Category Archives: Technology

Paper and the square root of 2

Did you know that in the ISO paper size system, the height-to-width ratio of all pages is the square root of two (1.4142 : 1)? I had no idea, but it explains a lot; particularly why folding a sheet of A4 in half produces two sheets of A5, etc. Believe it or not, such a convenient format was not established arbitrarily, but has in fact a mathematical basis.

Markus Kuhn has an interesting site that tells you everything you were wondering about international standard paper sizes.

Two sheets of A4 make one sheet of A3

Virtual plane-spotting

My better half flew to New York last week on business, and I took the opportunity to update my knowledge of online air traffic tracking applications (as you do). To my surprise I found that things have moved on significantly in the last couple of years.

It’s still possible to listen to live air traffic control communications for several airports in the USA. For example, JFK’s ATC is available in Windows Media Player format at Of course, it’s more interesting if you understand ATC jargon, but several ATC glossaries are easily accessible online.

CheapTickets Flight Tracker

CheapTickets Flight Tracker

The oldest flight tracker for North America of which I’m aware is still available care of the CheapTickets web site. It displays a map of the region over which the flight is flying and uses Java to move an aircraft icon across the map as the flight progresses. Three instrument dials indicate speed, heading and altitude.

FlyteComm's flight information page

FlyteComm’s route map

Now a few more flight trackers have taken off. FlyteComm offers real time flight information, including current position and altitude for any flight in the USA or Canada. It provides a stationary map of the world with an icon indicating the aircraft’s position and details about the weather at the relevant destination.

Lycos Flight Tracker route map

Lycos Flight Tracker route map

The Lycos Travel Flight Tracker, provided courtesy of FlightView, offers similar information for all flights in the US and Canada, and illustrates the flight path on a map.

Airport Monitor 2.0 uses a stationary map to display the position of all the air traffic in a given airspace, not just a single flight. In the case of JFK, for example, the aircraft icons are colour coded: blue for those landing at JFK, green for those departing JFK, and red for whichever JFK flight you select with your mouse. Details for your selected flight, such as altitude and aircraft type are provided as well.

Airport Monitor 2 for JFK

Airport Monitor 2 for JFK

It’s a veritable plane-spotter’s heaven, but why would anyone go to the trouble of providing all this information for free? Well, it seems it’s all about airport PR. Here’s the explanation from the company’s web site:

Give Neighbors A Better View Of Your Flight Operations

Until you let airport communities see the airspace with their own eyes, you will never create the trust and partnership you need. After all, seeing is believing. Our web-based visual tools help transform community relations by putting clear arrival and departure information at the fingertips of your neighbors.

When local residents have a clearer picture about what’s happening in the air above them, it’s better for the community. And the airport. Planes make noise. But neighbors don’t have to — if you’ve given them the right tools to understand the airport’s operations.

That strikes me as a fairly enlightened approach to community relations, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it helps. Perhaps such a system would have prevented that ridiculous case of plane-spotter spying that occurred in Greece not long ago. On the other hand, I suspect diehard plane-spotters would argue that there’s no substitute for the real thing.

Copy chaos

Last week Halley Suitt wrote about the decreasing need to backup her computer, now that many of her most frequent tasks are carried out online. By using Yahoo for her email and Blogger for her weblog, she no longer has many important documents on her own computer. As she explained, even producing paper copies is convenient and easy:

I’m in the habit too of looking for my most recent CV or copy of a story as an attachment to email that I may have sent someone and even the act of attaching and sending, is in a way, a form of back-up. Again, if I’m out and need to get a CV to someone, I can go into Kinko’s, use their computer, go to my Yahoo email, check my sent documents, get the attachment that was my most recent CV and print it.

On Thursday came news that Halley’s approach is causing serious problems for larger businesses: BBC News | Technology | Document deluge threatens firms.

Documents can be copied so easily that most workers spend lots of time finding the latest version of contract or proposal they are collaborating on…

“E-mail has become a kind of document repository by proxy,” said Mr Pearson [who commissioned the research], “a lot of people are spending a lot of time looking for the latest version of a document.”

Next week iSociety is publishing the results of its research on the use of technology by British companies (see iSociety seminar: getting by, not getting on), and it doesn’t sound good:

…the reports [sic] major conclusion [is] that many UK organisations suffer from a ‘low-tech equilibrium’, and could do more to make the most out of the technology they have. Unskilled staff, uninterested management and disconnected IT people characterise too many UK workplaces.

That last statement certainly corroborates my experience. The staff uses IT, but can’t change it; management doesn’t use IT and doesn’t understand how it can help; and the IT department eats, sleeps and breathes IT, but isn’t in the real world.

Textbook arbitrage

How’s this for a foolish celebration of conspicuous consumption?

Mr. Sarkis said [Williams College’s] campus bookstore made the high costs [of textbooks] all too visible. “They really rubbed it in,” he said. “If you were the highest spender of the day, they’d ring this little bell and say they had a new winner, and give you a lollipop. I got the lollipop twice.”

The unwanted recognition backfired on the campus bookstore because Sarkis and another student were motivated to set up in competition against it. They now import textbooks from overseas and sell them to American students for much less than the US market price.

What a role reversal that is! I have lived most of my life in countries that envy America’s standard of living. Canadians are always complaining that their taxes are unreasonably higher than those in the United States, and in both Britain and Canada many consumer goods are known to be more expensive than in the US. Now, thanks to the Internet, American students are discovering what it feels like to pay more than others (see Students Find $100 Textbooks Cost $50, Purchased Overseas in The New York Times).

Interestingly, the Association of American Publishers is arguing that foreign sales have to be priced according to the local market and are simply an added bonus for America’s GDP. In other words, the costs incurred in producing the book must be recouped from the domestic market (i.e. American students), after which sales of foreign editions (at very little additional cost) simply contribute to the publisher’s profit.

It’s a real shame the record companies don’t apply the same reasoning to the pricing of music CDs. Recorded music would be much cheaper in Canada and Britain if they did! In fact, why stop there? All Hollywood’s costs could be recouped in the US, and then all movies and CDs could be virtually free everywhere else. I think it’s a great idea.

More seriously, marketing specialists would have you believe that pricing is a complicated process in itself; but I’ve come to the conclusion that most businesses simply set prices as high as they can until sales start to suffer. CDs are expensive in the UK because people are simply willing to pay more for music. Similarly, textbooks are more expensive in the US because American students are relatively wealthy and are prepared to pay more than students elsewhere.

Pricing is a part of business strategy, of which the most honest description is to be found in What Management Is by Joan Magretta and Nan Stone:

Business executives are society’s leading champions of free markets and competition, words that, for them, evoke a world view and value system that rewards good ideas and hard work, and that foster innovation and meritocracy.… All the talk about the virtues of competition notwithstanding, the aim of business strategy is to move an enterprise away from perfect competition and in the direction of monopoly.

…The game may be moving faster, and the advantages may be shorter lived, but the objective is the same: figuring out how to hide from competition, or dampen it, or constrain it, so that you can earn superior returns.

No wonder American students are feeling abused. Luckily for them, however, the power is shifting. The Internet is making it harder for publishers to hide.

Coupled with a hardware refresh

Recently Robert Fulford wrote an entertaining article in Canada’s National Post in which he gently poked fun at modern society’s use of colloquial slang (see Words for a young century). Here’s his opening paragraph with added emphasis for anyone who may not be quite up to date with the latest lingo:

When I’m in the zone I sometimes think the English language began a process of change on or about Jan. 1, 2000. I have the sense that all of us are now busy inventing new, specifically 21st-century ways to talk and write. Is that weird or what? It’s impossible to prove, of course, and my more cautious friends will warn me against so rash a theory. Don’t go there, is how they’ll put it. But I’m stepping right up to it, because in this business, the word business, you stay focused or somebody comes along and eats your lunch. And that’s something with which, frankly, I have issues.

I have never understood the need to invent such confusing metaphors, and I frequently wonder how they ever get started. Don’t go there will always seem like a traffic instruction to me. It’s what a one-way sign would say if it could speak, and I have greater linguistic expectations for human beings than I do for traffic signs.

However, our world seems increasingly riddled with inarticulate successful humans. Here’s Bill Gates no less, responding in the Financial Times to the question Will Office 2003 become popular quickly?

Many times, the reason we have lags for the new version of Office is that it only works on fairly new hardware, partly because of the way we did these features, and partly because of how powerful hardware’s got. This thing works super good even on a three-year-old machine. So it doesn’t have to be coupled with any type of hardware refresh.

Coupled with a hardware refresh? What he means of course is that you won’t need to buy a new computer to run Microsoft Office 2003, which should help to make it become popular quickly. It’s highly ironic that the world’s richest man, who made his fortune developing and selling products designed to facilitate communication, should be so inarticulate himself.

The psychology of geeks

In Geeks and Promotion Anil Dash suggests:

There are many kinds of geeks in the world, and I think I tend to know at least one of each variety. But a common personality trait among a lot of the smartest, most creative people I know is that they’re not inclined to do a lot of self-promotion…

I find that most of my friends and acquaintances who create truly visionary works aren’t really against promotion, it’s just not a skill that they cultivate for themselves…

I think part of the reason is cultural, as programmers have always had a mistrust and even a contempt for the suits, for the marketers who just want to pimp a product, developmental realities be damned.

Well the reason may be partly cultural, but it’s also definitely psychological. Here’s an excerpt from The Trouble with Computers: Usefulness, Usability and Productivity by Thomas K. Landauer (1995):

Software engineers (another name for programmers and system designers) tend to have different personalities, different approaches to the world, from the rest of us.

Programming attracts twice the proportion of introverts in the general population and three times the number of “intuitive” thinkers (Tognazzini 1992)1. Introverts prefer their own thoughts to social interaction. Intuitive thinkers prefer the products of their imaginations to humdrum reality; they solve problems by visual imagery and insight rather than by plodding logic or investigation. These traits apparently suit people for the largely independent, sometimes lonely work of programming and to creating the intricately complex and abstract structures of software systems. It is unlikely that they help a person understand the majority, who would rather interact with co-workers than computers and who prefer to think about simple, concrete problems.”

1. Tognazzini, B. (1992). Tog on Interface. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Give me the world inside my head any day.

An Internet Bestseller

Given the boom and bust, the long-term impact of the Internet on business largely remains to be seen, but there’s at least one industry where its effect is a huge improvement: the sale of antiquarian books.

Believe it or not, but the impact of the Internet on the sales of used books was far from certain. Would the improved ability to find specific books increase demand and sales sufficiently to offset any decline in prices that might occur if customers could easily shop around? That’s the question Björn Frank and Guntram Hepperle asked at the University of Hohenheim in Germany at the end of 2000. In the abstract to their paper entitled The Internet’s Impact on the Market for Antiquarian Books: Some Unexpected Empirical Results (click here for the whole paper in PDF format)
they concluded:

Though there is a considerable variance in most books’ prices, we do not observe the expected negative correlation between price and share of internet sales (in relation to a seller’s total sales). We find other factors which have a systematic impact on prices, but with respect to the Internet, our main result is that e-business currently contributes little or nothing to driving prices downwards.

Memoirs of Mrs. Rebecca WakefieldI have to say that I’m not surprised. Yesterday a biography of one of my distant cousins arrived in the post from Hoffman’s Bookshop in Columbus, Ohio. The third edition of Memoirs of Mrs. Rebecca Wakefield: Missionary in East Africa was published in 1888 and written by the subject’s brother, Robert Brewin. I only discovered this book two weeks ago in the course of doing some family history research, and yet thanks to the information superhighway I already have my own copy and Hoffman’s Bookshop has another satisfied customer.

Although I purchased the book from Hoffman’s, the transaction was brokered by, which “connects those who buy books with those who sell them, providing abundant selection at affordable prices”. The Memoirs of Mrs. Rebecca Wakefield was only the second book I have purchased in this way, but I’m in the market for a third, and thanks to’s “want list” feature there’s every chance that I’ll find it eventually.

Last week when I was searching for the Memoirs of Mrs. Rebecca Wakefield there was only one copy to be found, so comparing prices was impossible; but in my limited experience prices on the Internet for books in a similar condition are also similar. So the real benefit the Internet brings is the ability to track the books down in the first place. There’s no way I would have found copies of my books without the Internet.

Of course, there’s another benefit. I have yet to set foot within 250 miles of Columbus. In fact, I’ve never been to Ohio at all; and now, fortunately, I don’t have to — at least not to spend time in its bookshops.

Update: For more on the Canadian success story see Giants and behemoths in The Globe and Mail.

Mobile phone snaps taking off

The headline above caught my eye, but it turns out that to date only a small fraction of the UK mobile phone-carrying public has bought a new “camera phone”. I didn’t think they’d catch on because I couldn’t imagine what people would want to photograph on a regular, if not daily, basis. Now I know:

… the most popular subject is drunken people taking pictures of themselves larking about in pubs.

Yet another example of modern technology being put to the best possible use. For the full story see BBC NEWS | Technology | Mobile phone snaps taking off.

I’m Impressed

Inland Revenue LogoWell, I wouldn’t have believed it possible! I have already received my tax refund for last year. I only filed my return on January 28 and my bank confirmed that the money was deposited directly into my account by the Inland Revenue on February 3. That’s only seven days after filing, and it includes a weekend. Since it takes the banks three business days to transfer funds, it means that the Inland Revenue had processed my tax return within two days of receiving it. I’m sure this amazing accomplishment is largely due to filing electronically and having relatively simple tax affairs, but it bodes well for e-government initiatives in the future. Who’d have thought that eliminating the need for civil servants to do data entry would result in such a huge improvement in performance? I am truly impressed.