Friday, February 29, 2008

the greatest Microsoft asset

A few months ago, I got a Windows Mobile cell phone, a Cingular 8525. It's a neat piece of hardware and it makes all the hype around the Apple iphone (which came out six months later) look pretty silly. The 8525 has everything the iphone has except for icons that inflate when you touch them. Well, OK, the iphone user interface is a little better for common tasks, but not that much better. And the 8525 has features that the iphone doesn't have, like wireless lan and a client program for Outlook. So far, so good, right?

Well, the problem is that the phone crashes. That's right; it crashes, just like a Microsoft PC. You have to take out the battery to get it back up. You would think that this sort of problem would turn people off, but a friend who got the same phone wasn't bothered at all. "It's Windows, what do you expect?"

And he's right. People expect Windows to crash. They've become accustomed to it. It is the nature of Microsoft software. And they just restart the computer --no big deal. It seems to me that this public attitude should be listed among Microsoft assets: "People expect our software to crash and they buy it anyway".

Anyone who has worked on a commercial product realizes how big of an advantage this is. Taking a mostly-working piece of software and hardening it against crashes can double the price of the software. It would be a big competitive advantage if you didn't have to do that, but if you don't, then word will get around that you have crummy software and people won't buy it. Unless you are Microsoft, in which case they will pre-order it.

What a racket.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Book Review: The Spriggan Mirror

Lawrence Watt-Evans is one of those mystery authors that you see occasionally. Not that he writes mysteries, but that it is mysterious why you find so few of his books on bookstore shelves. There isn't a better Science-fiction/Fantasy author out there, but while other authors have ten or twenty titles on the shelf, Watt-Evans typically only has his two or three latest.

This is especially annoying because he writes such good series fiction and when you find a good series, you want to go back and read the ones you missed. The world of Ethshar is one of the best fantasy worlds I've ever read and each time I see a new one, I buy it immediately. The Spriggan Mirror is the latest one in the series.

In a previous book the hero, while casting a spell, accidentally created a magic mirror with an unusual property: every once in a while, a spriggan crawls out of it. What is a spriggan you ask? Well, a spriggan is a small, annoying, trouble-making humanoid. There were no spriggans before this mirror was created, but now, several years later, the world is starting to be overrun with them. Something needs to be done.

One of the good things about the world of Ethshar is the way that the stories mostly involve different characters, but common locales and history. There isn't one central person found in all of the stories, so you can read them in pretty much any order. The Spriggan Mirror follows a variation this pattern, where the hero of the previous book appears as a side character in the current one.

All, in all, it's a fun book, but not the best one in the Ethshar universe.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

how companies should respond to blogs

On Patterico, a Southwest Airlines employee named Paula Berg gives a lesson on how companies should respond to blogs. Lessons:
1. use casual-professional language rather than legaleze
2. be positive rather than offensive or defensive
3. avoid direct criticism of your detractors
4. use light, positive humor
The responses show how successful she was.

I've been trying to get my own company to handle blogs more like this. Here is an example of my own blog response, although this was on a technical site where there was an actual interesting technical discussion going on, and that changes the dynamic somewhat.

Monday Evening

Hmm. Monday Evening had a notice up for about a week saying that the blog had moved. I was just getting around to updating my link but it's already gone. Anyone know where?

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Jumper --an analysis

One of the cool things about Jumper was the way that the story develops, so if there is any chance you will see the movie, I recommend you don't read the following, which contains lots of spoilers.


The reason that the ending was lame is that it revealed that the jumper's mother was a paladin. Through the movie I assumed that she was a jumper which makes sense if the ability is genetic. There were hints that she was a paladin, but I assumed she was a jumper who had infiltrated the paladins. The odds of a paladin mother having a jumper baby would be so astronomically small that I never considered that explanation. And that is why the movie shouldn't have done that. You develop the parameters of the world in a science-fiction story. You can't just do anything at all.

I came up with a way that one jumper could get away from another one. Jumpers leave a sort of "scar" in space when they jump and another jumper can follow by physically passing through the scar within a few seconds of a jump. This makes it pretty hard for one jumper to get away from another. But it appears that jumpers do not have infinite precision jumping in open space. When the David and Griffin are falling from the Eiffel Tower, they are trying to grab the detonator in mid air but it is just out of reach. Apparently, they couldn't just just jump a few inches and grab it.

This suggests that one jumper (the chasee) could jump to a spot high in the sky. When the chaser jumps to the same point then the chasee uses sky-diving techniques to maneuver so that the chaser is not directly above him. As soon as the positions are such that the chaser is far enough away that he cannot using sky-diving techniques to get to the point where the chasee is, then the chasee jumps. The chaser is falling and presumably can't jump with enough precision to fall through the scar that the chasee just left. Of course if the chaser was on to this technique then he could try to stay above the chasee and there would be a sort of free-fall chess match.

It seems that if you can do something as remarkable and rare as teleporting, you should be able to get lots of money from it, but how could you do it without resorting to bank robbery as David Rice did? I think it would be a very good idea to maintain secrecy, so you can't do shows or publicly offer services based on your ability.

One possibility is smuggling which in some circumstances might seem less dishonest than bank robbing. Another possibility (related to smuggling) is to set up a courier service with a cover story such as the story that you have access to special military flights so you can deliver special packages quickly with no customs inspection. That could work, but the big money is going to be in quasi-legal packages and it would take time to build up a business. If you want money now, that's not very appealing.

If you trust the government (and it's hard to imagine a movie where that wouldn't go bad) you could tell the CIA what you can do and make money working for them. Or maybe you could make money as a photographer and journalist who gets unbelievable shots and stories (the Spiderman solution), but there is a good chance that you will be seen, and depending on what kind of story you do, shot.

It's hard to come up with other jobs. You definitely don't want to try something like going into sports and using your talent surreptitiously to win, or becoming a stage magician and doing it for real. Either of those options is going to get you caught on camera sooner or later.

You could gamble. You come up with stories that make people say "I'll bet you can't do that." and learn to make money from bets. You can escape from a room with a locked door and no windows. You can jump off a four-story building and not get hurt. You can get from San Francisco to Tahoe in three hours. The feats would have to be things that sound nearly impossible, but not entirely, absolutely, impossible. And they would have to be feats that can be verified without anyone watching you do it. You should avoid making too many bets in too many places so that you get a reputation and people start wondering about you --that limits the amount of money you can make.

It's a conundrum, all right. I'd probably end up just robbing banks.


movie review: Jumper

Super cool.

Go see.

Lame wrap-up after the climax, though.