Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Spoilers for the series premiere for FlashForward follow. For those who want to avoid the spoilers, the upshot is, I'm going to keep watching: the show has promise and has done a few things well that it didn't have to do well to get by. And it's not as much like Lost as it wants you to think it is. But in a good way.

It's easy to criticize FlashForward for how hard it's trying to be "the next Lost". Having a serial story featuring jumping around in time and a big mystery isn't enough: they had to throw in an egregious out-of-place kangaroo (guess they couldn't afford an actual polar bear) and an Oceanic Airlines billboard (bragging a perfect safety record, and then later we hear about planes down all over the world). Plus one of the main characters is played by an actress familiar from Lost. There's even the possibility that we've got some token Mysterious Numbers to play with. So let's get that out of the way. FlashForward is trying way, way, way too hard to be "the next Lost." There, that's done.

But for all the familiar elements, the story is really not that similar to Lost, and I expect it will likely go in a very different direction, with the biggest similarity being the storytelling techniques, not the story itself. And some of the things that were annoying concessions to storytelling need in Lost (most notably the necessity that the characters rarely talk to one another about the odd things they'd seen or learned) will be better explained when they occur in FlashForward.

If you don't know the premise, it's no big spoiler to reveal it: everywhere in the world, at the same time, every human being blacks out for two minutes seventeen seconds, and has a vision of what they'll be doing at 10pm Pacific time on April 29, 2010. These visions are corroborated quickly: if one person had a vision showing them with another person, the other person also saw the same thing. Some of the visions are surprising: a character with no boyfriend sees herself 17 weeks pregnant, for instance. But all are possible and the big question, of course, is are they inevitable?

In all, I'm cautiously optimistic. Their exploration of the consequences of the premise has been mostly fearless and mostly complete. There's only one glaring hole so far. Everyone will know for six months in advance precisely what time that moment will be, yet when the moment comes, it seems the whole world is going to be taken by surprise by that moment, so no one will make sure to be in a place that gives them a useful vision. One guy will spend those minutes on the toilet reading the newspaper. No one's thought of spending those minutes looking at a big pad full of clues, the winning lottery numbers from mid-January, etc. Perhaps this will turn out to be relevant: perhaps this future can be changed (though I for one will find that disappointing), or perhaps the time will be wrong so it will catch everyone by surprise (though even then wouldn't you think you'd recognize the moment coming?), or something. I have hopes this hole will be explained, maybe even a clue... but the main character did, indeed, seem to be spending that time staring at a board full of clues, but as he did so, he seemed unaware that it was the moment, so it's still there.

One thing I very much liked is that the show really explored the consequences of a universal 2:17 blackout. And those consequences are grim. The number of car accidents alone would kill hundreds of thousands of people. We saw surfers who picked a bad moment to pass out and drowned as a result. We saw someone die on the operating table while the doctors and nurses all passed out. Airplanes fell out of the sky (though I suspect fewer would have done so than was depicted in the show; the vast majority of planes will hold heading for 2:17 easily, if they're not in a storm or in mid-landing or something). There are people who were injured or even died for nothing more dramatic than being walking up a flight of stairs at the key moment. And in the moments after, the chaos, panic, fear. Riots, looting, and gradual paranoia: will this happen again? Normalcy returned surprisingly fast, but that's okay, because the show's not supposed to be about all that stuff, but it's nice that they were unflinching in exploring it.

One question that immediately arose is, when people ask "what did you see?" what is the social protocol for how to answer, for when to ask? No one knows: this is unprecedented and there really isn't anything to suggest whether it's rude or tacky to ask someone what they saw, or whether to answer them, or whether to tell the whole truth. We saw the characters trying to figure that out. I like the idea that everyone everywhere is trying to spontaneously, emergently develop a new etiquette for a new situation, while balancing what impact that will have on the chance to avoid the bad things in their futures, or figure out what's going on.

Another good thing is that we've been told that April 29, 2010 will not be the end of the series, but near or at the end of this season, so we won't be dragging this out forever. Will they have figured out what's really going on by then? Probably not. Will there be more flash-forwards? If Lost taught us anything, it's that we can't even begin to guess where the story could potentially be going this early.

There were some flaws in execution, some uneven acting, a few bits of CGI that seemed suspicious, some odd cinematography, a few overused plot devices (I am particularly tired of the "alcoholic that falls off the bandwagon" storyline). But it's definitely got promise. It's worth sticking with it.

(Which unfortunately means I'm even farther behind on TV watching!)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Epitaph One

Spoilers for the unaired season finale of the first season of Dollhouse follow, as well as references to other season one episodes.

I came into this episode having been spoiled only a tiny bit: that the episode was a "game changer", the oddities around its production that led to it not being aired in the US, and most curiously, the ongoing question, will season two deal with its aftermath or not? Now that I've seen it, it's clear that most people asking that question were wondering, will season two take place after the events of Epitaph One? But that's not the right question at all. What they're doing is just what I thought: continuing the story from right after Omega, but now we know a few things about where it will eventually end up.

(Given that ratings for the season two premiere are even worse than they were back when there was no chance of renewal last season, I wonder if we're going to see that. Has Joss been foresighted enough to prepare season two so that it wraps up the entire storyline? Will Fox even let him finish airing season two? They've sworn they would let him do as he liked for season two, but that doesn't mean they're not going to pull the show if it's doing badly enough.)

My feelings about Epitaph One are mixed. Certainly, the show was gripping, the vision was spectacular, the storytelling intense. At the same time, I am kind of disappointed about the direction the show must inevitably go, and I kind of hope we get there more quickly, instead of belaboring the argument.

Throughout season one there has been an undercurrent of debate. On one side there are a lot of people who argue that this technology must, inevitably, irresistably, be used for terrible and regrettable purpose, no matter how noble are the intentions of anyone involved. (I'm oversimplifying. Some people have argued "maybe it could be used well, but it's owned by someone who can't be trusted with it," but mostly in passing, and there's always an overtone that that fact too was inevitable. And there were a few glancing contacts with the idea "Even if almost everyone tried to use it right, someone would use it wrong, and only one is enough," but only barely.)

On the other side are a few people who insist it is a tool and can be used however the people involved want to use it; we've even seen some pro-bono uses where it was being used to do good things that might not be possible otherwise. We've also seen some times where the technology achieved some good. For instance, in what started as perhaps the most egregiously decadent uses of the technology, letting a rich person attend her own funeral, she actually ends up solving a murder and improving the lives of several members of her family.

Clearly, Joss always intended this technology to be a terrible, terrible thing, and word is that was going to be clear from season one but Fox had him tone it down and make it more ambiguous and balanced. In this case, amazingly, I side with Fox. The characters who support this technology and its possibilities are not, and should not be, caricature villains who are just rationalizing their actions. They shouldn't be garden-variety hubris victims. They should be people who are able to face these questions and come up with good answers. And if they turn out wrong, their mistake should be believable, even one with which we can sympathize.

And some scenes in Epitaph One suggest Joss is going for that very thing. Topher's breakdown as he realizes he was the one to think of the clever use of telemarketing, and his telling line about not being able to distinguish between curiosity and arrogance, certainly points in that direction. But ultimately, the show is saying that the mere existence of this technology must inevitably lead to terrible things (and not just any terrible things, but a Zombie Apocalypse).

And I think that's disappointingly selling the possibilities short. Am I just being too Topherish to think that it will take a very specific sequence of events to lead to the particular outcome depicted, one which is actually more dependent on the happenstance of who owns the technology and how it's used (and in particular, its secrecy) than on the technology itself? I find it pretty implausible that it could be kept secret long enough to lead to this scenario, in fact.

The "remote wipe" mentioned in an early season one episode (the one with the safecracking job) hints at the possibility of eventually producing a completely sonic way to program the brain, but it feels like too big a jump to think that they can nearly-instantly wipe a person's brain and fill it with an entire mind with nothing more than low-fidelity sound. But that's a pretty minor irritation: one could easily handwave some more plausible delivery method (a macrovirus carrying a wedge encoded in a molecular matrix, for instance) and the result is the same. And the handwaves involved in getting to the point of having braintaping and synthetic minds are already pretty huge but we've already swallowed those. Still, it feels kind of pat: once we have braintaping then we will inevitably have the Saberhagen berserker version of the Zombie Apocalypse? Big jump.

This post sounds far more critical than I mean it to be, because I still find the show fascinating and one of the best shows on TV right now. It just takes a lot more words to explain my one minor disappointment than it would to express all the things I like about it, because I'm not just explaining it, I'm riffing on it.

Incidentally, Butchers feel like Reavers 2.0. Because they're the same thing, but the means by which they become Butchers is scarier. Why? I'm not sure. Maybe because what makes one person become a Reaver and not another is innate, but what makes one person a Butcher and not another is a choice. A choice made in ignorance of its impact, but a choice all the same.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The problem with...

I got to overhear a harangue against Facebook recently which so nicely fit into the pattern that I think is, in a larger context, behind this quote:
"Societies can behave the same way, when there is a sudden and dramatic increase in the flow of energy through the society -- automobiles in place of horses and buggies, massive waves of immigration, new trading relationships with new flows of products, surges of new information with the introduction of technologies like television or the Internet. First, long-stable patterns break down. Then new ones emerge at a higher degree of complexity. Societies are vulnerable to misinterpreting the first stage as a descent into chaos and then overreacting with the imposition of a rigid, stagnating order." -- Al Gore, at MIT Commencement Address, June 7, 1996
In this case, people tend to imagine that something like Facebook is a fundamentally new thing and treat it as such. All the mistakes flow from that. It is new in some ways, but at its core, it's not that new.

That leads some people who are embracing it to set aside common sense they have always taken for granted: for instance, they might reveal more about themselves in Facebook than they would ever do by other modes of communication, because even though Facebook is essentially "a way to communicate with people", people get hung up on the novelty of it and fail to apply the rules they already know for ways to communicate with people.

And the mirror image of that is the people who aren't embracing it who level criticisms about why people are using it to communicate with people instead of older, "better" methods. This was played out in a particularly ironic way in the conversation I overheard. The other person objected that Facebook is a bad substitute for reaching out to touch people directly, like she was doing. But what she was doing was talking to someone on a cell phone over a Bluetooth connection in a car. How long ago was it that telephones, or cell phones, or Bluetooth, were all poor substitutes for the modes of human communication that came before them, to the same sorts of people? Once the telephone became transparent, it became literally just another way to reach out to someone; sure, there are conversations that shouldn't be done on the phone, but no one thinks calling your mother isn't really having human communication anymore. But every new method of communication is so busy being "new" for a while that it hasn't yet been accepted for what it ultimately is, a method of communication.

Once people stop treating something like Facebook as a fundamentally different thing, they will find that it is 90% a familiar thing they know, a way to communicate with people, and only then can they find the other 10% that is genuinely new. It's funny that people miss the real paradigm shifts because they're so busy mistaking the whole bloody thing for a paradigm shift!

I'm only using Facebook as an example here. The same thing could have been said for mail, telegraphs, telephones, answering machines, fax machines, email, texting, webcams, and any other new form of communication, and will no doubt be said for all the future changes in how we communicate, too. In fact, similar things can be said for almost any big change in how people interact with one another.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Ray-Ban sunglasses

It's been five months now since I got a pair of Ray-Ban Aviator sunglasses and I can safely say that they're no better in terms of functionality than a $10 pair of cheap sunglasses when those cheap ones are new. They don't fit better, they don't let me see better, they don't even really look better on me.

However, six-month-old cheap sunglasses would be scratched by now, and impossible to really get clean of smudges. The Ray-Bans still come perfectly clean every day, have no scratches, and work as good as they did on the first day.

Thing is, they still cost ten times as much as the cheap sunglasses. So if they only last five times as long, they're clearly not worth it. If they get close to ten times, they might be, because avoiding the hassle of dealing with replacing cheap sunglasses more often would tip the balance. Plus it's not like the cheap ones go bad all at once; they gradually degrade, so any measurement of "how long they last" has to account for the fact that there's a certain amount of that time when they're not working as well as you'd like.

But even accounting for that, Ray-Bans will have to last a lot longer to be worth it. So far these are doing fine, but it would be so easy to drop them, lose them, etc. and you have to also account for worrying about that in the cost-benefit analysis too.

So when these are gone, I'm going to go back to cheap sunglasses, most likely.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Clothes shopping

Being able to buy clothes at WalMart is really a wonderful thing that is easy to take for granted. More generally, being able to buy clothes locally is great, being able to try things on, look at varieties, not pay a lot in shipping. But it's also nice to have a wide variety of things at great prices.

But it turns out to have a dark side. It also means Siobhan can buy clothes at WalMart. And that means the process, which was formerly done at home where I could be doing anything I liked, is now being done where I have to sit and wait.

And sit and wait.

And sit. And wait.

Thankfully, they have benches, and I have a Kindle. Even so, I think that part took longer than the whole rest of the store. I need to arrange the clothes-shopping to coincide with a time when I can do a whole other store while it's happening!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Readying for winter

I've only just started saying goodbye to summer and it's already time to think about preparing for winter. And the need to get certain things done before it's too cool to leave the windows open always sneaks up on me. Today I realized that next time I have a warm day when I'm at home, I need to clean the ovens, because once winter sets in, cleaning them is really difficult: they make the house so smokey that if you can't open the windows, you really don't want to do it any more than absolutely necessary. So you have to wait until as late into the autumn as possible, then clean them once in middle winter, and then as early into spring as possible. And I suddenly find myself looking at that autumn date already.

Same thing with giving the dog a bath.

And that means I have to put up the hose reels, take down screens, clean out the culvert, take down the container garden, run down the tractor, test out the generator, and a bunch of other things of the same ilk. Plus this year I have to be ready for the dog-related burdens: ensuring she has somewhere to go outside to do her business (and thus learning how to use the snowthrower), and the mounting worry that with the inability to take her for exercise in the harsh weather, she's going to become unmanageable. (Plus now I have a shed whose roof will need snow removal, too. I'm going to be busier than ever.) And there's not one but two bee's nests to deal with!

I'm a little irked that between having my chainsaw out of commission and then waiting two months for a forester to return a call, I missed pretty much the whole summer, and it's down into cold weather and busy weather already when I'm finally able to start thinking about taking down a few more trees. I don't know if I'm actually going to have time to do any this year after all.

If only I didn't have to work, then I'd have just about the right amount of time to do the things that need doing.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Joe Cocker

Not long ago I watched Woodstock (I'd seen snippets before but never the whole thing). One observation: in the movie Taking Woodstock that came out last month, Eugene Levy is perfectly cast, because Max Yasgur actually looked and sounded a lot like Eugene already.

I've seen Joe Cocker perform a number of times, including the famous Saturday Night Live performance with John Belushi standing alongside him doing the same thing. One can't help notice those erratic movements he's making, and how similar they look to the kinds of movements that people with certain developmental or neurological disorders tend to make. But one thing that struck me when I saw that SNL episode all those years ago was that he didn't do those things at all unless he was singing.

The possibility exists that it's all affected, that he does it on purpose. It has become a hallmark, a signature, so that could make sense now, but it doesn't make a lot of sense when he was starting in his career: it couldn't've been an asset. And that was long enough ago that the idea of doing it as a gimmick seems unlikely, but who knows? I certainly don't.

But if it's not affected, that makes me intensely curious about whether it's even something he could stop if he wanted to. Is it some kind of odd neurological short-circuit which, if better understood, might even shed some light on the neurological disorders that lead to similar kinds of movements? Why is it linked to singing: is there some part of the brain active when he's singing but not at other times which is involved, and if so, what is that part? Does it happen at other times too?

I don't know much about Joe Cocker. I wonder if he avoids interviews, or if when he gives interviews he prefers not to talk about the odd movements and considers them a distraction from his singing, or what. (He seemed good-natured enough about John Belushi's impersonation though!) I wonder if he's thought about these questions, investigated them, dismissed them.

I wonder if I'm not overthinking the whole thing!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


This weekend, with help from a friend, I'll be picking up a free original arcade game, Asteroids to be specific.

The game itself is described as "on the fritz": I will see if it can be fixed, but with old video games, it's hit or miss. Either it's a simple problem like too much dust or loose cables, or it's an insoluble problem like a chip that's gone or a short on one of the boards. About the only middle-of-the-road problems are those with the analog components, the controller and screen, which could be replaced but it's probably not worth it to replace them.

But the real point is for the cabinet. You can spend $400 and up for a similar brand new cabinet into which you can assemble a MAME machine and control panel. Or you can use a real cabinet to get a far more authentic feel, with the beautifully cheesy art on the side and the lit upper panel; and in this case, get it for free!

With a suitable installation of MAME and a control panel that includes all the controllers you need for every game you like, you can have a single arcade game in a proper cabinet that is an entire arcade in one box. And that's what I'm going to do eventually -- though the control panel is the tricky bit, because you need so many controls. Got to have a proper Tempest wheel, and a trackball, and a pair of eight-direction joysticks for Robotron, but you also have to have four-direction joysticks since eight-direction ones screw things up in games like Make Trax or Pac Man. And then there's rare games like Gyruss that really need a many-direction joystick too. And then there's all the buttons.

You end up with a really crowded panel, where it's challenging to retrain the twitch reflexes to hit the right one of the many controls. My favorite solution is the modular control panel but that's going to take a lot of work to make -- no one sells a premade panel set like that, so far as I know. More's the pity.

This is a project for another year, but I look forward to it all the same.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Dollhouse redux

Preparing for this Friday's second season premiere of Dollhouse, we started re-watching season one. We haven't gotten to seeing either of the unaired episodes on the Blu-ray disc set, but we got five episodes in so far. Not too far, that's when it was just "getting good" when we first watched it.

I'm finding a lot of little things coming out the second time through that I missed the first time. Partially it's because I still wasn't sold on the show yet, so I wasn't always paying 100% attention. But partially it's because a lot of hints were floating around about things that would be revealed later, hints that no one pegged, not even in the TiVo forum where people analyze these things to death.

Generally speaking, those first episodes that felt flat when we first watched them feel stronger in retrospect. And I don't mean just the effect any show gets that when you rewatch weaker earlier episodes after you've come to know and love the characters, the flaws are less evident and the familiarity is a comfort. (That's true in the case of early episodes of Firefly: they're easier the second time, but it's only because of those factors, the stories themselves didn't improve.) In this case, we can see reasons why things happened the way they did, that the first time through just rubbed us wrong, but in hindsight, some of it was actually significant, and appropriate.

I'm not sure if we'll have watched it all in time for Friday; probably not. And with a lot of shows premiering their new seasons this week, we're about to be way behind on TV in general, and struggling to keep up again. Once more I find myself half-hoping a few of the promising new shows of this season will turn out to suck because I can't spare the time to keep up with too many good shows!

Monday, September 21, 2009

There are two Internets

It has recently come to my attention that there are at least two disparate universes which the Internet spans, with some kind of gateway that connects them and translates messages as they come across it.

I came to this conclusion not, as you might expect, by reading political debates, but by a simpler means. Apparently, in this other universe, xkcd isn't funny. There was no other explanation for the comments I sometimes saw from people talking about how unfunny it was; they must perforce be reading a different xkcd than I was.

Which universe are you in? Is the above comic side-splittingly funny or does it make you scratch your head in puzzlement?

At first, I felt very sorry for those people, stuck in a world where xkcd wasn't funny. Just think of all they were missing out on, and didn't even know it! But then it occurred to me that it might work both ways. Maybe in their universe lolcats are funny. It would explain so much. (In my universe, they're just pictures of cats with misspellings over them.) So maybe I'm the one who's missing out on an entire universe of sublime humor!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

So much time, so much to do

Today was under consideration for roleplaying, but then plans fell through, so the whole day is wide open. And I got the lawn mowed yesterday since we got back early enough from the fair, so chores are caught up. The whole day is wide open, and I have quite a list of things I want to do. Writing I'd like to work on, trees to fell, baking to do, games to play, roleplaying adventures to prepare, and tech things to fiddle with, and that's just scraping the surface. By rights, I should be raring to go.

And yet I don't feel particularly motivated to do any of it. Blech.

Probably if I get up and start moving that'll kickstart me. But I don't usually need that, so I don't like it when I do.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Tunbridge World's Fair

We haven't gone to a county fair or the state fair in years, but we go to the Tunbridge World's Fair virtually every year. Despite the fancifully grandiose name, it's of a size bigger than a county fair but smaller than the state fair (and much much smaller than the Chittenden County Fair). That makes it just about the right size: you can cover it in a few hours, but you don't feel short-changed.

Seeing the animals and the prize-winning vegetables and fruits is not as big a deal for me as for Siobhan: if I didn't do it I would probably miss it, but probably not that much. But it's always more fun when you're bringing along someone who hasn't been to the fair before, as we did this year. This year we watched a few minutes of the oxen pulling, too, mostly for a chance to sit down.

The craft displays are more interesting. Looking at someone else's cake doesn't do much for me, but the other crafts that are more visual are more intriguing. There's so many that you tend to gloss over them, but any single one of them has a whole story to tell, so it's a matter of deciding how many it's worth it to look more closely at. This year I was surprised to find on the children's side a whole category for "building block crafts" -- that is, Legos. I don't recall ever seeing Lego entries before. The photography is always interesting, and this year I finally decided that I am going to try to enter a few of my own photographs into next year's competition. I'm not a great photographer by any means but I have gotten lucky a few times.

There's also a lot of booths selling a variety of things, some interesting, most not so interesting, but browsing through them is part of the experience. It's more so now that the ones that sell things like shirts are actually within reach, but for all that, we didn't buy anything this year. The other people who we brought with us more than made up for it though!

And of course there's the fair food. Again, this is a bigger deal for Siobhan than for me. I usually approach it more with worry than eagerness: so often fair food has been disappointing and I end up wishing I'd spent the money on something else. And now that my stomach can't hold that much, a bad choice is even less possible to recover from. Had a moderately good gyro (at least as good as from any of the local pizza places: real rotisserie meat instead of sliced loaf, but weak tzatziki and not as good a proportion of meat to veggies) and some onion rings (just what you'd expect). Maybe next year I'll give the Italian sausage another try.

This year there was a remarkable number of people from Boston. Of course there is a Boston presence every year, and we had good weather, and there's been more in recent years than previously because people take vacations closer to home, but even considering all that, there was a lot of Bostonians. (Listened to one Boston couple introducing their young son to a cow at the petting zoo. They didn't realize that cows are female.) I wonder if there was some kind of special deal, or maybe the organizers advertised more heavily there, or something.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Turning a corner

The work project that's had me so foul-tempered and exhausted the last few months has turned a corner, and once more, I think I can see normalcy approaching.

I don't mean to overstate how good this is. The project is still something of a boondoggle, with most of what could have been good about it crippled, so an investment of several years and a lot of money is largely relegated to being "not in the way" instead of actually benefiting anyone. Leadership is still absent and I'm still frustrated by knowing how badly mismanaged things have been.

But these are all things that I can pretty much say are in the past: the opportunities to avoid those problems are gone, no sense dwelling on them. Within the realm of possibility that remains, there are a lot of good things to be found. The crushing burden of backlog has been caught up with and there's every expectation another one won't build up. Yesterday we did a big audit that was a key step in making all the procedures smoother and the data more meaningful from here forward. The guys are happier with the system than they've ever been (and are largely unaware that that's because it's been neutered so badly -- having it not cause them problems is enough to make them happy, their expectations don't also include it improving things, the idea doesn't even occur to them).

And for me, I can finally start to look at the time when this doesn't consume virtually all my time, when I can work on other projects. This won't go away, there's still a lot to be done, but it's not a crushingly urgent top priority, and it won't be to the exclusion of everything else.

Maybe I won't have to even write about this stuff in my blog many more times. That'll be nice, eh?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Wedding gifts

Apparently there's a rule against referring to wedding gifts that's so hard and fast that you're not even supposed to mention them long enough to say you don't want any, or that if you really insist you should donate to these charities.

Well, I think that's bollocks. We've got our 20th anniversary and vow renewal coming up in a bit more than a year, and we want to direct people to a few select charities (probably The Nature Conservancy, Doctors Without Borders, and The Vermont Foodbank) if they feel a need to do something. (Which we wouldn't expect as a vow renewal isn't precisely a wedding, but some people will anyway.) In any case, we don't want gifts.

It's a polite but supremely ridiculous fiction that wedding gifts are supposed to be unexpected and wholly a surprise. (And if it's not absurd enough, there's a whole industry built around wedding registries!) Carrying on such absurd fictions to conform with the social contract is fine when it doesn't hurt anyone. But if, because we feel a need to conform with it, someone doesn't make a donation and so someone goes hungry, that's ridiculous.

Social contracts only change because someone changes them. If people think we're being inexcusably crass for saying "No gifts wanted", or for pointing people to selected charities, then to heck with them.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Dangerous trees!

The forester that visited the house back in July recommended I get a professional to fell the half-dozen trees that are near enough the house that, while none are particularly threatening, if things went precisely wrong could potentially hit the house or deck. His reason was that I'm too much of a novice for that, which is only partially true -- I've felled a few trees already that were as hard or harder, and I have a friend with lots of experience who helps with the tough parts. But the other half of his argument was that it would probably only cost $50 to have someone drop a dozen trees and let me do the hard part of limbing and bucking. And for $50, sure, it's worth it to let someone else do the slightly more dangerous part.

$50 seemed too good to be true, and sure enough, the best bid I got was nearer to $150, but even that turned out completely wrong. Seems that insurance costs to do that sort of thing for money have tripled recently, and it's now ridiculously expensive even to do an hour's work in someone else's yard, mostly because of the effect of people doing the same thing in urban and suburban lots where it's far more challenging due to how close together houses are and the prevalence of power lines, sheds, and other collateral damage opportunities.

So I'm back to the original plan of doing it myself, with a few more months slipped by (maybe just as well, I've been too busy anyway). Some of these trees will be easy, some will take some help. I probably won't keep working into November, so we'll see how much I can get done this season, and the trees will wait for me if I don't get them all.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Historically most divination methods are built around something whose outcome couldn't be predicted, that is, something "random" in the most general sense of the word. So instead of reading tea leaves or goat entrails today, why not have modern divination methods be based on modern randomness? And the most prevalent randomness in many people's lives today is the shuffle mode on their MP3 or CD player.

Given how rich with possible interpretations are the songs in your music collection -- that is, any given one can be determined to be "accurate" retroactively based on so many things from the meaning of intentionally-vague lyrics to the particular instrumentation or tempo to the happenstance of what people, places, or events are associated with a song in your personal history -- random song selections are not just good enough as a divination method, they're actually far better than the nonsense that makes up horoscopes.

Hence, the practice I call mipzomancy -- because it has to have some name, and I started with "MP3" and mutated it until it sounded like a real word -- which is putting on a random playlist with as wide a variety of musical options as you have, and then putting interpretations on the songs as they come up. As with most divination methods, beforehand it could mean anything and afterwards it's clear what it meant. Give it a try!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Why dogs like bad smells

Compared to most other mammals, and especially to dogs, humans have a really bad sense of smell. Since it's such a crude and undiscerning tool, it focuses on the broadest strokes; in particular, virtually everything we can smell is a clue about whether something is good or bad. "Good" refers to only a few things: "I can eat this", or "I can reproduce with him/her", or "This is safe". But there's a lot more bad things in the world, ranging from food you can't eat, to places and situations that can spread disease or illness, to predators and places they're more likely to find you, to natural dangers like fire or inclement weather. So it's no surprise that a lot more smells are bad ones than good ones.

Since our sense of smell tells us "this is good" or "this is bad" in such a simplistic, crude way, we tend to immediately associate the smell with a desire to avoid or embrace something. Thus, our reaction to unpleasant smells like sewage is to try to get to where we're not smelling it anymore, period.

Dogs have a sense of smell that's a thousand times more powerful than ours, both in discernment and distance. It's hard to overestimate how much better their sense of smell is than ours; the challenge is to imagine what it could be like to smell like they do since their facilities are not just like ours but better, but several orders of magnitude better, enough that it's a difference of kind, not just of quantity. And yet dogs don't recoil from bad smells. If you imagine how you react to the smell of feces and multiply it by a thousand, you'd wonder why dogs don't flee all the time, but they embrace it. In fact, dogs often follow up awful smells by tasting, which grosses people out.

Does this make sense? It turns out it does. A rough analogy can be made if you consider our sense of sight, which is far better than a dog's sense of sight (not a thousand times better, but still better). Sight is so refined for us that very few sights are immediately telling us nothing more than "this is good" or "this is bad". Maybe a completely dark area could be seen as triggering "this is bad" the same way sewage smells do, but generally, we don't react to sights the way we do to smells. Even the sight of something that suggests danger is something we take in, in all its details, and parse into its component parts, so we can understand what's going on. Sight is refined enough that we can expect it to tell us far more than "this is bad: avoid it", it also tells us what exactly is going on, so we can figure out how best to deal with it. Even the most horrifying sights are as likely to compel us to look as to look away or close our eyes. And very few sights are so terrible that they are directly terrible the way a smell is; they're only terrible when you come to understand what you're seeing and then react to the implications, whereas the smell of sewage is immediately awful long before your mind has worked out that it's sewage (or even if it never does figure that out).

So when a dog smells poop, he's getting a thousand times more information than our simple "poop is yucky" reaction. Poop tells him who pooped, and what their health state was, and where they might have gone, and whether they might be a danger or a food source or a potential mate, and a lot more we can't even imagine. The dog's reaction is not to recoil from its ickiness but to investigate farther. If it's a bad thing, the dog needs to understand it, and smell (and taste) is the best way to do it. And if it's an opportunity, the same thing is true.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A bee problem

Bees of some sort (yellowjackets probably) have built a nest entirely inside the eaves at the corner of my house, and when I say entirely inside, I mean you can't see any sign of the nest whatsoever except for all the bees going in and out.

I had a couple of half-empty cans of bee nest spray, which have worked for me in the past, so I gave that a try; however, with the cans half-empty I didn't get as much range as I expected so much of the spray didn't hit the eaves and what did wasn't anywhere near enough.

So I bought a full can and then unloaded it entirely into the eaves, completely soaking the whole area. For a few hours afterwards, there was a frantically large amount of bee activity around the nest. But this morning, I find the bees are back to business as usual. I guess I can't get enough of the spray into the eaves through the drainage holes to do the job; most of it was wasted on the walls, I suppose.

So how do I deal with the bees now? I can't very well get up there to open up the eaves (assuming I can even figure out how to do so) and spray from up close, at least not without a bee suit. I don't see any other way, though. Is this situation dire enough to require paying a professional, or is there a trick I'm not thinking of?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Shopping lists

About twenty years ago, Siobhan and I took the time to go through the supermarkets in the area, figure out which had best prices on each item we regularly bought, and make a list of what we typically needed sorted in order by the aisle in which they appeared and listed in whichever store had the best price. It took a few hours, and it would have to be periodically maintained. But every shopping trip from then on, we saved both time and money. We saved money obviously by getting the best deal, and we saved time by being able to zip through the store going straight to the next item we needed, as well as by avoiding that "extra trip" every few days for something we forgot (since going through the checklist before each trip ensured we caught everything we'd need virtually every time).

Somewhere along the way the paper list was replaced with a list on a handheld device, a PalmPilot at first, nowadays in ListPro on my Windows Mobile phone. This makes it a lot easier. Maintaining the list on the fly in the store when I find they've moved things around is as easy as drag-and-drop. And that process before the shopping trip of going through our regular items and picking out what we need this time is as easy as checking things as I scroll down (we typically do this in the car on the way to work, time that would have been wasted otherwise).

During the last twenty years, people who've noticed how we do this have reacted with varying degrees of incredulity. Generally the reaction is surprise that we'd put so much time into it, which is bass-ackwards: spending a few hours one day will save time every week for years to follow, so it's a large net savings. (Though people often don't believe this. They imagine that that "quick stop" they do every day or two on the way home doesn't add up to anywhere near as much time as it actually does add up to.) They often doubt we're really saving any money by splitting our shopping between multiple stores, or that we're doing it by settling for cheaper versions of products than they would (which of course we might be in some cases, but whether you're buying store-brand or premium, either way one store might be cheaper than the other, so that factor cancels out).

What's really interesting though is that, with the growing ubiquity of smartphones, more and more people are gradually starting to employ some of the same techniques. I saw someone today using an iPhone shopping list program as she went through the aisles, and I caught a glance at her list. Like mine, it's organized by aisles, but I couldn't tell if it had a checklist of common items that's used to easily make the "what I need today" list, or whether it was good at supporting multiple lists for different stores (and moving stuff between them). If she isn't using those features, I bet after she's been using her iPhone for this job for a while, she'll start wanting them, and find an app that can handle them.

This is still a long way from the ideal where a piece of software doesn't just help you organize your trip, but also helps you find the best deals. But this is more about the process than about the technology. As with many things, shopping is a task where it's very easy to not realize where you're spending your time or your money, and so to not recognize ways to save either. Far simpler to fall into the habit of making a lot of quick convenience trips, and even those who avoid the trap of convenience stores still tend to let the supermarket and their schedule dictate their shopping habits to their detriment. The technology is noteworthy here only because it might nudge people out of those habits as it gives them a reason to think about doing things differently, causing them to almost by accident find new efficiencies. And that's good: if they give credit to technology for causing efficiencies that it didn't really create, that'll go against all the times they give blame to technology for causing inefficiencies that it didn't really cause.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Shoulder sprain

When I took a spill on my bike a few weeks ago I got a shoulder sprain that was far more painful than the scrapes that left my knee and elbow bloody. For the first few days I had a hard time sleeping, because I couldn't lie on one side. But over the first three days, it improved dramatically, probably 75% better by the second day and 90% better by the third. I was able to sleep on that side, though not for long and not easily, that soon.

But it's been a week and a half now, and that last bit of the sprain just doesn't seem in a hurry to improve. It's still getting a little better each day but so very, very slowly. I still can't just lie on my left side in bed without having to carefully arrange pillows (enough to make myself wake up), and not being able to stay that long. I still can't reach around to scratch my back easily without hitting the pain point. And I've been having a backache that I don't know is just bad luck or was caused by favoring my shoulder.

I don't know if there's anything I should be doing to make it get over that last bit of pain. The idea of not using that arm might be something I could sustain for a day or two, but two weeks? I suppose anti-inflammatories would help if I weren't prohibited from taking them. The pain seems far too deep-seated for heat and cold applications to still matter. Is there nothing I can do but wait?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Not ready for autumn

It's already dark in the morning when the alarm goes off. I am not ready for that. I've been stuck in life-on-hold for so long now, due to work stuff and the sudden demands of dog-owning, that I feel like someone stole the whole summer while my back was turned, except for a few weekends here and there.

Thank goodness we managed those three days on the beach in Maine; without that, I would probably be a lot worse. But even so, I'm just not emotionally ready for the summer to be gone. I am just now starting to feel like I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, though it's still far away but I can see it now, but by time I get there it'll be time to deal with snow and the holidays and hauling wood and fighting with the finances through the tight part of the year.

I need to drop a few things from my life for a few more months until I can feel sane and unpressured again.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The whole place screams 'go away'

Not far outside the Montpelier-Barre area, on a state highway that's only moderately used, out in the middle of nowhere with nothing but a few farms and houses nearby, there's a middling-sized warehouse for Pine State Trading Company. The building is wholly unassuming, despite the garish yellow-and-green color scheme.

However, very uncharacteristically for the surroundings, it has high chain link fence with razor wire on top of it. Nothing has that kind of protection in this area, even in the cities, let alone out on a rural highway.

Pine State trucks are often rolling around the roads around here, they're actually a pretty common sight once you start looking for them, though most people don't notice them. But no one really knows what they do. No one I know has ever heard of anyone who does business with them. There's nothing on the building or the trucks to suggest what they're carrying. Still, they're everywhere.

If you wanted to have some kind of cover for covert operations, the kind that would let you pull a truck up in front of a business for surveillance without anyone suspecting anything, or cart off things (or people), wouldn't this be the perfect cover? What is Pine State really trading, anyway?

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Holding hands

Lately I've noticed a lot of younger couples walking around holding hands in an entirely un-self-conscious way. Not just one or two, but a lot of them, like it's a trend thing, like it's become hip to hold hands. Not that the area I live is the cutting edge of trends -- if it's happening here now it was probably a trend two years ago -- but even if the trend is time-shifted it's still surprising.

I would have expected hand-holding to be considered entirely square and corny, either a vestige of a much older generation, or a marginalized thing like chastity pledges that decidedly-uncool people do. But the people I'm seeing holding hands are definitely the type who have some awareness of, and interest in, at least the basic social trends. Okay, none of them are wearing whatever's in GQ or Vogue, or drinking designer appletinis. But neither are they likely to be wearing a porkpie hat or listening to Cat Stevens records (unless he's cool again -- music comes around more quickly than things like hand-holding).

So what's the story? Did Jessica Biel hold hands with Matt Damon in a movie or something?

Monday, September 07, 2009


Friday night I started by digging up the ground where the shed was going to go, to level it out. I wasn't sure how well that would work, as I'd never done it, but it worked quite well. Only took a couple of hours and most of that was fighting with breaking strong sod over an infinite quantity of rocks. I pulled up sod and a bit of soil from the high corner, and piled it up on the low corner, then raked it out to relatively level.

Saturday I put together the foundation kit and laid out the plywood. There was one problem there. For some reason, when buying the shed kit, I asked the guy at Home Depot how much plywood I needed, and then, I listened to the answer. What was I thinking? Whatever mind-altering effect was clouding me was also affecting the Home Depot employee, though; instead of selling me too much, he sold me too little. So I had to fill out the middle with two layers of some much-thinner plywood. I might cut another couple of pieces and add them later.

Then I had to stop for a while to stack a cord of green wood that was supposed to arrive on Friday, but no Vermonter in business for himself ever comes on the day he's supposed to, not on the first try.

The actual assembly started on Saturday but I soon reached a step that said, after this, I shouldn't continue unless I could finish it that day, since a partially-completed shed was vulnerable to severe wind damage. So we rounded out the afternoon spray-painting the pieces. Ran out of paint, though, and had to run out for more, but it was dark by time we got back, so I finished the next morning.

Saturday's work also included the obligatory blood sacrifice -- one of the pieces took a hunk out of my thumb that bled surprisingly profusely for a while, soaked several bandages, but then it finally stopped.

Most of Sunday was spent finishing the assembly, and a lot of that was done with Tyler's help, which was very valuable and greatly appreciated. The already-painted pieces went up pretty easily, though the paint job is splotchier than I realized it would be. We weren't painting it for looks, but for rust resistance (which is why the roof and trim are in a lighter shade of blue instead of darker: that was the Rustoleum paint). But we have some paint left to touch it up. It also turns out to be missing one handle; I'll have to call for that missing part tomorrow, they're closed today.

I still have to anchor it to the plywood, and build a soil ramp up to the entrance (but it doesn't have to be very fancy; this shed is just secondary storage, the big stuff like the tractor will all live in the garage). And do some paint touch-up, and put on the handle when I get it. And finally, decide what to move into it. There's only a few things in there now.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

The trials of being a futurist

There are technologies that are being developed, discussed, imagined, or sold right now, which are not in widespread use yet, or are just starting to come into widespread use; but which will, within the next ten years, become prevalent and ubiquitous, affect your life and the lives of most people you know, and change the world, possibly in unexpected ways.

That statement has been true my entire life. The thing is, it's hard to tell which technologies are the right ones. Name any technology in its infancy and almost everyone who's heard of it, or tried it, will recite a litany of reasons why it will never catch on, why they'll never use it, or why it will never replace something else. (That last one is a red herring: nothing ever totally replaces its predecessor, no matter how huge its impact on the world is. If its predecessor goes away, it'll be long, long after its successor came along. But usually it always survives in some marginalized form.)

And yet it remains true that many of those things are going to end up in those people's hands, and changing their lives. The fact is, most people have no idea which ones are going to get big, and most people barely even try. They look at a new technology, particularly in its primitive prototype form when its weaknesses are stark, and they miss the potential. Or they misjudge how well the problems can be addressed. Or most commonly they find the weaknesses to be glaring but don't imagine the ways that the strengths will play out.

Twenty years ago you could find any number of people explaining in painful detail why answering machines would never catch on, or why email would never succeed. Ten years ago, MP3s and cell phones would always be a fringe market. If you dig far enough, you can find the same reactions to things going back as far as television and probably earlier.

And of course for every technology I can cite that was talked down but did end up changing the world, there's a dozen more that didn't. Those, too, were talked down by people, and in some cases the reasons they gave might be part of why the technology never took off. But most often, the reasons people give are irrelevant. If the technology fails it'll either be because it offers something no one really needs, or more insidiously, for business reasons, usually because the process of transitioning from the current economy and society to the one that includes the new technology becomes a chicken-and-egg problem.

Ever since I was young I was avidly fascinated by the question of which technologies were going to succeed, and trying to predict accurately what would change the world. I even studied that subject for a semester in college. I've had a really good track record, too. Back in 1980, when the vast majority of people had never even heard of email, I not only accurately predicted its ascendance, I also predicted spam (long before it was called that) and the ways that spam would be blocked, in a paper I wrote for one of my junior high school classes.

Over the years I've pegged lots of technologies that I thought would become ubiquitous, and every one of them has done so: I've never, to my recollection, identified anything that I thought was going to touch everyone's lives and been wrong. (Unless you count ones I've made that haven't yet come true. For instance, about ten years ago I made a bet with someone that by 2020 ebooks would be common. I am no longer in contact with him, but while ebooks are still not so widespread that my prediction is an absolute certainty yet, and plenty of people are still ready to talk them down in the usual ways, they're already common enough for me to win the bet according to the rules we agreed on at the time.)

To be sure, there've also been technologies whose impact I didn't foresee, but that's not so bad. It's more important that every prediction I make is right, than that I make every right prediction.

I certainly am not just bragging here, nor claiming that there aren't countless other people who could make the same claims. My point, rather, is that it's frustrating to make these predictions and have people universally dismiss them based on the same old litany of reasons. It's easy to always talk about why this or that will never catch on, and then brush aside the times you're wrong. It's also easy to embrace neophilia and proclaim how every new thing will change the world. Accurately separating the two takes some serious thought about the advantages and disadvantages of each technology, both as they are and as they might become, as well as a consideration of market forces and the transition process. It's a tricky art with a lot of subtle things at play in it, and people have no appreciation of how hard it is to get right, while they're armchair-quarterbacking their way through it.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Passwords and security

The industry standard password policy is pretty much universal. The cornerstone is that people have to change their passwords regularly, and everything else follows from that: that they choose their own passwords (because no one else has time, and so no one else knows them), that the passwords have required complexity (since they're terrible at choosing their own passwords), and that they can't keep reusing the same ones.

The thing is, no one really ever seems to have considered the alternatives and given them a really rigorous scientific investigation. The standard is what everyone does because it's the standard, and that's why everyone does it. But in my opinion and in my experience, it actually is pretty poor security.

It seems everything about this policy is based on one point: that it's a bad idea to have the same password for a very long time, because it increases the odds that it could be compromised, and you might not even know that that happened. And that's certainly a factor, no one would deny that. But it's not the only factor. In my opinion, forcing regular user-made changes to complex passwords is just inviting far greater weaknesses than what strength you gain from the frequency of the change.

First, you're asking users who don't understand security and have no particular incentive to care about it to be the ones to choose their passwords, and that alone is the greatest weakness in password security. Users choose terrible passwords. And no amount of algorithmic password complexity validation is going to prevent that. They're still going to use their dog's name or their birthday, they're just going to add a number to the end, and then keep incrementing the number. Not everyone will do this, but most people will, and it only takes a few doing this to mean your password security on the whole is already weaker than assigned passwords that don't change for a year.

Second, if users have to know five different complex passwords which change often, you're just inviting them to write them down and keep the note near their computer or on their person. You can exhort them not to, but if you don't meet them in the middle by making it reasonably possible for them to memorize their passwords, it's just not going to happen. Back when you had only one password, maybe you could be expected to memorize a constantly-changing, arbitrarily complex password; but today, with all of us having a lot of passwords, it's just not possible to expect that.

Third, users now have every motivation to reuse the same password on multiple systems, both ones you control and others. Face it, every one of your users probably has a home computer and accounts on banking sites, fora, email accounts, social networking sites, and who knows what else. If it's hard to remember passwords for all of the systems you host, how much harder to remember fifty more. Obviously they're going to reuse passwords, and some of them are going to use the ones they use at home at work. That means they're taking the password they use to get to your highly sensitive, mission-critical system, and typing it into random web pages of dubious provenance.

All this can be avoided by simply meeting your users halfway. Assign passwords algorithmically, but make them memorizable: randomly selected words joined with randomly selected punctuation or digits makes memorizable passwords that are still secure. Use as few as possible: share them between different systems if you can. And don't change it more than once a year, and don't let users change them at all. If you do those things, users are far more willing, and far more likely, to not write them down after the first week or so, and to not share them with other sites or systems. In exchange for the relatively minor weakness of having the password not change that often, you eliminate all the other, far greater, weaknesses of bad passwords, written-down passwords, and password sharing.

But you can't get away with that because the industry standard rears its head and everyone insists on it as a matter of policy because it is the standard. It's self-perpetuating. I wonder if someone's actually proven that the standard is better for some reason which eludes me, but I doubt it. It's very frustrating to be forced to abandon a policy which users like and which gives solid security for one which makes everyone unhappy and actually weakens security just because someone calls it "best practices".

Friday, September 04, 2009

My dog smells like a dog

I grew up with dogs around all the time, but when I moved away from my mom's house, we were mostly renting, and then we didn't have a dog when we owned because of having an older cat and not wanting to upset her with a dog. So there's been a gap of over twenty years in my dog ownership. During that time, I forgot how much dogs smell like dogs.

There's a very distinctive and very universal smell that dogs have, and while a freshly-washed dog won't smell as much like it, it's still there. It's not quite like anything else, it's unique to the dogginess of a dog. But all dogs have it in common. It's not a bad smell, though when it gets too strong it can be unpleasant in its strength. And when I smelled it for the first time in many years, it was instantly recognizable. Even so, it's sort of a surprise each time when I smell it again and am immediately reminded, oh yes, dogs have a very specific smell.

However, Socks doesn't really get that "wet dog" smell when she's wet, perhaps because she never stays wet; her fur sheds water quite well and a few shakes and she's nearly dry. Which is good: "dog" isn't a bad smell, but "wet dog" can be.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Timed smoking cessation

Once I read about a means of quitting smoking that seemed really promising and ingenious, but that was a long time ago. This technique doesn't seem to be around anymore; I don't hear it talked about and don't see any references to it online (though it's hard to know what to search on). I wonder why. Maybe it wasn't very effective, and if so, I'm curious about why not.

The idea is very simple. You time the amount of time between your cigarettes, then you start not allowing yourself a cigarette until just a little longer than that. If you were having one every two hours on average, you increase it to two and a half. It might be hard to not take your next one, but it's not that hard to just put it off a little. After a day of this, you increase it again, maybe to three hours. Each day you extend the time a bit longer. After a few weeks you've significantly decreased your rate of smoking, and reduced the amount of the toxic and additive substances in your body; and both of these mean it'll be easier to take that last step when you're only having one a day anyway.

I've never had an addiction problem, not even to caffeine, so I'm perfectly willing to believe that this plan, which sounds really sensible and clever to me, wouldn't really work. But I would like to know why. At what point does it fail? Or does it work but it's too slow or something? Or to indulge the conspiracy theorists, is it suppressed just because no one gets to sell you an overpriced patch?

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Skill proportions

In most roleplaying games a skill roll goes against the sum of three factors: innate ability (usually an attribute or stat like Strength), training (a number that reflects effort invested in study or practice of one skill relative to another), and a random factor (a die roll). Some games hide one of these factors (for instance, in GURPS you don't add anything for an attribute in, but only because the skill value already includes both the attribute and the training in one number) but they're usually there.

What varies widely is the proportion of the three to one another. In Rolemaster, training and the die roll are about equal in importance, but the attribute is about a quarter as big. In GURPS, attributes and the random factor are equal, with training being the much smaller part. But in real life, if real life is a roleplaying game, the proportion between these factors varies with different skills and even with the circumstances.

For instance, consider batting versus pitching in baseball. Even the best batters have an average of less than one in three, meaning the random factor is quite large. Put the best batter in the league against the worst pitcher and he'll still miss half the time. And that's just missing, that's not considering how some hits are better than others. The random factor is quite large here.

Now consider chess. Put a grandmaster against a strong amateur and he will probably win 100 games out of 100. Even against another grandmaster of a significantly lower rank, he'll probably win almost all the time. The random factor is very small compared to the attribute and skill parts in chess.

In real life attributes can be trained somewhat, where most games ignore this or deprecate it for simplicity's sake (and because they're modeling adventure fiction more than real life). In the case of acrobatics, no amount of training is going to make someone who lacks the muscle tone and agility able to compete with someone with a dancer's build and only a little training; attributes are more important than training here (though of course you need both to excel). But while knowledge of history depends on having a good memory and an interest in the subject, someone who has invested a lot of effort in training (cramming for a test) can easily beat someone with a great memory who hasn't read the material, so training is more important than attributes.

If you consider the act of driving, the random factor is pretty small when you're just going to the corner store. Tens of thousands of trips to the corner store will be completed with little variation just in your town today, by drivers of middling skill. Barring extenuating circumstances like a blizzard or a drunk driver, hardly anyone will crash into a fencepost (or discover a previously unknown and highly efficient shortcut, for that matter). But when you're driving in a blizzard, the random factor suddenly gets a lot bigger; even those with a lot of skill stand a suddenly increased chance of failure that can't be modeled with a simple penalty to your roll.

This is the kind of thing that can't realistically be modeled by a roleplaying game unless that game's internal mechanics are mostly being handled by a computer which is being steered by a gamemaster. I wish I had nothing else to do for the next year but to work on developing one of those, just to prove it could be done, and wouldn't necessarily be subject to all the bugaboos people imagine when they think of that being done badly.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Turtle Birds

Wild turkeys are virtually always seen, and invariably photographed, standing tall and proud with their heads up. But if you see them a lot, as we do out where I live, once in a while you'll see them crouched down with their heads low. And if you see that from a distance, what you end up with is a brown, oval shape that's very similar to the shape of a turtle.

Once while going out to look at a piece of land, I saw in a distant field maybe twenty or thirty turkeys in this position, none of them moving. At a quick glance, the impression I got was a field full of turtles, which is not something you normally expect to see. Then again, neither do you expect to see thirty turkeys without any visible heads. So for a split second I started to say "Hey, are those turtles?" or something like that, but by time I finished saying it, I was already correcting myself.

Still, Siobhan was amused. And though she got what I meant about how they could look like turtles in that situation, she still made fun by calling them turtle birds whenever we saw them, and that stuck, so that's all we call them now.