Thursday, June 28, 2007

A big salute to Junk Food Science

I want to put a big shout out to a new member of our list of sites on the right, and that is to Junk Food Science. Sandy Szwarc does what I cannot do in the field of medicine, and that is shine a light of pure, blinding logic to the world of medicine and health, specifically in tearing apart what the research does and does not say. Sandy, if you're reading, please know you have a huge fan here who reads you every day.

"Natural Language"

Microsoft, that bastion of Western capitalism, has a research project that it calls Natural Language Processing:

The goal of the Natural Language Processing (NLP) group is to design and build software that will analyze, understand, and generate languages that humans use naturally, so that eventually you will be able to address your computer as though you were addressing another person.

This is a very laudable goal. The problem is, they need to do something now: They need to make their operating system understandable by regular humans. So the "natural language" should have been involved in the text and processes in the operating systems, such as:

There are so many more examples on the web of these issues and many more, but the problem boils down to this: Microsoft programmers often write their programs thinking they will be used by other Microsoft programmers and tested and debugged by Microsoft programmers, and therefore they don't end up programming for the customer. You know, that user at Small Business Shop in Smalltown, Ohio who got a business degree and is just trying to get his project done. He doesn't know what the heck a DLL is; he doesn't have any clue whether a dialog box is giving important information or just a warning. And he doesn't want to learn.

Microsoft needs to start using more natural text in its operating system. And now. Not years and decades from now, hoping to reach the vocal interface.

And then, of course, Microsoft should do as they say, and not as they do.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

A Life of Caffeine

So I went to the doctor today (yes, on a Saturday) for a checkup. While I'm sitting in the waiting room, I pick up an old copy of US News and World Report. The cover story was on our society's dependence on caffeine to do all the stuff we do.

I didn't get a chance to actually read the article; for once, the doctor came a bit too quickly for my taste. But when I went to put up the magazine, I happened to see the advertising on the back of the cover. I have no idea what it was attempting to sell, but the tag line? "Who knew two vanilla lattes could be so relaxing" or some such nonsense.

Don't magazine publishers check to make sure that the ads they're placing in the magazine don't contradict any articles in the edition? Doesn't it just demonstrate no attention to detail at the level of the editors? If that's the case with something as simple as advertising, what does that mean about the articles they publish? 

But since I am a geek, lets talk about caffeine. 

According to, caffeine, or 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine, as its known chemically, is "the most widely consumed pharmacologically active substance in the world." Geeks have depending on caffeine for decades, but we picked that up from others. says that Chinese emperor Shen Nung drank strong, hot brewed tea. Coffee was first located in Africa around 575 AD. We in the US switched to coffee in the eighteenth century, perhaps only partly because of the Boston Tea Party

A 12-ounce can of Coca Cola has 34 milligrams (mg) of caffeine. lists several other amounts, such as 5 ounces (150 milliliters) of regular filtered coffee has 60 mg. Most of the web sites I've seen suggested 300 mg/day as a safe level for most people, but some individuals are very sensitive to caffeine and should not have anywhere near that much. 

The concern in the US News and World Report article is the huge increase in consumption of caffeine for all age groups but especially growing children. According to the article, there have been no studies of the effects of caffeine on growing children. Then they proceed to trot out individual kids who have are using insane amounts of caffeinated beverages or moving up to methylphenidates to get serious long-term highs. The article goes into "upcoming medical crisis" mode. 

First, you cannot make decisions about products based on individual stories. No matter how many times television news programs or written news articles trot out someone to be their example of the problem in question, such low-number experiential data points don't count. We can say something about caffeinated sodas, which have been consumed as a result of being in the market in their current forms for over fifty years (and closer to eighty years).  And in the decades since these cola products have been on the market, there has not been any problem that warrants intervention. The quantities of caffeine in these products has been at a reasonable level and children have been properly monitored by parents to limit intake. In a quick search, the most I could find was holding Coca-Cola accountable for activities in Colombia and killing vending machines

(And while I can appreciate why parents are concerned about their kids being on Ritalin and whether it is being incorrectly prescribed to too many children, I have a different take on it: I know two family members who took it, and in them the result of being on the drug was a remarkable improvement. Ritalin is not evil, especially when it is properly dispensed.)

To me, the problem is not the caffeinated beverages, even the new ones like Red Bull, Cocaine, and such. As long as the product is not inherently dangerous, in our capitalist society they should have the right to make and sell such a product. The problem is a lack of oversight by parents. Why aren't parents watching what beverages their children consume? My family watched over me, and I watched over my children. Why can't the US News article bring the focus around to "Parent, be aware of this." Instead, it just seems to sound a "woe is us!" kind of tone. 

Update, 6/28/2007: Just fixed some typos in the text.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Future of Applications

So over in my list of links I've included Zoho. I've had it sitting there mostly as a placeholder so I could remind myself to write about the Web 2.0 sites that have been such a hot item lately. I don't have a complete list of such collaboration sites, but technologies and names involved include Zoho, Google Docs (of course), SimDesk, and several others listed here on Wikipedia.

When I first heard about the concept of using applications online (and I think it was Microsoft who originally was talking about it), I just couldn't get it. Why would folks want to use such applications over a network when the files could be intercepted, the applications were susceptible to network outages, and people didn't actually "own" the software? 

But I was introduced to Zoho at work, and I discovered the value of these online applications. I had a project that I had to do at home and I needed to keep track of a mountain of information. In addition, I couldn't have my spouse constantly asking me for where the info was. 

So by using Zoho projects, I was able to set up a project there that allowed me to keep track of all the little things that needed to be done and set it up so the spouse could easily find information. And thus I discovered the two key attributes of online apps: (1) the ability to work together with others in collaboration, and (2) the ability to find an app that I needed without having to spend money on something I may only use once or twice. 

I still am concerned about my information being online, but frankly most of us don't have anything that important or serious. I mean, if someone use Zoho Projects to keep track of a house remodeling project, who really cares? I still don't think individual privacy should be compromised, but that doesn't mean that we have to use such tools for things that are truly private. Obviously if you are working with information that must be secure, using an online collaboration tool is still not a great idea. But these tools do fill a need, one that I had not considered before. 

Friday, June 15, 2007

Disappointment, thy name is Jobs

As I am not paid to program on the Macintosh platform (even though I may support them), I was not able to go to WWDC this year. I did watch the keynote speech by Steve Jobs, and I have to say it was extremely disappointing. 

All the features shown in Leopard? Mostly shown last year. iPhone? I'm sorry, but while I can see why Apple is moving in this direction, it doesn't interest me. Gaming? Here I must confess that I do not truly qualify as a geek, because gaming doesn't interest me in the slightest. Role-playing games do not interest me at all. I know, shocking, even blasphemous, but true. 

And I could swear that in listening to Jobs do his presentation, he seemed to know it, despite the classic black sweater, jeans, and tone of his presentation. There was a slight levity to his voice. It must frustrate him to no end. Apple is seen (rightly or wrongly; I prefer to think rightly) as pioneers of innovation. And they didn't have it this time. I think that's probably because of the time and manpower needed to get the iPhone to work. I really hope that it pulls in the people as the iPods did. I do.

Don't get me wrong. I want Leopard for a number of reasons: Time Machine, Spaces, and the cool background option in iChat. But I hope the iPhone was worth the delay. 

Equality of the "sexes"

In the spirit of cooperation and equality, I shall at least link to this article that talks about the Intel Xeon chips paired together in the V8 machine. The Intel Xeon chip was also in the Mac Pro I mentioned in this article.

It's slightly interesting to note the level of detail given in at Hot Hardware as opposed to what appeared at Apple's site regarding their machine, although that is the difference of the audience of each. We geeks love our details, even if we don't necessarily understand them all. (Of course, we would never admit this out loud.)

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

A little perfection

There's something great and wonderful and, dare I say, majestic about a well-made chocolate chip cookie. I'm not sure I can say that it touches the sublime, but perhaps this recipe could. The author, Nancy Rommelman, shares this recipe and notes something that is true in many areas of life: knowledge is not expertise.
I know that, no matter how meticulously I explain a recipe – and people seem to think baking is a very meticulous business, despite my telling them, I rarely measure anything – it will not taste the same as mine. Why? Because I’ve been baking since I was seven, I’m good at it and, chances are, you’re not.

I am not trying to be snotty here. If you give me a violin, and tell me exactly and a thousand times how to play a Tchaikovsky concerto, I am not going to sound like Jascha Heifetz, even if I practice, for years. I might play well, but I will not play like him. The same holds true for baking... .

I like this. There is so much truth wrapped up in this statement that many people today seem to not understand. (Perhaps something in our culture is pushing us away from this knowledge? Human Resource departments sort of know this, but there is still a push to document your knowledge, it seems.) Quantifying expertise is impossible, but I think each person has a spark of something that allows them to take one or more areas and turn their knowledge into something more. Just because Joe Smith and I took the same four years of classes at Big State University and both majored in Big Computational Disciplines does not mean that our skill sets are the same. It doesn't mean that we bring the same abilities to the knowledge that we have.

And perhaps, if I may be bold, this is a part of that concept of being made in the image of God. Yes, we know that primates can create tools and use them, but has any primate taken that knowledge and developed a Home Depot in the jungle? I haven't seen one.

And yet, even though I may not have great baking expertise, I'm still thinking it's worth my time to try this cookie recipe. If nothing else, it will let me have some quality time with my family.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

I want it, NOW

While Minority Report made the interface popular, this story talks about how it is in existence now. It backs up what Microsoft is doing (posted here).

So is Microsoft the first vendor to sell this? More research will be needed to check on that. Right now, it appears defense applications are the only places where it will be used. Which means commercial applications will be years behind--except for Microsoft, that is. But their offering is so expensive as to be out of reach for most of us.

But the trend is clear: as computers have moved through time, the interface has looked less and less like code and command lines and more intuitive, based on the way we interact with our world around us. There is but one downside to this: the number of people who will be able to do the coding will continue to decrease, as few people will have the skills to code. The only way to avoid this is to improve the languages themselves. Even if many business applications still exist and still run that are based on COBOL, COBOL is as evil as it can be, so I am more than happy to leave it in the dust heap of time.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Entering the Holy of Holies

So we went to the dentist today. Nothing remarkable happened to my teeth, but something odd happened as I walked into the lobby.

The dentist is in a new building, and the lobby is decorated with a slightly Asian theme. Consequently, the receptionists prefer to play music that is New Age sounding with an Asian sound, in minor keys with odd plucking notes periodically. I guess it's supposed to sound soothing to those who would prefer to be stuck in an elevator than be at a dentist's office.

So my immediately impression when I walked into the lobby was that I was walking into the Forbidden City. Now why would a dentist want his office to be seen as holy ground?

If they force me to start bowing and walking backwards in the dentist's presence, I'm finding a new dentist.