Tax filing tip

If you haven’t filed your 2010 taxes yet and are planning to claim the first-time homebuyer’s tax credit, be warned that the IRS won’t let you file your return electronically if you try to do so. Apparently the IRS is unaware that technology exists to send documents electronically.

Comments Off

Las Vegas considered harmful

Never go to Las Vegas. Especially not during the summer.

The problem isn’t the heat. Which isn’t to say the heat isn’t a problem, of course. I mean, it’s a city in the middle of the desert. And yes, I know the definition of a desert is in terms of rainfall and not temperature, and yes, much of Antarctica is a desert despite it being so very cold. That doesn’t matter. The particular desert that Las Vegas is in is your typical scorchingly hot desert.

But hey, heat is a solved problem. Drink plenty of fluids, and stay inside most of the time where it’s air conditioned. You can even find some places outside that will be misting water in the general area, but as anyone who wears glasses can tell you, those kind of suck.

No, you’ll find the real problem with Las Vegas when you do venture outside the air-conditioned confines of the casino — and trust me, when you’re indoors, you are in a casino — is not the heat, but the people. The throngs and throngs of people choking every sidewalk in sight.

Try as you might, there is no escaping them. They are everywhere. And all of them will get in your way, turning your walk to the casino next door into an agonizing twenty minutes of misery. Why? Because they are all tourists. And tourists are incapable of walking like normal people.

The reasons for this are legion, as anyone who has been there can tell you. They’ll have had plenty of time to study the phenomenon whether they wanted to or not, after all. The people take approximately one step every five seconds. This is not counting the times they will randomly stop without warning to point and stare at a building. They will not look first to see if anyone is trying to walk past them before the stretch out their arm. Why would they? None of them, not a single one, even bothers to look where they’re walking in the first place anyway. There is always at least a 45-degree difference between their sight vector and movement vector. And all of these people are packed tightly together on the sidewalk, except for the couples holding hands; they invariably put as much distance between each other as possible while maintaining physical contact, enabling them to take up enough room for three people.

As you try to walk down the sidewalk, you will be tempted to weave your way through the crowd, taking advantage of the fleeting gaps between people in order to move forward at a less glacial pace. This is, of course, folly. Hey DARPA, I have a Grand Challenge idea for you: build a robot that can walk down The Strip at an average pace greater than two miles an hour. That’s much more impressive than a car that can drive itself in traffic.

Just make sure you remember to tell the Strip-walking robot that exterminating the meat-bags in its way isn’t allowed. Cyberdyne forgot to add that, and everyone knows how that turned out.

Am I suggesting that the experience will drive anyone to hate humanity? Yes. Yes I am.

And just to complicate things further, while you struggle to make forward progress down The Strip, you’ll get to avoid all the people passing out ads for the other thing Las Vegas is popularly known for: prostitutes. They’ll stand in a row of three or four along the street, wordlessly passing out cards covered with scantily clad (if that) women and occasionally slapping a stack of them against their hand in what’s apparently the local signal for “want to hire some prostitutes?”

I suppose if one were to collect as many of them as possible, they could be used to play poker.

“I’ve got three-of-a-kind with starred-out nipples.”

“Beats my pair of handbras.”

“Does four pair beat three-of-a-kind?”

“Um, that’s only two pair. You count the girls.”


“I’ve got you all beat: flush, girl-turned-away-from-camera-so-the-nipple-is-just-out-of-view high.”

“You moron, it has to be their natural hair color to count as a flush.”

Unsurprisingly, the sidewalks are paved with discarded ads for prostitutes. But don’t worry, if for some reason you can’t find anyone handing them out, and are too dignified to pick them off the sidewalk, rest assured that 75% of the newspaper boxes are actually filled with full-size ads for prostitutes.

But in a way, I expected all that. What I didn’t expect was the latest innovation in mechanizing the gambling experience: the electronic blackjack table. Not video blackjack, mind you. This is a blackjack table where the dealer is replaced by a large computer screen displaying a “dealer” avatar, and you play using the touch screen in front of each seat. (And yes, you can select which dealer you want to see, in case you aren’t satisfied with the particular revealing outfit she — obviously it’s always a she — is wearing.)

These machines are an abomination. It’s the dealer’s eyes. How they’re always staring off at some point past the seats during the idle animation. The empty, vapid smile clinches it. Obviously the machines are soulless, but it’s like the designers tried their hardest to evoke that sense through the dealer, and succeeded beyond comprehension. Most arcade games — remember those? — had an attract mode when no one was playing. These machines have a repel mode.

But, as much as it pains me to admit, Las Vegas does have a few good points. Blue Man Group is worth seeing. Their show is… hard to describe. Suppose an alien race landed on Earth and somehow, after all the prerequisite take-me-to-your-leader stuff got taken care of, somehow wound up with a Vegas show. I imagine it would be something like Blue Man Group.

Penn & Teller were also good. Before going to the show, I had the brilliant idea for a souvenir for Renee: get a playing card signed by them, and then present it to her in the course of doing a card trick, a sort of “is this your card?” kind of thing.

I started by going to the Rio’s gift shop to buy a deck of cards before the show. I wound up in the checkout line behind a woman who was evidently buying one of every fragile item they had. I got to watch for several minutes as the cashier individually wrapped each one of them, as I checked my watch and worried I was going to miss the start of the performance.

Fortunately, I did not, finally getting into the theater with a little time to spare. The show itself was good, and for obvious reasons I won’t spoil it other than by saying that one thing Penn & Teller like to do is to do a different trick than the one you think they’re doing. That’s like a whole other level of misdirection.

After the show, for whatever reason only Teller went out into the lobby to sign autographs and whatnot. Undeterred, this was my chance. When I got up to the front of the line, I handed him — what else? — the three of clubs from the deck I had purchased. He signed it “Teller” and handed it back to me. As I began to move away to give someone else a chance, he stopped me and said — yes, said, out loud — “Wait, I can do better.” I handed it back, and he wrote on the top of it “Is THIS Your Card?”


It’s a shame that I’m terrible at doing card tricks, not helped by how Renee saw though the obvious trick and deliberately ruined things for me. That’s what I get for underestimating her.

But yeah, aside from that, Vegas is terrible.

Lazy Spammers

I see that nowadays comment spammers don’t bother figuring out what markup they need to use to make hyperlinks, so they try half a dozen different formats and hope one works.

They’re also apparently too dumb to not put two dozen spam comments in the same recent post and think that won’t get noticed right quick.

FLummoxing CLeverness

You wouldn’t think it’d be so difficult to rip a few DVDs. Well, it isn’t, unless you’re trying to do it in a way that’s far too clever for your own good.

A refresher for those of you who haven’t committed my personal computing resources to memory: I have two computers, holly and kryten. (No points for guessing the naming scheme.) holly is my eight-year-old former desktop computer, now relegated to running MythTV. kryten is my four-year-old tablet that I use for pretty much everything else.

Ripping and encoding DVDs is a CPU-intensive process, so naturally I wanted to do the job on kryten, whose wimpy 1.7 GHz Pentium-M is still quite a bit better than holly’s mere 933 MHz Pentium-III. The problem is, kryten doesn’t really have a DVD drive per se. I have a DVD drive that connects via the PCMCIA slot, but it’s slow (as in, too slow to play a DVD real-time) and sometimes hangs the Linux kernel when you eject the card.

My clever plan to get around this was to read the DVDs on holly, copy the raw data over to kryten via the local network, and do the actual encoding from there. Pretty much any program on Linux that reads from a DVD is just as happy to read from a directory where you copied a DVD’s files to, after all.

For the first disc, this worked just fine. For the second one, not so much. For some reason no program could read the VOB files on the DVD without projectile vomiting error messages to the system logs. (I wound up with 600+ MB of error messages in each of three system log files when all was said and done — log files that are typically around 50 KB for a week’s worth of data. So yeah.)

Since the VOBs are where the actual video content of the DVD is stored, this was a bit of a problem. I ran into the same problem with the third disc I wanted to rip. Thinking it might be a flaky DVD drive or driver, I tried rebooting holly (soft and hard), but no change. First disc fine, second and third not. Each disc played perfectly in my set-top DVD player, so the discs themselves were clearly undamaged. kryten’s external DVD drive wasn’t any more successful.

My best guess as to what was going on was that the discs in question had deliberately bad sectors to serve as copy protection to prevent someone from doing exactly what I was trying to do. But if that were the case, you’d think that all three discs would have had it, since they were all part of the same three-disc set. It doesn’t make much sense for only some of the discs to have copy protection. But if it wasn’t deliberate, it’s awfully suspicious that only the VOB files on the two discs were affected.

I wound up ripping the two problematic discs the easy way, doing everything on holly and having MEncoder read from /dev/dvd directly instead of mounting the UDF filesystem and reading that. Lo and behold, that worked, albeit taking longer to encode because of the slower processor. Whatever method programs use to read from the DVD directly instead of via the filesystem apparently never tries to access the sectors causing the errors.

Given that holly is effectively headless (given the “quality” of ATI’s Linux drivers, I didn’t want to switch from MythTV to the console if I could help it), this posed the question of how to figure out which titles on the DVD were the ones I wanted to rip, and not previews or special features or copyright notices or anything. The solution? Playing each title one by one in MPlayer, running in AAlib mode to render the video in glorious ASCII art though the SSH session from kryten to holly. Converting uncompressed DVD-quality video to ASCII art is a lot more bandwidth-friendly than sending it across the network directly, and while it is hardly the way I’d want to watch a video, it’s good enough to recognize the opening scene is what you’re looking for.

But finally, I now have the videos shrunk down into a format my portable media player is happy with. All it took was to stop trying to be so clever about how I was doing it, and thus avoiding whatever the underlying problem was.