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Archive November 2003
Saturday 29 November 2003
What Is This?What Is This?
The background has been blurred away so as to provide no clue. The object is made of leather.
What Is This? Diagram.
Since the image isn't very clear, I provide a diagram to the right; the left side joins to the right side of the diagram, to form the shape in the picture. [15:21] [17 comments]
We all know how America has artificially inflated prices for prescription drugs, yes? Because the industry has a stranglehold with 17-year patents and the FDA defining anything that isn't the brand-name not as "generic" (if there's still a binding patent in the US), but rather as "counterfeit".

And I expect most of us know, albeit perhaps not the exact figure, that the US military budget is about four hundred billion dollars a year.

What you don't know is that the reason the US military budget is so huge is because the US military industrial complex also has a price stranglehold which it exploits even in dealing with its top customer, the government. How else could you explain that the US military pays many thousands of dollars for a single tank, and yet in Australia there are signs like this on the street, even in a relatively small city like Adelaide:
Tanks From $15

I know. It wasn't very funny. [08:57] [3 comments]

Friday 28 November 2003
Hoorah, research backing up what I've always insisted based on strong anecdotal evidence; that home-schooled people are good - not just smarter, but also more socially and societally competent.

Possibly a flawed study though - can't tell from the summary, since it doesn't say where the sample is taken from. It it was a call for home-schooled people then they'll mostly have got people who are proud of it, which will have skewed the study towards positive. If, on the other hand, they just pulled names straight from some form of academic records or census information then it seems fine. [14:05] [17 comments]

Wednesday 26 November 2003
Grarh! Reality TV lie detector tests are really very very annoying indeed. More specifically, 'Meet My Folks', the reality series based on the movie 'Meet The Parents'. The lie detector has no calibration questions at all, for a start. The questions asked are then mostly horribly badly phrased, such that the person will be able to truthfully answer no while thinking 'but...' - and the lie-detector-reader-man will claim that the answer is a lie, where it's not because the question was stupid. The questions that aren't flawed that way are worse still; things like (not a real example) "are you imagining my daughter naked at this very moment?" It doesn't matter how the person answers this, the machine will throw its needle around all over the shop because there's two sorts of 'stress' reaction being kicked in by the question itself. And the lie-detector-man then says the victim is lying if they say no, and not if they say yes, the latter not based on the reading but based on the fact that if you were lying to such a question you wouldn't be saying yes. Which is to say, the machine always always signifies lying, and only if the victim is giving the 'rude' answer are they thought to be telling the truth.

I want to be the questioner on a show of that nature, asking questions of stress-causing over-specific stupidly-phrased nature, and then punching the lie-detector-man in the face when he claims the victim is lying. "He's fucking not lying, you twat, the needle just says that he's vibrating and oozing chemicals. Everyone does that if you make them imagine naked people." [17:09] [12 comments]
It's a revolutionary idea to revamp politics as we know it! The method that has already been applied to keep third-parties down should be equally applied against one's direct opposition. Why go the difficult route of digging up ancient material to use for slander, when that doesn't change anybody's mind anyway? None of your campaigning ever changes anyone's mind about who they'd rather vote for. Telling the people who like you to get out there and vote for you doesn't make much difference either - apathetic people are a tough audience. There's a simple solution to all of this - instead of convincing people to vote for you, convince those who favour your opponent that it's not worth bothering to vote. You can't fail when you appeal to human laziness and apathy! [06:26] [0 comments]

Sunday 23 November 2003
Since Nescafé were nice enough to send me free coffee samples, I shall review their coffees.

Starting with the packaging - the samples arrived in a nasty white cardboard box with a "The Nescafé Collection" logo which was presumably designed to look a bit 'old world', being gold, red and brown against white. It's fairly nasty, and also "sealed for authenticity", implying that if they didn't seal it then their rivals would capture the boxes in transit and replace the coffee inside with some other brand of coffee, or even tea. Inside the nasty white box, however, were three rather attractive black screw-cap test-tubes, numbered one to three. A key on the inside of the box, in the form of jar pictures with the same numbers and colours as the tubes, as well as the tubes themselves, informed me that these were "1. Kenjara - silky, delicate, lively", "2. Cap Colombie - smooth, aromatic, velvety" and "3. Alta Rica - deep, bold, vibrant". Unfortunately, the test tubes aren't actually full of coffee granules, but rather each contains two skinny little sachets of coffee granules. Not even well-designed easy-to-open sachets, but rather, sachets that require either scissors or violent gnashing teeth to open. And just six cups of coffee - hardly worth getting, even free, unless they were supplied with a handy servant to make the coffee and bring it to you at your computer. Which they weren't. On to the coffees themselves.

1. Kenjara - this one is supposed to be 'silky, delicate and lively'. For the uninitiated, this means "really weak". It's silky in that it tastes like a piece of silk fabric, perhaps. Delicate is fairly self-explanatory. I have no idea what their basis for claiming 'lively' might be. It's certainly not a typo of 'lovely', since this coffee is not. Imagine, if you will, a person drinking a really nice cup of coffee. Now imagine that ten minutes after they finish drinking their nice cup of coffee, someone brings them a cup of boiling water. They spit in the water. That water with coffee-drinker spit in it is approximately the same as a cup of Kenjara.

2. Cap Colombie - this one is supposed to be smooth, aromatic and velvety. Actually, I can't knock this one - as instant coffee goes it's pretty good. Smooth and aromatic are fair descriptions, and for bonus points it actually doesn't taste like velvet, nor leave crumbling fluff in your mouth like a piece of velvet would. I'd rather have proper percolated, machined or pressed coffee, enough so that I'd make the greater effort to have it rather than instant, but for the portable convenience of an instant, I'd choose this over most plain coffees. On the other hand, I'd rather have a vanilla-tainted instant coffee anyway. It's almost a shame I like this one, since it means I don't get to say "Cap Colombie? Crap Columbie, more like!" Except just then.

3. Alta Rica - this one's supposed to be deep, bold and vibrant. Deep in the Lovecraftian sense of "Deep One", it tastes as I imagine it would taste if one set fire to an amphibian, let it burn itself out, and then put it through a blender. Bold is a special code word for "drink it while it's still boiling so you don't have to taste it". I have a theory about the existence of this coffee - I think what Nescafe do is roast large masses of beans, then run all the beans along a conveyor belt. There, robots sort the beans into "somehow not actually cooked at all", used for Kenjara, "nicely roasted", used for Cap Columbie, and "entirely carbonised", used for Alta Rica. Rather than buying a jar of Alta Rica, simply burn a phone book, and sprinkle the ashes into a cup of hot water. Add some frog urine for the vaunted authenticity. [07:18] [16 comments]

Saturday 22 November 2003
Another of the board game reviews - this time, Kahuna.

This is the first of the board games to actually have a board (discounting Lost Cities since its board is almost completely irrelevant), even though it also has cards. The game lies somewhere between Go and Settlers of Catan both in its random factor and in its strategy. Two players only, the random factor is provided by the cards. Most random at the beginning, with each player getting three cards dealt; less random later, as the 'top three' cards of the draw pile are displayed face up. The player, when supposed to draw, can take their choice of the face-up cards, or take the top face-down card 'blind' if they don't like the known options. Drawing blind also has the advantages that your opponent can't see what you got (and thus can't divine your intent, other than "probably not something that uses any of the cards that are face-up"), and doesn't get a new option turned over into the 'visible' choices.

The cards function to provide valid plays upon the board. There are a number of islands linked by dotted lines, and each card is an island name. You can build a bridge upon a dotted line by playing either of the island cards representing an island at the end of that line, or, with two cards on the same line (both at one end, or one at each end) you can destroy an opponent's bridge that exists on that line. An island whose majority of lines are covered by your bridges becomes your island - at the moment this happens, the opponent's bridges to that island are removed. They can, however, be rebuilt, and you can't "re-own" the island without first losing control of it. The similarity to Go comes in here, in that spreading your resources without actually getting any 'points' can be advantageous, allowing you to spring traps and get points all over the board, at a more auspicious time.

It's a pretty good game, but doesn't seem to have a lot of replayability. A win just doesn't feel particularly victorious; more like a technicality than a triumph. A shame, since the game itself doesn't seem flawed at all. [18:05] [0 comments]

Wednesday 19 November 2003
Ooh, special. The TV just warned us that there would be "severe thunderstorms with damaging winds, large hailstones and flash flooding". One adjective for every aspect - you know your weather's special when that happens. Going from 35 celsius to hailstones in less than an hour is rather posh as well. [10:07] [2 comments]

Tuesday 18 November 2003
Another game review - this time it's Lost Cities, by far the worst of the games from the stack that we've tried so far, and thus jumping ahead for its review, because it's so much easier to write a spiteful scathing review. Perhaps a hint should have been taken from the fact that it's called Lost Cities rather than Verlorene Stadte or Löst ßities.

Of games people are likely to be familiar with, it's most similar to a game of Solitaire. The only interaction between the two players is in the revealing of cards such that when they are played by your opponent, you know that they are no longer in the draw pile. Well, that and, perhaps, setting a precedent for what sort of score one must be aiming for in order to win. There is no way to sabotage the opponent's activity, no way to help them, and very little in the way of coherent choices. Perhaps, now that I describe it that way, it's more similar to Blackjack/Pontoon/21 as played in casinos. You can count cards that other people draw, but there's sod all else you can do, skillwise, except play the odds thus calculated.

You pick up cards, you put down cards, the draw pile runs out and you add up the scores. Boom. It's all very exciting. Oh yes, and there's some contrived theme about it being searching for lost cities, which are coincidentally each represented by three score-multiplier cards and nine cards numbered from two to ten. I'm going to Atlantis with what I've learned!

Holly also wrote a review, and she liked the game even less than I did. [20:04] [3 comments]
There follows geekly tales of woe. They are probably not interesting. Move along.

The other day, I exploded my motherboard. The machine was still doing its arbitrary rebooting thing mentioned a while back, and I had discovered it to not, in fact, be that it was overheating (by purchasing a lot of extra fans and stuff - the CPU was 15 degrees away from its shutoff temperature and the machine rebooted anyway). I went into the BIOS to turn off the CPU temperature shutoff feature entirely, in case there was something wrong with the measuring, and while I was there I foolishly poked at some of the sillier options to do with the CPU and the front-side-bus speed. When I rebooted the machine... er, I didn't reboot the machine. I made its power-light come on, and that was about it.

So, like any good geek, I switched it off quickly before it had time to melt anything, and went to reset the CMOS. That motherboard was the cheaper version of its kind; they had apparently saved some of the cost by omitting two pins, so I couldn't reset the CMOS. I took the CMOS battery out, then, left it for a while, put it back in, but still no bootage would occur. Perhaps I had fried the CPU.

Conclusion - buy a new motherboard. Which means also buying a new CPU and new memory since everything's all incompatible with parts from two years ago. The new parts arrived today. I spent the requisite hour or two getting the parts fitted together, slicing my limbs off on the jagged edges, trapping cables between bits of case so that they bend pins on the motherboard and accidentally dropping a ringpull into the circuitry, eventually resolving in a functioning happy motherboard. But not a functioning happy computer system, because, it seems, Windows 2000 doesn't like it if you make a major change of motherboard. Doesn't like it at all. Doesn't like it in a "you can't boot, you can't boot in safe-mode, and a repair-install won't help you either" sort of way. So, a drive-formatting reinstall, an all-the-software-I-use reinstall, and, at last, I have a working usable machine once more. Eight hours and lots of money later. On the up-side, it seems to be fixed - no more random rebooting. And the external hard-drive, which kept resetting randomly when connected via firewire, doesn't do so when connected via USB2 (which the other motherboard didn't do). So a worthwhile upgrade, at least.

The motherboard, which seems like a nice piece of kit, is an ABIT AI7. The memory is a gigabyte of PC-3200 Corsair, in two half-gigabyte sticks. The CPU is a 2.4GHz Intel Celery. Nik tells me I should have got a better processor and the goodness of the memory is a waste, but the shop with good prices and fast shipping didn't have any worse memory (without going lots worse), and the Smelleron is much cheaper than a better one. And the setup is still about 60% faster than my old system. [20:00] [9 comments]

Saturday 15 November 2003
There will be a series of board game reviews occurring as and when nothing else springs to mind to blog about. This is because we have a big pile of games Holly purchased from Germany.

The first of these is 6 Nimmt! which appears to mean "Take 6!" but is funnier to say in German because it sounds like "sex nymph".

A surprisingly skillful game considering the "ten random cards from a deck of 104" each player is given to work with. The relatively low random factor is perhaps because a large portion of the gamestate is known; you know more than 50% of the gamestate at the beginning (in a two-player game), and the percentage goes up as the round proceeds (though your choices become more limited too, with your cards being played out). It seems about on a par with somewhere between Bridge and Canasta, in that regard, and without any of that horrible teamwork stuff that Bridge insists on.

It's a nice game for playing in a short period of time, since though the rules say "the winner is the player with the lowest score when someone reaches 66" (albeit in German), you can just play (and we have been just playing) to whatever number you feel like - 33, in our case.

It has the "blind" element of all players making a turn simultaneously, a-la rock-scissors-paper or Warlocks, which is nice in a half psychology half odds-playing way, a little like Poker.

So, in summary, it supports any length of game, any (within reason) number of players, has a reasonable-sized random factor (ie. not too much), and a smidge of psychology. Pretty bloody good for a game that basically consists of 104 sequential numbers printed on cards with cow heads.

Holly has also written a review. [19:59] [4 comments]

Thursday 13 November 2003
If a nondescript person on the street gave you a blank cheque (signed and such, obviously) and permission to use it, but didn't tell you how much is in the account, how much would you make out the cheque for, and why?

If the person says they'll tell you how much was in the account once you've got the money (or once the cheque has bounced), how does that affect your answer, if at all? [20:35] [8 comments]
Time for an obscure movie review, courtesy of SBS presenting us with obscure movies. Operation Pink Squad 2 tells of the further adventures of four police women with guns being used for cases only female cops could do (ie. pretending to be prostitutes). In this second installment, they are disguised as smugglers disguised as prostitutes, the smuggling being of forgery equipment. The sting moves from the whorehouse to a haunted house, wherein a kung-fu monk ghosthunter traps a bunch of ghosts in the basement, but misses one. Meanwhile one of the cops' husbands thinks she's having an affair with her boss, which, in a very Frasier-plot sort of way, escalates to him believing that the boss is having kinky four-way sex with the entire Pink Squad, chasing him into the basement, and then getting into a fight with a couple of ghosts, one of whom is more like a zombie.

The less zombie-ish ghost compels him to suck its toes in the elevator, such that his wife discovers it and believes him to be having an affair too, despite his insistence that, no, it's a ghost. Meanwhile the mobster type chap they're supposed to be catching is also trying to have sex with the ghost, in the elevator. They chase and are chased by the ghost for a bit, in a somewhat Three Stooges manner, eventually chopping its head off so that they can be pursued by a headless body and a flying severed head instead, until the monk returns and they, er, decide to chase the ghost head with fully armed remote-controlled helicopters.

The ghost head generously decides to explode itself and splatter magical ghost blood everywhere, which apparently means that ghosts from all around will congregate upon those blood-splattered, unless a male virgin, a drum, and a bell can be appropriately congregated. These extra ghosts are very zombielike indeed, only falling short on the 'brains', though they have a decent 'grarh'. The required objects are applied, and, er, a goodie ghost appears and summons four camp guardian ghost kings who fight with a goo-whip, a couple of other things that I didn't notice, and a mandolin. The mandolin camp guardian ghost very much resembles Jack Black of Tenacious D, not least in his manner of aggressive mandolinery, up to and including the breakage of a string and the continued battling using a substituted rocking mini-mandolin.

Also at some point in the story are the following elements: a urinating-distance competition, some poisoned coffee, an argument about which of the male characters should be the one to get castrated, and a gangster arguing with a ghost's head in a bag full of money.

I think outlining the plot more than suffices as a review, in this case. If you get the opportunity, watch this movie. With a bee. [17:13] [4 comments]

Tuesday 11 November 2003
Self-parodying products always make me wonder "charlatan or idiot?" of the inventor. In the linked example, my vote is for charlatan. [20:03] [3 comments]

Sunday 9 November 2003
A news story
The world's countries that are richest in biodiversity often have the most corrupt governments, said British researchers who, as a result, urged the international donor community to use its influence to encourage reforms to better protect nature.
From which we can safely infer, British researchers want there to be more corrupt governments. Please rest your mouse here while viewing the page in Internet Explorer if you intend to generously inform me that this isn't what the article means. [15:35] [1 comment]
A rather excellent amusing Flash animation, albeit clumsy in its intended function as propaganda (I severely doubt its effectiveness upon anyone who isn't already sympathetic): The Meatrix. [11:37] [3 comments]

Friday 7 November 2003
It's been proposed, and done, that in order to technically conform with the PATRIOT Act while still protesting it and avoiding at least one of the intended effects, libraries put up signs stating that the FBI haven't inquired about anyone's reading habits - signs which can then be removed if and when the FBI do inquire, thus informing patrons as to the truth without breaching the "you can't tell people we've inquired" rule.

I'm surprised there haven't been extensions suggested to this mode of play. How about having a big sign on the wall with a listing of all the library's patrons: "The FBI have not inquired about any of the following patrons:". If the FBI did inquire, at that point, then the inquiree's name could be crossed out with a huge red cross. Alternatively, and more easily (though less amusingly), the librarians could simply tailor their thank-you-goodbye banter to include "congratulations, the government haven't inquired about your reading habits yet" whenever someone borrows a book, and have a sign up declaring this policy. The librarians could then simply omit this statement when an FBI inquiree next borrows a book. This would also be quite a functional protest and inspirer of awareness, with that lovely ominous 'yet' in there.

I wonder if they'll further extend their misuse of the PATRIOT Act to investigate strip clubs to also allow secretive inquiry as to which strippers a specific patron has borrowed recently. "Aha, the blonde bombshell! He's a terrorist!" [17:25] [2 comments]

Thursday 6 November 2003
Grarh. I hate when people cite the "leave a space in front of your car" theory as meaning that everyone gets where they're going faster. It doesn't. It means everyone gets where they're going slower, but possibly with less wear and tear on their car and sanity. I will accept this latter argument, but not the former. Where would this rant be without examples? Still here, but not as good. So here we go with examples.

My examples will be from a 'science hobbyist' making the declarations, because he explains it better, but the exact same theory has been espoused by a supposedly proper scientist. We begin with traffic waves, where the phenomenon of traffic jams and the basis of the nonsense theory is somewhat explained. This first page doesn't raise my ire.

Then we go on to Traffic Experiments. This is where it gets dubious. Now, this particular page only gets me annoyed a bit, and then soothes me by at least giving a passing nod to the fact that slowing down doesn't make traffic faster. It just redistributes the slowness as, say, 40mph for ten minutes replacing 50mph for eight minutes and two minutes stopped. It's ten minutes either way. But still, he keeps on going on about how you can break the jam by approaching it more slowly. No you can't. You don't even make other people do your smooth 40mph travel for more than a small distance behind you, and you do get to where you're going slower, as does everyone you affect. All the time you're going slower, more people will be merging into your lanes from the various junctions. They'll all be going into the jam that you're approaching, and when you eventually reach it you'll be, say, fifteen car lengths further back than you would have been if you'd been going fast. You may have timed it exactly right so that you don't have to slow down, but if you hadn't you'd be out of the jam by now and ahead of those fifteen cars, ie. you'd be about 300 metres further along the road than you are now.

If the jam is caused by an accident that's been removed, and traffic is fairly light, your smoothing pattern might help remove the jam entirely... But if traffic is light, the jam removes itself in fairly short order anyway, so I doubt even that much effect. What happens if you drive slower is you cause the wave of blockage to move backwards faster than it otherwise would have but if the jam formed from something other than an accident it will re-form for the same reasons (generally too much traffic trying to use the same stretch of road at the same time), and all you'll have done is split the wave of sloth into two smaller jams. Is that better? Nobody will be getting to their destination any faster as a result, except for those people who have merged into the space you left, who get there faster at your expense, and at the expense of all the other people you slowed down with your 'nice' driving.
My next thought: if I took several friends along on my experiment, we could have spaced our cars out over many miles. Each of us could have allowed a big blob of anti-traffic to appear, and then the successive impacts of the antitraffic could have completely erased the traffic jam at the Lynnwood exit.
No you couldn't, Mr Science Hobbyist. If you propose to make the space between your cars by each slowing down then you'll have you going 5mph slower than the general flow, your friend going 10mph, your next friend going 15mph slower, the next going 20mph slower than the flow, being all but stopped, and getting arrested for obstructing traffic. If, instead, you propose all going at similar lack of speed and entering the traffic at different times then you won't affect the flow much at all, since the wave of slowing that the front person creates will hit the second person before anyone reaches the jam (and the second person's will hit the third, and so on, such that traffic is just as packed as ever - slightly more tightly, even - except immediately behind the first person).

And finally, I was briefly almost convinced by the animated diagrams of this page. Look at them. The right-hand image is actually going faster, and it's because the cars can merge, right? And that's because they're leaving bigger spaces, yes?

No. They were leaving bigger spaces, but then once they merge together they're driving very unsafely, going too fast for the suddenly-small space they have ahead of them. I want to see the extended version of the right-hand diagram, where it's extended the same length again above the current image; towards the top of the animation one of the cars could slam on its brakes or crash into something, then we'd see the reaction times of all those close-packed-going-fast cars behind unable to respond in time, a massive pile-up caused, and the traffic stops entirely since they've now blocked the one available lane with several wrecked cars.

Alternatively, once someone merges into those sensible-spaces, the person who let them in can slow down to regain their previous sensible amount of space, the person behind them can slow down to retain their space, and ta-da, the traffic pattern looks like the left-hand animation in under ten seconds.

SIMPLE, EH? [15:36] [2 comments]

Wednesday 5 November 2003
Aha, I finally discover what was causing my desktop machine to suddenly reset without explanation - general inside-case temperature. Presumably the one hard-drive that seemed to be causing the doom runs particularly warm. More recently it's been happening without that drive being in use at all. Most recently, it happened and I remembered to leap across the room and press delete to get the BIOS. CPU temperature at 71 degrees; shutdown set to be triggered if it reaches 75 degrees.

Somewhat odd, in the BIOS - you can have it shut down at 65, 70 or 75 degrees, or not at all, and you can have it warn at 60, 70, 80 or 90 degrees. So for some reason, you can't ask it to shut down when it reaches 85, but you can ask it to beep at 90. I can't think of a good reason for this.

I shall be purchasing a case-fan in an attempt to alleviate this problem (it wasn't just the CPU that was hot, the inside of the case was all quite temperate). For now, that machine runs naked, caseless and carefree. And with a horrible loud buzzing noise.

In other news, America (Congress, at least, though the Senate have shot it down twice) is repeatedly passing bills to make it illegal to help a minor to not break the law. Because the States having different laws is obviously not to make it possible for people to choose a State with laws that suit their purposes, but rather to provide the illusion of choice. [11:00] [6 comments]
Australia has a go at electronic voting. With their usual vastly superior technological expertise, they go for doing it the exact opposite way to America's horrific attempts; open source voting, as written about at Wired News. Not internet voting yet, unfortunately, but it's a step in the right direction. [07:33] [3 comments]

Monday 3 November 2003
Ooooh. Robots. Looks like a more impressive equivalent of Lego Mindstorms. Must remember to not purchase any, because I have more than enough projects already, so they'd just sit around staring at me accusatively. "Why didn't you build us," they'd whine from their box, "did we do something wrong?" And I'd have to tell them that yes, they made Jesus cry. Again. [09:07] [1 comment]
"There's a movie on tonight called Fish and Elephant."
"Is it on SBS?"
"Yes. So it's probably porn."
"Fish and Elephant porn?"
"Ha ha. You say porn like an English person."
"What's the difference?"
"It sounds the same as a chess piece."
"How else would you say it?"
(with an exaggerated Scottish-style rolling R) "PORRRRN!"
"I see."
"Or, you know, a similar but less exaggerated version of that. Still, with a noticeable 'R'."
(in the voice of the nautical fellow from the Simpsons) "ARRRR! PORN!" [04:59] [4 comments]

Saturday 1 November 2003
Through the powers of my superpowers, I have created... Livejournal Clustermaps - linking livejournal users with their locations and a vague checkbox-list full of interests, thus, in the future, enabling searching for livejournal people near a given location (or near oneself), with compatible interests. My own map can be seen here. An interesting project to create, using many bizarre CSS contortions. [13:04] [6 comments]
A link someone dropped in my livejournal that I might want to use at some point, so plonked here as a mental note - Fuzz Testing of Application Reliability. A program to spew random input at other programs, to see whether they explode. The answer, of course, is yes they do. [07:11] [0 comments]