Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Starcraft 101

What would be the best way to study war? Academics at the University of California at Berkley believe that the answer is through Real-time strategy game Starcraft. The course description reads:

"UC Berkeley students with an interest in real-time strategy games and the competitive gaming landscape are encouraged to participate in this class.
This course will go in-depth in the theory of how war is conducted within the confines of the game Starcraft. There will be lecture on various aspects of the game, from the viewpoint of pure theory to the more computational aspects of how exactly battles are conducted. Calculus and Differential Equations are highly recommended for full understanding of the course. Furthermore, the class will take the theoretical into the practical world by analyzing games and replays to reinforce decision-making skills and advanced Starcraft theory.
Class will start with lecture and usually include a special discussion topic having to do with the day’s lecture to inspire new and original thought. At the end of lecture, there may be time to analyze student-submitted replays to illustrate a point or to improve analysis. Homework will be assigned at the end of each class and is due at the beginning of each lecture."
What sort of homework are you going to get in this course? What about this for a problem:
"You started with a mass Hydra strat, which the enemy Protoss scouts and ends up with a mass of zealots with leg enhancements. How effective are your Hydralisks against this incoming horde? If your Hydralisks are not effective, how can you make your Hydralisks more effective?"
That's tricky! Hydralisks are usually ineffective against Zealots, their only advantage being in ranged attack, yet low hit-points. The only way to have them defeat the Zealots would be to upgrade Muscular Augments (speed) and Grooved Spines (range), have them trap the incoming Zealots by burrowing, and then running around and staying out of melee if possible.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Facebook murder

The BBC reports that a man has been convicted for murdering his wife after she changed her Facebook marital status from "Married" to "Single". This is further proof that Facebook is dangerous and should come with some form of warning:

"This website can cause long-term damage to your relationship; put you in contact with people you would rather forget; destroy the idealised memories of that person you used to have a crush on in high-school; follow the daily happenings of the terminally inane and self-absorbed; and it may eventually cause death."

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Geophysical survey of World of Warcraft

How big is Azeroth? How long would it take you to walk from one end of Kalimdor to the other? How tall are the buildings in Thunder Bluff? What is the height of the Alterac Mountains? A level 29 Warlock set out to find out the answers to these and other questions, and the resulting presentation from James Wallis is a must-see.

Did you know that Azeroth has the diameter is one tenth the size of the Death Star? Yet with gravity similar to Earth, it must be incredibly dense. This warps time due to Relativity, which explains network lag.

Why a warlock? At that level he got attacked by lots of monsters. The warlock can summon a protective demon to take the aggro.

Is technology making us stupid?

Here is a list of things I find self evident: pizzas are good, the colour of the sky as seen from the ground in the third planet of the star system Sol can be represented by the RGB hexadecimal code #87CEEB, and whenever a new technology is discovered someone will complain that it is making us stupid/it is unnatural/it should be banned.

Ever since the Internet came along, we have been witness to all sorts of indictments on its intellectual merits. Some are somewhat justified; for example, I believe text-speak to be detrimental to people's ability to communicate with one another (have you ever tried chatting with someone whose vocabulary extends to "OMFG u r stoopid"?) However, new technologies have made our life easier, and have made it possible to access amounts of information like never before. Recently I was re-arranging the books in an old book-case, and was amazed to discover an encyclopaedia, the decadent symbol of a bygone era before Wikipedia and Google.

It would seem like there are those who insist on flogging the line that the Internet is making us somewhat dumber. Take this article by Naomi Alderman in The Guardian. She says:

"And it's not just television that poses a threat to reading, it's the internet too. Of course, using the internet certainly demands literacy. But reading on the internet isn't the same as reading a book. Recent studies have indicated that online reading tends to break down in the face of "texts that require steady focus and linear attention". [...] The Greeks may have replaced their oral traditions with Plato and Aristotle but, though I love computer games, I don't feel that trading the reading culture for Guitar Hero is a fair swap."
While I tend to agree that reading is great, and that there are few things as enjoyable as a good novel, I am baffled by the protestations of the death of the book, and I for one do not feel sentimental or regretful about its eventually inevitable demise. The problem with such wide indictments of new technologies is that they tend to ignore a very simple fact: while we bibliophiles still love the printed word, we have to accept that the tide is turning away from writing, and towards a more rich and democratic experience of expression.

Allow me to formulate this idea a bit more. For centuries, the main manner of communication was the written word. Some few people could read, even fewer could write, and those who could do the former would have a disproportionate influence on the world. Every generation would rely on a few voices to tell its stories, share its dreams, and formulate its goals and ideas. However, when you think about it, this state of affairs is highly elitist. How many valid voices have been lost because they could not communicate to a wider audience? One could be callous and assume that if it cannot be written, then it is not worth it. I answer those with one name, Socrates. We know of his thoughts through Plato's writing (I will not enter the debate of whether Plato accurately conveyed his master's philosophies), and one has to think what would have happened if Plato had not been there to share his thoughts with us.

Similarly, I can think of many people I know whose ideas and understanding of the world seem to be sophisticated and astute, yet have never written a single paragraph worthy of the name. The business of publishing is also inherently elitist, those writing have to jump through several hoops to get their words printed, and even those which are good are read by not many people. Even in the age of the participatory web, those who write tend to be fewer than those who do not. How many voices are being lost to this tyranny of the typeface? Writing requires a special mindset and set of skills that are not shared by all. The fallacy of intellectualism in the last centuries has been to assume that only those with the knack for putting sentences together are worthy of attention. Thankfully, the 20th century has allowed other skills and art-forms to have growing importance in the way we think. The audiovisual arts have a lot of potential to convey complex ideas in efficient an manner. To my mind, I have yet to find a book that describes the political history of the last decade as well as Adam Curtis' excellent documentaries The Power of Nightmares and The Trap.

I recently read an article by Clive Thompson that makes a similar point. He commented that YouTube had the potential to become a new type of communication tool, implying its own rules and languages. He comments:
"What's happening to video is like what happened to word processing. Back in the '70s and early '80s, publishing was a rarefied, expert job. Then Apple's WYSIWYG interface made it drop-dead easy, enabling an explosion of weird new forms of micropublishing and zines. Laptop audio editing did the same thing, giving birth to the mashup and cut-and-paste subgenres of music. Then there's photo manipulation, once a rarefied propaganda technique. Photoshop made it a folk art. [...] Marshall McLuhan pointed out that whenever we get our hands on a new medium we tend to use it like older ones. Early TV broadcasts consisted of guys sitting around reading radio scripts because nobody had realized yet that TV could tell stories differently. It's the same with much of today's webcam video; most people still try to emulate TV and film."
I think there is something true in these words. We should not feel nostalgic about the loss of one form of communication, after all, people still write (you are reading this, are you not?) We should be enthusiastic about the vast range of new technologies that allow us to be able to express ourselves even if we are not able to write that well. Clarity of thought can take many shapes, why should we believe that it can only present itself in black and white?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

New Windows virus infects millions of computers

Some years ago, headlines describing global virus infections were commonplace. Does anyone remember the ILOVEYOU virus, the Melissa worm, and Code Red? Lately, while virus and worm threats have not diminished, their reporting has become less prominent. Have you heard about Nyxem, XSS and Sotrm? Neither had I.

The less prominent reportage may have several causes. Viruses and worms have become so widespread as to lose their newsworthiness, the first shell in a war makes headlines, but the 1,000th does not. Similarly, the big spectacular infections are no longer possible; with more and more people protected by firewalls and anti-virus, infections tend to be spread over time rather than one spectacular burst of activity. The other reason of course is that nowadays worms and viruses tend to be less destructive and more pervasive. Probably there is a higher number of infected machines than in earlier years of the Internet, but modern worms tend to have mostly two functions: serve spam and enslave a machine for future use.

These trends have been broken by Conficker, the latest worm spectacular affecting 9 million computers around the world.This worm affects mostly a Windows Server 2003 vulnerability that was first discovered back in October, which "could allow remote code execution if an affected system received a specially crafted RPC request". Although the bug was fixed and an update made available, millions of computers have not installed it, making it a prime target for clever worm coders. The virulence of the worm has taken experts by surprise, the infection is still going on, particularly hitting machines in emerging economies quite badly.

I will once again apply my better nature and I will refrain from gloating about Mac vs PC security, but there are several interesting issues unearthed by this latest attack. Firstly, computer security has become one of the most important Cyberlaw issues in recent years because most of us rely heavily on computers for our daily tasks. There is a direct proportional correlation between vulnerability and the number of users online; as more people become wired and the digital divide diminishes, more systems are available to hackers. Moreover, I strongly feel that there are some practices at Microsoft that enhance vulnerability for everyone.

Allow me to illustrate the point with an anecdote. My MacBook Pro has dual boot because I still have need Windows for various tasks, particularly when I am remotely editing SCRIPTed. For that purpose I purchased and installed a valid yet cheap OEM copy of Windows XP on my Mac. Back in December I logged into the Windows portion of the hard drive, and because I had not logged in for a while it downloaded a large number of updates, amongst them the much maligned Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA). This wretched upgrade turns your machine into a snitch, and it somehow did not like that I was running an OEM copy of Windows on a Mac, so it turned on several nagging notices, as well as changing the Windows background and logging splash screens with annoying messages. While getting rid of WGA is relatively easy for someone who knows what they're doing, this got me thinking that WGA acts as a potent disincentive for people without valid copies of Windows to download updates in fear that their computer will stop working properly. It should be no coincidence that large number of computers in India, Brazil, China and Russia. It is my contention that the reason for such prevalence in emerging economies is not the lack of expertise, but actually the lack of updates because people have stopped trusting them due to WGA.

Internet security is as good as its weakest systems, and as things stand, there are millions of vulnerable PCs. While Windows Vista came with some robust protection preinstalled, many of its features were removed by the user as soon as possible. Computer security must be both non-intrusive and easily scalable. At the moment, Microsoft does not have either.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Unfortunate name for rip off

What do you do if you cannot lay your hands on a Nintendo Wii?

Go out for a Wee.

Friday, January 09, 2009

A geek in the White House

I think that I am feeling good about the Obama presidency after I read that he's an avid Spider-man comic reader. A geek in the White House is a good thing.

Just remember, with great power comes great responsibility...

Thursday, January 08, 2009

iPhone infringes patent

Not to belabour the case against software patents, but as a newly converted follower of the Cult of Mac I found this one quite interesting. Apple has been sued by small web developer EMG Technology for infringement of its patent protecting an "apparatus and method of manipulating a region on a wireless device screen for viewing, zooming and scrolling internet content" (US Patent 7,441,196). No prizes will be awarded for guessing where the suit was filed.

The abstract reads:

"A method and apparatus of simplified navigation. A web page is provided having a link to a sister site. The sister site facilitates simplified navigation. Pages from the sister site are served responsive to actuation of the sister site link. In one embodiment, the sister site includes matrix pages to permit matrix navigation."
Let me see, so this patent covers any sort of navigation simplified for mobile devices, and was filed in March 2000. I guess the examiners missed that the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) was first established in 1997. Or perhaps they also missed that in that same year Openwave had a functional HDML browser for AT&T handsets. Or they also missed that Microsoft has had its Microsoft Mobile Explorer since 1999, from technology developed also in 1997.

Let me get my patent troll detection kit:
  • Exceptionally broad and obvious claim (check).
  • Small company, (check)
  • with suspiciously empty website (check).
  • Patent application filed around 1999-2000 (check).
  • Plenty of prior art (check)
Seriously, who examines these applications anyway? Don't they have Google?

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

iTunes finally is DRM free

The economy is tanking, the sky is falling, locusts eat our crops, and zombies roam the streets looking for brains. So why do some of us keep obsessing with Apple's products and services? It's the end of the world and I feel fine I guess...

Anyway, Apple is set to announce that it will finally remove DRM restrictions on music downloads, undoubtedly following Amazon's DRM-free MP3 download service, and its own successful experiment with iTunes Plus. Apparently, it is already possible to upgrade one's music collection right now (I'm on the road so I cannot verify this), which opens endless money-spending possibilities for the iTunes enthusiast, and it is undoubtedly one of the reasons why this may have been so appealing for the music industry and Apple.

My New Year's resolution is not to state the bleeding obvious all the time, but I am going to break it by announcing that this decision was a no-brainer. It has become blatantly apparent to anyone with an eye on the entertainment industry that DRM does not act as a proper deterent, and that it garners particularly bad reactions from the public (remember Spore?). DRM is bad business, bad consumer management, and bad technology. It does not stop determined hackers and pirates from breaking it, and it only acts as a nuisance to users who have to struggle with ludicrous restrictions on whatever one has paid for.

Despite all the doom and gloom in economic terms, the copyright industry is still doing reasonably well. Game, DVD and music sales were up for 2008; download sales went up 33% last year as well, making it another record-breaking year. This despite other sectors of the music industry selling the message that all is bad and more regulation is required in order to curb piracy.

I'm now off to see how to spend more money online.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Mathias Klang has introduced me to the social network site, and I liked it so much that I thought I would share it here. This website brings together academics and classifies them by university, department and research interest. I found the interface both pleasing to the eye and functional, although the fact that the tree is generated by the users means that it is filled with every conceivable sub-category of human thought. For example, I did not know that Gringo Studies and Comic Book Studies existed.

I am realising how narrow my research interest are, I will have to think hard to add some more. Are research interests the new Facebook friends?

Friday, January 02, 2009

NCSoft sued for avatar patent infringement

Cl 13 00 2006.01 15 00 2006.01 Cl 715 706 715 734 715 854 of Classification Search 345 761 345 762 765 751 753 976 419 427 853 345 854 706 734 736 738 application file for complete search history References Cited US PATENT DOCUMENTS A 3 1993 Baumgartner et al of

(Via Colin Miller) NCSoft, the producers of virtual worlds such as Lineage, City of Heroes and Guild Wars has been sued by virtual platform developer, which holds several patents on 3D environments. Back in December, Terra Nova had reported that had announced that it would be enforcing its patents, and as everyone in the comments section agreed, this was a completely spurious claim. As far as I can tell, is not involved in the MMO market, as it makes bespoke virtual enviroments for corporations and the enterainment industry, yet it has warned that it will enforce its MMO-related patents.

The patent in question is U.S. 7,181,690, which protects a system and method for enabling users to interact in a virtual space. The abstract reads:
"The present invention provides a highly scalable architecture for a three-dimensional graphical, multi-user, interactive virtual world system. In a preferred embodiment a plurality of users interact in the three-dimensional, computer-generated graphical space where each user executes a client process to view a virtual world from the perspective of that user. The virtual world shows avatars representing the other users who are neighbors of the user viewing the virtual word. In order that the view can be updated to reflect the motion of the remote user's avatars, motion, information is transmitted to a central server process which provides positions updates to client processes for neighbors of the user at that client process. The client process also uses an environment database to determine which background objects to render as well as to limit the movement of the user's avatar."
In this line of work I have become used to ludicrous patents, but this one should be awarded a price. Given that the filing date is August 2000, I am sure that any examiner should have come up with examples of graphical avatar interaction in a 3D environment. Meridian 59 and The Realm Online were released in 1996, Ultima Online in 1997, Lineage in 1998, and Everquest in 1999. All of them embody exactly the patent claim, so how could it have been awarded with such extensive prior art?

This is why so many people are opposed to software patents. All you need in order to make money out of litigation is to make a vague claim for which there is a mature market, get it issued because the examiners do not know anything about the subject, and then start suing market leaders in order to extort licence fees from those who are actually innovating and making popular products.

By the way, the drawing with the penguins is part of the patent claim. I kid you not.