• The Old New Thing

    Nice job, you got an A minus from Bill


    Bill Gates does not praise lightly.

    Some time ago, a colleague of mine helped to prepared a keynote address for Bill Gates. Afterward, he was informed that Bill rated the presentation an "A minus".

    My colleague thought, "Wow, an A minus. It would be great to get some feedback from Bill about where I could have done better."

    Bill's assistant explained, "Don't worry. That's the highest grade he gives."

  • The Old New Thing

    The 2015/2016 Seattle Symphony subscription season at a glance


    For many years, I've put together a little pocket guide to the Seattle Symphony subscription season for my symphony friends to help them decide which ticket package they want. For the past several years now, we haven't ordered any tickets at all because we all have young children, but I still make this guide out of some sense of obligation.

    So here's the at-a-glance season guide for the 2015/2016 season anyway, again with no comments from me because nobody I know is going to use them to decide which tickets to order. Besides, you can probably preview nearly all of the pieces nowadays (minus the premieres) by searching on YouTube.

    Here is the official brochure for those who want to read the details, and you can see what The Seattle Times thinks of it.

    Week Program 21 13 7A
    7G 4A SU
    Mendelssohn: String Quartet #6
    Beethoven: Symphony #4
    Mahler: Symphony #1



    R. Strauss: Don Quixote
    Brahms: Symphony #3
    Dvořák: A Hero's Song
    Britten: Violin Concerto
    R. Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra
    Stravinsky: Symphony in C
    Beethoven: Piano Concerto #1
    Mozart: Symphony #41, "Jupiter"
    Giya Kancheli: World Premiere
    Brahms: Violin Concerto
    Martinů: Symphony #4
    R. Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks
    Bruch: Violin Concerto #1
    Nielsen: Symphony #4, "The Inextinguishable"
    11/19 Mahler: Symphony #10 (Cooke)                
    Debussy: Danses sacrée et profane
    Messiaen: Poèmes pour Mi
    Fauré: Requiem
    Rimsky-Korsakov: Overture to The Tsar's Bride
    Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto #2
    Tchaikovsky: Suite #3 in G
    Mozart: Selections from Idomeneo Ballet Music
    Mozart: Violin Concerto #3
    Haydn: Symphony #104, "London"
    R. Strauss: Don Juan
    Beethoven: Piano Concerto #3
    Berio: Sinfonia (for 8 voices and orchestra)
    Ives: Three Places in New England
    Bartók: Piano Concerto #3
    Beethoven: Symphony #3, "Eroica"
    Haydn: Symphony #88
    Mozart: Piano Concerto #23
    Schoenberg: Transfigured Night
    John Adams: Scheherezade.2, Violin Concerto
    Elgar: Pomp and Circumstance March #3
    Respighi: Pines of Rome

    Glinka: Summer Night in Madrid
    Glazunov: Violin Concerto
    Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherezade
    Mussorgsky: Introduction to Khovanshchina
    Prokofiev: Violin Concerto #2
    Brahms: Symphony #4
    Glinka: Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla
    Dvořák: Cello Concerto
    Silvestrov: Symphony #5

    Mendelssohn: Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream
    Britten: Nocturne
    Szymanowski: Symphony #3
    Tchaikovsky: Romeo & Juliet Fantasy Overture
    Dutilleux: Timbres, espace, mouvement
    Beethoven: Piano Concerto #4
    Ewald: Symphony for Brass Quintet #3
    Prokofiev: Symphony #7




    Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms
    Shostakovich: Symphony #4
    Fauré: Masques et bergamasques
    Ravel: Piano Concerto in G
    Dvořák: Symphone #9, "New World"
    Anna Clyne: U.S. Premiere
    Gershwin: Concerto in F
    Beethoven: Symphony #7
    Week Program 21 13 7A
    7G 4A SU

    Insider tip: Click a column header to focus on a specific series. (This feature has been around for several years, actually.)


    21Masterworks 21-concert series (Choice of Thursdays or Saturdays)
    13Masterworks 13-concert series (Choice of Thursdays or Saturdays)
    7AMasterworks 7-concert series A (Thursdays)
    7BMasterworks 7-concert series B (Saturdays)
    7CMasterworks 7-concert series C (Thursdays)
    7DMasterworks 7-concert series D (Saturdays)
    7EMasterworks 7-concert series E (Thursdays)
    7FMasterworks 7-concert series F (Saturdays)
    7GMasterworks 7-concert series G (Sunday afternoons)
    4AMasterworks 4-concert series A (Friday afternoons)
    SUSymphony Untuxed (Fridays, reduced program)

    For those not familiar with the Seattle Symphony ticket package line-ups: Most of the ticket packages are named Masterworks nX where n is the number is the number of concerts in the package, and the letter indicates the variation. Ticket packages have been combined if they are identical save for the day of the week. For example, 7C and 7D are the same concerts; the only difference is that 7C is for Thursday nights, while 7D is for Saturday nights.

    This chart doesn't include concert series such as the Distinguished Artists series which share no concerts with any of the Masterworks concerts.

    Notes and changes:

    • The 7[AB], 7[CD], and 7[EF] concert series do not overlap, so you can create your own 14-concert series by taking any two of them, or recreate the 21-concert series by taking all three.
    • The 13-concert series is the same as the 7[CD] and 7[EF] series combined, minus the June 9 concert.
    • The non-Masterworks series line-up continues to be tweaked: Gone are the Mozart series and the The Sunday Untuxed short concerts for families. Two children's series were renamed but otherwise unchanged: Discover Music became Family Concerts, and Soundbridge Presents became Symphony Kids.
    • The long-time Wolfgang club, which targeted adults under age 40, and its accompanying series appear to be gone.
    • A Shakespeare-themed concert in April commemorates the 400th anniversary of his death.

    This is the first season of a two-season cycle of Beethoven symphonies and piano concerti. Although there are no ticket packages specifically for the Beethoven concerts, tickets are available individually so you can make your own festival.

  • The Old New Thing

    Staying cool is one of the skills of a corporate president


    Some time ago, there was a mechanical problem with the heating/cooling system in our part of the building, and one of the senior managers in our group took the opportunity to tell a story of a one-on-one skip-level meeting he had with Steve Sinofsky.

    I'm sitting there in my office with Steve, and there was something wrong with the HVAC, because as the meeting progresses, it gets warmer and warmer, and eventually I'm sitting there sweating profusely, not exactly making the best impression on our group president. Steve, on the other hand, appears to be completely unaffected. It's sweltering in my office, but he's cool as a cucumber.

    It can't be more than five minutes after the meeting is over before a team of technicians swarms into my office to figure out why the heating system has gone berzerk.

    Steve must've whipped out his phone as soon as he left, called the Facilities desk, and said "Dude, there's something seriously wrong with the heating system over in room 1234. It's like an oven in there. You need to check it out." And since the request came from a corporate president, it got dispatched with high priority.

  • The Old New Thing

    Another way to make sure nobody sends you feedback


    I wanted to report an issue about a problem with our building, let's say that the widget frobnicators were not working. I went to the internal Widget Frobnicators Web site, and it was very pretty, with an FAQ about the current supplier of widget frobnicators, where to look up more information about how the widget frobnicators work, how you can buy your own widget frobnicator for home use, and even how you can become a Widget Frobnicator Ambassador for your building. Widget Frobnicator Ambassadors receive additional information about widget frobnicators and get to participate in the widget frobnicator selection process, among other things.

    I didn't find a link on the Widget Frobnicator Web site that let me search for a Widget Frobnicator Ambassador in my building, or even a list of all Widget Frobnicator Ambassadors. However, I did find a link called Contact Us. Awesome. It is a mailto link addressed to the Widget Frobnicator Ambassadors distribution list.

    I composed a message explaining the problem I was observing and hit Send.

    The message was returned as undeliverable.

    "You do not have permission to send messages to this distribution list."

    Nice going, Widget Frobnicator team. Apparently you don't want to be contacted at all. Maybe it's a front for money laundering.

    (I was able to report the problem by other means, and it was resolved later that day, so everything worked out okay in the end, but as far as I can tell, the Widget Frobnicators Web site still provides no way for you to contact them.)

  • The Old New Thing

    Got errands? Now is the time


    This upcoming Sunday is the Super Bowl, the championship game for a sport played only in the United States.¹

    The entire country stops doing anything when the game is on. This makes it a perfect time to get out and run your errands, because the streets will be completely empty.

    Check out this traffic map at the kickoff of the 2014 Super Bowl. For fun, you can go backward in time in 10-minute increments and watch the traffic slowly die out as the start of the game approaches.

    If you're a photographer, it's a good time to go take pictures of public places, because they will all be deserted.

    It's also a good time to go to Costco, though you should wait until the game has started. It takes time for all the people getting last-minute party supplies to drain out.

    ¹ Well, Canada has their own variant. They're so cute, those Canadians.

    Bonus chatter: The American Football League of China is a real thing.

  • The Old New Thing

    Microspeak: landing (redux)


    In a meeting, my colleague Martyn Lovell said, "The plan is shifting and hasn't landed anywhere yet."

    This was generally understood to mean "The plan is shifting and the issue is not yet settled."

    I don't know if this is true Microspeak, or Martyn was just making up a little metaphor on the fly. But I filed it away anyway because of the interesting collision with another Microspeak use of the word landing.

  • The Old New Thing

    It's not too late (okay maybe it's too late) to get this gift for the physicist who has everything


    A LEGO set to measure Planck's constant.

  • The Old New Thing

    When corporate policies meet precision scientific equipment


    One of my colleagues used to work as an IT consultant, and one of his clients was a tobacco company. Since they were a tobacco company, the company policy on smoking was "You can smoke anywhere, any time."

    "Anywhere" includes the labs. The labs with very expensive precision scientific equipment.

    My colleague told me that this policy meant that the company regularly replaced $50,000 pieces of equipment after only a few months, thanks to smoke damage. But the company couldn't change their smoking policy. Imagine the public relations disaster if a tobacco company had a no-smoking policy!

    Starting next year, cigarette maker Reynolds American will be a smoke-free workplace.

    Bonus chatter: One of the researchers showed my colleague one of those pieces of expensive scientific equipment. The way my colleague explained it, "On the graph was a spike. The spike is what makes the cigarette taste good. It also is what kills you. The trick was to tweak the product in order to move the spike far enough to the right that people prefer the product over the competition, but not so far that you end up killing your customer base." (Note that this was my colleague's interpretation of what the researcher said, not the researcher's actual words.)

  • The Old New Thing

    Distinguishing between normative and positive statements to help people answer your question


    Often, we get questions from a customer that use the word should in an ambiguous way:

    Our program creates a widget whose flux capacitor should have reverse polarity. Attached is a sample program that shows how we create the widget with Create­Widget. However, the resulting widget still has a flux capacitor with standard polarity. Can you help us?

    The phrase should have reverse polarity is ambiguous. The question could be

    We would like to create a widget whose flux capacitor has reverse polarity. Attached is a sample program that shows how to create a widget whose flux capacitor has standard polarity. How should we modify it in order to get reverse polarity?

    Or the question might be

    We would like to create a widget whose flux capacitor has reverse polarity. Attached is a sample program that attempts to do so, but the resulting widget has a flux capacitor with standard polarity. The polarity flag appears to be ignored. Are are we doing something wrong, or is this a bug in Windows?

    The first is a normative statement: "This is what we would like to happen." The second is a positive statement: "This is what is happening."

    The distinction is important because the two types of statements require very different types of responses. If have a program that does X, and you want to change it to do Y, then you're asking for help working through the Y feature, clarifying the documentation, informing you which flags you need to pass, and so on. But if you have a program that tries to do Y and fails, then you're asking for help debugging your code and possibly identifying a bug in the operating system.

    Being clear with your request means that you can avoid wasting a lot of time when the wrong set of people are called in to help you out.

    Here's another example of vague use of the word should:

    We're trying to do XYZ. We've been told that it is blocked for security reasons, but there should be a way to do this.

    In this case, it is not clear what the customer means by the phrase should be a way to do this. It could be

    We're trying to do XYZ. We've been told that it is blocked for security reasons, but we think that Windows should be changed to allow our scenario. How can we file a change request with the Windows security team to make an exception for us?

    Or the customer might be trying to say

    We're trying to do XYZ. We've been told that it is blocked for security reasons, but we think that there is a way to get the effect of XYZ without triggering the security issue. Can you help us find it?

    Note that in both cases, the customer either failed to asked a question or made some statements and asked for nonspecific advice, which is effectly the same as not asking a question. If they had remembered to ask a question, then that question would have clarified what they intended by the word should.

    Bonus chatter: A physicist classmate of mine got a chuckle out of the phrase flux capacitor because it combines two physics terms in an impressive-sounding but mostly nonsensical way.

    A capacitor is a device which stores electric potential. In the hydraulic analogy of electricity, a capacitor is a rubber diaphragm that separates two parts of a pipe, but which "stores" water flow by stretching and "discharges" the water flow by returning to its rest position.

    Flux is cross-sectional flow per unit time. Water flux is volumetric flow rate (liters per second per square meter): it measures how vigorously the water flows across a boundary. Magnetic flux measures the strength of a magnetic field.

    The combination is nonsensical because the units don't match. A capacitor stores potential, whereas flux is measured in current or magnetic field strength. But if you generalize the term capacitor to mean "a thing that stores stuff", then a flux capacitor is a device which stores a magnetic field.

    Such devices already exist today. They are called magnets.

  • The Old New Thing

    A little cheat in my Tiger Beat photo homage


    One thing nobody has called out in my tribute to the Bill Gates Tiger Beat photo, either because it was too subtle or too obvious, is that the photo is actually a mirror image.

    The arrangement of furniture in the room was not correct: The big table was on the wrong side of the room. It was also too heavy to move around, so we cheated. We staged the entire picture as a mirror image, flipping the Windows screen shot. And then back in the virtual darkroom, Ariel flipped the photo to put the furniture on the correct side of the photo.

    Here are the clues in the photo:

    • The SONY logo on the monitor.
    • The Multiscan G500 and Trinitron branding on the monitor.
    • The Microsoft logos on the binder on the table.
    • The arrows on the recycle bin propping open the door.

    Chatter: The day after I put this article into the queue (which makes it visible to Microsoft employees), somebody posted a comment pointing it out. Coincidence? You decide.

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