Ex Bibliotheca

The life and times of Zack Weinberg.

Saturday, 31 August 2002

# 8:50 PM

check your facts, mmmkay?

This is the text of the letter I just sent to the errata-reporting address for Shadowrun:

On page 128 of Target:Wastelands is the paragraph


Firearms do not function in outer space unless modified to accept an air tank connection. Modifying a weapon to accept an air tank connection increases the cost by an additional 50 percent. Explosives (including rockets and missiles) also do not function in space unless built with an integral oxidizer. Explosives built with an integral oxidizer also cost an additional 50 percent more than their normal counterparts.

This does not match reality. All explosive compounds, including gunpowder, already have "integral oxidizers" — they could not explode otherwise, even in an atmosphere. Therefore firearms, and other explosives will all work in outer space, without needing to be modified for air tanks or integral oxidizers.

I suspect you put this in for game balance. If so, consider instead that explosive-propelled weapons may work in outer space, but probably not well, unless specifically designed for that environment. Normal missiles and guns are designed with assumptions about the presence of air and gravity. For instance, a normal smart missile makes course corrections by adjusting its fins; in outer space there is no atmosphere so that won't work. The smart missile effectively becomes a dumb one. Guns are more likely to jam or fire inaccurately — it would be plausible to apply target number modifiers for each turn a gun is used in a zero gravity environment, until it is disassembled and realigned (rather like the existing rule for sniper rifles). The simpler a gun is, the less it should be affected by this.

Bombs and demolition explosives, on the other hand, should work perfectly fine in outer space.

Since outer space is such a tightly controlled environment, the market for firearms that work reliably there is going to be tiny; I would suggest applying markups of 5x to 10x list price, or even forcing the PCs to have custom design work done.

# 6:25 AM

Today I helped my sister move out of her apartment in San Francisco. We went to Joe's Cable Car Restaurant for lunch, with her boyfriend and one of her flatmates who was also moving out. Joe's could well be the most expensive hamburger joint west of the Mississippi - we spent $15 per person! - but it is also damn good.

Came home and installed a shiny new three-prong outlet in the kitchen so that I can plug in my microwave. There was nothing behind the old outlet to attach the grounding screw to... so I didn't attach it to anything. No great loss. The microwave may be marginally less safe than it should be, but if I wanted a safe electrical system I shouldn't be living in this building in the first place.

Oh, and in the nifty things department, Patrick Farley is now doing a new weekly comic strip called Barracuda: The Scotty Zaccharine Story. He describes it as "looking back at dot-com San Francisco."

Friday, 30 August 2002

# 8:20 PM

worth your time

Noah Johnson's report on the August 22 protests in Portland.

Cory Doctorow's story, 0wnz0red.

John Judis and Ruy Teixeira's fascinating article in The New Republic on what they call the emerging progressive-center majority in American politics. (This is a summary of their book, The Emerging Democratic Majority. Courtesy of Talking Points Memo.)

# 8 AM

Why am I still awake?

Oh, right, because I spent the last two hours reading the entire archive of Bob the Angry Flower.

Thursday, 29 August 2002

# 2:55 AM

lame thing

Galeon's parallel download widget will only download eight files at once. If you try to queue up a ninth download, the "save as" dialog box only comes up when one of the current eight finishes. If you try to queue even more (figuring that "save as" will appear eventually for all of them) it forgets about all of them except the last one you clicked.

This may actually be GTM's fault.

not-lame thing

Machinae Supremacy: I'm going to call it Swedish techno punk rock, because I have no idea what the official term for it is. Alan Cox calls it excellent hacking music. I concur.

# 1:55 AM

why zack should be kept away from the plumbing

Yesterday, I was cleaning the bathroom and discovered that the overflow drain on the sink was blocked, and could not be unblocked by rooting around through the hole with a bent wire. So, of course, I took the sink apart. In short order I discovered that (a) it's not possible to take apart the part of the sink where the blockage is, and (b) when you try to unscrew an old rusty steel pipe in the wrong direction, it tears apart. Oops.

Today, I went to the hardware store and got a replacement. The sink works again. But still — keep me away from your plumbing.

Tuesday, 27 August 2002

# 7:30 AM

I can't resist pointing out Teresa's delightful article on lost fandoms, specifically those of the nineteenth century.

But I really am going to bed now.

# 7:20 AM

I hardly ever make HTML coding errors anymore while writing these entries. It's a little scary; I expect to make errors, but time and time again the W3C's validator gives them a clean bill of health. I suppose this means I am a web monkey now.

(Addendum: one disadvantage of rounding times to the nearest five minutes, is you can get collisions. Need to do something about that.)

# 7:20 AM

I've plugged Stefan Gagne's work before, but allow me to do so again: both Unreal Estate and Penultima are amazingly nifty. The latter requires Neverwinter Nights, which I do not have, so I have not actually played it, but the text visible when you run strings(1) on the modules is funny enough that I'm sure the games are worth playing just for the jokes. (I am considering purchasing NWN just to play Penultima with, but they get my money only when the Linux version is actually released, not while they're still just making noises about doing one. Yeah, I could install Windows on the disk partition that is waiting to have Windows installed on it, and play that version, but that wouldn't be nearly as convenient, nor would it give Bioware any incentive to finish the Linux port.)

# 6:35 AM

Electrolite commented on a post on Poor Man, and in the process registered a complaint about the page style which spawned a whole series of interesting comments and a response from Andrew Northrup. All in all, an interesting excursion from political commentary (standard fare on Poor Man and pretty common on Electrolite) into graphic design.

But I would like to register a complaint in this context. The issue Patrick had with the Poor Man template was, in a nutshell, poor choice of background and text colors. Now, if the page author doesn't do something special, HTML leaves the choice of colors up to the reader's browser, which has nice handy controls for setting them to something the reader can read. Same same font, text size, and so forth. But you will notice that almost all web pages that have done anything at all with page layout, have explicit color choices. Is this because it's easy to dink with the colors, and has a nice obvious visual impact? Perhaps. However, there's another problem, which is: if you're doing your web page layout with CSS the way it appears to have been intended to be done — with div and span and all the positioning in the CSS instead of the HTML — and you want even one block somewhere which is a different color, you have basically no choice but to specify the color of every last block element, or you will get hideous smears of color all over the place.

Or, at least, I have not been able to avoid these smears, and believe me, I have tried. Since I think it's more important to leave font and color choice up to the reader than to write HTML4/CSS2 the way they were intended to be written, I don't do it the "right" way. It's endlessly frustrating, though; CSS seems to go out of its way to make obvious simple things that the author would really like to be able to do, very hard.

In other news, Seth Schoen as usual has lots of interesting things to say including some short comments on the EFF benefit at the DNA Lounge which I am now even more disappointed to have missed. But I'm pleased to see that Seth too reads Electrolite.

Monday, 26 August 2002

# 11:20 PM

because sumana demanded it

Effects of Sleep Deprivation, in convenient table format for incorporation into your role-playing campaign. (It is system-agnostic, despite the /shadowrun/ in the URL. Well, I suppose the requirement for percentile dice could be taken as a system dependency, but everyone's got a couple of 10-siders lying around, don't they?)

Friday, 23 August 2002

# 4:30 AM


I think I'm coming down with a cold. Which is frustrating, because I wanted to go to CAFE 2002 tonight.

seen on the street

Ten- or eleven-year old girl with the top of her head shaved, down to about ear level; the hair that sprouted below her ears, however, went all the way down her back.

there was something else

but I can't remember what it was.

Wednesday, 21 August 2002

# 7:05 AM

a collection of thoughts

Depressing to discover, via a series of endless threads on debian-legal, that LaTeX and possibly even TeX itself may have to be considered not free software. The LaTeX developers have apparently decided that consistency across installations is more important than freedom. This is the exact same philosophical difference that makes, e.g. qmail not DFSG compliant. The problem is, while there are good alternatives to qmail, there really aren't good alternatives to LaTeX. (All you troff fans can go ahead and flame me now.)

I normally don't have much interest in Wired magazine — it plays around far too much with form for the content to be readily accessible. But some of their recent content is indeed worth reading. Here's an article about a real, honest-to-ghu bionic eye; another one on the water crisis in central Asia; one on Europe's GPS clone; and finally, GM rethinking the whole "car" concept.

And check this out: a Bayesian spam filter, with solid theoretical reasons to believe it will work and keep working. Me want.

(If the first paragraph is unreadable turn CSS off. I tested it, it looks good in Mozilla, but I have this nagging feeling you're not supposed to do kerns like that.)

Sunday, 18 August 2002

# 7:45 PM

apartment life, joys of

Instructions for setting up my shiny new microwave oven:

The plug must be plugged into an outlet that is properly installed and grounded. Plug the three-prong power cord into a properly grounded outlet of standard 115-120 voltage, 60 Hz. Your oven should be the only appliance on this circuit.

Considering that there is exactly one circuit for the entire apartment, and that the building was wired back in the days when Real Electricians didn't use three-hole outlets, this is going to be difficult.

Oh, also, what's something you don't want to smell on opening up a box containing a food-prep appliance? Model airplane glue! I suspect it's the paint, and I suspect it'll be fine if left to air out for awhile, but still.

# 2:15 AM

I went to Bed, Bath, and Beyond in search of a microwave, but the only thing they had was the Sharp "half pint", which is accurately described as super-deformed. (Check out the red and blue models.)

Managed to find a full-sized one at Macy's.

Saturday, 17 August 2002

# 8 PM

I got a new toaster. (The old one had had a spring fail, I think, so that it would jam every time it popped up.) It's nice - four big slots, removable crumb tray. However, the instructions clearly state that one should keep it unplugged whenever it's not in use. Where does this come from? I've never seen any such restriction on a toaster before.

# 2:50 AM

Sumana links to several versions of a list of reasons books are better than drugs. The list is amusing, but I take exception to one of the entries:

21. Books don't have negative interactions. You never have to worry about what's going to happen if you mix two or more books.

Simply not true — negative interactions are common. Read, for instance, Ayn Rand and John Stuart Mill in quick succession. If you are not damn confused at the end of this exercise, you missed at least one author's point. Worse, consider what happens when inappropriate connections are drawn between unrelated authors — social Darwinism, for instance.

Thursday, 15 August 2002

# 5:05 PM

One thousand eight hundred thirty-six.

That's how many email messages were waiting for me at my work account.

A rough breakdown: 30 messages addressed to me, seven of them spam. Six more pieces of spam caught by the (much less aggressive) filter on this account. 26 messages to internal CodeSourcery mailing lists. Then, 966 from the various GCC development lists; 446 from the Subversion project list; 322 from the Python development list; and a handful more from lower-traffic lists.

In the time it took to download all that mail, read everything but the high-traffic mailing lists, and prepare this summary, another twenty-one messages arrived.

# 12:40 AM

i can stop anytime i want

Datastarve, they call it in cyberpunk role playing games. An addiction to information, brought on by spending too much time with your brain wired directly into the network. But you don't need to jump forward thirty to sixty years and undergo major surgery, have a high bandwidth "datajack" installed into your head, to suffer datastarve. Most of us already have a high bandwidth channel directly to our brains, came free with the body: our eyes.

I just spent five days in Los Angeles with my parents. I had great fun. Swam every day. Went barefoot as much as possible. Saw an exhibit of Hopi tithu dolls (more commonly known as "kachina dolls") at the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History. And I didn't touch a computer the entire time.

What did I do the moment I got off BART here in Berkeley? Came over to ICSI, where I am now, to check some of my email and write one of these blog entries. And I've the urge to go straight home, turn the computer back on, pick up the remaining mail (the vast majority, since most of the mailing lists go to the other account) and spend the next, well, however long it takes, catching up on every last one of the information feeds that I normally read daily. Takes an hour or so each morning — I would be done by midnight.

But I'm not gonna. I'm going to go eat, and then I'm going to San Francisco to the FSF benefit.

seen on the street

While riding AirBART away from the airport: A cab with an ad for Yahoo!jobs on its top, showing a signpost for the intersection of Opportunity and Van Ness Avenues.

In the Berkeley BART station, a guy busking — with a didgeridoo.

the junkmail wars

Waiting for me in the primary inbox for this account: 37 messages, of which 7 were wanted, 5 were spam, 12 were mailing list traffic I don't care about anymore, and 13 were copies of whichever Outlook worm is making the rounds this week.

In the spamtrap box, on the other hand, were 81 messages, of which 3 were legitimate, 1 was a different Outlook worm, 73 were garden variety spam, and 5 were the Nigerian scam.

I like SpamAssassin, yes I do.

Wednesday, 7 August 2002

# 12:50 AM

Went back to the vacuum cleaner place.

Me: I have a [brand] vacuum cleaner and it started spewing this burning smell...
Clerk: Because the beater had seized up and burned out the drive belt, so you need to replace both. Lemme see what kind of beater it was.

So I showed him, and he went in the back and got me a new one. Happens all the time, he said. He also showed me how to clean hair out of the bearings before they seize up (after they seize up, you're hosed). The aftermarket beaters have an improved end cap that's supposed to stop the hair from getting into the bearings quite so easily. I haven't yet tried it out though.

On the way there, I stopped to watch Fulton Street (alias Oxford Street) being repaved. Asphalt is an interesting substance: it comes in a truck, as a pile of slightly sticky gravel/sand/tar mixture, which can be moved around with a shovel. Heat it up and squash it, and it becomes a solid. That is all the road-paving machine does. The trucks dump a trail-like pile of asphalt down the area to be paved. The paving machine comes along, scoops up the pile, spreads it evenly over the road, heats it up, and squashes it. (I think the middle two things happen in the opposite order. It's hard to tell just from looking at the outside of the machine.) Poof, road. Then they come round with the grader and make it all even, later.

Road repair machines always remind me of a short story I read once. It's called Mary Margaret Road-Grader. The full text is online at Strange Horizons.

In other news, Bruce Sterling's speech at OSCON 2002 is well worth reading. (Scroll past all the contest entries.)

Kasuri Dyeworks turns out to sell only cloth, not finished pillows.

Tuesday, 6 August 2002

# 3:50 PM

Last month he came and bothered Shweta, now he's come for me: the man running a chainsaw under my window at 6 AM.

Monday, 5 August 2002

# 11 PM

I noticed that my vacuum cleaner was emitting an awful burning smell so I took it apart. There was so much hair wrapped around the rug-beater and into its bearings, that it had stopped turning. The motor axle had been spinning against the stationary drive belt, heating it until it charred.

So I took the beater and the belt down to the vacuum cleaner parts place on Berkeley Avenue (just east of Shattuck, north of University) only to find out that on Mondays they are open from 9AM to 1PM. I had gotten there just too late.

I'm all for shopkeepers taking half days if they want, but couldn't they be open in the afternoon when I'm awake enough to get there, instead?

Oh well, I'll just have to go back tomorrow, which is fine 'cos then I'll have a chance to stop at the Kasuri Dyeworks (which is just plain closed on Mondays) and maybe get some new pillows for the couch.

# 5:40 AM

mime troupe

I spent today as a volunteer helper-outer for the San Francisco Mime Troupe's show in Ho Chi Minh Park (aka Willard Park). This was loads of fun. I got to lift heavy objects, eat a free lunch generously provided by one of the actors,canvass the crowd for mailing list subscriptions, watch the show, canvass the crowd again for donations, and lift the heavy objects again. All this with a bunch of really cool people. What more could one ask?

There were two guys at the back of the crowd with signs protesting the show, on the grounds that it gave a false impression of small obscure Central Asian countries. This accusation is wholly justified, but I think it also totally misses the point. Obscuristan (the show is titled "Mister Smith Goes to Obscuristan", and takes place largely in that fictional country) is a parody, as is everything else in the show. I mean, does anyone actually think George W. Bush wears a shimmering purple dressing gown all the time, and watches celebrity boxing? Does anyone actually think that a celebrity boxing match has taken place between Henry Kissinger and Noam Chomsky? And the accurate elements are precisely those that are salient in the public meme pool right now, which is just what you want in a parody.

(Okay, I would be willing to believe that Mr. Bush does watch celebrity boxing; I am not in possession of evidence either way.)

The troupe has a nifty portable stage which they built themselves, made out of aluminum trusses with a wooden floor above that. It has several different ways to change the set, lots of ways to get on and off, and good sight lines for everyone in the audience. It's also really easy to put up and take down.

seen on the street, sort of

I do the occasional "seen on the street" post where I write about something wacky I saw. inpassing.org, however, is a blog devoted to things that the pseudonymous Eve saw or heard on the street. In Berkeley. I should add that I have no trouble believing that even the wackiest things she writes up did happen.

unless otherwise specified all superheroes are jewish

Teresa says so.

Friday, 2 August 2002

# 6:45 AM

A day of unpleasant discoveries:

  • When I got in the shower and turned it on, the showerhead came flying off the end of the pipe and hit me. Turns out the only thing that holds it in place is one nut, which is made out of cheap plastic, and which had cracked.
  • There is no execvpe(3).
  • DALnet insists you have identd installed. If you do, Exim will ping it once for every last message fetchmail passes it.
  • The hardware-monitoring chip on this computer will generate alerts for sensors that are clearly inside their programmed limits.