Monday, October 24, 2005

One Year In

The first anniversary of this blog went by quietly and unnoted last month; but today's a much more significant anniversary. I entered the US, becoming a permanently resident alien, on the 25th November 2004.


Since then, I have:
…and, basically, had a blast. Making the jump was one of the best things I ever did: I love this place.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Lafayette Reservoir, redux

The lower, paved trail at Lafayette Reservoir: pretty easy going.

Map of Lafayette Reservoir, showing paved trail.

It’s not quite as flat as I suggested last time—it doesn’t follow the edge of the lake, so it does have some gentle ups and downs—but it’s easy and short. Around 2½ miles, and we hiked it in under an hour. A more strenous hike would combine it with one or more segments of the Rim Trail.

Categories: Hiking

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Mount Diablo: Wall Point

Another East Bay Casual Hiking trip today: this one to the trails starting at the Macedo Ranch trailhead, on the south-west flank of Mount Diablo.

We climb from the trailhead up onto Wall Point, a ridge which runs roughly northwest-to-south-east. Although the description for this hike describes it as “Remington plus,” referring to last week's intense uphill climb, it’s actually easier going. The climb is longer, but less steep and less sustained: there are occasional intervals where the trail flattens out and we get the chance for a breather.

It’s worth it when we’re up: the views open out over Alamo and down the valley to Danville and San Ramon. We can see the ridge above Remington Loop where we hiked last week; and behind us, the bulk of the mountain.

Trail map showing Macedo Ranch and Wall Point

A connector trail, marked on the official trail map as "Secret Trail" but signposted on the ground simply as a connector, links Wall Point Road with Barbeque Terrace Road. (The overview map above, from the State Park brochure, the only online map I’ve found for Mount Diablo, doesn’t show the connector.)

Barbeque Terrace Road runs slightly downhill along the side of the ridge before joining Dusty Road--not too dusty today--and rejoining Wall Point Road for the return to the trailhead.

Six miles, about two and a half hours, and the “moderate” rating is about right; a good hike. Take exact change for the trailhead parking lot, which runs on the honor system but which is patrolled by the ranger station: $3.

Categories: Hiking

Monday, October 10, 2005

Going native

In case the subtle shift in the last few posts went unnoticed: I'm moving to American spelling and punctuation in my posts here. This is less an abandoning of my British roots, more a pragmatic convenience. It's going to be difficult to constantly shift between writing American at work and British at home.

And along similar lines, I really am going to have to give up my UK keyboard. The differences between UK and US keyboard layouts are small, but significant; particularly when writing code.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Remington Loop

Another East Bay Casual Hiking hike, and Melinda’s first with the group. A brave choice, given this hike’s description as “tough,” “a great cardio hike,” and “for beginner or novice types, it will seem like the steepest dirt trail you’ve ever experienced.”

This hike is in Danville, starting just off the west end of Sycamore Valley Road; although we lived in Danville for several months, I had no idea this trail was there. There seems to be little on it on the web, either. There might be some information on the interactive map linked from this Danville Parks and Sports Fields page, but I’ve been unable to get it to load.

[Update: Danville’s IS department mailed me. The map is fixed, but doesn’t show the trail—it's an EBRPD trailhead. Nothing on it at their website either.]

The description is a fair one: it’s a steady uphill plug from the starting point at Remington Loop, and a long haul up to the ridge. The views open up fairly quickly, though, so there’s lots to look at when you pause; the ridge is directly across the valley from the west face of Mount Diablo, and when you get high enough the views north up the valley open up and you can see all the way past Shell Ridge to the refineries at Martinez.

At the top, as we walk south along the ridge, it becomes clearer where we are: looking west, the next ridge along is Las Trampas Ridge. Bollinger Canyon Road runs north-south in the valley between us and Las Trampas.

After the climb up, the rest of the hike is easy going: the trail along the ridge rolls gently, and the descent is simple, not actually steep enough to be any trouble. About 2½ hours; I’d guess about 5 miles.

And the after-hike treat: ice-cream at Cold Stone Creamery in the Danville Livery. Verdict: somewhat overpriced, gimmicky, and confusing for first-timers. Choose one or more flavors, one or more mixins, and they mix them on a marble slab for you. Fun, but there's way too much to choose from, leaving me paralyzed with indecision. The ice-cream itself is good though; and the Oatmeal Cookie Dough icecream, highly recommended.

Categories: Hiking, Food

Comment spam ramps up

Comment spam is rampant on Blogger right now: in the last week, I’ve received—and deleted—nearly seventy spam comments on posts here.

They all have a strong whiff of machine generation about them: firstly, they’re poorly targeted. Since when did I have a “blog about best online casino directory”? Or “a great site for lemonade recipe”? They also tend to cluster on my previous posts about spam blogs, probably because the text there is rich in spammy keywords. And secondly, they’re obviously templated: one or two sentences of generic complements; one or two sentences of insert-keyword-here shilling; the same phrases over and over again. (I mean really: “reading your blog gave me goose pimples all over my body”? Please.)

But what really gives the game away is the cases where the hapless spammer misconfigures the software. Sometimes there are bizarre keywords (note here I’ve replaced the spammy link with a harmless underline):

You have an interesting blog. I just put up a site about buy compensation gkjgsdsgs html mesothelioma wbr. I know it’s a strange subject […]
No kidding. (How did mesothelioma get to be the only cancer spammers latch onto, anyway?) Occasionally, keywords are missing altogether:

I have a ##affiliate## site/blog. It pretty much covers ##Affiliate Program## related stuff.
Oh dear.

One comment let the cat fully out of the bag—and here I’m letting the link stand, but applying a nice safe nofollow to it:

You have a very good site on does adsense work This is something I also have a large interest in and have set up a blog about does adsense work please visit and let me know what you think.
Yep: Blog Link Generator, favorite tool of asshat comment spammers everywhere.

Blog Link Generator: Get Thousands of Links Back To Your Site From Other People’s Blog Today!

As the marketing fluff puts it, Blog Link Generator helps you:

Use keywords to find relevant blogs on; automatically post your comments to those blogs, including that all-important link back to your site.
For “all-important”, of course, read “all-but-useless”. The come-on touts higher search-engine rankings (“The spiders find you, and you know what happens next. It’s all good!”) but that’s all bogus. Links in Blogger comments are nofollow, which means they’re worthless in terms of search engine rankings; the spiders of all the major search engines simply ignore them.

Not that that’ll stop ’em trying, of course.

A hollow laugh, too, to the claims of Blog Submitter Pro, a similar auto-comment-spam tool:

Believe it or not, the people who run the vast majority of blogs that you post on will actually very much welcome your post.
The use of the harmless word “post” to replace “spam comment” is slippery. But that aside; as the person running this blog, I don’t welcome your spam. Not in the least.

The rise of commodity automation tools means that Blogger comment spam is only going to get worse. If you run a blog on Blogger, here’s some advice:

  1. At the very least, make sure you have a comment notification address set in your Comments settings page, so that you get email notification of new comments and can react to spam as it arrives.
  2. Consider turning on the word verification option for comments, if you can accept the accessibility problems it causes for anyone who can’t read the verification images.
  3. Consider closing comments on older posts.
I also suspect we might see some quiet action from Blogger on detecting automated spam; this is going to be a big problem for them.

Categories: Spam

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Blogging the world

Jeneane idly wonders:

I wonder how many pixels it would take to wrap all the way around the world. Like if pixels were string, tied in a line around the center of the earth, how many would we need to go all the way around? If we put all the blogs together, could we reach?
My gut feel was “quite a lot” and “I bet we could”; but let’s run the numbers.

Wikipedia lists the equatorial circumference of the Earth as 40,075.004 km, which is about 24.9 thousand miles, which is about 1.6 billion inches. At the 72dpi typical of computer monitors this is about 114 billion pixels.

Technorati currently claims to be tracking 19 million blogs; if we take an 800x600 screen’s worth of pixels from each of them, we get about 9 trillion pixels.

So, yes. Blog pixels would wrap around the equator. Many times. And probably many more times than the calculation above suggests: most blogs have many more pages than the single screen’s worth I’ve considered.

How about a bigger goal: could we cover the surface of the earth with blog pages? Wikipedia lists the surface area of the Earth is 510,065,284.702 square km, about 197 million square miles or 791 quadrillion square inches. At 72dpi this is about 4 sextillion pixels—in more familiar terms, 4 billion trillion pixels.

This is a huge number. 4 sextillion pixels is about 8½ million billion 800x600 pages. By comparison, Yahoo! claims to be indexing around 20 billion pages. We’re not even remotely close to papering the Earth with the entire content of the web, let alone with our bloggers’ introspection alone.

Which, in a way, is rather satisfying: for all the self-important talk about the blogosphere, it’s still way smaller than the biosphere.

Monday, October 03, 2005


Fragment of letter: “I have reviewed and accept the terms of this offer of employment with [REDACTED]. I will commence my employment on October 3 2005.”

Sunday, October 02, 2005

September Movie Roundup

Another better-late-than-never roundup; somehow, I feel I write better about film when I’ve had a chance to digest it for a while.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

I was a little conflicted about this going in; I’m still a little conflicted now. I’m a big fan of Tim Burton, notwithstanding his frequent mis-steps. But I’m also a big fan of the 1971 Mel Stuart movie, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, with Gene Wilder as Wonka. While the Tim Burton movie, strictly speaking, is not a remake of that version but a reimagination of the Roald Dahl book, it’s impossible not to compare the two.

The good news: this version is definitely its own movie. It is, unmistakably, a Tim Burton film; it’s shiny and polished and bizarre. The bad news: It’s not quite as satisfying as the earlier version.

Johnny Depp is excellent as Wonka, but with a big caveat: this is not the manic, wild-eyed, but basically benevolent Gene Wilder Wonka. Depp’s Wonka is deeply creepy: pale, vacant, and wholly unable to connect with the people around him. Especially children: making him afraid of, and repulsed by, children was a masterstroke, and is beautifully acted by Depp. His shock and horror at being hugged by Violet Beauregarde, and his dismissive “Oh. I don’t care.” response to her announcement of her name, are a startling first indication of this Wonka’s misanthropy.

Wonka’s visible aversion to children is fascinating because, in a society which often positions parenthood and childrearing as the ultimate personal achievement, it’s so transgressive. We’re supposed to like children, to want children, to feel comfortable around children. Wonka doesn’t—even though he’s set himself up as a granter of childrens’ wishes. And this transgression is rather appealing to those of us who, like me, are childless, who do sometimes feel uncomfortable around children, who do sometimes wonder how to relate to them.

Less effective, though, is the delving into Wonka’s back-story, and his upbringing by a stern—and candy-hating—father. For me, this didn’t really work. Wonka doesn’t need to be explained, and the original book makes no effort to do so. He’s a cipher; a fantastic, almost unworldly figure; trying to ground him in reality only diminishes him. More prosaically, the flashbacks to Wonka’s past repeatedly interrupt the momentum of the film.

And momentum is a problem here. The film suffers from being both an adaptation of a well-loved book and a remake of a well-loved movie; nothing here is much of a surprise. We know how the plot runs; we know the route through the factory; we know how, and in what order, each of the brats will reach their comeuppance. This movie runs on rails. This wouldn’t be a problem if it were paced like a rollercoaster, but it’s not; and it’s usually the Wonka character which kills the pace. The flashbacks are distracting, and Wonka himself, while fascinating, is too downbeat to maintain the momentum. Compare with Gene Wilder’s manic Wonka, who was the engine driving the earlier movie.

The Oompa-Loompas here are, as Dahl originally wrote them, brown-skinned pygmies, not the ambiguous orange-skinned dwarfs portrayed in the earlier movie and in the revision of the book. I suspect this is no casual choice: we are intended to wonder whether the Oompa-Loompas, uprooted wholesale from their native habitat and working in the factory for salaries paid in cocoa beans (one small step away from “working for peanuts”) are willing partners or indentured slaves.

The idea of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as a subversive satire on class labour is explored further by Dorothea Salo at Caveat Lector: The Factory, and by Mike at Vitia: Chocolate Proletariat. Good reading, both in the articles and the comments.

The ending, too, is rather more disturbing in this version, with a visual twist reminiscent of Burton’s 2001 Planet of the Apes remake: the Bucket’s house transplanted wholesale into Wonka’s Chocolate Room. Wonka needs a family and a child’s viewpoint to continue to produce candy; the Buckets fit the bill; so, like the Oompa-Loompas, they’re absorbed into Wonka’s world. Exploitative? We’re left to decide for ourselves.

There’s a lot to like here, and a lot that stays with you afterwards; but as a whole, it’s confused. Part of the problem is that it can’t decide whether it’s aimed at kids or adults. The glossy fun and familiar story appeal to kids; but the darkness and misanthropy suggest otherwise; and so it falls rather uncomfortably inbetween.

3/5: abandon preconceptions and enjoy it for what it is.

The Aristocrats

Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza’s exploration of the filthiest joke in comedy. For me, this fell a little flat. The joke isn’t that funny, nor is it really that filthy. For a lot of the time, the movie comes across as an extended in-joke for cliquish comedians: a lot of backslapping and self-congratulatory laughing at themselves, leaving the audience on the outside slightly bemused.

Where the movie does work is where it attempts to analyse the joke, rather than simply tell it. Like a jazz standard, the joke is very simple: one line of setup, two words of punchline, and a huge gap in the middle which the teller riffs and improvises to fill. Maybe this is why the joke is traditionally one which comedians tell to each other, rather than to audiences: it’s a display of technical skill.

1½/5: a curiosity, but not ultimately very satisfying.

Categories: Movies