Tuesday, May 31, 2005


Red registration sticker: 2005 This year’s car registration: done. And it’s a lot easier than renewing a UK car tax disc used to be. No trip to the Post Office with paperwork in hand.

There’s no MOT test here, but you do need proof of insurance and, for older cars, of a recent smog check. But nowadays, these are supplied electronically to DMV by insurers and smog check stations, which means you can renew by mail, phone, or online with no need to queue at the DMV office.

Although wouldn’t you know it: now that I’ve left the UK, the DVLA’s made renewing car tax online equally easy.

A few more wide-eyed-foreigner observations:

  • Insurers and state DMVs use the VIN to identify the car, not the registration number as the UK does. This makes sense: the VIN is supposedly unique, while each state has its own numbering scheme for license plates.
  • However, California license plates carry more than just the number: the front plate also carries stickers showing the month and year the registration expires. On renewal, you get a sticker for the next year; I assume the month sticker is issued on first registration.
  • The US is far stricter on carrying documentation than the UK: no option here to produce your drivers licence at a police station, you have to have it with you. And more: you also need to be able to show proof of registration and of insurance. Look in the glovebox of most American cars, and you’ll find these documents.
And one fairly shocking statistic: in 1994, only 58% of American motorists used seat belts. That’s improved a lot in the following ten years, to 2004’s figure of 80%, but: 1 in 5 still don’t buckle up?

California, which introduced a primary seat belt law — which allows a driver to be ticketed simply for being unbelted — in 1993, does better, with a 90% usage rate. I haven’t been able to find statistics for the entire UK, but this seems fairly consistent with Northern Ireland’s measured 89% overall seat belt usage rate.

Clunk click.

Sparkling Pool

Arbors Apartments swimming pool. Finally: the swimming pool in the courtyard below our apartment — which management likes to refer to as a “sparkling pool” — is open.

It’s unheated, so it wasn’t open in winter. And then this spring it was resurfaced, which went something like this: drain the pool and jackhammer out the old concrete liner. Leave it for six weeks to collect leaves and standing water while residents mutter to themselves about incompetent contractors and rent reductions. And then, sometime last week while we were house-sitting in Danville: spray in a new liner, refill the pool, let it settle, and take down the “pool closed” signs.

But hey; it’s open. And although the water’s still pretty cold, it’s wonderful to be able to pop down for an evening swim, as the shadows lengthen and the swallows stunt overhead.

(Update: after tonight’s swim I did a quick walk around the pool, measuring width and length in strides. About 5 yards by 12 yards. Which makes the diagonal a neat root-sum-of-squares 13 yards; my habit of swimming diagonally for more distance between turns is not really worth the effort.)

Sunday, May 29, 2005


Jeneane Sessum on the response to Scoble’s news aggregator wishlist:

What we see here is a micromarket coup for aggregator/product folks — and an example for other companies. Want to know what you should do next? Find a blogger with a wide audience of users and ask him or her to ask us.

Blogs can be a one-stop shop for organizations to find out what should be in their next release.
I’m not so sure: are a handful of Scoble commenters really representative of the entire aggregator marketplace? I doubt it.

If I’ve learnt anything in my 14 years of Internet time, it’s that the lurkers always far, far outweigh the posters: this has been true on mailing lists, true on Usenet, true on web forums, and I’m sure it’s true on blogs too. As I write this, there are 25 comments on Scoble’s post; but Scoble’s readership is far, far higher than that.

So, trusting blog comments to set “what should be in your next release”? Risky. As a focus group, it’s too self-selecting; too focussed on the pet wishlists of a few power users. Far better, I think, to use blogging as a public brainstorming exercise: to identify what you could do next.

And arguably, the best way to satisfy your power-users’ wishes is to build in powerful enough scripting for them to build their own solutions: there’s whole communities surrounding GreaseMonkey scripting in Firefox and AppleScript scripting in iTunes.

(Update: a similar response, to a different Scoble post, on the furrygoat experience. “Design by committee never works when it comes to building software. In fact, it leads to only one thing: feature creep.”)

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Why do all the TV shows end in May?

Continuing my ongoing fascination, and dismay, at American TV: there’s something odd happening at the moment. American TV series shoot in long seasons — 13 or more episodes — compared to the typical 6 episodes of a British TV series. And all the series seem to be ending right now, in big hyped-up finales. Why?

“It’s the way it’s always been”, says Melinda, which doesn’t help me much.

Well, serendipity to the rescue. A recent blog post inspired me to check out The Wisdom of Crowds from the library. And in its chapter on cooperation, it discusses exactly the phenomenon I’m seeing: May is a sweeps month.

What are sweeps, and why do they affect TV so much? To understand this it’s necessary to understand a little of how American broadcast TV works, particularly the distinction between networks and affiliates.

NetworksABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, etc — produce TV: either in-house or by contracting external production companies.

Affiliates — local TV stations, for us including KGO (ABC, San Francisco), KPIX (CBS, San Francisco), KTVU (Fox, Oakland), and KCRA (NBC, Sacramento) — broadcast network TV to their local areas, and are contracted exclusively to their parent networks.

TV is, of course, driven by advertising. Networks sell national advertising. But the US is huge and so a great deal of advertising is local, sold by individual affiliates. Advertising feeds on ratings and demographics: it’s important for an advertiser to know not only how many viewers an advert is going to reach, but what type of viewer.

Nielsen Media Research provides ratings and demographic information for both national and local markets. Nationally, a system of 5,000 “people meters” built into the TVs of selected households capture viewing habits. However, there are too few such meters to produce accurate local statistics. So, four times a year Nielsen mails paper viewing diaries to a selection of households nationwide; the results of these diaries produce detailed local statistics. The process is known as “sweeps”. Nielsen provides more information on measurement processes in their article What TV Ratings Really Mean.

Sweeps are paid for by the local affiliates, and are used by them to set advertising rates for the following season. This means that it’s vitally important for a network, and its local affiliates, to do well in sweeps ratings.

What Nielsen doesn’t say — and The Wisdom of Crowds does — is that the sweeps system is fundamentally flawed. It’s inherently self-selecting, in that it only measures households who chose to return the diaries. And unlike the people-meter system, it’s not real-time: households tend to fill in their diaries after-the-fact, which means that sweeps ratings tend to favour large networks and memorable shows.

And this is why network TV eats itself in May: all the networks are desparately scrambling for sweeps ratings. Everything’s polished to high gloss; season finales are hyped-up big bangs; newly-acquired movies are premiered; and special programming abounds.

The Wisdom of Crowds points out that this is bad for everyone but the affiliates: networks waste programming by scheduling competitively, advertisers get rates that don’t reflect the reality of non-sweeps months, and viewers suffer a feast-and-famine cycle: too much new TV to watch in sweeps months, endless reruns in-between. But the sweeps system is entrenched; switching to a more accurate system of nationwide local people metering would cost too much for any one participant to undertake.

Nielsen does conduct electronic measurements in 56 local markets, but with limited set-tuning information which lacks the all-important demographic information the people meters collect. Nielsen’s attempts to introduce local people meters into the major markets are controversial and unpopular with — surprise! — the major networks, who stand to lose ratings if minor networks and independents are more accurately measured.

Don’t Count Us Out, an allegedly independent grassroots campaign, claims that local people meters undercount African American and Hispanic viewers, citing reduced viewing figures on channels previously measured as popular. Nielsen counters that the decline reflects more accurate measurement: African American and Hispanic viewers are watching less broadcast TV and more cable TV.

Business Week provides a good summary of the case. It also discusses News Corporation’s support of Don’t Count Us Out: “financially, organisationally, and morally”, say News Corp. More than just that, according to Nielsen: Don’t Count Us Out was created by News Corporation.

So, why do all the shows end in May? Melinda was right: it is just the way it’s always been. And, apparently, the way the big networks would like it to stay.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Just for the record, again

Hollywood, Interrupted is a bad, bad book.

At first glance, it’s a trash piece about Hollywood excess: an embarrassing, but still deliciously fluffy, read. But no: it’s really a prolonged right-wing rant about how Hollywood liberals are corrupting both themselves and us.

And it’s written in the standard tone of such rants: polemical, condescending towards the reader, and packed with “you know I’m right” rhetoric. Take this one as an example:

“Hollywood thinks it’s cute to glamorize illegitimacy. Hollywood doesn’t get it,” Vice President Dan Quayle railed in 1992. “It doesn’t help matters when prime time TV has Murphy Brown, a character who supposedly symbolizes today’s intelligent, highly paid professional woman, mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another lifestyle choice.” […]

Anyone with a smidgen of common sense knows that Quayle was, in essence, right.
So, if you disagree, you’re an idiot, right? Prejudicial language at its best.

Five pages later, this gem, in response to Angelina Jolie’s decision to raise her adopted child alone:

Why is there no concern whatsoever on placing a full-time male role model permanently in his life? Didn’t Anthony Perkin’s star turn as Norman Bates lay out the inevitable ending of that horror story line?

So their model for the “inevitable” consequences is Psycho — a work of fiction? Two inductive fallacies for the price of one: a hasty generalisation from an unrepresentative sample.

Regardless of the politics: this reasoning is so bad, and so gratuitously lazy, that it’s insulting. Do people really believe this crap?

Back to the library you go. And a mental note made. An Ann Coulter blurb on the back cover: a good marker of poor rhetoric within.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

All gone brown

Very quietly, over the last two weeks, the hills have turned from green to brown.

From now on, hiking locally is going to be a hot, sweaty business; time to start investigating wooded and waterside hikes, and to start hiking closer to the Bay.

Monday, May 23, 2005


An old Americanism, but one which just came up: what in the UK is known as “jelly” here is “Jell-O” — or “gelatin desert”, as I’m sure Kraft would rather I use as a generic term. Some chance.

It’s not quite the same, though: here, Jell-O comes in powdered form, in a packet inside the distinctive box. Easier to mix than the UK’s squares of concentrated wobbly gelatin, but somehow less fun. Part of the jelly-making process was always ripping the squares apart and, if you were lucky (or naughty) keeping a piece to eat. Chew it, or let it dissolve in your mouth? I never had the patience.

I rather like the idea of the Margarita flavour, though…

Just for the record

Episode Two still sucks.

The dialogue is still terrible: dreadful clunking lines that suck energy out of the scenes. The Japanese-accent-equals-bad-guys stereotyping is still shocking. The music still stands in for acting and storytelling: “look, Anakin’s turning to the dark side”; “look, Palpatine is the Emperor”. And the digital effects have not aged well: the all-CGI characters stick out like sore thumbs, with their digital shimmer, not-quite-right movements, and slightly-off interactions with real-world objects.

It’s odd that, although Lucas claims to have waited 25 years for technology to mature, his new films are dating much faster than his old ones. The original Star Wars still works well today because so much of it is resolutely low-tech; the new movies are aging fast because they’re so high-tech.

And of course, the original movies have Harrison Ford’s Han Solo character to anchor them: the cynical rogue who counterbalances the Force mysticism. “Hokey religions and ancient weapons”, indeed. It’s a viewpoint entirely missing from the new movies, whose earnestness kills any sense of fun.

As usual, it was “edited to fit the time allotted” in Fox’s premiere showing, although less objectionably than usual. As far as I could tell, most of the cuts were to the cringeworthy Anakin/Padme love scenes. But there were some terrible cuts to advert breaks, including one which flowed almost seamlessly from the movie into the Star Wars tie-in M&Ms ad. Bad, bad, bad TV.

I assume Fox showed it to stoke enthusiasm for Episode Three — which is, of course, distributed by 20th Century Fox, another News Corp company — but for me, this tactic may have backfired a bit…

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Kung Fu Hustle

A bit of a relief after Hitchhikers: a genuinely silly movie. Although don’t believe the trailers: this is not as cartoonish as they suggest. At heart, Kung Fu Hustle is a traditional redemption story.

There’s a shaky start: an exceptionally violent confrontation between two street gangs, which made me wonder if this was going to be 90 minutes of Tarantino-esque blood and severed limbs. It’s not: although a few too many of the following 90 minutes are kung fu, and a few too many jokes fall flat to western eyes (including some very cheap homophobic stereotyping), there’s a lot to enjoy.

It borrows, often unashamedly, from other movies: a line is lifted verbatim from Spider-Man, a scene from The Shining; the street scenes owe a lot to Gangs of New York; and the over-the-top fighting owes a lot to the Matrix trilogy. (The last is not entirely surprising: the same choreographer worked on both.) But it has enough charm to get away with these casual thefts.

And occasionally it’s exceptionally imaginative. Gangs of black-suited axe men dance a soft-shoe shuffle under the opening credits. And in the most spectacular fight, three warriors fight a supernatural stringed instrument, manned by two mysterious musicians, which launches blades and demons at them.

And gradually, for a movie which needs little excuse for a rumble, a plot emerges; people are not who they at first seem, past actions are redeemed, and loss need not be final.

3/5: far from perfect, but an entertaining ride.

Annoying cliché of the week

“Righteous tan.”

Sunday, May 15, 2005

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

It’s been a long enough wait for the Hitchhiker’s movie: was it worth it? Put bluntly: no, not really.

It’s not that it’s a terrible movie; the effects are nice, Martin Freeman’s not a bad Arthur Dent, Mos Def is a surprisingly effective Ford Prefect; it’s just that it’s nowhere as good as it could have been.

The long, and savage, review at Planet Magrathea pretty much nails how I felt about it. I saw four, main problems:

1. It steps on the jokes. Part of what made Douglas Adams so funny was that his jokes were sustained flights of whimsy; the movie throws away, or (worse) truncates many of these.

The first ten minutes squanders jokes like crazy. “I had to go to the basement” isn’t funny by itself; it becomes funny when absurdity upon absurdity is built on it: “the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘beware of the leopard’.”

Ford bribing the workmen with beer to save Arthur’s house isn’t funny; Ford convincing the foreman to lie in front of the bulldozers in Arthur’s place is.

Ford’s advice to the barman stands: “Should I put a paper bag over my head, or something?” / “If you like.” / “Will it help?” / “Not really, no.” But it’s weakened by the loss of the banter that precedes it: “Arsenal without a chance, then?” / “No, it’s just that the world’s about to end.”

2. It steps on the characters. Marvin was the best-loved character in the original radio series; here he’s wasted, with many of his best lines cut. Gone is all the byplay between Arthur, the wide-eyed space tourist, and Marvin, the weary depressive: “I’ve seen it, it’s rubbish”, “can’t stand oceans”. We’re never given a chance to care about him.

Ford’s underdeveloped; once we get to the Heart of Gold, his role in the film is basically done.

And Zaphod’s been turned from a raving egotist with a knack for self-preservation to a nasty raving egotist. His self-interest should be funny, but here it’s cut with a meanness which makes him a deeply unlikable character.

3. The plot’s muddled. And God knows what anyone not familiar with it would make of it. What on earth is happening here? We start with a reasonable idea. Zaphod’s in search of the Ultimate Question, because being President of the Universe isn’t fame enough for him: find the Question and they’ll remember you forever.

But then spanner after spanner are thrown in: Zaphod’s also being pursued by the Vogon fleet; a visit to Humma Kavala results in a second, and irrelevant, “find-the-item” quest; we waste time on an entirely undramatic rescue on Vogsphere; and then there’s the whole will-she-won’t-she question of Arthur and Trillian. Ah.

4. Ultimately, the plot becomes a stereotypical Hollywood love story. Boy meets girl; boy loses girl to dashing alien; boy regains girl.

Well, crap. Arthur’s not supposed to be a romantic hero. Trillian’s supposed to be the “very nice girl who he completely fails to get off with”, not the love of his life as the movie would have it. Arthur’s a permanently bemused Englishman in a tweed dressing-gown; his transformation into white knight at the end of the movie is unlikely and just plain wrong.

Overall, it all feels a little like Men In Black, but without the snappy jokes and the charm. The main characters, and the dialogue, are never given room to breathe; we’re always rushing on to the next scene, the next celebrity cameo. There’s no coherent story; no particularly satisfying resolution.

It’s all a little disappointing: this is probably the only, and so the best, Hitchhiker’s movie we’ll get. And it left me feeling that with a little more care, a little less pace, and a little more respect of the original scripts, it could have been so much better than it was.

1½/5. See it if you simply have to, but don’t expect much.

Lafayette Reservoir

Cancelled last week, today’s the day: out to Lafayette Reservoir with the East Bay Casual Hiking group, to hike the Rim Trail.

Lafayette’s one of the few places where you can hike EBMUD land without a permit. And it’s extremely popular: at 10am, the parking lot was already almost full. Most people come to do the paved Lakeside Trail, which is short and flat; the Rim Trail is a lot hiller and a lot less crowded.

Parking here is expensive: $1/hour on meters, with a 2 hour maximum, and $6 all day. And I suspect that two hour maximum is no arbitrary choice: unless you’re really pushing it, it takes a shade over two hours to hike the rim.

I escaped the parking fees by parking on Mount Diablo Boulevard, down towards downtown Lafayette, and walking the 10 minutes to the entrance. Roadside parking is a mixture of 2 hour and 4 hour zones, but is unrestricted on Sundays. A number of hikers in our group parked on residential streets around Village Center, south of Mt. Diablo Boulevard.

As for the trail itself, bahiker.com has it right: it’s a rollercoaster, with never a flat moment. We took it counter-clockwise, which is probably the best way to go: only one really steep climb, a few steep descents after passing the Rheem reservoir, and it finishes with a gradual slope down to the lakeside.

The Rim Trail is relatively short — a bit under 5 miles — but it’s hard work. Not many of the trails are signposted, but for the most part it’s easy to follow: forks left and down will take you down to the lakeside, forks right and up keep you on the rim.

I would do this one again; maybe combining it with a second cool-down loop around the Lakeside Trail.

Categories: Hiking

Saturday, May 14, 2005

On podcasting and patience

CNet’s Charles Cooper on the podcasting fad:

The blunt truth is that much of the current podcasting fare simply is lame, unless you’re into hearing narcissistic ramblings and wonder-of-me routines that go on forever; unless you’re fond of on-air phlegm-clearing and bad FM-radio-voice impersonations; unless you’re a fan of loudmouth no-nothings spouting off on their latest pet peeve.
Text blogging is, of course, not without it’s share of narcissism; but somehow, audio seems a lot more self-indulgent.

I’m reminded of this lovely turn of phrase in Maciej Cegłowski’s rant, Dabblers and Blowhards:

You can still hear him snorfling cashew nuts and talking at length about what it means to be a blogger.

But for me, the nail in podcasting’s coffin is this: with audio, I’m forced to consume at your pace, not my pace. And frankly, I don’t have the patience. I can read a two-page article in a few minutes; but if I have to listen to you reading it, I’m looking at ten or fifteen minutes. I can skim and skip in text. I can’t skim audio, and I can’t skip over audio easily because unlike text, I can’t see the structure of the piece.

So, unless it’s something which has been recommended as particularly good (for example, Malcolm Gladwell’s SXSW keynote), I won’t bother listening to podcasts. Life’s too short.

The same goes for video blogging. There’s lots of interesting stuff happening over at Channel 9, Microsoft’s video blog project; but I don’t have the patience to sit through 15 minutes of interview for a few interesting titbits.

There’s an easy solution to all of this: provide a text transcript alongside the multimedia content. That way, I can read at my pace; I can skim; I can decide whether I want to listen or watch. And there’s two further benefits: the content becomes visible to search engines; and it becomes easily excerptable for anyone who wants to discuss it.

Allergy season is back

I’d had a few sniffles a month or so ago, but something grassy has obviously just come into flower; and with a vengeance. Sniffling, sneezing, itchy eyes, the lot.

For future reference: Piriton (UK) = chlorpheniramine maleate 4mg = Chlor-Trimeton (US). And if you hit a big enough store, it’s also the Longs generic 4-hour allergy tablets: a third cheaper than the name-brand equivalent, and they also come in a 100-tablet package which works out cheaper still.

Chlorpheniramine’s an old-fashioned antihistamine, but it’s cheap and it works well for me; it would seem that along with the hayfever, I also inherited a good resistance to chlorphen’s drowsiness side-effect.

But it’s not easy to find over here: the allergy-medicine market seems to be dominated by the 24-hour products (Allegra, Claritin etc). Ive never quite seen the point in these. I’m allergic to some pollens and only suffer allergy symptoms when I’m exposed to them — I’m fine indoors and in the car — so why do I need 24-hour relief? I’d rather pop a pill for quick relief when the symptoms strike; my suspicion is that the manufacturers of the 24-hour products would rather you pop one a day right through the summer whether you need it or not.

Maybe it’s just me, but when someone tells me “it’s convenient” my reaction is usually “for who?”

Monday, May 09, 2005

Las Trampas Ridge Adventures

It rained most of the day yesterday, cancelling the planned hike at Lafayette Reservoir; it rained again this morning; but I’m tired of being holed up at home. I was heading down to Danville anyway, so I decided to brave the rain and fit in a hike at Las Trampas.

I went for a circular hike on Las Trampas Ridge, based on one from East Bay Trails. And it turned out to be quite an adventure.

From the staging area, I head uphill on the Chamise Trail. And here’s where I start thinking “uh-oh”. It’s muddy and extremely slippery, making every step a tricky operation. But I can see woods ahead: it’ll get better, right? It does. I turn right onto the Mahogany Trail, diverging from the book. It’s very pretty: the woods are green, and the trail swings down to cross the creek on a wooden bridge.

And then I decide to extend the hike further by turning left again onto the Trapline Trail. It rapidly gets steep and muddy. I stop to watch a large California newt crossing the trail: groggy and slow-moving after the rain and cold, and rather ungainly. On the top, it’s warty and lizardy brown, but occasionally I get a flash of its bright yellow belly.

The Trapline Trail breaks out into open ground, crossing a meadow of wildflowers. The second “uh-oh” moment: the trail gets very indistinct in places and I find myself having to plough forward and hope it’ll reappear. And then it heads uphill. Steeply uphill. There’s been a lot of water running down the trail: “uh-oh”. I'm walking in a deep muddy rut carved out of the hillside: tough sweaty going, uneven and overgrown. And it keeps going, up and up and up. Probably the hardest, definitely the worst trail I’ve been on. Getting to the top, the junction with Las Trampas Ridge Trail, feels like quite an accomplishment; also quite a relief.

After Trapline, Las Trampas Ridge is easy going. After the junction with Chamise Trail it gets steeper and muddier. Uh-oh: what are those big tracks on the trail? Some of them look awfully fresh…

Yep. Mountain lion tracks. I’m not inclined to turn back, but I do mentally run through the mountain lion checklist: be noisy, be big, don’t crouch, don’t run. Fight back. Yikes. I start treading a lot more heavily, and I start talking out loud rather than thinking to myself.

And then it happens. Noises in the brush fifty yards to the right. A few brief and incomplete glimpses. A large orange-brown shape, the size of a large dog, but moving like no dog does. Running fast, in the opposite direction to me. And then it’s gone.

I have just seen my first wild mountain lion.

It’s exciting, but also terrifying: this is a large, powerful predator and it is — or was — close by. What to do? I decide the best thing is to continue on the trail, putting more distance between us. I hustle a little faster, trying not to slip and fall in the mud. And I keep making noise: I talk to myself, I sing a nervous nonsense song (“you’re a mountain lion / I’m not scared of you / leave me be, I’ll leave you be”), I whistle Beatles tunes. And I feel deeply uneasy until the trail breaks out into open grassland.

From the ridge, I drop down into the valley on the Bollinger Canyon Trail. Uh-oh. It’s getting colder by the minute; black clouds are scudding over Rocky Ridge towards me; it’s going to chuck it down.

And it does. I take shelter under a scrub oak and wait it out. Thunder; I tell myself that if lightning’s going to strike, it’ll strike on the ridge and not here. (I later read that “there is a far greater risk of being struck by lightning than of being attacked by a mountain lion”. I’m not sure if this is reassuring or not.)

The rain gets heavier, louder… whiter? Hail. Hailstones the size of light gravel; light enough not to hurt, heavy enough to bounce, big enough to be unpleasantly chilly and wet if they find their way down your collar.

Ten minutes later, it’s over as suddenly as it began. The sky clears; sunlight lights up the valley; it warms up. The fresh rain smells good.

I trek out of the valley on the Bollinger Canyon Trail, which rapidly turns into a muddy cow-track. I take back everything I said about California mud: Las Trampas clay matches anything Essex has to offer. This mud is heavy and sticky, clinging to my boots in huge clods. It’s like wading through treacle.

Back to the car, wet and muddy but exhilarated. Glad I brought a change of clothes. I've been out two and a half hours and walked three and a half miles, according to the map: unbelievable. It felt like twice that.

Would I do it again? Well… I won’t worry too much about mountain lions. But I wouldn’t hike the Trapline Trail again: too rough. And I wouldn’t do any of it again in conditions this muddy. It takes too much of your attention off your surroundings and onto placing your feet and maintaining your balance. And what’s the fun in that?

Categories: Hiking

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Shrek 2 Under The Stars

Out tonight to Walnut Creek’s outdoor showing of Shrek 2 — on a huge inflatable screen on one of the baseball fields at Heather Farm Park.

This was a lot of fun: a good audience and a film which still has a few new jokes left on the second viewing. (IMDB has a list of trivia and in-jokes, to which I can add one: at one point, people run in panic from a Farbucks… to another Farbucks just across the street.)

Notes for next time:
  • bring something more substantial to sit on than a plastic bag
  • bring more than one blanket, it gets cold after dark
  • when they say “begins at dusk” they really mean “begins about half an hour after sunset”.
They handed out a leaflet asking for suggestions for “family movies you would like to see in future”. The obvious suggestions are all recent, particularly Finding Nemo and the rest of the Pixar canon; but it’d be fun to see some older classics on the big screen too:

  • Star Wars
  • Back To The Future
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • E.T.
  • The Princess Bride
And why just family movies? How about a few more adult suggestions: Terminator or Alien under the stars; Annie Hall under the stars; Young Frankenstein under the stars?

Any more ideas? I’ll send ’em a letter.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Microsoft reverses

An update to my post of last month: Microsoft reverses its position on anti-discrimination legislation. Robert Scoble reports the news, and again posts Steve Ballmer’s memo to employees:

Microsoft will continue to join other leading companies in supporting federal legislation that would prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation — adding sexual orientation to the existing law that already covers race, sex, national origin, religion, age and disability. Given the importance of diversity to our business, it is appropriate for the company to endorse legislation that prohibits employment discrimination on all of these grounds. Obviously, the Washington State legislative session has concluded for this year, but if legislation similar to HB 1515 is introduced in future sessions, we will support it.
A shame that it’s too late to save the bill this time around, but overall it’s good news and a belated reaffirmation that yes, all Microsoft’s employees are valued…

Thursday, May 05, 2005

I ate 'em so you don't have to

Hostess Snack Cakes: cheap wrapped mini-cakes. Ubiquitous in the US, but pretty much unknown in the UK, apart from their iconic names (HoHo, DingDong, Twinkie).

Well, there’s a Wonder / Hostess Bakery Thrift Shop just across the way from Fry’s in Concord, so: I gave them a go.

Here’s the verdict: they're all pretty much the same ingredients — sponge cake, chocolate coating, vanilla cream goo — rearranged into different shapes. They’re all extremely sugary: they come in packs of two, but you don’t usually feel like eating the second one. And they're all not really worth the price, even at the thrift bakery’s bargain 59¢. If it’s empty calories you’re after, a candy bar is better.

Little chocolate-covered rolls. Not bad.
Actually quite good. Think teacake, but without the biscuity base.
Cup Cakes
Quite good. They’d probably be better without the white goo lurking within.
Suzy Q’s
Awful. A cake and white goo sandwich, with no chocolate covering; tastes mostly of sugar.
Good. Which is odd, because they’re essentially Suzy Q’s with a chocolate covering.
TwinkiesAnd finally, the big one: Twinkies. Subject of mythical legal defences and oddball scientific experiments. Yellow cake, with a vanilla goo filling. “75 Years of Fun!”, says the wrapper; maybe, but some of those years were pretty grim.

But — and I hate to admit this — they’re actually pretty good. Junky, but good.

I’ve yet to try Mini Muffins and Fruit Pies, both of which seemed a bit too generic to be worth investigating, and Donettes, which are mini donuts. Melinda says they’re good; but there are better donuts to be had elsewhere first…

Monday, May 02, 2005

Is it nerdy…

…to have memorised not only the URL of your local public library but also your 14-digit library card number?

Thought so.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Crufty URLs and link auto-detection

There’s been plenty of discussion in the past on cruft in URLs: the non-human-readable gibberish which turns URLS which should be single into long and unreadable monstrosities. This piece at Brainstorms & Raves is as good a place as any to start.

However, there’s one important use case of URLs that these discussions don’t seem to touch on much: auto-detection of links in plain text. This happens more often than you might realise. Mail programs often look for links in messages and turn them into active links as a convenience. Web forums often do this too, so users can post links without needing to know HTML or a forum-specific markup language. So too do some weblog comment systems.

URL detection is often fairly simplistic. A regular expression is matched against each line of the text, looking for "http://" or maybe "://" or even, to catch the case where users enter only the address and not the protocol, just "www.". And then the match is extended forward and back to the nearest whitespace or punctuation. Why punctuation as well as whitespace? Because people often use URLs as they would words: “if you go to www.yahoo.com, you’ll find…”.

So, make life easy for plain-texters. Keep URLs short, so they don’t break across multiple lines: the penalty for this is often that the first fragment of the URL gets linked, but the second fragment doesn’t. And keep punctuation characters — apart from the ubiquitous question-mark — out of URLs. If you don’t, you risk your URLs getting truncated to the first punctuation mark.

Two case studies, one old and one brand new:

www.moneysavingexpert.com vs www.fool.co.uk:

Moneysavingexpert’s article URLs end in a comma. (Here’s a recent example). When links to articles are posted to Motley Fool’s text-based discussion boards, truncation strikes: the trailing comma is treated as punctuation, not part of the link, and the truncated link leads to a “not found” error.

This led to the odd situation of Motley Fool posters — even the proprietor of Moneysavingexpert himself — carefully warning readers to copy rather than click the link:

I’ve done a full financial assessment of the 60 main credit card reward schemes on the market. If you want to read it then cut and paste the following link http://www.moneysavingexpert.com/cgi-bin/viewnews.cgi?newsid1048180772,56733, (NOTE: DON’T CLICK ON LINK — for some reason it doesn’t pick up the last comma that’s important, cut and paste it or go to www.moneysavingexpert.com and click the top guide.)

(Martin Lewis in http://boards.fool.co.uk/Message.asp?mid=7812817)
This was eventually fixed at the Moneysavingexpert end: their system still generates URLs with trailing commas, but now redirects URLs missing the trailing comma to the correct pages:

I’ve had a lot of emails from people who have posted links to moneysavingexpert.com on here which don’t work. The key is links to articles on the site all end with a comma that the fool system (as well as other boards and e-mail softwares) misses out — so it just links to an error page.

We’ve tried a fix and now the links should work even if the comma isn’t hyperlinked.

(Martin Lewis in http://boards.fool.co.uk/Message.asp?mid=8990407)
MSN Spaces vs Manila comments

MSN Spaces, Microsoft’s new community/blogging tool, generates permanent links for articles which include an exclamation mark in the middle of the URL. This doesn’t play well with, for example, Manila’s comment system, which auto-links URLs. See for example this comment on Robert Scoble’s weblog:

Robert, I applaud your stance. My comment on Ballmer’s memo is over on my blog at http://spaces.msn.com/members/gcoupe/Blog/cns!1pfnKMM_BORf8-PhonbrwGoA!542.entry

(Geoff Coupe on http://scoblecomments.scripting.com/comments?u=1011&p=9919)
The truncated link leads to the root of the poster’s blog, not to the post in question; a misdirected link which is gradually going further and further out of date.

This is a surprisingly poor choice of URL construction on the part of MSN Spaces: not only are the permanent link URLs packed with crufty gibberish, but they also invite breakage when they’re used in plain-text contexts.

The agony of choice

I hit a note of slight disillusion with US supermarkets a while ago.

One of the problems is the excess of choices. The American way: if choice is good, lots of choice must be better. Well, sometimes it just frazzles my brain. Broader choices don’t make choosing any easier; they make it harder.

Proliferation of choice is particularly endemic in convenience food. Umpteen different packages of flavoured instant couscous, but if you want to make it yourself you’re out of luck: they don’t carry any plain couscous.

Want chocolate cake frosting? Here’s your choices in the Betty Crocker range alone:

Betty Crocker frosting.
  • Milk Chocolate
  • Dark Chocolate
Simple enough. But then there’s a puzzler:

  • Chocolate
Where in the flavour spectrum does this fit? My guess, given American tastes, is that it's somewhere towards the sweet end. There’s a couple of wild cards:

  • Sour Cream Chocolate
  • Triple Chocolate Fudge & Chip
Actually that last one sounds pretty damn good. But we’re five chocolates in and and we haven’t even got to the chocolate-plus-something-else flavours:

  • Chocolate Almond
  • Mint Chocolate Chip
  • Vanilla Chocolate Chip
Ah, vanilla. What could be more vanilla than vanilla? In the world of ice cream, plenty. Take a look at Dreyers’ range:

Dreyers Vanilla and French Vanilla ice cream.
  • Vanilla
  • French Vanilla
The general rule: wherever there’s vanilla, there’s also French vanilla. What’s the difference? I don't know. The wild card:

  • Vanilla Bean
Note however that the French Vanilla flavour also contains vanilla beans… And finally, if you really, really like vanilla, this is the flavour for you:

  • Double Vanilla
How on earth does anyone make decisions in the supermarket?

Maybe the couple we saw yesterday in Safeway, deliberating over the cake mixes for over ten minutes, were having trouble deciding which brownie mix to buy? I sympathise. The best way out of the swamp: buy whichever one’s on sale for a dollar this week.