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Links & observations from Steve Bogart

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9 July 1999

More coffee for me, boss
Because I'm not as messed up as I want to be
-- "Hearing Aid", They Might Be Giants, Flood

The San Jose Mercury News has a semi-informative update on Apple's P1:

  • iMac portable cousin near [SJ Merc]
    Walter Winnitzki, who follows Apple for the investment bank Hambrecht & Quist ... [said] buyers will see it as a easy choice for a second Macintosh purchase [exactly! -sb] either for themselves, their families or their Mac-using colleagues.

    But Doherty thinks users will be "wowed" by the product, which he describes as a low-cost but very high performance machine. "Apple has basically put the power of the iMac on a chip and as result, reduced the cost of manufacturing at a time when there is such intense price pressure for hardware," he said. "There will be nothing like it in the PC arena for many months, if not a year or more."

That last bit is a very tall order -- I've seen the small, thin Sony-made Windows laptop, and it's one of the few times that I thought to myself "Yeah, I could love a Windows machine." It's sleek, ultra-skinny and light; predictions that the P1 will be so much better and that it won't be matched for months are really hard to credit.

But hey, if it even comes close to the Sony, I'll be plenty satisfied. It doesn't have to be miles better, and I don't expect it to be. Cheaper would be nice, of course. :)

More Mac news: Wondering what's up with Microsoft Office on the Mac now that Office 2000 (1900?) is out for Windows? They say the file formats are still largely compatible, and a new Mac Office is on track for next year.

  • Microsoft's Waldman: New Mac Office in the works [Insanely-great]
  • Office 2000 Compatibility [Microsoft]
    We've worked hard to ensure a high level of compatibility between Office 2000 and Office 98 Macintosh Edition. Users of both versions of Office can exchange files with ease -- and without conversion. And the next version of Office for the Macintosh will offer even greater levels of compatibility.

Microsoft also implies they will have some striking announcements at this year's Macworld Expo (July 21).

Found on RobotWisdom: a mind-bending story of unexpectedly regular distribution patterns of apparently-random numbers. It sounds like an April Fool's joke, but it's not:

  • The power of one [New Scientist]
    Known as Benford's law, it is a rule obeyed by a stunning variety of phenomena, from stock market prices to census data to the heat capacities of chemicals. Even a ragbag of figures extracted from newspapers will obey the law's demands that around 30 per cent of the numbers will start with a 1, 18 per cent with a 2, right down to just 4.6 per cent starting with a 9.

    It comes ... from the various ways that different kinds of measurements tend to spread themselves. Ultimately, everything we can measure in the Universe is the outcome of some process or other: the random jolts of atoms, say, or the exigencies of genetics. Mathematicians have long known that the spread of values for each of these follows some basic mathematical rule.

    In a nice little twist, it turns out that the Fibonacci sequence, the Golden Mean and Benford's law are all linked. The ratio of successive terms in a Fibonacci sequence tend toward the golden mean, while the digits of all the numbers making up the Fibonacci sequence tend to conform to Benford's law.

  • The power of one (sidebar graphic) [New Scientist]
    Alex's brother-in-law fiddled his shop figures, but the deviation of his [n]umbers from the distribution predicted by Benford's law clearly showed up the fraud.

I found a couple more sites that shed light on it:

  • Mathematical formulation of Benford's Law [Treasure-Troves]
    Also called the First Digit Law, First Digit Phenomenon, or Leading Digit Phenomenon. In listings, tables of statistics, etc., the Digit 1 tends to occur with Probability ~30%, much greater than the expected 10%. This can be observed, for instance, by examining tables of Logarithms and noting that the first pages are much more worn and smudged than later pages.

  • Notes on applying Benford's Law to fraud detection by Mark Nigrini [Univ. of Kansas]
    Benford's Law applies to lists of numbers where the numbers describe the sizes of similar items, for example, the market values, net incomes, and trading volumes of NYSE companies, the populations of counties or cities and company disbursements. It would not apply to assigned numbers such as personal ID numbers or lists where the numbers have a built-in maximum or minimum.

    Digital Analysis is used to detect fraud or irregularities that require the fraudster to invent a number as a part of the fraud. Possibilities include drawing checks for fictitious vendors for fictitious services, or when the fraud involves many repetitions of the same type of action.

This sort of thing fascinates me.

Some designer at Disney really earned their pay. Turning the year "2000" into a representation of Disney's most recognizable asset is obvious once you see it, but I wouldn't have come up with it... Say what you will about Disney, this is a pretty cool thing:

Bloat bloat bloat: Everyone and their sister has pointed to this, but I will too; it's an interesting topic. Former Microsoft developer Andrew Shuman put forth some excuses for bloated software:

  • The Love Bloat [Slate]
    The problem with software today is not that it is bloated. The problem is that it's not bloated enough!

    Most computer users want to do fancy new things with their speedy Pentium chips and mongolarge hard drives, not just run their old applications faster. So if computers are getting more powerful, shouldn't we developers harness that capacity?

Actually, most non-geeks I know (and even many geeks) are most interested in reading & writing documents, printing them, and communicating with other folks. These are not "fancy new things". They are pretty interested in running their old programs faster -- but they're forced to buy the new junk just to read other people's 'improved' file formats.

Andrew Leonard of Salon wrote a decent response, where he says many more-rational things:

  • Blame the consumer! [Salon]
    Shuman's article is a classic display of a perennial Microsoft blind spot -- its utter failure to recognize that consumers aren't getting what they want, and are becoming increasingly irritated. People do not really enjoy buying new computers just so they can read a Word file that their boss sent them ... without bothering to save it in a readable format.

    Isn't it OK for us to wonder whether we are being scammed, to question whether the whole techno-economy is based on an extraordinarily virulent form of planned obsolescence that renders expensive pieces of electronic equipment useless long before they should be?

The most enlightening responses I found were the [highest-rated] comments on the Slashdot discussion of the Slate article. Tellingly, Slashdot filed the story under 'Humor':

  • All Hail Bloatware (comments rated 3 and higher) [Slashdot]
    [Bloat is caused by...] Monolithic design, which is NOT a feature. MS Word has features targeted at lawyers (and useless for everybody else), at accountants, at writers, etc., etc. You don't need most of them, but get all of them anyway. Pluggable modules would have been a much cleaner solution (you are a lawyer? plug in the "Lawyer" module...)

    In the trade-off between a clean/tight code and speed of development, speed almost always wins. In the current business environment projects that are 50% over budget and on time are much much better than projects that are on budget but 50% late. Basically, the slogan is: "who cares whether it is optimized, if it works, ship it!"

    In reality, maybe it's pretty tough to blame Microsoft for consistently cranking out some of the most shameless bloatware around. After all, if their customers don't care, then why should they?

I've definitely felt that pull myself - "it's done when it works, not when it works elegantly". The cost of not doing it right in the first place is having to rewrite the code more often, possibly several times. But if you're in a hurry, it's awfully easy to be penny-wise and pound-foolish by stopping when a program is just barely "good enough".

I would love a Photoshop-style version of Word, where additional capabilities are plug-ins you can remove. I would strip it of auto-grammar, HTML "editing", and about two dozen other things. I bet it would be very fast. Oh well, I can dream.

Regarding Office 2000, I feel it's going to get its market share not from being better than Office 97, but from being the most widely-available version of Office ('97 is disappearing from shelves) and from being the Office version that comes bundled most often with new business machines.

If both were equally convenient to get, would anyone actually say to themselves, "but I need to be able to do more than Office 97 lets me do"?

At least they're not pulling the broken file-format trick this time.

That oughtta hold you for the weekend, I hope.

I've decided to shoot for a Monday-Wednesday-Friday update schedule for this page. I've found that if I try and do it every day (which I usually fail to do), far too much of my time is taken away from making things in favor of observing things.

I'd like to spend more of my time making things. Thus, updates will be spaced out more.

Have a good weekend!

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