Monthly Archives: October 2006

A very personal death

An old man, Mr. Goldstein, was living the last of his life in a nursing home. One day he appeared to be very sad and depressed.
Nurse Tracy asked if there was anything wrong.
“Yes, Nurse Tracy,” said Mr. Goldstein, “My penis died today, and I am very sad.”
Knowing her patients were forgetful and sometimes a little crazy, she replied, “Oh, I’m so sorry Mr. Goldstein, please accept my condolences.”
The following day, Mr.Goldstein was walking down the hall with his penis hanging out of his pajamas, when he met Nurse Tracy.
“Mr. Goldstein,” she said, “You shouldn’t be walking down the hall like this. Please put your penis back inside your pajamas.”
“But, Nurse Tracy,” replied Mr. Goldstein, “I told you yesterday that my penis died.”
“Yes, you did tell me that, but why is it hanging out of your pajamas?” asked Nurse Tracy.
“Well,” he replied, “Today’s the viewing.”

Getting something for nothing

There’s no such thing as a free lunch they say. Although I did go to a corporate evenings entertainment with my friend. We went along to drink beer in the sunshine, chat and eat canapés. And that’s exactly what we did for four hours, and yet at no point were we approached by any member of the host firm. We have never bought any product from that firm and if anything we feel less keen on doing so simply because if we continue not to we have a free lunch story which beats what most economists think is going on.

There is another example of “free lunch” economics going on, or rather “something for nothing” which sounds perhaps more palatable and certainly is a more flexible phrase. The comes from two charities, both connected.

The first is a charity called play pump. Their idea is breathtakingly simple. They install a water pump for people who need water in Africa. But they install a childrens playground on top of the water pump and they install this playground next to schools. The simple plan is that when the children are playing on the round about they are, unwittingly, pumping water for everyone. This simple idea is so powerful and fantastic. It really is something for nothing. Their website is here:

Also play pump have inspired another charity which is a little bit closer to home. It is a charity called One Water. It’s a very strange kind of charity in that they basically just market and sell a product, bottled water, but all of the profits from the sale of the water go to play pump. It’s a strange idea similar to the fair trade mark I suppose. But it does make sense. By buying water you are providing water for others. Their website is here: You can buy this water instead of other water and yet the water you’re buying is making a difference. Also something for nothing.

Here is a video about one of their projects, it’s about 10 minutes long, but probably worth watching.

Fancy That

Two guys are sitting at the bar one is dressed in a ninja outfit the other is wearing a bright yellow chicken outfit. Their masks are sitting on the bar next to them and they are both drinking water.
“I just didn’t expect it to be this hot”, says the ninja.
“God, you think you’re hot?”, asks the chicken. His face is bright pink. And huge drops of sweat are running down his hair line. One drops into his water but he doesn’t notice. He takes another sip and says, “this tastes salty”.
The chicken is looking around a bit while the ninja looks straight ahead. The chicken looks back, “so what? Are you a ninja or what”?
“Yeah that’s right”.
“so did you make your own costume”?
“Yeah but it’s only just a pair of old black pajamas”.
“Yeah but what about the mask”
“Yeah but I didn’t make that by myself. I just bought that”.
“Oh,” the chicken looked a bit upset.
“But there is one thing that you do have to deal with that you might not think of”
“Yeah, ” the chicken looked like he might be interested again.
“Yeah you’ve got to remember to deal with the… The… Well I’m not exactly sure what you call it. The hole at the front. For peeing through. You got to remember to tape it up.”
“But surely,” the chicken pointed out, “when you put your underwear on you’d be fine”.
“Yeah, well I thought that and then I thought that as my underwear has the same hole I might get into a pretty embarrassing situation.”
“Yeah that’s true,” said the chicken.

For the first time the Ninja looked over at the chicken and really took him in, and then he said, “so what are you supposed to be”.

Transcontinental express

A man and a woman, who have never met before, found themselves assigned to the same sleeping room on a transcontinental train.
Though initially embarrassed and uneasy over sharing a room, the two were both tired and fell asleep quickly, he in the upper bunk and she in the lower.
At 1:00 a.m., he leaned over and gently wakes the woman, saying, “Ma’am, I’m sorry to bother you, but would you be willing to reach into the closet to get me a second blanket? I’m awfully cold.”
“I have a better idea,” she replied sweetly. “Just for tonight, let’s pretend that we’re married.”
“Wow! That’s a great idea!!” he exclaimed.
“Good,” she replied. “Get your own blanket!” After a moment of silence, he farted.

Automagic Shock

The other day I was talking about Automagic Shock (Automagically), the sudden realisation that you have no idea how the device you are using actually works. The flip side of this is, in many ways, the situations where we miss the realisation of how making something slightly less complicated might make it better.

I have had much experience, and I’m sure many engineers and software developers are the same, that releasing something that kind of works is very dangerous. Because if you release something before it is ready then it can be the hardest thing in the world to convince people to upgrade to the new thing once you’ve fixed it. This is not the same if the new thing is just the same design but faster or cheaper, in those cases people will happily upgrade. This is specifically in the case where there is a barrier to them getting the new thing.

For example: Consider a toaster. It is very simple but it has problems. What if you want four slices cooking at the same time (then get a four slice toaster), what if you only want to cook two slices once you have a four slice toaster. Or if you have an uneven number of slices. You will no doubt have experienced that if you have only one slice of toast in a toaster then it doesn’t really work as well. Only one side of the toast seems to get cooked. Also we know that when we’re making toast to be buttered, the second slice of toast gets cold while we’re buttering the first slice. The bread is often a different size than the size of the toaster. The bread is often too thin or thick and it’s difficult to quantify before you’ve cooked some what the thickness means in terms of the number on the dial. What about the different needs of different toast eaters – some like lightly brown some burnt. And what about that second set of toast that comes after you’ve already done one set. The first set needs more time than any of the others because you’re heating up the element too.

I’m sure all of these problems and more have been solved in different toasters on the market (I know that there is even a toaster that delays the cooking time of the second slice of toast specifically so that it will finish toasting just after you’ve finished buttering the first one). But the problem is that people in general think that toast is kind of fine. It’s sorted really. And because people want a non-complicated life the maximum complexity that a toaster has is the dial on the front. And maybe the humble toaster doesn’t need to get fixed but if it doesn’t need to be fixed then why do people keep designing a new toaster?

I didn’t know how rubbish my video recorder was until I had a PVR. Once I could simply navigate the television programs and press record and series link I realised how easy the thing was, but before then I always looked down my nose slightly at people who couldn’t program the video recorder because to me it seemed like it was so easy that they weren’t even trying.

If it had been up to me the video recorder technology would have probably stayed the same forever. But now it’s been fixed I love it and realise what an idiot I was being. This problem was solved because real users kept complaining that it was too complicated for long enough. It’s very rare that we should require users to come to us, we should always go to them.

All of those people who are designing new toasters are doing it because as geeks they can see an inefficiency. Something that is broken as far as they are concerned. And it doesn’t matter to them if something gets more complicated, they just want it to work. The video recorder worked for geeks, they understood it, and there wasn’t a single program they couldn’t record. But to most real people the situation was the other way around. The toaster is fine, the video recorder is broken.

So what’s the next thing that’s broken I wonder?

The cowboy in starbucks

An old cowboy sat down at the Star bucks and ordered a cup of coffee.
As he sat sipping his coffee, a young woman sat down next to him.
She turned to the cowboy and asked, “Are you a real cowboy?”
He replied, “Well, I’ve spent my whole life breaking colts, working cows,
going to rodeos, fixing fences, pulling calves, bailing hay, doctoring
calves, cleaning my barn, fixing flats, working on tractors, and feeding
my dogs, so I guess I am a cowboy.”
She said, “I’m a lesbian. I spend my whole day thinking about women. As
soon as I get up in the morning, I think about women. When I shower, I
think about women. When I watch TV, I think about women. I even think
about women when I eat. It seems that everything makes me think of
The two sat sipping in silence.
A little while later, a man sat down on the other side of the old cowboy
and asked, “Are you a real cowboy?! ”
He replied, “I always thought I was, but I just found out that I’m a

Hullo, Operator?

Lots of people think that the reason that it is generally women who make telephone announcements is because they have better and clearer voices. And that their voices are more reassuring. And they do, studies have proven this to be the case after the fact. However that’s not the reason that women were selected. In fact the reason was far less scientific than that.

Originally the people who were telephone operators were all boys who had previously been employed as telegraph operators. They were ideal for the telegraph service which involved a lot of learning of systematic techniques and running about delivering telegrams (mainly the second thing was the thing they were good at it turns out).

But when they started converting them to work on the telephone system it was soon obvious that they were not very good at working in the new conditions. In the telephone system they had to speak to the punters and ask them what they wanted them to do (rather than simply saying, while out of breath, “telegram for you sir”). And then they would have to connect the right wire into the right socket in an incredibly complicated series of wires. And in amongst all of the wires and the enclosed operating spaces not only were practical jokes a problem for the customers more often the bored boys would break out into fights. And so it was realised that girls were the exact thing for this new service and that perhaps they would be able to understand technology after all. Women have never looked back, whereas boys well they’re still fighting over the latest gadgets.

Walking through the woods

Walking through the woods and we see no path. No sense of direction. We’re lost and we both know it. We kind of have an idea of which way we thought we were going – in general. But it’s difficult now to exactly remember. The things in the way: logs, shrubs and odd abandoned fences seem to have made us turn around just to walk in a straight line.

I’m confident one moment and disheartened the next. We suddenly realise that the way we’re going is starting to be pretty steeply downhill. And we start asking each other if we’re sure we’re going the right way. And of course we’re not. We stop for a second and look back. Everything behind us looks familiar and we agree that we’ve already tried all of those directions so at least this might be something. We walk down and suddenly we see a path rather than the endless miles of bracken. A real worn path where people have been. It only seems to go in one direction and I start to say how odd it is that something could be so warn by so many people for so long as to make this path but that they all just stopped walking here when I realise how odd it sounds. I leave some of the words stuck in my mouth and just let that shiver of a thought run down my back.

We get to the path and turn right onto it. And now we’re walking, we feel like there might be something ahead. A way out, a way through. We are now both sure thought that this isn’t the way. It’s at an angle to the way that we want to go. But it’s sort of in the right direction. It’s sort of worth while. But the main thing at this point is that we both just want to get out of the woods before it starts getting dark. There are already shadows in the thicker bits of the wood and there are noises which would have sounded sweet and interesting earlier which now sound a little bit too echoey in the dimming light.

We keep walking and to our relief the woods around us seem to be getting more ordered. As though there is something designed about them. That man has influenced what is going on here. Perhaps we have reached civilisation at last. As we turn a corner on the path we are suddenly presented with a set of massive redwoods lining the path. They tower above us and as we keep walking we suddenly realise that there are no noises any more. The woods have gone very quiet. In between the trees we can see one patch of sky ahead of us, and as I look up at it I see across it a strike of forked lightning and it starts to pour with rain.

A man walks into a bar with a dog

And the bartender shouts at him, “you can not bring that dog in here”.
The man says back, “hey this is my guide dog”.

And the bartender apologises profusely and even buys him a drink on the house.

A little while later another guy comes in with a Chihuahua, but before the guy gets to the bar the first guy spots him and says, “hey buddy the bartender won’t let you bring that dog in here unless you say it’s a guide dog”.

Sure enough when the new guy gets to the bar, the bartender says “you can not bring that dog in here”.
The man says, “but this is my guide dog”.
But the bartender is not having any of it, “They do not have Chihuahuas as guide dogs”.
But the guy, quick as a flash answers back, “What? They gave me a Chihuahua!”


How do things that we think of as magic become technology? When does the mysticism of the old become the reliability of the new. And if I don’t know how a mobile telephone actually works… don’t I believe in magic too? Arthur C. Clarke once said: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.

I really like technology, gadgets and the like. I don’t always have the newest and latest thing, but I do like to get the word out when I find something that is actually really good. And as part of my fascination in this area I tend to know quite a lot about how the thing actually works. Not necessarily the nuts and bolts, but at a conceptual level I have an idea of how a thing works.

But like most people I don’t say things like “well I can’t have this in my house unless I know how it works”. I don’t have to have a working knowledge of something before I will be willing to let it in the house. Some things I know a lot about, some not much.

For example I could explain to you at length how a Microwave oven works, but I don’t really know much about how a mobile phone works other than it uses microwaves to send a signal somewhere. Realisation about things like this come to you from time to time. The other month I was a passenger in a car in England talking to a person on a mobile phone who was in America and who was able to tell better than I was what the traffic situation was a mile up the road because they were looking on the internet for that information and relaying it to me over the phone. The oddness of this situation occurred to me instantly. And I realised that I didn’t really understand how all of the things connecting me to this information actually work. I had a bout of what I refer to as “Automagic Shock”. A moment of realisation that what I’m doing could just as well be magic, and yet every single bit of it is explainable, somebody does know how all of the separate bits of this thing work, I just have faith that they do.

I wonder if the situation is exacerbated by me knowing some of how it works? In that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I wonder if people that I know who claim to hate technology ever get such a feeling?

The other day I got a call from a friend who said, “I’m really sorry but I just had to ask for your help with my computer – I just really hate technology”. Obviously it didn’t occur to them that they were using technology to make the telephone call. That they used sophisticated technology in their car, mobile phone, washing machine and so on every day without any problems at all. Because these technologies have achieved that great feat of stopping from being a nebulous bit of technology and have succeeded in becoming a thing in their own right. Computers are slowly but surely trying to move that way, but the problem for a computer is that it is specifically designed to not be proscriptive. The proscriptive “word processors” and “adding machines” were not versatile enough, but while computers have taken the trade-off to become more versatile what they are effectively doing is allowing the computer to surprise us. But the fact that the computer can surprise is both good and bad, it means that somebody can show us a new program like “Google Earth” which makes you really go “Wow” my old computer can do that! But it also means that your computer can surprise you by saying to you “Stack Error Memory Dump”.

I think that’s the difference between technology and devices. Even though my new phone doesn’t just make telephone calls it cannot surprise me because on the very first day I got it I knew all of the things it could do: take calls, photos, send e-mail, browse the internet. I might not have used all of those features on day one, but I’m not going to suddenly get a surprise in a while by discovering that the thing can make toast.

And I think that’s the difference, we’re more likely to get automagic shock from a device then a bit of technology because it slips in under the radar without us asking how it actually works.