Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Time for a Break over the Holidays

It's time for me to take a break for a couple of weeks. There won't be anything here until early next year. 2011 promises more topics containing more links to the longer web for you to get lost in.

Enjoy the holidays!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Language: A Geek's Genre - Science Fiction

Every so often someone predicts that the genre of science fiction is dead or dying. It's become so cliche to assume that science fiction is not relevant or interesting anymore that Salon has an article entitled Is Science Fiction Dying?. Yet far from being a polemic against modern sci-fi or another death knell for the genre it is instead an example of the science fiction fan's third favourite pastime.

The first is reading science fiction and the second is commenting or arguing over science fiction.

The third favourite pastime of science fiction fans is categorizing science fiction and making endless lists. In the article Paul Di Fillippo surveys some recent books that fall under several categories. Going down that list I've added a few more books to my "to eventually read" list.

Should you doubt that science fiction fans spend time categorizing and listing may I present a perfect example of the lengths to which fans will go. The Ultimate Science Fiction Web Guide looks like it hasn't been updated in several years. That doesn't make it any less the resource though. Starting from lists of authors (over 3,200) it includes lists of themes, magazine, and more. There is the obligatory lists of movies and tv shows as well.

One of the real treasures is the science fiction timeline. Starting century by century, and then decade by decade there are long detailed lists to get one thinking and reading. Lists of the major books released, authors who were born or died, tv shows and movies from the decade, and more. Between the book lists and the key dates you have the details to much of the history of science fiction.

While short and succinct there are wonderful little details everywhere. Many of the entries for individual books released in a year have short tidbits underneath. Sometimes mentioning the themes and the ideas involved, other times talking about the authors, and other times just pointing something out you may not have known. Here are a few examples from the 1960s:

1961 Stanislaw Lem: "Solaris" (Poland: Panstwowe Wydawnictwo) Intelligent extraterrestrial ocean is metaphysically beyond the attempts of humans to fathom in this enigmatic novel, made into a superior Russian film {hotlink to be done}
1962 Philip K. Dick: "The Man in the High Castle" (New York: Putnam) Arguably the greatest alternate history ("parahistory) novel. Here, the Germans and Japanese occupy a balkanized America, having won World War II. In a book-within-the-book, a novelist writes about an alternate world where America had won World War II. This Hugo Award-winner was written with the aid of chance or synchronicity (with Dick casting the "I Ching") and it has a nuanced view of Eastern and Western cultures. A disturbing and yet strangely uplifting masterpiece. 
1970 Poul Anderson: "Tau Zero" (Garden City NY: Doubleday) The greatest novel based on Einstein's Theory of Relativity and a modern conception of cosmology. Finalist for 1970 Hugo Award for Best Novel
The Multitude of entries like these are enough to make one realize just how much great science fiction has been written. Even if the naysayers are correct and science fiction is dead or dying there is so much to read and enjoy and think about that it will never truly leave us.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Math: Is Math Misunderstood?

Dr. Robert H Lewis at Fordham University wrote The Misunderstood Subject which is about how math is perceived by most people.

He makes a great case that math is misunderstood. It's not the formulas, it's not the exact steps, it's the process that's important. He gives several parables to make his point. He gives a good overview of how training and education differ.

What he doesn't do is continue the argument. He doesn't show what mathematics can do. Oh he talks briefly about computers but he only gives a technical example.

To my mind the essay is half complete. Give me the rest. Show me how the process of mathematics can help. Show me how it's applied. Show me how it helps. Then we won't just be defending the need for math education. Then we could be inspiring people to learn math.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Getting Mad at the State of Affairs

Bill Moyers is the epitome of the gentleman journalist in the USA. Insightful, sharp, and yet willing to let the story tell itself. He's been a fixture on television for so long it's hard to realize he's been off the air for a while. He surfaced in the midst of a year off to give the Howard Zinn Memorial Lecture this year.

It's well worth watching. Not only because he points out the current imbalance in power politics in the USA but because it's amazing to watch the passion that boils to the surface. He draws inspiration from Howard Zinn himself and goes to show that the struggle itself is worthwhile even if the result isn't certain or doesn't seem possible. "It's okay if it's impossible."

Many of us on the outside of the United States looking in are worried about what's happening to a once proud and capable democracy. We see laws and rules, wars and fears, money and power politics, all of which seem to be out of place in a country as proud of its traditions of freedom and democracy as the USA is. It's good to see that some of the citizens of the United States are also worried. And angry. And willing to start doing something about the state of affairs.

Here's hoping the impossible happens in the United States.

Friday, December 17, 2010

But I Don't Like to Specialize in Only One Thing

Over the years I've become quite good at my job. Even if I do say so myself. I've been able to get better and better at my area of expertise. My real advantage though is that I'm a sponge for ideas, techniques, different approaches, and technologies. Knowing about a great deal has been a huge advantage.

Of course when I started in the field of computers it was hard not to have to know a bit of everything. The first hospital I worked for implemented a hospital wide computer system with five people in the computer department. That five included the manager (not even a director back then) and the secretary. There were two application consultants and myself. Now of course things are different. Computer departments in hospitals have lots of staff and the jobs are more specialized. Even so my strength has always been that I can understand and tackle almost anything because I've done a lot of different things on different platforms on different systems.

Which seems contrary to the overall trend in most fields. The trend seems to be to specialize to extreme degrees. Which I find sad. When it comes to troubleshooting, understanding, and dealing with complex systems the people I find the most capable are the generalists. Especially the generalists who know what they don't know.

Which is why Edward Carr's article The Last Days of the Polymath resonates. I don't claim to qualify as a polymath but I understand those who can cross between disciplines and realms and who don't specialize.

Even if we need specialists and monomaths we also need generalists and polymaths. For now the world belongs to the monomaths. Here's hoping the pendulum swings back but also finds a nice balance between the two extremes.

Science: Thinking About DNA

Explaining complex ideas to others is a challenge. Translating concepts from their original wording into something comprehensible by someone else is a difficult art. There is a long history of writers translating scientific concepts into layman's terms. But why stop there?

Why not take complicated and difficult ideas in one discipline and explain them in the complicated and difficult terms of another discipline? Why not let experts in one field get to understand the underlying concepts of another in their own native terminology? Especially since in some cases the underlying concepts translate pretty easily.

For example... DNA is encoded information. While it's not the "blueprint" of the human body it is information our cells carry around and use. It's instructions for the nucleus. Doesn't the term "instructions" sound close to the term "program"? Maybe, just maybe, there are ways to explain DNA and it's use in cells in terms that a computer scientist would understand.

Bert Hubert did just that in DNA seen through the eyes of a coder. Fair warning though. If you don't know about computers and information theory and a large chunk of computer technology as well as a little biology you will probably get lost. This is not meant as a slow and subtle crossing of the divide. You get dumped into the deep end and the terminology flows fast and furiously. If you do know quite a bit about computers DNA will suddenly make a lot more sense.

Bert also nails one of the issues I have with descriptions of DNA and cell division. I'm not a biologist but it always struck me that the typical description to the layman was wrong. We usually hear something like "when cells divide the DNA gets copied so that each cell has a complete set of instructions". Which is, of course, wrong.

DNA in a cell in not one copy of the instructions - it's two. DNA comprises two strands side by side. One is the opposite (or compliment) of the other. It's as if we carry around a photo of the instructions we need to run our cells as well as a copy of the negative of that photo. We carry both in each cell.

If I have a photo and a negative and I separate them then I can use the photo to create another negative and the negative to create another photo. I can take my two copies (the photo and the negative) and split them and make two sets of copies. Each set will have a photo and a negative. One of the sets will have the original photo and a new negative and the other set will have the original negative and a new photo.

DNA is roughly equivalent. Our cells carry two copies. When the cell divides the two copies are separated and each is used as a template to build its now missing opposite copy.

That long winded, and hopefully clear, description of cell division is nowhere near as succinct as Bert's computer related version:
Each DNA Helix is redundant in itself - you can see the genome as a twisted ladder whereby each spoke contains two bases - hence the word 'basepair'. If one of these bases is missing, it can be derived from the one on the other side. T always binds to A, C always to G. So, we can state that the genome is mirrored within the helix. 'RAID-1' so to speak.
See. It's can be easy to explain complicated concepts in one discipline in terms used by another discipline. Especially if the two disciplines are related.

If you are a coder, computer scientist, techie, programmer, or quite knowledgable on computer topics than DNA through the eyes of a coder will help explain the complex chemical dance of information that's taking place in your body all the time.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Food: A Modern Golden Goose

I don't drink much. I've never been much one to have much alcohol. I probably have 4 beers, a couple of drinks, and a couple of glasses of wine in an entire year. Obviously I'm no expert on drinks and drinking.

Even I've heard of Grey Goose though. At first it was just a name that kept popping up. People talked about it with semi-reverence. No one ever said it was any better than any other drink. It just seemed to be the new drink that was attached to someone with money and the willingness to part with it. For a while it seemed to be one of those things people bought and drank to show they could buy and drink whatever they wanted.

Considering the history behind so many brands and companies in the business of selling alcohol it's amazing to think that Grey Goose was dreamed up in 1996. It certainly isn't a Canadian Club (1854) or a Courvoisier (1835). Even so the story of Grey Goose and the mind behind its success is very interesting. The Cocktail Creationist tells the story of Sidney Frank and his attempt to recreate the amazing success he had with Grey Goose.

Maybe it's because I don't drink that I keep forgetting how much money is spent on drinks. Fortunes have been made and will continue to be made from the fermented elixirs that sell so well.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Games: Oh What An Adventure We Shall Have!

No, this post isn't about the original Adventure nor is it about the recently released Get Lamp. Interactive fiction will have to wait for another day.

No, this is about adventure games on computers. Why they work and why they don't. Recently a couple of the best of the adventure style games were rereleased for yet another generation of platforms. Monkey Island and Monkey Island 2 have been updated for the most modern gaming consoles and yet they are still the same adventure style games at heart.

(As a pure aside... if you want to have fun understanding how far computer games have come and how primitive early home computers were by today's standards then watch this video of the evolution of PC sound technology illustrated through the music for Monkey Island. I think I owned most of the sound cards and technologies listed. I think I still have my Gravis Ultrasound somewhere. It's amazing how far we've come from bleeps and bloops to full orchestral scores.)

Replaying Monkey Island had me plunging through my bookmarks to find an article by Ron Gilbert called Why Adventures Games Suck. As the designer behind Monkey Island he should know why adventure games suck and what to do about it. After all Monkey Island, and several other LucasArts games, are considered classics of the genre.

Which then lead me to remember a much more recent article Sierra vs. Lucasarts by L.B. Jeffries in Popmatters. The difference in approach symbolized by those two companies really does help capture some of the basic problems and issues in designing and writing good adventure games.

Those two resources won't help you design the next great adventure game but they should help you understand what can make a good game work well. Sadly the genre seems half dead. Sure many other genres include lots of the elements of adventure games but as a stand alone genre the adventure game seems to have fallen out of favour. For now. There will always be stories to tell, games to play through them, and designers who want to do more than just give us wave after wave of enemies to mow down. There will be other adventures to play through we just may have to wait a little while.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Language: When Hack Writing Becomes Popular

Quick. Think of a book you loved as a child. One that entranced you, that you reread several times. One that made an impact on your formative years.

Have you ever gone back and read that book again? This time as an older, more mature, and hopefully wiser person?

Sometimes books stand up to the test of time. Other times we wonder how we even put up with them. We see how bad they were. How inane. How insipid. How uninspired.

Back in 2005 Gene Weingarten wrote about the awful books (as in awfully popular and awfully badly written) in the Hardy Boys series. The Hardy Boys The Final Chapter.... is a look at the true story behind a series that has captured boys imaginations for generations.

The article succinctly covers why I tend not to reread any of my childhood favourites. They almost never live up to what we remember.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Math: Representing Numbers

Mathematics is formulas and theorems, concepts and numbers. In today's world mathematics is also in computers. That is where the rubber hits the road.

Putting numbers inside of computers isn't as easy as it sounds. Putting decimal numbers into computers is fraught with problems.

Should you ever find yourself programming computers in a way where the computers are manipulating numbers for you please sit down and read What Every Computer Scientist Should Know About Floating-Point Arithmetic.

It's not as easy or as simple as you think. Let David Goldberg tell you about many of the pitfalls and problems in getting computers to represent numbers.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

What is The Internet?

Wayne passed along a link that I had forgotten about. I remembered the powerful idea at the heart of the link but I had forgotten who had written it.

World of Ends: What the Internet Is and How to Stop Mistaking It for Something Else by Doc Searls and David Weinberger is an explanation of how best to understand the Internet.

The Internet isn't a bunch of wires and cables and companies hooking computers together. The Internet is a set of agreements that allow people to hook networks up to each other seamlessly. The result is that for all practical purposes the Internet is the collection of all the computers attached to each other. It's the collection of computers at the outside edge of the network.

You computer, your laptop, and your cellphone are all part of the Internet.

We tend to think of the Internet as Google, and Amazon, and Blogger, and our bank, and other sites. They see the Internet as the place were all their customer's are. It turns out the Internet is both.

Maybe the best way to think of the Internet is to think of it as the place where we all meet and connect. It isn't a thing or a place. It's where all the computers and people at the ends of the network build a collective on which almost anything can happen.

If you haven't red Worlds of Ends I highly recommend it. It may change how you understand the Internet.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Science: Science as it Happens

On December 2nd NASA announced research that may change our view of life. The announcement was about how a bacteria originally found in a toxic lake in California had, in the lab, started to use arsenic in its biologic processes instead of phosphorous.

On December 4th Rosie Redfield blogged about issues she had with the scientific paper that was announced to the public on the 2nd. Writing on her blog that covers research and research papers she expected only a few researchers to read about the issues she found with the original paper.

By December 7th Carl Zimmer, writing in Slate, started to cover the controversy over the original paper.

By December 8th Carl followed up his Slate article with a blog entry on Discover where he published replies from experts that he solicited for his Slate article. It's interesting to be able to read the replies of some of the critics of the original paper.

Normally all of this takes place behind the scenes. Papers go through peer review. Papers get challenged. Ideas flow back and forth. Ideas get 'corrected' or 'replaced' or get firmly set in place when they survive challenges. The ongoing consensus moves forward and the scientific view of the world may be slightly different than it was before.

Here in front of us is much of that discussion. Happening in public after a very public introduction of a research paper. (After all you can't get more public than a press conference). This type of dialog is not unexpected or unusual. What's unusual is that the discussion is so public and the pace of the dialog so fast.

Science as it happens right in front of our eyes. It will be fun to see what happens next.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Food: Should We Worry About the Banana?

Bananas are a staple fruit for many of us. Remarkably inexpensive and available all year round. There's some special about the banana.

That something special may be the downfall of the banana as we know it today. Which shouldn't be too much of a surprise because the banana we know today, the Cavendish, is not the banana we once knew and loved. Until the middle of the 20th century the banana of choice was the Gros Michel. A fungal infection called Panama disease almost wiped out the banana industry. Now there are warnings that the Cavendish may be in for some trouble. Panama disease has started to wipe out Cavendish bananas in some parts of the world. We may need to find another type of banana to replace the Cavendish.

The alarms have been raised for a while. National Geographic wrote about the problem in 2001. Popular Science covered the issue in 2005. The Smithsonian Magazine also covered bananas in 2005. In 2009 Damn Interesting had an article entitled The Unfortunate Sex Life of the Banana.

If you like bananas, and if you like the taste and texture of the Cavendish - the current banana, then you may end up telling tales about how bananas used to be and how they used to taste. That's if we're lucky. If we're unlucky we'll be telling people about this amazing fruit that was long and curved and yellow and that apparently had a peel that was very slippery.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Games: Video Game Critiques

It used to be so simple. You munched around a maze avoiding ghosts. The invaders were moving back and forth and getting lower and you shot at them and hid behind little crumbling fortresses. You killed the bad thing. Or you just aligned blocks or found the way out of mazes. Games were simple. If they stood for anything or had any deep significance it was usually in the mind of the beholder and not the mind of the creator.

In simpler times there were simple reviews. Was it worth buying? Were the graphics good? Was the gameplay challenging enough without being impossible?

Things are different now. Games have huge budgets. There are complex stories. There are themes and ideas woven into the fabric of games even when the game seems to be nothing more than "shoot the bad things and survive". Which leads to longer reviews and deeper critiques of games.

Good writers with good ideas and a good understanding of what's being presented in video games now have a chance to show us what's good and not so good about games. And I'm not talking about whether the graphics are up to par or not.

Case in point is Metroid: Other M - The Elephant in the Room by MenTaLguY and Tuvia Dulin. It may have started life as a simple review but it changed into something bigger and deeper. A critique of some of the underlying issues inherent in the story of this particular Metroid game.

Metroid is a series of video games in which the hero turned out to be a heroine. The main character is Samus Aran who goes around protecting the galaxy. Metroid: Other M takes that simple formula... and... well... let's say the writing isn't up to scratch and the new take on the character is a feminist's nightmare.

What's interesting is that this particular critique goes beyond taking aim at the bad writing and occasionally painfully bad scene and looks at the story in it's entirety. It's a worthy piece of literary criticism in it's own right.

It's nice to see well thought out and well written critiques of video games. It's nice to know the medium can deserve such treatment. It's just makes me sad that this particular criticism of the mishandling of a story and a character is even required.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Language: Talking at Cross Purposes...

For anyone who thinks language is easy to understand and the English language in particular... may I simply present Abbot and Costello's Who's On First.

No wonder computers can't understand human language. What chance do they have when we can't do it ourselves?

Monday, December 6, 2010

Math: At Which Point Does it Get Absurd?

In the ongoing game of "my computer is bigger and faster than yours" there seems to be one particular calculation that helps determine the winner of the game.

To calculate as many digits of pi as possible. Now I've mentioned pi before but not as something to calculate. One can never calculate pi exactly since it is a transcendental number. The decimal places keep going and going without repeating.

Which makes it a perfect number to calculate on computers because you can keep calculating it for as long as you like. There is no built in limit to how many digits you can compute.

Computing pi by hand is tedious and error prone. Nevertheless over time people sat down and did the calculations. Starting in 1947 or so computers also cranked out digits. Here is a short chronology of the number of digits calculated over time. This list ends in 1999 with a computer calculating 206 billions digits.

Eleven years later that number has been surpassed and not by a little bit. The current record for the number of calculated digits of pi is.... 5 trillion. That's 5,000 billions or 5 million million digits -(5,000,000,000,000).

Better yet it wasn't calculated on a supercomputer nor on a cluster of specialized machines nor on a specially built computer. It was calculated on a desktop computer in 90 days.

Granted it was a fully loaded desktop computer. The specs are within the reach of anyone with lots of cash and access to a computer store:

  • 2 Intel Xeon processors (12 cores total)
  • 96 GB of memory
  • 19 x 2 TB disks and 1 x 1 TB disk
And it ran Windows Server. Given similar (or better) hardware and a bit more time maybe you an calculate a new record yourself.

The story of the calculation, with details, some pictures, and access to the program that did the calculation is all here.

After years of these types of calculations being done on supercomputers and specialized machines it's interesting to note that home computers have progressed this far. I wonder who's taken up the challenge to calculate a few extra trillion digits? I wonder if somewhere there's another high end typical computer cranking away to set a new record.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Need a Good Story?

I was born and raised in Canada. As a result I tend to think that my literary heritage is the literature of the world and not just great Canadian material.

So when I stumbled across the Icelandic Saga Database. I knew I'd be reading for a while.

Go ahead... Get lost in a saga or two. And if you can read the originals just let me know how good the translations are.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

And Now For Something Completely Differential

Even seemingly difficult concepts and ideas can be understood if they are explained incrementally. This doesn't just apply to lofty concepts or ideas. Mundane mechanical wonders can be explained incrementally as well.

Take the sets of gears called a differential. It connects three rotating shafts. Think about a power train from a car's engine and a pair of wheels. The differential is the mechanism in the middle that takes the power from the engine and allows both wheels to turn.

But the wheels can each turn at different speeds. Which seems to be a neat trick to pull off. I certainly had no idea how a few gears can do that.

It turns out that in the 1930s there was a short movie that described the gears and, step by step, explained how they work. Spend a minute or two enjoying the synchronized motorcycles and in no time you'll be shown the basis of what seems to be a complex bit of mechanical engineering.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Science: Scale

To quote from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams:
Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space.
 The universe, or space if you like, is not only big but it also contains things that are very very small. The scale of our universe, and more importantly the differences in scale from the smallest things to the largest things, is vast and mind numbing.

Therefore it's best described with simple pictures.

In 1957 Kees Boeke wrote Cosmic View a small book that explores the scale of the universe in 40 drawings. There is also another online copy here. After the introduction and some preliminary text the book starts with a picture of a young girl with a cat on her lap. The next drawing is the same scene zoomed out 10 times. The girls is still at the centre of the picture but appears much smaller. It turns out she's sitting next to a couple of cars and a blue whale. Then the drawings keep zooming out 10 times to each show an area 100 times as large as the picture before.

It isn't man zooms before large parts of the solar system are in view. Each picture covers 100 times as much area as the one before. It's an amazing way of wrapping you head around the scale of the universe. After starting with a girl with a cat on her lap it takes 27 zooms to get to the size of the universe itself. 27 zooms of 10 times each. That's a huge number and a huge scale all in 27 pictures.

Kees Boeke isn't done yet. It's time to reverse the process. Again starting with the girl he now zooms in 10 times in each drawing. First zooming in on her hand and a barely visible mosquito. Zooming in takes 13 pictures. All told, based on zooms of 10 times, the universe's scale can be represented by 40 pictures. The difference from the largest to the smallest is mind bogglingly huge. It's hard to take in an appreciate in simple pictures.

Luckily we don't have to depend on simple pictures. We can depend on moving pictures to help us take in the scale of the universe.

Eleven years after Cosmic View was published two films recreated the same journey. Starting at a human scale, zooming out to the vast size of the universe, and then zooming in to the smallest scale we know off.

The more famous is called Powers of Ten. Made in 1968 (and rereleased in 1977 which is usually the date given for the film) it has a narrator give a running commentary on what we are seeing and what is happening.

I myself am more partial to the second film based on Cosmic View. Cosmic Zoom, a National Film Board of Canada production, drops the narrator and leaves the viewer to just watch the zoom and take it all in without interruption. Instead of starting in Chicago this zooms starts in the Ottawa River near Parliament Hill.

Whether you prefer Powers of Ten or Cosmic Zoom they both help give additional context (and dare I say it - scope) to Kees Boeke's original idea.

The story doesn't stop back then in 1968 when those two movies were made. There have been more recent views of the scale of the universe. An interactive example is The Scale of the Universe which allows you to scroll in and out at will.

Taking in the 40 or more powers of 10 that define the known scale of the universe is a humbling experience which helps, literally, to put things into perspective.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Food: Controversy in Chocolate

I'm not going to bother about whether dark chocolate is good for you or not. I prefer to think that all chocolate is good for you if taken in moderation.

I'm not going to talk about whether there is too much sugar and confection in our diets. Of course there are. I wouldn't have it any other way.

What I am going to talk about is how chocolate seems to invite controversy. Not for nutritious or dietary reasons though but for purely economic reasons. Let me give two examples.

The first is an ongoing controversy about a hedge fund, Armajaro, that is trying to corner the market for chocolate by buying vast quantities of it. This has been covered by, among others, The Spectator, The New York Times, and even various blogs.

The results are predictable. Chocolate and chocolate products will be more expensive. Chocolate bars and other retail treats will either weight less, cost more, or end up with lower amounts of cocoa products in them. Or some combination of all three. This is already happening and, if Armajaro can corner and influence the market, will continue. So get ready to shell out more money for your chocolate.

The second controversy is a bit older and is over how much chocolate can be worth. The chocolate in particular is not your typical candy bar chocolate but high end high quality chocolate. Just how much is it worth?

And more importantly... how do you know what you're buying is worth what you pay for it?

Back in 2006 on a blog called DallasFood there was a 10 part expose on one of the most expensive brands of chocolate on the market. Noka is a company that sells expensive chocolate. Very expensive chocolate. At the time they could even be called the most expensive chocolates available in the world.

The questions at hand were: Why is their chocolate so expensive? What makes it special and unique? And most importantly: Is it worth the price?

Sadly, 4 years later, the site has none of the content it had at the time. The 10 part expose is no longer online in it's original location. Like so many things on the web it was not long lived and hasn't survived. Various discussions about the controversy are still online.

A post on Metafiler was entitled Nice margins. The author of the expose posted a synopsis on Chowhound that started not just one long thread on the subject but at least two. One blogger, Robert Synnott, posted about the expose and quickly noticed one commenter that seemed to have been commenting, and defending Noka, on several sites. The Consumerist covered the expose. All in all a good time was had by all.

The best synopsis is on the Straight Dope's forums entitled The emperor's new chocolate which covers the expose, the PR flack, and more.

All in all a wonderful synopsis. However it's only a synopsis.

Luckily even if sites come and go and even if things are no longer online at their original location the internet has a bit of a memory. The original ten part post exposing what Noka was doing and how they were taking good chocolate that was going for $10-$15 per pound, making their own pieces and putting them in fancy boxes to be resold for up to $2000 a pound is available at the internet's Wayback Machine at

The first part, with links to all the other parts of the expose, can be found here.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Games: Computer Games are American Right?

My early days with computers were positively cross Atlantic. My first computer was an Acorn Atom (the predecessor of the BBC Micro), I then migrated to one of the first PC clones. After time spent on DOS and Windows (among other systems) I moved on to the Commodore Amiga which was a favourite in Europe. I  used computers and program from both sides of the Atlantic.

One British game in particular kept me busy for quite a while - Elite. One of the first vast open games where you could do whatever you wanted. Back in 2003 The Guardian excerpted a chapter of Backroom Boys by Francis Spufford which tells the story of the creation of Elite.

Even though I was there when Space Invaders and Pac-Man and other simple repetitive arcade games were all the computer games there were it's hard to remember. We're spoiled for choice now. I think I'm starting to feel old. I almost wanted to start a sentence with "when I was young" or "when I was your age".