Friday, August 19, 2005

Do you want change with that?

I took someone out to a fast-food drive-in the other evening. It's the kind of place where you give your order by intercom and someone wearing roller skates scoots out to bring your food. The skate-wearing server also takes your money, and in this particular place provides change from a marvelous belt-mounted coin-dispensing device. The job requirements obviously include being able to roller skate. Based on my experience, however, I am not certain they include being able to count.

The bill for my order came to some number of dollars and four cents. I provided the server with a twenty and a nickel. She stared at it for a few seconds, fumbled with the coin dispenser for a few more, then hesitantly started counting out quarters and dimes, apparently talking to herself as she did so. Then she stopped and did an amazing job of looking simultaneously thoughtful and clueless.

I helpfully broke the uncomfortable silence by asking "It was [mumble] dollars and four cents, right?" She looked closely at the receipt, finally answering "Yeah." So I stated the obvious: "I gave you twenty dollars and five cents. So I should get back [mumble] dollars and a penny." She frowned in concentration for a few more seconds before apparently giving up and deciding to trust me, but she didn't seem convinced. After she gave me the change I was due, she skated away still looking unsure of what had just happened.

I wonder if she's usually good at making change for round numbers of dollars, and I just stunned her out of her mathematical comfort zone with my helpful inclusion of a nickel. Or maybe she was just used to people telling her to keep the change.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Houston, we are a problem...

NASA rolled Discovery out to the launch pad early this month with much fanfare. Then a sensor problem was noticed during a test of the fuel tank. They rolled it back to the hangar with much less fanfare, replaced the tank, and sent it back out to the pad. To make up for the lost time, the people in charge decided not to do a test of the new tank. "The actual fueling will be the test," they said.

Huh? The tank is a single-use component. Each one is brand new and has never been tried out before. It's a "criticality one" item which results in a total mission failure if it doesn't work right.

So on launch day, with only a few hours in the countdown, a sensor problem was noticed. It's the same kind of sensor problem that was discovered during the test of the other tank. So the people in charge were right, and the actual fueling did test the tank. Unfortunately, the test failed. Fortunately, it failed before the launch. Had the fault gone undetected until Discovery was on the way up, it could have been a Very Bad Day as the engines shut down even with almost-full tanks.

NASA is to retire the Space Shuttle in only a few years. The only reason it hasn't been shut down permanently yet is because it's the only way to put the finishing touches on the International Space Station -- which itself is nearing the end of its design life even though it's not yet complete. What's wrong with this picture?

Spaceflight today is very expensive. Market forces are a good way to bring costs down when there is a demand for a service. Government-funded space launch operations are incompatible with the free market, and keep costs high. NASA is mandated to use commercial launch services when possible. It's looking more and more like the NASA managers are keeping commercial launch services from thriving by denying them a market.

When I was young, I wanted to be an astronaut. Now I just want to be able to buy a ticket on a spaceliner the way I can for an airliner. NASA isn't going to get me where I want to go, and it's increasingly apparent that NASA isn't gong to get "us" there either. NASA, get out of the way and let Richard Branson and Burt Rutan and John Carmack and Gary Hudson and Paul Allen build the commercial spaceflight industry the way Henry Ford and Ransom Olds and Walt Chrysler and the Dodge brothers helped start the American automobile industry.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Then they came for the swappers...

A month ago I alluded to Martin Niemöller's bit about "them" coming for various groups when I babbled about the United States Supreme Court's decision that state-sanctioned medical marijuana use is a federal crime. Quick on the heels of that decision came another one: the operators of file-sharing sites on the Internet can be held liable for their users' infringement of copyright.


I'm uneasy about this one too, but on a completely different level. On one hand, I dislike the idea of people suing bartenders because a patron drove drunk. Personal responsibility needs to be promoted, not diluted. On the other hand, my livelihood at the moment depends on my being paid to create intangible "intellectual property", exactly the kind of thing that can be shared on the likes of Grokster without my seeing a penny of reimbursement for its use. So do I approve of the Court's decision, or do I grumble about the erosion of freedom it represents?

Good question. I definitely approve of the intent that there is only liability if the operators promote the use of the software and networks for copyright infringement. I still think the individual file-swappers bear the real responsibility for what they're doing, and I would have preferred that the Court stuck more closely to that concept. But while I don't exactly commend the decision, I'm not condemning it either.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

All work, all play, all the time

A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself he always appears to be doing both.

— Francoise Rene Auguste Chateaubriand

Monday, June 13, 2005

First, they came for the stoners...

I am uneasy. The United States Supreme Court recently decided that state laws permitting marijuana use when prescribed by a doctor don't count. At least it wasn't a unanimous decision.

I don't smoke marijuana. I don't use any illegal drugs, nor do I regularly drink alcohol. Caffeine is as close as I get to an artificial mood alterant. But I am no fan of the "war on drugs", which seems both misplaced and misapplied. Smoking isn't a great idea in the first place, but why single out marijuana over tobacco? Why pick on an inhaled intoxicant containing THC and not similarly make a fuss over an ingested intoxicant containing methanol? Legal prohibition does not have the desired effect, and the side effects are worse than the imagined problem. That much is clear from history.

I'm of the opinion that recreational drug use should be treated the same as social drinking. "If you choose to toke, toke responsibly." Yeah.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Hot enough for ya?

I live in a region of North America which is known for many things. Mild summers is not one of them. Global warming won't make a real difference around here, as it's already too hot to matter. I managed to hold out on using the central air conditioning until Wednesday night. That's when it became obvious that sleep was just not going to happen without cutting down the temperature more than a fan in the window could do. Humid air within striking distance of body temperature is simply incapable of being comfortable, no matter how fast it's moving.

I know nobody else who tries to avoid using air conditioning until as late as possible. There are family tales about grandparents who wouldn't consider it until July, but they're based on realities of long past, when a time without air conditioning was actually within memory. Now a new house without central air is almost as inconceivable as one without central heat.

Cable and satellite TV are at that point today. Twenty years from now the next generation will hear tales of grandparents who would only watch local stations, and a time without CNN or The Weather Channel will seem like ancient history.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Apple straps on the waterskis

I've been using Apple computers for years. My paid productivity is all Windows-based, but Macs make good, reliable terminals for email and web browsing, and they do play nice with other computers. I appreciate the way the Mac system gets out of the way when I'm using them, while the Windows interface is almost always intruding on me when I'm working with documents. So I've always been a fan of the Apple way.

Today I was surprised -- not quite stunned, but almost -- to see that Apple is going to start switching all its new computers to use Intel microprocessors. The journalistic fog is thick, so I can't quite tell what was really announced, but at least two news reports talk about new Macintoshes running on Intel's Pentium next year, and others speak of "the same processors which power most of the PCs in the world". If this is accurate, I don't think it bodes well for Apple's future. Such a switch would make new Mcintoshes incompatible with software written for old ones, and software written for new ones wouldn't run on the old ones either.

They did something like this once before when they adopted the PowerPC, and they fell from about ten percent market share to five in the process. They did a similar major shift between OS9 and OS10, and the market share is now about two percent. If they're lucky, another big blow to the installed base will only cut it in half again. If things don't go perfectly smoothly, I expect Apple to drop from "small but intensely innovative computer maker with good products" to "that iPod company that used to make cute computers".

Until I know more, I won't cry shark, but it doesn't look good.