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This is "Penmachine.com: August 2001," a page that archives an entire month's entries from my online journal. The latest material for that month is at the top. For my newest entries, visit the home page.
A friend pointed me to an article in MIT Technology Review that wonders how so many people in the U.S.A. (and elsewhere) can be scientifically illiterate -- when they come from the same educational system that produces the world's most accomplished scientists.
The answer in the U.S., and in many other countries such as Canada, is that our educational systems are designed not to educate everyone about science, but to find talented kids and turn them into scientists, while discarding everyone else. Even more unfortunately, teachers in the earliest grades don't need to know any science, and many actively dislike it.
As I sit here typing at a computer keyboard in a newly-built high-tech structure run by a company that makes even higher-tech wireless modems, it's sad to think that most people have only the vaguest understanding of what it takes to make a computer, or build a building, or communicate wirelessly -- or what it takes for my body and brain to sit here typing. That ignorance isn't because people are dumb, but because these topics never seemed interesting to them. And that's a shame.
If you're squeamish about insects, skip this story. Go on to the next one below, which is about the radio spectrum. If you're squeamish about that, then you have bigger problems.
Today, while cycling home from work northward along No. 6 Road in Richmond, B.C., I struck a bee. Or, more accurately, a bee struck me, smack in the lower lip on the right side of my mouth. It didn't sting -- I didn't see it coming, and I'm sure it didn't see me coming either. I don't think it had time to react, but I almost certainly killed it, since I was going about 20 kph. I immediately spat it out and kept riding.
Astute readers will ask, if you didn't see it coming, and it didn't sting you, how did you know it was a bee?
I was cruising the stacks down at Computer Literacy one Saturday when a thick book caught my eye. It was the Wireless Spectrum Finder by Bennett Z. Kobb, an expert on wireless technology who in 500 pages has sought to
document "telecommunications, government, and scientific radio frequency allocations" in the United States.
Kobb starts at the low end of what is still called VHF, for very high frequency, and takes us out to the upper edge of the radio frequencies allocated by the Federal Communications Commission.
You don't have to be an RF geek or a telecom lawyer to appreciate this book, though it wouldn't hurt. All you need is an interest in cool radio technology (and the opportunities it presents) and $50 to invest.
The book reminds me of an excellent one I read a few years ago, The Race for Bandwidth by the late Cary Lu. Like it, Kobb's book seems to go beyond its techie subject and dreary title to delve into things more universal and interesting. Perhaps I'll track it down someday.
Many of us, people and companies alike, expect too much, promise too much, and can't deliver when the crunch comes. Tech columnist Dan Gillmor of the San Jose Mercury News theorizes that over-promising and under-delivering require most people to create a "Plan B" for almost everything they do -- more so than in the past.
How much time, effort, and money do we all waste on Plan Bs? Does any of it get factored into economic analyses? Not much, I suspect.
Then again, things were simpler but starker for our ancestors:
Plan A: Eat food from your fields.
Plan B: If there is a drought or weather disaster, starve.
Netscape 6.1. Most people think Netscape effectively died years ago when America Online engulfed it. But the latest version of the Netscape browser is actually shockingly good. Worth a look, especially because of the cool theme "skins" you can download for it.
The IBM 8MB USB Memory Key. It is 8 megabytes of solid-state storage on a keychain -- so I bought one. It works as advertised on Macs and Windows, and acts like a removable disk -- like a small Zip, basically. The business end is translucent and has some light emitting diodes inside. One throbs when the unit is plugged in to let you know it's connected, and when you transfer data, two LEDs flash alternately. It's good enough for transferring mid-size files, and much more rugged and portable than either a floppy or a Zip disk. I chuck it with my keys in my fanny pack when I cycle to work. My wife, my co-workers, and even my parents think it's pretty cool.
In most of the United States, 21 is the legal drinking age (though you can join the military long before that -- interesting). In most of Canada, it's 19. Right in between this year, at age 20, is the IBM PC, or more accurately, 2001 is the twentieth anniversary of the introduction of the IBM 5150, progenitor of almost every popular personal computer today except those made by Apple.
So, if you're like me, and right now you're sitting in front of a computer monitor, with a keyboard in front of you and a computer CPU housing on the floor or desk nearby, you have IBM to thank. (Or to blame.) The mouse is Apple's doing, however.
A little over a month ago, I wrote here about the Aeron chairs that my current client provides for all its employees (including contractors like me).
Salon magazine now reveals that a good chunk of the billions of dollars blown by venture capitalists and small investors alike in the dot-com boom and bust went into buying those Aeron chairs. One interviewee even calls them "butt pedestals," and says that "any place with more than 10 of these things automatically went into the 'stupid' stack."
I don't agree -- there are dumber things to spend money on than furniture that keeps people comfortable -- but dozens of thousand-dollar chairs for companies that had no idea how they would ever make money does seem, at the very least, silly. I can't imagine buying one for myself.
Then again, in the antique and handicrafts tourist town of La Conner, Washington, I twice went to look at a store called The Wood Merchant, which sells a stupendously adjustable, marvelously comfortable high-backed office chair made entirely by hand from sculpted pieces of solid rare hardwood. I coveted it.
Its cost? More than $5000 U.S., or $7500 Canadian. Enough to get me seven Aeron chairs and five Office Depot cheapies to spare. Now that's excessive.
Like many people who work from home, I find myself most productive late at night, when distractions -- or even my mind's estimate of the potential for distractions -- are fewest. Now, research backs up that impression.
According to psychologists at the University of Michigan:
Not being able to concentrate for, say, tens of minutes at a time, may mean it's costing a company as much as 20 to 40 percent in terms of potential efficiency lost, or the "time cost" of switching [between tasks].
So the trend for multitasking workers is probably hurting productivity, from one-person businesses like mine to the largest corporations.
Thursday, August 02, 2001 - newest items first # 4:57:00 PM:
In honour of this online journal's nine-month (or thereabouts) anniversary, I've added a new Search feature. It's over there on the right side of the page, near the top. You can also search on the Archives page.
It hasn't indexed everything on the site yet -- I have to tweak it a bit. But there you go. Search away!
(P.S. The site itself started in March 1997, and it's been at penmachine.com since March of 2000.)