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Thatcher's rants and musings 2003

A place for random thoughts that I must express, to no one in particular.


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1 Dec 2003

"The Democratic Party that I think should be leading the opposition has come down with a bad case of political laryngitis." -- Al Sharpton

Check out this handy list of reasons to like Sharpton (courtesy the RNC!) : http://www.rnc.org/Newsroom/RNCResearch/Research030303.htm


25 Nov 2003

This is terribly lame: apparently when you buy an iPod and try to install the software, Apple collects your name, address, email and phone number ("required fields"), and reserves the right to spam you:

"Apple may occasionally share your personal contact information with carefully selected technology companies, to keep you informed about related products and services."

From here: http://www.apple.com/legal/privacy/

Nice.


14 Sep 2003

Gross Stuff

I enjoy a good gross-out now and then. Catharsis maybe; I don't know. Anyway, last night I was surfing imdb (BTW the reader reviews on imdb are proof positive that, on average, people are idiots) and somehow came across a reference to Paul Newman's scene in Cool Hand Luke where he eats 50 eggs in an hour. Apparently there is some controversy about whether he actually did successfully perform that stunt in real life when filming the scene. I did a web search to see if I could find any definitive evidence (not really; mostly speculation on either side).

The great thing I did turn up is this incredible, and incredibly written, dog/prison/egg story (WARNING -- GROSS AND/OR SHOCKING!):

http://www.johndoe.org/cyrano/25june01.html

That might be the best thing I've read all year. It turns out this guy is a firefighter, and has a treasure trove of intense stories on his site, many having to do with rescue work and firefighting etc. Not everything did it for me, but some of it is great:

http://www.johndoe.org/cyrano/


25 Aug 2003

Spam

The latest batch of worms had been really annoying Julie & me. I have upped the ante on SpamAssassin though, so now most spam never even enters my ISP mailbox. If you get your mail via Pair Networks, it's pretty easy to do:

Ah...

A Little Rant On Security

Another thing on my mind is whether GNU/Linux users really do have a leg up on this security stuff. Obviously, we don't get infected with SoBig and the like. But, is that because Linux is inherently secure? Or is it just because comparatively, so few people run Linux, that a worm like that finds it hard to propagate? I think the answers are "Yes".

Yes, there are many fewer people who use Linux to read their mail, and there is a very wide variety of email clients that are used. So it would be relatively difficult for an email worm to multiply by targeting Linux machines.

On the other hand, it is emphatically not the case that Linux email is inherently immune from viruses or worms. All it takes is a buffer overflow in something that is used to process email. If I were trying to do this, I would focus on libjpeg, libpng and/or zlib. Or any number of other libraries that handle media files. Imagine an infected .jpg file that when viewed, could grab user rights on your machine. Stick the exploit in the "Why Brazil Beat Turkey" image that circulated after World Cup 02, and that could be pretty nasty.

Same thing applies to Flash animations, mpeg video and audio, etc. In fact I'm surprised those file types aren't targeted more heavily. I know the code that handles that stuff has bugs, and where there are bugs, there are probably some exploits.

And yes, while Linux isn't inherently immune to viruses, I'm convinced the overall code quality and susceptibility to exploits is far better than Windows. For one thing, Linux web servers do get attacked constantly, since there are a lot of them out there, and they are valuable hacker targets because they tend to be connected to lots of bandwidth. So there is a tremendous level of effort focused on reviewing Linux code and removing security holes.

There's the argument that proprietary code is better quality. But that argument is totally wrong. I've worked on proprietary code my entire career, and for the most part it's at least as crappy as the open source code I'm familiar with, and definitely doesn't get reviewed to the extent that open source code does. (Admittedly, I wrote a lot of the crappy code I've worked with, so maybe it's just me.)

So the nice thing for desktop Linux users is that the mechanisms for reviewing and updating server code also help fix application code. For example, I run Debian on my own machines, and Debian regularly issues security updates for everything, including games. The advisories show up on the same mailing list, right in there with Apache advisories. The same automated updating system that gets me new kernel patches and fixes to zlib covers all the software in the entire system.

This is light-years ahead of the situation on Windows. MS will only be able to equal this when they are in control of all Windows software distribution (which I gather is in their plans...).

On the downside, Debian is only the second most-popular Linux server OS (behind Red Hat), and it's probably further behind other distros among desktop users.


13 Aug 2003

Public Access TV

Julie has many complaints about the way I pilot the TV remote. One complaint in particular is that, left to my own devices, I will tend to watch hours of public-access TV just for the spectacle. Well, tonight I am left to my own devices, and true to form I watched a couple hours of "MVTV". It was indeed spectacular -- they showed a series of videos made by Vineyard kid and RISD student Tim Laursen, which were all hilarious and great. Especially "Bullies". I googled, and found some representative clips:

http://pages.emerson.edu/students/Timothy_Correira/tim/tim.html

Also this funny bio:

http://www.gowildisland.com/vineyardshorts/Tim%20Laursen/Tim_Laursen.htm


23 July 2003

Military Vehicles

So here's what I think: if you want to drive a Hummer around, say, Martha's Vineyard, then I should be allowed to shoot rocket-propelled grenades at you.


22 May 2003

Garbage Collection

I wrote a little rant here about garbage collection, i.e the problem of automatically reclaiming unused storage in a computer program, and then decided that's a little too nerdy for a general audience. If you're interested, here it is.


22 May 2003

Outlook Express

It's time to take Outlook Express, burn it up, and shoot it into space. It used to be pretty good, starting back when it was called "Internet Mail and News". It used the venerable standard mbox format, spoke basic POP3 and SMTP, had a simple, straightforward GUI, and was small and fast. It had some annoying things, like brain-dead line wrapping, and lack of some useful retrieval options. But you could tell that the developers also used it, and made sure that it wasn't too gratuitiously annoying.

Since then, it has exploded in popularity, and been incorporated into the embrace-and-strangulate MS marketing strategy. It's gotten both better and worse with each new revision. We got multiple account support, and gaping security holes. We got HTML support, and new fragile proprietary mailbox formats that couldn't be exported to other email clients.

A few years ago I saw the writing on the wall, and jumped ship. Since then I've used 'mutt' (see http://www.mutt.org/) for all personal mail, and lately for work email as well. mutt has a few annoying features as well (it's awkward to edit multiple emails at once), but overall it's God's gift to technical email users.

Unfortunately I haven't weaned Julie off of OE yet. Which means I have the recurring pleasure, a couple times a year, of backing up her message repository and moving it to a different machine (when we go back & forth between NY and Oak Bluffs).

This year, she's on OE 6, which apparently has an impressive new feature: it can't import messages from its OWN MAILBOX FORMAT! [Actually the problem was that it can't read from read-only files (!), for instance, in my case, backups on a CDR. Instead of giving an error message like "can't read from a read-only file", which is absurd enough, but at least helpful, it gives some generalized "can't deal with your database" message.]

This illustrates one reason I go out of my way to use free software: each new release of a free software package generally tries very hard not to annoy its current users. When the motivation for updates comes directly from user demand, the software tends to start modest, and slowly but surely get better, without changing things that already work fine. When a software package is updated in order to extend a lock-in (OE) or promote some other service (WinAMP), it tends to start out flashy and nice, but antagonize its users with each update. Sure there are exceptions, but this is the general trend I see.


15 May 2003

Caveman Diet

What did "cavemen" eat, and can I use that to reason about what I should eat? It helps to rephrase that as: what did our pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer ancestors eat? How much meat vs vegetable, what balance of carb/protein/fat?

There's a tremendous amount of rank speculation out there on this topic, and pretty much any other question relating to diet and food, and it's pretty hard to find anything resembling attributable hard facts. Not surprisingly there is scientific interest in this question; here's one interesting article:

Plant-animal subsistence ratios and macronutrient energy estimations in worldwide hunter-gatherer diets

My summary of this article: "Nobody has ever done a good direct measurement of the nutrient composition in hunter-gatherer diets in general, and furthermore there aren't any completely un-Westernized hunter-gatherer societies left on the earth that we can go study. Nevertheless, we will look at data from Murdock's Ethnographic Atlas and take some wild guesses."

Read the article if you want detailed results; it's pretty interesting. Then read this commentary:

Hunter-gatherer diets -- a different perspective

Basically the article authors argue that hunter-gatherers ate a lot of meat and fish on average, although not surprisingly their data has huge variance. The commentary, on the other hand, points out the myriad problems with trying to analyze diet using Ethnographic Atlas and then goes on to explode the "caveman diet" argument from an evolutionary perspective. Nutshell: we're decended from a very long line of herbivores/omnivores; the hunter-gatherer mode is relatively recent from an evolutionary perspective, and the diet of the hunter-gatherer mode is extremely variable but probably more plant-focused than the article suggests. I.e. we're very adaptable omnivores.

In that spirit, here's my non-scientific recommendation: eat a balanced diet, try to eat whole foods, get some damn exercise.


28 March 2003

Mentos

Apparently my GDC T-shirt is the freshmaker. This morning at Caruso's, the corner convenience store, the kid manning the counter looks at my shirt and says,

"Hey, are you a game developer?"

"Yes."

He reaches out to shake my hand: "That's so cool!" etc. Plus the inevitable, "So, how would someone get into that kind of work?"

"Um, you can study one of the specialties like programming or 3D modeling" (his eyes glaze over at the mention of the word 'specialties') "or some people get their start as testers." Not the answer he was looking for.

"But, aren't there some people who kind of think up ideas and make sure the pacing is good and that kind of thing?" (I.e. the game equivalent of "How do I get to be Steven Spielberg?") What I was thinking, but didn't say:

"Well, if you're really interested, I would recommend spending your youth tapping away at a keyboard and reading computer magazines and reading ahead in the calculus book and going to juggling club and basically being the biggest nerd on the block. But you look a little too well adjusted for that, so maybe the game industry isn't for you."

Anyway, he was nice and enthusiastic. I guess I can't complain about random adulation, it's just kind of funny.

So then this afternoon I'm walking the dog back from the dog park, and a van full of teenage Italian-American guys pulls up. "Hey guy! Come here, I gotta question for ya... ya want some speakers for your home?" "No thanks." I start to walk away, when the driver of the van, apparently the brains of the operation, shouts, "Hey, are you a game developer?" "Yes, I'm a programmer." "Get the f*** out of here!! That's awesome! What games have you done?" etc.


17 March 2003

Let's Talk About Me

I'm in Wired, see here: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/11.04/play.html

Dig the nautical theme. One of these days I'm going to write up some game-design notes, and I'll maybe talk a little bit about the 19th century whaling sim I've been pondering for a while now. (Which is a totally different game idea from the solar sailing thing.)


16 Feb 2003

Who Would Jesus Bomb?

Yesterday I went to the peace rally in NYC, with Julie and my sister Amy and some other friends. It was great to finally be surrounded by (hundreds of thousands of) people who were willing to stand up in the freezing cold (it was really cold!) and say “No War!”. A reaffirmation of sanity.

We took the 6 train uptown to 49th St, on a train packed with protesters. We arrived around noon, and slowly filed out onto Lexington Avenue, which was jam-packed with people. The offical rally was three blocks east, on First Ave. Apparently the police had closed off the streets leading to the rally site due to the extremely large crowd in the area. But there were still so many people left on Second, Third and Lexington Aves that they filled the streets and blocked all traffic. We never got any closer to the “official” rally than Third Ave, which had turned into an informal march. Over the next hour we moved northward for a dozen blocks with the mass of protesters filling the streets. At that point the cold got the better of us and we peeled off to get something to eat and go home.

The protesters were a fairly diverse bunch. There were a lot of activists who came in from out of town, but there were also a lot of average joes & janes. The mood where I was was peaceful and affable. People were politely obeying the police directions, and the police for their part were polite and friendly.

There were some good hand-made placards:

 


16 Jan 2003

What's wrong with the world

I did a bunch of reading in Jamaica. One of the things I read was Joseph Conrad: A Biography by Jeffrey Meyers. Honestly, it was kinda boring. Biography does that to me. But I'm a big Conrad fan so I stuck it out, and learned some interesting stuff. Among other things Meyer includes this excellent quote from Nostromo:

"There is no peace and no rest in the development of material interests. They have their law, and their justice. But it is founded on expediency, and is inhuman; it is without rectitude, without the continuity and the force that can be found only in a moral principle."


1 Jan 2003

Jamaica

Happy New Year!

Julie and I just got back from vacation in Jamaica. We stayed in "Treasure Beach", which is a conglomeration of small fishing villages on the South Coast, at a fabulous guest house called Siwind. While we were there, I helped create a web site for Siwind, along with Julie, Evelyn and Michel (a couple of German guests we met there), and Celeste (property manager). Check it out; all the photos were taken during our week there. If you want to get reeaaaallly relaxed, I highly recommend Treasure Beach, Jamaica in general, and Siwind in particular.

Some impressions of Jamaica:

 


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