Non-Computer

  • 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

    • 7 Comments

    A LEGO set to measure Planck's constant.

  • The Old New Thing

    When corporate policies meet precision scientific equipment

    • 14 Comments

    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

    • 28 Comments

    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

    • 9 Comments

    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.

  • The Old New Thing

    Raymond, why did you stop studying Chinese? It has no grammar!

    • 68 Comments

    One of my colleagues, a native Chinese speaker, asked me whether I was still learning Mandarin Chinese. I told him that I had given up. He was baffled by this.

    "But Chinese is such a simple language. It has no grammar!"

    Now of course, Mandarin has a grammar, because every language has a grammar.

    This is one of the curses of being a native speaker of a language: You don't even realize how hard your language is. As far as you're concerned, your native language is as easy as falling off a log.¹

    Now, it's true that Mandarin has almost no inflections, unlike most European languages. But that's not the same as saying it has no grammar. It's just that the grammar moves from being internal (inflection) to external (helping words and word order).

    Sidebar: David from Popehat lays out some of the simplifications, but I think he oversimplifies the use of the completion marker 了. It's not strictly speaking a past-tense marker, at least not in the sense we consider it in English. Proper use of 了 is more complicated, and this page tries to explain some of the subtleties. David later tries to explain Mandarin phonology. I must admit that I have an advantage in already having a tonal language wired into my brain, so I don't have the hurdle of learning to hear and speak tones. I just have to learn to hear and speak different tones. Which is still frustrating. End sidebar

    One of the consequences of "your own native language is simple" is that native speakers are sometimes the worst choices for explaining their own language, since they simply fail to recognize how weird their language is. An example I gave some time ago was that elusive third tone. If you ask a native speaker how it is pronounced, they will say one thing ("dipping tone"), but then when they themselves speak the third tone they do something completely different ("low level tone"). Native speakers are so convinced that the third tone dips that when you call them on it, they insist that the tone dipped, when in fact it barely moved at all.

    That conversation with my father went something like this.

    Me: "In that sentence, you said ⟨low level tone⟩."

    My father: "No, I didn't. I said ⟨dipping tone⟩."

    Me: "Well, sure, that time you said ⟨dipping tone⟩. But in the original sentence, you said ⟨low level tone⟩."

    My father: "No, I didn't. Listen again. ⟨repeats sentence and uses low level tone⟩."

    Me: "There, see? You used ⟨low level tone⟩."

    My father: "No, I didn't. Here, you repeat back to me what you think I said."

    Me: "⟨says sentence with low level tone⟩."

    My father: "There, you got it!"

    Me: "But I used the wrong tone! I should have said, ⟨says sentence with dipping tone⟩."

    My father: "No, that's wrong. You exaggerated the tone too much."

    That last remark from my father was what made it click for me: The low level tone and the dipping tone are complementary allophones. (My father, of course, has no idea what a complementary allophone is, but that's okay.)

    Another example of native speakers not seeing the complexity in their own language is the use of the negative adverb 没. Mandarin has two main adverbs that mean "not": 不 and 没. If you ask a native speaker, they will tell you, "It's very simple. 不 is the general-purpose negation, and 没 is used only to negate the verb to have. In other words, 没 is always followed by 有." But then you will see that native speakers use 没 to negate all sorts of things that aren't 有. If you point this out, they will retcon it by saying that the phrase 没關係 ("no connection", which is an idiom that means "it doesn't matter, don't worry about it") is really a shorthand for 没有關係 ("doesn't have a connection"). Native speakers play this card whenever an out-of-place 没 shows up. "Oh, it's negating an invisible 有." If you ask them how to tell when there is an invisible 有 in a sentence, they will say "You just have to know," or sometimes the circular "Stick a 没 in front and see if it makes sense."

    Sidebar: Here's a page that tries to explain the difference between 不 and 没. The way I internalize it based on limited observation is to say that 不 is not tied to a moment in time (innate or habitual property), whereas 没 refers to a particular incident (momentary property).

    不濕
    doesn't get wet
    (it's water-resistant)
    没濕
    isn't wet
    (he has an umbrella)
    不飲牛奶
    doesn't drink milk
    (he's lactose intolerant)
    没飲牛奶
    isn't drinking milk
    (he chose water)

    This is similar to the distinction between English simple ("I do") and progressive ("I am doing"). Furthermore, 没 carries a sense of "yet"; you are denying that something is true now, but expecting that to change in the future. End sidebar

    One downside about having such a superficially simple grammar is that it makes the language much more ambiguous. The more complex grammar of European languages acts as a checksum. If I say, "He are coming," then you know that something went wrong. The grammatical doodads act like signposts to confirm that you the listener are parsing the sentence correctly. It's like the road sign after every highway exit that reassures you, "You are still on Highway 405 Northbound." One of my colleagues told me that he missed those signs on his trip to Italy. There would be signs labeling each exit, but rarely was there a sign telling you what highway you were currently on!

    To me, Chinese is difficult to learn because of its lack of guideposts that help steer you onto the right track. Without them, many sentences end up ambiguous. (In that example, the lack of any grammatical particle that distinguishes imperative from declarative mood led to the confusion.) The relative scarcity of grammatical particles makes me feel like I'm talking baby-talk. "Me want eat cookie."²

    Resolving ambiguity is made even harder by the fact that every word in Mandarin has about a dozen homophones (fortunately, most of them not used in everyday speech), so you aren't even sure what word you're dealing with at the moment you hear it. You just know it's one of these two or three, and you have to wait and see which one actually makes sense when combined with the other words in the sentence (some of which may themselves also be ambiguous).

    Adding to the ambiguity is that in many cases, you can omit words from a sentence if they are implied from context. So you now have to juggle the ambiguous mapping of sounds to words, the ambiguous grammatical context of those words (was that a statement or a direct order?), and choosing which implied words to insert to support your conclusion! Of course, native speakers can resolve all of these ambiguities very quickly, having been doing so since birth, and they are much better at picking up other cues (such as where the speaker speeds up and slows down) to help steer toward the correct interpretation. Indeed, in the language I learned as a young child, I can resolve these ambiguities with no difficulty at all.

    Sidebar: Even native speakers sometimes have to go into explicit ambiguity-resolution mode by adding clarifying context. This happens in English occasionally: You might say, "He had a bat (the animal)" because the shorter sentence "He had a bat" would be ambiguous. Did he have an animal or an instrument for striking? End sidebar

    One thing I do like to quibble about is the treatment of classifiers in Mandarin. Most people treat them as a quirk of the language, making them sound like an oddball feature that doesn't exist in European languages. An analogue in English would be the word "pair" when applied to scissors or pants. You can't say "a scissors" or "a pants"; you have to say "a pair of scissors" or "a pair of pants." (Particularly confusing because a "pair" of scissors or pants is still one article.) In Mandarin, every noun has a corresponding classifier.

    You can think of classifiers as the Mandarin version of grammatical gender. The nouns in the language fall into around 170 different categories, and you just have to know which category word goes with each noun. There are patterns that help the learning process, but there are always exceptions that you simply must memorize.

    For example, 条 is generally used for long, thin, flexible things, like a fish or a ribbon. But you also use it for dogs. Oh, and also for skirts and dresses. Go figure.

    So the next time a native Mandarin speaker complains that English has all these arbitrary rules that serve no purpose other than making the language harder to learn, just ask them about classifiers. (They will naturally defend classifiers by saying that they are completely obvious and in no way arbitrary.)

    Anyway, the bit about classifiers explains why the subway ticket vending machine asks you how many "sheets" you want: In Mandarin, it is very common to omit the noun and use only the classifier when the noun is implied from context. This happens in English, too. If you are a shop that repairs scissors, the clerk might ask, "What's wrong with this pair?" as shorthand for "What's wrong with this pair of scissors?"

    The classifier word for ticket is 張 which translates as sheet. The full question is "How many sheets of tickets?" But since you are at a ticket vending machine, the noun is implied from context, and the shorter sentence "How many sheets?" is used instead.

    ¹ This natural tendency to think of what you do as normal reveals itself in the words that the Chinese language uses to refer to itself. The name for the country of China is 中國, which translates as the middle kingdom, because by an amazing coincidence, China happens to be right in the middle of the map. And the name for the language itself is 普通話, which translates as normal speech, because we all talk normally; it's the foreigners who talk funny by using their own words for everything.³

    ² In practice, the distinction between baby-talk and adult-talk in Chinese is accomplished in two ways. First, babies have a specialized vocabulary: babies say doggy instead of dog, for example. Second, adults employ modal particles which convey the attitude of the speaker. Cantonese is notorious for having a large number of these sorts of particles. I don't know most of them, so my speech tends to come off as rather rude and abrupt.

    ³ Someone said that a neighbor of his grandmother complained, "I don't understand why people in foreign countries bother to learn a second language. Why don't they just talk normal?"

  • The Old New Thing

    Microspeak: All-up

    • 15 Comments

    Here are some citations. Let's see if we can figure out what it means.

    I think a presentation of these results would be a fun boost for the team. Is this something we should handle in a bunch of teams' weekly meetings, or should we do something all up?

    In the first citation, all up appears to mean "with everybody all together."

    We're looking for an all-up view of the various compatibility mitigations we have related to this feature.

    In the second citation, all up could mean "overview" or "detailed summary". Not sure yet. Let's keep looking.

    From the all up performance effort, we've settled on the approach below.

    Okay, this seems to suggest that all up refers to an aggregation of individual items. Let's try again:

    We have a number of channels for disseminating information. I think an all up destination could play a key and proactive role in major announcements such as the one from last week.

    Here, all up appears to mean "consolidated, comprehensive". Let's keep going.

    Document title: XYZ All Up Glossary

    This document is a glossary. Presumably is a glossary of terms you may encounter throughout the entire XYZ project. One last citation, this from a status report:

    • This week: Created Customer All up report.
    • Next week: Update Customer all up report with more customer related information.

    Okay, this didn't actually tell me much about what an all up report is, which is kind of a bummer because I was asked to create an all up report, and I still don't know if what I created is what the person wanted.

    (I ended up creating a report that summarized the status of every team, and called out issues that were noteworthy or reasons for concern. The person who asked for the report didn't complain, so I guess that was close enough to what they wanted that they didn't bother asking for more.)

  • The Old New Thing

    The citizenship test is pass/fail; there's no blue ribbon for acing it

    • 35 Comments

    The civics portion of the United States citizenship test is an oral exam wherein you must correctly answer six out of ten questions. One of my friends studiously prepared for his examination, going so far as buying a CD with the questions and answers and listening to it every day during his commute to and from work.

    At last, the day arrived, and my friend went in to take his citizenship examination. The examiner led him to an office, and the two of them sat down for the test.

    "Who was President during World War II?"

    — Franklin D. Roosevelt.

    "Correct. How many justices are there on the Supreme Court?"

    — Nine.

    "Correct."

    And so on. Question 3, correct.

    Question 4, correct.

    Question 5, correct.

    Question 6, correct.

    And at that point, the examiner said, "Congratulations. You passed. There is a naturalization ceremony in two hours. Can you make it?"

    My friend was kind of surprised. Wasn't this a ten-question test? What about the other four questions?

    And then he realized: You only have to get six right. He got six right. How well he does on the remaining four questions is immaterial.

    My friend was hoping to get a perfect score of 10/10 on the test, or at least to find out whether he could get all ten right, just as a point of personal satisfaction, but of course the examiner doesn't care whether this guy can get all ten right. There's no blue ribbon for acing your citizenship test. It's pass/fail.

    Bonus chatter: My friend hung around for two hours and was naturalized that same day. He said that for something that could have been purely perfunctory (seeing as the people who work there have done this hundreds if not thousands of times), the ceremony was was quite well-done and was an emotionally touching experience.

    In case you hadn't noticed, today is Constitution Day, also known as Citizenship Day. One of the odd clauses in the legislation establishing the day of observance is that all schools which receive federal funding must "hold an educational program" on the United States Constitution on that day. This is why students at massage therapy schools and beauty schools have to watch a video of two Supreme Court justices.

  • The Old New Thing

    Microspeak: spend

    • 15 Comments

    Remember, Microspeak is not merely for jargon exclusive to Microsoft, but it's jargon you need to know.

    We don't encounter the term spend much in the engineering side of the company, but it's in common use among those who regularly deal with money and budgets.

    We are in line with company standards with regard to spend for this type of event.
    Q4 spend will be higher as a result of widget recolorization.
    Our corresponding spend will increase significantly if we adopt this proposal.

    From the above citations, it is apparent that the word spend is shorthand for expenditure.

    And then there's this citation:

    I'll let you know what we have available with respect to spend.

    So much for that theory. Here, spend means available budget.

    My new theory is that spend is shorthand for spending.

    This appears to be common use in business-speak:

    IT Spend Report Shows Tougher Times Ahead
    The spend is 15% more than the 100m T-Mobile allocated to marketing last year
  • The Old New Thing

    The wisdom of seventh graders: The emergency survival kit

    • 15 Comments

    As a precursor to reading a story about survival, seventh grade students were asked to come up with a list of things they would want to have in their emergency survival kit. Students were specifically instructed to limit themselves to things that were readily available (so no Apache helicopters), and the complete kit had to be something you could comfortably carry in a student backpack.

    As always, there are students who chose a very sensible collection of things to put in their emergency survival kit: water purification tablets, a flashlight (with batteries), a first-aid kit. Those students are not the subject of today's story.

    Here are some of the more unusual items some students chose to put in their emergency survival kit:

    September is National Preparedness Month.

  • The Old New Thing

    News flash: Big houses cost more to maintain

    • 21 Comments

    In 2005, we learned that big houses cost more to heat. In 2006, we learned that big houses cost more to cool.

    But then the research into big houses seems to have stalled.

    No worries. The research journal The Wall Street Journal recently released a paper concluding that big houses cost more to maintain.

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