In general, lottery tickets have a very low expected value because the chance of winning a million pounds is much less than one in a million. You may take those odds anyway because you love risk. To be consistent, you should cancel your house insurance and enjoy the thrilling possibility that it may one day burn to the ground.


Yes, it would be nice to have evidence-based policy-making. But even if we can't get that, perhaps we can do away with policy-based evidence-making.


Did I mention that my personal heartfelt definition of the word "elephant" includes mystery, order, goodness, love and a spare tire?

South Central Pond?

I think I just found a watermark in Google Maps: South Central Pond, across the Duwamish from S Boeing Access Road. On the satellite view it shows up as a building and parking lot.

Then there's the non-existent roundabout on this map. I think this one's a simple error, since there is a roundabout at Cordata and Kellog (and now one at Westerly as well).


If you can figure out a way to turn a billion dollar industry into a fifty million dollar industry, so much the better, if all fifty million go to you.


New Study Confirms Sex is Popular

A story making the rounds in last week's news cycle is that there's a lot of sex on TV. The odd thing is the note of concern with which the news is delivered. No one is decrying the increasing popularity of cooking on television, or the rise of clean-your-junk-out-of-the-spare-bedroom-you-schlub reality TV. But strangely, sex is singled out. Admittedly, there are two important factors that sex doesn't share with these things. The first is that sex, particularly the sort of glossed-over poorly-managed sex that's depicted on television, can have significant consequences: it can, for instance, create life (for sufficiently small values of "life"—I hear you really need a few months if you want something cuddly), strengthen emotional bonds, and swap any number of microbes. But a lot of things on television have consequences that are glossed over. People drive recklessly, shoot guns, fight, and say things so unimaginably vicious to one another that they might well trigger one of the other aforementioned activities if uttered in real life. But what's important to remember is that people watch television to escape from the monotony of their daily lives. Thus television should be, to borrow from Hitchcock, like life with the boring parts removed. Television doesn't show us people donning condoms before sex* for the same reason that we don't see them balancing their checkbook before going shopping: it's boring. But overspending, particularly given the recent reform of bankruptcy laws and our lack of national health care, is probably at least as damaging to one's long-term emotional and physical health as an ill-advised one-night stand. In short, television glosses over consequences because consequences are boring. In fact I have it on good authority that one of the central tenets of screenwriting is to make sure the stakes for the protagonist in any conflict are as high as possible, given the subject matter. High stakes, like a line of cocaine, make consequences fade into the background.** The second thing that makes sex special is that it's controlled by a part of our brain that we don't really consider to be "us," in the sense that we probably wouldn't say "it was decided by us that Britney Spears appears particularly fertile." In contrast to the sincere desire of thinking liberals, that part of our brain usually exhibits racism, ageism, class-ism, size-ism, looks-ism and any number of other frowned-upon -isms. And, lest we forget (in all but a vanishingly small percentage of the population), sexism. That part of our brain also urges us to engage in all sorts of odd activities ranging from the mildly inappropriate to the punishable by hard time. This reptilian brain factor, rightfully so, both scares us and fascinates us. Obviously apart from not being boring, drama—even television drama—must be dramatic. And what, pray tell, do we as humans find dramatic? Well, certainly not a bunch of robots acting in their carefully premeditated rational self-interest. What we crave are human emotions, the interplay of human frailty and virtue, and—for men—explosions and car chases and fistfights. Passion, temptation, risk, revenge—all the sorts of things we secretly wish would happen in our own lives, except when they actually do happen, at which point they're just stressful and we wish they'd be over with already (cf. the Ancient Chinese Curse™). I don't think it's particularly disingenuous of television producers to give us what we want. I think the rise of sex and sexual situations on television—the inevitable commentary from various moral scolds notwithstanding—reflects a natural and ultimately healthy coming to terms with what makes us human. Plus we get to watch really hot people pretending to get it on. *The only popular series I know of that consistently makes a point of the characters' using condoms is the Showtime series Queer as Folk, something I doubt the aforementioned moral scolds would take much comfort in. **You're right, I've never done a line of cocaine. But that's what I hear, anyway.


iBook G4 Brightness/Volume Button Issue

After updating to Mac OS 10.4.3 I found that I was no longer able to use the hotkeys on my 12" iBook G4 to change the screen brightness or the speaker volume. In fact the brightness control wouldn't appear in the Display preferences either. Annoyingly it was set to a dull mid-range setting rather than the full-on setting I typically use when not in total darkness. Anyway, I'm not sure if it was the hard shutdown or zapping the parameter RAM (by holding down Command-Option-P-R after the bootup sound), but it's fixed now. So if you're having the same issue, I would suggest trying that.


Is a Hybrid Worth It?

This post is partially in response to a post linked to from Slashdot on whether hybrids will save you money. The article is mostly fair, but appears to be written with a slight slant against hybrids. It also makes a couple of naive assumptions: That buying a new car might save you money (puhleez!) and that a Prius is basically an economy car with a hybrid drivetrain.

The article asks whether, based on fuel savings alone, it would be worth replacing a paid-for 1999 Accord with a new Prius. While buying a new fridge will often pay for itself in a few years, for most reasonable sets of circumstances, you will never save enough in fuel costs to offset the cost of a new vehicle. Sure, if you commute 18,000 miles per year in a 12-mpg land barge and replace it with a Kia, you'll save about 30 bucks a month, but that's definitely an edge case. Replacing any late model car with a brand-new hybrid is going to be a money loser.

The article also suggests a Toyota Corolla as an alternative to the Prius. What I don't think the article makes clear is how much nicer a Prius is than even a top-of-the line Corolla. Though somewhat smaller, it's much closer to a Camry in overall features and comfort, and a comparable Camry is only about $2000 cheaper. Sure, the Prius is similar to the Corolla in performance, but I'm sure I could find a Mercedes sedan that is similar in performance to an '82 Camaro.

To do an apples-to-apples comparison, you'd be better off comparing a new Civic EX automatic to a new Civic Hybrid CVT (which is quite comparable outside of a drag race). The latter is $1790 more expensive, but uses a half gallon less fuel per 100 miles of highway driving and 1.3 gallons less for the same amount of city driving.*

From the above, it's pretty clear we can come up with a realistic scenario where buying the hybrid will save you money. Assuming the life of the car is 10 years and you're paying six percent interest, you'll spend an extra $31 a month for the hybrid in car payments (With a typical car loan you'd actually pay $54 extra a month for the first five years and nothing for the next five). At $3 a gallon (probably an unreasonably low average for the next 10 years), the break-even point is 23,000 miles of highway driving per year or 9340 miles of city driving. Neither of these situations are outlandish enough to be dismissed out of hand.

But wait, there's more! Governments—particularly those like the United States' that subsidize driving private vehicles—have realized that the air quality and energy security benefits are worth money and have enacted tax incentives that bring down the price by something like $2500.** So if you're buying a new car and can put up with a slower On-Ramp Grand Prix time, there's really no reason not to go hybrid.

*Note that stating fuel economy figures in miles per gallon is kind of dumb. Adding one mile per gallon to a 10-mile-per-gallon car saves as much money and fuel for a given amount of driving as doubling the fuel economy of a 50-mile-per-gallon car. Stating the reciprocal instead makes this clear. The Europeans have figured this out and state their figures in liters per hundred kilometers.

**My high school history teacher always used to say that there are two reasons for everything: a good one and the real one. This is the good reason. The real one is left as an exercise for the reader.


No FridayFive this week

This week's FridayFive is all about being sick. I can't honestly remember the last time I've been sick. At least more than "I'm just sick enough to not go to work" sick, which was a nasty sinus headache last week that mostly just kept me up half the night.

There was that $10 all-you-can-drink night at The Slide that had me puking in the streets of NYC, but alcohol-related sickness is specifically excluded. But while we're on the subject, it seems that alcohol and nicotine have a synergistic effect on hangovers for me. Two stiff drinks and a cigarette and I'm miserable the next day. Any more and I'm puking.

Other than that, I seem to pick up strep throat like it's going out of style. At least twice a year now. On the plus side, I haven't had a cold sore in something like three years. Or the flu in at least as long. Knock on wood...

Remedy-wise I'm inclined toward Tylenol and herbal tea. And lots of sleep and a hot bath.


Silly String used in combat.



Pocky make great coffee stirrers.


Note to all non-Canadians

Ketchup-flavored, er, flavoured potato chips are really tasty.


I started this blog largely for writing practice. If I have a reader or two, so much the better. Anyway, in keeping with the first point, here's another (belated) FridayFive:

  1. What the HELL ARE YOU DOING??!?!?!?!? (this weekend)
    Hanging out with G as usual. Maybe going to a car show on Sunday. Nothing too exciting.
  2. If you had to go see one of three people perform a “comedy show” and those three people were Carrot Top, Gallagher, or Gilbert Gottfried, who would you go see and why?
    I'd have to go with Gilbert Gottfried, just because I read a great quote about him having “a shrill voice so manic that he makes Jerry Lewis sound like Morgan Freeman.”
  3. If you had to pick one television show that you watched in the 80's to be successful today with a new cast and a new set, which one would you pick and why?
    I didn't watch a whole lot of TV in the 80's, since my parents were basically TV nazis and limited us to a half hour a day. But I really liked the anime series Star Blazers aka Space Battleship Yamato. Given what they could do even five years ago with low-budget computer graphics, it could be one badass recreation.
  4. It's time for a Christmas list. Tell me the one thing that you want more than anything else this Christmas. (Please make sure it is a tangible thing that is reasonable. I don't want anyone writing about how they want to know who killed JFK as their Christmas present.)
    I'd really like one of those 20" iMacs. It would replace my TV and hold all my music and crap that there isn't really room for on this here iBook. I don't really have $1700 to spare, so I'm not going to buy it for myself. Hence the gift value. Maybe when I sell the house.
  5. If you had to listen to a Weird Al Song on a loop for a two-hour period, which song would you choose and why?
    That one about the good old days and torturing rats with a hacksaw. That reminds me...I need to set my rat trap.

OK, this is weird...


Apparently I breathe clean air.

You're a dentist, not the right leg of Voltron.


Mighty Mouse SuX0rs

Ok, so not really...but the scroll ball gummed up on me this morning and wouldn't scroll up any more. A damp cloth solved the issue, but it's a pity that it gets clogged up so quickly.

When can I buy a mouse with a scroll pad on it?


Retrieving Stored Web Passwords

The other day I needed to retrieve a stored password from a form that had moved. I was eventually able to do it with a very simple bookmarklet. Let's pretend this is your password field:


If you click here, you should see an alert with the value whatever is in the password field.

No big deal. However, if the password was automatically filled in by your password manager, this trick still works. If someone else is using your computer and wants to retrieve your stored password, they merely have to concoct a simple bookmarklet to retrieve it:


This seems to be a bug/feature of all of the major browsers (I tested it in recent versions of Safari, Firefox and Win IE). It's probably quite tricky to fix without breaking a significant minority of sites. I guess the moral of the story is don't store any really valuable passwords in your browser's password manager.

You can even create a generic Password Retriever bookmarklet that pops up (one after the other) the name and value of all password fields on any web page, including, of course, those populated by the browser's password manager.

Update: Here's an even simpler version: it just changes the type attribute of all password inputs to "text", so the password shows up on screen without any annoying alert boxes.


Flash Cheaper than RAM

I guess I'm probably among the last to notice, but non-volatile RAM in the form of Flash is now cheaper per gigabyte than DRAM. Flash goes for about $50/gigabyte (depending on form factor) whereas RAM goes for around $70 (for PC2700). Of course the speed difference is huge: Flash is about 200 times slower for reading and about 1000 times slower for writing, and I'm guessing it's unlikely to speed up as quickly as DRAM continues to speed up. So in a way this is nothing new: hard drives have been providing slower-but-cheaper nonvolatile storage for quite some time. But assuming that the speed difference goes away, or is no longer relevant, what sorts of changes would we see in everyday computing if the main memory is nonvolatile? I guess transparent persistence, for one, comes for free.