Saturday, January 31, 2009

Is this creepy?

This is a very impressive bit of Photoshoppery, but when I showed it to a few people, everyone's reaction to it was, at least at first, "that's creepy." This was explained to me thus: at first it looks like an orange-skinned frog, then it looks like a dismembered and disemboweled orange-skinned frog. Only after that does the orange peel part jump out, and the awe at the Photoshoppery.

I didn't have that reaction. My first impression of it had both the orange peel and frog, and my second impression was simply wonder at the fantastic photo-editing job. I wonder why I skipped over that middle step entirely. I wonder if other people might do the same, and why some people would and some wouldn't.

Friday, January 30, 2009

It's only a downturn

One of George Carlin's most incisive routines concerns the changing name of that condition soldiers suffer after being exposed to battle. In WW1 it was called "shell shock"; in WW2 it became "battle fatigue"; in the Korean War it became "operational exhaustion"; and in Vietnam it became "post-traumatic stress disorder". Each version is blander, more euphemistic, longer, less clear, more evasive, less expressive.

The "current financial crisis" (that's pretty euphemistic too) has reminded me of the same tendency. The first thing like it that I learned about in American History is the "Great Depression". Ever since it, there's been a reluctance to use the word Depression again. There's a famous quote from Harry S Truman about this: "It’s a recession when your neighbor loses his job; it’s a depression when you lose your own." Even in Truman's day, though, the word was avoided scrupulously. There's a sense that market confidence is a factor in market recovery, so if we call it something bad then we're afraid that will make it worse, or delay recovery.

In the 1970s the United States had an economic turn that in sheer numbers was probably comparable to the Great Depression, but no one ever called it a Depression. And perhaps for good reason. With a lot more "safety net" in place in government services, and with average standards of living being a lot higher than in the 1920s and 1930s (so people had higher to fall from), a lot fewer people were reduced to complete destitution. But mostly we avoided the word and instead called it a Recession because of that consumer confidence thing, I think. But by the end of the Recession the word had come to mean the same thing as Depression to most of us.

It's hard to compare numbers accurately between today and 1929 because the market is so different so no direct comparison really compares well. I don't know if 2008 really compares to 1929, but it's certainly at least as big as the 1970s. Sure, sometimes I'm hearing the word Recession and even Depression bandied about, but this time, the word I hear most often is Downturn. Sure sounds milder, more temporary, a minor adjustment in our ever-expanding course of progress, right? I would like to know if there's a better reason for this terminology than just a reluctance to use whatever word we used last time, and thus, bears the negative connotations of last time.

Are we really, as a society, so shallow that just calling it a Downturn instead of a Recession will keep people from pulling out more? I don't like either possible answer to that question.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Forehead stress

Whenever I'm feeling stressed I get pimples on the forehead which I unconsciously pick at incessantly. I try to avoid it but I don't even notice myself doing it. So nagging me about not doing it doesn't really help either. Sometimes it gets so bad I have to put a spot band-aid over it, which makes me even more self-conscious than the scab itself, especially as I have to keep it there for several days.

I haven't had one of those since last year at this time during the final push towards the surgery and my insanely hard diet and exercise regimen to try to get under the target weight before that day. But I've had one pop out this week. Probably it's mostly in reaction to the tension at work, not just directly but also indirectly through stressing my cow-orkers who then behave in more stress-inducing ways at me.

It's at times like this that I also find myself jonesing harder for roleplaying. And I can't help notice that those are usually the times when roleplaying is the least consistent and least frequent. Which is cause and which effect? Wouldn't it be sad if I have physical symptoms of being denied roleplaying opportunities, though.

Better than the stye I had, anyway.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

RealTime bogged down

When I wrote about publishing RealTime, I noted that the key that moved it from idle pipe-dream to real possibility was the presence of an artist willing to work with me and be flexible about recompensation. The reason I'd never pursued it is I just never had any artist friends. And the reason I was now considering it was the realization that I do know someone who's a graphic artist.

I got as far as doing a bunch of planning and starting on the rewriting, putting out about five pages of introductory text and beginning explanation, when I ran out of steam. The reason is that that artist hasn't gotten back to me. For completely understandable reasons: she's got things going on in her life that are a thousand times more important than some little game that someone who she doesn't even know that well is trying to do, especially when there isn't likely to be money up front. So I'm not complaining. But it has knocked my feet out from under me.

I also started exploring the idea of using a local gaming convention as a means of promoting it, playtesting it, and getting it some visibility, in large part because I have been told that that kind of visibility and the resulting word of mouth is the most important thing for selling an indie game. Of course, the people telling me that are probably thinking of big cons and a tiny little Vermont con wouldn't really do that, but it still seemed like a possible step to take. And one of the con's organizers is another person I know, not terribly close but he has played in my group a few times and was an organizer in another con I ran games in several years. But he also hasn't had time to get back to me even about his thoughts on the possibility.

So my attention has turned to other projects, which may be just as well, as I have a few other things to do that are more time-sensitive. But that rewrite and publication is no longer the item on my to-do list I wish I could be working on. The whole project really is that fragile, unfortunately. If the art were something about which it were true to say "if you really want it and are willing to work hard for it, you can do it," I'd be doing it: I have never had problems with being motivated (though many projects don't happen only because I'm busy with other ones). But no amount of will can make me able to be an artist, or able to produce an artist willing and able to work with me at the terms I can afford. Whenever a project depends on someone else, that's when it's most likely to fall through.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Downturn at work

We're now talking at work about the number of positions that Governor Douglas announced would be eliminated and what impact it will have on us. I probably shouldn't say anything specific about this, but it doesn't take much specificity to say that the elimination of such a large number of positions, especially after more than a decade where every single year involved "tightening belts" and "doing more with less" and "temporary austerity" already, is going to have a worryingly big impact.

This is distressing to those of us in IT for a lot of reasons: IT is supposed to be the holy grail that saves us with automation and "working smarter" but IT itself keeps getting cut so we get just as bogged down as everyone. We not only have to do more with less the same way everyone else does, we're also expected to help everyone else with their struggles to do more with less, so the impact on us can be geometrically magnified.

Every year when harsh fiscal realities made us have to choose cuts, I've always done my best to be a "team player" and avoid being too territorial, to try to volunteer my section's share of the cuts. This was probably a bad idea. If I had it to do again I would have fought just as irrationally and uncooperatively for funding for my projects as everyone else did for theirs, because those projects would have, if they hadn't been cut and delayed for year after year, made it possible for us to better weather the current shortfalls. Instead, we're in mid-stream in a strategic vision now with every expectation the next steps will be postponed indefinitely, leaving us in a bad situation that doesn't help the rest of the department nearly enough. I genuinely believed my projects were important for the department's priorities; I should have been more aggressive in pursuing that belief.

At times like this, it's important to keep in mind how much worse it could be, and is for other people and in other states, and count one's blessings, whether achieved through happenstance or hard work.

Monday, January 26, 2009

People hate change

Particularly in the business world, but not only there, there's a canard about how people hate and resist change. This gets trotted out every time someone wants to have a reorganization or new procedures, and they meet resistance. It's a way to trivialize everyone's concerns and objections: people are just being reactionary and territorial, protecting the way they've always done things because they appreciate the familiarity. People hate change. People are irrationally afraid of change. Thus, we can ignore their objections, as they're founded in an irrational closed-mindedness.

Like any good bit of bullcrap, this has a germ of truth in it. To varying extents, people do have a certain level of inertia. But at the same time, take any one of those supposedly change-hating individuals and consider their entire lives. Some of them will enjoy living every day the same way but most of them periodically make big changes in their lives: take up new hobbies, meet new people, explore different kinds of entertainment, go out of their way to avoid the equally-trite cliché of a boring routine where every day is the same.

Pay attention, Mr. Business Consultant. Ask those people about change in the workplace, and I bet every one of them will have a dozen ideas for ways things can and should change about how their business works. Given half a chance, they would jump on the least opportunity to make those changes. Some of those changes are petty, some are sweeping. None of them are driven by inertia. These people who you mock for being change-resistant would reinvent their entire business day if you just let them.

What people really hate is being out of control of change. They don't hate change: they hate the specific changes you're forcing on them, and their own complete lack of influence over those changes. When you trivialize their concerns with a three-word, zero-meaning aphorism that isn't even true, you're perpetrating the very mindlessness and closed-mindedness you're accusing them of.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A subspecies of musical

Across The Universe and Mamma Mia! are unusual in that they are musicals (complete with production numbers) which were built around a bunch of pre-existing songs by a particular artist, and those songs were not written with this story -- or indeed, any story -- in mind.

It seems an interesting creative challenge to take a body of work written over the course of an entire career and find a story that links it all together, making the inclusion of each bit of music seem organic and natural. While I have no intention of seeing Mamma Mia!, ever, I found Across The Universe interesting and impressive; but mostly I like the idea of the challenge of writing something like that. I wish there were a body of well-known songs in Lusternia that my character could write a play around in a similar way; he's already written one musical romantic comedy with production numbers, and I'm very pleased with how it turned out, but I probably wouldn't do another unless I had a hook like this to make it new.

What I'm wondering, and if you know the answers post comments here, is this: is there a name for that particular subspecies of the musical genre? Can you list a few other examples of it?

To be clear, I know that even operas in Mozart's time and earlier were stitched together from librettos written by others, sometimes earlier and sometimes incorporating pieces that weren't originally written to be one thing. And I know there are many variety-show musicals which integrate pieces from different artists or different times in the careers of artists, as a sort of medley. And I'm familiar that in rock operas like Tommy, many of the songs were dug out of previous works and shoehorned into the work to pad things out. But what I'm looking for is specifically this challenge of taking a set of songs from a single artist but which were all written independently of one another, with no particular story in mind but their own, and then weaving them somehow into a single, coherent story.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

National Pie Day

Yesterday was National Pie Day and it was also a meeting day for our roleplaying group, one of the members of which is from Louisiana and makes some fantastic meat pies. So we delegated him to the main course and I took on the dessert course. (Though it turned out he wasn't feeling up to those meat pies, so fell back on pizza.)

Feeling adventurous I decided to try something I've never made: a lemon meringue pie, from scratch (though I used a store-bought pie crust). At first I was going to leave out the meringue as I heard it was too finicky for my skill level, and I would just make whipped cream for the topping. But when I was able to separate the eggs without even a tiny bit of yolk getting into the whites, I decided to go for it.

I didn't try to make the meringue decorative and pretty, I was just going for it being even.

The cornstarch, sugar, salt, and water custard base, after it's cooked to a gel but before the egg and lemon are added, is absolutely freaky-looking; I wish I'd taken a picture of that. It absolutely looks like a special effect from a horror movie, like the slime dripped by an alien (and in fact it, and things like it, are indeed used in movies for that purpose).

Since even the lemon pie part, let alone the meringue part, is a bit beyond what my kitchen skills are normally up to, I was absolutely determined to get it right, and as much on my own as possible. (That Siobhan was trying to nap only reaffirmed the latter.) I really dislike the comically-inept-man-in-the-kitchen sitcom stereotype.

Nevertheless I had a few stumbling points, mostly on finding things. In this, I'm at an unfair advantage: it's not my kitchen and pantry, so I don't know where things are. If I had been the one to choose where things were stored in line with my sense of organization, I'd be able to find everything and Siobhan would be wandering around looking comically inept.

And since Siobhan was up anyway, a few times I asked her for confirmation on things. Are these soft peaks? Is this golden browned enough? Stuff like that. But in each case my own sense of it had been right on the money. And a few questions like that I chose not to ask. On the one hand I want the pie to come out right, and on the other, I want to be able to say I did it.

My biggest flub: the instructions said to bake the empty pie shell for 15-20 minutes, so I put it in with a timer set to 15. At about 13, Siobhan pulled it out as it was a little too dark. Not ruined unusable, but enough that people mostly ate around it. Lesson learned: when the recipe called for about 10 minutes to get the meringue golden brown, I set the timer to 5 minutes, and sure enough, it was done then.

Anyone who studies computer science (hold onto your hats, I didn't really just change the subject drastically, it just looks like I did) has probably heard the word "algorithm" defined with an analogy to recipes. A recipe is an algorithm, a step-by-step series of instructions to accomplish a particular objective. To turn the analogy on its head, I have determined that recipes pretend to be in an interpreted language but are really in a compiled language.

For those who aren't computer scientests, the difference is this. Interpreted languages are ones where the computer can read one line of program at a time, execute it, and then read the next. Compiled languages are ones where the entire program has to be read, parsed, translated into a more basic language (usually a machine language), and then that translated version is executed. Interpreted languages are usually simpler to undertand, and compiled languages are far more efficient, but sometimes harder to write.

Recipes look like you can just start on step one and work your way down, but in practice, almost all recipes will fail if you do that literally, unless you already know enough in the kitchen to second-guess the recipe. Which is where things get tricky. All your seasoned and trained cooks know how to do that, and most don't even realize they're doing it. When they get to a step that requires them to have done something earlier to prepare for it, they already did that thing, even though no previous step said to do so, because they just know that such things are required. They're used to the idea that instructions are hidden in the ingredients list (for instance, the ingredients list might refer to something "finely minced", offering you no help in knowing when during the process you should mince it, particularly if it's something you can't mince an hour in advance as it'll turn brown but have to mince just before you need it). All the differences between the instructions in the recipe, and the actual series of steps you have to do to make the recipe, are things they take for granted.

For the rest of us, you have to read the entire recipe beforehand, sometimes more than once, and then think through the process of making the recipe to figure out the hidden steps. At this point, I'm going to be stuck at the stove stirring but will need to be able to set a timer, so I need to get a timer set with the right amount of time and nearby before this other step. Before I get to this point, the butter will have had to soften so I actually need to get it out before this other step. When separating the eggs, it's vitally important that not one bit of yolk be left in the whites; if it is, throw out the whites and start over. Stuff like that. The difference between a recipe being easy for beginners or being persnickety and challenging for beginners is often in these missing steps. I feel sure I could now write a truly algorithmic, interpreted language lemon meringue pie recipe that beginners could follow without a problem, but it would be twice as long, and no recipe book would ever publish it. So I guess I'll have to keep compiling recipes before I execute them.

No, in case you were wondering, I didn't try to make a pie shaped like this:

National Pi Day isn't until March. The 14th, in fact. Think about it.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Sustainable economics

I'm entirely impressed by President Obama and by how quick he's moving to take action on a number of important subjects. So the following is not a criticism of him, just a riffing on something he said. Nor is it a criticism of the speech in which he said it: a speech is a place for sound bites and inspiration, not exhaustive reasoning. I'm just using some of his words as a starting point for some other thoughts.

One of the most-quoted bits of Obama's inaugural address is the following:
We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished.
He makes a good point on the face of it: the current crisis doesn't have to be as catastrophic as some have made it sound. But the reasoning itself is wrong.

The recent financial meltdowns springing from the credit crunch and other things are a perfect example of when something unsustainable catches up at last. In a way, Madoff wasn't the only one perpetrating a Ponzi scheme: the entire banking industry was practicing something similar, taking on more and more risky debt, shuffling it around with the buying and selling of debt insurance, keeping the short-term cash flows good while building up a bigger and bigger disaster waiting to happen. Until it finally did.

Is this an isolated incident, one particular string of bad decisions in one particular industry? Maybe. It would be irresponsible and inaccurate to suggest that such unsustainable practices, sustaining record growth by accumulating potential disaster, fill all our industries. But at the same time, it would be folly to imagine it's limited to this one mistake; that apart from that, we're doing fine. In fact, the entire history of American industry is a story of unsustainable practices, starting from the very first of them, the rapacious consumption of America's vast natural resources dating from the days of the first European settlers.

It was that sense of a land of plenty, as much as any other cause (like freedom from religious persecution), that brought so many people to these shores. Even more, it was that plenitude that built the foundation of America's economic might. More than two centuries later, the United States remains a pre-eminent force in the world economy largely because of the effects of that early bounty, and the culture of industry that grew from it.

But while our wide open spaces, plentiful mineral and timber reserves, and vast herds of buffalo might have gotten us to a great start, they also were the first American unsustainable economy. Within a lifetime of European settlement, some of the most basic natural resources were already being lost to overuse and irresponsibility. And every decade since then, the American people have destroyed something irreperably. Some land is now too polluted to use, some species is now extinct, some chemical change in our atmosphere is worsening, some toxin has leached into a water supply, some mine has been exhausted and left filled with poisonous tailings. The entire world stands on the brink of several concurrent environmental catastrophes because its rapacious economy demands continued heedless destruction in the name of consumption.

In a way, the credit crunch can be seen as a microcosm of a much larger pattern of capitalism's greatest failing: the elevation of the short-term profit over things like sustainability, responsibility, and cooperative allocation of resources.

So if our workers are no less productive than when their consumption caused landfills to poison water tables and factory farming to wash away our soil; if our minds are no less inventive than they were when we invented things that are destroying the ozone layer and causing global warming; if our goods and services are no less needed than they were when our parents stopped saving to buy more things, ensuring we would need even riskier debt to finance our homes with no savings to fall back on, until the bell finally tolled; then are we really standing on the precipice of a new start?

In my opinion, we are, but it will not come from reviving the past, from drawing on our past investiveness, our past consumerism, and our past industry. It wouldn't fit into a tidy, quotable sound-bite for Obama to say it, but I think he would agree: our salvation will come from applying a new form of American industriousness to new forms of American industry, forms built around not merely failing to repeat the mistakes of the last two centuries, but on the burden of fixing them.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Vitamin D

One year after my bariatric surgery, an extensive battery of blood tests is done to check for all kinds of possible effects. The results are mostly good: notably, I remain non-diabetic, with great levels in cholesterol, blood pressure, and all the other high-importance indicators. My weight loss is still moving, slowly and erratically now but better than a month ago.

There were some out-of-bounds levels on a few parathyroid levels but my doctor isn't sure what, if anything, that implies, so we'll have to see what the surgeon says. It might not mean anything at all. Probably nothing too important.

The one thing that stands out is both our vitamin D levels are distressingly low. More than just "you didn't get enough sunlight" low -- that's not that unusual in the winter in Vermont after a rainy, short summer, after all -- but more like "malabsorption isn't being adequately addressed by vitamins" low. So we're on a vitamin D replacement regimen for eight weeks, after which, we'll be adding vitamin D supplements on top of the usual one-a-day we take three times a day. That should take care of it.

The doctor said that low vitamin D levels correspond to low energy levels. But with all the weight loss and general improvements in health, we've both seen somewhat raised energy levels (not as much now with winter in full force, but even so, some). So I wonder... if we address the vitamin D deficiency, will that make our energy levels even higher? If so, that'll be nice.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

An historic occasion

Yesterday's big event and all the talk and media coverage leading up to it kept tossing me for a bit of a loop. I've been so excited about it for a while now, but I also kept being surprised how much hoopla there was. All the news articles about the jillions of people trying to go see the inauguration, the watching parties being set up nationwide (even worldwide), even the concern (realized, it turns out) that Internet connections would be rendered crippled by the burden of streaming the inauguration to millions of viewers. Was there ever so much interest in an inauguration before? I know I never watched one before this one.

Time and again I would muse about this and be pleased, impressed, excited, and then I'd hit a reality check hard. Oh yeah, that's because of it being historic, I would have to remind myself.

To me, all the excitement was about getting rid of the worst president (bar none) in U.S. history, replacing him with the most exciting, most promising one in my entire adult life. All the specific things about which I had hopes: the restoration of science to the public arena, the hope of real work on fixing the economy instead of bandaiding it, the restoration of stolen civil liberties and even expansion of missing ones, a renaissance of opportunity in the foreign policy arena to restore relations with former friends and reputation on the world stage, and so many other things. In short, restoring the damage of eight years that seemed bent on destroying the country on all levels.

And, oh yeah, there's also this thing about the new president having a different skin color than the previous forty-three. I guess that's important too.

So now I look at that attitude and wonder if I'm being an insensitive jerk or not. Sure, I know that if you grew up a black kid in an inner city, this is more than just a footnote in a history book, this is a meaningful thing that changes everything forever. And even if you're not a black kid, it's still important in the same way, just not as personally impactfully so. Intellectually I know this. But on some level I feel like it's important for other people, not for me, because I'm already past this. I have to remind myself that people still think skin color matters because the notion tends to slip my mind.

And when I think about that, I get this smug desire to espouse that as being enlightened, even more evolved. After all, the utopia we want to get to one day is not one where people say "hooray for a black person doing something good," it's where the color of her skin didn't even come up. Consider how rarely you hear anyone comment on equal rights for people with green eyes, or celebrates the achievements of green-eyed people, or announces National Green-Eyed History Month. That's where we want to get to with race, with gender, with sexual orientation, with anything that shouldn't be any more relevant than eye color. So if I'm already there, does that make me better?

That's the kind of thinking that raises red flags, and not just because of all those ABC After School Specials about how prejudice feeds on complacency, but because it really does. Are there ways in which I am racially insensitive, racially prejudiced, profiling, ways I don't notice? Probably. Being all happy with myself for being far more interested in the promise of a new president who seems to have the right ideas and the right talents and forgetting his skin color sounds like a recipe for the kind of complacency in which such things can continue to exist, unnoticed and unchecked.

But I can't quite force myself to be more excited by his skin color than by his ideas. Okay, there, I'm doing it again: that was unfair. It's not his skin color, it's the historical precedent. But I still can't get nearly as worked up about that as by any one of a dozen things off the top of my head. Maybe it would have been easier if our first black president had happened to be a jerk with bad ideas and no vision! Then I could focus on the historical precedent more. I'd be saying, pity about getting another moron for a president, but at least it proves white morons and black morons can both achieve the same things, and that's equality for you.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Trivia Thursdays

Our monthly trivia game at River Run is moving from Wednesdays to Thursdays, which means it is going to conflict half the time with grocery shopping. Moving grocery shopping is going to be a hassle; if we move it back it comes before paychecks which is financially troublesome, and if we move it forward, I usually work home on Fridays and that makes the logistics troublesome.

Truthfully trivia isn't as fun as it used to be. First, the food there has worn out its welcome; it's the same bunch of things and not many are that good. The relative lack of comfort of the chairs is a factor too. But that's not enough to explain it.

This is not the kind of game that's fiercely competitive. No one gets too upset about the scores. There's no big prizes, no scoreboard of honor; it's all for fun. So when things are a little on the dicey edge, no one minds. For instance, team sizes have been creeping upward for a year or more; there are teams of eight and nine people regularly, even more sometimes. It used to be that six was the informal limit; I don't know if this was a spoken-but-not-strict or an unspoken rule, but it was there. Our team was maximum six, but more often four or five, and the number has only decreased with time; one member is almost never there, one is only occasionally, and one other, our strongest player, sometimes is late due to the rigors of his work schedule, leaving us in a bad way. It's not that our enjoyment depends on us winning (we rarely did even when teams were of comparable sizes, though we did better than we do nowadays), but it still leaves a bad taste in our mouths when the reason we're doing badly isn't that we're having a bad night, or getting bad luck in topic selection, but mere disregard for the courtesy of how the game is played.

The problem with something like this is, to bring it up makes you seem mean-spirited and petty. It makes you seem like a sore loser, or like someone who doesn't get that the game is in the spirit of fun and not about winning and losing. (Not that games that are more competitive are bad or less fun; it's just a different kind of fun.) And it's even more suspect to object about oversized teams when my own team is, through no fault of anyone on other teams or the person running trivia (and not even through our fault), shrinking; it makes it seem like I'm projecting my own problems onto others.

So I've been quiet while teams kept growing and growing and growing, and by tiny stages my enjoyment has diminished. And I'm not even sure if that's the main reason or if there are others I can't put my finger on. But when I heard about the move to Thursdays and I realized we would probably only get to go to half of them, my reaction wasn't "oh no, what can we do," but rather, "that might not be so bad." That reaction surprised me; I knew I was having less fun, but I also knew I'm still having fun, so I didn't expect to feel that way. It's got me thinking harder about it, wondering why I feel like I do. Wondering if there's something more.

Monday, January 19, 2009

How many furlongs in a troy ounce?

In the United States we tend to think of ourselves as forward-looking, on the edge. This is where technology advances; this is where the Internet was invented, where almost all the software on your computer comes from, where cell phones were developed, etc. This is where the biggest advances in medical science arise. Other countries might do amazing things too (we are particularly envious of the Japanese when it comes to manufacturing and engineering) but we have this idea that we invent stuff and then sometimes other countries take our innovations and find ways to mass-manufacture them and make them smaller, so we're still the innovators.

We imagine ourselves to be social pioneers, though we're not as sure about that as about technology. Aren't we the wave of the future when it comes to political outlooks, civil rights, egalitarian attitudes towards acceptance, views on the environment? Okay, the last eight years we've taken a drubbing in that area, sure, but generally, on the scope of the whole history of the country, we see ourselves that way.

We're certainly quick to make fun of older countries for being mired in their history. Those silly British, still driving on the left side of the road and refusing to adopt perfectly reasonable spelling reforms proposed two hundred years ago! Their legal professionals still wear wigs! They still think the first floor is not the ground floor! They still call tungsten "wolfram"!

And yet, Americans whine about the transition to the metric system, now into its fourth decade, and still refuse to adopt it. It's too hard! We're too used to what we've always used! We're too set in our ways! And yet nearly every other country in the world, even the British (who we love to make fun of for being mired in its history) did it ages ago. Our only fellows in the Metric Holdouts League are Liberia and Myanmar -- now that's a proud company! We've got no grounds for making fun of anyone about anything as long as we still have to count the ounces in a gallon.

Though we do owe the soft drinks industry one thing. Most Americans have no ready grasp of how long a kilometer is or what a kilogram weighs -- at best, they can do the conversions in their heads, which is not the same -- but everyone can imagine how much two liters is, without even a second thought.

(Yes, I know they still refer to ounces in the U.K., but they know their metric units without having to do conversions, and use them in everyday life, which is more than we can say.)

Sunday, January 18, 2009


There's a survival advantage to forming long-term memories. But that survival advantage isn't paid off immediately -- it may not be paid off ever, and if it is, it'll be not for a long time. There is no immediate feedback.

Often, when there is some activity which is good for the survival of the individual or the species, but whose benefit isn't immediate, the body is wired to reward it with a sense of pleasure. Sex is only the most obvious example: there are many other activities which instill simpler senses of pleasure that condition us to do things as ordinary as going to the bathroom and as long-term as bonding to our children.

It's my pet crackpot theory that nostalgia, that positive glow we get thinking back on something in our pasts, is just a positive reinforcement to the act of reinforcing memories. Surely you've experienced that sensation where you just remember something and there's a sort of positive feeling even though the memory itself is not particularly positive (or negative), and where there's really nothing to say about it or add to it. (This is most evident in long-bonded couples saying, "You remember when..." and then nothing more comes of it -- just the act of remembering it and sharing that memory is enough.)

Nostalgia also helps explain why things are often better in recollection than they were at the time. Other explanations are often offered for this: most notably, how we tend to forget the bad parts or downplay them, but remember the good parts. Or how that nostalgic sense about the "good old days" is a hardwired, psychological counterbalance to our hardwired, psychological neophilia, to help us stay poised between change and stability. While I think those things are certainly part of it, I suspect the positive reinforcement of the making and reinforcing of memories is more fundamental.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Your name is your own

I once had someone else in a MUD I played go to some other site and make a character using the name I'd come up with for my character. This person was a dweeb of the sort that flashes and is gone, leaving behind a bad taste in everyone's mouth; and I'm sure whatever he did with my name is long gone. But it still irks me to think about it.

It's occurred to me that the right of each person to choose what they are called seems like a fundamental right to me. It seems very petty when you talk about it, though. If someone chooses to call you by a nickname you wouldn't choose for yourself, that's a mild irritation at most, right? A minor issue at worst. And yet somehow it seems to me that it sits right on the border of something very big.

In a way, choosing your name and being able to decide when and how it's used is a symbol -- but more than a symbol in some way I can't put into words -- of deciding your own identity. Consider a comparison to those who choose to live in a different gender than the one into which they were born; it's an important sign of respect and courtesy that we allow them to choose what pronouns we use when we refer to them. In a way, that's the same thing.

I feel like I could almost write a short thesis about why the right to object to someone borrowing your name, or giving you a nickname you don't like, is no minor petty quibble but a major slight. But I can't quite put it together: I can't quite figure out the arguments that would be needed to bridge the gap between the idea that nicknames are a light-hearted minor thing, and that they're part of letting a person choose his own identity.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Place You Call Home

Northern Woodlands produces a set of booklets (magazine-style) called "The Place You Call Home" which they offer for free to residents of the regions for which the books are prepared (the Upper Connecticut Valley, the Catskills, and Vermont). The book is described as the owner's manual you should have gotten with your New England land, focusing on how you can keep it healthy and productive, in case you don't happen to be a forester.

Given my recent efforts at tending my land, this seemed like a great resource, especially as it's free for the asking. I've started reading it and am about halfway through it. I've learned a lot of interesting things. For instance, I can tell my land was probably always pasture but never cropland, and if I find a stone wall somewhere on it, the other side will probably be former cropland. I can tell which of the plants on my land are invasives, and which ones are providing food or shelter for various kinds of animals. I know the difference between swamps, marshes, bogs, fens, and vernal pools. I have a guide to what animals and plants are doing what things in each week of the year. I even know how much different kinds of woods probably sell for.

It's also inspired me to do a few things. I've added a field guide to identifying trees to my wish list. And I'm going to make more effort this coming year to walk more of my land and get to know it better, maybe even inventory what's on it.

However, what I was most hoping for was to learn what to do out there. And it's surprisingly skimpy on that. Everything is based on one assumption: you want to get a professional forester to come tell you. Which is probably true if you are part of their intended audience: people with 100 or more acres, mostly wooded. But so far they offer almost nothing by way of advice for those of us with 10 acres and less, which is a large and growing portion of the land-owning population in Vermont.

I can imagine that their goal of improving land management for the sake of wildlife and environment, and maintaining good lumber health, dictates a focus on the owners of larger parcels. Maybe despite how many people have 10 acres and less these days, we're still not yet worth them focusing their attention on. If so, that's a pity, especially for me with my 5.92 acres. But I really feel like there's room for a few pages for someone like me, someone whose land is still part of the fragmentation that can impact pollution and wildlife so much -- and so much more if it's not cared for with those things in mind -- but who can't possibly justify getting foresters and loggers involved when there's just not enough land there to pay them enough to make it worth their time.

I could try to get my neighbors involved and do this cooperatively, but even in the remote chance they all feel like doing this (I doubt it, most of them will probably take the tack of "I don't need no one to come in and tell me what to cut; the way my grandpappy did it is good enough") I am still not sure we'd have enough to make a real forest maintenance plan worth doing.

Maybe there will be more useful stuff later. And some of what I've learned is immediately useful. For instance, a few of the fallen trees I'd planned to cut up are now going to stay there -- now that I know what to look for, they seem more important as terrain and food for wildlife. I also know things to be aiming for -- for instance, I definitely need more understory, just don't know how to work towards having it (particularly not without giving up my screening from the road while it comes in).

Can't really complain about a free guide that's helpful not being as helpful as I hoped. Well, apparently I can, as I just did, but I probably shouldn't. Still, I wish they'd update it with a few pages for the thousands of people in my situation.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The golden cluster seed

I've developed a stye on my left eyelid. It came out yesterday afternoon and it's the first time I've ever had one. What's weirdest about it is the fact that if I think about where I'm feeling the discomfort, it feels like it's not quite on my eye or eyelid, but just a few millimeters off of it. Somewhere not quite on my face but right in front of it.

It's a very mild low-level irritation but it's not one you can get used to and forget about; it's always there. Part of that is just that it's affecting my visual field slightly; my left eye doesn't ever feel quite open and it wants to blink a lot. Holding a hot compress over it for a while also makes my right eye start feeling wonky, like it won't quite focus and wants to blink, probably just because it's been working alone for a while.

Wikipedia revealed that it's a mild Staphylococcus aureus infection. This bacteria is present in many people all the time and widely easy to get; it's what's behind many ordinary skin conditions like pimples, for instance, and one of the ways it spreads most readily is people popping pimples. (That's also how it tends to jump from being a harmless presence on the skin to something more annoying like a stye or infection: often the intermediary stage is a pimple that got popped, which is one of the reasons you're not supposed to pop pimples.)

It'll probably take a week to get rid of with the application of hot compresses.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

If you won the lottery

First off, I don't play the lottery, because I understand enough mathematics. I call it a tax on ignorance of mathematics, in fact, and am endlessly amused when it's used to fund education. (Not that that's inappropriate or ironic; tobacco taxes being used to fund education programs to help people quit smoking makes sense, and so does this.)

But like I'm sure everyone else I've worked out, as a way to pass the time, what I'd do if I won some huge amount of money somehow. (Really, the odds of winning the lottery are so low, that not playing it barely reduces it significantly. I might happen upon a winning ticket! But one can imagine windfalls from other sources, too.)

Most people's list of things they'd do with a million dollars probably start with things they'd buy: a new house, a new car, some particular toys or gadgets, a private island, something for their friends and family. That's silly. Consider that a relatively low-risk investment can easily earn 4-6% interest, which means $2M put into the bank can give you an income of $100,000 every year for life without having to do a day of work. Buying things with your windfall is just digging yourself into a hole without a source of a way out. What's surprising is what a huge percentage of lottery winners do just that, and end up, five years later, broke and in debt and wishing they'd never won.

The first thing to do with a windfall is pay off your debts. No investment can reliably offer a better income than simply not having to make credit card, car, or mortgage payments anymore. After that, it's reasonable, being only human, to allocate a few tens of thousands to whimsical things like a good TV or even some travel. But after that, you should go straight to investment.

At a windfall of $1M, I could make enough income that we could continue to live as we have with one big change: Siobhan could retire. (Which is a very good thing: Siobhan's got the kind of personality that would be much happier that way.) It would take about $2M before we could both retire.

A lot of people respond to this idea by saying "I would still work, I would be bored without work." I find this idea insane. Do you really have so little interest in hobbies? If I never had another day of work in my life, I could still fill an entire lifetime just with reading the things I wish I had time to read. Another lifetime playing games I don't have time to play. Another lifetime on travel. Another one on learning stuff I don't have time or opportunity to learn. Another one on writing things I'd like to write. Another one doing volunteer work for causes I believe in. If I can fill six lifetimes without even including work, how can anyone not be able to fill one? But even if that's so... retire anyway, then spend your time doing the same kind of work on your own terms for charity.

After that, the next few millions would be allocated to various friends of mine, in order both of how close they are and how much they could benefit from it. One million each could pretty much get every one of them set up for life -- maybe not enough to never work again, but certainly enough to have a good home and something to fall back on and get rid of their debts. I've got four people or couples on the list there, so that's millions #3-6.

The next three millions would go to charities. The Nature Conservancy, the Planetary Society, and the third one divvied up between a number of charities focused on environmental, social, and economic justice, particularly on the long term -- helping the world stop needing as much charity.

It's not until the tenth million that I start talking about frivolous things like buying an airplane and learning how to fly it, but most of it would just increase the reserve in investments from which I draw an income. A bit would go to a few improvements to my house, but really, my house is already pretty near perfect, and I couldn't spend more than fifty thousand on improvements. After that, I start divvying up again between my friends and various charities.

How can anyone think a Maserati is better than never having to go to work again?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Low-flow, low-tech

Way back when, when toilets had five to ten gallons of water, there was no reason to engineer them that well. Five gallons of water can wash away just about anything you like with brute force alone. And anything it can't wash away shouldn't've been there in the first place.

When people started realizing we needed to not waste water like that, and the tanks got dramatically smaller (today's tanks are around a gallon and a half), at first, they didn't change the engineering. They just used less water the same way. The result of course was toilets that barely worked and which people hated. Often, it meant they flushed repeatedly to avoid a clog and maybe used up even more water. (Or so it was argued. If you think of how often you use the toilet for liquid wastes instead of solid, even if you flushed five times in the latter case, a low-flow toilet still uses less water overall.)

After a while, someone realized, hey, we can probably make up the vast decrease in water pressure by engineering a better-built, better-designed toilet. Sure enough, even a fairly simple change is able to get most of the effectiveness of the old five-gallon monsters. And more advanced toilets like assisted-flush ones are far more effective, and clog less, while still using a fraction of the water.

But by then, so many people had convinced themselves that "low-flow toilets are awful" that there's no recapturing that bad first impression. There's still a black market in old-style toilets -- people actually pay more for them, in some cases, than they would have to pay for an assisted-flush toilet that works better. More often, though, people just buy the cheapest toilet (i.e., one engineered precisely as they were done in the 1950s), like my office just did; then complain that it doesn't work well, and place the blame not on their choice of toilet but on the environmental movement.

So often when technology advances, people carry a grudge about the first not-very-good implementation long past when the problems in it have been resolved. I think the one thing that sets neophiles apart from neo-Luddites is that neophiles look at a bleeding-edge technology and see what it could become; neo-Luddites only see what it isn't, today.

Monday, January 12, 2009

A series of tubes

Let's start by observing that Ted Stevens is a despicable person. But that has nothing to do with this post.

Ted got tons of ridicule heaped onto him for his ill-expressed analogy about the Internet. Here's the relevant bit:
And again, the Internet is not something that you just dump something on. It's not a big truck. It's a series of tubes. And if you don't understand, those tubes can be filled and if they are filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line and it's going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material, enormous amounts of material.
Now, Ted's analogy is not exactly accurate. To be sure, Ted was probably repeating something someone told him which he didn't quite understand. But it's nowhere near as inaccurate as people have criticized him for. It's more accurate than most similar analogies stated in similar situations by people who aren't in the techie trades. I feel bad for Ted getting ragged on so badly for saying something that actually shows probably more insight than 60% of the other people in the Senate chambers would have had that same day.

In context, the contrast between trucks and tubes is actually pretty apt as a means of illustrating the difference between throughput, bandwidth, and latency, and which one is more important for any particular issue. When you get right down to it, the Internet is a lot more like a series of tubes than it is like a bunch of trucks.

Most physical analogies break down when they fail to account for the fact that information is infinitely and perfectly copyable, while bits never are; and both the trucks and tubes analogies utterly fail on that, as do almost all the other analogies you've heard over the years, and the ones my Computer Science professors used back in college. But analogies don't have to match every point, just the points relevant to the argument being made.

Like a series of tubes, you can't just add more trucks to double the bandwidth without having some effect on the other characteristics like latency. (Ignore, for now, that there's only so many lanes on the highway. Ah, highway, speaking of overused analogies for the Internet that are wrong in key ways but still quite useful.) Like a series of tubes, the Internet's good at diverting the same input to a large number of outputs. Like a series of tubes, the Internet has mechanisms for routing around blockages which depend more on there being at least one path that works, and the carrier trying multiple paths so that at least part of it will find that one path, rather than the method of each individual truck driver having to be smart enough to deal with the problem himself. Like a series of tubes, the Internet sends most of it what it sends in lots of small parts which can be separated and recombined a hundred times before it arrives, reassembling itself into something useful at the other end, rather than having large discrete packets that either make it in whole or not at all. Like a series of tubes, the length of the tube is only part of the question of how long it takes something to make it to the destination, unlike trucks where the speed of each truck versus the distance of the road is almost all that matters. Like a series of tubes, the Internet can be substantially impacted by a small number of packets being routed badly or taking up more than their share, in a way that impacts millions of smaller, simpler packets; whereas trucks might be worse at rerouting around everyday minor interruptions (as each driver has to invent the answer separately) but they're less vulnerable to these kinds of large-scale interruptions. (This last point will decrease a lot with IPv6 and support for multicast.) And like a series of tubes, the Internet seems to be a lot more likely to be carrying sewage and refuse than valuable goods, compared to a bunch of trucks!

Ted, by virtue of his position in the public eye (again, setting aside that he's a loathsome reptile), has earned a fair amount of jibes over his ignorance of things that he's legislating. Is it fair to expect Senators to know about everything just because they're expected to legislate everything? Maybe, maybe not: big topic, for another day. But it's certainly fair to make fun of them. But when it gets too much it starts to seem unfair, and in Ted's case, I think it got too much quite a while ago.

Anyway, let's just make fun of him for being an unscrupulous wretch. It's more satisfying, anyway.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Mordant's Need: A Man Rides Through

I actually finished reading this a few weeks ago but I had so much else to write about on the blog that I never got around to posting about it.

As I wrote previously, this two-volume story starts off simultaneously compelling and frustrating. So many of the plot turns in the first volume make you want to scream at the characters to do something different. But it occurs to me that this seems like a criticism I've heard pointed at a lot of TV shows, and it's not the same.

The best example is Heroes, particularly in seasons two and three. Several of the characters got so powerful that the only way the story could proceed without them simply mopping up any problems is if those characters also got really stupid. Not walking-in-front-of-a-bus stupid. More like never stopping to think about problems and available resources to solve them, plus not having much common sense, plus being easily fooled again and again by the simplest subterfuges.

The characters in Mordant's Need are also sometimes dumb in frustrating ways, but in more understandable ones. They have good reasons not to share information with each other: sometimes when they do, bad comes of it, and they don't have the same information we do. They are kept too busy to investigate things. And they are human... and this is the part that's hardest on the reader: we can't help feeling enough detachment to think, "you've got a half-day free, why not spend it experimenting with such-and-such". But if you were in the same situation you might spend even more time just dealing with the emotional impact of the situation and not being very productive. Sometimes the author fails to convey that adequately. It's a difficult line: spend too much time exploring the real human reaction to these extraordinary events and the characters come off as whiney; spend not enough and they come off as inexplicably ineffectual. In book one, they do both. And it's all very realistic but still annoying... at least until it starts to build up a payoff.

In the second volume, this factor starts to ebb as the characters get more sure of themselves and their situation, and the mysteries of "what's really going on" begin to fall more and more into place during the build-up to the resolving conflicts. In a way, all that ineffectual bumbling pays off by making decisive actions seem more impressive when they come. There are a few points along the way where things seem like a let-down: in particular, there's a lot of build-up about what the Congery has planned that turns out not as much as one expected. But the resolutions when they come are even more satisfying than I remembered from my previous reading. This book has most of the good parts of Donaldson's better-known Covenant series while remaining infinitely more accessible. (And incidentally, it's a lot sexier.)

The following is a minor spoiler about how Imagery works, so if you're reading the book, you might want to stop here.

I've been thinking about the problem of translations within the world of Mordant. Geraden early on comes up with the idea of translating a flat mirror into a curved mirror to get around the prohibition against flat translations. Later, we learn this isn't quite workable because flat mirrors translated into curved mirrors turn to dust. But Eremis has found an oxidate which allows it to work.

If you didn't have that oxidate (and it's possible the secret was lost), it seems you could do the same thing. Just translate a kiln into a curved mirror depicting a bland, unthreatening landscape, then translate in supplies and finally translate in yourself and make the flat mirror there. All this would take is a flat mirror you'd already made showing somewhere interesting (so you could know how to copy it), and someone else with a curved mirror showing somewhere harmless.

But if you made a flat mirror in that other world, would it still show the place within Mordant it showed when you made it in Mordant? If it's a flat mirror shouldn't it show someplace within the world where it stands? For that matter, would the flat-inside-curved trick even work at all as it did in the books: wouldn't the flat mirror, once translated, start showing a different place, somewhere inside the world where it was sent?

All this suggests a simpler solution anyway. Once you have a curved mirror showing a safe, non-threatening place, just build your fortress there. You can safely translate your workmen, your supplies, and your armies there. Once there, make curved mirrors until you have ones showing important spots back in Mordant, and attack through them. Not only do you entirely avoid the whole flat mirror issue, you also are far more unassailable than you were at Esmerel: after all no one can march an army towards your fortress. No one can get to you save through the mirror your confederate used to get you there in the first place, or another one like it. Even accounting for powers like Terisa's and Geraden's, you'd be almost unstoppable.

The only way to avoid this problem is by author fiat: for some reason you can't make mirrors in the other worlds that show Mordant, though mirrors brought from Mordant still work there. But this seems way too arbitrary. If mirrors work differently in that world, the flat-inside-curved trick probably shouldn't work anyway.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


About ten years ago I was diagnosed with acid reflux (GERD), after having suffered it for several years preceding. (Part of the trouble was that the diagnosis depended on saying you suffered "frequent heartburn", with no definition of what was frequent. I hadn't started having more heartburn than I'd always had, so I didn't say yes to "frequent heartburn" when being asked about a diagnosis for a new problem. Turns out I've always had an amount of heartburn that they considered frequent. Nowadays they typically say "more than two to three times a week".)

At the time I went in to see a gastroenterologist who confirmed the diagnosis and then talked to me about treatment. One of the main kinds of treatment was diet changes, and the gastroenterologist made an interesting point. When the subject came up about spicy foods causing heartburn, he asked me to list some examples of spicy food. I came up with the obvious things: buffalo wings, nachos, pizza, chili, jalapeño poppers, etc. He said, notice how every one of those things you listed is loaded down with fatty cheese or cream or grease. Usually it's not the spicy peppers or hot sauce, it's that we always eat those things covered in bleu cheese dressing or sour cream or melted cheese, all of which are very fatty. That's why things that are spicy but not fatty (like some Chinese dishes) rarely cause heartburn, while things that are fatty but not spicy can cause heartburn.

This was a startling revelation for me. Sure enough, I could not think of a single thing I'd ever eaten that caused heartburn that wasn't also very fatty. And I found that adding peppers or hot sauce to non-fatty foods did not cause them to give me heartburn.

Cut to today, most of a year past my gastric bypass surgery. I've had to re-recalibrate my thinking again, because nowadays, while fat does some things to me, it doesn't cause heartburn typically. However, spicy foods do. I can't even put a couple of jalapeño rings onto something without getting heartburn.

It's no problem, though. I just take a few Rolaids with the meal and head off the heartburn before it can bother me. Rolaids aren't bad for me to take: in fact, the doctors recommend people take them every day as a calcium supplement anyway. (I used to, but I stopped after getting a kidney stone.)

Friday, January 09, 2009

A footnote to the iPhone

One of the largest cell phone providers in Vermont is Unicel, and arguably one of the best in some ways: coverage, most notably. But Unicel is not one of the country's biggest providers, just one of the biggest in this area. Unicel is also noteworthy for the fact that it still uses the frequencies and protocols popular in the rest of the world, instead of the more advanced 3G networks that are gradually propogating out to the rest of the country, but which haven't come here -- partially because Vermont still doesn't even have 90% coverage at all so upgrading protocols is a low priority, and partially because some of those protocols aren't so great at handling our terrain, so it'd be even more expensive.

Last month, it was announced in the news that AT&T had finished its buyout of Unicel. (AT&T's site calls it a "merger", but clearly since when it's done AT&T will still exist and Unicel won't, it looks a lot like a buyout to me.) The news articles were very casual about this story except one aspect about which they were so excited they could burst: this means that Vermont would finally have the iPhone. Until this week, Vermont's the only one of the fifty states without it. Little mention of what would happen to the Unicel stores, or the people employed there, and no mention of what would happen to the existing customers.

Even now, mere weeks before the takeover is to happen, the news articles about it are all abuzz about the iPhone. The only comment about existing customers is this final paragraph:
As for current Unicel customers, AT&T says it will honor all of those contracts for up to a year.
That's it? Will our phones still work? Will our terms change? What about our existing bill payment arrangements? Will the technical infrastructure change? Will Unicel's towers be converted, left as is, dismantled? What will happen to coverage? What happens after that "up to a year" ends?

Unicel's web site still hasn't heard about the buyout. All they're saying is that they've expanded coverage in my area. AT&T's web site at least is aware of it, but has little to say other than to watch for more news. The merger's happening in mere days and they still have almost nothing to tell us. And we certainly haven't been contacted either.

Officially, as far as Unicel is concerned, I use a Motorola Razr. However, I long since moved my SIM into a Ubiquio 503G running Windows Mobile 6. This phone is compatible with all of the networks Unicel uses as well as almost all the other protocols in wide use; I never have trouble roaming, and I wouldn't even in Europe. But Unicel has never heard of it, and if I asked them, "will this still work?" they would give me a blank stare and probably tell me it won't work now. Before I bought it, I researched Vermont cell protocol coverage to be sure it would work fine, and it does. So how am I going to be sure it'll work after the cutover, when I can't even find out what will change, and when?

I don't even want an iPhone.

Why is it that communication companies are the worst at communication?

Thursday, January 08, 2009

IRIS player display

First, what's IRIS? Originally, it was a standalone initiative system for virtually any roleplaying game which I got published in a fanzine back in 1988, which eliminated the artificial granularity of rounds. Later, it was the initiative system in Prism. Finally, it's a piece of software I wrote which helps automate the initiative system, particularly as it's used in Prism, and which grew into helping the GM automate a lot of other fiddly details of running a game of Prism.

Recently I hooked my HDTV to my computer as a second monitor with plans to use this for GMing support by using it to display things like visual aids and combat maps. I have finished the programming changes in IRIS I intended to take advantage of that with a player display:

Click the image for the full sized version. It looks so huge with giant fonts here because that's what it takes to make it readable in the incredibly high resolution of the HDTV, seen from across the room. It will show the next actions and current status of only the player characters, but not NPCs; when an NPC's action comes up, it will only show it as the action of "An NPC". PCs are sorted by next action so you can see whose actions are coming up. A brief summary of their status is shown, along with full details when their action comes up (or if I click on them in the list). The window is even resizable.

Put this next to a combat map, all where everyone can see it, and I hope that'll mean combat goes faster, is more engaging, and is easier for the players to keep track of.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Thanks again, Irving!

After our many difficulties with Irving Propane, things settled down for a while. I started thinking those were mostly "getting set up" problems but once you were into their regular flow, things would be mostly all right.

This autumn, our propane ran out. They didn't come check it for three or four months. Sure, in summer we don't use as much, but we do still heat water and cook. And it's Vermont: even in summer the furnace runs on some nights. But they sprang to once we called them and got us filled up within a day. It was a nasty hit on our finances to pay for a full tank from nothing, but we did all right.

Right after Christmas we got another delivery, and they left us a slip showing a cost in the $350 range, about where I expected it to be. On the morning of December 30, I found in my daily check of my accounts that they had actually debited more than $1200... putting the account $887 into the red. To avoid having it go into our line of credit and thus incur interest, I yanked pretty much every penny I had in savings (set aside for property taxes for next November) into the account. Even so it wasn't enough; it only covered it because, by luck and because of the holiday, my paycheck came in two days early and I was able to shuttle a little more into the account.

Within a few days we found out what had happened: they accidentally billed us for both our propane and the propane of two other customers. What's more, the driver had caught his mistake, but hadn't reported it correctly, had simply made a note on a slip somewhere that didn't get read. They would refund us the sizeable overcharge.

As of today they still haven't. They've been very blasé about the whole thing, not treating it as any kind of priority. Apparently, their accounting people only do work like that during part of the day and if the person you spoke to doesn't make it by that time of day, the whole thing gets dropped. We've had to get the credit union, with whom they have a deal for their members which is why we're with them in the first place, to lean on them, and even so we're now awaiting a "definite" arrival of the refund tomorrow morning for the third time.

How hard is this stuff, really?

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Exercise and weight loss

My weight loss has been stalled for a couple of months now, and it seems to me that no matter what else is going on with my surgery, my diet, my exercise, etc., this follows my appetite. Sometimes I go a week where my appetite is much lower and I lose weight the following week; sometimes it's higher, I feel a need to snack a lot, and even if I resist that urge my weight still holds steady that week.

I've long believed that the idea that your weight loss tracks "your calorie intake minus your calorie expenditure" is not just overly simplistic, it's almost dangerously inaccurate. Sure, it's mostly technically true, but only the same way your weight loss equals the mass of what you eat minus what you poop (what with conservation of mass and all). Focusing on weighing your bathroom visits to decide how much you can eat is not going to help you lose weight.

So many people look at the calorie formula and get despondent and discouraged. I just did an hour on the treadmill and it means I can eat an apple? That's what the typical dietitian formula tells you. Not only is it discouraging, it's not really accurate. The fact is, the work your body goes through to stay alive every day is so many calories that the extra from you walking a half hour is almost rounding error. You burn more than that having your brain's neurons fire, or pumping your lungs, or rebuilding your stomach lining, or pushing blood through your liver. You won't make a real change to the balance sheet of today by doing a few sit-ups.

Nor is that the real reason why exercise matters. The real point of exercise is not to affect the balance sheet for today: it's to change the formula for the next week, or month, or year, or decade. Exercise changes your metabolism. It changes your appetite. It changes how much your body will burn tomorrow to make its heart beat and its neurons fire. It changes how good your body will be at processing food. It changes how much energy it'll conserve versus how much it'll use up.

Over the holidays I might have eaten more food I shouldn't, and that changes the formula too. I definitely need to stop that. But mostly I slacked off on exercise. Doing that won't change the formula back the next day, but it will eventually. Probably I have a few weeks of getting back onto the horse before it'll start to show real results.

I also am working on having more snacks be high-protein and low-calorie. I need a good source of plentiful cheap edamame now that Big Lots is out of it!

Monday, January 05, 2009

Indie publishing of RealTime

One thing that struck me reading Solipsist and particularly reading about how the book came to be is that I should reconsider whether my own indie-style roleplaying game RealTime might be viable to publish. I mentioned this in an email to the author of Solipsist and he was very encouraging. So I've started to look into it.

Here are the steps required to do an indie published roleplaying game, and where I see myself standing on them.
  1. Have an idea. It needs to be unique, interesting, different from what's already out there, and yet saleable. To be an indie game, it probably needs to be small in scope so it can be a small book; publishing something on the scale of GURPS requires more resources and a lot more investment.

    Here, I think RealTime is a good contender. It's a simple game that could be expressed in a small number of pages; it does something nothing else out there does; and it's suitably innovative, if I do say so myself. It has a definite challenge in marketing, though: most people respond to the idea, a roleplaying game you play in real time, with incredulity. It's not possible, most say. Or if it is, I couldn't do it. Or it would be too intense (really!). That'll be the real trick: convincing people to give it a try, to consider it something worth doing (not a replacement for every week's game, but a good break from it once in a while).

  2. Develop a system. What most people mistake for the entire process, this is one of the simpler steps.

    This part I've done. I don't even think it needs any tweaks at this point.

  3. Write it up. You need to be a competent writer and produce an organized, readable, engaging, and clear narrative.

    The current draft of RealTime is pretty good, but it could do with some tightening up, and more emphasis on the key things people reacted badly to: that it's possible, that it's a good roller-coaster-ride kind of intense, and that it's not intended to be an everyday game. But I'm a good writer. This is just a matter of finding the time.

  4. Get art. You can't sell a game without a striking cover, a nice character sheet, border art, and interior art that invokes the feel of the game (unless your name happens to be Gygax and you're working in the early 1980s).

    This has long been my biggest stumbling block. I can't draw a stick figure with a ruler and a diagram, and I didn't think I knew any good artists. Using generic art might get me part of the way, particularly with a game like RealTime which is set in the modern world, so clipart and techie-looking stuff I can do with software might serve for some of it. But you need at very least a snazzy logo, a good front cover picture, and a nice character sheet, done by a graphic artist. It turns out I know someone who does this kind of stuff and is willing to talk to me about options like having me split profits with her instead of paying up front. This development has moved the whole thing from "maybe someday" into something to consider seriously.

  5. Produce a publication-ready document. Make whatever kind of document, often a PDF with separate documents for covers, required for printing.

    These days you can do this pretty well with nothing more than Word and Acrobat, if you have the computer-operations savvy. I've been doing desktop publishing since the late 80s so while I might not be a whiz with any particular software, I can certainly produce a very pretty PDF formatted appropriately. The rewrite will include such niceties as making sure the result is the right number of pages (with art), and include things like table of contents, index (yes, it must have an index!), and I'm not sure what else. Will I include an adventure? How about RTC as an appendix? Depends on how the page count is ending up.

  6. Get it printed. Actually get it printed at a price point that makes it viable to sell at a price that people might pay, with enough left to cover marketing, your artist, and maybe a buck left for your pocket.

    Until recently this was a big part of it, but nowadays with services like Lulu, it's a lot more viable. I can do an 88-page perfect-bound book with a full cover color for only a bit over $4/copy in lots of only 100, which means it's within the range of the kind of up-front money I can sink into a venture like this.

  7. Market it. There's a flood of people trying to do this kind of thing. How do you get your product noticed, in the indie world where you don't have distributors pushing it to Friendly Local Gaming Stores? People talk a lot about word of mouth and the Internet as a means of game distribution and sales, but while it makes it a lot easier for you to reach your customers, it makes it a lot easier for a thousand other people to do the same, so it just makes new challenges: how to stand out and get noticed.

    This is still my biggest stumbling block. I will have to invest some money into actual advertising, and I don't even know yet where to start on that. I will have to try to promote my product with posts on forums, but I am not Mr. Personable, and have never had much success with that before when it was freeware (though there's also a stigma associated with freeware, so that might be part of it). I'd have to try to sell it at cons, but I live in the boonies and don't go to many cons. I worry that I'll end up with a box of 97 copies of RealTime in my closet and that'll be the end of that. The author of Solipsist is very upbeat that a few well-placed forum postings and word of mouth can carry you pretty far, but for every person like him for whom that's worked out okay, there's probably dozens for whom it never did. Does it really all come down to whether or not the product is innovative and fresh? If so, I feel good about RealTime. But while that may be necessary, is it sufficient?
Just thinking this through is getting me excited. My next step is to get my potential artist to look at my game, look at Solipsist as an example of what indie games look like these days, and to watch some 24 because she needs to see the inspirational genre for an idea of what kind of art and logos we need. Meanwhile, when time permits I'm going to take the text I have now and flow it into a 6x9 template and see how many pages I'm looking at, just so I can get an idea about length. (I'll be doing a complete rewrite, but it still helps to know if I'm way over or under my target length, before I even start.) Then I'll meet with my artist and we'll start to hammer things out, and meanwhile, I'll start the rewrite and publishing steps, and work out a budget. Then investigate advertising options.

I'm not building up false expectations or hopes that I'll sell ten thousand copies on this, or make any real money. But it sounds fun and exciting, just the idea of being able to do it. It's engaged my enthusiasm and I find myself thinking about it a lot. In fact, I always have one item on my to-do list that I want to be doing, and the other ones above it that I have to get through to get to it, and right now, this has become that item.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Googlification Redux

Almost a year ago WildBlue decided to give us a downgrade of many of its services without reducing our monthly cost, and to call it an upgrade. As with most ISPs, they offer the connection and a few basic services: email accounts, Usenet access, and a basic web hosting service. Their brilliant approach to downgrading us while calling it an upgrade was to simply remove those secondary services and then tell us we could use Google's free, web-based substitutes, which were already available to everyone anyway.

So where we had a nice email service with solid POP3/SMTP support, we were switched to Gmail. Gmail is pretty good; it has a nice web interface of course, and a good sized mailbox, and while it does support POP3/SMTP, it doesn't do it that well. Until recently, it had an infuriating "feature": spam filtering you couldn't turn off, which wasn't very smart spam filtering (for instance, it didn't even have a whitelist!), and which tended to cripple the spam filtering built into your email client. It also tends to get more spam. This would be an upgrade for anyone who barely knew how to use email before, and just used Outlook Express because they didn't know better. But for people who've been using email for twenty years and have a very good email client, it was a major downgrade. Now that there's a (roundabout and somewhat hidden) way to disable spam filtering, though, the Gmail solution is finally about on a par with the old solution, barely. It's still not an upgrade.

The Usenet service was replaced with "you can use Google Groups". In other words, they simply dropped the Usenet service and offered no substitute. Google Groups is good for searching against Usenet, but it's entirely impractical to use to actually read and post on Usenet on a daily basis. No client support at all, and a web interface is impossibly tedious to use and horribly limited by comparison. Plus most regular Usenet participants ignore anything posted from Google Groups because of it being so often misused by spammers, sporgers, and jerks. I still don't have a good substitute. A few free news servers are keeping me afloat for now, but they're unreliable and have poor coverage. But I decided I don't need Usenet enough to pay extra for it. I just shouldn't have to. When I signed up for WildBlue, Usenet was part of the package. I don't see how they can just stop offering it and that's that. When they call that an upgrade, that's just adding insult to injury.

They threatened to take away our web hosting too, but then they never quite got around to it. This is last February.

On December 27th, I just happened to notice, tucked off to one side of the site I have to log onto to check my bandwidth usage, a note that they were finally going to be killing our web service. They didn't email us, didn't offer anything else besides a short note in the middle of a page of pointless spammy announcements that have read the same few things all year, about how to log into various bits of their services. It's sheer luck I noticed.

Again, their "upgrade" is to simply take away the service entirely, and instead say "you can use Google Sites", which I could have done anyway. They don't even preserve the old URL! Nor can I set up forwarding on it since it is already gone. Google Sites does not allow you to upload HTML. You can't even paste a lot of HTML into it: for instance, it's impossible to put a PayPal donation button onto a page. It's just basically a wiki. And they offer no functions whatsoever to import an existing site. I had to copy and paste each page into Google Sites one at a time to rebuild my site. Then manually reupload every file and picture. Then rebuild all the links.

The result is a bland version of our site which looks the same as everyone else's site in the world. (Not that my old site was a masterwork, but at least it was my design, and I had the option of making it whatever I liked, which I no longer have.) Thankfully, I barely use that site, but this is only ensuring I'll be even less likely to use it in the future. Plus I wasted an entire evening rebuilding my site page by page... imagine if I had had more than ten pages, too.

Again, this is probably a boon to people who can't spell HTML and don't even know how to make Microsoft Word output as HTML (or if they did, would be puzzled no end by how to FTP the resulting files into place). Admittedly, that's a large and growing part of the market. I'm no HTML expert, I have never even developed a dynamic page, but I have been making old-style HTML for more than ten years, and for us this is a huge downgrade. How hard would it be for them to at least provide a way to put your own HTML into the site? Sure, I could go register on a pay site to host my pages, but I'm still paying WildBlue the amount I signed up to pay when that was part of the service I signed up for, and I am irked no end that they can just drop services without my consent and still bill me for them.

(Of course, they're really just failing to increase my prices by removing services, so I don't have a legal leg to stand on when it comes to complaining about this. But the fact that they go calling this downgrade an upgrade is what really gets me steamed.)

Don't get me wrong. Google Mail, Google Groups, and Google Sites are all good things for what they are and what they do. I don't hold this against Google. This is WildBlue sucking. This is WildBlue knowing that no one would sign up for them if they had a choice, and so, doing whatever they damned well please, because what are the suckers going to do, go get DSL?

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Loot Epilogue

When I started posting about my Christmas gifts, I noted that I felt a little uncomfortable about doing so, and had decided only reluctantly to go ahead. I've been wondering why I felt like it was tacky.

It seems to mostly boil down to a bit of good old fashioned liberal success guilt. I'm doing okay enough, despite the current financial meltdown, to be able to afford gifts, even things that are pretty darned frivolous. Lots of other people aren't; people are struggling to make rent and pay hospital bills. Even a number of people I know.

I answer my own concerns in the usual ways. First, I know that we give more to charity than most people in our income bracket, and we also spend more time ensuring that that money is being used well; we carefully evaluate charities, and then distribute our funds over those who can do the most good, with a solid split between preserving the concerns of the past, present, and future. But I still wish I were doing more. Apparently, though, I don't wish that enough to give up having cool gadgets, just enough to not have all the cool gadgets I'd like, only some of them.

Second, I know that I'm doing as well as I am because of earlier times in my life when I struggled through having little but looking to the future anyway. To put it glibly, that I paid my dues, lived through times working crappy jobs, barely making rent, and not splurging on almost anything. Sensible fiscal management, hard work, enough ambition to make things happen and prepare the way for opportunities so I could take advantage of them when they came. Plus playing it safe: for instance, not pursuing promotions and better pay that would have included more risk, which turns out in hindsight to be a good choice, given what's happening to the economy.

But there's plenty of luck in there too, starting with the luck of happening to be born with a talent for something that turned out to be saleable, and continuing with lots of places things went right or didn't go wrong. Some of luck is about living the life that lets you deflect the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and capitalize on the random opportunities as they pass you by; but some of it is just plain luck. It's oversimplifying to say people make their own lives just as much as it's oversimplifying to say they have no control.

Is there anything in my situation that really differs from that of other people around me? Probably not. Everyone I know can think of people (often me) who are doing better than they are, and maybe some of them are envious; but at the same time, everyone I know can think of people who are doing worse, and if they were so inclined, could feel guilty about not sacrificing more for those people. Everyone I know has something frivolous in their lives they could give up if they wanted to. Everyone's decided to find some balance point between attending to themselves and others. And everyone's concluded that a certain amount of frivolity is in fact a need: there's a human need to have some things you don't actually need, to preserve some mental health which grants the strength to face the other non-frivolous things.

"Poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king, and a king ain't satisfied until he rules everything." The antidote to rapacious avarice is contentment. But to be content, at least in real life instead of in idealistic aphorisms, don't you have to feel like you have enough that maybe you should have made a few sacrifices, stayed hungry a little, to better someone else? Maybe contentment can be an ill when it's not balanced against avarice and ambition too.