Recent Accomplishments

Did God create the flu to punish the wicked? Or did He just want to make sure that all his earthly servants, even the teetotallers, would understand what a crushing hangover feels like?

Woke up Saturday morning feeling awful. Feeling somewhat better Sunday and today, but not good enough to hike into work and spread around the germs. I hear the flu generally knocks people out of commission for a week, so maybe I didn’t have the flu, just a bad cold. Or maybe one helpful factor in my rapid recovery was having Mom and Dad and Little Sis swing by with chicken soup and tea and old WWII movie DVDs. If you have a Mom and Dad and Little Sis in your area, I strongly recommend you add them to your treatment regimen.

Anyway, aside from sleeping a lot, I’ve accomplished quite a bit, I think.

  • Watched the aforementioned WWII DVDs, including Guadalcanal Diary and Halls of Montezuma. Twentieth Century Fox helpfully ships each DVD with a yellow “Support Our Troops” magnet. Since I don’t own an SUV, I’ve decided to put the magnet on my refrigerator instead.

  • Read Dru‘s collection of Russian fairy tales. Maybe it’s the fever, but man, even by European folk tale standards, the Russian stuff is downright nonlinear.

  • Finished Njal’s Saga. Now the Icelandic sagas, at least, are coherent stories. They’re populated with authentic medieval people, true, but you can at least understand WTF is going on most of the time. Maybe the Icelanders didn’t have access to the same drugs the Russians had.

  • Read the entire His Dark Materials trilogy. Some of the best YA I’ve ever read.

  • Paid some bills. Despaired at the disorganized state of my office. Halfheartedly picked up some papers.

  • Fixed a broken spatula with Krazy Glue. Krazy Glue and duct tape will get you far in life.

  • Nearly sent my broken window fan back to the manufacturer. The fan had mysteriously stopped working a few months ago, and I’d been waffling about whether to toss it or get them to send a replacement under warranty. I bet they didn’t plan on anyone in this throwaway consumer culture taking them up on their “five year warranty”, ha! But then I discovered the fan was… mysteriously working again. Righteous high dudgeon faded, just as mysteriously.

  • Catalogued some recent books in Delicious Library. Looked at books that I have loaned out to other people. “Oh yeah, she’s the one who has my Feynman book. Guess I’m not seeing that one again.”

  • Dropped my 24 Hour Fitness membership — something I should have done a year and a half ago. With the corporate gym, there’s just no reason to be a member of a separate gym. Of course if you have the flu, there’s just no reason to be a member of any gym. Slim that waistline — results guaranteed!

Orders of Magnitude

My mathematical skills have been decaying for years. First it was tensors and what little I knew about group theory. Then PDEs, then multivariable calculus, linear algebra, …

Now the arithmetic module is finally failing. This week I went to go look at tile. I tried to do a first-pass estimate of the cost of materials.

  1. “Okay, the bathroom is 7′ x 10′. So that’s 700 square feet.”
  2. “The tile is, say, $6 per square foot. That’s… crikey! $4200!”
  3. “Okay, maybe I’ll feel better if I try to calculate the tile square footage more precisely. That should knock things down by at least a third, probably more.”
  4. “First, let’s subtract out the sink and counter area. That’s 7′ x 2′, or 14 square feet.”
  5. “700 – 14 is… waaait a second. Something’s wrong here.”

Pretty sad, really. You know, I used to have circuit breakers designed to halt ridiculous calculations in process, and they should have kicked in at Step 2. Either those circuit breakers are gone, or they got disabled when I started browsing through fancy bathroom supply stores and catalogs. After all, when you see shower heads going for $699 and heated towel racks going for over $1000, that tile calculation doesn’t seem too far out of whack.

As an aside, I wonder how hard it is to make your own heated towel rack? I might have forgotten all my math, but I do remember how to use a soldering iron.

Laws of Computational Metaphysics

In the post “Welcome to 3.0”, I mentioned a number of reasons for the redesign. Better permalinks. Better comments. Upgraded feeds. Not hideously green. All sorts of good stuff.

I also upgraded from Movable Type 2 to Movable Type 3. MT3 offers a number of improvements, such as a better web interface and a more sophisticated plug-in system. However, the truth is that I could have done the whole redesign in MT2. And I was reluctant to upgrade, because:

  • I had already paid for MT2, and MT3 would have cost more money.
  • MT2 could operate using flat files, but MT3 requires a database, which would have required me to upgrade my web hosting plan.
  • MT2 was working Just Fine, Thanks.

But eventually all of these became not-true. First, MT3 became free for personal use. Second, my web host made MySQL available for all their plans, even the El Cheapo ones like mine. Third, Jacques alerted me that MT2 was not, in fact, working Just Fine, Thanks. The unpatched security hole was enough to convince me.

So it wasn’t enough to just start creating new posts using a new template — I also had to import all the old posts so I could shut down MT2 permanently. Unfortunately, technology has (surprise!) gotten in the way.

Importing the posts themselves wasn’t too bad. As long as you remember the simple rule of Movable Type upgrades:

  • uploading your posts by FTPing them to the import/ directory: GOOD
  • uploading your posts via the “web upload” feature: BAD

then everything works out alright, mostly. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that even though most of the old posts use raw HTML, and all of the new posts use Markdown, MT correctly formatted them all. Unfortunately this cleverness doesn’t apply to comments, but I’ll take what I can get.

What’s more annoying is permalinks. The old site just had monthly archive pages, not individual entry archives, so it had permalinks that looked like this:

By contrast, the new site has permalinks that look like this:

This is pretty yucky for a couple of reasons. First, unless I am reading the documentation incorrectly, MT3 changed its archive formatting syntax so that you have to represent months using numbers. Strings such as “Apr” are right out.
Ok, fine, I can use numbers for months, and I can even fix everything up with mod_alias.

But then there’s the second problem: all my old posts used anchors (the #29 part) in the permalink. What I didn’t know back in 2001 is that the anchor never gets sent to the web server, which mean I can’t use that information to redirect the old posts to its new location. (Oh, you could always try to do the redirect on an individual basis using JavaScript, but the search engines wouldn’t be able to follow, so screw that.)

So I’m doing the next best thing, which is to redirect each old-style link to the appropriate monthly archive page. Straightforward enough, although I am wondering whether I should put in some special cases for the two or three posts that had wider than usual linkage. For example, if someone links to the aforementioned:

then my poor webserver only sees this:

but I know that the person actually meant to go here:

and not to some other post made in April 2003. I’m not sure what the proper thing to do is here, but I’m tempted to go with the ugly hack that will help most people and annoy the remainder, rather than the cleaner solution that will annoy everybody.

Anyway, this little tale of woe is all just a roundabout way of getting to my Laws of Computational Metaphysics. I used to have one, now I have two. I’m sure someone has stated these laws before, but here’s my formulation:

  1. Information that resides only on a single hard drive doesn’t exist.
    This one is the most important, since this one bites both geeks and non-computer geeks all the time. (Computer geeks: raise your hand if you’re older than 22 and you’ve never lost data.) Among non-computer geeks, only very very very smart people like my kid sister and my mother can be made to understand this problem. So for everyone else my default advice is not, “Get yourself a good backup system,” but, “Don’t store anything important on the computer, ever.”

  2. Permalinks that contain an anchor don’t exist.
    Law #2 has a narrower scope, but I think that amongst the web nerd set, it’s underappreciated.

Feel free to add more Computational Laws of Metaphysics in comments…

Quetzalcoatl’s Ziggurat of Death

Met up with fellow VPXers Zak (and Sharon), Dru, Lucy, and Erin in San Francisco last night. You know you’re with the right crowd when one minute they’re giving you a proper chiding for falling off the wagon and taking up World of Warcraft again, and then the next minute they start suggesting new guild names for you.

(Regarding World of Warcraft… don’t worry, I’ve got it under control this time, man.)

Anyway, I must say the SF Hyatt is most impressive on the inside. I think I must have been there as a child many years ago, because the feeling of vertigo and “Holy crap, I’m inside a giant open-air ziggurat!” seemed… strangely familiar. Or maybe I’m confusing the Hyatt with the Luxor? Regardless, they did have a loungy bar, which served a drink called “Cotton Candy” that was pink and delicious, and I am totally going to order one on my next first date. If there ever is another first date in my future, because let’s face it, once you get back on the World of Warcraft wagon, things like “talking to women” and “bathing” start to fall by the wayside. Kidding! Got it totally under control! [thumbs up]

The bar also deserves props for making clever use of hanging lights and wispy coverings, strung to create the illusion of a smaller, cozier space. Just don’t look behind you or straight up, because then you realize that no, you’re still inside the scary ziggurat and ohmygod Quetzalcoatl is going to swoop down and eat us all. Ah, the primal human fear of being eaten by giant flying lizards. Although my fellow VPXers seemed unconcerned. Maybe it’s just me? And the Creationists, probably, what with their Pteranodons and all.

Always Watch The Skies.


Last night I went up to San Francisco to see a showing of The Czech Dream, a documentary about two young state-sponsored filmmakers who hired and persuaded professional advertisers to help them promote and launch a fake supermarket. The students covered the the marketing campaign from the inside, and then filmed the reaction of the thousands of people who showed up on opening day.
This stunt caused a nationwide scandal and led to a political backlash against the government and its pro-EU marketing campaign — which just so happened to be sponsored by the same ad company portrayed in the film.

The basic theme of the The Czech Dream is unremarkable. “Consumerism is bad”, “modern marketing sure is gosh darn powerful”, i.e. nothing particularly radical or interesting for any Westerner over the age of twelve. There is also a strange disconnect between the magnitude of reaction and the rather low-wattage of the stunt itself. The victims of the hoax cheerfully berated themselves for being “idiots”, but they were being awfully hard on themselves. After all, this sort of trick pales in comparison to what goes on in reality TV, where producers consistently manipulate people into doing much more embarrassing things than showing up to a fake supermarket opening.

On the plus side, the movie did have many genuinely funny bits: the composing of the marketing jingle, the crowd’s reactions, the bewildered looks of the filmmakers. It was also interesting to get an inside look at the thought processes of the marketeers, who were good at their work, proud of it, and just as young and hip and well-educated as the filmmakers themselves. (At one point, one of them argues that advertisers never lie, it’s the filmmakers who do.) The filmmakers also did something really clever in the trailer for the film, which includes a scene with an angry mob chasing and beating them up. Although that scene was completely fake, it does a fine job of raising the stakes of the film. It also hoaxes the audience a bit, which seems only fair.

But by far the most interesting aspect of The Czech Dream was not the film itself, but the reaction of the San Francisco audience. At various points in the film, Czechs from different socio-economic backgrounds would observe that shopping made them feel happy. Each statement along these lines provoked howls of laughter from the audience. Not garden-variety patronizing chuckles from We Sophisticated Western [Hyper-/Anti-/Meta-]Consumers, mind you… no, these were actual howls, the kind of noise ordinarily reserved for particularly awful pundits or politicians.

It’s hard to say whether the filmmakers intended this, but The Czech Dream manages to portray the Czech people in a fairly positive light. Some were annoyed, some were bemused, some were clever, many were funny, all were humanized. Coming away from the film, you get the feeling that the Czechs are basically all right. My fellow Americans, though, not so much.

Welcome to 3.0 weblog. A website barely alive. Gentlemen, we can rebuild it.
We have
the technology.
We have the capability to make the world’s first…
errr, scratch that, we have the capability to make Evan’s first
not-completely-hideous website. will be that website. Better than
it was before. Better… stronger… faster.

Yes, after almost five years, I’ve finally redesigned the ol’ blog template. Out with the hideous green of 2.0, and in with the soothing earth tones of 3.0! (Hmm, so what was 1.0, then? You really don’t want to know.)

Aside from being vaguely displayable in Netscape Navigator 4, the previous design had very little to recommend it. The new design has several advantages over the old, including:

  • It’s not hideously green.
  • Oh, it’s hideously brown, you say? Well, according to Microsoft, brown is the new black. So there.
  • As an added bonus, this design is one of the only sites out there where the little orange “feed” icons actually sort of harmonize.
  • Atom 1.0 feeds. I was going to hilariously title this post, “Up and Atom!”, but then I discovered I was only about the 800th person to come up with that.
  • Individual entry archives. The old blog had everything filed away on monthly archives (mimicking the format from back before I had blog software) and presented comments in a separate pop-up window (a hack from back when Phil Ringnalda taunted me into opening up comments, and that turned out the quickest way to enable them.) Now each post has its own page and its own set of permalinkable comments. Technology marches on!
  • You can now post comments using a subset of John Gruber’s Markdown. That means bulleted lists, blockquotes, preformatted code blocks, and other goodies.
  • There is a linkroll.
  • The site has migrated to MT 3, which has a wide array of nifty new features to play with.
  • Did I mention, not hideously green?

Plus many other minor tweaks. And newly-introduced bugs. For one thing, this template looks a little sketchy in Internet Explorer 6. For one thing, the blockquotes are causing weird formatting glitches. Also, IE 6 does not seem to like border-style: dotted. But I’m sure this is all fixed in IE 7.

A final note: the banner at the top is a composite of photographs from Flickr. I can’t take a picture worth a damn, but fortunately other people can… and not only that, they sometimes release their work under a Creative Commons license. So thank you to the following people for making this redesign possible:

And that’s all for now. Technically, this blog only has one post in it, so I’d better start filling it up. Don’t want to look like a newb…