Twitter automation run amok

There’s a Twitterer that I follow called @denyreligion. Most of his tweets are quite interesting, but every night my Twitter client is inundated by a string of posts of the following form:

Thanks for the RTs and discussion! @XXX, @YYY, @ZZZ….

In other words, every Twitterer who mentioned @denyreligion during the day gets acknowledged. This gets pretty boring: Twitter isn’t (shouldn’t be) a popularity contest in which people score points for being mentioned. So I responded:

@denyreligion You need a different way of handling your gratitude. A page full of these “Thanks for the RTs” just makes me want to block you

And you can guess what happened, can’t you? Sure enough, the next night I receive:

Thanks for the RTs and discussion! @XXX @YYY @geoffarnold @ZZZ…

This is just plain silly.

Injustice and justice

From this afternoon’s MLS game between the Seattle Sounders and the Colorado Rapids:

  • Injustice: giving a penalty for handball against a guy in the wall who was protecting his face from a hard-struck free kick.
  • Justice: the penalty hits the woodwork.

It was an enjoyable game, which the Sounders won 3-0. The last 20 minutes were a bit flat, because the third goal knocked the fight out of Colorado. Freddie Ljungberg was the inspirational playmaker for Seattle, but the win was largely due to the collaboration between Nate Jaqua and Fredy Montero. Oh, and the attendance was a record, 32,526, beating the previous highest total by just 3. (Obviously our last-minute decision to attend was significant!)
I wanted to see at least one MLS game in Seattle, and now I have. I’ve also seen the Mariners playing baseball, but I never made it to a Seahawks game. (I don’t really enjoy American Football, anyway.) What can we look forward to in California? The Giants baseball park up in San Francisco is nice. In San Jose they have an MLS team, the Earthquakes, but they seem to be struggling rather badly. In any case, we will no longer be able to walk across the street to take in a game on a whim…

A busy month of travel

July is going to be a busy month for me. Between the 1st and 25th, I’m booked to fly nearly 18,000 miles. Here’s how the Great Circle Mapper lays it out:

Travel in July '09

Travel in July '09

That breaks down into a hop down to San Jose and back before the 4th of July; then a merry dance around California for a week before I fly to Hong Kong; then back to Seattle after a couple of weeks in Shenzhen. Not shown on the map is the fact that at the end of the month, I’ll be taking one more flight: SEA-SFO. But that’s a one-way deal; part of relocating down to Palo Alto.

Formula 1

I’ve been trying to decide whether I trust myself to comment on the current state of affairs in my favourite sport, but reading Only In America‘s amusing but information-free rant persuaded me to offer a few thoughts.
For those who haven’t been following things, here’s my analysis of the situation. First, the players:

  • The FIA: the governing body of motor sport, with self-described non-Fascist Max Mosley in control.
  • Formula One Management (FOM), the company that runs the business, wheels and deals with the teams, picks and discards circuits to race at, and generally does whatever Bernie Ecclestone’s Napoleon complex dictates.
  • The teams: Ferrari, McLaren, Brawn, Williams, Red Bull and so forth. Most are members of FOTA, the Formula One Teams Association. Each builds its own car (nominally independently), and gets engines from one of the…
  • Engineering power-houses: Mercedes, Renault, Toyota, BMW, Fiat. Some own teams; some supply engines to one or more teams; some do both.
  • The drivers: the stars that we all know and love (or hate). Each is under contract to a team; playing games with supposedly binding contracts is a popular pastime.
  • The circuits: the venues where the races are run. There are classics like Monza, Monaco and Silverstone, and new built-for-TV extravaganzas like Bahrein and Turkey.
  • The fans. Though it might not be obvious, the vast majority of these live in Italy, Germany, France, England and Japan. (There are plenty of fans in the US, too, but Bernie doesn’t like dealing with American motorsports businessmen because they than play the game of divide-and-exploit even better than he can.)

Next, supply and demand. There is an oversupply of circuits, so Bernie can play them off against each other and dump anyone, like Silverstone, that doesn’t toe his line. There is an undersupply of money, which means that although there are more drivers and teams that want to take part, the wannabees can’t afford to join. This is because there’s an oversupply of technology, which has two causes. First, the engineering powerhouses want to leverage F1 for promotional purposes: their investments really come out of the advertising budget. Second, Mad Max and a few others are worried about the image of gas-guzzling racing cars at a time of high fuel prices and environmental sensibility, so they browbeat the engineers into building esoteric things like Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems.
(It would be nice to say that this was necessary to promote R&D that would benefit everyday cars; in fact the R&D has already been done and cars like the Toyota Prius use KERS everyday. It makes sense in commuter stop-and-go; not so much at 148MPH around Silverstone.)
The recent crisis was provoked by Mad Max declaring that he was going to change the rules to save money, with preferential rules for new teams so that they could participate on the cheap, and that all of the other teams had damn well better sign up immediately, even though the rules weren’t fully worked out. The idea that savvy commercial players like Toyota, Mercedes and BMW would sign up without even knowing what they were agreeing to is… well, delusional. And they didn’t. So yesterday FOTA called Max’s bluff and declared that they were going to participate in an alternative championship series next year. Of course this has provoked threats of lawsuits all round.
Speaking as one of the fans, which I have been since 1964, here’s my opinion. The fans care about three things:

  • drivers
  • teams
  • circuits

That’s it. The fans appreciate the role that the engineering powerhouses play, and they are glad when the business is run well enough that they can attend races where possible and see the others on TV. But they love the drivers: the heros of today, like Button, Hamilton, and Vettel; the giants of the recent past, like Schumacher and Senna; and the legends like Moss, Clark, Fangio and the Hills (Phil and Graham). They follow the teams, like Ferrari, McLaren and Williams, with the family feeling that football supporters accord to the teams they support, and they remember the legendary teams of the past, like Lotus and Tyrrell. And they appreciate the importance of the circuits, because, like tennis fans, they understand that each circuit makes special demands on the skill of the driver and the engineering talent of the team. (This is, perhaps, why the rash of new circuits are so uninteresting: they all seem to test the same skills.)
Although Mad Max is the instigator of the latest and greatest stupidity, I actually blame Bernie more than Max. It has been Bernie who has treated Formula One as his personal plaything, cutting deals which pay little attention to the teams and none whatsoever to the fans. In a way, Max is reacting to the bloated state of Bernie’s cash machine. but he is responding by trying to out-Bernie Bernie, to be even more dictatorial than Napoleon.
I want Formula 1 to continue and succeed. Frankly the only group that seems to have a clue is FOTA, and thankfully the drivers seem to be supporting FOTA 100%.
One final thought, thinking about tomorrow’s British Grand Prix at Silverstone. Back in the day – specifically between 1964 and 1986 – the British Grand Prix alternated between Silverstone and Brands Hatch. I really liked that scheme: both circuits had their own distinctive features, and it seemed like the ideal compromise. I’d prefer that the race remained at Silverstone, but if Bernie really wants to include Donington perhaps we could alternate once again.

Larry disentangles naturalism and materialism

Larry Hamelin (the Barefoot Bum) just posted an important essay on two dichotomies which are frequently confused, identified, misidentified, conflated, linked, and generally misunderstood:

  • Natural v. supernatural.
  • Materialist v. non-materialist.

He begins:

There seems to be considerable confusion and equivocation about naturalism and supernaturalism. Naturalism is often confused with materialism, at the methodological and metaphysical level. At the methodological level, the equivocation takes the form that all natural scientific explanations must by definition invoke only forces and causes ascribed to the material world; at the metaphysical level, the equivocation is that naturalism entails an a priori commitment that nothing but the material world exists. Both of these notions are confused, and there is a much better, more precise way of distinguishing naturalism from materialism.

The reason that this is important is because conflation and confusion on these matters lies at the heart of the debate between science and religion. Larry again:

The primary controversy between science and religion is not about what conclusions we draw about the world, it is between how we draw conclusions about the world. The controversy is not primarily ontological, it is an epistemic controversy.
The religious try to shift the issue to an ontological basis to disguise the sad truth that they do not have an alternative epistemological method to talk about a particular ontological domain; the religious have no epistemological method whatsoever.
To counter this obfuscation, I suggest we always keep the distinction clear between natural and supernatural epistemology and materialist and non-materialist ontology, and make it clear that a materialist ontology is the result, not an a priori commitment, of natural scientific epistemology.

(My emphasis.)

Choosing a car…

Readers of my twitterings will know that I’ve been trying to decide what kind of car to get when I move to California at the end of next month. I want to get all of my planning done in plenty of time, because I expect to be travelling in China right up to the time of the move. So I’ve been reading Edmunds, Consumer Reports, and, prowling the dealers, and test-driving various cars. And of course my many net-buddies have been chiming in with recommendations.
My original plan was to go for a recent (possibly new) Prius, but a number of alternatives presented themselves. The new Honda Insight looked cool, the Mini Cooper S would be fun, and then I saw my first Hyundai Genesis Coupe, which looks like an amazing value.
We rented a Prius through Zipcar. Very nice, better handling than I expected.
I sat in a Honda Insight. I didn’t bother to drive it, because it was immediately apparent that there wasn’t enough legroom for driver or passenger.
I went to a Mini dealer intending to take a test drive, but the salesmen seemed indifferent. Screw ’em – I decided to use Zipcar again. This morning we reserved a Mini for a couple of hours. Sadly, the verdict was negative: uncomfortable seats, noisy cabin, and a choppy ride at highway speeds. (Bad pavement was OK: the oscillation emerged at 60+MPH.)
So right now the Prius is looking like the best choice, but I still have several weeks before business travel and relocation kick in. Stay tuned…

Neo4j and graph databases

Here’s a nice introduction by Todd Huff to the topic of graph databases: what they are, and why they’re relevant. The author starts by trashing all of the candidates:

So relational database can’t handle complex relationships. Graph systems are opaque, unmaintainable, and inflexible. OO databases loose [sic] flexibility by combining logic and data. Key-value stores require the programmer to maintain all relationships. There, everybody sucks 🙂

And then Todd gets into a nice discussion of one graph database, Neo4j. He cites a piece comparing Neo4j with Hadoop. Hadoop’s great for shallow data reductions, like log processing, but really bad for deep relationships.
And don’t just read this piece; bookmark it! Because at the end, Todd includes an excellent bibliography of related articles.

A month with a netbook

Just over a month ago, I bought myself an Asus EeePC 901 netbook, and wrote a blog piece describing my first impressions, including the process of installing Ubuntu Netbook Remix as the default OS. And then I started using the device, and didn’t think much more about it.
A couple of days ago, a friend emailed me, and asked, “I haven’t read any comments about [the EeePC 901] from you. Do you like it? Was it all you thought it would be? Would you buy it again, now that you have experience with it?” Good questions.
First: yes, I like it. I’ve made two trips to California recently, for job interviews and apartment hunting, and each time I took the netbook with me. Previously I’d have toted my MacBook Air, and while I miss Mac OS X, Ubuntu is fine for the basics: email, web access, word processing, blogging, twittering, and so forth. And the netbook is half the size, with three times the battery life, at a fraction of the price.
The latest Ubuntu WiFi works just fine – it’s almost as easy as OS X. Audio is a bit of a pain: the function keys work sometimes, but not always, so I occasionally have to use the volume widget. More annoying is the fact that even when the volume is zero, audio output can still cause the speakers to buzz and click. Odd.
Sleep mode works – mostly. I normally close the lid to sleep, then open the lid and press the power button to wake it. However on several occasions the machine has failed to go into sleep mode; on one occasion I retrieved it from my backpack after a few hours to find that the battery was drained and the machine was really warm! After that incident, I have taken to watching the blinkin’ lights on the front edge of the machine when I put it to sleep; if it fails to go to sleep correctly (about 20% of the time) I open it up and reset it.
I’ve recently been thinking about what gear to take with me when I’m travelling to Shenzhen for Huawei. Both the MacBook Air and the EeePC 901 are plausible: both can support Skype, so that I can phone home. (However the Mac has better support for L2TP tunnelling with services like Neither machine has a DVD drive, however, so I bought a bus-powered USB external DVD drive from LG which I can use to watch movies on either system.
The size of the EeePC 901 has not proved to be a usability problem. The keyboard, trackpad and screen are all just fine. The only nit is that the space bar seems 1-2 mm too high, and it’s quite sensitive, so that I tend to catch it after typing bottom-row letters. However those who know me will confirm that I’m a lousy typist anyway, so it may just be me.
Would I buy it again? I think so – if not this unit, then an equally light netbook, like the Asus “Seashell”. But the combination of size, weight, and battery life is pretty damn compelling; the 8.9 inch netbook is my sweet spot. It’s a shame that manufacturers seem to be giving up on this configuration.
Several people have asked if I plan to install Mac OS X on the EeePC. Right now, the costs – complexity, problematic networking, screen size assumptions in some apps, GUI real estate usage – seem to outweigh the benefits, so the answer is no. Now if someone came up with a foolproof way of reading a Leopard installation DVD and writing a bootable SD card, I’d be interested in playing with it. Until then, Ubuntu will be just fine.
(And yes, I am composing this on the netbook. Not to do so would be silly, wouldn’t it?)

15 books in 15 minutes

Dan Ellard tagged me in the “15 books” meme.

Don’t take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you’ve read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than 15 minutess.

I’m doing mine in my blog, so I don’t lose it in the bowels of Facebook:

  1. “Lord of the Rings” (J.R.R.Tokien)
  2. “Third Wish” (Robert Fulghum)
  3. “Consciousness Explained” (and everything else by Dan Dennett)
  4. “The Ancestor’s Tale” (and everything else by Richard Dawkins)
  5. “God is not Great” (Christopher Hitchens)
  6. “Godel, Escher, Bach” (and everything else by Doug Hofstadter)
  7. “I, Asimov” (Isaac Asimov – I like his novels, but prefer these essays)
  8. “H.M.S.Ulysses” (Alastair MacLean)
  9. “The Penguin Atlas of Ancient History” (and the others in the series by Colin McEvedy)
  10. “The Daughter of Time” (Josephine Tey)
  11. “Windscale 1957” (Lorna Arnold – my mother; also her books on the UK bomb)
  12. “The Demon-Haunted World” (Carl Sagan)
  13. “Risking Everything: 110 Poems of Love and Revelation” (ed. Roger Housden)
  14. “Level 7” (Mordecai Roshwald)
  15. “Swallows and Amazons” (Arthur Ransome – the whole series, please)

Plug-and-play HD video for the Mac

Here’s my latest Amazon product review, for the JVC Everio GZ-HM200 Dual SD High-Def Camcorder.

Plug and play HD for this Mac user

It’s been a number of years since I had a camcorder. It was a tape unit, and after the initial infatuation with the new toy, I found that I never used it. Recording was a chore (juggling tapes and batteries), uploading was tedious, and the quality wasn't all that good. For quick ad hoc recordings, my various digital still cameras could grab a few seconds of good-enough video. The camcorder disappeared from my life.

A few years later, things have really changed. I received the Everio GZ-HM200, snapped in a couple of 8GB SD cards, charged the battery, and I was ready to go. We took a day trip to Mount Rainier; the weather was perfect, and I took a lot of video of photogenic glaciers and waterfalls.

When I got home, I wanted to upload the video into my computer. The Everio comes with software for Windows PCs, and Mac users are hardly mentioned in the documentation. I had searched the various on-line discussions of Mac video, and there were many cautionary tales about compatibility issues with the Everios. I anticipated problems.

I was wrong. I connected the USB cable to my Mac Mini, started iMovie (part of iLife’09), and opened up the camcorder. The USB menu opened, and I chose the “Upload” option. iMovie detected the camera, asked me a few questions (video quality, destination, whether to check for stabilization issues), and then imported the video clips. It was trivially easy – just the way I like it.

The Everio has a “Snapshot” mode to take still images, and I had tried it out. This meant that while I was working with iMovie, iPhoto also started up and offered to import the photos I’d taken. My verdict: it’s OK for casual 1x use, but no substitute for a real digital camera. The problem is that the Everio’s autostabilization mode only works for video, not for still images. This meant that a couple of 20x zoomed images, while impressively magnified, were hopelessly blurred. I’ll stick with my Panasonic DMC-TZ4 for the still shots.

The JVC Everio is a tremendous little camera: compact, easy, light, and producing excellent HD video. (Yes, my Mac Mini feels a little underpowered for working with this.) The dual slot SD card design is excellent; the camera will automatically switch from one card to the next during recording, and you can swap cards on the fly. In XP mode (17 Mbps VBR 1920×1080) 16GB is good for 2 hours of recording, which feels about right. (You can crank it up to 24 Mbps, which will give you 1 hr. 20 min., or drop down to 5Mbps, at which point you can run for over 7 hours!) No more media juggling…..

There are tons of additional features in this camera, and sometime I may try them out. But for the basic job of plug-and-play HD video, this is hard to beat.


(And I gave it five stars.)