Monday, August 31, 2009

Digital photos are a gateway drug

Does this story sound familiar? It may have happened to someone you know, or even to you.

Long after Bob and all his friends were Internet-savvy, Bob had given up on his grandmother ever buying a computer, let alone sending texts, signing up on Facebook, or downloading video. She still needed him to come over to reset her VCR and record her answering machine message, after all.

But a few years later, Grandma finally did get a computer and got an Internet account, and what was the very first thing she did with it? Sent out digitized copies of old family photos. Pictures of Bob when he was a baby, or of Bob's father in Little League, or of Bob's grandfather in his Navy uniform, stuff like that.

Eventually, Grandma started sending out emails (mostly mass-forwarded chain mails with vapid platitudes and overstated warnings at first), and may even have signed up on Myspace, played Scrabble with people over the Internet, gotten into chat rooms and forums, and learned how to use the Google.

But it always starts with the digital versions of old pictures. These seem to be the one thing that is most likely to draw a lot of people from a previous generation into the lure of the Internet and the digital age.

Once they're there, they find lots of things that can benefit them; after all, older people often feel isolated but find it hard to make social contacts due to physical factors like having a hard time getting around, and the Internet's a great way for them to keep in touch with peers, people who share their interests, far-flung relatives, old friends, etc. Plus computers can accomodate disabilities like poor sight (with screen readers, bigger fonts, etc.), shaking hands (with voice recognition and the fact that no one gets impatient if it takes you a long time to type an email), etc. In some ways, the stereotypical grandparent living alone might be better able to benefit from things like social networking than are the younger folk who use such things the most.

Perhaps if you have an older relative you'd like to encourage to get online, you should use digital photos as the hook to try to lure them in.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Bought a shed

Home Depot has a simple 8'x10' metal shed for $269 now, and with the snowthrower and electric bike added to an already-crowded garage, it was finally time to get one. Even after you add pressure-treated plywood for the floor (a foundation kit is included but wood is needed), it's still less than $350. So with some help from a friend, I picked one up today.

I'm not sure exactly where I'll put it. The area that's been chosen isn't very level, and I don't know how I can level it; it's full of rocks and tangled with the remnants of a previous attempt at a garden. We'll see if we can get a neighbor with a rototiller to soften the ground so I can try to dig out half of it and use it to level the other half, but that's still days of back-breaking labor, and I wish there was a better way. Another factor: I can't put it up there until a month or two from now when the trees that I'm having felled are done, which puts me tight against the coming of winter.

There's another possible place for it that would be more level to start with, but it's a spot that's a bit crowded with other things, and there's also a concern that snow sliding off the roof would land on it and crush it. Alternatively the same area but away from the house might be more accessible and avoid the snow problem but make the clutter look worse (though it would also hide some of it); it would also add some of the leveling work back in, though at least with fewer rocks and less scrub to deal with.

We're also going to paint the shed, and to make it easier, we'll paint it before it's assembled with spray paint. We're looking at a dark green.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Customer service and the megacorp

Conventional wisdom has it that the larger the company, the worse the customer service, and a few exceptions only prove the rule. Sure, there's always the mom-and-pop store with crappy service, or the heartwarming anecdote of the big company that went the extra mile, but we're all usually sure that the rule is pretty solid.

I just had yet another excellent experience at customer service with Amazon. My call went to someone with a heavy accent, but Russian, not Indian; wonder if it's overseas or not. But the person I spoke to talked crisply and slowly, and more importantly, he got right to business, didn't make me jump through a thousand hoops, and took care of the problem. Amazon's not only sending me a new cable for my Kindle, they're doing it by two-day mail and I don't have to send back the bad cable.

In fact, I've made scores, maybe hundreds, of purchases from Amazon, and the only times I've ever had a problem that wasn't resolved with absolutely the most efficient, friendly, and satisfactory service, were always times I was actually buying from a third party through Amazon. (And even those were usually great, too.) Amazon is making money in an economy when even the oldest and best-established companies in the world are struggling, and yet they can still manage to treat customers well instead of pinching every penny. How does that work?

When it comes down to it, in a tight economy, a huge company (and Amazon is one of the hugest) is in some ways better positioned to treat its customers right. "Spend a few bucks making a customer happy, and the customer will come back tomorrow" is a sound policy if you have the scale of operations to be able to wait for good will to pay off as an investment. The big question isn't whether a company can invest in customer service, it's just whether they do.

There's something in the big corporate culture and its cover-your-ass mentality that tends to make customer service get forgotten or diminished. It's just that a company above a certain size can continue to exist without leadership, on its own momentum; and in that state, it will tend to diminish customer service because it's not in the best interest of any single cog in the machine to prioritize it. This won't be as likely to affect much smaller companies because they can't get by on their own momentum, they can't survive without the same kind of leadership that also means there's someone in a position to say "customer service matters" for whom there's an incentive to say so.

But if you have a big company that does have leadership, then it's my belief that they can be just as good as any small company at customer service. When you try to get customer service from a megacorp and get lost in a maze of twisty voicemails, all alike, the size of the company is very in-your-face, so you immediately blame that. And the same happens with other big companies, and you blame the size. When you get bad service from a small company, though, it's for different reasons, and those reasons don't remind you of the company size.

If you sat down and counted it out, you'd probably be surprised how many bad service experiences you had with small companies, how many good ones you had with big companies, and how much closer the ratios are than you'd've guessed. It's just selective perception that makes it easy to correlate the big-company bad-service experiences together as part of a pattern with a common cause, making it seem bigger and more consistent, but harder to correlate and count the small-company ones.

What this all means is that, yes, if you are dealing with a big company it's more likely you'll get bad service. Maybe not as much more likely as you imagine, but it is more likely. But at the same time, if you're a big company, despite the public perception that big companies almost always lead to bad service, you can very well have great service, and reap the long-term benefits of having it. It just means you have to have someone decide that, and then be an advocate for that decision. And you can do that just as well as the owner of the mom-and-pop shop. In fact, while your company's size might present challenges in giving them great service, it also presents opportunities and advantages in providing customer service which the mom-and-pop shop would envy.

Amazon may not be perfect (I'm sure someone will comment on this post with a horror story about their experience with Amazon) but no one is, not even the tiniest family-owned corner drugstore. (In fact, when you get bad service from a tiny shop, it tends to be worse, because it's more personal, more arbitrary, and harder to work around since there's nowhere else to appeal.)

Friday, August 28, 2009

Bike results

The bike without the battery is noticeably heavier and more cumbersome than a normal bike, but the bike with the battery... gee whiz. It feels very sluggish and also has a little tendency to tip to one side. That factor can probably be countered by putting on a second battery pack for longer travel times, better balance, and golly gee, even more weight. Those batteries are startlingly dense, and I'm not exactly a battery novice here.

However, I don't think a second battery will fit in, because when I tried to put the first battery on the other side, it didn't fit. It seems like the brackets are bent as it came to me. It's hard to be 100% sure because at first I thought maybe they were that way on purpose. Nothing in the manual or the pictures online gives me a clear enough view to say whether those brackets are supposed to be straight or not. So I'm going to send the enclosed picture to the manufacturer. If it is bent, I hope it's something I can replace at home, because sending the whole thing back is going to be a pain. But at least I'll be able to use both sides and maybe get a second battery, though I don't know if I'll ever need that much range.

The good news is the engine is powerful enough to pull the bike and me without any help up the hill of my road, which is the steepest hill I deal with, though not very quickly. On the not-as-steep, but much longer and more exhausting, hill leading to my mailbox, it can keep me going at a good pace by itself. And when it's running, I can pedal to add a little more without it being hard going; the transmission is good at combining my work and the engine's without me feeling like I'm fighting the engine. So it gets the job done.

I don't think I'd want to use this for exercise riding, though, or for riding for fun. It'd be great for riding whose sole purpose is to get to point B, or to exercise the dog, which is the whole point. But I'll be keeping my other bike. (Which means I need to find more room in the garage, which was already pretty full before I put in a snowthrower last week. Maybe I should bite the bullet and buy a shed.)

Tonight will be the first time taking Socks out with it.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

EZIP Electric-assist bike

The bike arrived today and I just finished assembly. The battery is charging overnight.

It's clearly a regular bicycle with an add-on already installed from the factory; the instructions include whole sections that are clearly written for the regular bicycle. Of course, if they sold this motor as a separate kit it would be a real pain to install, so that's just as well.

I gave it a very brief ride without the motor, and the bike is fairly heavy, and very solid, and would probably be a fair bit wearying to take on a long trip without the motor assisting. It's certainly usable as a bike, but I don't think it'll replace my regular bike for riding for enjoyment or exercise. Of course, it's also possible I need to adjust things and it'll ride more smoothly than that test. It was too dark to really check for those sorts of things.

I also attached the Springer bracket to it, so tomorrow I will give it a try with Socks and with the battery. Probably I will try it without Socks first to get the hang of the motor assist and how that works.

The only down side is noticing that the price dropped $28 since I ordered it. Oh well. You win some, you lose some.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


My dog-exercise-related injuries are subsiding. We visited the doctor's office to verify that my shoulder was all right, and the doctor corroborated my impression that it was just sore, bruised, and maybe at most sprained, but nothing torn or broken, and nothing that won't recover on its own. He gave me a few exercises which might help it recover faster, and of course ice (and Icy-Hot) will help it feel better. And it already does feel a good deal better, though still not enough for me to sleep on either side.

The scrapes on knee and elbow just have a few twinges now and then, and they sure look angry, but they're not hurting too much.

The electric bike wasn't due to ship until next week, but to my surprise it shipped yesterday and is due to arrive tomorrow. After I get it, and try it with the Springer, I'll figure out if I want to keep my old bike. If the electric bike adds enough weight that I wouldn't want to use it as an everyday bike for my own riding, I will probably keep my old bike (though where I'll keep them all I have no idea!). If it feels comfortable to use the electric bike on non-dog-exercising rides, I might sell the old bike, if I can find someone local who'd want it.

Hopefully soon I'll be able to write about topics other than how my dog is plotting to murder me!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Another injury

My right knee is just starting to recover from the various times when Socks overexerted me on walks or bikerides, and has a long way to go, but I've interrupted it with yet another injury. Last night while exercising Socks with a bikeride, I took a bad fall. I don't know what caused it because it was over too fast, but when I got back up, the breakaway on the Springer had slipped down off the top loop to just above the spring, and I don't know if that was a cause or an effect of the tumble. So I'm not sure if this was a failure of the Springer or just a bit of bad luck.

If I hadn't been wearing my bike helmet, I'd've been in worse shape, as I bumped my head on the pavement -- not bone-cracking hard, but certainly raising-a-bump hard. My biking gloves also protected my palm from being ripped open. But I did get pretty good bleeding scrapes on my left elbow and left knee.

The worst part by far though is the jarring I took to my shoulder. It didn't hurt too bad at first, but as time has passed it's gotten worse, not better. I still have a full range of motion on my left arm, but most movements cause sharp pains in the shoulder, enough to make me reluctant to move my arm at all. This really makes it hard to sleep since I sleep on that shoulder half the time normally, and even being on the other side, it's hard to avoid using that arm to position myself. It also renders me having to ask people to pick things up for me and do other mundane things, which drives me nuts.

I've got a doctor's appointment this afternoon to have them check it out, but I wonder what they'll do. Unless they've got a portable X-ray, all they can do is look at it and say, "sure looks like a shoulder, does it hurt?" and then refer me on to the physical therapist (or not, if they think it will recover on its own soon enough to not be worth it).

The bike was wholly uninjured, as was my phone and Bluetooth headset which continued pouring Colbie Callait to me through and after the tumble. Also, Socks was completely oblivious and uninterested; she immediately went to the end of her leash and sniffed there until I dragged her back. It might have been nice if she'd at least showed a hint of concern.

I sure would like to just go a couple of weeks without any dog-exercising-related injuries so I could recover fully. I hope that the electric-assist bike I've ordered will help with that.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Working again

First day back at the office after a week off. First day back after a catastrophe that happened while I was away. First day back staring down a juggernaut of work that makes the last few years pale in comparison. First day back gearing up to fight against the fact that this project is almost certainly doomed to failure. First day back after I started posting job applications.

I don't know if my blog posts are going to end up trailing off again. Maybe. I do know that while I might have a lot of overtime in the coming months, none of it is going to be unclaimed.

Last night I had some "house dreams" but these were at the office. We were being moved from space to space, finding in the new locations we didn't have enough outlets to power our servers but were still required to find a way to run them, stuff like that. It doesn't take a genius or clairvoyant to read the significance of a dream like that.

I'm so ready for some normalcy again. Guess that will have to wait a while more.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


After posting a few comments on a Facebook post, I felt like I should better organize my thoughts about the promise and problems of eBooks.

A lot of people have tried out eBooks in the form of a PDF on their PC screen and then wondered what the fuss was about. Often they will proudly proclaim their dedication to paper with that same enthusiasm that people used to be proud of not talking to answering machines twenty years ago. And you can hardly blame them: the experience of reading a PDF on a desktop or laptop surely can't compare to an actual physical book: it's all disadvantages and very little by way of advantage, and what advantages there are, are mostly one-time advantages of little personal impact (like not having to pay postage, or the environmental impact of shipping).

Now, some of the people who are down on eBooks are doing it for all the typical reasons that will turn out to be as relevant ten years from now as were the reasons given ten years ago why people would never stop using card catalogs in the library. Stuff like the smell of the paper, and other bits of nostalgia. I don't mean to diminish the value of those things. But when you weigh the pros and cons today, there might still be uses for card catalogs, and nostalgia might be one of them, but Google isn't going away any time soon, nor should it.

But there are far better reasons to speak against eBooks that even the people who, ten years from now, will swear by them, are citing. And those come basically to the fact that, for many applications, eBooks today still suck. Even the Kindle and its peers, which are miles ahead of the alternatives, are inadequate to some applications. But most people are comparing a printed book to a PDF on a computer screen, and boy howdy but is that an unfair comparison.

First, it's easy to ignore how much of a difference the hardware makes, and assume that a laptop, netbook, or even a desktop computer is the right way to read eBooks. After all, you already have one, and rather than invest a big chunk of change into a device just to try out eBooks, you're going to try it with what you have. But these devices are wholly inadequate.

First, paper books are easy to read in bed, in an easy chair, wherever you need them; any eBook reader that can't be at least as good as a paper book for that is going to hurt.

Second, and this one's particularly easy to overlook, computer screens are optimized, over decades of refinement and evolution, for certain things: high quality animation and color displays, most notably. And in making them great for those things, they've been made truly terrible for eBooks. Sure, the gray-scale of a Kindle feels like a step backwards, but until color electronic-ink displays are cost-effective, even the gray-scale of a Kindle is a thousand times better for extended reading than a computer screen, in ways that you have to experience to really realize what you'd given up. And I don't just mean "on the beach" (though being able to read in bright light is certainly a factor); I mean anywhere.

Third, the interface is very important but is also easy to ignore. A good eBook reader should disappear: it's you and the content, with as little as possible of the device in your conscious notice, just like when you read a paper book you very rarely are thinking more about pages than what's written on them (and then only when something goes wrong). Acrobat Reader on a full-keyboard laptop is far from optimized for being forgotten as you focus on the content. This is distracting in much the same way that constant typos are distracting, and ruin the experience in the same way.

To make matters worse, the most common eBook format right now is still PDFs, which are precisely wrong for it. Web pages were, by design, intended to not fix the presentation in a particular layout but to leave that up to the browser to render in a way that suited the viewing device and the reader's preferences. (Of course, Web design has evolved to the opposite again, where the content developer completely controls the appearance, but that's another topic.) That made web pages great for viewing on any device and any platform but terrible for printing. Thus, PDF was designed as a way to make a document specifically intended for printing but able to be distributed electronically. And that's why PDFs aren't just bad for reading on the screen, they're that way by design. Adobe has tweaked the format somewhat since to mitigate that, but it's at best a compromise; PDFs still unavoidably reflect their roots as something intended for paper.

And that brings us to one of the oddities of eBooks as they've existed before now, and still exist now. By and large, many potential eBook customers are still thinking in terms of the form factor of the printed page, the 8½" by 11" of reference materials, the 4.33" by 7.01" of paperbacks, etc. There's no real reason why eBooks should have to conform to standard sizes that are used in the printing industry (and it's even funnier when you consider why those sizes are still our standards based on the history of printing from centuries ago). They're done in those sizes now partially because of the use of PDFs but mostly because publishers are not really making eBooks, they're just cramming the content they already have, with minimal effort, into another sales channel.

Which is what always happens when a technology is new: the first uses don't explore its promise at all but are just migrations of the previous stuff to the new format, which tend to only point out the weaknesses of the new format without exploring its strengths. Consider how the first films were basically stage plays in front of a camera, which doesn't feel half as good as sitting in front of a stage; the camera takes away a lot from the theater experience and adds virtually nothing, until a few years pass and people start finding ways to use the camera for its own abilities, and nowadays you would never imagine that filmmaking wasn't its own art with its own possibilities.

This is a common theme for futurists: the first version of each technology is hampered by these two problems. The first content or experience is just other stuff shoehorned into it, so it doesn't show the promise. And the first devices are riddled with problems. The real trick is to figure out if the technology will still be able to succeed, and change the world. Are those problems solvable in the next generations of the technology? Is there a way content can be created specifically to suit the new medium so it plays to its strengths instead of its weaknesses? And most importantly, will enough people be able to make enough money doing it to rise over the development costs and the inertia of the consumer market, and make it work?

I think eBooks are a shining example of where the answers to those things are all a very clear "yes". The eBook devices are already miles beyond what they were two years ago, and as electronic ink displays improve (which they will quickly as they get into more demand), batteries improve, and the wireless networks expand to everywhere and converge, the problems they have will disappear. More devices with different form factors are already appearing to suit both the reading-in-bed and the studying/reference markets, and eventually those will converge into a single device that folds out to the size you need for that book, the way today's cell phones already flip between portrait and landscape.

There's tons of money to be made in both hardware and content, and while the "shove what we have at them" approach to content is not showing much of the promise, it is doing enough to get momentum going. Enough books that are readable on the Kindle and its peers means enough Kindles out there to make publishers start making other books readable on them, by using the technology instead of just running files through converter programs.

I'm not saying there aren't problems that aren't yet solved. The biggest one of course is the thorny issue of DRM. The whole market will collapse like a flan in Eddie Izzard's cupboard if the content providers can't find a way to provide content without trivially-easy piracy undermining them completely. But if they do it through onerous DRM that makes people fear they can't keep the things they paid for or forces them to struggle to get their own content to work, they'll turn people off. That's a problem that is much bigger than eBooks: it's the central unsolved dilemma of the Information Age, and eBooks are a tiny corner of its scope. And there are other problems to be addressed.

But I think you can readily see the promise of full text searches across multiple volumes, the possibility of backing up content so you need never lose it to physical damage, the portability of entire libraries of reference materials or texts in a few ounces, the reduction of the costs and environmental impact of making paper and then moving it in trucks back and forth across the world just to transmit ideas and expressions, and eventually, the simple comfort of a book that's lighter and easier to read than that text with its half-broken spine and hard cover. I have no doubt that eBooks will be as much a part of everyday life in ten years, as Google or cell phones (both talked down in their early days) are today.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Sales tax amnesty day

Critics of days like today when sales tax is temporarily suspended say that it doesn't really boost the economy by encouraging spending, since people just change the timing of purchases rather than doing more of them. And that's precisely what we did. The snowthrower I was going to buy this autumn is now sitting in my garage, patiently waiting for snow. Feels a bit odd to have something like this and not even fire it up once for months.

While we were out we started looking at mopeds and scooters, as a possible means of dealing with exercising Socks that won't wear out my knee when she gets difficult. However, I doubt that approach is going to pan out. First, they're so expensive. And second, I'd be hard pressed to find a way to rig a Springer to one, or hook up a leash safely to one in any other way. Probably my first idea, a motor add-on to a bike, will be a better approach; trouble is, most of them won't fit my bike, except the expensive and inefficient kind that work by friction drive against the wheels. It might be cheaper to buy a new bike with a motor already on it, than to retrofit a motor onto my existing bike, or to buy a moped. I just have to research the options a bit more.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Travel to places you've already been

When I think about places I might like to travel, the first things to occur to me are places I've never been. The world is so full of experiences I've never had and would like to have, places I haven't seen, things I haven't done.

But the idea of going to places I have been before is always tempting in a different way. For instance, I lived in Juneau, Alaska for five years, and it would be fun to see how it's changed (and how it hasn't changed), and to see people and places I remember, and miss, but haven't seen in years. There's an extra appeal in going places I've been but Siobhan hasn't so I can show them to her (though, having exhausted Long Island, I've all but run out of those; that factor's more prevalent in the case of places she's been she'd like to revisit and show me).

A dispassionate examination of the question always comes to the same answer: if I only have so much time and money I can spend travelling it would be better to see new places with it. If it would cost about the same to go to Juneau or to Italy (and it probably would), how can you even compare?

Is there some factor I'm not considering that explains why the familiar places retain some appeal in spite of this equation, or is the conclusion correct?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Back into the swing

Cleverly, though my Maine vacation was only three days, I took off the whole week; because I'm swimming in leave time (I never get to take anywhere near as much as I earn, especially lately) and have record-setting levels of stress to burn off. So that leaves today and tomorrow as around-the-house days. A lot of that will be used to catch up on things I didn't do early in the week because of being on vacation. Some of it I hope to use on a few around-the-house chores things I want to get done, or on just plain fun stuff. A bunch of it got unexpectedly used up on working with the electrician on getting our generator set up -- he showed up out of the blue today to do the job I started on nine months ago.

The big project that I hope to get worked out during these two days is updating my résumé. I've been at the same job for fifteen years and I still hope I'll be able to do another fifteen and retire from it. It's mostly comfortable, with interesting challenges, enough latitude on important issues (like a relaxed dress code), a good variety of tasks, and as light a burden of bureaucracy as you can have in the white collar world. But the way things have been going lately, it's also possible I can't sustain it, and it might be time to consider whether other opportunities might be better, or at least to be prepared in case I need to look for them. It doesn't really cost anything to get one's résumé current and keep an eye out on the world around you. And now that I can do my clothes-shopping locally, getting a dress shirt is probably something I should be doing anyway.

Recent developments at work that happened while I've been away have only strengthened my resolve to start opening some doors in case I find myself needing to go through one. They've also put me in a position of having to spend at least a little time today thinking about work issues and sending out a few emails to get people prepared for the blitz I'll be beginning when I get back next week. I really want to find a way to make this project at work succeed despite the obstacles piled in front of me and the lack of support from almost all sides. Not just so I can get credit for it (the way things are going I won't get credit for the victory no matter how many more hours I pour in and how much more talent I bring to bear, but even if no one else really knows how much I've done, I know). Not just because finding a way to wring success out of this impossibility would also mean I could stay in this job. But also because that's what's best for my employer and for the state.

That said, if I can't make it work, that only proves we don't live in a movie with a guaranteed happy ending, and if people undercut and subvert something long enough, wait long enough to make needed decisions, and offer too little support for too much demands, things can fail no matter how hard people like me work or how smart we are. It won't make me feel like I failed, any more than it does to know I can't compete in the Olympics or flap my wings and fly to Mars.

Oh, and I also hope to play some Rock Band this weekend. And buy a snowblower. And go donate blood. And if there's time left, solve the world's political problems and develop a clean cheap source of unlimited energy. Maybe even watch a movie!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Maine roundup

Back home again from a nice little trip. Highlights of the visit to Maine:
  • My first time swimming in the ocean since leaving Long Island.
  • Perfect weather: it's been cold and rainy all summer, but the day we left it got hot and sunny, and stayed that way until we returned, whereupon it rained.
  • I got enough sun to get some sunburn, which is not easy for me, my skin being as dark as it is.
  • While there were times Socks was difficult, all in all she was quite well behaved and traveling with her has proved to be quite possible.
  • That said, since she didn't like the waves, the reason to bring her specifically to the sea is kind of moot. Plus it meant we couldn't both go into the water at once. Maybe a lake.
  • We didn't spend as much money as most trips. Some of our restaurant meals were overpriced but we also got some cheap take-out (mostly in interest in not leaving the dog in the car) and had leftovers.
  • Unlike our last trip, we did very little shopping. Just got Socks a new collar since her old one was falling off, and a few other things at Petsmart while there to save our next trip.
  • The only tummy distress we both had was last night, which makes us wonder if the perfectly innocuous Thai food we had was a bit off. We didn't even have the same dish, or type of dish.
  • Isn't it kind of sad that we went out of our way to get to a Taco Bell... twice? We can't get that hereabouts, and I was curious about the new "volcano" menu. (It turns out it's spicier than their normal wares, but not really spicy. Still, pretty good, for Taco Bell.)
  • Did a lot of reading, a lot of relaxing, a fair amount of swimming, and most of all, a lot of nothing. It was nice.
  • My knee ended up about the same as when I started, no better and no worse.
  • Our next trip isn't until December when we're spending a week in Washington D.C. That will definitely be a "doing stuff" vacation: lots of Smithsonian things to see and not enough time to see them! That one, Socks will be boarded for.
  • Having a smartphone with a data plan is really cool.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Dig little digger

The minor disappointment of this trip to the beach is that Socks doesn't like the sea. We took her in again today and the results were the same. She will chase a few waves, but very soon she's pulling back to shore, and she certainly doesn't want to go into anything deep enough for swimming. She likes her water still and saltless, apparently. Maybe we'll try a vacation on a lake.

However, she does like the beach itself, because her labrador heritage as a digger is never as successful as in wet sand. Boy, can she throw a ton of muddy sand across the beach fast. People at the beach were staring at her digging, and children in particular were fascinated by how deep she could go and how fast she did it.

One can't help wonder what smell is in those particular spots to make her want to dig there. Was there a crab? She certainly didn't uncover one (though one on the surface caught her interest until I had to take it away). But maybe a crab had been there before... though it's hard to imagine those spots were more crabby than the other acres of beach around them.

I didn't get a picture of her digging, and you know how I like to have a picture in every post, so here's instead some video from my Facebook page of her having fun with the sprinkler here at the motel. This was just one small bit of one of several encounters; she sure wants to teach that flying water a lesson!

Monday, August 17, 2009

But there are things as yet unsniffed!

Socks doesn't like going to the bathroom in a place until she's familiar with it, which means that she's smelled everything in it at least a billion times. We had that problem when she first came to live with us but we didn't realize the pattern; it seemed instead like she wouldn't poo until she found other dog poo. However, later, when I got the Springer and started taking her to the reservoir, she started going there after she was familiar with it.

What's difficult about it is that she may have to go really bad and whine about it a lot, but she still won't go until she's sniffed very thoroughly. That's what was happening last night. She'd been taken for several walks, after a day already filled with exercise and excitement, and still wouldn't go, but she kept complaining. I took her out for almost forty-five minutes (long enough for my knee, which was feeling better than it had in days, to start aching again) but still no luck.

Fortunately Siobhan took her out one more time and while she didn't do anything I hadn't done, it worked. Maybe her need to go got to a critical threshold, or her familiarity with the smells reached a breaking point, but suddenly and quite quickly she was willing to go. After that, she passed out and barely moved all night. Thank the stars, it would have been an awful night otherwise.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A few days in Maine

We don't usually go vacationing during the high season because of the higher prices and denser crowds, but that also means we don't get to go swimming in the ocean because it's not hot enough when we're near it. This year, we had extra stress (mostly me, due to work), a little more money to work with (due to being clear on credit cards, plus some overtime due to the aforementioned work issues), and we have a dog. So we decided to book an extra few-days-long trip to the seacoast structured around pet-friendly places, and today is the first day of it.

Though it's high season, arriving on a Sunday and staying through Wednesday means the crowds are still not too bad. And we got really lucky on weather. In a year when there's been lots of rain and very little heat, we arrived with the temperature in the high 80s and the forecast all hot and humid until we leave. Which means a chance to get into the sea.

We already biked to the beach and did a bit of swimming, and the water was lovely. Socks found the waves a bit too much to deal with, however. At first she had to chase each wave crest, but as wave after wave pummeled her, she got more and more reluctant. I tried to encourage her far enough in that she would be facing swells instead of waves, but by then she just wanted back out. She spent most of the time trying to lunge at seagulls or dig in the sand, but I think she enjoyed herself on balance.

The sea is especially restorative for me, and our plans don't include a lot of activities -- in fact, pretty much none. Just hanging around. Not many places we could go anyway as few are pet-friendly. We might do a little shopping, but mostly we'll just relax, go to the beach, read, swim in the pool, go biking, stuff like that. Heck, we probably won't even be going to restaurants -- again, pet friendly ones are scarce, and we'd rather not leave her in the car much -- so we'll just get delivery and take-out mostly. We're not really doing a lot of planning this time.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Renting a midlife crisis

On seeing a sexy sports car today while out shopping, it occurred to me that if I were going to have a mid-life crisis, this would be the ideal time for it. Having a terrible time at work, just passed a birthday, and financially solvent enough to be a little extravagant. Heck, I could probably buy a sexy sports car if I wanted to... but I don't really.

I wouldn't mind driving one once just to see how it felt, though. I can only imagine what it feels like to hit 100 on a flat stretch of road... or to really let go in a convertible. And on a private course that's perfectly legal. I wonder if anyone offers an hourly rental mid-life crisis? As I doubt anyone's going to invent braintaping during my lifetime, a rental is probably the only way I'll ever find out. A sleek, sexy sports car of the kind only rich people own, like a gleaming red Ferrari, and a nice open private course. Sure, even with a private course with no other cars and no obstacles, there's some danger, but people run businesses doing lots of other dangerous sports so I'm sure it'd be feasible. And they could charge enough to make it work.

I would find out on Google if such things exist but I can't think what to search on to avoid the real hits being buried. The closest thing I found in a quick search was a private golf course with a relationship with a nearby car rental agency. Still, if I thought of it, some entrepeneur probably thought of it too.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Focusing on the positive

The big project that's been stressing me out at work for the last few months, and to some extent the last few years, is now over. Not in a good way: it was 'decided' (I use that term very loosely) to simply pull the system, probably at the end of the month, and go back to the way things were before.

To call this 'disheartening' is to make light of it, but I don't know how else to describe it. I think I never quite managed to figure out how I felt about it before I was already moving past it. If I focus on the negative, I'd be devastated. Not that it was my fault: certainly there are things I could have done better, but what I did manage was almost superhuman and something to be proud of, even if not many people at work can see it yet. But they will one day. No, the part that's devastating is that this is the most damaging demonstration of the lack of leadership my office suffers from.

However, by the time the 'decision' came, I was already prepared for it. I excel at the process of putting things behind me. My feelings are still jumbled but the most pointed things to feel are all about relief. The crushing workload that's suddenly melted away, most notably. For a long time I've been aching to be past this project and now, in entirely the wrong way, I very abruptly am. (At least for now; next year we'll dust the cobwebs off the project and try again.)

I've got a few more weeks of transition (the opposite of the "go live" process, so I'm calling it, not without irony, the "go dead" process). Once that's done, I'll have a while to work on other things and get back to a more reasonable workload before I have to start preparing for our second attempt. I suspect getting back to normal is going to take some adjustment.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

We are all made of stars

Back when I heard Carl Sagan tell me I was made of starstuff when I first watched Cosmos it was a profound, world-changing statement. Today, people saying it are probably making fun of grandiose, pompous ideas. But it really still is a profound truth which bears thinking about.

On the tip of your pinky there is a carbon atom, and if you thought about it at all, you would think of it as just being part of you, of your pinky specifically. But before it was where it is, it was placed there by enzymes in a cell, and before that, it's travelled for months and years around your body, being part of many different organs and systems. It probably was part of things that got broken down and built back up hundreds of times, and moved through all parts of your body, and now it happens to be in your pinky, but that doesn't mean it will stay there.

Before it was in your body, it was part of a cow, and it went through the same dizzying series of transformations and movements within the cow's body. Before that, it was in a blade of grass, where it was built up and broken down inside various molecules countless times as it moved from place to place within the blade of grass, or even within one cell.

Before that, it was in the atmosphere, paired up with some oxygen. In this form, it probably saw much of the world; it travelled over oceans, it flew higher than jet planes, it swirled over deserts, it visited many of the continents. It was bound within clouds and then fell from them and then went back up into them, over and over.

Before that, it was in the ocean, and before that, it went a grand tour through the parts of a shark, and before that a minnow, and before that some algae, and before that, the ocean again, and before that a river, and before that, a mountain. And it probably has repeated all these cycles a thousand times, a million times. It was part of a fox, and before that a mouse, and before that an ant's egg, and before that an ant, and before that a part of an ant's hive, and before that another ant, and before that some mold, and before that, the ground.

Go far enough back and it will turn out it was part of a mountain, and before that, deep within the earth's crust. And before that, it floated free in space, amidst a cloud of dust in vacuum. Before that, it was part of an explosion as much more powerful than the biggest atom bomb as that bomb is more powerful than the breeze of a butterfly's wing. And before that, it was part of a star that is so long gone there is no longer any other trace it ever was, besides the unrecognizable parts it left.

Before that, it fell and rose for billions of years through the superhot gas of that star, up and down and up and down. And before that, it was near the center of that star, and...

And we're now back some ten billion years, two thirds of the life of the entire universe, and through that entire time, the atom of carbon has never changed. Sure, it's gained, lost, or shared electrons every few seconds for most of that ten billion years, but the protons and neutrons that make up its core are precisely the same today in your pinky as they were at that moment ten billion years ago. Through all those changes and cycles and movements they remain unchanged.

Yet one second earlier, they didn't even exist. Instead, all there was were a few atoms of helium that by sheer chance overcame million-to-one odds against and smashed into one another in a way that caused them to reform into a carbon nucleus. Before that, those helium atoms trace back a few more billion years before they, too, were formed of hydrogen atoms -- that is, protons -- the same way.

And before that... they go almost all the way back to the Big Bang. And if you could pluck one of those protons out right now, it would be essentially indistinguishable today, in the tip of your finger, from what it looked like one minute after the Big Bang, floating in an expanding curve of spacetime doing not much of anything.

That that carbon atom happens to be part of something that can understand this is the most amazing truth you will ever know. And at the same time, the carbon atom couldn't care less. It probably has another ten billion years to spend cycling through things before it will end up smashed into something else just the right way where it will become part of an atom of oxygen. Whereupon the same set of stories will start all over again.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The loom of fate

If you haven't seen Wanted, there are some spoilers herein about it, so go see it first. Amongst high-octane thrill-ride movies that shouldn't be taken too seriously but are a ton of fun, this is one of the best, so it's well worth watching.

For all that it's a popcorn movie there is one story element which is fascinating in a thoughtful way, and to my surprise it's one that wasn't in the comic books from which the movie is loosely derived. That is the loom of fate.

The main characters are assassins who murder people before they can do terrible things to people or the world, but the really interesting thing is how they find out who to kill. They started out as a society of weavers, and their biggest loom kept causing tiny errors in the weave. When you look closely at those errors, they are a code. Errors occur in groups of five, which groups occur in larger groups; and each error can go one of two ways. When properly decoded, they spell out the name of the next target. No one knows precisely how the errors occur; the assumption is that they are directed to occur by Fate itself.

What fascinates me is the question of how anyone noticed and figured it out. It must have taken many lifetimes.

First, people would notice the error, and try to troubleshoot the loom to eliminate the error, only to find that there were no problems in the loom and nothing they did prevented the errors from happening. Troubleshooting a mechanical device requires analyzing the patterns of when the errors happen and how, so it's easy to imagine some loom engineer discovered that errors occur in groups of five on a single row, and that if there was one row in error there would be around a dozen together, but that would have been taken as a sign of what the mechanical trouble was, not a hint that it was something more than mechanical trouble.

As analysis continued, someone might have noticed that there were certain patterns that occurred often in the groups of five errors, while others happened very rarely, and there were even some combinations which never occurred (six, to be precise). Again, this would at first seem to be a clue about what was wrong with the machine. Perhaps only when someone noticed that some of these patterns tended to occur in combinations (for instance, one particular pattern tended to occur often as the second row, and when it did, the first row was one of only three other patterns) did anyone begin to suspect anything might be found by considering the patterns as having meaning.

Anyone who's done cryptograms knows that certain short common words (like "the", "I", or "and") are often the key to solving the cryptogram, but since the loom only produced names, it would be harder both to decode the cipher, and to realize that it was a cipher in the first place. However, there have always been some names that are much more common than others. People might notice that a certain four-row pattern occurred more often at the start, and even that common patterns occurred in the start but less reliably in the end of the string of errors.

Even once someone felt sure this was a cipher (and really, how could you be sure, given where the errors come from) it would be crazy hard to discover the cipher. And once you did... all you'd get is a name. So what? Probably dozens or hundreds of names went by before anyone began to suspect the pattern to their meanings: after all, in today's world, if you saw a name you'd never heard, you could find out about that person online, and if nothing interesting showed up, you'd probably recognize the name a few months later when they turned up as a serial killer or the architect of a Ponzi scheme. But even a hundred years ago, the majority of names of people who were doing awful things would not come to your attention, ever. And that's not even accounting for the fact that some of these people might be on the other side of the world (a possibility the movie never addresses, actually).

The whole thing would be a heck of a lot easier if someone just got a tiny touch of divine intervention, a vision, a compulsion, anything. But it's far more interesting to imagine that they had nothing but the weave. Then one wonders why no one ever broke down the loom and rebuilt a new one after the first few years or generations of failures to fix the problem. Maybe they did and the problem kept recurring. Maybe the same thing happened in looms all over the world, but only in this one place did anyone happen to have the epiphany that made it possible to understand it; maybe there are patterns like this all around us, the world trying to speak to us in a way that the vast majority of us will never notice.

Pretty heady fare for a goofy popcorn movie.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Chasing Socks

Last night's bikeride with Socks was the most exhausting ever. Things went pretty normal for the first two thirds. The waterfowl are particularly tempting; Socks is pretty sure that ducks are made of cheese, and geese are made of kibble, and nothing I say can convince her otherwise. She had the usual mix of swimming, sniffing everything in the world, and being stubborn on the leash, and then we headed back.

Often she will drag behind for much of the trip back, but once a car passes us heading the same way we are, she's eager to chase, and I'll go with it to take advantage of the opportunity to be going without dragging her. We had a run of cars and we were flying like the wind even into the last uphill hard-going stretch, and then there was a short break.

Then another car came by and she was off like a shot at it... somehow off the leash. I was already exhausted and my knee was throbbing from the strain of a long bikeride followed by a long run of sprinting, some of it uphill, so I was in the worst possible shape to give chase. But she was following too close after the car and naturally wouldn't listen to me calling her.

The next few minutes were agonizing. Every time a car got far enough ahead of her for her to lose interest, another one would come along, and going up that steepening hill doesn't slow her one bit. I was having to pedal as hard as I could and that hill is tough for me even when fully rested and going at a sedate pace, let alone after a particularly hard ride and going as fast as I could. I called Siobhan to come help with the car but for whatever reason it took too long and I had to do the chase all by myself.

At the very top of the hill Socks got bored and wandered off down a driveway. I came into the driveway and leaped off the bike to pursue her. It was one of those run-down old houses with several decrepit cars amongst the weeds, the kind where you wouldn't be terribly surprised if someone stepped out onto the porch with a rifle. Socks was still paying me no attention, but the good news is, she was now more interested in sniffing than chasing, and sniffing is slower going. I was able to catch up with her, leash her, and then collapse.

I'm afraid I'll be on the cane for another week trying to make up the damage of that one exhausting ride. That's how it's been going lately with my knee: I'll try to coddle it for days to get it feeling better and then blow all my gains with one slip or one overexertion.

I also need to figure out how she slipped the leash. I had to go back down the hill to find it but was way too exhausted to look at it.

Monday, August 10, 2009


Pi () is the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter. It is thus a fundamental constant of the universe, and yet, the specific number we use is an arbitrary choice. It would, for instance, be just as valid if we'd defined to be the ratio of a circle's circumference to its radius. In this case, all the formulae we have now would still work, except we'd replace everywhere we currently have with /2 and everywhere we have 2 with .

I wonder if that might not have made more sense. Certainly, that the circumference of the unit circle is 2 means that 2 appears in a lot of equations. On the other hand, 2 is easier to work with and write than /2, so exchanging a lot of 2 for would only be an advantage if we didn't have enough changes of to /2 to more than make up for it.

Of course we are stuck with being what it is for the simple reason that diameters are easier to measure than radii when you're working with things like tables and trees. Changing it would be crazy impossible; there may be no more firmly rooted number in all of math.

Sunday, August 09, 2009


I didn't really expect to find the movie Cloverfield interesting, and when we first watched it on a Netflix rental, I didn't pay attention for a lot of it. To my surprise, I found the bits I did see compelling and interesting, and it made me wish I'd watched it. But I was too busy to go back to it for a while, and it was hard to find a time to watch it because Siobhan had already seen it and didn't want to see it again, and there aren't many opportunities for me to watch a movie when she's not around and possibly using the TV. I tried to watch it once a few months but I kept getting interrupted and that really broke the flow.

Since this weekend I'm in "bachelor mode" with Siobhan away at Knit Camp, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to watch it straight through uninterrupted. And I'm even more surprised this time how compelling I found it. (Warning, minor spoilers ahead.)

That shaky camera style is terribly annoying in the movie theater, and I found it really ruined the second and third Bourne movies there, but when I watched those movies at home on the 62" HDTV, it worked the way the filmmakers probably intended it to: it's more about being visceral and disorienting, and less about being seasick and unable to see the action. I never saw Cloverfield in the theater, but I bet it's the same way. 62" is probably the ideal size to see shaky-camera movies, the best balance point. In Cloverfield it wasn't distracting, annoying, or dizzying, but it did provide a sense of intensity and realism and immersion.

The characters of course were largely bland and unsympathetic, and it's easy to come away barely remembering their names. I also find myself wondering if people that age actually live like that; they probably do, but I was never that age, I guess. But there's just enough humanity, particularly on the part of Rob, the main character, to sustain it.

There are also a few implausibilities that are distracting. Quite a few times, the idea that anyone would keep filming becomes increasingly untenable, and some of the coincidences that allow the camera to keep working are painfully forced. Let's not even talk about the amount of battery power it must have, particularly with it working as a flashlight for a long trip through the subway. The characters refer to it as having a "tape" and the only excuse for the interweaving of the video of the April and May days is that it's a tape, but the title plate says "SD card", and for good reason, no tape would have survived but an SD card might have. Surviving that helicopter crash is pretty hard to swallow. The reasons the main characters stay together grow implausible at times and get handwaved away. And the lights stay on in Manhattan far longer than it makes the slightest bit of sense for them to. I suppose those are all unavoidable given the premise, but they did irk me.

However, for all that, the suspense is engaging and genuinely scary, the reactions people show seem genuine, the acting is surprisingly good, and the cinematography is amazing: the interweaving of live action and CGI in particular is so seamless that you can really forget that some of this stuff had to have been digitally composited onto shaky hand-held camera work, which is an incredible feat in itself. More than most horror or suspense movies and more than any other monster movie that leaps to mind, one can imagine being in that situation and not having any better ideas what to do in it.

It's a movie that really needs to be seen straight through since the pacing is key. In this, I find myself feeling sympathetic with today's filmmakers. So many people will watch this movie at home where they can easily fast-forward through bits, and the introductory section of the movie, which taken on its own is just boring, is a prime candidate. But when you look at the whole movie, that bit of film is integral to the overall effect. The later scenes lose a lot of their ooomph without it: I proved that to myself empirically by watching it both ways. In the theater, the audience is along for the ride and the director gets to control the pace, so they can drag you through things you wouldn't choose for yourself but which will make it better in the long run. It must be frustrating to carefully craft the pacing only to know people are going to mangle it at home and then criticize the movie for lacking suspense without trying it the way it was intended, the way that would give it that suspense.

I never noticed in my previous two half-aborted attempts to watch the movie that one of the characters (Lily) might even have survived these events. We didn't see (I think) her helicopter go down, so there's no way to know if it made it out. Often, when there's a single survivor, things are told from that person's viewpoint (as in the case of Alien which I watched last night), but this time, Lily's viewpoint is almost incidental.

All in all, I'm very impressed with the movie. It holds together very well. Kudos to the people involved for taking an experimental idea and making it work.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

The key to happiness

Profound and important truths are often hidden in sayings so common and familiar that we don't hear them anymore. Perhaps the most important truth that can be boiled down to a platitude is this: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

Every unhappy person I've ever known could be neatly divvied up into those three categories. People who couldn't accept what they couldn't change: who would gnash their teeth and wear themselves out being outraged at injustices, or burn their spirits down trying to fix things (or other people) that were beyond their reach. People who lacked the courage to change what they could: who sat around letting life slip by without setting goals and working towards them, who coasted on the charity of others, who were mired in entitlement or dependency. Or people who gave up on some things they shouldn't, but strained long past the point of sensible surrender on things they couldn't do.

And by the process of elimination, every happy person I've ever known was someone who took responsibility for themselves and their lives, who figured out what they wanted and then worked towards it all the time, but who didn't aim so much too high that they never got moving, and didn't waste their spirit on crusades they could never achieve. Who were content to do their part, no more and no less, in making both their own lives and the world better.

Too bad the saying is so mired in kitschy framed plaques to be appreciated as the single fact most unhappy people most need to absorb to make their lives better.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Top of the Pops

I was listening to the Chuck Mangione hit song "Feels So Good" yesterday, and found myself amazed that it got radio airplay at all, let alone reaching #4 on Billboard's top chart. This is a jazz instrumental dominated by the flugelhorn, infused with funk, disco, and calypso influences, and almost the whole ten minutes of the song is unabashed noodling solos, one after the other after the other. It starts with a languorous, extra-noodly flugelhorn solo that's more than a minute long and completely unaccompanied. Admittedly, the top chart version was a three-and-a-half-minute edit that eliminated most of the "excesses" (as the pop audience would see it), but even so, that still leaves a jazz instrumental dominated by the flugelhorn, and nothing in that description says "pop hit song".

We don't normally think of the 70s as a time when music was more open than now; quite the contrary, it's the time when the Top 40 stations came to dominate completely. And yet, when I think of songs that hit the top 40 that, on the face of it, you would never imagine could make that big a splash, most of them are in the 70s. How did "Midnight at the Oasis" make the top charts? Or "Killing Me Softly"? Or "Bohemian Rhapsody"? Or "Chuck E's In Love"? Or the themes from various TV shows and movies, in some cases remixed and others not? Or all the novelty records that today would be played twice and then relegated to the Dr. Demento show? And there are a lot more examples I can't bring to mind right now.

It's easy to see in hindsight how these songs could succeed: they have catchy tunes, they're well-constructed, they have good musicianship, they're just good songs (even if you don't like some of them). But they're also very far from the formula of the hit song. If you were a record executive looking at a list that included those songs alongside sure bets like the latest single from Billy Joel or Donna Summer, how could you pick "Feels So Good" as the single to promote?

When I try to think of similarly unexpected hits in other decades, not nearly as many jump out. "Nights In White Satin" is a standout choice from the 1960s, but it's harder to define it in the 1960s because there was a lot of changing in music going on: songs that were defying the expectations then soon became the expectations, while "Feels So Good" certainly didn't lead to a resurgence in the flugelhorn-based jazz genre. The same applies in the 80s to some extent. And after the 90s, the examples of songs that don't fit the popular genres and still made a big splash on the pop charts become few and far between. There's a lot of music exploring the boundaries, but not much of it is becoming a surprise big hit.

Or is it? I am admittedly no student of Billboard. Am I singling out the 70s just because that's the time I was growing up and so more in tune with the top charts, since I had less control over what I got to listen to? Or were DJs really more experimental back then?

Thursday, August 06, 2009

No One Ever Looks Up

The first adventure for my free roleplaying game RealTime, the first roleplaying game played in real time, was originally going to be an adventure titled No One Ever Looks Up, and while my group heard the title no one ever knew what it referred to. It's become a very rare but recurring joke of sorts: if you're in an adventure and you don't know what else to do, look up.

I put the adventure development on hold but never told anyone about it since I thought one day I might go back to finish it, but only if I hadn't spoiled it. But it's been eight years now and I still don't think I could, so I suppose I should bury the idea. When I say what it is, you'll see why. But first, you have to keep in mind, I was first developing the idea in late 2000 and early 2001.

RealTime requires the adventure to happen in a contained amount of time, and given the lack of teleportation, a correspondingly contained amount of space. And since it's often set in the present, there can be an issue of expecting the outside world to get involved. To provide a simple setting for a first-time adventure in RealTime, I thought the perfect setting would be a four-hour plane flight. The characters can neither leave the scene of the action nor expect anyone else to arrive on it, and even the time of the adventure is sharply constrained.

Trying to figure out what interesting adventure could happen on a plane, it occurred to me (again, remember this is early 2001) that while everyone assumes a hijacked plane is a means to get somewhere, it would actually make a very good terrorist weapon, simply because no one would be expecting it. Hence, the title: it's a running joke that in action/adventure stories you can evade pursuit or carry out ambushes by hiding against the ceiling, if you're suitably acrobatic, but I was punning on a much bigger version, in which a plane flying overhead, the most innocuous thing ever, was actually the unseen source of a threat.

My fictional terrorists had a much subtler and less terrifying plan in mind, though, mostly because I wanted the adventure to be not quite so desperate in tone and to also fill out the entire four hours of flight time. Their plan involved some handwaved reason why an airplane flying over certain business centers could hack into financial networks by taking advantage of the fact that earth-to-satellite communications don't usually worry much about being intercepted, being as you'd have to be in just the right place up in the air to do it. They had the pilot cornered with blackmail and had booked the entire flight so they could divert it slightly here and there to be able to wreak terrible havoc on the financial system, siphoning off billions to themselves while crashing the economy, and all without being martyred; they could land and disembark in Atlanta as if nothing had happened other than a small delay due to headwinds, and tie up the loose end of the pilot later.

The one thing that was to go wrong with their plan was that, due to some seats being bumped from earlier flights, a sparse handful of everyday people (the PCs) would end up being assigned seats on their plane despite their efforts to have bought every seat. Thus, they'd have to figure out what to do with these interlopers, hoping to avoid leaving a pile of bodies (and thus drawing police attention) while still having free reign to carry out their plan.

So the players would find themselves on a fully-booked but almost-empty plane, with the other passengers trying to keep them all in one place without revealing anything odd was going on, and without pulling weapons or doing anything else that would make them get reported to the police. Their goal would be to get the PCs to disembark in Atlanta none the wiser. But their activities would be increasingly suspicious as they set up lots of equipment, showed obvious signs of knowing one another, possibly revealed weapons hidden on their persons, etc. The PCs would have to figure out what was going on and then decide what to do about it so that these plans were stopped, or at least revealed.

So while the plan is not really very similar at all to 9/11, I don't think the adventure could ever work. The idea that a hijacking can be much, much worse than "we just want to go somewhere else" is now not only possible but the first thing you'd think of. And even nine years later, the tone of the adventure wouldn't quite feel right. Even the tone of me writing it doesn't feel right. I suppose I could try to adapt it to being on a train or ship, but really, my heart's not in it. So this post is my outing of the idea.

The other RealTime adventure I planned, Hermit Crab, is still possible. Just a matter of putting the time into it. Heck, I hardly remember what that one was about now.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

People from the past, part 2

A few weeks ago I wrote about who you might bring from the past to see what they thought of today's world, and particularly I focused on people from the world of music. Perhaps the most obvious focus though is those who were actively engaged in making the world of their future: scientists and technologists and futurists. Which ones would you pick?

Kepler is an early choice on my list because I think he would really appreciate the chance to see which parts of his work were timeless, insightful, essential truths that we still learn and teach today, and also to see which ones fell aside with the passing of time. But I wonder what he would think of the fact that religion and science are still pitted against one another in the minds of many people. I'd also wonder what he thinks of the statement sometimes made that he was the first author of a science fiction story.

I would have to consider Hypatia not as much for the chance to see how she reacted to the modern world (though that, in itself, would be fascinating; one would imagine she'd be far more ready for it than many of her contemporaries, but even so, it's a huge gulf to cross) as for the chance to meet her, because she must have been a fascinating personality.

Goddard's story is in its way heartbreaking because he spent his whole life in relentless pursuit of a seemingly impossible goal which was achieved within a few decades of his death, and when he died, he still couldn't be totally sure it was possible, despite the huge strides he'd made. And yet he would be quick to accept the current state of things. Consider this quote of his from 1920: "Every vision is a joke until the first man accomplishes it; once realized, it becomes commonplace."

And of course we must consider Babbage, particularly if we can also get Ada Lovelace as part of the same deal. During Babbage's visit, we would also have to bring him to see the Difference Engine made from Lego. I wonder what he would think of that.

One person I absolutely would not want to bring is Darwin, because I can't understand why some people are even still arguing about his work, and I imagine (perhaps I'm being self-indulgent here) that he would be similarly frustrated: gratified to see the overwhelming evidence that has been gathered, fascinated by the works of those who followed after him and the tremendous improvements in the concept, but ultimately, disheartened that to the general public, people still think "but it's just a theory" is actually a sensible thing to say.

Who would you bring, and why?

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Geek rock in Rock Band

In the news recently:
Most recording artists would love to have their music available on MTV Networks' "Rock Band" videogame. But MTV's Harmonix unit, the developer of "Rock Band," simply hasn't had the time or staff to program the vast number of songs it would like to include in the game.

That's about to change. Later this year, MTV plans to launch a groundbreaking initiative called the Rock Band Network that will enable any artist -- unsigned emerging act, indie cult fave or major-label superstar -- to submit songs for possible inclusion in the game.
Previous to this, it seemed unlikely we would ever see any They Might Be Giants songs for Rock Band. But given what a bunch of geeks they are and how much they already do playing with technology, my guess it is now inevitable that we will see some of their songs appear, and I wouldn't be surprised if they follow their old Dial-A-Song tradition and slip us a few for free. I wonder what other bands will see the actual band members making Rock Band versions of their songs as much for fun as for any other reason.

This is a brilliant move by Harmonix. It's good for them: more songs means more profit from song sales, and more appeal for their game, so more sales of it and all its accessories. It's good for the players because we get more songs and a better chance of trying some really interestingly different songs. It's good for the artists since they get another way to promote themselves as well as another revenue stream. About the only losers in this announcement are those who sell Guitar Hero and those few accessories unique to it!

Monday, August 03, 2009

Keeping up

Within a day of setting up a Facebook page I have almost twenty people listed as friends and a flurry of activity that's a little startling. The 20-odd blog posts that Facebook imported have gotten more comments in one day than my entire blog has received in total in the last two months, plus there were a bunch more comments from people who followed the link back to my blog. And that's just with my page and blog. How do people keep up with the million little games and quizzes and polls and the like?

On the other hand I don't expect I'll see a flood of additional friends, since just about everyone I know who has a Facebook page is already on there. Then again, I already got a few friends requests from people whose names I didn't recognize at first (since I mostly know them by other names) so it's hard to be sure what to expect.

Maybe this will be a good time to dig out some of my more philosophical speculation topics for my blog and see how well those fly in this environment. Assuming I feel I have time and energy enough to live up to them.

Sunday, August 02, 2009


There's a new Bruce Willis sci-fi/suspense movie coming out called Surrogates and the trailer looks like it could be very cool (and could also suck badly). The premise: in the near future, everyone remotely operates telepresence robots (surrogates), feeling everything they feel, seeing everything they see, and experiencing life without the risks of having your actual body out in the world. Plus you get to have the body you want, not the one you're stuck with. Sign me up!

There's certainly some similarities to Kiln People, but the differences are more telling: that you can only have one surrogate, and it offers no intelligence of its own, it's just a remote control.

But the surrogates serve as a perfect example of the kind of bad system design that comes from using backwards compatability as a means of advancement. No, really, bear with me. In the world of the movie, essentially everyone is always only interacting with the world through surrogates: complex, expensive, mechanical creations that go to a lot of effort to emulate an obsolete factor, the human presence. Take a step back and consider how you'd design that world, and you'll quickly realize that clunky, error-prone robots which only serve to fool other robots are an unnecessary complication. The whole world could be done far more flexibly, far more reliably, and far less expensively, as a virtual world. After all, the only bit you really need for that is the stuff that lets you experience the robot's sensations and control it; just hook that to software only, not to hardware, and you're already there. The robots add nothing apart from a complex, expensive, unreliable component.

And yet, the future of Surrogates is far more likely than one in which a virtual world, a cyberspace, is really a replacement for real-world interaction. Why is that? The simple reason that we can get from today's world to the world of Surrogates by a series of steps each of which can be done by individual people, companies, groups, etc. That's because each step is completely backwards-compatible with the world before it. That's why a million robots spend most of their time pretending to be people in front of other robots: they're all acting out long-obsolete backwards compatability.

But a move to cyberspace requires a single standard to emerge from the competing ones and gather enough momentum to gather the entire world, and to keep doing so despite challenges from new competitors. And everyone has to decide, when they get involved in one, which one to invest their time, money, and effort in.

The world of technology is constantly dogged by this kind of inefficiency that would disappear if we could agree on standards. In fact, this is one of the many flaws in the idea that the free market solves all problems, one that wasn't as clear in the time of Mills or even Keyes as it is now, when compatability is a much more important part of the things we do than it has ever been.

Saturday, August 01, 2009


Seems like everyone I know is now active on Facebook, and it makes me wonder if I should. But most of the things people do on Facebook don't appeal to me, which is why I haven't thus far. For example, all the time-waster games don't do anything for me: the only place I need time-waster games is in places I don't have Internet.

The main draw of Facebook is getting in touch with people from your past. And I don't have a lot of people in my past I'm really curious about, and where I am curious, it's a mild curiosity: I'd like to know what came of them, but I don't particularly need to get back in touch with them.

Maybe some of them want to get back in touch with me, though? I doubt it. The thing is, most of the people I'm thinking of from my high school days, I couldn't get in touch with because they have the kinds of names that, if you did a Google search, you'd find ten thousand other people with the same name. But my name is a lot more unique. A few years ago, I was all of the top ten hits even without my middle initial included. Even now, if you include my middle initial, it's all me, and even without it, I'm still in the top ten hits. If they wanted to find me, they probably would have by now.

About the only thing left I would do with Facebook is post updates about what's going on in my life, but what would I post... apart from this blog? So that's the one place where I wonder if a move to Facebook would make sense. Maybe I should make a Facebook page and migrate this blog to it. Then I could post the same things I would have posted here, only there. Which might mean I had a bigger potential audience... maybe? Which would be nice. The vast majority of my blog posts earn no response, after all.

But aren't people's "updates" on Facebook usually little blurbs, not these kinds of essays-on-random-topics I use this blog for? I don't really know much about it. Maybe I should look into it.