Educational arcs

I have a new annoyance. It's another one of those pieces of English that no one seems to know how to use. It's deeply misunderstood. It's the term "learning curve". I'm continually, it seems, encountering people who believe that because something involves learning, that the entire project can be described as a "learning curve". "It's a learning curve." "This is difficult. It's a learning curve."

This is not correct.

It may have a learning curve. In fact, I guarantee it has one.

A learning curve is not the mere existance of learning. A learning curve is a way of describing the increasing (or decreasing) difficulty in the learning process for a given activity. A steep learning curve exists when a task is difficult to master, a more gentle curve when the job is easier.

You can read about learning curves in far more detail than I care to go into over at Wikipedia, the bastion of opinion-disguised-as-fact and the bane of high school paper graders world-wide.

If you have a new skill to learn, remember that it has a learning curve, and if you want to complain about it, it's probably a steep one.

It's Orb-vious

Some "paranormal" phenomenon can't be easily explained. Some can. I suddenly feel compelled to explain one. Orbs.

The usual story behind orb encounters is that a would-be ghost hunter, or some other kind of believer in orbish things will traipse through a "haunted" location taking happy snaps with their point-and-click digital camera. Upon viewing their photographs, they will more often than not find several of the photos are festooned with round objects, usually with hard glowing edges and often with tiny details inside of them.

There are a bunch of potential paranormal explanations for the spots -- ghosts, spirits, fairies. The description usually depends on the location, and what one expects to find there.

The reality is much more boring, though. The glowing items are just dust motes illuminated by the camera's on-board flash, hovering somewhere outside of the camera's focal plane. The hot-spots created in the photograph by out-of-focus illuminated debris are called circles of confusion.

Usually, these kinds of photos are only taken with cheaper point-and-click style digital cameras. The location of the on-board flash on these cameras is the cause behind the tendency for "orbs" to appear in the photos. The closer the flash sits to the lens of the camera, the more accurately the reflected light bounces back into the camera's lens. Digital SLR cameras do not capture as many artefacts of this kind, because the on-board flash is positioned further away from the lens.

The focal plane is the vertical slice of the universe at the correct distance from the camera's lens to be in focus given the camera's shooting settings. For a camera with a wide aperture (f-stop), the focal plane will be narrower, a smaller aperture will produce a deeper focal plane. Adjusting the camera's aperture controls two things: The depth of field (focal distance) and the amount of light that is allowed onto the camera's sensor. A wider aperture means more light, but a shallower depth of field. Point-and-click cameras, when used at night, will usually automatically open the aperture as wide as possible and adjust all available settings to allow the best possible photographs at night, the implications of which are that the camera is then set up to perfectly capture orbs!

Dust motes, insects and rain will produce orbs in varying quantities. While "circle of confusion" is the term for an individual hotspot, the collective term for the effect is bokeh, a Japanese word describing the qualities of the out-of-focus parts of a photograph.

Bokeh from Christmas lights.

Quality bokeh in a photograph is desirable, and can be achieved by using prime lenses with stupidly low f-stops. The above photograph is bokeh produced by Christmas lights at f-1.8. The lights closer to the camera produce larger circles of confusion than lights further away.

Here are some fun links, from the pro-orb side of the fence, just for shits and giggles:

Some crazy talk about how orbs are ghosts -- I'm particularly fond of the footnote on this one, which pretty much debunks all of the paragraphs above it with a bit of "oh, but they're often just dust, too". Some more crazy talk -- I've included this one because the sentence "No one has the true answer to this question yet" makes me want to slap people for lack of research. -- this place has literally ones of photos of illuminated dust particles, all of which look eerily (if you'll pardon the inappropriate adverb) similar to my examples above. Must be ghosts! This article includes the advice to turn your flash off if you want to photograph orbs without the interference of dust particles. Desire to slap is still high, but at least it's some progress! Apparently some orbs are energy, and energy is spirit. I was under the impression that energy was energy. The law of conservation of energy insists that energy can't be created or destroyed, only transformed. I guess it can be transformed into spirits, and therefore into orbs. Or not.

So. Orbs. Just dust. Next please.

How not to review video games.

I’ve been reading a lot of reviews for Super Nintendo games, recently. Mostly because I have an annoying desire to force myself to like playing RPGs, and it’s not working very well. I hate leveling characters up. I hate fighting in role-playing games. I want to beat you up, not do math. Anyway. Having read many reviews, I’ve come up with some pointers for anyone who plans to write their own and doesn’t want to come off sounding like a mentally retarded eleven-year-old.

1. Don’t pad your review out with twelve paragraphs about the game’s story. If you can’t summarise the plot of a video game in one paragraph, that’s a strike against the game, and you shouldn’t be dwelling on it. Or even worse, you shouldn’t be counting on it to increase your word count.

2. Don’t list things. It’s great that the game has thirty different weapons in it, but please don’t tell me about all of them individually.

3. Do not use any of the following phrases:

“Why are you still reading this review and not buying/playing the game?” “Buy it! Buy it! Buy it!” “BEST GAME EVAR” 4. Learn to spell.

5. Please actually play the game you’re reviewing before you review it. If I had a dollar for every review I’ve read that focused on the first two levels of a game and nothing past that, I’d be wealthy. If you can’t play it past level two, tell us why. Don’t try to make up a review about parts of the game you haven’t seen.

6. Same thing goes for your screenshots. Don’t just include the title screen and the first level. Show us you played the game. Comment on the screenshots. Sell what you’re trying to tell us.

If you can take those six pieces of advice, maybe the internet will become a less embarassing place.

Also, upgraded to Wordpress 2.5. It seems pretty.

Shopping advice

This is for the benefit of anyone who's ever used a supermarket. Friendly advice, even, inspired by the behaviour of an entire extended family operating in some kind of evil alliance at checkout number six this evening. WHEN YOU REACH THE CHECKOUT, STOP SHOPPING.

The usual strategy when shopping for groceries is to enter the store, obtain either a trolley (cart) or a basket, put stuff you want in it, then proceed to a checkout and pay for it.

The family I encountered this evening had a different tack. FAMILY MEMBER ONE, who I shall call MRS. SHOPPERNAZI proceeded immediately to checkout six with her innocuous two items of purchase, trailed haphazardly behind by her small herd of children, brothers, sisters, grandparents and other bewildered brainwashees. I step into line. Gosh! thought I! A short queue! I can leave the supermarket in blistering time!


Mrs. Shoppernazi then proceeds to COMPLETELY OCCUPY the checkout, while her HORDES OF MINIONS are scurried about the place collecting foodstuffs she requests and depositing them on the conveyor. All the while I'm stood back a good six paces behind the checkout to allow room for the fucking armies to mass in and out of the space between the checkout and the barrier thing that's designed to provide room for only one person-width to leave the store through that thoroughfare.

Which leaves me in the awkward position of NOT LOOKING LIKE I'M ACTUALLY IN LINE. So while Mrs. Shoppernazi is waging war on the supermarket with her evil squadron of MiniShoppernazis, I'm fending off a border assault from assorted scalliwags who've concluded that since I'm stood back a distance from the checkout, I'm not really waiting to be served.

AND, the great wonderous being that Mrs. Shoppernazi gloriously presumes to be somehow manages to only purchase items that have no shelf price, which forms a third onslaught of troops on the checkout as various store officials pander back and forth relaying prices for the absurd shit this woman apparently cannot live without.

If her teller card hadn't worked, I'd have killed her.