Bridal Veil Falls, Kagawong

Ok, now that my Big Annual Thing is safely underway, I should probably start posting some photos from my vacation in June. Here's one from the falls in Kagawong.

Vacation Observations: on Currency

I just got back last night from a nine-day vacation trip with my sister. Yes, yes, photos will be forthcoming at some point. Meanwhile, a few observations. Tonight I'm going to focus on the currency.

  • There are some things I like about Canadian currency...
    • When you're counting it, you never worry that two bills are stuck together. That's basically impossible, because of how slick they are. I am not using the word slick for its colloquial meaning here: the bills are quite physically slippery. This feels really weird to me: they don't feel like US bills, that's for sure. But it's nice not to have to triple-check that you don't have two bills stuck together.
    • I could get used to the color coding. It looks weird at first, but it's pragmatically reasonable. You don't easily mistake a red fifty for a blue five or vice versa. Most of the colors were a bit stronger than they would really need to be, so yes, it kind of does look like Monopoly money if you're not accustomed to it (more subdued colors would still be easy to tell apart at a glance), but on the whole I think I like the coloring.
    • If you'd told me that I would like not getting pennies back (they round everything to the nearest nickel if you pay in cash), I'd have said you were crazy. But with the large pocketfuls of change that I was accumulating as it was (more on this below), I really really didn't need pennies too.
    • I didn't accumulate that many nickels and dimes either. Prices seemed to often work out to multiples of $.25. Maybe this was my imagination, but I don't think so. I think places of business deliberately set their prices so that with tax, the final price you pay comes out to a decently round number. This is in stark contrast to our American system where practially every single thing is priced to require pennies, nickels, _and_ dimes to each be involved somehow. (Our prices start at figures like $24.99, so you'd think oh, you just get one penny back, no big deal; but with tax, it doesn't work out that way.)
  • There are also a couple of things I dislike about Canadian currency.
    • Canadian currency does not stack nicely. Americans can take a big stack of bills, fold the entire stack in half down the middle, and conveniently store the whole thing in a pocket or wallet. This, as near as I can tell, is fundamentally impossible to do with Canadian bills. The slickness (mentioned above) may be a contributing factor, but I think the big issue is that the bills are so stiff, you can't fold two or more of them together and get them to fold in the same place. They won't both fold down the middle. Maybe one of them will, but then the other will fold in a different place, perhaps a third or a quarter of the bill's length from the end. So even with a small stack, say, six or eight bills, you end up with a pocket full of individual bills that are each folded differently and won't stack together well, so when you pull them out you feel like you're pulling out a fistful of random scraps of differently-shaped colored plastic, each unique. It's a big fat mess.
    • Did I mention that I accumulated huge piles of coins all the time and then proceed to say that I got no pennies and few nickels or dimes? Yes, I believe I did say both of those things, and they are both true. So yeah, I tended to accumulate a lot of quarters, but also, there are all these one- and two-dollar coins. Bazillions of them. When traveling in Canada, you must discipline yourself to spend coins on practically every transaction, out of self defense, or else your pockets will be so full of heavy coins as to pull your pants down. It's crazy. If you buy something that comes to $12.50 with tax and you hand them a twenty, you may get back six coins as your change and no bills whatsoever. They don't even have one-dollar bills, and they don't always use five-dollar bills when they could, probably because their cash drawers are all brimming with huge piles of giant two-dollar coins that they need to give out in order to make space in the drawer. This happens with every transaction, so let's say you start out with a single $50 bill. When you break it, you get back maybe a twenty, a ten, and coins. When you spend the ten, you usually just get back coins. When you break the twenty, maybe you get back a bill (maybe a five, maybe a ten) and coins. And when you spend the last bill, you certainly get back nothing but coins. So from a single $50 bill you can easily end up with more than $20 in coins. About halfway through the trip I finally got myself trained to spend the coins and divested myself, one way or another, of all of my large ones. (Have you ever paid for a more-than-ten-dollar purchase entirely in coins? I have, and the cashier didn't bat an eye. I'm sure people do it all the time up there.) Then I realized I might need a couple of coins for a parking meter at some point, so for one day I stopped spending coins, not realizing how much overkill this was. One day does not sound like that long to go without spending coins, but have a look at the result:
    • Also, you need a lot more of it, because things are very much more expensive in Canada. The exchange rate may be a contributor here (At the time of this writing, one US dollar is worth somewhere between $1.20 and $1.25 Canadian), but that does not fully explain the prices we saw everywhere, at every point along the spectrum from rural (think: population 300 and at least 30 minutes' drive from the nearest gas station) to highly urban (Yonge Street, Toronto). Even taking exchange rates into account, your money does not go as far in Canada. I am not exaggerating when I say that I paid $2.50 (Canadian) for a Sprite refill. (Pop is one of the worst things. Almost nobody in Canada has fountain pop. They use bottles and cans and mark them WAY up. We did stop at a McDonald's that had fountain pop, in Orangeville. This makes McDonald's _by far_ the most affordable place we found to buy cold drinks in Canada, and it was still more than at McDonald's in the US, where they're known for charging too much. The second-cheapest, ounce for ounce, was Freshmart in Manitowaning, where I paid something like $3 for a half gallon of chocolate milk.)
  • Finally, one observation is neither a like nor a dislike, just something I noticed: it pays to shop around a bit on exchange rates. The Duty Free in Sault Ste Marie offered me $1.14 Canadian for every $1 US, and ten minutes later at the Visitor's Center just across the border I got $1.17. Three cents on the dollar may not sound like much, but if you're changing a couple of thousand, it adds up. A few days later, the Scotia Bank in Fort Erie, where I changed my leftover money back, was paying $1.19 Canadian for $1 US. (The theoretically perfect rate at the time would have been something like $1.23, but of course you can't actually get that. Note that these numbers will not be useful for comparison if you take a trip some day in the future, because the exchange rate gradually drifts up and down over time. It pays to look up the going rates when you are preparing to go change your currency.)

So there you go, Canadian currency in a nutshell.

A Little Something I've Been Working On...

I recently made an announcement. Here are some screenshots...

The source repo is on github. You should totally play this game.


When the news media go into absurd conniptions over some completely mundane thing, I generally don't pay much attention. That's what the news media do. There's nothing interesting to see there.

But generally don't expect Randall Munroe to be so easily excited and confused. I am referring, of course, to the placement of MH 370 in the upper-right corner of the graph, marking it as both highly weird and also very difficult to explain. I don't think it's the least bit of either.

I'm not going to spend any further time on the question of its weirdness, because that's so inherently subjective as to not be worth arguing about.

But I have a really hard time understanding why someone as creative and intelligent as the author of xkcd can find this difficult to explain. It's much easier to explain than most of the other stuff on the chart. It's so easy to come up with highly plausible explanations for this, I'm going to offer up three of them:

  1. human malice
  2. physical failure (of the aircraft)
  3. human idiocy

I could go on at length, but I think I should probably just stop here. All three of these explanations are so inherently plausible, it is difficult to even rank them in terms of likelihood. All three of them are so likely, their probability is mainly limited by the fact that they're competing with each other (although, it's easily possible that more than one of them occurred). They're all things that you can easily see happen all the time in everyday life, and they're all things that could very easily lead to the loss of an airplane in the middle of the ocean and are known to have done so on other occasions.

I don't get it. What's hard to explain here?


Ok, so I acquire an older-model computer (Pentium4, 2GB of RAM), and of course it comes with Windows XP installed. What's one of the first things I try to do with it?

What would a normal person try to do with it? Maybe watch some YouTube videos, or check Yahoo Mail, something like that? Facebook?

I tried to do this:

I my defense, I already have a computer, which in the first place is several years newer (multi-core, 8GB of RAM about to be increased to 16 next time I'm willing to reboot it) and, additionally, runs a much better operating system. So if I wanted to do just regular stuff on the computer, I could do it on my main system. I got this other, older system, and my thinking is, while it still has the default Windows install on it, is there anything I want to try doing in Windows? And in that context, this is the answer I came up with: Didn't somebody on IRC say that building NetHack4 on Windows is broken right now? Maybe I should try that.

Why Profile Icons Matter

At some point during the 2.x dev cycle, the Gnome people removed an important feature from gnome-terminal, on the grounds that it might allow a user to make some of the icons in their UI look inconsistent the desktop-wide "icon theme," which is somehow more important than making it possible to distinguish between different things.

For a while, I simply downloaded the old version of gnome-terminal that still had the feature and compiled that myself, hoping maybe the whole stupid "icon theme" thing would blow over and someone would see sense. This did not occur, and when I upgraded to wheezy at work it became More Trouble Than It's Worth to try to compile the old gnome-terminal, so I switched to Konsole, which still has profile icons. I'm happy with this solution, because gnome-terminal was one of the last remaining vestiges of Gnome that I was still using, and frankly I'd just as soon move away from all of Gnome. Since sometime around version 1.0, Gnome has been systematically removing features and options and configurability at a rate that would make Apple blush. So good riddance.

But people who are not big terminal-window users keep asking me why on earth I would ever need profile icons. I want to have a post I can point to that answers this question. So I took a screenshot of my home desktop (which is spread across two monitors) and snipped out the two taskbars (one from each window) to show off here. I want to stress that this is not a contrived example. Somebody on IRC asked the question, and I took a screenshot, and then I wrote up this post. Here's my main taskbar:

The three icons at the left are Run, Screenshot, and a colorblind thingy. (Clarification: I'm not colorblind. The colorblind thingy is to show me what websites that I create might look like to people who are colorblind, so I can try to avoid making them unreadable. Not sure how effective it is.) After that there's a small blank space, then the task list, which contains the following, from left to right: Totem (a media player), dclock (the really generic-looking icon; this clock is positioned on the main monitor but often gets covered up by windows), Seamonkey (my main web browser), Writer, Opera (another web browser), Emacs, a gnome-terminal window (this computer hasn't upgraded to wheezy yet) that I use to tail logfiles, a gnome-terminal window that I use to play a game called Brogue, a gnome-terminal window that I use mostly for playing NetHack (another game) on NAO, a gnome-terminal window that I use for generic shell-related purposes, but in an auxilliary fashion (not my main shell profile), a gnome-terminal window that is remotely connected via ssh to a web server, a gnome-terminal window that I use for mostly NetHack-related purposes, but which is different from the other one (it's not for playing on NAO), another Seamonkey window, Chromium (another web browser), a gnome-terminal window that I mostly use for NetHack4, a text editor, a gnome-terminal window that is connected via ssh to the computer upstairs in the living room, a gnome-terminal window that is connected via ssh to the router, and a gnome-terminal window with a root (administrative) shell.

Here's the one from the second monitor:

The tasks on the tasklist here are a gnome-terminal window that I use to run a Perl script I wrote that reminds me when I'm supposed to be going somewhere or doing something, two more instances of dclock (these are positioned on the secondary monitor where they're less likely to get covered up by other windows), a gnome-terminal window that I use for interacting with MySQL (a relational database), two volume control applets (probably because I forgot I already had one opened and opened another; these things happen), and finally the gnome-terminal window that I use exclusively to run irssi (an IRC client).

It's important that I be able to tell different terminal windows apart on the task list. For example, if I'm looking for the web server window, I do NOT want to fiddle around with opening up six different game windows and three windows that are shelled into other systems besides the web server plus various other utility windows before finally finding the right window. This is what window icons are for. If anything, the difference between some of the terminal windows (particularly the ones used to ssh into other computers) is more important than the difference between e.g. a web browser and a word processor. Being able to quickly find the window I want is important, because otherwise hunting for the right one would cause me to waste a lot of time, and I'd get a lot less useful work done. Without profile icons, a lot of what I do would take 3-5 times as long as it should, sometimes more, because hunting for a lost window has a tendency to break a train of thought at unfortunate times.

For those who were not keeping count, the total number of gnome-terminal profiles visible on my desktop at this moment is thirteen. This is typical for me at any given time. About half of these windows are usually open, and the other half just happen to be open at the moment. Actually, my single most-frequently-used profile, my generic shell profile, isn't shown, because I don't happen to have any of those open right now. (I open them whenever I need one for something. Sometimes I have 2 or 3 of them open, but right now none. If I get more than about 4 generic shell windows open, I change the profiles on a couple of them to make it easier to keep straight which is which.)

Altogether, I have some 40 different terminal profiles, most of which are not in use at any given time, but they all get used sometimes. Every single one has its own icon. Most of them really NEED to have their own icons; a few (like the different NetHack windows) could probably do without. My situation at work is similar, in principle, though of course the details are different. At work, I don't have game windows; but I have way more shelled-into-another-computer windows, plus multiple distinct logfile windows, multiple distinct database windows, etc. If anything, the total number of terminal windows at work is often larger.

This is why profile icons matter, and this is why I don't really have any use for recent versions of gnome-terminal. This is why I am switching to Konsole.

Christmas: The Best Explanation I Know

The best explanation of Christmas that I think I have ever encountered is found (perhaps ironically —or perhaps obviously), in a book written mainly for Jewish audiences. It's a bit long, so I will attempt to summarize; but because my ability to express it as well as the book does is in doubt, I'll include a number of footnotes, which are references to particular sections of the book.

Without Christmas, humanity's hopes are pinned, as any practicing Jew knows very well, to an inherently flawed system1, wherein we (humans) are represented only by sinful men2 who can offer nothing but the blood of animals, which can never take away their sins or ours3. It is ultimately a depressing, futile system, one that makes us acutely aware of how flawed we are but can never actually solve the problem.

Here is the main point, then: it is only because God the Son was made one of us4 that we now, through the miracle of Christmas, have a perfect human representative, one of us who has offered a perfect sacrifice that completely takes away all our sin5, a man who can go to God as our representative and ask for anything for us6, and God will not say no to him.

As Christians we tend to focus on Easter, but while the resurrection is important, it is only really important in the context of Christmas. For God to conquer sin and death is all well and good, but by itself it is unremarkable, since God was sinless and immortal in the first place anyhow. For man to conquer sin and death, that is the real miracle, and it is only possible because God became a man. This is what we celebrate at Christmas.

So now instead of the worthless, flawed, futile system represented by Mount Sinai7, where the law was given that could only reveal our wickedness and so condemn us, we now have God's perfect system, the heavenly Jerusalem8, wherein our Great High Priest has made it possible for God to live among us and be our God and make us his people9. He will take away our wickedness and make us perfect10.

That is Christmas, according to the book of Hebrews.


A Tale of One Town and Three Governements... Or Is That Four? Five? Several.

This is a story about one town that is claimed by several governments. Exactly how many governments claim it is a matter of some debate -- the number could be as low as three (some people would even say two) or as high as four, depending on precisely how you count. (There are more than four, if you include historical claims, but that's true in a lot of places, so we'll only count current claims, and we'll say 3-4.)

The town itself is not very large. If it were in Ohio, it would be called a village, because it is not large enough to qualify as a city under Ohio's rules. (Of course, it's nowhere near Ohio.)

If you looked up the town on a political map that reflects the actual de facto situation, it would be in the country that I'm going to label as Blue. (I'm assigning these colors arbitrarily, as is traditional for political maps. I'm not going to try to pick them all from the respective national flags or anything.) However, it's very close to a three-way border. Just across the line in one direction is Green, and just across the line in another direction is Orange. Got that? Three-way border, Blue, Green, Orange, and the town is just barely in the Blue zone on our objective map.

Green, you may be surprised to learn, is not one of the governments involved in the dispute. They don't claim the town, and as far as I know they never have. It just happens to be close to their border.

Orange does claim the town. We'll come back to them presently.

Pink also claims the town. It's hundreds and hundreds of miles from any territory that they actually control, but they claim the town because they claim to be the successor state of White, which used to have a sort of mother/daughter or lord/vassal relationship with Red. Confused? Okay, we'll come back to Pink. In fact, we'll come back to the present day. Let's talk about the history of the situation.

The border question was originally raised between Yellow and Red. Yellow, a colonial power, had control of Blue at the time, and the town was near the border -- the poorly defined unclear fuzzy border -- between them and Red. So Yellow commissioned a study to iron out the details of exactly where the border with Red was. Yellow wanted everything to be precise and clear.

Now, the town was, and is, to this day, rather important to Red, for religious reasons. (There's an important building there, where somebody or another was born.) It's easily more important to Red than to everyone else involved combined. However, when working out the border treaty, Red was apparently not extremely careful with the implications and failed to realize, until after signing the thing, that the town is on the wrong side of the border. Oops.

Yellow, for its part, never really exerted effective control over the town. They did exert effective control over the (also disputed) surrounding area, but they mostly left the town alone. It had a trading post, but other than that it wasn't really critical, so as long as they were free to trade there (which Red didn't seem to have a problem with), it wasn't a big deal. Yellow never collected taxes from the town, and Red continued to do so, so in practice the town was de facto still part of Red's territory -- but on paper the treaty said it belonged to Yellow. Perhaps you can see how this might lead to a dispute later.

Now, a few years after Yellow and Red signed their treaty, White came along and forced Yellow and Brown to agree not to conduct negotiations directly with Red without involving White. (Too many colors? Don't worry about Brown. It doesn't come up in the story again.) The thing is, White at this point was a declining empire. The White government was overthrown not very much later. Other governments arose in the remnants of its territory. Pink was one of them.

Eventually, Blue gained independence from Yellow. So now the town was theoretically in Blue territory, but in practice still controlled by Red.

Orange, meanwhile, had gained de facto control over most of the old White territory. Looking to expand, Orange decided that since White used to have a bit of a protectorate relationship with Red, they should now have it. So Orange made plans to invade Red. The fact that they were doing so became known to Blue. Not wanting to lose any of the territory that Yellow had negotiated for with Red, Blue got out the treaty documents and moved its troops to wherever the treaty said the borders were. This is why the town is now in Blue territory -- the treaty that Yellow made has the town on the Yellow side, which is now the Blue side. Orange doesn't recognize the treaty, because it was never signed by White.

Pink also doesn't recognize the treaty, for the same reason Orange doesn't: it was never signed by White. So Pink also claims all of the territory that was formerly Red, including the small part that Blue now controls, where the town is. (Pink and Orange both claim to be the only really legitimate government for all of the territory White ever held, and they define held so loosely that it pretty much includes anything White ever looked at twice. This is nonsense, but they're both extremely serious about it. They both have extensive territorial disputes, with each other as well as with pretty much every other country in the region.)

So Blue, Orange, and Pink all claim the town. Just to clarify, Blue doesn't claim all of the red territory. They only claim the part Yellow negotiated for.

The Red government sort of kind of still exist in exile. They have de facto sovereignty over exactly zero square inches of territory, but they claim the territory that used to be Red. Until relatively recently, that included the small now-Blue region where the town is. They would still dearly love to claim that, because as noted the town has religious significance for them. But Red has now given up their claim to the town, because they are unwilling to deny the validity of the treaty they had with Yellow. You see, their evil invading enemy Orange claims that the treaty is invalid because it was not signed by White, and Red had no right, so Orange says, to give away territory without consulting with White. Red doesn't want any part of that, because White's supposed authority in Red affairs is the basis of Orange's claim to all of the Red territory. Red still wants Orange out of its former territory (which Red still claims) and out of its affairs entirely, and so although letting Blue have the piece with the town in it burns and chafes, it's better than admitting that Orange can have everything.

Yellow, of course, no longer claims the area, because they have acknowledge Blue independence. Blue and Yellow are actually allies now.

Green still doesn't claim the town because they never did. They're just nearby.

So the town is formally claimed by Blue, Orange, and Pink; and it is highly desired by Red. Orange and Pink have copious additional territorial disputes, with one another and with others. Actually, if you look up territorial dispute in the dictionary, you (figuratively, metaphorically, proverbially) see a picture of Orange and Pink.

Do you recognize these countries? The whole story can be found on Wikipedia, albeit not necessarily all in any one article. (I'll post the answers in a comment eventually, unless someone beats me to it.)

Wooden Dish

My dad won this object in some kind of game or contest at a family reunion. It was made by my mom's oldest brother, who used to be a professional carpenter before he retired. He makes things out of wood as a hobby now and gives them away. This is typical of his work.

I had to wait for a sunny day to take good photos. (I initially tried taking them indoors, but that didn't work out so well. Some of the woods he used have rather low albedo, and although my camera is significantly better in low lighting than the average consumer digicam, it does have limits.)