Firefox's killer feature

I work on a few different computers and have dabbled with using Firefox as my browser on some of them. I have now discovered the killer feature that has made me a total convert.

No, it's not tabbed browsing, although that is really quite good. (If only it were 100% implemented instead of 90%!) Nor is it popup blocking, which is also very good, but just as well implemented by the Google toolbar. Nor is it all the other things the Mozilla folks justifiably blow their own horn about.

For me the killer feature is that when I press Ctrl-+ the text on the Web page gets bigger. When I press Ctrl-- it gets smaller again. What is great about this is the text changes size in a useful way, not like the lame text size menu item in IE. The keyboard shortcuts are so fast and convenient (and mnemonic) that I find I use this feature all the time.

This feature is just great for my own middle-aged eyes. I predict it will cause a huge switchover of baby boomers to Firefox. I'm going to install it on my mother's computer too, next time I visit.

Matcha: placebo or miracle drug?

I miss out on a lot of good stuff because I am skeptical enough that placebo effects are not very effective in my case.

For example, the Vancouver Sun recently devoted a lot of column inches to matcha tea. It is filled with testimonials to matcha's energizing powers, such as "With coffee, I really felt the ups and downs of caffeine. With matcha, the energy lasts and I don't crash. The difference is huge."

My wife and I have tried it a few times now and I'm here to report that ... I don't know whether it has an effect or not. The tea itself has a strong flavor so if you buy a prepared cup at Blenz or a tea house, it is likely to be dolled up with lots of milk and sugar. The intense green color is a conversation starter though.

As for its mystical powers, that cause it to "treated just like gold" in Japan, well, I think it helps if you believe in it. I won't say any more so I don't spoil the experience for you.

The stuff is pretty expensive though so maybe that helps.


A modest proposal: 25 hour day

If I could convince you that I know how to achieve the following benefits, you would think I'm a genius, right?
  1. Eliminate jet lag
  2. Extend people's lives
  3. Improve people's health
  4. Remove a major impediment to global commerce
  5. Complete the metric system
  6. Eliminate all problems associated with leap years
Here's the deal. When they put volunteers (?) in caves with no timekeeping devices or time cues of any kind and let their bodies find their natural circadian rhythms, people naturally settle into a 25 hour pattern, instead of 24.

I propose that we take advantage of this observation, revamp our system of time and do it right. Ever since the invention of the light bulb and shift work, the connection between people's sleep-wake cycles and the hours of day and night have been completely disrupted anyway, so it should be no big deal.The precise idea is this. We replace the current day with a New Day (ND) which is about 25.05 hours long. This length is chosen so that there are exactly 350 ND in a year. Since the ND is independent of the daily movement of the sun, there is no need for time zones: the entire earth uses the same time.

Let's think about what this means. No matter where you travel, when you arrive the time is the same as the time in the place you left. Hence benefit #1. With the ND, we all get an extra hour in our day, effectively extending our lives by about 4%. That's benefit #2. The ND corresponds to our natural biological rhythms, hence benefit #3. Benefit #4 results from the elimination of time zones and because everyone's work day is the same. No more scheduling phone calls at odd hours to talk to your remote office!

The adoption of the ND gives us the perfect opportunity to change the definition of an hour to something more metric, so perhaps we have 10 New Hours in a ND, 100 New Minutes in a New Hour, etc. It just makes sense. Time is the one area where the metric system has not had much impact; let's take care of that little problem right now. (Benefit #5)

Since there are now exactly 350 ND in a year, we can have 10 New Months of 35 ND each. Each New Month could have five New Weeks consisting of (in a nod to tradition) 7 ND.

Benefit #6: there is no need for leap years anymore because the ND is defined in terms of how long it takes the earth to go around the sun. Think of the savings in simplified accounting, programming and calendar production! (The same calendar works year after year!)

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the most profound. I urge you to join with me to advocate for this elegant solution to many age-old problems. Let us adopt the 25 hour day as soon as possible. A New Day is coming!

Update: I have recently learned of an alternative proposal in the same spirit: The 28 Hour Day which was featured in digg.


Windows start up programs

Ever wish you could easily get a list of all the programs that Windows runs on start up? There is a wonderful free utility that does this called autoruns from Sysinternals who have several other wonderful free utilities. Highly recommended for technical types who want to know why Windows takes so long to boot and why does that particular icon show up in the system tray and how do you get rid of stupid programs you didn't want in the first place and ... You get the idea.


There is a restaurant near my office called "Enoteca". There is something about that name that has bothered me ever since I first noticed it. Then it finally dawned on me: Enoteca, which is a general name for an Italian wine bar, is the name of a toxic liquid when spelled backward.

Glad I figured that out...


In the blink of an eye

I make video productions as a hobby. Student productions of plays, amateur musicals, that kind of thing. Just amateur stuff, but I use decent DV camcorders and high-quality audio recording.

Thanks to some software my son wrote, I can edit video from multiple sources into a reasonable looking production with multiple camera angles, cuts, dissolves, fades, etc. It's a huge step up in quality from the usual single camera point-and-forget affair.

So now that I am a video editor, it has got me thinking. Why do cuts in movies work at all? Why doesn't a sudden change of point of view and/or distance look so strange to the human visual perception system that it is jarring and incomprehensible?

In his thoughtful book, In the Blink of an Eye, film editor Walter Murch suggests a plausible answer. Humans perceive the world discontinuously as a matter of course. It is well known that when you read, your eyes don't smoothly sweep across the lines of text. Instead, they move to a specific location, pause, you absorb what you see, then they jerk to the next location and pause, and so on. Murch goes on to assert that blinking is overrated as a mechanism to absorb the eyeballs. Instead, a blink provides a boundary between different points of view as your eyes bounce around to take in your visual surroundings.

It is not hard to see an analogy with the way those of us in the technology business see the world. We pause briefly to consider an idea, then in the blink of an eye we context switch to a completely different (and possibly even contradictory) point of view. The brain is adept at assembling these fragments into some sort of coherent whole. It feels natural rather than weird. The hard thing to explain is how people can focus on a chess or Go board for a couple of hours!


Bandwidth, storage make advances over medieval technologies!

Anyone who uses the internet (Wired magazine now advocates that we use a lower-case 'i') and has any sense of history feels awed by the advance in human communication it represents.

Here's where it fits in an exponentially accelerating rate of key milestones:
  • 50,000 years ago: origins of human language
  • 5,000 years ago: emergence of written language
  • 500 years ago: movable type enables the printing press in Europe
  • 50 years ago: ARPA initiates projects that evolve into the internet
  • 5 years ago (-ish): the W3C issues the XML specification as a recommendation

OK, that last milestone reflects my personal prejudice that XML is as significant an enabling technology for electronic written communication as movable type was for the printing press. More on that another day.

Another perspective on how far we've come is the increase of bandwidth of communication in the last 100 years or so. By 1928, telegraph transmission rates reached 2,800 characters per minute or 0.4 kbps. It was still faster to fly a copy of the New York Times across the Atlantic, a transmission rate that I estimate to be about 1.4 kpbs. Today of course electronic transmission of information is faster than any alternative by orders of magnitude.

In his fascinating survey of the history of letters, Alpha Beta, John Man presents the following data: In AD 500 the world was using perhaps 500 tons of paper for books. At the turn of the millenium that number had risen to 130 million tons. "Per person, we consume almost 20,000 times as much reading material as our medieval ancestors." Most of this material disappears within a day or a year.

But in electronic form, much more information can be stored indefinitely. This is only of value if you can find the information again, otherwise you have the proverbial "write-only database". Google seems pretty much on track to solve that problem and become the portal to all human knowledge. At least if full-text search and page rank are sufficient to find what we are looking for.

The next great challenge is to get information out of people's desktops and into the public realm. Did I mention XML above? More on this later...