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July 28th, 2012 - Enthusiasm++Comments [9]

Computers! I love them! I've always loved them, and I knew, ever since I was a wee lad, that they would somehow become my destiny. I'd dabbled in the digital world before I could read, clacking away at educational games on my parents' Apple IIe. I always appreciated what computers made possible, probably more than the next guy, hypnotized by video games, Speak & Spells, and little pocket synthesizer toys. And then, spurred on by both the terribly awesome 1995 movie Hackers and the egotistical flaunting of my next-door-neighbor's computer prowess, I spent an inordinate amount of time fiddling with computers throughout all of middle school and high school trying to determine how many of these tall tales might turn out to be true. What was actually possible, anyway?

When I finally reached college, I was convinced that once I learned how to program - what I regarded, and perhaps continue to regard, as the holy grail of all things computer - my decade-long journey to learn all that there was to know about computers would be over. I would have reached the highest peak of computerdom. But, two observations, and spoilers for those yet to get their Computer Science degrees:

  1. Everything I specifically went to college to learn, I probably could have just as easily learned on my own. I.e., programming.
  2. Everything I wasn't already aware of before college will probably continue to confound me for eons. I.e., mathematics and algorithms.

Like my former philosophy professer once said about his craft, "the more you learn, the more confused you will become. This is the only sure sign that you're making progress." I find this statement to be just as true of Computer Science. The silver lining is that the easier skills to learn often turn out to be the more practical ones, the ones that are perhaps more useful to land a job. After I graduated in 2006 and found a job, it felt as though I crossed the finish line. I learned more at my jobs bit by bit, and felt like I was on the track to learning everything I ever wanted to know. For the most part, I stopped tinkering with computers in my free time, confident that work would take me the rest of the way.

But then one day, I think in 2009, I stumbled upon the (in)famous magazine, 2600: The Hacker Quarterly, at my local Barnes & Noble. I don't know how exactly, but I'd known about this magazine since I was probably twelve, back during those strange early days of the Internet when I'd find random text files about building long-since-obsolete blue boxes, red boxes, and other oddities. Those early years of wonder. My own personal Wonder Years, if you will, but without Daniel Stern narrating my life. Basically, finding an actual copy of this elusive magazine for the first time made me feel like I was twelve again, overcome by the same sense of wonder, the same sense of "What was possible?"

If you've never read an issue of 2600, it's truly an odd experience. Most of its content is supplied by its readers, making it a very mixed bag. Some articles are uninspiring, boring, or just plain reboots of old ideas (e.g., "Everything we did before we can now do on Android phones!"). But for every passable article, it seems, there is an article worth reading. Articles that introduce new tools, articles that combine technologies in new ways, articles that examine ethical or political issues, or my absolute favorite, articles that explore the tiniest nooks and crannies of the most obscure topics imaginable. For all of this magazine's inconsistency and silliness, nothing else has sent me off in so many directions researching computery things I had never known about previously. "How does this even work?" I haven't asked that question so many times since I was that twelve-year-old discovering blue box schematics and software keygens for the first time.

So, clearly, it's not without a little fanfare that I got my own article published in the Winter 2011-2012 issue of 2600. My article dealt with what I know best at this juncture, web programming, specifically how to get yourself into trouble and how to defend against people wanting to get into trouble. I've been involved in web programming for so long that I feel like I'm perhaps seeing things that others might not see. But every issue of 2600 makes it abundantly clear that I've only scratched the surface. I've become highly specialized in one thing. That's just not enough, says the twelve-year-old me. I want to specialize in everything! Impossible by definition, if not by practical constraints. I don't care. I'm still going to try.

There are so many things I've wanted to know. Everything I've come to think of as the "dark art" of computers. People casually talk about jailbreaking their iPhone, hacking their Xbox, cracking software, stripping DRM, bypassing copy protections, or emulating Super Nintendo games. I suppose the cat is out of the bag now. And yet it somehow isn't. Who are the people that make these things possible, and how do they do it? The trouble has always been finding out where this knowledge is hiding. Where does one start? Who does one talk to? How did these people come to learn what they know?

But now all of these questions have been replaced with just one: How long has all of this stuff been hiding in plain sight?

http://www.syngress.com/hacking-and-penetration-testing/
http://nostarch.com/catalog/security
http://www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/Section/id-350330.html

Look at all those weird books! I feel like a kid in a candy store! But I have a lot of catching up to do. I started with The Basics of Hacking and Penetration Testing: Ethical Hacking and Penetration Testing Made Easy, and now I'm working on Practical Malware Analysis: The Hands-On Guide to Dissecting Malicious Software. And, by the way, when did people start making instructional videos about this stuff?!

http://www.securitytube.net/
http://hak5.org/
https://www.defcon.org/html/links/dc-archives.html
http://blip.tv/2600magazine




December 14th, 2011 - Air Android UltraComments [0]

Long time, no update. Maybe, hopefully, more updates in the future! Since the last update:

- My web hosting provider, iPower, broke half of my website by prefixing every file name with the name of its parent directory. For example, pics/image.jpg has become pics/pics_image.jpg. Everything in a subdirectory has been similarly affected, and I have a lot of subdirectories. Thank you, iPower, for finding ever more sophisticated ways to break my website. I haven't gotten around to the chore of renaming things back yet. I don't have a shell account. Maybe now is the time to switch, if I ever get back into the habit of blogging journaling.

- I submitted an article to 2600 Magazine a couple months ago and they accepted it. It should be appearing in an upcoming issue. In Fairbanks, you can buy 2600 Magazine at Barnes & Noble. It's the small, weird looking magazine on the bottom magazine rack near the computer and video game magazines.

- I have discovered the ultimate nerdjoy: playing mindless video games while listening to Audible audio books. This month I have been playing Left 4 Dead while listening to Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene. Last month it was Knights of the Old Republic while listening to The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. Before that, it was Super Meat Boy and Columbine.

- I participated in NaNoWriMo and wrote 50,066 words worth of clumsy writing about color blindness in 29 days. Overall it wasn't quite the challenge I thought it would be. It took less than two hours per day. Once I made a habit of it everything fell into place. Now I just need to reserve twice as many days to edit it into something readable.

- I purchased a Samsung Galaxy S II smartphone to replace my '90s-esque Nokia dumbphone, and I am now becoming one of Them. You know, those annoying folks who talk and write about their phones. Here is some proof for you:

- I'm dabbling in Android development. I have the rough beginnings of a game made, and several more ideas that might be good or might be bad. Maybe this will provide fodder for more blogging journaling in the future.

- I'm flying out to Las Vegas tomorrow. I'm flying back late Christmas Eve in time for my yearly appearance at church, and then Christmas!!! I've never flown quite so close to Christmas before. But, being a frugal man, I prefer long layovers to more costly tickets. I especially like long layovers in the Seattle airport. It's got a nice ambience, a Burger King, and a place that sells football-sized breakfast burritos in the morning. I can have all this and more during my 16-hour layover on the trip down. What will I do with the 15 hours when I am not eating? I will almost certainly be doing hipster looking things with my new phone. I'm loading it up in anticipation with:

If I get tired of looking at my phone, I'll supercharge myself with a sludge cup and continue reading The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics. I'm no physicist, but this book is surprisingly readable.

/hipster




September 8th, 2010 - Dedicated to Dutch GeckoComments [9]

The ebook war, or shall I say the "ebook reader war," appears to be escalating. We have the Amazon Kindle, the Barnes & Noble Nook, and the Apple iPad all vying for a piece of the pie they themselves are baking. Over in this corner of the world, I couldn't agree more with the disembodied voice I heard on the Internet radio show This Week In Tech several years ago: ebook readers are a solution looking for a problem.

But [feigning a thick Slovenian accent] don't get me wrong, I would very much LIKE to have a reason to own an ebook reader. Gadgets are fun fun fun for everyone! Even more fun are gadgets that save time and money. In this case, however, I'm afraid I may have spoiled the fun by doing what I find even more fun than reading -- over-thinking problems! Below are five reasons why I currently have no plans to buy an ebook reader.

"Think of how convenient it would be to have on an airplane!"

Do you know how many things I've purchased because they would be good to have on an airplane? It's basically the sole reason I've owned several iterations of Nintendo Game Boys and a Nintendo DS, not to mention part of the reason I own a netbook, and some older bulkier MP3 players. I buy a new Nintendo DS game for the plane ride before most trips to the Lower 48. The reasoning is that if I'm forced to fly coach a couple times per year, I'll risk losing my mind if I'm not distracted and comforted from all angles.

The big tragedy is that I can't remember the last time I actually resorted to personal electronics on an airplane. Of the (roughly) 100 hours I've spent flying coach during the past four years, I've played my Nintendo DS about 20 minutes. I've not once listened to music, nor pulled out my netbook. What do I do? I read. Nothing makes the time go by faster for me, and it's quite satisfying.

If I'm such a big fan of reading, maybe an Amazon Kindle is exactly where I should be investing my money. It would indeed be convenient to have on an airplane, after all. You know what else is convenient? A book. It comes with the additional feature of holding my boarding pass, and I won't go ape shit if it gets lost or stolen. Thieves don't steal books unless they want to become better people.

"Maybe a book is convenient, but carrying three or four books around can be a bit cumbersome. The Kindle can hold thousands!"

The last time I had to carry around more than one book at a time was college, and I was too worried about figuring out how to function on four hours of sleep to worry about mere convenience.

Maybe Liz can read a book in 37 minutes, but at my humble 3 minutes per page, I'd be lucky to finish a single book before an iPad went dead. Carry around thousands of books at a time? I have enough reminders of how little idle time I have, thank you very much. I sure as hell don't need to carry a guilt tablet on my person. Okay, maybe a Tylenol PM or two for those longer flights.

"But with a Kindle, if you decide you want to purchase a new book, you can be holding it in your hands in less than a minute!"

I tend to be a linear reader. I strive to read one book at a time, and starting a new book is my reward for finishing an old book. This methodology works wonders for video games, too. I stockpile otherwise.

I'm not going to buy a new book until I finish my old book. If I finish a book at home, no problem. I get to treat myself to one of my more exciting trips to Barnes & Noble, where I sip a black coffee while shopping for a paperback book. A paperback book that I'm going to purchase later that evening for 2/3 the price on Amazon, approaching the price I'd pay for an ebook on the Kindle.

On those rare occasions when I finish a book on an airplane, I'll simply visit one of the nineteen Hudson News bookstores that seem to have infested every airport in the Pacific Northwest.

"Ah ha! But if you only buy books one at a time, your sub-$25 2/3 Amazon price is offset by $4 of shipping costs. I have trapped you -- with logic!"

I suppose you have. But do you know what else is cheaper on Amazon? Everything. My brilliant coworkers and I have been testing the limits of Amazon's generous free shipping offer. The following items have helped my book orders qualify for free shipping in the recent past, and every last one of them was marked down from retail price at the time I ordered them:
  • an Xbox Live points card
  • a Wii points card
  • a magnetic stud finder
  • a spindle of 100 CD-Rs
  • sheet metal snips
  • a hacksaw
My coworker has raised my antics with a fuel generator and a four-pound stainless steel axe, both discounted, and both with free shipping.

The key is to keep a list of items you will need eventually, and use these items to pad your Amazon orders for free shipping. Which item you use to pad an order at any given time can (and should) be determined by keeping your list on camelcamelcamel.com, where each item's price history can be tracked. In this way, you can emulate all the joys of dinking around with the stock market while you shop for rechargeable batteries. You can (and should) drive everyone around you nuts. Unless you live in Fairbanks, Alaska, where all the nuts around you were already doing the same thing a year ago.

Make certain to charge your order on your Amazon credit card to earn 3x the points, and make sure to purchase the items through the Amazon link on camelcamelcamel.com to earn them a well-deserved commission, before the entire house of cards topples.

"You said 'approaching the price I'd pay for an ebook on the Kindle.' Approaching but not matching. It sounds to me like you just conceded that ebooks are a better deal in the long run."

Let's assume I read a book per month, which is frankly a bit optimistic these days. Let's also assume that I'd save $2 per book if I bought the electronic versions. If I purchased a Kindle at its current price of $180, I'd make up the difference in a mere 7.5 years. How does this look where the rubber meets the road (ugh)?

The following is a table of the last 20 books I'd read at the time I started writing this article, when I first started obsessing. (For more information on the books themselves, check out my Goodreads page.) "New" means the price of the new book on Amazon at this very moment, assuming Super Saver Shipping (free) when available. "Used" means used on Amazon, also assuming Super Saver Shipping when available (some used books have free shipping now). Shipping is included in the price for books where free shipping is not available. Titles have been abbreviated to protect the innocent. Apple iBooks were not included because I don't have a device to access their iBook store.

BOOK NEW USED KINDLE NOOK
Walkin' the Dog by Walter Mosley $5.60 $7.80 $9.99 $9.99
Island of the Colorblind by Oliver Sacks $10.17 $5.10 N/A N/A
Autobiography of F.B.I. Special Agent Dale Cooper $38.93 $6.09 N/A N/A
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance $11.55 $9.98 $10.99 $10.99
Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy $10.87 $8.49 N/A N/A
The Words We Live By: Annotated Constitution $10.87 $6.99 N/A N/A
Your Inner Fish: 3.5-Billion-Year History of Human Body $10.17 $12.43 $9.66 $9.66
Masterminds: Genius, DNA, and the Quest to Rewrite Life $12.78 $4.11 $10.99 $10.99
Basic Writings of Nietzsche $12.24 $11.50 $9.99 $9.99
Parasite Rex: Nature's Most Dangerous Creatures $10.85 $9.94 $12.99 $12.99
Island by Aldous Huxley $10.19 $11.44 $9.99 $9.99
Seeing Voices: A Journey Into the World of the Deaf $10.04 $9.32 N/A N/A
Wittgenstein's Beetle & Other Classic Thought Experiments $71.96 $8.98 $64.76 $23.35
Breaking The Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon $11.56 $9.97 $13.99 $13.99
The Holographic Universe $10.19 $5.97 N/A N/A
Prodigal Genius: The Life of Nikola Tesla $12.89 $16.13 $5.69 N/A
The Revolution: A Manifesto by Ron Paul $10.19 $9.94 $9.99 $9.99
Prime Mover: A Natural History of Muscle $12.44 $10.99 N/A N/A
The Integral Trees and The Smoke Ring $10.85 $4.84 N/A N/A
You Got Nothing Coming: Notes From A Prison Fish $20.52 $5.77 $13.80 $13.80
AVERAGE PRICE $15.74 $8.79 $15.24 $12.34

Observations that cannot be ignored:
  • buying books used is almost always the most economical option
  • Nook ebooks apparently mirror the price of Kindle ebooks most of the time
  • Amazon, like Walmart, prefers to round to weird prices (e.g., $10.17)
  • there is something real bad wrong with Wittgenstein's Beetle ebooks
  • eight (40%) of the books I chose to read are not even available as ebooks
  • the Parasite Rex Kindle ebook has missing illustrations, according to a review
But clearly the winner here is ebook readers. Why? Because if I had limited myself to what was available on the Kindle or Nook, I wouldn't have read the P.O.S. known as The Holographic Universe. Seriously though, ebook readers appear to have a long way to go. If only I could find some kind of video rental store for books in the interim. Maybe if I had free access to a vast collection of public books, I could learn once and for all where honey comes from. And then my IQ would rise real high like, like Einstein.



February 25th, 2010 - Worth my weight in fruitComments [5]

Shortly after I started working in a staff position at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, their heavy emphasis on employee health manifested itself as a free Mayo Clinic Healthy Weight for Everybody book on my doorstep. From it, I garnered good habits, good foods, and good tips. I learned that aerobic exercise "is about as close as you can get to a magic potion." It also packed in a few recipes for quick, healthy snacks. I dabbled, and quickly gravitated toward its Yogurt Parfait recipe, which was really nothing more than yogurt and granola, maybe mixed with a berry or two. I love yogurt and I love granola. The notion that I could mix these two wonderful snacks together and create some kind of majestic super snack was sublime.

When the book arrived, I weighed about 215 pounds. I am a fairly tall fellow, so at this point in time I was thin enough that folks had made a habit of deriding my hyperactive metabolism, usually after bearing witness to me eating like a garbage disposing meat machine from each year into the next. But, suspecting that my metabolism would slow down in due time, I wanted to get a grasp on healthy eating before age managed to sneak up on me. So, thanks to the advice of my new Mayo Clinic book, I embarked upon a healthier path -- by eating massive amounts of yogurt and granola.

When I say massive, I'm not talking about two or three of those Dannon yogurt packs. Heavens no. I upgraded to the quart containers, which I would dump into a receptacle that was probably more like a caldron or a rendering vat than a bowl. Just add granola and I've got a big pile of healthy on my hands, right? It's important to note that I really had no frame of reference when it came to calories at this stage in my life. Up until this point, I had never really gained weight since I had stopped growing seven years earlier. So imagine my surprise when I gained ten pounds over the course of four months. Only then did I realize that, thanks in no small part to Pandora's Mayo Clinic's book and my ignorant eagerness to get healthier, I was easily eating 3500 calories per day, maybe a lot more. That was about 1045 calories in excess of my sedentary needs, according to this calorie calculator. I was then hovering around 225 pounds. But that was then and this is now.

I stopped eating vats of cultured calorie cocktail and went back to my previous source of nourishment: garbage. E.g., fast food (Taco Bell, McDonald's, Carl's Jr.), reasonably paced food (Family Restaurant, Roundup Steakhouse, Gallo's Mexican Restaurant, Mayflower Buffet, lots and lots of Panda Garden), slow food (Denny's), shut-in food (homemade pizza), and delightful food (huge servings of whatever Drew's dad cooked up; cheesesteaks, egg burgers, chicken fettucini, burritos, nacho cheese dip). As if I even need to say it, I lost five pounds.

Several years passed with no substantial perturbations in my weight. I sat firmly around 220 pounds up until the latter half of 2009, when I seemed to have mysteriously gained 15 pounds. Or maybe there is no mystery at all. This was around the time I started drinking. When I drink, I usually drink beer. I did some digging through "the literature," and despite popular reports of the so-called "beer belly" effect, beer isn't any more fattening than the calories in it. One beer is roughly as many calories as one soda. The problem is, there's really no reason to drink just one beer. If you're going to drink beer, you drink a lot of it.

Now that I knew I was 235 pounds, first from an anthropomorphic aerobic step in Wii Fit but later confirmed by a boring-ass analog scale, I decided to go on a health kick for real this time. This time incorporating some actual knowledge into my project by researching everything I put into my mouth. Everything from oatmeal, to Omega 3 supplements, to toothpaste (harmful if swallowed!). Once I got a feel for how many calories were "normal" vs. "obscene", I discovered just how few calories are in fruits and vegetables. That's one piece of advice that has stood the test of time, unlike the USDA Food Pyramid. You can eat fruits and vegetables till your face is as blue as a berry and probably never eat too many. But what's the fun in that? Surely there's got to be a way to take this sound piece of advice and somehow make it grotesque, right? I'm the guy who ate virtually nothing else but pizza Hot Pockets for lunch and dinner every day of 1999, after all. If you've ever caught me claiming that my body is "approximately 16% Hot Pocket," the joke's on me -- I wasn't joking.

I eat by the philosophy that once I'm full, I don't care what I ate. Throughout most of my life, I've latched onto something I enjoy eating and eaten the hell out of it. This typically reduced grocery shopping to buying four or five big boxes of some microwavable product from the freezer aisle of Sam's Club. Eventually something more interesting would come along, but I would never really get tired of what I was eating beforehand. This is a godsend. I would be a prime candidate for the Monkey Chow Diet. In fact, if I just had a device to fill my stomach with some sort of low calorie foam from time to time, I'd probably be as happy as a part-man/part-Hot-Pocket automaton could be. But, unless I commission NASA, this foam would no doubt lack nutrients. If only I had some cheap, low calorie, high nutrient foam with which to fill my tummy... Oh, that's right! Smoothies!

Smoothies, to me, have traditionally meant fruit, ice, yogurt, and juice. But why stop there? Why not just throw every healthy thing imaginable into a smoothie? Who cares what a smoothie is supposed to be, as long as you don't gag when you drink it, right? So far, the only thing I've discovered firsthand that absolutely does not belong in a smoothie is Walmart's "Great Value" frozen mixed vegetables (corn, peas, green beans, carrots). That particular "smoothie" was aborted as soon as it hit my lips, and I was left to wonder:
  1. If, like so many problems before it, I have over-thought this
  2. If there is something fundamentally wrong with me
But subsequent experiments have yielded fantastic results. So fantastic that I've lost 10-15 pounds in six weeks gorging myself on smoothies for dinner most nights. Okay, there's been quite a bit of exercise in there too. Smoothies include the following ingredients:
  • Half a blender full of Sam's Club's "Mixed Frozen Fruit"
    (mango, pineapple, peach, strawberries)
  • More strawberries via Sam's Club's "Frozen Sliced Strawberries"
  • More berries, courtesy of Sam's Club's frozen "Triple Berry Blend"
    (blueberries, raspberries, blackberries)
  • 1/4 quart plain, fat free yogurt
  • 1 banana violently ripped into chunks
  • 1 tbsp. raw almonds from bulk aisle of Fred Meyer
  • 1 tbsp. husked, unsalted sunflower seeds from bulk aisle of Fred Meyer
  • 1 tbsp. raw flax seeds from bulk aisle of Fred Meyer
  • 2 tbsp. toasted wheat germ, because the Internet told me it was healthy
  • Occasionally, a thumb-sized chunk of pealed raw ginger root
  • Enough skim milk to make the blender's burning smell go away
It's tasty! And cheap! When all is said and done, this creates an entire blender full of smoothie that I calculate to be no greater than 900 calories, which, as my largest meal of the day, is strangely reasonable. Especially if the sedentary allotment of calories to maintain my current weight is around 2500. Plus, this is enough smoothie to eat myself into utter oblivion, to not even entertain the thought of eating another morsel of food until four hours hence. At long last, I'm able to eat healthy without feeling healthy!



December 10th, 2009 - Color me confusedComments [7]

Maybe it's because of all the 2600 articles I've been reading lately, or the recent White House gatecrashers scandal that I heard about two weeks after everybody else, or maybe even because of this morning's predicament itself, but today we're going to be learning about a term dropped in computer security quorums from time to time called social engineering.

Via social engineering, people can be manipulated in any number of subtle ways to do most anything, simply because they are human. Thus, the biggest risk posed to a system's security is people. E.g., the people who operate it, the people who have access to it, I'd even go as far as to say anybody who has influence over security policies, regardless of how peripheral these persons may be. For example, third party security consultants, friends in the field, or some off-the-cuff comment from an uninformed professor seven years ago. Speaking only for myself, I've found that what I typically think of as my own stance on any given issue, whether computer related or not, is merely an amalgam of others' thoughts, experiences, and biases. I claim that this is not really an opinion at all. I'd think it a stretch to even call it knowledge. It's more like a condensed summary of things I've heard. Until I get my own hands dirty, that is. Or, alternatively, until I forget my sources and can, with a clear conscience, commandeer communal knowledge as my own. Until then, the only thing I "know" is that René Descartes was the shit.

Back on track, I realize that I have an awful lot to say about color blindness deficiency, and I've spared nobody, not even on this blog journal. How can I resist? My hands have been dirty with funk-o-vision for the past 26 years. I have things to report! I've even toyed with the idea of attempting to write a full-length memoir of my ample run-ins with a color-by-number world, even if I have to become one of those self-publishing lunatics at Lulu. There's simply too much to be said, and a quick perusal of Amazon reveals no surplus of books on the topic, 8% of Anglo-Saxon males notwithstanding.

Add to the growing list of oddities the simple story of today's selection of apparal. But first, let's lay some foundation. The first thing most people want to know when one concedes their color blindness is, "What colors can't you see?" My answer to this question is a work in progress. How can I give a concise answer about something that would properly take at least four hours and a hundred crude exhibits to convey?

Exhibit A - "The Pledge"

Exhibit B - "The Turn"

Exhibit C - "The Prestige"

Exhibit D - "The Shining"

Crude exhibits courtesy of this crude homegrown application. I swear this part isn't social engineering. Here, take the crude source code instead.

I lose most people after five minutes in my ventures to explain this insanity. In my case (protanomaly), ask yourself the question, "How would my world be impacted if the color red was reduced to about a fourth of its intensity?" There are more consequences than you, or I, might think. Each day is an opportunity to turn yet another rock. Each day is another experiment. "How would your world be impacted?" Your world becomes its own laboratory! This is an asset, not a liability!

But ask yourself also, "What would people say or do if I admitted that I was unable to see the color purple?" This is where it gets fun, like playing a game of chess on a board of social engineering. I think I lost my first game today, and that after 26 years of practice. Having lived my life in a laboratory, I thought I had the game down to a science. Quips ahoy!

Q: Purple looks blue, huh? What color is that?" *points at something blue*
A: That's purple.

Q: *five minutes later* "Nice purple pen you have there!"
A: Contrary to popular belief, the correlation between color blindness and retardation is no greater than chance.

Q: Red/green color blindness? How do you tell traffic lights apart?
A: Position helps, but when the sun is out, I can't see that the red traffic light is on. If I guess wrong, brace yourself for one of the most fantastic displays of evolution mankind has ever seen.

Q: If red is so dark, what does blood look like?
A: It usually looks black, but I've found that listening to My Chemical Romance helps.

There are folks who try desperately to fool me, and folks who think it's cruel to do so. Usually they balance each other out. But what happens when a coworker who tries very hard to be "mean," who has taken every stab at color tomfoolery in the past, looks you in the eye with a smirk and asks, "Want this free polo shirt? It's purple." Then, another coworker who tries very hard to be honest and fair informs you, with a straight face, "It's blue, Craig." What then? It's business as usual. There's no reason to suspect a thing.

Until you go into work one morning and seven other coworkers comment on how flamboyant you look. Check mate. This is social engineering. I know I should have given this shirt the GIMP test.




November 5th, 2009 - Fifteen minutes later...Comments [5]

I looked up "fifteen" in a dictionary:
fif•teen /fif'tēn/
• cardinal number equivalent to the product of three and five; one more than fourteen, or five more than ten; 15. (Roman numeral: xv or XV.)
Then I looked up "three" and "five":
three /θrē/
• cardinal number equivalent to the sum of one and two; one more than two; 3: her three children; a crew of three; a three-bedroom house; all three of them are buried there. (Roman numeral: iii, III)

five /fīv/
• cardinal number equivalent to the sum of two and three; one more than four, or half of ten; 5: a circlet of five petals; five of Sweden's top financial experts. (Roman numeral: v or V.)
Clearly, to understand fifteen, I'm going to need to understand "one":
one /wən/
• cardinal number the lowest cardinal number; half of two; 1: there's only room for one person; two could live as cheaply as one; one hundred miles; World War One; a one-bedroom apartment. (Roman numeral: i, I)
And what is "half"?
half /haf/
• n. (pl. halves / havz/ ) either of two equal or corresponding parts into which something is or can be divided: the northern half of the island; two and a half years | divided in half | reduced by half.
So one is half of "two," huh?
two /toō/
• cardinal number equivalent to the sum of one and one; one less than three; 2: two years ago; a romantic weekend for two in Paris; two of Amy's friends. (Roman numeral: ii, II.)
And three is one more than two, or the sum of one and two?

I think I'm getting it. Fifteen is the sum of half of two and one less than three multiplied by the sum of one and one plus one more than two. In other words, fifteen is the sum of half of one and one and half of two less than one more than two multiplied by the sum of one and half of two plus one more than one less than three.

Just so we're clear on this.



October 26th, 2009 - M.P.3. to The D.O.C.Comments [1]

As mentioned in my previous entry, I've been downloading a lot of MP3 albums from Amazon. Usually the intent is to burn these albums as an audio CD and listen to them in my car, but sometimes I'd like to listen to them on a different computer. Without loading the MP3 files themselves onto another CD or flash drive, I always have the option of ripping and reMP3ifying the tracks from my burned audio CD, but doesn't this somehow sound sloppy? What, if any, fidelity is lost?

But let's start with a brief history of digital music. I first discovered MP3 files during the summer of 1997, after dilly dallying with MIDI, MOD, and S3M files for two years already. This abrupt influx of music into my collection made my memories of this particular summer extraordinarily vivid, listening to "Where It's At" by Beck, "More Human Than Human" by White Zombie, and a collaborate live bootleg of David Bowie joining Nine Inch Nails to sing "Hurt", among a hundred other songs painstakingly downloaded from erratic FTP sites via a 56K modem. These are the types of activities that become essential when you're an unemployed 14 year old with a summer's worth of free time.

As an aside, in the off chance that you were wondering, your fondest memories can indeed be encoded to the most arbitrary, questionable, and/or awful music you are lucky enough to happen upon. Moreover, you will indeed start to believe you like it. In the fall of 2002, I forced myself to listen to the worst album of which I knew at the time, Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart, all the way through, on a loop, at least ten times, while doing what I very much cared to do at the time: playing Counter-Strike while drinking copious quantities of black coffee. Seven years later, I can't seem to think of either Counter-Strike, black coffee, or Captain Beefheart without evoking pleasant memories of the remaining two. I can't listen to Bill's Corpse without smiling to myself, endlessly amused by the fact that I am experiencing the lasting effects of going B.F. Skinner on myself.

Back in those 1997 days, all MP3s were encoded as 128kbps. It was an unwritten rule of cyberspace. As the years progressed, music elitists demanded 160kbps MP3s, then 192kbps MP3s, sometimes even 256kbps MP3s. I even have some albums encoded at a 320kbps constant bitrate. It wasn't long before my friends and I were downright ashamed to own 128kbps MP3s, refusing to acknowledge them, never speaking of them, and abhorring the thought of sharing them. Sure enough, this epidemic needed to be eradicated. For those who are still with me here, who among you have actually listened to the same song encoded at different bit rates? My point is not necessarily that I'm unconvinced a human being can distinguish between a 160kbps MP3 and a 192kbps MP3. My point is that we're all at least a little bit stupid, and more than a little bit susceptible to hype. My point is that, nerdy mumbo jumbo be damned, this kind of thing happens all the time.

I am more than a little stupid because I know in my heart of hearts that I absolutely cannot tell the difference between a first-generation MP3 file and a second-generation MP3 file that was created by ripping/re-encoding a burned audio CD. And I performed this test many times before succumbing to the weird genetic hearing anomalies that apparently make me me. Yet, the thought of having second-generation MP3 files on my computer makes me feel dirty. Is this entirely unwarranted? How exactly does MP3 encoding work, anyway? Any takers? Having already been encoded once, would the imperceptible sound degradation of a first-generation MP3 exempt any degradation from future encodings? God knows I can't tell a difference between first and second generations, but are my computer's CPU cores not bored? Let's put them to work!

Nothing too complicated here. I just wrote this little bash script that uses LAME to decode and immediately re-encode MP3s 100 times, saving the resulting MP3 at iterations 1, 10, and 100:

#!/bin/bash

export i=0

while [[ $i -le 100 ]]
do
  if [[ $i -eq 1 ]]
  then
    cp ${1}.mp3 ${1}1.mp3
  elif [[ $i -eq 10 ]]
  then
    cp ${1}.mp3 ${1}10.mp3
  elif [[ $i -eq 100 ]]
  then
    cp ${1}.mp3 ${1}100.mp3
  fi
  lame --decode ${1}.mp3 ${1}.wav
  lame --encode --alt-preset standard ${1}.wav ${1}.mp3
  i=$[$i+1]
done

Just install LAME on your Linux machine and you too can be a core commander. If you have two CPU cores, just run two copies simultaneously. There's no need to get technical here! What are the results? My taste in music is shamefully narrow, so let's start this off with the usual suspects:

KMFDM - Hau Ruck
Original | Re-Encode #1 | Re-Encode #10 | Re-Encode #100

David Bowie - Seven Years in Tibet
Original | Re-Encode #1 | Re-Encode #10 | Re-Encode #100

But let us not neglect the hip hop side of things, complete with my latest musical obsession and a brief history lesson of The D.O.C. courtesy of Wikipedia:
In 1989, The D.O.C. released his Dr. Dre-produced debut album, No One Can Do It Better. The album was very well received by critics, and sold very well, peaking at #20 on the Billboard 200. Allmusic gives the album a five-star rating and describes it as "an early landmark of West Coast Rap" as well as "an undeniable masterpiece." ...

Not long after his debut album was released, his vocal cords were damaged in a car accident, which would prove to be an insurmountable obstacle for his continued career as a vocalist. In 2006, Jerry Heller of Ruthless Records stated that The D.O.C. could have had his voice recovered up to 90% but was suffering from depression and was "lazy", causing the voice we now know today. ...

Helter Skelter is a 1996 album by The D.O.C., and was an attempt at making a comeback following the car crash which severely damaged his vocal cords. The album was widely ignored, and has even been discredited by D.O.C. himself. The name of the album is a reference to Charles Manson's idea of The Beatles' "Helter Skelter" prophesying the end of the world.
Is it just me, or did some of the vocals of the KMFDM and David Bowie songs seem to come out of the 100th re-encoding relatively unscathed? There are parts of Hau Ruck where the vocals seem to disappear and reappear depending on how they are distorted at any given time. Using it as an excuse to dabble in a bit of "natural" distortion, I wonder how The D.O.C.'s vocals fare against this MP3 madness both before and after his accident. If we're fortunate enough to learn something here, you'll never realize this entire journal entry was just a clumsy excuse to post some D.O.C. MP3s.

The D.O.C. - No One Can Do It Better [ before accident ]
Original | Re-Encode #1 | Re-Encode #10 | Re-Encode #100

The D.O.C. - Secret Plan [ after accident ]
Original | Re-Encode #1 | Re-Encode #10 | Re-Encode #100



September 17th, 2009 - Seven things I am doing...Comments [3]

Taking an "Introduction to Zymurgy" course

Before April of 2009, I had never consumed an alcoholic beverage. There were several reasons for this, but none so great as to stifle the overwhelming curiosity that eventually built up inside of me. And although part of me is reluctant to admit this, I've had some incredible times since April of 2009. Partially because of the alcohol, but probably more so because of the culture of alcohol I had hitherto avoided.

Fortunately for me, my few experiences with hard liquor have taught me to be wary. When left to my own devices, I would much prefer to drink beer, one of Drew's alcoholic smoothies, or talk philosophy in spite of the 40oz Mickey's in my hand.

I don't know much about beer, only now, in September of 2009, becoming able to distinguish special flavors from that general "beery" taste of all beers. I do know that the best beer I've had to date has been what my brother trucked up from Moose's Tooth in Anchorage. Can I do as well? If my experiments with sourdough have been any indication, I certainly have the patience and the will. I also have two coworkers and a former next-door neighbor fermenting on the front-lines with me.

Reading about parasites

As I'm apt to do, I purchased a book called Parasite Rex on a whim. I am just a tad past the halfway point, and it has already blown my mind on numerous occasions. Notable highlights thus far include Leucochloridium paradoxum infested snails; plant-like parasites that castrate and feminize male crabs; parasitic wasps that feast on the guts of living caterpillars, avoiding and protecting the caterpillar's vital organs while simultaneously killing off its own male offspring; the emotional effects of the Toxoplasma gondii lodged in over a billion human brains across the globe; and a theory that the reason human cells have mitochondria today is due to a parasitic alga fusing to a branch of eukaryotic species hundreds of millions of years ago.

Playing Shadow Man (again)

Shadow Man is a decade-old N64 game. It's supposed to be really good, but it's so damn big and convoluted, I'm not sure if I'll ever find out for sure. I started this game, well, about a decade ago, and I've found myself revisiting it roughly every three years since then. If only I could find the patience and the will to stick with it, I'd dutifully redirect these virtues back to my newfound beer brewing interest. See you again in three years, Shadow Man.

Putting off fixing my car

With a hydraulic jack and stands, the cheapest tool set money can buy, and a 2002 Ford Focus Chilton's Manual by my side, I've learned how to fix 101 (more or less) things that can go wrong with a car. Few of which have ever turned out to be what, in fact, was wrong with my car. It disappoints me that I frequently find myself spending more money on my car than on my house. My CV boot has torn three times since the last time I played Shadow Man. That means I'm averaging one CV boot per year, here. I don't need a couple of nut drivers and a bucketload of M&O Schucks sass for my next car fix. What's that, you ask? Not even the crunching sounds of an ill-fated suspension or grinding CV joint can subdue the hot industrial rhythms of Amazon's cheap MP3 albums!

Downloading an awful lot of music from Amazon

I stole music for a long, long time. But to be fair, I spent a lot of my teenage years buying a lot of CDs for $15 a piece. Some CDs even got bought twice, after being lost by friends or worn out from too many road trips. But even during the Napster days, I realized my magical number was $8. It just sat right with me. If a CD I wanted cost $8 or less, I'd have no excuse but to buy it in lieu of downloading it. If I really, really wanted it, $9 or $10 might do the job.

Having never owned an iPod, and reluctant to join the iTunes DRM party, I purchased my first digital album, Tech N9ne's Sickology 101, from the DRM-free Amazon MP3 store a few months ago. Thirty seconds into the first track, I discovered I had been burned by Amazon's nomenclature. A problem that, as it turns out, was easily remedied.

UltraMuffin's Letter to Amazon:
Earlier today, I purchased the album "Sickology 101" by Tech N9ne from your MP3 store. When I got around to listening to it, I found I had accidentally purchased the "clean" version of the album instead of the "explicit" version. And, as you surely know, the "clean" version of most any hip hop album is essentially unlistenable.

I was under the impression that, unless otherwise noted, the album name by itself should be the original (i.e., explicit) version of the product. In my opinion, the clean version should be sold as "Sickology 101 [Clean]", not the other way around.

Would it be possible for me to download the explicit version of the album that I thought I had purchased to begin with? The weekend is nearing and I need some fresh profanity for my Ford Focus.

Thanks!
Amazon's Letter to UltraMuffin:
Hello,

I'm sorry to hear that you encountered a problem with your downloads.

Music downloads are not returnable once they've been purchased, but I've made an exception in this case due to the circumstances. I've requested a refund in the amount of $9.49 for " Sickology 101 by Tech N9ne Collabos." This refund will be credited to your payment card in 2-3 business days.

I request you to place an order for the same album (explicit version).

I hope this solution works for you. We look forward to seeing you again soon.
Between that customer service interaction and Amazon's monthly 50 albums for $5 each promotion, I've decided once again that Amazon is the shiznit and I'm getting a good deal. The following albums followed suit:

- David Bowie - Outside
- The Prodigy - Invader's Must Die
- Leonard Cohen - I'm Your Man
- David Bowie - Heathen
- Crystal Method - Divided by Night
- The Bug - London Zoo

Nerding out over Jung personality types

My first experience with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator was when my Software Engineering professor offered each student 5% extra credit on their take-home exam to take an online Myers-Briggs test and disclose which of the 16 personality types it classified them as. Approximately 40% of our class, including me, were of the INTJ type, which supposedly makes up only 2.1% of the general population of the United States. Another roughly 40% (I won't pretend to remember the exact numbers) of the class were of the INTP type, which supposedly makes up only 3.3% of the general US population. This was the first time I had heard about these so called "Jung personality types," and I was already a believer.

The recommendation of the test that, as an INTJ, I would be well suited for a career in computer programming or neuroscience seemed particularly fitting, as, in addition to sitting in a software engineering course at the time, pop neuroscience books had already started to infiltrate my reading list. And when I read a few descriptions of how INTJ's typically act in day-to-day life, I was truly spooked. These descriptions were telling me things about myself that I don't recall answering on the Myers-Briggs test, all the while avoiding the vagueness of horoscopes. It was impressive and more than a little eerie.

Since first taking the test in 2005, my uphill efforts in pushing myself to become more extraverted haven't changed much according to Myers and Briggs. Taking the test again with answers reflecting the "newer me" yielded essentially the same results. It still says I'm an INTJ, but somewhere along the way I picked up some more "judging" points. I went from being 82% judging to 93% judging. I am well on my way to becoming a robot, and not even Mary can change my fate.


But in a turn of events that are no less delightful than they were strangely inevitable, the disgruntled INTJ's of the world have banded together to create the surreal fluke known as the INTJ Forums, where I can go argue (or agree) with more (or less) abrasive versions of myself.

Prematurely reminiscing about the past summer

Summer of 2009 had to have been at least ten times as eventful, not to mention ten times as fun, as any summer that came before it. It was the summer that summers ought to be, and I have the following shenanigans to thank:

- Participating in pick-up football games with a bunch of strangers my friends and I found on the Nordale Elementary School playground
- Deciding to drive to Denali National Park for the weekend at 4:45 PM on Friday two weekends in a row
- Attending a wedding reception, then crashing it an hour later dressed as Ali G to pick up Ian for the Midnight Sun Run
- Hanging out with Frankie the week he lived at my house, eating Pike's Landing brunch buffet and catching up on YouTube videos
- Hanging out with Frances and Shanna the week they lived at my house, watching documentaries, and talking talking talking
- Hanging out with Zach and Jessica the month she lived at my house, playing Resident Evil 4 and visiting the Bentley Mall candy shop more than once
- Camping on an uninhabited island in the middle of nowhere at Tangle Lakes with about fifteen fun-loving people and four pounds of Red Vines
- Bar hopping down the Chena River in a canoe with seven other people
- Arbitrarily taking a Beginning Ballroom Dance class, and discovering that, indeed, I'm not much a fan of dancing
- Being obnoxious at the Tanana Valley State Fair, and in the comments of fair-related articles on the News-Miner website (look out for user "UltraMuffin")
- Hanging out at Harding Lake several times, with much tubing, movies, board games, hot tubs, and a little bit of Turok: Dinosaur Hunter
- Playing fugitive with about 30 other people
- Ian's Mario Kart SNES/N64/Wii party




June 17th, 2009 - Tilting my way out of a rutComments [2]

If I were to say the words "pinball tournament," what kind of images would this conjure up in your mind? Now, would these mental images change if I appended the words, "at a classic arcade/bar"? A couple of months ago, I wouldn't have thought anything of it. A pinball tournament is a pinball tournament, right? I would have also added, "Is there really such a thing as a pinball tournament?"

Indeed there is! At least, now there is. A few months ago, I took a random last-minute vacation to Portland, OR that I conveniently tacked on to a work trip to Atlanta, GA. It turns out making a stop in Oregon, even for two weeks, on my way from Alaska to Georgia is free. Having saved up a ridiculous amount of vacation leave at work, I decided to burn a couple of weeks just wandering around Portland by myself, staying in a shady looking motel with a giant neon palm tree, in a shady yet ultimately safe-ish part of the city, for $45/night. My mission was twofold:

- Meet as many people as possible
- Kick ass and take names at the First Annual Ground Kontrol Pinball Tournament

You don't have to believe me when I say this, but I swear I didn't plan this trip around the pinball tournament. It was just a lucky coincidence, as I thoroughly enjoy flipping steel balls at flashy reactive gadgetry. While I would never purport myself to be any kind of pinball guru, despite soaking up the ins and outs of Whirlwind and Funhouse in the truly fantastic Wii game Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection, I figured the $10 entry fee was a mere pittance to participate in something so potentially great. Plus, I enjoy this idea of voting with my dollar. I vote for Wikipedia and such nonsense as pinball tournaments.

Figuring I hadn't a chance in the world of being a serious contender, my big questions were less about what tables I'd be competing on and more along the lines of, "Just how many people will this event attract?" This question was promptly answered with an absurd 121 people, as person after person stepped into the not small, but also not large, arcade. An arcade that I would wager exceeded its maximum occupancy for at least several hours that day. Which inevitable gives rise to an equally important question...

How long does a pinball tournament pairing 121 competitors on 26 pinball machines, with full-fledged tournament brackets and three games per match last? At least nine hours, as fate would have it. Perhaps those five words, "at a classic arcade/bar," take on a special significance after all. What do 121 people do during the 8+ hours of collected downtime between pinball matches at a bar/arcade? They drink the hell out of Pabst Blue Ribbon. If I've fallen into the habit of speaking for everyone, I apologize. But if the vast majority of people at this event hadn't been inebriated, and also taking into consideration I had done a fair amount of drinking myself, how do you explain this.

Despite the misspelled name, I tied for 10th place, playing on four pinball tables I had never played before: Theatre of Magic, Spider-Man, Stargate, and White Water, fueled with PBR every step of the way. But apparently so was everybody else. In fact, by the time I lost and left, it seemed like every flat surface in the entire arcade had an empty can of, you guessed it, Pabst Blue Ribbon sitting on it.

Other highlights include eating a metric ton of BBQ, bringing a table full of seven loners like myself together into a lively pinball and King of Kong conversation, eyeing the Dig Dug machine to which I would later return to set the high score of 224,000+, having a discussion about height with a 7'0" man who otherwise looked like an average Joe, but turned out to be a fellow named Todd MacCulloch, trying my damndest to find the warp whistle, and being absolutely slaughtered on my fourth and final match on the White Water table, where my opponent routinely scored 20x mine.

I never quite realized how people could justify spending hundreds of dollars on "an experience." Now, for better or worse, I can. All it took was a pinball tournament.




June 12th, 2009 - There's a little crack in all of usComments [1]

"Your nerd is showing" is a new phrase I've heard used once or twice now, mostly around the office. And if one's nerd can show, I fear there will be nothing left to be seen after I'm done with this.

I can't speak for everyone or all universities, but in my experience, a Computer Science education is pocked with rare moments of sensationalist amidst a mostly humdrum flurry of math equations and arbitrary scienceness. I suppose it's good I "learned" this material in college, otherwise I would never in a million years had the motivation to learn it on my own. But then again, I haven't used much of it for anything at all. And again still, I tend to learn what I need to know as I need to know it. Don't we all? Where did five years of my life go?!

But if I were to pick one homework assignment in particular that sticks out as a singularly enjoyable experience, to speak nothing about its power to unite a classroom, it would be the computer cliche that is MD5 password cracking. If "MD5" means nothing to you, see if you can plow through its Wikipedia article. But basically, the backstory as I understand it is that Linux and/or UNIX used to store user passwords as MD5 hashes accessible by any user on the system. This turned out to be foolish because, as computers became more powerful, suddenly cracking MD5 hashes by "brute force" methods became feasible. Linux moved these hashes to a protected "shadow" file where normal users couldn't access it, and that was that. Feel free to correct me on this brief history lesson.

Professors continue to use MD5 password cracking as a fun, scary, thought-provoking exercise for freshman- and sophomore-level Computer Science students. It's one of the few treats able to reign us students in after many multi-month bombardments of high-level arbitrariness. Again, even when I speak for us all, I speak only for myself ;)

My MD5 story reads as such: The professor of my "Information Assurance" course also happened to be teaching the freshman-level C++ programming course during the same semester. I'm not sure if she properly explained her diabolitry to the other students, but at one point she made each of them type something "they might use as a password" into a little program that saved and hashed these words into neat little MD5 nuggets. She then gave the MD5 hashes to our class and told us to crack the living Hell out of them (more or less). The game was afoot.

I swear by the good book, few things in life are as exciting to me and my kind as cracking these stupid strings of gibberish. It's like solving some strange sodoku puzzle, and it makes us feel accomplished. Special, even. Yes, special might be the word indeed. Turn up The Prodigy and we might even attain that holy grail of Nintendo generation computer people. We might actually feel like we're in the movie Hackers. Hack the planet!

So, our assignment was to use whatever means we could muster to break as many of these hashes as possible. We were to list all cracked passwords on the piece of paper we turned in. To add a twist of fun to all of this, if my foggy memories serve me true, my friend RJ who was in the other class had entered "fuckyou" as his password. Needless to say, this was one of the easiest passwords to crack, and an entire classroom full of students did what they had been longing to do for years, turning in an assignment with the unequivocal words "fuckyou" plastered across its midsection.

Everyone in this class had their personal computers working around the clock to uncover more. I came home from school every day ecstatically hoping to find just one or two more lines of letters displayed in my terminal window. Just one or two more passwords, please! When the assignment had passed, it was as though The Nothing had sucked the life out of us all, and like Atreyu mourning the loss of his horse to a pool of horse-hungry magic mud (?), we were bummed.

Some years later, around mid-2007, always eager to come up with novel programming projects, I created a very basic game for my co-workers and I. The idea was mostly the same, but using SHA-1 hashes instead of MD5. Start with 100 hashes and try to crack as many as you can. But to make it even more appealing, borrow some influence from crossword puzzles and sudoku such that any progress one makes unveils clues to help them make more progress yet. A cracking game that feels like crack? Crack your way to more crack, in the form of an arduous quest? A CrackQuest, if you will?

The game is still up and running, growing older by the day, reveling in its ugly design, if you'd like to give it a shot. If you know nothing about programming, this should be the goal you work toward. I submitted the link to Digg just to see if it could garner a following. It received a total of eight diggs; just one of many examples of how work has skewed my perception of the masses.

As a closing comment, if you've only cracked 71 hashes, you have not yet won. I'm looking in your direction, kuza55, whoever you are.



May 1st, 2009 - A second round of Mini MuffinsComments [7]

What is nature, again?

Last night, on a whim, I watched the movie Examined Life at the Living Room Theaters in Portland, Oregon. I almost had to, as I noticed on the description it had an interview with Slavoj Zizek. Who is Slavoj Zizek? That was precisely the question I sought to answer. The only thing I knew about him up until this point was that he represents the philosophical wing of Laibach's satirical quasi-state, NSK, and he co-wrote the book Interrogation Machine: Laibach and NSK, a book that would probably make me lose what precious marbles I have remaining if I ever found the time to read it. On the upside, at least I haven't purchased an NSK passport yet.

Two days before seeing this movie, I had noticed a big hardback book by Slavoj Zizek, In Defense of Lost Causes, on display at Powell's. In the day betwixt, I overheard a woman who looked Croatian to my uncultured eyes talking to her friend about Slavoj Zizek and his cultish following. Who is this guy, and why do I become more scared of him by the day?

From what I saw in the film, he is far less imposing than I expected him to be. He was fired up but down to earth, speaking about ecology while interviewed at a waste processing plant. One of his points, if I understood his rapid-fire diatribe correctly, was that humans ought not to think of themselves as separate and/or interfering with nature. New age movements to return to nature should be dismissed. Humans should continue to do what they do, but find purpose and beauty in their own waste, as ecologists are enthralled by compost heaps. What a strange topic for a ten minute interview for a philosophical smorgasbord of a film, was my first reaction.

I attended the Oregon Zoo today and it got me thinking, as zoos typically do, "What is natural?" Within minutes of walking through the front gate, I heard speakers making canned hippopotamus moans and cougar screams. There were two hippos lying down, lazy as can be, knowing the speakers were doing their work for them. I saw a monkey lounging about in a plastic lawn chair and two black bears sleeping on a tire. Of the very few genuine animal sounds I heard, one was that of a parrot inside an atrium whistling the theme song to the Andy Griffith Show. If animals can so quickly adapt to what nonsense we throw at them, maybe Mr. Zizek has a point. Maybe it's arrogant of us to assume, even in our own self-criticism, that we have somehow already transcended nature?

Whether or not that was where you were going with this, Slavoj, I must say few things in life are as trippy as a parrot spontaneously whistling the Andy Griffith Show theme song.

What does it take to get people talking?

Have you ever noticed how quickly people get to know each other when things go wrong? The other day, on my vacation, one of Portland's light rails (electric bus/train things) experienced a mild derailment and, lo and behold, everyone crowded around and started asking each other questions. On a recent airplane flight, a woman started going into diabetic shock on the plane, and again, everybody started talking to each other.

As an extreme example, people often speak about what a horrible day 9/11 was. Not to be offensive here, but I would say that, perhaps in the most selfish way possible, neglecting the death and destruction on that day for a brief moment, it was actually one of the better experiences of my day-to-day life. Why? Because everyone, absolutely everyone, was talking to each other. In classes, around TVs, on sidewalks, at restaurants and stores. Everywhere. I had never seen anything like it.

For the following week or so, it suddenly because 100% socially acceptable to randomly talk to anyone, anywhere, anytime, and have a reasonably deep conversation. The moment people grew confident they knew what was going on, whether by watching 14 hours of CNN or what have you, the national conversation died down little by little until things returned back to normal. Normal is not a good place to be.

Have you ever been around some unknown folks when an electrical transformer exploded half a mile away? That'll do, too! Loud, unexpected noises. They work every time. Unexpected silences work, too. I get more enjoyment than I admittedly should from failed fireworks displays for that very reason. I know what fireworks ought to do. But if they do what they should, that's nothing new. I've seen working fireworks before. I see them in my mind's eye the moment I hear or read the word "fireworks." If you catch me at a fireworks show, I am the bad mojo hoping everything goes wrong, because then, ta-da!, people start looking at each other, eyebrows raised. People start asking questions. People start talking.

If I could somehow create a city of my own, it would have very loud speakers hidden in traffic lights and manholes throughout the sidewalks. A random number generator would determine when and where to play sudden explosive noises from the hidden speaker infrastructure. The sounds would rarely play in the same place twice, and perhaps anywhere between six and 37 days would pass between each synthetic sonic boom. None of this would ever be explained to the denizens of Boom City USA, and, lest they grow complacent, a new sound bite would be loaded into the central iPod shuffle terrorizing the streets bi-annually. We might carry the momentum by throwing in sounds of glass shattering, roaring thunder, the tried and true hippopotamus moans and cougar screams, and maybe top it off with a little bit of the old Cloverfield.

By the end of the year, everyone in this hypothetical city will have met everyone else, I promise. And, with any luck, Boom City USA denizens will be so afraid to leave their homes that they'll keep in touch over Facebook alone, just like the rest of us.

What about these guys?

On the NBC show To Catch A Predator, they often use 18- or 19-year-old stand-ins who look far younger than their actual age to greet pedophiles at the door. Why put real 14-year-olds at risk, right? And child labor laws probably make it infeasible anyway, unless they pull an Olson Twins, a la Full House.

But if these stand-ins look young enough to fool pedophiles expecting to find a 14-year-old girl standing at the doorstep (and there are episodes where this happens), my question formulates itself thus: Do these 19-year-old girls who look 14 years old have boyfriends, and are their boyfriends then pedophiles too?



April 29th, 2009 - Dedicated to Pascal?Comments [7]

I've made what might be described as a preliminary effort to read Benjamin Graham's The Intelligent Investor: The Definitive Book on Value Investing. A Book of Practical Counsel, first published in 1949 and considered by many, Warren Buffet included, to be the closest thing there is to an investing bible. No no, this is not just Craig swooping back down to his website to deliver a third stock market entry. I may have, at last, finally worked this obsession out of my system, replacing it with more wholesome, social hobbies.

Though it is certainly a quality book, having made it to page 50 or so, my favorite part thus far is the opening quote to the "Commentary on Chapter 1." It goes like this:
All of human unhappiness comes from one single thing: not knowing how to remain at rest in a room. ~ Blaise Pascal
I love it. I find it equal parts offensive and true. Okay, well, first one needs to forget the whole employment thing. Then, remember that all quotes are overly simplistic and generalized; otherwise they wouldn't be quotes, but instead essays, treatises, maybe books? The fact remains, in the end we all manage to feed ourselves. All other unhappiness comes from ambition, which is how I interpret this quote.

Ambition! What the hell is wrong with us? We have what we need but we always want more. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? More to the point, is it a merely a cultural thing? If it's a cultural thing, are the unambitious among us lazy cowards, or are they freethinking individualists? Or maybe it just comes down to their personality, in which case I would argue they are neither. They just are, just like the overly ambitious just are. Level of ambition is just one of a handful of unalterable traits of a person.

As a person who used to be perfectly content just chilling, I have to admit I'm a bit jealous of those who continue to be content doing the same. Jealous to the point of bitterness. Bitter to the point that if I weren't a more tolerant person, I might criticize a person for their lack of ambition. But the more I think about it, the more ambition is like faith to me. You either have it or you don't. Blessed are those who don't. I think this was Pascal's point.

Humored by this Blaise Pascal quote, and fresh out of a science/religion discussion I attended last night, I couldn't help but be reminded of an entirely unrelated philosophical stance from the same thoughtful man, known as Pascal's Wager:
If you erroneously believe in God, you lose nothing (assuming that death is the absolute end), whereas if you correctly believe in God, you gain everything (eternal bliss). But if you correctly disbelieve in God, you gain nothing (death ends all), whereas if you erroneously disbelieve in God, you lose everything (eternal damnation).
How delightfully logical. It can even be put in table form:

BELIEF IN GODDISBELIEF IN GOD
CORRECTEternal BlissNothing
INCORRECTNothingEternal Damnation

At worst, if you incorrectly believe, you might miss out on a few earthly pleasures. Or, if you're like many of the Christians I know, you might not even miss out on those. Thus, the question that's so obvious it doesn't need to be asked is, "Why doesn't everyone believe in God just to be on the safe side?"

As with any classic philosophical argument, there are several ways to counter this. One criticism is, if one decides to believe in God based on potential rewards, are they believing in God for the right reason? Likewise, if one decides to believe in God because he or she fears the consequences, are they believing in God for the right reason? We hear of "God-fearing Christians" as if it were a virtue. I'd like to extend this even further by asking, if one decides to believe in God because everyone around them believes in God, and they just want to fit in, are they believing in God for the right reason?

Those are arguments I've heard. I'd like to put on my philosopher hat and add my own contribution if I may: How can one decide to believe in God, anyway? What does that mean? In the midst of a polite domestic religious debate with my father, I once asked, "If I offered you $1 million to believe in Santa Claus, could you do it?" If you can find a reasonably intelligent person over the age of 20 who can do such a thing, you will be disappointed to discover I don't have a $1 million to give, Benjamin Graham be damned.

Sure, everyone can claim to believe in Santa Claus. One might even be able to surround themselves with a community of people who claim to believe in Santa Claus. As an aside, however, if you're planning any trips to the city of North Pole, Alaska for this purpose, you will be sorely disenchanted, finding this community unable to reconcile the belief in Santa Claus with their ardent beliefs in Jehovah and methamphetamine.

In his brilliant book Breaking The Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Daniel Dennett writes:
This feature marks a profound difference between folk religion and organized religion: those who practice a folk religion don't think of themselves as practicing a religion at all. Their "religious" practices are a seamless part of their practical lives, alongside their hunting and gathering or tilling and harvesting. And one way to tell that they really believe in the deities to which they make their sacrifices is that they aren't forever talking about how much they believe in their deities - any more than you and I go around assuring each other that we believe in germs and atoms. Where there is no ambient doubt to speak of, there is no need to speak of faith.
True, we don't live in a tribal community that practices folk religion, so this may be an unfair comparison. Still, when a Christian asserts his or her belief in God, it always makes me wonder how much of their assertion was intended for me and how much served as an internal buttressing of their own beliefs. If one tells the same lie often enough, does it not become their truth?

What is belief in God? How many Christians literally believe Jesus rose from the dead, and how can we sort them out from those who have "decided" to believe, or from those unfortunate few who desperately want to believe but find that they are unable to do so? What I find in Pascal's Wager is the cold, logical skeleton for a passioned entanglement of doubt and reassurance.

If I may switch gears yet again, creating a journal entry that will surely end up being thrice as pretentious as I hoped it would be (please direct your attention to that bit about being ambitious), I have found that, if genuine faith proves to be the Achilles' heal of Pascal's Wager, the same framework suits the needs of the free will debate like a glove. I am one of those creepy few who honestly believes humans do not have free will. A disturbing thought, no doubt, until I realized it makes no fundamental difference in my day-to-day life. Why? Because, despite this unsettling belief, I live my life by my own free will version of Pascal's Wager. UltraMuffin's wager? Hey, Plato used a nickname too!

The best illustration of this is whether it would be sensible to subject a cold-blooded murderer to the death penalty. [Note: This example, perhaps erroneously, assumes the death penalty is an agreeable form of punishment.] If the murderer had a choice in his crime, then it could be argued that he deserves to die. If he didn't have a choice, what authority do we have to end his life? We might make society safer, but is it fair? Let's assume that it's not. Let's break it down like this:

BELIEF IN FREE WILLDISBELIEF IN FREE WILL
CORRECTPunishedN/A
INCORRECTN/AUnpunished

In this case, the one explicit decision to punish the murderer is completely justified, as the murderer had chosen to take another person's life. If we decide the murderer had no choice in committing his crime, letting him go unpunished, when he in fact did have a choice, we did an incredible disservice to society. But how can we act on the principle of "innocent until proven guilty" if we can never know for certain whether humans have free will? What if the murderer was fated to commit his crime, but we put him to death regardless?

Fortunately, when it comes to matters of the free will of humanity as a whole, this conundrum is easily solved by the fact that, if the murderer didn't have a choice, neither does the judge, jury, or executioner. Where the table says "N/A," the burden of ethics is lifted from us entirely, as, without free will, neither the murderer nor the persecutors can do anything other than what they were destined to do. Whatever happens happens, and nothing we think or do can change that.

In both of the two instances where we actually have a choice, we'd be well served to put this killer to death without toiling over issues of free will, as in the two instances where we actually have a choice, putting the killer to death is in fact the correct choice. The remaining two cases are irrelevant from an ethical perspective. Hypothetically, it would be a shame to put a fated man to death, but in this case, the very premise of a choice-less universe excuses the punishment - it had to happen. Hence, there is absolutely nothing to be lost from believing in free will. Philosophical discussions aside, I tend to forget I believe in determinism, so this works out quite well.

If it works for me with respect to free will, does it also work for religious folk with respect to God and biblical miracles? In other words, am I just a hypocrite who likes to write? Now that's a question that deserves a table of its own.



March 29th, 2009 - Did I just become "that guy"?Comments [10]

Dear Chase,

I have a small but serious complaint about your website. When I load the front page of www.chase.com, I'll type my username into the username text input field, hit Tab to go to the password field, and every once in a while, my text input "focus" will be switched to the Search text input box in the upper-right corner of the page automatically. What's so bad about this? I sometimes end up typing some or all of my password in plain view in the Search box through no fault of my own.

I've since learned to be careful about it, but I can't imagine how many other customers are being affected by the same behavior. It just seems very dangerous to me. Even more dangerous when you consider how many people have their browsers set to save their form/search history. I.e., I'll bet there are a lot of people out there who have their Chase account password inadvertently saved in plain text as an auto-complete option for your upper-right Search text input box.

I can't remember off-hand which browsers and operating systems I've encountered this problem with. I've verified that it happens in Firefox 3.0.7 on Mac OS X 10.5.6. I suspect it affects nearly all browsers, after looking at this chunk of source code from your page:

<script language="JavaScript">
function placeCursor_micro(){
if (document.forms.logonform != null){
if(document.forms.logonform.usr_name.value.length > 0)
document.forms.logonform.usr_password.focus();
else
document.forms.logonform.usr_name.focus();
}
}
</script>

I think what's going on is that I start typing my username in before the page completes loading. Every once in a while, I'll finish typing my username and hit Tab at the exact moment the page finishes loading and the Javascript is executed. So, Javascript shifts focus to the password input box a split-second before I hit the Tab key, so it acts like I hit Tab twice, thus sending me to the Search text input box. Then I proceed to type my password, paying more attention to my keyboard than my monitor.

I know, I know... if I had taken the time to learn "home row" typing better, this wouldn't be a problem. But I'm afraid the majority of us type like monkeys.

Thank you,
-- Craig




March 11th, 2009 - Seattle vs. Portland - The Ultimate ShowdownComments [7]

In theory, these will update on their own. Let us watch as the economy recovers...







February 4th, 2009 - Great Moments in UltraMuffin HistoryComments [8]

Official Statement Concerning Governor Palin

Governor Sarah Palin did attend Wasilla Assembly of God since the time she was a teen ager. She and her family were a part of the church up until 2002. Since that time she has maintained a friendship with Wasilla Assembly of God and has attended various conferences and special meetings here. This June, the Governor spoke at the graduation service of our School of Ministry, Master's Commission Wasilla Alaska.

We have had some inquires into Governor Palin's beliefs. We do know that Gov Palin is a woman of integrity. She is a servant of the people, she is a strong leader. As for her personal beliefs, Governor Palin is well able to speak for herself on those issues.

As Alaskans we are excited about our Governor being selected as the nominee for Vice President. As residents of Wasilla, we are ecstatic about one of our own being thrust to the national forefront. However, as a church, it is not appropriate for us to endorse any one candidate over another. As believers, we are reminded in 2 Peter 2.13 that we are to submit to those in authority. 1 Timothy 2.1-2 tells us pray for those in authority. This we will do no matter who is elected. We wish the best to Governor Palin, and Senator McCain, as well as to Senator Obama and Senator Biden.

May God continue to bless America.

~ Wasilla Assembly of God

------------------------------

From: ultramuffin@yahoo.com
Sent: Wednesday, September 03, 2008 11:42 AM
To: wag@wasillaag.org
Subject: Interpretation of 2 Peter 2.13 (Official Statement Concerning Governor Palin)

Dear Wasilla Assembly of God,

In your "Official Statement Concerning Governor Palin," you state that "as believers, we are reminded in 2 Peter 2.13 that we are to submit to those in authority."

I looked up this verse in the King James Version of the Bible and found this:

"And shall receive the reward of unrighteousness, as they that count it pleasure to riot in the day time. Spots they are and blemishes, sporting themselves with their own deceivings while they feast with you;"

I see nothing in this verse that could be construed as a reminder to submit to authority. Can you please elaborate on how you reached this interpretation?

Thank you and God bless,
-- Craig

------------------------------

From: wag@wasillaag.org
Sent: Wednesday, September 03, 2008 12:09 PM
To: ultramuffin@yahoo.com
Subject: RE: Interpretation of 2 Peter 2.13 (Official Statement Concerning Governor Palin)

Oops... That should be 1 Peter 2.13. You are the first one to catch that.
At least we know there one person out there that reads their bible...
Thanks for catching that. We'll get things changed.

Wasilla Assembly of God
Wasilla, Alaska
www.wasillaag.org

------------------------------



Too late.



December 4th, 2008 - A Thursday's serving of mundane paradoxesComments [11]

Why does Bose advertise their Wave Music System on TV?

Several years ago, on what must have been a extraordinary boring night, I watched part of an infomercial for the Bose Wave music system, a tiny little device that fills the room with sound. I had to admit, for a sound system that small, the music seemed to be of an incredible quality. Not that I ever considered for a moment purchasing the thing, for my days of buying gadgets simply because they are cool are long gone.

But fortunately for me, after I turned off the television and a subsequent hour unfolded, after the infomercial poison had lapsed, I was delighted to discover that I could have my cake and eat the whole damned thing too. I could have the Bose Wave music system without buying it. In fact, I already did. The music had been emanating from my television speakers the whole time. Speakers, I might add, that were a fraction of the size of the Bose Wave music system. My own crappy television had performed all of the magic. So, as it turned out, I had just watched a show that convinced me to enjoy what I already owned. What a noble cause.

The same absurd contradiction applies as much to commercials for HDTVs, commercials for HD cable, and Blu-Ray advertisements on DVDs. These ploys no doubt work, but why? And for that matter...

Was anyone paying attention when weight lifting suddenly became "easy"?

Bowflex, I'm looking in your direction. Maybe memory is playing tricks on me, but I could have sworn I've heard a home gym commercial or two that starts out, "Quit messing with heavy weights..." as it shows a man in spandex lifting a weight off the floor to fasten it to a barbell. Excuse me? Heaven forbid a weight lifting enthusiast would need to lift a weight before lifting weights.

What color are mirrors, exactly?

It would give me great pleasure if you took a moment or two to picture a mirror. Now, tell me what color it is. You and I both know what a mirror does, so no need to go into superfluous detail over mirrors reflecting colors. If you were to pick a single color, what color would you use to describe a mirror? If you insist on beating around the bush, here's a hint: the process of repairing a mirror is called "re-silvering." Mirrors are silver. And you knew that!

Is it just me, or does this not make any bit of sense? Hey, I've made plenty of headway in becoming a normal, functional, social member of society, but I've got to say... sometimes it becomes a little much and I just need to take a mental holiday and contemplate mirrors for an hour. It's healthy. Trust me.

Somebody once told me that zero is no more a number than infinity. There have always been clues to that effect, as, used as literal numbers, neither zero nor infinity make a whole lot of sense. This point was driven home by my recent run-in with the book Wittgenstein's Beetle and Other Classic Thought Experiments. We often find zero on the outer fringes of reason. For example, what is 0 divided by 0 if we were to follow the following rules:

- 0 divided by anything is 0
- Anything divided by itself is 1

All riddles aside, the correct answer is "undefined," the formal mathematical term for "does not compute." But that fails to put me at ease because this is the same nonsense that plays through my head whenever I look into a mirror. E.g.,

- A mirror is whatever color it reflects
- A mirror is silver

They can't both be right, can they? Forget black and white. Silver is the non-color and the every color, yet altogether nothing of the sort? I would never describe a window as silver, but mirrors have always just seemed like backwards windows to me. And how does Silver's big brother Gold fit into all of this?

Do we really need polar bears?

I think polar bears are cute, too. I'm not sure why they have a greater right to life than the handful of insects that go extinct every day, but whatever. My concern is that, if they actually went extinct, how would we know? Would it ever be more than words on a newspaper or website? If not, then what's all the fuss about? I live in Alaska for God's sake and the first time I ever saw a polar bear was in a zoo in Utah.

But I suppose then we would have less polar bear footage to show on TV. I fear this to be the true tragedy. Maybe what we ought to be doing is filming what polar bears we presently have in the world 24 hours a day. Then, once the bears go extinct, we can ration out four unreleased hours of polar bear footage per year for the next umpteen years. As far as we are concerned the polar bears will live on, as cute TV footage and textbook factoids are the only way most of us knew them in the first place. The zoos can be populated with animatronics and TVs filled with CG polar bears once the real footage runs out, and we'd all be happy because we'd still have something cute to look at while three species go extinct every hour.

Not to accuse die hard polar bear fans of being conceited or anything, but they do strike me as the type that would cut down a hundred trees on a hillside to get a better view of the forest.

While we're on the topic of epistemology, how do you personally know the world is truly round?



November 1st, 2008 - Rock Out With Your BailoutComments [11]

During my freshman year of college, my enthusiastic calculus professor mentioned in passing that many, if not most, things in the world can be modeled with mathematics. At the time, I failed to grasp the power and optimism of this statement. After having interacted with scientists working with computational models for the past two years, I think I am gradually growing into the excitement and reality of my calculus professor's bold assertion. Nonetheless, like a mysterious Chinese store owner warning not to feed your Gremlin after midnight, my professor offered that the most prominent exception to the rule was the stock market. The stock market seems to be one of the purest examples of something that cannot be modeled consistently or reliably.

Why is this the case? It's not merely the fact that the stock market is man-made and 100% driven by human activity. If the human element rendered mathematical analysis moot, the advertising industry would collapse, and people might for once in their life wonder why money is so crucial to political campaigns. In other words, a person's realization that they are being influenced to the brink of manipulation by any number of things under the sun is not adequate enough reason to go against the grain. Toss the proverbial cherry on top, however, by adding a direct financial incentive, and suddenly you've made each individual keenly aware of their own participation and, consequently, breathed life into a fantastically complex, endlessly dynamic system.

To be sure, patterns do exist in the stock market. But Dr. Calculus' point was that any time a pattern is identified, it is immediately ripe for exploitation. The moment one of these patterns is exploited, it has the effect of normalizing that aspect of the market, putting an end to what phenomenon had just been discovered. Unless an analyst were unwilling to profit from his/her discovery, and humble enough to keep their discovery to their self, any new discovery will die as quickly as it had been found. So I was told. But it certainly rings with truth, provided that the most confident stock gurus don't know what the Hell they're talking about. Presumably, once this cycle of discovery and exploitation occurs, it leaves in its wake a market with one less thing to be discovered. What patterns remain are even more cloaked in a shroud of irrational number shuffling. If you've ever been fortunate enough to have seen the movie Pi, you already know how this ends (drill to the brain!).

This is where technical analysis comes in, but there is debate over whether it actually works, and if so, to what extent. One might also use neural networks to attempt to identify patterns in the stock market that, for some reason or another, humans are unable to detect. (For a highly readable introduction to artificial neural networks, and how they can be evolved from retardation to be expert checkers players, or detect breast cancer, I recommend reading the book Blondie24.) The battle between humans to out-think one another fades to the periphery as computers do the same thing on a higher and far less comprehensible level. Whoever has the beefiest computer has a distinct advantage in the stock market arms race. If you are not a seasoned programmer, you would shit your pants if you knew what your own personal computer is capable of doing along these lines, whether it can run Fallout 3 or not. The thought that financial analysts have a need for HPC clusters, despite not surprising me, both blows my mind and begs the question: what are they capable of doing with these machines and what are they doing?

Does this Terminatoresque machine war invalidate the more primitive, flesh and blood, "just like Grandma used to make," human stock-investing strategies? Not only am I lacking an answer to this question, I'm utterly devoid of a guess, educated or otherwise. If both humans and machines have already overthought the market to death, if there is a sort of overanalysis deadlock situation going on here, it would seem to me that all strategies have equal potential to be useful. With respect to mutual funds, this is essentially Vanguard's philosophy. If 75% of actively managed mutual funds underperform their respective index, and it costs money to manage a mutual fund, why not be smart by being stupid and opt for the zero-intelligence product. If we are facing the law of dimishing returns here, why not pick whatever plan is simplest, easiest, or most interesting.

Guided by these boring-drive-to-work musings, I've begun doing what so much literature has advised against. They call it "swing trading," because it will nauseate you like a tire swing. No! It's like day trading, which, incidentally, seems to be one of the most profane phrases in American English. Day trading on longer time intervals, basically. That's all it means. By swing trading, I would no longer be investing, but merely gambling with (if played correctly) better than Vegas odds. But by realizing this is gambling, I never put myself at risk of becoming overconfident - perhaps the most dangerous factor in this whole equation. It's still up to the individual to come up with a sound strategy. What follows is mine.

Note: I am an unabashed fan of Linux. People occasionally ask why I prefer Linux, what advantages it has over Windows. I have not once had a clear, concise response to this question, yet it invariably ignites an electrical storm in my head. Below is an example of why I prefer Linux.

Thought #1

The market is extremely volatile at this time. The market is extremely volatile during all recessions. While neither I nor anybody else can guess with any certainty when the market downturn will end, we can be reasonably sure the market will bounce around like nobody's business until it recovers.

Single day market fluctuations are one indication of market volatility. A 1% change in the S&P 500 in a single day is not uncommon, but significant all the same. How many daily 1% S&P 500 changes have occurred per year for the past 30 years?

I downloaded a comma-delimited file of historical S&P 500 prices going back to 1950, and I wrote a tiny Perl script. bash will take care of the rest!

for y in `seq 1978 2008`
do
  echo -n "$y: "
  grep "^$y" sp500.csv | ./dailychanges.pl 0.01 | wc -l
done


1978: 43
1979: 31
1980: 78
1981: 53
1982: 83
1983: 54
1984: 41
1985: 26
1986: 62
1987: 93
1988: 68
1989: 40
1990: 74
1991: 58
1992: 28
1993: 17
1994: 27
1995: 13
1996: 38
1997: 79
1998: 79
1999: 91
2000: 101
2001: 102
2002: 126
2003: 81
2004: 42
2005: 29
2006: 27
2007: 66
2008: 102

According to Wikipedia, there were recessions during the following times:

- 1981 - 1982
- 1990 - 1991
- 2001 - 2003

Plus, Black Monday on October 19th, 1987.

There seems to be a loose correlation here. Okay, I feel warm and fuzzy enough.

Thought #2

While I often feel like I'm about to run onto a shooting range any time I entertain the notion of investing in individual stocks, I can ride the market turbulence more violently by investing in chunks of the stock market as opposed to a broad index like the S&P 500. The more stocks that are encapsulated in an index, the more of a muffling effect it has. Let's pick an index of one of the stock market's twelve sectors instead of the market "as a whole." One that has had the crap beaten out of it but is bound to recover: the financial sector. While we're at it, let's make its daily fluctuations twice as pronounced by buying a crazy-ass leveraged ETF. UYG, whose Google Finance discussion group seems to think is some sort of intangible pirate ship, will fit the bill nicely.

Let's compare the daily 1% changes per year for:
- S&P 500
- IYF, which is an ETF created in 2000 to track the performance of the financial sector
- UYG, the 2x leveraged financial sector ETF, which, unfortunately, has only existed since January 30th, 2007, so it has yet to exist through a full year

YEARS&P 500IYFUYG
200010181--
2001102107--
2002126124--
20038182--
20044243--
20052939--
20062732--
20076690144
2008102158187

Thought #3

Strictly adhering to a brainless strategy might get me into the least amount of trouble:
- Buy low, sell high.
- Never, under any circumstances, sell at a loss.
- Don't put all of my eggs in one basket (with respect to price), because no one knows just how low the market will continue to sink, and I don't want to lock up all of my money all at once. Use dollar cost averaging.
- Use Zecco for ten free trades per month, and $4.50/trade thereafter.


Thus, for the past two weeks, this is what I've been doing. I buy $X worth of UYG at each dollar interval lower than its current price. E.g., when UYG was at $10.21, I set limit orders to buy $X worth of shares at $10.00, $9.00, $8.00, and $7.00. As the stock fell in price, my limit orders bought more shares at an increasing rate. Each time a limit buy order was triggered, I set a limit sell order for that price +$1. When I bought Y shares at $8, I turned around and sold Y shares at $9. The shares bought at $9 are set to sell at $10, the shares bought at $10 are set to sell at $11, etc. If all of my limit sell orders are triggered and the stock price continues to rise, I will start moving the limit buy orders from the bottom of the stack to the top of the stack. The $7 order will become the $11 order, the $8 order will become the $12 order, so when the price inevitably falls again, whenever and at whatever price it happens, I will be right behind it to buy more. So far, I have had two "round trips" that bought at $8 and sold at $9, and despite the ETF price being lower than where I had initially started buying it, I am still ahead in the context of this little project (all of my previous, long-term investments are currently being brutalized).

Once a group of shares are sold, I set the limit buy order back to what it had previously been. But I also re-average my non-invested money and distribute it amongst my limit buy orders, with the effect that all limit buy orders are set to buy even more shares than they previously had. Over time, the number of shares for limit buy orders will gradually increase, more so if the market remains suitably turbulent, as I suspect (or hope) it will for at least another year.

But already, over the course of two weeks, I've discovered a minor kink in this strategy that has cast doubt on all of Dr. Calculus' assertions, or perhaps my interpretation of them. Is it really so difficult to find patterns in the stock market? We have already seen that the market becomes more volatile in times of recession, but that can be dismissed as the stock market reacting to worldly news. The stock market does not exist in a vacuum. Bad news typically has a negative impact on it. This might be called a pattern, but if one cannot anticipate the news, it's not a very profitable pattern. Those who can anticipate the news are gods among men.

I noticed, over the course of two weeks, that two of my limit orders had not executed even after the ETF reached their targets. When UYG fell to $7.00, my $7.00 limit buy order did not have enough time to react before the price quickly jumped back up to several cents above $7.00 and hovered there for what seemed like hours. When UYG jumped up to $10.00, my $10.00 limit sell order did not have sufficient time to react before the ETF price raced back down to several cents below $10.00 and hovered there for what seemed like days. (Your senses have a way of lying to you. Not just your sense of time, either. What do you see in your blind spot? Visual lies. You are also color deficient in your peripheral vision, but good luck convincing yourself of that.)

Are there so many people like me out there, buying and selling on even dollar increments, that it actually has a noticeable impact on stock prices? This is too primitive, too easy. There's no way it could possibly be true. Isn't this precisely the sort of thing that could be exploited in some way? This has got to be the power of suggestion at work. The fantasy of superstition. Wait... I still have a Linux bash shell open, Sherlock Holmes' magnifying glass for the digital era.

What happens if we lump together all the historical highs and lows of UYG and count the occurrences of each cent mark, from X.00 to X.99?

cat uyg.csv | cut -d ',' -f 2,3 | tr ',' '\n' > uyghighlow.txt

for i in `seq -w 00 99`
do
  echo -ne "$i\t"
  grep ".$i" uyghighlow.txt | wc -l
done > uygcentmarks.tab


Strangely enough, we get this. Graphed like this:


It would appear that human nature has taken over. People prefer dollar increments, then 50 cent increments, then 25 increments (kinda?). There's not enough noise in the stock market to gloss over this reality, as the highs and lows of UYG tend to gravitate towards these pleasing values. And then shortly thereafter, everybody's limit orders fire, repelling the price to either direction, back from where it came or onward, where it will then gravitate towards the next pleasing value. Or loiter tantalizingly close to the same value for the rest of the day, bouncing off of it now and again for a split second. And I'm getting screwed because this happens too quickly!

I would suspect that we don't see this gravitation towards pleasing values in the S&P 500, as an investor cannot directly buy the S&P 500 index, only a product based on it. The S&P 500 is merely the sum of the prices of its 500 constituent stocks, which would effectively smooth out or eliminate the strange phenomenon observed above. So, what's it look like?


Makes sense, although the overall downward slope defies explanation. Let's try Google:


Cool. How about something from out of nowhere. How about Mattel, the toy company?


It's kind of there, kind of not.

What if we take a look at some of the more massive companies, like General Motors, McDonald's, and the disaster that is/was AIG? But only from 2001 onward, because there was some strangeness with these stocks before 2001 that I as yet have no explanation for. Strangeness: GM, MCD, AIG.







Now is the time to reevaluate everything I thought I learned in college.



October 21st, 2008 - Language MattersComments [12]

Remember back in high school, the first time you may have been forced to learn a foreign language? I do. I picked Spanish because it was supposedly one of the easier languages to learn. I have never regretted that decision, either. Sure, I listen to an alarming amount of German music (because German speaking countries seem to be the only place where industrial music is still alive and kicking). But I have never once had any desire to know what the lyrics actually meant because I know, somewhere deep down, that as scary as those deep, raspy words sound, I'm in fact just listening to Austria's version of Linkin Park. And it would be nothing short of catastrophic if I ever found out for sure. So, take the meaning of your German language and bury it in its cryptic vault on the other side of God's green Earth where it belongs.

I was also taught that learning a foreign language exposes one's mind to a whole new way of thinking. To use the linguistic toolbox of a second language to unlock previously unfathomable thoughts. Or perhaps I'm being too romantic about this. I don't know. I never became fluent in Spanish or any other language, having only lived through two lowest-common-denominator semesters of Spanish class followed by an intense summer of computer games, erasing all traces of the language from my feeble brain. The only word I remember to this day is "afeitarse," only because I was the rare seventeen year old gifted enough to have a full-fledged beard in high school. I heard this strange word at least twice a day.

A book I am currently reading, Breaking The Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel Dennett, argues that language allows us to ponder abstract properties of objects that would otherwise have been inseparable from the objects themselves. Maybe the abstract is more intuitive to you than the concrete, in which case I would be sorely disappointed if you didn't subscribe to David Hume's Bundle Theory. According to Dennett, language allows us to mix and match abstract properties as we see fit, producing in our minds' eyes unseen, unlikely, or unequivocally absurd results:
Human memory is biased in favor of vital combinations, but so, presumably, is the memory found in the brains of all other animals. Animal memory has probably been relatively impervious to fantasy, however, for a simple reason: lacking language, animal brains have not had a way of inundating themselves with an explosion of combinations not found in the natural environment. How is an anxious ape going to concoct the counterintuitive combination of a walking tree or an invisible banana - ideas that might indeed captivate an ape mind if only they could be presented to it?
To me, this is vaguely reminiscent of the story To See and Not to See by Oliver Sacks, which was the basis for the movie At First Sight. In this story, a man blind since a very young age regains his sight, but, to the puzzlement of himself and those around him, he realizes he is unable to see in any meaningful sense. Why? Because his mind was missing visual concepts. Without concepts, and by extension the words that convey them, there is nothing to separate a mountain from a meadow, the sun from the sky, or even to correlate spoken words to their speakers. Objects would have initially been irreducibly lumped together as one thing, known as "the world" or "sight." For this unfortunate man, all visual concepts and objects needed to be learned from scratch, systematically and laboriously, as a substitute for an early phase of childhood development those of us who have had vision our whole lives would be hard-pressed not to take for granted.

As a unilingual person speaking from a position of ignorance, I would assert that this is precisely what a second language affords us with respect to the ability to synthesize new, previously unthinkable thoughts: further divisibility, abstraction, and precision. Metaphorically, more colors for our palette, with more prepackaged mixtures and smoother gradients. If I did learn another language, I would most certainly want it to be sign language, for reasons of my own. I wonder if that counts.

The other important thing I learned in high school Spanish class, besides the fact that drug dealers buy a lot of EA Sports Dreamcast games, is that English is an extremely difficult language to learn. How fortunate, says the 11th grader inside of me. I don't need to do anything and already I've done the impossible. I know English! Who's with me? But-- hold the phone. Not so fast. At what point does one truly "know" a language? When they know some of it? When they know all of it, or at least all of its grammatical rules? If it's the latter, I would argue (fervently!) that none of us actually know English. It's true, some of us know more than the next person, but who actually KNOWS the rules of English? All of them, from beginning to end, the alpha and the omega. Nobody, really. Think you're the one? Come step up to the plate.

http://www.grammarbook.com/grammar_quiz/lie_vs_lay_1.asp
http://www.grammarbook.com/grammar_quiz/who_vs_which_1.asp
http://www.grammarbook.com/grammar_quiz/prepositions_1.asp

Take that!



August 2nd, 2008 - Creative FrustrationsComments [9]

I've heard a thing or two about so-called "simultaneous developments" throughout history. Parallel discoveries, concurrent inventions, coincidental musings, what have you. An animated likeness of Ethan Hawke spoke of this in the quasi-film Waking Life. We are told that Gottfried Leibniz and Isaac Newton both discovered calculus at roughly the same time, independently of one another. Much of Charles Darwin's and Alfred Wallace's work on the theory of evolution had been fleshed out before they began collaborating.

There is nothing mystical going on here, so far as I can tell (and it is precisely my inability to wade through mysticism that grants me due authority in my privileged position of "some guy on the Internet"). To me, all of the alleged simultaneous independent intellectual developments throughout history point to just one of many unnerving realities of the human condition: creativity is little more than rearranging bits of knowledge and experience and connecting dots between them. Not just science and mathematics, mind you, but the arts too. Music, novels, humor, they're all just sausages synthesized of the ground of chunks of sausages that came before them.

Try to think of something brand new. Say something random. Do this now. I'd say there's a one-in-five chance whatever you just said had something to do with monkeys, because somewhere along the way, perhaps 180 years ago, a bored patron visiting a zoo watched a monkey scream and do a backflip, decided that monkeys are the zenith of randomness, then handed this bit of knowledge down to posterity to be used and abused for all eternity. Back during my online gaming days, there was a person who played under the name "93% Soiled Loaf". That person, and that person alone, was able to create thoughts out of nothing. Everyone else, me included, are just trying hard enough to fool ourselves.

Not that this realization necessarily detracts from my perception of the world. Progress is still being made. Lacking the capacity to bring anything wholly new into this world does not negate the worth of one's works or thoughts. But it can be frustrating for an individual hellbent on being creative (e.g., UltraMuffin a mere handful of years ago; skim through years 2003-2005 of my website to witness me in the violent throws of disjointed thoughts with no substance). My new aim is to go with the flow, adding my own twist to what happens to trickle by, all the while being cognizant of the streams of thought to which I elect to subscribe. Note: In general, you should sound the bullshit alarm the moment a person plants the word "cognizant" in a conversation. There are far less pompous ways to say the word "aware." This is an FYI effective hereafter. Don't let me catch you falling for it again.

With that in mind, please be aware that, for the past month, I have been reading a book titled Lost Christianities, listening to Laibach's Jesus Christ Superstars album on an endless loop in my car, and even willingly attended two unfamiliar local churches for no reason in particular (are there any ethical considerations for starting a church review website?). I've had Christianity on my mind again. Let it not escape the torrent of scrutiny, here. According to some of the more radical literature I've read, there were a number of ancient religions that paralleled Christianity in numerous respects. Does Christmas really belong to Christ? If so, which Christ?

Some Christian apologists credit these similarities to the downstream influence of Christianity on other religions. I.e., Mithraism thrived by swallowing up elements of other religions, chiefly Christianity. Syncretism, you see, a fancy word for "turbulent theological melting pot." With each new piece of information that comes along, it seems increasingly likely to me that syncretism is how all religions were born, not unlike all other things of this world. Voodoo is a particularly fun example of Christianity gone astray. Everyone's guilty. Even the Greeks commandeered Dionysus from an ancient elsewhere. December 25th is the religious equivalent of that green spinning wireframe skull animated GIF from 1995. It was so cool that, come 1996, every website on the world wide web had it. In light of the fact that Jesus had a lot in common with various religious figures who came centuries before him, I find it rather doubtful that Christianity escaped the turmoil unscathed or otherwise uninfluenced by the rampant syncretism of its formative era.

But where am I going with this? I wanted to learn OpenGL. I accidentally made it through the entire Computer Science bachelor's program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks without taking a graphics programming course. Graphics programming is supposed to be the cherry on top. For many students, it's the sole reason they major in Computer Science in the first place. What is a course anyway but an opportunity for me to zone out and daydream? I'm a book learner, so I bought a book and read enough to get me going, stopping short of textures, lighting effects, and fog. That's right. I can program simple blocks of solid colors, which, incidentally, is as far as ambition took me:


I like brick bash games, especially the 3D variety. I love Arkanoid. Where other brick bash games added power ups to, for example, spawn multiple balls or widen the player's paddle, Arkanoid went the extra mile by arming the player with a gun to shoot away blocks. But what if we were to combine 3D brick bash with Arkanoid? We could call it "3D Arkanoid." If we're lucky, we might even get sued! But why stop at space gun power-ups? Let's have blocks exploding, taking other blocks with them. And what to do with all of the extra CPU power present in any modern gaming device? It would be a damn shame to let that go to waste. Let's add some physics so the blocks react realistically to the explosions. Let's give the blocks different point values to add extra incentive to being precise. Hell, let's ditch the old brick bash paddle style of gameplay and allow the player to "toss" the ball at piles of bricks, attempting to throttle the toss velocity to hit the best targets (high valued blocks, or exploding blocks). The balls will need to be affected by friction and gravity so they don't bounce around forever. Basically, I've just mentally morphed my 3D Arkanoid idea into something more like the crash mode of Burnout 3, except with blocks and balls.

How would I implement this toss throttle, exactly? Click and hold down the mouse button while a colored vector expands, sort of like in the game Worms. Or, how about I experiment with these Wii Remote libraries that keep popping up on the Internet. Maybe I could rig this game up so the player literally tosses balls at the blocks using motion controls. Maybe I could figure out a way to make motion controls work better than 50% of the games on Wii. Just maybe. What simple fun this could be. What an original idea, right?


I hate you, Steven Spielberg. You are to video games what George Foreman is to grills.



June 10th, 2008 - Pulling the wool from our eyesComments [16]

I wonder how much of an impact Looney Tunes had on my developmental years. No other cartoon I know of is better at capturing the social milieu of the times, but these cartoons are ancient. As such, they are dangerous. Although if given the choice, I would have rather spent the entirely of my childhood watching Duck Tales, Ninja Turtles, and Rocko's Modern Life, there happened to be a surplus of Looney Tunes. Decades upon decades of short animations accumulated to overwhelm the competition. They spanned half a century, as evidenced by the fact that color left the drawings just as quickly as it came, telegrams gave all appearances of being an essential component of modern living, and Bugs Bunny himself morphed, twisted, and mutated in ways that betrayed my trust as he bounced back and forth between the eons. Meanwhile, children like me were indoctrinated with various notions about the world that had long since fallen from favor.

To what extent? Part of me is afraid I'll never know. And if I never figure it out, I can do nothing else but live my life realizing that the Warner Bros. laid much of its permanent foundation. Maybe this is what it is to be an American. Burgers, baseball football American Idol, and Looney Tunes. What we all more or less have in common. The lowest common denominators, as they could be called.

What kinds of falsities and half-truths did they shove down my throat before my critical reasoning faculties had developed? That's easy. I need only ask myself the question, "What did I believe before the age of ~eight that ended up making me feel like a fool?" The easy targets.

Criminals, especially burglars, wear striped black-and-white clothes

Do they? Did they ever? Maybe it is in Warner Bros.'s best interests not to depict criminals wearing radical Nickelodeon orange jumpsuits, lest we all grow up in a world where premeditated murder is punishable by slime. The Hamburglar hasn't brought a wealth of reality to the table, either. When I was perhaps four years old, my mother emphasized the importance of using a deadbolt to lock doors to the outside world. She and my father had learned the hard way, unfortunately, when, many years prior, a burglar had broken into their house and stolen my mother's jewelry.

At four years old, I learned a new word: incredulous. I looked deep within myself and decided that, if I were anything at all, I was most definitely incredulous. Here my own mother was trying to convince me that a person wearing striped monochrome clothing, who may or may not have had a fat plastic head and donned a cape, broke into their home to steal gold and diamonds. My eyebrow was officially raised. Pure forces of evil were now escaping from the television set. Oh, wait, criminals look just like you and I? I'm frankly a bit surprised I am still alive.

Creepy men, in general, look like Steve Buscemi

I'm not sure, maybe I'm alone on this, but what struck me most about Steve Buscemi when I first saw him in movies such as Desperado and Billy Madison is that he looked like he jumped straight out of the older black and white episodes of Looney Tunes. Every so often, they'd draw a creepy, greasy, weird-lipped, middle-aged white dude into a cartoon for dramatic effect, all along blissfully unaware that they were drawing a future flesh-and-blood celebrity. I think it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. It took the collective consciousness of America to promote a run-of-the-mill unattractive man to the ranks of "superstar creepy," and Looney Tunes had collected our consciousness decades earlier.

Mars is like Troy, if Troy were built of girders and located on the moon
Thanks, Carilyn!

Marvin the Martian is to Martians what Taz is to Tasmanian devils. Is he the only person on Mars? What's with the Trojan getup? And why does Mars have it in for Earth? We've been kind. What does Mars honestly have against us?

If I were a betting man, I would wager instead that we're past due for gimpy ol' Pluto the dwarf planet to come shooting up our solar clubhouse in the turbulent throws of his dilapidated orbit. Me, I've never felt terribly threatened by the red planet of telescopes, illudium Q-36 explosive space modulators, and other such assorted manifestations of the make-believe, Trojan imps be damned.

Bombs look like bowling balls, and crates of TNT are clearly labeled

One time, just one time, I would like to glue a fuse to a black bowling ball and drop it in the key/change bowl on the way through airport security. What would they think? Would they laugh? Would they have a dog sniff it? Would three other different colored versions of me come running out from the corridors, drop their own fused bowling balls within my vicinity, then run away giggling and still manage to blow themselves up?

It would be like the time I bought a 20-pack of AA batteries from Sam's Club, which incidentally were all packaged in a single row, then stuffed it into my carry-on bag before the conveyer belt x-ray. This was not an intentional joke, so imagine my surprise when the TSA found what appeared to be an ammo clip in my backpack. I was a man on a mission, dead set on annihilating an army of koopa troopas by sundown.

It's always reassuring to see how quickly video games infiltrate every last one of my musings.

Hell is underground, firey, and full of Yosemite Sam

I may need to wait another 60 years for confirmation, but I strongly suspect that the Warners lied about this one, too. In any case, it sure made it difficult to make sense of Sunday morning sermons. I guess it could be worse. All Dogs Go To Heaven still gives me goosebumps.

Tasmanian devils look like Taz, and they spin

Lies! I think the animators lost the "T" volume of their Encyclopedia Britannica and just decided to wing it. I see absolutely no correlation between Taz and Tasmanian devils. Tasmanian devils just look like gnarly burnt dogs to me. Taz looks like a walking mouth covered with hair, that turns into a tornado at will. Do Tasmanian devils actually spin in any way, shape, or form? Do they roll around? Do they have violent fits? Are they a force to be feared?


The answer to all of these questions appears to be an unequivocal "no."

Coyotes are unable to make informed purchases

What you do with the Road Runner once you catch him is your business, Wile E. Coyote. But for god's sake, quit wasting your money. ACME has burned you. ACME has burned you bad. Take some of that tension out in an angry letter or a bad review. I would never consider buying a Badonkadonk Land Cruiser without first skimming the reviews a bit. How many times will rockets blow up in your face before you order a different catalog?

I can't tell you how many times Paper Mate pens have ruined my day. And you know what? I'm through with them. I'm through with them and all who support them. Want to be my friend? Use Bic. Want to be my girl? Then there can be absolutely no Paper Mate between us. I'd go to Bangkok if I wanted a whore. ACME has never done any good for anyone. They've been on my shit list since 1989.

Now, just imagine where we'd be if the Censored Eleven were never censored?



May 24th, 2008 - If you have a choice, you should read thisComments [15]

I've always been fascinated by the debate over free will vs. determinism. Do we in fact have any control over our destiny? Okay, free will may only be partially responsible for that. To bring this debate more down to Earth, when you lift your arm, is its movement really the consequence of your consciously willing it to move? If you've never taken a philosophy course or read the neuroscience books I have, the question sounds absurd. Of course your arm moves because you make it move. How could somebody argue against that? There are, in fact, many ways to argue against this.

First of all, if you're a strict believer in science, physics in particular, you should already be wondering how free will is possible. The world is governed by the rule of cause and effect. Y happens because X happens. Y has no choice. There is no decision taking place. How can humans exist outside of these rules? Why should we believe we are not simply extremely complex computers, constantly converting a truly overwhelming amount of sensory input into distinctive outputs like behavior and personality? This is where people will often interject by blurting out "quantum physics!"

Not that I'm qualified to speak on these matters, but, like Mars, a billiard ball, or a bullet, neurons are too large to be significantly affected by the uncertainty of quantum physics. If you believe quantum physics is responsible for the free will of mankind, you should also believe that billiard balls can and routinely do defy intuition. That's a poor example, I suppose, for the game of pool has taught us all to be a little more skeptical about geometry. If you are a strict scientist, you probably already believe that what we call our mind is just the cognitive sensation of various chain reactions of neurons, set off by sensory inputs.

Okay okay, but maybe science is just a bunch of ignorant hocus pocus spouted by unenlightened elitists. What if the mind is not merely a side-effect of brain activity. What if our minds are actually otherworldly souls, resting above and outside of this universe. Something only God can understand? Right about now, you should be asking yourself exactly what God this is. Is this the Western God? The more or less common God of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam? The omnipotent, omniscient, creator of the world who instilled us with free will?

As the classical argument goes, how can people have free will if God is omniscient? If we take omniscience to mean that God knows the future, then there's no two ways about it: we have no free will. If we have free will, even if God knows all of our possible actions and all of the possible actions that stem from those actions, into a limitless tree of future possibilities, we must acknowledge that there is at least one crucial piece of information God does not yet know. He does not know what path we will decide to choose. Thus, such a God is not omniscient. He's a charlatan.

Those are the two extremes. Two highly abstract, thoroughly unpersuasive examples to prove the same point, disturbing as the point may be. Another interesting stance is that of soft determinism: Yes, we are merely machines that convert inputs into outputs, cause and effect style, just like anything else in the universe. It would be a mistake to believe this happens in a spiritual vacuum, however. The way inputs arrive as our outputs is determined by our personalities, our decisions, our minds. The self is the missing link between sensations and behavior. It's true that we do not have free will, as there is only one possible outcome given the inputs available to us. Nevertheless, this outcome is determined solely on the basis of who we are. Human consciousness, not the mysterious workings of an impersonal brain, turns the gear to complete the universal system of determinism, at least where it concerns humans. So, we do have a choice? But at the same time, we only have one choice to choose: the choice we ultimately do choose. If we could rewind time and play it back again, everything would happen exactly as it had before. In any given situation, our one and only choice is distinctly ours -- so much so that it was effectively predestined. Therefore, we do not have any choices in life, just the appearances of them.

Hmmmm... how did we get back here? It's like being caught in a house of mirrors. No matter where I look, what approach I take, or where I think I'm going, I end up where I started. If I'm given more than twenty minutes to think about it, I invariably arrive at the same conclusion. There is no way free will can possibly exist. Yes, this is all quite fun. Philosophical musings to be pondered during one's downtime, with not a wit of evidence to support them. Or did I speak too soon? What does world-renowned neurologist V.S. Ramachandran have to say?

... Now let's go back to normals and do a PET scan when you're voluntarily moving your finger using your free will. A second to three-fourths of a second prior to moving your finger, I get the EEG potential and it's called the Readiness Potential. It's as though the brain events are kicking in a second prior to your actual finger movement, even though your conscious intention of moving the finger coincides almost exactly with the wiggle of the finger. Why? Why is the mental sensation of willing the finger delayed by a second, coming a second after the brain events kick in as monitored by the EEG? What might the evolutionary rationale be?

The answer is, I think, that there is an inevitable neural delay before the signal arising in the brain cascades through the brain and the message arrives to wiggle you finger. There's going to be a delay because of neural processing - just like the satellite interviews on TV which you've all been watching. So natural selection has ensured that the subjective sensation of willing is delayed deliberately to coincide not with the onset of the brain commands but with the actual execution of the command by your finger, so that you feel you're moving it.

And this in turn is telling you something important. It's telling you that the subjective sensations that accompany brain events must have an evolutionary purpose, for if it had no purpose and merely accompanied brain events - like so many philosophers believe (this is called epiphenomenalism) - in other words the subjective sensation of willing is like a shadow that moves with you as you walk but is not causal in making you move, if that's correct then why would evolution bother delaying the signal so that it coincides with your finger movement?

So you see the amazing paradox is that on the one hand the experiment shows that free will is illusory, right? It can't be causing the brain events because the events kick in a second earlier. But on the other hand it has to have some function because if it didn't have a function, why would evolution bother delaying it? But if it does have a function, what could it be other than moving the finger? So maybe our very notion of causation requires a radical revision here as happened in quantum physics. OK, enough of free will. It's all philosophy!




March 9th, 2008 - A crossroadsComments [15]

If you were to ask me what my favorite year was, I would plainly say that I honestly do not know. However, if you were to ask me what my most nostalgic year was, I would say 1999, and I would do so without skipping a beat. This is very curious. I have always thought of nostalgia as a linear function of time. The older the memory is, the more it is filled to the brim with irrational nostalgic fuzz. If I started retaining memories at age ~four (a rough guess), it seems like that should have been my most nostalgic year. But 1999 is. Why? Oh, I know why. I can explain away the whole damned reminiscent supernova lodged in the back of my head with only three key strokes: V64.

1999 was a four course meal. If The Matrix was its hors d'oeuvre, then dessert was the cable modem secured by Fall, and Starsiege: Tribes was the handful of hedonism I seize from the giant taffy bowl at The Turtle Club in an ill-advised effort to recoup any losses sustained by a $32 dinner. The main course? 64 letter V's stacked on top of a regular-ass Nintendo 64, sitting in the midst of a universally jobless summer.

Or V64 Jr. to be exact. What I hadn't realized until the latter half of 1998 was that, ever since the original Nintendo Entertainment System, perhaps earlier, various outfits in Hong Kong had been producing cartridge emulators. Not software emulators like you download on a computer and drool over, then vow to beat every SNES game you could never afford as a child... for about two weeks. Hardware based cartridge emulators are a much stranger breed, and I wanted one desperately. After finding that the V64 and the Z64 exceeded the modest budget of a lowly teenager, I eventually accumulated enough money by the late Spring of 1999 to order Bung Enterprises' brand new, stripped down, product. The V64 Jr. Otherwise known as The Nexus of Fairbanks.

I was ecstatic when the thing came in the mail, partly due to the fact that I had sent a $170 money order to some back-alley Internet electronics store I had never heard of before. I might as well have planted my money in rich soil and hoped it would grow into a V64 Jr. I immediately played all of the N64 ROMs I had been stockpiling from FTP sites and the bullshit that was Hotline since I ordered the device. Maybe 80 of them, maybe 100 by this point. Each game, whether it was garbage or gold, from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time to Pokemon Stadium, received exactly ten minutes of my time. I seemed utterly incapable of committing any more time to a single game, as this was more time that could be spent raiding FTP sites and Hotline servers, or, once things got really out of control, renting N64 games and ripping ROMs for myself.

It was a rapid and vicious cycle of consumption that ultimately brought me no satisfaction, and worse yet, left me disoriented as the hobby that had brought me so much joy since I was six years old seemed to have lost all of its value over the course of a month. The hobby? No, not video games. Accumulating stuff in general. Vaguely aware of the basic tenets of Buddhism, I was beginning to feel like Siddhartha Gautama on a miniature but no less profound scale. No amount of additional crap was going to fill the rest of the crap with meaning. Games were more fun when I only had a few of them. Now, the sense of fun had been replaced with an overwhelming and thoroughly unpleasant burden to enjoy what I had. The $170 V64 Jr. was simultaneously the best and worst purchase of my life, just as Hackers is paradoxically both the best and worst movie ever produced.

I remember casually mentioning this device to my friend Zach, who later became Kapuni, in the locker room after gym class, where the stale scent of adolescence filled the air with an olfactory likeness to spoiled broccoli if not all-out rust. "Yeah, Perfect Dark is pretty cool. I have a piece of plastic I jam into the cartridge slot of my N64 that allows me to play the ROM from my computer." It must have sounded just as dubious as his "All Star Grandpa" gym t-shirt. Two days later, Zach showed up at my front door with a skeptical look on his face.

I think we played Bomberman 64. Or Turok 2. Or BattleTanx. More likely, we played all three games and twenty more. I now found myself in the possession of maybe 200 games by this time, up to and including Superman 64. Money lost to piracy? I don't think so. If there is a single person out there who legitimately owned 200 N64 games back in the day, at $70 a pop, that person was either in exceptional financial circumstances, or would otherwise have been a good candidate for a face full of orbitoclast half a century earlier to cure their obsessive behavior. I had owned my Nintendo 64 for two years prior to coupling it with a V64 Jr., and had owned all of one game: Super Mario 64. Why? We all know why. The N64 was the digital equivalent of my experimental Tang milkshakes. Sluggish, texture-less, and hopelessly orange. A fool's enterprise.

Enter the weekend. The programmable doorbell rang its apathetic anachronism, Jingle Bells indeed. Zach and his cool brother Special K were at the door, ready to be marginalized by a swelling well of hideous games. We confronted the likes of Forsaken 64, Rampage World Tour, Castlevania 64, and Vigilante 8. The next weekend, Zach and KC and ThunderChunk showed up at the same door. Then Drew's brother, his cousin Gerrit, his brother's friend, and Zach's friend Skrumf (RIP). By the time there were seven or eight regulars frequenting my house, it was summer time.

My brother had just graduated from high school, and freshly branded with sharks on his shoulder, he decided to spend the next couple months hanging out with his friends in the basement of our house, playing pool and such, before shipping off to basic training. Three more regulars entered Act II: Jack, Chris, and the tall quiet guy who looked like John Romero. They came for billiards but grew captivated by the bland Bung box. In short order, WCW/nWo Revenge entered the regular rotation of games.

This also happened to be one of those rare summers when my aunt, uncle, and cousins flew in from Maryland for a month visit. What did my cousins like to do? Play video games. Then two guys from school whom I barely knew found out where I lived. Nello and Shawn would randomly show up at the door. Out of what added up to perhaps sixteen people summer suckling the V64 Jr., Nello might have been the only one employed. However, he started clocking in at his job at Westmark Hotel in the morning only to drive to my house and play N64 for nine hours before clocking out at the end of the day. This worked for exactly four days, and then there was uniform unemployment for all.

Soon after, my brother asked of my parents to let one of his school acquaintances live at our formerly tranquil house for a week. They permitted this. Chris II and his clingy girlfriend dove into the throng. Chris, incidentally, happened to be acutely skilled in the arts of Goldeneye 007 and San Francisco Rush 2. "Do you have Goldeneye or Rush 2?" he asked. "Chris, allow me to direct your eyes to the gray piece of plastic protruding from that Nintendo 64 on the floor. Its magic knows no bounds." Chris wasted no time unleashing his unique brand of carefree ass kickery, and the entire congregation of Fairbanks 12-to-20-somethings endured his wrath. It was earth-shattering. In fact, I already wrote about this.

When I blindly downloaded the Japanese version of an as yet unreleased in the states game called Super Smash Bros., the rest of summer was spoken for. I'm pretty sure all parties involved remember this summer with the fondest and strangest of memories. I remember it as sort of a modern Breakfast Club in which the library had been replaced with a V64 Jr. and detention had been replaced with unprecedented summer vegetation. People who would ordinarily never interact with one another spent weeks masquerading as Donkey Kong and Kirby, pummelling each other into the ground, athletes spouting incompatible traditions of trash talk that went sailing over nerds' heads and vice versa. In sum, there were a whole lot of people who really did not understand each other, but made an honest effort to do so.

If after reading this entry you have an irresistible urge to find and buy a V64 Jr., or buy more games of any kind, it may be to your benefit to read it again from the beginning.



February 24th, 2008 - Will $10.20 cost me $1031.52?Comments [12]

I've always wanted to understand the stock market. Last summer, the summer of 2007, the same summer I listened to a lot of Tech N9ne and got hit in the face with a Frisbee, I read The Neatest Little Guide to Stock Market Investing by Jason Kelly. Check out my book review, or flip through the little book review slide show I presented to the fantastically nerdy West Ridge Investor's Club. The book was quite basic, but I feel that it armed me with enough knowledge to make educated mistakes. Not random shots in the dark. I just ordered another book with a Christmas gift certificate, One Up On Wall Street by Peter Lynch, because apparently I am middle aged beyond my years. It's just something to pass the time.

The Neatest Little Guide told me to go to the library, which I did. I looked at some of the fastest growing stocks according to Investor's Business Daily (a newspaper with a retail subscription price of $295/year. Thank you, Noel Wien Library). I wrote down approximately 50 stock symbols, came home, entered them into a mock portfolio on Google Finance and watched and researched them for a few days. I eventually decided that NewMarket Corp (NEU) looked like a good investment. However, The Neatest Little Guide also told me to write down reasons why I like a stock before I even think about investing in it. How do I know if I like a stock? The book taught me how to know. Well, as best it could teach me the unknowable over the course of roughly 230 pages. Let's see if a $10.20 book manages to cost me $1031.52.

Reasons investing in NEU seemed like a good idea:

- The market as a whole is down, so it's a good time to invest in stocks generally
- Investor's Business Daily SmartSelect Composite Rating of 99 on 02/15/2008
- Increasing volume over the past few months
- Added to the S&P SmallCap 600 Index on 02/12/2008
- It pays a dividend, which is not to be taken for granted with growth stocks

- Four consecutive years of increasing earnings (in millions of US dollars):

2004200520062007
33.0642.3857.5295.32

- Analyst estimates of even higher earnings in 2008 and 2009
- Has exceeded analyst estimates in the past

- High Return on Equity (TTM):

NEUIndustrySectorS&P 500
25.4017.5920.5521.65

- Low Price / Earnings (TTM):

NEUIndustrySectorS&P 500
13.3136.8922.5218.58

- Low Price / Sales (TTM):

NEUIndustrySectorS&P 500
0.704.012.562.55

- High Current Ratio (MRQ):

NEUIndustrySectorS&P 500
2.791.702.001.69

- High Quick Ratio (MRQ):

NEUIndustrySectorS&P 500
1.700.991.161.18

- Lots of insider buying by the Director of NewMarket Corp

And, not that I follow the chemical industry or anything, but this blurb on Afton Chemical Corporation, one of NewMarket Corp's two child companies, sounds promising in this day in age:

Afton Chemical develops and manufactures petroleum additives that enhance the performance of lubricating oils and fuels. From custom-formulated chemical blends to market-general additive components, Afton technology helps fuels burn cleaner, engines run smoother, and machines last longer. ... Fuel additives are chemical components and products that improve the refining process and performance of gasoline, diesel, and other fuels, resulting in lower fuel costs, improved fuel performance, and reduced fuel emissions.

Please be cautioned that this is in no way a certain success. I am a novice. I also noticed that NewMarket Corp has a relatively low Profit Margin. Does its historically increasing earnings counter this? Who knows. (Not me.)

I bought 16 shares of NEU on 02/20/2008 at a price of $64.47 per share. Grab some popcorn and join me. Let's see if this turns into a disaster. However, the stock price is free to do whatever it wants for a while. Based on what I've read, I consider the price immaterial until around April 30th, when NewMarket Corp is scheduled to report next quarter's earnings. Before then, I need to determine my criteria for selling the stock. But until then, I persevere!



February 16th, 2008 - Overplaying Super Paper MarioComments [9]

The other day, as I was trudging my way through the mediocrity that is Super Paper Mario, I stumbled upon the following puzzle as the sole barrier to entrance into Flopside (as opposed to Flipside, you whacky 5D linear game):

There are eight strangely colored Super Mario style blocks. They all start out dark. When I jump up to hit one, it illuminates. But wait! There's more! It also illuminates several of the other eight blocks. So, if I jump up and hit one block, maybe three other random blocks will light up. If I jump up and hit the same block again, all of the blocks it had formally illuminated go dark again. What happens if I hit another block? The same behavior, except it will illuminate itself and another arbitrary handful of blocks along with it. Combine the illumination faculties of several blocks at once and all hell breaks loose, as blocks turn on and off seemingly randomly.

The video I attempted to make to demonstrace this turned out like typical YouTube crap. But I do have these GIFs:

The blocks start like this:



If I hit Block 1, this happens:



If I then hit Block 2, this happens:



Hitting Block 1 again does the following:



Etc. Though the real thing has more color to it.

Hours prior, while flipped into 3D mode back in Flipside (not Flopside), I happened to read a sign that said "eight blocks, one color each." How typical of these sorts of games that my clue would be nowhere near, neither spatially nor temporally, the puzzle to which it applied. This game has been reduced to a feat of memory. Why not just play one of those match-the-cards style memory games? Why indeed. Super Paper Mario actually contains one of those games in its hidden arcade room.

But let's focus. The clue says I need to illuminate all eight blocks? That's one hell of a clue right there. Had I missed that sign, I might have been stuck in this room for an eternity playing Simon with myself. I tested the waters by hitting a few blocks here and there. Toggling the eight blocks on, never off. Not intentionally, that is. There's no satisfaction in solving a puzzle unless you take the bait first. After five minutes of this, I said to myself, "You're better than this, Muffin. Solve it with your mind, not your fingers."

The most annoying part of this puzzle is that I could only see four of the eight blocks on the screen at any given time. Thus, after experimentally hitting a block, I had to run back and forth to examine the results. Over and over again. If I couldn't visualize the action with my eyes, how would I manage to visualize it in my head with even the slightest confidence? This was going to require paper and a pen.

As I fetched the pen and paper, it occurred to me that I had seen this puzzle before. I had solved sizable puzzles of the same nature back in 2002, 2006, and a little bit in between. This wasn't so much a puzzle as it was an old acquaintance from the days of yore. XOR! These blocks were just XOR operations on an 8-bit register, not unlike the 16-bit registers of EE 443 or the 32-bit registers of CS 301. Filled with these wonderfully nostalgic memories, I suddenly lost all interest in Super Paper Mario and once again felt like doing what I always want to do. Program! Forget solving this puzzle with my mind. That has now become immaterial.

When I was a young lad, before the Internet was around, I went through a brief phase of trying to enjoy crossword puzzles. The problem with crossword puzzles is that every puzzle has at least two clues relating to Robert Redford. Once those two clues are discovered, the game is kaput. If you are under the age of 40, you haven't a chance in the world.

If you don't know the crossword answers, you simply don't know the answers. If this happens frequently enough, if a big block of blank squares continues to dominate the center of the page, how are you supposed to solve the puzzle? It's not like sudoku. You can't flex your thought muscles into a solution. Fortunately, bookstores sell crossword puzzle dictionaries. Is this acceptable? If it is, would it not make more sense to simply use Google? Ravens are deemed intelligent if they use every resource available to achieve their goal. Humans should be judged by the same criteria. Having made this bold assertion, I claim that the smartest way a human can solve a crossword puzzle is to wait until the solution is published. Likewise, the smartest way to stay fed is to hang around the dumpster behind Mayflower Buffet. But when your goal is to gain a little more experience programming, maybe it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to play video games in the first place.

I recorded the eight Flopside blocks' behavior thus:

Block 1: 10101101
Block 2: 11010110
Block 3: 10111010
Block 4: 01111001
Block 5: 11101010
Block 6: 00011111
Block 7: 01100111
Block 8: 11010101

Ostensibly, there is only one correct block arrangement out of a possible 256. Some people model oceans. Others model ballistics or the atmosphere. I'd be doing the same, but, truth be told, I'm not much of an expert on anything but video games. Let's see what a little C++ can do. However, let the record show that I am not trying to play favorites here. If my Computer Science education serves me right, this should be one hell of a fast program. But if my Computer Science education had served me right, my program probably wouldn't be using a random number generator to kidnap the proverbial typewriter monkeys and coerce them into Flopside. Who am I trying to impress? Certainly not the motherfucking monkeys.

Let's go!

$ g++ -O3 -o flopside flopside.cpp && time ./flopside

...

Block 2
Block 2
Block 4
Block 2
Block 3
Block 5
Winner!

real    0m0.003s
user    0m0.000s
sys     0m0.000s

What a stupid program. Why did I even do this? Because, like I said in a previous journal entry, clock cycles are going to waste and I ain't got nothing to feed them. Hell, why settle with one retarded solution? Why not generate one retarded solution to rule them all?

Take that, Nintendo! Sitting there, all smug, probably thinking you have the one and only solution, unwilling to share clues of any worth. "Eight blocks, one color each." Twenty years, and nothing's changed. Dodongo still dislikes smoke. So, is the common-knowledge solution Block 2, Block 3, Block 4, Block 5? GameFAQs knows:

Hit each block 1 time. Flip and enter the door.

How in the hell? Was I supposed to know that with such a cryptic clue? ... Oh wait, my words got flip flopped before I managed to flip to Flopside. It wasn't "eight blocks, one color each." It was "eight blocks, each color once." Well, that was several hours well spent. At least I know a little bit more about Fortran. Thanks, Mario!



December 3rd, 2007 - Fun with consciousnessComments [17]

Just recently, I finished reading a book titled The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness by Antonio Damasio. A synopsis can be found in my book reviews section, north of here. One of the points the author made was that human consciousness has a very narrow scope. You can think of it as a spotlight, illuminating whatever it happens to be pointed at, but surrendering all else to the whims of darkness. Consciousness comes in limited supply. Each waking moment is a fight to determine how best to distribute the consciousness you have.

Fortunately for us, not all of what we do on a day-to-day basis requires consciousness, even things that can optionally employ it. Breathing is a basic example of this. You can consciously control your breathing, but the moment your attention is shifted elsewhere, you don't stop breathing. If you did, you'd be living in some sort of demented Saw II universe. However, it just so happens humans can perform far more complex tasks without necessarily being aware of them. Sleep walking is an obvious example. Some people even cook and murder in their sleep (trust me, I watched Dateline). But more to the point, many things we do in life, in particular any task that's part of our daily "routine," involves a fuzzy tango of shifting in and out of consciousness.

How much time do you spend brainstorming or brooding while you brush your teeth, take a shower, drive to school, or work at a methodical job? And how is it that reading, programming, or solving math problems seemingly suspend troubling thoughts? It's because you've managed to unjam the spotlight and point it elsewhere. If you've ever entertained the idea of taking antidepressants, you owe it to yourself to try and find a hobby that will use and abuse your consciousness instead. Create a thought storm with your LEGO matter, get really good at Chess, or read a For Dummies book on any topic that has ever stolen your interest for the shortest of seconds. Don't just veg out and mull over your agitations. If you're still pissed off after watching a movie or playing a video game, it's time to up the intellectual ante. Dig deeper.

As I was reading The Feeling of What Happens, the more I came to terms with unconscious behavior, and the more I realized that I'm an asshole. As I attempted to recall each moment my body has ever switched to autopilot, a feat of memory that is inherently impossible, the only thoughts that came to mind were of me shifting the autonomous gears of others. Then, it quickly became apparent that I'm still quite amused by, and almost proud of, these memories. After all, it's not that I WAS an asshole, it's that I AM an asshole. And consciousness can be exploited for fun and profit!

Hidden in plain sight

One day, I was talking to my friend, whom I will call Heat Man, in UAF's Wood Center about nothing in particular. Every few minutes, our endless conversation was pleasantly interrupted by various women clothed in short spring skirts walking by, flaunting what had been hidden in hibernation for eight months of winter. Heat Man would say "damnnnnn" or "holy shit," and the conversation would dwindle for several moments before regaining its former momentum.

I asked Heat Man, "have you ever noticed how blind people are to the world when they talk about complex things?" To which he replied, "like what?" I said, "well, any number of things. Neural networks are a good example." Prompted by this, Heat Man dove into a long discussion about his artificial intelligence project. Why it didn't work, how it could have worked, the feed-forward techniques of virtual neurons and dynamically resizing and restructuring the networks. As he described all of this to me, a local celebrity of a woman wearing the shortest skirt spring had to offer began descending the stairs. I made certain to pay strict attention to Heat Man's neural networks, lest I ruin what had just now become an experiment.

He saw the scene. His eyes followed the woman, as did the eyes of every man, woman, and child in the building, but he continued to talk in depth about his project. Approximately 20 steps before the woman walked out the door, I asked Heat Man, "are you seeing what you're looking at right now?" He stopped mid-sentence, paused, his face lit up, and he said "Oh. My. God. What the fuck?"

A quick buck

After conducting the aforementioned experiment in my laboratory (Wood Center, as it were), I experienced a faint feeling of deja vu. Indeed, my discovery was nothing new. I was reminded of a random happening in my 11th grade Spanish class. I did a lot of babysitting in Spanish class. All work was done in pairs, and each week, we were assigned new partners. Except for me and one other person, whom I will call Flash Man. Flash Man was extremely disruptive, uninterested, unmotivated, and unbearable. He was the lowest common denominator in sentient form. And for some reason that defied explanation, he was my assigned partner week after week for the entire year of Spanish class. The only Spanish he learned all year was how to say "gay," as the teacher had the common decency to correct Flash Man every time he said "this class is el-gayo."

It's not that Flash Man was a bad guy, per se, but that he was essentially the very same man from all of those sexual harassment awareness videos you have been forced to watch for every job under the sun. He would constantly speak unspeakable things to any girl within a two desk radius, and they would be visibly repulsed. But, like Screetch chasing after Lark Voorhies, Flash Man was a persistent bastard in the face of all odds.

One typical horrid high school morning, I caught him playing with a rubber band. But I suppose "caught" isn't the right word to describe it. There was a rubber band on his desk when he came into class, and he had been playing with it ever since he sat down. I have no judgement against him. We all do stuff like this. But I had an idea. I had never been so certain of anything in all my life. "Hey Flash Man, I bet you can't leave that rubber band on your desk for one minute without playing with it." Shocked, he said, "How much you wanna bet?" Me, "I don't know. $1?" Him, "and all I have to do is do nothing?" Me, "and you will be $1 richer." Him, "I'm game." Me, "you'd better have $1 on you, because I'm going to win this." He put $1 on the table and so did I.

I waited for the clock to hit an even minute, said "it starts now," looked at him long enough for it to turn awkward, and then asked him if he's ever had any luck harassing all of the helpless females in our class. As if to make chitchat. He swooped up the rubber band within 25 seconds and I busted him. But he took his $1 back anyway, because high school is just as unfair as I remember it.

Littering by proxy

Apparently it's no secret that software development is one of those rare products of academia that require uncompromised concentration. It was then, and it is now, so when I finished the last few drops of my Monster Energy Drink in Software Engineering class one day, and, much to my dismay, discovered that the room's trash can had disappeared since two days prior, I decided to take the road less traveled. Armed with the results of my experiment with Heat Man, I looked around the room for whomever was most absorbed in a programming discussion. As it turns out, the best candidate in this regard was also somebody I happened to know, whom I will call Junk Man.

I walked over to Junk Man and the classmate he was talking to. He looked at me without skipping a beat in his conversation, eyes bouncing back and forth between me and the other fellow as if by reflex. This was the green light I had been hoping for. I confidently handed my empty can to Junk Man. Still talking, still paying me no mind, his hand reached out and grabbed the can without looking at it. He continued to hold it, continued to talk about his project, continued to glance at me occasionally. Finally, I said with a smile, "have a good night, guys!" They returned the blessing, and I casually walked out of the room to trashless freedom.

The MPAA are assholes, too

You're probably not aware of this, and if you're not, I am now about to ruin all theater movies for you for the rest of time, but the MPAA has been doing the same thing I did to Junk Man. They've been doing it for several years. They've been handing you crap while your mind is elsewhere. They've been throwing dots at you. Red dots, all over the screen, like a one-sided game of Connect Four. Fortunately, you've made it up until now without noticing them. But now, and forever more, you will.

Several times throughout each film, an arbitrary configuration of red dots cover a single frame. They speckle the action for a split-second, and then they're gone, but it's not that you didn't see them, it's that you didn't care enough to acknowledge them and promptly forgot about them. Kindly direct your eyes to my red dot mockup. If you truly didn't see them, then how do you explain the fact that you are now going to see them all the time?

They exist as part of an anti-piracy effort. Too often, films appear on the Internet before they hit DVD. Before films hit DVD, their distribution is highly controlled, like the potent drug that they are. Each copy of the film comes with its own fingerprint, it's own configuration of red dots. The fingerprints, in turn, are tied to specific theaters. When a movie leaks from a theater onto the Internet, the movie studios can download it, find the red dots, and know exactly which movie theater is to blame. This is all very theoretical, neglecting the fact that computer criminals are generally very smart people, able and willing to write software that scans video files for arrangements of red dots and masking them.

All of this begs the question, if you can see red dots scattered all over movies and promptly ignore them, why do we need high definition movies? The minute you are absorbed in the movie, you won't even notice the quality. The minute you notice the quality, you are no longer absorbed in the movie. Hence, the best possible scenario is for you to forget you are watching a high definition movie. You don't need high definition movies just to forget about them.

The MPAA is having their cake and eating it, too. And some of you are throwing them a cake eating party. So be it. I'll be over here in the corner eating pie.



November 18th, 2007 - The simple things in lifeComments [9]

The original SimCity was a breath of fresh air for the PC gaming industry in the late 1980s. It was a thinking man's game, tying together so many variables that the complexity and possibilities were as vast as the length of the game - endless. Sort of like a game of chess with a computer opponent that makes up rules as it goes along. Till this day, I doubt anyone truly understands exactly what happens behind the SimCity curtains. It has a mind of its own. But that never bothered a soul since the SimCity objectives were painfully subjective. "Do whatever you need to do to have fun!" the game seemed to say. Well, call me boring if you must, but I just wanted to have a successful city. How does one measure the success of a city? Population? In a crabwise way, I suppose. But what's the purpose of a population? Taxes? Yes. Money.

I was seven the first time I played SimCity. But even a seven year old understands money. Especially a seven year old who was raised in a bowling alley with his brother, where, each time our parents started a new game of bowling, my brother and I were each given $1.00 to entertain us in the arcade for the next ~hour. This weekly lesson, which lasted for the next six years of my life, had two takeaway points. Conserve your money and get really good at pinball. Only pinball machines give away free games, especially when you're good at them.

There is no pinball in SimCity. SimCity is not a place to raise a kid. However, I figured there were only two sure ways to make a game of SimCity end, more or less, and that was to either run out of money or be shat on by God, like New Orleans. With these thoughts in mind, I disabled natural disasters and built a small city that started to generate some revenue. And then I watched it. I watched it make revenue. I had a SimEpiphany. If I just stop messing with my city, it will keep making revenue. The moment I designate one more square on the grid, whether it be for residential, commercial, or industrial enterprises, my city will topple like a house of cards. Like New Orleans. I did it. I solved the mystery. I beat the game in my own little way.

How do we come to feel so powerful in a successful game of Monopoly? The game is yours while the game lasts; all else fades into the periphery. Fake money becomes more real than real money for several short-lived hours, and the second you land your deathblow, the minute the game is won, you ask, as we have all asked, why did it need to end? Where is the real Go and how can I pass it? How can I feel powerful again? This is precisely what I accomplished with my self-sustaining SimCity city. A perpetual winning machine.

So, as you can imagine, I let my city run all night, every night, only at night, like Dark City. It never stopped making money. It was linear growth but it was infinite. Its perfection did not stop there, however. Now that I had a self-sustaining city, I was free to dabble in other ventures: school, soccer, playing Nintendo with my friends. If all went as planned, I would never need to play SimCity again. If all went as planned, I would forget the city even existed.

And so it was. A tiny city, forgotten. That is, until I discovered Panda Garden. Panda Garden is a local Chinese restaurant. It is my 17-year-old virtual city in the flesh. I planted a SimCity in first grade and it blossomed into a Chinese take-out restaurant, though I have only unanswered questions when I try to explain the mechanics of how it happened.

Panda Garden is this tiny little place I discovered four years ago thanks to my friend ThunderChunk. It's the best Asian place in town, and it turns out that's saying lot in the small town of Fairbanks, Alaska. For some reason, which has never been satisfactorily explained to me, the number of Asian restaurants in the town of Fairbanks, the 82,000-populace blip on the Alaska radar, surrounded by cold, dark, and nothingness, is grossly disproportionate to the number of other types of restaurants. We have a lot of Thai restaurants... Lemon Grass, Pad Thai, Siam Square, Thai House, Bahn Thai, Siam Dishes, Sweet Basil, Thai Cuisine. A cursory tour of Fairbanks might lead one to believe our natives are Thai. But that's poppycock. It's just that every Thai person who lives in Fairbanks has a restaurant. We have Korean and Chinese restaurants, too. No need to remember all of these names, though. All you need to remember is Panda Garden. Everyone else does.

The inside of Panda Garden is probably about 500 square feet. There is only one table and two foldable metal chairs. This area doubles as a waiting room for the customers and a break room for the staff. On the table is always the local newspaper and the newest issue of Chinese Restaurant Monthly, free for anyone to read if they read Chinese. Behind the counter are the same five people who are behind the counter 14 hours a day. They remember you. They know who you are, even before you enter the restaurant for the first time, they know your motivations.

Panda Garden is my SimCity. It is a perpetual winning machine. I have never been there once without three more customers standing in the cramped place with me. At any hour of any day, there are people both picking up and ordering food. It is not uncommon to see eight or nine orders lined up on their counter ready to be picked up. When you call their phone number, sometimes you get a busy signal, and sometimes you need to let the phone ring about 25 times before somebody picks up, if they pick up at all... and they don't apologize, because they know they are doing you a favor by existing in the first place. On Sunday nights, their two phone lines never stop ringing, but they simultaneously take orders from phone calls, from people standing in front of them, yell Chinese things to their people in the kitchen, watch movies like Friday and Lethal Weapon 2 on their small TV, and hunt you down to give you your order.

If you order in person, they never ask for a name. They know. They are aware. Even as they watch The Simpsons on their 13" Panasonic television, they are downloading your thought grid. They know where you came from, they know who you are, and they know where you will be. They will run across the parking lot to give you your food, they will deliver your food to your house even if you didn't ask them to do so, and didn't tell them your address (I believe this happened to ThunderChunk once). It wouldn't surprise me if they tracked you down at Blockbuster across the street, or if they found you in the afterlife.

The food itself is amazing, and for $8.50 you get more than you can, or should, eat in two meals. Better than all-you-can-eat, at a fraction of the cost. The meat is so tender that I have, on more occasions than I care to admit, believed myself to be eating real panda. It's Panda Garden. A five-person city that never expands, never changes, never advertises, and has been rolling in cash since 1999. I like their food and I like what they stand for: covert domination. Go get some Sesame Chicken, Beef & Broccoli, or Mongolian Beef right now! 452-3355!




November 4th, 2007 - Bit RotComments [13]

Bit rot, or bit decay, is a colloquial computing term used to facetiously describe the spontaneous degradation of a software program over time. The term implies that software can literally wear out or rust like a physical tool.

One of the things that truly upsets me in this modern age of ours is the concept of bit rot. The idea, as defined in the above quotation, that computers inherently become slower as time progresses. More upsetting is the fact that, as each year replaces the last, perfectly intelligent people become more willing to accept bit rot as a genuine phenomenon, not the joke that it was meant to be. Whole computers are discarded for the simple fact that they are mildy unresponsive or slow. I had no idea the extent to which this was true until, two months ago, I lifted a 2.1 GHz Athlon XP desktop from the upper reaches of a dumpster. Its crime? Forensic anaylsis proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was sluggish, and it had a corrupt DLL file. Bit rot through and through.

Computer consumers are so quick to out-do each other with their purchases, either for fear of living in the past, sinking aboard their doomed vessel, or because computers are the new cars: symbols of status and power, perhaps even knowledge and intelligence. Now with bit rot on the table, society at large has an air-tight alibi to upgrade. Somebody once told me that they wanted to play as much Battlefield 2 on their new machine as they could before the computer became obsolete. This is bottled water reasoning. Where's the logic?

If you like to keep up with the newest Games for Windows®, if you render a lot of 3D models, or if you frequently edit multimedia files, maybe it's worth having a powerful new computer. For the rest of us, probably not. I got a new "box" as a graduation gift last year after living with my previous one for six years. Anticlimactically, now that I've gotten the Counter-Strike: Source out of my blood and have mostly returned to reading books and programming, I've realized that I could have lived with my previous machine for another six years with relatively little trouble. Of course, the kicker is that even my new computer, a 2.2 GHz Athlon X2, is starting to show its wrinkles in the eyes of some. Is it time to activate the ejection seat before I fall from the stratosphere?

I don't think so. Sometimes it's comforting to believe, however unpopular the thought may be, that life thrives between the cardiac pulses of consumption. Is it any secret that you start giving the moment you stop taking? I'm not talking about charity here, I'm thinking more along the lines of creativity. What do you do when you get bored? Buy? Enjoy what you already have? Or perhaps, finding everything you already possess exceedingly and inexcusably inadequate, divorce yourself from materialism and tap into the power of your own creative mind? Creativity is healthy, like vegetables for the intellect, completely renewable, and more fulfilling than ever before.

But, back on topic, in a way it downright bothers me how powerful computers are these days. Wasted potential is irksome. The only good battery is a drained battery. This should ring with the truth: why else would every family I know hang on to eighteen dead AA batteries distributed equally throughout their house in lieu of a single live battery? My point is, besides games, what do we fundamentally do differently on our 21st century personal computers that we couldn't do on our Apple IIs? Okay, fair enough, we do everything differently, except for word processing and spreadsheets. But word processing is the pivotal step on the proverbial slippery slope, sharply angled into the murky abyss of bloatware. Is there any excuse for this:


How does 32 bytes of text come to be 29,696 bytes? How did Microsoft Word files come to be the de facto standard for text attachments? How on Earth is a 28,941 byte screenshot of a 32 byte document smaller than the 32 byte document itself? Why did we ditch Apple IIs again?

For adware, of course. I'm vaguely aware of several schemes concocted out of the 20th century to stimulate employment by artificially creating jobs, namely barring drivers from pumping their own gas in Oregon. But this is the future, the year 2000 2007. The most menial tasks have been overtaken by computers, wresting rote jobs from the uneducated. Computers have gone so far to replace humans, to act like humans, that they are artifically creating menial work by themselves, to be outsourced to themselves, by way of humans. Just what am I talking about here? Adware, spyway, malware, immortalware...

Windows computers are moving targets on a battlefield. They seemingly infect themselves, but at the same time they are the only ones that can cure themselves, once they are suitably empowered with Ad-Aware, Spybot, Ewido, Pocket Killbox, HijackThis, Winpooch, CWShredder, ToCatchAPredator, and The Avenger. They just wait for humans to click the buttons. So, if only we could figure out a way for our computers to push their own buttons, the local computer repair shops wouldn't be making $80/hour, and our obscenely fast desktop supercomputers could burn their surplus CPU cycles masturbating in the matrix while we sit back both proud and perplexed, defenseless, watching 700 watts of power send the machine melting through the floor, all the while asking ourselves what happened to the future we were promised. Where are our hovercars?



May 15th, 2007 - MySpaceComments [524]

By now, I think we can all agree that MySpace has gotten out of hand. I command every qualification to make such a statement, taking into consideration I am a card-carrying MySpace member myself. MySpace is a dirty little secret. Everybody does it but nobody talks about it. Not loudly, rather. It's the first thing we do in the morning, and the last thing we do at night. MySpace is the new Crest, if only our teeth were glowing white pearls of social ineptitude and online surveys. I can talk down on you MySpace folk all I want. For I am one of you, one with you, a pea from Tom's hapless pod, self-loathing and addicted.

Regardless of whether it's a fault of MySpace itself, the problems with MySpace begin and end with spam. Spam comments, spam bulletins, spam messages, spam friend requests, all in the face of an unnerving paradox: MySpace itself is spam. How does one go about spamming a multimillion-user spam vat? That's like mixing Tang in Mountain Dew. It's a travesty. And it's on the rise. I remember when I used to be excited to get a new message or friend request. An opportunity to meet somebody new, or an old high school friend just looking to catch up. These days, I click on "New Friend Requests!" and get a face full of this bullshit:


Which one is real? That's right. But there was never any doubt in my mind that Sloth wanted to be my friend. Truth be told, Sloth, I'd rather be your friend than that of the others, spam bots or not. One way or another, they're sure to be about 8% silicon.

Of course, the first few "hot girl" friend requests fooled us all. We clicked on them out of curiosity, saw that they lived 2,000 miles away, or worse yet, lived in unspecified nowhereness, then grazed their photo albums with complete disregard to the shenanigans at play, and ultimately decided that the eye candy wasn't even worth the effort. But apparently there is a different breed of human being living in our midst. Men capable of absorbing the telltale nonsense of a spam bot without a hint of suspicion. --

The notion of an intelligence quotient, or IQ, is a source of endless controversy and heated debate among psychologists. How can the overarching, abstract concept of intelligence pertaining to something as complex as a human being be summed up by a single number? What are we supposed to do with these numbers? Certainly not this. What about the wholesale neglect toward creativity? The best problem solvers are not necessarily the best authors, artists, or musicians. IQ is flawed. The only reputable metric to determine if a person is dumber than a box of rocks is his or her inherent propensity to post comments on a computer program's MySpace page, asking it to "holla back" in what, at best, would be a series of "beeps" with a high likelihood of counterpart "boops."



Let us know how that goes, shady Jd. We believe in you.

So, on to the 3,500 people on MySpace who are not spam bots. I don't care if you like to party, travel, shop, sky dive, bungee jump, or wrestle grizzly bears to the ground. If this is "living life to its fullest," rest assured, everyone else seems to be doing the same. But it's downright astounding that you're able to post six bulletins a day, stating, in no uncertain terms, that you're bored, between sailing the open seas and flying the friendly skies.

Hey, maybe your hero is Jesus, "JC", God, or plain old Christ. But you're kidding yourself if you think your favorite book is the Holy Bible. If I'm not being persuasive enough, please, by all means, read an excerpt from your delightful book while I argue my case...

15And the LORD said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the LORD set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him. 16And Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden. 17And Cain knew his wife; and she conceived, and bare Enoch: and he builded a city, and called the name of the city, after the name of his son, Enoch. 18And unto Enoch was born Irad: and Irad begat Mehujael: and Mehujael begat Methusael: and Methusael begat Lamech. 19And Lamech took unto him two wives: the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah. 20And Adah bare Jabal: he was the father of such as dwell in tents, and of such as have cattle. 21And his brother's name was Jubal: he was the father of all such as handle the harp and organ. 22And Zillah, she also bare Tubalcain, an instructor of every artificer in brass and iron: and the sister of Tubalcain was Naamah. 23And Lamech said unto his wives, Adah and Zillah, Hear my voice; ye wives of Lamech, hearken unto my speech: for I have slain a man to my wounding, and a young man to my hurt. 24If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy and sevenfold. 25And Adam knew his wife again; and she bare a son, and called his name Seth: For God, said she, hath appointed me another seed instead of Abel, whom Cain slew. 26And to Seth, to him also there was born a son; and he called his name Enos: then began men to call upon the name of the LORD.

Pure ASCII inspiration right there. Already, my life has changed for the better.

And the music. For the love of Zillah, Adah, and Jubal, don't make your music play upon page load unless you know, without a doubt, that your visitors want to hear it. That's right. Your music sucks, but, not to be outdone, and thanks to the social complexities demonstrated by MySpace, I'm pretty sure my music sucks too. The universe of music is full of people like you and me, rocking out and pointing their accusatory fingers at one another while traversing their respective parabolic suck trajectories. Ask Einstein. He knows:

I stand at the window of a railway carriage which is travelling uniformly, and drop a [tune] on the embankment, without throwing it. Then, disregarding the influence of the air resistance, I see the [tune] descend in a [rock] line. A pedestrian who observes the misdeed from the footpath notices that the [tune] falls to earth in a parabolic [suck] curve. I now ask: Do the "positions" traversed by the [tune] lie "in reality" on a [rock] line or on a [suck] parabola? Moreover, what is meant here by motion "in space"? ... In the first place we entirely shun the vague word "space," of which, we must honestly acknowledge, we cannot form the slightest conception, and we replace it by "motion relative to a practically rigid body of reference." ... If instead of "body of reference" we insert "system of co-ordinates," which is a useful idea for mathematical description, we are in a position to say: The [tune] traverses a [rock] line relative to a system of co-ordinates rigidly attached to the carriage, but relative to a system of co-ordinates rigidly attached to the ground (embankment) it describes a [suck] parabola. With the aid of this example it is clearly seen that there is no such thing as an independently existing trajectory, but only [that your favorite music sucks to everyone in the universe except for you].

The full text can be found here. Go smart yourself.



January 28th, 2007 - In the Enchanted Land of OhioComments [28]

Whenever you leave the state, everybody takes interest, regardless of how uninteresting the destination. This is evidenced by my recent trip to, not Jamaica, not Paris, not Australia, Germany, Las Vegas, or Haiti itself, but to Ohio. I have nothing against Ohio, because, to tell you the truth, I forgot Ohio even existed until I found out a month ago I would be flying there for work. I won't tell you what happened there because nothing happened. Nothing you'd want to read about, anyway. Just a week of RSA SecurID server configuration and management training at another supercomputing center on an air force base. Work as work goes. But I would be an abject failure if I didn't have, at the very least, a few observations to share with you fine folks.

Observation #1: Ohioan winters are indistinguishable from Alaskan springs.

This is the first time I've ever visited another state during the winter season. Prior to this trip to Ohio, I had been to 10+ other states during summer, but never winter. Who would honestly want to leave Alaska during the winter's creamy center? When, after 25 minutes of your car heater on full blast, you can still see your breath by the time you arrive at work, and your knuckles crack and bleed all over themselves because all of the air's would-be moisture is doing its best as tiny ice crystals to block the elusive sun as well as the taillights of the car in front of you. Oh, and to make every street light in town shoot up a questionable vertical beam of light, not so different from the tip of the Luxor casino in Las Vegas. We call them "light pillars", or so I've heard. (#1, #2). We usually don't talk about them, just so we can continue pretending we live on Earth.

Not to say Ohio was particularly warm. Apparently we (my co-workers and I) arrived with Ohio's first snowfall. Given the fact that we had to show off our blatantly Alaskan IDs to air force personnel four times daily, you can sleep well at night knowing that every person with whom we came in contact made the Alaska/snow association and accused the three of us of seasonal tomfoolery. "You guys brought this weather with you, huh?" But between the glaring sun, the feel-good moisture in the air, and the ice and slush all over the place, Ohio most certainly had a case of spring on their hands.

Observation #2: Ohio is distinctly proud of the Wright Brothers.

Not to say they shouldn't be. The Wright Brothers were geniuses and interesting people all at once, so far as history suggests. Maybe it has something to do with the nearby air force base, but this area of Ohio, known by its street name of "Dayton", is all up in the clouds with airplanes on its mind. Elaboration to follow in the next two paragraphs...

Alaska is known for a handful of things. The arctic, gold, the pipeline, the aurora borealis, wildlife, mountains, nature in general. Alaska doesn't brag about being the biggest state, per se, because, following from this very same virtue, Alaska is more proud of emasculating Texas in 1959. As a result, our local shops run the gamut from Aurora Motors to Arctic Bowl to Mt. McKinley Bank, Lynx Pizza, El Mariachi, Gold Rush Fine Jewelry, The Great Alaskan Bush Company, Smallball Texas Sports, and the Polar Roller (rest in peace, my favorite elementary school field-trip spot). Hell, there's even a town south of Fairbanks named "North Pole".

In contrast, Ohio is known for only one thing: The Wright Brothers, specifically what the Wright Brothers did for a flat place with no purpose. For those of you not in the know, let me shed some light on what you would see if you drove down the Wright Brothers Parkway: Wright Rental Cars, Pizza Done Wright, The Wright Inn, Skyhigh Chili, Wright Automotive, Plane Good, B-2 Tattoo, Orville Oral Dentistry, Wrighter's Block, G-force Lingerie, The Propeller Pantry, Wilbur's Fine Wines & Fuselage. You'd think the Wright Brothers would be just as famous, if not more so, for posthumously ruling the town of Dayton with an iron fist, and without any political motives whatsoever. As an aside, even in my most abstract mode of thought, I've never quite envisioned Orville and Wilbur Wright as mere circles of ambition, but there they were on the side of some flashy joint called The Cockpit, glowing, united in brotherly love, pointing skyward towards their dreams with the boldest of arrows.

Observation #3: People in Ohio do not observe the maximum-spacing-at-urinals rule.

And that's just plane [sic] uncomfortable.

Observation #4: If you're going to be stuck on an airport runway in a tinkertoy jet for an hour and a half waiting for takeoff, make certain you surround yourself with angry people.

Or maybe you can be angry, too. I don't care. I never have the opportunity to get angry in these situations because I'm too busy being entertained by the furious people around me. Bitch and moan all you want. You can't fly from Chicago to Dayton on a wave of irrationality. Furthermore, much to the dismay of first-class flyers, hot air stopped being a practical means of transportation in the 19th century. We fly the Wright way today.

Observation #5: Even if you're a pacifist and haven't the slightest interest in the United States Air Force, a room full of thermonuclear bombs and intercontinental ballistic missiles can twist your mind and render you mad with power.

I walked into the National U.S. Air Force Museum without any intentions of spending over an hour there. Seven hours later, I was the last of my party to leave. Not that I learned anything. Reading is for learning. I just looked at all the big metal things.

The museum is made of three enormous hangers connected together. It progresses from the early days of gliders, hot air balloons, zeppelins and wooden planes through WWI, WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and finally the Cold War, including something on the order of 100 aircraft on display along the way. It got out of hand quickly, with stealth bombers hiding behind huge-ass cargo planes. Then, having counted the hangers from outside, knowing that I had exhausted the exhibits, I walked through some tiny tunnel and realized I forgot about this room:


Top Secret USAF Museum Missile Silo

A room that, from the inside, looked like it was capable of destroying the planet itself. As I looked up at those 90-foot nuclear missiles, a little voice in the back of my head said, "Maybe this isn't what your idols, the Wright Brothers, had in mind..."


Titan II Intercontinental Ballistic Missile

Also, there was a shuttle bus that took us on base to see the "Presidential and Research & Development Galleries". Two more large rooms full of jets and airplanes. The Presidential Gallery was interesting enough, but more for those people who think U.S. presidents are inherently more interesting than the rest of us unassuming folk. The R&D gallery? Awesome. A room full of experimental aircraft. Machines that nearly fell from the sky before being scrapped. There was also a 1/4 scale model of a strange, ultra-modern triangular aircraft named the LoFLYTE Mach 5 Waverider, so difficult to control that humans, as yet, are incapable of flying it. It looked like the protagonist from the Colecovision game Omega Race, and was flown by neural networks during its test runs because it finds the smell of human flesh offensive. Coooool.


LoFLYTE Mach 5 Waverider


LoFLYTE Mach 5 Waverider fighting terrorism, circa 2081

Observation #6: Not even a Nintendo DS, an Oliver Sacks book, an MP3 player loaded with aggressive music, and 40 fluid ounces of Starbucks can make an eight-hour layover in Chicago after being awake for 22 hours a pleasant experience.

What more do you want out of me? It sucked. They kept pushing the departure time back by an hour from each hour to the next, so sleeping didn't seem like a valid option. If any one of you happened to see a poofy-haired zombie loafing around Gate G14 like he lost something he might never get back, that was me.



January 1st, 2007 - Why Roulette Tables Have LimitsComments [49]

To set the scene, I was playing one of my new Christmas gifts, Mega Man Anniversary Collection for the Nintendo GameCube (backwards compatible on the Nintendo Wii, you see). Mega Man III specifically. Amidst laying the smack down on Snake Man, Shadow Man, Spark Man, Needle Man, Hard Man, Gemini Man, and Top Man, I had the following thought. If you were playing roulette, and you bet $1 on red, and if you lost, you doubled your bet to $2 on red, then $4, $8, $16, etc. until you won, wouldn't it seem like you're guaranteed to come out ahead? Then, the moment you won, you went back to $1 again and started the process all over. Couldn't you do this forever, and make money forever? Call me naive if you must, I already know there should be no surefire ways to win casino games, but I still couldn't figure out how this strategy would fail, assuming you had an insane amount of money to work with.

So, I eased my curiosity the only way I knew how. I turned my computer into a casino. Here is a roulette table:


If you are unfamiliar with roulette, notice the 38 possible numbers to bet on. 1 through 36, 0, and 00. If you bet on the red numbers, your chances of winning to losing for that round are 18:20. Your likelihood of winning is 47.4%, which is why betting the same amount of money on red for every round is a sure way to lose money. But even if the odds aren't 50/50, it seems like 47.4% is good enough to make certain you don't lose too many rounds in a row, which, using the aforementioned technique, seems to be all you'd be gambling against. But how much money would you need to keep going? Once you don't have enough money to continue your pattern, you've shot yourself in the foot.

After I conducted the experiment I am about to describe, I looked roulette up on Wikipedia and found mention of the martingale betting system, which, it turns out, is exactly what Mega Man III instilled into my consciousness. Here's the rundown:

Originally, martingale referred to a class of betting strategies popular in 18th century France. The simplest of these strategies was designed for a game in which the gambler wins his stake if a coin comes up heads and loses it if the coin comes up tails. The strategy had the gambler double his bet after every loss, so that the first win would recover all previous losses plus win a profit equal to the original stake. Since a gambler with infinite wealth will with probability 1 eventually flip heads, the martingale betting strategy was seen as a sure thing by those who practiced it. Unfortunately, none of these practitioners in fact possessed infinite wealth, and the exponential growth of the bets would eventually bankrupt those foolish enough to use the martingale.

Very interesting. I feel like an 18th century fool. But now my question is as such: Using the martingale technique, wherein bets are doubled after every loss and reset back to $1 after every win, and given a finite number of roulette rounds, how much money would you need to have in your pocket to make your overall odds of walking away profitable more than 50%? If we can figure this out, then we're already doing better than betting a constant value on red over and over, which, as stated before, would only put you ahead 47.4% of the time. Can we make better the odds of roulette if we play it as a sort of meta-roulette?

Here are the variables for my program:

- Number of roulette rounds to play.
- Amount of starting money, before walking to the table.

The program does exactly what I described above. It bets $1, keeps doubling the bet every time it loses, resets the bet back to $1 after a win, and keeps on going. There are three ways it can stop:

- It reaches the maximum number of rounds as specified.
- It reaches a point where it does not have enough money to double the bet when needed.
- It loses all of its money.

Once the program stops, it checks to see if its ending money is more than its starting money. If the ending money is greater than the starting money, this is a win. If the ending money is less than or equal to the starting money, this is considered a loss.

Here are some example runs:

100 ROUNDS / 100 DOLLARS

WIN - SUMMARY
--------------
Started With: 100
Ended With: 147
Maximum Rounds: 100
Completed Rounds: 100
Wins/Losses: 48/52
Win Ratio: 0.48
Maximum Consecutive Losses: 5
Highest Bet: 32

LOSS - SUMMARY
--------------
Not enough money to continue this pattern.
Started With: 100
Ended With: 37
Maximum Rounds: 100
Completed Rounds: 6
Wins/Losses: 0/6
Win Ratio: 0
Maximum Consecutive Losses: 6
Highest Bet: 32

1,000 ROUNDS / 1,000 DOLLARS

LOSS - SUMMARY
--------------
Not enough money to continue this pattern.
Started With: 1000
Ended With: 82
Maximum Rounds: 1000
Completed Rounds: 247
Wins/Losses: 105/142
Win Ratio: 0.425101
Maximum Consecutive Losses: 10
Highest Bet: 512

LOSS - SUMMARY
--------------
Not enough money to continue this pattern.
Started With: 1000
Ended With: 496
Maximum Rounds: 1000
Completed Rounds: 33
Wins/Losses: 7/26
Win Ratio: 0.212121
Maximum Consecutive Losses: 9
Highest Bet: 256

1,000 ROUNDS / 1,000,000 DOLLARS

WIN - SUMMARY
--------------
Started With: 1000000
Ended With: 1000455
Maximum Rounds: 1000
Completed Rounds: 1000
Wins/Losses: 458/542
Win Ratio: 0.458
Maximum Consecutive Losses: 8
Highest Bet: 256

WIN - SUMMARY
--------------
Started With: 1000000
Ended With: 1000488
Maximum Rounds: 1000
Completed Rounds: 1000
Wins/Losses: 491/509
Win Ratio: 0.491
Maximum Consecutive Losses: 8
Highest Bet: 256

WIN - SUMMARY
--------------
Started With: 1000000
Ended With: 1000386
Maximum Rounds: 1000
Completed Rounds: 1000
Wins/Losses: 449/551
Win Ratio: 0.449
Maximum Consecutive Losses: 9
Highest Bet: 512

WIN - SUMMARY
--------------
Started With: 1000000
Ended With: 1000488
Maximum Rounds: 1000
Completed Rounds: 1000
Wins/Losses: 489/511
Win Ratio: 0.489
Maximum Consecutive Losses: 9
Highest Bet: 512

WIN - SUMMARY
--------------
Started With: 1000000
Ended With: 1000471
Maximum Rounds: 1000
Completed Rounds: 1000
Wins/Losses: 471/529
Win Ratio: 0.471
Maximum Consecutive Losses: 7
Highest Bet: 128

Clearly, given a finite number of rounds, there seems to be a finite number of starting money with which you are more or less "safe" against astronomical odds.

Here is my main question at this point. Can we develop some sort of equation relating the maximum number of rounds to the amount of starting money that can virtually guarantee a 90% chance of walking away from the table profitable? In other words, if we decided to play 10,000 rounds (however unrealistic that might be), how much starting money would we need to have a 90+% chance of walking away profitable? Notice I switched from saying "you" to "we". Because, having read this far, you have decided to join me in my quest! Plus I've always hated using the word "one". One must never sound scholarly at all times.

So here's what I did. I made a program to invoke the other program, because I am more or less lazy. I will call this one the "outer-program" as opposed to the "inner program". The outer program has a fixed number of roulette rounds per martingale scenario: 10,000. The outer program starts with $5,000 and invokes the inner program 1,000 times, playing 10,000 roulette rounds each time, using $5,000 for the starting money each time. It counts the wins (remember, a win is defined as ending with more money than it started with) and divides the won scenarios by the 1,000 total scenarios to get a percentage: the percentage of likelihood of being profitable. The outer program then increments the starting money by $5,000, playing through another 1,000 scenarios of 10,000 roulette rounds each, starting each scenario with $10,000. It continues to increment the starting money by $5,000 up until $250,000. Since I'm almost 100% sure my explanations are getting quite fuzzy at this point, I think you need a graph. There seems to be a long-standing tradition of making any graph supplied through the web ugly as ass, and this website is no exception. Behold!


According to a logarithmic regression, the likelihood of being profitable is 90% for 10,000 rounds of martingale roulette if one starts with $153,725. Let's do it again, still in increments of $5,000, but playing only 5,000 rounds for each martingale scenario. Booyah!


According to a logarithmic regression, the likelihood of being profitable is 90% for 5,000 rounds of martingale roulette if one starts with $101,066. And finally, let's do it again, playing 15,000 rounds for each martingale scenario. It didn't reach 90% by $250,000, so I ran it again up to $500,000.


According to a logarithmic regression, the likelihood of being profitable is 90% for 15,000 rounds of martingale roulette if one starts with $267,625. And just in case you wondered how long it takes a single core of an Athlon X2 4200+ to play 1,000,000,000 rounds of my roulette simulation, it's 61 minutes and 51 seconds.

To summarize, if you wanted a 90% chance of walking out of a casino with more money than you walked in with, using the martingale betting system for roulette, having already decided how many rounds you were going to play, you'd better have:

RoundsStarting $
5,000$101,066
10,000$153,725
15,000$267,625

Using an exponential regression to model these data:

y = 59423.34627e9.947833349*10-5x

Where,
x = number of roulette rounds
y = how much money you'd better have to cover 90% of your ass

Conclusion: Table limits do not exist merely to protect you from yourself.

I'm gonna go open up a can of whoop-ass on Magnet Man.



December 30th, 2006 - CTRL+C CTRL+VComments [15]

As you all know, I've gotten lazy. But somehow, some way, some things seem to write themselves on various Internet message boards using my body as their parasitic vessel to communicate with the immanent world. I can't take credit. The ancient Greeks attributed artistic expression to inspiration by their gods. I pick Poseidon. The following entry is a lazy-as-can-be copy-and-paste job focused on the Nintendo Wii Virtual Console because, as you also know, I like to write about old video games. My previous website on Geocities started as a copy-and-paste hub for my message board activities, so I'm returning to my roots :D

The Legend of Zelda (NES) Impressions (I use the term loosely)

Editor's Note: This was posted on the IGN Nintendo Wii board following the release of The Legend of Zelda for the NES on the Wii Virtual Console.

WHAT IS THIS?!

I don't know. I had the urge to write and I felt that, unless someone took initiative, Virtual Console games wouldn't get the attention they deserve. What follows is 50% nostalgia, 25% rambling, and 25% related to The Legend of Zelda. Like I said, I felt like writing. And I've had coffee. Arbitrary screenshots added because screenshots are cool! This may contain spoilers, if anyone cares!

HISTORY

I have already played The Legend of Zelda quite a bit. I saw this game in the Wii Shop and promised I'd punch myself in the trachea if I bought a game I already owned twice over (NES, GBA). Wanting to get an early taste for the Wii Shop, however, and likewise wanting to see how NES games played with the Wiimote, and most importantly, not seeing any other $5 game I gave a damn about, I went ahead and took the plunge. My cherry cough drops have now been depleted and my neck is the color of bruise. It felt awkward holding the Wiimote like a NES controller at first because it is so much rounder, but after some time with it, I feel that it is comfortable enough to get the job done. It's not like the NES controller was terribly comfortable to begin with.

I grew up on The Legend of Zelda. It was probably the fourth NES game I ever played, and certainly the most memorable (sorry, Super Mario Bros.). In my youngster brain, it was spooky and mysterious, with atmosphere that made me want to stop playing while I kept playing, frightened of what uncertainties might be hiding behind the next door. It also made me want to eat candy, because, at that age, you know, everything made me want to eat candy.



THE THREE LAWS OF THE NES

In my opinion, The Legend of Zelda represents an early prototype of what I have come to call "The Three Laws of the NES", not unlike the laws of Asimov's robots. They are as follows:

1. Nothing in a NES game has to make any sense. At all.
2. Nothing in a NES game needs to be fair. At all.
3. In accordance with NES Law 1 and NES Law 2, and indeed most fundamental to the NES's essence, a NES game will do everything in its power to keep you from beating it.

That's right, readers born later than ~1991 who plopped out of the womb with an SNES controller in hand, NES was an era of toil and torment.

I REPEAT, NOTHING IN A NES GAME HAS TO MAKE ANY SENSE. AT ALL.

Where should I start? Triceratopses named Dodongo? A sombrero named Digdogger stripped of his facade by a dungeon whistle? Seventeen identical old men living in dark rooms without doors or between pyres underneath trees who refer to one another as "the old man", or, similarly, four piles of decomposing washcloths who look vaguely like old women when the Hyrulian sun hits their twisted faces just right, and will only sell you potion when you shade their shame with a scroll the size of shenanigans?



Spinning things, jumpy things, boulders falling at 8fps onto a bunch of rupee-rich crabs above a blue centaur who looks like he's going 80mph while standing in complete stillness beside a pond, saying to himself, "HOLY SHIT, I HAVE HORSE PARTS!", and nebulous wizards who assault you with multicolored echoes. This game has no sense to give, and if it did, it would probably be hidden behind a waterfall on a distant planet beneath a boulder sold by "the old man" for 190 rupees, without explanation, and with all appearances of being something you couldn't sell on eBay for more than $2.49.



Never mind the fact that the only way to save yourself is to run face first into woodland creatures, mountain beasts, and flying projectiles until all 11 of your hearts go into cardiac arrest. In Hyrule, only the losers will live to win another day.

TO REITERATE, NOTHING IN A NES GAME NEEDS TO BE FAIR. AT ALL.

For example, hiding crucial elements of the game (e.g., several of the nine dungeons) in places where only the most evasive of secrets should be, and leaving it up to "the old man" in his infinite wisdom, senility and fragmented identity to guide us behind his various underworld bomb-lodgings. No thank you. In the latter half of the 1980s, my comrades and I had our own little ace up our sleeves...

THE ALASKA WIDE WEB

I live stranded in Alaska. Before the World Wide Web, back when secret codes were still secrets, everybody knew everybody else. We were united by the unruly viciousness of the Nintendo Entertainment System. You couldn't not have a NES back then. Everyone knew, among other things, that if the screen blinked blue, you needed to blow into the cartridge. It was a sort of pseudoscience, but regardless of whether blowing into the cartridge helped a thing, it would render one sufficiently light-headed to finally understand how to escape the Lost Woods.



And although I'm sure only one or two people in my home state of Alaska actually knew how to beat The Legend of Zelda on their own (the same two people, in fact, who knew how to beat every Super Mario Bros. and Mega Man game), having come into contact with these two people either directly or as the fifth link in a chain, everybody knew something. All the pieces fell into place as the NES community floated in, out, and around households, filling in the gaping holes left by "the old man" and his pompous one-liners. We were like the early Christians, spreading the gospel of the 8th bit, which, after much contemplation on my part, probably involved something that looked like this:

   1
 01010
   1
   0

Of course, I don't know where any of this information originated from, because I am thoroughly convinced The Legend of Zelda is friggin' impossible to figure out on your own. After all, "a NES game will do everything in its power to keep you from beating it." To prove this, having paid my $5 and wanting to squeeze every last cent from my purchase, I've been considering a thought I've sworn for the past 19 years I would never let my mind entertain: beating The Legend of Zelda's Second Quest with no outside intervention. Wish me luck, my brothers. I'm going to go bake me some mozzarella sticks in preparation for my journey.



Super Star Soldier (TG16) Impressions

Editor's Note: Same dealy here, except I had never played Super Star Soldier before. I played it for 30 minutes, got pissed off, and decided I wanted to write instead. These impressions are largely rooted in ignorance.

BRIDGING THE GENERATIONAL GAP

If Nintendo's aim with the Wii is to reach non-gamers, they have found their answer: well, to be honest, that would be Wii Sports. However, if their alternative aim is to reel the older generation back in, to deflate the ballooning frustration of the hardcore baby boomers lost in a sea of complicated controllery and an inexplicable surplus of story, this is how it's done: with a good old-fashioned two-dimensional screen-scrolling airplane shooter.



Scrolling shooters are among the most approachable genres of games. If you can find an arcade anymore, and I know it's hard, take a look past the Tekkens, the Dance Dance Revolutions, and the virtual boxing games complete with motion sensing cages and corded plastic boxing gloves. Look through the stale prepubescent sweat, around the $1.00-per-play House of the Dead III machine, and above the head of the spiky-haired tween with a mind full of MySpace, to the forgotten corner of beloved times past, where Mr. Pacman is having trouble romanticizing Ms. Pacman with her controls clogged from twenty-year-old Coke mishaps, and Robotron is pealing off the side of his cabinet many decades short of 2084. Here, invariably, you will find one and exactly one person. A 52-year-old man in bifocals playing either a pinball machine or a scrolling shooter.

Old school and new school alike, we've all played scrolling shooters in one form or another... 1942, R-Type, Ikaruga, Gradius, Einhander, Strikers 1945, U.N. Squadron. My dad, amidst his 14-hour days working as a CPA during tax season, used to defile the monotony by spending his lunch hour playing Twin Cobra in the next-door 7-11 wearing a suit and tie. I let my friend Jeff borrow the very first game I bought for my Playstation, The Raiden Project, and a year later, when I asked him if he was done with it, he replied, "Apparently not. My dad's been playing that game in my room for two hours every day after work since you gave it to me. He won't leave." No doubt, I had trouble believing this, considering Jeff's dad was a joyless, humorless man whose sole purpose in life was to stare at me in silent intensity until I made an underwear deposit.

Older folks aren't afraid of a challenge, they just want a straight-forward interface to said challenge. No more than four buttons and a d-pad, or an analog stick, provided they can call it a "joystick". The proof is in the pudding, and what damn good pudding it is! These games are easy to pick up and play, but quarter-thieves and "Continue?" fiends after Level 1. However, there appears to be something slightly off about Super Star Soldier...

DISORIENTATION

The title screen is reminiscent of Zero Wing. All your base are belong to us etc. etc. I began the main game, and shizzle is moving too fast for this to be a beginning. Also, traditionally, games like this reserve the dark backgrounds for the scary later levels, but I'm already erring on the side of caution. Suddenly, various gnats and jets and things start swooping in, and weird weapon power-ups that look like colored alien coins sway to and fro. It doesn't feel right. It's lacking order, the music drowns the cheap sound effects, but I know I'll get used to it. Or will I?



As of now, no. First off, why, when I died at what appeared to be the first boss, did it start me back at the beginning of the level despite my having two more lives? To confuse things further, why did it NOT start me back at the beginning of the level the second time I died? Perhaps most importantly, why, after I've maxed out the levels of the particular weapon I've been collecting, does the screen outright explode? As a bomb mechanism, this is not timely enough to be of much use, and it hasn't given me a free life, and my weapon is still what it was. The game is still hard as bricks. What the dilly, yo? Admittedly, I haven't played the game extensively, but right now the weapons have all appearances of reaching climax at four or five upgrades and, following that, have no choice but to skeet the screen over with a fantastic display of loveless thundersplooge. Super Star is no soldier I'd want watching my ass on the battlefield, to be sure.

And, as much as it pains me to say it, I feel this game has too many weapons. That is to say, too much breadth and not enough depth. I prefer my weapons served up Raiden II style, with only three to choose from but each of which can be upgraded eight levels deep. It's kind of like eating at Denny's. Order what you want, I can guarantee bacon, eggs, and sausage will make an appearance on your plate, but how much of each? And which will you be eating when you reach the end-level boss (the heart attack)? Bacon, probably.



THE "OTHER" PROBLEM

Consider the following scenario. You've worked your way up, scrolled all the way up to the top of the level, avoiding endless obstacles and annoyances along the way, and thanks to your hard work, your cool green electricity weapon is fully charged and ready to engage the boss. And then you pick up another green power-up and your weapon turns into a weak-ass flamethrower. Welcome to the world of color deficiency.

I can't tell the green power-ups apart from the yellow power-ups! But I know when I've picked up yellow by accident, because flame is usually yellow, just like electricity is always... green? This is nothing new. In Raiden II, where every power-up changed every four seconds from red, to blue, to purple, I would always wait until red showed up and then wait five seconds after red changed to blue to ensure that I was grabbing purple. There are workarounds, you see, but it's more difficult when the power-ups are static, not on a rotation (although, Super Star Soldier appears to have those too). I'll get through Super Star Soldier the same way I got through kindergarten, with some good old all-American memorization. I already know which power-ups show up at which times for the first stage. This game is starting to feel a lot like Dragon's Lair. But I felt it altogether unreasonable when I killed a ship and one of these guys popped out of it:



SUMMARY POINTS
- Difficult.
- 30% more chaotic than your average scrolling shooter.
- Weak sound effects, but good music.
- Unbalanced weapons, so far as I can tell.
- Not wheelchair accessible.


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