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Ned Batchelder
March 2002
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Minesweeper Mathematics

Sunday 31 March 2002 (¤)

An interesting twist for fans of cellular automata: Minesweeper as the basis for computation. Richard Kaye has studied Minesweeper as a foundation for building logic components and Turing machines, and has therefore made connections between it and the theory of algorithms. I don't fully understand all the P and NP stuff, and there's clearly nothing practical about it, but there's something about this that tickles my geek funnybone.

I found this through the Clay Mathematics Institute, which has a more approachable description of the work as part of their prize problems: They're offering million-dollar prizes for solving hard classic math problems. Sharpen your pencils!


Weasly Starbucks

Sunday 31 March 2002 (¤)

We were walking downtown today, and wanted a snack, so we stopped in at a Starbucks. Now, of course, all the tables were occupied with people who had clearly been there at least an hour. Don't get me started on the difficulty of finding somewhere to sit at these places, because that's not my point.

As we approached the counter to order our stuff, a man stood up from a table of about eight people, and was going to take a picture of all his friends around the table. The guy behind the counter called out, "Sir, I'm sorry, but there's no taking pictures here."


"It's company policy, you can't take pictures in here."

The customer looked bewildered, incredulous, and annoyed and didn't take the picture. I asked the guy behind the counter why there's no pictures allowed. He said, "The company doesn't want pictures to end up in magazines, so all pictures have to go through corporate communications."

How dumb is this? Here's a customer clearly having a good time in the store, and wants to take a picture of his friends. He's got a typical point-and-shoot camera for taking snapshots. Because Starbucks is worried about the less-than-microscopic chance that this picture will end up in a magazine and somehow make Starbucks look bad (how, exactly?), they've squashed these peoples' good time, and made themselves look like the corporate weasels they are in front of at least twenty customers. Nice going.

Why do big corporations have to act like such soulless control freaks, even when it is in their own worst interest?


The Handbook of Rhetorical Devices

Saturday 30 March 2002 (¤)

The Handbook of Rhetorical Devices is fascinating. As someone who has always been interested in the workings of language, it is satisfying to read about all the different obscure terms for structures in language.

Reading about these terms can also give us an insight into the ways we use language, and therefore, about how we think:

30. Metonymy is another form of metaphor, very similar to synecdoche, in which the thing chosen for the metaphorical image is closely associated with (but not an actual part of) the subject with which it is to be compared. For example, "The orders came directly from the White House."

Digital Bill of Rights

Thursday 28 March 2002 (¤)

Somehow, this has not been blogged everywhere: Bill of Rights. Absolutely, I couldn't agree more.


(via: Rebecca's Pocket)

Eisner tries to take the high road

Thursday 28 March 2002 (¤)

In this column Michael Eisner tries to invoke Lincoln in defense of his push for totalitarian and impractical technology to protect his company's profits. He says,

These disturbing trends can be reversed. New technologies can be developed by computer companies to make it harder for the hackers to hack. New business models can be devised by entertainment companies to support the consumer's clear desire to access and own content in new and exciting ways. And legislation can be enacted to establish clearly that, just as people pay for fruit at their local fruit stand, they must pay for music or films or books or poems or software on their local hard drive. Most important, what is needed is a common conviction that theft of all things is wrong.

This would be fine, except so far, I haven't heard any new business models coming from Disney, and they are pushing legislation that doesn't just make me pay for music on my hard drive, but would make it illegal for me to do that the way I currently do it (buy a CD, then rip it).

Certain other classic principles from American thinkers, such as the presumption of innocence, seem to be dropping by the wayside in the entertainment conglomerates' desperate struggle to control all media. In the column, Eisner describes 19th century fear of innovation created by poor intellectual property protection. And somehow draconian federal legislation is going to make people free to innovate?


(via: Boing Boing)

Pirate Ship Birthday Cake

Sunday 24 March 2002 (¤)

For our second birthday this year, we made a pirate ship cake. Special features: pretzel masts, fruit roll-up sail, marshmallow cookie crow's nest, and chocolate bar plank (not visible off the back).


Car Horns

Saturday 23 March 2002 (¤)

After reading a Talk of The Town piece in The New Yorker about obnoxious car horns, I thought something I had thought while stuck in traffic myself: why do car horns have to be so loud? Over the course of my driving career, I've come to the conclusion that car horns should only be used to warn other drivers of danger, not to express anger or frustration. After all, what good does honking the horn do when stuck anyway? What are the chances that the problem is due to some recalcitrant driver who could move forward but chooses not to? Even if that were the problem, why would they move just because they knew you were angry about it?

Occasionally, a delay is caused by a driver at the head of a line of cars who hasn't noticed that the light has turned green (I've done this myself, as have we all, I suppose). In these cases, I will briefly toot the horn to alert them, but will try (ineffectively) to give it a polite sound.

If the rule of using the horn only to warn of danger is a good one (and I think it is), then how about this: why don't we make car horns that are quiet if the car is still (or nearly so), but are just as loud as they are now when the car is moving? Plenty of characteristics of cars seem to be adjustable based on speed (some adjust the height of the car off the road based on speed), so why not the volume of the horn? When a car is stuck in traffic, it could only make quiet beeps, sufficient to alert inattentive drivers, but not enough to cause real aggravation to others. Once the car is moving (and therefore able to get into danger), the volume would return to normal.

Whaddya think?


Gunnlaugur Briem

Friday 22 March 2002 (¤)

Gunnlaugur SE Briem is a type designer with a simple, clean, informative site. It includes the factoid that he designed a new Times for the Times of London (who knew?)



Thursday 21 March 2002 (¤)

If you are trying to perform complex operations in XSLT (as I am in building this site), you may want to have a look at EXSLT, which is trying to define standard extensions to XSLT. They have a useful set of functions defined, and implementations in JavaScript and plain-old XSLT. I'm using their day of the week transform to help with the dates on this blog.


Ever notice?

Wednesday 20 March 2002 (¤)

In Curious George Takes A Job, there are two painters, one in a red jacket, the other in a blue jacket. Earlier in the book, there's a scene where George is riding through town on the top of a bus. One of the trucks on the busy street is carrying those two painters! I know, it's not that exciting, but when you're reading the book for the thousandth time, little discoveries can seem like a big deal.

Also in the original Curious George, in the picture of George floating high above the town, you can see the man in the yellow hat driving along on the street below.



Tuesday 19 March 2002 (¤)

My friend Andrew Wharton has a political rant blog called baxterant. He's a good guy. His politics are downright frightening, but really, he's a good guy. I try to use our vast disparity of political outlook as an exercise in understanding the other guy's point of view regardless of my gut reaction.


What inspired Heinlein?

Sunday 17 March 2002 (¤)

This passage from a story by Robert Heinlein has been widely quoted:

There has grown up in the minds of certain groups in this country the notion that because a man or corporation has made a profit out of the public for a number of years, the government and the courts are charged with the duty of guaranteeing such profit in the future, even in the face of changing circumstances and contrary public interest. This strange doctrine is not supported by statute nor common law. Neither individuals nor corporations have any right to come into court and ask that the clock of history be stopped or turned back, for their private benefit.

It's clear why this paragraph is so popular among technologists now: it is a strong statement of technological libertarianism, the absurdity of using legal means to prevent technological advances, and the short-sightedness and selfishness of business interests that try to perpetuate themselves at any cost. Its relevance to the recent events in the music industry and the intellectual property arena is startling.

It's even more startling because the quote comes from "Life-Line", Heinlein's very first published story, written in 1939.

It got me thinking: were there real events that put those ideas in Heinlein's mind? Is there some historical antecedent of today's struggle between large businesses and the new technology that could threaten their business model?

There are examples from recent memory to point to, notably the entertainment industry's alarmist calls about VCRs and the havoc they would cause (which they did not). But are there instances further back that could throw some light on today's controversy?

In the story (which is about a scientist who invents a machine which accurately predicts the time of a person's death, and his persecution by the insurance companies who are therefore being put out of business), the only example given is a coal lamp producer who would claim foul against the electric companies. But that example is presented in the story as an absurdity to drive home the point: a new technology should not be declared illegal just because it makes an existing business obsolete.

I'd like to find out what got Heinlein going along these lines. I took a quick look at some biographies, but they were sketchy on the matter. One referred to a failed family farm that was at the mercy of larger argicultural companies, but that doesn't serve as a model for the conflict he was describing.


Pen Spinning

Friday 15 March 2002 (¤)

Pentix is a site devoted to the art of pen spinning. I've seen guys doing this, and was surprised at how hard it seemed when I tried it myself. Now that this site exists, maybe I'll try again. Something annoying and distracting to work on during meetings!

Looked at the right way, this is really a specialized, office-compatible form of contact juggling, the art of juggling where you keep objects in contact with your body rather than throwing them around.


(via: 50 cups of coffee)

1911 Encyclopedia Britannica

Thursday 14 March 2002 (¤)

The full text of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica is online. Cool. Now will someone please explain to me what this blurb is doing on the site:

The information on this site is protected against unauthorized use by others by a variety of laws and statutes.

Even with Disney trying to extend copyrights forever, surely the text of a 1911 book is in the public domain by now?

I sent an email asking this question to the editor, and got a reply that said the issues were more complicated, and they were working on an answer.


(via: Boing Boing)

Happy Pi Day

Thursday 14 March 2002 (¤)

Happy Pi Day everyone! (3.14, get it?) It's also Albert Einstein's birthday, so geeks have twice the reason to celebrate!


Python: Batteries Included

Wednesday 13 March 2002