Sunday, July 31, 2005

Dump the Space Shuttle

"If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it." That’s the alleged engineering maxim that, per the NYTimes, was the cause of the space shuttle’s current woes. Instead of coming up with a radical new alternative to the foam fuel tank cover, NASA engineers took a piecemeal approach to solving the problem, stuck with the foam, and here they are in a mess with the shuttle in space and possible damage.

Well, maybe, but it’s also plausible that, short of a radical shuttle redesign, there was no good solution. Or that the shuttle is so complex that introducing a radical fix was likely to break something else. There’s a good reason that engineers working on these kind of critical projects tend to take the conservative approach. I think we can all intuitively understand why it’s not a good idea to build a bridge with a completely new mechanical structure. Would you want to drive your car over that bridge?

It’s axiomatic that there will always be problems introduced when you try to fix an engineering construct of sufficient complexity. The article wants us to believe that NASA could have done something differently and avoided this latest shuttle fiasco. But in fact the real answer is probably in the last paragraph of this article. The space shuttle, as currently conceived, is an untenable work of engineering. The whole design is flawed, overly complex, and unwieldy. We know that the Russians have been successfully sending men to space and to their space station with a much simpler and cheaper design. Several commercial companies that have been formed to develop much cheaper space planes. There is clearly a large gap between what could be done with a new shuttle design, and what we’re stuck with now.

It’s time for a fresh start with the shuttle. It’s time to recognize that the incremental value of sending yet another shuttle of this type into space is virtually nil. Checking how Velveeta melts in zero gravity is not all that important. Checking the effect of statin drugs on the blood pressure of orbiting mice is not going to save mankind. The shuttle is now an old design. Certain things were learned from it. Let’s take a break from it, decide what we want in a next-generation shuttle, and, if something truly interesting can be outlined, perhaps we should go ahead and build it. But enough of these shuttle flights. They’ve exhausted their usefullness, it’s time to retire them. Let’s declare victory and move on.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

The NYTimes on Why Cats Trump Dogs on the Net

”There's a deeper answer to be had at, where users post pictures of their cats gazing at pictures of other cats already posted on the Infinite Cat site. You see an infinite regress: pictures of cats looking at pictures of cats looking at pictures of cats.

Remind you of anything? Those cats are like so many bloggers sitting at home staring into their computer screens and watching other bloggers blog other bloggers. Cats, who live indoors and love to prowl, are the soul of the blogosphere. Dogs would never blog.”

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The Safety of Landlines(!!???)

USA Today, the leader in front page sound-bite polls, had one out yesterday on why people don’t give up their home landlines in favor of cellular phones. 26% of people are keeping their landline for safety, 20% needed it for internet access. Poor cell phone reception and sound quality or were, amazingly, at the bottom of the list, 7% and 6% respectively.

For the record, I gave up my landline a few months ago. This winter’s rains were the last straw. After two weeks of phone outage and two technician visits (with a four-hour home wait each time) I called up Cingular and asked to transfer my home number to a $9.99/month cell phone. I added it to my wireless family plan. No long distance charges, built-in voice mail, unlimited night and weekend minutes, all other minutes are lumped with the rest of my plan. Plus, cell phones are smaller and much more full-featured than traditional phones. And to make sure I don’t lose my home cell, it’s permanently plugged into its charger.

Now let’s assume, for purposes of discussion, that USA Today’s statistics are correct. Why in the world would safety be the number one reason that people keep their landline? When was the last time your cell phone service went completely dead? How long did it take to fix? Can a thief or intruder cut your cell phone line like they can cut a landline? Of course not. Cell phones are so much safer than land lines…

So for those 26% among you that keep their landlines for safety – don’t. They’re not safer. It’s time to switch. For the 20% that need it for internet access – well, my sympathies. I assume you’re using DSL, and DSL may be the best thing that ever happened to the landline phone companies. If you’re using dial-up, it’s time to get broadband… For those with poor cell phone reception, how about switching cell phone providers…

Landlines should go the way of the dinosaurs…

Shopping Thrills

I went to my favorite Farmer’s Market this Sunday, in Santa Monica near Main St. and Ocean Park. My fridge was pretty full, but in the interest of giving some purpose to this trek, apart from the mere enjoyment of a beautiful day and beautiful people, I set myself a goal of getting some tomatoes. The market was full of tomatoes, with the major innovation, from my perspective, being the green and black zebra-stripped ones (or am I just behind the trend?).

Well, it was sample day at the market, and I sampled all the different tomatoes at all the different stalls. I swear, I had full intention of buying some tomatoes. Truly. But in the whole market, I couldn’t find one decent tomato. They all had that bland, supermarket tomato taste. No flavor whatsoever. Who said that Farmer’s Markets have good vegetables? Not always the case... And why were the vendors handing out samples if the stuff was no good? I can’t explain it.

Finally I came across something interesting – great knock-off sunglasses. I’d foresworn these cheap imitations years ago. In theory I’m perfectly willing to wear knockoffs, but the lenses need to meet a certain minimum standard that never seemed to be achieved. That’s why about once a year I shell out some $250 for Armani’s or Gucci’s or Prada’s. But this time I got two pairs, a D&G variety and a Prada lite, with great lenses, for a grand total of $25. The only cloud over my happiness was the extra $2 I was charged for sales tax. Do knockoff vendors really pay the state its share? I don’t think so. But I was embarassed to complain.

On the food front I went for two pounds of yellow nectarines… Very sweet and flavorful. No tomatoes.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Soy Milk

Yesterday a Chinese friend told me that the standard Chinese breakfast drink is soy milk, and has been for hundreds of years. This was news to me. I had assumed that soy milk was a recent invention of the food industrial complex targeted at the emerging lactose intolerant class…

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Oh How Terrorism Has Changed…

I first saw One Day in September, an academy award winning documentary film on the kidnapping and killing of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, at the insistence of my son, and wasn’t expecting to like it. But I was surprised,it was great film. Even though the outcome is known to most viewers upfront (all 11 Israeli hostages are killed), the film maintains suspense. It also sheds light on the surprisingly bumbling and disturbingly callous handling of the affair by the German authorities. It was produced, amazingly, by the same person, Arthur Cohn, who produced Vitorio de Sica’s Academy Award winning film The Garden of the Finzi Continis.

The film is now destined for fame. Steven Spielberg is currently shooting a narrative film on the aftermath of of the kidnapping, picking up where the documentary ended. As the documentary shows, five of the eight terrorists were killed during the shootout that ended the siege, the other three were captured and imprisoned. A few months later, a Lufthansa plane, carrying only eleven male passengers, was kidnapped, and in return for its release, the German government released the three terrorists. As the German authorities essentially acknowledge in the film, this second kidnapping was staged, setup because the Germans did not want the liability of having three Arab terrorists in their custody.

After the Germans released the three terrorists, the Israeli Mossad hunted down and killed two of them, along with another five people who the Mossad determined had helped plan the attack. The third terrorist escaped several attempts on his life, and now lives in hiding. The filmmakers managed to make contact with him and he appears in the documentary. Spielberg’s film will tell, in fictional form, the story of the hunting down of these terrorists by the Mossad.

In trying to explain to a friend the complex story of the kidnapping and how it was handled, I was hit by the fundamental change that has occured in terrorist philosophy. In 1972, the kidnappers were trying their best to get out of the whole affair alive. Ultimately, that’s the leverage that the hostage negotiaters had over them, and had it been handled even semi-professionally, it seems pretty clear that most of the hostages would have survived. Even at the very end, in a shootout with German police at a small airfield, the terrorists didn’t kill the hostages until the very end, after a full two hour gunfight. It was only when it was entirely and completely clear to them that they would not get away, that they turned on their captives.

Today suicide attacks seem to have become the only legitimate form of terrorism. Suicide bombers are a dime a dozen. Nothing less seems like enough. The role of negotiaters, snipers, and commando units in fighting terrorism seems to have been obviated. I wonder if we’ll ever manage to get the genie back into the bottle. I’m almost longing for the genteel days of airplane hijackings…

Which reminds me of a new joke last time I was in Israel:

Two Palestinian girls walk down the street. One asks the other.

“Does this bomb make me look fat?”

Monday, July 18, 2005

"Parked Like a Woman"

I love this comment regarding my Santa Monica parking ticket, the one I got for backing into my parking spot instead of parking head in as directed. Anonymous parked head in during his driving test in Ireland, and although he passed, the examiner added a comment that he “parked like a woman”.

I feel vindicated, and honored. It turns out that I park like a man.

New Look, Same Great Formula

My anti-perspirant of choice is Ban. I’ve used it for more than 15 years. The Unscented version. Only Unscented. A few months ago, by mistake, I bought the Powder Fresh version. The moment I put it on I smelled like a newly cleaned toilet. It went straight to the trash. Why do they make these scented versions? Why would I use an anti-perspirant as a perfume? Can’t we assume there are better perfumes out there?

But that’s not what I wanted to write about. What I wanted to write about is the disapperance of the standard, blue and white Ban container, and it’s replacement with a light green, 60’s looking, UGLY new container. I can’t pinpoint the precise moment in time when this change took place, but this weekend, when I went to replenish my Ban supply, green was the color, and ugly was the look.

Marketing is part of my work, and I’m always fascinated by the behind-the-scenes machinations involved in getting top management to replace a perfectly good looking, classic design, with a horrid, makes-my-skin-crawl new one. What brilliant product manager came up with the idea that changing the look would boost sales? How many design agencies pitched their ideas? Which top manager ultimately settled on this one? How much was the design firm paid for their innovation? Did the product manager like it too, or did he/she kick themselves for even bringing it up?

And of course there’s the more personal problem. I used to keep my Ban on the little shelf to the right of my sink. In plain sight. But with this new look, I’ll have to start hiding it. The green doesn’t match anything in my bathroom.

My first job in the U.S. was with G----- Scientific Instruments. The running joke at the company was that any new product would be painted in G----- Beige. A light shade of beige, reminscent of nothing in particular, and horridly so. How was this color ever selected? Well, apparently the CEO had chosen it, and he loved it. The only problem was that the CEO was, apparently, certifiably color blind…

Later in my work life, I ran marketing communications for a telecomm equipment company. What’s the difference between marketing communications and engineering? That when you’re an engineer, the only requirement is that whatever you do has to work. No one second guesses how you did it, because they can’t understand it anyway. But in Marcom, everyone’s an expert. And the biggest expert is usually the CEO. Everyone above you in the heirarchy feels at liberty to comment on your work, and to correct it, before a failure has even been detected…

At least in the Ban case, there is a quantifiable outcome. Will Ban sales go up or go down? If I’m any example, they’ll go down. I’ve started a search for a new anti-perspirant. One that won’t embarrass me sitting in plain view on my bathroom shelf.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

The New Harry Potter

My daughter, 19, and my son, 15, are crazy excited. They both ordered the new Harry Potter months ago, so we’re due to get two copies early Saturday morning. My son can hardly contain himself, and my daughter isn’t far behind. She was furious at the NPR report that interviewed the purported readers of the next book to ask for their plot predictions. They didn’t interview anyone over 10 years of age.

“They just don’t understand”, she said.

In fact, my daughter wanted to teach a course at Berkeley this year on the Harry Potter books, (a student-taught course), but the subject was taken. She had to settle for second best. Salinger…


A friend of mine just told me that she’s planning on adopting two girls in their early teens. She doesn’t yet know who they’ll be, but she wants to do it through the county’s foster care program.

My friend already has two sons that she adopted as infants. They’re now young teenagers. She and her husband are in their early 50’s. She thinks a larger family would be fun, she wants daughters, she thinks all will benefit, she thinks our social class has so much to offer disadvantaged children, and should.

I agree with her on all points. I haven’t quite come around to adopting two teenage girls, but I’m feeling very moved by her decision. Adoption seems to be the trend of the times (or perhaps of my age group, or perhaps of Angelina Jolie watchers…). Three single friends of mine, having recently reached age 40, decided to adopt children. One is flying off to Kazahstan to adopt an infant. Another, coming back from China with her new (super cute) baby girl, told of a couple who had been on the trip with them. They had three grown children or their own, and had decided that they wanted to adopt two siblings. When they got to China they were introduced to three siblings and asked if perhaps they would agree to adopt all three. They did.

And what, you say (or at least I say), if there’s a problem with one of these kids? Well, my friend’s younger adopted son is significantly learning disabled. Not easy at all. And still she wants to adopt more.

So no, I’m not yet to the point of deciding to adopt a child myself, but I’m feeling the stirrings.

More on Pricey Pills

Kerry Howley had an article in Reason Magazine this month related one of my pet peeves. Her claim was that prescription requirements have the net effect of raising the cost of medications and negatively impacting our health. I guess I have the soul of a libertarian. I couldn’t agree more.

Some of the points that she made:

1. Prescriptions were originally simply written instructions given by a doctor outlining which and how much medication one should take. It was only in 1951 that the FDA established a requirement for prescriptions for certain drugs
2. Along with that requirement came a directive that labels on prescription medications would NOT be decipherable by the layperson – meaning that a doctor with external knowledge would have to enlighten you on the correct dosage…
3. Most developed countries allow pharmacists to dispense many of the drugs that require a prescription in the U.S.
4. The main determinant of whether or not a drug is listed as prescription-only in the U.S. is the pharmaceutical companies. Generally, they prefer to have the drug available only by prescription as long as it’s under patent, because they can sustain significantly higher prices that way. They then go over-the-counter when it loses patent, since their branding allows them to sell at higher price and volume over the generics

I’d add that pharmaceutical companies are not the only ones that benefit from prescription requirements. There’s another interest group into this equation: The medical establishment. It’s prescriptions that keep us going back for those 2 hour wait, 10 second face-time doctor visits, list priced at $215 and discounted to $60 for our insurance companies.

The Cosmo view: The only medications that reasonably should be regulated by prescription are those that can cause harm to others, or significant harm to the individual, if used improperly. Meaning only when there is a significant public health interest in regulating their use.

Examples of such drugs might include (I’m not even sure I’d include them to tell you the truth, but for now…)

1. Some antibiotics, because overuse legitimately can rapidly lead to the emergence of drug resistant strains that can impact all of us.
2. Drugs that can be used as strong narcotics or stimulants, or in the manufacture of such drugs.

Most drugs should not be regulated, and that includes, but of course is not limited to:

1. Cholesterol reducing and blood pressure reducing drugs
2. Birth control pills
3. Various skin treatments
4. Diabetes medications
5. Viagra and the like
6. Many psychiatric drugs such as antidepressants and anti-psychotics

Yes, there’s a medical insurance issue here as well. Prescription drugs are generally covered by insurance. Over the counter medications are not. But mostly I’ve found that the cost of the deductible on most prescription drug policies is higher than full price for over the counter drugs… Enough said.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

March of the Penguins

Have you seen this film? Wonderfully sweet, interesting, and fun. But there’s a catch. The following is from a Christian movie review site:

“This is a wonderful movie for families, but parents should prepare their children to deal with some opening comments about millions of years of evolution…”

Further down the review discusses the politics of the film:

“The only place where there is the proclamation of a political view are the opening references to evolution…”

Monday, July 11, 2005

Gentile Men, Jewish Women

Following in the footsteps of the new book “Boy Vey! The Shiksa’s Guide to Dating Jewish Men” (what a name…), Luke Ford is thinking of writing a new book – “The Gentile’s Guide to Dating Jewish Women”.

Yes, Jewish men are acknowledged as a hot commodity in the mating market. But Jewish women? Well, not yet. But maybe Luke can start a trend...

On the other hand, it may be an losing battle...

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Sue The Parking Authorities!!!

Yes, I got a parking ticket today, and no, I hadn’t forgetten to put money in the meter, and no, my time had not run out, so why did I get a ticket?

I pride myself on my parking skills, You see, I had a very exacting introduction to parking. As one of only three women in a class of about 100 Electronics Engineers, my parkings skills were heavily scrutinzed. Engineers take parking very seriously. There are correct and incorrect ways to park. This is a subject they’ve obsessed about long before their foot could even reach the gas pedal, and by the time they’re in college, they’ve laid both the theoretical and the practical framework for a lifetime of perfect parking. I’m referring to male engineers. Female engineers have no choice but to learn from their male counterparts, or else be dismissed as bumbling idiots.

I won’t bore you with all the details, but a fundamental rule is that when getting into a tight parking position between two cars, the best, safest and most accurate way to do it is in reverse. In fact, parking head in is messy and amateurish, and is something that any self-respecting engineer should avoid.

Why then, are parking structures in L.A. plastered with signs saying “Park Head In Only”? Well, my working assumption was that some smart guy, maybe the same one that invented the “Don’t Even Think of Parking Here” signs, printed up 100,000 of these abominations, and sold them in a fire sale to the Los Angeles County parking authorities. Why else would such clearly inane advice be posted?

So yes, I’ve always ignored these signs. After all, they’re just plain wrong. It’s true that occasionally, when there’s plenty of room and I’m feeling a bit lazy, I park head in, but otherwise, I always park in reverse.

Well, today in Santa Monica, in the parking lot behind Main St. near the World Café, I got a $35 ticket for that offense. The ticket had two remarks on it:

Rem1 – Vehicle backed in

Rem2 – Vehicle unattended

So two questions:

1. What in the world is wrong with backing into a parking spot? I know I should have asked this question a long time ago, and not waited to get a ticket. But better late than never.

2. Given that this was a three hour parking spot, what was the problem with leaving the car unattended? Or is backing into a parking spot ok if I stay in the car?

No need to answer the second question, it’s rhetorical. But if anyone has an answer to the first one, please please enlighten me.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

What I Don’t Like

The NYTimes has an article today about food dislikes of some renowned chefs. Zac Pelaccio of 5 Ninth doesn’t like sweet potatoes: "I find them a little too rich, a little too cloying, a little too overwhelming," he says, "I don't like to eat them."

Bobby Flay of Bar Americain doesn’t like lentils. There are no lentils on his menu. His staff makes up for it when he’s gone:

"When I go on vacation, they run specials on lentils," he says.

David Waltuck of Chanterelle doesn’t like celery:

“It has no flavor. It’s one-dimensional. It’s an exercise in chewing. It’s pointless.”

Spoken like a true Frenchman…

My daughter doesn’t like cilantro. This is a recently identified aversion. It took her years to realize that her distaste for some types of salsa was related to that aromatic green thing.

Well, I love sweet potatoes, lentils, and particularly, cilantro. I can tolerate celery. Just please, don’t serve me anything with nutmeg. I don’t even let it get within 100 feet of my kitchen.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

From My Israeli Cousin:

A man should be like coffee. Strong and sweet.

The Disappearing Engineer

I’m told that there are about 210,000 Electronics Engineers employed in the U.S. today, down from about 280,000 in the year 2000, before the tech bubble burst. Sounds plausible to me. In fact my impression is that the downturn has been even more drastic

The question is whether this change is structural, or transient. Meaning, is it a permanent shift in demand, or will there be a rebound? I’m betting that, unfortunately for us EE’s (yes, I’m one too), it’s structural.

You might object and say that we’re increasingly surrounded by technology, that we’re more and more dependent on our computers and our iPods and our flat screen TV’s. But that doesn’t translate to EE employment, and here’s why:

Let’s take an analogy. Food. We certainly eat as much today as people ate 200 years ago. But whereas 200 years ago about 50% of the population was employed in the production of food (i.e., farmers), today in the U.S. it’s probably 2%. And whereas 200 years ago the average family probably spent about 50% of its income on food, today that number is around 10%. And why is that? Because we’ve become more efficient in manufacturing food.

In contrast, for example, our expenditures on music concerts, and education, and legal fees and real estate as a percentage of our income has gone up… That’s because our efficiency in those areas has not increased (on the contrary…) And that’s in large part what is meant when it’s said that we’re becoming a service economy.

What does all this mean for the technologist? Well, back to the food analogy. Most of the money in the food industry is made in its service aspects (restaurants, precooked meals, etc…). In the same way, most of the income in technology will be made in services. IBM’s Lou Gerstner understood this 15 years ago when he saved IBM by turning it from the world’s leading computer manufacturer into a “systems integrator”, i.e., technology services provider.

For technologists that means that the core work of designing new products is going to be relegated to a smaller and smaller group of people, while most of the work in technology will be in that part that is so rapidly shifting overseas. Services. Software. Support. Everything that has to do with helping people use technology, making it easy, accessible, and useful… Stuff that doesn’t really require an engineer…

Put All Your Eggs In One Basket…

… and watch that basket!

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Let Us Not Forget the Wheel

When my son was a toddler, he was obsessed by cars. The full sized ones, and the toy ones. He loved playing with them. He’d place his head on the floor, looking sideways, and push a toy car back and forth on the floor, gazing intently at how the wheels turned on their axles, rolling along the floor. He could do this for hours.

I used tell my friends that he was saying to himself:

“Wow, what a great invention.”

Of course I wasn’t completely joking. Clearly it wasn’t an obvious invention. The whole of the New World, including the Maya and the Aztec, never came up with the idea. They had astonishingly sophisticated calendars, but the concept of a wheel seemed out of their reach.

And why is it such a difficult invention? My daughter and I were just talking about that. She says – because the calendar can be deduced from the natural world, from the movement of the sun and the moon and the stars. There is no wheel in nature. It’s a completely man-made invention. It requires a leap of imagination. It’s not derivative.

The internet tells me that the oldest wheel was found in Mesopotamia and is about 5,500 years old. I can’t help wondering who invented it. Was it a man or a woman? (Ok, probably a man, but I can dream…) I’d like to see that person. The Einstein or the Edison or the Pythgoras of his time. Perhaps he slipped and fell, tumbled down a hill, got up and said:

“Eureka! I must file a patent! Quick!”

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Sandra Day O’Connor

So on the subject that is sure to preoccupy us for months to come, my first thoughts:

1. We all eventually move towards the political center. O’Connor is a case in point. When she was appointment, she was a certified rightie. Today she’s being mourned as a moderate swing vote. Judge William Brennan is another. In the realm of politics, well, Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon of Israel, The problem is that it takes quite a few years to break in each new Justice. And when they start young, like Justice Thomas, it can take forever. Someone needs to invent a rapid aging system for judges. Something like a curing process, that can be applied before they take office.

2. Women have a much healthier attitude towards life and work than men do. Evidence O’Connor. She’s been on the court for 24 years, she’s 75 years old, she decided that it’s time to make a change, enjoy retirement, perhaps take care of her husband and enjoy her grandchildren. Contrast to Rehnquist, who despite ailing with thyroid cancer, insists on staying on hanging on to his post by the skin of his teeth.

3. Totally white hair, like Her Honor has these days, looks so much better than gray hair (reference her confirmation hearings).