Nov 25

Chicken chicken chicken

This scientific paper is a triumph of form over content. (How do I know it’s a scientific paper? Well, just look at it. What else could it possibly be?)

It’s also available as a PowerPoint presentation — but this video of the author presenting it to the American Association for the Advancement of Science is, perhaps, more amusing.

UPDATE: Was Doug Zongker inspired by this children’s book? Or this comic strip?

Oct 17

Get a human

We’ve all had the experience of being trapped in an automated telephone menu system, cursing and pressing buttons at random in a desperate attempt to get a human representative to talk to you. But what if you knew exactly what buttons to press? The gethuman 500 database gives you that information for hundreds of companies and government agencies: the number to dial and which buttons to press in order to reach an actual live human being. Once you’ve done that, you’re on your own.
Source: American Digest

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

Oct 16

Prophecies: calculators

From 1941 to 1949, Isaac Asimov wrote a series of science fiction stories about the decline and fall of a Galactic Empire. These stories were published in the magazine Astounding Stories, and in 1950 were reprinted in three volumes titled Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation. Collectively, the three volumes became known as the Foundation Trilogy.

When the first four stories were assembled into the book Foundation, the editor complained that the story began too abruptly, and asked Asimov to write a fifth story to precede the other four. Asimov complied, producing an account of how mathematician Hari Seldon establishes two Foundations at opposite ends of the galaxy to preserve the knowledge of the human race and serve as nuclei for the formation of a Second Empire. At one point in the story, Seldon is shown using the tool of his trade:

Seldon removed his calculator pad from the pouch at his belt. Men said he kept one beneath his pillow for use in moments of wakefulness. Its gray, glossy finish was slightly worn by use. Seldon’s nimble fingers, spotted now with age, played along the hard plastic that rimmed it. Red symbols glowed out from the gray.

In 1950, the standard calculation tool used by mathematicians and engineers was the slide rule, but Asimov described a future in which the slide rule was replaced by something new: a handheld electronic device.

As luck would have it, I read the Foundation Trilogy for the first time in the early 1970s, just as the first pocket calculators were appearing in stores. They looked exactly like what Asimov described, right down to the belt pouches and glowing red symbols (the earliest calculators had displays that used red LEDs). Two decades before its invention, he had predicted the calculator with virtually perfect accuracy. And it did completely replace the slide rule.

A few years later, Asimov wrote a short story (“The Feeling of Power”) in which pocket calculators are so ubiquitous that people have forgotten how to perform calculations without them. This idea seemed farfetched in 1958, but today, it’s very plausible.

I should also mention that Asimov himself was a fan of the slide rule, which is not too surprising for someone who studied math and science, and received M.A. and Ph.D degrees in chemistry in the 1940s. He even wrote a book about it, An Easy Introduction to the Slide Rule, which was published in 1965. Ironically, when the pocket calculators drove the slide rule into extinction, Asimov’s book went out of print.

Sep 21

Too hip for CDs? Give me a break.

A breathless Gizmodo post announces that CDs are dead, thanks to a Blaupunkt car receiver that has a Secure Digital memory card slot, but doesn’t play CDs. The “sweet little player” sells for $180.
Apparently I’m supposed to be impressed by this, but my reaction is “Big deal.” My car has had a receiver with an SD slot for the better part of a year. It’s a VR3 unit (from Virtual Reality Sound Labs) that I bought at Wal-Mart for $80, and it has a USB port and a CD player in addition to the memory card slot. (Gizmodo’s claim that the Blaupunkt receiver “accepts USB devices” appears to be just plain wrong; there’s no USB port in the picture, and the Technical Details on the Blaupunkt site do not even mention USB. It’s SD or nothing, unless you want to plug an external player into the AUX jack on the front panel.)
I don’t see what’s so “sweet” about a car receiver that costs more than twice what I paid for mine, but has fewer features. Perhaps the “hipness” of this unit is worth an extra $100 to some people, but I didn’t buy my car receiver to impress people. I bought it so I could listen to audio recordings in my car. As for Gizmodo’s suggestion that I take a shovel and bury my CD collection: sure thing, guys. Just as soon as you provide, at your own expense, MP3 replacements for every CD track I own. My CDs are DRM-free, so of course I’ll only accept DRM-free digital files to replace them. Good luck finding those.
Source: Instapundit

Sep 10

Tessellate the cheese

Ruth brought this cartoon to my attention:

This reminded me of something from my own experience. When Bob and I were at university together, the main cafeteria at the student center had several serving lines, one of which specialized in Mexican fast food: tacos, burritos, chimichangas, and so forth. The food was pretty good, but the staff didn’t seem to understand burritos. They were folding the tortilla instead of rolling it, so the burritos came out square, which is just plain wrong.

Bob found this greatly annoying. The cafeteria had a suggestion box, so he wrote what was undoubtedly the most detailed suggestion they ever got: a page-long set of instructions on how to roll a burrito properly, complete with diagrams. (This was many years before either of us had any idea that Bob would end up pursuing a career in technical writing.) I don’t think the cafeteria’s burrito-rolling technique showed any improvement as a result, but at least Bob knew that he had done all he could to address the problem.

Since this story is all about Bob, you may wonder why I’m telling it instead of him. Actually, I suggested that he write a blog post about it, but he says he has no memory of the whole thing. Well, I was there, and it really happened, no matter what he says.

UPDATE: Ben points out this Consumerist post: Subway’s Incorrect Use Of Isosceles Cheese Actually A Vast Conspiracy

Sep 09

D&D Fourth Edition Q&A

Wizards of the Coast released Episode 15 of the D&D Podcast today, and this one has some solid information about the upcoming Fourth Edition. It’s a question and answer session in which Dave Noonan and Mike Mearls respond to two dozen questions from gamers about the new edition. You can see a list of the questions in the show notes, but here are some highlights:

  • How will players convert their 3E characters (and campaigns) to 4E?
  • Will action points be part of the core game?
  • How will encumbrance be handled?
  • Is the monetary system being revamped?
  • What about critical hits?

To hear the answers, you’ll have to listen to the show. What are you waiting for?
(If you don’t know what action points are, you haven’t played in the Eberron setting. But Ben has, and he’s promised to explain how action points work.)

Sep 08

Rats having fun

Most people are bewildered when I tell them that my family has pet rats. Having been indoctrinated with the conventional image of rats as nasty, disease-carrying vermin, they can’t imagine why anyone would want to have such creatures as pets. Of course they don’t realize that domesticated fancy rats are as different from feral rats as dogs are from wolves. I sometimes try to explain how gentle, affectionate, and fun our rats are, but it’s difficult to communicate in words.
From now on, I’m just going to point people to this video. It does an excellent job of conveying how entertaining pet rats can be. I hope the young lady who made the video is planning to pursue a career in television or film production, because she’s quite good at it. Other people have made video recordings of their rats and posted them on YouTube, but those are usually unedited footage and rather boring. This one is not only well edited, but also makes clever use of camera angles and music. Nice work, Linda!

Sep 07

The last one to know

I shouldn’t read comments on YouTube; I really shouldn’t. I’m not sure why the overwhelming majority of the comments on YouTube videos are posted by subliterate morons, but I have seen enough of them to know that this is the case. I know that reading the comments will just infuriate me, so it would be best for everyone if I just refrained from looking.
But sometimes I forget. In this case, I was watching this new music video, a duet sung by Reba McEntire and Kelly Clarkson. I foolishly allowed my eyes to stray downward, and found myself reading this:
“I didn’t even know Reba could sing, it sounds amazing with her, the original is great too though.”
You didn’t know. . . that Reba McEntire. . . could sing?
I know she’s done a lot of acting, and perhaps you first encountered her in that context. But still — you didn’t know she could sing?
She’s one of the best-selling country music artists of all time: over 60 million records sold. Her first #1 single was in 1982. She’s recorded 29 albums and earned 72 awards. The Country Music Association named her Female Vocalist of the Year four years in a row. And you didn’t know she could sing?
I know a lot of people don’t listen to country or pay any attention to the careers of country musicians. But Reba is a lot more than just a country singer. She’s a crossover international pop megastar. That acting work of hers that I referred to earlier? It included performing on Broadway in Annie Get Your Gun, and at Carnegie Hall in South Pacific: classics of musical theatre.
Yes, Reba McEntire can sing.
Good Lord.