Saturday, October 31, 2009

Fobs and combs

Now that Halloween is here, it's the official beginning of the season during which we complain that the official beginning of the holiday season shouldn't have happened yet. And that means it's time for a public service announcement.

O Henry's The Gift Of The Magi is terrible. Do not produce theatrical versions of it. Do not arrange it into songs. Do not host readings of it for defenseless children. Do not make allusions to it. Do not pontificate on its moral, or its applicability to the upcoming festive season.

Do not even read it. That's only encouraging it. And that's not the message we want to be sending.

In fact, don't even think about it. Since this post might have brought it into your mind, I hereby present the following mental palate cleanser:

That is all.

Friday, October 30, 2009


With all the press around Michael Jackson's death and the release of the "This Is It" film, there must be a lot of people discovering Orianthi right now just as I am, since her participation in Jackson's band in the would-have-been-upcoming tour is drawing a lot of notice. How had I not heard of her before?

Playing for Michael Jackson is hardly a good sign for a guitarist, as his music isn't really rock and isn't particularly guitar-heavy. (Yes, I know who played the solo for "Beat It," but even so.) However, watching a few of her videos and listening to some of her songs, I'm impressed. She's got chops, and is versatile about style. Her own single, According To You, is well-played but pretty generic pop-rock, clearly aiming at the same audience as Avril Lavigne, but that's not a bad thing. It's a good song, and her playing skill certainly shows. But here's a short example of her doing something bluesy very well:

Stylistically very different from the pop-rock of the other song.

Some of her playing seems derivative of one or another influence. Her obligatory guitar-noodle instrumental, "Highly Strung," just screams Steve Vai -- which again is not a bad thing. Other stuff is reminiscent of Carlos Santana, about whom many people are torn -- he's widely regarded and yet sometimes decried as a one-trick pony, but even if you agree to that criticism (I don't particularly, but I see where it comes from), she clearly isn't a one-trick pony even when imitating him. And there's plenty of other influences that stand out.

But even if a lot of her work seems to echo one of a dozen other influences, her sheer mastery of the instrument and all those diverse styles is praiseworthy in itself, and suggests we can hope she'll also add her own style to the mix. She's certainly at the point where the music comes naturally enough that she's fertile ground for her own contributions to arise.

Some of the praise I've seen for her feels overblown:

But there's something to it. You can certainly see for her age she's quite the virtuoso and full of promise.

It's a pity she's also trying too hard to have the kind of look that'll put her on posters on the bedroom walls of fourteen-year-old boys everywhere, because she's more impressive when she's letting herself be herself, both as a guitarist and as eye-candy. You can see it sometimes when she's focusing enough on the guitar work to forget to try to be sexy too.

In any case she's definitely someone to watch. But I feel dumb to have not discovered her until the same time that a big news event's got lots of other people discovering her!

Thursday, October 29, 2009


I've just finished reading Blink: The Power Of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell. This was a medium length book but it took a surprisingly short time to read: it's light and breezy, a very easy read. Which might be surprising, as it purports to be a study of an issue of psychology of considerable depth, but it still zips by with little effort and less time.

Most of the book is entertaining, engaging, and entirely unchallenging, since it consists of a series of anecdotes and real-world examples, told in an easy and enjoyable style, of the ways in which our subconscious perceptions and thoughts affect us where we usually don't notice. That's what 95% of the book consists of, and good thing, too, since that's where it shines. Had this been heavy or slow-going it might not have been worth it, but easy as it is, it's fascinating enough to bear the weight of reading it. Think of it as a smorgasbord of isn't-that-interesting moments on a common theme.

The author, however, probably intends it as an insightful commentary on human nature that will shock and amaze, and I suppose for a lot of people it is exactly that. But, without meaning to sound too arrogant, that's only the same way the "what is reality?" twist of The Matrix astounded so many people: these were people who had, previously, lived under rocks, and never heard of the idea before. (Aside: I know a lot of people loved The Matrix for reasons other than its philosophy, and these comments don't apply to those people. I'm only astonished by people who think it was a seriously innovative concept, rather than, as the creators intended, "an excuse to have kung fu fights with robots.")

The thing is, sure, anyone who's taken a semester of psychology, or pondered the nature of the creative arts, or investigated artificial intelligence, or studied epistemology, or even asked themselves why they like one band and not another, or one dish and not another, or one painting and not another, any of these people will have at least bumped into the question of how much of our thoughts and perceptions are happening at a level beyond our awareness. Only a slightly deeper consideration will have led us to conclude that in many cases, our professed thoughts are at best pretexts to justify unconscious ones. But there must be people who haven't thought about this.

I think the author probably also imagines he's not just pointing out that this is a fact of human existence, but also that he's shedding light on how it works, what it can and can't do, what effects it has on us. And certainly by time you're done with the book you will have some new ideas about those things, very likely. But those all come from the anecdotes and examples. His commentary offers no fresh insights; at best, it serves as effective segues between the real-world stories that tell the real story. He might also imagine it gives us tools for how to tap that part of our minds, but really, in the end, it just hints that you can learn to harness it with practice... which is no doubt true, but it hardly needs a book to tell us that.

If you've never encountered this idea, read Blink, stat. If you have, read it anyway, just to find a lot of elaboration in the examples. Either way, the fact that it will only take a few hours is enough reason to make it worth those hours.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Necromancy of the Light

As an example of what I wrote the last two days about originality in MUDs and other roleplaying games, let's consider necromancy in Lusternia, as it is, and as I might have done it.

The only practitioners of necromancy in Lusternia are the unabashed "bad guys", the city of Magnagora, just as you'd expect. However, this is not as firmly linked in history as it could have been; it's mostly a historical accident. The origins of necromancy are completely unrelated to the origins of all the other things that make Magnagora the bad guys (especially as the game was first developed, though some revisions have strengthened the connection since).

Necromancy was developed in a long-ago time as a means of sustaining more troops in the battle against the Soulless Gods, and it was a controversial technique, but it was being used by the "good guys" of the time -- the Vernal Gods, mortals raised up to godhood for the battle. Long, long after those battles were ended (with the last of the Soulless Gods, Kethuru, imprisoned by a set of Seals formed from the last of the Vernal Gods), necromancy was still used by some of the people of the Holy Celestine Empire, while others found it despicable, but they were all still parts of the same nation who just differed on tactics.

Largely by happenstance, it was some of the people who advocated for the use of undeath who chanced to be the biggest victims of the Taint, the bit of the influence of the Soulless that was released when explorers found a way past the Seals to Kethuru's prison. Those people were twisted by the Taint and embraced it as a means to more power, while everyone else recoiled in revulsion from the way the Taint disfigured both body and spirit. Thus, the Taint is the physical incarnation of, and explanation for, what might normally be called "evil", and the people who lived in the city that happened to fall prey to it... coincidentally including the advocates for the use of necromancy... became its standard-bearers.

There have been some elaborations later that posit necromancy as being related to the same fundamental force (excorperditio) that drives the Soulless, and hints that earlier experiments with necromancy in a still-earlier age (long before the Vernals) set the stage for the later development of undeath, so eventually, Lusternia will probably tie up the association of necromancy with the Soulless very neatly, leaving only the one coincidence that it happened to be Magnagora that was the "victim" of the Taint, as a result of an expedition that wasn't even sponsored by or originating from Magnagora's efforts.

So that's how Lusternia did it. Now, let's consider something about the politics of Lusternia. Out of the gate it had the same three sides that most MUDs start with: good, evil, and nature. Good took the form of New Celest, using faith and courage to seek to expiate their previous mistakes in unleashing Taint by driving it away for good. Evil took the form of Magnagora, embracing the Taint as a means of self-improvement and a pathway to power. Nature took the form of Serenwilde, a forest commune which resisted the Taint as a perversion of nature but which also disliked New Celest since cities are opposed to the natural order (though this was muted since Celest was also defenders of that part of the natural world that was underwater). Magnagora hated Serenwilde correspondingly (plus they just generally hated everyone). So in the triangle of relations, the reasons for Serenwilde and Celest to dislike each other were far weaker than the others, which tended to lead to a lot of alliances with "the lesser evil" and a resulting trivialization of those considerations -- Taint is so visible an antagonist that something as nebulous as "they're savages" or "cities are unnatural" tends to be forgotten and lost in the face of practical exigencies of battle. (Especially since Magnagora came out of the gate far more powerful than the others, due to skill imbalances, a larger playerbase, and a system with too much positive reinforcement.)

This combination of alliances got stale, and often, players flew in the face of it and formed different alliances. But they never lasted because the reasons for the "default" alliances were too strong to resist for too long. Later events made the political balance more complex (after quite a few false starts) and more interesting (and then eventually threw it all away in favor of a few bad ideas, but that's another story).

Putting this together, imagine if instead, undeath had been posited as a force of the Light, a holy ability to transcend and resist death. Instead of raising shambling, brain-eating zombies, suppose you raised light-infused spectres bearing the cold of the grave into battle against the infidels. Instead of becoming a rotting lich with a taste for human flesh, suppose you turned yourself into an undying vessel for an angelic presence which gave you strength to fight against evil, at the price of your humanity. And suppose this was all described in ways that were very clearly opposed to the natural order of life, death, and rebirth, the cycles of the world.

You could readily rebrand all the trappings of necromancy as being in harmony with the themes of New Celest and divorce it from the associations with evil. After all, there is plenty of symbolism in the space of the sacred for defying death, for resurrection, for transubstantiation past the weakness of the flesh. It would not only be a different, and less familiar, take on the ideas of necromancy, it would also serve to give New Celest and Serenwilde a fundamental, ideological difference as great as that between the Light and the Taint, one which could not be so easily brushed aside.

It's wandering too far down paths of unconventionality like that (and of which that is only the smallest of possibilities) which ensures my ideas would never make a MUD (or any other kind of game) as popular as Lusternia.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Original unoriginality

Thinking more of what I wrote yesterday about the unmarketability of my ideas, I considered the ways in which Lusternia is, and isn't, original.

By and large, all the familiar concepts from fantasy (and especially fantasy roleplaying games) are present, and in their familiar configurations. You have the same conflicts, the same imagery, the same types of characters, the same symbols, and the same concepts. Almost all the skills are cribbed from some aspect of fantasy or pseudoscience: the Runes skill draws heavily from Scandinavian runes, the Highmagic skill from Qabala, the Astrology skill from Ptolemy's vision of astrology, and so on. Cosmology elements are swiped from Tolkein, Lovecraft, Hinduism, and CNN.

And all these elements, swiped shamelessly from so many sources, end up arranged in familiar patterns. The forestal Great Spirits are aligned with meanings similar to that in Celtic myth, despite their juxtaposition against and association with elements from Hindu and Native American myths, so that everything ends up comfortable. Necromancy ends up associated with the forces of evil, even though its origins are not associated with evil. Angels and demons have just the same characteristics one expects despite the absence of Judeo-Christian origins.

(There's one notable exception. The four elements are present and have an important role, each of the cities associated with them and their mages tied to them, but they don't have the usual meanings. Air and fire do, actually: the city of air is full of people very logical and thoughtful, while the city of fire is wild and unconstrainted. But water has no associations with emotions or change, instead being tied to the stars and the Light, and associated with a very scholarly race. And earth has no overtones of healing, nature, or even resilience; it is, for historical reasons, the element of the Taint, the incarnation of what passes for Evil in Lusternia.)

What's really original about Lusternia is thus not the elements in it, nor their arrangement. Instead, it's a very original cosmology and story whose entire purpose seems to be to explain the presence and arrangement of all of the familiar elements. That is a brilliant solution and I give kudos to Estarra, the creator, for it. It means that Lusternia is steeped in familiar, comfortable, compelling elements, and you can make a character that's just like your favorite character from a book, from an AD&D game, or from your own personal beliefs, if you happen to run that way.

But the reasons why all those things exist, and why they are aligned as they are, are new and unique to Lusternia. And more importantly, and a bigger contrast to other games, there is a reason for it. (At least most of it. A few things just happen to be that way.) Which not only justifies all those familiar things, it adds new dimensions, gives you new perspectives on them. It tricks you into exploring some original stuff, by luring you in with the familiarity and then letting you consider the ramifications of the original explanations and origins for those familiar elements.

I've done the same thing to some extent many times. For instance, the starting concept for one of my roleplaying campaigns, ...And Hope To Die, derived from a few familiar elements I wanted new explanations for. (The first, the inspiration for the whole campaign: why do fantasy worlds tend to have all the animals and plants we have, plus a few extras? Why not have the mystical properties derive from the same animals and plants?) But even that campaign, which "coincidentally" ended up being a fairly conventional medeival fantasy world (albeit one with dangerous aardvarks instead of dragons), had a whole series of explanations (starting with a rogue mage in Ireland getting his hands on a book of Chinese magic during the time of the Black Plague) that led to lots of interesting and unexpected consequences overlaying the familiar castles, mages, warriors, and politics.

But even then, I tend to turn the knob a lot farther from "familiar" than Lusternia does. I include enough familiar elements to provide a hook, but more than that, to make the unfamiliar parts more striking. Dwarves as egg-layers with an insect-like hive mind? It makes perfect sense, and explains many of the things about how dwarves are traditionally depicted, but it also tends to make people reel. My worlds, when they aren't intentionally hewing close to a genre to milk every bit out of its tropes, tend to do that. Which is one of the reasons I would probably be able to make a popular MUD only because I set out to do so, not because of inspiration.

Monday, October 26, 2009


I've previously written how Lusternia has been mired in an escalation of conflict which has diluted the meaning of the conflict, and the aftereffects of that escalation, notably the almost complete extinction of culture. Because of that, I've been playing around with another MUD called Akanbar.

In a lot of ways, Akanbar serves to remind me of what's been so great about Lusternia when it isn't giving in to its worst impulses. Akanbar has virtually no events, is rife with bad grammar and even spelling errors, has minimal and shallow roleplaying from most people, and succumbs to the wrong-headed (but surprisingly popular) idea that you shouldn't be told how your skills or the mechanics work, you should have to figure it out by trial and error. (As a particularly egregious example, some things are cured by smoking herbs in pipes, but the help files not only don't tell you what is cured by which, they don't even tell you the commands used to fill, light, and smoke a pipe.) And its history is very minimal, mostly resembling a thinly-veiled story of why the creators decided to make the MUD.

And yet for all that, Akanbar's been more fun than Lusternia. Now, I'll admit some of that is the "new car smell" that comes from everything being new, the process of discovery. And a bit more comes from a friend who retired from Lusternia a long time ago getting involved in Akanbar, someone who's always fun to roleplay with but with whom I've had no chances to roleplay in a long time. (She and I are playing fraternal twin sisters.) But some of it is just that, even if Akanbar is kind of bad, and compared to Lusternia's best it's awful, compared to Lusternia right now, it's still just a lot more fun, and that shows how far Lusternia has fallen.

There are some glimmers that Lusternia is recovering, coming back out of its long sleep, but they are fragile at best: another nudge in the wrong direction and it could easily be reversed. It's still the case that the fighting has little or no connection to the reasons for the fighting, and while it's not quite 24 hours a day anymore, it's still almost omnipresent and tends to knock down any attempts to do something else before those attempts can get anywhere. But at least those attempts, very tentatively, are being occasionally made again. If things get better, the 20/20 hindsight people will point to this as proof that it was always going to get better. If it takes a while longer, this will be forgotten, so those 20/20 hindsight people will just point at something else.

For its part, Akanbar has some good things. While some of the skills are dumb (it takes a lot of investment to get some very basic things, even more so than in IRE games), a lot of them are very cool. (I especially like how the Shadows skillset acts like what Dreamweaving tries to be in Lusternia, only without the bug-plagued implementation.) It's also nice to see a combat system which has some of the interesting elements of Lusternia and other IRE games, but is five notches less complex, so that it's actually probable that if I keep around long enough, I can be a good combatant. And since roleplaying is pretty minimal, I have a real chance to make an impact on the shape it takes; it's easy to be a big fish in a small pond.

The contrast, though, still makes me ache for a MUD like what Lusternia used to be. For as many MUDs as there are out there, it's disheartening how many of them suck; and not just that they suck, but that they do it by choosing one of the same three or four paths rather than at least sucking on their own terms. I suppose those paths are the ones that attract almost all the customers. That's why I could never run a successful MUD; I'd be too interested in making something new instead of something that enough people would like. I can force my ideas into marketable shapes to some extent, but only to a certain scale; bigger than that, and anything marketable makes me say, "why bother, someone else is already doing that, in fact everyone else is already doing that" and lose interest.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


Despite having a lazy day yesterday, and spending a lot of it (especially during Internet outages or while waiting for other things) watching the first two-thirds of The Dark Knight (at least until Siobhan got home... not sure when I'll finish it if ever), I did manage to get my new file/print server Meniscus put into production.

There are still more things to load, most notably PaperPort, the scanner software. (If it won't work on Vista, I will need to install it somewhere else, probably Siobhan's computer Heraclitus.) But the must-have stuff is there. That includes:
  • All the Windows updates, AVG, Defender, etc.
  • File shares with shared documents, software, and all our media
  • Our laser printer and its share
  • TVersity to stream that media to the PS3 and other devices
  • HomeSeer to handle our home automation system
  • DynDNS Updater to ensure that the address to get to HomeSeer works
  • The backup drive and a scheduled backup job
HomeSeer was the thing that took all the time this time because the old interface I have used to connect it to my Z-Wave home automation system is not compatible with Vista, so I had to order a new one, and that also forced me to move to a beta version of HomeSeer. I got the new controller yesterday, and finally got HomeSeer installed and working.

If and when we get that T1 line up and running, HomeSeer will also serve as a makeshift web server in case we feel like hosting anything. For now, all it serves are the two main interfaces to my home automation system, the built-in HomeSeer one and Rover, the stripped-down, sped-up interface intended for use on cell phones, tablets, and other devices with limited hardware or software. (Rover's my own program, released as freeware.)

Vista is everything everyone says about it, a pain in the butt with few if any benefits and lots and lots of shortcomings. I wonder how things would have gone if I had Windows 7. (I imagine I'd've had even more problems just with getting compatible drivers for everything.)

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Lazy day

Rainy grey dayI've got a bunch of things I want to get done today but I'm having trouble getting started. Part of it is having had a late night last night (went to see Paula Poundstone at the Flynn and didn't get home until 11:30, then got up early to meet some friends for tool shopping, so I'm fairly tired). Part of it is my momentum being broken by a string of Internet and power outages. Part of it is the day being so gray and rainy. But it seems more than that; it's just one of those lazy days.

What I should be doing, apart from the chores I just finally finished, is finalizing the setup of my new server. The replacement Vista-compatible Z-Wave controller arrived yesterday so I'm ready to go. If I work on it today, it should be the case that I can pull out the old server Octopus and put in the new server Meniscus by the end of the day. And since tomorrow will be almost entirely taken up with shopping, it's today or nothing. Plus I'm supposed to be doing game prep for GMing, another thing I can't seem to get moving on.

But what I feel like doing is watching a movie, or reading. Even playing Rock Band, which I haven't done in weeks, is only half-appealing. Almost seems like too much effort.

So what I will do is just start on the server anyway. The best cure for this kind of inertia is to push through it. Once I get moving, these doldrums will fall away. Usually.

Friday, October 23, 2009


I normally avoid the topic of antivaxxers (people who advocate not vaccinating children, often based on a claim that vaccines cause autism or other problems) simply because it just infuriates me to no good purpose. I can't really do anything about it, so why get incensed? And it's sure to incense me.

It's a mild but constant irritation to realize how many people use entirely illogical reasons to do things like reject science-based medicine. It's not really different from people rejecting reason or science more generally. It's just a tarted-up form of willful closed-mindedness that lets a person spurn centuries of peer-reviewed, relentlessly self-criticizing and self-correcting, verifiable research because they know a time when it was wrong for a while (and ignore that it was the same process that made the error which found and fixed it, providing them the citation of its error in the first place); and yet, with the other hand, gleefully accept something patently absurd based on the most tenuous and unrepeatable of anecdotal coincidences.

But when you do that to your own detriment, that's one thing. Go ahead and treat your inflamed appendix with crystals, for all I care. You're mostly just selecting against yourself, which is just as well. Anyway, it's not my place to tell you what to die from. (Of course, you don't die in a vacuum; odds are, your intentional, easily avoided mistake is going to cost us all in our taxes when you end up costing a hospital $50,000 to fix what it could have fixed for $10,000 if you'd gotten it treated medically instead of with some black market herbal tea that probably made it worse. But everyone makes choices like that which affect others in this way; it's a slippery slope to get too obsessive about one, no matter how dumb it is.)

When you force a child, who gets no say in the matter, to be endangered, for your own stubborn blindness, that's far worse. But even there, that's inevitable. You can't take risk away from your child, you can only choose between different risks. You should do so out of informed and reasoned cause, not out of ignorance. You should know what the risks are, and have some idea how to compare what a one in a million risk is versus a one in a trillion -- because they're very very different but they sound very similar. But ultimately, no matter what you do, you're choosing a risk for your child and they get no say in it.

The real ethical failure is that when you choose not to vaccinate you are making that choice not for yourself, not for your child, but for every human being that's going to come into contact with your child, and every human being that's going to come into contact with them, and every human being that's going to come in contact with them, and so on. Each additional layer of separation reduces the effect, like gravitation receding with distance; yet as we do more traveling, have more vectors for diseases to spread, are more crammed together, those distances are dropping. 100 years ago, getting an infectious disease was endangering your town or city. Today, it's endangering your entire region, maybe a whole state or province, but we're on the edge of where it endangers an entire country, and more.

Jenny McCarthy Body CountTo do this over allegations that have been absolutely, unequivocally, thoroughly disproven, out of wild ignorance of the actual facts of the situation, is mind-numbingly stupid. It makes me angry in a way I rarely get angry. Like, angry enough to imagine hitting Jenny McCarthy in the face with a brick. Angry enough to think maybe it'd be better if an asteroid hits Earth, because maybe whatever evolves after us won't be so agonizingly stupid.

That people have the leisure, safety, and health to be complacent about medicine and reject it, is only possible because medicine gave them the life they're being so cavalier about. Fifty years ago, odds are good Jenny McCarthy would have suffered polio, which killed more people during the war years than World War Two itself did. A hundred years ago, the odds of Jenny McCarthy surviving childhood would have been relatively small. It's easy to take for granted the benefits as you reap them while rejecting them. But why embrace ignorance? Why are there so many people for whom truth is not even close to adequate?

So that's why I have to avoid the subject. I just froth for a while...

...and who needs that?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Austen and Shakespeare

It's very common to stage productions of Shakespeare's plays in a different time than they were originally set in, by changing costumes and sets, but not changing the lines. In fact, it's so common, The Onion wrote a typically biting farce about it: Unconventional Director Sets Shakespeare Play In Time, Place Shakespeare Intended.
MORRISTOWN, NJ—In an innovative, tradition-defying rethinking of one of the greatest comedies in the English language, Morristown Community Players director Kevin Hiles announced Monday his bold intention to set his theater's production of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice in 16th-century Venice.

"I know when most people hear The Merchant Of Venice, they think 1960s Las Vegas, a high-powered Manhattan stock brokerage, or an 18th-century Georgia slave plantation, but I think it's high time to shake things up a bit," Hiles said. "The great thing about Shakespeare is that the themes in his plays are so universal that they can be adapted to just about any time and place."
Of course, some of his plays are intentionally set up in such a way that they can easily be transposed -- The Tempest is an obvious example. With others, we transpose them with a little forgiveness for a few elements that might not make as much sense (e.g., the cultural acceptance of the idea of ghosts behaving as Hamlet Sr. did that suits Denmark but might not suit all settings in which Hamlet has been transposed), or we let other parts of the play simply get dropped (like the whole Fortinbras part of Hamlet).

We can do this in part because the original settings are already so far remote that transposing them to another setting has little impact: the timely parts of the plays have already become a footnote, while the timeless parts are what brings us back to them, so if we're already in it for the timeless parts, they hold up fine to transposition. Plus there's already a lot of oddness that's accepted because that's just part of Shakespeare, like how readily a little costume change completely disguises someone from their closest friends and relatives, so once you're already having to accept those things, it's easy enough to not think twice about the idea of the Queen of the Fairies in the woods outside a mall in Hackensack, rather than outside Athens.

I wonder if we can ever be so far removed from the world in which the writings of Jane Austen are set (essentially her real world) that her plays can be readily transposed. While it's been done, it was done only by rewriting around a common idea (Clueless is based on Emma in much the same way Forbidden Planet is based on The Tempest) or by integrating the stories into other stories (as in The Jane Austen Book Club or Lost In Austen), not by actual transposition, using the same dialogue in a different setting.

At first blush, the answer seems to be 'no' because any of Austen's writings is much more firmly entrenched in, based on, derived from their setting than even the most historically-rooted of Shakespeare's plays (such as his histories). It might also matter that they're books, not plays, so the idea of transposing dialogue is less relevant given how much of the book is retold in other ways when it's made into a film.

But I wouldn't sell the idea entirely short. If Hamlet can be made sense of by people who don't understand how kings were elected in Denmark, then Pride and Prejudice will one day (maybe not today, but maybe in the future) make just as much sense to people who have little understanding of how scandal could affect a family in Regency England. More to the point, they won't find that any harder to grasp than the idea of scandal working that way in pre-WW1 France, or the Byzantine empire, or any other setting just as alien to the audience as Regency England will be by then.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Pedestrian buttons

You know those buttons on intersections that pedestrians are supposed to press to get a chance to cross the intersection? Back where I grew up on Long Island, none of them, not one, did anything at all. I even timed it with the stopwatch that was part of every digital watch back then and confirmed it.

Now, depending on where you're from, you might be saying "well, duh", since apparently in most of the country this is the case. One wonders why these buttons are so ubiquitous when most people know better than to use them. Did they used to work and stopped? Can't be that simple: back on Long Island I saw new installations after new construction where they didn't work from the day they went in. Are they there in case of some future activation, that still hasn't happened after decades?

But here in central Vermont, at least, the buttons actually work. One periodically sees tourists being astonished by that, particularly during leaf-peeper season (which is now winding down). I remember one visitor to the area who was astounded, and told me that she likes to stop in Vermont on the way to other places just to press the button and see it work.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Flat tire

Had a flat tire this morning before we even got the car out of the garage, and good thing, because that would have been very hard to do on the road.

First, the instructions suggest you chock the opposite wheel to keep the car from rolling when you jack it up. I assume that if you are on the road and don't happen to have a chock with you, this step is optional? I did have one since I was in my garage, so I did it anyway.

The lug nuts were on so tight I literally had to stand on the wrench and jump up and down to get them all loose. No wonder they have you do that before jacking up the car.

Doing all this with gloves on (since it's bloody cold!) is hard. The hardest part, though, was flipping pages in the manual (and later, typing on my phone while I was asking for advice...).

Where I really got stuck was getting the wheel off once the car was jacked up and the nuts were off. It was stuck good and hard. I had to tap with a rubber mallet (and when I say "tap" I mean hit as hard as I could) and that wasn't enough. I finally had to pry with a crowbar with all my strength, which I was hesitant to do since I wasn't sure where to pry. Eventually I had to just hope I had the right spot and wasn't breaking my brakes. Which it turns out I did, and the tire finally came off.

Took about 45 minutes to change the tire, which is pretty ridiculous really. I'm sure it'd go a lot faster a second time though. But what if I didn't have a crowbar? The one built into the lug wrench might be good enough (now that I know where to pry) but I am doubtful. Wonder why the rim was so stuck in the first place.

Monday, October 19, 2009

T1 without fractions

The fractional T1 we were working on getting was going to be bought through a company called Megapath, but the actual wiring to the house would be done by the company that manages the local wiring: Fairpoint. So we had to talk to them about the location. Somewhere along the way it occurred to Siobhan to ask them if they could beat Megapath's price.

By sheer happenstance, they said that they had just, that week, instituted a new program for T1s and they could beat it soundly. Instead of $389/month for a 256Kbps fractional T1, they're quoting $209/month for a full T1 at 1.5Mbps. That's about six times faster than the 256K line, and not only isn't it any slower on throughput than the WildBlue line (where the 256K would have been a fair amount slower), it's probably even a little faster.

So we've cancelled the Megapath line and we're working on the Fairpoint account. As it happens, our account representative is someone I know. He used to work for the state's IT people and was the one to bring a T1 line to my office years ago. Cute.

Their install costs are no more than Megapath's: the primary difference is Megapath cites a flat price for the router and equipment, while Fairpoint leaves it to me to procure it. So I went out on eBay to get an idea for prices and found an older (but entirely adequate) Cisco router with the CSU/DSU (the bit that ties a T1 into it) included, about to end with a starting bid of $10. So I bid, so instead of the $599 Megapath wanted, I'm spending less than $30 delivered for the router.

Fairpoint says that the construction to bring the line to us will probably take a few months, but that would have been true through Megapath too (it's just that Megapath didn't know that yet), since it would be the same lines. So we have a bit of a wait, which is going to be agonizing. But the idea of a true T1 is really exciting, and the price being so much lower is certainly good news.

In fact, we're wondering if we might not be able to reduce or eliminate our satellite TV costs after there's a true T1. Between things like Hulu, Netflix, and other sources for TV over the Internet, we might be able to get everything we want. Or if not, we might be able to drop many of the channels and pay for a much cheaper service. We're not going to hurry through deciding that, though. If we can save money on that, that's great, but if we can't, we can still float this cost.

The Fairpoint account doesn't include any email boxes, but upgrading our POBox accounts from forwarders to mailboxes adds only $15/year, so I'm not worried about that. It's still hazy to me whether it will include a domain ( if it does) or if we'll still want to use DynDNS to provide mapping to our home automation system.

This is definitely the kind of chicken you don't want to count until it's hatched. We got very excited about DSL once before when Verizon promised we could get it and then it fell through. Still, this seems more likely to pan out than that was. We're going to have to get in the habit of revisiting all those things that we always dismissed as impossible with our connection -- Skype, webcams, online gaming, streaming video, and more ideas keep coming up.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

HomeSeer on Windows Vista

Since our home server Octopus is cobbled together with the failed parts of Siobhan's previous computers, it tends to lock up fairly regularly. I had hoped that sitting quietly and serving files and not being hooked to a monitor and being configured for minimum video performance might prevent that, but apparently bad video cards are stubborn that way. So when Woot! had a cheap computer system up, I bought it, and I have been transferring things to it as time permits.

It's been slow going since I don't have a spare monitor to hook up to it, so I had to share a monitor with my laptop (and for a while I had a problem with changing my laptop's video configuration to add or remove a monitor causing a bluescreen and painful reboot, but a video driver update finally fixed that). But by far the bigger obstacle has been Windows Vista. This is my first time dealing with Vista and I wonder if I shouldn't've formatted and reinstalled XP (especially now that I realize that the system was configured with the hard drive partitioned, which always seems to bite me later). But I figured I'd tough it out; about time I learned Vista, what with its successor almost here.

I eventually got file shares working, and got a VNC server to work so I can get around the missing monitor problem. (I've always used RealVNC before this, but the freeware version doesn't work well with Vista. UltraVNC does. Pity I wasted a day fighting with RealVNC before I switched.) I've also installed the most important utilities for the server, and a few handy tools. TVersity is working on it fine as well. And having bought a USB printer cable, I have the printer working too.

There are two applications that run on this server: HomeSeer and PaperPort. And they'll be the last things I set up. HomeSeer, my home automation system, is what I'm currently stuck on. Moving HomeSeer from one computer to another is tricky: I've found various "how to" posts and guides but they don't agree with one another and none of them even tries to address the transition from one version of Windows to another. I've tried various combinations of installing and copying over, but each one has proved problem-fraught in one way or another. And each iteration takes hours to try.

Today I'm going to try wiping all traces of HomeSeer, then doing a clean install and trying to get it working, then importing one bit at a time. It'll be tedious to redo all my configuration, reinstall all plugins (including the ones I wrote), etc. but at least it should work. And when it doesn't I can tackle each problem one at a time.

I sure hope PaperPort (the software that goes with the scanner) works on Vista, or I'll have to move the scanner to Siobhan's computer. Either way, I hope to have the new server installed and switched over to today.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Malcolm versus The Middle

There's a new sitcom out this year called The Middle which Siobhan has been watching while I've been in the room. At first, when I saw her watching it, I didn't know what the title was. It struck me, hard, how much the show seemed like an imitation of Malcolm In The Middle, to the point where many of the characters matched on a one-for-one basis, and I wondered if the creators realized and were doing it on purpose. But when I found out the title, that paradoxically made me think maybe they aren't, because that's just too obvious.

Actually, the title in this case refers to the fact that the show is set in the Midwest, the "flyover states", and this is made clear in the show's first episode's opening narration. However, essentially nothing in the show, as far as I can see, has actually referred to the Midwest in any meaningful way, or depended on it. There was one scene that took place on a highway in cornfields where there was no cell coverage, but nothing about it, not a single word or joke, would have changed if it was a winding road in wooded hills, or anywhere really you can imagine not having cell coverage. Another joke referred to Terre Haute, but it would have played out precisely the same if it had been Hackensack, San Bernardino, or Galveston. There haven't been any jokes that alluded to the culture of the Midwest (or if there have, I missed them!). The entire show could be transplanted to any suburb or small town in any part of the USA with no change other than the scenery and place names, without a single word needing to change. So it's doubly odd that the name of the show refers to something not (so far) central to the show, unless it's a very ham-handed way of drawing the comparison to Malcolm.

This just seems like a bad idea though because it is a comparison that can't go well for the new show. But I suppose they can't help it. The premise is very similar, with a family of about the same type and mix of personalities enduring the same kinds of challenges and trials. The biggest difference is no Malcolm, and no analog to Malcolm, which is a bad start. The mother character is the viewpoint character (though she does voiceover narration instead of talking to the camera), and because of that, she lacks Lois's most interesting traits, her fiery and terrifying will. There's nothing really replacing it either: she's simply tired and stretched out as Lois was. The youngest child is nearly a perfect match to Dewey and even resembles him, though instead of having Dewey's unrecognized obsession and talent with music, he has one with books. The oldest child parallels Francis's being an unmotivated slacker, though without any of Francis's wild (and admittedly over the top) tendency to cause trouble. The father is well-meaning but clueless but still isn't that much like Hal because his cluelessness is simpler, it's just that he's painfully honest out of a complete lack of awareness that there's ever a time to be anything else -- a trait which I can certainly appreciate, but which comes off as more of a one-trick pony than Hal.

And the middle child... well, she doesn't really correspond directly to anyone on Malcolm which is a relief. Her dominant character trait is that she's comically inept but doesn't seem to be discouraged by it. She's constantly trying to get involved in some new activity, she always proves unbelievably bad at it and doesn't succeed, but she's perenially cheerful, and each time her dreams and hopes are crushed she's only down for a short time (or not at all) before she's ready for another.

The characters verge on being caricatures. Not that the characters on Malcolm were rigidly realistic; they were very over the top, especially Francis. But there was a depth to them. Within their world they make sense. Now, I realize it's very unfair to be comparing several seasons of Malcolm with three episodes of The Middle; if I had analyzed Malcolm this closely after three episodes I suppose it would have failed the test too. But my gut feeling says that after two seasons, The Middle likely will still have characters that are more superficial, more caricature-like, less fully realized.

If you take any two characters in Malcolm and consider their relationship to one another, you will find that there's a lot to it, you can say something unique about that particular relationship, its history, and how it contributes to the characters, to who they are. The closer you look at the family, the more it holds together, the more internally consistent it seems, the more it becomes inevitable that each person would be just the way they turned out to be, the more clear it is how the family works. I suspect that if you did the same thing on The Middle it would fall apart under that level of scrutiny. You would have to turn to answers like "it's that way because the writers need it to be that way" or "he's just like that" too much, and you would conclude that, even in the unrealistic sitcom world they live in, the family wouldn't hold together.

Maybe not. Maybe after we get to know the characters better it will turn out that there's a depth we haven't seen. And if there isn't, that's okay. A sitcom can be perfectly serviceable and entertaining without that. And I am laughing when it's on. Malcolm in the Middle is a really high bar to set, after all; a sitcom needn't strive to match it just to be good. But it's not my fault; they're the ones who set themselves up for the comparison, so they have to live up to it.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Integrative Medicine

We've been going to the same family practice health center for many years. A few years ago our primary care physician left and we were assigned to a physician's assistant who turned out to be great, so we happily stayed, but now she's also leaving. There's supposed to be a new doctor coming on next year who the PA said we'd like.

However, with the other changes in staff, a new doctor is the head doctor of the health center, and he wants to change it to an "Integrative Medicine" center, featuring "holistic" practices such as acupuncture, herbal medicine, "body work", and the like. The language is not overtly worrisome: he's not actually talking about us getting our chakras aligned (I always wanted to have mine rotated and balanced, too, but no one does that) but some of it is worryingly close.

Not that I think that all forms of "alternative medicine" are hokum. There are some real benefits to treating the emotional needs of the patient in ways that reach them, there are genuine medical uses for the placebo effect, and in the wide variety of "alternative" medical practices, there have to be a few that have something scientifically valid behind them, if only statistically. So it's possible, barely, to advocate adding just a smidgen of holistic practices to actual medicine and still retain the realness of medicine. But virtually every time I've ever heard anyone advocate for even the smallest amount, they were actually going way overboard, casting aside such things as objectively verifiable claims and scientific method.

So my first worry is, they're going to gradually slide farther and farther from real medicine and more and more into stuff that's going to make me uncomfortable. My second worry is that even if they don't slide, there will always be an undercurrent of subtle encouragement that makes me have to bite my tongue to not say "Yeah, but that's bullshit, so what can we really do?" Plus I hate the idea of having to apologize to people every time I tell them where I go. "Yeah, I go to the new age woo-woo place, but it's okay, I was going there back when they were still into medicine, so I got grandfathered in."

Maybe I'm overworrying, though. After all it's really hard to find a good doctor. And they know us already, we have a history there, so maybe we should give them a chance. Maybe they won't be so bad. Maybe the new doctor we were promised will adapt to us and keep the bullshit at bay. I suppose we should give it a try.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Doors on the second floor

So many homes and buildings around here have doors on the second floor, ten feet off the ground, not opening onto a deck or something but just onto empty air. Seems like it's too many to be planning for decks people didn't build.

There's even one on a large brick business-type building which faces towards the street, so there isn't even room to add more than a tiny balcony or fire escape, hardly worth installing a door for (and a sturdy weatherized secure door at that). (It's not the one pictured, this is just something I found on the Internet that's somewhat similar.)

Is there some reason that eludes me for why these are so often being built in this area?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


For some reason, while all the supermarkets around here have the Drake equivalents (Yodels, notably), no one carries most Hostess products including Ho-Hos. Siobhan insists there's a stark difference and won't even eat Yodels. But in New England, where Drake still remains dominant and the consolidation of Drake and Hostess (since they have the same parent company) is underway but far from complete, it's nearly impossible to get Ho-Hos, though Ding Dongs are oddly enough readily available.

Online grocery options are priced insanely; for instance, the only entry on Amazon (which is often competitive on other things, like the wasabi edamame we get) costs $16.99 + $4.99 shipping for a single box. And it hardly seems worth it for as simple a guilty pleasure as Ho-Hos to buy them while traveling (particularly since they're hard to transport, being so squishable, and they can get stale). But I promised I'd find a source for them. And there must be somewhere nearby that has them, but it's not like I can do a Google search (which is the real pity! someone should be indexing this kind of data), and I'm not about to go to every grocery and convenience store in Vermont to check. Anyone happen to know of a source?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


Bureaucracy gets a bum rap. A lot of the time it's just another name for things like checks and balances, and the processes of accountability, the kind of thing you take for granted while bemoaning their cost, the way people whine about taxes while they drive on safe, paved roads.

But there's a good reason bureaucracy has a bad name: so much that is done in its service is mind-bogglingly stupid and wasteful. It gets lumped in with the potentially useful kind, because of superficial similarities in the type of procedures involved. But the differences are more telling than the similarities, even if they're less obvious.

The worst kind of frustrating, pointless bureaucracy is the kind that focuses on internal efficiencies. At this point in my job I probably waste about 1/4 of my year in mandatory "planning" or "streamlining" committees or projects, and their associated data gathering and oversight procedures. It's similar to the useful kind of bureaucracy that focuses on accountability because it's about covering someone's ass, but the key difference is it's covering a bureaucrat's ass, not that of the people who the bureaucracy is meant to be serving. That's not a trivial difference, any more than it's a trivial difference between collecting for a charity and embezzling from a charity. But it tends to get lumped together anyway.

Obviously, the best way to improve my efficiency is to abolish the runaway train of efficiency-improvement efforts and let me get back to work. I am not saying there aren't ways that efficiency in my office could be improved, and I'm not even saying that there aren't ways that haven't occurred to me that some process might help me find. But this process is not doing it. It's just dragging me down.

Today, at a three-and-a-half-hour training session about how to fill out some mind-bogglingly stupid data collection spreadsheets, while the presenters droned on and on reciting directions that they could have written down in two hours (and then I'd have them to refer to, while saving myself half the time), I was imagining how if this were a movie, the next thing would be me standing over the presenter bludgeoning him with a chair, shouting "shut up!" over and over. There would be a camera angle from below up at my face, which was getting spattered with blood. Behind me, the rest of the "audience" would be picking up their chairs to join me. Then there'd be an abrupt camera cut to me daydreaming while the guy kept blathering on with Office Space-level inanities. So I guess I can't just have the usual daydreams, I have to have a meta-daydream, a daydream about how I would film the daydream I should be having. That's what these meetings drive me to!

Monday, October 12, 2009

On meaning and principles

There's a concept I find myself struggling to convey in my arguments in Lusternia, both in character and out, and it is one of those things that I fear maybe you just either get or you don't. I've had it many times and usually it ends up being a dead end, so maybe I can use this blog post as a means to try to refine my expression. First, I need to establish some background.

In the game, a guild leader has the option of granting someone a special honor which will appear on the scroll of their deeds forever. The honor is like the Congressional Medal of Honor in that it's entirely symbolic (having one doesn't get you free drinks or higher security clearance or a boost in pay, it just gives you the chance to say you got it). However, if the guild's three leaders agree unanimously, the honor can be retroactively stripped.

Someone in my guild, and as it happens someone I always disliked and never got along with, was granted this honor a few months ago, and with my full support. For while he and I disagreed on many points, I certainly agreed that he had done many good things for the guild and the commune, and deserved the honor for his service. Recently, he changed sides, and is currently part of some very vicious attacks on the commune, and it has inevitably been proposed that his honor be stripped. Since it requires unanimity, I have shot it down, and gotten some guff for it.

In defending my stance, I am alluding to a much more endemic issue, where the meaning of words and actions is set aside in favor of tactics or retribution or other things that are merely meant to satisfy a superficial desire. But to keep things tidy I'll stick to this one instance for now.

I propose three scenarios. Bob appeared to work hard for the commune, but it was all calculated to put him into a position where he had authority, access, and information with which he could betray the commune. He abused that rank to sneak information to the enemy, then when the time was right, betrayed the commune, destroying things on the way out. Sue worked hard for the commune, and her work was genuine and sincere. Later, because of changes in her life, or personality conflicts with commune leaders, or other things, she left the commune, and eventually her path took her to where she was attacking the commune. Robin worked hard for the commune for many years too, but has since retired and is largely inactive, not involved in politics, just focusing on crafts in a hut somewhere.

It's clear to me that, if Bob got the honor, it should be revoked, because it was never really earned. He never really served the commune. He only gave the appearance of doing so for his own purposes. In this case, revoking the honor is saying "it should never have been granted in the first place." On the other hand, while Sue is not currently doing what she did to earn the honor, that's no more true for her than for for Robin. Her current actions don't undo her past actions; if they merited the honor then, they still do.

In arguing this, I am a lone voice. Everyone else is happy to argue that both Bob and Sue should have their honors stripped. Their reasons strike me as being rationalizations for an act of petty retribution, but maybe I'm being as dismissive as they are of my arguments. They interpret the honor as meaning that, at the time you look at the honor, not at the time it was awarded, the person is all that the honor claims, still worthy of being granted it again. Which might be internally consistent, if the honor claimed to be about what you are, not what you did. Anyway, why wouldn't they also strip it from Robin, if that's their reason? Yet no one ever proposes doing that.

I know that I'm being an idealist, that I'm standing on a somewhat abstract point of principle instead of going along with what everyone else does. And honors ultimately only mean what everyone thinks they mean, so if I just give in and forget this (which is inevitably going to be what happens next, since I doubt I'll persuade anyone) then it'll become true. If it hasn't already, since almost everyone else has already conceded on this point.

But I also feel like every step on that path is an erosion in which Lusternia ends up a little less than it was. When we treat enemyship as having no meaning other than the right to charge a fine and the ability to deploy guards and shrine powers, we further trivialize the rich history and setting that made Lusternia so much more than an overblown version of Stratego. And that's especially sad because, so far as I am able to determine, there is no MUD left in the world that is what Lusternia used to be, but there are plenty of MUDs that have long been what Lusternia is becoming. So the real problem is that we're sacrificing a choice and making the world smaller.

Each individual act of preserving the meaning of words and actions is trivial and petty in itself, since each word and action means only what most people agree it means. But collectively, all the acts of diluting meaning and sacrificing it on the altars of tactics or retribution are part of, or at least symptom of, what's turning Lusternia into a ghost of itself. And I can't see any way to persuade anyone that each of those trivial acts is worth arguing about. It's so much easier to say "ooh, he killed one of ours, let's do something about it!" and then, finding no way to do anything real, to strip an honor. That'll hit him where it hurts! (Ironically in this case it probably hurt him more than anything else we could do, which is not to say all that much, but even so, it's something.)

Why can't I make anyone understand this? Or am I just being hopelessly quixotic?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

This year's woodcutting

It might be the only woodcutting I do this year, depending on how time and weather coincide in future weekends, but I dropped three trees yesterday. Or two and a half, or something.

The first was a tamarack that was pretty rotted through, at the corner of the lot, which was the one closest to being a true hazard tree. It was down in less than five minutes, and dropped precisely where I wanted it to drop. But it was too rotted and too soft to be of any use for firewood, so I cut it into 12' lengths (or so) and tossed them into the woods, where they'll be good habitat. (The stump still has a hollow where once a bat was found -- I didn't check to see if a bat still lives there, seems like it's none of my business to go peeking.)

Two years ago when I first got a chainsaw I felled a dead pine and did a poor job, causing it to fall into the crook between the twin trunks of another tree (a hardwood but I don't know what kind). It's been hanging there ever since. The hardwood was also dead, so I felled it yesterday. That one took a good fifteen minutes, but it was also picture-perfect. On cutting the felling notch I wasn't sure if I had gone far enough but I didn't want to go too far: the avenue of escape wasn't as clear as you might like, and with a second tree leaning into the first, I felt sure how it would fall but didn't want to play any risks. So I stepped back and waited for a breeze rather than moving in to finish the cut. And it fell precisely how I intended.

Better, even. The hardwood ended up balanced with both ends in the air, one supported by the pine, one supported by a rock. It made it very easy to buck what would otherwise have been quite tricky. The top half of the pine was too rotted to use, but the bottom half got bucked, so I got a tree and a half out of the three trees I felled. The wood's all going to sit on my lawn to season until spring, by which point I should have a better idea how well my current wood supply will have run down, and whether the current seasoned-wood side of my split woodshed will be clear enough that it can become the new green-wood side.

There are still about six more trees in the yard I put red Xs on, but only two of those are ones I'd really like to see down sooner than later, and both of those are too big across for me to feel comfortable attacking with a 14" chainsaw. Not sure what I'll do about those but I won't do it this year, anyway. If I feel up to it maybe I'll take on one or two of the others this year, though. Maybe not.

The new chainsaw has no toolless tightening which is a pain, but it keeps working... or maybe I've just gotten better at avoiding the problems that kill them. However, I can no longer make fun of the people who require all those instructions on how the blade goes on, because having popped it off, I put it on backwards.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Doors and jazz

When you've known a band or a song for as long as you can remember, it's easy to take it for granted, to paradoxically know every note of every measure of a song by heart, and yet, to have never given it a moment's thought until something happens to jolt you out of that familiarity or force you to look at it from a different perspective.

So it is with the Doors, whose music has been part of my world since I was first aware of the world. (In fact, the band's existence, from 1965 to 1971, neatly brackets my birth during the Summer of Love, July 1967, the same year as the release of their debut album.) This past week, I had the unusual experience of driving myself to and from work every day, and the two-album best hits collection came onto the stereo at a time I could listen attentively with minimal distractions and every opportunity to sing along as loud as I liked. Combine that with the fact that, a few weeks ago, I was thinking about drums from the perspective of playing Rock Band when I listened to a few of their songs and noted a few patterns (precisely zero use of the kick drum, and lots of use of the ONE-TWO-three-four pattern, two strong and two weak beats rather than the more common one-strong-three-weak), and you end up with me stopping to consider the songs in a way that's routine for music I came to know later in my life, but rare for stuff that's "always been there".

And the one striking thing that occurred to me is, there are no doubt people who love the Doors, and even a few specific songs, but who would say that they don't like jazz, and those people are insane. To say that the Doors have jazz influences is almost redundant: almost all popular music has at least some jazz influences, and it's no stop-the-presses moment to suggest that the Doors has more than many. And that's especially noticeable in John Densmore's drumming, and to a lesser extent in Ray Manzarek's keyboard playing; the guitar and vocals are both bringing more of other sensibilities to the music.

But the jazz influence is really pronounced compared to a lot of other bands about whom one speaks of a jazz influence. I was particularly struck by the song Riders on the Storm, one of my three favorite Doors songs ever (the others being Crystal Ship and Spanish Caravan). It occurred to me that if you found someone who had never heard Riders on the Storm and played a fairly faithful cover but with a less recognizable voice, and asked them what genre it was from, they are at least as likely to say jazz as rock. It's really more of a jazz song than a rock song, and most of what suggests rock is Jim Morrison's delivery, not anything about the instruments, melodies, composition, or rhythms.

Most likely, anyone who reads this (and doesn't outright disagree with me) will probably be thinking "well, duh, that's obvious," and that's really the point, it is obvious. But I bet we all have things that we've known from our early childhood about which there are obvious things we never noticed. And no matter how many times I realize that (and I've posted about it a few times before on this very blog), I still never quite find myself sitting down and going back over the first ten years of my life to give everything the critical appraisal it would have gotten had I first encountered it at the age of 13 or later. And neither does anyone else.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Driving like it matters

Where I live, the majority of the time spent on an average drive is spent on roads with one lane in each direction and few, if any, chances to pass. In other places, this might be less of an average trip, but I bet it's more of most trips than people really realize, when they consider time rather than distance. This circumstance leads to an inevitable conclusion which nevertheless is not realized, or ignored, or defied, by most drivers:

How you drive has essentially zero impact on when you get there.

That is, every decision you make, how fast to go, whether to let someone out, whether to run the traffic light, etc., makes ultimately no difference in determining when you're going to get where you're going.

Look at that car in front of you. If you drive slow or fast, reckless or cautious, if you stop at yellow lights or race through red lights, odds are you will still end up behind that car, and when you arrive depends entirely on when they arrive, not on what you do.

At most, you might end up one more car-length behind them if you let someone out in front of you. But odds are that they'll turn off eventually and you'll still end up in the same place. And maybe that car in front of you will turn off, too, and then you'll get to race ahead... to the next car, whereupon the same thing happens. None of that actually depended on anything you decide. It all depends on the happenstance of when other cars happen to be getting onto or off the path you're taking.

There are a few moments where a tiny change can have a bigger impact, but they are very few, and very rare, and still likely to cancel each other out, and also rarely depend on your choices. Maybe the act of making or missing a traffic light can cause ten more cars to get in front of you, or avoid that. And maybe if you had sped up just a little bit you could have made that light. But while we imagine this to be an opportunity that happens all the time in driving, in point of fact, when we get caught behind a light, or fail to get caught, the vast majority of the time that depends on the car in front of us, too. Times when our own choices make that much difference are exceedingly rare. And even when they do happen, odds are good most of those ten cars will turn off your path and in the end the effect will be a lot less than you'd expect.

So go as slow as you have to to be safe, because in the end, you will arrive at the same time as if you hurried up to each stop. (Try it sometime. It's hard to make a really definitive test -- one day's traffic is unlike the next. But if you drive recklessly for two weeks and then cautiously for two weeks, the stopwatch will reveal the truth.) Let people out: worst case you'll end up one car farther behind all the way to your destination, and thus arrive ten seconds later, and the more common case is you will end up arriving at precisely the same time you would have. And above all, relax. Listen to the music. Pay attention to the road. Don't worry about the trip. It's going to come out the same either way.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Hoping not to be sick

It occurred to me that I haven't had a cold or flu bad enough to stay home from work in more than three years. Maybe some of that is regularly getting flu shots. I remember two years ago in late January being terrified of getting a cold just in time to have it scrub my surgery, and thinking then, it had been more than a year. And I haven't had one since. A few times I felt like I was close but fought it off with no more symptoms than a sore throat or sniffles.

Siobhan crossed the line this week and has been staying home, which is the first time for her in the same period. And I have had a scratchy throat for two weeks now, though that started after a night of bad reflux so I thought it was just throat trauma. Plus I've had headaches. But for two weeks it hasn't gone past that point. No stuffiness, no weariness, no sniffles, no unusual amount of sneezing, no fever, no aches. So I wonder if I have a cold that I'm fighting off, or if it's just coincidence, the throat from the reflux, headaches from not getting good sleep (typical at the time of year), and Siobhan just happening to be sick at the same time.

If I am sick, there would have been worse times for it. It's never a good time to be sick, but it's as not-bad a time as I've had in months. Still, I hope to continue to avoid it, if only to maintain my streak.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009


While it's not true, as many people believe, that crime is on the rise, there's some reason to think that prison as a deterrent is less effective than it used to be. And this is really not surprising when you think about it.

Why would you not want to go to prison? You could no doubt rattle off reasons, and what are the worst of those reasons would depend on the historical period in which you were making the list. Hundreds of years ago, the rapid spread of disease through prisons would have been high on the list, but nowadays, prisons are nowhere near as unsanitary as they used to be. We still have a lot of prisoner-on-prisoner violence, including rape, murder, and brutality, and there's still guard-on-prisoner abuses as well, but these are things we rightly consider unwanted and in need of correction. There are still indignities, humiliations (beyond the basic humiliation of being convicted and imprisoned, I mean), and emotional agonies.

But the most fundamental downside of prison is the loss of freedom. You can't go where you want to go, do what you want to do, eat what you want to eat, see who you want to see. We may have slightly softened this with some choices about food, activities, visits, etc. (mostly in the name of rehabilitation), but ultimately, prison is about the loss of freedom. That is the downside that is the intended form of deterrence.

All the others are side effects, and in most cases, ones that we should be trying to eliminate, because the loss of freedom should be enough. If you were sent to prison and had no worry whatsoever that you would be raped or brutalized, you should still hate the idea of going to prison.

So why isn't that enough of a deterrent? Because for most of history many of the people who might be going to prison would be leaving a life that is worse than a loss of freedom. They might have little freedom anyway. But they also have far worse things to contend with, like danger, starvation, crime, and abuse. Compared to those things, a safe warm place with free meals might not be that bad.

And as time passes, the gulf between the rich and poor grows greater. I'm not saying that the poor are getting poorer, or lower qualities of life; that's another common misconception. But their lives are worse now than in the past when measured relative to the ambitions they might realistically have. Which makes the comparison to prison change.

Historically, prison has been worse than the lives that potential criminals might face, not because of the intended awfulness of loss of freedom, but also because of all those others which we just hadn't fixed. Some people will probably object to fixing those problems because they want prison to stay awful; they say we're "coddling" prisoners and turning the prisons into resorts. Confront them with specific abuses like prisoner rape and only the most stubborn will defend the particular practice, but they'll still want to support the idea that in some vague way (that they don't have to face), prison remains awful as it always was.

But that's backwards. We can't turn a blind eye to brutality and indignity in our prisons just to ensure that prison remains worse than the alternative, just as we shouldn't have, and eventually didn't, turn a blind eye to bad health that caused rampant disease in prisons. Instead, we should be correcting the inhumane treatment of people, both in prisons and outside prisons. When life on the streets is not a grinding dangerous abyss, then prisons won't have to be an even worse heap of brutality and indignity to remain a suitable deterrent. But it's ironically easier to address inhumane conditions in a prison than on the streets: prisons are controlled environments run by people who have accountability, but the problems on the streets are much bigger, more nebulous, harder to change, and harder to pin on any particular person or group to fix.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009


Anime is like fish and liquor, in that periodically people insist I should like it and make me try it again, but I never do. But unlike fish and liquor, or maybe like them, anime seems to lack a commonality that explains why I don't like it. If you consider the breadth of things that are anime, in terms of storytelling style, types of stories, and essentially everything else about them, there's not much that they can be said to have in common apart from that defining trait, the particular animation style. Even that's kind of blurry: there's no particular element that all anime have and nothing that isn't anime has, though there are certainly style elements that are hallmarks of anime (like the big eyes small mouth thing).

But none of those things that define anime are things that I have a problem with. Admittedly, I don't especially like the animation style itself, but there are plenty of animation styles I don't particularly like, but still like specific things done in that style. Animation style is just not a make-or-break element for me.

Otherwise, while there are certainly story elements, themes, images, character types, etc. that are more common in anime, there's nothing you can point to and say that if you don't like that, you won't like anime, because for every anime full of superpowered teenage girls and tentacles, there's another anime that has nothing like that and which wouldn't even be compared to anime if it didn't happen to use that animation style.

Logically, therefore, if the one thing all anime has in common doesn't bother me, and if anime covers such a wide variety of topics and types of stories, then it's inevitable that there must be anime I would like. And yet, every time someone who likes anime and knows me tries to pick some anime I would like, and I give it a try, I never like it. The nearest I've come is to find one that was an interesting story and subject matter, but burdened with a clich├ęd approach and insipid one-dimensional characters. Still, a few changes and it could have been an acceptable story.

So I wonder if I've just had bad luck with the choices other people have made in an attempt to find some anime I'd like.

Monday, October 05, 2009


I was able to get the Asteroids Deluxe game working with a little fiddling about -- I just reached up to where the fire button was and fiddled with it, and it started working, so it was probably just some dust or gunk between the contacts.

However, while the game works, there's a very odd and somewhat inexplicable problem. Or two problems. Or maybe four problems. I'd bet on it being two problems but it's hard to be sure.

The most puzzling thing is that the randomness of motion of the asteroids is usually missing entirely. They all start in the same spot in the upper right, and as you blow them up, the replacement asteroids stay on the same course as their parent asteroids, so you can clear the screen quickly by just plugging away at the cluster of bunched-up superimposed asteroids.

At the same time, the UFOs, when they arrive, have more accuracy than they should. It's nearly impossible to escape them. So while you never die to asteroid collisions you always die to UFO attacks, unless you get really lucky to have a shot in the air near where one appears already.

The "heart beat" sound also is missing. You still hear the ship thrusters and firing, the twirl sound of the arriving UFO, and the beeps of the arriving death star, but the quickening dum-dum sound is completely absent.

These three problems are probably one problem because they all happen together. Mysteriously, they all vanished for a little while yesterday and then came back together. It's hard to imagine what component could be failing to cause those three problems, but leave the rest of the gameplay working, though.

The fourth problem is that sometimes the screen's alignment is such that the top line, or perhaps all the edges, are not visible. But it's inconsistent, and not linked to the other three problems. It's probably just a matter of the CRT being old and physically failing, its beam alignment going out of whack at times.

I found a site which has the original operations and maintenance manual but had no luck finding any tips about these problems there. I'm at a loss for what else to try. There's nothing to 'reboot' with a power cycling, unfortunately; the only non-volatile RAM in the unit is only able to hold the top three scores (that's probably 16 bytes or less! but this was one of the first arcade games ever to have that feature), and resetting that doesn't help.

Still, if I can't get it working, that's no huge problem. The main point was to get the case. The game itself is just a bonus. It'll be a while before I can build a MAME machine, and it would be nice to have a game until then, but that's just gravy.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

A tactical wargame

I've decided to push Lusternia to a back burner for the next little while. I'm not "quitting" but it's the next best thing: I'm going to be far less active and will mostly spend the time I do spend there on living up to a few simple responsibilities (guild administration, running some shops, and the like). I am dropping two main responsibilities completely because they take up too much time and require too continuous a presence. (The first: posting "watcher" spirits at key points to warn people on my team of oncoming raids. The second: keeping certain key denizens dead to prevent certain quests which are bad for either my side, or the game as a whole.) I'm also retiring from a few positions (guild envoy, and minister of cultural affairs) not because I can't keep up with them in the limited time I'm alloting Lusternia (neither takes up a huge amount of time) but just for appearance's sake. (And retiring as minister of cultural affairs is quite relevant since there aren't any to minister.)

The reason for this is simple in its essence. The Lusternia I fell in love with was a nicely balanced game. It had enough combat and conflict to keep everything else interesting and ever-changing, but it also had enough everything else to keep the combat and conflict rooted in meaning: it wasn't fighting for the sake of fighting, it was fighting about principles, about deeply-rooted elements of history, about symbols of fundamental truths of the world, about forces that shape creation.

Then one day someone had what seemed like an innocuous idea: let's make a quest that fundamentally changes the power balance and forces bitter enemies, fundamentally opposed in their most essential ideologies, to ally not just for a short term (as in events where everyone was forced to stand together against a common outside threat), but for the long haul. This began a war that has been going on for many RL months, without surcease, but that's not the real problem.

Somewhere along the way, listening to (some of) the complaints, the administration realized how imbalanced the quests were and gave them some disincentives to go with their huge incentives, and now those quests are all but forgotten and the strained alliances that came with them have fallen aside. But it proved a day late and a dollar short; the damage is done.

First, the momentum of conflict is unbroken: as long as every day there's been some terrible attack that requires a terrible retribution, there's no room for much else, and since almost everyone who enjoyed anything other than fighting has been driven into dormancy by how long this war has been without interruption, there's no momentum behind anything else. Culture is dead: no one is writing, producing plays, singing songs, holding rituals, planning contests, hosting festivals, or even going on group hunts or flying aetherships. There's nearly no one left who wants to do those things, or at least wants to do them more than they want to go on the raid du jour, and even if there were, they'd be too busy with the war, the retributions, the grind of making up for the previous attacks, or being ready for the next raid.

Second, the connection between these conflicts and their meaning has been all but broken. It's long been the case that certain excesses were accepted because tactics trumped meaning, but that's been a limited, contained, necessary evil. But now, not only are those things almost entirely uncontained, it's done so with disregard for the idea that there should ever have been a limit. Nations change alliances on the drop of a hat and blissfully pretend the last decade of constant, brutal attacks, every one of them an unrelenting rape of their most cherished ideals, never happened, because it's tactically viable to side with someone else today. People mark huge swaths of people as official enemies to nations despite those people having never lifted a finger against them, as a "precaution". People deliberately engineer devastation to their own side's most sacred beings just so they can earn the "honors line" of the quest to restore those beings. Sometimes, the most superficial and brief lip service is paid to finding excuses, but more often, no one even bothers.

All in all, the game that used to be a rich and vibrant world full of a variety of activities and a lot of real reasons for them, now feels precisely like a tactics-driven wargame, with its history, culture, and roleplay nothing more than a flaking coat of paint.

Lusternia has done this before, never quite to this extreme, but it has gotten swallowed in the endless escalation of conflict and retribution, and come back. (Though it's never come back through player actions, despite what some of the players think. It's always been because of administrative intervention, though some times more obviously than other times.) So it might come back. And I endured for a while hoping to be part of the process that brought it back, to subtly remind people of purpose and history and meaning, to encourage the resurgence of culture, or just to stubbornly outwait it so that I wasn't contributing to the factor where, as people who want to play the everything-but-a-tactical-wargame all go dormant, the uniformity of the tactical-wargame approach gains dominance for lack of a contrary voice. But I can't endure against this indefinitely when I wasn't making any real difference.

This time, I'm not leaving in a decisive, irreversible way. My character will remain active, just far less so. He/she (my character is a shapechanger and changes gender periodically) can simply reappear any time I like. In fact, ironically enough, if I get that fractional T1, one thing it will enable is for me to get better at combat and participate in it, so I might "come back" sooner than later in order to play the tactical wargame that is Lusternia, if I feel like it at the time, but even then I'll be hoping the old Lusternia will reappear so I can come back to that, too. (No one will care if my character suddenly doesn't care about the things he used to care about, and just wants to join in the fight, since no one cares about motivations anymore. So it won't close that door to have him change personality to that extent.)

But I am trying out a few other MUDs in hopes of finding one that's like what Lusternia used to be like. I don't know if anything like that exists. Maybe I'll just back out of playing MUDs entirely for a while, and try to find the fix for my roleplaying jones somewhere else.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Frisbee tournament

I was reminded today, tossing Socks's frisbee in the rain (not that she catches it or anything), of a story from my childhood that was very important at the time but which I don't remember telling anyone since. It's a fairly telling incident of my childhood, too.

I often got enthusiastic about some interest or hobby, but often my ability to pursue it was dead-ended by lack of support from my family: no one else to do it with, no money for whatever costs were involved, or more often and most cripplingly, no way to get to wherever one had to go. But with the resilience of youth as yet unjaded, each time I watched one interest crash and burn, I eventually found another.

One summer, around the age of 11 or so, I got into frisbee. That sounds pretty silly now, but this was in the late 70s and frisbee was kind of trendy. And one good thing about frisbee, for me at the time, was that while it was better with someone else it was at least possible to play it alone. I heard about a frisbee tournament being put on by a local park, and begged my parents to take me, and got a sort of wishy-washy agreement, an "okay, we'll see what we can do" kind of thing. That was enough to get me going: I spent the next several weeks practicing for hours a day at accuracy, distance, and maximum time aloft. Most of the time I had no one else to practice with, so I'd just throw at a spot on the fence, or throw for distance and count paces, or throw and count one-Mississippi-two-Mississippi for time aloft. Then run, get the frisbee, and repeat.

As the day of the contest neared I reminded my parents, but they started trying to weasel out of it. They didn't really want to waste a nice summer weekend day on something like this. And they wouldn't even consider just dropping me off, as it was too far out of their way from anywhere they might want to go. By the day of the event, I was all but convinced I wasn't going to get to go.

But there was a miracle: terrible weather! It was pouring that day, just coming down in buckets. Which meant all the other things my parents might have wanted to do were also off, so we went to the park anyway. When we got there, the judges were there, and no one else. No one else had come out in the pouring rain.

Trying to be good sports, the judges let me go through all the events as the sole contestant, dutifilly measured my distances and times aloft, and awarded me the first place prize patch in each category. And I tried my best to get the best score I could in each one, too. And since my sister was there and in a different age category, though she'd barely ever even picked up a frisbee before this, they let her "compete" in her category too, and she came away with precisely the same assortment of prize patches as I did.

The judges told us they'd be trying again the next week, and if the weather was better, there'd be a real genuine competition. So I went back to practicing all week, so I could beat my previous scores. And sure enough, the weather was great. And sure enough, my parents didn't take me. They even seemed annoyed by the idea: they had just taken me last week, how could I expect them to do it two weeks in a row? This frisbee obsession was getting out of hand.

After that, I never played with the frisbee except for the occasional game of catch with a friend. But I moved on to some other fascination soon after, which I also never got to really pursue, I'm sure.