Archive for May, 2008

Phoenix leaves me yearning for more

Sunday, May 25th, 2008

As I watched the successful landing of Phoenix on Mars tonight on NASA TV, as the scientists spontaneously broke out in applause and cheers of joy after each successful stage of the insertion, I shared in their joy. But I also couldn’t help but feel sorrow that I missed a much more momentous space exploration moment decades earlier: the original Moon landing. Of course, there’s not much I could’ve done about that, having not been born yet at the time and all, but I still envy my parents’ generation immensely just because they were there to experience it. We haven’t had any similar kind of joyous humanity-unifying event since.

That’s why I’m so eagerly awaiting the first manned mission to Mars (and yes, I even fantasize about it). Forget all of the arguments about the amount of science that can be accomplished for a given cost by a manned mission versus robotic missions; a robotic mission can’t possibly have the same emotional oomph, and that feeling it inspires in humans across the globe is incredibly important. The Moon shots did more for NASA than a hundred robotic missions ever could have. There’s just no replacement for sending people. So I can’t wait for the day when humankind goes to Mars, and when that day finally arrives, you will know it, because I will be making a hell of a lot of noise.

Ending a blog is heart-wrenching

Sunday, May 25th, 2008

I’m just about ready to end my former blog, Supreme Commander Talk. It focused exclusively on the PC game Supreme Commander (don’t get bent out of shape if you have never heard of it; the game didn’t become nearly as popular as we had hoped it would). I stopped updating the blog about a year ago when I stopped playing the game. Since then, I managed to get a few other players in for short writing stints, but none of them stayed very long, and the blog has now lapsed after several months of inactivity. And given the game’s gradual loss of popularity since its release, even largely unstemmed by the release of its expansion pack, I think it’s about time to end the blog.

But ending a blog is hard. I, along with my friend Grokmoo, put a lot of effort into that blog. We were writing substantive entries in it every day. I would find myself playing multiplayer games just for the sake of having something to write about. I checked the forums and the other fansites constantly, so that even if I missed being the first to report to report on something, I would still be far from the last. It was damn fun, and it’s a real rush to grow a community around you. Oh yes, the relative “fame” was addictive. At its peak, SupComTalk was getting thrice as many daily visits as this blog currently gets. And on the aggregate, I’ve put a lot more time into this blog as well.

Ending a blog is hard, but sometimes, necessary. I don’t want to leave those loose ends hanging around perpetually, and getting overrun with spam is always a problem on a comment-enabled site that is no longer actively moderated. Of course, I’m not simply going to take the blog offline; that would be a terrible fate for something we spent so much time on (and I do despise linkrot). The simplest amenable way to end it would be to turn off commenting across the whole site, effectively rendering it static. There must be a WordPress plugin out there somewhere to mothball a blog. I’ll have to put up one final, melancholic post, allow a few final days for comments on it, and then lock it all down permanently. “This is the blog that was.”

I will miss SupComTalk a lot; don’t think this will be easy for me. I really enjoyed the experience, and I would love to do it again with some other game. Writing that blog was the closest taste of Internet fame I’ve ever had (admittedly, just a taste; not even close to a mouthful). And there was a lesson there that I quickly learned, yet have still failed to follow: single-topic blogs that focus on specific subjects are, on the average, far more successful than personal blogs that focus on whatever smattering of topics the writer happens to be interested in. Some day yet I might finally apply that knowledge to this blog — or perhaps create a new one. I’m still thinking about it. But as I draw close to finally pulling the plug on SupComTalk, it weighs heavier and heavier still on my mind.

Old Man’s War: Decent, but not revolutionary

Saturday, May 24th, 2008

I discovered John Scalzi’s blog Whatever a couple months back and I’ve been reading nearly everything he’s posted to it since. The name of the blog is blah, but don’t let that fool you. He’s been doing this blogging thing for longer than the word “blog” has existed, so the name of his site was more passable then than now. But ignoring that issue, he’s a very witty writer, and his blog posts are consistently entertaining. And since he’s become a published science fiction author in recent years, he’s also done a fair bit of promotion of his books (Old Man’s War, The Ghost Brigades, The Android’s Dream, The Last Colony, and the upcoming Zoe’s Tale). So for my flight back from Phoenix, I bought Old Man’s War and settled in for a marathon reading session.

First off, let me begin by saying that I started the book about an hour into the flight, didn’t put it down until I deplaned, read most of the rest of it after driving home from the airport, fell asleep, woke up, and read the remaining few pages before breakfast. So on that count alone, I won’t deny liking it. I’ve read many novels that simply weren’t able to grab me; Old Man’s War did. Heck, some novels I find so lacking in entertainment that I don’t ever get around to finishing.

But I did have some problems with the novel. John Scalzi seems to possess only one writing style. On his blog, it works excellently, but his absurdist humor kind of felt out of place in a novel that takes itself so seriously. For instance, his main character, John Perry, gets blown out of an exploded shuttle, with shrapnel slicing away the lower part of his head, and then as his body ragdolls through mid-air, he becomes “possibly the first person in history to kick himself in the uvula.” Come on. It had me chuckling, or rather, marveling at the absurdity of what I had just read. It was also jarring, and temporarily broke my immersion in the story. The rest of the novel contains similar snippets like this. And John Perry is so consistently making dark and dry jokes you can just tell John Scalzi based John Perry off himself. If that and the shared first name aren’t enough of a clue, John Perry was a writer before he became a soldier.

I also had some problems with some of the cliché characters. There’s an idiotic loud-mouthed soldier, the standard caricature of a gung-ho, cock-sure warrior with more machismo than sense, who is so impatient for battle to begin that he promptly gets himself killed by peeking out from cover in excitement after killing an alien as he mouths off about the awesomeness of war. And then the description of his death is especially visceral, with bullet-shockwave-pressurized brain matter spewing forth from his head as he’s shot, as if to especially emphasize to the reader that this guy deserved to die for his foolishness.

There’s also a smarmy, condescending politician-cum-soldier who thinks so highly of himself that he believes he can single-handedly negotiate peace in the middle of war; he drops his weapon, approaches a group of aliens, and is instantly turned into a fine bloody mist when all of the aliens simultaneously fire their club-shaped traditional weapons (which just so happen to be shotguns). It was another especially gruesome death, carefully written by Scalzi as if to say “This jerkwad deserved it”. And I’m not sure I like the message of it either; it’s a non sequitur attack against giving diplomacy a chance.

You could see the deaths of both of these cliché characters telegraphed from pages away. While I suppose these scenes were intended to be satisfying, indulging a schadenfreudist delight in watching idiots get their just desserts, they just left me feeling hollow, and especially in the case of the first character, contradictory. The soldiers in these scenes are all 75-year-olds given new bodies right before being shipped off to war; how many of the elderly still retain such levels of foolishness and impudence that can only be found in youth?

And now here’s where I really get really nit picky. I had some fundamental problems with the universe of Old Man’s War. It’s full of alien races all vying for a limited number of star systems, all of them at a sufficiently equal enough level of technology so as to make all battles fair. This simply doesn’t make any sense. Considering how far warfare progresses in a single generation here on Earth, and considering that the universe is 13.5 billion years old, the odds of having many different civilizations all at essentially equal levels of technology are zilch. The first species to achieve intelligence, even if they only won the race by a thousand years, would dominate the galaxy. There wouldn’t be battles, there would be massacres. Here on Earth we’ve progressed from cavalry to nuclear aircraft carriers in the span of a single century. Picture how imbalanced that war would be, and then expand the difference in war-fighting technology out to millions of years.

Don’t go thinking, from all of my criticism, that I didn’t enjoy the book; I did. I purchased the sequel, The Ghost Brigades, and I will be reading it. But I just wouldn’t call this novel revolutionary. It sits squarely within Robert A. Heinlein’s and Joe Haldeman’s genre of action-packed military science fiction, with some of Scalzi’s own quirks, but it does not push its boundaries or attempt to transcend them. This is most unfortunate, because what I appreciate more than anything else in my science fiction is making me think. I would attempt to compare this novel against another scifi novel that I recently read, Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke, but there really is no comparison there. I would love to see Scalzi make one possible with a future novel, though.

Business travel and some most welcome guests

Tuesday, May 20th, 2008

Ack, yeah, I know that my site was down for over a day over the weekend. It totally sucks. Thankfully, everything finally came back online, and without any data loss. Not that that’s stopped me from increasing the rigor of my backup plan by about two notches, natch. Yay for weekly rsyncs. But I digress.

I’m back in Phoenix again on business travel (see my previous musings on the topic), and hopefully I won’t get sick again this time. Naturally I was seated next to a guy who had a pretty bad cough on the flight in. I think I’m just fated for these kinds of encounters. And technically, I’m not in Phoenix, but in Scottsdale. It’s hard to tell the difference out here, because all the little cities just run into each other in a huge mass of ridiculous desert suburbia. You can only see so many road-side saguaros before you start thinking, “Really? That’s all you’ve got?”

There was a stroke of luck today though. Coming back to the hotel after work, we couldn’t help but notice that an entire bus load of hot Mexican chicks was checking into our hotel. Their luxuy bus had wrap-around advertisements painted all the way around, with the prominent text “Las Chicas Cazarones” next to an alcohol bottle (tequila?) on one side. So I think they’re in town for an alcohol promotion gig or something.

These chicks (and I can call them chicks without being offensive because that’s what the bus proclaims they were) were swarming the hotel. I didn’t take a single elevator ride with fewer than two hot chicks along with me, and they’re also occupying rooms on either side of me. They’re checked into this hotel for the entire week that we’re out here on travel. And judging by the skimpy clothing they were wearing during their off time as they checked into the hotel, well, let’s just say I’d love to catch them coming back from a gig wearing their official uniforms. I imagine the cleavage will be in play.

The big travesty here is that not a single one of them that I tried talking to speaks English, and alas, I don’t speak Spanish. Damn language barrier. Maybe it’s just as well. If they did speak English, they probably would’ve found it awkward when one of my coworkers was literally thanking God for this fortunate occurrence, out loud, in a cramped elevator … with two of them in it. At least one of them smiled at me.

So business travel does have its ups and its downs.

Human 2.0: The coming age of upgrading minds

Thursday, May 15th, 2008

Earlier this year I wrote about mental performance enhancing drugs, an area of interest and research that is exploding like plastics a few decades prior. The allure of it is simply too great; who wouldn’t want to be smarter, more able to focus, more efficient at getting things done? A significant fraction of each day is completely wasted for me; imagine if I was able to use all of that time solely for productive endeavors like writing and programming?

Back in high school and early college I was on ADD drugs (with a doctor’s supervision, of course). I can definitely say that they worked, but they also had rather unpleasant side effects. It felt like I was barreling through each day at an uncomfortably rapid pace. In the end, I decided I’d rather just be myself. I made it through college with a respectable GPA, having survived some severe procrastination crises that I’m sure the drugs would’ve helped. Even now at my job I get the haunting suspicion that I could be a lot more focused, and thus get things done more quickly, with ADD medication. Luckily caffeine is a decent substitute. And I do think most humans have some “form” of ADD; our brains simply weren’t wired by evolution for the kinds of things we use them for in every day working life, and there is so much room for improvement.

So imagine my fascination when I read about one man’s experimental usage of Provigil, an anti-narcolepsy medication that also has the amazing effect of making people smarter (and without any speedy side-effects). Go read about his experiences and ask yourself if it doesn’t sound appealing. If someone handed you a bottle of Provigil, could you resist the urge to try it out? I know I would try it, but I’m kind of afraid of finding out how productive I can really be.

The first stage of humanity, what really separated us from the rest of the animals, was when we developed the ability to hack our environment. Then, through science, medicine, and good-old fashioned body body modification, we started hacking our bodies. The next stage in human-lead human evolution will be hacking our minds. We’re just on the cusp of a revolutionary break-through in this area. Imagine how society will change when the average person will be able to afford mind upgrades to Einstein-levels of genius! The pills we have now are but a first step.

And don’t say we shouldn’t do it. Our present human society is built on a sturdy foundation of violating as many natural constraints as possible (think surgery, medicine, air conditioning, and laws). Surpassing the constraints on the mind is just the next step.

Can we focus on John McCain now please?

Thursday, May 15th, 2008

I haven’t exactly kept it a secret that I’m a Barack Obama supporter (since John Edwards dropped out of the race, anyway). Now it’s all come full circle and John Edwards has endorsed Barack Obama. So can we please quickly finish up with the remainder of this primary season lunacy and focus on John McCain?

Yeah, Hillary Clinton, everyone knows you’ve lost. You made a valiant effort, and no one can take that away from you, but in the end there could only be one winner and it wasn’t you. It’s time to accept that, graciously admit Barack Obama’s victory, and endorse him so that we can all focus on John McCain now. This latest win in West Virginia? Meaningless. Keep in mind Barack Obama won ten primaries with larger margins of victories than that. That’s why he’s so far in the lead.

Give it up already. Becoming President Pro Tempore of the Senate, which you’re likely to do if you don’t continue pissing off fellow Democrats, is no small accomplishment. Hundreds of millions of United States citizens never get to be president of the country. It’s okay to be one of us regular “hard-working” folks.

Pining for the coding fjords

Wednesday, May 14th, 2008

I’m deep into the third week of a technical writing project at work, and boy do I miss coding! It turns out there was a good reason I went into computer science in college and got a job as a programmer afterwards; I really am passionate about it. That feeling just gets lost when I’m doing programming that I don’t really find enjoyable (and let’s be honest: unless you work for a game company, and often not even then, the kind of programming you’re doing isn’t fun).

So I’ve started by writing some simple algorithmic programs in C++: linked list classes, binary search trees; you know, nothing spectacular, but not nearly as trivial as a “Hello world!” either. I just wanted a refresher on C++ because I haven’t used it in awhile. And boy did I forget some things! The programs were algorithmically correct on the first try (which is absolutely not something I would be able to do when I was first learning these data structures back in high school, so at least those skills stuck with me), but the syntax was horrid. Imagine a tsunami of syntax errors impacting a rain forest of pointer errors. Uh, yeah, something like that.

Pride being one of the worst sins in a programmer, I immediately looked up some C++ tutorials on Google to find out what I was doing wrong. I had missing semicolons at the end of class declarations (I forgot all about that quirk; Java doesn’t need them), I was missing function declarations (again, not needed in Java), and I was even accidentally passing a pointer to a function that really wanted a value by reference (don’t ask). But it wasn’t too bad; after a few minutes of cleaning out the errors, the program compiled successfully and ran perfectly on the first try. It was fun using pointers again after these past couple of years of not touching them. They’re fun in a masochistic kind of way. I think it has something to do with working closely enough to the hardware to be able to allocate individual blocks of memory and daisy-chain them all together. It’s cool when you think about what you’re doing.

These programs were still pretty simple though. I don’t have a real desire to make a much more complex project in C++, because it does start getting ugly after you’ve grown accustomed to the niceties of C#, Java, and Python, so now I’m off to code up a game in Java. I have a general idea of what I want to write, which I’ve already made allusions to, but I don’t want to talk more about it in case the nifty idea in my head utterly stumbles upon execution. It’s happened before, so I’ve learned the fine art of hedging.

After some preliminary research, I’ve decided that I’ll use the Lightweight Java Game Library (LWJGL) to code up what I have in mind. I don’t want to make the same mistake that I did back in college when we wrote the game A Day in the Bay for our four-year undergraduate research project. We wrote it from scratch in pure Java AWT (not even using Swing!), so we spent a lot of time reinventing the wheel, and to boot, our wheel wasn’t particularly good because it didn’t have any hardware acceleration*. I don’t want to have to spend so time much time doing performance optimizations this time around, so I’ll just use LWJGL and hopefully get to pure coding a lot more quickly.

Now unfortunately, it can be awfully intimidating first starting off with something as complex as LWJGL. Just look at their API; it doesn’t make much immediate sense even if you are a Java developer. This is the critical juncture where many people get turned off and decide to write something on their own (as we did back in college). This is a big mistake. It’s a lot less effort to learn how to use a new library than to essentially write it from scratch. So how do I learn a new library? Examples! And luckily, LWJGL has some awesome examples of fully-fledged games to peruse. Check out Space Invaders and 3D Asteroids. Using these as a reference, and then the API for other functionality not used by these sample games, I’ll have my game up and running in no time.

So keep your eyes peeled. I’ll eventually have some progress to report back on, and then at some point the fruits of my labor will be downloadable for your enjoyment. I’ve already set up my SVN server and committed a skeleton class file, so there’s no turning back! Programming that’s fun again, here I come!

*While we’re mixing metaphors this badly, I’ll just come out and declare that a wheel with hardware acceleration is an automobile. Or, you know, a motorized unicycle.

Site note: new anti-spam measures

Tuesday, May 13th, 2008

As the more astute readers may have noticed, I’ve increasingly been having spam problems on this site. More and more garbage comments and pingbacks were getting through my spam filter, Spam Karma. Unfortunately, the sole developer of that WordPress plugin stopped working on it more than a year ago, while the spammers haven’t stopped improving their techniques. So I’m switching over to Akismet, WordPress’s own anti-spam plugin, which is still actively supported. I’ll report on how well it’s doing after I’ve seen it in use for a couple weeks, but after one day of usage, I can at least guarantee that it doesn’t totally suck, as it’s stopped dozens of spam comments without letting a single one through.

Those of you who aren’t bloggers, consider yourselves lucky that you don’t have to deal with the messy issue of blog spam. I’ve found it to be a lot worse than tackling email spam. For starters, I get a lot more of it, and I also have to deal with it, as any spam that gets through makes your site look really trashy and could potentially damage your search engine rankings (Google punishes sites that link to spammy havens of the Internet). When you get a spam email, you can just ignore it and nothing bad happens; when you get a spam comment on your blog, you have to delete it, and that’s a fair bit more effort.

In my time off from fighting against spam, I amuse myself by thinking of all sorts of creative punishments for blog spammers. For instance, I’m a fan of Medieval-style hanging, drawing, and quartering, but that doesn’t quite satisfy me. I’d prefer hanged, drawn, and fractally quartered. Cut into four pieces, then cut each remaining piece into four pieces, ad infinitum …

That’s an appropriate punishment for spammers, and it satisfies my fascination with mathematics to boot.

Going to the DC101 Chili Cook-Off today

Saturday, May 10th, 2008

Woohoo, I’m going to the DC101 Chili Cook-Off today. It’s been awhile since I’ve gone (maybe five or six years?). I wonder which will be better this year, the bands or the chili?

Post-concert update: All right, that was fun. Unfortunately, I cannot speak as to the status of the chili, because I just saw the live performances. I think my favorite was Finger Eleven, because they closed out their set with a Led Zeppelin and then a Pink Floyd cover. How awesome is that?! My friend that I brought along (Grokmoo from SupComTalk, if any of you are still following along) was kind of “meh” up until that point because he likes classic rock a lot more than modern rock. So finally there was something there for him. Hopefully his opinion of the modern rock acts will improve, because most of them like the rock classics just like he does.

Some of the other acts were kind of “meh”. Too much emo whining, not enough great rock. I actually didn’t pay a lot of attention to some of the songs because I was up close to the stage and I was constantly defending across crowd surfers crashing down on top of my head. The craziest thing I saw was a guy in a wheelchair crowd surfing. I didn’t even know that was possible, but it happened, and the guy was having an absolute blast.

After the concert on the Metro going home I happened to sit in the same car as a bunch of young people (maybe recently graduated from high school?) from Martinsburg, West Virginia. They immediately asked me if I was a local (I am), then proceeded to bombard me with all sorts of weird questions, like “Does the Metro always shake like this?” (he’d never ridden a train before; the answer is yes), and another guy asking if the train’s doors open at all stops (they do).

One of the girls who was with them was so freaked out by the whole Metro experience that she was having some kind of panic attack; she couldn’t stop shaking, and was grabbing onto a handrail really tightly. I guess it was the combination of the speed and being underground. Later, when we emerged from underground and were on a raised track above some local roads, one of the guys commented that he felt like he was flying. I’m guessing he’s never flown in a plane before, because the sensation of height wasn’t even close.

It’s interesting to get that perspective on the world. I’ve known there are many people who’ve never flown in an airplane, but I didn’t really pause to consider there would be better who’ve never taken trains before.

The Wikimedia Foundation’s Erik Moller problem

Thursday, May 8th, 2008

Erik MollerThe Wikimedia Foundation, which you will most likely know as being the folks responsible for Wikipedia (and a whole host of other projects), has a bit of a problem on their hands. Specifically, I’m talking about their recent hire in the Deputy Director position, Erik Moller. More specifically, it seems that has a rather … deep interest in child sexuality, and some “interesting” positions on it to boot.

I’m not the first to pick up on this, either. Valleywag quotes Erik as saying “What is my position on pedophilia, then? It’s really simple. If the child doesn’t want it, is neutral or ambiguous, it’s inappropriate.” Obviously, that’s leaving something important unsaid — namely, are children really mature enough to decide if they do want sex; and if they say they do, does that make it appropriate? And then there are his rather interesting essays on the subject.

But there are some other things that haven’t come to light yet. I’ll just list them off and let his words speak for themselves.

Erik created the Wikipedia article on Child sexuality in 2003, and it was definitely not a stub article (Wikipedia’s parlance for short, introductory articles intended to be expanded upon by others).

He inserted the following text into the article on Human sexual behavior:

It is generally acknowledged that children are capable of feeling sexual pleasure, even if they are not yet able to engage in sexual intercourse with each other, and/or are not yet biologically able to reproduce.

In the article on Homosexuality and morality, he writes:

“A small minority believes that children are capable of consenting to homosexual acts with older men, but all major pro-homosexual groups have rejected that view.”

And he has a rather curious definition of pedophilia:

Again, someone who sexually abuses a minor is not necessarily a pedophile (”exclusively” ”attracted” to ”preadolescents” — emphasis on every word), but may simply be acting out of opportunity. The title “pedophiles and pederasts” is redundant — pedophilia ”includes” pederasty. This does not in any way mitigate the definitional problems of this article.

So, why am I bringing this all up? I don’t think Erik is a pedophile, but he has some very wrong and dangerous views on the subject that cannot bear to be left unopposed. There is no room for sophomore philosophizing and moralizing on such a damaging subject, nor should we allow the subject to be normalized by turning a blind eye to such outrageous claims as those made by Erik. Erik embodies one of the main problems with Wikipedia: it allows people with no real training or knowledge in a subject area to nevertheless insert their own personal views into the encyclopedia by sheer force of being a prolific Wikipedian. It’s bad enough when such a person is writing the articles, but it’s terrible when they’re #2 in the line of people running the whole place!

Erik needs to speedily retract and denounce his earlier comments on the subject, not defend them. They are indefensible. If this keeps going the way it is, it puts the Wikimedia Foundation on a collision path with a huge PR nightmare that we really do not want to face; after all, can you really think of a subject that plays more badly in the media and in the general public than pedophilia? Erik needs to get apologetic or he needs to get out, and if he does not make that decision soon, it needs to be made for him.