Singing in Chinese

My last post about Mandarin was related to tones. Tones convey important meaning but they are a hindrance when you want to sing, since songs have their own tones. The Chinese solution: ignore the tones.

A popular Chinese song, 月亮代表我的心 (The Moon Represents My Heart), demonstrates this. This song, originally performed by Teresa Teng, demonstrates it in action. Here is the same song, performed by Leslie Cheung. It's interesting to note that Mr. Cheung is speaking in Cantonese to the audience before singing the song in Mandarin. His pronounciation of the words is slightly different than Ms. Teng's but that's not really suprising.

The other interesting thing about singing in Chinese is that some of the words are mis-pronounced, at least in this song. The word is normally pronounced 'de' but both singers pronounce it 'di'. That sounds odd to me but since I don't listen to Chinese music I can't say if it's commonplace or not.

For more information about 月亮代表我的心, check out this link.

Surgeons and skullduggery

I previously posted about Dr. Yazdanfar, whose patient died on the operating table but believes the decline in her business is due to her competitors spreading damned lies about her. Well, her competitors have now marshaled their professional organizations to investigate her use of a private investigator to expose their villainy. They claim that a doctor should be able to speak freely with his or her patient, and not have to be wary of a "trap".

As far as I'm concerned, the doctor-patient privilege exists to protect patients. So a doctor shouldn't be able to say just anything to a patient without fear of a "trap". The Toronto Star article even quotes Weinberg, a Toronto-area plastic surgeon and member of the three organizations that have complained about Yazdanfar to the College of Physicians, as saying
"A physician has to be able to speak honestly to their patients. As a patient, wouldn't you want to go to your doctor and ask for an honest opinion even if it isn't to the benefit of a company, institution or another doctor?"
The thing is, a doctor IS protected when he speaks his honest opinion, even if it isn't to someone else's benefit. There are many justifications for slander; in many jurisdictions one simple defense is "truth", that is, what you are saying is true. In some places you can't reveal the truth if doing so does no good but only does harm, but a doctor advising a patient on issues pertaining to safety can certainly not be accused of gratuitous harm.

I support any efforts by doctors to uphold a code of ethics, but let's be sure your ethics are actually ethical and not just protectionist.


The Toronto Star recently ran a series of articles about commuting, with part 6 discussing commuting in the GTA. The article discusses one man's commute, 75 km long, which this man keeps to 45 mins by leaving for work at 4:15 AM.

Now, traffic is bad in the city, but what the heck? 4:15 AM?

Ok, so the man lives in Oshawa... but he works in Mississauga! He's driving across the black hole of Toronto, which is the worst-case scenario for commuting. The solution, finding a job closer to home or a home closer to his job, doesn't seem to be worthwhile to this man, so instead he starts working at 5 AM and never sees his kids.

My sympathy meter is at zero.

Another commuter is quoted as spending half her pay on the costs of the car. Are people's choices really so limited, that they can't afford to move or find work elsewhere? Is there no better solution?

I find it interesting when people make choices and then complain about the consequences of their actions. "I have to drive for hours and hours to get to work." Yeah, that's because you live in the boonies and work downtown. "But houses are expensive downtown!" Sure, you can get bigger houses for the same price if you live somewhere else, but didn't it occur to you that you were making a trade-off? I live in a condo because it's cheaper than a house, not because I don't want a 5 bedroom mansion with a three-car garage. The price I paid for my condo could buy a very large house in other cities, but then I'd have to drive a long way to get to work. That's how the world works.

In the Star's other articles about traffic chaos, they mentioned cities like Jerusalem, where commuting is a nightmare because of security restrictions. Those people have something to complain about. In Toronto, or nearby, if you're driving more than one hour each way, and this bothers you, there are solutions to your problem. But there's always a trade-off.

Cause and Effect

Some people should take courses in logic and formal thinking before making claims. But maybe that's overkill, since these people probably wouldn't apply what they've learned, and instead would continue with their knee-jerk reactions.

Like Dr. Behnaz Yazdanfar, a Toronto-area medical doctor who isn't licensed to perform surgery in any hospital but performs cosmetic surgery out of her private clinic. Recently she was in the news because one of her patients died. Yet she is suing plastic surgeon Dr. Sean Rice for slander, claiming his comments to patients is ruining her business.

Now slander is a problem, one of the few cases where I support limits on free-speech. But you have to wonder why Dr. Yazdanfar is seeing so many patient cancellations. Is it because her competition is telling (new) patients that she's not qualified (she isn't), or because they are telling the patients that certain breast-implant makers won't sell implants to unlicensed practitioners (true)? Or maybe her patients are cancelling because they read in the paper how her patient died? I dunno... seems like a complex issue that requires a lawsuit to straighten out.

Rampant Consumerism

Many people hearken back to the days of yore, whenst tis claimed that our lives weren't as filled with such a burning passion for the acquiring of stuff. But verily our forefathers (and foremothers) were the true gluttons at the holiday times, giving gifts that these days would cost more than most people's yearly salary.

Yes, the "12 Days of Christmas", a song describing the typical excesses of the day, recounts a tale of gift-giving that totals over $78,000. I'm glad we live in more sensible times, when you can give someone a gift card, which is almost as good as cash except it expires and can't be used everywhere, or a lottery ticket, which is essentially worth one fourteen-millionth of $10,000,000.

What did you think would happen?

The news today reports that Thorarinn Ingi Jonsson, an "artist" in training at OCAD, didn't expect people to react to his fake bomb, which he claims is a sculpture.

What was he smoking?

I'm surprised that the thought entered his head that people might not be alarmed that something which appeared to be a bomb was found in a public place. Why wouldn't they treat that with the severity it deserves? The National Post says
Jonsson said yesterday he never expected the final piece in his art project to result in such an “overreaction”, since he left a note on the suspicious package indicating it was not a bomb.

What does he think the police should do when they find a bomb? Assume it's ok because it says it isn't a bomb? The Toronto Star reports that Jonsson dialed the ROM's phone number, punched in a random extension, and then told the person that answered the phone that "There is not a bomb by the entrance of the museum". So that should be enough?

Mr. Jonsson has been suspended from school and arrested and charged with mischief and nuisance. Hopefully he'll spend some time in jail and will learn that he should think before he acts. He'll probably claim that he did think ahead, and he'll tell you how "he consulted with a lawyer from the student union before he went ahead with his project." Maybe, for good measure, they should throw that lawyer in prison too.

A new way to be disrespectful to dirt

This is the product you've been needing, the one thing that will fill the gaping void* in your pitiful, dirty life:
The USB vacuum-cleaner.
Yes, it's true: This remarkable device plugs into that incredible power-plant under your desk, also known as a PC, and vacuums up anything in reach of its magnificent 1200mm-long cable. The LEGO bricks on my desk thought they were safe from their natural predator, the rug-cleaning vacuum. Now they live in fear of their new, miniaturized, USB-powered predator.
* Technically this won't fill any existing voids... in fact it works by creating a new, tiny void, in a sense. But then it puts dirt into that void... leaving you with no net change in voids.

International Pricing

I've mentioned in past posts how absurd I think the LEGO prices are in Canada. Lately, with the Canadian dollar skyrocketing, the price difference for a LEGO kit is approaching 40% in real terms. This means that, considering the dollars are about at par, a LEGO kit that sells in the US for $99.99 sells in Canada for $139.99 MSRP. Some places will have this kit for $129, others $149.

I recently discovered that Barnes and sell LEGO and it appears they ship to Canada. If so this makes them one of the only major online retailers that do so. But this means we can finally prove to LEGO Canada that, while their product is awesome, their pricing policies are beyond ridiculous, and as a customer I am insulted they they feel they can gouge so much. I mean, we're not talking about a simple 5-10% difference, the kind you can hand-wave away as import tax or duty related. We're talking about simple gouging. The last few years, with the Internet in practically every home, people have been able to see the prices that their neighbours are paying. And more and more we're able to pay those prices too.

Dear Canadian retailers who sell LEGO: Your customers will abandon you to shop at your US rivals. I'm talking to you, Toys R Us Canada, and you too, Chapters/Indigo. Your prices don't make sense anymore. And if a US firm will ship me the same product for way less than you will, why SHOULDN'T I buy it there? Please, do your part and contact LEGO and tell them to get their act together.

Incidentally this rant also applies to you, Future Shop and Best Buy. How come I pay $30% more video cameras in Canada? It's bogus, and your customers won't stand for it either. When a Canada Post sponsored website can hook me up with a US vendor who'll sell me the same product as you, delivered to my door, taxes and duty INCLUDED, and it's still WAY cheaper than you, something is wrong with your business.

I urge my Canadian brethren to vote with their dollars and buy American if that's what it takes to get lower prices here. Enough is enough.

Stockwell (Tool of the) Day

Stockwell Day, Canada's Minister of Public Safety, can't understand why people are more outraged over the death of a Polish immigrant at the hands of police compared to the deaths of people in traffic accidents caused by drunk or dangerous driving.

I'll give you a hint: on one hand, we have normal everyday assholes who drive badly. On the other hand, we have the FREAKING POLICE, the government's ARMED sqaud of enforcers, killing innocent people. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to think that, if the government can just walk up to you and kill you, maybe something is wrong with the world?

Not to mention that dangerous drivers and drunk drivers still get tiny, meaningless sentences. Frankly my personal outrage for drunk drivers is waning, because I've been outraged about it for so long. Recently a man was jailed for 3 years for killing a dog, which is the same sentence as someone received for killing a person while street-racing. Mr. Day, I can assure you that this DOES outrage me, and your government hasn't done enough to punish the perpetrators of driving murders.

But I have to draw a line and say that the police's over-zealous use of tasers, resulting in needless death, is outrageous in the extreme. The statistics are frightening: from 2002-2005 (the latest year the data is available) over 79% of RCMP taser-victims were unarmed at the time. What's wrong with this picture?

The green pill works better

Another interesting article on Ben Goldacre's Bad Science blog discusses Homeopathy. The article sumarrizes how the Homeopathic industry is hostile to science and the scientific method while trying to deceive the public by using sciency words like "nano" and "quantum". Dr. Goldacre discusses how homeopathy does have an effect, a very strong effect, which is entirely due to the Placebo Effect (but is an actually effect nonetheless). Homeopathy can provide some benefits to its patients, because the placebo effect is real: Dr. Goldacre mentions a few examples:
we know that four sugar pills a day will clear up ulcers quicker than two sugar pills, we know that a saltwater injection is a more effective treatment for pain than a sugar pill, we know that green sugar pills are more effective for anxiety than red, and we know that brand packaging on painkillers increases pain relief.

I guess that explains why my parents insist on buying the name-brand headache pills, despite their pharmacist's re-assurances that the generic brand is just as good.

But the part of the article that I found most entertaining was the description of homeopathy at the end, where he quotes how homeopathic medicines are created by diluting something. It's pure gold so I'll just quote it:
Homeopathic remedies are made by taking an ingredient, such as arsenic, and diluting it down so far that there is not a single molecule left in the dose that you get. The ingredients are selected on the basis of like cures like, so that a substance that causes sweating at normal doses, for example, would be used to treat sweating.

Many people confuse homeopathy with herbalism and do not realise just how far homeopathic remedies are diluted. The typical dilution is called “30C”: this means that the original substance has been diluted by 1 drop in 100, 30 times. On the Society of Homeopaths site, in their “What is homeopathy?” section, they say that “30C contains less than 1 part per million of the original substance.”

This is an understatement: a 30C homeopathic preparation is a dilution of 1 in 100^30, or rather 1 in 10^60, which means a 1 followed by 60 zeroes, or - let’s be absolutely clear - a dilution of 1 in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000.

To phrase that in the Society of Homeopaths’ terms, we should say: “30C contains less than one part per million million million million million million million million million million of the original substance.”

At a homeopathic dilution of 100C, which they sell routinely, and which homeopaths claim is even more powerful than 30C, the treating substance is diluted by more than the total number of atoms in the universe. Homeopathy was invented before we knew what atoms were, or how many there are, or how big they are. It has not changed its belief system in light of this information.

More Mandarin Lessons

Last time I discussed learning Mandarin I mentioned a few things about characters. Today I'm talking about tones.

In Mandarin there are 4 tones (or 5 if you count the 'neutral' tone). The tones are numbered 1 through 4 and represent the pitch of the word. The first tone is high pitch, the second tone is rising, the third tone is falling-rising, and the fourth tone is falling.

Tones are very important because there are lots of words that are indistinguishable except for the tone. The classic example are the words mā () and mǎ (). The first word means mother and the second means horse. The first word is pronounced with the first tone while the second is pronounced with a 3rd tone. This musicality is the only way to distinguish between the two words when spoken in isolation. In a complete sentence, you can sometimes guess the word based on the context, but it can be unclear.

Consider the following example:

English: Please ask me.
Chinese: Qǐng wèn wǒ.

If you mispronounce the middle word, using the 3rd tone instead of the 4th tone, wèn () becomes wěn (), which changes the sentence to "Please kiss me". While this could be an extremely useful phrase, using it in the wrong situation can lead to problems.

LEGO Castle Series 7091 Catapult Defense

The last set I bought in the 2007 Lego Castle line is the 7091 Catapult Defense. This set is comprised of two knights with a catapult attacking a skeleton fortification "manned" by two skeletons, one white and one black.This set is notable for the inclusion of the black skeleton figure, who helps provide a little variety for your legion of undead warriors. It's not clear WHY the skeleton is black, perhaps he's been burned, or maybe it's the evil magic that animates his emancipated corpse, but most likely it's just that he tested well with the focus groups.

The good guys in this set are two generic soldiers, one armed with a spear and the other a sword. As always, the swords used by the good guys are the classic broadsword design (other sets in the series sometimes use the greatsword), which is one of the most key improvements LEGO made in this series: axing the new "zword" and returning to the, dare I say, perfect sword of ages past.
The bad guys are armed with a morningstar and crossbow, but their fortification also has spears and spikes on it. However if the good guys manage to land a rock on it from the catapult, that puny wall won't hold up.

This set is a good mix of figs and parts, for a decent price. The catapult is well built, and contains a minimum of useless pieces. The parts can be re-used to make a serviceable wagon (though you'd need a horse from another kit). The barricade itself is rather small, really more suited as an attacker's hastily-erected defense rather than the defender's main wall, but it serves the purpose of giving the catapult something to smash. The only thing that would have made this set better (aside from gobs of minifigs) is if the fortification were a little more substantial; growing up with a brother has sensitized me to unbalanced toys where one brother gets the "bigger half". If the fortification had twice the pieces it would be a serious opponent to the catapult and would lead to a good split for two brothers to share.

Overall this set is worth buying but it isn't as good an army builder as the crossbow cart, however you do get shields and swords for your soldiers which is always welcome.

Beware others ignorance: It can cost you

So, let's pretend you're a pool-slide salesman. Say someone has a pool in their backyard. This pool isn't very deep. Now say they buy a used slide from someone else (not you) and install it. Then they call you up asking for replacement parts for their slide. Then later on someone is injured while using this slide, because they installed a slide in a shallow pool and people were using the slide incorrectly. Whose fault is it? If you said "mine!" you're right, according to the Ontario courts.

You read that correctly: the store that sold PARTS for the slide, but not the slide itself, was held 80% liable for the tragic accident that paralysed a 15 year-old girl. The girl was held 20% liable because she slid down in a crouched position, despite her mother telling her to slide down "on her bum".

A link to the Ontario Appeals Court judgement is here. In it the judge notes that the trial found that in several cases the pool owner asked if it was "okay" to install the slide or if there would be any problems. Several people at the pool store told her there would be no problems. He also notes that the instruction label on the slide had become faded and worn, which is not surprising considering that the slide was purchased used and was over 15 years old.

These factors aside, the judge's decision to hold the pool store liable was based on the fact that the woman who bought the slide trusted the pool store staff to provide safety instructions regarding the use of the slide. According to the judge, it's not obvious that slides pose a danger, and so when the pool store staff said "no problem" about installing the slide, what they should have said was "no problem but always go down feet first or you may be paralysed". Despite the fact that she didn't specifically ask for any safety advice, the court found that it should have been obvious that safety was her only concern, so the store staff should have advised her as to the pertinent safety rules.

What this means is that anyone who is potentially an expert on any topic is liable for the accidents that befall others. If a court feels you represent yourself as an expert in some capacity, and a person asks you for advice, you are legally responsible for the advice you give. Thus a pool store is responsible for advising anyone who asks a safety question; if they answer the question they are now responsible for anything that happens as a result of that answer.

The legal test mentioned in the decision is the "but for" test. "But for" the advice given to the woman, she wouldn't have bought the slide. That is, if the pool staff had said "don't buy the slide", or "don't install it", she wouldn't have installed the slide, and thus her daughter wouldn't have been injured. This, combined with the fact that the woman trusted the pool store staff as experts, means that the store is responsible for any injuries that result on account of their "advice".

I guess if you work in any industry where there is even the remotest possibility that you will advise someone in some aspect where there is some safety factor, you'd better have lots of insurance, or else just keep your mouth shut.

New ruling shows dogs more important than people

A man was recently sentenced to 3 years in jail for throwing a dog out a window, causing serious injury to the dog which required that it be put down.

Now, this man is clearly a jerk who deserves to spend some time in jail. But my problem with this is that his sentence is longer than some drunk drivers receive, even when people have been injured or killed. Frankly this shows that the courts need a major cleanup to improve law and punishment consistency.

Thank You

Today I wanted to say thank you to my grandfather and all those who served in World War II and any of Canada's other wars. There are those in society who take it for granted but the sacrifices made by our young men are of immeasurable value. The wars leave our youth killed or injured; my grandfather was relatively lucky in that all he physically lost was his teeth, but he never spoke about the war and you could tell that he'd been through some hardships. Today our men and women are serving in the Middle East, fighting an unpopular war. I don't know enough about the situation in Afghanistan but I hope history shows that our presence accomplished some good.

So to all our soldiers and veterans: Thank you for your hard work and your sacrifices. They have not been in vain and will not be forgotten.

The Battle for Wesnoth

I've discovered a new drug: The Battle for Wesnoth. This is a Free Software game which is available for Windows, Linux, Mac, and many other platforms. It's a turn-based strategy game with both single-player and multi-player modes.
The gameplay is very simple: you have a bunch of soldier units which can move along the hexagonal grid. Your units have various characteristics, such as different kinds of attack and defense, magic, flight, speed, or other traits, and you must use these traits to defeat an enemy or capture a position on the map. There are other nuances, such as characters who work better in the day or in the night, and most importantly, characters who work better on different kinds of terrain. As your characters defeat enemies they acquire experience and advance to new ranks. You can recruit more units by getting gold, which you get when you occupy a village.

With these simple rules the gameplay is easy to pick up, even for a novice such as myself, but the games are quite entertaining. There are a number of single-player campaigns and there is also a multi-player mode.

What's most interesting about this is that this game is completely Free. You can download the code, artwork, and music, and modify or re-use it in other Free programs. This is rare in the world of games, especially for such a high-quality game.

The other day I was playing the game when I realized it was almost time to get up and go to work. That sort of thing hasn't happened to me in a long time and is a testament to the addictiveness of this game.

Vampires suffer from OCD

You know, I never understood the vampire on Sesame Street. I'll admit it: the pun was lost on me. To me he was a vampire, like Dracula. Sure, Dracula's "title" was "Count" but that's just a label the nobility have, like Baron or Duke. I never wondered what kind of noble the vampire on Sesame Street was, and it never occurred to me that he counts things because he's a Count. I didn't figure this out until years later, when a friend's band (Chucky Jenkins and the Psychedelic Caterpillars) wrote a song about how scary Sesame Street was. In the song they mentioned the purple vampire counting everything in site, and it was only when I said, "What was that vampire's name?" that everyone laughed and I realized what a dumb kid I'd been.

Anyway, it turns out that our favourite blood-sucking muppet isn't the only vampire that suffers from OCD. Did you know that Vampires can't resist counting seeds if they find them on the ground? Simply spreading a bunch of seeds around a vampire's grave keeps them occupied all night counting the seeds, which leaves them no time to come terrorizing your village. So you can add one more bullet to your list of how to recognize a vampire: they obsessively count things. It's really true that everything you need to know you learned from Sesame Street.

LEGO Castle Series 7009 The Final Joust

Another of the LEGO kits I bought at Toys R Us's recent sale was the Castle-series kit 7009 "The Final Joust". This is a small kit that would normally retail for $7.99 US but in Canada retails for a zillion dollars, or some other ridiculous amount. But enough about Lego Corp's inability to understand currency conversion, let's talk about the set.The main theme of this set is a jousting match between an evil skeleton and a good knight. You can tell that the skeleton is evil because he looks angry; his eyes are red, he dresses all in black, and he's a skeleton. These things always indicate evil. The skeleton in this set is armoured, which is implemented by the simple means of it being a regular minifig body with a skeleton head. The result is pretty good; the skeleton has one of the helmets introduced in the KKII line that looks really nice with the body armour. The good guys are represented in this kit by a knight wearing full armour and sporting the popular pointed visor helm, now in a shiny metallic finish. The rest of the set is a fence, alongside which the competitors joust, and a weapons rack.

Overall this kit is pretty good, parts-wise; nothing in the set is wasted or useless. My only complaint is that the inclusion of two horses means the kit is expensive considering the meagre contents. I've never really been a fan of LEGO horses but I can appreciate that other people like them a lot and want whole troops of mounted warriors. That's fine, I guess, and this kit is a good source of said warriors.The minifigs themselves are pretty good, but not perfect. These days a perfect fig is fully printed and comes with extra pieces; LEGO has cut costs over the last few years and no longer makes such ideal figs. Thus these figs are perfect in their default configuration: They look good in their armour and come with a good set of weapons. But their torsos and legs are blank, which means if you take off the armour you get two guys (one really pale guy) wearing their pyjamas. Given the cost realities I won't hold this against LEGO but I miss the days when figs had printed torsos and legs AND a full armour set including plumes (which sadly won't be included in any future LEGO lines for cost reasons... sigh).The jousting fence and weapons rack are nothing impressive by themselves but are a good source of specialized bricks, including arches, dark-blue jumper bricks, bricks with claws in the middle, and those gold roof pieces (if you like the new Castle theme colours, those are invaluable for decorating a bigger castle).

My recommendation for this kit is: at the US retail price it's reasonable, and worth buying. LEGO has listened to the criticisms of their widely-panned Knights Kingdom II line, and released a good line of Castle products with a good assortment of good guys, bad guys, and parts.

Virginia Tech Report on the April 16th Massacre

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's report on the Virginia Tech shooting was released a few weeks ago. I decided to read this report in order to see what it said; would it be a case of finger-pointing and 20/20 hindsight?

The report starts off on a bad foot. It claims from the outset that "the system" dropped the ball and that people should have been warned about Cho's dangerous nature. However after reading through I find that most of the report is, in fact, grounded in reality and does not make recommendations which are overreaching in nature.

The most alarming suggestions in the report are those concerning the "system" which failed Cho:
He was enrolled in an Individual Educational Program to deal with his shyness and lack of responsiveness.... Therapy continued ... through his junior year. He had no behavior problems, kept his appointments, and made no threats. He got good grades and adjusted reasonably to the school environment. Both the guidance office in school and the therapist felt he was successful. He graduated with a 3.5 GPA in the Honors Program.
there are suggestions that Virginia Tech should have told Cho's parents about his detention at a mental health facility, or that Cho's high-school should have informed VT that they were about to accept a monster into their classes. However the reality is that Cho, in high school, took part in a mental health program which helped him deal with his shyness and allowed him to adjust reasonably to school. His behaviour and grades were excellent and both his therapist and guidance counsellor felt they were successful.

The problems began when Cho couldn't deal with the university life, due to his mental illness. However the notion that the school should be calling his parents is a dangerous one: at some point children have to be considered adults and the schools should not be interfering by bringing in his parents. It's not up to the school to make such a decision; for one thing he may not even be on good terms with his parents. If the school felt he was a danger and they couldn't have him on campus, that would be their decision, but the decision of what to do with him afterwards should not involve calling his parents.

Anyway, Cho was forced to seek mental help while at school. The problem is, identifying psychopaths is not easy. A psychiatrist ruled that Cho was not a danger to himself or others, but subsequently a judge ruled that he was. Clearly the psychiatrist was wrong (though the danger may only have arisen later), but the real problem with this part of the story is that Cho was sentenced to out-patient treatment but he did not complete the treatment. Neither the designation as a dangerous person, nor his failure to complete the treatment were recorded, and he was not arrested. Furthermore, his designation as a dangerous person made him ineligible to purchase firearms in Virginia, yet the requisite paperwork was never filled out, so the gun dealer didn't turn up any issues when he did a background-check.

The most outrageous idea presented in the report is that
No one from Virginia Tech ever told his parents about his detention at a mental health facility, his stalking of students or his macabre writings. (The Toronto Star, via AP).
"the admission’s staff at Virginia Tech did not see were the special accommodations that propped up Cho and his grades. Those scores reflected Cho’s knowledge and intelligence, but they did not reflect another component of grades: class participation. Since that aspect of grading was substantially modified for Cho due to the legally mandated accommodations for his emotional disability, his grades appeared higher than they otherwise would have been."(page 37)
I know several people who never participated in high-school classes; should this be grounds for barring a student from school, or putting them on a watch-list? Please.

The remainder of the report, however, is very balanced. It discusses the logistics of cancelling classes, and other things the VT staff could have done to increase student safety. The conclusion is that cancelling classes or locking-down the buildings was impractical or impossible, and would have had little benefit. Indeed they mention situations where a gunman had counted on a disturbance which brought people out of buildings, so that he could shoot them. Locking down the buildings could have locked thousands of students outside with Cho wandering among them.

The real recommendations of the report are that the VT safety committee was not well equipped to communicate quickly and they reacted slowly to the problems. This led to a significant delay in the emails sent to students which mentioned the first killings; the result was that by the time the university sent out the warnings Cho was moments away from starting his second killing spree. The report notes that the university lacked a good communication system, but that one was under-construction at the time. Alerting students sooner would likely have had the effect that someone would have been more alert and reported the chains on the doors of the building Cho was in. However, the report states on page 87, "Despite the above findings, there does not seem to be a plausible scenario of university response to the double homicide that could have prevented a tragedy of considerable magnitude on April 16." Accordingly the report suggests that the physical security of the buildings could be improved; had the classrooms been equipped with locks Cho would have been unable to enter more than one room; had the building doors been impervious to chaining-shut the police could have entered sooner. These are sensible recommendations that will likely be adopted by buildings around the world.

The VT report was an opportunity to spread much blame around, but in the end common sense prevailed. Simple physical security, rapid response from the campus safety team, and preventing the sale of firearms to designated-dangerous persons are all that are needed here.

South African Ex-Policeman uses DNA, GPS, to find Madeleine McCann

Like the alchemists of yore, Danie Krugel has a secret invention that can perform miracles. Simply provide a sample of a person's DNA, such as a hair from their hairbrush, and the machine will, using quantum physics and DNA, pinpoint the person on the globe within meters. Even if they are dead and have been buried for several years. Supposedly Mr. Krugel has used this machine to find the bodies of some children, dead for over 20 years, and he has now located the body of Madeleine McCann. The Portuguese police, however, acting on his suggestion, brought in forensic sniffing dogs, and the dogs detected traces of evidence in the McCann's suite, which implicates them. A search of the beach where Krugel claims Madeleine is buried has not been performed.

The sheer audacity of Krugels claims is astounding. I can't help but think that he hasn't caught on to the fact that a good portion of the developed world is highly educated and also communicates amongst itself. In the old days, Snake Oil Peddlers[*] would sell products claiming nearly magical effects, often resorting to a scam where an accomplice in the crowd would deliver a fake testimonial about the product. This scam was successful because people didn't know biology or chemistry and weren't all that good at science or testing the validity of someone's claims. These days it's different; there are hundreds of experts in the world who can hear "DNA + GPS" and immediately tell you that there's no way these can find someone. For one thing the GPS satellites don't watch over us, they tell you where you are because the GPS receiver in your hand deduces your location by the location of the satellites. It's as if three blind people in a dark room are constantly saying "It's 3:45:23 and I'm next to the sofa", and you use this information, based on what time it is when you hear them speak, and based on the direction they are coming from, to figure out that you must be next to the toilet. The blind people don't see you and in fact keep telling their location even if you're not there. So I can't ask them to find you.

Second, DNA is a molecule. Even if there was a foolproof way to (quickly) take two DNA samples and identify that they were the same[**], you'd still need some way to FIND a second molecule somewhere on the planet. The planet is a big, big place. We find stuff that's been missing for a long time, stuff we assumed was lost for ever. In order to find something, especially a unique thing, you need to know where to search. And the possibilities are essentially endless for a human. Look at the long list of missing persons, people whose last known whereabouts are very likely right nearby their final resting place. Jimmy Hoffa. Natalee Holloway. The list goes on and on. There's a reason we haven't found these people, and that's because the search space is too large. There's just no way to search every possible place to find their body. And now Mr. Krugel is claiming that he can find a tiny piece of their body... it defies belief.

The irony of this whole con is that it would be trivial to prove that this machine works. As Ben Goldacre wrote in his blog post,
psychic debunker James Randi has a million dollar prize for anyone who can demonstrate paranormal powers like these. Krugel’s claims fit the bill perfectly. Why not use the device to locate Randi, and claim his million?
The technology needed for this machine would be astounding; there'd be a Nobel prize for sure, not to mention government contracts and rewards posted by people who want to find their lost loved ones. But Mr. Krugel isn't doing any of these things, most likely because he'd be exposed as a fraud. Sadly, Mr. Krugel has already victimized some people. Hopefully by spreading the news about him we can prevent others from also being conned.

* Ironically Chinese snake oil actually contains pain-fighting ingredients, and is a real, respectable product. The Wikipedia page has more details.
**(the DNA test used by the police only measures a few similarities so there is a chance of false positives)


As a kid I remember learning that paper couldn't be folded more than 7 times without using a tool to compress the paper. This fact figured in an Encyclopedia Brown story, where one of E. Brown's friends had a collection of toilet paper, and the local bully claimed to have folded the paper 8 times to fit it somewhere, but E. Brown demonstrated that it was impossible.

Naturally I tried myself to fold a sheet of paper and was foiled around 6 or 7 folds, because the wad was too small to bend. Intuitively though, I thought that there must be a way, if only the paper were bigger.

Then I saw on TV (some science show) where the host ridiculed his assistant who claimed to have folded a newspaper sheet 8 times. The last fold was pretty bad but given how small the wad was, it wasn't surprising. I was young so I considered the question solved, because, if a bigger sheet would help, wouldn't they try it on TV?

Today I was thinking about the problem again, because I bought some furniture and it came in a box, which I was folding down to recycle. Folding cardboard is hard but it got me thinking that even with its high thickness I can still fold it, so why not a thick wad of folded paper? I wondered if I could dust off my physics knowledge to determine how big a sheet of paper would need to be for you to fold it. The hard part of folding is that a single sheet folded 5 times is 32 sheets thick... but if you had a sheet that was much longer it wouldn't matter if it was thicker. I could work out the formula by calculating the force needed... ugh. Why not Google it?

Not surprisingly, someone has already solved this problem. Britney Gallivan has devised the equation determining how long a sheet must be if you want to keep folding it in half, depending on how many folds you want and how thick the sheet is. She devised two equations, one for folding in alternate directions (length-wise, width-wise) and one for folding always in the same direction. She proved her theory by folding a sheet of toilet paper 12 times. The sheet was 4000 feet long and it took her 7 hours to complete, but it's a clear win for Britney and all those who doubted the folding limit. I guess they'll need to reprint the Encyclopedia Brown story....

On Flip-flopping

This just in: politicians change their minds.

However, it seems they can never do so without being accused of "flip-flopping". This negative term is poison and should be banned from political journalism. The journalist is obviously trying to paint the politician as indecisive or implying that the politician is lacking something for having taken two contradictory positions on an issue. But the truth is, "flip-flopping" is weasel-speak for "changing your mind". And guess what? Changing your mind is what rational people do when confronted with new information that invalidates your previous position.

It's very simple: based on the information you have, you adopt a position on a topic. Say, asbestos. Originally people thought it was a good thing, since it is a very effective fire retardant. People said "Asbestos is Good". Then people learned that it caused cancer. If a politician had been pushing for the adoption of asbestos, and then changed his mind once he learned it caused cancer, he'd be accused of flip-flopping. Never mind that only a moron wouldn't change his mind in this case, when you're a politician you're damned if you do, and damned if you don't.

To all journalists: Please ban the phrase "flip-flops". It is loaded and unnecessarily biased. I promise I won't proclaim "Journalists flip-flop on using the phrase 'flip-flop'".

LEGO 7090 Crossbow Attack

Toys R Us recently had a sale which brought the prices of the Castle LEGO kits down to almost what you pay at full retail in the US. I took advantage of this sale to procure a few little kits. The first is the 7090 Crossbow Attack.
This kit is the smallest of the new line and is about $8 Canadian or $5.99 US. At the US price it's reasonable for a kit of this size, which comes with 3 minifigs, a ballista, and a skeletal horse. I don't really like the skeletal horse but it's actually much better in person than I expected. Still I find it looks a little odd, but then I've never seen a horse skeleton so maybe they DO look like that.

The ballista is decent-looking but it doesn't fire well. Unlike the Viking heavy artillery, this little artillery piece can barely lob the bolt more than 8 inches. I think it would have been better if the ballista didn't attempt to fire and instead looked better, but anyway its parts are useful and can be incorporated into new creations fairly easily.

Anyway the real reason for buying this set is to build up your army. The set comes with two human soldiers and one undead skeleton, so it's pretty good in that regard. The skeleton is fully armed with the great new scimitar and round skull shield, but the humans are poorly armed. They can be outfitted with the crossbows that are attached to the ballista, and one human has an axe, but there are no shields to be seen. The lack of sheilds and swords is what keeps this set from being perfect.
Overall I rate this set as good, not excellent, but still a nice fun set that (in some countries) is available at a reasonable price.

Mandarin Lessons

I am studying Mandarin. This is an interesting language to learn because it has a long history which is all new to me. My native French and English languages I take for granted, but learning a completely foreign language, from a place like China, makes for a lot of new facts.

For example, I learned that Cantonese is older than Mandarin. This is shown by comparing classical Chinese literature to modern Cantonese and Mandarin. Poetry, for example, probably won't rhyme if read in the wrong dialect, and classical poetry usually sounds best in Cantonese because it rhymes and flows better.

What makes learning Chinese even trickier is that the written words are completely disconnected from the spoken words. In English, if you know how to pronounce "turn" and "key" you can probably figure out "turkey". In Chinese, however, the written words are just symbols, and knowing the shape of a symbol tells you little or nothing about the pronunciation.

There is one class of exceptions: Chinese characters made up of a meaning part and a sound part. A good example is the word for Mom1:

The left half of that symbol is the radical for "Woman" while the right half is the radical for "Horse". The reason for the Horse is because both mom and horse are pronounced 'ma'2. Personally I find it funny that 'Horse' gets its own symbol but 'Mom' does not.

Next time: how using the wrong tone can lead to embarrassment.

1. The word for "Mom" is actually 媽媽, as in 'mama'.
2. The words for horse and mother have different tones, which is how Chinese speakers distinguish them.

Signs you've been online too long

Some people don't know when to quit. As an avid computer user, I've had my share of long online games. A few times in university I recall playing online games until the sun came up. But this guy in China takes the cake. Apparently he played so long he died of exhaustion. I wasn't aware the problem was so serious, so I've put together a handy checklist which you can use to determine if you've been online too long:
  1. The Internet Cafe technician comes by to upgrade Windows on the computer you're using and you don't recognize the year in the version number
  2. You have to change your mailing address to the Internet Cafe's location so that you can continue to receive your credit-card statements
  3. You don't have time to shower but you've had to clean the mouse and keyboard several times since you started playing
  4. Your family stops visiting you or phoning you and only contacts you through MSN Messenger because that's the only way they can reach you
  5. You can't discuss geography or politics with anyone because all your knowledge is out of date due to continental drift.
If you have any of the above symptoms, you've been playing online too long and should take a break immediately. And probably you need a shower.

Only a new C.N. Tower can save the Canadian Dollar

Today the Canadian Dollar reached parity with the US dollar. This is seen as a bad thing because it means Canadian labour is comparatively more expensive because Canada mainly exports to the U.S.. We need to prop up the U.S. dollar so that the Canadian economy isn't harmed. The last time the dollar was at par was in 1976, when the C.N. Tower was built. From that time the Canadian dollar dropped and dropped. What happened to change this situation? Clearly it's the construction of the Burj Dubai, which is now taller than the C.N. Tower. Obviously what we need to restore our dollar is a new, taller tower. I recommend one built of Lego.

Robert Jordan

Since I started writing this blog I've been meaning to post about the Wheel of Time. This is a fantasy series written by Robert Jordan, whose real name is James Oliver Rigney Jr. Since 1990 millions of readers have been taken into the world of Rand al'Thor, where only women perform magic because the male magic is tainted, and where young men and women must stand up and take up arms in the eternal struggle of good and evil. Over 11 volumes (plus one prequel novel) and 17 years Robert Jordan has told the tale. His loyal fans await the 12th and final book.

Alas, Robert Jordan has passed away. He struggled over the last few years with amyloidosis with cardiomyopathy, a disease with a median life expectancy of approximately 4 years. Others will no doubt quote some passage from his books, but I will simply say thank you for the stories.

Times and Dates

Today a coworker and I grappled with a weighty issue: Time.

The thing is, time is one of the most complicated concepts humans have invented for themselves, but we've managed to hide the complexity behind artificial facades. For example, all business record the time and date when transactions occur. Businesses want to know how much money was made when, and this information is summarized on a daily, monthly or quarterly basis, but in the computer realm we deal with seconds or milliseconds.

How many milliseconds are there in a month?

It's a trick question, because the length of a month depends on which month it is, and whether this is a leap year or not. People expect to be able to calculate the time between two dates, and also to be able to determine what the date some number of seconds from now. Both of these tasks are extremely annoying because dates and times use convoluted units of measure.
1000 milliseconds in a second->60 seconds in a minute->60 minutes in an hour->24 hours in a day->7 days in a week->28, 29, 30, 31 days in a month->12 months in a year->365 days in a year->almost 52 weeks in a year->almost 4 weeks in a month

Computers typically represent time in milliseconds since some arbitrary point. Linux, Unix and Java use Jan 01 00:00:00 UTC as the reference time. Thus the number 378113400000 represents Fri, 25 Dec 1981 07:30:00 GMT, while the number 378563400000 represents Wed, 30 Dec 1981 12:30:00 GMT. This is useful for determining how much time has passed from one instant to another but makes it difficult to determine what the date is at a particular instance. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that the calendar isn't continuous: during the Gregorian switchover (when most Christian nations switched from the Julian Calendar to the Gregorian Calendar) the date went from Thursday October 4, 1582 to Friday October 15, 1582. Except in countries that didn't switch calendars, including the United Kingdom, which rejected everything the Pope said, and thus they held on to the Julian Calendar until 1752, when Wednesday, September 2, 1752 was followed by Thursday, September 14, 1752 (an 11 day jump, because in the intervening years the Julian Calendar had become further incorrect). It is difficult to accurately represent times in this era, mainly because not everyone agrees on what a specific time should be called.

Then there's time-zones: there's dozens of them and they cause havoc with time. In local terms some days are 25 hours long or 23 hours long when the time changes from or to Daylight Saving Time. Luckily most computer software uses UTC, which doesn't have time-zones. Internally computers represent time in UTC and only convert to local time for display purposes. But there are still issues, because the computer still needs to know the rules for how to convert to local time and sometimes the rules change, necessitating a software update. In some jurisdictions the rules for Daylight Saving Time change every year.

Which brings me to the problem we are facing at my office: for better or worse we have a system where dates and times are recorded in a non-UTC format, which is to say, in the local timezone. This arrangement makes it difficult to examine data and compare it to other systems because the other systems use UTC. Except for the ones that don't, because they use some other timezone. This makes it problematic to look at logs and discuss the order of events because the timestamps all mean different things. It's like England in the 18th century: When an Englishman spoke of the date September 1st 1752, any Frenchmen nearby would have to mentally translate to Sept 13th 1752. However fixing the clocks and time-zone settings on the various systems won't solve the problem of systems that don't speak UTC and can't be made to. For those there is nothing to be done. But as a lesson to future system designers: do everyone a favour and
  1. Synchronize the clocks of your computer gear, and
  2. Always store dates/times in UTC
The maintainers of your system will thank you.

Vancouver Trip

I recently took a trip to Vancouver. The weather was much nicer than in Toronto, about 10 degrees cooler. This was our fourth time going to Vancouver, so we knew where to stay (Davie Street, not because it's the gay district but because it's close to English Bay) and we knew where not to go (Hastings and Main). We took an "airporter" bus but this turned out to be an expensive, less-than-convenient alternative to a taxi. The kicker is that we had to switch buses a few blocks from our hotel, but the bus we switched to drove all around the city in a big circle until finally dropping us off an hour later. It would have been faster for us to walk from the transfer point, dragging our luggage on its pitiful wheels. But after this dismal start the rest of the vacation went really well.

The first night there was the final night of the fireworks festival. We went to English Bay relatively early, around 7pm, when there were only about 200,000 people waiting for the show to start. I estimate that the crowd doubled in the three hours we waited, until there were so many people that we were standing on a bench because there wasn't room for us to sit (people crowded too close to the bench) and some people were actually climbing on the bench to try to get by. But the fireworks were good, and I wish I'd had a tripod there to photograph them.

After that we spent the rest of the time wandering around Vancouver and relaxing at English Bay. We also went on a walking tour of Gastown, where I learned that the fire department used to (in the old days) sell its horses to the police, milk-men, whoever, once the horses were too old to pull fire-wagons. But the horses had been so well-trained that whenever a fire alarm sounded, all the police and milk-men showed up at the fire along with the actual firemen.

Overall the trip was relaxing and fun. The only real excitement was when two F117A Stealth Fighters flew overhead. I'd never personally seen this plane flying and was so surprised to see two of them that I just gaped like a drooling nitwit until I realized that I was holding my camera. I tried to snap a picture but unless you know ahead of time that it's a picture of two aircraft you'd be forgiven for missing those two stealthy specs.

Our last night there was eventful as well due to a false fire-alarm which caused us to evacuate. Too bad the Vancouver FD doesn't use horses anymore.


The Toronto Star has an article about cyberslacking. It basically says people spend all their time at work surfing the Internet instead of working. However it doesn't mention one of the worst offenders for cyberslacking: This website, based in Montreal, is a collection of hilarious animated clips. The clips are in Quebecois French, which in this case is about as far from standard French as classic Newfoundland English is from the Queen's English. Speaking of English, half the words actually ARE English but some people do speak that way in Quebec. Anyway, it's great fun and if you can understand the dialogue you'll laugh your head off.

Interesting facts you'd rather not know: Fetal Urination

I learned the other day that fetuses urinate in the womb. Apparently the amniotic fluid is primarily composed of fetal urine (after 11-12 weeks), which is swallowed and re-urinated by the fetus. Luckily for the mother (and the fetus, I guess) this urine is totally different from normal urine. Still, this makes me glad I'll never be pregnant.

Convict whines that he can't use Linux while on Probation

TorrentFreak has the story of a man (alias Sk0t who was convicted of copyright infringement, and who is now serving probation, who claims the Department of Justice is making him switch from Linux to Windows. The terms of his probation are that he can't use the Internet without special DOJ monitoring software, and this software only runs on Windows. "Why should I conform to them when I am consenting to the software… they should have software that conforms to me." Sk0t says. As expected, the knee-jerk reaction from the TorrentFreak website and many other sites is condemnation of this criminal and... no wait, it's the other way around. Many people seem to think the convict is right when he expects the government to have monitoring software that works on every single computer. Frankly that's ridiculous. I can name, without googling, over two dozen operating systems off the top of my head, and that's by compressing similar OSes together:
Windows NT/2000/XP/Visa
Windows 64-bit
Windows 95/98/ME
Windows 3.1
Windows NT for Aplha, PPC, MIPS
Linux (hundreds of variants)
Mac OS classic
Mac OS X
Sco OpenUnix
Sco Xenix
Sco Unixware

Most of these OSes are real commercial products with lots of users world-wide. Is it reasonable for the government to have convict-monitoring software for each of these? Never mind that Linux itself is available in dozens of versions, for dozens of platforms, and with countless variations of distributions. Heck, just supporting the Windows family would be a big enough task, and some commercial software companies can't keep up with them all, nevermind every OS out there.

The dumb thing about this is that the convict is crying that the government is infringing on his freedom of choice. Guess what Sk0t? YOU'RE A CONVICT! Your rights were abridged when the sentence was passed. And you can't tell me that being convicted of this crime is a complete surprise: you uploaded a major motion picture (Star Wars III) to the Internet before the theatrical release! That's bound to attract attention from Hollywood, and in this day and age people are getting caught, and sued or tried for copyright infringement, and everyone knows it. Yet Sk0t went ahead and uploaded it anyway, knowing full well the wrath he'd incur if caught. And now he's allowed to walk free, with certain conditions, but he's still not satisfied. Well, tough. STFU and next time don't commit a crime.

Strange bugs

Sometimes, as a software developer, you have to debug very odd problems. One strange one that I worked on recently was that, after deploying a new version of a website, logins spiked to crazy volumes. It was as if every user was logging into the site again and again. Clearly they weren't doing that, but there didn't seem to be anything wrong with the site.

We tracked down the issue by logging all URLs visited and found that, when Internet Explorer visited certain pages, a request for "/" was made. For you non-technical people, this is the home, or landing, page of the site, the page you get when you visit as opposed to a specific page at Google, such as On the website in question, requesting the main landing page will log the user in if they selected "remember me" the first time they logged in.

But why was IE requesting the landing page? The real page we wanted was showing up fine, but you could see that IE was, in the background, requesting the landing page. It turned out to be an empty image tag:

<img src="">

This tag, which on Firefox does nothing, causes IE to request / as the source of the image. Seems pretty odd since I've never come across a website that uses images as a landing page, but what can you do? We changed the page and removed this empty tag and the problem went away.

For those of you wondering what we wanted an empty tag for, rest assured, we had a reason: JavaScript on the page was dynamically setting the src for that image under certain conditions. The full solution to the problem was to remove the img tag entirely and dynamically create it using JavaScript.


I read a press release recently that discussed an issue I am familiar with: The EpiPen. The authors of the release, King Pharmaceuticals in collaboration with Anaphylaxis Canada, claim that only one in five allergic individuals carry an EpiPen and 40% of the population would be unable to administer an EpiPen dose if someone was having an allergic reaction. I'm surprised that that second figure isn't higher, but in the interest of my and every allergic individual's safety, I am going to go over the procedure for administering the EpiPen.
  1. Remove the EpiPen from its carrying tube. Take off the grey safety cap.
  2. Hold the EpiPen firmly in your fist, with the black tip near the patient's outer thigh.
  3. Jab the black tip of the EpiPen firmly into the patient's thigh at a 90 degree angle. Hold for 10 seconds.
  4. After 10 seconds (the EpiPen's window will show red) the injection is complete. Remove the EpiPen and massage the injection site.
  5. CALL 911.
  6. Put the used EpiPen into the storage tube. The exposed needle will be protected in the tube. Do not touch the needle.
It's very straight-forward. But there are some people who've seen too much TV and think they need to jab it into the heart or some other nonsense. This is not Pulp Fiction. There is only one good injection site, which is the thigh. The reason is there can be reduced blood-flow at the injection site and if it's injected somewhere else (say, the hand) you can get necrosis. That's latin for death of the tissue.

I know some of you out there are thinking of some funny wise-crack about this process but I urge you to stifle it and consider these instructions carefully. Knowing this could save someone's life.

The EpiPen website has a PDF with more detail.

Images courtesy of

From the embarrassing ways to die dept

There are many ways to die in this world. Some of those ways are violent or gory, like being eaten by a shark. Some of those ways are stupid, like the guy who cut of his own head with a chainsaw. And some of those ways are just plain embarrassing, like a woman who was smothered to death by a horny camel. A 60-year old Australian woman suffered this fate when her 10-month-old pet camel knocked her down and made his move. This just goes to show that you should always spay or neuter your pets.

New study confirms even researchers can be idiots

Ben Goldacre, a doctor, writer for The Guardian and blogger at, writes about a study by some researches in the Messina University in Italy, that compares Down's Syndrome patients to Oriental people. In 1866 John Langdon Down wrote “Observations on the Ethnic Classification of Idiots”, which was the first paper to describe Down's Syndrome patients. In that paper Down compared various "idiots" and classified them according to which ethnic group he felt they belonged in, arguing that mental retardation was really a genetic throwback to the less-evolved, non-white races. Down described (what's now known as) Down's Syndrome patients as Mongoloid.

Fast forward to today when an Italian university publishes a paper with such gems as:
Another aspect of Down person that remind [us of] the Asiatic population, are alimentary characteristics. Down subjects adore having several dishes displayed on the table and have a propensity for food which is rich in monosodium glutamate (a salt of glutamate), such as parmigiano, beef broth, tinned food, etc.. The Chinese food abounds in monosodium glutamate that seems to be responsible for the fifth taste or ‘‘umami taste’’ and of the ‘‘Chinese restaurant syndrome’’.
But it gets worse:
The tendencies of Down subjects to carry out recreativereabilitative activities, such as embroidery, wicker-working ceramics, book-binding, etc., that is renowned, remind [us of] the Chinese hand-crafts, which need a notable ability, such as Chinese vases or the use of chop-sticks employed for eating by Asiatic populations.
Fascinating. I can't wait for their next paper, which will compare black people to chimpanzees. The full text of the paper is available on Dr. Goldacre's website, or here.

Identical Quadruplets

A woman in Calgary just gave birth to identical quadruplets. This is very rare, about as unlikely as winning the lottery. It poses certain problems for the parents, such as finding four girls names instead of only using one name. Well, these proud new parents did what any sensible person would do: name the kids A, B, C, and D.

Hunters of Dune

I finished reading Hunters of Dune, Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson's attempt to wrap up Frank Herbert's Dune series. The elder Herbert had the bad manners to die before completing the series, leaving his fans with a cliff-hanger of monstrous proportions. His son and Mr. Anderson have picked up the threads where he left off.

The first thing you will note as you read Hunters of Dune is that Brian and Kevin are not the writers Frank was. For one thing, their style is completely different, which is jarring when reading what is, essentially, the last chapter in the Dune saga. However, this is forgivable and is better than the alternative, which would be for them to attempt to imitate Frank's style and fail at it.

Overall I found this book rather tedious to read. Where the original Dune books contained many subtleties, leaving the reader to piece together the significance of certain events, Hunters possesses no subtlety and spells out details for you, sometimes more than once. This is a complete pendulum-swing away from the original works and it detracts from the new book.

The plot of the new story is not bad, but I feel a little ripped-off that there's still another book to come. Not much seems to happen in this book, and when it does happen there are few surprises. The characters sometimes seem to be playing their parts like train-cars on a rail: ok, this is the part where I subdue the resistance, this is the part where I gather my forces, this is the part where I conquer my last enemy, etc. There don't seem to be any real challenges for the heroes despite the real Enemy's seeming omnipotence.

And the identity of the real Enemy is a let-down to me as well. I won't give it away but I feel that this book exists to legitimize the other Dune books written by Brian and Kevin, rather than to wrap up Frank's epic. I'm not convinced that the Enemy was originally conceived to be who B&K have said it is. I have a sneaking suspicion that Frank's original plot has been altered in this regard.

As for my recommendation: only read this book if, like me, you are a sucker for finding out what happens. I've dutifully plodded through the last few Terry Goodkind books because I hate leaving the story hanging, and this book is a lot like those: I am reading it because I have to know how it ends. I will buy the next instalment, Sandworms of Dune, but only when it comes out in paperback.


Dove is showing an ad these days that says "Soap can do to your skin what it does to itself." and shows a bar of soap all dried and cracked. What annoys me about this is that soap doesn't do this to itself; it's the water that does this to the soap. A bar of soap will remain pristine for months, but once soaked in water a few times, then left to dry, it will crack. Guess what? Your wooden cutting-board in the kitchen has the same problem. I guess you should use a Dove bar to cut your food too. Or maybe you're not supposed to use water on your skin? This ad is just dumb.

Pantless judge continues in folly

U.S. Judge Roy Pearson sued a dry-cleaner because they allegedly lost his pants and he wasn't satisfied with the service. He lost, but is now appealing. The most entertaining thing in this whole story is how Mr. Pearson determined the damages:

Claiming that the shop's "satisfaction guaranteed" sign misled customers who, like him, were dissatisfied with their experience, Pearson sought $1,500 for every day that Custom Cleaners displayed the sign over a four-year period, multiplied by the three members of the Chung family, who owned the business.

He also sought $15,000 to rent a car to take his clothes to another cleaner for 10 years.

Clearly he forgot to include
  1. Medical bills for anxiety medication as a consequence of the misplaced pants
  2. $564,000 to buy a house closer to the new cleaners
  3. $35,000 to renovate the kitchen in the new house
  4. $50 for a new DVD player, so he can watch movies, because he can't work, because he has no pants
Thankfully, most people recognize that he's off his rocker and two things have happened that strengthen my flagging faith in humanity: people have donated money for the defense of this suit and the city which employs Mr. Pearson has warned him that his behaviour is unsuitable and they may not continue his employment.

Free stuff

I like getting free stuff. Today I went to buy some tea, having used up my stash a few days ago. The tea on the shelf had a promotion: get a free movie pass when you buy this tea. I thought, great! I like free stuff. Then I saw that the promotion had expired (in April!), but I needed the tea anyway.

Luckily for me the tea scanned in at the wrong price, so I got it for free anyway! Take that, expired movie coupon! And as an added bonus, inside the box was a sampler for ice-tea mix. More free stuff! This day can't get any better.

Movie industry proves they're all assholes

I don't put profanity into writing lightly but the movie industry has proven that they are completely out of touch with reality once again. A 19 year-old woman has been arrested and charged with movie piracy after filming a 20 second clip of "Transformers" so she could show it to her younger brother, because she thought seeing the clip would make him want to see the movie. That's when the theatre manager saw her, called the police, and had her charged with recording a movie in the theatre.

You read that correctly: a fan of a movie recorded a tiny clip to promote the movie (which is normally permissible under fair-use laws), and is now facing a year of prison and possible fines, along with a lifetime ban from that particular theatre. This situation couldn't possibly get more ridiculous, unless of course she's actually convicted.

The most arrogant comment in the article is the one from Kendrick Macdowell, general counsel for the Washington-based National Association of Theatre Owners, who says there has to be a "zero-tolerance policy at the theatre level.... We cannot educate theatre managers to be judges and juries in what is acceptable," he said. "Theatre managers cannot distinguish between good and bad stealing." Obviously either the theatre managers or the National Association of Theatre Owners is low on brain-cells. I'll spell it out for them: copying an entire movie = bad. Taping a 20 second clip = not copyright infringement. It's not rocket science.

I urge anyone in Washington to contact the Regal Cinemas Ballston Common 12 theatre and tell the manager that you will not visit this theatre unless he drops the charges and apologizes to his customer.

Canadian Goverment Abuses its power (again)

The Canadian Government is once again abusing its access to the RCMP to prevent the press from doing their job. The RCMP have been ordered to keep the media away from MPs who are in a hotel for a Conservative Party meeting. It's clearly not a security issue because only the media is excluded; other tourists and guests of the hotel are free to go wherever they want. But the press is forced to wait for officially approved handouts from the government. I can understand the government wanting to present a unified front to the press, but the MPs are highly paid public figures and they should be allowed to talk to the press when they want to, and I'm pretty sure they know how to say "no comment." A free press is critical in keeping the government in check, as was demonstrated by our neighbours to the south in the 70's. Mr. Harper, your iron-fisted, democracy-stifling approach is unacceptable! I can't wait for the next election.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

I just watched Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Spoilers for book/movie 5 follow

To recap the plot, the Ministry of Magic is trying to suppress any news that Voldemort is back, they are interfering with Hogwarts in the form of Dolores Umbridge, the new teacher of defence against the dark arts, and Voldemort is trying to do something nefarious yet clandestine.

This fifth instalment in the Harry Potter movie series was a faithful adaptation of the book but it failed to convey the emotions which form the basis of the fifth book's themes. The fifth book is probably the most frustrating book because Harry is an angry teenager, who feels that the adults are still treating him like a child, he doesn't know how to deal with girls, and also Dolores Umbridge is making Hogwarts living hell for the students. Of these themes, only Dolores Umbridge is properly portrayed by the movie; the other themes merely get their token scenes to placate the readers. For example, a significant portion of this book deals with Harry's relationship with girls, Cho Chang specifically. In the movie this is represented by a total of 4 scenes. More importantly, not enough time was spent dealing with Harry's relationship to Dumbledore and the rest of the Order of the Phoenix. Throughout the book Harry is constantly sidelined while the Order tells him to stay out of trouble, etc, and Dumbledore is absent or ignoring Harry. This isolation has significant consequences for Harry, but the movie doesn't explain this to the same extent as the book does. It's only because I read the book that I realized that Dumbledore was more absent than normal. As with Cho Chang, the Dumbledore storyline is shown with a scant handful of scenes that do not do justice to the story.

Granted: this book is one of the longest yet and thus is more challenging to filmmakers. Unlike the Goblet of Fire (which, I might add, also made a rushed and confusing movie) there is hardly any action, thus there is lots of dialogue and exposition that needs to be crammed into a few hours. The movie thus crops every sub-plot until it's recognizable only to those who've read the story. Anyone who hasn't seen the other movies or read the books won't know why that red-headed girl is following Harry around at the end (it's Ginny Weasley), nor who the man with the long white hair is that leads the Death Eaters (it's Lucius Malfoy). Now, these details aren't critical, but basically if you don't know the story already you'll be left to dangle along, unsure about what's happening and bored by the lack of excitement.

What Indiana Jones was looking for

It's been found, and it can be yours for only $7.00! Just remember not to open it or your face will melt off.

Pears with Tuna

This is a quick and easy appetizer that is really good. I've often made a whole batch and eaten it as a meal. It works well in the summer since it's served cold. The combination of sweet pears and salty tuna works very well, and everyone I know who's tried this loves it.


  • Canned pear halves, drained
  • Canned tuna
  • Mayonnaise/Miracle Whip
  • Pepper


  • Pat dry the pear halves with a paper towel
  • Mix the mayonnaise, tuna, and pepper to taste
  • Arrange pear halves on a plate with the inside up, so that they appear to be little bowls
  • Fill the pear halves with the tuna mixture
  • Serve immediately.

Cream of Wheat

I like Cream of Wheat. Invented in 1893 and first promoted widely at the Chicago World's Fair, this is a basic food that fills you up and warms you on those cold days in winter or when your air-conditioning is on too high. The box art for cream of wheat usually features a black chef, who dates back to the days when it was fashionable to adorn new products with black faces (such as Uncle Ben or Aunt Jemima). This chef is named Rastus, and if you visit the Wikipedia link for Rastus, you'll see that his image in early advertising was not very complimentary. However these days such obviously racist ads are a thing of the past and we can enjoy our hot cereal without insulting anyone.

I like to prepare cream of wheat using milk to give it a better flavour; I tried once with water and it was basically awful. I mix 3 tablespoons cream of wheat to 1 1/4 cups milk, and boil until it thickens. This gives a nice solid bowl of cream of wheat that is rather bland, and is in need of the secret ingredient. My secret ingredient is Heinz Mixed Fruit baby food. This is pureed fruit, much like applesauce. Just mix in some mixed fruit and voila, a delicious hot breakfast. I've been eating cream of wheat this way since I was a baby; my aunt recommended feeding me cream of wheat, but when my mom made it she thought it didn't taste good, so she mixed in the fruit. Since then I've even introduced this recipe to others. It sounds strange but it tastes great.

LEGO Skeleton Tower

I just got the LEGO Skeleton Tower, part of this year's Castle line. This set features a tall tower with a giant skull on it, whose drawbridge is the skull's lower jaw, as well as an evil wizard, a damsel in distress, two skeletal soldiers, a fearsome dragon, and a heroic knight on a white stallion.
Overall the set features good playability because of its nice mix of good-guys and bad-guys and the skeleton tower looks pretty good from the front. The wizard can stand at the top, working his evil magic with his lightning staff and his crystal ball; there is a catapult that can fling burning rocks at the hero, and the dragon is, well, a dragon. The minifigs really stand out in this set; LEGO has fixed the mistakes of the past castle lines and given us great minifigs. The classic swords are back; the heraldry looks good and not too cartoony, the wizard is quite detailed and has an excellent cloth cape, and the princess has a two-sided head, so that you can change her from happy to scared by turning her head around. The evil undead skeletons are pretty good as well and have good weapons, including (in this kit) a flail and a sword that can double as a scythe. The evil shield is great as well.

The set is not without its flaws, however. The skeleton minifigs in this line are different from the previous skeleton figs; the old figs had ball-and-socket arms and so couldn't hold a weapon while posed. The new skeletons have arms with a tight clip-hinge and thus can be posed, but their arms are perfectly straight, meaning they hold their swords at shoulder level. Also, unlike regular minifigs, the skeletons hands are frozen in the horizontal configuration, and can't be rotated. This limits their posability a lot and makes the skeletons look a little silly. This unfortunate situation affects all the castle sets this year.

The skeleton tower also has its own defects. There are two main defects: First, this set, like most LEGO castles, makes no attempt to be "anatomically correct" and thus is full of unreachable places; there is no way for a minifig to get to the top of a tower, or even up to the dias where the wizard has his crystal ball. However, worse is the construction of the tower itself: there are gaps everywhere that are not aesthetically pleasing, and there is what appears to be a middle storey in the tower that is not tall enough for the minifigs to stand in. It's a shame because the set could have 20 more bricks and it would be significantly better.Overall the set is quite good and a worthy set for the castle line. It features some compelling minifigs and lots of useful parts, and enough potential for hours of play.