I'm Mike Pope. I live in the Seattle area. I've been a technical writer and editor for over 35 years. I'm interested in software, language, music, movies, books, motorcycles, travel, and ... well, lots of stuff.

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The main thing you don't learn with a CS degree is how to develop software, although you will probably build up certain muscles in your brain that may help you later if you decide that developing software is what you want to do.

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<July 2024>



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Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 7:54 AM Pacific

  10:24 PM

I’ve been trying to like Lime bikes

Some little while ago—a year? 9 months?—a rainbow of brightly colored bicycles sprouted in Seattle. All of a sudden dockless bike sharing had arrived. There were three vendors and three colors: Ofo (yellow), Spin (orange), and Lime (green, duh):

Dockless was a new thing. Seattle had had a flirtation with docked bikes (company name Pronto!), but that didn’t work out. Part of the reason, surely, was that docked bikes could be picked up and dropped off only at certain points in Seattle, and those were concentrated downtown. Dockless bikes, on the other hand, can be practically anywhere. There’s no stand or station. Using an app on your phone, you locate a bike close to you (they’re all GPS tracked). When you find a bike, you unlock it with the app, hop on, and ride wherever you want. When you’re done, you get off, lock the bike, and walk away.

A key point is that it’s literally wherever. People take these bikes onto the light rail and presumably leave them in far-flung neighborhoods. The companies hope that you will leave the bike well parked in a convenient location, but they can't enforce this, so bikes show up all over the place.

Another appeal of the dockless bikes is that they're cheap to rent: you can ride for one dollar. (More on that in a moment.) This makes dockless bikes great for a kind of impulse ride—you want go for a ride, or you need to get someplace, and hey, here’s one of those bike right there. One dollar and 30 seconds later you’re riding.

Initial experience

I have a two-part commute. Normally I ride the train (light rail) from our apartment to downtown Seattle. From there I take a bus to Fremont, the neighborhood where our office is. At some point, however, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to get off the train downtown; the train goes to the University of Washington, which is about 2-1/2 miles from our office. I can then take a bus from the U for my second leg. Or, as it occurred to me, I could ride a bike.

So I gave it a try. I installed the app, and after getting off the train at the U, I used the app to locate a bike. I found one, unlocked it, somewhat awkwardly got on, and pedaled away.

Well. My very first lesson is that these bikes are extremely … sturdy. 42 pounds, oof. As I also quickly learned, they have 8 gears, but they’re geared pretty low. (You shift by twisting the handle—easy!) Even on level ground, and even in the highest gear, you are working to move that bike. This is particularly evident if you’re riding on a bike trail, because people on sleeker bikes are constantly whizzing past you.

This is understandable, of course. Both parts, I mean. For the sturdy part, if you’re designing a bike to withstand both the elements and people’s inevitably casual use, you favor something that can take some knocks. And for the gearing part, you need low gears so that people can just get the danged thing moving. Plus you’re accommodating a wide range of riders (weight, strength, skill), and you want a pretty low common denominator.[1]

Safety not first

The spontaneous nature of grabbing a dockless bike does have a downside—namely, that you’re unlikely to have thought to bring a helmet. Seattle ordinance requires a helmet, but the bike-share companies don’t provide. This is an interesting dilemma for me. I could carry a helmet around, but I use these bikes comparatively rarely, so that would mostly be dragging around the helmet for no reason. My approach for the time being is that when I do use a dockless bike, I don’t ride on city streets at all; I ride only on bike paths that are separate from the road.

The jalopy bike

The first ride was a learning experience. The second was as well, but in a different way—the gears slipped if I pedaled too hard, making for an unpleasant and even more laborious ride. And this I suppose underscores a different problem of these bikes, which is that people don’t treat them well. They’re rentals, after all, so people ride them hard, and let them fall, or worse:

I tried a few more times, but had one more incident of a slippy gear and a couple of bikes where the seat was loose or there was some other problem. My experience overall seems to have been typical—the Seattle Times did a test and concluded that only about 64% of Lime bikes were ridable. So between the crapshoot of a getting a bike that had problems and the more general prospect of having to work so hard to bike 3 miles, I didn't really embrace the whole idea, and I sort of forgot about Lime.

Chapter 2: Electronics to the Rescue

Somewhere along the line, Lime (only, afaik) introduced ebikes, which have an electronic assist to your pedaling. This makes sense in Seattle, which has a lot of hills. (It makes sense everywhere, but there are certain popular routes in Seattle that just don’t seem feasible with the normal Lime tank-bikes.) This re-piqued my interest in using a Lime bike for a leg of my commute, so I gave it a shot.

Oh. My. God. As soon as you step on a pedal the bike practically lunges off. It isn’t effortless, but the assist does a lot to overcome the inertia of the heavy bike, so it’s a very welcome improvement.

But there are some issues. One is that ebikes are extremely popular, so it can be a challenge, unlike the all-manual bikes, to find one nearby. A complicating factor is that the ebikes lose their charge, and Lime won’t unlock a bike that has less than 20% charge. Another issue, at least theoretically, is that local rules say you're not allowed to ride an ebike on a sidewalk or bike path, which means that you're legally only allowed to ride them on city street. Yeah, that's not going to happen. (As with the helmet laws, it remains to be seen whether the city will try to enforce this rule.)

And then I learned about the cost. As I noted, you can ride a manual bike for a dollar. The price for ebikes is one dollar plus 15 cents per minute from the moment you unlock. It had never occurred to me that the price would be different until I got notification from Lime that one my rides had cost me $3.40. Only then did I go back and check their pricing page, which does not even mention ebikes; I had to poke around to get the details on ebike pricing. This rather more substantial cost has given me pause. I mean, it's not like taking an Uber or anything, but I do have to ask myself just how much value I put on being able to pedal myself, albeit with electronic assist, to or from the train. At the moment, I'm riding a dockless bike maybe, dunno, every other week? Still cheaper than an unused gym membership, I suppose.

It's the future

Dockless bikes appear to be doing well in Seattle. There are currently about 10,000 bikes in Seattle, and for the months of May and June (which were clement), they were ridden an average of 7,000 times a day. The city of Bellevue, our cross-lake suburban sister city, is beginning its own experiment with dockless bikes. Just recently, Seattle expanded the charter for dockless bike companies, and we could have up to 20,000 of the bikes circulating through the city. (That's 4 companies times 5,000 bikes each, assuming the companies want to pay the fees that Seattle is asking.)

In the meantime, Lime is experimenting with new form factors. They have manual bikes and ebikes now; they're adding electric scooters, which we'll be seeing soon in Seattle:

Given my lack of balance, this does not seem like a vehicle I should be piloting. But who knows—maybe the lure of an inexpensive way to try one out will get me careering down the Burke-Gilman trail on a scooter. I'll let you know.

[1] I would be amused, tho not surprised, to see some sort of derby or race in which riders all use Lime bikes.

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  08:38 AM

Via the @AngrySeattle Twitter feed today[1], I discovered the 2017 Traffic Report (PDF) by the City of Seattle. The report is full of many data (most of which I have not studied), but I did home in on a chart that showed "Contributing Circumstances for all 2016 Collisions":

The chart has oddities. One is that the circumstances apparently come off incident reports or something, so they're not, like, taxonomically rigorous. ("Driver not distracted"? "None"? wth) Another is that the chart is arranged in alphabetic order by circumstance, which is, I believe, the least useful possible way to have arranged it. So I copied to an Excel sheet that lets me play with the data a bit, and that you can download if for some reason you want to.

If you read my recent and lengthy screed about maintaining a safe following distance while driving (Mind the gap), you can probably guess what I was most interested in in this chart. Here are the top 7 circumstances and the total number of collisions they caused:
  1. None: 9196
  2. Inattention: 2386
  3. Other: 2163
  4. Did not Grant Right of Way to Vehicle: 1570
  5. Unknown Driver Distraction: 1265
  6. Driver Not Distracted: 910
  7. Following Too Closely: 597
As I say, the categories are odd. If we focus on those circumstances that actually make sense, we can see that "Following Too Closely" accounts for 597 collisions. If we combine "Inattention"(2386), another circumstance I discussed in my screed, and what the heck …

"Driver Interacting with passengers, Animals, or Objects Inside Vehicle" (23),
"Driver Operating Other Electronic Devices" (10),
"Driver Operating Handheld Telecommunications Device" (6), and
"Driver Adjusting Audio or Entertainment System" (4),

… the total comes to 3026 collisions.

As I noted then, we tend to take driving for granted, and sometimes treat our cars like a living room. But you have to pay attention or collisions can result.

[1] They are true to that name.

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  09:58 PM

There's endless debate about whether raising taxes is bad for business. Unlike, I guess, many pundits and bloggers, I don't have the economic chops to get into that discussion.

However, I did recently run across an example of one quite unusual case in which extremely high taxes on a corporation, along with that company's strong desire to avoid paying those taxes, resulted in one of the great technological and commercial successes of the last, oh, 60 years. This I get from a fun little book named Jet Age: The Comet, the 707, and the Race to Shrink the World by Sam Howe Verhovek, which I am zipping through.

This all pertains to Boeing. These days, Boeing's position at the apex of the commercial-aviation industry seems like one of those givens of the business world. However, it was not always thus. Consider the years after WWII. The war had been very, very good to Boeing, which among other things manufactured lots and lots of bombers. The end of the war, however, brought what was referred to (with some irony, I hope) as the "peace problem," and Boeing laid off 38,000 workers in yet another of its boom-bust cycles. Other manufacturers, like Douglas and Lockheed, also had a "peace problem," but in the late 40s, those companies did much better than Boeing did in commercial transport, where Boeing had something like 1% of the market.

Then came 1950 and the Korean War, and this is where the tax part gets interesting. Here's the setup:
During the Korean War, Congress had put an "excess profits tax" in effect, intended to prevent military companies from making out too well because of increased demand during the war. As it happened, the law essentially defined "excess profits" as anything above what a company had made during the peacetime period of 1946 to 1949.
This was, as noted, a very lean period for Boeing. Therefore ... "as orders ramped up for the war, Boeing stood to face the 'excess profits' tax on virtually every dollar of its profits."

At the time, Boeing was run by Bill Allen, a man who had had no executive experience and no aviation or engineering experience when he first took the CEO job. In fact, Bill Allen had been a lawyer, but that proved to be an unusually good background for the next phase in the company's history.
Bill Allen the tax lawyer looked at the numbers and saw a golden opportunity. It worked like this: Because nearly all of its 1951 war-related earnings were considered "excess," the Boeing company would wind up owing eight-two cents of every dollar of profit to Uncle Sam. [...] What Bill Allen clearly saw was that now was the perfect time to plow a huge amount of company money into an audacious new development project. Why not? All of it would be a legitimate business expense, reducing the "profits" for the coming years, but so what? That was all money that would have gone to the government.
And what was this audacious new development project? I'm sure you can guess -- it was the "Dash-80," which you and I know by its eventual fleet name: the Boeing 707, the commercial jet transport that essentially defined the jet age. And, of course, catapulted Boeing into first place in commercial aviation, a position it's held ever since.

Dash-80 rollout, May 15, 1954

You have to admit that it's a great story. I doubt that many people would argue that imposing punishing taxes onto corporations is an ideal way to drive innovation. This one time, tho, that was the happy outcome.

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  01:42 AM

As about just everyone on the planet knows, the logo for Starbucks is a mermaid. The coffee lady has gone through a number of transformations, from this:

To the latest design:

As an aside, just for fun I want to note that this latter design is very cleverly used to decorate Starbucks HQ in Seattle (the erstwhile Sears store-cum-warehouse), with the sea-lady peeking out from the top of the building's "tower":

Ok, so, the question du jour is where this logo came from. Corporate mythology has it that the design was "originally derived from a twin-tailed siren in an old sixteenth-century Norse woodcut." Sounds plausible, right?

Not to everyone. As recounted in the Wall Street Journal blog, of all places, a graduate student at Yale who writes a blog named Got Medieval thought this sounded fishy (haha), because, for one, "there’s no such thing as a 16th-century Norse woodcut."

Long story short (i.e., edited), ...
The twin-tailed siren isn’t from a “marine book” at all. She’s from an early German printed book, Das Buch von einer Frawen genant Melusina, a translation of Jean d’Arras’s Roman de Melusine. Melusine tells the story of how the first male of the Lusignan line, Raimondin, met a beautiful woman at an enchanted fountain in the forest. After extracting a promise that he never try to find her on a Saturday, this woman, Melusine, gave him all her love and great wealth as well, promptly married him, and later bore him eleven sons. Naturally, Raimondin couldn’t leave well enough alone, tracked her down on Saturday and found her back at the magic fountain where she had reverted to her true form, a twin-tailed siren or serpent-lady.

So the Starbucks mermaid isn't a mermaid, she's a twin-tailed siren. And she most definitely did not come from a "16th-century Norse woodcut."

The Got Medieval blog calls this The Other Starbucks Mermaid Cover-Up. (If you compare the old and new logos, you'll deduce what the first cover-up was.) The entry expends a fair bit of scholarship on this issue and makes a case that the official story is, um, misremembered at best:
If medieval studies teach us anything, it’s to be extra cautious with origin stories. Just as there was almost certainly no conveniently named Trojan refugee Brutus who founded Britain (nor Turkus Turkey, nor Francus France), no sword in the stone that elected a Welshman the king of all England, no Donation given by Emperor Constantine of all his earthly power to the Catholic Pope, and no shape-changing serpent lady Melusine to sleep with the Count of Anjou, there was almost certainly no “sixteenth-century Norse woodcut” floating around Seattle in 1971. It’s far more likely that three businessmen and coffee afficianados searching for a symbol for their new coffee shop in Pike Place Market turned to the American edition of The Dictionary of Symbols — which, incidentally, was first published in that same year, 1971. But the urge to clean things up and make them more inspiring than they were is simply irresistible where one’s origins are concerned.
The number of people who feel a certain sense of vindication at having this cover-up exposed is, I imagine, fairly modest. Still, I do have sympathy for Carl S. Pyrdum, III, the stated author of the Got Medieval blog, who says he started the blog "as a place to gripe about how the mainstream media does not understand the Middle Ages." A significant number of posts on the Language Log, for example, are gripes about how the mainstream media (and people at large) don't understand language.

And really, anyone who's an expert at something can find it exasperating to encounter the largely uninformed ramblings of the rest of humanity about the expert's beloved field. Of course, that rarely results in a chance to rant about a major corporation and then have the WSJ pick up the story. So kudos to Got Medieval for this one.

Hat tip to Nancy Friedman, who passed along to me the info originally provided to her by John Ochwat.

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  07:33 PM

I got one of those robo-tickets not long ago, where you get caught on camera (or similar) and a week later you get a ticket in the mail. The infraction in question was that I'd crossed the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and not paid the toll. (For those of you not familiar with the topography, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge connects Tacoma on its east side to Gig Harbor on its west side.)

I sent the form back and requested a "mitigation hearing," in which admit that you committed the infraction, but you tell them that there were, well, mitigating circumstances.

This all happened shortly before Christmas. My wife and I had attended a social event in Tacoma, which, let me emphasize, is not where we live, and which I don't know all that well. On the way home, through a set of maneuvers that I absolutely can't reconstruct, instead of going northbound on I-5 toward home, we somehow ended up going westbound on SR 16. Moreover, we didn't even realize this until all of a sudden I saw a sign for the Narrows bridge. But by the time I saw the sign, we were past the last exit on the Tacoma side, so like it or not, we were going to cross that bridge and head toward Gig Harbor.

Under the circumstances, the reasonable thing to do is to go to the next exit, get off the highway, and turn back the way you came. Yes? That's what we did. The exit immediately after the bridge is Exit 8, which is for 24th St NW. We got off there, crossed over SR 16, then got back onto the highway going eastbound toward Tacoma.

Now, we know that the Tacoma Narrows Bridge is a toll bridge. I've even crossed it before (on the motorcycle). What was odd, then, was that after this U-turn that we did, we didn't encounter the tollbooth, which is on the eastbound side of SR 16. Instead, we merged onto the highway just a couple hundred feet from the bridge and sailed on across. I was willing to pay the toll (not without cursing myself for being an idiot), but we never even got a chance to do that. At that exact moment, it looked as if there was no toll if you somehow managed to get onto eastbound SR16 at Exit 8.

But of course, that isn't how it works. Apparently the onramp for Exit 8 is monitored by some of those "Good To Go" transponders that look for your prepaid pass. Which I of course don't have. So, as noted, the state cybercop tracked me down.

Here's how the system is laid out (click to see the Google Maps version):

Notice where the tollbooth is w/r/t Exit 8.

I'd bet a nickel (actually, I guess I'm betting $52, sort of) that there's a sign somewhere in the vicinity of the Exit 8 onramp that says something to the effect of "If you don't have a Good To Go pass, you can't use this exit." Or whatever. If there is such a sign, I didn't see it. (Neither did Sarah, fwiw.)

So that's the story I have for my mitigation hearing. If you were the judge, what would you say?

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  11:54 AM

In spite of living in Seattle, I don't often get to Seattle's Best Coffee[1], so I was unaware that before Christmas they'd launched a new campaign: their "Level" system. According to a press release[2], they're after "a radically simplified packaged coffee line designed to change the conventions of the coffee category."

The "levels" are basically roasts, with Level 1 being "Mild, light, and crisp" and Level 5 being "Bold, dark, and intense." They say that the level comes from roasting lingo, which makes sense ... in roasting.

Where this sounds odd to me, though, is when they accompany this with their "Find Your Level" come-ons. The problem, I think, is that they don't seem to have accounted for the idea that "level" also means, in non-roasting talk, things like "achievement" and "expertise." (Think levels in a game.) Thus, if my coffee "Level" is 1, does that mean I'm a beginner? And I should strive to move to a new level until I get to Level 5?

To me, it seems very hard to get away from this idea. I bounced this off a couple of people and got basically the same reaction from my limited sampling. Apparently if I were inclined to ever actually buy packaged coffee from SBC, I'd be perpetually stuck in Level 1. Sad.

I suppose it goes without saying that I also don't get what they mean by "change the conventions of the coffee category," but that just sounds like normal marketing hand-waving, where every change in package design is a radical overhaul of the industry. (I think the only company that can probably claim anything remotely like that is Apple, haha.)

Dunno, maybe it's a big success for them and they'll, you know, revolutionize the coffee industry. While I wait, tho, I guess I'll go make myself some more beginner coffee.

[1] Trivium: This was originally Stewart Brothers Coffee (also SBC). And boy, was I ever surprised to find out that they're part of Starbucks, after also being part of Torrefazione. Shows how little I know about the coffee business.

[2] Yet another annoyingly Flash-centric corporate website, arg.

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  05:15 PM

The Seattle area is experiencing record heat this week (~100 degrees). At work, Facilities has notified us that they're diverting HVAC resources to keep the computer labs cool and are encouraging us to find ways to reduce our heat impact.

I have contributed the following suggestion! Sending emails raises the temperature. As individual characters of an email are pushed through the Ethernet cables, they scrape the sides, which results in friction, which results in heat. (The bigger the characters, the more they drag along the sides of the cables.)

So to keep heat to a minimum, I am recommending that people:
  • Send as few emails as possible.
  • Keep them as short as possible.
  • Use small letters.
I think that this suggestion alone will reduce cooling load significantly.

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  12:06 PM

If you have any contacts at the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, or if you follow the gossip side of the cultural scene in Seattle, you certainly know that things have not been smooth in the relationship between the orchestra members and Gerard Schwarz, the music director. Just how not smooth, however, might be a surprise. The New York Times had an article on Sunday that recounts just how bad things have become:
The Seattle Symphony Orchestra has carried disharmony to new heights, lurching from crisis to crisis. There have been allegations of vandalism aimed at players, including a dented French horn and a razor blade planted in a mailbox; a players’ survey that condemned the conductor only to be deep-sixed by management; and lawsuits filed by players accusing the conductor of mental if not physical abuse.

It is a cautionary tale of how the relationship between performers and a long-term leader can go awry and how, in an artistic hothouse, a tangle of emotion and politics can veer out of control and take on a life of its own.
It's a tricky situtation. The problems are affecting morale and relationships all through the orchestra. At the same time, tho, Schwarz has basically put the orchestra on the map, and the board is presumably loath to mess with a formula that, from the perspective of fame, audience loyalty, and $$$, has been extremely successful.

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  07:29 AM

Microsoft is a very progressive company in a lot of ways, and one of those ways is in commuting. The company encourages carpooling (oops, "ride sharing") in various ways, some of those in conjunction with Metro, our local bus authority. Microsoft runs a fleet of shuttle buses so that people can get around the sprawling campus without having to drive. It subsidizes multi-zone bus passes at 100% so that employees can use local mass transit, an option I take full advantage of. And recently it's begun a private commuter bus service for selected areas around Seattle.

Nonetheless, an ongoing (in fact, worsening) problem is parking. Every building at Microsoft has an associated parking garage, and those garages are filled every day either near to or over capacity, depending on which particular area of campus you're on. In certain clusters of buildings, the company has implemented "valet parking," as it's called -- you leave your car, and a gang of parking attendants shifts cars around in the garage in a vehicular game of musical chairs. What with Microsoft being a tech company and all, when you emerge from the building and want your car, you can punch a specified number into your cell phone and they'll have the car waiting. (Is the theory.)

I don't know the specifics of zoning for parking in Redmond and Bellevue, the two cities that the main campus straddles, and it's unclear to me whether Microsoft attempts to overbuild parking capacity (perhaps to the legal limit) as it throws up yet another building. Clearly, however, the company's growth rate is resulting in an overwhelming demand for parking as thousands of new employees join the small city's worth that's already occupying the deceptively (and decreasingly) pastoral Champs de Microsoft.[1]

I was thinking about this (again) because we've been alerted by Security that there has been a rash of car break-ins in some of the garages, including the one for my building. This underscored a couple of curious things about the parking situation at Microsoft.

First, to park in one of the garages, you have to have a parking pass hanging from your mirror, which (it is alleged) is checked by Security on an ongoing basis.[2] However, anyone can just drive (or walk) into a garage. The garages are open, and the first security challenge is only when you get to the elevators. This has always struck me as being a bit light on security. In contrast there is, for example, Boeing. In parts of Renton, it seems that practically every direction you turn you run into a little guardhouse that blocks your access to another Boeing facility.[3] They don't mess around, those Boeing folks.

It also underscores that however progressive Microsoft is about commuting (and to be clear, I am double thumbs up on their efforts), ultimately Microsoft subscribes to the suburban notion that you should be able to simply drive right up to your destination. Free parking, like free sodas (and, apparently, towels in the locker rooms) is a sacred cow of campus culture, and the idea that Microsoft might either charge for parking, or provide highly limited parking for any of its facilities, would bring howls of protest from employees. I know plenty of people who work downtown, say, who would never dream of having employer-provided parking. Obviously, a high-density area like downtown is a somewhat different matter than the car-focused cities of Bel-Red. But if Microsoft charged a nominal fee for parking that was, dunno, equivalent to the price of a two-zone bus pass, I wonder how many more people would at least consider using the latter.

[1] Pardon my French.

[2] These change color every quarter. They also serve as a kind of mini-flag that identifies Microsoft employees in the wild as you see the parking passes hanging in cars around town, including often the jerk who's tailgating you. :-)

[3] In recent years, Boeing has been selling off portions of its Renton holdings to developers. And thank god, because now finally we have our very own Lowe's, Target, and PetSmart. Which are -- I kid you not -- like, 3 miles from the otherwise nearest Lowe's, Target, and PetSmart.


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  09:05 AM

It's crunch mode again. OTOH, Hawaii in 19 days.

The Tech Battle in Seattle. On the O'Reilly blog, Brady Forrest shows a map of Seattle that indicates where various tech companies -- Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, and Amazon among them -- are expanding their Seattle-area operations. This is good for jobs. Probably bad for traffic.[1] Bad (or good, depending on your POV) for real estate prices.

How to optimize your power strip. I've done some of this (esp w/r/t the UPS) and can recommend it.

Lawyers are always bad PR. Charles Miller has a cautionary tale: "What started as the opinion of a small number of commenters on a medium-traffic Australian forum site is now a portrait of a corporate bully trying to silence critics, splashed over the entire Internet."

The 7 Top employee bungles using Office. Philip Su recounts some of the ways in which Microsoft people have screwed up when using Office. As for #6, a guy I used to work with acquired the nickname "Hotstuff" after he received a, um, personal IM from his wife ... while presenting to the entire product unit.

[1] In case you haven't heard, Microsoft is starting a private shuttle service for employees who commute from selected areas. The company already subsizes bus passes at 100%.

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