Not making light of it, but if Georgia Tech can have their 2009 ACC Championship taken away over $300 worth of clothes, then Penn State should lose their football program forever. Here’s hoping the death penalty comes to State College. Soon.

RETRO TECH: Philips Velo 1

One of the hottest gadgets of Christmas 1997 was the Philips Velo 1. It was a Handheld PC (sometimes called a “palm top”) and it was absolutely tiny:


When closed, this bad boy was smaller than most paperback books. It ran a Philips MP3910 chip at a blistering 36.864 MHz (yes, that was sarcasm). It had 4 whole megabytes of RAM and 8 whole megabytes of storage space. It rocked a 480×240 monochrome monitor, had a built-in 14.4kbit/s modem and connected to your computer using RS-232.

It was, compared to even the cheapest Chinese knockoff electronic organizers of today, absolutely awful. But it was also bad ass! I could whip this puppy out at a bar or restaurant and people would crane their necks to get a peek at it. And connecting to the Internet via dial-up on this thing made a lot of people (even me) absolutely giddy! Seriously – it almost seemed like something out of a James Bond movie!

I once worked at place where I had a very specific job; it was made very clear to me by the management that if I had nothing to do, I was supposed to sit at my desk and do nothing. As a contractor, I was not allowed to have an email address. The company’s firewall prevented access to (literally) 98% of the Internet, and I was “strongly discouraged” from bringing in books or magazines to pass the time. So I’d sneak in my Velo 1 and connect to the ‘Net via dial-up. I’d check email and surf a few sites… but the main thing I’d do was talk to this 19 year-old Israeli girl I’d met on ICQ (and no, it wasn’t “that kind” of chatting; she just seemed to be online ALL THE TIME).

While I loved my Velo 1, the main problem with the thing is that it ran Windows CE 1.0. Just typing that made me wince! (Get it? Windows CE? WinCE? Wince?) That OS was a complete disaster. As you can tell by the above picture, the operating system looked just like Windows 95 or Windows 98… which would have been great, except Start Menus and taskbars and system trays are a horrible idea on a device with a 5.1″ screen. And the device, for some godawful reason, supported multitasking, which meant that you’d sometimes have to use the built-in stylus to manually move windows around… on a 5.1″ screen. I was able to eventually upgrade it to (IIRC) Windows CE 2.1, which was slightly better. But still, there just weren’t a lot of apps for WinCE out there, and many of the ones that did exist weren’t that great. And synching the device via serial port seemed to take FOREVER, even though the amount of data being transferred wasn’t all that much.

It’s really amazing that this device was almost “cutting edge” in its day… but less than three years later Compaq would release the insanely popular iPaq 3630. The iPaq had a vivid color screen, a 206 MHz processor, supported Wi-Fi via CF card, had a vast array of accessories (including a folding keyboard, which I used to take notes in meetings), and syncing with a desktop PC didn’t totally suck, either. The Velo 1 seemed like 1950s black and white TV, while the iPaq seemed like a late 1980s color TV. But a mere 30 months separated the two products!

The “Monty Hall” Problem

For years I’d heard about the “Monty Hall” math problem, and I could never wrap my head around it. I’d read about it in a magazine or newspaper, or on a web site and it always seemed so counter-intuitive. But this year I finally figured it out, and thought I’d share my “solution” with the Internet in case some mathematically-challenged folks want it explained to them in simple English.

The problem comes from the old TV game show Let’s Make a Deal. Host Monty Hall would pick an audience member and show him three numbered doors. Behind one of the doors was a genuine prize, like a car or vacation. Behind the two other doors were booby prizes called “zonks”. These were usually live goats for some reason, but would sometimes be wrecked cars or junk furniture. The audience member would pick a door. Hall would reveal a booby prize behind one of the other doors, then ask the contestant if he or she wanted to switch their pick to the other door.

Lets Make A Deal

The actual math part of the problem addressed whether it was better to stay with your original choice or switch to the other door. Mathematically, switching increases your odds of winning to 66%, while staying with your original choice only allowed for a winner 33% of the time. So my question was always… why? Doesn’t it seem like the odds don’t matter? There are only two doors left, so shouldn’t your odds be 50:50 regardless of whether you switch doors or keep your initial choice?

No. You see, this problem has to do with timing and knowledge.

Let’s imagine that instead of 3 doors, Hall shows you, the contestant, 100 doors. You choose one of the doors (let’s say door #23). At that point in the game, you have a 1 in 100 chance of picking the right door… because you chose 1 door, and there are 100 total doors. Ergo, 1 in 100. But then Hall opens 98 of the losing doors and asks if you want to switch. At this point in time, choosing to switch gives you a 99% chance of winning, because you now know which of the 98 doors are losers, whereas before you lacked that knowledge.

If it helps, think of the doors as groups. With your first pick, you chose 1 door. There is one door in that group. But if you switch, you not only get the second door, you’re also getting the 98 losing doors, too. So the second group contains 99 doors – the 98 losers plus the door you switched to. You’d be a fool not to switch to this second group!

Of course, the exact odds will vary based on the total number of doors. And that’s where my confusion came from. With one door out of the picture, it appears that you only have two to choose from, and it’s natural for humans to have two choices and think 50:50 odds. It’s also worth nothing that if you came in to the game after the first door had been picked, then your odds really would be 50:50.

Math… so confusing!

Top 10 Tunes

Here’s my top 10 song chart for the week ending July 8, courtesy of the home office in London:

1) Ambra Red – “Beauty 606”
2) Marsheaux – “Empire State Human”
3) Katy Perry – “Part of Me”
4) Pink Floyd – “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)”
5) Ramones – “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend”
6) Cheap Trick – “Dream Police”
7) Love and Rockets – “No New Tale to Tell”
8) The Jesus and Mary Chain – “Head On”
9) Concrete Blonde – “It’ll Chew You Up And Spit You Out”
10) Dramarama – “Anything, Anything (I’ll Give You)”

YouTube and Aspect Ratios

It drives me nuts: you search and search for a video on YouTube… but when you finally find it, some idiot has encoded it in the wrong aspect ratio:


You can (sort of) work around this if you have the ever-popular VLC video player installed on your computer. Just open VLC and choose Media > Open Network Stream, paste the YouTube URL into the “Network URL” box and press “Play”:


When the video appears, keep pressing the “A” key until the correct aspect ratio is displayed:


This isn’t perfect, but it’ll work in a pinch!

Twitter Weekly Updates for 2012-07-08

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There’s not a single definition of what a “smartphone” actually is. However, most tech historians consider the IBM Simon to be the very first smartphone:


It was developed by IBM in 1994 and was the first device to combine a mobile phone with PDA-like features. A concept model was shown off at COMDEX in 1993 and generated a lot of interest, even making the front page of USA Today’s “Money” section the next day. The device allowed users to make phone calls, send and receive faxes, emails and pages and had comprehensive address book and calendar features. It lacked a dedicated number pad, relying instead on a touch screen interface. Perhaps most amazingly of all, the device was able to do all this using DOS!

BellSouth got an exclusive for the device, and sold it for $899 with a two-year contract ($1,305 adjusted for inflation) or $1,099 without a contract ($1,595). The carrier sold 50,000 units before discontinuing the phone in February 1995.

But the funniest thing about it was that it was the first phone to come with the ability to run third-party apps. An Atlanta company called PDA Dimensions developed “DispatchIt”, the only app ever developed for the platform. The app required a desktop PC client ($2,999) and a phone client ($299). Adjusted for inflation, the desktop client and one Simon client would cost $4,788 today! Not surprisingly, PDA Dimensions sold exactly two copies of the software.

2012 TV at the Half

Wow! Where 2011’s “TV at the Half” seemed like an embarrassment of riches, 2012 seems awfully thin. I actually had to put a lot of thought into last year’s list, in order to whittle it down to an appropriate number of “Good” shows. This year I struggled to come up with a measly six “Good” shows. So 2012 hasn’t been a very good year for TV so far. And so… the list, keeping in mind that this is all about new shows, not returning ones:


Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23 (ABC) – There aren’t a lot of major network sitcoms that make me laugh out loud. The Office and 30 Rock seem to be on their last legs. Modern Family is good, but always seems to end on a heartfelt note or “message”. Parks and Rec seems to be in a slump. Community is funny, but tries way too hard to be clever. So this season’s Don’t Trust the B came as a surprise. The premise is simple: June, a naive and trusting Indianan, moves to New York City after graduating college to pursue her dream career at a mortgage company. But on her first day of work the CEO is arrested for using the company as a giant Ponzi scheme. The company is shut down by the feds, who also seize the company apartment June was going to live in. Desperate, she becomes the roommate of Chloe McGruff (the lovely and funny Krysten Ritter), who is an amoral scam artist, a swindler and total party girl. Imagine Paris Hilton if Paris Hilton ran check forgery and identity theft scams on the side. Chloe is the worst person ever, and seems to only be genuinely nice to her best friend, former Dawson’s Creek actor James Van Der Beek. The first couple of episodes spend a bit too much time showing June falling for Chloe’s evil tricks and scams, and the preachy June tries to make the amoral Chloe think about her actions. But after that, the show gets it in gear. While June is still “the good one”, her desperate financial situation causes her to look at Chloe in a different light. My favorite part of the show, however, is James Van Der Beek. He plays a fictionalized version of himself who hates any mention of Dawson’s Creek… unless it can get him something free or get a woman in bed. Who knew Van Der Beek had such a sense of humor? There’s a great scene where he talks about his starring role in a Guy Ritchie film… and it’s hilarious!


Line of Duty (BBC) – It seems like every year the BBC has to put out a really dark police drama, in which the police aren’t necessarily any better than the people they’re chasing. Be it my personal fave Luther or last year’s favorite The Shadow Line, there’s always some show about the dark side of police work. This year’s entry is Line of Duty, in which the young, idealistic Detective Sergeant Steve Arnott (Martin Compston) accidentally causes the death of an innocent man during an anti-terrorist raid. Arnott refuses to participate in a later cover-up of the incident. He’s ruthlessly ostracized by his colleagues for this, and to get away from them joins an anti-corruption division led by Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar). Hastings’ main target is Detective Chief Inspector Tony Gates (the great Lennie James). Gates’ unit consistently has huge arrest numbers, and Hastings knows that this is partly because Gates only takes on cases he knows he can solve, then piles tons of charges on criminals once caught. But Hastings suspects the corruption is far worse then mere padding. Although family man Gates might not want to admit it, he has a mistress, and she just might get him in a world of trouble.


Continue reading “2012 TV at the Half”

SONGS I LOVE: “Beauty 606”


“Swedish electroclash bombshell Ambra Red delivers the soundtrack for luxuriant club life with a fusion of her metrosexual vocals and a retrolicious foundation of venue-moving electro-tech grooves. Soaring acidic synth strobes, thick sweeps, and gritty analog percussion pulse and explode while Ambra tantalizes the club floor with her playful lyrics and modulated vocal finesse.”

This song, from her self-released album Electronic Creations for Special People, tells the story of the singer meeting a woman in a chatroom (username: “Beauty 606”) on some kind of smutty website. Only it doesn’t quite work out the way Ambra wanted:

It seems like I’ve played this song 100 times in the past three weeks. Have a listen and find out why!

Aldi and Trader Joe’s

In the United States, you often hear people say that Aldi and Trader Joe’s are the “same company”, or that they’re “sister companies”. This isn’t entirely accurate. You’d be better off calling them “cousin companies”.

Aldi was founded in Germany in 1961 by two brothers, Karl and Theo Albrecht. Their father, a miner, developed emphysema from his work. So their mother opened a small shop in a suburb of Essen to provide for the family. Theo apprenticed there while Karl worked at a nearby delicatessen. In 1946, the brothers took over the shop – then called Albrecht’s – from their mother, and soon turned it into a small chain. The brothers’ “no frills, just dirt-cheap prices” philosophy was incredibly popular in post-war West Germany, and by 1960 the chain had grown to 300 stores.

But then the two brothers came to blows… over cigarettes. Theo wanted to sell cigarettes at Aldi stores, but Karl did not, because he thought cigarettes would attract shoplifters. The brothers decided to split the company – by then named Aldi for “Albrecht Discount” – into two companies: ALDI Nord (Aldi North) and ALDI Süd (Aldi South). Aldi North, run by Theo, operates all the stores in northern Germany, almost all of the former East Germany, as well as the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, France, Spain, Denmark and Portugal. Aldi South, run by Karl, operates all the stores in southern Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Slovenia, Hungary, Poland, Ireland, Australia, the UK and the US. So if you’re shopping at Aldi in the US, you’re giving your money to Aldi South.

Aldi has over 9,000 stores worldwide. In 2009 the two companies’ combined annual revenue was €53 billion ($65.63 billion USD). So it’s no surprise that the Albrecht brothers became insanely rich. Karl is worth around $25.5 billion, and is the richest man in Germany. Theo was the second richest man in Germany until his death in 2010. So naturally the brothers were always looking for places to invest their money.

Trader Joe’s started as “Pronto Market” in the Los Angeles area in 1958*. It was a small chain of grocery\convenience stores, kind of like an upscale 7-Eleven. But when the real 7-Eleven chain came to town in the early 1960s, Pronto founder Joe Coloumbe became worried that they’d run him out of business. While on vacation in the Caribbean, Joe noticed American tourists buying what were then “exotic” foods and spices to take home, like jerk seasoning and West Indian rum. With “Tiki Culture” still popular in the US, Coloumbe thought he could make an exotic food specialty store work. He opened the first Trader Joe’s in 1967 on Arroyo Parkway in Pasadena, California. The shop developed a cult following, and soon there were Trader Joe’s stores throughout southern California.

NERD ALERT: Don Draper shopped at a Pronto Market in the Mad Men episode “The Good News”, recapped here)

Theo Albrecht – who, you will remember, owned Aldi North, which does not run the Aldi stores in the US – bought the Trader Joe’s chain as a personal investment in 1979. So Aldi and Trader Joe’s aren’t related to each other legally. Of course, Theo’s business philosophy of buying in bulk and selling private brands over name brands has taken over at Trader Joe’s, so there are a lot of similarities between the two businesses.

UPDATE: This article was written in 2012. Karl Albrecht died in 2014. The Albrecht family inherited the company from their respective fathers. Since Karl’s death there have been several proposed plans to combine ALDI Nord and ALDI Süd into one gigantic company. As far as I know, none are have been approved. The family seems certain, however, that one day the company will be merged.

I feel I should also mention that Trader Joe’s is now officially part of Aldi Nord. As Wikipedia says,

In 1979, owner and CEO of Aldi Nord Theo Albrecht bought the company as a personal investment for his family.

At some point shortly before or after Theo’s death, Trader Joe’s was sold to Aldi Nord and is  now part of its official corporate structure.

Here’s one last thing you might not know: Theo Albrecht was kidnapped in 1971. His family paid 7 million Deutschmark (around $2 million in 1971, or $15.1 million in 2023 dollars). Albrecht tried to claim the ransom as a business expense (i.e. a tax deduction) but lost his case.

The Albrecht family (Theo’s side especially) are very reclusive. The family released a photo of Theo in 1971 for the newspapers the day after the kidnapping; the only known photo of Theo taken after that was with his brother in 1987. The family was said to own an island in the North Sea with a private golf course. To this day, most of the Albrechts eschew the public eye.