Archive for May, 2007

This is real life

Monday, May 28th, 2007

I’m in San Francisco right now on a vacation with my family, hence the lack of updates to this blog. The WiFi here is very spotty. I have a post in the works about the ridiculous (yet awesome) academic regalia at my university’s graduation … but that’s not what this post is about, oh no.

We were just at Happy Hour at a restaurant in the Marina District and Robin Williams walked by on his way to rehab (we saw him enter the facility). This is real life.

I’m the kind of person …

Sunday, May 20th, 2007

I’m the kind of person who spends five minutes reading a map just to save one minute driving.

It may sound stupid upon first hearing it, but hear me out and maybe you’ll develop an appreciation of the technique.

It’s very calm sitting in a parking lot reading a map before heading out to go somewhere. You have all the time in the world to plan out your route. Once you get out on the road, it’s hectic, and it’s easy to make mistakes, whether it’s taking the wrong turn or taking your eyes off the road to look at a map at exactly the wrong instant. From an efficiency standpoint, it’s best to plan out your route with the car off, rather than taking a less efficient route once the car is running and the gas is flowing.

But my main reason is just for pure efficiency. So what if I really do gain nothing at present from calculating the optimal route. But what about in the future when I travel between the same two areas, and I know the optimal route without having to look it up? That’s good. If you never look at a map and you always just sort of try to figure the route out as you go, you inevitably end up taking many sub-optimal routes. But take time to plan everything out beforehand, and not only are you optimal on those routes you did plan out, you’re more optimal even on the routes you didn’t plan out, because, with all of that experience looking at the map, you have a much better spatial sense of where everything is laid out and what the general best paths between different areas are.

So pick up that map (or buy one of your local area if you don’t already have one), and just look at it, both now and at some point in the future when you need to go somewhere. I’ve ended up using Google Maps anytime my point of origin is my house, but I still find myself needing to consult a map many times when I’m away from home going from one point to another (or getting back home), and it’s always useful to have that map with me. I don’t mind spending time planning out that optimal route. I do mind taking a sub-optimal route. That’s just the kind of person I am.

And I’m outta here

Wednesday, May 16th, 2007

I just got back from my final exam. I’m done with my undergraduate degree. I just have some graduation ceremonies to attend this weekend and then I’m really done. I’ll be just another college graduate with a degree in computer science heading off into the vast workforce.

As I left my last exam today, I couldn’t help feeling nostalgic as I walked across the campus. It was my last time really walking around the campus — sure, I’ll be back this weekend, but I won’t be carrying my backpack and educational materials, so it won’t really count. I started getting stupidly sentimental, such as thinking to myself, “Oh, this is the last time I walk up the steep hill in front of the Engineering Building” and such. But it’s true nonetheless. I spent the last four years of my life here, going through all the trials and tribulations of a college career, and now I’m heading off, permanently. I’ll miss this place, but at the same time, I’m glad that it’s over. I didn’t put four years of my life into this to not be in the position I’m in right now.

The antiscience of luck

Monday, May 14th, 2007

I don’t think there’s anything to luck other than boosted self-confidence. I think of myself as a scientist; empiricist; rationalist. So I don’t believe in anything that cannot be demonstrated empirically. Thus, I have no use for religion and superstition. This isn’t to say that I don’t see beauty in the world; far from it. But I shouldn’t see luck.

I have two final exams left to go and I’ll graduate. My first final was this morning; the subject was Cryptography. Driving to campus, I was a little bit unnerved. I didn’t study as much as I should have for this exam, and I was starting to second guess myself. But then a curious thing happened. As I walked through the parking lot, I spotted a $10 bill on the ground. Talk about a lucky find. It was the most free money I’ve ever randomly found. I don’t believe in luck because I’m an empiricist, but damned if I didn’t feel lucky. I couldn’t help myself.

There’s some irrational part of our brains that has more of a hold on us than we’d like to admit. And as much as a part of my brain was saying “It’s just a coincidence, it doesn’t mean anything,” another part of my brain wasn’t having any of it. It was telling me that this was a good omen. Eventually the former part of my brain, the “logical” part of my brain, gave in, realizing there’s no reason not to believe in good luck. So I was riding a luck high, thinking to myself that nothing bad could happen to me today.

And what do you know, I walked into that exam, confident as can be, and aced it. I know so because he handed out answer sheets as soon as you turned in your exam, and I got everything correct except for a single character error on one sub-part of one question (I said an operation on elliptic curves was multiplication when in fact that operation is defined as addition).

So, purely for pragmatic concerns, I suppose I can allow myself to believe in good luck. Not on any sort of higher level of thinking, of course, but just in an indefinable fuzzy feel-good manner. No harm can come of it, and it does serve as a nice confidence booster. The only problem is that real “signs” of good luck are very rare. I cannot think of another instance in even the past year when I ran across such a clear, no buts about it sign of good luck.

I just need to continue to use my upper-level thoughts to refuse to believe in bad luck on any level, which I’ve so far done quite nicely. Yes, I do refrain from breaking mirrors, but then again, I refrain from breaking many things, especially those things that turn into many sharp shards when broken. And I don’t walk beneath ladders, but again, that has nothing to do with bad luck: it’s just a dumb thing to do. I’ve seen one ladder collapse in my lifetime and I’m sure as hell glad I wasn’t standing beneath it when it happened.

AMD announces open source GNU/Linux drivers for its video cards

Sunday, May 13th, 2007

Color me excited. AMD, the microprocessor company that is Intel’s chief competition and recently bought ATI, one of two major players in the graphics gard market, has announced that it will release open source drivers for its line of video cards. This is excellent, excellent news. Let me try to explain what this means to the non-techie audience.

The main thrust behind the GNU/Linux movement is free, open source, libre software. This means you can see the source code, you can redistribute the source code, you can modify the source code, and you can redistribute those modifications. Needless to say, the ramifications of these freedoms are extensive, and are the major cause for GNU/Linux’s current success. By 1992 Richard Stallman and the GNU project had put together all of the major components of a totally free operating system except for the kernel. With the addition of the Linux kernel to GNU in 1992, forming GNU/Linux, the world saw its first completely free modern operating system.

Unfortunately, there’s been a bit of backslide as of late. You can run your completely free operating system, but you won’t get very good performance out of your video cards. This is because up until now, ATI and nVidia, the only real players in the high-performance graphics card market, have not released free versions of their graphics card drivers, nor have they released the specifications on how to create our own drivers. So reverse-engineered free drivers are out there, they are just bad, and don’t take good advantage of any of the added power in the last few generations of graphics cards. So if you want to play a recent 3D commercial videogame under GNU/Linux, you really do need to use the proprietary drivers.

But the proprietary drivers have their own disadvantages. They aren’t as high quality as the Windows or Mac OS X drivers, but without the source code, we cannot fix their flaws. And they force us to do certain things that we do not wish done: for instance, the nVidia proprietary driver forces video-out output to enable Macrovision DRM, which degrades video quality. Those of us accustomed to using free software are driven crazy by this kind of nonsense, because, with free software, you have the freedom and the ability to modify the source code exactly as you see fit, so the software only does what you want it to do, and it certainly doesn’t do what a corporation is trying to force you to do if you don’t want it.

Thus, I am overjoyed by AMD’s announcement of upcoming open source drivers for their graphics cards. This will be a huge boon to free software everywhere. 3D applications (especially games) will run with much better performance. The only thing we need to watch out for is AMD’s clever use of the phrase “open source” rather than free. Open source does not always mean free, as Richard Stallman has pointed out. Microsoft has released some of its code under its own “open source” licenses, which don’t actually allow the essential free software freedoms, like being able to redistribute ones modifications. If AMD releases their drivers in a truly free way, that will be excellent. If they release it “open source” but with non-free restrictions, it will be rubbish. I’m hoping they go the free route, and once they do, nVidia will really have no choice but to follow suit.

I could’ve killed someone

Thursday, May 10th, 2007

Two nights ago, a woman was struck and killed on Route 193 near the University of Maryland campus. I was driving home from the Weird Al Yankovic concert at the time and I basically followed a blaring fire truck and ambulance to the scene of the accident (which is on my way home). I got there only a few minutes after police had arrived and started shutting down the scene. Not a minute after I got there a cop came along and told us few cars that were stuck behind the emergency vehicles to turn around. So I ended up having to take the long way home.

The scary part, though, is that I could’ve killed that woman. She was standing in the middle of the freaking highway, which is not lighted on that particular stretch. Had the concert ended just ten minutes earlier, who knows, she might be splattered on my car rather than the other driver’s. The driver isn’t being charged with anything, which makes sense, but still, it has to feel pretty crappy to know that you killed someone. I’m really glad it wasn’t me who ran her over.

Challenging eating

Thursday, May 10th, 2007

Eating is all too often a boring activity. Where’s the excitement? Yet eating is pretty mandatory, so you might as well have try to have some fun with it. I like turning eating into a challenge. The most natural challenge would just be to eat as much as possible, but of course, that’s a really bad idea. The next best thing is to try eating really spicy foods, which is what I’ve been doing. This isn’t nearly as bad as you think. Capsaicin, the chemical in peppers that makes them spicy, interacts with neurons to produce a burning sensation but has no other effects. So spicy foods don’t give you heartburn or the runs, despite the common misconceptions.

Two months ago I was overjoyed to discover that my local supermarket sells fresh habanero peppers by the pound (thank you, large Latino community). I’ve been buying a lot of them ever since and using progressively more and more in my cooking. Today I made chicken stir fry with spicy szechuan sauce and two whole fresh habanero peppers, diced into small bits. Needless to say, it was insanely spicy. Habaneros are the spiciest peppers commonly available; they are rated at 100,000-350,000 Scoville units (the Scoville scale is used to measure spiciness of peppers). JalapeƱo peppers, in comparison, come in at a wimpy 2,500-8,000 Scoville units, so low that I can eat them raw without even coughing. Just cooking the habanero-laced stir fry is risky. Some of the capsaicin vaporizes in the wok and escapes as steam. Accidentally inhale some of that and you’ll have a hacking/coughing/sneezing fit. You’ll also experience what it feels like to have burning lungs. Nevermind how badly your tears will tear it.

Eating insanely spicy foods is a challenge, but it is exhilarating. I can’t really explain it, but it’s almost like I get a habanero high from eating really spicy food. I get light-headed, my heart starts racing, I’m panting heavily, and my mouth is screaming out in agony, saying no more, no more — but the overall experience is pleasurable. I suppose you have to be a fellow enjoyer of really spicy foods to understand what I’m describing.

The upside of eating really spicy food at home is that I never, ever wimp out when I’m eating out. No one running a food establishment is insane enough to make foods as spicy as what I make for myself, so I can always eat any spicy food that I might run across in restaurants and at social functions. You can definitely build up a tolerance to capsaicin, a training regimen which I would highly advise. You don’t want to be like my sister — even dishes at Chinese restaurants labeled on the menu with one red pepper are too spicy for her, and as a result, she can’t eat a good chunk of the menu at any typical restaurant. It’s a shame, and she has no idea what she’s missing. I, on the other hand, can go to a restaurant and order anything of the menu regardless of spiciness, and that is truly liberating.

Weird Al Yankovic concert in Baltimore

Wednesday, May 9th, 2007

I saw Weird Al in concert last night in Baltimore. I haven’t been to any concerts in a while, and the first one I go to is Weird Al. It was fun, despite the venue being too-packed and it hard to find a spot to even see the stage. Weird Al is still very enthusiastic about his music, and he wore lots of different costumes, including a big prosthetic fat-suit for the parody of the Michael Jackson song that put him on the map. He also had a surprising amount of pre-recorded footage, a lot of it being fake spliced up interview with celebrities. I guess he needed lots of time for costume changes.

My favorite song, though, was Trapped in the Drive-Thru. Yesterday before the concert I was listening to a lot of Led Zeppelin and then switched over to listen to Weird Al’s new album Straight Outta Lynwood for the first time. In the middle of Trapped in the Drive-Thru, the character in the song turns on the radio, and a part of the song Black Dog by Led Zeppelin plays. Of course, I was scrambling around in my mp3 player software wondering if I hit a bad button and it skipped the Weird Al and went back to Led Zeppelin, but no, that’s part of the song! It’s played by Weird Al’s actual band (rather than just being a recorded clip), and seeing them perform it live, it was pretty awesome.

And after leaving the venue we were traveling in a long stream of people heading to the parking garages. Two guys were just kind of hanging out and asked what all these people were coming from. I said to him “Weird Al Yankovic concert” and screamed “Yeeahhhh!!” while giving the Devil’s horns. His reaction was great. I don’t think I could have made up a funnier answer.

Religion kills 32 at Virginia Tech

Sunday, May 6th, 2007

Okay, so it’s not entirely religion’s fault, but religion definitely did have something to do with it. New details are emerging about Seung Hui Cho from his family. They knew he was in a bad place and that being away at college was isolating him even further from the only real people he ever got along with, his family. In the summer before his fatal Senior year, his family went around to various churches seeking help for Cho. That’s right, rather than going to a real psychologist who can, you know, actually do something, they went around to a bunch of fakers who said Cho’s problem was demonic possession and that his mental illness could be cured by “spiritual power”. I so wish I was kidding about this.

I really wish religions would keep their noses out of places they don’t belong. Mental health situations are clearly not places where religions belong. Every time a religious person says that religion can cure real illnesses, we need to laugh at them and point them to the error of their ways. Exorcisms and “spiritual healing” never cure anything. Instead, they prevent people from seeking the real medical treatment that they so desperately need. In most cases the only person affected is the gullible one who believes in the religion’s non-existent healing powers, but Virginia Tech is proof that sometimes, tragically, other people are affected as well. So the onus is on all of us to stop this religious hocus-pocus, because it’s good for us as well as for them.

A Day in the Bay

Saturday, May 5th, 2007

These past four years I’ve been in the Gemstone Program at the University of Maryland. It’s a four-year undergraduate research program. We’ve finished up, having completed the project, our final presentation, and thesis paper. Our project was to design and make an educational computer game to teach ecology to fourth and fifth graders using the Chesapeake Bay as a model ecosystem. Our final product is called A Day in the Bay, and it is available for download from SourceForge. I put it up on SourceForge so that it continues to be accessible following our graduation, and in case there is anyone out there who would like to continue development.