Thursday, April 27, 2006

A Total Miracle

The Notes vs. Outlook meme comes and goes. Because I put in my two cents last January, I occasionally still get comments on the topic. I don't want to restart that conversation -- really I don't -- but I do want to highlight a comment I recently got from one Daron Lawing. Daron's comment is much broader than Notes vs. Outlook. It's a profound appreciation of the "pure thought-stuff" we call software:
I'm a Notes end user ... I get my email through Notes and I send email through Notes. What's the big deal? Outlook looks like [it] does the same thing. For me the fact that I hit this button, the machine in front of me comes to life, and images appear on the screen then I type on this keyboard and my brother in North Carolina can get a message from me in a matter of minutes is frankly a total miracle. [You] geeks need to lighten up and be in awe and wonder about both Outlook and Notes ;)

Thanks for the reminder, Daron.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Spell Checker Irony

The Blogger spell checker, when I remember to use it, saves me from posting entries chock full of misspelled words. It's great, but it has trouble with a few common words. "Blog" is one. It also has trouble with "Blogger" and "Google". Ha!

Advice for New Photographers

In 10 Tips for the New Digital SLR Photographer, Thomas Hawk gives some great advice to budding photographers. Although some of the tips apply only to single lens reflex (SLR) cameras, many of them make sense if you have a point-and-shoot camera like mine.

For example, "Join Flickr" (#5) and "Take lots and lots and lots of photos" (#9) are good tips for anyone. Even "ISO, ISO, ISO" (tip #1) applies if you have a point-and-shoot camera with an advanced mode.

If you want to get more serious about photography, the message is simple: Take more pictures, learn all about your equipment, and as often as possible, try something new like shooting in low light. By the way, Thomas Hawk is a master of capturing great pictures at night. Take a look at his "night" tagged photos for some samples.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Dual Ladder Delusion

There are two kinds of engineers -- those who prefer a career in management and those who prefer to climb the technical ladder. At least that's the conventional wisdom in many large companies. As the authors of a 1986 study concluded, it's really a cruel joke.

The study is called The Dual Ladder: Motivational Solution or Managerial Delusion?. It was authored by Thomas J. Allen and Ralph Katz, both associated with MIT's Sloan School of Management, and was originally published in R&D Management. I wish I could link to an electronic copy on the web, but I can't. A Google search results in many citations, but no copy of the article. *

The authors begin their article with a frank assessment of the dual ladder's effectiveness:
The problems underlying the dual ladder concept are several ... [One problem is] organizations tend, over time, to diverge from the initial design and intent of the system. For the first few years, the criteria for promotion to the technical ladder may well be followed rigorously, but they gradually become corrupted. The technical ladder often becomes a reward for organizational loyalty rather than technical contribution.

If the dual ladder is often implemented poorly, there must be a reason companies keep the system. Perhaps, if nothing else, it is an effective way to motivate technical talent. To test this theory, Allen and Katz surveyed managers and engineers in "nine major U.S. organizations". They asked:
To what extent would you like your career to be:
  1. a progression up the technical professional ladder to a higher-level position?
  2. a progression up the managerial ladder to a higher level position?
  3. the opportunity to engage in those challenging and exciting research activities and projects with which you are most interested, irrespective of promotion?
The 2157 managers and engineers surveyed were asked to rate each of the above choices on a scale of 1 to 7. The results were 32.6% preferred "b", the management ladder, 21.6% preferred "a", the technical ladder, and 45.8% preferred "c" the opportunity to engage in challenging projects. In other words, twice as many engineers were motivated by challenging projects than by promotion up the technical ladder. Furthermore, this tendency toward a preference for challenging projects, irrespective of promotion, increased with age.

Although Allen and Katz did not study the software industry specifically, their conclusions are consistent with those of many seasoned software developers. That is: There is an inherent reward in doing interesting work. Even when there is a technical ladder available, many developers find more satisfaction in working on challenging projects than in climbing the ladder. The technical ladder is often the predominant rewards system for developers, but as you climb the ladder, you usually design and write less software. Therefore the dual ladder system is aligned neither with most developers' goals nor with the ultimate goal of the company -- to produce and make money on software.

What do you think? Is the dual ladder a good system that is just imperfectly implemented? Is it, like democracy, the worst system "except for all those others that have been tried"? Or is there a much better system out there?

* Update: Here's a copy of the article from MIT's on-line library. This version was published in 1985.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Camera Review: Canon PowerShot S2 IS

I recently bought a new digital camera. It's only the second digital camera I've owned. Although I am far from an expert on cameras, I want to record my first impressions. If you are searching for a camera, this might help, but to learn all about the Canon PowerShot S2 IS, please check out this review or one of the other excellent reviews on the web.

Rita JeptooThere are several things I love about the PowerShot S2 IS. The first three are Zoom, Zoom, Zoom. The S2 IS is a long zoom camera with a built-in 12x optical zoom lens. If you have been struggling to get close-up shots with a 3x zoom camera, you'll love this feature. For example, I took this picture of Rita Jeptoo, winner of the 2006 Boston Marathon, from 40-50 feet away. With my old 3x zoom camera, I'd have to be 10 feet away to get the same shot. Of course at 10 feet, I wouldn't have been able to take the picture at all. I would have been whisked away by the BAA security volunteers.

The IS in the camera's name stands for Image Stabilization. That is my next favorite feature. Even if you have steady hands, at 12x zoom, you will find it difficult to keep most cameras steady enough to get a good shot. Image stabilization compensates for shaky hands. You will still need a tripod for long exposures (for example, in low light), but image stabilization works great for well lit scenes.

This may sound funny, but another great feature of the S2 IS is the batteries. It runs on four standard AA batteries. I bought some rechargeable NiMH batteries for everyday use, but I keep four ordinary alkaline batteries close by just in case. I guess it is common for Cannon cameras to run on AA batteries, but the elegant simplicity of this idea is new to me. My old Sony camera runs on an expensive rechargeable cell. I could never justify the expense of buying a backup battery. More than once, I was snapping pictures when the battery lost its charge. This won't happen with the S2 IS.

Although I am convinced the S2 IS was a wise choice, is has two notable drawbacks. First, the LCD screen is small compared with some other cameras in its class. As an example, the Sony DSC-H1 has a much bigger screen. I don't like to admit it, but at my age, I sometimes have to strain to read the S2 IS display. As I get more familiar with the features, this problem may become less severe.

All TogetherThe other big drawback is the lack of a pre-set high-speed shutter mode. I take lots of pictures at road races. With my old Sony camera, I could easily select high-speed shutter mode for stop-action photos of runners in action. With the S2 IS, I have to tinker with Tv (shutter-speed priority) or Av (aperture priority) modes to get the same effect. I suppose this could be a blessing in disguise. With fewer pre-set modes, Canon is forcing me to learn about the more advanced features of the S2 IS. It never hurts to learn something new.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

110th Boston Marathon

Rita Jeptoo

Robert Cheruiyot set a new course record (2:07:14) at yesterday's Boston Marathon. He shaved one second off the 1994 mark set by fellow Kenyan, Cosmos Ndeti. Rita Jeptoo (above), also from Kenya, won the woman's race in 2:23:38.

For more photos, see my 2006 Boston Marathon set on Flickr.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Google Calendar

Blog union rules require me to mention the launch of Google Calendar. Since tech.memeorandum is buzzing about the launch, I'll take the easy way out. Go there for all the coverage.

Most of the early reviews are positive, and I like it too. Little touches like event reminder buttons make all the difference. For example, this button adds an important reminder to your Google calendar:

Monday, April 17 is Tax Day!

Very nice.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

San Francisco Earthquake

April 18 will be the 100th anniversary of the great San Francisco earthquake. The magnitude 7.8 earthquake devastated the city. The ensuing fire caused even more destruction.

Replace "earthquake" with "hurricane" and "fire" with "flood" and the story sounds a lot like New Orleans in 2005. Luckily New Orleans can learn from Frisco's mistakes. For example there is this word of caution in a U.S. News story about the quake:
As one civil engineer, John Debo Galloway, put it soon after the disaster: "The distant observer will ask why, with virgin ground before it, the city did not cut avenues, widen streets, and build nothing but incombustible buildings." For the business elite that ran the city after the disaster, such safety measures were not an option. "The city had suffered from the greatest fire in history," Galloway wrote. "What San Francisco needs is the cheapest building possible in which business can be done, to insure the community enough to eat. The other subjects can wait."

For more on the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire see: 

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Three Years is Enough

April 6, 1864 -- A solemn anniversary is upon us. On April 12, it will be three years since the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter to begin this tragic war. We did not start the conflict (though one could argue the Republican administration provoked it) and it is true most Northerners originally supported the war. However, let us mark this anniversary with an inventory of our progress, and let us hope the President will do the same.

GettysburgTo be sure, there have been some successes. Last July, General Meade repelled a strong Confederate force at Gettysburg. It has been nine months since Robert E. Lee last ventured north of the Potomac. The day after the victory at Gettysburg, General Grant accepted the surrender of Vicksburg and gained control of the Big Mississippi. Last November, Grant routed the Army of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Now Grant has been promoted to lead the entire Union Army. He is the sixth man to lead the army in these three long years. Without a doubt he is the most capable.

However, we must also consider the costs. The number of killed, wounded or missing at Fort Donelson, Tennessee was close to 20,000. The casualties at Shiloh, Tennessee were over 23,000; at Stones River, Tennessee -- over 24,000; at Second Bull Run -- more than 25,000; at Antietam -- 26,000; at Chancellorsville -- 30,000; and at Chickamauga -- over 34,000. At Gettysburg, more than 51,000 Americans were killed, wounded or missing. Those are just the figures for the costliest battles so far. To force the South to surrender, we must now chase Robert E. Lee into Virginia. General Grant's army will no doubt suffer tens of thousands of casualties at the hands of a desperate Confederate defense.

And what of the Deep South? With Grant in Virginia, "Crazy Bill" Sherman is now in charge of the western offensive. Sherman lost his nerve after Shiloh. Can he lead his troops to victory in the Deep South? Many Northerners are deeply troubled by Sherman's appointment.

Of course, the quality of our military leaders is only part of the problem. What really concerns most Northerners is our confusing war aims. Two years ago, the President said:
My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it...
But within a few months, Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation. We have no great love for the institution of slavery, but freeing the slaves has reduced the chances of restoring the Union. How much more tenacious will the Confederate Army be now that they are defending, not just their homes, but their way of life? One can only conclude the President lied about his war aims. For Abraham Lincoln, this war has been about slavery all along.

Polls show only 30% of the North now supports the war and President Lincoln's approval rating is at an all time low. It is time Lincoln faced the facts. He cannot possibly win re-election in November and we cannot restore the Union. Let's bring our troops home and let the South go.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Book Review: The March

The March, by E.L. Doctorow is the best Civil War novel I've read in ages. It follows General William Tecumseh Sherman's march from Atlanta to Savannah, through South Carolina, and on to Raleigh, North Carolina. Sherman himself makes many appearances in the book, but it is not a biography of the general. Doctorow gives equal time to dozens of other characters including a pair of Confederate deserters, a displaced Southern debutante, a brilliant Union field surgeon, and perhaps the central character, a precocious freed slave named Pearl.

At times the novel wavers between existential despair and existential absurdity. Favorite characters are killed or otherwise left by the way side as the rest march relentlessly on. Other main characters don't appear until the journey is two-thirds complete. At first, Doctorow's apparently haphazard plotting drove me crazy, but he seems to be making a point. This is war. Don't get too attached to anyone.

What's constant throughout is Doctorow's beautiful prose, masterful strokes in character development, and attention to historical detail. Abraham Lincoln even makes a brief appearance. In the hands of another writer, the scene might have been corny or unconvincing. Doctorow's glimpse of Lincoln is hauntingly believable.