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Thu, 2 Apr 2009

Big Numbers

— SjG @ 1:19 pm

There are 1011 stars in the galaxy. That used to be a huge number. But it’s only a hundred billion. It’s less than the national deficit! We used to call them astronomical numbers. Now we should call them economical numbers.

— Richard Feynman
US educator & physicist (1918 – 1988)

A galaxy is composed of gas and dust and stars — billions upon billions of stars.

— Carl Sagan
Astronomer, author, & media personality (1934 – 1996)

Even though Wikipedia claims 200-400 billion stars in the Milky Way, Feynman’s number varies by only a couple factors of two.

According to Oxfam, there has been $8.4 Trillion spent on bailouts. So, call that about US $21/star in the Milky Way. That’s a lot of money.

Oh, but doesn’t stop there. According to the Office of the Comptroller, the “notional value of derivatives held by U.S. commercial banks” is around $200.4 trillion. So call that US $500/star in the Milky Way.

As has been widely reported, DK Matai, the Chairman of the ACTA Open, has published that the outstanding value of the derivative market worldwide is US $1.1 Quadrillion. That’s a cool US $2,750/per star in the Milky Way galaxy.

Fri, 29 Aug 2008

“Save the Planet”

— SjG @ 8:18 pm

Maybe I’m a curmudgeon, but I’m getting heartily sick of the exhortation to “save the planet” (and even the debate about cretinous comments by Rep. Michele Bachmann about salvation).

But here’s the deal — when people say “save the planet,” they don’t mean that. Come on. We puny humans can’t destroy the planet. Sure, we can poison the surface, and make it inhospitable for many of the species who presently inhabit the place (ourselves included). Yes, we can wipe out forests and cause extinctions. But the planet’s been through worse — much worse — and probably will go through worse again.

So let’s can the “save the planet” talk and say what we really mean: preserving conditions that keep us comfortable.

Rant over.

Wed, 5 Dec 2007

Rant: Why I Hate Computer Companies

— SjG @ 2:28 pm

So, last night, I had a nasty situation with a Vista Home Basic install. It wanted to install some important security updates, and, after rebooting, it said:

“The Windows Vista Home Premium product key you typed is invalid for activation.”

It offered me three options: Access with reduced functionality (e.g., only use Internet Explorer, and for no more than an hour at a time); Type a new product key; Contact Microsoft to try to resolve the issue. I tried option three. I spoke with someone in Bangalore who got peeved with me when my screen didn’t match what it was supposed to look like according to his script.

It was a little Kafkaesque. I’d read to him every word on the screen, and he’d say “OK, click on the activation button,” which was not one of the items available. I’d say that I’d just read everything that was on the screen, and he’d say “no, you should have an activation button.”

He kept wanting to fob me off to a different customer service group who only answer the phones between 8am and 5pm (this was at 9pm). I explained that I couldn’t use the machine, and I didn’t want to wait until the next day, but he kept giving me nonsensical orders: “Well, don’t reboot, then.” I’m not sure he ever really had a handle on what was wrong. Eventually, he seemed to have a new idea, and said the problem could only be handled by a different group, and he’d connect me with them. Then he forwarded the call to the group who was closed for the night; their system told me to call back the next day, and hung up on me.

Bloody Microsoft! I called again, and got another agent who explained that I must not have a genuine copy of Vista, and only the other group could help me. In other words, their copy protection scheme thinks I’m a thief, so I’m screwed until they feel like helping me.

I was able to roll back to a backed-up disk state from before the upgrades, and could successfully boot. I installed the Genuine Advantage utility, which verified that I did, in fact, have a legit copy. When I installed the security updates one at a time, I was successful. No activation issues. I still don’t know what went wrong. There went three hours I’ll never get back.

Lest I sound like I’m exclusively Microsoft bashing, lemme start on Apple.

I placed an order for iLife ’08 and Leopard. When the box arrived, it contained only iLife. So when I called to complain, they said they’d investigate and follow up. But what that meant is that they then went into some lengthy dialog with FedEx about whose fault it was — whether it had been stolen from the box (no evidence whatsoever to support this idea), or simply the box had not been packed correctly. It took almost three weeks to resolve, and a replacement should be arriving tomorrow. Now, I can understand this kind of process if, say, I’d ordered a $2000 notebook and it had gone missing, or even a $250 iPod. But a software DVD? That costs them fifty cents or less to print? Why not just start by sending a replacement?

Grumble grumble grumble.

And dodn’t get me started on those people at Red Hat, who didn’t include the ponies and rainbows in the last ISO I downloaded!

Thu, 1 Nov 2007

The Discovery of Witches

— SjG @ 7:07 pm

Matthew “Witch Finder” Hopkins, 1647, read as a publication of a Project Gutenberg text.

A little too scary for Halloween, this short missive is the earliest FAQ I’m aware of. But it’s chilling — it’s a series of answered questions justifying the author’s methodology for identifying witches.

The answers, and their oh-so-reasonable tone, are completely unbelievable. They didn’t use sleep deprivations on the suspects — the suspects refused to sleep, for fear that their familiars would visit. Hopkins didn’t accuse women based upon marks such as moles, “devil’s teats,” or other “unnatural” markings — it was a committee of learned people who could differentiate between the natural and unnatural. And they didn’t drown witches — the waters would reject a witch just as a witch would reject baptism.

He goes on in this vein, and each answer is more depressing and disturbing than the last.

It’s a potent reminder that people will do terrible things for power or money, and attribute their motives to religion.

Mon, 8 Oct 2007

Microfiction: Aachen’s Corvid

— SjG @ 9:14 pm

(In order to better motivate myself to work on a novella that I started last year, I plan to occasionally post little excerpts, sketches, and ideas here. These may or may not wind up as part of the final work, if in fact, a final work ever is produced.)

Strutting along the antenna, twenty stories above the crashing sea, the crow was a moving painting, colored vividly by the light of the setting sun. Ruffled feathers, glittering eye, he was an agitated study in deep charcoal, cobalt blues, and oil-slick opalescence.

On many a day, this crow might be found here, admiring himself, studying his fine reflection in the glass of the control system dials. Or he might be frolicking in the stiff updraft of the winds rushing over the seawall, or croaking out territorial challenges, or flirting, soaring low over the rookeries, or talking history with the murder, recounting the histories of the surrounding places (histories that generally revolved around the memories of particularly fine scavenging). But not today.

The others were keeping distant. Earlier, they had fluttered away upon his approach. The crow paced, turned to peck at the itch of a mite. The morning, so recent, was a muddled confusion. Now images, fragmentary and alien, flashed into his thoughts. He contemplated briefly a sudden, unbroken dive down to the sea-rocks, shattering amidst the ruins of this waning day.

Words formed. Words that were unfamiliar, but their meaning was clear.

The crow didn’t dive. He didn’t look at his reflection in the machinery of the pumping station. He knew what he would see. He’d seen the glint of metal on the back of crows’ heads before.

He knew that he had been split apart from the murder forever.

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