Friday, December 15, 2006

Vegetarians not so smart?

From the BBC News website this morning:

"Intelligent children are more likely to become vegetarians later in life, a study says. A Southampton University team found those who were vegetarian by 30 had recorded five IQ points more on average at the age of 10... Twenty years after the IQ tests were carried out in 1970, 366 of the participants said they were vegetarian - although more than 100 reported eating either fish or chicken." [my emphasis]

Perhaps they should deduct 10 points from people who think fish and chicken are vegetables.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Video game ratings

With Christmas approaching I have been seeing a lot of video game ads on TV, and apparently the industry has a rating system: E for Everyone, T for Teen, and M for Mature. What I don't understand is, given than most of the ads seem to revolve around rather sad adolescent male fantasies involving guns, cars, and women with extremely improbable anatomies...

...why are none of these games rated I for Immature?

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Help for the homeless

Around this time of year my thoughts always turn to the plight of the homeless. Walk through any downtown and you will see them standing or shuffling around, often dishevelled and dirty, the worst off of them mumbling incoherently to themselves.

The solution: put them on a bus to the nearest international airport. Once there they can mingle with business people arriving from international flights as they stagger around the concourse bleary-eyed and unwashed in their crumpled suits and creased shirts. And once the arriving passengers fire up their bluetooth headsets, you won't even be able to distinguish the homeless mumblers from the cordless callers.

Once the traditional holiday season overbookings and flight cancellations begin, the homeless will be able to wander aimlessly around the terminal carrying all their possessions in plastic shopping bags, sleep on the benches, and wash up in the restrooms without looking out of place, and the assimilation will be complete.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Animals facing extinction: please help

Some of nature's most noble animals are facing extinction. You can help simply by refusing to buy products made from their skins. Without customers, hunters will leave these precious natural specimens alone. The three that I'm most worried about right now are:

-- The silver arctic faux. Somehow it's become acceptable, even among the fur-conscious, to wear faux fur, and many people never even stop to ask themselves where faux fur comes from. The answer, of course, is the artic faux. Act now: ban faux fur before its too late for the silver artic faux.

-- The nauga. Naugas, hunted for their naugahides, almost went extinct once before in the 1930s and are now so rarely seen that some specialists think it may already be too late to save them.

-- The fake leopard. Now so rare that its pelt has become too expensive for anything but shoes, fake leopard coats change hands for ridiculous sums in vintage clothing stores.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Digital technology sucks (but at least Costco is good about returns)

I love how cheap digital devices are getting... but is it just me or are we sacrificing a LOT of quality in the process? In the past two months I've had to return the following shopping list of tech toys:

  • Famous brand MP3 player, after 2 days. It wouldn't hold a charge.
  • Network attached storage after four weeks. Disk drive died.
  • Low-end (but well known brand) USB 2.0 disk drive after less than two weeks. This one was barely even used, it was sitting out on my network for when I finally get around to editing video. Next thing you know: click of death.
  • Digital media player, after 20 minutes. Got it installed and running. Upgraded its firmware (you should see the list of bugs in the shipped 1.0 version...). It died, wouldn't even power up. Yep, 20 minutes to go from open box to a $300 brushed aluminum brick. To add insult to injury, the tech I spoke to told me that I really shouldn't upgrade the firmware without contacting tech support first... which kind of makes me wonder why the setup instructions tell you to upgrade the firmware if it doesn't happen automatically.
  • Don't even get started on the nightmare upgrade process I went through to get newer maps on my GPS navigation unit...

That's well over half the stuff I've bought in the last six months. And (with the exception of the MP3 player, the cheapest item on the list) I haven't been exchanging this stuff, I've been returning it for a refund and either buying a different brand or deciding forget it, the stuff's not ready for primetime. So not only is this costing companies time and money dealing with the returns, its costing them business.

Now I don't think it's me or that I have some kind of digital touch of death -- I am reasonably technical, worked in IT for the past two decades, and I've successfully done stuff like upgrading memory and drives in my desktops and laptops and installing interface cards. But this stuff, which ought to be an embedded system that just works out of the box, seems to be getting very shoddy lately. I don't know if its the rush to beat competitors to market, or the relentless pressure to drive down costs. Or maybe its that a different breed of developer works on these things now that they contain so much software -- a developer with a hacker mentality of "good enough, we'll fix it in release 2" rather than an engineering mentality of "once it's in the field it's a pain to fix, so do it right". Or maybe its just companies that don't know how to measure what this is truly costing them.

But I've learned one important lesson in all this: Buy stuff from Costco because their returns process is completely painless.

There is a small silver lining to this story. Many of these items came with mail-in rebates. And their processes don't seem to be sufficiently integrated to cancel your rebate if you return the item. So I've gotten about $150 for my pain. Which seems about fair.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Fractal Bathroom

A friend of mine who has done very well for himself (the old fashioned way, I should add: being smart, working hard, and taking risks on his own good ideas) is selling his large house. I happened to notice the listing in a magazine that specializes in local things I can't afford (I think its called Elan, but frankly they should just rename it Envy) and apparently he has 5.55 bathrooms.

My first reaction was that in all the times I've visited his house I don't think I ever noticed that .05 of a bathroom. Then I thought, wait, this is the man who has everything -- he probably has a fractal bathroom somewhere in the basement, and in reality he has 5.55555... bathrooms, but the magazine insisted in truncating it to 2 decimal places.

The big problem with a fractal bathroom, of course, is that it takes forever to paint. Even though it encloses a finite volume, the walls have infinite surface area...

Monday, October 16, 2006

Foley: A Line Has Been Crossed

I am profoundly disappointed by what the Foley scandal means for US politics, and especially for bipartisanship.

I had been assured by Republican friends of mine that only Democrats have sex scandals, and by Democratic friends that only Republicans have money scandals. So you can imagine how disappointed I was to discover that Republicans, not satisfied with taking Abramoff's money, now want in on the sex scandals too.

No wonder the Democratic party is outraged: up till now, this was the one remaining political domain that they controlled. Unfortunately, this is just one more sign of what happens when one party holds too much power for too long.

Monday, September 18, 2006

For a communications company, they sure speak badly

According to this news story about a deal with YouTube, Warner Music chairman Edgar Bronfman said [or more likely, the PR department wrote for his approval in a press release]: "Consumer-empowering destinations like YouTube have created a two-way dialogue that will transform entertainment and media forever."

Uh, yeah. Maybe. But it won't be much of a dialogue until the media companies learn to communicate in english instead of marketingbabble.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Madonna space flight plan snubbed

According to the BBC News website, the Russian parliament voted down a proposal to put Madonna on the international space station in 2008. Apparently, many of those voting against didn't realize that the plan did not involve bringing her back.

Not that I've got anything against Madonna, mind you. I've always admired her ability to sing "Like a Virgin" entirely from memory.

And she has done pretty well for yourself when you consider that she is, at heart, a male drag queen trapped in the body of a woman.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Small World

Memo to American sports writers: in order to be world champions of a sport, you actually have to beat people from other countries (and no, Toronto does not count).

The world champion of basketball is Spain, not the Miami Heat. The world champion of ice hockey is Sweden, even if the Carolina Hurricanes did beat some Canadian teams on its way to the North American Championship.The world champion of baseball is Japan, not the Chicago White Sox which is, at best, the World Series champions. Ironically, about the only thing a US team can genuinely claim to be world champions of is the Little League World Series (congratulations, Columbus Northern Little League of Columbus, Georgia).

OK, the world champions of American Football probably is the Pittsburgh Steelers, but only because nobody else on Planet Earth plays the game.

I don't think I'll ever stop being amused by the parochialism that allows Americans in general, and ESPN anchors who really ought to know better in particular, to refer with a straight face to their little local championships as "world" champions.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Fantastic Four disappointment

I was shopping at the weekend for Fantastic Four figures. I found Mr Fantastic, the Human Torch, and the Thing, but I couldn't see the Invisible Woman anywhere.

Monday, August 07, 2006

I found a digit in my soup

I am, my wife tells me, an incurable geek. And all because I called my son's alphabet soup "alphanumeric soup" since it has numbers as well as letters in it.

I also saw something suspiciously like a "(". My wife insists it was just a bent "I", but I'm not so sure. If I find any more punctuation marks, I'm going to insist it's ASCII soup.

Hmmm, I wonder if I can sue the supermarket on the grounds that I found a digit in my soup?

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Floyd's Organism

Floyd Landis denies accusations of doping. Speaking at a news conference in Madrid, Landis said the testosterone was "absolutely natural and produced by my own organism".

His own organism, huh? I have this mental picture of a reptile tank in his rec room with a little creature roaming around in it. Maybe its small enough that he can slip it down his cycling shorts while he's racing. Every couple of miles or so it bites him on the thigh, injecting some testosterone to keep him going.

In any case, the point is the same: whether he owns the organism or he just borrowed it from his coach, it doesn't make it right.

Friday, July 07, 2006

IT Irony -- poor old Veterans Administration

Spotted this headline on ComputerWorld today:

"GAO Calls on VA, DOD to Better Share Medical Data".

I thought that the problem with the VA is that it is all too good at sharing medical data? Seems they can share it with any random burglar who walks off with one of their laptops, but not their most important collaborative agency.

Just to rub it in, the next headline on the website was:

VA Pushed to Pursue IT Overhaul

The FBI's recovery of the stolen laptop and disk containing personal data on 26.5 million veterans and active-duty military personnel didn't stop the calls for a sweeping restructuring of the IT organization at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Irregular Nouns

Everybody is familiar with irregular verbs in english -- in fact, if you learn english as a foreign language, probably the first verb you learn is the absurdly irregular To Be, none of whose past or present tense forms remotely resemble the infinitive.

What few people realize is that english also has a lot of irregular nouns. Many things are named differently when they happen to you vs. other people. For example, the noun for surgery varies by person:
- I have a procedure
- You have surgery
- He/she has an operation

Likewise, if you lose your job:
- I was part of a RIF
- You were laid off
- He/she was fired

And when you travel overseas:
- I am a traveler
- You are a visitor
- He/she is a tourist

More later, I think.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Stupid Sports Statistics

Most statistics that you hear on ESPN are stupid because they are so meaninglessly specialized ("Hernandez is only the 6th player in the last 12 years to hit 8 times in his first 5 games". Whatever.) But one that I heard on ESPN a couple of nights ago stuck with me not because it was stupidly complex, but stupidly simple.

The talking heads on Sportscenter were setting up the next game in the NBA finals and trying to make some point about the dramatic significance of game 5. Breathlessly, one of them announced that with the series level at 2-2, "the team that wins game 5 has gone on to win the series 18 times out of 24." Wow, pretty impressive sounding stat, right? That all-important momentum from winning game 5 carries you to victory.

Except that if you think about it for two seconds -- which is about how long it took me -- you realize that there is no game 5 momentum. None whatsoever. Nil. Zilch.

If you assume that both teams go into the last two games with a 50/50 chance of winning each game -- i.e. no "momentum" for the game 5 winner -- 18 series wins out of 24 for the team that wins game 5 is exactly what you'd expect by chance. Consider: the team that is down 2 to 3 needs to win both remaining games. With a 50% chance in each, it has a 25% chance of winning both games and the series, so it should win 6 out of 24. Which is just precisely what has happened historically. Winning game 5, in other words, has conferred no special "momentum", that makes the team that wins it no more likely to win game 6 or 7. Each of the following games is still a toss-up.

In short: the magical "momentum" of winning game 5 is that you lead 3 to 2 and only need one more game to clinch the series. Nothing more, nothing less.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Foods that should cancel out (but don't) and other culinary musings

Why is it that if you drink too much caffeinated coffee, drinking a decaff doesn't cancel some of the caffeine out?

Similarly, I have found that a pound of pasta and a pound of anti-pasto don't mutually annihilate in a burst of energy, as the amateur physicist in me expected.

In the supermarket I noticed sugar-free decaffeinated coke. What does that leave? A can of fizzy caramel-flavored water?

On a related topic, four kinds of food I have learned to avoid are:

-- Anything with the word "food" in its name, like "cheese food product". If they have to tell you its food, there's something seriously worrying there. (Originally I thought that the rule should be "don't eat anything with the word 'product' in its name, but eventually I realized that the Food part is much scarier than the Product part.)

-- Anything with a Best Before date measured in years (unless its alcohol)

-- Anything whose label has to tell you what it isn't, like "not a dairy product"

-- Specialities of the region. When I was younger and more naive, I thought that when these words appeared on a menu in some remote little restaurant it meant you were getting some authentic local speciality that was so good, it was a carefully guarded secret hidden from the wider world. Wrong. It turns out its code for "parts of the animal nobody else would be crazy enough to eat". If you're really lucky it won't actually be recognizable as the animal part in question, unlike the time I thought that pig's trotters sounded "authentic".

Haggis is probably the ultimate example of a regional speciality. To make haggis, you basically take a sheep, shear it (optional), stick your hand down its throat, take a firm grip on its stomach, then pull firmly until it turns inside out. Stuff the result with cereal and anything else that happens to be handy, then boil. Serve to passing Englishmen or anybody else foolish to be willing to force down a "traditional" dish.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Small company, big company, midsize company

During my career I've worked at companies of all sizes from small startup to global. And I've come to the conclusion that for the sake of my sanity I should avoid midsize. At a small company you can get things done yourself. At a big company there are people and systems to do them for you. At a midsize company... well, consider what happens when the 'B' key breaks on your keyboard:

Small company: You tell your boss, "I'm just going down to Fry's/Circuit City/Best Buy for a new keyboard." Your boss says, "OK, while you're out could you pick up a terabyte of SATA drives for the server, and bring back Chinese food for everybody." After lunch, you are up and running again.

Large company: You call the support hotline to request a new keyboard. The next day a technician hand-delivers it to your cubicle, installs it, and upgrades your keyboard driver. He manually tests all 104 keys before leaving. A week later you get an email asking you to rate your satisfaction with the support service provided.

Medium company: Your oss tells you that you aren't allowed to uy your own keyoard as it violates the security policy on ringing employee-owned equipment into the workplace. He has heard of "keylogger" trojans and is worried your keyoard might e infected. ut the company has no process to order a replacement keyoard. You can only order a complete replacement PC, and there's no udget for that. For the next two years, until your computer is due for replacement, you avoid typing messages that require the letter ''... the letter ''... Damn.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

John Allen Muhammad Goes Free

John Allen Muhammad, the Washington DC sniper, was today sentenced to life by a Virginia court. Since the courts in Maryland had already sentenced him to death, his attorney argued that the sentences should cancel each other out. District attorneys for the two states agreed to call it a wash and the judge immediately set Muhammad free.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Extreme Makeover: Fox Edition

Continuing its practice of completely independently coming up with a similar concept to other networks' reality shows, Fox has announced its own twist on ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. In the Fox version, the design team finds a family that is mean, spiteful, and hated by all its neighbors. While the family is away on vacation, they tear down their house.

And that's the end of the show.

Today is Smunday

I realized that I spend my entire weekend doing chores and chasing after my son, so I need a day between Sunday and Monday to actually relax. So I've invented an extra day called Smunday, which fits between Sunday and Monday.

I realize that my new eight day week may be a tad inconvenient for the rest of the world, but I figure everybody could use an extra day -- and in my new scheme, you get to choose where to take it. Those of you still young enough to party might want to have Fraturday between Friday and Saturday, so that you don't waste Saturday because you got in at 2am, slept till lunchtime, and were useless until you'd had several cups of coffee and had thrown up some toast and orange juice.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Rhode Island Embarks On $20M Statewide Wireless Network

"The $20 million Rhode Island Wireless Innovation Networks (RI-WINs) is expected to be fully in place by 2007, providing wireless connectivity throughout state."

Rhode Island? Is it just me, or does that seem like a lot of money for half a dozen Linksys wireless APs and a couple of range extenders? You could probably cover the whole state with two pre-N APs...

Keith Richards falls out of tree

I don't know about you, I thought Keith Richards had been out of his tree for decades...

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Doctor Who - a return to childhood

So I've been slowly catching up on the new Doctor Who (the Christopher Eccleston version), which just started showing on the SciFi channel here. And its strange to watch something as an adult that was so iconic as a child. It seems they've tried to make the Doctor both deeper and darker than I remember (but maybe I was just too young to pick up on that in the Jon Pertwee era, not to mention the unfabulous Baker boys).

It has decent storylines, good moments and some funny lines ("lots of planets have a North"), and I'm glad they decided to stick with Cheap and Cheesy for the special effects. But... is it just me, or does it seem like the current writing staff spent a lot of time watching Hitchhiker's Guide, Men In Black and Stargate growing up? I mean primarily in terms of the "tone" of the writing and humor, although also a little bit the plot points. And they definitely seem to be using the same CGI software as Jurassic Park: watching the bugeyed monsters that took over Downing Street move, pause, then move again is *exactly* like watching JP's velociraptors.

So I'm wondering: is it the writers drawing on a little too much "inspiration" from elsewhere? Is it me, now seeing the Doctor through the lens of almost 30 years of Sci Fi (seminal moment in my childhood was seeing Star Wars for the first time, aged 13)? Or is it simply that the Sci Fi mine has been worked so heavily by now, its inevitable that everything start to resemble everything else?