eternal ramblings of an empty mind

Month: September, 2012

Games Without Frontiers

It’s all about perception. Everything. The politicians have that much figured out, even if they can’t recall who the president of Uzbekibekibekistanstan is, or if Russia really is visible from their front porch, or any number of public “misstatements”. They’re perpetual victims of it as well. An ad says “Senator/Representative So-And-So voted to release violent sex offenders…” when there was some prison population control rider tacked on to a bill about funding for state parks. For example. There’s the perception that the ad creates, versus the facts. There’s the base rate fallacy (my shorter, less scientific explanation here), which I’ve fallen victim to on more than one occasion. One thing I’ve been harping on lately to, well, one person (we’ll get to that  in a minute), is the idea of “Free Range Kids“, put forth by Lenore Skenazy, a tagline of “How to raise safe, self-reliant children (without going nuts with worry)”. She presents the idea that the media so often puts stories of children being abducted, sexually violated, shot, or some other horrible thing when in reality the occurrence of these events is extremely low. I have no numbers (go to the FRK site for a few), but most abductions are by people the kid knows. I think it was 96-97% of molestation of children is done by a close relative. Accidental shootings within the home when guns aren’t properly stored or locked away are probably higher than drive-by deaths, though that could certainly depend on the neighborhood. But crime in general has been on the decline since 1980, and CSI: Natchitoches doesn’t bother to show the weeks of waiting for DNA tests, much less the boring cases of “‘Missing’ child found 10 feet away petting neighbor’s dog. Parents charged with endangerment.” There’s such sensationalism that people assume the worst is going to happen to their child if they’re not watching over them every second of every day. Or they regulate themselves into a corner. Parents can’t bring cupcakes to school for their kid’s birthday because it’s unhealthy, and they have to go through a 2-3 week background check just to be allowed to enter the classroom. And sign in at three different offices, and wear this RFID nametag to track your movement through the building. This kind of stuff really is happening (usually not all at once, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was). We’ve replaced common sense with terror. Your 6-year old will be okay if you leave him in the sandbox while you use the restroom, or take out the trash, or answer the phone. He’s not going to run off to Uzbekibekibekistanstan and join NAMBLA in the span of 5 minutes. Make sure your kid knows your phone number, how to get home, that it’s okay to talk to strangers (just not to go off with them). They have to learn independence somehow, and they’ll gain a ton of self-confidence if you let them accomplish something—even if it’s riding their bike around the block—on their own.

Enough about that. A zillion things I want to say…

So I’ve been thinking about getting a dog. I am aware of the vast implications, and consequences, of doing so, but there are great benefits as well. The first and foremost in my mind is the psychological benefit to myself: a companion, someone who I can talk to, play with, spend a lazy day on the couch, run around outside, etc. There’s the benefit of the requirement of walks (or runs) around the neighborhood—exercise for both of us, which results in a healthier me, and possibly/probably a requirement that I get up earlier in the day to take him/her out. Another beneficial side effect is the fact that I’d have to keep the house with a…better balance of chaos and order. The entropic function working in my house needs some modification. The downsides are the vet bills, the food, the invisible fence (I am, and probably forever will be, very much against the visible kind), and deciding exactly what to do with the dog while I’m at work, or out with friends, or in any situation I can’t bring him/her along. All I know for sure is, if I do get a dog, it’ll be through adoption.

I have begun listening to StarTalk, hosted by celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. He interviewed Bill Maher roughly a year ago (from clues I pick up in the broadcast) and the question of the supposed incompatibility of science and religion (specifically Christianity) came up, as such a thing inevitably must when discussing, well, anything, with Bill Maher. I bring all this up because I want to discuss his, and others, vehement atheism. He acknowledges that there are scientists, from 40% in the general community (according to a survey) and 7% in the National Academy of Sciences (or something like that) who pray to a personal god, yet, regardless of their status, renown, or contributions, dismisses them as somehow substandard intellectuals. He, and a few others, seem to want to force a war between science and religion, and longs for a world devoid of any notion of gods, except perhaps in an anthropological or historical context, some “passing fancy” the human race once had.

I was raised in a Christian home. I was taught, at home, at the Christian schools I attended, and at church, that Earth, the solar system, the galaxy, the universe, was 6,000 years old (created 22 October 4004 BC according to James Ussher, or 5773 years ago last week according to Jewish reckoning). I maintained that belief through most of my academic career, then came the “evil”, “liberal”, “secular” university where I came to the realization that science doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t take much to reconcile the age of the universe as 13.7e9 years old, halfway through it’s existence to the best of our knowledge, with Christianity, with Genesis 1. I wonder if these atheists recognize their own zealotry, the hypocrisy almost inherent in their devotion to a belief in the lack of a higher power. I pick on Maher because he’s the latest to remind me of it. Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Bertrand Russell are probably the most prominent advocates of irreligion.

I could go on and discuss things like Christian atheism (yes, it’s a thing), but I’ll leave with one more thought: I see devout atheism as illogical as they perceive any theism. Agnosticism is as far as I see logic taking a person. It takes a leap of faith to make the move to atheism.

One more topic of discussion for me today, brought about by an e-mail exchange. This exchange prompted some, let’s call it soul-searching. I find my opinions and viewpoints diverging significantly from those in my primary social circles. You can claim I was influenced by that secular university (possibly one of the most conservative state universities around), or by the liberal media (careful of those commies at the BBC!), or whatever environmental influences you wish to blame it on, but I think I might have arrived at these same conclusions if left to my own devices. It probably just would have taken me longer. But the philosophical and sociological point I’m bringing up is the exchange of ideas with those closest to me. While I enjoy debate (do not confuse debate with conflict—that I abhor), I shy away from it. Some of my viewpoints may shock my family or close friends. Some may agree with me, but are themselves too timid to speak up. But if I don’t say anything, why should I expect anyone else to do so? Granted, many of the debates on which I hold an opinion, however strongly, seem so heated by the time I might interject that I decide it a far wiser choice to remain silent, lest I draw the ire of all participants. No discussion of import (or, just as often, insignificance) seems to be about rational challenging of one another’s opinions. Whether the subject is comic books or theology or science or gaming, even if I’m called as an “expert witness” (this is not the expert you’re looking for), I prefer to distance myself. That’s not debate, that’s one-upmanship, “I’m right, you’re wrong”, “Go away or I shall replace you with a very small shell script” noise, and it’s ugly. But that is the nature of the beast. I heard Denver described as a “‘Pale Blue Dot‘ in the middle of a red state”. Well, I’m a paler purple dot in the middle of a very, very red state. Neither Republican nor Democrat, with views that I won’t specify here that would gain criticism from the Republicans surrounding me, yet I’d be shunned from the Democratic party for other views. I’ll likely be “throwing my vote away” again this year—but think of it: if people would “throw [their] vote away” on a third party candidate, one might actually get elected! The two-party mindset is so deeply ingrained in our culture, another disturbing thing to think about. But I’ve wandered far off topic. I need rational discussion. I need a sounding board. Finding willing partners for such discourse is proving imminently difficult.

And with that, I sign off. CM10 with (working) Google Wallet, here I come (I hope).



“Political Correctness” is all about going too far, I know. But this is just ridiculous. From the folks at Language Log, the potentially offensive phrases mentioned in the original article (“hold down the fort”, “rule of thumb”, “going Dutch”, “handicap”) are not offensive at all. “Hold [down] the fort”, cited as being offensive to Native Americans, was apparently used by Sherman speaking of defending a fort against the French, not the Native Americans. It’s also used regarding defense against cattle rustlers, train robbers, horse thieves, and others, but no mention of “savage Indians” anywhere. “Rule of thumb” has nothing to do with wife beating. Twice in the 19th century such a principle was acknowledged, but the judges ruling on the case gave no citation for it (and summarily ruled against the abusers anyway). And this was certainly not the origin of the phrase. “Going Dutch” doesn’t imply that the people of the Netherlands are cheap, but possibly refers to a Dutch-style door, or Dutch culture (where it is often appropriate to pay separately). “Handicap”, however, has nothing to do with begging, rather a game of chance, gambling.

Here’s an interesting tidbit, though: when it comes to the use of the words “chord” and “cord”, everyone is wrong!

More interesting artifacts of a bygone age: what is the icon you click on in most applications to save a file? A floppy disk. Who uses those anymore? What do you click to send or receive e-mail? An envelope, again, rarely used. What do you look for on your smartphone when looking to call someone? An “antique” handset. Oh, and “Wi-Fi” was a brand name, and has nothing to do with “hi-fi” (high fidelity/wireless fidelity—there’s no indication of quality in IEEE 802.11)

Now, some tips on grammar, Microsoft Word, and Windows-based input in general. Hyphenation. It’s a trickier thing than you may realize. Most people use the “-” key on their keyboard, not realizing its implications. It was and is called the “hyphen-minus”, carrying the dual meaning throughout the days of the 7-bit US-ASCII character set, and even the 8-bit ISO-8859-1 character set (not to be confused with ISO/IEC 8859-1:1998 or Windows codepage 1252). That’s all well and good, but Unicode has been around since 1988, and supported by the world’s dominant operating systems (Windows) since Windows 95 (remember “unicows.dll”?). Because of this, we have better methods for character separation. Many will say they can’t spot the difference between -, ‐, −, —, –, and ‑, or the sometimes invisible ­ (yes, there is something in there). I can, and do, notice the difference most of the time, though the one between ‐, ­, and ‑ is impossible to spot unless it occurs at an obvious location.

Proper usage, in my estimation (I am only an amateur grammarian):

First, terminology: the hyphen-minus, U+002D (I’ll cover character entry in a bit). The hyphen, U+2010. The minus sign, U+2212. The em-dash, U+2014. The en-dash, U+2013. The figure dash, U+2012. The soft hyphen, U+00AD.

Basic character entry: for small numbers (less than 256) and in Windows, characters can be entered by holding the “Alt” key and entering the number “0” followed by the character number being entered. For instance, what I list above as U+002D is Unicode (hexadecimal) code point 2D, which translates to the decimal number 45. Thus this can be entered by holding “Alt” while entering the digits “045” sequentially on the number pad (not the row of numbers above the normal keyboard letters), then releasing “Alt”. Likewise, U+00AD can be entered with Alt+0173 (this latter notation is fairly standard for discussing entry of these characters). The leading zero is important. If left out, you may wind up with an unexpected character, but there’s a time and place for these as well (they’re codepage-specific; perhaps I’ll cover that some other time).

Advanced character entry: for numbers larger than 255, Windows does have a built-in method of entry, but it’s not enabled by default. The registry key HKCU/Control Panel/Input Method/EnableHexNumpad (REG_SZ) must be set to “1”. Then, when entering these higher values, hold “Alt” while pressing the numpad “+”, followed by the hexadecimal value, with the digits entered from the numpad, and the letters from the keyboard. So U+2014 is entered by holding “Alt” while entering, sequentially, “+2014” on the number pad, then releasing “Alt”. It’s also possible to enter the smaller values this way, using the hexadecimal notation: U+00AD would be entered by holding “Alt” while entering “+ad” on the keyboard, the plus side from the number pad. Specific to Microsoft Word (and Wordpad), enter the hexadecimal number, like 2212, highlight it, and press “Alt+X”. If the digits are not preceded by a valid hexadecimal character, you may press “Alt+X” without highlighting (this key combination will also decode character values, should you wish to know what a single character’s hexadecimal value is).

Some additional warnings: Microsoft Word will often change the font on you when entering specific characters. I’ve seen it switch from the default Cambria (version 2007) to Cambria Math or MS Mincho, depending on the character. Sometimes this is required, but that is often not the case, as Cambria and Calibri (the fonts that ship with Office 2007) handle most of the code points used in western typography. Some applications will hijack the last entry method explained, and ignore what it’s supposed to mean.

Back to usage:

Use a hyphen or hyphen-minus to join words to form a compound (where that compound is not in common usage), or to eliminate ambiguity, say between recreation and re-creation, or between a man-eating shark and a man (who is) eating shark. When adding a prefix to a proper noun, insert a hyphen (un-American). There are other rules, but these are the most common. When to use which is discussed below.

Use a soft hyphen when a word (especially a long word) can be broken at a specific point within, but for one reason or another, line breaks at word boundaries in the surrounding text would be awkward.

Use a hard-hyphen or non-breaking hyphen when a hyphen is necessary, but the possibility of a break across lines is undesirable. In business, at least mine, this is often an issue with part numbers. When called out in a report, occasionally the part number will break at a hyphen-minus, and I admonish report authors to use the non-breaking version to avoid the break.

Use a minus sign when discussing subtraction. On a related topic, use the multiplication sign (U+00D7), interpunct/middle dot (U+00B7), or dot operator (U+22C5) when discussing multiplication, rather than the asterisk (U+002A) or letters “X” (U+0058) or “x” (U+0078).

Use a figure dash when using a dash as a separator between groups of numbers, yet not when indicating a range or subtraction. For instance, the US Phone number, 555‒1212. This would also be an appropriate substitute for my company’s part numbers (as they are all digits).

Use an en-dash when discussing ranges of values, whatever they may be (numbers, dates, times, page numbers, etc.). Examples: “Jimmy Carter was President from January 1977–January 1981.” “Product designed for ages 3–5.” “For your assignment, read pages 16–38.” “The program lasts from 7:30 pm–10:00 pm.” It should not be used as a contraction in ranges of SI units, in place of “to” or “and” in constructions such as “between 17 V and 28 V”, so as to avoid any possibility of confusion with subtraction. Another use of this is to denote a relationship between objects or names. “The Supreme Court voted 5–4…” “The Shays–Meehan bill…” “Kansas City Royals 4–2 victory…” Again, there are more rules, but these are the common ones.

Use an en-dash when inserting a parenthetical statement, as an alternative to those parentheses. Also, when quoting someone, where the last word is cut off for some reason (reminiscence, interruption). See many of my entries in this blog for uses of the em-dash in the former sense of the word. And enjoy this quote from Star Wars: A New Hope for an example of the second: “I sense something; a presence I’ve not felt since—”.

Hope that clears things up!

So in 1952 a PhD student at MIT named David Huffman chose to write a term paper instead of taking a final exam for his information theory class, taught by Robert Fano. With this term paper, “A Method for the Construction of Minimum-Redundancy Codes”, he bested his professor’s collaborative work with the discoverer of information theory at constructing optimal binary encoding. I heard this story when I took my information theory class, though I don’t think we were ever tasked with even an implementation of Huffman coding. So, out of boredom, I put together something in Python that does the job. Its usefulness is severely limited, as it expects a string input and produces a string output (plus the generated tree as a nested…well, list, basically). However, it does produce an optimal binary encoding for the input text, and can compress “The Raven” to 57.09% of its original size: 3603 bytes compared to 6311 in the original. In addition to that, the storage of the tree would be required, which in its Python format is 1074 characters. Anyway, the longer the text, the better ratio I’m likely to get, and the smaller the relative overhead would be of storing the Huffman tree. But this is just step one of a larger goal: I wish to be able to provide a clear guide to what audio compression algorithms make the most sense, and are objectively the “best” for a particular application. A comparison between the big contenders in the lossy market: MP3, AAC, and Windows Media in the non-free corner, and Ogg and Opus in the free corner. Along the way I suspect I’ll create image encoders and decoders and implementations of one or more compression algorithm (like DEFLATE), but I’m aware that, in the end, the choices of what bits of sound to chop away are what is going to matter. This is a research project on my part, and, while I don’t expect to win any awards, hopefully what I turn up will help someone, somewhere, in their understanding of the algorithms involved and how best to digitally store their music libraries.

Speaking of which, I’ve given in and installed iTunes on this computer. I refuse to give it control over my library, and my desktop player of choice will remain WinAMP, unless/until I write my own player.

To continue my rambling, there was a new version of Catalyst that for some reason my computer wasn’t picking up in its daily checks for updates (a little excessive for checking, but it didn’t even notice?) So either the 2D driver or some other part of the driver package 8.982-120727a-145524C-ATI seems to have solved the blue screen issue. Yay for dual monitors! Now I need a decent mount for them…

On to games. Wizards has finally recognized that by ceasing the printing of its most popular table-top RPG rulebooks it was cheating itself out of (I’m sure quite a bit of) cash. So I was pleasantly surprised to find three core books for D&D 3.5 on the shelf at Prairie Dog today when I picked up my comics. I have purchased World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria, which comes out on the 25th. With the massive changes they made in version 5.0.4 (and have already patched to 5.0.5), I’m still re-learning how to play a warlock. But I’ll be a Panda monk just like a zillion other people come the 25th. And Batman: Arkham City Game of the Year edition finally came out on Steam. Just shy of a full year after initial release. And honestly? I’m no longer excited about it. After the newness of being a Panda monk wears off, I’ll probably play it, but at this point I’m not bothered. Perhaps I’ll pick it up during one of Steam’s famous awesome sales.

Perhaps it’s the apathy of the week catching up to my stomach, but right now food bores me. I’m hungry, it’s past 9pm and I haven’t eaten dinner, but I look in the fridge and, despite there being plenty of sandwich making materials, I don’t want a sandwich. Besides, I’m out of bread. And milk. But when I think about going out, I’ve had this problem all week of not really wanting to eat anywhere. So I make my usual rounds: Pizza Hut, McAlister’s, Schlotzsky’s, tomorrow’s lunch with the guys will probably be Genghis or the Mexican Irish place (Carlos O’Kelly’s), and before the week is up I’m sure I’ll see the inside of Freddy’s and or Mr. Goodcents. All with zero enthusiasm. Cooking for one sucks (plus I hate the dishes that are concomitant with that duty). Eating out 7+ meals a week is extremely hard on the wallet. Perhaps it’s the 30 years of a sandwich every day that’s got me down, but it hasn’t bothered me until now, and it doesn’t feel like the blame belongs there. And the cooking for two option has a broken foot because I had to get a replacement credit card, and eHarmony won’t let me go in on a month-to-month plan, the only way I can re-up my subscription is by paying for 3, 6, or 12 months now, where, 3 months has a rate higher than the month-to-month does (how stupid is that). Not that I was talking to anyone. Maybe I’ll meet someone at The Color Run, or at “Sleepwalk with Me“. Unlikely, but possible.

Well, I need to stick something in this pie-hole, so I’ll call this entry quite long enough and begin another one tomorrow (which might be posted in a day, or a week, or a month).

Pretzel Logic

An interesting food/song title, and it’s not by Peter Gabriel.

Anyway, I got around to reading Jacqui Cheng’s article on the Nest, to see what the Apple editor of Ars thought about it. I’ve had mine since March 15, and I’ve loved it. What I was shocked at was not her article, which had mostly good things to say about it, but of all things, I was not expecting that level of vitriol in the comments over a thermostat! Many were complaining about the price point, saying that they could get Honeywell or 3M thermostats with comparable capabilities for less than $100. I don’t know where they’re shopping, but the only ones I found at the big box stores here (Home Depot, Menards, Lowe’s) that would allow you to set a range of temperatures and have it automatically switch between heat and A/C cost at least $250, and not a one of them had Internet connectivity. My brother does HVAC stuff, and he was complimentary of it, and has installed a few. I’m not sure if his opinions have changed over the past year, or if he’s had more of a chance to see the benefits or disadvantages of it, but that is entirely possible. It’s very nice to be able to leave the house, realize (or find out later that) I’m going to be gone for a couple of days, or a week, and flip on “Away” mode from my phone. The only point I’ve been slightly disappointed in is the schedule learning. Perhaps my schedule is too erratic, or, more likely, I forget to set it often enough or regularly enough that it never figured out quite what to do, so I turned off the schedule learning and set a manual schedule on the web page. Which reminds me, the scheduling on other thermostats I looked at were “weekdays” and “weekends”—this you can configure for each day of the week individually. So while my Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday schedules are all basically the away settings from 07:30-17:30, Thursday I’m gone from 07:30 to 21:00, and Friday I leave at 07:30 and get home at 01:30 on Saturday. I’m usually not gone long enough or regularly enough on Saturday or Sunday to warrant a schedule point. If I am gone, I can set it with my phone easily enough.

Speaking of the phone, it seems that CM10 finally has NFC support. Not sure when it got enabled, but it was fairly recently. I get the latest nightly about twice a week, and only noticed it in the 20120904 build. I don’t have TecTiles (have to check at the T-Mobile store sometime), Google Wallet (the only version I’ve seen requires a stock ROM), or any friends with the S3, but if I get any of those working, that’d be very cool. I did install SimplyTapp, but it’s currently extremely limited, and costs money to use, so I’ll probably wind up not using it. Good thing I read the fine print before going all wild and crazy at all two places I know in town that are even capable of taking NFC payments.

Started rehearsing Carmina Burana last night and…wow. The notes and rhythms aren’t difficult, probably because I’ve listened to the piece so many times, but the words? That’s going to be a struggle. I muddled through using random syllables that had vowels close to what I think is correct (the mix of Latin and Middle German causes its own set of problems, mentally). What I found most shocking was the price of the score, however. Instead of checking out a (25 page) copy of the male choral parts (and nothing else), I purchased a 141 page score for two choirs, two pianos, and 12+ percussion instruments. For $49. I’ll keep it, though, because it’ll let me follow along with the entire performance, and I’ve wanted this for a while already. The work won’t be public domain for at least another 65 years (stupid copyright extension acts). But man, this, plus two weeks worth of comic books, plus a Kickstarter project? That’s half of my reimbursed travel expenses from last week already spent.

Also, on the running thing? Thursdays and Fridays are out, so I didn’t start yesterday, nor will I make it today. But Saturday I will run. Saturday, Monday, Wednesday, at the very least until October 6, rain, shine, snow, sleet, sandstorm, hurricane, earthquake, whatever. So is my stated (and now scheduled) goal.

My other goal is to improve this Mars presentation. I learned quite a bit about Martian Volcanology yesterday and today, and that section at least deserves expansion.


So I puzzled over the inverse Vincenty formula for a few hours now, and when I finally got code that produced an output in the ballpark of the haversine formula, neither produced numbers close to those given at the various JavaScript calculators online. Now, all languages have their rounding errors, sure, but what was the deal? Turns out, the function I used to convert a DMS angle to a decimal degree value didn’t treat the sign properly. My numbers still don’t match to the promised millimeter accuracy, but they’re far, far closer than my initial endeavors. And, despite all that work, I think I’m going to stick with the haversine formula. Much, much simpler (direct, non-iterative), and a 0.5% error is well within the margin I need. Most of the time I’ll be dealing with distances that even the Pythagorean theorem would be “good enough”.

So I’m still plugging away at eHarmony, sending messages to girls that seem even vaguely interesting (though I still steer clear of those who list “drinking” as one of their favorite activities). Not a one has responded in a month. Part of the problem may well be that they have matching turned on, but aren’t actually subscribed: there’s no way to tell the difference (something I’ve complained about before). I put a lot of stock into a smile. I’ve met two girls in particular whose smile was like a punch to the chest, such that I was instantly smitten. I’ve no idea what happened to one of them; another remains a Facebook friend, still single, still not interested in me. Not that that’s really a problem, there’s 200+ miles between us, which I imagine would cause me more grief than I’d care to admit. The few (three) I’ve managed second dates with weren’t right for one reason or another, and they’ve all found happiness with someone else. And here’s another likely part of the problem: when I meet a girl, and their smile or personality or interests grab my attention, I take so much time working up to saying, well, anything—”Love your hair,” for example—that managing the “date” question is pretty astonishing to me. I’m always “just a few weeks away from a real, audible connection.” I’ve done it once. If I happen to catch that she’s going on a date with someone else, though (no matter what the circumstances), I give up immediately. “Oh, she’ll be happy with him, let her be,” I tell myself. I fall into the “nice guy” category, the one that Cracked makes clear will never get the girl (yes, there’s a joke buried in there; c’mon, it’s Cracked, but like most of their articles, it has some good points).

So, next goal: C25k. I have 30 days to train for this. And 9 days to officially sign up. And it will be awesome. I know, the C25k program says 9 weeks, but I want to do The Color Run!

If I make it through those 9 days, training as I should, I will reward myself by seeing this movie. Joss Whedon has called for a boycott of this film, so I must see it. I mean, it did beat The Avengers’ box office totals for opening weekend. Per screen, anyway.