Some useful links

For USians only, I'm afraid.


All are legit, and should be effective. (Do not call is very effective, annualcreditreport goes live next week for me; I've just tried the other two, hopefully they will work out OK).

Shock! Horror! In other news, actor wins Oscar, policeman arrests criminal, journalist writes ill-considered headline.  Posted by Picasa


I'm getting mixed messages, funny text messages

Half an hour ago, I got the following text message on my phone:

"Annetets house blew up yesterday" from 720-364-xxxx

I have no idea what this means. I don't know anyone in Aurora, Colorado (which is where this number lives).

a) Wrong number
b) Phishing-style scam
c) Mis-delivery
d) I signed up to some bizarre alternate reality live game thingy, and forgot about it.

I suppose I could message back, but it is (b), then that's presumably what they want. I'll think about it for a bit.

See? You don't have to leave the house for interesting things to happen.


Digital Speech Players

This is a sort of request for comments, although I doubt I'll get much useful feedback because you are all idiots. Especially all the people from a certain software company who have come here after searching for "doing difficult things well" (I have access logs, and your host names are hardly cryptic).

Anyway, Digital Music Players are all the rage, but I want a digital speech player. That is, everyone goes on about all the great music based features in these players (like, er, they can play all your music. In a random order!), but I don't hear much about features that would suit people who want to listen to audiobooks or other spoken word content. For example, I'd like to see features like:

  • separation between music and speech content. If I have both on a player, I don't want to go into "shuffle/random" mode, and go from listening to a 3 minute pop song into a 30 minute recording of chapter 7 of some book. Yes, there's usually a skip button, but if you have a lot of spoken word stuff you don't want to be doing this all the time.
  • bookmarking or other easy to use feature that remembers where you got to in a particular file if you have to stop it or interrupt your listening. At least if you switch it off, it should be able to resume from where you were when you switch it on again.
  • easy access within a file. It'd be nice to fast-forward 20 minutes into a file without having to hold down a forward button for two minutes. Remember, this is all digital, so random access within files is trivially possible; I want something that doesn't pretend it's a tape player when you want to find something within a recording.
  • good management of heard/unheard material. When listening to several audiobooks, you'd like it to remember which chapters you've heard in each, and which you haven't. Either by noting which ones you have reached the end of, or allowing you to mark files as "heard". When you have a few hundred files, this will make listening to stuff somewhat easier.

So, my challenge is for recommendations of hard drive based audio players which have these features or comparable ones. Through careful questioning of my capped iPod controlled friends, it seems like the little white player falls very short on many of these criteria without significant amounts of messing around with playlist options. So, any better suggestions?



For immediate release


Google Corp (ticker symbol GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOG!) announced the release of their latest product, named GoogleHelloWorld, today. Building on the success of their popular products which allow people to find stuff on the internet and stuff, and like talk to people or something, the new product is a small download of 3.8Mb for Windows XP systems. When run, the program prints "Hello World! (c) Google 2005--2090" on the screen. Already, it has been attracting Rave reviews from users. Sergey Brin (or was it Larry Page, I can never remember which one's which) comments "This is really fantastic! Absolutely awesome! This will revolutionize the burgeoning HelloWorld application area". Noted software millionaire David Darling added "Fantastic! Brilliant! Stupendous!".

However, some computer journalists have been more muted in their praise. Andrew Orlowski off of the Register pointed out, "This is not a new idea. In fact, this technology has existed on many platforms for many years already. I remember running my first HelloWorld program on a SPARC VAX STATION PDP 11 back in, ooh, 2003 or 2004. It was much better back then, of course, when you didn't have all these other users about cluttering the place up. I remember the first spam email I got, back in the early days of spam, which was last January. There was quite a furore about it, I remember".

Such cricism has not prevented approximately 12.3 billion downloads of GoogleHelloWorld in the last five minutes alone. Said one satisfied user, "This is great. I can't wait to see what they will come up with next -- maybe a program that makes letters come on screen when I press them on a keyboard. That would be ace!".
Industy rumours suggest that the second release of GoogleHelloWorld will include patented WhatIsYourName?(TM) technology, due for public beta testing in Q1 2006.

My $1000 remote control

As I have mentioned many times before and much to everyone's evident boredom, I use my computer to watch television programs: it stores them compressed on the hard disk and then outputs them to my TV so I can watch them from the sofa. Only one problem: if I want to pause the show, or select something else to watch, I have to get up off the sofa and use the keyboard or mouse to do it.

My initial solution to this problem was to get a cable extender for the keyboard, so I can carry it over to the couch, and operate the machine from there. However, this requires a lot of moving things back and forth, since I also want to use the keyboard on the computer. Also, it gets fiddly to select the next programme, since the resolution of the TV is not high enough to read off the file names.

So instead, I worked out a way of using a remote control for the computer, so I don't have to get off the couch. It gives me complete control. And it only cost $1000.

Of course, the thing is, I already had it. What I did was to install VNC server on the computer, and the client on my laptop. Now I can control the desktop PC over the wireless network from my laptop. So I have a copy of my desktop's, er, desktop, on my laptop, and can pause, select new files etc. easily from the laptop without getting off my backside. It's a vastly overengineered solution to a non-problem, which is the best kind, really.

It's also great for freaking out friends who are using your PC: surreptitiously fire up the client on your laptop, and while they aren't paying attention, move the mouse, type messages to them, or start playing songs. If they are a bit dim, it will convince them that your PC is posessed. Result!


Knowing Me, Knowing... You?


Doing well difficult things

I'm glad to report that thanks to the sheer idiocy of google, this is now the top hit for "Doing difficult things well", significantly beating Data Connection and their wiley slogans. Incidentally, DC are currently on a hiring binge, so if you can stomach the prospect then now would be the time to submit yourself to their hilarious psychometric profiling and testing.

However, this seems to have dropped off the radar for "webartoffer", the dodgy outfit that apparently tried to nick money from me. On the plus side, their website does appear to be kaput, which I'd like to think is in someway due to my inactions.

So meantime, here's a new web-related hijink to relate. I operate a private internet domain which, let's say, is called www.anchor.org. This has the nice feature that any mail to x@anchor.org gets to me, where x can be any arbitrary string. Hence, I have got in the habit of giving out custom made addresses to different people. Amazon get to email me at amazon@anchor.org, other people get jerseyelectric@anchor.org, dirtydvds@anchor.org etc. I recently started getting spam sent to my address, but the headers revealed that the mailing address was actually mybank@anchor.org. Where, of course, mybank is my bank. This irritated me: how had my bank allowed my address to leak out?

The point being, that this address has been given out to noone else, appears on no webpage (including this one), and has no other purpose. And although I receive spam to non-existent addresses like "admin@anchor.org" or "info@anchor.org", mybank is sufficiently non-standard that it seems very highly unlikely that anyone would have guessed it, given that I've never received spam addressed to "someotherbank@anchor.org".

So I contacted mybank about this, and asked them what was going on. And they replied... that they didn't know. They claimed that they'd never passed on personal details, etc. etc., and so... well, what can you do? I didn't give out the email address. And the bank claim they didn't. So that leaves... some hacker snooping on the email sent from my bank to me. Which seems a bit extreme, you wouldn't have thought that they would need to go to that much effort.

So I throw it open to you: anyone got any better ideas how my clean address could have fallen into the hands of the evil spammers? The point being, I don't really care all that much about it: if it gets out of hand, then I'll procmail all email to that address to /dev/null, and configure a new one for mybank (and see how long before that starts receiving spam). I'm just curious how, for what should have been
a closed system, somehow this fell into the hands of the spammers while expedia@anchor.org, computerstore@anchor.org, or cheapthaibrides@anchor.org have all remained spam-free so far.


Four to the Floor

I recently read The Rule of Four. It's one of those hidden treasure / secret clues / coming-of-age / princeton university / romance / steam tunnels / conspiracy theory novels that we're seeing so many of recently. The plot revolves around a cryptic (and allegedly real though I am just too lazy to check) book from the 15th century. The narrator is engaged in decoding the clues in the book, finishing his finals, and realizing that maybe he should pay more attention to his girlfriend.

It's an entertaining, if quite often infuriating, novel. The decoding of the clues is mixed in with filling in of background details in the narrator's life, leaving a somewhat confused timeline. It doesn't help that much of the action takes place in an insanely frenetic 24 hour period the description of which spans most of the book.

I find the reader reviews on Amazon quite amusing. Many of the recent reviews attack the book for its flaws quite vituperatively. Critically, it was reasonably well received, but one of the mistakes the reviewers made was in their laziness, the plot meant that they described it as a cross between "The Da Vinci Code" and Umberto Eco. Well, Eco-fans are unlikely to find enough in here to catch their attention. It's certainly superior to the breathless hyperbole of the DVC, and a little more considered. But because of the quotes on the front cover, lots of DVC fans have piled in, expecting another trashy romp around well-trodden conspiracy theories and carefully planned misdirection. They then whinge that this book has been written by people who know how to string a sentence together, and has plot elements such as romance and thought. They complain that the book lectures them, conveniently forgetting that at several points in the Da Vinci Code, the lead character has flashbacks to times when he was explaining the relevant material *in a lecture*.

Not that I particularly want to defend the Rule of Four. It has plot holes aplenty, and the solution of the riddles are riddled with holes. While DVC resorted to getting William Tunstell-Pedoe to make up some silly anagrams, tRoF has arcance references to classical literature. Each riddle is solved (with immense effort, sleepless nights, thousands of hours of research etc.) by a single word, which is then used as a key to decipher a block of otherwise innocuous seeming text in the book being unravelled. How does this deciphering work? Well, one clue is answered by something like stadium, which is seven letters long, so you have to take every seventh letter of the text starting from a point where "stadium" actually appears in the text. Or another one is answered by a four letter word, so they take the first letter of every fourth word, and so on.

Can you see the flaw here? Once you know the general pattern of the clues, you don't actually have to solve them. You just have to try various trivial options (every third letter, every sixth letter etc.), which would take no time at all given the electronic version of the text a few perl scripts. Funnily enough, none of the Amazon reviewers seem to have noticed this. Unless I've made some glaring error, in which case, I don't care.

Furthermore, the titular "rule of four" is actually learned based on information from outside the book (contrary to the deciphered text's claim that an appropriately educated reader should be able to work it out for himself), and other vital blueprints are also picked up from outside the work itself.

One thing I did like about the book, although it may be unintentional, is the time compression: the bulk of the book, about 500 pages in all covers a couple of days in great detail, and refers back to events happening over the course of the narrator's time as an undergraduate. But, the five years after graduation get covered in a couple of paragraphs. This initially seems somewhat slipshod, especially since the narrator's crucial decision that a wild goose chase after some non-existent buried treasure wasn't worth the toll on his personal life and friendships seems then to be ignored since he goes to work in Texas for a software company as some kind of antisocial hermit. But, the more I think of it, the more clearly it becomes a metaphor: you graduate university, and after that years seem to slip by so quickly in comparison to the time you spend as a student, which seems so rich and full of detail. In other words, this book is like life: fun when you are young and without responsibilities, but after that it can get dull and tiresome.

Anyway, in order to recapture some fun and games, I'm about to embark on my own quest: to find out the truth behind the tragic death of Jamie Kane. Feel free to join me (for whatever the rights and wrongs, this piece of Wiki-fiddling did catch my attention and draw me in to the teen-oriented world). I'll let you know how I get on.


And In Local News...

Very odd local news story... President of the local school board is forced to resign after plagiarizing a graduation address.


How peculiar.


Learning to count with the indie rockers

In the course of a lengthy discussion with msw, we somehow got onto the topic of counting with band names. Sadly, I seemed to be struggling a bit with this, so I'll put down what I have, and leave you to fill in some more in the comments.

The Fab Four (sorry, there should be something better for this) Four non-blondes (thanks commenter)
Nikki Sixx
MC 9 Hundred Foot Jesus (this is cheating, I can't remember a proper one for nine)
Ten Benson

Your challenge: get from Ten Benson to Matchbox 20. And improve the ones I have here. Is it possible to get up to 100 without going too obscure? Presumably 10,000 Maniacs is unreachable, but maybe Blink 182 is within reach?


Atrocious but obscure pun

One only for the mathematicians and theoretical computer scientists, I'm afraid.

What's this:

(Hint: it's not a dead bear chart)


Today I have mostly been listening to Manservant's debut single, "No Means Yes". A three minute slice of power pop that gets more disturbing with every listen, it slams down a line of postmodern feminism in the guise of guilty complicity. Pulling Sleeper and Echobelly into the 21st century, the sound has echoes the wantonly obscure Switchblade Kittens' Ode To Harry Potter. Thematically, there are echos of Atilla The Stockbroker's Contributory Negligence.

Take me out, get me drunk, take me back to your house, it's not hard
And it shouldn't be too hard for you to fill in the rest
'Cos No means Yes

Manservant does not, as far as I know, have a record deal, or even a record: this recording came to me care of a friend of a friend of the band. So if you want to hear it, then you'll have to find your own way. But it is the best thing ever, today.


Champagne Anarchists

I went to paris and back last Thursday. In retrospect, I should have noticed that this was insane before I went, but I closed my eyes and tried to ignore it. I took the EuroTrain, which was quite good, hugely expensive since it was a last minute booking, and tolerably fast. The return journey however was marred by the presence of a group of irritating shouters who insisted on having a loud and sweary conversation for two hours until someone else in the carriage couldn't stand it any longer and tried to start a fight with them. My natural defenses had been put up long before, when I heard one of them say, "The champagne is only twenty five quid, let's get a couple of bottles". I immediately put in my headphones up to full volume and tried to drown out their blaring idiocies with the Kleptones, with some success.

Paris was nice though. Don't go for a day trip though, that's clearly insane.