Tuesday, November 27, 2007

655,000 Dead

A new study, based on a survey of 1849 Iraqi households, estimates the death toll at 655,000. I knew it was over a hundred thousand but not how many hundreds. Impeaching Bush and Cheney is the least we can do.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Qwertie.net is down indefinitely

It was running on my home computer and we switched to a new internet service provider (from Shaw to Telus). Telus blocks home web servers, hence qwertie.net is inaccessible. Oh well, there were only a few files on it and my blog's not very popular...

The main page was a user-editable interdictionary I made in 2006 that I hoped Esperanto speakers would use to improve an existing Esperanto-English dictionary. It was like Wiktionary, but much more useful for language learners because it was designed for inter-language definitions specifically, and you could click on any word to look it up in both directions (e.g. if a definition contains the word jam, the user could click on it, and the dictionary would spit out the definition for the English word "jam" and the Esperanto word "jam" (pronounced "yahm") at the same time. Anyway, I posted a link to it on lernu.net and tried to start a discussion, but evidently no one was interested. Only one other person ever added definitions, and now it's probably gone forever.

My best friend is learning Esperanto and recently got a Pocket PC, so I used the .NET Compact Framework (a Microsoft thing, don't worry if you don't know what it is) to quickly make a little user-editable Pocket PC Esperanto-English dictionary. It's got a convenient user interface but it's only in alpha state right now (main problem: it takes at least 30 seconds to start). I'm too ashamed of it to post it online, and I'm not improving it because I'm too worried that no one will use it...

Anyway, I placed a couple of files that were on qwertie.net somewhere else: my research paper about why we still use the Qwertie keyboard layout (and what's better?), and the ever-unread paper on electoral reform in Canada. Speaking of which, the coolest democratic system I know of is Direct Representation.

Note to self: learn more about Barak Omama.

Friday, September 28, 2007

New Amazon MP3 Store Sucks...

If you live in Canada. Or anyplace alse that isn't America. Actually, I've heard great things about the new Amazon MP3 store. I hoped I could finally clear my conscience by buying all those songs I've downloaded over the years...

But I live in Canada so I can't. It feels ironic that I started by trying to buy a song from a Canadian band, Barenaked Ladies, only to get this message:
We could not process your order because of geographical restrictions on the product which you were attempting to purchase. Please refer to the terms of use for this product to determine the geographical restrictions.
Despite this, Amazon continues to taunt me about its MP3 store. I click on their central banner ad and get a popup window explaining how "Amazon MP3 offers music lovers these great benefits". It tells me, "Hello, David. We have MP3 Downloads Recommendations  for you." But I click the link and it says "Sorry, we have no recommendations for you in this category today."

How dare they make me keep my money like this.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Money is Debt

I've just seen the most fascinating video called "Money As Debt", in which it is explained that banks create money by lending it. I had no idea it worked this way; in fact the video's content is so amazing I have to wonder if it is actually true. I can usually tell when something is made by a conspiracy nut, extremist or somebody with a self-serving agenda, yet this video doesn't set off my bulls*** detector very strongly, except that its history of the monetary system is extremely vague, real-world details are minimal, and some things said in the video really need more explanation. Although the YouTube poster called the video "Corrupt Banking System", the video itself does not say the system is corrupt; it only points out that power is overly concentrated in the hands of bankers, and that the system need not work the way it does.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the video is the quotes by prominent men--U.S. presidents, bank heads, economists--quotes which not only suggest that the monetary system works just how the video says it does, but which openly admit a degree of corruption in the system.
I have never yet had anyone who could, through the use of logic and reason, justify the Federal Government borrowing the use of its own money....I believe the time will come when people will demand that this be changed. I believe the time will come in this country when they will actually blame you and me and everyone else connected with the Congress for sitting idly by and permitting such an idiotic system to continue. - late Congressman Wright Patman, Chairman of the House Committee on Banking and Currency

"The modern banking system manufactures money out of nothing. The process is perhaps the most astounding piece of sleight of hand that was ever invented. Banking was conceived in iniquity and born in sin. Bankers own the Earth. Take it away from them, but leave them the power to create money, and with the flick of the pen they will create enough money to buy it back again…Take this great power away from them and all great fortunes like mine will disappear, and they ought to disappear, for then this would be a better and happier world to live in. But if you want to continue to be slaves of the banks and pay the cost of your own slavery, then let bankers continue to create money and control credit." - Sir Josiah Stamp, director of the Bank of England 1928-1941

"The inability of the colonists to get power to issue their own money permanently out of the hands of George III and the International Bankers was the Prime reason for the Revolutionary War" - Benjamin Franklin

"We are grateful to the Washington Post, the New York Times, Time magazine and other great publications whose directors have attended our meetings and respected the promises of discretion for almost forty years. It would have been impossible for us to develop our plan for the world if we had been subject to the bright lights of publicity during those years. But, the world is now more sophisticated and prepared to march towards a world-government. The supranational sovereignty of an intellectual elite and world bankers is surely preferable to the National auto-determination practiced in past centuries." - David Rockefeller, In an address to a Trilateral Commission meeting in June of 1991
And the most fascinating thing about the issue is the silence about the subject in the media and in our education system. Speaking of the education system, they don't teach us (me, anyway) anything about managing money, let alone how the monetary system works.

I'm certainly left wondering about certain issues.
  • It says that if there is no debt in the economy, then there is no money. But of course governments can print money, so there will always be money. Right?
  • In an example in the video, a hypothetical person deposits $10,000, but with no explanation from the narrator, on the screen that number becomes $9,000 before it is divided by the reserve ratio 9:1 for a result of $1,000.
  • At the end it postulates an improved money systems in which loans are interest-free. But if loans are interest free, then what is the incentive for people to pay off their loans? Clearly people will not pay off debts without some incentive to do so, and since they get real resources by spending the loan money, it's obviously not sustainable if they don't give anything back to society by working to pay off the debt.
  • The video claims "P/(P+I) will fulfill their loan contract" and "I/(P+I)" will be foreclosed, formulas that seem impossibly simple. What do they mean exactly?
Nevertheless, it's so interesting that I'm tempted to buy it from moneyasdebt.net. If only it were cheaper. Anyway, I hear there's another good video out there called "The Money Masters". I shall have to see it.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Windows Is Free

This guy's got a pretty good point about why people pick Windows over Linux, even if they've heard of Linux:
One time, a friend called me with an offer. He would pay me 50 bucks to get his laptop working again. Specifically, what he wanted was to back up all his data, reformat his disk, re-install Windows, and then restore his data. I asked if he still had the original install disks for Windows. He stammered a bit, and asked if I might not simply have some on hand I could use. He didn't mind if it was a different version of Windows - subtle code for hoping for a more recent version. The fifty dollars was for my labor. He didn't see getting a copy of Windows as a cost-associated item. It was no big deal, either he had a copy of Windows or I did, or he figured I knew a friend who did.

I felt kind of uncomfortable about the proposition, so I said no. If he had asked me this more recently, I would have offered to put Linux on his computer. But he probably would have said no, because it would seem like a more expensive offer to him. He would have compared free, unfamiliar Linux to free, comfortable Windows. The cost of getting used to the new environment, as easy as it might be, is probably more tangible to him than the money he technically should be spending but won't.

A few years back I tried to install Linux several times but was stopped cold by hardware compatibility issues. Such problems have been getting better now, but now I'm stuck on Windows because I like to use Visual Studio and SharpDevelop for my programming work, neither of which work on Linux.

The different interface of Linux and the potential hardware issues are definitely problems. I never know how to install software on Linux if it's not available in the standard repository; I wouldn't know how to set up file sharing (it's hard enough getting it working on Windows!); Last time I used Linux, Firefox's interface looked ugly and different from all the other windows; my old webcam almost certainly wouldn't work; and even if my 3-in-1 laser printer has a Linux driver, there's no way it has all the features of the Windows version.

I can't stand that rift between the two Linux desktops, Gnome and KDE. Call me a conformist, but I hate to have programs that look and act differently running on the same computer, and as a programmer I don't want to have to pick which GUI libraries to target: that should be the end-user's choice. It's about time they put aside their differences and merged. Or for a meteor to hit one of the camps, leaving victory to the other guys by default.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

What's with the U.S. government lately?

Obviously I haven't been blogging much lately, even though there's lots to blog about. Especially when it comes to U.S. government behavior. Those warrantless wiretapping programs, and the new spying powers given by bill S. 1927, which was somehow passed by a Democratic congress; the misplaced 190,000 guns in Iraq that were given to Iraq security forces without accounting or accountability (more guns than the record-high 162,000 soldier deployment there); the Mahar Arar case (background) which demonstrates not only a disregard for human rights, but the remarkable fact that the U.S. can, without laying charges, detain and deport a person who is only stopping in the U.S. to catch a connecting flight. Does it make sense to "deport" somebody who was just about to leave the country? Since all indications are that Arar is innocent, this could easily happen to others, and probably has: after all, the public didn't know about Arar until after he was released from Syria, and we might not know about the case if Arar hadn't fought to make it a public affair. And of course there's Guantanamo...

Meanwhile, lots of ordinary people like me are being affected by the dumb new U.S.-Canada border laws. Passports are required for travelling by air but not by car--because of course, terrorists don't bother to get passports, and they only come by air. Unfortunately I can't get my Canadian passport because I have to get a new copy of my citizenship card first, which they still haven't sent after over six months. I can't get my American passport without a full (non-learner's) driver's license, so I took driving lessons and passed my test, but I'm still waiting for the official license in the mail. I want to go to my brother's wedding in Milwaukee, but it looks very likely that I'll have to send 4 days driving there and back with some extended family, which means I'll lose almost $500 by taking three extra days off work. Thanks again, Bush and pals. You idiots.

Anyway, my blog may be empty, but I do digg stories occasionally. Click here to check out some of the stories I consider interesting or worthwhile.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Loyc: Language of your choice

I am a programmer, but this is not a programming blog. Naturally I want to write about programming topics sometimes, but I prefer to keep the general public as my audience here. So I've been putting my technical posts in my scribblings blog, which I really intended for notes-to-self and other nonsense. So now I've created Loyc, etc., a blog for serious programming posts, and, of course, for Loyc.

I'll try to explain in layman's terms.

I've become increasingly frustrated with the primitive tools programmers use to write programs. Programmers write code in programming languages, and I want to increase the power of those languages. So in my free time I work on a "compiler architecture" called Loyc.

See, there are literally thousands of programming languages in the world. And each of them has an "interpreter" or "compiler". A compiler is a program that understands a programming language. It translates code written by a human into binary code which a computer understands. There are also "interpreters" which are the same but different (get it?).

It seems that most programmers who aren't happy with the programming languages they've got just make another one. Hence we end up with about a zillion of them. Each language has certain features and lacks others.

I'm doing something different. I'm not making a new programming language. Instead, my compiler will (...someday...) understand two languages that already exist, "C#" and "boo". Loyc, which stands for "Language of your choice", will be an "extensible" compiler. This means that other programmers can come along and add features to the C# language and the boo language. They can even add whole new languages!

The idea is that I myself will not be The Great Innovator. I'm not gonna be the one to make a new language with new features. Instead, I will provide a way for programmers to add new features to languages that already exist.

See, usually there's some committee or even a single person that gets to decide what features will be in a language. In contrast, my design is democratic. Any skilled programmer can add a feature, and then the other programmers in the world can choose whether they will use the feature or not. Loyc should thus evolve as some sort of utopian democratic meritocracy, or this is my hope :)

Anyway, if you are a programmer, don't get too excited. Loyc doesn't really exist yet. Mostly it's just ideas in my head, but I'm working on it.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Rush Hour

Under democracy one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule - and both commonly succeed, and are right. - H. L. Mencken (1880 - 1956)
It was true a hundred years ago and still true today: people think "democracy" is a choice between only two parties.

On an unrelated note: rules are not like Mount Everest. You need not follow a rule "just because it's there". And you certainly shouldn't enforce a rule "just because it's there". Rules should only be enforced when they serve a purpose. I'm talking about cops handing out tickets for jaywalking when there are no cars in sight, or for mild speeding on a wide flat straight highway when road conditions are perfect and there is almost no traffic. I'm talking about this crazy rule on the Calgary C-Train that "no bikes are allowed during rush hour". I read that Calgary Transit is "happy" to have people with bikes on the train, just not during rush hour. I can only surmise this is due to the overcrowding that happens on some routes during that time. Here's the thing though: rush hour means people going into downtown in the morning and out of downtown in the evening.

There is no rush into downtown in the evening and (with the possible exception of the northwest train taking students to the university or SAIT) no rush out of downtown in the morning. Everyone knows this. Certainly the train drivers know this. This rule is a problem for me because I take my bike to work every day: leaving downtown in the morning and coming back in the evening. Every single day the trains are almost empty; there is a seat for everyone willing to sit down. In fact, it's quite possible that the trains are more empty during so-called rush hour than any other time of day. Why? Because the trains come 2-3 times as often, greatly reducing the passenger load per train. But some drivers still enforce the rule.

You might say rush hour is a time of day, but I say it is a state of affairs. There is no such thing as rush hour on Sunday. There is no such thing as rush hour out in the country. And there is no such thing as rush hour during an evening trip into downtown. On the other hand, during the two-week Calgary Stampede rodeo, rush hour comes at midnight.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The two nudist streakers that fall in love over the internet

As a nudist I was very pleased when I saw this video on a random website: The end of the video gives a link to the site believeindestiny.com, and only then did I start to get the feeling it was fake. I mean, it doesn't say directly, but it says
We gave people the chance to vote about what they thought should happen with stories like these: Should companies make stories and websites like these, or should they stick to normal ads? We asked whether they thought they’d been lied to or whether they enjoyed the story? Where does entertaining advertising stop and invasive manipulation begin?
So I look at the vote results...
Are stories like scott and emma's okay? 54.3% yes, advertisers of the world, go nuts and entertain me 22% yes, but only if at the end I am told it was a story 16% no, you should tell me from the start that it's fiction 7.7% no, keep ads in ad breaks and entirely separate from entertainment
I find it hard to believe that, in general, the majority of people don't care whether a story that is presented as the truth is actually false. If that's so, my faith in humanity is all but lost. If viewers don't mind in this case, I think it's probably because either
  1. They do not identify with nudists or streakers and don't care about the truth because it doesn't affect them on an emotional level, or
  2. They suspected it was fake already
Oh, and it could also be the biased phrasing of the poll question.

But I was affected on an emotional level--I thought it was an awesome and sweet story--and I didn't suspect it was fake because it looked convincing. If it were fake, it probably would have required a significant budget to put together. So why would it start and end with defects that look like playing and pausing a VHS tape? Why the low video quality? It was an effective psychological trick. Which brings us to motive: why make up a story like this? The website considers it advertising, but advertising for what? They weren't selling anything, so it just didn't look like an advertisement.

I conclude their motive was the value of market research. It's an experiment in viral marketing and an experiment in how much BS consumers are willing to tolerate. Their poll seems to show that consumers don't mind being lied to, which reminds me of the Iraq war and Bush administration's success in obtaining a second term. But I think reality is more complex. I suspect the poll result can be explained by human selfishness, by apathy. I think their tolerance has more to do with the fact that the story didn't affect them. If they were nudists, less of them would mind the lie. Same goes if they were in the military, or in Iraq.

Wait, wait, I'm connecting viral marketing with the war in Iraq? Good heavens, what's wrong with me?

Friday, April 27, 2007

Net Neutrality

Click the title for an entertaining primer on Net Neutrality in the U.S.

Large broadband providers have some cute little arguments about why they oppose net neutrality; they say that by prioritizing packets, they can offer a needed service to those who are willing to pay for it. But the real issue is not prioritizing traffic; it's degrading traffic--slowing down whoever doesn't pay extra, by letting "priority packets" suck up most of the bandwidth.

Now I don't understand the economics of the network neutrality debate in detail. But when I see that huge incumbent telecom corporations are opposed to neutrality while those in favor are web site operators, medium-size businesses, and grassroots activists, that's almost enough for me to make a ruling by itself.

And then there's the fact, as Harold Feld explains in the above article, that we actually had Net Neutrality during the whole time period in which the internet was growing to be the wonder we enjoy today, and we are only losing it now. Yes, you could always buy a bigger or smaller internet connection at your own "edge" of the internet, but traffic was treated equally in the "middle" of the internet, as it moved between endpoints.

So I'm generally in favor of Net Neutrality, but I wonder if there isn't some merit in packet prioritization to improve "low-latency" services. If you use the internet for voice calls, you'll notice that one of its longstanding problems is lag and dropped packets. Sometimes, seemingly at random, bits of voice will be cut out of voice calls, and other times, it will take a long time for sound to go from one person to the other. Similar problems can arise when playing online video games, in which there is a delay (commonly called lag) between when a person acts and when other players see that action. While often part of the problem is imperfect software, another part of the problem is the route your voice takes through the internet. If your voice travels through a region of the net that is heavily loaded, packets may get through after a delay, or be dropped completely. For that reason, players of many online games prefer to play on servers in their own city or region. Gamers call the delay "lag", but the technical term is "latency" (the lower, the better.)

What's interesting about voice and online games is that they probably take up very little of total online traffic--I would guess less than 10%. That's because the bulk of traffic involves downloading. When you're downloading something, such as a video, it's no big deal if each individual packet takes 3 seconds to go from a web site to your home computer--what matters is that you get as many packets as possible. You want them to come "as quickly as possible", not "as soon as possible". But when you're in a voice call, it doesn't matter if you have a slow ISDN line or the latest mega-speed cable modem. The higher speed line could improve the audio quality a little, but it can do nothing to make data arrive sooner because your voice must compete with downloads and such to get through.

If we don't have net neutrality, there is clearly a risk that large corporations will find a way to make most people pay more, by improving the service to some at the expense of others. But what if we came to a compromise on net neutrality, in which at least 90% of all traffic in any given pipe must be treated neutrally (no discrimination against specific traffic allowed), while up to 10% of traffic is allowed to move more quickly?

In this way, some users and service providers would be allowed to buy a piece of that 10% in order to transfer low-latency data more quickly. That way, "premium" voice packets can be moved to the head of the queue and protected from loss in a busy pipe. With a limit of 10%, there is not enough non-neutral traffic to really slow down the neutral traffic. What do you think?

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Electoral Reform

I wrote an undergraduate paper on electoral reform last year (Feb. 2006) and it's still a good introduction to voting systems. A country's electoral system could have a big impact on election results and the way in which campaigns are run; the most common First-Past-The-Post system is the least fair, so I encourage you to look at the the others. The paper was intended for Canadians. If you don't live in Canada, well, tough cookies. After reading my paper you can move here at your leisure.

Here's to free speech

Let's take a moment to thank the EFF and other public interest groups for their support of free speech. It's worth thinking about the consequences of ever losing it:
In many countries a journalism student covering a demonstration of school children would be commended for his initiative. In Syria, student Mesud Hamid posted photos on the net of Kurdish pupils demanding equal rights. He was arrested while taking an exam at university. "I was tortured," he said. "For one year and three months I was held in a cell measuring one metre by two. I didn't see the sun or sky for all that time." - BBC article
In North America we take it for granted. We shouldn't.
"Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we."
My Chinese former roommates seemed incredulous at my claim that the Bush poster on my wall, which makes fun of his many mis-statements, would be legal in the U.S. Unfortunately, they do not seem to understand the importance of free speech. On the other hand, maybe it's only fair: I can't understand those who actually want their government to suppress speech that its leaders don't like. And you know, governments never stop at suppressing opinions; they suppress inconvenient facts too, and they often oppress the people who have disseminated "undesirable" messages.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Municipal WiFi

(Edited April 21)

Competition in broadband and cell phone services is poor; prices are much higher than they could be, both in the U.S. and Canada. That's interesting given the fact that the monopolistic incumbent companies rely on resources, such as the radio spectrum and conduits over and under roads and homes, that on a fundamental level don't belong to them. These resources belong to the public, but the government has granted them permission to use these resources by various licensing schemes, typically at a fixed price set long ago, while letting them keep all the profits.

Now, of course, it is necessary to let somebody use them, or they would be wasted. And without some regulation of the wireless spectrum, the resulting free-for-all could lead to a tragedy of the commons. So the airwaves must be regulated, but it must be done carefully or monopolies arise, leading to high prices and artificial scarcity. The trouble is that has already happened. Prices are high and the wireless spectrum is not used efficiently. Consider Wi-Fi; using an 802.11 wireless network, users can get speeds as high as 54Mbps (= 6.44 megabytes per second) which is 27 times faster than a 2 Mbps DSL internet connection in my area. Even if an area is congested, with many users on the same network, your data still transmits through the air faster than it can across the internet. Yet, you can buy your own personal wireless router for under $100 (and sometimes under $50).

I find it interesting that while I have my own personal wireless network almost for free, but I have to pay $30/month to use the cell phone network for (at most) a few hours. And that's just voice. Internet access would cost an additional $100/mo for only 250 MB of traffic. For comparison, a 54Mbps Wi-Fi router can (sometimes) transmit 250 MB in under 40 seconds. Maybe one of the reasons they can charge so much for so little is that on the cell network, that amount of data could take hours to send.

Imagine, now, if there were a network of Wi-Fi routers that provided internet access from anywhere in a city. How much do you suppose that would cost? It's clear to me that the prices of incumbent cell phone providers could be undercut by a huge margin. It's not my idea; it's called municipal broadband or municipal wi-fi and it's been proposed by many city goverments, smaller companies and public interest goups. Google has even implemented it in its home town. In addition to internet, services such as Skype would make it possible to use the network for calls to ordinary phones at low rates. If municipal broadband took off, Skype and other companies would certainly produce Wi-Fi phones that work like ordinary cell phones, except at much lower prices.

Naturally, the powerful telcos have been lobbying state and federal govenments to ban these networks. The sad thing is that governments have a curious tendency to listen to them.

The reason you can have your own wireless network for so cheap is that the spectrum used by wi-fi is unlicensed. It is still regulated by the FCC in the U.S. and the CRTC in Canada--in particular, power output is limited, so these devices cannot have a long range--but no one has been granted an exclusive license, so anyone can use it. Decades ago there might have been a valid argument that this free-for-all would have a tragedy of the commons effect, because the signals of so many "free riding" users would step on each other, leading to a chaos of noise that would destroy the value of the band for most practical purposes.

This has not happened. Even in crowded places with many devices in use, access only becomes slower, not worthless. An important reason for this is that digital technology is used in this band, technology that can automatically and instantly negotiate with other devices to share the channel efficiently. Even if there are a few "bad" devices on the band that do not play by the digital rules (e.g. microwave ovens and cordless phones), the devices can switch to different channels and/or retransmit lost signals automatically in order to get the data through.

Now, today's wireless signals are usually point-to-point, meaning that transmissions only have one destination, yet current wireless gadgets transmit (roughly) equally in all directions. Thus, radio chatter is received by lots of devices that don't want to hear it. In a room with 100 laptops and several access points, only a few devices can transmit at the same time, which leads to the slowdown I was talking about. At some point in the future, space-division multiplexing, meaning that signals are sent in the general direction of their destination, should allow more devices to talk at once.

I'm really not sure why some govenments are easily persuaded to ban such an obvious public benefit, but perhaps certain cash cows are a factor. Although the main beneficiaries are obviously big businesses, govenments get a cut too. Harold Feld explains in his discussion of the selling of former TV spectrum in the 700MHz range:
"Now you would think that (a) if the incumbents—large and small—are accused of gaming the system, and (b) all the incumbents defend the rules, while all the non-incumbents argue for a rule change, that the FCC would believe its own Chief Economist rather than the very people accused of gaming the rules to their advantage. Ha ha. Instead, the FCC adopted an industry sponsored 'compromise' that they easily manipulated to achieve open bidding. With the predictable result that the incumbents blocked the DBS guys and any other real competitor (while rewarding the mid-sized carriers with needed licenses).

"Why? In part because this stuff is hard to understand and it's very difficult to buck the kind of political pressure the incumbents brought to bear. In part because a number of folks at the FCC stil think of mid-sized carriers and cable cos as 'competitors' rather than 'incumbents.' But, most importantly, because spectrum auctions are the crack cocaine of public policy. Faced with the threat that the major incumbents would refuse to play (as if they could let that spectrum fall into the hands of rivals) and that the AWS auction would not gross the promised billions, the FCC caved like a chocoholic at a Godiva's outlet."
I highly recommend his excellent discussion, even though the auction is not directly related to municipal Wi-Fi. It illustrates a way in which government, even in unelected bodies like the FCC, can be influenced by big, monopolistic business at the expense of the public.

Mind you, the former UHF TV spectrum would make an excellent basis for municipal Wi-Fi if the FCC and CRTC would only allow it. One article explains:
At lower frequencies -- like in the television band -- signals travel farther and can go through walls, trees and mountains. Opening up some of this spectrum would make Community Internet systems much faster and cheaper to deploy, allowing a new generation of broadband entrepreneurs to enter the market. The broadcasters are about to return a sizable chunk of spectrum as part of the digital television transition, a portion of which could be reserved for Community Internet if Congress [don't you mean the FCC?] doesn't auction it all off to the cell phone companies. Another option would be to reallocate vast, unused "white spaces" between TV channels for wireless broadband. Either way, more "unlicensed spectrum" is the key to making universal, super-fast broadband for $10 a month a reality.
When it comes to the opposition of elected bodies to municipal broadband, campaign contributions are an obvious thing to look at, as well as the general phenomenon that politicians tend to favor big businesses--the bigger, the better. The telcos are rightly terrified of municipal wi-fi, given how cheap it can be done compared to how much they charge, and so I'd expect them to be lobbying like mad. Indeed, a completely free service (paid for by taxes) is the cheapest kind of service to provide, since no billing system is required and no "tech police" need to be hired to defend the network against free-riding attempts. This would be efficient and cheap for consumers, and a boon for the economy. At the same time it may harm the telcos, which would only be able to make money on the internet backbone and on services that are better than whatever the municipal network offers.

On the bright side, while municipal wi-fi has reportedly been banned in 14 states, Harold Feld thinks that incumbent opposition is softening because they know they can't stop it. As evidence he notes that AT&T plans to build a "muni wifi" system in Springfield, Il--the strategy being that if you can't beat 'em, pretend to join 'em and see how much profit you can get under the circumstances.

One final thought (source):
Settles noted that, when put in perspective, building a WiFi network is not that expensive. City governments regularly shell out hundreds of millions of dollars to build sports arenas, ballparks, and stadiums, yet balk at the much smaller cost (usually measured in tens of millions of dollars) to build and maintain a WiFi network.

"When you come down to it, you’re not talking about a lot of money," Settles said of the cost to build a WiFi network.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Microsoft's flip-flop on patents

For the past few years Microsoft has supported software patents, an annoying plague ... or at least a common cold ... in the software industry. The software industry gained no benefit in the 90s when software patents became popular; there are good reasons to think that the system is unfair and detrimental to the industry as a whole.

I had a faint hope that when Microsoft was hit with a $1.5 billion judgement for infringing on one of the MP3 patents (because Windows supports MP3 files), it might change its tune. No such luck. Ironically, as this article expains, Microsoft's original basis for using patents recognized the flaws in the system.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


This blog isn't about games, but I'm allowed to go off-topic right?

I play a lot of first-person shooters and other 3D games and I'm surprised at how many games don't offer a field-of-view (FOV) control.

In real life we have peripheral vision but in games we generally don't. Games are designed for relatively small screens, and if they start to pack too much of the environment on one screen, it starts to look weird. So they don't. The in-game camera of a typical first-person shooter typically has a FOV between 70 and 90 degrees. FOV is usually mesured vertically, I think (it depends on the game), which means that the angle from the top of the screen to the bottom is 70 to 90 degrees.

Suppose you are standing in the corner of a large square room, and you look directly at the opposite corner of the room. Now, can you see all four walls? If the answer is yes, then your field-of-view is greater than 90 degrees horizontally. In real life you can. But in many games, you can't. Video games deprive you of your peripheral vision. (Here are some illustrative screenshots from Mass Effect 3.)

In our home we have a projector that puts a 8-foot image on our wall. It is truly sweet, and makes for an immersive game when you're sitting 5 feet away from the picture. But if the game doesn't give you peripheral vision, it's no fun. It feels like you're looking at the world through a telephoto lens. As Half-Life 2 players reported, an FOV that is too low for the screen can cause nausea. Meanwhile, an FOV that is too high looks odd (and might have the same effect). Typically, console games have an FOV closer to 70 (because the screen is expected to be far away) and PC games use an FOV closer to 90 (since you people put your eyeballs two feet away from the screen).

Luckily, many PC games (though few console games) allow you to tweak the FOV. In this entry I will record instructions for changing FOV in various games. I would prefer to focus on first-person shooters but feel free to add instructions for any game in the comments.

Call of Duty

In Call of Duty, I've heard you can change the FOV by using Notepad to add the following command to C:\Program Files\Call of Duty\Main\config.cfg before you start the game (replace X with the desired horizontal FOV):

seta cg_fov "X"

By the way, certain widescreen resolutions are only available by changing this file. Use a series of commands like the following to request the desired resolution (more information):

seta cg_fov "96.4183" seta r_mode "-1" seta r_customwidth "1280" seta r_customheight "768" seta com_introplayed "1"

Call of Duty 2
  1. Under the Options menu, enable the console
  2. During gameplay, press the ~ key
  3. Type "seta cg_fov X" (without the quotes, of course) and press Enter, where X is the FOV you want (e.g. 100)
Doom 3
  1. Open the console (Ctrl + Alt + ~)
  2. Type g_fov 100 (substitute 100 with your preferred value)
The FOV setting will be forgotten when you exit. To make it permanent, edit autoexec.cfg (see here). By the way: Doom 3 doesn't work in Windows Vista, argh!

Far Cry

Far Cry isn't designed for a custom FOV and it will switch back to the default FOV every time you zoom in & out with your gun or binoculars. Still, you might want to increase your FOV temporarily. I find that Far Cry's normal FOV works fine outdoors, but indoors you're better off with an FOV between 110 and 120.

As explained in a tweak guide, the first thing you have to do is enable devmode.
[Y]ou must go to your Far Cry game icon, right click on it and select Properties. In the Target box, insert a space after the last " mark and type "-Devmode" (without quotes). It should look something like this:

"C:\Program Files\UBISOFT\Crytek\Far Cry\Bin32\FarCry.exe" -Devmode

Click Apply and OK to close the Icon Properties box. The next time you run Far Cry from this icon it will begin in Developer Mode, which is essentially a cheat mode.
Once that's done, the simplest way to change the FOV is to type fov 110 from the in-game console (press ~ to reach it.) But since the game always tries to change it back, you might want a key to help you switch.

So do this:
  1. Pick a key that you will use to set your favorite FOV. I use "Q" because it is convenient (it replaces Lean Left, which isn't as useful as Lean Right), but if the key you pick is already used for something else, it [probably] won't work. So first, un-assign the key from within the game.
  2. Open C:\Program Files\Ubisoft\Crytek\Far Cry\DevMode.lua in Notepad.
  3. Add the following line to the top of the file:

    Input:BindCommandToKey("\\fov 110", "q", 1);

    Replace 110 with your desired fov and q with your desired key. If it worked, then you can press that key in-game to change your fov. With extra work you could maybe set up a key that cycles through two or more different settings, but I'm lazy to figure out how.
Half-Life 2

This game's default FOV is 75 which is a shame because this game can be very immersive with a higher setting. We like to use 115 or 120 on our big screen; normal people might like 95 or so.
  1. You are not allowed to change FOV at the beginning; I think you can change it after you meet Barney, pile stuff up by the window, drop down and go through the loading screen.
  2. From the menu, go Options > Keyboard > Advanced and enable the "developer console".
  3. Press ~ in-game.
  4. Type sv_cheats 1
  5. Type fov 100 (substitute 100 with your preferred value)
Valve decided FOV is a "cheat" so it doesn't work in online deathmatch games or in Counter-Strike.

Unreal Tournament
  1. Open the console (is it done with ~?)
  2. Type fov 100 (substitute 100 with your preferred value). This won't work in some servers but it works in single-player.
Unreal II: The Awakening
  1. Press ~ to reach the console
  2. Type BeMyMonkey to enable cheat mode
  3. Type fov 100 (substitute 100 with your preferred value)
  4. Press Esc to exit the console
Mass Effect 2 and Mass effect 3: click the links

Games that have no FOV control:
  • Halo
  • Call of Juarez (apparently)
  • F.E.A.R. has no FOV control, but if you use a widescreen resolution, you will have a somewhat greater FOV.
Many games that don't have a FOV control will at least have a higher FOV horizontally when you use a widescreen resolution. There is a website dedicated to widescreen gaming where you can learn more. Their master games list says "Hor +" in the "Screen Change" column if you'll be able to see more in a widescreen resolution (more of the scene is added on the left and right sides), or it'll say "Vert -" if you will actually see less (because the top and bottom of the scene are cut off). It's all explained here.

More games?

If you know how to change fov in other games or if there are other web sites that talk about this issue, please make a comment.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Excess Copyright

I've written no posts in so long, it's embarrasing. How am I supposed to inform people about stuff unless I write about stuff? Anyway, if you're Canadian you might want to take a look at Excess Copyright, which covers the state of intellectual property law from a Canadian lawyer's perspective. Does that sound boring? IP law has important effects on modern life, and if you realize how important it is, you won't find it boring.


On the other hand, I know how important my eternal salvation is, but I still nod off in church.