*Horrible* service from Sprint; receive text messages, risk getting signed up for additional billing.

Posted on October 31st, 2009 — permalink

I noticed on my Sprint cellphone bill that there was an additional $10/month charge for some mobile alert thingy. I believe it’s been there for a few months. This happened before, a year or so ago, and it lingered then; a different thing.

I called the Sprint service folks to get this removed and figure out what happened. Well, it turns out that if you receive a text message from one of these services, and you open it up, you might automatically get signed up for the service. Yes! That’s just ridiculous. I asked if that could be blocked, and the guy told me he could block all text messages. It turns out that there is no way to receive text messages without risking being signed up for random third party services just by opening that text message. He tried to disclaim any responsibility for Sprint for this, because it’s a third party, but of course Sprint is doing the billing for it (and I’m sure Sprint gets some cut for doing the billing). It’s just crazy that Sprint isn’t able to block this kind of crap without blocking out all text messages.

My wife and I hardly ever use text messages; our plan doesn’t even include any free ones, as we only send a couple a month. Now, we’ll be sending (and receiving) none….

This may be enough to make me eat the $400 fee it will take to terminate my Sprint service early, if I figure out that there’s another cellphone service provider that doesn’t have something stupid like this. Sprint did refund me for the last three months of billing for this service; I’ll give them that much. But a service that lets you receive text messages which can get you signed up for additional billing just by opening that text message is an insecure service; I don’t care how helpful any given customer service representative is, that’s a broken company and a broken service.

ADDENDUM: Can you tell I don’t use text messaging much? So there is this thing called “Premium Text Messaging”, which is the cellphone equivalent of 1-900 numbers. Some legit, probably, the vast majority probably scams like the one we had. It seems that some mobile providers can block just premium text messages without blocking all text messages (i.e. messages from your friends). I cannot figure out if you can do that with Sprint, as they’re very unclear on their website. The customer service guy I talked to certainly wasn’t clear; he said he was blocking all text messages. When I asked if there was a way to avoid getting signed up for services without having to block all text messages, he said no. That implies to me, in retrospect, that there’s no way to block all premium text messages without blocking text messages altogether; you’d think he’d have said something about it when I asked that question. My next task will be to figure out which companies are able to block all premium SMS without blocking all SMS.


The Moon in “Heroes” is VERY different from our Moon.

Posted on October 25th, 2009 — permalink

My wife and I tend to watch TV shows a year after they come out; we rent the DVDs from Netflix and watch them then. We’re right now working our way through the third seasons of Heroes. If you’ve watched even the first season of Heroes, you know that Eclipses are a Big Deal and somehow cause or affect superpowers in humans. Well, there’s another total solar eclipse coming in Season 3. Here’s a screenshot (also showing a vapor ring left behind as Nathan Patrelli took off flying at high speed) of the moon about to eclipse the Sun:


OK, first, the good. Yes, the Moon is apparently about the same size as the Sun in the sky. (Yeah, the Sun looks a little bigger, but that’s probably because of the glare. There’s about to be a total eclipse, so they’ve got to have about the same apparent size. In any event, the size is close.)

Now, the bad. When the moon is that close to the Sun in the sky, it is a tiny, tiny, tiny, very thin crescent, basically a new moon. You will not see it at all, until it starts to actively block out the Sun. The reason for this is that since they’re so close to each other in a sky, it’s almost a straight line from the Earth to the Moon to the Sun. The distance to the Moon is much less, so the Moon is between us and the Sun. Thus, the side lit up by the Sun is the far side of the Moon from us.

Yet, here, instead of an almost-new moon, we see an almost-half-full moon! For half of the moon to be lit by the Sun when we see the two right next to each other in the sky, the moon would have to be at about the same distance from us as the Sun…. Well, it’s not quite half, so it’s a little closer, but we’re talking inside the orbit of Mercury here. And, for the Moon to look as big as as the Sun when it’s that far away, it will have to be physically almost as big as the Sun!

In our Universe, the Moon is a satellite of the Earth, about 1/4 the diameter of the Earth, and orbiting the Earth. The Sun is about 100 times the diameter of the Earth. The reason they look about the same size in the sky is because the Moon is so much closer.

From the evidence in the image above, however, the Earth of the Heroes Universe is very, very strange. They orbit a binary “star” system, including the Sun and the Moon… although the Moon is not a satellite of the Earth at all, but a binary partner to the Sun. However, the Heroes Universe Moon is an extremely bizarre object, for despite being so large, it does not shed any light of its own in the optical. It’s clearly not a large gas cloud, for you can see by looking at it that it’s a solid object with “seas” and craters and all of that. So, it’s something that has somehow managed to be as big as the Sun without triggering fusion inside to make it glow.


Well, given that all these superpowers work, we already knew they were operating under different laws of Physics, so I guess we shouldn’t be surprised.

My only fear is that people watching the show don’t realize that the producers are being very clever here in showing us that the Moon is a gigantic object that is nearly as far away as the Sun, very different from the case in our own world. I fear that some people watching might either think that the producers of the show have done the typical Hollywood thing and made a boner of a mistake, or may think that it’s entirely reasonable to see a near-half Moon right next to the Sun in the sky. I hope in upcoming episodes there will be dialog between the characters that more clearly reveals the nature of their Moon as a star-sized object close to the Sun.

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Howard Barker’s 13 Objects — global performance October 20 and 21

Posted on October 15th, 2009 — permalink

Howard Barker is a celebrated British playwright. On October 21st, there will be an international celebration of his works entitled 21 for 21. Participating in this celebration will be Avatar Repertory Theater, the virtual theater company of which I am a part. We’ll be putting up a production of his play 13 Objects: Studies in Servitude.

This is one of those things that makes it very clear that virtual worlds are not just computer games. These 13 short plays are all interesting and challenging, and vary all over the place in tone. Some of them are funny, some of them are grim, some of them are surreal, and all of them give you various different things to think about. It’s being directed by Joff Chafer, a faculty member at Coventry University. The cast is a sundry group of people from all of the USA, the UK, Austrailia, and New Zealand. It includes at least three former professors (two of whom were English professors, one of whom was perversely a professor of physics & astronomy…), a former Opera singer, and a couple of people who have performed and continue to perform professional theater in real life.

The design of the sets for all 13 plays follows a run-down, semi-post-apocalyptic theme. The objects in the sets were all constructed by famed former Second Life builder Arcadia Asylum, famous for her “hobo” type builds. Near the stage, there will also be “installations” for each of the 13 short plays, present through October 20 and 21 (and probably available even before then). You’ll see the sets, and hear recordings of the voices of the actors who will be performing on those sets.

This play will be free to attend. If you have a Second Life account, drop by; the show will at this spot in the Coventry University sim, at 4PM PDT (23:00 UT) on Tuesday October 20, and 2PM PDT (21:00 UT) on Wednesday, October 21. If you don’t have a Second Life account, consider getting one! They’re free; visit www.secondlife.com, ignore the gratuitously flash-heavy front page, and click on the big orange “Join Now” button to create an account.

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First impressions of Leiden

Posted on October 4th, 2009 — permalink

I’m out in Leiden for the next three days for the AMUSE Workshop. AMUSE is an evolution of MUSE, a software framework for integrating various different modules of stellar modeling together. So-called “N-body models” model the orbits of lots (”N” being a large number) of stars orbiting around each other as a result of their mutual gravity. They’re great as far as they go, but they aren’t all of the physics. If the timescale of your simulation goes on long enough, eventually you’re going to have to take into account stellar evolution– the fact that more massive stars live shorter lives and go supernova, spewing most of their mass out into interstellar gas. If you’re dealing with dense systems (think the Galactic core, or globular clusters), you have to take into account “strong interactions” between stars, which most N-body codes don’t handle by themselves. And, if the systems are really dense, you may have to take into account mergers of stars, which involves hydrodynamics. Additionally, there is gas in galaxies, which also involves hydrodynamics.

Traditionally, all of these different areas are modeled separately. Sure, there is definitely some overlap between N-body codes and few-body strong-interaction codes. However, the goal of MUSE was to make it possible for people who write disparate simulations to link them together for a more realistic simulation that needs to take into account multiple systems.

All of which is why I’m here. But the real reason I want to write this is to just dump my first impressions of Leiden:

  • This is a very bike friendly city! There are paths for bikes and motorized scooters, bike lanes, and massive bike parking lots all over the place. And you see huge numbers of bikers riding around. But very few of them are wearing helmets.
  • The Dutch language is much more mystifying to me as an American than either French or Spanish. Now, yes, I did study French all the way through junior high and high school, so I’m not coming at French as a complete ignorant. But I certainly find Spanish names easier to wrap my brain around than Dutch names. However, it’s not as hard as Sweden, where the collection of letters that form street names just would not stick in my brain with the linguistic substructure I’ve built in there all my life.
  • Trash! There is litter, and there are piles of trash, all over the streets.

Update 2009/10/06: It turns out that the trash was a transient thing. October 3 is an annual festival that Leiden celebrates for its liberation from Spain a few hundred years ago. That festival can go on for days and culminates on October 3. I was seeing the aftermath of Saturday night’s festivities when I arrived on Sunday, October 4. I happened to arrive on exactly the worst day for trash in the streets…!

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“Other Peoples’ Liberals”

Posted on October 2nd, 2009 — permalink

As I listen to the Hollywood Elite fall all over themselves defending Roman Polanski, saying how awful it is that he’s been apprehended for the 30-year-old crime of rape of a 13 year old (perhaps not involving physical force, but certainly involving drugs and coercion), I’m reminded of a term I use, “Other Peoples’ Liberals”. This is related to the term “Limousine Liberal” (or even, at times, “Marin County Liberal” if you happen to live in the right place, although that’s too broad a brush).

These are the folks who drive SUVs because they have a “legitimate” reason, but decry the fact that so many people drive cars with low gas mileage and destroy the environment. This is Dianne Feinstein, a staunch gun control advocate but who had a concealed carry permit; when confronted, she said she needed it for her protection. This is parents of a friend of mine who was one of the most out gay people I knew. He said that they were all for gay rights in the abstract, but were not happy to find out their son was gay. This was the father of a women I knew in high school, who was all for racial equality, but who expressed some objections when she was dating a black man.

These are people who are all for tolerance and environmentalism, as long as it doesn’t require them to disturb their own back yard.

In a word, hypocrites.

To be sure, it’s not at all an exclusively liberal thing. It seems that a few months can’t go by without our finding out about the extreme illicit sexual adventures of an extreme outspoken conservative “family values” politician. Rush Limbaugh was all no-tolerance on drugs, until all of a sudden he’s up on drug charges. Excessively wealthy executives are for the unregulated free market and treat “socialism” as the dirtiest word ever, until all of a sudden their bank is failing and they need government bailouts to survive.

High standards of behavior that everybody else must be held to, but which are clearly too strict when applied to you.

Hypocrisy is universal. As is the ability for people to be able to overcome cognitive dissonance and justify their own bad behavior, and to come to the defense of the people they have chosen to celebrate, even when they themselves or those they celebrate have violated things they would otherwise speak out against vociferously.

We just need to recognize it for what it is, even when the subject is somebody who’s produced challenging art and that has been celebrated for that art.