Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Yahoo Answers

I've been goofing around with Yahoo! Answers of late. This is a sort of general forum where people can ask questions, and other people can answer them. I already have a Yahoo! email account, so it was totally painless to start.

I've no idea why i started. It's not like Yahoo! Answers is new. Nor is that i'd never heard of it before.

There's a section under Science and Math called Astronomy and Space. I do astronomy. Some of the questions looked easy. For example, every few minutes, someone asks if the world is going to end in 2012. The Mayan calendar flips over then - sort of like we did going from 1999 to 2000. Did we survive? There are no Mayans left to flip the calendar over. And someone has been saying that there is a planet out there, Planet X, that is going to strike the Earth in 2012. (We'd have seen it by now.) There's some other nonsense too. After typing in my answer for this a half dozen times, i started a file for frequently asked questions. Someone even asked people not to ask this question. That held the flow back for... less than 20 minutes.

When you ask a question, Yahoo! Answers generates links to similar questions. It's hard to imagine that you wouldn't notice that your exact question was already asked - and has answers - well before you get through the asking process. These people just want to ask for whatever reason. They aren't going to be deterred.

So, one day, i ran out of questions i could answer. It's not that somehow the river ran dry. It's just that Yahoo! doesn't let people answer an infinite number of questions. Once you start answering questions and they get picked or voted as the best, then Yahoo! Answers lets you answer more per day.

So what kinds of questions do i ask? Well, there are two kinds. First, i ask questions for which i think there isn't an answer. Second, i ask questions that will evoke some humor. Third, i ask questions for which i already know the answers. Despite these strategies, i've managed to learn something. Highly unexpected, but welcome.

Here's an example question - though i posted it under mathematics.

Why is the line at the bank that i pick always the longest?

There are five lines at the bank. They're more or less the same length. I do my best to pick the shortest one. I note who is at the end of each of the other lines. All four are served before i am. Should i apologize to the people in front of me for picking their line - thus slowing their service?

I'm hoping it's funny because it's common experience. After all, you only have a 20% chance of picking the fastest lane, so most of the time at least one other line is faster. You feel that despite your best efforts, there is no justice in the Universe - someone got ahead of you that shouldn't have. Everyone feels like that. But i've added another twist. The other four end-of-line people get served first. Is that fair? Am i such an intrinsically unlucky person that i should apologize to the rest of my line for slowing them down?

Of course the four other end of line people really were in front of you. They should be served before you. It's the people behind them that are in any way behind you. So, the answer is "no". The Universe works the way it should up to this point.

Yahoo! Answers are nearly a complete waste of time. It's the blind following the blind. Neither the questioners nor the answerers have much in the way of a clue what they're saying. And i'm not just talking about the ones who can't type. Is the best answer from the novices any good?

And what if you really know what you're talking about? What good does it do to say that the Earth won't be destroyed? The only help you can give seems to be when the student has copied the question verbatim from their homework. (I've asked people to tell me where they're going to school - but no responses yet.) And if you know the answer and bother to give it, aren't you bursting with pride?

Perhaps the right thing to do is to write a Yahoo! Answers bot. This bot will have the answers to a bunch of questions, and when one of them gets posted, it will spit out the canned answer. The trick here is to recognize that the question matches an answer. Step two would be to let the bot scan all the questions and answers, figure out what the best answers were, and feed those as canned answers in the future. It might be fun.

Just three more days to answer my question on Yahoo! Answers. Feel free to copy and paste from this blog entry.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

New car

In 1986, i was working for Harvard University. I took the subway (the T) to work.

One night, i had a dream. I dreamed that instead of taking the T home, i got on a bus instead. There's a bus station right there at Harvard Station. No purpose in mind, just a whim. And instead of going South, i went North up Massachusetts Ave. The bus made many stops and people got on and off as one might expect. At one of these stops, i got off. Again, no purpose in mind, just a whim.

I walked further North down the sidewalk. There were lots of businesses on both sides of the street, but nothing of interest. This didn't bother me.

Then i came across a Chevy dealership. For no apparent reason, i walked into the showroom. A salesman walked up to me and asked me if he could help. I said, "No, i'm just looking around." He dangled some keys and asked me if i wanted to test drive a corvette. "It's free", he said. I said, "Sure", and drove the bright red car around the block and back to the showroom.

I got out, and he said, "I can let you have this car for no money down." I thought "no way", but signed the papers on a whim.

The drive home included a really fun bit on the Jamaica Way. It has all these small hills and turns. All dreams should be this much fun. The trip ends coming down my street. There's a parking spot that's very close to my house, and just after a driveway, so it's a smooth shot to park.

The car comes to a stop. I pulled out the key and looked forward. Right there is my 1978 Dodge Omni. I think, "That's right. I already have a car!".

That's when i woke up. No alarm. It was daylight. My bedroom was on the first floor, facing the front of the house. I got up and looked out the window. My Omni was exactly where it was in the dream. And behind the Omni was an empty parking space. It was a very vivid dream. I had the distinct notion that my brand new corvette had been stolen.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Birthday Gift

I bought a camera to give my wife for her birthday. It's a fairly low end digital camera. That's now an 8 mega pixel camera that can do 30 frames per second 640x480 video with sound. Wait a minute - 640x480 is better than TV (NTSC). Our son plays violin and piano, and the old camera can do video, but without sound. Our camcorder works, and has excellent optics, but is ten years old or so, and therefore is analog. I can't just send a clip to my friends and family by email. With a small, 1 GB SD card, the new camera can record approximately 13 minutes of highest frame rate, highest resolution video. That's more than the couple tunes our son usually plays. I can always get a bigger card. In fact, i own a 16 GB card that is in use in another device.

Well, i picked up a Fuji at the Grocery store. They didn't have the model i was looking for, but i figured i could return it if i didn't like it. Well, it's impossible to know if you're going to like it, because the box doesn't say everything you need to know. It turns out you need to install a driver to get it to work. The CD is supposed to have drivers for Windows or the Mac. But i run Linux, so this is a non-starter. Worse, the CD didn't come in the box. WTF? And, there was a note in the box that has the Fuji tech support phone number, and a hand scrawled note that said that the pictures from this camera were fuzzy. That's right, this camera had already been returned by someone as defective, and was being sold as new, though obviously, it wasn't refurbished or anything - they'd have noticed that there was no CD, and that there was this hand scrawled note. There were also a few pictures of some guy's family on the camera. I couldn't check them out on my larger computer screen because of the driver issue.

So, i brought the camera back, but apparently, the receipt was not in the bag. When i buy tech items, i always leave the receipt in the bag, just for this sort of thing. Apparently, i didn't buy it via a credit card - but rather my debit card (which is a Visa, BTW). They couldn't find the record of my purchase on their computer, and would not accept it without a receipt. I went back home. The receipt turned up on my kitchen table. Why was it there? Oh. I always put my grocery store receipts there. That way, when i'm unpacking groceries, i can check to see that i got everything i wanted, and can check that the prices were what i'd expected. So my habits conflicted - buying tech, and buying at the grocery store.

So, i did some research on line to see if i could find a camera that doesn't need a driver. I just want something that plugs into USB and mounts like a hard disk. No big deal. Nothing. Not a single ad, not a single review, nothing mentioned this critical issue. Not one product talked about compatibility with Linux. By the way, having to have the CD to install a driver is a pain for everyone, not just Linux users. Let's say you're at a friend's house and take some pictures. They say, "hey, could you send me a couple of those?" You say, "can't i just plug it into your computer and give them to you now?" If you have to install a driver, the answer is "no, you can't". Not unless you bring the CD with you. So, i'd avoid Fuji and Kodak at the moment, without regard to what computer and OS you use.

Well, my old camera is a Samsung. It still works. I like it. It just doesn't do sound with it's videos. It can store over 300 pictures on it's quarter gig SD card. So, i looked up Samsung cameras, found a cheap one, and ordered it. It's a Samsung 860. I'm happy to report that it does not require a driver, and just mounts like a disk drive. The camera is nice. It's very small - fits in my shirt pocket. It has two misfeatures. It does not have a look-through view finder like my old one. You must use the view screen. The view screen is hard to see in bright daylight. Also, it doesn't have a case. My old camera has both.

There's a third misfeature. Well, you might call it a misfeature. You see, it's so nice, that i want it for myself. My wife has lost two cameras already. I don't really want to give it to her. Yes, i picked it because it is cheap enough that i won't cry if it's gone, but it is really nice. And i also don't want to give her my old one. So, i'm going to have to buy a second one.

A funny story. I ordered a 1 GB SD card with the camera so i'd be all set when it arrived. The SD card arrived several days before the camera. I checked it out - it works fine. Only, by the time the camera arrived, the SD card was lost. I haven't found it yet. So, while at work, and on lunch break, i went to Best Buy, paid just over twice as much for another 1 GB SD card. But when i got home, and wanted to put it in the camera, i couldn't find it! I checked the likely places at the house - i hadn't been home long, and it didn't show up. I couldn't remember bringing it home, so i went back to the office and checked my desk. Nothing. The next day i was out at Walmart, and bought a third 1 GB SD card. I nearly lost it, but did manage to get it into the camera. Well, a week later, the second SD card showed up. It was in the refrigerator. I had gone out to lunch unexpectedly, and still had my bag lunch at the office. So i put the new SD card in my lunch bag so i wouldn't forget to bring it home. When i got home, i put my lunch into the fridge. Next up was a week a vacation. It didn't appear again until i was cleaning the fridge of old science projects. Maybe i like my chips cold. That's it. That's my story and i'm sticking to it.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Tor: Orphans of Chaos

I just I just finished the book, Orphans of Chaos, written by John Wright, and distributed by Tor books. Tor has this deal where they give out a free book every week. You can sign up for their mailing list. Each week, they send you a link to the new book. They have PDF, html, and moby formats. I read the book on my n800 pocket computer, using FBReader. This application reads html and moby formats. Evince reads PDF. FBReader with moby seems to be the best. The moby format comes from the Palm pilot. It's all one file, and supports styled text and embedded images.

So is't just giving these books out from the goodness of their hearts. This book is no exception. The idea seems to be to hook you on the book, the author, or both. In the case of Orphans of Chaos, it ends with End of Part OneTo Be Continued in Part Two, FUGITIVES of Chaos, From John C. Wright, Available now in hardcover!.

Without any real spoilers, here are some notes. If you start reading this, and it seeems boring, note that the book starts pretty slow. It starts to pick up speed at around 20%. I don't have page numbers to give you, due to the electronic nature of the books. At the 50% mark, it's moving pretty fast. And, it ends with the above cliff hanger.

I liked the author's style, once he got going. It should be a good series.

One of the other books in my queue from Tor is Old Man's War. I have seen this book at Borders.

I also finished Interplanetary Hunter by Arthur K. Barnes. This is a light and fun little Scifi book, seemingly wriitten in the 1950's. At least, if it was written back then, it could be considered hard science fiction. But it doesn't take itself too seriously, so any science errors can be easily forgiven. For example, we know a bit more about Venus since then. I found it highly enjoyable. And, it's a great book all on it's own.

Thursday, July 03, 2008


In the masthead of this blog, there is a dictionary definition of delusional. And, i claim not to be there. At least not yet. Predelusional, whereever it it headed, is not delusional. Being delusional is having a false persistent belief or opinion not substantiated by sensory or objective evidence. This sounds like something else, though. It sounds like faith. Faith is belief in something without proof or evidence. Being delusional is having faith. Having faith is being delusional. If being predelusional is not delusional, then being predelusional is being faithless. There's something to be proud of.

"We must have faith", said Spock. He could have said, "We must have delusions." If they're really the same, then delusions can't be bad while faith is a good thing. Does it matter what your faith is in? Does it matter what your delusions are? It shouldn't.

OK, so let's say you are going to start a big project. If you don't think you'll finish the project, it is foolish to start it. What if you don't know? Then what do you do? You have faith that you'll finish it. Lie to yourself, if needed. Create the delusion. Delusions are good.

Perhaps life is a journey, and though i'm not delusaional, i expect to get there eventually. The road to salvation is narrow, as the razor's edge.