Archive for January, 2007

Aqua Teen Hunger Force bombs

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

Aqua Teen Hunger Force (ATHF) is one of a new breed of “you love it or you hate it” cartoon shows. Generally, my friends and I all think it’s hysterical, though I don’t love it to such a degree that I do anything besides watching it on televison (e.g. I don’t post to ATHF web forums).

But now ATHF is in the news for a rather negative reason. It bombed. Well, someone thought it bombed. Or, more specifically, the Boston Metropolitan Police Department mistook an urban marketing campaign as an attempted terrorist attack, and ended up evacuating large small parts of downtown Boston and had bomb squads detonate the “suspicious devices”. Seriously.

Just read the article for all of the gory details. What a colossal understanding. At least Cartoon Network is going to get a lot of publicity out of this, and more people will have heard of ATHF than ever before. Fox News’ attempt to summarize the show in one sentence is hysterical, by the way: “The show is an animated comedy about three detectives in the shape of human-sized food products that live together in a rental house in New Jersey.”

But alas, it’s not all fun and games.

“No matter who did this, I think there’s probably enough evidence I think the Boston Police Department, the bureau, state police — everybody will probably get together … I wouldn’t be surprised to see someone charged in this. This is an extremely serious situation,” former FBI Director Bill Gavin told FOX News during the investigation.

“Whoever did this — whether it be kids or adults — if they think it’s funny, I think they’ll soon learn it’s not that much of a humorous situation.”

So, it’s now a crime to make the police look foolish? I don’t think anyone can legitimately claim that they were attempting to cause terrorism, and the advertising campaign was pulled off without a hitch in other cities. So what exactly are they guilty of?

Update: CNN has a better article which actually includes images of the “devices”. Basically, the devices used a pattern of lit LEDs to make the shape of a Mooninite. They had already been in place for weeks in ten other cities, but apparently Boston over-reacted.

Update 2: Someone discovered these two weeks ago and posted some pictures on Flickr. Slashdot also has a story up now (with some good comments). This story is front page on all of the news sites right now (it just has the perfect angle), and suffice it to say, it will definitely be mentioned in nightly news segments. Best guerrilla urban marketing ever? Look at all the exposure they’re getting out of, literally, circuit boards of LEDs with four D batteries taped on.

Update 3: A diarist on DailyKOS has much the same reaction as I did. He’s blaming it on an utter over-reaction by the police as well. I was reading the CNN article and it had this line in it: “Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis called it “unconscionable” that the marketing campaign was executed in a post 9/11 era.” Oh really? It’s unconscionable? What the hell does “In a post 9/11 era really mean?” Does it mean we’re supposed to jump at shadows and pee our pants in fear? If so, the terrorists have already won.

Cyde Weys Musings: A month in review

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

Today marks the end of the first complete month of Cyde Weys Musings (I started in the middle of December). Let’s take a look at what’s happened on Cyde Weys Musings in January. All data below is culled from the Apache logs using awstats.

The site had over 2,500 visits from 1,700 distinct visitors. The reader return rate is definitely something that could use some improvement. The number of visits on Fridays and Saturdays was about half that of the number of visits on all other days. I guess those are the two “days off” on the Internet. Anecdotally, this makes sense, as I personally find myself browsing the web a lot less on weekend nights (Friday and Saturday).

The site was hit thousands of times by various bots, with 3,000 hits by Google and 2,000 hits by Yahoo alone. It definitely takes a lot of effort to keep their indices as up to date as possible. Google has a better way of handling robots.txt, though: it only downloads it once a day, whereas Yahoo downloaded it nearly 500 times just in January. I don’t really see robots.txt files changing that quickly (I haven’t changed mine at all, for instance).

Over 600 people came to this site through Google searches, whereas only five came from each of Yahoo and AOL (MSN registered one hit). This is significantly skewed off from actual user search numbers, in which I believe Google only controls about 75% of the market. However, the use of Google is much higher than that amongst technically-inclined people, and my blog is definitely written towards interests of technically-inclined people. The most popular search terms from Google were PHYA stock, sticking leeches on myself, Second Life riots, YouTube speed, and Sealand.

According to Google’s Webmaster Tools, my site placed most highly in the search results on searches for my pseudonym, “weys and means” (hehe), various spammed stocks, Java jmp dll, sticking leeches on myself, “pseudo scientific” advertisements 2007, and Kessler Syndrome. My site was most often visited on searches for riots in Second Life (and variations), decapitate child (very disturbing), sticking leeches on myself (and variations thereof), various names of spam stocks, and YouTube speed issues.

And finally, let’s take a look at some of the highest profile links to Cyde Weys Musings from other sites (popularity was determined by the prevalence of referrer URLs in Apache logs). People were interested in my comments on a post at Capitalism2 that questioned whether Second Life is a pyramid scheme. Readers could barely believe that my hydrogen bond angle is ten degrees greater than normal! Somehow I was featured on a BuzzFeed on Accidental Decapitation. A single comment on a DailyKOS diary about China’s satellite shoot-down generated a surprising number of clicks. Many clicked through a trackback link to see my take on real-world spam. My blog entry on the Kessler Syndrome was discussed in depth in an off-topic post in a forum for fans of rifles chambered for 6.5mm Grendel ammunition (sorry, no direct link to the post, but I assure you, this isn’t something I could make up if I tried). And finally, I was quoted in a CNet News blog post on Second Life riots, which brought a decent number of people to the site.

Overall, though, more people still find this site through Google than all other sources combined. Where would we be without Google? I hope some of you out there find these statistics as interesting as I did. What’s really surprising is the hit-and-miss nature of the web. Some of the blog postings I put the most effort into didn’t generate any buzz whatsoever, but a few one-off entries on random topics brought in huge numbers of readers. Ah well, I can live with the shotgun approach: just keep shooting, and eventually you’ll hit something.

Misconceptions about digital data

Tuesday, January 30th, 2007

An English teacher working in China helped his girlfriend cheat on her assignments and exams. But then she dumped him, and so he told the university. The case is interesting on its own merits, especially because the ex-girlfriend stands to lose her student visa and may end up deported back to China. But what really caught my attention was this terrible misconception about digital data from the article:

“Fred D’Agostino, the Director of Studies, is investigating and I sent him copies of all the work I had done.

“All of this was in the form of forwarded emails which are all dated.” “I also sent him copies of the files I received via MSN messenger during the final exam and the corrected versions that I sent in return.

“Again, all are dated and timed and cannot be altered or modified in any way as this would show on the documents.”

Apparently this man is under the misconception that data cannot be altered, and the news reporter wasn’t technologically knowledgeable enough to know to point out this claim as nonsense.

All digital data is just composed of ones and zeros, and it can all easily be modified. These timestamps that “cannot be altered or modified in any way” actually can very easily be modified through the use of a simple hex editor, though of course there are non-free programs out there specifically for less technically-inclined people who want to “forge” timestamps. The timestamps in Microsoft Word or even filesystems (e.g. what date the file was last modified) are not cryptographically secure, and thus, they are meaningless. They can be edited with impunity, leaving no trace, and are (or should be) ineligible as evidence in any educated court of law.

Now, if these timestamps had been cryptographically secured, that is another thing entirely. One way to do this would be to have a central trusted authority that uses public-key cryptography to sign timestamps. Anyone could submit a file and have the central trusted authority concatenate it with a current timestamp and then sign it with the authority’s private key. Using the public key, anyone could verify that a timestamp was accurate, but because they wouldn’t have access to the private key, they wouldn’t be able to forge a timestamp. This timestamp authentication protocol would work so long as the central authority remained trusted. Of course, the downside is that if the central authority is ever compromised and someone obtains the private key, then all signed timestamps would become worthless, because any arbitrary timestamp could be signed with any document.

I’m sure there’s a better protocol to do this that wouldn’t retroactively destroy the validity of all past timestamps in the event of a compromise, I just can’t think of what it would be right now. But as you can see, any sort of cryptographically secure timestamp verification is much more complex than anything that Microsoft Word or any email systems are doing. I cannot even imagine the extra computing overhead that would be imposed by including cryptographically secure timestamping on every file and every email. Most people would not suffer such a thing for so few benefits.

Tis the opinion column writing season again

Tuesday, January 30th, 2007

My first column of the semester comes out on Friday, and so if you’ve read my post about working as a columnist for The Diamondback, you’d know that means that I wrote my column earlier today. I wrote on the subject of the University of Maryland’s lack of future dormitory construction projects. The housing wait list is very long, yet the funding request for the only new dorm on the horizon was turned down last year. If UMD doesn’t get the housing situation fixed soon, it’s going to be facing some serious issues down the road attracting students, because, by-and-large, students these days want to live on campus, and if a university has a shortage of on campus housing, that isn’t attractive. The column will be published in print and online on Friday, so I’ll post a link to it on this blog then.

This column actually took a little bit longer to write than usual. I am a bit out of practice, and I have been adapting to a more informal tone that I’ve been using on this blog. Not even being able to use contractions took a little bit of a mental reconfiguration. I went through several partial rewrites on the column, including lots of shuffling around of content to get everything to flow smoothly, but in the end, I’m very happy with how it turned out.

Refugee politics in Final Fantasy XII

Monday, January 29th, 2007

I’m slowly but surely making my way through Final Fantasy XII (I have ever so many other things to do), and I’ve just come to a place called Mt. Bur-Omisace. It is the religious enclave of the Kiltias, and it serves as a refugee camp for people who’ve lost their homes in recent wars. I couldn’t simply ignore the parallels between this in-game situation and real-world situations like refugees from Darfur and Baghdad. The game’s designers were definitely making a political statement here. I’ve seen many a fantastic location in role-playing games, but not as often a shelter for refugees of war, so I felt like digging a little bit deeper.

Here are some quotes from the game that further illustrate the parallels I am talking about. First up are some quotes from the Kiltias, the people running the pilgrimage destination cum refugee camp.

More than ten thousand souls find peace on Mr. Bur-Omisace. Our doors are open to all. The blessings of the gods be with you. Faram.

This quote helps give some numerical context. Ten thousand is not a small-sized refugee camp. From what I gather, “Faram” is the Kiltias version of the Christian “Amen”.

Ah, not another refugee. I can see you’re weary. Please, eat and rest. You are safe here.

Every day we welcome more refugees seeking the protection of the Kiltias, and our capacity to feed and shelter them grows ever more strained.

We cannot feed the refugees indefinitely, but must give them the means to feed themselves. If only one could magick foodstuffs…

The elders are concerned about the future of our mountain. Are the ever-swelling waves of refugees a sign of more evil to come? Faram.

Resources are increasingly being strained, and the number of refugees is ever-increasing, much like many places here in the real world. We also see an in-the-game-world version of the popular real world aphorism “Teach a man to fish…”

The refugees’ numbers are growing, while the pilgrims’ decrease. It is sad. I would think the faith vital in times such as these.

In the real world as in the game, mere faith doesn’t solve anything. Only actions can solve problems. Faith not backed up by action is worthless; faith backed up by action is worthy, but not because of anything having to do with faith.

We Kiltias live on the gifts of believers. In the past, Nabradia and Dalmasca, too, gave generously, but those days are no more.

Now we switch over to quotes from the refugees themselves, which also help to clarify the situation with Nabradia and Dalmasca, two small nations that were invaded by Archadia, which is a very large imperalist nation (sound familiar?).

Me? I was born in Nabradia. My village was burned to the ground in the war two years ago, and I made my way here. I envy you Dalmascan folk. Even an occupation’s better than seeing your home and everything you loved reduced to a pile of ashes.

Dalmasca is a kingdom that was overwhelmed in a short war against a much superior power and is now suffering an occupation. There is an underground resistance movement (an insurgency, if you will) that has had some violent clashes with the occupiers.

This is not the best land upon which to make a living, but here we are safe from armies and fiends. That is enough.

At home, I chased rats in the gutters — for food, not for sport. Here I sleep with my belly full each day. It is like paradise, you see.

We are refugees from the Republic of Landis, fallen to the Empire long ago…before you were born, son. When we first came here, there were few of us enough. Now, the fires of war rage outside, and we are close to overflowing.

The first two quotes help establish a general feeling of past hopelessness and current hope as expressed by the refugees. The third quote speaks of an impending war between Archadia and Rozarria, the two superpowers in the game. This part may not seem familiar to us in real life just yet … although the way things are going, is it really so far off?

They say the Gran Kiltias Anastasis can silence a king, or even an emperor, with a single withering glare. What I want to know is, why does he hide up here on this mountain? He should be down there, stopping those warmongers.

The Gran Kiltias Anastasis is the religious figure who is the leader of Mt. Bur-Omisace. The last sentence in this quote is particularly insightful: humanity is doomed to suffer strife and violence when good people stand idle rather than take proactive measures. Just to continue the running analogy: what if the U.S. Congress hadn’t passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002? The Gran Kiltias Anastasis may also be analogous to the Pope, who opposes the war but hasn’t really done anything to stop it or ease the suffering it has caused. I suppose it is cynical to say that maybe he would be doing more if the ones suffering were Catholics rather than Muslims, but I am sure there is a large grain of truth to this.

The sheer amount of effort put into the back story of just this small in-game location is what makes Final Fantasy XII such a good game. It is really incomparable to what most people traditionally consider a videogame to be. All put together, the volume of information told through the game could fill a medium-sized novel, and it’s not merely pointless fantasy contrivances, either. There are poignant parallels here to the real world, and they are enlightening to examine and ponder over. I only hope others who are playing the game are getting as much out of it.

I now return you to your regularly scheduled program of grinding mobs for EXP that has no political overtones whatsoever. Because sometimes one wants to play a game to get away from the sorry state of the world today.

Department of Public Works

Monday, January 29th, 2007

A road warning signThis is a shout out to the Prince Georges County Department of Public Works (or whoever is responsible for fixing street signs). For the past six months that I’ve lived at this house, we’ve had a most disgraceful right reverse curve warning sign out front. Someone had, in black spray paint, added two testicles at the bottom of the sign, making it look like a curved phallus.

But, alas, the “fun” was only to last so long, as apparently someone in the position to fix it finally learned of it and replaced the sign. Now I can’t give directions to my place that end with, “And turn right immediately after the bent penis warning.” Ah well. At least the neighborhood looks better. And visitors aren’t getting funny (and wildly inaccurate, I might add) ideas.

The impending crush of data overload

Sunday, January 28th, 2007

Earlier I wrote about a research project using Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) images that I would be working on. Well, that project has started, and I’ve immediately come to a startling revelation. We’re suffering from a massive, massive case of data overload. Basically, my instructions for the research project are “pick any two images of Mars, tally up craters of different sizes, and plot the numbers against known isochrons to determine surface age.” Note the part where it says “pick any two images of Mars” — that’s because no one has really yet had the time to perform a detailed surface age analysis on Mars, except for a few notable sites, like rover landing sites, Olympus Mons, etc.

So I have my choice of hundreds of thousands of high resolution surface photographs taken by Mars Global Surveyor. There’s another guy working on the same research project (we’ll be cross-checking each other’s data), so in this semester, four more photographs of Mars will be analyzed. And there aren’t too many people at other universities working on this stuff, either. So, at this rate, the backlog of MGS images will take hundreds of years to process for surface ages at the current rate. That’s a data overload. We spent hundreds of millions of dollars to send MGS, and we did get a lot of data on it, but at least when it comes to analyzing surface ages from the high-resolution narrow angle camera, the sheer amount of data vastly overshadows the available amount of human work.

This isn’t just a problem with Mars photographs, of course. It’s a problem with everything. Current estimates are that the sum total amount of data produced by humanity increases by 66% per year. That’s about on pace with Moore’s Law. By comparison, the rate of increase in manufacturing of the fastest-increasing industrial goods, such as paper and steel, is only 7%. This is a phenomenally vast amount of data, and I would venture a guess that the vast majority of it is simply going unanalyzed, which is a terrible shame.

The one thing that would most help to clear this huge data backlog the creation of better automated tools for analyzing data. For instance, the Mars craters need to be counted by hand because nobody has yet programmed an image recognition tool that is accurate enough to be used with craters. Counting craters isn’t as easy as it sounds; many of them are heavily eroded, and good judgment needs to be used to help separate real craters from features that are merely circular (which there are a surprising number of). The thing is, this task doesn’t even require strong AI (which is decades off); merely a good amount of effort put into an algorithm. But so few people are working on this that nobody has yet made good tools.

I would really love to modify an existing image recognition algorithm for crater-counting and use it on images of Mars. Rather than manually counting just two photos, I could blow through the ”entire” decade-long backlog of MGS images. That would be incredibly awesome. But I just have one semester on this research project, and it’s not necessarily realistic to think that I could do this. If someone else could do it, though, that would be really grand, and would earn some accolades.

Spamming real life

Sunday, January 28th, 2007

Google publicly announced that they would be taking high-resolution pictures of Sydney, Australia from a plane last Friday to commemorate Australia Day. Some enterprising bloggers decided that they would spam in real life by setting up a large display on the ground that was sure to be noticed from the air. The way they made their display is questionable, using 2,500 sheets of A4 paper and staking them individually into the ground rather than using much larger component parts. But the method isn’t what’s most interesting here.

Someone has already made profanity that’s visible from space, as well “depictions of the human form”. Humans in antiquity even made large lines in the desert that survive to this day whose purposes we cannot yet ascertain. But none of these are as insidious as real world spam.

I can easily forsee corporations painting their roofs with their logos (rumors have it that Target is already doing this). Thus they will be much more obvious in satellite photography. But these are just the roofs of extant buildings. What happens when people start buying up land for no other purpose than to put a horizontal advertisement on it? This isn’t even limited to satellite photography — surely one could see this happening around airports too? And if Google continues to make their picture-taking runs public, then look forward to lots more installations of temporary physical spam, that is, people going to parks or other large open areas and putting out giant horizontal posters, kind of like what the bloggers at the beginning of this post did, except more professionally.

Advertising permeates our culture, and now, it seems, it is destined to permeate our planet as well.

Re-examining Second Life (again): not a scam?

Saturday, January 27th, 2007

Terra Nova has published a rebuttal to claims that Second Life is a pyramid ponzi scheme (an allegation that I mostly agreed with). To be absolutely clear, nobody was accusing Linden Labs of operating a ponzi scheme, but rather, the fingers wwere pointed at the top moguls in Second Life, the people running the largest businesses and the private exchanges. Linden Labs is, however, guilty of hyping their game with inaccurate statements about the robustness of the virtual economy of their game.

Terra Nova’s rebuttal is simple: it isn’t a scam so much as it is that Second Life is actually a rather small economy by any normal standards, and that these investors were foolish to try to come in and try to trade large amounts of money that overwhelm economy of the game. They lay the blame at the people over-hyping Second Life, trying to make the game out to be a huge virtual economy when in fact it is really not. However, any way you look at it, whether Second Life is being run as a scheme or it’s just been over-hyped, the result is the same: its virtual economy isn’t worth bothering with. It’s simply not attractive to serious investors or venture capitalists. Until this simple fact changes, it will remain a marginalized game economy and not a real virtual economy. Yes, one person has (allegedly) managed to become a real-life millionaire, but that’s the very top of the in-game pyramid (used in an economy sense, not a ponzi sense). It’s very, very unlikely that many others can make it so big.

The conclusion is, don’t buy into the hype. Also, don’t be so quick to see evil around every corner either. But definitely don’t buy into the hype. Second Life is “a village-sized market. In fact it’s a tourist attraction-type village: the big numbers of the people you see are one-time visitors.” Its market isn’t worth taking seriously for any real investing purposes. Play it for the fun of it (if you do find it fun), but don’t go there looking to make a large amount of money off a virtual market. It ain’t gonna happen.

eBay is killing all auctions of virtual goods

Saturday, January 27th, 2007

This could well be a watershed moment in the history of real-money trading and virtual goods. eBay has made the controversial decision to cease allowing auctions of virtual goods. Note that this doesn’t just affect the sale of gold in World of Warcraft, which was already against the Terms of Service anyway. This affects all virtual goods, even if the companies running the game worlds do allow trade or sale for real money (such as Entropia Universe, Second Life, Magic the Gathering Online, etc.). Presumably this will even affect sales of virtual documents and information, like strategy guides, get-rich-quick guides, coupon codes, and more.

eBay has probably done a detailed cost/benefit analysis and decided that it simply isn’t worth it to be involved in the trade of virtual goods. For one, a large number of them aren’t allowed to be traded, and so eBay was constantly getting bugged by game companies. But more importantly, trading of virtual goods is very hard to verify and police. If I buy a real-world good, the seller can put delivery confirmation on the package, and there’s no confusion about whether or not I received it. Packages can also be insured. In an online game, however, there’s no guarantees. Fraud runs rampant.

Although it’s not optimal that sales of virtual goods in games that do allow real-money trading are being shut down, I can see why eBay wants to take a universal stance on this and simply say “no virtual trading”. The hassles just aren’t worth it. There’s definitely a new niche now for an auction site that solely deals in virtual goods, but I would be wary of getting in on such a thing. The potential problems are so grand.