Archive for December, 2007

Wherein a fortune cookie instructs me to do the logically impossible

Monday, December 31st, 2007

Check out this logically impossible fortune cookie fortune I got from a Chinese restaurant last night:

Tomorrow, plan to be spontaneous.

I suppose they would also want me to achieve world peace through force, or fail to fail at everything, or list the members of the set containing exactly the sets that are not members of themselves.

Still, I do derive some satisfaction from knowing that somewhere out there is a fortune cookie fortune writer with a sense of humor who knows it’s all bunk, and reveals it by making an oxymoron into a fortune.

Avenue Q tells us what the Internet is really for

Sunday, December 30th, 2007

This is the last post covering the events of my family’s Chrifsmas vacation to New York City (and it only took a week to write all of it out for this blog!). The last thing I want to talk about is the Broadway musical Avenue Q, which we saw in the afternoon early into our trip. I don’t particularly feel like summarizing the musical, so I’ll let Wikipedia do it for me:

[Avenue Q] is largely inspired by (and is in the style of) Sesame Street: Most of the characters in the show are puppets (operated by actors onstage), the set depicts several tenements on a rundown street in an “outer borough” of New York City, both the live characters and puppet characters sing, and short animated video clips are played as part of the story. Also, several characters are recognizably parodies of classic Sesame Street characters: for example, the roommates Rod and Nicky are versions of Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie, and Trekkie Monster is based on Cookie Monster. However, the characters are in their twenties and thirties and face adult problems instead of those faced by pre-schoolers. The characters use profanity, and the songs concern adult themes. A recurring theme is the central character’s search for a “purpose.”

That’s enough background information to talk about what I really wanted to cover: the difficulties in dealing with puppet characters in a live stage production, and the excellent way it is handled by Avenue Q. Avenue Q has three human characters who work pretty much the same way any human character works in any other play. But there are four actors who each play two different puppets. The actors wear drab gray clothing and kind of blend into the background, and when any of the other characters/puppets are speaking or interacting with them, it’s always directed at the puppet, not at the actor.

But the actors aren’t ventriloquists; you can easily see their mouth moving as they talk and sing (as well as the mouths of the puppets that they operate). And, this is the brilliant part, the actors also use their own body language and facial expressions to convey what the puppet is experiencing. The director must’ve realized that humans are much more emotive than puppets can ever be, so the human actors act as if they are the puppet. I spent the majority of the play watching the actors’ faces rather than the puppets, because I felt more emotion coming through that way. The actors did a great job, and I can’t imagine how hard it must’ve been casting for that play, finding people who can act well, sing well, and puppeteer well, simultaneously.

One issue that came up occasionally was when both of an actor’s puppets were in the same scene. They would inconspicuously hand over one of the puppets to a member of the ensemble cast but keep on doing all of the voices of their puppets. So it was really funny to watch a conversation between two puppets played by the same actor; first the actor would speak while moving his puppet’s mouth, then for the responses, he would speak in the other character’s voice while the ensemble cast member holding the other puppet would move its mouth. Sometimes they weren’t even onstage, so they would speak their part from offstage while the ensemble cast member moved the puppet’s mouth in sync. It required some pretty elaborate choreography, but it worked, and it allowed them to have a larger cast of puppet characters while keeping the cast small.

I also enjoyed the play because, five minutes in, I realized two of the characters were named Kate Monster and Trekkie Monster. Those names sounded awfully familiar; they were the names of two of the characters in the hilarious World of Warcraft machinima music video “The Internet is for Porn” (watch it below the fold). And, indeed, the song from that video was from Avenue Q. So I eagerly awaited the song, and then joyously watched it performed live in front of me, as I sang along with the lyrics in my head. I should point out that the way the song is handled in the original play is even better than it is in the World of Warcraft machinima. For instance, it helps to have the background that the “Gary” referenced in the song is Gary Coleman, who has become a poor slumlord. And the way Trekkie Monster randomly appears from different windows on the set shouting “For Porn!” in the intro, and then the other characters each join them from their respective windows for the chorus, is excellent.

And I haven’t even gotten into the explicit puppet-on-puppet sex, and I shan’t, not in a blog post. I could never do it justice. You’ll have to see the play for yourself. I highly recommend it. Hell, it won a Tony Award, which is almost as much of a recommendation.

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Everything goes well at Tout Va Bien

Saturday, December 29th, 2007

During my family’s Chrifsmas vacation to New York City, we ate dinner at a delightful little French restaurant called Tout Va Bien, located at 311 W 51st St. in Manhattan. Now normally I wouldn’t do restaurant reviews, because I find them tedious, but this place was truly unique. To save you some of my usual aggravation over restaurant reviews, I’m not going to cover the food other than to say it was good. There. Now do you think this is a typical restaurant review?

The great thing about Tout Va Bien was its atmosphere. All of the staff were actually French, and spoke good English with a French accent. They all seemed to be drinking on the job, which would normally be frowned upon here in the States, but eh, they’re French. I saw our waiter drinking wine, beer, shots — definitely more than any of us had. Oh, and our waiter looked just like a grown-up Harry Potter, complete with the rimmed glasses. Awesome.

We spent four hours in the restaurant. We came in at around 8:00pm, the end of the dinner rush, so they didn’t have any pressing need to vacate our table. And they really seemed to want us to stay, because after we had finished our appetizers, soup, main courses, desserts, and dessert liquors, the waiter brought around a huge gallon bowl of sangria with chunks of fruit floating in it. Just like the extra creme brulĂ©e they had brought for dessert for my cousin who’s allergic to nuts and so couldn’t eat the Christmas Log, we hadn’t asked for this, and it would be on the house. But it was more than enough to get all of us drunk. I had eyed him making it earlier, wondering what in the hell it was for, and spied him pouring in some vodka. Throughout the night, people of all ages filtered in and sat along the bar, most of them speaking French.

So we ladled the spiked sangria into our wine glasses and started drinking. At this point I’m wondering why he brought it to us — certainly he was cannibalizing his own restaurant’s alcohol sales. But the simplest reason seems the most apt: he was drunk and having a good time, and he simply wished the same for us. It also helped his tip a bit. After about an hour with the sangria, he came back giving us one last chance to refill our glasses before he took the “evil concoction” away. Then, he topped it back up with more wine and vodka and placed it on the table of the group next to us, who’d been there just as long as we had, and they got to work on it. I’m sure this must’ve violated some food service regulations.

So yeah, it was a great time. It was a nice, long, fun, leisurely dinner in a restaurant with a nice atmosphere, hysterical and generous waiters, and good food. I would definitely go back again. The restaurant lived up to its name, which, translated into English, means “Everything Goes Well.” And it did.

H5N1 bird flu makes a deadly jump

Thursday, December 27th, 2007

To all the naysayers who said we had nothing to fear from bird flu, you may want to heed this. We now have the first confirmed case of a human-to-human transmission of H5N1 bird flu, resulting in one death. Overall, out of 343 reported infections, H5N1 has killed 211 people. This isn’t something that can be ignored any longer. H5N1 poses a very real, very immediate threat to humanity, perhaps worse than the devastating 1918 influenza outbreak. Now of course it’s not going to cause the end of humanity as we know it, but the potential is there to cause millions of deaths. All of the requisite pieces required for a wide scale bird influenza pandemic have fallen into place.

This news also serves as a grim notice to idiotic, evolution-denying creationists everywhere that they are wrong. They claim that evolution isn’t possible because there is no such thing as a beneficial mutation. Well, obviously, the ability to spread between humans is a hugely beneficial mutation (to H5N1, not to us, of course), and now it has happened. Will they continue to deny reality even as it happens right in front of their faces? Somewhere, during a future H5N1 pandemic, a creationist may fall ill to the disease, and repeat to their very grave the falsehood that their present circumstances are simply not possible because viruses cannot mutate and evolve.

The atmosphere of seeing I Am Legend in NYC

Thursday, December 27th, 2007

I Am Legend ticket stubWe saw the movie I Am Legend during our family Chrifsmas outing to New York City over the weekend. Going into it, all I knew was that it was about an abandoned Manhattan. I had no idea it was going to be a zombie apocalypse movie (actually, it’s supposed to be a vampire apocalypse according to the source material, but this adaptation made the monsters so stupid that they functioned more as zombie antagonists than vampire antagonists).

The movie wasn’t stellar. I didn’t like the overtly religious overtones, especially the gaping plot hole that results if you don’t believe that god exists and that he personally talks to people. The original novel, which I only learned about after seeing the film, has a darker, more intelligent ending that plays around with perspective and has you asking who the monster really is. The film had no such nuance, probably a result of the director modifying the ending late during production in response to screen testing. The original story is a scifi masterpiece; this film adaptation is just a monsterfest. It’s too bad. It could have been better.

But the really interesting part was seeing this movie in Manhattan. There were scenes that took place in parts of the city we had literally been walking around earlier that day, except in the movie, they are abandoned and overgrown with wildlife, with just the occasional zombie wandering through at night. Seeing the movie in Manhattan really had the “OMG” aspect to it. One brief scene took place in Union Square, and the theater we saw the film in was located on … Union Square. The packed audience went positively atwitter as that spatial proximity dawned on them.

Another scene, in Times Square, featured a prominent billboard advertisement for the Broadway play Avenue Q. Guess which Broadway play we had just seen the previous night … Avenue Q. Yeah, the movie definitely felt very close to reality, which was downright spooky considering the otherworldly events occurring in otherwise familiar environs. The mood was excellently done. I’m sure the movie is playing very well in New York City.

Now I can’t wait for the DVD release, because I’ve read rumors online that the original ending, featuring the scifi-style nuanced ending where the protagonist is actually the monster, was completed, it just wasn’t used in the theatrical release. That will be an awesome DVD extra. If you’ve seen the movie, let me explain how the ending was supposed to go. The reason the vampires attacked Robert Neville’s house towards the end was because he had kidnapped their leader’s girlfriend and was torturing her.

The disease, it turns out, didn’t remove their humanity, as Neville thought when he mistakenly believed that the loss of human intelligence was “nearly complete”. The vampire that burned itself by exposing itself to sunlight wasn’t stupid, it was taking one last loving look at its mate as Neville abducted her. So Neville is actually going around and capturing vampires, who are helpless during the day, and killing/torturing them in large numbers in his laboratory in an effort to “cure” them. The movie title “I Am Legend” refers to Neville: he is an evil legendary character to the new inhabitants of Manhattan, guilty of mass slaughter, much as Dracula is an evil legendary character to us now. See, isn’t that a better ending?

Mental performance enhancing drugs

Thursday, December 27th, 2007

Frankly, I’m surprised that mental performance enhancing drugs (“brain doping”) didn’t catch on before it did. I suspect it’s because the drugs proved harder to perfect than (relatively) simple ones like anabolic steroids. But they are here now with a vengeance. The really fascinating part is that we are only in the first generation of mind enhancing drugs.

Sure, we have attention drugs like Ritalin and Adderall to give you an edge up on tackling boring and repetitive tasks, as well as beta blockers like Inderal which block adrenaline receptors in the brain, allowing calmer, better performance and decision-making in high anxiety situations. And there’s always good old caffeine, that stalwart of gamers everywhere, which improves reaction times and attention, albeit at the expense of getting a bit jittery.

But I’m looking forward to the second generation of mind enhancing drugs. So far there hasn’t been anything revolutionary. But what if we develop drugs that markedly increase memory? How about logical reasoning? There’s nothing stopping us from coming up with a drug that increases general intelligence (until the drug is broken down by your body, anyway; the effects wouldn’t be permanent).

Once we develop these drugs, how could anyone possibly say they were a bad thing? Imagine all the benefits to society if popping pills made our scientists smarter! Imagine all the increases in efficiency of business if executives gained better memory, thus being able to better stay on top of all of the things they must keep track of while multitasking? It could be a whole new revolution in humankind, akin in magnitude to the Industrial Revolution!

We’ve already come up with truly mind-blowing drugs, like psilocybin (mushrooms), marijuana, LSD (acid), MDMA (ecstasy), and others. But they’re not so much useful as they are mind-altering. Sure, some amazing things have come out of them (including great music and possibly personal computers). But they also have all sorts of downsides, and are primarily used by people looking to get high, not people looking to be more productive. But I foresee the second generation of mental performance enhancing drugs bringing about a new revolution in human intelligence, and to that I can only say, bring it on.

Observing the natural life cycle of umbrellas

Wednesday, December 26th, 2007

We returned yesterday from our Chrifsmas vacation to New York City, and on our trip, I observed the full natural life cycle of the Street Vendor Umbrella in a single day. I’ve never seen it in such a compressed form before. Here’s how it went.

Early in the day, the weather forecasts predicted high winds and rain. They were right. We were walking around at about noon when the rain first started falling. Immediately, street vendors selling umbrellas emerged from their hiding places. “UM-brellas UM-brellas UM-brellas! Get’cher UM-brellas here!” they chanted. This marked the start of the lives of the Street Vendor Umbrellas, for they aren’t umbrellas at all until they are used to shield someone from rain.

But Street Vendor Umbrellas are a fragile, inferior species, and as such, are sold on the cheap (for $5-10 each). They didn’t last long. As we continued walking around in the stabbing rain and blustering wind, we saw umbrellas turning inside out, just a few at first, but as the wind grew stronger, we saw it happen more and more often. I looked at the faces of the dejected people, who didn’t have the foresight to wear a raincoat that day, clutching at their inverted umbrellas in vain.

Fleeing the inclement conditions, we ate dinner and saw a movie. When we finally emerged from the movie, we were greeted with a dark scene: the death of the umbrellas, a full life cycle having passed in a single day. Discarded carcasses of umbrellas littered the sidewalk, fabric torn from its proper place, metal spokes jutting outwards at bizarre angles. Every trash can on every street corner had a broken, shattered umbrella in it. Some had two, while others had dead umbrellas propped up against them.

The strong winds of that day had been very harsh on that oh so fragile species, the Street Vendor Umbrella. The herd had been rapidly weeded out of its weaker elements, leaving the remnants of its natural selection laying cruelly in plain sight along every street and avenue. It was horrifying. But do not be sad for the umbrellas; this is the circle of life. This is how it will always be. The Street Vendor Umbrellas will rise again on the next rainy day, and hopefully, if it isn’t too windy, more of them will live to see another day.

Merry Chrifsmas to all

Friday, December 21st, 2007

My family and I are going to New York City for Chrifsmas, so don’t expect any updates on this blog for a few days. Hopefully it’ll be fun, but I fear that the road traffic during the holiday season will make our traveling atrocious. As for how one celebrates Chrifsmas, well, we’re going to eat spaghetti with meatballs on the evening of the 25th, of course!

Seriously, the tradition of Chrifsmas needs to spread. It’s the holiday for the rest of us, like Festivus, but snarkier. And instead of a Christmas tree, you have a Chrifsmas cactus. Much easier to take care of.

The future of virtual worlds

Thursday, December 20th, 2007

The concept of virtual worlds has long appealed to me, ever since I first read about them in elementary school, then proceeded to see them in popular media. The idea of a separate reality with its own set of rules fascinates me. And although we haven’t quite reached the farthest reaches of what we were promised with virtual worlds, they are, for the most part, here already.

Second Life (which I’ve written about a lot) is currently the best example of a general purpose virtual world. In it, one can interact with other people, play games, create things, participate in a full-fledged economy, find love, etc. — basically anything one can do in real life. Yet Second Life’s popularity pales in comparison to pure-gaming virtual worlds like World of Warcraft, RuneScape, Lineage II, etc., showing that we are still very much on the forefront of the field, and so far, it’s the gamers who are proving to be the bulk of the first adopters. But virtual worlds are inevitably on the way in and they should continue growing ever more popular over time, right?

Right?

Well, as it turns out with Second Life, this isn’t the case. Second Life’s player base peaked in July, 2007. Since then it’s been ever so slowly, yet inexorably, declining. What’s happening? Is this a problem with the entire virtual worlds concept? Maybe all that’s been holding it up is hype, and once people really start using one, they find it unnecessary? Or is it a problem with one particular virtual world?

My bet is on the latter. Second Life has significant problems that are directly harming it. It has many stability issues. Performance is inconsistent and prone to glitches and slowdowns in high traffic areas. The game is also nearly impenetrable to everyone but hardcore gamers (and despite having played games most of my life, it still took me a couple of hours after first playing around with Second Life to get the knack of things). And if you want to create some of the more advanced in-game objects (you know, the ones that actually do things), you’ll need to learn an entire programming language, complete with API.

In the end, I think Second Life’s interface is simply too idiosyncratic to appeal to the vast majority of the casual non-gamer types that it needs to truly burgeon. Compare that to the gaming-oriented virtual worlds like WoW which are doing just fine. The problem isn’t with the virtual worlds concept itself, it’s just that there hasn’t been a breakthrough general purpose virtual world like there have been breakthrough gaming ones. Yet. But that time will come. Who knows, maybe it will come in the form of an all new version of Second Life. But I kind of doubt it.

The same game-style interface that is so successful with WoW simply won’t work with something like Second Life. But it’s a deeper issue than interface design: the interface technology itself is there yet. Virtual worlds won’t be successful on a large scale until the interface itself evolves beyond the tired two-dimensional display, mouse, and keyboard. This interface is great for navigating the Internet (which will inevitably be the precursor to whatever virtual world ends up making it big). But it won’t see us through to the next revolution.

I cannot claim to know what specific future innovation in computer interfaces will allow the creation of the first breakthrough general purpose virtual world. I suspect anyone who knows would stand to be very successful off it. But I do have some guesses. Virtual worlds of the future will have to be more intuitive and accessible to the average person. Thus, they will need to map much more closely to the way we interact with the real world.

Rather than pressing a key to turn one’s view to the right, one should simply have to look to the right. This immediately suggests some kind of display set into glasses with motion sensors (or a full-fledged helmet if you want to be bulky about it) such that the view always tracks what you are looking at, and by turning once around you can see the whole world.

What I am describing is seemingly delving into the realm of science fiction. But it’s all completely possible with current technology. A decade ago at Disney World I played a virtual version of Pac-Man. They had me put on a helmet with two screens in it, one for each eye. To look around the virtual Pac-man maze, I simply turned my head to either side, and the view adjusted accordingly. The graphics weren’t so good, but that was a decade ago.

Technology has progressed very far since then, and is able to deliver a much closer simulacrum of reality. It’s now possible to get the feet into the action as well, using some sort of motion sensor or, even better, an omnidirectional treadmill, so you can actually walk rather than having to march in place. Imagine, a virtual world that you navigate through in exactly the same way as the real world. That’ll be much more easy for non-gamers than having to learn about WASD.

Looking farther down the line, I think eventually we’ll be able to interact with virtual worlds directly using thoughts, first with neural sensors worn on the head, and then later, using computers implanted directly in the brain. This sounds like science fiction, but it’s rapidly becoming science fact. Researchers have already developed brain implants that allow deaf people with defective ears to hear, or mute people with defective vocal cords to speak through computer speakers. For now this technology is limited to helping people with disabilities, but eventually it will be available to everyone, and not getting an implant will be as Luddite then as not using a telephone is now.

But I’m looking a bit too far into the future now. Virtual worlds don’t need brain implants to be as hugely successful as the world wide web is. They just need something along the lines of the non-invasive natural interface I first described. That will be good enough to put them over the edge and make them hugely successful. But until then, the way we interact with virtual worlds simply isn’t good enough, and Second Life is limited to being a fun novelty rather than the Next Big Thing.

Celebrating Sol’s 4,568 millionth birthday

Wednesday, December 19th, 2007

I’m glad I held on to the very end of this year before proclaiming what the coolest news of 2007 was, because it’s just arrived, and I would have hated to prematurely give the crown to something else. Scientists at UC Davis have pinned down the age of the solar system to 4,568 million years, with a margin of error of about one million either way. This is by far the most precise estimate of the age of the solar system I’ve ever seen. In my astronomy classes (from 2003-2007) we were taught that the solar system was 4.5 billion years old. Now we have two more significant figures! I can’t really explain why, but knowing that figure with such precision is meaningful to me. I’ve already committed it to memory and I shan’t forget it. It’s easy to remember; each digit is monotonically increasing, with the first three being sequential (yeah, that’s how I handle larger numbers).

In the brief period of time between when I saw the headline and when I read the rest of the article, all sorts of thoughts raced through my mind. The most prominent was, “How did they do it?” My first guess was radioisotope dating of material from asteroids (as there’s no rock native to Earth that dates back that far). Uranium-238 has a really long half-life (4.468 billion years), so that was my guess as to what isotope they used to do the dating. The other possibility I came up with was that they used some form of advanced computer modeling of the dynamics of the solar system, but I would be really surprised if anyone could get such accuracy from a simulation.

Well, it turns out my first guess was correct. The scientists at UC Davis performed a radioisotope analysis on samples from asteroids that date back to the beginning of the solar system. My guess of uranium-238 was incorrect though; they actually used manganese-53, which decays to chromium-53 with a half-life of 3.74 million years. That’s a very short half-life relative to the age of the solar system, so the final amount of manganese-53 left in these asteroid samples is incredibly minuscule compared to what it once was. But thankfully, there was still enough left with which to measure to determine the age. As for the type of radioisotope analysis performed, they specifically used radioisochron dating, which compares relative quantities of the unstable isotope (manganese-53) with its resultant decay product (chromium-53) to determine age.

Of course, I was so excited about this news that I immediately told everyone about it, including all of my friends who happened to be online at the time, a friend who happened to call me, and my family. There were two common misconceptions that I’d like to address just in case anyone else who reads this joyous news happens to wonder about them.

How do we know it’s from the solar system? The vast, vast majority of the stuff in our solar system was all born here, and at the same time to boot. The chance of some substantive object being propelled with enough velocity to leave another star system and then get captured by ours is incredibly small. Pick anything at random in this solar system (Sol itself, the planets, moons, asteroids, comets, dust, etc.) and the odds are incredibly good that it’s from around here. But to deal with the off-chance that you end up with something not from around here, you perform the same test on a variety of different asteroids. The chance that they all happen to be from outside the solar system is negligible.

How do we know it’s from the beginning of the solar system? This is a very valid question to ask, at least of materials found on Earth. Earth is a very lively place, with all sorts of geological and chemical processes going on that continually break down older rocks. There isn’t anything on Earth that has been left untouched since the formation of the solar system (if I remember correctly, the oldest rock we’ve found dates back to a paltry 3.8 billion years). So that’s why you need to look at asteroids. Asteroids are too small to have tectonic activity capable of metamorphosing rocks, and out in space, they certainly aren’t hot enough to cause the other kind of metamorphic activity that would change the structure of the rock. So they’re unchanged since the formation of the solar system simply because there’s no mechanism that could change them.

And keep in mind, everything in the solar system formed at the same time in a very rapid process (hey, less than a million years is definitely rapid compared to 4.568 billion years). So all you have to do is test a variety of different asteroids and note that the oldest of the resultant ages all tend to cluster around one number. We wouldn’t expect to find any chunk of asteroid older than the age of the solar system, and indeed, we haven’t. You know it’s good science when the experimental results are repeatable, and these are definitely repeatable.

So look for scientists to continually narrow down the age of the solar system even further in the coming decades as they get more data and more accurate test equipment, but never again will we experience a jump from imprecise estimate to quantified value — with margin of error! — in this number so meaningful to us, the age of the solar system. Remember this day.