Archive for February, 2007

Yeouch, these are some tough reviews

Sunday, February 25th, 2007

One of my fellow Diamondback opinion columnists is being raked over the coals in online comments posted on her latest opinion column. I guess I’m lucky; either people don’t comment on my columns at all, or the ones who do comment have some absurd argument and they quickly get rebutted by people with more sense. Let’s look at these comments for a second:

are you for serious? another drinking column!?!?!

Wow. Another award winning, hard pressing journalistic masterpiece by Olivia Logan.

By your last articles, something tells me you’re not giving up alcohol for lent. You might die if you did.

You should giv eup your Diamondback Column for Lent. Svae yourself the embarrassment and the readers several minutes of their time from reading your “lists”.

Dear Olivia,
Here is a cordial invitiation to join one of our [Alcoholics Anonymous] programs seeing as every single article you have ever written for your column has some ridiculous allusion to alcoholism. There comes a point in life where talking about handles and how hammered you get isn’t cool anymore. It’s about age 17.

Olivia Logan, leading the race in most pointless articles in the diamondback. By far.

Diamondback, have you nothing to offer me other than this dribble? Nothing?

stop writing, pick a new major

Your column one giant pile of crap. Please discontinue.

Ouch, now that is harsh. Although somewhat undeserved. I think they do have a point though; Olivia should tackle some more serious topics rather than writing predominantly about fluff. And she really does talk about drinking too often. I really hope her next column is more serious. Hopefully she’s listening to some of this criticism, even if it is a bit gruff.

However, these comments are nothing new, so I’m not optimistic that anything will change. Just look at this comment on her eighth most recent column:

I had no idea your house situation was so uncomfortable for you. I so hope it is much better now!
But, my darling daughter, I have read 5 of your articles and every one involves a story around alcohol consumption. Maybe you could lessen that a bit to sound more professional.
Love, Mom :) [Probably not really her mother]

The generals won’t have war with Iran

Sunday, February 25th, 2007

Well this is unexpected. A fair number of United States generals and admirals would apparently rather resign than carry out orders to attack Iran. Are we finally going to get some sanity on this issue from the most unlikeliest of places? If you’re Bush, you know you’re losing control when your orders to go to war aren’t even carried out by your designated war fighters, let alone the huge resistance from the vast majority of American society.

2008 is looking really good right about now. I live in perpetual fear that Bush will do something else really stupid before he leaves office (one way or the other …).

At least our fighters are capable of attacking Iran, anyway. You don’t have to cross the International Date Line to reach Iran …

Second Life goes nuclear

Sunday, February 25th, 2007

Yahoo is running a ridiculously-framed story about “virtual nuclear terrorism” in Second Life:

SAN FRANCISCO (AFP) – In an explosive display, virtual-world banes now mirror the havoc of the real one as terrorists have launched a bombing campaign in Second Life.

People controlling animated avatar members of a self-proclaimed Second Life Liberation Army (SLLA) have set off computer-code versions of atomic bombs at virtual world stores in the past six months — with their own manifesto.

The SLLA claims to be an “in-world military wing of a national liberation movement” devoted to replacing the rule of Second Life creator Linden Labs with a democracy representing the nearly four million residents.

There are a lot of misconceptions here that need addressing. I’ve spent a bit of time in Second Life, so I guess I know what’s going on there, at least moreso than the AFP’s reporters. For one, this isn’t terrorism, it’s simply a protest. Real terrorism is so vile, deadly, and damaging I don’t think it’s even appropriate to use the word in reference to events in a virtual world that only last a minute and cause no lasting damage. The proper term for this is “griefing”. Terrorism doesn’t even begin to enter into it. It’s like comparing an online troll to the Nazis. It’s very offensive to the millions of people who had relatives killed in the Holocaust. Likewise, I’m sure a mourning family in Iraq would stare daggers at you if you referred to events in Second Life as “terrorism”, because they know what terrorism really is.

I’ve had it up to here with the news media treating every little thing that happens in virtual worlds as if it has parallels to the real world. No it doesn’t! Yes, so a few people have made lots of money out of Second Life. For all of the rest of the players, however, it really is just a game. If someone is griefing the grid with “nukes”, replicating objects, or whatever else is hot these days, you can simply log out for a little while and go play a different game until the attackers are inevitably banned. It’s not a big deal. It’s happened all the time. There have already been so many more destructive griefer attacks against the grid in the form of replicating objects, and nobody called those terrorism.

It’s just because we’re using this silly word “nuke”. It’s not a nuke on any level. Second Life is only programmed with Newtonian physics. It has no concept of nuclear physics. For that matter, it has no concept of even normal explosions, either. All that any “bomb” in Second Life really is is an object that is packaged together with some graphics and sound (to fake the explosion) and a push script that pushes everyone within a certain radius (and in a combat-enabled zone, also deals damage to them). That’s it. All a “nuke” in Second Life is is a normal faux bomb with the radius turned up to the maximum and a different set of graphics.

I’ve been nuked before in Second Life, and surprise surprise, it didn’t make the news. This was months ago. I was in a combat zone and this guy was showing off his weapons package. It had eighteen different ammunition types, all of which were pretty unique. For instance, one ammo type shot expanding balls of ooze that trapped avatars in place, another type of ammo was a net, another was exploding ammunition, etc. And of course, one type of ammo was a nuke, which is basically the best griefer weapon ever, because it throws you dozens of kilometers into the air and more likely than not also crashes out your client. That is if you don’t have the weapons package, of course, as the weapons package contains an anti-push script, so its user isn’t affected by bombs or nukes at all. This weapons package, incidentally, can be bought for L$2000 (~US$8) at in-game stores. It’s basically just a well put-together program that people buy and use for fun in the combat zones. It’s not even illegal within the game so long as you use it within combat zones; go outside of the combat zones and use it on the main continent to grief people, however, and the Lindens may want a word with you.

So you see, this whole “nuking” incident really isn’t a big deal whatsoever. All that happened is that people took a commercially-available script and used it outside of combat zones on the main continent as a part of their protest. Yes, their accounts may be facing some sanctions for it. No, it’s no terrorism, and more importantly, it’s not news. I hung out with some real griefers and I saw attacks far, far worse, such as infinitely replicating, bouncing, realistic-looking penises. Why didn’t the news media pick up on that? Because it doesn’t fit our conventional definitions about what terrorism looks like?

Addendum: Dr. Dobb’s just put up a great Second Life scripting tutorial.

Virginia apologizes for slavery

Saturday, February 24th, 2007

Virginia has become the first state to officially apologize for slavery. A day late and a dollar short? Or how about a few centuries late and billions short? Sigh. At this point I don’t even see why they’re bothering to apologize. Everyone who could’ve personally actually wanted an apology is long dead. Now they’re just making themselves look deprecating. “Yeah, sorry about that slavery thing, we know this apology comes many decades too late, but we just wanna say, our bad. Won’t happen again.”

NASA’s brilliant psychotic astronaut plan

Saturday, February 24th, 2007

You have to give NASA credit for thinking everything through. Even what to do if an astronaut has a breakdown in space (as opposed to, say, Florida). NASA’s plan is ingenuously simple: the crazed astronaut is to be bound, hand and foot, with duct tape, tied up to a wall, and injected with tranquilizers (that is, the astronaut cannot be coerced into swallowing tranquilizers in tablet form).

I know a lot of people are making fun of NASA for this, but they really shouldn’t be. This is the optimal solution. They already have tape on space shuttles and the International Space Station for other reasons. Using what’s already there is better than carrying handcuffs, which weigh more and aren’t useful for anything else. It’s comforting to know that NASA has a contingency plan for pretty much everything.

The fun (and challenge) of Supreme Commander

Saturday, February 24th, 2007

(Cross-posted to Supreme Commander Talk.)

So I’ve been writing a lot about Supreme Commander lately. For that I will make no apologies. It’s an awesome, excellent, ground-breaking game, and search phrases related to Supreme Commander are number one in my Apache logs right now, so lots of people are reading the Supreme Commander posts.

I’m playing through the campaign mode on hard right now, and since I don’t have too much time to dedicate to the game, it’s going somewhat slowly. I’m only on UEF mission 5 (I haven’t even touched the Cybran or Aeon campaigns yet). I’m nearly done with mission 5 though. And what ridiculous fun it is! I’m on my second-and-a-half try, and I’m finally going to beat it. The hard campaign is such insane fun. Yeah, in Supreme Commander, you actually do lose fairly often, and you have to replay missions and tweak your strategies to finally pull out a win. If you like waltzing through videogames with nary a challenge then the hard campaign isn’t for you. But I’m having my best gaming experience in years on the hard campaign.

Let me give an overview of mission 5 for those who haven’t played it. You start off with a large, developed base with three outlying bases (but an utter lack of any defenses). Almost immediately you come under attack by enemy land forces and planes. The only way I was able to survive past this point was to pause the mission at the very beginning to spend about five minutes setting up construction queues for building defensive emplacements. There isn’t a second to waste on this map.

After this, the Aeons start trying to nuke you. You only even get the construction schematic for anti-nukes after they’ve already tried to nuke you for the first time (luckily, you start off with one anti-nuke covering your main base). After that, they start trying to nuke you in volleys of three. So you have to frantically get those anti-nukes up and running before the first volley comes in. On easy, I imagine they give you a lot of time to get ready for the nukes before the first volley. On hard, it’s a race down to the seconds to get those anti-nukes up in time, even when you’re pooling all of your resources into them (I had ten construction units building each anti-nuke and still barely made it). The first time playing through the mission, I didn’t make it on time, and I was hit by three separate nukes and had to restart. I ended up playing the game on an average speed of about -5 (the scale of speeds goes from -10 to +10). Without slowing down the game significantly, there simply isn’t enough time to coordinate all of the simultaneous defensive and construction efforts that are necessary. This is one of the huge strengths of Supreme Commander: it’s about strategy rather than trying to do as much micro-management as possible under severe time constraints (like pretty much every other RTS). You can take all the time in the world, but if your strategy isn’t up to par, you’re hosed.

What makes this mission so insidious is that as you’re furiously trying to construct the anti-nukes, the AI is also sending a large (50+) unit army at you. So not only do you have to build lots of nukes, you also have to have a lot of defensive emplacements, and you have to plan out the layout really effectively, because the resource crunch doesn’t allow you to make nearly as many as you would like. On my first play-through I had focused enough on the defenses but ended up getting nuked. On my second play-through I had focused too much on the anti-nukes and my base ended up getting stomped by the invading army. There is a perilous balance between the two that I finally ended up finding on my second-and-a-half play-through (having not restarted all the way back to the beginning of the mission). The ground force was able to destroy a lot of my buildings, but I did end up repelling them and the inbound nukes.

The most frightening moment was a race that went down to the last second with the enemy forces closing in and my commander and four Tech III construction units frantically working to get a Heavy Shield building up in time. I even had to divert resources away from the anti-nukes (by pulling ten construction units away from building them) to get the shield up in time. It finally came online about five seconds after the front line of the invading army starting coming into range and destroying my defensive buildings. Luckily, they didn’t take out the shield before it was complete, and it came online and lasted long enough for me to successfully repel the attackers, albeit with heavily casualties (including, eventually, the shield generator itself).

Oh, and while all of this is going on, the AI is also sending large numbers of fighters and gunships at you, so if you somehow haven’t also found the time or resources to build lots of SAM missile launchers and flak cannon at each of four separate bases, you’re screwed.

After you get your anti-nukes up and running you need to counter-attack the Aeon bases and destroy the nukes. Luckily, two of the nukes are within artillery range of one of your bases, so I was able to polish them off by building four artillery pieces. I also built another ten or so artillery pieces distributed throughout my bases to help whittle down incoming assaults, as well as over one fifty Tech II point defense towers.

At this point I finally started to come out of my ridiculous resource crunch (had everything I was building been going at full speed, it would’ve used four times as much mass as I actually had coming in). The enemy was still coming through with an army periodically and wiping out parts of my main base, but it was just the defensive emplacements, and I had enough time in between attacks to rebuild them. Finally I started getting an army together. It consisted of about 100 Tech III units. I sent it against the final Aeon base, the one with the last remaining nuke launcher that was out of artillery range. I met an Aeon army along the way and took heavy casualties. Then I assaulted the base and took 100% casualties. But I did manage to destroy their nuke launcher and most of their defensive emplacements, so the assault was a success.

Sort of. I didn’t actually manage to destroy any of their unit-producing factories, so they were still regularly constructing large armies to assault my base with, causing casualties each time. And in mission 5, once you destroy the final nuke launcher, the battlefield expands to reveal five Cybran bases, two of which have super-long-range Tech III artillery within range of your base.

The next fifteen or so minutes were so frantic I don’t remember much about how I possibly survived. I just know that I hastily put together a smallish army to go assault the Cybran artillery bases while my own bases were getting chewed up by the continual Aeon threat that I had failed to eliminate. The Cybrans also start their own land and air assaults. It was, in a word, unfair. Here you are in the middle of the map, surrounded by enemies on all sides who are attacking you with large armies and pounding your bases and units with artillery.

But somehow I managed to survive, and I used my land armies to take out the two Cybran artillery bases while only suffering moderate casualties to my defensive infrastructure. Then, my commanders back on Earth authorized me to use nuclear weapons. Yeah, you can imagine the wide grin I was wearing at that point. I quickly finished building a nuclear launcher by putting twenty construction units on it and having my commander reclaim the husks of hundreds of dead enemy units that had attacked my base. It was at that point last night that I saved and went out to spend time with my friends.

But I am going back into that game right now and I am going to nuke those enemy bases to high holy hell.

So that’s what the hard campaign is like. If you’ve played the game, you know exactly what I’m talking about. If you haven’t played the game, maybe you’ll consider buying it. I can only offer up my highest recommendations: that it’s the most cerebral, frenetic, challenging, and tactical gaming experience I’ve had since Total Annihilation.

Oscars to launch Gore’s 2008 presidential campaign?

Friday, February 23rd, 2007

Oh, how I wish this one to be true. CNN is speculating that if Al Gore were going to run for president in 2008, the Oscars would be the best time to announce. You can’t really deny that logic; the Oscars are watched by, what, a billion people? It really is the optimal place to announce a candidacy (or perhaps the Super Bowl …). Al Gore is the odds-on favorite to win best documentary for An Inconvenient Truth, so he presumably will be having some time at the podium.

Unfortunately, all of the signs I’ve seen point to Al Gore not running for president in 2008 (and I have some Democratic insider sources). If he really does announce this Sunday it will come as a surprise to everyone. I do think he’ll be making political statements regarding the topic of his movie, global warming, but I really don’t foresee political statements of a candidacy nature. I’d love to be wrong on this though.

How much is your blog worth?

Friday, February 23rd, 2007

My blog is worth $5,645.40.
How much is your blog worth?

I would really like to know where in the world they get these numbers from. To be perfectly honest, when I typed my URL into the script, I was expecting it to tell me this blog was worth about $20. But $5,645.40?! Don’t be ridiculous.

So far I’ve made a grand total of $6.99 using Google AdSense in the better part of a month. That’s the only monetization I’m seeing out of this site (and it doesn’t even cover the server’s electric bill). That’s a far, far cry from the 4-figure value this blog is supposedly worth. How do I get my hands on that kind of money? Are there really people out there looking to buy up smallish blogs for thousands of dollars? The very notion is ludicrous.

If someone really does want to buy this blog for $5,645.40, though, I can’t really see myself refusing. By the way, Pharyngula is supposedly worth $1,212,631.92 by these “metrics”.

Why I’m not excited about Microsoft Windows Vista

Friday, February 23rd, 2007

Microsoft Windows Vista has been out long enough for all of us to get some perspective on it. The over-optimistic sales forecasts are in the past and it’s settling in for the long haul. Make no mistake, in the long run, you don’t have any choice about eventually using Vista, just as, say, using Windows 98 wasn’t really a viable choice a year ago versus using Windows XP. All new computers are going to be coming with Vista (unless you get a Mac or choose Linux), so you’ll end up using it eventually. But you should hold off from upgrading until absolutely necessary. Vista has a lot of downsides.

For one, I previously commented on how Vista has draconian Digital Rights Management in an age when most companies are moving away from DRM. But Vista is also rather expensive, especially if you want all of the cool stuff that really makes Vista worthwhile. That article lists lots of other problems with Vista, and recommends against upgrading.

Microsoft also oversold Vista’s security. The Register has an article detailing Vista’s new security features and identifying possible future flaws. Basically, Vista still doesn’t do as good of a job of compartmentalizing system stuff from user stuff as, say, ten-year-old Unix. So we’re inevitably going to continue to see Windows security flaws far into the future. Sigh. It could have been much better.

Robotic collaboration on the net

Friday, February 23rd, 2007

I already wrote about how there are too many fracking bots on the Internet. Bots have downloaded twice as many pages on Cyde Weys Musings as people in February, with many thousands of hits each from the big three search engines Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo.

So I’m wondering, why can’t Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo collaborate? The reason they need to crawl the Internet at all (rather than just my blogging software updating them each time an entry is posted, edited, or commented on) is because they cannot trust individual individual sites. Spammers are always trying to break the rules, and if the search engines didn’t even come out to crawl sites they’d be overloaded with false information.

So that explains the need for crawling, but it doesn’t explain why Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft will all crawl the same page within hours of each other (when it’s extremely unlikely that anything has changed). That’s just wasted traffic. Whereas they can’t trust individual sites, they can certainly trust each other (or effectively deal with an abuse of that trust if necessary). For each page that they would crawl, rather than hitting the site immediately, the crawler should automatically ask its two peer search institutions if they’ve crawled the page recently, and if so, just transfer the crawled page data directly rather than having to make another hit on the site’s webserver.

This would also save Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft lots of money in bandwidth, because they could make their own dedicated internet for communicating web crawl data. This traffic would be much cheaper than traffic on the Internet. It would make owners of individual sites a lot happier too, because they’d be paying less for bandwidth while still being kept updated in the three major search engines.

Or Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft could go a step further. They could go in three ways on a colossal data center which would do all of the crawling. Then they’d have individual (massive) connections into the database of crawled pages, and could request re-crawls as necessary. Each crawled page would be immediately accessible to all three of them, saving individual sites’ bandwidth. They could even sell access to the crawled pages to other lesser search engines, recouping some of their costs.

Unfortunately, this has about a snowball’s chance in hell of succeeding. Even though it would be beneficial to each company in the form of lower bandwidth expenses and fewer required servers, the companies will never go for it because it would require cooperation. Each probably thinks they can come out on top eventually, and they’re not going to want to go in on a deal that helps them because it’s also helping their competitors.

It’s too bad. My server was looking for some relief from the constant pounding. And a single centralized bot cluster on the net would really be a nifty thing.