Dispatches from Andyland "Your reality, sir, is lies and balderdash and I'm delighted to say that I have no grasp of it whatsoever!" — The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

March 12, 2007

When it doesn’t add up

Filed under: Uncategorized — Andrew @ 12:51 am

A few nights ago, Sam had a word problem in her math homework that involved reading a departure and arrival chart of an airline, and determine when I flight that left Warsaw Poland would arrive in Paris France. Sam did the arithmetic and put the answer in the blanks set aside for it. Then she added a PS note and pointed out the time zone differences would adjust the way the Parisians would consider when the plane arrived (as opposed to judging it on the time zone of the country where the flight departed.) Then she added a PPS that pointed out that if the plane left Poland then it must not have been run by Jet Blue.

The Conservation of Magic

Filed under: Uncategorized — Andrew @ 12:42 am

A couple of weeks ago, I looked at the podcast of the Penn Jillette radio show, and the last episode was titled The End. The end of what I wondered, the show? The possibility of 1997 XF11 hitting earth? The biblical concept of armageddon? As I listened, I found out that the show had been canceled. According to Penn on the show, a one hour show was difficult for radio stations to schedule live at around the time he was doing it (2PM Eastern, 11AM Pacific) He couldn’t do a three hour show along with his other commitments. I guess it shouldn’t have surprised me. A few weeks before I tried to look for a live audio stream of the show and discovered that only Chicago and Las Vegas had him live. The rest played a pre-recorded copy later in the day. (I’m sure that a pre-recorded radio call in show doesn’t do well.)

Oh well. When I found out it was canceled I considered adding Showtime to my satellite package so that I could at least watch Penn & Teller: Bullshit. I’d also get the new This American Life television series that starts soon. Eventually I decided that I could probably buy the first four seasons on DVD, the current season as soon as it comes out on DVD, and This American Life either on DVD or from iTunes Music Store for less than it would cost me for a year of Showtime.

A few times on Penn’s show, he remarked that the only reason that magic tricks are at all impressive is that magicians are the only people foolish enough to spend the hours practicing a trick enough to make it look impressive. You can show someone a card trick and they’ll say “that’s neat!”, but if you tell them that you spent two hours a day for the past two weeks practicing, they wouldn’t find it neat enough to try for themselves. In some ways I find that similar to Terry Pratchett‘s concept of The Conservation of Magic in his Discworld novels. The energy exerted in doing something magically is about the same as doing it non-magically. (of course, the difference is that one is talking about fake magic in the real world and the other is talking about real magic in a fake world, but no matter.)

After finding out Penn’s radio show was canceled, I realized that I wanted to have a collection of as many episodes as I could. Some of them I hadn’t listened to yet, some of them I might want to listen to again or reference. Luckily, CBS radio didn’t immediately pull all of the pages referring to the radio show. One page had all of the podcasts, so I grabbed it and figured I’d work on downloading all of the referenced files.

At first, I was figuring on using XSLT to grab the download URL off of each show’s mention. It would up being that a quick perl script with regular expressions was easier. Once I had all of the files, I found out that they didn’t have ID3 tags, identifying them. Now I might be back at the XSLT solution again, pulling the description of each show and the name of the file I just downloaded and inserting the show’s description as ID3 data. I’m doing this on and off, and by the time I have something that might pull the show’s data out of the HTML file, I realize that the reason the files don’t have ID3 tags is because they aren’t really MP3 files at all, they are HTML documents that contain error messages that complain about an invalid content ID. Now that I’ve realized that I didn’t actually get the audio files, I go back and found out that now CBS has pulled the site, and the MP3 files aren’t there any more.

Last Friday, I fixed a bug in a system by slightly altering the XSLT templates that were processing the data. When I co-worker thanked me for fixing it and I told them I was just a slightly different XSLT invocation, he replied “If anyone around here would know the proper XSLT magic, it would be you.” It wasn’t enough to get all of the Penn Radio MP3s though. I’m guessing if I just clicked the download button 200+ times I would haven fetched more radio shows than writing the proper XSLT template. There is a certain point where the Conservation of Magic comes in and it takes less time to just do it by hand.

March 10, 2007

The place you meet people who know all kinds of stuff

Filed under: Uncategorized — Andrew @ 12:42 am

Last week’s This American Life podcast was an episode titled Quiz Show, and in it was a story about the MIT Puzzle Hunt. It tried to describe the contestants as people who are outside the norm in most of the year, but find one place and time where their unique talents become an advantage. The example they give is a greeting card author who in a lunch room conversation about monkeys on the humorous greeting cards turns into a long description of various primates, eventually leading to comments like “Planet of the Prosimians, That’s a movie I’d love to see”. As he’s going along a co-workers remark makes him realize that he is more interested in teaching people about primates than they are learning about them.

Listening to it, I became appreciative of many of the co-workers that I’ve had over the years. All of the people I’ve been exposed to who can tell me even little bits about: Linguistics, IETF Date specs, the difference between Major gods and house gods of ancient Greece and Rome, North Shore Bakeries, slang and metaphors used in old blues music, deer hunting, Windows NT TCP implementation quirks, homemade MP3 jukebox addons for cars, working outdoors in Downtown Crossing, ‘80s afternoon cartoons, robotics, amateur Shakespearean theater, Italy, how to rebuild a pickup truck, international telecommunication technology, digital video, reiki, cold war propaganda (on both sides), methods of safe cracking, midwest farming, and so much more.

It just made me realize how lucky for the co-workers that I’ve had over the years.

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