December 30, 2005

2005: the year in snowstone

Well, that's it for me for 2005. I'll be spending New Year's abroad, and I have few intentions of posting to snowstone from there. For your convenience, I've made a list of the bets posts (IMHO) of the past year. Here's the top 10, in no particular order:

  1. Why Greenpeace ain't getting one dime from me
  2. Alarmism at dangerous heights
  3. Fame and Fortune
  4. Two Katrina stories
  5. T-101 Project Meeting Minutes
  6. Movie Tough Guy quotes put in an innocent context
  7. Do you want fries with that, my Master?
  8. First Knight (movie review)
  9. Why there are no famous painters called Johnson
  10. Hamlet, the Weblog (post links to the now finished site)

Posted by cronopio at 02:31 AM

December 29, 2005

Chinese Dutch are the Dutchest

In response to the rising xenophobia in the traditionally tolerant Netherlands, the Dutch government wants every immigrant to take an assimilation test. This test queries the student on social mores, history and political structure of the country, and practical matters such as where to pick up your driver's license.
In a TV show, TV viewers and specific ethnic or cultural groups in the studio were invited to take the test. The groups were:

  • Chinese immigrants (predominantly working in the restaurant business)
  • ex-colonials from the Netherlands Antilles (who are being blamed for a lot of urban crime)
  • people living in the rural and fairly conservative province of Zeeland (who were all dressed in folkloristic outfits)
  • Dutch celebrities (partly 'imported')
  • students
  • volunteers who organize Queen's Day celebrations in their city or town
  • people who work in refugee centers, deciding about the status of asylum seekers.

The results were embarrassing. No group in the studio passed the test. Participating TV viewers on average also flunked. The studio group that did the worst were the people from Zeeland and the Queen's Day crowd, while the best groups were the Antillians and... the Chinese. That's right, Chinese immigrants are more Dutch than native Dutch people.
I went to the test's Web site (only in Dutch, of course) and left the following comment (in Dutch):
If Dutch people flunk their own assimilation exam, the questions must be wrong. I also suspect that a Maroccan who passes this test with flying colors will still not be invited for coffee in most Dutch people's homes. Maybe it's the Dutch who need to take an exam. The one question to ask: "What used to be Holland's biggest virtue? (a) Thrift (b) Tolerance (c) Entrepeneurial spirit."

The correct answer is left as an exercise to the reader.

Posted by cronopio at 01:39 PM

December 28, 2005

Sorting the Hats

No, this isn't about the Sorting Hat that wanted to put Harry Potter in the wrong house of Hogwarts, it's a puzzle.

Imagine that there are 60 dwarves that live in a cave. All dwarves wear hats. Some dwarves wear red hats, others wear blue hats. For some reason, no dwarf knows the color of his own hat, and in the cave, it's also too dark to see any other dwarf's hat color.
The dwarves now want to stand in a line outside their cave, so that the line consists of all the red-hatted dwarves first, and then all the blue-hatted ones. Or the other way round, that's irrelevant. The only important thing is that all the blue guys stand next to each other, and so do all the reds.
These dwarves must exit the cave one by one and immediately take their place in the line (the first dwarf can stands wherever he likes). They can't talk among each other, and they can't change their position once they've picked one.
How do the dwarves manage to line up in two groups, one red, one blue?

Here's the solution. I've rot13'd it, go to the rot13 site to decode.

Qjnes ahzore 1 whfg fgnaqf naljurer.
Qjnes ahzore 2 fgnaqf gb gur yrsg be evtug bs qjnes 1.
Nal sbyybjvat qjnes qbrf gur sbyybjvat:
-Vs nyy gur qjneirf' ungf ner gur fnzr pbybe, ur fgnaqf ba rvgure fvqr.
-Vs gurer ner gjb pbybef va gur yvar, gur qjnes fdhrrmrf va gur cbfvgvba jurer bar pbybe raqf naq gur arkg bar ortvaf.
Guvf jnl, gur qjnesf ner nyjnlf yvarq hc nf oyhr svefg, erq arkg, be ivpr irefn.

Posted by cronopio at 02:35 PM

December 27, 2005

Drowning by Movie Numbers

This snowstone posting mused about having a movie marathon with color as the main theme. Let's try numbers now:

  • One from the Heart
  • Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels
  • The Third Man
  • Four Weddings and a Funeral
  • Five Easy Pieces
  • Six Days and Seven Nights
  • Se7en
  • Otto e Mezzo
  • The Whole Nine Yards
  • "10"
  • Ocean's Eleven
  • Twelve Monkeys
  • The Thirteenth Floor
  • ...
  • 101 Dalmatians
Enjoy! And to compress them all into one, see Drowning by Numbers.

Posted by cronopio at 01:30 PM

December 23, 2005

The Isidore Boullu insurance

One of the best books in the famous Belgian comic strip series "Tintin" is called "The Jewels of Bianca Castafiore". It features Captain Haddock, one of the main characters, trapped in his mansion with a screeching parrot, the obnoxious opera singer Bianca Castafiore (his arch-nemesis) and a broken foot, courtesy of a loose step on his marble staircase.
Throughout the book, he is desperately trying to get one Isidore Boullu, a local handyman, to come and fix the staircase. But Mr Boullu is either too busy, or he has the flu, or there is some other pressing matter such as his newspaper that has priority over his repair work. Haddock's furious frustration in the face of such indifference is, unfortunately, all too familiar to me.
Let me explain how things go where I live. You call a repair man. You arrange for him to drop by somewhere two weeks from now (he can't fit you in sooner). He will set a time slot ranging from 4 to 8 hours, in which he will be dropping by. Your job is to stay home during that time, do nothing and wait patiently for your savior to arrive. If he said he'd come between 8 AM and noon, don't be surprised if he shows at 3 PM. He then charges you an ungodly amount of money for 10 minutes' work. And sometimes, he doesn't show up at all (without informing you, of course).
In short, getting repairs done means having to take off half a day (or an entire day) of work do sit at home and do nothing. What a waste of time and salary. Here's what I'm wondering: could someone invent an insurance for this? You pay an X amount of money per month, and the insurance company pays you back your working hours when the need for a repair man arises. I'd gladly pay a modest amount to be reimbursed for this.

Posted by cronopio at 02:40 PM

December 22, 2005

Productivity Need: "Deadline" tag in e-mails

At work, I use Outlook as my todo list. Almost every request or task comes in through e-mail, and I can send myself a mail for the others, so it makes sense to do so.
The only problem is that it's hard to organize my todo list by urgency. Something that is to be done asap might be pushed down in the list by other tasks that are not due for days or weeks.
So I was thinking. Why can't e-mails have a "Read Before" tag? That is, whenever you send out an e-mail, you have to indicate when (if ever) you need a response. Very often, you can provide a concrete date and time. By default, the deadline for an outgoing e-mail is set to "Never", which means your mail ends up at the very bottom of the list. Recipients could then sort incoming mails by urgency.
How this system works out will say a lot about how you and your coworkers interact with each other. If everybody sends each other "ASAP"-tagged mails, maybe your organization is just not ready.
Outlook probably won't let you develop this plugin, but how about Thunderbird? Anyone know if such a plugin exists?

Posted by cronopio at 12:44 PM

December 21, 2005

Google Rules

Google (the company) is known for its friendly and simple way of communicating with its users. Simplicity is key, and this is evident on all kinds of levels.
For example, the System Requirements page for Google Earth says: "Windows-based desktop PCs older than 4 years old may not be able to run it", a much more useful and informative statement than the garbled stream of acronyms ("Windows 2000/XP/ME, Pentium III or IV (512MHz or higher), 780MB disk space") commonly found. This page does get down to these dirty details, but only as a failsafe, that is, if the "old PC" wasn't clear enough.
Sometimes, Google's messages get downright playful, which may be a bit too informal for some. I personally like it, but I wouldn't have written an error message like this one (as found in GMail):

Posted by cronopio at 01:53 PM

December 20, 2005

Le Parkour

Le Parkour is a cross between an extreme sport, a suicidal mental disorder and a form of urban ballet. This activity, which was invented by one David Belle in the French suburbs (yes, they do more there than rioting and burning cars), involves jumping onto, down from, through and over various obstacles, scaling walls that seem unscalable to mere mortals, leaping from rooftops onto concrete floor several meters below, and generally laughing in the face of danger and slipping ice cubes down the vest of fear.
The Le Parkour Web site has a number of videos of Belle and his friends and competitors doing stuff that makes extreme skateboarders look like a bunch of sissies. Apparently, Luc Besson (he of "Léon" and "Taxi" fame) made a movie about them; I guess it didn't make it to my local cinema. In short: awesome stuff.

Posted by cronopio at 01:39 PM

December 19, 2005

A Pitch?

Some time ago, I hired a man to do some repairs in my home. (I freely admit to being too clumsy for even the simplest of DIY tasks.) The man brought four handymen with him, they finished the job in about 5 minutes, and because they were paid by the hour, we made them a cup of coffee.
The man then explained to us how he'd done all kinds of construction work all over the world, and launched into an anecdote about how he and his team had been called to Paris to open a safe that the Nazis had left there after the war, and that no one had been able to open for 50 years. His guys could, of course, and the way he told it, they were paraded up and down the Champs-Elysées for it.
Only later did I begin to wonder why the man had told exactly this story. True, it was impressive, but it didn't seem to have much of a point. And then it hit me. Why would someone so innocently profess his abilities to gain access to a hard-to-open safe? Was it perhaps to inform the listener that if he or she knew of a safe that needed opening, they were talking to the right guy? Was this some kind of bank robbery pitch in disguise? Maybe I'm just seeing things that aren't there, but I can't imagine a professional criminal not pricking up his ears when hearing this little story.

Posted by cronopio at 01:18 PM

December 16, 2005

The Wonderful World of Amazon Text Stats

After a number of years, has discovered that its huge database of books, CDs and DVDs can be a source of fun info, especially for books whose entire text is searchable.
One such feature is Text Stats, which offers interesting tidbits about a specific book (if it has Search Inside! functionality). You can access Text Stats by hovering over the cover of the book you're looking at.
The first interesting feature are the readability indexes. Various wise people have created formulae to measure how easy to read a book is. As the statistics show, they haven't always succeeded. The Fog index indicates the number of years of education needed to read the text. The higher the Flesch index, the more readable the text. The Flesch-Kincaid index represents a US school grade level required to read the text.

Goodnight Moon
the famous children's book
Joyce's huge masterpiece
The Hacker Crackdown
a nonfiction book about the hacker community
Das Kapital
Karl Marx' most important work
Aspects of the Theory of Syntax
Noam Chomsky's book, which launched modern linguistics

So apparently, you need to be a ninth-grader to read 'Goodnight Moon', but you can read 'Ulysses' before that. Riiight. The other figures also don't make much sense. The implication of these statistics is that nonfiction prose is harder to read than fiction.
On to the 'Words per Dollar' feature. These figures are less surprising, but not less interesting:
  • The Bible: 48,284
  • Who Moved My Cheese: 884
  • Goodnight Moon: 16
So for real inspiration, don't reach for the Cool Book ('Who Moved My Cheese' is an, um, cheesy little management book that Dilbert's Pointy-Haired Boss has on his desk); reach for the Good Book.

Posted by cronopio at 01:25 PM

December 15, 2005

Why Greenpeace ain't getting one dime from me

Living in the Old World, I have not had the opportunity to see much of the work of comedians/magicians Penn & Teller yet. I was most interested in their Bullshit! series, which aims to debunk some more or less widely accepted "truths", and thanks to Google Video, I watched one episode that was more than interesting.
For some time now, I've been trying to figure out what's what in the debate about Genetically Engineered food, or GE food. Environmental and animal rights activists speak of 'Frankenfood', warning of unknown horrors that may or may not occur as a result of eating GE food. The general stance seems to run along the lines of an 'abomination against nature'. Many of such activists accuse large corporations of putting profit over biodiversity and health.
In this program, Penn & Teller make a convincing case that this whole abhorrence of GE food is nothing short of (all-natural) bullshit.
To support their case, they point to Nobel Peace Prize winner and agricultural scientist Norman Bolraug (never heard of him, right? Neither had I), who is credited with saving a billion lives in Mexico, India and other parts of the world through his evil manipulation of crops. Borlaug is very puzzled by these radicals, when his aim is to feed the world.
But this is not all. Bullshit! debunks some other claims of the anti-GE league:

  • GE food is not tested for health risks. This is bullshit. The USDA, FDA and EPA spend tens of millions of dollars (more than for any other type of food) to establish the safety of GE foods.
  • Organic food is a viable alternative to genetic engineering. This is bullshit. Growing organic food would not feed more than 4 out of the 6 billion (and rising) inhabitants of the planet.
I admit that the Bullshit! show goes far, but the thought that elitist pricks with some misguided sense of moral superiority and knee-jerk anti-authoritarianism can keep good, nutritious food out of the bellies of the starving zillions in the Third World is nothing short of sickening. I care about the planet and the environment; I am cynical about what large multinational corporations do to the world, and what governments allow them to do; and I generally consider myself to be a leftist. But to see NGOs employing brutal scare tactics that harm real people just to make themselves feel better, I am deeply, deeply disturbed.
Of course, any anti-GE food activisit is welcome to argue this point with me. There's a "Respond" link at the top left of the snowstone homepage.

Posted by cronopio at 02:19 PM

December 14, 2005

Mobile notifier

Has anyone thought of this little feature on your mobile phone?
Most, even primitive, phones have an alarm clock. Set the time and the phone rings at that time.
Many people use their mobile phone as a portable digital notepad, saving drafts of SMS messages they never send, but only read back as reminders to do a certain task. (You can also use it as a permanent storage of useful little texts, such as all the ingredients for chili con carne --very handy if you're in the supermarket and just happen to have forgotten your doorstopper "1001 Delicious Recipes".)
So, why can't alarm clock + notes = reminder system? That is, type in a note, set a (date and) time, and save. At the specified date and time, your GSM not only rings, it also shows you the message. Tadaa!
Maybe my phone is just too cheap, and this is a standard feature on the phones that all the cool kids have.

Posted by cronopio at 01:53 PM

December 13, 2005

Request for the weblog gods

As weblogs mature, weblogging has produced its gods. Whether they (or you) like it or not, people like Kottke, megnut and Ernie inhabit the Olympus of the blog world while a vast multitude of bloggy ants crawl in the valley beneath.
That's a shame, because while no one weblog has something fascinating to report every day, all weblogs combined have lots of fascinating things to report every day.
So here's my proposal: gods or demigods, create a weblog using MovableType and create two types of users: one who can author, another who can publish (that would be you). Mention the community weblog and the MT author login credentials on your weblog. Now, every day, let anyone contribute entries. Once per day, go through the submitted entries and pick exactly one that is worthy of publication (there's always one). Publish it and delete all the other entries.

Posted by cronopio at 01:30 PM

December 12, 2005

Jonathan Safran Foer - Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

I liked 'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close', a book that features blank pages, pages with one line of text on them, pages with pictures of keyholes, victorious tennis players and a person jumping from the WTC on 9/11, pages with ever-denser text turning into an almost solidly black page, and so on. The reason I liked the book was not because of these oddities, but it also wasn't despite them. In the end, they seem a bit contrived and unnecessary for what is at the same time a playful and moving story of a desperate 9-year-old boy trying to make sense of the death of his father on that fateful New York day in 2001. The boy's innocent, overly brainy approach to the tragic events that surround him remind the reader of that other recent book about an emotionally disconnected little boy, 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time'
His story is interspersed with that of the boy's grandparents, who once lived together in Dresden, both miraculously survived the gruesome WW2 bombings, and reunite, full of remorse, mourning and survivor guilt. The two stories run parallel for most of the book, and intertwine at the end.

Posted by cronopio at 01:52 PM

December 08, 2005

If only life were this simple...

I can dream, can't I?

Posted by cronopio at 01:06 PM

December 07, 2005

The Democracy Gap

For years now, the Bush administration has been trying to force democracy down the proud Iraqis' throats, while at the same time stripping away basic democratic values in the U.S.:

  • The Patriot Act severely restricts civil liberties of American citizens, especially if their names contain the words "Abdul", "al" or "Ahmed".
  • The Guantanamo Bay prison, built in a military base in Cuba and so outside of U.S. jurisdiction, detains prisoners indefinitely without charges and tries them without the right to choose an attorney.
  • Rumors abound of "black sites", illegal prisons in Eastern Europe, Thailand and elsewhere, where the U.S. holds prisoners illegally and without supervision by anyone.
  • Both 'at home' and in Iraq, the government buys the news, creating or paying journalists to create positive news stories about the administration.
So how can this be? What kind of example is the United States setting by breaking down democracy while supposedly building it up at the same time?
My theory is simple:
The Bush administration is closing the Democracy Gap from both sides.
That is, by redefining democracy to become more like a dictatorship, Iraq more easily becomes a democracy. It's as simple a plan as it is brilliant. Bravo, President Bush!

Posted by cronopio at 01:25 PM

December 06, 2005

I'm sure that's not what they meant

At my subway station, a poster announced in shouty capitals:

To which I appended in my mind: 'Anything more, and you can sue for harassment.'

Posted by cronopio at 01:13 PM

December 05, 2005

José Saramago - Ensaio sobre a Lucidez

Discovering the work of Nobel Prize winner José Saramago has been the most recent joy of my book-reading life. The fiercely atheist "Gospel according to Jesus Christ" and the dark fable "Blindness" are novels where style and content work together perfectly, flawlessly and tragically. These are not exactly feelgood books, but they are meaningful and more importantly, beautiful.
All of which means that when I say that "Ensaio sobre a Lucidez" ("Seeing" in English) is a bit of a disappointment, it still ranks high above most literature published these days.
As a counterpart and sequel to "Blindness" (in which blindness becomes a contagious disease that unhinges society in unimaginable ways), "Seeing" is more obviously political and harder to go along with. In "Blindness", every new event in the story seems to develop logically from what came before. By contrast, in "Seeing", over 80 percent of the voting population casts a blank vote in the elections, prompting politicians to take violently oppressive action. I don't pretend to know what would happen in such a situation, but I think it's quite a leap of the imagination to assume this kind of response.
That said, there is still Saramago's great style to admire. He sticks to his long strings of sentences in vast paragraphs (very Latin American), not mentioning any character by name, and not numbering or titling chapters. It's a book you read in a few gos.

Posted by cronopio at 01:14 PM

December 02, 2005

The Virtual Milk Carton

The idea of printing information about missing kids on a milk carton was a stroke of genius. People see milk cartons every day, they get bored during breakfast and start reading the text, and before you know it, another child has found its parents again.
So what else is there that people see every day when they're bored?
That's right. Weblogs.

snowstone's manifesto defiantly states that there are "no banners here". That is now a blatant lie: on the snowstone homepage, between the random entry at the top and the regular blog entries below, you now see a banner from the US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. That's right, snowstone is now your digital milk carton.

So what's the point? Hardly all three of you visitors will make that much of a difference in finding a missing kid, will you? Well, no. The strength of bloggers is in their quantity, not in each individual blogger's audience of six. Which is why I will do my best to spread the word. The three of you reading this are probably bloggers. Which means you probably know bloggers, who also know bloggers. If everyone put up this banner, there would be more chance of saving a kid.

Put the banner up forever, or just for the holiday season. But put it up. I know it's not the pinnacle of Web design, and it may make part of your blog look ugly, but hey, the NCMEC is probably too underfunded to pay a decent Web designers. Who knows, maybe someone among you think they can do a better job --for free!

Learn here how to put up a banner on your blog.

Posted by cronopio at 01:52 PM

December 01, 2005

IMDb Top 250 month Roundup

Well, that's it with the IMDb Top 250 movies for now. Most of the month of November 2005 here at snowstone consisted of movie reviews, and although I will still be hunting down Top 250 movies and posting reviews, things will calm down.
After a month of intense movie-watching, I can honestly say that trying to see all 250 movies left me with mixed feelings. It's obvious that the taste of IMDb reviewers does not correspond with the general public's (for example, Titanic, the best grossing movie of all time by a wide margin, does not even feature anywhere in the Top 250). On the other hand, the list only partially overlaps with the top-100s of revered movie critics such as Roger Ebert or Pauline Kael (the latter infamously trashed Star Wars, which went on to become the then most popular movie of all time and now ranks high in the IMDb list).
So where's my taste in all this? Well, it varies. Non-US movies are dramatically underrepresented, especially Italian and French ones. Animation and other fare primarily aimed at underage audiences rank disproportionately high, by which I don't mean to say that they're bad movies, just that they don't leave a lasting impression. That said, it's not a coincidence that I'd already seen some 60% of the list before I started, and that more than one of them was a pleasant surprise.
I will continue filling the list, check the little counter on the left of the snowstone homepage to see how I'm doing.


Posted by cronopio at 01:15 PM