Ex Bibliotheca

The life and times of Zack Weinberg.

Wednesday, 31 July 2002

# 3:50 PM

At nine-thirty this morning, two people from the Daly City police department and three from the the San Mateo County crime lab arrived to check out my apartment for traces of blood. They had arranged this with me last week, as part of the investigation of the body found in a Daly City storage locker last month. The body had been dismembered, and the detective on the case thought that the murderer might have done it in my apartment. The actual murder happened in San Francisco in January 1999, so this would have been long before I moved in.

The investigators had me sign a consent form permitting them to do a search without a warrant. This authorized a much more thorough search than what they actually did; I assume it's standard text. They photographed all the rooms in the aparment, drew a floor plan, had me show them all around the building, and then got down to checking for blood. This is done by using damp cotton swabs to sample locations, then dripping chemicals on the swabs that turn green in the presence of iron. Rust generates a false positive; they got one off the rust stains below the overflow pipe in the bathroom sink. They checked out the bathroom very thoroughly, the kitchen and bedroom cursorily. They didn't find anything.

In the middle of this, the handyman showed up to unclog the bathtub. He freaked out a little at the sight of five police officers standing in and around the bathroom, but they were all immediately reassuring: no, please, do unclog it now, then we can get at the drain opening. (This is a major reason why I wanted him to show up yesterday, not this morning.) Anyway, he extracted an enormous hairball from the drainpipe, and the tub now drains faster than it has in months.

# 2:55 AM

You know how sometimes you avoid doing a task for ages and ages because it seems like it'll be really hard, and it only becomes bigger as time goes by so you get even more reluctant to do it? And then when you actually do sit down and do the task it turns out to be much easier than you expected? This just happened to me regarding cleaning up the apartment. Once I got started it was ridiculously easy. Pick up all the clothes, vacuum the floor, put the books on the shelves somewhere, shred all the receipts, done.

There is no longer much organization to my bookshelves, but that's to be expected, since I am now officially out of space; things have to be squeezed in whereever they will fit. Also, the handyman never showed up, so the bathtub is still clogged. If he doesn't turn up tomorrow, the landlord will regret it.

Now off to rescue Adam and Robin from the airport.

Tuesday, 30 July 2002

# 6:30 PM

The spiraling shape will make you go insane. (Explanation.)

# 6 PM

Backdating entries with Blosxom is way too hard. You have to find the relevant entry file in a pile of, er, about 250 others at last count, and use touch to adjust its last-modification datestamp. Putting that together with the sheer size of the pile, which will only get bigger, I think it may be time for a bit of redesign.

The bathtub is still clogged. It looks like it may take a plumber's snake to unclog it, which means time to call the landlord. They had better get on it today; I'm not going to be happy if I have to shower tomorrow standing calf-deep in yesterday's bath water. (I did not have to use the Dremel to get the plate off; it turns out to be easily unscrewed.)

# 5:20 PM

seen on the street

A panhandler type sitting on the sidewalk, back against a wall, intently reading Target: Wastelands.

A guy wearing this T-shirt.

I'm also pleased to notice that a restaurant is opening in the long-deserted building on the southwest corner of Bancroft and Fulton.

apartment life

The bathtub drain has been threatening to clog up for months; today it finally did. Cue my discovery that I do not own a plunger. Easy enough to go buy one, but it hasn't yet had any effect. I suspect I need to plug the overflow pipe, which will be tricky, because there's an apparently unremovable metal plate in the way. Well, worst case, I cut it off with my Dremel.

# 11:30 AM


I was riding around in a Zodiac [warning: unnecessary use of Java] with Nathaniel and Shweta, in a swimming pool. This Zodiac had a bizarrely designed outboard motor: it got fuel pumped to it by an immersion pump in the tank, which you could not turn off; if you did, it would explode and spray fuel oil all over the place. You could only stop the motor by hoisting the pump out of the tank, leaving it running.

Unfortunately, someone did turn off the pump, and it did spray fuel oil all over the surface of the water, and I had to clean it up with nothing more than a bucket at the end of a retractable chain on a pole. As I did this, the swimming pool gradually got bigger and bigger until it was a full-size harbor, and no matter how many patches of oil I scooped up, there were still more. Also, there was nothing to do with the oil except dump it on the ground, which is not exactly a good move.

Then I woke up.

Monday, 29 July 2002

# 11 PM

Today I went to Fairfield for a company meeting. (There is no office and we all live scattered around the Bay Area; Fairfield is about equally inconvenient for everyone.) I got to meet Nathan Sidwell, who was visiting the States on account of SIGGRAPH 2002. Among other things, we played miniature golf at Scandia Funland, which is your standard arcade plus minigolf course except it's all Scandinavian themed. We don't know why.

# 2:50 AM

new keyboard

Not exactly new. I had an old dirty keyboard in my closet for awhile; I got it out and cleaned it. The keys don't move as smoothly as they could, but the right-hand Shift key works properly. Now I just have to retrain my fingers to use it.

what are they teaching at hogwarts these days

Honest to ghod actual email I received today:

From: "Hermione Granger" <censored>
To: <censored>
Subject: Segmentation Fault
Date: 29 Jul 2002 06:30:16 +0100

Can someone please tell me what a Segmentation fault is?

I guess they're diversifying...

Sunday, 28 July 2002

# 12:35 AM


I went to the Exploratorium in San Francisco today, with Shweta, Nathaniel, and about fifty of Shweta's students from Cognitive Science 1. I'd been last year too, and a lot of it was familar, but they had enough nifty new exhibits to make it still interesting. For instance, they'd expanded their seeing collection with a demonstration of change blindness, a selective attention demo (watch these people play basketball, count how many times the team in white shirts bounces the ball... okay, now did you see the bear walk across the court?) and a really nifty persistence-of-vision demo. This last was a huge LED scroller display, like the ones they have for instant replay at sports stadiums, except that there were only a few narrow vertical strips actually present, separated by blank wall. If you looked at this the right way you could see what was going by just fine, as if the display had been complete.

you learn something new every day

Turns out that you really are supposed to write & as &amp; in the href= attribute of an <a> tag, and that most browsers really do support this. (See, for instance, this explanation.) And it also turns out to be inappropriate to use %26 for this purpose; the point of %-escape is to make the server not interpret the & as a delimiter. LiveJournal's CGI scripts are just fine.

So I've changed all the back entries to use this convention. If you've got a weird browser that this breaks, file a bug report.

Friday, 26 July 2002

# 2:50 PM

I sent in a bug report for the LiveJournal issue mentioned below. We'll see what develops.

Monday, 22 July 2002

# 9:55 PM

Seth: All of the Nethack Sokoban levels are solvable without destroying boulders, as long as you're playing 3.3.1 or later. And you don't want to destroy boulders, because you get penalized to the tune of -1 luck for every boulder you smash. Having negative luck is Very Bad.

Cleverer people than me have worked out complete instructions for solving Sokoban; they're available from Kate Nepveu's spoilers page. [You can safely load that page without being spoiled about anything.]

I find it helps immensely to instruct Nethack (via ITEMS=, or boulder= in 3.4.0) to use digit zero for boulders instead of backquote. This makes it harder to get confused about which square the boulder is in when you're below it. Since zero is normally only used for iron balls, which are rare and (in color mode) drawn in a different color, there's no real risk of confusion with another object. Just make sure your font has readily-distinguishable glyphs for zero and capital O, or that boulder may turn out to be an ogre.

Another handy nethack tip, if you feel up to hacking the source, you play in color tty mode, and your tty displays bright-black as a visible color — the x86 Linux console does; to check, execute this shell script with any modern Bourne shell:

for a in '' '1;'
do   for x in 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
     do   printf '\033[%s3%sm%s' $a $x $x
printf '\033[0m'

... is to cause Nethack to stop confusing black and blue objects. You can do this by applying this patch to win/tty/termcap.c:

Black objects will then appear as dark gray, not dark blue, which makes it (e.g.) possible to tell the difference between a pit and a rust trap, or a black dragon and a blue dragon. Note that this patch only works for systems that define both UNIX and TERMINFO; other systems do color with different code, elsewhere in that file, that I'm not about to try to hack up.

A minor complaint: LiveJournal URLs tend to look like this:


Note the ampersand. The W3C HTML validator (correctly) objects to this, but if you substitute &amp; then some browsers mangle the URL, and if you substitute %26 then the LJ CGI scripts don't understand the URL. The latter, at least, damn well ought to work.

# 2:30 AM

There is a large road-repair machine parked a couple blocks from my apartment. It rather resembles a dinosaur, perhaps a brontosaurus, except for having four tractor treads where its legs should be, and no tail.

Friday, 19 July 2002

# 2:20 PM

More reviews of the TMBG concert: Leonard, Seth (scroll down), Benjy (Tuesday and Wednesday), Adam (metareview). I have to applaud Benjy's dedication in going both days and writing down the complete set list both times.

Leonard and Seth both pointed out the excessive volume of the concert. It was loud enough that I worry a little about (gradual, cumulative) damage to the audience members' hearing. Also, even if you don't care about going deaf, some of the songs were totally incomprehensible because of massive distortion. Jamie Zawinski, with his nightclub-owner hat on, has some comments on show volume (down at the bottom: look for the bit that starts "Oh, and we're also giving away free earplugs at coat-check now...").

Leonard: Yes, Nethack does give you okonomiyaki instead of pancakes when you play a samurai; as I understand it, it is the closest that traditional Japanese cuisine comes to pancakes. It is difficult to find web pages on the history of this dish, because of the flood of Ranma ½ fan pages that come up. It seems one of the more popular characters on that show, Ukyō, owns a okonomiyaki restaurant. The best I can offer on the history front is the paragraph near the bottom of the Otafuku Foods corporate webpage.

Thursday, 18 July 2002

# 10:35 PM

funniest spam in some time

Date: Thu, 18 Jul 2002 20:45:08

GUARANTEED! NO RISK! NO GIMMICKS! NO OBLIGATION! ABSOLUTELY FREE & ALREADY PAID FOR! To receive your FREE TICKET TO HEAVEN delivered by the U. S. Postal Service, simply contact us and give us your name and complete mailing address including ZIP CODE & COUNTRY.

  1. CALL OUR TOLL FREE NUMBER: 877-655-4557--OPEN 24 HOURS! or
  2. EMAIL IT TO: Free_Ticket_2002@lycos.com, OR
  3. WRITE US AT: P. O. BOX 720791, Orlando, Florida, 32872, USA, or
  4. FAX IT TOLL FREE TO: 888-299-7532, OR
  5. IF YOU ARE OUTSIDE USA, CALL US AT 407-207-7971.

(1,000,000 SENT IN MEMORY OF ETTA CAYWOOD (1917-2002))

I am almost tempted to arrange a postal dropbox and send it to them, just to see what happens.


Bought from both Amoeba and Rasputin, this time. They have near-complementary used CD collections.

  1. The Alarm: Standards and Eye of the Hurricane.
  2. The Art of Noise: Daft.
  3. Big Country: Live in Cologne.
  4. Blue Öyster Cult: Heaven Forbid.

I'm listening to the Big Country album right now; it's good.

# 8:05 PM

John Gilmore is suing the government for the right to travel anonymously. Good for him. I wish I could help.

Bank of America has finally developed enough clue to realize that they should offer their online bill payment service for free. This comes just in time for this month's cycle of bills.

Wednesday, 17 July 2002

# 11:10 PM

Here's an interesting Wired article about GM's plans to make hydrogen-powered cars profitable. (From the Daily Illuminator.)

# 3:45 PM

Last night I went to see They Might Be Giants at the Fillmore Theater in San Francisco. This is only the second time I've seen a live rock concert in a nightclub (the first being Blue Öyster Cult at the now-defunct club on California Avenue in Palo Alto). It is definitely a different experience from a concert in an auditorium; since I've now seen TMBG in both kinds of venue, I can make a comparison eliminating other variables.

The basic difference: In a nightclub, one stands up on a dance floor, fairly close to the performers, who are on a stage elevated about five feet; so you're looking up at them, across other people's heads. In an auditorium, one is assigned a seat which is likely to be above the level of the stage; you're looking down at the performers. Unless you paid an awful lot of money, also, you are far away from the stage. The presence of a seat doesn't make an awful lot of difference; I have never been to a rock concert where anyone bothered sitting down through the entire show. (However, a dance floor is designed with the expectation that people will stand, and even jump up and down, on it; therefore it is more pleasant to stand on than an auditorium floor, which may well be thin carpet over concrete.)

Since you are much closer to the performers in a nightclub, the performance is much louder. I neglected to bring earplugs, and regretted it throughout. It was simultaneously easier and harder to see what was going on on stage; the Johns were closer and much more visible, but the sight lines made the backup band (all of whom are named Dan) very hard to see. I spent a lot of time jostling for positions with sight lines unblocked by tall people's heads.

At a nightclub, the lights are set up to be played over the audience as well as the band; they usually don't bother doing that at an auditorium. TMBG used this effectively, as part of their usual tactics to make the audience participate in the show. However, I do not like having 1000-watt stage lights shone directly into my eyes, especially when they've just been adapted to seeing the inside of a dark nightclub.

The show itself was superb. It took them awhile to click with the audience, which is my only complaint. In particular, I think Birdhouse In Your Soul works much better played as a closing number (which is what they did last time I saw them) than as third in set (this time). But they were not pressured into playing Spider which they don't like anymore, and they clearly did enjoy everything that they did do. Including Fingertips. Bet you didn't know it was possible to do Fingertips live. They repeated the dial-a-drum-solo joke in the middle of She's Actual Size, to good effect (well, the drummer was expecting to be asked to do Animal this time; he got this wonderful deer-in-headlights look last time).

One somewhat disappointing thing about going to see TMBG is that they never play all the songs I'm hoping they'll play. This time, it was Spiraling Shape they didn't get to; last time, I Should Be Allowed to Think. But the list of songs I wish they would get to is just endless: Ana Ng, The Bells Are Ringing, Turn Around, Wikkid Little Critta, Dirt Bike, The End of the Tour... So it's not exactly fair for me to complain, especially since they do always play something I wasn't expecting to hear, and it is good. (Robot Parade and How Can I Sing like a Girl, this time.)

The opening act was Noe Venable, a local musician playing solo. She was great too; good music, solid stage presence, knew how to work the audience (not quite as well as John Flansburgh, but then friggin' Bono isn't as good at working the audience as John Flansburgh — admittedly, this is not a fair comparison, Bono has to work an audience at least an order of magnitude bigger). I think she's going places.

Tuesday, 16 July 2002

# 5:05 PM

A challenge for the readership:

  1. Figure out what this does.
  2. Obfuscate it into an appropriate shape (like this).

The best answer will be posted.

#include <stdio.h>
int main(void) {
 int x, y, k;
 char *b = " .:,;!/>)|&IH%*#";
 float r, i, z, Z, t, c, C;
 for (y=30; puts(""), C = y*0.1 - 1.5, y--;){
    for (x=0;
         c = x*0.04 - 2, z=0, Z=0,
         x++ < 75;){
       for (r=c, i=C, k=0;
            t = z*z - Z*Z + r,
            Z = 2*z*Z + i, z=t,
          if (z*z + Z*Z > 10) break;
       printf ("%c", b[k%16]);

# 12:40 PM


According to GnuCash, I should have $32.04 in my wallet. I have only $28.04. What did I spend those four dollars on? I have no idea.

this could get ugly

Afghanistan risks disintegrating into warring regions.

introducing anna

I've added a new link, to Anna Feruglio Dal Dan's weblog. She writes long chewy articles about the politics of Italy, and related things, every now and then.

# 3 AM

book review

Frank Herbert wrote an awful lot of books besides Dune, which is the only one that anyone remembers him for. One of these other books is The Dosadi Experiment. The premise is simple: a mixed population of two sentient species (Humans and Gowachin) has been isolated on a hostile planet, Dosadi, by parties unknown as an experiment; they've survived, and in fact they've become so dangerous that the experimenters are considering destroying the whole planet rather than let them get out into the more civilized galaxy. The protagonist must attempt to find a better solution.

The book unfortunately does not live up to its premise. The whole issue of whether or not the Dosadi are dangerous to the galaxy is sidestepped, in favor of a lot of tangled stuff about body-swapping and the Gowachin legal system. It reads well, though. In fact, the descriptions of the Gowachin legal system are one of the most interesting parts of the book. It's genuinely different from anything we Humans have ever put together, but coherent and does seem to work. Herbert does not paint a very clear picture of the system, or how it is used in ordinary times — the Dosadi situation cannot be described as ordinary. The glimpses we do get are nifty enough to leave me wanting more.

Sunday, 14 July 2002

# 1:05 PM

Another dream. I was at a party. There were these two people going around trying to kill the other party-goers because, they insisted, they were servants of the Handmaiden of Death. I said something like "Why settle for the handmaiden?" and began a ritual to summon Death. Everyone was trying to stop me, but it worked anyway. Death showed up in the form of one of those Hopi kachina figures, grabbed the two people, and took them away to learn how to be his servants. Then I woke up.

The most interesting part of the dream was the bit where I was doing the ritual. It was a song and dance ritual, and when I woke up I could remember all of the words of the song. They were nonsense, but they were all there. (They've faded now.)

Friday, 12 July 2002

# 2:25 AM

Random cool thing: a bibliography for Nethack. (Nethack is a really cool computer game which happens to be chock full of references.)

Saturday, 6 July 2002

# 3:40 PM

Sailor Nothing is a fine work of on-line fiction written by Stefan "Twoflower" Gagne. It's about why being a magical warrior of love and justice is no fun. Y'all should go read it. (Caveats: It's fairly dark; it would probably get an R if it were a movie; if you're not familiar with the "magical girl" anime subgenre you may not get the references.)

# 11:50 AM

A lengthy dream in which I was wandering around this insanely expensive hotel suite in a bathrobe. I wanted to take a shower, but someone had put all their clothes in one of those plastic stacking shelves on wheels, and wheeled it into the shower, and I couldn't move it or use the shower while it was there.

Then this crazy man broke into the suite and attacked me with a kitchen knife. I said "Ha, I'm crazier than you are" and took the knife away from him (getting some small cuts in the process). It then transpired that the crazy man was trying to steal enough money to buy a plane ticket back to Stanford (he was a college student). I was on the phone with a lawyer, trying to explain this, while simultaneously restraining the guy. It's hard to tie someone up properly when they aren't cooperating and you don't have any help.

At this point an older man materialized in the same room claiming to be the crazy man's father. "Okay, whatever, you take him." Then I woke up.

# 2:20 AM



... no law respecting an establishment of religion

I would like to make an actual legal argument for why the phrase "under God" should not appear in the Pledge of Allegiance, nor "In God We Trust" on U.S. paper money, nor any other reference to God or gods anywhere in anything officially endorsed by the government of the United States, federal, state, or local.

The precise text of the First Amendment relating to religion is

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

On its face that is pretty narrow. An "establishment of religion" refers only to the practice of having one organized religion endorsed by a state and supported by its laws, to the detriment of all others. It doesn't say anything about mentioning religion. But permit me to make an analogy to Jewish law, which has mitzvot and gezeirah. The mitzvot are the things which were explicitly prohibited in the Torah; the gezeirah are additional prohibitions added by the rabbis to prevent people from accidentally violating the mitzvot. Gezeirah are written on the principle that one should not do anything which has even the slightest potential to turn into, or look like, a violation of a mitzvah. For instance, the mitzvah against cooking a lamb in its mother's milk is expanded into a requirement that milk and meat be eaten only at separate meals, off separate sets of dishes, with separate sets of utensils, etc. etc.

It is this guiding principle that I would like to apply to the First Amendment. The government, then, should avoid anything that might even potentially be, or appear to be, an establishment of religion. Yes, it is a stretch from an officially established church to "In God We Trust" on a dollar bill. But it is also a stretch from not cooking a lamb in its mother's milk to eating milk and meat off separate sets of plates.

Wednesday, 3 July 2002

# 10:45 PM


Just got back from buying a whole bunch of groceries. There will be food tomorrow.

Never seen Berkeley Bowl as crowded as today. I'm guessing lots of people are stocking up for parties tomorrow.

Overheard by the bike racks: "It was a nice vacation in the meat world."

# 6 PM

Over at Nerve, there is a hilarious deconstruction of the Abercrombie & Fish catalog. Lore Fitzgerald Sjöberg would be proud.

Then again, Abercrombie do a pretty good job of deconstructing themselves with their splash page.

[Caveat lector: All of Nerve contains nudity and/or discussion of sex.]

# 3:50 AM

book reviews

Two great books in a row this week: Patricia McKillip's Winter Rose, and Neil Gaiman's Coraline. I read the first, and had the second read to me and ~800 other people by the man himself. Yes, the entire book. It took more than three hours, from 7-11 last night, with a break for refreshments in the middle.

It's interesting to compare these two. They are quite different books, told in different styles and with different heroines, but you could make a strong case that they have the same antagonist. I wish I could expound further, but it would be too spoilerful.

A couple of observations on style, though. McKillip is wonderful at atmosphere, and it shows in Winter Rose: it is bitterly, bitterly cold inside that book. Just as it should be, given the plot. Gaiman, now, he's better at painting characters. There's a talking cat in Coraline and it's a cat, not a human wearing a cat's body.

Tuesday, 2 July 2002

# 6:20 PM

Sumana points out that it was one in four simulated weapons that got through security. I had it backward.

# 2:35 AM

seen on the street

A newspaper headline: "Airport Security Still Ineffective." The subhead said that only one in four simulated weapons was caught by security screening. My thoughts were first "no surprises" and second "I'm glad they're actually testing the system."

A truck went by with a modified U.S. flag: instead of the field of stars, it had an Aldermaston (peace sign).

worth reading

Salon interviews John Gilmore about why ICANN should be abolished.