Friday, February 25, 2011

Back in the business

I got my first assignment today - building a nephelometer. Not quite as involved as an interferometer, but still an interesting and challenging bit of equipment.

I guess I'm back in the 'ometer business.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

First day at work

My first day on the job went well. It appears that engineering is a universal trait, in that my fellow engineers seemed less Aussie than Engineer, so we spoke a common language, despite the inability to specify certain food groups (i.e. biscuits).

I did get a lot of laughs with my Dumb American jokes. Fortunately, that is an inexhaustible resource. They agreed with me that Australia does not actually have politics, at least in the American psycho-circus infotainment sense of the word.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Let's try this again

OK, I've accepted another job. I think this one will stick; it's not just a guy in a warehouse this time. And the boss has been very straight-forward and responsive, so no flaky crumbs here.

I'm glad to get this job. Not only does it sound like fun, but I think it's good for my karma points. I will be building ecological equipment (mechanical canaries for the planet, as my father-in-law observed) instead of, you know, bombs. That's gotta count for something, somewhere.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Heartening signs

It is with hope and joy that I witness the many public protests for fair and honest democracy breaking out around the world in the wake of the successful Egyptian "re-alignment" (revolution is perhaps too strong of a word).

Look at what is happening in down-trodden places ruled by corrupt, selfish plutocrats, like Tunisia, Libya, and Wisconsin.

Police showing solidarity
Senate Dems aren’t too worried about the police tracking them down. The police are showing solidarity, including handing out bratwurst to the protesters.

And we have reports of the revolt spreading to Ohio:

Protests spreading to Ohio
Wisconsin is just where this fight is starting, but it does not end here. In Ohio, 5,000 protesters are descending on the state Capitol in building in Columbus to fight against a bill that would wipe out their collective bargaining rights. Newly elected Republican Governors and legislatures are trying to break unions in several states:

Our hopes and dreams are with you, freedom fighters! Those of us living in civilized countries cannot wait to welcome your nations to the community of the free and the just!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

One bright spot in this inhospitable land

A lucky break! I found corn tortillas at my local grocery store (the house brand, no less).

Combined with the contents of my care package, I was able to make this:

At least I won't starve!


Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Care Package

My sister has sent a care package from the Southwest:

Much appreciated; sadly, the one thing that is impossible to get are corn tortillas. You can't ship corn products into the country, and although they grow the stuff, they don't know how to make tortillas out of it.

I haven't really considered trying to make my own, as tortilla-making is a special art.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Financial Primitivism

In regards to the crossed check issue, it's apparently a non-issue anymore, since no existing Australian bank will cash a check for cash these days. Everything has at 5-day waiting period.

But in the process of researching this, I discovered that Australia and New Zealand are the only 2 (out of 30) members of the OECD that do not have government deposit insurance.

That's right: if an Aussie bank decides to gamble all your money on a coin toss, and loses, you don't get anything. All of your money - every penny you put into your bank account - is just gone, and no one will give it back.

I've seen lots of libertarian-style arguments that deposit insurance only creates moral hazard, as in the banks will then do foolish things since they know they are protected, so it's up to the consumers to prudently pick their banks. This is akin to the libertarian ideal that we don't need meat regulation, because if you buy tainted meat and die from it, you'll never make that mistake again and the seller will go out of business. I've seen a few arguments that, you know, every other civilized country has it and maybe we should join them.

And of course the argument that Australia doesn't need it because it's banking system is "special." Apparently banks are expected to keep half their deposits in cash (instead of the 10 or 20% in the US), so I guess you might only lose half your money.

This place is ripe for the picking. I predict 3-5 years before Wall Street swoops in, bankrupts the entire nation with some hare-brained Ponzi scheme, and then sails off laughing at the rubes in their yachts' rear-view mirrors.

If this is socialism, it's socialism as done by amateurs.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Syntactic substitution

There is a particular mental trick that I cannot seem to do, yet the vast majority of people do it with ease. This inability of mine sometimes leads to heated arguments, but not because I am trying to be difficult; just because it's frustrating to not be able to do what everyone else does.

I call it "syntactic substitution;" the substituting of a syntactically valid (but semantically empty) string of syllables for an answer.

This ability to abstract tokens for things is of course fundamental to reason; the heart of logic is that "A = A", and it doesn't matter what A is. I can do that much; I can solve algebra problems and work logic. But I can't seem to stop there.

For example, suppose I ask you, "Why did the price of tea in China go up today?"

And suppose you answer, "The moon rises in the sea of Chardonnay."

For many people, that's good enough. They'll go on their way, and when someone else asks them why the price of tea went up, they'll say, "The moon rises in the sea of Chardonnay."

But I can't do that. I can't file that as an answer, or a placeholder for the answer. I have to immediately ask, "Wait. I don't understand. What is the sea of Chardonnay? What does it mean for the moon to rise in a sea? What does moon rise have to do with tea?"

At which point you'll probably say, "I don't know. But that's what I was told when I asked, so that's the answer."

Then I say... "OK. You don't know. That's fine, you're not a tea farmer."

But people don't accept that. They argue back. "I do too know. I told you the answer!"

"But... you don't understand the answer. You can't tell me where the sea of Chardonnay is, or how moons rise in seas, or how that could possibly affect tea. You don't know the answer. It's OK; I don't expect you to know the answer. But I do kind of think you should admit you don't know, rather than throwing out a random string of syllables that accidentally form a grammatical but meaningless sentence."

And then you get mad. "Listen, smart-ass. I do know the answer; I told you the answer; you don't have a better answer, so shut up."

Eventually it occurs to me to stop trying to explain why an answer you don't understand is not an answer, and I think to ask, "How do you know that's the answer?"

And then you say, "I asked Bob this morning, and that's what he told me."


I think, for many people, having an quotable response feels like an answer, and that's good enough. Nobody likes admitting they don't know; it doesn't feel as good as knowing. That's just human nature. But my problem is that a ritualistic formula does not feel like an answer to me; I do not have the same emotional response to it as I do to an actual answer, and so I keep talking about the subject long after everyone else is bored with it.

This, more than anything, is why I am an atheist. The first time I heard "Goddidit" as an answer, I started asking what people meant by God. And I never got a real answer. I got plenty of syntactical substitutions, like "God is the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost," or "God is the ground of all being," but upon further inspection none of those actually made sense even to the person giving me the answer. The question is either met by more substitutions, or by hostility, if the questionee has run out of substitutions.

This is also why I have had so few arguments with Quakers and Buddhists. Usually at some point they answer my questions with, "I don't know." And I am fine with that: that is a placeholder I can relate to. I don't mind not knowing. I just object to pretending to know when you don't, and I suspect I object chiefly because I can't.

The other problem, of course, is that lots of times people actually do know the answer, but just don't want to admit it. Consider the original hypothetical conversation; imagine at the end you finally say, "Well, the fact that a fire just burned down a million acres of tea trees might have something to do with it."

And I would say, "Oh, that makes perfect sense. I get it now, thanks. Why didn't you mention that in the first place? By the way, why are your hands and face covered in soot, and what are you doing with an empty gasoline can?"

At which point the hostilities usually resume.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Crossed Checks

Someone wrote me a check today for something we sold off of E-Bay. Before they handed me the check, they drew two lines across it and scribbled "non-negotiable" on it.

As you can imagine, I was somewhat surprised at receiving a financial instrument that had already been marked as invalid. My in-laws had to explain it to me (with help from Google).

A "crossed check" is when the check-writer draws two lines across the check and scribbles "non-negotiable" on it. Unknown in America; ubiquitous in Australia and the UK. What it means is that the check can only be paid to another banker. In other words, you can't cash the check for cash; you can only deposit it to your bank account.

What a deal for the bankers! Not only do they get their cut for keeping your money in the first place, but they guarantee that another banker will get a cut too!

As you can imagine, I wondered what could compel millions of people to voluntarily hand someone else's banker a week's worth of free interest.

The answer is banking regulation, or rather, lack of it. If a bank pays a crossed check to the wrong party, the banker is liable. By implication, therefore, if a bank pays an uncrossed check to any random person who walks in and asks for it, then the bank is not liable.

I sort of assumed that not giving your money to random people was what you paid the bank for, but apparently, not so much. I took it for granted that banks had due responsibility to determine the identity of the individual they were handing your money too, but we're talking about banks that were started when Dickens was writing. The concept of treating consumers as entities equal to other bankers was (and apparently remains) laughable.

So, I hate the banks here. But then, I hated banks in America (so much so that I exclusively used the same Credit Union for 30 years), so I guess it's not that much of a change. Aside from people writing "No good!" on checks they're handing me, of course.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Sandbox World

Here is a sample of my SandboxWorld generator in action (with the Civilizations and Encounters file being severely edited for length). I'm mostly proud of the river code, which attempts to blend randomness with topology and some complex branch-trimming algorithms:

Visit for more!


C-9 State
Race: Human (Wild)
Alignment: Red
Population: 60000
Technology: Wild
Government: Despotism
Economics: Slavery
Stability: Normal
Politics: Paranoid
Lords: 1 10th Ranger
Nobles: 1 7th Ranger
1 6th Ranger
2 6th Rogue
4 5th Ranger
2 5th Druid
10 4th Ranger
1 4th Barbarian
1 4th Bard
15 3rd Ranger
4 3rd Druid
2 3rd Barbarian
2 3rd Rogue
1 3rd Bard
35 2nd Ranger
3 2nd Druid
2 2nd Barbarian
1 2nd Rogue
3 2nd Sorcerer
4 2nd Bard
168 1st Ranger
26 1st Druid
17 1st Barbarian
10 1st Rogue
8 1st Sorcerer
11 1st Bard
Soldiers: 3000 90 gp


B-16 PLAINS CR 1 Wolf
B-21 PLAINS CR 2 Badger cete (1d4+1)

C-16 PLAINS CR 1 Wild dog pack (1d4+1)
C-28 FOREST CR 1 Wild dog pack (1d4+1)

D-3 HILLS CR 4 Tiger
D-4 FOREST CR 3 Medium Elemental
D-19 MOUNTAINS CR 3 Large Zombie gang (1d4+1)
D-23 PLAINS CR 1 Ghoul
D-25 PLAINS CR 2 Cheeta
D-26 FOREST CR 1 Small Elemental
D-27 FOREST CR 2 Boar
D-29 FOREST CR 1 Medium Viper Snake