Saturday, June 30, 2007

Computers Get it Wrong

The computer illiterate 95% of the population (no, just being able to use one DOESN'T make you computer literate) will tell you that computers never make mistakes, that they are always correct because they use logic and maths. They think this makes them cleverer than the previous generation of people, who blamed "computer error" for everything bad that ever happened.

Any programmer, of course, will tell you that computers DO make mistakes, BECAUSE they use maths and logic. Remember how the world was going to end in 1999 because of Y2K? Remember how Pentiums added 2+2 and got 3.999999? Logic is great until you encounter a statement like "I am lying to you when I say this statement is a lie". Maths is a great way of describing the universe, but it has SOME limits, like the fact that the number zero doesn't really exist, and therefore if you try to divide by it you're in trouble. When applied to computers, there are always limits on maths imposed by the hardware, maximum values on floating bit variables and integers, etc.

A fair while ago, I dropped a tongue-in-cheek email to the creator of Lux, Dustin Sacks, showing that if you sat there putting more and more armies into a country instead of finishing off your opponent, eventually the numbers wrapped around and your chock-a-block country went back to zero population. Even though no-one in a normal game would ever come REMOTELY close to the number of armies I was talking about, Dustin fixed the problem in a later release - or so I thought.

But not quite. See that room in the middle of the screen snapshot with 341 million soldiers in it? The turn before, it has just under 2300 million. Presumably, having reached the magic number of 256 (binary 8 bits limit), my population reverted back to zero plus the income from this turn, which I must admit, was fairly high by this stage of the game. It just goes to show that the best laid plans of mice, men and programmers will always provide a few "hidden features" (programmer jargon for "bugs") for the adventurous or just plain stupid to discover. Just like real life.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Xzibit Continued

Just a quick update to yesterday's story about Xzibit, the US rapper. After having a rant on his MySpace blog about supposedly being the victim of racism by a member of Rove's staff, the comments started being left by Australians in droves. After some 350-400 comments, 95% of which disagreed with him, suggesting in various ways that he have a little less attitude and a little more understanding, he took down both the MySpace blog post and its comments. That didn't stop people posting comments, they just posted them to other blog entries that had nothing to do with the original post instead. But taking it down? It seems the principle of Freedom of Speech only applies when you agree with Xzibit. To quote the man himself, "If you have a problem with what I say in my blogs stay off my site people." I guess that says everything you need to know about the man.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

That Ugly 'Racism' Word

Racism is in the News today, on at least two fronts. Firstly, John Howard's plan to stamp out abuse in indigenous communities has very predictably been labelled racist, despite him clearly saying these emergency actions would be implemented nationwide; and secondly, US rapper Xzibit stormed off the set of 'Rove' because a staff member said "we came a long way just having you on the program". Its kind of hard to see how that remark is racist, but if you look hard enough, you might be able to interpret it that way. I would think it had more to do with the rap/hiphop culture and Rove's audience demographics and preferences than skin colour, but obviously Xzibit didn't see it that way.

Australia just ISN'T a racist country. Sure, like anywhere, there are individuals who will hold their own bigoted opinions, but this isn't the US, where there are clear socioeconomic boundaries between different ethnic groups. Most people in Australia don't notice race unless its specifically pointed out to them, and the average street of Suburbia has people of different original nationality in almost every house. We are so multicultural now that we simply don't notice differences any more. That is the very OPPOSITE of racist, and a real testament to the Aussie way of life and the principle of a "Fair Go" for all. So "Keep it G", Xzibit, and next time don't impose your own racially-skewed views on us… there's a word for that, and we all know what it is.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Stunt Men

In the last few days, Prime Minister John Howard announced the government's response to an appalling report into sexual abuse among indigenous (aboriginal for those who don't understand Political Correctness) communities. The measures are hard-hitting and comprehensive, and must have taken more guts than any PM of this country has shown in the past 50 years. The Opposition labelled it as a political stunt designed to pull votes in the coming election.

Union officials were caught on video berating and abusing employees, but it was just a political stunt according to Kevin Rudd. Rudd's plan to chat with the Dalai Lama is just a political stunt, says Foreign Minister Alexander Downer. Justine Elliot says the Federal Government's new fairness test is just a political stunt. And Mr Howard scratching his nose on camera, I'm sure, is just a political stunt designed to pull in votes from the nasally differently-endowed. Likewise, whenever Mr Rudd goes to the toilet, I'm sure he pulls a few political stunts out while he's in there.

In fact, a search of Google News reveals a whopping 698 political stunts in today's news alone, although to be fair, not all of them are in Australia. It seems even foreign countries are pulling political stunts, presumably for the benefit of one Australian party or the other.

I am getting very sick of the phrase, and the election is still a few months away. It's to be expected that in an election year, those in the running will try to be more visible and remind the public of what exactly it is that they do, to justify their ridiculously high salaries. But whichever way you look at it, Mr Howard's bold action on the indigenous abuse problem took guts, just like his decision to send troops to Iraq did in the face of massive opposition here at home, or his decision to stand firm on same-sex marriages not being allowed. And love him or loath him, THAT is why he's been Prime Minister of Australia for so long now.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Smoking Gun

A man who sexually assaulted a woman in Melbourne then forced-marched her to a nearby service station to buy cigarettes (see story here). That's where he made his big mistake, of course. These days courts seem to hand out ridiculously lenient sentences, so if the assault had been all he did to her, he might have been walking the streets again in 18 months or so. But forcing her to buy cigarettes? Surely in this day and age of unbridled smoking antagonism, that's Attempted Murder! Forget prison, let's just hang him now!

Today some of the other Australian States caught up to Tasmania and banned smoking in bars, pubs, etc. In a month or two, smoking in all indoor areas, and most outdoor areas, will be completely banned. I grew up a vehement anti-smoker, took it up at 28, quit at 34, took it up again at 38. I've always smoked 1 mg cigs, in the belief that smoking a whole packet in a day was the same as someone else smoking 2 or 3 or their 12 mg ones. According to doctors, I was wrong, and have the same chance of harm as them.

Smoking is addictive, and there's only one way to fix the problem for good. That's to stop the sale of cigarettes, period. The social consequences would be dire, crime would go through the roof until the jitters of being forced to go cold-turkey passed, and there would always be an underground of illegal tobacco growers, just as there is, and always will be, with marijuana. Publicly, the government says that smoking costs the nation a lot more in healthcare bills than the revenue from selling cigarettes raises, but I don't believe that for a minute. The bottom line is that governments are about money, and if there wasn't a profit from selling cigarettes, they would already have been banned.

Who do you believe? I, for one, believe nobody on the cigarette issue, from the Government to the Quit campaigners to the Doctors of the 50's who told us all how much they recommended Camels. Smoking is a curse, and like all curses, it will take a Witch Doctor to see it lifted.