Friday, July 31, 2009


I don't know why, but my tummy has been troubled for a few days and it hasn't been getting better. When this happens for too long, there's only one thing that fixes it: the nearest I get to the cleansing fast, which is, a day or more of the BRAT diet. BRAT stands for "bananas rice applesauce toast". And it really works surprisingly well. Though I suspect that a diet free from fats and dairy would probably still work, it doesn't have to be that limited or strict, but why mess with success? Particularly since I like all of those things. The only variation I make is that the toast has peanut butter on it, for some protein.

The doctors usually recommend going onto that "for a few days" but sometimes I find a single day or even a half-day makes a big difference. That's probably what I'll do today simply because, despite my being badly burbly, plans have been made for a dinner that is decidedly not BRAT-compatible. That's usually the hardest part of doing it, in fact: that plans are always being made ahead of me.

If I'm not better by tomorrow, I'm going to go back on and stay on, regardless of dinner plans, until I feel better. (That'll mean eschewing whatever food there is at a birthday party I'm attending Saturday evening, so hopefully I'll feel up to at least a few nibbles by then.)

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Only goes one way

I know that playing Rock Band drums is not like playing real drums, but even so, you can tell a few things about the actual songs playing Rock Band versions.

I've gotten a bunch of track packs recently, one of which is the AC/DC Live track pack, which features some twenty AC/DC songs played live. And I can only conclude one thing. It must be very reassuring for AC/DC's drummer, that when he gets up in the morning, he knows just what he's going to be doing that day. "I think I'll alternate kick drum and snare through the verse, then on the chorus I'll play hi-hats with a snare every fourth beat," he says to himself, and nods. How comforting such regularity must be.

I've had to start spacing out the AC/DC tracks by interspersing something else in between, just so I don't get bored. Really I'm only still doing them out of a pernicious desire for completeness. Plus one or two of them had something vaguely different in them. Vaguely.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Socks graduated

Last night was the final week of our dog obedience class, so it was Socks's graduation. Most of the class was games and tests and demos, not training. Socks didn't do that great, partially because we haven't put as much time into her homework as we might have -- we've been very busy, after all; partially because she's the oldest dog in the group and we didn't have her impressionable, quick-to-learn puppyhood to work with; and partially because she was so distracted by the firemen coming in and out (she just loves to meet people). Even so, she was able to do the important stuff.

One thing we were supposed to do is teach her one trick. This was a basics class focusing on good behavior and a good relationship, so tricks are outside the scope of the class, but they asked us to find one to teach her. I only got to work on one for a few days, and I decided to try clicker-training on "find my keys". At home, she was doing okay at it, not great but okay. If the keys were nearby, she'd find them most of the time, but if they were across the room, it would be good odds she'd forget what she was doing or become more interested in me, or just laying down. At the class, she was completely distracted by a fireman, and I only got her to nose my keys while they were in my hand once. Still, the class was impressed by the idea of it, at least.

We probably won't go to the intermediate class, or if we do it won't be for a while. What we wanted out of this class is to know the tools for keeping her well-behaved and happy with her place in the family, and we got that. She is so much better behaved now than a few weeks ago, it's amazing. She doesn't wake us up, she's almost never mouthy, she very rarely needs a timeout, she doesn't bark much, and she knows to sit to ask for things.

We still need to work on her leash behavior -- she's still a puller, not as bad as before but still pretty bad. And we have some work to do on getting her "come" down to where we can take her out off the leash. Those will both take a while; they're the hardest things in basic to train because they go against canine instincts. But now we know how to do it; it's just a matter of taking the time. And that's why the intermediate class would be a waste; we already have a lot of things to do with her that we haven't taken the time to do, so no sense adding more. In eight weeks we'll consider if we want to go to it, but I doubt we will. We never really wanted her to learn tricks. We just wanted her to behave and be happy in her home.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Parental authority

When people learn about feudalism often their reaction is to wonder how people put up with being starved, overworked, and largely powerless and without rights, for so long. Even more so when they learn that often the peasants defended the system as vigorously as the aristocrats, and were just a convinced of the right of the aristocrats to rule.

There are few social constructs that still exist which compare at all to the relationship of vassal and liege, but one understandable (albeit distant) comparison is to parental authority. If I try to tell you to go rake my yard, you would probably laugh at the idea. Obviously I have no authority with which to compel or entreat you to do that for me. Of course, if I had an eight-year-old son, I could tell him to do it.

Usually, the ability to make someone else do something comes from either a positive pressure (I can reward you for doing this), or a negative one (I can punish you for not doing it). But a parent's authority over his child is a fundamental and accepted societal construct that is neither of those, and fundamentally different.

Sure, you're thinking, of course a parent can punish a child. Don't rake the yard and I might send you to bed without supper. But how do I have the authority to send you to bed without supper? Again, by ordering you to go to bed without supper. I couldn't tell my next-door-neighbor to rake my yard, and if I did, I couldn't threaten to send him to bed without supper if he didn't. He'd just laugh. Now, if I held a gun to his head, then I have the authority of compulsion. It's the same thing if I threaten to reveal his affairs to his wife, or to withhold a promotion at the office, or any other application of real force. I have to take authority because I don't already have it.

As a child, did you ever stop to wonder, why do I have to do what my father tells me to do? Maybe you thought because you'd get spanked, but even letting yourself be spanked is an acknowledgement of that authority: you could run away from the spanking or cry for help, just as the next-door-neighbor's eight-year-old kid would do if your dad tried to spank him. No one would look kindly on someone whose attempts to spank his child went so far as to chase and capture him. Maybe because your dad is providing you food and a home? Sure, he might make that point, but if he withheld those things, society would look dimly on him.

In a way that's hard to put into words, but is very real, society simply accepts that it's part of our social structure that a parent has the authority to order his child around, and that the child does not have the right to resist that authority. The variations in how that authority is resisted and reinforced look very similar to how a boss deals with an employee, how a mugger deals with a victim, how a government agency deals with a constituent, or how a business deals with a customer. But in the case of a parent and a child, the authority is innate, it lives beneath all those expressions of authority, and they are expressions of, or symptoms of, that authority. In the other cases, the authority derives from those actions, and the authority is a consequence of them.

The fit isn't great but in a way the relationship of a serf to a liege is similar to that of a child to a parent, at least in that way of being fundamental, beyond question, and more the cause than the effect of the various visible incarnations of that authority in law and practice. Thinking about this is a good way to understand a serf's life and why it was usually accepted, just as most children never even ask whether their parents shouldn't have the right to set their bedtimes, just disagree with what time they choose to set.

Monday, July 27, 2009

First day back at work

The first day back at work after a vacation always threatens to restore all the stress that was burned off, and today is certainly lined up to do just that. In addition to all the normal accumulation of problems and tasks that go with any week off work, plus the stresses of the warehouse project that impelled me to take the week off, I've come back to a temporary office crowded into a conference room with four other people and a ton of furniture and no air conditioning, due to construction in the office. Plus I have not one but two meetings today, one of them about the warehouse.

For all that, so far it's going pretty all right. But I expect to be busy all day.

Sunday, July 26, 2009


On a faraway world, all the matter is formed of crystals that have a very curious property. There are only a few dozen types of material found on the surface, and each one is so structured that the shape that the crystals will take corresponds to the color. Put simply, anything you find that's red will always be spherical; anything that's blue will always be cubical; anything that's green will always be pyramid-shaped. And the other way around: all spherical objects are red, all cubical objects are blue, all pyramidal objects are green.

(Okay, so this is a bit ridiculous, but it's a though experiment to demonstrate a point, bear with me.)

The creatures who live there don't have separate words for "red" and "spherical" because, after all, they tell you the same exact thing. There aren't separate concepts for them. In their form of kindergarten, someone holds up a redsphere and says "redsphere" and everyone nods, and from then on, they know that that's what that means.

Color sight is of no evolutionary value to these people, but by the same token, it's no great detriment either. Unbenownst to them, a handful of them have the ability to see color, but they don't realize that they're seeing anything different from anyone else.

At least until one day they build their first spacecraft and a handful of them travel to a nearby world in their solar system. Here, there are a lot of materials with which these people are unfamiliar, and which have the weird property that sometimes a red object isn't spherical but pyramidal. But this was of no particular interest to most of the new arrivals. Only a few of them would stare enraptured at these pyramids and say, "it's redspherical, but it's also greenpyramidal!" and the others would stare at them like they were insane. All because they could see something that everyone else couldn't.

One could probably use this kind of argument to support the idea that mystics who are derided by skeptics are really the victims of a lack of understanding, not hoaxsters. But it's also a good way to make a very strong point. Finding a way to demonstrate that the color-sighted amongst these people are really seeing something is trivially easy. Put a few of the people in locked rooms isolated from one another. Bring objects to them one at a time and ask them to describe them. See how much correlation there is. If they're telling the truth, the correlation will immediately emerge and be immediately empirically verifiable. If they're not, it won't. Easy-peasy. Let's hope these crystalline folk have enough sense of scientific method to realize that, for the sake of those blessed with color-sight!

Saturday, July 25, 2009


At long last I got the new chainsaw out a couple of days ago and gave it a whirl, and it worked like a champ, but I wasn't putting it to much of a trial: I was just limbing and bucking some already-felled softwood, some of which was at least partially rotted anyway. All wood that got knocked down while the contractors were redoing the brook last year.

A few days ago I had a visit from a county forester who had a little talk with me about what I should be doing with my land, and the short version is, "not much."

He confirmed my suspicions that this land is in its first generation of trees after being converted from farmland some thirty years ago. We have primarily balsam, spruce, a bit of white pine, and scattered hardwoods, mostly aspen with a bit of maple. The balsams are at the end of their lives and are starting to fall down, and as each one does, it makes it more likely the next ones will, mostly because the wind over the top contour of the canopy will drop into the holes and tug at the trees adjoining. As they drop, the other softwoods will fall only a while later, and the spaces they vacate will fill in with other trees, and over the course of a couple of decades that'll lead to an increase in hardwoods, particularly maple.

That transition is what's going on now, and unless I wanted to hurry it so I could get more maple for profit reasons (which I don't, and even if I did, less than six acres would not be worth it financially) there's nothing to do about it. Most of the trees that fall should be left down: the nutrients that the balsams leave behind will help the maples grow (and in the meanwhile provide lots of habitat for valuable critters like salamanders and birds).

He said I could take what I felt I needed for firewood, but there's a caveat there too. Aspens, my most prevalent hardwood, are the worst firewood of all and a waste of time; they burn almost as fast as rolled-up newspaper. Most of what I have left is pine. In the east, it's conventional wisdom to avoid burning pine; it doesn't burn hot enough and that causes creosote in the woodstove. However, out west, they burn a lot of pine, routinely. As our woodstove has never had any trouble with creosote (the two times it was cleaned they told me it hardly needed to be), all we have to do is intersperse the pine with the hardwood we already have (some bought, and some the maple I fell last year -- yes, it turns out it was maple).

The main thing he suggested I focus on is "hazard trees," those trees likely to fall that might fall on the house. Even there, though, he recommended I not fell most of them, largely because I'm too much of a novice and felling can be too dangerous. I think he was surprised that I managed to fell that maple, and was not terribly put at ease by noting that I had a friend with a lot of woodsman experience there helping me. I think I could do it, but I probably won't push it. If it's only going to cost $50 to have someone fell a dozen or two trees for me to limb and buck, then maybe I should. I've asked Siobhan to look into that.

I'm happy to know that my land doesn't need a lot of care right now, because that means the small amount of time I can bring to bear won't be inadequate, and I won't have to hire foresters to come in and do a more serious workover on the forest. Now I just need to figure out what to take in for firewood. Given that little of what we have is really good for firewood, I might not be taking enough to meet our needs after all, so we'll probably be buying firewood for a long time to come, with me just supplementing it here and there.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Trolls, wolves, and sheep

Some people only seem to get their pleasures from making other people miserable. Before the Internet, only the most pathological of these could make a living because the locals would always get to know them and stop putting up with them. Nowadays there's always a new site or a new anonymous ID to use. (Did they always exist but just learned to live without before the Internet, or did the Internet make them? That's ultimately a meaningless distinction.)

In most Internet communities these people are called trolls and it is universally agreed they are a problem (except by the trolls themselves, of course). However, in some competitive games, such as MUDs and later MMORPGs, they are called griefers, and their role is less clear. Particularly in those where people pay for power.

Consider particularly the case of one of the Iron Realms games, the biggest MUDs in the world, like Achaea (which I never played) or Lusternia (which I do play). In these games, it's free to play, but you can spend cash to buy boosts in skills or special artifacts. Certainly, there are reasons for anyone to buy these boosts, and some have nothing to do with fighting. Nevertheless, the average griefer tends to spend more than the average for the general population, quite a bit more. (This is also true, perhaps to a lesser extent, in games like WoW where the pay-for-boosts thing is more marginalized and less over-the-counter but still present.)

This puts the administration in a tricky balance that they might not even realize they're in. Let's change metaphors and call these people wolves. They're never happy unless they have victims, let's call them sheep, to make miserable; and they generally won't let up until they have to, often because the sheep flee. This is no problem for the wolves. There are always more sheep, and if there aren't any on one particular game, there's always other games full of more sheep. So there's no reason for them to hold back. Sheep are a self-renewing resource, as far as they know, so why not indulge their instincts?

But if you run one of these games, you don't want to drive off the wolves since they're worth good income, better than anyone else maybe. But you also need the sheep. First of all, sheep also produce income, not as much, but they do. Second, if there aren't sheep, the wolves will get bored and leave. So you need to encourage the sheep to come and stay -- even encourage them to buy boosts because that'll be income and it might also make them stay through more harassment -- but you can't go so far as to protect them from the wolves beyond a point. You need the sheep to be happy enough to stay long enough that it will keep the wolves happy enough to stay too.

Thus, your game's fiscal success depends on keeping everyone just a little unhappy, but not unhappy enough to leave too soon. Alternately, you could run a wolf-free game, but not only are the wolves your biggest spenders, even the sheep tend to get bored in a world completely devoid of wolves. What the sheep want is wolves that add a bit of excitement and then leave off; but almost anyone who'll fill the wolf role will also do it too much. So for a sheep (and note that I'm one) the best balance is a world that has wolves, and takes some steps to contain them. But the sheep's ideal world always has somewhat more containing measures than the game actually has, because if there were enough to make the sheep really happy, the wolves would leave for greener pastures.

I wonder how many of the people who run the games realize this consciously. They certaintly wouldn't admit it. It would sound crass and mercenary and manipulative. But you can't run a business without thinking this way, and acting on the thoughts.

(Incidentally, I changed metaphor not to give them a better tone, since wolves are a valuable and respect-worthy part of the ecosystem, but simply because I needed a word for their victims that worked well. But though griefers do add something to the "ecosystem" of a game, it's nowhere near as valued or needed as what wolves add to their ecosystems. So don't be misled by the metaphor.)

Thursday, July 23, 2009


When a dog becomes part of a new pack of peers (whether dogs or people or both), there is an instinctive effort by which the dog puts himself into the social hierarchy, and this is not a one-time process, it's always subject to adjustment. The way a dog pack works, the way it survives to breed, depends on the pack's organization, which depends on there being a leader when one is needed. The process is simple and instinctive: the dogs are always challenging each other in ways which test their strength and resolve (that is, ability to serve well as leader in a crunch) against one another, and whoever wins moves up in the hierarchy. Tests are rarely harmful; most are primarily posturing things (play, races, mild fighting, etc.).

It's easy to make the mistake of attributing intent. The dogs strive against one another and whoever wins claims a prize: clearly they all want to win, right? But studies have shown the dogs that win are often less happy, and less healthy, than those who lose. And dog behavior makes clear that dogs don't resent losing; they seem to like it. The instinct doesn't tell them "I want to be a leader"; it tells them, "someone's got to be leader, so if no one else can do it, I will." There's some sense in which an animal might have more predisposition to become a leader -- probably not much of that is inborn, but a lot of it is learned during puppyhood when this struggle plays out within the litter. But no dog is so set on being an alpha, or not being an alpha, that they can't (when circumstances change) take on a different role.

When we anthropomorphize these behaviors, we imagine dogs are thinking like what some human might, and we all know humans who want to be in charge, or hate to be in charge, or feel pressured in some role life has led them to which doesn't suit them. But maybe we're getting it backwards. Dog behavior and human behavior are different, but when they're similar, maybe dogs tell us more about humans than humans tell us about dogs.

After all, we imagine that we are ruled by our thoughts, but there's tons of evidence that a startlingly large amount of the time, our thoughts are rationalizing what our instincts would have us do. And that makes sense: we were instinct-driven far, far longer than we've had higher brain functions, so for higher brain functions to evolve, to come into a home where instinct had ruled for millions of years, the higher brain functions had to be the ones to adjust. How many of our thought patterns are shaped by the need not to contradict our instincts, to justify them and get along with them? I don't just mean our tendency to embrace the illogical; it goes far deeper, with even our most humdrum and unthreatening ideas probably being servants of our instincts far, far more often than they are rulers of our instincts.

So how often are people being bossy because some instinct tells them that there needs to be a boss, and their thoughts rationalizing them into thinking they like it better that way? How many of the thousands of things that you "just like" without having a reason why you like this and don't like that are explicable only in terms of your instincts driving you to them? How many of the ones that you think you have a reason for, are really your instincts dragging you somewhere and your mind quickly deciding "oh, I want to go that way" only after you're already going that way?

The breadth of what mankind's brains have accomplished is only made the more extraordinary if you consider the very real likelihood that it spends most of its time compelled to find reasons for doing what's going to happen anyway, so it won't break under the strain of fighting against the rest of itself.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

New phone

Got my new HTC Fuze yesterday; Siobhan's had come in a few days earlier. Today amongst a number of errands we stopped at AT&T and got set up for the data plan. I've been setting things up ever since.

It's able to connect to my work email and associated calendar, contacts, etc., but I haven't gotten it working with my home email yet -- maybe I just don't remember the password. Internet connectivity is good, not great though: it's a little slow but the limitation is usually the form factor of the device and its browser. The browser is an Opera Mini customized to the Fuze, and it does a great job of trying to give you the best compromise between seeing the page as it would be on a PC, and seeing it in a form readable on the handheld. But that's necessarily a compromise: most web pages are just terribly inappropriate for small devices and most sites don't offer a mobile version.

There are a lot of applications I need to migrate from my old phone, but two are the most important: ListPro and Ultrasoft Money. I got ListPro migrated over in no time, and it works really slick, shifting between portrait and landscape when I slide open the keyboard. I haven't done Ultrasoft Money yet since it involves PC synch elements, but once I've done that, my old phone can go onto standby. (Eventually when everything is set up I'll probably sell it.)

Some of the goofier things I've done include taking a picture of the lake and uploading it to Photobucket right from the phone (it's the picture on this post), setting up IM (already proved useful once), and play a game that simulates a maze you roll a ball around in avoiding holes, which uses the phone's tilt sensor and vibration alarm.

The data plan is pretty expensive but I think I'm going to like omnipresent Internet enough to be worth it.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Animal senses

I get so used to the idea that humans, compared to other animals, are superior only in the brain and opposable thumbs areas (and things which derive from them, like language, problem solving, tool use, civilization, and knowing how to use digital watches) that I just expect to be inferior in all other regards. And that goes double for the senses. We just take for granted that other animals beat us on all factors, except we make an exception for how colorblind most animals with whom we are most familiar are, compared to us, but that seems almost trivial.

Intellectually, I know I have better eyesight than a dog, and not just in terms of color, but also distance, acuity, and ability to see things before they move. But on some level I just always imagine that anything I'm aware of, my dog is already aware of, and lots of things I'm not aware of, too.

A few times recently when I've taken Socks for a ride with the Springer, I have had hammered home that that's not the case. There are a fair number of deer that prance around near here, even on the roads, and a few times as we headed down the hill toward the lake, I could see a few of them, usually does, on the side of the road. Each time, the does don't seem to notice me and Socks, nor does Socks notice them, for a good fifteen seconds of travel, when we've closed about half the distance. Then all of a sudden everyone else is aware of what I've been noticing for a while, and the deer are off into the woods, and Socks is pulling me along.

Yesterday, this happened in an even more interesting way. I saw the deer, but they didn't see me, and Socks didn't see them. They moseyed along on their way which took them into the woods and out of my sight. I thought Socks might not have noticed at all and the trip would go by without any reaction, but then a little ways on, she suddenly perked up and lunged forward. By this point the deer were so thoroughly into the woods that had I not seen them earlier I would have had no idea whatsoever they were nearby. And Socks certainly wasn't seeing their motion; I knew where to look and didn't see anything. But she got a scent of them some distance into a thick wood, and whoosh, we were off at a run. By time we got to where they'd gone into the woods they were long gone and Socks lost the scent soon after (pulled along by the bike leash).

On the one hand this certainly shines a light on all the times she pulls for no reason I can fathom. It's easy to make fun of how she's reacting to a squirrel in New Jersey being impudent, and imagine she's imagining things, but this was a very tangible lesson that she's really reacting to stuff completely outside my ability to be aware of. And on the other hand, it's even more striking to me that there was a whole interaction between me and several other animals in which I was the only one who had the faintest clue of what was going on. Not because of being smart, or having an infrared sensor, or even having studied the movement of wildlife and knowing how to read the signs, but because of a basic biological advantage I have over dogs and deer. Hard to get used to thinking of not being the idiot-savant of the animal kingdom in all respects.

Monday, July 20, 2009


I regularly visit the lake near here which is also the reservoir water supply for the nearby town, and which is therefore off limits for swimming, boating, and except for one reserved area near the dam end, fishing. It's one of those places which Vermonters take for granted but which, when you stop and look at it, is actually pretty breathtakingly picturesque. Local folks might buy a calendar with pictures like this lake on it, and never think of the lake right down the road.

Even so, I expect a certain level of care for their surroundings out of Vermonters that I don't expect from Americans in general. We're supposed to know better what we've got and why it has to be preserved, and that's why we're here, and why we still have it.

So I'm particularly irked that I find so much trash there. A couple of weeks ago, while the dog was romping at the lake's edge, I took one of the doggy-doo bags and filled it -- to the brim! -- with trash, just by picking up the easy-to-reach things right at the water's edge. It's a pain to haul something like that back from the lake on my bike, but I thought it would be nice to leave the place cleaner than I found it, and maybe that cleanliness would last a while. Today, without even trying, I filled another bag of the same size... so all that effort was for naught.

This is not a very easy to find spot, and I doubt anyone other than locals even know it's there, so this trash isn't being left by tourists. It's the very people who come here because it's pristine and perfect that are leaving food wrappers, Starbucks cups, packaging from fishing lures, and so many cigarette butts. (Why do smokers who would never litter generally, so often consider their butts to be some kind of exception?)

And after a few minutes prowling for trash while my dog romps on her leash, I get so attuned to it that the whole ride back I can't help seeing every bit of trash on the side of the road, and I think I could fill a kitchen bag easily on just one side of the road on this trip of a couple of miles. If I did, how soon would I need to do it again?

It actually makes me want to write a grumpy letter to the editor of the local paper, which is absurd because I always roll my eyes at those kinds of letters and the idea that they might make any difference. But I can't get into my head why anyone would do that. Sure, a little bit here and there is inevitable, but this much, this fast? It's inexcusable. How can I not want to find someone doing it and shake their shoulders shouting "Why?"

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Resuming weight loss

Because of the work stress and being so busy, I have let my weight loss and health efforts slide pretty much completely during the last two months. I have been eating whatever I felt like, and abandoned my thrice-daily exercise regimen. That said, I have also been getting a lot of exercise, between the dog and the physical nature of some of my work. And though I've indulged in sweets and fast food, I still habitually don't eat that badly; I'm still constrained by the surgery, both in terms of the size of my stomach and what things I can't eat much of before I start to feel ill or have digestive or excretory unpleasantness side effects.

I stopped weighing myself regularly about the same time, but I have done spot-checks and I was always within a few pounds of where I was last, so I was at least maintaining. Today I weighed myself and came in a few pounds down, so I guess despite my neglect I have lost a bit.

Tomorrow I'll begin to ease back into my exercise regimen, or at least, what my exercise regimen will look like adjusted for the dog. Actually most of the exercise during my week off will be riding with Socks one or two times a day, but I'll also try to start working in the core strength training -- which should be interesting as I bet Socks will find it puzzling and seek to get involved. I'll have to start slow as I'm out of practice.

I'll also be working on gradually being less naughty about what I eat. Thanks to the surgery, what I eat isn't as make-or-break a factor as it is for other people. But I still need to focus more on healthy things and less on junk food than I have been. (As always, the hardest part for me is, if we have junk food in the house, I hate to see it go to waste. Next shopping trip I'll try to reduce how much junk food we buy.)

Back when we got the surgery, the average weight loss estimates said I'd probably end up in the 250 range, but that was predicated on the idea that I could take whatever I weighed on the day of surgery and subtract from that, ignoring that I had already lost about 70 pounds just to get there. But I think that was fallacious thinking. Those 70 pounds also count, even if I didn't lose them because of the surgery, because they were part of the "easier" weight loss that the surgery would have made me lose. Right now, my guess is I can get under 300, but if I don't get much below 300, I won't be disappointed. It's already great to have so much more energy and to be able to buy clothes locally (with ten times the selection I used to have available, at half the cost) and to be able to fit places I couldn't for years. And, most importantly, not to be diabetic. I don't need any specific, arbitrary number to be content.

Saturday, July 18, 2009


Being fascinated with computers and also with programming them, back when I was a teenager and the TRS-80 and VIC-20 were the height of technology, I was intrigued by text adventures like Willie Crowther's seminal "Adventure" and its more-widely-known successor and imitator, "Zork". Not only were these games fun and challenging to play, I also was driven by wondering how they were written.

Clearly it couldn't be that each room, each prompt, each action was its own bit of code; even a few dozen rooms with a couple of interrelated puzzles would be thousands of lines of code, which was unfathomable in those days. So instead there must be some kind of general-purpose engine for handling rooms, objects, and all the multiple-word commands used to work through them, along with an impressively large data structure that somehow encoded all of these things and the relationships between them.

This seems pretty trivial today, but at a time when writing a program to sort a list of cities by average temperature was a tricky proposition (since you couldn't keep the whole list of cities in memory at one time), the idea of coding something like Aventure was a bigger puzzle than the game itself.

When a friend got a Commodore 64 with its amazingly roomy 39,000 or so bytes of usable memory, I spent an embarrasingly large amount of time programming it. I couldn't afford my own computer, so I wrote out BASIC code longhand on legal pads and then went over to his house and keyed them in while he did other things. I would often have to save them halfway-keyed and hope next time I came over he (or his younger sister) wouldn't've erased them, so I didn't have to start over. I would write down what happened so I could debug them later at home and come back with changes.

It was during that time that I decided to make a stab at a text-like adventure game, but having not yet cracked the mystery of how to make something like Adventure, and wanting to make a game that was different every time, I made one with a 10-by-10 grid of rooms with random contents. I would randomly thus build this "dungeon" and place doors in random places (some secret); the programming to make sure that no part of the dungeon was inaccessible was actually the trickiest part. Each room would then be seeded with contents: some would be empty, or have a monster, or some treasure, or a trap, or a puzzle. Monsters would have to be fought (in a rather simplistic simulation of D&D combat in which your choices were only to attack or flee) to obtain treasure or the chance to continue. Traps had a chance of doing damage and might also contain treasure. For puzzles, the trick was having something that could be algorithmically generated, so there were a few "canned" puzzles which could be built from random numbers, such as "what is the next number in this sequence", and very little in-game pretext for why you had to answer them; they also yielded treasure. Treasure could be traded in for increases in your stats.

At that, it was a mildly amusing pastime, not unlike a lot of the games of the time in that it was repetitive and purposeless and yet fun (heck, I can't count how many hours I spent playing Depth Charge), though a bit clunkier than many (the random map part was particularly troublesome despite my efforts to improve it). But I decided to add a few more features and then a few more and then a few more and it started to get pretty silly.

Having a matrix of rooms with each having a room type (0=empty, 1=treasure, 2=monster, etc.) I started to make additional room types that I would only have appear once each in the grid somewhere. (Basically, the routine would put a random "regular" room type in each room, and then go back and randomly assign each of the "special" rooms once.) These started fairly simple and grew more elaborate. First, a room that let you gaze into a pool and see what was in some other randomly-selected room before you got there. There was a random teleporter room. Stuff like that.

That's when I started to get silly. I had a room with a bigger monster whose treasure was a captured sorceress-princess, and if you defeated the monster, you could free the princess. But I made it goofy. If you rescued the princess, she would smell you, turn her nose up at your nasty odor (you had, after all, been bashing your way through a dungeon), and then give you a paltry sum of gold and leave. However, another one of the special rooms was a shower, and if you went into it and used it, "You are clean and fresh-smelling" would appear on your SCORE from then on, and if you rescued the princess in that case, she would kiss you and teach you a spell before leaving which you could use in later combats.

The last thing I added was a room with a computer in it, and when you used it, the screen cleared and you got a menu in a different color. So there was a game within a game, and one of the menu items was, in fact, an Asteroids-like game, which actually worked. Nothing you did in-character on this computer actually had any effect on the larger game, it was just there for the sake of having an entire game within the game, and the silliness of that.

That's about as far as I got before the game imploded or got erased or something, and I never tried again. I was never terribly satisfied with the fact that, for all the goofy special rooms, it was never anywhere near to a general-purpose engine for the kind of game that inspired it. And I was also never happy with my inability to think of a name for it. At some point I called it Zirconia because I couldn't think of anything but the computer wouldn't accept "I don't have a name yet.bas" as a filename, and then I never managed to find something better. But it was a terrible name and I never considered it anything but provisional.

I still don't really know the inner workings of Zork's engine (called ZIF) but I bet I could go find an explanation online in five minutes, though that wouldn't have the satisfaction of figuring out a technique myself. Not that I really have time to think something like that through these days, let alone implement it, and even if i did, how silly would that be? ZIF of course can run on cell phones and practically on watches nowadays, and there are web-based games a thousand times more complex, and today a console game will spend more computing power on getting the quality of the reflectivity of an eyeball on a single character in the background right than entire games used back then.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Attention-seeking behavior

A half hour into my time at home alone, and Socks has already worn out my patience. During that time there have already been three incidents in which she should have gotten a time-out, but I had no way to give her one -- trying to catch her to give her one counts as play (and she's very good at it too). Right now she's outside barking and I can't stop her because anything I can do to go stop her gets counted as attention which means it just encourages her.

She's entirely fine provided I am doing nothing, every minute of the day, but paying attention to her. Unfortunately, I can't. For one thing, I have work to do, not to mention chores and a few things for myself, and maybe even some destressing. I have an overfull day of things to do even without her expecting 100% of my time.

This is already exhausting and it's barely started. I hope I don't end up needing a vacation from my vacation.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Time off from work

That big project at work has turned into a political nightmare because it's become clear, over the last week or so, that the person who was responsible for so much of it going wrong, wasn't doing it solely out of unconcern or failing to take things seriously, but because he actually wants the project to fail. I don't know what his motives really are, but it's clear that he's convinced that this automation is being forced on him despite it being a step backwards, and he's so mired in that, he can't see that every time it turns out to be a step backwards it's because of how he treated the project and still treats it. Every day, he runs into something that's inefficient and declares the system sucks, but every day, 99% of those turn out to be not because of the system but because of his decisions about how it would be used.

He's convinced himself that I, and others, have some kind of agenda here, but I can't even figure out what it is. Anyway, it's not that I want the project to succeed and the operations in question to work more efficiently and better. What other motivation I could have eludes me. Feather in my cap? It's clear that I'm not looking for a big promotion or I would have gotten it long since. Unwillingness to admit my mistakes? I am admitting mistakes all the time, far more freely than he does. Beyond that I can't think of what it is. I imagine if I understood the kind of petty things that go through his mind, I'd know what he imagines going through mine.

The happy ending, such as it is, is that in a few months the problem will be removing itself through retirement. At that time, we can take a step back and try again. All we can do until then is damage control. Try to make sure that the system itself isn't dismantled in ways we can't correct then, but even more importantly, try to make sure that the people who are stuck working over there aren't burned out by then -- either on the hope that the system can work (they, by and large, believe that the problem is in that person, not the system's possibilities, and that the problems can be fixed once he stops preventing it, but whether they can still feel upbeat about it after a few months of the agony of using a sabotaged half-working system, that remains to be seen)... or just burned out in terms of the exhaustion of doing this job the wrong way.

This is the kind of political nonsense game I suck at. I'm great when it's time to do a project and that's that. But I'm not as good at treating people like chess pieces, or realizing when people are treating me that way. Unfortunately, that's a very idealistic way to be. This sort of thing happens. Someone who can't handle it can't hack the business world. Best I can do is get by until I get to the next time when it's not politics and is again pragmatism and real problems being solved, where I'll shine again.

I was already exhausted from a couple of months of going all out and giving 100% to make this succeed, and having this politics crap shoved in my face has really drained the last bits of will from me. Fortunately, this is my last day in the office for ten days. I work from home tomorrow and then have next week off. I'll be tethered to the email and probably helping out with problems repeatedly, but I'll still be a lot more free of it than I have been, and boy howdy, do I need it.

It's going to be a delicate balancing act to resist the forces pulling me into making next week into a working vacation. It's almost unprecedented for me to really need to have my time off be pure time off, not just substituting an at-home responsibility for an at-work responsibility, so it's hard to avoid falling into that. And there's a four-legged responsibility just waiting to fill in for work already. I'll be struggling to ensure that between things like that and being still available to help with problems at work, I don't end up not destressing after all.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Bringing people from the past

If you could go into the past and bring someone to the present to show them what the world was like, and how they were remembered, who would you pick?

That's a huge question because there's so many directions you could go with the answer. Imagine how Shakespeare would react to the esteem in which he is held, how shocked Charlemagne would be at the state of politics, how Jules Verne would be fascinated by the Internet, how gratified and discouraged Martin Luther King Jr. would be at how far we have and haven't come, how irritated Nietzsche would be at what people think he stood for. So to narrow it down, let's take it one topic at a time. Today's topic will be music, and in particular, how musicians and composers of the past would react to music today.

The first thing to consider is that anyone who had even the slightest interest in music who came from more than a hundred years ago would be reeling for a while at something we all take for granted: that music is something you can have any time you want, any minute of the day, or even all day long, and that most of us have it that way. It's a paradigm shift whose significance is easy to miss. Music used to be an event that required people to gather, and one couldn't become familiar with a song from repeated listening very quickly. How it was created depended on how it was consumed, and it's easy to underestimate the significance of the difference.

Setting that aside, how would specific musicians or composers react to modern music?

One can't help imagine that Beethoven would be appalled (assuming you cured his deafness while you were curing his deadness), and that's about all you'd get out of him. (Doubly so if he'd heard "Roll Over Beethoven" by E.L.O., and trebly so if he'd heard the disco cover "A Fifth Of Beethoven".) Mozart would probably be appalled at first, but maybe would become eventually intrigued, too. Haydn would be amused, and Mahler would probably be excited, and working with Brian Eno. I can't quite pin down how Bach would react, but I do know that the first modern music I'd show him is gospel music from a southern Baptist church. I can't tell if Wagner would be listening to death metal, or refusing to consider anything but opera.

How about more modern people? Glenn Miller would probably take a little while to adjust but be pleased by the different forms music took after his day, and the progression by which each new style related to those before it. Cole Porter would be fascinated, but I bet he'd also be disappointed at how small a subset of the newly possible is actually being explored, and how much of what's popular is barely different from the stuff he and his contemporaries were doing. Aaron Copland would probably not have much by way of opinions; he'd be too busy writing scores for big Hollywood blockbusters. Carl Orff would be too, but he'd also be hating himself for doing it, where Copland would shrug and cash another check.

I imagine all of these people would be flattered in one way or another that they're still known, listened to, and studied. Beethoven was celebrated enough in his day that he would be only a little surprised, but I think Glenn Miller would be a little awed and gratified, and everyone else would fall somewhere in between.

If I could only bring forward one of those people I'd have to choose Bach just because I have the least firm an idea how he'd react, so it's the biggest question to have answered. (And I'd have to see what he thought of the works of Peter Schickele...)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Leaf blowers

The whole idea of leaf blowers seems to elude me. Maybe there's something more to them that I don't quite get, since I'm not entirely sure how to use them. But if they are only what they seem to be, aren't they a perfect example of how Americans do things precisely wrong?

Here's a heavy, noisy, extremely energy-inefficient, polluting, expensive machine whose sole function is not to actually clean up a fairly unimportant mess, but simply to move it from one place to another. To shove a problem, that isn't really even a problem, out of the way so it's someone else's problem.

It seems like a device about the same size, complexity, and environmental impact would be able to suck up the leaves and even grind them into compost, but then you'd have the extra step of having to empty the bag every few minutes (or the burden of lugging around a heavy bag), plus what are you going to do with the clippings if you don't have a compost pile?

Or maybe it could suck up the leaves and then blow them back into a bag, in which case it would be just an expensive, noisy, polluting rake-substitute, but at least you could see where you're getting something for all that, some reduction of labor. (It's easy to be scathing about our "lazy-making" work savers, but for every person who's using a Roomba just to save a few minutes so they can spend more time at work, there's someone who's using one to address real physical disabilities, for whom these kinds of labor-saving devices are genuinely liberating and empowering.)

But no. If we're going to make something that burns gas into smog, costs a hundred dollars, needs an annual tuneup, and weighs ten pounds to lug around, why not just make it push the problem onto the neighbors, instead of trying to really address it?

Monday, July 13, 2009

Kart Karma

At the supermarket, they want you to bring your shopping carts back to the store or to one of the cart corrals, but typically the parking lot is full of shopping carts left wherever they happen to be. And you can't help but feel sorry for the poor guy who has to go out in the rain and herd them back to the store. For all that, at the end of a tiring shopping trip is the time one is most reluctant to repeat the long haul to the store with the empty cart, and there's never a corral nearby.

So for as long as I can remember, I've counted my Kart Karma. When I head in, I always try to bring in at least one cart with me, so that I make the lot no worse than how I found it, and hopefully better. If I really can't bring in a cart with me, I might bring my cart back, though I usually have a surplus of Kart Karma from times I didn't need to take the cart back out but I brought one in, or when I brought in two, or when I was near a corral so I was able to return my cart there easily (though that doesn't count as much).

I bet that poor guy who has go out and gather the carts isn't much impressed when I leave mine by the car, though, since of course he doesn't know that that's where I got it from. But it's still an everyday kind of ethics.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Dog troubles

Though our obedience training with Socks has been going mostly well, the last few days have seen an alarming pattern of aggression which we can't figure out how to address. There isn't any obvious trigger for it apart from her wanting attention at a time when we happen to be doing something that doesn't involve her, but that can be several times a day.

She starts by pawing or nipping, and we try to ignore it since the only thing you can do with bad behavior is ignore it (thus failing to reward it) and then redirect to something else (perhaps by going to do something else like practicing "sit"). But within only a few seconds before you can try to redirect she's escalating.

The next step is supposed to be squirting with a water bottle, which is intended to be a distraction, after which you can do a redirect. However, even seeing the water bottle makes her escalate quickly: head down, teeth bared, growling. We also used to use the breath squirt thing for nipping but that was even quicker to go to growling.

All we have done is walk away, try to give her a few seconds so that what comes next doesn't feel like a reward for what she just did, and then do something else like get her to lie down and give her something to occupy her like a rawhide or a cheese-filled Kong. But it's not stopping this behavior; it seems to be happening more, not less. I don't know if she's just managing to associate the occupier, and the attention that leads to it, with the aggression despite the interval, or if we're doing something wrong, or if there's a bigger issue at work here. It's quite frustrating, though. We just don't know what else to try. We'll ask about this at our next obedience class, and hopefully we can find a new direction.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

AT&T says we can't give them more money!

Back in January AT&T bought Unicel and made me unhappy by, amongst other things, forcing me to stop using my Ubiquio smartphone. At least, using it as a phone; ever since, I've been carrying my old phone as a PDA and my new phone as a phone.

We didn't get any choice about how to handle the transition: we had to update our commitment and get new phones, period. And we had to do it that day, with whatever phones they had to offer then, with whatever money we could afford to spend on them then. So we took the freebie phone and went home.

Having to carry two devices and have the loss of integration that results has been bugging me ever since, and from time to time I've thought about buying something else. A few months ago I put the AT&T HTC Fuze onto my Amazon wish list, but I didn't go ahead and buy it because I wasn't sure I wanted to spend that much. Not just for the phone but also for the data plan that AT&T requires with it.

Recently Siobhan started talking about wanting a better phone with a keyboard and Outlook sync capabilities, and that kind of crystallized my resolve. Seemed the HTC Fuze was ideal for her, too, though there are probably other phones that would do (she doesn't need it to be Windows Mobile like I do). So I poked around the budget and worked out how to make it work.

Only it turns out AT&T refuses to let us do the upgrade because the forced transition from Unicel to AT&T back in February counts as a "re-up" of the contract, and thus, we're not eligible for another upgrade until a year from October. Yes, that's right. For a mandatory transition to a freebie phone, AT&T refuses to let me buy a far more expensive data plan and a costly phone from them for 20 months. We tried ordering through, then through, then by calling in to AT&T, and finally by going to our local AT&T office, and no one could help us. They are intractable on the subject.

Our only option now is if we buy the phones we want from a third party they will deign to let us upgrade our plans to include data services and set up the new phones with them. So I'm in the market for a reasonable price on some Fuzes. At present I have bids in on a few barely-used Fuzes on eBay, and I have a few other oars in the water if those don't pan out. Could take a while, which is unfortunate, because if they didn't have this bass-ackwards bookkeeping mixup, we'd've had our phones by Tuesday, and they'd've had our money by now.

Somewhere in AT&T's corporate structure there's probably someone with the authority to say "whoops, that's a stupid, unintended consequence of a bookkeeping decision, let's fix that!" but there's just no way in a million years I could find that person. Everyone loses.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Stimulus spending

Here's my idea for how to spend some of the stimulus money. Let's get every contractor, electrician, plumber, roofer, heating guy, siding installer, and everyone else in the construction trades, free PDAs, with collaborative scheduling and reminders. They'd have to be ruggedized, waterproof ones with GPS so we could tell where they got left behind and reunite them with their owners.

Even so, a few months later, most of them would likely have been crushed or buried in concrete... but during those few months, I bet we'd get about three years worth of construction done, resulting in a big boost to the economy.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Bluetooth headset or hearing aid?

I'm always pleased to see older folks wearing Bluetooth headsets. There's some truth in the stereotype that older people are often less comfortable with technology than younger people, but sometimes, they can benefit at least as much from it, if not more. For instance, many older folk have a hard time with manual dexterity and strength in the hands, and holding up a phone can be tiring or just challenging (particularly given how fumbly a lot of cell phones can be in their quest to be tiny). Dialing can also be tricky with those tiny buttons for people with limited eyesight and finger dexterity, and remembering numbers is tricky late in life, but a headset with voice dialing makes it easy. A properly set up Bluetooth headset offers the same advantages to an older person as to the busy executive on the go, but they're likely to be more valuable in the former case.

I recently started to see an interesting product: a hearing aid that looks just like a Bluetooth headset. This strikes me as even more brilliant. For years I've watched the constant battle between hearing aids being tinier and less visible (since people are very sensitive about them) and being less useful (doing less amplification and filtering, and running out of battery life sooner). Now you can have a hearing aid that is big enough to do a great job, but that can hide in plain sight. I just love the fact that the current ubiquity of Bluetooth headsets, and the concomitant social acceptance they have, makes hearing aids a whole new ball game.

Now what we need is a single device that is both. After all, the people who can best benefit from a hearing aid would probably also benefit from a Bluetooth headset that ensures their phone calls are easily audible, plus all the other benefits of the headset.

(Of course, before long, Bluetooth headsets will become smaller and disappear, and then we'll be back where we were. However, I'm still hopeful. The advances in technology brought by the Bluetooth headset craze will no doubt benefit the hearing aid market too.)

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Another prejudice

I can't justify this, but I can't help thinking it. At least I know it's not fair.

Sometimes, my lizard-brain is doing its thing turning my head towards attractive representatives of the fair gender, simply because looking at them is enjoyable to the lizard-brain (and to the higher layers of brain, too, in various ways). Some women are more attractive (here I mean strictly in terms of appearance) than others, of course. But if you take the most attractive possible person, someone who approaches whatever ideal my lizard-brain leans towards, and then you put a cigarette in her hand, all that attractiveness vanishes instantly and irrevocably.

It makes no sense, really. I'm only looking at her as I drive by because looking at her is a pleasure in and of itself. It's not like I'm going to ever meet her. It's not like the cigarette actually changes any of the things I was appreciating a moment before. If I happened to see her a minute earlier, before she lit up, I might have gone by, appreciating her form, and that would be that. But the idea of her smoking is so thorough a turn-off for me it erases even that completely casual appreciation.

The same would happen if it was more than a casual glance on the street. If I met someone and found her attractive in more ways than just appearance, if I found her mind exciting, her attitudes complementary to mine, found everything about her interesting, still the idea of her smoking would completely shut all of it down.

The idea that she's an ex-smoker wouldn't bother me too much. Maybe a little twinge, but I'd get over that no problem. But a current smoker, even one who intends to quit, who is in the process of quitting... I could be friendly, I could be supportive, I could be a great guy, I could even conclude in a dry rational way that I would find her attractive after she quits, but I can't find her attractive.

(All the female pronouns would apply equally to males, though I started with talking about females simply because the lizard-brain-appreciating-eye-candy thing only happens for females for me, and that's how the post started.)

There's nothing wrong with being turned off by the idea of smoking, but it doesn't make much sense for it to be such a complete veto of everything else, no matter how it goes, and to be so inflexible even if the person is otherwise a complete turn-on and even if the person is actively working on quitting. I'm not even sure why I am this way, but I am, and I just can't help it. I guess it's an anti-fetish.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Sims 3

Siobhan's a big Sims fan and when Sims 3 came out, I just kept quiet and hoped she wouldn't notice. That's because it happened a few weeks ago while I was deep in the worst part of the relentless crush of work and stress, and I couldn't afford to lose her. So instead I promised (well, not out loud, mostly to myself) that once things started to ease up, I would buy it for her for her birthday, and the other half of the gift -- the expression of appreciation for all the extra work she took on to help ease my burden, and my stress, and for putting up with it -- would be that I would not mind if she then disappeared into Sims 3 for a while.

Of course that means just as I'm coming off the crush, instead of getting to kick back and relax and recover, I will have to resume my normal work level. But that's not so bad. While I wouldn't mind a week to do nothing, frankly I get a little antsy when I try to do nothing anyway. So instead what I'll get is, once work can live without me, a week off from work. I'll spend it at home doing stuff, but the stuff I want to do.

After we bought Sims 3 at Best Buy this weekend, and I was thinking about the likelihood that Siobhan would vanish into it for a while, I realized an extra benefit. For maybe the first time in my life, there's a game I want to be playing, and sometimes when I'd like to, I can't because the TV is already occupied. If Siobhan vanishes into the Sims, I will have the TV to myself!

Of course, the falling-down point turns out to be that Siobhan's computer needs a reformat and reinstall of everything, which we started this past weekend, to get it stable enough to run Sims 3 (and anything else). It's been a long time and several hardware changes since it was last wiped and reinstalled. And that process is bogged down because of Microsoft having its collective head up its collective arse about validation (it insists our perfectly legitimate authorization code, which is still printed on a sticker on an OEM computer case in our house, isn't valid). But when it's done, she should have both Sims 3 and everything else a lot more stable and clear of the cruft that accumulates in the nooks and crannies of Windows.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Rock Band tracks

When work and the dog aren't keeping me busy, I haven't had enough energy to do the sorts of things I usually do, like projects, writing, or even woodcutting (my new chainsaw remains unused on my workbench). Instead, when the TV was available to play it, I've spent the odd hour or three playing Rock Band, mostly drums.

After a bit of careful and patient low-ball bidding on eBay, I got the Rock Band Track Pack 2, and the Rock Band Classic Rock Track Pack, both for a pretty good price and with the download codes by which I could add the tracks to my copy of Rock Band. I also bought track packs online: the complete album Moving Pictures by Rush, and The Singles by No Doubt. So now I have a lot more tracks, including a lot more classic rock songs I know.

That's not always a good thing. Sometimes I find myself playing the actual song instead of the subset of the drumbeats that they chose for the Easy or Medium mode I'm playing, and getting points off for playing the "wrong" notes. This happens a lot with Rush, since drumming a Rush song even in Easy mode is usually quite challenging but also kind of entrancing -- I literally feel like I'm in a meditative state by the time it's done, and sometimes I stop noticing that I'm staring at the screen (even as my focus on it is at its sharpest). I noticed this particularly with the song "The Camera Eye" (a great song for Rock Band drumming, it turns out, though I would never have guessed that compared to the more obviously drum-intense ones like "Tom Sawyer").

The No Doubt song "Excuse Me Mr." is even worse because there's just so many drumbeats, it's a constant fill, but for Easy mode they give you only the upbeats instead of the downbeats. Which feels weird. I always find myself either trying to do both (which I'm not fast enough to do) or the downbeats, and have to force myself to stop and play the screen instead of the song.

Of all the classic rock songs I don't have that I wish I had for Rock Band (and there are many -- I find myself listening to music and thinking out how it might go in Rock Band terms) the one song I would most like to try is "Radar Love" by Golden Earring. Though I bet that's at least as challenging as Rush.

My respect for the fine musicianship and talent of all three members of Rush is only increased by seeing them in Rock Band (even though I know how many millions of miles away Rock Band playing is from actually playing the songs), but I also am sometimes surprised at how other bands come off. I'm not surprised to find that Keith Moon of The Who is fantastic, but I am surprised at how complex he makes everything. I was also surprised to find that the Steve Miller Band has some unexpectedly intricate rhythms going on under seemingly-simple songs.

Of more modern music, most of it either has comparatively simplistic rhythms (maybe fast or intense but ultimately uncomplicated), or it has wildly random-seeming stuff that is hard to play but ultimately seems like it's that way just for the sake of being hard to play, not because it's actually serving some musical purpose. Maybe I'm just not getting it, maybe I'm just too old. (The exceptions, however, are delightful. "Maps" by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs has some rhythms that are simultaneously fun, complex without seeming like they're trying to be complex, hard to play, and engaging. And I just love the song.)

I have to get back to playing Rock Band guitar a bit. I like drums more overall, but I want to do both. I can't wait to get a You Rock Guitar in a few months!

Sunday, July 05, 2009


A tired puppy is a happy and well-behaved puppy, they say. The single most common cause for having trouble with bad dog behavior, apart from using old-style negative reinforcement techniques, is not getting them enough exercise. But it's hard for most of us humans to keep up with a dog's exercise needs. Doubly so for people who are not in the habit of getting a lot of exercise, and trebly so for those like me who also have a dodgy knee. Taking Socks for walks tends to wear me out fast, particularly as she pulls a lot, and even more so during the time when work has kept me exhausted (bothy physically from walking around the warehouse all day, and mentally from the stress and pressure).

But while walking is not a great exercise for me (and trouble keeping up with it is part of what got my diabetes out of control a few years ago), biking is great (and switching to it at the recommendation of my doctor and physical therapist was the key to getting things back in control). I enjoy it, and it doesn't put anywhere near as much pressure on my knee. Plus biking is much more vigorous than walking and thus better for wearing out a dog.

The trouble is, biking with a dog is nearly impossible until the dog is fully trained to come when called and not run off. Trying to hold a leash on a bike is crazy: you can't spare the hand to hold it, the dog will pull every time she sees a squirrel and knock you over, and the leash (and the dog!) are likely to get tangled in your bike.

Enter the Springer. This clever little Norwegian invention consists of a bracket that mounts on your bike's seat post, a steel U-shaped beam that attaches to it, a heavy-duty spring, and then a short leash with a breakaway. The U-beam keeps the dog from getting too close to the bike, while the spring absorbs the majority of any tugs the dog does as she tries to go back, forward, or to the side. The breakaway provides a safety escape in case the leash gets tangled, though I don't see that happening much in our situation. (Just to be sure, I got spare breakaways.)

It's taken a little getting used to, both for me and for Socks. She's still a willful critter and loves to pull, particularly when my speed drops -- like when I'm going uphill, when pulling is the most difficult. She's especially difficult if I head uphill on the way out (possibly because the lake's the other way, or just because she's not as familiar with that direction).

However, it's mostly a positive boon. Gets her nicely exercised and, on a good day, somewhat worn out, without wearing me out or hurting my knee too much. Once I've had a chance to recover from the last few months, I could probably handle taking her on the Springer without even having to ice my knee after. It's also good exercise for me, exercise I definitely need. She's also getting me out to the reservoir and some very picturesque sights. (She loves the water and would desperately love to swim, but her leash's not long enough just yet.)

And the Springer definitely does what it's meant to do: keeps her safely on the side of the road (away from the cars) and ensures that when she tugs I can keep up and keep us going, so we can go at a pace that gets her tuckered out. In fact, it's working out so good that I'm buying a second bike, so I can keep one at home with the Springer bracket on it (the bulk of it pops off when I go riding without her), and one for at work so I can keep up my daily exercise.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Time to play catch-up

I think I'm just about ready to resume posting daily to the blog. We'll just have to see how this coming week goes to see if I can keep up with it. The lack of posts means there's a bunch of "news" stuff to catch up on, so I hope that's not too boring.

The thing that's taking up the most time and energy lately is still Socks. We've been bringing her to obedience training class on Tuesday nights and making some pretty good headway. She's a well-mannered dog and very clever, plus she was already fairly well trained. However, she's also stubborn and bossy, being very certainly the alpha of her litter. And we're having trouble making up for some past mistakes.

The biggest one: she'd wake us up way too early and we'd reward her by taking her for her walk. So now she wakes us up every day at between 5 and 5:30. I haven't had a full night's sleep in more than a month now. (Last night was close, mostly because Siobhan got up to distract her so I could sleep, as the previous night, she was waking me up all night from about 3 on, so I was really beat. I guess that's why they call it "dog tired.")

The trick of dog training is that there really isn't any deterrence available. Dogs don't understand negative reinforcement: attention is attention, doesn't matter what kind. The only negative reinforcement we're allowed is some minty breath spray we give her a little zap with in the mouth, but that's only for biting. (She never bites hard enough to hurt, but she does tend to bite playfully, and it's best to discourage that firmly as early as possible because it can become biting hard later.) So when she whines, barks, or nuzzles you in bed, all you can do is ignore it. Eventually it'll stop if it doesn't get positive results, but it's maddening to wait for that to happen.

Plus it's hard to remember to give her a treat every time she's doing something that you like, especially when something you like might be just sitting quietly -- just when it's easiest to overlook the need to reward her.

Another technique that's a little hard to get used to is giving her commands after she's already done what the command says. It feels natural to give the command before the action, but if she then doesn't do the action for any reason, you're weakening the association, and teaching her she can ignore that word. At first, you have to say the command after she starts to do the action, so she learns to associate the words. But I feel so self-conscious ordering her to do things she's already doing on her own. It feels goofy.

But the results are impressive, after just a few weeks. Even have made a little progress on the loose leash technique which, given how eagerly she pulls when she's walked, I didn't think we'd ever get anywhere with.