Thursday, September 29, 2005

Seattle bus tracker

Seattle bus tracker is based on Virtual Earth. Looks way better than BusMonster. The best part is you can actually see where the bus is right now.

Buying used books on line

The Book Industry Study Group calculated the size of the used book market and the results are published today in Seattle Times as well as - The Growing Market For Slightly Used Books: "While the market's size is still modest -- about $600 million, or 2.8% of the $21 billion that readers spent on consumer books in 2004 -- it is growing at 25% annually. Jeff Hayes, group director for InfoTrends Research Group, suggests that it could reach $2.25 billion in U.S. sales by 2010, or 9.4% of a projected $23.9 billion in consumer book sales."

Some of my thoughts:
  1. Textbooks already work this way and publishers have adapted by insisting on more frequent updates. The market for the 14th edition of a popular Calculus textbook disappears when the 15th edition comes out.

  2. It's a matter of time before the same thing happens to lots of other businesses. Why buy a new anything if you can buy a slightly-used version for less money.

Kid's Programming Language

Microsoft's MSDN is helping to promote Kid's Programming Language, an easy-to-use development environment meant to give young programmers the kind of start people like me had with BASIC years ago.

via [Techweb]

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Fixing a camcorder

I mentioned that my 3CCD Panasonic PV-DV953 camcorderdeveloped some problems. Today after a few phone calls I found that I need to send it for repairs to:

Bigston Digital
1590 Touhy Ave
Elk Grove Village, IL 60007

They charge $261.50 for any repair (includes shipping). Takes 17-20 business days, up to a maximum of 30 business days if they need to order special parts.

That's expensive, but still cheaper than buying a new camera. I'll need to check the web a bit to see what sorts of experiences others have had with Bigston repairs.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Pledge a Picket!

Planned Parenthood Southeastern Pennsylvania has a brilliant way to deal with protesters:

Here's how it works: You decide on the amount you would like to pledge for each protester (minimum 10 cents). When protesters show up on our sidewalks, Planned Parenthood Southeastern Pennsylvania will count and record their number each day from October 1 through November 30, 2005. We will place a signoutside the health center that tracks pledges and makes protesters fully aware that their actions are benefiting PPSP. At the end of the two-month campaign, we will send you an update on protest activities and a pledge reminder.

It seems to me that this same technique can be used to counter all kinds of protesters: annoying unions who picket in front of a business you need to visit, anti-government protesters who don't stand for a thing but just hate Bush or whoever else is in charge, whacko far-fringe environmental or "animal rights" groups who use intimidation to get their way, etc., etc.

Protesters often forget that free speech works both ways. This is a clever way to use their own tools against them.

via Freakonomics

Eilyon is now ZoomInfo: searching for people

I previously mentioned Eilyon as a place to look for people on the Internet. Apparently they've changed their name to ZoomInfo.

They still don't seem to know me very much. Type Richard Sprague Microsoft and you'll get a couple of old links from other people.

Just Google me and you'll see much more, like my blogs and recent info about me.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Sushi Kyo: Unexpected pleasure

After reading a detailed on-line review, we gave Sushi Kyo a try with our family of five. Clean and cozy, easy-to-find right on 1st ave a few blocks from the Space Needle, the food is basic but well-prepared. The place obviously hasn't been discovered yet: on a Saturday night it was full but no waiting. I came with my family. Our oldest, an 8-year-old, had no problem with her sushi tempura dinner. Four big tails of shrimp, fried just right without too much oil. The two younger kids split an order of Yakiudon (beef): tasty, not too spicy, large portions. We also tried a broad selection of sushi, from the "normal" (California roll and maguro) to the slightly off-track (azura). It was all fresh and cleanly presented. The natto-maki was a little chewy, but that's a nit: I rarely find places that serve natto well. But the pickled ginger was unbelievably fresh and sharp. Our total bill was about $100, which felt a little expensive, but we left feeling completely stuffed.

I'd recommend it: parking is easy, service is fast, reasonable environment for families. And your prime card works.

Stay-at-home Ivy League Moms

We already know that a huge proportion of women graduates from top schools suspend their careers to raise children, but most of these appear to have been caught in this situation by surprise as they discover how difficult it is to be a "Super Mom". Now the New York Times says many are already planning this while in college:

"According to a 2000 survey of Yale alumni from the classes of 1979, 1984, 1989 and 1994, conducted by the Yale Office of Institutional Research, more men from each of those classes than women said that work was their primary activity - a gap that was small among alumni in their 20's but widened as women moved into their prime child-rearing years. Among the alumni surveyed who had reached their 40's, only 56 percent of the women still worked, compared with 90 percent of the men.
A 2005 study of comparable Yale alumni classes found that the pattern had not changed. Among the alumni who had reached their early 40's, just over half said work was their primary activity, compared with 90 percent of the men. Among the women who had reached their late 40's, some said they had returned to work, but the percentage of women working was still far behind the percentage of men.
A 2001 survey of Harvard Business School graduates found that 31 percent of the women from the classes of 1981, 1985 and 1991 who answered the survey worked only part time or on contract, and another 31 percent did not work at all, levels strikingly similar to the percentages of the Yale students interviewed who predicted they would stay at home or work part time in their 30's and 40's.

Top quote from one of the Ivy League students interviewed:
"Parents have such an influence on their children," Ms. Ku said. "I want to have that influence. Me!

Also read this critical Slate commentary, which thinks the NYTimes is making a mountain out of a molehill.
I suspect a Times editor glommed onto the idea while overhearing some cocktail party chatter—"Say, did you hear that Sam blew hundreds of thousands of dollars sending his daughter to Yale and now she and her friends say all they want in the future is to get married and stay at home?"

Friday, September 23, 2005

Don't buy vinyl lunch boxes for kids

Urban Legends Reference Pages: Toxins (Pail by Comparison)

There's an email circulating the Internet warning that some children's vinyl lunch boxes contain lead. It's true. Worse, since there's no list of exactly which boxes are affected, the advice is to simply not use any vinyl boxes.

(book) On Intelligence

I just finished Jeff Hawkins' book, On Intelligence.

I first became interested in computers in the late 1970s because I thought it might be a way to make me smarter. At the time this led naturally to an interest in Artificial Intelligence (which was much more fashionable then than now) and I hung out with friends who were interested in neurology. For college I applied to Stanford and MIT, the two Centers of the Universe for that sort of thing, and I soaked it all up. After graduation I considered AI grad schools and I moved to Japan because I thought it was the place where a lot of the new innovation would happen. Eventually, partly out of the influence of people like Terry Winograd and others, I gave up on AI and moved into the mainstream of PC software.

Jeff Hawkins is just like me! Well, almost. He’s a bit older, so he had more exposure to the Real World than I did, and he turned his natural entrepreneurial talents toward start-ups, eventually founding Palm and then Treo. His business success enabled him to devote all his time to his real passions, including an in-depth look at how to make computers intelligent. That’s what I admire most about him: in contrast to other successful people, he is devoting his money and time to an intellectual passion rather than, say, collecting big boats or houses. In short, he’s doing what I would be doing if more good fortune had come my way.

I mention all of this to say that I am naturally sympathetic to the cause, and I think I understand Hawkins’ Mission. I wish more people with the means to explore these topics would do what he is doing.

He is heavily influenced by the observations of Vernon Mountcastle, who notes that the uniformity of the neocortex is best explained by a uniformity in the way all our senses operate. Sight, sound, touch—by the time they hit your neocortex, they might as well be the same thing.

By the way, you have more than the five senses than you were taught in grade school: Vision is really the separate senses of motion, color, and luminance; Touch is pressure, temperature, pain, and vibration; you have a sense of balance; and there is an entire sense called the proprioceptive system that tells you about joint angles and the body position. But all of these senses enter and are processed by the brain in the same way.

Hawkins then argues that sensory inputs are tied to another rich channel of predictive outputs that he calls the memory-prediction framework of intelligence. In short, your brain is constantly outputting predictions for how the world works, which it then confirms with your sensory inputs: if the two match, the inputs are ignored. If they don’t match, then more high-level
processing is applied until you reach a state where your senses match your expectations.

He suggests that if you built a similar system in silicon, you’d have a brain—intelligence. It would be infinitely scalable and could be applied to super-human problems like weather forecasting, which depend on massive pattern recognition of the type that humans can do instantly.

I’m not up to date on modern neuroscience or studies of intelligence, so I don’t know how Hawkins’ ideas have been received by “mainstream” academics, but I have no quibbles with his basic idea, which seems plausible to me. The one big hole I see is that he doesn’t allow for all the hard-wired aspects of intelligence. To be “intelligent” is not just to be able to do massive pattern recognition or the other cool things that Hawkins machine would do. Human intelligence is much
more, and it’s far more hard-wired than I think Hawkins’ framework allows.

Why do all cultures have a taboo against incest? Why do all humans know what it means to sing and dance? Why do most girl babies throw balls under-handed while boys throw over-hand? Many (and I argue, most) activities that we often think of as arbitrary consequences of our intelligence are really hard-wired and built into our brains as much as the more abstract aspects of intelligence that Hawkins’ framework explains.

I bet someday, when all of this is eventually explained, we’ll realize that you can’t make something recognizably intelligent unless you make it human. To be intelligent is to have human experiences: unless that computer had the experience of getting dumped by his girlfriend the night before his algebra test, nobody will recognize it as intelligent. Very clever, yes; able to solve extremely complicated general-purpose problems like Chess or Go, sure. But you still won’t think of it as intelligent, and humans will still be able to outsmart it in areas that we think of as important.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Dig a hole through the earth

Here's another silly Google Maps application. Click anywhere on the globe and find out where you'd end up if you started digging till you reach the other side of the earth.

Mercer Island's opposite is somebody in the south Indian Ocean.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Phone answering machine

We just bought a new digital cordless phone + answering machine, the Panasonic KX-TG2357 at CostCo for $100. Ask me in a few weeks what I really think, but so far it seems to work great.

It has talking CallerID, with some type of letter-to-sound rules that attempt to pronounce the incoming names. The rules don't work very well: for example "Microsoft Corp" is pronounced "Mick-ROW-suft C-O-R-P". The CallerIQ feature (also known as appears to be a rip-off: pay a monthly fee of $10 or so to a company that promises to give your phone some cool updates like personalized weather or ring tones. I'm not sure how it works, but for that money I don't intend to find out.

I may switch to Vonage for phone service one of these days, and I'm not sure what that will do to the features. One Amazon reviewer says that he bought it for VOIP purposes but turned out that it wasn't necessary. I'm not sure what that means.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Roe vs. Wade

Whenever something bad happens, blame it on George Bush.  He’s responsible. Whether in the U.S. or abroad, just remember: if it’s bad, it’s his fault.  Keep repeating until all those morons who support him finally figure out that he is the worst thing that ever happened to the world, ever. That's right, keep repeating: we're all morons!

Q: What does George Bush really think about Roe vs. Wade? 

A: He doesn’t really care how you get out of New Orleans—row or wade, either way, just go.

(a friend sent me this joke, along with this image from Political Humor. “Bush’s Vacation”)


Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Silver thief

[via Freakonomics]

"The 2005 edition of The Best American Crime Writing offers the year's most shocking, compelling, and gripping writing about real-life crime, including ... a piece from The New Yorker by Stephen J. Dubner (the coauthor of Freakanomics [sic]) about a high-society silver thief."

Hey, I remember that New Yorker article!

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Good news for my brother

Good news: we were able to make contact with somebody from my brother's neighborhood in Kenner who stayed behind. He'll check out Gary's house (on Champaign Drive just north of the Esplanade Mall) today, but says that most of the other houses in that area are just fine: no structural or flood damage.

Here's a satellite image taken a few days ago and available on Google Earth. I couldn't get an image of Gary's house exactly, but this is only a few blocks south.

I don't see any obvious problems, in contrast to the awful destruction in similar images around downtown New Orleans.

Thanks to several people who helped find more information.

By the way, this is a good time for those who are safe to be extremely thankful, and for all of us to be extra sensitive and generous to the hundreds of thousands who have been devasted. A lot of us are offended by the brutal, insensitive comments of film-maker Michael Moore, for example (I won't link to it), or from anyone on the right or left who tries to make this into a political issue.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

More New Orleans blogs

Metroblogging New Orleans has an on-going set of first-person observations of what it's like in the area now. They point to as another good source of information.

Also you can listen to an online live police scanner here.

Blog from somebody in Kenner

I saw this entry apparently from an EMT who visited Kenner last week: "The official estimate was that the town of Kenner was
going to get ten more feet of water. The first floor
of the police station would be swamped, the generators
and radios would be knocked out, and the only
transportation would be on the single flatboat. Not to
mention the jail, which would be flooded also. The
Captain assigned a sergeant to get cheap
battery-powered walkie-talkies from Wal-Mart�the kind
you use for hunting or skiing and have a range of a
few hundred yards�because with the power out, the
police radios were going to be useless. A lieutenant
was ordered to come up with a simple system of hand
communication that the officers could learn in a few
minutes. Despite all their preparations, the Kenner
police department was headed back to the Stone Age. "

How do you pay for a house that no longer exists?

Slate's Avi Zenilman answers the question: How do you pay for a house that no longer exists?

FEMA sends you to the Small Business Administration for a disaster recovery loan: up to $200K for your house and $40K for personal property. FEMA can pay if you just can't afford the loan.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Summary of New Orleans and Kenner news

I'm still concerned for my brother and his family, who though safe in Houston, have no idea what happened to their house in Kenner (not far from the Esplanade Mall). Summarizing my search for blogs about Katrina and Kenner:

My favorite info source so far is this map, where people post tags stating whatever information they have about specific neighborhoods.

Babytreese writes about conversations with refugees in Memphis:

Rene Mejia, a waiter at Antoine's who lives in the Lower 9th Ward, said he is on the fence whether he will go back or find work elsewhere. "I'm single, I speak four languages, I've got 27 years in the restaurant biz, I can start over anywhere I want."He's in Memphis with nine family members and said ultimately he will go where his family goes. His sister has a condominium in Chateau Estates in Kenner that may be dry, and if his family goes back to New Orleans, he will probably stay with her. He knows he has no home anymore because he lives in the Lower 9th Ward. "Why go back if there is nothing there?"

A refugee from Kenner, who is now in Memphis posts this.

Karen Quinn has this quote from her friend Brad on the front lines:
...the bricks buried the front of my car and the cab of my sister' truck. (one good thing I GET A NEW CAR!!!!!) my brother threatened suspicious people gathered a few belongings and met my dad in kenner where the business took in 2 inches of water.

Another blog mentions:
Jimmy stayed behind at another location, but inspected the Kenner home before also leaving for Orlando. He said therugs inside were water-logged.

(but I can't see any evidence of exactly which location in Kenner)

I've stayed at a La Quinta, not too far from my brother's house, and there is an announcement that it's closed. Not sure if that's due to any kind of damage. The Marriott near the airport says it is not accepting reservations and has "marginal operations".

A single dad posts this:
Life has changed, hard part is not knowing what is going on at my home. I live in Kenner near the airport and things are not as bad there as what is on the news, Im near the Esplanade Mall. Hoping to just have water damage but who knows, so excuse me for not laughing or having much funny to say.

Bigezbear describes his escape from the French Quarter on Sunday morning and says:
We saw the city of Kenner under water. The mayor says the damage there is 100%.

Lots of pictures on this Hurricane Watch site, including this one of the Backyard Barbecue on Veteran's Boulevard.

Anybody else have information about Kenner? Better yet, do you know of a blog or other source of regularly-updated information?

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Katrina Information Map

Katrina Information Map is a great site where people post information on a big map. The sparse info about my brother's neighborhood seems to indicate flooding there is not too bad. (the road near the Kenner hospital is dry, for example).

Katrina blog summary

Oh dear, my brother and his family are devastated.

Here are some more links I found:

Wizbang is a long summary of other blogs, most of them filed by locals.

Bunch of photos on FlickR, interesting because they are all taken by amateurs, many of whom are roaming the city in ways the new media doesn't.