Wednesday, May 31, 2006

My telecom astroturf phone call

Yesterday I got a telephone call from the United States Telecom Association. They wanted to enlist my help in lobbying my Congressperson (Rob Bishop, R-Utah). Apparently there is a bill in Congress right now that will allow telecom companies to provide me with more cable television competition and video options, with the potential to lower my bills. Wouldn't I like that?

I was a little annoyed that they called during Alex's nap, so I said, "What bill is that? Is it the COPE Act?"

Apparent confusion on the other end of the line. The pusher doesn't know.

A little more back-and-forth, and I finally come out with "I am extremely opposed to a tiered Internet." This gets him to hang up.

What's all this about? Under the guise of promoting competition and increasing consumer choice, as in the start of my lobbying phone call, the big telecom companies want the legal authority to discriminate between different kinds of Internet traffic and charge different amounts for different kinds of traffic. They've talked about doing this at least two ways: seeking rent from content providers like Google and asking them to bid to promote themselves against other providers in their market (like Yahoo, MSN search, etc.), and second, seeking rent from providers of certain kinds of multimedia, such as video.

If Yahoo outbids Google, then their site loads faster, their search responds more quickly, and their service appears to be better. Basically, at the level of the internet where data is being passed willy-nilly around the world, a telecom would examine every little chunk of data and send it on to This would provide an incentive to Yahoo to compete against Google in ways that don't enhance the quality of their tools for customers. Instead of spending bucks providing more relevant search results, they spend bucks on load times. And Google spends bucks on their load times back, until some kind of equilibrium is reached. And then those bucks go to a monopolist megacorporation. The winners are the one who gains a competitive advantage from the bidding war and the megacorporation who runs the auction.

The other half of this game is that the AT&T/SBC types want to start Internet cable companies (cf. the phone call I received), and they are in a position to prioritize Internet traffic in order to give themselves a competitive advantage against other services that serve video, notably Google Video and YouTube, and other nascent providers that haven't been invented yet. However, they need a bit of deregulation to do this re-prioritizing.

There's a name for large corporations trying to simulate a groundswell of public opinion in their favor. Punning on grassroots, it's called astroturfing. But they also lied about their real interests in the various pieces of Internet legislation making their way through Congress. So I don't hesitate to call them liars.

Learn more at Save the Internet. I note that a positive piece of legislation has made it out of committee. Hopefully the Congress can do the right thing with it.

Friday, May 26, 2006


I'm a little empty-headed right now, so some of the echoes bouncing around my brain are escaping onto the internets:

1) I finished Neil Gaiman's The Sandman graphic novel series recently. It was the second time around, much more elegiac and poignant. The Sandman is the personification of dreams, and so Gaiman tells stories that are essentially about stories. The only negative experience I had was that some jerk of the century tore out four pages of one of the ten volumes (I got them at the library). Unfortunately, these four pages were the climax of the entire series, so this time I didn't get to read it.

2) I started Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver. So far, it is like fiction for scientists. Neat. I gather that there are pirates and court intrigue later as well.

3) Gaiman re-inspired me to read my Shakespeare. I've read a good number of his plays over the years, maybe 10, and the older I get the better they get. I haven't gotten around to it because I have trouble catching the allusions and deceptive vocabulary without little annotations. So I am thinking about getting the Norton Shakespeare or something for a start-of-next-semester present. Uh, to myself.

4) I can't call a post "Echoes" without mentioning Pink Floyd's opus, a song about twenty minutes long with jamming and whale song.

Cloudless every day you fall
upon my waking eyes
Inviting and inciting me to rise
And through the windows in the wall
come streaming in on sunlight wings
A million bright ambassadors of morning

And no one sings me lullabies
And no one makes me close my eyes
And so I throw the windows wide
And call to you across the skies

It's on an album called Meddle, whose bluesy song "Seamus" was featured in the movie version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. I've seen the play live twice, and both times were very memorable, happy days. It's one of my favorite plays. I've been meaning to reread it as an adult, but the only place I've found it so far is at a used bookstore in Logan. Unfortunately, this is the kind of bookstore that checks online and charges full price for used books by looking up ISBNs. Needless to say, I've never been back to that store.

Stupid me just looked it up in the USU library. Guess I'll check it out for a while.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The theology of Spore: a classic 5-part essay

Introduction: Someone searched in here with terms like "spore evolution christianity" (re: the video game) and it reminded me of some thoughts I had a little while back. Also, today I read a comment about how Harry Potter and Spore would rot children's minds. Does Spore, a game almost entirely about a fascinating naturalistic universe, shed any light on the cultural chasm between evolution and religion? Let me explain why Christians have nothing to fear from the next cultural bugaboo, Spore.

Tidbit 1 on the theology of Spore: Spore is a game about evolution. As your creatures evolve, you the player edit the beasties bit by bit, one generation at a time. Here's the thing: is that evolution? Or intelligent design?

Tidbit 2: Spore is also built around the Drake Equation, which attempts to quantify how many intelligent civilizations we might expect to be able to communicate with at any given time. So the argument goes, if we ever became sure that many other intelligent civilizations existed, we would see claims like the Christian claim that Jesus died for all people as insufferably hidebound and naive. They would be akin to the geocentrism that elevated the importance of humans not only to the center of the universe, but also to the center of God's attention.

The Spore universe is like this; there are millions of worlds to explore. Many of these have intelligent life that you can visit or alter, etc., so it seems to deny the hidebound view of the universe. But it's a single-player game; if there can be said to be a theology infusing the universe, it's monotheistic (or perhaps more accurately, mono-UFO-istic) and puts your actions at the center of attention. If anything it's more monotheistic than the real world, which does not submit so completely to revolving around you.

Tidbit 3: If you want to understand the Trinity as more than an oxymoron, I suggest you pick up The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers. I've read it several times and it doesn't get old. It draws an analogy between the Creator God and the human artistic creation (for most of the book, the practical examples use the human writer). It exploits the trinitarian idea by comparing the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to Art-as-Author's-Concept, Art-as-Embodied-Text, and Art-as-Aesthetic-Response.

Spore's lifeblood is the creativity of the players who design its creatures, buildings, spaceships, flora, and so on. It was made from the beginning to be not just a game that you can finish (and with a million worlds to visit, no player could ever explore the whole universe), but a creator's tool. It was made to let players be little creators; Will Wright, the game's designer, said that he wanted people to be able to make a creature in four minutes that could take a Pixar artist several hours. From Genesis onward, the picture of God in the Bible is a portrait of the artist as a young man, a creator of high distinction, skill, and grace.

Conclusion: Although Spore is not being written with any sort of religious or anti-religious agenda (as far as I know at the moment), there are some subtle reasons for Christians to enjoy this video game.

Plus it will rock.


Friday, May 12, 2006


Just finished watching the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on DVD with Sarah.

Why didn't anyone ever tell me I would love this? Except for the people at Making Light, of course.


I can't take my eyes off this demo. Basically, the guy who created The Sims, Will Wright, has made a new game called Spore. I think it'll be out next year. It will do for evolution what The Sims did for suburban life.

Wright originally explained Spore in an hour-long talk at the Game Developer's Conference. There's a one-minute blurb at the beginning of the video, but the high concept is pretty amazing.

The basic idea is that you begin life as a single-celled organism, then evolve to become a multi-celled creature, then an intelligent life form, then a tool user, then a city builder, then a world conqueror, and finally a star-hopping extraterrestrial wandering the planets in search of new life and new civilizations, boldly going where no one has gone before. Your evolution is not random or arbitrary: at each step of the game, you have access to an editor which changes the shape and capabilities of your creature's body. In fact, when you become a tool user and start living in a hut, you design the hut. When you make cities, you design the buildings. When you make war, you design the vehicles. Not only that, but to populate your little universe, the same way that you create content, your universe is populated with content created by other players that the game downloads from the Internet.

These other creatures evolve independently on their own little planets. There will be half a million individual stars, millions of worlds to explore, alien races to interact with and impress, or make war on. It would be virtually impossible to explore it all.

My brother and I once came up with the idea to have a game that worked on these various levels of abstraction. Say, the top level was a wargame, then the next level down was a real-time strategy, then the next down was a first-person shooter, as you take on various roles in the game, like soldier, commander, fleet admiral. But we were teenagers, not game designers, so it was sort of a fantasy idea.

Until now.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The most famous face in image processing

In 1973, some computer scientists were working on processing images. They had become bored with their old images and were looking for an image to scan in and work on. Just then, someone walked in with a Playboy. To get a picture with the pixels and dimensions they wanted, they cropped a page at the woman's shoulders (and above) and scanned it onto some old hardware.

This is Lenna.

For no explicable reason (except perhaps the missing half of the picture), the image became a phenomenon in the image processing world. You see it in all kinds of applications. Anyway, a few years back, the centerfold got to meet a bunch of her number one fans at an imaging conference. It's a heartwarming story of geeks in love.

I have a confession, though. The image of Lenna above is not the original; for one thing, it's not in color. But for another thing, the original black-and-white didn't have 6K of secret embedded data in it. Welcome to the world of image steganography: the art and science of concealing the fact that a secret message exists. If cryptography is like the lock, then steganography is like the swiveling fireplace.

That's what I've been working on for the past few months. Here's to a good milestone: a working program.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

In and out I zip

The Stephen Colbert video (30 minutes of sublime satire) has gone from YouTube to Google Video. I guess CSPAN had some rights issues on YouTube that Google Video resolves. Whatever. Here is that larger-than-life dressing-down of the Decider-in-Chief and his Stenographic Estate once again.

Plus, did you hear about the head of the CIA? Try this bankshot: A dirty Congressman was bribed by a dirty defense contractor into giving away defense contracts. The former Congressman is a convicted felon. "The Contractor" is singing. This contractor's buddy is a felon with a rap sheet longer than The Elements of Style. He runs a limo service and he gets transportation contracts from the Department of Homeland Security. "Limo Guy" ferries around "Dirty Congressman" and other "Congresspeople," and procures prostitutes for their "poker parties" at the Watergate Hotel. "Number Three" at the CIA is rumored to have been at these parties, and is under criminal investigation for abusing the agency's contracting process. He was installed by the head of the CIA, himself a Bush appointee who carried out political purges of CIA analysts who were "Democrats" or "didn't think Iraq had WMDs". Last Friday, "Number One" resigned unexpectedly. The whole thing puts the Spici in Su-Spici-Ous.

I tried to explain this all to Sarah, but I think I lost her around the third or fourth felon. For as much clarity as can be got on this and the other scandals of the Republican-controlled Congress, read TPM Muckraker, an original online news source regularly scooping the newspapers on these issues.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Ha ha

Here's that picture I was thinking of. It's a split frame taken from Colbert's joke about the mesquite-powered car, according to BAGnewsNotes, a liberal site that analyzes photographs in the political news. Look like Bush was yukking it up?

Update: Found another one. The New York Times finally took up the story. Once again, notice the apparent lack of down home laughter.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Studius interruptus

Still toiling away.

Here's something you don't see every day. This weekend was the White House Correspondents' Dinner, a yearly chance for the people who report on the President to have a night in the spotlight. The President was in attendance, and had warmed up the crowd with a comical portrayal of himself with an impersonator as his inner monologue.

Then Stephen Colbert took the podium. There is no way to do justice to what happened. In character (Colbert plays a right-wing loudmouth booster of the President on TV), Colbert spent the next thirty minutes savaging the incompetent President and the ineffectual media with unsurpassable satire. Somehow he figured out that his Bill O'Reilly persona would permit him to talk about every taboo subject in our political culture: the "liberal bias" of the facts, the civil war in Iraq, VP Cheney shooting someone in the face, the Valerie Plame scandal, the NSA wiretapping scandal, Bush's unpopularity, Bush's tendency to use disaster scenes as PR moments, Bush's stubbornness in the face of his own policy failures, and finally, an extremely long video where Stephen as Press Secretary tries to escape from Helen Thomas, who persists in asking why we actually went to Iraq.

President Bush was sitting about ten feet away the whole time, the ultimate captive audience. Reports are mixed as to whether Bush was able to feel the comedy. I saw a picture of a tight-lipped Bush, but I've been unable to find it again.

You will see different opinions about whether or not Colbert's comedy was successful, mostly based on people's ability or inability to hear laughter from the television audience. A theory has been propounded that Colbert's actual audience was not in the dining area. The way I think of it, if you are comfortable with your foibles, you can appreciate satire even if it's directed at you. When you don't laugh, the satire exposes you, not the comic skewering you.

I didn't just think it was funny. Colbert was on another level, just by repeating right-wing tropes in mixed company. And the man on the receiving end was the most powerful man in the world, who has been rightly and widely castigated across the political spectrum for remaining in a bubble filled with people who tell him what he wants to hear. To watch the man who doesn't admit he makes mistakes spend a half hour being criticized for some of his most obvious mistakes was just priceless.

Video, Part 1
Video, Part 2
Video, Part 3