Thursday, June 29, 2006

The self-referential irony of self-referential irony

True, I'm a fan of self-referentiality, but that doesn't mean it's not possible for self-referentiality of the ironic variety to be annoying.

The common theme behind most of these is this: people telling me what I feel. For example, someone will decide that I'm angry, probably because they would be angry in the same situation. They insist at me that I'm angry; I deny it, because I'm not, but they don't buy that, and keep pushing on it. Soon I am angry. But how do I explain that the only thing I'm angry about is the fact that they insist I am when I'm not? Even I get confused by saying that. There's no way to get the point across.

Yesterday and today, I got another dose. Can't be every day you see someone's mother shred them on their blog. There, I ran into a similar problem. She came at me with a flurry of incoherent illogic, which isn't surprising; and she refused to address any of the issues I raised or answer any questions, also unsurprising.

But she also felt it necessary to decide for me what my emotional and mental state was. She started the whole thing telling me how I was "a cold unfeeling person", with "so much hate in your heart" and concluded "it must suck to be you". This all coming out of the blue; I hadn't said a word. We hadn't exchanged any words literally in years. And based on that complete lack of any information she came to a complete and unshakeable conclusion.

Well, it's patently obvious that she did so because she needs to demonize me, and she's projecting her own feelings onto me to avoid having to see them in herself. Anyone (other than her) could see that plain as day, as I wrote previously. But the unifying theme that ran through the entire subsequent exchange was blame. Everything she did was really about pinning blame on me for what's happened between us. It's in every single sentence. It's all she really cares about now, finding a reason to make me the one who is at fault, to appease her guilt.

To do that she had to make up some hokum about how she's already apologized (she hasn't) and I rejected it (I probably would have if she had, because it'd've probably been insincere, and even if it hadn't, it would have made simply sought to ignore what happened, not address it). And her blame-playing game becomes self-referential. She insists that I'm the one that hates, that I'm the one that cut things off -- and she keeps at it, as hurtful and vicious as she can, until at last, I do find myself disgusted by her, embarassed by her, and finally have to, indeed, cut things off. And then guess what? She gets to walk away with what she came for: a reason to say it's all my fault.

Well, if she needs to get that at my expense, that's all right; I can afford it, and apparently she needs it more than I do, so let her steal it. It's just a pity she had to erase the last vestiges of respect I had for her to do it.

Maybe for her it's about closure -- though since she still knows what she did on some level, I doubt this will really give that to her. But for me, now, it definitely is. It's time to put this to rest and get back to the good things in my life. I think I'll start by having a vacation next week, and working more on Bloodweavers. It's nice to have something good to look forward to.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The two people who my mother is

After writing about my father I intended to write about my mother but never quite got around to it. Well, today, she made it clear it's time.

When I was a kid, my mother was great. She always encouraged me to develop myself and become better. She read to me and kept me provided with books; she fostered my education. She encouraged me to become independent -- admittedly, part of that was probably not entirely intentional. (If no one does your laundry for a while, you learn how to do your own laundry.) But she was never smothering -- quite the contrary, she always left me plenty of distance. And I always knew whatever I turned out to be, she'd support it. I always felt she respected me and I always respected her.

Sounds pretty idyllic, but of course it had its bad sides. I was a very responsible person from a very early age, and also driven to do what had to be done. (Though I did get off to a slow start on the job front, admittedly.) Sometimes I felt like I was more responsible than she was, as I got into high school and on. Sometimes I felt cast adrift a little too much; sometimes I despaired of being able to get things done, because anything I needed done, she'd know someone who could do it cheaper, but who never did. But that was fine. Our distance didn't grow or shrink and the relationship was stable and founded on respect.

I was a late bloomer socially, as previously discussed. (Some might say I still haven't quite bloomed.) I was only 16 at my graduation, and though I could have gotten into MIT or Caltech, I went to SUNY Stony Brook and stayed living at home for another few years. In fact, until I was 21. My moving away was abrupt, sudden, maybe even surprising, though I remember when I told my mother I was moving, she said she wasn't surprised -- she'd already figured that I would either be out within that year or I'd never leave.

Bad luck plus my usual awkwardness with things like goodbyes (which I understand is a trait a lot of people have) led me to not leave very well. My mom threw a wonderful farewell party, which I believe I enjoyed and showed my appreciation. Then as the last day came, I stayed up way too late with friends -- perhaps understandable when you're moving 4000 miles away? -- and couldn't sleep. Mom took me to the airport, and I fell asleep there. She had to wake me up for final boarding, and I staggered off down the boarding ramp with only a perfunctory, awkward goodbye. I regretted that as soon as I was on the plane (just before passing out again) but it was done. I figured, after all that we'd been through, and for as much as our relationship was founded on respectful distance, it wouldn't be too bad, right?

Well, maybe that planted a seed I didn't know about for a decade, and maybe it has nothing to do with anything. I suppose I'll never know. Ten years and more went by, during which I moved comfortably into adulthood, getting married, buying a house, getting jobs, moving to Vermont, etc. During this time I visited family about a half-dozen times, at considerable cost (flying from Juneau to New York is nothing to sneeze at!). But even after I was in Vermont and had rooms to spare, I never could get my mother or indeed anyone in my family to come visit me. Instead, they always pressured me to visit and call and write more and more. It got to feeling where if I called I knew what I'd get was no decrease in the pressure but an increase.

And slowly I got to resenting that they demanded so much but never reciprocated at all. After all, why should I go stay on Long Island, which is icky and which I had already seen everything good on, and stay in a hotel at considerable cost; when they could come see a beautiful place like Vermont that they'd never seen before and stay in a spacious, well-appointed guest room at near no cost? And yet time and again I had to go there, no one ever came to see me.

One day I heard my grandmother was on her last legs; it seemed she wouldn't live more than a few more weeks. (This is several years ago, and she's still alive, though not doing too well, I am forced to surmise; but no one knew then that she wasn't about to go.) I dropped everything, took time off from work I couldn't afford, and spent money I couldn't spare, to rush down and visit for a long weekend. It was a very nice visit, cordial and friendly. (Though my sister couldn't be bothered to drive ten miles to see me while I was there, after I'd driven several hundred.)

Some offhand comment about enjoying the visit, made as we were leaving, somehow got twisted into a promise of far more frequent visits starting that Thanksgiving. This got talked about in email during the following week. The resulting discussion exploded and I was frankly stunned for weeks from what came out.

All of a sudden I was made aware of all kinds of simmering resentment and anger. Apparently, my mother somehow had concluded that I had moved away from Long Island because I felt I was too good for the rest of the family; that I looked down on them. That I refused to visit often enough out of some hatred for the family. That I had betrayed Long Island (umm... what's the idea of having loyalty to something like Long Island in the first place?) and the family, by moving away and being successful and independent.

After days of hateful, hurtful barbs, I lashed back; after all, I was damned tired of the fact that no one would ever come visit me or see my life, but here they were spewing vomit on me for not visiting them often enough. My barbs barely even got noticed in the vitriol of the return volleys. Things went from indescribably ugly to inexplicably gruesome quickly, and I was summarily dismissed from my family and barred from any further contact. My mother even went so far as to kill-filter my email, so unambiguous was she that she never wanted to hear from me again.

I was shocked, and still sometimes I'm a little shocked, to think that such an incredible festering wound of hatred could have built up in her. We'd had such a good relationship as far as I could tell all along. Now, I know I'm not the most discerning person, that it even borders on being a social disorder, but even so this was and is bewildering. It's like she's not the same person. My whole life with her was all about making me an independent person, self-reliant, confident, able to go out into the world and do things. And yet, the kernel of all of her anger and vitriol seems to be nothing more than that: that I finally did leave the nest, that I went off and became my own man. And that undermines every single thing that I respected her so much for in the first place.

In the years since, she's occasionally tossed another barb at me and then run back to hide behind her defensiveness and her kill-filters. I'm denied knowing the state of my grandmother or even if she's still alive, and then I'll be condemned for not caring about what I'm not being allowed to find out about. I'm told never to talk to her again, then lambasted for not answering.

The worst part is she's very obviously lashing out at me with vicious, hurtful, acid-laced barbs that make no sense, specifically because she's trying to hide from her own guilt. Even an eight-year-old who just finished watching an ABC After School Special could tell. I'm sitting there minding my own business, perfectly content with my life, and all of a sudden I'm being told how I'm full of hate and miserable about it. Ummmm? Doesn't take a degree in psychology to recognize guilt-inspired projection, that she's talking about herself but in second-person to scapegoat me for her own agony over her unconscionable actions.

In a way, I don't completely miss having a family; after all, I am, as she made me, independent and self-reliant, and very content with my very successful life. And the hurtful hate-filled screeds from my mother don't hurt me nearly as much as most people would probably be hurt, because I'm just confident enough to not put any stock in them. So what's my problem? In part it's the bewilderment; what the hell happened? What ever happened to the mother I used to know? And in part, it's being sad for her, that she should be so unhappy, guilty, and angry over such bad reasons. But the biggest thing is simply this: I miss being able to respect her. She used to be the most respected person in my life, hands down. Now, she's an embarassment to herself and to me. And if this can ever be fixed, it can't be fixed by me. What a shame.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Graffiti 2

My previous Palm was a Tungsten C. When it started to die, and I looked at replacement options, I was despondent because none of them included that wonderful thumbboard. In fact, none of them even had a snap-on thumbboard available.

The Palm T|X I ended up getting has a number of advantages over the Tungsten C. Bigger screen, landscape mode, better WiFi range, integral BlueTooth, improved system software. But no thumbboard, and that makes all the difference. I'd trade it all in in a heartbeat for that thumbboard.

And the reason is Graffiti 2. The Tungsten C had Graffiti 2 as well, but since it had the thumbboard, I never had to use it. Now, I've had Palms since the days of the PalmPilot Pro; I learned Graffiti years ago and got very fluent in it. But the thumbboard was better in almost every way. I could thumbtype far faster than anyone could Graffiti, more reliably, and in more situations. The only time the thumbboard wasn't better was writing in the dark, and even then I could do pretty darn good.

The T|X made me finally face Graffiti 2, and I was astonished at what a backwards step it was. It's not just that it's hard to transition -- remember, I haven't been using Graffiti for a year anyway. It's that it's just less reliable. In the interest of making it easier to learn, they use characters that look more "natural" -- i.e., more similar to normal writing. But the differences in letter shape back in original Graffiti were there for a good reason. It's far easier for the computer to distinguish between those strokes, and that makes it more reliable. No matter how much I retrain myself, I can't get Graffiti 2 to be half as reliable or quick as I got with old Graffiti. It's a matter of mediocrity triumphing in the name of marketing.

At first I tried Graffiti 2 in the name of trying to roll with the changes, but after a week or less, I gave up and went to switch back to Graffiti Classic. And was stunned to find that... they don't offer a way to switch back.

Unfortunately, this turns out to be due to a lawsuit by Xerox that prevents them from providing Graffiti Classic. But I don't think Palm would include it even if they could -- they're gung-ho about the idea of making it "easier to get started" in order to lure in a new customer base. Who cares if it isn't actually easier, but just seems that way from the outside of the box? Those new customers will never know what they're missing. The lower level of reliability, accuracy, and speed they get from Graffiti 2 will just be the new baseline of expectations; they'll never know it could have been better, and are likely to dismiss the "old fogeys" who claim otherwise as simply being full of sour grapes, unwilling to adjust.

But we old fogeys are precisely the folks willing to adjust; that's how we got to Graffiti in the first place. I have had no trouble retraining myself in different strokes when those proved more reliable in Graffiti 2 (for instance, changing from the mountain-peak shape of Graffiti's "A" to the lowercase loop-with-tail shape in Graffiti 2). I simply decide to change and within a few minutes I'm doing the new shape every time. But no matter how many letters I retrain myself in, it's never as good.

Some letters are just poised on too narrow a margin between other letters (N, for instance, too similar to H and R). The two-stroke letters are always a problem: T, in particular, is way too often mixed up with L followed by a space. Every version of E I try is too close to something; I'm currently using the looped lowercase E because what it gets mixed up with (the Palm shortcut symbol) is less damaging. And even after years of Graffiti 2, there are still easily reproducible bugs; write an uppercase L followed by a lowercase letter, for instance, and since the L doesn't appear until the lowercase letter does (in case it wasn't really an L but the first part of a T), it ends up lowercased. Punctuation symbols are particularly pernicious; the complex ones like &, @, and % are not bad, but the simple and important ones like apostrophe and comma are far too easy to mix up with letters or backspace, or to miss entirely.

Graffiti 2 is also far more sensitive to the fact that the touchscreen's calibration is imperfect; a little off calibration and it goes to pot entirely. And it's impossible not to be a little off calibration, particularly on these bigger screens, but which are still calibrated on the smaller screen size. I had to abandon the "simplified" Graffiti entry area (that eliminates the no-longer-necessary side buttons in favor of more writing area) simply because the miscalibration in the lower left extreme of the screen was beyond redemption, no matter how many times I recalibrated. But even with the narrower area to work in, my results are still touch-and-go.

With the looming possible demise of PalmOS, plus this, next time it's time for a new Palm, I may seriously have to consider the unimaginable, going over to (gasp!) Windows Mobile, assuming I can find substitutes for my must-have software. Palm still beats Windows Mobile hands down, even not counting the key software availability factor; but while Windows Mobile seems to slowly get better, Palm feels like it's getting slowly worse. There's a breakeven point coming. Palm, we will mourn you for a long time.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

My stages of creative writing

While working on writing Bloodweavers I've been crystallizing some old ideas about the stages of the creative process I go through when I'm writing.

Stage 1: Ideas are coming so quickly that it's not only effortless, but it would be an effort not to be writing them down. The ideas are pulling on me, rather than me pulling on them. Generally the trick is getting each idea down before the next one is upon me, so I tend to be flipping from place to place writing bits as they come to me without being able to spend any time on organization, formatting, or anything but capture. This stage doesn't last that long, but a lot gets done.

Stage 2: Ideas are no longer dragging me to the act of writing them. I can go do something else if I have to. But when I come back, if I look at a topic, ideas start to come with no effort. It's like a "static equilibrium" stage; ideas don't move themselves, but it takes no work to move them.

Stage 3: When I set down to work on a subject, I do have to do a little bit of thinking to tease the ideas out, so it takes a little effort. However, the effort is still enjoyable, and the creative process it still something I'm drawn to doing. Just not so much that something else might not also draw me more. Incidentally, this is where I am now; and usually this is where most of the work gets done.

Stage 4: Now it's just plain work. I have to pull on the ideas to get them to come. This stage sometimes feels like a "grind" as I work my way methodically through everything that needs to be done. The act itself is not particularly enjoyable. (Though it's still worth doing because the results are enjoyable.)

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

McDonalds coffee and personal responsibility

I have a compulsion, you might say, to point out urban legends and misinformation when I see them on the Internet. (It's a source of endless frustration that people sitting in front of the biggest and best research library ever built by man, with instant, zero-cost, effortless access to it, send out so much misinformation.) So when I saw a reference to the infamous McDonalds coffee lawsuit in a screed about personal responsibility on another blog, I had to point out the facts. The blog owner showed no interest in being corrected and stuck doggedly to the original, poorly-thought-out conclusion, and thus lost several points of respect from me.

Here's the common myth version of the story: the impression most people get from hearing the incomplete version is that ordinary coffee was spilled irresponsibly, and the person who spilled it passed off blame on McDonalds in spite of the fact that everyone knows "coffee is supposed to be hot". An out-of-control legal system awarded ridiculous damages. This is proof positive that the idea of personal responsibility is gone from our society, and that our legal system is in dire need of tort reform.

And now, the facts. "Hot coffee" is generally at a temperature of 130-140 degrees; at that temperature, a spill will cause minor burns and discomfort. At the time, McDonalds was serving coffee at 190 degrees. At that temperature, it will cause third degree burns, sufficient to require skin grafting or debridement and generally hospitalization, in under seven seconds. At the time of this incident, McDonalds had already been served with a formal warning from the Shriner Burn Institute, which they ignored. They had also had over 700 previous injuries or complaints.

Third degree burnsThe plaintiff spilled coffee on herself and as a result, endured third-degree open burns on six percent of her body. She required eight days of hospitalization, including skin grafts and debridement treatment. Her original request was for $20,000, which was not even the total of her medical costs. McDonalds refused, inviting a lawsuit. During the trial, they claimed to have had no knowledge of any danger, a claim which was soon revealed as a bald-faced lie. They also claimed that their use of a dangerously high temperature was on the assumption that people buy coffee intending to take it to school or work to consume there; plaintiff's counsel demonstrated McDonalds' own research had already disproved this.

A clear case was demonstrated that McDonalds had willfully ignored a significant hazard and allowed an ongoing pattern of injury to customers to continue in the interest of profit. Compensatory damages were ruled at $200,000, but since the plaintiff was found to be 20% at fault (a claim which she never denied), they were reduced commensurately. The jury also awarded punitive damages of $2.7M, though this was significantly reduced. The plaintiff then arranged to settle for far, far less than the awarded amount; the settlement was conducted privately and is sealed, though some have speculated that the amount is the $20,000 she originally sought.

Even though it was immediately cut down more than 80% and then never actually paid, the $2.7M punitive damages may seem excessive if seen from the plaintiff's viewpoint. But the purpose of punitive damages is, as the name implies, to offer a punishment that will act as a deterrent. Fining a multibillion-dollar company a few hundred thousand is not going to deter them from anything. Note that even if McDonalds had had to pay the full $2.7M, this only represents two days worth of coffee sales for McDonalds.

The most important concession which the plaintiff obtained from McDonalds, however, is this: McDonalds now serves coffee at the same temperature as other restaurants and coffee shops.

The popular conception is that there's been an erosion of personal responsibility. However, this impression is an intentionally engineered one, created by the conservative movement to distract from the more serious issue: corporate responsibility. To be sure, there are frivolous lawsuits, as there have always been. However, the number of lawsuits has been on a steady decline since 1975, and median damage amounts have also decreased (from $65,000 in 1992 to $37,000 in 2005). And the vast majority of those lawsuits are brought by companies, not individuals; worse yet, lawsuits brought by companies are thrown out by judges as frivolous 69% more often than those brought by individuals. Where is this decline in personal responsibility? It's certainly not in our litigious legal system!

The push for tort reform is nothing more than the drive to limit the ability of the average American to hold megacorporations to a standard of accountability. Is it any surprise, really, to hear an administration that has consistently worked to undermine environmental, free trade, and other regulations on businesses, and that has consistently demonstrated a repugnance for the idea of accountability in its own activities, would be so enthusiastic about taking more power away from the people to give it to the corporations?

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

If you don't like the weather, wait a minute, it'll change

That's what the locals say, right?

Seems this phrase is one of those that is imagined to be a bit of "local folklore" all over the world. I've spotted it appearing in Scotland, Alaska, Australia, Vermont, and Texas, and I've no doubt I'd've found it in more places if I'd had occasion to ask people in more places.

I've encountered this phrase on the home page for a town in Texas which was bragging about having the highest number of sunny days per year in the area. This sense takes it as meaning, we have so little bad weather that if we're having some right now, it probably won't last. In other words, their weather is remarkably consistent.

But most of the places I've heard it cited, the interpretation is almost the opposite, that weather is so volatile, that whatever it is now, it'll be something else in a few minutes. That's certainly how it's used in Vermont, even though to me, Vermont's weather seems about middling between consistent and volatile. The most volatile weather I've lived in is Long Island, where, amusingly, I've never heard the phrase used.

Neither interpretation really explains why it's used in Juneau, Alaska, which is where I first heard it. Most of the time, the weather in Juneau is extremely consistent over time; the temperature might not move more than a few degrees, day and night, for a week or more at a stretch. (Though it'll be different right up the road.) And not only is it consistent, but it's certainly not what you'd call good; Juneau has a level of rainfall that makes Seattle seem sunny.

Most amusing is how it's a bit of "local folklore" in so many places around the world. What makes people get convinced something like this is uniquely local? And how does that illusion of unique locality survive in this era of globality? Maybe this blog post will be one pebble in the avalanche of its eventual demise.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Fevered pitch of creativity

I'm not supposed to be working on Bloodweavers now. I have to do prep on an adventure cycle for my current campaign, Uncreated, first, so that it will provide me the time to work on Bloodweavers. And there's no good reason to be working on Bloodweavers now; the ideas in it have been bouncing in my head for literally years.

Nevertheless, when the last piece came to me, I've felt compelled to work on it. Ideas are just pouring out of me. I have to spend almost all my time and focus just capturing them as they go, with only a little bit of my time spent organizing them. And still at the point where if I look at a topic and something doesn't come to me instantly, I can go to another one rather than making myself work it through -- in other words, I haven't gotten to the part where it's work, yet.

I'm absolutely delighted by most of the things I've worked out. The cosmology and mythology have a really strong high-mythic-fantasy feel, with all the symbolism tying up neatly with itself, from the numerology to how magic will work. I am very pleased the races, and even more so by the calendar -- why has no one ever used the fact that 7³ = 343, very close to the length of an Earth year, before? I love the month names even more, they're so full of feel. And best of all, the storyline really works for me; it's got high mythic overtones and gives me plenty to make the characters do, including both reactive and proactive things, with a clear and unforced buildup of tension to a grand battle climax and an unambiguous resolution that will ring with the themes and motifs of the story.

Probably I'll stick with it, despite the higher priorities, for as long as the ideas come unbidden and without effort, and then drift back to what I am supposed to be working on, but when I come back, I'll be able to do so with more enthusiasm. But right now, I'm so caught up in it, it's hard not to grab people and say, "look at this, isn't this so damned cool!!!".

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Memories of my father

It's Father's Day, so I suppose I should think about my father. I don't think about him very often. He died a few years ago, killed by weight-reduction surgery, but I never really grieved, because he'd never really been a presence in my life. By the time he died, he was just a stranger who happened to share some genetic material with me, no more a kinship than those who share my blood type or eye color.

My parents split up when I was 13, but it didn't have much of an impact then either, because my dad had already been absent. He was a truck driver, often away for weeks at a time on long hauls. Even his family wasn't in my life, due to some squabble I have never really learned the story behind.

Most of my few memories of my father are from times when he took me in his truck, and of those, most of them aren't that good. Perhaps the best memories I can think of are him teaching me how to shift an eighteen-wheeler, and watching a rainstorm from miles away on I-95 until we caught up with it. Others aren't quite as good.

Getting up at 4am to go with him on a long haul to somewhere in Pennsylvania, I think. For breakfast at 4:30am, having a greasy personal-pizza, too big and way too heavy. The minute we crossed the bridge into New Jersey and hit that New Jersey smell, I threw it up out the window of the truck. We didn't even slow down.

Very late at night, way past the bedtime of any sensible 8-year-old (or so), driving through Richmond, Virginia on I-95 on the way to Alexandria (or was it the other way around?). Stopping at a weigh station and being held because the truck was 50 pounds overweight. My dad getting panicky, me not knowing why. Standing by the side of I-95 nearing midnight watching my dad drive through the scales again hoping the lack of me in the truck would reduce the weight to under limit (it actually rose). Sitting up in a police station, or something like one, until after midnight, on a hard bench under harsh fluorescent lights; my dad was in a holding cell or something somewhere. Hearing the people around me talking about finding a foster home to put me in until arrangements could be made to send me back home, but being too sleepy and dazed to really understand that. Finally, my father exuberant about a Western Union -- presumably his employer wiring in payment of a fine or something. Getting back on the truck very sleepy, my dad not even seeming to notice or be concerned about what I'd been through, so giddy was he with relief about getting to continue on instead of staying in a holding cell overnight.

People always talk about how everyone's got to have a father. Maybe some of what's wrong with me has to do with the fact that I barely had one, but I doubt it. If that isn't inborn, it's more likely to do with the fact that I was skipped ahead in school and had a July birthday, so I was two years younger than my classmates all through my school days, plus a genius geek type, and thus seriously disadvantaged in learning social behavior. All in all, I don't feel like I lacked anything for not having much of a father in my life -- if anything it contributed to my strong sense of independence and my "get up and do it" attitude.

An odd source of inspiration

I spent some time with the weed-whacker yesterday, which is why my back is sore today. And to pass the time I made up some silly stuff in my head about the weeds rebelling against their whacker-wielding overlords, and then about an evil scheme to keep them complacent. I'm always doing things like this; no matter what's going on, I'm always thinking about something, and if I don't have anything particular to think about, something appears on its own. Sometimes it's silly and absurd. Actually, a lot of the time.

But it doesn't always stay in the realm of the absurd. During the weed-whacking, and subsequent shower, it coalesced into a great idea for an epic-scale roleplaying campaign, or more specifically, the storyline behind such a campaign. With a little tooling, I can even make it fit into the Bloodweavers world setting I've been imagining for a while now, which has lacked a storyline (my original planned storyline for that didn't work out). Now I'm all jazzed about working on that campaign... which I can't really do until I finish some prep on the next Uncreated series of adventures.

Friday, June 16, 2006

The planetary model of the atom

If you looked close at an atom, it would look kind of like a planetary system, right? The nucleus, made up of bundled protons and neutrons, sitting dense and stationary at the center, while a bunch of electrons, more diffuse and blurry, race in whirling orbits around the nucleus.

Right? I'm sure you were taught that in high school. Maybe even in college as well. Heck, I remember once someone teaching that to someone else on an episode of WKRP in Cincinnati. (I'm not proud of that.)

Trouble is, it's not true. That hasn't been the current model of the atom since the 1920s at the latest. In fact, it was only the predominant model for a period of a few years or decades. The preceding "plum pudding" model (in which electrons were seen as being like plums in a plum pudding, or seeds in a watermelon), originated by J. J. Thomson at the end of the 19th century, actually lasted longer. The Rutherford planetary model was almost immediately displaced by the Bohr model (which introduced shells and quanta), which was absorbed into the nascent field of quantum mechanics and became a lot more complicated.

Isn't it odd that one particular fleeting moment in the history of atomic theory, disproven almost a hundred years ago, is still being taught to essentially everyone?

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Oh, you mean like D&D?

Everyone who plays roleplaying games has heard this sentence at least once, while trying to explain their hobby. For those who are still playing D&D, or near enough, that's fine, maybe. But even for them, doesn't that feel full of the tinge of a bunch of pimply 13-year-olds in a basement playing execrable hack-and-slash without a hint of artistry or creativity? That's what's probably in the mind of anyone who would ask that dreaded question, after all.

After many years of labored analogies and other answers, I finally found an answer I like. "Yes," I'll say with a smile, "in the same sense that good community or professional theatre is like the elementary school Christmas pageant."

Perhaps a bit pretentious, perhaps presumptuous, but... accurate, isn't it? And it conveys the idea immediately, too. It banishes the bad associations and often opens up the listener's mind to the possibility that there's a whole lot more to this thing than they knew about.

Plus, it offends the people who are still playing D&D, so it's a win-win situation.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

HD-DVD and streaming media

The two final elements in the home theater (well, excepting the audio system which will have to wait a while) arrived together last night.

First to arrive was the D-Link DSM-520. As I surmised, functionality is about the same as the DSM-320, except for the HD capability and a few extras. The displays are a lot nicer and the remote seems to work better. It has a nice capability of showing media that are on a thumbdrive using its front USB port, which I doubt I'll use, but it's nice to have it. Unfortunately, while you can start MP3s playing and then go do something else like look at pictures, I can't find a way to get back to the "what's playing" display for the MP3s.

The only HD video I was able to find online was in QuickTime format, however, and converting QuickTime to anything else is a bitch. I have a program that can do it most of the time, but not with the most recent codec QuickTime is using -- the file is audio only when it's done. So other than the menus themselves, and a few still pictures, I haven't seen it produce true HD. I'm sure HD video will come along to stream to it in time, though.

Next up was the Toshiba HD-A1 HD-DVD player. The box itself is remarkably large and heavy, with a style that seems almost retro -- an impression certainly corroborated by the 70s-reminiscent remote control. It's very slow to start up and to load a disc, and there were a few times when the menus didn't seem to be responding evenly -- perhaps just me not being used to it yet, though. There's the clunky feeling of a first release in a new product line, for sure.

And yet, the video quality... it's breathtaking. I swear I'm seeing things better here than I did in the movie theater (and I go to a nice, very modern theater, too). Superlatives fail, and the word "breathtaking" starts to feel inadequate.

So far the only HD-DVDs I own, and pretty much the only released ones that I want to own, are Serenity and Apollo 13. I might rent Swordfish and just watch the effects shots, though. Can't wait for Sky Captain! Will probably also get Sahara when it comes out, and after that... we'll just have to see how the format war goes, and whether I'm forced to get a PS3 for Blu-ray support.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Firefox vs. Opera

Firefox is a good program. Anything that can break the Internet Exploder hegemony is a good thing.

But I can't figure out for the life of me why it has so much press and support compared to Opera. I can't see a single thing Firefox does well that Opera doesn't do better, other than attract attention. About the only thing is, Firefox's library of plugins includes things Opera's integrated approach doesn't include; but the price of that is instability, and thus not generally worth it. Strip Firefox down to a rich but stable assortment of necessities and luxuries, and you end up with... a poor imitation of Opera. Firefox is like a gangly, clumsy, untrained, but promising teenager, and Opera is the sophisticated, mature, experienced adult it hopes to become one day.

For years, we Opera users have sat quietly, watching the whole world mindlessly glom onto a bit of software that was mediocre at best, unstable at worst. We've been marginalized, and constantly pressured to join the mediocrity by bad web page designers, but we have held out, confident that one day all the bad juju would add up and people would realize what crap their browser software is, realize there's so much better out there, and catch up with us.

So now the masses have realized, but instead of coming to the most mature, best developed, best standards-compliant, and fastest package, they simply went to something less bad. Better than IE, but that's not saying much. They're just repeating their mistake in a lesser amount now, and for no real reason I can see other than the happenstance of press. So instead of being vindicated and, more importantly, finally freed of the pressure to conform with the bad choice of the majority, we're simply pushed into a different margin, forced to still wait for the masses to wake up and do a fair comparison.

What would it take to get people to give Opera a fair shake, anyway?

Monday, June 12, 2006

More unity of the organism, literally

I have written previously about the sticky question of definitions: how we imagine definitions set borders between concepts, but usually they only set a center, and the blurriness of the resultant borders is responsible for a lot of the failures of communication on subjects of import.

Science, by contrast, usually creates (eventually) precise definitions that provide borders between concepts. This is not without its pitfalls. Often a definition created at one point in the progress of science becomes silly, counterintuitive, or counterproductive at later times. Remember the debate about whether Pluto is "really" a planet?

Nature isn't big on conceptual borders sometimes. Instead, it reveals a spectrum of variations, but sometimes we happen to see a few discrete items along that spectrum and define a boundary, then later we discover the in-between cases, and the definition begins to seem arbitrary. At first we had comets and asteroids and planets, clearly delineated; as we could see better, we found more and more objects that were in between, and nowadays we generally realize there's just "stuff" in various kinds of orbits, and the boundary between "planet" and "asteroid" is arbitrary. Nature doesn't make planets, it makes lumps.

A great example of this that's just on the threshold of science now is the dawning realization that a distinction between your body and the bacteria living in and on it is less clear than previously thought. For every "human" cell that makes up your body, there are nine bacteria that are also integral parts of your body. That's right, the bacteria are 90% of your body by number (though only a few percent by mass, since they're so small).

Consider one of your skin cells, and an E. coli bacterium that lives in your gut and helps you digest food. Science makes a clear distinction between these: one is a cell that's a part of an organism, one is an independent organism. But what precisely is the distinction?

It's not reproduction; both cells reproduce using essentially the same process (mitosis) with essentially the same result (two of whatever it was instead of one).

Is it that the skin cell can't survive on its own, separate from the rest of its neighboring cells (at least without artificial help)? There are bacteria living in your gut that can't survive outside of your gut. (They could if you could transfer them to someone else's gut... but then, your skin cells could survive if transferred to another person as a skin graft, too.)

Is it that the E. coli bacterium has a different genetic structure from yours, a different number of chromosomes with different content? Yes, but consider that while most of the cells in your body have 46 chromosomes, some have 23, and a whole bunch have none at all, but these are uniformly considered to be human cells.

I believe that as we gradually realize that we are colony organisms (and further research into the idea that mitochondria are adapted bacteria living as an integral part of each cell) the gap between "human" cells and the other cells that are part of every human will become more and more arbitrary. It's interesting and perhaps perception-altering, but does it really change anything?

Saturday, June 10, 2006

The Spirit of Exploration

In an indirect sort of way (as befits poetry) the poem I'm quoting, which I read in this month's Planetary Report, the newsmagazine of the Planetary Society, reflects why I am a contributing member of that society and have been for many years. We have big problems here on Earth; people are starving, dying of preventable diseases, being killed in inexcusable wars, and suffering in countless ways. Sure, those things are more important than space exploration. But if you only worry about fixing what's wrong this minute, things never get better, they just stop getting worse as fast. The only sensible balance is to put most of your focus, your money, your time, and your energy into the present. Most, but not all; save some for the past and some for the future, too. (If you want numbers, how about 10% on the past, 25% on the future, and 65% on the present?)

This poem, which I found very touching, is written by Stuart Atkinson, and it refers to the current condition of the Martian explorer robot named Spirit. In case you don't know, Spirit, after outlasting its planned mission lifespan several times over, is starting to fail; it has lost function in one wheel and is struggling to keep warm enough to not freeze during the Martian winter.


(for the Mars rover, "Spirit")

I am tired. So tired.
Scratching, biting dried-blood dust
Coats and smothers me,
Eating at me, into me,
Planting itches I can never scratch.

I am lame. Where once
I used to dash across this ruddy, rocky land
I can now only crawl; limping
Like a dusty crone
From weathered stone to weathered stone.

Once I scaled a mountain:
High above this boulder-cluttered land stood I,
A martian Queen, triumphant!
But now the hills laugh cruelly
As I drag my useless wheel. Exhausted.

Half a thousand frozen sols
Ago I knew no fear!
Laughing, I scorned the shrunken Sun,
Mocking its meagre, half-hearted heat;
Now I long for its waning warmth.
As dervish dust devils dance giddily past,
Mocking me, scorning my crawling quest
For that same Sun’s precious touch
My blood is ice, I feel it crack
As I haul myself onwards… onwards…

But if I die here, They will find me
One day, after travelling from the Evening Star.
Warm arms will surround me, wrap around me,
Lift me out of my rusted, dusty grave
And brush me clean once more.

One day I’ll stand behind walls of glass,
Warm again, clean again;
Honoured and worshipped by wide-eyed
Martian children not yet born on the day I died.
Their Columbus.

Friday, June 09, 2006

More photoshopping fun

MotivationIn the same spirit as All Cheese Must Be Eaten, here are some more silly RPG-related bits of photoshopping. These are spoofs of the popular office decor "motivational posters" -- you'll know the ones I mean.

They're a little too large to fit into the blog here, so go look at them on the thread on the RPGnet forum which inspired them. (The "Knowledge" one deserves a better punchline.)

Incidentally, my favorite spoofs of those posters come from Here are the best of the best:

Thursday, June 08, 2006

The price of pharmaceutical research

Prices for prescription medications are very high, generally rising far faster than inflation, and far higher in the United States than in Canada or other nations. This is a serious problem, and it needs to be addressed, but it's not the problem that the average person thinks it is; it's an entirely different and much more difficult problem. Explaining how and why may smack of being an apologist for the pharmaceutical industry, because most people are pointing fingers in too simplistic a fashion. But don't mistake a more realistic look at the problem as dismissing the problem.

The fact people don't realize or handwave away is that pharmaceutical research is both highly expensive and highly risky. Medicinal technology is so advanced that much of it is based on highly complicated molecular modeling requiring huge amounts of supercomputer time along with the talents of very talented and highly trained scientists, and lots more. The testing makes that look like chump change; for very good reasons we require exhaustive multi-layered tests that take years and cost millions. For every product that comes out of this process approved and ready to earn money, scores more never see the light of day or are relegated to a very limited applicability (and concomitant return on investment potential).

There is only one way to make it financially feasible to invest capital into such an enterprise: by allowing it to make huge profits when it happens. Otherwise, the investment capital will go to other opportunities with less risk or more payoff possibility. That's simple arithmetic, combined with an inescapable consequence of a capitalist market.

Note that this analysis still holds even for a company which has been established already. A pharmaceutical company that has a successful product still has to choose how to invest its revenue to achieve best results for its shareholders; it's not a foregone conclusion that it's always best to invest them into its own continued research. That's generally how it happens in a stable market, but if the laws changed, or the market shifts abruptly, a company might well cease development in a particular sector, or even liquidate itself, according to the very same risk-benefit analysis as was performed by the initial venture capitalist.

The United States has an intriguing "solution" to this problem, one which is of course not without flaws, but isn't nearly as bad as people might think. The developers of a new drug get seven years of patent-supported monopoly, and the opportunity to charge very high prices without competition on a product that people are likely to buy regardless of price, both because of need, and because of the insurance industry. After seven years of "first mover privilege", the drug becomes available to generic manufacturers, who can price it only based on manufacturing costs, ignoring research and development costs, and thus bringing the drug within the reach of a hugely wider base of customers.

In a way, this mirrors the situation for a lot of "luxuries". Consider home theater hardware. The first CD players, DVD players, HDTVs, etc. cost huge amounts of money, thus effectively excluding most people from getting them. Those who could pony up the big bucks for the privilege of getting first dibs, got the privilege, and everyone else waited.

No one sees it as a crime against humanity that not everyone can have a DVD player at the same time, but many of us see it as a much more serious thing that everyone should have equal rights to life-saving, or quality-of-life-improving, medical care, because these things are considered necessities. The trouble, of course, is that while we may believe that, we seem to lack the political will to act on it -- since that principle inexorably leads to socialized medicine in one form or another, or at very least, universal healthcare.

And thus we stand trapped between a sensible enough principle and our inability to act on it. The inequities of drug prices are merely a reflection of that chasm, not really a problem of their own.

But why doesn't Canada have that problem, why are drug prices lower there? In essence, the United States is subsidizing the rest of the world. US drug-buyers are paying a far disproportionate part of the research costs. And that's not fair. But it's nowhere near as unfair as a lot of people make it out. On average (and what a cruel word "average" can be to those who fall below it) the US consumer can better afford to pay those research costs than anyone else (considering both standard of living and size of population base). And for that extra lucre, they're getting first crack at almost every medical advance made, since the vast majority of cutting edge medical research happens in the United States (though that edge is gradually eroding too).

The superficial analysis so common today, and even starting to infect the legislatures, is the foolish idea that we can just pass laws forcing drug companies to keep prices equitable with Canada, and that'll make everything better. Of course, it won't. There are two possible outcomes of that approach.

First, everyone else's prices will rise while ours fall until we find an even level: in other words, we'll have improved our lot at the cost of the rest of the world. You decide how fair that is, taking into account our financial advantages over the rest of the world. Keep in mind that this will hasten the spread of medical research into the rest of the world, costing US jobs and tax revenue as well as access to some cutting edge medical techniques... but so will any other solution to the drug price disparity.

Second, price restrictions will make pharmaceutical research less and less fruitful, and the "invisible hand" Adam Smith talked about will cause it to diminish. It will still spread worldwide, but it will also peter out, or at least slow the fantastic pace of medical advances that the last generation or three have become accustomed to.

Neither of these are really palatable outcomes, and that's what you get when your solution is aimed at a symptom and not the problem. The simple fact is, you can't mandate prices. The costs that went into those prices -- including profit that justifies risk -- are still there. They either go somewhere else (to other countries, perhaps) or the whole thing shrivels up.

I don't pretend to have a real solution at hand. The only thing that comes to mind is government-sponsored medical research -- a step towards communism, perhaps, forcing the question of whether the driving force of capitalists looking for profit can ever be matched by anything that isn't driven by profit incentives. Any such thought is at best hypothetical: if we can't even provide basic medical care for ourselves, how are we going to talk about providing cutting-edge expensive medical research to ourselves?

All I'm trying to say here is, the problem is not as simple as pointing a finger at "greedy venture capitalists and greedy pharmaceutical companies". (Well, you can say it is those things as long as you reject capitalism itself; but you can't have your capitalism cake and eat it too.) Those costs fund something we need (or at least want), and you can't make them go away with a wave of a magic wand or by passing a congressional resolution. If you're really trying to change how costs are distributed, say so, acknowledge the consequences of reallocation, and don't pretend you're talking about lowering them instead.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

A new home for Rover

There's a new link over there on the right: Rover for HomeSeer. This points to a second blog I've set up specifically to be support, news, and updates for a bit of my free software, Rover for HomeSeer.

Rover support used to be done on the HomeSeer web forum. However, several times I ran into hostility leading to outright censorship at the hand of Justin Gould, author of a similar program called WAPseer, so I was forced to remove it from that forum.

Justin has a good program in WAPseer. It started as a web interface for HomeSeer for WAP protocol cell phones. However, as WAP itself declined, WAPseer soon outgrew it and started doing the same things that Rover now does. However, when the day came that I wanted something like Rover, I didn't consider WAPseer because its unfortunate name led me to imagine it was for WAP, and I wasn't using WAP, I was starting from a PalmPilot. So I never even looked at WAPseer or thought about it. Instead, I imagined what I thought a program would look like that did what I wanted, and then wrote it, and named it Rover.

Unsurprisingly, some similarity of intent (supporting small screens, specifically) led to a few superficial similarities of design. And the first screen of Rover in particular, a simple list of locations, looked like the first screen of WAPseer. (And also like any other list of locations.) Justin saw the announcement of Rover and only looked at that screen, and went off the deep end, outright accusing me of theft on the forums. All the other screens didn't really look similar at all, but it took a somewhat acrimonious exchange before we got to that. This was enough to reveal that Justin was essentially carrying a huge chip on his shoulder; his defensiveness and territoriality were really disturbing, and I immediately realized to give him a wide berth.

For years, this was fine. Justin's program continued to grow, at $30 a pop, gaining new features and updating to more current software and platforms. Entirely independently, Rover got hundreds, maybe thousands, of free downloads; its advances were slower because the process of building my house and me dropping out of the HomeSeer community during that time. HomeSeer v2 came out during this time, causing Rover to not quite work right; for a while there was some demand on the forums for a new version, which I didn't see because I wasn't reading the forums.

Then I got back into the HomeSeer scene and put Rover v2 out. All well and good, still no real overlap between our products. By this time Justin had his own forum for WAPseer support so even less reason for us to run into one another. Rover v2 was a big success. Rover v2.1 came out a little while later and was also well received.

That's when I broke my own covenant to keep Justin at a distance, to my regret. Someone had posted a thread asking how to get WAPseer to support a particular style of thermostat. Justin replied saying it did not and never would. I was somewhat surprised by this. In the interest of helping the original poster, and thinking he couldn't be offended by the idea of "stealing" a customer he'd already dismissed, I posted a brief one-line post saying that Rover could, and including a link.

Justin went on a tear. He posted in response a list of all the reasons why WAPseer was superior to Rover. Unfortunately, half the things on the list were simply untrue: they were things Rover could do just fine, thank you very much. And half of the rest were things that were of no value to the end user, like the fact that it was compiled -- he depicted that as something valuable for speed, but since the whole premise of the program ensured the bottleneck would be at the client side, its only purpose was to ensure that he controlled the program (a necessity in making it pay-for-play).

The few that remained I took as ideas for future enhancements to Rover, since I had just posted, with the release of v2.1, that I was running out of ideas for future improvements, and I posted accordingly on the Rover support thread. I also responded to his list with a hint of vitriol, but not much, suggesting that the list was inaccurate and deceptive, and more importantly, not helpful to the original poster's question, so maybe we should focus on helping him, as I'd been trying to do.

Well, Justin is, as previously mentioned, hugely defensive and entirely quick to get nasty. Furthermore, it seems he has an entirely unfounded idea that I'm some kind of "information wants to be free" crusader, merely because I release Rover for free and sometimes speak with nostalgia about HomeSeer's long-gone hippie-commune days. (The forum shows the record, though; though I enjoyed those days, I was one of the first to say that they couldn't last if HomeSeer was to grow, and to suggest some of the changes that would facilitate pay-for-play plugins. Several of the key elements of HomeSeer's current plugin methodology match things I was the first to propose.) So he went off the deep end even farther, thankfully in private message.

Eventually when my private response got around to pointing out how he could take my post as an invitation to steal code from Rover and thus help the original poster while also helping improve his own program, so everyone wins, he responded to that with courtesy, albeit a complete lack of understanding of what this was actually all about. And I thought that was that.

A few days later by sheer coincidence I discovered a remarkable thing. All of my posts in this matter on the forum, every single one of them, had been deleted. Including the one on my own thread for my own product, listing future plans, which contained only a fleeting reference to WAPseer (not even by name). But Justin's inaccurate and deceptive "feature comparison" list post was still there, even though it no longer made any sense since it was a reply to something that had been excised. No notification had been made about these deletions. No copies of the originals were available. No effort had been made to correct the imagined problems in these posts. No effort had been made to correct the actual problems in his posts, either.

I objected strenuously, but my objections were summarily dismissed without consideration. As of this writing, I have received over 20 private messages, emails, and IMs expressing support for my position, and revulsion at the unconscionable actions of HomeSeer's administration, along with many accounts of other incidents of censorship and suppression of complaints. I even learned of other developers who'd been driven from the forums -- which of course I'd never heard about, since all trace of the incidents in question had been expunged.

The only consideration made was deletion of the now-extraneous "response" made by Justin, which is of course wholly inadequate inasmuch as it doesn't address the problem of one-sidedness, distortion, and mishandling. Consequently, I have withdrawn Rover from the forums and will be withdrawing myself and all my other contributions entirely as soon as time permits.

And to think, I was beginning to feel an easing off of that stress. How do I attract these insecure idiots, anyway?

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

HD6: Return of the Dish

Another chapter, and hopefully the last, in the HD saga. A technician came out this morning and replaced a few components and yet again reaimed the satellite dishes for even better signal strength. All seemed well, but with an intermittent problem, what does that prove? And sure enough, an hour after he left, the problem reared its ugly head. (Or headed its ugly rear?)

I called Dish and they scrambled to get someone back out today since I was already home for the day. The CSR this time said something about bad cable grounding. The owner of the local business with which Dish contracts, who was the one to install this system in the first place, along with his "apprentice", came out and frowned thoughtfully at the receiver.

It's so hard to tell the tale in this situation. They can't really diagnose a problem without having the information they need, but they're in such a hurry they don't want to listen, they want to jump to the end. I make an effort to tell them everything they need but not belabor the things they don't need; I do this kind of thing on computers myself so I know what I want to hear when I'm on the other end. But the Dish folk are always too harried for that.

In almost no time they dismissed the "cable grounding" possibility and concluded the DVR itself was bad. Apparently someone else was having the same problem earlier in the day and he hears tale of many more. I didn't want to hear this -- the idea of waiting a week to spend five hours setting up timers again in hopes it'd solve it and not knowing if it would did not appeal -- but I had been afraid of that anyway. After all, I'd not had the problem with DVR #1 at all, but had it within hours of installing DVR #2. Of course, the intermittency meant that two days without a problem was not unheard of even with DVR #2, and DVR #1 had only lived a day and a half. So who knows?

He was on the phone with Dish for a half hour trying to arrange an RMA, and somewhere along the way, perhaps at the prompting of the Dish folks, they tried replacing the shiny silver box that I had been curious about since the problem first appeared. "It's the only thing that hasn't been replaced", they mused, though of course several other things hadn't: the cables, the dishes themselves, and our location, most notably. It didn't help.

Then on a whim they replaced the cable leading from the wall to the shiny silver box -- the one that had been there since we moved in, leading to the old Dish receiver. Still on hold with Dish arranging an RMA, the technician's eyes lit up. Somehow, he concluded, this was it. He swore he was 99.9% confident this would fix the problem. The old cable "looked ratty".

I agreed with him to cancel his ongoing RMA-related efforts. The fact is, if the problem recurred, I could easily do the RMA myself without him involved. So the logical course was to give this solution a trial, and if it failed again, I could move on to RMAing on my own.

It's been about two hours since, and I've been watching live HDTV ever since, flipping channels, watching some awful stuff, and not the slightest hint of the problem. Could this finally be it? Hope tenuously extends its blossoms, timidly seeking the sunshine. Or is it a trap?

Monday, June 05, 2006

Been stressed lately

The last few weeks I've had a slow but steady accumulation of stress which I need to start managing. As a result, I've been having some eyelid twitching, not sleeping as well, and just been feeling put-upon and edgy, with a vague sense of dread and worry. Managing it will be mostly a matter of avoiding any new stressors, and putting a little more time into stress-draining activities, while I wait for some of the sources to resolve themselves. It's not any one or a few big things, but just an accumulation of smaller ones.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

A joke... just a joke

Guess after my last screed it's time for something a little more light-hearted. I heard this joke recently and found it very amusing, but I'm wondering if it'll be half as funny to people who aren't also in IT. (How close is this to contravening the unwritten rule, don't write about work in your blog so you don't get fired for it?)

A man in a hot air balloon realized he was lost. He reduced altitude and spotted a woman below. He descended a bit more and shouted, "Excuse me, can you help me? I promised a friend I would meet him an hour ago, but I don't know where I am."

The woman below replied, "You're in a hot air balloon hovering approximately 30 feet above the ground. You're between 40 and 41 degrees north latitude and between 59 and 60 degrees west longitude."

"You must be in Information Technology," said the balloonist.

"I am," replied the woman. "How did you know?"

"Well," answered the balloonist, "everything you told me is technically correct, but I've no idea what to make of your information, and the fact is I'm still lost. Frankly, you've not been much help at all. If anything, you've delayed my trip."

The woman below responded, "You must be in Management."

"I am," replied the balloonist, "but how did you know?"

"Well," said the woman, "you don't know where you are or where you're going. You have risen to where you are due to a large quantity of hot air. You made a promise, which you've no idea how to keep, and you expect people beneath you to solve your problems. The fact is you are in exactly the same position you were in before we met, but now, somehow, it's my fault."

Saturday, June 03, 2006

The political morass

I don't write in my blog about politics much, partly because politics is too depressing, and partly because there's not a lot of opportunity for real enlightened intercourse about it. Everything's so polarized, and the great majority of people who have an opinion have it without any actual reasoning behind it, but just as a result of intuitions, ignorance, and manipulation.

There are really important things to be talking about out there. The ballooning federal deficit, and how six years has undone all the good of the previous eight twice over, under the rule of the party of fiscal responsibility. Soldiers dying needlessly and in vain because they're inadequately supplied and sent to fight the wrong battles. An energy crisis that makes anything from the 70s seem trivial, but which most people are blissfully ignorant of. An administration so mired in scandal and overt corruption that one wonders if the word "corruption" even means anything anymore. Millions of people devastated by disasters natural and manmade and the failure of the safety nets that should have protected them before or aided them after. A systematic erosion of civil rights, humane treatment, environmental protection, the fabric of diplomacy and foreign relations, and even the underpinnings of representative democracy.

But what are the political topics that grab all the attention? I don't even mean the bread and circuses that keep the public mollified with debate over who will be their next manufactured idol. I mean the people that actually talk about politics or read the news. What are they arguing about? Complete non-starter topics that don't even have any meat in them, like flag-burning amendments, or "intelligent design", or, worst of all, banning gay marriage.

Mounting a well-reasoned argument against one of these things is like getting a claymore to kill a fly. There's nothing there to argue against; there aren't really any arguments for them that stand up to even the most superficial of analysis. They're so obviously a tissue of manipulative, deception emotional appeals and shallow diction-play that they couldn't fool any but a real fool. How frustrating it is that 51% of voters are precisely the sort of fool that buys into these things... that will vote for a presidential candidate on the basis that he seems like he's dumb enough that they could share a beer.

Today's news is full of Bush pushing an amendment banning gay marriage and the mind boggles. Should I point out how many important things are being passed over to waste time on this? Or how obvious it is that this is just a distraction from the latest rounds of corruption and the latest soft poll numbers, the next iteration in a spin-cycle of artificially generated, carefully timed red-state outrage that keeps them too frothed to realize they're being hoodwinked? Or actually point out the obvious reasons why gay marriage is no threat to anyone, as if it could matter to repeat arguments that are already known and obvious to anyone who isn't intentionally hiding his head from them?

Short of someone inventing a virus that forces people to think, and releasing it in all the red states, I don't know anything that's going to get us out of this. I suppose the "decline and fall" is inevitable, and all I should be doing is hoping it holds up a little longer, just long enough until when I'm not around to care anymore. Make token gestures even if they aren't likely to reverse the decline: "do not go gentle into that good night; rage, rage against the dying of the light." Try to arrange my life so I can do without the things that are being taken away before they get taken away. Ride it out.

Or somehow, cling to hope? We have, as a nation, gone to sleep before, and then woken up. Those who are so unabashed at manipulating power have always before this gotten too cocky, too bald-faced, so much that even the red-state fuming ignorants said "hey, wait one cotton-picking minute!". The cumulative damage to the economy alone can sometimes stir up a vast angry hornet's nest of blue-collar not-normally-voters into making the election a crap-shoot. There are all kinds of ways things can turn around, and it always has before. Just have to last a little longer.

Friday, June 02, 2006

HD5: Reality Check Switch

Our Dish receiver's check switch problem, which was dismissed rather than being fixed when Dish technicians came out last week, has started happening again. It's not consistent, and this time it cleared up within about an hour, possibly because of a reboot, but even the CSR didn't think that was likely. So I have another appointment for Dish folk to come out next Tuesday, and that means I have to take another day off of work. The CSR wrote directions saying exactly what needed to be done and I don't intend to let them leave without actually replacing the switch this time. It only makes sense to avoid a few hours of travel and time here by replacing a component that's, I think, like $10.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Sometimes a pawn has to be sacrificed

I joined a play by email roleplaying game set in the Firefly universe, and as these things usually do, it died of loss of momentum and the disappearance of the GM. One of the players happened to belong to another Firefly PBEM and brought up the possibility of moving what remained of our ship and crew into it.

Just so happened it was my idea for a storyline that'd bring us into the new game and explain the sudden loss of half our crew (including the NPC captain) that got adopted, and because of that, the new game's moderator appointed me as the go-between and assistant moderator for our little ragtag bunch of players. I didn't realize at the time that from that moment forward, I was doomed.

This is a really big game with three (now four) different ships each with a full crew, at least thirty characters (though a lot of players run more than one character). It has, as any group that size is bound to do, formed itself into a community that has a history and culture and a set of unspoken rules and traditions; and since these tend to form organically over time, rather than being something someone sat down and decided one day, they remain unspoken. They're too obvious and too obfuscated to actually mention. But newcomers, no matter how careful they are, are bound to trip over a few of them.

In an ideal situation, the people in question will realize that that's what's going on, and cut a little slack. They will explain the group's societal norms and not take umbrage that the newcomers didn't know them, nor that no one thought to mention them. But then, if this were an ideal situation, I probably wouldn't be blogging it, eh?

As designated go-between, I got to be the one who asked all the questions about those unspoken rules, and therefore, the one that unwittingly stirred up discussions, that touched nerves, and ultimately, that provoked a bunch of defensive, closed-minded people to decide I was a malcontent and agitator. How, after all, could I not already know all this stuff? If I was asking about it, I must be disagreeing with it.

Now, you're probably thinking, particularly if you know about me, that I brought some of this on with my own clumsiness. Normally I am the fastest person in the world to blame myself for things like this. But I go over and over everything that happened in my head and I just don't see anything I did wrong. As good as I am at finding things wrong with my own actions, I have to conclude if even I can't find it it must not be there. For once, I'm clean on this one.

There was one bit of bad luck that contributed. I made a post in which I unwittingly came close to breaking a game rule: my character bumped into someone else and knocked them down, with no lasting ill effects. The assistant GM told me to repost without the bump since that was against the "autohit" rule. I was surprised; I've been doing this kind of roleplaying for over 20 years now, and I have seen the "autohit" rule (don't decide that you can hit another character, it's up to them or the GM to decide if actual contact is made) interpreted a lot of ways, but this was the most strict version I'd ever seen. Fine, I thought; that's how they work here. I can do that.

I couldn't see an easy way to rewrite the post quickly to remove that (that was the whole point of the post) and I was about to go to bed, so I just posted that I was redacting that post, and a new one would follow, and left it at that. But people wanted to know why. I resisted making a public issue of it but eventually the GM herself demanded in public to know what the rule was that caused the redaction, so I told herI then got mildly rebuked for discussing it publicly, but I also got a private apology from the GM saying the assistant GM had gone too far in her interpretation of the rule. Fine, I thought. I wasn't really upset in the first place and by then I'd written the replacement post anyway.

But gradually it was dawning on me that people kept taking things I said and did the wrong way, that it was becoming a pattern. That people had gotten the idea that I was a troublemaker, that I was slyly being insulting or attacking, that every time I asked a question they had to take umbrage that I was disagreeing with something. (Why is it that people so often assume if you ask about something, you're attacking it? I hate that.) I tried to step even more carefully (being a newcomer into a game I was already stepping pretty careful) but it was far, far too late. Perhaps a more canny person would have seen what was happening earlier, maybe enough to stop it, but I'm not nearly that canny. Not a tenth as canny as they seem to be accusing me of being, in fact.

This might have been dragged out for months, except that I did make one simple mistake, a tactical error rather than a "blame" thing, but mistake nonetheless. People like to flood the group's OOC discussion listserv with off-topic things like the dumb Internet "what kind of person are you" quiz of the day results. I have no problem with that. I prefer not to read it, or at least to be able to easily sift through it to find the important stuff (like game announcements and OOC game coordination, the ostensible purpose of the list), but I have no interest in stopping it. If people like that, more power to them. All I want is for it to be tagged off-topic so I can sort them into another folder.

A perfectly reasonable request, and asked simply and reasonably. But even in a sane and well-adjusted group, this has a small chance of backfiring. People sometimes imagine that this amounts to asking for those off-topic things to be censored, when actually it's just the opposite, a way to allow it to continue to be posted indefinitely, a defusing of the only argument that could be made for censoring it. In an uptight, highly defensive, close-knit clique, coming from someone who has been branded as malcontent and agitator for being unlucky enough to have to be the one to ask the needed questions on behalf of the others that came with him, it's treading on a landmine.

I should have seen that coming, but so innocuous was the request that I didn't even give it a moment's thought. I've been involved in listservs and discussion fora since the late 1980s; the "OT" tag is so well-established it's as natural to me as punctuation. But inevitably it provoked a firestorm of private messages to the GM complaining about my "complaint" (which it wasn't) followed by the GM publicly berating me and telling me to "lighten up". That she did so publicly is amusing because her very next message included this line: "Unlike you, I have no need to sling mud in public." It's funny because not once in the history of the game did I ever initiate any public discussion whatsoever, not once.

Well, I decided it was time to stop dancing around things and hope that if I confronted what was happening head-on, I might get them to see how absurd it all was, how I was being abused for things I never even said or thought (often, I couldn't even figure out what insult or attack I was alleged to be making even after the fact), how it was being blown out of proportion. I didn't have much hope that it'd work (though I had even less hope that dancing around it would work either), and sure enough, it didn't. So I'm out of the game and no doubt they're vilifying me right now, making up the most absurd and scurrilous things about me.

This isn't the first time I've been in this situation and it isn't the first time I've been blameless in it, either. Often I find that something needs to be said or asked, but whoever says does is going to be forever tainted by the asking; and rather than hanging back and being quiet, allowing things to fail just so no one has to be to blame for it, I speak up. Sometimes this leads to things getting better. Sometimes, it improves things for everyone else, but at the cost of ruining my participation and making me a useful scapegoat and pariah for the surviving, improved community; that's what I'm hoping happened here, that I'm the pawn that the game needed to sacrifice to better itself. Sometimes I go down in flames but the defensive circle that is drawn around the problem holds up and my sacrifice ends up in vain (that's what happened in Lusternia).

Still, it's wearying. I know I didn't do anything wrong here, and for me that's an accomplishment. And I know I did something that the group needed, whether it manages to benefit from it or not. But once in a while I'd like to not be the sacrificed pawn. I guess in a way my refusal to get involved in such discussions about Harshlands is my one try to not be the sacrificed pawn, and I just hope that the game doesn't end up needing any pawns to be sacrificed.

Tagging and filtering are ANTI-censorshop tools

A book club meets once a week at the public library to talk about classic literature. A few of the members want to also have a chat about Disneyworld, or tell off-color jokes, but some of the group doesn't want to talk about or listen about that. There is no way to resolve this situation that doesn't involve someone forcing their preference onto someone else. The pro people could keep talking about it, forcing their preference onto the anti people. The anti people could suppress the conversation, forcing their preference onto the pro people. Or the anti people could leave entirely, avoiding both what they don't want to listen to and what they do. None of these solutions is good.

An email listserv is formed to talk about classic literature, but a few of the members want to chat about Disneyworld, or tell off-color jokes, and again some on the list don't want to talk or listen to that. There are two easy ways to fix this that do not involve anyone forcing their preferences onto anyone else, that allow everyone involved to see exactly the discussion they want. One is creating a second listserv for those "off topic" posts (assuming that listservs are free and plentiful to set up). The other and perhaps better is to have those off-topic posts tagged with something like "[OT]", and then those who don't want to hear them can effortlessly filter them out.

That we can do this takes away the only argument anyone could have made to suppress or censor those off-topic discussions. Therefore, filtering is actually a way to avoid censorship.

So why do daft people who haven't quite "gotten" the ways email differs from sitting in a room insist on taking a request for tagging to be censorship when it's exactly not censorship? Censorship isn't me choosing not to listen to you; it's not even me saying "you should talk about that somewhere else, not here" (in a privately run, topic-focused forum). Censorship is preventing you from saying something. Period.