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?