Archive for July, 2007

CBS Sports fumbles its first attempt at videogames coverage

Monday, July 30th, 2007

Yesterday at noon, CBS created history by being the first major network to air coverage of a videogaming tournament. The results were underwhelming. The coverage ran at noon on Sunday, not exactly a prime time slot. The two lead-in programs at 11:00am and 11:30am were paid infomercials. The first infomercial was for a tome of medical knowledge that supposedly contains cures that “they don’t want you to know about”, while the second infomercial was for a scam product called Light Relief that, according to them, cures just about every ailment simply by shining light from LEDs in the portable device onto your skin. They say it’s used by Navy SEALs in the field, so it must work! These two infomercials didn’t leave me with high hopes for the quality of the videogame coverage. Can we get some better lead-ins the next time, please?

The broadcast included coverage of three different games, Guitar Hero II, Fight Night, and World of Warcraft. The coverage of each consisted of showing a single match (some of which contained multiple rounds) between the two top teams after a long series of unaired qualifying rounds. Guitar Hero and Fight Night were 1v1 events, while World of Warcraft was 3v3.

The Guitar Hero coverage was thoroughly uninteresting. Two nerds alternated prancing across the stage, strumming away on ridiculous miniature plastic guitar peripherals. It didn’t look cool at all, but they acted as if they were rock stars. I’ll admit, they were good at the game, but I just didn’t care. I’d much rather watch real live concert footage with musicians that are actually making music. I couldn’t help but laugh when one of the two contestants smashed his guitar peripheral on the floor of the stage after a particularly difficult song. The way it crunched up rather than shattering into pieces was most unsatisfying. And then, after their “performances”, the two players were judged by a panel of three, each judge responsible for one area like “Style” or “Technical Skill”. One contestant ended up beating the other, 28-27. Yawn.

The Fight Night coverage was even worse. The game is a “realistic” boxing simulation, and as such, it shows two fighters on screen with no displays indicating health or anything else (although the way the boxers jerk around during combat is really artificial-looking). Thus it was pretty impossible to figure out what was going on or who was winning. At the end of four rounds, either one of the boxers fell down and couldn’t get up, or the judges called it for the winner of the most rounds, or something. I couldn’t have cared less. It didn’t help that each round was introduced with a stare-down, with the two opponents donning boxing gloves (???) and getting about an inch from each others’ faces and staring. One contestant was a skinny black nerd and the other was a fat white nerd. Not only that, but they were friends in real life. The stare-down had about as much intensity as a basket full of Hello Kitty dolls.

I was hoping I would enjoy the World of Warcraft coverage, but alas, it was lacking as well. The only camera view they used was direct video capture of the participants’ screens. This made it very hard to figure out what was going on, especially with all of the numbers and icons coming from the players’ battle interface mods that were streaming across their screens. The announcers didn’t seem to do a particularly good job of explaining overall strategy. They were mostly reactive, simply stating the obvious like “Oh no, this player just got cornered by all three members of the opposing team and he’s about to die.” Thanks Einstein. How about next time you explain how it was that he was maneuvered into such a disadvantageous position?

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Company meeting at a casino

Saturday, July 28th, 2007

I just got back from my company’s big annual meeting. This meeting was held at Foxwoods Casino and Resort, which is a huge casino complex in the middle of nowhere on an Indian reservation in Connecticut. I say casino complex because it is composed of many different individual casinos and hotel buildings, all owned by the same tribe, and connected with various indoor faux-street walkways (complete with fake storefronts and houses). The meeting itself was pretty standard, except for the giveaway of $100 chips to twenty lucky employees who correctly answered a question in the trivia challenge at the end of the meeting. I knew most of the answers, but alas, my name was never called.

After the dinner we had a cocktail hour and dinner with open bar. I heard some stories from the previous meeting about an employee who got wasted, mouthed off to one of the company founders, and found himself out of a job, but nothing like that happened this time. Yes, a fair number of people got drunk, but nobody got wasted, nor did anyone really do anything typically associated with being drunk. After dinner, we went to the casino, which was “conveniently” located just a few hundred feet away from the conference center (although, to be fair, there’s a casino within a few hundred feet of anywhere in the entire complex).

It was my first time in a casino, and I must say, the experience was way overrated. If you haven’t been to a casino but want to know what one is like, let’s just say it’s exactly like the casinos portrayed in television and film: that is to say, noisy, over-stimulating, and uninspiring. There’s nothing special about going to a casino, and I wouldn’t classify it as one of things you have to do before you die. All of the stereotypes proved true: chain-smoking old women sitting in front of the nickel slots for hours on end, waitresses plying the gamblers with free alcohol, boisterous crowds huddled around Craps tables cheering every throw, and superstition in many forms. None of it had anything to do with the heritage of the Mashantucket Pequots tribe who own the casino, of course; it was all just mindless gambling.

The architecture attempted to be grand and ritzy, but mostly came off as cheesy and hokey. I was a lot more impressed with the simple, functional, yet elegant architecture of Union Station, which I saw last weekend. Yes, the casino was huge, and if you are awed by human activities on a large scale then this would have awed you, but I’m already jaded by such things.

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No more online gambling in Second Life

Thursday, July 26th, 2007

Or, more accurately, Second Life bans certain types of code.

Linden Lab has banned all forms of online gambling in their virtual world Second Life. Second Life uses a real world currency exchange system, in which the trading of in-game Linden dollars and real world currency is officially sanctioned. This puts it in sharp contrast to pretty much every other virtual world and game out there, including, of course, World of WarCraft.

Second Life was long a heaven for virtual online gambling (which is banned in the United States). Many people have made good chunks of money by setting up virtual casinos, complete with virtual reproductions of real world gambling devices like virtual Poker, slots, lotteries, etc. Second Life is highly user-extensible and user-programmable, and so many programmers and modelers have made good money designing and creating gambling machines, which they then sold to the owners of the casinos, who paid for the land, plopped down a bunch of gambling devices, and watched as the money poured in with essentially no further maintenance or involvement. No longer!

Following rumors of FBI investigations, Linden Lab has basically been forced to shut down gambling. For awhile the defense was that real money wasn’t being gambled, merely virtual money, but when the virtual money can be exchanged for real money directly through Linden Lab, that’s a very fine distinction. The only problem with this closure is that it will have a huge negative effective on the Second Life economy and community.

There’s no two ways around it, gambling was highly profitable. And thanks to land taxes, Linden Lab made a good amount of money through gambling (probably why resisted shutting it down for as long as possible). I saw people who sat in front of their computers pulling levers on virtual slot machines for hours on end, just like you might find in a real world casino. These people were pumping money into the economy. Before the ban, most of the hotspots on the map that people congregated at were casinos. Second Life has a huge problem in that the vast majority of the world is barren; each person can own large plots of land for little cost, so the game world is littered with large spaces, carefully designed, that nobody ever visits, simply because there are nowhere near enough people logged into the virtual world at any one time.

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Phew, Harry Potter is done with

Monday, July 23rd, 2007

I just spent all day (and part of the night) reading the final Harry Potter book in one go. I don’t have time to say too much right now (though I would like to say everything in the world about the book), as I’m starting the first day at my first real post-college-degree job in the morning. I guess I do only have one thing to say, and that is to all of the naysayers who make fun of people like me for reading Harry Potter, saying that it’s a children’s book. This last one really wasn’t.

I started reading the series when I was in middle school, so that was about the right age. As I’ve grown older, the books have matured along with me. This final one was really quite dark, and dealt with an overarching theme of death. I caught many instances of sexual overtones, and not just in the overt actions between the characters. There were little bits of wordplay scattered here and there in the expository text. If you read the book, you’ll find it. And it’s not an exaggeration to say that if the movie for this seventh one is a faithful reproduction of the book, it will have to be rated R, because there are so many explicit descriptions of blood and gore, including gushing blood from an arterial wound caused by the bite of a giant snake. And there’s torture, lots of torture. There’s even a curse word towards the end (something never before seen in the series).

So, it’s really not a children’s book. The series started off as a children’s series, but J.K. Rowling played it smart and let it evolve over time to keep pace with the readers as they grew older. I can’t imagine how shocked parents will be if they try to read this book aloud to their young kids at bedtime — they won’t get very far at all before they realize they’re dealing with a whole different beast.

And the following is a huge spoiler alert, so please, don’t read it unless you’ve already finished the book, or never intend to read it.

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Wikipedia meet-up in Washington D.C.

Sunday, July 22nd, 2007

Yesterday was the first meet-up in a long while (maybe since 2002?) of Wikipedians in Washington D.C. As far as I can tell, a great time was had by all. It had the same kind of feeling to me as Wikimania 2006, a convention held just about a year ago. It’s quite interesting to finally meet people in person who you’ve been talking with and seeing online for years. Twenty-five people showed up in total. The demographics were quite skewed. Only two females showed up, one of whom was Kat Walsh, current member of the Board of Trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation; I’ve known her since I met her last year at Wikimania. I was also the youngest (or maybe second youngest) person there, yet I had the oldest Wikipedia user account (I started editing in 2002). The majority of the people there were men in their forties and older; exactly the kind of crowd I had expected to see at a meet-up in DC. A good number of people came from far away, like Richmond, New York City, and Philadelphia.

We started the night with group introductions and dinner at Uno Pizzeria in Union Station. I can’t complain about the food. This was also the first time since I was a single digit age that I’ve even been in Union Station, and it’s quite different than I remember it. I’ve been to Grand Central Station in New York recently, which is what I expected Union Station to be like, but Union’s main open-air space is significantly larger. It has multiple levels of mezzanine and floor exposed to the airy vaulted ceiling. It was quite a nice place to eat dinner in.

By sheer chance, I ended up sitting across from Mike Godwin, General Counsel to the Wikimedia Foundation, at dinner. Yes, that Mike Godwin. I was tempted to wear a shirt with a large swastika on it and announce “Dinner’s over” as soon as Mike showed up, but really, that’d be a stupid thing to do; when would I have another occasion to wear that shirt? Maybe fifty years from now, when World War II reenactment becomes a lot more commonplace?

After dinner the majority of the group ended up leaving, but eleven of us went to Brickskeller, a bar/tavern renowned for its world-record-holding selection of beers (over a thousand). We stayed there until midnight, chatting, discussing, and feverishly planning cabal activities, while several of our number got a good ways toward drunk. The bar was a much more intimate setting; our numbers were reduced and the table was smaller and more cramped. Not that that’s a bad thing. Finally, right before midnight, we all headed out. I didn’t get home until 1am because I seemed to just miss all of the trains on the Metro. Waiting for fifteen minutes each at two separate stops is no fun, though it was a nice opportunity for people-watching.

So that was the meet-up. Hopefully we’ll be doing another one soon enough. I think I heard someone tossing around a date in September. Meeting people once is nice, but meeting people twice is what’s really significant to me — that allows you the opportunity to, having remembered what they said they were up to the first time, ask them what they’ve been up to in the intervening period. This information I typically find more relevant than a general life story.

Jim Cramer’s Mad Money does about as well as the market

Saturday, July 21st, 2007

Awhile ago I announced I would be conducting a little experiment about Mad Money, an off-the-wall financial advice show on CNBC hosted by Jim Cramer. The first results are in, and it turns out that Jim Cramer’s advice isn’t bad at all. It’s not particularly good either, giving good evidence for the concept of an efficient stock market, but it’s not bad. The aggregate value of the stocks he suggested the viewer purchase has increased by 9.7% since middle-to-late February. In the same time period, the Dow Jones Industrial Average went from around 12,750 to 13,850, for an increase of 8.6%. Jim Cramer just barely outperformed the market. This is to be expected — if any talking head on television really could predict the stock market accurately, then a lot of people would listen to his recommendations and act on them, thus driving the prices of those stocks higher and negating any potential above-the-market returns.

My experimental protocol for finding these values was pretty simple, and I hope to be able to do a more rigorous examination soon. Jim Cramer’s show has two kinds of segments on it. The first kind of segment, which usually book-ends the show at beginning and end, involves Jim Cramer making recommendations of stock. Since he is picking these himself, I assigned greater weight to them and “invested” $100,000. The other kind of segment is the lightning round, where Jim Cramer takes a lot of phone calls in quick succession and gives the caller advice on whether or not they should buy a particular stock. Since Jim Cramer isn’t generating these stocks themselves I gave them a lower weight, but for the ones that he did recommend buying I “invested” $50,000.

I did this for three separate days and then waited until today, periodically checking the portfolio based on Jim’s recommendation to see how he did. His best performing stocks were Charter Communications (CHTR) (+49.7%), Transocean Inc. (RIG) (+44.2%), Ludin Mining Corporation (LMC) (+37%), and Joy Global Inc. (JOYG) (+36.7%). His worst performing stocks were MRV Communications Inc. (MRVC) (-28.7%) and Melco PBL Entertainment (Macau) LTD. (MPEL) (-28.8%). See below for the full results.

Overall he didn’t do too badly. If you wanted to invest based on Jim Cramer’s advice, you need to figure out your risk tolerance. If you just buy a few stocks your risk is going to be pretty high — you could earn a lot, like if you had bought CHTR when he recommended it, but you could also lose a bit too, like if you had bought MRVC. And just going by the strength of his recommendations at the time, there would’ve been no way to know. If you were to buy more stocks, kind of like how my experiment went, it’s basically like taking a random sub-section of the market, and you’d be about as well off if you simply just bought an index-tracking fund.

Next up, I plan to continue running this experiment, but more rigorously. I’ll “buy” more of his stocks from more days of the show, and I’ll also run a separate portfolio to track how well the stocks that he didn’t recommend buying are doing. After all, if he is accurate about those, you could stand to make a bit of money by shorting the stocks he doesn’t like.

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Celebrating ten years on the web

Friday, July 20th, 2007

It just dawned on me, I’ve had a website on the World Wide Web pretty much continuously starting from 1997 (when I was in sixth grade). Nowadays that doesn’t sound so special, because most middle schoolers use instant messaging and email and have MySpace pages and whatever, but dammit, ten years ago, that meant something. Most of my schoolmates didn’t even have Internet connections at their homes yet, and so the computer labs at school provided a continuing sense of wonder.

Luckily, I use the squirrel-like archiving system, meaning it may take me awhile to find anything from awhile ago, but by God, I still have it somewhere. And so I’ve been able to dig up every webpage I ever wrote and post it on this server. Yup, really. My most recent website from before university was called Fyre’s Domain. I admit I don’t quite understand the name of the website, because while my server was indeed named Fyre, I never went by that name myself. Fyre’s Domain was also the first website I hosted on my own server, rather than using the web hosting of my ISP.

Fyre’s Domain was actually a bit of a programming project for me. Basically I wanted to write a blog (a format that I used in most of my previous sites before the name itself existed), but no widespread blogging software existed yet. So I wrote my own. In C++. It parsed text that I wrote directly into text files (yes, that’s how I updated the site) and wrote it into proper HTML, making a top page that had the five most recent entries and then a deep archive page. The program didn’t have any incremental updating or dynamic accessing, so every time I fixed even a single typo in one of the text files I had to re-run the program, which would read all of the text files and write out all of the static HTML files again. Hey, I didn’t say it was any good!

As part of my work on Fyre’s Domain, I also compiled archives of all of my older websites, themselves rescued from old archives on one of our old Windows desktops (the chain of custody is now about five computers long). Apparently I wrote four major revisions of a site called Bigmack’s World. This is also strange, as I never went by the online handle Bigmack; that was my dad’s. But we did share a dial-up account, and the site was hosted at something like http://www.erols.com/~bigmack/, so I suppose it makes a bit of sense. Bigmack’s World V1 is a blast to the past, replete with background MIDI music, annoying animated GIFs lifted from other websites, and the main navigation system is an image map! How’s this for an unreadable Web 0.5 background? I made it myself! What’s sad is how many of the links on that site are broken, but it’s also interesting that a fair number of them are still alive, essentially unchanged from ten years ago.

So, pardon my reminiscing. I hope you agree with my assessment that my websites have steadily increased in quality over time, though I don’t profess to be a web design guru by any means. I just don’t like information rot, and as long as I still have the files for all of my old sites, I like to keep hosting them.

From the vantage point of BitTorrent initial seed

Thursday, July 19th, 2007

Right now I’m the initial seeder for a fairly large torrent, which means that I’m the one who initially made it available for download on BitTorrent (and nobody else has a complete copy yet). I’ve been seeding for over two days now and many of the peers are just hitting 80% downloaded, meaning I’m almost done with the initial seeding. I’m using the Azureus BitTorrent client, and it’s interesting to look at the Peers tab for the torrent and see what the peers are up to.

BitTorrent seeding

The torrent contains eleven different files of equal sizes. Note how most of the peers have the first file completely downloaded. Some of them probably specified in their BitTorrent client that the first file in the torrent should get high priority. I do this on my own sometimes when downloading torrents, either because I want to be able to watch something before the whole torrent finishes, or I want to check out that the quality is good, and thus, the rest of the torrent is worth downloading. Enough other people had this general idea that the first file completed uploading well before any peer got to even 50% downloaded.

Another interesting thing to look at is how some of the peers are selectively downloading only some of the files from the torrent. This torrent I’m uploading is a compilation torrent of a whole season, some of which is available in individual torrents, so these people are filling in the holes in their collections. The second and second-to-last file, in particular, have been very hard to find on any of the public tracker sites (and indeed, I had to mess around on a private tracker for days to get them), hence why they are more popular than the other files.

One final thing to look for is the variety, of lack thereof, of BitTorrent clients that are in use. ĀµTorrent and Azureus are by far the most popular BitTorrent clients (not just in this torrent, in all torrents). The official BitTorrent client by Bram Cohen, which Azureus reports as “Mainline”, is severely outstripped by the clients that came later. It does make sense though. The official client was good for its time when it first came out, but it’s far been eclipsed by the likes of Azureus. I wouldn’t like going back.

I can has personal submarine?

Wednesday, July 18th, 2007

Yeesh, this news story about the ultra-rich buying personal submarines really tugs at the old heart strings. Color me green with envy. See, these are the reasons I want to be rich: not because I like money for money’s sake, but because I want to have really cool things, like my own personal submarine. Ideally I’d want my own spaceship, of course, but those aren’t going to be around for awhile longer, so a private submarine will have to do.

The article says that over a hundred private submarines are cruising the world’s oceans, frequently getting into trouble as they slip into ports unannounced. How awesome is that? Talk about truly living outside the law. There’s absolutely no way to keep track of what these super wealthy are doing at 1,000 feet deep in the middle of the ocean. For all we know, there’s an annual rich people’s convention in the depths of the ocean where the most sordid, highly illegal, and unspeakable acts take place, but nobody will ever know about it because they have the affluence to buy independence from government. Forget about acquiring an island and trying to declare it an independent micronation; owning your own submarine is a much more pragmatic solution to getting around annoying governments.

In addition to independence, though, the simple idea of traveling in a submarine appeals to me. I already really enjoy boating, bother powerboating and sailing, and wish I could do a lot more of both (unfortunately I own no boats). The ocean, covering most of the Earth but experienced by so few these days, really appeals to me. And having a submarine adds another dimension to possible journeys on the sea. You can do all the same things as in a large yacht while surfaced, but then you can also explore the depths of the coastal shelves in complete isolation. As I said, color me envious.

New stock scams coming in PDF attachments

Wednesday, July 18th, 2007

So here’s the latest stock scam spam email I’ve just started noticing (and I’m only noticing it because it’s so “clever” that it bypasses both of my spam filters, whereas the “traditional” stock scam emails don’t). I’m getting stock scams in the form of Adobe Acrobat (PDF) attachments on otherwise blank emails. There’s no message body or subject, and the usual randomized fake sender identity. I must admit, the blank subject emails are rather noticeable, as is the fact that they come with attachments. So I did end up looking at one, though of course I didn’t trade on it either way, which is something I’ve long been suggesting.

This particular stock scam is for a company called Latitude Industries Inc. (LTDI). The company makes powerboats, but they really haven’t been doing well recently. Their stock is down from a high of $3.50 as recently as December to its current price of $0.11. In other situations, it might make a good (risky) investment — that is, you’d go into it full well knowing you could lose everything you invested on the off-chance that it rebounds back to somewhere near its higher peaks, yielding a huge profit. But with the spam activity surrounding this stock, I wouldn’t even consider it. It’s being heavily manipulated by spammers who already own large numbers of shares in the stock or who have placed a large number of shorts on the stock, and there’s no way to really know which way they intend it to go. Trading this, either selling short or buying shares, would be like playing slots at a casino, only with worse odds. Don’t fall for it.

And I am still amazed at the numbers these people have no compunctions whatsoever about making up. The 5-day “target price” is listed at $0.50. Anyone who knows anything about the stock market knows that there’s no such thing as a target price. The market reacts nearly instantaneously to information. If somehow it is known that the share price of a stock is guaranteed to rise to a certain value in five days, then the share price will rise to that value in minutes as everyone furiously buys it. If there really was any validity to this claim of a $0.50 price target in five days then the stock would already be trading at $0.50.

And you can check out the stock scam PDF for yourself if you’re curious. I received four separate copies of these in my Inbox, not including all of the copies that were variously caught by my two spam filters.

See my other posts on stock scams.