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.

Caffeine considerations

Christopher Wren's first building

In the past nineteen days, I have consumed fewer than five cups of coffee. Contrast that, for a moment, with life in Vancouver. During the fiscal year from April 1st until my departure on September 21st, I spent $204.88 at Starbucks alone: nearly 26% of my spending on all foodstuffs. During that period, I consumed 37 Venti dark roast beverages (approx. 275mg of caffeine each) and 24 quadruple iced espressos (approx. 140mg of caffeine). While the caffeine figures on that site may be way off (Starbucks doesn’t seem to publish their own), it is nonetheless illustrative. During the complete fiscal year of 2004, I spent $284.94 at Starbucks: 11% of the total spending on food. That includes six pounds of Sulawesi roast, 10 quadruple espressos, and 42 Venti dark roasts. Margaret and I have resolved to try to find a reasonably high quality, reasonably low cost coffee shop somewhere in Oxford.

Visiting Staples today was quite shocking. There are no floor staff at all, only surly, disinterested cashiers who will happily charge you four times what binders and notebooks cost in Canada but will not even point you in the direction of four-hole punches. Even with the mean British income, people here are getting seriously overcharged for software and electronics. I wonder if this derives from a lack of competition, from people simply expecting to pay so much, or from some other factor. While paper and binders can’t be easily brought over from North America, due to differing standards, I shall endeavour to secure everything else possible from back home. On the positive side, I now have a neat row of binders with all the papers that were previously strewn around my room secured inside.

My plan to get cheap Sainsbury’s sandwiches for dinner was scuppered by them closing hours before I expected. Them and most everyone else. I therefore spent an hour and a half wandering central Oxford in search of somewhere other than a sit-down restaurant that had something edible and vegetarian. I wandered around Gloucester Green (which isn’t) and then past Nuffield to the area near the train station. In the end, I paid rather too much for cheese pizza and a Coke. I need to remember that Sunday evening is not the time to find yourself without cheese and bagels at home.

With the relevant libraries closed and a brain no longer particularly up to the task of scouring e-journals, I think I will spend the rest of tonight reading Hedley Bull’s The Anarchical Society. It’s not particularly relevant to my paper, but my supervisor did work with Bull, it’s considered a pretty central text in the discipline, and it’s the most interesting thing I have at hand. From the little I know about Bull’s work, I think his conception of nation states existing in a society, despite the strictly anarchical character of world politics, is a highly useful one. It’s an important work of the so-called British school of international relations, which I’ve made a conscious and costly choice to study within.

My thinking with regards to the guilt essay has developed to the point that I have a strategy for tackling it. That strategy has been refined through discussion with Sarah. Describing the difficulties involved, I will develop or expound some kind of meaningful criterion for war guilt on the part of states. I would prefer to define it in a way that doesn’t hinge upon the intentions of individual decision makers, given how hard they are to evaluate. While I find it a strong contendor, the international legal definition seems to hinge primarily upon the matter of aggression, which can, itself, be a tricky thing to define. I will then evaluate in a less-than-exhaustive way whether Germany and Austria-Hungary met whatever criterion I posit, stressing again that it will be just one possibility among many. Finally, I will describe how it was the fact that they lost the war that led to any kind of guilt criterion being applied to those two states. Satisfying some war guilt standard is neither necessary nor sufficient to cause a state to be treated as guilty. Losing the war seems to be necessary, and may be sufficient. Trachtenberg’s comment, at the end of his chapter on WWI, that our historical judgments on the origin of the conflict are reflective of the political exigencies of the moment is helpful, in this regard.

There are counters to that kind of claim. For instance, Iraq certainly won the initial war against Kuwait when the Iraqi leadership chose to invade it, yet it was widely seem as the guilty party in the instigation of the war. Is the subsequent American-led expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait a necessary part of that determination? Had the Soviet Union won the war in Afghanistan, would it not be seen as aggression on their part?

There are thus two separate disputes involved in the paper: one about the reality of what took place historically (who said what when, etc) and one about the moral framework through which we choose to evaluate it. Personally, I find the second question to be much more interesting since it at least attempts to generate a test to which all cases can be subjected. Those who see history as predominantly useful as a guide to future behaviour would agree.

The writing of this essay really makes me wish I had some of the materials that I left in Vancouver. In particular, the texts, readings, and notes from my international law course with ITG and the international law seminar with Byers would be helpful. In addition, the numerous texts that formed the basis for my twentieth century history class with Gossen would be valuable. I am sure all of the books in question could be had in one library or another, but having texts which are already familiar (and have the vital passages identified and marked) would be a good head start.

Luckily, Natasha – one of my fellow residents in Wadham – lent me Christine Gray’s book International Law and the use of Force and Thomas Franck’s excellent book Recourse to Force: State Action Against Threats and Armed Attacks. They are both books that I read last year and which I know hold useful information on the question of legitimate and illegitimate war. International law is difficult but fascinating; I wish I knew a lot more about it. Towards the aim of the essay, the Bull book is also less peripheral than I expected. I should like to finish the first 200 pages or so tonight, though it will remain to be seen if I can manage it.

rebus sic stantibus: Things standing thus; provided that conditions have not changed; spec. in International Law the principle that a treaty lapses when conditions are substantially different from those which obtained when it was concluded. Contrast with pacta sunt servanda.

PS. Do people find daily postings worthwhile? I use them partly as a mechanism for ordering and distilling my own thoughts, and I recognize that people may find that appallingly tedious. Writing things down like, say, the definitions of tricky words, is the only way I can overcome the limitations of my memory.

PPS. In consideration of Sarah’s suggestion that we go to Tallinn in December, I’ve been looking at ticket prices from EasyJet. It seems that if we fly from London and book early, we could get round trip tickets for under £100.