Monday, August 28, 2006

Move the Stars

Try this: on a clear night, look up at the stars (you need to be able to fill most of your vision with the black night sky and stars). Look for a bright star like Polaris, the North Star, and focus on it. Don't blink. After a while, you should see only that star. Then what happens?

It moves.

It squiggles, it squirms, it goes up, down, left, right, in loops and all over.

Polaris, which is just light years and light years (and light years) away shouldn't move about like that. If it did, it would be moving faster than the speed of light and at your very whim.

So why does it happen? My theory is that once you focus on one star long enough your eyes start to defocus the rest of the starfield which is already fairly dim anyway. Pretty soon, you might as well have only one point of reference in your entire field of vision. But if that's true, then it's not really a point of reference because it is not related to anything else. You have one dot on a black field that doesn't indicate any kind of position. So your brain and eyes starts to go "huh?" and correctly assume that with so little information, that little dot can be anywhere. 30 degrees up, 50 degrees to the right, wherever. It doesn't know. So as you focus on it, it just kind of wanders around because Lord knows where Polaris is without the others stars to guide you. It can't wander too far away because if you don't focus on it everything else will come back into focus and it'll snap back. And if you do follow it then it will always remain around the approximate center of your vision anyway. Weird.

Saturday, August 26, 2006


John Adams wrote, in September of 1780, that

"England will never more have any honor, excepting now and then that of imitating the Americans. I assure you, Sir, I am not altogether in jest. I see a general inclination after English in France, Spain and Holland, and it may exend throughout Europe. The population and commerce of America will force their language into general use."

The part about the population and especially commerce is rather true, especially now in a globalized economy. What a smart guy he was! That statement is and will be true to a large extent for China too in the near future, and China's got a bit more commerce and population (a billion, give or take) than the US right now. Will the two big languages of the next several decades be Chinese and English? Not the two easiest languages to learn, unfortunately...

Friday, August 25, 2006

Advanced Airbags

Science Fiction is often more fiction than science, of course, but sometimes even within the fictional universe there are some easily overlooked points. One of the most important inventions in the Star Trek universe (or any future where interstellar travel is possible) is what has often been called an inertial damper. If a ship is going to accelerate to light speed at a moment's notice, everything inside the ship must remain stationary. Otherwise, anything with inertia that is NOT the ship will get smashed as the ship moves forward and objects (humans?) stay still.

So inertial dampers are essential. But inertial dampers are also basically really advanced airbags. If you crash into something, move suddenly, stop suddenly, you won't smack into your own carp/ship. So why doesn't every single starship and craft have emergency inertial dampers linked to its own exclusive power supply? If a ship gets hit or crashes, the emergency dampers activate and nobody gets hurt. Yet no ship in the Star Trek universe seems to have airbags. Everybody gets tossed about the moment a ship is fired upon. WTF?

And of course, no ship makes whiiiiiinevroom noises in space.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Return of the Grammar Nanny

"The only thing better than less bills is no bills!"

And you know what's better than that? Using the right comparative forms! Yes, grammar nanny is back.

Let's say I have 5 kids (omg, scary) and you have 3. For definite quantities, you should say "fewer". That's right. You have fewer kids than I do.

For indefinite quantities, you can say "less". You are less retarded than I am because you have fewer kids than I do. See? Doesn't that sound nice?

Now let's see what happens when you don't use them correctly: You are fewer retarded than I am because you have less kids than I do. Yes, and if I said that, I would be even greater retarded.

Monday, August 07, 2006

The Life of a Salesman Part II

They keep on coming!

Got an email about my coffee table today and the buyer wanted to know how delivery option works. My thoughts? I'm not walmart. I don't do delivery. That and my car is way too small to fit my coffee table. So:

Buyer1: Hi, I'm here to look at the coffee table.
Me: Here it is.
Buyer1: *looks around, deliberates, etc.* OK, I'll take it.
Me: I'd help you transport it but my car's really too small. It's impossible.
Buyer2: That's OK, we drove my RV here.
Me: (RV? Whoa.) OK. Let me just wipe it down.
Me: *cleans glass and separate glass from rest of coffee table*
Buyer2: Oh. That's nice. I think it will definitely fit.
Me: Is there something soft in your RV? I don't want to scratch the glass.
Buyer2: No, I think it'll fit.
Me: I have some tissue paper here. Do you want me to tape it to the glass for a bit of protection?
Buyer2: Well I think that will fit in my RV, since I drove it here.

Now at this point I'm thinking this guy must really love his RV. But whatever.

So I offer to help the guys out to their car (I mean RV). They grab the glass and I grab the rest of the table. And you know what, it just fits, with about 2 inches of extra space on each side.

You may wonder, dear reader, how an RV could be so small? Surely a vehicle made to accomodate a person living in it could fit a coffee table with more room to spare than a few inches on each side?

Well, an RV can be rather small if it is a Honda Cf***ingR-V! You can not call a Honda CR-V an RV! There's even a freaking dash between the R and the V! That's like calling the Toyota MR2 plain old "R2", giving Star Wars fanboys everywhere a jolt in the pants ("My R2 has navigational capabilities! Glayven!") but just plain confusing the hell out of everyone else.

And speaking of Star Wars, what's up with Christen Haydensen (spoon!)?! Why did they pick an actor with the emotional range of a lobotomized carrot? First Jake Lloyd and then Hayden. Mark Hamill's acting was nuanced and deep compared to those two. Yeah yeah I'm late by 38 years. This is not the post you are looking for. Old references will do. Move along. Move along.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Life of a Salesman

I'm selling a few items on craigslist. Out with the old and redundant and in with the new and all that jazz. Among the items I'm selling are two tables with folding legs. I've moved on to tables with legs that don't fold. How posh.

So a buyer calls to ask about the table. Thanks to him, I realize how hard the life of a salesman can be, if only for a little while.

Buyer: Hi. Is this Wolf Blitzer?
Me: This is he.
Buyer: May I speak to Wolf Blitzer please?
Me: This is Wolf Blitzer.
Buyer: Oh. I'm interested in the folding table you have for sale?
Me: Ah ok. Yes, I actually have two. Which one are you interested in?
Buyer: The table that folds?
Me: Yes. I have two for sale actually. One is a big wo
Buyer: Can you describe them both to me?
Me: (Wouldn't it be easier for you to describe the one you want to me?). Yes. One is a big wooden one and the other is a slightly smaller one with a soft top.
Buyer: How big are they?
Me: (I've written those down on the freaking ad! How big is the one you want?). One is 24x48 and the other 20x48.
Buyer: OK. I think I'll come by to take a look. What's your address?
Me: *gives address* When are you thinking of coming to take a look?
Buyer: Today, probably.
Me: ...
Me: Uh...can you give me a time today? I may be going out later.
Buyer: Oh...OK, how about in half an hour?
Me: That would be great. Thanks.
Buyer: Bye.

*2 minutes later*
Buyer: Hi, may I speak to Wolf Blitzer?
Me: This is he.
Buyer: Is Wolf Blitzer there?
Me: This is Wolf Blitzer!
Buyer: Oh, I had another question.
Me: Sure.
Buyer: Will the table fit in my car?
Me: ...
Me: (maybe he's getting another thought out?) ... (guess not)
Me: I have no idea. I don't really know what kind of a car you have.
Buyer: It's a normal car.
Me: (Thank you Mr. Useful Information) Well what kind of a car is it?
Buyer: It's a Toyota.
Me: ...
Buyer: A normal Toyota.
Me: ...
Me: Uhm...a Toyota what.
Buyer: A Toyota Camry.
Me: Hmmm, I don't really know. But I've given you the measurments of the table...
Buyer: Oh OK, I'll go measure it first then?
Me: Yes, I think that would be a good idea.
Buyer: Bye.

Lord. Communication shouldn't be this difficult when two people are using the same language.

Oh, and my name isn't really Wolf Blitzer. But man, what a cool name. Wolf! Blitzer! It's almost some kind of wolf-reindeer animal party in that name, with the first name eyeing up that sappy last name and thinking it'd go down real well for dinner.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Army of Chodes

For anyone who has seen the recent U.S. Army commercials that portray former (or even current) members of the army interacting in civilian contexts: what is up?

There's this one commercial where a guy comes back to chat with his friends. They ask him what he's doing and he says he's "working with computers." His friends ask him "couldn't you have done that here?" The screen flashes to him "working with computers" in the field. And then it flashes back to him with this condescending expression and then he just says "no." What, he's too good for his friends now to explain what he means by "working with computers"?

There's another one that also involves the army person giving a one-word answer in a condescending tone in relation to how he's worked on helicopters before. The basic point here is: why is everyone from the army a total dick? If they all act like that, it's no wonder it's an "army of one."

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

My Butt Can't be Trusted

Every time I see or hear about people complaining about the unreliability of Wikipedia, it really gets on my nerves. The reason is because usually these people are complaining about common sense. It is true that Wikipedia is not the most reliable source of information (what is?). It is true that there can be editorial content on some of the pages.


First of all, since when does one go to an encyclopedia to look up information about dynamic information such as current political events and then somehow expect it to give an impartial opinon? And since when have single-author texts been guaranteed to be less opinionated? Wikipedia's paradigm of presenting information is, after all, loosely based on the goal and format of an encylopedia: it gives you basic summary information. You're not supposed to trust it with your life and soul.

And for people who complain about how anonymous and open submission leads to false information: yes. It can. It can also lead to all the entries which make Wikipedia more useful than any static encyclopedia. There's really no other source of information that can give you a basic summary of everything from tensor analysis to season 7 episode 3 of The Simpsons. Nothing is perfect and it's anyone's perogative to condemn a tool if it has imperfections but I'd rather use Wikipedia with all its imperfections than not.

And on the matter of information being trustworthy in Wikipedia: most of it is. There may be mistakes in the in-depth details but the general gist of articles on things like the hydrogen atom or Venture Brothers are correct. An article on Kerry or Bush or the Israel-Lebanon may not be, but then what source would one trust for such subjects? Sure, you never "know" if an article is really trusted or right but, again, how would you "know" even for an article written by an expert? What guarantees that an "expert" will give useful or objectively tenable information (something the news networks want you to believe so that they can displace responsiblity)? It's really very constructive to point out Wikipedia's problems but it is less than useful to argue about its shortcomings against an impossible ideal of "objective truth".