Are we living in the Matrix, part one: a simple roll of the dice

The Matrix is one of my favorite movies. When it came out, I was in college. It fueled many philosophical conversations among my friends and me. And not just in my circle. It was so popular with the college students that it played in the local theater for a whole year! In that year I saw it on the big screen dozens of times.

It, of course, forces us to ask the question: is our universe real? Or is it some kind of simulation?

I had actually been thinking along these lines for more than a decade before I saw the movie. As a young kid I really thought it was suspicious that the sky looks like a dome. I wondered if I wasn’t living in some kind of experiment.

I have a lot of thoughts on this premise. Most of them are steeped in very exotic, theoretical physics. I’ll bore you with those details in later posts. For now, I will start with the simplest argument.

Suppose that we assume that at some point in the entire existence of the universe, from beginning to end, somewhere and sometime, there is the technology to create a simulation of the universe convincing enough to fool us. Well, if there is at least one of these similulations, then we have to admit that the chance we ourselves are in the original “real” universe is, at most, 50%.

If someone tries to sell you an original Monet, you have to consider the possibility that it’s a forgery. You know that such forgeries exist. And, if you are like me, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a good copy of the master of Impressionism, and the real deal. Without any extra info, you might as well flip a coin. Unfortunately, my argument here is a direct analogy. If we assume universe simulations exist, and we wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, then it just boils down to a roll of the dice.

The Return of the Long Scroll, or how I learned to stop worrying and love parallax

For a long time now, the research on web design has said that people prefer to click than to scroll. So we designers have been pushing short pages, with content “above the fold”, and if everything didn’t fit, then better to put content on a separate page than to have it be down below where users would have to scroll down to get to it.

And that has worked well. It’s worked well for white hat designers with their users best interests in mind. It’s also worked well for grey hat types, very well, in the sense that it inflates the number of hits and pageviews on your site while deflating the bounce rate. Users have to view more pages to get the same content. That’s where you get all the link bait “top ten” lists where each element on the list is a separate page, “Seven child stars who grew up to be super hot.”, etc.

Being a dutiful designer interested in the research and best practices, then, I’ve advocated “click over scroll” for almost twenty years now.

But, now I’m changing my mind.

With the rise of the mobile device, so-called Mobilegeddon, I suspect it’s no longer true that most users prefer to click than to scroll. Clicking can be a huge pain in the ass on a tiny screen. Even if the link area on the screen isn’t too small, which it usually is, you still may find yourself switching hand positions so you can use your finder instead of your thumb. Inconvenient. Not hugely inconvenient, but enough to register cognitiively. And even the smallest little inconvenience on the subconscious level can make a big difference on a web site.

I haven’t been a fan of “parallax” for the last couple of years, a design where content is all huge and lives on one big scroll on the home page, so called because it often uses a background image which scrolls at a different rate than the main content, creating a kind of funky 3-d effect. First of all, it’s very trendy, and I’m not usually a fan of the biggest new fad. Also, it often makes heavy use of JavaScript animations in a way that reminds me of the bloated Flash pages of the 2000s.

But, I’ve come around to understanding the usefulness of a parallax design paradigm. This design is extremely mobile friendly, especially for the “business card” type sites which I find most of my clients, small businesses and non-profits, gravitate toward. If what you have on your site is some short ad copy, some info about your organization, maybe a few bios, and a contact us form, then I think you can do very well putting all of it on one long scroll. That way, your phone and tablet users can easily reach all your content with just one thumb.

The highest level philosophy in web design has always been not to forget the minority groups in your audience. Don’t forget the visually impaired, people on slow connections, people on old browsers, people on Unix machines, people who don’t have Flash, etc. etc. Each group may be a small percentage, but they add up super quickly. So, if we embrace scrolling because of mobile and tablet users, we still have remember to cater to the desktop crowd. For most sites, they’re not even a minority, yet. So, what I strongly advocate and haven’t seen a lot of in the parallax designs I’ve seen is click based navigation *within* the long scroll page. The ancient HTML 1, venerable, often overlooked “jump to” function, using anchor tags and a hash mark in the URL will save the day here. We can add navigation as per normal, and make it simply jump around on the long page. This then becomes an ideal experience both for desktop and mobile users. There’s More Than One Way To Do It.

Berghoff Root Beer: a strangely sweet and mild birch

I enjoy an old timey bottle when I’m drinking root beer. It conjures the fake nostalgia of a bygone era, the heydey of root beer, during prohibition when it was thought to be a “tonic”. Berghoff’s bottle definitely gives one that impression. But, then is just kind of squeaks by. It has a very sweet initial attack, and a mild aftertaste. Considering its a birch style root beer, both of these are a little odd. For those that prefer root beer brewed naturally, Berghoff is a fine choice — it sports cane sugar and advertises an “authentic” method close to the historical “Bergo” soda.

I give it 3 out of 5 stars. It’s a solid, passable root beer. I’d recommend ordering it at a restaurant if that’s what they offer and you’re in the mood for root beer.

The ingredients: carbonated water, pure cane sugar, caramel color, natural flavoring, yucca extract, gum arabic, ethyl alcohol, propylene glycol alginate and triethyl citrate, citric acid and sodium benzoate.

Berghoff Root Beer is an old Chicago staple. Like another Chicago staple, Goose Island, it is mainly known for it’s proper alcoholic beer. The Berghoff German restaurant in downtown Chicago is over a hundred years old, and can brag about being popular at the World Columbian Exposition (maybe the most talked-about bit of history among true Chicagoans). They invented the “Bergo” root beer variety, along with an orange creme and a ginger beer variety, during Prohibition. The modern Berghoff Root Beer is an attempt to be loyal to that tradition.

The value of a Megamillions lottery ticket

I’m fascinated by these new fangled national lotteries.   In most gambles, whether the casino or lottery variety, the math never works out in your favor.   That’s, after all, how these businesses make their money.   But, in Megamillions the “house” (in this case, the state government) takes a portion of profit from each ticket, rather than gambling against us collectively.   If no one wins, the pot gets bigger.   In this sense it operates in some way like casino poker, or horse racing in Hong Kong.   The “house” is out of it, so you don’t have to worry — as much — about the game being rigged.   You’re competing against everyone else.

I find the math around this interesting.   I’ll start with the premise that the value of a gamble is equal to the pot multiplied by the chance of winning.  If the value of the gamble supplied by this equation is more than the cost of the buy-in, then the gamble “makes sense”.   It would make sense to pay a dollar for a 50% chance of winning four dollars.   It would not make sense to pay two dollars for a 50% of winning three.

Note: I find this math a bit simplistic for serious consideration.   I’m just thinking out loud.   No assessment of gambling is complete without some mechanism for gauging the relative value of money.   In other words, a dollar for a millionaire is not worth the same amount as a dollar for a guy who needs it to pay his rent.  Also, there should be some mechanism for computing the elasticity of the value of money.   If I have $10 after paying rent, then it might make sense to spend $1 on a twinkie.   But spending $5 on twinkies probably doesn’t make sense.  And spending $20 on twinkies definitely doesn’t.    My simple equation doesn’t take that into account, either.   Basically this is a complicated way to say that I am in no way encouraging anyone reading this to play the lottery.   I just find the math interesting and wanted to share.

That being said, here are my computations for the value of a Megamillions lottery ticket.

Winning Combination Winnings Chance of Winning Value = Winnings x Chance of Winning
All five white + the yellow The jackpot 1:258,890,850 Depends on jackpot
All five white $1 million 1:18,492,204 $0.01
Four white + the yellow $5 thousand $739,688 $0.01
Four white $500 1:52,835 $0.01
Three white + the yellow $50 1:10,720 $0.00
Three white $5 1:760 $0.01
Two white + the yellow $5 1:473 $0.01
One white + the yellow $2 1:56 $0.04
One white $1 1:21 $0.05

I find it interesting that the value of a winning increases slightly on the very low end. I imagine that’s because a lot of people who win these small pots put the money right back into buying more tickets, which means the house ends up with that money anyway.

So, other than the jackpot, the value of all the other winnings put together is just 18 cents. Since a ticket costs one dollar, that’s not a very good deal. The jackpot fluctuates wildly. So the real question is: at what point does the jackpot make the whole thing worth it. The equation in question would be:

( X / 258,890,850 ) + 0.18 ≥ 1

… where X is the value of the jackpot.

∴ X ≥ ( 1 – 0.18 ) * 258,890,850 = $212,290,497

In theory, then (and I’d remind you of the two caveats above), it makes sense to buy a Megamillions lottery ticket when the pot goes above 212 million or so.

Uranus: strange rotations, strange storms, and strange synchronicity

Uranus has been popping up in the news a lot this week (at least in the kinds of news that nerds like me watch). Two different and unrelated stories came out about the unfortunately named gas giant.

Firstly, a team of researchers at UC Berkeley using relatively recent data from Hubble and from the Keck observatory in Hawaii, created some very striking images of storms on the surface of the planet. These storms are unusually intense and unusually hot. Scientists were not expecting them, and are at a loss to explain them. Uranus doesn’t get a lot of sunlight. So, it’s hard to say where the heat for these storms is coming from.

Secondly, a researcher at the University of Arizona, Erich Karkoschka, was looking over twenty year old data from the Voyager 2 spacecraft and has come up with an extremely startling theory — he suggests that the southern half of Uranus rotates faster than the northern half does!

Since Mr. Karkoschka was working with old data, it’s a total coincidence that he announced his findings at around the same time that we’re seeing these mysteriously hot storms on the surface of the planet. But, I have to wonder, could his theory explain these storms? If the one half of Uranus is spinning faster than the other half, wouldn’t there be enormous pressure from friction along the equator, causing the kind of hot storms that we’re seeing right now?

Karma is a pain in the ass, or “How I learned to stop worrying and love my parents.”

I’ve always had a great love and respect for both of my parents. Even in my teenage years, when most kids are rebelling and yelling, “I hate you”, I thought my folks were pretty cool. But, nobody’s perfect, and, of course, even I had a some complaints here and there along the way. But, now that I have kids, even most of those complaints have been painted over with a patina of understanding. Kids don’t tend to think of their parents are real human people with their own internal lives, emotions and needs and all. Now that I’m a parent, I’m recasting a lot of my memories with my parents in the starring role, instead of little me. I could probably give a thousand examples, but one is freshest in my mind. I remember very clearly, as a child, my parents being impatient with my various very creative stories. Now, I struggle to pay attention when my own son is telling a story. One of his stories this week lasted over an hour, and that was while I was driving! It’s simply not possible to pay attention that long. I probably over indulge him because of how I felt as a chlid. In turn, he’ll probably be a little too snippy with his own kids, and the cycle will go around and around.

A very novel play: a review of “Smokefall” at the Goodman Theatre

In short, let me say that “Smokefall”, showing right now at the Goodman Theatre, is a wonderful wonderful play. You should see it if you’re able.

I’m currently reading the “Aspects of the Novel” by E.M. Forster. It’s an interesting book. From what I gather, it’s based on a series of lectures given at Oxford sometime in the middle of the last century. Professor Forster argues pretty persuasively that the novel is unique among the arts in its ability to express our inner lives directly to the audience. Other arts, he says, rely on sensory evidence, just like we do in life. If someone is sad, they must look sad, or say that they are sad. But, in a novel the narrator can directly tell us that the person is sad. And so we peek into their secret inner life.

I was fairly convinced by this book I’m reading. But, by happy accident I saw “Smokefall” last week. The play uses a narrator, you see. So, it operates in much the same way that most novels do, giving us direct insight into what the various members of one extended family are thinking and feeling. It uses this tool very effectively. I felt coming out of it, as though I had been on a journey at once spiritual and intellectual. Indeed, I had been wrestling with all sorts of questions about forgiveness and sin, and without giving too much away, I’ll at least say that this play provided me with some very powerful answers to these Important Life Questions. Plus, it’s hilarious. Seriously, go see it if you can, whether for the entertainment, spiritual, or technical artistic value.

A random superhero

Ian Smithdahl is able to transform his body into crystal. Also, he has mastered the ability to confuse the smell of an enemy, however doing so drains his immunity to weather for one minute. Ian Smithdahl can take control of bulls and he has learned to steal defenses of his antagonists and use it against them. Shamefully, Ian Smithdahl becomes night-blind in the presence of steel. (via Random Superhero Generator!)

Problems installing Drush using Pear

I’ve been working with Drupal for going on five years now, and I love the thing. I’m generally so busy with work, that I don’t take the time to step back and learn new tools that don’t immediately apply to whatever problem is at hand. I need to get out of that bad habit. Drush is one of those tools which I should have started using long ago.

Anyway, today, I finally prioritized it. I ran into a cryptic error:

Could not rename /usr/bin/.tmpdrush to /usr/bin/drush copy(/usr/bin/drush): failed to open stream: No such file or directory

It turns out that this is an artifact of having tried to install drush previously and not finished the process. So, typing drush at the prompt failed, but there were drush fragments floating around on the server botching attempts to reinstall.

Hence, the solution is to destroy those blocking fragments:

sudo rm /usr/bin/drush
sudo pear install drush/drush
sudo drush --version

Thanks for ahwebd over at stackexchange for pointing me to the solution.