Puzzle Hunts are Everywhere, Even the Courts

Peter Sarrett wrote about that scary mine shaft accident in the Shelby Logan's Run game that happened a few years back. Playing these games, you hope that you won't sleepily run around someplace dangerous and injure yourself. There doesn't seem to be that much information about this accident out on the web--maybe because folks are respecting privacy. Maybe you're not supposed to post things if you're in the middle of a lawsuit?

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Site: Tauba Auerbach / The Alphabet Variations

You may recall that I went to a gallery a couple of weeks ago. It was some art by Tauba Auerbach, including two that featured an alphabetload of overlapping letterforms. I'd wondered what they would look like rendered in other fonts. It turns out that's pretty easy to automate; last night I did so. Check it out: T.A. Variations

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Book Report: Goodbye Darkness

This memoir of the Pacific in WWII is pretty disturbing. I suspect that William Manchester was pulling punches, but his story still has plenty of punch. People got blown up. People fought at close quarters. People convinced themselves to run into harm's way. People were foolish and died of it; people weren't foolish and died anyhow. Years later, most had forgotten about the fighting, leaving the veterans un-lionized. I recommend this book; it made me think.

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Site Update: BANG 17 Writeup

I know, you're bored of hearing about BANG 17, and now you're ready to read about No More Secrets. But I'm really slow, so all I have is a BANG 17 write-up. Featuring cameos by

  • Paul of the BANG wiki,
  • the Smoking GNU, and
  • Michael Constant

(My No-More-Secrets photos are trapped on my camera. You remember how I halfway-upgraded my computer? One casualty was USB support--i.e., the adaptor between my camera and computer. There are workarounds, but not here, not ready, not this weekend.)

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Book Report: JPod

I bought an episode of Sam & Max. I hoped that there would be good jokes. I was nervous that it wouldn't run on my windows machine. It's a laptop, so I figured it doesn't have a 3D graphics card, but the game has 3D graphics. But when I tried it, the graphics worked fine. I should have worried about memory. The game juddered and shuddered, Windows threw up a dialog box saying that it was expanding my swap space. I searched YouTube for videos of other people playing the game--maybe I could still enjoy the jokes vicariously. I found some videos, and they were pretty funny. Frustratingly, those videos only showed about 2/3 of the game; I still don't know how it ends. Computer games promise fun but always lead to misery. Except for Paul du Bois' Emacs port of Bubblet, which I've happily played for years now, no problem, never runs out of memory.

Bah, stupid computer games.

If you visit jpod.info, the official site with information about the Douglas Coupland novel JPod, it says that this novel "updates Microserfs for the age of Google" but that is so misleading because the characters in in JPod obviously work for the computer game company Electronic Arts, not MicroSoft, not Google. Anyhow, this is yet another Coupland book in which characters who bespeak their era find out about the timeless value of friends and family.

I liked this book plenty, but I have a warning. Towards the second half, there's a lot of filler. Digits of pi, random digits, stuff like that. It's all very nice and it fits just fine with the artistic vision of the whatever and all that. But it might fool you into thinking "I just need to pack this one book in my backpack and I'm covered for my commute to work and back", and you'd be mostly right except you probably don't read many of the digits of pi and then bang you've finished the book and the bus is still in Burlingame, miles from home. Bring another book along, just in case.

Bah, stupid books.

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Book Report: First in Space

I am back from the No More Secrets Game, which was pretty excellent. I think it was excellent. My memories are pretty hazy. Since coming back, I've sent one piece of email and left one voice mail message with the contents "Sometime between Saturday and Monday I made a note that I should [email|call] you, but I can no longer remember why. Why am I contacting you? I bet it's pretty important." It turns out that being 29% of a 3.5-person team is pretty busy; it's not so conducive to note-taking and insightful reflection. I got pretty frazzled.

Speaking of doing fun things in spite of a lack of cleverness [cue segue], the graphic novel "First in Space" was fun.

Reading the Right Stuff, you see that airplane test pilots mocked early human astronauts "a monkey made the first flight." But this monkey was pretty impressive. Or, rather, Ham the Chimp was pretty impressive. This comic book, First in Space, is Ham's story. Hold your breath as Ham endures difficult tests! Wince when you find out that Ham's official name was "Chop Chop Chang"! Thrill to the glory of space flight! Wipe a tear from your eye as you contemplate the deeds of this brave ape.

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Book Report: The Undercover Economist

It's another book explaining economics to the masses. Why did I start reading this? I should have known better. I've read too many popular-economics books lately. I stopped reading this one partway through.

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Book Report: How I Came into my Inheritance (and other true stories)

'Lene is out of the hospital. Meanwhile, Alexandra says that her mother is sick; Team Mystic Fish might be on shaky ground this weekend. I have no health problems myself; in theory I have no cause for complaint. But I do complain: will you people please stop having health problems? It's interfering with my leisure. Please consider this request with the weight it deserves.

Right, right so I'm supposed to be talking about How I Came into My Inheritance. This is a collection of short family stories by Dorothy Gallagher. Her family had the ill fortune to be Jewish in Russia. Some got out to the USA in time to experience the depression as others stayed in Russia to be starved by Stalin. These people squabble and don't seem to help each other much. It's interesting to watch Communists come to terms with how Stalinism turned out. This book is bleak, but funny in the way that reading about other peoples' problems can be funny. As long as you don't know those other people or their relatives.

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Book Report: One Hand Jerking

My friend 'Lene was bicycling along, minding her own business, when this set of streetcar tracks came out of nowhere and flipped her bike over. I was making fun of her for getting into a bike accident just a couple of days before Bike To Work Day. It seemed OK to make fun of her--it was just a broken arm, right? Except today I saw her in the hospital and it turns out it's a pretty serious break and she needed surgery and general anesthesia and... Anyhow, I guess it's pretty serious and I'll stop making fun of her. Which is a waste of a great segue, because one of the book reports in my backlog is for One Hand Jerking, which would be a funny reference in another context in a nearby parallel universe where that broken arm hadn't been so serious.

Anyhow, 'Lene has her own blog where you can read about her injuries. Eventually. Uhm, when she can type again. You're not reading my blog to find out about her. You're reading a book report. One Hand Jerking. Yes. The topic. So what is this book? It's a book full of reminiscences and essays by Paul Krassner, who was editor of The Realist. Here we learn that nobody liked Ira Einhorn, not even the radical left. We get snippets of the tragic story of Lenny Bruce as seen by one of his friends. He talks about freedom of speech, changing standards of what it's acceptable to report in major media. We learn about Steve Earle's principles. Some thoughts on the re-emergence of Woodstock. It's all pretty wonderful. Much better than a shattered ulna.

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Book Report: Houdini the Handcuff King

I was going to start this off with a cute paragraph about how I'm "handcuffed" to Debian Sarge (an old version of the OS) on my main home computer because I only have dialup access, my dialup provider hangs up if I try to stay on for five hours, and it's going to take nine hours to download some Perl package... but that's not an interesting anecdote.

All right, so what is Houdini the Handcuff King? It is a nice little comic full of life lessons about public relations. And the importance of working with people you trust. I'd let a juvenile read it for the educational value. Imagine: before we had cable television, people would wait around for an hour to watch a guy in handcuffs jump into a river and swim back up to the surface.

Of course, since I only have dialup access, it would probably take me four hours to download a 30 second YouTube video of some handcuffed weirdo jumping into a river.

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Site: Santa Monica / Venice Photos

I posted some photos and notes from my meanderings in Santa Monica and Venice. The summary: there may be wonderfully exciting things going on in Santa Monica and/or Venice, but I didn't spot them. But I had a nice time walking around.

Except that walking to the Orange County airport was a bad idea, even if it was just a short distance through a business park. If there was a proper pedestrian approach, I never found it. No photos of that part; all my attention went to traffic-dodging.

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Book Report: Garbage Land

Yesterday was all errands, errands, errands. Except that one of those errands was "Return Garbage Land to the library." and since that library was in Berkeley, I made a couple of fun side trips.

I went to the Tauba Auerbach art show at the Jack Hanley gallery, featuring art based on anagrams, a game of telephone, overlapping letters, letters and digits ordered by frequency... a code-lover's feast. There were two piece of art next to each other--one a phonetic alphabet ("alpha bravo charlie") that I knew, but next to it one that I didn't ("allah born cee divine equality"). When I got back home and did some internet research, I found out that this second alphabet wasn't actually used as a phonetic alphabet. It was the Supreme Alphabet, a sort of mnemonic used by an offshoot of the Nation of Islam. Probably my favorite pieces were those that had overlapping letters, but those didn't inspire any research. Mostly, they made me want to have some free time try copycatting that work using some other fonts.

In Berkeley, I stopped off at a sort of artificial grotto by Moffitt library. There I noticed a couple of green plastic champagne glasses concealed in a pile of leaves. I dusted them off and put them into my backpack. Better late than never, I guess.

Yes, I picked up some trash. Maybe that's a good segue for finally getting around to talking about the subject of this book report: Garbage Land.

In this book, Elizabeth Royte follows her garbage around. She visits landfills, tipping stations, a garbage-choked creek, recycling stations, sewage treatment plants. She rides in a garbage truck, canoes past a landfill, visits Berkeley's Urban Ore. She worries about compost and considers whether consumer recycling is worthwhile. This book is pretty interesting and I recommend it.

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Book Report: Charles Sheeler: Across Media

I am still catching up on email from the last couple of weeks. Going on business trip = distracting. Good thing I had this book report written up ahead of time. Ahem, Charles Sheeler: Across Media.

It's a coffee table art book featuring the art of Charles Sheeler. I made the mistake of trying to read some of the text. Art scholars have a tough job. If an artist becomes known for a certain style and you're supposed to come up with something original to say about each of these hundreds of similar paintings... Is it any wonder that so much writing about art is full of it-means-what-you-want-it-to-mean jargon and dwelling on clumsy verbal description of minutiae?

But if Sheeler distanced himself from the Whistlerian painterly touch of the pictorialists, he did not abandon the basic tenets of aestheticism expounded by Whistler, instead enlisting the camera in his own search for a timeless, abstract beauty.

Pages of the stuff, the work of a tortured soul who has slipped on a pair of red shoes and finds himself forced to dance about architecture until collapse.

But the art is good. It's kind of like what you find if you search the internet for [Charles Sheeler], but the book is higher resolution. I recommend it.

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Book Report: Just for Fun

cranea17:/evidence> ls
What do you think this is, UNIX?

I think that's funny, but that's because I spend a lot of time in UNIXoid environments, specifically Linux. I'm biased. Maybe that's also why I enjoyed the book Just for Fun. It's a biography of Linus Torvalds so far. Well, not even so far--it was written back around 2000. Since Linus is mostly known as the guy who got the Linux kernel started, most of the exciting material is from 1990-2000.

Linus is not a wildly exciting personality, and that's part of why this book is so inspiring. Famed internet gadfly Eric Raymond is quoted as saying that part of Linus' appeal was that he was "less visibly odd than a lot of other hackers." I interpreted that to mean "Linus isn't an obnoxious jerk like RMS." (In RMS' defense, I've never met him; my accusation of obnoxiousness is based only on second-hand reports.) In fact, reading about Linus is a lot like reading about any of a number of other geeks you might know.

He wasn't so special. He liked to tinker, he chose an interesting project, he followed through. When other people had suggestions, he took many good suggestions. And thus he made the world a better place. Maybe you could do that too.

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Book Report: The Design of Everyday Things

Yesterday I flew back into the San Francisco bay area after a business trip down South. I was looking out the window as we passed over scenic Fremont. We passed over some bodies of water. I looked down and wondered if this was the site of the "reservoir" in the movie "Sneakers". Then I noticed all of the parking--and I wondered if one of those nearby buildings was a public restroom. Wow, what a great site for a Game clue! An interesting, thematic location is good; but don't ignore parking and bathrooms. Linda Holman says it; Team Snout says it; it must be true.

Functionality is awesome; but without usability, it is nothing. Probably the main book to popularize this idea was The Design of Everyday Things. I finally got around to reading it. The ideas in this book have permeated my world. People talk about usability all the time now, using jargon that was first made popular by this book. I needn't have bothered to read it.

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Book Report: Geek Love

It was difficult to decide whether or not to go to that gallery show opening. But I was able to harness the wisdom of crowds: the humongous slow evening commute traffic decided I wasn't going. Bah.

Anyhow, this isn't about me. This is about the novel Geek Love. I'd been warned that this book by Katherine Dunn was about circus freaks, not about nerd-ish geeks. But I read it anyhow. It was a pulpy novel. I never got into it. Bah.

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Book Report: How to Spell the Alphabet

A while back, I pointed out some not-exactly-puzzle-ish-but-not-exactly-not-either images by Tauba Auerbach. I finally broke down and sent away for a book of her work, How to Spell the Alphabet.

Today, that book showed up and I looked through it on the bus ride home. It's making me think. It's giving me ideas for puzzles. Unfortunately, I do not have the artistic talent to render these puzzles. This book makes me want to drop what I'm doing and practice calligraphy for a couple of years.

I got home and, being an internet nerd, checked my feeds. One of those feeds is a blog search feed on Tauba Auerbach. And it just found mention of a Tauba Auerbach gallery show opening in San Francisco tomorrow evening. I'm not really the kind of person who goes to show openings. I have to wake up early on Saturday. I'm not sure whether I'm trying to talk myself into this or talk myself out of this. I guess I'll find out tomorrow.

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Book Report: The Wisdom of Crowds

Ron and Sua were in town on Friday. That's why I was stuck on a train. I'd had dinner with them on the peninsula, caught the train back, blammo. But it was good to see Ron, good to see Sua. This blogging software lets me "tag" my posts, assign them to categories. A while back I named one of my tags "wisdom of ron". This was a joke on the book "The Wisdom of Crowds". I guess if I'm going to make fun of books, I should read them. I finally got around to reading this one.

I'd heard a lot about this book before I read it. I thought it was going to be a "Casablanca" book--you read it, you say "there's nothing original here", and then you realize that's because the ideas have already leaked out into the world so much. Some of that had happened. I'd heard plenty of people talking about the ideas in the book. But the book is more interesting than what I'd heard; some distortions had crept in. So I'll assume that you've heard the same things that I have, but that you haven't read the book (or else why would you be reading this book report?), and I'll try to point out some things I'd heard that weren't quite echoing what the book had to say.

Word-of-mouth says that this book says that a group of 100 randomly-chosen people can make better decisions than an expert. But that's not quite right. This book says that 100 people who are at least kinda interested in some topic can make better decisions than an expert in that topic (assuming those decisions are in the relevant topic). It also says that if you grab 100 randomly-chosen people, not necessarily interested in your topic, they'll make better decisions than you would probably expect.

Of course, it's not so easy to get information from 100 people. Do you poll them? Ask all questions such that they have numerical answers so that you can find the average answer? Markets do this--they want to find out where supply and demand meet. The answer emerges in the form of a price. A market can tell you how much a chair is worth. But if you're wondering: I have two ideas for totally new chairs, one with rockets, one with flowers... you can't poll the market to tell you which you should build. The market isn't a polling service; it can't answer questions about future developments. The only way you can get the market to tell you the answer is to build both chairs, attempt to sell them, and see which one generates more demand. Our political elections can only tell us "yes" or "no". They don't tell us "We'd like another candidate very similar to this one but with more free speech and less blaming violence on video games."

You can get small groups together and ask them to come to a decision. That's a way you can get an information that's more rich in detail than "The price is 12" or "We voted yes". However, you need to be careful of group dynamics. A persuasive ignoramus might sway the answers of some gullible folks, throwing off the results. You want to find a way to let people learn facts from neutral sources, then negotiate with each other to reach a decision. But you don't want to let persuaive people sway other people about what the facts are, what the priorities are. It's not clear how to prevent this, however--to encourage people to be stubborn about some things but pliable on others.

This book was better than I thought it would be based on people's reports. I learned from it; it made me think. I recommend reading it.

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