February 28, 2003


Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:26 PM


Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 10:25 AM
I spent last evening playing Xenosaga, of course; today I really need to get my homework done. So of course I'm going to talk about it again, but I'll leave out the spoilers this time. I won't say anything that can't be found in the manual, anyway.

I didn't see anything quite as kickass as some of Wednesday night's scenes, but there was definitely some good stuff. A nice boss battle too. On account of that battle I've seen the game over screen already, but it was a lot more effective than the tutorial in imparting understanding of the battle system.

At this point I've met the remaining two party members, and I must say they don't measure up to the previous four. Quite literally, in fact, because MOMO and Jr. are both children. This seems to be something peculiar to Xenogears; in other RPGs you get your occasional Eiko or Relm, but between Maria, Emeralda, and Chu-chu the Yggdrasil looked like a goddamn day care center. I think this can detract from the epic sense of the story. I mean, imagine if Lord of the Rings had a bunch of short people with no fighting skills running around doing stupid stuff? Ok, bad example.

Of the three aforementioned Xenogears munchkins, Emeralda should get a pass since (a) she's not a human child, but an artificial machine that takes the form of a child; (b) she's technically the oldest party member by several millennia; (c) she can be changed to an adult form later in the game. Unfortunately, while MOMO is also artificial, the deadly warrior machine role is already filled by KOS-MOS. I suspect as far as fighting goes MOMO will be more in the mode of Maria. Meanwhile Jr.'s fighting style is clearly mini-Billy, but his character's very different. Actually I find his entourage more annoying than Jr. himself.

My preferred party at this point: Shion (or Ziggy if I need more offense), KOS-MOS, chaos.

February 27, 2003


Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 9:51 AM
Before you die, you see the pendant.

I'm going to write about my Xenosaga impressions today, because I've been walking around in a daze all morning replaying the cutscenes in my mind. The Federal Office of Spoiler Protection mandates that I issue the following spoiler warning: I'm going to write about the first few hours of the game; if you've seen Ziggy make his first appearance, you're safe.

Like Xenogears, the game starts out with a long and fairly boring introductory sequence. Walking around the Woglinde talking to people is not very different from walking around the Garden in Final Fantasy 8. (Except that Squall's not around, which is always a bonus.) However, the game is also like Xenogears in that it lulls you into the introductory mode only to shatter it with an action sequence that grabs you by the collar and pulls you into the game like a hapless Gnosis victim. From this point on I was completely enthralled.

Speaking of the Gnosis, the first thought I had on their first real appearance is that they are very reminiscent of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Instead of mindless incorporeal beasts that inflict instantaneous mystical death, the Gnosis are mindless incorporeal beasts that inflict gruesome and unpleasant death. (Actually the Gnosis are fairly obviously not completely mindless.) Personally I don't mind this similarity; the problem with FF:TSW was not really the monsters but the lack of coherent plot, compelling characters, or interesting dialogue. Xenosaga Episode 1 has none of these problems so far.

As for the characters, it's obvious that I'd prefer a game that stars a research scientist to one that puts a professional sports player in the role of the hero. The fact that said research scientist is female and wears a cleavage-exposing uniform only helps matters. However, the real show-stealer in the opening is not Shion but the awe-inspiring KOS-MOS, who should be an example for Square of what a badass character is like (they seem to have forgotten recently). At the beginning Shion displays a maternal affection towards her creation, and the player naturally thinks of the android as a child, so we share Shion's dismay when she enters the real world as a deadly and heartless machine.

The use of subtlety in this game is greatly appreciated, again in contrast with Final Fantasy X where the hero's every thought and emotion was explicated in a tiresome voice-over. Xenosaga has no voice overs. Instead, we take cues from the characters' dialogue or body language. In perhaps my favorite moment from my session last night, we see the bridge of the Elsa just for a moment through the android's eyes after chaos enters. She seems to be taking in the scene calmly, but in the corner of her perception she is replaying, over and over, her memory of chaos walking through the door. (For those trying to decipher this paragraph without having played the game, "chaos" is a character's name, spelled deliberately in-game with a lowercase c. This is either gratuitous quirkyness, or representative of his being a manifestation of chaotic forces in a human form.)

One thing I'm undecided about is that this game is even more plot-heavy than Xenogears; I had my controller sitting on the floor unused for 20 or 30 minutes at a time while pre-scripted scenes played out. The great thing about Xenogears, though, was the story, and if this installment continues to be so good I probably won't mind if it's light on gameplay.

Now, some predictions:

  • The master villain of this episode will also be the master villain of Episode 6. If I recall correctly 6 episodes of the saga are planned, but Episode 5 (Xenogears) resolved all running conflicts on the Xenogears planet itself. The only thing left to do for a sixth chapter is for the inhabitants of the planet, perhaps the descendants of Fei and company, to go out into space and resolve any unfinished business from this episode.

  • Allen will die before the ten hour mark. Allen is too bland and shallow a character to have a major role. I'm actually surprised he's survived this far. The alternative is that he is relegated to some kind of support role - he might be the person to talk to when switching party members, for example.

  • chaos knows more about what's really going on than anyone else. A stereotypical character is the young boy with amazing innate powers who doesn't understand his abilities or his role. chaos is just pretending to be this character, and he's not trying very hard to keep up the ruse, either. He's too confident in his actions. I suspect he's a major behind-the-scenes player. That or the Lord of Nightmares.

  • Hammer is the most loyal and reliable character in the game. Just because we're all thinking of his Xenogears predecessor.

February 26, 2003


Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:36 PM
A game I've been eagerly awaiting for years has arrived at my apartment. Meanwhile, I'm in my office grappling with a factor of two error. The thing to do in cases like this is simply to declare at the end that I have obviously dropped a two somewhere by accident, and multiply it back in. This works unless it's actually something subtle like the radially symmetric simple harmonic oscillator only having odd (or is it even) solutions. Hey! That's it, I don't have the correct momentum operator in cylindrical coordinates. Soon I can go home, and play my awesome, cool game... my precious.

(Sorry about the jargon, but I really did come up with the answer while writing this entry.)

February 25, 2003


Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 8:49 AM
This morning I have been contemplating the question of what America would be like if there were no children here.

Of course, some drastic measures would be necessary to acheive this state. All persons under the age of 18 would have to be expelled: sent to Canada, Mexico, the Pacific Ocean - doesn't really matter. Perhaps we can drop them on Iraq. Then sterilization would have to become mandatory for all U.S. citizens. These proposals may seem extreme, but they are a price I am willing to pay.

The benefits are immediate and obvious. The quality of life rises immediately, as adults have both more disposable income and more leisure time. Productivity improves as well; no employees are taking maternity leave anymore. We reduce our dependence on foreign oil as former soccer moms trade in their SUV's for lower capacity cars.

Government bureaucracy can be trimmed since many services are now unnecessary. New funds would become available for underfunded programs, or perhaps for a tax cut. America retains its world-class university system while jettisoning the K-12 public schools. Are you listening, President Bush? Here's a tax plan and an education plan I can really support. It puts the "No Child" in "No Child Left Behind".

Many social ills are eliminated in a childfree America. Horrible crimes like child molestation simply never occur. Teen pregnancy and welfare moms are no longer a problem. Crimes frequently committed by children, such as vandalism, are sharply reduced. Tobacco companies no longer target their advertisments to minors. The MPAA movie ratings system becomes obselete, and Hollywood directors and screenwriters express themselves freely without worrying about the box office consequences of an R rating.

No politician enacts censorious legislation "for the sake of the children". Abortion is no longer a political issue. The religious right, forbidden by their faith to undergo the sterilization treatment, simply leave the country.

Most importantly, it's very quiet now. No screaming kids in the grocery store, on the airplane, on the floor above your apartment. No parents yelling at their misbehaving brats at the mall or a restaurant. America would become internationally renowned as the most peaceful and serene country on Earth.

"But," I hear you say, "as the population gets older there will be no labor force to support them!" Ah, but many young people in other countries will see the shining beacon of childfree America, and will immigrate here to join our happy and prosperous ranks. In this way the United States will maintain its proud tradition as a melting pot, a nation of immigrants looking for a better life.

It's a beautiful dream, but I fear too few of my countrymen will realize the benefits of this plan. Someday, though, I will conquer a tiny island nation and create my childfree paradise.

February 20, 2003


Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 10:58 PM
There's a fine line between exciting and silly, between badass and overdone, between serious and merely dull. Daredevil, like its blind protagonist, has no idea where these lines are. Tapping its cane, it wanders back and forth across them, the audience cringing each time.

Also: The line between sharp, witty writing and boring stock dialogue is not so fine. More of a vast gulf, really, and Daredevil is standing squarely on the wrong side.

Also: The slow motion Matrix jump kick is officially no longer cool when they have twelve year old kids doing it.

Also: Cowboy Bebop seems to have started a trend; I honestly can't think of a better use for an ornate stained glass window than throwing people through it anyway.

February 19, 2003


Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 10:07 PM
As regular readers will recall, tonight's SPS film was Snatch. It's a nice violent film with no major female characters, which makes it an excellent choice for future Valentine's Days. It's also a good film to watch after you discover that your check card number has been stolen and used to purchase $800 of car parts online.

Now the thing about committing credit card fraud over the Internet is that you don't get your ugly-ass spoiler or comically enormous exhaust pipe if you don't provide a shipping address. So I can hold out hope that the cops will walk up this fuckwit's driveway past his newly tricked-out Acura Integra and haul his ass off to federal pound-me-in-the-ass prison. This would require a Tyrone-esque level of stupidity on the part of said fuckwit, though, so it's probably an unlikely fantasy. Still, if he's dragged away in handcuffs perhaps it will give him time to contemplate why he thought I wouldn't notice $800 missing when it's more than half my monthly paycheck (after taxes).

Probably not coincidentally, I read today that a hacker has stolen eight million credit card numbers. Check your statements carefully!

On a completely unrelated note, I ran into one of my former students at tea today. She said she had a (physics) question for me, but I guess it wasn't very urgent, because she never got around to asking it.

February 18, 2003


Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 10:48 PM
I discovered yesterday that The New Republic posted a Valentine's Day rant on their website. Now, I'm all in favor of ranting about Valentine's Day, and this one started out well enough, but then the author proceeds to say some bizarre things. Note that the site requires free registration; I'm sure the conservatives in the audience will be reluctant to give their e-mail address to a left-wing hive of scum and villainy like TNR so I'll quote liberally (heh) from the article.

The author, one Michelle Cottle, is railing against what she calls "super-efficient methods of mate-location, such as Internet dating, speed dating, or dating coaches". (Note the admission that these methods are super-efficient - I'll get to that.) She's not overtly objecting to these methods themselves (though I think there is some implicit disdain); what she discusses are the attitudes people have about them. Most of the article, in fact, is devoted to a complaint about the most common reason given for using such services:
While sociologist types offer a number of reasons for the change in dating patterns and attitudes--people are marrying later, women have more life choices, dating has fallen out of vogue in college--the individuals who use these new services overwhelmingly give the same reasons: They're far too busy for regular dating.

On the surface this seems like a very hip, modern explanation for employing services that might once have been (unfairly) regarded as the last bastion of losers. After all, nothing makes you seem more important today than being an overworked career guy/gal with two cell phones pressed to your head and a Blackberry strapped to your belt at all hours of the night. But, really. Too busy to date? Or even meet people? Please. How long can it take to introduce yourself to some hot young thing at the office, the gym (somehow time-strapped singles are able to make that Tuesday cycling class), or the corner deli for God's sake? And, let's face it, if you don't have time to pause for the occasional getting-to-know-you frappucino, maybe you shouldn't be in a relationship at this stage of your life. In fact, a little more alone time might be just the thing to help you decide what really matters in life.
So far this makes a lot of sense to me. This excuse about being too busy to meet people really is bogus, which is why I avoid using it. If I spend all my time in lab that's a choice I'm making, and if I'm willing to devote some of that time to a relationship instead I should be willing to devote it to meeting people in the first place. So I don't think this is a real excuse, but I think people give it (as Cottle says) because there's a stigma attached to using these services, and they feel a need to justify it. Anyway, the article continues like this for another paragraph, but then she says something very strange.
All of which would be okay if people went into these things with realistic expectations, meaning that they approached the search for a mate much like they would the search for a good personal assistant.
What? I certainly agree that realistic expectations are important, but how do they validate the "I'm too busy" line? Don't relationships take time and effort regardless of how you approach the search? She makes a very strong point earlier and then weakens it with this line. And it gets worse.
If what you seek is the most efficient way to locate someone who shares your basic values and has the same practical aims for a relationship (financial security, kids, occasional S&M, whatever), then these time-saving services could work like modern day marriage brokers. But listening to people talk about finding their dream girl online or experiencing that intangible spark during their third speed-date encounter, you gotta assume most of them fall into that huge pool of Americans hell-bent on finding their One True Love. Time crunches aside, we remain a hopelessly romantic people: USA Today reports that 87 percent of young folk expect to find their "soul mate" when the time is right. That they're only prepared to spend 30 minutes a week cruising the web for that special someone doesn't strike them as problematic.
Yes, the "soul mate" attitude is an unrealistic one to have when using Internet dating services. But it's equally unrealistic for traditional approaches! I could just as easily say, "That they're expecting to encounter that special someone by chance at the gym or the deli doesn't strike them as problematic." This point is totally unrelated to modern vs. traditional approaches to dating.

Just to hammer home the point of how generally unrealistic this soul mate idea is, let's look at the numbers. A soul mate is supposed to be a rare and special thing, so let's assume that the colloquial phrase "one in a million" accurately describes the probability that any given soul is a mate. Then I have about 6,000 soul mates in the world, and 6 in the San Francisco Bay Area. Of course this is just counting souls; we haven't taken into account the physical body they inhabit. I have a few reasonable criteria there: the soul should be female, and roughly my age: let's say an age bracket that spans 10% of the female population. Suddenly there's only a 30% chance that I find a soul mate if I check every female in the SF Bay Area. And then what are the odds she's available? And a non-smoker, and physically fit? Once I start throwing in the requirements for a girlfriend in addition to being a soul mate, it's clear I'm not going to meet her by talking to girls at the gym.

Fortunately I'm the cooly rational type and not the hopeless romantic type, so I'm just looking for compatible women. And those seem to be a dime a dozen; there were at least one or two in my small high school, and at least one or two in my small, mostly male college. The odds of meeting one are actually pretty good; the tricky part is figuring out whether a given woman is compatible. Presumably this sort of attitude is what Cottle means by "realistic expectations", but it's orthogonal to any argument about online dating; it applies equally to meeting people in meatspace.

Ok, so I've got my realistic expectations, and I've got my free time dedicated to meeting women. Do I buy a gym membership or a DSL line? Cottle doesn't actually say explicitly. But here's a hint:
My hope is that the folks using these time-saving services to find Mr. Right aren't really "too busy." Maybe they're too shy or too nerdy or too fat/bald/loud/afraid of rejection to feel comfortable meeting people all the usual ways and assume that "too busy" sounds less pathetic.
Basically, she hopes that people using online dating et al. are losers rather than just too busy! That's not a very nice sentiment. It also implicitly assumes that there's no sensible reason to use these services unless there's something wrong with you. She admits that they're more efficient, but then in the final paragraph tries to cast this efficiency as a bad thing, since being too busy is bad. But the "too busy" excuse is an aspect of the users of these services, while efficiency is an aspect of the services themselves - they're totally separate. Maybe I'm not too busy, but I still value efficiency. Maybe my time does have some value, and if I can spend less time meeting women without sacrificing effectiveness, I can spend that time doing something else I enjoy.

With that in mind, let's consider one of Cottle's underlying assumptions: that online dating, speed dating, etc. are highly efficient. I'm not entirely sure this is the case. In physics terms, we want to consider signal strength and signal-to-noise ratio. How many compatible women with reciprocal interest do I meet, and how many other women do I meet in the process? There are obvious problems with each. In the case of online dating, one can skim through a lot of profiles quickly, or set up search criteria that pick out the profiles that match those minimum criteria. This vastly improves signal-to-noise. But falsifying one's appearance online is trivially easy, if not in one's long-term interest. (Anything else can also be a lie, but this is true in meatspace as well.) Additionally people give a different impression writing online than they do in person, and ultimately the in-person interaction is what's important. Finally, the fact that one's selection has increased goes along with one's competition increasing - and for males, this occurs in an unfavorable proportion. The attractive women who post a profile online are going to get messages from men who are more attractive than you. You'd better learn to market yourself well, or the whole exercise is a waste of time and money.

On the other hand, suppose I use Cottle's apparently preferred method and hang out in Cafe Strada. Certainly I'll be able to evaluate physical attractiveness right away. (We all like to say we're not shallow, but of course this is important.) On the other hand, the overwhelming majority of the women I see will be unavailable. Even some of the single ones just want to drink their coffee and not be bothered. If I'm lucky enough to get one to talk to me, now I have to be clever and witty and engaging, all on the fly and without knowing anything about the person. This method really is more difficult and has a lower signal-to-noise ratio, so Cottle should at least make some effort to convince us that this is preferred.

Maybe the solution is to take ballroom dancing lessons. An old fashioned form of speed dating, I guess, assuming one changes partners with relative frequency.

February 17, 2003


Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 10:18 PM
I got email today from "luv2dnce" with a subject line that had "SNATCH" in all caps. I came so close to deleting it unread as it was obviously spam.

Turns out Snatch is the Society of Physics Students movie this week. Do they realize what their messages look like?

February 14, 2003


Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 10:47 AM
I saw this story this morning about how the current terror alert was partly based on information from a prisoner that has turned out to be false. Initially, I was just surprised that the alert was based on any information at all, except for perhaps a vision John Ashcroft received while ritually flagellating himself in the head with a ball-peen hammer. Nevertheless, it's reassuring that this latest plot turned out to be a figment of a prisoner's imagination. At least, it was reassuring until I read how the FBI determined it was false: the informant failed a polygraph test.

Look, with all the budget cuts maybe we can save the DHS some money by replacing their polygraphs with Ouija boards. Cheaper, and equally effective! Or maybe they could hire an astrologer. (I guess Reagan already tried that.)

We're doomed.

February 13, 2003


Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:54 PM
So the Democrats have grown a spine. I'm pleased; not only because the thought of a close personal friend of Ann Coulter on the bench frightens me, but also because I've always found the concept of an old-style filibuster hilarious. There's just something delightfully absurd about these senators standing up for hours on end reading out of the phone book or reminiscing about their teenage years, all as a legitimate political tactic.

Not to state the obvious here, but didn't Bush campaign as a "uniter, not a divider"? Wasn't he always appealing to "bipartisanship"? What's with all the right-wing nutjobs? Of course Estrada is just an alleged right-wing nutjob, since he won't reveal any of his opinions on anything. In any case, I wonder if the Dems are willing to pull this again when Charles Pickering's renomination comes up for vote. (Free registration required on that link.)

Plastic is of course discussing this (Estrada, not Pickering), but more importantly they are discussing whether Valentine's Day is an abomination or merely really lame. A refreshing change from last year's V-Day discussions, which I am too lazy to look up but to the best of my recollection were rather saccharine. (Was that word invented to describe Valentine's Day, or what?)

Wired answers the question I raised a few days ago regarding the source of spammers' income. The answer is that they all buy lists of e-mail addresses from each other so they can send more spam. How is it that the dot-com bubble burst but this cycle is still around? My guess is that the pornographers are the only ones making money off their product, and they're injecting some of that back into this system.

Completely switching gears, here's a delightful page explaining the theory of relativity in words of four letters or less. It's more clever than illuminating since four letters is a pretty strong constraint. However, this does force the author to avoid pretty much all jargon. (This page has evidently been around a while - apparently it appeared on Fark back in 1999.)

No link for this one: an excerpt from the minutes of a faculty-grad student meeting in my department. Funny, but accurate.
Required courses, prelim exams, and residency create undue stress on grad students, especially during their first year. Better information would help students deal with that stress.
Proposal: Invite residency official to Orientation Week gathering to explain residency to new grad students.
Action: Committee endorses proposal despite recognition that it is impossible to "explain" residency.

That's it for today - I'm off to send an e-mail to Barbara Boxer recommending some physics textbooks to read on the Senate floor, and then back to the homework that's slowly draing my life energy until I'm an empty husk.

February 10, 2003


Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 9:28 PM
Spent today wading through calculations; mostly successful but I have to go back and fix a major error. Since I've been thinking in mathematics all day, that'll be the theme of this entry.

Probability Estimates, Valentine's Week Edition
Probability that...
(1)I get my place minimally cleaned by Saturday75%
(2)I get my place minimally cleaned by two weeks from yesterday95%
(3)I get my place fully cleaned by Saturday1/1,000,000
(4)I get my place fully cleaned by two weeks from yesterday1/100,000
(5)I get my place fully cleaned before moving out1/50,000
(6)I get a chance to go to the grocery store before Friday90%
(7)I have the energy to cook a steak dinner on Friday70%
(8)I go to Jack in the Box instead20%
(9)My perfect solitude Friday evening is interrupted by whining/bitching/loud thumps upstairs95%
(10)My perfect solitude Friday evening is interrupted at the precise moment when Blondie and Tuco detonate the bridge by a knock at the door and a request to turn down the volume25%
(11)Given (10), I respond with a request to reduce the regular 7:30 am whining/bitching/loud thumps1%
(12)I have a female companion for my perfect solitude Friday evening1/750,000
(13)I ditch the whole Friday plan and go see Daredevil with Mason5%
(14)I incur a late penalty on the first homework assignment of the semester15%
(15)I spend Friday evening trying to avoid (14)1/200
(16)I get a date in the month of February1.5%
(17)I get a date in 200365%
(18)I get married in 20031/10,000,000
(19)Given (18), firearms are involved80%
(20)I go to department tea every day this week95%

February 9, 2003


Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 10:16 PM
The deadline for cleaning my place has gone from indefinite to two weeks to six days since Thursday. On top of that I had to cancel my D&D session today to come in to lab due to our pre-March-Meeting rush. Expect sparse updates in the near future! I learned some lessons about planning this weekend but it's not much to meditate on, so instead I bring you... linkage.

A Plastic user has written up my nuclear reactor story from the other day as a full submission. Some nuclear engineers have promptly submitted their opinions on why it (a) won't work or (b) isn't a big deal. The latter I can believe, but it never ceases to baffle me when scientifically trained people attack ideas as unworkable without having any real information about them.

On a related note, I have noticed that a certain very intelligent physicist consistently pronounces the word "nukyuler". Does this mean I can't make fun of Bush for doing the same?

The New York Times has an article about Marin County soccer moms (presumably the same hot-tubbing liberals that George Bush (Sr.) was so upset about) who are feeling guilty about their SUV's. I'm not there yet myself, but I think mine gets closer to the normal car mileage. (I intend to check this at some point so I can know just how guilty I should feel.)

Another Times article, from the magazine, is a discussion of spam from James Gleick. Nothing really new here, but I've always found Gleick an entertaining writer. Personally I want to know who is actually buying all this crap; if nobody bought it we wouldn't get any spam, right? According to this article some spammers are coming up with clever techniques to bypass filters, which makes me wonder why they bother - aren't the people who are filtering for spam the least likely ones to buy anything? On the other hand, some ISPs filter all incoming messages for spam, so maybe this is the target.

I actually get very little spam, which is due in large part to the fact that not all that many people need to e-mail me so my address is not widely disseminated. The address I fill into web forms is a hotmail address (the one in my user info on this site) that is filtered with a whitelist; I get a fair amount of spam there but it all gets filtered. Of course, if somebody sends me one of those stupid e-greeting cards, or the physics department helpfully posts my address on their site, this opens the door for it to get harvested.

In video games, if you want to find an ancient tomb filled with artifacts, you go into town and talk to people until somebody mentions the location. Apparently, this works in real life, too.

February 7, 2003


Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 9:05 PM
We're just a week away from Black Friday, the coldest and loneliest day of the year, Travis' annual festival of bitterness.

At least, that's what I would have said in the past. Recently I seem to have a new perspective. It started last year, actually, when my plans to spend the day steeped in bitterness were disrupted by the sight of the first bright sunny day after seemingly weeks of cold grey skies. It seemed like a waste to spend such a beautiful day sulking. Later on, as I was hacking away on homework, two of my female students dropped by my office to wish me a happy Valentine's Day. (Not like that, you perverts. No ethical violations were committed.) Anyway, last year's experience wasn't so unpleasant.

It's still unfair that all the couples get an extra holiday, though, so this year my plan is to celebrate the good aspects of being single (i.e. self-indulgence). Next Friday night I'm going to come home from lab, unplug the phone and the internet, cook myself a steak dinner, open a bottle of wine, and watch my favorite movie. (That would be The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, a violent and nihilistic counterbalance to the saccharine atmosphere that pervades this holiday.) What do you know, I'm actually looking forward to Valentine's Day this year.

February 6, 2003


Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 9:38 PM
You know the story.

You're anticipating an event, an e-mail, a phone call. Recent history suggests strongly that this will happen soon. Probably tomorrow. Every day you look for it, but every day you are disappointed. You start to realize that the pattern you thought you saw was illusory, that the next step, once considered inevitable, will never arrive. You still check every day, but more out of habit than anything else. Gradually it fades from your mind, and life goes on.

Then it happens. Materially it is just what you were once expecting. But the context is different - it is no longer the natural progression of past events but a sudden reversal of the norm. Conceived as a prediction, it only materializes once it becomes unpredictable. This robs the event of all its previous significance, leaving you wondering. What does it mean, happening now and not then?

Perhaps it is a consequence of the Second Law: Confusion, a form of entropy, is fated to increase.


Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 2:03 PM
For those trying to post comments and failing, it should work now. I think.

February 5, 2003


Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 10:52 PM
Many of my dreams follow a common formula: I'm faced with some sort of problem or obstacle, and every solution I try fails in some way. The feeling is like running a maze in which a barrier is thrown up every time the exit is in sight. Is this a common thing, or is it a twisted game my subconscious plays with me?

I had a dream last night of this type. It was a pretty mundane setting: a college dorm room (apparently mine), from which I was about to depart for class. The central dilemma was that I knew the name of the building where the class was to take place, but not its location. So I try to look it up on the school's website. (Yes, I have dreams about using the Internet.) I can't seem to find it on the online campus map. A group of people pass by and I ask them, learning only that they are going to the same class, and they don't know where it is, either. Their plan is to walk around and ask people. As they stand around I try Mapquest. (Why I thought this would work, I don't know.) When the website comes up I discover that Mapquest is now charging for their services; I will have to register with a valid credit card to continue. I give up and the others move on. At this point I decide to join them; remembering that I have a paper map of the campus, I grab it from a stack of papers on my way out. Once I exit the dorm, though, the group of people I was hoping to catch has disappeared. I look at the paper I've grabbed, only to find that it's the wrong one - my class schedule rather than the map. I have a vague recollection that the building's location was not on the map anyway; it was indicated only by an arrow pointing off the west edge of campus.

This is, now that I read it, a pretty boring example, but I would say that roughly half the dreams I remember follow this sort of formula. I have kept one detail for the end as a twist: the building I was looking for in the dream wasn't a university building, but a cathedral. The way I see it, there are a couple possible interpretations:

(a) My soul is trying to send me a message - I must seek spiritual salvation outside the bounds of academia. Or,

(b) It's a bit much to expect my dreams to form a logical, coherent narrative.

Pick your favorite.

February 4, 2003


Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 6:21 PM
In a gee-whiz sort of mode, here are a couple interesting links I ran across.

The first is a short piece about a proposed nuclear reactor design. (I found this on bottomquark.) This design uses uranium-238, the more common isotope, to produce energy. Conventional reactors use fuel rods composed primarily of U-238, but derive their energy from the rarer U-235 which makes up only 4% of the rod. Thus, this new reactor uses fuel far more efficiently - rods need to be replaced on the order of decades instead of years. In addition to being less wasteful, this has the additional property that the reactor cores may be sealed more permanently - allowing nations to demonstrate their commitment to non-proliferation.

My feeling is that even if this design surpasses these claims, it won't do much to increase the use of nuclear power in the United States due to knee-jerk opposition to anything nuclear from certain groups. Certainly upgrades to reactors currently operating in the US will help (and perhaps alleviate the concerns of those living near Yucca Mountain), but I think the greatest benefit will be to developing nations that would meet opposition to the construction of an unsealed reactor.

I've posted the reactor story as a Plastic quicklink (it's in the sidebar).

The other story that caught my eye today is a nice summary of the semi-famous economic study of Everquest, the online fantasy role-playing game. (Yes, it's another Slate link - this is pure coincidence; I assure you it's not the only site I read.) The report itself is somewhat old news at this point, but articles I had previously read focused on the "wow, cool" aspects (e.g., the estimate of Everquest's per capita GNP is larger than India's or China's) rather than the deeper implications. The Slate column goes a bit further in discussing how the game mechanics translate into government regulation of the economy.

February 3, 2003


Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 9:57 PM
This is a far more trivial topic but one that's been bothering me for a while - I just need to vent a little here. Now, I realize that I don't have an inalienable right to a parking space in front of my door. Nevertheless, would it be too much to ask of the residents of Ardmore Road to use their driveways for their intended purpose? Why is it that I can't seem to find parking on the street, but fully 50% of the driveways I see are empty? Isn't it more convenient to park in one's driveway than on the street? Do these people get their exercise by carrying their groceries that extra distance? Maybe I'm the only one who notices this, since I'm the one coming home at 10 or 11 pm, being forced to park at the top of the hill, and collecting spiderwebs on my face as I walk down the steps. (It's the spiderwebs I mind far more than the walk.)

Or maybe many of these houses have the same vehicle/licensed driver ratio as this one does. Anyone care to guess what that is? Do I hear .75? 1? Try 1.5. That's right, four licensed drivers and six vehicles. Ok, I guess one is a "classic" or something and doesn't get used, but it's taking up garage space so I'm counting it. That puts at least one Volvo out in the street. But what really gets me is when I see two Volvo's out in the street. What, exactly, is the point? In case one of the kids wants to take Volvo #3 out for a spin? Actually, the more I think about that concept the scarier it is.

Just one more reason to be browsing the listings.


Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 9:36 PM
Slate has the rest of their Columbia coverage up today. What particularly interested me was an entry in Mickey Kaus' weblog quoting Feynman's appendix to the Challenger investigation report. (Naturally any mention of Feynman will get my attention.) Kaus (or rather, one of his readers) notes that Feynman's order of magnitude estimate for the shuttles' failure rate - 1% - is pretty much on the mark. As much as I admire both Feynman's intellect and the power of order of magnitude techniques, I have to say that two data points don't yield a very precise value. (Certainly not worthy of the three significant figures quoted!) On the other hand, it's safe to say that the observed failure rate is not inconsistent with Feynman's estimate, as well as with the hypothesis that safety has not improved significantly since Challenger.

It would be interesting to revisit What Do You Care What Other People Think?, the second collection of Feynman anecdotes, since he comments extensively on the Challenger investigation. (I seem to recall that the appendix linked above is included in this book but I'm not sure. Unfortunately I don't have my copy here.)

One last thing I'd like to point out is that the world's political cartoonists collectively found many appropriate, non-biblical quotes to use in honoring the memory of Columbia.

February 1, 2003


Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 9:12 PM
I woke up this morning and checked Plastic as usual; I was posting in a particular discussion last night so I went straight there and didn't read the other headlines. I happened to see it at a glance, though, just before the page switched: something about the space shuttle, what'd that say, breaks up on approach?

I then had to head off to lab and only had a chance to read the Plastic summary; it took a while for the news to sink in. As it turned out I had some down time soon after getting to lab, so I caught up on the situation. I ended up spending a lot of time with the New York Times' coverage; they had several different articles up including one about the reaction of Israelis and one about past safety oversights in the shuttle program. The tragic aspect of the whole thing really hit me with the Israel article. The last one I linked was enlightening in a different way - after reading that I strongly suspect that these issues of rushed tests and falsified test documents are the cause of today's disaster. I find it hard to believe that the system was sufficiently improved to remove these elements after Challenger, or at least to remove them permamently.

I read the transcript of the President's speech. I'm struggling with whether my irritation at the strong Christian overtones is justified. (One of the astronauts was a woman from India, probably not a Christian. Doesn't Christianity say that she is in hell now? Given this, how much does her family appreciate Bible quotes in Bush's remarks?) One Plastician remarked that what is really so annoying is that Bush cannot seem to talk about anything without mentioning God. Didn't Jesus have something to say about public displays of religiosity? On the one hand, Bush is entitled to his beliefs and I respect that (really!), but on the other hand, I wish he'd remember that he is supposed to be representing all Americans, not just the majority. Reagan, who was supposed to have been a very religious man himself, did a much better job in his speech after the Challenger incident. Sure there's a reference to God, but it's more poetic and metaphorical than explicitly Christian, and therefore has a broader appeal.

Slate also noticed this difference between Bush's and Reagan's remarks.

One final thought on this: I cannot imagine what is going through the minds of the engineers, programmers, and support crew who were responsible for maintaining the shuttle. Even if one had done everything correctly I think it would be impossible to dismiss the nagging doubt, that maybe it was really my fault. I guess I can be relieved that there are no human lives relying on my electronics and software, just expensive equipment.