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Links & observations from Steve Bogart

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5 August 1999

Software shouldn't even attempt to do what it can't do reliably.
-- Peter Coffee, December 1997

Top story today: The winners of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest (in which you try to come up with a really awful opening sentence to an imaginary novel) have been chosen. Most are hilarious; I'll try to restrain myself from quoting too many (you really should just follow the links):
  • 1999 Winners [Bulwer-Lytton, found through Flutterby]
    (Science Fiction winner:) The remaining astronauts strung out on the long tether could only wonder at a universe full of eerie contrasts - brilliant stars against the velvety blackness of space, the hot flare of their comrade's meteoric plunge into the atmosphere against the cool-blue ocean below, the man's frenzied screams on the radio as he was roasted by the heat of re-entry against the icy calm voice of mission control as they grilled the astronaut on the far end of the tether, and how hilarious it had all seemed when he first yelled "Crack the whip!"
    -- Roger Strong, Winnipeg, MB, Canada

    (Dishonorable mention:) It wasn't the best of times; it wasn't the worst of times; it was the times you'd get if you arranged all possible times (including even fictional times in which the nights were usually dark and stormy) in order from worst to best on the real number line from 0.0 inclusive to 1.0 exclusive and then used a really good uniform random number generator to pick a value in that range thus choosing the corresponding times -- that's the times it was.
    -- (first line from A Tale of Two Statisticians by Dale "What the Dickens?"" Dellutri, Libertyville IL)

(gritting teeth, trying to ignore fact that nearly everything on the site is displayed as a header...)

Also especially notable is the page with all the grand prize winners from previous years:

  • Lyttony of Grand Prize Winners [Bulwer-Lytton]
    She wasn't really my type, a hard-looking but untalented reporter from the local cat box liner, but the first second that the third-rate representative of the fourth estate cracked open a new fifth of old Scotch, my sixth sense said seventh heaven was as close as an eighth note from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, so, nervous as a tenth grader drowning in eleventh-hour cramming for a physics exam, I swept her into my longing arms, and, humming "The Twelfth of Never," I got lucky on Friday the thirteenth.
    -- Wm. W. "Buddy" Ocheltree, Port Townsend, Washington (1993 Winner)

    Professor Frobisher couldn't believe he had missed seeing it for so long--it was, after all, right there under his nose--but in all his years of research into the intricate and mysterious ways of the universe, he had never noticed that the freckles on his upper lip, just below and to the left of the nostril, partially hidden until now by a hairy mole he had just removed a week before, exactly matched the pattern of the stars in the Pleides, down to the angry red zit that had just popped up where he and his colleagues had only today discovered an exploding nova.
    -- Ray C. Gainey, Indianapolis, Indiana (1989 Winner)

That last one got me thinking: Hey astronomy buffs, how far away from Earth would one have to get before a major constellation (say, the Big Dipper or Orion) would be visibly distorted (to the naked eye, that is, not to sensitive instruments).

Obviously it depends on the distance to each star in a constellation, so there's no consistent answer for all constellations, but I'm just looking for an order-of-magnitude ballpark... Mars? Pluto? Alpha Centauri? Trantor? ;)

Just musing.

Amazon's price-comparison tool isn't doing a very good job:
  • Why won't Amazon help you compare prices? [Salon, seen on Tomalak's Realm]
    Shop the Web was hard to find, with its text link buried at the bottom of Amazon's front page. ... Once I found it, there was no indication that Shop the Web could be used as a tool for comparing prices.

    Amazingly, the shopping bot didn't even tell me that the camera was available on Amazon itself!

    Trying to find toys on Shop the Web proved to be a useless exercise ... And books? You guessed it. There's no book category.

At first blush, this seems vaguely Microsoftian - buy a technology that might impact your business and let it languish until it dies (see Crushed by Microsoft: What I learned []).

I wonder, though, because Amazon is apparently cooperating with Apple in its upgrade to the Sherlock utility which will allow users to comparison-shop Amazon, Barnes & Noble, eBay, and (apparently) anyone else who will make their product lists readable in the right format.

Is Amazon simply leaving the door open for Apple intentionally? I wouldn't think so...

Some quickies:

  • Magid Meets Andy Rooney [Upside, seen on Tomalak's Realm]
    It's been said before but it needs to be said over and over again: Too many business Web sites are strong on bells, whistles, gimmicks and graphics but weak on usability. // I'm tired of waiting for Java applications to run and dealing with stupid interfaces just to get some basic information.

    Another common mistake is requiring people to register to get basic information about products or services. Storefronts don't ask people for their IDs just to enter a showroom. Instead, they welcome them, try to make them feel at home and only ask them to prove their identity when it's necessary to complete a sale. Why should the Web be any different?

  • iBook will popularize wireless networking by Herb Bethoney [PC Week]
    After cruising the floor at this summer's Macworld Expo in New York, I got the distinct impression that Apple is the tail that wags the Wintel dog.

    USB technology first appeared on PCs, but no one took the technology seriously until Apple made the Draconian decision to drop the serial connectors on its iMac in favor of USB ports. Now peripheral makers have caught the USB fever, and USB devices are hitting the market in waves.

    The iBook will do for wireless LANs what the iMac did for USB. To be sure, wireless networking technology is nothing new. Wireless PC Cards for notebooks, both PC and Mac, have been around for quite a while now, but the critical mass needed to popularize wireless networking just hasn't happened yet.

This concludes the Special Surprise Bonus Thursday Edition of the NowThis Log. More tomorrow.

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