log (2001/03/02 to 2001/03/08)

older log
newer log


site news

Respond to today's log:
Thursday, March 8, 2001  permanent URL for this entry

No log yesterday, because I had to go home early to take the cat to the vet, and then things just got sort of crazy. The cat has an infected eye, and we get to put ointment in it three times a day (what fun!), and give the cat a pill twice a day.

Give the cat a pill.

What a silly idea! Cats can't take pills. I gave him the first one by hiding it in a teaspoon of catfood, but he now seems leery. The vet said "if he'll take it in his food, that's great; otherwise you'll have to just stick it down his throat."

Oh, sure. That's definitely one of my Core Competencies.

Why don't they make cat medicine as a liquid to be mixed with food (or at worst squirted into the mouth, I suppose)? Is the problem that then the cat would taste it and reject it, because medecine always tastes bad? Or something? Anyone got any good advice on getting a cat to take a pill? Bluh.

Another little suite of Microsoft security holes; I recommend installing the patches if you've got the holy versions. The bulletin reminds us once again that if an attacker can put a file into a known place on your Windows system, you're toast:

A vulnerability exists because it is possible for a web page or HTML e-mail to learn the physical location of cached content. Armed with this information, an attacker could cause the cached content to be opened in the Local Computer Zone. This would enable him to launch compiled HTML help (.CHM) files that contain shortcuts to executables, thereby enabling him to run the executables.

(Last time it was ZIP files they mentioned specifically.)

Note that if you do install the Windows Scripting Host patch, it will silently and without any warning make the default "open" action for six different file extensions be "run wscript.exe". If you have, like me, changed this horribly dangerous default to something like "run notepad.exe", you'll have to go back and change it again after installing the patch. (This is, I'm afraid, one of the reasons that technical people so often despise Microsoft.)

Tokyo Rants and Raves from Tokyo Classified. Periodic amusing essays (in English) about life and culture in Tokyo, mostly from the "international community" (i.e. furriners). [link from gorjuss]

So is Bush really President after all? Dade Undervotes Support Bush Win:

If Secretary of State Katherine Harris had let South Florida counties complete manual recounts before certifying the results of last November's election, George W. Bush likely would have won the presidency outright, without weeks of indecision and political warfare, a review of Miami-Dade County's "undervote" ballots shows.

But of course it wasn't just the Dade undercount that looked sort of fishy (as an article from the amusingly-named and somewhat amusing LittleGeorgeBush.com reminds us).

I didn't mean to imply the other day that anyone who questions evolution isn't "smart"; I was just pointing out that lots of people who are smart have spent lots of time defending evolution against attacks that are not necessarily based on reason. On the other side of the coin, I also didn't mean to imply the other other day that I agree with the "information" argument against evolution; all the versions I've seen (including the one I linked to) seem clearly mistaken. One reader writes:

"increase in functional complexity" and "information within the biosphere" are somehow equated. Give us a definition which will let us quantify these concepts.

and another writes (a nice long letter, including):

In fact the second law of thermodynamics says only that the entropy of a closed system (one in which neither energy nor matter can enter or leave, so that the universe is the only truly closed system) is always increasing. Creationists like to add the corollary that the entropy of an open system can only decrease via intervention of an intelligence; but in fact you will not find anyone outside of creationists who espouse this version of the second law of thermodynamics...

Creationists also often err in thinking about the second law by equating entropy with "disorder". While this is a fine idea for giving people a general idea of what entropy is, it is not rigorously sound -- entropy is a quantifiable physical property, not some nebulous, subjective "disorder".

An example of these sorts of error can be found here. Contrary to the statements of this page, the second law of thermodynamics does not require that "everything ultimately falls apart and disintegrates over time," nor that "clothing becomes faded, threadbare, and ultimately turns to dust," nor does the second law require anything to die. It requires only that the entropy of the universe as a whole increase; not that entropy in any particular part of the universe increase.

All of which are good points. As far as I can tell, the crux of this argument against evolution is that stochastic optimization, roughly the process by which a system comes to be better at something by random exploration without any manipulation by an outside agent that's already good at it, doesn't work. And that's not true; it works just fine.

In some experiments with TD-Gammon by Gerry Tesauro (whose office is right next to mine), a neural network learned to play good backgammon by starting from a random strategy, and playing repeated games against itself. It got to be good at backgammon (surely an "increase in information" in the way the anti-evolution argument uses the term), without any external input about how to be good at the game. One of my earliest publications (an abstract of which I'm amazed to see is now on the Web) describes an experiment in which a set of programs, starting with just random expressions, found good strategies for the Iterated Prisoners' Dilemma problem, again without any intelligent help from outside.

So in general things can get better at things through unthinking unguided processes; denying this cannot be a valid argument against evolution. If a creationist grants that speciation does occur, he has the burden of explaining why the species that arise cannot, over long time-scales, become better adapted to their environments in just the same way that programs can become better at backgammon or the IPD. Could be that the universe just isn't old enough (that leads to the conclusion that evolution would have happened eventually, but God stepped in and sped things up), or that some external force reaches down and stops evolution from occurring (which would seem sort of mean).

On a vaguely related note, Dad reminds us of the Dawkins essay "Viruses of the Mind" (which somewhat ties together today's threads about computer security, evolution, and religion):

Like computer viruses, successful mind viruses will tend to be hard for their victims to detect. If you are the victim of one, the chances are that you won't know it, and may even vigorously deny it. Accepting that a virus might be difficult to detect in your own mind, what tell-tale signs might you look out for? I shall answer by imaging how a medical textbook might describe the typical symptoms of a sufferer...

(Dawkins somewhat overstates his case here, I think, as he often does: scientific ideas don't spread entirely for rational and benign reasons, nor do religious ideas spread entirely for irrational ones. But science qua science does differ in principle from faith qua faith in just the ways he suggests.)

And finally, the mad scientist of Laboratorium.net suggests that we ask Google about "Dkmfkmkglklkgbkvbkbv". I also recommend it.

(Ref also Steve on the famous "How to Good-Bye Depression".)

Tons of reader mail and Nomic moves and links that I should follow up are accumulating all around me! But I am steadfast. The Hobbits are approaching Rivendell.

Tuesday, March 6, 2001  permanent URL for this entry

The Great Blizzard of 2001; Day 3. Except that we've had to shovel everything twice now, not a big deal. I actually went into work for a couple of hours to get my email and do LAN things. The small roads were pretty messy, but the big roads were just fine, and nearly deserted.

A reader writes:

All article noun are verb preposition pronoun.

Can't imagine what that's referring to!

All your meme are belong to us. Even distributed.net has been infected. Following the referer log to milov.nl, we find a bunch of dedicated image-manipulators manipulating the meme; from there we find what claims to be the official home page of the famous Flash movies, as well as a very funny cartoon.

But wait, what's that bit in the cartoon about lobsters? Is this an important new meme we don't know? A quick search reveals that while it's not yet ubiquitous, it does have a certain following. Perhaps it originated here: Lobster sticks to magnet!

And in a similar vein, Bovine gives us Mr. Serpent. Definitely very deep.

That looks just like a...

sentence fragment.
html text input box
fresh piece of white chalk, only about 1/4 size.
white box with black text.
throwaway linefeed

A good start.

That looks just like a...

nother fine excuse to mangle (mongrel?) another meme: On the Internet, no one knows you're a blog.

Bottle of foment, darkly brown, its faded label smudged in all the wrong places.

slice of golden bread on a cutting board
brown shoe
failure to communicate.
one-eyed, one-horned, flying purple people eater
blue heaven
herring knitting a Baked Alaska

And finally, a reader writes:

A puzzle for you.

  • muthering device
  • player while holding one hand
  • 15 foot high billboards
  • Method of Being Immune
  • Kids could make up their own constellations
  • his right hand grasp his nose
  • tree or house or light pole
  • ball using a sponge ball
  • begin diorama planning

Suggested solutions to this (or any other) puzzle are most welcome.

Monday, March 5, 2001  permanent URL for this entry

Unspeakable low-level grunging about with INF files and stuff on the laptop has been unsuccessful; while the machine now thinks it has a modem, nothing can talk to that modem. The Dialer Thing says very helpfully that the modem is in use by some other program. Except that it isn't. Whenever I boot the machine, it detects an "Unknown Device", and when I tell it where to find INF files it offers to install the Thinkpad Digital Signal Processor. And when I push "Finish" to give it permission, it just sits there staring at me forever. I can push all the other buttons I want and they work, but that "Finish" just pops in and out with no result.

I suspect, based on the previous history of installing stuff on this machine, that there's a bit set somewhere deep in the neurotic bowels of Windows that says "if someone asks you to install the Thinkpad Digital Signal Processor, don't bother because it's already installed". But actually it isn't. Whether or not that has anything to do with the failing dialer, I have no clue. This system is entirely too complicated!

Made golden bread again; this time I baked a round loaf in a pie-tin just for grins. I didn't cook it long enough, or something, because there's a goopy glob of uncooked dough in the middle. But the loaf is vanishing more or less instantly anyway, in soft warm torn-off bits rather than slices. Good thing for a wintry day like this.

I finished The Player of Games; it was very very good. You should read it. Wanting to continue reading very good stuff, I decided to reread the Lord of the Rings, starting with the Hobbit. It's been years since I did that last. We've just left the Last Homely House west of the Misty Mountains. I'm reading the same copies I read all those years ago, dug up from the boxes in the library. Now they have that atticy old-book smell. I love it, although I know it means the pages are decaying.

Speaking of which, since the Weather Line at the lab today advised employees to avoid travelling unless we had a critical need to come in (and I didn't), I've been doing relaxing at-home disconnected sorts of things. Most recently, combing through the oldest stuff in my mail archive, trying to slightly improve my conformance to the guidelines on not keeping old mail around forever. I'm worming my way from the oldest mail up toward the present day. When I stopped to write this, I'd just finished looking through September of 1997. This may take awhile!   *8)

But anyway the significance of this is that there's a certain bittersweet nostalgia to reading through all this old stuff, old bits of myself scattered across the years, for the purpose of deciding that most of it is of no real use to anyone, and destroying it. Sort of like tearing out bits of one's brain and casting them into the flames. Not the important bits, of course!

Or I hope not, anyway...

Sunday, March 4, 2001  permanent URL for this entry

The first few million snowflakes of the Great Blizzard of 2001 have just begun falling outside. Bean soup is simmering on the stove, and the kids are playing Pokémon Puzzle League on the N64 (a brief poke around on Google suggests that this game is a rethemed version of an earlier game called "Tetris Attack"; if anyone knows any more about the history of these games, or where to find say a Java applet that plays them, we would as always appreciate a link; it seems roughly as addictive as Tetris).

A Girl Scout just came by and I ordered some cookies (one box Samoas, three Thin Mints). I probably should have ordered more; I vaguely thought that we usually get at least two Girl Scouts coming by, but M says that last year there was some sort of Turf Rumble among the various local Girl Scouts, and we might get only the one this year. So if we end up with a mere four boxes of G. S. cookies instead of our usual scad, it will be All My Fault!   *8)

I'm now well into "The Player of Games"; it's very good! I'm going to hate finishing it and dropping out of that world back into reality. On the other hand I can't bring myself to read it slowly. I have one small nit to pick with it, and I will now go on about it for a paragraph or three, even though I haven't finished the book yet (never let ignorance interfere with self-indulgence, I always say!).

So the hero is like this totally stellar game-player, you know? And he's like the world expert on games of all kinds? But then he finds out about this game, you know, that's like real big, and takes up like two or three whole rooms, several hundred square, you know, meters? And it like freaks him out! He's all like "He had never seen, never heard about, never had the least hint of a game as complicated as this one".

I mean, cut me some slack! Dropping the dauntingly difficult Valley-girl accent, surely the Culture, which is eleventy-zillion different sentients living on a huge collection of planets and ships and orbitals and junk, with all their time taken up with what's basically (by our standards) hobbies, and all linked together by a nice far-future analogue of the Net, surely in that culture someone would have thought of a Game board that (gorsh!) takes up a whole (wow!) room.

I would expect that an expert game player in the Culture would know off the top of his head of half a dozen games that used entire stellar systems as their boards. Silly games, maybe, pretensious and ostentatious and very seldom actually played, but certainly known and understood.

So if I'd been writing that page (if, as in my wildest dreams, I were capable of writing anything as good as "The Player of Games") I would have had Our Hero remark to himself that while the game was much smaller-scale than Foo or Bar, it was still the biggest and most complex game he could ever remembering hearing of anyone taking seriously.

But maybe that's just me.

Oh, and I imagine Everybody is blogging the Newsweek "Who's Blogging Now?" article (Newsweek, March 5th 2000, pp. 62-63; no idea if it's online anywhere). Not an awful article, and some good Noah Grey quotes (I will casually mention here that my log was mentioned in the same breath as Noah's just the other month). The usual sort of confusion about what's a blog and what's a diary; the writer draws a distinction in paragraph two, but then uses "blog" when talking about diaries for most of the rest of the piece. Ah, well!

The part of Curmudgeon is played by one "John Grohol", who quips that the "majority of these journals are not that interesting." Ooooooooh, Mr. Grohol, we do so apologize if the marjority of us have not roused your interest; we are unworthy slime just out there wasting electrons. Bad, bad, us.

Did I mention that both of the main computers in the house here crashed for no apparent reason this morning? The Fates are probably encouraging me to do analog things. Attempts to get the laptop to more reliably do TCP/IP over dialup have resulted in its entirely forgetting that it has a modem, and refusing to allow any modem driver to be installed. So again I may not post this until Monday (or even Tuesday or Wednesday or however long it takes to reconstruct East Coast civilization after the blizzard). Or I may.

You never know.

Friday, March 2, 2001  permanent URL for this entry

I know you all await eagerly the next heartwarming story about my kids, so here is today's Little Daughter Story:

One thing we did during the Fourth of July trip in 2000 was to stop at a boardwalk arcade between the beach and dinner, so the kids could coax us into giving them money to put in the various machines. We all had fun with that, and the kids ended up with hands or pockets or paper cups full of little tickets and arcade coins, suitable for redeeming at the counter for cheap plastic toys. The little daughter had a bunch of these tokens of value, but she couldn't decide what to redeem them for. She spent quite awhile looking at all the trinkets behind the glass without making a decision, and it was pretty much time to go, and then she realized what she really wanted the most.

So last night while I was kissing her goodnight my toe nudged against something on her floor, and looking down I saw that big paper cup, still half-full of little tickets marked "1" or "3", and little metalized-plastic coins with pictures of eagles and slot-machines, and the words "Boardwalk Casino, Sea Isle City, N.J." and "No Cash Value".

But Cash Value isn't the only sort of value, after all.

A reader comes through with a creationist counter to one of yesterday's evolutionist counters. It turns out that these creationists have no problem with speciation occurring:

The creationist assumes that real, substantive increases in information (that is, specifying for an increase in what might be called 'functional complexity') will never arise without intelligent cause. Speciation within the creationist model will therefore be expected to occur in the absence of any increases in the information within the biosphere, and thus can properly be classified as non-evolutionary.

So it's not that new species can't appear, it's just that they can't appear in a way that increases "the information within the biosphere". Why would that be, I wonder?

A very hoopy page about Perl, including a number of modules that show how easy it is to muck with the semantics of the language. If you're brave.

A new issue of the Journal of Desire is out (adult content (d'uh)). Something rather different from the (insert clever Latinate neologism meaning "like a paper magazine" here) style of previous issues: this one pretends to be a (naughty) art gallery despite being largely (though by no means entirely) textual. (Easier visited than described.)

From Anton Sherwood, this seems like just the neatest thing in decades; why haven't I heard more about it? Digital device reads wealthy Roman's library of 'lost' classics:

Among the works, which academics hope to read using the new equipment, are the lost works of Aristotle (his 30 dialogues, referred to by other authors, but lost in antiquity), scientific works by Archimedes, mathematical treatises by Euclid, philosophical work by Epicurus, masterpieces by the Greek poets Simonides and Alcaeus, erotic poems by Philodemus, lesbian erotic poetry by Sappho, the lost sections of Virgil's Juvenilia, comedies by Terence, tragedies by Seneca and works by the Roman poets Ennius, Accius, Catullus, Gallus, Macer and Varus.

Aristotle's lost dialogues? Lost works by Sappho? Yipes!!!!

From Andrew A. Gill, Motorola patent on making devices that only work in a particular area. (Region coding in dishwashers!) New Scientist article:

A way to short-circuit unofficial imports of electronic goods is devised The plan is to embed chips into TVs and cellphones that are either linked to the network of Global Positioning System satellites or are programmed to identify the signal transmitted by national broadcasters. If the chip detects that it is somewhere outside a pre-programmed region, then the equipment will stop working and be "rendered useless", says the company's patent.

Also a Slashdot thread. I couldn't find the actual patent the article refers to, though. If anyone knows the country and number, let us know!

Here's also a vaguely-similar Slashdot thread based on this MIT Tech Review article about tagging consumer goods in general. Scary and/or neat stuff all over this topic.

On Nomic, a reader writes:

Looks like the scribe didn't play life after the creation of rule LX. (rule 36)

Now, come on! Rule 42 says that all rule numbers have to be even, whereas Rule 36 calls for a generation of Conway's Life to occur when a new Rule is created whose number is a multiple of five! Obviously no even number can be a multiple of five, so...

Oh, wait.

Never mind!

That's fixed now; thanks.   *8)   John Conway gets his first XX points, too.


earlier entries