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December 6, 2004

Library of Congress - online


My tax dollars at work.

To all my readers from outside the U.S.: no reason you can't enjoy the fruits for free.

There is so much in the way of interesting, useful, and strange information and sights to see on this website, you couldn't begin to exhaust it if you spent every waking moment here for the rest of your life.

Consider, for example, the Global Gateway on the home page.

Click on it and the world's at your fingertips.

So much here.


For everything else, there's MasterCard.

December 6, 2004 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Internet Arm Wrestling Challenge: 'We can't do that with a robot, because it will crush your hand'


So said Stephen Uzzo, project manager for technology at the New York Hall of Science in Queens.

He was quoted in Henry Fountain's fascinating story in the December 2 New York Times about the rise of the robot arm wrestler in cities nationwide.

Visitors to science museums in New York, Anchorage, Des Moines, San Jose, and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania can now face off with challengers ready to throw down at either their own location or any of the other museums.

Read the story.

    With Long-Distance Arm-to-Arm Combat, the Internet Gets Physical

    At most interactive museum exhibits, technology links people with information.

    But it can also take interactivity a step further, linking people with people - so they can arm wrestle.

    In the Internet Arm Wrestling Challenge, visitors to science museums in New York, Anchorage, Des Moines, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and San Jose, California, are paired off over the Internet.

    Each competitor sits on a stool, grabs a mechanical arm and pushes.

    The exertions are measured and sent to an identical exhibit at another museum, where a motor exerts equivalent force on a mechanical arm that the opponent is pushing against.

    It's a simple idea, but getting it to work took several years and about $150,000 in development money before it was officially unveiled last month.

    "The problem is on a level of scope and details," said Matt Browning, a software developer with the firm MediaBite who worked on the display with Lynch Exhibits of Burlington, New Jersey, and staff members of the New York Hall of Science in Queens.

    "We definitely fine-tuned the experience to make it feel organic," Mr. Browning said.

    The project began about three years ago when Hall of Science officials were planning an exhibit on networks to be part of an expansion of the museum.

    "The idea was, how do you connect people at two institutions in a meaningful way?" said Eric Siegel, project director of the network exhibit, called Connections.

    "What could they do together that would be engaging for them?"

    The original concept, Mr. Siegel said, was of a "window between two museums," so a video connection was always envisaged.

    The current setup uses simple Webcams at each location so competitors can eyeball each other.

    "Once you put the video into the game, it amplifies the experience," he said.

    But the relatively large amount of video data also creates complications.

    The developers have had problems with firewalls and with keeping the video synchronized with the action.

    The arm-wrestling data is, by contrast, rather streamlined.

    The arm is attached to a shaft that is connected to a servo motor that can be precisely controlled; a rotary load cell on the shaft measures the direction and amount of the force applied by a contestant eight times per second.

    The analog signal is digitized and sent in packets over the Internet.

    At the opponent's museum, the signal is converted back to activate the servo motor that controls the arm.

    The process occurs in both directions.

    "It's the equivalent of having one end couple to the other electrically, but the Internet is in between," said Stephen Uzzo, project manager for technology at the Hall of Science.

    One feature of the system is that it allows two people to arm wrestle even if one is right-handed and the other left-handed. (The Hall of Science has two stations, back to back, so that if no one is available elsewhere, visitors to the museum can wrestle each other.)

    Mr. Uzzo said a large part of the development process involved safety.

    "There was a lot of discussion about how fast we can make the arm move," he said.

    "In a real arm wrestle," he added, "you can reach a point where one player can slam the other down. It's obvious we can't do that with a robot, because it will crush your hand. We had to give up a little bit of the realism."

    December 6, 2004 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    Affirmation Ball




    Whichever you are, it won't matter one little bit if you have the Affirmation Ball at hand.

    You don't even have to ask a question to get positive strokes from this cheery friend.

    Just look in the viewing window, and a cheery compliment or thought will rise right to the top.

    Perfect for those dark moments of the soul.

    If the thoughts don't work, you can always throw the thing against the wall.

    That'll bring a faint smile to even the most profoundly dour soul.

    At $7.95, it's a steal.

    December 6, 2004 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    Your Christmas card on bookofjoe


    I just had a great idea.

    I'm gonna solicit, right here and now, Christmas cards.

    Because I've noted that, over the years, I get very few from people, as opposed to the guy who brings me fresh roast coffee beans weekly, the newspaper delivery men, my insurance agents (car, home, and medical), lawyers I've worked with, the hospital where I occasionally pass gas, and the like.

    Perhaps that's because I've never sent Christmas cards, and people got tired of sending and never receiving.

    Who knows and, really, who cares?

    I guess I do to be begging like this.

    I mean, let's call a spade a spade.

    So here's how it's gonna go down:

    1) You send me a Christmas card

    2) I put it up on my fireplace mantle

    3) When all three that I receive (or more, who knows?) are up, I take a picture of the cards (not, not the inside with your name, just the front, so you'll never have to be unmasked)

    4) I post the picture here on bookofjoe after the holidays with a big "Mwah"-type thank-you

    I like it.

    Oh, yeah, you'll need my address:

    Joe Stirt
    2809 Magnolia Drive
    Charlottesville, Virginia 22901

    The nice thing about living in a small town in the middle of central Virginia is I don't really worry too much that someone's gonna come for me.

    Oh, one other thing: if you send a self-addressed envelope (not stamped: I can afford the postage, thank you very much), I'll send you something back.

    Cool, huh?

    And wait a moment before you snicker: might be the best offer you get all day.

    December 6, 2004 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack



    I have always believed that coincidence is a glimpse beneath the tent of reality, a peek backstage, as it were, at the scaffolding that holds up the world.

    When I was in college, I made up a poem about chance.

    It goes like this:

      Fate and chance,
      Chance and fate,
      Who knows
      Whose lives
      They await?

    It's held up pretty well over the years.

    But it turns out that you can lean on reality a bit if you have a feeling for the vagaries of chance and probability.

    "Chance," a little 119-page book by Amir D. Aczel, is well worth the $12.60 it'll cost you at amazon.

    Chapter 7, "Random Walks and the Gambler's Ruin," explores which of two strategies, "Bold Play" or "Cautious Play," is more likely to let you walk away from the roulette table a big winner.

    Answer: "Bold Play," in which you wager everything you have on one roll, as opposed to the "Cautious Play" alternative of betting just a small amount repeatedly.

    Besides which, "Bold Play" will result in tons more free time no matter what the outcome, so you can sit quietly and read. But I digress.

    And what about that old saw about how if there are X number of people in a room, it's almost a certainty two of them have the same birthday?

    The explanation for that one's in Chapter 11, entitled "The Birthday Problem."

    Oh, yeah, the numbers: get a group of 20 people together and about half the time two of them will have the same birthday.

    Want more certainty?

    OK, then: get 31 people together and the chance of two having the same birthday is 95%.

    Still not good enough for you?

    Get 56 people together and the chance of two having the same birthday is 99%.

    Now that's what I'd call a pretty sure thing.

    You also won't want to miss Chapter 12, "Coincidences."

    It explains why there's about a 1.5% chance that you and the person next to you on any plane flight will know one person in common.

    If nothing else, this book will show you precisely how many people you need to go out with before you can be certain you've found the best possible match.

    The answer's contained in Chapter 13, entitled "How to Succeed in Love (Find the Best Apartment, or Adopt the Best Puppy)."

    All in all, a superb book.

    Highest recommendation.

    Oh, I almost forgot: how many people do you need to go out with to be sure you've chosen the best candidate for marriage?

    Precisely 37% of the field available to you.

    Translated into English, that means that if, over a lifetime, you expect to meet 100 possible candidates for a serious relationship, then going out with 37 of them and then choosing the first person thereafter who's better than all the previous ones is the best possible strategy to ensure you don't jump too soon or, even worse, discard what would have been the best person you'll ever meet.

    Aczel writes,

      So if you are a young woman who expects to meet one hundred attractive bachelors over her dating years, you should let the first thirty-seven of them go, and marry the first one you meet thereafter who is more attractive to you than all thirty-seven young men you have already dated. Now, don't you wish your mother would give you advice like that?

    But then, that's why you've got me.

    December 6, 2004 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    Sky+ Designer Satellite TV Box Collection


    Alas, only my U.K. readers can make this happen, but that's OK, you've reached a critical mass (does that mean you'll explode any moment? But I digress...).

    For you gaijin, Sky is a British satellite TV operation, and like DirecTV and the Dish Network here in the U.S., cranks out generic black boxes to set atop or under your TV.

    But then Sky had a brainstorm, and commissioned designers Cath Kidston, Matthew Williamson, Neisha Crosland, Wale Adeyemi, and Eley Kishimoto to trick out their offerings.

    The results are stacked above.

    So far Williamson's dragonfly design (third from the top) is the most popular.

    Amazingly, they sell for the same price (£199) as the plain ones.

    Only at Seldridges Oxford Street, Birmingham Bull Ring and Manchester Trafford locations.

    Call TechZone at Selfridges (0207 318 3688) to order yours.

    Nicely done, say I.

    Wonder what year this will arrive Stateside?

    [via shinyshiny.com]

    December 6, 2004 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    'The typical Blockbuster interview consists of three questions'


    1) "Is your heart beating?"

    2) "Do you promise not to steal too much?"

    3) "Can you start tonight?"

    From an amusing story by Caroline E. Mayer which appeared in yesterday's Washington Post Business section.

    The subject of the article was why lines at Blockbuster are always so long, and it was headlined, "A Perpetual State of Pause: Why the Line at the Video Place Stretches From Here to Eternity."

    I haven't rented anything for so long, I don't recall when the last time was.

    When you can buy a brand-new movie on DVD from amazon for what it costs to go to the theater, why would anyone bother making not one but two trips to Blockbuster to watch a copy that might be damaged, apart from the eternal wait in line?

    Makes about as much sense as Frequent Flyer Miles or gift cards, two other losing propositions.

    And since I never watch a movie a second time, I give mine away as soon as I've seen them, so that means two - or more - people get to watch it for the price I paid.

    What surprises me about Blockbuster is not that the whole experience is so dismal, but that it's managed to stay in business this long.

    It's sort of like the wry observation of Samuel Johnson


    on the dog that walked, albeit poorly, on its hind legs: "The wonder is not that it walks so poorly, but that it walks at all."

    Here's the Post piece.

      A Perpetual State of Pause

      Why the line at the video place stretches from here to eternity

      If your spouse volunteers to help you run errands on a Friday night, and you get to choose between going to the supermarket and going to the video store, which would you choose?

      For me, the answer is easy: the supermarket, because I know I'll be home and resting comfortably long before my husband.

      He will undoubtedly find himself standing - and standing - in a long line at the video-rental place, waiting to check out.

      Why should checking out a few simple and similar items at a video store take longer than buying a wide assortment of products at the grocery store?

      Computers and scanning technology should have made the whole video checkout process a breeze.

      But clearly they haven't, at least not at my neighborhood rental places, where even on a quiet weekday afternoon, I can find myself in line, waiting patiently (okay, sometimes not so patiently).

      There are alternatives, I know: a Netflix subscription for DVDs that are mailed directly to your home, or the dozen pay-per-view features right there on your TV set, offered by the cable or satellite service.

      But the first requires planning and it's hard to get new releases, and the second is usually a limited selection.

      That's when the video-store opportunity - and problem - kick in.

      Sometimes it's merely a matter of getting the attention of a clerk who's either chatting with another employee or scanning and stacking piles of returned movies.

      But other times, as the line starts to snake around the store, the problem seems far more fundamental and vexing.

      Greg Kahn, head of Kahn Research Group, a behavioral research firm that advises retailers and manufacturers, says it's simply the customer's fault.

      "Most people don't have their checkout card, so essentially the clerk has to look up their information and check their ID."

      And if the account is at another store, then the transaction can take some time.

      Fair enough; but wait - when you forget your loyalty card at the supermarket or drugstore, it doesn't take minutes to complete the sale; you simply enter your phone number and you're done, finished, out of the store.

      Why can't it be that simple at a video store?

      Michael K. Roemer, Blockbuster's chief of North American operations, said it's the very nature of the business: Three of every four transactions are rentals, not sales.

      "If you just bought a candy bar, you could be in and out in 10 seconds, but to rent a tape, we have to record who rented it, when it was rented. We have to make a record of it because it's going to come back. It's no different than renting a car."

      Yet some car-rental companies manage to get their best customers in and out in a jiffy.

      These "preferred" customers have their pertinent information on file.

      But video stores have key information about their customers on file, too, so something doesn't seem to quite ring up.

      Roemer said my experience, as well as those of friends and colleagues who nod in agreement when I complain, is unusual.

      Once a month, Blockbuster sends in mystery shoppers to each of its 4,500 corporate-owned stores (an additional 1,100 are franchises) to measure customer service, including wait times.

      The mystery shoppers visit only during the busiest times - Fridays and Saturdays between 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. - but even then, the average wait is 116 seconds, "so, less than two minutes," he said.

      Don Rosenberg, publisher of Video Store Magazine, agreed, saying he has never heard complaints about long lines.

      Instead, he said, the two biggest consumer gripes are about out-of-stock films and late fees.

      But late fees may be the real impediment to speedy service, according to John Goodman, president of TARP (Technical Assistance Research Programs), an Arlington consulting firm that specializes in customer service.

      Consumers think they have a tape for two days, but they really have to get it back by noon on the second day, he said.

      "That means you didn't get it for two days.

      It's almost like the fees are structured to play a 'gotcha,' " which customers are bound to protest, resulting in at least a slowdown, if not a complete halt, in the checkout process.

      At most video stores, Goodman said, clerks are "fully unempowered."

      They have been ordered to impose all late fees unquestioningly.

      They can be waived only by a supervisor, who undoubtedly is somewhere in the back of the store.

      By the time he or she arrives at the register, at least four more customers have joined the line.

      "There's no list of good, trusted customers. Everyone is treated as a criminal, treated as being wrong until proven otherwise," Goodman said.

      That attitude is hard on customers, as well as employees, Goodman noted.

      "It's very hard maintaining a staff when they are taking a lot of abuse from customers for things the staff didn't do and can't fix.

      The front-line employee is saying, 'I'm not getting paid enough to take all this.' "

      So he or she leaves, creating tremendous turnover - and even more line bottlenecks as new employees learn the ropes.

      John Farr is a consultant to the video-store industry, advising stores about their operations "from the front to the back door."

      There's no question, he said, that "customer service has a long way to go."

      So, too, do employee hiring and training.

      Most of the employees are signed on through "panic hiring" when the last employee left for college or quit; there's no planning or anticipation of needs to create a perfect team, Farr said.

      "They hire the first warm body coming through the door."

      The typical interview, he added, "consists of three questions: 'Is your heart beating?', "Do you promise not to steal too much?' and 'Can you start tonight?' Training, to say the least, is abysmal, pretty much on how to handle the transaction and how to deal with late fees. It's never how to keep the customer."

      Blockbuster says it has begun to use questionnaires to make sure applicants are the right fit for their stores.

      One way to keep a customer would be better "queue management," said Geoff Wissman, vice president of Retail Forward, an Ohio consulting firm.

      "It's not necessarily how long you wait in line but what you perceive" while you wait, he explained.

      So if you are in a crowded grocery store and see only a few lines open, you feel worse than if every line were open and every employee were hustling, he said.

      In supermarket lines, he adds, there also are more distractions, such as the magazines and celebrity tabloids.

      If you don't want to be caught reading them, you can still scan the headlines, and before you know it, it's your turn.

      Many video stores haven't figured out a way to "take your mind off the fact you're standing in line, waiting forever," Wissman said.

      That's why, for the time being, you'll find me in the supermarket line.

    December 6, 2004 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack



    Only in America.

    Back in 1997 deliveryman Dana Harvey was restoring a 1950 Buick.


    Even though it was an inauthentic touch, he went ahead and installed seat belts.

    On a whim, his wife asked him to make her a purse from the leftover seat belt webbing (he'd learned to sew as a boy).


    Her friends loved it, so Harvey decided to focus on purse making full time.

    He persuaded manufacturers to make webbing for him in pink, orange, and a whole host of non-automobile colors.


    Long story short: this year Harvey expects to sell over $3 million worth of product on his website and at about 800 retail outlets including Nordstrom's and Bloomingdale's.

    Harvey guarantees his products and offers free repair or replacement, not a major problem considering the toughness of the Dupont-made fabric.


    Jayne O'Donnell wrote an interesting story for last Thursday's USA Today about the rise of seat belt fashion not only in accessories, but in furniture as well.

    December 6, 2004 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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