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Thatcher's rants and musings 2005
1 Dec 2005
The Power of Cheese
I have a simple recipe for killing mice:
1. Start with lots of mice. Our household is currently weathering a flurry of mouse activity, so we've got that covered.
2. Buy some ordinary mousetraps. The kind made of a piece of wood and some wire, invented like 100 years ago.
3. Bait with a little cheddar. I started with peanut butter, but the mice around here seem to greatly prefer cheese.
4. Place them somewhere the mice frequent, but the dog can't get to.
5. Wait a couple hours. Results:
Speaking of the dog, you might think Pokey would clear out the mice on her own. After all, she's OBSESSED with slightly larger rodents like squirrels, rats and bunnies. She sits at home bored most of the day. She'll eat practically anything that's gross, and dead mice certainly qualify. In the house though, it seems she is afraid of mice!
6 Nov 2005
Textweb does Atom
Textweb can now generate Atom XML feeds of blog-like content. For example, here's this blog rendered as Atom.
29 Oct 2005
Hazel has reached an important developmental milestone: TV obsesssion. Up til now she's been curiously resistant to heavy TV watching -- she would pay rapt attention to five or ten minutes of Teletubbies, but then wander off to do something else. This has been an extra burden on our babysitting duties, but on the other hand she's always been an exceptionally good sleeper.
I was beginning to worry about the TV thing. But the tide shifted this week, culminating in today's bonanza -- she somehow managed to squeeze in at least four fully attentive viewings of the Baby Einstein "Shapes" video, and one or two Dora episodes, in addition to tolerating the miscellaneous news and E! True Hollywood Story her parents are addicted to.
The dreaded sports blog, I'll try to keep it short. The New England Revolution made a rousing comeback to win their first-round playoff series against NY/NJ. The Revs dropped the first game 1-0, so they had to win today by two goals to take the series. They went down 1-0 again, early in the second half, but Jose Cancela came off the bench and rescued the team with a goal and an assist. The Revs ended up winning the game 3-1, and the series 3-2.
I wonder if Cancela will start the next game. He ought to; since Daniel Hernandez displaced him, the team hasn't been as good, IMHO. Hernandez is a good player, but I think his strengths are too redundant with Shalrie Joseph's.
16 Sep 2005
LuaJIT is very interesting -- it's a just-in-time compiler for Lua, courtesy Mike Pall. It's very small, like Lua. Based on feedback from the Lua mailing list, it's very robust and fast as well. If you're planning to embed a scripting language in a PC game, this tips the balance heavily in favor of Lua, IMO. It's only for x86 so far though. But Mike claims it's not hard to add new backends.
25 Aug 2005
The Psychology Of Computer Programming
I just read this book, by Gerald Weinberg, originally published in 1971 or so. It's considered a classic, but I'm not sure I recommend it. Peopleware by DeMarco and Lister is denser, more entertaining, and more up-to-date, so read that instead. I found this one very slow going at the beginning, and kind of windy throughout.
I learned a few interesting things though.
For example, he talks a lot about the dynamics of batch processing, from back in the day when programmers would submit a punchcard deck to a machine operator, and come back hours or days later for a printout.
Apparently, intensive code reviews were typical for corporate coding teams in the batch days -- it was just something you logically did if you wanted to be productive, since the smallest syntax error would sabotage a whole batch run. So coders learned to read programs, and code got reviewed.
It seems that interactive timesharing and the PC era more or less killed off that tradition of code reviews, and so the younger generation has had to rediscover its benefits.
There are some miscellaneous factoids and principles from psychology, some of which are pop psychology by now:
There's some reasonable stuff about scheduling and tradeoffs and communicating with management. There are a few corny jokes and dated stories about miniskirts I found amusing.
13 Aug 2005
Today's Ups And Downs
Shoddy Embedded Software
The sloppy reliability of PC software is invading the embedded world. Things in my life that spontaneously stop working, but can be fixed by a power-cycle (i.e. physically pulling the plug), include:
Embedded developers, here is my advice:
30 July 2005
I just finished two weeks of jury duty, on an actual trial. I'd never been selected for a trial before. I found it partly interesting, but mostly excruciatingly boring. The thing is, the case was just not dramatic -- a civil matter involving an accidental warehouse fire on the Brooklyn waterfront, that consumed about a million bucks worth of cocoa beans imported from Cote d'Ivoire. The insurance company for the cocoa trader accused the warehouse managers and the warehouse landlord of negligence. The fact that the cargo was destined for chocolate bars was the most appealing part of the whole affair, but that wore off after a day or two of mind-numbing testimony.
The legal process was interesting to see though. We got to see the rules of evidence in action, and a parade of characters giving differently-skewed versions of the same events. In the end, I think we gave the right verdict: the negligence of the defendants substantially contributed to the fire. Welders repairing the warehouse at the time probably caused the fire by a carelessly discarded cigarette. The landlord's supervision and oversight of the work was shoddy at best, and the warehouse management wasn't paying much attention either.
The main defense attorney's opening and closing arguments were classic examples of asserting the opposite of the truth. He said the plaintiff's case was smoke and mirrors and we should be skeptical; unfortunately that was a bad strategy for him: when we applied the same skepticism to both sides, the defense was far shakier.
The defense attorney may have believed what he was saying, and he certainly wanted us to believe it, so he wasn't being intentionally ironic. But I notice the pattern more and more -- when somebody is trying to convince you of something, the opposite of what they're saying is often a pretty good hypothesis. Is there a word for this pattern? Maybe "doublespeak". Examples:
13 July 2005
The Terrorists Are Winning
In last week's New Yorker, Jane Mayer writes about our prison camp in Guantanamo Bay. The article is print only, but there is an online interview about it here: http://www.newyorker.com/online/content/articles/050711on_onlineonly01
Reportedly, the US Government has been torturing and abusing prisoners there for the past several years, with explicit approval from the Secretary of Defense and the White House legal department. We have used techniques such as:
These could be straight out of Solzhenitsyn's book The Gulag Archipelago, that chronicles the atrocities committed by the Soviets in prison camps following WWII. See this excerpt, for example: http://18.104.22.168/article9236.htm
(In another parallel to the Soviet Gulags, many of those imprisoned are innocent of any crimes against us. E.g. see this LA Times article from 2002.)
To the above forms of torture, we have added our own particular innovation: "scientific" reverse-engineering, by medical and psychiatric personnel in our military, of anti-torture training conducted by our military. In other words, our military has a program to train our own soldiers and pilots to resist interrogation in case of capture, essentially by conducting some of the above types of torture under controlled conditions, and measuring the results. The twist is, some of the scientists involved with this program have been using their data and experience in this program to help devise interrogation techniques to use against prisoners at Guantanamo.
Because we've been torturing these prisoners at Guantanamo, they can never be prosecuted through our real legal system, no matter what their crimes might have been and what evidence we have against them. As far as I know there are only two possible outcomes for such a prisoner:
I'm not sure what else to say about this, hyperbole does not do it justice. We, as Americans, cannot claim that we don't know that this is wrong. The various legalistic arguments used so far by our government to justify it don't stand up to reality. All I can think is, our system is cracking -- we are helping the terrorists beat us.
23 June 2005
The Pragmatic Programmer
Lots of people love this book. I just finished reading it. Actually I skimmed it -- I didn't find much to disagree with, but on the other hand I didn't find much that surprised or excited me. Notes:
A good gamedev practice is to have an easy-to-use system for tweaking live parameters in the running system. People do it with heads-up-displays, command-line consoles, GUI widgets, both local and remote. For a long time I've been meaning to code up a reusable one for tu-testbed, using a custom GUI treeview talking to the game via a socket. I realized today what I really want to do is make the game a webserver, and use a browser as the remote tweaker app. It should be possible to make a good web interface for tweaking, and it nicely eliminates the problems of client platform dependence, building a good communication protocol, and coding the client. Props to The Pragmatic Programmer for reminding me that this is handy.
15 June 2005
What I've been up to lately:
10 May 2005
Suggested License Plate Caption
California: It's Still Shiny.
25 April 2005
Zipcar: The Big Lie
So the thing they didn't tell me before I signed up for Zipcar is that I cannot get a car in NYC on the weekend. The nearest unreserved Zipcar this Saturday is 60 miles away, in Princeton, NJ! Same story for the next EIGHT Saturdays!
Well OK then, I guess it's back to AVIS.
8 April 2005
I guess there's no spring this year. One day it's freezing rain, then we have one perfect day, and the next day its that old familiar sticky/muggy feeling.
I'm developing sidewalk rage. Why do so many people walk so slowly???
31 Mar 2005
Charles reports that Oddworld has ceased game production operations (See entry for 3/30/05). I haven't announced it here before, but I left Oddworld (and the game industry) last month for unrelated reasons, so this doesn't directly affect me. Still, this is a big disappointment. The Stranger engine is good, and would have been a great base for more games. It's obviously going to be a big disruption for current Oddworld employees. I don't really know anything more than what's in Charles' note and the gamespy article, so it's hard to draw any firm conclusions about why this happened.
Oddworld was a great job for me; I learned a ton and it was a really good team. I think it was one of the better-run game companies around.
I'm becoming ever more cynical about commercial game development of any scale though. I think innovation is games is more likely to come from amateurs than from anyone else.
17 Mar 2005
I participated in IGJ3 a couple weeks ago (official site at http://indiegamejam.com but stuff from this year hasn't been added yet). This year the theme was, "People Interacting" (or something like that), and we had access to The Sims (version 1) character models, textures and animations, which was amazing. We also had some great voice acting & extra sound support this year. (The sound in previous years has been great too, but this year we had more personal and it got more elaborate.) The theme proved to be a challenge. The crew and space were larger this year, but it seemed like there were fewer playable games at the end of it. Personally I got badly bogged down in tweaking animation/pathfinding, and didn't have a nominally playable demo until mid-day on Sunday, which means my game isn't a game, more of a very rough sketch.
A bunch of people finished and did cool stuff. Ranjit stole the show with a "Waiting For Godot" game, with inspired (non-)gameplay. cbloom did a hilarious "The Office"/"Office Space" kind of Software Manager game. Chris Butcher did a slick/creepy High School social status sim. Etc.
I have lots more to say about IGJ3. I'll probably post again when the official site gets updated.
21 Feb 2005
Sunja's Radish Kimchee
This stuff is insanely delicious! Made in Vermont. I get it at Whole Foods. Although, as Julie will attest, the smell it leaves behind is a cross between sewer leak and dead rodent.
17 Feb 2005
Nighttime is the Right Time for The Gates
A couple of good developments:
Last night for a few minutes, in the streetlights and moonlight, a few stars out, no helicopters, no pleats, a good breeze going and nobody around, the gates finally looked beautiful.
14 Feb 2005
The Gates are disappointing. The scale is more redundant than impressive or transcendent. The color is ugly, except in certain wind/light conditions. People say it looks like a construction site, and people are right. The regular, mechanical looking pleats are ugly. When the fabric is billowing in the wind, the color improves and the pleats disappear, so that's good. Unfortunately the fabric seems to be too heavy; mostly it just hangs there. The other problem with the billowing is that it becomes apparent how short the drapes are, relative to the gates themselves, and it looks kind of pathetic.
If I were Christo or Jeanne-Claude, I would be deeply depressed right about now.
The concept is exciting, the logistics are flawless, and I really want to be moved, but it's just not happening on the level I was hoping for. So far I've gotten the most enjoyment under these conditions:
The Gates might look good at night, with less color perception, maybe I'll try that.
12 Feb 2005
Unfurling The Gates
They're dropping the drapes right now... I took a few photos while walking Pokey. I have a couple initial thoughts:
8 Feb 2005
Today (hm, or yesterday I guess) workers started putting up Christo & Jeanne-Claude's "The Gates" project in Central Park. Like many other Christo projects past, the concept seems kind of goofy. The dark gray bases and cheesy orange markers have been in the park for weeks now, with no apparent progress. But now that the gates are going up, walking around and seeing the massive scale of it, I think that when they unfurl the fabric, it will be AMAZING!!!
1 Feb 2005
Game Developer Union
A Game Developer's Union is a concept that comes up now and then. It'll never fly as long as it's called a "union"; most developers are too young, libertarian and macho for that. But call it a "guild" instead, make up some members-only shwag like logo-stamped pewter mead flagons and chainmail T-shirts, and it would have a chance...
31 Jan 2005
Tuffy updates on my fonts page.
31 Jan 2005
More Transit Links
"Automated Highway System" seems to be the official buzzword in the transit field, for schemes along the lines of driverless taxis. Unfortunately Congress killed the promising US program in 1998, but academia, California and/or France may be filling the gap.
Michel Parent on Automated Public Vehicles INRIA seems to be onto something, as usual.
Steven Shladover, "What If Cars Could Drive Themselves?" This is about automation of highway driving, a step in the right direction.
25 Jan 2005
The Work Of Director Spike Jonze
A friend gave us the The Work Of Director Spike Jonze DVD, which we have been enjoying. It's mostly music videos, Weezer and the Beastie Boys and Fatboy Slim and such. Most of these videos are new to me -- at the time they were being produced I didn't have cable, nor much interest in MTV.
There is incredible stuff in here. I love Jonze's intuition in interpreting the meaning of the songs. The flaming man running down Sunset Blvd is a perfect emotional translation of Wax's "California". The Torrance Community Dance Troupe performing their hearts out to cheesy Fatboy Slim pop. The dog-faced boy out on a Saturday night, with boombox playing French house music. Weezer performing in Arnold's Drive In.
In my dreams, I am the kind of game designer that Spike Jonze is as a movie director. Unfortunately, nobody (least of all, me) is that kind of game designer yet, because of the damn technology, and the way the market and the industry operate. We don't have the game-development equivalent of the camcorder yet.
25 Jan 2005
More On Cars
Last time I spewed uninformed speculation about car alternatives. Later I did some research. Here's a great website in case you want actual expert opinions on advanced transportation: Innovative Transportation Technologies @ U of Washington
Here's a good overview paper by that site's maintainer, J.B. Schneider, Emerging Auto-Competitive Transit Technologies: A Brief Review
Basically he says the three leading contenders are:
They all sound pretty neat. Driverless taxis have similarities to all of these. I think driverless taxis will beat all of them to wide scale adoption, because they avoid the high cost & political coordination of building a whole infrastructure of special new tracks.
18 Jan 2005
Terrapass For a few bucks a year, you can clean up after your car! This beats the crap out of buying a hybrid, in terms of effectiveness. (Disclaimer: this is another of my brother Karl's ventures.)
Cars, even perfectly clean ones, still suck, for lots of reasons. Sprawl, noise, dirt, traffic, collisions, breakdowns, road rage, alienation, dog incompatibility (by that I mean, cars kill unleashed dogs), etc.
If we could just get rid of cars, the world would be so much nicer. The only problem is, cars are fantastic transportation. There is really no comparable replacement. (A car is also a good substrate for a bumper-sticker, a handy place to stash dirty clothes or a toolbox, and a real nice vocal booth for diva practice, but presumably we could find good alternatives for those uses.)
Anyway, we seem to be stuck with cars. If petroleum disappeared tomorrow, there would of course be a bad economic crash, coinciding with a mad scramble to run cars on something other than gasoline. In a few years we'd all be driving battery/plutonium/rubber-band/whatever cars.
Manhattan is an interesting example of the impossibility of replacing cars wholesale. It's dense, fairly small and flat, there's good public transit everywhere -- in short, it's the perfect test case for a car-free city. Many Manhattanites do in fact not own cars. But, nevertheless:
So, is the world forever doomed to sprawl and traffic? I hope not. Some of my random ideas:
3 Jan 2005
Sunday Night At The Movies
SNATM rides again. Actually I've been back on the Sunday movie wagon for over a year now. I've revived another tradition, the movie reviews page.
3 Jan 2005
We gave some money to Doctors Without Borders. Julie trusts them and thinks they're relatively efficient. If you're wondering who to send money to, I think they are a good option.
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