Friday, May 29, 2015

Friday Links!

Leading off this week, from Shane Courtrille, and this is an utterly fascinating story: The Real “No-Go Zone” of France: A Forbidden No Man’s Land Poisoned by War.

From C. Lee, and this is a fascinating, multi-part article: The Great Shift in Japanese Pop Culture. Also, and this is terrific, it's HOW YOU'LL DIE ON MARS.

From Steven Davis, and this is fantastic: Wet Fold Origami Technique Gives Wavy Personality to Paper Animals by Artist Hoang Tien Quyet. Also, and I knew of none of this, it's The man who bought Stonehenge.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, and this is very funny: “Real Life in Seattle” Amazon Parody Video. Also, and some of the details in this article are stunning, it's With rural Japan shrinking and aging, a small town seeks to stem the trend.

From my favorite music writer Chris Hornbostel, and this is just a masterpiece: Pretty Good: Larry Walters has a flying lawn chair and a BB gun. I remember when this happened, and it was spectacular.

From Craig Miller, and these are very funny: 19 Frustrations Every Programmer Can Relate To.

From Michael Gilbert, The Big Picture covered the flooding this week: Texas Flooding.

From Marc Klein, and this can't be easy: Pete Rose's brother: 'We could be closer'.

I ran across a slew of interesting things this week, starting with Why Does Food Taste Different on Planes? I unicycled this week (a mile and a half of pinwheeling embarrassment, since I hadn't ridden in a while), then I stumbled onto this: Best of Unicycling 2014 (because doing insane tricks on skateboards and bicycles just isn't hard enough). Today, I saw this: Anthropologists Have Discovered a Totally New Human Ancestor. This is very creepy, but fascinating as well: 7 Notorious Killers Who Actually Went Straight.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

An Entirely Serious Conversation

"Yeah, lots of water gets bottled under very cruel conditions," I said.

"What?" Gloria asked.

"Dad, seriously," Eli 13.9 said.

"I only drink free-range water," I said. Eli burst out laughing. "If that makes me an environmentalist, then I'm an environmentalist."

"Oh, my god," Gloria said.

Eli laughs so hard he can't even speak for a while. Then, he says, "That's Dad. Setting the bar high for setting the bar low."

A very fair description, I think.

Yaks and Gators: Just Another Normal Day

Post-flood, strange things are happening down here.

Like yaks. I didn't know we had yaks, but apparently we do, and two of them got loose after the flooding rains damaged a fence. Here you go: Yaks rounded up in Pflugerville neighborhood.

Then there's the alligator in Houston. In a parking garage.

Houston seems to be basically built on a swamp, so I guess this shouldn't be a surprise, but here you go: Receding floodwaters leave alligator in parking garage. There's a picture if you click on the link, and that is not a baby alligator--it was six feet long (and I swear it looks even bigger than that).

I'm not sure what's next, except some big storms are headed this way and will be here late tonight.

Desktop Dungeons (iOS)

I'm sure you've heard of Desktop Dungeons.

The iOS port came out last night (Android today), and it's outstanding. I am so impressed with the level of care they put into the port. Two hours in, and no crashes. No oddities. Just an outstanding game that now has touch control, which is an extremely natural way to play it.

It's $9.99 (iOS) and worth every penny.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Games, Arrests, and Advertising

I would like to bring three things to your attention today.

1. Desktop Dungeons is coming out for iOS tonight and Android tomorrow. If you've never played it, please remedy that as soon as possible.

2. The gangsters at FIFA have been indicted today by the U.S. Government: Justice Department Brings The Hammer Down On FIFA. Lots of arrests in Switzerland, and I bet these guys roll over like rotisserie chicken to avoid long prison terms.

Does this mean anything will actually change inside FIFA? It's clearly been a criminal organization for decades, with a patronage system that is so deeply-rooted it might be impossible to clean up. However, and I think this is very important, today at least proves that FIFA is no longer beyond legal scrutiny.

Any organization that believes it is beyond legal scrutiny will breed corruption at an astonishing rate. This is why "self policing" is an oxymoron.

3. Here's something that is going to be both important and invasive in the future: This Ad for Banned Food in Russia Can Hide Itself From the Cops. Basically, the billboard has a camera and facial recognition software, and the software was tweaked to identify the symbols and logos on police uniforms. When the police walk up within a certain distance, the ad changes.

Already, Internet ads get served up on the basis of our online behavior. Now we'll see ads as we walk down the street that are targeted by the way we dress. Or our race. Our sex.

As far as I can tell, every new piece of technology created has only three possible uses: war, marketing, or po*n. Discouraging.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015


"I'm going to swim before it starts raining," I said yesterday about 10:30 a.m.

"TURN AROUND. DON'T DROWN," Eli 13.9 said. We've been hearing quite a lot about safety at low water crossings lately.

I've written about the drought for years, because we've been in it for years (almost a decade).

Not anymore, apparently.

It's rained twenty days in a row. We had years during the drought when it didn't rain twenty days in a year, and now we're getting it consecutively.

Yesterday, I swam my sad little half mile (stupid infraspinatus muscle) and was back home about an hour before it started raining.

Then it rained. And rained. And rained. About five inches worth.

This was our yard yesterday, and it wasn't the worst of it, not by a long shot:

If you look closely, that's a mini-river flowing from our backyard down to the street. The rain had actually slowed down at this point (although if you click on the image, you'll see that it was still raining very hard, and continued to for hours).

We live up on a "ridge", so everything flows down from our house, essentially. The rest of the city? Not always so fortunate. Here's what it looked like downtown:

See that water next to his right hand? That's a football stadium under eight feet of water. See the water outside the stadium? That's from a creek (Shoal Creek) that massively overflowed its banks yesterday. Oh, and that water outside the stadium? That's covering a road. The normal path of the creek is well away from that point

We've had 17 inches of rain this month, which obliterates all the monthly records previous. That's more than half the rainfall of an average year in 26 days.

Incredibly, we didn't even have it as bad as Houston. I woke up this morning and saw that certain areas in Houston had 10 inches of rain overnight. Houston is a big lake right now.

Here's a google image search on "photos of flooding in Texas 2015". It's stunning.

Flood Photos.

It's hard to understand (especially for me, because this is incredibly rare down here) but rivers can rise at incredible rates. The Blanco river (southwest of Austin) rose seventeen feet in thirty minutes Saturday night. When the flood stage is thirteen feet, that's a disaster (it crested at over 41 feet). So even if you think you're taking the proper precautions, when you're near a river, events can quickly become overwhelming.

Monday, May 25, 2015


We had a strange and entirely bizarre day in Austin, with unbelievable amounts of rain and serious flooding. We live on relatively high ground, so we were fortunate, but other parts of the city were hit very hard.

I'll have more details for you tomorrow.

Memorial Day

I'm always conflicted on Memorial Day, because I want to honor the noble intention of people who serve without honoring the political and industrial war machine that sends them into mortal danger.

Matt Teets sent me an e-mail today, and he told a beautiful and poignant story.

I wanted to tell a story this Memorial Day. I have told it a few times, and I think it is worth telling here as it involves a deceased veteran.

When I was in the military, for a time, I served on a funeral detail. In addition to actually doing funerals, we would also go out the day before to get all the details and make sure we were set up for the next day. I was stationed in Ft. Eustis, Virginia, a busy place for such duty as there are many military and VA facilities around there and the area has a history of people serving their country. 

We didn't know much about the gentleman other than he had served in the Korean War, was badly injured and spent the next 30+ years being taken care of in a VA facility. He had died with no known relatives, but there was a family plot. 

I started the day driving with our sergeant out to the funeral home to find out details, but because it was a small funeral home and apparently a busy day, we couldn't find anyone to tell us where the burial site was located. The cemetery did have a name and it was attached to a church, but there were 3 churches by that name in the area. 

What started as a routine assignment that should have taken 2 hours turned into an all day drive as we visited each of the cemeteries in turn trying to find the plot and came up empty handed. Finally we decided we would just have to "wing" it the next day and started to head back. 

By this time it was probably 6pm. 

I stopped to get a soda at a service station in a nearby town and the clerk said he was surprised to see someone dressed in fatigues in town, since we were well away from any nearby bases. He asked what I was doing and I told him about our search. He asked who was being buried and since I couldn't see what it could hurt, I told him the name. 

He told me that he thought he knew the family and that he was probably related to the school janitor. 

I told him I doubted that the janitor would be in school this late at night and he told me that it was prom night at the school and he would certainly be there, plus the school was right across the street. 

Not believing my "luck", I walked into the school and sure enough, prom was going on. Someone directed me to the janitor and he said that yes, it was his cousin. He hadn't known he had died. All his family members had passed away, but he said that a woman would be by soon to show us where he was being buried. 

A well dressed woman drove up and said to follow her and we followed her well out of town, then turned down a dusty side road before we pulled up to a burnt out husk of a building and an overgrown field. Wandering into the field we discovered there were headstones in the overgrown grass. 

As it turned out, the Klan had burnt down the original church in the mid-60s and rather than rebuild it there, they had split into three churches all somewhat equidistant. We also found where a hole had been dug and found what we assumed were his parents headstones right next to it. There were also a few pigs grazing in the field. I didn't get home until late that night, past dusk.

The next day was pouring rain, the field was a slick of mud and the wind would occasionally lash at us. The family had gathered as many relatives as they could on short notice, a strong group of men in their suits and ladies in their hats and dresses under umbrellas. The farmer had apparently rounded up his pigs and the veteran was laid to rest next to his parents.

There are a lot of stories from being on a funeral detail, many sad, some funny, but a lot of times it's job that you do. But that funeral always stays with me, because had it not been for a "lucky" set of circumstances, it could have played out differently, with just the 9 of us, laying a fellow soldier to rest in a muddy field without anyone else knowing.

There are veterans who came home to being spit on, and those who have been welcomed as heroes. But I would like all of us on Memorial Day to take a moment to remember those who are forgotten. Those who never truly made it "home", whether because they end up wasting away in a VA facility or on the streets. They can't all be so lucky, some of them will only have 9 (or less) of their fellows standing there to remember them. Take a moment and remember them as well.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Friday Links!

From John Willcocks, and this has to be seen to be believed: World's Most Amazing Archer in Slow Motion. Note how he aims.

From Sirius, and who knew we'd ever find something like this: Scientists discover first warm-bodied fish. Also, and it's about time, it's Newly discovered frog species looks a lot like Kermit the Frog. One more, and it's bizarre: An island in the Maldives is made of parrotfish poop.

From C. Lee, and man, these are cool: A whimsical Ghibli-like world captured in beautiful GIFs you can stare at all day. Also, and this is just incredible, it's Brain-controlled Bionic Legs are Finally Here.

These links are from Scott Gould, and his description is so specific that I'm including it here:
YES this is a documentary about making an album and YES it's in seven parts and YES you won't have heard of Neil Hannon and YES I'm asking you to take 40 minutes or so of your life to watch. All 7 parts, wondering what this odd fellow is doing bossing all these musicians around and trying to work out what on earth kind of music he makes, and then at 1:40 of the seventh part it will all become clear.
Part the first

And after all that, an acoustic performance of one of the album highlights.

From a gassy source who wishes to remain anonymous, and this is just brilliant: Loz's magnificent 7-tone fart symphony. Note: this is much more clever than you would expect from the title. Music nerds in particular will enjoy this (it cracked Eli 13.9 up).

From Jeff Fowler, and this is fantastic: Hot lava flows in a parking lot—in upstate NY.

From Hennie van Loggerenberg, and this is amazing: These Online Maps Can Tell You Where Your Wine Came From.


From Steven Davis, and I had no idea this even existed: The Octobass – What does this huge instrument sound like?

From Nate Carpenter, and this is an incredible story: Ingeborg Rapoport to Become Oldest Recipient of Doctorate After Nazi Injustice is Righted: 102-year-old retired neonatologist submitted her doctoral thesis in 1938.

Thursday, May 21, 2015


National Tap Dance Day? Who knew?

Also, there's this mascot from a local ice cream shop:

How'd you like to see a shelf of these staring at you in the middle of the night? Chilling.

NHL 16

NHL 15 was a huge disappointment last year. Big chunks of content were missing, and the content that was included had baffling and seemingly random omissions. It was a sad year for one of the truly great sports franchises.

However, the series has built up so much goodwill with me over the years that I'm still looking forward to this year's release. The feature set was released this week, and almost all of the content seems to have been restored this year. If you'd like to see the full list, here it is: Complete List of Features for NHL 16.

What I've always appreciated about this era of NHL is that, unlike Madden, the development team has never chased stupid innovation. Madden has had dozens of dubious features that have been introduced, then almost immediately abandoned, and the only reason they existed in the first place was to have something new to market. NHL has been sensibly forward-thinking, and I only hope that continues this year.

By the way, this is Eli 13.9s favorite game, bar none. No big surprise there.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

PhD Tree

After the tree post last week, Brian Witte was kind enough to send me a fascinating e-mail, and I'm using it here. What follows is all Brian.

I saw your post on making computer models of trees and I wanted to share a story or two.  Brace yourself.

My friend did a PhD in Forestry in the late 90's at University of Washington.  The initial observation used to form hypotheses for the dissertation was this image:

The image you're looking at is farmland in eastern Washington State, near the Columbia River.  The circles are center-pivot irrigation used to grow vegetables.  The square blocks, however, are a tree plantation.  The trees are hybrids of different species of cottonwood, and they're being grown as a source of fiber for a paper mill.  Cottonwoods are notable both for their fast growth and the ease of cloning them.  Any twig can be dipped in rooting hormone, half-buried in the ground, and it will sprout into a new tree.  Using that approach, a single big tree can be chopped up and used to plant several contiguous acres of genetically identical trees.  Each of those rectangular blocks in slightly different shades of green are, genetically, one single tree that was chosen for its rapid growth and high quality fiber.  Here's a photo of a cottonwood plantation, with trees grown like corn:

Grown on this spacing, with plentiful drip irrigation, and cloudless summer weather of eastern Washington, the trees take only 7 years to reach 100' tall, with a trunk diameter of 2 feet. 

Cool story, right?  So where does modeling come in?  You'll notice that among those blocks of trees, some appear to be different shades of green.  When you broaden the range from visible light to full-spectrum imaging (the AVIRIS technology mentioned in the caption), the difference is even more pronounced.  Remember that each block is comprised of genetically identical trees. Looking at ONE tree is hard.  Looking at a giant block of trees allows you to eliminate individual variation over a tree's surface and measure averages.  Each block represents the average interaction of several thousand trees.  The blocks of trees were all planted at the same time, they all get the same water and fertilizer, and they all are rooted in the same soil.  So what accounts for the different appearance?

My friend, Kim Brown (now Dr. Brown), went out to those blocks of trees and measured every conceivable variable: chlorophyll content, leaf size, leaf shape, tree height, rate of photosynthesis, rate of respiration.  She even took the data she collected on the trees to France where she collaborated with a computer modeler to figure out what happened to incident rays of sunlight as they impacted the trees.  How much light was absorbed, how much reflected and at what angle, how much re-radiated in a different wavelength...even what happened to a ray of light as it entered a leaf and bounced around inside.  Here's an image from a related paper by the modeler :

It turns out that the different appearance of the blocks of trees came down to the angle at which the leaves hang, relative to the trunk.  Some cottonwood species have leaves with short, stout petioles (the little stem that connects a leaf to a branch), while others have long, limber petioles.

So yes, modeling trees is hard.  I still haven't seen a tree reproduced in a game that I would call convincing (plants have their own uncanny valley when a botanist like me is watching.  And don't get me started on the ents in Lord of the Rings with their totally unrealistic leaf physics).

As for the impact of long vs short petioles?  That would be for another time.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Happy Victoria Day

DQ VB.NET Advisor Garret Rempel sent me this picture today from Winnipeg:

I find it encouraging that there's unfrozen water in the streets, at least.

You Must Build a Boat

I know--The Witcher 3 went live today--but believe it or not, I think I'm looking forward to this game more. Here's the press release from Luca:
I’m Luca Redwood, I made the critically acclaimed "10000000" which Rock Paper Shotgun recently listed as one of the "Top 25 Puzzle Games Ever Made" .

After 3(!) years in the making, the sequel - "You Must Build A Boat"  is coming out on June 4th. It’s very exciting, here is a trailer: You Must Build a Boat trailer.

I’m pretty chuffed with how its turned out, It’s got loads of cool new features, capturing monsters, building up your boat and adding new and exciting rooms, random and nonrandom dungeon modifiers that change how each run has to be be played 

It’ll be out at the same time on PC,Mac/Linux,iOS and Android. 

Thanks for reading! 


At one point in the trailer video, you see the boat you're building, and here's what's inside the boat:
--HD television
--a camel
--a green dude next to a fireplace
--a weight bench
--guy with sword
--a giant snake
--a dog
--a bed
--a caveman with club, apparently embracing a woman
--a library
--a spit (or a high jump pit--not sure)
--a Pharaoh?
--a pool table (or torture rack--not sure)
--the cosmos?

Oh yes, I am so, so in.

Monday, May 18, 2015


We had a bit of a kerfuffle yesterday: Waco Biker Brawl: Scores Arrested After Shootout at Twin Peaks Bar.

"Scores" is 165, in case you're counting. 9 Fatalities and counting.

Here's an excerpt from another article worth reading:
Police helicopters hovered over the Waco, Texas, sports bar and above a scattering of knives, guns, and dead bodies in the parking lot. Surrounding streets were closed off as authorities prepared for more outlaws to converge on the city.

...Earlier that day, about 200 bikers from at least five motorcycle gangs gathered at Twin Peaks, a restaurant known for its bikini-topped waitresses and, apparently, for its crew of motorcycle-riding regulars.

But the scene turned into a gruesome turf war around 12:15 p.m., after a brawl inside the restroom spilled out into the bar and ended in the parking lot. On Monday morning, Waco police said 170 people were arrested and will face charges related to organized crime.

We've driven past that place more times than I can even count, because it's right off the interstate, easily visible as you're driving past. We always joke about the name, because it's basically a Hooter's clone.

It's ninety minutes from our house, roughly.

This was an incredible incident. The bar is in a standard strip mall (Panera Bread, Best Buy, Ross, Kohl's, etc.), and a fight inside the restaurant spilled outside and turned into a huge shootout.

[Editorial note: by the way, if any of you read an outraged opinion piece from one of the usual places about how this incident is indicative of the collapse of white culture and how white fathers have failed, please let me know.]

I met a guy years ago who was so memorable that I wrote down details of our conversation, then saved the file for future use. Incredibly, that day has arrived.

This fellow I met was a tow truck driver. He was huge and incredibly intimidating physically. Covered in tattoos.

Here are my notes, with only minor editing to protect his identity:
Moved here from another state. 20+ years with same company. Driving the whole time. Started straight out of the Army.

Moved to Austin when wife got job. Same company needed drivers. Not a recovery [repo] driver, but has friends who are. Did do private prop recovery in his previous state. People angry, wanting to bargain. 131.50. You're going to charge me the fifty cents? [a guy almost attacked him over fifty cents once.] Tries to reason with them. Knows how anger feels because he's an angry guy. Took classes to learn how to handle it.

Seen some terrible wrecks. Makes you think about safe driving all the time for your kids. Wife gets on him all the time for driving too slow. Seen too many things.

Says his girls don't know anything about his past because he's changed. Says they don't know he was a biker and beat up people for a living. Says that since he quit drinking and using he's a different person. Plus his Christianity makes him better able to deal with his anger.

He's on call 24 hours a day. Goes out when he gets a call. Said the owner of his company said he was building him a new tow truck to thank him for all his years of service.

Recovery is crazy. Said even people in wrecks are sometimes angry when he shows up. Still have adrenaline pumping. Says some think he wants to rip them off. Says no, I'm here to help you, not steal your money.

Gentle. Soft-spoken.

When he was talking about his girls, he said, "Being a father makes you want to be a better person for your kids," and man, if there was ever a universal truth, that's it.

I remember this as a truly poignant conversation, because this fellow--who was downright scary-looking--was as soft-spoken and non-aggressive as almost anyone I've ever met.

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