Oct 16

Brain test

Which way is this dancer spinning: clockwise or anti-clockwise? Your answer supposedly indicates how your brain works, although the article doesn’t explain the basis for that claim, or even where the picture came from.
My own results are puzzling. I initially saw the dancer to be spinning clockwise, which puts me in the right-brain category. That’s just plain wrong; I’m one of the most stereotypically left-brained people you will ever meet. I tried for several minutes to change the direction of the dancer’s spin, but couldn’t do it just by mental effort. Finally I discovered that by looking at the shadows of her feet, I could convince myself that she was spinning anti-clockwise. Now I can easily switch the direction at will. I’m not sure what any of this means, but it sure is interesting.

Source: Freakonomics

Sep 06

The politics of zombies

I recently became aware that some people are supporting Zombie Reagan as a presidential candidate in the 2008 election. Their Reagan nostalgia is understandable, but the idea is doomed to failure.
Most people don’t know this, but zombies are not eligible for the office of President. After the constitutional crisis of 1945 (in which Zombie Roosevelt challenged the succession of Harry Truman), the Constitution was amended to specifically prohibit undead Presidents. The amendment has been the focus of continued debate among constitutional scholars, some of whom have suggested that a zombie would have been preferable to certain postwar Presidents. But no proposal to modify the prohibition has gained sufficient support in Congress. This is is probably because undead politicians prefer to pursue careers in the Senate (which has no ban on zombies and no term limit), and would rather not call attention to the issue. Strom Thurmond, Robert Byrd, and Ted Stevens have all reportedly used their influence to ensure that any zombie-related bills die in committee.
Some students of Futurama have suggested that the repeal of the no-zombie-Presidents rule is inevitable, citing the victory of Richard Nixon’s head in the 3000 election. Critics have countered that Nixon’s head was elected President of the United States of Earth, not the USA. And it remains unclear whether a severed head kept alive in a jar meets the legal definition of “undead”. The question will probably have to be settled by the Supreme Court, and we won’t know whether this has happened until new episodes of Futurama are produced.

Jul 05

Go fish

Yikes! A man fishing in the Catawba River near Mount Holly, NC caught a piranha last week. And not a little one, either — this piranha weighed 1 pound 4 ounces, and bit the man’s pocketknife hard enough to leave marks on the blade.
I say “Yikes!” because I have gone swimming in the Catawba River.
Well, technically, I swam in Lake Wylie, but it amounts to the same thing. Lake Wylie is a South Carolina reservoir that was created by damming the Catawba. And Lake Wylie is downstream from where the piranha was caught.
If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to have a panic attack now.
UPDATE: In her comment, my mother relays the news that the fish wasn’t a piranha after all.

Sep 05

Aliens in Roswell

Are there aliens in Roswell, New Mexico? People have been debating that question since 1947. Now the matter has been settled. Last week, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities arrested 15 aliens in Roswell. What were they doing there? Painting military airplanes!

May 25

Voltaire’s footman

A year ago, I wrote about a strange coincidence that happened to me. It was connected with the Raleigh Little Theatre play that I was rehearsing for, which was a week away from its premiere.
The same thing seems to be happening again. I am in the cast of Candide, which opens next week. A few days ago, I was reading James Lileks’s daily Web column The Bleat, in which he wrote about watching a Charlie Chaplin film with his preschool-age daughter. Describing her response to a particular scene, Lileks wrote: “She had the exact same reaction I had – gasps and laughter in equal amount. You could show this movie to Voltaire or his footman and they’d have the same reaction.”
As it happens, in Candide I am Voltaire’s footman. What are the odds that Lileks would pick that particular example of a random historical spear-carrier during the brief moment in my life when I happen to be playing him on stage?
This isn’t the only odd coincidence I’ve experienced recently in connection with my theatrical avocation. A couple of days ago, I decided on a whim to see what Wikipedia had to say about NECCO Wafers. (It’s an obscure candy that I vaguely remember from my childhood, but haven’t seen for a long time, and it occurred to me that I didn’t know who made them, what they were made of, or even if they still existed.) Wikipedia does, in fact, have an article about the Wafers, and another article about NECCO, the company that makes them. I learned that NECCO has three factories, one of which is in Thibodaux, Louisiana.
As I wrote here a few months ago, I was born in Thibodaux.
Out of curiosity, I followed the link to Wikipedia’s article about Thibodaux and skimmed through it. At the bottom were links to the Web sites for Thibodaux’s city government and its Chamber of Commerce. Reading the Discover Thibodaux page on the city’s site, I learned that my birthplace has a community theatre called the Thibodaux Playhouse, which seemed remarkable for a town of less than 15,000 people. I figured the Playhouse probably had a Web site of its own, and one Google search later, I was looking at it.
Actually, I was staring at it in astonishment. The Thibodaux Playhouse is now rehearsing a play called The Spitfire Grill (a stage adaptation of the 1996 movie). Auditions were held a few weeks ago, and the show will open at the end of July. I am quite familiar with The Spitfire Grill, because we produced it at Raleigh Little Theatre earlier this season, and I worked on it as assistant stage manager.
Again, I have to ask: what are the odds of this kind of thing happening?
UPDATE (5 June 2006): There’s definitely some kind of cosmic conspiracy going on. I was just reading the five-minute parody version of “Logopolis”, the classic Doctor Who episode that this blog was named after, and it contains a NECCO Wafers reference!

Apr 11

The case of the missing sweatshirt

I’m going to tell you a story. It’s long and meandering, goes into unnecessary detail to an absurd degree, and ultimately turns out to be pointless. You should skip it if you could spend the time doing something useful. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
A blog is born
When I first started this blog in October 2001, I used Blogger because it was simple, user-friendly, and free. At the time, Blogger was a financially-strapped one-man operation, and I wanted to contribute some money to help keep it operating. But, as I wrote in January 2002, there was no simple way to do so. Shortly after I posted those remarks, Blogger introduced a paid version of its service called Blogger Pro, which provided several extra features. (The ordinary version of Blogger didn’t change, and remained free). I signed up at once and paid the annual subscription fee.
Enter Google
In February 2003, Google acquired Blogger. The resulting infusion of funding and support staff not only ended my concerns about Blogger’s survival, but also produced numerous improvements in the service. Blogger’s servers were upgraded and a new and improved user interface was unveiled. Finally, in September 2003, Blogger announced that the Blogger Pro service was being discontinued — all of the extra Pro features were being rolled into the free version of Blogger! Every Blogger user was now effectively a Blogger Pro user whether they had paid or not.
To compensate them for having paid for features that were now free, Blogger offered to send each Pro subscriber a free hooded sweatshirt. You just had to go to a particular page on the Blogger site, log in with your Pro username and password, and fill out a form with your shirt size and mailing address. But when I tried to do this, I found that my login was not recognized. On September 11, 2003, I went to the Blogger customer support page, where you can report problems by filling out a form and clicking a Submit button. I used the form to describe what had happened when I tried to log in and claim my free shirt.
Dude, where’s my shirt?
The next day, I received an e-mail response from a support tech named Steve, who informed me that Blogger had no record of my Blogger Pro upgrade purchase. He asked me for the purchase date and the last four digits of the credit card I had used. I replied with that information on the 13th. I received no further response. A month went by.
On October 16, I went to the support page again and used the form to complain about the lack of response, attaching a copy of my correspondence with Steve up to that point. Steve replied that same day, saying that he never received my 9/13 note. I responded immediately, sending him another copy of the information he had asked for. I received no response. Another month went by.
At this point, I started to see a pattern. When I used the Web form to contact Blogger customer service, my messages were received. But when I tried to e-mail Steve directly, my messages did not reach him.
On November 13, I decided to try again. Thinking that perhaps the e-mails I had sent Steve from my home e-mail address were not reaching him, I tried sending a note from my work address. I received no response. Having run out of ideas, I gave up.
The free shirt wasn’t really all that important to me. (I don’t even like hooded sweatshirts.) What I wanted was to understand — and perhaps to solve — the strange problems I had encountered. Why was there no record of my Blogger Pro purchase? What was preventing my e-mail messages from reaching Steve? It didn’t make sense. But I had exhausted the available methods of pursuing the matter.
Cold case
Sixteen months passed. During this time, I converted my blog from Blogger to Movable Type, so I wasn’t even a Blogger user anymore. I completely forgot about the Blogger sweatshirt business.
On March 31, 2005, while filing and deleting old e-mail messages, I stumbled across my log of the correspondence with Steve. I decided to have another go at the problem. I sent a note to Steve’s address at Blogger, recapping everything that had happened in the fall of 2003, and asking for an update. My message was returned as undeliverable; Steve was no longer working for Blogger. I went to the Blogger customer support page and used the problem reporting form to describe the whole bizarre story, attaching a copy of my correspondence with Steve, and submitted it. I received no response.
On April 11, 2005, I went to the Blogger site and saw an announcement that the problem-report form was broken. Specifically, there was a field on the form where you were supposed to specify which of your blogs (you can have more than one) was affected by the problem you were reporting. My problem had nothing to do with any of my blogs, so I had been selecting “No blog in particular”. Blogger had now discovered that if you did that, your problem report didn’t go anywhere; it just disappeared. This explained why I had received no response to my March 31 report.
One last try
At this point it occurred to me that in the months since my last attempt to report the problem by e-mail, I had switched e-mail addresses. Instead of using my old Road Runner address, I was now using Gmail. Gmail is Google’s Web-based e-mail system, and Google owns Blogger. Surely, if I sent an e-mail query from my Gmail address, it would get through to Blogger customer support! I would be sending the message from one part of Google to another.
It seemed worth trying, so I composed an e-mail note that began with the words “Hi — I’m following up on a technical support issue that’s a couple of years old. No, really! I promise I’m not insane.” I went on to relate the entire story from September 2003 to the present. I included a copy of all of the previous correspondence. My message ended with the following summary:

At this point, we seem to have several unanswered questions:

  1. Were my e-mails to Steve from [my home address] and [my work address] blocked for some reason?
  2. If not, why didn’t they reach him?
  3. Why doesn’t the Blogger Pro database contain any record that I paid for a subscription?
  4. Am I still eligible for a free sweatshirt, or have I missed that particular boat? 🙂

If you get this note, please drop me a line and let me know what your thoughts are. Thanks!

I sent the note to support@blogger.com.
A response, but not an answer
To my utter astonishment, I received a reply on April 15. It read:

Hello Patrick,
Based on our records, all of your previous emails as noted in your email attachment (besides your most recent ones) had been received via your [home] email address. I also do notice that there was never any email correspondence received on our end from you back to Steve’s questions. Unfortunately, I would not know why emails you sent to us in reply were not received.
In addition, we’re unfortunately not sending hoodies out to our previously upgraded Pro folks anymore.
I apologize for the inconvenience.
Blogger Support

And that’s how the story ended. It wasn’t a very satisfactory resolution; it didn’t answer any of the questions except the last one (no, I wasn’t going to get my free sweatshirt). But at least I could finally let the matter drop.
What have we learned?
If there are any lessons to be learned from this, I suppose they are:

  • Sometimes computers just don’t work, and nobody knows why.
  • If I really want a Blogger sweatshirt, I should just go to the Google Store and buy it.
  • I told you this story was long and pointless.
Mar 21

A series of unfortunate events

This has to be the the most wonderful headline I’ve ever seen: Flying Cow Leaves Two Police Cars in Flames.
Key quote from the article: “I mean the best way to characterize this is, it’s bizarre. It’s really really strange.” Having read the entire account, I have to say that “bizarre” is probably the best term for what happened. In addition to the police cars and the cow, it involved two trucks, a trailer, and a pair of illegal immigrants.
I think this story has the potential to become a major motion picture.