Thursday, January 29, 2009

Sunday, January 25, 2009

World Air Traffic

Courtesy of Simon, who writes:
"Watch the actual flow of air traffic around the globe ... as day runs into night and then back into day.

"Watch the well known increases in air traffic congestion as the sun comes up in Western Europe and North America turning their airspaces into real beehives of activity! There are also the other well known flows: air traffic across the North Atlantic, westbound during daylight, eastbound at night (watch how each direction fires off like a water cannon as the sun comes up in Europe, or goes down in North America ..... the expected flow across the North Pacific .... other well known flows from our West Coast out to the Hawaiian Islands .... but one that I wasn't expecting is the volume of traffic flowing from Europe across the mid-Atlantic southwest to Brazil.

"However, what I enjoyed most was looking at how lonely it must be flying the south Pacific between Argentina/Chile at the southern most tip of South America over to Australia ... just a couple of aircraft (or just two aircraft between Australia to South Africa!) .... lonely days and lonely nights out over ALL that water ...

Thanks Simon!

Blackberry Brickbreaker Level 16 (updated)

Another post on this ridiculous and time-wasting challenge. (The one that we all find so hard to resist)

First, is it so important to you that you have to look on the web to find ways to get through this stupid level? Really? Yeah, well, me too.

Here is the best advice I can give. First, if you did not show up at level 16 with at least 5 lives, don't get your hopes up. manage to score one of three types of bonus pills, namely Gun, Catch or Long. If you get Gun, use it to blast the three bottom centre bricks out. Or leave the middle brick, and take out one on one side and TWO on the other. If you get Long, stay calm and just keep the ball in play. If you get Catch, life can be pretty good. Just stay calm when the ball comes rattling down the side trying to fake you out.

Then try to keep the ball moving vertically up the sides rather than zig-zagging too much. That makes it more effective once it gets inside the bricks.

If you got one of the other bonus pills (Flip, Wrap, Laser, Life, Bomb or Multi) then you will have to sacrifice some lives to have a chance to get through. Do not let the stack drop more than one row before giving up a life and you will have more time. And don't feel too bad about deliberately giving up a life. Chess players sacrifice pawns and pieces to improve their position and their chance of winning. I bet that at any given time in modern society more people are playing Brickbreaker than Chess...

Level 16 can be beaten. I am no genius at this, but I have been through all the levels and gone back around to Level one and run out of lives the second time at Level 16, racking up a bit more than 26,000 points in total. It changed my life. (Note the use of irony in the preceding statement. Actually it just made me mad that all that happens to you in Brickbreaker after going up through all 34 levels is you earn the chance to do it again.)

I have also run out of lives AFTER Level 16, by not sacrificing quickly enough. When a horizontal row of unbreakable bricks sits just above your paddle, life gets difficult indeed.

The second time through, everything moves faster for a while, and the stack begins to drop down very quickly, usually on your second touch of the ball. Eventually it slows again to something that you can cope with.

One last tip. Pausing the game is necessary, so you can do things like eat, sleep and earn a living. Pause the game with the ball in play at the top of the screen. Do NOT pause it between levels or while the ball is on your paddle. Why? Because when you come back after the wrong kind of pause the game will have gone on without you; you can count on only one kind of pause, the kind that happens by exiting the game while the ball is in play. Doing this with the ball at the top of the screen gives you an extra second to get your head into the game when you resume playing.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Thought for the day

If stupidity got us into this mess, why can't it get us out?
(Will Rogers)

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Scenario Planning: next 3-5 years

My wife and I are thinking about how the next few years could play out politically and economically, and what we might do about it. I think scenario planning helps with this process. Comments are welcome!

Pessimistic case: today's financial turmoil intensifies and we slip into a deflationary depression. Stock markets and property values continue to drop, unemployment increases. Governments print money and push on the fiscal rope to little avail. Those companies that do make money are targeted for tax increases. Government services, already stretched, get worse as the number of people with needs increases, while the tax base erodes. Inflationary forces finally overcome the deflationary trends and currencies lose their value rapidly.

Middle case: Financial volatility remains at its recent high levels, and traditional financial analysis models become ineffective due to heightened emotions in the markets. Deflation is averted but purchasing power of currencies around the world is diminished. Oil, gold, and basic food commodities increase in nominal price and the overall standard of living continues to fall as money is less available for discretionary items. Government services are stretched, but private charities and services fill in the gaps.

Optimistic case: Governments step back, letting the economic cycle run its course despite the short term pain this causes. Enough confidence gets back into the system that activity levels return, and the natural needs of consumers and businesses restore adequate economic performance. Inflation bites for a year or so but is held reasonably in check. Life returns to a more sane and sober form.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Minus 30 must not be cold enough any more (updated)

What is up at the NSIDC? According to their charts, new ice has not formed in the Arctic for more than a week. This is despite temperatures which, according to the laws of physics, ought to be quite cool enough to put a bit of a crust on the skating pond.

Apologists and alarmists, step forward please to explain why we deniers should be worried.

UPDATE Jan 7/09 from NSIDC.
The explanation is "at least in part" about high pressure systems and low pressure systems doing what they do, ie settling in long enough to arrange themselves to set up strong winds. In this case the winds were from the south (ie comparatively warm) but were strong and persistent enough to keep the edge of the ice from advancing.
Reasons for December's pause in ice extent change

December's week-long pause in expansion of the ice cover appears to have been caused, at least in part, by an anomalous atmospheric pressure pattern. High pressure over Alaska and the European Arctic, coupled with unusually low pressure east of Greenland and over eastern Siberia, brought warm southerly winds over much of the Arctic Ocean. The southerly winds helped keep the ice edge from expanding southward. In addition, warm sea surface temperatures, at least in the Barents Sea, inhibited ice formation.

You can compare the NSIDC areal extent and the AMSR-E extent charts above.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

A new era

In a few short days, an African American man will move from his private residence into a much larger and infinitely more expensive one owned not by him but by the taxpayers. A vast lawn, a perimeter fence and many well trained security specialists will insulate him from the rest of us but the mere fact that this man will be residing in this house should make us all stop and count or blessings – because it proves that the USA is a nation where anything is possible.

Many believed this day would never come. Most of us hoped and prayed that it would, but few of us actually believed we would live to see it. Racism is an ugly thing in all of its forms and there is little doubt that if this man had moved into this house fifteen years ago, there would have been a great outcry, possibly even rioting in the streets. Today, we can all be both grateful and proud that no such mayhem will take place…when this man takes up residency in this house.

This man, moving into this house at this time in the nation’s history is much more than a simple change of addresses for him – it is proof of a change in our attitude as a nation. It is an amends of sorts – the righting of a great wrong. It is a symbol of our growth, and of our willingness to "judge a man, not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character".

There can be little doubt now that the vast majority of us truly believe that this man has earned both his place in history and his new address. His time in this house will not be easy – it will be fraught with danger and he will face many challenges. I am sure there will be many times when he asks himself how in the world he ended up here and like all who have gone before him, the experience will age him greatly. But I for one will not waste an ounce of worry for his sake –because in every way a man can, he asked for this. His whole life for the past fifteen years appears to have been inexorably leading this man toward this house. It is highly probable that that in the past, despite all of his actions, racism would have kept this man out of this house. Today, I thank the Lord above that Americans live in a nation where wrongs are righted, where justice matters and where truly anything is possible.

(Continued in the post below)

Surely you didn't think the post above was about Obama...

Friday, January 02, 2009

Snow pollution

We have a real problem here, which no one seems to be reacting to. The air is so thick with it that sometimes we can't see across the road; trees and ground are covered by it, and variants of snow pollution have caused a form of scum that covers local water bodies for months at a time.

It's a pollution trifecta! Where is the outrage?

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Spider Solitaire

Windows comes with a couple of really addictive solitaire games. FreeCell is one; every card is visible and every game is winnable (potentially) but making that happen 100% of the time is hard. Fortunately every FreeCell game has an infinite number of do-overs and only one loss is counted on any given game. There was a time when I was hooked on Freecell and would play until the wee small hours, to the detriment of important things in my life.

Sadly, I substituted an addiction to Spider Solitaire for my addiction to FreeCell, and have played only a small handful of FreeCell games in the past two years. Spider differs from FreeCell in a number of ways: only some of the cards are visible, luck plays a role, and every do-over counts as a new game. It also has an "undo" feature which counts as a move every time a move is undone. Best of all (or worst of all) Spider comes with beginning and intermediate levels to get you started as well as the difficult level that I got hooked on.

I am giving up Spider Solitaire for 2009. Given that each game takes 10 or 15 minutes, and that I played up to hundreds of games in a week, this is no small resolution, but it should help me find time for important things.

Here as a parting gift is my set of hints and tips for Spider Solitaire. My winning percentage at the Difficult level was over 50%, so there is some value here. But please, once you feel you have mastered the game, give it up.

  1. Use the undo feature to explore every option. The difference between winning and losing is more often determined by your patience than by how the cards fall.

  2. Whenever the opportunity presents itself, take whatever extra moves are required to get runs in a single suit instead of multiple suits.

  3. And when given the choice between shortening a tall stack or a short stack, empty the short stack to create a void. This implies preferentially stacking cards up on the left side of the table in the first couple of rounds, all other things being equal.

  4. Don't be afraid to use a column as a kind of scrap heap of widely mixed suits in a run.

  5. Don't put Kings into voids if other cards are available that are not part of runs.

  6. Once you have created a void, you will not be able to leave it open when it is time to distribute a fresh slice of cards. But your chances of winning increase when only two moves are required to re-open that void. (That is one of the reasons to delay putting Kings into voids; you lose the void until that suit is complete from King to Ace.

  7. If you lose an unusually high number of games in a row, walk away; it means your patience or your analytical capability is sub-par and you will just keep racking up losses.

  8. Reset your statistics from time to time so that your average is not dragged down by the games you lost when you were getting the basics figured out.
Good luck. Let me know how you do!

Update Jan 1 2011: I avoided Spider for two years, and then thought I would play "a game or two" a few days before Christmas. Well, I played a couple of hundred, still with the 50% winning percentage, and it is time to give it up again. Yikes this is a compelling game.

Here are a few more tips and clarifications:

  1. Before you move the first card, look over what has been dealt. If you don't like what you see, ie if there are not at least 4 potential moves available, hit F2 and re-deal. It will not cost you anything in your win/loss ratio. While I don't see a big difference in winning percentages arising from holding out for the "perfect" deal, having nothing but, say, even-numbered cards right out of the gate is no fun. The free re-deal is only good until you move a card.

  2. This game is a measure of your obsession / willingness to explore options and your ability to optimize based on what options are available. Even if the cards all seem to fall together and you have a pretty good set of moves going, you probably had a choice earlier of which 8 to put on that 9, and you explored only one of those choices. Well, undo everything you did, and try the other 8, and see where it leads you. And then there will be choices within the choices. The big winning percentages come from testing all these choices.

  3. Sometimes you move enough cards that, say, another 9 comes up as you move all the cards around and you get to move that second 8 anyway. That's good, obviously, as it means you don't have to undo everything to see what was under that 8.

  4. Before you distribute a fresh slice of cards, look at your face-up arrays. How many of them can be moved intact (all the same suit)? Can you rearrange cards so that there are more runs in the same suit?

  5. Say you have a void, and no further moves available. What do you put into the void? I would look under every top card in every array that I could, just to see what was there, followed by Undo, then I would be highly likely to split an array that consists of two suits, and put the lower suited run into the void. That way I have two easy moves available after the next slice of cards has been dealt.

  6. The keyboard shortcut to deal a fresh slice of cards is D. Don't hit it twice!

  7. Good luck and best wishes. Make good choices with how to use your time.

UPDATE in late 2011!

The Windows 7 version is easier, because you can "undo" to go as far back as you want, even to the beginning. I have a 15 game and an 18 game win streak at the top level, so we can safely conclude that most games are theoretically winnable.. But these streaks come with a hint of their own: unless there are 5 or more moves visible on the first deal, hit F2 for a redeal before moving any cards, and you will get a fresh set of cards without posting a loss.

Damn this is addictive...