Tuesday, February 20, 2007

24 Season 5

Did another marathon session of 24, though this time even more interrupted by other things and spread out over a slightly longer period of time. (Spoilers follow for Season 5.)

I noticed something amusing: we spent Super Bowl weekend watching a season where a big chunk of plot centered around attempts to get and hold the nuclear football, then we waited for the President's Day weekend to watch a season that revolved around the contrast between two presidents, one of which was assassinated. Maybe we should watch a season over Valentine's Day so Jack can finally get some lovin'.

Season 5 is very bleak compared to earlier seasons. It starts off with a "holy " moment and then throws a few more at you for good measure. But it's not just how many people die, or even how many named characters die. We also see a lot of Jack's wild behavior in the past catching up with him, long-deferred consequences hitting him hard, both in his personal life and his work. We see even fewer people we can trust, as the most cherished institutions fall one by one to treason, forcing Jack to actions even farther beyond the pale than usual.

But most of all, we go a long long time with no victories, even small ones. Season 4's plot was a string of separate crises that were actually tightly knitted together into an overall arc of threat, which meant we kept having minor victories mixed with our new threats. But a huge section of season 5 went by without a single victory to ease the tension, and when one finally came (Jack finally got the recording), it was taken away again almost immediately, and this time irrevocably.

Speaking of the recording, I kept being annoyed that no one would just make a copy. Jack could have played it through his cell phone the first time he had it. Maybe that copy wouldn't constitute absolute proof, but it would certainly ease some of the pressure of CTU not believing or backing him, and it would have been an unlosable backup. And who could believe that Chloe's first action wouldn't be to make a digital copy and then store encrypted copies of it in a thousand different sites on the Internet? But I can't really complain, because if you allow that, then you have to ask why Henderson didn't just step on the recorder, or put a bullet in it. So I guess the McGuffin absurdities cancel each other out.

I'd say I enjoyed season 4 more than season 5 on the whole. I'm not averse to bleakness or to seeing cared-for characters dying or to having to wait for my payoff. I don't think those are why it wasn't quite as engaging. I'm not saying 5 was bad, just not quite as good.

Incidentally, is this the first season without an appearance of Naked Mandy?

Thursday, February 15, 2007

My 15 minutes of fame

You may have heard about how Congress changed when Daylight Savings Time takes effect this year, and a lot of people are scrambling to get computers to handle this properly. This is a real trivial thing -- the worst that'd happen is computers may show the wrong time for a few weeks, but it wouldn't even mess up their calculations. Calling it "Y2K lite" (as I've seen in the news) is just the media trying to hype a story out of nothing.

So in a completely humdrum bit of my work one day, I have a slightly older version of Unix for which no official patch has been issued, but that's no big deal. It's not a bunch of coding, just a configuration file, and that is in a common format for many versions of many releases of Unix. I tried to get one from a later version of my flavor of Unix, but couldn't get the archive to unpack, so I found one in a patch for a version of Sun's Solaris Unix which I could get to, and that worked fine.

The whole process probably took me two hours, though not straight through -- it was two hours of doing this and several other things. It was maybe 15 minutes of actual work. And it would have been maybe a minute if I spent more time doing Unix things; it was only unfamiliarity (my Unix system takes such good care of itself that by the time I have to do something on it, I have to remind myself of basics) that made it take that long.

It was a trivial thing of no import. It would be like if an auto mechanic couldn't find the right size wiper blades, so took ones a little too large and cut them to fit.

I happened to mention this in a post somewhere on a forum, I don't even know where, and on a very slow news day, a reporter for ComputerWorld named Patrick Thibodeau happened to see my post and contacted me. He was writing an article about the DST change, one which makes too much of a big deal out of the "threat" (because, of course, big threats sell news), and wanted some information. We talked a few times briefly and my sense was that he was looking to round out an article with "real life" examples from a few people. And furthermore that my story turned out way too uninteresting to be worth even a brief quote.

Skip ahead several weeks to today. At work, out of the blue, I got a call from the secretary of the technology editor of the Boston Globe who wanted to talk to me about the article I was featured in, and the incident behind it. When I agreed, somewhat dumbfounded, I was asked to hold for the editor, and then another person was talking to me. This is someone who is too important to dial his own phone, and he was talking to me about this.

Well, I restated that this was no big deal at all, and then once the call was done, went to look through ComputerWorld. Sure enough, I found this article in which I am prominently featured. I'm glad I come off looking good, not like an idiot, though I'm a little uneasy about being featured as having to administer an "outdated" version of Unix -- it's only one version behind a supported version!

So now my co-workers are making fun about how I'm famous, and I didn't even find out I was in this article until a week after it was printed, and it's about the most trivial thing ever. I hope all the geeks out there are rolling their eyes at the reporter, not at me, for making such a big deal out of nothing. And I'm just a little freaked about being featured in a prominent computer magazine and not even knowing about it. I just don't know how to react. I guess I kind of hope it's all just going to be forgotten tomorrow. But if I get another call from someone who is too important to dial his own phone, I don't know how I am going to react.

I guess it's good to get national exposure for being clever. I just wish it was over something where I actually had been clever. I'm not sure why this is freaking me out at all, but it is.

Snow final tally

We got just over 3' of snow at my house. The railings in this photo are 4' above the deck.

Okay, skiiers and snowmobilers, you got what you wanted. Now be quiet. That was the deal.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Snowed in

Like millions of other people in the States, I'm snowed in today. We've gotten two feet here already, I think, or near to it, and this is due to go on through the night. The woodstove is warm and the house is comfy, and I needed to take time off from work anyway as I was nearing my leave cap.

If only I had a good Internet connection that didn't go from bad (on normal days) to worse (in heavy weather), it'd be a great day.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The necessity of sunglasses

When I was a kid I played outside in the full sunlight all the time and never had sunglasses, but nowadays if I go outside and it's full sunny I need sunglasses. What happened?

Is it my eyes aging? (My acuity of vision is still as good as it ever was, though I realize that might not be measuring the same thing.) Is it that I live in a more northerly attitude so the sun is lower in the sky? Is it the thinning of the ozone layer and other environmental depredations making sunlight more intense? Did I always need sunglasses and just didn't know it, or got used to it?

Monday, February 12, 2007

A delightfully counterintuitive bit of math

Let c be 0.9999~. The ~ means "extending infinitely"; just as 1/3 equals 0.3333~.

Then 10c = 9.9999~.

10c - c = 9.9999~ - 0.9999~.

Solving the right side of this equation is easier if you line the numbers up like so:


So 10c - c = 9.

So 9c = 9.

So c = 1.

Therefore, 0.9999~ = 1.

It doesn't "approximate" 1, it's not just "really close to" 1, it's exactly equal. They are two different expressions in numeral form of the same number, the same way 1/2 = 2/4.

It's remarkably simple and can be understood by anyone who's taken 7th grade algebra, and yet it's so counterintuitive that at least half of people, having seen the proof, refuse to believe it.

Here's another approach.

1/3 = 0.3333~ (nearly everyone believes that one)
Multiply both sides by 3, and you get...
1 = 0.9999~

I love explaining this to people and watching them get upset at how they can't disprove it, but they want to so badly. It's a mind-bending and hopefully mind-broadening experience for them.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Damn furriners

A recent episode of House let me learn a new word, gadje, which is the word used by the Romani people (sometimes called "gypsies") to refer to outsiders. Like many other peoples who have been persecuted (or even some who haven't), the Romani have a strict "us and them" separation complete with a special word to use to refer to the "them" side.

Here are some similar words I know:
I can't imagine any good linguistic reason why these should all start with the same letter, and more significantly, the same phoneme. But I can't think of a single counterexample. Just a freak meaningless coincidence? Do you know a counterexample (or any more to add to the list)?

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Turning in circles

You're sitting in your room and decide to get up, walk across the room, do something (check the thermostat, get some more drink, etc.) and then return to where you started. Depending on tiny details of the arrangement of furniture, your own personal habits, etc. you might find that your return trip completely reverses every movement you made, but it might not. Instead, you might have gone through a rotation before your return.

To picture what I mean, imagine this. An empty room, a chair facing a wall. You stand up from the chair and walk to the wall, then turn to your left to turn around. You walk back to the chair, then turn to your right to sit in it. Your movements have completely reversed themselves.

Now do the same thing but at the very end, turn left, not right, before sitting down. You're in the same end position, but now, you've done a complete 360° turn to the left (counter-clockwise, as seen from above) in the process.

On a trip around the house to do a few things before returning to your seat, you might do several turns in both directions. Over the course of a day, do you end up exactly cancelling out your turns? Probably not. I bet most of us turn more one direction than the other, and so gradually over our lives, we end up gradually accumulating rotations in one direction (probably clockwise).

Imagine if every time you did a full rotation, you shifted yourself into an adjacent universe, different only by one tiny slice of probability. Maybe most people rotate back and forth in a small set of adjacent, almost identical universes. But some people favor one foot or the other, so they tend to rotate gradually away from their original probability, and as a result, end up in a universe that differs from their own by too little for them to become consciously aware of it, but by enough that the dissonance makes them seem out of place. Maybe they end up geniuses or madmen or both.

Maybe you could learn how to do this on purpose, rotating the right number of turns to select the alternate probability curve on which you didn't just drop your cellphone on the floor, or the one where the fourth number on the lottery was 18 instead of 19. Though the more you did this, the greater the risk you'd end up too far from your original dimension.

What do other people think about while they're heading back from the fridge with a fresh cup of soda?

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

24 Season 4

Since the Super Bowl cancelled roleplaying and we had nothing particular to do this past weekend, we decided to do something I've always wanted to try: watching a whole season of 24 straight through. Well, not completely straight through -- we didn't do it in one sitting! I'm not strong enough for that, though I really wonder what it'd be like. But we started Friday evening and finished Sunday afternoon, without watching anything else in between.

Because of the crush of stuff to do we have fallen several seasons behind on 24, which we allowed ourselves to do because it's more fun to watch on DVD anyway. So we watched season 4. If you haven't seen that, spoilers may follow. Season 4, in case you don't recall, introduces Secretary of Defense Heller and his daughter Audrey.

I definitely enjoyed this season and I felt like watching it back to back enhances it more than the suspense of having to wait a week does. I liked it better than season 2 (which was nicely plotted, but veered too far into unbelievability at times) and season 3 (which felt scattered to me, though that might be my fault, I was a little scattered watching it; never figured out if it was unfocused and that's why my interest faded, or if my scattered attention is what made it seem unfocused).

Season 1 of course had that "first season" freshness and it didn't pull any punches or pander to its audience. On the other hand, its plot was a little uneven. For good reason: they only got a greenlight for 13 episodes with a hope to renew for the other 11, and in a decision that every science fiction fan can get behind, decided to set the story up so it would have a satisfactory ending after 13 episodes. Naturally they put hooks in for the other half, but of course the priority was on the episodes they had approved, to make sure they were good enough to get the renewal. Plus they couldn't get actor contracts through the whole season for all the incidental characters so they couldn't count on actors remaining available, and killed off some of the characters earlier than might have ultimately been ideal. So there was a bit of a lull in the middle of the season, then a few dumb plot twists (don't remind me about the amnesia bit!) before it wrapped up for a great ending. One can't help wonder how great season 1 could have been if they'd had the greenlight for all 24, but you can't blame the creators for the flaws.

Season 4 had tight plotting that knitted together a lot of stuff into a single story with a lot of twists but nothing (well, almost) that didn't follow from earlier stuff. There's hints in the early episodes about things that don't become clear until much later, and it's fun trying to figure out where it's going. It was also enjoyable to start with only a few characters from previous seasons (Jack, Chloe, Erin Driscoll, and President Keeler) and then start seeing others appear, but with each one being a plot twist of its own. And I loved the dynamic between Chloe and Edgar -- the scene near the end where they talk about Chloe's lack of emotional fallout from her activities in the field was precious.

One thing I can fault this season with, though, was a decidedly conservative slant on a few things. I should not be, and am not, really surprised that Fox would nudge the show in that direction, but it was still a bit jarring when it happened, especially given how liberal-leaning earlier seasons were (particularly in the person of Senator and then President Palmer). We saw a fair amount of it in Secretary Heller, who was definitely a conservative and who often got to depict his views in clear, strong words against others (most notably his son) who depicted their side extremely poorly. Heller also had the advantage of being put into fictional circumstances which justified all his attitudes and gave him a chance to be noble and heroic as he espoused them.

But where they got really heavy-handed was later in the season when they brought in an Amnesty Global (a very thin disguise for Amnesty International) lawyer working (unwittingly, at least) for the terrorists by demanding due process for a captive in CTU's custody. Our heroes needed to torture this suspect since he was their only lead on the terrorists (and we can set aside for the moment how torture gets good intel on TV shows like 24 but not in real life, since that's true no matter what the show's political leanings are). Eventually Jack had to go renegade just to torture the guy. The story didn't really follow what happened to him after that.

The show depicted this suspect as being able to almost but not quite get off entirely because he claimed that he had no connections to the terrorists. But CTU agents (quite a few of them) plainly saw him having cordial relations with the one he later claimed he did not know, and who attacked him and tried to steal his boat. Inexplicably, no one called him on this issue, nor on the fact that he was lying to law enforcement agencies.

Nothing in this would have forced him to tell them what they needed to know, of course. But the show depicted it as if CTU barely even had grounds to hold him. Realistically, even the Amnesty "Global" lawyer, on learning that the suspect had been seen by multiple credible witnesses doing business with a known terrorist responsible for attacks on US citizens on US soil, and then lied about it to law enforcement in his presence, would have advised his client to come clean and divulge whatever information he had in order to substantially reduce his sentence. (Brenda Lee from The Closer would have had him singing in five seconds without even looking cross at him.)

It didn't really ruin my enjoyment of the show; bigger plot holes get dodged like flying bullets in every act. But I hope that it doesn't continue to escalate in later seasons.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Weasel words

The canonical example of "weasel words" is this line you've been hearing in toothpaste commercials all your life: "Nothing gets your teeth cleaner!" Sometimes they even say that clinical studies show this.

Of course the true results of the studies, done decades ago and never repudiated, is that all the toothpastes were equal in effectiveness. Of course the advertisers don't want to say "exactly as good as all the other brands, even the cheaper ones", so instead they say something that sounds like it means their brand is the best, but doesn't really mean that.

My father liked to make fun of this by saying "Hmm, if nothing gets your teeth cleaner, that's what we should use, nothing!" As it turns out, the joke's on him, as well as on the toothpaste manufacturers. Dry brushing (without toothpaste or even water) turns out to be more effective than toothpaste for your dental health. (Though most people still use toothpaste for that clean feeling.) So by trying to deceive us, the toothpaste manufacturers accidentally have been telling us the literal truth all these years.