Saturday, 30 June, 2001

Can't Trust Anybody Anymore

The local Boy Scout Troop puts on a pancake breakfast every 4th of July down at the Sam Bass Fire Station.  It's quite a deal, actually:  for $3.50 ($3.00 in advance) you get all the pancakes, sausage, milk, coffee, and orange juice that you can eat.  Debra and I try to make it every year.

Advance tickets are sold by Scouts who travel door to door.  This afternoon I was being a slug--reading on the couch--when the doorbell rang.  I opened the door to find our neighborhood Scout hawking tickets for the breakfast.  So I invited him in while I went to find my wallet.  He didn't budge so I invited him in again.  He started to stammer and get embarrassed and I finally figured out the problem (I'm dense at times).  What kind of idiot 12-year-old kid is going to step foot into a stranger's house these days?  I apologized, got my wallet, and bought a ticket.

The kid was only being smart, which is a very sad commentary on our society.

Wednesday, 27 June, 2001

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

Lies, damn lies, and statistics.  This from the office's Jokes mailing list:

Number of physicians in the US: 700,000.
Accidental deaths caused by physicians per year: 120,000.
Accidental deaths per physician.... 0.171 (U.S. Dept. of Health &
Human Services)

Number of gun owners in the US: 80,000,000.
Accidental gun deaths per year (all age groups): 1,500.
Accidental deaths per gun owner: 0.0000188

Statistically, doctors are approximately 9,000 times more dangerous than gun owners.

"FACT: Not everyone has a gun, but everyone has at least one Doctor."

Please alert your friends to this alarming threat.  We must ban doctors before this gets out of hand.

What struck me as humorous about this little gem was that it illustrates a fairly typical type of argument that you can find on Internet news groups and such web sites as Plastic.com or slashdot.org.  The attacker presents two sets of seemingly related statistics (often made up on the spot), and then makes an outrageous statement based on a comparison of the statistics.  Replace "doctors and guns" with "nuclear plants and coal-fired plants," or "blacks and whites," or "Democrats and Republicans."  The issues change but the arguments remain the same.  SOSBNB (see yesterday's entry).

These kinds of messages are often referred as trolls (as in trolling for replies) or flame bait.  All too often, though, the person who posts such a message actually believes that it is a valid argument, and will defend it with increasingly shrill and incoherent messages.  It's an interesting phenomenon to observe, but gets tiresome quickly.

Tuesday, 26 June, 2001

Game Review: Alpha Centuari

I discovered the addictive quality of turn-based strategy games in 1981 with a game called Santa Paravia and Fiumaccio on the TRS-80.  Not much of a game compared to today's standards, back then it was captivating and I spent almost an entire week of my 3-week summer vacation playing it with a friend.  You can find a free Windows version of that game at http://www.jeffrey.henning.com/app/paravia/default.htm.  A couple of years ago I found a TRS-80 emulator for Windows, and was able to download the BASIC version of the game.  You can find anything on the Internet.

I avoided resource management games for the next 15 years, until I was hired by Microprose to work on their Civilization III project.  Figuring I'd better learn something about the genre, I immersed myself in Civilization II.  Fascinated at first, I quickly became bored with the game's limitations.  I played Railroad Tycoon II for a while when it came out, but I prefer turn-based rather than real-time strategy games.  I burned out on gaming, and didn't play much of anything for a couple of years.

I saw Sid Meier's Alpha Centuari in the bargain bin ($9.99) at Best Buy last week, and picked up a copy.  This was being developed about the same time Microprose was killing Civilization III, and I remember looking forward to its release.  It looked like my dream game:  a follow-up to Civilization II with more unit types; unique personalities, strengths, and weaknesses for the different factions; and some automation to help relieve the drudgery.  I spent a few evenings last week and most of the weekend playing the game.

The game is beautiful.  The terrain is nicely rendered, the units look great, bases actually expand as their population grows, the menus look great, and the music and sound effects are wonderful.  Beyond that, though, there's not much to differentiate it from Civilization II.  Each faction has strengths and weaknesses, but they're not anything that other factions can't acquire.  The game A.I. is still entirely too apt to start a war, and the automated city managers are mindless automatons that rarely guess correctly which improvement should be built next.  Automated transformer units seem to randomly transform terrain rather than take into account the needs of a base, and they often start transforming squares that aren't even within any base's perimeter.  Very little has been done to relieve the tedium of having to micro-manage bases.

In the late stages of a game, it's not unreasonable to have dozens of cities, many of which will build new improvements or military units at any given turn.  If you're waging a military campaign, you'll want to move those new units to a base that has a transport so you can get the units across the ocean.  With dozens of bases, it's difficult to remember where the new units are and where the transport is.  Rather than present you with a list of new or active units and their associated locations so you can batch select and order them to the transport base, the game activates each unit in turn and expects you to tell it where to go.  The result is a tedious and frustrating game.  I can understand micro-managing a handful of bases and units, but the game's automation facilities should grow as your civilization grows and becomes more advanced.  I want to manage an empire, not single-handedly construct every building and fight every battle.

It's as if they took the core Civilization II code (a nightmare, believe me--I've seen it), wrapped it in a new user interface, added some units and other cool stuff (build your own unit types, big freaking deal), and called it a new game.  They concentrated on flash rather than game play.  SOSBNB (same old shit in a brand new box).  Don't waste your money on this turkey, even if you find it in the bargain bin.

Monday, 25 June, 2001

The Computer Speed Limit

I saw this item on Slashdot the other day.  arstechnica.com has published an article that discusses the theoretical ultimate limit of processor speed.  Using a hypothetical 1 kg computer, the author computes the available energy (E=mc^2), and the amount of energy needed to effect a state change in the computer.  It's a fascinating article.  The math is approachable, but not entirely necessary to understand the article.  Note that this is a theoretical article that doesn't concern itself with manufacturing processes, heat dissipation, or even the problem of where to get the energy to drive the thing.  On the contrary, if you converted the entire mass to energy in order to effect a state change, there'd be no more matter left to change state.  So the practical limit is surely much lower than the theoretical limit.

This is the first article I've seen that approaches the problem from a strictly theoretical standpoint.  All of the other articles I've read discuss limits of the current manufacturing processes or materials.  Good stuff, and well worth the read.

Well I apologize for the missing entries.  Call it vacation.  I've had a very bad week:  aggravated an old back injury, serious insomnia, and a general reevaluation of my current situation have left me with little inclination to sit down and write.  Except for last night and this morning when, due to the aforementioned sleeping problems, I was able to get started on what I hope to be my first ever piece of fiction.  Why?  Why the heck not?  Fiction is fascinating to read, and I've long tossed around the idea writing it.  I'm not attempting the Great American Novel or anything--just a medium-length short story.

Speaking of writing fiction, I recently picked Stephen King's book On Writing.  I've always liked King's work (his short stories and early novels are the best, in my opinion), and this book ranks right up there with the best.  The first part of the book is a memoir or short autobiography, and the second part gets into some of the mechanics of writing.  The second part could stand on its own, but I think it's much better when viewed through the knowledge gained by reading the first part.  Apart from the writing advice (which rings true to me, but then I don't know much about writing fiction), the best part about the book is the presentation.  King writes as though you're having a little after-dinner discussion, and speaks as a peer rather than some high mucky-muck who knows everything.  He writes in a no-bullshit style with a fair amount of humor and no pretension.  Very enjoyable. 

Sunday, 17 June, 2001

Linux on the Business Desktop

Is Linux a viable desktop solution?  It certainly is not a viable general desktop solution for the average computer user.  I say this for two reasons.  There is still limited user-oriented software available for Linux, and It is still difficult for a non-technical computer user to install new programs on a Linux system.  Let's face it, if installation requires the user to log in as the superuser, at least half of the audience will be unable to install it.  And if they have to do anything other than click on the "install" icon (like run multiple make files or download new libraries), you've lost the vast majority of users.  No, Linux is still too difficult for the general non-technical user.

But.  There is a growing population of home and business users whose use is limited to a small handful of applications.  Many home users, for example, just want to check their email, browse the web, and maybe write a letter or two.  Many business users are very similar:  email, word processing, spreadsheets, web browsing, and maybe a vertical market application.  With a little work in documentation and training, Linux and Open Source software could make huge inroads in those two markets.  The market is ripe for a "business desktop" Linux distribution--something that dispenses with all the flexibility that general distributions like SuSE, RedHat, Mandrake, Debian, etc. provide, and instead has an easy to use installer that provides the operating system, X Window system, a standard application suite, and comprehensive documentation.

I'll have to ponder this one a bit more.

Saturday, 16 June, 2001

A Wedding and a Theory

My next door neighbors' daughter got married today, and I was honored to attend.  She had invited both Debra and me, of course, but Debra's in Phoenix helping out a friend who is ill.  As I was watching the ceremony I realized something:  in every wedding I've attended and every wedding picture I see (mine most definitely included), the bride looks like she belongs in that dress and the groom looks like a deer caught in the headlights.  I got to wondering why that is.  Here's my theory.

From the moment a man proposes marriage to a woman, she's thinking constantly about the wedding.  Where will it be?  Who's going to attend?  What will they wear?  What will I wear?  The woman plans the wedding.  By the time the wedding rolls around, she's entirely comfortable with the idea.  Sure, there are some minor jitters on the wedding day, but she's got it under control.  Men, on the other hand, propose and then promptly forget all about it until they're reminded from time to time to take care of some small detail.  When the wedding day rolls around, the man finally realizes "this is the day," and finds that he's totally unprepared for the major change that is about to occur in his life.  That deer in the headlights look is the outward expression of "what the heck have I done?"

Hey, it's a theory.  Anybody have a better idea?

Friday, 15 June, 2001

Snickers Cruncher Candy Bar

So this afternoon I got craving a candy bar and headed upstairs to the snack machine.  I was only half paying attention when I dropped my 35 cents into the coin slot and pressed the button for a SNICKERS bar.  Ripped it open, took a bite, and promptly spat it out.  Ugh!  It was one of those new SNICKERS CRUNCHER bars, the wrapper of which is deceptively similar to the traditional SNICKERS that I've grown to love.  Why'd they do that?

The Cruncher bar has chocolate and peanuts, sure.  But they've replaced the nougat with crispy rice.  The result is a semi-dry slightly crunchy bar that tastes like Rice Krispies smothered in stale peanut butter.  Ick.

Thursday, 14 June, 2001

What's In My Pool?

One of the disadvantages of having a pool is that I often find dead animals floating in the traps.  Sometimes I get lucky and am able to get them out while they're still alive.  When I went outside yesterday morning I found a little critter trying to get out of the pool.  The little thing was dog paddling against the side but was unable to get a grip on the tile surface.  So I grabbed a landscape timber and put it in front of the little guy so he could climb out.  It was still shivering on the log when I left for work 30 minutes later.

So what is it?  At first I thought it was a baby 'possum (I was only half awake), but after looking at the picture (and after seeing another 'possum this evening), I'm not so sure.  It might be a relatively large rat.  As long as it stays out of the house, I'll leave it alone like I do the other animals in the area.

Maybe I should put some water bowls around the pool so that animals will drink out of those rather than fall in the pool.

Update 04/08/2005: Yes, almost four years later.  Isn't the Internet a wonderful thing?  A helpful reader sent me a message saying that he thinks this is most likely a nutria rat.  I knew there were large rodents in Central and South America, but I didn't realize we had them in abundance here.

Wednesday, 13 June, 2001

Various Book Reviews

Caught up on my reading again on the trip.  On the way out to D.C., I picked up and read Randall Wallace's Pearl Harbor, from which the recent movie was made.  The book is a fairly typical sappy love story wrapped up in a war novel, and not terribly interesting.  Both the love story and the war novel are poorly done.  Reading it certainly didn't make me want to see the movie.  The book has a number of inconsistencies that are indicative of poor proofreading, poor editing, or a can't-miss deadline.  For example,  when describing Doolittle's raid on Tokyo the author refers to the B-25 as a four-engine bomber.  Anybody with even a passing knowledge of WWII aircraft--and certainly the author of this book--should know that the B-25 is a twin engine light bomber.  Somebody should have caught that one before it went to press.  Other inconsistencies are similarly jarring.

David Morrell's Burnt Sienna is another fairly typical book:  exactly what I've come to expect from him.  Warrior turns peaceful man, gets screwed and gets even.  I guess I need to start reading different authors because all of my previous favorite authors are just turning out the same old story wrapped in a new title with a few odd twists.  The names and places change, but the situations remain the same.  Yawn.

Every once in a while, though, I'm surprised.  I picked up the English translation of Pierre Boulle's Planet of the Apes; the 1963 novel that spawned the movie with Charlton Heston, along with the three or more sequels.  The book was prominently displayed because the new Planet of the Apes movie is set to release in a few weeks.  What a fantastic book!  The original movie shares little in common with it, and entirely fails to capture the book's feeling.  This book is an absolute must-read for science fiction fans, especially if you don't like the Planet of the Apes movies. 

Tuesday, 12 June, 2001

Wishing for Quiet

In contrast to Saturday, which was my best commercial flying experience in quite some time, this evening's trip home from Washington was difficult.  I don't much care where they seat me on an airplane, as it's easy enough to tune out the engine noise, but a family with three screaming kids whose parents can tune them out is almost unbearable after the first hour and a half.  By the time we landed in Dallas, I was tempted to muzzle the kids and beat the parents.  Following that, I was treated to an over-loud television in the Dallas departure lounge, more annoying cell phone freaks, and an incredibly inane conversation between a 23-year-old Romeo and the young woman he was trying to hit on, who were sitting behind me on the flight to Austin.  Tomorrow I'm going to buy some of those disposable ear plugs and put them in my travel bag.

I've come to realize that quiet is among the most precious conditions, perhaps because it is increasingly difficult to find.  Everywhere, noise.  Background music in all too many restaurants is loud enough to preclude quiet contemplation or pleasant conversation.  Airport departure lounges have annoying cell phone users, blaring televisions, too-loud background music, and screaming kids.  Step outside in the city and hear sirens, trucks, and booming car stereos.  Go camping and the people two sites over start screaming at each other or some idiot starts up his motorcycle.  The lake is full of jet boats and personal water craft.  Even out in the country where I live it's hard to get away from noise.  Lawn mowers start at 7:00 on the weekend and go all day.  Inside, the the refrigerator's running and the air conditioner comes on entirely too frequently.  Noise, noise, noise.

I find little so precious as a quiet Spring night at home, when it's cool enough to forego the air conditioner.  If I turn off the computer and stay in the back of the house, I don't even hear the refrigerator--only the occasional aircraft flying high overhead now that they've moved the airport.  It's not perfect.  Perfect would be a house in the middle of several thousand acres, away from major highways and normal air routes.

Monday, 11 June, 2001

Lincoln Memorial and More Wandering

I finished my work at the client's site early today (tomorrow is user training), and decided to complete my tour of the Mall.  So I lugged my laptop the ten blocks down to the Lincoln Memorial, where I got this picture and a few of the Mall facing east.  I also spent some time at the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial, where I met a former Marine who knows some of the people I went to school with.  It certainly is a small world.  I heard somebody say once that if you were looking for somebody the best place to hang out is London's Trafalgar Square.  Sooner or later, that person is bound to pass by.  If you're looking for an American and you can't afford a trip to Europe, I suspect the best place to hang out would be the Capitol Mall.

Walking back to my hotel (lugging that darned laptop), I noticed some things about the city that aren't apparent on the weekend.  I thought drivers in Austin were in a hurry, but they have nothing on Washington drivers.  These people are impatient.  If the lead car at an intersection isn't moving when the light turns green, somebody a few cars behind will honk.  Green apparently means "you should be moving already."  And although drivers are cautious of pedestrians in much of the Downtown area, they do not take kindly to pedestrians on the slightly less congested streets.  Crosswalk and signal notwithstanding, you're taking your life into your own hands when you cross Constitution Avenue just north of the Lincoln Memorial.

Other observations:  a lot of people walk to work here, certainly a higher percentage than walk to work in Austin.  It's not uncommon to see a man or woman wearing a business suit with running shoes, carrying a pair of dress shoes.  The streets aren't as crowded as Austin streets, either.  As I understand it, most people take a 30 or 60 minute Metro ride from their homes in Virginia or Maryland.  This is my first experience with real Big City living, and it's altogether different than anything I've ever experienced.  There also appears to be a higher percentage of smokers here.  There are cigarette shops on every corner and the hot dog vendors on the street sell cigarettes, too.  Smoking is prohibited in all of the government and office buildings, but pubs and restaurants are a different story.  When we moved from Phoenix we noticed that Texas had a lot more smokers.  Texas has nothing on Washington, though.

Sunday, 10 June, 2001

Wandering Around Washington

A free day in Washington, D.C. is a mixed blessing.  Not having been here before, I wanted to see everything, but there's so much to see that I doubt I could see everything on the mall (the two mile stretch between the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol) in a single day.  Probably it'd take more like four days.  But I gave it a shot.  I walked from my hotel down to the White House, then to the Washington Monument and east towards the Capitol.  The Smithsonian Castle and many of its associated museums are located on this stretch of the Mall.  I spent several hours in the Air and Space Museum, continued on to the Capitol, and then to the Library of Congress which unfortunately is closed on Sunday.  I turned around then and headed west on the Mall, skirted the Capitol Pride rally (talk about alternative life styles--some of those people may have been another species), where I spend a couple of hours in the Museum of American History.  Then I headed back up 14th street to my hotel.  I figure I walked four to six miles between 10:00 and 6:00, not counting strolling around the museums.  It was a fine day for a stroll:  sunny, about 85 degrees with a light south wind.

Washington is a beautiful city this time of year.  Everything is green, the streets are clean, and the landscaping appears to be meticulously maintained.  Oh, the squirrels are out in force, too, and they aren't a bit shy.  The one in the picture came right up to me and seemed pretty annoyed when I didn't have a treat for him (her?).  Down on the Mall I was sitting under a tree and when a half dozen squirrels started to approach I began imagining an Alfred Hitchcock script.

While I was examining the antique tractors in the Museum of American History I overheard a man tell his son that early tractors had steel wheels because "the farmers didn't want to have blowouts."  Now this is something that I'd say just to get a laugh, but when I looked over at the guy he looked dead serious--not even a hint of a smirk on his face.  He's either very good at delivering lines like that, or he actually believed it.  I'm hoping it was the former.

Saturday, 09 June, 2001

Stretch SUVs in Washington D.C.

I flew to Washington, D.C. this afternoon to visit a client on Monday and Tuesday.  I flew today because the difference in fare between flying Saturday and flying Sunday was over $600.  That more than pays for an extra night in the hotel, and other expenses.  I'm staying at the Crowne Plaza on 14th and K streets--five or six blocks northeast of The White House.  The hotel apparently isn't very busy on the weekends.  Tonight's rate is $129.  The rate for Sunday and Monday jumps to over $200!  For that I  get a regular old hotel room with nothing special:  a double bed, desk, chair, credenza, and TV with HBO and the OnCommand movie system.  Location, location, location.

I walked a couple of blocks up the street this evening to have dinner and a beer at a local pub, the hotel's restaurant being altogether too stuffy for me.  On my way back I saw something that stopped me in my tracks:  a stretch SUV.  Imagine a glossy black Lexus RX300 with 8 or 10 doors.   No cheap Cadillac limousine for these folks, no siree.  As if we dion't have enough what with everybody trying to get a bigger SUV than his neighbor, now the competition has moved into the limo market.  Unfortunately I just saw the monster coming zipping down L Street and didn't get a real close look.  I don't actually know the make, just that a quick glance reminded me of the Lexus.  In any case, it certainly wasn't as tall as a Ford Excursion or a Chevy Suburban.

Figuring I might be able to find something on the web of infinite oddities, I looked up "limousine SUV" on Google.  The first interesting link was to Craftsmen Limousine, who will stretch your imagination, your SUV, and likely your wallet.  Some of the photos in their image gallery are very frightening.

Friday, 08 June, 2001

Kylix Power Solutions

The book is out!  At least I've received my author's copies, which means that it should be in book stores soon.  We even created a little web site at www.kylixpowersolutions.com.  Since the book doesn't include a CD with the code listings, we figured it'd be a good idea to make them available on the web.  In the future, we'll include a sample chapter and an errata section.  We probably won't be able to include a discussion forum, as none of us has the time to moderate such a thing.

Kylix Power Solutions is targeted at Windows Delphi programmers who are moving to Linux, and also current Linux C/C++ programmers who want to take advantage of the Rapid Application Development features found in Kylix.  For Windows programmers, it answers the question "How do I do that in Linux?"  For Linux programmers, the question is "How do I do that in Pascal?"

Kylix Power Solutions is a bit different from other Kylix books in that it concentrates on the system level:  processes, file systems, pipes, signals, semaphores, shared objects, and other Linux features that are not encapsulated by the class library supplied with Kylix.  It should prove equally useful to desktop and server applications developers.

Thursday, 07 June, 2001

Digging Up The Phone Line

A week before the ditch digger came to make holes in my yard (see June 2), a guy from the telephone company came by to mark the locations of any underground utilities in the area we were going to be digging.  He dutifully noted that there were no electric, gas, or water lines in the area, and he marked the path that the phone cable takes from our house to the switch box over on the next street.  Imagine our surprise, then, when the ditch digger unearthed (and cut) what appeared to be a telephone cable far from the marked path.  Figuring it was an old cable left over from when the pool was put in (before we bought the house), we thought nothing more of it.  We came home this evening to find that somebody had made a splice.  Turns out that it was the line leading to our neighbor's place.  Odd that it took them three days to find and fix the problem.

The power company came out this morning to connect the new underground wire to the service pole, and the electrician finished his work.  The plumber finished yesterday, and the drywall contractor comes in tomorrow to give us an estimate.  It's actually coming together, and I'm getting impatient to have the project completed.  We have to put the project on hold temporarily, though, because both Debra and I will be gone next week:  she to help out a friend in Phoenix, and me to visit a client in Washington D.C.

I do need to get some pictures of this stuff before it all gets covered up. 

Wednesday, 06 June, 2001

Movie Review:  Dogma

I rented the film Dogma on DVD over the weekend, and finally got a chance to watch it this evening.  Considering the source (written and directed by Kevin Smith who also wrote and directed Clerks, Mallrats, and Chasing Amy), I expected a campy offbeat comedy.  I wasn't disappointed.  The film is, well, odd.  And hard to categorize.  Strangely humorous throughout with a few gut busters thrown in here and there, I walked away laughing and shaking my head over the silliness of it all.

Here's the setup.  Loki (the Angel of Death) and Bartleby (another Angel) were cast from Heaven for disobeying God (a woman, it turns out) and exiled to eternity in Wisconsin, never to return to Heaven.  The Pope has declared a "plenary indulgence," allowing any mortal who walks through the doors of a certain church in New Jersey to have all his sins forgiven.  Bartleby figures that if he and Loki can become mortal (by cutting off their wings) and then walk through the doors of the church, all their sins will be forgiven.  If they die with a clean slate, then they'll be able to reenter Heaven.  They won't be Angels, but at least they'll be back in Paradise.  The only problem with their plan is that if they enter Heaven they prove God wrong, thereby destroying all existence.  So The Powers That Be send an unusual cast of characters to help the last living descendant of Jesus Christ (Linda Fiorentino) stop the two from exploiting this loophole.

I'll admit that it's a very convoluted plot line, but it's very well executed.  We're treated to signature performances by Matt Damon (Loki) and Ben Affleck (Bartleby), and Alan Rickman does a very good job as Metatron (the Voice of God), giving us a good taste of the dry, ironic wit that I liked so much in Galaxy Quest.  Like all of Kevin Smith's films, Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith) play an integral part.  Other notables in the film include George Carlin, Chris Rock, and Salma Hayek.

The film is rated R, probably for the language, which does get tiresome at times.  Although I busted a gut when Jay let his foul mouth loose in God's presence.

The Catholic League and other organizations protested the film and Miramax Films who financed the picture refused to release it, opting instead to sell it to another distributor.  Critics and many fans of Kevin Smith's work disliked the film.  Yes, the film pokes fun at the Catholic Church and organized religion in general, and it's very irreverent, but hardly worth getting your knickers in a twist.  As for the critics, well, I don't usually agree with them.  I mean, The Last Emperor won an Oscar for Best Picture?  They should have left that entire film on the cutting room floor.

Tuesday, 05 June, 2001

Average What?

I sometimes wonder if news reporters think about what they're saying.  For example, when Ann Taylor of NPR's All Things Considered gives the stock market report, she will sometimes say "The price of an average share increased by one dollar."  The problem is that there's no such thing as an average share.  What she means is that the average price per share increased by one dollar.  This "average syndrome," as I call it is not limited to stock marked reports.  I often hear about the "average person" who weighs 182.34 pounds.  I've yet to meet one of those average people who meets all of the qualities assigned to him.  It's quite a different thing to say "The average American drinks 2.3 cans of soda per day," rather than "On average, Americans drink 2.3 cans of soda per day."

I can usually figure out what's meant when somebody falls into the average trap.  It's harder (sometimes impossible) to figure out the meaning of the phrase "two times faster."  Some people use that term to mean "twice as fast," which isn't correct.  100 MPH is twice as fast as 50 MPH.  150 MPH is two times faster.  This gets even more ambiguous when people use percentages.  Some say "50 percent faster" to mean "50 percent less time."  But in order to cover the same distance in 50 percent less time, you have to travel 100 percent faster (twice as fast).  Both usages of "faster" are correct in certain contexts, but it's sometimes hard to determine context.  And all too often I hear of a process that takes half the time as another described as being "100 percent faster."  In the context of elapsed time, "100 percent faster" would mean that it takes no time at all.  Is it any wonder I'm often confused by news reports?

Monday, 04 June, 2001

Capital Punishment

Capital punishment has been much in the news lately, especially with the recent Timothy McVeigh debacle involving the FBI's mishandling of investigation documents.  Here in Texas there's the case of Johnny Paul Penry, a mentally retarded man convicted of the 1979 rape and murder of Pamela Carpenter.  The United States Supreme Court today overturned his death sentence for the second time.  The first sentence was thrown out in 1989.

It probably comes as no surprise that I support capital punishment, especially in cases as clear cut as these two.  McVeigh has publicly admitted planting the bomb that killed 169 people in Oklahoma City and withdrew appeals of his sentence; effectively saying "get it over with."  Penry has freely admitted planning and executing the rape of Pamela Carpenter, and then killing her so she wouldn't "squeal" on him.  This while he was on parole for a previous rape conviction.  I have yet to hear a good argument in either case why the sentence should not be carried out immediately.

It struck me today that human language doesn't exist in a vacuum.  Obvious, I know, but hear me out.  Languages have evolved over thousands of years in response to the ever-increasing human body of knowledge.  Early languages were simple because they only had to express simple concepts.  As humans began learning more and developing more advanced concepts, we extended our languages to express those concepts.  This evolution of language continues today, despite some governments' attempts to control their official languages.  So what's the point?

Years ago I thought I wanted to study natural language processing--teaching a computer to understand and use written human languages rather than cryptic one- or two-word commands.  I bought a couple of books and did a few weeks of research, and decided that I couldn't do the topic justice on a part-time "for fun" basis.  At the time (15 or so years ago), most of the attempts I saw were dictionary based involving a database of words and common phrases somehow encoded with their associated meanings.  The computer scans some text for recognizable words and phrases, looks up the meanings, and provides an appropriate response.  The major problem with this approach is that it's limited by the size and accuracy of the database.  More importantly, this approach doesn't allow the computer to learn new words or new meanings.  Why?  Context.

Context is the key to understanding natural languages.  For humans, the context is the world and communicating with the people in it.  We don't learn that the word "no" by having somebody tell us the definition, but rather by being told "No!" when we do something wrong.  To a child, the word "no" means "don't do that."  It's only later that we understand that "no" is a negative response to a question.  But computer programs have no understanding of things, people, and places, and thus no real understanding of our context, which I think is required to understand our languages.  The question researchers should be asking (I don't know if they are, as it's been a long time since I studied the field) is whether it's even possible to teach a computer to understand context.

Saturday, 02 June, 2001

Garage Conversion

About two years ago, I started converting our back room (what used to be a 2-car garage when the house was originally built) into a laundry room, office, entry way, and pantry.  I framed the walls, put in most of the electrical outlets, and then stopped.  I've restarted the project from time to time, putting in some lights and switches, wiring the office for phone and computer, etc., but it's been an unfinished project because I've done just about all that I can do comfortably by myself.  I'm not about to try moving the water heater, for example, or burying the electrical cable that runs from the street to the house.

We've finally hired a contractor to come in and finish the project.  The plumber comes in tomorrow to move the water heater and plumb a sink (including a rather tricky drain).  The ditch digger will be here with his rock saw to cut holes in the driveway so we can bury the lines from the street to the house, and from the house to the detached garage.  And the electrician will show up in the afternoon to add some new circuits.  By the end of the week, we should be ready for the drywall guy.  It'll be nice to have the new office, with space for my production machines as well as an experimental computer or two.