Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Odds and ends

Sign of the day: "cafẽ." Yes, that's an e with a tilda. I didn't even know they had such a thing. I guess they couldn't find an acute accent, but there was a tilda just lying around?

In my post on church music, I called organ music "grave." That works for most church music, but I also discovered that it can sound dangerously close to carnival music depending on the song. One should definitely consider that when choosing whether to accompany a hymn with the organ.

I heard the following quotation from Obama on NPR tonight (this citation from Fox News:

"If private insurers say that the market place provides the best quality healthcare, then why is it that the government is suddenly going to drive them out?" Obama said.


He went on to say that government can't run anything efficiently, according to the health insurance companies, and "that's not logic" (quoting from memory here) to say that government will drive them out.

What's not logic is for Obama to ignore the fact that government can subsidize its insurance, and almost certainly will -- if it doesn't, what would be the point of providing a government option? The market provides the best insurance for the money, but government can throw endless amounts of money at the problem because it can borrow money indefinitely or tax to pay for it.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Customer service

Here is an account of my experience trying to buy a watch battery at Target today (inner dialogue in italics):

Sales clerk: "Can I help you?"
Me: "I need to get this battery."
Clerk: "I don't think we have that one."
Me: You have all the watch battery types memorized?
Clerk, after a pause of about 5 seconds to check in the cabinet: "No, we don't have that one. You can check in electronics."
Me: "That's strange, you had it the last time I was here."
Me: Which was only two weeks ago, but I don't want to admit that I was stupid and lost the battery I got then.
Clerk: "Sorry, we don't have it."

At about that time, an older clerk, whom I had seen during my previous visit, came over. I asked her, "You don't have this battery?" She and the other clerk looked in the cabinet and found it in about the same 5 seconds it took the first clerk to determine that they didn't have it the first time.

It's just Target, and I'm sure she doesn't get paid on commission (which wouldn't amount to anything on a $4 watch battery anyway). But it would be nice if people in sales made some vague effort to satisfy the customer, rather than beginning with a negative and only giving a cursory glance to test her initial assumption.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

APET

A group of animals announced today the formation of a new organization, Animals for People's Ethical Treatment (APET). A spokesbear read the following prepared statement: "We animals are grateful for everything PETA has done to demonstrate that there is no moral difference between humans and animals. Their efforts have finally begun to bear fruit in legal recognition. In 2004, Austria banned the use of wild animals in circuses and made it illegal to restrain dogs with chains. The Italian city of Reggio Emilia prohibited the live boiling of lobsters and required that humans guarantee all of their pets an equal share of food (which, regrettably, we often don't share with each other). Switzerland then passed sweeping legislation in support, not just of animal protection, but of animal dignity. Animals have not been this well protected since the Nazis took power.

Those laws were merely the forerunners, however. The great victory in animal rights was the Spanish government's enactment of a law providing "human rights" to animals last year. Animals are finally being recognized as the moral equivalent of humans; and, with animal law taught in almost 2/3rds of American law schools, we feel it is now only a matter of time before humans around the world protect our rights with the same vigour they protect their own.

In light of these improvements, we feel it is time for animals to step up and accord the same rights to humans. In recent years, there have been a number of unprovoked animal attacks on humans, notably a stingray's fatal stabbing of Steve Irwin and Roy Horn's severe injury at the hand of one of his tigers, not to mention the usual assortment of bear, shark, and snake attacks. If we, as animals, are going to share in civil society, we have to behave in a civil manner. To this end, we are launching a media campaign to market humans as "land coral" to sharks. We were inspired by PETA's recent attempt to rename fish to sea kittens. We would have liked to adopt some equally cute name for humans, but, even thoug sharks are known to be intelligent and playful, we thought it would be better to choose something that they definitely would not try to eat. We expect our campaign to be every bit as successful as PETA's. APET will also push for stricter laws prohibiting the biting or eviscerating of humans, although, since animals don't form governments and don't respect laws, we anticipate less success with this approach.

While APET promotes human rights among animals, we will also vigorously support PETA's defense of animal rights among humans. We condemn as inhuman and inanimal all those who would deny us full equality. APET also believes in the rights of our brethren the plants, whose moral dignity has only begun to be recognized in certain advanced countries. We look forward to the day when APET will be able to work side by side, not only with PETA, but also with PEAT (Plants for Ethical Animal Treatment)."

Monday, June 15, 2009

Bakugan

You would think that the creators of Bakugan could have done better, given all the previous collectible games -- Magic, Pokemon, Yugioh, and many others. Of course, Bakugan has been enormously successful so far, but most of that has to do with the core idea of monsters that open up from tiny balls. (One wonders if they were inspired by Pokemon and pokeballs.) I'm talking about the game of Bakugan, the actual (purported) purpose behind collecting the figures. The game is lousy.

The whole principle is flawed, really. The idea of collectible card games is that you get cards that work well in combination, and build the ideal deck with them. This is totally irrelevant in Bakugan, because you never fight with more than one Bakugan at a time. Each monster is given a single power rating, the higher, the better; there is no subtlety in figuring out which monsters you would rather have. Monsters also have an "attribute" along the same lines as the other collectible games -- fire, electric, earth, etc. The ones in Bakugan are given unpronounceable names, and don't have much purpose. You play a "gate" card that gives a different bonus to each type of Bakugan; obviously, you want to get your Bakugan on the card that gives it the highest bonus. You have no knowledge of your opponent's gate cards, so there is no strategy there.

You can see the trouble Bakugan is having from the number of times they have had to change the rules, which is particularly bad because there are hardly any rules to begin with. Then they issued a whole new set of Bakugan that were larger than the old ones. I'm not sure what the reason for this was; it may have been nothing more than a marketing scheme, or there may have been safety concerns (can't have kids swallowing marbles), or they may have decided that they needed more room to create new varieties of Bakugan. In any case, collectors were bound to be irritated. Now they have added "traps," which again provide virtually no new strategies, but offer all kinds of new opportunities to sell figures. Bakugan monsters also come in a bewildering variety of figures that don't open up, making them useless for the game, but which come with game cards that confuse the buyer.

For some time now, they've been giving away a free DVD to explain the rules and the strategy to the game. There really isn't much strategy; the most important thing to winning is (a) having the biggest Bakugan, and -- even more important -- (b) rolling them so they open up on one of the metal cards. This is actually pretty hard to do. I guess it's a legitimate skill, akin the marbles, but they make it sound so much like a thinking game that it is hard to focus on the dexterity aspect. They have come out with an "arena" to provide a better playing surface, including curved edges that the figures can roll up and back down onto the cards, thereby making it easier to get them to land. It's a good idea, but, if you have to resort to that, it takes away a major part of the game, which is being able to "brawl" anyone, anywhere, as long as you have your Bakugan (and gate cards and ability cards). That's a nice feature of Pokemon and the other collectible games. I can just imagine kids trying to play Bakugan on ordinary tables like Pokemon tournaments are held on: it would be a disaster of monsters rolling off the table and kids crawling around trying to find their own figures. The floor works okay, as long as it is not carpeted. It's just a poorly conceived game that I'm sorry my son got interested in. (A brilliant marketing scheme, however.)

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Festival

I get bored easily, especially when I have to do something that occupies my hands but not my mind -- washing dishes, folding laundry, driving, and mowing the lawn are all common cases. Sometimes I just want to reflect, or even just vegetate, but usually I want some kind of input to keep my mind occupied.

Therefore, it was a great boon to me when I discovered books on tape. Not only did it give me something to think about while performing manual tasks, it also gave me a chance to catch up on all the classics that I had shirked reading in college. Libraries usually have a good collection of classics, especially literature, so I got to read a lot of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and other famous novels.

After 20 years, however, I'm starting to run out of material. There are plenty more books on tape, but they tend to be recent novels, mostly mysteries, that I don't care that much for. If I wanted to read the classics, there are plenty of places where I could download them for free: (Gutenberg, etc.). Wouldn't it be nice if I could convert these texts into audio?

Fortunately, there is a way, and it doesn't require buying any software. The Festival project at the University of Edinburgh is a complete text-to-speech (tts) system. You can get it to read your computer's output, but you can also get it to read text files, including ebooks.

Ubuntu, the most popular Linux distribution, has finally provided an up-to-date package for Festival. In the past, I've had to compile it, which is difficult but not impossible. If you want to run it in Windows, you'll have to install a compatibility layer such as cygwin or mingw and compile it. There doesn't seem to be any danger that Ubuntu or other Linux distributions will fall behind in the future, because Festival hasn't produced any new versions (including version 2.0, which is supposed to be almost done) for years. In fact, I'm a little concerned that the project is dead; although, since the latest version is very good, I'll be happy as long as it is available.

Festival commands seem designed to be as difficult as possible to figure out, but there are some good guides to using Festival online here, here, and at the main Festival page linked above. As with almost everything Linux, Festival is highly modularized -- you can use different backends, different interfaces, different voices, and different dictionaries. The most important change you'll want to make is to use the amazing CMU Arctic voices (instructions here), which are a quantum leap above the included voices. Do the CMU arctic voices still sound robotic? I don't think you're going to mistake it for a human voice, but it is surprisingly pleasant. What amazes me is how much natural intonation the sentences have. You might expect the individual words to sound natural, since the program is based on a dictionary of words with specific pronunciation rules, but sentences would logically be harder to parse and translate into normal, flowing speech.

Festival comes with a utility called text2wav that converts a text file into an audio rendering. Of course, this will result in a huge file if you convert it all at once, and it may even cause memory overflows. On this site, you can find a little perl script that will convert the text in little pieces and encode it to mp3 format, which is much smaller. Then all you have to do is copy it to your mobile device and listen -- using a mobile broadcaster, if necessary.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

France

Some people must be way more interested in the Air France crash than I am. It makes the news every day. Two days ago, it was because they recovered the tail. Okay, that was a big section and had some bodies in it. Yesterday it was the vertical stabilizer. Is this exciting? I fully expect to read that they have recovered the right aileron any day now. They'll probably also find some luggage -- most of it belonging to people from another flight.

Americans and French are noteworthy for their antipathies. The French view Americans as provincial and uncouth; Americans view the French as limp-wristed, quiche-eating pansies. Although Americans don't share France's negative view of themselves, I'll bet many Americans would admit that they're not as cultured as Europeans -- and they wouldn't care. It's not something we prize that much. We are more interested in being honest, brave, and direct than in pursuing high culture and art. I have to say that I share that bias. I'd prefer to be honest and cultured, but I prefer virtue to learning and sophistication.

The funny thing is that the French don't view themselves as anything like Americans view them. Yes, they consider themselves cultured, but not in the flighty, romantic way that Americans see them. The French are the champions of abstract intelligence; a Frenchman even invented the concept of IQ. But the French don't think of themselves simply as effete intellectuals; in their view, they are super-macho. Cultured, of course, not like the American barbarians, but macho nonetheless.

How can they think that way when they have been defeated in so many wars? To begin with, being macho does not win wars. Italians have plenty of machismo, but they were even worse in World War II than the French. But the French don't view their military history with shame. What they see is a long series of military heroes -- Clovis, Charles Martel, Charlemagne, Godfrey of Bouillon, Philip II, Bertrand du Guesclin, Turenne, Conde, Louis XIV, Napoleon -- interrupted only by the embarrassing defeats of the Franco-Prussian War and World War II. The French long had a reputation for panache, reckless courage. The Italians called it the furia francese, the "French fury," and it was feared during the Renaissance. One of the reasons for the French defeats during the Hundred Years' War was the desire to charge and come to grips with the enemy, which the English were able to take advantage of in the battles of Poitiers and Agincourt. In World War I, too, the French owed part of their early failure to their desire to attack at all costs.

Whether the French still deserve their reputation as brave and powerful warriors, I will leave to the side. But it is interesting to contemplate how different their self-image is from that Americans have of them.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Most cars these days come with a decent stereo, with at least a cd player and a radio; but not everyone drives a recent car. My current vehicle happens to be a pickup truck over 10 years old, so it only has a radio. I was disappointed when I first discovered that there was no input jack on the stereo, and I couldn't afford to put in a new one. Fortunately, I found a way around the problem that allows you to play cd's, audio cassettes, and even your iPod over your radio, without having to buy any expensive equipment.

The secret is a little device that transmits sound from an audio device -- cd player, iPod, etc. -- to your radio. It's like having a radio station in your car. You simply plug it into the headphone jack of your audio player, turn it on, and tune your radio to the appropriate channel. The most popular of these devices is probably the iRiver, but there are plenty of competing brands. I have an iRock, similar to the one seen here (mine looks less flashy, but allows you to broadcast on more frequencies). Both of them allow you to broadcast your music on various FM frequencies, so if you run into interference from local radio stations, you can simply switch to alternate, less crowded frequency. The iRiver is better -- it allows you to transmit on any FM frequency, and, from the reviews, it probably gives better sound quality -- except that it can't operate off of batteries.

It's cool that this little unit, which is smaller than a mobile phone, can send a signal to your antenna. What's even better is that it doesn't depend on any input from your stereo (except having a radio, which almost all of them do. Even if you have a cd player in your car, you may not have a tape player, or an mp3 player; and even if you have an mp3 player, you may not be able to play music directly from your iPod. This device solves that problem, and any future input methods that may arise. As long as you have a car radio, you can play your music.

This is particularly valuable for me, because I like to listen to audio books; and even though most public libraries have a decent collection, most of them are still on tape. (Libraries do not automatically update their collections to the latest media.) I've learned another trick that enormously expands the possible books that I can listen to. I'll share that discovery tomorrow.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Catching up

Concerning my post on cap and trade, I read in the "Economist" what the plans were for divvying up carbon credits: they were originally to be auctioned off. That at least makes sense and is fair to all parties. It still doesn't answer the problem of how to cope with industry growth, because I think everyone agrees that we will be expanding as we get more people. But the existing bill does not adopt this expedient: as I feared, the government will allocate most of the certificates for free, with only a small portion (around 15%, I believe) to be auctioned. Therefore, all the problems that I mentioned are likely to be real.

Even an auction system, however, fails because it attempts to set a fixed amount of allowable emissions. Since the technology of clean emissions is not infinitely flexible -- even if we wanted to produce only clean energy and were willing to pay for it, it is doubtful if we could meet our current demands with it -- any hard cap is arbitrary. As the Economist says, and I agree, a tax is by far the most logical solution.

I correctly predicted that gas prices would drop steeply after they topped $4/gallon, and I predicted again that they would rise above $2/gallon back when they were around $1.60. I don't put much value in my predictions, but it is nice to out-guess T. Boone Pickens, who said last year that oil would never again drop below $100 per barrel. I wonder if those opposed to our depence on oil shouldn't favour more drilling in America (Alaska and coastal waters especially)? If we didn't have so many reserves, there would be no argument about moving to other energy sources. They probably fear -- correctly -- that it would take longer to reach this point than they want to admit. I've also read about promising technology to farm protozoa that absorb carbon dioxide and fall to the bottom of the oceans, thereby returning carbon back to the earth and out of the atmosphere. I will be interested to see whether, if this method turns out to be effective, ecologically-minded groups will support it and stop complaining about our burning fossil fuels. Well, it's not so much that I'm curious, as I feel certain that most of them will remain opposed to oil. There is something atavistic in their opposition to industrial civilization ("love your mother" and the like -- worth another post) that makes it likely they will come up with some other reason to hate internal combustion engines. I'm more looking forward to that time, so I can point out that they're being disingenuous in shifting the reasons behind their opposition.

Driving by the "Lighthouse Worship Center" again this weekend, I noticed that the sign outside contained a quote from the Bible, and also a reference to the Holy Spirit. I presume, therefore, that it is a Christian church, though why it avoids saying as much in its name is beyond me.

Friday, June 5, 2009

In the middle of the...morning?

I have always been puzzled when people talk about "3 o'clock in the morning." Is that really morning, or is it night? I admit that the sections of the day -- morning, afternoon, evening, and night -- are not well defined. Only the distinction between morning and afternoon is marked clearly by the noon boundary. I draw the line between afternoon and evening at 5 p.m., but I doubt everyone does, and I'm sure I violate the distinction occasionally. Still, there is general agreement that 3 p.m. is not evening, and 7 p.m. is not afternoon.

The difference between evening and night is even less clear. You might say that night begins when the sun goes down, although most people seem to use evening to mean the entire time between getting off from work and going to bed. Ten or eleven p.m. would seem to be a reasonable dividing point. When it comes to the division between night and morning, however, confusion dominates. When does the morning begin? For most people, it begins when they wake up for good to have breakfast, get dressed, and so forth. If they wake up earlier, say, at 3 a.m., they would describe it as "the middle of the night," and they would tell people that they had trouble sleeping that night.

The problem is that people are inclined to assign midnight the same dividing power that they do to noon. Thus, although they might describe 3 a.m. as the middle of the night, they almost invariably say they woke up at "3 in the morning" rather than "3 a.m." The tendency to equate a.m. with morning is understandable. Midnight does mark one definite boundary -- the boundary between one calendar day and the next -- and we naturally associate a.m. with morning: when we're awake, the coming of the post meridiem means the end of morning. But the a.m./p.m. boundary only works to divide morning from afternoon; it makes little sense as a division between night and morning. Do people really consider 12:30 a.m. morning? Or 2 a.m., or 3 a.m.? 90% of people are sleeping by 3 a.m.; of those that aren't, 90% wish they were (they are working 3rd shift), and 90% of the remainder are still up from the day before partying. (Did you know that 87% of statistics are made up on the spot?) I'm willing to grant that a reasonable percentage of people (though probably less than 1%) get up by 5 a.m.; that could be considered morning. I doubt, however, whether one person in 10,000 gets up at 4 a.m. on a regular basis.

The next time you begin to say that something happened at 3 in the morning, stop to think whether it wasn't really 3 at night, or simply 3 a.m.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Singing

So many things I don't understand...Can anyone explain Janis Joplin to me? I heard her singing on the radio yesterday, so I was inspired to listen to several more of her songs on YouTube. There were moments when she displayed a beautiful singing voice -- but mostly all I heard was screeching. It is common in rock music for singers to express more angst than beauty in their voice, but most of them either can't sing or don't have a nice voice to begin with. I like "The Who," for instance, and Roger Daltrey couldn't sing in a church choir, but he can sing loudly and gruffly with the best of them. Mick Jagger has one of the worst "singing" voices I have ever heard. I'm not excluding country singers, either: Waylon Jennings is terrible, and neither Hank Williams, Jr. nor Tim McGraw would win any prizes. And there are plenty of good singers in rock music: although I've never understood the adulation of the Beatles, at least I appreciate their singing. Freddy Mercury had a very nice voice as well.

Then there are those in the middle, who either can sing well or have a nice voice, but not both. Kim Carnes ("Bette Davis Eyes") sings very nicely, but her voice is like fingernails on chalkboard. Johnny Cash, by contrast, is not much of a singer, but he has a great voice. I like deep voices on male singers, such as Randy Travis and Josh Turner. But one of the deepest voices ever is also the most appalling: Louis Armstrong. He's a great trumpeter, but, my heavens, his voice is awful.

The remaining group -- those who have nice voices and can sing well -- is surprisingly small. I suppose Frank Sinatra would have to rank toward the top, even though I despise him (for his mob connections). Carrie Underwood is another natural; it's a wonder that she hadn't been discovered sooner.

Nobody's perfect, and musicians have other qualities besides their voices. My favourite, Joe Jackson, admittedly has little singing ability. I appreciate him for his composing and playing, and he gets enough out of his voice to make it tolerable. But I still don't understand why anyone would want to listen to Janis Joplin.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Linux to the rescue, again

My work computer refused to boot one day, complaining of a corrupt dll. I replaced the dll from two different sources, but it still wouldn't boot. I had to re-install Windows, which was already a pain, because it meant I'd have to re-install all the programs as well -- that, or figure out a way to save the registry. (This is not normally an issue in Linux, although occasionally problems do get to the point that you need a "clean install.") My boss suggested reformatting the hard drive, so I had to re-install everything.

But that brought up a new issue: what about my files? I had quite a few programs that I had been working on. I hadn't checked in the source code into Subversion, and there were other files besides source code. I actually have two hard drives on my computer, so it would be trivial to copy the files off of the c: drive before I reformatted it. It would be trivial, that is, if only I could boot my computer. The Windows install cd gives an option to boot into DOS, but only a limited version of DOS: there is no xcopy command, and the copy command is not recursive. The only way to copy my files would be to do it one by one, and there were dozens to do. Surely someone had a regular Windows boot disk that I could use? Or someone could create one?

It turns out: no. No one had one, and no one knew how to create one. I tried. I went into all the Windows administrative tools that I knew, and I googled it, and I even went a ways toward creating a boot disk until I realized that it was actually just another install disk. In an office full of software developers and support specialists, no one could produce a cd that would boot into Windows. Fortunately, I had an Ubuntu LiveCD at home. I brought it back after lunch, booted up, copied my files from one hard drive to the other, and then did the Windows install -- all quite trivial, but impossible, in this case, without Linux.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Hurricane season

I'm beginning to wonder about living in Chesapeake. I've liked it so far, but the newspaper now carries ominous stories about the arrival of hurricane season. How serious could it be, right? Serious enough that the government declared a sales tax holiday last week for people to buy batteries, canned goods, and other emergency items. I'm not too sure I want to live in a place that is so concerned about hurricanes that people regularly stock up on emergency supplies every summer.

I heard "Taking Care of Business" on the radio yesterday. What a great song -- and I don't even mind that they repeat the refrain so frequently. I was inspired to look up the words, and, what do you know, the song isn't about working at all: it's about a guy who doesn't work, just lays around and plays the guitar. I wonder how many people know that? I certainly don't think Office Depot would use the song in their commercials if they thought it gave that impression. Yet another rock song -- to go along with "Born in the USA" -- that people interpret in the exact opposite way intended, chiefly because no one can understand anything but the refrain.