy

Sometimes the irony is palpable:

Carnival Sending Three Ships for Refugees

The Associated Press

Saturday, September 3, 2005; 6:11 PM

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Three Carnival Cruise Lines ships have been pressed into service by the government to provide shelter for as many as 7,000 hurricane victims.

The Ecstasy, the Sensation and the Holiday will be pulled from regular use starting Monday at the request of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The cost of the charters was not disclosed.

The idea of using cruise ships to house the displaced is a good one; how else can you bring thousands of hotel rooms online instantly? But the names of the ships are definitely ironic.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Matching Katrina victims and families: General Delivery, and cell phones

CNN just reported that the USPS has created a new ZIP Code for refugees at the Astrodome.

People can send mail to:

[name of person]
General Delivery
Houston TX 77230

What a simple yet clever idea! The address of "General Delivery" has a rich history: someone could travel to a town, inform friends and family that they would be there for a while, and pick up mail at the post office addressed only to their name with the "General Delivery" address.

An idea over 150 years old that could match people to their loved ones. Bravo to the USPS!

The problem of helping relatives contact loved ones who lived in New Orleans is massive. The former mayor of New Orleans says his wife's mother, elderly and infirm, cannot be reached. They do not know if she has been saved or has perished. If a former mayor can't get vital information about a loved one, who can?

There are many attempts to use the Web to match refugees with family members. (One of the major ones is the Red Cross site at: ). But how many refugees have access to the Internet in order to register? Suggestion: a major cell phone provider offers free phones and three months of free service to refugees. The cost to the company would be minimal, but the benefits to victims could be extraordinary.

To make the cell phone scheme work in both directions, you'd have to set up a registry of names and numbers; there is no directory assistance for cell phones. With a registry, a relative or friend could call an 800 number, ask for the phone number for John Q. Smith, get a cell number to call and hopefully connect with a loved one.

Friday, September 02, 2005

"I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of levees."

A chill went down my spine when I heard this quote from President Bush:

"I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of levees."

-- President George W. Bush, on Good Morning America, September 1, 2005

I flashed back to when I heard Condeleeza Rice say:

“I don’t think anybody could have predicted that these people…would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile”

-- Condeleeza Rice, May 16, 2002

Of course many people anticipated the breach of the levees. A decades-long project has tried to shore up the levees, and the Bush administration cut the budget for the project in order to stanch the bleeding of the Federal treasury in order to fund the war in Iraq. The Army Corps of Engineers built the levees to withstand a Category 3 storm. The disaster planning community has known for years that a hurricane could mean total disaster if it hit New Orleans. FEMA has ranked New Orleans as among the top 3 disasters waiting to happen. See:

... and this Scientific American article entitled "Drowning New Orleans" from October 2001.

Of course one could've imagined that terrorists might hijack a plane and crash it into a major landmark. Intelligence agency reports warned about the risk long before 9/11. See:

This administration is good at anticipating some things that never happen, as Wolfowitz and Cheney predicted that American troops would be greeted as liberators in Iraq.

But when disaster strikes, why, gosh, no one could have predicted that.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Tulane University's postings on Katrina: poignant stuff

Go to and see how that distinguished New Orleans institution is using the Web to communicate with the university community how it is handling the crisis. Obviously Tulane has suspended classes; they've also sent a number of students to a college in Jackson, Mississippi for safe harbor.

The university has repurposed their Web site for communications about the hurricane's aftermath and Tulane operations. The messages are directly from the university president, Scott Cowen.

Cowen's words are not only informative; they tear at your heart as you contemplate what that small slice of the New Orleans community is going through, along with all those who have fled -- as well as those who have not. From Cowen's August 30 posting:

As I suspect you all know, there is no contingency plan that could ever be developed to respond to what the area and the university are experiencing. However, all of us at the university are totally committed to doing whatever it takes to get the university operational as soon as possible. I hope you will be patient and understanding of our situation as we work our way through the complexities.

It is difficult to describe what this situation feels like for those involved. It is surreal and unfathomable; yet, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Our focus is on the light and not the darkness.

Scott Cowen

Click to see full-size screen shot.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Helping Katrina's homeless with information: merge Google Earth with new aerial photos

NPR just broadcast a poignant interview with a woman whose home is near where one of the levees broke. She expects it will be days or weeks before she and her family know the status of her house.

Click to see full-size image.

Google Earth offers detailed historical imagery of New Orleans, Mobile, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, geocoded by street address. If the USGS, the military, or NASA took new aerial photos now, its hould be trivial to map the new photos against the old. A person could enter a street address and see what the property looked like before Katrina, and what it looks like now.

There may be over a million people who desperately want to know what their house or apartment or business looks like now. This would allow any refugee who can get to a Web browser to find out whether their home is rubble or at least superficially intact.

Use of geocoded data could even aid in rescue and recovery immediately. Louisiana Governor Blanco said today "We know people are trapped in their attics. We're trying to get them out now. I'll tell you something: Addresses mean nothing now because street signs are underwater." Given a street address and a precise GPS receiver, you could send a helicopter to within a few hundred feet of any given street address.

Gmail ups the invitation count to 100

Suddenly I've got 100 Gmail invitations to give out:

This is up from 50. A lot of people speculate that Google will eventually open up Gmail to work like Hotmail, Yahoo Mail, or any other competing free e-mail service. Want to open a new account? Just go to and sign up; no invitation required.

I think there's a chance they will stick with the invitation model indefinitely. In an odd way, it helps foster a community of Gmail users. You have to find a Gmail pal to get started -- and many of us are Gmail evangelists, so that may not be a barrier for many people.

Maybe Google prefers the invitation model. At 2546 megabytes and growing, they've got to worry about people using their Gmail account as a storage vault.

I still think Google is capturing data as to how the invitations spread, and which service provider they poach customers from. (To accept an invitation, you click on a message sent to your current e-mail account.) I'd love to see a visualization of the spread of Gmail across the globe.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Why should TV anchors blog when they could be reporting?

An interesting, and timely, piece aired on NPR this morning. Journalism professor Judy Miller noticed that Brian Williams, the new NBC Nightly News anchor, maintains a blog in which, among other things, he reports disputes in the NBC News division over what to cover each night.
Click to see full-size screen shot

Miller muses that Williams might better spend his time reporting the news, than on reporting on the process of reporting on the news.

Well, now, Brian Williams and other reporters are in New Orleans, reporting on the devastation from Katrina. His most recent blog entry is from tonight, apologizing for the lack of recent blog entries:

Tonight, CNN's news crawl at the bottom of the screen urges people to go to to read reporter Miles O'Brien's "hurricane blog." Go there, and you find he hasn't posted since Monday mid-day:

You can't blame Williams or O'Brien for failing to update their blogs from a city that has no electricity, has little or no cell phone service, and is 80% under water.

But Miller asks a trenchant question: why bother? Why not concentrate on your day job, reporting on television for millions of viewers who want to know what's happening?

Miller's commentary is at:

Shoot, don't let people under that chute

You know how construction firms use chutes to dispose of debris when they gut an upstairs floor of a building? I encountered such a chute in Ann Arbor yesterday. To my surprise, though, they hadn't blocked it off to keep someone from standing right under it. When I pointed this out to my friend Lou Rosenfeld, of course he rushed to ... stand right under it.

Click to see full-size images

I know, a pretty silly tale on a day when dozens died under the wrath of Hurricane Katrina. But there is a link: safety codes exist for a reason. In South Florida, new homes are required by code to be able to withstand hurricane winds. Katrina apparently killed 30 or more people in Biloxi when an apartment building collapsed. I wonder what the local codes require there?

Construction firms and workers often resent safety rules. Recently a commons area in a building in Lansing collapsed -- just fell into rubble -- on a sunny warm day. Thank God, it happened on a weekend, and the building was empty. If it had happened on a weekday, people would have died. The Lansing building inspectors declare that they won't let people occupy the repaired building until it's safe. But, ipso facto, they already let people occupy the building when it wasn't safe.

Ann Arbor, put some construction fence around that site. And Lou, don't hang out under that chute.

Friday, August 26, 2005

News anchors confuse "people" with "customers"

CNN just made the same mistake twice within one minute: they reported on the number of "people" without electricity, when they meant to report on the number of customers who lack power.

On "CNN Daybreak," the anchor intoned ominously that "1.3 million people in Florida are without power." She then moved to California, where rolling blackouts have caused power outages. Again, she said how many "people" are without power.

Get a clue, CNN. Electric utility companies count customers, not people. Customers are homes and businesses. If Florida Power and Light counts 1.3 million customers without power, the number of people in the dark is quite a bit higher.

Click to see full size screen shot.

What mystifies me is why news outlets make this same mistake over and over again -- after every hurricane or snowstorm.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

When a hurricane takes over a university home page

All enterprises sweat over the home page. They should: Jakob Nielsen says your home page is the most precious real estate on earth.

Universities are no different than Fortune 500 companies. They worry endlessly about links, labels, images, and the entire "snap" of the home page.

So what do you do if you're a large university in South Florida, and a tropical storm -- or a hurricane -- is headed your way? Consider the home page of Florida Atlantic University, as cached by Google:

Now suppose you are an administrator - perhaps the president - of Florida Atlantic University.

There's a serious storm heading your way:

There's a pretty good chance a really serious storm will hit your campus. It might wipe out buildings. Hell, it might kill people.

So what do you do? Hold classes as usual? Probably not. How would you explain your choice to the parent of a dead student who watches those storm tracking maps on the Weather Channel? So you shut down classes until the storm passes.

Now, how do you communicate this? Obviously you issue press releases. You talk to the media. But how do you use the university's Web site to communicate the closures, as well as links to other campus resources, and to trusted national sites?

FAU chose to repurpose the entire university home page to handle the event:

Click to see full-size screen shot.

By choosing to hijack the entire architecture of the home page, the university decided that it was better to serve the information needs of current student, faculty, and staff, to the exclusion of prospective students, alumni, friends, and the public.

That might be the right decision, given the circumstances. A storm is on its way, and it may wipe out a large chunk of the campus. We have to serve the people who belong to the university community right now. Makes sense.

Or it might be the wrong decision. Maybe they should offer a prominent link to a page that offers storm information and advice for the current community, leveraging campus and other sources. Leave the university home page (mostly) intact, and offer a very visible link to resources for the crisis.

I honestly don't know the right answer.

But I do know that before, during, and after an emergency, people expect the enterprise home page to deliver current, timely, and useful information.

Google Talk: the desktop invasion continues

Google launched the rumored instant messaging tool, Google Talk, overnight. Some sharp-eyed Google watchers had noticed the domain was in service. And sure enough, there you will find:
Click to see full-size screen shot.

Google Talk integrates with the other tool Google announced this week, Google Desktop 2.

It won't be long before they offer word processing, spreadsheet, presentation software -- a networked office suite.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Can a typo in a URL cost you millions of dollars?

For years, Northwest Airlines has offered cheap deals every Wednesday. Savvy travelers can snap up a weekend getaway or other deal. Economists would love it: NWA fills empty seats, and customers get a bargain.

This week's deal offered a link with a typo:

Click to see full-size.

The URL that Northwest offered was:


Obviously someone accidentally munged a bit of text -- "visit" -- with the URL prefix of "http". If you clicked on the link, you just got an error message. Of the millions of people who subscribe to NWA's Wednesday deals list, you've got to expect that thousands clicked on the link, and said "Oh, it's dead Jim" and moved on to some other surfing activity.

In other words, that little typo cost Northwest thousands of sales.

So you have to wonder:

  • I wonder how many thousands of customers gave up when their click on this URL failed?
  • I wonder how many seats on airplanes will be empty this weekend because of this typo?
  • I wonder how many millions of dollars NWA lost because of this mistake?
  • I wonder what changes in Web publishing procedures NWA will, or will not, now undertake?

Think about it: a typographical error could cost a company millions of dollars, and could keep thousands of people at home instead of at beach or mountain.

Monday, August 15, 2005

The City of New York

David Letterman likes to say "the town so nice, they named it twice."

New York, New York. (Cue Sinatra.)

New York City.


But does anyone call it "the city of New York"???

While reviewing major university Web sites, I was surprised to see that Columbia University uses a name for NYC that I've never seen before:

Columbia University - In the city of New York

My guess is that the Columbia Web Committee debated "what should our tagline be" endlessly and came up with a phrase that no one -- whether native or elsewhere -- ever thinks or says when they think of New York City.

I bet they could have come up with a better tagline. Without even thinking more than a minute, I propose "Academic excellence in the heart of New York City"

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Finally! Validation from an authority -- the highway department

My buddy John Liskey was on a road trip to Mt. Rushmore when he discovered proof, he told me, that I'm a good person. He was kind enough to return with photographic evidence, shot professionally at 70 miles per hour by John's daughter, Corey Ann Liskey:

Hmm... Goodrich Wiggins. How Dickensian.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Can you trust the digital odometer reading on that used car?

One estimate claims that 3/4 of all vehicle sales in the U.S. involve used cars or trucks -- a total of 45 million sales a year. What if millions of buyers are being defrauded by false odometer readings?

Someone is selling a kit that allows any backyard mechanic to reset digital odometers:

Click to see full-size screen shots.

Read the label on the CD, and you see a link to where you can buy this kit from the "retailer." At their Web site you'll find this inspiring disclaimer:

Yeah, right. We're selling this kit that will let anyone who's handy under the hood reset a digital odometer. Please do not use this to defraud anyone.

This was first reported on Dave Farber's mailing list by, who was looking to buy a used truck, but found it odd to see listings of trucks that were years old with only 5000 miles on them. The odometer resetter was for sale on Ebay.

This raises some interesting questions:
  • How widespread is this fraud? This could represent hundreds of millions, or billions, of dollars in annual fraud.
  • How will Ebay respond? The device isn't inherently evil, but you've gotta believe most buyers are not working in pristine mainstream repair shops.
  • What is the auto industry's stance on this? Is there a technical solution that would at least inform buyers of used vehicles that the odometer is no longer in virgin factory status?
  • When will the media pick this story up? (Farber's list is the source of many an article you read in The New York Times.)
  • Will Congress respond?
  • What will Elliot Spitzer (New York Attorney General, the Elliot Ness of our time) do?

And also: who the heck is

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The Tilt-a-Whirl, Visualized

My wife insisted on going to the county fair and riding the Tilt-a-Whirl. That is the last thing I ever want to experience. But she insisted, and so I went along.

I tried to photograph the experience with my new Canon Rebel XT DSLR. This shot came out rather surrealistic:

Click on the image to see it full-size. Honest to God, that is not a computer generated image; it's a photo taken at dusk at a county fair as the world whirls around.