Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Loot #6: PS3 Games

I also got a pair of games for the PS3. One is a game I've played (and enjoyed) the demo from, and wrote about it before: Stuntman: Ignition. I haven't installed the full version yet or done anything with it. Mostly for lack of time (and what time there was, the PS3 has been busy.... Siobhan got LittleBIGPlanet.) When I do, I've also got a driving controller with foot pedals to try (didn't get that as a gift, bought it myself a week or so before Christmas when it was on a deep discount at MidnightBox.)

The other one is Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. I played it a little bit, though unusually, it was while people were over for our nominal Christmas "party"/gift exchange. It's odd playing a solo game in front of an audience, at least for me, but they didn't seem to mind, and egged me on. Most gamers are probably very used to this kind of game and interface. Heck, I'm not even used to the PS3 controller quite yet. So I probably was pretty frustrating to watch as I didn't do obvious things.

The game did a good job of teaching me how to play it by letting me play it, though. Kudos to the designers for managing that tricky task with panache, particularly given how it worked even on me, someone who's been out of touch with computer games since the days of the Commodore 64. The game itself is vaguely interesting, not super-engaging, but interesting. I find it weird to see shots from the movie matched detail for detail as computer animation, instead of just playing the original clip; but Joe pointed out that using the real clip would break immersion when it transitioned to computer animation afterwards, so that makes sense. The animated Captain Jack Sparrow seems to exaggerate his tendency to weave and shift and bob to the point where it becomes distracting and goofy: I don't know if they have him moving too much, or if it's just that, things that Johnny Depp can pull off, a computer animation built from him doesn't quite pull off. Maybe his movements are in the uncanny valley (even if he himself isn't).

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Loot #5: Solipsist

I've finished reading Mordant's Need just in time to start on the first book I got for Christmas, a roleplaying game called Solipsist. (Why do I always want to misspell that the way I mispronounce it, Solopsist?)

It's a slim little volume of 96 half-sized pages, but the game it describes is rather hard to wrap my mind around. My worry is that it'll be yet another game I never get to play, both because I don't know if my group will be interested, and because I don't know how to convey it to them: it's hard to sum up. And I don't see any way to get players ready to play other than having them read the book too; it'd be hard to boil down the idea to "just what players need to know" that would be shorter than the whole book. So if I have trouble getting them to decide they like it, I have even more trouble if they have to read 50 pages to start playing. (Not to mention that I don't have five copies of the book to spare, and there's no "player version", only a preview.)

The best thing I can think of to describe the game is this. You know how some games have a very limited, and often "tacked on", method of letting the players take over the job of narrator and decide what happens? For instance, spending "fate points" to cause odd coincidences, or decide something happens, or just change what just happened to their characters? In Solipsist, that is the game. It's the central, in fact the only, mechanic.

The premise is that reality is essentially a shared consensual illusion made manifest. The world around you is literally shaped by the will of you and other people near you. But the vast majority of us have very weak wills that are shaped by consensus and can't make small individual changes. We only contribute to large-scale ones; for instance, if people start believing there are terrorists everywhere, pretty soon, there are terrorists everywhere, but if you start believing there's a terrorist in the pantry, you individually probably can't make that happen. You're limited by your weak will and the consensus of everyone else around you.

Some people have a very strong will, however, and can shape reality. Most of those, however, promptly tear themselves out of our reality into a world of their own devising. All we see is a madman in an institution, left behind because our consensus reality requires that people don't just vanish, so we create a madman to replace the now-departed Solipsist.

A small handful of people are poised in balance between these. They have a strong enough will to Change Reality, but they are also Grounded by their own Limitations and Obsessions, things that keep them from Ascending to their own world because they are still connected to this one. So they can stay in it, but they can also have an impact on it. Every time they change reality, though, this can strengthen their obsessions and limitations, possibly draw them closer to ascending. (There's more, but I'm trying to be brief.)

This is not a game where you have one or several scores you want to increase. Everything that makes you able to do more stuff in one way drags against you in another. There's actually a mechanic that handles your character between adventures losing some of what they gained in the previous adventure, so he doesn't Ascend too soon.

As I read through this, I'm finding it still a bit slippery. I'm not sure what, as a GM, I would set up for the characters to do. The mechanic, simple as it is, has enough unfamiliar moving parts that I'd have to go through it the first few times step by step.

But the amazingly innovative differentness makes me itch to try it. Hopefully by the time I read more of the examples (there are still more on the author's website) it'll coalesce for me.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Loot #4: History of Aeronautical Research

It's hard to properly convey the scope of this present with a picture.

It's about three feet by five feet and it's chock full of pictures and details, organized into vertical stripes for the years, and horizontal blocks for related research, detailing the history of aeronautical and space research in the United States since the early 60s. There are also a few history facts to help you relate to the times: Best Picture for each year, current President, price of gas, and a few others.

Framing something like that would be absurdly expensive, but since it could be sliced in half so each half was only about one and a half feet wide, we were able to get it laminated at Staples at a much more reasonable price. You can see it here decorating the wall next to where the treadmill used to be (before we sold it).

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Loot #3: Periodic Table Playing Cards

In case my Christmas wasn't looking geekish enough yet, let's pull out all the stops. I got a set of two playing card decks where each card depicts an element of the periodic table.

My favorite part is how each card shows two of the uses for which that element is employed. Some are obvious and well-known but a lot of them I'd never realized, particularly in the higher metals. Of course, get too high and there's a lot of elements that have no uses listed or just research, but that's to be expected. It's also amusing how the higher transuranics are on Joker cards.

I played a game of solitaire with them yesterday. It's been so long since I played solitaire with actual cards, it felt downright odd. But mostly I wanted to see if the fact that the cards are colored by their series, not by their suits, would be confusing. (It wasn't.) That said, while multiplayer card games will probably still work better with physical cards, solitaire works better with software. As Random said in Mostly Harmless, "Why is it in hardware?"

I can't help think as I play whether any of the combinations of elements I'm playing as I build my stacks might cause an explosion. Imagine playing poker where a flush was obtained not by having the same suit by having the same valence, or being in the same period. (Some flushes would have to be worth a lot more than others.) Or where a pair was worth more if it was a pair that formed an ionic bond. ("Sodium chloride beats two aces!") Covalent bonds would of course beat ionic bonds. (This is the point where I don't make a 007 joke...)

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Loot #2: Baker's Edge Brownie Pan

I plan to spend a little time today baking with the next item from my Christmas loot haul, the Baker's Edge Brownie Pan.

It's simple enough: a brownie baking pan with internal edges so that every brownie you cut is a side piece. Does anyone really prefer the soft-on-all-sides middle pieces? If so, I wonder why. The edge with its chewy crispness is always the best part of the brownie, and with this pan, that's all you have, edges.

This pan deserves to exist and be owned for no other reason than that it's so clever. It's one of those things that once you see it it's obvious, but coming up with it in the first place is ingenious. Of course, making brownies in it is even better, and I hope to do that today.

The pan is surprisingly hefty and sturdy. There's no doubt it'll take a lot of use.

Alton Brown would no doubt sneer at it as a unitasker. (Though I have my doubts: we've already wondered if it might not be good for Yorkshire pudding for the same reasons it's good for brownies, while being easier than using a bun pan.) But I'm not nearly as dogmatic as Alton about that. Sure, I can see where he's coming from. Your average kitchen gadget store is full of the most ridiculous unitaskers which serve only to separate you from your money; these items do not really save you any work and only try to save you from having to know the basics you should know anyway. But while caution about them is warranted, he oversteps to insist on nothing that can't have more than one use. It's a rule of thumb, not a law of the kitchen.

That said, if I can think of Yorkshire pudding as an example of something this might do, I bet Alton could come up with some other ideas too. Would love to see what he thought of this pan.

Postscript: It turns out that Baker's Edge has a collection of recipes that includes a number of other things where the edge is the best part, including lemon bars, cobbler, pineapple upside-down cake, lasagna, zucchini walnut bread, and cauliflower gratin. I'll have to take their word on the last two, but I'm eagerly anticipating trying lasagna cooked this way. In fact, since the one problem is that standard lasagna noodles are just a little too long, they're coming out with a lasagna-sized version of the pan. Now Alton can't grumble about single-taskers!

Friday, December 26, 2008

Loot #1: Archos 605 WiFi

In a way it seems tacky to talk about what I got for Christmas. But I have talked on the blog about gadgets and gimcracks before so why not?

The biggie (and something I was entirely not expecting, even though it was on my wish list) was an Archos 605 WiFi 4G. This is a PMP (portable media player) whose virtue over its many rivals is simply this: that it has WiFi.

I already have my music collection (also photos and video but that's secondary) on a file server where I could access them from any computer in the house. Since I got my TiVo, then a D-Link, and finally a PS3, I have had these shared on a UPnP server (TVersity at present) as well as the more usual file shares. Yet with all this, if I go into the bedroom, I suddenly don't have my music available unless I lug my laptop along.

Sure, I can synchronize playlists into handheld players, my cell phone, heck, I can practically synchronize a playlist with my toaster oven. But I don't want to synchronize, at least not actively -- if it happens automatically and it's ready when I want it, fine, but if I have to stop what I'm doing to do it, bah. I just want to get up and go. And I don't want to have one playlist in one place and then have to switch to another when I move. My music is already available everywhere my WiFi reaches. Why can't it just follow me?

It seems to me if you took any tiny little MP3 player and any tiny little USB WiFi dongle, and you merged them, you'd have a tiny little device that was a better MP3 player than anything on the market, at least within your house. The space the WiFi hardware takes up can't hardly be any bigger than the space taken up by an SD card slot or internal memory, nor will the WiFi take up substantially more power. But in one bang, you've got a device that weighs a few ounces but plays playlists from a library of thousands of songs, that can play the same playlist you were just streaming to your big stereo a second ago. Heck, if you work at it you could make it built into the headphones.

The Archos 605 isn't quite that, because it's big enough to have its own storage and an SD card slot and a video screen for watching video on and other stuff. But it does let me stream my existing playlists on my existing servers from my existing collection right to it as I walk around the house. And that rocks. Anything else is gravy.

And it turns out the Archos is well-supplied with gravy. It turns out its video capacity is really remarkable, streaming in 800x480 at a pretty flawless frame rate even over the network, and flawlessly from local storage. The picture is fantastic. Unfortunately, a lot of video I have won't play on it without an extra plug-in that costs $20... I could transcode it but unless I sit down transcoding everything I own, which would take forever, how would I even know something needed transcoding until I ran into it? It also turns out that the Archos has a free plugin to load video from my DISH Network DVR, which is a nice coincidence. Then it turns out that it won't load HD programs down -- obviously it couldn't load them in HD but it won't even downsample them -- and since the vast majority of what we record is in HD that feature turns out to be "easy come easy go".

The picture viewing functionality is fantastic too, with some remarkable quality, the ability to play the pictures right out of my camera, a nice slideshow feature, and a good user interface. Too bad I don't have more reason to take pictures with me places.

I was looking forward to playing with the web browser for one simple reason. I have a web browser and WiFi on my cell phone already: however, every time I turn the phone off (most of the time it's off) it loses the connection, so if I have WiFi enabled, every time I turn it on, it reconnects, which makes the device slow for fifteen seconds or so. Since most of the times I turn it on it's to jot something down and then turn it off, that means it's slow the whole time I use it. So I leave WiFi disabled. After all, the one time I might want WiFi out of a hundred isn't worth either the slowdown or the battery consumption. I thought the Archos might not turn the WiFi off when I turn it off, so it would come back up connected and ready, or at least close. In which case, it might be a beautiful choice to run Rover on, to control my home automation system.

However, it turns out that the browser is not built in. Or rather, it is, but not licensed; I have to pony up $30 to license it. Which feels like nickel-and-diming me, especially considering they're asking $20 for the extra codecs. In principle, I agree with this approach: don't make me pay for the functions I won't use. However, this time it's leaving a bad taste in my mouth. First of all, it wasn't as clear as it should have been that the browser wasn't included; it was made to seem like a feature. Second, the device's menus are full of items that only give you a "Buy now" function -- you can't hide the things that aren't actually installed, all over the interface. Third, several secondary functions are linked to the browser, like being able to view text files or use the "free" downloaded widgets which look fairly cool. And fourth and perhaps worst, there isn't even a demo. How should I know if I want to pay $30 for a portable browser when I can't even see how well it works?

Ultimately, since the WiFi doesn't come back on already ready, I probably won't get the browser. Anything I'd use it for I can do on my cell phone which is already ubiquitous (even if its screen isn't as nice). That's not so bad since the main point of this was music. But it's nagging at my irrational geek curiosity.

Surprisingly, the lack of the browser means I can't read plain text files, but I can read PDFs, which makes this a fair eBook reader. I've loaded a few roleplaying game PDFs onto it just to see how they worked and they're quite readable, without tedious scrolling left and right.

I spent most of the day yesterday playing with it, trying to work out kinks with the file sharing and transcoding, etc. And being astonished at how good the picture is. It's a very impressive little toy.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

This means something. This is important.

My cellphone ring tone is the five-note theme from Close Encounters. Isn't that just the best choice for a ringtone? It's distinctive, easily recognized, and entirely appropriate.

And there's one extra bonus I discovered a few days ago. Waiting in line at the supermarket, and the lines were extremely long and crowded due to the pre-Christmas rush. It was a wall of bodies and carts. While I was waiting, my cellphone rang.

Normally in a crowded public place, whenever someone's cellphone rings, everyone else looks at them. When I say "looks" I really mean "glares" at the person with the cellphone. But when my cellphone rings with that distinctive, familiar five notes, everyone looks up.

By the time it occurs to them to do something else, I've already answered the phone, and then they're feeling too silly about it to keep glaring at me.

Too bad I get so few calls.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Holiday meal plan

I can't remember if I've written about this before on my blog, so I'll be brief. Siobhan's family and mine both had more people around for the holidays than we ever do -- most of the time it's just us, or us and a few friends. So recreating the traditional holiday meal of either family would be way too much, let alone the superset that contains the union of both sets. In particular my family had the usual stuff plus an Italian course that was a meal in itself. (Post-surgery it's even harder to balance a big meal!) But we didn't want to leave anything out.

So we ended up with this plan. Thanksgiving is traditional but we split the stuffing up, half sage-onion and half sausage. Christmas Eve I make something Italian (ravioli, baked ziti, stromboli, braciole, sauce meat, manicotti, etc.). Christmas we have something we've never had before that we probably wouldn't otherwise have. New Year's Day I make something Italian again.

This year's Christmas Eve is also the day we're having friends over (scheduling a day wasn't easy, we've got some people with unpredictable job schedules and others going away) but it's also a work day so I'm keeping it simple with store-bought, but good quality, ravioli (Celentano). Christmas Day's plan is arancini: a Sicilian dish that somehow neither of us had ever heard of until we chanced to see it mentioned in (of all places) an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins, & Dives. How it happened that neither of us had heard of it, I can't guess. New Year's Day will also be relatively simple: sauce meat (pork, beef, and sausage cooked in sauce until it's falling apart tender) with a little spaghetti. Next year I'll probably go back to the more elaborate stromboli and braciole type stuff.

I won't do a whole blog post about this because I already have, so instead, here's an obligatory rant, added to today's post at no extra cost. Keep Christ in Christmas: get him out of my solstice! If you want to whine about incursions into your holidays, pick one that you didn't already steal first, Mr. Black Pot. Go celebrate Christ's birthday in the spring when it actually happened, and leave us alone -- or share the holiday you stole with the people you stole it from, and stop complaining.

This also gives me an excuse to link you to a most excellently funny (because it's true) essay posted on a friend's blog: We've Got To Stop The War On Saturnalia. Read it. Laugh.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Big-screen monitor

I've been meaning to get a long enough HDMI cable to reach from my laptop to my 62" DLP HDTV but never got around to it. I happened to see one at a great price at, of all places, Big Lots, so now I can use the big screen TV as my second monitor. It makes a very impressive 1920x1080 display when you put anything from a web browser to the demo of Celestia on it.

While I might try playing some computer games on it (a flight simulator on that would be literally dizzying) the main thing I intend to do with it for now is use it as a gamemaster. To start with, it'll be a step up from using the PS3 to display visual aids and maps -- I have more control in zooming in, altering images, putting multiple images at once, etc. The second step will be combat maps; I once worked out a good way to use Paint Shop Pro to do this on a spare LCD monitor, but haven't used that technique in years, and now I can't really figure out how I did it. (I thought it was just the juxtaposition of a raster and a vector layer, but it doesn't seem to work that way.)

But the real big step will be an addition to my IRIS software. This is a little program I put together that automates a lot of the mechanics of running combat using Prism and particularly IRIS, its initiative system.

While the software tracks actions and combat stats and a lot more, it leaves all this for me to see, and the players are a little cut off from it. When someone's action comes up, they often don't know it's coming, and aren't ready. Sometimes they've lost track of the situation their characters are in. This slows things down, which makes combat less engaging, which makes them bored and detached, which makes it more likely that by their next action they'll be even farther removed and less ready to go with an action.

Some of this I can blame on the people at the table (myself included!). We could all make things move twice as fast by having our actions chosen ahead of time (including NPC actions), our dice and skill sheets ready, etc. But we are by disposition very inclined to distraction. Even so, some of the blame falls on the system. Its design lends itself well to an abstracted, idealized situation that isn't very realistic, particularly at the present time with limits in technology. It is more of a criticism than self-praise to say it's ahead of its time; it would make more sense with more pervasive and smart technology, because it'll turn out eventually to be very well suited to a day when pervasive technology facilitating roleplaying games is commonplace. But until then it depends too much on players thinking like me -- which they don't.

This simple $15 cable and a few hours of coding time (which I am very much looking forward to, once time allows) will be I think a very big step, though. It's not an ambitious goal to start. All I will have is a "player's view" of the combat in a separate window I can drag over to the second monitor. It will show the current phase, who's acting, and their status; then a table of all the player characters, when they will act next, and their status; and then details on the status of any one of those player characters I click on (or the one whose action it is). No more than that. But in big, bold letters, plainly visible throughout the combat to everyone.

My hope is that this will offer players an opportunity to be more engaged and ready. When your action comes up you know your character's situation, you knew the action was coming, you are hopefully ready to go. Maybe you'll take the next step and have dice and character sheet ready already. And then the vicious cycle may turn to a virtuous cycle: if combat picks up in pace, it becomes more interesting, and that makes people more eager for their next action, and then more ready for it when it comes, and thus combat picks up in pace even more.

Then we'll see what else should go there. The obvious next thing is to make a combat map system integrated with IRIS. Then if you move from point A to point B, you pass through the intervening spots at the appropriate times. All the advantages of highly granular systems like GURPS where a long move is done as a series of independent steps (e.g., you can intercept someone mid-movement) without the disadvantages (e.g., having to take each individual step instead of just declaring one action and letting it carry you there). By the time that's done I'll probably have lots of other ideas.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Beef jerky

In the quest to get more protein to keep my weight loss going, I'm going back onto beef jerky. Back during the pre-surgery diet phase, and before that during the being-diabetic phase, I used beef jerky as a good snack: low fat, low carb, and filling. I got worn out on it though. But it's been more than a year and I now find I like it again.

The beef jerky sold in bulk at CostCo is pretty good at a good price, but for variety's sake I'm also trying to make my own. My first batch was good but I didn't keep it well enough and lost most of it to mold. The second batch I've avoided that, but there's more cartilage in it that I didn't cut out, so there's still room for improvement.

It's easy to make your own, and you don't need a special dehydrator (though that probably reduces the energy used). It's easy, it just takes a while, but you do it overnight. Here's how.

You'll need:
  • Cookie sheets with racks (like the ones pictured)
  • A ziploc bag
  • Some aluminum foil
  • Any cut of beef, even a cheap one (just watch for cartilage)
  • Marjoram
  • Lemon juice
  • Other seasonings such as pepper, onion powder, worcestershire sauce, tabasco, etc.
  1. Freeze the meat.
  2. In the morning, defrost it, but not fully.
  3. While it's still mostly frozen, slice it across the grain into very thin slices. Remove cartilage as you go as well as any chunks of fat.
  4. Put the slices into a ziploc bag. Cover (just barely) with cool water.
  5. Add lemon juice generously. For a pound of beef, a half-cup is a good amount.
  6. Add flavorings and seasonings of your choice. You'll want the fluid to be fairly dark, so don't skimp.
  7. Zip the bag up with as little air in it as possible.
  8. Shake the bag well.
  9. Leave the bag in your sink until just before bedtime.
  10. Turn your oven to its lowest setting.
  11. Drain the marinade from the beef.
  12. Lay the strips out on the racks over cookie sheets. They shouldn't overlap but can touch.
  13. Crumple up some aluminum foil into a small ball.
  14. Put the cookie sheets into the oven.
  15. Use the crumpled aluminum foil to hold the oven door just a little bit open.
  16. Go to bed, leaving the meat to dry overnight, 8-10 hours.
The resulting jerky won't be so well preserved that you can leave it out at room temperature for weeks: it could mold up. So keep it in the fridge. You might benefit from putting individual servings into FoodSaver bags too, which is what I did this time (but I'm still keeping them in the fridge anyway, so I don't lose any).

If you've ever tried this and didn't like how it came out, odds are you left out the marjoram or didn't use enough lemon juice. Those are the secret ingredients that give jerky the right taste and feel. People focus on the pepper, teriyaki, etc. but even plain beef will taste good with some marjoram and lemon juice in the marinade.

Incidentally, the same technique should work for other jerky-appropriate red meats like venison or mutton. (I wouldn't try it with pork or poultry, though.)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Have you seen a skeleton?

Just about everyone today knows pretty exactly what a human skeleton looks like, the shapes of all the bones, their physical arrangement, etc. But it occurred to me yesterday that as far as I can remember, I've never seen a real one. Certainly not in real life with my own eyes, not even a single human bone, that I can recall. Odds are somewhere along the way I've seen a real one depicted in a photograph or on TV, but I can't point with certainty at any particular moment that I saw one and knew it was a real one, not a mockup. For all I know, every skeleton I've ever seen might have some kind of Hollywood inaccuracy. I can think of a few pictures of particular bones that I've seen that I knew (as much as you can really be sure of any reliable source, at least) were real, but most of those are just skulls.

So I was thinking that there's this saturation where almost everyone in so-called "Western civilization" has seen countless images of skeletons, but by the same token, probably the majority of us (maybe a vast majority) have never seen a real one. What would it have been like in previous generations? I wonder if you go back far enough, if having seen real human bones, or even a real whole skeleton, might not have been a lot more common. Maybe there's a period in between a time when people often had seen the real thing, and when people had seen them on TV, where most people would not know what they looked like.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Good and bad in the news

There's certainly a lot of bad in the news lately. The last week has been tense at work, watching revenue shortfalls and the budget crisis in state government and all the questions about where it'll be made up has been particularly stressful since this hits pretty close to home. Odds are some big projects at work I've been planning for a long time will be delayed by years, and that's if we get off easy; it could end up a lot worse. While I'm positioned nearly as well as I can be to weather the economic storm, it's reaching me too, and all around me I see friends and coworkers and associates who might be touched even more.

At the same time, the feeling I wrote about previously, that the outcomes of our recent election offered a new hope that hadn't quite sunk in, is beginning to fade and be replaced by a more firm sense of hope. Following has been encouraging. Today, I read this:
“The truth is that promoting science isn’t just about providing resources—it’s about protecting free and open inquiry,” President-elect Obama said. “It’s about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology. It’s about listening to what our scientists have to say, even when it’s inconvenient — especially when it’s inconvenient. Because the highest purpose of science is the search for knowledge, truth and a greater understanding of the world around us. That will be my goal as President of the United States — and I could not have a better team to guide me in this work.”
I think I'm finally shaking the sense that it's all not quite real, that things are really going to get better.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Disappointing Dirt Dog

Last year the third of our three floor-cleaning robots, Telemachus, the Roomba Dirt Dog, got run over and survived, mostly. But really while he is sometimes affected by his injuries, he's really impossible to make much use of because of flaws in the design. In all, pleased as I am by the Roomba and Scooba, the Dirt Dog has to be rated a disappointment.

When I first heard of the Dirt Dog, it was described as being able to handle a workshop floor, even picking up nails and screws and chips of wood, more rugged than the Roomba. So I expected it to be a lot more expensive. I was stunned that the Dirt Dog cost much less than the Roomba. Later I learned it didn't have a vacuum, just sweeping, so I thought, gee, I guess the vacuum part is more expensive by more than you'd think, by more than the ruggedizing is.

Ultimately though it became clear that there wasn't really any ruggedizing. The Dirt Dog is just a Roomba with the vacuum left out. It's no better able to handle picking up large things like screws or woodchips, nor at dealing with tangling cables, nor even at working in dusty environments, than a Roomba is. All it manages is to not get a vacuum unit clogged, but it still fails. It gets its brushes caught on a nail, you have to pick up cables, and worst of all, you are constantly having to blow dust off its sensors or it goes into the "backwards dance" mode where it's constantly retreating from imaginary drops. Usually, I can have it run only 15 minutes at a time, at best, before it stops. Probably only a third of that is straight-out cleaning and the other two thirds is backwards-dancing. In the end, it's easier to just pick up a deck broom to do my garage. In summer I'll use him to clean the deck, but that's about it.

I suppose something that was what I thought the Dirt Dog was would indeed cost a lot. If Roomba comes out with one, though, I'll have a hard time trusting them. If anyone could do it right, they could, I guess, but they didn't, so that makes it hard to give them another chance.

(Though it is still impressive how well he survived getting run over.)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Carbon monoxide Christmas songs

I like Christmas songs. I have about 200 songs in my Christmas music collection which run the gamut of styles, and while other people often talk of Christmas music with a groan as if it's just something to be endured, I actively like to play my collection during the season.

But tonight we went to a doctor's office for an annual opthamology exam, then a run of grocery shopping with a dinner out, and along the way I got to listen to a lot of Christmas music on various radio stations and store music systems. When I say "a lot", I mean not more than an hour's worth of music, a fraction as many songs as my own collection. And some of those were even songs that are in my collection. Burl Ives, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and Frank Sinatra, that I remember.

However, the other songs, many of them, soon made me grimace and grit my teeth, and for a few moments evoked a knee-jerk reaction of feeling as if I hate Christmas music. But of course I don't. I just hate some Christmas music: the kind that's sappy and bland, from which any trace of emotion or soul has been removed in favor of saccharine sentimentality devoid of matter so as to be devoid of offense, the kind that sticks in your head so firmly it even prevents better music from taking root.

It occurred to me that those songs are the carbon monoxide of Christmas music. Carbon monoxide is an odorless, tasteless gas, which kills by the simple expedient of bonding to your blood cells in the same way that oxygen would -- thus preventing oxygen from bonding by taking its place, while offering no actual value to you.

Well, the analogy seemed a lot more amusing and apt when I first thought of it.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Green Frustum

Last year we bought a Green Cone which I set up this past spring once the ground thawed. As you can see from the picture, it's not really a cone, so to be mathematically correct, we call it the Green Frustum.

A Green Cone is a distant cousin of the compost bin. Like a compost bin, it's a way to convert organic scraps into something instead of just throwing them away. But the differences are more important than the similaries. A Green Cone doesn't produce compost you can rake onto your garden; the compost it breaks things down into is simply leached into the soil around it. Its primary purpose is to reduce your waste stream to the landfill. They estimate for most families it can reduce the amount you throw away by about 25%, and combined with recycling it can make a big dent in your landfill production. And it can reduce your waste stream even if you also use a compost bin because the biggest difference is that the Green Cone can take any organic waste. Even fats, meat, bones, and other things you'd never put in a compost bin.

Our Green Cone isn't working at full capacity, though. First, we're in a northern climate so it gets less warmth from the sun, and for less of the year. Second, our soil is very wet, so even though I lined it with coarse gravel, the flow of air, water, and soil is slow and cloggy. Even so I hoped it would be able to break down our waste as fast as we produced it, because instead of being a large family, there's just two of us, and post-surgery we don't even eat as much.

However, by autumn the Cone was nearly full, so I've stopped adding things to it for the winter, which saves me having to shovel a path to it, at least. Most of that is that the disadvantages of northern climate and wet soil are greater than I anticipated. But it's also shown us we've been very wasteful when it comes to shopping, especially for produce. Some of the blame for that can be put on our adapting to our post-surgery stomachs and trying to figure out how much of things to buy and cook. But some of it is just that we tend to buy things so we'll have them on hand in case we want them, and let a distressingly large amount of them go unused and get thrown away. That's something we should work on.

But even so, we're going to the dump about 30% less often than we did before having it. Again, some of that can be attributed to our shopping changing post-surgery, but some of it to the Green Cone. So it's another way to help do our part, and one that's really no hardship apart from the purchase price. In fact, it's a bit of a convenience: lugging food scraps to it isn't fun but keeping them from getting smelly and attracting flies in the summer is worse.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Boss

Could there be any musician more firmly rooted in blue-collar, working-class values than Bruce Springsteen? More likely to speak on behalf of the downtrodden, more likely to sing on the side of labor? (Okay, the answer is yes, but you get my point.) So isn't it funny that he is called "The Boss"? Sure it is, but why does no one but me find that odd?

(According to Wikipedia, it's because when the E Street Band was nascent, he was the one who arranged gigs and collected and distributed earnings. I wonder, was it even than an intentional irony, or did it just turn into one later?)

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Third Age

I used to have a TiVo so I was active on the TiVo Community Forums. One forum there is the TV Show Talk forum in which people just talk about their favorite shows; there's nothing TiVo-specific about it, but it's to my mind just about the right size forum with the right amount of moderation. Others featuring talk about TV shows tend to be too big (so you have no sense of people, just a vast mass of posts, and too much crap that comes from the anonymity), or too small (so there's not enough activity to sustain interest), or moderated too much (so you can't talk freely), or moderated too little (so you get stuck with spam, spoilers, flame wars, or off-topic diversions). So even when I dropped out of most of the forum after switching away from my TiVo I stayed with that forum.

Typically there will be one new thread per episode of any of the popular shows, and since everyone there is a DVR user, these threads have a long lifespan because people might be weeks or months behind on their viewing.

A few months ago, someone had the novel idea of encouraging the people of the forum to pretend Babylon 5 was just airing, two episodes a week. We would all watch at that pace on our own, from the DVD sets, and then have threads where we would recreate the experience of watching it as if it were a first-run show.

Babylon 5 is ideally suited to that kind of analysis and sharing because of its arc, because of how much of a breakthrough show it was, and because so many of the people on the forum either are fans of the show, or would be, if they had seen it. In fact, Babylon 5 was in many ways the first show ever to have such discussions: back when it was first airing, the primary creator, the so-called Great Maker, J. Michael Stracynski (JMS), was active on Usenet and participated on the (and later, newsgroup, at a time when the people making shows had no contact with the fans (except maybe in panels years later at sci-fi conventions, if even then). There were weekly discussions of every episode and JMS participated in them.

The idea of simulating a show's first run like this is very inventive and clever, and I think it's worked out very well. As it happens, more than half of the people watching along are those of us who saw the show when it first aired. We're making an effort to post as if it were our first time too -- not just avoiding spoilers, but also avoiding speculation unless we can be sure to firewall away what we know of what would happen later. Above all trying to help the folks who are new to the show to have that first time through experience.

The show starts weak, with low production values, some crappy stories, and bad acting, but you can also see the promise very plainly: the signs that this isn't going to be just another sci-fi show, that it's one coherent story with a start middle and end, that it's going to try things no one else tried before and even some things that aren't tried much since, that it's going to take your expectations of status quo and sacred cows and use them to yank you on a thrill-ride, that it'll all turn out to be about something and not just a humdrum something but the really big things. Some of the folks dropped out before the midway point of season one. But those who made it to season two all stuck with it, and most of them, somewhere by season three, got tired of waiting to watch only two a week, and rushed ahead to at least the end of season four (where we are now, in fact), if not to the very end. I'm actually not sure if there's anyone left who's still doing a first watching on the appointed schedule!

There's no question that the show has aged. It's easy to be critical for a lot of reasons, but one more than most: the things that were most new, ground-breaking, and fresh then, have in many cases become de rigeur (or at least far from unprecedented) since because B5 changed the face of sci-fi TV. Some are more obvious than others. B5 was the first major TV show to use CGI extensively for effects, for instance. And B5 having a story arc with a fixed duration, planned out in advance, is something that has become common these days (even if the makers of shows like Lost still aren't convincing me that they really planned it out from the start).

But it's more than that. One good example is the episode "Believers", middle of the first season, which revolves around an alien family whose child is ill, and the station's doctor trying to cure him but being prevented by the family's religious beliefs. Up to the last few minutes you can easily expect the show to be going the direction it went in similar stories in every sci-fi show ever. Then it doesn't. It goes in a direction TV shows never go, with an ending that leaves you reeling. Today, endings like that are common; in some ways they're even more common than the old standard. They're not as shocking now. It would be grandiose to say B5 is responsible for that change, but B5 was at least a standard-bearer in the process of that change happening.

One can point to a dozen more similar examples even within the fairly weak first season. The strange device with amazing powers which solves a problem and then seems to have been forgotten in the next episode... only later, it comes up a few more times. Episodes focusing on the blue-collar workers that keep the station running, or on the press and its part in the stories it tells. Truly sympathetic depictions of religion alongside the critical ones. Characters who change in amazingly deep ways over the course of the show. It's easy to point at sci-fi TV shows now that have all those things. But when B5 aired, there wasn't any of it at all.

So this attempt to simulate a first airing is in a way doomed: we can never get people to see B5 as something as groundbreaking as it really was because we're too used to things that were stunningly new then. The flaws are just as evident but the virtues are more faint. But the point of the exercise isn't just to be a history lesson. It's just plain fun, and a good excuse to revisit a great show.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

This year's ornament

This year's ornament is here and up on the tree. It's pretty amazing how detailed it is; even though the whole globe is only a few inches across, you can not only see the Hawaiian islands, you can see contours and landscape on them.

There was a catalog from LiveScienceStore in the package. I usually don't look at paper catalogs since I want to encourage the reduction of their use -- when I want to look in a catalog I just go online since the most current version is already right in front of me, and why cut down trees and burn fuel moving their squished bits around just to transport information? But I couldn't resist a science shop catalog, especially a nice slim one. As a result, there are a few new things on my Amazon wish list. That's how they get ya!

It's less than two weeks until Christmas and I still have barely listened to any Christmas music. This is odd. I should probably do something about that.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

End of the season

That tree I've been working on only needs about 6-8 more cuts to be done. By "done" of course I mean left in rounds out in the woods until I can haul them up to the lawn in spring in hopes of being able to split them in the summer and stack them to burn the following year. So it's a very arbitrary "done" point.

Even so I don't think I'm going to get to it this year. This week's nor'easter left enough snow that getting to the tree is going to be hard, and cleaning it off of snow enough to bring the chainsaw to bear is also going to be hard. The weather is also bitter and nasty. Even if I happen to get a nice weekend without precipitation, and without it being too cold to work outside, the necessity of dealing with the built-up snow will make it not worth doing. People say winter's a good time to cut wood, but I think that's more applicable to doing the whole fell-limb-buck-split process in one go on a clear day; not bucking something you felled three weeks earlier which is now covered in snow.

Really it won't change anything if I do the last few cuts in spring, since I probably won't be able to split the rounds until summer anyway.

So I guess it's time to put away the chainsaw one last time this year.

Friday, December 12, 2008


The woodstove door warping is being repaired even as I type this, so we haven't had a fire all day and it's blustery cold out there, the first nor'easter of the season. (Or at least that's how they're calling it in the news. I wonder if nor'easter should mean something more specific than it does.) So the house is pretty chilly, and ever since my MGB surgery I feel the cold a lot more.

Fortunately this autumn I bought some slankets. These seem very gimmicky, like the kind of ridiculous bad idea product you see in an infomercial trying to convince you you need it. A blanket with sleeves? But it's actually turned out very useful. Particularly for me since while I'm sitting around on the sofa I often want my hands free to do things on the computer, use the remote, etc. The slanket lets me keep my arms warm without sacrificing those things.

Sometimes I wish it would reach just a little bit around to behind me, and there's a flap of it above the sleeves that is way more than you need for your shoulders (partly because of my aversion to having anything around my neck, but even without that, there's too much to it). So it's not perfect.

But it's sure a big help in getting through a hard winter without keeping the heat so high that the cost of heating the house becomes any worse. I am pleasantly surprised. I was afraid it was going to be one of those infomercial dud products.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

One-Hit Wonders

One of the MP3-CDs I made for the car is a collection of 160 or so of the hits of one-hit-wonders. Okay, that's not really true: a number of the songs are not really one-hit-wonders but just the single hit of a band who had other hits I don't like, and there are other ways in which I bent the definition to make a more enjoyable CD. But the central idea is still recognizable one-hit-wonder songs brim to brim.

Listening to this CD is invigorating because it's song after song of really good stuff without any filler and so many of the songs on the disc are just the kind of fun that make you want to sing at the top of your lungs with it. (In the very, very rare case where I'm alone in the car with it, that's exactly what I do.)

The idea inevitably occurs to me: some of those single hits are so good that one wonders if the artist in question didn't spend all their life's allocation of brilliance on a single thing, where other artists spread their talent out. "The candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long." Certainly it's a tempting idea to imagine that this CD is so much more fun than others because so many artists make such a condensed packet of creativity.

But I wonder if that's really fair. If I made a CD that had the one or two single best songs of each of a hundred bands who are definitively not one-hit-wonders, bands with lots of well-known songs and hit albums and lengthy careers, would that disc be just as invigorating or even more?

Someday I am going to make that disc and find out.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Christmas concert with The Bobs

Just a short entry today as in a few minutes I'm leaving for a long drive to Newburyport ("just outside of Boston") for a Bobs concert, their East Coast Christmas concert. Yep, just saw them this spring and going to see them again! How decadent.

The concert is at the Firehouse Center for the Performing Arts. We'll also be visiting an imported foods store beforehand.

The weather is not looking that great but we'll be watching it as we go. The plan is to drive home after the concert, but if the roads are too bad, we have a Plan B.

Tomorrow will be a late start!

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

All you can eat vs. a la carte pricing

Recently the airline industry has taken to charging fees for many things that used to be free, like more luggage, meals, even pillows. At least, that's how the news reports it, how people talk about it. But did those things used to be free? Calling them "free" is certainly the simpler way of putting it, but it's also deceptive. It makes us react to these fees with righteous indignation, as if they're taking away something to which we were entitled, which we already owned. That may lead to some great humor, but it's not really fair.

The thing is, those things were never free. They were just included in your ticket price. There are pros and cons to this approach on both the buyer and seller sides, but let's focus on the buyer's side. Positive: that means you could take advantage of those services without feeling guilty about them or worrying about your budget. Negative: if you aren't taking advantage of those services, you're helping to pay for them when other people do take advantage of them. One way of putting it: everyone on the plane who packed light is helping to subsidize the people who packed two extra suitcases. Is that really more fair?

It's not more fair either way, really. It's a tradeoff. Too far in either direction doesn't work: a completely "all you can eat" pricing means everyone's paying for things they won't use, but a completely "a la carte" pricing makes the process of purchasing too onerous in most cases. In any case, the question of how much you pay depends more on the baseline price of the services than it does on the details of how those prices are distributed. If the airline covers its increasing costs by charging an extra fee to some of its customers (the ones, hopefully, that incur them more costs), they do so instead of raising your ticket prices. So if you're one of those who has to pay those extra fees, you're not suddenly paying more than your share. Maybe, if the fees are being done reasonably, you're just paying your fair share for the first time.

The same argument can be made for the trend amongst ISPs towards a capped bandwidth limit, and eventually, towards a per-gigabyte cost. With airfares, the vast majority of customers would cost an amount near the average cost, but with ISPs, most customers use far less than the average, while a very small number of people use orders of magnitude more bandwidth: so a change away from an "all you can eat" pricing system is probably good for a huge number of people (though the people it's bad for, who've been getting their free ride subsidized by their neighbors for years, are sure going to be volubly upset).

And unlike with the airplanes, ISPs could charge with an arbitrarily fine granularity without incurring more overhead costs from the bookkeeping than they'd earn; it's very easy to count the number of bytes downloaded to a very high precision without significant overhead and make the bill a formula based on that. They probably wouldn't because of the psychology of the issue: people don't want to feel like they have to watch the stopwatch while they surf (which is why cell phones are moving the opposite direction, towards more flat fees, even amongst customers who will end up paying more that way).

But a lot of it is just what we happen to be used to. We're used to ISPs charging a flat fee per time regardless of usage, so a per-usage fee structure upsets people. But no one even imagines the idea of a gas station where you pay a fixed amount per month for all the gas you can pump. Is there any real reason for the disparity?

Monday, December 08, 2008

Chez Bologna

The Chilean sea bass is a trendy thing to serve in restaurants (or at least it was a few years ago; maybe it's on the outs now), and fetches high prices, higher as it becomes scarcer and more endangered. But a decade ago when it was called a Patagonian toothfish it was literally a garbage fish, often thrown back by fishermen. It's still very cheap in some parts of the world.

Some cuts of beef were considered the "cheap cuts" until one recipe or another happened to make them popular. Skirt steak, for instance, used to be what you got if you couldn't afford better. Cowboys ate it because they sold the better meat to customers; they developed ways to make it less tough, and the resulting dish is now called the fajita, and its popularity makes skirt steak expensive. Even stew beef is now expensive.

Chicken wings also used to be almost a throw-away part of the bird, even as recently as my childhood. A wing is mostly bone, and what's left is mostly fat; they're messy and hard to eat. But due to the popularity of Buffalo wings and other recipes that followed, wings cost more per pound than thighs.

The most expensive bread in your local supermarket is probably a coarse, grainy "artisan bread" that would have been the cheapest, most plentiful bread available two hundred years ago. Back then, Wonder Bread would have been considered a luxury.

There are a number of other foods or ingredients about which the same kind of story could be told, including several kinds of fresh produce (like mango and arugula), some cheeses, even a few beverages. (I used to have a list but I can't remember most of them.) At one point, I actually heard about a trendy restaurant somewhere which was serving something that involved a premium bologna. Seriously.

If one went to a culinary hotspot like Manhattan and opened a restaurant where every single dish was built around something that was recently considered "the cheap stuff" until it became trendy, and maybe named it Chez Bologna (pronounced like the Italian city, not "baloney"), I wonder how well it would do.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Christmas tree is up

Actually the tree's been up since last Friday but I kept forgetting to take a picture when I was home.

This year we've moved entirely to LED lights to substantially reduce our electricity usage, both on the tree and outside. (There's a "curtain" light string up behind the tree, visible in the picture, though, which is the old style of lights. Probably draws more power than the entire tree and outside lights combined.)

The outside lights are still around the garage door. Maybe one day I'll put some hooks up in the porch roof so I can hang them there. But it's way too high to get to.

Every year since we first got together 20 years ago, we've bought one special ornament, so that eventually the tree would be a pretty collection of unique ornaments. This started because we were too poor to buy nice ornaments when we started, but it also became a great tradition. Every year we put them up in chronological order and thus remind ourselves of the history, where we were each year. So far, in twenty years, we haven't broken a single one (except one of a set of four we bought in 1993, but we bought four instead of one explicitly so we could break one and still be okay). I know we will one day, it's inevitable, so I try to be prepared for it, but it makes me nervous. Especially the 2004 ornament. We've ordered this year's ornament but it's not here yet.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Almost done with this tree

A short update as I'm off to bed. I put in another couple of hours and almost, but didn't quite, finish this season's cutting today. First I cut and stacked the bits that were small enough not to need splitting, that I'd left on the lawn the last few weeks, and thought I might finish there. But I felt up to trying to cut the enormous trunk that's left so I gave it a try.

The problem was that it's supported at both ends and there isn't room to cut from underneath (not to mention I never really got anywhere on that cut anyway, at least not with anything big, and this is huge). So I did another "notch cut" -- don't know if that's what it's called, since I haven't found it explained in books, just figured it out myself. Cut down from the top in two cuts in a V that will meet near the bottom of the log, and use hammer and wedge to knock the slice out as I go. This time I did my best to prop up the two halves beforehand, and it worked beautifully. Despite the log being a good 14" across where I cut, and harder than I thought it was possible for wood like this to be, it came apart without pinching the blade, and both ends stayed in the air.

I was able to cut all of one half, and about a third of the other half (the "butt" end), before I packed it because of cold more than tired or sore. I probably have less than an hour's work left on bucking this log. The rounds are huge; I can barely lift a 16" round. And it takes forever for the blade to cut through. And the wood inside is just beautifully uniform and hard and dense. It'll all sit out in the snow until next year, though. I can't split it yet.

Each time I do this I learn a little more of techniques to make it go easier. I'm finding ways to let the saw do more of the work and not get my arm as sore as quickly. But it's still exhausting.

Friday, December 05, 2008


In the early 80s when I was in high school I used to read Omni magazine. This was when it first came out; later, it transformed into a highly sensationalistic purveyor of "paranormal" ideas, and lost all its credibility, but at first it was more futurist and science-fiction oriented. One part of the magazine had brief articles about possible advances in science and technology; as many of them were very cutting-edge they often never saw the light of day, but that's the price you pay for getting the most advanced news about speculative research.

At the time artificial sweeteners were big in the news, with talk about aspartame's safety, and frequent references to saccharine and cancer. One issue I found an article speaking of an interesting idea that someone was pursuing, which was described as "left-hand sugar".

The idea as I recall it is that the three-dimensional shape of a sugar molecule can be reversed as in a mirror (a change of its chirality, though the article didn't mention that word) to produce a new compound. This would have precisely the same chemical characteristics of sugar in two important key respects: it would taste the same (not just very similar, as in most artificial sweeteners, but identical), and it would work the same in recipes (browning, caramelizing, having the same density, etc.) However, because the enzymes in your stomach only face one way, it would be entirely indigestible. (The article didn't talk about any possible impact on your digestive system, which is the one possible fly in the ointment.)

All that was needed, the article suggested, was a way to manufacture the stuff affordably, and it would become the perfect artificial sweetener, and drive the alternatives out of business in one fell swoop.

Though the article only called it "left-hand sugar", alluding to the common practice of referring to opposite-chirality chemicals with the term "left-handed", I couldn't help notice that dextrose shares a linguistic origin with "dexter", which means right-handed. Therefore, I reasoned, this compound would have to be named sinistrose. (Except marketing would never let that happen. "Sinister" means "left-handed", and has taken on its modern meaning only due to prejudices against left-handedness as being strange and therefore probably bad.)

And then I never heard anything about this stuff again. Over the years I've occasionally tried to find something out about it. I could never find the original Omni article, nor any references to it (this is not that unusual: there are a few other things from Omni at the time I remember but can't find). And no attempts to look up what came of this, based on what little I remember, have panned out.

For a while I thought that the "invert sugar" I was seeing on some products might be it, and I only wondered why it wasn't being used more widely. But no, it turns out invert sugar is a whole other thing.

My best guess is that it turns out that left-hand sugar isn't really all that that article made it out to be. Maybe it is digestible, or maybe its indigestibility is a big problem, or maybe it doesn't really taste and work the same (there's no reason why the enzymes in your gut have to be single-chirality while the receptors on your tongue wouldn't be; if that's so, it's just coincidence), or maybe they couldn't make it work, or maybe the makers of one of the other artificial sweeteners bought and shelved the idea (tempting like all conspiracy theories but unlikely -- why wouldn't they use it to put their competitors out of business?).

Still, I wish I could find out the answer. But I just don't know what to search on. I have found a few references to "L-sugar" (see for instance here) but nothing that talks about it as the savior of the artificial sweetener concept, or why it isn't that. It seems certain that the dewy-eyed optimism of that early Omni article didn't pan out, and that's not too surprising, but I can't find anything about why.

Or why no one but me seems to have thought of the name "sinistrose".

Thursday, December 04, 2008


Most of the people in my circle of friends are big fans of game meats like venison, or other flavors unlike the ones in a typical supermarket meat case. At best, I find most of those meats a poor substitute for more "mainstream" meats, and for no good reason whatsoever I feel like that's something to be embarassed by.

I don't mean that I feel judged; my friends do not generally take on a superior attitude for their more discerning palates or anything. I think it's just the long-standing American cultural trope towards considering the mainstream, the "ordinary", to be a bad thing, and to celebrate deviations from it. (I don't mean that's why my friends like those meats; I just mean that's why irrationally I feel like I ought to.)

If I had lived centuries ago, a piece of venison would have been a remarkable treasure and I would have been glad to have it. So if I turn my nose up at it in favor of more "refined" things, am I being a snob?

Sure, some of the things that used to be common, and got set aside in favor of more "refined" alternatives that didn't turn out that great by the time I was alive, are worth revisiting. For instance, in my youth, the state of the art in bread was a fluffy, light Wonder Bread. Bland, nutritionally almost empty, but completely unlike the coarse, harsh breads that a century earlier (or less) the lower classes were stuck eating, while wishing they could have the much better breads that upper classes enjoyed. But as lighter breads moved their way down the social castes, they also lost a lot of what made the good ones good; and by my childhood in the 70s, Wonder Bread was only superficially like the breads that made white bread preferable to coarse "peasant breads" a few generations earlier. Nowadays, coarser breads are sold as a luxury food, "artisan bread", and white bread is the cheap commodity bread you imagine surrounding bologna and mayo in the cheapest sandwich in the school cafeteria.

So why isn't the same true of meat? Maybe venison is something that used to be too common to be good, but other meats that only the richer people could have, have had the good bred out of them as they moved down in price to reach more people.

Well, maybe so, but if so, I don't taste it. You can change the taste of meat a lot with changes in breeding and raising methods, just as you can change the taste of bread a lot by finding ways to make it cheaper, lighter, and longer-lasting on the grocery store shelf. But maybe in the final analysis you can't change meat as fundamentally as you can change bread. So maybe beef hasn't gotten worse as it's gotten more common, by nearly as much as white bread did. Maybe the reasons why beef was preferred over venison by the rich centuries ago were more sound reasons than why they preferred white bread over coarse bread.

For whatever reason, the meats that were preferred back then, are still, to me, preferred. They've probably gotten better, too. I'm sure some of what we do to raise beef today is geared towards making it cheaper or keep better at the expense of taste; but I bet a steak from the supermarket today would be both tastier and healthier than a comparable cut from a cow of 1608, that more has improved than gotten worse.

Whereas venison hasn't changed much, I'd wager. Some changes due to mankind's effect on the ecosystem (which probably don't make venison tastier!) but nowhere near as much as the changes wrought by cattlemen over centuries of breeding and other refinements.

Add it all up, and I conclude there's nothing whatsoever wrong with me preferring ordinary, mainstream cuts of beef to venison. The same arguments work when I compare chicken with quail, and so on.

And yet I still wonder if I'm not the one missing out, a victim of the modern world that's stripped from me the discernment needed to appreciate what's really good in favor of what's merely popular and mass-produced. I can't quite shake the idea. I can say "you like what you like and that's that", but somehow it doesn't quite wash it all away.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Woodshed wall project

Our house's design features a two-car garage which is about 3/4 of a larger room the whole width of the house. Of the remaining quarter, about two thirds is "indoor" space, our utility and laundry room. The remaining niche is an unheated, unfinished area off the main garage, just the right size to hold four cords of stacked firewood.

In the past we've bought seasoned firewood, and had it dumped in the garage to be stacked directly. The problem with that is rotating your stock. You don't want to wait until you're completely out of wood to get more, particularly since you can only get wood at some times of year. So you're always stacking newer wood in front of older wood, and thus, using newer stock before older stock. That's not good, but it's not a crisis; the older wood won't likely "go bad".

But now that we're getting green wood (both buying some, and cutting my own) it's become a greater hardship. Now when I get green wood I have to stack it to season. Can't do that into the woodshed because it would block off the seasoned wood. But that means I either have to then use it from where I stacked it (and lose the advantages of the woodshed being easy to get to even in winter), or restack it after it's seasoned (and stacking wood is miserable enough without having to pick it up, haul it around, and then stack it a second time).

It occurred to me that what I should have done is made two half-sized woodsheds. At any given time one would hold seasoned wood and one would hold green wood. Once the seasoned wood side was empty, the other side's wood would now be seasoned, so I'd just switch which was which.

And then it occurred to me that I probably can add such a dividing wall myself. I have struts overhead and studs on the back wall to which I can attach a simple studs-and-plywood wall. I won't have an easy way to attach it to the concrete slab of the woodshed/garage, but I'm not sure if I'll need one.

So this is my project for the spring. By then, the woodshed will be empty, almost certainly (or near enough as makes no difference). No sense in struggling to do it in the cold when I have to wait for the space to be clear anyway. But as with many projects once I get the idea I'm itching to find time to do it.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Family can be so difficult

I had, or rather almost had, another encounter with my family recently. The holidays made my wife and me curious about whether my maternal grandmother Nana, whose birthday this year would fall on Thanksgiving as it sometimes has, was still alive. If she had been (it turns out she isn't) it would have been her 96th birthday.

Previously on this blog I wrote about the falling-out with my mother that caused me to be disowned by my family; in fact, some of that story played out on the blog. I don't pretend to understand it; everything that happened still makes me think there's reasons I never found out, and may never find out. The claimed reason, that in choosing to move away from Long Island I was proclaiming myself "too good for the family", is simply implausible. But not all mysteries in life will ever be solved, and the real reasons I was routed from the family are one that probably will remain unknown.

I'm better at accepting mysteries without resolution than my wife is. And the idea that my mother's antipathy for me would be so great she wouldn't even tell me about my grandmother's death (when, so far as I know, my relationship with my grandmother was never touched by whatever it is that poisoned the one between me and my mother) was also beyond the pale. So with Thanksgiving in the air, my wife set out to find out the truth, by digging around looking for members of my family to contact.

Everyone she found was on my father's side, which is probably fortunate. Back when I still lived on Long Island, I was never close to that side, since my parents had had a falling out with them when I was quite young. In the labyrinthine twists of the tale of my family, to which I have been more audience than participant, somehow my status with my father's side has remained cool but cordial, while whatever has happened with my mother has changed relations to her side (including my sister) to positively glacial. (Even though now relations between my mother and my paternal grandmother, and through her the rest of that side of my family, seem to be warmer than they were while I was growing up. Go figure. Family relationships are clearly not transitive.)

Through these relations, my wife learned that Nana had indeed passed away a few years ago. We still don't know the details, and perhaps never will. No obituary was filed, precisely because my mother didn't want anyone to know unless she personally told them. The rest of us "don't deserve" to know. (There's no surprise in the fact that her attitude towards me, about me not being "good enough" to be informed of my grandmother's death, mirrors what she imagines my attitude to her, thinking that she and everyone isn't "good enough" for me, to be. The accusations one makes against others are often the most telling sign of what's going on in the accuser's mind.)

Swept up by this, my wife was putting out feelers for chances to reconnect with my family, and things were moving very quickly. I found myself suddenly having to think through the consequences and, as a result of them, put a stop to it. For which I feel bad; she needs that contact with family, after losing some of hers, and I have to deny it. The process of stopping it was also abrupt and left bad feelings in the air. But I concluded it was better to stop it, nevertheless.

Why? Because there was no way any contact, even contact limited to my father's side of the family, could proceed without provoking a reaction that would involve me. It was a wonder I wasn't already put onto the phone to join into a conversation I didn't feel comfortable with or ready for, in the few exchanges that got us that far. And my past experiences with my family make it painfully (I mean that word in its most literal sense) clear that no such interactions can fail to lead to something unpleasant and better avoided.

So in the end, my mother may have cast me out, and perhaps she was just wondering as she did how hard I would fight -- or if I would fight at all -- to get back in. And when I didn't, she concludes that she was right: I left because I wanted nothing to do with my family because I was too good for them. And so she can rest comfortably on her certainty. Which makes her happy, so all is well.

But it's really not in the slightest about being "too good" for them. I can't even figure out a way to apply that phrase. It's like saying that one avoids the number 17 because it's too mauve. How can you be "too good" for family? It's not like what one wants out of family is something that comes in "good" and "not good" flavors. Does she imagine that I sit around like a kid in a child's novel hoping it'll turn out that I was really adopted?

About the only sense in which I make the whole "too good" thing work is to assume she thinks I'm ashamed of my family. I think that I'd word that differently though; in a family where one person was ashamed of the rest, it's not that that person feels "too good for the family", in the sense of him thinking highly of himself; it's more apt to say that he might think poorly of the family. This may seem like a semantic quibble, but it seems like a world of difference between saying "You have behaved badly" and saying "I am a paragon and superior".

And that distinction is patently relevant because, in the act of casting me out of the family and the reasons given for it, my mother has made her accusation slightly true. I do, indeed, now consider my family something to be ashamed of. No, even that's not right. It's more that I'm not proud of what my family has turned out to be. It's not a shame, I am not trying to hide it. It's just the failure to be a source of pride.

But there's nothing in that, not one thing, that doesn't come after the accusation and casting out. It is precisely because of this action, and how it was done, and the reasons given, and the way the family fell into line doing it, that I no longer want to have anything to do with them. Self-fulfilling prophecies are not nearly as cool as I thought when I was a kid; they're a dime a dozen. So my mother was so sure I wanted nothing to do with the family that she kicked me out; if she'd been right, wouldn't she have been giving me just what I wanted? And because of how she did that, now, after the fact, she's become right: I no longer want anything to do with the person who would do that, who did that.

But as that lack of desire arose in the fire of that act, it would melt away if that act went to ash. If she somehow came to the conclusion that she was wrong, or that she behaved badly, or better yet, both, and if this were sincere and true, then my reasons for no longer wanting to have anything to do with her would vanish right alongside her belief in that want. I guess my antipathy for her is like Tinker Bell: it exists only so long as she sincerely believes it exists, and behaves accordingly.

Barring that change of heart on her part, there is no way that any contact, however handled, could possibly be anything for me but heartache and an unwelcome intrusion into my life. Don't get me wrong: it's not that the wounds are too painful and any contact would agonize me. Those wounds are long since scars that would not be easily re-opened. Accepting my lot in life is something I am good at. But even if her claws wouldn't re-open wounds instantly, they would do me no good. At best they would waste my time and energy; at worst, they would hurt too. But nothing could come from it that is not something I'd best avoid.

So as much as I feel bad about denying my wife a proxy family experience, in a way I'm also sparing her going through what will almost-inevitably result: the experience turning sour, more for me than for her but for her too. That's just the way this particular cookie crumbles.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Warping the woodstove door

The door of our woodstove is held on by two set screws, but one of them has been missing for years -- probably since we moved in, though I'm not totally sure of that, because I didn't notice it until we'd been in the house for a while and I investigated the fact that the handle was feeling loose.

Probably because the door wasn't sealing perfectly tightly as a result of this screw being missing, the door has gotten slightly warped. It doesn't get as tight a seal on the top as it should, so the wood burns hotter and faster than it ought. But the degradation was gradual, and we didn't really realize for a while, let alone figure out why.

When we did we called the company we bought it from, and they sent someone out who fixed things up pretty well. He adjusted everything, and replaced the set screw, so the door's seal is now much better (and the improvement in how good it burns is marked) though still not perfect. So they're ordering a replacement door. Best part, this is all on warranty. We love Hearthstone Stoves.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

36 Rings

That tree that Al and I felled last week has been a real challenge to buck. It's far, far too heavy to move -- even a segment of it ten feet long weighs too much for me to budge in the slightest. So it's impossible to get it up onto something to cut.

If you've never worked a chainsaw before, you probably don't realize that the hardest part of it is not felling a tree but bucking the felled tree -- that is, cutting it up into appropriate length pieces (usually 16" or so). That's exhausting for some simple reasons. First, felling a tree is three cuts, but bucking a 50' tree into 16" sections is about thirty-six cuts, minimum. Second, those cuts are all done with a pair of muscles you probably don't even know you have, running down your forearms on the pinky side all the way to your elbow. A couple of hours of bucking and I'm still feeling energetic and ready to do more, except those two muscles, which are sore and painful; I had to ice them afterwards, in fact (which worked wonderfully).

But bucking isn't just tiring, it's also challenging. Felling has its challenges, the main one being the efforts to ensure the tree falls in the direction you want it to fall, plus the safety considerations. But bucking is also challenging because the main trick to using a chainsaw is ensuring that as the wood bends through the cut, it doesn't bend down onto the blade, pinching it. You never just cut through the wood the way you want it to cut, the way you would if you had a lightsabre (boy, that would be convenient). You always have to cut in such a way that as the cut finishes and the two parts of the wood start to move apart, they don't do so in a way that pinches the blade. If they do, the chain gets caught, the whole saw is trapped, and it's very likely the chain will bend the retaining pin and require a repair on the saw... once you manage to get it free, which isn't easy.

Consider a log which is lying with both ends supported by something like other logs or a rise in the land, so that the log is like a bridge. How can you make a cut through it? If you start at the top and cut down, as you get near the end of the cut, the point where you're cutting will want to sink downward, which means both sides of the log are now pinching in on the blade. That will stop your cutting and ruin your saw. The proper method is to cut down only about a third of the way, then put the blade under the log and cut up, so that as the two halves start to fall away from each other, they're also falling away from the blade. This is remarkably hard; for one thing, cutting up is a lot more of a strain, and it's often very difficult to even get the chainsaw under the log in the first place. It's an unnatural way to work muscles and so it becomes even more exhausting. And you still run the risk of pinching if the log moves the wrong way; and a single pinch is disastrous, it ends your work and can end your saw.

To make matters worse, there are different patterns for how you're supposed to cut if the log is supported on one end, or neither end, and if the cut is happening before or after the support. The ideal situation is where one end of the log is on the ground, the other end is in the air, and it rests on a fulcrum midway along, and you cut off pieces from the end in the air, since they naturally fall away from the blade as you cut down from the top. But if the log is too heavy to get into this configuration in the first place, you may have to buck it into pieces light enough to roll onto something.

That's what I spent most of my time doing, and in about two hours, I only bucked half of the log that way. Finding myself unable to do the cut-from-the-bottom technique I instead did a time-consuming tedious process involving cutting a notch out of the log from the top, little by little, so that as it moved to pinch it always had room to do so without catching the blade.

On a soft wood this extra work wouldn't be too bad, but this tree is remarkably hard and dense. The chainsaw goes through it so slowly, and requires so much force to be applied, it's just exhausting. The chain was getting so hot it would sizzle when I set it down on the snow. I kept having to stop to let it cool off, making the process that much slower.

Put all this together, and in two hours I made only a couple of dozen 16" rounds of surpassing density, so heavy they're hard to lift even though they're so short. Half the tree still waits to be cut.

I tried to split these rounds, but there was no splitting them. Even cutting into the top with the chainsaw to make a groove for the wedge to get started in, I couldn't get it to bite, the wood was far too dense. I'll just leave the rounds out where they fell all winter and spring, and during the summer they'll dry out, and hopefully they'll be splittable by next autumn. Then I can split and stack them, and they'll be ready to burn not next winter but the following.

I took one of the rounds into the house to count the rings, and I make it 36. If the tree died this year, that would mean it was born in 1972 (the same year as my sister). However, I think the tree has been dead since at least before we moved in four years ago (or if not dead, weak enough that it's not adding rings -- it didn't have bark on most of its trunk, after all), so it's probably closer to being the same age as me.

It's going to be some beautiful burning wood when I can finally use it, and doing all this work on it is really putting me through the paces of learning the art of woodcutting. I suppose in the dry air of memory, as I write this, it could seem disappointing that after two weekends I'm not even halfway through the process (fell, limb, buck, split, stack, and season) of handling a single (albeit mighty) tree.

But when I'm out there doing it, I'm immensely pleased at the progress and the sense of satisfaction at the work. I bet if I had to do it for a living, four hours at a stretch then lunch and another four hours, I would hate it. (And those muscles in my arms would be amazingly strong.) And if I had to do it to survive, or know my family would freeze to death, and balance it with all the other things a pioneer family had to do, it would be even worse. But from the comfort of my modern life, I'm quite able to appreciate it.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Quantum of Solace

A week ago we went to see Quantum of Solace and it was definitely worth seeing, but it was also definitely not the equal of Casino Royale. Somehow it was less than the sum of its parts.

The story did a good job of continuing from the earlier story, unlike most Bond movies which start almost fresh every movie; but in the process, it somehow picked up some of the feel of that middle book or movie in a trilogy, which never feels as good as the others. The first story has that fresh newness, in which you get the joy of discovering everything. The last one has the grand sense of resolution. The middle act is the one where a lot of stuff happens that's necessary to the story, but less stuff happens that feels exciting: it's like the straight man in a comedy team, you need it for the whole to work but that doesn't mean it gets the applause. I don't know if the next movie will indeed pick up in a way that'll feel like a trilogy, mind you. I just feel like this movie came off as the middle, not the end, of a story. (Apparently, the makers aren't even decided whether this will turn out to be the middle of a trilogy or not.)

People talk about the "Bond babe" thing but in this incarnation of Bond I really think that's unfair to talk about. Sure, there's always a few sexy females in the movie, but that's not all that made the Bond babe phenomenon. There's always a few sexy females in any action movie. But Bond babes shared a few other traits in common which made them a distinct class. There has been one female role in each of the New Bond movies that sort of fits (Dmitri's wife in the first, Ms. Fields in the second) but in each case the role was very small. But by the standards of earlier Bonds, there's no way Vesper or Camille fits that category. They're really only being called Bond babes out of habit.

Camille has a fairly clichéd story but is nevertheless a strong character with solid motivations. Her story and Bond's in this movie pass each other and overlap at times but there's never any strong connection between them. Not that there has to be; but the connection is strong enough that one feels like it should have been stronger, like Camille's story takes up too much time for as secondary as it ends up being to Bond's story. Anyway, its resolution is a bit anticlimactic.

(As this comment is a bit of a minor spoiler, I'll put it through a rot13. Click it to see what it says. Jung'f jvgu gur tvey jub gur Trareny jnf nobhg gb encr, jub Pnzvyyr "erfphrq" ol xabpxvat ure nfvqr nf fur pnzr sbe gur Trareny, naq gura juvpu rirelbar rkprcg zr sbetbg nobhg? Jnf fur pnhtug va gur sver? Frrzf yvxryl, tvira gung fur jnf gehffrq hc naq znlor hapbafpvbhf. V sryg onq sbe ure nyernql, naq jbefr jura gurl yrsg ure gb ohea gb qrngu. Znlor gurer'yy or n qryrgrq fprar va juvpu gurl tbg ure bhg, gbb.)

On the subject of comparing the various Bonds, I think we must first establish that there are two main flavors of Bond: the Daniel Craig kind, and all the previous ones. Yes, there's a lot of difference between Sean Connery's Bond, and Pierce Brosnan's Bond, and Roger Moore's Bond. But they are all more alike to each other than any is to Daniel Craig's bond. They are all smug, smarmy, seductive, slick, and overly cartoonish: an exaggerated, even clichéd character who is intentionally over the top. And that's a valid and interesting style and genre, and furthermore, one that I think we needed to have before the New Bond could have worked. But it's also so different from the New Bond that it's almost unfair to compare them, except to the extent that you could also compare a flute solo against a piano concerto. And in that sense, I definitely like the New Bond better, though I still enjoy the Old Bond the same way I appreciate intentionally-corny genres like pulp or four-color comic books.

The title always felt clumsy despite it being the title of an Ian Fleming story (which has nothing in common with the movie). I was hoping the movie would make the title click, but it didn't really. I can only find forced explanations for the title, plus an off-the-cuff reference to an organization in the movie which can be easily missed. But by the time the movie came out, I was already used to the title enough that that didn't bother me. Daniel Craig has pointed out that Bond movie titles are often meaningless, but somehow this time it felt like it ought to mean something but it never quite did, not convincingly.