Archive for September, 2008

Random awesome link of the day

Tuesday, September 30th, 2008

Man, I’d love to go see the Banaeu Rice Terraces in person some day. Unreal. Just look at that panoramic photograph in full screen.

Just say no (to the financial sector bailout)

Monday, September 29th, 2008

I’m conflicted about the collapse of the financial bailout package. On the one hand, I’m losing a lot of money on the stock market and in my 401K. Losing money never made anyone happy. But hey, I’m young (just one year out of college), so my risk tolerance only draws the line at loss of limb or life. On the other hand, I really do think this is in the nation’s collective best long term interests, including my own. Here’s why.

We don’t need our money going toward a bailout of the failing industries of the past. We need it to foster the groundbreaking companies of the future. I’m talking about a New Deal-style investment in carbon-free renewable energy and energy independence. Why waste this $700 billion on companies that royally screwed up, companies that don’t actually create any tangible products I might add? They’re real good at printing paper, sure, but this latest economic collapse shows how successful of a strategy that is. The problem is that when you’re printing your own paper (CDOs, derivatives, etc.), the industry as a whole is effectively able to decide how large of a number they want to write on each piece of paper, regardless of any intrinsic value. And then when the house of cards inevitably comes falling down, hey, they’re all “too big to fail”, so the government has to bail them out! What a great scam.

I’m really hoping that Barack Obama is elected president, because he’s the only major party candidate (i.e. has a shot in hell at getting elected) proposing a massive investment in energy independence. He has a plan to get America off foreign oil in ten years, and along the way we’d significantly reduce our carbon emissions as well. Saving the planet is something we can all agree on. John McCain, on the other hand, is more of the same. His campaign is run by lobbyists. He’s consistently been on the dead wrong side of economic issues (when he understands them anyway), supporting the massive deregulation that got us into all of this mess. He has no real plan for America’s energy independence, only lip service. After eight years of Bush, another four years in the same style with McCain (or God forbid, Sarah Palin) would be an absolute disaster.

America is experiencing a class war of sorts: the massive looting of the lower and middle class by the ultra-wealthy. During Bush’s two terms, the median household income decreased by $2,000, while the ultra-rich got much much richer in comparison to the rest of us. This proposed $700 billion bailout of the ultra-wealthy from the tax revenues of the rest of us would only be the latest and most flagrant attack in the ongoing war. The most amazing thing about the Republican machine over these past decades is how they’ve consistently abused moral/cultural wedge issues (such as abortion, religion, and gay marriage) to distract people into voting against their economic self-interest by the tens of millions. Only people making $250,000 per year and up will save money by voting for a John McCain presidency — that is a really small percentage of the populace.

So say no to the bailout. Let the companies that screwed up to the combined tune of over a trillion dollars crumble as they so richly deserve. And instead of giving them one more cent, put that money to work in renewable energy. Injecting that amount of money will have the same stimulative effect on the economy whether it’s spent on the finance industry or on the green industry, except spending it on the former is rewarding the failures of the past while spending it on the latter is building the path to the future. The correct choice for America’s future is obvious.

Yes, I’m still around

Sunday, September 28th, 2008

Isn’t this always how it works out? You plan on taking a short break, and then for many days in a row things keep coming up that prevent you from ending said break?

Anyway, look for a real post later tonight. I’ve also been thinking about refocusing this blog somewhat (though this is far from the first time I’ve said those words without following through on it, so who knows what’ll happen). The general topic format just isn’t getting me where I’d like to be.

How quickly life paths diverge

Friday, September 19th, 2008

This past weekend I went to the grocery store with my college friend and current roommate Grokmoo. It was the same grocery store I used to go to with my parents every weekend over a decade ago when we lived in the area. I hadn’t been back since until this weekend, and it was exactly as I remembered it. It seems kind of silly to feel nostalgic about a grocery store, but there it was.

As I was idly walking through the fresh fruit aisle, pondering whether I wanted some apples, I happened to catch a glimpse across the store of a girl I knew from high school. It was one of those fleeting glances followed by instant recognition — I was sure it was her. Let’s just say I spent a lot of time in high school looking at her in French class (more on that later).

She didn’t appear to recognize me, so I just observed from afar. I don’t know if she even would’ve recognized me one year out of high school; high school is just full of asymmetric relationships where a few popular people are known by everyone, but not vice-versa. I was blanking on her name, so I didn’t think going up and saying hi would be a good idea (of course, I remembered her full name as soon I got home). As I kept on crossing paths with her in the grocery store, a realization slowly dawned on me — our life paths have diverged a lot since high school.

She was one of the popular girls in the school. I distinctly remember on one occasion when she won a school-wide give-away simply because she had some friends interning in the office and they managed to fix it for her. Oh, and she was very hot, though, sadly, she doesn’t look quite as good now. My friend remarked that she had “a really nice rack” (ladies, don’t attack the messenger). But I’d still say she peaked in high school.

I couldn’t help help staring at her in the supermarket because she was with a tough-looking African-American man a decade her senior and three young children. Judging by the way they interacted, I would say those were their kids. This was definitely the strangest part of seeing her. After high school, I went on to college then got a good job. I’m nowhere near settled down on anything in particular. But she must’ve gotten with this much older man right out of high school and immediately started having babies. Here she is, the same age as me — 23 — but the things she’s worrying about in life are completely different.

And she didn’t look happy; that’s what really left me feeling cold. If she at least seemed happy I would be able to get over it, but she didn’t. The only time I heard the man speak to her was when she was inadvertently backing into another customer, and he said, kind of gruffly, “Get out the way”. Perhaps it’s not fair to judge their whole life together from one minor incident at a grocery store, but I have nothing else to go on. She was being submissive and he was being rude, dismissive, and controlling, while the three kids just kind of played with each other a couple dozen feet away without getting in anyone’s way. I just wonder how it could have ended up this way; she was such a different person in high school, which must now feel like decades ago to her. I had a silly, fleeting thought that perhaps things could’ve ended up differently — but such thoughts are naught but fantasy.

I haven’t gone to a high school reunion yet, but doing so will likely be a huge shock. People my age, who I only knew as immature high schoolers, are going to be married with kids. That’s a shock. Neither I nor any of my close friends have even gotten anywhere close to anything like that, but expand the circle a bit, and there it is: real life staring me in the face.

Maybe I shouldn’t go to that supermarket anymore.

Drawing enlightening parallels between computer science and bacon

Wednesday, September 17th, 2008

My housemate has become rather obsessed with bacon in recent days. He’s been reading the Bacon Subreddit religiously and filling me in on all of the breaking news and happenings in the burgeoning online bacon community. This past weekend, the bacon fever reached critical levels, because he went to the grocery store, bought a lot of bacon, and started cooking it. This was a big step for him, trust me.

So the first time he made the bacon he put some olive oil in the pan first (I know, bacon purists are wincing at the travesty). But by the time the bacon was well underway, it had already made so much of its own grease to cook in that the puny amount of olive oil was proven completely unnecessary. Bacon thus contains everything within it necessary to cook it. How amazing is that? So the second time he made bacon, he didn’t bother with oil. He just turned the heat down at the beginning while the bacon was generating its own grease (so as to not burn it), then it was off to the races.

In other words, to borrow a term from computer science, bacon is self-hosting. Much like how the compilers of mature programming languages are written in the language they compile, bacon produces all of the greases necessary to cook itself. Bacon isn’t just scrumptious, it’s a smart choice.

But that’s not only the comparison that can be drawn to computer science. Bacon can also bootstrap other bacon. Too impatient to wait for bacon to generate its own grease to cook in? Just save up the bacon grease from the previous bacon cooking session in a Tupperware container and use it to jump-start the next batch. The parallels here with using an already-compiled compiler executable to compile the first compiler on a new system are uncanny, are they not?

I’m sure there are lots more analogies to be drawn between bacon and computer science, and I’d love to see them fleshed out in the comments below. In fact, bacon would make a great standard analogy to be used in introductory computer science classes, alongside Alice and Bob and “think of your computer as an automobile”. Not only is this a great idea because bacon is easily understood by everyone, but also because it’s delicious.

An explanation for religiosity?

Tuesday, September 16th, 2008

Here’s an interesting article from England’s The Times newspaper: “I don’t believe that believers really believe“. It’s well worth reading in its entirety, but the gist is that the columnist does not believe that believers truly believe what they say, because their actions are wildly inconsistent with the professed beliefs. It’s an interesting argument, but I don’t think it’s quite right. I believe Jamie Whyte’s perceptions about religious belief are biased from living in a country that is largely apathetic toward religion. Well, here in the United States Under God of America, things are a bit different, and it’s not quite so easy to be so dismissive about religion.

I don’t blame the incoherency between professed beliefs and actions on lack of true belief, I blame it on hypocrisy and compartmentalization. Most people realize religion doesn’t have anything to do with their day to day life. The only time they are in “religious” mode is when it is explicitly brought up, for example when they go to church, or when someone asks them what their religion is. Otherwise, they just live their lives as humans are wont to do, with all of the activities contraindicated by their religion that that entails, even if it is wildly hypocritical. It’s not that religious adherents don’t believe in all that nonsense, because they do; it’s just that it’s nearly impossible for it to affect every aspect of their life.

I really like the point Jamie Whyte makes about abortion, though. If abortion really was comparable to the Holocaust, as abortion protestors frequently like to claim, we might actually want to, you know, stop it.

The importance of apex experiments to science

Friday, September 12th, 2008

The recent news blitz over the first day of operation for the Large Hadron Collider got me thinking — what other fields have cool apex experiments? Seeing as how the term “apex experiment” is possibly one that I have invented myself, allow me to explain. An apex experiment is the most important, sought-after, envied, cool, world-changing, and often priciest, experiment in a given field. I’ve modeled this term after the term “apex predator” from ecology, which is a predator that is at the very top of the food chain in its environment (e.g. lions on the savanna, great white sharks in the sea, and eagles in the skies). So if you want to think of an apex experiment as capable of devouring all the rest of the experiments in its field, then that’s cool too.

Particle physics, then, has a really cool apex experiment: the supercollider. The latest supercollider, the Large Hadron Collider, is a behemoth 27 kilometers in circumference buried hundreds of feet in the ground that approaches nearly unimaginable energy levels. It will create hitherto unknown particles from the sheer energy released by the force of tremendous collisions. It’s harder to imagine a field with a better apex experiment, but I have one: rocket science. The apex experiment in rocketry in the 1960s, a manned mission to the Moon, was undeniably awesome, and the current apex experiment, a manned mission to Mars, is awe-inspiring for its sheer difficulty.

Now look at some other fields. Until very recently, the apex experiment in the field of genetics and bioinformatics was sequencing the human genome. Now that that’s been accomplished, the next lofty goal is to do so cheaply, so that it can be done on an individual basis as part of a routine medical diagnostic. A worthy goal, certainly, but it doesn’t have the same coolness factor as the LHC or the Apollo missions. Regrettably, there is no Giant Animal Smasher in biology, though the sheer amazingness of such an awesome contraption existing sends tingles down my spine (though perhaps PETA would have a different reaction).

How about some other fields? Astronomy has the Hubble Space Telescope (and coming soon, the James Webb Space Telescope). SETI has the Allen Array and the Arecibo dish, the latter of which also serves as an apex experiment in the field of radio astronomy. I couldn’t point to one particular example in computer science beyond the now-obsolete Deep Blue, but the ever ongoing race for the most powerful supercomputer serves in a pinch. Biology had the discovery of the form of DNA, though nowadays its apex experiment is probably along the lines of finding a cure for cancer (which is, admittedly, a lot less of a unified endeavor than we once believed). As for chemistry and engineering, nothing immediately jumps to the top of my mind, though I’m sure you readers will have some ideas in the comments below.

Apex experiments are so important because, in addition to giving all the other scientists in a field something to aspire to, they also draw the publics attention to the importance of science, and thus, keep critical science funding from drying up. An apex experiment is like a blockbuster movie: it creates an incredible buzz in mainstream society, and then hopefully while everyone is at the theater watching the movie, they’re also dropping some money on concessions.

Barring the Giant Animal Smasher becoming a reality, I would have to say that the Apollo missions were the apex of all apex experiments. No other singular human scientific endeavor has come close in terms of impact. Space exploration is uniquely captivating and world-changing, so here’s hoping that the next apex experiment in space exploration, journeying to Mars, is not too far off.

The twisted relationship between game reviewers and game publishers is still going strong

Thursday, September 11th, 2008

It’s an open secret in the videogame world that game reviewers and game publishers have a twisted relationship. It’s very much “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine”. The majority of game review publications’ revenue comes from advertising bought by game publishers, and the publishers get publicity (and good reviews) in exchange. Videogame reviewers are so desperate for those engines of increasing readership numbers, exclusive previews of AAA titles, that they will trade away all journalistic integrity for them and allow their previews to be ghost-written by the publishers (e.g. in the case of Metal Gear Solid 4). The same happens with game reviews — witness how the head editor of Gamespot, Jeff Gerstmann, was fired for giving the AAA title Kane & Lynch its deservedly low score after Kane & Lynch’s publisher, Eidos Interactive, purchased hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of advertising on the site.

There is this persistent notion in the videogame business that AAA titles (the ones that are anticipated years in advance and have budgets in the tens of millions of dollars; the closest analogues are Hollywood blockbusters) are simply too big to fail. They are the standard-bearers of the videogame world, the theory goes, and so they must be good. Even if they aren’t, the game review media will unconsciously and consciously conspire to give them uniformly good scores. And the odd reviewer out, the one who dislikes the game so much he actually considers saying so in a review, dares not go against the consensus, as that will cause all of the rabid irrational fanboys to focus their attacks on him. And that’s even without the influence of big advertising dollars.

The most recent occurrence of this phenomenon is with the game Spore. Spore, as you no doubt know by now, is the largest of the AAA titles since the release of Halo 3 last year. Hyped up for years, with a truly astronomical budget, it was finally released in the past week. And yet it simply doesn’t live up to its potential (and that’s ignoring the huge Digital Restrictions Management fiasco). It’s just not very good, and the gaming public at large recognizes it as such. Personally, I would give it a 5 to 6 out of 10. Yet what does the game review
ing community give it? An average of score 86%!, as measured by Metacritic. Go on, read the individual reviews. Many of them discuss the shortcomings of the game at length, going into great detail about how each stage of the game is repetitive, boring, simple, and more toy-like than game-like, but then the review concludes with an incongruously high review score tacked onto the end, as if to jab you in the eye with their thought process: “It’s a AAA title; we can’t give it a lower score than this.”

Aye, the game review media, who are almost all in on it, can’t give AAA titles low scores (with the very occasional outlier, of course). They value their advertising dollars, and their jobs, over integrity. But the average gamer faces no such moral hazard. That’s why Metacritic’s average user review score is 55% — that’s a 31% discrepancy between how good the big reviewers say the game is and how good it actually is. And you only see this discrepancy with AAA titles. Reviewers don’t have any qualms about reaming a smaller title that deserves it, especially if it’s published by an independent publisher. User reviews and “professional” reviews match up rather uncannily in these situations. It’s just in the case of AAA titles that these scores can wildly diverge, and when they do, it’s always in the same direction: the pros rate a title much higher than its merits dictate.

And it’s a shame, because videogames can’t possibly match the respect and maturity of other entertainment forms, such as movies and music, until they have a reviewing and criticism industry with integrity.

The Large Hadron Collider powers up tomorrow

Tuesday, September 9th, 2008

I’ve been eagerly awaiting the completion of the Large Hadron Collider for many years now (here’s proof), so I couldn’t miss this opportunity to remind everyone that the LHC will be powered up for the first time tomorrow. If you’re a nutjob scaremongerer, treat tonight like it’s your last night on Earth appropriately (you know, what with the creating of black holes that swallow the Earth and all). To everyone else: rejoice! If you don’t know the significance of the LHC, well, it may help us finally figure out how gravity works. And/or reveal all sorts of exotic particles that we don’t yet even know about.

So yeah, I’ve kind of been excited about this for a long time, and I’m giddy as a school girl that the date has finally arrived. I’ll definitely be drinking some kind of toast to the LHC tonight.

Spore fails to live up to its potential

Monday, September 8th, 2008

The long wait is finally over, and after many years of hype, Spore has finally been released. This news was immediately greeted with a huge backlash against the malfeasant Digital Restrictions Management included with the game, which limits each purchased copy of the game to three installations — ever. I’ve written about DRM multiple times in the past, so I don’t feel compelled to take this opportunity to make any statement on DRM beyond reiterating how terrible it is for the consumer. And judging by all of the negative reviews Spore’s DRM has engendered on Amazon, even Electronic Arts has to be questioning whether including such draconian DRM was worth it. As I write this, Spore has 934 one-star reviews out of 1,011 reviews total, a number that is only going to increase dramatically over the coming days.

No, what I really want to address about Spore is its failure to live up to the amazing game play that it once promised, an issue that has been mostly lost amongst all of the (justifiable) complaining over the DRM (although Ars Technica didn’t fail to take notice). What really sold me on Spore from the first times I read about it was the promise of truly being able to design a creature. I remember marveling at how all aspects of a creature were supposed to be procedurally generated based solely on the design of the creature. The characteristics of the legs you designed would affect how well the creature would be able to move — its gait, its stride, its jumping height, etc. Ditto for every other component of the animal. I was instantly fantasizing of three-legged creatures with a single exceptionally long appendage used for striking. Such a feature has never evolved naturally on Earth, either by chance or because natural selection is not conducive to creating it. The real appeal of Spore, to me, was being able to test out all sorts of bizarre intelligently designed body configurations that do not appear in the natural world to find the most effective ones. And it would be very telling if the most effective predators in the games looked curiously similar to tigers, lions, and bears.

Combine this ability to truly design your own creature with the Sporepedia, which lets you match up your creations against everyone else’s, and Spore would’ve been amazing. I could easily see myself spending days trying to tweak the ultimate predator, able to kill as many of the creatures created by other people as possible. But alas, such a thing is not possible with Spore the way it ended up, because the ability to truly design creatures was removed at some point during the development process (probably because it ended up being exceptionally difficult to do correctly). Don’t get me wrong, you still have the ability to fine tune the appearance of creatures to your heart’s content, but it is all cosmetic. The finished version of Spore, unfortunately, shipped with an ability-generation system that is all-too-familiar, not revolutionary.

In fact, the creature customization system of Spore is nearly identical to the spaceship customization system in Galactic Civilizations II. In GalCiv, ships are formed by taking a base shape, adding cosmetic shapes of various shapes and sizes on top of it, and then adding modules. Each module takes up a certain amount of space and costs a certain amount of money. GalCiv is all about min-maxing your ship designs: pack in as much firepower/defense/functionality as possible while trying to keep the costs as low as possible (since cost determines how many of them you can build). Spore is exactly the same. The capabilities of your creature are determined not by how the creature is constructed, but simply by which modules are placed on it, and you guessed it, each module costs a certain amount of “DNA points” and has specific statistics for Attack, Defense, etc., exactly like Galactic Civilizations II. It’s still an acceptable system, but it’s not the revolution that I had been hoping for.

So, in Spore, a creature with a Spikes attack module placed on its chest will perform identically well in combat as a creature with a Spikes attack module on a twenty foot appendage, even though, in real combat between such creatures, the ways in which the spikes are used would be completely different, and would offer up substantially different advantages to both creatures. This is the promise of Spore that simply wasn’t met. It’s a pity.

Add to this unexceptional creature creator the chorus of reports that Spore is more fun as a toy than as a game — most parts of Spore aren’t particularly deep or challenging — and you have one AAA title release that I am overwhelmingly ambivalent about. Combine that with the draconian DRM, and you have one game that I know I’m never going to purchase. It’s a pity. Spore showed such promise, but in the end, couldn’t execute.