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"Your 'reality', sir, is lies and balderdash and I'm delighted to say that I have no grasp of it whatsoever."
— Karl Friedrich Hieronymus, Freiherr von M√ľnchhausen

Friday Free Game: Curveball

Sometimes you need to play a new game. Just for a little while. You don't necessarily want something deep and engaging, you just want to change it up. Maybe you're bored with your current game obsession. Maybe you should be working and decide to take a 15-minute mental vacation. Whatever the reason, you might be inclined to go Googling for it, only to find that while there are plenty of free games on the Web, most of them are pretty awful (like this one, for instance).

This was my predicament, as I am sure it is for many other frustrated gamers. But if you search long enough, every now and then you find a game that's both free and worthwhile. And in the interest of the worldwide gaming community, every Friday, I will bring you a new game that brings something challenging and innovative to the table, so you have options for those times you need a change of pace.

The first Friday Free Game is Curveball, a particularly clever reinvention of the old classic, Pong. Like its predecessor, the concept is simple: keep the ball bouncing and try to make your opponent miss. Curveball is unique in that the perspective is head-on. Your paddle is positioned in the foreground, and you bounce the ball in the Z-axis against a computer opponent in the background. The physics are what make the game interesting: if you hit the ball while your paddle is moving, you can put a spin on it, causing the ball to curve, creating unique opportunities to fake out the AI. It starts out simple but gets hard pretty quickly. By level 6, I was impressed by how challenging such a simple game could be. The only significant flaw I could find with the game is that once you get to "Game Over", the only way to restart is to refresh the page. The lack of an option to play again is a bit perplexing; it's almost as if the game isn't finished. But if you have half an hour to kill, give it a try. I'll bet you hit that refresh button once or twice.

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The Homeless Guy

Last week, Wired ran an article about how homeless people are using the Internet to stay in contact with their families, maintain bank accounts, and even earn a modest living. One of the people they interviewed was Las Vegas-based Kevin Barbieux, whose blog, The Homeless Guy, is written at a terminal in public library. He uses the electronic forum to discuss the issue of homelessness in America and bring it into some sort of perspective. He explains in a post entitled "Why I Do What I Do":

2 Points about homelessness that I try to focus on with this blog are:

1. Educating people about the truth of homelessness - there's a lot of bad/wrong information out there about homeless people.

And that leads to:

2. Fighting the bigotry that most people have towards the homeless because of their ignorance about the realities of homeless people.

This bigotry is the cause for homeless people being murdered as they sleep, being set on fire, or beaten. It also is the cause for people being "scared" of the mere presence of a homeless person, and calling the cops on the homeless person just because he happened to walking through their neighborhood. This ignorance/bigotry lead to church people thinking that homelessness is a punishment from God, and that they only way to overcome homelessness is by being converted to Christianity. It's this ignorance/bigotry that causes many employers to not give homeless people an opportunity. Mostly, this ignorance/bigotry leads to fear of the homeless, which causes most people to ostracize the homeless from their society - and causes most people to avoid the homeless and thus never learn the truth of them.

His candor and patience in describing his and his friends' day-to-day lives is eye-opening. He talks about harassment by the police, the problems with shelters, and the difficulty in actually determining the scale of the problem. He also frankly discusses his own social anxieties which he says keeps him from holding down a regular job.

The Homeless Guy got 23,000 visits the day that the Wired article ran. It's truly incredible how the blogosphere has impacted the way we express ourselves, the way we communicate, even the way we live. Reading Kevin's blog got me thinking. I live in New York City, and while there's not nearly as many homeless people on the streets as there were in the pre-Giuliani era, there are still plenty around. In fact, there's one who hangs around my neighborhood downtown. He's scrawny-looking, with a voice that's so weak that "spare some change" is barely audible. Sometimes he's hanging around the Spring Street 6 station; sometimes he's lying on a piece of cardboard in front of the Catholic school on Prince Street. When I first moved to the neighborhood, I'd give him a few bucks every time I passed him, but I stopped doing that, feeling conflicted. After all, they say it's better not to encourage panhandling, since you don't know where the money is going, but I have been blessed with a certain amount of financial success. Doesn't that obligate me to help those in need? Kevin's advice is to do something much harder:

Don't give money to panhandlers. More than likely they will use it for drugs or alcohol. If you want to help a homeless person, panhandler or otherwise, take the time to get the know the person and what they really need - and what will really be beneficial for them, and provide that instead.
The Homeless Guy, "Review For Future Test"
Kevin's refrain is that there's "more to homeless people than being homeless". They're struggling with something that keeps them from getting back on their feet. When asked "Why are you homeless?", Barbieux says we might as well ask the question, "Why are we human?" The only solution to a human problem is humanity; I hope to remember that when I see my friend with his paper cup.

Big-Box Games Are Dinosaurs

With the rapidly growing popularity of so-called "casual" games, the industry is reexamining its business model. Also called "chick games" because they appeal to female gamers more directly, casual games involve less investment in order to entertain. They're cheaper than the big-ticket games, and focus on simple, scaled-down gameplay.

A blog I discovered recently, called Tea Leaves, takes the strong position that so-called hard-core games that require cutting-edge hardware to run and focus more on cut scenes than on compelling gameplay will be overtaken and supplanted by smaller games, like the small, clever mammals replaced the dinosaurs.

And while I think "peterb" has a point, he may be overstating it. Elegance and simplicity are the hallmarks of excellent design, and I agree that the best-of-breed casual games will provide this experience. But I, as a gamer from the old school of hard-core gaming prefer something with a bit more depth. We can learn something from the streamlined approach of these casual games, but there's a reason we don't play rock-paper-scissors for fun. Sure it's simple, and yes, it's even fun. But after a few throws, what's left to discover?

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The Daily Show Takes on the Anti-Gaming Pols

For those of you who (like me) missed last night's Daily Show, you missed a great piece on the video game debate going on in congress. But the fine folks at Joystiq have the clip here. To quote Jon Stewart: "Seriously, the House of Representatives is filled with insane jackasses." Check it out.

Violent Video Game Imagery

The gnome has a great blog; he just exudes personality. His latest post features some of the most distubingly gory imagery from video games, including Mystery of the Druids and Still Life. He makes an interesting point: while sexual content is strictly taboo, there seems to be no such aversion to violent imagery. Why should this be? Isn't violence categorically immoral? The same cannot be said for sex.

Starships to Scale

So wonderfully geeky, I had to post it: Starship Dimensions, a site that compares ships from different science fiction worlds:

This site is intended to allow science fiction fans to get an impression of the true scale of their favorite science fiction spacecraft by being able to compare ships across genres, as well as being able to compare them with contemporary objects with which they are probably familiar.
Enterprise, Serenity, Rama, the Death Star... they're all there, drawn to scale. Never underestimate the ambition of a bored geek.

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Burn, Baby, Burn

FeedBurner is a site that manages RSS feeds, and I have just signed up because I want to be able to analyze my traffic better by integrating feed statistics into BlogBeat. I'll have to see how it works out using FeedBurner's free features, but I think this is a testament to how useful BlogBeat has been. It's a great service that I am happy that I paid for, and I'd highly recommend it to anyone who wants first-class blog analytics.

So I have updated the look of my site a bit and added del.icio.us and digg integration as well as a handy link to my new feed in the upper-righthand corner, taking advantage of some of the services you can get by integrating with FeedBurner. I've always tried to keep the site relatively clean and simple, but I couldn't resist (feed junkie that I am) so let me know if you think it's just too much clutter.

And if you're not familiar with these aggregation sites, you will be. There's an RSS explosion happening out there (thanks to Lifehacker for the link). Download yourself an aggregator (I use RSS Bandit, but that's mainly because it's open source and written in C#) and drink the sweet nectar that is web syndication.

And if you're reading this via an RSS reader already, please update your feed URL to reflect my new feed. Not my old feed. My new feed. Thank you.

All About South Park

All About South Park has all of the episodes viewable online. Sweet.

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Third World Farmer

"A game to make you think," Third World Farmer is an economic simulation where you take the role of a third-world family struggling to survive droughts, civil war and economic collapse. Like September 12th, it's a game that makes a political statement by drawing you into a cycle of frustration. I made it through 122 rounds of this game (yes, I'm bored) and didn't make it on to the high score list.

I'm still confounded by the logic of the game. Maybe it's just me, but it seems that events coincide with my assets a little too frequently (though on the forum, the creators have said that this isn't the case).

First I tried tracking the prices of the different crops with an eye towards buying low and selling high. This is what the price ranges look like:

CropLowHigh
Corn$5$13
Wheat$8$20
Cotton$15$23
Peanuts$19$21
But always buying low didn't seem to make a difference. Diversification is key, so that if the peanut harvest fails, you still have corn to fall back on. Pigs and cows seem to produce well, but you need to build a shed first, and this has a habit of being destroyed by local guerillas and being sold to pay for medicine.

It also seems that there's a cap on how much you can earn. No matter what, I couldn't pull in more than $250 in a single year.

Anyway, the game's an interesting distraction and worth taking a look at, if for no other reason than to have a bit of perspective on the plight of the third world farmer.

Stackopolis

Stackopolis is a free, Flash-based game that bills itself as "the most addictive game since Tetris". And while it's fun and original, Tetris it's not.

The concept is simple: rearrange blocks to match the given blueprint before the timer runs out. The gameplay is fast-paced and challenging, but the interface often adds a level of frustration: the fixed three-quarter view can hide parts of the board, making it difficult to drop the blocks where you want them. If you hide a block accidentally, you can kiss the board goodbye: there's never have enough time to move them out of the way and back again.

I played through the first dozen levels; here are the codes:

LevelCode
1(No code)
2SIDEWALK
3LAMPPOST
4STATEPEN
5PARKLANE
6MSOFFICE
7DWELLING
8GLASSBOX
9RAADMAAN
10TOYBLOCS
11BLADERUN
12PAVEMENT
One thing about the codes: even though they're displayed in uppercase as you type them, make sure that you enter them in lower case. Otherwise the game doesn't recognize it and starts you on the first board.

Overall, a fun game with decent replay value, worth killing some time with, but missing the elegance and stickiness of a game like Tetris. Rating: 70/100

Ninja Excuses

I have linked to this before (when I was talking about Net Neutrality), but the reference was a bit subtle. Ask a Ninja has some very helpful advice for us. Go watch the bit on Ninja-level excuses, so you, too, can use Merchant Ivory films as weapons while trying to stop zombie Tupac from releasing another album from beyond the grave.

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Three Dead; Severed Head

As reported by CNN:

BOISE, Idaho (AP) -- A man transporting his wife's severed head in a pickup truck collided with an oncoming car, killing a woman and her 4-year-old daughter, police said. The impact sent the head flying onto the road.
Wow.

Eros ex Math

Thanks to Lost Garden for the link to Eros ex Math: a collection of sensual images generated from mathematical algorithms.

Owl Tattoos

Very cool: owl tattoos. I really like this one, this one, and this one.

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Death Star Energy

Like Neil Simon did when he described Mississipi's weather as "Africa hot," I'm using a proper noun as a description of scale. Death Star energy is a lot of energy. Like a lot-lot. Enough to blow up a planet. But just how much energy is that? Luckily, we have bored geeks to answer these vital questions for us. Thanks to a link provided by Furrygoat, we now know that the Death Star had to generate about 2.4 × 1032 joules of energy in order to disperse the mass of Alderaan fast enough to overcome the forces of gravity keeping the planet together. If you don't believe me, you can check the math here.

Sure, 240 nonillion joules sounds like a big number, but just how big is that? Well, let's see. It's enough energy to power the entire world for a trillion years (based on 2001 numbers), about a tenth of the kinetic energy of the Earth as it hurtles around the sun in its orbit, or the equivalent of exploding over a quadrillion of the largest nuclear devices ever detonated simultaneously.

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Stolen Sidekick

An interesting story about what Dan Fernandez calls "Justice 2.0": a woman who lives in Manhattan left her Sidekick in a cab, and a girl from Corona, Queens decided to take possession of it. But instead of chalking it up to a loss, or bringing it directly to the police, the victim has made use of the Internet to shame the thief into returning the stolen property. And instead of doing the kind and decent thing, "Sashacristal8905" decided to tell the owner that her "white ass" didn't deserve it back. If you have a minute, read the story here.

Brokeback Binary Search

This post is subtitled, "Why your binary search in Java is gay." And I mean "gay" in a derogatory way inasmuch it applies to limp-wristed (read: the opposite of robust) code.

A few days ago, Joshua Bloch, the former Sun employee who now works for Google, made an announcement on the Google Research blog that there is a bug in the Java JDK binary search that has been lurking for nearly a decade, undiscovered.

As recently reported to Sun, java.utils.Arrays.binarySearch() will fail for arrays with more than 230 elements, throwing an ArrayIndexOutOfBoundsException exception. The culprit? This innocent-looking line of code: int mid =(low + high) / 2;.

Bloch based his algorithm on the implementation described by Jon Bentley, whose Programming Pearls is a classic examination of efficient design. The original edition of Pearls was written in the eighties, when no one in their right mind would have tried searching an array of a billion-plus elements. But when low and high are sufficiently large, the value overflows, wrapping around to become a negative number, so causing the exception. According to Bloch, there seem to be few correct implementations of the algorithm. In C, of course, you wouldn't get a tidy exception; negative memory addressing relative to your array would probably return garbage.

This just proves the old axiom: all code can fail. Even the code written by Ph.D.s.

.... The general lesson that I take away from this bug is humility: It is hard to write even the smallest piece of code correctly, and our whole world runs on big, complex pieces of code.

We programmers need all the help we can get, and we should never assume otherwise. Careful design is great. Testing is great. Formal methods are great. Code reviews are great. Static analysis is great. But none of these things alone are sufficient to eliminate bugs: They will always be with us. A bug can exist for half a century despite our best efforts to exterminate it. We must program carefully, defensively, and remain ever vigilant.

So let this be a lesson to library-calling programmers like myself: be careful what API you interface with. Use a safe programming environment. Because with gay code out there, you never know what might happen.

Getting More Blog Traffic

Everyone that has a blog wants more traffic, but it's not clear how to generate that traffic. Well, Seth Goding (via Random Good Stuff) has posted a list of 56 tips for driving traffic to your blog. The most important of these, of course, is providing your readers with compelling content. I guess I'll stick to the 55 other ways.

Desktop Wallpaper

I feel the need to swap out my desktop wallpaper every now and then, and have always sworn by Digital Blasphemy, a collection of really nice CG wallpapers in a variety of sizes. Unfortunately, while the collection is huge, what's available for free is sort of limited. So I have been looking for some alternatives, and found some really good ones, so I figured I'd share. These aren't those run-of-the-mill, ad-cluttered sites you find by Googling for free wallpaper, focusing on stuff for 10-year-olds. These are high-quality, free images:

I selected this image for my desktop at work.

WoW Kills (Almost)

A guy was playing World of Warcraft when his neighbor discharged a .45 magnum. The bullet passed through his wall, his closet, and missed the gamer's head by just a few inches. You can read the guy's post here, which I got from Random Good Stuff.

If you're a little confused when you read the post, it's because he's responding to the people commenting on the post before he explains what happened. So skip to the section following "ON TO THE ORIGINAL POST...", just above the pictures, and read that first. Crazy, man.

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The Red Bull Diary is the personal pulpit and intellectual dumping-ground for its author, an amateur game designer, professional programmer, political centrist and incurable skeptic. The Red Bull Diary is gaming, game design, politics, development, geek culture, and other such nonsense.