Archive for October, 2007

One of the downsides of Halloween

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

Here is one of the unromantic downsides of Halloween:

Having no candy, and thus walking around slowly in a pitch black house being careful not to tread on the cat.

Ready your quills for NaNoWriMo!

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

Attention aspiring authors, National Novel Writing Month begins tomorrow! For those of you not in the know, NaNoWriMo is a month-long self-guided “competition” in which hundreds of thousands of amateur authors attempt to write a complete 50,000 word novel within the month of November. The whole point of it is to get past the never-ending procrastination and finally just finish writing something of good length, quality be damned. Once you’ve gotten over that initial hurdle of writing a novel (no matter how unpolished it may be), the idea of writing more novels becomes more approachable.

This will be my third year attempting NaNoWriMo, and I really hope to successfully complete it this time. The past two years I was still in university, and schoolwork seriously encroached on free time available for writing (especially those computer science programming projects). But I suffer from that impairment no longer. This will be the year that I finish! I already have a plot and setting thought out. I just need to spend some time finalizing it, then I’ll put my quill to the metal tomorrow.

Unfortunately, my work on NaNoWriMo will probably negatively impact my participation on this blog. To complete NaNoWriMo, one has to write, on average, over 1,500 words a day. That’s not insignificant. After spending that much time each day working on my novel, I won’t have many creative juices left over to work on this blog. At least that’s what I’m theorizing. Who knows, maybe taking a break from the novel to write for this blog will be a soothing distraction. Although I kind of rather see my work on my telescope fulfilling that role.

Slashdotting, not what it used to be

Tuesday, October 30th, 2007

Yesterday I was linked from Slashdot in an article about the launch of Veropedia, a project that I did some development work for. I will admit to being happy about it; I’ve been reading Slashdot regularly for at least seven years, and I always wanted to get on the front page. I tried my hand at submitting some stories, and even got one published in the Gaming section, but I never made the front page. I gave up on that and eventually moved onto Wikipedia and then blogging. I was hoping one day something I wrote would end up being linked from a high-profile site like Slashdot or Digg; doesn’t every author want to be read? But of course, the web is entirely unpredictable, and I didn’t end up getting linked to for the kind of post I would have expected.

Slashdotting just isn’t what it used to be. Sites linked from Slashdot used to go down hard and fast. But over time, the ability of computers has grown exponentially (and web server software has improved), while Slashdot’s traffic has stayed relatively steady. Traffic from Slashdot used to be like a visit from a shark to a small pond. Now it’s more like a visit from a shark to the ocean. You don’t notice it much. Admittedly, this site isn’t very high traffic, so yesterday’s visit numbers were quadruple the daily average. But my hosting service, HostMonster, didn’t even blink, giving me no problems whatsoever with network slowness or the dreaded “CPU usage quota exceeded”. So for the price and the level of service they provide, I would highly recommend them (and why yes, that is a referral link).

Now keep in mind I was the third and last link in the article, so I didn’t get quite the level of traffic as the first link, Veropedia. Veropedia was having some issues loading. Ironically, that was the fault of the Amazon affiliate ad, which couldn’t handle the traffic (and since it was near the top of the page, prevented the rest of the page from loading). I got an urgent message from Danny in the middle of the day, so I logged into the server and temporarily excised the ad, and that fixed all of the problems. My web hosting with HostMonster is standard “many sites on one box”, whereas we’re hosting Veropedia on a dedicated server. So if this blog can handle the traffic, then Veropedia certainly could. It just stumbled a bit because of that damn ad.

Really wishing my telescope was finished right about now

Sunday, October 28th, 2007

I’ve been working on a telescope for the past two months. I’m in the final figuring stages right now, which entails a repetitive cycle of a few minutes of light polishing followed by a Ronchi or Foucault test to see how the figure has adjusted. I’m aiming for a perfect paraboloid. I was oblate coming into figuring (my previous stroke was too short), but in the past two weeks, I managed to get it to spherical, then onto nearly paraboloidal. My only problem is that the center of my mirror is a little too low right now, so I need to work that. We did make a new, softer pitch lap (by adding a bit of turpentine to the mix), and that has helped immensely.

I’m really wishing my telescope was finished now, though. In case you hadn’t heard, Comet 17P/Holmes recently experienced an eruption/outgassing, brightening from a dismally dim magnitude 17 to magnitude 2.8, which is easily visible with the naked eye. I went out to take a look at it earlier tonight — it was amazing. It appears to be the third brightest object in the constellation Perseus, but just looking at it, you can instantly tell that it’s not a star because it has a fuzzy, rather than pointlike, appearance.

Unfortunately, the only optics I have available to me right now are a set of 8×30 binoculars (that’s 8X magnification with 30mm objective lenses). They’re not much better than the naked eye. Yes, they do allow me to see slightly fainter objects, but the comet doesn’t exactly present that problem. It’s easily visible to the naked eye. And the binoculars are really old. They have some sort of collimation problem, such that even though they are 8X zoom, I really can’t see objects any better looking through them. So you see why I’m looking forward to finishing up my 8″ telescope. It’ll be too late to see this comet by the time I’m done, but I should be ready for whatever the next unpredictable bright night sky object happens to be. That’s the beauty of astronomy: it’s so totally unpredictable. You just have to be ready to take in the sights.

If you haven’t gone outside to look at this comet yet, I really do recommend it. You can see it with the naked eye even in polluted urban environments. Just go outside after dusk and look towards the northeast. You don’t even need to be familiar with what the constellation Perseus looks like. Just look for the only fuzzy bright object in the sky and you can’t miss it. And you don’t want to miss it. Night-sky-gazing can be a near-religious experience.

“You have no girlfriend to make out with”

Sunday, October 28th, 2007

So there you have it, a mouthful of personal opinions. I bet you wanted to spend your time doing something else, like making out with your girlfriend (haha, just kidding, if you actually reading my opinion on OOXML you have no girlfriend to make out with).

That quote is from a comment on Slashdot by Miguel de Icaza. Miguel de Icaza founded Gnome, one of the two main desktop environments available for GNU/Linux systems (the other is KDE). He also founded Mono, a “free software” project that is a rehashing of the patent-encumbered Microsoft .NET framework. Basically, using Mono sacrifices the free software ideology and makes one more vulnerable to legal attacks by Microsoft in the future. Miguel de Icaza is also known as being somewhat of a Microsoft shill.

In case you haven’t followed the news, there is a war brewing between two competing next-generation document formats, OpenDocument Format (ODF) and Microsoft’s Office Open eXtensible Markup Language (OOXML). Just for context, the current document format that you are most likely familiar with is Microsoft Word’s proprietary .doc format. OOXML, proposed by Microsoft, is touted as an “open implementation”, but all it’s really doing is wrapping a layer of XML around the old proprietary formats. The spec doesn’t go into detail on how a lot of things are supposed to be implemented, so the only ones who’d actually be able to implement a proper OOXML reader/writer would be Microsoft themselves. Obviously, that’s not a real open standard. ODF was proposed by a large consortium of people and companies, is a true open standard, is already implemented in all big four editing suites, and was accepted by the International Organization for Standards (ISO) in 2006. This should be a no-brainer.

But the main thrust of this post is Miguel de Icaza’s sheer ineptitude as a debater and proponent for OOXML. He’s absolutely terrible at it, and if Microsoft knows what’s good for them, they’d reign him in. I’ve read many back-and-forth arguments with Miguel de Icaza on one side and ODF proponents and OOXML detractors on the other, and Miguel comes off as horribly lacking in debating skill. He intersperses hand-waving technical discussion with the kind of crude insults one would find more at home in middle school, yet Miguel is 35 years old! How the hell does he expect to be taken seriously when he makes crude ad hominem attacks against his opponents’ theorized lack of girlfriends?

He’s an embarrassment, especially to Novel, where he is Vice President. Nobody’s going to knock his programming ability, but he clearly can’t hold his own in debates without resorting to school yard tactics that make him a laughingstock. Whoever is in charge of him should keep him indoors in front of a computer coding. He’s not cut out for the job of opening his mouth and trying to convince anyone of anything. And don’t think I’m taking this one comment out of context. He makes these kinds of childish insults repeatedly, both in his Slashdot postings and on his personal blog. I’m not going to go any further and try to speculate into why he argues like this, as that would be insulting. It’s enough merely to point it out.

My toolkit of essential Windows programs

Monday, October 22nd, 2007

I’ve been around the block a couple of times when it comes to using Windows as a desktop environment (unfortunately). The least I can do is help ease others’ agony by sharing the toolkit of extremely useful Windows programs that I’ve accumulated over the years. Many of these programs you’ve likely already heard of (such as Firefox). Others you will never have heard of, but you’ll wish you’d found out about them years ago. Note, the programs are presented in no particular order.

SpaceMonger
SpaceMonger
SpaceMonger is an incredibly useful program that graphically depicts exactly how all of the space on your hard drive is being used. It scans your entire hard drive then displays its contents in blocks, with the area of each block directly proportional to the size of the file/folder. This is very helpful when you’re out of space and trying to come up with something to delete to free up space. I’ve run across multiple DVD images I’d long forgotten about and no longer needed, providing a savings of 4.5 GB each. SpaceMonger serves a dual purpose: finding lost files (the most interesting ones are always large, right?) and reclaiming drive space. What’s not to love?

Mozilla Firefox and Thunderbird
Who hasn’t heard of Mozilla Firefox? It’s quite simply the best browser out there. It far eclipses Internet Explorer, and its selection of extensions can’t be beat. Slightly less well known is Mozilla Thunderbird, a mail program. Yeah, I know most people check their mail using a website these days, but I still don’t think they have anything on a real desktop client. I have Thunderbird configured to download mail directly from multiple email accounts. Firefox and Thunderbird are both Free Software (meaning free as in freedom, not free as in price) and available for a huge assortment of operating systems, including GNU/Linux.

Sure Delete
Sure Delete: For when it absolutely, positively has to be deleted. Sure Delete can run in two modes, either targeting specific files and folders for sure deletion or truly cleaning out all of the free space on your hard drive (remember, when you delete something, its data isn’t actually overwritten; the space is just marked as free). No matter which mode you use, it overwrites the targeted data on your hard drive many times, making it totally unrecoverable even with advanced forensic techniques. Sure Delete is great for paranoid types. Some people may claim, “If I don’t do anything wrong, what do I have to hide?” Don’t get caught uttering such utterly naive last words. Protect yourself. If you need to clean an entire drive, like if you’re giving away your computer, step up to Darik’s Boot and Nuke to totally protect your privacy. But if you just need to delete a few files and otherwise keep your operating system intact, Sure Delete is the way to go.

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OMG, Snape drills Dumbledore!!!11oneone

Saturday, October 20th, 2007

How could anyone forget the rash of “Snape kills Dumbledore” spoilers circling the web surrounding the release of the sixth Harry Potter book? Talk about a lot of people spoiling the pleasure of others (and yes, I too saw the spoiler before I read it). But now there’s an even bigger revelation, although admittedly not really a spoiler: Dumbledore’s gay. That puts an interesting spin on “children’s literature”.

I do think J. K. Rowling is cheating a little bit. She’s been in the news now for several months for releasing tidbit after tidbit of information to tidy up the ending to the seventh book. She’s told us what happens to the rest of the main characters, and now, she’s revealed the sexual orientation of one of them. Isn’t it cheating? You don’t see other authors continually revising and adding onto their already published works. If it wasn’t written in the book, it didn’t necessarily happen. Yes, she’s the author and all, but she doesn’t retain total control over the Harry Potter universe anymore. It’s now larger than any one person. So just because she says something about Harry Potter doesn’t mean I buy it. Maybe I’m just being conservative in the way I interpret my literature, but if it’s not contained within the covers of the book, it doesn’t have the same validity.

But about the gay issue. Oh, how awesome is that? It’s good to have more gay characters in fiction. They are sorely underrepresented. Gays are, what, 5% of the population? Yet you don’t see nearly as many as that in literature (except for in certain cough niche subgenres). So to have such a prominent gay character in such a prominent series is a huge score for the gay community. Too bad it wasn’t actually explicitly written into the books. I never ran across a hint of interest in women in Dumbledore, though I apparently mistakenly assumed he was of the asexual unworldly wizard archetype instead of merely being gay.

My first reaction upon reading this news was wondering about all of those times in the series when Dumbledore was meeting with Harry privately and mentoring him. Some people may be making a big deal of it in light that Dumbledore is gay. But that’s nonsense. There’s not a hint of pedophilia anywhere (nor should there be, considering the intended audience). Yes, Dumbledore was mentorly and fatherly to Harry, but that’s where it ended.

Sorry for geeking out like that there. Let me be honest about my strongest sentiment regarding the outing of Dumbledore: Suck it fundies! I know how much you already got your collective panties in a wad over the audacity of anyone to make a book about witchcraft available to kids in public schools (no matter if it was the only thing that actually got them interested in reading). So how are you possibly going to deal with the revelation that Harry Potter features a prominent, strong gay character? Oh, there’ll be marching in the streets in Kansas over this!

Breaking into the videogame industry

Thursday, October 18th, 2007

I graduated from University of Maryland, College Park with a citation for completion of the Gemstone Program, which is a four year long undergraduate group research project. Our project was an educational computer game for elementary school children called A Day in the Bay. If you have any children, you might want to check it out. We put a lot of work into it and it’s by far the most polished program I’ve ever seen to completion. It didn’t hurt that we had two other programmers in the group besides me, as well as some some graphically and musically inclined people.

But it’s those two programmers that this post is about. We all graduated with degrees in computer science in May, 2007. By that point, I had already accepted the job offer by my current employer, an IT Consulting company, and then started working in July. The other two programmers were both intent on breaking into the videogame industry. Unfortunately, neither of them have been able to find jobs yet (although one of them had a couple of interviews at big name game development houses like Epic and Lucas Arts). The bottom line is that breaking into the videogame industry is hard.

I’m not going to lie, I enjoy making videogames, and I do think it would be neat to make them for a living. Who doesn’t want to do what they love? I’m guessing the vast majority of computer science graduates fresh out of university feel the same thing. And therein lies the problem. Everyone wants to go and make games. But the market for game developers is actually pretty small. There are far, far more jobs available in the general IT field. For every game that is made, at least ten times as many in-house applications are developed, maintained, or modified. Yes, working for a corporation and writing the back-end for a new system isn’t glamorous, but it pays well, and there is no shortage of open positions.

It all comes down to supply and demand. There are a lot more people who want to be game developers than open positions for said profession. Thus, the companies that are hiring are free to pick and choose from amongst only the very best. If you aren’t a stand-out candidate for game developer — and by that I mean you’ve made amazing game demos, not necessarily received good grades — your prospects are very slim. And even if you are hired, the working conditions are terrible, yes, even worse than in China. Working many hours of unpaid overtime per week is expected and routine. And just forget about having an outside life when a release date looms and crunch time begins. Spending all waking hours working seven days a week is not uncommon.

And don’t bother complaining about these poor working conditions, because the company knows they can always just hire one of the thousands of other programmers out there who want to make games. There’s no real pressure to treat their employees better. Needless to say, the burnout ratio is incredibly high. And the pay isn’t even better than other, far less stressful programming jobs. It doesn’t have to be. And when expressed on an hourly basis, the pay is actually a bit less.

So I don’t mind my current job. Yes, the programs I write are sometimes boring, but I work a standard 40 hour week, leaving me lots of free time to do other things I’m interested in. I wish my friends from university all the luck in finding jobs, but I also wish, for their own sakes, that they weren’t so dead set on becoming game programmers. There are lots of other programming jobs out there that are much easier to get. Sometimes you just have to stop chasing your dreams and settle for what’s attainable, especially when that dream could easily turn out to be a nightmare.

We do what we must, because we can (a retrospective on Portal)

Tuesday, October 16th, 2007

Portal screenshot
Portal, a game that is part of the Orange Box collection by Valve Software for the PC, XBOX 360, and PlayStation 3, is the most fun game I’ve had the pleasure of playing in a long, long time. It’s not just me saying that; Ars Technica and Games Radar also love it, and so does pretty much everyone else who I haven’t bothered to link to. Just a warning: this post contains heavy spoilers. If you haven’t played it yet but are planning to, don’t read any further. Otherwise, read on to hear what all of the fuss is about. Even if you’re a non-gamer, Portal contains many elements of note worth hearing about.

Portal takes a single new game mechanic and runs with it, blowing the entire genre wide open. We’ve never seen anything like this before, and It Is Awesome. The mechanic is this: you have a portal gun that can make a portal in nearly any type of surface of the game (floors, walls, ceilings, and angled joints included). You can place two portals at once. Other games have had features like this, but in them, you touch one portal and you are instantly teleported to the other portal. Not so in Portal. The portals aren’t mere warp points; they are warps in time and space.

Look through one and you see everything on the other side. Line them up correctly and you can see yourself, or if you have just the right line of sight, you can see yourself many times over, kind of like a barbershop mirror effect. Place the portals near each other on two faces of a corner and amuse yourself for minutes by continually chasing your figurative tail. I did. Make a portal in the ceiling and one in the floor directly below it and fall forever. And if you have any speed going into a portal, you keep it coming out of the portal, allowing you to translate vertical momentum from, say, falling into a floor portal, into horizontal momentum upon exiting a wall portal. Launching out of 45 degree-angled portals is the best. And you can better believe that the game’s puzzles take full advantage of these features.

Enemies see through the portals too. I got myself killed once by accident when I opened up a portal right in front of a turret while the other portal was behind me. The turret’s targeting laser went through the portal and right onto my back, and the turret proceeded to riddle me with bullets. And the puzzle with the rocket turret, where you have to backtrack in the level to get the turret to shoot a rocket at you and travel through the portal to blow up a glass barricade far away, is sheer genius.

Portal is amazingly fun to play. There’s never been anything like it. And the designers enjoy teasingly rubbing it in your face. There are several puzzles in the game that appear to be platformer problems, with an intricate series of moving objects that seem like they could be traversed in the normal platformer fashion (but can’t). Of course, the solution is actually just being observant enough to notice the one portal-able surface at the other end of the set of obstacles and simply skipping over the entire trap. After you figure out these puzzles, you can’t help but admire what a different kind of gaming experience Portal is.

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Veropedia launches

Sunday, October 14th, 2007

This past week saw the launch of Veropedia, a quality-oriented, stable version of Wikipedia (see What is Veropedia?). A select cadre of trusted contributors go out and identify good versions of articles on Wikipedia and upload them to Veropedia. The idea is that if you want to read an article about a certain subject, go to Veropedia first to see what has been identified as the best version of the article, and if Veropedia doesn’t have it yet, it just links you right through to the newest revision on Wikipedia. This is an awesome feature because Wikipedia articles are constantly in flux, and it can be a headache trying to read Wikipedia and running smack dab into vandalism or a chopped up article in the midst of an edit war.

I bring up Veropedia because I had a not insignificant role in its creation. I’ve been involved from the very beginning about seven months ago. I wrote roughly half of the back-end code (not the interface stuff). Specifically, I wrote the code that grabs articles from Wikipedia, parses them, inserts them into the Veropedia database, and munges them to conform to the Veropedia style. A learned a lot about databases and XML and HTML parsers while writing the code for Veropedia. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to do nearly as much with Veropedia since I started my job, which has taken up most of my free time. But I’m still up in the rafters, keeping tabs on things, and wishing it much success.

The neatest thing about Veropedia is how it feeds back into and improves Wikipedia. Veropedia has a very comprehensive article checker that points out just about every flaw with an article that a computer program can find. But articles aren’t edited on Veropedia. Veropedia contributors must go and edit the article on Wikipedia, fixing up all the flaws, until a quality version is ready for importation to Veropedia. So everyone wins: both Wikipedia and Veropedia get improved articles. The Veropedia article checker even finds many flaws in Featured Articles on Wikipedia, such as broken external links.

Update 2007-10-29: Awesome, it looks like the news of Veropedia’s launch made Slashdot’s front page. And a link to this blog post was included in the write-up. Color me surprised that my site hasn’t gone down already. Anyway, if you have any questions for me about Veropedia, feel free to ask me here and I’ll respond ASAP. Or come chat with us in #veropedia on irc.freenode.net. Also, feel free to check out the rest of this site. You might find something interesting.