Coding, Drinking, And Burying: Hilarity Ensues

This weekend Gareth and Bryn came over and we set up a computer lab in Claire and I’s living room and spent most of the weekend hacking Ruby and Perl code (in between segments of munching coder snacks, drinking beer, watching films at Troma Night, and, last night, barbequing food on Ynyslas beach). We made some great progress on a project that we’ve all been working on that was otherwise at risk of stalling: not only progress in coding, but also in setting goals and deadlines and in discussing implementation strategies that I’m sure have made the next stage of the project a lot clearer for all of us.

Claire, Binky and I got to Ynyslas first last night and ate some fantastic lamb burgers. Later, as Gareth drove up and came to join us (I was stood atop a dune to get advance warning of his approach), Claire and I buried Binky against the side of a dune, covering his face with an overturned disposable barbeque box and stacking other provisions around him. Gareth didn’t have a clue that he was there: “Where’re Bryn and Jimmy?” he asked when he arrived. “They didn’t come,” I replied. We sat around and got chatting and drinking and, after a while, I asked Gareth if he could pass me my mobile phone. “Where is it?” he asked. “Under that box,” I said, gesturing towards where Binky was so-well buried.

The look on Gareth’s face was priceless when he lifted the box. Mucho respect to Binks for managing to stay undetected underground for so long (despite having eyes full of sand and other irratating side-effects of being buried alive).

This blog post was later featured in the On This Day series, in an article I wrote in 2010.

SmartData Wasn’t At The Royal Welsh Show This Year

Pity. From a BBC report:

A young woman’s naked table-top dance in a cattle shed at the Royal Welsh Show has led to an official inquiry… One witness, who did not want to be named, said security guards rushed to the scene late on Tuesday, but had difficulty grabbing the woman because the water had made her skin slippery.

The Royal Welsh Show is certainly trying out some different entertainments these days. Last time I was there the highlight was the Dancing Diggers (which were great, it’s true, but they’re not strippers by any stretch of the imagination).

A Special Kind Of Conservative Stupidity

I really can’t stand Ann Coulter.

I mean, her book, “Godless: The Church Of Liberalism” (somebody sent me an e-copy, which saved me from the bad feeling I’d associate with helping shower her with royalties) was bad enough, but this…

She’s appeared on TV recently (video clip) to talk about the former US president, Clinton. Her claim? That the 42nd president’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky is evidence that Bill Clinton is homosexual.

Whoah, whoah… let’s roll that one back and hear it again, Ann.

Apparently his latent homosexuality is evidenced by his promiscuity. This is a fascinating turnaround of the old stereotype that “all homosexual people are promiscuous”: even it it were true, you can’t just invert causality to fit your arguments… unless you’re Ann Coulter. The argument works both ways for her – not only are all homosexual people promiscuous, but all promiscuous people are homsexual! One is left wondering, then, whether homosexuality is self-perpetuating – in her mind – as it’s promiscuity leads to greater homosexuality leads to further promiscuity. Oh wait: she only seems to see the world in black and white anyway.

If you watch the video right to the end, there’s another classic quote. Homosexuality isn’t actually a sexuality at all, claims Ann: it’s just narcissism to be attracted to somebody of the same gender: essentially masturbation. So, you homosexuals: be told – you’re not actually attracted to other men or other women – you’re merely attracted to yourself too much to appreciate people of the opposite sex.

Suppose I’d better stop ranting so much and get on with some work.

Things That Aren’t Good About Today

  • The power keeps going off. It’s awfully hard to build software in the dark.
  • I have a shedload of work to do and I’ve spent most of my day so far either cursing the aforementioned power cut or in meetings about how much more productive we could be (if, for example, we weren’t in meetings when I was busiest…).
  • Our customers can’t tell the different between our mail server going down (which it hasn’t) and a power spike bricking their router. “Can you get to any websites? No: then might the problem be at your end?”

On the other hand, a good moment was when our visiting sales consultant dude gave me a copy of Who Moved My Cheese? and I responded by summarising the story in about 60 words, then providing an analysis of the virtues and the faults of the book. In hindsight, it might have been cooler to flick through the pages of the book, pretending to read it stupidly fast (Johnny Five-style), and then summarised it for him.

Better save this before the power goes again. Grr.

Why I Shouldn’t Be Interested In Security

I love being me.

While paying for drinks at Thresher with a card I didn’t own, I persuaded the staff to talk me through the fundamentals of arming, disarming, and hypothetically evading their four alarm systems.

The Most Unusual Gift Idea Ever

Disappointed with the shape of your turds? Bored with “sausage-shaped” shit? Why not treat yourself to a pack of 10 Turd Twisters? Inserted carefully into the anus, they allow you to mould your faeces into amusing and interesting shapes. They’re “one-size-fits-all”, dishwasher safe, and come with their own special Safe-T-Floss Retraction Cord, just in case they get embedded too deeply into your rectal cavity.

Plus, when you order, you get a free book, “How To Twist Your Turds.”

Coolest Personality Test I’ve Ever Seen

As I’ve said before, I don’t just jump onto every memeing bandwagon that crosses my path, but now and then, one comes along that really impresses me. This one is a ‘smart’ personality test that attempts to define you by asking a series of questions… yadda yadda… but this one learns from it’s mistakes, and it’s getting pretty good.

Personality Class D2

take the ‘Smart’ Personality Test

Go on… give it a go.

Two Films I Want To See

Children Of Men, due for release this September, looks good. In the near future, all the women on Earth become infertile, and science is at a loss to explain why. By 2027, no children have been born in 18 years, and the future of humanity is bleak. There’s a trailer about, too. It all looks remarkably well put-together.

But in the nearer future, I’m looking forward to seeing Thank You For Smoking, which a group of us are seeing at the Arts Centre tomorrow at 5:30pm (thanks for the reminder, Paul). It’s getting great reviews and it sounds great. Just so long as I can stop thinking of Aaron Eckhart as “that guy from The Core“… (damn, that film sucked)

Dreams Of Trucks

Unusual dream last night. Gareth challenged me to a race: driving lorries (which fluctuated in size throughout the dream from mini-vans to huge artic’ trucks) along a dirt track somewhere up in the Welsh hills. Jon was his co-driver, and Bryn was mine, but somewhere along the way to the racecourse our vehicle broke down and by the time we’d repaired it, the other truck was way ahead: and we didn’t know the way. Bryn suggested, “Let’s take the Clarach road,” pointing up Gray’s Inn Road (for those not of Aber, this couldn’t be anything but the wrong way). I don’t remember much else of it, but I’m pretty sure we never got to the race.

I blame this dream on the heatwave we’ve been going through – which, thankfully, seems to be coming to an end now. The heat had given me a nasty headache by last night, so I knocked myself out with co-codamol and I suspect the strange dream was a side-effect of the drugs.

We watched the final episode, “Going Too Far”, of Excel Saga at Naruto Night last night. Added nothing to the plot, but well worth-seeing (as are all of the final episodes, actually… or the whole series, pretty much) for it’s crazy paedophilia-promoting, nudity-filled, blood-and-gore interpretation of the series. This – with it’s musical numbers, re-animation of the opening and closing sequences, and little re-use of animation – must have been the most expensive episode to make, which is terrifying considering that it never got screened on television.

The Coolest “Learn A Programming Language” Tool. Ever.

Not only is it the coolest “hands on” tutorial to a programming language I’ve ever seen; it’s also (technologically) quite impressive as a web application, too. I’m talking about, a stunning tutorial in the Ruby programming language that’s simple enough for anybody to get started and doesn’t require you to install anything. Everything is done through your web browser into a virtual “irb” session.

If you’re a programmer with an interest in Ruby, or just a geek wannabe, it’s a must-see. Apologies if you’ve seen it before: I first saw it today.

And That Was That

Well; we’ve burned my gran (well, not us personally; our involvement in her actual cremation was limited to watching her disappear behind some curtains and resisting the urge to shout, “Uhh… a cuddly toy… a toaster oven… umm…”) and we’re on our way, by installments, back to Aberystwyth: we should be back in time for Troma Night: what do people want to do?

Hope the graduation ceremonies of everybody who had them this week went well: sorry we didn’t get to see more of you. Andy and Faye have, technically speaking, been staying with us – but in this activity, too, our involvement is limited – we let them into The Cottage and then we skipped town.

I think we’re at risk of single-handedly wearing down the stretch of road between Preston and Aberystwyth, so often have we been travelling it of late: Houghton Tower, my cousin’s wedding, my gran’s funeral, and we’re likely to be up again soonish for a fancy dress party my mum’s proposing. Perhaps we should get a Lancashire “Season Pass”.

How To Run Downloaded Stuff On Your Nintendo DS

14th July 2006: I’ve updated this article with some information on what could be an even easier and more cost-effective way to achieve this effect. Scroll down.
Here’s a guide to what you need to easily be able to run homebrew software like DSLinux on your Nintendo DS or DS Lite. Some things to know:

  • Yes, this could also be used to let you run pirated software too, but I can’t endorse that.
  • I’m fully aware that this isn’t the only way to run homebrew software on your DS, but this is the way I did it, and it works brilliantly for me. Your milage may vary.

You Will Need…

DS With M3 Picture One

I’d promised someone pictures showing exactly how big and chunky this kind of hardware is. Shown above is:

  • A red pen. You don’t need one of these, but I put one on the blurry photograph for a size-comparison.
  • A PassKey2 device like the one shown in the upper-right. Mine is branded “PassCard 3”. Older PassKeys required that you plugged a legitimately-bought game into their top port, but these new ones just plug straight into your Nintendo DS’s “DS” game port. It’s purpose is to make the DS think that a Nintendo-endorsed game is in the device, allowing it to run any code it feels like. Modern ones are needed for the later-version DS’s, including the DS Lite.
  • An M3 Perfect. This is the most recent incarnation of what was the GBA Movie Player. It’s a card reader (mine reads SD Cards, but there’s also a CF version available) that plugs into your DS’s chunky retro Game Boy Advance slot.
  • A flash memory card to put in your M3. Mine, of course, is an SD card. DSLinux weighs in at about 12MB, and games vary in size anywhere up to about 64MB. The more you can fit on your card, the better – particularly if you’re planning on carrying movies or music around with you and using your DS as a glorified MP3 or video player.

You will also need:

  • A PC running Windows. Use a virtual PC at your own risk.
  • The means to write whatever kind of flash card (e.g. SD card) you get, like a USB reader/writer. You might be able to get away with using your digital camera and some kind of link lead, but don’t count on it: a cheap SD reader/writer can be found for under a tenner.
  • The latest M3 Game Manager software.

You Will Do…
DS With M3 Picture Three

The PassCard goes into the DS slot, the flash card goes into the M3, and the M3 goes into the GBA slot, as shown in the picture, above. I’m using a DS Lite, and the M3 sticks out a little way, enough to be unsightly, but not problematic. The DS is upside-down, in case you’re confused. The small blue thing on the right of the M3 (at the top of the DS) is the tip of the SD card. Push gently against it to eject it.

Put the memory card into your PC’s reader, and run the M3 Game Manager software you installed. Select the media type you’re using, when prompted. Navigate to the memory card. Then just click the “Write NDS” button choose the Nintendo DS ROM you want to write. How many you can fit on at once depends on the capacity of the card. The M3 Perfect can handle CF cards up to 1GB and SD cards up to 2GB for the CF and SD varieties of M3, respectively.

DS With M3 Picture Two

Here’s how the DS Lite looks with the M3 Perfect cartridge dangling out of it. Apparently it protudes less on the DS Phat.

Update: 14th July 2006: There May Be An Easier Way…

A friend has just let me know about the NinjaPass. The plain old NinjaPass Media Launcher is just a PassKey2, by the look of things, but the NinjaPass DS Flash is both a PassKey2 (like the PassCard, above) and a flashable memory card (like the M3 Perfect and it’s accompanying memory card). It’s a single-card solution that you copy your ROMs to, put into the NDS slot on your DS Phat or DS Lite, and it just works.

Of course, I’ve not tried the NinjaPass for myself, so your milage may vary. Read some reviews first.

On My Grandma And The Nature Of Time, Space, And Models Of The Universe

I’d hoped to finish writing this post before my gran died so suddenly yesterday, but I guess I was a bit slow. I realised that there were so many changes of tense to be made to make the article make sense that it was actually easier to start again. So I did.

On The Nature Of Models

I have a certain model of the universe and the way it works in my head, just as you do in yours. Some people’s models are more complex than others, and some are more complex in different areas. A great example of model complexity comes from the usage of a car. A great number of people are able to drive a car – they know what pedals to press and what levers and wheels and switches to operate to make the car go faster or slower, to make it turn corners, to park it safely, and to turn on things like the lights, indicators, and windscreen wipers. The majority of these people do not understand – or need to understand – anything beyond the fundamentals of an internal combustion engine, or a car’s electrical system, or the algorithm used to determine if ABS should be activated. This doesn’t make them bad drivers: this makes them bad mechanic… but not everybody wants to be a mechanic.

A mechanic has a somewhat deeper understanding of the car. Technically speaking, being a car mechanic doesn’t necessitate knowing how to drive (although it probably helps with learning the trade and it’s certainly conventional). He knows that if it makes a particular bad noise to replace a particular part, and how to test different components. The car’s owner probably barely looks at the engine, except to appear manly by the roadside after a breakdown by opening the bonnet and staring at it without the slightest comprehension of what is actually wrong, and occassionally to check the oil or refill the water. But the mechanic knows how the car actually works, how the engine powers the wheels and how the mysterious gearbox actually works and why the brakes squeak on old cars and how to pad a bill.

The mechanic probably can’t tell you how the electromagnets in the centrally-controlled door locks or the light-emitting diodes in the dashboard actually work, because that’s into the realm of the physicist, and so on. We all have different models for different subsets of the universe, and the way that it works. And in particular, I’m about to talk about my model of the fundamentals of the universe as a whole.

A Model Of The Universe

My model of the universe is a particularly clinicially scientific one. Like about 4% of the world’s population, I am an atheist – I believe that there are no deities. I am, at the most fundamental levels, a determinist – I believe that with a good enough model everything could be explained and predicted, although I appreciate only one such model of the universe will ever exist, and we’re standing in it. However, my determinist ideas are so fundamental that the question of free will doesn’t really come into it: while, technically, I don’t believe in free will, I also don’t believe that it’s possible to determine with a reasonable degree of certainty either way, which makes my disbelief in free will a matter of faith, rather than of scientific reason.

My model is more simplistic than that of many theoretical physicists: I don’t claim to understand string theory, or spacetime curvature, or any number of other things. For day to day use, my model of gravity is Dan’s Simplified Gravitational Theory, which has one rule: “things fall down” (although at a deeper level, I’m quite happy with the idea that mass attracts other mass, and can comprehend orbits and expansion and stuff). But it’s a well-packaged and strong model without holes, and I’m a firm believer in it. It’s my belief that humans naturally build models in their head to explain the way the world works and make it more predictable. The “things fall down” theory of gravity is more than enough for a spear-throwing caveman to use to catch an animal to skin and eat, and it’s fine for me to go and play frisbee on the beach, but it’s not enough to put a man on the moon. To do that took some far more powerful models of the universe which had been refined by very clever people over hundreds (if not thousands) of years.

For a single paragraph, here, I’ll take what I feel is an intellectual high ground over many theists (particularly, right now, anti-evolutionists), and state that one thing I do like about my model is that it’s malleable by science. When we’re talking about fundamentals like those discussed above, it is, to some degree, a matter of faith and “what feels right” because it’s hard to prove either way whether free will exists, for example (and, in my mind, a pointless exercise anyway). But on other matters, scientific study can really shine. Like many people (atheists and theists alike) I believe that the universe began taking it’s current form after an event long ago called the Big Bang (which is a silly name, because it was neither big – depending on how you define it – nor did it make a bang). Scientists often talk about three key theories about what’ll happen at “the end” of the universe: the Big Crunch (whereby the universe falls back in on itself and collpases into a single, tiny point), the Big Freeze (whereby the universe keeps expanding forever), and a “sweet spot” in-between, and scientists are split on the three. There’s evidence for all three, and, as yet, no consensus. As a philosophically-minded individual, I like to hypothesise about the possibilities, and come to conclusions. My belief is that the universe will eventually collapse into a Big Crunch. It became apparent to me recently, however, through a thought experiment during a conversation, that I had failed to fully grasp a key concept of the Big Freeze and had dismissed it because of this. This lead me to a whole new re-assessment of the possibilities, in which I eventually still settled on the Big Crunch as being the most likely option, in my mind. My model (a loose model, in this case: I don’t think I have enough information about the Big Crunch to argue convincingly that it is certain, it’s just what I suspect) was shaken by new evidence, which caused me to re-assess my position. In this case, as it happens, I came to the same conclusion as before. Nevertheless, I feel that one of the strengths of my model is that it allows itself to be challenged, and broken, and re-assembled. Right; end of anti-blind-faith-rant.

Needless to say, my model does not have space for ghosts or spirits. While I appreciate that these things could exist, I feel that argument for them makes as much sense as argument for unicorns, fairies, aliens “living among us”, and God. I’ll certainly agree that “there are things beyond what we know,” and I hope that always remains the case (the world is full of mysteries, and that makes it beautiful): but I don’t think there’s any reason to jump onto superstitious beliefs to justify them.

So Where Does My Gran Fit In

So you’ve probably noticed the title of this article. Yeah; I’m getting to that.

In the days leading up to my grandma’s death, I’ve engaged in a couple of conversations with Claire about my gran’s beliefs and how they link in with this whole “models of the universe” thing.

For as long as I can remember, my gran would always talk about her children and her grandchildren in a particular way: “I love all of my children and my grandchildren,” she would say, “but Dan is the special one.” This singling out – this thinly-veiled favouritism – caused some embarrasment until it started becoming “just one of those things old people do,” like talking about the war or complaining about the forms of entertainment/dress/communication enjoyed by young people today. I spoke to my gran on a handful of occassions about what she meant by this strange statement, and she would explain: “You’re the one that I’ll talk to after I’m dead.”

As a young child, this filled me with a sense of both dread and pride: dread that “she could be right” (my godless, souless model of the world was not so hard-set as a child as it was once I’d realised that higher-level physics, philosophy, and psychology held a lot of answers that evidenced it) and pride that, if she was, I had been “selected” as the “special one” to receive the “gift” that she believed she had: the gift of talking to the dead.

Her spiritualistic beliefs, though, combined with my skeptical worldview, lead to some conflict. For example, one time I was talking to both my gran and my mum, when my gran was relaying how she intended to communicate with my from beyond the grave (or, as it happens, beyond the grate: she wanted to be cremated):

“You’ve got to look out for bad spirits,” she warned me, “But you’ll know that it’s me that’s talking to you because I’ll call you my little white rabbit.” [a nickname she had for me when I was very young, perhaps because of the intensely blonde hair I sported]

“But that won’t prove anything,” my mum, who is also an excellent skeptic, although I sometimes wonder whether her models are too concrete, and I argued, “Because I could now imagine I’d heard that. What you need to do, to prove that it’s you, if you’re right, is to tell me something that I couldn’t possibly have known otherwise: something that you hadn’t told me before you died, but which we could later verify.”

It took a little while to explain this concept to her, and we gave her an example of some information that we didn’t know, but that she did and we could potentially find out after her death, if necessary. “Oh, that’s easy,” she said, and promptly told us the information. It seemed that she hadn’t quite grasped the concept at all. So, we had a few more drinks and left the conversation to finish another time.

My gran’s raving spiritualism rarely got in the way of anybody. Sure, she made me promise never to use a Ouija board (she had a particularly terrifying experience while using one and since decided that they were dangerous) and there was that one time she argued with her grandma about fireworks, upsetting my sisters, but in general, she seemed to appreciate that her beliefs were hers and not those of many others.

Models, Meet Grandma; Grandma, Models

And so we come full circle back to mental models, and my conversations with Claire. We were saying about how having such well-defined and rarely-challenged mental models of the universe as we do is, in a way, a boring stagnation. It’s rare, these days, for our models to be challenged by anything that can not be (very easily) explained, and that’s uninteresting (I disagree with Claire that it made the world boring, because there’s still plenty of mystery left that lacks any conclusive evidence whatsoever), and we came on, in the days before my grandma died, to discussing her curious prophecy that she’ll continue to talk to me from the afterlife.

And so, the skeptics that we are, we came up with a suite of experiments to help provide evidence for or against any voices that I hear, dreams I have, or whatever, actually being my post-death grandmother. I don’t believe it for a moment, but I wouldn’t be a very good skeptic if I wasn’t skeptical about my own beliefs, too. We came up with well defined hypotheses for different scenarios and sensible ways to collate information. It’s kind of interesting to develop experiments to test data that you never expect to obtain for a hypothesis you don’t believe in, but it’s the nature of science to question things, and, even if the only evidence so far is that “my gran said it”, our construction of a virtual laboratory in which to test a crazy theory (if the data is ever delivered) made a long car journey quite a lot more enjoyable.

And honestly; it’d be as interesting to prove as to disprove. Now all I need is to start hallucinating.