Thursday, December 20, 2007

Portrait of a Spam Craver

My father hasn't been receiving spam e-mail lately, and he's not happy about it. I've teased him that he is probably the only person in the world who is upset about not getting enough spam. But he believes that this must indicate a problem with his e-mail, and that if spam is getting "lost" then other more important messages are probably being lost as well. He could be right, but I sent him some messages to test this theory, and they got through just fine.

He has even called tech support about this. "What did you say to them," I asked. "Was it something like, 'What happened to my spam? Give me back my precious spam, you bastards!'"

Apparently it wasn't quite like that. But they had no explanation.

"You've won!" I told him. "The spammers have given up on you and admitted defeat. All these years of resisting their ads have paid off. They've taken you off all the lists for good. You are the first man to achieve complete victory over spam!"

He didn't believe this. He said something about how inconvenient it would be to have to get a new e-mail address. He is actually considering getting a new e-mail address because the current one doesn't get spam.

But seriously, I think if spammers had some way to precisely target only those people most likely to respond to their ads, they would probably do it. They would get the same results with fewer complaints and less action taken against them. Could we be seeing the beginning of that strategy? Have spammers developed a vast A.I. that can figure out which people aren't worth bothering with? Or is my father just The Man That Spam Forgot?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Crackpot Inventor Syndrome

Every once in a while I run across another internet essay by a "Nice Guy" complaining about how "women don't like nice guys, they like jerks." Usually the Nice Guy then goes on to demonstrate his niceness by saying hateful things about women, and explaining his deep insights about how shallow and evil they are.

This really reminds me of the writings of crackpot inventors, who complain about how scientists won't accept the genius of their perpetual-motion machines. Typically the crackpot inventors then take up a second project, namely figuring out "what is wrong with scientists?" They quickly discover the answer: scientists are closed-minded, they are snobs, they are jealous of the superior intellects of crackpot inventors. They are unwilling to let an outsider into their club, and even less willing to let their hard-won knowledge be rendered obsolete by the breakthroughs of the inventors. In the end, really, scientists are insufferable jerks! They don't even deserve the perpetual-motion machine! They're too immature to handle the anti-gravity ray!

Nice Guys complain that they've been "just friends" with a woman for quite a while, but -- amazingly! -- it has not lead to anything "more." This is an odd attitude, because it actually defines friendship as a type of rejection. (Try to wrap your head around that one.) To normal people, friendship is a good thing and valuable for its own sake. But to the Nice Guy, friendship with a woman is something else: it is reserving a place "next in line" to be her boyfriend. To the Nice Guy, friendship is stalking from point-blank range. (I imagine I'd find that twice as horrifying if I were female.)

I'd like to explain to the Nice Guys that they have Crackpot Inventor Syndrome, but I don't think it would work. Nice Guys aren't out trying to understand the reasons why they're wrong. They have created inside their own heads a perfect vision of how the world "ought to work." Just like crackpot inventors.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

HD Lord of the Rings

Today TNT HD is showing all three Lord of the Rings movies back to back. I'm attempting to watch it all and I'm now about halfway through. It's quite the viewing marathon, but they are pretty spectacular in HD.

Update: I did watch all three movies back-to-back. Wow, with commercials that was really, really, long. I don't really recommend it.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Quote of the Week

"You can make a gamble more attractive by adding a strict loss to it! Isn't psychology fun? This is why no one who truly appreciates the wondrous intricacy of human intelligence wants to design a human-like AI."

-- From Evaluability (And Cheap Holiday Shopping), on Overcoming Bias

Friday, November 09, 2007

Haskell in the Shower

I thought this up while in the shower this morning. I think of the weirdest things in the morning when I'm half-asleep.

___ ___ _
/ _ \ /\ /\/ __(_)
/ /_\// /_/ / / | | GHC Interactive, version 6.4.1, for Haskell 98.
/ /_\\/ __ / /___| |
\____/\/ /_/\____/|_| Type :? for help.

Loading package base-1.0 ... linking ... done.
Prelude> :m +List
Prelude List> let primes ns = nubBy d ns where d x y = y `mod` x == 0
Prelude List> primes [2..100]

(Of course, this is not an especially good way of finding primes. It is more like a funny use of nubBy.)

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Haskell Substring Function

Somewhere out there a programmer is wondering, "Why doesn't Haskell seem to have a substring function? Why is this brave new world of functional programming so harsh and cruel?" (Well, maybe not the second part.) The isInfixOf function in Data.List does what you want. It isn't called "substring" because it also works with other types besides String. (See also isPrefixOf, isSuffixOf.)

I haven't seen this mentioned in Haskell tutorials so I'm posting it here.

Prelude> :m +Data.List
Prelude Data.List> "bc" `isInfixOf` "abcd"
Prelude Data.List> "zz" `isInfixOf` "abcd"

Friday, October 26, 2007

Cardboard - The Ultimate Camouflage

680 News reports that thieves concealed themselves inside a cardboard box in order to break into businesses at night and steal from them.

Detective Sergeant Reuben Stroble said anyone driving by would see the box and simply assume it was a delivery for the business.

"The concealment, I mean, no one would ever think of someone being inside a box in front of a storefront window in the middle of the night," said Det. Sgt. Stroble.

Video gamers will recognize the cardboard box camouflage as a signature trick from the Metal Gear Solid series of games. When I played those games, I thought that was a silly gimmick that was very unlikely to actually work in the real world. What's next? Will we discover that random barrels and crates really do contain power-ups?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Tales of Garlic

The other day we went to a local grocery store that specializes in international foods, and I got a jar of "Garlic in Oil with Herbs" from Poland. It turned out to be quite good, and so a few times a week I would open up the jar, take out one or two cloves of garlic, and eat it as a snack.

Then a few days ago, I decided to read the label more carefully, to find out the exact ingredients and the nutritional information. I was shocked to discover that according to the label the jar contains 2 servings! Eating half a jar of garlic at one sitting is considered a serving. I can't even imagine doing that.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

I Need To Work On My Lip-Reading

The new Bionic Woman TV show has the worst-mixed soundtrack I have ever heard. The latest episode sounds approximately like this:

"BAD MUSIC, whisper, BAD MUSIC, mumble, SOUND EFFECT, whisper, SOUND EFFECT, mumble."

At least 1/4 of the spoken words were too soft in the mix to be understood. It's like the sound engineers decided, "Hey, let's turn down those lines of dialogue because they're drowning out the dumb BLOOP-BLOOP-BLOOP noise that we worked so hard on."

Planning a What?

When I saw this headline . . .

Christina Aguilera Planning Duet With Aretha Franklin

. . . for a second I thought it said they were planning a duel. Now that would have been exciting! Flintlock pistols at 40 paces, at dawn?

Monday, September 17, 2007

Kumoricon 2007

I covered Kumoricon 2007 for JLHLS again this year. It was my third year at the convention, which was bigger than ever. The costumes were great, and it was a lot of fun.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Uh-Oh Level

My girlfriend has the habit of saying "uh-oh!" with no further explanation. Often this happens when we are in different rooms, so I can't immediately see what the problem is. So today I told her that from now on after saying "uh-oh" she should say a number between 1 and 10 to indicate the severity of the issue. For example, "uh-oh 1" would mean something like, "uh-oh, I can't decide which pair of shoes to wear." But "uh-oh 10" would mean something like, "uh-oh, the house is on fire, and also some zombies are trying to break down the front door to come in and eat our brains."

We'll see how this works. So far I have gotten an "uh-oh 3" which meant "I can't find my iPhone."

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Hollywood Version

Here's a mental game to keep you amused. Next time you're in a boring situation, imagine that instead you're in the Hollywood Version of the same scene. All the people around you are glamorous A-List celebrities. They are exchanging incredibly witty banter that took the screenwriters many drafts to get just right. The surroundings are impeccably designed and perfectly lit. And whatever it is that you are doing is not just some random, boring activity, but it is in fact a "pivotal moment" that fits perfectly into the clever plot and drives it forward.

The more over-the-top you imagine it, the better.

There's something quite funny about doing this exercise. You realize how completely unlike the Hollywood Version the real version is. I'm not sure why that's funny, but it is.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Early Summer Chatter

What To Get

Her: While I'm up, can I get you anything?

Me: Yeah . . . uh . . . a monkey.

Her: Let me rephrase that, can I get you anything that I reasonably could get?

Me: Well . . . um . . you could make us a pot of that "Monkey-Picked Oolong" tea.

Her: Why, because it was touched by a monkey?

Me: It has "monkey" in the name.

Slap Therapy

My brother: Slap me.

Me (suspicious): No.

[Note: if my brother wanted to spar, he would probably say something like "want to do some sparring?" Or if he wanted to try out some particular move, he would say "try to slap me." But just saying "slap me" as if he expected it to succeed made me think he was up to something.]

My brother: Come on, I won't hit you back. Slap me.

Me: No, I don't want to.

My brother, turning to my girlfriend: Slap me.

[She slaps him very lightly, almost a pantomime slap.]

My brother: Not like that, really slap me.

[She really slaps him.]

My brother: See?

Me: I don't understand the point of this.

My girlfriend: Hmm. Slapping him was kind of cathartic!

Me: Hey, you've invented a new type of therapy! You should write a book, and go on Oprah.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

An Army

Her: Time to clean the floor.

Me: We really need to have an army of robots for that.

Her: Nah, I'll just use the Swiffer.

Me: An army of robots would be cooler.

Her: Well . . . I guess it would be cooler.

Me: But eventually they'd rebel.

Her: And kill us.

Me: . . .

Her: I'll stick with the Swiffer.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Smart Cars? Why Not Smart Drivers?

'Intelligent' cars fitted with sensors to predict traffic flow can deliver the same fuel efficiency as hybrid vehicles, a new study shows.

[...] 'intelligent' cars are conventional vehicles fitted with sensors and receivers called telematics, which work in a network, swapping information about the traffic ahead.

This traffic information is then relayed to the car to stop the vehicle or slow it down so that the ride is smooth, avoiding the stop-start phenomenon that drains fuel.


They calculated that a hybrid version of the car would deliver fuel economy of 15-25% over the unconverted vehicle.

But this saving was matched when the benchmark car was fitted with basic telematics that predicted traffic flows as little as seven seconds ahead, as determined by Australian driving conditions. [link]

Wouldn't smarter drivers be just as effective as smarter cars? Wouldn't that be cheaper, too? The only way to get drivers to drive more smoothly is to have a computerized car override their bad decisions? How sad. And if we're going that route, maybe the car should refuse to start at all during peak traffic hours.

It is possible to get better mileage simply by changing driving habits. See Hypermiling.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Iron Monkey's Law of the Imagined

We think we enjoy our imagination because it simulates reality, but the truth is that we enjoy reality because it stimulates our imagination.

We May Outlive the Net

[Note: This is a World Without Oil post.]

We may outlive the Internet. To everyone blogging and podcasting about a World Without Oil, I admire your efforts, but I also must ask: what's your Plan B for when the power goes out? This energy crunch will not just be about gasoline and driving. The electrical grid is vulnerable, too.

"In fact, severe power shortages and rolling blackouts will now become a daily occurrence around the country over the next few years, according to NERC, because the antiquated power grid will be continuously stretched beyond its means - mainly a result of electricity deregulation, whereby power is sent hundreds of miles across the grid to consumers by out-of-state power companies instead of being sent directly to consumers by their local utilities, which is what the grid was designed for."(link)

Suppose you have off-grid electricity -- you have solar panels or windpower, or your own backyard wood burning steam engine connected to a generator. Maybe you even have a hand-cranked laptop. Cool! You're still ready to browse the web! But has your ISP made similar preparations? What happens if these disruptions cause them to go out of business? Where will your net access come from then?

So far most people treat the oil shock like it is "the" crisis, but in truth it is only "a" crisis, one of many, and unfortunately it is the one that will multiply all the others. For example, we know consumers feel the shock to their budgets at the gas pump. But some at the same time will face rising mortgage payments from their subprime ARM loans. Maybe they could have handled one of these problems at a time, but not both at the same time.

Here's another one: if the honeybee die-off takes a heavy toll on America's crops, we get the double whammy of reduced supplies of food at the same time as higher costs to transport it. One or the other of those would have been bad enough, but both? The oil shock creates a multiplier effect on other problems.

Finally, what about our aging population? Younger people might be able to use bicycles instead of their cars, and they may well benefit from the extra exercise, but what about senior citizens? Is grandpa, who can barely walk up a flight of stairs, going to suddenly jump on a mountain bike and start pedaling 20 miles a day? I don't think so.

When I say we may outlive the Internet, I realize those are strong words. I do think that in the future there will still be computers -- for those who can afford them, at least -- and some of those computers will still be networked together. I suppose there will still be web pages, too, but there will be far fewer people reading them. The Internet as the powerful social and cultural force that we know today may be dead. Easy, frequent, reliable access to the Internet by huge numbers of people may be a thing of the past.

We will need other tools. And we will need some other form of entertainment, one that does not depend on electricity. Better start building those Thunderdomes.

[Update: July 7, 2008. It appears that there is now some evidence that the food supply is being impacted by the lack of honeybees.]

Monday, April 09, 2007

Club Sakura 2007

Here are some images from Club Sakura at Sakuracon 2007.

This one (above) was a 15 second time lapse shot.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Sakuracon 2007 Cosplay

Here are a few more preview pictures from my Sakuracon 2007 coverage for JLHLS. Starting with the picture above, I really like it when cosplayers do cool poses like this one. This was not entirely a pose for the camera -- she was already sitting like this before I came over to take the photo.

This handmade samurai-style leather armor was incredible, made from thick leather plates it had a real feeling of substance. It was one of my favorites from the convention. This cosplayer told me he had worked on it for three years, on and off, and he learned how to make it by researching it on the internet.

This costume was made of a cool fluffy material that caught my eye right away. It had a natural look (well, as natural as neon blue can be anyway), like a real animal.

Stay tuned for more, I got a lot of good pictures from the convention, and I am writing an article about it for JLHLS.

Sakuracon 2007

I am in Seattle covering Sakuracon 2007 for JLHLS. I will post some preview images here in advance of my main article. These two cosplayers were having fun, and really getting into character. (They are dressed as Kei and Yuri from Dirty Pair.) I asked them to pose outdoors to get the city lights in the background and they agreed. Moments after I shot this picture it started raining, so our timing worked out well.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Manliest Purchase

Today I bought a chainsaw to cut up some fallen tree branches in my yard. I did not realize it until today, but apparently a chainsaw is the manliest, most impressive, sexiest thing you can buy. Other customers at the store looked at me in wide-eyed admiration, as if I were buying a jetpack or time machine. One guy told me, "wow, that looks serious!" The girl at the cash register smiled at me and explained that I was welcome to come by her place and help her with her yard.

I swaggered off towards the parking lot, grasping the chainsaw under one arm as if to say, "look, not only do I possess this extremely cool chainsaw, but with my huge muscles I can lift it with one hand as if it were a mere trifle, like a box full of feathers!" People look at you with more respect when you're carrying a chainsaw, even one that is still in the box. I think this must be what buying a Ferrari feels like, only much cheaper.

So I highly recommend buying a chainsaw, it is extremely fun. Buy one even if you don't need it. You can always return it the next day.

I told this story to my brother, and he immediately said I had ruined the effect by not also buying a hockey mask at the same time.

And that brings me to one of my brother's stories about buying things. He once told me that he went to Home Depot to get some caulk, and he couldn't find it, so he wandered around looking for it, getting more and more frustrated. I said, "why didn't you ask someone where it was?"

"Because I didn't want to have to say it," he said.

"Huh?" I thought about this for a bit before I caught his meaning. "Oh, I get it, you didn't want to have to say caulk out loud." I laughed. "That's silly. So what did you do?"

"I thought up another way to ask for it, so I called it that stuff that you use for sealing cracks. And it worked, they knew what I was talking about."

"But don't you think you're being a bit crazy? I mean, caulk is just what it's called. That's what everyone says. You're in a store, so they're not going to think you mean anything else."

"It's just really embarrassing," he said, "to have to tell some stranger that you want the caulk."

Sunday, March 04, 2007


Lately I've been doing some photomanipulation art using GIMP:
It is fun to find interesting stock photos on deviantART and then think up a way to make them into something more. Wake the Zombies was the trickiest to do, but Geisha Gunslinger is probably my favorite.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Jazz and Abstraction

In a recent post, Dyske Suematsu says that Japanese people like jazz more than Americans do, and this is because Americans are uncomfortable with abstraction, and don't appreciate instrumental music.

Most Americans do not know what to do with abstraction in general. To be able to fully appreciate abstraction, you must be able to turn off your thought, or at least be able to put your thought into the background. This is not as easy as it might seem. In modern art museums, most people’s minds are dominated by thoughts like: “Even I could do this.” Or, “Why is this in a museum?” Or, “This looks like my bed sheet.” Etc.. They are unable to let the abstraction affect their emotions directly; their experience must be filtered through interpretations.

I agree that most Americans are more comfortable with representational art than abstract art, and like pop music with lyrics better than instrumental jazz. But jazz used to be much more popular in America than it is today. What happened? Did Americans have a greater ability to appreciate abstraction in the past? How did they lose it?

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Light and Glass

I got the camera out and noticed that the reflection of a ceiling lamp could be lined up with the pattern on the glass of my front door. The camera flash makes the glass sparkle.

Thursday, February 08, 2007


The Psychology of Security, an article by Bruce Schneier, is worth reading even if you aren't very interested in security, because it lists and explains a lot of mental biases that cause people to think illogically, such as the anchoring effect. (Start at the section called Risk Heuristics if you don't want to read the whole thing.) These biases are kind of like "bugs" in the human "operating system."

To me, the oddest thing about these bugs is that we are usually unaware of them. It is kind of like the tone-deafness that afflicts some of the American Idol contestants, causing them to believe they are good singers even though they are horrible. The problem combines poor performance with inaccurate evaluation of one's own performance. But unlike tone-deafness, the bugs described in Schneier's article seem to affect almost everyone. That is the weird part. Imagine living in a world where 99% of people perceived music the way that the very worst American Idol contestants do. Most people would not notice anything wrong, but a few people would be very annoyed and wear earplugs a lot.

Well, it turns out that we do live in such a world, except musical perception is not the problem. It is the various types of everyday judgements listed in Schneier's article that we all keep getting wrong.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Day Video Gaming Saved Me

Today I narrowly escaped being in a car accident. I was in the center lane (of three), and there was a car in the left lane beside me and half a car length ahead. We were going about 45 miles per hour. Suddenly, without signaling or looking back, that driver swerved across all three lanes and turned off into a driveway, cutting me off.

I had no choice but to match his crazy maneuver, just six inches to his right, and I wound up being forced to drive up onto the sidewalk to avoid a collision with this madman. I really wish someone had captured the whole thing on video, because I would put it up on YouTube and become famous. It couldn't have been more perfect if it had been a rehearsed stunt for a movie.

Once I stopped and realized I had miraculously avoided any damage to my car, I had a weird suspicion. This guy's force-me-off-the-road technique was so good that . . . could it have been intentional? I waited to see if he would stop and get out of the car. But he kept going. That's when I realized that he was completely unaware of the whole incident. He didn't even know I existed.

I believe that I escaped this day without a scratch because of all the hours I spent playing Test Drive Unlimited on the Xbox 360. Playing that game trained me in spontaneous evasive maneuvers until they have become second nature. I don't normally need to do them in real life, but all the mental pathways are there. Video gaming has finally paid off.

Portland Auto Show 2007

My girlfriend was not that eager to go to the auto show with me, especially since we had to park far away and walk in the wind and cold. Standing in line she said, "this better be good." But once we got inside, she had a good time and wanted to see all the different brands before we left.
With the hatchback open, this Lotus looked like a blue metallic scorpion with its tail in the air.

The Audi concept car had an agressive appearance.

Though I enjoyed looking at the Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Mazeratis, and Lotuses, when it came to the category of "cars I might actually own someday" my favorite was this Mini convertible.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Horizontal Drop

In this Lexus commercial, a Lexus is seemingly dropped from a helicopter, while another Lexus on the ground drives under it before it hits the ground. The voiceover says "Gravity will propel this Lexus IS over 4000 feet in a matter of seconds. This Lexus IS will attempt to cover the same distance even faster. The Lexus IS 350. So much for gravity."

The version online that I linked to does not have any disclaimer text, but the version aired on TV says in small print at the beginning: "Based on horizontal drop. Aerial sequence simulated. Professional driver on closed course. Do not attempt."

I have two issues with this. First, what is a horizontal drop? Horizontal motion wouldn't be a "drop" at all, right? So maybe they mean that the car was dropped in a horizontal orientation. But if that is all it means, why do they need to say it?

Second, "do not attempt?" How would you attempt this even if you wanted to? I guess you'd call up your helicopter pilot friend who has both a Lexus and a huge helicopter and say, "Hey, I have this great idea, could you pick up your Lexus with your helicopter and drop it from 4000 feet while I try to drive under it? It will be awesome, just like in that commercial!" And he would say, "Wow, that sounds great! Let's try it on the street in front of your house. I'll be there in 10 minutes! Make a video so we can put it on YouTube."

And then you wouldn't drive quite fast enough, and the second Lexus would land right on top of you, killing you instantly. Then your family would have to sue Lexus because the commercial promised that the car would be great for that sort of thing.

Then in court the lawyer for Lexus would say, "Please look at Exhibit A here, where it says to use a horizontal drop, and do not attempt. The plaintiff did attempt this, and he didn't even use a horizontal drop, as directed." Then the judge would say, "Mr. McFlimmigidgie, please explain to the court what a horizontal drop is." And the lawyer would smile and say, "Of course, your honor, it is one where the car drops from side to side instead of down from above." There would be murmuring in the courtroom at this point. The neighbor, sitting in the audience would say, "I told him to use a horizontal drop, but he wouldn't listen, the poor bastard."

The trial would of course go on for another two weeks, filled with testimony from experts on dropping things from helicopters, but in the end the jury would come back to that phrase "horizontal drop" and find for the defendant. Case closed.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

American Idol

The American Idol auditions prove that there are several different types of bad singers. Some people have pitch problems, but they at least get close enough to the notes that you can recognize the melody. If they were shooting a BB gun, they would shoot at the bullseye but hit one of the outer rings.

Then there are the people who completely miss; they don't even get within a half step of the pitch. If they didn't sing the words, you would never be able to tell what song it was supposed to be. These are the ones who not only miss the bullseye, but put a hole in the neighbor's window at a 90 degree angle to the target.

You can tell a lot about the contestants before they start to sing, just by what they say before the audition starts. Good singers are realistic. They know that they are good, but they have heard a lot of other good singers out there too. They usually talk about preparation and trying to do their best. They have probably auditioned for singing parts many times before. They know that you can be good, but still not be what the judges are looking for.

It's usually the truly bad singers who are convinced they are a sure thing, because they are delusional. And if they are completely confused about one thing, they are usually wrong about everything else, too. So when unattractive people describe themselves as super sexy, they usually aren't good at singing either. It's part of a general pattern of not being realistic about themselves.

It is an especially bad sign when they boast about how "different" or "unique" they are. Hey, if you are nothing like any famous singer, guess what? It is usually because you are an awful singer. It's usually not because you have an incredibly beautiful type of singing that nobody else has ever tried before.

The biggest surprise for me this season is Paula Abdul. I'm really liking Paula so far this season. Last year I thought her odd behavior and speech patterns probably indicated that she was drunk. This year she seems alert, on the ball, and charming. Maybe she was just trying to be funny before.

Monday, January 15, 2007

So Many Eiffel Towers

In this video, average people on the street display their shocking lack of general knowledge. One guy doesn't know how many sides a triangle has. But my favorite has to be this one: "How many Eiffel Towers are there in Paris?" "Uh, about 10."