Archive for August, 2008

The folly of trusting the Bush administration in military manners

Monday, August 11th, 2008

It’s looking like Georgia made the fatal mistake of trusting us, the United States, in military manners, and now they’re paying the price for it. But first, some back story.

George W. Bush is (or was until these past few days, anyway) very popular in Georgia. It’s one of the few countries he’s been on an overseas trip to in recent years where he was greeted with revelry instead of massive protests. And there’s a good reason for it: this administration has been intensely supportive of Georgia, though the way in which it was supportive is now proving to have been ultimately destructive. We’ve given Georgia hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid, ostensibly to help them crack down on Islamic terrorism, but it was really about arming yet another break-away Soviet republic as a participant in a long series of proxy wars with Russia.

In response for all of our aid and hawkish military advice, Georgia sent many troops to fight our war of folly in Iraq. They have (or had, since they’re withdrawing to their own country now) the third largest contingent in Iraq, behind the United States and the United Kingdom. For a country of fewer than 5 million people, that’s quite the feat. So we’ve been hyping them up militarily for years now, teaching them that acting like we do (launching preemptive wars and such) is the proper way to conduct business. They missed an important distinction, though: unlike the United States, they don’t have the most powerful military in the world, so they can’t pull it off like we can. And they were fooled into thinking we would come to their aid if Russia ever did respond to their provocations. Essentially, they proved to be Bush’s pawn, discarded at the drop of a hat. It’s no wonder they feel betrayed.

This Russo-Georgian war is yet another disastrous result of George W. Bush’s terrible foreign policies. After the reckless manner in which the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were waged, you’d hope there wouldn’t be any country out there stupid enough to follow our lead on military matters, yet Georgia did, and is now paying the price. Hopefully when Obama is elected we can begin to sort out this mess and have a foreign policy that isn’t so fond of encouraging foolhardy hawkish militarism.

Otakon 2008 impressions

Sunday, August 10th, 2008

So after spending most of today decompressing from Otakon by mindlessly watching the Olympics, I’m ready to relate my impressions about the event, which I promised on Thursday.

Despite never having been to an anime convention, Otakon didn’t overwhelm me at all. It was pretty much exactly like what I expected. Going to Wizard World East (a comic convention in Philadelphia) a few years back definitely gave me a feel for what it’d be like. Plus, I know many people who’ve been to these things before, and I’ve heard all sorts of stories. The experience wasn’t as transporting as when I went to a local renaissance festival, mainly because while everyone was also in costume there, they also kept in character the whole time. The cosplayers at anime conventions pretty much only stay in character for photo shoots and the masquerade.

Overall, the people at the convention were very friendly. Although I didn’t meet up with my friend from work until later in the day, I wasn’t alone while waiting in the entrance line on Saturday, as the girls behind me in line were very chatty and approachable. They were also from Canada, which kind of made my complaint about having to drive a whole forty miles from DC fall on deaf ears.

Later on during the convention, I struck up many conversations with random attendees, some of whom I was photographing, others of whom were just hanging around, and I never so much as had a rude interaction. No one ever turned down a request for a photograph, which I guess makes sense because anyone willing to go through the effort to make an elaborate costume certainly wants to be seen in it. It was really easy to strike up conversations and find things to talk about, because everyone there shared a rich appreciation of anime and knew a lot about it. I was surprised to find that I was pretty much the least knowledgeable anime fan I ran into.

I was also quite surprised at the sheer abundance of videogame cosplay, which came in a close second behind anime cosplay, with general Japanese fashions (such as gothic lolita) and non-anime TV shows and movies bringing up the rear. I wouldn’t even bill Otakon as an anime convention — I would bill it as an anime and videogame convention. There was a huge videogaming hall that was packed the entire convention. Amongst the videogame cosplayers, the Final Fantasy series was the most popular (with cosplay from the Final Fantasy Tactics subseries surprisingly common). I also saw a lot of Kingdom Hearts and Team Fortress 2 (red team only though). On the anime front, it was the usual suspects (basically, whatever anime is obscenely popular either at the moment or in the near past, such as Gurren Lagann and Naruto), but there was also a surprising number of Trigun cosplayers considering the age of that series. Not that I’m complaining, given how awesome Trigun is.

The only sour moment of the whole convention was when we attempted to attend a panel called “Welcome to Touhou”, which was supposed to be an introduction to a very specific Japanese subgenre of shmup (rail shooter), but were instead greeted with a panel-troller who spouted off bullshit on the “Psychology of Cosplayers” for a good half-hour before Otakon staff shut him down. Our best guess is that the original people leading the panel never arrived, and this asshole seized the moment. He kept babbling on and on, stopping occasionally to curse out the audience members that were leaving or calling him out, and took “questions” only to ignore them and continue spouting bullshit. The volunteer that he had found to walk around the microphone for him quickly grew exasperated and walked off, so it was a solo show. I don’t know why in the hell this guy did this or what he found fun about it, but it was incredibly lame.

On the first day of the convention neither I nor my friend cosplayed. It actually left me feeling a bit out of place (just like being one of the few “normals” at the renaissance festival), so I decided to wear my cloak to accompany my friend who was going as the Tenth Doctor from Doctor Who. Yes, I have a cloak, which I made for renaissance festivals but haven’t yet had a chance to attend one with. My basic plan was to go along with whatever the first person “recognized” me as being, and since one of the first events of the day was a Doctor Who cosplay shoot, I was quickly pegged as one of the older iterations of “The Master”, the Doctor’s Time Lord nemesis.

All right, and now for those promised pictures! And if these leave you feeling disappointed, just know that these pictures don’t really represent the complete lengths that some of the females at the con went to to show off some skin. In particular, there were a few ladies there flashing a lot of ass, but I don’t know of any polite way to ask someone to turn around and present their backside for the purposes of taking a photograph, and I’m not about to be that creepy dude sneakily taking pictures of girls. All of the photographs were taken with consent.

View the Photographs (Woohoo, I installed gallery2 just for this.)

Otakon, here I come

Friday, August 8th, 2008

This weekend I’m attending Otakon, which is an anime convention in Baltimore, MD. Yes, stop making those faces. I’m going with a coworker (Drinian, who comments on this blog occasionally). The closest thing to an anime convention I’ve ever been to was Wizard World East in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania some years ago. That was a comic convention so it can’t be too different, right? Not that I was there for the comics, mind you, but rather for a national competition of the MechWarrior miniatures tabletop game, which I suspect is at least as nerdy.

I imagine I’ll have all sorts of crazy stories to relate here on the blog on Sunday from Otakon, but in the meantime, all of my time is going to be occupied with … whatever goes on at anime conventions? I gather there’s a lot of anime-watching that goes on at these events, along with the cosplaying. I kind of feel like I’m going to be a bad con-goer, because I haven’t even watched any anime in months, and I haven’t watched it a lot in over a year. So, either fanatical reintroduction or event that turns me off anime forever, here I come!

And yes, I know the majority of my readers will probably only be interested in the results of this if I come back with pictures of hot female cosplayers. To this I say: I’ll try not to disappoint.

How beliefs linger after faith is gone: My tale as a kosher atheist

Thursday, August 7th, 2008

Looking back over this blog, I’m realizing I really haven’t said too much about my religion (or rather, my lack thereof). It’s something a lot of people are interested in; heck, some bloggers make an entire career out of it (cough PZ Myers cough). So I figure I might as well take another crack at the subject and explain how exactly I ended up where I am now: a complete lack of any faith. But that’s such a big subject area that I’ll focus on a very small area of it in this post, specifically how I maintained certain irrational customs, such as keeping kosher, long after my faith dwindled to nothingness.

But first, I’d be a fool if I didn’t leverage some of my previous blog posts (if for no other reason than having to avoid rehashing all of the same material again). I developed a pretty healthy sense of morality at a young age, none of which derived from religion. Some of the people in my family were once very religious, but that had been mostly eaten away by the time I was born. It’s gotten to the point that our holiday celebrations are almost entirely secular. I’ve had a mixture of experiences in churches, some good, some terrible, though of course most of my encounters with religion occurred in synagogues, which were just boring. I lived in a state of indifference towards religion for most of my childhood until the Islamist terrorist attacks of September 11, which really focused my mind on the downsides. Then, throughout college, I couldn’t help but keep bumping into more instances of religion at its most exploitative, as well as religion at its ugliest. Those events and others inspired me to take a more active role against religion, which brings me to today.

I have finally, finally, just within the past two years, started eating pork regularly, despite not having been a believer for at least ten. It sounds pretty silly, right? It’s not like we ever kept any of the rest of the kosher rules — prohibitions against mixing milk and meat, checking for that silly “U” symbol on everything, etc. Heck, we even ate non-fish seafood all the time, especially crabs (though living in Maryland, how could you not?). I just had a silly hang-up with pork, and I rarely if ever ate it, with the exception of pepperoni and of course bacon. It’s more because I wasn’t accustomed to eating it than for any other reason, but if anyone ever questioned me about it, my excuse was a mumbled response about keeping kosher. My mom’s parents never served anything pork, and so she never learned to cook it. Thus, it was never served in our house, and I didn’t particularly want it when we ate out either.

Just like how dietary restrictions linger long after the faith is gone, so too do other facets of faith. I’m thinking specifically of the many ways in which religion brainwashes people: to revere “men of God” when the only thing that differentiates them from normal people is that they’re more useless, to have respect for specific cockamamie beliefs but to detest others that are equally unlikely, to distrust empiricism and value a non-rational world-view, to trample the civil rights of others merely because they are different in some regards, and many more. It’s pretty common for people to lose their belief in God but retain most of the other attendant silly beliefs, like pulling the tablecloth out from under a house of cards so quickly that most of the cards remain standing. You just can’t radically adjust your world-view so quickly.

When I was in eighth grade, after I had stopped believing, I remember asking my mother about Muslims (back in those days, we didn’t know much about them). She told me they believed in one God, and that it was the same God as the Christians and Jews. I’m thinking, “Great, just like we do” — except it was a “we” that didn’t include me. A cultural we, if you will. So, silly me, I thought that Muslims were our allies, and began to look suspiciously at my Hindu classmates who believed in multiple gods. I felt more empathy with the monotheistic Judeo-Christian-Islamic faiths because that’s what I was raised with, even though I disbelieved in all of them equally. Well, three years later September 11th happened and I quickly stopped thinking of Muslims as “allies” in preference to Hindus — after all, the hijackers weren’t flying those planes into buildings in the name of Vishnu.

And now, over a decade since I’ve been actively calling myself an atheist, the deprogramming still isn’t complete. I still find myself marveling at some of PZ Myers’ attacks on religion, because despite them being so obvious, I wouldn’t think of most of them on my own. I still have all of these absurd ideas in my head that I can easily reject when I consciously think about them, but that color my perception the vast majority of the time when I don’t. I really wish I had been raised in a secular society. It’d be amazing to know what it feels like to be totally unencumbered by religious baggage. But I regrettably did not have that experience, and so every day is another struggle to find all of the non-rational beliefs in my mind and snub them out. And many of them don’t have anything to do with religion. For instance, it was only just recently — when I started watching MMA — that I realized that the oft-rumored, near-mythical powers of martial artists were completely made up. And don’t even get me started on acupuncture or chiropracty.

Quantity trumps quality

Tuesday, August 5th, 2008

Jeff Atwood relates an insightful anecdote about quantity over quality that you may initially find counter-intuitive. A pottery-making class was broken up into two groups, with one half graded on the basis of creating a single perfect pot while the other half graded on how much pottery they produced (it was literally weighed, and grades given out for ranges in pounds). At the end of the class, the group that was producing the best pottery was the group that was going for quantity, because they had created such a large number of pots that the experience they gained overshadowed the pain-staking analysis of the other group.

Naturally, there are all sorts of parallels between this anecdote and many other areas, but I’d really like to relate it to software engineering. I’ve always been a “get straight to coding” kind of guy, doing just the bare minimum of planning necessary to start coding, and then writing the documentation along with the code. And after many years of doing this, my code consistently turns out pretty well. A big reason, I suspect, is simply because this approach leads to so much coding. I write programs for all sorts of little random fun things that I would never get around to if I had to spend a bunch of time painstakingly planning out each program beforehand. The best way to become a better coder is not to plan out how to do it, it’s to actually do it, a maxim which also applies to any other activity, including pottery.

This Mozilla/Ogg thing could end up being really important

Monday, August 4th, 2008

It’s just starting to sink in for me how important the recent inclusion of the Free Software Ogg codecs in Mozilla Firefox 3.1 will turn out to be, especially concerning the Ogg Theora video codec. This will be the first chance for a non-proprietary video codec to really break into the mainstream. Combine Firefox’s now-native support for it (with its >20% market share) and Wikipedia, which only accepts video uploads in Ogg Theora format, and we have a powerhouse for advancing the adoption of non-proprietary codecs. This is big news. Hell, I was interviewed by LinuxInsider on the topic and all I’m really responsible for is increasing public knowledge of this recent event.

As I said in that article, we’re close to reaching the point where video will be natively supported by all browsers on all platforms just as smoothly as images are today. This will have an amazing effect on the usability of the web, and by extension, what humanity is capable of doing with it. It will certainly give many companies (especially smaller start-ups with less funding) a better chance to establish a video foothold on the web, with no more licensing of finicky Flash players or H.264 codecs required. Naturally, it will do wonders for the ease of including video content on personal sites as well.

But don’t think the war is won just yet. There are many hard battles yet to fight in the war for adoption of non-proprietary multimedia codecs. We already lost one of the battles, when Apple and Nokia argued vociferously (and successfully) to remove the Ogg Vorbis and Ogg Theora wording from the HTML 5 draft spec. But the Mozilla Foundation has now successfully managed to ensure that Ogg codec compliance can no longer be ignored. And surprisingly, Microsoft isn’t even the enemy here. As I pointed out in the article, Microsoft isn’t averse to using non-proprietary codecs — they used Ogg Vorbis to handle music in the PC release of Halo, for instance. No, the real enemies here are Nokia and Apple, two members of the MPEG-LA patent pool who are currently making millions of undeserved dollars off of questionable cartel-held software patents that stifle innovation in the multimedia web space and hinder adoption of web video.

The big patent-holders like Apple and Nokia are arguing so tenaciously because they know that once non-proprietary codecs have gained a foothold in any niche, the proprietary codecs lose it permanently. Free (as in free speech) codecs have such clear advantages over non-free codecs, not least of which is that multimedia device manufacturers don’t have to pay licensing fees, that once a free codec becomes viable, no non-free codec will ever be able to reclaim that niche again. So the patent holders will fight tooth-and-nail against losing their cash cows, but inevitably that is what will happen. It’s only a matter of time. We’ve already seen it with the image and document formats — now audio and video are next.

As overheard on the DC Metro

Sunday, August 3rd, 2008

This past Friday, I took the Metro into DC to attend a birthday party for one of my coworkers. Sitting directly across from me was a group of three girls — they looked rather young, but I’ll be charitable and say they were eighteen. They were definitely dressed up for a night on the town, so I’m going to guess they were headed to one of those clubs that lets eighteen-year-olds in. The one right across from me was a slightly chubby blond wearing clothes sexier than she was (not in a good way) with a mouth that was open obnoxiously often.

Not having anything else to do, I couldn’t help but eavesdrop on their conversation. This blond was talking about her taste in men. Specifically, she was discussing what she considered to be “husband material”. And it was an earful, let me tell you. Her number one qualification was that the guy has to be Jewish. Not because that’s what she was, mind you (I would wager at least even odds that she was), but because she wanted a rich husband. Yes, that’s right, Jew=Rich to her, and so she wanted a Jew. She doesn’t want to reap the benefits of hard labor, oh no — she just wants to marry rich and have everything taken care of for her. And apparently that’s what Jewish men are for?

I was floored enough at this line as it was, but it was the next thing she said that really flabbergasted me. She said, and I quote, “And you know I’m too much of a fan of Coach handbags not to marry rich.” Her friends nodded along in agreement, as if being able to provide voluminous quantities of over-priced portable containers was a standard metric for assessing husband potential. I nearly spoke up right then and there, and perhaps I should have — I love a good argument — but I did manage to keep the resultant yelling strictly inside my own head.

What in the hell is wrong with these people? How is owning a certain brand of bag so important? Is this the Sex and the City culture that we’re living in now? I almost reminded this girl that there are people in Africa who don’t even own anything to carry around in a bag, and that the cost of a single high-end handbag could feed a person for life. But I didn’t feel the need to — she wasn’t attractive enough to make a good trophy wife, so sometime in the near future, when her mommy and daddy finally cut her loose and stop buying her expensive accessories — she’ll finally realize how inconsequential her worries over purses were. Real world, meet spoiled average-looking brat.

Why the gender ratio is 1:1

Friday, August 1st, 2008

Well, I’m heading off to a wedding in the family, so I figure if I don’t get a chance to write anything else for the weekend, I may as well leave you with knowledge of Fisher’s principle. Ever wondered why the gender ratio is 1:1 rather than, say, many more females than males? Read that and you’ll know why. Isn’t science grand?