Archive for May, 2008

The folly of envying excess in times of scarcity

Thursday, May 8th, 2008

It’s a poor showing for humanity that our natural response to scarcity is to feel envious of those who can afford excesses. When a resource is scarce, the rational response should be to use it sparingly and only when necessary. But humans are hardly rational creatures, and scarce resources are thus afforded a certain cachet. “Wow!”, the thinking goes, “Look at that huge Hummer that guy’s driving! He must pay a lot of money in gas just to keep it running!” It’s thought processes like these that make me not so optimistic as others that we can solve the global climate crisis in a decent time frame.

I recently sojourned to Phoenix, Arizona on a business trip. In case you aren’t familiar with the area, let me start off by saying that it’s in the middle of a desert. A real desert. It frequently goes months without any rainfall. It is hot there. The only native plants that would grow in the absence of human activity are cacti. Alas, many humans do live there, and they aren’t content with just cacti; hence the problem.

I was struck by the number of aqueducts I saw. The city is flat, but every so often you drive over a bridge above an aqueduct. Don’t go thinking Roman-style raised masonry aqueducts; thanks to the wonders of electricity and machinery, modern aqueducts are little more than deep artificial rivers, with pump houses wherever a gain in elevation is needed. They’re a lot easier to build than the aqueducts of old and they carry a lot more water. And they need to carry a lot of water in Phoenix, because they use so very much of it.

Never before in my life have I seen so many outdoor fountains. I hail from Maryland, land of the 100% summer humidity, where fountains are few and far between. There isn’t anything particularly impressive about a fountain in an area where water is bountiful. But I saw them everywhere in Phoenix: in front of restaurants, our hotel, even the office park of the company we were there doing work for. In the middle of the desert, with no natural water anywhere in sight, having a fountain is a good way of showing off wealth. “We can afford to waste this water!” they scream. And waste it they do, because when the temperature is above 40 degrees Celcius and the humidity is hovering in the single digits, a lot of water is lost to evaporation.

And then there are the artificial lakes. It seems like every golf course out there (and there are lots of them) has huge artificial lakes to go along with it. The idea of having lakes in the middle of a desert is preposterous, yet there they are, evaporating however many untold gallons of water into the atmosphere each day. They just scream wealth.

Yet I haven’t even covered the single most wasteful use of water yet. Remember how I said that the only native things that grow in the desert are cacti? Yet when you’re traveling through Phoenix, you see luscious greenery everywhere. All of it has to be watered constantly, because otherwise it will die. Keep your eyes on the look-out for sprinkler pipes and irrigation pumping stations. You’ll see them everywhere in Phoenix, literally on every block in most affluent neighborhoods and business districts. As I saw all of the flowers and palm trees and neatly manicured golf greens, all I could think of was a twist on a classic saying: Water, water, everywhere, and all of it to waste.

A big status symbol in Phoenix is simply having a green lawn around your house. And they pay thousands of dollars a year in water for the privilege. It’s ridiculous that so much water is wasted in a place that has so little of it, but that’s human nature for you. When a resource is scarce, using a lot of it is frequently a status symbol. Rather than simply adapt to the desert life, humans pump water from hundreds of miles away at huge cost and from places that cannot really spare it.

Just how do we think we’re going to lower atmospheric carbon emissions when we build a freaking mega-oasis in the middle of the desert?!

The grooviest candy ever?

Wednesday, May 7th, 2008

I have a few choice responses to this news: Georgia Law Bans Retailers From Selling ‘Pot Candy’ To Minors

  1. There’s actually a marijuana-flavored candy? Seriously?
  2. Would this be the first time in America that a flavor was made illegal? I thought the point of weed was that it got you high, not that it had a funny taste. Does banning the taste make sense?
  3. When I was little, we went to Amish country on a school field trip and one of the things we picked up at a large market there was cigarette-shaped candy. It even had a hole down the middle, and when you blew into one end, a puff of powdered sugar was released from the other hand, as if you were really smoking. Seeing as how cigarettes actually, you know, kill people, and lots of them at that, wouldn’t it make more sense to start by banning products like these?

I return you to enjoy the rest of your day’s scheduled lunacy.

Finally, a good History Channel show

Wednesday, May 7th, 2008

The History Channel has been disappointing me lately. I used to watch it regularly, trusting it because, after all, they’re talking about history; how could they get it wrong?! And their programs on actual history are still good. But they’ve aired a whole flood of pseudoscientific bullcrap recently. For instance, one of their new shows is devoted to ‘examining the wonders of ancient ages’.

In one episode I watched, they credulously reported on people firmly in woo-woo territory speaking about a full-sized glider that the Egyptians could’ve used to fly high above the pyramids. All of this speculation was based on a little children’s toy. Oh, and then there was the broach they said looked like a space shuttle and it had to have an aeronautical inspiration because the wings attached at the bottom, not at the top like with birds or insects. Hello?! Whatever happened to Occam’s razor? Isn’t artistic license a lot more likely than those ancient indigenous South Americans being visited by aliens (or time-traveling US astronauts?).

And I’m not even going to talk about “Ghost Hunters” or that show about alien encounters. That crap makes my blood absolutely boil. So the History Channel has been pissing me off a lot recently, and I’ve been wondering how it’s fallen so far from not that long ago when it used to actually, you know, talk about true things.

Well, here’s a redeeming moment for them. They’re making a new show about Evolution, and by all accounts it looks good. Evolution is one of my favorite scientific subjects. I wrote countless thousands of posts on talk.origins debating it, and just recently I’ve been reading Stephen Jay Gould’s essay books (again). There’s a gaping dearth of coverage of evolution in American popular media, probably because of the many vocal idiots that inhabit the inland and southern areas of the United States, and I admire History Channel to have the courage to go ahead with this show. It’s going to be awesome, and it really could educate a lot of people.

Now if they’d just have the courage to not air all of that other crap.

One helluva ad for Seagate

Tuesday, May 6th, 2008

A Seagate hard drive survives the Columbia re-entry
This is one helluva ad for Seagate. What you are looking at is a 400 MB Seagate hard drive that survived the Space Shuttle Columbia’s break-up upon re-entry. Not only that, the data, which was for a microgravity xenon shear thinning experiment, was recovered and has yielded an important scientific research paper.

If I was Seagate, I would make this story into a magazine ad yesterday. It would also make a good ad for Ontrack Data Recovery, the folks who salvaged the data off the disk.

Whee, a bungled WordPress upgrade

Tuesday, May 6th, 2008

So I bungled the WordPress upgrade to 2.5.1 badly (let’s just say it’s not good that WordPress names all of its downloads latest.zip). I’ve attempted to redo the WordPress 2.5.1 upgrade repeatedly, restoring from a site backup multiple times and even restoring from a database backup once (sorry if I lost any comments, though I don’t think I did), to no avail. So I’m temporarily giving up while the site still appears to be in working order.

If you notice anything wrong on the site, please tell me! My contact information is on the About page, or, assuming comments are still working (:-P), you can leave one below.

Writing fifty games in one semester

Tuesday, May 6th, 2008

Four computer science graduate students recently created fifty playable game prototypes in one semester. Each student worked alone, putting out around twelve games at a rate of one per week. And they were responsible for not only the programming, but also the graphics and sound. That is quite the Herculean effort, and their results are impressive. I’ve seen that Swarm game before (I guess it was linked on Digg or something), but I didn’t know to examine it in the context of this rapid development game project.

The idea of creating lots of simple game prototypes in rapid succession really appeals to me. Yes, not all of them will be great, but some will be good. Little enough time is invested in each one that even if only one pays off, it’s all worth it. Compare this to the traditional game development process, which takes longer to create one game than these guys could use to pump out 100, and often yields terrible results nonetheless. Yes, that’s right, some of these fifty games are already better than what professional studios spend man-decades creating.

Unfortunately, I just don’t have the free time at the moment to devote my attention full-bore to creating lots of neat games in short periods of time (what with work and all). But I do have enough free time to create a couple, so I think I shall have to try it. Flash seems like the obvious language to do this in, but I’m not experienced in it, and I am concerned by its closed, proprietary nature. I think I’ll do what I did a lot of in high school: making prototype-sized Java applets. I guess I’ll have to read up on some Free Software Java libraries, because I don’t want to have to code something as simple as sprite rotation from scratch.

And working on creating some fun little games will also give me the opportunity to try out the ultimate form of game loop which I expressed a desire to attempt a month and a half ago. Now, I just need an idea. Hrm, stats in RPGs are fun, why not try to play around with that mechanic? I’ll see what I can do.

How the programming magic happens

Monday, May 5th, 2008

Here’s your thought for the day: Programmers don’t really know how they program. I stared in bemusement at that simple claim for a couple of seconds, went on to read the whole thing, and then realized the truth of it.

I don’t really know how I program. I couldn’t describe it in a series of steps like I might be able to describe how I drive a vehicle, or even solve a math problem (whole classes of which generally have certain steps that, when followed in order, yield the solution like peeling layers off an onion). Come to think of it, I recall initially being thrown off in my first computer science classes in middle school when the teachers weren’t really teaching us how to program. They showed us lots of example programs and how they worked, but the real sink or swim moment was when you were asked to program something you hadn’t yet programmed before. No wonder so many students in my computer science classes were put off by it; they were being asked by their teachers to come up with solutions completely on their own, to a degree they had never yet experienced before in school.

Here is my general “process” when I’m programming something tricky:

  1. I think about the problem for awhile. If there’s a written description, I read it over until I grasp the whole of it in my mind, then I just kind of stare blankly at the screen. Sometimes I close my eyes. This can go on for a couple of minutes, so when I’m doing something at work, I’d rather not have the boss come in during these moments lest he think I’m not being productive.
  2. I start outlining how my solution will work. Sometimes I do this in comments directly in the IDE and flesh it out with code later; other times I just write it in Notepad, or even on a physical sheet of paper when I need to sketch something. If I have a good grasp of the problem, I might just keep it all in my head.
  3. I go research anything I don’t yet know that I will need to complete my solution. Generally this involves Googling. After many years of doing exactly this, I’ve become remarkably efficient at researching programming problems online. Oftentimes I have an API or some documentation in mind when I start my search.
  4. Here’s where the magic happens: I write the code. I can’t really explain it in any more detail than that. Oftentimes my planning was woefully incomplete (or just plain wrong), so I revise it as I go along on at this step.
  5. Testing, and then debugging if something isn’t working.

Kind of enigmatic, huh? I think I could do a decent job of explaining how the planning stage works (I identify the problem, then rack my memory for any prior experience I have with that sort of problem, combining various common programming patterns as necessary, until I have something that should yield the answer), but I can’t explain how the programming stage works. Even more problematic, sometimes I completely draw a blank when I’m planning out a solution, so I just go directly to the coding, writing out line after line until I’ve arrived at some code that vaguely does what I’m looking for. I couldn’t say how that works, and it’s not nearly as simple as “Here’s how to design the program, and then writing the code is a simple transformation process on the design.” No, it’s not even nearly that simple.

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Letting the terrorists win

Sunday, May 4th, 2008

It really pains me to see how easily we’re letting the terrorists win. We’ve done more damage to ourselves in reactionary blind fear than they ever did to us with their singular large successful attack on American soil. All it took was to have an opportunistic president in power willing to respond to the attack not in an appropriate way, but in the way that maximized his own power.

And so we have to deal with nonsense at the airport every day. It’s not making us safer, but it makes the less smart amongst us feel safer, and it also serves to keep Americans under a “healthy” level of fear. After all, you can be convinced to vote against your own interests if you’re scared out of your mind.

I read a good article in the Washington Post today called “Here’s How America Looks to the World” by Josef Joffe. He covers not only the nonsense that goes on in airports, but also the very real ways in which America is only hurting itself by making it harder for foreigners to visit. In turning into Fortress America, we’re dissuading many foreign tourists and students from coming here, and large international conventions are switching to places like Canada because it’s become so difficult for people to gain even temporary access to the United States.

This article is incredibly important, but unfortunately the Washington Post is one of those backwards newspaper sites that hides content behind a registration wall, so here’s the full text:

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The viral circle of life

Saturday, May 3rd, 2008

Last Sunday evening, I boarded a plane to Phoenix, Arizona (traveling for business does have its perks). I considered myself lucky to have a cute woman sit next to me shortly after boarding, a rarity according to my coworkers, who usually get business travelers. I wasn’t trying to hit on her or anything, it’s just nice having someone to talk to on those long boring flights, and I’m much more likely to have something to talk about with someone who is near my age than someone who is significantly older.

So I’m making idle chatter with this woman and I ask whether she was on vacation in Washington D.C. “Nope,” she said, “I was just here in D.C. for my grandmother’s funeral.” Ouch. So she wasn’t really going to be in the mood for conversation. We talked a little bit after that, but it wasn’t really going anywhere.

That’s okay though, I had some good books to catch up on my reading with (Stephen Jay Gould and Arthur C. Clarke for the win). Only I couldn’t help being distracted by the woman next to me. She was getting sick. Not plane-induced nausea, but a cold. As I would soon find out, the latter would prove to be much worse.

Monday at work goes smoothly enough. Then by the middle of the day on Tuesday, I’m not feeling so well. I initially blame it on allergies, but by Wednesday it’s clear that it’s viral. My guess is I caught the cold from the woman on the plane. And the sucky thing about business travel is that I had already flown way out to Phoenix, the clients were depending on me, and spending time alone in a hotel room all day isn’t fun. So I worked through the sickness the whole week, even though had I been here at home in Maryland, I would’ve called in sick.

On Friday night I took the plane back home, fully expecting to continue the viral circle of life by passing on my cold to someone on the plane. But the virus’s plans were foiled. The woman sitting next to me on the plane was already sick, as I could tell by her blowing her nose nearly as I did. We never spoke a word the whole flight.