A Day of Travel

The last couple of days have been spent contemplating the ideas of mileage runs. These are plane trips taken explicitly for the purpose of racking up frequent flier miles. Crazy? Perhaps. But when you take into account the perks and bonuses that are accrued by frequent fliers, it starts making a little more sense. Free tickets and upgrades are a nice benefit, and once you reach the elite levels of a mileage program, you begin accumulating percentage mileage bonuses as well.

The denizens of FlyerTalk have turned this into an art form — there are people there who have done crazy things like making 1K status on United (100,000 miles in a calendar year, or 100 flight segments) in 10 days in Thailand for under $2000, flying on the Concorde for $1111 by exploiting a magazine subscription scheme, going to Helsinki from Seattle for $20 on a busted fare, and abusing an around-the-world ticket to rack up huge numbers of flight segments (including “flying” on Deutsche Bahn codeshares with Lufthansa).

While there isn’t much out there right now that seems quite that exploitable, I am in the position of being close to two “goals”:

  1. achieving United Premier status for the year (which involves accumulating 25,000 miles during the year, or 30 flight segments)
  2. accumulating enough miles for a ticket to Europe

With that in mind, next Tuesday night I will be undertaking a mileage run, to push myself over both thresholds. I had researched a couple of different itineraries — one involving a trip to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the other a 6-segment odyssey with stops in Las Vegas, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charlotte, and Phoenix. Both of these would essentially chew up an entire day. I ultimately decided on the latter itinerary, for several reasons:

  1. It’s less expensive, by about $60.
  2. It still gives me enough miles to qualify for Premier and a ticket to Europe.
  3. By being a bit crazier in terms of the number of connections undertaken, I hope to get a better idea of what doing mileage runs is all about.
  4. It’s more convenient in that I can leave from John Wayne Airport, which is just 10 minutes down the freeway, instead of driving up to LAX.
  5. The weather report for San Juan calls for occasional thunderstorms during that time, and I don’t want weather delays to be a factor.

I hope to do a little blogging while I’m on the road, via my trusty Pocket PC phone. I’ll also be catching up on a lot of reading, and quite possibly some DS gaming as well. We’ll see how this goes — if nothing else, it will be a very interesting experience.

Hello, Mobile

I downloaded the Visual Studio 2008 beta and started messing around with it. I was particularly curious about the .NET Compact Framework, and poking around with writing programs for my fancy new AT&T 8525.

First impressions of Visual Studio 2008 are positive. It’s basically a refined version of 2005, with support for newer versions of the .NET framework. I haven’t worked long enough with it yet to say for sure if it’s more or less stable than 2005, though. The beta will apparently be usable through mid-March 2008, so I should be able to get a solid amount of seat time in on it.

As far as mobile development goes, my initial experience has been similar to that of developing for game consoles. That is, any time you’re targeting a platform other than the one you’re working on, there are going to be little quirks and things that trip you up. You’re almost guaranteed to run afoul of some esoteric detail when you’re first getting familiar with a platform, whether it be during setup of a console development kit, debugging applications, or burning application discs. Resolving some of these issues can sometimes take days of careful documentation perusal, consultation of fellow developers, maddening experimentation, and ingenious debugging techniques.

In my case, my first hurdle to overcome related to code signing for Windows Mobile. Running my “Hello Mobile” application on my actual phone resulted in a user prompt to confirm the execution of unsigned code. I realized that hitting “Yes” every time I wanted to debug on the phone would get tiresome, so I decided to set up code signing for the application to streamline things.

Unfortunately, this article in the Windows Mobile 5 SDK led me astray. I followed the instructions and installed the SdkCerts.cab file on my phone, and everything seemed okay. However, from that point on, any attempt to deploy my test application onto the phone would fail with an error relating to security settings on the device. (“The device security configuration disallowed the connection. Ensure that you have the appropriate certificates on your device for development. Review your SDK documentation for proper security settings for connecting to this device.”)

“Here we go again,” I’m thinking…

I found this article that described a similar problem, and tried to figure out what was wrong. I was able to run the rapiconfig tool, but although the tool claimed success, I was still unable to deploy or run my application. I futzed about a little bit more, and then decided to throw in the towel — I would simply wipe my phone and start anew. (Thanks to ActiveSync, I wouldn’t lose any of my contacts, appointments, or anything else like that, so wiping my phone wasn’t actually a big deal from a time-loss perspective.) I realize that, by going this route, I’m not really solving the problem or gaining any understanding of it…but at this early juncture, I would rather think more about application development than trying to understand mobile security models.

After wiping my phone, I investigated the Device Security Manager in Visual Studio, which apparently shipped as a PowerToy for Visual Studio 2005 but is a standard feature in 2008. I connected my phone, and was able to upload the proper SDK test certificate to the phone without incident. Finally, I set up my C# project settings to sign using the appropriate key, and presto…problem solved. I can deploy and debug without any annoying dialog boxes…

Hello, mobile.

Top Spin 2

I bought this game awhile ago on the cheap, and promptly forgot that I had actually purchased it. I uncovered it while I was rummaging through my collection of Xbox 360 games, and decided to play it since I have free time now.

It’s a nice upgrade from the first Top Spin game, although I feel like some aspects of the presentation are a little rough. I was also crushed that they appear to have scaled back their “attitude” feature. If you’re not familiar with Top Spin, “attitude” can be triggered after a point to play a little random canned animation showing pleasure or disgust. The added bonus is that, if you play online, the other player could see your animation. It worked pretty well as a taunting mechanism, or as a way to vent frustration over losing a close point. In the first Top Spin, you could select between a “good sportsmanship” and a “bad sportsmanship” set of animations, which only added to the fun.

However, in Top Spin 2, they have removed the separate sets of animations — now, you can only show frustration when you lose a point, and excitement when you win. There’s no more finger-wagging or any other stuff like that, which just cuts out all the fun. To make matters worse, it seems like there are fewer animations overall, so now I hardly use “attitude” at all…

Herding cats

I saw a link to a website whose purpose is to organize a gathering of players for NBA Live 07. Not to play the game, but rather to hang out in the lobby, in the hopes of getting the “Online with 1000 People” achievement. Their attempt (last Saturday) failed, but what’s astounding to me is that two previous attempts have worked. It’s mind-boggling that so many people (at least 250, because you can apparently sign up 3 Live Silver accounts locally and still have it work) could be motivated to coordinate like this, purely for the joy and bragging rights of seeing and hearing “Achievement Unlocked.” They may be motivated by the fact that, eventually, EA will turn off the online portions of older titles, leaving some players with now unattainable achievements. (Mind you, I think this was a terrible idea for an achievement to begin with, but that’s besides the point.)

The lengths that people will go to in order to get achievements is pretty crazy. Some games make it extremely difficult to get all 1000 points, but people will grind through them anyway, just to see that number go up, or to have bragging rights over their friends. It’s keeping up with the Joneses for the 21st century.

Oliver’s Birthday

A little over a year ago, I got an e-mail about a black kitten that a co-worker (Patrick) had found huddled underneath his car as he was leaving for the night. He took the kitten to a local veterinary emergency clinic, and discovered that he had a broken leg, which was then put into a splint. Patrick couldn’t keep the cat, though, as his apartment complex didn’t allow it, so he asked for a volunteer to adopt the cat.

The way Sandy tells it, I told her the kitten’s sad story over the weekend, and then e-mailed her again on Monday about him…which was a clear signal that I wanted to adopt the poor little kitten. Sandy agreed to adopt him, I e-mailed Patrick about wanting to adopt him (apparently just a couple of minutes before someone else did), and the rest is history.

Today is Oliver’s “birthday,” in that it has been one year since we adopted him. (He was thought to be about 4-5 months old when he was found.) His leg has healed, his worms have been eradicated, and he’s now a happy, healthy 13 pound cat (up from 4 when he was found). Happy birthday, little buddy.


The New England Patriot Video Library

Sources: Goodell determines Pats broke rules by taping Jets’ signals

This is an interesting story to me, for a couple of different reasons. First of all, the Patriots have been a very successful franchise over the last few years, with three Super Bowl wins in the last six seasons setting themselves up to be enshrined as the “Dynasty of the Aughts.” It is particularly difficult for teams to dominate over a long period of time in football, because of free agency, injury, and the fact that every playoff game is “win or go home” — games are often won or lost on a single play. These allegations, even if untrue, have already tarnished their accomplishments with the taint of illegitimacy.

Second, if the description of the Patriots’ espionage in the article is to be believed, they went about it in an incredibly amateurish fashion — I don’t understand how they could think that an assistant, standing on the sidelines with a video camera, would not be caught. I guess I gave the NFL more credit than they deserved in the subterfuge department — baseball has a rich history of elaborate sign-stealing schemes, all of which were probably more effective than this clumsy bit of espionage.

My new phone

A few weeks ago, my cell phone started acting a little flaky. Nothing fatal, but strange things like charging problems, and getting stuck in a strange “not on, but not off” state, which made me think that its time was nigh. I’d had the phone for about three and a half years, so it’s not necessarily surprising — I got it a couple of months before I moved down to southern California, I believe. I’m definitely not the kind of person who gets a new phone every year — my previous (and first) phone was more than four years old by the time I replaced it. It had an interface more reminiscent of Game & Watch than any proper phone.

So, for once, I decided to get a nice, new, gadgety phone that could do more than make phone calls and take poor pictures. I picked up the AT&T 8525, which, to go on a brief tangent, is a terrible model name — it’s called the Hermes by its manufacturer, HTC, a name that I think is much better. It runs Windows Mobile, Pocket PC edition.

My experience so far has been pretty darn good. The funny thing is that I had an easier time getting accustomed to all of the fancy Windows Mobile applications than I did tasks like making a phone call. I’m very much taken with the ability to do things like keep appointments, tasks, and messages on my phone, and even more so with being able to access the Internet from just about anywhere. I downloaded the Google Maps mobile version, which is awesome — it’s pretty much like the normal, fully-fledged PC Google Maps experience, but not running inside a browser. (Speaking of which, Internet Explorer Mobile works OK, but some sites tend to give it fits. I haven’t tried Opera yet, but maybe I’ll have to give that a shot.)

Part of my (somewhat flimsy) justification for getting this phone was that I wanted to futz around with developing applications for smartphones and Pocket PCs. They’re capable enough now that I think it might be interesting to develop something for them, rather than just a royal pain. I haven’t gotten around to any of that yet, though, so we’ll see how it goes.

Old ’90s music videos

Someone started an aggregated list of music videos seen on 120 Minutes. Pretty cool — I spent a lot of time just wading through and watching some of the ones I’d never seen before. A lot of the styles shown in the videos make me laugh now, but of course, they were cool back then. There are also a lot of videos in there that I never knew existed, like the Boo Radleys videos.

Be warned: there are something like 350 videos on that list currently, so be ready to spend some time wading through it…

Stuntman: Ignition

The ridiculous subtitle irritates me, but the game is fun. I’ve never played the original Stuntman, but I’ve heard that it was brutally difficult. The newest incarnation is difficult only if you are trying to get all of the achievements, which is a nice compromise. There’s even an easy mode which makes the game a bit more forgiving, by allowing you to miss more stunts per shot. The fake movies and their trailers are a hoot, and the pacing in each level is well-done. I find it interesting that, as time progressed, my perception of the levels changed from “out and out, barely-comprehensible chaos,” where I felt like I was barely hanging on in some cases, to “highly ordered mayhem” where there’s a definite rhythm and correct line to follow. Of course, the latter is a requirement, since you need to be able to string stunts through an entire scene in order to five-star it…

Overall, a quality rental.

(On a side note, I was thinking about making a list of games that blatantly use their E3 trailers as opening movies. I think it’s a little bit cheesy, to be honest. For the record, Stuntman: Ignition does commit this faux pas.)

The Richest Poker Game of All Time

I just read a book titled The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King: Inside the Richest Poker Game of All Time. The book tells the story of a rich Texas banker who, on a bit of a lark, challenges some of the world’s best poker players to increasingly higher stakes limit hold ’em games over the course of several years. His advantages include a precocious mind and an enormous bankroll, much larger than any of the professionals could quickly and easily put together. This situation forced them to pool together their resources and form “The Corporation” in order to play him in heads-up play (as that is how Beal, the banker, wanted it).

The final amounts of dollars won and lost aren’t really important. What is important is that a relatively untrained amateur was able to find ways to reduce the advantage of professionals who had been playing for years, to the point that the end result was something of a toss-up. Beal took a sabermetric approach of deep analysis to the game, co-writing a computer program (in BASIC, which made me chuckle) to perform statistical analysis of hold ’em, and, although it is not explicitly stated in the book, appears to have found that professionals do not play optimally. This is not a surprise — each decision point in poker has a fair number of branches, and players have imperfect and incomplete information at their disposal. However, it is intimated that some of the professionals make decisions that can be quantitatively described as “incorrect” — unfortunately, the details are glossed over in the book.

Another way that Beal’s game evolved was through the use of devices like a timing buzzer in his shoe (to randomize his reaction time), along with a modified wristwatch to serve as a random number generator. The former I found particularly interesting — I had heard that ‘tells’ were not really as significant as they were made out to be, and that proper strategy was of paramount importance. Yet, it appears that this (along with other measures) had some effect on the pros who played him.

The story of the richest poker game of all time seems to validate some of the ideas presented in another book I read recently, The New Brain. The author, a neurologist at GWU, makes the claim that most people, with motivation and dedicated, effective practice, can reach a level of mastery that is about 95% of that possessed by the geniuses and masters in a particular field. In other words, Woody Allen was right — 90% of life is just showing up. Anecdotally, this appears to have some weight behind it. This would seem to imply that underachievement is primarily a motivational problem, not an aptitude problem, and honestly, I would not really disagree with that.