Thursday, April 30, 2009

The drive home

Whenever we go on a vacation, the drive out doesn't seem terribly long, but the drive home always feels a lot longer. Usually with travel it's the other way around -- the familiarity of the return trip makes it seem to go quicker. But with vacations at the ends of long drives, I find myself itching to get home and wishing we could just be there already. This seems paradoxical; shouldn't I be eager to get to the vacation, and dread the return?

The trip out is when I'm winding down and switching from my usual "what do I have to do next?" mode of thinking, which lasted right up to departure since getting ready to go is itself a bunch of to-do items (packing, securing the house, etc.). But on the way back, I'm transitioning back into that mode of thinking. I've gone through the transition already in the process of packing and loading the car, and now I'm thinking about the things I'll have to do when I get home. The unpacking, the stuff that piled up while I was gone, and the stuff that I had to do anyway but that just got put off. In my mind I'm already back, the trip is over and I have things to do, and I just want to get started. Sitting idle because I can't start on them is just frustrating.

I watch the highway signs go by and keep counting how long until we're home, wishing that somehow it'll turn out I miscalculated and we'll actually be home earlier than I thought. It's not because I wish the vacation was shorter, far from it; it's just that I wish it had a more instantaneous all-at-once end. Maybe that wouldn't actually be good, maybe that semi-idle buffer time is helping me, but while it's happening I just wish it were done.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009


In addition to the relaxing, the shopping, the visiting interesting destinations, and the dining, this mini-vacation has been a good chance for me to do some writing. I finished a play I'd been working on for Lusternia, using the Rashomon technique. I had written only one of the four scenes before we left, though plotting the story was the harder part anyway. I'm pretty happy with how it came out; more than with most of my writings, it went in directions I wasn't expecting, with some of the things I'd written earlier turning out, to my surprise, to have been significant later.

My next writing project was to develop the rules and spell lists for a Spell Law style profession called Tinkerer, which one of my players wants to play in Uncreated. The Tinkerer would be a character who makes clockwork devices, and I chose to make it a spell-using profession so I could use the mechanics of spell lists as a way to spell out what it could and couldn't do. I hadn't gotten much farther than that, and a few notes about what the spell lists could contain, when I started on it the last few days.

The spell list approach turned out very effective and the whole thing is now done in its first draft -- complete, but in bad need of playtesting, since there are a lot of numbers that I might need to tweak, to ensure tinkerers aren't over or under powered. The rules are pretty simple, and the spell lists are nicely modular with individual pieces that are simple in themselves. But in the combinations of how it all fits together, it should get pretty interesting.

There are six spell lists: Gears, Pistons, Levers, Springs, Switches, and Cogs. Each one involves building different parts of a construct, so you combine them to bulid a fully functional construct. Gears builds the base of the construct, the body or torso, and also includes more general-purpose spells for manipulating materials and devices. Pistons adds ways the construct can move itself around, like wheels, wings, climbing gear, or teleportation; Levers adds attacks, like claws, crossbows, and energy attacks; and Springs adds defenses like armor and dodging, along with self-repair capabilities. Switches gives the construct senses and communication, including ways for it to relay those senses to the tinkerer or a remote control, and for the same to be used to control the construct. Cogs give the construct decision-making ability and ways to react to events and stimuli; it's not quite computer programming but there's certainly some scripting-like ideas in it.

I am sure that some of the numbers will need tweaking. Maybe you need to be able to get more or less Size or Energy, or have more or fewer commands in your Cogs, or the spells need to come at higher or lower levels. But the concept itself, I'm very pleased with, and excited about. I need to see if there's any broader arena in which I should publish these ideas. This might be a great addition to a Rolemaster Companion, for instance, if they are still publishing those.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Retail clusters

Whenever we travel there are certain kinds of businesses that we see too many of. Almost anywhere we go, it seems surprising how thick the pizzerias are, for instance, but lately Barre has almost caught up with the mean pizzeria density of the rest of New England, so that's not as surprising. And the prevalence of quaint shops full of things you would never buy or even look at other than on vacation is never a surprise. (For instance, is there anywhere you can go on vacation that doesn't have a small shop full of Irish and Scottish things?) If you're on the coast, of course there'll be lots of seafood restaurants and marine supply shops. And so on.

But there's also usually something else that isn't so readily explicable. Here on the Connecticut coast, there are two. First, there are a distressingly large number of pet shops and pet grooming centers. I mean, in the few miles of Old Saybrook, there are at least four. Pampered pets indeed. Second, there are Dunkin Donuts every mile or so. It's like the old joke about Starbucks, only there are not many Starbucks here, but it's almost so dense that you can see one Dunkin Donuts from the next Dunkin Donuts. I even saw a Tim Horton's and wondered how they compete with the huge supply of Dunkin.

I was born and raised on Long Island so I'm no stranger to Dunkin Donuts, but really, this seems excessive, and hard to explain.

Monday, April 27, 2009

One should have flown over

I'm typing on my Eee in the Parthenon Diner in Old Saybrook, CT. No, this isn't a tweet-substitute, I'm just delighted at how well my Eee is working, and how prevalent free WiFi is getting.

The Parthenon is just what you expect from a diner, and that's a good thing. Portion sizes are a bit out of control, but the food is solid, nothing exceptional but reliable.

Last night's dinner, however, was a fiasco. Somehow we got our Mexican restaurants mixed up and went to the worst Mexican food ever. The cheese enchilada had muenster cheese on the inside and not-quite-melted American cheese on the outside. The guacamole was from a can. The chicken taco had chicken in it... not shredded, mind you, just a huge hunk of flavorless chicken.

I've been in a lot of Mexican restaurants that made a big deal of their margarita and tequila options, but I've never been in one where it seemed almost everyone else was availing themselves heavily of those options. Even on a Sunday night. The women were overdressed for the occasion -- saw one very attractive woman in a sapphire blue evening gown, with a guy in cut-off jeans and a shirt spotted with engine grease. The place had a piano player, but the ambiance was every narrow cluttered Mexican restaurant you've ever been in. What a jumble.

I never got to ask why it was called the Cuckoo's Nest, especially considering cuckoos don't make nests.

Sunday, April 26, 2009


I'm typing this on my Eee and pretty soon I'll be doing final packing and heading out. When I set up the Eee, I installed Firefox but never installed Opera, for one reason: Firefox's support for Delicious bookmarks is fantastic while Opera's is limited to a "bookmark this site" button on the toolbar and the option to go to the Delicious site to run links from there. (Which is enough sometimes.) But since the Eee is a secondary computer, just using Delicious makes sense; and since Firefox handles Delicious so nicely, I thought I'd give it a try.

Well, I am so very much liking how Delicious replaces my bookmarks menu in Firefox that I've been giving thought to the idea of switching over from Opera to Firefox. But I would have to find ways to address the many things that Firefox doesn't do as well as Opera. With help from a friend, I've gotten a few plug-ins that go part of the way. Mouse Gestures Redox does a pretty good job of doing mouse gestures. The Delicious plugin doesn't exactly mirror Opera Sessions, but for my purposes it does what I needed from them. Tab Mix Plus adds a lot of missing features, and some of them are such a perfect echo of Opera's settings that I conclude the authors must have used Opera. A page zoom plugin also looks like it was written by an Opera fan. And a few additions to the search engine pulldown round out the tools.

However, I am still finding a few limitations very annoying. They're the kind of things that if you never had them you probably won't miss them but once you had them you wonder how you lived without them.

One of them is a setting in Opera that said to never reuse tabs. Say I've got this blog editing window open and I want to go find a picture to insert into it, so I go to the Bookmarks menu to grab a page that has some good pictures, or use the search engine box to search for an appropriate image. In Opera, it would sensibly open the new link or search results in a new tab. In Firefox, no matter how many options pages I go to to tell it to open things in new tabs, it will replace the tab I'm in, possibly losing what I was typing in the process. (After writing this paragraph, I still very nearly did that very thing.) What is one action in my mind becomes multiple steps and something that I have to remember to do, with possibly bad consequences if I forget. If you've always done it that way you probably think it's pretty crazy to even grump about it, but once you've done it as one step, you would wonder why anyone ever designed a browse to work any other way. This one is going to be very hard to get used to.

(Ironically, Firefox can handle extra links as new tabs the sensible way automatically when they come from external applications, at least with Tab Mix Plus. Obviously if you click on a URL in an email, you don't want it to replace what you were doing in Firefox. If that's so obvious, why isn't it obvious you might feel the same from inside Firefox too?)

I'm also very disappointed in how Firefox refuses to memorize passwords on some sites, and nothing I can do makes it change its mind. On some sites it won't even memorize the username. There's probably a plug-in that will supplement the built-in password memorization, but probably that'll mean I have passwords in two different places, which is silly. More research is required.

Firefox's ability to block images is also pretty poor. I can only block every image from an entire site, at least when I right-click on images. Maybe there's something somewhere else that lets me block more selectively, or some add-on, but it seems clunky and limited. Opera's content blocking had an awkward interface (you didn't just right-click and choose an option, you had to go into a "block content mode" to block and unblock) but it sure was nicely functional.

During the next few days I'll be using Firefox exclusively on the Eee and I will no doubt be making a list of other things it does poorly. Add-ons are the only hope to fix it. Add-ons are a blessing and a curse: they allow Firefox to be infinitely more customizable and extensible than other browsers, but at the cost of cutting into its reliability, its stability, and the simplicity of use -- if you have to start thinking about whether your add-ons are compatible with one another and with the latest version of Firefox, it's something you wouldn't have had to think about at all in a browser like Opera where all that functionality is built in and tightly integrated. So my goal will be to find the smallest number of add-ons that make Firefox able to do everything I feel I need. If I can do that to my satisfaction, Opera may be being retired.

Kind of silly that Delicious is what made me finally tip that balance.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Vacation time

Work has been remarkably difficult and stressful now, with a lot of time pressure, as we near the culmination of a more-than-two-year project of huge scale. We now have a deadline to which we're committed, so the time pressure is an order of magnitude more. This project has had lots of major delays, most of them due to the contractor jerking us around.

We've got a short vacation starting tomorrow, just three nights in Connecticut, nothing extraordinary. It's not exactly a tourist hot-spot, just a cheap motel and a few things to visit like a tour of a submarine, a visit to a park, maybe some shopping. The important thing is just a chance to get away and relax. And boy, do I need it.

I'll have my Eee with me and I will succumb to the temptation to check my work email once in a while. But the real trick will be deciding whether to come back to work on Thursday, or take the other two days of the week to continue to relax. On the one hand, I might be still feeling strained, and I don't want to deprive myself of the time off I need. On the other hand, stuff's got to get done, and if I put off going back, I'll just be coming back to even more pressure. We'll see how I feel Wednesday night.

Having my Eee also means I might blog a bit while I'm out, and I might not. We'll see how it goes. So don't count on more blog posts the next few days, but don't be surprised if they do show up.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Kryptonite combination bike lock

I bought a key-based bike lock, but after I was riding a few months, an odd thing happened: I came upon a combination bike lock from Kryptonite which someone had left behind, unlocked, on a guardrail. I made some attempt to find the original owner but unsurprisingly there was no way to do so, so I kept it. I like the combo lock better than a key because I don't want to have to carry the key while I'm biking: things in my pocket can get uncomfortable. And it's a more solid lock anyway (not exactly the one pictured but close).

When I put my bike away for the year when the snow started to fly last November, I didn't think to write down the combination anywhere. And since I didn't buy the cable myself, I never registered it with Kryptonite. So getting my bike out this year, I saw it, and... can't for the life of me remember the combination. Argh.

While watching TV and doing other things, I held the cable in my hands with a gentle pressure and ticked my way through combinations... all 10,000 of them, about two a second. But no luck. The tumblers are finicky; even when you're on the right combination it might need a little shimmying to get it out. I couldn't do the shimmy on every one of the 10,000 combinations at two a second, so I no doubt went right past the right combination and kept going.

It seems like there must be a way to figure out the combination, given adequate time and access to tools, but I can't think of it. Short of an X-ray machine or sonogram, that is, and even if that would work I don't know anyone who has access to one. I tried to listen to the tumblers as they clicked to see if I could hear them falling into place, but no such luck. And there's just nothing to feel in this design, at least not one tumbler at a time. I'm a clever lad, how come I can't think of anything?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Blood donation rules

According to the Red Cross, 43,000 pints of blood are used each day. That means 15,695,000 pints of blood are donated per year. Actually a lot more than that, since many donated pints are used only for research or don't get used. But it's a fair estimate to use that number as the number of pints of blood that get donated by the general public in a year.

The same source says that "one pint of blood can save up to three lives," but there's no statistics about how many lives are saved per any quantity of blood donations. Many patients require multiple pints and not all of them live. And it's impossible to say whether a pint of blood saved a life because a life is saved by a number of things: the actions of doctors and nurses and emergency crews of all sorts, the presence of all kinds of equipment and supplies, and many more causes too varied to count and too interrelated to isolate. Still, it's fair to say that out of every hundred pints donated, there must be a few lives saved that would not have been if those pints hadn't been donated. Probably a lot more, but I'm being excessively conservative.

Current federal regulations prevent the donation of blood by any male who has ever had sexual contact with another male since 1977, even if it was one time decades ago and the person has been repeatedly demonstrated to be free of any resulting HIV or other infection. This even includes those whose sexual contact was non-consensual. While the estimate that 10% of the population is gay is widely accepted (though still debated), I can find no reliable estimate of what percentage of the male population is bisexual enough to have experimented at least once. Let's be conservative again and estimate that 15% of the male population is rendered ineligible forever by this rule, regardless of whether they actually have any real risk of having HIV or any other contraindication for blood donation.

Also, a woman who's had sex with a man in the previous category is ineligible for a year. Not a year from the act, but a year from the day she first admitted that act to the Red Cross, which is inexplicable. But let's ignore that. I think we can even ignore this factor entirely.

There's no statistics available which provide any reason to think there's any correlation between the 15% ineligible due to this rule, and a higher or lower likelihood of going to blood drives, and I think it's reasonable to assume that this 15% would be about as likely as the rest of the population to do so, in aggregate. (About 10% of eligible people donate.) Also note that while people can be ineligible for many other reasons (such as foreign travel), there's no particular reason for that to be more or less prevalent in the 15% affected by this rule than the other 85%.

So if 15,695,000 pints were donated by the 85% who could, it follows that about 18,464,705 would have been donated if not for that rule. Thus, 2,769,705 pints are being discarded every year because of that rule. Thus, at least tens of thousand lives are being lost every year because of that rule.

Are other lives being saved because of it? Perhaps. HIV testing on blood samples is vastly, vastly more accurate (and cheaper) than it was in the early 80s when this rule was put into place, but it's probable that somewhere in that almost-three-million pints, there might be a tiny increase in the number of infected pints that slip through. I have no statistics for this, but my gut feeling says that the increase would be negligible. A bigger factor is probably public confidence: the idea that somewhere in the blood supply there's a pint that carries something deadly that you could get in the ER makes people avoid emergency care, even if the odds are so tiny and the dangers of not going to the ER are vastly bigger. And people could even imagine that there's a chance of getting HIV by donating blood, and however unfounded that fear is, if it scares off a few million people, it could cost more pints than it saves. But a quarter-century after the panic of the HIV scare, would that really scare off more donors or patients than it would save?

I don't have any empirical evidence for any of this, but I think it's vastly likely that modernizing those rules about blood donation could save thousands of lives, maybe a lot more. The rules are simply an artifact of a time when HIV was new, and a few highly-publicized cases of it being taken insufficiently seriously by the government and the Red Cross eroded confidence, and in the panic very strict rules were put into place, and after 25 years of improvements in screening technologies and of understanding, the rules have not been substantially revised. And many thousands of people are dying as a result. It's time to look at the numbers, research the factors which I had to estimate, and then make the changes necessary.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Roleplaying with kids

In yesterday's post I mentioned there was another story worth telling about our roleplaying group back in Juneau, and here it is. We were in our early 20s and living like adults, with jobs and an apartment and all of that -- I was new to this life, literally a month or two out of moving away from home, but it wasn't a hard transition because I'd been living pretty self-sufficiently in my mom's house for years, and frankly, I was better at finances and organization than she was.

One thing that was new, though, was needing to form a roleplaying group. All my previous roleplaying was either with already-existing groups into which I was brought, or with friends I already knew. Apart from Siobhan I didn't know anyone in Juneau. So we went the old-fashioned route of putting up posters at comic book shops.

One of the first contacts we got was from a kid around 10 or 11, named Noah. He asked about what games we played, sounded excited about it, and seemed like he'd like the kinds of games we'd like, so we invited him to join us. It never even occurred to me that his age was a consideration, until his dad got on the phone and asked us to explain what this roleplaying thing was all about, and then asked to come along. Even then, it didn't quite occur to me that he was really wanting to make sure we didn't have some kind of evil plans for his kid. The idea simply had never crossed my mind, that someone might be doing that, or that I had to think about making sure that people didn't think that we were some kind of predators.

Actually, when I did realize, the whole situation suddenly became uncomfortable. So here I am, an early-20s male with no particular ties to the community, soliciting 11-year-old boys to come to his apartment. In hindsight, why that might have seemed suspect was startlingly obvious, and I felt stupid for not having realized that I should have been a lot more reassuring. Heck, that's even before I knew of one of the other senses in which the word "roleplaying" was used by certain persons.

So Noah's father came, and being very interested in what we were doing, asked if he could also join in, just the one time, just to see what it was all about. Noah also brought a couple of his friends (one of whom is the fellow I wrote about yesterday) who also joined in. We played the caravan adventure that was published in GURPS 3rd Edition. And we all had a smashing good time. What surprised me, and I think also surprised Noah's father, is that he had enough fun that he got into roleplaying; he'd only intended to come along one or two times, to make sure we were all on the level and could be trusted with his son, but he had so much fun he joined the group and came every week. (At least until the family moved away about a year later.)

If I ever put the word out for roleplayers again (as we did when we moved to Vermont) and got an expression of interest from someone of that age (which we didn't that time), I am afraid I'd be so self-conscious and so eager to be reassuring that I might actually come off as more creepy than I did in my completely oblivious (or egalitarian?) state, all those years ago. But for what it's worth, those kids were great roleplayers: imaginative, fearless, inventive, and supremely enthusiastic. They were the backbone of our group for years. And I wonder if Noah's dad ever got back into roleplaying after they moved. That would be really cool if he kept at it.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Googling yourself

If you Google yourself, what do you find? Way back before Google even existed, when Alta Vista was displacing Yahoo as the best place to start your searching, when I searched on myself 95% of the hits were me, because of all my family, I was the first to start making an Internet presence. I was active in Usenet, the editor of a few FAQs, I had published software for several platforms as freeware, I had roleplaying games online back when a web-published RPG was a new idea, and many other presences.

Over the years, others who share my last name have crept in, including a few semi-famous ones -- a congressman in one case, a Hollywood scriptwriter with some Trek episodes to his name in another, and a manufacturer of some kind of health or skin care product, as well as a number of smaller ones. If you search on just my last name, I no longer even appear on the first page of hits, where just a few years ago, I had more than half of it. But include my first name, and the resulting hits are about half me, including the first few hits. Throw in my middle initial, which I've always included in my name since junior high, and it winnows down quickly -- about the only other hit I saw in a recent search was an obituary for someone born in 1932 with my name. (Or, I suppose, I was born with his name.) But the vast majority of hits are still about me.

Of course, Siobhan's even easier, as she has my rare last name plus her exceedingly unusual first name. She might be the only one with that combination of names on the whole Internet, still.

In the past there've been a few times I wanted to find someone I once knew, but if you know nothing about the person's current life situation, you have little to go on but their name and maybe a guess about what career they were likely to end up in (which is very often inaccurate), or what state they might live in (ditto). So it all depends on how unique the name is. Someone named Adam Gross, or David Levine, no hope of finding them unless one of the hits happens to be screamingly obvious, and that's very unlikely. But someone named Abernathy Devereaux means good odds of finding them, especially if it's an Abernathy Devereaux who you know would be likely to have a strong Internet presence.

When attempts to find someone fail, about all I can do is hope that they think to find me, since I'm a lot more findable than them. That's just what happened a few days ago.

Back in Juneau, Alaska, Siobhan and I set out to form a roleplaying game group by putting up posters in the usual haunts. When the first few inquiries we got were from kids still in junior high, we didn't think much about it -- we'd started only a few years later than that ourselves. A few of them stayed in our group, actually became its backbone, all through the time we lived in Alaska. About when we were thinking of moving away is when they were reaching that age when girls, and sports, and the other occupations of teen life, were pulling them away from the group. After we left, we really had no way to keep in contact with them. We had a visit from one of them quite a few years later, at a time when he and a girlfriend were wandering the country on the bus paying their way with spare change, but soon after that, we lost touch with him too.

Sunday night I got a myspace friends request that I very nearly dropped into the spam as so many others from bizarre names that are probably spam. But at the last moment a name caught my eye. It was a very ordinary name, but familiar. I decided to go check it out and sure enough, it was that kid, now very firmly an adult (!) but still recognizable in his photo. We'd tried to find him and the other kid that stayed in our group, but both had very common names and it got us nowhere. (There was a third with a more unique first name but we couldn't remember his last name; he'd only been with us a short time before his family moved away. More about them tomorrow.) But he'd thought to try to find us, and we turn out to be very easy to find. So we're back in touch with him through his myspace page, even spent a couple of hours on the phone with him, getting adjusted to the idea that he's now just as much of an adult as we are -- a ten year gap that used to be a world of difference is suddenly much less important.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Finding old friends

I thought I had already blogged about a remarkable bit of coincidence that happened last autumn, but I was searching for it so I could refer to it in the post I intended to make today, and it's not there. So I guess today's topic will be tomorrow's, and thus, I'm now starting a three-day series of sorts.

When Siobhan and I lived in Juneau, Alaska, we did some backstage work for the community theatre company Theatre In The Rough. Siobhan was stage manager and usually did sound, while I was brought in to do lights and a bit of help on the production of posters and the like. We were involved in five shows over two seasons, including two Shakespeare, two children's theatre, and one other. (We still have the posters for them up on our wall.) When we moved to Vermont we looked to get into community theatre but we were disappointed to find nothing even close to comparable in artistic value (as we saw it); one abortive attempt to work on a production of 1776 was the beginning and end of it. Frankly, there might be theatre around here we'd want to be involved in, but there's too much else in our lives already and theatre is a huge time-consumer, so we haven't pushed it.

But we still appreciate the theatre and have gone to see productions a number of times. A few years ago, a long weekend getaway in the Berkshires included a visit to Shakespeare & Company which impressed us greatly, so when we learned at least year's Saratoga Arts Fest that their production of Hamlet (my favorite by far of Shakespeare's plays, but oddly enough, one I'd never seen performed on stage) was going on the road, and that their first performance would be in Rutland, we absolutely had to go.

While waiting for the show to start, we read through the program. The actor playing Horatio mentioned in his paragraph working in theatre in Juneau, and we wondered if we had met him, and were working through the names, "what was the name of the guy who played so-and-so..." and finally concluded, could that be the guy who played-- and then the play started, and out came Jake, and we both said, holy cow, that's Jake!

Jake's very first time acting was in the Theatre in the Rough production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which was the first Shakespeare play I'd ever worked on, and only the second play I'd been involved with. He was still in high school at the time. We still have a (pretty poor) videotape of that performance. After we moved away he was just one of many people we expected never to see or hear from again. Skip ahead fifteen years, and apparently, he'd stayed in theatre, and we happened to be at his very first performance ever with Shakespeare & Company, right up in the third row.

During the intermission we tried to get someone to let us say hi, see if he remembered us, but all the stage manager would do is let us send a note back he could see after the show. Understandable; the show must go on, after all. After the show we hung about a bit and were just about giving up when he came out, astounded to see us, of the coincidence that at his second "debut" he should run into people who were involved in his first debut, three thousand miles away. He only had a few minutes before he had to get on the bus but we exchanged myspace contact information and got caught up over the next few days.

Incidentally, the performance of Hamlet was really good. It must be hard for a director to approach something like Hamlet and try to find something new to do while still preserving the artistic integrity of Shakespeare's creation. Some of the changes and the staging weren't what I would have done, but none of it detracted from the production, and some of it cast some interesting new light on the play and the words.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Bicycle season

My efforts to tune up our bicycles worked out well. The first half of the owner's manual is pretty awful with lots of directions that are unclear because the manual applies to a half-dozen different models and it's nearly impossible to figure out which directions to use. However, the second half, which covers maintenance, is a lot clearer. There's still sections for different styles of bike, and a few places where directions refer to things without defining them or telling which of the adjustment screws they mean. But with a little patience and some experimentation it's possible to figure most of it out. And while I didn't figure out everything about the brakes (turns out they're "V-Brakes", as pictured here), I figured out enough to give them the adjustments they needed.

On the other hand, my plans to try to get the spider out of my TV have dead-ended. Unsurprisingly the manual doesn't address anything even remotely similar to the situation, and an examination of the TV revealed no obvious methods of proceeding. And no one has responded to my post on the AVSforum thread for the TV. I won't take any risks that I might harm or break the TV, so for now, all I can do is hope nothing comes of it. The spider hasn't been seen in a week or so. Maybe it moved on, or died in there. Either way it's probably not spinning a web over the color-wheel or anything.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Dangerous metaphors

On a forum, I've gotten into a discussion about the idea that in some way, string theory validates some principle or other of qabbalism and some other occult symbolisms. The conversation has also drifted through various bits of quantum physics, notably the observer effect, along with an ill-defined exploration of other ideas of the mind influencing the world directly.

The discussion is as always ultimately unsatisfying because the people who can take this kind of idea seriously in the first place are the kind who are never dissuaded by, well, anything. But it's also instructive about the levels of illogic that a person can achieve if they really set their mind to it.

My touchstone for this discussion is always Capra's The Tao of Physics because so many people invest so much meaning into it. My reaction to it was similar to the reaction a friend of mine had to the movie Forrest Gump: it seems at first to have a deep appeal, but once you turn some critical reasoning on it and examine it with a more appraising kind of scrutiny, it proves to be dangerously, insidiously wrong. Capra's book has some interesting ideas, but at its base, it takes a few metaphors and mistakes them for reality, then builds upon that mistake all kinds of conclusions layered on top of other conclusions, reaching to concepts that are not only wrong-headed but dangerously, deceptively so.

I don't mean to hammer too badly on Capra because his book is far from the worst offender in this class. In fact, it stands out for having something at its heart, which most books of this ilk don't, but which can also make it more potently deceptive. Anyway, I also don't mean to hammer on Capra too much because I've already written about that book on my blog, from the perspective of how these oversimplifications can be damaging to understanding of science. But that post was more about how people who sincerely want to understand science can be misled, and how hard it is to capture the essence of science for those people.

Today, I'm more interested in the people, like the one who started the thread I spoke of earlier, who have no great interest in understanding science, just of finding reasons to conclude that it conforms to whatever ideology or symbolism they already like. At its base this is probably another case of the human pattern-recognition software going into overdrive, and as intelligent people usually have the most active pattern-recognition software, we also can be prone to the worst excesses in its overuse.

While some of the parallels discussed in that thread are ludicrous (one person went to great lengths to expound on the "telling" coincidence that string theory posits ten dimensions, while some branch of qabbalistic symbolism has ten schools of thought, in all earnestness, for instance), and the wonder here is that anyone takes them seriously (if they don't know anything about string theory, they assume the writer does, and invest them with authority), what is far more insidious is things like the observer effect "validating" psychic phenomena, since that metaphoric category error is genuinely insidious. Even people with a bit of understanding of quantum physics can fall into that one, let alone those whose only understanding of quantum physics comes from the analogies used to explain it.

If metaphors are a double-edged sword for those who really want to understand, they're even worse for the credulous. But that's not the real trouble. If we didn't have easily-overextended metaphors to confuse them, they'd just be making connections between unrelated but similarly-shaped things anyway. The real trouble is that when you try to argue with them, the fence-sitters are too easily swayed by the credulous when they point out the metaphors as if they were real connections. People are just interested enough to listen to the compelling comparisons of the credulous, but not willing to invest enough attention to follow the repudiation of those tasty morsels of nonsense.

Hopefully, though, someone will have taken my book recommendations (notably Gribbin's In Search of Schrödinger's Cat, the most cogent anhd understandable explanation of quantum mechanics for the layperson I've ever read, that doesn't dip too far into the deceptive metaphors) to heart, so it'll have done some good.

Friday, April 17, 2009

You've tried the rest, now try the best!

Born and raised on Long Island, I guess I have abnormally high standards for pizza. I don't even mean the high-end ultra-refined pizza, if there is such a thing. I mean the pizza you get for $10 (it was $5 when I lived on Long Island) that is greasy and sloppy and unsubtle and delicious and makes you marvel at how much food and how delicious it is for so little.

I'd heard even back then about how New York pizza was the best pizza, but I had never had any other kind, except for the fast-food things like Domino's and Pizza Hut which aren't even trying to compare, any more than McDonald's is hoping to outdo the local diner at making a great burger. (The local Dominos and Pizza Hut on Long Island didn't get much business, apart from the "we deliver even when the other places don't" customers.)

When I moved away to Juneau, Alaska, I wasn't too surprised that the pizza there was just not up to par... heck, it's Alaska. Bullwinkle's had pretty good pizza for what it was, but it wasn't in the same class. But when I travelled a little, and then moved back to Vermont, I was struck by how true it is: you can buy "New York style pizza" in a lot of places, and it can be made by people from Long Island, and it can approximate New York pizza, but there's just something that doesn't come out the same no matter how hard they try to replicate it.

On the face of it, that seems impossible. Take the same people using the same ingredients making the same recipes... heck, you can even use the same ovens, and somehow it's not the same. A recent episode of Food Detectives demonstrated that the differences in tap water are an important part of it (Chicago and LA tap water were used in a New York pizzeria to make pizza, and the entire panel was able to identify the pizza made with NY water as the best of the three). But even water seems like you could potentially duplicate it... perhaps not cost-effectively, though, given how cheap pizza is. I wonder if some of the difference of the air also matters (notably, the difference in what species of yeasts are in the air, which is why breads and cheeses vary so much from place to place).

Siobhan thought I was engaging in that kind of gentle exaggeration of nostalgia people often have about the food and other things they grew up with, until our first trip to New York together. We went to an ordinary everyday pizzeria, and bought an ordinary everyday pizza, not even the best pizza within a ten mile radius, and though she went into it entirely suspicious, she came out of it convinced. (Same thing with New York bagels, but that's another story.) So I guess all the New York pizza purists are vindicated through her anecdote.

Here in Vermont the closest thing to New York pizza that I've had is Junior's in Colchester, though there's a pizzeria in Killington that's pretty close, too (can't remember its name). Junior's is awfully good, but even on its best days it still lags a bit behind an everyday pizza at Village Pizza in Centereach. Last night we tried another new pizzeria in Barre, Basil's, and it's the new best in the local area, but only just barely; it's still nowhere near as good as Junior's, but it beats Simply Pizza, and comes even with what Uncle Joe's used to be on its good days before it lapsed into inconsistency and mediocrity.

I can't help but wonder what the world will be like when someone finds a way to really replicate New York pizza at a price point that's competitive with local pizza, though. A dystopian might bemoan the loss of individuality, but did the revolution towards wood-fired pizza make pizza too uniform? I don't think so. The world is full of places claiming to be New York style pizza, and even if every single one of them genuinely were offering New York style pizza, that wouldn't drive Chicago deep-dish out of the market, nor the Californian white pizza and its millions of variants, nor the wood-fired pizzas, nor the pizza margherita style, nor all the other pizza niches that still have their places... even in New York.

But maybe it would drive Dominos and Pizza Hut out of business. Which is a prospect which I cannot find it in me to be sad about.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Bike tune-up

In my teenage and college days, I went everywhere on my bike, so of necessity I got pretty good at bike maintenance and repair. No one taught me, and I had no books or anything; I just got tools and poked at things and figured them out. Bikes are not the most complicated devices; generally, the bits you can't figure out with a basic application of logic are the bits you can't repair yourself anyway (like the inside of a derailleur).

At least, back then. The new bikes I bought us last summer for our birthday/postsurgery gift have some improvements since my teenage days which leave me not always knowing how to maintain them. I was able to assemble them without much trouble, and get them working, but there are a few things I've never quite mastered.

First, there's 21 gears. Back in my day, 10 speeds seemed like plenty. Fact is, the vast majority of the time I only use 2-3 of these 21. I've had little luck with getting the derailleurs calibrated so that it easily reaches each gear without ever jumping off. I can get close enough that given I don't go to most of the gears or change that much I never notice the problem, but I'd like to do better.

Then there's the brakes. Instead of being simple caliper brakes, these are more like scissors, with the pivot point in the middle and both sides moving. When I squeeze the brake handle, they clamp very nicely; but when I release, one side moves away from the tire more than the other, so that one side sometimes rubs on the tire while you're moving. I can't figure out how to adjust this away.

I considered bringing them in for a tune-up at a local bike shop. They'd probably charge me an unreasonable amount, and there's the hassle of bringing them there, but it would be worth it to get the problem addressed. However, the problem with that is they would be very unlikely to also teach me how to do it, so all they could do is get my bike perfect once and then a few months, or at most a season, later, I'd need to do it again.

So this weekend another one of my intended activities is to dig out the owner's manuals and make another attempt to figure them out enough to make the adjustments myself, and learn these newfangled parts. In the past, I found this manual less than helpful. It's one of those manuals that is shared over several models so it's hard to figure out which of the instructions (often written in language that assumes you already know stuff) to follow. But I'm going to make another try. If I put some time into it I should be able to figure it out, and then I'll know for the life of the bikes.

That means next week I can start bringing it to work. Looking forward to that. As much as I like reading books on my Kindle while I ride, nothing compares to a real bike. It's probably also better exercise.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Itsy bitsy spider, crawled up the... HDTV?

The other day, Siobhan asked me to brush a spider off the front of the TV, but when I went to do it, there was no spider... just the shadow of one. It turns out that somehow, the spider has gotten inside the TV and seems to be living happily in there. We sometimes see it crawl up or down, seen as a shadow that appears to be walking on the inner surface of the screen. Yesterday it crawled right up Dubya's nose on the Daily Show.

So far it's not doing any harm, but I can't imagine it's good for the TV for it to be doing whatever it's doing when I'm not seeing it. I posted on the Toshiba DLP thread on AVS Forum in hopes of getting some advice -- there are people there talking all the time about taking things apart to clean color wheels and such -- but no one has answered. So this weekend, I'm going to dig out the manual and hopefully figure out how to get in there and get the spider out without hurting the TV.

How the heck it got in there, I have no idea. Or what it's eating while it's in there.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A delightfully insidious scam

I heard about a particularly insidious and clever scam today which I think is wonderfully illustrative of how people can be tricked by selective perception.

One day you get a letter or email from someone you've never heard of, with no return address, saying simply that the Patriots are going to win to the Jets this weekend. You probably don't give it much thought, even after they do. The next week, you get another letter saying that this weekend the Dolphins will beat the Patriots, and again they do. This goes on week after week, with you eventually sitting up and taking notice when the predictions are correct every single week. After ten weeks of correct predictions, you get another letter which says something like this:
Hey, I hope you appreciated all the accurate predictions I've been sending you, and hopefully you put some money down on some of them and made a lot of profit. I've gotten really good at these predictions, so good that I'm barred from betting on games or going to Vegas, but I'm always right, as you saw! I wouldn't ask you to pay me for my predictions, you wouldn't trust that, so that's why I sent them to you without asking for anything. But now that I've proven myself, maybe it wouldn't be too much to ask you to give me 5% of what you've already won. Or if that's too much to ask, how about 5% of what you'll win with the next prediction I give you? That's not asking a lot, is it? Let me know and I'll send you next weekend's picks.
Now, how it works. On the first week, the scammer sends out 100,000 messages, half of them predicting a Patriots win, half predicting a Jets win, and keeps track of who got which. When the Jets lose, he throws away the addresses for the 50,000 people who got the wrong prediction, and then he sends out another 50,000 messages predicting the next week's results. Again, he throws away the addresses of the half who got the wrong guess, and now he's down to 25,000. After ten weeks of this, he'll have thrown away more than 99,900 of his original addresses, but the remaining 97 people will have gotten ten accurate predictions in a row, and most of them will be convinced that the scammer is the real deal. They're unlikely to hear from any of the other 99,900 people, so they'll never guess what really happened. Many of them will indeed send money in hopes of getting a few more wins. At that point, the scammer makes off with the cash.

(The same scam works with the stock market and other "games of chance" that happen on regularly scheduled intervals, with a 50/50 chance of a prediction being right, and a chance to make money on it.)

It's delightfully clever, and at the same time, terribly instructive of the problems of anecdotal evidence and the danger of painting the target after firing the arrow. It also shows up the problem so many people have with understanding the unlikely: something that has only a one in a million chance of happening every time you get into your car will probably never happen to you or anyone you know, but at the same time, it will probably happen a dozen times today somewhere in the United States, because even the most unlikely things become inevitable when there are a lot of chances for them to happen.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Chord keyboards

When I wrote previously about the HalfKeyboard I forgot one great possibility in the same family as it and the FrogPad, the chord keyboard.

A chord keyboard is another way to get a full keyboard into a small space operable with a single hand. Unlike the HalfKeyboard, a chord keyboard is potentially able to reach typing speeds comparable to the full keyboard. The downside is simple: none of your existing experience and muscle memory with full keyboards will carry over at all. In fact, it might get in the way. Which is a great practical disadvantage -- who has time to completely relearn keyboarding? And it'd be even harder if you also had to use regular keyboards while learning and potentially after learning, so you're constantly undermining your training. This is where my fascination with trying out that kind of retraining runs up against practicality.

The idea of a chord keyboard is simple: one key per finger. In its simplest form, that means you've got 31 possible keystrokes, formed by combinations of pressing multiple keys simultaneously, like chords on a piano keyboard. (Two to the fifth power is 32, but pressing no keys can't count since that's what you're doing when you're not typing, so you only get 31 options.)

Let's number the keypad for your left hand from left (pinky) to right (thumb) like this: OOOOO would mean all five keys pressed, ----- would mean none, O---- would mean just press with your pinky, and -O-OO would mean press with your ring finger, index finger, and thumb.

If you use 26 of them to mean the lowercase letters, plus one more for Space, then you have four left which each can be a "mode" for the following keystroke. To give a simple example which might not be the most efficient for typing but makes the point, consider these shift mods:

----O: Next keystroke is uppercase.
--O--: Next keystroke is a numeral, calculator key, or function key.
-O---: Next keystroke is a punctuation symbol.
O----: Next keystroke is a control key.

In each case, press the same keystroke to "lock" that mode, and then press it a third time to jump out to "default". Otherwise, it clears on the next keystroke. For simplicity, we'll assume you can switch from any mode to any mode, so if you've already pressed --O-- and then without pressing anything else you press O---- you are now in Control Key Mode, and the earlier press into Numeral Mode is ignored. Thus, each mode offers 27 possible keystrokes.


A few symbols are duplicated (* and / appear on both calculator keys and punctuation keys modes) and there's room for expansion in the control keys mode (all the combinations labelled "n/a"). This is of course just a proof of concept. Probably there are better ways to map the keystrokes to the various letters, numbers, and symbols. Besides, in practice, most chord keyboards fudge the concept a little by taking advantage of the opposable thumb to let the thumb have several keys it can press, which avoids most of the clunky mode switching.

The alert reader may already be considering comparisons to a Braille keyboard, or even to Morse code.

Could I really learn to use something like this productively, so that my hands just do what I think without me having to consider the mechanics of the process, as they do now with a QWERTY keyboard? I would just love to find out. But not enough to pay hundreds of dollars for a chord keyboard and then struggle with finding the time to practice it. Still, if it were possible, it might be more efficient than the HalfKeyboard, and even more efficient than QWERTY. Plus, you could fit a chord keyboard onto even very small devices. Imagine using a chord keyboard on a cell phone to text, for instance. If there were a standard chord keyboard for PCs so people knew it, they could chord-key on any tiny device just about as fast and efficient as on the PC. What a difference that would make, given that the biggest limit on miniaturization of devices is not computer power, not even batteries, but the human interface.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

eBay feedback

It always amazes and annoys me how many people on eBay fail to leave feedback. When I'm selling, I always positive feedback once payment is received and cleared; what else is there to wait for? But most sellers don't do feedback until after the buyer does feedback, maybe out of some desire to be able to counter nasty feedback with nasty feedback or something. And when I'm buying, once I know the product is what it's supposed to be, I always leave feedback, but most of my buyers never get around to it.

It's irritating, but I wonder what causes it. Are they just too busy or too lazy? If so, that's kind of selfish, since part of the way eBay works is that everyone does their share of making it work. Do they think there's some advantage to them, in which case, they're just being selfish ala the Prisoner's Dilemma, counting on that enough other people will do their share to keep the system working? Are they simply disorganized? Do they just not realize how feedback works, or that they're supposed to do it? In the latter case, is it a special case of not recognizing how these kinds of aggregate systems work, or believing (perhaps from a past bad experience) that it doesn't actually work, or do they think they're not supposed to leave feedback unless something special happens?

Obviously it's some of all of those things for various people and in most cases they probably just haven't thought about it at all. But it seems to happen to me a lot, maybe half the time. It irks me. I always send what I promised to send!

Saturday, April 11, 2009


While doing the dishes, I dropped a fairly heavy pot and it fell with the handle pointing down right on the part of my toes where they join the foot. Damn, it hurt so much. I had to stop and put ice on it. A few hours later and it's starting to bruise up, a diagonal slash of angry purple across the big toe and the second toe. Very nasty, with a low-level ache.

Nevertheless, I went out and did some yard work, since in the front yard the ground is dry enough to get the tractor across it. I hauled in all the rounds from the big tree (though there's still 8' or so to be bucked, the thickest and hardest wood) to the woodshed. Most of it is still too wet to be split, though I did split one of the pieces that had dried up on the deck and it split nicely. The whole time I kept thinking, somewhere along the way I'm going to drop a round on my toe, or hit it with the hammer, or let the trailer drop on it, but I managed to avoid it.

I also did some work on the bikes getting them ready for the next season, but I can't quite nudge the brakes into the right alignment; no matter what I do, when you release them, one side drags just a little bit. It might be worth getting a shop to give them a tune-up; these brakes aren't quite like the ones I know how to adjust. Again, I kept being afraid I was going to drop something on my foot, but again, managed to avoid it.

Friday, April 10, 2009

False economies

Paper plates are an office supply at my office, provided by the employer. (I know that's the sort of thing a lot of employers no longer provide, but we still do.) Until recently, we got the plate-sized and the saucer-sized paper plates, but it seems that they've stopped buying the smaller ones, in an attempt to economize. I imagine that at some discussion someone decided we could save some money by dropping one or the other, but when they tried to figure out which to drop, they naturally dropped the smaller ones since a large one can sit in for a small one, but not vice versa. The net result, of course, is that any time I would have used a smaller one (quite often) I now have to use the more expensive larger one, so the larger ones get used up twice as fast as they used to, so we're actually wasting more money and more paper. But whoever made this decision can still point to it as a cost-cutting measure because on paper, it looks like an elimination, politically.

This whole incident is kind of a microcosm of the much larger kinds of false economies that pervade our bureaucratic fiscal system, statewide, nationwide, even worldwide. The real issues are of course a lot more complex and less obvious, with a lot more layers, which is why I used so simple and obvious case as my example. But so many times there are decisions which are made because they make an impressive-seeming sound bite to present to the press, the legislature, the commissioner, the CEO, the stockholders, etc. but which actually end up costing money and creating waste. The fact is, any simple "executive summary of the executive summary" version of the situation is dangerously inaccurate, and decisions made to optimize those ultra-brief summaries are pervasive and hugely damaging.

If I were just a little bit more of a pretentious, armchair-quarterbacking windbag than I am, I might go so far as to suggest that this is one of the cornerstones of what's wrong with the world economy that's caused the current "downturn", with so much of it built on what amounts to fast-talking investors. It's very tempting: I can make an oh-so-clever bit of wordplay comparing the "false economy" of spending more money on paper plates out of a misguided attempt to spend less money on paper plates, with the "false economy" that has recently collapsed worldwide stock markets and caused massive layoffs. But I really don't know enough economics to usefully gauge how important this particular aspect is in the larger scheme of what's wrong with international finances. And to try to do so would be dangerously close to the very oversimplification, and its dangerously deceptive consequences, I'm criticizing. So I won't. Anyway, I still get full credit for the wordplay just having mentioned it in explaining why I'm not using it! So there.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

And in local news...

The news has been abuzz the last couple of days about the Somali piracy which is a fascinating story in many ways. The piracy itself which most people don't know happens in this day and age, the actual capture and recapture of the ship, the tension of the hostage-taking and resulting negotation, the deployment of U.S. forces, possible political implications, there's even news about the pirates running out of fuel. It's practically a TV movie in real life.

But the coverage in the Vermont newspapers have almost completely skipped over all of this because they're so completely distracted by one fact that seems vitally important to them, and presumably most of their readership, but which otherwise seems largely irrelevant: the captain in question happens to be from Underhill, Vermont. The headlines scream "Underhill man" and even the articles almost make it sound like some pirates snuck into Vermont, stole this guy specifically because of his Vermontiness (perhaps hoping to negotiate for some good cheese), and now the whole world is saying "Oh no, this Vermont man is being kept away from Vermont by some pirates who are not from Vermont! What a Vermont crisis this must be for all those Vermonters!"

I'm not blaming Vermont, though I'll admit that Vermont's press does seem a bit more provincial than in other places I've lived (and I mean "provincial" in both the literal and connotative senses). But this happens everywhere. For instance, this article in the Boston Globe about the same incident dwells heavily on the fact that some members of the crew who were involved in the recapture happened to be from Massachusetts, and while it tosses off the Underhill, Vermont thing, it also points out that Captain Phillips attended a Massachusetts college with equal urgency.

I'm certainly sympathetic and concerned about the captain in question, but am I more sympathetic because he happens to live in the same state as I do? Should I be? I would be entirely content if that he was from Vermont was mentioned, and for it to tweak my attention a little bit; I don't see anything wrong with that. But it seems to be so emphasized that it overshadows such "trifling" matters as what this incident implies about piracy itself, the economy, international relations, and the balance of power. There's a proper balance here: the local angle shouldn't be neglected entirely but it also shouldn't take over, and I feel like the press skews way too far.

I wonder, was it always like this, even in my youth, and I just didn't notice; or am I in a position to grumble about "the good old days" and lament the state of journalism today?

Wednesday, April 08, 2009


I don't know if I count as a Joss Whedon fanboy. Firefly is my single favorite TV show ever, narrowly edging out Babylon 5; on the other hand, though I've tried a number of times, I was never able to get into Buffy or its spinoffs, and amongst Buffy fans I am a pariah for finding the original movie more amusing than the show. (It's not really fair to compare them, though. The movie was a single joke from the original concept, distilled and then spread out to fill a movie. To those who like the show and its concept, the movie is rightly a mockery. But if you don't like the show and its concept, then the movie can be a completely different thing.)

I was cautiously interested in Dollhouse when it was announced. Some bits seemed egregious and there were certainly bad signs suggesting either that the show was going to be micromanaged into oblivion, or might have had problems. On the other hand, the concept was intriguing, even if it wasn't clear how it could pan out, and we couldn't be sure if it would work. And I had high hopes that Joss could bring his curious balance between good plotting and good writing (so many other writers are good at one at the expense of the other -- JMS, for instance, is awful at writing humor, but excels at epic-scale stuff).

The first few episodes were ho-hum, good enough to keep watching but not good enough to make me convinced. Then, as promised, it started to crank up around the sixth episode; it's moved up to a definite yes, though it's still nowhere near in range of Firefly. There are a few things that hold it back -- notably, Eliza Dushku's acting doesn't seem up to the demands of the role, and some of the show seems excessively stylized but not enough for that to become a virtue (as it is in quirky shows like Pushing Daisies or Better Off Ted), just enough to feel like it's trying too hard. I also am mildly irked at the "cheap" tactic of making the whole premise of the show be "X is possible" and then base the entire story on the idea that it turns out X isn't really as possible as everyone thinks.

It was easy to dismiss all this as kind of academic since, from day one, we knew the show was almost certainly doomed. Fox executives talked about it as something they were just going to flush out there because they'd already bought it, but even as they promised to run all 13 episodes, they were clear that they didn't expect to do more. And ratings were not that great; how much of that comes from them putting into the Friday death slot, no one can say for sure.

But it's been holding its ratings with a remarkable consistency, and today, there are rumors that maybe it's got a chance for renewal. So now we have to look at it as possibly a series, not just a miniseries with a fixed ending. Now we have to wonder if it can survive, and hope it can. We have to wonder if there could be a chance for the story to develop or even resolve. We have to wonder if Joss can improve on the weaknesses, or if some of them might turn out not to be weaknesses in the first place -- like the corniness of the sleep pods turned out to have a real function, but we didn't know that for a while. We have to ask ourselves if we can spare the hour-a-week to keep up with it!

And we get more time to think about what a nice month November is...

Tuesday, April 07, 2009


Building that wall for the woodshed didn't make me particularly sore or even tired out at the time I did it, but over the following days, a sort of low-level but persistent soreness has settled in. Last night it even contributed to a poor night's sleep.

I've noticed that as my weight drops and my general health and energy levels increase, I get less sore, particularly doing humdrum things like walking or shopping. But I also find that I can do full-out work like woodcutting or carpentry for a long time without feeling it, and still not feel it for hours later, and then it gradually creeps in, hours or days later. This isn't what used to happen. I wonder if this is the normal thing and I just haven't encountered it. Maybe while I was weighing so much more and had such poorer health generally, I never got far enough into ache-making work to get this longer-term, slower-build achiness that takes so long to mature, because more quick-acting, acute aches would kick in and stop me before I got that far.

While this ache is longer lasting and certainly took longer to mature, it's still nowhere near as bad as the achiness I used to get from something as routine as a few hours of grocery-shopping. So I'm not complaining, that's for sure.

Monday, April 06, 2009


The big disadvantage that my new Eee has over the QuickPad Pro it's replacing is the keyboard size being just a bit too small for full typing. If they made an Eee whose keyboard "slid out" to full size, I'd be all over that, but not yet. However, I have a possible solution.

The Matias HalfKeyboard which I've had lying around for a while might be just the thing. If you're not familiar with them, the idea is simple. It's the left half your keyboard, but if you hold down the space key while you type, it's the right half of your keyboard. Sounds crazy hard to get used to, and it's not easy, but it's easier than it might seem. The reason is, if you're used to touch-typing a P with your pinky, you're still doing it with your pinky, just the other one. Muscle memory is surprisingly transferable from one hand to the other. Matias claims that after a few hours of practice on it you can gain about 2/3 of your regular typing speed, with some people topping 60wpm on it, all using one hand (leaving the other free for the mouse).

I find the idea of retraining oneself for these kinds of alternative human interface devices fascinating, but actually doing it is trickier. It's not just that I don't have lots of time to spare, though I don't. When I first got the HalfKeyboard (for a fraction of retail price, mind you) I played with it for several hours and got to probably 30-40wpm on it, but then I really didn't have any situation to keep using it, and skills like that atrophy quickly. But with the Eee, I might actually get to use it regularly enough to be worth using it.

Of course, advocates of the FrogPad speak glowingly of the advantages of its design. I'd love to get both and compare, but would I ever have time to train myself up on both just to find out which works better for me? It's amazing to think, though, that a person has the ability to retrain to such things, let alone several of them.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

The wall is up

I keep having flashes of the dialogue from A Midsummer Night's Dream, even though it's more about a wall being down than up, but my wall even has "a chink to blink through" (because the waferboard pieces are just not quite big enough to cover it all, due to the width of the 2x4s). But the wall is up in the woodshed, separating it into two sections.

Building the framing was easy, but putting the wall into place proved very tricky. First of all, it turns out that a wall made from two sheets of waferboard and nine 2x4s weighs, surprisingly, as much as two sheets of waferboard and nine 2x4s, which is an awful lot for one person to lift or move. Moving the wall into position and then lifting it into place by myself was crazy hard. Then it turns out that the garage floor is not entirely level, which I should have expected: it slopes down towards the drain in the center. This threw my plans off. I ended up having to use a different method to attach the new wall to the outside wall, involving jigsaw-cutting a corner out to avoid the footing, and then propping the wall up with a crowbar and slipping a bit of 2x4 under it (now a permanent part of it). On the upside, I ended up with an extra 2x4 in the offing. This also changed how it's connected to the overhead beam, and the result there is not quite as solid as I originally hoped, but it's certainly more than adequate to hold up to the pressure of wood stacked against it.

Moving the seasoned wood into the garage will have to wait until the ground is firm enough to roll the tractor and trailer out to where it is, so probably a week or two.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Spring cleaning

The roof is clear of snow, and the deck is getting very close, and all the rounds from the big tree I felled last year are no longer covered in snow. That means it's time for spring projects and spring cleaning.

Today I hope to get a bunch of odds and ends done -- putting back up a piece of siding that fell, hooking up the garden hose, charging the tractor, and the like -- plus one big project, the woodshed middle wall. Once that's done, I can move the stacked wood from last year (both the cord we bought, which I stacked outside, and the most-of-a-cord I cut) into one side to be next year's wood.

I also have gotten the last of the cables for the home theater so I'm hoping to finish that up, but that'll only take a few minutes.

I already made this year's earthboxes last week, so at least that's off the list!

Friday, April 03, 2009


My Eee is here! It wasn't expected until next week, but it's arrived. All I've done with it so far is churn through the initial setup stuff -- that three hours of installing patches and changing the default-stupid settings of Windows and such. Next step will be installing the software I want to run on it.

The green is not the nicest color. It also has some odd pixelated designs on it which I really don't like -- they look like smudges more than anything. The inside is white with green smudges. So while it's not entirely pretty, and a few improvements could have made it a lot better, it's still better than plain black or white. Other models were available in blue and pink, but not this one; and the red model is always out of stock. (Besides, Siobhan's is black, so better they can be easily told apart.) As far as the size, though, it's positively adorable.

My primary use for it will be a place to write when I'm on the road, but it'll also be secondarily a window onto the Internet for all my private matters, which helps separate them from my main laptop, which is owned by my employer. But I'm also interested in how good it'll be as a roleplaying game support tool. It should be able to run programs like IRIS and GURPS Character Assistant. If more roleplaying games were available for the Kindle, the combination of Eee and Kindle would be a superb travelling roleplaying bundle.

We've had a long-standing tradition of giving computers names that end in the letters "us", ever since by coincidence my first three ended up named Colossus, Abacus, and Pegasus. Since we have a matched pair for me and Siobhan, we chose Incubus for mine and Succubus for hers.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Solipsist play by email

I found the roleplaying game Solipsist fascinating, but I couldn't get feeling comfortable enough to feel sure I could GM it. So I got the author to start a play-by-email game going. However, it has been more a source of frustration than anything else, and while I've certainly run into a few lessons of what not to do, I don't feel that much more confident that I haven't missed others. It seems there's a lot of "how to make it work" that is either not in the book, or if it is, that isn't clearly and adequately emphasized enough.

Characters are created more or less in isolation from one another, but the GM started the game as he usually does, with the characters assumed to have already learned about their unique natures, met each other, worked together in the past, etc. Of the three characters in this game, it happens that two of them have visions that are so compatible they almost overlap, and my character, the odd man out, has a vision that is actively at odds with the others. Everyone assured me, and continues to assure me, that it's normal for groups to have conflicting visions and part of the game. But in my case, perhaps just because of me being the only newbie in a group of experienced players, perhaps because of the other problems, it has proven to be an obstacle time and again.

One big lesson I've learned is that Limitations are not nearly as important in limiting what you can do as Obsessions are. When you're writing your obsessions, you're not just expressing your vision: you are essentially listing what your character can do, and thus, by omission, what he can't do. You're listing your abilities. The game goes on and on about how you have the ability to change reality in any way you like, but in fact, you're hugely limited in what you can do unless your Obsessions are written in such a way as to be very flexible and universally applicable. I didn't.

The game also encourages you to be very concise in boiling your Obsessions down to a single line, but that's just begging for a problem where your idea of what they are, and the GM's idea, do not match. Then in the thick of the game you find that you are actually unable to do things that seemed central to your idea of your character, and in my case, that you can't actually do anything at all. Or, worse yet, that you can only do one thing, so there's really no point in being there: the GM can write your actions as well as you can, as there's no choice to be made. It's like I have only one spell, but it's a very powerful spell, so every time it's my turn to act, I just always use that spell.

It's hard to put my finger on what my problems have been, so I can't tell how many of them are with the game, how many with the way the game is written, how many with how this particular play has gone, how many with the particular GM and players, etc. I've tried many times to express the problems and frustrations I've had, and I'll grant that they've tried to help. But at the same time, most of their attempting to help, while well-intentioned, has been dismissive, trivializing, and putting me in a position of having to argue about it or drop it. I've mostly done the latter, but it only puts off the negativity, doesn't avoid it.

Given how far this game is from the "old school" games like AD&D, I suspect there are a lot of roleplayers who would look at this and just not get it. Even people who got past the hack-and-slash and wargamer origins of AD&D and are playing more avant-garde things like In Nomine or Little Fears could easily fall into old paradigms and fail to really adjust to what's going on in Solipsist because of those habits of thought. Given that this game started because of me saying I didn't feel like I'd wrapped my head around Solipsist, I wonder if the GM and other players thought that I was one of those, and have been burdening themselves with preconceptions of what kind of stuff I wasn't getting. Maybe that's why their advice isn't helping and their responses to my thoughts on the game have been dismissive; they're offering me help that would help someone who was still stuck in other ways of roleplaying and hadn't adjusted.

Then again, maybe they're right. I feel that that paradigm shift isn't the thing that's tripping me up, that there's other problems, not of concept but of execution, that I'm stuck on. But maybe I'm wrong. If I were, I wouldn't know I was, right?

I definitely get the sense that I could make a great game of Solipsist given two things. First, the game needs a big rewrite. More examples, and more guidance about what does and doesn't work, with a better emphasis on some elements. A lot of clarity has been sacrificed to maintain a "mood" in the writing; stuff that should be straightforward isn't because it's written closer to "in character" than it needs to be. And the author must come from a background where a lot of stuff that's obvious to him doesn't need to be stated, but if he wants to broaden his audience, he needs a rewrite that says a lot of that stuff. Trouble is, I don't think he'll ever see that. Any time someone doesn't seem to be getting it, he's likely to dismiss it as being someone too old-school. He wouldn't say that, might not even believe it, but I see it happening, and I can't even blame him. Maybe he just needs to be a little more ready for criticism.

The other thing that it needs, at least for me, is a little change in setting. In particular, I think the game needs to be explicit about backstories: about what characters do and don't know about the Shadow, about how they got to meet each other, about how one character Changing Reality affects another character's memories (or his own), etc. Sometimes I think the author has let playing at cons affect his games too much: he takes shortcuts that the four hour con game slot require, even when not in that kind of situation.

The one thing I'm still hazy on is how to prepare an adventure as a GM. The author suggests not doing much prep because the players are going to change the world completely very soon in anyway. So he's made clear what not to do, but he hasn't really replaced it with anything but "improvise everything" and at least in the game we're playing now, it shows. I get the feeling that it doesn't matter what we do, really; the outcome is predetermined and the only thing that decides how we'll get there is what looks coolest. Some of that is acceptable and even good for a GM to do, but it has to be kept at least a little hidden: the players need to feel like their choices matter, and they'll forgive knowing you fudge the story to make it come out better as long as they don't think you're fudging everything and their choices don't matter. In particular, if you have a mystery, and clues, there should be at least something there to solve. I'm hazy on what I'd do to prepare for a game, particularly if I wanted it to be a good game.

I think once I solve that conundrum, I'll be ready to try GMing, though my first time will probably be a failure, but it'll be the failure that makes the success possible. So all I'm doing in the play-by-mail game now is observing in hopes of getting a better sense of that. I'm no longer even trying to enjoy it as a player. I just hope my surrender doesn't make the game fall apart as the others (no doubt) are sure I'm just being petulant (and any attempt to rebut that idea would only support it).

Wednesday, April 01, 2009


All the talk in the news the last few days about Conficker, and particularly today's "nothing much happened" reports, have involved a lot of comparisons to Y2K. In particular, I've heard a lot of comments hearkening back to those we heard in early 2001 about how Y2K was overblown, much ado about nothing, since there was so much panicked talk about what could go wrong and then almost nothing did. It made me grit my teeth then, but I didn't have a blog to use to grump about it, and I do now.

For years, we talked about how bad Y2K could be if everyone didn't do the huge amount of work required to fix it largely because pointing that out was the only way we could get the funding and approval to do that work, without it being shoved aside in favor of whatever the hot new priority was that our CEOs and Commissioners had heard of at their last meeting. As a result, we in IT not only had to do all our usual work plus all the work of actually finding and fixing Y2K problems, we also had to do a third layer of all the extra bureaucracy that piled on us from well-meaning managerial types requiring elaborate mechanisms to verify and coordinate the work itself being done. That last part meant we also had to prepare complex "what if everything goes wrong" plans that were mostly based on dealing with the possibility that someone else didn't do their part.

So the big day came and nothing much happened. It's only natural and understandable why John Q. Public would say "so what was the big deal about?" And it kind of reminds people of the "I have a rock that protects against invisible tigers" thing -- the better a job you do at foiling or preventing disasters ranging from industrial catastrophes to terrorist attacks, the less everyone knows that you did anything, and that can also lead to people claiming credit for preventing things that probably never would have happened in the first place.

I understand that part, but it doesn't take a lot of thought to realize, particularly if people are pointing it out to you, that nothing happened because of all the effort made to make sure nothing happened. Seems obvious, but there were people who, in all sincerity, criticized the IT staffers of the world for wasting all that time on fixing Y2K problems instead of doing things that added value, like implementing new systems. Really. So after we spent years beating ourselves about the head with extra work, and particularly stultifying and unrewarding work, and an additional layer of the most agonizingly pointless bureaucracy ever, at the moment we hated our jobs the most in our entire career, that's precisely when people started in on the largest and worst amount of pissing on what we'd done that anyone ever did.

Conficker isn't really the same situation -- well, maybe it is for the people who work on antivirus software, and the people who maintain it... okay, maybe it is the same thing on a much smaller scale. But it's the comparisons to Y2K I'm seeing that annoy me because they're just reviving the same sense, some of them, that Y2K was much ado about nothing rather than a genuine catastrophe prevented by hard work.