Cats and Dogs

By way of this Coding Horror article discussing recent CAPTCHA breaks in Yahoo, Hotmail, and Google, I stumbled across the Asirra (Animal Species Image Recognition for Restricting Access) project at Microsoft Research. It’s a CAPTCHA system that uses pictures of cats and dogs, taken from Petfinder, to filter out bots from real people. I decided to try using it instead of my current CAPTCHA for comments, and, after some wrangling and debugging, got it to work. I have to say I find it much more amusing and stress-free than picking out bizarrely-mangled words amongst a field of visual noise.

Another blogger seems to take a dim view of Asirra, but I think his main criticism (being able to defeat the CAPTCHA by enlisting users of a legitimate site and storing the results keyed to an image hash) is something that could be addressed in several different ways. I thought about cropping and rotating the images, and then, after a brief search, found this paper whose results suggest that those may be viable options to defeat image hashing algorithms. This is definitely another “arms race” situation where spammers will keep developing new techniques to defeat “human authentication,” but I think Asirra is a pretty decent idea, and, like I said earlier, a lot more fun than a traditional CAPTCHA.

I hope you like it!

Still Playing Culdcept Saga

It’s a really great game, in my opinion, held back a little bit by some technical and usability issues. To get those out of the way first:

  • There’s some slowdown on certain maps when a lot of creatures are deployed, which doesn’t seem justified given the perceived GPU load. There’s also some visible tearing at different times during the game, which is ugly.
  • There are some silly usability things like not being able to pan/examine the map when you reach a map junction (so you need to plan where you want to move in advance), and areas where it’s difficult to determine who/what a card will affect. (Typically these are cases that depend on the number/type of land owned by a cepter — as far as I can tell, there’s no easy way to get that information apart from examining the map and counting manually.)

The upside of the game, in my opinion, is still pretty high. I’m struck by how differently the game plays for me versus Sandy, just based on the compositions of our decks. I have built most of my decks around turtling strategies, with creatures like Leshy (who improves his land every time he survives a battle…before tolls are taken, which is awesome), Poseidon (who gives +20 HP to defenders), Rahab (+10 HP for blue/yellow creatures), Borgess (+20 HP for neutral creatures), Fontaciel (who can keep boosting the HP of all of your creatures), and a few of the Wall creatures. I try and avoid going on the offensive by using spells like Fog (and the Burnacle’s territory ability, which is the same thing) and Peace to reduce the tolls I have to pay, and fighting only when necessary. The Telegnosis and Find spells allow me to manipulate my territories at my leisure, and zip through my deck to find the cards that I need. When I have to fight, I try and muster the best items and penetrating attacks that I can, which are usually enough to do the trick. I can sit tight, zip around the board, and wait for the computer cepters to inevitably land on some of my high-toll lands, and it’s over.

Sandy, so far, has had to use more of a mixed deck and play more offensively than I have. She used offensive spells to take care of powerful enemies and take their land — I don’t believe I have very many (good) spells like that, so it’s interesting to me to see a different style in play. I have no idea how many cards I’m still missing (I suspect there’s still quite a few that I haven’t seen or obtained), but between that, my still hazy understanding of the symbol system in the game, and the fact that I haven’t yet played online, I think there’s still a lot more gameplay for me to experience.

Brazen

A resident in my apartment complex just had all of the tires off of his BMW M3 stolen overnight. The car was left up on cinderblocks — we saw him talking to the police earlier this afternoon. Not a good way to start your Saturday, although I was impressed — he seemed much calmer talking to the cops about it than I would have been. I remember hearing about someone who used to work at Totally Games (long before I was there) who had all of the tires stolen off of their Integra while they were having lunch at Northgate Mall, which is also pretty crazy — we’re talking about a 45-minute window of opportunity, in broad daylight.

Possible symptom of an economic downturn, or just another random crime? I don’t know.

Gasoline

The Sam’s Club location down the street from me (of which we are members, due mainly to its proximity) recently opened a gas station. This is great for us — it’s essentially the same distance to the Sam’s Club gas station as it is to the other stations that, until now, we favored. And, naturally, the prices are quite a bit cheaper — I’m not sure if it’s an opening promotion or not, but the price differential is about 30 cents or so per gallon. Huge.

The one nagging concern is that the Sam’s Club gas station only sells regular (87 octane) and premium (91 octane) at this location. My car’s owner’s manual recommends 89 octane mid-grade gasoline, which, to this point, I have dutifully used. Note that the premium gasoline is still a lot cheaper than mid-grade at the surrounding stations, so I have no economic problem with using it. I am, however, somewhat concerned about reports of using higher-octane fuel causing issues with the emissions systems. Anybody know if this is worth fretting about?

Travel Planning

Some people have asked me about how I find travel deals and keep my traveling costs low, so I figured that I would write a little bit about resources that I use and things to watch out for.

FlyerTalk and Travel Tools

My main resource for travel-related stuff is FlyerTalk, which has excellent forums and helpful users. There are subforums for every airline’s frequent flyer program, plus general “mileage run deals” and “hotel deals” subforums, which is where a lot of the interesting action happens. Even if you are not technically doing a mileage run, it’s worth keeping an eye on the forum because you may find an itinerary that fits your needs (either for business or leisure). There are also excellent general FAQs there about booking mileage runs, and lists of useful tools for planning them.

One of those tools happens to be ITA Software’s web site. ITA creates back-end reservation software for the industry, and has graciously opened up their system for public use (registration required, but otherwise free). Their query engine is very useful, allowing for month-long fare searches as well as more standard one-way and round-trip searches with fixed dates. The real magic occurs, though, when you begin using the more advanced aspects of their query language. This allows you to search for itineraries that are restricted to certain airlines, have connections in particular cities, or have a minimum number of connections. These search capabilities are very useful for taking full advantage of fare rules and maximizing connections and miles traveled for a mileage run. An example search query might be from: LAX :: ua,us+ ua,us+ ua,us+ to: PVD :: ua,us+ ua,us+ ua,us+. This would search for itineraries from LAX to Providence that had a minimum of three segments each way, on either United Airlines or US Airways (who happen to be partners in Star Alliance).

Note that ITA is not actually a travel agent, and so you cannot book through them — you can either call a travel agent to book (using the very specific information that you can get from ITA’s itinerary details page), go through the airline directly, or book on a third-party site (like Expedia) that has sufficiently flexible “multi-city” booking functionality.

There are other sites like TravelGlitch and the Best Rate Guarantee blog which spread the word about mistake fares and pricing. These can be useful if you can plan mini-vacations on short notice, or if a mistake fare just happens to coincide with your travel plans.

Airfare Searches

One interesting trick that I discovered relates to how you do your airfare searches, and it seems to relate to the general intractability of the airfare search space. Namely, when you perform an airfare query on a travel website, your query is only going to be allotted a certain amount of CPU (or search to a certain tree depth) before returning. The reason for this is responsiveness — for both your query as well as the thousands of others that may be going on at the same time. If you add restrictions to your query (such as limiting it to a certain airline), you may end up with better results for that airline than for the same airline in an unrestricted query. Because you are searching deeper in a particular portion of a tree, you may get better (i.e. cheaper) results — it’s as simple as that. I’ve seen this in action, so it’s definitely worth an extra search or two to make sure that you’re getting the best fare possible.

Rebates and Cashback

As far as actually spending the money to book travel, there are ways to shave a few more percentage points off of the cost.

  • You can start by using a credit card that gives a percentage cashback or other rewards (like airline miles).
  • Next, you can take advantage of promotional deals from credit cards. For example, Discover is currently running a promotion where travel-related expenses earn 5% cashback (up to $800). This can add up to a significant amount of money, so take full advantage of it.

    Other promotions can be “gamed” a bit. MasterCard has run several promotions with Travelocity where booking a flight + hotel package gets you a refund. Astute shoppers will notice that Travelocity conveniently allows you to book a hotel in a city unrelated to the one to which you’re flying. Therefore, astute shoppers who just want a flight (and not a hotel) will take advantage of that by booking an extremely cheap hotel internationally, pocketing the difference between the cheap hotel’s rate and the MasterCard refund.

  • Finally, you can use a shopping portal like FatWallet to get additional cashback from travel purchases. On FatWallet, for example, Hotels.com pays 4% cashback, and Priceline pays 3% cashback.

Granted, most of the above methods are rebates and do not change your up-front cost for travel. But they can make a significant dent in travel expenses — from 5-10%, which is essentially free money!

I’ll write more on the subject of travel planning later, but I figured that this would be a good time to write about this kind of stuff since we just got back yesterday from a vacation that was booked using many of these techniques. 🙂

When No Idea Was Crazy

While I was cleaning out and throwing away some old junk, I came across some old promotional stuff for iSmell scent technology which I guess I picked up at the 2000 GDC. I saved it for humor value. The company (Digiscents) met its demise in June 2001, to no one’s surprise. I thought I picked up their SDK and documentation as well, but I must have thrown it out a long time ago.

There’s an article linked from that Wikipedia entry titled “How Internet Odors Will Work,” but I’m afraid that it’s too much of a low-hanging fruit for even me to make a joke.

Someone appears to have taken over the Digiscents domain, and is running a “digital scent technology blog.” (For a laugh, check out the Google AdWords at the top of the page.)

Roll the Dice, Move Your Mice

We recently bought Culdcept Saga for the Xbox 360, and have been having a lot of fun with it. It’s essentially a cross between Monopoly and Magic: The Gathering — you roll a die and move your piece around the board, claiming (or contesting) territory with monsters that you cast out of your hand of cards. Like Monopoly, you can improve your land (raising the tolls you gather), and there’s also a “color affinity” mechanic where creatures gain combat bonuses when they are on land of the same element as the creature. You can use different items and different spells to affect the “strategic board” as well as individual combats. At the end of each match, you earn new cards with which to build your deck. Both skill and luck come into play in the game.

I can easily recommend this to anyone with an interest in collectible card games. There’s actually a demo available on Xbox Live, although it doesn’t show any of the deck-building mechanics — you have to use one of four prebuilt decks in the demo. We played the demo quite a bit before the game’s release earlier this month — thankfully, the full game is just as engrossing.

A Sight to Behold

We were in Santa Barbara over the weekend, and while we were walking down State St. we saw a guy with three animals: a cat and a rat, who were riding on the back of a dog. Unfortunately I couldn’t snap a picture as my phone’s camera decided to quit working (until I rebooted it…really unforgivable). Thankfully, though, there are numerous YouTube movies of this guy.