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Archive for December, 2007

The Dynasty

December 31, 2007 1 comment

Benazir Bhutto is dead.

I only found out about this via Ars Technica indirectly referring to the event — I only saw even this because AT is my home page. That said, it was an almost physical blow, for reasons I find hard to pin down.

Six months ago, I had no idea who Benazir Bhutto was, nor did I have any grasp at all on Pakistani politics. I wouldn’t say I have a firm grasp now, but I know a bit. To my layman’s view of matters, Benazir was Pakistan’s greatest hope. Even when Musharraf declared his martial law and began acting every bit the military dictator, in my mind, if anyone could fix the problem, it was her.

And somewhere along the way, she became the symbol for all the hope in the Middle East. It seems silly, but news of her murder instantly brought doubt for the future of the region.

This is all, however, background to something I came across, in relation to the Bhutto legacy: an article that talks about her 19 year old son, Bilawal Bhutto, being her successor. From the outset, I tacitly assumed that this would be something he would undertake willingly, to carry on a vision that he shared with his mother — which very well may be the case.

But as I read, I found there was more and more talk about how a Bhutto must lead the Pakistan People’s Party, and it seems more and more like this is something he must do. What gets me is that this man is about five months older than I am. And the people of Pakistan are going to be looking to him for leadership.

I can’t imagine what the must be like.

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Categories: Real Life

Why’s it gotta be that way?

December 24, 2007 1 comment

I’ve been giving some thought recently to this blog post, which begins:

Someone has pointed out to me that I have a blog, and that I haven’t posted to it in an unacceptably long time. He’s right. So here’s a post.

And ends:

OK, that wasn’t so hard. I’ll have to see if I can make a habit of this.

Now, if I remember the conversation that spurred this blog post correctly, it also involved me lamenting the fact that GNO Central is so often topped with a list of my five most recent posts — it could be more, but the limit is five posts per blog.

This occurrence, which I’ve privately come to refer to as “GNO-Bombing,” is not infrequent for this blog, given that I do my very best to keep a constant stream of content flowing. This is largely due to an approach to this blog that is not unlike Jonathan Coulton’s approach to his Thing a Week project. Essentially, I do my best to make sure that content gets out three times a week (Monday/Wednesday/Friday), even if I don’t think it’s particularly all that great. As I, and Mr. Coulton, have discovered, a lot of the stuff that you don’t think is worth releasing can turn out to be better through the lens of history and not nearly as dismal as you once thought.

Then again, there are some other posts, such as my post about the Screen Savers, which end up burning you out. And I’ve taken that in stride. I took a break, and let it last as long as it needed, but when it was done, I was back, with three posts per week. But the point is that you get something written.

For this, I find myself drawing on my previous life as a professional writer. I learned, by necessity, from that job to just let your mind go while you’re writing. Just as Asimov usually started writing without a clear destination, some of my best writings have come from taking an idea and exploring it in words. If I might be allowed a bit of meta-analysis, this blog post is a perfect example.

But also from my days writing for a paycheck I find that I have gained two abilities that enhance this space even further. The first is word limits. More than any English class, it was article writing that taught me how to pace a piece based on your target length (in words). For example, according to Word Press’ super-handy word-counter, I’m at word 427. That means I have about 75 words to my goal, which should be enough to make this last point and wrap up. Why 500? It’s easy to hit and I find it makes a nice length for a topic without stretching it. (Actually, it looks like I’m going to overshoot it this time, which always makes me happy.)

The other trick I learned was constant searching for good material. In the context of writing articles, it took the form of notes I often scribbled about a certain topic, on the chance that I got assigned an article on that topic. That way, whenever I got handed an assignment, I was rarely without some basis of research for writing about the topic.

In the context of writing a blog, it is more like thinking as though you have a friend with whom you love to have intellectual conversations. Pretty much any time you think, “That’s interesting. I should really tell _________ about this,” where ________ is any person you know, you have a candidate for a blog post. For example, my recent post on the topic of Nintendo Wiis came out of a thought about what a fascinating conversation I could have with my father on the topic, if I were to throw out the news items I linked to in conversation.

This does have one obvious downside, though: crazy inventor syndrome. That’s where you’re drifting off to sleep and you get a great idea for a blog post and have to scramble in the dark to scribble it down before dozing off and losing the idea forever. I’ve also run in to the same thing at both school and work, where usually the closest notation device is used, which widely varies from Sticky Notes to an entire forearm covered in ideas and notes too precious to let slip. You’ll also probably find yourself doing this a lot.

Oh, and one last thing that is probably the most important thing to take away from all of this: pace yourself. I release three posts a week, with an occasional fourth if I have enough good links to make a Good Point. This means that if I write four good blog posts in 48 hours, I can take a week off. As it happens, that is exactly what happened with the time immediately before the writing of this post. Although the calendar currently says December 18, I’m about to change the timestamp so that this is published on … well, whenever you see it.

I say this is so very important because I find it so very painful to see blogs like this one who have three posts in 24 hours, and then nothing for over a month.

I hope that helps.

Categories: Uncategorized

The best kind of problem to have (Updated)

December 21, 2007 1 comment

Nintendo is, by many accounts, killing itself. Its supply of Nintendo Wii consoles is vastly outstripped by the market demand, even a year after the release of the console. And this has a lot of people pissed. I’m kind of at a loss as to why, though. (And if anyone should be pissed, it’s me. I was there.)

Let’s start with the New York Times, who wrote a veritable sob-story on the topic, attempting to depict the poor and starving who have to camp out in the rain to get their Wiis. Except not. This is a nice introduction to a keep point in all of this, which we’ll see pop up again and again: this notion that people “have to” jump through all these hoops to get a Wii. First off, nothing is requiring them to get a Wii. I’ve been Wii-sober for months now, and I can tell you life without one is hard, but not impossible.

The second thing here is that, generally, something required in exchange for something else is called a “cost.” If you want to buy a Wii at its current cost, you will have to put in some man-hours in addition to dropping your cold hard green on the counter at the right time. How high that cost is (i.e. how much time you must spend doing a better job of getting to the Wiis first) is a direct reflection of how many other people are doing the same thing. In other words, the cost rises as demand does. Duh.

But lets say that you don’t have the spare time to do this running-around nonsense, as you’re a working person with a real job. Well, eBay is there for you. While Nintendo is utterly unwilling to raise officially raise the price on Wiis — quite rightly due to the enormous publicity backlash that would be caused — the free market is perfectly willing to dictate exactly how much a Wii is worth.

This has created an entire sub-industry for reselling Wiis on the internet, perhaps most popularly through eBay. In other words, the price the market will pay for a Wii is higher than they are being sold for, so people have begun making jobs out of buying Wiis from stores and selling them online.

But each and every time a news item is posted about these folks, an exceedingly polarized debate springs up, where one side regards them as scum who are robbing children of their happiness and the other side view them of champions of the free market. (Bonus points: guess which side I’m on from the phrasing of that sentence.) Because of their evil profiteering, the argument goes, the first camp argues, they are hurting the industry and “forcing” people to pay higher premiums for a Wii. (Except not. See above.) Here we go (from the Consumerist article comments):

Console flippers make it even harder to find already rare items at christmas because they snap them up en masse and then sell them back, feeding off of high demand. It’s obvious that these people are sociopaths, no sense of fairness or equity. The only reason that they make money is because they have it and the store doesn’t. That’s not capitalism. That’s piracy. Best Buy doesn’t send cronys [sic] out to Circuit City to buy up all of the Rock Band boxes on sale so they can sell them at a regular price. That’s not allowed. So should the same be true for consumers.

It should go without saying that if you’re not buying it to use it, you shouldn’t buy it, but trying to tell these soulless zombies that is like talking to a wall. Way to ruin Christmas. Assholes.

Hmm, where to start. First off, this person doesn’t seem to understand quite the meaning of “sociopath.” From Wikipedia: “The essential feature for the diagnosis [of a socipath] is a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others …” To follow this line of reasoning, buying up and reselling Wiis is sociopathic because it ignores the rights of others to be able to buy a Wii. Except that’s not actually a right.

Also, as soon as the commenter let the words “fairness and equity” slip, though, I knew that the underlying problem here lies in an underlying socialist (i.e. anti-capitalist) nature of the commenter. The place of socialism is debatable in politics, but when it comes down to a purely leisure market, it’s utterly irrelevant.

And, as one last point to stop from beating this to death, it’s interesting to note that the commenter comes dangerously close to rationality by stating that “the only reason that they make money is because they have [Wiis] and the store doesn’t.” That is entirely true. But then the commenter backslides into wailing about how it’s “piracy.”

But in response to this, there comes this second camp, who says “Bullshit.” Again, from the Consumerist commenters:

You don’t “Have to pay”. You don’t have to have it the first day. If people let the scalpers sit on their inventory till their credit cards came due, then there wouldn’t be a problem. Scalpers exist and profit because people are stupid enough to pay them the arm & leg they ask for. $2000 for a PS3? $5000 for “Hannah Montana” tickets? Please.
These are not necessities.

And the industry loves scarcity. They don’t give a rat’s posterior that accessories aren’t selling yet. If they sell every console they make at full mark-up as soon as it gets to the store- perfect.

The same people that paid a $200 markup will be back to buy the contollers later.

Want [console resellers] to die like leeches covered in salt? Don’t buy stuff at huge markups. Let them sit on 5 $300 consoles for six months.

And, unfortunately, in the middle of all this always comes the argument that it’s “bad for the children” or some such nonsense. See, by making parents unable to pay the retail cost to get their kid the Wii they promised them for Christmas, the scalpers are “ruining Christmas.” The question here is: why are we pitying parents who made unfulfillable promises to kids. And when informed of their parent’s inability to come through, how will the child react? Doubtlessly with tears and screaming because the kid doesn’t know the word “No.” I know this point has been covered ad nauseum ever since Tickle Me Elmo and before, but it is still entirely relevant here.

But what I find most difficult to believe in all of this — aside from the utter ignorance of free-market principles — is the lack of pondering alternatives. In the first camp’s dream world where there were no scalpers, the man-hour cost for tracking shipment arrival times and making sure that you’re there at the exact time to snag a Wii would be about the same, given that people who had bought the reseller’s stock would instead be rubbing shoulders with the “legitimate” buyers.

But let’s take it even further. In this paradise, there is no such planning and conniving. You just go into a store, and if they have a Wii, you can buy it. Otherwise, you go home empty handed. Not only would this be horribly wasteful in terms of time and resources, it would be, in essence, a lottery, with which no one would be happy either.

I’m reminded of an adage often applied to democracy, capitalism, or any of a dozen other Western principles: Sure, it sucks sometimes. In fact, it’s terrible. But all of the alternatives are worse.

UPDATE (7:52pm EST 22 Dec): Ars Technica is reporting that one retail chain is selling their entire stream of Wiis online for $400, a $150 markup:

“In the past year, none of the 12 [Slackers locations] haven’t sold any Wiis except for a one-time promotional deal, where we did force customers to buy a game with it,” the employee told Ars Technica. “The real crime is that we get Wii shipments regularly. In fact, right now we have about 20, but none of them make it to the store front. They all get put on the store’s eBay site at a minimum $499.99 buying price.”

Our source then told us that the price has since been lowered to $399.99, (they weren’t moving at $499) and sure enough, there are three Wiis available through Slackers’ eBay storefront at $399.99. Looking back in the store’s history, one can find other Wii sales in its feedback, with the auction advertising “NEW WITH GAME.” The game of course being the bundled Wii Sports.

Categories: Gaming, Real Life

After-action Report

December 19, 2007 1 comment
NCSU's Yellow Light from FIRE

Well, that was as bad as I expected. Maybe it’s just because I try to take every thing in stride, or maybe because I was expecting most of it. At any rate, this first semester of college has turned out relatively similar to how I expected.

Chemistry, which I had figured out pretty early on was going to be arbitrarily difficult, was arbitrarily difficult. I scraped through with a disappointing final grade of a C in the class, which I’m perfectly happy with. When I spoke the word Chemistry with a frustrated edge in my tone to my academic advisor, she just told me flat out: “Get your C minus and move on.” Oh, and did I mention that the textbook for this class (which a high percentage of incoming freshmen are required to take) was written by a staff member at NCSU? Seems like a cheap trick to make a buck.

As for the rest of it: Calculus was satisfyingly difficult, and I hope I did well on the final because a large portion of the grade rests on it. I’ll known soon enough. But, in contrast to Chemistry, if I fail it, that’s okay. The remarkable thing about Calculus, though, is that over the last two and a half years of it, retaining my knowledge of integration and derivation became academic survival skills. But with the end of this semester, and pursuant to a satisfactory grade, I can let it all go. My only remaining maths are in different schools of thought, ones more relevant to Computer Science. That’s not to say I dislike Calculus: I wouldn’t mind taking this class again and doing better. But the fact remains that it is the end of an academic epoch more meaningful and longer lasting than any other I’ve found. After all, grades come and go, but Calculus has become a fixture.

As for the rest of my classes this semester, they were, bar one, one-hour headaches that passed by relatively uneventfully.

And that one class was English. Firstly, as an aside, I take great pride in my writing and have been commended for my better-than-competent authorship in the past. So it was with a mixture of puzzlement and disappointment that I spent the entire semester getting a B on each and every paper. Now, to put that into perspective, if my work was a B on some kind of objective scale, then the majority of my classmates’ papers — with the exception of one classmate in particular — that I peer reviewed would have failed dismally, in my opinion. At the risk of sounding elitist, they were more than two letter grades worse than mine.

That said, I have two theories on this. The first, and to my mind less rational, explanation is that some kind of bizarre grading method was being used that championed airtight compliance with the rubric over readability, even when such adherence produced nonsensical posturing.

On the other hand, I suspect there may have been a relative grading scale for each student. Essentially, my teacher knew I could be doing better than I was, and so began giving me Bs to encourage me to go the extra mile and turn in outstanding papers. The problem was, if so, this was never communicated to me, and I never did both trying to achieve an objective whose requirements were unknown to me.

The funny thing about all of this is that I’m not the bothered by it all, on the whole. This is partly because she was right. I could have done better and spent more time on each paper, but I just never did. If anything, that was just due to my habitual underachieving combined with my distaste for the rigid structure of the writing required for this class. This is also partly because in the end I got the kind of praise that doesn’t involve a letter grade. My teacher specifically asked me to sign a release so that she could use my writings as example papers because they were so good.

She may have been trying to stop me from feeling too superior, but that just pumped more air into my already overinflated ego. In a good way.

Categories: College

Carrier pigeons are out of the question

December 17, 2007 Leave a comment

It came to me a little while ago how profoundly the Internet has impacted my social life. Not only in the obvious ways, but also in some very positive directions.

Take Jon, a close associate of mine. When I first met him, he was a faceless in-game handle with whom I played World of Warcraft. He had been introduced to me by my then-high-school-classmate Woody, who had been middle school classmates with this new guy. If I remember correctly, the first words I ever exchanged with him were concerning my feeling of superiority from being in the beta test of WoW. He informed me where I could take that beta and stick it.

I’ve also heard possibly apocryphal reports that during the weeks — perhaps months? — between this meeting and our first face-to-face, he came to envision me as a very young Richard Nixon, with pubescent proto-jowls. I mostly just came to imagine him as a huge jerk. (As it happens, I don’t look anything like Nixon, but he’s certainly still a huge jerk. It’s a very caustic relationship. In a good way.)

Woody was a bit of a different story: although in later times we would attend the same high school and be sorted into the same homeroom, the tale of the two of us began in the House of God. Our mothers attended the same church, and in a meeting remembered by none, we were fast friends.

The interesting part comes that the three of us each attend different institutes of higher learning. And yet I have daily vocal discussions with each — or both — of them. This is through Ventrilo, a client-server modeled Voice Over IP program, where each of us spends most of our time on the computer idling.

A generation ago, the story would have been entirely different. The options would have boiled down to letters and telephone; the former is too slow to be comparable and the latter too expensive. I am also reminded of my father’s father teaching his children to be ham radio operators in order to save on long distance calls home when they moved away, which would theoretically work for the real-time discussions, but has significant other problems.

Even taking this discussion to its logical conclusion, I have a number of associates who I’ve only ever met in an electronic medium. Take, for example, Wes, the proprietor of the Lyon’s Den, whose story I’ve told before. This is a man who lives two timezones away, but is enough of a kindred geek to myself that somehow we keep in touch. (Perhaps ironically, he was born right here in North Carolina but is now many miles away for reasons I’m not entirely sure of.)

Of course, this conversation could hardly be complete without throwing a bone to Facebook, the J.P. Morgan of the internet and sociality. The funny thing is that, despite early exclusivity-driven enthusiasm for the site — not everyone can do it so those who can must be cool — I have no time for it these days. Its overbearing invasiveness causes it to be nothing but troublesome to me with its privacy-betraying applets and reality-shaping functionality.

I’d rather use the ‘net to keep in touch with people I actually know instead of attempting to forge relationships in a purely digital medium. I mean, it works sometimes, but in a vastly disproportionate majority of cases, it mostly just leads me to think the person I’m talking to is a huge jerk.

Categories: Real Life, The Internet

Respectfully Submitted, HZS

December 12, 2007 1 comment

Someone asked me recently where my pseudonym name came from, and seeing as how it’s such a hilarious story, here it is.

The last name — “Short” — came first. Its impetus was silliness but its final form came from necessity. It was a number of years ago, during the beta for the then-yet-forthcoming game World of Warcraft. I had snagged an invite, along with two of my real world friends, who decided we needed some way to express our confederation. It was decided that our characters would be brothers and share a surname.

The catch came that, as it played out, one of us played each of Human, Dwarf, and Gnome. Rationally, not biologically related. So the story grew: the Human and the Gnome were, in fact, adopted without their knowledge into the mighty Dwarven Schworty family, creating the Schworty Brothers. The Human and Gnome each believed they were a Dwarf, just abnormally tall and short, respectively.

At any rate, when it came time to make our characters, it came to pass that “Schworty” was just too many letters, and ended up getting shortened to “Short.” However, the brothers were still known as “the Shorties.” To this day, that is the name used, even in the real world, to refer to this group, with a few more members.

“Hober” came from a need of a good, original, and fantasy-sounding name. So where did I turn but science fiction? At the time I was reading or had recently completed Asimov’s Foundation, which tells — in part — the story of Hober Mallow, Trader Prince. I took his name as my own, and created a nicely unique nickname.

My only caveat here is that the pronunciation is ambiguous to some, which I did not foresee and might have effected my choice. Some pronounce the name as though it rhymes with “jobber” which is wholly incorrect and never occurred to me. In my mind, it has always been as though the o had umlauts, although it can be rationally parsed in English without them. At any rate, the “approved” way to say the name ends with a “-ber” that is pronounced similar to the expression of being cold usually written “brrrr”.

Interestingly, this was never a problem when German pronunciation rules were applied. See, when I began taking German class in high school, each member of the class has to pick a “German name” by which he might also be known. I’m still not sure what the point of the exercise was, given that the names fell into disuse after a few weeks. But for mine, I naturally picked the Germanic-enough “Hober” because I had learned to respond to it vocally over World of Warcraft voice chat. After, I’m sure, surprising my teacher with a “German name” she’d never seen before, it served handily and was never once mispronounced.

So what remains is “Zeno”, the recently chosen middle name. Realizing the usefulness of being able to abbreviate a pseudonym with its initials, as well as the extra flavor allowed, I began to search for a name to act as the filler — or glue — to this name. After being on the lookout for a while, I found myself once again marvelling at the raw logical beauty of Zeno’s Paradoxes and suddenly realized that I would be his namesake. After all, who is more worthy of honor than Zeno of Elea, the man who can logically state why motion is impossible and nothing is actually moving.

Categories: Metablog, Real Life

I couldn’t come up with any jokes for “division by zero”

December 7, 2007 Leave a comment

A conversation between a friend and myself, via Steam Friends:

Friend: I guess I should learn Python, then.

Me: Yeah, it’s pretty much like writing Java. Except if you’re feeling lazy and don’t want to type a lot. Well, and you have no static methods.

Friend: I’ll void static your main function.

Me: That’s what her stdout printed.

Friend: Dear God, please kill us both now.

On that note, you’ve doubtlessly been inundated with news about the botnet that was sending out Ron Paul spam? Good. Well, that same article mentions that it was, in fact, a “a Python-based spam botnet management tool known as the Reactor Mailer.” When I mentioned this to the same friend as above, he made the astute observation that, despite his little knowledge about Python, he is pretty sure that running “import ronpaul08” would return an error for most Americans.

It also occurs to me that, even if importing ronpaul08 didn’t throw an error, the ronpaul08 module would be pretty hard to use because of its extensive information hiding. Also, there would likely be problem with his borrowing of some unstable and deprecated code.

And by the way, if you don’t have any idea what’s going on in this post, pat yourself on the back. You’re not an enormous nerd. Also, I mean what I say in that sidebar about only understanding 1% of what I write.

But seriously, I’m a computer science major, as well as terrible punster. How could I pass up opportunities to make hyper-linked double entendres like segmentation fault and buffer overrun?

Categories: Uncategorized