Farewell, Crestwood Plaza

Farewell, Crestwood Plaza

The Sears anchor store at Crestwood Plaza near St. Louis closed in May 2012. It was a long, slow decline, and nobody knew what was next. More than five years later, there’s still nobody who knows what’s next.

I went there a couple of weeks before it closed, and I bought a multimeter at a heavy discount, but most of the kinds of things I would have been interested in buying were long gone. The rest of the old mall was mostly empty. The last of the smaller tenants left in 2013. Read more

Bernard the Legend

It was Friday or Saturday night and I was back from college. I don’t remember what the occasion was anymore, but I’m pretty sure it must have been 1993. I got together with some friends back home in St. Louis to blow off steam.

I did this a fair number of times when I was in college. I don’t remember what movie we saw and I barely remember who I was with. There’s no reason for me to remember that night. Except for one thing.

His name was Bernard. I worked in food service for 2 1/2 years, and one of my managers told us to be legendary. That was our location’s catchphrase. But in all my years, I’ve never encountered anybody in a restaurant more legendary than Bernard. Read more

Confessions and rememberances of an Amigaholic

Confessions and rememberances of an Amigaholic

My name is Dave. I am an Amigaholic.

I thought I was recovered. But I don’t think you ever recover. Not really.

You see, this week I was trolling Craigslist for garage sales. I look for trains, toys for my boys, and other things that strike my fancy. I spotted a sale that advertised an Amiga computer. I shouldn’t have put it on my list, but I did. I didn’t want to buy it, but I had to see it. I had to. Like I said, you don’t recover.

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The St. Louis tornadoes of 2010

I don’t normally post stuff like this, as weather posts are usually mundane. Today was a little different. We had tornadoes touch down in the St. Louis area today.

At about noon, we took cover in our basement. By 12:10, it was over. Sometime while the wind was raging and the sirens were going off, a crazy UPS driver dropped off some packages for delivery. The packages stayed put during the scare. Some areas to the north weren’t as lucky. Sunset Hills sustained 150 MPH winds.

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Release Watson, IBM. Now.

Remember Deep Blue? The computer that beat Gary Kasparov? It seems IBM’s next target might be a Jeopardy-playing computer.

Whether this computer can ever beat Ken Jennings at Jeopardy is irrelevant. If it were commercialized, this thing could change everything overnight.The New York Times article goes into it. Here’s the thing. Being good at Jeopardy requires several skills, one of which is being able to retain and cross-reference information. Watson is amazing at that. Better than a human being, right now. Second is being able to understand questions. It might be better at understanding a tricky question than my two-year-old son, but not much. It’s better than any other computer I’ve seen.

When I played the demo hosted at the New York Times, I won, but it came down to the last question. Mostly it came down to the questions that included puns and, let’s face it, misuses and abuses of language.

But in the real world, we don’t ask questions like Alex Trabek does on Jeopardy. At least we don’t if we don’t want our colleagues to hit us with a broom. And in the real world, we don’t mind re-phrasing a question when we have to, if it gets us better answers.

The article in the Times cited a possible application. Feed Watson all available medical journals and textbooks. It could then dispense medical advice. But would a surgeon trust it when seconds count?

I think that’s the wrong question. In trial runs playing Jeopardy, Watson isn’t at its best when seconds count, which is why Ken Jennings will probably beat Watson every single time.

But imagine situations where there’s lots of available time. A patient is describing symptoms. Enter the symptoms into Watson. What does Watson think? But more importantly, why does Watson think that? Watson should spit out the opinion and the articles that led it to that conclusion. Let the doctor read the articles and come to a reasoned conclusion.

What about when seconds count? Run drills through Watson when seconds don’t count, so doctors can practice their imprecise science and get better. Don’t rely on the technology directly when seconds count–rely indirectly instead.

But doctors aren’t the only ones who can benefit from Watson. I once worked someplace that referenced every shred of data it had through a search engine called htdig. It was next to useless. It could give me a list of documents that contained words I was looking for, but had no way to rank them. It was marginally better than connecting to a file server and using FIND or FINDSTR or grep from a command line. Which was something that’s worked since at least 1990, possibly longer.

Today I work someplace that has a Google search appliance. It’s marginally better than htdig. But not much. When a complicated question comes across my desk, I still spend 8 hours digging through semi-relevant documents in search of an answer.

Watson provides a different approach. Ask Watson how far apart two computers have to be in order to avoid TEMPEST, by policy. Because of its ability to link related concepts, it would be able to spit out an answer, and an excerpt from each document that led it to believe that. A question that takes me hours to answer (unless I know it off the top of my head) takes minutes to answer instead.

Even when Watson is wrong, it’s still useful. It got that opinion from somewhere, right? Read those documents. It could be the problem is that the available documents contradict themselves. So Watson could expose holes in policy and/or technical documentation that nobody is aware of.

The problem with the Information Age is that humans now are burdened with information overload. There’s too much useless information out there. A technology like Watson offers the possibility of filtering through all the noise and showing us what’s relevant. And, used creatively, it could tell us what we know but forgot to write down anywhere.

At first the idea of a computer capable of making decisions and beating Ken Jennings at Jeopardy scared me. And it probably should. But that’s not what Watson is. It’s not good enough right now to do either of those things, and, frankly, I think morally we shouldn’t make a machine and put it in charge of making life-or-death decisions for us.

But it’s good enough to change the world right now. So I think it needs to be commercialized, however that looks. One of the problems is cost, since it requires $1 million worth of hardware to run on.

Offer it as a $10 million box for governments and huge companies to use to untangle their mess of documents. The U.S. government should be clamoring to feed all it knows about Pakistan, Afghanistan, al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden into it, then ask where Osama bin Laden is, if only to see what answer it gives. It may not be able to answer that question, but I’ll bet it could answer lots of other important ones.

Feed the entire contents of The New York Times into it and charge a subscription to ask it questions. I’m sure Google could find a way to commercialize it by feeding the contents of Google Books into it.

For that matter, IBM could feed the documentation for all of its products into a standalone instance of Watson, and call it a technical support site. In reality it would just be the world’s foremost expert on AIX, DB2, Tivoli, Lotus Domino, and whatever else IBM owns these days. Why would I ever spec a competing product when I could ask IBM any question and get really good answers in seconds?

I hope IBM realizes what it has here. I really hope IBM realizes what it has. But I fear it may not.

Lightning storm last night…

So the site was down quite a bit because my DSL modem was having a hard time holding on to a connection. I spent a fair bit of time aiming a camera out my bedroom window, then out on my porch, trying to get some shots. What I was seeing was beautiful. I hope the camera was seeing beautiful stuff too, but chances are I got a fair bit of Missouri Gray too.
I had a very long, very pleasant conversation yesterday with someone I hadn’t seen in 8 years. I’ve been running into a lot of people I haven’t seen in 8 years lately, but this was far and away the longest I’ve talked with any of them. Let’s just say if I could have any job in the world, this person’s would be high on my list. But this person is infinitely more qualified for the job than me. Why? It’s in that person’s story. And I have no right to tell it. A few names and a few places came up in conversation, and they triggered some old memories, which triggered some news accounts that I looked up for someone as a favor years ago. I know what was in the papers, but that doesn’t mean I understand.

Five years ago I probably would have told the story anyway. But not now. Why? I can’t put it any better than this person did. Unfortunately I don’t remember exact words, so I’ll paraphrase. When you’re dealing in news, you just write the facts, and your perspective is plenty. When you’re dealing with people’s emotions, it’s a completely different approach.

Yes, this person is also a professional writer, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the story, told from a first-person perspective, in print some day. And I’m not in the news business anymore.

And now I know you’ll probably be coming back for a long time, looking for a link. I know what I’m doing… (And I’m perfectly happy in a setup role.)

Oh yeah. I had another conversation yesterday. I mentioned something about being borderline healthy–at 140 pounds in combat boots and with a week’s worth of change in my pockets, I’m at the barely healthy weight for my height. (I’m 5’9 1/2″ in combat boots.) My cholesterol is just high enough to be healthy. My friend asked where specifically. I don’t remember numbers but I remember it being low enough to impress the doctor. Then he said there’s a weird correlation between low cholesterol rates and suicide rates. People with low cholesterol are more prone to suicide. It turns out that lower cholesterol results in lower seratonin levels, and seratonin is necessary for a healthy mind.

I’ve always had low cholesterol, and I’ve always been prone to symptoms that are consistent with low seratonin levels like depression and general dissatisfaction. And it seems to me that yes, during the times when I ate lots of red meat, at least this year, I was happier. When I’m really good and don’t eat red meat or ice cream for a long stretch of time, I seem to be more prone to go into a funk.

No wonder that pizza joint on Watson Road is called Happy Joe’s Pizza and Ice Cream Parlor… I think I need to pay Happy Joe a visit this week and make a new habit. Quadruple pepperoni, please. And ice cream. What? Ice cream with or after dinner? Now that’s a silly question. Before!

01/07/2001

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HD; disk I/O tweaking

There was cause for celebration last night. And celebration means dinner at Courtesy Diner, where the specialty is the heart attack on a plate. That pretty much means anything but the pancakes, but the favored selection is usually some combination of chili, eggs and hash browns–known here in St. Louis at least as a slinger.

So Gatermann and I had our slingers as we listened to the denizens’ weird selections on the jukebox, then we headed out to a world-famous St. Louis landmark–Ted Drewes’ Frozen Custard. We were surprised to find it wasn’t busy, because it was the first warm Saturday we’ve had in weeks. It was actually over 30 degrees and the snow was melting, but the wimps stayed home. Going to Ted Drewes’ and not having to wait in line for 20 minutes is a rarity. I’ll have to remember that January is the time to go there. In August, that place is lined up well out into the street. Incidentally, there’s a Baskin-Robbins right next door that makes a killing off people who decide fast service and air conditioning sound a whole lot better than waiting forever in line in the world-infamous St. Louis heat and humidity.

As for why Ted Drewes’ is any better than any other frozen custard in the world, I haven’t figured that out. I think it’s nostalgia as much as anything. It’s just about the last remaining landmark in St. Louis on what used to be U.S. 66, a road so famous that there used to be a TV show about it. I know it’s even known in Europe, because Depeche Mode recorded a heavily synthesized version of that show’s theme song in the late 1980s.

Well, Route 66, now known as Missouri 366–you can tell the difference between a city slicker and a countian by what they call 366, because it’s Chippewa in the city, but Watson in the suburbs–pretty much looks like any other metropolitan drag these days. Its distinctive features are mostly gone.

They tore down the 66 Park-In Theatre (where many a St. Louisan was conceived) and the Coral Courts motel (where Bonnie and Clyde hid out, and also where many a St. Louisan was conceived) back in 1993, so what’s left? A bunch of strip malls, as well as real malls infested with 14-year-olds trying to look 25. Well, that and a run-down custard stand with hand-lettered plackards announcing the day’s specials. It’s easy to see what has the most charm.

So we got our custard and entertained ourselves by watching 16-year-olds driving in what’s left of the snow. One of them peeled out in the parking lot and just about nailed a dumpster with his mom’s minivan.

Yes, a good St. Louis celebration.

Oh yeah, I forgot to say what the cause was.

I made it over to Gatermann’s around 5 or so. I’d suggested over the phone that he try disabling the L2 cache on Tim Coleman’s PC and see what happens. Well, when I got there, Tim’s computer was sitting there at a command prompt–further than it had been in a long time. He popped in a Windows Me CD, and it made it through the installation. Parts of it were fast, but the final stage was painfully slow. We didn’t complain though–it was working. We got it installed and Tom did some quick-and-dirty optimization (I taught him everything I know). Then I took the helm. I re-enabled the L2 cache, and nothing. It started booting, but at the point where the floppy drive should seek, it kicked into 132-column text mode and gave me a flashing cursor in the upper left. I powered down, powered back up, entered the BIOS, turned off the L2 cache again (no original Celeron jokes please), and the old Cyrix fired right up. Ironically, the CPU is one of the few parts we haven’t blown yet on this thing.

So we ran through it, concluded that the speed is acceptable for what Tim uses it for, and called him up with the good news. I probably ought to give the board a thorough examination under magnification to make sure there’s nothing physically wrong with it and maybe try another CPU in it, but since I was lacking both a CPU and magnification at the moment and the system was working, that would wait.

So it was off to dinner, without Tim because he’s remodeling his kitchen. We would have offered to help, but Tim doesn’t trust either one of us with power tools. So we didn’t.

I’d say we thought of Tim as we watched the teenagers make fools of themselves in the parking lot, but he’d probably be offended. Besides, I’d be lying.

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