Link: Ken Jennings roolz San Francisco

City Hall runs this town. And who runs city hall? Not Gavin Newsom--he's bumbling around, grooming himself for a gubernatorial run. Fortunately Jeopardy star Ken Jennings stepped in to keep city hall on course and/or using the stairs.

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Zine Report: Wired 17.05 (May 2009)

I picked up the latest issue of Wired. A bunch of famous puzzlers made puzzles for it. There's, like, hidden puzzles inside. I didn't make it very far. There's a lot of stuff in Wired magazine. You can get tired of looking for hidden stuff. Ooh, look, there's some bold letters here, they spell out a message. Hey, these ads look fake. But there's just so much to slog through. Do I want to read an article about the Kryptos statue? I've read some about that statue. Do I want to read an article that introduces it, one that assumes I know nothing?

I got bored. I took a break from hunting, started idly riffling pages. My eyes fell on this snippet

Skip to the next article. You certainly could--you could skip the whole magazine.

It was a sign. I put it down went on to other things.

There was good stuff in the magazine. I enjoyed the puzzles that I saw! Thank you for making them! And there was a Clive Thompson article about ARGs and group-solving puzzles that quoted Jonathan Blow. Hooray for quoting Jonathan Blow. I also noticed a welcome lack. I noticed the lack of the crap that made me stop reading Wired years ago. The glowing reviews of unaffordable audio equipment--they're gone! Maybe Wired has turned into a worthwhile magazine. Maybe I shouldn't have looked at Loganbill so funny when he said he wanted to work there.

Still, though. Too much work to hunt through the whole darned thing looking for puzzles. I guess I could let Clive Thompson's article convince me it would be fun to look for other people on the internet. And we could shard up the magazine, each person searching one section for hidden stuff! And we could say "Look me made a communities!" and all collaborate around the magazine and... and...

To heck with it. I've got a new issue of Giant Robot. And I already watched J.J. Abrams talk about his $&#*ing mystery box on his TED video, and it wasn't that interesting then. On to the next zine.

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Book Report: The Best American Essays 2006

It's a collection of essays, not in any particular field. Apparently essayists, when they aren't writing about something in particular--uhm, apparently, they tend to write about themselves. Or else the editor of this collection likes that sort of thing. There were a bunch of slice-of-life-ish autobio pieces in here. "Personal essays" might be the phrase I'm looking for. I like autobiography and slice-of-life bits just fine... but the authors of these pieces weren't grizzled adventurers living lives of derring-do. They were, uhm, essayists: authors, college professors. I didn't finish reading some of these.

Getting past the griping, I liked a few of these essays nonetheless. Emily Bernard's "Teaching the N-Word" explores language, racism, and culture. Susan Orlean's "Lost Dog" was a good story, but it was a good story back when I first read it in The New Yorker, too. "George", by Sam Pickering, was good, but sad. "Group Grief" by Lily Tuck was good, but sad. It's good that these authors are able to find a silver lining in their tragic lives by using them as material for essays.

Still, I don't just want to read sad slices of life. Not too many in a row, anyhow. Especially when they're lives of bookish folks; those strike kind of close to home.

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I cancelled my T-Mobile account, and it went great

I tried out a new mobile phone recently. I did so with some nervousness--I had to get an account with T-Mobile. I wasn't sure I was going to like the phone better than my current phone... so maybe I was going to want to cancel my account with T-Mobile. I was going to have to deal with customer service at a mobile phone carrier!

I kind of lost track of which mobile phone companies have terrible customer service. You hear a lot about Verizon, but maybe that's just because they're bigger and thus have more customers complaining.

It turned out that, sure enough, my the new phone wasn't as good as my old phone. (I claim that the G1 phone is better than an iPhone... but still not as good as my Blackberry.) Thus, I would have to call up T-Mobile's customer service department and get through a transaction that would mean less revenue for T-Mobile. I braced myself for a Telephone On-Hold Unhelpful-People Transfer-Runaround Nightmare.

But it went great. T-Mobile answered their phone quickly. The guy I talked to was nice. I even had a question--they had not yet billed me for anything and I wanted to make sure that they had my payment information OK--and the guy answered it.

That was surprisingly painless. I'll remember this the next time I'm looking for a mobile phone company. Especially if I type this note to myself.


Book Report: The Kin of Ata are Waiting for You

I read this book because it's by Dorothy Bryant who wrote the excellent The Confessions of Madame Psyche. I read it even though my mom read it and didn't care for it much. I didn't care for it much. In the book, the protagonist dies and goes to another world. Unlike John Carter of Mars, when he dies he doesn't go to a world of action and adventure. Instead he goes to a world where people live communally and simply and achieve enlightenment by paying attention to their dreams and....

This book is copyright 1971. It was a time when some people were trying to strip away the bullshit of materialistic consumer-ish lives. That's a good thing. But finding a compelling narrative underneath all that... it ain't easy. I'm not saying that I could do it better than Dorothy Bryant did. I'm just sayin' it ain't easy, and I don't think it happened here.

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Puzzle Hunts are Everywhere, even Tampa

A few years back, I pointed out a multi-day Game shaping up in New Zealand with a bionic theme. That game never came together. But all was not lost! Eagle-eyed Justin Graham got word: The GC for that game is running a Game in Tampa in September! There's a critical mass of teams signed up, so figure that the game will come together. Wow, there's a lot of material on that website.

Hmm. I dunno if I'd go all the way to Tampa for a The Game, but combine that with a trip to Disney World to play their Kim Possible treasure hunt game and maybe a trip to Cape Canaveral and suddenly you're talking about an interesting outing. Uhm, but I don't really think I know anyone around here who's interested in such an outing. But I can dream.

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Book Report: The Elements of Programming Style

Non-programmers might not realize it, but some computer program source code is even harder to read than the rest. Some of this code is so messy that an experienced programmer looks at it and says "I have no idea what is going on here. Maybe I could figure it out, but... what's on TV?" This book talks about some general principles of writing readable code; and there are examples to illustrate good and bad code.

This book is from the 1970s. The examples are in the FORTRAN and PL/I programming languages. They are in an old FORTRAN--I think FORTRAN has changed a bit since then. I think this book uses an old dialect. I'm not really sure, though. I don't know FORTRAN nor do I know PL/I. Actually, that was a problem with this book. The book had "before" and "after" examples to show how to "clean up" code to make it more readable. I couldn't always understand the "after" examples. Well, I could, but only after the head-scratching I associate with my attempts to read poorly-written code. For example, DO 2 I=1,N After looking at some other examples, I think that means "Loop N times over the block of code that starts here and ends with the line of code labeled "2".

As it was... I think this book might be of more interest to the historian than to the programmer.

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Book Report: Code

I picked up this book because I'd heard it talked about codes and also about digital circuit design, two topics dear to my heart. I started on it and it seemed pretty readable. But it stayed with pretty introductory material, at least for the first several chapters. And when I riffled the pages of the rest, it looked like I wasn't going to learn much. So I put it down. Still, if this book had been available twenty years ago, I would have been glad to read it. (Except... I'm not sure if I'd discovered the fun of reading non-fiction back then. Uhm, if this book at been available twenty years ago and I'd been wise enough to appreciate it and, uhm... now I forget what the question was.)

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Book Report: Getting to YES

This book is about negotiating agreements. You want mushroom pizza, they want bell pepper pizza, how do you figure out what to do? You look for middle ground, of course, and this book talks some about how to do this.

Perhaps more usefully, it talks about how to deal with people who want to "win" a negotiation. When I'm faced with high-pressure sales tactics, I just walk away. So far, that's been pretty easy--there's always been other places to go.

Ah, memories...

"Hi, I'm thinking of buying a pool table. Right now, I'm just calling around to find out about prices. I'm interested in blah blah blah describing specs blah blah blah. What would you charge for something like that?"

"$2300 if you order today."

I never called that place back. Maybe I should have once I got prices from other places. Maybe they would have negotiated; I never gave them a chance. This book talks about some ways that you can get past the high-pressure negotiating tactics to something more useful. If you're dealing with a professional salesperson, it might be as easy as asking them to stop.

  • Don't just ask for their position--ask them the reasoning behind their position.
  • When they tell you things, listen. Don't get distracted thinking of what you're going to say next.
  • Ask them if you understand them correctly--re-state their position.
  • Tell them the reasoning behind your position. That might suggest some negotiation wiggle-room to them.

It's all good advice. I think most folks tend to do this anyhow. But it helps to spell out the steps--especially when you're dealing with sonmeone who isn't inclined to be so reasonable.

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Book Report: Designing Web Usability

This book is about web usability. It's kinda old, from the year 2000.

Reading it with this historical hindsight was somewhat discouraging. Apparently, webmasters have made the same mistakes for several years.

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Book Report: The Difference Between God and Larry Ellison

I've "used" Oracle applications. When I say "used", I mean "tried and gave up". Oracle calendar was slow, buggy, and thought it was a good idea to store my password, unencrypted, in a publically visible file. Yes, I'm still angry about that. Oracle expense report software has saved my employers plenty of money. Not because it's efficient. Rather, because it's so awful that I tend to pay for things out of my own pocket rather than try to file expense reports.

The Difference Between God and Larry Ellison is a history of Oracle Corporation and CEO Larry Ellison. Oracle got ahead through selling vaporware and spreading FUD. I always assumed that their apps were crap but that their underlying database must be good--because they were a successful database company, right? But it turns out that they were in the right time and right place. And they won and kept a lot of business by lying to their customers.

This book was a powerful reminder that a company can do very well by cheating its customers and doing evil. I like being honest with customers and like finding "win-win" situations... but there are people who say "screw that" and go for the quick bucks. If I assume that a company that's been around for several years must have some kind of honesty or else their reputation would have caught up with them, Oracle proves me wrong. I guess I shouldn't have needed this book to remind me. There are plenty of long-lived evil companies out there.

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Book Report: Saturn's Children

This sci-fi book, dedicated to Heinlein, features an android female sexbot who-- Hey, wait, come back! You're thinking that the book is going to be some awful misogynistic piece of crap. But it's not (albeit in the opinion of me, a patriarchal male oppressor). The book takes place after the human race has died out, leaving behind many, many robots. Some of these robots, e.g., miners, still have a purpose in life. The sexbots, on the other hand, have not had it so easy--they had to find something else to do. This book has farce, intrigue, and a lemur. Check it out.

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Book Report: Station

This comic book is a murder mystery set on the International Space Station. It was OK. Maybe if I were more of a space-nerd, I would have liked how the story brought in well-researched bits of ISS lore. As it is, I just treated most of that stuff like technobabble and concentrated on the mystery--which was workable, I guess. As it was... this comic was OK.

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Book Report: Applied Cryptography

This is an old textbook about applying cryptography; that is, it's about computer security. It's the textbook by Bruce Schneier, the book he later said wasn't so important--you can get this stuff right and your system still might not be secure. Your fancy security system might not do much good if everyone in your company's art department thinks its easier to trade passwords than to set up a shared file server. But I read it anyhow--some pieces of security still seem useful.

It's an old book; people crack codes over time. This led to some disappointment while reading. I got kind of excited to read about FAPKC, a Chinese cryptography system based on cellular automata. This was cool on a number of levels, and not just because it evoked a puzzle from the No More Secrets game. But it turns out that FAPKC was broken back in 1995--probably at around the time this book was slogging through the book publishing process.

I'm glad I read this book; this book made me think. It's not just about the crypto; it's also about protocols built up from crypto. Suppose you have a way to encrypt messages, a way to sign messages. How do you exchange data with someone without being eavesdropped upon if you haven't already exchanged keys with them? OK, you've probably already stumbled into key-exchange protocols. But there are weirder things out there. This book talks about several of them--including how some protocols were found vulnerable. It's good exercise to think about these things, try to figure out how you would crack them. I didn't always succeed. There's another good lesson there--sometimes you can look at a broken system and think "well, it looks OK to me". Trust no-one, least of all yourself. This book had plenty of good puzzles dressed up as protocols.

There was a quick run-through of useful mathematics. This was a nice refresher for stuff I already knew. For the stuff I didn't know--number theory--this wasn't enough to teach me much. But there were references to books with more information with some recommendations, so there's hope for the future. And of course there's still plenty here that you can understand even without the number theory background. The book wants to be both a reference and a lesson-book. Nowadays, for the reference stuff, you'd probably search the web instead; in hindsight, it would have been nice if the book had concentrated on the lessons. Still, it's a fun read; check it out.

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Book Report: The Mote in God's Eye

Happy National Poetry Month! To celebrate, this blog post contains no poetry. You're welcome.

The Mote in God's Eye is a science fiction classic that I never got around to reading. Except that I finally got around to reading it. It was OK, as long as you didn't think through the premise very thoroughly. It's a first contact novel. The humans are a star-faring empire. They encounter the Moties, a species of alien with many specialized sub-species. The Moties have only ever been in one star system, because they [censored to avoid SPOILER, also thus concealing the not-so-believable premise]. The Moties have three hands, thus explaining some geek jokes. I guess that sums up why I stuck with reading this book. The characters seem pretty cardboardish. The premise leaves the audience going oh come on. But it was a quick read and now I understand some cultural allusions.

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