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 Older entries, from October 1999 through September 2010, are preserved for posterity, but are no longer maintained.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 2004 Archives

May 27, 2004

Seattle Symphony does concerts for children, including their Tiny Tots series for infants. They're exceptionally popular, and I couldn't get tickets to any of six performances of last season's final show on June 6/8. Maybe next year.

Soundbridge is the Seattle Symphony's educational facility with a museum and regular classes and concerts for children, and some for adults as well. It includes a class for infants, which we might try this Summer.

May 26, 2004

A cell phone directory could mean an increase in unsolicited solicitations to cellular phones. You can put your cell number on the Do Not Call list, but you shouldn't have to: the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 already makes autodialed calls to cell phones illegal. Still, I don't want my number listed, and I don't want to have to pay extra to prevent it from being listed.

Metafilter noticed an old weblog post about Maury Povich that, over the years, inadvertently convinced some web searchers that the site was either owned or at least read by Povich. Many Metafilter readers shared similar stories of people mistaking their web site as an official voice or forum for a subject they mentioned in passing. An early BrainLog post (and follow-up) on the theoretical risk of posting personal information to a website linked to from unsolicited email, despite repeated clarification in the original posts and comment threads, continues to confuse some to the point of convincing them that I have the ability to give them credit cards, and the best way to get one is to post their personal information to a public comment forum.

I wish I could go beyond the "boy aren't they stupid" reaction and figure out what would be necessary to further prevent this kind of misunderstanding. It appears there are many people, perhaps new to the Internet, that do not understand the basic nature of the activity of web browsing and searching.

I would guess that some people type domain names into Google as their primary method of finding a website from a URL found offline, which implies an understandable confusion about the notion of web addresses. Google has acknowledged this common behavior with a special response to searches for domain names to clarify the user's intentions. If they click through to find web pages that contain the term, they get me at the top, but with excerpts that clearly state the B of A marketing website is not, to my knowledge, a scam, which I would hope would also clarify that I am not B of A, not to mention my site's design, format and content. The effort required to get to my site and post personal information to a public comment thread is too great to assume that people are misunderstanding my site's identity.

I can only conclude that there are a bunch of critical misapprehensions about the activity of web browsing— or even just using a computer— at work. I'd bet that these users know I'm not B of A, but still believe posting a comment or sending the website owner email is an appropriate next step to getting what they want. Bloggers are often called upon by random web searchers as if they were experts on a subject mentioned in passing. Coupled with a lack of understanding about protecting personal information and the public nature of most web sites, naive users could get into trouble that mere changes to my website cannot prevent.

May 25, 2004

Inside the Homebrew Atari 2600 Scene. Links from the article: Stella, an Atari 2600 emulator available for many platforms. A list of homebrew games. A beginner's guide to Atari 2600 programming.

Seems like this would only be truly satisfying if you had access to an original machine an an EPROM cartridge. I'd be up for Commodore 64 homebrew if I still had one; programming just for an emulator seems pointless. Constrained programming for a small modern platform, such as the Gameboy Advance, might be just as fun.

The Mac OS X 10.3 Help viewer security vulnerability reported last week. appears to have a patch available via Software Update. This was disconcerting to some due to an apparent lack of attention from Apple until recently.

May 24, 2004

What does "semiotics" mean? (Thanks Jason.)

Apple Eating Robots! You have one month to write a PHP program that plays this game. You can win fabulous prizes!

Loews Cineplex's ReelMoms program dedicates one showing of one movie a week to parents with small babies at two theaters in the Seattle area. The films are mostly adult-oriented new Hollywood releases that small children aren't likely to notice. Last week's film was Troy, rated R. (?) I decided not to go last week (The Daughter refuses to drink from a bottle), but I look forward to trying out a future show. (Seattle) has information about seeing movies with babies, including a list of theaters with cry rooms, drive-in theaters, and more.

May 18, 2004

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy: The Official Movie Website. Includes a blog and some early production materials.

All about International Standard Paper Sizes. Geeky and clever.

The Comprehensive LaTeX Symbol List [PDF].

High quality PDF output from LaTeX and TeX. TeX supposedly defaults to bitmap (Type 3) fonts instead of scalable (Type 1 or TrueType) fonts, which are sized for printing, but not so well for screen viewing. I've seen plenty of grainy PostScripts on the web which obviously demonstrate this problem. They all print great, but it's scary to start a print of 300 page documents that look like that on the screen.

May 17, 2004

This ultra-short introduction to TeX for Mac OS X users recommends i-Installer [download] as the installation method, and TeXShop [download] as a front-end.

So far I'm using Fink's teTeX distribution with Enhanced Carbon Emacs (which includes the AUCTeX Emacs mode). This works out of the box, including the use of Preview to view and print rendered output. I prefer this set-up because I'm using Emacs for TeX at work (and getting away with it, so far), and prefer the consistency.

Mac-TeX, a site at PennState with resources for Mac OS X TeX users, with mailing list. A LaTeX and Mac OS X FAQ.

Installing Fonts for LaTeX on Mac OS X.

May 14, 2004

MovableType 3.0, developer edition has been released to the world. "Developer edition" appears to mean "public beta that we want to charge for." Suits me fine. The new licensing plans, including the $69.95 Personal Edition, are rather conspicuous, but a free version (no support, limited to one weblog) is still available, and SixApart is committed to maintaining the free version. (Download the free version here).

Just in time, too! My three month paternity leave starts tonight. And I'm sure I'll have plenty of time to build websites.

Also: plug-in contest!

An early review.

TeX TeX TeX! Let's do all TeX today.

TeX is a typesetting system. TeX is "intended for the creation of beautiful books." TeX is spelled Tau Epsilon Chi. TeX is pronounced "techh." TeX was created in 1977-82 by Donald E. Knuth, Emeritus Professor of the Art of Computer Programming at Stanford University, to help ensure the typographical quality of his unfinished (but half-published) master work, The Art of Computer Programming. To write TeX, Knuth invented the CWEB System of Structured Documentation, aka literate programming. Developing a system of software development to develop typesetting software to write a series of books on computer science, now that's what I call procrastination!

TeX is highly portable, highly stable, and hasn't changed much in twenty years. TeX is a powerful macro processor, and can be greatly extended with add-on packages. Knuth provided a basic set of macros, called Plain TeX, which some people still use in favor of other packages.

LaTeX is a document preparation system based on TeX. Like Plain TeX, LaTeX is a macro package. LaTeX is a declarative document description language that separates the text from the layout: describe what the document means (sections, chapter headings, tables, text), and the macro packages will figure out what it ought to look like. LaTeX was created by Leslie Lamport in the "early 1980's"; the first widely available version appeared in 1985.

LaTeX2e is a new version of LaTeX, and is the most widely used TeX-based system today. LaTeX2e was founded in 1994 to unite and standardize efforts to extend LaTeX. LaTeX2e was created and is maintained by The LaTeX Project, which is currently developing LaTeX3. The original LaTeX is mostly unavailable, and when most people (post-1994) say LaTeX in general conversation, they mean LaTeX2e.

The Comprehensive TeX Archive Network ( is a complete repository of TeX software, including TeX itself, LaTeX, and hundreds of add-on packages.

The TeX Users Group (, founded in 1980, is an active worldwide community of TeX users. They're like a little society, with officers, elections, dues, a journal, and everything. And events, too! Practical TeX 2004, a four-day training conference in San Francisco, starts July 19.

TeX Frequently Asked Questions has lots of great introductory and historical information, including the canonical list of tutorials, references and books. I started with The Not So Short Introduction to LaTeX2e [PDF], 131 printed pages, and have moved on to Guide to LaTeX, 4th ed. and The LaTeX Companion, 2nd ed., which have both been updated in the past seven months. Both books come with CD-ROM's containing full versions of all the software you'll need for multiple platforms (Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, more).

Harvey J. Greenberg's A Simplified Introduction to LaTeX [link to CTAN directory], 136 printed pages, also looks like a worthy introduction. A hypertext LaTeX reference hosted by the Goddard Institute for Space Studies provides an alphabetical list of subjects, and a command reference, all for download or online viewing in a browser.

TeX (et al.) are so widely used that there are hundreds of web pages with quick reference and all-you-need-to-know material, as well as assorted tips and advice. Some are better than others. This collection of tricks covers margins, numbering, captions, a bunch on figures, and info on using the University of British Columbia Institute of Applied Mathematics thesis style file. The University of Cambridge Department of Engineering has a nice page of resources, and has their own description of how to adjust various kinds of spacing. I bookmarked University of Technology Sydney's LaTeX resources page, but I forget why. These assorted tips include how to automatically insert the current date (the date the document was rendered), and change its format. More introductory information from the meteorology department at the University of Oklahoma, including this LaTeX2e command reference.

A few bookmarks on fonts: This note from the American Association for Artificial Intelligence is how I found out how to use fonts other than the default Computer Modern. (\usepackage{times}, yay!) I made it most of the way through this guide to installing TrueType fonts with TeTeX; if I figure out how to finish it, I'll probably post my own tutorial. And finally, an important message to all users of TeX, from Donald E. Knuth.

May 13, 2004

Movie myths about earthquakes. According to, a 10.5 quake would require a fault that circles the Earth.

Knight Rider will be available on DVD in reasonably priced season packs starting August 3. (Thanks Jason.) I revisited the show in reruns last year, and as happy as I am to have it as part of my childhood, the DVD's aren't high on my list. But it'd make a great gift. :) I have yet to see the pilot, maybe I'll get it from Netflix...

LaTeX and accompanying packages include powerful vector graphics features, especially for mathematical diagrams. I've already made good use of XYPic to include a rudimentary diagram in a document. Looked a little math-y, but that's what I get for using math typesetting software. :)

This introduction to GraphViz and dot makes me wonder if GraphViz is worth adding to the toolset, or if I should just learn the LaTeX ways of doing the same things. I get the impression I ought to be able to use GraphViz PostScript output in my LaTeX documents, but it'd be nice if I could keep the diagram description in the document itself.

Pine 4.60 introduces several new features, including adjustable margins in the message viewer, support for displaying and sending "flowed" text (I assume this means paragraph-all-on-one-line? no?), a new keyword (label) feature, Mac OS X file type support, a justify-whole-message key combination (Ctrl-w Ctrl-j), and more.

May 12, 2004

Comcast announces G4TechTV, the results of the G4 + TechTV merger. This FAQ lists the TechTV shows that will continue: The Screen Savers, Fresh Gear, and X-Play all made the list, TechLive and Call For Help did not. I had thought TechLive was a nice step up for the talented Jessica Corbin, and while I don't doubt she'll have other opportunities in broadcasting, she'll be missed if she's left out of the new line-up. Chris Leary is also fun to watch, and deserves more than Fresh Gear.

Next question: Will DirecTV carry G4TechTV?

PEPS: Program for Early Parent Support is a volunteer organization uniting parents with parents to survive parenthood. PEPS has been operating in King County (in Washington State) for 21 years. I can personally recommend their New Parents program. It's been great to spend time with other first-time parents whose children are about the same age as ours, as a sanity check, as a forum for swapping stories and advice, and simply as a group of people that don't flinch when the baby cries.

The Chicago Tribune recently did a story on PEPS, which is a little weird because it's currently a Seattle-only program. I recall they're interested in starting up programs in other cities, but I forget if there are active plans. (I've heard there are similar programs in other areas, unrelated to PEPS.)

One of the many fliers that get distributed at PEPS meetings is a small photocopied collection of lyrics to simple baby songs. As a fundraiser, PEPS distributes a CD of these songs as performed by Chris Ballew, lead singer and songwriter for The Presidents of the United States of America, Jen Wood of the Jen Wood Trio, Maria Elena Gomez, and Brit Speakman. (If anyone has information on Maria or Brit, please post.) You can buy the album via, proceeds will go to PEPS. Keep in mind these are songs to be sung for babies ("If You're Happy and You Know It," "Skin-a-ma-rink," "Where is Thumbkin?"), not exactly indy rock radio fare— though Ballew's original "Close Your Eyes Little Sister" has all of his style, and should appeal to fans.

May 11, 2004

So You'd Like to... Write Commentaries Heard on NPR Stations.

Math and the Computer Science Major. Good advice for high school students considering a computer science major. While math was not specifically a problem for me, school in general tended to kick my ass, and I had problems with physics in particular that trouble me to this day. I wonder how I'd do if I went back and did it again...

May 10, 2004

The Oxford English Dictionary needs your help collecting citations for terms originating in science fiction. (Thanks Jerry.)

Rumor has it that Star Trek: The Original Series will be re-released on DVD in box-set form. I'm not willing to pay $18 for two episodes for the entire series, but three reasonably priced boxes would easily top my DVD's-to-purchase list.

I'm nostalgic for TNG, but it's different with TOS: not just nostalgia, but real, raw cultish fandom. I could probably froth up some fandom for TNG as well if I watched a few re-runs, but not enough to afford $115 for each of seven box sets. I guess I'm a TOS guy at heart.

When Comcast announced it was acquiring TechTV, Vulcan Prgramming Inc.'s technology news and entertainment cable television network (founded by Ziff Davis Media), it was assumed that at least some of the station's programming would be combined with Comcast's own G4 video game network. On May 6, Comcast announced it is firing 285 TechTV San Francisco workers. Or, as TechTV's own Leo Laporte put it: Comcast Fires TechTV Staff. The fate of TechTV's original programming and TV personalities, including The Screen Savers, Tech Live, X-Play, Fresh Gear and others, has not yet been announced.

May 5, 2004 Macintosh Stories: Switcher.

Building blocks for the future, how Bionicle may save Lego.

[strike out]: a sampling of Microsoft Word documents found on Microsoft's web site that contain interesting MS Word revision data. MS Word 2003 has display of revision mark-up turned on by default when you open a document— a good move considering the dangers of this otherwise useful feature (though not useful enough to motivate me to use it).

TeX/LaTeX fans: There's a brand new 2nd edition of The LaTeX Companion (Bookpool: $47). As I've only recently taken enough of an interest in LaTeX to buy a book, I'm especially pleased to see an updated volume that potentially captures advances in the LaTeX community and technology in the last decade. With such a long-lasting, stable technology, many of the very old volumes on the subject are still considered relevant, though they may be missing mentions of new tools, add-ons and practices.

Most LaTeX introductions and tutorials cite the first edition of this book, as well as The LaTeX Graphics Companion (Goossens, et al) and LaTeX: A Documentation Preparation System User's Guide and Reference Manual (Lamport), as essential references. The LaTeX Web Companion is also compelling, albeit five years old.

May 4, 2004

The Lester Dent Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot. (Thanks Jerry.)

This tip on Mac OS X's "pmset" command (thanks Jerry) prompted a rehash of the "run a Powerbook with the lid closed" discussion, where someone says that Apple says that running with the lid closed is bad because heat is vented through the keyboard, and someone else says that it's possible to run with the lid closed with an external display connected so that must not be true. I'd like to add that while it is possible to run with the lid closed with an external display connected, it's also true that the damned thing gets really hot in this configuration, hot enough that if it were possible to run with the lid closed without an external display connected, it'd be far too easy to do so accidentally, then throw it into a leather bag for eight hours. I'd bet something irrepairably bad would happen before the battery dies.

I sometimes worry that I leave my Powerbook on and in "desktop mode" almost all of the time. I should probably be letting it fall asleep when not in use, though I'd have to remember to wake it up before going into "laptop mode" (which relates to this earlier discussion). But it's probably worth it, if heat is such a concern.

May 1, 2004

Library of Congress researches the longevity of CD-R media [PDF; see also Google cached HTML version (no graphs)].

Perl 6 Apocalypse 12 is out, on object orientation. As charmed as I am by Perl 5 OO (as an orthogonal implementation of OO on top of Perl 4), I'm especially looking forward to Perl 6 OO.

Free Downloads from Bruce Perens' Open Source Series.