Friday, December 30

A Brickbat from Angus

Angus riffs on Order and Chaos. Go read it; it's instructive. The references to the Blood God come from the Warhammer universe, in which one faction (Chaos) worships the Blood God and has for a battlecry "Blood for the blood god!".

But that's really beside the point.

Tuesday, December 13

You Wrongheaded Fool: Torvalds on GNOME

Yesterday Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, flamed a major user-interface component of Linux desktops (a part for which he is not responsible) for being not configurable enough. He said "If you think your users are idiots, only idiots will use it." (Links to the primary sources are in this Slashdot article.)

I cannot begin to tell you how angry that statment makes me.

You already know how I feel about interface simplicity; the idea that anyone would listen to one of the fourteen people on the planet to have WRITTEN AN OPERATING SYSTEM IN HIS SPARE TIME on the matter of what constitutes a good user interface is laughable. Not only is Linus not an expert on user-interface quality, but his opinions on user interfaces, as exemplified by the quote above, are (1) wrongheaded (2) based on incorrect assumptions and (3) damaging to advancement of Linux. Configurability is, to some extent, important; that said, interfaces that work before their users spend 45 minutes grovelling through dialog boxes are more important. The first corollary to Arthur C. Clarke's law, "Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic", is "Technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced". I never want to have to think about the user interfaces I use; I want them to melt into the background, diligently working to make my day as effortless as possible. The more time I have to spend thinking about my interface, the less time I have to spend actually doing productive work -- and I'd argue that's true of everyone. The fact is that Torvalds' perception of computers has been tragically warped by thirty years of close proximity to their deepest internals. He thinks it's normal to spend hours customizing interfaces; when he learned computers, you had to do all that stuff yourself, so he developed truly idiosyncratic ways of doing things. He's trapped in his own experiences.

But that doesn't mean we should listen to him. In fact, it's an excellent reason for us not to.

Wednesday, November 30

Puns: Victory

My wife is one of those people who hates puns. You already know about me.

So, when I can get her to laugh at a pun or two, it always feels like a not-so-small victory.

The other day, as we were dressing our baby together, I was noodling one of his arms into his shirt while she was struggling with the other. I got his hand out first, so as soon as it popped out of his sleeve, I said,

"I win!"

That was enough to make her laugh, but I really caught her off guard when I continued with,

". . . the arms race!"

Monday, November 28

Solaris Overview

The comments I've gotten (in person; none on the blog yet) on my previous post have ranged from "WHOA!" to "...what's Solaris?", via bemused rolling of the eyes. Those were from colleagues, university friends, and my long-suffering wife, respectively.

So I figure I should explain a little bit what Solaris is. It's a Unix operating system, one of many. That means that rather than being based (at some level) off the original DOS code, it's based off a different proto-operating system that is technically better-designed but a lot less user-friendly. Sun Microsystems develops it, although they've recently open-sourced the code (which means that anyone can change it now, and they don't have to buy the DVD from Sun to get it). It's only really as of the most recent release of Solaris -- version 10 -- that it runs well on PC hardware; previously, Solaris only really ran on Sun's own SPARC machines.

As a Unix variant, Solaris is a pretty strong one. It's scalable (which means that when you put it on bigger and better hardware, it can take advantage of all the extra processing power it has available), robust (which means it's difficult to crash), and secure (which means it's difficult to gain access to other people's files, or to pretend you're someone you're not). It also shares the advantages of Unix in general -- several of its core design decisions make it much easier to program for than Windows, it's more secure, and (at least right now) it's less vulnerable to worms and viruses.

Right now, Solaris' major competitor for the hearts and minds of the Unix community is Linux. Linux is better than Solaris at being user-friendly, better at integrating new features quickly, and less encumbered by silly executives' ideas of what makes a good operating system. Solaris is better at making big corporations happy with it, and at moving in lockstep with itself so that the whole package works with itself, and you don't have dumb problems where your keyboard driver's latest version doesn't work with the latest version of your motherboard driver, and there's no older version of your motherboard driver that also works with your mouse.... and so on.

So that's what Solaris is! Please feel free to tell me I'm wrong and why, if you also know what Solaris is. I'm sure I missed things.

Sunday, November 27

I'm writing this from Solaris.

It took almost a week, but I finally got Solaris 10 installed and all up to snuff on my laptop. At this point, it almost feels natural.

There are a few warts remaining: I'm using the stock graphics and touchpad drivers, which work well enough but are missing a few key features (hardware acceleration for the graphics, and the side-of-the-touchpad scroll functionality for the touchpad). I'm not entirely happy with the default fonts that Firefox and Thunderbird are using, but that's relatively easy to fix as well.

So on with the war story!

I found, downloaded, and burned to DVD a Solaris 10 image that's a beta candidate for Solaris 10 Update 1. Burning the image under Windows was a bit of a pain (the online community has much more information about burning illegal DVD copies than legal ones; if you have an iso image and you just want to put it on a DVD, you end up learning a fair amount about how to get around the (non-existent, in this case) copy proteciton. Somehow not, I think, what the MPAA and RIAA had in mind when they attempted to lock people out of the format). However, after a single abortive attempt, I was able to get a bootable DVD image, and get to the Solaris install mode.

Installation was actually relatively painless, once I got over kdmconfig's terrible, terrible user interface. The Solaris installer still needs a lot of work in the UI department to be approachable; installing Ubuntu was a lot easier. On the advice of a few friends around the office, I installed in non-networked mode, so I didn't have to know DNS names or NIS setup or any of those goofy things. It just asked me for a hostname and a timezone.

Once I had the bits laid down on the drive, with grub in place and set up to dual-boot Windows and Solaris, the first of the Moments of Truth arrived: time to see if it boots.

It did.

Into 640x480, even though the installer had correctly detected and used the laptop's native 1400x1050 resolution. Without a way to talk to the Windows install, where a bunch of useful files were. With neither wired nor wireless networking functioning. And without sound or any battery management. So I tackled those problems in the order I've given them above, which also happened to be the order of annoyance for me.

Video As it turns out, the installer uses Xsun as its X server, instead of Xorg (which is the default postinstall); while kdmconfig can do autodiscovery for Xsun, it can't for Xorg. In fact, xorg.conf was absent from /etc/X11 entirely, and it was using the internal defaults which are, of course, pretty conservative. I was able to launch a terminal window (I guess I could have dropped to console mode) and get to /usr/X11/bin/xorgcfg which let me specify some more sane values for my Hsync and Vsync without worrying about arcane details of xorg.conf syntax, and then log out and restart Xorg. No change! still 640x480. So I checked what xorgcfg had actually done in xorg.conf, and found that it had commented out the H and Vsync entries it put there, in the hopes that the monitor's DDI subsystem would be capable of sorting that stuff out on its own. It wasn't, though, so I uncommented the entries and restarted again -- success! Native resolution, persisting across reboots, without instability.

Windows Interoperability: The windows side of the laptop was set up as two partitions: an NTFS boot partition, and a FAT32 partition helpfully called SHARED. Solaris doesn't come with an ntfs driver, but it does have the pcfs driver that's capable of reading and writing FAT16 (which nobody uses anymore because it'll only do 2GB partions) and FAT32. Mounting it was just a question of experimenting with mount(1M), with the mount(1M) and pcfs(7FS) man pages open. Another point of interoperability that amazed me to begin with was the fact that when I stuck a FAT-formatted USB thumbdrive in the machine (actually to transfer some networking stuff over to Solaris), it Just Worked -- automountd noticed it, mounted it, and helpfully put a link on my GNOME desktop. It Just Worked! It was more than a little creepy, and I couldn't help but wonder whether it was going to corrupt files or otherwise cause problems. But it didn't (as far as I could tell).

Networking: I was expecting networking to be an ordeal of legendary proportions. It seems to be a place people get stuck in a big way, and it's compounded by the fact that, until you get internet connectivity, it's impossible to find solutions to your problems on the machine that's actually having them. It was surprisingly easy, though, not least because of Inetmenu. After installing the package and setting up RBAC (all described in the documentation), just running the GNOME applet automatically connected me to work's network, authenticated properly against the NIS and everything. And I thought the thumbdrive thing was cool! It Just Worked, almost as if I was in Linux!

Getting wireless set up was a bit more difficult, but that wasn't really Solaris' fault. I had only gotten the wifi router 24 hours before, so I was trying to figure out its web UI, the Windows wireless networking setup, and the Solaris wireless setup all at once. Also, unlike the wired card, the driver I needed wasn't stock -- I had to get it from the same OpenSolaris laptop community site I linked above. Also, the wificonfig utility that I used to set my WEP key and configure the wireless connection was a bit flaky, and reported failure when I ran it alone on the command line but seemed to work when inetmenu ran it. Oh well -- it works, and I'm actually typing this wirelessly from my living room right now.

Sound: After the wireless triumph, I was able to get some software installed and make the place feel a little bit more like home. I snagged Blastwave's pkg-get, and downloaded firefox and thunderbird and sudo, to make my life easier and not have to su to root all the time to do configuration. I also started looking around the web to see what the deal was with sound, and found a few places that had drivers I could use. I installed them, but I couldn't get them to work -- I knew that they were doing *something* though, because after I installed them and reboot(1M)ed, the machine would lock up when either Windows or Solaris tried to initialize. Eventually, I discovered that reboot(1M) and shutdown(1M) are NOT THE SAME THING, and that I needed to do the latter and not just the former to get the driver to load properly. Once I did that, I had sound!

Battery: Solaris' power-management functionality for laptops is pretty limited. It can't do the dynamic performance tuning that Windows can with the Pentium M, and scaling screen brightness and such on the fly according to battery usage is beyond it. That said, there are some beta programs on the community site for a battery utility and GNOME tray applet, and I'll take what I can get. I get about an hour and 40 minutes of battery life out of Solaris on a full battery, probably more if I can figure out a way to dim the screen and scale the CPU back manually. That's OK though -- the times when I want to run it without a battery pack are actually relatively few and far between.

I'm sure I've glossed over some of the difficulties I had, and that there are configuration steps that I've missed in this little war story. Drop me a line if you're interested in more details, or if you want to install Solaris on x86 -- I feel confident I can solve most installation problems, now.

Phew! Now I can get back to real work!

Thursday, November 24

Mutton Bombs


I don't know that I can think of a single thing that'll top that. Mutton bombs.

Wednesday, November 23

Hipeponymous: a Canoe metareview

The Tragically Hip have released their first ever Greatest Hits collection, titled Hipeponymous. I haven't seen/heard the 2CD, 2DVD monster set yet; I have, however, read Canoe's review. I'm mostly happy with it, with a few minor exceptions: The review text feels lukewarm to me, which is a bit at odds with the 4/5 star rating, and I disagree with the author's desire for a more intrusive look into the musicians themselves rather than the band itself. One of the reasons I like the Tragically Hip is that the personalities behind the band are so self-effacing; the band is about the band, not about its members.

The review was certainly effective in making me want the album; looking at the track listings and the descriptions of the DVDs, I've already made plans with my partner-in-crime Pharaohmagnetic to (as he so poetically put it) "drink deep from the spirit of the Hip and the spirit of the Scots loch. You know. Rock and booze. MANLY!"

I'd give this review a 3/5: the presentation is solid and it hits all the major points, but that sparkle of wit that makes a good review great just isn't there.

Laptop Agony, Laptop Ecstasy: *nix on the Toshiba Tecra M2

This article is about how I have tried, with mixed success, to install Ubuntu Linux and Solaris 10 on my Toshiba Tecra M2.

That line is so that people can find this post if they're looking for another war story.

This is the first line of the actual experience! When I got my laptop, it came preloaded with Windows XP, modified by the IT department (it's a company toy) to their exacting standards of corporate ridiculosity. It also had more than half the hard drive set up as a Linux partition, running a relatively strange distro loosely based on Suse.

I considered it a writeoff from the beginning, and blew it away in favour of Ubuntu. I'd heard good things from /. about the Debian-based, end-user-focused, fanatically-supported distro, and I'd wanted to try a Debian flavour for a while. The Ubuntu install was totally painless. Creepily so, in fact; I was expecting to have to do a lot more fiddling to get things to work than I did. Ubuntu is a GNOME distro, which is fine with me; they offer KDE packages, but I'm not familiar with KDE so I haven't tried them. The Synaptic package manager is as creepily easy to use as the installer, and within 20 minutes of logging in for the first time I'd downloaded a few new packages and updated the kernel and libc and openssl and a few other things I don't remember. All I had to do was point and click.

Of course, once everything was stable it was time to break things. installing a better nvidia driver was another Synaptic step, along with some conf file edits for the settings manager program. Hardware acceleration was noticeable, too; it's not often a single software update has such a noticeable effect on performance, but this one did.

Then, I jumped off the deep end and tried to get TwinView, NVidia's dual-monitor system, running. That took a *lot* of hand-edits to xorg.conf, but I was successful in getting it mostly right after a couple hours. Google, the ubuntu forums, and the nvidia linux driver forums were all very helpful; it was really a question of getting the correct parameters on the driver. Having some familiarity with TwinView from the Windows side was helpful too, so I didn't have to tab back and forth to the documentation to figure out what the options meant.

Once that was up and going, I started fiddling with the touchpad driver -- Ubuntu Blog has some good info. Haven't quite got that working perfectly yet, but it's usable; I can use tap-to-click, but not tap-hold-to-drag. More on that in this space if I get it working.

But that might be a while, since I'm going to be blowing the Ubuntu partition away and replacing it with (shock! horror!) Solaris 10.

Yeah, that's gonna be a beating. I'll let you know how it goes.

Wednesday, November 16

It's a good thing I like being scared.

Dear sweet lord above.

Charlie Stross has mastered a kind of cerebral, analytical approach to horror to which I am very vulnerable, in an abstract kind of way; His Laundry horror stories have yet to fail to make me look over my shoulder for days afterward, and his political analysis seems not to fall into the standard British-scifi-author leftism that annoys me so much about Banks and his ilk. I think it's the plausibility that does it.

And today's article, linked above, is a fine example of his political analysis.

Monday, November 14

The Agony and the Ecstasy of New Hardware

Yay! I got a laptop.
Oh god. I got a laptop.

So now I can finally get around to getting wireless in the house -- and get yelled at for using it. Now I can finally work in the park -- and get dirty looks for being one of those jerks that brings his laptop to the park. Now I can work on a powerful, roomy machine -- and I have to reinstall all my apps on the new machine. Now I can play with new hardware toys like a touchpad -- and have to reinstall the drivers 4 times in a single day because of spyware interactions.

It goes on, but you see where I'm going.

It's an underwhelming, exhilarating experience, new hardware is.

Tuesday, November 8

...and while I'm here

Civilization IV was released this week.

Most of my Civ experience is in Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri and Civ III. I'd flip from one to the other, liking parts of both. What I really wanted was a game that had it all -- civ3's culture mechanics and sense of sweeping history, and SMAC's customizable governance and prettier graphics.

Civ IV delivers, and more.

The new gameplay mechanics are enough to make it more than just a graphics update to civ III, which is really nice. And the gameplay's as addictive as ever. If you're a fan of the genre, it's a good buy.


Boy on a Stick and Slither hit one out of the park again this week.

I'm not sure I agree with the sentiment -- I don't dread the holidays, except for the advertising excess and department-store christmas trees in November -- but the execution is pure gold. If I were reviewing it for real, I'd say something like
"Steven L. Cloud's Boy on a Stick and Slither juxtaposes childlike art with a biting, wry style of humour. Neither, on their own, would warrant attention -- but the combination is guaranteed to draw a smile, if not a chuckle, from even the most jaded reader."
Shit. I guess I just did.

Monday, October 17

An Everyday Miracle

I'm brimming over with caffeine this morning, attempting to hold my eyelids open long enough to deliver something that does more than just look pretty for a demo I'm scheduled to give this afternoon. But I had to take a moment to decribe a moment of awe I just experienced.

I'm sitting at a desk in front of two monitors. They're connected to different computers, but I'm mousing back and forth between them using Synergy. One of them is Windows, another is a Unix variant. On the Unix box, I have 12 terminal windows open, variously monitoring log files, debugging output from windowed applications, and just hanging out somewhere on the filesystem. (at least two of them are redundant, but I can't be bothered to figure out which and close them.) On the Windows box, I have a couple of different IDEs, mail, two instant messenger clients, a requirements spreadsheet, and 2 terminal windows, connected to different machines. And a VNC session to a third computer across the room, on which I'm running another, different IDE.

Almost every application I'm running requires access to the network to be useful. Some of them require a lot of access to the network. All of them are currently working flawlessly -- until now, I hadn't thought about the bits on the wire for days.

I guess there is some hope for the impatient, lazy, and stupid among us.

Wednesday, October 12

Impatient, Lazy and Stupid

We all are.

Every single one of us. Perhaps not in every way, all the time, but certainly most of the time. It's not a bad thing, it's human nature. It's a result of the incredibly, stupendously complex world we live in, and we ignore those three defining characteristics of humanity at our peril.

One of the core tenets of macroeconomics is that specialization is one of the fundamental driving forces behind economic growth and progress. With the partial exception of children, humans can't really become more efficient in one sphere of effort without becoming less efficient in another. It's not zero-sum, though; you gain more than you lose (usually). Especially if you live in a community (or tribe, or chiefdom, or nation state) where other people are specializing in things you aren't. I'll learn to bake better bread with less waste, and you learn to grow better wheat with less effort, and then the two of us can feed a village rather than just ourselves.

An obvious consequence of this is that if you ask a baker to farm, he's going to be worse at it than someone who knows how to farm *and* how to bake. And so it is with most everything in Western society -- I can program computers well, but I have no idea how to weave cloth, or fix cars, or make shoes, or farm, or plan road routes, or cut hair, or take photographs, or make paper, or or or or or.....

So when I interact with an automobile, I'm stupid. I know that the right pedal is the gas, the middle one's the brake, and the left one's the clutch, and I went through a whole bunch of classes to learn how to operate cars. (I know the basics of internal combustion engines, but mostly cars are a mystery to me.) As a consequence of my stupidity, I'm also lazy. I want it to Just Work, I don't want to have to learn all sorts of weird rules about what pedals to press when. Witness the rise of the automatic transmission -- it simplified the operation of vehicles, because now Joe Sixpack doesn't have to care about RPM. He can just put the car in gear (tell it "I want to go soon") and then press the gas (tell it "I want to go NOW!"). I love it -- one fewer pedal to press, and to have to remember how and when to press. My laziness rejoices because I have less to do. As a consequence of my laziness, I'm also impatient. "god dammit, what's the problem! I want to GO NOW!" Any disruption to the functioning of my automobile is treated with frustration and petulance, since its internal workings are basically magic to me. And that's how I like it.

So why am I going off on this? Lately, I've been fighting with my tools at work. Programs that are supposed to be snappy aren't, and systems that are supposed to be stable are crashing. And it's a major, major disruption, even though if I think about it I can usually divine the cause. It takes me out of whatever zone I was in, and forces me to think about stuff that should be automatic. Because I'm stupid, it takes me a long time to switch gears and solve the problem; because I'm lazy, I don't want to do it; because I'm impatient, I resent the time it takes. Come to think about it, I'd much rather rant about this to you, gentle readers, than actually solve my problems.

There are general lessons here to be learned for us software- and game-developers, too. Think about your users as impatient, lazy and stupid and you'll build a better product. Whatever is Quickest, Impatient people will find. Whatever is Effortless, Lazy people will use. Whatever is Simplest, Stupid people will comprehend. So the point is to design your user interfaces, your user experiences, so that the Right thing is Quick, Effortless and Simple. Because the QES thing is what ILS people do -- even if it's not Right.

That's why people minimax in MMOGs -- The Quickest way to get experience (the abstract unit of progress that MMOGs use), on the aggregate, is to grind. The most Effortless way to get experience is to find the monsters that have the best risk/reward ratio. The Simplest way to get experience is to do the same thing over and over, for hours. It's also one of the roots of the success of some of the truly excellent software that's out there. Joel spends a bunch of time making sure that what I want to do is the easiest thing to do, when I'm in FogBugz. The path forward is clear, no matter what step I'm on. Blogger's BlogThis! popup, into which I'm typing now, is clearly laid-out. When I hit Publish, it's going to publish this to my blog. The iPod's interface is good -- it's like it learns from me, intuiting what I want rather than me having to learn what magic incantations I have to go through to force it to respond. All of these examples work with, rather than against, my natural tendency toward impatience, laziness and stupidity.

I wish everything was more like the cream of the crop.

Monday, October 10


Puns. Some people love 'em. Some people hate 'em.

Me? I love metapuns. That is, puns involving the word pun. Here are a few to try at parties. If the topic of puns comes up, I usually rattle these off one after another until even the most hardened pun-hater is won over.

  • Get thee to a PUNnery!
  • This is cruel and unusual PUNishment.
  • I should be locked in a PUNitentiary!
  • Hot cross PUNS!
  • I have a feeling I'm about to get PUNched!
  • Uh oh - PUN away! PUN away!
If people complain, simply inform them that these aren't puns - they're metapuns. Because that way, you can cap off with,
  • I never metapun I didn't like!

That was a metametapun.

Saturday, October 1

Monday, September 26

Two Simultaneous Mistakes

Britt Blaser is a pilot, among other things. So he blogs about aviation stuff some days, and today is one of those days.

The post is about a JetBlue plane that, due to bureaucratic risk-minimization, was not able to take the most sensible course of action when a mechanical malfunction happened -- instead, it put its crew and passengers at more risk, because the people in positions of authority on the ground didn't want to make the decision that would result in them having responsibilty for whatever calamity could have (but didn't) happen during landing. Britt relates a few other related points on bureaucracy and its limitations as a mechanism for efficient collective action, but the most interesting part of the post for me was this quote:
it's rarely the initial problem that bites an aviator in the ass. It's the second problem, combined with the first, that then spins off harmonics of woe and wisps of chaos.
Even leaving aside the wonderfully poetic turn of phrase there -- harmonics of woe indeed! -- that's a beatifully true statement. Most systems are tolerant of disruption along one axis at a time; after all, when engineers build something they typically think about the common individual failure modes and account for them in the design. Natural systems exhibit the same characteristic. Because selective pressures occur individually most of the time, constellations of resilience usually take longer to evolve.

When two things go wrong at once, that's when the shit really hits the fan.

Thursday, September 22

Good Advice

It's a terrible URL, and it's a worse title, but "hugh macleod" at said some pretty cool stuff about a year ago on how to have smarter conversations. It's good advice, and an interesting piece; his point #6, "Ruthlessly avoid working for companies that think they know better than you", struck me as particularly non-obvious. That said, I understand exactly what he's talking about. It's hard to have smart conversations, to advance the state of the art, in an environment that's not centred on doing so.

What I'm not certain about is whether that situation -- your employing organization thinking it knows better than you -- is discernible from personality conflict between you and your management. Sometimes organizations do know better than you, because they have experience you don't. Sometimes that experience isn't obvious at first glance; sometimes it's baked into processes that are there to make it difficult to do the easy, but wrong, thing. Is that conflict resolvable? Should Hugh have made a distinction between companies that think they know better and don't and companies that think they know better and do? How does a peon go about determining which case they're dealing with?

John Unger's comment on the post had a Quotable Quote in it too, on the subject of bathroom graffiti: "there's a disconnect between the idea of seeking wisdom and finding it on the shithouse wall."

Tuesday, September 20

Digg proves its worth: Water is Weird

Rands introduced me to Digg last week, and it was cool enough at the time that I put their all, science, gaming, and tech feeds on my list.

Today, it proved its worth; the top link of the Science feed was 41 Anomalies of Water. I had no idea it was so weird!

read more | digg story

Monday, September 19


I'm a little late getting this on STDU, but late is better than never -- so here's a link to babylona. As her title text on the sidebar says, she's an MMO economics theoretician. Yup, that's right -- her blog consists mostly of thoughts on the intersection of obsessive gaming nerdery and theories of value creation and distribution. Right up my alley.

I haven't read more than the first few articles, but the ones I have read seem to have their heads on their shoulders, so to speak. Although the pseudo-academic tone is making me rethink my own writing style -- I think I have more in common with her than I want to, and her long sentences make my brain hurt a little. Note to self, then: shorter sentences.

Thursday, September 15

Chemical Chronicles: Answers

Jeremy has completely answered the questions to the original quiz, which saves me the trouble of going through the exercise myself. Now I'll just go down the list and fill in the few gaps he left while explaining the rationale behind each question. Where my students got the answer wrong, I'll say so; otherwise, you can assume they answered the same way as Jeremy. To be honest, I was not expecting them to do nearly as well as they did, which elates me because it makes my job a lot easier.

  1. I fully expected my two students to be able to name ten elements. The question was, which ones would they think of. It turns out they thought of the common metals fairly quickly, (copper, silver, gold, aluminum, etc.) but they struggled after number 7 or 8. After a few minutes, they remembered gases like hydrogen and oxygen. The song that Jeremy quotes is a brilliant, no doubt; I was already planning to play it for them once we cover the periodic table.
  2. This was just to see if they had any familiarity with SI prefixes. Strangely, they didn't know where "mega" fit on the scale. Neither do most non-scientifically-inclined adults I have polled, actually, which is distressing; they tend to think that a megameter is smaller than a kilometer. Weird.
  3. This was a sneaky way of finding out if they've ever heard of a neutron. Most people say, "Proton, electron... uh... " and then they proudly think of neutron after a long pause. If my students said pi-mesons or gluons or some such, then I'd know they were hobby science nerds.
  4. Most people know about sodium chloride, or at least slap their foreheads when told the answer (their own forehead, not someone else's). My goal was to reassure my students that the intimidating concepts of chemical nomenclature were not entirely foreign to them.
  5. The ion is a fairly critical concept that, if my students didn't know about entering grade 10, would make me very sad. Jeremy's answer, "a charged particle," is bang-on.
  6. This question was a sneaky way to see if my students had ever heard of the concept of specific heat capacity, one of the few things I actually remember doing in Grade 9. Most people can get this question by intuition, but the next one throws them for a loop.
  7. The few adults that I've informally quizzed have totally guessed at this. My students did the same. The correct temperature would be "close to that of water."
  8. Carbon dioxide, strangely enough, is the first thing that most people say - probably because they read about it in coverage of greenhouse gases and global warming. My students knew the correct composition of air; however, they didn't know that the third ingredient (forming almost a whole percent) is argon.
  9. There are tonnes of answers to this question: soft drinks, exhalation, combustion reactions, car exhaust. Strangely, this almost stumped my class until they said... car exhaust. Again, I'm guessing, probably because they've learned about the greenhouse effect before. After a while they said exhalation, which is a good thing because I expected them to know that from their Grade 9 biology class.
  10. I wasn't expecting my students to know about the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation, but after a few minutes of brain-wracking, they remembered that the difference between the colours is wavelength. The adults I've polled (present nerds excepted) have no idea.
  11. The crystal lattice is a very important concept in semiconductor physics, but my students didn't know about it. They do now!
  12. The ol' magic static clinging balloon trick! Most children know the answer to this question; I asked it to get them thinking about electrostatic forces, which I want them to do before we start learning about the atom.
  13. One guy I polled said "the sun is a mass... of incandescent gas," which proved that he heard the They Might be Giants song "Why Does the Sun Shine." I asked this because I wanted to sneakily hint at (a) the distribution of elements in the whole universe and (b) the stellar origin of the heavier elements.
  14. I remember spending a whole lesson or two in my high school chemistry course about the states of matter. Most people know what they are anyway. If I can build off my students' inherent and intuitive knowledge of these concepts, I don't have to waste anybody's time.
  15. Bubbly ice: this is the only really tough question. I asked it to see if they knew that liquids (like water) could dissolve gases (like air) as easily as they could dissolve solids, like salt or sugar. Anyway, here's the full answer: the ice cubes in your fridge freeze from the top down. The first layer of ice seals off the water from the atmosphere. Then, as that layer thickens, dissolved gases evolve from the water little by little, forming a cloudy haze of small bubbles in your ice cubes. Restaurants have special machines that freeze the water from the inside out; basically, they consist very cold pipes immersed in water that freeze the water along their surface. This is also why your glassy-clear restaurant ice cubes often have that hole in the middle. Incidentally, you could make clear ice cubes in your refrigerator by boiling or distilling your tap water first. This would remove any dissolved gas.
  16. What is fire? Ah, the classic age-old question. All children ask this one, but how many people really know the answer? Well, Jeremy's response, "a too rapid exothermic reaction," is pretty good, but it's not the whole story. I'd put it here, but why not get the Straight Dope.
  17. This question had two goals. One was to see if my students heard of Pascal's Law. But even if they had not, the correct answer would have been, "let's try it out." A good scientific spirit involves always being ready and willing to experiment. This is a simple but intuitively perplexing experiment to perform for your friends and family. Try it!
  18. We are going to cover the definition of an alloy in the coming months; we might even get to coat a penny with brass, which is a very fun lab I remember performing in high school. I asked this question just to see if they were familiar with the concept. Sure enough, they could think of brass and steel... and whatever that nickel-zinc alloy that their American "nickels" are made of these days.
  19. "Why is the sky blue" is one of those "what is fire" questions. Everyone asks it and no one knows it. My students sort of did, but their answers were a little sketchy if essentially correct.
  20. Chemical reactions: strangely, this stumped my students, despite their having been asked "what is fire" only a few questions earlier. Upon prompting, they remembered combustion, respiration, digestion - all that good stuff, although I have to say that Jeremy's example of muscle contraction is pretty awesome. Here's another one: thinking! (I'm pretty sure a firing neuron involves some chemical change in the exchange of sodium and potassium. Am I right?)
  21. This one is a little tricky because while my students know the basic physical units for length, Mass, and Time, they had never seen the concept of "derived units." Hence their answer for speed was "kilometers per hour" and for pressure it was the Imperial "pounds per square inch." Most adults have no clue on these either, completely confusing power and energy, voltage and current, force and pressure, etc. It's not their fault, but it depresses me that the knowledge isn't as common as it should be.
  22. My students got this correctly, actually, though they probably guessed luckily. It turns out that salt melts before gold, which surprises a lot of scientists (who are probably thinking, hey, isn't that ionic bond supposed to be strong?) Sure enough, its melting point is still pretty high, just not that high.
  23. The mechanism behind the way a hot air balloon works isn't too complicated. I mean, my students could probably explain why air bubbles rise in water - it's the same principle, which Jeremy well and succintly describes. But they got it wrong, thinking that either it was some kind of action-reaction effect of hot air rushing out of the balloon (which would fry the occupants of the basket, but forget that) or something related to "thermals" rising inside the balloon "pushing" it up the way an eagle soars. It was interesting to see their misconceptions.
  24. A simple unit conversion problem. Everyone uses pounds (of gravitational force at the Earth's surface) for their body weight, and by Grade 10 I had hoped that they knew the conversion factor... but they didn't.
  25. Lemon juice, vinegar, the inside of a battery, ... stomach acids, etc., are all good answers to this question. They slapped their foreheards when I told them.
  26. How many molecules in a raindrop? It was interesting to see their guesses. One student said three million. The other student said 10,987,6534,321 molecules, just to be cute. Interestingly, he was stilloff by about eleven orders of magnitude. If a raindrop is on the order of 1 mL, which is about 1 mg of water, and the molar mass of water is 18 grams, then the real answer is closer to 30,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules. The reason I put this question on the quiz is because a local three-year old came up to me one day and asked it, out of the blue. I was very happy to be able to answer him.
  27. This is a personal question that surreptiously, by covert power of suggestion, was meant to convince my students that science is interesting. Their answers? The human body, said one. Dissection, said the other.

Tuesday, September 13

Chemical Chronicles: The Quiz

As an experiment, I'm tutoring a high school chemistry course. Since I had no idea what kind of science background my two students have, I decided to survey their knowledge with this very basic quiz. In a future post, I'll explain the rationale behind each question. I would expect most readers of this blog to answer most of them without any trouble, but there are a few curveballs along the way.

1. Name ten elements besides the following three examples: carbon, aluminum, oxygen.

2. Arrange in order from smallest (1) to largest (6):

millimiter ___
nanometer ___

kilometer ___

centimeter ___

megameter ___

micrometer ___

Name three particles smaller than an atom.

4. What is the chemical name of table salt?

5. What is an ion?

6. If I add 1 kilogram of hot water (at 90 ºC) to 1 kilogram of cold water (at 10 ºC) and stir it all together, what is the new temperature?

7. Now if I add 1 kilogram of metal (say, copper) at 90 ºC to 1 kilogram of water at 10 ºC, what will the new temperature approximately be?

8. What is the composition of air?

9. Name a place where you might find carbon dioxide (besides air, which is really only 0.03% carbon dioxide anyway)

10. What is the physical difference between red light and blue light?

11. What is a crystal?

12. When you rub a balloon against your hair for a few seconds, it will stick to the wall. Why?

13. What is the sun made of?

14. What are the states of matter?

15. When you go out to a restaurant, the ice cubes you get in your drink are see-through and glass-like, but the ice cubes you make in your freezer are hazy and dull. Why?

16. What is fire?

17. I balance two almost-full cups of water on a ruler over a pencil as shown (side view), making a crude set of scales:

[-picture removed for copyright purposes-]

[-just kidding - I'll get it to work later, but you can probably figure it out-]

If I insert my finger into one glass of water without touching the sides, what will happen?

18. Give three examples of an alloy.

19. Why is the sky blue?

20. Give three examples of a common chemical reaction.

21. What are the standard scientific units for the following physical properties?

Length ___
Mass ___

Time ___
Speed ___

Force ___

Pressure ___

Energy ___

Power ___

Electric Current ___

22. Arrange in order of melting point, from lowest to highest: wax, ice, tungsten, table salt, gold, plastic

23. How does a hot air balloon work?

24. What do you weigh? Now, what is your mass?

25. Name something that you would find in your household that is an acid.

26. About how many molecules are in a raindrop?

27. What is the most interesting thing you learned in last year’s science class?

Jaron Lanier, eat your heart out!

Virtual reality is here. And it doesn't need immersive goggles or flying lobsters or digital gloves or any of that stuff: it needs gamepads, broadband-based cooperative terrorist-base infiltration, and headsets that ingame characters can hear.

Mac Hall knows exactly what I mean.

Wednesday, September 7

Penny Arcade tackles the pernicious problem of mental illness

Chances are that if you're reading this blog, you already read PA. On the off chance you don't, check this one out. It almost feels more like For Better Or For Worse rather than PA... based on the creators' lives, tackling a real problem in a (slightly) humourous way. (Obvious differences include the much-superior art and the anthropomorphized, obscene fruit jucier.)

I wonder if it's a realistic take on anxiety.

Tuesday, September 6

The Inevitable Panopticon

Paul Graham: Log Everything you can break the wealth->power link, thereby allowing you to reduce economic inequality without becoming a police state.

Charlie Stross: Log Everything and you become a police state.

Fraxas: Time to invest in easy, strong encryption, steganography, and a culture of plausible deniability.

Thursday, September 1

Bolshy horrorshow, droogs. Bolshy horrorshow.

JWZ give sa good round-up of the Katrina metacoverage in an article called the ongoing horror show.

My nomination for best worst best quote ever:
Coming up next: cholera!

Charlie Stross, in 1996, on DejaNews (now Google Groups)

A long time ago, Charlie Stross wrote a Rant against dejanews. It's here.

His thesis is this: universally accessible archives of usenet writing is morally equivalent to universal surveillance, and destroys not just privacy but also deniability -- Anyone can go back through the archives and find out everything you've ever said.

Which has been true for as long as I've been on the 'net.

Interestingly enough, this hasn't stifled discourse at all; instead, it's presented some evolutionary pressures: pseudonymity is now much more widely accepted, and deniability is built into most of what we write online. Usenet is less populated now that it was, and even its successor -- the web forum -- is hearing the baying of the hounds. Additionally, the very culture of the 'net operates to extinguish debate, which creates structural/cultural barriers to participation that make everyone think twice about the validity of what they're about to post.

On Online Debate

Charlie Stross speaks on the nature of online discourse:

It is there, as an arm or an agent of the mean lean peeve machine, that you will find fulfillment and bliss, your true purpose in life: as a mindless component of a destructive dialogue generator that engages in blistering and merciless repression of all dissident opinions.
--Charlie Stross,
A 1996 counter-rant on the suppression of dissent on Usenet

Edit: Atlas followed this post up over IM, and the following conversation occurred:

Atlas: I stay off forums
Fraxas: unwilling to be drawn into the howling maelstrom?
Atlas: Yes.
Fraxas: I consider myself a net contributor.
Atlas: I believe that to be true of you
Fraxas: I keep most of my bad mood to IMs between you and me and Dan and me.
Atlas: That is very contained
Atlas: Like a little jar of rage
Fraxas: I prefer to think of it as a magnetic-flux container for high-energy plasma.
Fraxas: burning hot, extremely unstable, requires huge amounts of energy to maintain, deadly in medium proximity, controllable by modulated EM.
Fraxas: hold on wait that's coffee breath

Monday, August 29

More Good from Tim Bray: Ken Arnold on coding style

In an October 2004 article called Style is Substance, Ken Arnold (a former Sun illuminatus with some seriously impressive credentials) details his somewhat heretical stance on coding style: it should be baked into the grammar of the language. And I agree.

Some background for the non-coding readers out there: the programs that turn the gibberish people like me actually type into files that computers can execute are called compilers. Compilers are incredibly picky about most aspects of the syntax they understand; you must match every '{' with a '}', you must end lines with a ';', you must name the file according to this scheme, et cetera et cetera. The variations they do allow are collectively referred to as "style", and us programmers tend to spend a relatively large amount of time arguing about it.

The fact that we do spend so much time arguing about it is indicative that it's at least important enough to argue over, even if it's totally unimportant to the compilers. Inconsistent style is a major, major, problem for code readability (by humans), and it tends to hide logical errors (the kind where what you told the computer to do is a valid thing from its perspective, it's just not what you want). By baking a 'style' specification into the language, not only do you end the argument once and for all but you force people who had inconsistent style to standardize. There's a big code-quality win right there.

Of course, you could argue that this is a solved problem, and that most modern IDEs already provide on-the-fly style adjustment so that it doesn't really matter what gets put into the text file because your editor can display it according to your particular preferences. In fact, I suppose I just did. But hey, at least he got me thinking about it.

Tuesday, August 23

Damion Schubert on game ratings

Note: This blog article is adapted from a comment on the linked article. I was proud enough of the comment that I thought it deserved a post here.

Damion Schubert, one of the A-list MMO-design bloggers, follows up on an ongoing discussion of the current system of rating video games, paraphrasing a BBC article as follows:
Long story short: if parents are aware of the rating system and what ‘M’ means but still buys the game, at what point can all of the blame cease to be placed at the industry’s footsteps.
One of the commenters on Damion's piece, who identifies themselves as "Q", makes the argument that games are often marketed at a wider audience than their rating allows.

Q’s comment reminds me of tobacco advertising, but there are some key differences — like the fact that cigarettes are cigarettes no matter who makes them. Games are much more varied. I really think the more appropriate precedent here is the movie industry. But even that one is a bit weird, because games are so much more removed from their predecessors (tabletop games and physical sports) than movies were from theirs (vaudeville). Vaudeville already had a concept of ‘adult’ content — the burlesque — and motion pictures acquired that trend and marketed themselves to the entire population, with action and adventure and drama and kid’s shows too.

Nintendo did the world a huge disservice saturation-bombing children in the 80s. (I say that as a child of the 80s myself.) If they’d positioned the Famicom as a family entertainment device, for Mom and Dad as well as for The Kids, then I think this fight we’re having right now wouldn’t be happening the same way because the medium wouldn’t be perceived as “for kids”. So in a strange sort of way, there are analogies to the world of comics, too. And hey, look! Comics are under the same kinds of attacks for their adult content!

The Economist’s leader on the issue (may be a pay link; contact me outside the blog if you want the text of the article) was also particularly interesting to me; it pointed out that the condemnation of video games as immoral and corrupting has huge parallels to the similar condemnation of rock&roll in the 50s, which only really died out when its vanguard started to die off. I know that my kids are going to have access to age-appropriate games and comics, the same way as they have access to age-appropriate books and movies and music.

And frankly, I don’t care if my grandparents disapprove.

Monday, August 22

RSS versus Atom, VHS versus Betamax, Ethernet versus Token ring

There's a whole bunch of noise on the metablogs (that is, the blogs that are about blogging! rawr!) about Atom versus RSS, and which technology will be The Winner in the Standards War, and surprisingly enough almost everything I have to say on the topic has already been said in the Slashdot comment thread. I know, strange isn't it, a /. thread that it's full of idiots.

The one thing I think the Atom guys did wrong was not trying to call their format RSS as well. Really, guys -- RSS has the mindshare (such as it is); there was no need to invent an entirely new name for what's actually the same thing. I read an interview with the creator of Ethernet about a year ago, and he said something really telling -- I'm paraphrasing here, but essentially it was that Ethernet was popular enough that whatever replaces it is probably also going to be called Ethernet. It's all about the ergonomics, people! fewer new things to learn is better.

Friday, August 19

Wormsign: Terrorism and Piracy

First, an aside -- I'm not talking about the unauthorized duplication of copyrighted materials. I'm talking about extranational, rogue groups that steal things at sea and in the air. Though it's an interesting bit of propaganda that the content cartels have successfully expanded the definition of "piracy" to include the former, introducing a spurious comparison to the truly awful original meaning of the word.

Legal Affairs' July/August 2005 article entitled The Dread Pirate Bin Laden. Apparently, "international law currently lacks a definition of terrorism as a crime" [from the linked article]. And when you really think about it, it's really hard to come up with one; it's almost as if the actions and methods of terrorism are designed to hamper its definition and categorization by the groups (nation-states) that have the matériel to fight them. A response, you might say, to the evolutionary pressure of an internationally accepted legal framework. That social-Darwinist take on the issue points to an interesting question, then -- if the methods of terrorism arose in response to the formalization of inter-state relations, why didn't it arise at the same time that formalization happened (the late 17th century)? Why did it take three hundred years?

What if it didn't?

I'm sure you see where I'm going here. As the linked article states, in rather impressive (to a layman, at least) detail, there are real and valuable and effective parallels to be drawn between terrorism and piracy. Their crimes share methods, aims, and locuses; even their rhetoric can be compared -- as can the rhetoric of nation-states that are/were affected by them. Perpetrators and victims. I wouldn't be surprised if the laws governing terrorism, when they arise, look very similar to the ones governing piracy. Of course, there are some differences between terrorism-by-piracy and terrorism-by-suicide-attack that are worth mentioning. The latter are harder to spot and probably more ideologically driven than their economically-driven forebears. But ultimately, they're close enough for at least some of the precedent to apply.

Thursday, August 18


Checkerboard Nightmare for Wedneday, Aug 17.

Checkerboard Nightmare's whole gimmick -- one that's sustained the M-W-F strip through four and a half years -- is that its eponymous main character tries all sorts of get-rich-quick gimmicky ways to become a popular webcomic. That'd be funny enough it the comic itself was niche and was read by a couple hundred people and published biweekly, but it's hilarious because it worked. CN is, in the ever-so-unimportant dominance hierarchy of 'western' webcomics, a B-lister, with enough readership that the comic is its creator's day job. And today's comic is the perfect example of what CN's all about -- a witty premise wrapped in self-reference wrapped in an egoism so pure it's actually endearing. A prime example of a metacomic.

I'm sure Pharaoh could chime in here with some juicy postmodern literary criticism here on the topic of the discernability of the true meanings of texts that are their own topics, but I'll leave that in his capable hands. I just think meta- is an intrinsically interesting -- and frequently amusing -- prefix.

Monday, August 15

Raymond Chen has strong code fu.

In a recent blog entry, Raymond (who works for Microsoft in the kernel compatibility team, making sure that new Windows releases don't break old, misbehaving programs) hands us one of the tools in his massive toolbox of arcane problem solving. It's one of those things that is best described as code fu -- it's a perfectly obvious solution to a terrible arcane problem that you never would have thought of. This is a guy who, when he's working, is Really Thinking. And who has an incredibly deep knowledge pool in which to dip the cup of problem-solving, or something.

Pretty rad, I say. Neat tool.

Thursday, August 11

I started what I could not finish.

Dave has the winning blow, and my acknowledgement of defeat, on his blog.

Let this blogpost remain as a testament to those who have fallen, those who were innocent casualties, those whose animatory skill was not up to the creation of the necessary equine appendages.

We mourn their defeat.

This one's mostly for you, Oz.

What's the deal with this Butterflies and Wheels site you reference every once in a while? It reminds me a lot of Operation Clambake, the anti-Church Of Scientology site. A fundamentally sound idea, marred by the fact that reactionaries can't help but sound shrill even when they're on the side of light (so to speak).

yea or nay? NEIGH.

The picture is awesome, yes.

but this one is more so.

...because frankly, the only thing better than a rearing horse is a flying devil unicorn, revelling in the destruction of its enemies.

Wednesday, August 10

Spellcheckers won't always work

This is directly quoted from the abstract to talk number 5929-12 from the SPIE Optics and Photonics Conference, San Diego 2005.
The United States Department of Energy has concluded that hydrogen storage is a cornerstone technology for implementing a hydrogen energy economy. However, significant scientific advancement is still required if a viable on-board storage technology is to be developed. For example, an adsorption process for on-board vehicular storage will require a hydrogen binding energy between ~20-60 kJ/mol to allow for near-room temperature operation at reasonable pressures. Typically, non-dissociative physisorption due purely to van der Waals forces involves a binding energy of only ~ 4 kJ/mol, whereas a chemical bond is ~ 400 kJ/mol. The desired binding energy range for vehicular hydrogen storage therefore dictates that molecular H2 be stabilized in an unusual manor.

Tuesday, August 9

Doggerel in Dactylic Quadrameter

When Pharaohmagnetic was in his second-last year of high school, he and I whiled away many an hour perfecting the trivial; we played roleplaying games, we honed Magic: The Gathering decks, and I critiqued his (knowingly) terrible poetry. Recently, I read a thread on Jeph's boards about goth poetry, all of which apparently ends with the line "I want to die". After IMing him a couple of those off the top of my head, he replied with 6 stanzas he wrote Back In The Day, and I was forced by my irrepressible tendency toward oneupmanship to improve upon them.

Three days later, the poem now has 12 stanzas, and is separated into three quartets. I present, for your amusement and (hopefully) constructive critique, the following:

a light air on the future

Dire straitjackets burning in piles;
Skeleton corpses that stretch on for miles;
Predators painting on palpable smiles,
Where nothing but fangs can be found.

Chewing on carcasses pulsing with blood;
Stepping on maggots that squirm in the mud;
Severing heads that fall off with a thud—
A sickening, resonant sound.

Buzzing and hovering legions of bees
Spreading their filth and horrendous disease;
Swarming on bodies that rot in the breeze-
Spoil and Decay all around.

Evil and malice and hopeless despair
float sickly on poison that hangs in the air;
Creeping to caverns of agony where
The Devourer of Worlds will be crowned.

Rot, in the swamps choked with foetor profane
Wafts from the hoofprints he leaves on the plain;
Even the Heavenly Host goes insane;
His murderous rage is unbound.

Imps of depravity, heralds of doom,
gleefully gibber and sift through the gloom;
The beacons they light throw off pestilent fumes
and waken the carrion hounds.

In grottoes of misery, minions await
with tributes of hellishness, horror, and hate;
The crown in their talons, a king they'll create
With lust for destruction profound.

Tremble before the Destroyer Reborn!
The fatuous Fates flee a future foresworn;
All happiness rent, all pleasure now torn
as the drums of insanity pound.

The blaze of his villainy rages and races;
Burns his work blackly on all the world's places;
Gouges out eyeballs from innocent faces;
Cadavers contort on the mound.

Anguish and torture are speaking in terms
Of violent fever and virulent germs,
Festering flesh that is crawling with worms
Digesting the dead and the drowned.

Rivers of fire that flow to the sea
Carve out new chasms that always will be
Steaming with ashes that never agree
To rest in the air or the ground.

Surveying the desolate world he controls,
Raping a maelstrom of suffering souls,
Evil fulfils its nefarious goals;
Eternal afflictions abound.

Word of Warcraft

Pharaoh linked me today's Lore Brand Comic, which I find hilarious.

Reminds me of the sysadmin tooltoy based on Doom that had you running around with the shotgun on a level with a bunch of those zombie guys with process numbers over their heads -- when they died, that process got kill-9ed.

unprecedented levels of productivity indeed!

Why I hate "Why I hate 'Why I hate x' articles" articles.

Short answer: recursive metacommentary is only funny if you're a tremendous language nerd (computer language or natural language, take your pick).

I was originally going to write a post here about the 500-comment slashdot discussion on the apache-only news article Why I Hate the Apache Web Server, but then I realized that it'd be funnier to start off with another level of recursion.


So the actual rant here today is on the topic of that article! yay! The entire first page of the discussion thread for newspost, which is essentially just a link to a 19-slide PDFized presentation, is various sysadminnish Linux zealots complaining about the file being in PDF. There was no commentary at all that I could see on the content of the article itself (which, frankly, should have been 'why I hate Apache's configuration system', since that's all it talked about). Just a howling, degenerate mess of "re:re:re:re:re:re: I hate PDFS (lol)", describing the various 6-user, 3-years-abandoned, incredibly clunky, PDF viewers that My Favourite Distro ships with. Or worse, their configuration systems. The Signal-to-Noise ratio in that discussion is within epsilon of zero.

Monday, August 8

Rands on Portals

Rands rants on portals. And he's right. I couldn't identify what it was about OMG PORTALS that rang false to me, but now I know -- they're boring, designwise.

And they make ME do the work of figuring out what content should go on them, rather than having some expert I trust do it. It's the wrong interaction paradigm, I think.

Wednesday, August 3

Wacky Signs I've Seen in San Diego

I wish I brought my digital camera. I guess you'll have to take my word for these:

  • Above a baby-changing table in the convention centre restroom: "For future conventioneers"
  • On an official-looking sandwich-board in the middle of the street: "Welcome to San Diego - the city too messed up to fix potholes"
  • Various locations: No Guns Allowed

Thursday, July 28

If you turned every atom in the solar system into a 2d pixel grid... still wouldn't have enough megapixels to display a :rolleyes: emoticon big enough to display my contempt for this article. Seriously, who writes this shit? The fact that the INTARWEB SUPERNET REVOLUTION HIGHWAY HAS CHAENGD THE WORLD!!1!!!!1!!! is both skullcrushingly self-evident and hopelessly naive. Self-publishing! Now I can write things down and put them somewhere public rather than screaming them on a streetcorner! Auction sites! Now I can bid for useless crap against people a thousand miles away instead of 100 yards! Pornography! Now I can watch women who look like Barbie pose artificially FOR FREE IN MY OWN HOME rather than having to buy a magazine from a disinterested convenience store clerk!

Give me a break.

The internet changes the world in the same way that every new mode of communication does. These things come along once every 40 years or so, folks; it's not like they've 'enabled fundamentally new business models' or anything like that. It's just another massive layer of self-perpetuating complexity to disguise the fact that western capitalism has created a special breed of metaperson whose only goal is making money, and doing it any fucking way then can. Sure, we consumers get some benefits, I'm not denying that, but is 2005 really the right time to gush about e-business? Isn't "e-business" just a term to hoodwink stupid managers into buying consultancy (and its bastard spawn the management-theory book)? Is "e-business" any different from the "wireless business" of the turn of the last century? Isn't all just Business, in a different medium?

Come on, Wired. You can do better than that. Stop publishing this repetitive crap.

Sunday, July 24

Peter Watts writes interesting books.

Boingboing linked to Peter Watts' website today, pointing out that he's released his first two novels (in addition to a number of short stories) for free, under a Creative Commons license. That means there are two free science fiction novels out there for the reading! yay!

I'd read the first 60 pages of Starfish in Indigo about 3 months ago, and liked it enough to write the name down on a scrap of paper in my wallet and keep it there until it was illegible. So I'm quite happy to have been reminded of Mr. Watts, especially since it turns out he's Canadian *and* he releases his backcatalogue for free. The book itself is interesting and very, very dark; both literally -- it takes place mostly at the bottom of the ocean, and figuratively -- its main themes are childhood sexual abuse, power rationing, and the advent of vaguely-human AI.

Go read it; it's fun.

Friday, July 22

Pop is Crap: Music Videos

I don't know how it's possible, but by some weird quantum superpostion effect, all of the thousands of music videos circulating through the mass entertainment media are simultaneously eye-gougingly terrible and brain-numbingly boring. Here are some totally objective symptoms of their retch-inducing awfulness, examples included. (Note: if you really want to torture yourself, these videos are all available for viewing in the apple iTunes store. I was going to link to their multivarious places on the web, but I decided to spare you.)

  • Simple-minded visual shtick that, while interesting at first glance, is repeated for the entire duration of the video, thus driving the viewer to boredom-induced suicide. One example is Seven Nation Army by the White Stripes, where you think, "hey neat, the camera is repeatedly zooming in on the band, then the band within the band within a band, etc., oh I get it, when is this going to get better, hunh, how about that, it's the same thing over and over again, ohgodi'msobored, holy crap I just wasted 3 minutes of my life." Another example: that indie heartbreaker (or more accurately, poopstinker) by Bright Eyes. Easy / Lucky / Free. In it, Our Hero writes fragments of the lyrics on the glass comprising the "fourth wall." After 15 seconds, you're so bored you might as well be dead. Imagine how you feel after the duration of the entire video.
  • Symptom number two: Our Artist is "jamming" soulfully on a musical instrument, contorting his/her face to the incredibly Deep and Expressive Emotions in the Lyrics... but that instrument is nowhere to be heard in the audio track! A great example of this is that dog-nodule of a song, "Be the Girl," by Aslyn. In the video, she's leaning over a piano, pounding the keys, and wrinkling her face to the lyrics. There's no piano in the song; all you hear is urine-slick electronic studio meddling.
When I think of all the talent and man-hours and effort that was spent in conceiving/making/distrubuting these things, I cry.

And cry and cry.

Thursday, July 21

One Year

A year ago today, I created a blog on blogspot and invited a close friend to contribute to it with me. Honestly, I didn't expect it to last anywhere near a year. I expected it to be a rarely-updated morass of random thoughts and pointless drivel--wait, what? it is? hunh. I guess it's pretty average, then. That's pretty much a fundamental point of my philosophy, though: the principle of mediocrity. There are 6 billion humans alive right now, 35 million of which live in the same country as me, 2 million in the same city, 50 thousand in this profession in this city, probably 10 thousand of those in the same basic life situation, and probably half of those have blogs. So the chances of me having said anything fundamentally unique is low.

Didn't stop me and The Pharaoh from making 141 posts over the past year, though. I guess we have more to say than we thought we did.

I blame the internet.

Wednesday, July 20

A /. Poster on Opportunity

Sometimes opportunity knocks. Other times, you have to roam the streets until you find it, beat it over the head, and drag it back to your place kicking and screaming... Where you have your pit already prepared... Some nice swing albums from the forties, a couple of car batteries, a fifty-pound bag of lime, bottle of ether... Wait, what were talking about again?

You just made my day, pegr.

Sunday, July 17

Private to Lockhart Steele

When I mentioned this site, I unfortunately neglected to mention that I (DDB) am Fraxas, and not Pharaohmagnetic.

Thank you.

Friday, July 15

Why I Play Games

Cat and Girl and Boy on a Stick and Slither both address one of the Fundamental Issues of Philosophy this week: that gaping void in your heart that nothing -- not alcohol, not marriage, not shopping, not sleep, not even pain -- can fill. The sucking chest wound of powelessness and directionlessness and fear of the afterlife.

Yeah, that's why I play games.

The best way I've found to deal with the aforementioned Fundamental Issue is to escape it into a controllable, logical World System where brainpower and reflexes can combine in a mode of personal expression that integrates perfectly with The World. An expression of my will to power. (The print version of that article, available in the Good and Evil backissue of Maisonneuve, elaborates more clearly on Niezchean philosophy as it applies to games. You should find it and read it, because it's the best piece in the magazine.) OBA's view of what immersion is fits perfectly here; immersion is losing yourself in a game, immersion is becoming someone with a clear goal in a world that even by opposing it supports it, immersion is total focus on the task at hand.

That kind of immersion doesn't necessarily come from story games, either. PopCap's puzzle games and Tetris are great examples of games that support that kind of immersive experience. I can spend hours performing one of 5 to 10 basic, sub-1-second-duration operations, in the pursuit of a goal that is entirely and unabashedly abstract, and be totally focused on it. Come to think of it, neither the 'computer' nor the 'game' part of computer games are required for that kind of immersion; programming can be a similar experience if you're In The Zone, as can Chess or Checkers or any other of those classic brainpower games. Doing pure math, if my sources in academia are correct, can do that kind of thing.

Were I religiously inclined, I'd point out that one interpretation of the classic Latin phrase "laborare est orare", literally "work is prayer", is that total focus and immersion can be acheived in any task. And perhaps that's a more broadly applicable statement; perhaps the sublime feeling of control, of participation in and interaction with and manipulation of the world as an abstract symbol system is a good way to fill that void.

All I know is that it works for me.

[Postscript: Jeff dropped by and reminded me that he wrote a similar piece last March. I should have linked it in the article, but I didn't, so now I have.]

Wednesday, July 13

Python Challenge - Victory!

Yesterday, Fraxas and I finally finished all 33 currently existing levels of the incredible Python Challenge. I never learned so many things about the coding experience as I did working on this puzzle. Here's a short list:
  • Not everything needs to be engineered from the ground up. Go out there and see what has been solved by others.
  • Two heads are better than one; way, way, way better.
  • Choose the best tools for the job. Yes, this is the "Python" challenge, and indeed, we (mostly Fraxas) worked wonders with Python to get the job done. However, some of the problems, (e.g. level 31, author's rendition above) were best solved with Mathematica, the language with which I'm most familiar.
  • The act of manipulating symbols, of pushing them around in a conceptual, abstract space, can be really fun.
If any of you decide sleuth it out, (and I know that Jeremy has) feel free to contact us for hints. More likely, we'd like to know how you solved some of these problems; many of the levels left us blindly groping at an elephant for days at a time, and it would be fascinating to see how different minds attacked them.

Monday, July 11

Linklists are for Insiders

Today, I added a whole bunch of stuff to the lefthand sidebar. Most of the links are to blogs that I read and that I think you should read. They're loosely categorized (oh how I agonized over where to put Angus and Lum and slashdot!), but don't take that too seriously. I put little hovertext titles on the links too, because I'm sneaky. Not so sneaky I'm not telling you about it on the front page, though. These links are not all the blogs/feeds/sites I read, but they're the most important ones.

To me, anyway.

Tuesday, July 5

Another reason Software Sucks

I'm reading through Kernighan and Ritchie's seminal book, 'The C Programming Language'. I should have done this a long time ago; it's an important book, and a pretty good overview of the language.

The problem with it is that it completely ignores modern software development practice.

Without getting into the sordid details, I now understand a lot better why people like Joel Spolsky write so passionately about code quality, emphasizing things that are second nature to me. Many people learned to code from K&R, or from people who learned from K&R. And though K&R properly emphasizes elegance and speed, it does so at the expense of readability, maintainability, and security. Eugh.

Monday, July 4

You Idiots: Marble-mouthed anticapitalism ruins a perfectly good ad campaign

So Nike pissed off Minor Threat by ripping off an album cover.

I'm not into the skate culture at all, or the punk culture; I've always found its socialist trends more than a little naive. The above link, and the Pitchfork press release linked to from there, certainly cement that feeling for me.

The story, essentially, is that Nike's skateboarding division was sponsoring some kind of tour/promo thing they were going to call Major Threat, a riff on one of the seminal CDs of the skater-punk movement, Minor Threat's self-titled debut. They had promotional materials made up as well, that were similarly (i.e. not at all) distanced from Minor Threat. Aaaaand, because Minor Threat and their label hold that Big Corporations are Universally Bad and Just There to Trod on the Little Guy, Let's Go Get Some Beer And Noodle Around On Skateboards Guys OK?, they're 'appalled' and 'disgusted' at Nike's actions.

They have no idea how corporations work.

Now, I don't know anything about the internal structure of Nike Inc. either. What I can tell you is that their skateboarding division is be no means their largest, and that if my experience of corporate culture is comparable it's run by about 6 guys, only 3 of which actually care about skateboarding. The band and the label seem to me to have this idea like Nike Skateboarding's all huge and evil; that 12 guys in black suits are smirking evilly at one another in an oak-panelled boardroom, nodding at a presentation that says

Messing Up The Little Guy -> Big Bux For Us

or something equally sinister. But it's not true! Those 6 guys probably thought they were just spinning a clever take on a well-loved album. That the homage to a band they all like (or else why would they be working for Nike Skateboarding?) would be recognized and appreciated.

Now, they should have asked permission first, for sure. They shouldn't have appropriated Minor Threat's work without compensation or acknowledgement. But that's a minor blunder, and one that makes it even clearer to me that these guys didn't pass the idea by Legal before floating it.

Give them a break, you idiots. You just lower your own credibility when you demonstrate your total lack of cluedness.

Thursday, June 30

Context Free Sentence

Twice in the past two days, I've had the opportunity to enlighten people in my vinicinty (probably against their will, but that's what they get for hanging out with a pedantic smartassall the time) on a sentence that you'll recognize if you've ever taken a Linguistics class taught in English.
Colourless green ideas sleep furiously.
Yup. Colourless green ideas sleep furiously. Linguistics classes use it to demonstrate that there's more to language than just syntax (the stringing of words into sentences according to rules), that semantics is a valid intellectual discipline. The first time I heard that sentence, I blinked a few times and then laughed. It's syntactically valid -- the words are arranged according to the rules of English grammar -- but the words don't relate to one another at all, absent an extremely strange and contorted context. The mechanisms whereby we use the sounds that make up spoken language, or the glyphs that make up written language, to share mindstate with other people don't work for that sentence.

If you do try to discern what someone's thinking when they say that sentence, you reach one of a number of conclusions:

* they're telling an obscure joke, the point of which is that the sentence doesn't make any sense
* they don't understand the meanings of the words that make up the sentence
* they understand the meanings of the words, and their internal mental state is so different from yours that the sentence makes sense to them.

We call people who do the first thing a lot 'language nerds', people who do the second thing a lot 'not fluent in English', and people who do the third thing a lot 'crazy'. No, seriously. That's what crazy is. An internal mental state that deviates so far from the norm that it impairs the ability to communicate effectively. And that's why talking to crazy people makes you feel a little crazy yourself, because your mind naturally tries to make sense of what they're saying, which involves contorting your own mental state to match theirs. Hard work. Actually, getting a true 'meeting of minds' with someone, learning what they mean by what they say, is hard work even if the person isn't crazy. you have to infer a lot. Establish a shared context with them.

so...yeah. Colourless green ideas sleep furiously. Use it when someone says something that doesn't make any sense.

Wednesday, June 29

Implementations Have Consequences

One of the blogs I read every day is Old New Thing, Raymond Chen's fascinating daily dive into the murky depths of Windows. Highly technical.

Today, he got a comment from another MS blogger: mgrier, who maintained the NT DLL loader for a couple years. That's the piece of operating-system code that manages the process by which the reusable parts of programs (Dynamic Link Libraries) are made available to executables, and to each other. One of his recent articles, part of a series on the internals of the NT DLL loader, had this quote in it:
I believe that this is not an implementation detail...

Wow. What an incredibly scary thing to say. Not just because it demonstrates that the Windows operating system is sufficiently complex that the very intelligent people maintaining it think about it abstractly enough that they hold beliefs about it, but also because he's making an important point about software here.

Every implementation decision you make matters to your design. Even things that, to the designer/architect/whoever-specced-out-the-thing-you're-working-on, seem like pure implementation details. At some point down the road, someone is going to care that you present your output as an ordered list because that's how it happened to come out. This is most important for applications that have other applications 'downstream' from them (i.e. their output is going to get fed into some other thing), but it's applicable for end user programmers too. (Especially since a lot of the output you think is being read by people is actually being read by machines.) So a truly conscientious programmer considers all these things, and thinks carefully about the consequences of each implementation decision that needs to be made. Or at least, they should.

I wonder if we do?

Tuesday, June 28

Conflicted over Adequacy

Oz had things to say about revision control recently, as well as some comments on 'the tyranny of adequacy'.

I'm really conflicted about the sentiment that that there is a tyranny of adequacy. On one hand, as a tool developer, I want The World to be constructed out of the very best components possible because I know that things tend to be overused and abused out there. I'd rather people not use a thirty-year-old textfile editor to do business-critical tasks; I'd rather people not use a terribly buggy operating system when vastly superior ones exist. On the other hand, as a user, I want to learn the fewest things possible because I'm a busy guy and anyway I hate change. (People do. It's a Human Being thing.)

It's really a conflict of interest. Engineering best practices suggest that the best engineering is overengineering, that things should be as perfect as they can be made. But Optimizing is hard work, and it's hard for lazy people -- and I include myself in that category, for sure -- to keep working on perfecting something when what you have in your will do the job. Something that satisfies. Herb Simon coined the term 'satisfice' in the 50s for that concept, so that he could label and dissect the optimizer/satisficer distinction.

Oz seems to be one of those rare humans that prefers to Optimize rather than to Satisfice in his everyday life. He wants the very best user experience on his computer, so he uses an Apple at home. Never mind the fact that, for almost all things, Wintel boxes provide an adequate user experience. He wants his employer to be a thought leader in the industry, so he works for Sun. He wants his pictures to turn out perfectly, so he practices and practices photography rather than just pointing and shooting. (There are other experiences I have with Oz that lead me to hold this to be true, but if get into them you'll know who I am, and I'm trying to hide that a little here.) My point here is that Optimizers worry about a 'tyranny of adequacy', whereas Satsificers just get on with their lives, not caring enough about the quality of their experience to seek out its betterment. Of course, optimize/satisfice is a bit of a false dichotomy; there's a continuum there, depending on what you consider 'good enough' in terms of quality.

Ah ha! Found it! That's my problem with the phrase 'tyranny of adequacy': it obscures the writer's actual sentiment, which is that the community about which the writer complains has lower quality standards than (|s)he does. It also allows the writer to get away with not telling us why they think the community's standards are too low. So there.

[Editor's note: between writing the previous paragraphs and the ones that follow, I had a relatively deep conversation with Oz on this topic.]

Of course, a diehard Optimizer's comment on this would be 'the fact that you don't acknowledge the tyranny of adequacy doesn't mean it's not there'. Well, ok. People do tend to overestimate the pain of learning a new system, and underestimate the time and effort they'll save with the better tool. But that's a fact, and, unfortunately, blogging wistfully about it doesn't make that fact go away. Jow Sixpack responds better to carrots than to sticks; he's more receptive to 'look what this new shiny tools can do that your thing can't!' than 'that thing you're using? it sucks. and here's why. and here's something that sucks less in these three ways'.

So, to return to the actual subject matter of the linked post: how about it? What can your source-control system do that mine can't?