March 2007 Archives

Here is a quick update from the wonderful city of Wien:

  • German keyboards aren’t that different than American keyboards; the hardest thing to get used to (and it is driving me nuts) is that all the non-alphanumeric characters are all in different places.
  • London is a lovely city. I should spend more than 24 hours there and I should visit more often than once every 27 years (roughly).
  • Vienna has free bicycle rentals. I cannot stress how totally awesome that is.
  • I am not sure how British Airways managed it, but I was the second (or third) person on the plane on the flight to Vienna but my luggage did make it on the plane at all. In fact, it also managed to miss the next flight from Heathrow to Vienna, and the one after that as well. It did not show up at my hotel until 12 hours after I landed.
  • In general, this has not been a terribly good trip in terms of misplaced luggage. One of my teammates had a bag that didn’t make it on time to Hong Kong, and I know of at least two other people in Vienna for this competition who also had their bags go missing, if only for a short time. As an interesting datapoint, British Airways and Heathrow seem to be implicated in a large number of these cases.
  • I was underwhelmed by my hotel in London, but the pensione here in Vienna is quite nice. Now if only the WC were in the actual room…
  • Pictures from LDN and Wien probably will not get uploaded until after I get back to the US. Hey, that’s the breaks…

Lately it seems harder to speak to a real person when making a call to a company. There are the automated menu mazes that offer options that may or may not be applicable to the issue you’re having, so you end up picking the closest one. Or when none of the choices seem appropriate, you press 0 in the hopes of being connected to the operator, who ideally will listen to your question and then send you to the right department.

Then there are the automated voices, sphinx-like gatekeepers which demand information, like the numeric portion of your Westlaw number, or your cell phone or other account number. Some of them allow you to punch in the numbers, others demand that you speak into the phone. The creepiest exchanges are the ones that seem like you’re having a real conversation with one of the automated voices.

Today I encountered a new variation, which are the automated questions that attempt to route your call based upon your answers. I called T-Mobile today to get a cell phone unlocked. It was like a verbal Google search; if I didn’t use the right words, the system would keep asking irrelevant questions. Pressing 0 for an operator or other live person didn’t work. Pausing and not saying anything also did not route me to a live person.

I hung up and called back, and when the automated voice asked me what was my concern, I spoke broadly and simply said “Phone.” I got another confirmation question and then said “technical support,” a phrase which I again repeated to another confirmation question. Finally, I reached a live person to whom I could explain what I wanted and who was quite friendly, willing and able to help me. It was a relief to speak as a human again, instead of trying to communicate on the level of the computer behind the automated voice.

Now I just hope that there wasn’t a typo or that the spam filter is too aggressive for the email I’m expecting.


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The White Tara Mandala

You may have noticed Paul’s giant Buddha pictures from his current travels. I offer up another image of Buddha, in this case a sand mandala that represents the White Tara, a female form of Buddha that represents wisdom and enlightenment. Over the weekend some friends and I went to see the completed mandala, which was created over the course of several days by Tibetan monks at the Michael C. Carlos Museum. The viewing was very crowded, so I only got a glimpse of the finished work. A closing ceremony took place, and the sand was then swept up and scattered into a small creek behind the museum.

Brief Update

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So, Hong Kong has been a lot of fun. Our team, unfortunately, failed to advance to the elimination rounds, but none of the teams that we competed against—and some of them were quite good—made it to the quarterfinals either, so there’s that.

Anyway, I’ve got a few days free left in HK before I head off to my next exotic location—but if you want a postcard from here, it’s best to let me know sooner rather than later….

The Books We're Reading

There’s a new web tool called Goodreads that’s caught my fancy. I’ve been forever trying to keep lists of the books I’ve read and the ones I’d like to read, and Goodreads seems to be a useful way for me to put that information together easily. You search using free text to find authors or titles and add books to your various “shelves” or lists.

Naturally, there’s a social network component. You can invite friends to join, and you can browse each other’s shelves to see what people are currently reading, what they’ve read, and what they’d like to read. Additional tagging to create different shelves is also available. You can rate books from 1-5 stars, write up reviews, and make comments as well. You also receive periodic emails that notify you when friends have updated their lists. So far it’s been a nice resource to use.

So it turns out

That one can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Be that as it may, I still don’t want one.

Apple lets me down


As Paul knows, I’ve been inching my way towards a conversion to Macs. Currently I have an old G3 iBook that I’ve mainly used to go online from my couch. One of the things I like so far is that when I turn the machine on, it’s basically ready to go, without waiting on all the startup crap that I have to deal with when I turn on my XP-based PC.

So over the weekend, I’m at a friend’s house, and we’re eagerly waiting for the start of Crowded House’s live webcast. The band has only reunited after breaking up 10 years ago, have found a new drummer, and a new album is coming out in June. So I’m just a tad excited about the performance.

At 6 pm we’re refreshing the screen in Firefox. Nothing, just the regular webpage. We try Safari. There appears to be a space on the page where a small video screen should be, but otherwise nothing. I check my email to make sure I have the right URL. But I have all the necessary details, but we can’t find the webcast.

Disappointed, I go home and ask my husband to pull up the webpage in Internet Explorer on his laptop, just to have a look. To my surprise and great irritation, it’s working. While I missed about 40 minutes of the webcast, Crowded House went on to play for nearly another two hours. So I was glad I caught most of it, but I was still upset about our technical problems.

So my ire is really directed at whoever was in charge of publicizing the webcast. There ought to have been a comment in the notice about browser requirements. I’m sure it was possible to view the performance in Safari, but we just didn’t know what we needed. Still, I was surprised - there was no pop-up to tell us we were missing a plugin or some such thing. Anyway, I’m going to cross my fingers and hope that an archive of the webcast will be posted.

So you Mac people out there - any guesses/suggestions as to what we should have installed on my friend’s computer?

One number for life...

or as long as the service exists, anyway. Currently in beta, GrandCentral is a service that provides you with a single phone number that’s linked to all of your existing numbers (home, work, cell, etc.). When someone calls your GrandCentral number, all of your phones will ring, and you can be reached at whatever location you happen to be. So basically you can give out a single number, and you would just have to update the service when your other phone numbers change, like if you move or change jobs.

It’s free if you only have two phone numbers to consolidate, and $15/month for consolidating additional numbers. There are also extra features like a single mailbox for voice messages, and the ability to download voicemails as audio files, as well as customization options like individual greetings for specific callers.

It seems like a neat service, although I wonder how many people would really want to be that accessible all the time.

Hello from Lady Crumpet

I too will be guest blogging for Paul while he’s off traveling and practicing feats of legal skill. Let us know if you actually do read Ulysses, Paul - it’s not one I’ve tackled yet.

I’ve known Paul for some time. We met at one of the blogger meetups when I still lived in New York, and we’ve been friends ever since. Though neither of us are in it for the book deal, we still maintain our blogs. Mine can be found here.

So hello - and happy St. Patrick’s Day. Pace yourself, and if you brave the parade in NYC, bundle up!

Irony? What Irony?

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Filling in for Paul with objectionable commentary about old news

A major problem for the Republicans these days is their lack of a sense of irony.

As the New York Times has reported in their coverage of the story about the fired U.S. prosecutors: “Last October, President Bush spoke with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to pass along concerns by Republicans that some prosecutors were not aggressively addressing voter fraud, the White House said Monday.”

Well, at least the spokesman wasn’t vacationing in Florida….

Postkarten aus dem Ausland

Dear Reader,

My flight leaves in 15 hours and I’m entirely not prepared to go. At least I know where my toothbrush, my passport, and my towel are.

Anyway. Where was I? Oh yes.

People who which so receive postcards from foreign and exotic places are encouraged to click this link and email me their address—or at least the address to which they which to have missives from foreign and exotic places sent. There will be no refunds if the foreign and exotic lands are deem’d to be insufficiently foreign and/or exotic.

I have a few guestbloggers lined up for the next few weeks. Hopefully they’ll be introducing themselves shortly. My own presence on this blog is unpredictable; while I will have access to the tubes of the interwebs during the first leg of this voyage, access during the second leg is somewhat less predictable.

Those wishing to follow a pictorial narrative of the journey are invited to subscribe to my flickr feed… though updating that will be, like this space, sporadic.


UPDATE: Um, the old link had a typo in the email address. Um, try it again; it should work now…

A Little Light Reading

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On the grounds that I’m going to have far too much time on an airplane in the not too distant future, I stopped off at the book store for some light reading:

That should keep me busy for a while…

Happy Pi Day!

Yes, it’s 3/14 once more.

3.1415926535897932384626433832795028841971693993751058209749445923078… and then some.

You can go here if you need more digits.

There's Always Something New

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So, late Saturday night (OK, so it might have been early Sunday morning), I get on an unusually crowded 1 train…. and it turns out that the reason the train is so crowded is there’s a full-fledged mariachi band on the train, complete with stand-up bass player.

That’s a new one.

Once More, Dear Reader


Well, the weather is finally starting to turn to the warmer, so it’s time for a new title line. If you have any suggestions, drop them in the comments…

links for 2007-03-12

Themes, Part The Second


The usual rules—no Googling, and answers go in the comments.

  1. George Crumb’s chamber piece Vox Balaenae was inspired by what animal?
  2. What is the name of the narrator of the novel Moby-Dick?
  3. What do Billy Budd, The Love of The Last Tycoon, Turandot, The Silmarillion, and The Art of Fugue have in common?
  4. The narrator of The Lovely Bones and the narrator of Desperate Housewives share what distinguishing characteristic?
  5. What was actress Teri Hatcher’s first starring role?
  6. What do Superman’s three major love interests have in common?

Last week’s answers:

  1. What Black Sabbath hit shares its name with a comic-book hero? Iron Man.
  2. The element Fe gives what bodily fluid its characteristic red color? Blood.
  3. What is the Rh factor (also known as positive or negative) in blood named after? Rhesus monkeys.
  4. What is the primary, and most obvious, anatomical difference between monkeys and apes? Monkeys have a tail.
  5. Name one of the two writers who popularized the idea of “The Long Tail”. Chris Anderson and Clay Shirky.
  6. In Jewish mythology, what is the name for a mindless automaton made out of clay? A golem.

links for 2007-03-09

This Is A Bit On The Ridiculous Side


I know we had a really mild winter overall, and I know that March is known for unpredictable weather, but this is just absurd:


And in case you’re wondering, that’s Fahrenheit, not Celsius (for our European reader, that’s -10.5 C).

links for 2007-03-07

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Introducing.... Themes


As usual, no Google and post the answers in the comments.

  1. What Black Sabbath hit shares its name with a comic-book hero?
  2. The element Fe gives what bodily fluid its characteristic red color?
  3. What is the Rh factor (also known as positive or negative) in blood named after?
  4. What is the primary, and most obvious, anatomical difference between monkeys and apes?
  5. Name one of the two writers who popularized the idea of “The Long Tail”.
  6. In Jewish mythology, what is the name for a mindless automaton made out of clay?

The answers to last week’s:

  1. Who was the first openly gay person to host the Oscars? Ellen DeGeneres.
  2. What is the connection between Moby Dick (the whale) and Moby (the DJ and musician)? Moby, the musician, was born Richard Melville Hall; Richard Herman Melville, who wrote Moby-Dick, is Moby’s great-grand-uncle.
  3. Who was the song “Hey Jude” written for? Julian Lennon, John Lennon’s first son.
  4. Where was the first meeting of the United Nations held? San Francisco.
  5. Why was the invention of movable type abandoned in its country of origin? Movable type was invented in China in the 10th or 11th century. It never caught on and was eventually abandoned because the vast number of Chinese characters made using type impractical.
  6. Where is the Encyclopaedia Britannica headquartered? Chicago, Illinois. Though it has Scottish origins, the encyclopedia has been published in the United States since 1901.

links for 2007-03-05

Stacking Up

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As the regular reader of this blog knows, I spent the holidays in Germany, and subsequently posted a bucketful of pictures to flickr.

I eventually ended up spending a little too much money printing those pictures out in photobooks; first, through QOOP’s integration with flickr, and second, through iPhoto’s book publishing. I also tried Tabblo’s book features, but more on that later. Two popular options that I didn’t try were Blurb and Shutterfly, though I’ll probably try those out after I come back from Hong Kong and Vienna.

QOOP book publishing through Flickr has two great advantages:

  1. it’s really, really easy, and it’s really, really fast.
  2. it preserves all your Flickr titles and photo descriptions.

The end result, however, it much more suited for keeping a hard copy of your digital photographs than it is a coffee-table book. The cover is very attractive, but the printing inside uses a relatively corse halftone screen. The speed of the process comes at a cost—the layout is a fixed number of photos per page (I went with two) and there are no options for changing size, orientation, changing captions, or the like.

The iPhoto book, on the other hand, is a magnificent, if rather expensive, production. There are multiple themes you can try, and you can move pictures around, change the number of photographs on a page, and the like. It’s incredibly easy to use, and is pretty smart about what you can do with your pictures (for example, it automagically recognizes vertically-oriented photographs and adjusts the pages accordingly).

Here are two short, but ridiculously large, pdf samples: Picturebook and Travel Scrapbook.

In addition, the print quality is outstanding. I still don’t know if Apple (or, more likely, their subcontractor) uses color halftone printing or if it’s some other process, but it’s professional-quality printing, on par with most coffee-table books.

The major drawbacks to iPhoto are, aside from the above-mentioned cost, the fact that it’s not available to non-Mac users and that even for Mac users, it’s a big giant memory hog (I have 1GB of RAM in my Mac, and it just chews up all the available RAM it can find).

As for Tabblo… I tried setting up a tabblo book, but I was consistently frustrated by the fixed photo sizes in the book layout form, and quickly abandoned that project. However, Tabblo is very good at layout for web display. It’s a drag-and-drop process that (I assume) make very liberal use of AJAX. It’s really rather remarkable that all this can be done inside a browser.

There are a few tweaks that Tabblo could make to make their already intuitive layout process even better:

  1. All the current layout schemes apparently lock you into a 800 pixel-wide display. This might have made sense in 1996, but given that the standard modern display is 1024x768, it might be time to loosen up.
  2. The grids that Tabblo uses for layout give you two levels of control—very loose or very tight. There needs to be an intermediate level.
  3. And most of the graphics used the turnkey layouts… well, they aren’t exactly avant-garde.

This brings me to the major difference between Flickr and Tabblo: Flickr is very good at the community tools, and they’re very good at displaying and sharing individual photographs. They aren’t, however, very good at sharing large groups of photographs. It’s much easier to go through my Germany pictures on Tabblo than it is to do the same in Flickr.

The obvious solution would be for Flickr/Yahoo! to buy out Tabblo, but I don’t know if that’s going to happen.

links for 2007-03-03

And Today's Best Headline Winner Goes To...


Only Appropriate, Given The Year

Apparently, today is National Pig Day.

I approve this message.