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The Great Expedition

As Isus pointed out, the great work has begun. Paint brushes have been applied with great fervour to our Herculean task of removing all instances of pink from our house. Truly, the English language fails to properly capture the eye-searing horror. Soon, however, members of the mighty Horde will arrive and help make quick work of this decorating disaster.

And so I cast my eyes forward to the next Olympian task that lies before us - replacing the carpet. Now the carpet's actual color is relatively inoffensive but it's difficult to tell under the mosaic of stains that cover every square inch of the living room. Clearly, something must be done. And that thing is probably Pergo. An expedition has been planned to the darkest quarter of North Raleigh in search of inexpensive floor covering. It has taken some weeks to recruit a team of men brave enough to take on this task. We will be taking on provisions this week and sailing northward this weekend. I can only hope that the fates are kind, that we only lose a few honest souls to the soul-blighting nightmares that we are destined to encounter.

If I should perish in this task, let it be known that I fought bravely to the last and did not waver.

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Howto: Henchmen, Lackeys and Lickspittles

Because of my unparalleled brilliance, I'm often asked to comment on issues of importance to the working Mad Scientist. One issue that I hear about a lot is whether Pirates or Ninjas make better henchmen. Now during the course of my illustrious career, I've employed henchmen of every stripe and it's pretty clear that both of these types of henchmen have severe drawbacks. Let's look at them in greater detail:

Pirates: On the surface, Pirates are excellent melee fighters, indiscriminate in regard to their employers and they possess the proper flair for the theatric necessary for all good henchmen. Unfortunately Alcoholism is ubiquitous in the pirate community. As such, pirates are a bit unreliable. More than once, a cunning scheme of mine has faltered because of an ill-timed Rum-fueled bacchanalia. Personally, I find that pirates are best used as disposable, amphibious shock troops and, because of their distictive manner of dress and speech as a diversionary force.

Ninjas: Melee fighters par excellence, ninjas are a truly useful tool. However, I can't give them an unqualified recommendation because, among other things, they are outrageously expensive. I am not at liberty to disclose exact figures, but I can generally recruit a dozen Pirates for the cost of one ninja. Now admittedly, when it comes to sheer fighting skill, the average ninja is probably worth fifty pirates. However, fighting skill alone cannot be the sole consideration in the hiring of henchmen. Sometimes, for example, what you really need is sheer numbers for, say, the intimidation of peasants. The biggest drawback to ninjas, however, is their sense of honor. I can't tell you how many times a party of ninjas has turned on me when they've had some great revelation about the true nature of my nefarious scheme. Moreover, as a mad scientist, it's sometimes difficult to get them to simply work for you in the first place. I've used ninjas on occasion when strong fighting skills are required but only when other, more reliable choices are unavailable.

And what, you might ask, do I consider better alternatives? Let's examine my recommendations for henchmen:

Zombies: Paragons of loyalty and reliability, zombies require no dental plan, no pay, not even food. I use zombies a lot for various odd jobs but remember, the self-same mindlessness that makes them so reliable can be a problem as well. Never assign a team of zombies to any task that requires any discernment or subtlety. Many of my colleagues have forgotten this essential point to their great dismay when they perish at hands of their own, unholy minions. Also, it's generally not a good idea to mix your zombies with other types of henchmen - it tends to be bad for morale. On the other hand if you're facing outright mutiny, however, the creation of a zombie from the leader of the troublemakers can work wonders in regard to keeping your henchmen in line.

Branded Henchmen: One of my favorite types of henchmen are so-called "branded henchmen". Such minions are generally just thugs that you've slapped a ludicrous costume on that is somewhat related to your own current wardrobe choice. As you probably know from your own experiments in villainy, branded henchmen are a little unreliable. So why do I like them so much? Simple. They're cheap. Any backstreet bravo or malcontent can instantly become a branded henchman with judicious application of leather, spandex and metal accessories. Furthermore, because branded henchmen are typically of such low quality, would-be do-gooders inevitably underestimate them.

Lawyers: No matter how determined a torch-bearing mob of villagers, they will quail under the untrammeled might of a Harvard Law School graduate. As such, lawyers are an essential addition to any Mad Science venture. However, be strongly advised that lawyers are a treacherous and slippery breed that will eventually turn on you. This is why all of my lawyers are equipped with a radio-controlled cyanide implant. It's very difficult (but not, unfortunately, impossible) to provide corroborating testimony from Hell.

One final note: do not, under any circumstances hire any clowns, mimes, carnies, stand-up comedians or any other individuals of a professionally jocular nature. It may seem like a good idea at the time; such lackeys are often the cheapest that money can buy. However, they will inevitably unleash a maelstrom of chaos that is likely to consume all but the most resourceful of mad scientists. Even I, with my matchless mind, barely escaped such an event intact. Avoid clowns at all costs.

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The Year in Review

Hello Gentle Reader. It has been quite some time since I posted however, as you may have discerned from the recent furor in the news, I have been quite busy. My entire Lunar facility is awash in holiday decorations and random robotic Yeti parts.

That's right. It was I that unleashed the army of Yetis from Kings Cross station on an unsuspecting London at the end of November. And while I was unable to garner quite the ransom I'd hoped for because of New Scotland Yard's deft handling of the situation by reversing the polarity of their surveillance cameras, my brilliant scheme earned me a well-deserved nomination for Mad Scientist of the Year. I am still quite stunned by Dr. Phosphate's winning of that coveted award for his substandard Barrage Blimps.

It has indeed been quite a year. I have managed to stage no less than three attempts a global conquest in the space of the last nine months and every one of my plans would have succeeded flawlessly if it hadn't been for the fickle finger of fate.

Take my ninja army, for example. Was it not unsurpassingly brilliant of me to infiltrate the Pentagon with six hundred deadly ninjas? There they were - poised to strike from the shadowy depths of the Pentagon basement when they were entirely masticated by a fearsome collection of giant, albino rats. Eight hundred billion dollars worth of ninja training completely wasted because of a pack of mindless rodents!

My scheme infiltrate the G8 summit was even more brilliant. My clone of Angela Merkel had been prepared with the matchless subtlety that only I can produce. And then . . . you'll recall, dear reader, the great tragedy that befell me. Instead of following my own superb instincts and sending my Merkel clone on a standard, supersonic transport, I let Dr. Phosphate talk me into using one of his pathetic Barrage Blimps. I am told that the flames could be seen for a 100 mile radius around Heiligendamm. Months of preparation ruined because of Phosphate's ill-conceived Tritium gas mixture. A word to the wise, reader, radiation does not, as Dr. Phosphate believes, make things fireproof.

These setbacks have not deterred me, however. Eventually my own genius will prevail and the world will bow down before my might. According to my close personal friend Nostradamus' predictions, 2008 will be my year.

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As some of you may know every couple of years I engage in The Ritual where I try to make the jump to Linux. I've never quite made the migration permanent because while I like a lot of the features of Linux it's a bit overwhelming after years on Windows. But since I made the big jump from the Mac to Windows back in 1997, I can certainly do it again. I'm well and truly tired of legal crap of the type found in the Microsoft EULA.

I really fell in love with the shell during grad school via the campus RHEL servers. It was pretty glorious to work on my homework by remoting in on a shell account (via SSH of course) and working directly on the server. I'd never really used the Unix servers that much as an undergrad (excepting edlin which I wouldn't wish on anyone) so it was almost magical to have that brute available any time I wanted.

However, as much as I loved the Linux servers I basically gave up on desktop Linux because I was involved in too many team projects that necessitated the use of certain MS-centric tools. In retrospect, I could probably have virtualized XP to make it work but I had so much on my plate that it was easier to just postpone things.

So now that I'm out of school and not working on .Net projects from home, I took the plunge again and installed Fedora 7 on my desktop machine. It was very painless. My perennial problems connecting to the Internet were a non-issue. Even adding the NTFS drivers was relatively easy (this time I didn't have to add fstab entries by hand for my NTFS drives). Easy, easy.

Since I've been using Open Office as my main office suite for about 5 years now, the only applications that I really need to keep Windows around for are:
  1. Games - there's just no getting around this but I'm playing more and more console games lately so it isn't the issue that it used to be.
  2. Macromedia Studio - I don't use this very often but Fireworks is a pretty awesome graphics editor so I'll probably try to get it working on VMware.
  3. Moneydance - this is my personal finance software. However there's a Linux version out there and it runs like a champ for most Linux users so I just need to resolve an issue with Java and I should be fine.
  4. Itunes - this is the one that sucks. I've played around with Amarok and Rhythmbox a bit but they just don't deliver the goods as far as podcasts go. And I listen to a lotof podcasts. Moreover, there doesn't seem to be any VM software that supports USB 2.0 yet. I'm determined to find a way around this but the iTunes podcast interface is pretty slick.


With the exceptions noted above, however, I'm really digging being on Linux again. I still do a lot of things via the GUI but it's nice to have the hulking power of the shell available whenever I want it. I like having easy-to-find logs that I can check regarding issues. For example, Firefox started acting weird a few days ago and a quick peek at /var/log/messages told me exactly what I needed to know.

This time I really hope to stay on Linux permanently and I'm trying to find a Linux-based solution every time I'm tempted to boot back to Windows. I've had to go back to WinXP a couple of times but they're getting fewer and fewer. Much thanks go to samwuff regarding my migration for hand-holding and advice.

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Doctor Who: Worst Episode Ever

Howdy Folks, I got hit by that freight train we call life for a bit with a bunch of job interviews and the mad rush to finish the project I'm working on. However, I did kick back and watch one of the worst Dr. Who episodes I'd ever seen: Vengeance on Varos.

Seriously kids, this one is a dog. The Doctor (6th) and Peri (who still has a ear-gratingly bad American accent) are sitting in the Tardis bemoaning that they're out of fuel for about 30 minutes while we watch a bunch of Varosians behaving badly. Thirty minutes of Yawn.

So the Doctor finally decides to land on Varos because its the only planet in the universe that has the ore he needs (more on that later). Upon landing, the Doctor then casually kills a bunch of guys with a high-powered laser. Now, I don't mind the killing, the Doctor has been known to do that but the casually part gets my goat. He seems to have no problem vaporizing a bunch of dudes on a golf cart that he's never met. Later on in the episode he sneers at a shrieking man he pushed into in a vat of acid. Essentially the character of the Doctor as established by continuity is completely ignored.

I'm willing to forgive the golf cart, by the way. The Sun Makers, for example, featured a long runabout sequence using those floor polishers you typically see late at night in larger retail venues. Cheap effects, no problem. Bad writing and characterization, unforgivable.

The episode spirals ever downward into a craptastic abyss of wooden acting and nonsensical plot. It was bad enough that Isus and I kept fast-forwarding through the more boneheaded parts, wending our way wearily to the inevitable denouement. Now, for the sake of comparison, Isus and I never skip ahead with Doctor Who. Usually an episode that starts badly (e.g. Four to Doomsday) can pull it out in the end. Usually an episode that has an overly-long chase scene (I'm looking at you, Planet of the Spider) or is massively padded (The War Games - ten eps!) or even monumentally stupid (Silver Nemesis, anyone?) can still deliver the goods. That is, Doctor Who can almost always reach beyond its own shortcomings to offer some entertainment that you're not embarrassed you watched afterward. Sadly, this is not so of Vengeance on Varos.

The only bright spot - if you can call it that - was the villain Sil. Sil managed to chew the scenery furiously and moderately entertainingly as a vile venal tyrant. However as a living slug was also disgusting enough that I was not particularly happy to see him return in the Trial of a Time Lord the following season. I can still gross Shannon out a bit with my Sil imitation.

Overall, Vengeance on Varos and the Two Doctors (which we watched a few months ago) were so bloody awful that I'm shocked that a lot of long-time Who writers, directors and such were involved with these serials. Truly, this was the nadir of the original series.

Some lyric love for Chris Cornell

Over the past few days I dug up the collected works of Audioslave. Now, Audioslave is an odd beast to begin with. It was the follow-up project for most of Rage Against the Machine with Chris Cornell (formerly of Soundgarden) as the frontman and lyricist instead of Rage's Zack de la Rocha. Which brings me to Cornell himself.

I've got mixed feelings about this guy. As a vocalist, he's a bit uneven. When Cornell is on his game he's pretty good but often he feels like he should be singing in one of those crappy emo bands that seem to show up in coffee shops on Friday nights. On the other hand, as a lyricist Cornell rocks pretty hard. The thing that I like about his work is that he can string together some pretty simple lines that convey something really powerful and important about the human condition.

Take Audioslave's "I am the Highway":
I am not your rolling wheels
I am the highway
I am not your carpet ride
I am the sky
I am not your blowing wind
I am the lightning
I am not your autumn moon
I am the night
So pretty standard rock refrain, right? But think about what he's saying here: I'm not the nice, safe idealized thing you see but something different.
I'm not some safe little breeze, I'm as dangerous and powerful as lightning. I'm not the pretty little moon that shines down on your happy little life, I'm as vast and irreducible as the night. Can you see the heartbreak coming?

There's not a lot of words to this song - just a couple verses and the refrain I quoted above but it's an entire story in miniature. Somebody felt threatened when their partner turned out to be someone they never knew. Somebody felt trapped in a role they never wanted - a shadow of their true self. Hearts were broken and nobody got out unscathed.

Let's look at another of Cornell's songs: This one was something he wrote for the soundtrack of Casino Royalle: “You Know My Name”

Arm yourself because no-one else here will save you
The odds will betray you
And I will replace you
You can't deny the prize; it may never fulfill you
It longs to kill you
Are you ready to die?
Again, we have a story writ small. It is, in fact the theme of Casino Royalle itself. During the course of the movie, the young James Bond becomes the cold-blooded assassin and misogynist of the later movies. He learns that in the world he has entered, no one can be trusted and he is completely expendable.

This song does what an overture should ideally do - prepare the viewer for the themes of the film. Between this song and the excellent writing of the film itself, Casino Royalle evoked in me a feeling of great pathos. Instead of a campy super-hero, Bond comes off as a doomed pawn driven by a sense of idealism that is slowly being extinguished by the revelation that the uncaring world that he fights so passionately to preserve won't miss him when he inevitably falls.

I guess the reason I like these songs is that to me, good writing is not stringing together as many adjectives as you can (I’m looking at you, Faulkner!) but to tell your story with as much economy as possible. I don’t really care for Hemmingway but in many ways he was the perfect writer – stripping away the extraneous to give you the essential skeleton of the story.

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Ode to Rudger Hauer

Isus and I watched "Omega Doom" last night and made an observation that will doubtless win us the Nobel Prize in Trivium as soon as they start issuing it. What we determined is very simple: Rudger Hauer is the anti-Eric Roberts.

Eric Roberts can take practically anything good and destroy it - I hold up as exhibit A) Eric Robert's rendition of that renegade Time Lord: The Master.

Rudger Hauer on the other hand can take practically any marginal film and make it entertaining. Such was the case with Omega Doom - a post-apocalyptic story of an earth inherited by hoards of killer robots who are desperately searching for guns to replace their bad-ass energy weapons with. Despite the completely ludicrous premise, the film actually exhibited some style and narrative coherence (a bit of a surprise from the director of Van Damme's 'Cyborg'). However, as usual, Rudger Hauer was a big reason the film was fun. Somehow he manages to exude the proper balance of bad-assery and camp that is critical to making a b-movie fun. The only movie that comes to mind that he truly sucked was the film version of "Buffy: the Vampire Slayer" where he came off primarily was a prancing buffoon.

Whom else do you include on this list? Are there other actors that come to mind as saviors of the b-flicks?

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Bad Movie Science

Some of you might be amused by this article on some of the more egregious examples of disregard for the laws of physics. I was shocked to see that The Core was among the movies examined.
Folks this is a direct follow-up to LandSnark's post. on the current situation in farming.

Thanks Snark, for the excellent information. I specifically was interesting in your opinions because chemical engineering of petroleum is such a big part of modern farming. And you're right, I was looking at the issue a little off-center because I'm making the implicit assumption that petroleum-based agriculture is the norm instead of -over human history - an abberation.

Essentially it seems like we're closing in on a catastrophe that will envelope every facet of modern life: agriculture, technology, medicine, economics, transportation. All of these are about to be turned topsy-turvy by two little words: peak oil. Although there is still some debate over the time table, the work of Marion King Hubbert suggests that we may have already reached the maximum possible oil production on the Ghawar oil field - for which there is some evidence [Al Jazeera].

Why am I harping on petroleum production? Because as Landsnark pointed out, our entire agricultural industry is based on petroleum products. Thus, even if our current industrial farming techniques are the greatest thing ever (which I'm the first to admit they're not) they're based on a finite resource that may already be in irreversible decline - and even if it's not it soon will be. In other words, it doesn't matter what I think because a massive change in agriculture will be forced upon us in the near future.

I think that Landsnark's earlier post made the prior facts self-evident. However, if we are going to have to change, what will the agriculture of the future look like? There are two major effects of peak oil on agriculture. First, obviously, fuel will be much more expensive. Massive farm equipment will become less cost-effective and transportation cost will become high enough that the consolidation of farming that occurred over the past few decades will be at least partially reversed. When gas is up to $5-$6/gallon, trucking all of our vegetables from Imperial Valley will seem pretty ludicrous. And, using farm animals will probably become a little more attractive too. With modern construction techniques, it's probably possible to revive the giant animal-powered combines used in the first few decades of this century

Brief Digression: my mom's uncle Fred had hundreds of pictures of this type of farm equipment from his journeys throughout the West but sadly my Gram threw them out when she was forced out of her home a couple decades ago. Alas. From what I understand there were these giant monster plows and combines and such that were towed by enormous teams of horses. Kick ass!</digression>

Secondly, all the agricultural chemicals will become hideously expensive. Now, I am clearly not a chemist but I suspect that clever chemical engineers will start finding alternatives to petroleum chemicals but they're going to face a big problem. Research requires energy and we'll be pretty short on energy by then because our entire electrical grid is based on natural gas - which is also in decline. Thus, shrewd farmers will probably start looking through granddaddy's journals for ideas of how to manage their land better. Unfortunately, in this regard the U.S. doesn't have a strong tradition of effective land use - it used to be a point of pride, remember, to have "worn out" multiple farms. But the point is, farmers aren't stupid and as chemical production and transportation costs rise (which they will inevitably do as energy costs rise) they're going to start looking for cheaper solutions.

So let's review: In my opinion, peak oil is likely to:
  1. Decentralize food production because of increased transportation costs.
  2. Reduce the amount of fertilizer and pesticides used in agriculture because of increased research, production and transportation costs.
  3. Make traditional farming techniques much more attractive to farmers and, because of the Internet, effective traditional techniques will propagate much further.

I'll even throw in one additional one: because of the previously mentioned rising costs of production and transportation, the centralized production of food "products" (i.e. the very same ones that Pollard was concerned about in the article that started this) will become increasingly expensive compared to good old fashioned food. So hooray! We'll all be so much better when we run out of oil!

Except that we won't. The problem is, as I mentioned above, every facet of our lives will be affected. Consider this, what's going to happen to modern medicine when cheap plastics are no longer available? Are we going to go back to reusing glass syringes? How, for that matter are we going to live? If gas prices get as high as they are in Europe, will people continue to live in the suburbs? Sure we can start re-building our inner cities to reduce the massive inefficiencies of our low-density suburbs but that type of massive construction requires energy and the primary cause of this chain of events is the loss of cheap energy? So, are we screwed? Maybe, maybe not. We have the technology to maintain a lot of our modern conveniences with less energy and desperation has proven to be the greatest muse of all. The future is far too murky to make any sweeping predictions but I'd love to hear whether anyone things I'm full of crap or not.

I should also mention that the fine documentary End of Suburbia takes on the Peak Oil issue in some depth.

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On Reading - Pixels and Ink

I've been bemoaning the lack of time that I spend actually reading books lately because there's a lot of good stuff out there that I haven't made the time for. However, something that occurred to me today is that I read about 30 web comics on a regular basis and another 25-30 blogs and RSS feeds. Given the average posting schedule of the blogs/feeds that means that I probably read about 20-30 news articles a day. That's a lot of screen time.

But these results aren't particularly unusual - especially for my demographic (middle-aged geek male). A couple years ago I surveyed a bunch of folks on their reading habits and discovered for news and other types of articles a significant number of people preferred pixels to pages. The numbers were (unsurprisingly) reversed for fiction - particularly long-form fiction.

Now, think about this for a second: Folks are willing to spend hours reading articles off a screen but not a novel? Personally, I think it's because there are darned few books that one can actually get on line. Offhand, I can only name only one decent source for recent science fiction in electronic form (the Baen Free Library). There are others but most of them are commercial sites that use some form of weird DRM. However, when you include them all, there's still not a lot of electronic fiction books (non-fiction books are different but that's another topic).

So what do you think? Is the dearth of electronic fiction the result of a lack of interest or is the lack of interest the result of a lack of electronic fiction?

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K'phil of Masra

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