Archive for January, 2007

An archery range in the urban wilderness

Friday, January 26th, 2007

I live close to the campus of University of Maryland. One of the stranger things about this area is that there is an archery range right off University Boulevard, which is a rather large thoroughfare. This is in the middle of commercial and residential sprawl — fast food joints, car repair places, strip malls, many housing divisions, etc. It’s also in the outskirts of a rather large Latino immigrant community. Plainly put, it makes no sense whatsoever for an archery range to be here. Yet there it is, visible from the road, completely empty every time I pass by except for the occasional cop lurking in its parking lot.

The archery range is called “Adelphi Manor Archery Range”, and it is run as a state or county park (not sure which), so it’s utterly basic. It has the parking lot and then the eight or so archery targets downfield. I suppose someone comes around every week or so for maintenance, but other than that, it’s not staffed. Of course, it’s BYOBAA (bring your own bows and arrows).

I tried searching for this archery range online and I only found one hit, on the site of Shambhala Meditation Center of Washington D.C., a Buddhist organization. They come out to this archery range to practice Kyudo, which is the ancient Japanese ritualistic art of archery. I suppose this is the archery range closest to D.C. that is freely available. Talk about a weird confluence of cultures, though.

This archery range sort of makes me want to get a bow and arrow. I remember shooting bows a long time ago at summer camp and later in middle school. It was fun. If I had the money to throw around, I think I might get into it.

Is Second Life really just a pyramid ponzi scheme?

Thursday, January 25th, 2007

A venture analyst offers his take on Second Life. The short story: it ain’t pretty.

Randolph Harrison was contacted by venture capitalists who were interested in getting involved in real-money trading, which is basically about trying to make real money by trading in virtual goods. Many people are quite profitable at doing this in World of Warcraft and other MMORPGs, but it is against their Terms of Service, making it far too risky to get involved in. Besides, these venture capitalists are only interested in getting into it if there are tens of thousands of profits to be made at least, and trying to secretively trade that amount in gold on World of Warcraft is a non-starter.

So the venture capitalists set their sights on Second Life, which is one of a very small number of games that explicitly allow real-money trading. Harrison did some calculations on market exchange rates, in-game interest rates, potential arbitrage situations, investment, etc., and concluded that there could potentially be a lucrative business there. As he says, “an array of journalists, academics, and company executives have claimed that SecondLife boasts an economy complete with in-game banks, multiple currency exchanges, a floating currency exchange rate, and a burgeoning in-game commerce and business base.”

Harrison identifies the three main profit-earners in Second Life: land speculation, which is what Anshe Chung used to make her million, avatar accessories (such as clothing) that people use to customize their appearance in the game world, and the seedy underbelly, which consists of virtual “escort services” (think chat room cyber sex, but with 3D graphics) and casinos galore. Lots of businesses are flourishing in Second Life that are otherwise simply banned in real life. This is something I noticed immediately, and it immediately dampened all of my (briefly entertained) thoughts of making real money in Second Life. This is a place run by virtual mafia.

So the venture analyst started off with a (relatively puny) US$10,000 investment, because he calculated large arbitrage opportunities on in-game banking exchange rates. But the apparent gains never materialized. Player-run “banks” simply vanished when they were given a large amount of money, disappearing into the virtual ether, along with the money. “FDIC insured” is a phrase unimaginable to Second Life denizens. In Harrison’s own words:

Whole banks will disappear over night, along with your L$ balance. Private businesses will simply refuse to make good on financial contracts. And individuals, pretty much all of whose real world identities are carefully guarded anonymous secrets, sometimes even will openly default, without recourse. […] The simple fact is, if you arbitrage a bank for over 2,000% return because they don’t understand financial engineering, don’t expect to be able to collect come payment time.

Trying to get their Lindens out of the game world at a profit proved impossible. The Linden Exchanges’ purported rates of 250–300 $L/US$ only exist for small quantities. Try to conduct large transactions and suddenly the rates become a lot more unfavorable: “Interestingly, these trades tended to net returns of right around 4%, which was the prevailing dollar deposit rate.” It’s not a real currency trading market, it’s an auction for virtual money, and all of the advantageous exchange rates are only available in small transaction volumes, almost like a scam to make one think their virtual money is worth a lot more than it actually is.

Harrison’s conclusion is that Second Life is a giant ponzi pyramid scheme. There is no profit to be made in it for the average person. It’s only the people at the top of the game world, the Anshe Chungs, those who control the large exchanges, who are able to profit from it. Everyone else coming in with a gleam of profit in their eye is really just feeding their money into the people at the top. Harrison ends with a grim, yet surprisingly accurate, summary: “There are but a very tiny handful that profit off of the Second Life economy. A handful of casino owners, large scale virtual land flippers, and brothel owners are responsible for nearly all of the real money extracted from the game. And they continue to attract new recruits to the bottom of the pyramid.”

I must admit, I was like Randolph Harrison two months ago. Yes, I lacked the venture capital, but I was attracted by the same lure: tales of people making lots of real money in the virtual realm. When I actually arrived and started to try to figure out how I could get in on any of it, however, I came to the same sort of realization that Harrison did. Which is why I use the game now as little more than a virtual physics experiment sandbox. Like any ponzi scheme, if you don’t get in on the top, you’re just a sucker hemorrhaging money, and I didn’t get in on the top.

All your vote are belong to us

Thursday, January 25th, 2007

This bit of news is absolutely idiotic. Diebold, the largest manufacturer of electronic voting machines in the United States, uses a single master key for every voting machine they make. Wait, it gets worse. It’s not even a good key; it’s a standard low-security filing cabinet-type key, which can typically be picked in under ten seconds by someone who knows what they’re doing. The key guards access to the memory card. Get access to the memory card, and it can easily be swapped out for different votes, loaded up with a virus to throw off vote totals, etc.

But here’s the part where it gets downright criminally negligent. Diebold offers this key for sale on its online store to “authorized personnel”, but much, much worse, is that they included a picture of the actual key. Keys are very simple devices; the only thing that matters is their shape. Using just the image of the key on the website, a man successfully reproduced the key, which successfully opened a Diebold voting machine. So now you don’t even need to know how to pick locks to tamper with elections; simply make the key at home at your leisure, walk into the voting booth with a key and a replacement memory card, and within no more than ten seconds, an election can be stolen.

Do you feel safe about your Democracy now?

A metafeed of interesting news tidbits

Thursday, January 25th, 2007

My blog post queue has gotten a little bit overrun with lots of little interesting things I wanted to write posts on, so I’m clearing out the queue all at once by combining all of the interesting stories into one metafeed.

  • Slate.com compares Mike Judge’s movie Idiocracy to recent dystopian flick Children of Men. You may know Mike Judge as the creator of Beavis and Butt-head and King of the Hill, and as the director of Office Space. His recent movie Idiocracy was utterly shafted by the movie companies; it was only shown in seven theaters as part of a contractual obligation. The article makes some intriguing comparisons between these two movies, for example, they’re both set in dystopian futures, were criminally underpromoted, have reluctant heroes as main characters, and feature plots involving failure of humanity to procreate. Idiocracy is a bit more light-hearted though. Now I want to see it.
  • Scientists have discovered the (new) largest living organism on Earth. It is a fungus of the species Armillaria ostoyae that covers 2,200 acres (890 hectares) and is estimated to be over 2,400 years old. The main bulk of the fungus lives underground, although periodically it shoots up mushrooms to spore. It sends out little filaments into trees to sap out the nutrients, which has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of trees. This organism was actually only found because so many trees were dying in one particular area. Genetic testing was used to confirm that all of it was indeed a single organism.
  • A new study finds that 65% of Americans spend more time with their computers than with their spouse. It sounds startling at first, but upon closer examination, it’s not really that unexpected. A computer is really just a tool, and it’s not comparable to interacting with one person. At my job I was spending eight hours a day in front of a computer, much longer than I spend with any one person in a day. I suppose a more interesting metric might be, “Are you spending more time chatting online with other people than do you talking with your spouse?” or “Do you spend more time playing games on a computer than recreating with your spouse?” But just talking about general computer usage isn’t really a useful metric.
  • The Congressional Black Caucus says that whites are not allowed, even if they represent primarily black districts. This seems kind of like shooting oneself in the foot to me. Also, I suppose it qualifies as a form of reverse-racism. I don’t think our highest levels of government should have exclusive clubs whose admittance is based on skin color.
  • Scientists say that they have observed sound waves propagating through a material faster than the speed of light. The article is rather dense, and if you can figure it out, kudos to you. It’s very neat stuff, though it should be pointed out that it’s already known that phase velocities can exceed the speed of light without violating general relativity or causality. You could not use this new technique to send information faster than the speed of light, for instance. As for this latest experiment it demonstrates infinite and faster-than-infinite group velocities (by a quirk of definitions), but it does not demonstrate faster-than-light, but still finite, group velocities.
  • Is Microsoft trying to pay people to edit Wikipedia? An Australian software engineer alleges that he was contacted by Microsoft and offered money to edit Wikipedia articles about document standards. This claim should be taken with a grain of salt, but if true, it does bring up some thorny issues. How many articles on Wikipedia are written by people with vested interests? Wikipedia’s articles on document standards could be improved, so is it really so bad if someone is paid to do it, as long as they do so neutrally? But how can we really be sure? In the interests of full disclosure, I was involved in the blocking of Gregory Kohs, who runs a company called MyWikiBiz. He was charging corporations to write or edit their Wikipedia articles. The resultant articles were somewhat less than neutral, though to be fair, at least they weren’t blatant advertising propaganda. Update: A few hours after writing this I see that the Associated Press has published an interview with Gregory Kohs.

First day of classes; Bioinformatics

Wednesday, January 24th, 2007

Classes started today at the University of Maryland. Also coinciding with the first day of classes is a big home basketball game against Georgia Tech. Here at Maryland, athletics are more important than academics (seemingly), and most of the commuters can’t use their designated parking lots so that fans coming to the game have a place to park near the basketball center. They’re usually good about informing ahead of time that the parking lots are going to be off limits, but since this was the first day of classes, many people (me included) probably didn’t know, and so dozens, if not hundreds, of people got slapped with a $75 parking ticket on the first day of classes. Lame. I was only “lucky” enough not to get a parking ticket because my lot is far away and they had so many vehicles to ticket in the nearer lots that they didn’t even get to me before my class was over and I exited the lot.

I only had one class today, Bioinformatics. This is the first time at Maryland that it is being offered as an undergraduate course. Luckily, I have a good background in it, both from taking biology, genetics, and cellular biology in high school (much of which I still remember), and also from my activities with talk.origins. Unfortunately for them, a lot of people in the class don’t have such deep backgrounds, and so the first class was full of questions by people who don’t understand the Central Dogma of Biology, or even worse, don’t really know what genes, DNA, mRNA, codons, etc. are. I had just kind of assumed that computer science people would know this stuff because I have some sort of weird misconception that compsci people are smart in general about many topics, but you know what happens when you assume …

In hindsight, I don’t know why in the world I figured this gene stuff would be well-understood and that we could quickly move onto the sequencing algorithms and such.

Vista to suck it long and hard

Wednesday, January 24th, 2007

This white paper is an extremely interesting read about the future of computing as envisioned by Microsoft, particularly in relation to what they’re doing with their new Vista operating system. The paper itself is rather long (and a highly recommended read), so here’s the very short summary: Vista is going to suck it longer and harder than Aholah and Aholibah combined. That’s some Biblical suckage right there.

As for the slightly longer summary, Vista is going to have all sorts of Draconian “premium content protection” restrictions that make computers mostly unusable for the average joe. For instance, any output that isn’t crippled with DRM (which pretty much includes everything on the market today) has to be either disabled or degraded in the presence of “premium content”. So, do you have a nice LCD monitor? Prepare for it to look like a 14-year-old CRT if any premium content nears your computer. Have a nice sound system? Well, ready to hear it sound like tin cans on wires? That is, anyway, if it’s not merely disabled outright.

The paper also goes over how Microsoft’s new “features” are going to cripple the rest of the industry by requiring closed standards and such for anything to be compatible with premium content on Vista. This is a sneaky way to try to kill open source: make it so that it can’t even run on any of the new hardware, wait a few years, and bam, it’s dead. Frankly, you really have to go read the entirety of this paper to see how Microsoft is prepared to ream us all a new one. I predict massive backlash against Microsoft and either a loosening of these restrictions with patches or a majority of users simply deciding not to take the plunge. It will be a bad day, however, when new computer manufacturers exclusively sell their PCs with Vista.

This paper also points out how none of the current video cards on the market will even be able to play HD content in Vista because they all lack the “necessary” content protections. Microsoft is so focused on crippling the functionality of each and every computer, while, of course, they’re utterly unable to do anything about the real hackers out there who figure out how to decrypt this content (like muslix64, who hacked both HD-DVD and Bluray). So the normal users are going to be utterly screwed over and the hackers (who I will proudly consider myself a member of) won’t face any of the problems. Does Microsoft really expect users to put up with this?

Second Life has new competition: First Life

Wednesday, January 24th, 2007

GameSpot has a hilarious tongue-not-so-in-cheek review of Real Life. Reading through it, the review is actually very insightful, and it does touch all of the bases of real life. Thinking of real life as a videogame really does help elucidate some of the finer philosophical points that so many people struggle with. I especially like the following two quotes; they are very apt:

The only problem is you’re relegated to playing as a human character, though the game does randomly choose one of several different races for you (which have little bearing on gameplay and mostly just affect appearances and your standing with certain factions).

Player death is a serious issue in real life, and cause for continued debate among players, who often direct unanswerable questions on the subject to the game’s developers, who are apparently (and understandably) so busy that they generally keep silent.

It is somewhat maudlin to think of “real life player death” as “account expiration”, but it is a useful metaphorical tool to help those grasping with death. And hey, if by the time your account expires, you haven’t wringed every last drop of fun out of the game, then you weren’t playing it correctly.

Even more stock scams: IONN, QCPC, and CNWT

Tuesday, January 23rd, 2007

In the past day I’ve received many more of these annoying stock scam email spams, for three different stocks in total. They’re all using the same technique: random word salad combined with stock touting in an image. There’s also coming in with random subject messages and from random return addresses. The spammers are violating email spec here, not that that’s anything new. Luckily Gmail seems to be getting them all these days, so I actually have to dip down into the spam folder to find them.

The three stocks I’ve seen being touted in the past three days are IONN / IONN.OB, QCPC / QCPC.PK, and CNHC / CNHC.PK. All of the spams make outrageous promises about future stock prices (images below), but of course fail to offer up any justification as to how these speculations were made, or what evidence there is to suggest that these companies will magically be doing many times better in the near future.

Looking at the stock trading history, you already would have lost a fair amount of money investing in Ion Networks Inc. (IONN), Quantex Capital Corp. (QCPC), and China Health Management (CNHC). By the way, does anyone else feel like these company names are ripped straight out of dystopian cyberpunk milieus? It’s almost hard to believe that Ion Networks Inc. and Quantex Capital Corp. are companies in the real world, but unless the spammers are really good (to the point of inventing fake companies), I guess I’ll just have to believe it.

Also, does anyone know why, when you type CNHC into Yahoo Finance, it takes you to Cistera Networks Inc. (CNWT.OB), which is something completely different? Frankly, this one fits even better into the dystopian cyberpunk theme, but I cannot for the life of my figure out why Yahoo is redirecting CNHC to CNWT.OB rather than to CNHC.PK.

And that stock PHYA that I wrote about over a month ago is still being touted. Talk about some persistent spamming!

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The State of the Union

Tuesday, January 23rd, 2007

Well, if you trust Bush, the state of the union is swell indeed. However, I don’t trust him, and history shows us that he is wont to make grand promises in these State of the Union addresses, and then completely fails to follow them up. For instance, in this speech he said some words about making sure that all children have cheap and affordable health care, which of course, is something that he actually opposes. The Republicans have given insurance companies money hand over fist, even fighting to prevent the federal government from negotiating medication rates with drug companies for Medicare. In Bush’s world, the only way children have access to health care is if their parents can afford it. Of course, the only real way to give all children access to health care is by socializing health care and creating a national system a la Canada, but of course, Bush isn’t proposing anything of the sort.

Bush also made some meaningless noises about education and No Child Left Behind. He also delivered pretty much the same speech he’s given about terrorism for four years in a row now. The American people aren’t buying this crap anymore. Sorry Bush, but not only do we not think your way is the only way, we also, by and large, don’t think it’s the best way. It’s time to try something else. Like, you know, not torturing, not invading countries on false and manufactured rationales, not indefinitely imprisoning people without charge, not violating the privacy of Americans without a warrant, etc. We’ve had enough of this nonsense, and this speech doesn’t even give a hint that anything is going to change, except for his suggestion of creating a bipartisan group to deal with terrorism. I see this as nothing more than an attempt to have Democrats share in the blame for this current mess we’re in. Because we all know how much attention Bush paid to the most recent bipartisan commission, the Iraq Study Group.

So nothing in this speech impressed me. I heard lots of big promises and few indications that anything is actually going to be done about them. He didn’t really cover the Iraq War in much depth, and isn’t really offering a plan for victory other than this continued unrealistic pipe dream about how we’ll leave once the Iraqis are in control of their country. The situation has only been getting worse over there with time, however. At this rate we’ll be there indefinitely. Twenty thousand more troops sure as hell isn’t enough to make a real difference and fix this deteriorating civil war.

Update two hours later: Wow, it’s worse than I thought. It’s not that Bush doesn’t actually have a real plan for health care; he does have a plan, it’s just absolutely terrible. He wants to start taxing people on health care benefits and then give that money to the health care industry. Supposedly this will some how help everyone get health care; because if the health care industry is making more money, they can help more people, am I right? In actuality, this would just result in higher health care costs and more unemployed Americans. It has nothing at all to do with giving health care to more adults and children and everything with giving a large bald-faced handout to industry. Is this ridiculous or what?

Update 2007-01-25: Okay, it looks like I didn’t understand Bush’s plan on health care from what I heard in the speech. He’s going to offer tax breaks, not tax hikes, on health care. Still, this isn’t really going to help the problem of the large number of uninsured people in this nation because the majority of uninsured people are poor, who are already pay very little taxes, if any. This proposed tax break basically amounts to a large give away of the government’s money to the health care industry, and it would mainly only affect people who are wealthy enough to be paying considerable taxes.

Bush to ignore the real important issues

Tuesday, January 23rd, 2007

I just wanted to get a quick post up before Bush’s State of the Union address, which I’ll be watching in full and possibly commenting on later. CNN has the scoop that Bush’s speech is going to contain talking points on lots of domestic issues, including plans to reduce America’s consumption of gasoline by 20%. It’s hysterical to think of anyone taking anything Bush says about energy conservation at face value, considering his past life as an oil baron and his continued support of and by the petroleum industry.

Even worse than some empty promises about energy issues, however, is what he’s trying to divert attention from. At this point, even he must realize how incredibly unpopular the Iraq War is, and how it has soured America’s opinion of him. I guess he wants to focus on other topics that don’t paint him in such a negative light. Unfortunately for Bush, it’s not going to work. The American people do want real change in our war policy, and Bush isn’t going to give it to them, so he’ll just try to focus on other, less important, issues. A recent poll said that, when asked which issue they thought was most important, 48% of American citizens responded the Iraq War. No other issue even elicited a response in double digits. So Bush’s attempted evasion of the topic tonight is not going to play well with the populace.