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Comment: A brain-teaser or an honesty test? (Score 1) 476

by dpbsmith (#49740687) Attached to: The Brainteaser Elon Musk Asks New SpaceX Engineers

If I were asked that question, I think I'd answer it well. Not because I would be able to figure it out quickly under pressure, but because this brainteaser is very old.

When I was a kid in the 1950s I read both it and the original intended correct answer (the North Pole) in a book of brainteasers.

When I got into high school, someone who was actually smart discovered that the answer wasn't unique and that there was an infinite family of additional answers all involving points close to the South Pole, and I read about that, too. I'm not sure where; I think it was in Martin Gardner's "Mathematical Games" column in Scientific American.

There must be million of people who know the answer, not because they figured it out by themselves, but because they read or heard the answer somewhere.

Of all the candidates who give Mr. Musk the correct answer, I imagine very few of them are solving it on the spot. I wonder how many of the others are honest enough to volunteer the information that they had already read the answer.

Or perhaps that's the point--perhaps it's an honesty test rather than a brain-teaser.

Comment: Microsoft was proved to be lying about this. (Score 2) 90

by dpbsmith (#49660681) Attached to: How To Set Up a Pirate EBook Store In Google Play Books

They were just saying this was true to resist antitrust actions. The Department of Justice said bundling IE was illegal "tying." Microsoft claimed that IE was an integral part of Windows and that it was impossible, for technical reasons, to unbundle it and allow competition on a level playing field from other browsers.

Edward Felten proved to Microsoft to be lying, in court, in 1998, in a live demo, by removing IE from Windows without breaking Windows.

Comment: What exactly ARE we seeing in that "flythrough?" (Score 1) 45

by dpbsmith (#49544965) Attached to: Hubble Turns 25

Flythrough video -- I have no objection to enhanced pictures but I do want to understand exactly what I am looking at. There can't possibly be enough parallax for any traditional stereo imaging.

Where does the depth information in a video like this come from, and what has happened here--has the image been basically digitized and then completely regenerated by shifting every image pixel in it according to its distance from the virtual "camera" position?

Comment: I don't know whose comfort they're considering... (Score 1) 194

by dpbsmith (#49535455) Attached to: Yahoo Called Its Layoffs a "Remix." Don't Do That.

...when executives use euphemisms like "right-sizing." (I have never heard of a company that "right-sized" by hiring more employees). Even "layoff" is a euphemism because a "layoff" means a temporary suspension. "We'll have to let you go" means that you want to leave and they are reluctantly but graciously acceding to your wishes.

They may be trying to make themselves feel more comfortable by pretending they aren't doing something hurtful to their employees.

As for how it makes employees feel, I wish I could find the origin of a wonderful quotation... but someone, possibly W. Somerset Maugham, once said "Don't hand me a turd and tell me it's a profiterole" (creampuff).

Comment: Enhanced images have always had a downside (Score 1) 28

by dpbsmith (#49530143) Attached to: How False Color Astronomy Works

The use of enhanced images, illustrations, artists' conceptions, and diagrams in science education cuts both ways.

Even when I was growing up (in the 1950s) my first impressions of astronomy were formed by illustrations of the solar system--shown from a point of view outside the system, with the orbits displayed as brightly colored, ellipses, and the planets on a scale a thousand times larger than the scale of the orbits.

Something like this helps the child understand what it is that astronomers discovered, and what the spatial relationships actually are. That's good. On the other hand, it leaves them completely unprepared to see Jupiter or Venus out in the backyard on a clear summer night.

And it leaves them unable to appreciate the discovery, the sheer intellectual achievement of someone like Kepler. He figured that out? He didn't have any picture of ellipses? Just from measurements of positions of bright little dots of light that look like they're pinholes in a dome a few hundred feet away? Doing three dimensional trig with nothing but pencil and paper?

My first impressions of Halley's Comet were highly magnified photographic time exposures made by big observatories. The tail, viewed with my eye on the printed page, was bright and probably subtended thirty degrees of visual arc.

I don't think there's any layperson in the world who hasn't been disappointed and upset by their first view of a real comet in the real sky. It should be a wonder, a miracle, a creepy sort of thing--your left brain knows it isn't really a portent, but your right brain is sure it is. Instead, it's like a Peggy Lee refrain: "Is that all there is to a comet?"

What a thrill it ought to be to recognize the Andromeda Nebula with the naked eye. But not if you were expecting a sort of Fourth of July fireworks Catherine wheel instead of a faint smudge.

Understanding the scientific results is worthwhile, but it is almost more important to understand the bedrock experiential reality, and the discovery process.

I know that Jupiter has moons because one night I saw four little stars all in a line right next to it, and next night I saw them again but they'd moved. There is something terribly important in the direct experience, the personal verification. Good buddies, Galileo and me. I've seen something in the sky that wasn't moving around the earth, and so I know Galileo was right.

Last year I finally got around to buying the right kind of telescope for what I wanted to do, a wide aperture low-power "richest field" telescope. With it, I've seen the Andromeda Nebula for myself better than I've ever seen it before.

Boom! No guessing, no squinting, no waiting for a perfectly dark night, THERE IT IS. I'll have to take someone's word for its being a spiral. But I've seen it, me, with my own eyeball. Big faint oval, small bright center. No time exposures, no false color, no computer processed CCD imagery.

It's there, it's really there, I've seen it with my own eyes, not in a planetarium, not in a book, and the light from that sucker had to leave two and a half million years ago to get here just for me to see it. Wow.

Comment: Straight out of the past's future (Score 1) 105

by dpbsmith (#49459577) Attached to: Microsoft and Miele Team Collaborate To Cook Up an IoT Revolution

"Ultimately it means you'll be able to find a recipe online, have the ingredient list and preparation instructions sent to your mobile device, and your smart oven will be automatically configured with the correct settings."

Boy, that sounds like sounding straight out of the 1950s... a Carousel of Progress from a World's Fair or something... Elektro the Robot, vocoders, and AT&T picturephones...

All it needs to complete the picture is a white woman in an apron, a white man smoking a pipe, and two smiling white children.

Comment: It's the product, not the strategy. (Score 1) 1

by dpbsmith (#49263057) Attached to: Does Microsoft have trojan horse strategy with Cortana?

Right, typical marketing-driven idea.

Remember the ads for the (first incarnation of) iWon.com? A search engine with a great strategy--every search you made on it entered you, for free, into a sweepstakes with a $1,000,000 prize. (The original campaign featured an office worker whispering "If I win, does my boss get the money or do I get the money?" The announcer assures her that she will get the money). Surely a fantastic strategy. Surely every office worker will switch from Google to iWon.

The only problem was that iWon's search was mediocre, while Google's continued to be good. In the end, people use search to find things.

So, put aside the clever-clever strategizing. What will determine the outcome is how good the product is. Do their technology people have technology in Cortana and Bing that is meaningfully more helpful than Siri and Google? Not just a tie, not just a debatable slim edge.

If Microsoft can make Bing as much better than Google as Google was better than Altavista, then given competent marketing they will win.

If Bing isn't much better than Google, no amount of clever strategizing will help. Marketing could not save the Zune, or the Kin, or (way back when) Microsoft Bob, because the product itself was not compelling.

You can build all the Trojan Horses you want, but they won't do a thing unless they are just so cool that the Trojans can't resist bringing them inside the gates.

Comment: Robots and washers will co-evolve (Score 2) 161

by dpbsmith (#49207777) Attached to: Why It's Almost Impossible To Teach a Robot To Do Your Laundry

I suppose the article is vaguely interesting in pointing out how tasks simple for a human are complex for a robot, but if the point is doing laundry... file it under "ornithopters" (flying machines with flapping wings), pre-Singer sewing machines that tried to mimic the way a human being sews, and so forth.

If we really wanted robots to do laundry, the house, washing machine, and robots would coevolve in all sorts of ways--starting with variations on the laundry chute to deliver the clothing to a single station where they wouldn't need to be sorted out from other clutters. (A simple chute? A conveyor belt? A drone?) Washer doors would be modified to be robot-friendly, and so forth and so on.

When marketers wanted reel-to-reel tape technology to be more automated, engineers didn't built clever gadgets to sense and catch the free end of a piece of tape, they designed tape cassettes.

In the 1990s I remember seeing "Pronto" machines in a factory carrying parts and assemblies from place to place. They didn't need video and pattern recognition, they just followed a wire embedded in the concrete floor that emitted an RF signal.

It's just system thinking. Automating a process by dropping a robot into the middle of it without changing the rest of the process is a silly constraint to put on a solution. A robot clever enough to climb stairs and operate any kind of existing washer is going to cost a lot more than a dumb robot that operates a washer designed to be operated by a robot.

Comment: IE7 was supposed to be standards-compliant... (Score 2) 166

by dpbsmith (#49143969) Attached to: Microsoft's Goals For Their New Web Rendering Engine

...wasn't it? I've sort of lost track, but I think Microsoft has made precisely this claim for every browser. Yes, here we go:

" That's your vision for IE7, to definitely support Web standards?

Chris: Absolutely, in IE7 we really are trying to support Web standards. Even at the expense of more backwards compatibility..."

Then much the same thing was said of IE8,

and then we read that
"I have to say I was very pleasantly surprised to read this post on el reg that highlights that IE9 is currently the most standards compliant beta browser on the block. Iâ(TM)m really proud of the work the IE9 team is doing to nail the the things that were previously levelled at Internet Explorer for being a 'bad browser.'"

It's the same every time. They acknowledge that the previous browser wasn't standards-compliant after all, and promise the one they are now working on is.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Comment: It's the way it's always been and always will be. (Score 1) 133

Meeting the audience's expectation, and conforming to the cultural standards of drama at the time, whatever it is, always trumps literal truth.

I remember watching a dumb old black-and-white movie with my brother when I was a kid. I was the one who "knew about science." Someone was using a metal detector with a search coil, and it was dramatically "right" for them to find something. My brother says "Tick. Tick. Tick. Tickticktickticktick." I say, "Oh, no. That's a Geiger counter. This is a metal detector, and it does "Wheeeee-oooh, because the metal changes the resonant frequency of the coil and the oscillator--"

--and the metal detector goes "Tick. Tick. Tick. Tickticktickticktick."

Comment: They should honor the acceptances. (Score 1) 131

by dpbsmith (#49087605) Attached to: Carnegie-Mellon Sends Hundreds of Acceptance Letters By Mistake

If the applicant is seriously underqualified and likely to fail, they should say so, give the specific reasons, and advise them not to enter the program.

Nevertheless, if they've actually sent out an acceptance--if it wasn't a forgery--they should honor the acceptance.

It's the right thing to do.

Comment: Spinthariscopes and such (Score 1) 286

by dpbsmith (#49076981) Attached to: 1950s Toy That Included Actual Uranium Ore Goes On Display At Museum

I was born slightly too late to buy a "spinthariscope," a toy consisting of a zinc sulfide screen, a loupe-like magnifying glass, and a radiation source--quite possibly radium.

So, I made my own. We had a microscope, I had a Westclox Baby Ben with a luminous dial, I used a penknife to chip off a bit of the luminous paint, put it under the microscope, and turned out the light. Instead of a glowing dial, I could now see, clearly, individual flashes of lights.

I don't know where the Gilbert kit fits on the scale of danger, but I also had a geiger counter kit, and the instruction booklet had directions for how to keep records of background radiation and detect fallout from bomb tests. On the whole, I think we were subjected to more danger from bomb tests than from science kits.

Comment: A shame. Arduino kits and a better parts selection (Score 3, Insightful) 294

by dpbsmith (#48994637) Attached to: Radioshack Declares Bankruptcy

A shame. I was just starting to think it was making a modest return to its roots.

When I visited one a few months ago, they had quite a decent little display of Makershed Arduino kits and books about the Arduino, and they had a kind of dense metal cabinet with shallow drawers filled with individual parts, a much larger selection than they used to have hanging on pegs in blister packs.

I needed a new soldering iron and I bought one there.

Comment: It underwhelms BECAUSE people prepared. (Score 1) 397

by dpbsmith (#48918025) Attached to: "Mammoth Snow Storm" Underwhelms

Close to 2 feet here and still coming down.

I think people forget just how quickly a snowstorm can get serious if people don't stay off the road. If the plows can't keep up, you are driving first through a light dusting, then an inch, then a couple of inches. Sooner or later cars start to skid. Or, you will have a chunk of interstate that uphill and ONE car isn't able to make it up the hill, stops, cars behind it stop, etc.

Maybe it's not "historic" but it's a big serious snowstorm.

Money can't buy happiness, but it can make you awfully comfortable while you're being miserable. -- C.B. Luce