Thursday, May 31, 2007

Book Review: The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials, Book 1), by Phillip Pullman

The Golden Compass is actually called Northern Lights in every place except North America. I guess the publishers thought that kids would get confused, because they would not know what lights could possibly be doing in the north. Never mind that the book never refers to the titular object as a compass; that's not confusing at all, no.

It's like how the first Harry Potter was renamed "Sorcerer's Stone" from "Philosopher's Stone" in the United States (but luckily not here). Because, publishers must think, kids are dumb; they wouldn't want to read a book about philosophy! Never mind that the idea of a philosopher's stone has been around for centuries. Just rename it and kids won't have to learn anything new.

With that out of the way: While I've referred to The Golden Compass as a kid's book, it's really not. Not any more than Lord of the Rings is a kid's book. It may have talking animals and magic, but there is also disturbing violence and very adult themes. There are polar bears in this book that will chew your face right off.

It's also no secret that Pullman is a raging atheist, but while it shows in the novel in subtle ways (incorporation of deep scientific principles, and participation of the Church in certain questionable activities), he never beats the reader over the head with it. It's more atheistic by omission; there is no fuzzy feel-good God-is-watching-over-us and the-lion-is-Jesus message. Not that there aren't feel-good moments, because Pullman creates characters that you'll actually care about, who interact in very human (or human-like) and touching ways.

Overall, The Golden Compass is a dark, touching, epic fantasy novel that is just chock full of giant killer polar bears. I really enjoyed it, and look forward to the forthcoming movie (though it looks to have been pussified quite a bit, leaving out the disturbing parts. boo.), and to the other two books in the trilogy.

Friday, May 25, 2007

New Header

I changed my header (the thing above where it says slightly. The rat-monkey-squirrels have changed into my brain. It makes more sense, because it's beside the zombies, and zombies eat brains, not rat-squirrel-monkeys.

It actually is my brain. I figure I can remain anonymous here, since most people are unlikely to recognize me by the inside of my brain.

Note the squished cerebellum. This is what a normal cerebellum looks like:

Mine is squished. Here is what Wikipedia says about cerebellum problems:

Recent brain imaging studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) show that the cerebellum is important for language processing, selective attention and smooth, co-ordinated movement. Subsequently, patients with cerebellar dysfunction experience problems in speech, walking and balance, and accurate hand and arm movement. The clinical features of a cerebellar lesion can be remembered by using the acronym "DANISH":

* D - dysdiadochokinesia (inability to perform rapidly alternating movements)
* A - ataxia (with a broad-based gait)
* N - nystagmus (with the fast stroke pointing towards the side of the lesion)
* I - intention tremor
* S - staccato, slurred speech
* H - hypotonia

So next time I have trouble focusing on one thing at a time, or trouble know...doing talking...then I can just remember the cute pastry aconym...even though I don't know what any of those words mean...and hey did anyone see the season finale of Lost? That was awesome.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Never Forget

Here are four of my earliest memories from childhood:
  • In elementary school, we used to have classes where we learned about drugs, and how to not do them (anyone remember Safety Kids?). After one of these classes, I remember going out for recess with my friends, and finding a suspicious mass on the ground. It consisted of tiny white tubes, all stuck closely together. A mysterious powder clung to the tubes. Naturally, we thought that it was drugs. We poked it with a stick a few times then ran far away, saying no to drugs just like the Safety Kids songs told us to. Years later, after an adventurous trip to the grocery store, I realized the "drugs" were a discarded package of uncooked Mr. Noodle.
  • I had heard people talking about "rap music", but had never actually heard this new kind of music for myself. I wondered what it sounded like. Then I heard Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody on the radio, followed by the DJ announcing that I had just heard "Bohemian Rap City". Ohhh, so that's what rap sounds like. Queen. Freddy Mercury was such a gangstah.
  • I remember driving around with my parents when I lived in Edmonton. Unless my memory is making this up, there is a road in Edmonton called "Mud Drive". I remember seeing the signs on the highway pointing the way to this road: "Mud Dr." I thought to myself: "Mud doctor? What the hell is a mud doctor?"
  • I was pondering about the nature of memory one day when I was very young, and taking a piss. I wondered what made you sometimes remember something, like some small insignificant thing, for a very long time. I decided that I would try to force myself to remember something trivial for the rest of my life, to see if it is possible. So I memorized that moment: Me standing there, peeing in the toilet. I still remember it in quite a bit of detail...I especially remember that it was a beautiful summer day, and the sunlight was shining through the window, casting rays of light in the dusty basement air.

This post has taught me two things about memory: 1) You can remember something for a very long time if you simply remember to remember it once in a while; and 2) You will always remember times in which you were a complete dumbass.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Amazing Trick

Just watch this. It'll change your life 'n shit.

A Diatribe on the Nature of Intellect, and A Method With Which One Can Answer the Query, "Do Lycanthropes Possess Testes?"

Lately, most of my time is taken up reading for comprehensive exams. One of the topics I'm studying is intelligence. An interesting finding in this field is that raw IQ scores have been increasing over the last few decades; this is known as the "Flynn effect", named after its main discoverer. There is some confusion over whether this is a superficial increase in IQ test scores, or a real increase in what they are meant to measure (i.e., intelligence). This leads to the following awesome quote from one of my books:

"Flynn argues that if the intergenerational gain in IQ scores were "real" (i.e. reflected g), the real-life consequences would be conspicuous. For example, the younger generation with average IQs would perceive their parents and grandparents as intellectually dull or borderline retarded. Flynn even suggests that baseball and cricket fans of two or three generations past wouldn't have had enough intelligence to understand the rules of the game."

I just find it hilarious to imagine every kid in the world coming to realize that their parents are dumber than they are. They'd get together in the playground and swap stories about how their dad couldn't find Africa on a map, or their mom gave $30 as a 15% tip on a $100 restaurant bill. "I swear," they'd say, "my parents are borderline retarded." Then dad would take his son to the ball game, and be all like "Wha? Why'd he just swing at the ball with that there stick? Who's them guys with the mitts? What's going on, son?", eating a hot dog and drooling the entire time.

But hey, maybe it's not so far fetched. If 80s movies and South Park have taught me anything, it's that kids are the only ones who really know what's going on. If Dracula and the Wolfman tried to take over the world, it would be kids who would have to stop them, and not their borderline retarded parents.

P.S. Monster Squad is finally coming out on DVD!!!!

P.P.S. The quote is from Arthur Jensen's "The g Factor", p. 329.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Renting Versus Buying Redux

Many thanks for the congratulations from people on buying the house.

Some of you questioned whether it really is better to rent than to buy. What I meant in my last post is that it is not ALWAYS better to buy than to rent, obviously. But I think that in our case, all things considered, we would have been financially better off by renting.

I should point out that I don't really know anything about money, but here is my reasoning: We will live in this house for 4 years. After that, we'll hopefully get real jobs, and will probably move to another city. In those 4 years, we will "throw away" more money by buying a house than by paying rent. Obviously rent is all wasted money, but so are taxes and fees and maintenance. In the first 4 years of a mortgage, almost all of the monthly payments are interest, which is also wasted money. These payments work out to more than rent.

Sure, we're also building equity. I don't really know how to work that into financial reasoning, but basically, that's money we get back when we sell the house. It's neither thrown away nor gaining value, assuming the house stays the same price. Of course, it probably won't, and if it does appreciate in value enough to offset the difference between non-equity owning payments and rent (which, given past trends in London, is actually pretty likely), then we come out on top dollar-wise.

If not, we could have stayed renting, saved the difference in a high interest account, then, at the end of the 4 years, put that money toward a down-payment, and got a shorter mortgage with less money being thrown away to interest now that we could afford it.

This is only looking at money, though. Practically, we are gaining psychological value by living in a house. And practically, there's no way in hell we would be saving more money if we stayed renting. We'd spend it on hookers and blow (as suggested by Rob). And psychologically, having a porch to drink beer on in the summer contributes to our lifelong mental health. So even if we lose a few thousand dollars in the 4 years we live there, it's still worth it, which is why we did it.

Here is a flamingo which you may colour yourself. But please, mind your face:

Friday, May 11, 2007

House Buying Tips

I have not posted anything lately because: A) I had to write a paper that ended up being half the size of my Masters thesis, in less than two weeks, and it was about a computer program that I also had to write, myself, from scratch; and B) V and I have been in the process of buying a house. It is now bought.

It's a pretty nice one, too. But really, anything is better than living with mildly retarded neighbours (another example: a parent leaving their disabled baby in the middle of a parking lot, unsupervised. None of my business, maybe, except that the parking lot is where I tend to park the car). The fact that it's within stumbling distance of most major bars in London is a plus, too (especially Cowboy's...which is a country bar, but hey, it's close. And maybe, just maybe, I've always had a secret desire to wear a cowboy hat and not look like an asshole doing it, and that's the only place one can do that.)

Since it was our first time buying a house, it was quite an educational experience. Let me tell you some things about buying a house:
  • Buying a house is easy. You just find a real estate agent, then ask them what to do, and they tell you, and you sign forms, and then you have a house. It's mildly stressful, but for me, the hard part is moving. Actually having to pick heavy things up and move them, that's work.
  • It doesn't make sense until you really think about it, but if you pay a mortgage every two weeks instead of every month, you save a lot of money, even though you're paying about the same amount per month.
  • Anyone who tells you that renting is throwing your money away and buying is a wise financial decision should be bitten in the face by a wild animal (*). We're getting a house because houses are nice, not because it will save us money in either the short run or the long run. We are "throwing away" just as much, if not more, money in interest, taxes, renovations, lawyer fees, real estate fees, paint, etc etc., than we would be in rent. If we make many thousands of dollars in profit when we sell the house then we might break even, but a sure thing it is not.
  • Buy a house before it is even listed as being for sale. This is pretty much impossible unless you get lucky and happen to be stopped on the street by someone who senses that you are looking for houses, but somehow this happened to V, and worked out nicely.
  • Now whenever I'm being cheap and don't want to spend money, I can say "fuck off, I have a mortgage to pay!" instead of "fuck off, I have rent to pay!" Mortgage is a more serious word than rent. Now buy me a beer.

(*) Like a lion. No, an African lion. No wait, a flamingo.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Read This or Else

So I finished my last and only exam today.

The following occured to me: In grad school, it's not really writing exams that matters, but the threat of writing exams.

See, marks don't really matter. In a grad course, everyone is going to get a good mark no matter how well (or poorly) they do on an exam (unless something goes horribly wrong), and marks are barely important for any future endeavors * anyway. What matters is that the students have learned the material taught in the class.

To learn the material, any motivated student will learn all they can possibly learn in preparing for an exam. But see, it's preparing that makes them learn, not writing. So if everyone thought they were going to write an exam and thus prepared their asses off, but then it got cancelled, they will have learned just as much as if they had actually written it. The threat of writing just needs to be there, and needs to be taken seriously.

It's like how some beetles will mimic the colouring of bees and wasps, so that potential predators will think they're all badass and stingy and leave them alone. Or how peacocks puff up their feathers to look gigantic and attract the ladies, even though under all that fluff they're just a shitty little runt of a bird. They achieve their purpose by threatening to accomplish something that won't actually happen. It's exactly the same thing.

Wait, I forget what my point is. Oh...let's just say...the moral of this post is... "faking your way through life is nature's way."

* CONGRATULATIONS! You have witnessed my first usage of the word "endeavor" evor!

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Magic Numbers

I've blabbed a bit about DRM here before, mostly in the context of music. However, it's also a problem with movies. I don't know if any non-geeks noticed this, but the controversy over DRM came to a hilarious climax over the last few days. HD-DVDs, one of the new high-definition versions of DVD, are all protected by a form of DRM. Unlike, say, CDs, smart people can't just write software or hardware that can play an HD-DVD. In order to do so, they need a special software key, which is really just a series of letters and numbers.

Well, some very smart person managed to find that series of letters and numbers. Then they posted it on the internet. And like the great philosopher Joe Rogan once said, trying to take something off the internet is like trying to take pee out of swimming pool.

That didn't stop them from trying, though. Any web site that posted (09 F9 11 02 9D 74 E3 5B D8 41 56 C5 63 56 88 C0) this key (09 F9 11 02 9D 74 E3 5B D8 41 56 C5 63 56 88 C0) was ordered to take it (09 F9 11 02 9D 74 E3 5B D8 41 56 C5 63 56 88 C0) down. Even the user-driven news site Digg censored stories containing the key, which lead to a revolt where, for about a day, every story on Digg contained the key (story).
Now the key is on any web site even remotely related to technology.

The funny thing is, this key has been available for months. It only spread and became common knowledge when idiotic lawyers tried to stop it from spreading. I find it especially funny because it's just a number - nothing physical, not even a complicated file like a movie - just a number. Anyone can memorize it, or tattoo it on themselves, and there isn't anything anyone can do to erase their brains or their skin. It also demonstrates the futility of trying to protect content like this. Any protection can be hacked through, and no information can be taken back once it's out there. The only way to make sure people buy content is to make it worth buying.

And people think that there are grand conspiracies involving covered-up assassinations and aliens. If one company can't keep a simple number secret, it's unlikely that a large government could keep anything more serious secret.

Oh, and this reminds me, I never told my blogfriends what I had engraved in the back of my iPod:

P.S. 09 F9 11 02 9D 74 E3 5B D8 41 56 C5 63 56 88 C0