Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Anyone want to buy a nearly-new D-Link DSM-320?

Back when I was considering HDTV one thing I realized I needed was a way to replace my TiVo's ability to stream multimedia from my PC network to the TV. My choice was the D-Link MediaLounge DSM-320.

I'm very happy with the DSM-320... except for one thing. Turns out I'm an idiot.

The DSM-320 mentions nothing about an upper limit on resolution of images it can display in photo or video. And it includes a component video output which, in theory, can carry HD (though it requires five connectors compared to a single HDMI cable). Somehow, I thought it would let me stream HD video to the TV and see it in HD.

Turns out that's what the DSM-520 can do. Otherwise, they look to have identical capabilities.

Because I was kept so busy by troubles with the HD-DVR, and because my WildBlue bandwidth limits mean I can't easily torrent down HD content, and since there's precious little HD content to download anyway, I didn't get around to trying it until well after's 30 day refund period.

There's no way to come out of this without a loss. I'm going to try to sell my nearly-new, mint-condition DSM-320 for not too much of a loss and buy the DSM-520, hopefully without too much of a soaking. Grrr.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Finished reading Kiln People

Last night I finished reading David Brin's book Kiln People at long last.

I enjoyed the book a great deal. It's not quite on a par with Brin's best work; I'd place it just a little below Glory Season and certainly well below the Uplift books, but above The Practice Effect and Heart of the Comet. But that still puts it head and shoulders above most stuff, and far above the "worth reading" threshold.

The first two thirds of the book explores the consequences of dittotech, a technology that allows people to create temporary copies of themselves and then inload the memories that those copies gather. This was by far my favorite element. The first few dozen pages in particular were breathtaking; my mind was racing ahead to various not-immediately-obvious ramifications of this technology (like people using them to play live-action roleplaying games in which you could really fight and kill and die), and as these ideas piled up quickly, the book continually astonished me with even more amazing possibilities that I hadn't thought of.

The last third of the book felt more perfunctory to me. There was the resolution of the various mysteries, some of which I had already solved (I claim no particular genius there: I had the information of all of the main character's dittos to draw on, but he only had some of it) and some of which I had not. There was some action. But mostly, there was a departure from the tone and topic of the earlier parts of the book that I found less welcome.

To a large extent, the first two thirds of the book treat dittotech as a MacGuffin; we are expected to accept it and not dwell too long on whether we find it plausible. The details of how clay is used, or why memory transfers have the limitations they do, are not really important to the thought experiment that asks, "what if this were possible, what would happen?" In a sense, the author has entered into an implicit MacGuffin contract with us: "don't give me too much grief about the plausibility of the fiddly details, because they aren't really crucial to the thought experiment." In the last section, though, this contract is broken. The author goes away from exploring the ramifications of dittotech as presented, by playing around with those very fiddly details we were just supposed to accept earlier.

The result provides a big world-changing resolution that would feel entirely appropriate at the end of a Greg Egan book, but which didn't feel to me like it fit the first part of this book. I just can't help wondering what alternate way the story might have gone if it had remained bound by its original premise.

That said, it was still a very gripping and exciting bit of writing which kept me glued to the pages, and I enjoyed every bit of it. I don't mean to sound anywhere near as critical as I think I do; it's hard to say as much about all that was good without venturing into spoilers, but not as hard to speak about the little bit that wasn't as good.

I'm not even going to comment on the puns...

Monday, May 29, 2006

HDTV IV: The Phantom Menace

The troubles with the HD-DVR's "check switch" I described a few days ago gradually disappeared over the course of a few days. I'm always suspicious of things like that; when will it come back without warning? What caused it? So I didn't cancel the appointment to have someone come out to repair it today.

I was unable to get it to repeat with any certainty, but while they were here, they realigned the satellite dishes to slightly improve signal strength. They showed no interest in the shiny silver box that I wondered about, and nothing they did identified or altered the source of the original problem. All we can do is hope it stays away.

Developing culture of a feline race

Feline humanoid races are a staple of fantasy worlds, but they're almost always done wrong in roleplaying games, largely because defining the race's culture is left to players who then fall into one of a few common traps that render the whole idea of a feline race pointless. The most common traps are:

Cuddlekittens: Ignoring all feline races except the one that is least like all the others -- the housecat -- they depict the feline race as snuggly, playful kittens, who trivialize themselves. While we all love kittens, they don't prove very interesting as fantasy heroes or villains, particularly compared with the richness of other feline species.

Furry Humans: They're just people who happen to be furry, and maybe have one or two other vaguely feline-inspired traits like a propensity for meat, but otherwise they act just like people. A particularly pernicious version of this is the "sexy catgirl" version, in which they're just kinky humans in furry costumes.

Poncy Aristocrats: Focusing on how lions are the king of animals, they play up the nobility by dressing up in frilly fru-fru silk and flouncing around marble palaces in gilt chariots. This derives from the misconception that there is an opposition, a trade-off, between majestic nobility, grace and elegance and poise, on the one hand, and primal savagery, terrifying strength and viciousness on the other. And there is such an opposition in some species -- perhaps humans, for instance. But you only need look at a lion in placid repose on its haunches, completely unadorned save by blood on its jaw as it tears flesh from a carcass with infinite aplomb and savage strength, to see that with felines, these traits are not only not opposed, but each reinforce one another. Stripping a feline of its savage power does not increase its noble presence, it decreases it.

When Lusternia came along, it seemed like a chance to do right what had been done wrong in so many other places before. Its background was rich and beautiful, but it was also sketchy. Its feline race, the aslaran, were described only by a few paragraphs, plus a few passing references in the history, which shed no light on the vast majority of questions about aslaran culture and traditions. A ripe opportunity for players to develop all that, and do it right.

The trick in a situation like this is forging consensus. You have a bunch of players playing independently, often not even meeting each other, making up the missing bits of the racial background as they make up their own. The inexorable tendency is towards the sucking black hole of Wishy-Washiness, where every race and every culture ends up being described the same way, "very diverse, including nearly every possibility within it". Why bother? The whole point of developing a race's culture is to ensure that they have one. It's incredibly hard to resist the pull of Wishy-Washiness because it's hard to reject anyone's input, but at some point, something has to be accepted, decided, if anything's to be accomplished.

A handful of people, myself amongst them, started right in on developing aslaran culture as soon as Lusternia was open, and we were doing very well at avoiding the pitfalls. There weren't that many of us, and this worked in our favor, and we got a lot of great stuff done. There was an early incident that outsiders probably thought was a major setback. One particular aslaran player who came along later mistook himself for a leader of these efforts (because of a coincidental matter of in-game finances), but was only obstructive to them because of his remarkably inflated ego, and unhelpful because of his dedication to repeating the Poncy Aristocrat mistake. He, and a few loyalists he'd arranged around himself, were soon excluded from the efforts, and did not realize that for a long time (in fact, according to the revisionist history on his web page, he still hasn't realized it). They depicted this as a schism, but it really had no impact on the ongoing efforts, which had been started before he came and done out of his sight anyway.

What actually killed these efforts was much more serious. As I've written previously, Lusternia turned out to fall far, far short of its promise. One by one, those who had been part of this effort fell away, or switched to other roles, or gave up entirely in the face of administrative resistance and inconsistency. The effort eventually languished and withered on the vine. Sometimes I look back on some of the things we produced during those days and sigh at all the lost promise.

Perhaps the best emblem of this failure is that that particular egotist remains in Lusternia, allowing the Poncy Aristocrat model to hold sway by default; he posts endless screeds on the Lusternia forums about how Lusternia's design is anathema to strong roleplaying, yet no matter how many times he says it's pointless to stay, he never leaves and instead takes some kind of misguided pride in the victory of his perseverence. That pale echo is all that remains of what we did, and that fact is a microcosm of Lusternia's failure. Everything in Lusternia is like this: a faint mockery of what it could have been.

Sunday, May 28, 2006


One of the most important concepts that most people don't understand, but which is needed to understand things in many fields ranging from physics to psychology to economics, is emergence.

Emergence refers to situations in which a system can be analyzed on two levels: as the action of a bunch of small individual components, each acting according to its own simple rules of behavior; and as a large system which evidences patterns and complexities of behavior which do not seem to be directly related to the behaviors of the smaller components, and cannot be readily predicted from an analysis thereof. Classical examples of emergence are fish (and bird) schooling, the stock market, automotive traffic patterns, hydrodynamics, insect colony behavior, and the mind. There's an excellent summary of emergence in the Wikipedia article.

By its nature we like to imagine things are built up by an understandable and predictable progression from small to large. A building made of Legos behaves in a way you can understand from the patterns of individual Legos. Put more chocolate chips in your cookie dough and the cookies have predictably more chips each.

But for every example where macrobehavior is easily predicted from microbehavior, there's one we like to ignore where it isn't. And not recognizing how emergence works, or even that it happens, is the source of many of the logical fallacies and mistakes of understanding made by people, even well-informed and literate ones. Not just in the areas of science or philosophy but also in politics and economics (you can't regulate markets without understanding the ways they do, and do not, regulate themselves, for instance). Everyone should familiarize themselves with the concept.

Media server drive

Installed a 250G hard drive bought for $50 from Woot in my home server and set it up with the D-Link DSM-320. I can load it up with video, pictures, and audio and stream them all to the overwhelming HDTV of doom at a moment's notice. Freed up gigs and gigs of space on my laptop, too.

There's room for tons of content there, including a complete mirror of my music collection (almost 7000 songs) and as much video as I can stand to pile up. I wonder how long 250G will seem roomy?

Friday, May 26, 2006


Thirteen years ago today, my wife and I arrived in Vermont. We'd been living in Juneau, Alaska for about five years, and had decided that that wasn't where we wanted to settle down, so we researched, saved money, and then packed what we couldn't sell, plus three cats and a guinea pig, in a small minivan, and drove it onto the Alaska Marine Highway. We disembarked the ferry at Prince Rupert Island and drove from there, ten days, to Vermont, with a short layover in Minneapolis to visit some of Siobhan's friends.

On arriving, we had no jobs lined up, nor a place to live. Just a minivan full of cranky animals and a small savings. We had never even been to Vermont (except I, apparently, was in Rutland once as a very young child, but I have no memory of that). But we'd done a lot of research and we were sure that this was the place for us, and it was. We got in late in the evening, had pizza delivered to the hotel, and by nightfall we had lined up several showings of rentals the next day. We had a deposit down on one by the end of the day, ready to move in on the first of the month, and moved to a cheaper motel until then. We spent the five days resting, taking the cats to walk in Hubbard Park, and looking for work. Siobhan had a job within a couple of weeks; I took a few weeks longer.

I could write about why we picked Vermont, or how we prepared for it, or what the trip was like, or what we did during those first weeks, but I'll save those to write in other posts.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Revenge of HDTV, Part I: A New Hope

The HD-DVR died on Saturday after a day and a half of service. DISH promised the new one would arrive on Wednesday. Trouble is, I had trivia Wednesday evening, then shopping Thursday evening, and I couldn't readily skip work on Thursday because it's the day my backup happens. So I decided to take Wednesday off from work. Problem with that is UPS usually gets to our house last thing on their route, around 5pm, so I'd barely get any time to set up the new DVR anyway before trivia.

So on Tuesday we called UPS and were assured that we could get a "hold" on the package after it arrived in the early morning and pick it up ourselves. Great. Morning comes and calls to UPS lead nowhere because "the system" says it hasn't arrived yet. The UPS trucks leave by 9:00, yet at 9:30 "it still hasn't arrived, so I can't put a hold on it, sorry". They refuse to connect us to our local distribution center -- even though this is Vermont and I bet our local distribution center wouldn't mind one bit. They won't even tell us where it is. About 9:45am, my constant refreshing on the UPS track page yields fool's gold: the package was received at 6:45am, and went out for delivery at 7:45am, and this information simply hadn't made it into the system.

There was a glimmer of hope, however. A package had arrived the previous day from UPS and been delivered around 1:30pm, not the usual 5:00pm. So I sat around waiting and hoping, and sure enough, the UPS guy came by around 1pm. Ran out to meet him, chatted a little -- apparently, they've changed the routes around. Hot fruit.

I was nervous while I set up the DVR, but all went well and I had glorious HD again in short order. Was going through the tedious task of setting up a few dozen "season passes and wish lists" -- I can't help thinking in TiVo terms still -- and decided I was tired of the HD demo channel running in the corner of the guide, so I went to RaveHD so I could be not-watching Tori Amos in the corner instead.

The screen filled with barf and I heard horrible glitchy noises and then I started to get grump-o-grams about acquiring satellite signals and needing to run "Check Switch" again. For several hours I tried different channels, rebooted the DVR, checked and rechecked the cables (there's just not many ways to do them wrong!), and checking the Point Dish screen (which consistently reported strong signals and lock-on on all three satellites). Finally had to call DISH and arrange for someone to come out on Monday. For now, it works if I massage it from time to time into getting around a "can't acquire signal" or "run check switch" dialog box -- which means I can't trust that it'll record anything unattended, of course.

If I get on a channel and it's good, it stays good. But when I change channel, some channels are on one satellite and some on another, and apparently the process of moving between the satellite involves some kind of switch which seems to be working on-again-off-again. It's like it gets stuck, so one group of channels works and another group won't, and then after a while it'll succeed and the first group of channels will be the ones that don't work right.

In any case I'm almost 100% sure it's not in the DVR. Just not sure if this is just a coincidence, a second system component failing. Or maybe the old DVR while it was dying took a switch out with it by overloading it or something. Or maybe this switch was marginal all along and we just didn't see it until now because the old DVR didn't last long enough.

Meanwhile the DVR has me jumpy; every time it turns on or off, or reboots itself spontaneously without explanation, or pops up any kind of error message, I flinch. This morning it wanted me to hook up a working phone line -- which of course I already have, and it's passed the phone line test many times. It's hard to feel like I can count on this box, but maybe I'm just once bitten twice shy.

I thought I would miss TiVo's spectacularly good user interface, or its advanced multimedia-hub capabilities, or Suggestions, but what I'm missing is rock-solid reliability. I'm hoping we'll get past that bathtub curve and over the learning curve and everything will settle down.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Troikas: a creative, simple, challenging puzzle

Lightening the mood a little bit today with a simple puzzle called a Troika which I like because creating them is relatively easy, fun, and creative, and solving them can be challenging and also creative. The idea is simple: find what these three things have in common. ("They're all nouns" may be true, but the correct answer is generally the most limiting possible answer.) An example is the best explanation: blue, straw, rasp. This is a pretty easy one: kinds of berries. A much harder example: key, bridge, string are all parts of a violin.

Try these, and post your answers in the comments; some of them are very challenging.

  • painting, water, sword
  • cherry, sky, jet
  • mail, stink, smart
  • pig, ink, baby
  • sterile bandage, photocopier, facial tissue
  • stiff, Joe, slob
  • brain, staghorn, reef
  • brown, peppermint, rerun
  • bell, ball, mason
  • addict, sailmaker, phonograph
  • welt, child, price
  • stuffed lobster, tamale, deviled egg
  • pool ball, skunk, flag
  • tumbler, sun, reading

Monday, May 22, 2006

Simulationist, gamist, or dramatist?

I used to participate in, and even initiate, discussions about how Harshlands might be run, but I always ended up regretting it. Every time I did, it didn't go how I wanted; instead of having my ideas become useful input, they always got lost somewhere in the muddle, and often the result was unintentionally upsetting or offending someone. Partially it's because Harshlands has been around so long that I'm still the new kid on the block; I've only played one character in one area and one trade, so there's just so much of the game I don't know about. But mostly it's my own fault, or more to the point, the fault of my own disabilities at communication. So I have had to stick firmly to my resolution not to participate in those discussions.

There's a few active ones going on in the forums about which I have lots of ideas, and which spring from some events in the game in which I was involved, so it's hard not to get involved. And I'm not posting here to get involved in a roundabout way. I don't think anyone else from the game regularly reads my blog (except my wife) but you never know.

However, I do want to use that as a springboard to muse some on a related subject that was inspired by those discussions.

One useful model of gamer behavior divides attitudes into three categories, noting that every player or GM includes some of each, with virtually no one being a "pure" one of any of the three. They are:

  • Simulationist: If you set up the world properly as a complete and accurate simulation, or as close as you can get, to an actual world that makes sense and tends to support the kind of activities you want to see, you can, and should, just step back and watch it unfold. The GM/admin does not interfere with the unfolding story, but only is there to keep cranking the handle that makes it all turn.

  • Gamist: Players should all get a fair chance, which means they should be as close as possible to being equal to one another, and also to the challenges they face, the opponents they fight. The GM/admin should only intervene to ensure fairness and to provide ongoing challenges to the players calibrated to be fair but challenging.

  • Dramatist: The point of the game is an interesting and dramatic story. It's rarely enough to set up a game or a world and let it play out; you have to get involved all the time to keep shepherding the plot to make sure things go in a direction that, while it may be unexpected, is nevertheless satisfying.
Of course, it's just a model for describing behavior and attitude, which helps clarify similarities and differences; it's not some kind of causal description of people's inner workings.

Often simulationists and gamists will ally against dramatists. They might insist that if you stick your fingers into the story too much to manipulate it, you give the players the sense that the outcome is predetermined and therefore meaningless. Only by letting the chips fall where they may can you make the outcome mean anything. The dramatist might retort that what players really want is a big payoff of triumph; they want to go up against impossible odds and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and if you just allow them to march into a dreary failure at the hands of realism, they'll walk away saying, "I get too much of this already in real life!"

But simulationists and gamists, unified in opposing dramatists, would disagree with each other on everything else. Gamists would support a continuing pattern of GM/admin "interference" to ensure that the players are given fair but challenging obstacles and opponents as they progress; it wouldn't be "fair" (the gamist byword) for a newbie to have to fight a dragon, or a seasoned pro to have nothing but weak opponents. A simulationist would decry this kind of interference; real life sometimes hands us unbalanced opposition and we should let that play out. A gamist would insist on players starting out the game about equal, while a simulationist would have no problem pairing a poor, disabled street urchin with a rich, powerful, skilled mogul.

I have never heard of a dramatist MUD or MMORPG, and I don't think it's really feasible for several reasons:

  • Game admins just don't have the time to be that intimately involved in shaping the unfolding storyline.
  • Most MUD/MMORPGs encourage players to play characters on both sides of any conflict, while other kinds of roleplaying usually have players united on one side of any fight.
  • Dramatist involvement by admins would be seen as unfair by some of the players, and "whine fatigue" usually encourages admins towards whatever minimizes complaints.
  • MUDs and MMORPGs generally don't allow any conflict to ever finally resolve; no one ever fully wins or loses in any way that can't be reversed next month.
Many MUDs and MMORPGs are very gamist. Consider Lusternia: it's widely accepted that there are glaring holes in the simulation, but that's all right, as long as they are distributed equally.

Harshlands, however, is very strongly simulationist. The first thing that made me realize this was that chargen allows people to start very unequally in power levels. The simulationist tone is ubiquitous in how the game is run. This isn't a criticism by any means! After dealing with a few games heavily imbalanced towards being gamist, a simulationist game is very refreshing.

The trouble with undiluted simulationism is that any flaws or gaps in the simulation tend to become more important, if they can't be countered or cancelled out. The main reasons why MUDs and MMORPGs always have gaps are:

  • Technical limitations in codebases, such as lack of real AI for NPCs.
  • Insufficient player base to reflect all the parts of a society, an economy, etc.
  • Some parts of a completely simulated world are simply boring and tedious, and no one wants to play them out.
  • Players can't be logged on 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Sometimes you can use these gaps to cancel each other out. For instance, in Harshlands, we all know apprentices have to spend a lot of their time doing chores for their masters, and sleeping. No one wants to play out sleeping, or sweeping floors, so the game doesn't actually require those things. Instead, people usually use them as an excuse for why they're not around while they're logged out; they're off doing those things that we like to have happen "off camera". An elegant solution, provided you can make sure that any disparity between how much time you can't spend online and how much off-camera work your character has to do falls within the fudge factor of plausibility and suspension of disbelief. (And also provided simulationist-extremists in the guise of roleplaying advocates don't start insisting if you don't play out every time your character goes to the bathroom, he didn't go, so he should get dysentery.)

Most of the tricks of designing a game like Harshlands, and most of the ideas I've tried to contribute, are about ways to cover the gaps. For instance, to encourage a player-driven economy in which people's products will sell appropriately well, you need to drive people to buy their goods from other players whenever possible; however, to keep a missing player from grinding an economy to a halt, there need to be alternative sources for all required goods. (One solution: have NPCs sell all goods required for any craft, but ensure they always cost slightly more than PCs can sell the same goods at.)

Of course I wouldn't mind seeing a little bit more dramatist-leaning involvement by the admins -- creating events, or ensuring they have satisfying resolutions -- but I don't put any stock in that wish, because it's always easy to volunteer other people's time. Unless I'm willing to put in the time and effort to do that myself (and I'm not -- in my realspace games I do my share of the GMing already, so I go to MUDs for a chance to not do that) I've got no right to ask for others to do it.

But all in all, I think that discussions about how Harshlands should run would be improved by people recognizing this three-way model. Often people are coming at the question from different perspectives and not really realizing that, which makes the discussions less fruitful. If people realized that there were these three viewpoints, that not everyone shares the same balance of preferences for them, and that they are not innately reconcilable save by balancing them, it might help the discussions focus on balancing them (and on choosing a balance point to aim for that attracts the players and play that we want) rather than on talking sometimes at cross-purposes without realizing the disparity in viewpoints between different speakers.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Avril Lavigne must be horrified

It's a ubiquitous cultural trope: the young rebellious teenager listening to music that those of an elder generation consider noise. "What's that crap you're listening to? In my day, we had music." As the elder pontificates on outdated music, the teenager rolls her eyes, and turns up the volume, revelling in how much her tunes annoy the old fogeys.

So what would Avril Lavigne think of the fact that I, nearly 40 and very definitely an old fogey in the generation she's supposed to be horrifying and rebelling against, listen to her music? Would she be horrified, thinking she must be doing something wrong since she's supposed to be counter-cultural and rebellious, young and hip? Or is she just mercenary enough to think, "another $2.50 in my pocket, sweet!" and leave it at that?

Anyone got her cell phone number so they can call her and find out? I'm curious.

Admittedly, I also listen to plenty of "old fogey" music. Avril is a guilty pleasure for me. Her stuff is vapid, but so is old Van Halen. But Van Halen knew their stuff was vapid; it was made that way on purpose, with a good-natured, self-deprecating cheerfulness. Avril is just young and naïve enough to take herself seriously, and that makes the banality of her lyrics endearingly charming, like the fumbling efforts of a kitten that isn't quite old enough to walk, but tries, falls down, gets up, and tries again.

Or at least that's the image she presents, which is undoubtedly calculated and manufactured and nurtured by canny record-company executives. Still, one can't help wonder; isn't it easier for them to find someone who actually thinks she's rebelling and then nurture that? It seems likely that behind the artificial superficiality of most pop stars lies a genuine superficiality.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Finally un-got HD on the HDTV!

Got a day and a half of HD service out of that DISH VIP622 DVR. Then it got tired.

The first CSR we got on the phone said they sent down a new software update last night and suggested we just needed to let it sit and process for a while. The second one denies that we could have gotten a new update or that that could be involved. Either way, the unit is in boat anchor mode. If I do a power reset, I get a fan whirring, then one LED on, a brief blink, then sitting for 15 seconds or so, then all six LEDs blink on and off, then the whirring stops. If I leave the unit alone, it does that same sequence every 15 minutes or so on its own.

DISH is going to send me a replacement DVR to arrive in five days. So next Wednesday I'm going to spend hours setting up the new unit, then more hours trying to recreate all my recording timers. From memory this time, too, since I erased them from TiVo while I was creating them on the new DVR so TiVo wouldn't keep trying to record with no signal.

This is a very, very sour experience.

Trouble with inbound port forwarding

My old Linksys WRT54G router, the one whose power supply died, used to do port forwarding so I could get to my HomeSeer system so I could view and change the status of devices in my house. This was slow over my WildBlue connection, but it worked.

Though my settings seem to be identical in the new router that replaced it, it doesn't seem to work. The IP address is correct, and a traceroute from outside shows pings coming back from the WAN address (the router itself answering them) so it's getting to the router. But nothing ever shows up either on port 81 (where the HomeSeer web interface is), nor on my SSH forwarding on port 22 to a different computer (where I do coding for Harshlands).

The settings are simple; there's not much to have wrong in them. The two servers being forwarded to have fixed IPs and connections work from inside. In fact, I can even browse to the same address that's supposed to work from outside, but from inside the network, and it gets to them. Nothing has changed on the servers in question, nothing but the router itself. Here's what its setting page for port forwarding looks like:

There must be some other setting on another page that, if it isn't right, port forwarding won't work properly, but I can't think what it could be. I've gone over every setting on every page over and over without finding anything. If anyone has any suggestions, I'd be very eager to hear them.

By the way, I'm running the latest firmware (v1.00.9) for this model.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Finally got HD on the HDTV!

The DISH Network people were due to arrive today to install our new HD receiver/DVR, which would be the first HD we'd be seeing on the overwhelming HDTV of doom. We were worried it wouldn't go well after hearing many installation horror stories on forums, plus having a competing local installer come out and say we didn't have a good view on the other satellite needed. Plus we were sure they wouldn't bring the HDMI cable, though on three separate occasions they insisted on the phone the installers would bring it (including once with the installers themselves).

Late yesterday they called to ask us to go home early so they could do it a day ahead, to relieve an overbooked Friday, so we rushed home. And... everything went well! They put up a dish with the right view lickety-split and everything went swimmingly. Only two small problems showed up which were both reparable.

First, they didn't bring the HDMI cable. I would laugh if I wasn't crying, and cry if I wasn't laughing, because while we were talking about the installation, one of the installers said, "hey, there's a UPS guy here" and what was he delivering? The HDMI cable I ordered for the HD-DVD player that won't be here until next month. So we let them use that cable and today we're going to start arguing on the phone to get it replaced. My wife is very good at arguing with people on the phone. If nothing else, she can ensure that it's cheaper for them to give us the cable than to keep arguing with her, and that's not even counting the Maalox.

Second, our phone line started belching while they were here, but intermittently. Unplugging the line that the new DISH DVR used fixed it, but plugging it back in didn't recreate it. Until after they left, that is. Fortunately it was easily fixed. The idiot plugged the phone line into the Ethernet port. Problem solved.

Our poor TiVo is getting lonely. It can't record anything, but it's still hooked up so we can watch all the stuff that's backlogged on it. Meanwhile, the new HD DVR is loaded up with things to program. (Some things it does easier than TiVo, but most things TiVo does way better. One particularly sad loss is Suggestions. But we'll get by.)

And of course the picture quality is breathtaking. More and more I'm convinced that after all my research, I picked the best type of TV, the best model, and the best place to buy it.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The hive model

David Brin's book Kiln People describes a near future dominated by the use of "dittos" -- copies you make of yourself (sometimes with specialized or limited abilities) which have a 24-hour lifespan, and which can, if they make it back, "inload" their memories back into your original body ("archie").

In the book most people will create a few "dits" (copies, or dittos) in the morning to do whatever they need done that day, then the archie goes about whatever they want to do that day, and at the end of the day the dits come back and inload. The archie body is preserved carefully; it's the single point of failure. But many people still think of it as the "real me", even though what the dits are doing and thinking ends up (assuming they make it home to inload) just as much a part of their experience and memory.

We meet one character who has chosen a different model for life: the hive. Her archie stays in one place and does nothing other than keep itself in good physical and mental shape, and imprint a bewildering variety of dits and inload them, an almost constant stream of dits coming and going. Everything she does and all her experiences and memories, essentially, come from one of her many dits. Her archie is the hive queen; her dits are the hive. The main character considers this approach kind of creepy and unorthodox.

But if kiln technology were available now, I feel sure I would go to the hive model right off. It's the only one that makes sense to me. The archie isn't any more the real me than any other body; to me it'd be the one of my bodies that had the narrowest and most specialized purpose, the one whose job is to coordinate and collate memories. As the single point of failure, it would be my highest priority to maintain it so it could keep doing its job. It'd be foolish to put it to even the slight risk of having it do anything even slightly unsafe when I could have dits to do that.

Assuming I could afford it, at any given time I'd have at a minimum the following hive.
  • Archie: First priority for the archie is keeping fit and safe. Any time left to spare would be spent in relaxing pastimes: reading, playing games, etc.
  • Guard: I'd have at least one dit (probably a general-purpose grey) always with the archie, tending to the archie's needs and standing guard over it.
  • Worker: One inexpensive green dit to do household chores and other mundane work. This is probably the only one that I wouldn't be happy to wake up as; however, greens are made with a slightly simpler mind that's more willing to do this kind of work, and as they say, "Some days you're the grasshopper and some days you're the ant."
  • Office: A highly focused ebony dit to go to work. Might seem like I wouldn't be happy waking up as this one, but really, I enjoy my work, and would enjoy it even more if I knew I could focus on it without worrying about other things needing to get done.
  • Learner: One dit per day, probably a grey or maybe a yellow, whose sole purpose is learning. He'd spend the day reading, taking classes, researching, and reading some more, then inload all that he learned.
  • Player: One dit per day who spent the whole day playing games. So many kinds of fun there are to have that I don't have time to have, and this dit's job would be to have the time, and have the fun.
  • To Do List: And one dit, in whatever color/model I needed for that day, to work on my to-do list, whatever projects weren't being attended to by one of the others. Taking satisfaction from getting things done.
This is of course the bare minimum. In each case, it's tempting to have two of each type. Two office dits would let one handle the constant stream of interruptions and emergencies while the other could focus on project work, for instance.

One interesting possibility that occurred to me is self-brainstorming. Often when I'm designing a program, I'm working on three different directions: the user interface, the data structures, and the algorithm. I'll focus on one for a bit and then bounce to another and then bounce back because ideas I've had in one area affect the other. Sometimes I've got ideas I need to capture in all three at once and I have to focus on one because I can only think and scribble so fast. I think my paradigm of thought when I'm doing this would scale very well to parallel processing: imagine three ebony dits of me, one working on each of the three aspects. If the one working on the data structure realizes a need to change the underlying data design in a way that will affect the user interface, he can tell the one working on the user interface and then keep working on his own thoughts without interrupting their stream, while the one working on the user interface can incorporate the change and continue on his own stream of design. I think I could achieve a synergy this way allowing me to get more than three times as much done in a given period of time, and produce a better result besides.

The central premise of the book is a little implausible compared to most Brin work, but it's a MacGuffin; the book's purpose is to explore the issues of identity and personhood through the premise. Even so, I do find myself wishing for that advance. I think I'm the kind of person who would adapt to the paradigm change and flourish with it.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006


I don't play computer games much, so I don't keep up on the computer games market. So I guess everyone else already knows about Spore, but I just heard about it.

(In case you haven't, too, the best way to find out about it is the video demo from 2005's E3. Go watch the video before you read the rest of this.)

Like I said, I'm not much for computer games. My dabblings are generally things I can pick up and play for five minutes and then put down, which I use to fill in times I'm waiting for something, or on those rare days when I just need to burn off a little stress. Mostly I play ancient (read: from my own youth) arcade games using MAME, and puzzle games like Sudoku or Bejewelled. And of course I play person-to-person roleplaying games, sometimes face to face and sometimes over a computer (as opposed to a computer game that integrates, or claims to integrate, roleplaying, which I do not play).

But I don't play anything that takes an investment of time, anything that sucks you in, because, simply enough, I put my time into other sinkholes, just as consuming and addictive. I have a few flight simulators and a space combat game, but I rarely spend that long in them, so every time I play with them I have to start over.

Spore might be the thing to finally change that. Now I have to decide what else to give up to make the time for it. And think about whether I'll need to buy a gaming computer that can handle it (doubt I'll be able to kick my wife off of her computer long enough!). I've been imagining a game like this since the first day I was exposed to simulation games, maybe earlier, so how could I not?

Monday, May 15, 2006

Ignorance of basic statistical methods

There's no point in locking your car doors. If someone wants in, they'll just break the glass, and then you'll have the cost of broken glass on top of the theft to deal with.

Most of the people who die of heart failures in hospitals have had defibrillators applied to them just before they died. Better make sure not to let them use a defibrillator on you.

In the history of mankind, more than 80% of people who have eaten tomatoes subsequently died. Tomatoes are poison!

Correctly identifying the sample is key in saying anything meaningful about it.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

The joke of British humor

So much of British humor is built around a single joke. That joke goes like this: "Watch me be really mean to stupid people!"

This joke is by no means limited to the British, but hardly anyone has the same fascination they have with it. They seem content to explore it over and over. If you have even the slightest talent at dialogue and spite you could almost guarantee to get a laugh just by finding a new situation in which you can have a mean person and some stupid people.

Don't get me wrong. I am a great fan of British humor. But there is also a lot of British humor I can't stand, that may superficially appear to resemble that which I love to death. Bad British humor just coasts on that joke, relying on nothing but it. Good British humor can be made by taking that joke and using it as the canvas on which to paint witty dialogue and wordplay and physical humor.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Mission Impossible III

We need to make sure that J.J. Abrams has very good healthcare. We can't afford to lose him.

MI:3 is a definitive summer action popcorn flick. It never lets up, it all fits together, and it carries you through every minute. Just enough twists, but not too many. Satisfying action sequences that have it all -- they have gimmicks, shaky cameras, explosions, and fast cuts, but they also have energy, athletics, plot, suspense, and an unexpectedness that's rare in action flicks. None of them (well, maybe one) feel like it was shoved in to meet the action scene quota; they all feel like part of the story. The dialogue is crisp and witty and engaging.

(Incidentally, can someone ask the producer, director, and cinematographer from The Bourne Supremacy to watch this movie and then get in touch with the crew? I wish I could see the "steadicam version" of The Bourne Supremacy -- I would so pay for that DVD. (Aside to the aside: I had a dream a few weeks ago in which the third movie in the series came out, and was called The Bourne Complacency, and in the dream that seemed perfectly normal to me and everyone else.))

Okay, it's not all perfect. Ving Rhames is, as usual, sadly underused. There's one corny, clichéd scene (to avoid spoilers it's in rot13: gur PCE fprar arne gur raq) that wasn't any different from the thousand other times I've seen it. A few of the secondary characters we don't get to know as well as we might like.

Perhaps the best measure of an action movie is that sense you get with some of them, the good ones, that there was a lot more in it than could fit in one movie. As big as my TV is, I'm glad I saw this one in the theater.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Cultural decades

What were the 1960s about?

Odds are some very specific things popped into your head immediately. To varying extents, and depending on how much you know about history, you will probably be able to come up with similar answers for every decade from the 1920s to the 1980s (maybe earlier too). Probably something like this -- noting that this is not really an accurate description of the decades, just of what has become the iconography of those decades:
  • 1920s: Roaring Twenties, flappers, Jazz Age, stock market crash
  • 1930s: Great Depression, speakeasies, organized crime, prohibition
  • 1940s: New Deal, World War II, swing, USO, film noir
  • 1950s: Doo wop, Motown, birth of rock and roll, soda jerks, sock hops, fuzzy skirts, chrome tailfins, excessive optimism, squeaky-clean families
  • 1960s: Psychedelia, counterculture, civil rights, hippies, peace movement, protests, maturation of rock music
  • 1970s: Disco, shallow materialism, pet rocks, smiley-faces, mood rings, fads, disaster movies
  • 1980s: Rampant capitalism, greed, exploitation of resources, selfishness and hedonism, new wave music, MTV
One interesting note is that in most cases the cultural decade doesn't match the calendar decade, but is offset about 2-4 years later. Naturally, there's no clear boundary of any cultural decade; there wasn't a day everyone decided to abandon the hippy movement and start grooving. But 1961 feels more like the 50s than the 60s, while 1971 feels more like the 60s than the 70s, etc. And peak defining moments in each decade are more likely to happen around the 7th year: the 57 Chevy in 1957, the Summer of Love in 1967, Saturday Night Fever and Star Wars in 1977, and so on. All such definitions are nebulous at best, but there does seem to be something of a trend here.

So what was the 1990s about? You'd think by now we'd know, but it seems it isn't really clear yet. A lot of notable things happened in the 1990s, to be sure. The fall of communism and the end of the Cold War, the Internet bubble, ubiquitous computing, and a groundswell of awareness of environmental concerns are amongst the most notable. Somehow this doesn't seem to want to coalesce into any kind of coherent theme, nor does any particular image rise up to claim dominance.

I'm inclined to propose this as the answer: "global awareness". The decade of Ben & Jerry and the World Wide Web; of globalization of markets and of news; the mainstreaming of the environmental, recycling, and conservation movements; the first big steps towards a more global sense of community. Am I being too optimistic? Maybe. But think of this. We don't think of the 1960s as defined by the Vietnam War nearly as much as we think of them as defined by the concomitant peace protests, perhaps because plenty of decades have wars, but the 1960s stand out for having this particular cultural reaction to them (and other things). So while the 1990s were also marked by corruption and petty localized things, those are not defining of the decade nearly so much as the relatively new trend towards a more ubiquitously global perspective.

The decade we're in right now doesn't even have a name. It's usually pretty hard to see from within the decade what it'll turn out to be about, but I fear this particular one is too easy to see: the war on terror, the fall of democracy, the erosion of rights, the undoing of so much of what the 1990s were about. Let's just hope it's someday spoken of as an interregnum rather than a turning point.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Objectifying people based on appearance

A good-looking young woman just walked by out my window and I, following millennia-old lizard-brain instincts, turned to watch. She didn't see me doing so, but if she had happened to glance this way, I would have felt compelled to look away or pretend I hadn't been looking at her. I wouldn't want her to take umbrage at me ogling her, "objectifying" her, and odds are good (not certain, but good) that she'd be the type that would be offended. But personally I think her reasons are nonsense.

If I stop and look at her, I'm merely enjoying that she's pleasurable to look at. I'm not making secret plans to go up to her. I'm not even fantasizing about her. I'm simply enjoying the view. (I'm told most guys go straight from "she's nice to look at" to "I'd like to do her", but I have never been that way. Though if I did, I'm not sure that'd change anything, provided that the thought stopped there.)

Her concern is that I'm objectifying her; I'm ignoring the unique individual she is and simply admiring the shallowest surface factor, her appearance. And I am. The question is, is that so bad? How about the woman walking by right now who is entirely unremarkable and who I am not sparing a second glance. Am I objectifying her? Each of these people has a million unique traits. In one case, I ignore all million, and in the other, I only ignore 999,999 of them. Which is worse?

For the moment she walks by I'm treating her as a nice-view-object. If she were working at the bookstore and I was buying a book, I'd be treating her as a cashier-customer-service object. If she were working at my office I might be treating her as a timesheet-processing object. The simple fact is, in a typical day you probably see or deal with hundreds, maybe thousands, of people. Half of them you ignore entirely, and most of the rest you treat as one object or another. The number of them you treat as more than an object in a given day you could probably count on one hand.

Everyone does that and there's nothing wrong with it. Imagine trying to get through a day if every single person you had any interaction with, even so shallowly as looking at them walking by, you stopped to try to get to know, to treat as a person, to understand their unique qualities, their histories and hopes. You'd never get off your front porch, and if you did, you'd probably be arrested.

So why is it that appreciating someone's beauty is more offensive than any of the thousand other ways I'll be objectifying someone today? Seems to me on reflection it should be one of the least offensive.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Controlling controlled substances

Alcohol can be nasty stuff, ruining health and lives. I have never enjoyed imbibing it myself; I can sip a little bit of white wine without grimacing, but I'd rather be having fruit juice, and that's about my limit. However, this isn't out of some morality of temperance. I have no objection to those who use alcohol responsibly.

This is a specific instance of a more general ethical principle: you should have the right to do anything you like to precisely the extent to which it does not infringe on the rights of others. (A good ethical principle, but barely a start to building an ethos; the set of circumstances in which your prosecution of a right does not conflict in any way with anyone else's rights comprise so tiny a minority of situations as to be nearly pathologically irrelevant.)

So why is alcohol different than other "controlled substances"? Obviously for nothing but historical reasons. Is there a logical reason why alcohol should be treated differently than marijuana, or cocaine, or LSD? I posit that one principle can apply to all of these. To wit: As long as you can use a substance without endangering, harming, or infringing on the freedoms or rights of anyone else, and you do so informedly, there's no reason you can't use it. The minute you break any of those rules, you should not be allowed anymore.

Imagine if it worked like this. To get an "alcohol license", you are required to demonstrate knowledge of alcohol (similar to a driver's license for driving): how it works, how to use it safely, what warning signs to watch for, how to avoid harming those around you through its use. Do this through a test administered by your local government, with private businesses offering classes to prepare you for it. A fee is charged for the license, which covers the cost of administration and enforcement, as well as ongoing educational programs and assistance programs for helping people curtail alcohol use. The license must be renewed every two years with a "bumper" test, smaller than the full test, just to make sure you're still informed and keeping current.

If at any time you are caught in any alcohol-related violation, your license will be suspended or revoked. This would include providing alcohol to unlicensed persons, driving under the influence, participating in any illegal activity under the influence, or anything else that could be linked back to alcohol use. Those whose alcohol licenses are revoked have a minimum period they can't get another one, which increases with number of suspensions, after which they need to start over with the test. A second revocation is permanent. Note that any crimes committed under the influence are still tried the same as without alcohol, in addition to the revocation of the license; including vehicular manslaughter.

Finally, medical treatments covered by state-subsidized or socialized medicine would not include coverage for damage that can be conclusively linked to alcohol use. Private insurers would be able to offer plans that did or did not cover alcohol-related costs at their discretion, with no obligation to provide an alcohol-inclusive plan to anyone at any particular price beyond existing controls on their pricing. In other words, any medical costs you incur through the use of alcohol are your problem too, whether that be through paying more (a lot more, probably!) for insurance that covers alcohol, or through not having insurance cover it.

If this would work, why not the same for marijuana? Marijuana is, by most accounts, far less likely to cause harm to self or others than is alcohol, after all. But why stop there? If you can use LSD safely and without harming others, why not have an LSD licensure system?

The fly in the ointment is the question of addiction. Why not go the next step and offer cocaine and heroin licenses? There is an assumption that it is possible to use alcohol without addiction, perhaps also marijuana, maybe even LSD, but not cocaine or heroin. Therefore, we tend to assume that cocaine or heroin cannot be made safe even with a licensure system. However, I'm not so sure. Not to get loony-libertarian here, but if cocaine were available legally and easily, but with licensure, would the depradations of cocaine be so bad? If you could get a certain amount regularly, by safe, legal, and relatively inexpensive means, would you risk losing your license to get a bit more by dangerous, illegal, and expensive black market contacts? Is it possible to have cocaine as a regular habit without the need constantly increasing, given safe, regular, and legal supplies?

I don't know. I don't even drink beer, and have never experimented with any mind-altering substances more potent than Jimi Hendrix albums. I don't really have the medical knowledge to judge such things. But even if the answer is no, it doesn't change the underlying principle. Saying "this substance cannot be safely used because it inevitably leads its user to a situation of using it unsafely" does not change the validity of an ethics based on allowing the use of substances that can be safely used. The distinction between what can and can't be used safely should be made based on medical science -- an understanding of the chemistry of addiction, of biological effects, etc. -- and the resulting conclusions about controllability. Not based on tradition or history, let alone arbitrary moralities with no basis in physical fact.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Trickle Brook Hall

Click for full sized pictureChief amongst my prized possessions is my house, Trickle Brook Hall. It is a custom-built handicap-accessible ranch house that looks like a log home on the inside, and it is everything I ever hoped in a house. And I had some very demanding hopes, too.

The story of the house begins more than 12 years ago, with the kind of daydreaming over log home floorplan books that is usually idle. And indeed it seemed like idle dreaming even to me for a long time. We bought our first house in Berlin, Vermont, a story-and-a-half Cape Cod that was a nice starter house, but that really didn't suit us in some ways. Near a noisy road, on a cleared lot, with a small living room and smaller kitchen, and two stories. Still, it was good in a lot of other ways, and we really liked it. But one day we saw a log home for sale nearby and decided to go to the open house just to see what it was like, and all at once, those old daydreams flooded up. We decided it was time to move on.

What followed was crushing, soul-rending defeat. We sold that house and moved into a rental while we sought for suitable land and tried to arrange construction of our dream home, based on my architectural drawings which were in turn based on a standard floorplan from Northeastern Log Homes. We had a parcel of land, a closing date, a deposit. We'd spent thousands on septic design, ground testing, permits, etc. We'd spent many hours exploring the forested parcel of land on a quiet country road where our home would be, sitting there saying "this will be the view from the living room!" We were very much in love. And then it all fell apart.

Turns out that the primary limit on how much house you can build is not what you can afford, not at all. The primary limit is what it will appraise at. And for most log homes, the gap between building cost and appraisal is high, very high. We tried plugging it by adding bedrooms to the plan that we didn't need, by cutting costs, etc. but it couldn't be done. Most people who build log homes bridge the gap either by already having the land (so it contributes to the appraised value but not to the costs), by doing a lot of the work themselves (to cut costs, which is fine if you have the skills), or by having lots of fluid assets -- i.e., buckets of cash. We had none of those things. Taking a loss of over $4,000 as well as incalculable heartbreak, we abandoned the parcel just before closing and started looking at the "houses for sale" market.

Click for full sized picture29 viewings later we settled on a house, and I really mean "settled". Our landlords wanted us out, winter was coming, and we were weary and increasingly convinced we would never find a house like what we wanted: wooded setting, no road noise, open floorplan, on a passable road, in good shape, and ideally a log home or close. What we ended up with was a huge mansion with an embarassing plenitude of everything. An indoor, inground heated swimming pool... in Vermont! (We were swimming at a health club, which costs a lot of money and time, so we thought it'd be nice to have our own.) Ornate landscaped acres with fountains. Five bedrooms, two living rooms, three porches. Two fireplaces plus an indoor BBQ grill. A one-car attached garage and an oversized four-car detached garage, plus a shed and a barn. And on and on. So much house.

Well, it cost a fortune to keep up, with an old inefficient forced-air heating system and lots of things breaking down and oil prices skyrocketing. The open floorplan between kitchen and living room wasn't enough to make it possible for people in the kitchen to hear and talk to people in the living room. Our first winter we got pounded with $900 heating bills and $1200 charges to shovel snow off the roofs before they caved in and dozens of other costs. It was increasingly clear it wasn't the house for us. We started selling it and looking at options for where to go from here.

And finally got a break. Found a builder who could build on spec, so we didn't have to finance the building loans. I'd used another log company's floor plans to design a new plan that was simpler and cheaper, but still had the things we needed and wanted. We looked long and hard at what it was about "log home" we wanted and decided we could get 95% of the benefit (and a few extra goodies) at much less cost by doing conventional stick-built construction but putting knotty pine paneling up on all the interior walls -- plus we have low-maintenance rugged vinyl siding instead of logs that need lots of care. And the result was something that would come within reach of the appraisal -- the builder guaranteed that, because if it didn't he wouldn't be able to finance it to build it anyway!

Click for full sized pictureTook months to find a good piece of land, but even there we got very lucky. A few bids we'd placed didn't pan out and good thing too because we were able to come in on an even better parcel, in a great location, with lower building costs. Six acres of mixed forest in a quiet area near a reservoir, but right off a paved road without any hefty hills to climb to get to it.

Took a year to build the house and along the way we put a lot of money into credit cards to get the best of a lot of things that'd be hard to upgrade later. Full basement, best kitchen appliances and cabinets and countertops, a good woodstove, things like that. Put off a few things (the back porch, a metal roof) for later since those are easy enough to add on after the fact. But we made it all work and moved in in November 2004, just before Thanksgiving. We're still paying off some of those expenditures, but it's worth it.

Click for full sized pictureSome of the features of the house:
  • Open floorplan with a great room including a vaulted-ceiling living room and huge kitchen separated only by a peninsula.
  • Handicap-accessible throughout.
  • Huge porch/deck on the front, with room to add one on the back too.
  • Corian countertops, custom cabinets, undermount sink.
  • 5-burner high-BTU gas cooktop with downdraft; double wall convection oven.
  • Big all-fridge and all-freezer side-by-side, best energy efficiency in the industry.
  • One of the top-rated dishwashers made.
  • Large walk-in pantry.
  • Utility room with cabinets and laundry, also serves as a mudroom and has a utility sink.
  • Attached two-car garage with workshop. Also includes a 4-cord-capacity woodshed.
  • Three bedrooms. The master bedroom has a door onto the porch.
  • Two full bathrooms. Master bathroom has a 4'x6' jacuzzi tub shower and huge his-and-hers closets.
  • Assisted-flush toilets in both bathrooms.
  • Horizontal knotty pine paneling on all interior walls plus the vaulted ceiling of the great hall.
  • Bulletproof Mannington Floors laminate floors everywhere. No carpet.
  • Big high-efficiency windows everywhere.
  • Good electrics. Lots of outlets, ceiling fans, good lights, Z-Wave home automation switches.
  • Radiant heating throughout the house, for efficient, silent, transparent heating.
  • Hearthstone woodstove with soapstone panels.
  • Six acres of quiet wooded land with a brook under our driveway. Our view out every window is forest.
Click for full sized pictureOf course, the downside of living here is that there's no high-speed Internet and no cable TV out here. We're relying on satellite for both, via WildBlue and DISH Network. But broadband will get to us before the forest gets to you.

Based on Regency-era naming conventions, we named the house Trickle Brook Hall, since it's on Trickle Brook Drive and Trickle Brook passes through the land. For a little extra amusing kick, we were working on building an area in Lusternia called Candyland, a whimsical area with candy corn fields and a peppermint bridge over a fizzy river with gummy fish swimming in it. We had a brown sugar hill, so naturally I reasoned it should have a molasses waterfall, and what else would a molasses waterfall flow into but a treacle brook? The descripton I wrote for the room "Treacle brook" in that area is essentially a description of my backyard, with candy added. (Though the nearby gingerbread house is not Trickle Brook Hall -- it wouldn't fit the whimsical fairy-tale feel of the area.)

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Math and science, the universal language, in Contact

One of the movies we watched on the overwhelming HDTV of doom yesterday was Contact, one of my favorite movies of all time, robbed at the Oscars. One of my favorite bits in the book is not in the movie. This isn't a complaint; if I were making the movie I probably wouldn't put it in. But it's good to talk about afterwards.

(Note that this post contains spoilers for both the movie and the book; though if you've seen the movie, the spoilage of the book is not going to be enough to impair your appreciation of the book.)

Carl Sagan did a lot of work on the question of communication with aliens, both in his work on SETI for receiving and decoding, and on various projects for sending, most visibly the Pioneer plaque and Voyager golden record. Always the answer is mathematics and science, because always we must conclude that it is the only thing we know we'll share in common with pretty well any spacefaring (or even just interstellar-communicating) species. My first exposure to this concept was the seminal SF short story "Omnilingual", by H. Beam Piper. We see this referred to in the film three times:

  • The frequency of the transmission is "hydrogen times pi". What kind of number is hydrogen? Well, Ellie is referring to the hydrogen line, which is a frequency itself -- thus neatly avoiding any problems of whether we're using the same units as the aliens. (To explain that: suppose I asked you to build a stick the length of a hydrogen atom times the number of protons in uranium, squared. If you work in metric and I use furlongs, our sticks will still end up the same length.)

  • The prime numbers are proof that the message cannot be caused by a natural phenomenon. And therefore, proof that it originated from an intelligence, because it takes an intelligence to understand what prime numbers are.

  • The primer found in the message, briefly glimpsed, becomes the key to deciphering it. It is a series of mathematical statements that can easily be broken down into components: addition, equality, truth, falsehood, and numbers. Combine that with a few pictures and you can start building up a complicated language. For instance, a representation of an atom, then the number six, then the symbol for equals, then an unknown symbol. What does the unknown symbol represent? (Check your answer.)

In the book, one of the things Ellie talks to the aliens about is God, and they reveal that, essentially, the Creator has chosen not to reveal himself until a species reaches a necessary level of understanding about the universe around them. How has this been done? Brilliantly, by using the same techniques of math as a universal language to hide a message to us in the structure of the universe itself.

The number pi is a fundamental constant of our universe. (Properly speaking, it is not really a constant because relativistically space is curved; however, it is nevertheless a fundamental number that any technological civilization must become aware of, even if only as the limit of the ratio of circumference to diameter as the curvature of space approaches zero.) What if you looked at the digits of pi and found, only a few million digits in, a series of 0s and 1s precisely 121 digits in length (121 being the product of primes, 11 times 11), such that if you drew them in an 11x11 grid, it depicted a circle? Furthermore, what if it turned out that this happened in any numerical base you evaluated pi in?

Technically speaking, that that particular sequence of numbers appears in pi isn't really that remarkable. We know that pi's digits go on forever and never repeat. It can thus be assumed that any given sequence of numbers is out there somewhere if you go far enough, because that's how infinity works (same as the oft-misunderstood monkeys and typewriters theory). Somewhere in pi is an ASCII representation of this blog post I'm typing now. Somewhere in pi is a complete description of every atom that makes your body. And this is true no matter what numerical base you work in. (Though even more technically speaking, this is not necessarily true; we can't mathematically prove pi contains every sequence of numbers. But it is widely believed nevertheless.)

What makes this discovery important, though, is that it occurs very early in pi, about the same number of digits in, in any base. It's all well and good to say theoretically any given sequence of numbers must appear somewhere in pi merely because it's infinite. But practically speaking, even if your computers could produce a million digits a second, the odds of ever finding a particular 121-digit sequence during the lifespan of the universe is very low, and the odds of finding the same sequence in each of many numerical bases approaches nil. One must very nearly conclude that it's there because it was put there. But pi cannot be changed by any being within the universe, and therefore, it must have been put there by a Creator whose existence is outside this universe. It's just like how the primes are proof that the signal is intelligent in origin, only now it's the universe itself that's proven to be intelligent in origin.

This is perhaps an even more dizzying discovery for Ellie to make than the fact that there are aliens.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Spay or neuter your pet

Animal shelters around the nation are full of pets that need homes, and always have more than they can find homes for. That means pets are dying unwanted, or being put to sleep because they can't afford to keep them. How can anyone, knowing that, justify breeding a pet and making more?

I've seen both dogs and cats giving birth, and I know the whole thing about it being a beautiful sight. Sure, it's profound and moving, let's just grant that. So? Watch a bloody video already. You don't put a creature into a life that's doomed to be miserable and unwanted and maybe short just so you can have a profound and moving moment.

But you'll make sure your pet's pups or kittens get good homes, so that's not what you're doing, right? Wrong. Maybe that tiny kitten in your cupped hands will go to someone who wouldn't have taken a kitten otherwise, sure. But odds are good that at least some of those puppies will prevent some other puppies from getting adopted. You just can't add to an overflowing tank and not create overflow by doing it.

So get your pet fixed (more accurately, broken). It's good for your pet and it's good for everyone. And when it's time for a new one, get one that needs a home.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Hard and soft water

Most rural homes in Vermont have their own wells, and most well water is hard, and hard water is bad for your pipes and appliances, so many Vermont homes have water softeners. The downside of soft water is that it doesn't want to rinse off soap; you stand in the shower and rinse and rinse and there's still a filminess of soap left behind. When you stay at a hotel, the water there takes the soap right off and it feels so luxurious by comparison.

What I want to know is, how do hotel and city water systems do that, without having the same problems with appliances? Is their water too hard and they just live with it? Is ours too soft, and if so, can we adjust it to make it less soft but still not bad for our plumbing? Or is there something they can do with their larger economies of scale to make not-hard-nor-soft water that's the best of both worlds, that we can't do in a financially reasonable way?

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Buying local

As you can see from my previous post, I don't view globalization of an economy as an inherently bad thing. (Specific details of how it happens might be, of course.) It should come as no surprise that I've always been distrustful of the "buy local" mantra, then. It seems an oversimplification and often a hypocrisy. We always want tourists to come here and buy our stuff while we're exhorting people to only spend their money locally for moral reasons, to keep money within our local economy. It doesn't wash.

I suppose sometimes it's just someone figuring out that a balance of trade -- the ratio of import to export -- is off kilter, but rather than trying to fit "adjust the balance of trade to a more favorable ratio" onto a bumpersticker, they just say "buy local". That's fine, but like many such things, it gets forgotten. "Buy local" becomes an end, not a means.

And I object to it not solely because of the hypocrisy and not solely because of my own predisposition to frugality, but also because dollars are votes, and I refuse to give up all other criteria for deciding where to place my votes besides geography. It happens I live in a part of the world where local businesses are often in line with my philosophies. But even so, they are not the only businesses deserving of my custom.

However, there is one convincing argument for "buy local" that almost never gets brought up: the costs of transportation. And I don't just mean shipping charges. I mean all the costs to society of having a transportation infrastructure. Roads, pollution, accidents, dependence on foreign oil, and you can keep listing things if you like. (Weighed against the benefits, of course.)

This argument doesn't hold water when it comes to whether to buy a sweater made in China from a mail-order place or your local megamart, because the transportation is the same either way. But it holds water very well when it comes to things like produce. Buying produce at your local farmer's market (or growing it yourself) isn't just a matter of saying "these people are more deserving than the people over there, simply because they live closer to me". It's also saying, "this food makes more sense because I'm not also paying people to pump pollutants into the air all the way from California to here".

I wonder why this argument isn't made more often.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Outsourcing on the macroeconomic scale

The United States in particular, and most of the industrialized world in general, enjoys a far higher standard of living than other places like India, China, or Africa. How did we get there? Well, first, we started with incredibly rich natural resources. We used the wealth they provided as an investment, combined with hard work, to build up our advantage, by building an infrastructure: both in the usual senses of that word (transportation, communication, industry) and more pervasive ones (education, a culture that supported science and research and invention, economic forces spurring innovation and efficiencies, a social safety net, etc.).

The list of things that contributed to the growth of the industrialized economy, and the incredible standard of living it supports (compared to the rest of the world), could fill books (and has); I don't mean to present an exhaustive picture here. I just mean to point out that a key element in it is a progression of investment, where returns on early wealth are used to generate larger amounts of later wealth. The abundant natural resources were just our "thin end of the wedge".

Along the way, as our standard of living rose to remarkably high levels, we "spent" some of it on things that our forefathers would have considered impossibly luxurious, but which we now see as necessities. I don't mean DVD players here. I mean things like worker's rights, environmental protections, advanced healthcare, strong education, a social safety net, a powerful military, and all the other amenities that contribute so much to the cost of running a business in the industrialized world today.

Meanwhile, in other parts of the world, grinding poverty and glaring social inequities catch the eye, and sometimes those of us in the cushier parts of the world might feel guilty about enjoying our big-screen TVs while other people can't get penicillin. But we like to imagine there's a way they can be lifted up to our level without bringing us down. There is, sort of... but it will cost us something. A big cost in the short term, and a smaller cost in the long term. Outsourcing and immigrant labor are exactly what this transition looks like.

Why can a company in India so vastly underbid any company in the US, leading to tons of outsourcing and thousands of jobs lost? Because they don't have all those "luxuries". Their laborers will work absurdly long hours for ridiculously low pay under dangerous conditions without good medical care, and dump pollution into their rivers cheerfully. And that builds up their economy; it becomes the thin end of their wedge, this competitive advantage (combined with the fact that technology makes it possible to get into global markets competitively with small investments). But can this last?

No. Just like we did, only much more quickly, they will progress to embracing those same "luxuries", and like we did, gradually come to realize they are necessities. They will demand fair labor practices and safe workplaces. They'll see their natural resources despoiled and insist on environmental protections. They'll expect their fatter wallets will buy better healthcare, and soon costs associated with ubiquitous healthcare will rise. They'll want better education for their children, better roads to take vacations with, and a stronger military to protect the wealth they are gradually coming to have. All these costs will erode their competitive advantage, and eventually, like a wave that's crashed high on the shore, the jobs will flow back to the US and other industrialized nations, not as many as departed, but most of them. Things will "level out".

And the final result will be another nation added to the "industrialized" category, enjoying a higher standard of living, while ours has been knocked down a peg or two. The worldwide baseline of standard of living will have gone up, and the disparity between rich and poor nations will have gone down. Eventually, if this process continues, if every nation eventually finds a thin end of the wedge to get the process started with, the result will be a relatively balanced global economy. The US won't be quite as rich, nor will be quite as much richer than everyone else, but we'll all still be cushy and comfortable. Plus there'll be a reduction in the worldwide depradations of the environment -- though we'll have had to go through it getting worse to get to where it gets better, since nearly all those thin ends of wedges involve environmental depradations.

Admittedly, this scenario is very optimistic and not likely to play out quite like that. There are dozens of forces I haven't accounted for here, intentionally. War and conquest. Plagues and natural disasters. Running out of environmental resources to destroy along the way. And countless more. I don't mean this account to describe "what will be" or even "what should be" necessarily. And I also realize there are a lot of injustices in the way specific companies or people are handling shipping jobs overseas, which I'm also not trying to address.

Rather, my point is to suggest that the real cause of outsourcing is not some malevolent invasion which must be resisted. Forcing jobs to stay in the United States is no solution because the flow of jobs out is not really a problem in the long term. It's a discomfort that comes as a natural effect of losing our place as the rich kids amongst the poor, but it's one that will be self-correcting, and whose end result is reducing a global economic injustice that we happen to be on the good end of right now.

This is, of course, little or no comfort to the person who has lost his job to outsourcing. Macroscopic trends don't pay the bills. Transitions always come at some cost to someone. When the railroads died, it was no comfort to the people losing their livelihoods that new industries were springing up creating jobs; they still had wasted years learning a now-obsolete skill and had no way to put food on the table.

Fortunately, at least part of the wealth of being the richest nation on Earth has been used to make a social "safety net" (which Darth Rove hasn't completely dismantled yet) that helps make this cost less. But it's still hard, and I'm sympathetic with that. I wouldn't begrudge anyone being sour about their job moving to India, even if I don't begrudge the person who got it in India needing it too. I realize that it's easy for me to approach this question with detached, philosophical calculation; my job, after all, isn't moving anywhere.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Concluding a saga, and starting another

Finished a long stint of GMing yesterday in our Sunday afternoons roleplaying game group. The campaign I've been GMing now -- for more than ten years! -- is called Uncreated, even though the thing which gave it that name is long gone from the game. But calling a campaign Lenny wouldn't work nearly as well!

The premise of Uncreated is designed to be naturally episodic in nature, allowing me to use it to play with genres and settings that I wouldn't want to have a whole campaign in, while still allowing my players to have characters that last long enough to develop and be fully explored. One could liken it to the reasons for the creation of Quantum Leap: "Anthological shows where... every week you have a different play that you put on, just don't get an audience to tune in week after week. Everything is dependent on whatever your story is that week.... But I wanted to do an anthology.... And I thought, if I do a time-travel show with a lead or a pair of leads, the audience will really like them and their relationship; and every week, as I do a different story, the audience will really be tuning in for them."

Originally the intent was to alternate Uncreated with something more epic-scope. This gets a balance of intense arc-driven serious focused play with something that adds more variety. It also means I can use lots of prefab worlds, adventures, scenarios, etc. in Uncreated to buy time to do prep for the other game. That's still the plan, but it's been hard to make it go that way, and I haven't started any epic-scope games in many years, for several reasons:
  • My life's been a lot more full than it used to be, in particular during the last six years while I was working on the process that led me to the dream house I'm now living in. But also with other activities I'm spending time on, like playing in (and coding for) Harshlands, working on home automation, etc.
  • I do a larger percentage of the GMing in my current group than I have in previous groups, so keeping up with the prep for Uncreated uses up more of that limited time than it used to.
  • Some of my time has been spent on side projects like RealTime, RTC, and adventures for them which I've run at cons.
  • A few shifts in focus in Uncreated have made it take longer to do the prep for it than it used to, even when I'm using prefab adventures.
Perhaps in part because of that, Uncreated has been dabbling with more "arc" content. First, we ran the huge Complete Masks of Nyarlathotep adventure, though with a few smaller adventures interspersed between chapters to break up the gloom.

Then we started what came to be called The Demorean Saga, a set of ten linked adventures lifted from the TimeMaster RPG published in the late 80s. These center on an alien race (the Demoreans) trying to change history, and the Time Corps trying to stop them from doing so; for Uncreated I removed the Time Corps and let the PCs do it on their own. More interestingly, and perhaps too ambitiously, I decided that the ten adventures occurred in a different order for the PCs and the Demoreans, so earlier adventures featured Demoreans who knew things the PCs had done that they hadn't even done yet, and I think I pulled that off without any continuity glitches (thanks to some cooperative players).

Finally, I tried to leave the story without a specific resolution. I wanted what you often see in adventure fiction: the first few acts of the story are marked by the PCs reacting to NPCs and circumstances, but the final act is driven by the PCs deciding what to do and how to do it, then carrying out that plan. I was hoping to have to improvise a whole set of challenges around the plan the PCs came up with, and above all, to not decide ahead of time what that plan would be.

This is very tricky to do. I have to put a bunch of possibilities out there that the PCs might pick up and put together into a plan. Forming those possibilities too far comes too close to me coming up with the plan and then giving it to them in pieces, which defeats the purpose. Making them too vague means the players never get traction on the idea and just stay reactive, not proactive. Worse yet, I wanted to be sure that whatever they came up with, they couldn't do it too early and make me waste a bunch of adventures, nor too late, so that the last adventure came to an end and I had nothing and neither did they.

In the end, the final solution was, in fact, based on things that had been set up gradually over the course of the whole ten adventure saga, but it was more reactive than I had originally hoped. It may also have come off a little anticlimactic. We were hurrying to finish within the session since an earlier encounter took longer than expected, and the final plan involved doing a few things way outside the bounds of the characters' skills, requiring spending of gobs of plot points to arrange the coincidences of being able to make it work anyway, and then the final result happened where the PCs couldn't even see it and know it worked (to avoid being caught up in the explosion).

On the other hand, in the movie it'd work great, very visually climactic. The PCs fiddling with the antimatter drive on a huge time-travelling submersible watercraft they took out of Avalon just as Excalibur was being thrown into it after King Arthur died at the Battle of Mons Badon. Converting the craft into a bomb, knowing if they'd screwed up they might blow up themselves and the entire Earth. Now picture a huge chamber a mile across lined with pulsing energy and ductwork and coils and iron gratings and deep shafts. A time machine big enough to swallow a submarine appears in this chamber, piloted by the tied-up, but now conscious, arch-nemesis of the characters, strapped into the seats. The Demoreans stare in surprise at the ship's arrival as the "pilot" works free of his bonds and frantically tries to poke at the controls... too late. The ship tears itself open in an explosion so great it ruptures the protective shell around the mini-black-hole at the heart of the complex. Pull back to watch a large explosion brightening a corner of a world turning slowly in space, as if an entire island had been vaporized... and then the black hole, no longer shielded, begins to devour the planet from within, the world folding in on itself and crumbling as it is converted into a massive X-ray jet.

The next adventure will be another arc of related episodes, this time set in the fantasy world Kulthea, also known as ShadowWorld, as published by Iron Crown Enterprises. But I'm not ready to run it yet, and thankfully, I don't have to. First, we have a two-week SF one-shot followed by the beginning of some In Nomine (not sure if that'll be a campaign or not), both run by litlfrog. Then we get back to my wife's game, Foulspawner's Legacy, set in Hârn.

By the time that's done, I hope to be all prepped for this Uncreated Kulthean story-cycle and already working on my epic-scale campaign to be, a swords-and-sorcery (sort of) game called Bloodweavers that I've been batting around for years.