Worst Wikipedia definition ever

I know that Wikipedia’s walls are generally only scribbled on by Anglotard religionist Asperger’s drenched loons, but this is taking the cake. The article on atheism starts out with a surprisingly lucid and short definition, which makes it so much easier to spot all the levels of wrong:

“Atheism is, in a broad sense, the rejection of belief in the existence of deities.”

The iPad2 camera

Lots of sniggering on the web lately, emanating from the lesser tech journos. The much touted iPad2 camera is hardly being used at all if Flickr statistics are to believed. The photo web site reports it has only 24 active iPad2 users a day.

One of the photos below was made with my el cheapo, 100 euro, smartphone wannabe phone, the other with the 500 euro pinnacle of Apple’s engineering and marketing prowess. (Click for 100% crops, saved at the 85% JPEG quality level.)

Can you guess which is which? Should you have to?

(Sculptures from the upcoming open air Art Zuid exhibition 2011 in Amsterdam Zuid, which I will blog about shortly at 24 Oranges. Shortly is a week from now or so.)

Adventures of an oxygen hog

This is a tintinologist essay I wrote in Dutch in 1996. Upon rereading it I noticed that I didn’t feel too ashamed about it, so here it is again in English. Enjoy.

tintin-destination-moon-coverThe role of Captain Haddock in Destination Moon

Those who follow the adventures of the young reporter Tintin and his dog Snowy will soon notice a certain development in the series. The main character starts out as a lone warrior in the battle against evil. Then slowly new characters enter the series, first as comedic obstacles, later as friends. Tintin’s own role changes through these acquisitions, as he becomes the clean cut foil to the other characters’ cheeky antics.

The most important representative of these new characters is Captain Haddock. He is Tintin’s closest friend, and the two become almost inseparable. Indeed, many of the stories start with the pair following each other into danger. After his introduction in The Crab with the Golden Claws the captain plays an important role in all of Tintin’s adventures—the stories up to and including The Secret of the Unicorn acting as a sort of warm-up period.

tintin-destination-moon-1Haddock has undoubtedly become the most popular character of the series. Tintin himself is drab. As the hero of the stories his behaviour must be impeccable, and acceptable to most readers. With such a cardboard character, the introduction of colourful extras to keep the series lively was almost inevitable. Captain Haddock, an old sailor, turned out to be the character that author Hergé could relate to the best.

One of the most important adventures that included the captain—or rather, one of the most important adventures for the captain—is Destination Moon (part one of a two-parter). Destination Moon started out as a straight-forward action adventure, the first to be written by somebody other than Hergé, but in the end Hergé decided against this approach and made the book a rocket building manual.

Everybody is of course familiar with the scene in which the captain accuses Professor Calculus of “acting the goat”. This leads the furiously indignant professor to drag the captain from rocket factory installation to rocket factory installation, dragging the reader along on what otherwise would have ended up a chapter sized info dump. Through the captain’s experiences the reader gains an excellent insight into the complexities of space travel.

From the moment Hergé decided to make the rocket building process the focus of an adventure, he had to figure out how to turn a boring technical description into the sort of thing his readers expected of him. Captain Haddock was the ideal vehicle for this. The man does not want to go to the moon. He wants to sit at home (a castle no less), smoke his pipe, drink his favourite Scotch, and at best worry about things like how magicians turn wine into water.

But Captain Haddock is also loyal to his friends Professor Calculus and especially to Tintin, and if said cabin boy wants to go to the moon, he, Archibald Haddock, can hardly let him go alone, can he? And thus Hergé uses Tintin to take the captain along in an impossible and otherwise boring adventure. And in the same way the captain is loyal to Tintin, so are the readers to the captain. The audience for a technical documentary was created.

The choice for Captain Haddock as the eyes and ears of the reader is an obvious one. Tintin is like a robot. Not only is it to be expected that he requires a lot less explanation (Captain Haddock on the other hand simply isn’t interested in space travel), but he also wouldn’t refuse a trip to the moon if his creator ordered him to.

The price Hergé (and Tintin) had to pay was a surprising one. A hero has to take the back-seat in his own series! Captain Haddock takes centre stage. Hergé even goes as far as forcing Tintin out of the main story. Tintin leaves the rocket plant for a hike through the mountains, supposedly to get some fresh air. He will take care of the espionage story that despite being important, and tailor-made for Tintin’s heroic bent, plays in the background. This way Captain Haddock temporarily ascends the throne in a believable manner—he has Tintin’s permission.

The captain is of vital importance to Destination Moon. His cynical, distant humour captures the attention of the reader, and transforms a serious subject into something light and airy.

I wondered if the importance of Captain Haddock could be measured in some way. I came up with the following methods:

  • Divide the book into scenes. Take stock of who does what in these scenes. Measure the importance of those actions.
  • Count the number of times somebody appears in the book.

The first method has the disadvantage that you just postpone the moment where you make the judgement call of what is important and what not.

The second method at least comes with a (implicit) definition of importance, but that definition is not necessarily correct. The spy story in the background for instance is terribly important to the story. If the spies had succeeded in bringing the rocket down, there would have been no part two—or more likely, part two would have looked completely different. And yet the spies hardly appear at all in the book.

In the end I cowardly decided to let you, the reader, choose whether you want to draw any conclusions from the quantitative part of this essay.

The following table was created by counting the number of panels a character appears in.

Haddock 438
Tintin 337
Calculus 275
Snowy 176
Wolff 148
Baxter 124
Thom(p)son 71
Boss spy 25
Moon rocket 21
X-FL 12
Radio operator dark 12
Radio operator blond 9
Nestor 8
Doctor 8
“Baron” 7

Captain Haddock appears on almost as many pages as Tintin (55 and 54 respectively). The number of panels sporting the sailor however is nearly 25% more. This phenomenon occurs, as far as I am aware, in no other Tintin book.

As an aside, during my counting exercise I noticed that one time Snowy appears in two different places at once. The week before the final launch, the astronauts are gathered for a wrapping-things-up meeting. Snowy is present. When the plant’s general manager, mister Baxter, asks how things are going, Professor Calculus replies that almost everything is done, except Snowy’s space suit. The ‘camera’ then cuts to another scene in another location, in which we see Snowy act in a five panel joke involving his space suit.

Such cutaway scenes are perfectly valid in comics (or any other type of story) though, so perhaps this is not a mistake by Hergé, who otherwise was always the perfectionist.

References:

  • Hergé (pseudonym of Georges Remi), all Tintin books in Dutch translation.
  • W.A. Wagenaar, in: De taal van het beeldverhaal (a publication of Het
    Stripschap), whose excellent essays were a inspiration for this, my attempt.
  • Harry Thompson, whose weak biography (Kuifje/Hergé, Een dubbelbiografie, Uitg. Balans/Kritak, 1991; a translation of Tintin: Hergé & his creation, Hodder & Stoughton) were also an inspiration, albeit a negative one.

How the decay of Wikipedia can be measured

The decay of Wikipedia can be measured by expressing the chance that it will fork.

That’s all I’ve got.

A fork is a term from the community of open source programmers. It means a split of a project into two distinct projects working from the exact same code base. These splits often happen for philosophical reasons, with opinions divided over the course a project should take.

See also: Oh goody, I’ll dance to that (about the fork of Mambo into Mambo and Joomla).

Invention #5: the fat supermarket

I eat a lot of TV dinners, simply because when I arrive at home, it’s been a long day and I really don’t feel like cooking. Unfortunately the supermarket monopolist of this town only sells high calorie TV dinners. What is a guy to do?

Well, you know, there ought to be a supermarket for fat people, one that sells filling but low calorie dinners. I imagine a tower, five stories high, no parking lots, no elevators, the store at the top floor. Every step tells you how many calories you’ve just burned. At the top they will only sell you food for a day. They won’t deliver. And their customer loyalty scheme will let you save for free use of the gym.

(I could of course stop buying crap, and start exercising more. Sure, and pigs could fly!)

See also:

Code Rush: Netscape during the dot com boom

A couple of months ago Jeff Atwood pointed out a 60 minutes long PBS documentary about Netscape during the dot com boom called Code Rush. He seems to like it, so I downloaded it off Youtube where its makers put it up under a Creative Commons license. To quote Atwood:

Remember when people charged money for a web browser? That was Netscape.

Code Rush is a PBS documentary recorded at Netscape from 1998 – 1999, focusing on the open sourcing of the Netscape code. As the documentary makes painfully clear, this wasn’t an act of strategy so much as an act of desperation. That’s what happens when the company behind the world’s most ubiquitous operating system decides a web browser should be a standard part of the operating system.

Everyone in the documentary knows they’re doomed; in fact, the phrase “we’re doomed” is a common refrain throughout the film. But despite the gallows humor and the dark tone, parts of it are oddly inspiring. These are engineers who are working heroic, impossible schedules for a goal they’re not sure they can achieve — or that they’ll even survive as an organization long enough to even finish.

What Atwood is perhaps too polite to mention is that the behemoth Microsoft wasn’t just competing with Netscape at the time, but it was doing so with a superior product and with the deck stacked for them—Microsoft owned the platform upon which Netscapes products had to run. These were the days of the Microsoft monopoly trials.

(Downloading off Youtube? I use the Download Helper plug-in for Firefox. I don’t entirely trust them—their website looks way too slick—, but am too lazy to investigate further. In other words, I am mentioning the plug-in, not recommending it.)

Tips for online presentations by Dutch house sellers

I have started looking for a new place recently. Although many sellers create excellent on-line presentations of their apartments, there are a few interesting properties that I nevertheless never look at simply because it would take too much of my time. Maybe that’s just a luxury that results from living in Amsterdam, where so many apartments are screaming for my attention that I can afford to be choosy.

So here are a few tips from a buyer’s perspective:

  • If you are not on Funda, you don’t exist.
  • If you are with some weird ass real estate agent like iBlue or Makelaarsland, you might as well not exist.

These two are basically the same point. Although there are truckloads of things that can be improved about Funda, the site is still miles ahead of any other of the on-line housing marketplaces (at least as far as non-rental properties in Amsterdam are concerned). Forcing me to use another site means imposing on my time: I need to learn how to work with a myriad of substandard home grown interfaces.

I will, however, look at jaap.nl and huizenzoeker.nl from time to time. Both are sites that obviously took long and hard looks at how Funda does things, then decided to copy them as closely as possible.

The “weird ass real estate agent” rule is simply because these agents with their special approaches to selling houses tend to make the process of enquiries more difficult.

Continuing:

  • There is no such thing as too many photos (unless we are talking dozens, but I have yet to come across those).
  • Also publish photos of connections between rooms, not just of the rooms themselves.
  • I adore floor plans. (A real estate agent told me they have a gizmo that makes it really easy to produce these.) See also: www.floorplanner.com.
  • Please do mention everything that does not belong to the ‘woonoppervlak’ (lit. living area) but does belong to the apartment like sheds, attics, balconies and so on, and make sure they are listed on Funda’s Kenmerken (Features) page.

Also, a tip gleaned from Freakonomics: the more concrete your description the better. So “wooden countertop” beats “beautiful countertop”. (As it happens I do like the look of wooden countertops, it is just that I do not like the way they age. Which means that in my specific case, “wooden countertop” probably means “buying a new kitchen”. Forcing me to find out about these sort of details after I took a paid day off from work to look at your apartment is not going to earn you points.)

Obviously I need exact measurements to go with the floorplans: I want to see if my stuff will fit.

All of the above is just IMHO, of course.

More things

How bail-outs work—here, let me rewrite that for you

First, read this deranged metaphor by Sue Cameron, columnist for the Financial Times. The crazy, it burns.

So I decided her fairytale needed retelling. I am not saying mine is more realistic, I just want to show how easy it is for a metaphor to lose its magical powers.

The rain beats down on a small Irish town. The streets are deserted. Times are tough. Everyone is in debt and everyone’s credit is cut off. A rich German arrives at the local hotel, asks to view its rooms, and puts on the desk a € 50 note for reasons only crazy Germans know. The owner gives him a bunch of keys and he goes off for an inspection.

As soon as he has gone upstairs, the hotelier grabs the note and runs next door to pay half of his debt to the butcher. The butcher supplies the hotel owner with € 100 worth of meat on credit, then hurries down the street to pay half of what he owes to his feed merchant. The merchant supplies the butcher with € 100 worth of feed on credit, then heads for the pub and uses the note to pay half of his bar bill–the bar owner is so happy that he extends the merchant’s credit with € 100. The publican slips the € 50 note to the local hooker who’s been offering her services on credit. She gratefully gives him the full service, all € 100 worth, and all on credit. Then she rushes to the hotel to pay half of what she owes for room hire. As she puts the € 50 note on the counter, the German appears, says the rooms are unsuitable, picks up his € 50 note and leaves town.

People did lots of work. Everybody except the wealthy German is 50 euro further in debt. Everyone is feeling better, for a very short while. And that is how a bail-out works?

Old joke

Blah-blah-blah-blog. I’ve got nothing to say. My mind is empty. May I entertain you with a joke you’ve probably already heard?

An uggly man walks into a bar. He has got a parrot on his shoulder. “I will sleep with anybody who can guess what I’ve got on my shoulder. For free!”

Silence descends on the room. People carefully back away from the man.

A pretty woman feels sorry for the man and figures she’ll guess wrong just to humour him: “An elephant!”

“No,” says the man, “but it’s close enough.”

(Where’s my rim-shot? I am sure I left it here somewhere?)