Archive for February, 2010

Five Prisoners, Five Switches

It is the year 2020. Anti-intellectual conservatives rule much of the world, locking up anyone who might be smarter than they are. In one of thousands of gulags spread across Jesusland (formerly known as the continental United States) a particular warden with a chip on his shoulder about the oh-so-superior eggheads under his charge devises a fiendish experiment to torment them.

The warden has five of the most smug and superior mathematicians removed from their isolated sound-proof cells and brought to a room, to inform them that they have completed their terms for thought-crimes against the common-sense wisdom of ordinary God-fearing people, but that there is just one thing he needs them to do before they are released. He has them seated, then gestures to a small metal case on the table in front on them, on the front of which are five toggle switches in a row and a menacing red flashing light.


“Gentlemen and Ladies. Your sentences are complete, and inside this case are your official release papers. But I have decided not to process them just yet. Instead, I wish to teach you a much-needed lesson in humility. You see there are five switches here, they control the electronic lock on this case. And there is only one arrangement of the switches which will open the case. It is like what you call, binary, no?”

The mathematicians nod silently, and the warden continues.

“Each day at noon I shall select one of you at random, and have this case brought to you in your cell, at which time you may choose, optionally, to flip the position of any one of the five switches you see here. And that’s it. A maximum of one flip per visit.”

The mathematicians listen attentively, and say nothing.

“Now… if and when any of you hit upon the correct combination the case will automatically open, and all five of you may take your leave, to undergo cultural rehabilitation or be deported to a heathen country of your choosing.”

The mathematicians keep listening.

“HOWEVER!” screams the warden, as his face breaks into an evil grin, “if the same combination is ever tried twice– and this is my favorite part– a small incendiary device inside the case will be triggered, destroying your only hope of freedom, and probably burning you quite badly into the bargain!”

One of the mathematicians raises her hand, “This all sounds a bit elaborate. Did you have the case made specifically for this test?”

“My dear sorry excuse for a Lady, this is none of your concern– suffice it to say we have substantial engineering resources to draw upon from E Block. Now, I leave you to ponder your fates. You have 5 minutes to decide how you will play this fiendish game, after which you will be escorted back to your cells, probably to never see each other again. Bwoohahaha!”

With that the warden snatches up the case and leaves the room.

“Oh crap” says one mathematician, “Did anyone think to check the current combination?”

His comrades shake their heads sadly, and they quickly set about devising a plan.


What is the best plan? How long until the mathematicians are free?

Supplemental: Since RichardC answered this one pretty quick, I want to see solutions to the above which will still work in the situation that the evil warden decides to skip a random day each week.

Oh look, it’s almost everything I own


Selling stuff is not fun… I can’t believe how long I have put this off, and I dread the weekend when a percentage of buyers inevitably flake. I am supposed to be leaving on Monday. Gah!

Rom Houben and facilitated communication

houben.jpgA few months back, a long term coma patient named Rom Houben hit the news when it was revealed that he was in a “locked-in” state, ie fully conscious but unable to communicate this in any meaningful way. The breakthrough was made when he began speaking through “facilitated communication”, a technique where an intermediary would hold his hand and amplify his slight muscle movements enough to type his thoughts on a keyboard.

‘I screamed, but there was nothing to hear,’ said Mr Houben, now 46, who doctors thought was in a persistent vegatative state.

‘I dreamed myself away,’ he added, tapping his tale out with the aid of a computer.

Many skeptics called bullshit immediately, being well aware of the lack of credible evidence that facilitated communication was anything more than a variety of the ideomotor effect (also the mechanism behind dowsing, which is also bullshit).

Even if it hadn’t been largely discredited as a technique, video footage showed Houben and his facilitator tapping away on a keyboard at a remarkable rate, even when his eyes were closed or not directed towards his hand. Anyone with half a brain immediately called for a basic test to be performed to verify whether it was Houben or his facilitator speaking for him. This would involve telling him something while his facilitator was out of the room, and then inviting her back to help him describe what had been said.

Well it appears they finally got around to performing such a test*, and wouldn’t you know it… he [ie his facilitator] failed!

Dr Steven Laureys, one of the doctors treating him, acknowledged that his patient could not make himself understood after all. Facilitated communication, the technique said to have made Houben’s apparent contact with the outside world possible, did not work, Laureys declared.

“We did not have all the facts before,” he said. “To me, it’s enough to say that this method doesn’t work.” Just three months ago the doctor was proclaiming that Houben had been trapped in his own body, the victim of a horrendous misdiagnosis, and only rescued from his terrible plight thanks to medical advances.

The part of this new article that bugs me most [apart from the fact that it avoids pointing out that everyone clearly fucked up and should be ashamed of themselves] is this paragraph:

The sceptics said it was impossible – and it was.

No they did not say it was impossible; as mentioned above they expressed great skepticism and called for the claim to be verified in a simple and scientific manner. Skeptics don’t declare anything impossible; they simply don’t accept extraordinary claims without extraordinary evidence to support them. That throw away sentence also implies that we thought it was impossible outright, as though we could not accept that someone in a coma might be fully conscious (as completely horrible as that would be).

Skeptics never cry “Impossible!” – they simply cry “Prove it!”


* the testing was carried out by Belgian skeptic group SKEPP who describe their findings here and conclude:

The international news coverage of this case has given many relatives of coma patients false hope, and the advocates of the illusionary facilitated communication got an undeserved publicity boost. The emotional impact on patients′ families can’t be underestimated. The decision to present this case before the international media was premature, to say the least.

Worst pickup line ever

plunger.pngI stopped in at the Warehouse this evening (a popular chain store here in New Zealand) to buy a sink plunger, something which for some reason was not stocked by my local supermarket. As I roamed the hardware aisles searching in vain, a moderately attractive woman and [presumably] her young daughter stopped me to ask a question.

“Excuse me, but do you have any paint under your arm?” she asked, smiling broadly. For a moment I just stared at her, since it was such an odd question. Then I glanced down to see what shirt I was wearing, for it struck me that she may have assumed I worked there and was needing some paint-related advice – once before I had worn a red shirt while shopping and a woman had confused me for staff. But no, I was wearing a dark blue t-shirt.

“I’m sorry, what?” I replied.

“Do you have a pain, down your left arm?” she asked again, more clearly this time. This didn’t really seem much less odd than what I had thought she asked the first time.

“Um no, not at all, why?”

“Because when I walked into the store I felt a sort of pain down my arm…” she began, and the hairs on the back of my neck pricked up. I suddenly feared that this strange woman was about to suffer a heart attack in front of me, and vaguely wondered why she expected it to be a shared experience. Still smiling warmly, she continued.

“Sometimes God speaks to me through feelings like this, and I saw you and just wondered if He was telling me to speak to you.”

I held her gaze for a moment, then looked down at her daughter, who was looking up at me with the sweetest and most innocent expression I can imagine.

“Oh ok, well sorry no it’s not me” I said to the woman, and took my leave as she continued to beam at me.

The whole exchange left me with a feeling of intense sadness; mostly because of the look on the child’s face. It was entirely, utterly trusting, and filled with a sort of gormless wonder. What is that poor girl in for?

After putting some distance between us I stopped in the stationary aisle to ponder the experience, whereupon I glanced down to see at my feet a solitary sink plunger, standing upright on the floor.

God sure knows how to help those who need it.

What 3 years and 20 kilograms looks like

I had a dream last night that I was thin, and my disappointment on waking up inspired me to put together this little before-and-after set:


In some ways I think there is a bigger physical difference between myself at 37 and 34 than there was between 32 and 16 (see this old post)

Apart from the giant Popeye forearms, I’d quite like to get back to my previous (nominal) weight this year. Funny how now when I look at photos of myself from more than a few years ago I now find myself liking the way I looked, when at the time I was at best ambivalent. I really hope I can reverse this dreaded face puff…

Selling Stuff

I’ll be getting rid of practically everything I own over the next couple of weeks, in preparation for leaving New Zealand at the beginning of March. This means I will be spending lots of time answering really dumb questions on the NZ equivalent of eBay, TradeMe, while also being frustrated that there is no way to contact bidders directly to inform them of late changes they might need to know about (eg “Oh shit the electric bike you’re bidding on has suddenly stopped working”).

The site is also on my minor shit list right now for being a little overzealous on how they go about recouping from sellers the astronomical expense of maintaining a website that hasn’t been improved since at least 2005 (complete with banner ads, and lacking an iPhone/mobile optimized view).

Dear TradeMe,

This is in relation to auction 267984251.

It seems I have been charged two success fees, even though I only sold one item. The initial arrangement fell through, so the item was then sold via fixed price offer. Hardly a remarkable turn of events.

Please refund the initial “success” fee of $15, since it makes no sense at all to charge me twice for selling the same item. Incidentally it also makes no sense for TradeMe to try to charge or penalize the original buyer in this case, as I believe they acted in good faith.

Why on earth do you charge immediate success fees before any verification that the sale is successful? How about waiting the 3 days you made me wait before I could even ask for my money back?

I imagine MANY auctions proceed as this one did, and it is ridiculous to me that you would expect me or anyone else to pay a fee for something that did not end up happening.

You charge commission for successful sale, fine. you also put banner ads on your site, fine. Don’t try to rip me off for a false start as well.

Again, please refund me the $15 for the first “success” fee– you can see for yourself the item was ultimately sold to someone else, what concern of yours is it that the original sale fell through?



I think I’ll have to write more complaint letters to companies and institutions on the flimsiest of pretenses, because these letters are perfect as blog posts, being whiny, self-righteous and ultimately about something that is probably of little-to-no consequence.

ἄθεος (atheos)

A possible variant on the atheisk/athterisk, incorporating letters from the original Greek atheos.


Looks a lot more secret society, which might appeal to some, and also a nice reminder that atheism is not just a modern fad. Maybe it could even inspire some Christians to realize that were they living in the ancient world, atheism would have been the most correct choice, since polytheism is of course a load of balderdash. And then maybe the wheels would start turning in their heads, wondering if future generations might realize the same thing about today’s monotheistic religions– ha! Wishful thinking I know.


From coverage of the already insanely over-covered paid appearance of Sarah Palin in front of 600 tea-bagging rubes.

[Truck driver Gail] Dorody’s main concern is that the rest of the world no longer has respect for America.

“We have a president that goes around apologising for us. For what? If it wasn’t for us most of the countries out there would be destroyed,” she says.

If Ms Dorody would pull her head out of her ass and read or watch something other than Fox News she might realize that the only reason the rest of the world respects America in the slightest right now is because of Obama. Seriously, we all hated Bush and by extension the people who elected him. Under Bush the US took the unprecedented international solidarity that followed the 9/11 attacks and squandered it all in less than 8 years.

The problem with dealing with political opportunists like Palin is that while you can fight fire with fire, you can’t fight blinkered reactionary stupidity with anything. You just have to hope it burns itself out.