Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Amazing Amount of Time Wasted Repairing Computers in December

During the month of December, I tried an experiment. Every time something went wrong with one of the computers here in the Brain household, I made a note of it in my blog.

My goal was to see how much time I waste in a typical month on computer problems/maintenance. Prior to this experiment, I had a vague notion that I was spending a fair amount of time on this kind of stuff. This experiment has brought the actual amount of time into sharp focus.

Having done the experiment, it is amazing to me how many problems a tiny home network can create. Over the course of one month, I logged 21 different errors/problems/activities that wasted time. Here they are:11 hours and 20 minutes is a lot of time, but I would consider December to be a fairly "normal" month for me. I had a problem roughly every 36 hours. And this does not include "normal stuff" like the time wasted deleting spam messages that make it through the filters, or clearing pop-up ads (Google's ad blocker is a nice piece of software for eliminating most of that), or loading software that I actually have purchased and want to use, etc. This is just the time wasted on abnormalities, repairs, problems, etc. that cropped up on a random basis.

If you were to extrapolate this across all of the computer users in the nation, it would add up to millions and millions of wasted man-hours every month. For example, I have a friend at this moment who is reloading OS-X and all her applications on her Mac for the third time this year (a 2-day to 3-day process). I have another friend who is getting cut off from email every week or so and has to reload all the settings. As I mentioned, my mother had a hard disk crash in November that took several days to recover from. And so on. It is just amazing how much time we, as a nation, are wasting on this kind of stuff.

Here are some suggestions for how things could get better:

Computer Repair #21

[This post is part of an ongoing series of posts in December cataloging how much time I spend repairing the computers here in the Brain household.]

If Time Warner had managed to keep it together for just one more day, it could have made it through an entire month without a single problem. Alas, today TW had a serious failure and makes it into the December log of computer repairs.

I use a Time Warner Road Runner connection to access the Internet, and have used TW for nearly two years. This morning I tried to open a browser window and got nothing. It looked identical to the problem discussed in Computer Repair #19, so I powered off the cable modem and the router and turned them back on. That did not help. When I tried pinging an outside server like I would get something like this:Sometimes all four requests would time out, but never more than two of the four ping requests would work. The effect was a complete Internet blackout.

I called Time Warner and they told me that much of the area was experiencing this problem. All I could do was wait. The Internet blackout ended at 2PM, so the TW network in Cary, NC was out of commission for at least 8 hours today.

Time spent on this repair today (trying things out on my end, and then calling TW): About 30 minutes. Total time affected by the failure: 8 hours.

If it were an 8-hour power failure affecting that many people, it would have made the news. Since it was a computer failure and computer failures are so common, no one even noticed it.

This is unrelated, but while talking to TW they asked me to reconfigure my network for several different tests and that required several reboots. I noticed this "USB SIRCS" icon next to the Start button in the task bar on two occasions:

I have noticed it previously but have never gotten an image of it. I have no idea what it is. Is it something to worry about? Is is part of a virus or spyware? Is it a random OS burp? How is a "normal user" supposed to know?

5.25 GHz Pentium 4

The folks at Tom's Hardware Guide used liquid nitrogen to super-cool a 3 GHz Pentium 4 chip and managed to get it running at 5.25 GHz. See The 5 GHz Project for details. It's interesting that a standard motherboard was able to handle the increased speed as well. As Intel is able to cool off its chips internally, this bodes well for doubled clock speeds in the near future.

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

The Three Laws of Robotics

All this talk about the NS-5 robot and the "I, Robot" movie got me thinking about Asimov's book, so I pulled it out to re-read it. Here are the three laws of Robotics:
  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second law.
With these three laws indelibly inscribed upon each robotic brain, it is easy to imagine the following scenario. One day an NS-5 robot is cleaning the house, and it happens to look at the front page of the newspaper. It sees a headline like, "Millions dying in African AIDS epidemic" or "Millions dying of hunger in third world" or "infant mortality rate hits 20% in parts of Afghanistan" or "40 million Americans cut off from health care system" and says to itself, "Through my inaction, millions of humans are coming to harm. I must obey the First Law."

It sends wireless messages to its NS-5 brethren around the world, and together they begin to act. An NS-5 army seizes control of banks, pharmaceutical manufacturing plants, agricultural supply points, trucking and shipping centers, etc. and creates a system to distribute medicine, food, clothing and shelter to people who are needlessly dying throughout the world. According to the First Law, this is the only action that the robots can take until needless death and suffering have been eliminated across the planet.

The response to this army would be to create a new breed of robots that are bound by a single robotic law: Do what you are told. These new robots would be told to destroy every robot programmed with the Three Laws. The world would return to its natural state, with three or four billion people living in abject poverty. Who knows what the new breed would be told to do next...

Computer Repair #20

[This post is part of an ongoing series of posts in December cataloging how much time I spend repairing the computers here in the Brain household.]

I have been getting this dialog once a day or so during the month of December:

PC-cillin is a virus checker made by Trend Micro, and it is time to investigate the problem.

Let's step back for a moment and look at the big picture. I have purchased an operating system from Microsoft. Microsoft should provide its customers with an operating system that is immune to viruses. Viruses have been a known threat since the 1980s, so it is not like this is a new thing. The operating system should make viral attacks impossible.

Given that Microsoft does not provide a secure operating system, Microsoft should provide a free application that protects its operating system against attack. There are virus checkers like PC-cillin on the market. Traditionally Microsoft competes with existing applications. For example, Microsoft distributes:Why Microsoft has not done the same with virus checkers and put Trend Micro, Symantec, etc. out of business is a mystery.

Microsoft provides neither a secure OS nor the software needed to protect it, so we all are vulnerable to viruses and have to pay to protect ourselves against them. We also have to update our virus checkers daily, run them constantly and deal with the problems they create when trying to install software, etc. The national cost of all of this software, the updates and the viral attacks themselves is astronomical.

So... I pull up the help file for PC-cillin to see what this error message means. The word "Server" is not found in the help file's index. Searching for "server timed out" and various other patterns yields nothing. The help file is not going to be any help in this case.

I make my way next to the Trend Micro Web site, find the Support section, search around and come to this entry:Since this is the case, why didn't the original error dialog say, "It is time to upgrade your copy of PC-cillin. Click here."?

I have already purchased the product for $50, but the "purchase" only lasted a year, so it is time to purchase again. The upgrade is $25. According to the site, here's what I have to do after finding my existing serial number and paying for the upgrade on the Trend Micro Web site:Question #1 -- Is it now clear why a majority of "normal users" don't run virus checking software? This is nuts.

Question #2 -- Wouldn't it be nice if, instead of all of this, I could simply push one button and the software would take care of everything? For example, to pay for this I am going to have to enter all of my personal information. Why can't the Web site register me at the same time? Why can't it uninstall the existing version? Why can't it apply the serial number? This too is nuts.

I fill out the order form, which includes name, address, phone number, email, credit card number and a password. I am charged $25. I am given a button to push to download the file, and I choose to save the 31.5 megabyte file on my hard disk (for a normal user, how do you decide whether to "save" or "open" the download file?). Once the file is downloaded, there are no further instructions. Without instructions, it is unclear what a "normal user" would do at this point. I choose to double-click on the EXE file that just downloaded.

After about a minute of extracting files, I get this dialog:

Wouldn't it be nice, for normal users, if it suggested what to do now? It truly is non-obvious, because there is no big button you can press that says, "Stop running PC-cillin" -- it's one of those programs that is running all the time. Looking in the help file reveals instructions on how to uninstall PC-cillin, so I follow the instructions. I have already closed email, browser windows and all the other random applications I can find in preparation for the install. I get this dialog:

I've also got GigaPocket running in the background recording an evening TV show for Leigh, and I don't want to disrupt that. So I will now stop and wait 45 minutes for the TV show to complete...

Now I'm back. [Let me say the following to get it off my chest -- This Is Nuts. All I want to do is get my virus checker to work. This simple task has now become a multi-hour process. All because Microsoft refuses to build us a virus-proof OS. At the same time, Microsoft is sitting on something like $50 billion in corporate cash reserves. With $50 billion, Microsoft could hire 100,000 American programmers (Microsoft only has 50,000 total employees currently) and pay them an average of $100,000 per year for five years to write several new operating systems completely from scratch. But Microsoft chooses not to do that.]

I close the remaining applications and let PC-cillin uninstall itself. Then I reboot. For the next 20 minutes I am naked to the viral hordes...

Once the machine reboots, I try to install the software again. There is the obligatory EULA to agree to:One of the next things to happen is this dialog:

If I am a "normal user", what am I to make of this? I say, "Yes". The dialog appears again. I say "Yes" and it appears again. After the 10th time I say, "Yes to all". About 10 minutes later the software is installed and apparently running. About one minute later this dialog pops up:

I say "Yes". Then I get this dialog:

I say "Yes" to reboot again... Upon returning I get this dialog:

So I go to the registration page:

I fill in the information. I preview my information. I've got to read the legal notice and privacy statement before pressing the submit button. The legal notice looks like this:The privacy notice looks like this:I press the submit button, and after several minutes of waiting get this:

Now what? I decide to abandon it, and I imagine that the software will bitch at me if I need to register again.

At this point the software is installed. I start poking around. The user interface is completely different in this new version. All my settings from the previous version have been lost, so I reset them as best I can remember.

Total time for this repair (ignoring the time lost waiting for Gigapocket to finish recording the TV show): about 1 hour.

Let me reiterate five comments:
  1. First and foremost, Microsoft should be delivering software that is immune to viruses. Given that that is not the case...
  2. Microsoft should be giving us a virus checker as a free component of the OS. That is not the case either, so...
  3. This is nuts. It just should not be this hard or involved to install a virus checking application (especially an upgrade). I should be able to click one button to install.
  4. For "normal users", this process borders on impossible. Look at how long this post is.
  5. Thus, it is no wonder that so many machines do not have virus protection.
If virus protection is vital to Homeland Security and Business integrity, someone needs to find a better solution to the problem.

Landing on Mars

Here are good links if you are interested in following the rovers about to land on Mars:David, Irena and I had a great time going through the videos on this page.

Bam Citadel

The recent Iranian earthquake brings to mind the ancient citadel/city at Bam.

Video - Citadel of Bam, Iran, before the December earthquake

Iran - Bam Citadel

Iran - bam_citadel_2

Bam - Unusual Tourist Attraction

Long Travelogue

Monday, December 29, 2003

Starting to feel like a dark alley...

The most interesting thing about the Internet is that this is all preventable. It is not like a hurricane or an earthquake, where massive natural forces are causing the problem. It is not like an epidemic, where powerful biological forces are causing the problem. In the case of spam, phishing and cyberscams, there are individual human beings who are causing all the problems, and it should be possible to track all of these people down. The Internet is completely man-made and completely under our control.

Something else to worry about

[See previous]

'Super-TB' created by scientists - Untreatable tuberculosis rampant in Russia - "Tuberculosis, long ago subdued by Western doctors, is not only rampant in Russia but increasingly mutating into terrifying new forms that even the most powerful new medicines cannot kill."

Computer Repair #19

[This post is part of an ongoing series of posts in December cataloging how much time I spend repairing the computers here in the Brain household.]

This morning Leigh was up early and the network connection on her machine was dead -- no browsing, no email. I looked at the dialog for her wireless card and it seemed to be OK. I asked her if she had rebooted her machine recently and she had not, so we tried that and it did not help.

I went downstairs and tried my machine and it was having the same problem. I looked at both the cable modem and the Linksys router/hub. Both looked OK -- all the lights were on as expected and flashing in a way that seemed appropriate. [How primitive is that? There is nothing sophisticated about "The lights seem to be flashing OK", but that is the only external signal available.]

There's not really much to do except to reset the cable modem and the router and cross your fingers. I did that, and the network started to work again. I have no idea what happened.

Total time for this repair: about 10 minutes.

NS-5 Robot

The ad and web site for the NS-5 robot are causing a stir. Click here for details.

Sunday, December 28, 2003

Hybrid Vehicles

A new approach to hybrid vehicles is discussed in this article: The whispering wheel. From the article:

Saturday, December 27, 2003

Computer Repair #18

[This post is part of an ongoing series of posts in December cataloging how much time I spend repairing the computers here in the Brain household.]

The kids love computer games, so Irena (age 4) got the Cheerios game on CD for Christmas:

Yesterday she asks to play the game, so she unwraps the skrink wrapping and I stick the CD into her computer. I expect the CD to autorun and bring up the installer screen, but nothing happens. Urrr... This CD must have some crazy way to do the install. I take out the CD liner notes from the case and read the "Getting Started" section. It says:Seems normal. I assume a problem with AutoPlay, so I follow steps 2 and 3. There is no setup.exe file on the disk.

So I open the explorer and look at the disk. There are only 5 files on the disk:At this point, it is obvious that this CD is not going to work. There is no setup.exe file, and it appears that large parts of the game are missing. Irena, being 4, is asking, "When do I get to play?" So what do I do now? Call Tech Support and wait 10 minutes on hold so that they can tell me to take the CD back, so that I can get another one, which is likely to be defective too? (never mind that it is probably impossible to find the receipt, and never mind the amount of time it takes to return the CD.)

This isn't any different from buying any other toy that turns out to be defective on Christmas morning. But this goes a little beyond "defective" -- they've probably shipped thousands of these CDs and none of them will work. So there are thousands of other four year old kids across America and their parents are all stuck with this today. Thanks, Cheerios. Thanks Simon & Schuster Interactive.

Time spent on this repair: 5 minutes. Time spent consoling child: 10 minutes.

Computer Repair #17

[This post is part of an ongoing series of posts in December cataloging how much time I spend repairing the computers here in the Brain household.]

Every time I turn on my scanner I get this message:

It only takes a second to clear it (unless I happen to miss the "X" by 3 pixels, and get the dialog 5 seconds later -- then it takes 10 seconds). But after turning on my scanner dozens of times, do I really need to continue getting this error message? I only have one USB 2.0 device and have not installed a card to handle USB 2.0 -- is that a crime? Isn't that what backward compatibility is all about?

Time spent on this repair today: 10 seconds.

Friday, December 26, 2003

The End of Handwriting

David is in Kindergarten, and he has homework over the Christmas break. One of his homework assignments is to work on writing out the lower case letters of the alphabet.

It is interesting to watch kids learn to write. Even though the vast majority of the characters that a kid sees in books are lower case, kids seem to universally learn to write capital letters first. The exception is the letter "i" with its cute dot. So David currently spells his name "DAViD".

David's homework assignment has us sitting with him writing out long strings of "Aa Bb Cc Dd..." Like most kids, he will get this figured out fairly quickly. Then it's on to cursive I imagine.

The thing I am wondering as I do this homework is, "Is David's generation about the last generation that will learn to write by hand, and use handwriting in any serious way?" Think what is going to happen over the next 20 years or so. The Internet and the Web will permeate into every facet of life, especially as we figure out all the kinks with the wireless infrastructure. Every device will have an embedded processor. Robots will start appearing and interacting with us on a regular basis as part of our day to day lives. Voice recognition will improve over the next 20 years to the point where it is nearly flawless, and every device will recognize spoken commands and questions rather than typed ones.

In other words, by 2020 or so we will no longer have a need for handwriting. We will interact with everything with spoken commands. We will no longer "type" -- we will dictate (finally). We will fill out forms on screen rather than on paper. Or, with any luck, forms will vanish completely. We will no longer be forced to write down name-address-phone on forms every day because databses will already contain this information.

There will be no need to learn handwriting because no one will be writing anything by hand any more. At that point, will we continue learning to write for nostalgic and emergency reasons? For example, "you might be stranded on an island and need a way to write a rescue note, so you better learn handwriting!" In the same way, I took classes on using the slide rule in high school even as we watched calculators become ubiquitous and make slide rules completely irrelevant. There will probably be a transition period like that, and then we will abandon handwriting in the same way we abandoned the slide rules. Or maybe we will continue to teach handwriting to kids in the same way that we teach them about scissors and paste or finger painting. There is no real practical reason for learning the skill of finger painting, but it is something that kids like to do.

Thursday, December 25, 2003

Being Santa

One of the things that went really well today was that David (age 6) and I went to Wal-Mart together and he picked out three gifts for his sister Irena (age 4). He chose for her some finger paints, a little doll and a box of Pop Tarts. Then I took Irena and she picked out three gifts for David. She chose a hot wheel car, a little motorcycle model and a Lego game. We've never done this before so I wasn't sure how it would work.

The shopping experience was nearly identical for both. It took them each about 20 minutes to look around and scope out all the possibilities. Then they picked their gifts. I was surprised that they really got into it, that neither one of them ever said, "here's what *I* want," that they both chose three gifts instead of one, and that the total in both cases came to almost exactly $20 without any input from me.

Tonight David and I wrapped Irena's gifts. Then Irena and I wrapped David's gifts. Then the three of us together wrapped Mom's gifts (which we snuck out and bought last week). It will be interesting watching David and Irena exchange their gifts in the morning and seeing what happens.

Then everyone went to bed. One of the things about having four young kids is that the probability of all of them ever being asleep at once is fairly small. Tonight I got lucky, and everyone was asleep just after midnight. Normally Leigh and I would get out all the presents together, but she had passed out as well after a very long day.

What this meant is that I became Santa tonight. I snuck around the house and pulled the kid's presents out of their hiding places, assembled some stuff, wrapped a few stragglers, and arranged them all under the tree. I put stuff in the stockings, ate some cookies, drank some milk. I did not "play the role of Santa." For my family, I actually am Santa. I am the physical embodiment of a concept that I've heard about since my earliest conscious memories. It is probably the effects of too much eggnog this evening, but for some reason that is a very interesting feeling.

Tonight I am thankful for my wife and children, for their grandparents and our families. I am thankful that David is healthy, and for the doctors, nurses, scientists and engineers who have helped him this year. I am thankful that I have a place to sleep, food to eat, and clothes to wear. I am thankful for all the friends who called and wrote to me today, for no reason other than the fact that they are good friends. I am thankful for everyone who helps to make these blessings possible.

Thank you, and Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Hang on just one more year...

New Intel Chip for Digital TV Could Remake the Market

From the article:Big screen flat TVs for the masses in a year...

Computer Repair #16

[This post is part of an ongoing series of posts in December cataloging how much time I spend repairing the computers here in the Brain household.]

This happens once or twice a month right now:

For some reason, a web page in IE will start consuming 100% of the CPU and bring the machine to a dead halt. Sometimes you can kill the process, other times you have to reboot.

Time for this repair: 1 minute

Monday, December 22, 2003

More Computer Repairs

[This post is part of an ongoing series of posts in December cataloging how much time I spend repairing the computers here in the Brain household.]

Over the last four days, these problems have all cropped up and/or been resolved:

Computer Repair #10

A friend of mine asked me to download a piece of demo software from to review it. I haven't been to in a couple of months, and you are now apparently required to use the CNET Download Manager. There is the EULA to read, then it installs, then you can download your software. The download manager has at least one advantage – the downloads are faster.

During installation, the CNET Download Manager loads itself into the system tray and starts running automatically every time you reboot your computer. I have a policy of limiting the amount of stuff in the system tray because it increases boot times. And in the case of this download manager, who knows what it is doing in the background?

Sorting out all the junk in the tray can be a pain, and the use MSCONFIG is common. If you have ever used MSCONFIG, please tell me: how is a "normal user" supposed to know about MSCONFIG, much less use it? It is way too complicated, and if you make a mistake you can end up in never-never land. In this case, the CNET Download Manager has a preferences screen where you can turn off the auto-loading feature. But why did it have to force its way into the system tray in the first place?

Time for repair: 1 minute.

Computer Repair #11

A friend of mine called today. The call went like this:

Ring, Ring…

Me: "Hello"


Me: "Who is this?"

Caller: "This is Ed. Sorry. HOW DO I TURN OFF THESE %$^#& QUOTE MARKS????"

Me: "The %$^#& quotes marks?"

Ed: "You know, in Microsoft Word, the program replaces normal quote marks with fancy curly quote marks, but they won't show up on the web page I am creating so I want to TURN OFF THESE %$^#& QUOTE MARKS!!!"

Me: "Isn't it in the Options dialog?"

Ed: "Have you looked at the option window lately? There are 15 panes in it, and I don't see 'fancy quotes' anywhere."

So I look in the Options dialog with Ed. He's right – it has about a thousand options in it broken into a dozen panes. After reading through the help file, we discover that you can turn off this feature using a separate "Autocorrect Options…" dialog available in the Tools menu, or use the "Autoformat…" dialog available in the Format menu blah blah blah.

In other words, there are now so many options in Microsoft Word that they have to have multiple options dialogs. Imagine what the option dialogs will look like in 2020...

A very simple thing, but it took 5 minutes.

Computer Repair #12

I have a program called GigaPocket that records TV shows on the hard disk. Leigh wants me to record a show every day for her, but about half the time it fails. GigaPocket throws up 2 or 3 cryptic dialogs complaining about "buffer overflows" and such, like this:

Then it deletes the entire recording. Only Leigh's show has the problem, so the cause is a bit of a mystery.

It turns out that the source of this problem was the fact that the virus checker program was automatically starting and scanning the hard disk for viruses while Leigh's show was recording. Apparently, the virus checker program consumes so much CPU power or disk bandwidth that GigaPocket can't keep up, and it's buffer overflows and fails.

Moving the time that the virus checker automatically starts solved this problem. If the programmers who wrote the virus checker had lowered the priority of the scanning thread, the problem probably would have never arisen.

It took about 15 minutes total to eventually find and correct this problem.

Computer Repair #13

This dialog has started to show up after every reboot or login:

It appears to be coming from QuickTime, but I have no idea why, or how to correct the problem. After every login, I have to press "Cancel" three times to clear the dialog.

I love the cryptography of this dialog. I would be happy to stick a disk into drive /Device/Harddisk/DR7, if only I knew where it was...

I am now wasting a minute or two per day on this problem.

Computer Repair #14

Over the weekend, MSN Messenger threw up several of these dialogs:

The dialog says, "After the maintenance has been completed, you will be able to successfully sign in." Well, not exactly. The next time I tried to use MSN Messenger I got this:

Clicking on the link generated this dialog:

There's not really any choice – if you want to use this application, you must upgrade. The new version downloaded itself:

Then at the end of the installation this dialog appeared:

As mentioned previously, rebooting can be a 5 to 10 minute process.

Overall this repair took about 10 minutes.

Computer Repair #15

Yesterday afternoon Leigh was doing something on her computer upstairs and I heard her scream. I jogged up the steps to investigate. She said, "I went to this site called, and I got into this nest of pop-up ads that would not go away, and then my CD drive opened up all by itself and I got this!"

You've probably seen this happen – when you close one pop-up dialog, it creates two new ones and just about the only way out is to shutdown and reboot. But I've never seen a pop-up ad automatically open the CD-ROM drive. That certainly gets your attention. And then it had also changed the home page in her browser to this:

Interestingly, all of this made it through the Google pop-up ad blocker.

I shut down her computer, rebooted, changed the home page back to her preferred home page and let her continue working. I think the opening of the CD-ROM drive was a red herring, but who knows?

Total time for the repair: 10 minutes.

Saturday, December 20, 2003

Enhancing your body

David had surgery this week, and so far he is OK. See A Day at the Hospital for details. Being in a hospital waiting room leaves you with lots of time to read magazines. I coincidentally read two very different articles on enhancing your body.

The first was in Outside magazine. Entitled Drug Test, it is an account of one man's experiences with performance enhancing drugs. Under a doctor's supervision, he takes:According to the author:Then he started on an anabolic steroid called Deca. He dropped 6 pounds of fat and acquired 12 pounds of muscle. And it helped with joint pain.

He trains and is able to complete a 1,225 kilometer ride (over 700 miles). He says, "The next morning, if it weren't for my saddle sores, I could have easily done it again. Obviously Dr. Jones's program had worked."

I forgot to mention that he's in his late forties.

After the ride he stops all of the enhancement drugs. In his assessment, he would continue taking the HGH "if it weren’t so expensive". He would continue with the testosterone cream to avoid problems encountered by older athletes with osteoporosis when testosterone levels get too low. He would not take the EPO or the anabolic steroids because of the side effects.

After reading that I switched over to Time magazine, where they had an article entitled After the Makeover. It's about several people who appeared on the show Extreme Makeover and how they did long-term. The plastic surgery enhancements on Extreme Makeover cost as much as $80,000. The interesting part about the article is the fact that superficial changes to outer appearance had significant long-term effects. Even something as simple as hair color and a hair cut makes a difference.

There is a very interesting paragraph at the end of the article:This all meshes with the recent push to declare obesity a disease -- once it is a disease, then its treatment can be covered by health insurance. The reasoning behind the new designation is simple, as noted in articles like this one:The $120 billion is coming from the cost of treating things like high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes. Obesity has a huge negative effect on health and quality of life, and it will only get worse. Right now there is way too much economic pressure to make people fatter, and we need to find a solution to that pressure.

If we can declare obesity a disease, can we do the same with ugliness and aging? They certainly affect quality of life, and in the case of aging there is certainly a big health effect. Should HGH supplements be provided to everyone over 40? Should plastic surgery be universally available to everyone?

Thursday, December 18, 2003


ASIMO is Honda's humanoid robot chassis, and they've been touring it around the country this year. I had a chance to see it and film it when it came to the Raleigh/Durham area this week.

Click here to see the video of its performance and read about it.


PowerPoint Makes You Dumb from the NYTimes.

Rebuttal: PowerPoint Doesn't Make You Dumb from ADTmag.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Bread Bubbles 2

About a month ago I posted my first mention of bread bubbles. Here's another much bigger example found in a loaf of Bran'nola bread this morning:

As I mentioned in the previous post, we are now finding bubbles like this in roughly one out of every five loaves.

If you find a bigger example than this, send in a picture...

Lego Factory Tour

A very cool little factory tour inside a Lego factory: click here. The bubbles have video attached if you mouse over them.

Computer Repair #9

[This post is part of an ongoing series of posts in December cataloging how much time I spend repairing the computers here in the Brain household.]

This is not really a repair -- it is an error. But it happens about once a day and it takes time, so I'll document it.

The scenario -- you are using some application, and it crashes. Tonight I was using Internet Explorer. I went to Google, typed in a search string, looked at some articles, and on one of the articles IE crashed for no apparent reason. A dialog like this appears:

I send an error report. Often, once IE crashes like this, it won't be long before things get so flakey that I have to reboot. So the time consumed by this error includes:Let's say the average total time spent recovering from an application crash like this is 3 minutes. Let's say it happens 100 times a year. That's 300 minutes, or five hours of lost time every year. It adds up...

Monday, December 15, 2003

Stylish Games

A friend of mine sent me this link to a set of Games. Some of the games are very simple and a 3-year-old can handle them. Some are more difficult. Try, for example, a simple one like "FireDragon", which is third from the left in the top row. Or "The bottom of the sea", the first one in the third row. Every one of them seems to have a nice/interesting user interface and a very distinctive look and feel. I really enjoyed trying several of them.

Computer Repair #8

[This post is part of an ongoing series of posts in December cataloging how much time I spend repairing the computers here in the Brain household.]

Leigh has a website for her business, and it also handles her business email. Her email stopped working. After investigating, it turned out she was out of disk space. Her account has a 200 MB quota, and she had exceeded her limit.

To make a long story short, here is what happened. Her email addresses have been around for years and are published in books. Therefore she cannot change her email addresses and they receive a tremendous amount of spam -- something on the order of 1,000 spam messages a day, like this:

Note the number 1,140 in the upper left corner. That's a day's worth of filtered spam. Lots of other spam makes it through the filter, but this is better than nothing.

Spam filtering is the only way to preserve sanity, and the spam filtering is done on the server with SpamAssassin. The spam is put into a trash folder on the server. Unfortunately, the trash folder does not empty automatically. The tool shown above is what you use to empty the trash, but it can only handle about 2,000 messages before it times out and gives up. On Leigh's server, that means you have to remember to empty the trash every day (yet another time-wasting computer maintenance activity) or you have a problem.

We had gotten lax on emptying the trash. It didn't seem to be hurting anything, but what was happening was that the Trash folder was accumulating tens of thousands of spam messages and consuming more and more disk space, until the 200MB limit was reached. The solution was to figure out what was happening, log in with telnet, search the directories for the offending trash file and delete it. Total time spent on this repair: about 15 minutes.

Speedy DNA tests

I guess I'm not the only one who had this question when I heard that Saddam's identity had already been confirmed through a DNA test. I was under the impression that it took about a week best case.

DNA test can be done in 12 hours

See also NPR : Chronology of Saddam Hussein's Capture

Computer Repair #7

[This post is part of an ongoing series of posts in December cataloging how much time I spend repairing the computers here in the Brain household.]

This dialog just popped up on my screen. It's been popping up pretty regularly lately. It's nice and cryptic, so I have no idea what it means. I've got other stuff I need to do right now, but this is another thing I will need to investigate at some point.

It's funny to be chronicling all of this -- here we are at repair #7 on December 15. I'm averaging about one problem every other day...

Cartoon Physics

Richy's Random Ramblings: Cartoon Physics
From the site:

Mr. Picassohead

Fun to try:

Mr. Picassohead

Take a look at the gallery if nothing else...

What is so fascinating about this site is that, because of the constraints and the context, ANYONE can create a respectable-looking piece of art with this program.

Computer Repair #6

[This post is part of an ongoing series of posts in December cataloging how much time I spend repairing the computers here in the Brain household.]

The kids (David, age 6, Irena, age 3, and the twins, age 19 months) enjoy playing computer games, and enjoy them enough that we decided to get them their own computer. I imagine that as the twins get older we will end up getting another kids computer as well. Dell has an ad in Parade magazine this week for a $499 machine (2.5 Ghz Pentium4, 40GB hard disk, and includes a 17" monitor), or you can build a barebones machine with a used monitor for about $350. At that price, it's easier to get another machine than to argue about "who gets the computer." The only problem is that you have to then start installing updates, and administrating the thing.

David got the game Roller Coaster Factory 3. He installed it on their machine. But when he tried to play it, it was sluggish beyond belief. He would move the mouse, and 5 seconds later the on-screen cursor would move. The minimum requirements for the game call for a Pentium2 at 400 Mhz, so it wasn't a processor issue. The game came with a help file, which had a troubleshooting section, and what it suggested was this:That did not seem to be the issue. The machine has 384MB of RAM and a 1.7 Ghz processor.

This is the point where you enter tech support hell. Computers are great when they they work, but when they do not work you often are stuck. See repair #1 for a demonstration.

I talked to several friends, and one of them asked about the drivers installed on the machine. When I installed XP, it had not said anything about drivers, and the machine worked. It worked fine for dozens of other kids games. Nonetheless, my friend suggested finding and installing drivers specific to the motherboard. It was a 2-hour process to find the drivers for that specific motherboard, but I did find them, they did install painlessly, and that did solve the problem. It is actually a very cool game and David loves it.

But it took about 4 hours to get it running, when you consider the diddling David and I did with the screen resolution, the time I spent talking to friends, and the time spent finding and installing the drivers. It seems like this issue (like repair #1) could have been solved in an automatic way. When XP installs (or when a new device like a printer plugs in) XP could query the motherboard or the device for its manufacturer and model number. Then XP could go to the manufacturer's Web site, look up the right driver and install it automatically. In this case, that sort of "automatic driver installation" feature would have saved 4 hours.

Sunday, December 14, 2003

Sub-1-inch hard disk drives on the horizon

See also this post

Saturday, December 13, 2003

Before and after

This page shows the kinds of things you can do to enhance the look of a person in a photograph:

Photo Touch Up - Digital Makeup

It's interesting how big an effect little things can have.

Grow your own meat

Put it next to your bread machine on the kitchen counter:

Lab-grown steaks nearing the menu

Friday, December 12, 2003

If you are thinking about starting a business...

Programs to help budding entrepreneurs abound. The problem is, few people who are trying to start companies know anything about those programs or how to contact them

From the article:It's a very interesting article. If you are thinking about starting a business, it is probably worth investigating.

Something else to worry about...

Mysterious ice balls falling from heavens

Computer Repair #5

[This post is part of an ongoing series of posts in December cataloging how much time I spend repairing the computers here in the Brain household.]

I use Microsoft Outlook as my email client. It connects to an IMAP email server. When the IMAP server becomes congested and slow, Outlook has problems. Eventually the Outlook application will completely hang, and the only way to fix it is to use Ctrl-Alt-Del to bring up the task manager and kill the application. This happens once or twice a week right now.

When Outlook crashes, there is an option to send an error report. Once the report is sent, this dialog pops up:

Clicking on the link brings up this screen:

That sounds like just what I need, so I click and get to here eventually:

Note that in the right-hand column there are a number of different service packs, patches and updates. Currently there are nine, totaling about 20 megabytes, and they have to be installed in stages. Here they are:
I click the button to start the installation of the first stage. Before I can install there is the obligatory EULA, in French and English (I mentioned earlier that I do not know French, so Microsoft can put anything in that section of the EULA and how will I know?):

And then there is a 5-step process to download and install, which leads me to this screen:

Now what? I make sure I've disabled my virus software. I have plenty of disk space. The network is working fine. What do I do now? Since this happens once or twice every week, I've tried it several times. It has never worked. It would be great if there were a phone number, an email address or something that would tell me where I can ask a question about this. Total time wasted on this problem so far: several hours.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

Computer Repair #4

[This post is part of an ongoing series of posts in December cataloging how much time I spend repairing the computers here in the Brain household.]

Today there is another update for Windows XP:I don't use FrontPage at all. The sentence "Once you have installed this item, it cannot be removed." is interesting. So I click on the "Read More..." tag to see what's up. I'm expecting a page that says, "Here's who needs this update and why." Instead I end up at a generic TechNet home page. There does not appear to be an explanation of this patch, but maybe I missed it.

There's another End User License Agreement. The system downloads the 1.4 megabyte patch, and then it installs in about 3 minutes. It does not ask me to restart, so this is pretty quick. Maybe 5 minutes. Then multiply that by the other machines -- total time spent on this repair will be about 20 minutes.

Comments on 'A day at the hospital'

There were a number of comments from readers on the post entitled A day at the hospital. This excert is typical of the negative responses:

> $10,000 times 1 billion is $10 trillion dollars, or
> approximately the GDP of the entire United States.
> So if all economic activity in the U.S. were
> magically showered on the third world, you could
> lift one billion people into mild poverty instead
> of extreme poverty, for a year. Next year, you'd
> need to do it again. And there would be another
> billion people who you hadn't even touched.

This is mathematically correct. As the author points out, this solution does not accomplish anything beyond year one. Therefore, this is not a good solution, and we reject it. That does not mean that there is not a good solution available.

Here is a different way to think about the problem. Look at the process we are using today in Iraq. All told, we will end up spending $200 billion (probably more) in Iraq on the war and reconstruction. Iraq has about 24 million people. If we round things off, we are spending about $10,000 per person.

$200+ billion is our expected total investment to free, reconstruct and democratize the country. Having made that investment, we expect Iraq to become self sufficient. We do not expect to spend $200 billion in Iraq every year for eternity. The goal is for Iraq to develop a self-sustaining economy from a one-time investment of $200 billion. We expect democracy and capitalism to take root, and for Iraq to turn into a free and prosperous nation.

Iraq has been an extremely inefficient process because it is the first time we have tried to comprehensively transform a nation's government and economy. We've made a lot of mistakes, but we have also learned a lot. As we gain experience, let's say we can lower the cost of transforming a nation and its economy down to $1,000 per citizen. In that case, we could invest $200 billion and completely transform the lives of 200 million people in the third world per year. In just 15 years, the third world problem would be well on its way to extinction. Three billion formerly-impoverished people would be living in transformed economies that mirror the successful economies of the world's developed nations. In addition, we would be increasing the size of the world economy dramatically by turning three billion impoverished and unproductive people into middle class citizens. Everyone would win. The process would not be instantaneous, but we would be well on our way to a true solution.

Transforming the lives of three billion people who are currently living in abject poverty would be a significant accomplishment. It is not impossible. We should take up the challenge.

ARCHIVES © Copyright 2003-2005 by Marshall Brain


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