Thursday, December 28, 2006

Chow Anecdote

I wouldn't even bother posting this, except that it involves cheese. All which involves cheese is worth speaking of.

It came to me in a dream: I was making some broccoli cheese soup, and added too much milk by mistake. Milk is of course a good thing, but too much of it screws up the viscosity of the soup; I like it good 'n thick. So, unconscious problem solving prompted my imagined self to add some flour. That thickens stuff up, right? Not bad for dream-logic.

So the next time I made broccoli cheese soup in waking life, sure enough I added more milk than I'd intended. Applying the well-worn scientific principle, "oh-what-the-hell", I mixed in one of those little fancy measuring spoon's worth of flour.

Worked like a dream.

Friday, December 01, 2006

GPL: DRM for source code...?

Over a very nice lunch with a gang of work buddies, the topic of GPL3 and proprietary versus open versus Free came up, and eventually led to a comment that the GPL is "DRM for source code". If you know me, and you know what that means, then you know that it rubbed me the wrong way. :^) Granted, this was said by someone who is no stranger to playing a devil's advocate role, but it got me thinking, and it's been a while since I've posted anything with even the slightest hint of substance.

First of all, I would define most implementations of DRM the way Richard Stallman and the rest of us pinko hippies do, as "Digital Restrictions Management", as opposed to its intended expansion of "Digital Rights Management". Chunks of code and signed keys wrap the stuff you buy on iTunes, the DVDs you buy, and other things where some party is claiming exclusive "rights" to the distribution of whatever we're talking about. The effect is that you can't use the thing you paid for in just any old manner you see fit. (Say, making a copy.) You can only do with it what the rights-holder sees fit. To me that smells more like "restrictions". It's an artificial and arbitrary limitation. I understand why it's done, but I find it insulting, so I whine about it.

The GPL is something of a bill of rights that someone can apply to the software they write. The Linux kernel is GPL. The GNU utilities are GPL. My silly game Tong is GPL. The authors of those programs have decided to use a software license that says, "I give you this program and its code, which you have the freedom to use and modify as you see fit." Most importantly, the GPL also states that if you turn around and give the program (as it was, or your modified version) to someone else, you must afford them all the same freedoms. Technically speaking, that is also an artificial and arbitrary limitation.

So yes, the GPL places restrictions on what can be done with a program's source code: I can't modify it and/or pass it on without also passing on the right to modify it and/or keep passing it on. (That should already sound pretty different than DRM.) The still-being-drafted GPLv3 adds some further stipulations, because people (well, businesses) have found ways to distribute GPL code while following the letter of the GPLv2 but not actually passing on those freedoms in practice. Tivo is the obvious example. It runs GPL software inside (GNU/Linux), but if you grab the code, tweak it, and try to run that, the hardware won't let you, because it only runs software digitally signed by Tivo's developers. You still have the right to modify it and/or pass it on, but now, that doesn't do you or anybody else any good. GPLv3 spells out that doing that sort of thing is cheating, and closes those loopholes. This is naturally upsetting to businesses who gain from their use of GPL code but don't agree with the spirit of the GPL, so they whine about it.

Now, suppose that all media and all programs were public domain. Neither DRM nor GPL exist, and there are no artificial or arbitrary restrictions on any set of bits. Film studios don't try to equate copying movies with robbery and murder on the high seas, and Richard Stallman doesn't get his undies in a bundle over businesses locking up and selling their own secret-ingredient versions of the software he and the rest of the Free Software Foundation's contributers created. That's total freedom. It isn't particularly respectul, but it's complete and unrestricted freedom.

I bring up respect because that's the key conceptual difference between the licensing restrictions of DRM'ed media and GPL'ed code. DRM respects only the initial provider. DRM says, "You can't do that, because I must have total control." GPL respects everybody, on the condition that everybody also respects everybody. GPL says, "You can't do that, because everybody must have control." I guess they both say, "you can't do that," but it hardly seems like the same deal.

There's another face for all this, the unsettling idea of using legal agreements to dictate ethical behaviour. In principle that's not desirable, at least to me, given the number of legal agreements made by parties whose ethics I would call into question. As it works out, however, I would much rather (and have done) enter a license agreement that tries to guarantee freedoms for myself and others, than one that leaves me and my activities at the legal mercy of, say, a large publisher. Now, if someone can come up with an ethical argument against the effects of the GPL that's not a form of "but I want money!", then I'll be glad to entertain it. (If money's what you want, then Free software is at best a means to an end for you, not an end itself.) Otherwise, at least it's a positive set of ethics that the license is imposing.

In any case, I can see an abstract similarity. But look into it from any direction, and I just don't see GPL and DRM having anything substantial in common. I guess they're both buzzy TLA's.

("Three-letter acronyms." I was attempting to make a joke...)

Monday, November 20, 2006


As of 8:05 yesterday, I'm a proud owner of a shiny new Nintendo Wii.

Along with two friends (and some 40+ strangers) I actually camped in a line outside a local Target to get my hands on this thing. Even as a gamer, I've never camped out for high-demand stuff before. It's a completely insane thing to do, but my justification for it was this:
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. I've always been a sucker for Zelda games, and this one may well be the best yet. I've played enough already to have myself convinced that waiting out in the cold all night was worth it. The controls are both natural and precise, the story's progression is surprisingly powerful, and the art direction is like nothing I've ever seen before. But I didn't expect that I would also be playing a lot of this:The included-for-free Wii Sports, tennis in this case. Turns out, my wife can't get enough of this game. And there are good reasons. It's ridiculously simple to play - just use the Wii remote as you would a tennis racket. We got to create and play as little caricature versions of ourselves, which are pretty amusing even when they're not doing anything. So when an instant replay flashes in showing a little plastic me (Mii, actually) jumping and swinging wildly at the ball only to land hard on its exaggerated face, and my wife's avatar stepping in to save the day with a scoring lob, laughter ensues. Very simple elements, but very rewarding gameplay.

I'm not posting to make any point really. I just had to shout out, "Wiiii!" :^)

Monday, October 23, 2006

Pi compression

This idea I've had for a long time, and if it were mathematically and computationally feasable, it would probably have already been done. But never mind all that. I still like the idea, and I'm still going to spout it off.

I chose pi because I just like it, but e or any of those other fun infinite-digit, non-repeating numbers would probably work, and possibly be better. An unfathomably good pseudo-random number generator might even work. But let's call it pi for now, because the important thing is that it's this infinite sequence in which, theoretically, every possible sub-sequence exists. Somewhere in that infinitely-long series of digits, there'll be a hundred sequential zeros. Somewhere, there'll be a million. And somewhere, there'll be a sequence that matches the sequence of ASCII values for this blog entry, and every other text you've ever read (and ever will read... but that's a different story).

The idea is, whatever data you have, your term paper, that movie you swear you didn't download, or that log of leaked AOL searches, that data is already encoded somewhere in Pi. It may be several centillion digits out, but it's there. Theoretically, you just need to let a grep algorithm slide along Pi until it finds a match, and then just remember the offset and the length to get it back out. Suddenly all files, all volumes, all anything, can be represented by two numbers.

Parts of this have already been implemented, though on a scale much too small to be useful. (Four billion binary digits of Pi? Pff, weak sauce.)
Finding sequences in pi:
Getting hex digits (half-bytes) out of pi:

Our CPUs' abilities to crunch numbers aren't advancing as fast as our networks' abilities to pump big bunches of data around, so this whole thing isn't terribly practical. Still, you could back up your whole hard drive on a floppy diskette. The idea is fun even if it wouldn't be worth doing.

Let's take it a little further, though. Maybe we can still do something useful with those first four billion binary digits. Play around with that Pi-search link above. It only uses a 5-bit character set rather than ASCII's 8, but let's experiment anyway. I'm going to search for "penduin".
In 5-bit-per-character binary, that's:
The sequence is found at 8748556 binary digits in. 8748556 in binary is:

...that's a noticably smaller sequence than the binary representation of "penduin". Our data is 7 "bytes" long, which in binary is:
Those two numbers, the offset and length, happen to take fewer bits to represent than the string "penduin", in ascii or even in 5-bit characters. Houston, we have compression! But hang on, let's say that sequence didn't happen within 4 billion bits of pi (according to that site, an arbitrary 7-character sequence has just an 11% chance of being found that early). We could still find "pend" and "uin", though - the odds of finding three or four letters are essentially 100%. If we do that, though, we'd need more bits than the raw ascii just to keep the two offset/length pairs, let alone any padding we'd need for any sanely-packed descriptor.

That packed descriptor would be 35 bits per chunk: 32 bits (maximum value:
4,294,967,295) for offset, and 3 bits for length. Why 3? We're unlikely to find an arbitrary 8-letter pattern (8 is 4 digits, 1000 in binary) in just the first 4 billion bits of pi, so our algorithm won't even try. So every 35 bits in our "compressed" file points to the next up-to-7-letter chunk of our data. On a good day, that'll beat ASCII, which would take 56 bits to store 7 letters. But, we're still playing with 5-bit characters, a paltry subset of ASCII. We're also playing with odds where only 11% of our chunks will be able to point to the maximum 7 characters.

Looking at hex digits instead of 5-bit letters gives us a better picture of how useful this might be. Any byte (8 bits) can be expressed in 2 hex digits. Any four sequential bytes has about a 60% chance of being found in these first four billion bits of pi, and sequences of three and a half (7 hex digits) are pretty much guaranteed. 7 was the maximum length of our chunks from before anyway, so let's keep using that. So, to recap:
With our 35 bits descriptor, we can know where in pi to find up to three and a half bytes, or 28 bits, of data.
As far as compression algorithms go, that doesn't seem particularly good. :^) But we're chopping into 3.5-byte pieces or less because of the near statistical certainty of finding any 3.5 bytes in the first half-gigabyte of pi (four billion bits). Give us twice as many digits of pi, and we'd only need one more address bit, plus another bit or so for length, as longer patterns would have improved odds of being found. Keep bumping up the searchable pi digits and we could eventually hit a sweet spot beyond which we'd actually be able save disk space. Once that happens, we can keep on increasing the available pi digits to achieve better compression, but more interestingly, we can add another layer of logic in which we take our packed bits, chunk them up, and look for those sequences in pi. If we're going to do that, we need to pack an extra bit for each chunk to say either "I point to data" or "I point to a pointer", but if we've got so many pi digits to search that we're actually saving space every time, we can still wind up with simply a pi digit offset and size, which would lead to a lot more lookups, and eventually, chunk by chunk, the data we care about.

A tip of the hat to the first person to find this post within pi. It's there! Extra points if you also find my next post before I post it. :^)

edit from much much later:
I'm glad people keep finding this post and having fun with the idea!  I'm sorry to have gotten anybody's hopes up, but this is one of those fun ideas that is impossible in practice.  (Well it's possible, it just can't achieve any data compression.  :^)  See the comments below, including my own, for reasons this doesn't and can't work.

Free Driver's Ed, part 2

Lesson # 2: Speed Matching
Here we go again, Utahns. You can keep right on driving like that, but I'm gonna keep on complaining and attempting to educate you. Because I know that under your tough facades, at the bottom of your low-mileage hearts, you really do give a rat's ass.

Picture this. You're not on the freeway, but you want to be. You find one of those big ramps that gets you there. Great! You notice the right lane of the freeway isn't moving. Dumbasses. You zip past all those slowpokes and merge in either at the very last moment or several hundred yards past where that line painted on the road suggested. You can do this, because you are the single most important person on Earth.

But wait! The story isn't done! Turns out, those dumbasses weren't moving because several people in front of you were also the most important person on Earth. Rather than matching speed and slipping in undisruptively, they waited until the last moment or went several hundred yards past the line. The "dumbasses" who were already on the freeway had to give them room to merge, and the dumbasses behind those dumbasses, not wanting to crash, had to slow down too. Maybe they're not the dumbasses after all.

The merging technique that involves the least amount of dumbassery is, astonishingly, to match the speed of the lane you're about to merge into. If they're booking it, you should too. If they've come to a grinding halt, you should too. I know, you're super-important, you deserve to dart ahead so you can be "first", but that leads to the dark side... and to you being a dumbass. If even a small fraction of you 'Tahns would merge correctly, everybody's commute would be an awful lot smoother.

Behold, the amazing Utah formation-driving Thunderbirds! You can't help but smile as you approach these adorable blockades. The perfectly-synchronized motion soothes the soul. And it doesn't stop there -- you too can be a Thunderbird! Find your buddy in the next lane, and maybe even the lane on the other side, and lock in! If they speed up, you stay right beside 'em. If they slow down, you make damn sure to follow along. Herd behaviour is a sure path to safety, as well as a live exhibit of your vast intellect. Unison! Parity! Brotherhood! Thunderbiiirds!

Come on. Formation driving is about as cool as Utah Valley's bar-to-church ratio. If you don't want to speed up when you use the passing lane, then don't use it.

Thursday, October 19, 2006


lem-ma [lem-uh]
noun; a situation requiring a choice between desirable alternatives.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

AI-engineered codecs?

Someone else has probably had this idea, and someone else has probably explained it better than I'll be able to. Someone else yet has probably proved that the whole thing's implausible. Nuts to them; I have a fleeting thought and I'm going to publish it! :^)

I'm not very well-versed in either genetic algorithms or neural networks, but neither are those just buzzwords to me - I have written genetic and neural equivalents of "Hello world". The techniques differ, and stacking layers of these algorithms has different effects, but the thing that makes them interesting (to me, at the moment) is that we wind up with a computational system without the programmer having to actually solve the problem. A typical neural network will take a piece of input (say, a scanned image of a paper) and produce some output (say, a set of bounding box coordinates of each interpreted dark blob on the image). These outputs may then be the input of another neural net which produces some more output (say, ASCII characters interpreted given those dark blobs) and/or a non-neural algorithm that just looks for patterns (say, a spellchecker). Writing an actual algorithm to turn an image of a paper into a text stream would be massively hard, but writing and training some neural nets is much less painful. Let the computer do the computing.

In the world of Free software (free as in liberty), a world in which I happily live, there are some struggles happening around various proprietary formats. A while back, Unisys declared to the world that they owned math and thus we all had to pay royalties if we wanted to use .gif files. That particular software patent has since expired, but nowadays there are companies convinced that they own the math necessary to encode and decode MP3's and such, and even worse, there are widely-used formats like Apple's "Sorensen" QuickTime and Microsoft's Windows Media for which no Free codecs exist. There's not much motivation for someone to hack such things up, either, as they'd be sued into oblivion the moment their code became useful. God bless the US, eh?

Forget reverse-engineering, forget exploiting the closed code, and especially forget paying big corporations royalties for the privilege of doing math. I propose that it might be possible and worthwhile to write some AI to figure out these pesky formats for us. We have input, say a QuickTime .mov file, and we have the desired output. (Scrape all the raw bitmap image data and all the output audio. It'll be huge, but that's our target.) I don't know what sort of scale, how many layers, or what ghastly amounts of memory and floating-point muscle it would take to set up and train a neural net to get from point to point B.raw for any given movie, but I doubt it's impossible. Flip the input and output to train an encoder. Not too shabby!

I know even less about genetic algorithms than I do neural nets, but maybe they are better equipped to solve the problem. Plenty of other AI techniques are out there too; perhaps some combination of them would be the optimal approach. The idea is to have a program reinvent codec wheels for us, since others won't share their wheel understanding.

Shackles begone! One way or another, we need to get to the point where the format is irrelevant, only the data matters.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Save your ears if Mars attacks

I like to say positive things, to point out, "hey, this is cool" or "try this out". But sometimes, something will come along that requires a little negativity. Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind. In this case I feel obligated to put up a little warning, a warning about a band whose music is capable of decreasing the quality of your life, and should thus be avoided.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers put on a good show. The music is great, and the multimedia display is mind-boggling. The band that opened for them on this tour, however, was bad enough that I feel motivated to urge you to avoid them. The Mars Volta, as they're called, apparently have plenty of history with the Chili Peppers, but that's no justification for what they did to my eardrums. And my wife's eardrums. She was about ready to leave and hide in a nasty bathroom until they left the stage.
Edit: After hearing more about this band from a friend, I'm willing to permit that this show may have been a very, very off night. It warrants further investigation, but it does not change our first impression...
'Nother Edit: Yeah, they sound much better on their albums. Still not really my thing, but entirely listenable. This warning post stands, however. They put on a crap show once, they could do it again. :^)
To illustrate our criticism of he band's sound a bit more clearly, allow me to list some things their noise managed to remind us of:
  • The voice of any adult in a Charlie Brown cartoon
  • "Freaky Outie", a song performed by 8-year-olds in Home Movies
  • A room full of people playing Electroplankton without headphones
  • Master Shake's misguided birthday song
  • Family Guy's stoned talent show performance (at the end of this clip)
Some of the songs themselves sounded fine, at least until the singer piped in. Like his fellow Texan "The Decider", this guy would do well to just shut the hell up. But worse than the songs themselves was the painfully drawn-out chaos that happened in between. I understand the desire to bridge songs, especially during a live show; that can be lots of fun. Less so, however, when the many members of the band do not figure out beforehand which song they'll actually be bridging into.

Each instrument was normally doing something decently musical on its own, but the band members didn't seem any too interested in what the other guys were up to. Maybe it was some high-minded eclectic design style applied to music. I don't know. But it didn't work. I suspect even the band members realize this. At one point the singer was convulsing on stage - a seemingly epileptic fit from which he unfortunately recovered, and went on to do some more shrieking.

So we had a shrieking, unintelligable singer, and instruments feuding over which song was being played, all while two bizarre images like this were shown on a screen behind them. All that was stuffed through the most irritating reverb effect I've ever heard. Somewhere around two or three hertz, its presence was, sadly, the most consistent part of the band's sound. During relative calms in the traumatic bridging progressions, there was an almost whale-like quality about the effect. As a result, I think I actually hate whales.

If I have failed in my warning to you, or if you are morbidly curious (in which case I have also failed) you may hear some of the things I apparently heard here:
The samples on the site haven't been stuffed through the aquatic reverb, nor is anything being bridged to several acoustic destinations at once, but it's still pretty hard to follow.

Monday, July 10, 2006

The following film has been ruined.

I despise all forms of censorship, which leaks into the greyer area of movies getting butchered. Usually this is seen when a television network wants to show a movie, but doesn't want to show anything that might upset anybody. Well, that and they have to stop it every few minutes to let the advertisers scream at you. Anyway, there are other places this happens. "Family-friendly" video rental shops and other small businesses will sell or exchange for censored versions of movies. It's just been ruled that such businesses are infringing copyright:

...I'm not sure how I feel about that. Sure, a little part of me dies when I see television butcher a movie by cutting off the sides of the picture, dubbing horribly cheesy dialogue over four-letter words, and skipping over intense scenes altogether. I think it does the filmmaker a disservice. But I'll bet that that same filmmaker either agreed to or signed off permission to a studio for the contract that let that movie be shown in a butchered format. Plus, it's generally understood that if I want to see the real deal, I can go buy a DVD or order pay-per-view or something. Now, these "family-friendly" rental outfits and other small businesses wear it on their sleeves that they are peddling modified movies. I personally would never set foot in such a place. But the guy who has a van full of kids to keep entertained on a long trip, or a practicing Mormon who never watches R-rated movies, might see these places much more positively. Butchered Matrix is better than no Matrix at all. ...Was that even R-rated...? Well you get my point.

Part of the problem is that society is full of prudes. This wouldn't even be an issue if there wasn't a sizeable part of the population who decides to get offended by certain words and images, who thinks anything sexual or violent is inappropriate, who picks at the details but misses the bigger picture of context and the notion that some stories simply deal with heavy subject matter. Another part is that many Hollywood studios toss in language and gore where really it isn't accomplishing anything. And then there's the problem that big media corporations want to have total control over how we see anything that comes out of their studios. Hence DVD encryption, unskippable previews, and the whole ridiculous ongoing fiasco around high-definition formats. If I honestly want to watch a butchered movie, I think I should be able to do so. Especially if I've paid just as much as I would for the real thing.

This particular ruling is sort of the worst of both worlds. If we bring the idea to its logical conclusion, there will be no more pan-and-scan and/or butchered-for-tv versions of movies, which would be fine by me, but we'll also be in a world where parody and other fair-use stuff is completely thrown out the window, which is absolutely not fine.

Preserving an artist's vision, hooray to that. But a giant boo to the idea of big film studios working with the government to restrict what we do with our own stuff. Here's hoping this judgement gets overruled, because it's totally wrong, even if it was made for the right reasons.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Hell hath no fury like a programmer patronized

Oh, the hell of technical support. The hell of corporate procedures. The hell of futility in convincing an idiot that I'm not another idiot. Praise be to any/all deities that I've had as few of these encounters as I have, and eternal damnation to every agonizing minute of the process.

A little over a year ago, my wife and I craved a new laptop. I particularly craved one that would play nice under GNU/Linux with its wireless hardware, still more rare than it ought to be. Our search led us to Circuit City of all places, where we got a decent deal on a nice little rig that has treated us pretty well. My wife's paranoia won out over my penny-pinching and we also got an extended 3-year service plan for another $300 or so. This has turned out to be a good thing. Sort of.

The hard drive's going bad. It powers up happily, it reads and writes, but when it arrives at a growing number of troublesome sectors, it fails. A failing hard disk is nothing new to me. Been there and done that many times. Scrape off all the data I can, replace it, restore or reinstall, and move on. But right now I'm stuck at the "replace it" step.

Circuit City does a huge amount of business, apparently mostly with idiots. Their unskippable phone maze starts with a very fake-looking (800) 555- number, and goes on to include this menu: "For troubleshooting with your keyboard, press 1. For troubleshooting with your mouse, press 2. For all other troubleshooting, press 3." I wish I was kidding, because that would be pretty funny if it weren't true. As it is, it's just depressingly sad. So after 5 minutes of maze navigation and 30 minutes of mind-numbing hold music punctuated by ear-scorching reminders of how important I am and how busy everybody is, I spoke with a human being. It's pathetic how little things improved after that point.

It gradually dawned on the rep that I knew what I was talking about, but he was powerless but to go through his script and force me to waste my time and his. Had to rule out the possibility of a boot sector virus, for perhaps the disk isn't going bad at all. Perhaps I've been hallucinating that fsck gave me a list of which sectors were bad, and that the list has been growing. Also, apparently lots of boot viruses manage to install themselves in Lilo, perfectly mimicking my specific multi-boot configuration, 'cause not only would that be worth a virus-writer's time, but viruses can work seamlessly across any operating system. ...That's sarcasm, by the way.

The guy I was talking to didn't catch any of my sarcasm, which is fine I guess. He's just doing his job, and probably doesn't understand that he'd save us both a hell of a lot of time if he'd skip the bullshit and listen to me. 'Course, he wants Microsoft-formatted voodoo output from scandisk or chkdsk or whatever goddamn thing windows uses, and what I have is fsck telling me what's actually going on. To his credit, he called my bluff that I had done a bunch of time-wasting steps he'd told me to do. (Hey, it's worked before.) So he knows how long it takes a Windows recovery console to boot up. Whoop-de-freaking-doo. But, until my time has been thoroughly wasted and their ridiculous steps meticulously followed, Circuit City will remain in stubborn denial that I'm looking at bad hardware.

So I get to call back again tonight after running scandisk or whatever, assuming windows lives long enough on the eroding disk to spit up a magic log file with Microsoft-colored descriptions of which sectors don't work. For the love of God, I already did all this homework. I know empirically that the disk is going bad. I paid good money for extended service, now let me send it in, and give me a new one. It's not hard. Maybe I should play the I'm-an-engineer-at-Novell card or something, I just can't believe they make everybody go through the idiot channels no matter what. Then again, I guess I am an idiot after all, for buying anything at Circuit City to begin with, and for paying out the nose for support that they'll do anything to avoid providing.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Free Driver's Ed, part 1

Most people I've met on the roads since I moved to Utah have had no formal driver's education. They logically cannot have done, because people who know a few basic things do not drive in the manner I bear witness to daily. Therefore, as a free service to my community, I'm offering right here on my blog some free driver's ed.

Lesson # 1: the self-explanatory car pool lane
There's a new lane along a few miles of I-15 in Utah Valley. It's marked off with a solid white line, and has huge signs dangling above it, every mile or so, that mention something about how a "car pool" means "more than one person per vehicle", and possibly clarifying "motorcycles ok". Some mention fines for car pool lane violations. It's basically impossible to misunderstand what's going on.

I chose today to give this lesson because fully half of the cars that passed me this morning via the car pool lane contained only the driver. No passengers. How interesting, that so many people I share the road with on a daily basis either cannot read, or do not care that they are assholes.

So concludes my first and mildest installment of Free Driver's Ed. Stay tuned, Utah drivers. I ain't through with you yet.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Utah Valley's asteroid belt

It's not a question of "if", it's not even a question of "when". It's a question of "how often". Not long ago, on my way home from work, I heard a loud smack and noticed a chip on what had moments ago been a pristine windshield. Not just a little glass divot, either; the impact had caused some small crack lines to fan out immediately. Lovely. Not a week later, it happened again. How strangely fortunate, I thought, that I hadn't spent the money on a new windshield yet. The universe's reaction to this thinking was to toss yet another rock at almost the same spot not 30 seconds later. A crack twofer. Apparently my commute leads directly through an asteroid field, and the Ford Taurus has significantly less shielding than the Millenium Falcon.

Yesterday, I was struck yet again. Same story, chip plus initial cracking all at once. All of these battle scars are in non-critical spots visually, which I suppose is some manner of silver lining. But with every hit, my enthusiasm for replacing that big pane of debris-magnet ("glass", some call it) dwindles.

This is no "woe is me" anecdote - the whole of Utah Valley suffers the same pain. There are some good reasons why it's such a common thing around here, as it turns out.
  • Where there are mountains, there are quarries
  • Where there are quarries, there are trucks carrying chunks of stone
  • Where there are regulations for covering truckloads, people are lazy
To amplify the matter, there are a grand total of two roads in Utah Valley, I-15 and State Street. The freeway and the old freeway. Both are under construction at all times, just in case there isn't enough loose debris around already. It also tends not to rain much here. Any washing away of debris from those two roads occurrs at pretty distant intervals.

This problem actually has a wonderfully-oversized solution:
Unfortunately, further arming Utah drivers would cause more trouble than it would fix.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006


I love movies. I'm even happy to pay bloated prices for tickets, sugarwater, and popped vegetables, only to buy the special-edition, extra-profit director's cut when it is released on DVD later. But some trends in big-studio filmmaking just leave me shaking my head.

Why, for example, do we need not one awful Hot-girl-beats-people-up-in-a-futuristic-setting movie, but a whole bunch of them in a row? (To be fair, I've seen only previews, but they all look genuinely awful) Why were there several A-meteor-is-going-to-hit-earth movies released within chronological spitting distance of each other? How about all the Guy-seeks-to-deflower-the-girl-but-they-fall-in-love movies that came out over the course of a summer? And lately, it's been a wave of Cute-computer-animated-animals-share-heart-warming-fart-jokes films.

I don't mean to just pick on stupid movies either. I'm all for stupid movies. Adam Sandler generally plays the same sweet-but-troubled guy every single time, but God help me, I continue to find 50 First Happy Waterboy Daddy Singer Deeds funny, time and time again. I make no claim that all cinematic repetition is bad.
You can do it!

But when the pitch for a two-hour movie is something like "this redneck guy acts obnoxious" or "bratty kids laugh as their dad is on the receiving end of pies and other standard-issue slapstick" or "it's been a while since Titanic, let's do another sinking-ship, tragic-romance picture", I just have to wonder what exactly causes these projects to get the green light.

The content of so many films isn't even the whole story. Now they're even packaged in an obnoxious way. The thoughts running through film executives' heads has to go something like this: "Keep the exhorbanant ticket and snack prices, but now show twenty minutes of loud, extended television commercials to anyone who dares care enough about the movie to want to get there early and find good seats. Not only that, but talk down to them about how illegal it is to copy movies." Know what? If we're still coming to the theatre, even though the DVD will be out next week and we'll be able to not have noisy kids and cell phones around us while we watch... If we're still coming to the theatre, when it's ridiculously easy to download a fairly high-quality version of the movie before it even opens... If we're still coming to the theatre, how about showing some appreciation? Respect, even? A blaring, two-minute Coca-cola ad? This theatre doesn't sell Pepsi. If I'm thirsty, Coke's already got my money.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to see Scary Movie 4.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Scary-ass gliding kids

Is this just in Utah valley or is it everywhere? Admittedly, I see more kids around here than anywhere else I've been. But the rabbit-like procreation rate of Mormons is, for the time being, beside the point.

Whether it happens at a grocery store or a restaurant or anywhere folks bring their kids, which is everywhere, it scares the bejesus out of me every damn time. Kids are sorta scary anyway, with their unnaturally loud voices given the scaled-down size of their vocal cords, their ability to change direction and velocity with no warning, and their complete and utter lack of any sense of context. But now and then I'll catch a glimpse of one that's gliding. Gliding! A kid who's running at least gives you some aural cues that something's about to come tearing out of the next aisle. These new ethereal, gliding mutants not only have the added speed from their roller-shoes, but they move almost silently, darting out of nowhere or stalking their prey in a near-perfect stealth.

I ran a quick search for images of these ghastly munchkins, hoping that some photographer out there had captured the correct sense of terror. While I did learn that apparently this phenomenon is this man's fault, bupkis on the photo front. There are some ads featuring somewhat-scary kids, and some snapshots of way-too-old-for-this kids "grinding" on various public surfaces using these shoes as skateboards, but I think it needs to be seen in motion to be understood. Imagine the last kid that was whining at a restaurant or otherwise attempting to spoil your day. But now imagine him/her standing perfectly still. If that wasn't suspicious and bizarre enough, now imagine the perfectly-still kid silently gliding straight ahead at high speed, moving nary a muscle. Catch this in the corner of your eye and your confidence in everything from the laws of physics to any sense of justice or compassion in the universe will be shaken to the core. Did the Matrix just glitch out for a moment? Is someone using your grocery store as a set for some drug trip film? No, they're here, and they're real, at least real enough to run into you and get kid slime on your good jacket.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Soon we'll know everything

My wife came across this little gem while changing channels. For childish reasons still unclear to us, we felt it necessary to photograph it.

Just a silly little "anic"dote. Oof, sorry.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

My Tetrises bring all the girls to the yard

Nintendo made magic happen with the DS. Not the 3D graphics, not the wireless networking, and not the 10-hour battery life. After lunch, my work buddies and I can whip out these little shiny devices and get all competitive, spouting off enough random banter to occasionally make my eyes water.

day was less of a Tetris contest than a competition of who could say the most random and off-the-wall things during play.
"I just did something totally retarded"
"I'm offended by the word 'retarded'"
"I'm offended by the word 'water'"
"My ancestors came here across water"
"Mine didn't, my ancestors hovered"
"They must have had very advanced technology"
"My ancestors were from the future"

This has been a test of the emergency blog posting system. Had it been an actual emergency, this nearly-inactive blog would be the last place any reasonable person would expect to find warning.

Monday, February 06, 2006


Hiccups. What a dumb ailment. The diaphragm decides, "Today I'm going to try something different!" Breathing becomes a game of musical chairs, halting everything at random intervals. And for some of us, apparently, it's not manifested as the silly little symptoms that deserve the cute name "hiccups". For some, like me, it just friggin' keeps happening for hours on end, sometimes a day or more. These aren't little humorous I've-had-some-beer noises I make either. They're oh-shit-my-lungs-are-imploding noises.

For the longest time I tried to imagine what on Earth would cause a person to enter such convulsions, seemingly at random. A few years ago I finally stumbled upon an answer that made some sense. Like most biological curiosities, evolution sheds some insightful light on the situation:
So if I were a tadpole or a lungfish, I'd be a ridiculously strong breather. Oh, the oxygen my body would process. Oh, the majestically brute strength my gills would have. Oh, if only I were a partially-evolved, creepy-looking fish, I wouldn't have spent most of yesterday feeling like I was going to die.

I had long since given up hope in drinking water quickly, eating bread slowly, spoonfuls of sugar, swallowing upside-down, all the standard "cures". I won't even try gargling, because one good extra-strength hiccup during that time and I'm reasonably sure I would drown. All the same, yesterday my wife convinced me to give sugar a shot. So, I downed it, as I would a shot of tequila, coughed up a cloud of white dust, and once my vision returned, the hiccups were gone for an hour or two. Bliss, I tell you.

Umm, so to anyone out there suffering from horrendously hellish hiccups (or allegedly alluring alliteration), I feel for you.

The evolutionary stuff is all well and good when explaining how the muscles and nerves are capable of hicing-up, but my wife found something that much better explains how a person gets into the predicament in the first place and why they continue:
It's still not much comfort, but knowing is better than not knowing. :^)

Tuesday, January 31, 2006


This probably isn't a new idea, but it's new to me so I'm gonna have a little fun with it. Lately an evangelical buddy of mine has persuaded me to give Ubuntu Linux a try. It's now installed on my secondary workstation as well as my personal laptop. My friend is becoming something of an Ubuntu evangelist around the office, and he's also a Mormon who's done the whole missionary thing. That got me thinking about what parallels could be made between various theologies and various flavours of GNU/Linux. Don't get all antsy if your favourite distribution and your favourite religion don't match up in my little blathering - the tendancy to get uptight about one's adopted distro or beliefs is the first and most obvious similarity.

I've been a Slackware guy for a long time, so I'll begin there. Slackware has to be agnosticism. You don't pray to any server to get your packages, you go and grab the source and build it yourself. You don't have any omnipresent dependancy checking system, though you're entirely free to install one of your own choosing.

Debian seems like Catholicism or something. It's old, it's conservative, its decisions and public statements sometimes cause excessive head-scratching. But, its followers are pretty hard-core, and apt-get is a form of "ask and ye shall receive" if I've ever seen one.

That would make Debian spinoffs like Ubuntu some sort of protestant sects, I suppose. A bit more agile, a little more in tune with the common man's modern issues. Keep the tried-and-true concepts, but bring some sensible defaults and some new ideas to the altar.

GNU/Hurd isn't a "Linux" distribution, but I have to go there because of its striking similarities to Judaism. Both concepts have been around for about 4000 years, and both are still awaiting the messiah. Many decided when Linus came along with his kernel that the saviour had appeared, but others remain unshaken in their conviction.

Red Hat may be Hinduism, based on the whole "many manifestations of one supreme being" thing. In Red Hat, I was offered a binary, development libraries/headers, and source code, for the same program, all as RPMs. Source code in an RPM just sounds weird and counterintuitive to a western-thought person like myself.

I work at Novell, so either I should definitely try to say something about SuSE and NLD/SLES/Code10/Whatever, or I should definitely ... not. All I know is when a SuSE-based distro sounded like it was dropping KDE, I half expected to hear shrill hollering and AK-47s being fired skyward. Percieved blasphemy and infidels stir hate not only in extremist sects, but across Slashdot and mailing lists as well.

Some distros highly encourage spreading the good word by providing live CDs, and though burning an .ISO file is less conspicuous than someone in black handing out novelty miniature bibles on the street corner, I guess it's sort of the same thing. I've seen USB flash memory drives pre-loaded with bootable GNU/Linux systems, and I've seen others pre-loaded with indexed, searchable scripture. Religious scholars with no time for technobabble and hackers with no time for religion take note, your worlds are more similar than you may realize. :^)

Monday, January 30, 2006

I lost? I lost!

Mario Kart DS is probably the ideal lunch break distraction. We usually straight-up Versus mode until someone (me) breaks 100, or sometimes 200, or sometimes until we get to race on Tick Tock Clock. There's no better way to begin the digestive process.

Today didn't go quite as usual. When I broke 100, Proby broke it further. He explained that he'd been practicing all weekend, but the "why" does not concern me. I lost. Me! Mario Kart! Lost! Entropy is leaking into the universe, my friends.