Archive for April, 2007

Credit card blues

Sunday, April 29th, 2007

I just got a new credit card today and it came equipped with a feature that I didn’t ask for: a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chip. Basically, RFID can be used so that you can just wave your card at a scanner rather than swiping it through (such a convenience). Also, since it works at a range of up to several meters, it means anyone with a scanner can scarf your information and possibly use your card. With the traditional swipe method, I can be assured that there won’t be any unauthorized charges, because I have to physically take it out of my wallet and swipe it through a reader. RFID, by contrast, could just be charged anytime, anywhere, without me realizing it at all. It wouldn’t even have to be a thief; it could just be some accidental charge at a checkout line.

I got this potentially very insecure feature without even asking for it. Luckily I know enough about this technology to know that I don’t want it, but 90% of the populace probably isn’t. Most people who get this credit card aren’t aware of this feature, which is hidden behind the cute name “blink”. So I called up and asked for a non-RFID replacement card (which will take 7-10 business days), and the drone on the telephone line tried to convince me not to, because they have a “0% fraud liability”. That’s right, apparently because I theoretically ultimately wouldn’t pay for charges when people snarfed my credit card info, I should totally be okay with people stealing through me.

In reality, of course, getting stolen from is a huge hassle to go through with the credit card company. You have to convince them it wasn’t you who bought the goods; since whoever snarfed your information had to be in close physical proximity, when they buy using your account it will also likely be in the same area, and so it won’t look nearly as much like theft as the stereotypical story of “Maryland woman’s credit card number used to buy two surfboards in Hawai’i.” And once your info is stolen, you have to get a new credit card number, which is also a hassle. Plus, I’m not totally selfish. Even if I ultimately don’t end up paying for it, I still don’t want to be benefiting thieves. The credit card company really needs to modify the script that they’re giving to their drones.

Hyattsville websites

Sunday, April 29th, 2007

The world wide web is (surprisingly) doing a lot to bring local communities together. I wouldn’t have ever guessed on my own. It’s just that this phenomenon is so prevalent that I couldn’t help but notice when it happened to me. Here’s what’s up.

Technorati is the largest blog aggregator and tracker on the web. One of its useful services is tracking incoming links. Basically, it will let you know if any of the blogs it tracks link to your own blog. This feature is so useful that it’s integrated transparently into WordPress, so you don’t even have to go to Technorati to see who’s linking to you. It’s always fun to know who’s linking to you and what they’re saying about you. So imagine my surprise when I saw that I had an incoming link from a website called The Hyattsville H4X pointing to my post on the housing crisis at the University of Maryland.

Hyattsville H4X is a weekly hour-long podcast devoted solely to the city of Hyattsville, located in Prince Georges County, Maryland (where I currently reside). I never would have guessed that this medium-sized city would have such a presence online, but it does, and I imagine that increasingly, more and more other communities do as well. So I downloaded and listened to the episode of the podcast whose show notes had linked to my blog, and lo and behold, they were talking about my post and suggesting that Hyattsville would inevitably end up absorbing a lot of displaced UMD students because the city of College Park seems intent on keeping them out.

But this gets back to my original thesis: that the Internet is actually helping to bring local communities closer together. I never would have learned anything on my own about the local government issues I heard discussed on the podcast. Local government is notoriously esoteric: you normally have to go out of your way just to learn what’s going on (let alone affect it). I would guess that easily 95% of people don’t know what’s going on in their local government; very very few would ever go to the City Council and community meetings to find out. But now, with the web, there are people who do it for you, whether it is in the form of blogging or podcasts. Then the average person can simply check a website every once in awhile and they too will know what’s going on. The rise of community-oriented websites is excellent because more involved communities lead to better communities.

After discovering this new podcast to listen to, I decided to check the web for other Hyattsville sites. I had never even thought to search them out prior to discovering Hyattsville H4X; going on to the global Internet to find information on local issues seems counter-intuitive. But it’s an excellent resource. I even found a site called My Hyattsville Wiki. It’s a surprisingly active wiki devoted just to Hyattsville. I suspect this experience isn’t unique to Hyattsville, either — all across the country, thousands of communities are probably organizing and coming together online. So wherever you live, go search online and see what’s out there. You might be pleasantly surprised.

This site has moved

Friday, April 27th, 2007

I’ve moved this site over from one of my personal servers to my paid hosting service. The server that was previously running this site is going offline permanently; it is being replaced by a server that I had colocated at the University, but since I’m graduating soon, that arrangement was going to end sooner or later, so I chose to end it now. Anyway, the old server was hosted off of a residential cable connection whereas the hosting service (the same one running my other blog, Supreme Commander Talk) has a much nicer connection. So you should see faster connection speeds, faster page rendering, and especially, better uptime. I simply cannot run a server as well as professionals with staff on alert 24/7 and a monster net connection.

So if anything has gone wrong during the move between servers, please do tell. I think I got everything though. You don’t need to update bookmarks or anything, as all of the changes should be transparent.

Impressions of Lord of the Rings Online

Thursday, April 26th, 2007

The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar open beta ended today in preparation for the retail release of the game. I played the open beta for a few hours. I didn’t really give myself long enough to get addicted to it, because I don’t want another World of Warcraft situation on my hands. And I don’t feel like paying monthly fees to play games (although you can buy a lifetime membership for $200. Hah!). But I did get a good impression of the game. Here it is.

The game looks, feels, and plays like a World of Warcraft clone. I don’t mean this in a bad way. Clearly, the designers looked at WoW, and said to themselves, let’s make that, but in the LotR universe. And you can’t really fault their logic. WoW is hugely successful, with over 8 million active subscribers. If LotROSoA (it will be fun using this acronym) captures even a fraction of that it will still be profitable. LotROSoA even has the same style of questing, with long continuous quest lines and trivial time-filler missions like “Get me six lynx paws.” The quest items even spawn like they do in WoW: only when you’re on the quest, and only when you haven’t gotten all that you need.

My character was a minstrel, which is basically the LotROSoA equivalent of a healer. The twist on it is that there are different tiers of songs, and they need to be chained together to reach the higher tiers. It makes combat slightly more involved than just hitting the same keys over and over again because you have to build up to bigger spells. I swear I’ve seen this kind of play mechanic somewhere else, though — maybe it was the monk class in EverQuest?

There are some new features, like the ability to “play as a monster”, but that’s not nearly as cool as it sounds. You’re not really playing as a world monster, you’re just playing as an enemy in the Battlegrounds-like zone. Since LotROSoA doesn’t allow you to play as the “evil” factions like orcs and goblins, the only way to get group PVP is to allow players to temporarily take control of enemy characters. Frankly, I think I prefer WoW’s PVP better, where you get to take your own character into combat rather than having to control some anonymous NPC monster half of the time.

My final verdict is, if you like World of Warcraft, you’ll like Lord of the Rings Online. That’s about all there is to it. I’d have to play LotROSoA more to see how much I really like it (something I’m not going to be doing). But I do know that I like the LotR mythos a lot more than the Warcraft mythos, which as far as I can tell, was made up for a computer game and then had its backstory fleshed out a bit. All other aspects being equal, I’d rather play LotROSoA than WoW because of its Tolkieny goodness.

Anti-global warming party

Wednesday, April 25th, 2007

My friend, who is very Catholic, went to an “anti-global warming party” over the weekend hosted by his ultraneoconservative zealot friends from the Catholic Student Union. My friend considers himself somewhat of an environmentalist. Obviously, judging by the type of party his friends hosted, they don’t. Not believing in global warming is one thing (that being ignoring all of the scientific evidence), but actively setting out to harm the Earth is quite another. That’s what these idiots at the party did.

The only cups used at the party were Styrofoam, and attendees made a point of throwing away cups frequently and using new ones on a per-drink basis. They ran the air conditioner at full blast and left all of the doors and windows open to the hot spring night. They even went so far as to buy a bunch of aerosol spray products (hairspray? who knows) and used them incessantly. I guess they’re so busy ignoring science that they missed the part about how it was CFCs that damaged the ozone layer, and that they’ve been highly restricted in the United States for decades (and certainly aren’t used in aerosol sprays).

But here’s the clincher. My friend went to the party with a large trash bag, intent on recycling all of the beer bottles to at least make some saving grace for Mother Earth. They had none of it. He got drunk, and as drunk people are wont to do, he lost track of things, including the bag full of bottles. So one of his “friends” threw it away just to spite him for the high crime of recycling.

To be honest, I didn’t even believe that such an idiotic event could take place upon first hearing about it, but yes, it did happen. These people are so in bed with the ultraneoconservative “global warming is a hoax” crock that they intentionally set out to destroy the environment on Earth Day. Granted, the impact of their juvenile actions was insignificant on a large scale. And I’m sure they’ll probably regret their insipid stunt after they see their electric bills.

Running the air conditioner into the outside air is one thing. Dumping barrels full of industrial waste lead into a local stream would be quite another. I wonder if any of them are so blinded by stupidity that they would do such a thing? Do they really have the guts to go through with causing serious destruction of the environment, or were they just protesting Earth Day in the lamest manner possible?

What the eff is wrong with the South?

Tuesday, April 24th, 2007

Can someone please, for the love of God, explain to me why a public high school in Georgia is racially integrating its prom for the first time? Wasn’t this kind of nonsense supposed to be over at the end of the Civil Rights era? Who even knew that integration had continued to this day in public schools in the Deep South? How in the hell did they even organize “white Proms” and “black Proms” anyway? Was there a penalty if you showed up at the Prom of the wrong race? And what about all those other ethnicities, like the Mexicans and Asians? Which prom did they go to? This whole thing is ludicrous. The only glimmer of hope in all of this insanity is that the practice is finally over.

Honeybees: A science mystery

Sunday, April 22nd, 2007

Honeybees have been mysteriously dying off this past season. The phenomenon, which is being called Colony Collapse Disorder, isn’t merely limited to the United States: the whole world is experiencing it. How such a rapid onset of honeybee death could come up within a single season is a huge science mystery that nobody can yet explain. We have managed to rule out a lot of possibilities: for instance, it’s not typical poisoning, because if it were, dead honeybees would be showing up in the nests. Instead, they are simply vanishing (refusing to go to work?).

This mystery really has my interest piqued and I’m dying to hear the solution to it. If I had to guess, I’d say it has something to do with climate change and global warming. And of course this is a huge problem, because a full one-third of the crops in the United States depend on honeybees for pollination. If all the honeybees disappear there will be serious consequences.

Gore 2008?

Sunday, April 22nd, 2007

I am more excited than a furry at a pet convention. All indications seem to be that Al Gore is ramping up a campaign to run for president in 2008. I’ve long thought Gore was the best candidate the Democratic Party could field in this upcoming election. I have some problems with the electability of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama (not having anything to do with race or gender, surprisingly). My favorite candidate thus far has been John Edwards, who has a nice populist streak and seems to have the best chance in the general election. But Gore would be an even better candidate than Edwards, for many reasons. He has higher name recognition, polling shows that more people like him, and his views more closely align with mine. I am excited at the prospects of a Gore candidacy. Maybe we could get some real solutions for global warming implemented.

They say you can know a lot about a person simply by meeting them in person. On the campaign trail in Los Angeles in 2000, I met the man in person, very briefly, nothing more than a handshake and some words like “Nice meeting you.” He came off as totally different than what the media were vilifying him for back then (they claimed he was uninterested and boring). They were totally wrong then, and after the passion about solving global warming we’ve all been exposed to now, I don’t think anyone will be able to get away with the same stupid jabs.

Breakpoints on streaming video

Saturday, April 21st, 2007

YouTube has been around long enough that it has a significant number of competitors. Some of them are good while some of them aren’t. And many of them are simply unusable. Here’s why.

The amount of bandwidth allocated to the kind of streaming video that Flash players do is not a spectrum of qualities. Either enough bandwidth is provided for the video to run in real time, or not. It’s very much binary. Video services that can’t pump out enough data to view the videos in real time without having to pause for buffering aren’t worth using. YouTube is good because they have enough bandwidth to transfer videos to you at faster than the rate that they play at. Thus, you can spend hours browsing around the site from video to video with a completely uninterrupted viewing experience.

Now compare this to other video sites that have insufficient bandwidth. You load up each video and then have to wait awhile for the site to buffer the video enough so that it can play through uninterrupted. Even worse is when the algorithms used do a poor job of estimating how much data should be buffered before starting playback, and so the video starts playing and uses up all of its buffer before the end of the clip. Then, the video has to be paused, in the middle of whatever the viewer was watching, and re-buffered. RealPlayer became infamous for this “feature” alone.

Exceeding playback throughput with download throughput is the one breakpoint on streaming video that decides whether a video site is good. Of course, really fast data transmission rates are nice, because you don’t have to wait awhile before being able to skip to a later point in the video, but this isn’t nearly as important as simply being able to play the video uninterrupted without a huge wait at the beginning.

Well, there’s one more issue that makes a video site unusable: if they try to force you to view an ad before the video you were interested in starts playing. These sites are the absolute worst, and I always just close the site rather than let them force me to sit through some ads.

Conch shell

Tuesday, April 17th, 2007

I went back to my parents’ house this weekend for dinner. As I idly stood in the family room, I looked out the back door and saw a bleached white conch shell laying unceremoniously on some mulch surrounding the base of a tree. Boy, did it bring back memories.

I first saw that conch shell twelve years ago, on the day that we moved into that house. I was eight years old then, and my sister was six. We were running around in the backyard, exploring our new surroundings, and saw this random conch shell that was some sort of yard decoration. I don’t remember the particulars of it anymore, but I seem to recall that the previous owners brought it back from a vacation, or something, and then left it behind at the house when moving out. So my sister and I got our hands on it.

And naturally, we did what most kids do when they get their hands on something nice: we tried to destroy it. Now, later on in life, I cannot understand that base instinct, but that’s what we did. I remember throwing it against the ground, then against the concrete patio, then beating it with sticks, and finally, trying to bash it in with a rock. We did break off the outer lip of the shell, leaving a jadded edge. But we could do no more damage. That shell is hard, and large. It weighs several pounds. Unable to demolish it like I had originally aimed, I just kind of forgot about it.

We never really did anything special with it after that. It just got moved around repeatedly, used as a base in impromptu games of backyard baseball, buried under a layer of new mulch and then excavated, and more. It wasn’t tied down in any way, and we’d had a copious number of visitors to our backyard over the years, but the conch shell, as attractive as it may be, has always remained within the property lines, and it is there to this day. I suppose when my parents eventually sell the house it will remain, forever a guardian of that backyard.