REPRINT: Report to the Future Tech Committee, Society of Vehicle Engineers

Four years ago this month in their February 2017 issue, Car and Driver published a column by Aaron Robinson that addressed the transition from internal combustion engine vehicles to battery-electric vehicles in an extremely clever alternate-universe manner. I’ve shared this column with numerous people over the years, but for some reason C&D has never seen fit to make it available on their website, even though contemporaneous columns from the same author are there. The column is also inexplicably impervious to Google and other search engines.

So as a public service to other fans of this column, I am reprinting it here, both in its original format and as searchable text. Should C&D or Mr. Robinson ever choose to make it available online, I will cheerfully remove this copy and redirect readers to their site.



Upfront
by Aaron Robinson
Car and Driver, February 2017

Report to the Future Tech Committee, Society of Vehicle Engineers: As there has been much discussion regarding a new form of propulsion being proposed for motor vehicles, we have been tasked with compiling this report on the technology and its prospects for practical and commercial applications. Here is the executive summary:

As has been widely reported, the proposed technology, combustion of hydrocarbon fuels in a closed cylinder, represents a dramatic departure from the battery-electric powertrains that currently power 99 percent of our nation’s vehicle fleet. Given the radical upheaval this would cause to both the automotive-manufacturing industry and our all-electric recharging infrastructure, a thorough examination of internal-combustion technology is in order before further investment should proceed.

Early prototypes of the new “engine” appear as a heavy and bulky metal casing called a “block,” usually made of iron or aluminum, in which one or several reciprocating pistons are connected to a common crankshaft with rods. The hydrocarbon fuel and air are introduced separately to each cylinder via manifold vacuum or directly under pressure and ignited by a sparking device, whereupon the rapid heating and expansion of the gases displace the piston(s). The process is repeated serially to create continuous crankshaft rotation.

Several technical and market challenges are apparent. The number of moving parts in the “engine” that must be manufactured and machined to fine tolerances is many times that of our current electric motors, which have a single rotating assembly. Also, the best designs are only about 40 percent efficient as waste heat is lost through friction, transfer to the cooling system, and exhaust. Additionally, unlike electric motors, which make peak torque just above zero rpm, the new engine’s torque delivery is by comparison delayed, as it must first develop significant crankshaft rotational speed.

Furthermore, unlike our common electric motors, constant lubrication of the engine’s moving parts is required by a separate supply of hydrocarbon lubricant. This lubricant has a limited life due to contamination and heat cycling and must be replaced periodically. Will today’s motorists, accustomed to nearly maintenance-free electric powertrains, even accept a vehicle that has frequent and possibly costly service intervals in which the used lubricant, a slick and staining material laced with toxic heavy metals, must be safely disposed of?

Further, hydrocarbon combustion in the presence of the two main atmospheric components of nitrogen and oxygen produces substantial noise that will have to be greatly suppressed to be acceptable to both drivers as well as communities accustomed to hearing nothing from a motor vehicle but a faint whine. Also, the chemical reaction produces compounds that some medical experts believe to be unhealthy.

There is also the combustible nature of the fuel. Unlike electricity, which does not leak or evaporate and which has a proven infrastructure for home delivery, hydrocarbon fuel, and specifically its most commercially viable form, gasoline, both leaks and evaporates and is extremely flammable as well as toxic, the odors alone inducing rapid nausea. While batteries can overheat, that is a gin fizz compared with what gasoline does when lit. And to have any meaningful range, vehicles will be required to carry up to 20 gallons of it, enough explosive power to easily destroy the vehicle, its occupants, and surrounding structures.

Thus, the issue of gasoline refueling raises many questions. Obviously, consumers cannot be allowed to refuel at home as they currently do with free electricity from their rooftop solar panels. They will have to drive to a licensed commercial operation outfitted with the requisite specialized equipment. The SVE Safety Committee is already studying the matter and, in consultation with our lawyers, has developed some initial recommendations, such as requiring the driver to leave the vehicle with a trained technician who conducts the refueling in an open-air pit of reinforced concrete wearing some form of blast-proof garment. On the positive side, vast sources of crude oil, the raw form of gasoline, are said to lie in a wide range of locations, from the Alaskan tundra to the coastal waters of California, though the most accessible pockets are beneath the sands of the Middle East. The State Department has noted that increased trade resulting from our bulk purchases of crude oil can only help further cement friendly relations with our many allies in the region.

In summary: The market penetration of the internal-combustion engine is handicapped by several technical hurdles. A small market is possible among machinery enthusiasts of the type who prefer complex mechanical watches to simple and reliable digital timepieces. However, estimating the size of this market would be, at this point, purely conjecture.

How I Play “Real” Fantasy Football

Ten months ago, when I wrote My Super Bowl Rooting Record, the coronavirus we now know as Covid-19 was just starting to appear in the United States. The first U.S. death from the virus had occurred a few days earlier, though we didn’t learn this for months. The following post, which is a long overdue prequel to that February post, comes at a time when the virus has irrevocably altered lives around the world, and the positive case, hospitalization, and fatality numbers in the U.S. have reached record highs. Despite the NFL’s efforts, its 2020 season has been continually disrupted, and at this moment it’s not entirely clear that the full season will be completed as planned. While I do not wish to minimize the tragedies that this pandemic has brought upon us, I welcome NFL football as a distraction from them. And so I share this.

I understand why the NFL and its fans like fantasy football. The gamification of player performance helps keep fans engaged and paying attention even when their team isn’t playing, or when their team is playing but is hopelessly inept. Personally, however, I don’t care for fantasy football for this very reason: It causes fans focus on and care about factors that are not directly related to winning and losing games.

Traditional point-spread-style betting is better because it focuses on the outcomes of the games themselves, though still not strictly on the winning and losing. For example, if a team is favored to win by five points and you pick them to cover the spread, you’re disappointed if they win by a field goal, even though from the team’s (and the team’s real fans’) perspective, the victory is all that matters. Last weekend’s Seahawks vs. Eagles game illustrates the point nicely.

In reaction to all of this, I’ve developed my own system for picking games, which I refer to as “Real Fantasy Football.” Simply put, it’s my method of choosing which team to root for in each NFL game. This raises the questions, A) how do I pick the desired winner of each game, and B) how do I measure my success?

It started years ago with a simple rule of thumb that I employed for a long time: A successful NFL weekend for me was one in which the Seahawks, Jets, and Giants all won. The Seahawks because I’ve lived in the Seattle area for most of my adult life and have actively rooted for them for most of that time, the Jets because of my historical and long-suffering allegiance to them, and the Giants because of my legacy loyalty to all things New York.

You might wonder what happens when two of these teams play each other, and the answer is my default hierarchy is Seahawks over Jets over Giants. In rare cases I will flip that order when playoff considerations are at stake. In fact, the only time I ever rooted against the Seahawks in person at a Seahawks home game was in late December 2008, when they hosted the Bret Favre-quarterbacked Jets. The Seahawks were in their final season under coach Mike Holmgren and at 3-11 were already out of playoff contention, while the 9-5 Jets were fighting for a playoff spot. Of course, the Seahawks won. In the snow. The Jets ended up losing the following week as well, missing the playoffs, and firing coach Eric Mangini. In other words, a typical Jets season.

In my current system, I start by dividing each week’s games into three tiers. The top tier includes the games involving those three teams. The middle tier includes games that affect the playoff chances of those three teams. (In recent seasons this has meant the Seahawks’ playoff chances, though in 2020 the weakness of the NFC East means that the games involving the Giants’ division rivals are now in this tier.)

The bottom tier includes all games that don’t fall into either of first two tiers, and typically represents about half the total games. My determination in these games is based on my personal feelings about the teams involved, with several factors involved. Here they are, in no particular order, with some examples:

  • Preference for teams who have gone the longest without a championship or against those who have won many championships. Helps: Cleveland, Buffalo, Detroit, Minnesota, Philadelphia until 2017, Kansas City until 2019. Hurts: New England, Pittsburgh, Green Bay, Dallas, San Francisco.
  • Preference against bitter division rivals of my top tier teams. Hurts: San Francisco, New England, Miami, Dallas, Washington.
  • Preference against teams with offensive nicknames and logos. Hurts: Washington before 2020.
  • Preference for/against owners. Helps: Jacksonville. Hurts: Washington, Dallas, Las Vegas.
  • Preference for/against current GMs/head coaches. Helps: Denver, Kansas City, Atlanta. Hurts: New England, Las Vegas.
  • Preference for/against current players: Helps: Houston (Deshaun Watson). Hurts: Tampa Bay (Tom Brady).

Note that I do not take betting line favorites into consideration at all when making my picks.

In addition to the tiers, I rank all games in a given week from 1 to N. Typically the bottom few games each week fall into the “I don’t really care who wins, I just want the game to be exciting” category, but even in those games I force myself to pick a preferred winner.

As an illustration, let’s go through my picks for last week, Week 12 of the 2020 season:

RankTierAwayHomePickFavoriteWinner
13SeattlePhiladelphiaSeattleSeattleSeattle
23MiamiJetsJetsMiamiMiami
33GiantsCincinnatiGiantsGiantsGiants
42SFRamsSFRamsSF
52ArizonaNENEArizonaNE
62NODenverDenverNONO
72KCTBKCKCKC
82ChicagoGBChicagoGBGB
92WashingtonDallasWashingtonDallasWashington
101ChargersBuffaloBuffaloBuffaloBuffalo
111ClevelandJacksonvilleClevelandClevelandCleveland
121LVAtlantaAtlantaLVAtlanta
131CarolinaMinnesotaMinnesotaMinnesotaMinnesota
141TennesseeIndianapolisTennesseeIndianapolisTennessee
151HoustonDetroitDetroitHoustonHouston
161BaltimorePittsburghBaltimorePittsburghPittsburgh

The first three picks were a straightforward application of my top tier. Games 4 and 5 were to help Seattle reclaim first place in the NFC West, and games 6-8 were to help Seattle against its top-ranked conference rivals. Game 9 was to help the Giants claim first place in the NFC East. Games 10 and 11 were based on giving preference to Buffalo and Cleveland, though in this case both of their opponents happened to also be in the “never won a Super Bowl” club. Game 12 was rooting against Las Vegas. The remaining games were based on the mildest of preferences.

How do I measure my success? The simplest manner is total number of successful picks. Also, because my methodology leads me to disproportionately root for underdogs, I compare my results against the designated favorites for each game (going 7-9 when I’ve picked six favorites is better than going 9-7 when I’ve picked ten favorites). Finally, I calculate a weighted score by giving 3, 2, and 1 points per game to each respective tier. (Having the Jets and Giants go a collective 4-18 through the first twelve weeks of the 2020 season has not aided this last metric.)

It turns out that Week 12 was not a representative sample of my record. At 11-5, it was my best week of the season, not only in absolute terms but by having picked five more winners than favorites. (Contrast it with Week 7, in which Cleveland was my only successful pick.) Here is my week-by-week record to date for 2020:

WeekFavorites PickedRecordWeighted Score
196-109-15
267-911-16
3105-119-17
469-616-14
555-98-16
645-99-13
761-131-23
8710-416-8
978-614-11
1054-107-16
1178-613-10
12611-519-9
Totals7879-98132-168

So at the beginning of the season I fell quickly behind the favorites tally. This isn’t entirely surprising, as the who the favorites are gets more accurate when there is more recent regular season game data, especially in 2020, with its absence of preseason games and reduced home field advantage. With a strong Week 12 showing I’ve nearly caught back up.

When I started this system several years ago, I waited until around Thanksgiving to start picking games, figuring that the games didn’t matter until the playoff stakes were evident. But starting last season (2019), I’ve begun with Week l and continued through the playoffs and the Super Bowl. It may appear from this detailed description that I spend a lot of time on this, but in practice it occupies less than fifteen minutes per week. I especially value that I now start each NFL weekend with a clear sense of which games I should care most about.

Every year I revise this system, so 2021 will see some tweaks. I’m considering changing how I calculate the weighted score to give more relative weight to all Seahawks games — realistically, I care a lot more about how the Seahawks do each week than all of the bottom tier games put together — and/or playoff-affecting games that occur later in the season.

My Super Bowl Rooting Record

Like most NFL fans, especially those who root for perennially mismanaged franchises, I have to decide prior to nearly every Super Bowl which of the conference champions to root for. While I’m old enough to have watched nearly all of them live, I’ve had a local team to root for fewer than ten times. Even if I include Super Bowl III which, while I don’t remember watching live, I have viewed many times on tape and would have had a clear favorite, I can cite at most nine Super Bowls in which I felt a strong pre-game stake in the outcome: 1 Jets, 3 Seahawks, and 5 Giants.

When I don’t have one of those teams to root for, I usually pick based on a combination of the following: Which team has won the fewest Super Bowls, hasn’t won for the longest time, or is the underdog. For example, this year it was easy to root for Kansas City based on the first two criteria, and for a long time it has been easy to root against New England. (My most recent exception to these guidelines is Super Bowl 50, when I chose Denver over Carolina based on what I correctly assumed would be Peyton Manning’s final game.) Based on these and my memories of having rooted for a lot of losing teams in Super Bowl blow-outs (hello, Buffalo), I would have guessed that my preferred team has lost far more often than it has won. But I had never gone back and counted, until now.

So I reviewed the complete list of Super Bowls and reconstructed which ones I watched and for which teams I was rooting. The results were somewhat surprising to me.

Before sharing the results, I should emphasize two points:

  • I haven’t considered which teams I predicted would win. I’m much more interested in who I wanted to win. (Hello again, Buffalo.)
  • I’ve tracked who I was rooting for to win at that time, which definitely isn’t always who I would root for based on current knowledge or if the teams played today. For example, I rooted for Washington three times in the 1980s (they went 2-1 in those games), but in retrospect I wouldn’t have rooted for them then given how I feel about the team now. And I rooted for New England in their first four Super Bowls (the two pre-Brady and the first two with Brady), but haven’t rooted for them since.

Of the 54 Super Bowls to date, there are seven that I either didn’t watch or have no memory of watching. Super Bowl V is the first one I have a clear memory of watching live, and starting with Super Bowl VIII I’ve watched all of them with the exception of XVI (the first Cincinnati-San Francisco game). Adding the Jets game as a special case means I’ve watched 48 Super Bowls. In those games, I have a 22-26 record. This is somewhat better than I expected.

As interesting to me as the total record are the recent and the longest streaks. Starting with Super Bowl XLVIII, i.e. the past seven games, there haven’t been two consecutive years in which I’ve ended up on the same side of the desired outcome (largely due to New England’s recent appearances). Super Bowl XLVIII was also the end of my longest streak of successful picks, at five, which started with New Orleans’ win (XLIV). My longest streak of unsuccessful picks is six in the 1990s, starting with Buffalo’s second of four straight Super Bowl losses (XXVI) and continuing through Green Bay’s victory over New England (XXXI). (Those six coincided with the end of the NFC’s record streak of 13 consecutive Super Bowl victories.) I’ve also noticed that in the first eight Super Bowls I watched consecutively as a youth (VIII through XV), I was 1-7, which probably explains why I have stronger memories of rooting for the losing teams.

Here is the full list. (Due to most browsers’ table rendering, you might need to scroll side-to-side to view all of the columns.) For further reference, consult Wikipedia’s list of Super Bowl champions.

#SeasonAFC/AFLNFC/NFLMy PickWinner
I1966Kansas CityGreen BayGreen Bay
II1967RaidersGreen BayGreen Bay
III1968JetsColtsJets🏆 Jets
IV1969Kansas CityMinnesotaKansas City
V1970ColtsDallasColts🏆 Colts
VI1971MiamiDallasDallas
VII1972MiamiWashingtonMiami
VIII1973MiamiMinnesotaMinnesotaMiami
IX1974PittsburghMinnesotaMinnesotaPittsburgh
X1975PittsburghDallasDallasPittsburgh
XI1976RaidersMinnesotaRaiders🏆 Raiders
XII1977DenverDallasDenverDallas
XIII1978PittsburghDallasDallasPittsburgh
XIV1979PittsburghRamsRamsPittsburgh
XV1980RaidersPhiladelphiaPhiladelphiaRaiders
XVI1981CincinnatiSan FranciscoSan Francisco
XVII1982MiamiWashingtonWashington🏆 Washington
XVIII1983RaidersWashingtonWashingtonRaiders
XIX1984MiamiSan FranciscoSan Francisco🏆 San Francisco
XX1985New EnglandChicagoNew EnglandChicago
XXI1986DenverGiantsGiants🏆 Giants
XXII1987DenverWashingtonWashington🏆 Washington
XXIII1988CincinnatiSan FranciscoCincinnatiSan Francisco
XXIV1989DenverSan FranciscoDenverSan Francisco
XXV1990BuffaloGiantsGiants🏆 Giants
XXVI1991BuffaloWashingtonBuffaloWashington
XXVII1992BuffaloDallasBuffaloDallas
XXVIII1993BuffaloDallasBuffaloDallas
XXIX1994ChargersSan FranciscoChargersSan Francisco
XXX1995PittsburghDallasPittsburghDallas
XXXI1996New EnglandGreen BayNew EnglandGreen Bay
XXXII1997DenverGreen BayDenver🏆 Denver
XXXIII1998DenverAtlantaAtlantaDenver
XXXIV1999TennesseeRamsRams🏆 Rams
XXXV2000RavensGiantsGiantsRavens
XXXVI2001New EnglandRamsNew England🏆 New England
XXXVII2002RaidersTampa BayRaidersTampa Bay
XXXVIII2003New EnglandCarolinaNew England🏆 New England
XXXIX2004New EnglandPhiladelphiaPhiladelphiaNew England
XL2005PittsburghSeattleSeattlePittsburgh
XLI2006ColtsChicagoColts🏆 Colts
XLII2007New EnglandGiantsGiants🏆 Giants
XLIII2008PittsburghCardinalsCardinalsPittsburgh
XLIV2009ColtsNew OrleansNew Orleans🏆 New Orleans
XLV2010PittsburghGreen BayGreen Bay🏆 Green Bay
XLVI2011New EnglandGiantsGiants🏆 Giants
XLVII2012RavensSan FranciscoRavens🏆 Ravens
XLVIII2013DenverSeattleSeattle🏆 Seattle
XLIX2014New EnglandSeattleSeattleNew England
502015DenverCarolinaDenver🏆 Denver
LI2016New EnglandAtlantaAtlantaNew England
LII2017New EnglandPhiladelphiaPhiladelphia🏆 Philadelphia
LIII2018New EnglandRamsRamsNew England
LIV2019Kansas CitySan FranciscoKansas City🏆 Kansas City

Why The Seahawks Can’t Clinch The NFC West This Weekend

TL;DR While the Seahawks’ season-ending game against the 49ers is the most significant factor by far in who will win the NFC West, if you’re a Seahawks fan, you should be rooting this weekend and next for Atlanta, Minnesota, and Philadelphia to win and for Green Bay, New Orleans, and Washington to lose.

It’s time for my late autumn foray into NFL playoff mathematics.

It is well established that the season-ending game between San Francisco and Seattle at CenturyLink Field will in all likelihood decide the championship of the NFC West division. While both teams have clinched playoff berths, the winner of the NFC West will hold at least the third seed in the conference, which guarantees hosting at least one playoff game. This winner also has an excellent shot at either the first or second seed, which would give them a first-round bye. The runner-up would at best earn the fifth seed, meaning no bye and an extremely slim chance of hosting a playoff game. So these teams’ regular season finishes matter a lot.

[N.B. For the purposes of the following discussion, I am ignoring the possibility of tie games.]

Both teams currently sit at 11-3 with two games remaining, and Seattle holds the tie-breaking edge over San Francisco because of its victory in their first matchup last month. As a result, if Seattle defeats San Francisco in their December 29th rematch, Seattle wins the NFC West, regardless of what happens this weekend. For example, in the case where Seattle loses and San Francisco wins this weekend, both teams would finish 12-4, and Seattle would win the NFC West by virtue of a 2-0 record in their head-to-head games.

If either Seattle loses or San Francisco wins this weekend (or both), and then San Francisco defeats Seattle in Week 17, San Francisco finishes at least one game ahead of Seattle and claims the NFC West with a 12-4 or 13-3 record.

This leaves one remaining scenario: Seattle wins and San Francisco loses this weekend, and then San Francisco defeats Seattle in Week 17. Both teams would finish 12-4, and would have split the season’s head-to-head series. Determining the NFC West winner in this situation requires diving deeply into both other teams’ records and the NFL’s tiebreaking rules.

This scenario also raises the following question: Is it possible for Seattle to clinch the NFC West this weekend, irrespective of the outcome of its rematch with San Francisco? The fact that it’s not mentioned in the coverage of this weekend’s games suggests that the answer is no, but since it’s not addressed explicitly, I decided to analyze it myself.

Since we’ve already determined that Seattle and San Francisco have matching won-lost and head-to-head records, we look at the division record tiebreaker: Both teams would be 4-2. Next up is won-lost percentage in common games, where both teams would be 9-3, and then conference record, where both teams would also be 9-3.

The next tiebreakers are strength of victory and then strength of schedule, where things get considerably more unpredictable, so buckle up.

To calculate the strength of victory, you can exclude the teams that both Seattle and San Francisco defeated and their victories against each other, which collectively account for nine of their twelve victories. This leaves the following six teams to consider: Atlanta, Minnesota, and Philadelphia for Seattle, and Green Bay, New Orleans, and Washington for San Francisco. Currently that totals to 22-20 for Seattle and 25-17 for San Francisco. While that seems like a significant margin in San Francisco’s favor, it could break either way, from Seattle finishing with a 28-20 vs. 25-23 edge to San Francisco finishing with a 31-17 to 22-26 edge. (Incidentally, only one of the remaining games, Green Bay at Minnesota this Monday night, involves two of the above teams.) More relevant to this discussion, even if all of this weekend’s games break in Seattle’s favor, the two teams’ strength of victory calculations would be an identical 25-20, so there’s no way that Seattle could take the insurmountable lead in strength of victory required to clinch the NFC West prior to Week 17’s games. Alas, we conclude that even with help from other teams, there are no NFC West-clinching scenarios for Seattle this weekend.

In the rare event that Seattle and San Francisco end the season exactly tied in strength of victory, the strength of schedule tiebreaker favors Seattle. The NFL’s scheduling formula dictates that any pair of teams in the same division have exactly two games with non-common opponents: This season, they’re Minnesota and Philadelphia for Seattle and Green Bay and Washington for San Francisco. Currently this gives Seattle a 17-11 to 14-14 edge, so with the right combination of outcomes in this weekend’s games, Seattle could attain an insurmountable margin in strength of schedule. This is useful, because the next several tiebreakers after strength of schedule are based on differentials in points scored which, due to Seattle’s predilection for winning close games, gives San Francisco a huge advantage.

What all of this means is that if you want Seattle to have the best possible chance to win the NFC West, you are rooting for Atlanta, Minnesota and Philadelphia to win both of their remaining games, and for Green Bay, New Orleans, and Washington to lose both of their remaining games. The one additional complication is that if you want to maximize Seattle’s chances of getting the top playoff seed in the NFC, you want Green Bay and New Orleans to have identical records — I’m not going to explain why here — which means that if New Orleans defeats Tennessee on Sunday, you might want to root for Green Bay to defeat Minnesota on Monday.

Or you can ignore all of this and focus your energy on rooting for Seattle to win its remaining two games.

Danny Glasser is typing…

During my Microsoft career I had the opportunity to work on a number of projects that resulted in patents for which I am listed as an inventor. Setting aside the issues surrounding software patents and patent trolling in general, what pride I possess in any patent attached to my name has almost nothing to do with the patent itself, the filing and granting of which are largely the work of attorneys. The pride comes from utility of the work that spurred the patent application and my personal contributions to that work.

I care little about the several patents where I am listed as a co-inventor along with Bill Gates — for example, 8,341,405: Access management in an off-premise environment — despite whatever reflected glory there is from my association with him in the patent records. These patents were part of a “forward patenting” project into which I put minimal effort, so I deserve little if any credit for any inventions that ensued.

Conversely, the patent of which I am most proud is for an invention of which I was responsible for the initial conception and implementation and that remains broadly in use today. In the US patent database it is 6,519,639: System and method for activity monitoring and reporting in a computer network, but to everyone else it is known as the “typing indicator.”

I’ve been thinking about this patent recently because today is the twentieth anniversary of the launch of MSN Messenger 1.0, the product in which the typing indicator debuted. While MSN Messenger is no longer in use, the typing indicator was quickly and widely copied and is still a feature of nearly every chat and messaging app. Whether you use Facebook Messenger, iMessage, WhatsApp, Skype, etc., or a customer support website’s chat plug-in, you encounter the animating dots or “[name] is typing…” message that traces its origin to this work.

David Auerbach explained the typing indicator’s history in detail in Slate five years ago, so I won’t repeat it all here. The summary is that prior to MSN Messenger, real-time chat apps either didn’t indicate to you whether the user on the other side was responding to your message (IRC or AIM), or else they showed you every character that the user typed in real time (Unix talk and ICQ). When we were developing MSN Messenger, we believed we could do something better; something that would give you real-time feedback about whether the other user was typing, while being relatively network efficient and providing the other user a semblance of privacy with their thoughts and typos. I designed and coded the implementation for the detection and communication of the typing indicator, and slapped on a rough UI to create a proof of concept. Once we confirmed with self-hosting that it worked well, David and others designed and implemented the polished UI that shipped in MSN Messenger 1.0.

Since the typing indicator patent covers only the detection and communication mechanisms and not the user interface, David and others who worked on the initial implementation are not listed as inventors on the patent. This does not diminish their contributions to the work. MSN Messenger 1.0 became better known for Microsoft’s IM interoperability battle with AOL, which David has described in his essay Chat Wars.

The reason that the typing indicator patent is significant today — July 22, 2019 — is that the initial application was filed on July 21, 1999, the day before Messenger’s launch, and a US patent typically expires twenty years after filing. This should mean that the original patent protection is no longer in effect as of today, except that Microsoft’s lawyers filed several continuation patents, most recently 7,418,495, so the typing indicator patent has a little bit of life left in it.

That said, Microsoft has never pursued anyone for infringing this patent as far as I know (which is not far). In many cases Microsoft has patent cross-license agreements with the the other products’ owners (e.g. Apple in the case of iMessage) that render the issue moot. Also, it’s possible that newer implementations of the feature don’t infringe on the specific claims made by this family of patents, but I have no idea if anyone has bothered to verify this.

Several years after MSN Messenger first launched, still in the pre-smartphone era, I employed the typing indicator as an example when I visited my child’s first-grade class for one of those “What your parent does for a living” sessions. I created these mock-ups of an IM session to demonstrate to six-year-olds how it worked, and printed them poster-sized:

Hermione poster


Harry poster

[The text of the typing indicator was then “is writing” because pen support had been added to Messenger.]

The quality of these mock-ups should illuminate why someone other than me implemented the shipping version of the typing indicator UI.

Blog In One Place, Finally, After Fifteen Years

In February 2004, as I was about to start a twelve-week parental leave, I created my first personal blog. After an extremely brief flirtation with Blogger, I settled on LiveJournal. I was part of the team in MSN that was building Microsoft’s own blogging/social product, then called MSN Spaces, and wanted to immerse myself in the experience and technology of blogging.

The LJ blog stayed active only until December 2004, when MSN Spaces launched and I started a new public blog there. (Prior to MSN Spaces’ release I’d also been self-hosting on an internal-only version of the site.) I wanted to migrate my LJ blog entries to my MSN Space, but the Spaces team didn’t provide a migration tool and I didn’t want to do it manually. So the LJ blog co-existed with my Space, but was no longer updated.

Coincidentally, December 2004 was also the month that I created my Facebook account. I doubt I appreciated then how quickly it would dominate social networking. In late 2004, Orkut was challenging Friendster as the leader in the category.

In 2010, when Microsoft announced that MSN Spaces, since renamed Windows Live Spaces, was going to be shut down the following year, they offered an automated tool to migrate spaces to WordPress.com. In January 2011 I used that tool to create this blog, and my space went away not long after that. I don’t recall now if I didn’t think about concurrently migrating the LJ blog to WordPress at that time, or if no tool existed, but my LJ blog soldiered on in its nearly-forgotten state.

A recent blog post caused me to revisit my LJ blog, and yesterday I thought to myself, “I wonder if a tool exists to migrate a LiveJournal blog to WordPress?” Of course there does. Within half an hour, all of my ninety-something LJ posts from 2004 were inserted into this blog.

I have no plans to edit the content of any of those old posts; they deserve to stand as they were when first written. I might go through and set categories for them, and if I’m feeling ambitious will attempt to fix broken links. Eventually I might delete the old LJ blog, but for now I’ll leave it as it has been. It’s not harming anyone, except possibly me.

Thirty Years Ago Today: The Finale of Miami Vice

With all of the recent hoopla regarding noteworthy television series finales, I feel compelled to mention that today is the 30th anniversary of the Miami Vice finale.

While the airing of Miami Vice’s final episode, entitled Freefallwas anticlimactic — the show had been declining in both quality and popularity for at least two seasons — it was consequential enough that NBC aired the two-hour movie on a Sunday evening, instead of in the show’s normal Friday evening slot. But the significance of Miami Vice was not its death; it was its life. It’s hard to imagine any television show today having the cultural influence of peak Miami Vice. In the mid 1980s, it defined what was cool in fashion, music, cars, and of course television. Don Johnson even made the mullet stylish. For about a week.

One oddity of the Miami Vice finale is that it wasn’t the final original episode of the show to air. Four episodes from the final season aired subsequently: Three on NBC the following month, and one — considered too controversial for prime-time broadcast television — for the first time in January 1990, on the USA Network.

Freefall was far from the show’s best effort; like many of the final season’s episodes, it was a caricature of the elements that had originally made the show a trendsetter. If you’re not familiar with Miami Vice and are looking to see it at its best, check out Miami Vice, Twenty for Twenty, a blog post I wrote back in 2004 on the 20th anniversary of the show’s premiere. The post lists my favorite episodes and explains how I chose them. Many of the links in the post are broken, but the content still holds up.

Miami Vice episodes, even the best ones, come across as hopelessly dated when viewed today. Which is kind of the point: A show that was so intrinsically of its time cannot be judged by the standards of modern television. To the contrary, it serves as a finely-preserved remnant of its era, an opportunity for those who didn’t experience 1980s pop culture to gain an appreciation and for those who did to reminisce.

The 1973 Plymouth Fury III: An Unappreciation

A 1973 Plymouth Fury III was my family’s only car when I was a teenager, and consequently was the first car I drove an appreciable amount. The Glasser Family’s Fury III was a four-door sedan — brown with an off-white vinyl top — that my parents purchased new off the showroom floor. It replaced a 1965 Fury III that had served our family well, which in turn had replaced another Plymouth. The nine-year-old car nut version of me accompanied my father to the Plymouth dealer in Brooklyn to check it out in person before my parents purchased it.

Our ’73 was a lemon from the day we bought it; on the evening my father drove it home from the dealership, it stalled out in the parking lot of the Fairfield Towers apartment building that was then our home. Somehow my parents kept it running for ten years and 135,000 miles, through two oil crises, my father’s daily commutes through Brooklyn and Queens, and numerous road trips to New England. Indeed, the only bumper sticker that ever adorned this car was a green and white one reading, “I L♥VERMONT.” For a family with three growing kids, it was, if nothing else, the right size car.

When I turned seventeen and started driver’s ed, this was the car I used to practice and to take my driving tests (failed the first, passed the second). The only “fury” this car ever exercised was upon its driver: Immense and heavy, with loose steering, it was a chore to drive and even more of a chore to parallel park in New York City. Starting the car when its engine was cold required a delicate dance between the ignition key and the gas pedal. The 1970’s-era design touches that I appreciate now, such as its olive-shaped taillights and the turn signal indicators mounted outside the car atop the front fenders, held little appeal for a struggling teenage driver who sole goal was to get his license.

It was also the last American-branded car my parents ever bought. In 1983, with their kids through high school and out of the house, they replaced the Fury with a first generation Toyota Camry. My father’s battles with the ’73 were enough to overcome his World War II veteran’s resistance to buying a Japanese car, and he and my mother never looked back. The Fury was dispatched to its second owner for next to nothing.

Given their massive size and notoriously poor quality, I’m not surprised that 45 years later, few running examples of the ’73 Fury still exist. It’s not the kind of car you’ll find in a museum or selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars at a collector auction. Purchasing one like this example now for sale on eBay would make sense only if I wanted to burn thousands of dollars and get well-acquainted with my local tow truck operators. And become — and remain — single. Still, the pull of nostalgia for one’s youth is powerful, and my mind wonders what it would be like to drive one again.

After More Than 25 Years, I’m Withdrawing My Support from the Stuyvesant High School Alumni Association. Here’s Why.

An Open Letter to Stuyvesant Alumni

Today is Giving Tuesday, and in recognition I am making annual donations to many of the non-profit organizations that I support. The Stuyvesant High School Alumni Association (SHSAA) has long been one of these organizations, but in 2017, for the first time in more than a quarter century, it is not. This year I am withholding all monetary support from SHSAA and instead supporting Stuyvesant by donating to the Stuyvesant High School Parents’ Association. I’m also encouraging my fellow Stuyvesant Alumni to do likewise.

I consider myself beyond fortunate to have had the opportunity to attend Stuyvesant High School. I grew up in a middle-class Brooklyn home, the child of a public school teacher and a salesman. Thanks to Stuyvesant, I was able to avail myself of one of the best possible high school educations. Of the many things I learned in my three years there, perhaps the most meaningful is that I should seize any opportunity to surround myself with the brightest, most passionate people I can find. Nearly every great thing that has happened to me since is due to a combination of good luck and the application of this lesson.

I’ve long looked for ways to repay my debt of gratitude to Stuyvesant, and because I’ve lived far from New York for most of my adult life, charitable giving has been the most effective way for me to do this. Twenty years ago, this led to me to get involved with an effort to establish an endowment for Stuyvesant, called the Campaign for Stuyvesant (CFS). I pledged a contribution that was the largest I had ever given to a charitable organization, and arranged for an even larger charitable bequest. Significantly, as it turns out, I did little due diligence.

Several years later, when I learned of the acrimony between CFS and Stuyvesant’s administration, I started asking questions. Unhappy with the answers I received, I pulled out of CFS before completely fulfilling my pledge. At the time, I made it clear that while I was departing that effort, I would happily jump back in when all of the organizations representing Stuyvesant and its alumni were working together.

So I was thrilled when, a few years ago and more than a decade after I withdrew from CFS, I started hearing talk that the multiple charitable organizations purporting to represent the Stuyvesant community would be coming together under the auspices of the long-standing Stuyvesant High School Alumni Association. I hoped that this unified organization would both serve the alumni community and provide a means for alumni to give back to Stuyvesant, including a renewed endowment effort.

This time, however, I asked questions first, and what I learned troubled and angered me. Lack of transparency about the terms of the merger and the governance model of the unified organization. Lack of clarity about the organization’s finances, both fundraising and expenses. And when other alumni, some of whom had decades-long track records of working on behalf of the Stuyvesant community, including serving on the SHSAA board, pressed SHSAA leadership for more disclosure and accountability, they were treated with hostility and contempt.

The most frustrating part is that this could all have been resolved easily if SHSAA leadership had answered some relatively simple questions, been more transparent regarding its changes and financial operations, made some modest, reasonable improvements to its governance model, and committed to meaningful, ongoing communication with the alumni community regarding these efforts. Instead, they chose to stonewall, and to attack the motives and integrity of anyone who attempted to challenge them. This shabby treatment of alumni continues to this day, as recently more than a few Stuyvesant alumni have been banned from SHSAA’s Facebook group for attempting to raise these issues and hold SHSAA leadership accountable among the community regarding its policies and practices.

You might hear from the current leadership of SHSAA that it is within their rights to run the organization as they see fit, and that they are following the best practices of other (mostly university-level) school alumni organizations. This is both questionable and beside the point. From what I’ve observed, SHSAA is an unresponsive organization that is not effectively serving the interests of Stuyvesant High School and its alumni community. In its present form, it is not an organization with which I want to be affiliated.

This is why I’ve joined a group of alumni, gathering virtually under the name Concerned Stuyvesant Alumni, that is calling for all Stuyvesant alumni to withdraw their support from SHSAA and find ways of supporting the school and the alumni community that do not involve SHSAA. This is a painful and regrettable step, but until SHSAA implements meaningful reforms, it is a necessary one.

I remain hopeful that one day SHSAA will live up to its promise and become an organization we can support enthusiastically and without reservations. As proud Stuyvesant alumni, we deserve nothing less.

Sincerely,
Daniel Glasser
Stuyvesant High School Class of 1981

And… They’re Eliminated

Following up to Can the 0-10 Cleveland Browns Make the Playoffs?, Cleveland is now officially eliminated from playoff contention. And it would have been eliminated even if it had managed to defeat Cincinnati today.

Reviewing the Week Twelve games mentioned in the above post as affecting Cleveland’s playoff chances, Thursday’s Chargers’ victory over Dallas didn’t eliminate Cleveland, because it could have been replaced by the Chargers losing to Washington in two weeks. And four of the five games played today went the Browns’ way: Tennessee, New England, Carolina, and Oakland all won. Today’s critical game was Buffalo versus Kansas City, as Buffalo’s victory eliminated the possibility that Cleveland could have won the tiebreaker between them. The only scenario in which this might have been possible is if Buffalo were to lose all of its remaining games. But for this to occur, Miami would have to win both of its remaining games against Buffalo, which would give Miami the tiebreaker over Cleveland.

All of this is moot because Cleveland lost today. Browns fans, better luck next year.