Archive for the 'Personal' Category

Going to the Democratic National Convention

Friday, August 22nd, 2008

I’m getting on a plane to Denver, Colorado in a couple of hours to attend the Democratic National Convention, so my blogging here might become rather sporadic over the next week or so depending on busy my schedule ends up being. I’ll try to post photographs, at least.

This is what a maxed out Verizon FIOS connection can do

Sunday, August 17th, 2008

Having moved into my current residence less than a week ago, the next logical thing to do was to test out our new blazingly fast 20 Mbps downstream/20 Mbps upstream Verizon FIOS connection to see if we were really getting what we paid for. A simple online speed test reported numbers of 20.5 Mbps and downstream 18.5 Mbps upstream, which is very good considering I’ve never actually seen results that close to what was promised. But that was only a measure of momentary bandwidth. Next, I wanted to test our connection over sustained periods, to see if Verizon was going to automatically throttle us at some point.

So I opened up my BitTorrent client and let it seed from everything I’ve downloaded in recent memory. Then I kind of forgot about it and just left it running for 24 hours while I attended to all of the other tasks involved in moving into a new place. I think I may have accidentally left an upload cap in place, so I’m in the process of running the test again. But the results were still impressive nonetheless: When I checked on BitTorrent 24 hours later, I had uploaded 150 Gigabytes. That’s 150 GB in a single day, for an average sustained upstream bandwidth of 14.2 Mbps. That is really nice, and it makes me think I’m never going to have problems downloading torrents quickly ever again (as the download speed is largely limited by the upload speed thanks to the BitTorrent protocol).

So far I’m very impressed with Verizon FIOS. It’s definitely worth the $70 a month, split three ways, that we’re paying. This house having FIOS availability was actually an important part of choosing to rent it, as ADSL is way too slow and the only cable provider in the area, Comcast, is notorious for bandwidth throttling, traffic shaping, and pretty much doing everything else in their power to prevent having to give you what you paid for.

Improvements in broadband service are proceeding at an agonizingly slow rate here in the United States, with most providers like Comcast focusing more on limiting what their customers can do with their service than building out the critical infrastructure that is so desperately needed. This tactic can only work in the short term, and it will begin to fail spectacularly as the average American begins watching more streaming video on the web and starts buying products via digital download (up until now, Comcast has gotten away with cracking down on people who use lots of bandwidth because most of them are file sharers, i.e. involved in illicit activities).

That’s why it’s so refreshing to see a company like Verizon who isn’t taking the low road and is making a serious effort to deploy fiber to the home to provide the bandwidth that will continue fueling our digital revolution. As the New York Times pointed out recently, Americans now spend almost as much on bandwidth (in all forms — Internet, digital TV, mobile Internet, mobile phones, etc.) as they do on energy. Bandwidth is a vital input to our economy, and Verizon’s approach of actually giving us a lot more bandwidth is infinitely superior to Comcast’s approach. I highly recommend Verizon FIOS.

The move is complete

Wednesday, August 13th, 2008

Let’s see, I graduated college a year and three months ago. I initially looked for housing in the local area with one of my college buddies, but our plans fell through, and in August of last year, almost exactly a year ago, I moved back in with my parents. Yeah, I know, not the coolest thing in the world, but hey, it was cheap and close to work. But moving back in after college kind of wears on you, you know? So I knew I would get out eventually; it was only a matter of time.

Well, the stars aligned and I have now moved back out of my parents house as of last night. I’m living with the friend I looked for a place with a year ago (whom you know as Grokmoo, for those of you from Supreme Commander Talk) and another friend from college, who just graduated this year. Just a half hour ago I finished wiring this house up with CAT6 cable, so our local area network is alive and well. And since it’s attached to 20/20 Mbps Verizon FIOS, well, it’s a pretty nice network to be on! Hence the lack of a blog post yesterday, and also why this one is so late: I really didn’t have Internet for over a day. Yeah, I don’t know how I survived either.

It’ll probably still be another couple weeks before I’m settled in here. I still have all sorts of things left to move from my parents’ house. Right now my bedroom just has a bed, a desk, and a lot of boxes — the dresser, nightstand, and bookcases haven’t made it over yet. I’m actually dressing out of a suitcase right now. But at least I have all the essentials. And a longer commute, unfortunately.

The usual non-navel-gazing blog posts should resume tomorrow.

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.)

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.

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.

Abandoned blog post ideas, part 2

Tuesday, July 29th, 2008

Following my wildly successful blog post on abandoned blog ideas, part 1 (at least in terms of cleaning up my WordPress post drafts, anyway), I figure it’s time for part 2. The idea is exactly the same: I’m going through my old WordPress drafts, many of which are nothing more than an idea stored as a post title, and combining a bunch of them into a hodgepodge post. Don’t expect any cohesiveness to any of the following paragraphs. Here we go.

We had an office party a few months ago after work with beer and videogames. Some of my coworkers brought in their console gaming systems. One of my coworkers brought in Smash Brothers Melee, which had just been released for the Wii and was all the rage. I definitely wanted a chance to play it, but I didn’t end up doing so because a few other guys and I spent the entire night playing Rock Band. So, at least in terms of choosing between games I had never played before, Rock Band won out handily. It was a lot of fun — I don’t regret it!

I was idly thinking about things, as I often do, and I came up with the word “Secularium”. I’m not exactly sure what a secularium would be, but it sure sounds cool. Maybe it’s a non-religious counterpart to a place of worship, providing a sense of community and an appreciation for the natural world? The people running a secularium (Scientists? Humanists?) would definitely emphasize rational thinking and empiricism over the faith-based alternatives. Hrmm, maybe I should start one, as a sort of sane alternative to Unitarian Universalists.

This draft title sums up the idea completely: “Embarrassing events matter much less to others.” I saved it as a draft, stewed on it for a day, then realized I didn’t really have anything to add to it, because it’s so incredibly obvious. What I at first considered profound was merely germane. But I might as well re-tell the story that I reminded myself about in the draft notes, because it is mildly funny. In my sophomore year of college, one of my roommates was sitting at his computer in his boxers playing a game. My other roommate happened to have a female friend or two over. I noticed that my first roommate was “peeking out” of his boxers, if you will. I quietly informed him and he got all embarrassed about it (I don’t think the girls ever realized). But it was something that meant absolutely nothing to me, but was quite embarrassing to him, thus proving my thesis.

I was going to embark on a lengthy journey of backing up all of my data and then writing about how I did it, focusing on all of the tools that were used (GnuPG, rsync, tar, scp, K3b, mysqldump, etc.). But then I just got lazy and never got around to it. I still do back up my most essential data across multiple computers over time, but I’m simply not very organized about it, even though I maybe should be. And if my house does burn down, taking all of the computers with it, I would be facing significant losses. I do have enough free space on this webhost; maybe I should encrypt my files (to keep them away from prying eyes in the hosting company) and store them here?

I was playing this game for the Nintendo DS called “My Word Coach” regularly, and I thought I might get a good blog post out of it. But I eventually got bored of the game and the blog post never materialized. Now, I haven’t played it in many months. The fundamental problem with the game is that it’s just not a lot of fun. Granted, learning hundreds of new words in search of an expanded vocabulary is a noble goal, but when it feels like studying, it’s hard to get excited about it, and even harder to spend 15-30 minutes doing it each day. And the mini-games in it are very hit-and-miss, with some of them emphasizing spelling over meaning. I’m not studying for a spelling bee (the whole concept of which I find insipid), so what I really need to know is the meaning of the word. I’ll always be able to recognize a word whose meaning I know when I see it, and if I feel the need to use it in a written composition but don’t remember the exact spelling, I hear there’s this Internet thing where one can look up words with amazing efficiency. But if you’re a writer looking to expand your vocabulary, definitely check it out. I thought it was hilarious that I started out knowing 55% of the words in the game’s dictionary, as judged by an “entrance exam”, while one of the reviews I read had the guy starting at 20%. Ouch.

And finally, if I wasn’t being meta enough already, one of my old drafts was itself an idea to take old drafts and combine them into a single post. What are we, two layers deep now? At least I finally did get around to it.

All right, phew, down to 41 drafts now. This is becoming more manageable by the day.

McCain is coming off the rails, ball bearings flying everywhere

Monday, July 28th, 2008

New McCain Ad Bashes Obama for Not Visiting Troops Using Footage of Obama Visiting Troops.

There’s not much I can really add to that. If John McCain was running this campaign any more incompetently, he’d be better off handing the reins to a chimpanzee. Maybe he already should.

The past few days have seen so many dishonest attacks by McCain against Barack Obama — not visiting the troops, wanting to end the war for purely political reasons — that it really tarnishes that whole “Straight Talk Express” sheen he had going for him. Without that, what else can he possibly sell the American people on? The huge similarities between his positions and George W. Bush’s?

Code commenting: one of the casualties of outsourcing

Monday, July 21st, 2008

During college I worked as a computer programmer intern at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. I had the opportunity to work on all sorts of nifty cutting-edge physics simulations using some serious science. Unfortunately, everything was written in VB 6, C++ .NET, or Fortran, but you can’t have it all, and .NET is actually pretty decent compared to some of the alternatives.

One of the programs I worked on was originally written by a Korean researcher working at NIST, thus technically not making it outsourcing, but the problems I’m about to describe are relevant nonetheless. The code was rather hard to understand, especially the variable names, which followed some kind of naming convention that was completely foreign to me. Luckily, the code was actually decently commented. In Korean. Not that it would’ve helped me if I was able to read Korean, because sometime between the original writing of the code and when it got to me, all of the nice UTF-8 comments were corrupted down to ASCII-128. So they appeared as complete gibberish that wouldn’t be understandable by anyone — if you’ve ever viewed binary executable data as text, you know what I’m talking about.

My best guess is that another American maintenance programmer before me edited the program in an IDE that wasn’t set up to understand UTF-8. He must’ve not noticed when all of the nicely formatted Korean comments turned into gibberish — or maybe he didn’t care. Either way, by the time the comments got to me, they were thoroughly worthless. Well, not quite. Their presence at least alerted me to sections of the code that required extra attention, because they were generally non-trivial.

Code maintainability is thus one of the biggest casualties of outsourcing. If the coders you’re outsourcing to don’t speak English, or if they at least don’t bother to comment the code in English, you’ll be facing significantly higher code maintenance costs down the line. That’s just something to keep in mind. In the long run, you save money by hiring local programmers. At least that’s the official line I’m sticking with, seeing as how doing so directly benefits me (hey, did I ever say I wasn’t a biased blogger?).

It’s annual company meeting time

Friday, July 18th, 2008

My company is celebrating its 10th anniversary with an all-weekend annual meeting in Williamsburg, Virginia this weekend, so don’t expect any new blog posts for the duration. And by all-weekend meeting what I really mean is an actual two-hour meeting surrounded on both ends by golfing, roller coasters at Busch Gardens, resort hotel activities, and copious drinking of alcoholic beverages paid for by the company, so don’t feel too bad for me. See you on Monday!