# August, 2006

### Larry Osterman's WebLog

Confessions of an Old Fogey
• #### So where DOES the mass of a tree come from?

Yesterday, I asked where the mass comes from in a tree.

The answer is actually really simple: Carbon.  Photosynthesis is the act of converting CO2 from the air into O2 and a bit of H2O.

It turns out that if you ask new Harvard graduates this question, the vast majority of them answer some variant of "It comes from the soil".  When people think of photosynthesis, they don't think about the carbon that's left behind.  They'll usually be puzzled as they answer, because in their hearts, they realize that "the soil" doesn't actually work as an answer, but they can't quite put all the pieces together.

If you ask 7th graders the same question right after they've finished their photosynthesis unit, they end up coming up with a variant of the same answer.  Or they say it comes from the water the plant absorbs. Soil and water have mass, and that seems to the determining factor in their answer.

You see, 7th graders don't seem to get the idea that air contains mass - it's just the stuff that's around them, it doesn't "weigh" anything.  Since they have always been exposed to the weight of air, it doesn't occur to them that it has any real properties at all.  If you show them a block of dry ice, and ask them what it is, they'll say "It's ice". If you ask them to weigh it, they get that part.  It's not until you follow that up and ask "So what's happening to the ice?" and they realize that the fog it's generating is disappearing into the air that they'll start figuring out what's happening - that the mass of the dry ice is being absorbed into the air.  The very smartest of the kids will then put the pieces together and realize that air DOES have mass.

Yesterday's "quiz" netted over 70 correct answers and about 15 incorrect answers, I've got to say that I'm pretty impressed. The reality is that since I only let the incorrect answers through, it biased the sample towards correctness (several people mentioned that they'd read the other comments and realized that their first thought was wrong).

Valorie had one more question: Could those of you who got the answer right, and who are under 30, and who were educated under the American education system post a comment below?

• #### A Tree Grows... How?

Valorie's currently attending a seminar about teaching science at the middle-school level.

Yesterday, her instructor asked the following question:

"I have in my hand a Douglass Fir tree seed that masses 1 gram [I'm making this number up, it's not important].  I plant it in my yard, water it regularly, and wait for 20 years.

At the end of that time, I have a 50 foot tree that masses 1,000 kilograms [again, I'm making this exact number up, it's not important].

My question is: Where did the 999,999 grams of mass come from?"

I'm going to put the answer out to the group.  Where DID the 999,999 grams of mass come from in the tree.

The answer surprises a lot of people.  And it brings to question how much we actually know about science.

I'm going to change my comment moderation policy for this one.  I'm NOT going to approve people whose comments have the right answer, until I post my follow-up post tomorrow, because once the right answer's been given, it's pretty clear.  But I'll be interested in knowing the percentage of comments that have the right answer vs. the wrong answer.

• #### Collectionz

For those of you that know us, you know that everyone in my family is an inveterate reader.  One of the more unfortunate consequences of this is that we have a TON of books.  The front office in our house, the bonus room over the garage, and Daniel's old bedroom are all given over to books, my guess is that we have two or three thousand of them.

For Fathers day this year, Valorie got me a Flic Barcode scanner and some software from Collectorz.  The Flic barcode scanner is a small handheld scanner with memory for about 500 UPC codes, combined with Collectorz movie, book and music collector, it has the ability to categorize all our collections.

Initially I sort-of ignored it, but last night at about 10:00, Valorie reminded me of it.  I installed the software and played around with it a bit.  And a bit more.  And still some more.

Darn, I had never thought that I'd spend two and a half hours (with Valorie) running around pulling books from the library trying to find ones that the program wouldn't find.  And I've got to say, it did a remarkable job.  Except for the hundred or so books that pre-date bar-codes (I still have the very first book I ever purchased (Checkpoint Lambda by Murray Leinster), it did a remarkable job.

Essentially the software reads the data off the barcode, then datamines off of a bunch of sites to build the database, including Amazon.com, B&N.com, Powells.com, the Library of Congress, imdb (for movies), etc.  It's actually pretty cool.

Again, this is just first impressions - one tricky bit is that the barcode on the back of the book often isn't the ISBN, which screws up the database lookup, but that's really not the fault of the software.

Anyway, it's a cool toy :)

• #### Breaking into Apple

Larry's in a curmudgeonly mood today, so...

Over the weekend, I noticed this post on Digg: "How I learned to break into Apple and Code for them without Permission".

It's an "interesting" story, and I have to say that I was aghast when I read it.  And my jaw dropped even further when I read the Digg comments about it (yeah, I know - self selecting trolls, just like on /., but...).

For some reason, the people reading the story actually thought it was COOL!

Now think about it.  These people were so dedicated to their product that they were willing to BREAK THE LAW to get it into Apple's OS.

That's cool (sort-of, if you're willing to condone breaking the law).

But what does it say about Apple's internal controls when the QA process on the final disks has things like:

Once again, my sanity was saved by the kindness of a stranger. At 2:00 one morning, a visitor appeared in my office: the engineer responsible for making the PowerPC system disk master. <snip> He told me that if I gave him our software the day before the production run began, it could appear on the Golden Master disk. Then, before anyone realized it was there, thirty thousand units with our software on the disks would be boxed in a warehouse. (In retrospect, he may have been joking. But we didn't know that, so it allowed us to move forward with confidence.)

Wow.  So the contents of the software on the FINAL MASTERS for the operating system can change on the whim of a single release manager?  Doesn't anyone ever check this stuff?

In addition, what was the state of Apple's physical security?  Admittedly this was 1994, and things were somewhat looser, but still...  I'm sorry, but if you've got random ex-employees running around the halls spending HOURS with access to your CORPORATE NETWORK, what does that say about the level of security in your physical plant?  Apple got hugely lucky that these guys weren't bent on corporate espionage.

Don't get me wrong, I'm sure that Graphing Calculator is a SERIOUSLY cool app, and it's clear that at some point there was a formal decision made to include it into the product, and it got the attention it deserved (as mentioned in the article, Apple eventually decided to include it in the product).

Think of what would have happened if Apple hadn't: Once the decision was made to include it in the product, they got test resources, they got localization resources, they got usability testing, etc.  None of this would have happened if they had continued as a "skunkworks" project, and they'd have shipped a product that had serious flaws.

And this is a model we're supposed to admire?

• #### Seen on the TV in "Larry's Lounge"

Just outside my office is a little "lounge" area - it's a sitting area with a couch and a couple of comfy chairs that's used for meetings.  It's sort-of become known as "Larry's Lounge" or "The Larry Lounge".

In the "Larry Lounge", there's a 42" flat screen TV connected to a media center box (and a newly added xbox 360).  Yes, there ARE perks to working in multimedia.

Both Daniel and Sharron have had fun with the TV when they're in the office - when the lounge isn't being used as an office, they watch videos on the TV (and the DVD team has a huge video library).

Anyway we were futzing with the TV yesterday and Steve Ball noticed that the volume control on the TV goes from 0 to 63.

We both saw that and laughed.  Our best guess is that some engineer specified that the volume control should go from 0..99 but wrote it as 0x00..0x63.

And the UX person handling the request didn't figure out what the 0x thingy meant and left it off :)

• #### Replacing operations with developers

I'm swamped right now (the perils of live-blogging), but instead of finishing up the half written post I have at the top of the queue, I wanted to point to two posts from Dare Obasanjo entitled "Replacing Operations with Developers"  and "Amazon Developer on Replacing Operations with Developers".

I'm not at all surprised at the Amazon article - the reality is that the skill set for a developer and the skill set for an operations team member are subtly different and it's not surprising that developers make lousy operations people.

• #### OMFG we've got a zamboni!

I've been on vacation until a couple of days ago (that's why no posts), and I'm still swamped with Vista RC1 issues.

I'm working late (I did say I was swamped) and they're cleaning the carpets in my building.  The guy cleaning the carpets just went past my office...

... on a ZAMBONI.  Yeah, that's what it looked like.

I actually ran after it (I'm SUCH a geek) to find out what it's called - it's an "Advance AquaRide"

Who would have figured they'd make riding carpet-cleaners.

Man, I NEVER expected to see a zamboni here at work.