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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 Münchhausen

Massively Multiplayer Math

I've blatantly ripped this link from Raph Koster, but the title is just too tempting not to plagiarize.

Named for the student of Pythagoras who is credited with discovering irrational numbers, Hippasus is a new MMO designed to teach math by casting players in the roles of "arithmancers," sorcerers who perform their magic by leveraging mathematics. From the website:

The purpose of Hippasus is to give users a both fun and educational experience. For those users unfamiliar or not confident with principles of mathematics the game helps to both educate and encourage. The purpose is to provide concrete and exciting meaning to concepts that are often considered to be vague or esoteric and to give players a better understanding of the way their world works. For users who are confident and experienced the game provides a sandbox allowing them to test and visualize mathematical ideas, as well as a social world in which mathematical achievement is linked to power, influence and respect.

With the widespread use of online games has come virtual communities, societies and even economies that have had a direct impact on the world that we live in. It is our goal to positively contribute to society through this game by helping players to develop a greater appreciation for and understanding of the world that we live in, with hopes of encouraging those would would otherwise give up on mathematics and related fields.

I think a game like this was due for some time. Notice how the creators of this game are keying on a number of features of multiplayer games that have yet to be fully explored and understood: catering to both newbies and experienced users, building and leveraging the sense of community, using game incentives to achieve real-world change, and using education as both a cause and effect of gameplay. I would be very interested to see how the game plays and will keep you posted of updates when/if I encounter them.

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New York Times op-ed contributor Slavoj Zizek wrote a piece on the methods used to extract confessions from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. As I am sure you know, this man has admitted to planning a laundry list of terrorist acts including (this list taken from FOX News' "Fast Facts" on the story):

  • The 9/11 attacks
  • The "Shoe bomber" operation to bring down two American airplanes.
  • An assassination attempt against President Clinton during his 1994 visit to the Philippines
  • An assassination attempt againt Pope John Paul II (also in the Philippines)
  • An assassination attempt against former President Jimmy Carter
  • The bombing of a nightclub in Bali, Indonesia in 2002
  • The destruction of U.S. embassies in Indonesia, Australia and Japan
  • The bombing of hotel in Mombassa, Kenya that is frequented by Jewish travelers
Of course, not all of these plans were executed, but Mohammed admitted to planning all of them. But can we trust these grand admissions of guilt? After all, wouldn't he want to be remembered as a terrorist mastermind, even if he wasn't? Plus, while the information we gained from this man is shocking enough, even more shocking is the way in which we gained it: Americans tortured him for the information.

Let me pause so you can reflect on this a moment: the American government is admitting that it is torturing people for information in the name of national security. Of course he admitted to planning every major terrorist attack in the past ten years. He would have admitted to being the Gingerbread Man if you had asked.

But, based on the lack of popular outcry, the American people seem to be okay with that, because somehow, American society at large now accepts the idea that torture is an acceptable way of treating prisoners. Zizek writes

Yes, most of us can imagine a singular situation in which we might resort to torture – to save a loved one from immediate, unspeakable harm perhaps. I can. In such a case, however, it is crucial that I do not elevate this desperate choice into a universal principle. In the unavoidable brutal urgency of the moment, I should simply do it. But it cannot become an acceptable standard; I must retain the proper sense of the horror of what I did. And when torture becomes just another in the list of counterterrorism techniques, all sense of horror is lost.
The New York Times, "Knight of the Living Dead"
This is the most horrifying aspect of the whole affair: not just that people are being tortured, but that people are okay with the idea of torture as an "interrogation technique".

Zizek goes on to compare the situation to Fox's show "24," saying that "Reality has now surpassed TV. What '24' still had the decency to present as Jack Bauer's disturbing and desperate choice is now rendered business as usual." Here, I think Zizek is missing the larger point: what happens on "24" and what happened at Gitmo are both the direct result of a corrupt leadership that is undermining the rule of law in favor of what can only be described as medieval standards for justice. As I wrote a few weeks ago, "24" has effectively desensitized the American people to the idea of torture. On "24" torture is business as usual, and is helping a very unpopular administration to get away with doing some very nasty things.

On the TV show, you can understand why Jack might resort to torture: he's always running out of time, knows who has the information he needs, and he's sure that if he does the distasteful act that he will be able to save thousands, maybe millions of lives. But the real world doesn't work that way: there is no ticking time bomb in this case, and there is no indication that these admissions will save any lives at all. This isn't an informant with a vital piece of information to avert an imminent terrorist attack. This isn't even Osama Bin Laden. This is some terrorist who is going to say anything you want him to say because you're dunking him like a witch at Salem. And ultimately, we are all going to suffer for it, because it is not only destroying our credibility, it is undermining the moral fabric of our nation.

... in the end, the greatest victims of torture-as-usual are the rest of us, the informed public. A precious part of our collective identity has been irretrievably lost. We are in the middle of a process of moral corruption: those in power are literally trying to break a part of our ethical backbone, to dampen and undo what is arguably our civilization’s greatest achievement, the growth of our spontaneous moral sensitivity.

With the help of a gagged media, the American people have chosen to look the other way as literally a thousand years of progress are being turned back. For what? A scapegoat named Khalid Sheikh Mohammed?

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Random Quote: On the French

Well, they do love their cheese...

If you gave an average Frenchman the choice between a reforming president who would plug the country’s huge deficit and a good cheese, he would probably opt for the cheese.
The New York Times, "No Sex, Please, We're French"


Is Dick Cheney an Iranian Mole?

The Times today has an op-ed piece entitled "Iran's Operative in the White House" I desperately wanted to read it, but it's only available to the their "Times Select" elite. So I did what any other self-respecting Interweb-hax0r would do: I found it posted elsewhere. The premise is, of course, absurd, but if you take the "what-if" scenario and run with it, things start to make sense in this Bizarro-world created by the Bush-Cheney cabal:

Consider that the Bush administration's first major military intervention was to overthrow Afghanistan's Taliban regime, Iran's bitter foe to the east. Then the administration toppled Iran's even worse enemy to the west, the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq.

You really think that's just a coincidence? That of all 193 nations in the world, we just happen to topple the two neighboring regimes that Iran despises?

Moreover, consider how our invasion of Iraq went down. The U.S. dismantled Iraq's army, broke the Baath Party and helped install a pro-Iranian government in Baghdad. If Iran’s ayatollahs had written the script, they couldn’t have done better — so maybe they did write the script....

We fought Iraq, and Iran won. And that's just another coincidence?

Or think about broader Bush administration policies in the Middle East. For six years, the White House vigorously backed Israeli hard-liners and refused to engage seriously in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, thus nurturing anti-Americanism and religious fundamentalism. Then last summer, the White House backed Israel's invasion of Lebanon, which turned Iran's proxies in Hezbollah into street heroes in much of the Arab world.

Consider also the way the administration has systematically antagonized our former allies in Europe and Asia, undermining chances of a united front to block Iranian development of nuclear weapons. Mr. Cheney may nominally push for sanctions against Iran, but by alienating our allies he makes strong sanctions harder to achieve.

And by condoning torture and extralegal detentions in Guantánamo, the White House antagonized Muslims around the world and made us look like hypocrites when we criticize Arab or Iranian human rights abuses. Take Mr. Cheney's endorsement of the torture known as waterboarding, which simulates drowning: "It's a no-brainer for me," he said. The torturers in Iran's Evin prison must have cheered. They got a pass as well.

Even at home, Iran's leaders have been bolstered by President Bush and Mr. Cheney. Iran's hard-liners are hugely unpopular and the regime is wobbly, but Bush administration policies have inflamed Iranian nationalism and given cover to the hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Scary because it's true. You think punks like Ahmadinejad and Chavez would have had the chutzpah to challenge the U.S. like they have been before the neoconfused lied and manipulated their way into power?

The article's author concludes with a powerful call to action for everyone in this country:

...Whenever we’ve suspected a mole in our midst, we've gone to extreme lengths to find the traitor. This time, betrayed not by a mole but by failed policies, let's be just as resolute. It's time to uproot policies that in the last half-dozen years have damaged American interests incomparably more than any mole or foreign spy ever has in the last 200 years.

Cheney may not be getting checks from the Ayatollah, but he should be. He's missing out on another golden opportunity to cash in on destroying our nation.


Friday Free Game: The Road Less Taken

I like to recommend games that are more polished than this, but I was surprised at how quickly I became addicted to The Road Less Taken; it's a strange little game. Move a yellow dot towards a green square while avoiding the numbered red squares. There's a pattern to it, and as Raph Koster says in A Theory of Fun, "once we see a pattern we delight in tracing it and in seeing it reoccur" (p. 27). The presentation is low-fi, but it grabs you because you just know you're smarter than it is. You see the patterns and want to master it.

I strongly suggest you try this game and ask yourself after ten or more levels: why is this fun?

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Displaying Embedded Images in a WebBrowser Control

The application that I'm developing at work is built in Visual Studio 2005 and uses an embedded WebBrowser control to display some of its information (and to think: I left a web development position to get away from JavaScript and HTML). I want to display images in the browser, but I don't have a file share or a web server to store the files.

Well it turns out that you can display images stored as embedded resources in the browser using the "res:" protocol, but this only works on old Win32 resources. I had read about this in various places, but couldn't find enough information to actually get it working until yesterday, so I figured I'd share the information here (good a place as any) for future developers to benefit from my labor. Remember, this is only for Visual Studio 2005 and .NET 2.0.

First, you've got to embed the native resources into your assembly, which I thought would be the hard part, but it's not. I've adapted my procedure below from this post at the MSDN forums. The only thing that may not be obvious is that there is only native support for BMPs and ICOs; GIFs and JPGs are considered "custom" resources. To add a GIF:

  1. In Visual Studio, choose File -> New -> File
  2. Under the General node, select Native Resource Template and click Open
  3. In the Designer window, right-click the ResTempl1.rct node and click Add Resource
  4. In the Add Resource dialog, click Import...
  5. Find your image file and double-click it
  6. When prompted for a resource type, enter GIF
To reference this image in your HTML, you use the file name of the assembly (blah.dll or blah.exe), the resource type identifier (in our case, "GIF"), and the resource ID. The format of "res:" URLs is described in detail here (found via a different MSDN forum post). This is the best article I've been able to find on the topic and it has very readable and complete explanations.

Generally, the format for the URL is res://[assembly file name]/[resource type]/[resource ID]. The resource ID is expected to be prefixed by a hash symbol (#), but the hash is a special character in URLs, so it needs to be escaped as %23. This makes your URL read like this: res://foo.dll/GIF/%23103 if your assembly is called foo.dll, your type is "GIF" and your resource ID is 103.

And there you have it. I hope this helps some other poor shlub trying to work his way through this problem.

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The Naked Ambassador

According to the BBC:

Israel has recalled its ambassador to El Salvador after he was found drunk and naked apart from bondage gear.

Reports say he was able to identify himself to police only after a rubber ball had been removed from his mouth.

I have nothing more to say on that.


Friday Free Game: Jelly Jumper

I might go so far as to call Jelly Jumper a nearly quintessential Friday Free Game. It's super-simple, nice to look at, and is set up in bite-sized levels that makes you feel like you can play as little or as much as you want. Jump your little green guy around a keyboard (the same Logitech keyboard I am writing this on, actually). Each level is a puzzle, and you try to get to the green keys in as few jumps as possible, avoiding red bomb keys, using teleporting yellow keys, and super-bouncy orange keys. Once you learn to follow the little globby guy's reflection in the surface of the keys, it's pretty easy.

If you finish the first 10 levels, you get 20% off Logitech products — if you happen to live on the side of the Atlantic that I don't. But the best part is, you can keep going, and the game isn't that easy anymore. You might find yourself trying the same level a bunch of times, to do it perfectly, just because you want that little globe to be green and not yellow.

The little things in this game go a long way. The music is engaging but not distracting, the character is a high-quality 3D render, and the game offers a finely-tuned challenge – the level design is varied and scales nicely. I also love the fact that there are only four keys you need to play the game and that they used left and right arrows to replay and advance levels. You don't have to move your hand. Little things like let you know that they tested the thing and smoothed out the rough edges before they released it.

I'm happy to recommend Jelly Jumper as an elegantly presented and downright fun little game. But I can't bring myself to recommend the keyboard; it looks great and has decent feel, but I find it frustrating that they arbitrarily removed the insert key. Back in The Day, we used Control-Insert and Shift-Insert for copy and paste.

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Heinlein Centennial

Via Steve Jackson's Daily Illuminator, I discovered that there is going to be a centennial celebration of Robert A. Heinlein's birthday on July 7th of this year. Heinlein's masterful prose single-handedly elevated the standards of an entire genre. If you've never read this amazing author, do yourself a favor and pick up Stranger in a Strange Land, and discover how the story of a Martian can teach you so much about humanity.


Happy Birthday to my Blog

As of yesterday, The Red Bull Diary has turned two years old. My, how time flies. I'd like to thank Sparrow for coming up with the name, because I still love it, even though it tells you absolutely nothing about what I'm trying to do with the blog. Then again, I never really had a clear topic in mind. In my very first post, dated March 1st, 2005, I said that I'd eventually talk about what the blog was all about, but somehow I've never gotten around to it. That's probably because I can't stay focused on one thing for very long. But I haven't let that slow me down. I wanted this to be a design diary for my game ideas, a personal pulpit, an electronic editorial page, and it's been all of these things. I've written about moral issues, political issues, TV shows, movies, plays, mass suicides, virginity, and even had a comment or two on my own game designs.

I want to thank my loyal readers for being patient, for being interested, and for supporting me and the Diary.

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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.