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Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Slow Month Ends

Assuming that this ends up being my final September 2010 post, I'll have set a new low for blogging productivity in a calendar month, at 27 posts (previous record of pathetic output was October 2009, with 28 posts). There's no exciting reason for this drop-off, as I just haven't had as much to say as usual. I've been busy organizing my Fall tutoring schedule, which is continuing to change even as we speak, and trying to get more exercise in (biking, walking, yoga). None of the weekly comic fare lately has been particularly interesting or blog-worthy. I've started playing Halo: Reach but it hasn't grabbed me yet, although tonight may feature some Coop action with McChicken. None of my consulting leads have borne any fruit yet, which leaves September as a pretty uneventful month. Hence the downturn here.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Back From A Brief Stay In Cottage Land

Vicki and I spent from yesterday morning until around noon today up at a cottage outside Bayfield. Our friend Julie is up there for the week and invited us for an overnight visit, so off we went for an impromptu mini-vacation. We did some walks on the beach, played with Julie's dog and cat, and watched the 2nd and 3rd installments (7-Plus-Seven and 21-Up) in the amazing British Up documentary series. And we talked. A lot.

Conversation continued well into the wee hours of the morning, as it usually does when we get together with this particular friend. We even role played what sort of things each of us might have said had we been featured on a series like Up. It was really fascinating to me to both hear what Vicki and Julie thought they'd be talking about at ages 7, 14, 21, etc., and to try to come up with where my own head would have been at during those same stages of my life. It's actually an illuminating exercise that I'd recommend for anyone to do with extremely close friends and loved ones, especially if you didn't know each other in your younger years. For inspiration, rent any of 7-Up, 7-Plus-Seven, 21-Up, 28-Up, 35-Up, 42-Up or 49-Up or get the whole collection (linked to above).

Monday, September 27, 2010

Radiohead On The Horizon

I'm not sure why it's The Canadian Press that got this particular scoop, but apparently drummer Phil Selway has confirmed that Radiohead is headed into the studio today to sift through recent recordings in pursuit of a new release. This will be the followup to In Rainbows, an album that has gotten an inordinate amount of play on my iPod over the past couple of years. If the next offering from the band is anything close to that amazing CD in terms of quality, it'll be well worth the three year wait.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Now In The eBook Business

Thanks to a persistent and considerate friend, I now have an eBook version of No Kid of Ours is Failing at Math (How Parents Can Help) on the electronic market. It's available via the Lulu site, but more importantly should also show up in the Apple iBookstore soon. I've priced it at $9.99 (compared to $24.99 for softcover and $49.95 for hardcover) which seems to be a fairly common eBook price point.

Now we'll just have to wait and see how it goes.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Next Netflix Update

My first objection with Netflix involved the slim pickings that are currently offered. Since then, I've taken a longer, more leisurely look at their selection via my laptop, and still remain unimpressed. Unless the inventory grows quickly and widely, it doesn't seem like a going concern to this potential customer.

We watched The Guild Season 3 last night, and the quality of the video was - to put it bluntly - just awful! It was jumpy all the way through, like watching an Internet video on your computer back when we were all still using dial-up. I did some testing this afternoon, and the first film I tried (Lost in Translation) suffered from the same deplorable frame rate. Wondering if the problem was related to the streaming of HD video, I picked a movie that I figured would be SD (Vertigo) and it looked fine. I also selected Terminator 2 (which might or might not have been HD) and it likewise streamed normally. So I'm not quite sure what to make of this particular issue. Right now it seems very hit and miss in terms of what assets it affects. However, with such a small percentage of the Netflix's library appealing to me to begin with, I can't really afford to have any of them be unavailable due to poor quality. So this seems like another nail in their coffin.

But I'll keep giving it a chance, at least through the 30-day free trial.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Joining The Netflix Revolution? Maybe

At the prompting of various friends (and my wife, once she heard about it), I've signed us up for the 30-day free trial of Netflix on the PS/3. I have to admit that I hadn't really given it much thought until recently, as we generally prefer buying DVDs to renting them (it's a collector thing, I guess). However, at a price point of $7.99/month, it just seems like too intriguing a service not to try. Even if we only watched a couple of movies each month, that would certainly seem to be a reasonable cost.

However, now that I've become a customer and checked out the selection, I have to say it's pretty underwhelming. Few of the movies that I searched on were available, and browsing through most of the genre lists is rather depressing. However, we may have found the one area where it'll be worth the expense: non-Hollywood fare such as documentaries, foreign films and indie flicks. I found four Kurasawa choices available, for example, three of which I don't believe we've seen. Of course, if Netflix Canada isn't regularly updating their streaming library, then we'll soon blow through what they have and be left wondering what exactly we're paying $7.99 a month for. So we'll see how that goes. [And apparently my reaction to the selection wasn't all that unusual.]

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Happy 6th Anniversary, Lost!

That's right, it was 6 years ago today that Vicki and I first became hooked on Lost! "Doc" Jensen has a nice little article celebrating the occasion.

You Know A Game's Not All That Great When...

OK, I'm not here to slag Halo: Reach, as I've barely played an hour of it so far. However, even just that qualification is a bad sign for the game that I received in the mail just over a week ago. I mean, really: I've only played an hour of what's supposed to be one of the biggest games of the year? Is it just me, or has Reach been a bit underwhelming in what it's delivered? I can't say for sure, and I really won't know where I stand on it until I've had a chance to play some Coop with McChicken. But as of right now, it's just not compelling me to fire it up each evening as I deliberate between going to bed reasonably early or kicking some alien butt.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Even Closing Our Pool Is A Challenge This Year

We were almost done closing the pool this afternoon when we realized that our trusty Shop Vac, which we use to drain the lines of water for the winter, was in fact sucking... but in the wrong sense! It had very little actual suction, which is a major problem when you need to pull many litres of water across many metres of pipes!

Vicki's now gone out and bought a replacement appliance, but I've got tutoring coming up shortly, meaning that this job will now stretch into its fifth day! What a year!! (And we still don't know what was causing the pump pressure problem.)

Thinking About Trying Mad Men

Vicki and Tammy have both been watching Mad Men (the title of which I understand to be a play on "ad men" as that's what the show is apparently about) for years now, but I've not yet seen even a single minute of it. Not too long ago, however, Jeff "Doc" Jensen transitioned from writing about Lost to providing his thoughts about MM. That event, alone, was enough to pique my curiousity. Now I'm considering buying the first season on DVD to give it a try. So to anyone out there who's seen the show, I ask: how highly do you recommend it?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Pool Closing Underway

We've now started the pool closing process and it'll continue over the next couple of days. At this point we still don't know if the mysterious pressure problem is a line blockage, a failing pump or something else. So we'll see what happens when we try to drain the line between the skimmer and the pump tomorrow, as that may provide a clue. Otherwise, we'll deal with it next Spring, I guess.

I think I managed to get at most two or three swims in between the end of July and now, which is by far the worst such run in any summer period since we moved here in 1998. Yeah, it's just been that kind of year.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Copyrighting Football Plays

I would never have even considered the question, "Why aren't innovative football plays protected against copying?" unless I'd read this Freakonomics article on that very topic. Also, I'm guessing that anyone who's not a diehard football fan will probably be as surprised as I was to learn that the forward pass has only been allowed in the game for a little over a century now (or that its inclusion came about after a rash of injuries and deaths resulted in the U.S. President demanding changes). Hard to imagine there was a time when every play was a run, but prior to 1905, that was football for you. Weird!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Ico Lives Again!

Anyone who's ever played the vastly-underexposed PS/2 game, Ico, knows what a masterpiece it is. It's a puzzle-adventure game about a young boy trying to find his way out of imprisonment within a large, complex structure. The environment is jaw-droppingly gorgeous, the puzzles are often wonderfully elaborate, and the game won Vicki and I over completely several years ago. Unfortunately, I had borrowed it from McChicken at that time and could never find a copy again when we wanted to replay it last year (McC had given his away).

Now comes confirmation that it's been ported to the PS/3 and will be re-released next Spring (along with Shadow of the Colossus, by the same studio). I can't wait to get my hands (back) on Ico, especially with updated graphics! It'll have been long enough by then that neither of us will likely remember many of the solutions within the game, which should make it a joy to experience, all over again!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Vicki's Dilemma

We're hosting a friend this Saturday night for our latest movie night with her (the last one was at her place a couple weeks ago) and this time it's Vicki's choice of flick. I've never known her to have trouble making a decision in matters large or small in the past, but this particular one has dragged on for days and has involved at least a dozen potential "candidates" so far.

I'm pretty sure she's over-thinking it by about an order of magnitude, but it's still fun to watch...

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

My First Halo: Reach LOL Moment

Anyone who's ever played any video game with me that involves driving knows that I love to put the vehicles into places that they're simply not intended to go. Sometimes I do it on purpose, and other times it just sort of happens. Playing Halo 3 in Coop mode, I generally tried to take every vehicle I found outside into every building on the map, much to the amusement/dismay of my real world teammates.

I'm about 30 minutes into the single player Halo: Reach campaign and I've already managed to wedge a Jeep in between a wall and a barrier. I gave it my best shot at unjamming it, but then I jumped out of the driver's seat and allowed one of my AI teammates to take over behind the wheel. He's been spinning the wheels and trying in desperation to get that sucker moving for about 5 minutes now (much of which I've spent composing this blog post), with the 2nd AI character occasionally expressing his frustration with this turn of events by offering up "Let's get rolling!" or "Gas is on the right! Hit it!" I couldn't stop laughing for the first minute or so, and then I decided to use this little break in the action to write it up properly here. I'm starting to think that he may not be any more successful at extricating our wheels than I was (although he keeps trying!). If that's the case, I guess I'll have to resort to explosives to get it back on the road.

Such is life with me and video game vehicles...

Reach Out And Frag Someone

My copy of Halo: Reach arrived in our mailbox this morning, right on time for launch day! FutureShop online gets full marks for this accomplishment, as I saved $10 off the list price, got free shipping, and have the game in my hand on the day it was released. No complaints here!

The (few) reviews that I've read all seem to claim that this is the best of the Halo franchise to date, which is very high praise indeed. I actually liked all of them except for Halo 3: ODST, so my bar was really just that it be better than that. I haven't tried it yet, but probably will very shortly. My only tutoring session of the day starts at 4:30, so I think an hour or two of gaming between now and then might be in order. So much for finishing Resistance: Fall of Man, though (I made it all the way to the final battle but was just starting that).

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Our Summer Of Who

A few nights ago, Vicki and I finished watching the last unseen regular episode of Doctor Who (there are still a few specials that we're keeping our eyes out for). As noted earlier, we saw Seasons 1 and 5 more or less in parallel, and then proceeded to plow through the second, third and fourth "series" (as seasons are called in the UK). My opinion of the show continued to improve as it rolled along, to the point where I'm now looking forward to next year's run; Vicki was always pretty high on it, essentially from the first one we tried.

I especially liked the way that past companions Sarah Jane, Rose, and Martha were brought back at various points (most notably in Season 4), as that's such a generous gesture to the fans. Interestingly, I don't remember any references to them (or Donna Noble) in the just-completed Matt Smith / Karen Gillan fifth series, and I wonder why. Maybe that's par for the course when they change Doctors and companions at the same time, as happened there?

At any rate, thank you to those who encouraged me to give the 21st century incarnation of Doctor Who a try. It was time well spent, and the show now has two more fans.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

God Clarifies "Don't Kill" Rule

This exquisite Onion article, originally published in late September 2001, pretty much says it all.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Pool Saga Continues

Just as the weather has turned too cool to swim (coincident with me being able to swim, as my back boil wound has closed up), we've got yet another problem with our pool: the pressure is down about 30 to 40%, and we don't know why. The only two possible reasons that make any sense to me are that the pump is under-performing (wearing out; about to give up the ghost), or there's a partial blockage of some sort in the line between the skimmer hole and the pump. The main argument for it being the former is that it's hard to imagine what might plug up the line enough to reduce the pressure by that amount (more or less would be easier to picture) and the pump's old (it was here when we moved in back in 1998); what makes me think it's the latter is that, when we turn the pump off, open the valve leading to the pump, and remove the pump cover, the water that pours out of the pump and onto the floor of the pool room doesn't seem to either of us to be up to the usual volume. So now we're left to figure out what to do next. The pressure's high enough to keep the water circulating, so that we don't have to worry about it going stagnant. But the automatic vacuum isn't circulating at that low pressure, which means the pool's starting to get a bit dirty on the bottom.

I'm tempted to just close the pool early (like, soon) but of course if the line is plugged then we may not be able to get all of the water out of it, leaving us open to the possibility of it rupturing over the winter when the water freezes and expands.

I'm really tired of 2010...

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

For The Record

Vicki, Tammy and I have been trying to figure out whether our cat Lucy is 7 or 8 years old right now. We knew we got her, as a kitten, in May, but couldn't remember if it was 2002 or 2003.

Tonight, Vicki happened to be looking through some old day planners of hers, and found the answer: Lucy is 8 years old, having been born somewhere around the 1st of April, 2002. She came to us on May 17th that year, which was the Friday that started the May long weekend in that palindromic year. I always remembered that it was that weekend because I had to work for most of it, meaning that I missed a good chunk of those wonderful first few days with a new kitten in the house. Funny the things that stick with you! It's like I always say: it seems highly improbable to me that any of us will ever express regrets on our deathbed that we didn't spend enough time at our jobs. And yet most of us live our lives as if we would...

Interesting Discussion About Science Writing And Social Media

I quite enjoyed reading this blog post on the question of whether or not Science blogging and other related activities are actually increasing Science literacy. Even just the fact that there are so many people thinking about this topic is encouraging to me.

Monday, September 06, 2010

New School Year = More Flash Cards

I've got a "new" Grade 11 student starting this week (meaning a student I wasn't tutoring last year) and so I spent some time recently coming up with a list of Grade 10 review topics to go over with her before launching into Grade 11 Functions. My rationale in doing so is that there's really no point building a new house on a shaky foundation, so it's better to find out what she already knows before adding anything to it.

I realized as I was reading over the Grade 10 list this afternoon that most of it already exists in homemade flash card form because I had two Grade 11's last year and had reviewed at least some of the earlier concepts with them. This is one of those examples where my anal retentive personality comes in handy: I tend to plan ahead and spend time creating materials that I can reuse later, rather than doing everything as a one-off. To show what I mean, some of the flash cards that I use with my students were actually created for Tammy, back in the 1990s! It helps when you hardly ever throw anything out, I guess...

So tonight I added another dozen or so cards to the mix, and more clearly separated my "high school" pile of flash cards into Grade 9, Grade 10 and Grade 11 sections. Since there's a lot of overlap between the first two high school Math courses, I'll probably start with Grade 9 when my new student arrives, work our way through the Grade 10 cards, and then begin covering the Functions topics (that she doesn't have in school until 2nd semester, aka February next year). I also arranged each stack to represent a logical progression through each course, which should allow me to more quickly identify any weak areas she has. This is a student enrolled in the University level Grade 11 Functions (typically I get kids in the College or, at best, College/Univ Mixed course) so I suspect I'll find that she knows most of what she's supposed to. If so, that means we'll spend the majority of the next 5 months going over the upcoming course curriculum, which means that I'll actually get to teach it to her. That's a thrilling prospect for me, Math geek that I am!

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Happy ________ Long Weekend!

The further I get from my past as a wage-slave, the more oblivious I become to long weekends, in all their various forms. I try to stay cognizant of them only because I know they're still important to my working friends, but they just seem like such non-events to me now.

The Labour Day long weekend was always associated with two things in my mind, when I was a kid: the last break before school resumed (marking the end of summer), and the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy telethon. (It's depressing to me, all these years later, that MD still hasn't been cured. That's a lot of Labour Day weekend money that's rolled in, over decades now, without leading to an end to the disease.) Now that I'm tutoring, this weekend marks the end of the (light) summer schedule and the resumption of kids actually having some (slight) motivation to do Math! Even just the spectre of unit tests seems to be enough to get most kids to pay a little more attention.

Anyway, enjoy your long weekend, all those of you to whom such events still matter!

Cultural Shifts: E-Mail Vs Texting

I'm old enough to remember when having a colour TV in your home meant you were something special, and can still vividly recall the excitement when we got our first. Telephones were pretty much standard household appliances even back then, but my mother lived through that particular revolution. When e-mail first entered my life, it was strictly a work thing, as Vicki and I didn't even have a computer in our house until somewhere in the mid-1990s. Then we cruised through a period where only old people and Luddites didn't have e-mail, to the point where I began to rely upon its asynchronous method of communication as a primary means of keeping in touch with friends and family where I didn't need an immediate response. Instant messaging took that a step further, but generally required both parties to be engaged at the same time (synchronous communication), making it suitable for slightly different scenarios. We all learned fairly easily when to use which.

Now, however, I've run into the divide between those who use e-mail versus those who text. Two different (female) friends of mine have e-mail accounts but rarely check them (often going days, or even weeks, between accesses). Because I'm so accustomed to people who respond to e-mails within minutes or, at worst, hours, this has become a growing source of frustration as my particular model of communication hasn't been fitting well with theirs. Lately I've thought that perhaps I just need to finally break down and buy a cell phone (never owned one; hadn't planned to ever own one) but over this weekend I went looking for alternatives. And I've found something that seems like it may work.

Who knew that it was possible to send e-mails to text message accounts? Well, I certainly didn't, but it seemed like a simple enough feature to offer, conceptually. So I started searching for articles about it. Sure enough, many cell carriers offer (in some cases, free of charge) a service whereby you can send an e-mail to ##########@blahblahblah.com, where the ########## is the cell phone # and the blahblahblah domain name is some variation on the company's regular e-mail domain extension. Different services have different limitations, such as whether they truncate your e-mail down to 150 characters, send multiple ones, or do something else, for example. But the bottom line is that I can now e-mail these texting-focused friends of mine and have some reasonable hope of them seeing it in pseudo-realtime. All for the low upfront cost of a little bit of time spent researching the problem. So maybe I can hold off on buying that iPhone 4, after all!

Friday, September 03, 2010

Killzone 3 Now Dated

We've known for awhile that Killzone 3 was supposed to launch next February, but today we found out more specifically that it's arriving Feb 22, 2011! Given that its release date is in the final quarter of the month, I suppose that's bad news, on the one hand, compared to - say - discovering that it was coming out on the 1st. But even just knowing exactly when to expect it is an improvement over the ambiguity associated with a game only having a month identified. It just makes it seem more... real, I guess.

I think I've given up on my attempt to replay my way through Killzone 2's campaign on the hardest setting, having instead settled into a very enjoyable 3rd run through Resistance: Fall of Man's single player campaign on the hightest difficulty.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

They Really Don't Make 'Em Like This Anymore

I was recently thinking about the Looney Tunes cartoon that I always refer to as "The Singing Frog" (actual title: "One Froggy Evening"), and how it's stuck with me for all these years. Although I hadn't seen it in at least a couple of decades, I could remember almost every aspect of it; in fact, when I found a copy on YouTube (with Arabic subtitles, yet!), I hadn't gotten much wrong in my mental conjuring of it!

For those who've never experienced it (and are too lazy to click on the link above), it's the tale of a construction worker who finds a box while demolishing a building's foundation, inside of which is a frog - complete with top hat and cane - who performs show tunes like nobody's business. The man immediately has visions of striking it rich with this amazing creature, but keeps running into the problem that the amphibian tends to wrap up his latest number just before any prospective audience member arrives. Nothing the man can do prevents this from happening, and he loses his shirt and is actually institutionalized for a time, as a result. Eventually he spots a new building going up and drops the box, frog and all, into its foundation.

Cut to 2056, and the Acme Disintegration Company employee who similarly finds the box, along with the singing frog, and heads off into the distance in pursuit of what he woefully believes will be fame and fortune.

I love a lot of things about this 6-minute gem, including the fact that there's no dialogue in it other than the singing, and that it's circular (ending pretty much as it started). It also imparts the message that greed isn't good, as both men are shown to be sneaking the box away in the mistaken belief that they'll benefit from their deceit. That's a terrific sentiment to imprint upon young minds, if you ask me. Not like the crap we get today.

Combinations And Permutations

With a new school year almost upon us, I've been reading up on the Math courses that I'll be tutoring shortly that I haven't done previously. One is a Grade 12 Data Management course that focuses on both probability and selection theory. The latter is largely concerned with combinations and permutations: knowing which is which, how to calculate each, and how to tell whether a particular scenario is one or the other.

For those who - like me - have forgotten some of this material, permutations are sets of items where the order of the items matters. In other words, in a permutation, a selection of {red, blue, green} is different than one of {blue, red, green} or {green, blue, red}. A combination, on the other hand, is a set selection where order is irrelevant (all similar sets containing the same items are considered to be the same set or outcome). As one of the websites humourously points out, we don't adhere very well to this Mathematical definition of "combination" in our every day use of the English language, or else those things that you use to safeguard your valuables in the fitness club would be called "permutation locks" (since the order of the numbers twirled on the lock are every bit as relevant as the numbers themselves, when it comes to getting it to open).

Anyway, half the battle in most questions of this type is figuring out whether you're dealing with a permutation or a combination. Naturally, you have to ask yourself, "Does the order of the items matter?" It can actually be quite challenging if you haven't done many examples of them already. Say you're trying to figure out how many different medal outcomes there are in a race of 10 runners where Gold, Silver and Bronze are awarded. In that case, you need to realize that order's important (Stephanie, Julie and Kait finishing 1st, 2nd and 3rd, respectively, is different than Julie, Kait and Stephanie doing so, for example). Therefore it's a permutation question.

Conversely, if 10 people at a party are vying for 3 door prizes, each of which is a $100 gift certificate to the Keg (and assuming that no one can win more than once), then order's immaterial. That's a straight-forward combination problem.

The similarity between the formulas for the two types probably adds to the confusion for some, as:

n P r (Permutations of n items when r are selected) = n! / (n - r)!

n C r (Combinations of n items when r are selected) = n! / r! (n - r)!

As you can see, the two formulas are almost identical. There's a reason for that, of course, as a combination is really a permutation in which you reduce your answer by all of the "duplicate" sets (those sets with the same items in different orders).

I knew all of this 25 to 30 years ago, of course... but I suspect that I'm going to understand it even better now, as I have to be able to explain it to others.