This is BrainLog, a blog by Dan Sanderson. Older entries, from October 1999 through September 2010, are preserved for posterity, but are no longer maintained. See the front page and newer entries.

May 2006 Archives

May 28, 2006

MacWorld's MacBook FAQ (syndicated to Yahoo! News) answers one of my questions from the other day, as follows:

I already own a MacBook Pro—can I use the power supply that came with it on a MacBook?

If you hold the two power supplies side by side, you’ll notice that the MacBook Pro’s is larger. That’s because the MacBook Pro uses an 85-watt power supply, while the MacBook uses a 60-watt power supply. Apple says you can use the more powerful, 85-watt power supply with a MacBook without any problems, and that in 80 percent to 90 percent of situations, you can use the MacBook’s power supply with the more-demanding MacBook Pro as well. If you’re really taxing the MacBook Pro’s processor with some heavy-duty work, the MacBook’s adapter will still be able to power the MacBook Pro—but it may not have any power left over to charge its battery.

May 22, 2006

Self-Study Course in Block Cipher Cryptanalysis, by Bruce Schneier.

Asymptote, a vector graphics programming language.

May 19, 2006

Macworld First Look: Apple's new MacBook. Glossy screen, new keyboard style, a black model, as well as all the other MacBook features (Intel Core Duo, built-in camera and remote, no modem). The black model has a matte finish, which I'm pleased to hear; I was a little worried it'd be black-shiny on the outside. CNet first look photos. Forbes is excited. Apple's feature comparison chart for all MacBook and MacBook Pro models. Also, a cynical ArsTechnica editorial on why people like glossy screens. I'd say that the glossy screen didn't seem that bad when I checked out the MacBook in the store the other day, but I think that's precisely his point. I do prefer the anti-glare finish of the MBPros (and all other iBooks and PowerBooks to date).

News to me from the Macworld article: MacBooks have a new trackpad feature where clicking while keeping two fingers on the trackpad becomes a right-click/control-click, such as for contextual menus. According to the article, the right-click feature is available on the 17" MacBook Pro but not the 15". Guy At The Store said you can turn this feature on for the 15" using the "defaults" command, but I can't find a web page on the subject. But I thank Guy At The Store for telling me about iScroll, a free third-party extension that grants magical two-finger scrolling trackpad features to PowerBooks made prior to 2005, including the two-finger click. I may have one less reason to upgrade.

Mostly because I don't fully understand the consequences yet, I'm a little annoyed that the MacBook power charger is a different wattage than the MacBook Pro charger. I hope this just means that a MBPro would just take longer to charge using a MB charger, and that an MBPro charger wouldn't make any difference to an MB. I'm very used to being able to take my laptop to the living room, or to other people's houses, and "borrow juice" without slinging around my own charger. The MagSafe connector already means that, were I to get a MacBook Pro, I would not be able to use our iBook's charger. But in the distant future when all computers are MacBooks, I really hope I don't have to keep track of which charger is which wattage. (I actually assume Apple has thought of this, but I'd like to know more about the consequences of using the "wrong" wattage supply with an MB or MBPro.) One person claims to have measured actual wattage consumption, mostly below 75 watts. James Gosling complains that airplane power outlets for business travellers are limited at 70 watts, and MBPro 85-watt supplies won't even turn on at that wattage, regardless of actual power draw. Anyone got good info on this?

Ctrl+Alt+Chicken, a cooking show video podcast where the cooks don't know how to cook. Good production values, charismatic hosts, quality animation, multiple cameras—everything you need to make a great cooking show, except for, uh, one missing ingredient. In episode 1, Alex Albrecht (Diggnation, The Screen Savers) and Heather Stewart try to make Chicken Cordon Bleu, get grossed out by raw chicken, then only cook it for 6 minutes. I've never felt so confident in my own cooking abilities. Very entertaining.

It's a great premise for an educational cooking show: Watch inexperienced cooks make mistakes. The premise would have to be managed carefully (if it's intentional), since it naturally degrades over time: As they make more episodes, they will gain cooking experience. Whipping egg whites in episode #30 will be easier than in episode #2.

Also available in the iTunes music podcast store (for free). Search for chicken.

It reminds me a little of Dinner and a Weblog (part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5). It's impressive what a difference six years makes in weblog culture, camera technology, and personal maturity. (The "Dinner and a Movie" reference is especially dated, and makes a couple of those articles rather confusing.) I'd start it up again, but there are too many good food blogs now. And I don't have that webcam any more.

(That pic of L being impressed with my spaghetti is one of my favorite things of all time. She married me! She's my wife now! I'll never get over it.)

May 18, 2006

The unofficial McDonald's video game.

I have mostly good things to say about Disney's Little Einsteins, a TV show for pre-school kids about music appreciation. On the surface, it seems to play into the parenting falacy (i.e. marketing premise) that classical music is inherently good for children's general intellectual development. This falacy usually manifests itself in toys and CDs that play public domain classical themes with tinny toy instrument sounds and an absence of musical meaning. In the show, this idea is reinforced by the use of random geographical landmarks, animals, insects, and cultural artifacts, without any meaningful context and often with basic facts removed or simplified, as secondary material. It's also implied by the title, where "Einstein" = smart.

But Little Einsteins' treatment of musical appreciation at the pre-school level is quite good. LE uses real orchestrations and orchestral instruments to play the classical themes. Instead of sacrificing the original expression of the themes by using toy instruments in the name of accessibilty, LE hones the presentation to samples of the themes of the original work, tied to story and interactive elements that explore the meanings of the themes. The catchy and literate original theme music is also wonderfully orchestral. The high production values in both the music and the animation are greatly appreciated.

I do see some value in being surrounded by signposts of education, as long as it isn't the heart of the material. Little Einsteins is mostly about music, really, so the other stuff is just set dressing. I don't feel we're ever expected to believe that seeing a picture of the Great Wall of China will make our children better people. I haven't made up my mind about the use of visual art, where a famous painting becomes the backdrop of an animated scene in each episode: They include some mild emotional exporation of each work, a bit deeper than the otherwise incidental "Look! It's the Space Needle! We're in Seattle, Washington." So no points lost on the art.

I really don't know if incidental exposure to a grab bag of abstracted trivia—Getty Images clip art as a semblence of knowledge—is developmentally productive. But I'm convinced that focused exposure to classical music, with real orchestration, enhances appreciation of classical music, and I entirely believe that's a good thing and something I wish for my children. The genuine treatment of musical concepts, such as tempo, rhythm, pitch, instrumentation, musical themes and theme recognition, is well done for its audience. This stuff is pretty much never addressed in other children's television.

I also get a kick out of hearing my 2-year-old daughter shout "Accelerando!" on cue. The Italian musical terms probably belong in the "trivia" category, but it's fun. On the other hand, whenever I play or hum a classical theme used in the show (e.g. Vivaldi's Four Seasons, "Spring"), she shouts "Little Einsteins!" as if that were the name of the piece. So I really don't know what she's learning.

Complete seasons of Little Einsteins episodes are not yet out on DVD, but you can buy them at the iTunes music video store for $2 each. Of course, you're stuck playing them on your computer, or your video iPod, if you go that route. Disney's Little Einsteins - Team Up for Adventure, a $20 DVD, features three 20-minute episodes. Disney's Little Einsteins - Out Big Huge Adventure, a one-hour special, is also on DVD, with an extensive treatment of themes from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. (The lack of material aimed at adults is especially noticeable with the extended length. But kids love it.) The show airs daily on The Disney Channel.

I had set out to compile a list of episodes with full citations for the musical and visual works used in each, and was pleased to discover that the Wikipedia article on Little Einsteins has the complete list. (Notice how they've re-used themes already, and they're not even 30 episodes in. Lame.)

I have no reservations whatsoever in recommending Classical Baby, an HBO mini-series collection of animated shorts for toddlers. Each short is set to a complete short work of classical music or American songbook song, in its original form, and is usually based visually either on a famous work of visual art or a famous work of choreography (!). No dialog, no story, just gorgeous animation set to beautiful music. It's probably the most re-watchable set of children's videos we own, for both parents and children, and it's by far the most pleasant child-occupier to put on in the background while I try to get a few things done around the house. Classical Baby is just great, and it manages to be so without any pretense that classical music will make my kid grow up to be rich doctor, or whatever it is I'm supposed to think. I'll have to compile a list of works depicted in Classical Baby, as I can't seem to find one online. P.S. HBO criticized for pushing TV to infants. (Oops.)

On the subject of packaging classical music for children, I'd also like to put in a good word for The World's Very Best Opera for Kids...in English! (CD and "teacher's guide" book set; I haven't seen the book, got the CD at a library sale). I suppose because it's opera, it makes no pretense of the magical powers of classical music over children. It's also a quality presentation, with full orchestrations and real opera singers. The English lyrics make the pieces accessible without detracting from their meaning, and the pieces are selected for fun.

On the subject of music education for small children, I have to mention my favorite children's video of all time, Blue's Clues - Blue's Big Musical Movie (2000). I like Blue's Clues for lots of reasons, and I like this movie for even more reasons, but one of them is certainly the sophisticated use of music throughout the show, and especially the movie. With regards to music theory specifically, Blue's Big Musical Movie contains a great sequence with Ray Charles and the Persuasions where Steve (the main character) composes a short song. The DVD is only $7.

May 17, 2006

They're Made Out of Meat [YouTube]. A short film based on a story by Terry Bisson, won grand prize at the SF Short Film Festival in Seattle.

Simple JavaScript debugging tips.

Aardvark, a Firefox extension for manipulating any web page. Great for web developers debugging pages, but also great for casual users that just want to get rid of annoying parts of a web page. Start Aardvark, mouse-over an annoying ad, hit R to remove it, then hit Q. Delete ads or unwanted navigation elements prior to printing a web page. Awesome.

May 16, 2006

The name game, a Salon article from 1999 that's still fun to read. (Thanks Andre.) I want a modern version of this article for comparison.

Time lapse video of radar tracking of FedEx aircraft arriving into Memphis during thunderstorms. Set to music.

VirtueDesktops, a virtual desktop manager for Mac OS X.

May 15, 2006

XMLmind XML Editor, notable for WYSIWYG DocBook editing, a snappy interface, and a very capable free standard edition that runs on Windows, Linux and Mac OS X.

Witch, a Mac OS X application/window switcher that's a bit more straightforward than the methods built into the OS. Includes nice features for minimized windows and hidden apps. Donation-ware.

History of Lisp, John McCarthy, 1979.

May 9, 2006

Let's Build a Compiler "This fifteen-part series, written from 1988 to 1995, is a non-technical introduction to compiler construction."

A non-technical introduction to compiler construction?

A while ago, someone was using Amazon Mechanical Turk to pay people pennies to "draw a sheep". You can now view the results of that effort at The Sheep Market.

Alex Ross's playlist of 100 significant musical works from the 20th century.

May 4, 2006

More on recent activity in the interactive fiction community:

Graham Nelson's announcement of the Inform 7 public beta formally sets the stage for this new language.

Stephen Granade has written an article on Inform 7.

The journal of the Society for the Promotion of Adventure Games (SPAG) issue #44 is out, including an interview with Graham Nelson and Emily Short on Inform 7.

In the Download section of the Inform 7 web site, you'll find Graham Nelson's white paper on natural language and IF [PDF], worth a read.

IF Comp 2006, the main annual interactive fiction competition, is now open for submissions and prize donations.

Meanwhile, Spring Thing 2006, the other main annual interactive fiction competition, has just ended. Visit the site to see and download the winners.

The Treaty of Babel is a new metadata format for interactive fiction story files intended to work with all major story systems going forward. I gather that tool support is still in progress (libraries are available), but the standard has been finalized.

Zoom, one of the best interpreters for Z-Code (Infocom and Inform 6) and Glulx (Inform 7) format games for Mac OS X and Unix, has a new 1.0.5 release that introduces support for Treaty of Babel metadata.

Windows Frotz [EXE installer download], one of the best interpreters of Z-Code and Glulx format games for Windows, has a new 1.09 release that introduces Treaty of Babel support, among several other features.

In a conversation on rec.arts.int-fiction about programming computers with natural language, Craig Latta mentioned his project, Quoth, which proposes that an interactive approach to the programming process could make natural language control more effective. The video demo is compelling.

With Inform 7 comes a minor bug fix release for Inform 6, version 6.31. As Graham has always stated in conversation about Inform 7, I imagine there will be continued interest in Inform 6.

Amazon.com has discounted the hardcover edition of the Inform Designer's Manual to $22.02, down from $34.95. I'm guessing this is entirely coincidental to the release of Inform 7 (the Designer's Manual covers Inform 6), but is rather a reaction to print-on-demand resellers that try to undercut Amazon's list price offerings. Regardless, I'm pleased to see it. (The paperback is still listed at $29, so that's weird. But whatever, makes no difference on my end.)

I have to say, I'm totally amused by the Inform 7 source snippits being posted to rec.arts.int-fiction. It's just bizarre to see source code in a newsgroup message that looks just as much like English as the rest of the message. I'm so used to computer language punctuation helping me context shift between English explanations and the code under discussion. It's too early to tell if this is a fault or not, but it is weird. It's very easy to read; no comment on how easy it is to write until I've actually tried it.

Lots of great follow-up discussion on rec.arts.int-fiction, if pseudo-natural language computer interfaces are at all interesting to you.

May 3, 2006

Inform 7 has been released.

We expected a new major version of the Inform programming language, and what we got is a whole new way of developing text-based interactive fiction. Graham has thought carefully about the difficulties non-technical artists have trying to manipulate computational logic, and addressed them head-on with a clear, natural-language interface that's part computer programming language, part interactive development environment. Inform fans have long conjectured what a semi-graphical Inform IDE would look like; I had even made tentative plans to try for an Eclipse plugin for Inform 7, expecting it to be just another programming language.

There are lots of new ideas here, so there's plenty of room for refinement. But given that this was developed for a small audience, for an obscure art form, for free, it's quite an accomplishment.

Apple's new Get A Mac ad campaign stars John Hodgman as "the PC".

Hodgman has a blog. Hodgman is apparently friends with Jonathan Coulton, which is awesome. Coulton recently recorded a song for a Hodgman piece on The Daily Show.

One of Coulton's recent given-freely-to-the-Internet compositions, Code Monkey, is a bit of an instant classic. I want a code monkey like fritos mouse pad.

Coulton posts a Thing A Week. Coulton's Thing A Week has a volunteer illustrator.