Archive for December, 2004

Hard to comprehend…

One of the most recent estimates I’ve heard for the tsunami death toll was around 120,000 150,000. Like most people, I am having trouble coming to grips with such a number in anything but an abstract form, so I have done my best to visualize it.

This circle is comprised of approximately 150,000 individual colored dots – that’s just one pixel per person. It may be a conservative estimate of how many people have died in the disaster, since most sources have it that there will be many more to come, due mostly to disease.

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NOTE: I was inspired to create this image when I saw this page linked from BoingBoing… I wanted to be able to "see" the number all at once, without scrolling.

7 Days Later

Have been away for a week, and decided to take a break from blogging during that time. Some accumulated thoughts and observations:

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Going virtually internet free for a week was relatively painless, but trying to "catch up" upon my return I suddenly feel like I am a coma patient waking up in an unfamiliar future.

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Speaking of the future, modern cars are pretty impressive I reckon. I highly recommend not driving for a year or two [or only driving a shitbox 80's car] and then taking a spin in your average mid-priced sedan; With all that automation and instrumentation, it almost feels like a personal spaceship! Except for the fact that the underlying propulsion systems are still based on exploding non-renewable fossil fuels, we’re living in the future!

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Rental car insurance is weird. When I dropped the car off yesterday I couldn’t help feeling a little ripped off that I had spent money on extra insurance – it’s as though I’m somehow annoyed that I didn’t have an accident! I guess this is the nature of insurance; no matter what happens, you will always be at least a little put-out.

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The editor of my crappy hometown newspaper [which has a proper web site now] felt it appropriate to include a "Bible Thought" for the Christmas Eve edition, the gist of which I think is that I’ll be going to hell – What a charming holiday sentiment! Click here to see a larger scan featuring this plus some charming if slightly incoherent readers’ letters.

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George Bush [Senior] once said, while on the 1988 campaign trail, “I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.” I had never heard of this quote until recently, and just thinking about it [and the fact that no one except atheists seemed to consider his remark offensive at the time – I don't think there was never an apology] makes my blood boil… And it makes me seriously wonder: If his [more overtly religious] son had to decide between saving the lives of two atheists and saving the life of one Christian, which would he choose?

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Tonight I watched a news update boasting that Australia had boosted its Asian tsunami relief package to $35M. The news update immediately followed an ad promoting the upcoming $31M Lotto draw, which made it seem like as a country we could probably give a lot more.

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The Moving Pictures song What About Me is a terrible, insipid song that has dated very badly, and it should never be recorded or performed again.

Sculpting in Software

The distinctive 3D paint program Z-Brush has come a long way since I last saw it. I recommend watching the Angler Fish Video, which demonstrates how an astoundingly complex and detailed model can be created from scratch!

This is like the modelling software I used to dream about! [when I used to dream about software... sad, I know...]

Longitude

John HarrisonA fascinating miniseries [based on a fascinating book] about a very fascinating man. It is currently being re-screened on [our public broadcaster] the ABC. Interestingly, having just heard Jeremy Irons’ character declare with great reverence that he will refer to the world’s first maritime clock as Harrison Number One, I flipped over to see an ad featuring obnoxious animated children [voiced obnoxiously by real children] getting excited about a visiting exhibition at the Australian Maritime Museum“featuring the H-1!”

Linkydinks

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1. 30 second bunny theatre
2. edge detection
3. helium
4. Wonka
5. His Dark Materials
6. Goodies reunion

Reading

Am still plowing through Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver, more slowly than I have ever read a book in my life. I phant’sy his habit of embedding coy historical references in every paragraph is kind of bogging down the narrative somewhat – “Look there, it’s old Mrs Goose from across the way, and she’s telling the children her nonsensical stories about tableware and lunar trajectories again… ”

Unfortunately for my long-suffering eyeballs, most of what I read is online these days. And mostly it’s blogs blogs blogs, or other frequently updated pages. Although I don’t read nearly as many as some people, I am pretty happy with the ones I subscribe to [about a third of which are listed publicly on my blogroll ]

Perhaps because he doesn’t blog per se, Paul Graham is someone I keep forgetting exists, but he does at least have an RSS feed to notify of new essays, so I’ve added it to my subscriptions. Paul writes fantastic essays about programming, politics, work, society, etc, all in a very approachable style.

It seems to be a constant throughout history: In every period, people believed things that were just ridiculous, and believed them so strongly that you would have gotten in terrible trouble for saying otherwise.

Is our time any different? To anyone who has read any amount of history, the answer is almost certainly no. It would be a remarkable coincidence if ours were the first era to get everything just right.

- Hackers and Painters: What you Can’t Say, by Paul Graham

Another entity whose style I have been enjoying lately is he who comprises Outer Life.

At any time, you can choose to read any one of a million or so books. How many of those million books would you enjoy? I’m guessing very few. If instead I chose your next book, would your chances of enjoying your next book increase or decrease? Even if I had superior taste and discernment, and was familiar with your reading preferences, I’ll bet you’d be happier, on average, with the books you selected yourself.

The Gift of Reading

Since I’ve always phant’sied myself as a producer rather than just a consumer, consideration of reading inevitably leads me to contemplation of writing. It seems that every time I read a good book, I am left with the desire to write a good book. The same can also be true for bad books, although in this case the mechanism is substantially different. When I read a good book, I think: Wow, I wish I had the ability to create such a compelling story, and to express it so well! I gotta improve my skills! When I read Dan Brown, I think: Holy shit, I didn’t think stuff like this was even publishable! I gotta get in on the action!

“On the Virtues of Idleness”

Quitting the Paint Factory, an essay by Mark Slouka, brilliantly articulates much of what I feel about the whole work/ambition thing, and notes the perceived distinction between idleness and leisure:

Leisure is permissible, we understand, because it costs money; idleness is not, because it doesn’t. Leisure is focused; whatever thinking it requires is absorbed by a certain task: sinking that putt, making that cast, watching that flat-screen TV. Idleness is unconstrained, anarchic. Leisure – particularly if it involves some kind of high-priced technology – is as American as a Fourth of July barbecue. Idleness, on the other hand, has a bad attitude. It doesn’t shave; it’s not a member of the team; it doesn’t play well with others.

It’s a fairly long article, but well worth reading. Toward the end it veers into the political and draws a connection between the stated ideals of the Italian Futurists and the personal style of G.W. Bush.

“We will glorify war – the world’s only hygiene – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers….. We will destroy the muse­ums, libraries, academies of every kind….. We will sing of great crowds excited by work.”

- Filip­po Marinetti

[via BoingBoing]

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See also: In Praise of Idleness, by Bertrand Russell, 1932

Don’t ya hate it when…

You spend a gazillion hours needlessly redesigning your lame-ass website – yet again – only to realize that you’ve managed to create something that looks like a freebie template from some old express version of a Microsoft product…

I just wanted some color, you know? … and to get rid of borders around everything – so claustrophobic! And for what it’s worth, the header image was created from an actual photo from my window, so it’s more personally relevant than it looks.

Another minor change is that the age of the posts are now being shown on the front page [under each post title], rather than just the date and times. When you’re interested in "freshness", knowing that an entry was posted 7 hours ago is more useful than being told that it was posted at 5:10 pm on Monday, December 13th, 2004 [GMT+???] I got the idea from Michael Heilemann, who keeps a very tidy site indeed [he even started using auto-complete in his search box before Google Suggest !] and whose original Kubrick CSS I have been steadily mangling in the service of my pathological* urge to revise.

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* This entry was originally going to be called something like “The Pathology of Constant Revision” , but then I realized I wasn’t 100% sure that that would mean what I want it to mean, and that I wasn’t about do write anything so deep as to justify that title, so I decided to go with something a little more… approachable.

On Steam

Have seen a fair bit of bitching aimed at Valve with regard to Steam, the distribution & authorization system required to run Half Life 2. Until now I had assumed that people were shitty because they couldn’t play the game until they had authorized their copy via Steam… but now I realize [my internet connection being temporarily down] that you can’t play unless you are connected… ie you can only ever launch this [single player] game while you are online!

When I tried to run HL2 without a net connection I got an error saying “This operation cannot be completed when Steam is in offline mode.” Even though the game still appears in the Steam menu with a launch option. Showing properties on HL2 explicitly declares: “Offline Mode: Ready” – Silly me had assumed that this meant: “Ready to play” , when of course I should have read it as: “Ready to tell you to fuck off, even though you’ve just spent US$60 to download this game”

Until now I had considered Steam to be a slightly fiddly but logical way to distribute content, but now I see it more as a steaming pile of shit, effectively forcing my computer to ask Valve’s permission every single time I want to play this game.

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UPDATE: It seems I am mistaken, it is not so simple as I had thought, and now it does seem possible to play offline without hacking; unlike earlier today [???], if I disable my net connection I can now can play Half-Life 2 offline – so basically, I don’t have a clue what the problem was before, but the official word is that offline play is supported. Apologies for the half-cocked rant, but hey, you know… Half-Life 2…

Creepy G-Man does tiny cameos!

Playing through select sequences of Half-Life 2 in "difficult" mode, I have thus far noticed two separate instances of the G-Man [or Briefcase Man] appearing in the distance.

The first time I saw him all I could think was: "Oh my god! It’s that guy from the intro! He’s standing right over there looking at me! I’ve gotta run as fast as I can to try to catch up with him! … Hey, where’d he go? He was just here I swear!" which is probably how the designers would like me to respond…

Sparklines

Am quite inspired by some of [renowned design guru] Edward Tufte’s latest writings, namely a beautifully illustrated [preview] chapter called Sparklines: Intense, Simple, Word-Sized Graphics. The basic idea is that information is sometimes easier to absorb when it is compressed into a scale and density comparable with text, rather than spread out over a page with unnecessary borders, shadows etc. PHP has image handling extensions which make it fairly easy to generate such images on the fly, so I have started tinkering a bit [as have others].

The tiny graph charts the sizes of my last 100 posts, and is about as simple a sparkline as you can get. Although it doesn’t provide much in the way of quantitative information, it may be sufficient for certain types of data where patterns or general trends are more significant than the actual values.

Compare with the more traditional graphical presentation:

which dominates visually, taking up more than 35 times as much space on the page. Obviously those numbered axes are useful, but Tufte shows that with a few extra details a sparkline can often be quite a powerful conveyor of information.

In another home-made example, the following visually demonstrates [I hope] the strong correlation between post size and the interval between posts:

I like this one because it looks like a reflection, which seems appropriate in this case since it implies that the one data series is reflected in the other. Causation is not so easy to discern, but I suspect that it goes both ways, ie a long post is often left at the top of the page for a while, allowing it to be read properly before being bumped, whereas a long interval enables excessive rumination, which in turn may result in an extra long post.

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UPDATE – March 31, 2005: Click here for source code and a simple PHP demo allowing you to build your own sparklines. It’s nothing too fancy, but may be enough to get you tinkering…

It was Lumpy all the time!

It’s not every day that you get to resolve some long-standing issue from your childhood, but tonight I was fortunate enough to finally lay to rest something which has been eating away at me these past 20 years or so…

You see, back in 1983 when Return of the Jedi came out, and ewoks were all the rage, I recall being confused by a feeling of deja vu; I was positive I’d seen the little critters before.

Then I realized that it wasn’t ewoks I has seen before, but wookiees. Child sized wookiees. But where could I have possibly seen a miniature wookiee? Chewbacca is the only representative of his species featured in the original Star Wars trilogy, and he’s seven feet tall! Not only that but I was sure that the wookies I’d seen were more… domesticated… in that they lived in a house and watched television and played with toys.

Sounds like a dumb kid’s boring Star Wars infested imagination at work doesn’t it? At least that’s what I’d convinced myself, as the total lack of corroboration made my vague childhood recollection seem stupider and stupider.

But now, thanks to a chance post on DarrenBarefoot.com, I am finally vindicated! There really was a show which featured a family of wookiees living in a treehouse [Chewbacca's family, no less!], and indeed it included a child character.

Seems that Chewbacca’s got a son. Name of Lumpy.

The name of the mysterious TV show in question was – and I am not joking – The Star Wars Holiday Special. Follow the link for info on the cast [everyone!] and the "story", as well as some excellent stills. Since I just watched the whole thing1 I should probably give a quick review of it here:

REVIEW: The Star Wars Holiday Special is the Worst TV Show Ever Made.

Too quick? Ok, so maybe it’s not as bad as Sydney CTV’s Kings Cross Vampires, but it runs a very close second. And Kings Cross Vampires doesn’t feature Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford or R2-D2.

The Star Wars Holiday Special really does open with Chewbacca’s family grunting and moaning incomprehensibly for what seems like ten minutes… and that really is Harrison Ford constantly hugging Chewbacca and promising to get him home for the rather pathetically named "Life Day". Chewbacca’s father and son really are named Itchy and Lumpy. Guest star Bea Arthur really does perform a musical number as the bartender at the Mos Eisley Cantina … About the only thing you won’t find hard to believe about this special is that it was made in 1978.

How I ever managed to see it in the first place I don’t know, but clearly I did, and it was amazing how familiar key scenes were. The one that stuck most [ie lodged most deeply in my delicate psyche] was when a stormtrooper corners Lumpy in his room and smashes the transmitter he has only just assembled [a present from Art Carney]. To my then six-year-old self, a fellow child being hassled in his bedroom by a stormtrooper was probably a pretty distressing image.2

Thanks again to Darren for posting about this… Perhaps now I can finally put the memory of Lumpy behind me, and get on with my life.

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1. The complete program + a few extra bits is available as a BitTorrent from suprnova.org somewhere out there– just search for "Star Wars Holiday torrent" and you’ll find it sooner or later.

2. Fortunately Lumpy suffers no further harm, thanks to Han Solo who arrives in the nick of time and convinces the stormtrooper to leap through a balsa wood railing with a heartfelt Aieeeee!