From The Erbo Files
Saturday, June 30, 2012

It's been quiet around here this past month, because, unfortunately, I've found something new that acts as a pretty good time sink. That something? Minecraft.

Alpha 2, a Minecraft world

The game has been out for a while on PC, but I hadn't really seen it, other than hearing from Sabrina's friend Sheila about how her kids were obsessed with it. When they introduced it on Xbox, I had some MSPs lying around, so I downloaded it just to see what all the hubbub was about. Soon I was hooked. Sabrina complained, so I gave her the MSPs to get it on her Xbox. Soon, she was hooked. We then got more points for her friend Sheila to get it on their family's Xbox. And then she was hooked.

Are you starting to get an idea that this game might be, well, somewhat compelling?

In fact, in the first activity report Major Nelson released for Xbox Live after Minecraft was introduced, it had grown to be, not merely the most popular Arcade title on the service, but the third most popular game of any type, beat out only by Call of Duty: Black Ops and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. One week later, it had surpassed Black Ops to become the second most popular game on Xbox Live...and it still holds that position a month later. This, mind you, only marks the popularity of the Xbox 360 version of the game...not for the PC version (estimated sales over 6 million) or the "Pocket Edition" available for iOS and Android devices (the iOS version still ranks as #21 on the "Top Paid Apps" on the iOS App Store, despite selling for a much higher price than most paid $6.99, it's the only app in the top 25 to cost more than $1).

So how can I describe it? Tycho of Penny Arcade has said, "I have heard [Gabriel] suggest that the game is crack, but it’s more like all of the ingredients and equipment that you need to make crack, which I’d say is worse." But that doesn't begin to describe it.

Physically, Minecraft is something like a "survival-adventure" type of game. Start a game, and you're dropped down in the middle of a very low-resolution world, with nothing but your bare hands. And you'd better get busy, too, because soon enough, night will fall...and that's when the monsters come out, including zombies, arrow-shooting skeletons, and the infamous Creepers, which sneak up on you and explode, taking part of the landscape--and maybe you--with them. To combat this, the game gives you the ability to mine the landscape for useful materials, and to craft these materials into other, useful objects (hence the name). You start by punching trees (literally) to get blocks of wood, which you can make into planks. With these planks, you can make a "crafting table," which gives you more options as to what you can make by using it. Then you can use wood planks, and sticks, which you make from planks, to make a wooden pickaxe. With this, you can mine into solid rock, turning it into cobblestone...and from that and more sticks, you can make a better pickaxe, allowing you to mine faster. You can also make axes, for cutting down trees more effectively, shovels, for digging into sand, dirt, or gravel, and swords, for when hiding from the monsters is not enough. Soon, you'll be making a furnace out of cobblestone, which you can fuel with wood planks or--when you find it--coal, and which can heat things to make other things (such as glass, from sand). Using all of these, you can build a shelter to keep you safe from the monsters at night.

As you progress, there are more things to find, such as, deep within the earth, not merely coal, but iron ore (which you smelt in a furnace to make iron ingots, which can be used to make better tools and other things), gold ore (smelted like iron ore, and also useful in crafting, though not as much as you might think), diamonds (which can be used to make powerful tools, weapons, and armor), and the mysterious "redstone" (the basis of much of Minecraft's "technology," such as it is). You'll also encounter hazards like underground dungeons full of monsters (and chests of goodies), pools of water (yes, you can drown in it), and pools of hot lava (deadly if you fall into it). Cool that lava with a bucket of water, though, and you get the nearly indestructible obsidian. Mine that obsidian with a diamond pickaxe, then arrange it into a rectangular frame of the right size and light it "on fire" with a flint and steel, and you've created a portal to "The Nether," a Hell-like dimension with its own hazardous denizens, weird materials, and rewards.

There is an ultimate goal--to visit another dimension called "The End" and defeat the mighty Enderdragon contained within--but I don't know if that's even accessible via the Xbox version yet, which lags the PC version by a number of revisions. But what you can do is make use of the game's crafting abilities to build many things, like a primitive version of Second Life. Build massive buildings, huge underground complexes, road and rail systems, even primitive computers with redstone-based logic gates. The ultimate limits are only time and your imagination. (And perhaps available space...though the PC versions offer a virtually-unlimited size world, the Xbox versions impose limits on the size of a world. They're still pretty large though.)

You can generate as many new worlds as you like and play around in each; this is what Sabrina has done, for the most part. I, however, have chosen to spend most of my time in one world, one I created pretty early on--hence its name, "Alpha 2." Alpha 2 now even has its own geographic nomenclature, both for terrain features and for structures. It has a road system (complete with bridges over water) and the beginnings of a rail system, a number of buildings, and a number of mines (most of them with many signs to point the way to the exit--getting lost underground can be a real problem!) And there's the odd sentimental gesture:

Stephen's Point, on the Eastern Peninsula in Alpha 2.

This is a monument to my late brother Stephen who died four years ago. Accordingly, this geographic feature is "Stephen's Point," at the very end of the Eastern Peninsula, past the Eastern Outpost and the "End-of-the-World Mine." I think he might have appreciated it.

Minecraft is a prototypical "indie game made good," similar to Angry Birds in that respect. Whereas Angry Birds came from Finland, Minecraft hails from Sweden, having been created by Markus "Notch" Persson and now being developed by his company Mojang AB. The PC version of the game is actually written in Java, which piques my interest as I'm not entirely sure how anyone would do that. (There are libraries involved, some of which go back to a failed Sun project to make a Java MMO.) The game, like any moderately-complex game, has its own Wiki to help explain everything, which makes me glad that my Xbox is right next to my desktop system.

What's playing it like? It can be rather relaxing to dig through the Earth, put something together, or just wander around and sightsee...which is enhanced by the soft ambient soundtrack supplied by German composer C418. It also sucks you in, kind of like Civilization...and those that know me should now be going, "Yikes!", as Civilization is one of my major gaming weaknesses, the kind of game where I can start playing at 6:00 PM, and next thing I know..."Oh, is that the sun rising?" This is especially true if both Sabrina and I are playing, as it's hard to stop either of us when we get on a roll. (Sabrina has contributed much to Alpha 2...among other things, she discovered the elusive clay blocks. Her friend Sheila has visited, too, and has her own "house" on Alpha 2, a wood structure in the middle of the Eastern Peninsula.) Take Yahtzee's advice, and give yourself a project; it helps you appreciate the game more.

Recommended...just don't blame me if you, too, get sucked in.  See you in the mines!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Out for a quick raid on a Serpentis complex...but what's that other ship doing there?

Read about it in "A Chance Encounter," on the Ralpha Dogs' corporate blog.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

  • Watch as astronaut Don Pettit demonstrates some of the physics in Angry Birds Space by launching a Red Bird down through one of the modules in the ISS using a makeshift slingshot. In microgravity, the bird travels in a straight line, unlike the parabolic trajectory it would follow on Earth. (Pettit is awesome. He was up there with Cousin Kenny on station at the time of the Columbia disaster, which meant he had to fly back home in a Soyuz. Now he's back up there, with his own unique, quirky style, doing science and still alive.)

  • What the fuck, University of Florida? Seriously: what the fucking fuck? Cut the CS department, in an age where engineers and developers are more in demand than they've been in a long time? You guys need yourheads examined. (Via Karl Denninger, who is...harsher on UF.) (Update: They're not gonna do it after all. GOOD!)

  • Hey, Jeff! Think it would convince you to get on Twitter if you could do so using a straight key?  (ViaTechCrunch.)

  • The ultimate geek's also an Android 2.2 smartphone. I actually owned the "spiritual ancestor" of this watch, a Fossil Abacus WristPDA, which ran PalmOS 4.0 with 8 Mb of onboard storage (which is a decent amount, for Palm PDAs) and looked smart, as Fossil products often do. The main problem was that the battery life sucked balls; the thing had to be plugged in nightly to recharge, and needed a special USB charger with its own power plug. I would watch out for that issue if buying one of the Z1s. (Via Malcolm Uhl on Facebook.)

  • Seems those Occupy [foo] wankers aren't above seeking bailouts of their own when it suits them. Excuse me while I point and laugh.  (Via RadioMattM at the Conservative Kitchen Table.)

  • What would you say about a guy that has sent hundreds of thousands of pirated DVDs overseas over the past eight years? What if I told you that that guy was a 92-year-old WWII vet, sending those DVDs to combat troops in Iraq and Afghanistan? He took no money for them, and spent something like $30,000 of his own money to make and ship them. The MAFIAA isn't too pleased, but what are they gonna do to him without looking like complete jerks? (Not that that ever stopped them.) Meanwhile, the soldiers really appreciate what he's been doing. He's stopping now, not because of MAFIAA pressure, but because the troops are being pulled out. The man will surely go down as an unsung hero of these wars.

  • From fellow developer Nick Hill: One of the oddest ways to tell time you'll ever see.

  • Ladies, you may never have thought of carrying your iPhone in the Victoria's Secret Compartment, but, if you do, this product may be for you.

  • Speaking of carrying stuff someplace unusual, how about carrying a copy of the edited sum total of human knowledge in a keychain? That's the purpose behind the eVr1 Codex, which dumps a load of text, including all of the English Wikipedia and a huge literary canon (full list here), onto a 16 Gb MicroSD card, seals that card to withstand many hazards, and sews it into a hand-stitched leather key fob. It's mainly intended for the symbolic value, because the only way to access the information is to destroy the container (though they plan to offer an online archive of the content to buyers). It would be handy, though, if you needed to rebuild civilization from scratch, like Jeff's colonists aboard the Starship Origen did.

  • Finally! A frickin' shark with a frickin' laser beam attached to its head! Dr. Evil would be proud.

  • DJ update (from this post): $DEITY be praised, the man found a new liver. He's recovering now, amid the well wishes of his fellow Rottie denizens. This post has the update including some comments from his missus, Deneen.

Monday, April 23, 2012

  • Stephen T. Gordon: In the future, everything will be a coffee shop. A compelling point, since you can't download or order online a gathering place, or a grande cafe mocha with one or two pumps of vanilla (my Starbucks poison-of-choice). Via Glenn Reynolds.

  • One startup company, 4ormat, saved over $100,000 in its development efforts by refusing to support Micro$oft Internet Asploder. Boy, I wish IQNavigator could do the same it is, I think we've only recently deprecated support for IE6. (But then again, many of our customers are stuck with browsers that old, more's the pity.)

  • From Lexxi: A video of dubstep violinist Lindsey Stirling. The music has a funky, half-Eurodance, half-New Age feel to it, and Ms. Stirling is a fair dancer in addition to a decent violinist. Filmed at an ice castle in Silverthorne, Colorado, that looks very Scandinavian; I thought it was Finland or Iceland or some country like that. Okay, so it's not metal...but it's still good. :-)

  • The RNC produces an absolute gem of a video, using Barack Hussein Obama's own words to show why he must not be re-elected. I say, "More, please, and faster!" Unfortunately, the RINO-NC will probably cave and refrain from producing any more such videos, lest the New York Times starts calling them "not helpful."

  • Former EMinder Crizz sent me a link to some handheld technology that looks straight out of Star Trek: an X-ray scanner you can hold in your hand. Maybe the inventors of this technology should get together with these guys...a real tricorder could be just around the corner...

  • And speaking of science-fiction stuff, check out this idea for a LEGO® model of one of EVE Online's most iconic spaceships, the Minmatar Rifter-class frigate (what I refer to as "The Official Ship of Gettin' Yo' Ass in Trouble" :-D ). CCP is on board with the idea, so go like it...who knows, the LEGO® people might just release the model!

  • If you're a Ford owner (like I am now), these sites might be of interest: this one will decode all the characters in your VIN and tell you what they all mean, and this one will take your VIN and show you what your actual factory window sticker looked like.

  • Three words: Angry Birds bra. Sabrina wouldn't wear one, but they don't come in her size anyway. (Via Valorna Edgeworth on Facebook.)

  • At IQNavigator, we do a major release of FrontOffice (our hosted solution software) about once a month. Facebook does releases far more frequently than that, and to a much larger audience. How they do it is a tangled tale involving custom PHP compilers, BitTorrent, IRC, good old-fashioned dogfooding, and perhaps the only actual Facebook "Dislike" button in existence. And a fair amount of ethanol to act as a social lubricant...

  • Meanwhile, Facebook's 140-character competitors at Twitter have released some of the enhancements they've made to MySQL for their needs. This isn't the first bit of open source Twitter has released; their Bootstrap CSS/JavaScript framework, which underpins the Erbosoft Web site itself, is very good. (Via several sources, including Bryan Glenn at IQNavigator.)

  • Want to hear what the live music in the world's coolest Nordstrom would sound like? Watch Camille and Kennerly, the Harp Twins, bring modern music to life on their instruments. Their performance of "Stairway to Heaven" is to die for. (They are also third degree black belts in Tae Kwon Do, and "Distinguished Experts" in rifle marksmanship. Don't f**k with these ladies! :-D )

  • From my fellow IQNavigator developer Ben Messer: A complete emulation of the Atari 2600 game console, written in Java. Of course, that's no strain on modern computers (the original 2600 had a 1.19 MHz 6507 processor and 128 bytes--not megabytes or even kilobytes, bytes--of RAM), but it kicked off an interesting discussion of how far gaming technology has come since the late 70's/early 80's.  Also, coworker Nick Hill is working on beating Billy Mitchell's high score. :-)

Sunday, April 22, 2012

This blog post was inspired by a question I was asked to answer on Quora by Robert Gluck, which consisted, in its entirety, of the phrase that makes up the title above. Herewith is my reply.

As has been pointed out by other respondents to this question, the phrase "the banality of evil" was coined by Hannah Arendt, as part of the subtitle to her 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. The book was her account of the 1961 trial, in Jerusalem, of Adolf Eichmann, who had worked during the Nazi era in Germany for branches of the S.S. dealing with "emigration," "relocation," and "evacuation" of Jewish populations across Europe. Many of these, of course, were convenient euphemisms for "extermination." By "banality," Arendt meant that, for people such as Eichmann who were part of the monstrous bureaucracy of death developed by the Nazis in the process of implementing their "Final Solution of the Jewish Question," dealing with matters involving the suffering and death of so many human beings became a mere matter of routine, "just another day at the office," as it were. (It is perhaps significant that Arendt herself later regretted employing the term, and noted that she would not use it if she were to write the book over again. By then, of course, it was too late, and had become a catchphrase.)

Eichmann, despite his many boasts to the contrary, was, it would appear, no more than a "middle manager" in this bureaucracy of death. He did not dictate the policies that were implemented; this was, of course, done, ultimately, by Hitler himself, and to a lesser extent by Heinrich Himmler, head of the S.S., and Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Reich Main Security Office, to whom he ultimately reported. Nor did he actually kill anyone; in fact, the one time he visited sites where the actual killing of Jews happened (once by firing squad, once in the gas trucks), he was sickened and shaken by the experience. Eichmann's chief concern was that of transportation, shifting Jews around from location to location, locating the trains needed to move them and making sure there were enough people aboard each train so that no trains were "wasted," and ultimately delivering them up for "resettlement in the East" (read: extermination at Auschwitz or one of the other death camps). He may have viewed the lives affected by these operations as no more than abstractions, numbers which had to be shifted around to meet the expectations of his superiors. (A similar attitude is expressed in a quotation famously misattributed to Joseph Stalin: "The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic." )

Edward Herman calls the development of this "banality" a process of "normalizing the unthinkable," in which, over time, terrible, murderous acts simply become "the way things are done." This was certainly the case for Eichmann as he was made responsible for the "relocation" of Jewish populations throughout Europe. The example of Rumania is perhaps relevant here: the Rumanians were so eager to comply with Nazi demands that their land be made judenrein (Jew-free) that they instituted their own bloody pogroms against their own Jewish population. Eichmann was forced to scramble, quickly arranging transportation so that the Rumanian Jews could be dealt with in the usual fashion. Even though the outcome was ultimately the same, he felt that the approach taken by the Nazis, the "way things were done" to which he had become accustomed, was more "civilized."

It's also true that people in this kind of situation may not be aware of the ultimate consequences of their actions, though Eichmann, at least in the latter half of his career, surely was. This may include, not only those such as the Nazis, but scientists involved in the development of potentially-destructive new weaponry. In the movie Real Genius, for example, Mitch Taylor and Chris Knight are college students engaged in developing a powerful laser merely as a research project for Professor Jerry Hathaway. After they succeed, and Lazlo Hollyfeld confronts them with the question "What would you use that for?", their friend "Ick" Ikagami deflects the question with a joke ("Making enormous Swiss cheese?" ), Knight brushes it aside, thinking only of his own situation ("Lazlo, that doesn't matter! I respect you, but I graduated!" ) and Taylor shrugs it off: "The applications are unlimited...let the engineers figure out a use for it, that's not our concern!" Only when further prompted by Hollyfeld, and upon returning to the lab to find out their laser has been spirited away for immediate military testing, do they realize the enormity of what they've done and begin working on a plan to sabotage it. Whatever "evil" they committed in the design of what proved to be a new weapon surely was "banal" in that sense, and acquired this quality chiefly by virtue of their own ignorance. The real evil, it might be argued, was Hathaway's, in exploiting their labor without informing them of the ultimate purpose, after having diverted funding for the laser project towards remodeling his house. This mirrors the way the Nazis engaged in division of labor to keep groups of people in their lower echelons focused on minor details of the Final Solution instead of on the "big picture"...and corruption was also endemic in the Nazi era as well.

Friedrich Hayek, in his book The Road to Serfdom, wrote, "Advancement within a totalitarian group or party depends largely on a willingness to do immoral things. The principle that the end justifies the means, which in individualist ethics is regarded as the denial of all morals, in collectivist ethics becomes necessarily the supreme rule." This is a contributor to the development of evil as a "banality," if it is viewed as something that one is merely required to do to maintain and advance one's position, such as Eichmann hoping for advancement in his post, or Knight getting his college degree. People are often willing to "go along to get along," as shown by Milgram's experiment and Zimbardo's Stanford prison experiment, as well as by the Jewish Councils set up by the Nazis, which did much of the "dirty work" in selecting those who would be put on the trains for "resettlement," perhaps in the belief that they would avoid the same fate or worse thereby. (Ultimately, this would not be the case; many members of the Councils themselves were sent along to the death camps.)

So we have a number of conditions: the participants in evil acts are either ignorant of the consequences of their actions or are willing to suppress or "abstract away" what knowledge they have of them, their actions have been "normalized" by the organization they work in, and they view their actions as necessary to maintain or advance their own position, or to further their own goals. Under these circumstances, yes, evil can become quite "banal" indeed. It is worth noting, in closing, an observation that Isaac Asimov once made in recounting a conversation with Fritz Leiber: a truly "intelligent" villain never just shouts "I'm a wicked bad guy!", he is never a "villain" in his own eyes. Eichmann certainly was not; he even professed that he had been trying to save Jews by his actions, even as he acknowledged that he was to be made something of a scapegoat for the Nazi regime by his trial and execution. Even one of the most clichéd villains of all time, Darth Vader, would tell Luke Skywalker that his ultimate aim was to "bring order to the Galaxy," much as the Nazis wanted to bring "order" to the world. Their examples must stand as a cautionary tale for us all.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The second element of my "trinity" of symphonic metal hails from the Netherlands, which is home to a fair number of good symphonic-metal bands. Unlike Nightwish, they approached it from a gothic-metal background, but, like Nightwish, they've taken their art in a bit of an unusual concept-album direction. They're Within Temptation, they're the biggest band to come out of the Netherlands, and the fact that there's a couple at the center of the band should help ensure that they're around for a long time.

More below the fold.

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Sunday, April 15, 2012

Over on the Anti-Idiotarian Rottweiler, DJ, who has been the resident "Loyal Opposition" for over ten years as well as contributing technical expertise to keeping the site thriving, has just announced that he has Stage III liver cancer, probably close to Stage IV. His estimate is that he has no more than a year left, unless he finds a donor organ for a transplant before hitting Stage IV, which even he admits is unlikely.

Please note that the link in the paragraph above is unlikely to be functional by the time you read this, as he has announced the intention to take the post down shortly. He has also disabled comments on the post. The reason?

Please understand as I am telling you this, I am NOT asking for your prayers or sympathy. I do not deserve either. I have known about this for about six months now, and since there have been a few of you asking after my health, I felt that I should come clean as much as I am comfortable with.


Please understand that I do NOT want your sympathy nor your prayers. I just want to be treated as I have always been. I only want to come clean and let you know that I am not going to be around too much longer.

When I read this, I have the uncomfortable feeling that DJ is selling himself short. Besides, regardless of whether he wants, or feels he "deserves," sympathy and prayers or not, he's going to get them anyway from his fellow denizens of the Rott. Including me. Because we're human beings first and foremost, no matter how far to the Right we are of his political positions.

And so I offer mine, with no Imperial Authority behind it, just one conservative geek among many raising a voice.

DJ, there is such a thing as a "Loyal Opposition." To a certain extent, we need having our beliefs and positions challenged on a regular basis, because that forces us to re-examine them, and help build them up and make them stronger. And your opposition is a lot more articulate than that of most of Ogabe's NSDWP minions, whose entire argument could be summed up in large part as "You're nothing but racist, sexist, uncivil bitter-clinger Visigoths who're being not helpful! WAAAHHHH!! MOMMYYYYYYY!!!" Don't think that goes unappreciated, as vehemently as we may argue against you. Besides which, as opposed as you are to the kind of opinions being expressed on the Rott on a daily basis, you've gone above and beyond the call of duty in keeping the site alive so that those opinions could be expressed...and, as a former manager of a virtual-community site myself, I do know something of what that entails, including things like checking in with the site while on vacation in Maui to make sure everything is copacetic. I doubt anyone could ever "replace" you in either of those two roles; they can only succeed you.

Cancer is a hell of a thing. Many of us on the Rott have gone through it, and/or had loved ones that have gone through it. For my part, my father had throat cancer back while I was in college, and has just recently been diagnosed with, and treated for, pancreatic cancer. An aunt of mine succumbed to breast cancer. My ex-wife had a hysterectomy years before I met her, due to uterine cancer. I would bet that not one of us does not at least know, on a clinical level, what happens as a result of this. We're all qualified to sympathize...and those of us who are of the sort inclined to offer prayers are not only qualified, but called upon to do so when "a member of the family" is in need. You may not believe that there's Anyone on the other end of those prayers to listen to them, and intercede on your behalf...but there may yet be. In an infinite universe, anything is possible.

In the same post, DJ has announced his intention to take a series of bike rides around the U.S. and Canada for as long as he is physically able to do so. To him, I will offer one final benediction:

May the road rise up to meet you,

May the wind be ever at your back,

May the sun shine warm upon your face and the rain fall softly on your fields,

And, until we meet again,

May God hold you in the hollow of his hand.
Old Irish blessing

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

April 4, 2012

I'm still not quite sure how it happened.  One minute, I was cruising up Colorado Boulevard, on my way to King Soopers to fetch a sandwich for Sabrina after getting off work. The next, the Ford Escape was stopped at the light at Amherst in front of me. I jammed the brakes to the floor, but not even the anti-lock braking system could keep me from striking the Escape.

The Saturn jerked to a stop; I could see the hood folded up and in on itself, but no other damage was apparent from where I sat, and the air bags, significantly, had not fired. I wasn't injured...but the car certainly was.

The first thoughts that went through my head were, "No, no, no, no, no..." Little did I know that, a week later, I would wind up, perhaps, better than I deserved to.

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Sunday, April 1, 2012

The only universal holiday of the Internet is April Fool's Day, and this is when many sites bust out their best jokes. Here's a rundown of some of the stuff I've seen today. This is by no means an exhaustive list.

  • Google is no slouch at April Fool's Day Jokes, and have turned out some of the best...and at least one project that was introduced on April Fool's Day that turned out not to be a hoax. Today they introduce Google Racing, a partnership with NASCAR for autonomous race cars (!). Also check out their Really Advanced Search.

  • Oh, and check out Google Maps for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System. Blocky goodness!

  • introduces FARK.mag, "The Magazine by Drew Curtis's's Drew Curtis." Help save a dying business model today, with their offer of 72 issues for the price of -72, or 200% off the cover price!

  • YouTube has put a lightswitch next to all their videos. Turn the lights off to get a dark background, then turn 'em back on! Also, order The YouTube Collection, all your favorite videos on actual DVDs, the way God and the MAFIAA intended, for one low, low price of $2,448,693 plus tax! Oh, and delivery may be somewhat delayed...

  • TechCrunch introduces TechCrunch Drama, the channel for all your drama needs. I have a feeling they're only partly joking here... :-)

  • TVTropes has been randomly redirecting people visiting its home page to the translated versions...including the "Lolspeak" version. "O hai. U can has descripshun of tvtropes? Dis wiki iz lolcatalog of trix of traed four riting fikshun." If you can't understand it, ask your cat. :-)

  • Tyler Durden on Why Regulation Is Good For Growth. "The biggest problem with 'free' markets is the stupidity of the common people. How can they possibly know what they want, or what they want to achieve when they have not attended prestigious universities like Oxford, Harvard, or Yale?" ZeroHedge on April 1 = HuffNPuffPost, Daily"ScrewEm"Kos, or Democrappic Underpants the other 365 days of the year (since 2012 is a leap year).

  • Facebook, according to some sources, may be considering adding a "Hate" button. Truth here, people: Wouldn't you buy that one at a black-market price right now?

  • From the IETF, we have two new standards: RFC 6592, "The Null Packet," and RFC 6593, "Service Undiscovery Using Hide-and-Go-Seek for the Domain Pseudonym System." This is a longstanding tradition, and I'm pleased to see it has continued.

On a sad note, April 1 marks the end of Francis W. Porretto's long-running conservative blog Eternity Road, due to various technical difficulties and "personality differences with his Webmistress." However, he continues blogging, for the present, at Liberty's Torch. Make sure and follow him there.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

  • Angry Birds, well known as the hottest mobile game in the history of ever, is now taking over a theme park...or at least a part of Särkänniemi Amusement Park in Tampere, Finland. Playset manufacturer Lappset Ltd. of Rovaniemi is working on the equipment for Angry Birds Land.  Will it finally be the site of an historic peace treaty between the birds and pigs? Don't bet on it...

  • Speaking of gaming, Ars Technica notes that Microsoft will be increasing the number of achievements and Gamerscore points that Arcade titles are permitted to hand out, and wonders if we're on the verge of Gamerscore hyperinflation. Not that it really means anything; M$ could change the name of the Gamerscore to "E-peen" and it would probably better define what it actually amounts to.

  • ESR went to check out the new movie John Carter, and he actually liked it. He says it sticks pretty well to the flavor of the Burroughs original, and where it deviates is either a nod to present-day movie conventions (e.g. giving Dejah Thoris the "Arwen treatment" ) or actually improves things (replacing the handwave over how John Carter actually got to Mars with some actual plot, including a possible sequel hook). This one might be worth seeing in 3-D IMAX "Holy-Shit-o-Vision"...

  • Crappy customer service is almost legendary across multiple industries, but here are some shining counterexamples. Note especially the one from Southwest Airlines. Damn contact lenses are bugging me again... ;-)

  • Alan Skorkin gives us the main reason why you suck at interviews. There's plenty of helpful tips in here for developers looking to ace their next interview. Not that I need this advice at the moment, deus volent.

  • Remember I mentioned Pivotal Labs not long ago? Well, EMC just bought them. Om Malik speculates it's a move by EMC to take agile development to the enterprise. Wonder how that'll affect their pair programming?

  • The recently-announced tablet that runs KDE Plasma, formerly known as "Spark," has been renamed to "Vivaldi." Now that's a classy name. Besides, I think I'd be a little leery of using a tablet with a name that represents pretty much exactly what you don't want a tablet to do.

  • So you say to me, "Erbo, is flamenco guitar metal?" And I reply: Yes. Flamenco guitar is f**king METAL. \m/ (Hat tip: The guy behind the counter at Tradesmart over in Littleton, where I picked up an Epica CD and a Within Temptation CD I'd been looking for.)

  • Of course, I have declared a number of other things to be f**king METAL on Facebook, such as harps, violins, Harry Potter, grand pianos, clarinets, flutes, and woodwinds, and Christmas music (another example). \m/

  • And where is the most metal place on earth?  If you said "Finland," DING DING DING DING DING. (Via JWZ)

  • Dave Winer sums up what he sees as the Republican philosophy: "1. My money is mine. 2. Fuck you." And just what the hell is wrong with that, Dave? Don't you believe your money is yours? If not, I'll be happy to take it off your hands, right here, right now! ;-)

  • Research in Motion, the blackberry people, are going to give up on most consumer markets and concentrate on their business customers. Well, business is where CrackBerry is strongest, so that kinda makes sense. But opinions are mixed. ESR thinks that RIMM has opened itself up to imminent disruption from the low end and the company is on the skids; Karl Denninger, on the other hand, is happy that RIMM's new CEO seems to have pulled his head out of his ass, and has bought in as a bit of a punt. Time will tell which of them is right.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Over on Facebook, this little bit of feel-good liberal wankery is circulating: (transcribed)

Don't pump gas on April, 15 2012 [sic]

KEEP SENDING THIS Lets [sic] all try this, wonderful if it helps.

Il [sic] do it! If running low, just get your gas the day before on April 14 or the day after on April 16. Every little bit helps.

In April 1997, there was a "gas out" conducted nationwide in protest of gas prices. Gasoline prices dropped 30 cents a gallon overnight.

On April 15th 2011, all internet users are to not go to a gas station in protest of high gas prices. Gas is now over $1.20 a liter/$3.87 in most places.

If all users did not go to the pump on the 15th, it would take $2,292,000,000.00 (that's almost 3 BILLION) out of the oil companies [sic] pockets for just one day, so please do not go to the gas station on April 15th and let's try to put a dent in the Middle Eastern oil industry for at least one day.

How quaint...a boycott of gasoline, on Tax Day (or, for some, Buy a Gun Day), no less. Of course, if you do as they say and tank up on the 14th or the 16th, the oil companies will still get their money, as this MSNBC article debunking the whole concept tells us. The article's author points out that Department of Energy statistics show no evidence for the massive drop in gas prices in 1997 the aforementioned spam claims. (Given MSNBC's well-known liberal bias, the fact that they'd run this article is telling.)

As for myself...well, I only generally fill up once a week, so there's a 86% chance I won't be buying gas on April 15th, "boycott" or no. But, if I have to fill up that day, I won't let some anonymously-circulated, semiliterate piece of liberal propaganda stand in the way of my having a working car. Funny how, you know, having an actual job that you have to get to on a daily basis changes your perspective on this, now, doesn't it?

Now, if the liberals are reading this, they would probably say something like, "Well, why don't you just take the bus/light rail/bicycle to work?" Sure, I could do that...except that any of those solutions would take at least twice as long, and maybe three times as long or longer, as driving myself. My time is a valuable resource, too, you know! I have chosen one of the classic tradeoffs of money (in the form of gas) for time here...and if you know anything about engineering, you'll know it's all about tradeoffs.

(Speaking to bicycling in particular, I have hard numbers on this from Google Maps. My home to IQNavigator is 7.3 miles over surface streets, i.e., not on I-25. They time that route as 20 minutes by car...and 54 minutes by bicycle. I'd be spending over an hour a day extra if I tried to commute by that route...a full 1/24th of my precious life's hours. Remember, folks, you can frequently make more money, but, no matter how rich you are, there are still only 24 hours per day. Puts it in perspective, doesn't it?)

. . .

There's one aspect of that little missive that does potentially have a point...the point about the "Middle Eastern oil industry."

Why do we bring in all that oil from the Middle East, anyway? Could it be because the liberal envirowackos--the same kind of well-meaning fools who are circulating the "Don't Pump Gas" screed--have, through their wholly-owned subsidiary the National Socialist Democrat Workers' Party, made it damn near impossible to drill for oil in this country? Colorado, for instance, has an awful lot of oil shale out on the Western Slope...and, if it were allowed to be extracted, not only would it keep us from having to import as much oil from overseas, the royalties from oil production would go a long way towards shoring up the state's budget woes. (Not that we want to encourage the clown car we call "the General Assembly" to spend more money, mind you...)

Instead, we trade off drilling here for drilling there...and any environmental damage that might happen as a result happens to "the little brown people" in Saudi Arabia, etc., not us. And they get the money, too...which they, in turn, spend on terrorist groups that would like to see us wiped off the face of the Earth.


. . .

But it doesn't have to be this way...and, if you read Karl Denninger (and if you don't, why the hell not?!?), you'll know there's a way forward.

Did you know that the United States has even more in the way of coal reserves than we do in oil? And did you know that one of the primary impurities in coal is thorium? And did you know that thorium can be used as fuel in nuclear reactors--reactors of a vastly different type than we have now?

Liquid fluoride thorium reactors (LFTRs) are not new; the technology behind them was successfully demonstrated at Oak Ridge Laboratories in the 1960's. The only reason we didn't pursue them back then was that they breed fuel very slowly, and the fuel they produce is very difficult to extract for making nuclear weapons. Sounds like a big plus in this day and age, doesn't it?

LFTRs are also inherently safer than other nuclear reactors. The reactor does not require high pressure; the fluid it uses is a liquid at atmospheric pressure and its normal operating temperature. The reactor literally cannot suffer a Fukushima-type meltdown, as there are no fuel rods to melt down; the fuel and the coolant are the same fluid, circulating through the fixed moderators in the reactor core vessel. This fluid is kept in the reactor by an actively-cooled "freeze plug"; if the reactor loses power, the plug melts, and the fluid drains out of the core into holding tanks below, where it cools and solidifies, as it cannot maintain criticality outside the reactor vessel. They tested this safety feature of LFTRs at Oak Ridge, too--they literally turned off the power and went home for the weekend!

LFTRs also operate at a much higher temperature than regular reactors, around 650 degrees Fahrenheit. This has several advantages; for one, we can use air-cooled combined-cycle generating turbines, for instance, instead of water-cooled Rankine-cycle turbines that require access to large amounts of water. But the big advantage is that we can tap that process heat directly--and use it to run the Fischer-Tropsch process, to convert the coal we extracted the thorium fuel from into synthetic petroleum. This is also not new technology; the Germans were using it in World War II, and the process has been refined (no pun intended) somewhat since then.

By many estimates, the potential energy in the thorium impurities in coal amounts to thirteen times the amount of energy we could get from just burning the coal. So why do we still burn it?

Instead, we could take that coal, extract the thorium, use it to run LFTRs, and use the heat generated by the LFTRs both to run turbines to generate electricity, and to run the Fischer-Tropsch process to convert the remaining coal into petroleum. We could literally replace all our gasoline and diesel fuel requirements this way, ending imports of foreign oil. A second-order effect of this is that we could shrink our military expenditures, as a large portion of our military power goes into making sure we have access to foreign oil. We might be able to cut the amount we need to spend on the military in half this way.

In addition, this way, we don't have to replace our fleet of cars and trucks with hybrids, electric cars, cars that run on hydrogen and/or ethanol, etc. Despite any faults, liquid hydrocarbons are still the most effective fuel for mobile use that we have, both in terms of energy density (both per-unit mass and per-unit volume) and in terms of the energy and expenditures required to make the propulsion systems (internal-combustion engines vs. battery packs, etc.). But, though we're still "burning" our coal, in the form of synthetic petroleum, we're not burning the oil we would have imported but aren't any longer! So we're getting both electricity and transportation, but we're doing it with only half the carbon emissions as before (approximately). Put it that way, and I don't see why the Glowbull Wormening fanatics aren't all over this plan!* (Nuclear waste, you say? LFTRs produce a hell of a lot less waste than other nuclear reactors...they tend to "burn up" their own waste over time, and the fuel/coolant mix can be continuously reprocessed without producing weaponizable byproducts.)

We also wind up with dramatically more electrical power than we would have had by burning the coal--and that's after taking into account the energy expenditures required to produce the synthetic petroleum. So there'd be plenty of energy available to charge up electric cars, or electrolyze water into hydrogen, if you still wanted an electric or hydrogen car for some reason. More energy available equals more economic output...equals more prosperity.

How long could we sustain this, with our proven coal reserves? At least two centuries, even accounting for population growth and assuming no drop in per-capita energy use. At our rate of technological progress, we'll have figured out hydrogen fusion in far less time. (Hell, Star Trek: Enterprise posits that we'll have warp drive before then. I wouldn't go that far, but we're certainly not just going to stand still.)

There are engineering challenges to be solved along this path, to be sure. But no breakthroughs of technology are required, just refinements on what we already know. We can make this work, and do so at a reasonably-competitive price. We can have vastly more energy, keep our cars, and go tell the "weird beards" of the Middle East that they can damned well drink their oil...but, if they try any more shenanigans with us, the retribution that will follow will rank among the great retributions of human history.

What's the tradeoff? Mostly, we have to have the political will to do it...and that means potentially pissing off not only the aforementioned envirowacko contingent, but those companies that are already making comfortable money off the existing energy non-policy. (I'd say, get them on the same side by letting them run the reactors...there'd be profit to be made there.)

Unfortunately, that's a tradeoff our spineless, gutless politicians on both sides of the aisle are unwilling to make.

(Go search Denninger's site for "thorium," "LFTR," or "energy." He's written a lot more about this, that defies easy summary.)

* - Actually, I do.  This plan doesn't allow them to redistribute the wealth of the world from "evil" countries like the United States to all those "deserving poor" elsewhere, while skimming off any amount they like to enrich themselves, and exercising all the political power that goes with it.  But that's kind of beside the point.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Every once in awhile, since I'm known to be a metal fan out there on the Internets (No!! Really??), I get "picked up" by bands on Twitter, YouTube, or whereever, looking to gain popularity, fans, or maybe some free publicity. Some of those bands are really, really good. One of those really, really good bands is from the Land Down Under: Divine Ascension.

More on their story below the fold.

[Read More]
Tuesday, March 6, 2012

  • Seems that Facebook has been claiming that people's friends are playing games they're not actually playing. I've noticed this issue first-hand. Sabrina asked me why I was playing a specific game on Facebook; I checked, and I had blocked that game entirely. (I block most games on Facebook routinely. It's nothing personal.) I put it down to Facebook having more bugs than a bait store...but guys, you might just want to slip a user story into your next iteration for this.

  • More innovation from the Finns: they have an "Open Ministry" (Avoin ministeriö) Web site launching soon where anyone can propose a new law or initiative, and, if it's popular enough, the Parliament has to take it up. You'd expect this sort of thing in Finland, where Internet access is practically a way of life; in some respects, this is one of those "Oh, they're only doing this now?" moments.

  • And, while I was over on the Helsingin Sanomat Web site, I spotted the news item that Tarja Halonen has stepped down as President of Finland, ending a 12-year term. In the United States, Halonen is most noted for her resemblance to talk-show host Conan O'Brien; Conan has created political ads for her (getting mention on US news channels!) and even traveled to Finland (report in Finnish, from MTV3). I think everybody got a good laugh out of that. In the meantime, Halonen's record as President has been exemplary; I trust she will enjoy a well-deserved retirement.

  • For some perspective on why Finland is so awesome, this piece by Chris Byrne is a good overview. The cartoon is priceless, as is this advice: "Never drink with a Finn, unless you feel like getting in a friendly knife fight. No seriously, there will be a knife fight, or at the very least a rock or iceball fight, but it will be friendly. You'll only be cut up a little bit and then everyone will go back and drink some more...Unless you're a Russian in which case you'll end up wearing your testicles as earrings."

  • Why does everyone hate jury duty? Professor Bainbridge offers up a laundry list of reasons. Via Glenn Reynolds, who adds "I think it's a matter of respect, ultimately. The jury is supposed to be coequal with the judge, but they treat you like cattle instead." Ask Sabrina what she thinks about jury duty...and better not have anything else scheduled for awhile; a rant like hers takes time to fully appreciate.

  • Research is being conducted into the use of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to improve learning; if this writer's report is to be believed, what it does is help silence all those inner voices of self-doubt and let you get on with the business of learning. "What would a world look like in which we all wore little tDCS headbands that would keep us in a primed, confident state, free of all doubts and fears? Wouldn't you wear the shit out of that cap?" I think we all would. (Via JWZ, who refers to it as a "tasp." Slightly incorrect terminology, though; a Niven tasp stimulates the brain's pleasure centers wirelessly, from a distance. A closer term might be "droud," which is the device that wireheads use that regulates the current into their brains, also from Niven's work.)

  • Jon Evans, posting on TechCrunch, takes the knife to one of Extreme Programming's sacred cows: "Pair Programming Considered Harmful?" Some shops, like Pivotal Labs, live and breathe pair programming (as I learned at their session at Mile High Agile 2011); they likely won't think much of this article. However, the article suggests that developers are more productive when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption; Joel Spolsky and Fog Creek Software would agree heartily with this assessment. A mixture of both approaches is what Evans advocates; at IQNavigator, we kind of do this, employing pairing when it makes sense to do so and working solo when it doesn't. (The fact that our workstations are actually laptops, which can be undocked and taken elsewhere at need, helps facilitate this.)

  • Six words: " has come to this."

  • Warning: Do not watch this video without having taken your blood pressure medicine first, and secure all firearms and heavy objects near the computer before playing. I'll just say this: "Nuke 'em till they glow, and shoot 'em in the dark. With bullets dipped in pig fat." (Via LCBrendan at Misha's place)

  • Here in Denver, we have a local traffic reporter named--I am not making this up, as Dave Barry says--"Amelia Earhart." And yes, she is a relative of the famous aviatrix. And she's a pilot herself, training to do what her famous relative attempted: fly around the world, in her Cirrus SR-22T. Here's her blog about the effort. Clear skies to you, ma'am!

  • Astrophysicist Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson was asked what the most astounding fact was that he could share about the Universe. In this video, he gives his answer: That the atoms of our bodies were once part of stars themselves, that while we are in the universe, the universe is also inside us. Of course, as a Babylon 5 fan, I already knew this: "I will tell you a great secret, Captain. Perhaps the greatest of all time. The molecules of your body are the same molecules that make up this station, and the nebula outside, that burn inside the stars themselves. We are starstuff, we are the universe, made manifest, trying to figure itself out." (Ambassador Delenn, episode "A Distant Star," season 2)

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Sabrina has a very nice article up about pets today, in which she talks about her cat Deamon, my late cat Miss Star Kitty, and our present cat, Her Serene Highness, Princess Penelope Ponderosa Pollyanna Peachfuzz ("Penny" to her hoomans). But "pets" doesn't necessarily mean "dogs" or "cats." Let me tell you about some of the non-traditional companion animals our family has had.

[Read More]
Thursday, March 1, 2012

"Sheila needs $60 to be able to see her cardiologist," said Sabrina, turning to me, having muted the microphone that was sending her words to Sheila via Skype.  "There's no way they can get that money.  Is there any way you--"

I thought for a minute, sipping at the remnants of the large Pepsi I'd brought home from Subway. "Don't we have to go out and look at Walmart for your books? What day do they come out?"

"The 28th..."

"Well, it's the 29th. Tell Sheila we'll be coming by on our way up to Westminster, to pick up that computer from her that I'm going to be working on." The machine had lost its video twice already, and probably needed a new motherboard at this point.  Which meant long, tedious hours to reinstall the operating system, but not for a couple days yet at least. "And then you might want to get dressed."

"I'll wear my new dress," Sabrina said, referring to the dress that she had literally just received from, after I'd placed the order over two weeks ago. It had to be shipped in from Germany, which accounted for the delay. "Sheila wants to see it."

She got ready as I slipped into the computer room, raised the lid on the Cr-48, and set up a transaction or two.  Not long after I finished, we were off.

I pulled in at the Creekside King Soopers on Leetsdale, because I knew there they had a FirstBank ATM where I could score the needful.  While I was there, I decided to toss in another wrinkle.  I rushed over to the aisle with the greeting cards and flipped through the "Get Well Soon" cards until I found a good, funny one, which I paid for at the self-scan registers.  Back in the car, Sabrina inscribed the card, then we tucked the three crisp $20s inside it before she sealed it up and wrote "Sheila" on the envelope, underlining it several times.

Of course, I went through downtown to get to the express lanes north, then carefully merged right to exit at Thornton Parkway and the drive to Sheila's place.  To say she was surprised with the card would be an understatement.

. . .

The computer tower in the trunk was accompanied by several bags from the Westminster Walmart.  We were taking it easy on the way back, driving down Sheridan Boulevard because we'd seen something going on on I-25 on the way up there, with only one lane getting by in the southbound direction.  (Accident? Construction? No way to tell.)  I had stopped at another Walmart further south, almost at US-36, to look for something I couldn't find at the first one.  As I returned to the car empty-handed, I heard Sabrina talking on the phone.  Whatever it was, it sounded serious.

"Sweetheart," she said, pulling the iPhone away from her face for a moment. "Jasmine is stuck over at the Walgreen's on Leetsdale. You know, the one where we get our meds? You think we can go get her and bring her back up to Sheila's place?"

She quickly explained. Jasmine was a friend of Sheila's who was eight months pregnant and had recently been kicked out of her apartment; she'd be staying with Sheila for a few days, then going home to her parents for a time.  Somehow, she was stranded down there, and no one else Sheila knew could get there to give her a ride.

"All right," I said. "I'm headed that way double-time." As I said so, I cut south on Sheridan to pick up the US-36 East onramp, headed for I-25 and a quick trip towards home.

En route, Sabrina got a phone call which, confusingly, said "Portland, ME" on the caller ID display.  The call turned out to be from Jasmine herself, who had made her way to a nearby friend's place.  She gave us the apartment complex name and unit number, and I had Sabrina Google it to get a definitive address and get a proper fix on it with the map. In the meantime, the route there was much like the route home, so it was no trick to get there quickly.

At the destination apartment complex, we were met by Jasmine and her friend, and we loaded Jasmine's possessions into the trunk and back seat.  Seeing how crowded she was, I made a quick stop by our home first, offloading the computer and Walmart bags and adjusting the rest of the load so she could have a more comfortable ride.  Then off we went to Sheila's again.

Once we got there, I helped offload Jasmine's belongings, helped get enough of her bedding inside to sleep (Sheila's son had graciously offered Jasmine the use of his room), and even got her charger plugged in to provide some power to her nearly-dead smartphone.  She was certainly in the best of hands when Sabrina and I left once more to head for home.

. . .

The way I look at it, I've accumulated a good amount of good karma this evening, first by helping Sheila, then by helping Jasmine.  That's good.  I have a feeling that, one day, I'm going to need all the good karma I can get, and then some.

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