Saturday, December 29, 2012

The day Joan Rivers tried to get through an interview with GWAR

Clearly, Joan was expecting the musicians to be themselves. But instead they rolled in wearing their costumes and did the whole show in character. Now the question is, who was more out of their depth?

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Building Ms. Pac-Man machines - fascinating factory footage

Just puts 1982 in perspective, doesn't it? I almost can't see a Ms. Pac-Man game without smelling pizza because I saw them in Pizza Hut restaurants so much.

Also, keep your ears sharp for a Bosconian machine playing in the background. Yes, they had to test the games post-assembly, so at least some of them could say "My job is to play video games." Although they look bored as mud doing it, because let's face it, it's still a job.

Incidentally, Ms. Pac-Man was never conceived in the halls of Midway Games. Instead, rogue hobbyist programmers created mod kits - exactly like the indie gaming mod community today - and sold conversion kits for existing arcade games. When they made such a kit for Atari's Missile Command cabinet, Atari sued, but dropped the suit in exchange for an agreement from the makers - General Computer Corp in this case - to not make any more mod kits to sell to the public, but to come work for them instead. Ms. Pac-Man started out as a mod kit for Pac-Man called "Crazy Otto", which they sold to Midway, whom turned around and sold it as Ms. Pac-Man.

And now you know.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

World-record house of cards builder

Well, the holidays always seem to bring out the odd hobbies in people, right? You may find yourself in an idle hour or two over winter break with a deck of cards in your hand. If so, and you undertake to build a structure of some sort, realize that you have already been beaten forever by this man.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Monty Hall Paradox

It's well-known amongst the oldsters of the web, but it's time to introduce it to a new generation. So: The most famous nonintuitive puzzle in probability mathematics:

You're on a game show (the problem was named after the TV game show Let's Make A Deal, hosted by Monty Hall. You have three closed doors in front of you. You're told that two of the doors have a goat behind them, while the other door has a car behind it, but you don't know ahead of time which is which.

Let's belay all the devil's advocates who say they want a goat. You want a car.

The game works like this: You pick a door. Then Monty Hall opens one of the doors you did not pick, and shows you a goat behind it (he always picks a goat door). Now there's two doors left - one you picked, and the other you didn't pick. One has a car, and one has a goat. Now you get the opportunity to switch your decision to the other door, Either that, or you stay with what you've got. After you make this decision, all doors will be opened and you get whatever is behind the door you picked.

Now, what's your best strategy to win the car? Stay or switch?

The answer is that you switch. You win 2/3rds of the time if you switch, and lose only 1/3rd of the time when you stay with your initial pick.

Wikipedia has one of the most complete entries ever explaining the problem and all of the math behind it. However, what's really interesting is the story of the problem's history.

Cognitive psychologists have tested and studied people extensively on this, and no matter how far along we go on the scientific and mathematical literacy scale, the vast majority gets this problem wrong on the first guess. World-renowned Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdos first heard of the problem and got it wrong. But the most notable hullabaloo was when high-IQ columnist Marilyn vos Savant gave her answer to the problem in her column in Parade magazine... and in the ensuing months the magazine received nearly 10,000 letters from readers arguing with it, a thousand of those from readers who held PHD degrees or better. She argued back and forth with readers for months, and classrooms across the country started testing it with their own simulations an discovered that she was right.

For those of you wanting to test this out, we have these wonderful modern computers now that are so good at this. Here's just one Monty Hall simulator that's usable online.

The puzzle has also taken on a life of its own in the media, being the subject of a Mythbusters episode, several mystery TV series, stage magicians' acts, and classroom exercises. Alas, Discovery channel hordes their shows' videos on their own channel, so all I can embed is this funky video:

Now don't stay up all night puzzling over this!

Friday, December 14, 2012

An awesome archive of vintage educational comics

A special media-geek treat just in time for Christmas: Head on over to the Educational Comics archive at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The archive is chock-full of charming, fun titles such as "Crack Busters" (an anti-drugs comic that is like Reefer Madness but in comic-book form for crack), "Mickey Mouse and Goofy Explore Energy", "Stop and Go, the Safety Twins", and "The Amazing Spiderman vs. the Prodigy" (a Very Special Episode of Spider-Man presented by 'Planet Parenthood', about sex education).

Credit to WFMU for tweeting the link.

Every issue I've looked at so far is an entertaining read combining the best rasas of corny, kitchy, informative, naive, hilarious, and progressive. It's tough to pick just one issue to show, so below I have a random one to share.

BTW, I did this using ImageMagick; a simple convert command (convert $FILE.pdf $FILE.png) does the trick.

And now, sit back and enjoy one underdog classic, "Dracons Visit Earth To Study Food and the Land", (which is mis-titled as "Dragons". They're Dracons, from planet Draco).

Just from the title page, you know I had to go for this awesomeness from 1984 first. Especially since it was produced in my home state.
We meet our principles, Generic White Geek and a guy who dresses like young Bill Cosby on his way to an interview. I can understand the typical trope of having aliens speak Earthling English for reading convenience (including labeling the hull of your spaceship with your mission's purpose in a font taller than you are), but having an alien who makes English puns on his own name is just an extra helping of cheese on top of that.
Well, Cosbyman and Plucky Sidekick waste no time recycling a Star Trek trope (only it's the Dollar General store version of a transporter, using flashlights and hope) to beam down in front of a restaurant which the proprietors have sensibly named "Good Food Restaurant". Wait, it gets better!
"Well, I'm kinda busy taking orders here, in case you can't see that, so I'll push you off on my Hispanic flunky." Meanwhile, Scoop has shape-shifted into a cat, to blend in. But he (she? Can you ever tell with shape-shifters?) still carries his telltale medallion communicator, because that's a lot less obvious than just walking around as a white college student.
Scoop's plan backfires on him just two panels later. Why does a shapeshifting alien need to be afraid of a dog? Anyway, we get on with our educational exposition, with our adorable Flintstone family just stone cold chowin' down on some bugs. What a relief agriculture was!
Maria cheerfully explains the elementary concept of bread to our alien investigator, completely nonplussed that he wouldn't know this. Meanwhile, Scoop, who has so far proved himself utterly useless on this mission, rejoins us on his Community College Sophomore setting.
Yeah, this was 1984 (remember "We Are The World"?), when Americans went through a naive period where they didn't take into account the role that African politics plays in African famine. They just tried to cure world hunger by raising awareness, so that third world people could sit down to bowls of steaming awareness every morning.
Maria takes that Libertarian hard-line stance: "Poor people are poor because they just won't work, the lazy bums!" Scoop doubles his uselessness by peppering the dialog with tangent questions just when it was getting interesting.
Anthropomorphic veggies! Will the wonder never cease? Memo to Scoop: That's the third pun on your name, IT IS TIME TO STOP. No sooner do the dynamic duo flashlight over to the farm - because fuck walking - than Scoop mysteriously bows out again, possibly to morph into a skunk so he can get run over.
"Ed Itor"??? Forget fact-gathering missions, these aliens need their own sitcom. Meanwhile, Scoop, during corn harvest time, decides that this is the perfect time to morph into an ear of corn so he can talk to the other corn and find out... something. Because I guess corn talks. Never, in any scenario of substance abuse, have I ever had a hallucination this bizarre.
Alright, show of hands, who do we elect as the obvious Gilligan of this mission? That's right, Scoop, who has managed to get himself into trouble again with his shape-shifting shenanigans. Meanwhile farm-dude continues the pro-Capitalist theme by practically cackling over all the money, money, MONEY he's going to make off his corn.
Oh, God, my sides! We get a glorious chain of production as Scoop volunteers himself to become food, and part of him even gets the honor of passing through an animal's digestive tract. I sure hope there's a scene coming up where Scoops gets deposited as cow shit before he just pops up and walks away in his human form, firing off yet another groaner like "I'd better get up before somebody pooper-scoooops me, hyuk hyuk hyuk!"
We finally get the explanation for that huge jagged line across Farmer Jim's crop. And what the heck, this is informative content after all, and a mercifully Scoop-free page.
Jim and Ellen need to get back to the office, so he can show her his windbreak, if you know what I mean. And Scoop is back in the truck as yelling corn, just when we were about to forget about him. Mod Squad  deliberates but decides to take Scoop with him back into space, saving all Earth life from being doomed to recycle Scoop through our digestive tracks forever.
Ye Gods, Scoop has a superiority complex! For being a bumbling shnook who mostly got in the way when he didn't need to be saved, he expects the Dracontis Prize??? Say it for us Chief: "No, I did all the work and carried the whole story, Scoop! Me, not you! I should get the Dracontis Prize, and then I should return you to Earth to fulfill your destiny of being poop!"

And that's our story, as our hero and his Load swoop away in their marvelous Captain-Planet-like spacecraft for further educational exploration. Which, come to think of it, you never really saw Star Trek do this sort of thing, did you? I mean for the Enterprise to have "explore strange new worlds" as part of its mission statement, you never saw Kirk go interview the natives about how they lived as much as he tried to either fight them, meddle in their affairs, or slip his tubesnake into the sexiest one.

Now, wasn't that a treat? Go to that link, there's tons more where this came from!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Diamonds: A big, fat scam

If you're thinking of buying a gift for your sweetheart this Christmas that involves diamonds, you might want to think twice after reading Cecil Adams' column. From the site:
"I'll focus on whether diamonds are worth the exorbitant sums charged for them. Answer: Of course not. Prices are kept high by a cynical cartel that preys on vanity and stupidity."
Cecil goes on to explain that diamonds are an artificial monopoly, and in fact De Beers corporation has been convicted in an antitrust case pursued by the US Justice department, which so far has done nothing but make De Beers fork over the $10 million fine out of petty cash.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Your word for the day...

Pop quiz: What is this man doing?

  • Trying out for a part in David Lynch's Pinocchio.
  • Using the latest model of inconspicuous weed vape.
  • Playing a synthesized nose trumpet.
  • Using an olfactometer.
Well, big surprise, it's the last one. From this site. It's kind of law enforcement equipment, like binoculars for your nose.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A ticket to the future for $10 - what a charmingly wacky idea!

From the main page of the Time Travel Fund:
"Time Travel, once it becomes feasible, will initially be very expensive yet it will become more and more economical as time goes by.

The concept is that one day, it may be possible for people living far in the future to retrieve you from your current frame of reference (their past - your present) and bring you into the future (their present - your future.)

That is the purpose of the fund. The simple answer is, we pay them to bring you into the future."
Hey, the link is there, it's your money. Make up your own mind! Look how studiously they compute that compound interest!

Me, I don't have much faith in a page that says "Page has been formatted for Internet Explorer V6.0 and above, 800x600 resolution." That sounds to me like they don't know didly about the future. And if the money was worth it to those future people, wouldn't they want to send somebody back to fix the website so visitors have more faith in it and they make more money?

Monday, December 3, 2012

"That would make a good name for a band!"

In the kind of mad-scientist script-tinkering that's after my own heart (and usually the kind of subject I post on my other blog), MIT student Brian Whitman fed some 6500 band names through a grammar parser, then used it on a new word list to generate new believable band names. The results are striking and playfully fun at once. Some favorites:
  • "Trucking Cake"
  • "Reconstruction Dungeon"
  • "Blabbermouth"
  • "Pea Fetish Veterinarians"
  • "Hooker Hut"
  • "Eddy Mongoose"
  • "Scoundrel Tramp"
  • "Mussel Tulip"
  • "Probation"
  • "Dolly Flashers"
  • "Joystick Infidels"
  • "Dazzle Festival"
...not that I'd have time to read through all 10,000 of them. But at the least, I'll be ranking for some very weird Google searches now.

The Law of Indy Bands predicts that all of these names will eventually be used.

Related, I once wrote a script which generates fake album covers. Go ahead and get it, it's GPLed.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

M.C. Escher's models made possible

The iconic artwork of M.C. Escher features impossible structures that defy geometry. But they're all too possible if you "think stretchy" and view them from only one angle...