Monthly Archives: October 2002

Cheapskate Older Brother

I still can’t help myself… I still read Slashdot, mostly just to get a laugh from the comments on the physics articles. Man, I really need to grow up. Although even I have to admit that every once in a while, a poster rises above the usual level of inanity:

mccalli (commenting on the phrase, “multiple universes”): This is one of my pet hates. By the very definition of the word, there can only be one universe. Or are the definitions now being changed?

SEWilco (in response to mccalli‘s comment): Note to God: Remember to make English better in next universe.

So, Sarah’s computer is looking decent now. At first the system refused to boot into Windows 2000 — it would almost launch the desktop, but then the screen would go blue spit hexadecimal gibberish at me. So I booted off the CD, planning to reinstall the OS, when Windows gave me an option: do you want to repair the OS, or do a clean install? Well, what the hell, I thought. I asked for a repair… and to my great shock, it worked. There’s my old desktop (“Spenser”), perfectly preserved. I’m probably going to wipe it clean anyway, but I feel kind of sad and nostalgic looking at it. I can’t bring myself to kill it now. I should feel glee, or righteous vengeance, or something. (Yes! format c:! Take that, you bastard!) But no… after all these months, my rage has faded. Ol’ Spenser and I have finally made our peace. If only it could have happened under better circumstances.

As mentioned earlier, Sarah’s new motherboard will likely go snap-crackle-pop if I plug in an old 2X AGP video card. Fortunately, I was able to borrow an old PCI video card from Dave (a Matrox Millennium) in order to just get the system working. The thing is, the Millennium is working like a champ. I just plugged it in and it worked, with good resolution, plenty of colors and, most importantly, with no futzing around.

Now Sarah really only wants to write reports, do email, web surf, and so on. She’s not going to be playing Doom III or anything like that. So now I’m thinking… hmmmm… if I go buy a low-end graphics card, the best-case scenario is that I’ll be out $30-40, and everything else will be the same as far as Sarah is concerned. So really, what’s the downside of leaving in the Millennium? The only negative that I can think of is if, when Sarah goes to college next year, she falls in with the l33t overclocking hax0r crowd. Then they’ll make fun of her for her crappy old PCI card. God forbid such a fate should befall my baby sister, but when it comes to college, you have to be prepared for even the worst eventualities.

Babe in the Woods

While I was hanging out at Dave’s, trying to figure out what was going on with Sarah’s computer, I saw Earth and Beyond in action. Pat and Dave are big fans of this game. Earth and Beyond is similar to EQ… except you don’t have to spend all your time killing stuff, it’s not very crowded, and the graphics are far, far better. Yikes! It took me about six months to break my EQ habit, and this game looks even more dangerous. Fortunately, as the FAQ makes quite clear:

Q: Will there be a Linux or Macintosh version?
A: No.

So it looks like I’m safe for now.1 Although poor Pat sure was disappointed that I didn’t rush right out to buy or construct a PC just for that particular game. “Well, I think I’ll call Elana,” he said. “If you cannot be turned to the Dark Side, then perhaps she will.”

NEVER!

Anyway. So late last night I decided to brush up on RSS. No, check that — late last night I decided to figure out what RSS is in the first place. All I knew was that Moveable Type automatically generates these strange index.xml and index.rdf files, and damned if I knew what either file was about. Sad but true.

So first I found a description of RSS 1.0. Hmmm, okay, interesting. Then I skimmed a few pages on RDF. All right, I think I’m sorta getting it. Then I ran into RSS 0.92, which looks pretty different. And then I found people talking about RSS 2.0. And it seemed like all of these versions were being promoted and used. Eh? What’s going on?

A few more Google searches later, and all became clear. Turns out there’s a
holy
war
going
on. Oh, swell. By the time I finished slogging through all the flames, proclamations, and hurt feelings, it was past midnight. I suppose the one good thing about my brief foray into the wonderful, wacky world of RSS was that it happened to end with Aaron Swartz’s brilliant response to the whole mess. Wow. Maybe he really is a boy genius.

1. Of course what with the impending release for the Mac of Neverwinter Nights, Master of Orion III, and Freedom Force, my “safety” is somewhat up in the air these days.

Angry Beeps

Yet another schmuck is suing Google for something. It must be Monday.

So last weekend was pretty good. Saturday was Jan and Nef’s wedding, a very classy affair. For the ceremony, they chose a gorgeous little spot in Fort Mason with a view of the bridge. Of course, when you hold an outdoor wedding in a San Francisco park, you always run the risk of finding an obscenity-spewing “Vietnam veteran” stumbling through your reserved location… and this particular occasion was no exception. Fortunately, said veteran was convinced to take his leave, and the ceremony was able to begin without interruption.

After the ceremony, we all took a ride on a pseudo-cable car through the Presidio, and then sat down for a nice dinner. Good wine, and lots of it, was served. There were lots of Mudders in attendance who I hadn’t seen in years, although honestly I spent much of the time playing with Katie (Page’s two-year-old daughter) and Karen (Wendy and Phil’s two-month-old daughter). Little Karen was polite enough not to spit up on my only suit — I can already tell that Wendy and Phil are going to be excellent parents.

Now Katie, unlike Karen, happens to know all the Poker BuddiesTM. In fact, when she comes home from daycare on our poker nights, she always blows us kisses and says “Night-night!” to all of us before going to bed. It’s kind of difficult to maintain your tough-guy poker facade when all the other tough poker guys are grinning like idiots and saying, “Night-night, Katie! Night-night!” in high-pitched voices. Sheesh, we’re pathetic. Now in the old days Katie treated us all equally. However, a couple of weeks ago I attended the San Carlos Art Festival with Page, his wife Jan1, and a bunch of friends of theirs. Basically, Page and I walked Katie around, I carried Katie on my shoulders, we swung her as we walked… you know, typical father/daughter/random-poker-buddy-of-father stuff. Well, ever since then, Katie has been calling me by name and running up to hug me. I guess all I have to say to the other Poker Buddies is Ha ha ha, Katie loves me best.

But I digress.

Sunday was also a good day. I have lots of spare PC parts lying around the house, and I came up with a grandiose plan to use them up: build a system for my little sister. She could use one for college next year, after all. I figured that all I really needed was a new CPU and motherboard, and we were golden.

Ah… how naive I was. At first, I could only get the CPU fan to run. No hard drive spinning, no LEDs, no nothing. After much frustration and fiddling with a voltmeter, I discovered that Pentium IV motherboards require an entirely new kind of power supply. (When all else fails, read the directions.) Then I learned that Intel’s new 845/850 chipsets have implemented a remarkable new feature called, “If you plug in an AGP 2X video card, you will damage your motherboard“. That would be, as they say, double-plus ungood. In other words, the old ATI video card I wanted to use is right out. At least on Sunday I got the new power supply. Now the hard drive spins up, the LEDs light, and the system makes a lot of loud angry beeps. But they’re the right kind of angry beeps2, so it’s a victory. Of sorts.

1. Not the same Jan that was getting married Saturday. Page’s wife Jan is already married… to Page. Pay attention, people.

2. The beeps are saying, “You idiot! Where’s my video card?”

Automated Outrage

Here I was this morning, just minding my own business, trying to get ready for Jan and Nef’s wedding. But to my dismay, I discovered that famed warblogger R. Robot had the following to say about me:

When will Evan come clean about the way he slanders President Bush?

I suppose some notice should be paid to the performance that the bloviating Evan delivered Monday on The Late Show. “Is there any evidence that Iraq ‘thinks they might want to team up with terrorists,’ as the President said?” he said. For shame! This kind of untrustworthy hatred of America is as degenerate as it is weaseling. Evan, breathtakingly, is a formerly important loser.

Wow, pretty harsh. Still, even I have to admit that it was a well-deserved takedown. Advantage: Blogosphere!

In truth, I have a weakness for random-text scripts such as R. Robot. In fact, I’ve already installed the Dada Engine on this site — in fact, right now I’m running one of the default scripts to generate random legal jargon for Crazy Mike’s Shack-o-Law. Okay, so it is a default script, not so impressive. But I’m also currently working on my own custom scripts. Rest assured, I have big plans for the Dada Engine. Stay tuned.

Sorry About My Oven Exploding and All

So M’ris, Mark, Tim, and Amber came over tonight for dinner. We had salad. We had lefse. We had chocolate pots de creme. And we had broiled flank steak. Well… we almost had broiled flank steak. The steak was about halfway done when I heard a couple of sharp pops, accompanied by bright flashes of light coming from behind the oven. “Ummm… that didn’t sound good,” said my guests. “No, it didn’t,” I said, as I watched white wisps of smoke wafting up from behind the oven.

After waiting a bit to make sure that the apartment wasn’t going to catch on fire, it seemed best to go to La Bodeguita del Medio and get some Cuban food and mojitos (“Mojito”: Spanish for “a drink that makes everything all better”). So all in all it was a successful evening. I returned Diamond Age to M’ris, and lent her the Sandman series. In turn, M’ris and Tim gave me some David Brin reading recommendations. I had read Earth many years ago, but Tim assures me that the Uplift War series is much better. Speaking of Brin, he also has a very interesting essay on his site, “The Case for a Cheerful Libertarianism“. It’s really quite good. Almost enough to make one become a libertarian, if one were just a little more inclined that way. Actually, Brin’s brand of cheerful pragmatism has a lot going for it in general. Very few people like humorless ideologues, no matter what their political persuasion. And nobody likes to be called stupid or evil. One wonders why calling one’s opponents stupid or evil is such a popular debating tactic. But then, of course, one is forced to take a look at one’s own writings, and one begins to feel depressed. One thinks it best to call it a night.

Lessig Shrugged

Lawrence Lessig has given his arguments before the Supreme Court for Eldred v. Ashcroft. Lessig’s mostly been getting kudos from all over the web… although those pranksters at the Ayn Rand Institute seem to think that Lessig and his “gang” are Marxists of some sort (along with his Communist friends, Milton Friedman and Phyllis Schlafly, I suppose). Anyway, Lessig hardly seems fazed by this, and the Ayn Rand Institute’s position appears to be a distinct minority opinion in the libertarian community, judging from the various eye-rolling reactions from Declan McCullagh and his compadres on Politechbot. M’ris also gives assurances that the Rand Institute’s “orthodox Objectivist rant” was not in the mainstream. So, whew. I mean, take Declan McCullagh — I don’t agree with everything he says, but at least he is almost always thoughtful and worthy of respect. In contrast, that Objectivist paper was just plain loony.

Anyway, Lessig has some thoughts on how the arguments went:

The Court clearly got it. Though the other side had written literally 300 pages trying to show all the good CTEA did… the Court hadn’t bought any of it. Congress was not acting to promote progress, it was acting to reward “court favorites.” The only question the Court was struggling with is whether it has the power to do anything about it.

Now pause for a second to think about how important and good this struggle is. First: It is a rare but valuable exercise for any branch of government to worry about the scope of its own power. And the greatest virtue the Court exercises is the virtue of self-restraint. This is a reason to respect the Court, not criticize it (though how they exercise their restraint, or where, can be criticized, as I suggest below). But the general idea that it will restrain itself, despite believing a law is stupid, is a feature, not a bug in our constitutional tradition.

Teenage wunderkind1 and F.O.L. (Friend Of Lessig) Aaron Swartz also attended court that day:

I thought Larry had done an awful job until Solicitor General Olson (the man who argued for Bush in Bush v. Gore) came up. The Justices had a field day with him. Rehnquist got him to admit that a perpetual copyright would violate the Constitution. Kennedy got him to admit that a functionally perpetual (900 year) copyright would also be a violation. “Isn’t that what petitioners argue?” asked another Justice. “That if you keep extending the term of copyright it’s the functional equivalent?”

It’s hard to say how well Lessig did, particularly from the perspective of a non-lawyer. As one of Swartz’s colleagues admitted, “it was a dance for which I don’t know the steps.” That said, the fact that Lessig might have looked weak is pretty much par for the course — as far as I can tell, everyone looks bad in front of the Court. Every Supreme Court snippet I’ve ever heard consists of Scalia or one of the other justices just tearing the poor lawyer on the stand to shreds. This is why Nina Totenburg has the best gig on NPR.

1. I don’t know if Swartz really is a wunderkind — honestly, I just like getting to use the word. Wunderkind! Eet ees wunderbar!

Sell, Sell, Sell!

Yesterday Pat sent the following short email to all his friends:

To Whom It May Concern:

As of close of business Friday Sony has decided to hire BOTH of the Becker
Brothers©, a move that has been disastrous for previous employers big or
small.  Their stock closed at $42.25 today, only time will tell if the
Becker Brothers© can continue to bring their own special brand of economic
karma to the corporations of America.  

Patrick Becker

For the last couple of months, Pat had been thoughtfully keeping himself out of the job market. But now that both he and his brother work for the same company… well, I think we can all kiss Sony goodbye. Think I’m crazy? Take a look at the evidence for yourself. Pat, Sam, haven’t the Japanese people suffered enough economic pain this decade? Have you no shame? Won’t somebody think of the children?

Rank Cruelty

Good Morning Silicon Valley should be announcing the winner of the GMSV Tagline Contest soon. My personal favorite entry is, “GMSV: To ignorance as the Boston Strangler is to the woman home alone,”1 but I have a feeling the reference is a bit too obscure. And maybe too violent. Ah, well.

In Other News: Google has changed their ranking algorithm again, and some people have slipped a few notches. This has stirred up some trouble. (After all, if this particular gentleman isn’t the number one “Dave” on Google, clearly the new algorithm is broken, QED!2)

Mark Pilgrim suggests that Google is now cross-referencing link text with text on the actual page. This change would defeat some of the more popular manipulations of Google rankings, such as Google Bombing. I’m not sure right now whether this is merely a plausible explanation, or if there is any more concrete evidence. To his credit, Pilgrim doesn’t seem particularly bent out of shape that his page rank has dropped. And he does cite some examples of Google returning bad results (blank pages, broken links). If he’s right, that’s somewhat disconcerting. On the other hand, does anyone have a large, non-anecdotal collection of data from “before” and “after”? Oh sure, there’s a lot of gnashing of teeth on the Webmasterworld forums… but I hardly think those people count as unbiased observers.3 Personally, I’ve run into my share of “bad” pages on Google over the years, and I can’t say for certain whether the frequency has increased or decreased recently. Anyway, Pilgrim’s theory about how the new algorithm works is certainly interesting, at the very least.

Before closing, I should note that I really dig Pilgrim’s site. First of all, he has a really excellent web accessibility site. Second, he is that rare beast — a web designer with a swanky all-CSS website that A) degrades naturally in older browsers and B) doesn’t give you a snotty message about how you should upgrade. (Man, that last one just kills me. Who started that gawdawful trend, anyway?)

1. My second favorite: “GMSV: like a group hug without the inappropriate touching.”

2. It is indeed a cold, cruel world that ranks Dave Winer lower than Dave Barry.

3. After all, those folks make their living trying to defeat Google’s algorithms, and naturally they get annoyed when Google changes the rules on them. Methinks the flurry of newly-found Google errors is the result of observer bias, but what do I know?

Good and Evil

Well, it looks like the Twins have knocked off the A’s. This year’s baseball playoff schedule, I think, constitutes ironclad proof that God does not give a rat’s ass about baseball. A kind and merciful deity would not have permitted a schedule that forced the two worthiest teams in baseball to eliminate one of the other so early.1 Well, I’ll be rooting for the Twins, then, assuming that the Giants get rolled by the Braves as is customary at this time of year. (The Giants are beating the Braves 7-1 at the moment, so they’ve still got a shot, at least.)

In Other News: via the brilliant and learned Garrett Moritz,2 I learned about a wonderful MIT parody of the Fellowship of the Ring prologue. It’s a big download, but well worth it. Deleriously geeky. My only concern is that the current generation of MIT students apparently thinks that Maxwell’s equations in integral form are a representation of pure evil. Are the students just saying that they prefer Maxwell’s equations in their somewhat-more-aesthetically-pleasing differential form… or is this a larger statement about physics itself?

1. Then again — the Angels smote the hell-spawned Yankees pretty early this year. The Lord works in mysterious ways.

2. I agree with Moritz that the latest Two Towers trailer looks fantastic. And no, I don’t know why Legolas is being made up to be such a stupendous bad-ass. I mean, I’m all for defeating the pernicious stereotype that Elves are nothing more than limp-wristed fops, but this is getting ridiculous.

A True Legend

My alma mater has a bit of inferiority complex. Living in the shadow of Caltech can really grate on you. Sure, you can take it out on them in petty ways: change the Caltech sign on the freeway to read, “Pasadena City College” underneath, steal their 3,000 lb bronze cannon, and so on. But the problem remains. Sure, we have scads of entrepreneurs, Ph.Ds, and highly competent engineering managers all over the nation. But honestly, the only “famous” Mudd alum I’ve ever heard of is astronaut George “Pinky” Nelson. Astronauts are cool and all, but there are, like, hundreds of them fer crying out loud. We can do better, can’t we?

When I was at Mudd in the mid-90s, I heard that the guy who wrote Solitaire for Windows was an alum, and he didn’t get paid a penny for it. I had always taken that rumor with a big grain of salt. But now, thanks to GMSV, I now know that not only did young programmer Wes Cherry not get paid for writing Solitaire, but that he was indeed a Mudder.

What incredible news! Think about it: How many billions of hours have been wasted on Windows Solitare over the last decade? In fact, Cherry might have singlehandedly obviated all of the productivity gains that were supposed to arrive with the advent of the personal computer… at least, before the Internet came along.

I mean, wow. Beat that, Caltech.