Friday, February 22, 2008

Apostrophe carriers shall be assimilated

Apostrophes in names stir lot o' trouble

It can stop you from voting, destroy your dental appointments, make it difficult to rent a car or book a flight, even interfere with your college exams.

More than 50 years into the Information Age, computers are still getting confused by the apostrophe. It's a problem familiar to O'Connors, D'Angelos, N'Dours and D'Artagnans across America.


"It's standard shortsightedness," he said. "Most programs set a rule for first name and last name. They don't think of foreign-sounding names."


That's what happened during the Michigan caucus in 2004, when thousands of O'Connors, Al-Husseins, Van Kemps and others who went to the polls didn't have their votes counted.


All of this confusion has prompted some people to surrender to technology. Iraqi immigrant Lina Alathari was once known as Lina Al-Athari, but dropped the hyphen in America. "There is no pronunciation difference, so I'm fine with it," she said.

My own brand of apostrophe problem

It's not just apostrophes. You don't have to do anything so reckless as inherit a name with an apostrophe in it, to throw computers off whack. We mortals can offend computer's sensibilities by something far more innocuous -- for example, by not possessing a middle name. This has happened to me. I indeed don't have a middle name. It may be unusual in the US, but not back where I'm from. But the computer at Texas Department of Motor Vehicles did not want to believe me. When I got married and changed my last name, I had to update my driver's license. A DMV clerk told me their computer is not letting her leave the middle name field blank. So she said she was going to put in my maiden name in the middle name field. I protested, but she said there was no way around it. Can't argue with a computer.

The funny thing was that a few years before that, when I first got a driver's license in Texas, the DMV computers accepted my middle-name-less-ness with no problem.

A few ArmadilloCons ago I had a conversation about this with an artist named Ctein. As one might imagine, it's not his given name. Whatever name he was born with, many years ago he officially changed it to Ctein. So he now has only one name -- and computers so far have not given him grief about that! Computers must be a lot more liberal in California, where he lives. He was surprised by my account of the stringency of Texas DMV computers.

He wasn't the first one-name-only person I've met. The first one was my roommate in a graduate student dorm. She was from Indonesia. Apparently there is a minority of Indonesians (maybe they belong to a certain ethnicity, I don't know) who go by just one name. She constantly kept running into situations where she was demanded to provide some kind of a surrogate first name. Usually clerks would give up and enter "Ms" as her first name, or sometimes "Fnu" (I guess that stands for "First name undefined" :-)).

I bet the digerati who keep saying that the internet would liberate us did not think of this particular way computers would try to force everybody into conformity. :-)

Monday, February 18, 2008

"Jumper": a movie review

I went to see "Jumper" because it is based on a book by a Texas writer, Steven Gould, who I met a time or two at local conventions, and he was fun on panels. "Jumper" is a story of a guy who puts his powers of teleportation to a "good use" by teleporting into bank vaults, robbing them and setting himself up with a life of leisure. He continues to do that until he attracts attention of a guy who hunts jumpers. Yes, that's a plural: there is handful of other people in the world who have this inborn psychic ability. Confrontation ensues, wherein the two parties chase one another across the world's most scenic backdrops. To be sure, I haven't seen other movies that exploited the potential of teleportation to spice up boring old fistfights. You punch a teleporter in the face on Mount Everest, and he lands on a pyramid in Egypt. Or something like that. But that's where artistic and conceptual merits of the movie ended. The plot was completely empty. The stakes were not high enough to keep the plot suspenseful. There was no "the fate of the world hinges on the good guy's success" cliche to make you care about the outcome. While the protagonist was easy to sympathize with, I personally didn't see why we, the viewers, should be on his side, as if he was entitled to the life of luxury and ease he made by abusing his unique powers. On the other hand, the motivation of the guys who hunted the jumpers is even harder to fathom. It's not like they wanted to avenge the harm done by jumpers robbing banks. Rather, they come across as far more evil than jumpers, because they torture and kill jumpers for no good reason, except perhaps a supernatural revulsion. The only justification that escapes the main baddie's lips is "only God can be in many places at once".

Or maybe the baddies were just jealous of the jumpers ill-gotten gains? Maybe not, because towards the end of the movie we find out that the bad guys have a teleportation machine! This strikes another blow to the movie's credibility. Are we to understand somebody invented a teleportation machine, and kept it secret from anyone else on Earth? That's plain ridiculous.

I chatted with some FACT people after the show, and they said the movie had hardly anything to do with Steven Gould's book! The hunters were entirely a Hollywood invention. They don't exist in the book. Instead, the story is about the guy facing the consequences of his actions (bank robbing) and coming around to use his powers for the good of the humanity. I think I would have liked this kind of plot much better, but apparently that's not what the Hollywood allows me to want.

Monday, February 11, 2008

New reasons not to use XO!

It may be hard to believe that my XO experience could become even worse, and yet it did. I must admit that as much as I curse it, I still use it. I don't have much choise: my de-trackpad'ed Fujitsu laptop is no longer mobile, because using an external mouse means having to find a flat surface to move it around on, and that's often infeasible when I'm out and about. So I'm still using XO as my mobile computing device.

But lately the XO laptop has given me two new reasons not to use it. In fact, it has declared it won't tolerate my presence any more.

1. One (if not more) of its keys is sticking. It is, unfortunately, one of the "key" keys, heh heh. I don't even know precisely which one it is, but I think it's Ctrl, or Alt, or some such key that modifies the behavior of other keys. It malfunctioned in the worst possible way: it's acting as if it is always pressed. So when I press any other key, the computer reacts as if I issued a special command, and does something unpredictable. And no, I did not spill anything on the keyboard :-) The funny thing is that it does not stick all the time. When I boot the lappy, all the keys work fine for a short while, and then out of the blue the problem starts. So the laptop has become practically unusable.

But that's not all.

So far the biggest perk I got out of my XO ownership was not the computer itself, but a free subscription to T-Mobile wireless access. T-Mobile rewarded "Give 1, get 1" customers with a year of free access to its hotspots. It's been a good deal so far because all Starbucks are T-Mobile hotspots, and there is a Starbucks on every corner, so my WiFi-enabled pasture has become much bigger. And I can use the subscription with any wireless device, not just with XO. So far so good.

Guess what I've read in the news yesterday?

Starbucks to Offer Free Wi-Fi With AT&T

Starbucks Corp. and AT&T Inc. will start offering a mix of free and paid wireless Internet service in most of the global coffee retailer's U.S. shops, beginning this spring.

The move announced Monday ends a six-year Starbucks partnership with T-Mobile, which did not include free Wi-Fi and charged higher fees than AT&T will.

So my T-Mobile access is about to become worthless. I don't know of any of their hotspots outside of Starbucks (well, there is one at a Borders' bookstore, but I haven't been able to connect to it). Oh well, it's seriously time to look for a computer museum to donate my XO to (since I now believe that these laptops, far from taking the world by storm, will become, to quote a friend, "tech curios".

It's high time for me to buy a new "real" laptop. I have a few ultra-portable candidates in mind, but I haven't seen them in stores, and I am squeamish about buying a laptop on the internet sight unseen.

By the way, the Starbucks news is not all bad:

Starbucks said it will give customers who use a Starbucks purchase card two hours of free wireless access per day.

So if I limit my Starbucks visits to 2 hours (and I rarely have the time for a longer stay), I should still be able to enjoy free WiFi. But definitely on a different laptop.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Book review of John Scalzi "Android's Dream"

Many people post book reviews on their blogs, but I usually post reports on reading group discussions. In my general opinion, a survey of what a bunch of people said about a book is more informative than my opinion alone. While it is often true, sometimes we have discussions that are not very informative. This usually happens when instead of analyzing a book in depth, people chat about various cute, trivial bits of it that they liked. (Usually it happens with books that are not very deep themselves. :-)) As a result I sometimes look at the discussion report and realize it contains no clue whether a particular novel is worth reading. So once in a while I'll haughtily assume that my own opinion may be more informative than a survey of others' opinions. Today is one of such days, and John Scalzi's "Android's Dream" is one of those books.

I got started on this book in a skeptical frame of mind. The cover blurb clearly showed this lighthearted space romp did not exemplify "literature of ideas", the kind of SF I like best. Indeed, if you check out its summary on Amazon --

"An interstellar scandal explodes when a human diplomat assassinates an alien diplomat by farting at him, albeit using a scent-emitting communicator. To forestall interspecies war, the government enlists former war hero and current uberhacker Harry Creek. His mission: to placate the aliens by finding a unique form of sheep used in the aliens' upcoming coronation ritual."

it becomes obvious that the value of this novel lies mostly in the humor. The fact that it opens with a very elaborate fart joke also didn't encourage me to read further. The only reason I read it was because John Scalzi is the Guest of Honor at the upcoming ArmadilloCon.

But I liked it! It's a really fun book. There is humor, there are unexpected plot twists, there is irony, there is neat technological trivia. Scalzi very humorously merges the familiar with the alien, the mundane with the high-tech. Harry Creek and his damsel-in-distress Robin escape the Earth on a cruise liner; later, its endless buffets, slow elevators, plush lounges and obnoxious picture-snapping tourists provide a comical backdrop for our protagonists' fight against lizard-like alien marines.

Then there is the way kosher laws provide inspiration for the legal argument that established Robin's citizenship status. That was a brilliant, or at least a very funny, twist. Using something so quaint and irrational as kosher laws to make an argument about legal implications of genetic engineering, is an example of what makes this book more than a source of cheap chuckles.

Neither the humor, nor suspense abates until the very few last pages. This thriller did a very good job in keeping me guessing how Creek and Robin are going to get out of all the tight spots they found themselves in.

By the way, it's not for nothing that I called Robin a damsel in distress. That's one real issue I take with this book. While Robin is tough, spunky, witty and unflappable, she does not have an independent role in the book. She just goes along for a ride with Harry, who calls all the shots. Her only purpose of existence is to be rescued by him. It's a bit of a throwback to how women used to be portrayed in SF of a less enlightened era.

Other than that, it's a really fun read.