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Archive for February, 2008

February 29, 2008 1 comment

Holy crap, it’s cold outside. The wind is also helping none.

Today’s selection concerns one of my father’s greatest heroes, Norman Borlaug:

The large role he has played in both increasing crop yields and promoting this view has led to this methodology being called by agricultural economists the “Borlaug hypothesis”, namely that increasing the productivity of agriculture on the best farmland can help control deforestation by reducing the demand for new farmland. According to this view, assuming that global food demand is on the rise, restricting crop usage to traditional low-yield methods such as organic farming would also require at least one of the following: the world population to decrease, either voluntarily or as a result of mass starvations; or the conversion of forest land into crop land.

He’s the only guy I’ve ever heard of to be credited with saving a billion lives. And make sure to read his response to his critics.

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Categories: Good Point

February 27, 2008 Leave a comment

Spring break keeps a rollin’, and today brings us George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”:

I think the following rules will cover most cases:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Rule 1 is one I always try to take to heart, but I often discard the second in favor of more beautiful prose. Ideally, I aim for something of a balance between Lovecraft and Holkins:

My mother had purchased a copy of Bratz for one of her grandkids, and was enraged (well, maybe just displeased) with the game’s insipid gameplay and lack of visual prowess. She’s unhappy with my progress in Zelda, which I thought was a radical new avenue of maternal complaint. I don’t know who this woman is.

Categories: Good Point

February 25, 2008 2 comments

Midterms this week, spring break next. So I’m taking an extended spring break from writing. Hopefully, see you guys in two weeks.

Until then, I’ll try to keep some juicy links coming to give you something to read. Today, How To Become a Hacker:

The Hacker Attitude

1. The world is full of fascinating problems waiting to be solved.
2. No problem should ever have to be solved twice.
3. Boredom and drudgery are evil.
4. Freedom is good.
5. Attitude is no substitute for competence.

Categories: Good Point

Shut Up and Teach: A Review of Indoctrinate U

February 22, 2008 1 comment

“Instead of restricting free speech, let’s say we’re ‘ending harassment’.”

When I was considering universities to attend, there were a number of criteria I used to identify the optimal choice: quality of the computer science program, location, and cost were the big three. But in the back of my mind, there was always a small bit of consideration given to the political climate on campus, after I had heard tell of the free speech of students being abridged on college campuses. There was no terribly effective way to research this, and it stayed in the back of my mind until after I made the choice and came to my current school.

And, sure enough, I lucked out and managed to find a school that doesn’t have teachers who give political lectures in their Romance Languages course, and I’ve yet to hear of any actions taken against students over reasonably protected speech.

But that left me pretty curious: what was going on at these schools where such things were common place? How do the students manage? Thinking similar things, Evan Coyne Maloney and his On The Fence Films production team set out to document just that in their film Indoctrinate U.

This is a film with a broad scope, which sets out not only to document infringements on protected free speech, but also investigate its root causes, as well as indict the entire system of political correctness that has produced college students who will scream to military recruiters “Get out of our country!” while waving a flag of Palestine.

For example, Maloney tells the story of Steve Hinkle, a Cal Poly student who was punished and bullied by administrators after posting “literature of an offensive racial nature.” The posting? A flier announcing a speech being given by author Mason Weaver. The “offensive” speech? The title of Mason Weaver’s book, “It’s Okay To Leave the Plantation”. After all was said and done, some months later, Hinkle had nearly been thrown out of school for a flier that had been construed, under some nebulous definition, as “hate speech.”

But this documentary isn’t just talking to college students in their dorms, because all of this discussion of serious matters is interleaved with lighthearted “confrontations”, such as Maloney inquiring at some dozen universities where he can find their Men’s Center — “Is it near the Women’s Center?”

However, where these sections detail a narrative, there is another story told when the film just cools its heels and lets the fruits of this politically correct college mono-culture run wild. Incidents like a college student shouting the nonsensical jeer “The blood is on your shoulders, man!” and a college bureaucrat attempting to waflle and weasel his way out of whether he did or did not approve fliers that compare a student to Hitler and suicide bombers.

But since anecdotal evidence by itself can never be taken with proof, Maloney makes sure to dig up the numbers to bear up his claims, as well as interview college professors from across the political spectrum. Unfortunately and inexplicably, however, not a single college administrator contacted agreed to interview on camera.

But in all of this, I’m sort of predisposed to like the film, since it exposes something I disagree while using enough journalistic integrity that it can’t be dismissed out of hand as a smear job. But while I was watching the documentary in my dorm, my roommate came along and was instantly drawn in. Not only was he impressed by the film, he was entirely unaware of the events it documented. He and I are both lucky that we go to such a tolerant university, although I’ll admit he echoed my thoughts by muttering, “Oh, wow,” when Maloney made a passing reference to an incident where the ROTC office right here on campus was vandalized.

This film is whirlwind tour of political correctness on college campuses that wraps up with a stirring call to arms, as it were, to push for a new campus free speech movement, one that will tolerate views that may offend you. After all, as the film reinforces, nobody really has a right to not be offended. Summing up this wish for free speech on campus, Maloney punctuates his film with a protester’s own words:

“No justice, no peace.”

Categories: College

I always thought “Discrete Math” was doing your homework in another class

February 20, 2008 Leave a comment

I managed to snag a review copy of Indoctrinate U, and have many things to say about it. The review was going to appear here, but it’s 4am, and I still have to write proof that log(n!) runs in O(nlogn) time. Expect it Friday.

Here’s a quick preview: if you’re a conservative college student who’s concerned about free speech on campus, you’ll enjoy this film about defending (mostly) conservative free speech on campus.

As I will doubtlessly point out again, it’s not that the protectors seek out conservative speech to protect, it is simply that it comes under attack far more often.

Categories: Metablog

Raph Koster and the future of gaming

February 18, 2008 1 comment

Raph Koster has recently emerged into prominence in my mind as a man who knows a lot about what he is talking about. He’s a long-time game developer with a concentration on massively multiplayer online (MMO) games, games with hundreds of people interacting at once such as World of Warcraft or Everquest.

Raph first burst into my awareness when Tycho of Penny Arcade (coiner of the word “lexiconnoisseur”) asked him to come up with some way to make a massively multiplayer online game, or MMO, about construction. As in “making buildings.” The challenge wasn’t coming up with a way to make the game, it was a way to make the game fun.

The whole article is rather fascinating, a look into the tricky world of game design. But the thing that made the whole thing stick out in my mind was that Raph eloquently summed up something that I was gradually coming to understand on a non-verbal and conceptual level. He said, “Games are made out of smaller games – turtles all the way down, until you hit the game that is so trivial and stupid it isn’t deserving of the name.”

Playing Mario, for example, can be boiled down to pressing the “jump” button at the correct precise moment. When it is phrased this way, I can only think of those crappy Flash “reflex tests” which require you to play almost exactly the same game. In the art of video game alchemy, the “jump”, the “shoot”, the “move” are among the atomic elements from which all games are wrought. But the good game abstracts and nests these atoms so deep that it feels like something completely singular.

At any rate, the point of taking these elements and combining them in a way that makes working with a hundred people you don’t know, over the internet, to win a contract for and construct a building to be an enjoyable experience. This ends up taxing almost all of his genius, which results in something that sounds, on a general level, at least passingly interesting. He does not, however, find a way to write the whole design doc, as he admits at one point, “I have no idea what makes for a fun drywall subgame, sorry.”

But of late, Raph has been working on a product called Metaplace. It is, essentially, a toolkit to be used to build your own MMO, as a web-browser game. A game master, for lack of a better term, begins creating his world, specifying all the elements of the game and opening it up for the world to enter.

When [Web 2.0] started becoming common currency for everybody what we saw happening with everything from literature to video was that it became democratised. But it wasn’t happening for games. I was attending all these “how the web works” conferences and seeing how these things worked, and it all clicked into place. Here was this opportunity to harness this energy and get the same kind of results from the web that we’ve seen with thriving indie musicians, or all these other creative people who were previously gated by infrastructure. It’s all been coming out. It made me want to do that for games. I’d been developing a bunch of small games at the weekend, and said to myself “this is easy for me because I’m a game developer, but for most people it’s hard”. I want to fix that. For most people the tools aren’t there, the infrastructure isn’t there, and in particular for MMOs. I mean, if you want to make your own MMO, just forget it. It’s an insurmountable barrier.

As someone who is both a lover of MMO games and a weekend game programmer, this excites me greatly. We really are living in the future.

Categories: Gaming

Pixels, we got pixels

February 15, 2008 Leave a comment

YouTube is a household term these days, and DivX is getting there, but what’s still off the radar for almost everyone is DivX’s take on web video, which they call Stage6. The big difference? 1080p.

Their official FAQ claims that there is “currently is no limit to the number or total size of videos”, only that they be under 2 gigabytes, which is quite a lot with a compact format like DivX. With beautiful full-screen enlargement, which is night and day to YouTube’s horrifying quality at high resolutions, it is what I would say is the future of internet streaming video.

The catch? You have to download their web player software. YouTube runs “natively” in most browsers because its based on Flash, which has its limitations. I suspect that there is also a concern for compatibility, as not every computer can render 720p at 30 frames per second. But you don’t write papers in Notepad, and nor should web video be stuck in Flash.

So what do you get for your install? well, the most impressive videos are usually high-res movie trailers. Let see, we have the new Indy movie, Iron Man (which also comes in stupidly high res), and the second Narnia. All of them look utterly appealing and they’re all coming out in mid-May. Bastards.

But what really caught my eye over at Stage6 is the support for making a web series. The three episode-based web shows that I have paid attention to (RedVsBlue, The Scene, and Pure Pwnage) never made any attempt to host their content on the likes of YouTube because it just wasn’t practical. Their only option was to host the videos on their own servers and let people come and consume their bandwidth. Obviously, this makes the start-up costs for such an endeavor somewhat higher.

As evidence, I offer up “./shutdown” a web series that takes some help desk employees who work at MorboCorp and answer to a bureaucrat who insists on being called “Gunny” and who often descend into Nerf battles, and just runs with them. They go everywhere from the comic shop to Comic-Con, and all of it at Stage6, in honest-to-god 720p. They have actually not even bothered to host the videos on their own servers for download, preferring to mirror them at various video download sites.

And honestly, why would you? When you can host high quality videos for free online, why would you shell out clams for your own server? Damned if I know.

Categories: The Internet