Monday, March 31, 2008

Starbucks -- tip sharing absurdity

Some of you may have heard, as indicated in the article at seattlepi.com, that Starbucks has been ordered to pay $86.7 million, plus interest, to baristas -- the total to be paid could easily exceed $100 million.

Why? Well, if you frequent any Starbucks you've likely seen a tip container by the checkout so that you can give a little extra to the staff. Those tips are pooled, weekly, then divvied up amongst the staff in proportions that are in line with the amount of time you worked that week. This is handled by the staff themselves, and all of the tip money that comes in is distributed in that way. It's a fair system in some senses -- it allows everyone who works to enjoy a uniform distribution of tips, and so those who work during quiet times aren't penalized by the lower value of tips that would come in during that time.

Why the lawsuit, and the ruling, then? Well, shift supervisors have been included in the tip pool distribution, you see. It is due to the fact that they have some sway over the general baristas that California Law prohibits such sharing.

I've only known the staff at a handful of Starbucks well enough to comment, but I'd be surprised if it was much different elsewhere -- the shift supervisors referred to don't get much more in the way of compensation than a barista, but are required to do the same tasks and then some. To exclude them from the pool certainly lowers the incentive to take on the added responsibility, and in some cases may create an artificial divide between supervisors and staff which wasn't there previously.

It seems to go against the sense of "team spirit" to claim a right to the tips, but exclude one part of that team who's more or less a peer. Store managers, on the other hand, well tips aren't shared with them -- rightfully so, I believe. They do receive notably higher compensation than a barista, and hold the ultimate responsibility for the operation of the store as a whole. They are much more a management figure, holding sway over the staff, than a shift supervisor would ever be.

I may be convinced, with sound arguments presented, that shift supervisors should be excluded at some point. I'll concede that. Regardless of whether that happens or not, though, I think it's ridiculous to ask the corporation to repay something that they haven't received and didn't distribute in the first place. They may have set out the guidelines in the first place, in an attempt to establish a fair distribution system. Those guidelines have been used for years without complaint from the staff I know. No one has felt oppressed or hard-done-by as a result of the system.

With all of this in mind, it seems like a much more reasonable approach to say "Hey, things shouldn't work like that -- you need to revise those guidelines to exclude supervisors." than to impose a ruling requiring them to pay an exorbitant amount in this fashion.

Ignorance of the law is no excuse, of course. Intent, however is also a significant factor in law, too -- you'll have a hard time convincing me that the original distribution system was established with treating the baristas unfairly in mind...far more likely that they wanted all non-management staff to be treated and compensated fairly when distributing tips amongst themselves.

Of course I can say all of this, but at the end of the day I am neither a lawyer, nor a judge.

I would be much more supportive of the action if it were a simple motion to effect change. "It shouldn't be done this way. Change it." With how it's playing out so far, it seems much more like a cash grab which will line a few peoples pockets (probably most notably the lawyers'). I can just picture someone heading it up -- getting staff all riled about some injustice that they'd for the most part never felt or been aware of.

As I take a moment to reflect on what I've written, I stand by much of it -- I am glad, though, to see that there are those who are watching out for peoples best interests, in spite of whether or not they might have alterior motives. It is when people are unaware of their rights that it's easiest for them to be taken advantage of. It seems that there should be a line drawn for how such things are handled, and in this case that line seems to have been crossed.


Friday, March 28, 2008

TiVo review: for better or worse (Part 2 - Viewing Habits)

Welcome to Part 2 of my review of the TiVo experience. In Part 1 I described how easy everything was to set up. It is definitely easy to get everything up and running out of the box. It's not all a bed of roses beyond that, though, if you're not prepared -- it can change your viewing habits and behaviour.

I'd grown accustomed to Springsteen's old "57 Channels and Nothin's On" when it came to watching TV. There are a couple of shows I enjoy watching to the point that they can hold my attention. Beyond that, though, I would often simply put on The Learning Channel, Discovery or news as background noise (or some ridiculous reality show if the mood struck) while going about doing other things...occasionally a tidbit on the tube would catch my eye, I'd pay attention for a minute or so, then I'd turn my focus back to whatever I'd been doing.

Not any more.

If you have a relatively busy schedule and a few regular shows you'd like to watch but can't always squeeze in, you could be heading for trouble. Even if you're not that busy but have a longer list of viewing desires, you may be on the same path.

When it's so easy to set TiVo up to record things for you, you can quickly wind up with a backlog of those shows that can hold your attention, ready to watch when it suits you. In that case, any time that there's not much to watch on "live" TV, it's all too easy to watch one of the shows that's been saved for you.

By the time a couple of weeks had passed, I had a backlog of several hours of shows I could watch. I'd recorded them, so all were of reasonable interest to me. The first evening I had to sit back and relax to do the random things I do, it was all too easy to start watching those recordings. By the time the third show was on, I'd noticed the difference: During that time where I'd normally do my thing with the TV as background filler, instead everything on was attention getting. Those other activities and passtimes were left pretty much untouched that evening.

With my attention back in the real world, I took a bit of time to reflect.

If you don't take the time to pay attention to what you're doing and what you're watching, it's all too easy to miss out on those other activities -- it's very easy to simply focus on those shows that were interesting enough to record, since they're now easily at your fingertips.

Unless you want to spend hours on end watching TV, take a moment to evaluate what's really of interest or of importance to you. TiVo's a great convenience -- use it responsibly.

The programs I'm really interested in, well they're still readily available now. It didn't take me long to filter out those shows that would have been more interesting than others -- if nothing else had been on.

There's an initial reaction to focus more intently on a show you've recorded by the very act of you choosing to play it back -- you're in control, you can fast-forward through commercials and whatever else, and so it has your attention. Once you're aware of this tendency, it's relatively easy to reclaim that time for yourself -- enjoy other pursuits, be more in the "Here. Now." and not miss out on things in life and the real world which could just as easily be filled by "57 channels, and there's always something on."

Thursday, March 27, 2008

TiVo review: for better or worse (Part 1 - Setup)

It hasn't been too long since TiVo's services became available in Canada (well, available unless you're in Quebec, but that's a discussion for another time).

We'd contemplated setting up a digital video recorder for some time now, but I was hesitant to go with one of the free options out there like MythTV. Don't get me wrong -- MythTV and its peers have received glowing reviews from my friends. Setting something like that up can be a fun project, too. The thing is, though, if I implement something "homegrown", then I'm really the only one around to support it or fix it if something goes wonky. With time being a precious commodity, there are other things we would be better off doing than having me take the time to sort out whether a feature could be added or why something's not working properly.

With that in mind, when TiVo's Series 2 Dual Tuner model hit the local shelves at $200 per unit, it took no time at all to jump on the bandwagon. Setup was a breeze, taking only a few minutes out of the box. Although I've been told that there are ways of getting free feeds of programming data, we kept on the commercial path and signed up online at tivo.com for the relatively modest monthly fee. (Partly for the worry-free nature of it, partly because we make a habit of supporting those who put out products or services we like to use). Subscribing to the service was also painless, and only took a few minutes.

The TiVo unit was online and downloading our local programming information in short order. Although it had been mentioned that it could take days for it to buffer the next two weeks of shows, it really only took hours. The information for the first couple of days was in fact downloaded in minutes.

After a few more minutes, we had the remote that shipped with the unit set up such that we could control the TV and stereo, too, cutting down on the number of remotes floating around in the living room. Hooray for small victories.

It was a nice touch to find that brief instructional videos are included on the unit, which can be viewed, saved, or deleted to free up space. They provided a quick overview to using the basic features of the unit, allowing you to hit the ground running.

The menus are easy to use and logically laid out for the most part. It takes very little time to have the unit recording your favourite programs once, or on a schedule. You can specify what shows take priority over others when space becomes an issue, how to behave if a show is a rerun, and how long a given recording should be kept. You also have a few options relating to the quality of a recording -- tailoring your recordings to a quality that suits a particular program type allows you to store more shows in the long run (lower quality recordings require less space).

When it's not busy recording things that you've specified, TiVo will record somewhat random programs to begin with, trying to find things which match your viewing habits. You have a quick thumbs-up or down rating system for shows which allows TiVo to tailor what it's recording for you, so that over time it will be more likely to record random shows that meet your interests. If you're only in the habit of recording the odd show or so, then once it's trained sufficiently this could be a nice touch that allows you to find things that match your interests which you would have otherwise missed. If you have a busy lifestyle and record a number of shows, you likely won't have the time to view many of those recordings and will probably just delete them. The shows it records for you in this fashion are fortunately the first to go when space starts to become an issue.

As your library of recordings grows, you have the option for it to group shows for you, in a folder-like fashion -- a nice touch, helping you avoid having to go through just one big long list of programs.

Having a unit like this is a big step up from the old VCR days. There's no scrambling for a tape with space on it, all of your recorded shows are at your fingertips, nothing needs rewinding, and you can record a show at the press of a button. Hey, you can sometimes even record a show that's going to air at some point in the future at the press of a button when a preview for that show is being played. Yes, yes, you can also pause "live" TV for up to 30 minutes, too...one of the people I know of starts watching their "live" shows 20 minutes late, having kept it paused, just so that they can fast forward through all of the commercials.

Overall, the unit and experience get a big "thumbs up" from me. I've been very pleased with the primary DVR functions so far, and am often amused with some of the shows it records that it thinks match my interests (admittedly, it does get it right some of the time). Although the "random" recording behaviour is one of the features they promote, it would already have been a worthwhile purchase without it.

"Ok, so you like the unit and the service...what more is there to say to warrant additional commentary?"

I'm glad you asked.

So far I've mentioned how I like the unit, how it's easy to use, and so on. There's more to it than that, though. At the moment I have two additional parts planned -- how making recording/playback of your favourite shows so convenient changes your viewing habits (not necessarily for the better, if you don't pay attention to it), and my experience with setting up some of the other features it supports (like viewing digital photos, playing your iTunes library, archiving recordings when you start running out of space, or taking shows on the road).

Test Sudoku Puzzle Template



This post exists in order for me to play around with the layout for including a "Sudoku Puzzles" category...you're welcome to solve it, of course ;)



This puzzle exists simply as an image, meant to be printed for solving with good ol' pen/pencil and paper. I am considering putting up scripted puzzles which could be solved online in your web browser of choice, though.




Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Patent challenges - EFF and online gaming

I was told the other day that someone had filed a patent related to certain aspects of online games. That alone wouldn't necessarily raise an eyebrow -- however, this one was vague enough that it covered a fairly broad spectrum of how online games are run in relation to holding tournaments, pairing up competitors based on rankings, and so on. Ultimately patent holder's efforts would likely have homed-in on the ladder ranking systems used in a variety of popular and highly profitable MMO games, such as World of Warcraft, Everquest, and so on.

A number of these systems use a rough equivalent to the way chess tournament rankings take place -- the "Elo" system of which was adopted by the US Chess Federation around 1960, although other numerical ranking systems predated that one.

Granted, patents can be obtained when making old technology new, by putting some innovative new mechanism to work or by improving on the old ways in some fashion. In this case, however, it's been argued that no new technologies or methods were introduced, and that in fact all claims in the patent filing related to systems and methods already in use or in the public domain.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a watchdog for people's rights, has managed to file sufficient evidence to have the patent in question reexamined. To quote their press release found here, the party that filed the patent "used this bogus patent to coerce licensing fees from numerous small businesses". The EFF in fact has a "Patent-Busting Project" that attempts to protect the rights of consumers and businesses from such endeavours.

One such example of them approaching a business can be found here.



To challenge this, they need to trying to establish a timeline for events, in relation to "when were the various revisions of the patent filed" vs. "when were such technologies demonstrated that precede that filing".

If I recall correctly Battle.net had its own ladder ranking system for various games, albeit not as sophisticated as we see today. They would have been hard-pressed to code the Battle.net infrastructure after the earliest filing related to the questionable patent and still gone live in January of '97, if you want to go as far as seems reasonable in the filer's favour -- mind you, I'm not a lawyer. Of course, similar systems did ultimately predate even the inception of Battle.net, and so the patent holder appears to be standing on thin ice indeed, even when trying to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Who knows -- perhaps the filing party will be vindicated in the end, like in the looong uphill battle fought by the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper. At the moment, however -- particularly when considering how quickly businesses were approached after the filing -- it seems more like a quick attempt at a cash grab, preying on unsuspecting small businesses trying to make their way.

The EFF's activities aren't for everyone -- they've been around for a relatively long time, and their stance on certain subjects related to privacy and personal freedom don't sit well with some. In this case, though, I think that most will applaud their efforts.

Without appropriate attention to detail, it's only a matter of time before someone tries to patent the wheel. Oh wait -- that's already been done. ;)

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Books: "A million bucks by 30"

I'm sure we've all seen the slew of "Get rich, here's how" books that hit the shelves at a frantic pace. For some reason this one caught my eye, and in a moment of weakness, I bought it.

In a nutshell the author, Alan Corey, decided at the age of 22 that he wanted to be a millionaire by the time he hit 30. Well, he did it, without fanfare, complicated systems, or get rich quick schemes. Afterwards, he decided to write about it matter-of-factly -- perhaps he'll make his next million off of the royalties ;)

While I don't expect he'll win a Pulitzer Prize for the effort, the book is an easy read, and follows a logical, easy-to-follow timeline from start to end, with a few key points to remember reinforced along the way.

For the first significant portion of the book I was left wondering "ok, when's his marvelous 'system' going to come into play...inevitably the greatest thing since sliced bread". It never happened, and it's (in my opinion) more modest and far better off for that fact.

He had a reasonable income, $40K, from his day job, and he put it to work to make it happen. At times his pursuits go off on random tangents -- one-off gigs here and there for some extra fame and coin...with this sort of progress, you start to wonder how it's going to play out that he achieves his goal. At the same time, you may wonder along the way if one of these tangents is going to be the key to his achievement ("Oh no, he wants me to strike it rich doing reality TV?!"). In spite of (or perhaps because of) these tangents and his matter-of-fact manner, the book has a very down to earth feel, relating the story of a real person, not some icon you hope to emulate. It comes as a relief to find that these quirky excursions aren't the key to his success, but simply stops along the way.

Simply put, he set out rules for himself. First, he saves as much as he can bear along the way -- including retirement savings plans. Eventually he realizes that "all work and no play make Jack a dull boy", and adjusts accordingly, within reason. He adapts his living arrangements to reduce his costs and boost his income and net worth when possible -- once he'd taken a foothold in real estate by purchasing a modest apartment, he takes on a roommate (someone he knew) to offset his monthly mortgage payment.

We're taken on a casual guided tour of how he got into other properties, and why. You're not left feeling that it was a whirlwind trip, but a slow methodical one such that he was certain to reach the desired destination, even if not by the date he set out.

As you'd expect, he does achieve his goal by the end of the book -- and he's only been involved in a few properties to do so, along with his disciplined plan for saving. [Admittedly, the degree of discipline in his method for saving will be a bit much for most, but adhering to the principles will achieve similar results, just not as quickly]

So: no rocket science here, but if you're up for a quick easy tale of how a real person got there, this could be your ticket.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Population of the World in perspective

Recent estimates put the world population at around 6.6 billion, with projections having us reach 7 billion somewhere around 2011. (Wikipedia cites a few good references for such things, like the CIA World Factbook)

Seven billion people. That's quite a bit, isn't it? I'm not relating this here to go on about the logistics of supporting a steadily growing population, or anything of the like. What I am doing, though, is trying to put this number into perspective.

Imagine a game like seeing how many people you can cram into a phonebooth (or that ol' VW Bug) on a much larger scale.

For this exercise, we won't give people much room -- to begin with, assign a footprint of 30cm by 60cm (roughly 1 foot by 2 feet) per person. We'll use this as a very rough estimate, with the idea that with men, women, and children averaged out it won't be ridiculously off base. (A variable degree of smooshing together should allow for a bit of a fudge factor, too).

So. 30cm x 60cm. One person per 1800cm^2. With 10,000cm^2 in per square meter, we'd fit 5.5555... into that space. Seem a little cramped? Ok, let's take 5 people...heck, make it 4 per square meter, just to be generous. Everyone all comfy in a shoulder-to-shoulder fashion? Good. Let's move on.

Take a square lot 1km on a side (about 2.5 of the old Disneyland parking lots) -- in that space you could squeeze 4 million people!

If we take a moment to look at U.S. States by area, it doesn't take long to realize -- the whole population of the world, with room to grow for the next several years, would fit in Rhode Island. Forget about the engineering aspect of it, and have us all file in to pack an imaginary 12 storey building in the same way -- now we'd ALL fit into Washington, DC. (for more international examples, we could sprawl out in Luxembourg with room to spare for years of growth, or have our imaginary building in Aruba or Liechtenstein)

It's rather strange to think, when considering what we know of the wealth, poverty, sickness, health, war, and peace around the world, that everyone involved would fit in such a small space.

Come to think of it, our imaginary building could fit inside Las Vegas -- we could all have a party.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Off the shelf viruses

"I'll take these socks, a chocolate bar, and a computer virus, please"

What? Not quite what you had in mind?

I've dealt with my fair share of virus outbreaks experienced by friends, family, and clients. They're never a fun thing, although they can get the adrenaline going.

In this day and age, you've got to be more careful than ever when it comes to such things. It used to be that you'd run the risk of your system misbehaving -- you might wind up with a variety of colourful pop-ups, you may unknowingly become a host for file-sharing, or you could lose valuable data. Nowadays, though, you can wind up with your identity stolen, erroneous charges on your credit card, or even have money taken from your bank account. Some corporations are even finding that their systems will be compromised and data key to their operation is encrypted or copied, and held hostage for ransom.

There are a variety of ways to fall victim to such things. In future posts I'll go into more detail about what can happen, some ways to try to avoid being a victim, and some things that you can do if you've already been affected.

For the time being, though, I simply want to bring another potential source of infection to your attention. In reading the Globe and Mail's AP article at http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20080314.wvirus14/BNStory/Technology/home?cid=al_gam_mostview , we can see that it's not sufficient to worry about being infected from the internet.

According to the article, some products with software components to them (digital picture frames, iPods, and so on) are shipping with viruses or password stealing trojans already in the software package. You could buy that digital picture frame from Best Buy or Target, install the software that comes with it, and that's all it would take.

The easiest (and perhaps kindest) explanation is that the manufacturer of the affected products doesn't have sufficient quality control -- one of their employees may have wound up accidentally bringing a virus to their workplace that was passed on to the installation image for a product. Their are more ominous possibilities, of course -- that it was intentional, and done for future profit through one of the means mentioned above.

Although it's one of the more common ways, you don't even have to launch an attachement in an e-mail to become infected, either -- you can become a victim simply by going a web page that contains malicious code.

It's a broad topic, and so I'll go into further detail in later posts. For now I'll simply state:
- if you don't have antivirus software, consider getting some (McAfee and Symantec are common, although there are a few good free ones out there -- I'll try to make the time to review some of the options)
- if you do have antivirus software, make sure you keep it up to date -- new viruses and trojans come out all the time
- apply critical updates to your operating system -- some of them actually plug some of the security holes that viruses and trojans exploit

Leonard Cohen World Tour

I admit it, I'm a Leonard Cohen fan.

As such, the news article (http://www.cbc.ca/arts/music/story/2008/03/13/leonard-tour.html) announcing that more dates had been planned for his world tour in eastern Canada caught my eye.

World tour?! He hasn't been on tour in 15 years or more! My excitement was short lived, though -- a quick check on ticketmaster and a moment browsing the forums on his site (http://www.leonardcohen.com/community.html) indicate that western Canada isn't on the map for the tour.

He is around 74 now, though, so I must say that I appreciate that he's going on tour at all. Good for him. It sounds like the cost of tickets is in the $200 range, too -- not the cheapest, but worth it to catch a piece of history if it's in your area. With his often deep, slow, methodic style, I'd imagine that his performance will benefit with age -- maturing like a fine wine.

Time to dust off his tracks for my mp3 player, I suppose!

Meanwhile, if I hear of any dates being announced on the tour that will take place out here, I'll post an update. (Hey, if you hear such an announcement, please let me know!)

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Blogging: Why blog?

I've been organizing my thoughts regarding what direction this space should take, and of course "Why am I doing this?" has popped to mind.

As is often the case, this is partly as an outlet for self expression. Along with that, though, I hope that some of the ideas and projects I've got rolling around will become more concrete, to the point that I'll be able to polish them off in a less haphazard way.

I've been encouraged to start blogging for other reasons, too...I'd like to offer up my lessons learned, mostly in the "wonderful world of computers", in the hopes that it might save some people time and unecessary grief. If I can save someone some legwork in tracking down the cause of an aggravating problem, well, that's a good thing.

I hope that this will open the door for exchanging ideas and points of view with a broader audience. I'd like to learn what I can from other people's knowledge and experience, and hopefully can offer the same in return.

Lastly, I'd like to create a space where people feel comfortable coming not only for ideas and tech help, but to hang out and relax. To this end I'm working towards setting up a few daily features that I hope people will enjoy. In the not too distant future, keep your eyes open for regular sudoku puzzles, and mazes of varying difficulty. It's humble, but it's a beginning.

I'm open to suggestion. If you have a computer question or have an idea for a regular feature, let me know. Heck, if you have any sort of question at all, give it a shot -- no guarantees, but I'll do what I can.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

LONG term wealth planning

Most of us have experienced some challenges in life along the way, and many of those challenges have likely been related to money in some fashion.

Do any of these sound familiar:

  • You'd like to go to school, but student loans won't work out quite right, so you've got to hold down a part-time or full-time job, which interferes with your studies.
  • You'd like to buy your first house/car/etc., but the payments will be too high (or you don't have enough for a downpayment).
  • You'd like to run your own business, but don't have enough start-up capital.
  • You'd like to do anything at all (vacation, buy a new computer, etc.), but you're struggling to make ends meet as it is.

The list goes on and on, of course.

Many of us who have been in such a position will often want to save their friends and/or family some of the "trying" times we've seen ourselves. This desire seems to be more at the forefront for those who are planning to start (or have started) a family of their own.

There's so much self-help material on how to save, how to make sure you can retire comfortably, and so on (like "The Wealthy Barber" for example). In many such resources, you'll find some simple rules, which usually boil down to:

  • start young
  • save regularly (10% of your income is often suggested)

Sounds pretty easy, right? Well, if you're disciplined enough to stick to it, it is.

Many of us have likely looked at the sort of numbers involved, and know the power of compound interest, but dismissed them for the sake of heading off in our own direction. For those of you who are unfamiliar, here's a very simple example that doesn't take into account income tax (among other things):

If you saved $3600 per year ($300 per month) in some form which earned 6% interest, compounded annually, at the end of 40 years:

  • you'd have put $144,000 of your own money into these savings
  • your savings, with interest, would be worth over $567,000

So, we know these sorts of numbers. A question that popped to mind years ago was "what if we didn't stop there?" Suppose we had an altruistic bent which made it so that we wanted to do something which wasn't primarily for our own benefit, but for our family - or beyond - in generations to come? Even if you stopped contributing at that point, and just "let it ride" at 6% per year, at the end of 100 years your fund would be over $20,000,000. That far out, if you were able to get 6.5% along the way instead of 6%, you'd be over the $30,000,000 mark. At 8% you'd have surpassed $100,000,000. Even if inflation held at a steady 2.5% or 3%, you'd still continue to gain ground, since the amount your money would earn would be at a higher rate than it would be devalued.

In today's dollars, assuming 2.5% inflation, that would be like having a trust today with somewhere between $1.7 and $8.5 million, earning anywhere from $100K to $685K per year.

If you really want to head for ridiculous territory, tack on another 100 years. The trust would then hold somewhere between $7 and $200 billion. ($50 million to $1.4 billion in today's dollars)

What would you want done with that fund? Are you making sure that your friends and family are looked after? Are you providing scholarships to people, and tackling whatever societal issues may exist at that point in time?

Playing a mind game like this has brought me down a few paths:

1. Is it even possible to create an entity that would allow for this to occur? It turns out that it's difficult to have something like this that could last up to 100 years, let alone beyond.

2. Is it possible to ensure that the use of the funds would remain true to your vision? Sadly, this doesn't seem likely.

3. If you had chosen for your family to be supported by this, what would their morals and work ethic wind up being like? Would the structure of the "trust" have any bearing on this?

4. What would happen if a significant number of people did this sort of thing, and set up similar vehicles for others? What would happen to the structure of society as this evolved? If everyone eventually wound up independently wealthy in this fashion, would those who wanted to work be sufficient to meet the demands of that society? If not, how would the structure of society change so that those needs would be met?

I've rambled on more than enough for now, although I'll likely flesh out some of these ideas at a later date. Meanwhile, I'm very interested to hear your opinions on such things -- the most common reaction I've heard so far boils down to "Why would I want to do something like that, it's of no benefit to me now?"

Global Warming - Run for the hills!

Ok, don't run for the hills just yet.

On the one hand we have Sir Richard Branson and the Virgin Earth initiative, Al Gore with his "An Inconvenient Truth", Bono, David Suzuki, and a number of other notables on the same side. There are an abundant number of public figures who have jumped on the climate change bandwagon.

On the other hand, we have things like "The Great Global Warming Swindle", articles like this: http://www.ocala.com/article/20080311/OPINION/803110316/1368/googlesitemapnews and a similar entourage of naysayers who are flat out against global warming being a cause for concern.

It seems like we're missing the point. It doesn't need to be that complicated. With a slightly different perspective you may decide that it doesn't matter whether global warming is occurring when it comes to deciding whether we should .

Take CO2 emissions -- we don't need to know whether our carbon dioxide output is causing global warming. We already know that a high enough concentration of CO2 in the air we breathe is bad for us -- enough of it can kill us. We're spewing CO2 into the environment at a steadily increasing pace. At the same time, we're cutting down on the planet's ability to handle the CO2 in the environment.

Do we really need to go any further than that? Regardless of how slowly it's occurring, we're gradually poisoning our own atmosphere against ourselves in this fashion. It shouldn't matter whether it will take 20 years or 200 years (or however long) to reach toxic levels. If we're decidedly poisoning the atmosphere with how we currently do things, then it should be our responsibility to alter the way we do things to limit or eliminate those toxic emissions.

I understand that carbon dioxide is a vital part of the ecosystem, required in a variety of processes. I'm simply suggesting that we should reduce such emissions (of not only CO2, but of toxins in general) to avoid the slow but steady poisoning of the environment that sustains us.

I'm certainly not perfect, nor am I a fanatic. I do feel that we have a responsibility to take care of the planet, though -- we depend on it. I do happen to be a fan of Branson's Virgin Earth initiative, and I take this sense of responsibility seriously enough that I'm preparing a proposal for submission, to try to do my part.

[Aside: I don't think that carbon sequestration is an optimal long-term solution. I'll expand on that later, though.]

Dwarf Fortress - simple interface, remarkable depth

A friend recently pointed me in the direction of "Dwarf Fortress" - a game freely available for download from its site (http://www.bay12games.com/dwarves/index.html).

While I haven't yet had the chance to try it myself, I've been advised that it's quite an enjoyable/playable RPG, and that you shouldn't be deceived by the ASCII style interface.

A quick review of the features indicates that this is likely the case -- there is a surprising level of detail and depth, the likes of which aren't found in many present day commercial releases. Take a look at the Features page -- you'll likely be surprised, too!

- Not only does it randomly create a map almost 200K x 200K, but it populates it with creatures, towns, resources, and fills in a history for the world, spanning 1000 years.
- It has a crafting system, and allows you to build your own fortresses in 3 dimensions.
- The old characters you've played can be incorporated into things, allowing you to group with them and such.
- The combat model is more detailed than many, incorporating strikes to specific body parts, along with cause and effect (e.g. you drop your shield when that arm is sufficiently damaged).
- The weather system is dynamic, with wind/humidity/air masses tracked to create fronts, with the appropriate weather resulting (clouds/rain/snow/etc.)
- Resources are placed appropriately based on terrain (with over 200 rocks & minerals distributed throughout the world)
- You can create your own creatures, weapons, and so on, simply by modifying text files

Overall, it appears to be a system with remarkable depth and attention to detail...and one look at the development pages indicates that they aren't resting quietly -- much more detail and functionality is in the works! All of this, with only two coders behind the scenes (and suggestions from the appropriate cult following).

It seems like the sort of game that's almost ripe for mainstream commercialization and success -- the straw which would likely break the camel's back in this regard would be for someone to swoop in and code a nice looking GUI to hang off the robust back end, making it market ready for the more general consumer.

[Of course, it's already got a loyal following, and there's no deterring avid gamers from such things, ASCII or not]

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Black holes

Post 2, already! Sorry for the mess, below -- I may come back and organize later ;)

I'll start off by getting a few random thoughts off my chest that have been hanging around for years (though they haven't nagged at me enough to seek formal answers).

Ok, I admit it, I've fallen behind and haven't studied astrophysics and the properties of stellar bodies like any good person should. That being said, I do wonder random strange things (for many such wonderings, the answers are likely already known -- I simply haven't had the good fortune to see them yet).

Take a black hole, for instance. It has an event horizon, yadda yadda, beyond which it was originally thought that nothing would escape, including light. (I seem to recall some rumblings of black holes being able to emit radiation and lose mass under some conditions, though...I'll have to take the time to dig into this some day when time permits).

Hypothetically, if the hole remained static (and so, too, the event horizon), then it seems as though you'd wind up with an ever increasing amount of light that was traveling at a tangent to the horizon in orbit at that distance. You'd also likely wind up with a fairly rapid accumulation of it, too. (Think for a moment about looking up at a starry sky...as you look around, light from those celestial objects is reaching your eyes, of course -- if you were standing at the event horizon, you'd be in the same sort of situation...some of the light from each of those bodies would reach the black hole at a tangent to the event horizon and wind up in orbit -- and this would happen continuously!)

If for whatever reason the event horizon began to retreat (the hole started to lose mass, or for some other reason I'm not aware of), then that "orbital light" might wind up escaping/being "emitted" from the black hole. If the event horizon could oscillate, then by the same token we could wind up with a black hole being a pulsating "source" of light. (Not so much a source, though -- more like a rechargeable battery)

If anyone knows how this actually does or doesn't work, please post your comments or a link to reference material -- it would be nice to put this thought to rest (or perhaps it'll spawn more random thoughts on similar tangents).

To blog or not to blog...(welcome!)

Welcome aboard!

What have you stumbled upon here?

This shouldn't wind up being a play-by-play of my daily life -- I find it exciting, but it may bore you to tears.

With some prompting, I've finally broken down to begin blogging, primarily as a clearing house for various random thoughts/ideas/questions and so on, which I hope that others will find stimulating or interesting.

Failing all else, of course, it'll be a great way for me to justify talking to thin air in order to express my ideas and give them body, without appearing overtly crazy ;).

Over time you'll likely see ideas expressed about mathematics, physics, psychology, business, programming, game design, philosophy, the Caramilk Secret, and other randomness.

Pull up a chair, get comfy...perhaps have a nap, too -- posts will likely be intermittent at best, to begin with.