Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Doing the Wave

Be vewy, vewy quiet. I'm practicing waving.

I'm off to Kansas for a family reunion. While there, I'll engage in the Midwesterner's inalienable right to drive long distances to get groceries, go to the movies, and shop at WalMart.

It's not unlike living in suburbia.

The difference is that when driving in suburbia you're sitting with hundreds, if not thousands, of cars, all moving at about five miles per hour, down eight-lane superhighways.

In Kansas, you're meeting one car every five to ten minutes coming at you on a two lane road at a combined speed of well over 100 miles per hour.

And, likely as not, the driver knows you.

This requires some form of acknowledgment in the brief time you're going to be making eye contact. It might be, e.g., your third cousin's favorite niece's third husband's mother. If you don't acknowledge your existence you'll get a call from your aunt, along the lines of “ Michael John Mehl, you drove right passed Matilda Hollister and didn't even say hello!”

Or it might be someone from a school whose team you beat forty years ago for the Quivera League championship. “Did you see that Mehl kid? He just drove on buy without saying anything. He's gotten pretty stuck up since he got that job out East.”

On the other hand, you can't just stick up your hand and wave it back and forth, like Queen Elizabeth. Trust me, you look like a dork. You need a subtle wave, one that's visible to the other driver, but not looking like you're trying to flag down the bus to Salina.

It's kind of a half salute, really. You start to move your right hand off the steering wheel toward your forehead, but it never gets there. If it turns out you don't know the person, your thumb need never leave the wheel. If it's someone you know fairly well, say your Senior Prom date, it's OK to lift the hand halfway to your forehead and open the palm in a slight waving motion, possibly touching the brim of your cap, if you're wearing one.

Other people get proportionately smaller waves.

When I was out in Kansas last month I noticed that I'd forgotten most of this. Hence the remedial wave practice. So if you see me driving down the road today, hand moving up and down in random fashion, you'll know what I'm doing.

See y'all in a week or so.

From Our Wish-This-Happened-In-Real-Life Department

The way error reporting should be.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Frakin' Universe Re-explained

Some time ago I did a minor bit of playing around with Flash animations, using the "Export to SWF" option in OpenOffice.org.

It wasn't all that pretty, and you had to repeatedly click on the picture to move from frame to frame.

Then, a few weeks ago, Penguin Pete started a series of Flash tutorials. The first post used the SWFTOOLS package, which looked like it would be fun to play with. So I stripped out all of the frames from my original OpenOffice Impress file, translated them into JPEG, renamed them frame01.jpg, frame02.jpg, frame03.jpg, ..., give the command:

$ jpeg2swf --rate 0.2 frame*.jpg -o cbm2.swf

and produced the following:

(Click here for the animation)

Neat, huh? A few comments:

  • swftools isn't available through Ubuntu, so I complied it myself, with the standard options. This was fine, using ./configure with no options, except:
    • The gif2swf program was not compiled, because I didn't have the libgif4 library. libgif4 is available under Ubuntu, but its installation requires a bunch of programs to be removed from the system, including emacs. This makes it toxic, so I'll forget about converting gifs into flash. Fortunately, we have ImageMagick's convert program, and why is anyone using gifs in favor of pngs anyway?
    • When I did “make install” the man pages weren't copied into /usr/local/man/man1. I had to do it by hand.
    • There are some library files which are also compiled, and they aren't installed, either. I don't have any use for them right now, but someday I might, right?
  • I'd like to have the titles and pictures fade in. This doesn't seem to be available in swftools, so I'll have to look for another program.
  • It would also be neat to have the BSG theme playing in the background, but swftools doesn't seem to import sound files, either. Yet another reason to search more.
  • To be true to the original opening, the “many copies” picture should be a montage of Ann Coulter pictures. Anybody got one?
  • And the punchline should probably have Obama instead of Teddy.

So consider this the 0.2 version of the animation. More to follow, someday.

In the Beginning

Linus created the Kernel

(Don't you just hate it when bloggers create bookmark entries?)

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Silver Anniversary

At least according to Scientific American, the first computer virus was created twenty-five years ago, in 1982.

It ran on an Apple ][. I bought an Apple //e went it first came out, in 1983, but I never heard of this virus.

I seem to remember something about computer viruses in David Gerrold's When HARLIE was One (1972), but I may not have the correct reference. Certainly the idea of a computer virus was present before 1982, but it the development of the personal computer to make propagation possible.

Monday, July 09, 2007

My Job Description

People often ask me what I do to make money, as opposed to post this inane stuff.

This pretty much describes it:

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Dang, Missed It Again

Maybe next year:

A belated Happy Roswell Day to you all.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

A Treatise On the Number of Wizards

In preparation for the biggest first-edition press run in the history of the world, I'm rereading all of the first six Harry Potter books. While doing that, I came up with a question that's not answered adequately in the books: Just how many wizards are there?

While we can't get an exact answer, we do have enough information to allow a Fermi estimate of the answer. (Named after Enrico Fermi, a Fermi estimate attempts to get to within an order of magnitude of the correct answer to a problem based on a limited amount of information and reasonable estimates of the rest.)

The crucial fact we know is that Harry Potter's boys' dormitory room in Gryffindor has five beds. Assuming that the girls' dorm has the same number of beds, and each of the four houses has the same number of students, we see that Hogwarts admits forty students a year. We know of three schools of wizardry in the world, so that means that there are 120 wizards of a given age, all throughout the world. Hogwarts itself would have something less than 40×7 = 280 students, since many students leave before the end of the seventh year.

Of course, not every wizard is admitted to a school. We know of some wizard family members, such as Fitch, who have extremely limited powers. Presumably they aren't generally admitted into schools — though the admission of Neville Longbottom must mean that the schools are willing to scrape near the bottom of the barrel, at least for legacies. Then, too, an unknown number of Muggles are admitted to the school.

Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that the schools admit ten percent of all who could conceivably be called wizards. This is probably too low a figure, so our final number will be on the high side. Since the schools admit 120 students a year, there are approximately 1200 wizards of a given age, in the teen years, at least.

We then assume that a typical wizard lives for about 100 years — if they don't live longer than us, then they aren't really trying, after all. And we know that Dumbledore has been a teacher at Hogwarts for at least fifty years, so he's at least seventy, and showed no sign of slowing down until his untimely misfortune in the sixth book. One hundred years is about right, I'd say.

If we then take 100×1200, we get a really rough estimate of 120,000 wizards in the world. This is probably on the high side, given the Neville problem and the fact that many wizards will die before they get to 100.

One hundred thousand wizards in the world, give or take. This is a bit small, I'd think, for all the wizards that populate the books, including complete sets of professional Quidditch leagues. So let's see if we can increase the count.

Apparently, J. K. Rowling once said that Hogwarts has about 600 students. This means that Harry's class is a aberration, in that it's about half the sizes of an average class, but then Harry was born during the Voldemort years, when the birthrate was no doubt rather low. In this case, each school admits on average about 100 students per year, so our numbers go up by about a factor of 3, to, say, 350,000 wizards in the world.

That's still too low, probably because the books are Euro-centric: as far as I recall, every character is from Europe or the Near East. In particular, there aren't native Asian or North/South Americans in the books. So let's assume that the three schools mentioned draw from Europe (including European Russia) and Northern Africa — a population of roughly 500 million, one twelfth of the world's total. Presumably there are then are about 33 other schools in the world to teach the other wizards, or maybe the rest of the world is run by the White Council.

So we must multiply the 350,000 answer above by 12, which gives us a total of about 4 million wizards in the world, and that's probably an upper bound.

And that's not a bad answer. It's big enough to form a society (think of the Jews in pre-war Europe) that interacts with the rest of the world but keeps itself separate. And, as you'll note if you've been following my arithmetic, this is an order of magnitude calculation, meaning that there could be as few as 500,000 wizards in the world, and as many as 40 million. I'm pretty sure there aren't more than 40 million wizards in the world, or we'd see more of them.

Four million wizards, give or take, and they'll all be ahead of you in line on July 21.