Archive for the 'General' Category

Sep 05 2006

Stylin’ with CSS: A Designer’s Guide

Published by under Books,General

by Charles Wyke-Smith

This is the second book that I’ve read on-line via O’reilly’s Safari book service and since the first, O’reilly has changed the system from html pages of ajaxian image fragments.  Overall, their new implementation was a step backwards.  Pages seemed to load more slowly and there was no ability to copy snippets of CSS out of the text to play with.  Yes, the CSS and XHTML were available from the book publishers website, but that was more steps and more of a hassle.  Not a good use of AJAX, I think.

The book itself was just okay.  It was a well narrated description of basic CSS and a few commonly used structures: mainly menus and forms controlled by CSS.  It was a ‘cookbook’ with narrative and limited scope.  Lots of repetition of html and CSS fragments but no real explanation of how CSS hangs together.  Made it seem pretty ad hoc which I don’t believe it is.  Good for an introduction to the basics of CSS.

A underlying thread was all the hacks necessitated for MS’ flawed implementation in stagnant Internet Explorer technology.  When know shortcomings and bugs have created a cottage industry of clever work around.  Unintentionally, this served as a good example of ‘simple’ abuses inflicted by a company with monopoly powers.  MS still has 80 plus percent of the browser market despite letting their browser product stagnate and not implementing web standards.  Causes aggravation and cost for all web content developers.

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Aug 28 2006

The Risk Pool

Published by under General

An article, “The Risk Pool”, in the August 28th. issue of the New Yorker provides a very interesting description of some demographic aspects of national and corporate financial competitiveness. While the preceding sentence probably makes the subject sound boring and probably unimportant, the article and ideas in it are not boring and are important.

The topic concerns the ratio that describes how many current workers are supporting non-working people (mostly retired employees in the case of companies but including young kids when considering countries). The case for spreading pension and health care risks more broadly is well made. In the telling, the author provides some interesting history on how and why the current private pension system came into existence. One striking comparison is the very number of retired workers supported by GM workers vs those supported by Toyota, newly arrived, in the US and how that will change in 20-30 years. I won’t repeat other examples nor recreate his story. Overall, I highly recommend it.

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Aug 23 2006

Yahoo Finance On Your Site

Published by under General

Yesterday, I noticed Yahoo Finance offered the provide html code which would embed a stock price graph and/or stock price quotes in ‘your’ web page. You get to pick a list of up to ten stocks and a couple of sizes and colors for the background. I gave it a try and found it was easy. The process ends with a short snippet of ‘html’ for you to add to your web site. Easy enough to do and here’s what it looked like. Of course, the Yahoo name is prominent and the graph links back to a page on Yahoo, but that’s okay.
yahoo on retrotech
However, this addin isn’t staying in the side bar for several reasons.

  • It’s not particularly relevant to the site.
  • The graphs are not accurate or consistent with the current price; e.g. a current price of 70 showed as 65 on the graph.
  • The html code is not valid xhtml.

But this little exercise shows in a small way how easy it is becoming to pull together the information one needs in a custom way. A simple ‘mash up’ in current web slang.

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Aug 13 2006

Hope you haven’t borrowed your share!

Published by under General

Among the numbers the US Federal Reserve keeps track of is the “Consumer Credit Outstanding” which includes all individual debt not secured by real estate: loans such as auto loans, credit card debt, other short and intermediate term unsecured debt. As of the August 7 report, the total consumer debt at the end of the 2nd quarter was a bit more than $2.1 trillion (i.e. $2,100,000,000,000). With the US population at just about 300 million that works out a neat $7,000 per man, woman and child. Since the end of 2001, that total has increased by a neat $300 Billion or $1000 per head.

The Fed also publishes a “Financial Obligation Ratio” which estimates the percentage of disposable household income that goes to fixed obligations: rent or mortgage, auto leases, home owners insurance, and property taxes. For homeowners the ratio is about 17.5% and for renters it is about 24.5%. The homeowner number has been steadily increasing since 1980 but the renters’ number has declined from about 31% in 2001.

Remember that averages are only averages and ratios have two parts.

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Aug 06 2006

ExxonMobil Comes Around?

Published by under General

It takes a long time and a lot of wiggling for a large organization to change a publicly stated opinion which is why big organizations often tend to be, publicly at least, pretty quiet on public issues. Under its recently retired CEO, ExxonMobil was relatively out-front in denying the evidence for and significance of global warming in general and the impact of hydrocarbon based fuels in particular. Not surprising given what ExxonMobil sells, but somewhat surprising that they made as much noise about it as they did.

Well, that seems to be changing under the new CEO; one Rex Tillerson. In addition to an annual report with a lot of big numbers following dollar signs, they publish a “Citizenship Overview” covering their assessment of their performance on non financial measures like safety, diversity, environment, etc. This year in the Environment section, they’ve put a section on “Climate Science” that ends with the following paragraph.

   “Even with many scientific uncertainties, the risk that greenhouse gas
    emissions may have serious impacts justifies taking action. The choice
    of action must consider environment, social, and economic consequences,
    as well as recognize the long-term nature of climate change.”

To me, that’s a surprisingly positive statement. Still a lot of reservations and talk of uncertainty, but then science is rarely ‘certain’. Still, they don’t like the Kyoto Accord, but they do seem to be more accepting of the scientific evidence that we have a problem and say action is required!

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Jul 19 2006

Christian Nation?

Published by under General

An assertion that is often heard in current discussions of the role of religion and politics in the U.S. annoys me no end, and I believe it is patently false. The statements refer to the U.S. as originally being created as a “Christian Nation” founded by Christians with the implication that we’ve lost the way by separating church and state. The half true part of such assertions is that the founders were generally if not always Christians. However, What they founded was not a “Christian Nation” but an intentionally limited, secular government in which any form of personal religion was to be tolerated. Based on their experiences the founders rightly did not trust any government, and particularly did not trust any government to establish a religion for its citizens. Just the opposite; political and religious diversity and dissent were to be protected against government interference.

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Jul 19 2006


Published by under General,retro

Some would say that AOL in its entirety is an example of retrotechnology since it’s built on a dial up subscriber base which is shrinking. That issue aside, I recently listened to an interview of its current head, Jonathan Miller, jin which he mentioned the number of CD’s AOL had sent out as part of its marketing campaign in the 90’s. If you were alive then you remember them! Take a guess at the total number of their CD’s: 660 million! How high a retro pile would that make?

Since they now view themselves as a global company they are or have changed their legal name from America On-Line to “AOL”; no meaning attached to the letters. Another acronym cut loose.

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May 28 2006

Digital Photos Forever?

Published by under General

We have a need to scan some photo and the potential to scan 40+ years of family photos. First we’ll need to acquire a photo scanner which fortunately looks easy and not too expensive. Years ago we bought a (Microtek I think) flat bed scanner that was large and fairly expensive. Like most things computer scanners are now better, smaller and cheaper.

What is troubling me most is what photo database program to use. If we do scan all the old photos, they should be annotated and the people and place identified. Maybe dated as well. Where do we keep all that information? The obvious choice is iPhoto since we are using Mac’s but then we and our heirs are committed to always using Macs; assuming Apple and iPhoto continue to exist. A good open source photo database that runs on Macs and other platforms would be a potentially better basis for a long term solution. A kludgy solution would be text files of annotations, but then access is poor and the information could get detached from the photos. Hmm

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May 08 2006

Peter Rabbit never told me

Published by under General,retro

Interesting bit of trivia I heard in a podcast yesterday was that Beatrix Potter, the author and illustrator of Peter Rabbit, was the first person to discover that lichen are a symbiotic confluence of an algae and a fungus. She discovered it, drew some illustrations and published, but ‘nobody’ paid attention since she was a woman. Eventually, she did get credit after it was subsequently discovered again by a man. Old news, but new to me.

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Apr 29 2006

Oil, oil, oil…….

Published by under General

For the historians with short memories and for those too young to remember the seventies, I found the following from Barron’s magazine column to be on the point.

LAST WEEK ALSO BROUGHT A SENSE OF DÉJÀ VU from the ‘Seventies in the histrionics over oil and gasoline prices. The same nonsense about “price gouging” and calls for a windfall- profits tax reappeared as if unearthed from a time capsule with a disco ball or an execrable Eagles album. The only thing missing was gas lines of that era, which should tell you something. Aside from spot shortages resulting from the change in government regulations that eliminated the MTBE additive, there was plenty of gasoline available. And though it’s back above $3 a gallon, it’s less than a latte. It’s just we got used to gas being less than bottled water. Let’s see how many Winnebagos will stay parked in their driveways instead of trundling to Nascar races this summer because gas is too dear. Hardly any, I’ll wager.

The irony is that while oil and gas prices grabbed the headlines, crude prices actually retreated last week from over $75 a barrel to around $70.50 before rallying back to $71.88 as tensions over Iran’s nuclear program intensified at week’s end. Friday was the deadline set by the United Nations for Iran to stop its uranium enrichment. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was quoted by the BBC as saying that his country “does not give a damn” about U.N. resolutions calling for Iran to stop its nuclear activities. (Wasn’t there also some unpleasantness concerning Iran in the ‘Seventies?)

I’ll also bet that one of the newsweeklies will show up on the newsstand Monday with a cover story about energy, probably with an oil derrick pumping out dollars or something equally inane. If that happens, energy stocks might be due for a pullback. That would be consistent with the pattern discerned by Paul Macrae Montgomery, publisher of the Universal Economics newsletter. By the time something gets into the zeitgeist and onto magazine covers, it’s probably more than discounted in the market.


Oil companies boomed in the 1970s and early 1980s until the high prices and deregulation stimulated production, so supply caught up with demand and crude prices collapsed to $10 a barrel along the way. There followed nearly two decades of underinvestment amid persistent low prices — until the last couple of years. During that time, investment boomed in technology and telecom, until the bust, which left huge excess capacity (think dark fiberoptic cable) and depressed prices. Booms beget busts, until the malinvestments of the previous cycle are liquidated and the capital is reallocated.

It’s really no different from the hog cycle, when you think about. Demand for the piggies drives up prices, so herds expand. Pork chops get pricey, so consumers switch to chicken. Prices fall and herds get slaughtered until supplies shrink; then prices have to rise enough for hog farmers to start to expand their herds again.

Hope I’m within the fair use provisions of copyright when I copy this here. I do, and you would, have to pay to read the original on Barrons’ web site.

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Dec 21 2005

War Powers

Published by under General

Just read a transcript of a briefing given by Attorney General Gonzales and a General Michael Hayden who seems to be the head of the “sigint” organization NSA which monitors all sorts of communications around the world and is the organization that implements the seemingly illegal wire tapping authorized by our President. The transcript was released by the White House press office and makes depressing reading. Their first argument is that the 9/11 related legislation that endorsed the “use of force” includes this activity by implication. More egregious to me is the following claim put forth by Gonzales:

I might also add that we also believe the President has
the inherent authority under the Constitution, as
Commander-in-Chief, to engage in this kind of activity.

Sounds like that should be Emperor in Chief! If this were to be true, it sounds to me like a justification that could be used for any action the President decided to take. Congress has not declared war against anybody yet our President apparently thinks he can act as if they had. He uses the word war all the time as justification for his acts. He seems to be going off the deep end. Let’s hope we can get through the next two years without more illegal activities.

A much more comprehensive discussion of this issue is provided by Bruce Schneier (a well know computer security expert).

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Dec 16 2005

Personal Computers for 30 Years

Published by under General,retro

Ars Technica has good survey article on the history of the personal computer. It includes an old photo of the original Eniac. Take a look.

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Oct 15 2005


Published by under General

The Sierra Club (to which I have belonged in the past) is leading an effort to “boycott” Exxon (for which I once worked) because “of all the Big Oil companies, Exxon is the worst”. The Sierra Club lists the following reasons for Exxon being the worst.

1. Exxon is “leading” the lobbying effort to drill for oil in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge.
2. Exxon has not “fully paid” for the damage caused by the Valdez oil spill.
3. Exxon is making higher profits due to high oil prices (”gouging” per the Sierra Club)

A large boycott of products sold by Exxon would have an effect on their behavior and if it was really really big, it would lower prices. I have no problem with the call for a boycott, if you want to influence ExxonMobil (which is its current name, btw).

However, the reasons given are pretty weak. Lobbying is what the Sierra Club is all about. Should we also boycott them because they lobby for what they think is right? Lobbying seems to be the way most organizations deal with our federal government. “Fully Paid” for the Valdez is subjective. I know they’ve paid a lot, some Billions, and more are being adjudicated in court. In any case, they have not walked away from responsibility for the accident. Higher gasoline prices, sure. If you don’t like the price, don’t buy; or, sell the SUV and get a hybrid, or ride public transportation, or take a bike. Motor gasoline is a product like any other and “cheap gasoline” is not a “right” written into the Constitution. We are much too dependent on automobiles and hence dependent on the production and import of oil and oil products.

The Sierra Club is going after the largest oil company as the cause of the oil related problems. It should spend as much effort convincing people to buy smaller cars, drive less, etc. But, that is harder and doesn’t generate positive publicity for them.

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Oct 09 2005

How is it done?

Published by under General

In our garden there is a red maple which is about 10 feet from the back stairs. Earlier today, I noticed a horizontal spider web which connects the tree to the stairs and is about 10 feet above the ground. The working part of the web is a v shape near the maple (where the bugs are, I suppose), but it is held horizontal by a single(?) long strand running from the crotch of the V to a vertical part of the stair structure. How did the spider to it? Shoot a thread the fifteen feet like “spiderman”, carry it across on the ground and then pull it tight?

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Jul 03 2005

Supreme Court

Published by under General

The current situation is worse than silly. Congress and the Presidency are not doing their jobs or the Supreme Court wouldn’t to be getting all this attention. Congress, most of all, should be establishing laws reflecting the “will of the people” being governed and thegovernment’s constitutional basis. If they were doing a decent job, the nomination of a new Supreme Court Justice would not have turned into such an outpouring of lobbists and special interests. Every one looking for “someone who thinks like me” so that bad, or at least unconstitutional laws can be established by the Court! Wrong/bad process. It doesn’t make sense for a group of 9 old codgers to set policy on contentious issues. Review legislation for constitutionality, yes. Clarify, yes. But not to set policy or law.

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