Sunday, May 31, 2009


We went to make a call on a pair of animal rescue organizations yesterday and, while we were told we'd be meeting some dogs, I definitely had the sense that this was another stage in the process of adopting a dog, proving to them that we were good contenders through interviews and such, and possibly getting to know the dogs and picking one out but still having a process to go through to adopt him or her. To my surprise, when we left, there was a dog in the car... and all our plans for the day changed, to a long drive to Petsmart, a lot of shopping, and a lot of new experiences.

Socks is about 10 months old and comes from Mississippi, where she belonged to an elderly woman until she went into a nursing home. She's a black labrador retriever and chow mix, but she looks for all the world like a black lab. (Apparently, black dogs have a harder time getting adopted, which seems odd to me.) She's fairly mellow for a lab, even-tempered and friendly. With other dogs she can be a bit bossy; she's an alpha female. But she's not at all timid and glommed onto us immediately, and is already acting like she's always lived here. She's very affectionate, even demanding.

Even though she's not a super-energetic dog, she's still enough to exhaust us. She wants to go for a walk as often as possible, and though she'll take the lead and stop when I insist, she'll go as long as we let her as fast as we'll let her, and once she's back in she's begging to go out again. We're going to fence in part of the yard (I need to figure out if that's something I can do) and get her a chain run until we can do that.

We're already signed up for an obedience class, and while she's housebroken and fairly well trained (except for a tendency to get up onto things -- we're allowing her onto the sofa and bed, but we have to teach her not to nose around on the table or counters) we still need to learn how to tell her no.

We bought her a lot of toys and she likes some of them, though she also loves to tear up cardboard toilet paper spindles and the like. So far we haven't gotten her into her crate; we need to learn how to do that. There's so many things to do, and to learn. We always had dogs when we were kids, but this feels new, bigger.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Hijacking has changed

This post contains some gruesome imagery and thoughts that you might prefer to avoid.

After 9/11 we spent a fortune in time and money and effort on making sure nothing like that could happen again, but in a way no one ever seems to talk about, it already couldn't, and the hijackers and planners no doubt realized this. The event itself prevents something like it from happening again. And I'm surprised I've never seen this point made.

It's not that our security checkpoints were lax in letting box-cutters through. If today you could slip box-cutters through... heck, if you could slip a 9mm pistol through, you still couldn't pull off that hijacking. And I don't just mean because of the air marshals, or the security doors on the cockpits. Even without those things you couldn't pull off the same hijacking today.

Consider, awful as it is, the situation for the people on one of those planes, confronted by a handful of men with box-cutters. The algebra of it is simple. If a few of us attacked that guy with a box-cutter, odds are good none of us would die, but some of us would get some very painful injuries, maybe debilitating ones like loss of an eye. Hijackers don't kill the people on the plane, so the choice is between the very real risk of some very nasty pain and possible lasting injury, or the inconvenience of not making your connecting flight, missing that meeting, etc. That's an easy choice: go with the hijacking. Don't be a hero.

The same situation today and everyone would realize two things, either one of which alone would completely change the formula. First: the other outcome isn't missing your connecting flight: it's probably the most horrific death imaginable, one where you might hope you died in the impact rather than the burning jet fuel and crushing building parts. Admittedly if you see a hijacker you can't be certain that's the plan, but assuming your flight is bound for a big city in the United States, you've got to seriously consider it. Second: there's the patriotism angle, the idea that not only are you looking at your own death but a literally mind-numbingly awful event. If ten men on a plane are trying to do that, maybe not everyone on the plane is prepared to be the one to help stop them at risk of their own lives for the sake of patriotism, but at least a lot of them will.

That this particular attack could never happen again was proved already on 9/11 once we found out what happened to the fourth flight. And that happened due to very incomplete information available to the people on board, and with the hijackers already firmly in control of the plane when the passengers and crew stepped up. If those passengers had found out earlier, I have no doubt that the plane would have landed safely, a bunch of passengers would have been rushed to the hospital with bleeding and stitches, and a bunch of hijackers would be imprisoned or dead. (Given how feelings were running that day, probably mostly the latter.)

I'm no expert on national security and I have no idea where to weigh in on the question of how much of our preparations are only effective against past attacks that will not come again, and how much is looking forward to attacks that haven't happened yet. Are all the precautions at airports stopping something entirely different, something that still could happen even if the hijacked-planes-as-bombs plan never could? Very possibly. But the public discourse always seems to focus on the idea of the same attack, or one very like it.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Yet another chainsaw

Several attempts to get my chainsaw serviced under warranty have dead-ended. The manufacturer is apparently out of business and, needless to say, not honoring their warranties. Their authorized service center (which is two hours away!) won't attempt repair, probably because they wouldn't be reimbursed by the company for their time, though they say it's because they can't get parts. The vendor, TrueValueSuperStore, simply fails to answer my emails asking them to make good on the sale with an exchange or credit, even though they're still selling the same model. And Amazon, through whom the purchase went, declines to get involved.

I'm at a loss for what else I can do, if anything, to prosecute my warranty rights. I'm afraid there isn't anything, because if a company goes out of business that kind of ends my claim on their obligations and promises, legally speaking. So I suppose in the end I'm just out of luck.

Since the cutting season is slipping away and I have cutting I want to do, I've gone ahead with ordering another chainsaw. The new one is a different model from a different manufacturer, but it's the same horsepower, size, and about the same feature set. Though it doesn't mention whether the chain tightening is toolless or not. If it's not, I'm going to be disappointed about that. But while having to use a screwdriver or allen key for that is a pain, having a chainsaw that's reliable is more important.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Five Free Foods

A friend posed this question: if you could pick five foods that would be free of calories for you forever, what would they be?

Further elaborating the question to try to get to the essence of what it's about, I decided that we'd say the foods would be free of all digestive impact. No worry about calories, or sugar, or fat, or gastric distress, or reflux, or lactose intolerance, or diarrhea, or blood sugar. I also concluded you couldn't choose ingredients or overly broad categories, or it becomes more about finding an ingredient used in a lot of things than actually picking the foods you want free. So you can choose "cheese" and it would cover eating chunks of cheese, or a slice of cheese, or cheese on crackers, or even the cheese on a cheeseburger since it's still recognizably a piece of cheese and can still be separated from the rest of the dish. But it wouldn't include the cheese melted onto pizza, or the cheese baked into a cheesecake.

So chocolate is a no-brainer. After that, I find myself surprised that I'm not really picking my favorite dishes because those are mostly things I don't get often enough (and probably wouldn't want every day anyway) due to cost or availability. So even if I prefer veal parmigiana to pizza, it makes more sense to pick pizza because I will have that more often. Instead, I'm picking the things I want to have and can have often but really shouldn't.

My first four are chocolate, ice cream, pizza, and nachos. For the fifth, though, I'm torn. Some ideas:
  • Bread: Just because it's so all-pervasive, and really good bread is a simple treat. If this could be considered to include bagels, then that makes this a very strong contender.
  • Bagels: If bagels are their own item, I might have to choose it anyway.
  • Pork: This one's pushing on the definitions boundary. If pork includes bacon and sausage and ham, then pork is a good candidate just because of its flexibility. That said, I find myself picky about ham and sausage -- sometimes I'll have a slice of ham I really like, but most of the time I find ham blah, and I don't know how much of that is different kinds or preparations of ham and how much is differences in me. Same thing with sausage. I like bacon well enough especially in BLTs but I don't know how often I could have it. If pork means just pork, not also those other cured and prepared forms, then it's definitely off the list. I like a good pork roast from time to time, but sometimes I don't even like that that much, and there's no question beef is a better choice.
  • Beef: Back when I loved steaks this was a stronger contender than it is now, but it's still a good one because so many things are basically beef. Since the beef in a burger, in a steak fajita, or even in a beef Wellington, are all still recognizably beef and still separable from the rest of the dish, I think they'd count.
  • Cheese: I go through phases of liking to snack on cheese, but then, cheese isn't really that bad for me anyway, not in the quantities I eat it.
  • Pasta: I like pasta well enough but again it's not that bad for me. Besides, since Siobhan no longer likes it much, I get very little of it nowadays.
  • Tamales: A very strong contender, even if I can only get the freezer-food tamales I get at CostCo, because they're so yummy and yet so fatty. But I can't readily get good tamales (the freezer ones are pretty good, but not like handmade), and making them is just too much work to have more than a few times a year at most. And CostCo could stop carrying those frozen ones any time and then I'd have none. If there were a tortilleria around here, tamales would probably be my choice.
I have a feeling I'll think of more good choices. I'll post them as comments I guess.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Ideas in the shower

I really need to come up with some method of dictating notes that will go into my computer somewhere while I'm in the shower. Showering time is time when I have nothing else to occupy my mind so I tend to wander around on random thoughts. Sometimes I come up with things I need to note down, whether those are ideas for something to write or create (or even for topics for blog posts), or just things I have to remember to do. I end up reciting a list of words that will hopefully remind me of the items, and keep a count of how many there are so I'll know if I missed one, but I don't always get them all anyway.

If anyone sells an inexpensive product that can safely go in the shower and take dictation, I don't know what to search for it under. I wonder if there is a market for such a device besides me.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Recriminations or solutions

A lot of people, faced with a situation where something isn't how it should be, spend an amount of time and energy on being upset about that, and complaining, and tossing recriminations, and similar tactics, that I find hard to understand. But when it comes down to it, I think I'm the odd one here. I have an unusually good ability to get the grumping out of my system quickly, put it away, and then move on to productive solutions, to "what can we do to make the best of this?" approaches.

Probably if you put people on the witness stand and asked them which way is better, in the stark, dry light of logic, most people would agree that my way is the better way, the more sensible way. If you asked most people if they, personally, ought to turn the dial more towards focusing on solutions or more towards focusing on blame, they'd almost always agree that it should be more towards focusing on solutions. But people don't turn the knob that way. Is it because they can't, is that something that's innate (or at least fixed-by-childhood), or is it that they don't really want to, that they take comfort from their outrage, or identify it as part of their personality? Or maybe they don't really want to give it up because they're afraid "giving in" is the same as "surrender" and that that's what encourages the rest of the world to let things be wrong in the first place; is this all just a restatement of the action hero's cry, "Never surrender!"?

Being the person who's left-brained, sensible, driven towards making the best of things, the one who does still have a crusader but who puts his costume away a lot quicker than most, I don't exactly feel like I'm gifted. As Adrian Monk would say, it's a gift... and a curse. On top of how exhausting it is to be doing all the things that need to be done, it's also exhausting to be constantly shepherding all the crusaders down from their soapboxes, calming them down, and encouraging them to actually pick up some tools and help make the best of what's left, and then having to do it again the minute something else makes them get back into a righteous outrage. I don't think people really have any idea how exhausting that can get to be.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Concerns about adopting a dog

There's a lot of listings for dogs available from various humane societies, shelters, animal rescue organizations, etc. in the area, and each one of these has a lengthy and complex application process to prove we'll be responsible and capable owners. The process is a lot more complex than I expected, but that's probably a good thing.

It has made me think about what kind of dog is right for us, and to conclude that ultimately we're coming at this the wrong way. We shouldn't be shopping for a dog yet, and we certainly shouldn't be looking at specific dogs and saying "this one looks good". We need to shed the preconceptions we have from when we were kids and our families got dogs, because our family, our situation, is nothing like the situation when we were kids. For one big reason: we don't have kids.

The obvious issue here is that we're not home 10 hours a day four days a week, and that's a lot of time for the dog to be on his own at home, especially at first. Most dogs need more socialization than we can give them. But that's only the most obvious issue: it's far from the only one or the biggest.

I think the biggest is probably exercise. Many of these applications speak of the amount of exercise the dog will get, and emphasize over and over that a tired dog is a happy dog, and an unexercised dog is a problem dog, prone to disobedience, acting out, even aggression. I think it's easy to be very glib about the commitment to take a dog for a walk every single day. But it's been nearly impossible to commit to simpler, less time-consuming, less tiring exercise that doesn't require dealing with rain, snow, and cold. If we can't exercise 15 minutes a day after work five days a week consistently, can we really be sure we can live up to a dog's need for exercise?

My hope is that if we get to talk to someone at one of the shelters they can recommend what's really the right breed for us, but we have to be realistic about it, and to not be too burdened by ideas of how things were when we were kids. I hope the answer is that there is a breed that's right for us. It may well be a different breed than we've been thinking about. My worry is that we may be hard pressed to offer a dog a really good home, if we're truly frank about it.

There's another small concern and that's with the timing. Right now, I'm at the absolute last final stretch of a huge project at work, and not only can't I take any time off for the next month and a bit, I will probably be starting to work a lot of overtime soon to get through it. This is a very unusual situation for me; in fact, I've never had to work overtime for any length of time before and I don't expect to again any time soon. This is probably not a great time to have to take time off to be visited by shelter staff, to go look at dogs, etc. It's not even a good time to use my after work time on a lot of responsibilities like training a dog or going to obedience classes. Right now, I just need to spend my off time resting and burning off stress. It's going to be hard to work through this right now.

I don't have a solution to any of these concerns except to grin and bear it. We'll just have to see how it goes.

Sunday, May 24, 2009


Today is, as far as I can recall, the first day in my entire life there isn't a cat or dog living in the house I live in.

When Siobhan and I got together we were living in rentals, and it's pretty hard to find rentals that let you have a cat, and even harder to find one that lets you have a dog. So we never got a dog, but we always had at least one cat, usually several. When we finally bought our own house we talked about getting a dog but decided to hold off until the cats we already had, passed on. Because in my experience (we had both dogs and cats my whole childhood) a dog can easily adapt to adding a cat to the family, but a cat has a harder time adjusting to adding a dog. And our cats at the time included a Maine Coon cat (they're very territorial and possessive of their humans) and one fairly old, fairly grumpy and cantankerous cat named Brynna.

Brynna lived a very long time. When she died yesterday she was 18½. No one expected her to be the one to last so long. She was the runt of the litter, and she was grumpy and anti-social from the minute she was born (I actually got to see her being delivered). She was scrawny her whole life. She was never very clever, though she eventually turned out to have what you might call "street smarts." She also spent a lot of time outdoors; in the summer, she'd be gone for days at a time. As many of the cats we've lost were lost to other animals, she was always the most likely candidate, but somehow she survived all that.

The last five years or so, she'd been in the decline of old age. She'd lost more weight and was even more scrawny; we constantly struggled to get her to eat. She had various organs gradually declining, to the point where we were balancing various medications to keep them all working. We also were giving her subcutaneous fluids twice a week. With all that, we knew that she could go at any time, but at the same time, she was healthy, in good spirits, still getting around on her own, still talkative as ever. Though she had become a lot more affectionate once she was an only cat, she was still cantankerous and cranky. Though she had days she was sick, by all accounts she was happy and comfortable, not fading out, not struggling, and not suffering.

So you can't really say her death was "unexpected", but there's nothing about yesterday that made it likely; she was in as good health and as good spirits as any day in the last five years. We took her in for her routine semiannual checkup and blood work; there were no particular concerns and nothing unusual. But while they were taking her urine sample she arrested, and they brought us back, but they couldn't revive her. It was a shock and surprise and happened very fast. So we were as prepared as one could be with a cat that "could go any minute" for more than five years, but you can't be really prepared for that long without the preparedness getting dulled around the edges, so it was still a shock.

We buried her in the woods in front of the house, and marked the grave with a stone from one of the brooks nearby. It's proving quite hard to get used to that she's gone. She's been around for so, so long. Every time I walk down the hall, something in the back of my head is expecting her to be there because she wasn't in the living room so therefore she must be in the bedroom. I keep catching myself starting to talk to her... and I know one day I'm not going to catch myself in time.

Perhaps it may seem too soon to some, but we're going ahead with plans to get a dog right away. In fact, we went to a shelter yesterday and will be going to another one today. Why so soon? Partly it's because there's no reason to wait. Plus the spring is the ideal time to get a dog; we can do all the crate training now while there's plenty of time before the snow makes it trickier, and it's hard to leave the dog outside. And it probably will take a while to get a dog, to find the right one and go through the pre-approval stuff that the shelters require.

Part of it is also a need to fill the gap. I don't imagine that a dog will make me forget about Brynna or stop missing her, and that's not what we're after. But it's still a step to take to feel better, to fill the gap and ease the hurt.

After we have a dog settled in, we'll go back to adding a cat to the family. Not sure how soon that'll be.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Ultimate Question

"There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.

There is another which states that this has already happened."

With the passing of the late lamented Douglas Adams, we will probably never have a definitive answer about what is the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. We probably never were going to get one, anyway. However, it's my opinion that Adams telegraphed what the question was in the books. He never comes out and says it, and he never makes it definitive, because it's supposed to be a mystery, that's part of the point. But I think he decided what it was, and then, he couldn't help but slip it into the books, but in a way that allowed him plausible deniability, and allowed us to argue about what the real Question was.

No, it's not "What is six times nine?" While there's no particular explanation other than coincidence, improbability, and the various forms fate takes in the books, it's also clear that it's not quite right. And no, it's not "How many roads must a man walk down?" That's just PR.

There's only one being who claims definitively to know what the Question is, and that's Marvin. He insists he can read it in Arthur's brainwaves, and from other things he does, it seems plain he probably can do things like that. And why would he lie? "Life's bad enough without making up any more of it." And it's entirely appropriate to Marvin's character that he would be the one to know it.

The Ultimate Question comes up a few times in the books, each time apparently with no obvious significance to it, and each time, it seems kind of out of place, like it was kind of shoved in. By the author, that is. Except in one place, Marvin is a little more overt, though again, in a way that allows the author complete deniability.
"...I am at a rough estimate thirty billion times more intelligent than you. Let me give you an example. Think of a number, any number."

"Er, five," said the mattress.

"Wrong," said Marvin. "You see?"

The mattress was much impressed by this and realized that it was in the presence of a not unremarkable mind.
If you stop to think about it, this is a very good candidate for the Ultimate Question. If you knew why the Answer, the only correct Answer, to the question "Think of a number, any number," should be Forty-Two, and why any other number is wrong, then surely you would have to understand something fundamental about the universe that eludes the grasp of everyone else.

And since Marvin knows both the Question and the Answer, clearly the universe has already been replaced with something more bizarre and inexplicable. Which goes a long way to explaining the rest of the books.

Last year I re-read the entire series and became even more convinced that this is the Question that Douglas Adams had in mind, and that he left subtle clues and hints in a few places so that once you found it you could be sure it was right. But I didn't have the foresight to take notes about those clues and hints, and now, I can't spare the time to dig through the entire series to find them. Pity, because other times I've shared this idea with other people, few found it convincing. And even fewer took the time to go through the book to test the theory. But they're in there, really they are. And no other candidate Question holds up nearly as well.

Maybe someday some note or letter Adams wrote will be found and we'll finally be sure. I could believe he might have some encrypted, encoded file left hidden somewhere for us to find; he seems the type. Then again, he also seems the type to appreciate the idea of a mystery never, ever solved for certain.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Precision matters

Admittedly it's more obvious to us left-brain-dominant types, and especially to computer programmers (amongst others). Programming a computer is an act where you cannot afford to make assumptions or leave things out; there has to be a bit of code for each contingency, even the unusual ones and the ones that might never happen and the ones that seem like "special cases". In fact, those situations generally take up most of the effort when writing a program. You can't just be vague about what happens in those situations, but users who are describing how a system should work invariably focus on the "regular" course of events and get vague once you get into exceptions.

That's certainly not the only place where it matters to say what you actually mean, and mean what you actually say. I'm currently nearing the end of a huge, multi-year, very complicated, and very stress-inducing project at work, and largely due to the vendor, but also in part because of my own mistakes and things I didn't know well enough (but I know now!) the project has been quite badly managed. At any number of points throughout it, we've had large problems creep in on us precisely because someone didn't say what they actually meant, and settled for close enough. And invariably this turns a tiny little detail of trivial importance into a substantially larger problem that consumes a lot of time we can ill afford to fix it.

What's irritating about this is not the problems and having to solve them. It's that I have to defend the idea that precision matters. That taking two extra seconds to say the right thing now isn't just a good idea to save the two hours you'll spend at the last minute a month from now fixing the mess caused by ignoring the details and being vague, it's also a good idea for its own sake.

It really matters. Don't make me the bad guy for being the one to mention this fact. The fact was there even if no one had mentioned it.

To my readers, sorry to use the blog to vent a frustration. In a month or so, I will have a lot less frustration to vent.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Plastic mold injection

A few weeks ago I got a nice set of glass-lens sunglasses, and around the same time I got a new fanny-pack with a slot for my PDA. That means there's less room in the fanny pack for everything else. At the same time, the sunglasses being in a hard case means they can't dangle loose from the fanny pack and have to be inside it, which takes up even more room. So even having removed everything I can spare from the fanny pack, it's very tight.

I want to make sure those sunglasses last and don't get bent or crushed, so I need a firm case, not the soft one that came with it. But the only kind I can find so far is a clamshell-style case which is many times thicker than the sunglasses. It's big enough to fit sunglasses that don't fold very flat, but these fold so flat they could fit into an envelope.

I keep wishing I could find a very slender case. It wouldn't need to fold open; just a rigid-sided sleeve the right size would do perfectly fine. But it would have to be the right size. I can picture precisely what I need and if someone manufactured it would cost pennies to make, but I can't think where to buy it.

This is just the latest in a long string of times I've wished I had some way to create such things myself. A CAD system that could manufacture plastic items to my specifications, or simply a plastic mold injection system designed for consumers. Imagine how many handy things you could make that would just exactly fit what you need it for, but which aren't worth it for the manufacturers to make, inventory, distribute, price, and deal with.

I can't very well make it myself from wood, metal, cloth, or anything else I can work in because it wouldn't be rigid, or it wouldn't be lightweight, or it wouldn't be slim.

Wouldn't it be nice if someone could make a plastic mold injection system for home use? I bet I'd buy one.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Opera's final straw

Starting on Sunday some time, Opera stopped being able to go to secure sites; it just hangs forever on "Setting up secure connection". I've searched online for people with a similar problem, and while I found a host of situations where someone had that problem with a specific site, I never found any where someone had it with every site.

These same sites work fine in IE and Firefox on the same computer. The problem affects Opera on two different ISPs behind totally different firewalls. I've reviewed settings, then changed them and changed them back just to be sure; I've purged caches and deleted temporary files; and I even ran the installer and let it do a Repair, but no help.

I posted to opera.general but no one there has posted anything useful. I went through the obligatory first few posts of "did you make sure your computer was plugged in" and "you should try doing something that you already said you did but I didn't bother to read your post" and then the thread dried up. No posts from the Opera people themselves.

This is proving to be the final incentive to make me make the switch to Firefox. Now, I don't imagine that this is a fatal failing of Opera; I'm sure if I invested more time, I could fix it, I just don't have the time right now. (I'd probably do a full uninstall and reinstall, then rebuild my settings. Hopefully I could do that without losing my Wand passwords, as that's the biggest thing that I still need Opera around for.) And I don't think that Firefox won't do something similar inscrutable one day; every program does it eventually, and you just figure out how to deal with it.

But I was already considering the move to Firefox, and getting used to the differences between its unfamiliar quirks and Opera's familiar (to me) quirks. I've gotten a collection of add-ons that addresses almost all of the things about Firefox I found lacking, and have been learning to live with the few that remain. So it was mostly waiting for me to make the decision, and to have the time to act on it. I don't have the time, but right now, I have the time to deal with Opera's problem even less, so... here we go. Make Firefox my default browser. Check. Let's hope this doesn't drive me nuts.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Clothing and gender identity

If you read my blog you're probably a pretty modern, liberated, tolerant, accepting person. You probably are certain that different gender and sexual identities and preferences should be no one's business, and most likely you find it hard to believe (when you stop to think about it) that we still even have to have the argument about whether it's a moral issue, let alone a legal one.

If you find that a male friend of yours has a skirt and likes to wear it (and for now let's set aside things like kilts), you certainly don't think any less of him. You know there are a lot of things it can mean, and any one of them is not a judgment against him. Maybe he just likes to dress up in private. Or just for some kind of play with his partner. Maybe he has a whole drag queen outfit. Maybe he's straight and maybe he's gay and maybe he's in between. Maybe he's a transsexual. You know that no one of those things implies any of the others, and that none of them is a bad thing.

If you find that a female friend of yours has a pair of pants and likes to wear them, though, you don't even go through any of that stuff. When your male friend likes to wear a skirt, it is nearly inescapable for most people to conclude that this is a statement of gender identity, even if we're not sure what statement it is, and even if we don't consider that statement a bad thing. But if a woman wears pants, it's not a statement about anything at all other than that she happens to be wearing pants that day. Even if she wears pants every day, that doesn't mean a thing other than that she likes pants.

A few hundred years ago, if you saw a woman who wore trousers (excluding special-purpose ones) you would probably have had the same reaction we have today to a man wearing a skirt. Maybe you wouldn't judge her for it, but you'd certainly assume she also wants to wear a waistcoat, or smoke cigars. You might expect she has other aspects of her personality that are more masculine than average. You might expect it's not unlikely that she disdains sewing, or enjoys sports, or takes an aggressive tone in her relationships, particularly romantic. You might know that no one of those things implies any of the others, and you might not think there's anything wrong with any of them. But you'd almost certainly see the fact that she wears trousers as a statement of gender identity more than a choice that trousers happened to be more comfortable that day.

Somewhere along the way, that got completely sanitized. There are very, very few items of clothes that a woman can't wear without some hint of gender identity. Maybe a tophat, perhaps a bowtie, or jockey shorts, and that's about it. Perhaps a tuxedo, though I think if you saw a woman in a tuxedo you'd think it was a costume more than a statement of gender identity.

But what a man can wear without it having any cultural implications about gender identity is essentially unchanged from what it was three hundred years ago. Sure, there are a lot more people who would think a drag queen is just something some people do that's amusing or irrelevant but not wrong; but why hasn't the other step even been started on? Why the asymmetry; why have women made so much more progress than men in this regard? Or am I wrong even to call this "progress", as if there's an inevitability?

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Dresden Files

The first set of books I've been reading on my Kindle is the Dresden Files series. I first learned of this series from the short-lived TV show, which it turns out is quite different in the execution, though the central premise and the overall feel are the same.

The books concern a wizard in modern-day Chicago, in a world where magic is real, but where most people don't believe in it. Harry Dresden is about the only one who is in the Yellow Pages, taking on cases like a private investigator from people who know what's really going on, or ones who don't believe in it but want to be sure.

The first book had a heavy influence from the potboiler detective genre. It's a difficult thing to reinvent a genre that's become passé because on the one hand you want to embrace its tropes and clichés, at least enough to honor them, or why bother? But on the other hand, those things have become outmoded, and probably for a reason. The first book errs too far in favor of those tropes; for instance, there are about six women in it, and every one of them is knock-down gorgeous and screams femme fatale, and it gets feeling repetitive. The author leans too heavily on those clichés as if he's not entirely sure of the validity of the unique elements he's bringing to the story yet.

The second book breaks away from that and spends more time exploring magic, and how it works, and what impact it has on the story. However, it also becomes very visceral and brutal, since that book focuses on werewolves, and at times one ends up wincing at some of the depictions.

By the third book, the author is getting settled into a groove and the story brings in just enough of the potboiler clichés to make the inspiration clear and to pay homage to it, but not enough to overburden it or take away too much from the gimmick of the series. Also by this time you start to see how the rules of magic, and the power balances of the various organizations and groups involved in it (the various courts of vampires, the White Council of wizards, the denizens of Faerie, etc.), work, and they're really interesting and well fleshed out. And soon after, we start to have stories that are less episodic, with bits from older books coming back and even with books ending without really resolving big parts of their conflicts.

Even when the series is overburdened with some elements in the first few books, it's gripping reading, and it gets better as it goes along. I'm on the sixth book now and it's still holding up just fine. These aren't deep books and I blow through them pretty fast but they're good fun, and a nice contrast to the pretty heavy books I was reading before this series. And given the stress levels in my life right now, light fiction is probably for the best anyway.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Wolfram Alpha

If you haven't already heard about Wolfram Alpha, you should watch the introduction to all the amazing things it can do.

This is going to be one of those tools where the trick is getting used to thinking of it when there's a situation it can answer. At first, you'll sit and stare at it thinking "what can I ask it?" and have a hard time thinking of things that aren't just makework; and then there'll be times you have a question it could answer but you won't think of using it to find out. Then you'll either gradually get used to the idea of consulting it at the right times, or you won't. In the latter case, you'll conclude that it was never anything but a gimmick. In the former, it'll transform how you do things and what you can do. We went through this with IMDB, with Yahoo, with AltaVista, with Google, and with Wikipedia; but I think the gap is going to be even bigger in this case, because the range of things Wolfram Alpha can do is so much more vertical (deeper but narrower) and it's harder to sum up in a single concept.

Incidentally, I ran into another small advantage Opera has over Firefox when this came out. In Opera, adding a new search engine is as simple as right-clicking and choosing a menu option, and you can do it the instant you find any search field in any site. It only makes sense; if you are on a search form, Opera already knows everything it needs to useit when you point to a text field. (It might not be able to use all the features, but then, neither will the built-in search field in the browser anyway.) But in Firefox the only way to add a search engine is if someone has taken the time to make an add-on that adds it. Fortunately, Wolfram Alpha is a big enough deal that there already is one available. But the limitation seems senseless.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Star Trek

I know a lot of diehard Trek fans are being negative about this film, but having just seen it, even being charitable about how tastes vary I can't figure out how they can be like that other than just being sourpusses, and even at that, sourpusses made of pretty stern stuff.

While I wouldn't say it's the best movie ever or that it was a perfect film in every respect, it was absolutely a solid film, loads of fun, good acting, great effects, and that kind of tense, engaging plotting that I've come to expect from J.J. Abrams. It had everything you want in a sci-fi action movie. I have no doubt I will want to see it again when it's out on Blu-ray (and why haven't we reached the point where, once the movie's done, in the end credits there's a code on the screen you can key into your cell phone to put it right onto preorder on Amazon?).

I'm sure there are some petty quibbles about continuity (though really, having seen the film, I can say they are definitively groundless inasmuch as they are implicitly addressed) but at their worst they are no reason to object to the film. This isn't a remake of "Where No Man Has Gone Before", it's a new story that is simultaneously a great ride on its own, and a respectful and friendly reminder of what's come before.

Really, go see it.

Friday, May 15, 2009

got milk?

The "got milk?" campaign is one of the more successful ad campaigns in recent years, and the simple, white-on-black lowercase Phenix American text form of the logo is ubiquitous and instantly recognizable.

And like so many successful, iconic, and simple ad campaigns, it is constantly being echoed by imitators, some of whom are trying to be funny in their parody imitation, but most of whom are just borrowing the familiarity of the logo to try to catch your attention. There are so many of these now, and so many of them are so uninspired and bland, that the entire idea of the logo is diluted almost into uselessness.

Lately I've seen a run of them that aren't in the right font (or even in a similar font, don't stay in lowercase, don't use the right color scheme, and don't even follow the formula. And I don't mean ones that intentionally break the formula (like "gut deer?" which is feeble at best but at least the deviation is intentional), but ones where the object isn't something you can even "got", like a verb (not even in present participle).

Parody is a delicate art and it's even more challenging when you have so little to work with. The first thousand times someone made a "got jesus?" or "got beer?" sticker, it might have had some impact, but at this point, when someone makes a "got lungs?" parody or a derivative "got margaritas?" ad, about all they're really doing is strengthening the original ad campaign. All anyone thinks is how weak an imitation is of "got milk?" and so they're thinking about "got milk?" and not the clone.

In fact, the California Milk Processing Board (the original source for the campaign) has compiled a poster of the top 100 rip-offs of the got milk campaign. Of course, they've moved on to other variations on the campaign, such as the famous "milk mustache" version, but the logo is still alive and well. When ripping it off is so passé no one's doing it anymore, the actual logo will still be recognizable.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Auto power adapter

Imagine if you could go back in time and tell the guy who first put a cigar lighter into a car back in 1926 that, nearly a century later, that device was still ubiquitous and widely used, but for a purpose completely unlike that for which it was designed. Instead, we're using them to power computers, GPS devices, cell phone chargers, and MP3 players. And it's clunky as heck to do it: the socket is a terrible size for that, the connectors are fragile, the voltage is not reliable without a lot of filtering and processing involving expensive components (and even then there's a lot of hum), and the whole thing is unnecessarily bulky.

So why are we still using it? Clearly, from a technology standpoint, we could have made a better standard at any time in the last fifty years, and the resulting device could have been both better (more reliable, more flexible, etc.) and cheaper (both to build the receptacle and the devices that plug into it). But we didn't, because of the burden of having a standard. No car manufacturer can change the receptacle because of the jillions of devices out there using the old format, and no device manufacturer can change the plug because cars won't have the receptacle. It's like a reversed chicken-and-egg problem.

However, I'm seeing a chance for a way for it to finally change. Almost every device you might want to use on the go now has a means to be charged from a USB port. If next year a car came out that had one of the old cigar lighter adapters and one USB port, probably 2/3 of the current uses of the old adapter could be replaced immediately with a cable you already have. That would save the consumer money without adding anything significant to the car manufacturer's costs. After a few years of this being done, the few devices that you can't charge by USB, but where it would be feasible to charge them by USB, would probably start having a way to do it -- perhaps a clunky adapter at first, but integral, eventually. Then they could stop offering the old receptacle, and someone could sell a USB-to-cigarette-lighter adapter for people who still need the old format for their last few items.

The net result would be a small cost savings for the car manufacturers, another cost savings for consumers, and a great improvement in functionality since the USB power standard is more reliable and uses much sturdier and more compact connectors.

This is only possible because of the ubiquity of USB, but even so, we might not see it happen. It's far easier to keep propogating a ridiculously inefficient de facto standard far past when it made any sense, just because someone has to go first in changing things. This is a key problem with futurism; the change, if it ever comes, will be pretty unpredictable, since a steady state of self-reinforcing sameness will change very abruptly for a reason that probably will depend on something invented not to make that thing change anyway. A side effect of one technology will change the side effect of another technology.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Moral vegetarianism

There are a lot of reasons for and against vegetarianism, but this post specifically concerns only one of them, the "Meat is murder!" school of thinking which I call (perhaps not very accurately) moral vegetarianism. Moral vegetarians are always full of platitudes about challenging your ethical assumption that murder is, or should be, defined solely based on the victim being human. If it's murder to take a life from a human, why isn't it murder to take the life of a puppy?

I'm all for challenging preconceptions, but if "human" is an arbitrary definition for the sake of attaching an ethical imperative to it, then in dispensing with it you can't simply choose a different but equally arbitrary definition. And if you do, you should stick with it. Most people probably would be upset with killing a puppy but wouldn't call it "murder", but if a moral vegetarian does, then it's no problem if they also call it murder to kill a cow. So where's the border they use? Generally, they would also object to killing a sea kittenfish, so it's not mammals. And many would object just as strenuously to killing a lobster, so it's not even vertebrates. How many would refuse to swat a mosquito? How many would refuse to have a tapeworm removed from their intestines? How many get upset at the idea of all the microscopic animals that their immune systems are killing every day, or refuse to take antibiotics, considering that to be genocide?

Obviously, any ethical imperative will seem silly if you do what I just did to it, take it to ridiculous extremes. That's no argument against having them. But the point I'm angling at is that every moral vegetarian has as arbitrary a border to what constitutes murder as every non-vegetarian. And, to extend the argument the other direction, cannibals could level the same accusation at non-cannibals. In a way cannibals have the most internally consistent, non-arbitrary version of the rule: if you can eat it, you may eat it. (No, I'm not advocating cannibalism here.)

But you don't have to take the argument to extremes to put a fine point on the arbitrariness of moral vegetarianism. For as much as they talk about "taking a life" they can't avoid the fact that that carrot was also alive, and if equating murder with humanity is "speciesist" then equating life with animals is "kingdomist". Things are no less alive because they don't walk, any more than because they don't talk or file income taxes.

Some address this point by only eating bits that come off of living plants: if you pluck an ear of corn and eat it, the plant lives on. Or even go so far as to only eat things that fell on their own. Yet those same people often object to eating eggs; and if an egg is a potential chicken, so too is an apple a potential apple tree in precisely the same way. All that luscious fruit flesh around the seeds is just as necessary for the seeds to survive and thrive, as is all that tasty protein in the egg, for the chicken to live. In fact, since the egg's unfertilized but the seeds are ready to grow, eating an apple is arguably more grievous than eating an egg.

Which brings me to the really juicy bit of this argument. Moral vegetarians are very keen on the idea of getting by without having to kill anything for their food. That's the highest moral standard for them: they strive always to do as little killing as possible to sustain themselves. So what do they kill and eat? Autotrophs. The only creatures on the planet that don't kill anything for their food. The only creatures on the planet that actually meet the moral vegetarian's code of morality perfectly and unreservedly... the moral vegetarians kill and eat them.


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Spiral street sign stickers

I wrote once before about mysterious stickers I saw on street signs in the area. Now that it's bike season and I have my bike at work, I decided to alter my usual route for this morning's ride to get pictures of a few of them.

This is the best example of one of these stickers, this one in blue.

This one, in red, has had its "tail" torn off.

This one seems to be new, and features three of them, in red, yellow, and green, all of them smaller than the other ones I've seen around.

All three of these pictures feature the tail pointing off to the lower right at about the same angle, but others I've seen have it pointing off to lower left.

Someone went to the trouble to make these and someone else put them up in various places. They must be trying to say something, but I have no idea what, nor any thoughts on what to search on to find out. Anyone know?

Monday, May 11, 2009

Chainsaw warranty work

Right at the end of the hour or so of bucking I did this weekend, I had to stop and clean out the chainsaw several times since it was balking, making smoke and sparks. In fact, I had to stop just short of finishing the last cut because several rounds of cleaning hadn't helped, and the sparks were getting worrisome. So I just used a splitting wedge to finish the last cut.

Yesterday I disassembled and reassembled the chainsaw, cleaning as I went, and found no obvious problems; but the unit continues to spark and give off smoke when it's run, and the last time, it stopped running altogether. So I guess it's official, the chainsaw is down.

It's only seven months old so it's still on warranty, and I've begun the process of getting a warranty repair or replacement. It was purchased from True Value by way of Amazon, so I'm not sure exactly how to go about that. The manufacturer says to go through a nearly authorized retail outlet and I'm not sure which that is. I put in an email and if I don't hear back in a day or two I'll contact the manufacturer.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Pick the year

Sometimes when Siobhan watches a movie I don't know, I'll try to identify, within a couple of minutes of it being on, what year it was made in. Obviously some movies make this so obvious it's not a challenge, but most don't. Identifying the year depends on a lot of factors. Mostly I go by stylistic things like the filming quality, the background music, fonts used in credits, cinematography aspects like camera angles and use of split screen, and more obvious things like who is appearing in the movie and the way they talk. Usually I'll try to do it without knowing the title of the movie, too.

Perhaps surprisingly, on movies after, say, 1960, I can usually hit within a couple of years, even only with a couple of minutes of screen time. I'm not even always sure how I can peg a movie's year, but I almost always can. And I'm almost never off by more than 3-4 years.

The trick to this game is if you're a big movie buff, so logically you should be good at it, you also can't really play it because odds are you'd already know too many of the movies directly. I'm not a big movie buff; outside of the few genres I like, there are tons of movies, even some of those big classics everyone has seen. (Heck, I don't think I've ever seen Casablanca from one end to the other all at once, though I'm sure I've seen all of it piecemeal.) So even if you take people who have enough movie experience to play but not so much to be excluded, like me, I wonder what makes one person better at it than the other?

Saturday, May 09, 2009

A lumberjacking breakthrough

There was still about 8' of the base, the thickest part, of the big tree I felled last year that I didn't get bucked before the snows were too thick.

The hardest part about bucking something so thick is the pinching. If the log were perfectly straight lying on perfectly flat ground, you couldn't just cut down through it for two reasons. First, the cut isn't infinitely thin, so the gap it's leaving behind tends to pinch inward on the blade. Second, even if it didn't, you can't cut down to the ground because your blade will dig into the ground and that's bad for the blade and bad for your safety. Once the ground isn't perfectly level or the log isn't perfectly straight, these factors can usually be magnified in intensity.

The best solution is to prop the log up so you're lopping off an end which is up in the air. Then you can cut straight down. The weight of the piece you're lopping off is pulling away from the cut, not pushing in towards it, so it's not pinching.

Another option is to cut down about 80% of the way, then roll over the log, then cut down the rest of the way, but that's a lot harder, plus it's quite possible for a slight slant to the land or knot in the wood to pinch your saw, and then the saw is stuck and can easily be ruined forever.

This particular log was way too heavy last year for me to lift an end up onto another piece of wood or a wedge, and I don't trust myself enough to do the technique where you cut down and then roll; so I was using a difficult and tedious workaround in which I would cut a wedge out with two cuts at angles to about 75% of the way through, then cut another wedge the rest of the way almost, then finally cut the last bit, getting through too quick for the pinch. It makes the whole process take 2-3 times as much cutting and it's also nervous work.

This year, the wood has dried a little so it was a little easier to move but it was still too heavy for me to lift an end up onto something. However, I had a brilliant idea for a solution that worked quite wonderfully well:

I had some of these around for working on the tractor in the garage. I put one down next to the log, and rolled it up onto the level part. Far easier than lifting it into place, well within my strength. After lopping off a few rounds, I used the second ramp to roll it back the way it came and up again. I went the whole way down, alternating between the two ramps.

The last cut was still a bitch to do because it was cutting a three foot log in half so neither half was able to sit up on something with the other half hanging off, so I had to have it poised between both ramps and then cut, turn, cut, turn, cut, turn to avoid pinching. My saw got a bit tired of the job doing this and started giving off smoke. I cleaned it out and tuned it up twice but in the end I had to use a wedge to split the last bits of the cut. I'll have to check to see if the saw is all right later, after it's cooled down and I've rested up.

The ramp technique really helped so well I will probably use it even for logs I could lift, because, why lift when it's easier to roll?

Friday, May 08, 2009

Rock Band

For a long time I wondered if I would like things like Rock Band and Guitar Hero. I am certainly the target market: obsessive about music, an avid player of air guitar and air drums and such, someone who used to play guitar but was always bad at it, and who always wished to learn to play other instruments, any instrument. But I'm also someone who never got into computer games in general; the few exceptions prove the rule. And since getting the full set with all the instruments always seemed so expensive, I just decided to wait to find a great price before taking the risk of getting it not knowing if I'd like it. (Since I didn't know anyone else who had it and could let me try it.)

The chance recently came when Best Buy had a $10 sale on some PS3 (and other console) games, including Rock Band. That's just the game: you also need a guitar or drum controller. I got the game while on vacation in Connecticut, but I found a well-reviewed guitar that works for both Rock Band and Guitar Hero on Amazon for only $13. It arrived the same day we got back.

I've been really surprised by how fun I've found it. I also found I was pretty good at playing the Rock Band guitar, and took to it fairly quickly. It's also proving a very nice way to burn stress, since it's challenging, absorbing, and yet not tense or anxious; plus it's at least a little bit physical (at least for me since I play it standing up and bopping). And right now I need to burn stress, due to some things at work that I wouldn't want to repeat here, but believe me, I'm as stressed as I have ever been plus a little, and I don't think I could do much more. (I'm past the stage where my heart feels fluttery for no reason, and into the stage where I find myself grinding my teeth, and sometimes find my hands shaking for an hour after I leave work.)

I was also surprised to find Siobhan enjoying it a lot -- she's not nearly as into music as I am, and showed no propensity towards air-guitar playing. So we ordered a second guitar and a set of drums, which arrived last night. And I got to try the drums for the first time.

And it's so fun! And so much harder than the guitar; in particular, I'm having a devil of a time getting used to the foot pedal. Even on easy mode you're using all five inputs and playing "chords", where on the guitar you're only using three and almost never playing chords until medium mode.

I've also found that playing drums I need to "feel" the song more than playing guitar. With the guitar, if it's a song I don't know, I can get by just by watching the notes enough to get a feel for the song well enough to carry me through it. But with the drums, if it's an unfamiliar song, I can't even get started until I know the rhythm (and sometimes I can't find out the rhythm until I get started), and even when I know it, I can't get the timing right just by watching the screen, I have to feel it in the song. I think part of that is that when playing guitar you have the drums helping you feel it, but the drums don't have anyone else helping; it's often said that drums are the foundation of the song.

The drums are also more physical than the guitar which possibly means they're better for bleeding off stress. Not to belabor the obvious, but I am beating on something with sticks. How that helps relieve stress is a no-brainer.

I still haven't tried Guitar Hero and I'm feeling disinclined to do so; I've barely trained myself to one game, I don't want to lose what training I've given myself by working on something very similar but not exactly the same. Anyway, the version of Guitar Hero we got is, I think, not able to support drums. (Support for other instruments was added later for the original Guitar Hero, but was part of the first version of Rock Band.)

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Moore's Law and disk sizes

I got into computers back when 4K was a lot of memory; the first real computer I owned came with 1K of RAM expanded to 16K thanks to an expander. We didn't have disks then, only tapes. I remember my first floppy disk drive which stored 360K which seemed like a nearly unlimited amount; the computer I had at the time only had 64K of RAM, and only about half of that was usable for code, so you could write ten programs that filled every single bit of available space and save all of them on one disk with room to spare! My first hard drive ever was 20M and it was hard not to be astonished by it being over 50 floppy disks in size. I remember hearing about a coworker getting a 120M hard drive at the time and being amazed at the idea that it would take a hundred of the 1.44M floppy disks we had at the time to back it up, and wondering what you could fill such a thing with.

Not to sound too naïve, even back when I had my first 1K computer I could see how someday we'd want to store not just text but maybe pictures. When I had 360K floppies I knew someday we'd want to store music. When I had a 20M hard drive I could see how we'd want to have data-heavy programs like GPS that would take gigs of space. When I had a 1G drive I could see how we'd want to store video. At each step I thought how great it would be to have a data library that had hundreds, or thousands, of items.

It's easy to start imagining that every step along the way, the multiplying ten-fold of storage space that fits into the same volume and price is inevitable and will continue indefinitely, and that we will always find more needs for all that space. And it's not hard to project it into the future. Right now I can have a bunch of video on a hard drive, but I can't just have all the video I'd like; even with heavy compression, video takes up too much space. It'll be a long time before I can be as blasé about video as I am now with text files (and isn't it amazing that not that long ago we had to be as cautious about accumulating text files as we do now with video?). When I have terabytes, I can have a huge video library of stuff available at the tip of my finger. When my computers have petabytes, I'll have terabytes on devices in my pocket. And when my computer has exabytes, I'll be able to keep Wikipedia on my cell phone.

But maybe there's an end. If you'd asked me in 1988 about what kinds of files took up lots of space, right then I could have listed the text/database/picture/music/video hierarchy where each step is ten times bigger than the previous. But after video, what's next? When you can fit all the video you might ever want to watch on a chip the size of your fingertip, what will you store next? We can go a couple more orders of magnitude just undoing all our lossy compression and going back to native formats. We can go a few more with having huger archives of everything in the universe in one spot. But "more" can only take us so far before we need "bigger", the way video is bigger than music, to have our demand keep up with supply. And while, to this point in history, there's always been a "bigger" over the horizon, right now there isn't really a bigger waiting in the wings after video.

We could probably imagine one or two more iterations of "bigger" by talking about having interactive three-dimensional pre-rendered worlds, for instance. But I think we may, within the next couple of decades, see the point where more disk space stops being really useful. Where the endless ten-folding finally lets up just because the demand isn't there, and maybe storage manufacturing will turn to other factors. Speed has always been a priority because bigger size needs bigger speed just to break even, but what about speed without size increases, so it's real speed? How about more reliability -- pervasive redundancy, integral backup, more internal integrity checking, ubiquitous encryption at the hardware level? And there's always size.

Or maybe there'll be another five generations of ten-times-bigger kinds of data that haven't occurred to me. Maybe by then, we'll be able to use that space to record a human mind, or backups of your DNA, or all the preprocessing required to implant the Library of Congress in your brain in such a way that you can pull it up as fast as your own memories, or store a complete simulation of every particle in a solar system. But if disk sizes increase ten-fold every five years, there will be a point in my lifetime when my cell phone can store the position and momentum of every particle in the universe (except of course Heisenberg says it can't have both, but you know what I mean), so there's got to be an end.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Gaming group folklore

The recent death of Bea Arthur reminded me of a topic on my blog from a few weeks ago, about a big yellow machine, and its place in my group's internal folklore. No, really, it did. The reason: somehow, Bea Arthur became a part of my group's folklore, meaning "a unit of length about six feet long". My memory of how this got started is hazy. I was GMing and describing a room, and something I said got misheard as Bea Arthur (I wish I could remember what it was), as a unit of length of the sides of the room. Given that Bea Arthur was unusually tall for a woman, the idea of a room being some number of Bea Arthurs in length is ludicrous but vaguely practical. And there's even a precedent.) From there it turned into a running joke, and then after sufficient repetitions of the joke, it became familiar enough that it almost lost its joke quality and just became part of the group folklore.

I can only think of a few more examples of this kind of local folklore unique to our group, before I start to get into borderline cases. The next most firm example is the twenty foot inflatable boulder. During an adventure on Hârn, our group was climbing high into the mountains, travelling through land occupied by barbarian savages on the one side, and garguns (like orcs) on the other. Unsurprisingly we had several combat encounters that took place on winding mountain trails in rugged terrain, and several times in a row, the combat map of a random spot on the mountainside happened to feature a very large rock at a curve in the trail, which either the attackers used to ambush from behind, or which we could use as cover. The vaguely peanut-like shape of the rock was even very similar in all three combats. We started to joke about how the ambushers lugged along an inflatable boulder to prepare for each combat; or that the propmaster for the movie of our adventure only had one prop boulder. Again, it turned into a running joke; every combat we asked where the twenty-foot inflatable boulder was, and the more inappropriate the better. And again, familiarity diluted the joke until it just became a catchphrase.

One that's quoted less often is the plan to "stab her in the eye and put the knockout patch on her", which alludes to one guest player who was in town for a week and for whom I wrote a one-shot adventure. Her character developed a stark animosity for one of the NPCs, so later when it was revealed that that NPC was one of the villains, the fight was on. Said villain had slap-on patches that applied a knockout drug transdermally, which everyone envied as a particularly effective weapon for time-travellers who didn't want to give themselves away. Our heroine was stuck with nothing but a knife and a seriously mean streak. On defeating, after a very cinematic hand-to-hand fight, the villain, and took her knockout patches, almost every other fight situation -- and quite a few non-fight situations -- led to the plan, "I stab him in the face and hit him with a knockout patch", often paradoxically in that order. Eventually it became a common first answer to the question "what do you do?" in almost any situation. And ultimately familiar enough that it needed no setup; just saying it was enough to bring up the joke.

I feel sure there's a bunch of other things like this but I can't bring them to mind. When I try, I mostly think of things that are more like inside jokes, but these feel like they've evolved past that to another stage... though maybe I'm just making that part up. I wonder how many a typical group has.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009


My recent trip to Connecticut also marked the debut of the use of my Eee, Incubus, as a GPS device. I used the copy of Microsoft Streets & Trips and the USB GPS that came with it, just as I would on my laptop.

My conclusion: the Eee is virtually the perfect device for this. That it's small and rugged enough to not worry that every time I bump it the screen is going to get messed up makes it ideal for use by the passenger in the car. The long battery life is good, though not quite good enough for a full day's puttering around, so I did still need to plug it in in the car some of the time. The screen is a good size for seeing map and directions, and having the full GPS software, with mouse and keyboard, makes it a lot easier to do things like add a stop on the fly (as in, "we need to stop for gas on the way there, what's near our path?").

I did have to use the Full Screen mode which is a little limited in Streets & Trips, being as it's more geared for the situation where you're alone in the car. But I could always hop back out of it as needed. Sometimes S&T is a tiny bit clunky because of it being geared towards a full desktop, but having the full features of that desktop interface when you need them is very good.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Place names

As I wrote recently, the drive home from a vacation always leaves me anxious and eager to arrive, wishing that it would turn out we were actually closer than I'd figured we'd be so we'd get home early, my mind bouncing around without anything good to latch onto. As I'm watching the road signs and recalculating how far we are from home, I can't help notice how many place names are the same as those near home. We are in New England, after all; and just as there are a jillion Springfields in the United States, New England has even more repetition of names.

These ideas always come together to imagine what it would be like to be able to jump, as by a teleport, only from one place to another of the same name, any time you take a highway exit. For instance, if you're in New Brunswick, Canada, and you see a Woodstock exit off the interstate, imagine if you had the power to take it to a different Woodstock, like for instance Woodstock, Vermont. Getting around in New England would be really easy, though it might be pretty complex to figure out the optimal route; better to drive a ways to Norwich, Vermont, to jump to Norwich, Connecticut, or do a shorter drive in Vermont to get to somewhere with a longer drive in Connecticut? What about multiple-hop trips? It's the same problem as routing on the normal roads, just with some extra connections. But while we all take for granted that this incredibly complex problem has been solved for us by Google Maps or your favorite GPS, no version of Google Maps would include these shortcuts, so figuring out optimal paths is suddenly very hard.

New England is also a great place to start to get to places in England, and a few other parts of Europe. And from there, you can get to lots of other places in the world, like Australia. But there are places that this shortcut technique wouldn't help terribly much with. Still, there are few places you couldn't get to in a day if you worked at it. For instance, to get from Vermont to Reykjavik, Iceland, in just a few hours, you could go by this route:
  • Drive to Chester, Vermont
  • Jump to Chester, Pennsylvania
  • Drive to Eddystone, Pennsylvania
  • Jump to Eddystone, Manitoba
  • Drive to Reykjavik, Manitoba
  • Jump to Reykjavik, Iceland
There's probably a more efficient route, but that's still a half-day or so. If I can do that trip in a few hours, I wonder if there's anywhere I couldn't get to in a day, short of places without handy place names, like most of Antartica. (The nearest thing to a real city there is McMurdo Station, and even if you count that, there are no cities I could find named McMurdo.)

And that's not even considering taking a "Main Street" exit to get to the Main Street in any other city!

Yes, I really think about things like this.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Vacation shopping

Though most of our vacations have involved some wandering around in little shops, or even outlet malls, few of them have involved more than a small amount of actual purchasing. But this time we went a little nuts. I feel a bit bad about it, because it's hard economic times and some people I know are feeling the pinch, so what am I doing blowing money on frivolities? I reassure myself about the reasons why it's okay, how I got to this point, etc., but I still feel a little bad. Then again, spending is part of the economic recovery, right? I'm just a tiny little stimulus package. (Don't worry, that's not self-serving rationalization, I'm being intentionally ironic! You just can't tell that because you haven't installed the Tone Of Voice Neural Implant Link add-on for your browser yet.) So, here's what we got.
  • Citadel Games: A few Space: 1889 books, most notably the long-out-of-print Conklin's Atlas Of The Worlds (now available in a two-for-one book with another book I already have). Plus something else I won't say here because it's a surprise for someone someday.
  • Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center: A pair of salad tongs hand-made from sustainably harvested olivewood. They're beautiful, eh?
  • Bestemor's: Some ligonberry jelly. I have no idea why.
  • Best Buy: The PS3 games Rock Band, Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, and The Bourne Conspiracy, all for $9.99 each. Meanwhile I ordered a $13 guitar from Amazon which arrived the day we got back. (Spent some time yesterday playing Rock Band, it was fun enough to order another guitar and a cheap set of drums.)
  • Saybrook Yarn: Yarn, of course.
  • Black and Decker Outlet Store: A right-angle electric screwdriver that fills a gap in my tool collection between the low-end screwdriver that's no good for driving screws into wood, and the drill that is way too fast for the same. Discounted price on a discontinued item at an outlet store, tres cheap. Already used it to help me fix a latch on a door.
  • Le Gourmet Chef Outlet Store: Some more silicon cupcake cups and another silicon baking sheet. One of the amusing things we didn't buy: a one pint crockpot. Really.
  • Corningware Corelle Outlet Store: Some pyrex pie pans.
  • Wilson's Leather: We never buy things in these shops, we just like to look. But there was a snazzy fanny pack of the same size as my el-cheapo $20 vinyl one from Walmart, plus it had a cell phone holder that fit my PDA, made from actual leather, and it only cost $20.
  • Pepperidge Farm: Coooooookies. Plus free goldfish. Tanger Outlet Center made a big fuss about how AAA membership got you a free coupon book, but they also printed a coupon in the local attractions map for a free copy of the coupon book, and then they had those area attraction maps on display right outside the office where they sold the coupon books. The only coupon we got to use was the free goldfish, though.
Incidentally, I had gotten a bunch of discount certificates from Amazon from the purchases I made to buy the home theater system, so I used them to buy some good sunglasses with real glass lenses. They didn't arrive in time to take with me, though, but they were waiting when I got back. They're the classic Ray-Ban Aviators. Now I have to see how well I can take care of them.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Where we ate in Connecticut

This wasn't one of those vacations where chances to get to good food, or food we can't usually get, or both, was a big part of the planning. But we still had some noteworthy meals.
  • Sunday Lunch: The Parthenon Diner: If you like diner food and the diner experience (and I know some people make a big deal out of it) you couldn't ask for better. For me, diners are neither good nor bad. Their buffalo wings were spicy enough, though they do make me think how much better Siobhan's crackling wings are.
  • Sunday Dinner: Cuckoo's Nest: I already wrote about this, and for fear of making more unidentifiable gray spooge appear in litlfrog's ears, I'll avoid repeating myself. The menu said "best Mexican food in Connecticut" which is already funny on the face of it, even if it were true. In the end, a Taco Bell would have blown it away.
  • Monday Breakfast: The Parthenon Diner: I guess we liked it, eh? Had an egg wrap sandwich that really needed some salsa.
  • Monday Lunch: Wendy's: We can't get Wendy's back home, but mostly we stopped here because it was convenient. Later, we also got a pair of $2.50 cupcakes from one of the quainte olde shoppes in Olde Misticke Village. They were fairly good, but not $2.50 good.
  • Monday Dinner: Lenny & Joe's Fish Tale: One of those places where 95% of the menu is fish, leaving me only three choices. The chef salad I picked was perfectly serviceable.
  • Tuesday Breakfast: Paperback Café: A pleasant enough café of precisely the type that should have had free Wi-Fi. But it didn't. Had an egg sandwich on a bagel; fairly good.
  • Tuesday Lunch: Stop n Shop: We just picked up some things at the grocery store to have as a sort of picnic lunch on the beach at Rocky Neck State Park.
  • Tuesday Dinner: Alforno's Ristorante: Pretty good pizza. They had some nice but expensive Italian dishes too, including veal parmigiana. Wonder how good that would have been.
  • Wednesday Breakfast: Leftovers: Cold pizza for breakfast (in a pinch, cold spaghetti'll do).
  • Wednesday Lunch: Cavos: On the drive back we stopped in the Hartford area to visit this fairly nice Greek restaurant. The waitress was amazed by my Eee. Had a gyro platter with a generous portion of pretty good meat, but the tzatziki was only okay, there were no veggies, and there was way too little pita for the amount of everything else.
We didn't try the $7.95 antelope-burger at the Pequot Museum. I kid you not. We also never stopped for donuts.

Friday, May 01, 2009

What I did on my summer vacation... err, spring vacation

This wasn't one of those big fancy vacations to a real touristy area, it was just a three day getaway to Connecticut to relax. So the stuff we saw wasn't showy, but it was relaxing.
  • Submarine Force Museum: In addition to a smallish museum about the history of submarines and their role in various endeavors, you get to tour the U.S.S. Nautilus, the first atomic submarine as well as the first submarine to travel to the North Pole. No amount of exposure to the "gee, they lived in such tight spaces" factor really weighs up to actually seeing those spaces first-hand. Photos here (password is 4wombats). I tried to take a lot of photos since a friend seemed very interested. Though photos never add up to really being there and that's trebly so for being on a submarine.

  • Best Buy: Well, they were having a short-term sale on some PS3 games for $10, and it happened to fall while we were on the vacation, and it was very near the nature center, so why not?

  • Citadel Games: We hadn't even looked for gaming shops, but just happened to see this on the way to Best Buy, and then went to it on the way back. Found some good stuff, too.

  • Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center: A fairly small nature center, with pretty minimal indoor stuff, and maybe half of that taxidermy. One part was an eight-minute "the fields at night" thing that seemed like it was going to be corny, but it was surprisingly good. Instead of a film, it was a diorama in the dark, with a voiceover, and the theme was what the meadows are like after night falls and the noises of people die down. Lights would shine on specific things from time to time as the narration discussed them: creatures you might hear or even see if you sit quietly and listen. At time it lapsed into goofiness, but it was a good-hearted goofiness, and the net result probably would really convince people to try sitting outside and listening once in a while. The center also featured extensive hiking trails, but with the bugs out, we only did a quick loop around the "duck pond" (inhabited by geese, not ducks), then bought a lovely pair of salad tongs hand-crafted from sustainably harvested olivewood in the gift shop. Photos here (password is 4wombats).

  • Olde Mistick Village: The definitive example of tourist-trap shopping, it's the usual cluster of quaint shops selling things you would never even look twice at at home, only three times bigger than almost anywhere else, and embarassingly brash in its determination to be charming. We were originally just looking for an area map to consider dinner options, but we did manage to visit four or five shops and even bought something we don't need.

  • Saybrook Yarn: Siobhan can talk about the yarn shop itself. What I can say about it is it's very nice they offer chairs and a table, so I could get a lot of useful writing about Tinkering done while I waited.

  • Tanger Outlet Centers: We intended just to browse and maybe pick up a few things, but actually bought more than we expected to. The story of consumerism, I suppose! More on what we bought in a post to come.

  • Rocky Neck State Park: A charming park with a very nice beach on the Long Island Sound. My first chance ever to stare out over the waves, squint, and say "I can see Long Island from here!" (Doing it the opposite way around was an every-year thing in my youth.) You had to walk under a train track to get between the parking lot and beach, and several trains rolled by while we were there. Photos here (password is 4wombats).

  • Pequot and Mashantucket Museum: We didn't realize this was an adjunct to Foxwoods until we found ourselves driving by Foxwoods, and I worried that it would end up being a very Disney sanitized view of the Pequot tribe, the kind that would overglorify their deep spiritual connection to the land. And there were a few small examples of that: the escalator "into the Ice Age" running through a glacier was corny, for instance. But in all, it was a remarkably balanced view that depicted the Native American tribes at their best and worst, and over their whole history from Beringia right up to the present day. The dioramas of the Pequot village (filling almost an entire floor of the impressively big building) and the caribou hunt (much smaller) were very impressive and gave a great sense of what daily life must have been like. They were a bit draconian about cameras (but I still snapped one picture on the sly anyway).
Plus a lot of restaurants, which I'll write about tomorrow.

One thing we didn't do: ride the Essex Steam Train and Riverboat, which is kind of annoying since that's what made us pick that area for our getaway in the first place, but they didn't open for the year as early as they made it seem they would back when we were booking our travel.