Monday, May 19, 2008

One reason I like my new job

On my schedule today, the director of engineering will be delivering a presentation with the following topic:
"Solving Sudoku puzzles with recursion"

Knowing this was coming, I started writing an experimental Java solver over the weekend. I had a pretty busy weekend, so I only got as far as reading a puzzle from a file and displaying it. During off-stage time at my two chorus performances, I worked out a possible algorithm in my head, but I'll need a few more days to write it out and debug. I'll probably put it in a Java applet on my web page when it's done, and you'll be able to watch it "think" if it works out the way I'm imagining it.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Fake money

Last week I had sort of a funny experience at Rudy's Barbecue that I thought I'd share.

After a successful dentist appointment, I thought I'd reward myself (and punish my teeth) by getting some delicious breakfast tacos. At the counter, I pulled a five dollar bill out of my wallet, and noticed that the number five was... pink.

I said, "Huh, that's weird. When did they become pink?"

The cashier laughed and said "Oh, about a month ago. The first time I saw it I thought somebody was trying to hand me Monopoly money!" (She was pretty close in guessing the date.)

We had a good laugh and I went to get some hot sauce. The guy standing next to me abruptly said: "It practically IS Monopoly money, anyway!"

At that point my BS detector immediately started to ping quietly. All I replied was a non-commital "Yeah, really."

The stranger persisted: "You know, our money isn't even backed by gold!"

My BS detector went from a quiet ping to a full-on klaxon siren. Strangers may start up some small talk as friendly chit-chat, but nobody attempts to strike up a conversation on such an off-the-wall subject unless they have an agenda to push.

I smiled cheerfully and said, "Oh, you're one of THOSE people."

He protested, "I'm not one of those people, I..."

Still smiling, I cut him off: "Look, I've had some pretty extensive arguments over some of these fake currencies that have been going around, so let's not even get into that, okay?" I took my tacos and left.

In retrospect, the only thing I regret is that I didn't pause to warn the cashier that she should carefully scrutinize any cash he may try to give her.

I guess I should explain. Several years ago, a friend of mine got involved with this unusual movement to replace the U.S. dollar with something new called "Liberty Dollars." They are minted by a company formerly called NORFED, now "Liberty Services." The gimmick is that the coins are made from real silver. Now, the argument about whether it is better to use fiat currency (currency which has no fixed value) vs. commodity-based currency (such as silver or gold) goes way back, certainly. The famous "cross of gold" speech by William Jennings Bryan (of Scopes Monkey Trial fame) was all about switching to the silver standard because gold was too expensive for most people to afford.

But that's not the issue here. Whatever your feelings may be about "fiat currency," Liberty Services is running a very transparent con game. What they do is, take an ounce of silver, mint it into a coin, and stamp a dollar denomination on it, i.e., "$10". Then, sell the coins to people at a "discounted rate" -- say, $8.50. Along with the coins, sell them a load of amateur political philosophy about the evils of fiat currency, and encourage them to go "spend" the silver coins at participating businesses. If no voluntary participants can be found, then give them the coins to unsuspecting merchants and be prepared to spout the same political philosophy as an explanation.

Here's the trick, though. Those coins with $10 stamped on them? They were worth $5 at the time. The price for an ounce of silver fluctuates just like stocks and other commodities, but you can check the spot price online at any time. When the spot price of silver was around $5, Liberty Dollars were imprinted with "$10." When the spot price of silver started drifting up toward $10 per ounce, the coins "doubled" in value, and were all restamped to say "$20." Now that the spot price is about $17 per ounce, they are now being re-issued yet again to say $50.

Get it? Today, you can buy (or in LS double-speak, "exchange") $17 worth of silver for $50 in cash -- or a mere $36 if you are an "associate." The coins aren't worth $50. They aren't worth $36. They are worth $17 at market prices, plus the small amount that it costs to mint them into a cute little round design with pictures stamped on it. But they SAY "$50" on the face, so supposedly you are acquiring something that is worth $50.

How do you get this value out of the coin? Well, the company's literature encourages people to "spend Liberty Dollars into circulation" by trying to pass them off as authentic money. Then if someone calls you on it ("what the hell is this thing"), you explain how the coins are all pure, solid silver, and therefore they have intrinsic value, unlike real American dollars. The fact that the intrinsic value is actually much less than the face value? Uhhh... don't bring that up.

To me, this has always seemed like a combination of counterfeiting, pyramid scam, and cult. Counterfeiting? The coins don't actually say they are worth fifty American dollars; they are fifty Liberty Dollars. But they have dollar signs printed on them, which is generally recognized to mean American dollars, and the web site certainly makes it sound like you are supposed to "spend" the liberty dollars on goods and services which are worth the equivalent amount of American dollars.

Pyramid scam? Joining the "associate program" to get bulk coins at a discount (though still much more than the intrinsic value!) smacks of MLMs in which you buy overpriced goods for yourself and then attempt to recoup your losses by selling them (or in this case, "spending") to an even bigger sucker for an even greater amount. Clearly it shouldn't matter all that much to Liberty Services whether you succeed in "spending" them, because they've already gotten YOUR money, and made a significant profit on the cost of the raw silver plus minting overhead.

I am not, of course, ridiculing the idea of investing in silver. Obviously, the very fact that the price of silver used to be under $10 and is now as high as $17 means that it may have been a good idea to just buy silver at a reasonable price. (Although, like any investment, past performance is no guarantee of future results.) You can get silver bars in bulk for as little as 19 cents per ounce over the spot price. But when you buy these "Liberty Dollars," you are in effect paying about double the price or more for the privilege of having the words "$50" stamped on your ounce of silver.

And hey, now that Liberty Dollars are being "converted" from $20 to $50 in value, you can get them restamped for the low, low price of $4 each! So not only do you pay an absurd premium to get the silver coins in the first place, but also when it "increases in value" -- remember, it's still the same ounce of silver with a fake dollar amount printed on it -- but you also pay an 8% premium (or 20%, depending on when you count it) to perform this "value increasing" operation.

If you think this makes sense, consider that Liberty Services could just as easily stamp "one MILLION dollars" on each coin, and it would have about the same meaning. They're only worth the face value if you can find somebody else dumb enough to believe they're worth that. Otherwise, they're only worth the price of silver. And don't forget that Liberty Services takes all their payments in good old American Dollars, backed by the full faith and credit of the United States government, which is supposedly worthless fiat money that nobody wants to use. Tricky.

The kicker is that this pretty much IS counterfeiting, and there's a very real chance that you will be arrested for trying to pass off Liberty Dollars as real money. Trying to "put the coins in circulation" often amounts to nothing more than badgering innocent merchants to give you discounted goods and services in exchange for an object that is not really worth nearly what you claim. And if they do accept it, then you've just handed THEM the responsibility of finding an even bigger fool to take the overpriced hunks of metal off their hands.

If you want to invest in silver, then buy some silver from a reputable merchant, and perhaps the value will increase over time. If you want to pay for something using a universally accepted currency, the American Dollar (whether it's pink or not) is taken absolutely everywhere in this country. With Liberty Dollars, you get to combine the convenience of carrying silver with the investment value of carrying cash, which is to say, the worst of both worlds. The vast majority of merchants will wonder what you're smoking when you try to hand them a $50 coin that is worth $17, and you're paying an obscenely high fee to obtain and continually re-stamp the coins in the first place.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Fractal doodling

Since I now work in an environment with regular longish meetings, I've rekindled my interest in the art of doodling. Mostly what I draw is fractals.

I can't remember who gave me the idea of drawing Sierpinski Triangles on paper, but I've been doing that for years, in any situation where I'm bored and have pen and paper available but no computer. The triangle is easy to do, because you just have to keep drawing upside-down triangles on any space that doesn't have one already, and you can pretty much go on forever until the triangles get too small to draw. However, I recently got sick of Sierpinskis, so I started branching out into Koch curves.

I've tried to draw Kochs in the past, but always screwed up... I would freestyle just fine for a while, but then I would always turn a line in the wrong direction and wind up with an ugly asymmetric mess.

So I've been practicing my technique, and hit on the way to fix this. Draw dots that represent the framework first, and then draw more dots closer together, until you've got the level of detail you want; then fill in the curves. The down side to this approach is that unlike a Sierpinski, you can't increase the complexity after you're finished. You have to pick a level and stick with it until you're done, and then start a new one.

By gradually increasing the size and practicing smaller and smaller lines, I've managed to create a vertical square Koch curve against the left margin of a notebook page, which fills up most of the lines on the page and goes to a depth of five iterations. It took me about four meetings to finish. I've also drawn a snowflake which goes to four iterations, but I could probably get five because I still have room on the page to make it about 50% bigger next time.

I've gotten funny looks from people who saw what I was doing, but no comments so far. I wish I could do Mandelbrots, but it seems way too math-intensive to do in real time.

A few other fun facts about my history with fractals. When I was in college, I spent two years tutoring a smart high school kid named Willy in computer programming. One year, we wrote several fractal programs in Visual C++ for a science fair project. He went to state level but didn't win.

I still have several interesting fractal programs which I translated to Java and put on my Java applet page. One of them allows you to generate your own Koch curve, and another shows how you can get a Sierpinski to emerge naturally from pseudo-random rules.

My friend Denis Loubet introduced me to a term that I love to use: "Fractally wrong." This applies to someone whose opinions are wrong in the big picture, and regardless of where you zoom in on any particular detail, it's still wrong.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Thoughts on the primary, and on playing nice

I said earlier that I was bored with politics, but I had a long exchange with my dad about it anyway. Some of the things I've said in the past about political strategy are rehashed here.

Oh yeah, and Clinton and Obama each won another primary yesterday. Yawn.

The fact that recent news cycles have been obsessively dominated by such astoundingly dull trivialities such as Jeremiah Wright highlights an ongoing problem with the traditional media. (I prefer to use Kos's term rather than "mainstream media", for reasons explained here.) It's not that the media is either "liberal" or "conservative"; it's simply that they're frequently driven by laziness and a lack of interest in either learning or teaching. The reason this seems to disproportionately help Republicans is because they've learned to navigate and manipulate this media landscape, to an extent that Democrats mostly have not.

As I've said before, "Liberal Media," is largely a fabricated catch-phrase. It has been such a successful meme that traditional media organizations such as the New York Times now delude themselves into believing that someone like William Kristol is a Very Serious Pundit who actually has something valuable to say. Even though he says something objectively, factually wrong nearly every time he opens his mouth. NYT appears to worry that if they don't take the guy seriously, they will be accused of being "too liberal."

Well, of course they will. That's because Republicans know how to intimidate and embarrass the New York Times, and Democrats don't. When a Very Serious Pundit says something like "Gosh, I think that voters care a whole awful lot about what Barack Obama's former pastor said several years ago, and we should all be covering that," there is no organized movement to say "What are you, stupid? Of course voters won't care about that." There is a DISorganized movement, in the form of blogs and other scattered voices in the wilderness. But the Democratic Party hasn't learned how to harness and amplify this.

When I embarked on my Master's Report to compare the popular media focus to the interests of Digg users, this is partly what I had in mind as a motivation for possible mismatch. Of course the media is driven by a profit motive, but that doesn't mean they have to react to what all consumers want. They also have to react to differences between mostly quiet, apathetic consumers, vs. loud, strident consumers. The strident consumers are largely on the right, and can be treated as a large bloc of people who will boycott something. Or alternatively, for media they like, they will pour investment money into something that has no hope of making a profit. See Rupert Murdoch with Fox News, or Sun Myung Moon with the Washington Times (which has never turned a profit, but has been a goldmine in terms of "mainstreaming" far right conservative thought).

As distasteful as it may be, I think Democrats should figure out how to use intimidation and embarrassment as effectively as Republicans do. They should shame the media away from talking about Jeremiah Wright, while at the same time, shaming them into saying some of the obvious negative stuff about John McCain, instead of fawning all over him and bringing him donuts.

No, seriously. That happened.

Compare that to the kind of treatment Barack Obama received at the last debate, and you begin to see what the problem is.

I have a philosophy, which I've blogged about before, that has developed after years of playing strategy games. It is that nothing is inherently "unfair" in politics (or any other game) unless it actually breaks the rules. If one side is playing a strategy, and they are winning as a result, then by definition they have a winning strategy. Faced with losing, the other side has two choices: 1. Change the rules, and/or aggressively enforce the rules which are currently in place; 2. Adapt to the strategy.

When you regard legally accepted tactics as unfair, it hamstrings you. To repeat the analogy from before, if you are playing rock/paper/scissors, and you somehow arbitrarily decide that rock is unfair, then you are playing a different game from your opponent. You have a game in which scissors always wins or ties, and paper always loses or ties. In that game, it is a rational strategy to always play scissors. But if your opponent plays rock and beats you, you might want to say that it's "unfair."

It isn't. Unless the two of you agreed in advance to play "paper/scissors," your opponent is playing the real game and you are playing with artificial rules that only you are bound by.

I don't, of course, mean that Democrats should should do things like appealing to homophobia, racism, and theocracy. That would not, in any real sense, be "winning," any more than if Republicans won by running on a platform of peace, social programs, and respect for atheists. I mean that the Democrats should recognize that being divisive and grabbing the bigger half has been a winning strategy with Republicans for a long time.

For the time being, at least, Democrats should be a little less concerned about "Bringing everyone together" -- you can't anyway, since there are a lot of people who get off on calling everyone else a traitor. Instead, they should learn how to draw the battle lines so that the majority of people are more scared of extreme conservatism than of extreme liberalism. Highlight people like Larry Hagee and Pat Robertson. Make most Americans feel smart and special because they are not as dumb and flat-out crazy as some of the scary folks who support Republicans.

On the whole, Barack Obama has played this election very much like a shrewd politician. Sure, his language invokes the idea that voters are tired of divisiveness. But at the same time, his language makes it clear that we should pin the divisiveness on Republicans, which is in itself a redefinition of whom to flee from. I'm impressed with that, while at the same time being wary of his policies, as I think it remains to be seen how much he'll "reach out" by taking some Republican talking points to heart.

I enjoy the race more when Obama goes after Republicans on the issues, as when he hammered home the message that McCain doesn't understand economics. Every time he does that, I think he gains some popularity. I don't think he does it nearly enough.

Anyway, yes, be open and welcoming. Divide people, but make sure that the division leaves Republicans with as small a group as possible. The most effective message will convey the following: "John McCain is a huge jerk. I know that you're too smart to vote for a jerk, you smart voters you."

Or: "Look at what a low approval rating Bush has. Wouldn't you feel stupid being one of those 28% who is out of step with the rest of the country? And McCain says he wants to be just like Bush."

I'd say it's a deliberate exploitation of the argumentam ad populum fallacy, but also it takes rhetorical skill to successfully define the two sides in a way that is most advantageous to your party.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

My game characters, myself

PZ Myers regularly writes long posts about squid, which is his field of study and weird obsession. I don't mind those posts, but I just skip them. My weird obsession is computer games, which is interesting to some. But I always have this need to warn non-gaming readers when I am about to write a gaming post, so that they may bypass it as necessary. This is such a post. You have been warned.

I was an early adopter of online gaming. My sophomore college roommate Mark was much more technically savvy than I am, and as soon as the original Doom released a patch to introduce network capability, Mark and I spent several weekends messing with cable and network settings so that we could play cooperatively. Later, our room became a mini-gaming center where people would get together and play two way deathmatches for hours.

I never really found deathmatches all that enjoyable, though, and cooperative gaming has always been where it's at for me. I love playing with two or more players against a hostile opponent, whether the opponent human or artificial. Which, to an extent, explains the staying power of World of Warcraft for me. It also explains why my other favorite game right for the last few months has been Team Fortress 2, even though I usually don't go for all-out player vs. player action.

I don't know if my brain is wired differently from most players, but I love to play a support role. Most players seem to like pointing their gun and shooting it, while competing to do the most damage and rack up the most kills. Me, I like being a character who multiplies everyone else's abilities. My first Warcraft character was a priest, Kazimus. (You can see character detail at the link, if you want to.)

People would ask me, "Russell, you're an outspoken atheist. How can you like playing a priest?" "It makes perfect sense," I said. "In this world, you actually fight demons face to face. You can do magic and bring people back from the dead. Why wouldn't I believe in gods?" In real life, I'm an atheist based on evidence. In a universe with gods, obviously I would be a theist.

That's not the point, though... the point is that priests don't do the job of calling down destruction; they heal people. They keep everyone in the group alive and in other ways enhance everyone's experience. They are probably the least played but the most appreciated class around. Other people slaughter monsters for personal gratification. For me, I get gaming gratification from the appreciation of others. It may be a neurosis, but I find it fun.

So now that I've been a level 70 priest for several months, I find that there's another class that's underrepresented: tanking warriors. In an online game, "to tank" means to run in ahead of everyone, with greater risk of dying, and draw the monsters' attention so that they hit you instead of the weaker players who don't wear plate mail. A tank doesn't deal a lot of damage, but they do play the role of protector.

That's right up my alley, which is why Rupert Thrash the warrior is planned as my next power character. Whenever I try to join a group and they say "Well, we can leave as soon as we find a tank..." I'd like to be able to say "no problem" and fill that role. Tanking in Warcraft is a much different experience from attacking, and requires a different skill set... instead of concentrating on one monster at a time, you have to pay attention to the entire group and make sure no one's in trouble.

Similar for Team Fortress, which is basically a fast paced all-out slugfest between dozens of huge, ugly, heavily armed thugs... and then there's this guy.

The medic runs around with a big Ghostbusters-style ray gun that shoots healing beams out of it. He is one of the most necessary classes for a team to achieve victory, and also the most likely character to be missing from any giving game. This is because, presumably, most players of a "first person shooter" style game find it more fun when you're shooting to kill.

The medic is my best character. According to my in-game stats, I've logged a total of 17 hours as a medic, and my personal record is 25 points scored and 9,600 hit points healed in one life. Since medics rarely hurt anyone, they score points by being attached to another player when they make a kill, or just by healing a lot.

Being a support player doesn't necessarily mean always playing the healer, though. The neat thing about TF2 is that you can switch between the nine characters any time after you get killed. As a result, my favorite character is whichever one happens to be required on the team at the moment, and I switch classes as often as I need to in order to ensure victory. No other medics? Be a medic. Too many medics? Be a heavy weapons guy (huge slow guy who gets tremendous benefit from being healed). Need to capture a point quickly? Switch to the fast moving scout. And so on. For me, the character-switching aspect of TF2 is almost as enjoyable as the gameplay, looking at the overall strategy of the map and picking the right tool for the current job.

I don't know very many people who play Team Fortress 2, so if you play, please add me to your Steam friends list and drop me a message. I am Kazim27, and I always enjoy hopping on a team with friends.