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30 December 2008
Flingers: Flower Defense for Android
I got an Android G1 phone recently. I was not super pleased with the selection of games on it, though there are a couple standouts. Having the hardware made me really want to write something for it. I have been pleased with Android as a game development platform -- the API is pretty easy to use, it has a very nice 2D graphics API, the G1 has lots of facilities like a good screen, vibrate, touch input, accelerometer, etc. The only thing I'm not wild about is having to write in Java, though coming from C++ it isn't too hard to adjust to and it does work OK.
Anyway, even in its very rough state, the game is on the Android Market and tons of people are playing it. Pretty cool.
24 December 2008
What is it about people from the South when they get to New York City? Suddenly they're stealthy line cutters! Earlier in the week I was getting on the Amtrak at Penn Station, laden with two bags, a rolling suitcase, a ballon animal, Hazel's coat, and Hazel. These two chatting middle aged ladies kept trying to creep around me to get ahead in the line. It wasn't one of those ambiguous situations, they were just cutting, which became very apparent when one of their rolly suitcases got hung up behind on my rolly suitcase. The lady said something like "Sorry, I'm not trying to get ahead of you!" I said something like "OK." And then she proceeded to try to get ahead of me. I didn't particularly care who was first so I didn't dispute her obvious lie. She eventually succeeded in pushing her way ahead. What's up with that?
Oh by the way: peace on Earth, goodwill to men.
7 December 2008
Technologies That Have Eaten Java's Lunch
The Java phenomenon is amazing to me. The thing that gets me about Java is how thoroughly Sun managed to create opportunities, and then squander them. To be fair, Java does yet enjoy a strong market position in server-side web apps, cellphones, and programming education. But it has utterly failed to capitalize in other areas. Java started out extremely hot back in 1995, both marketing-wise and technology-wise. It's easy to be cynical about the technology, given the extreme level of hype at the time, but in my opinion Java actually was pretty nice and a breath of fresh air.
And yet the monumental failures include:
It didn't have to be that way. Take for example this amazing Java bug report, "Common DOM implementation is severely deficient" filed in March 2008. Sun could have filed and fixed the same exact bug a decade ago, and AJAX would never have been needed to be invented.
A successor to C++ for general-purpose coding. C# and .NET are busy trying to win here, although it's not entirely clear that they will. Meanwhile C++ is still going strong, and previously toy languages like Python and Ruby are squeezing Java from other direction.
"Write-once-run-anywhere" client apps. I think the main problem here is that generic cross-platform GUIs tend to look and behave retarded, compared to what users are used to. Sun went with no-native/all-Java GUI libraries like AWT and Swing, and that just turned out to be the wrong way to do it.
I think the common thread running through the above failures is that the Sun/Java community believed their own hype, and took the philosophy that the entire software universe should be reconceived and rewritten in pure Java. They were touting OS's and drivers written in Java; hardware that executed JVM bytecode, and so on. Thus they didn't think DOM manipulation was a priority (for browser applets!?!), or that C++ features like manual memory management and templates were actually sometimes worthwhile, or that platform-specific GUIs had a reason to exist.
Sun seems to have belatedly realized they have screwed up royally, and now we see open-source Java, and suddenly they're interested in fixing applet bugs, etc
Moral of the story: no matter how awesome you think you are, you are not awesome enough to wipe the slate clean on the world of computing.
5 December 2008
Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor
In nuclear power news, there was a very amazing talk at Google a few weeks ago, by a Dr. Joe Bonometti: "The Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor: What Fusion Wanted To Be" (click for youtube video)
In case you're not sure whether the hour-long talk is for you, here is a summary of some points. Disclaimer: I Am Not A Nuclear Engineer, so this is all hearsay on my part, and may be rife with errors and misinformation.
Concept: The Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor ("LFTR") basically works by having a reactor vessel (i.e. vat) full of liquid Fluoride, Thorium, and some Uranium-233. The reactor is around 700C (keeping the fuel mixture liquid) and not under pressure. The U-233 splits and emits heat and neutrons. Many of the neutrons are absorbed by Thorium atoms, which go through some intermediate steps and eventually transmute into more U-233, which emit more neutrons and heat, etc. Excess U-233 is produced at a slow rate and can be removed by a chemical process (bubbling Fluoride gas through the liquid fuel).
Safety: LFTR has a negative temperature coefficient. If the reactor starts to get too hot, the liquid fuel expands due to the heat, and this expansion slows down the nuclear chain reaction because the fuel atoms get further apart. This makes it fail-safe, without relying on active control systems.
Safety: If the reactor leaks or breaks or whatever, molten radioactive salt would flow out, which sounds pretty scary. But it's not under pressure, so it's not going to spray anywhere or evaporate into the atmosphere. If you just put a big concrete & alloy basin under the reactor, the salt that comes out will spread out and cool off by itself, and eventually solidify. You could get the reactor back on line by melting the salt and pumping it back into the reactor.
In fact, a simple safety feature is a "freeze valve" in the bottom of the reactor. This is basically an open pipe. Hot molten salt from the reactor flows down the pipe and cools as it gets further down, to the point where it solidifies (freezes), and blocks further flow from above. If the reactor ever gets too hot for whatever reason, the solid plug of salt melts and lets the molten salt flow out into the lower basin.
Safety/Economy: The neutrons involved are "thermal", meaning they have a relatively low energy, and need less shielding than conventional nuke reactors.
Safety/Economy: LFTR produces far less radioactive waste than conventional solid fuel reactors.
Economy: LFTR is a cheap and relatively simple design. Dr. Bonometti claims that a 1GW LFTR reactor would be about a quarter the size of a conventional light-water reactor with the same output power.
Economy: Thorium is cheap and abundant. LFTR consumes Thorium very efficiently.
Proliferation: LFTR is bad at producing weapons materials. It can do it, but it takes a long time to produce a small amount, compared to conventional reactors.
History: the basic idea of LFTR was proposed in the 1950's, and prototyped in a working reactor at Oak Ridge National Labs which operated from 1965-1969.
History: in the 50's and 60's, the US military decided to pursue solid nuclear fuels rather than LFTR. A big motivating factor was that the solid fuel reactor designs (the ones we use today to make electricity) were much much better at producing plutonium as a by-product. During the cold war, the US put a high priority on producing plutonium for weapons use, and LFTR lost out. LFTR's weakness during the cold war (bad at proliferation) is an asset today.
There's a bunch more interesting stuff in the talk and elsewhere. Read more advocacy at http://www.energyfromthorium.com/ .
So, this all sounds kind of magical. As I've said before, I'm not a big fan of nuclear power due to the waste and the proliferation problems. LFTR alleviates both of those concerns, and appears to be even more economical than conventional nukes as well. I'm not sure what hidden gotchas lurk, but my hot-button issues seem to be addressed.
The big problem with LFTR appears to be that we haven't been working on it, due to our legacy nuclear industry and cold war history etc. This means it will take some years of R&D to actually produce working commercial-scale plants. We should get going.
26 October 2008
More fallout from my continuing paper purge. I've been meaning to do this for about the last, oh 15 years or so. Here it is, the cartoon I drew in college with my friend Sutty, Bilge Pump.
16 October 2008
I was watching the news with Hazel the other night. They were showing a graphic of Obama with a donkey symbol, and McCain with an elephant symbol.
Says Hazel: "What?? He [McCain] has an elephant?!? Barack Obama needs a unicorn! And he [McCain] needs a unicorn, and then that would be fair!"
14 October 2008
Scott McCloud (but really all about me)
Paul Krugman has a Nobel Prize, but I have a Scott McCloud comic. This is from back in 2003 -- I've been doing a paper-purge lately and came across my copy of the magazine where it appeared.
27 September 2008
I fired Time Warner Cable in a fit of anger last week. The final straw, among other screwups, was that they had sent me yet another bill still charging me for Road Runner (internet) even though we had moved and I had repeatedly told them to cancel it.
So I got home, read the bill, and called with the intention of asking them to please fix it, again. I waited on hold, in vain, for 45 minutes. By then I was angry enough that I thought "screw it, this is ridiculous, cable TV is not worth this much money and aggravation, I'm done with these jokers."
I wrote up a snail-mail letter to their customer service address, telling them to disconnect me, with a final check. I signed it "Hasta la vista, baby".
I stayed angry enough to get the letter into the mailbox several hours later. Then I got a little bit worried -- what was Hazel going to watch in the early morning? Julie pointed out that she intended to watch the Presidential debate int the comfort of her own home, come hell or high water. Time Warner sends a bunch of un-encrypted signals down their wire, which our awesome new HDTV is capable of tuning, but I wasn't sure if they would cut that off completely. They might. I would, if I were them.
Our TV begs to be fed with an HD signal. I did some frantic research on satellite TV. DirecTV looks decent; it's somewhat cheaper than Time Warner Cable for similar channels, and looked like it might have more HD. I never actually called them, but their customer service couldn't possibly be as bad as TWC.
But satellite would be a bit of a hassle since we live in a NYC co-op. Even though we're on the top floor and have easy access to places to mount a dish, we don't actually own our roof, and there would be some approval steps involved.
With the Presidential Debate and other TV needs in mind, I figured I would hedge against the cable going dead. I went to Radio Shack and bought a set of $15 rabbit ears. They're on a little plastic base and sit behind the TV, with a coax output that goes straight into the TV.
So here's the thing: rabbit ears are great!!! Thanks to digital broadcasting, we pay a whopping $0/month to get the major networks in flawless HDTV (ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, and couple random local/minor stations). We get a bunch of other digital TV signals, including a sightly cheesy, but adequate, dedicated kids network ("Qubo"), and a lot of Spanish-language stations (sometimes good for soccer coverage). We get a bunch of analog stations as well, like PBS. The PBS analog reception is acceptable but very obviously inferior to any kind of cable or any of the digital formats.
The over-the-air HDTV looks quite awesome, a bit better than on cable. The over-the-air standard-def DTV looks even better (compared to cable standard-def). I've heard that the cable networks transcode, and of course they have to make room for the fricking zillion channels of total garbage in their lineup, so over-the-air wins on picture quality.
Rabbit ears win in another seeminingly small, but IMO important way -- the Samsung TV remote controls everything, and the channels are in a reasonable order. With TWC, you get SD and HD versions of many channels, with the HD versions off in some region of high channel numbers. Like if you just tune to channel 2, you get low-res transcoded awful looking 4:3 CBS. The hi def is on channel 802 or something like that. With rabbit ears, the HDTV CBS channel is on "2-1", right next to "2", and you can easily delete "2" right out of the channel list, so you never see standard-def CBS again.
Digital broadcasting also provides a halfway decent built-in channel guide -- i.e. you press the "info" button on the remote and the TV shows the name of the show, summary, length, etc. You can go into the channel list and see the lineup for the next day or so. The TV's UI is better than Time Warner's too.
There is also the ancillary bug/feature that I will never end up watching E! True Hollywood Story or The Girls Next Door past my bedtime. I feel a little bit sad about The Daily Show and C-Span. But only a little.
Rabbit ears rule!
15 September 2008
Speaking of the elusive Clue, here's a T-shirt I designed:
Here's another one:
5 September 2008
McCain and Palin
Dear Candidates McCain and Palin,
As individuals, you seem like nice enough people. Unfortunately your policies are regressive and I don't want either of you to become President of my country. Thanks for reminding me to max out my contribution to Barack Obama, who seems to have a little more of a clue.
25 July 2008
Oil prices are up, and it is painful. The prospect of having to buy heating oil is particular scary for those of us in the northeast US; it is going to be a serious problem this winter for a lot of people. Nevertheless, in the big picture, high oil prices are a good thing. It's about time we finally got serious about conservation and sustainable energy. Before oil prices shot up, we were not properly focused on the problem.
The Oil Drum is a good site in general
This is pretty interesting reading from Paul Werbos; gives an excellent high-level overview of what we're facing: http://www.werbos.com/energy.htm
Werbos has some good slides about the near-term future of electric cars. The battery stuff is interesting, he points out that the new Lithium Iron Phosphate (LiFePO4) batteries appear to be a major breakthrough. LiFePO4 has some great qualities:
long cycle life (~2000 cycles)
safe/stable (they don't burn or explode if abused)
high current capability (good for vehicles; you can draw a lot of power quickly to accelerate)
relatively fast initial charging
made of non-scarce non-expensive materials
The only real technical downside that I know of is that they have lower energy/volume density than some other Lithium technologies. Their energy/mass density seems to be on a par with conventional Lithium-Ion but since they weigh less for a given volume, you need a physically larger battery for the same energy content. But it's not a major problem; they're still very good batteries.
They're not dirt cheap yet, but the Chinese (e.g. BYD) seem to be getting there fast. There are dudes in China selling phenomenal scooter batteries on eBay, and some vendors with actual web sites as well.
It looks as though these batteries will be good enough and cheap enough to make electric and plugin hybrid cars truly mainstream within the next few years!
Why I'm Against Nuclear Power
A few otherwise-rational-seeming techies loudly promote nuclear power as a way out of our oil/climate/etc energy problems. They cite some impressive facts, like its relatively low cost, proven technology, the fact that coal-burning plants release more radiation than properly operating nuke plants (due to the trace uranium in coal going into the atmosphere), and that nuke power plants use a much lower grade of fuel than weapons.
But, because I actually read the news, I know they are wrong. We should not be promoting nuclear power. The two basic problems:
Uranium enrichment technology for power production is also applicable to weapons (see Iran).
We still don't have a viable strategy for nuclear waste, and there's nothing on the horizon.
21 July 2008
In Manhattan? Need a doorknob? Not happy with the selection at Home Depot? Go to Simon's Hardware, they have lots of doorknobs.
Broken ceiling fan? Like to fix stuff? In my case I needed a particular Rhine remote receiver. Rhine is a Taiwan company that makes ceiling fan remotes/receivers/motor controllers and only sells to OEMs. The normal dealers mostly don't list individual parts. Fortunately, these guys are specifically set up for solving the problem, they have all the spare parts, you just call them up and read off the exact model number: http://www.eceilingfans.com/order.html
BTW we've been pretty happy with the Minka Aire Concept II, except for that one broken remote receiver.
6 July 2008
Jersey Beat turned me on to a band called Lemuria, from Buffalo NY. I heard a couple songs on myspace and ordered their album "Get Better". I've been listening to it a lot. It's wicked awesome, a little bit like Jawbreaker meets Team Dresch. Not as frenetic as that would be, but still hits my spot.
26 June 2008
Shopping For Lights
Shopping for lights. Ugh, what a pain. Shopping online is a huge hassle; there are all these massive aggregators like Google Product Search, Nextag, etc but they don't really help that much since I don't already know what I want. The problem is that I'm wandering around in pages and pages of fixtures, very few of which a) I like, b) I can afford, and c) might meet my actual lighting needs. The search engines do a decent job of indexing every SKU in existence, but very poor job of directing me to online stores that stock the kind of thing I want to choose from, so I can browse a richer vein of options.
Other problems are due to the nature of online shopping -- while I can generally judge whether I like the shape of a fixture from the photo, it's not easy to judge materials/finish quality, size, and brightness.
I ended up taking some time off work and letting my feet do the walking. I had to go to IKEA for other reasons, so I looked there, but they really didn't have much; their surface-mount ceiling lights were affordable but pretty heinous. Google Maps had alerted me to the existence of a cluster of lighting stores around 59th St and 3rd Ave in Manhattan, so I walked around there. Most of the stores were full of high-end gilt antiquey stuff. The first place I walked into, when I mentioned the word "affordable", the dude was like, "Nope, that's not us." LOL! He directed me around the corner, to The Lighting Center which also has a decent website. They had a pretty wide range of "affordable" stuff, and actual people to help direct me around, which was nice. But nothing there really looked great. I took a bunch of photos but was kind of discouraged.
I also stopped by Home Depot. Their stuff definitely fits within my budget, but none of it looked good to me (let alone, Mrs. Thatch).
I figured I would be back online looking at stuff. My last stop before giving up was a store right around the corner from my apartment: Lightforms. For some reason I was biased against them -- I guess I have an inherent disdain for the general concept of a lighting store, since I have never needed one before, and resented the fact that they consumed an entire retail storefront near my apartment.
Anyway, I walked in, gawked at the ceiling for a few minutes, and suddenly saw something I actually liked! And it was on the cheap end of the range! The saleslady was very helpful and turned me on to the square version of the round fixture that was on display, and had some advice on sizing etc. For the record, I ended up with the Tiella 90 at around $90 each.
Score one for bricks & mortar. That said, I want to jot down some of the semi-decent online contemporary lighting stores, for future reference:
8 June 2008
Hazel: "That boat was hunormous"
Me: [mis-hearing] "Twonormous?"
H: "No, hunormous. That boat was so hunormous, it was 6 inches taller than you, and 12 inches to the side of you -- 12 inches wider than you!"
[looking at a bottle of Snapple]
Hazel: "What does it say there?"
Me: "Water, high fructose corn syrup, orange juice concentrate, citric acid, sodium hexametaphosphate, modified food starch, potassium benzoate, natural flavor, sodum citrate, potassium sorbate, glyceral ester of wood rosin, calcium disodium EDTA, yellow 5, red 40."
H: [pause] "Is that all?"
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. A decent read, creepy. The characters are all kind of caricatures and a lot of it feels like social commentary on a society I know little about. But the devil's advocate character, Lord Henry, is icky but fascinating. He's the guy who says catchy things like "the only way to remove temptation is to yield to it", and a lot of other witty quotes you see attributed to Oscar Wilde. The book, to me, came off as a condemnation of that kind of thinking, so, what does it mean that those quotes are attributed to Oscar Wilde? Obviously they're things he came up with, but are they sentiments he actually endorsed? I guess if you want to quote a pithy saying like that, it's too awkward to attribute it to a fictional character?
Paycheck Philip K. Dick (collection of early short stories). There are a few classics in here, and pretty much all the stories are enjoyable to read, but a lot of them seem like little more than average/decent Twilight Zone episodes.
White Teeth Zadie Smith. Intergenerational interracial interdomestic family drama set in Britain. The portrayals of the disparate characters are impressively vivid. Smith seems to enjoy highlighting flaws and foibles, which is amusing but makes it hard to know who to root for, if anyone. But by the end of the book her affection for the characters bleeds through clearly.
The Club Dumas, Arturo Perez-Reverte. Translation of Spanish page-turning "literary thriller", dealing with rare books, satanism and manuscript pages of The Three Musketeers. I had a big problem reading this book because I had seen (on TV) most of the movie "The Ninth Gate" w/ Johnny Depp and directed by Roman Polanski. The movie was engrossing enough to watch to the end, but also kind of sucky and unsatisfying, in my opinion. So through most of the book I was seeing the movie in my mind. But, the book diverges from the movie in a couple important plot points, so the suspense wasn't totally ruined. Not a great book, but an entertaining page turner, and better than the movie adaptation.
_The Emperor's Children_ by Claire Messud. Another yarn about writers, less of a thriller and more like a prurient peek into the lives and loves of several New York writers; a revered gray-haired journalist, some young children of privilege, and a young weirdo. Has a pronounced "Sex in the City" vibe running through it. Decent, not mind-blowing. The most interesting character (to me, ha ha) is the intense loner weirdo, and he does figure prominently, but the other, less interesting, characters get a disproportionate amount of ink.
I confronted a guy yesterday who was sort of cutting in line in front of me at a snack bar in the park. The snack bar was staffed by recently-hired teenagers and was disorganized so I'd been waiting a long time and the line situation wasn't crystal clear, but my read of the situation is that he was definitely pushing the envelope. I said something to him, and he totally played dumb, claiming to have misunderstood the line, but ended up getting away with it as several staff people became available at the same time, suddenly breaking the logjam. That guy was a jerk. Southern accent, as tall as me, overweight, red face, not that that's relevant to anything. I hope you're reading, jerk-guy.
Often in these situations I just say nothing, fuming, and end up letting people cut in front of me. My problem is, in the rare case when I do say something, I wait so long that I'm so pissed that I can't be humorous and friendly about it, and afterwards I feel bad. So I'm even less inclined to say something in the future. But New York confronts me with many intolerable line situations with many impatient jerkoffs trying to get an edge. It's good practice for me. The best policy seems to be to say something right away before there is any confusion, real or invented -- "are you waiting in line?" works well. If the person is cutting inadvertently, they're set straight. If they're doing it on purpose, they're immediately busted but have a face-saving way out. I realize this is something most people learned in kindergarten.
28 May 2008
Google Earth Browser Plugin and API
14 April 2008
Bait And Switch
As an East-coast urban-dwelling latte-sipping NPR-listening birkenstock-wearing college-educated info-working Volvo-owning non-hunting non-bowling non-veteran effete limousine-liberal * snob, I admit to being totally baffled by the flap over Obama's recent comments. Reportedly he told an audience in San Francisco (ooh!) that some voters in rural areas are bitter about being econonically neglected, and vote on the basis of gun rights & religious issues when election time rolls around.
So, three thoughts:
1. Hillary & McCain are falling over themselves to say it shows that Obama is an elitist. Really? The two filthy-rich candidates, whose campaigns have literally been run by Washington corporate lobbyists, think the other guy is an elitist. The half-black dude from Hawaii, raised by a single mom, who spent his time prior to politics organizing job training programs, and didn't finish paying off his student loans until after the age of 40. That guy's an elitist.
2. Are any of these looked-down-upon voters actually offended? I'm sure some patch of astroturf will complain loudly, but to me, it's pretty cool that a candidate actually wants to confront the causes of people's bitterness, instead of distracting them with a bunch of bull, as per usual.
3. Is anybody else appalled that Hillary's taking up the Republican talking point here? McCain I understand, it's still totally ridiculous, but expected. But Hillary? Sheesh.
Anyway, unlike the Wright hoo-hah, this one seems like it could be a political net win for Obama once people are done processing it. Here's Obama's spin on it: