peteg's blog

Farewell Exetel.

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After a bumpy two-and-a-half years with Exetel, I'm pulling the plug. They were cheap when I signed up, but are now in the business of arbitraging Optus new-customer contracts and picking the cracks around wireless broadband. They made it impossible to plan for the future; the cost of changing ADSL plans varied from free (when I signed up) to $70 to $10, all for "business reasons", and usually concurrent with the imposition of a surchage intended to lever people off their perfectly adequate plans onto more lucrative "new-customer" contracts. I want a provider that has the foresight to be profitable now and next year without having to play these games.

Presently Exetel seems to be the cheapest non-Vodafone reseller of wireless broadband, and I was tempted to sign up with them so I have some connectivity in the coming uncertain days. However once signed up to their bottom-of-the-barrel plan, I cannot later adjust the quota without breaking a 12-month contract. Moreover they were offering these cheap last year when I didn't know they'd be playing the tricks they are now.

The prevailing attitude in Australia these days is "if you don't like it then leave", so yeah, I'm gone already.

The Departed

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I saw this about four years ago, around about when it was released. This is a bit of a Nicholson segue, from 1970 to 2006, and a Leonardo one too, I guess, from the lamentable In(c)eption. The plot is swiss cheese, and there are some things Affleck handled better in The Town, such as having ever-so-slightly more plausible female characters. Vera Farmiga has way too much to handle with the feeble Psych 101 bullshit she has to deal up. What was in the envelope? Leonardo's soul? Nicholson has a lot less fun here that he had elsewhere.

This is parked at #58 in IMDB's top-250 and some say it is Scorcese's best. Casino had better editing... but for all of that it does keep the tension up.

Five Easy Pieces

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An early Jack Nicholson lead role, on the road to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest but not there yet. Well cooked but there's something a bit dead about about Robert, and making fun of pretentious social commentary like that was passé even in 1970. As a series of portraits it suffers from the generally unhinged nature of everyone.

/noise/beach/2010-2011 | Link

Morning snorkel with Rob, during a couple-of-days break in the cloud and rain. The water was cool and fairly cloudy, and the fish were certainly enjoying the excess of plant material. Saw heaps of fairly large fish, including a few immature gropers, but not the big blue bloke.

B. Hölldobler and E. O. Wilson: The Leafcutter Ants: Civilisation by instinct

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I found it strange that they released this small photograph-laden coffee-table book as a follow-up to their encyclopedic Superorganism text of last year. It turns out this is an expanded version of a chapter of that book. What makes it weird is the composite of explanantions for non-experts, the photographs and the occasional burst of specialised biological information, such as species of bacteria and the finer anatomy of fungus and insects.

It's a quick read and the photos are awesome. Here's a video profiling Hölldobler which includes footage of the concrete cast of the massive leaf cutter nest in South America.

Australian short stories

/noise/books | Link

I borrowed two collections of Australian short stories from the UNSW Library ages ago. Despite the decrepitude of their pages (presumably not acid-free), they were both reasonably recent. I didn't read either in their entirety, partly because I'd read some before, sometimes because I didn't like the sound of story, othertimes because I remain scarred by high school (Peter Goldsworthy in particular).

Firstly, Relations: Australian Short Stories, edited by Carmel Bird, was published in 1991. Memorable:

  • John Morrison, The Hold Up: stuck on a train in suburban Melbourne (the Box Hill line) a long time ago.
  • Judah Waten, Mother: a well-told account of a Russian Jewish family's migration to Australia.
  • Marjorie Bernard, Habit: cute old-time romance between a city man and a country girl who runs a guest house with her sister.
  • David Malouf, The Empty Lunch-tin: a signature gentle exploration of poverty from the perspective of the well-intentioned comfortably-off, presumably a first-hand experience.
  • Patrick White, Willy-Wagtails by Moonlight: a slice of middle-class life of the sort that David Williamson used to capture.
  • Thea Astley, Write me son, write me: middle-class sprog joins a commune and sponges off the olds.
  • Jessica Anderson, The Late Sunlight: an aged Hungarian countness slumming it in Sydney meets a young humanities scholar.

Secondly, The Australian Short Story, edited by Laurie Hergenhen, published in 1986 (my copy republished in 2002).

  • Thea Astley, Home is where the heart is: aboriginal dispossession, cops and soft-hearted / hard headed whites.
  • Archie Weller, Pension Day: an aboriginal elder ends up as a homeless drunk in Perth, a long way from home.
  • David Malouf, Night Training: abusing green soldiers is a time-honoured tradition in all armies. I wonder if he has direct experience of this somehow.
  • Alan Marshall, Trees can speak: a mobility-impaired man makes friends with a hermit miner.
  • T. A. G. Hungerford, Green Grow the Rushes: a country long-distance romance, climaxing (of sorts) in Hong Kong.
  • Patrick White, Down in the Dump: another closely-observed account of middle-class mores, pretensions, affectations and so forth. The structure of White's writing here is fascinating, economical and oblique, but light enough to be humorous.

And that about wraps it up for Portal.

/noise/games | Link

Yeah, that was fun. I enjoyed it right up to the final stage, which was a bit too repetitive (do more-or-less the same thing n times), and the time limit destroyed the casual pacing of the rest of the game (stop and read the graffiti!). The puzzles were generally easier than I expected, and I only got really stuck a couple of times.

Technologically I found the Steam client and Portal itself to be overly crashy on the new MacBook Pro, with the graphics subsystem often seizing up when I tried to exit or switch out of the game. This might be due to immature graphics drivers, or their inability to shuffle state transparently between the two cards. It also required a hack to get around its case-insensitive filesystem requirement.

Valve looks like they've overcooked Portal 2, with many more ways of getting around. We'll see in a few years time. :-)

Inception

/noise/movies | Link

Nolan went to see The Matrix and knew he could do it better. Or maybe this is warmed-over Memento. Or maybe I shouldn't have seen this particular exploration of empty inner space. It is presently parked at #8 in IMDB's top-250, and I'm not going to begin fathoming why.

Anyway, I'm still wondering if Leonardo is ever going to grow up, or modulate his hissy-fits of rage into something plausible. Ellen Page has similar problems; she was childish but potent in Hard Candy; here she is merely childish, a thread of a character that allows Leonardo to explain what the movie itself cannot. Watanabe plays the entire zaibatsu, and Mr Brick (Gordon-Levitt) has some totally auxiliary pow-wow with a token English action figure. Cillian Murphy is the audience, dazed and bewildered. The wife doubtlessly put in a better turn as Piaf (I have only seen her in the forgettable Public Enemies). Nolan is a gifted director, no doubt, and the cinematography is awesome, but all of this is completely inhuman.

Things I didn't get: the zero-gravity stuff looks awesome, but hey, when the car hits the water there's gravity, yes? So there's no need for that fancy stuff, just get your timing right. Also these "kicks", they're a stack, yes? As in, a kick higher up brings you out of a dream lower down; if so, there was no need for Page to fall off the building four levels down. This has the same problem as Tron: Legacy: if you're going to dream up a world, a physics, an isolation tank of love, why would you make it so much like the existing one, shittiness and all? Just what is the attraction of "reality" anyway? How could the top ever fall? Magical mystical metaphysics destroys suspense, for anything can happen at any time for any reason — coupled with time dilation things could work out any which way, like the stories spun by drunks. Nolan seems to have forgotten the constraints that made his earlier stuff work.

What is the point in chase scenes with guns? No one of significance can die, for the movie has another two hours to run. Oh, let's stop here.

Dana Stevens saw it back when it was cool.

Mars Attacks!

/noise/movies | Link

Tim Burton saw Independence Day and knew he could do better. This is probably Sarah Jessica Parker's finest outing, though Portman doesn't even phone it in. Jack Nicholson is a bit irritating as the President, probably due to his inability to be limp-wristed and elastic ala Bill Pullman. The Martians are hilarious, along the lines of Army of Darkness, and it is a shame Bruce Campbell didn't get a cameo.

Further steps with the talking clock.

/hacking/avr | Link

I bought a couple of the MMA7660 accelerometers I mentioned some time ago from Farnell (before their gender op). The chips are incredibly tiny, 3mm to a side, and 0.5mm pitch legless contacts have to be seen to be believed. Soldering wires onto those was beyond me, and I was fortunate to have Aaron at NICTA kindly solder one to a board for me. Etienne more-or-less inhaled the other one. Some basic prodding seemed to indicate that the device was still functional after this surgery.

Much later I tried to solder some wires to the board, using NICTA's excellent facilities (Dremel, high-end electric iron and stereoscopic magnifier). Suffice it to say that the device showed no signs of life after that. Fortunately the market has responded to my demand in the intervening period: the Mad Scientist Hut sold me a couple of these devices pre-attached to macro breakout boards. Their prices are OK but their shipping is very expensive, at about $10 for the pair. I guess it would make sense if I'd bought fifty of them, but I didn't.

Suffice it to say that the bidirectional circuit mentioned in SparkFun's tutorial did the trick of interfacing the circa 3v TWI/I²C levels of the accelerometer to the circa 5v used by the AVR and the rest of the circuit. I fabbed it on some stripboard and get plausible readings from the sensor.

The penultimate bit of hardware hacking was to switch off the speech chip when quiescent, with the goal of getting the current draw under a milliamp in the most-of-the-time case. Doing this with is a FET is entirely straightforward, but the current draw remains a ridiculous 6.5mA. I think (hope) that is fixable in software. Adding the batteries — a button cell as a backup for the RTC, and four NiMH AAs — is largely a mechanical problem. Later I might also try to bring the volume under software control.

I have begun trying to flesh out the control software for this thing. I'm trying to avoid writing spaghetti C and have been a little successful, but am hoping for a more abstract way of writing the core state machine as it will involve commands coming as data on the U(S)ART and timeouts, as well as the presumably complicated interactions the accelerometer will allow. Maybe I can get by with less overkill than Esterel.

The code is at github. Possibly of interest to others is the growing MMA7660 driver for AVR.

Vũ Trọng Phụng: Dumb Luck (Số Đỏ)

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Translated by Nguyễn Nguyệt Cầm and Peter Zinoman, University of California, Berkeley, 2002.

I've had this one on the list for ages now as a result of reading Greg Lockhart's translation of one of Vũ Trọng Phụng's short stories. Loan tells me it's now literature, something to torture the school kids with, after being banned for an extensive period due to it being deemed politically incorrect by the Communist regime.

This satire is Set in Hà Nội in the 1930s during a period of cultural and political renaissance fired by a changing attitude towards colonies by a new left-wing French regime, and a literary vacuum due to the young people being trained in quốc ngữ (the modern Vietnamese script) and not the classical Chinese ideograms. Zinoman explains all this at length in his introduction, which is better read as an afterword. This form of social commentary seems passé, at least in extended form; perhaps it is now unkind to attack entire classes of people, whereas the individual muppet is fair game. (I'm thinking of John Clarke's transition from Fred Dagg to the 7:56 Report here, so this might just be an antipodean perspective.)

The aspirations of pretty much everyone get a serve here, except the nascent indigenous political movements that climaxed in the founding of of a post-colonial nation state in 1945 (or 1954 if you prefer). Xuân is riding the meteor upwards, cutting a swathe through the top-end of society, ably exemplifying the Peter principle. The middle-upper mercantile classes are busy directing the tastes of the cashed up, and sexual and religious mores are under pressure to Europeanise. This is not to say that traditions are sacrosanct here, with a dog-eating Buddhist Monk bargaining like a fishmonger's wife, and the hai lúa from the countryside being thoroughly routed. There is no sympathy for the Mandarin system under the emperor either, as it has been thoroughly compromised by its dealings with the colonial authorities.

I have to wonder how much got lost in translation, as so much comes across well. "Horned husbands" was new to me but is apparently quite common. "Số Đỏ" literally translates as "red number" or "red destiny", which accounts for Xuân's hair colour as well as the cultural confusion of numerology and fate. Zinoman and wife keep their translation lively, though it is a little too American in places.

The closest Western referent is probably Candide, although here the central character is far from oblivious and under no delusion that this is the best of all possible worlds. Perhaps it was culturally impossible for there to be a Leibniz in the Confucian tradition.

I'm doubly keen to read his The Industry of Marrying Europeans now, and the recently-translated Luc Xi: Prostitution and Venereal Disease in Colonial Hanoi.

Zombieland

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Jesse Eisenberg in training for The Social Network. Not much has changed in two years; the comedic tropes are totally formulaic. This was something of a Harrelson segue from The Great Santini, who did it better in Natural Born Killers so many years ago. Are zombies the new metaphor for the unwashed masses of America? I guess this is a post-irony date movie. It is not terrible and also not Shaun of the Dead (etc).

/noise/beach/2010-2011 | Link

Early-afternoon snorkel with Rob at a packed Gordons Bay, off the Clovelly carpark scuba ramp. Heaps of people around for what the BOM predicted was to be the last summery day for a while. The water was a tad cool, fairly clean and there were some quite large fish around. Didn't see the big blue groper, just one of his groupies.

The Great Santini

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This is Duvall chanelling his far more oblivious Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore from Apocalypse Now, bringing war to peacetime. Acting-wise he ends up more like The Apostle, looking a lot like Woody Harrelson in The Messenger.

The movie fails to convince by trying to do too much, covering too many bases with insufficient depth: race relations in the south; aging father supplanted by son on the cusp of manhood; army brats, a smart-arse daughter; and so forth. I would have liked to see the pilots improve/screw up under Santini — they didn't have much of a role at all, just an audience for a speech — or the director of the base get some comeuppance, or something.

The Time that Remains

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On the strength of an Anthony Lane review in the New Yorker. I'm not sure we saw the same movie, and am more on the side of the IMDB crowd that rate it a 7. What to Lane was ironic (etc) was to me a bit pretentiously arthouse (etc): it is a series of vignettes and these aren't all good and certainly don't hang together or separately. There's a lot of meat in being of the Christian tradition in Nazareth during that period (1948 until now), and Suleiman is right to portray it absurdly, but wrong not to try for more heft.

High Sierra

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Apparently one of the first of Bogart's breakthrough movies. This is a fairly standard heist-noir, not so different from the French effort of last night. Bogart is banal by his later standards but his ability to tear the girls up is unparalleled.

Tim Kreider: Twilight of the Assholes

/noise/books | Link

I like Kreider, he's smart and crass enough to draw some pretty funny cartoons, previously weekly at The Pain: When will it end?. I'm a bit less enamoured of his "artists statements", which are about 50% of this book; what is bearable weekly is monotonous and too repetitive in book form. A lot of the comics are still great though. It does not contain his classic Science v's Norse Mythology and so on, making it not quite a greatest hits.

As with everyone who thought Obama was more than just another politician, the euphoria at his elevation here is a bit too much to take. Just today (Australian time) Obama backslid on all those Gitmo presidential directives that Kreider (and I) cheered on in those early days. I look forward to The Pain returning, especially if Palin pulls a Pauline Hanson.

Rififi

/noise/movies | Link

French noir from 1955, highly rated by IMDB. I dunno, it would have been impressive in its day but we've seen it all since in more recent heist movies, such as the roughly contemporaneous The Killing, which is rated similarly rated but is much more popular. The heist there is far more interesting than the heist here, but they unwind in parallel kinds of ways.

The Social Network

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I was a bit surprised that Trent Reznor won an Oscar for what is (by his standards) a tame soundtrack; much more memorable to me are his efforts in Lost Highway and Natural Born Killers. I cannot fault his taste in directors though: Fincher is a genius and it was a bit sad to see him waste it on this, a story barely worth telling told so well. Jesse Eisenberg is fine in the lead, but this is no Fight Club and he is not Brad Pitt or Edward Norton.

Already #183 in the IMDB top-250, but surely that's its peak.

/noise/beach/2010-2011 | Link

Mid-afternoon snorkel with Rob at Little Bay. Good weather for it despite the morning's threatening clouds. The water was full of plant material and a bit cloudy. We spotted some small squid on the rock / sand boundary on the way in.