Archive for June, 2007

Religious cult preying on vulnerable, lonely college students

Friday, June 29th, 2007

There’s a great article in The Diamondback, University of Maryland’s independent student newspaper, about how the University Bible Fellowship cult preys on vulnerable and lonely college students. They don’t even pull any punches about using the “c” word either. For those not in the know, UBF is an extremist evangelical organization founded in Korea in 1961. It operates exactly like a cult, with the cult leaders making all of the cult members dependent on them for making life decisions (Christianity is the bait). They also dissuade members from associating with non-members and eventually even want you to move into their building, where you work the majority of your time for free sustaining the cult.

Members have recruiting quotas that they have to meet, and you’ll frequently see members (mostly Koreans) on campus, soliciting random strangers to come to Bible study. Now it never worked on me, because I’m not Christian, and my standard response for getting out of these kinds of things is “I’m Jewish”, which disturbingly evokes a vague reaction of disgust. Now, when the Jews come after me, I don’t really have a throw-away excuse available and have to go with the truth, so I say “I’m atheist.” But I digress.

The funny thing about this UBF article in The Diamondback is that you can just feel a palpable sense of fear emanating from the direction of the UBF building around here. You just know one of the members caught it in The Diamondback, read it, eyes slowly growing wide with horror, and then ran back to the church to tell the superiors. The UBF even has a somewhat coordinated response; they seem to be ordering their members to go to the article and leave favorable messages about the group. However, they’re met in equal numbers of uncoordinated, random people detailing their horrific experiences with the group.

UBF is the kind of organization that sucks your life away. You don’t associate with anyone outside of it, and once you become serious about it, you actually move into a church dormitory and spend all of your time doing free work for the church: recruitment, maintenance, cooking, etc. Christianity is only a tertiary concern. Surely nobody can be surprised that religion, which encourages a mindset of blind devotion and taking things on faith, would lead people right into the hands of exploitative cultists.

Anonymous editor gets wrestler suicide scoop on Wikipedia

Wednesday, June 27th, 2007

Here’s quite an amazing edit on Wikipedia, in which an anonymous person, editing from the IP address 69.120.111.23, modifies the article on Chris Benoit to read “However, Chris Benoit was replaced by Johnny Nitro for the ECW Championship match at Vengeance, as Benoit was not there due to personal issues, stemming from the death of his wife Nancy” (editing addition in italics). In case you hadn’t yet heard, Chris Benoit was a WWE wrestler who pumped his seven-year-old son full of non-prescription hormones for several weeks, then killed his wife and his son in a murder-suicide. This edit to Wikipedia was a full half day before these horrific events were reported by police to the media.

So who was anonymously editing the article with information that wasn’t known to the public yet? Chris Benoit himself? One of those friends that he sent text messages to after killing his family but before offing himself? Another edit an hour later by a different anonymous IP address, 125.63.148.173, reveals more information, modifying the article to read “However, Chris Benoit was replaced by Johnny Nitro for the ECW Championship match at Vengeance, as Benoit was not there due to personal issues which according to several pro wrestling websites is attributed to the passing of Benoit’s wife, Nancy” (addition in italics).

So, is it possible that wrestling fansites knew what had gone down a full twelve hours before anyone else did? If so, where did they get this information from? This requires further investigation, and indeed, Wikimedia Foundation Volunteer Coordinator Cary Bass says that he has already contacted the proper authorities. Unfortunately, it won’t be nearly so easy to track this down on wrestling fansites as it would be on Wikipedia, as every edit on Wikipedia leaves an entry in the page’s history that is associated with a timestamp. Unless someone finds some discussions in wrestling forums that are marked with timestamps, anyway.

Update, June 28: Looks like the Associated Press is carrying this story now. Nyah nyah, scooped you guys by a day. Fox News also has a story.

Update, June 29: The anonymous user is claiming this was just an unfortunate coincidence.

Hope on the horizon for HIV/AIDS

Wednesday, June 27th, 2007

At least it’s not all grim news with HIV/AIDS. Scientists have identified a population of people who are immune to HIV/AIDS. They simply cannot be infected by it, no matter how often they are exposed. And since the people they’ve identified with this immunity are long-serving prostitutes in African countries suffering from severe infection rates of the disease, you can be pretty sure that they are exposed to HIV on a daily basis.

The immunity very likely exists in the general population at the same rate that it does in the prostitute population, but one isn’t very likely to notice it in non-prostitutes, as most non-prostitutes who don’t have HIV/AIDS don’t have it because they have simply never been exposed, not because they are immune. But this does provide a great hope for eventually curing HIV/AIDS. As we’ve seen time and time again, there is no disease that is fatal to 100% of the population. There’s always going to be some segment of the population who are immune to any given disease, and figuring out why this is the case is oftentimes the secret to curing the part of the population that isn’t immune.

Look at the Bubonic Plague in Europe. It was very deadly, yes, but there was a good level of background immunity too. The people who were susceptible died, while the people who weren’t susceptible (or could survive an infection) lived, and passed on the beneficial genes. There never was another outbreak of the plague nearly as large as the first one. In the worst case, the same will happen with a modern outbreak of, say, super avian flu. Yes, lots of people will die, and modern society will be severely disrupted, but it won’t get everyone. And hopefully we can solve the HIV/AIDS problem without having to fall back on the “let everyone who is susceptible die” strategy.

The MMORPG makers are onto me

Tuesday, June 26th, 2007

The MMORPG makers are after me with a vengeance. After my recent post questioning whether MMORPG makers were screwing up by making their games too addicting (and thus reducing the likelihood that someone who finally stopped playing one would go on to play another), I got hit with not one but two MMORPG ads on this very site through Google AdSense:

MMORPGs being advertised on Cyde Weys Musings

But this isn’t even the worst. Two weeks ago, I received in the mail a ten day free trial DVD of World of WarCraft: The Burning Crusade. After a full two years of not playing the game, my address was still in their system and they tried to offer me a free hit (almost like a drug dealer) to get me back as a regular paying customer. I must admit, it is tempting. I am kind of wondering what things are like on the old server I used to play on, and if anyone I knew is still playing.

From what I understand, characters aren’t deleted when accounts expired, so my old character should still be around. Logging in and running around with him in the game would be funny. He’d be a living relic, terribly underpowered because all of his gear is two years old. It’s not that weapons and armor deteriorate over time, it’s just that they are hit with a serious power creep over time. The quality of equipment I used to go on many-hour dungeon raids for is now crap, worse than random common items that now drop off monsters in the higher level zones. I wonder if I charge admission to have people look at my now-crappy equipment and reminisce back to the good old days, when the game was just starting?

But I shall resist. I have no intention of going back. But I do find it interesting how badly they are going after former customers. I guess they figure the best way to get more customers is to just rope in old ones, kind of like cigarette manufacturers marketing towards people who have quit.

The farming robots are coming

Saturday, June 23rd, 2007

The farming robots are coming, and it’s about damn time. For too long have humans unnecessarily devoted themselves to manual labor. Any task that can be done just as well by a robot, should be done by a robot, to go free up that human to do something only a human can do. I reject the argument that robots should not replace human labor just so we can keep people employed — inefficiency is bad for inefficiency’s sake.

But back to the linked article. Growers in California have invested large amounts of money in research into robotic fruit pickers: think oranges, grapes, apples; anything, really. The reason is that migrant workers have been so spotty of late (whether they’ve been having troubles getting across the border, who knows) that many farms had just had all of their fruit rot away on the vine/tree because nobody was there to pick it. Clearly, robots owned by the farm could do a much better job. The technology they’re using is really complex, in case you had any lingering doubts about these being true robots rather than mere mechanical harvesters:

The two robots would work as a team: one an eagle-eyed scout, the other a metallic octopus with a gentle touch. The first robot will scan the tree and build a 3-D map of the location and size of each orange, calculating the best order in which to pick them. It sends that information to the second robot, a harvester that will pick the tree clean, following a planned sequence that keeps its eight long arms from bumping into each other.

The Vision Robotics engineers are currently building the scout. They expect to have a prototype ready next year, with the harvester to follow two or three years later. Baskin says he doesn’t expect the mechanical systems to pose any serious problems. The hard work is writing the software. After the scout robot makes a 3-D map of the tree, it has to evaluate each piece of fruit. What size is the orange? What color is it? Does it have black spots on it? “It’s a question of gathering the information, and then judging whether it meets the parameters that are equal to a good orange,” Baskin says.

3D maps of fruit trees? Calculating optimal routes for most efficient picking of fruit? Freaking awesome, that’s what that is.

Get Zwinky! (Or not)

Wednesday, June 20th, 2007

I can’t help but remark on this recent massive television advertising campaign for Zwinky. At first I just saw the Zwinky ads on the G4 Network, a gaming network targeted heavily at male nerds. The ad campaign on that network seemed to be a bit of a misfire, because the ad itself is targeted almost exclusively at young girls. But then I saw the ad run on a major network, and realized this wasn’t just one of those weird, very niche commercials that are frequently seen on G4. This is a massive, million dollar, cross-spectrum television advertising campaign. I guess the company behind Zwinky got a nice chunk of change from venture capitalists and got on the express track to seeing their service widely used. But what is Zwinky?

Zwinky is an incentive thrown on top of the MyWebSearch browser toolbar, available for both Mozilla Firefox and Internet Explorer. Zwinky itself is pretty benign: it appears to be an avatar-based chat client (as if that was original). It’s a combination browser plugin and desktop application (the instant messenging part). To get Zwinky working, you need this MyWebSearch toolbar. And that’s where things get hairy.

The MyWebSearch toolbar is exactly what you think an annoying search toolbar would be. It has a search box for Ask.com, and which makes the company a nice amount of affiliate search revenue. It has a “search assistant” that “provides relevant links and results when you make a search request in your browser address bar or if your browser address (DNS) request is invalid, misspelled or incorrectly formatted.” In other words, it does exactly what VeriSign did that got it into a whole heap of trouble: it puts ads on domain names that can’t be found in place of the standard error message.

The Zwinky client has ads in it too, just in case everything else wasn’t already advertising-filled. The toolbar suffers from a glut of unnecessary tacked-on features that clearly didn’t take much effort to implement but are being advertised as big features. These include: screensavers, desktop backgrounds, custom cursors, smiley emoticons, e-cards, pop-up blocker, history zapper, photo archive, and more. In other words, it tries to do everything (though not very well), and then it puts advertising on everything as its revenue stream.

So, my final take on Zwinky is: don’t bother. It’s just yet another poorly put together browser toolbar full of advertising. I don’t know if it could really be called spyware or malware, but it’s not bonware, that’s for sure. If all you want is instant messaging capability, stick with something like Pidgin, which works with all of the existing major IM networks (AOL, MSN, Yahoo, ICQ, Jabber, etc.). It’s really annoying having to bug your friends to go download and install yet another annoying program just so they can chat with you. And if it’s the virtual chat aspect that you like, you’d be much better served by going with Second Life, which is superior in every regard. A large advertising budget can’t salvage crappy, unnecessary software like Zwinky and its tag-along MyWebSearch toolbar. And honestly, if that incredibly juvenile and annoying ad they’re running attracts you, you deserve what you’re getting.

Update December 3, 2007: See my more recent post on Zwinky.

Google gets into the automobile game

Tuesday, June 19th, 2007

Google announces it will fund development and marketing of plug-in hybrid cars to the tune of $10 million. This is a great thing Google is doing (though admittedly a bit outside of their usual realm of activity). Do-it-yourself plug-in conversion kits for extant hybrid cars have been around for awhile now, but to really crack this oil problem, we need to have cars coming from the factory with the capability. I’m glad Google realizes this and that they’re doing something to help.

Now I just wish the car companies would get off their ass and do what’s right. The automobile manufacturers seem to be in revolt against electric cars. I don’t know if it’s their collusion with the oil manufacturers or what, but they really don’t like the idea of electric cars. Notice how GM unceremoniously killed off its line of electric cars, and other companies that do have hybrids on the market, like Ford, Toyota, and Honda, could easily add a simple socket to their hybrids, but don’t.

In contrast to Google, the automobile manufacturers are showing precious little foresight. Peak Oil is just around the corner (maybe we’ve already hit it?), and car companies are going to have a hell of a time trying to sell vehicles that run on prohibitively expensive fuel. The sooner they get around to making vehicles that run on electricity, the better.

Sony v The Church of England

Monday, June 18th, 2007

There’s a very ridiculous spat going on right now between the Church of England and Sony, the company that makes the PlayStation 3. Eight months ago when the PlayStation 3 was released, one of the most prominent launch titles was Resistance: Fall of Man, a videogame published by the gaming division of Sony. Resistance: Fall of Man is a bizarre, critically acclaimed, alternate history first person shooter where, instead of World War II happening, aliens invade Earth and humanity has to band together to survive. The player fights across many identifiable real world locations in England, including Manchester Cathedral. Now, eight months later, the Church of England has finally realized this (despite the game selling over a million copies), and boy are they pissed.

The Church of England is annoyed at Sony ostensibly because they are offended by the scenes of gun violence inside of sacred church sites (although, to be fair, it is human-on-alien gun violence). However, what the Church of England is really annoyed about is much less righteous: money! Rightly or wrongly, they are used to getting pretty hefty pay-outs from television and movie production companies in exchange for allowing footage of their churches, cathedrals, and other “holy sites”. And now, they have finally realized that there is a whole virtual world out there, and they want a slice of that pie too. Whether or not they really have any right to charge for filming rights to public buildings that are hundreds of years old has not been established, though pretty much everyone just pays up. Whether this practice covers licensing fees for virtual likenesses is even murkier.

Here’s a timeline of the unfolding drama, thanks to the excellent coverage by the folks over at Game Politics:

  • June 10: The controversy breaks when the Church of England condemns Resistance: Fall of Man.
  • June 11: The Church announces that it wants Sony to pay up for “unauthorized use” of Manchester Cathedral. See, just one day into the scuffle they’ve already dropped the concern about violence ruse and admit it’s really all about the money.
  • June 12: A look at the possible legal issues surrounding Sony’s use of virtual imagery of Manchester Cathedral. There is no established legal precedent here.
  • June 14: The Church of England appeals directly to the Japanese people (I’m really not sure what that’s supposed to do). Also, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair weighs in against Sony.
  • June 15: Sony is condemned in discussions in the British Parliament. Labour MP Keith Vaz makes the outrageous demand that all copies of Resistance: Fall of Man be recalled and a payment be made to the Church.
  • June 16: Sony apologizes, but the Church of England says it’s not good enough. Until they get paid off, they’re not going to relent.

I really do hope Sony chooses to fight this battle rather than giving in and forking over money to the Church of England. For one, the Church of England could really stand to have a lot less money, not more, but also, it’d be really bad to set a precedent that anytime you use even a virtual likeness of a real world publicly accessible location you owe licensing fees to someone.

The webcomic Ctrl+Alt+Delete has the best response to this kerfluffle, by the way.

The stock scam emails just keep on pouring in

Sunday, June 17th, 2007

I’m starting to wonder if these stock scams are ever going to let up. If anything, they’re just getting worse and worse. Many trends have an exponential ramp-up period and then fade away into obscurity (think Pogs); I’m just hoping it comes sooner rather than later for these stock scam emails. But they have to stop at some point eventually, right? Or do you think that, a hundred years from now, we’ll just be dealing with 3D holographic stock scam messages? Ugh.

So, let’s take a look at the latest round. Harris Exploration Inc. (HXPN.PK) was first promoted right around the beginning of 2007. Its share price rose rapidly from $0.30 to $1.60, but has been in decline ever since, and now stands at around $0.65. This stock is still being actively promoted though, which makes me think the scammers haven’t yet sold all of their shares, and are still hoping to get the price up some so they can sell off their last shares. This stock looks to have been very profitable for the scammers though. If they snatched up a bunch of shares at $0.30 and then sold them off at $1.60, I don’t need to tell you that that’s a huge profit. It’s just everyone else who bought the stock — especially on the “advice” of the spam emails — that got fleeced.

China Voice Holding Corporation (CHVC.PK) has been heavily promoted for a few months now. I’m guessing it was chosen for how hot Chinese stocks are doing right now (over 100% growth in the past year), though it’s actually a company headquartered in Florida that does most of its business overseas through subsidiary companies. Historical stock data on this company is limited, although I can say that it’s been trading between $0.40 and $0.60 this past month. I don’t know how high it was right before March, when it was first touted, but I imagine that the spammers (and nobody else) made a nice profit off this one as well. I just wonder who all of these people who continue to fall for stock spams are. Do they really think that they can beat the spammers?

The spammers send out millions of emails (and apparently junk faxes too), and all it takes is one poor unfortunate sap to invest a decent amount of money for the spammers to profit handsomely. Really small market cap stocks are basically a zero sum game: most of the money put into them by people responding to the spams just goes directly into the hands of the spammers. So don’t get caught up in it, and never buy any stock that was recommended to you unsolicited.

See my other posts on stock scams.

The ubiquitous AIM

Saturday, June 16th, 2007

At the University of Maryland, College Park, and likely many other universities across the nation, AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) has become ubiquitous. One almost cannot be a successful student without it. Throughout my four years of college, I never knew a single person who couldn’t be contacted through AIM. Everyone had it. And the reason everyone had it was because of a self-reinforcing mechanism, not because everyone came into school having already used it.

I’ll use my friend Jared as an example. When he first came to UMD he didn’t use AIM. Maybe the people at his high school used ICQ, MSN, email, or heck, maybe they didn’t even regularly use the Internet. But once Jared got to school, he basically had to download an AIM client and register for an account. Why? Because everyone else uses it, and you never want to be out of the loop.

Instant messaging is fast and instant, unlike email. It’s more casual than using the phone. It’s the perfect tool for asking your classmates questions and coordinating work on group projects. It’s essential. All college students these days have computers and all of them use some instant messaging application. At UMD, we all used AIM, but it’s conceivable that at another school, for whatever reason, everyone might use a different IM application, like MSN Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, etc.

In my experiences online outside of university, I find instant messaging much more frustrating. Not everyone uses AIM. A lot of people use MSN, for whatever reason, and so I’ve had to register an MSN Messenger account (luckily the IM client I use, Pidgin, handles multiple protocols). I even was forced into getting Skype, because a lot of people use that. I haven’t used ICQ in awhile but I still have an account, just in case I run into someone again who uses nothing else. It’s annoying and inconvenient having to keep track of all of these various ways of communicating with people. I liked the setup we had at UMD better — everyone was on AIM and that was that.

I wonder if anyone has thoroughly studied the impact of instant messaging on our social interactions yet. At least at UMD, it was huge. Many people conducted the majority of their social interactions and keeping touch with everyone through AIM, and especially with their high school friends who went off to different schools. Even in this age of cell phones, college students all have computers that they regularly use, and IM is just an easier way of communicating — not to mention that it’s free. Communication has just become so much more efficient than it was in years past. I almost can’t imagine what college would be like when the only available method of instant communication is a single pay phone per floor in a dorm.