Electronic botherations

One of the Sarah Lawrence students studying at Wadham

I obviously haven’t been making frequent enough offerings to whichever god watches over electronic devices. First, my digital camera got some kind of dust or mold permanently inside. Since it’s not a camera with lenses that can be switched, there is really no way to open it up to clean the senror. The dust is sitting directly on the sensor and the dark blotches it produces need to be manually removed from every photo that I want to look presentable, especially those with large areas of a single colour. That camera was itself a replacement for the first one I got, which had a defective flash that always fired at full power.

Today, my iPod simply stopped playing any sound in one ear. The iPod is also a replacement for the one I originally got, which would pause randomly and for no reason if it was not kept perfectly still. Hopefully, cleaning the jack for the headphones will fix this newer problem, because my experience of sending the first iPod back to Apple was hellish and the one they sent back (more than a month later) had a click wheel that was off kilter.

I wonder whether I have particularly bad luck with electronics or whether I am just pickier about them working properly and more willing to go through the hassle of getting them fixed. Both my Sony and Panasonic portable CD players got sent back to the manufacturer for defects. My GPS receiver is actually the replacement for a replacement. It’s grandfather had abysmal reception, even compared to other identical models, and its father died for no apparent reason during the second Bowron Lakes trip.

I should not, in any case, let these things distract me from the task of finishing my core seminar paper for tomorrow. It’s on whether order and justice are compatible in international relations. Obviously, it’s the kind of topic that anyone with normative concerns will feel fairly strongly about after five years of studying IR at the university level. That makes it both easier and harder to write upon. In the interests of not being up all night, I shall get back to it.

PS. This week’s readings on normative theory have been the first time I read a lot of Dr. Andrew Hurrell’s work. It has been really interesting, well written, and suited to my research interests. I think I will probably take normative theory as one of my two optional subjects next year. Overall, I think it meshes well with a research project focused on environmental politics.

PPS. It seems like it might actually be my headphones which are defunct. While they seemed to work in my iBook before, they do so now only when you hold them in a certain way. I will need to try out the iPod with another pair.

PPPS. Upon further experimentation, the problem lies with the headphones, not the jack on my iPod. While they work if you twist them in a certain way in the iBook socket, they don’t work at all in one ear with the iPod. I will need to buy new ones. In some sense, this is worse. At least the iPod is under warrenty, and all electronics are absurdly expensive here. I honestly can’t understand why people tolerate it. England desperately needs Walmart.

Music and frustration: copy protection schemes

Chained pig, BathHaving spent the last few minutes explaining to a friend why a brand-new, legitimately purchased CD will not play in her computer due to the copy protection EMI has included, I am reminded of my considerable indignation about how the music industry is treating their customers. Yes, in this case, it was possible to disable the copy protection program just by holding shift as the CD was inserted into a Windows computer, but there is no guarantee at all that music you buy today is either usable or safe.

In the worst case, such as the notorious Sony BMG rootkit, inserting a legitimate music CD into your computer intentionally breaks it. It also causes it to report what you listen to to Sony, even if you choose ‘no’ when a screen comes up asking for permission to install software. It also creates really sneaky back doors into your system that can be exploited for any number of purposes, by Sony or random others. While Sony is currently facing lawsuits for this particular, infamous piece of malware, it isn’t nearly enough to put my mind at ease. If some 16 year old had written something comparably dangerous, they would probably be in jail.

Legitimately downloaded music is little better. Songs you buy from the iTunes music store may work with your iPod today, but they won’t work with another portable player. They won’t even play in software other than iTunes, and there is no guarantee that they will still work at some point in the future. Spending a great deal of money on songs from there (and they’ve just had their billionth download), is therefore probably not very wise. You don’t actually own the music you are buying – you’re just buying the right to use it on someone else’s terms: terms that they have considerable freedom to change.

Personally, I will not buy any CD that contains copy protection software. I will not buy a Sony BMG CD, regardless of whether it does or not, nor will I be buying any of Sony’s electronics in the near future. This is a business model that needs to change.

10^4 visits (10011100010000 in binary, 2710 in hex)

Since the 4th of November 2005, a sibilant intake of breath has received 10,000 visits. That’s almost exactly 100 a day, though the average is more like 110 during term time and 80 during breaks. It represents an average of 42 visitors per post. The busiest day by far was the day of the election, during which I got about 750 visitors.

57% were from North America, 36% from Europe, 3% from South America, 2% from Australia, and 2% from Asia. 42% were from Canada, 33% from the United Kingdom, and 15% from the United States. Visits from the west coast of North America are twice as frequent as those from the east coast.

In any case, my thanks go out to everyone who has taken the time to read this. The ten thousandth reader was from Vancouver, and found the page through Sasha Wiley’s blog. Whoever they may be, you can tell they’re a savvy user, since they use the superior Firefox browser.

On knowledge and Google

Looking through my server logs to see how people found the blog is often a gratifying experience. It’s a reminder that there is hardly anything you can write about that people don’t care enough about to search for information on. From “sainsbury’s “isle of bute” scottish cheddar” to the name of virtually every restaurant I’ve ever mentioned, people have found the blog. From song lyrics, place names, event names, current event descriptions. Some of the search strings have been rather odd:

  • how to make a complaint at sainsburys when the security guard treat you like a criminal
  • “brute force” at2 os x
  • “I require access to all human knowledge”
  • buy and sale computation, using nominal rate in phils. setting
  • happy moon pps
  • capital T does not work OSX
  • newfoundlands noral weather in summer and winter

That said, the vast majority of searches are comprehensible and really do relate to something I’ve written about – whether well or badly, usefully or not.

Through this, and projects like Google Print, I suppose that eventually a really huge portion of the stock of written human knowledge will be available in readily searchable form. Whether searching can still be intelligible in the face of such volume isn’t something we can really know yet, though enterprises like Google lend one optimism.

  • The webcam on this site provides a stunning view of Vancouver. It is located above the Burrard Street Bridge, looking across Kits and Point Grey at the University of British Columbia. The sunset shots are especially nice.

OS X Frustration

One unforgivably bad thing about OS X is that it completely lacks an appropriate text editor for working with HTML, scripts, or other such text files where you don’t want any formatting artifacts inserted. If you want to see what I mean, open an HTML file in TextEdit, change a view things, and try loading it in Firefox. Even worse, try getting htaccess files properly configured.

Anticipating the response: yes, there are the command line Unix editors – vi, emacs, and that ilk. Even when I used Linux as my primary OS, I was never at some with these infuriating throwbacks to the days of weakly glowing green CRT monitors. Yes, they are very powerful. No, nobody who doesn’t have an intense passion for computer science would ever be justified in putting in the time to learn their byzantine interfaces.

Come on, Mr. Jobs. At least put something like the freeware jEdit into the next version as standard. If you can include the entirety of the child-oriented World Book Encyclopedia, you can spare three megs.


New Webspace

As you can see, a sibilant intake of breath has a new home. There are still a few kinks to be worked out, especially in terms of photo posting, but everything should be up and running soon. Thanks for updating your links.

[Edited to add: It’s now 5:37am – late even for those with vampiric insomnia. I am done fixing the photos up to the start of November. I am off to make a tenth attempt at sleep, as Jessica advises. Bonsoir.]

Reminiscing about pixels and hit points

Chilly lounge of the Old Firehouse Theatre

Playing the Java port of Quake II for a while today, I was reminded of the days when computer gaming was a frequent use of my time. It began with Nintendo, as it must have for so many in my generation. We bought one at a junk swap at my old elementary school: the seller giving my mother his personal guarantee that it worked. We had Duck Hunt (which I always cheated at, using the gun mere inches from the screen) and Super Mario. Eventually, we traded that console for a Super Nintento, which I maintain is one of the best platforms ever developed. Between Mario World and Mario All Stars, we were well equipped. Add Zelda: A Link to the Past and Super Metroid and you have an awesome system. Add Chrono Trigger, the Final Fantasy games, and the rest of the RPG group and you have the real contender, along with the Playstation, for best platform ever.

The first PC game that really hooked me was Myst: back in the days when it was a glorified, colourful Hypercard stack. I remember taking careful notes, and the anger and betrayal I felt when I realized the game was impossible without a sound card: an accessory our NEC 486 (without math coprocessor) lacked. It was on that computer that I got my first glimpse of multiplayer gaming. We played Legend of the Red Dragon – a very primitive massively multiplayer online game – on a half dozen bulletin board services around North Vancouver. This was before anyone had heard of the World Wide Web. My other multiplayer experience was playing Warcraft II over the modem with Jonathan Morissette and Michael Kushnir. I remember how my mother used to become irked, picking up the phone to hear incomprehensible screeching noises. We had to upgrade our 486 to 8 megabytes of RAM in order to run Warcraft II and SimIsle, a game Mica got for Christmas but that we were never keen on. After all, my cousin Jiri had recently given me a pirated copy of Doom.

There was always a bit of an allure associated with Mac gaming. Jonathan’s main home computer was a Mac and we would spend entire nights trading off between our two saved games of Escape Velocity. This terrifically exciting and engaging game called upon you to improve your ship, defeat thousands of opponents, complete a complex story line (one of two options), and conquer the galaxy. It wasn’t until the two games that marked the apogee of my gaming experience that I found something more addictive. I calculated how many days I would need to go without buying cafeteria food, Coca Cola, or candy in order to afford the cheapest Mac that could run it.

For me, the pinnacle of gaming came with the release of Bungie’s Myth. A revolutionary game on many fronts, it combined a truly three dimensional environment with the absolute need to use terrain and tactics to utmost advantage. Unlike Warcraft, where resources could be mined and more men produced, Myth limited you to what you had on the battlefield. Richly immersive, it became ten times more so online. (That said, I have always preferred to achieve perfection in the completion of a single-player game to giving up that possibility for the challenge and immediacy of competing against other humans.) I remember when there weren’t more than 100 devoted players on Bungie.net. When we all lived in awe of the Comet: the highest ranked player in the gaming ecosystem, and when we checked the Total Codex daily for news and humour. I spent most of my time on Bungie.net at the rank of Prince, a good way above the single dagger that each player started out with.

The other game that marked the peak of my commitment to these fantastic realms was the original Half Life. By this point, we had already progressed to a Pentium II computer with a Hercules Thriller 3D video card. I remember my appreciation when Nick and Neal got me the new video card that cleared up the clipping and white spot errors in Descent: Freespace and that allowed me to really enjoy Half Life in a hardware accelerated environment. From the attractive hero to the complexity of the environments, the creativity of the weapons, and the calculation involved in gameplay, Half Life was a winner in every respect. While I enjoyed playing the sequel after Mica bought it for me during my last year at UBC, even the greatly expanded complexity of the engine and plot couldn’t recreate the obsessive energy that the first game conjured.

While getting into the Playstation era is too adventurous for such a short entry, a few critical games should be named. On Christmas Eve, the year of the Playstation launch, I remember finishing about the first half of Mica’s copy of Final Fantasy VII. I went to sleep once the sun was well up, and after I had emerged from Midgar after about fifteen hours of intensive gameplay. The thing that I missed most after we got robbed one year was my Playstation memory card, which included a perfect game of FFVII. I had defeated both of the Weapons – much, much harder opponents than the end boss – and I had a gold chocobo and master materia. Oh, the loss! Aside from the legendary FFVII, the Playstation brought Einhander – that terribly difficult but engaging side-scroller – and the deadly exactitude of Bushido Blade.

Once I moved to UBC in first year, my gaming career entered its final phase. It was defined first by Civilization II, and then by its sequel. I’ve never been able to resist taking advantage of flaws within a game: how a certain boss in Diablo would just stand there while a fire wall roasted him or how marines in Half Life only activated when you got close enough to them, allowing you to dispatch their stationary forms with one well-directed crossbow quarrel. Civilization II abounded with such flaws. You could make impenetrable walls out of bombers, as long as you had one per square per turn. Civilization III – which became an obsession while Sarah Johnston was still in Vancouver – allowed you to sell cities for outrageous fees, even if they were in atrocious locations. The cash could fuel such a level of scientific research that, playing as the Zulus (my race of choice), you could nuke London by 1000A.D., at which time they would still have nothing better than spearmen to protect them.

I am not sure whether I ever derived anything more than enjoyment out of all these games. I never learned strategy from chess. Actually, I despise chess. It’s terrifically boring, though you feel that, as an educated person, you ought to like it. Chess is what people played when there were no better options. Whether I learned anything from all these games or not, I am proof, at least, that you can end up in a fairly successful position despite devoting a great deal of time to them. It wasn’t until the later years of high school that anything in my education was ever really challenging or compelling. Perhaps, in that sense, these games filled an important gap. Whatever the truth of the matter is, I salute them, as well as those who made them.

PS. I’ve left out SimCity: another obsession and the game I played most in my dreams, but one cannot be thorough in such things.

PPS. This list also excludes the more elite and challenging element of computer ‘gaming.’ By that, I mean the bypassing and overpowering of security systems put in place to guard actual systems and networks. Such things, though long since abandoned as a use of time, can’t really be discussed here.

PPPS. How can I leave out Starcraft? Oh, the dozens of games that I played for hundreds of hours each.

Early birthday gift

Klein Bottle in WadhamAs soon as I saw the box from Meghan in the porter’s lodge, I knew that there was a closed, non-orientable, boundary-free manifold in Wadham. Despite my birthday not being for another four days, not opening it at that point would have been pointless and superfluous. After all, it is better to have a Klein Bottle on display than a Klein bottle which you know to be in a box. I trust that Meghan will understand.

As you are like to find in the office of a particularly cool mathematician, it is a genuine Klein Bottle: such as you would get if you could glue the edges of two Mobius strips together. While that is not actually possible in three dimensional space, the Klein Bottle is a three-dimensional cross section of that higher dimensional object. Imagine, for a moment, a hair elastic twisted into a figure-eight shape. In three dimensions, you can do that without having it intersect itself. If you were to draw that figure-eight hair elastic, however, or take a photo, it would look as though it intersects itself. The same is true of a Klein Bottle embedded in three dimensional space. Note that even if our universe really does have ten spacial dimensions, or more, as postulated by string theory, there are still only three of them unfurled enough to put parts of a glass Klein Bottle in.

Invented by Felix Klein – a German professor of mathematics – in 1882, a Klein Bottle has only one side (no inside and outside like a balloon), yet also no rim or lip (like a bowl or an open wine bottle). It’s the only gift I’ve ever received that I printed off an encyclopedia article about, for use in explaining to guests. You can also tell people it’s a work of modern art.

Many thanks Meghan, for furnishing me with what may be the geekiest thing I have ever owned. Like surviving through a battle in which your friends died, getting a Klein Bottle creates a commitment to live the rest of your life in a certain spirit. It’s also dramatically quieter than my rock tumbler used to be.

Public service announcement

Windows users should be aware that several companies are now making music CDs that actively sabotage your computer: both by preventing it from being able to make mp3s and by installing trojan horse software that monitors and manipulates what you can do. Sony Music is among those companies. Luckily, you can get around most of it by disabling the autorun feature in Windows XP.

During the next few years, in all kinds of areas, we need to deal with the issue of intellectual property. We need to decide when countries can violate the patents of drug firms, either due to short term emergencies like an avian flu or long term ones like AIDS, We need to decide what fair use means, with regards to copyrighted materials, in an age where copying and distribution has become so much easier. We need to decide what to do about patents, which have the serious potential to be exploited and hamper both innovation and the public welfare, while confering underserved monopolies on those who hold them.

Whatever the answers to these questions are, and some of them are really very tricky, I don’t think they can legitimately involve the kind of backhanded dealing described in the first paragraph here. I don’t buy music from the iTunes music store, for the simple reason that I have no reason to believe I will still be able to use that music five years from now, or on a different computer or device. The nature of ownership, when it comes to things like software and music, is becoming ephemeral and uncertain – except for those people who have illegal copies that evade these feeble protections anyhow. I remember how, with my legitimately bought copy of Half Life 2, I needed to muck around for hours with registration, web updates, and a little Steam applet that seriously restricts how and when you can use the software which you bought. My friends who downloaded it from one or another peer-to-peer service just played.

An afternoon game

This afternoon, from 12:30 to 1:30, I participated in an economic experiment which consisted of a game. Within the game, there were three groups of five. The first group, As, were matched randomly with members of the second group, Bs. Each of these players started with 35 tokens, each worth 1/5th of a Pound. There was a third group, Cs, who got 25 tokens.

The game was only played once (ie. not iterated).

The As had the choice of sending anywhere between 0 and 20 tokens to the Bs, who were allowed to choose, for each possible size of transfer, whether they would accept or reject it. If the B accepted, the A got 50-X tokens, where X was the size of the transfer. (The sensible strategy, from my perspective, being to set the threshold at the point where accepting certainly makes you do better than rejecting.) The B, in this case, would get 30+X. If the B rejected, the B would keep 35 tokens and the A would lose one. For each A-B pair where a transfer took place, all Cs lost one token. Cs did not make any choices over the course of the game.

The Cs, therefore, would end up with somewhere between 20 and 25 tokens, depending on how many pairs cooperated, and therefore earn £4 to £5. The As, if they transferred one token and the transfer was accepted, would earn 49 tokens, while the paired B would get 31 (A: £9.80, B: £6.20). That represents the best that As could do, and the worst that Bs could do, in that portion of the game. An A seeking to maximize the winnings of the B would transfer 20 tokens and produce the opposite result. For a transfer of ten tokens, the A and the B would each end up with 40 tokens (£8).

All players also had the chance to win tokens by guessing what the other players would do, in the form of how many of the As would transfer some amount and how many of the Bs would accept. Getting one right earned you 50p and getting both right earned you £1. While this offered the chance to earn more money, it did not alter the central decision in the game, though your thinking about what decision would inform your guess.

My thinking was that, firstly, every A would make a transfer because the worst they could do is lose four tokens and they could gain as many as 19. Additionally, each B would accept a transfer, for precisely the same reason. Moreover, it would be awfully boring to sit in a room for an hour listening to rules and then not actually play the game in an active way.

I was an A, one of the two actively deciding groups. I decided to transfer 7 tokens, one above the minimum amount where the payoff to the B of accepting exceeded the amount that would be had from rejecting. For a B, accepting 7 tokens means earning £7.40, while rejecting it would mean getting £7. That said, for the B to accept costs all five Cs one token each, for a total loss among the Cs of £1. For the A, transferring seven tokens means getting £8.60 if the transfer is accepted and £6.80 if it is rejected (which would be against the interest of the B, provided they don’t care about the Cs).

In the end, I won £7.30, which means that my offer was rejected but that I guessed properly that the four other As would all make an offer. In addition to the £7.30, I got £3 just for playing.

The outcome of my section of the game, therefore, left me with £6.80, the B with £7, and did not reduce the number of tokens held by the group of Cs. Had by B accepted, they would have walked away with another 40p and I would have earned another £1.60. Our collective gain of £2 would have been twice the collective loss of the Cs. I suppose either concern for the Cs or the fact that I would earn more from the transaction caused them to reject my strategy of the minimum offer for clear mutual gain.