Archive for February, 2008


Friday, February 29th, 2008

I played a few games at the bowling alley earlier tonight with my coworkers. They were playing some great music — Time by Pink Floyd, Magic Carpet Ride by Steppenwolf, even some Jimi Hendrix. Then everyone at the bowling alley got Rick’Rolled. I heard the opening bars of the song, wondering why it was so familiar, because I had never heard the song in a non-ironic context before, and bam, it hit me, and I was rockin’ out and I was never gonna make you cry, never gonna say good-bye, never gonna tell a lie and hurt you.

Spacecraft velocity discrepancies show there are still fundamental things we don’t know

Friday, February 29th, 2008

Ten years ago, scientists observed a discrepancy in the velocity of the space probe Pioneer 10. It was going slightly faster than anyone could explain. Every possible physical effect we can think of, including gravitational influence from all bodies in the solar system, the effect of solar wind, possible magnetic fields, possible outgassing of fuel vapors from the spacecraft itself, etc., have been taken into account and considered, and yet we still cannot explain Pioneer 10’s unexpected velocity. Even the known unknown (to borrow Rumsfeld’s terminology) of dark matter, if it exists, cannot explain this acceleration. And now, scientists have expanded the search for discrepancies to the rest of our spacecraft, and finding them in every single one.

Are you spooked? Because I am. A velocity discrepancy of 13 mm/sec for the NEAR spacecraft doesn’t sound like much, but compound that over the course of many years and NEAR’s predicted orbit and where it will actually be will diverge (luckily it has thrusters on it). But that’s not really the significant part of this. The precision of the test is 0.1 mm/sec, so we the discrepancy is significant, and because it’s happening to all of our spacecraft, we know it is repeatable. There is some fundamental aspect of this universe that we do not understand. It’s simultaneously spooky and exciting. With Newton’s theory of gravity, we thought we had the macro scale all figured out until we began finding discrepancies in our observations (particularly with the orbit of Mercury). Then with Einstein’s theory of relativity, we again thought we had everything all figured out.

Now there are more experimental discrepancies.

Sure, it’s possible, maybe even likely, that the discrepancies we observe in our spacecraft are caused by phenomena we already know about, but do not understand fully (such as larger variations in the solar wind than expected). The discrepancy’s effect, weakest along the ecliptic (the plane connecting the Sun’s equator and the orbits of the planets), and strongest for spacecraft in highly inclined orbits, gives us some intriguing clues. But what if we exhaust all of the “normal” possibilities? What if we get right down to it and end up having to revise relativity itself in order to explain these new findings? Maybe gravity doesn’t work exactly how we thought over large distances? The possibilities are frightening and amazing. I’m excited by the possibility of seeing the theory of gravity revised again in my lifetime.

And Happy Leap Day everyone. How fun to learn this news on the weirdest of days.

Incarceration rate at an all time high, yet no talk of marijuana legalization

Thursday, February 28th, 2008

The news media is full of shocked responses to the latest report showing that incarceration is at an all time high in America, with one out of every 99.1 adults behind bars. Of course, not one mainstream media article addresses the obvious issue at hand: we would have much less of a problem if marijuana wasn’t illegal. Many of these one out of 99.1 adults wouldn’t be in jail, saving billions in annual prison costs in addition to saving billions spent on the war on drugs annually.

So here we have all of these older, stuffy people gasping at the enormity of our problem (and don’t kid yourself, it’s a huge problem, sapping large percentages of GDP just to keep people locked away), but they aren’t even willing to consider its causes. They are so stuck in this ridiculous mindset that marijuana must remain illegal, despite being less dangerous than alcohol and cigarettes, that they don’t dare even mentioning it. They do suggest softer prison penalties for drunk driving — which, you know, actually does kill people — but not one mention of legalizing marijuana, which doesn’t kill anyone in and of itself, and legalization of which would actually sharply decrease the number of deaths in the drug trade.

Remember the 1960s? (I don’t, but play along.) It’s too bad that all of the societal change the social movements of the day tried to effect failed to materialize. We’re still making the same stupid mistakes, and we’re suffering more for them now than ever before. How much worse does this problem need to get before we see real change?

Game designer Chris Taylor pushes “secure computing” as solution to piracy

Thursday, February 28th, 2008

Adopted with modifications from my other blog, Supreme Commander Talk

Chris Taylor, the game designer who brought us Total Annihilation, Dungeon Siege, and Supreme Commander, believes that “secure computing” is the future of the PC gaming world, which is getting absolutely killed by software piracy. Now he’s not so naive as to think that DRM is the answer (because SecuROM, pretty much the best in the breed, is about as airtight as a shot-up sponge). His version of secure computing involves playing games from a central server rather than on individual desktops.

Now there are all sorts of ways to interpret what he’s talking about, because the description given in the article is pretty vague, but I think what he wants is for essential parts of the game not to ship with the client. The only way you’d be able to play is while in constant communication with the server. Think World of Warcraft: anyone can make copies the client, but to be able to play the game, you need to be able to log in to one of the servers. To do that, you need to pay the monthly $15 fee for an active account. Only Blizzard has access to the World of Warcraft server software, so no one can run their own pirate servers (and although attempts have been made to reverse-engineer the communications occurring between real servers and clients, knock-off server software doesn’t achieve the full feature set of the real deal). World of Warcraft is thus effectively “secure computing” according to Chris Taylor’s concept.

Sure, it works for MMORPGs, because a central server is necessitated by the nature of the game, and users accept and understand it. But for other games, especially single player games? Are consumers really going to put up with an unnecessary net connection required for no other reason than anti-piracy? That would ruin the experience on laptops, which many people use in situations where net access is not available (think airplanes, buses, and trains).

And this brings up another problem: the gaming company now has to run and maintain an unnecessary server farm to service all of the requests from people playing single player. Keep in mind that these servers won’t merely be doing verification or validation; if they were, you could either spoof a verification server that would always send back “Valid”, or simply remove the verification code step from the client executable. No, these servers need to be constantly running a critical part of the game that the client doesn’t have so there is no way the server can be excised from the loop. That’s not insignificant. And of course, access to the servers will be controlled by some means of a serial number that comes only with legitimate purchases (the key space would have to be sufficiently large enough such that trying random combinations to find one that works would be fruitless).

The nice thing about computer games as they are now is you can pretty much play them indefinitely, so long as you keep your compatible hardware in operating condition. Not too long ago I went back and dug out my old copy of Dune II and played through the campaign for old time’s sake. Now imagine if that game had been programmed using the “secure computing” paradigm; what are the odds that, after all these years, those servers would still be running? Very slim! With this form of secure computing, the PC game purchasing experience isn’t like buying a game in the traditional sense; rather, it’s more like purchasing a license of the game that expires whenever the game’s publisher decides it no longer feels like running the server, or goes under.

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Learn by doing (on the importance of undergraduate research)

Thursday, February 28th, 2008

I was an opinion columnist for University of Maryland’s student newspaper The Diamondback for three semesters before I graduated. The columns I wrote are still up on the web archive, but I’d rather not depend on The Diamondback to host them indefinitely. Thus, I have decided to repost them on this blog, not only to archive them in a place under my control, but also so you readers here can have an idea of my writing in college. Here is my fifteenth published opinion column, Learn by doing, originally published March 2, 2007.

Many students seem to think of the university as a solely educational institution. It’s not. In fact, the majority of the work that goes on here is research-oriented. So it is a shame so few undergraduate students get involved in the university’s largest focus area. They’re missing a huge opportunity they may never get again if they aren’t going on to graduate school.

Undergraduate research is an excellent opportunity for students. Almost every department at the university offers undergraduate research programs, and most of them offer the guided or independent study variety through which you can earn class credits. You have to take 120 credits to graduate – why not get a measly three or six of them from doing something unique?

I’m working on a guided research project run by a professor in the astronomy department. It’s a three-credit class with a workload comparable to normal three-credit classes. But it’s so much more fun and exciting. I’m using satellite imagery taken by Mars Global Surveyor to determine Martian surface ages using isochrons calibrated against surface ages of the Earth’s moon. Basically, the more craters on a surface, the older it is. Of course, the details are a bit more complicated than that.

Conducting and working on research is a great opportunity, and it’s sad that relatively few undergraduates are availing themselves of it. How many people in this world get to perform primary analysis on data taken by a $100 million spacecraft millions of miles away? It has a certain “wow” factor that impresses graduate schools and prospective employers alike. You should get involved in research if only for selfish reasons: Real-world research experience looks very good on resum├ęs and gives your education more depth than just classroom learning. Research also advances the body of knowledge in the field, so even selfish motives yield altruistic results.

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The unexplained bizarre deaths of 9 Russian hikers in 1959

Wednesday, February 27th, 2008

I just stumbled across the fascinating tale of the Dyatlov Pass Accident. The case is full of bizarre findings. Nine hikers set out into the wilderness and were never seen alive again. Theit bodies were found in groups a good distance from their camp, all in little more than underwear, as if they had to flee their tent in a hurry. Their tent was ripped open from the inside, like they didn’t even have time to use the tent’s door. Five of the hikers showed no signs of trauma and likely died from hypothermia — two of which were found around a temporary fire that they made while in their underwear. None of them seemed to dare to return to the tent. The other four hikers died of internal injuries but showed no external wounds, one from a fractured skull, and two from fractured chests, as if they had been crippled by extreme pressure.

Here are some more facts of the case (from the Wikipedia article):

  • Six of the group members died of hypothermia and three of fatal injuries.
  • There were no indications of other people nearby apart from the nine travellers on Kholat Syakhl, nor anyone in the surrounding areas.
  • The tent had been ripped from within.
  • The victims had died 6 to 8 hours after their last meal.
  • Traces from the camp showed that all group members (including those who were found injured) left the camp of their own accord, by foot. This implies that those with injuries were injured after they left the camp.
  • The fatal injuries of the three bodies could not have been caused by another human being.
  • Forensic radiation tests had shown high doses of radioactive contamination on the clothes of a few victims. These test results were not taken into account for the final verdict.

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No, Virginia, there are only 8 planets

Wednesday, February 27th, 2008

CNN is running a “heartwarming” human interest piece about a fourth grader who came up with a mnemonic to help “those having trouble remembering the newly assigned 11 planets” as part of a National Geographic contest. Unfortunately, the contest, and thus the mnemonic, are wrong. It’s too bad they didn’t consult an astronomer before running with it. Here’s the mnemonic she came up with:

Her award-winning phrase is: My Very Exciting Magic Carpet Just Sailed Under Nine Palace Elephants.

The 11 recognized planets are Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Ceres, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto and Eris.

Ignoring the literary merits of her mnemonic (though personally I think “Pallid” would be a better replacement for “Palace”), it’s wrong because there are actually only eight planets. Ceres, Pluto, and Eris are dwarf planets. Where the contest got confused is they think that dwarf planet is a sub-classification of planet; it is not. According to the three-way classification system now in use, there are three entirely separate classes of solar system bodies: planets, dwarf planets, and small solar system bodies (SSSBs). At the time of the new definition in 2006, the International Astronomical Union took a bit of flak for putting the word “planet” in the name of the “dwarf planet” category because it has potentially confusing to laymen. It’s looking like those concerns were valid.

Now don’t think I’m just picking nits here. There’s another reason this mnemonic is untenable: it only includes the currently recognized dwarf planets. But there are dozens and dozens of likely dwarf planet candidates out there we simply haven’t officially classified yet (42 in the Kuiper Belt at last count alone). The definition of dwarf planet, an object that “has sufficient mass so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape” (and is not a natural satellite), is pretty darn inclusive, and was intended to be. Its purpose is to fit in all of the large round objects that don’t make it into the exclusive planetary club. For example, here are a few of the objects in the solar system that are likely to be classified as dwarf planets in the near future: 2003 EL61, Sedna, 2005 FY9, Quaoar, Orcus, and Ixion. Some of these names will be familiar if you’ve been keeping up on your astronomy news. Note that all of them are larger than Ceres, which is already an official dwarf planet. So if we’re going to play the game of including dwarf planets in our planetary mnemonic, it’s quickly going to balloon to an unmanageable length. Better not even to try, and just stick with the eight.

So, here’s the takeaway. Dwarf planets are not a sub-classification of planets, but rather, are a completely separate category. There are only 8 planets and 3 current dwarf planets, but as astronomers get around to officially declaring more dwarf planets there will be dozens more. School children will continue learning all 8 planets but they will not learn all the dwarf planets because there are simply too many of them (and unlike studying the eight planets, each of which has many unique features making it worth learning about, most of the dwarf planets will be somewhat similar round iceballs too far out in the solar system for us to get much good information on). So this fourth grader’s mnemnoic, while cute, is destined for the rubbish bin of history. Not that I fault her at all (I blame National Geographic). I commend her for her astronomical precociousness, which puts her above 99.9% of kids her age. It’s just unfortunate that the facts aren’t correct.

Call your credit card company and ask for lower rates. Now

Wednesday, February 27th, 2008

I just spent less than five minutes on the phone with Chase, my credit card company, and was rewarded for it with 4 points being knocked off my interest rate. Not a bad use of my time! I haven’t ever carried a balance, so the interest rate isn’t currently a big deal for me, but no one can predict what will happen in the future. I may soon start traveling a lot for work, and since I have to pay for everything and get it reimbursed later, I may end up carrying a balance for one month at a time.

The process was ridiculously simple. I called up, waded through a single robot menu, waited a few seconds for a human, told her I wanted to lower my rates, got transfered to the rates department, waited a few more seconds, and spoke to a man who was able to lower my rates within a minute. The dirty secret of the credit card industry is that all you have to do is ask for a better deal and you’re likely to get one. They’re willing to lower your rate over time as you prove to them that you’re a good customer, but since it’s money directly out of their pocket, they aren’t going to do it automatically. So all you have to do is ask, because by asking, they know you’re comparing rates and shopping around for a better deal, and they don’t want to lose you as a customer.

So, call your credit card company now, even if you don’t habitually carry a balance. Turn your card over, call the 1-800 number, and in less than ten minutes you should find yourself with a lower interest rate (unless you have problems making payments on time). And then call back again every 4-6 months to ask for a lower rate. That’s the approximate timescale of when they re-examine accounts and look for the rates they’re willing to negotiate downwards. The worst that can happen is they say no. It’s really that simple, and you’re stupid if you don’t do it, because you’re just throwing away money in the event that you ever carry a balance.

Don’t be naive and say “I’ll always pay it off in full every month” as an excuse for not doing it now — the future is unpredictable, and all sorts of events could cause you to find yourself short on funds, such as being laid off or facing large unexpected medical bills. And don’t think you can just wait until the situation ever arises when you need to carry a balance before calling for lower rates. When that time comes, you may already have a large balance, putting you at a disadvantageous negotiating position. And they’re only willing to lower your rates by so much each time you ask, so asking early and often will bring you down to a lower rate than if you just ask once right before you aren’t able to pay a bill in full.

Simply calling up and asking also works for increasing credit limits, decreasing annual fees, and possibly increasing rewards or benefits. It never hurts to ask, and you might be surprised with what they’re willing to offer you to keep you on-board as a customer. Of course, the better you are at negotiating, and the more you threaten to switch to another credit card company unless you get some of what you’re asking for, the better your chances of success will be. But even if you aren’t comfortable with doing that, simply calling up and saying “I want a lower interest rate” should pay some dividends.

Don’t miss the most important Democratic debate yet

Tuesday, February 26th, 2008

Tonight’s Democratic debate at 9pm EST in Cleveland, Ohio (airing on MSNBC) will be the most important Democratic debate of this election cycle yet. It’s been described as a do-or-die moment for Hillary Clinton. Her campaign has been steadily losing steam for weeks now and every attempt to regain some momentum has either failed miserably or backfired. Her recent attacks on Barack Obama, both personally and through surrogates, have been dismissed as the desperate flailings of a candidate on her last leg. Many commentators are about ready to write off her candidacy. But what can she do?

Going negative during this debate will only backfire horribly. She’s already fairly unpopular, and unpopular politicians aren’t able to get away with negative attacks. She has to stay positive, even though that doesn’t seem to have been working for her so far. It’s not exactly a Catch-22, but there’s precious little she can do to salvage her chances of success. It’s really Obama’s to lose at this point. But that’s not a likely possibility because he has been so impeccable so far. He’s not the kind of person you can trip up, or swim rhetorical circles around. That’s why this debate is the most important one yet. I think, by the end of the night, we will know for sure if Hillary Clinton is sunk for good.

I support Barack Obama primarily because I favor his policy positions over that of Hillary Clinton and because I think he would be a more effective leader, but ignoring all of that, he would still be the more significant person to win the presidency in terms of the message it would send to the rest of the world. The choices are between a racial minority and a woman, and having a minority be our president would be more significant. Look at the rest of the Western-style Democracies. Many of them have had female leaders. It’s not such a big deal to them. But very few of them have had minority leaders.

Across the globe, at least in countries with Western-style Democracies, racism is far more prevalent than sexism. Most other democratic nations are fairly insular, with relatively few immigrants and a monolithic culture. In contrast, the United States is the melting pot. Only here do we have large populations of many different minorities. Only here, because of our unique history, is it possible to have an ethnic minority govern one of the world’s large democracies. In the United States we’ve lost perspective because we’ve never had a woman nor a minority president, but in the overall scheme of things, and especially in terms of how we are viewed by the rest of the world, electing a minority president would be more significant. So ignoring any other factors and judging purely in the interests of gender and race (which, I admit, is sexist and racist in itself), Barack Obama would still be the better, more progressive person to call our next president.

Update post-debate: So I’m still not exactly sure what Hillary Clinton needed to do to rescue herself in that debate, but that wasn’t it. Barring a totally unforseen incident, I think Barack Obama takes it.

February was a crazy month here at Cyde Weys Musings

Tuesday, February 26th, 2008

Allow me to indulge in some navel-gazing amidst all of the topical posts here on Cyde Weys Musings. But hey, if you like numbers, especially web traffic analytics, you’ll enjoy this post anyway. February has been a crazy month on this site. Just look at this annotated traffic graph (note that the horizontal axis is zero):

February traffic on Cyde Weys Musings

Here’s an explanation of the various jumps in web traffic:

  • A is the post China creates space debris, intentionally, which I wrote over one year ago, but has nevertheless been one of the most popular posts on this site ever. When I was writing it, I never would have guessed so many people were interested in space debris. In hindsight it doesn’t even seem obvious. It still periodically generates large spikes of traffic coming from Google searches whenever space debris is in the news (But can you figure out what caused the spike on January 29? It was too early to be the US satellite shoot-down).
  • B is the post A real life Stand Alone Complex emerges against Scientology, which caused a moderate jump in traffic on the day I published it and then a huge jump in traffic a couple days later when it became popular on Digg and was linked from a number of forums and blogs on the web. The hits on that post are still coming in very regularly, contributing to the overall increase in traffic evident post-Stand Alone Complex.
  • C is the post Pakistan brings down YouTube, which I wrote just yesterday and is far from being on its last legs. It didn’t become popular on Digg or anything, but rather, was widely linked from Slashdot. I owe the traffic numbers on this blog post to my sheer speed in writing about the issue: I had the post online while the hijacking was still taking place, and I posted a detailed technical analysis (with the help of my friend Greg) on the hijacking before anyone else on the web. Speed counts!

I think I’m finally developing a knack for blogging about topics that people are interested in. The traffic to this blog is increasing over time, with a huge jump in February alone, and now that I’ve committed myself to writing at least one post per day (but trying for two), the number of regular readers should really start picking up. And hey, it’s “only” taken 460 posts over the course of a year and three months to reach this point. Determination pays off.

If you have any comments, suggestions, concerns, or tips, please use the comments section below. And if you’re a reader who’s never commented here before, why not take a little time to say how you found this blog? That kind of information is very helpful to me.