Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Speaking of magic...

In fairy tales, most notably all those children's stories we grew up with, magic has a particular form that I've never seen emulated in any roleplaying game's magic system even close to satisfactorily. It's easiest to explain with examples.

In the filk song "Snow Magic" (which is what made me think of this), one of the protagonists is a wolf-witch. Wolf is her native form, but she knows enough magic to be able to transform herself into a human form some of the time, in which form she is able to live a tranquil life with a human man with whom she has fallen in love (and for whom she wove the changing spell in the first place). But there are several limits, and inevitably, by the end of the song, they come into play. She can't stay a human past moonrise (so she's kind of an anti-werewolf), she can't leave the woods, and most importantly, if she kills any human the spell is ended forever.

A lot of the more familiar fairy tales, due to Disney's influence, share a common theme for this characteristic trait, the one thing that can break the spell: a gesture of love, often a kiss. The frog prince, Sleeping Beauty, the little mermaid, even in Swan Lake it's something similar. But in the pool of fairy tales in general, including the well-known tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, and even more so hearkening back to the original myths of the fae, there are other examples of some almost-impossible task which would break a spell, which can be strange and arbitrary, and have no obvious connection to the spell itself. (I'm having a harder time coming up with really compelling examples right now than I expected, though. I'll start noting them as they occur to me and add them in comments to this post.)

In roleplaying games these kinds of spells only ever exist as something NPCs do. I would really like to see a magic system that allowed a player to come up with some kind of elaborate spell which had these kinds of arbitrary limitations, without it being so eminently abusable that even the discretion of your more restrained players was enough to keep things in balance. Are there any games out there which attempt to reflect these kinds of spells?

Monday, March 30, 2009


A random idea occurred to me and by time I had finished exploring it I had a complete and, I think, really cool spell list for Spell Law, which I will no doubt introduce into my Uncreated campaign before long. I need to go over it again to weed out the ways it could be abused, though.

1Chandlery1 candle1hr/2lvltouch
2Snuff20' radiusinstantself
3Votivesightas candletouch
4Hearthcandle10' radiusas candletouch
5Wind Ward1 candleas candletouch
6Flashcandle30' radiusas candletouch
7Incense10' radiusas candletouch
8Smoky Candle20' radius1 minutetouch
9Snuff True20' radiusinstantself
10Pillar10' radiusas candletouch
11Mass Chandlery1/level1 hourtouch
12Jar Candle1 personas candletouch
13Sparkcandle30' radiusas candletouch
14Taper6 inchesas candletouch
15Floating Candle10'radiusas candletouch
16Tea Light10' radiusas candletouch
17Swirl1 candleas candletouch
18Spiralspecialas candletouch
19Tea Light True10' radiusas candletouch
20Burstcandle30' radiusas candletouch
25Rainbow1 candleas candletouch

1. Chandlery: Requires a length of wicking; creates a candle around it, of a color and scent desired by the caster, which will last one hour per two levels (minimum of 1 hour) and burn cleanly. The candle has no special properties save that it is suitable for enchantment by other spells on this list, and cannot be snuffed with the Snuff spell (but can be with Snuff True). If not burned, the candle wax will dissolve into the air in one hour.

2. Snuff: Extinguishes all non-magical, fire-based light sources within the area of effect, including candles, torches, and lanterns, but not including fires that are not primarily for light such as campfires or burning buildings. The caster can also choose to snuff a single light source within the area, instead of all of them.

3. Votive: Turns a Chandlery candle into a votive candle. Speak someone's name while you light it, and for as long as it burns and the named person can see it, he will get a +1 to any action that requires concentration or focus. A person can benefit from only one votive candle at a time.

4. Hearthcandle: Converts a Chandlery candle into a hearthcandle. When burned, a hearthcandle gives off as much heat as a roaring campfire, enough to keep people warm or to cook over. The hearthcandle must be placed on a firm surface to give off this heat; if picked up, it reverts to regular candle warmth until set down again.

5. Wind Ward: Protects a Chandlery candle against being extinguished by natural wind. Also gives it a 50% chance to resist magical wind that would extinguish normal candles. This can be added to other candles (such as hearthcandles, votives, etc.), even swirl and rainbow candles.

6. Flashcandle: Converts a Chandlery candle into a flashcandle. If a name of a specific being or class of beings is spoken while it's lit, the candle will give off a bright warning flash (sufficient to awaken anyone who's sleeping facing towards it) when anyone that matches that name comes within range. The flash will consume the candle. The name can be as specific as a particular person's name, or can be more general, such as "wolves" or "predators", but it must be a single word, and it cannot depend on intention (e.g., "enemies" or "hostiles" won't work, it must depend only on the nature of the being).

7. Incense: Converts a Chandlery candle into an incense candle whose potent, spicy aroma purifies the air, removing all dangerous impurities and effects such as poison gas, airborne disease, etc. It will even protect against loss of atmosphere within its area of effect.

8. Smoky Candle: Converts a Chandlery candle into a tapered candle that gives off a fine silvery smoke that fills the area; this will burn up the candle in only a minute, regardless of how long it would otherwise have lasted. Within the area of effect, magical auras will be revealed by the smoke, exposing invisible creatures, possessions, hauntings, and similar hidden auras.

9. Snuff True: As Snuff, but can also extinguish magical sources, including Chandlery candles. In the latter case, the spellcaster makes an attack with his spell skill against the spell skill of the caster who made the candle, with an addition +8, snuffing the candle (and thus its effects) on a success.

10. Pillar: Converts a Chandlery candle to a pillar candle which, when burned, will create the same light as full daylight within its area of effect (similar to Utterlight).

11. Mass Chandlery: As Chandlery, but one candle per level can be made at one time, though these candles will each last only one hour.

12. Jar Candle: Converts a Chandlery candle into a jar candle: the lid also contains a tiny candle and wick. The jar candle can be used to store a location to which one can teleport from any distance using the lid candle. Set the jar on a firm surface and light the candle, and as the candle in the jar burns down and grows smaller, the candle in the lid will grow correspondingly larger. If the jar candle burns out or is extinguished, the lid candle vanishes as well. Otherwise, invert and light the lid candle to start the process of teleporting to the location of the jar. The longer you waited after lighting the jar candle, the longer it takes; for every hour the jar candle burned down, the lid candle takes a minute to burn down. When it's burned all the way down, the lid candle and the person holding it are teleported to the location of the jar candle, and both candles are consumed. In any case, the jar is consumed with the candle.

13. Sparkcandle: As Flashcandle, but also attacks the being or beings that set it off with a firebolt at the moment it fires. The firebolt attacks with an offensive bonus of 5.

14. Taper: Converts a Chandlery candle into a taper. When taper candles are arranged in a line or circle on the ground, they create a barrier over which magical beings, including summoned (e.g., demons), conjured (e.g., elementals), and created (e.g., golems) beings, cannot cross. Tapers must be not more than six inches apart. The beings affected by the spell cannot knock over or otherwise directly disrupt the barrier, but they can certainly try to convince or trick others into breaking it.

15. Floating Candle: Converts a Chandlery candle into a floating candle in the shape of a hemisphere. If set into water and lit, it will radiate a potent calming aroma. Any hostile act by any party within the area of effect must first resist the calming effect (attacks with a 10) before it can proceed.

16. Tea Light: Converts a Chandlery candle into a tea light. Research or study of academic subjects in the presence of a tea light, if done in an atmosphere conducive to such study, will be 25% quicker or more effective. Tea lights also offer a +5 to rolls on anything related to meditation. The tea light only benefits the person who lit it.

17. Swirl: Converts a Chandlery candle into a swirl. Any two Chandlery spells can be cast to make this into a candle which combines their effects. For instance, you could cast Swirl, then Hearthcandle and Incense to make a single candle that protects against impurities and cold. A swirl candle will last for a period of days equal to the creator's level before evaporating.

18. Spiral: Converts a Chandlery candle into a spiral candle. Use of at least one spiral candle per participant in any magical ritual or channeling circle (involving three or more participants) will increase the effectiveness of the ritual by 10% (GM's discretion how this applies to any particular ritual).

19. Tea Light True: As Tea Light, but the candle will also increase the natural recovery of spell points or mana by 25%. The tea light can be left lit while sleeping or resting as long as the person stays within its area of effect.

20. Burstcandle: As Sparkcandle, but with a fireball instead of firebolt.

25. Rainbow: As Swirl, but a rainbow candle can combine the effects of up to six types of candles.

30. Seashell: Converts a Chandlery candle into a seashell candle. When burned, it will spread out smoke over an area of several miles, clearly revealing the flows of essence within that area.

50. Mountain: Converts a Chandlery candle into a mountain candle. When burned, it will reshape the flows of essence to redirect them towards the spot where the candle is placed. If this spot is entirely adverse to the flows of essence, the effect will be limited to a few hours; however, for more suitable places, the effect can last a very long time or even be permanent. Lighting a mountain candle requires a ritual that takes one uninterrupted day of concentration and meditation. Groups of three to thirteen chandlers who all know this spell can cooperate on a ritual, using spiral candles to facilitate it, to reduce the time; in this case, divide the 24 hours required by one less than the number of chandlers involved. The ritual drains all participants of all spell points.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Home theater installed... mostly

I have to say only "mostly" because of two cables not being in place, a remote not fully programmed, and zone 2 speakers not set up -- though that's really a separate project.

But the receiver is in place, along with the center speaker on its shelf, the subwoofer, and four towers. The speakers are calibrated and the sound tested, and it's awesome. The subwoofer really makes the floor shake and this room has great acoustics. Movies rumble with sound effects, the soundtrack is sweet, and dialogue is so crisp even when it's up against effects and soundtrack. Even heavy accents and muddy sound mixes (like some episodes of QI) are so much easier to make out.

Music comes out great too (though I need to tweak the equalizer settings -- some music plays great but other things come out with too much base and a kind of thin sound, notably some Natasha Bedingfield I tried out, though that was before I changed the play mode and I haven't been back). Even the FM tuner that I didn't intend to use manages to pick up a radio station even out here.

The installation was pretty easy. I already had the holes drilled so running cables to the back speakers was surprisingly easy. I love having a full basement with easy access to the floor above me. The speaker cables were a little difficult only because the marking on the positive side was so subtle I barely noticed it and could barely see it even when I knew what to look for. At first I had the wrong pair of surround speaker terminals used but the automatic setup easily figured that out and explained it. The graphics from the Onkyo's built-in menus are kind of embarassingly clunky, reminiscent of Atari 2600s, but once you get through that initial setup you're not likely to be in them much anyway, so who cares?

It also took a bit of fiddling to get the DISH DVR remote to be able to control the volume and mute, mostly because the settings I found that worked did not control the power, which is the one they suggest you test with. But I really don't need it to be able to do anything but control volume and mute. I haven't yet experimented with making the Onkyo remote control the other device, but given how such things are usually dodgy -- you can't get all the buttons you need and remembering which one is which is usually more trouble than it's worth -- I won't invest too much time.

Now, as to the problems.

First, when I was ordering the subwoofer cable, I looked at the wrong diagram and so didn't realize that the subwoofer had both left and right inputs and suggested I get a Y cable. The cable I ordered is not, I'm pretty sure, such a Y cable, but it has yet to arrive (probably will arrive tomorrow). However, I've done a bunch of reading online and the consensus seems to be that the dual inputs are just for making it easier to run cables from systems that don't offer a subwoofer-specific mono out, and the Y cable is just a way to sell something you don't need. So I used an ordinary cable I already had, for now, and the sound is fine. Maybe the gold-plated solid-core cable that I ordered for this will do better, though; when it comes I might as well put it in.

It was the plan to run my four HD devices (PS3, HD-DVD, D-Link, and DISH ViP622 DVR) via HDMI to the receiver, and that's part of why I picked this receiver, its four HDMI inputs. However, what I had forgotten is that the HDMI port on that DVR is shot. Back when we first got the DVR, their manufacturing had a flaw (which they refused to acknowledge for a long time) that caused a lot of people to lose HDMI. We sent one back, which was a huge hassle -- all the timers, all the recorded shows, all lost. The next DVR had its HDMI port die in a week and we decided to live with it. I just used component instead and all was fine. Later, I used up my TV's two HDMI ports, and years passed, and I forgot that it was hooked up by component instead of HDMI because of the failed port (rather than having too few HDMI ports). So when I hooked the DVR up and got no picture it took a while to figure out why. I had to change the connection to component, which is just as good for picture quality. Trouble is the only way to run audio is digital optical (using a cable I don't yet have) or old-fashioned analog (which is what I'm using for now). A digital optical cable is on the way, and once it's in, our primary video source will also have great sound; and it's a testament to the receiver's quality that it could adapt to this situation with no problem. And even without the cable, the sound quality is noticeably better just because the speakers are great.

Oh, I suppose I should also note that the VCR that's been patiently sitting on the shelf unused for years died when I first turned it on and tried to make sure I hooked it up, but I had another one which was also sitting patiently. Once upon a time we had two VCRs which we needed to record all our shows, and lots of videocassettes. I was surprised how remote that time seems, even though we still had both VCRs sitting around, but we haven't even turned either of them on in years. Rescued the tape from the dead VCR and put the other one in, no problem.

Now all that's left is to think of what I need to watch again with this system and see how much better it is. Wheeeeee!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Donating blood

I used to donate blood at the blood drive in Montpelier every time I could (despite my AB+ blood type being of relatively little value compared to the ideal O-), and passed the gallon mark some while ago, but I stopped because of some not very good reasons. It was always a hassle to get to the blood drive as I have no vehicle at work, and bumming a ride was tricky; I hate feeling like an imposition, and no one else is ever going to the blood drive at the right time. That only got a lot more so when they moved it from downtown (to which I could in theory walk, though it's a bit too far while carrying my stuff) to up the hill at the college (which is out of everyone's way). Also, I used to have someone to go with, but for the longest time I didn't, and that also diminished my enthusiasm.

When it was time for my surgery I hadn't been doing it for a while, but thinking I should. But of course after this surgery there's a while you shouldn't.

The one year post-op blood testing is done and the Vitamin D deficiency addressed, so I'm now approved to donate blood again, and I intend to start with the next Montpelier blood drive next month. Still not sure how I'll get there. Maybe I could try my bike, though hauling my laptop on my backpack that far uphill is still a bit of a strain. We'll just have to see.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Are you busy?

I'm the kind of person who is always doing something, and always has a list of other things to do next. Periodically, especially in Lusternia (where my character has a number of positions of authority), I get asked "Hey, are you busy?" and I have given up finding a good answer to that. Now I just say "try me".

I know people are just trying to be polite and respectful, to not pile more on me when I've already got so much piled on me. The intent is good. The execution isn't. Invariably, "are you busy?" just makes whatever they want take more of my time.

The problem is, if they mean "are you doing nothing at all" the answer is always "no". But what they really mean is "do you have enough time to help me with this thing I have in mind". Trouble is, this thing could range from "answer a quick yes-or-no question" to any of various things that could take hours. It could also involve things that I can do right now while I'm doing whatever else I'm doing, or it could be something that requires me to stop what I'm doing or even go to a different place, perhaps a place I am not able to go right now even if I did have time.

I tried various answers that made clear the dilemma, including just asking "busy for what?" but they all just confuse people half the time (requiring more time be spent on meta stuff before we can get to the actual issue) and put people off the other half the time (they take all those answers as "yes, I'm busy, and rude besides" and react rudely in response). In the end, any response that attempts in any way to address the fact that the question doesn't give me enough information to answer it, always comes off as me being the one not giving enough information, and/or being a jerk.

"Try me" is suitably vague -- as vague as the original question, and in the same way -- yet it manages somehow to be taken, most of the time, as "yes" enough for them to get to the point. (The point being telling me what they're actually asking, at which point I can give the real answer about whether I can spare the time for it.)

The logical systems analyst in me can't help but note that there's nothing whatsoever in this exchange ("are you busy?" "try me." ) that wouldn't be more efficient and no less polite if you just left off the first exchange. Of course, if people just jumped in with the question, sometimes it would be unwelcome and irritating. I'm not denying that. But adding on the first two steps doesn't actually change that.

If people really wanted to be polite, what they would ask is a very brief version of their question that still had enough in it to let the person answer whether they're too busy for it. But that's never going to happen. That said, if you happen to be asking me, know that I won't mind if your question is fully formed. Quite the contrary. It'll probably save us both time. And if I seem irked (because you hit me at a really busy moment, maybe) it's not because of how you asked: if you'd only said "are you busy?" I would simply have been even more irked.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

You have a package waiting

Semi-compulsively watching the package tracking (boy, I wish USPS would institute a real package tracking system) made me pretty sure that the Kindle would be there when I got home last night. I also knew from the UPS tracking that the Onkyo receiver was supposed to be there, but maybe not; there was a call suggesting it needed a signature, and I wouldn't be there to sign for it, so maybe not. But I wasn't worried. No reason to get it urgently when the speakers weren't due until next week anyway, not to mention the cables.

The Kindle (which we've named Babbage; when we get a second one, it'll be Lovelace) was, indeed, there. There were two small disappointments. First, though Amazon said it would come already registered, it wasn't. No big deal, you just have to put in an email address and password. Second, as I had expected, we have no coverage out at the house for the network it uses. This isn't nearly as crippling as it seems; in fact, it's no problem at all. The Kindle works fine off the network, it just can't wirelessly pick up new books. But you can still grab them with a PC and transfer them with a cable. This doesn't work for samples, though. But once you get to where there's coverage (a few miles from the house on the way to work this morning) stuff starts to flow in. Right now I have about 50 books and samples of 20 more on the Kindle, so I don't think it'll be a problem not to be able to load new ones from the device in some places (which happen to include my house). About all I can't do is use the "experimental" web browser there.

As for the receiver, it had, indeed, been left for us. Along with all the speakers. There was a huge pile of boxes waiting: subwoofer, four tower speakers, center speaker, and the receiver. Even with a cart it took two trips to get them all into the house. Maybe the UPS guy left it all because it was so much stuff and he didn't want to have to haul it all again!

Unfortunately, the cables aren't here yet, and it's even odds whether they will before the weekend. If they do, I'll be setting the whole system up this weekend; if not, next weekend. I'm waiting on four components: the 250' spool of speaker wire, the powered subwoofer cable, the HDMI cables, and the second remote. If I only get the first two, I can still set things up. And then get to hear how awesome the sound is!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Good sunglasses

You can buy $5 sunglasses at Walmart, or $100 sunglasses at a Sunglass Hut or the like, or even up from there; and they seem to do the same thing. Given that, and given that I often scratch or break my sunglasses within a few months, sit on them by accident, drop them, lose them... I have always bought the cheap sunglasses.

And I've always been mildly dissatisfied. They're always a little scratched, they always get smudged too quickly, they always bend a little or don't fit right, they always have a nick or crack. But I can just get another pair.

I've tried $20 sunglasses and they haven't really changed that. Sometimes they fit better, look better, even work better, but they don't last longer. I'm just as hard on them as on the cheaper ones. Last year I tried some $30 glasses from a touristy shop in Ogunquit that might have been higher-end than their price indicates (or might not); they looked great, felt pretty good (though they weren't dark enough for really bright sunlight), fit good, and died after about six months, a fairly typical lifespan for the $5 glasses for me.

I wonder whether the $100 ones (or higher) would really work better for me. Maybe glasses made of glass with scratch-resistant coating, with a well-built frame that can be maintained and repaired, and a good case, would not only work better for me but last long enough to justify the price. I would love to have a way to find out that wasn't "buy some, and then maybe drop them a month later and feel like a fool for wasting that much money".

I've read many accounts of other people who made the move from $5 to $100 glasses and swore by them afterwards, wondered at how they'd ever tolerated the cheapies as long as they did.

And if you think about it... people who wear prescription glasses almost always manage to hang onto them for years without major breakage, scuffing, scratching, or losing them, especially if they get scratch-resistant lenses. Maybe I could too? Then again, those people wear their glasses most of the day, so maybe that makes it easier to not lose them than if you had to have sunglasses around in case you needed them, but not actually wearing them most of the time.

The trouble is you can't rent good sunglasses to find out if you're going to trash them. There's no way to find out but to put your money down and roll the dice. Maybe one day, I will. (Though if I do, there'll be no compromises: it'll have to both look good and feel good.)

Monday, March 23, 2009


Spring is in the air. Today's cold again, but last week was warm enough that most of the snow has melted from everywhere except at my house, and later in the week will be more of the same. In addition to the usual spring projects (like getting the screens back up, hooking up garden hoses, and the like), plus the new woodshed wall I'm building, and the splitting and stacking of last year's wood and cutting new wood this year, I have one more project lined up.

Last year we tried out some home-made Earthbox clones and they worked fantastically, beyond our wildest expectations. Literally: the tomato plants got so big we had to rig up support posts and then tie them to the deck to keep them from falling over from being topheavy. We started small with just three boxes, one for tomatos, one for peppers, and one for onions.

Right after planting:
Planting day 6/7/2008
Four weeks later:
4 weeks later
At six and a half weeks:
6 and a half weeks later

At that point we stopped taking pictures, but it got so much bigger later. We ended up throwing away about 20 good-sized tomatoes (mostly because we didn't get around to canning them as sauce in time), and we dried quite a few peppers:

Drying peppers

All this with the minimal amount of time and effort we're able and willing to invest (our previous attempts at gardening have always failed miserably since we just never put in the time required to live up to the obligations of what was planted). All this required was a few minutes watering them most days, and that's about it.

This year I'm making four more earthboxes, so we'll have a total of seven. Four will be tomatoes, with one plant per basket -- trying to do two in one basket didn't work so well after all. One will be peppers as before, and two will be onions, because we can use more onions all year long.

I've purchased the bins already, and have the black sheeting from last year; now I just need the tubing and pond baskets. The generic-Earthbox-clone directions are easy, don't require special tools or skills, cost about a quarter of name-brand Earthboxes, and really work.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Home theater system purchase!

We went to Best Buy to listen to speakers and pick things out for the home theater system, and to compare prices. Listening to speakers was useful, though it took some fiddling about: the compare-speakers stations were both broken, and it took a legion of blue-shirts to get most of it to work. The last bit they couldn't fix, but once they weren't around I was able to peek at the wiring and fix it myself.

We settled on Polk speakers for everything but the bookshelf speakers, for which we settled on Bose. However, the prices at Best Buy were way out of line for what I'd seen earlier on Amazon, so I took our choices home and looked at other sources. I would feel bad about using Best Buy this way, but then, I did pay them $100 for the consult that ended up taking about 20 minutes since I was so well prepared, so it really comes out in the wash. Anyway, not my fault their prices are so out of line!

In the end, though, it turns out that a second set of tower speakers would cost only about $60 more than the bookshelf speakers we chose. And I was saving so much on finding better prices for the speakers, I was still well within budget even with the second set of towers. So ultimately, it ends up being all Polk speakers. Here's what is on order now:

Onkyo TX-SR606 7.1 Channel Home Theater Receiver: The heart of the system. 4 HDMI inputs plus a bunch of extras of other types. Supports 7.1, though I'll just set up 5.1 for now (almost nothing produces 7.1 yet, but I can always add the other two speakers later when it does).

Polk Audio Monitor 50 2-Way Floorstanding Speaker: Four of these. Two will stand on the edges of the wall on either side of the TV (one beyond the woodstove); the other two will be at the back of the room (I cut a bit off the bottom two shelves to make room on one side). These have a nice rich sound that will be awesome for music as well as movies.

Polk Audio CS10 Center Channel Speaker: This will sit on a shelf behind and above the TV, which I also need to purchase to install (the one thing not yet bought). This one will mostly cover dialogue, but it's pretty good for music too.

Polk Audio PSW10 10-Inch Monitor Series Powered Subwoofer: Will sit behind the TV somewhere, not sure where yet, probably behind the heat shield that separates the TV from the woodstove. We got to hear one at Best Buy and it sure gave music some oomph, I bet it'll do amazing things for movies. That scene in Contact when Ellie's boarding the ship will be mind-blowing and I bet bits of Wanted will make my heart race.

DB Link SW12G250Z 12 Gauge 250 Feet Speaker Wire: 250' of 12 gauge wire for about the same as most of the 100' spools of 14 or 16 gauge, all because it's blue. I like the blue, but it's going to be hidden anyway, so who cares what color it is?

Digital Coaxial/Subwoofer Audio Cable 6 ft. CL2: Not much to say about this. It's a cable, with good connectors and shielding.

AMC 3ft HDMI to HDMI Cable: I already have several of these, and this will be enough more to hook everything up via HDMI.

TX-SR606B Replacement Remote: Because if we only have one, Siobhan will have it, and I want to have one too. I need to be able to change inputs, especially to switch to music!

Only thing left is some nice shelf brackets and shelf wood for the center speaker, and then to wait for it all to come in. It'll be in like seven separate packages arriving over about two weeks, and I can't really install it until it's all here. I'm itching with anticipation. Fortunately in a few days I'll have a Kindle to distract me.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Notable rock drummers

It's not that hard to make a list of guitarists in rock music who were not only great guitarists but important in the history of rock guitar. The first few names are gimmes: Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Eddie Van Halen. After that, people can get quibbly about who really deserves to be on the list, but there are certainly a bunch of names that are likely to appear on most people's versions of the list.

I was thinking about who would be on the equivalent list for drummers, and not that many names jumped out at me. Without testing the borders of "rock" by going out into the rhythm-and-blues family (where we'd immediately get Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, amongst others), only two names occurred to me that should be on everyone's list: Keith Moon and Neil Peart. But I feel like there are others that just aren't coming to mind.

It's a truism that drummers don't get the glory that guitarists get, generally. (Neil Peart had to be superhuman to break that glass ceiling; I recently read someone's comment on a forum that the one thing that most made him doubt his atheism is watching Neil Peart play.) But even so there should be more names that jump to mind. I can think of drummers who did good work, but the standard is not only that they were great but also that they were important to the history of rock drumming, perhaps because of innovating techniques or defining styles (the way Gene Krupa did), or for combining elements from different genres, or something.

So, who am I forgetting?

Friday, March 20, 2009

Home theater system design

The component input-output aspect of my new home theater system is going to be much simpler than I imagined, and immediately address two of my concerns: that I only have to change input in one place instead of two, and that I can leave music playing with the TV off. That's because the recommended approach the Geek Squad folks suggested is based on a receiver that can take 4 HDMI inputs and offers an HDMI output. Thus, I don't use the TV's input switching at all. All my main HD components (DISH DVR, PS3, HD-DVD, and D-Link) feed via HDMI to the receiver, and then one HDMI cable goes from the receiver to the TV, and I leave the TV always on that one input. Easy-peasy!

The Geek Squad recommended a Pioneer 1018, but after looking around online, I found that its advantages over the Onkyo TX-SR606 are mostly that Best Buy carries it, and its video upconversion is better -- which is not an issue for me since all my inputs are already HD. (Well, I do still have an old VCR in the system, but I haven't turned it on in two or three years, so it hardly is a concern if its upconversion isn't great. And if it is really bad, I could just keep it feeding into the TV instead of the sound system.) On the downside, and this is a big downside, it has only 3 HDMI inputs, plus it costs about $200 more. So I've settled on the Onkyo TX-SR606 which has enough HDMI inputs and whose only real downside, according to C-Net's review, is poor upconversion I would never use anyway.

Rather than adding a remote to my pile this will only replace one since I won't need the TV's remote anymore. (I only use it now for changing inputs, on/off which my DISH DVR remote can do, and volume/mute which the receiver's remote will do.) I even verified I can get a second remote for it for a fair price.

Speakers will be two tower speakers at the front on either side (this will necessitate a little rearranging of the room, but that'll be no problem, I can already see how I'll probably do it), for strong sound for movies and music; a center speaker, which I'll need to put on a shelf behind the TV; and two bookshelf speakers to the rear. Those could be towers too, for better music quality, but it's probably not worth the extra few hundred bucks for movies. Still, I'll look at tower speaker prices and sound and consider the possibility.

I had considered going with a wireless transmitter for rear speakers, but I'd still have to run power cables to them which would be just as messy and ugly. Instead, speaker cables won't be that hard after all. One of them will go on the bookshelves, so the wire will be hidden behind those shelves. The other will go on a shelf over the closet, so I can easily run the wire inside the closet, with no worry about avoiding radiant heating pipes or in-wall wiring.

Adding in the price of cables, a second remote, and shelving, plus the consult I just got, and allowing for some slop factor, I still come in at about three fourths of my original estimates. So I'm pleased with the price and with the results I expect. I can't wait. In fact I'm itching to go out and start shopping right now. And while I originally budgeted this for next month the money is already in the budget so we might go up to Best Buy this weekend and start listening to speakers.

Thursday, March 19, 2009


Ordered my Kindle last night, and I'm already getting jazzed about it. One of the first things that tickled me is, minutes after I'd ordered it, I was looking at books that were available, and saw a button to order a sample of one, so I did, and it automatically linked it to my Kindle. Today I've ordered a boatload of other samples and they're all already being queued up.

Actually, the way the site talks about it, I can't help imagine that somewhere in a box on a post office truck, my Kindle is quietly downloading dozens of books. Realistically it probably won't do that because they probably only let it download when it's turned on, and it's probably not turned on yet, either because it's not charged up, or because they don't want it to run down on its way to me. But it's still an amusing image, that wherever in the country it is, it's quietly readying itself for me.

I was also surprised to find out that there are dozens and dozens of books available for free. Like you'd guess, that's a lot of old classics that are in the public domain, and an alarming number of romance novels, but there's also a few very modern books -- in many cases, the first of a trilogy, in hopes they lure you into getting the others, no doubt. Still, my Kindle hasn't even gotten out of its box and already has about 30 books on it.

It also has samples of another couple of dozen, because so far, every Kindle edition I've seen offers a sample. Of course, that means you can easily order the full edition right from the Kindle -- another "that's how they get ya" moment -- but it also means I can try out every book to decide if it's worth owning.

The Kindle doesn't support Bluetooth audio, but my Bluetooth headphones came with a little transmitter-dongle I already use with my Archos. So I can load all the Audible audiobooks I already have onto it, and use Read To Me as well, with these headphones.

It should be here within a week. I can already tell I'm going to need to budget a second one, since it'll be hard for Siobhan and me to share one. (Another great thing: a second one can be linked to the same account, so all the books can be shared freely between them.)

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Big yellow machine

In my roleplaying group, the phrase "big yellow machine" has come into common use, having a meaning somewhat like "red herring" but specifically referring to things the GM puts into an adventure just to screw with and mislead the players, as in, "Well, it might just be a big yellow machine."

A few years ago, while I was GMing, the player characters were crossing a huge, mostly empty, snowy field. (They were heading for Santa's Workshop so they could rescue Santa Claus from Santa Claws and his Men In Red, but that's another story.) In the middle of this trackless waste they encountered a big yellow machine. It was wheeled and about the size of a truck, though wider than long, and had lots of hydraulics, hinges, flanges, and fiddly bits which I described in elaborate detail. Though the paint was flaking in spots, it was painted in a sort of darkish yellow.

The players spent maybe an hour going over it, trying to figure it out. Who had made it, for what purpose, and why was it left here? What did it do, how did it work? Could they make some use of it? They tried everything and eventually decided they would have to come back to it later, so they continued on to the workshop, with a note to return when it became clear what significance it had.

Several play sessions later, the adventure ended, the characters dimension-hopped, and one of the players asked me what was with the big yellow machine. And I finally was able to break my straight face and tell them.

Jump back about three years earlier. On a spring or summer day, Siobhan and I were heading somewhere in the car. At an exit on Interstate 89, sitting in the middle of the wedge-shaped bit of land between the Interstate proper and the exit ramp, there was a big piece of construction equipment, of the kind they use to do road work. It wasn't anything familiar, though, like a steamroller, a mixer, a dump truck, etc. It didn't even quite look like the machines they use to score up the road when they're scraping, though it did have a bunch of downward-pointing curved flanges.

As is my wonted way, I wondered aloud what the machine was, and also, what it was doing there, in the verge, nowhere near any actual construction that was going on or even planned. Siobhan was amused at me wondering, and (her protests to my previous blog post notwithstanding) made fun of me for wondering things like that. By way of rejoinder, I commented, "If something like that was sitting there in a roleplaying game, the characters would be all over it trying to figure it out, even if they had something else to do or somewhere else to go." She seemed dubious.

So I memorized what the machine looked like, and it lay in wait in the musty corners of my brain for years until I was sure she'd forgotten all about it, and then I sprang it on them. Keeping a straight face through that entire scene was very very hard. A few times I had to excuse myself, pretend to go to the bathroom, and sneak in a few quiet chuckles.

(Note: the picture above is not the right machine. If I could find a picture of the right machine I could probably find out what it was!)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Guardrail posts

At least around here, guardrails along the sides of highways always have metal posts along the bulk of the rail, but the first half-dozen or so posts are wooden on either end. (There's an exception when an end of the railing curves away enough, or when there's only a short gap in the railing.) I have been wondering why.

The exceptions make me think that the point of the wood is that that part of the railing is most likely to be blowed into headlong -- that's why it wouldn't apply in short gaps where you wouldn't easily be able to hit one end headlong without bouncing off the other segment, and in places where it curves out of the way.

But what purpose could the wood have there? Is it because it might absorb the blow more gently, or even shear off, and this would be better than being stopped dead (possibly literally)... whereas the kind of blow likely to hit the middle part of a guardrail is a lot more likely to be oblique or glancing.

I often wonder things like this, even though I can probably never find out about them, and get made fun of for wondering. (Which suggests a topic for tomorrow's blog post, actually.)

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Faraday Postulate

Warning: there are spoilers for the current season of Lost in this post.

On Lost this season, the island's scientist-in-residence, Daniel Faraday, has discussed the time travel of the main characters in terms of what I have taken to calling The Faraday Postulate over on the TiVo forum threads. (It's only a postulate because we have no reason to believe it other than that he said it, and because he seems to be acting as the mouthpiece of the writers in this regard.) The postulate says basically that while time travel is possible, time is inelastic: you can't go back and change anything because whatever change you make is what always happened.

This is turning out to be a good move for the show. In fact, it seems like a lot of the big mysteries of the earlier seasons will be explained in the most satisfying way possible: it will turn out to be the main characters responsible for them, intentionally or not. It also suggests that the show has been planned all along.

For instance, early into season 3, in a throwaway scene, the Others have Kate and Sawyer digging rocks to make a runway in the middle of an island for no apparent reason, and we are led to believe that it's just makework: part of an effort to break their wills, or to keep them too tired to resist, or just to establish the authority of the Others. That it closely resembled the "chain gang" forced labor only seemed to corroborate this.

It wasn't until season five that we learn there was a very good reason for building a runway there, a reason that could only be known of through time travel: a second plane would crash on the island and use the runway for its crash landing. No one goes back in time and changes things so that they built a runway: someone goes back in time and the change that makes them build a runway is what always happened, what everyone always remembered.

This is the same device that underlies the fantastic The Terminator and which its otherwise excellent sequel gave up on way too easily. The best thing about the first movie is that, ultimately, Skynet not only could never have succeeded, but that its efforts are in large part why John Connor was who he was -- as well as why Skynet was what it was. Though you can enjoy the movie not realizing that and many people did (how they missed the life cycle of that Polaroid I don't know), having it in makes time travel so much more interesting.

The Faraday Postulate, as a storytelling device, neatly ties up all the problems with time travel in storytelling, notably the big glaring one: if you can send someone back in time, why would you ever fail at anything when you can just keep going back to try one more time? Kyle Reese would have us believe the only reason Skynet didn't just keep sending a second robot (to prevent whatever stopped the first robot), or a million robots, or the same robot a million times, is that they smashed the time travel equipment ("Nobody else comes through."), and one can assume no one else ever invented more later. But the existence of the sequels assumes there was more time travel equipment later: so why didn't they just go back to one of the many points when Sarah was an inch from death in the first movie, and push that last inch, instead of starting in a whole new situation ten years later? That is the only sensible move for Skynet to send the T-1000 to, but it doesn't, mostly because it would confuse the audience too much. You can avoid this with arbitrary limitations on time travel (once you've gone to a point in time you can't go to it again... the time you can get to keeps moving forward too, so the story's timeline has to also correspond to experienced time... or Kyle's one-time time travel option, for instance), but these answers start out contrived and become insupportable the minute you need a sequel.

Using the Faraday Postulate makes story-writing a lot harder, though. It all has to be plotted out beforehand. Using it in a roleplaying game is even harder still, unless you're very careful, and use ignorance as a resource. (If you can't contradict anything you know happened, the key to keeping your freedom of action is not knowing anything you can avoid knowing.) I'd like to try running a time travel roleplaying game this way someday, but I think most players would prefer the more traditional elastic-time version of time travel, and to just turn a blind eye to the problems.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


Imagine the flavor of Grape Kool-Aid. Now think about grape-flavored candies, gums, etc. There's all one consistent flavor through all of these; it may vary slightly, as much as, say, cherry flavor varies through the same. But it's still one consistent flavor.

Now think of the flavor of grapes. The actual fruit. There are many varieties of grapes with many different flavors... and none of them has any similarity to the flavor discussed in the previous paragraph.

Sure, the Kool-Aid and candy flavors are never the same, not even close, but you can at least pick up some semblance of similarity. Apple doesn't taste like an apple, or like apple juice, but you can see how it could make you think of apples. Banana is usually more like sweet and slightly unctuous yellow, but there's a memory of banana in there. But grape seems to be emulating some specific mythical fruit that is no more like grapes than like any other fruit you could name.

What's weird here is not that it bears no resemblance to real grapes, so much as the fact that all these different "grape-flavored" flavors bear so much resemblance to one another. Somewhere in a lab one day someone made a flavoring that they decided to call grape, despite it having no similarity to any actual grape product, and for decades ever since, all grape-flavored products have followed that single vector.

I recently noticed that there's also a faux-vanilla flavor that multiple disparate products use that is entirely unlike the vanilla of actual vanilla beans and their extracts, or even like the vanilla of vanilla ice cream. It's not nearly as universal, though. I noticed it in a "vanilla-flavored" chewable lactase pill I take for my lactose intolerance, and while thinking of how it bore no resemblance to vanilla, it occurred to me it was similar to the vanilla flavoring in other chewable medicines and supplements; but more oddly, it's similar to the vanilla flavor of Ovaltine and malted milk powder.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Home theater appointment

We stopped in at Best Buy today and made an appointment for a Geek Squad member (I keep wanting to say Nerd Herd instead) to visit on Friday to talk about home theater options. Just talking to the "blue shirt" and looking over the options got me feeling a bit more confident about getting a good home theater system at an affordable price and being able to install it myself.

My concern right now is just matching up the various inputs. My components are:
  • A DISHNetwork 622 DVR, feeding to my TV on component video and audio
  • A Playstation 3, feeding to my TV on HDMI
  • A Toshiba HD-DVD player, feeding to my TV on HDMI via a 3-way HDMI switch
  • A D-Link DSM-520, feeding to my TV on component video and audio
  • An old VCR
  • A composite input sometimes used for older video games, etc.
Some of these devices are capable of digital audio of one format or another, and I haven't really looked into it because right now they're all feeding to my TV, then my TV outputs audio to the cheap, crappy surround-sound system I have. And along the way, whatever bogus information that system used to try to extract the Dolby 5.1 out of a single audio stream is lost, so it doesn't actually get separated at all.

I'm going to need to evaluate what my audio output options are so that I can present them to the Geek Squad to get the most out of the time available.

My hopes are, in order of descending priority:
  1. Great audio quality with movies.
  2. Also good quality for music.
  3. Being able to turn the TV off while the music is playing and having it still play.
  4. Not having to fiddle with changing input on two devices every time I change
Looking forward to going ahead with this. It'll be probably a big project to run wires for it (drilling down into the basement is challenging due to the radiant heating), probably a whole weekend. I'm thinking it'll likely happen next month.

Friday, March 13, 2009


I just finished watching Rashomon on my Archos during exercise times. I was mostly watching it because of its importance in the history of film and fiction, of which I was reminded because of my plans to write a play (for Lusternia) which uses the technique that Rashomon pioneered (showing the same story from multiple perspectives).

Films which are important primarily for their place in storytelling history are sometimes hard to appreciate. The advances they brought are now taken for granted, so all that still shows is the flaws and the things that don't suit modern tastes. Perhaps in overreaction to this, a lot of film fans tend to be heavily deprecatory of modern techniques and speak of the old classics as if nothing ever improves with the passage of time; it's very trendy to knock the effects, the quick edits, the faster pace, the world-weariness of modern films. There's some truth to some of those comments: some of the changes aren't always for the better, and some modern films trade a chance to be really great on a chance to be more in-the-moment entertaining. Then again, sometimes I want to be in-the-moment entertained, and there's room in film for all sorts. Each change has to be judged on its own merit for how it fits into each specific act of storytelling.

Rashomon in particular rankled me in the pacing, and while I'm not saying that the frenetic pace of today's movies is always better, or that long, slow pans have no place, I saw a lot of times in Rashomon where these long pauses didn't seem to be adding suspense, or establishing tone, or adding anything more than time.

Some of the acting also felt feeble, in particular the female role. Admittedly, she was several different roles in different versions of the story, but none of them felt well-acted, convincing, or compelling. In the actress's defense, most of her lines were "Masako blubbers." But even that she didn't seem to pull off.

The fight scenes were sometimes inexplicable. In different versions of the story, the bandit and samurai fight in different circumstances. Sometimes competently, but in the last telling, they were beyond slapstick. Half the fight was them standing ten paces apart repeatedly slipping on the forest floor's minimal leaf cover and falling on their faces. The other half was one of them scrambling for a dropped weapon (and then scrambling away when they got close to getting it) while the other one missed sure-thing chances to stab someone who was fallen and unable to dodge... over and over and over. I have to assume this is intentional, that it speaks either to how inaccurate that particular telling was, or how inaccurate the others were, but it just didn't seem to go anywhere to justify how long it went on.

On the other hand, the cinematography was fantastic. Quite often the simple act of camera framing caught me by surprise. Maybe it's not good that I noticed it so much, but I don't think so. Usually I would notice it because I'd think I was seeing one thing and then suddenly I was seeing something else. Generally speaking, the production was impeccable. (I'll have to take someone's word for the costuming being appropriate.)

The film's best strengths of course are its storytelling and in particular its inventive technique, though now familiar. That's why it's hard to give it the credit it's owed. When nothing like this had been done, doing this was alone justification for the film to have a place in the pantheon of great films. But once you take away the excitement of being exposed to the technique for the first time and the relevant revelation, what's left is a flawed but good film, but nothing spectactular. I'm better for having seen it, though I doubt it'll really help me with the play after all.

I did find myself amused at the idea of a spin-off, CSI: Rashomon. Wouldn't be too hard for modern forensics to get to the bottom of what really happened! (Though to be fair, I suppose it would have to be a Cold Case instead.)

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Extended Phenotype concluded

As promised, the first two thirds of the book was not nearly as compelling as the last few chapters, since it was mostly setting up the ground for the central argument and knocking aside the various misunderstandings and misapprehensions that would impede it. By time the final three chapters came, though, the argument being made, rather than seeming shockingly revolutionary and world-changing, actually felt more inevitable, inescapable, almost obvious. It doesn't take a moment's thought to realize that it wasn't any of those things; that, like many of the moments of brilliance in scientific history (even Darwin's insights) it's obvious in hindsight only. I don't mean to sound like I'm diminishing the book; in fact, it's a compliment that when we got to the idea it was just the end of an ineluctable progression of logic.

By its nature it's hard to sum up briefly in a way that doesn't suggest more misapprehensions than actual understanding. But this is an analogy I came up with that I think isn't too bad.

When you're calculating a spaceship's trajectory from the Earth to the Moon, you have to account for the gravity of the Earth, the Moon, and the Sun, but you generally don't need to think about anything else. Theoretically, it's true that the spaceship itself, Jupiter, Pluto, Proxima Centauri, the Andromeda Galaxy, and an electron in a particle of interstellar dust 11 billion light years away, all exert a gravitational force on the spaceship. That's a real, actual force, not a mere technicality: particles genuinely are affected by it and genuinely move accordingly. But you can ignore these things because of the inverse square law of gravitational propogation: the force drops off very very sharply with distance, far faster than it increases with mass. So while the Andromeda Galaxy masses billions of times more than does the Moon, the distance is so much greater that its effect is almost immeasurably tiny.

Every physicist, and even laypeople with a good scientific grounding, will know both that these gravitational effects are real, and that they can be ignored. And therefore, everyone knows that ignoring them is a convenient shortcut, not a truth. If you're a layperson, even a fairly well educated one, your thinking about the theory is likely to be polluted by the ubiquity of this shortcut; and you're probably likely to imagine that that tendency is endemic, and might also affect the professional physicists. (And it can, though it's far, far less likely to do so than the layperson typically imagines it to be.)

Now let's jump to genetics. Every student of genetics and evolution knows that Mendel's seminal analysis of pea plants, with a gene "for" being tall or short, are a vast oversimplification, but a meaningful one. Obviously, a single gene can't make a plant be tall: it takes all the genes just to make the plant grow in the first place, and it can't be tall if it doesn't grow. Many genes will affect growth, as will many environmental factors. Any given thing you observe about the plant can be seen to be at the center of a web of thousands of causes. But when you're trying to figure out genetics, it is still meaningful to say that this is a gene "for" height, because all other things being equal this gene will make the plant grow taller than its alternative (its "allele"). We can prove this, despite the impossibility of all other things being truly equal, using well-understood statistical methods, in which the "all other things" will even out in aggregate.

That a particular gene makes a plant taller than its allele is called that gene's phenotype (the physical expression of a gene). The game-changing revelation of Dawkins's book is that the phenotype does not have to stop at the edge of an organism's body, but extends out into the world. Like gravity (though with nowhere near the precision of gravity), phenotype diminishes with separation. And like gravity, this diminishment means that for many practical questions of biology and evolution and genetics, you can safely ignore the phenotype effects of far-removed genes. But those effects are there: they are real, and sometimes they're the only explanation for things that otherwise wouldn't make sense, that would seem anomalous.

To make the analogy complete (or as complete as it's going to get), though, you have to imagine that in the world of biogenetic evolution, everyone was essentially a layperson. In a real way, the science of evolutionary genetics is so much less advanced than physics, that the situation I described earlier (where laypeople are more likely to make mistakes in theoretical thinking due to their shortcuts) applies even to the best experts in the field. (Just as, for instance, Aristotle made similar mistakes in thinking about physics when that science was in its infancy.)

Much of the most important thinking about evolutionary genetics in the years since Darwin has been skewed by the idea that a phenotype ends at the borders of an organism's body, in much the same way that it has been skewed by the idea that genes serve organisms and not the other way around (the mistake Dawkins corrected in his earlier book). Dawkins is simply nudging the science along one step closer to leaving its infancy. That he's been able to make two such game-changing observations in a single career is pretty extraordinary. One could make the following analogy: Newton is to Einstein as Darwin is to Dawkins.

If you're curious about the actual extended phenotype itself (the ways that the phenotype extends beyond the body, and why the body's border is almost as arbitrary as the borders of the nucleus, the cell, or even the messenger RNA), I recommend reading the book!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

One of the deepest mysteries

How did cookies ever get invented?

I mean, I can certainly understand the invention of cookie dough. Bunch of good things that get a lot better put together in a particular combination. A perfect example of synergy as it applies to food.

But once you reach the cookie dough stage, my reaction is to say "yum" and be done with it. If people hadn't shown me that putting it into the oven can convert it from one yummy treat into a whole other yummy treat, I might never have thought of it. I'd be perfectly happy just eating it with a spoon.

It makes me wonder what other culinary discoveries there are as yet undiscovered. Maybe we should be broiling lasagna, or steaming peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, or putting french fries into the blender.

Sure, those seem unlikely, but after eating raw cookie dough, the idea that baking it is a good idea seems just as unlikely!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Document management software

While I've still had no luck finding the disc that came with that scanner that's hooked to my newly rebuilt server, after turning the house upside down, completely reorganizing my software-and-tech-books shelves, and Siobhan cleaning her desk, there's a sort of happy ending. Poking around Visioneer's website looking for a contact address, I chanced to look at the Accessories page for the scanner. To my surprise, one of the items was another copy of the original CD, with the bundled PaperPort software, for a price of $0.00. You'd think they could mention this and link to it on the Bundled Software page where all they say is "you can't have it"!

Naturally, it's not really $0.00 because there's $9.99 shipping, which on the face of it is quite silly. I had to confirm my ownership with a serial number entry, and presumably this is what makes them able to send me the disc without too much worry that I'm pirating the obsolete version of the PaperPort software. If that works, why couldn't they just let me download the same thing? It's not like the CD is copy-protected so I couldn't just rip it if I were so inclined. Presumably, the $9.99 includes some profit, not just cost recovery, because there's no other reason that makes sense.

Doubly frustrating because I not only have the disc somewhere (though I think mine was red), I have a complete installation of it on my hard drive and also on a full backup I can't use. Still, $10 is not too bad, so I've ordered the disc, and in a week or two my scanner should be back in business.

Monday, March 09, 2009

A Walkman-phone

Apparently Sony decided to build on their "Sony Walkman" brand name recognition by making their cell phones, like my new Walkman W350, feature the MP3-playing ability that is now built into every device more complex than a grain of rice, as a big deal feature instead of just an afterthought. Nearly all their promo shots of the phone show the MP3 player screen, and there's external buttons on the phone not for such niceties as voice dial or camera but for the "Walkman" feature.

Unfortunately, they didn't go so far as to ship the phone with enough memory to, you know, actually hold any music to play. That would be silly. More to the point, it would deprive them of a chance to push their MemoryStick format which they cling to despite the fact that everything else uses the SDcard series of formats for the same purposes. On the other hand, 8G holds an awful lot of music for a really low price.

There's also an FM radio built in which is unfortunately only usable if you buy the wired headset (since it uses it as an antenna) and really who still uses wired headsets? Kind of unfortunate to have to give up such a feature, but so it goes. There's even XM radio streaming over the data connection, but as I have neither a data plan or an XM subscription, I can't try that out.

As much as I'd like to grouse about this phone, though, I have to give them credit for doing the Walkman thing well. First, the controls are straightforward and the interface quite usable. It's child's play to listen to an album in album order, to make and shuffle a playlist, and to move from track to track. You don't even have to open the flip: a cunning bit of engineering lets the fake "buttons" on the flip work to press combinations of the underlying number-key buttons in ways that control the music. (The "play/pause" button is a bit too small, it's too easy to hit Up or Down while aiming for it, but otherwise, it's great.) There's even an album art display.

More importantly, the sound quality is great. On my A2DP Bluetooth headphones, which work perfectly with the usual integration features (controls on the headset, automatically switching between calls and music, etc.), the sound is perfect. At first, I had some skipping problems, but that turned out to be my computer trying to talk Bluetooth to the phone every two minutes interrupting things. I had to hack the registry to make it stop! (Advice: never let their software suite connect via Bluetooth to your phone unless you really really need to avoid the cable.) Once that was resolved, the connection is rock solid. My old phone would lose connection even if I had the phone in my left pocket instead of my right, but this one is perfect all the time.

Surprisingly, the sound quality just letting the phone itself play is really pretty good. Tiny devices always have tiny speakers which make tiny, tinny sound. And this is no hi-fi, but for a device this small it's really unexpectedly listenable. I would always prefer the headphones, but this morning I didn't have them handy while I was getting dressed, and a song was playing in my head and I wanted to play something to get it out, so I tapped Play and got dressed. And the music was actually almost boom-box quality. Amazing to get that from a cell phone about the same size as a post-it-note pad.

With the phone on a convenient belt-clip it'll make a great music player on my bike, once spring gets here. (And it can't come soon enough.)

Sunday, March 08, 2009

An unusually coherent dream

I remember my dreams very rarely, and most of the ones I do remember are inchoate series of unrelated images. Where most people talk about how weird their dreams are because they feature the usual unexpected plot twists, bizarre imagery, and inexplicable characters, mine are typically so incoherent it's impossible to even describe them. It's more like ten minutes of unrelated images lasting a few seconds each and having no connection to anything else. Of the few remaining, most of them are in some form or another house dreams.

A few nights ago I had a dream that was about as coherent as any I've ever had, and with only a little bit of house dream imagery in it. It even had, in places, a plot.

The dream started with Siobhan and I having arrived in Juneau, Alaska. (We used to live there, and had just been talking idly about the idea of visiting.) I'm not sure how we arrived, plane or boat, because the dream started with us being picked up by a former neighbor in his pickup truck. (In real life we never had a neighbor there we knew well enough to pick us up at the airport, so I don't know who this dream character was.) As he drove us from Mendenhall Valley towards downtown Juneau, he and I got to talking about woodsmanship and woodcutting, and my recent interest in it, and he suggested there was a stand of woods just up ahead that he'd been tending that he thought I'd like to see. So we pulled the truck to the side of the road, leaving Siobhan in the truck, and walked up the road a bit to look. He had a golden retriever with him (who wasn't in the truck, so far as I recall, it only appeared for this scene).

It was late afternoon by this point, but as we neared the stand of woods in question, the sun set rather quickly, and we were very quickly in a dark gloom that made it impossible to see very far. We commented how it's a good thing we hadn't made it into the woods we were walking to see because it would be dangerous to try to find our way back out of them in this dark. Even walking back up the road was tricky, but fortunately I had a keychain LED flashlight which gave just enough light to lead us back to the truck. (I don't actually have one of those, never have.)

On arriving back at the truck we continued into town, where for some reason it was back to being mid-afternoon. There followed a stretch of dream I don't really remember, in which Siobhan and I both wandered around downtown Juneau looking at the streets and shops, which for some reason we did separately. (No idea why, we virtually never split up like that.) I remember that I managed to get lost somehow but found my way back. The city was bigger, with smaller and more winding streets, than it really has.

We were back in the hotel room, which had a wonderful picture window overlooking Gastineau Channel, with the southern edge of Douglas Island framed nicely, and a wharf that looked like a more picturesque version of Merchant's Wharf Mall visible off to the right. (In fact, there's no point in Juneau that would give that view, but you could composite one from several different views all within downtown Juneau. I rarely Photoshop that lucidly in my dreams.) There happened to be an incredibly gorgeous sunset, with fiery red clouds piled in a vaguely triangular shape against the backdrop of southern Douglas Island, perfectly framed in the picture window, and I commented on how picturesque it was.

Then I saw our camera and grabbed it to take a picture, but Siobhan said that I'd never manage to capture the image as we were seeing it because the lighting wasn't right to make the picture work. I said something like, "no, this camera has a setting specifically for sunsets," but after fiddling with the camera a few minutes, I was no closer to finding that setting in the menus. Oddly, I fell asleep while doing this. But I didn't actually dream being asleep; it was more like, I was fiddling with the camera, then suddenly it was later (the sunset had concluded) and I was waking up slumped on the desk in the hotel room with the camera pressed against my face, realizing I must have dozed off, and upset for missing the chance to take the picture.

It was at this point that we had to leave to go to the rooms where we'd be sleeping (I'm not sure what the room we were in was, I guess some kind of "living room" for a hotel suite). A friend of mine from high school, Pete, came to lead me to my room, which turned out to be his old room back in his house on Long Island. Or at least it was evidently so from its shape, size, and window placement. The walls, which had formerly been bold red and blue with a huge Spiderman mural from when Pete was a kid, had been recently painted antiseptic white, and the carpet was in the process of being replaced (there were still piles of contractor tools), and there was no furniture. Pete apologized about that and left.

Before settling to sleep on the half-installed carpet, I went looking for the bathroom, but the building wasn't quite like Pete's house really was; there wasn't a single hall, but the rooms were all a warren of connections to one another. It didn't look like a hotel, but more like the rooms of Pete's house on Long Island, rearranged. Siobhan was staying in a room that looked like Pete's parent's room, but bigger, with nicer furnishings, but still covered in clutter and mess. It apparently had its own suite with its own private bathroom (Pete's parents' room never had that), but I somehow couldn't find that bathroom in all the clutter (though I knew it was there), so I kept wandering.

Soon I found my way into the hotel lobby, which was odd because while it mostly looked like a hotel lobby, the check-in desk looked like the check-in desk at an airport, and beyond it was the row seating at an airport gate. And on one side the hotel was entirely open to the mall-like airport concourse. It turns out the hotel was built into the gate at the airport where the Swiss airline came in, and it was a Swiss hotel. This was for the convenience of Swiss travellers, who could get off the plane and immediately check into their rooms since it was all in one place.

Meanwhile, in the hotel lobby part of the hotel lobby, with wingback chairs around a fireplace, there was Siobhan sitting next to Jack Bauer, both of them talking to some of the hotel staff, a plain-looking blonde-haired woman whose uniform would look equally at home in a hotel or as a stewardess, and whose English was very poor. Though I knew it was Jack Bauer (and not, say, Keifer Sutherland), he was clearly undercover, as he introduced himself to the woman as Jack Bauer, a carpet salesman from California, on a business trip. He actually winked at me as he did so, so I played along, sitting down in the chair opposite him from Siobhan, and made some extremely clumsy comment about how his travel from California was. The hotel staff/stewardess didn't notice how awkward all this undercover posturing was, because her English was so poor she was barely following any of this.

Finding no bathroom to be had in the lobby, I got up and went out into the airport concourse. Right across the hall from the hotel/gate was the Swiss Embassy, also there for the convenience of Swiss travelers. I went wandering around in it, but everything there was labelled only in Swiss, or in some of those inscrutable icons that you see sometimes where they want to sell a product or service internationally without a jillion translations, but the result is something that everyone fails to understand about equally. I found an icon that I thought might mean restroom on one of the doors and tried to head there, but was stopped by Embassy staff. I'm not sure how I knew they were stopping me because they spoke no English, but while I couldn't tell what they were saying or make them understand me, I knew for sure they were stopping me.

That's about when I woke up from having to go to the bathroom badly enough.

A few elements of the dream I can relate to other things. We had been talking about visiting Juneau; I had recently struggled with getting the lighting right with that camera to take a picture of Siobhan; and I suppose I must have seen a glimpse of Jack Bauer in a commercial at one point or another. The bit wandering around in the familiar-but-unfamiliar hotel with rooms from Pete's house obviously has some house-dream similarity, but it was only a tiny element, not the dream's dominant theme. The rest of it, I have no idea where it came from. The idea of a Swiss hotel/airport-gate/embassy in particular seems very odd, and it's not like the Swiss were on my mind, at all.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

90% done, and stuck

I did, in fact, have to reinstall Windows, go through the umpteen cycles of installing patches and service packs, and then reinstall all my software one piece at a time, despite having a full backup made a day earlier. Which is very frustrating. Windows is so dumb about some things.

Fortunately since this is just a server, there wasn't as much to reinstall as on most things. Once Windows was set up, I only had a few hours of services and configuration stuff to fiddle with, to get remote access (had to use VNC since XP Home doesn't serve as an RDP server), file shares, printer sharing, security, virus protection, and basic utilities working. After that, there are three major applications.

HomeSeer: This turned out to be a lot harder than it should have been. The existing files were not willing to run, but new installs also kept refusing to work with my existing configuration and data. It turned out I had to override the folder name it installed into to use the exact same folder name of my old install, then copy in only selected files and folders, which I had to pick out from hundreds of others, and which weren't obvious selections at all. Plus reinstall one USB device driver that the install claimed it had installed. But after a few hours, HomeSeer was back to where it was.

TVersity: The existing install wouldn't work here either, but reinstalling it was no great hardship as there's not a lot of configuration or data to rebuild. It did remember all of my library shares, but unfortunately, I was forced to change the media drive's drive letter so none of them worked. They were easily rebuild and rescanned, though. Took about 15 minutes of my time, and a few hours of library rebuilding, for it to be back to status quo.

PaperPort: My scanner is hooked to the server just because it's easier for me to operate remotely via VNC/RDP than to kick Siobhan off her computer. Unfortunately, I can't for the life of me find the CD that came with it, which had not just the drivers (I have those) but also the bundled scanner, document manager, OCR, and photo editor software. Naturally you can't download that either! (And the current version of the same thing costs more than the scanner originally cost me.) I've actually ended up reorganizing my entire software shelf (and Siobhan cleaned her desk!) but it hasn't turned up. If I can't find that, the scanner becomes a brick. This is very frustrating because I can see the disc in my mind's eye but I can't find it. There just aren't that many places I keep things like that! What's even more frustrating is that all the files I need are on my hard drive and/or backup, but I have no way to figure out which ones they are and get them installed to the satisfaction of the software.

Tomorrow, despite there being more technology news to report, I think I'll change the subject for a day just to break up the tedium.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Another Roomba passed

The Roomba Discovery stripped its gears today, and there's no coming back from that. It'll still run around and picks up a little bit, but not much; the vacuum can't do nearly enough without the brushes working. So mostly it just moves dirt around now, and I had to sweep manually, with a broom. How old-fashioned!

iRobot still has an upgrade plan worth 30% off, so I put in an order for a replacement Roomba. It's the next generation, the Roomba 530, which includes a number of improvements in engineering. Longer battery life, better edge and corner cleaning, resistance to tangling in cords, and a longer run time. That also means my existing accessories (notably, batteries and chargers) are obsolete. I'll probably sell them on eBay. But given that each generation of Roomba is lasting me as long as it is, I guess I can't complain too much. Especially with that nice upgrade discount.

Still, enough with all the bad luck with technology the last few days. It's like my GM thinks my player is bored and keeps coming up with egregious, unwanted plot complications. Enough already!

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Partial success, partial catastrophe

The new CPU arrived from NewEgg. It, and the motherboard and memory pulled from Siobhan's computer, into the server case, worked fine. There was a brief period I thought the video was screwed up, but it turns out it's the monitor I was using for testing that's screwed up(!).

However, it wouldn't boot into Windows; at the moment when Windows would clear the "Windows XP" screen with the progress bar, and into a blue background, the monitor would go to "signal out of range". Oddly, this happened even booting into Safe Mode. Booting into "Enable VGA" would let it come up only to an error message saying I couldn't log in because key Windows components were missing.

I dug up my Windows XP disc but was unable to figure out how to start an automated recovery, only the bare recovery console which is no help when Windows didn't tell me which components were missing. Eventually I did a complete Windows reinstall, then added in NT Backup so I could restore my latest full backup (including system state). That ran overnight.

As of this morning, when I only had a few minutes to look at it, Windows would boot up to the same point (where the background goes blue) and then reboot. Same thing in Safe Mode. The boot menu isn't offering me "Enable VGA" as an option now.

I also noticed that Windows didn't offer me the option of installing Windows onto the secondary drive. The list of drives it offered was the C: drive (where Windows lived before) and the D: drive (my external USB backup drive), but not the E: drive (the 250G "media library" drive where all my music, video, etc. live). I may have to check BIOS to see if it sees that drive, and/or open the box up and see if a cable got loose on that drive. Even if it did, though, that shouldn't be responsible for any problems in Windows since that drive was always only a data drive, not a system drive.

I'll work on it more tonight or tomorrow, but I think I'm going to have to do a complete reinstall of Windows, and all the software that ran on it. Just wonderful. Like I've got nothing else to do with my time.