Software Nerd

Friday, May 19, 2006

There's a guy under my car!

At my oil-change place, there's usually one guy in the pit beneath the car and another at the open hood. The downstairs guy removes old oil; the upstairs guy fills new oil. The guy in the pit drains oil from all the cars. On a busy day, a quick-lube place might have one guy in the pit and three guys filling fresh oil, and doing the rest of the servicing on three separate cars.

Strikes me that the job of the downstairs guy could easily be automated. The crux of his job is finding the right location for the nut that he unscrews. If a machine could do this -- with some positioning-help from the guy upstairs -- the rest of the automation would be simple enough.


Thursday, May 18, 2006

The Magna Carta

The Magna Carta (1215 A.D.) lists what one might call "procedural rights" or "concrete rights" [see this thread on for a discussion of such rights]. Basically, these are implementations, i.e. concrete forms of, the rights to life.

The Magna Carta is a good illustration of the development of knowledge. In it, we do not see an abstract declaration of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. (Indeed, I would guess that many of the lords, churchmen and merchants who were asking for some rights would have said that peasants are far less deserving of rights than they.)

Instead of abstract principles, the Magna Carta is mostly a list of specific "procedural rights" (someone give me a better term). It makes sense that people in that far away age would start by groping for some specific rights, e.g. the right to cut down part of a forest to grow food on the land, before reaching the broader principle. It took a few centuries during which people enumerated various such rights before they could grasp the more abstract idea of the "right to life" and its applicability to all human beings.

For anyone who's interested, here's my summary of the rights listed in the Magna Carta:

  1. King to have less control of Church.
  2. "Free men" to have certain rights.
  3. Heirs have a right to their father's land
  4. A debtor's land may not be seized if he chooses to pay his debt from other assets
  5. Certain types of taxes restricted
  6. Special "independence" for the City of London
  7. Ordinary law-suits will be settled in a fixed place, instead of moving around with the royal court
  8. Other "roaming" courts established, to handle cases is some areas
  9. Fines should be reasonable, and part of the test should be that the fine does not deprive the person of their source of livelihood
  10. Constables & royal officials must pay for corn they take and must get an owner's consent before taking certain items.
  11. Standards laid down for weights and measures
  12. A person's confession alone is not sufficient basis to try him
  13. In peacetime, merchants may freely enter and leave England without being taxed unduly
  14. New forests created during King John's reign will be deforested

Monday, May 15, 2006

Law to enforce vegetarianism

Imagine this (fictional) news-story:

Sacramento, May 1st 2035: Governor, Richard Nader, today signed a bill that will make California the first vegetarian state in the nation.

The slaughter of animals has been illegal in California for the last decade, and taxes on meat products have been raised steadily. Per capita beef consumption has dropped from a high of 66 pounds per year at the end of the last century to just under 10 pounds today. Some cities, led by San Francisco, already ban the sale of meat and meat products within their jusrisdictions.

Lawmaker Ron Reagan III, who sponsored the bill, said: "Violent acts toward animals have long been recognized as indicators of a dangerous psychopathy that does not confine itself to animals. Without an all-out ban, people in the less progressive areas of the state were making a mockery of the rule of law. A vast majority of Californians don't support cruelty and killing. It's really simple actually; I think the bible says it well: 'Thou shalt not kill.'"

Think it can't happen? I'd agree. Wait though... why not? What's the reason? The only reason it would not happen is because it would not have popular support,.

I worked on one commuting assignment that had a liberal dinner expense account: Wolfgang Puck type restaurants at least once or twice a week. The veal at some of those places is yummy. My food-orders led to some discussion about the ethics of veal-eating. I figure there's a fair number of people who'd sign up to ban veal. A fair number, but not enough. So, what's a PETA activist to do? The answer: target a smaller constituency. They came up with a very creative target. Any ideas?

Foie gras! Who is going to object to a ban on foie gras? How many people even eat foie gras over their lifetimes? How many even know what it is? How many who eat it will really miss it if it's gone? Foie gras is a target with little democratic (small "d") support.

A veal-eater ought to object to a ban on foie gras; a beef eater should too. Will they? Nah! That would be to defend a principle, rather than to defend something real. Too abstract to worry about. So, Chicago just went ahead and banned it.
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When the Nazis came for the communists,I remained silent;I was not a communist.
When they locked up the social democrats,I remained silent;I was not a social democrat.
When they came for the trade unionists,I did not speak out;I was not a trade unionist.
When they came for the Jews,I did not speak out;I was not a Jew.
When they came for me,there was no one left to speak out.

- Martin Niemöller

Friday, May 12, 2006

Crazy like a FOX

Recently, Murdoch was in the news because he hosted a fund-raiser for Hillary Clinton. As the owner of ultra-Republican Fox-News, this was obviously interesting. Here's a fictional NewsCorp paper explaining what's going on...
==== ==== ==== ==== ==== ==== ==== ==== ==== ====

Title: The Next Big Opportunity in Cable News

Strengths: Our biggest strength is our perception as being the premier channel for pro-right news. When we entered this business, the majors were speaking with a general left-of-center intellectual voice. No major media company catered to the vast and increasingly discontented mass of viewers on the right. We have had tremendous success in identifying our brand squarely with this segment.

Fair & Balanced: It is critical that we continue to stress that we're "fair and balanced", and it is critical that we defend ourselves against attacks of partisanship. A large majority or our customers do not consider themselves partisan. They consider themselves independent even if they have voted for the same party in every election. They do not want spin ["no spin zone"]. They want the truth, but they want it analyzed within the context of a value-system that closely matches their own. People who are left-of-center will always think we're unfair. However, these are not our customers. It is critical that we never be seen as unfair by our customers.

Competitive Response: The competitive response has been weak. In summary, instead of adding clarity to their own brands, our competitors have diluted those brands by trying to adopt some elements from us. The result is this: while our brand is still "the right wing brand", theirs is less of a "left wing brand" than they used to be.

Apart from the mistaken idea that they can protect their share by adopting a less left-of-center approach, some of our competitors may also have genuine doubts about their own objectivity. Viewing their business through a idealistic, non-business lens, they think it is their job to really be balanced in their commentary.

Threats: The internet and print media have numerous left-of-center sources. The last few years has seen a move into radio-talk as well. The untapped arena is TV news. There is huge vacuum in the "mainstream-but-avowedly-left-of-center" position in the market. The biggest threat to our competitors can come from this area. The first entrant who can build a credible brand on the slightly-left-but-mainstream position that mirrors the one that we have staked out on the right can take large audience from the ill-defined brands. Such an entrant would be less of a threat to us than to our competitors. On the other hand, they could be somewhat threatening by painting us as more right-wing that we wish to appear.

Opportunity: The attached document outlines a radical plan whereby NewsCorp fills the void and creates a second brand that takes the second large segment away from our competitors. This will shock those who think that we are wedded to the right. However, as this plan describes, if done right the two brands can be kept completely separate. If the same set of shareholders can own "Qdoba" and "Jack in the Box", why can't the same set of shareholders own a right-leaning and left-leaning network. Indeed, this reinforces our appeal to each group -- our appeal of "fair and balanced". Taking the left-of-center position also insures against a possible leftward swing after 8-years of Republican administration.

Summary: We've profited by creating a segment of news that is fair but "right-of-center" in interpretation. No challenger has done the same on the left, even though the market is large. There is no reason why NewsCorp cannot own a distinct brand that takes over that customer segment.
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Caveat: The above is fiction

Tracking Shipments

Has this ever happened to you...
You're expecting a shipment via one of the big shippers (UPS, Fedex, etc.) and need to sign for it. You cannot stay home to receive it; and, it would be inconvenient to drive to the pick-up center later in the evening. .However, if you had an approximate idea of when it would arrive you could be there to receive it. It's happened to me a few times, and I think it's time UPS et al did something about it.

The tracking info they provide on their sites is good. On the morningof the day the shipment is going to arrive, one will normally see something like:

7:18am LEFT UPS Dock for Delivery

That's the last useful tracking item. The next will say "Delivered".

The couriers have done a good job wrapping a user-interface around their package-status system. Now, they need to add a tiny interface to their routing system.

When a driver leaves on a delivery, he has a route with various stops/drops. There's also an estimated time on all these. All the essential elements are already in place at the bigger couriers. All that's required is to pull one peice out and display it to the user: estimated delivery time.

Even better would be to have the estimated time being constantly updated as the driver does his rounds and marks his drops as being completed. It's simple enough, a comparison of the time of the last drop and the estimated time of that drop tells how slow or fast he's running and allows all upcoming drops to be re-estimated.