Selling Recursion to Wikipedia

For a while now, I’ve been wondering about the origins of the phrase, “coal to Newcastle.” I know it means you’re taking something to a place where they already have an excess supply, but I’ve always wondered whether it originated with the idea of taking coal to a coal mining community, or taking burning embers (coals) to a place that had just burned down.
This came up while I was on the phone with Steve tonight and he happened to be near his computer so he looked it up on Wikipedia. It turns out the original version of the phrase was “Selling coal to Newcastle” and it’s the version with selling coal to a coal mining community. There’s also mention of an eighteenth American businessman, Timothy Dexter, who actually managed to do it.
As reference material, the Wikipedia article cites an article on another site called “The Free Dictionary.” The dictionary site has an article which says the same thing. The article on the dictionary also has a footnote saying that it’s a copy of the Wikipedia article. In short, the Wikipedia article cites an article which cites the Wikipedia article.

Railroad Interrupted

The train thundered through the mountain pass. The roar of its passage echoing off the rock walls on either side was amplified until it could be heard clearly in the small town in the valley at the mountain’s base.
As the train crossed the peak and began picking up speed on the downgrade, the engineer began applying the brake. Deadman’s curve was just a mile ahead and it was always best to to approach it at a slower pace.
“Is everything OK tonight?”
Startled, Pete looked up from his reverie, blinking owlishly. “I’m sorry. What did you say?”
“Is everything OK tonight?” the waitress repeated.
“Oh, it’s terrific! Thanks!” And it’s true, Pete reflected. It had been a fantastic dinner.
As the waitress smiled and went back to work, Pete returned to his train of thought. But it was too late. While he’d been distracted, the brake had overheated and was now a worthless hunk of warped metal. Instead of the slower pace he’d planned, Pete’s train was now approaching Deadman’s Curve like a rocket and was still accelerating.
The train exploded off the track and crashed down the rock face, bringing half the mountain down with it. The town never stood a chance.
Deadman’s Curve had won again.


Just to get it out of my head:
I never metaphor-headed monster. Come to think of it, I’ve never metaphor-headed person either. And hey, monsters are people too. Particularly the four-headed ones. If you had four heads, you’d probably feel pretty monstrous too, what with all those people who had nothing better to do than stare at you.

I'm on Fire!

Along with some other nifty stats, the program I use for analyzing the web site’s access logs is able to tell me what terms people typed into the various search engines that directed them to my little corner of the web. Unsurprisingly, the largest amount of my site’s search traffic is people looking for convention listings. But not all of them

Early last year, I discovered that a strange beeping noise I’d been hearing periodically was a malfunctioning smoke detector. It’s long been one of the more popular entries on Dividing by Zero, but until recently that only meant it was getting viewed 10 or 15 times per month.

In July, the most popular page on the site was an article Dave wrote about “‘Beat Me with a Stick’ Elmo and other great toys.” That had been a popular article for a while, so I wasn’t surprised to see it riding high during a wave of news stories about malfunctioning Elmo dolls that sounded like Elmo was literally asking to be clobbered.

In August, requests for the Elmo article dropped to only one the entire month. At the same time, requests for information about “Smoke Detectors Beeping” became the single most popular reason for search engines to send people my way.

I didn’t check the logs too carefully, but as of tonight, variations on smoke detectors account for 13-15% of the search traffic reaching my site.

And where there’s smoke… ๐Ÿ™‚

Apple's Weapons of Mass Destruction

I’m equally amused and bemused by the language in the iTunes license agreement where you’re forbidden to use iTunes to control nuclear reactors. This just consistently strikes me as a very odd thing to put into the license for software that is (mainly) used to buy and play music.
My curiosity finally got the best of me and I wrote to iTunes customer service to express my surprise. Do they have a frequent problem with people using iTunes to control nuclear reactors and such? Rather than trying to enforce such restrictions via the software license, wouldn’t it be easier (and safer!) to simply remove that functionality from the software?
A customer service person wrote back within 24 hours with a very well-written and courteous response. She identified one of the two sections that raised my eyebrow, but aside from repeating what was in there, declined to elaborate on why it might be there, directing me instead to their Legal Department.
I’m quite disappointed. I thought for sure a company like Apple would have a more creative response.
Perhaps I’ll have more luck writing to Larry Page and Sergey Brin about Google Earth.


Arrrrr. Today be Talk Like a Pirate Day!
According to The Pirate Name Generator, I am:

Mad Jack Flint

Every pirate is a little bit crazy. You, though, are more than just a little bit. Like the rock flint, you’re hard and sharp. But, also like flint, you’re easily chipped, and sparky. Arr!

Here be some other Piratical resources for ye:

And a tip of the tri-corner hat to Captain Squish for most graciously pointing out that I had linked to the wrong Talk Like a Pirate web site, but also for providing the link to the Pirate Name Generator. Thanks also to Lady Katie for passing along the link to The Pirate Cat.
I’m looking forward to hearing what their piratical names are, and yers too mate!

Another New Voyage

The New Voyages team has released their third episode, World Enough and Time starring George Takei as Hikaru Sulu.
At the moment, the episode is only available for download via Bittorrent, though a streaming option is also available. (Check the New Voyages web site for more information.)
I chose the Bittorrent option which took about an hour to download the 370+ MB file. (Your download time may, of course, vary for a number of reasons.)
Two quick notes for those who decide to download it that way:

  1. It may be just my download or it’s possible the filename got scrambled at the source. Either way, the file extension should be “.MP4” and not “.MP4(2)”.
  2. As you may have guessed from the previous item, this is not a MPG or WMV or even a .MOV file. To view the downloaded version you’ll need a fairly recent version of the QuickTime player. (I have no idea whether there might be some other viewing option, that’s what worked for me.)

I’ll reserve judgement until I’ve had a chance to watch the episode in it’s entirety, but what I’ve seen so far is quite impressive. They’re getting quite good at the visual effects and the acting keeps getting better.
The episode’s somewhere around an hour long which is about 18 minutes longer than any normal length “hour long” episode on TV.

Googling the Moon

This is kind of cool. Google, in association with the X-Prize foundation, is sponsoring a $20-million prize for the first funded team to land a robotic rover on the moon. (There’s also a $5-million prize for the second team and another $5-million for meeting various bonus objectives.)
Actually, this is very cool. It’s a return to the Moon. They’ve even established some goals — finding water ice in the permanently shadowed craters on the poles, having a probe survive the lunar night (equivalent to two weeks of “brutal cold”), and finding the artifacts left behind by the previous lunar missions.
To promote the contest, the Google X-Prize has put together a very inspirational video.

I’d love to see this succeed. Getting back to the Moon is the first step toward exploration of other planets.
But one thing troubles me. Google makes nearly all of its money from advertising, and I’m suddenly reminded of D.D. Harriman pointing out that because it’s visible from everywhere on earth, The Moon would be a great place to put a billboard…

Ramping Up

Dad fixed the ramp going into his tool shed this past week. In its previous incarnation, the ramp was a sheet of plywood attached to a framework of 2x4s. The general consensus was that the ramp was probably sturdier than the actual shed.

I’m not entirely sure when the ramp first came into being. I think Steve had some role in it, and I’m certain he was the one responsible for attaching it to the shed. The ramp is essentially a 6×6 platform, resting at an angle. At the bottom, the ramp has, over time, settled into the ground so that wheelbarrows, lawnmowers and the like can easily roll on and off. At the top, Steve attached the ramp to the base of the shed with a handful of nails. After a single summer, the nails pulled loose from the base of the shed, leaving about a foot of difference between the top of the ramp and the bottom of the shed.

This has proved to be something of an obstacle for rolling wheelbarrows, lawnmowers and the like from the top of the ramp into the shed. It had been like that for several years.

Now that the ramp has been repaired, Dad’s commented that he somewhat misses having a level platform there. It was useful for changing the oil in the lawnmower and such, but he philosophically shrugs his shoulders and says, “That is the way it goes.”

I don’t think the problem is simply “That is the way it goes.” I think he repaired it wrong.

What I have in mind would be to replace the wooden structure with a steel plate such as the ones they use to temporarily cover deep holes in the street until they finish doing whatever caused them to dig up the street. Instead of just attaching the plate to the front of the shed though, a hydraulic lift goes under it at the shed end. At the other end there needs to be a track of some sort so the plate can move back and forth freely. That way Dad would have the flat platform he’s used to. And when he wants a ramp, all he has to do is flip a switch (I assume he’d go for the powered lift instead of the hand-cranked one) and voila, the platform turns into a ramp!

That would be the best of both worlds! ๐Ÿ™‚