Zero Charisma

Posted on March 15th, 2013 in Entertainment, Games, Movies | No Comments »

Tabletop role playing games are both wildly popular and extremely difficult to accurately describe as a cultural phenomenon. Zero Charisma is a new film that debuted at SXSW this year and attempts to do exactly that. Here’s the trailer:

I was impressed with the trailer, but trailers can be misleading. Now that the movie has debuted, we have reviews. And they are actually good. Here’s Factpile:

Long story short – If you’ve ever played Dungeons and Dragons, any video game from the past twenty years, or wanted the answer to what would travel faster, the Enterprise or the Millenium Falcon, this movie is for you.

And here’s Tim Wu, writing for Slate:

I’m obsessed with films about obsessive subcultures—so-called “geeksploitation” films. High Fidelity is a seminal work in the genre, and King of Kong is, I believe, unsurpassed in the documentary format. But where is the film devoted to the travails of a D&D dungeon master? Sam Lipsyte has shown what can be done with such a character in fiction, but the cinematic equivalent did not exist—until this week, when Zero Charisma debuted at South by Southwest.

There have been a lot of attempts to capture this sort of culture on film, whether for the big screen or the little screen, and most of them are atrocious. I’m definitely going to give Zero Charisma a shot. It looks like it could be the one that finally does it.

Psychics and their Tricks

Posted on January 21st, 2013 in Education, Life, Technology | No Comments »

This is a particularly interesting way to introduce people to the value of their information:

Great presentation, but I’m not sure ‘tricks’ like this really educate. They don’t recommend any action at the end of this video. I suppose my recommendation would be to sign up for your free annual credit report. That’s as good a first step as is available right now.

Red Bull Rube Goldberg

Posted on December 8th, 2012 in Entertainment | No Comments »

Given my propensity for posting Rube Goldberg machines to this blog, I couldn’t pass up this video from Red Bull, which is something of a machine-human Rube Goldberg hybrid.


Rap News on Surveillance

Posted on November 16th, 2012 in Computer Security, Entertainment, Politics and Law | No Comments »

I think Bruce Schneier said it best: “Wow.” There’s not much else to say about something like this.


Posted on October 25th, 2012 in Entertainment, Movies | No Comments »

Plurality is a short movie (~14 mins) about the future of privacy, security, and autonomy. The premise of the movie is excellent and the production quality is really good for something you’ve likely never heard of before. It feels like a bit of a mix between Gattaca and Looper. I’d love to see this developed into a feature-length film, but even this short is rather enjoyable.

PLURALITY from Dennis Liu on Vimeo.

Essay: Learnable Programming

Posted on September 30th, 2012 in Essays | No Comments »

I don’t typically share a lot of technical material on this blog. (Actually, I don’t seem to share much at all on this blog anymore, but bear with me.) However, I do want to share an essay on a rather technical topic: How do people learn to program and how should we teach them?

Programming is unquestionably an important skill and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. It is also, at least in some ways, a rather new skill that’s still developing rapidly. Developers create new platforms, languages, tools, and systems every year. Theoretically, these are all efforts to improve the craft in some way, but it’s still fundamentally hard to do. Worse, we don’t really know how to teach programming. Brett Victor’s essay on Learnable Programming examines some ways that we might improve on this.

Brett’s essay is extremely well-written, and I strongly encourage everyone reading this post to read it. It is clearly understandable for the non-technical person. Brett also demonstrates an excellent use of supporting multimedia. Most people aren’t particularly great writers, but even rather solid writers often struggle to use tables, figures, and video appropriately in their writing. For some material, such as textbooks, future readers will require excellent use of these visual aids.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

The USADA vs. Lance Armstrong

Posted on September 9th, 2012 in Books, Sports | No Comments »

I’m not really much of a cycling fan, but I am a sports fan who lived in Austin, TX for part of Lance Armstrong’s string of Tour de France victories. Thus, I am not completely unbiased when it comes to the recent USADA allegations against Lance. However, I don’t think anyone else is either. More importantly, the situation is far more complicated than the popular press has been reporting. To pick just one example, check out the Huffington Posts rather short blurb about the situation.

I didn’t write about most of the mainstream press stories because–stop the presses–this is a regular occurrence for the mainstream press. However, seeing John Gruber’s recent link to the new book coming out by Tyler Hamilton made me at least want to discuss this one element of the situation: There is no ‘smoking gun’ here; this situation is massively complicated. Hamilton may have absolutely no credibility left. He is either a nearly broke, mentally ill individual that basically drove away his first wife, or he is simply a divorcee suffering from depression and seeking to make some money by telling an important story. Either way, he’s not being altruistic about this situation; he’s here to hock a book not graciously unveil the smoking gun that should have been revealed years ago.

Many of the facts of this case can be interpreted one way or the other. We know for a fact that the USADA alleges that Armstrong was doping. Was the USADA simply doing its job or were they on a crusade against Lance? We know for a fact that Armstrong is not contesting the charges. Is not contesting the charges an admission of guilt or was Lance really just tired of the fighting? We know for a fact that Armstrong never actually failed a drug test during his career. Is that because he wasn’t doping or because he was simply better at it than everyone else?

I don’t think there’s an easy answer here, and there are many parallels to baseball’s situation with the steroid era. How do you rewrite the record books to serve justice? It’s complicated. I think the best writing I’ve seen about Lance’s situation is from Craig Miller, a sports radio host in Dallas:

Do I think Lance doped? I think he’s a true freak of nature, and stronger in the mind than most athletes I’ve ever covered–yet, it’s hard to believe that he won cleanly when everyone else was doping. I believe he was better than everyone, but not that much better. However, the playing field was level–practically everyone in the 90′s and 00′s in the pro peloton was doping, therefore, Lance was the strongest. If the entire peloton, including Lance, had been clean, I believe Lance still wins. So, while I think it was highly probably that Lance doped, I don’t think it gave him an unfair advantage since everyone else was doping, too. It doesn’t make what any of them did right, it’s just (as Dan McDowell might say) the way it was.

I’m not sure I believe Lance was doping. He never failed a test during his career, and there were definitely others who did. It wasn’t like baseball prior to 2005; there was a testing procedure in place. If it wasn’t working, then we can fix it, but I’m tired of all the after-the-fact second guessing that goes on for decades. I’m starting to feel that the best approach to situations like this is to have a testing process and stick with it. If someone fails at the time, then they are out. If someone doesn’t fail, then they are in. If they were clever enough to beat the test, then so be it. Once you start questioning people who haven’t failed a test, then the whole thing devolves into a giant “he said, she said” argument with tons of money on both sides. Situations like that are massively complicated, and no one ever really wins them.

zefrank’s Latest Show

Posted on April 11th, 2012 in Entertainment, Life | No Comments »

If you haven’t heard of zefrank, then you’re in for a treat. I don’t want to preface this with too much backstory. Just watch this, and if you like it, subscribe to his feed.


Essay: Solitude and Leadership

Posted on January 3rd, 2012 in Essays, Uncategorized | No Comments »

When I first introduced the ‘Essays‘ category, I said that I wanted to start sharing some great, thought-provoking essays that I’ve read. Here’s the second installment: Solitude and Leadership.

Solitude and Leadership is actually the text of a lecture at West Point in 2009 by William Deresiewicz. The moment that I knew this hooked me was when he started talking about distinction between solitude and introspection. It’s probably worth reading today and again in three weeks after you’ve had time to ponder it a bit. The essay is around 5,800 words and will take just under 20 minutes or so to read. Enjoy!

Phone-based Microsoft Scam

Posted on January 2nd, 2012 in Computer Security, Technology | No Comments »

A phishing scammer called me this afternoon. He spoke with a strong Indian accent and said he was from “Microsoft Technical Division.” He told me that my computer sent them error reports indicating that it was infected with a virus. They wanted to help me remove the virus.

I was rather stunned since the last time I used a Microsoft operating system by choice was 1999. Still, I wanted to see where this went, so I asked them what I should do.

They wanted to start by verifying that I had the virus. This involved looking for warnings in some part of the control panel. I just agreed with the prompts the man on the other end of the phone gave me. I remain familiar enough to understand what sorts of screens he was walking me through, but since I’m not an active Windows user, I wasn’t able to learn much about their procedures here.

Eventually, they wanted me to visit, which I will not link to here. This allowed me to determine that they were, as I suspected, scammers. You can read more about a previous version of the scam on Microsoft’s website.

At this point, I knew I wouldn’t be able to fake them out any more. I told them I wasn’t comfortable with the fact that they had my phone number, and I wanted to call them back to ensure that they were a legitimate operation. The man on the other end of the phone didn’t bat an eye at this. He immediately gave me a phone number, which I immediately Googled. The number he gave me was used in other scams previously.

I thought I would write about this experience for two reasons. First, it’s worth knowing that something like this particular scam could happen to less tech savvy folks. Second, this is a data point in a trend of phishing attacks becoming more personalized. I expect to see more attacks like this, not fewer.