Geek nostalgia

As I kid, I played a lot of video games. Of course, this was in the days before home console systems (and it took Atari a while to get to Australia). Instead, down at the corner store (the local deli) there was a continual rotation of stand-up cabinets. Pac-Man, Scramble, Defender, Galaga, all the classics. I’d usually go down for a few games after school, and play games with the big kids. I never managed to get any high scores, but this never stopped me playing. A couple of years later I discovered that the property company Mum worked for owned the biggest video arcade in Adelaide, and I’d sometimes get to follow her around while she counted the take from the machines and gave me lots of free credits. Kid geek heaven, that was! I got into some of the more challenging games like Missile Command and Tempest there, and improved a bit. That was where I got the pinball bug though, so I never played the video games so much after that. But I still have a real fondness for the old games. This was back in the days where your here character was a 10×15 grid of 4-colour pixels making “bloop bloop” sounds. Instead of relying on flashy graphics and music, game designers instead had to rely on gameplay and originality. Twenty years later, these old games are still great fun to play.

That’s why I covet what Aaron Mahler has created. He’s taken an old Millipede cabinet, added new controls, stuck a PC emulating old arcade games (using MAME) inside. He can choose from hundreds of games, and play them exactly like they were in the good old days. It even uses an original monitor and speakers! You can read all about in in Scientific American. I sooo want one of these.

Deregulation sucks

Deregulation: brought to popularity by two decades ago Reagan, Thatcher and converted into a religion by their successors, has failed. Sure, in a free and efficient market, deregulation should bring better results at lower costs to the consumer. But has this ever happened? Deregulation revolutionized the airline industry and brought cheap flights to all, but are we better off flying today than we were ten years ago? Will the airline industry survive ten years from now? The only other “success” story I can think of is the telephone industry.

The problem, of course, is rooted in the mythical efficient market. It seems that the biggest proponents of deregulation are the least likely to set the conditions necessary for it to succeed: true competition, liquid markets, and available information. The UK railroads was the first large-scale example of this I saw. How can you have competition when only one company is allowed to run trains in a specific region? Predictably, deregulation of the UK rail industry was a total failure, and led to wide-scale deterioration of the infrastructure and several deadly accidents.

On a smaller scale, I was astounded to learn that here in Seattle, only one cable company serves any one house. At our new place, we can only get Millennium; at my last place it was Comcast or nothing. Where is the competition? No wonder cable costs so much.

Check out this article on the effects of deregulation on the energy industry. Not only did the legislators that oversight and maintenance of large-scale public infrastructure, with so few players, could ever represent an efficient market, they ignored the basic physical design of the network and designed rules guaranteed to overstress the hardware. Despite the warnings of engineers and physicists, deregulation of the electricity market in the US was practically guaranteed to result in poorer service from widespread blackouts.

The fundamental problem is that deregulation requires all the generators to be linked together so that they can trade electricity, basically linking the entire grid into one big machine. So when a problem occurs in one area, it spreads widely. You’d think the solution would be to return to the old ways, where energy was generated regionally, without these interdependencies, right? Wrong. The FERC advocates increasing cross-country transmission, and is willing to spend billions and undermine environmental legislation to allow utilities to continue to trade electricity in support of this mythical free market. And who’s going to pay for all of this? From the article:

To pay the extensive costs, the utilities and the DOE advocate increases in utility rates. “The people who benefit from the system have to be part of the solution here,” Energy Secretary Spencer Abrams said during a television interview. “That means the ratepayers are going to have to contribute.” The costs involved would certainly be in the tens of billions of dollars. Thus, deregulation would result in large cost increases to consumers, not the savings once promised.

So let me get this straight. Deregulation was supposed to make electricity cheaper and more reliable for the consumer. It didn’t work. So now, we’re going to make the consumer pay to get the benefits promised in the first place?

Deregulation sucks.

That’s irony

Another walk with Short Dad today. Yayy! Let’s spin round in circles three times by the door. “Sit!” “Sit!” “Down!” “SIT!!!”. Hmm, maybe I’d better sit. Short dad puts the leash on. Oboy it’s the long leash! Double yay!

I lead Short Dad on the usual route. Down past the blackberry bushes in the overgrown lot. Along the straight road with all the interesting staircases to explore. What’s that down there? The park!?! Oboyoboyoboy. I’m real excited now.

But why is Short Dad stopping? He’s looking at a lamp post, but it doesn’t seem like he needs to go potty. No… he’s looking at a sign stuck to the post. There’s a picture on it. Hey, it looks like me! I wonder why it’s stuck up there.

Short Dad is trying to take down the sign, but it looks like he’s having trouble doing it with one hand. Lots of sticky tape all around the post. What’s he doing now? He’s taking the clipping thing and attaching it to his belt. Oh, I see! He’s attaching the leash to the caribiner so he can use both hands to take down the sign. Looks like he’s making progress now.

But I want to go in the park!! Maybe if I tug a bit he’ll take notice … whoa! Looks like the belt loop on Short Dad’s pants is gonna break.

ARGHAGAGAHGH! What’s this noise on the ground! Gotta run gotta run. Omigod! It’s chasing me! And clattering! Oh, the clattering! I can’t get away from it! Maybe if I run down this hill into the bushes I can escape… run run run run run run run

run run run run run … it’s still chasing me!!

run run


ACK!! I’m stuck! Stuck under a recycling bin! But at least the clattering has stopped. Maybe I’ll just hide here for a while.

Is that Short Dad’s voice? Hmm. I think I’ll just stay right here thank you.

He’s calling me again. Go away! Let me be neurotic in peace Short Dad!

Oh dear. A corgi is sniffing at me! What will I do? And look, the corgi’s Mum is looking at me now! Go away! But look, she’s untangling the leash. Maybe she has a soft bed I can lie on. I think she’s taking me home.

Corgi’s mum puts a bone in front of me. Is it mine? I don’t think so. Corgi has come up and eaten it. Lucky I didn’t touch it. Mustn’t touch what isn’t mine.

Corgi’s mum looks at my collar. It’s pretty and jangly isn’t it? Now she’s going to the telephone. “Hello … is that animal control? … Yes, I’ve found a dog … I see a license number on his collar … yes, I’ll hold while you call.” A couple of minutes later the phone rings. “Yes, I have him right here … come over, I’ll leave the light on.” I wonder what that was all about?

Knock knock! Scary noise. What’s that? Is that Short Dad’s voice? Maybe if I peek around the corner! It is him… gotta hide. He’s calling me! “Sit!” Sounds like the stern voice. I’d better sit. Oh look, it’s the short leash. That means we’re going to the Dog Park!! Yayyy!! I’m happy. Short Dad leads me out of the strange house and into the Big Truck. I love riding in the truck. I bet we’re going to the park. Can’t wait can’t wait can’t wait. Hey, why are we home already? Oh well, better run upstairs and into my bed.

I wonder why we didn’t go to the dog park? Maybe it’s because I ran away from Short Dad. Nahh, couldn’t be. I’ve never done anything like that before, so how mad could he be? In any case I promise never to do it again.

New web-immersive marketing program

You may recall the brilliant web-based marketing program for the movie AI. It began with a single webpage for a university that does not exist, but which apparently hired some characters related to the movie. The way you got started in the game was to note the “Jeanine Salla” was listed in the trailer as the “Robot Psychologist” (a strange title, to be sure). From the first google search you were led to a series of websites set in the timeline of the movie, with a murder-mystery to solve to boot. In my opinion, the most innovative marketing program ever, and very successful too.

Now, it looks like the Matrix is getting into the act. Remember who Neo worked for? Check out Metacortex (if it’s not slashdotted, anyway), especially the products and services section. There’s a particularly intriguing link to an undersea hotel. What’s it all about? No one’s really sure just yet, but finding out is part of the game. The game is afoot, and a guide to the puzzle is already underway.

What Libertarianism is Not

OK, I’ll admit it. I’ve heard a few people, especially on blogs and message boards and stuff, describe themselves as Libertarians, but beyond the freedom-is-good-government-is-bad-just-let-me-be mantra, I never really understood what it was, really. I did take the World’s Smallest Political Quiz though, once, but it didn’t make me a convert despite its bias.

Sometimes, you can learn most clearly what something is by being told what it is not. This Non-Libertarian FAQ demonstrates that point. I now know enough about it that it just ain’t viable. This quote from the author of the FAQ is pretty telling, for me:

Why do you spend so much time trying to debunk?
As I told creationists who wondered why I bothered, it’s interesting to me to study unusual beliefs for the same reason it’s interesting for doctors to study pathologies. You don’t have to catch a disease to be able to understand it, fight it, or vaccinate against it.

Comparing Libertarians with Creationists is the ultimate damnation.

Celebrating non-diversity

Here’s something I’ve always wished for: a gathering of all the David Smiths. It’s just for a small town in Vermont, but maybe this will lead to a US-wide (or even world-wide!) convention someday. I’d go.

I’ve always felt cursed by having the dullest name in the universe. (My close friends know that my middle name is equally dull, so no hope there.) It’s caused any number of logistical problems, from getting the wrong mail to having to wait an extra 10 minutes while the support rep on the phone scrolls through 10 pages of names just to find mine. It even caused a minor problem with the house-buying process — in the title search some other David Smiths turned up with judgements against them, and I had to prove I wasn’t them. On the other hand, it does help to become anonymous when you need it.

On a more serious note, the one-to-many mapping of names to people has caused problams for several people as a result of the current War on Terror. There is now a “passenger watch list” which the airlines are meant to scritinize, and if your name matches one on the list you get searched. In detail. Every time. Problem is, there’s no way to get your name off the list if it’s added mistakenly, and because the list only has first and last names (and sometimes just initials!) many innocent travellers are being inconvenienced. For example “J Adams” is on the list, and if your are John or Jenny or James Adams you will be stopped. The WSJ covered the issue. Let’s hope “D Smith” never gets added to the list — not just for my sake, but to prevent the 4-hour security lines it would cause.

Whatever happened to investigative journalism?

Greg Palast, journalist for Salon and the UK Guardian, has a website for the new edition of his book, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy. The story of the many irregularities of the Florida election, which most likely handed the election to Bush, is kinda old hat now. There’s really not much we can do about it until 2004. But of more interest to me was Greg’s story, which you can read online in Chapter 1, of how the mainstream US media refused to pick up the story (despite it being widely reported in print and TV in the UK). CBS news, for example, didn’t run it because the only check they did was to call Jeb Bush’s office and, surprise, surprise, he denied the facts of the story.

Is investigative journalism simply non-existent in this country? Greg attributes the lack of follow-up on this story to the fact that the media would actually have to investigate to validate the story, and this would cost time and money. In fact, the only reporting that was done was after the US Civil Rights Commission had delivered their report six months after the fact. Seems like it’s easier just to wait for someone else to investigate and report the results.

The chapter mentions two of my favourite news sources: the Guardian and BBC2’s Newsnight. I’ve spoken of my love for the Guardian before, but I never knew it was owned by a non-profit corporation. Newsnight is a British intitution, an occasional (2-4 times weekly) evening news program, which spends 45 minutes discussing 2-3 (and sometimes just one) current news story in detail. Often it involves a live interview by the inimitable Jeremy Paxman with an MP or CEO, and it’s generally a no-holds-barred affair (but not in a 60-minutes way). Jeremy asks the tough questions, and it’s a joy to see the politicians squirm. (There was a famous incident when he asked the then Home Secretary the same question: “Did you overrule the director of the prison services” fourteen times before finally getting an answer, by which time it was kinda redundant, since not answering 14 times makes it pretty clear what the answer was.) But Newsnight, and in particular Paxman, is held in such high regard, that for it to be stated that you “declined to be interviewed for this program” so obviously means that you have something to hide that it’s a bigger expenditure of political capital not to appear. Why aren’t there any programs like that on US TV?

They Rule

Here’s a cool little Flash app. Check how board members of the Fortune 100 interrelate. Be sure to click “Load Map” in the lower left to see some pre-canned examples.

Here’s the link: They Rule