Monday, November 30, 2009

Sand County Almanac companion

I'm once more rereading A Sand County Almanac. Since my original copy (dating to college) is falling apart, I got a new copy, this time on my Kindle so I never need to worry about losing another copy. (This also makes it easier to try to get Siobhan to read it since I sent it to her Kindle too.)

What inspired me reading it again is reading Companion to A Sand County Almanac: Interpretive and Critical Essays, which as the title suggests is a set of academic analyses of the book, its author, and its message. Or, rather, not quite reading it, since I ended up skimming most of it.

If you're really keen on this kind of dry, verbose dissection, the book is probably as well done as you could ask for. And there were certainly bits I found interesting, particularly the insight into Aldo Leopold. But most of the book consisted of saying in ten pages what could have been said in ten sentences, and then saying it again on the next ten pages. Most of it was laced with such bombastic hyperbole you would almost expect that Leopold invented ecology. Very little of it really added anything to my appreciation of the book, and in fact, in rereading the original (I'm almost a third of the way through already) I'm confirming that the analysis isn't revealing new insights into the text.

Most pointedly, the style of this companion could hardly be more different from the original text. Leopold's writing is eminently accessible, breezy, evocative, poetic without being in the slightest bit pretentious. But this academic overanalysis is dense (yet largely substanceless), distant, dull, pompous, and peppered with the kind of "analytical" terminology that is the antithesis of "accessible," "evocative," and "poetic." Some of this is inescapable and even desirable: the analysis is intentionally a different thing from what it analyzes, and that requires a different set of tools, different language, and a different focus. But in this case the difference is so great that it suggests liking the original material is not only no guarantee of appreciating the companion, it's a strong counterindication. That is the kind of disability that can be overcome if the content justifies it, but not when it doesn't.

By about halfway through I found myself not merely skimming most of the essays looking for a subject matter of interest (and then skimming to see if they would actually address that subject matter, rather than just framing it and then dodging behind florid but non-responsive prose), but also skimming for the block quotes from the original text. Even out of context, these were compelling enough for me to stop at every one. That's why I decided to reread the book even though it's been scarcely more than a year since my last reading.

I am generally dubious of the meme that academic analysis is disconnected from reality, as it's used to dismiss a lot of very valid thought. But sometimes it can be. Books like this are what give a bad name to academic analysis in general. About the only value I can think of for this work is that it would be useful for someone who wanted to produce even more academic analysis with it. If you had to write a paper for a college class about A Sand County Almanac this book would be indispensable. But that's kind of self-reinforcing, if not masturbatory, if the only use is to create more of the same which has no use but to create more of the same.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Asteroids Deluxe repair, phase 2

Though my Asteroids Deluxe classic coin-op game worked fine after phase 1 of the repair, I still wanted to do the other half, rebuilding the power supply and audio regulator board, as a preventative measure. There's always the chance that the chip failure was caused by power supply fluctuations; and I've had a few monitor flickers which also could be. It would be a shame to repair the game only to have the original problem flare up again. Replacing a few key capacitors and transistors, which are all 25+ years old, is a likely way to give the game a lot more life.

But I didn't have a solder-sucking pump so I couldn't easily remove components from the circuit board. Even if you manage to balance holding the board, holding the soldering iron, and easing the component out, all with only two hands, you still leave a mess of solder behind that makes it hard to get the next component in. And you can't get transistors out that way since you have to pull them out all three legs at the same time. A solder-sucker is a pump that pulls the melted solder out, making it possible to remove any component, and much more easily.

Radio Shack had a cheap one for $5, a good one for $10, and a desoldering iron -- that's a whole iron dedicated to desoldering with a special tip and a built-in pump, so it can be operated one-handed, leaving the other hand free to hold the board or work the component loose -- for... $10. Desoldering irons always seemed like a bit of a luxury to me so I never had one or tried one before, but since it cost the same as a good pump, I went ahead with it, and... wow, what a difference. It's so easy to desolder this way. Fewer things to juggle is only part of it: the special tip with a hole to fit around the component's leg makes it effortless. Plus you don't have to worry you're going to line things up wrong and damage something else; the tip lines it up for you.

As a result the rebuild was very easy. I had been quite nervous about it. The game itself was working fine, and had been a big hit on Thanksgiving, but here I was intentionally breaking it in hopes of being able to rebuild it. Had I put something in wrong, done a bad job soldering, reversed a polarity, etc. I might have fried the whole game beyond repair. I have done very little soldering, and even less desoldering, since I first learned it back in high school... about when this Asteroids Deluxe game was new, in fact. So my skills are rusty and were never that great to begin with. When I plugged the game back in and fired it up, I was really worried I'd screwed it up, was even afraid I might see sparks, but it came up perfectly, and works fine.

Apart from the monitor, then, it's likely this game will continue to work for many more years. The parts most likely to fail have all been replaced to the condition they were in when the game was new back in the 1980s. Even if the monitor has problems, there are apparently a few capacitors I can replace there which are likely to recover it, too. (Though if the CRT itself dies, that might be the end; finding another vector monitor of just the right size and shape to fit this case is not likely to be easy or inexpensive.)

The whole experience make me even more eager to get my hands on a Tempest game, because now I know I could probably keep it working indefinitely. Unfortunately, of all the classic arcade games of the 80s, Tempest is one of the most hard to find, if not the hardest, because of the high demand. A lot of nostalgic children of the 80s like me have particularly fond memories of Tempest. I've got a few bots prowling eBay, Craigslist, etc. but I'm not hopeful. If I do see one, though, I'm going to snatch it up. The opportunity might not come twice.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

2009 Ornament: Theobromine

Every year since we first met, Siobhan and I have bought a single ornament for the Christmas tree, each one different from previous years. Our tradition works like this. Every year, both when putting the tree up and taking it back down, we go through the years one by one, so each ornament is also a reminder of the memories of that part of our lives. Each year we're retracing our entire relationship up to the present day. Gradually, our tree becomes less and less the generic sameness of a uniform decorating style, and more and more a quirky, individual, personalized reflection of us.

This year's ornament is the pictured theobromine molecule. Theobromine is a key component of chocolate. Made With Molecules makes a new ornament each year, and theobromine is from a few years ago. The current year's ornament is zingerone, a compound in ginger, but we didn't like the look of the molecule that much, and I'm not very fond of ginger either. So I originally tried to order last year's ornament, menthol, from a bookmark I had made last year. The proprietress of MWM didn't intend that page to still be available (and has taken it down since), and is actually out of menthol, but she very kindly went through back stock and found a few previous years were still around, so we were able to get theobromine instead.

The theobromine molecule arrived today and is now in a place of honor on the tree, as well as added to the "tour of the ornaments" website I maintain.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Four-color comics roleplaying

Long ago back on Lawn Guyland my group used to play some superhero roleplaying games, particularly Villains & Vigilantes. (We don't play that genre anymore because not all members of my current group like it.) After a while I discovered that my favorite part was often making new characters with new combinations of powers. V&V allowed both choosing powers to fit a theme, and randomly selecting powers and trying to find a theme to fit them; the latter seems like it would lead to a lot of jumbled messes of thematically incompatible powers, and that was certainly sometimes the case, but surprisingly often, even a seemingly-incompatible set of powers can coalesce into an unexpected but compelling theme; and the process of trying to find that theme is an interesting creative challenge.

After a while, I had an idea for the best character idea because it gave me tons of chances to go through that. I named him Variable, and his power was that, every so often and for reasons as yet undetermined, he got a new set of powers. Sometimes I would pick a set, and sometimes I would roll them, and sometimes I'd roll a few and then pick a few to round them out.

This also gave me the chance to try out character ideas you wouldn't want to play for very long, but which are fun to play for a short time. The best of these was playing Letterman, from the Electric Company: he could change things by adding, removing, or changing letters in their names, though he had to use the same letter in every action during a single scene. This was way too goofy to sustain (once I stopped some villains from escaping on a boat by changing the dock to a duck) so this power didn't last long. But it was fun, funny, and surprisingly challenging: it seems very powerful but it's actually hard to come up with useful things to do.

The campaign didn't last that long because the group broke up, so later I reinvented the character for a play-by-email game and this time I came up with a reason, having to do with the effect of quantum indeterminancy on the biological process of cell diversification. As with most PBEMs, though, it barely even started before it tanked.

If I ever get to play another superhero game, particularly a four-color style, I will almost certainly try to revive the idea again. How could I pass up the chance?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Christmas lights

We've always put up our Christmas tree and lights on the day after Thanksgiving, in part because it's a day off with nothing else to occupy it. And since we don't use a real tree (doesn't feel right to kill an evergreen as part of a celebration which only uses an evergreen because of its survival through the winter) there's no compelling reason to wait until later.

This year, now that I have my wonderful folding ladder, my plan for the outdoor lights is something I've always wanted to try, putting them along the underside of the porch. The peak of the porch is about 14-16' off the ground so I have never before had a way to get all the way up there. (I'm still not 100% sure I'll be able to get up there well enough to put in a hook.) If it works, I think it'll be a lot nicer than the line around the garage door I've done previous years. Still pretty simple, we're not the type to do those overwrought, complex Christmas lights. Just enough to spice the house up.

We also have a new tree this year. Our old one has seen fifteen Christmases and has been ratty and worn for a while now, but it kept not being the right year, financially, to buy a new one. The new one should be easier to assemble, and has some lights built-in, so hopefully we'll be able to get more quickly to our annual ornament tradition.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Electronic instruments

Keyboards have been able to sound like other instruments for a long time now, even drums, and in fact, routinely do sound like strings or horn sections. With electronic drum sets, it's easy to make the same drum pads sound like different percussion sounds, but you can also make them sound like other instruments if you like. The about-to-be-released You Rock guitar finally makes guitars work the same way: its strings are actually string-like buttons, and though you play it just like a guitar, its sounds are electronic and can emulate the sound of any of dozens of different kinds of guitars.

Of course there's no reason it can't sound like a horn section, or even a drum set. So imagine a band where the drummer is playing electronic drums that sound like a bass guitar, the bass guitar player's guitar sounds like synthesizer keyboards, the keyboard player's keyboard sounds like a guitar, and the guitarist sounds like a drum set. Now that would be a weird little gimmick!

Of course, some instruments are better suited to some sounds than others. The drummer playing guitar couldn't bend the string and is limited on how many notes he can put into a chord, or how many notes he has available. The guitarist playing drums would find it hard to manage the distinct rhythmic signatures of the different hands and feet of a drummer. One would have to compose or select songs carefully to make the combinations work.

If you're looking for a really weird gimmick to get your band some press notice, though, it might be a niche market that could attract some "Oddly Enough" news. Unless maybe someone's already done it.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Thanksgiving viewing party

A few of my friends didn't get to see Star Trek while it was in the theater. Fortunately, our 62" DLP HDTV and audio system may not quite be as good as Majestic 10 but it's pretty good. Months ago Kaye asked if we could have a viewing party when the Blu-ray disc came in, and as it happens, the same people who were going to come to the viewing party are also going to be at our house for Thanksgiving. So if the disc arrives in time, we might do it on Thanksgiving, after the obligatory performance of Alice's Restaurant Massacree, and the turkey.

That's assuming the disc arrives in time. I preordered it, and it shipped last week by USPS. Usually when I buy from Amazon and it ships USPS, the package arrives 2-3 business days before the estimated arrival date, and this time, the estimated arrival date is Friday. So in principle it probably should arrive today or tomorrow. The USPS tracking information is even more useless than usual (and that's saying something): the only arrivals all have no location listed, oddly, so I have no idea if it's close or not. In hindsight I now wish I had gotten it locally. Usually locally is more trouble, not less, but this time, CostCo happened to have lots of it in stock on a day I was already there. Hindsight is 20/20 of course.

Whenever we do air it, I want to try to create the theater experience as much as possible. I'll dim the lights, move the table out of the way, and most importantly, try to run the movie straight through without interruptions and distractions. Computers and phones off, the whole nine yards. Blinds drawn, and popcorn available (and if it ends up being on Thanksgiving, the popcorn has double appropriateness!).

Monday, November 23, 2009

Christmas shopping

There are a few reasons to do your Christmas shopping in December, like the sales, and the feeling of being part of the holiday season. But if those aren't important to you, like if you already have sources to get things at great prices, and you really don't relish the experience of being in crowded stores, then it really doesn't matter whether you do your shopping in November or December. In fact, November has a lot of advantages: no sense of rush, less crowds, first dibs on picking from people's wishlists, and the chance to focus on other things as the holidays get closer.

That's why I always budget to start our Christmas shopping at the beginning of November, and usually by then, I've got lists of ideas for everyone that I've been accumulating all year long (whenever an idea occurs to me, in fact). Usually I'm done before Thanksgiving. And this year I'm almost but not quite done. I've gotten stuff for everyone on my list, except I still have a few things left to get for Siobhan, some more of the smaller, more frivolous things.

Yesterday while grocery shopping at CostCo I picked up a few of those. The fun thing is, Siobhan was shopping with me, so I had them in a grocery bag in the cart, and I put the whole bag onto the check out. The cashier was very amused at the situation, and enjoyed being party to this subterfuge; she rang up those items without taking them out of the bag, then slipped both the bag and later the receipt directly to me. (She was particularly tickled that Siobhan's credit card was the one being used to ring up the sale... though of course our cards go on the same account, so it's not like that matters.)

Years ago, we used to do a lot of our Christmas shopping this way, but nowadays we do most of it online. Now that I've exhausted the local stores, I'll probably go back to shopping online for the rest of my orders for Siobhan. I'll have to browse around for ideas, though. Nothing else on my list (or hers) seems right.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Asteroids Deluxe repair, phase 1

The bad news is that I no longer have a solder-sucker or any desoldering wick, so I wasn't able to do the larger part of the Asteroids repair.

In case you don't know what I'm talking about: the repair involves removing a bunch of capacitors and transistors from a circuit board, which are soldered in, and then soldering in replacements, to "reinvigorate" the 25-year-old power supply. The idea is that a bad power supply can cause other components to misbehave or fail, so replacing $10 worth of capacitors can keep the rest of the game working fine. But removing components from a circuit board when they're soldered in requires two steps: melting the solder, which any soldering iron can do, and then removing that solder while it's still melted, which is where it gets tricky. One way is to use a wick that soaks up the solder; the other is a pump that sucks up the solder (possibly built into a special soldering iron just for desoldering). I have neither, apparently; I must have lost the pump I had in a move or something.

The good news is the other two parts of the repair, though much smaller, I was able to do. I replaced the "Big Blue" capacitor (a capacitor almost as big as a can of soda, that forms a backbone of the power supply), and I also replaced the "Pokey" chip from the circuit board. (That's the big chip in the middle.)

And the really good news: that fixed it. The game works brilliantly now. The Pokey chip is what did it: that's what the diagnostic had shown as failed, and that's the chip that contributes the sound and randomness which were missing. The other stuff was primarily preventative, and secondarily intended to fix problems that couldn't be easily diagnosed and fixed.

I failed to buy a solder-sucker pump today at Home Depot (they have very little electrical soldering stuff, mostly plumbing soldering), so I'll have to stop at Radio Shack some time to pick one up. Then I can do that preventative power supply rebuild anyway, just to keep the game in good shape.

At this point I'm leaning towards not converting it to a MAME system, but preserving it in its current form, and building a separate MAME cabinet. The difficulty of adapting the Asteroids case to fitting a full MAME control panel is probably not worth it.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


The holiday season is usually a time when our regular roleplaying sessions start to fall apart. Half the time people are busy with holiday season stuff, or working extra. Plus it's flu season, plus it's the season when people's cars fail, plus we can get snowed in. The times that remain are often used up on the actual holidays.

But we've already been at a near complete standstill for several months due to people's schedules getting more complicated because of their jobs. So I guess ultimately I can blame AIG for the fact that I'm jonesing for roleplaying.

Carnage helped ease it, so I'm glad it happened to happen when it did. Early November is a good time to "camel up" on roleplaying just before entering the desert of the holiday season, but doubly so this year when the land has been dry for a while before. But even so, I find myself thinking "that might be a good campaign" or "that's an interesting character idea" far too often, which is a sure sign I'm suffering a deficiency.

Maybe in January or February when hopefully I have a T1 line I can use webcam, Skype, etc. to get more roleplaying opportunities. But it's already possible to roleplay in chat or by email, and I've made hundreds of tries at those things over the years, but most of them fail. So I don't know how likely it is that connectivity is going to help. If anything, it'll just connect me to a world of people who are sating their needs with MMORPGs.

From what I've seen, MMORPGs aren't likely to appeal that much to me. MUDs are usually a notch or two above them on the kind of roleplaying I'm most interested in, and those are, when they're at their best, only a poor substitute. And their best hasn't been its best for a long time and probably won't be for a while yet (which is no doubt contributing to the jones).

Friday, November 20, 2009

Reconstructive surgery

My weight loss after gastric surgery has flattened out; my weight hangs in the 305-310 range now. I could probably push it down by engaging in the same kind of draconian diet that I was on before the surgery, but even if I did that, it probably wouldn't drop more than a few dozen more pounds at most, and I'm content to have it stay where it is.

That means it's time to start thinking about reconstructive (plastic) surgery to tuck the loose flaps of flesh I still have from losing 180 pounds, so an appointment has been scheduled. I'm not sure what to expect. The idea is a little scary and I'm not sure how much that might influence my thinking.

The big worry is that insurance won't cover it, since it's "cosmetic": one can argue that the loose flaps of flesh increase the likelihood of dermatological problems, and people certainly have gotten these surgeries partially covered, but I am not sure we'll get away with that. On the one hand, Siobhan's a fierce advocate and happy to go toe-to-toe with the insurance companies. On the other, I don't know that I'm convinced that this surgery is really needed to prevent dermatological problems, or if those problems are really serious enough to justify the surgery. If I am not even convincing myself, how likely will we be to convince the insurance company?

All of which suggests the other worry, that even if it isn't a huge cost (and it probably will be), it'll also be some risk and a lot of pain and recovery time, and I'm not sure if the benefits will be worth it. I'm hazy on what the benefits are other than fitting more easily into clothes and maybe looking better.

My appointment in January will be a chance to hash out these issues and let the doctors advise me. It's possible that there are benefits I'm not considering, for instance. Maybe the doctor will say "no, you shouldn't get this" after hearing my story and that'll be that. No sense in worrying about it or investing much time into figuring it out before talking to the doctor since I'll have to talk to the doctor anyway and that's probably the most efficient way to get the information I need.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

T1 on Monday?

Fairpoint has scheduled this coming Monday for the installation of our T1 line. Now, I don't believe for a minute that on Monday evening we'll be surfing at T1 speeds. They can't be prepared to go that far: they haven't even talked to us about what we need to do, and I still don't know at this point if I'm going to have a domain name. It's inevitable that if they do show up on Monday, and if the line really is ready, there will be some part missing, something we or they needed to do that didn't get done because they didn't think of mentioning it. But it's a step.

I'm still hazy on how the router setup is going to look. I have a Cisco router with a CSU/DSU in it per their specifications, but I don't know where it's going to be, and how the wiring from there is supposed to happen. The fact that I already have a Linksys WiFi router in my network means this could be pretty complex, possibly with two subnets, one masking the other, just so I can still keep my wireless (and so I won't have to rerun all my wiring to terminate at wherever the Cisco router will end up instead of where the Linksys router is). And that's another thing I won't have prepared; since I don't know what will need to be run to where, I can't very well have cables ready to do it. So even if by some miracle we have T1-juice at one point in the basement, we won't have T1-juice to the whole house until I can adapt our internal wiring to whatever it ends up being.

And I have no idea what other transitions will need to be done. I haven't even set up our new email accounts on POBox because our annual renewal is next month and I figured billing will be easier if I just cut over then, assuming Wildblue's still available to us until then. What about my DynDNS setup? What about moving our nominal website (and where will I move it anyway)?

More likely they won't show up or if they do it'll just be to note what didn't get prepared in time.

Still, it's a good sign that we're getting to this inevitably-roadblock-infested first step now. It just means we can get to the final step sooner.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Blade Runner, the original theatrical edition

When Blade Runner was first produced, the "work print" was run before a few audiences and they reported that they were confused. I haven't watched the work print yet, so I don't know if there's other differences to explain this, or if they were just dumb, but the solution proposed was voiceover narration. Ridley Scott was not against this in principle, but he wasn't the one writing them, and Harrison Ford was very strongly against them. Still, the movie went out to the theaters with the narration, and that's what Blade Runner was, for a few years.

That's how it was released on VHS too, which is where I first saw it, but by the time DVDs came out, they took the narration back out and released a "Director's Cut" (misnamed as Ridley Scott didn't prepare it), and for many, many years, that's all that was available. The original theatrical edition had been expurgated from the record. They no longer aired it on TV and you couldn't buy it unless you found an old VHS copy around.

For years I was curious about the voiceovers I'd seen once but couldn't remember. What was so bad about them? I was willing to accept that the movie was better without them (I certainly never felt like it was lacking anything) but I still wished I could compare. And with last year's five-disc Blu-Ray edition I finally could: for the first time in decades the original theatrical release, with voiceovers, is available.

Yesterday during my final swine flu sick day I watched it, and the first thing to strike me is that there aren't that many voiceover lines. Maybe ten in the whole movie. While they don't add anything beside explanations that aren't needed, they don't really detract, either. I didn't feel the movie was particularly better with or without them. By the law of subtraction (if you can do without something you should) they ought to be removed, but it doesn't seem like a big deal that someone should take such a fierce stand about. Expurgating that version is a vast overreaction.

(Spoiler warning for the following paragraph.)

With one glaring exception. At the very end, there's a voiceover that completely cheats to give us an unearned happy ending. Deckard reveals, out of the blue, that for no adequately explained reason and in complete contradiction to everything the movie established earlier, Rachelle is a "special" model with an unlimited lifespan. That line needs to go. Deckard survived and got out with Rachelle, and that's enough happy ending for this movie.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Staying home again

I went back to work yesterday and was mostly all right, except a stretch in late morning when my head was swimming and I desperately felt like I needed to lie down. It was hard to focus both in the literal sense (my vision was swimmy) and figurative sense (I couldn't really bring myself to work on anything). This passed after a couple of hours, but I felt sure a nap would have done wonders. (Maybe I should just not have done my fifteen minutes on the exercise bike, in fact.)

Stay home if possible when you are sick. Visit for more information.Since I am plentifully supplied with sick leave since I almost never get sick, and there's nothing particular going on at work that can't miss a day, I decided to err on the side of a quick recovery and stay home again today. So far, I haven't had that sense of wooziness today, so I probably would have been fine to go to work, and that means I'll probably be fine tomorrow. (And I haven't had a fever since last Wednesday so I'm not contagious, the CDC assures me.)

A coworker mentioned that she'd heard a lot of people with this year's flu (still don't know if it's H1N1 or just a seasonal flu) felt better after a couple of days and then backslid. I didn't ask if it was the same kind of symptoms (just a wave of tiredness, nothing else), but given how anecdotal her story was, I don't know what it would have told me. I also heard a lingering cough is common, but I always have lingering coughs after any cold or flu, so that probably won't make a difference to me. Honey tea and cough drops in plenty will get me through.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Insufficient system resources

Back in the bad old days of Windows 95, 98, and Me, we used to have to carefully consider the usage of system resource handles (user and GDI) even more carefully than we worried about memory usage. Tech support people repeated often the canard that most of the time when people talked about their system being out of memory it was really resource handles they were running out of. After all, you could buy more memory, but not more handles.

Then Windows 2000 promised to rid us of that problem, and we blissfully set it behind us. The heap from which resource handles were allocated was not only a lot bigger, it was also handled dynamically a lot more efficiently so you should have no need to worry about handles. And for many years, there was much rejoicing.

Without a lot of fanfare, the resource problem has crept back into the world, and since it's been sneaky, a lot of people who suffer from it -- even tech support workers who became intimately familiar with the problem a decade ago -- don't realize that that's what's happening. It's not that XP, Vista, or even Windows 7 have reintroduced the limited resource heap of Windows 95. It's just that, spoiled with having plenty of room and no serious limits, programmers have become even more sloppy and undisciplined than they were back in the old days. As resource usage has grown and programs have gotten worse at cleaning up after themselves, the vastly larger and more efficient heap of Windows 2000, once seen as nearly inexhaustible, can now be exhausted in a single day's work.

By far the greatest villain of the piece is Firefox, and this is why this problem has become painful for me: back in May I switched from Opera to Firefox and it wasn't immediately obvious that that's why I started having problems whenever my computer stayed up and running for more than a few days. Usually, I reboot every morning and evening as I move my laptop to and from work, except on the weekends, when it might stay up three days straight. But after a couple of months, three days proved too long: I started having mysterious program crashes, error messages, and screen redraw problems. As of a month ago, I couldn't go a whole day without having this happen, and I was resigned to a daily reboot.

I finally got fed up and did some research online, and discovered the hidden resource handle problem. Some sources are saying that most users are having these problems and don't know it, and most of those "does a reboot fix it?" problems are really just resource handle problems. A registry hack increases one of the pools and offered me some temporary relief, but what really did it was using Process Explorer to watch what programs were using a lot of resources, and it was eye-opening.

Firefox with only a handful of extensions starts with 300-400 GDI objects, but open and close a few tabs and it balloons to 800 almost instantly. Those objects, once allocated, never seem to be freed. A few hours of use and you can easily see 1500 objects or more. Close Firefox, open it again, and reopen the same tabs, and that drops to 400 once more. In fact, closing and reopening Firefox every few hours will more than double how long my computer can go between reboots.

There's no reason it should be this way. A properly written program will return resources it's not using with precisely the same regularity as it allocated them in the first place, so its resource usage remains mostly constant. Forté Agent, for instance, holds steady at around 500 no matter what I do with it, for days at a time. Closing and reopening it does nothing to improve my system performance since it's already cleaning up after itself nearly perfectly.

But Trillian, Feedreader, zMUD, and by far the worst, Firefox, are hideously wasteful about resources. Closing and reopening these programs periodically make a very evident improvement in my system performance and delay the time when I need a reboot until I can keep my computer up through the whole weekend. In fact, being home sick last week, I had my computer up with two reboots for a solid week.

So if you're having mysterious problems with your computer which get worse as time passes between reboots, and which clear up on a reboot, check your resource usage or just try closing and reopening programs. And if you're a developer, by all that's holy, fix your programs already. Freeing resources is first-semester stuff. You're not too good to handle the basics.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Blind Watchmaker

Just before heading to Carnage 12 I finished reading another Richard Dawkins book I got last Christmas, The Blind Watchmaker, but I'm only just getting around to reviewing it (despite posting one article about it already).

In a way, The Blind Watchmaker is a better book to be someone's first Dawkins book than the others I've read, The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype, for the very reasons it was less compelling to me. It's more targeted at the reader who has given very little thought to evolution and what it means, and more focused on a string of counter-arguments to the various misimpressions and criticisms of evolution than it is on any coherent exploration of any particular topic.

Dawkins posits it as a discussion on the common theme of how evolution is not random, despite the misimpression people have gotten from the inclusion of the random factor of mutation, and therefore, how the evidence clearly supports evolution. But my feeling on reading the book is that it's more of a hodgepodge of chapters addressing one and then another counterargument, along with lots of explanation and supporting evidence, which build up a fairly good case for the person whose knowledge of evolution is limited to the half-baked impression they got in eighth grade science class plus the spoon-fed factoids in the media. In the process it never quite gels into a structured argument made step-by-step. There was never a moment when I felt like we'd reached a conclusion.

For someone who hasn't thought all this through, who is willing to believe in evolution or who does believe in it but doesn't really understand it, this book would probably give more of a sense of coherence because of the sheer power of its many arguments and examples. It would arm them with a much more firm understanding of a lot of the most poorly-understood things about evolution which would in turn give them the arsenal to counter the ill-informed criticisms made by the opposition.

For instance, quite a lot of the book addresses, from different angles, the (to my mind odd) assertion that the eye is an example of something that couldn't evolve by a series of individually valuable steps, because it's too complex. (This one has always seemed especially odd because pretty much every intermediate step from photosensitive single-celled organisms on up still exists in the world. Wings seem a better point to argue about, not that they're a good counterargument or anything, but at least I could see where you're coming from.)

As with the other Dawkins books I've read, this one is chock full of interesting and fascinating stories about the natural world, which are enough reason to read it on their own. Dawkins also has a light and playful tone which never fails to entertain.

In all, I would heartily recommend the book to anyone who has an interest in the subject, but for whom something like The Selfish Gene might be a little too dry or technical. (Though after this, they'd probably be ready for The Selfish Gene.) And I'd certainly recommend it to anyone who is either on the fence about evolution (or who at least thinks that the criticisms might have some scientific merit), or who needs to marshal their arguments against those criticisms.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Someone's got to be the villain

Today in the news:
The Russians are angry. Apparently, they did not like how the controversial airport massacre level in Activision's blockbuster game [Modern Warfare 2] was named the "No Russian" mission. To express their anger, they have ordered the recall of all the console versions of Modern Warfare 2 (Xbox 360, PS3, and PC) from their store shelves. The said level has got the Russian gaming public in an uproar, along with a number of their politicians. They raised protest over how the Russian armed forces were depicted as a bunch of terrorists who came and invaded the United States, and putting up statues of dead terrorists all over Washington D.C.
This kind of thing happens all the time and it's always the USA taking the blame for casting someone else as the villain, whether in a movie, a video game, a book, or something else. It's always some kind of veiled insult, some grand statement about the political situation, or a campaign to erode public opinion and poison minds.

But for every action blockbuster with a Russian villain, how many are there with an American villain? For every time the Russian government is behind attacks on civilians, how many times is the American government attacking its own people for shadowy purposes? And if it's not the American government, it's an American greedy businessman, or a cabal of dirty cops, or a rogue mass media mogul, or something else. There's not a single part of our own culture we're not eager to press into service as the villain, whether misguided but well-intended, truly malevolent, or somewhere in between. Heck, even when the villains are outsiders, there's usually someone inside, some seemingly loyal American in a position of trust, working with them.

And given how much we love ourselves, the Russians should probably take it as a compliment when they get to be the villains again. Okay, I'm being glib, but seriously, how exactly is it poisoning anyone's minds against the Russians that on one day they're mowing Russians down with bullets, and on the next, they're doing the same to Americans, or aliens, or whatever happens to be in the crosshairs in that particular game?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Asteroids Deluxe repair

A few months ago I got an original coin-op Asteroids Deluxe game which is "on the blink" so I could gut it and build a MAME system inside it, because the coolest thing to build a MAME system in is a real arcade cabinet with its original goofy garish 80s art.

But building a MAME system will take a while, particularly because of the control panel question. If I could just buy a control panel that had the controls I want, it would be a weekend or two of work: put a computer in, mount a monitor, tack up wires, install the control panel, set up the software.

But there is no one control panel that does the job. At first you might think if they just cram a few joystocks, a trackball, a knob, and a bunch of buttons on there, you're fine for most games, and indeed a lot of people go that way. But too many games won't quite work. First, Tempest is disproportionately important and it needs a particular knob front and center. If you start talking about other games with unusual controllers that need to be included, you can start getting a very crowded panel where you can't reach the buttons from the other control, or the arrangement is counterinstinctual, or it's just too crowded. But the real sticking point is joysticks: some games need a four-direction joystick (try playing Make Trax with an eight-direction one!) and some need eight (Robotron needs a matching pair!) and some need more-than-eight, and you can't substitute.

So for the time being until I can figure out whether I can do a modular solution or something else, I thought I could get the Asteroids Deluxe game itself to work, but it's got some odd problems that make it almost, but not quite, functional. So I posted my problems on CoinOpSpace Forums. They didn't help except by accident: in the process of trying to figure out someone's recommendation, I stumbled upon a self-test in the service manual which pointed me to a particular chip that's failed. I'm currently looking to order a replacement, as well as some parts to rebuild the power supply in case there's a problem there too.

That forum, it turns out, is one of those self-selecting, self-reinforcing zealotry hotbed communities, where their holy crusade is that original coin-op games are sacred and must be preserved in their original form. Many of these guys (and I'm fairly sure that is not a generic gender usage, I haven't seen any sign of any females there) have a dozen or more arcade games in their garages, and spend more time on repair, refurbishment, and restoration than playing them. They treat the idea of building a MAME system inside a real arcade game cabinet like I'm proposing painting poker-playing dogs at the Last Supper. It's hard to exaggerate their fervor for comic effect without them topping the exaggerated fervor with the real stuff. I wonder if one day there will be people scrounging parts to preserve original iPhones with their original software, and howling at people that use them as kitschy retro cases for their personal supercomputers.

However, they do raise an interesting point. Here in the remote parts of central Vermont it's even harder to lay hands on an original Tempest machine than it is for the cityfolk (and Tempest games are a holy grail for a lot of people), but if I could get one and keep it working, it might be better than trying to cram it into a MAME system, because there would be no compromise at all about the controls. The downside, though: it's harder to keep an original Tempest game working than a MAME machine. The vector monitors are hard to find, to say nothing of the original chips, circuit boards, and power supplies. Still, if a chance to get a Tempest game came to me, I'd take it. Maybe I should start watching for them. There's no question I'd have to travel to get one, though. The odds of finding one near here are nearly nil.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Flu recovery

My fever was down to 99 by yesterday morning and I haven't registered one since then. (Though I'm still not 100% confident in my digital thermometers. But I seem to get better results if I don't turn it on until the thermometer is firmly in place.) I've felt almost wholly better since yesterday too: I get tired more easily than usual, but not so much that I couldn't do things if I needed to. (I'm still taking it easy, though. More time is saved by not rushing recovery.)

The cough is going to linger for a few more weeks which is the worst part, but I had an intermittent cough even before this, so that's nothing new. As of today it's feeling like it's almost a productive cough, almost, but not quite. But the dry scratchy kind is almost familiar. Actually, I've had a persistent intermittent cough my whole adult life, and no one has ever explained it. Maybe I just dry out faster. Maybe it's from the years of undiagnosed reflux. Maybe it's secondary smoke damage. Maybe it's psychosomatic.

On Tuesday I tried to find out if something like Tamiflu might be a good idea, but I was dubious from the start because I was already feeling 80% better and expected to feel 95% better by Wednesday morning (which in fact I did). So the only point was "maybe it can hasten my recovery." But things got out of hand. My doctor's office is using some kind of one-size-fits-all "decision tree" which ignores whether I'm already well into recovery, and prescribes Tamiflu based on nothing more than my BMI. What's really puzzling about this is the CDC's recommendations do not even mention BMI or weight. While Tamiflu's most common side effects seem fairly tame, given how little it's likely to help my already-mostly-complete recovery (in particular it probably won't ease the lingering cough, which is pretty much all I have left already), it doesn't seem worth the risk. So I overrode my doctor's office's phoned-in (in more than one sense of the phrase) prescription.

I had been planning on taking today and tomorrow off anyway, so now I'm doing it on sick leave instead of personal leave. My employer's policy is no going to the office until it's been 48 hours since you didn't have a fever, so next week is the soonest I could have returned anyway.

Too bad I'll never know if it was H1N1 or original-recipe.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Your d12 cries itself to sleep

It's been a long time since I've regularly, or even occasionally (outside of cons), played any roleplaying games that use my whole set of dice. But even back in the days of AD&D, that poor little d12 never got nearly as much use as the other dice.

So I found myself thinking about the idea of a game designed explicitly to use the d12, and one idea jumped right out at me. Imagine a game in which your characters played the followers of Pythagoras.

He and his followers believed the five Platonic solids, which roleplayers know as the d4, d6, d8, d12, and d20 (the d10 is not a true Platonic solid since its sides are not regular polygons), were associated with the four elements and thus reflective of a fundamental connection between geometry and the structure of the universe. But wait, there's five Platonic solids and only four elements. How does that match up?

The tetrahedron (d4) was fire, the cube (d6) was earth, the octahedron (d8) was air, and the icosahedron (d20) was water, but what about the dodecahedron (d12)? It didn't seem to fit. (One could make a case that the real odd man out should be the tetrahedron. The d6 and d8 are "opposites": connect the centers of the faces of either one to get the other. The d12 and d20 are opposites in the same way. But the d4 is its own opposite. Still, this didn't occur to the Pythagoreans, or if it did, they didn't make much out of it.)

They concluded the dodecahedron was the mysterious fifth element, or "quintessence" (which literally means "fifth element"), of which the stars themselves were made. At various times the fifth element is associated with spirit, with the forces of creation, and with other mystical concepts, and is never very well defined. Most importantly, the Pythagoreans concluded that the existence of the dodecahedron needed to be kept secret from the rest of the world. Only the elite priesthood of mathematicians could be trusted with the knowledge of the dodecahedron and the fifth element. (They treated the square root of two, and the proof of its irrationality, the same way.)

So imagine a game in which they're right: the Platonic solids really are the underlying truth of creation, and the mystical powers of the dodecahedron are too great a secret to be entrusted to anyone. As the sole keepers of the secret, the Pythagoreans -- the player characters -- wield the power of creation (which means they alone get to roll d12s in the game). Everyone else is limited to only the main four elements (and their corresponding dice). Their mission is to ensure it stays that way: to find and quell any opportunity for the secrets of creation to fall into the hands of those incapable of using them responsibly. The unwashed masses who don't understand pure mathematics, in whose hands such forces would inevitably lead to destruction and chaos, no matter their intentions.

It's pretty goofy, and the gimmick feels gimmicky, and those unfamiliar with the history of geometry might find it uncompelling (a joke you have to explain is no joke at all); but I think it could be made to work. If I just had some time with nothing better to do than flesh it out.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Venusian Death Flu

I've had a sore throat and cough for about three weeks now, but with no other symptoms of a cold or flu, I dismissed it as easily explained. It all started when I had acid reflux one night and burned my throat, gradually got better until I had reflux again, and the same a third time. No sniffles, stuffiness, fever, etc. so I figured it was just that. And it probably was.

This weekend I went to Carnage 12 without any worry that I might be contagious -- if I did think I were, I would have cancelled, despite taking a bath on registration and hotel fees, because it's not right to go make other people sick if you know you can avoid it. Now I wonder if maybe I had slipped into being contagious and didn't realize because the cough and its explanation masked the new development, in which case, maybe I got other people sick. Either that, or maybe I picked something up at the con and it just incubated fast.

Whichever it went, overnight Saturday into Sunday morning, I went very abruptly into flu symptoms. Getting up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom I was dizzy enough I had to watch my step so I didn't bump into things. By morning I had a headache and very probably a fever (though I hadn't brought a thermometer with me to check) in addition to the cough and stuffy nose. The headache and dizziness suggested the possibility of flu instead of cold, but no way to be sure. Fever is the most reliable tell-tale between cold and flu.

We still went to our brief morning game on Sunday and by time we got home (a few hours early) I was convinced I was sick, enough to mark myself off for the whole week. (With the buzz about H1N1, my employers have a strict "don't come to work if you're sick" policy, with which I wholeheartedly agree. Plus I have an embarassingly huge amount of sick time, and this week is as good a one as any for me to be out, so why not?)

Stay home if possible when you are sick. Visit for more information.My fever has been up and down since, usually low or absent in the morning, building back up by evening. Every day I feel better than the previous, but it's that kind of tentative better that means, sitting here typing, I feel 80% of normal -- just a headache and a tickle in the throat that isn't even a cough -- but if I got up and walked around, I would wear out very fast and backslide.

No idea whether this is H1N1 or just a regular seasonal flu. This is the first year I haven't gotten a seasonal flu vaccine, because today was the day I got scheduled for one, the schedule happened to be late in my area, so I guess I won't be able to get that. Still trying to decide if I should ask my doctor for Tamiflu.

I sure hope I didn't infect anyone at the con.

Monday, November 09, 2009

RealTime and independent press

Last winter I wrote about publishing my roleplaying game RealTime, the rules-light game that's played in real time and simulates things like 24 with a level of intensity and immediacy that roleplaying games rarely if ever achieve. My explorations of another indie game, Solipsist, made me start to think it might be possible if I could find an artist who would work on commission. But when my attempts to find an artist fell through and then I got really busy at work in spring and summer, it just got forgotten.

At Carnage 12 this weekend past, I saw and played several independent games, and got both encouraged and discouraged about the idea of reviving that effort.

On the encouragement side, I saw and played in several independent off-beat roleplaying games, and those games were well-attended. Part of that is the reputation Charlton Wilbur has garnered, which I would have to earn over the course of years by being more visible at more cons, and probably by doing more mainstream things to get people to believe in my abilities as a GM so they'd be willing to take a chance on me doing something odder. But maybe there's more market for people to go to a con session with an off-beat independent game than there used to be; not only Charlton's games did well.

In fact, Charlton told me about JiffyCon, a one day semiannual mini-convention dedicated to independent press games. It's a little far away from me but I might want to consider going anyway. (Though not the next one, since it's this coming Saturday, and I'm still exhausted from Carnage and suffering the Venusian Death Flu.) Maybe the combination of some street cred earned at other cons with being at that one might get people to show up for my game and give it a try.

And several of the independent games I saw were also being run and sold by their makers, and at prices that suggest I could cover costs. (I'm not looking to make any real money; if I can cover costs and pay an artist, I'm fine, and if I get a few bucks left over, that's gravy. But since price per copy depends entirely on size of print run, you have to think in terms of profit just to avoid taking a bath.)

On the downside, though, some of the people who were running and selling their own games came off as a little desperate, even verging on tacky. I'd hate to get to where there was $1000 worth of books in my garage pressuring me to make sales so much that I felt I had to flog my work at cons, especially since I'd be an even worse salesmen than those I saw (and they were pretty bad).

My feelings about Solipsist also give me pause. I'm convinced that there's a lot of things about that game that need to be mentioned, or explained better, in the book, but which the author doesn't realize are needed because they're clear to him, perhaps based on familiarity with some other game I haven't played. Worse, my attempts to make this point always get deflected by the true-but-irrelevant fact that the background of Solipsist is very weird and different, so any time you don't seem to get something, those who do just dismiss it as the one-size-fits-all "well, you have to get your mind around the idea", they lump you with tactical-game-influenced people who don't get anything without experience points, and your concerns are overlooked, to the detriment of the game. While I've made every effort to avoid having RealTime fall prey to that problem, how do I know I'm not going to be that same person?

Really, I just want to see RealTime given a fair shake. I think it's a really unique game, and that it does what it sets out to do, and that when I played it it was exhaustingly exciting fun. But there's so much noise in the world of "I wrote my own roleplaying game" that there's no way for anyone else to know if I'm really a gem amidst the dung, or just more dung. Or even for me to really know.

It will be a huge amount of time invested to give RealTime the full rewrite it needs, write and run a few more adventures, and then push hard to get other people to try playing in it at cons and even running it. If I felt sure that the game's quality would be the determining factor for whether it got noticed, I'd do it, no question. I have confidence in the game and in my ability to refine it. But I think it falls on my own ability to be personable and well-known at least as much. So maybe I should just let it fall to the side again.

Of course, if I can't find an artist who can do a few drawings and then get paid per copy sold, instead of in advance, it's a moot point. Where are all the desperate, starving artists trying to flesh out their portfolios and earn their reputations?

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Carnage 12 report

Carnage 12 has become a bigger convention with more things of interest to us than in past years, perhaps in part because of absorbing some of the roleplaying that went on at Bakuretsucon and Lorecon. Though the miniatures and boardgames parts seem to also have grown a lot.

Of six sessions, we spent three in games run by the same GM, Charlton Wilbur. We've played in his games at several previous area conventions, so we know we like his style and that he has the knack of pacing con games and explaining stuff in a way that gets us over the hump of learning a system and into having fun very smoothly. Plus he always brings us to stuff we haven't done before, which is a lot of what we go to cons for: experimenting with games I couldn't readily try at home. This time, all three of Charlton's games were GM-less collaborative storytelling games.

The first was the Committee for the Exploration of Mysteries, a Baron von Munchausen style game set in the cliffhanger pulp genre. My favorite part: we needed to decide at the start what the secret was we'd uncover when we finally reached the Tomb of the Crystal Skulls, and I threw a real curveball out of nowhere: the people who vanished from Roanoke were there. Everyone liked it, and while it didn't come up until the last scene (I tried to set up chances to foreshadow it, but they never panned out) it played out very well. The game was a lot of fun and it was surprisingly easy to get into the swing of taking turns being the one framing scenes.

The second game was the Shab al-Hiri Roach, in which a small New England university in 1919 is host to an ancient Sumerian roach which controls minds to spread mayhem and destruction. Our characters are professors vying for tenure in the backstabbing politics of academe, and for a while we got plenty of entertainment without the roach even entering into things, as we accused each other of wild sexual deviances, vied to undermine each other's academic standing, and pushed workload onto one another. The game soon became a web of intrigue with a surprising amount of discussion of shocking sexual practices between professors, coeds, the entire football team, the local police chief, and various others, most of whom ended up dying in scandalous murder-suicides or mysterious fires. My favorite part: the physics professor forced to teach first-year mathematics to students who used interpretive dance to express their feelings about mathematical concepts.

In the third game, Geiger Counter, we simulated a survival horror game in which a green slime-mold creature invaded an explorer spaceship and devoured the entire crew. As often happens on Sunday morning games, most of the players didn't show up, so with only three players the game went very quickly. My favorite scene had no characters in it: the awful green thing was oozing through the ductwork under the floors into the engine room, but was repelled by the vibrations of the ship's crystalline engine. Of three PCs, only one died (though the entire rest of the ship's nameless crew was devoured).

We played one "safe bet" game, Tyler Dion's GURPS Ghostbusters game, which was a blast. A new Ghostbusters franchise in Boston is assigned to deal with manifestations at the Flynn Theater in Burlington before a new play opens up. My favorite moment was one of our several attempts to figure out how to exorcise a demonically-influenced thespian without killing him (though we all wanted to kill him anyway). Responding to the idea of a holy water enema, I suggested a holy saline water IV would be better, but none of us knew first aid. However, there was the ghost of a UVM medical student in the theater... perhaps we could convince the ghost to guide someone's hand as they put in the needle. Unfortunately, we didn't get to do that, but fortunately, my idea to crib a scene from Ghostbusters II panned out.

The other roleplaying game slot could have been another GURPS game of Tyler's, but we decided against it because we know GURPS, we know the setting he used and have played in it before, we know Tyler, and it's another safe bet. Instead. we took a chance on a spaghetti western (not a genre we know that well; I've only seen four westerns and none of them really spaghetti westerns) using an unfamiliar game called WHAP. It turned out that the GM was the game's author, and he was too eager to promote the game and his wife's game, but what was really a pity was that the game system itself didn't run well even when being run by its author. It had some very egregious mechanical difficulties, and even with the spit-and-bailing-wire of the GM making up rules and amendments on the fly, it still didn't quite work. I could have forced myself into the game more and made some fun anyway, but some tummy distress interfered and I just let it slide. At least my tummy chose a bad game in a genre that isn't my favorite to act up. Still, it makes me want to do a spaghetti western right, and I feel sure that even having seen very few westerns, and without a rule system allegedly tailored to it, I could do better with minimal prep. Oh well: if the point of playing at a con is to take risks in order to experiment with unfamiliar games, you have to take a few stinkers.

We didn't make either of the board games we signed up for, but both were first thing in the morning, so they were almost a sure thing to miss anyway, the timing being so tight (and we didn't get a room at the resort itself, they were sold out). But we did get a very fun pick-up game of Ticket To Ride, a board game of building a railroad system across the United States, which was very fun. It also had the unusual property for a board game that it would probably work fine with two people, so it's now on my wish list.

I was very pleased to find they had printed the spreadsheet grid I made (to help me figure out what was at the same time as what, across all game types) to use to help other people figure out what to join. (They might have asked or told me though! But it's still nice. Hopefully they'll produce a grid like that as part of their own materials next year.)

We'll probably go next year, and maybe I'll see about running something. I haven't GMed at a con in years, and got discouraged because my games (which were less offbeat than Charlton's!) often got no players. Maybe I'm ready to try something more mainstream... or to get Charlton's blessing so I can run something less mainstream and still attract people.

Oddly, for once I didn't bring enough dice. Usually I bring a ton of dice and then only use 3d6 or maybe no dice. And this time, lots of fuzzy storytelling games. And yet I was short dice in every session. Go figure. My nice new sunburst dice were very pretty and I like them, but I've got plenty more where those come from...

The dealer room was surprisingly small for a con as big as Carnage apparently is. Maybe for the best, since I didn't spend much money there. (I might have bought Ticket To Ride if the prices were a little less thoroughly uncompetitive with Amazon. I really try to cut the local sources every break, but when we're talking $50 instead of $38, that's too far.)

Friday, November 06, 2009

Heading to the con

There won't be a real blog post today because I'm packing to head to Carnage 12. There probably won't even a placeholder like this the next two days because a) I'm probably going to be way too busy, and b) I don't think they even have wifi where we're going. (Shocking!)

This is the first time for putting Socks up for boarding, so a two-day dry run for our upcoming trip to D.C.

Thursday, November 05, 2009


When I was a kid in the seventies and early eighties, it was common to see mimeographed, and later photographed, things being passed around workplaces and brought home. Usually these were jokes, often about the trials of work (being overworked and underappreciated), though the ones most likely to interest me were puzzles -- at the time there was a lot of "Wacky Wordies" puzzles and acronym expansion riddles going around. Occasionally it was a particularly amusing Erma Bombeck article, or some kind of "inspirational" cartoon.

But what they all had in common was that the means of distribution was photocopying or mimeographing, and you could effectively date them by how terrible the copy was, since they would usually be pretty terrible due to being copies of copies of copies of copies, and done on crappy copiers (by today's standards). Mimeographs were even worse.

By the middle nineties those had all but entirely vanished, replaced by the forwarded email where the first ten screenfuls were the lists of all your grandmother's friends, and their friends, and their friends, and so on. And at that point, there was a slight change of content: jokes (usually weaker ones) were still common, but "inspirational" stuff became far more common (and usually sappier), and of course we had the addition of a lot more scams, hoaxes, urgent warnings, and chain letters.

Nowadays, that urge to share anything amusing or interesting with your friends seems most likely to show up in Facebook and Twitter. The quality and kind of what we're sharing is still changed, but probably not as changed as the delivery medium's changes might suggest.

I had all this brought to my attention because someone has photocopied an article and taped it to the office refrigerator, but it's not some kind of warning about washing your hands, or entreaty to participate in something. It's solely there because it's supposed to be funny. (It's a retread of the old jokes about how there are no calories in broken cookies, published by Stephen King for some reason.) And what was really striking is that someone shared it with us by a means that used to be common, but today, feels really anachronistic, strikingly out of place.

I wonder what we'll be doing to share our amusement in ten years, but even more, I think about what preceded the mimeograph age (or at least the time when mimeographs and photocopiers became ubiquitous and inexpensive enough to be wasted on cartoon jokes). Seems like if there was a real sea change it was then: those mimeographs are more like today's Facebook posts than the retelling-of-jokes face to face that's probably the only analog to precede the mimeographs. We're used to the idea that any social or cultural thing changes faster now than it used to, and computers always speed things like that up, but I think the mimeograph is a forgotten harbinger of a bigger change than we realize.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Waning of cultural decades

If someone mentions the Sixties, you immediately get some very clear, very striking, very consistent, and very strong images and impressions about cultural elements. Hippies, the peace movement, the Age of Aquarius, experimental drug use, the Summer of Love, and the invention of what is now called "classic rock" are all very firmly associated with the Sixties, so strongly that you could easily allude to any of them just by referring to the decade. (As I wrote once before, the calendar decade and the cultural decade are offset by 2-3 years, but that's beside the point.)

You can probably find similar associations for the other decades on either side. The Fifties bring up ideas of poodle skirts and greasers, unrestrained optimism in the promise of technology and industry, chrome fins on everything, and doo-wop music. The Seventies suggest fads like pet rocks and mood rings, disco, advancing into stronger drugs, and an all-pervasive superficiality and shallowness. Keep going through other decades and filling in your own answers.

But the farther you get from the Sixties, the weaker the associations get, particularly as you advance to more recent times. We can talk about the Eighties as the decade of MTV and Reaganomics and unrestrained capitalism and greed, but it doesn't seem to gel as well as the Seventies did, let alone the Sixties. And trying to talk about the Nineties is even blurrier. We could say that the Nineties are the decade of the Internet, of more global and environmental awareness, and a few other things. But the answer always ends up far more vague and less compelling than the Sixties, or it ends up being very personal -- what the Nineties mean to you, not what they mean in themselves the way the Sixties have a clear meaning.

How much of that is because it's more recent, so we don't have as much distance from it, as much time for the imagery to coalesce and distill down to essentials, or because we experienced it so it's harder to reduce it to a few archetypal images? Certainly some of it, but I think that even if you subtract that out, there's more to it. After all, the Thirties or Forties are almost as blurry as the Eighties or Nineties, and that's not all because they're far enough away to become history instead of culture.

Maybe that's all it is: someone born ten years after me will always find the Seventies the most clearly-defined decade because it's all about the "sweet spot" relative to one's own birth. But I doubt it. My suspicion is people born in 1997 will never think of the Nineties as having as strong a character as the Sixties do now, and have for most of my life. I think even after you subtract out these various factors, it remains that the Sixties just had more of its own character that can be described concisely but powerfully. And more recent times are more blurry because it's a larger smear of many smaller events due to the world's increasing informational interconnectedness, so there may never be another Sixties or Seventies again, at least not in the immediate future.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Replicating molecules

I'm currently reading The Blind Watchmaker and no doubt I'll post a full review when it's done. So far, a lot of it covers ground that is familiar for me, extending it but not providing any big breakthroughs of understanding. But one thing really made an impression.

With a lot of things I find my understanding coming from the tiny detail end, and the big picture end, and failing to entirely meet in the middle. I saw this when I was studying computer science. I can understand how AND, OR, and NAND gates work, and have even designed and implemented a circuit that can add a pair of binary numbers of four digits (using eight switches for input and five LEDs for the output) out of these basic components. And I've learned about assembly language, bus addressing, etc. But I can't bridge the gap: I can't quite say I understand how a bunch of combinations of logic gates could become even a simple 6502 CPU. I have every confidence it can, but I couldn't do it.

By contrast, I feel I can bridge the gap between assembly language and high-level programming languages, because of more familiarity. I've actually implemented very simple compilers and interpreters, and I have worked in very low level languages, and seen how to use them to build higher-level languages. So I've taken every step of complexity enough to feel I understand them, I don't just have to assume them. There was a time when I could have written a C compiler in assembly if I had to -- it would have been a gargantuan task, and futile, but knowing that I could was enough.

No doubt if I had spent a couple of years building more complex logic circuits I would have gotten to where I felt that I could, if pressed, have built a very simple CPU, and that, too, would have been enough. But I only did enough of the low level stuff to be exposed to it and then I moved on. My focus was higher-level stuff.

In a very similar way, I feel like I understand a lot about evolution (at least for a well-read layman with a scientific mindset) and how you can get from a very simple creature like a bacterium, and build up from there to very complex creatures like grasshoppers, pigeons, and Eddie Izzard. And from my studies of biochemistry I can understand how molecules form and interact, enough that I feel I have a general idea of how DNA could replicate, and could probably follow a more detailed explanation if one were presented. But there are several gaps that I couldn't bridge myself, and I just have to assume them.

The biggest one is the phenotypic expression: I understand the principle of how genes affect embryonic development by synthesizing different combinations of enzymes and other compounds, but it's dizzying to contemplate how a slightly different sequence of genetic characters on a gene in one spot should cause eyes to be blue instead of brown, amidst the flurry of millions of genes in trillions of cells interacting in quintillions of ways. I just have to believe that there's a path that not only explains how changing that A to a T would have made the eyes brown, but that ensures that all the other molecules involved in making an iris would do their parts, and all the DNA bits that control all the parts of the process would all affect the right parts. How do the molecules know which bit of my chromosome to read when it's time to figure out what pigments to put into my iris? I know that that's the wrong question, but I can't say I grasp the right question in more than blurry terms.

Another one is biogenesis. Evolution is inevitable once you have replicators which can change sometimes, and which can influence their own ability to replicate. But I've always had to take for granted that it's possible to have such replicators form from ordinary randomly-occuring molecules, and supplement this idea with the usual pastiche of facts about spontaneous generation of amino acids in interstellar gas clouds. Dawkins provides a lovely example of one possible way to do that, derived from the works of Graham Cairns-Smith, which really helped me bridge this gap. It's possible that this idea is how it happened, or related to how it happened, but it's not necessary. It's just enough that it shows one way it could have happened, to make me understand how it could in a way that doesn't require me to just accept it.

The example given is crystal formation. Consider crystals, which obviously occur in nature. A crystal is a mineral where the atoms form into neat, orderly patterns, and the reason they do this is very simple, easily understood chemistry. The atoms fall into one spot and not another because that's where the forces balance. That's true of all molecules. Crystals are those molecules where the pattern of where atoms land is repeating, like a tile pattern on a bathroom floor. Table salt is essentially a lattice of right angles with alternating sodium and chlorine atoms at each point, so as another sodium atom wanders by, it will always fall into place at the next point in that three-dimensional grid, thus extending the repeating pattern.

In essence, a bit of a crystal is a replicator because it makes more bits of crystal of the same shape, in the process of it growing. In fact, you can make self-replicating molecules in your kitchen, just by making a super-saturated mixture (heat up some water and add lots and lots of salt, then let it cool while making sure no dust or bubbles get into it) and then adding a tiny grain of salt, which will soon "seed" lots more of the same crystal. It's not much of a stumbling block that the crystal's "growth" doesn't feel like "reproduction" since it's all one crystal: no one thinks algae aren't reproducing when they split and then stick together, and besides, crystals can and do break.

Crystals don't always form perfectly, though. So there is a chance for crystals to "mutate" when an imperfection forms on one side of the growth, and then encourages more growth following the new pattern. And it's entirely possible that such a mutation could have better or worse ability at growing, by being able to attract the necessary atoms and molecules in the nearby area better or worse.

Crystals forming in a water flow (which is where they usually form) might even block up the water, causing the flow to speed up or slow down, allowing more accumulation of sediment of the right type. This is probably happening underground in your backyard. And naturally, any crystal that's better at replicating is likely to start appearing more than others.

Dawkins and Cairns-Smith aren't suggesting that we're made of crystals, or that there's a secret world of crystal lifeforms underground. There's a suggestion that crystals could have formed the environment in which more sophisticated replicators could come to be, so crystal replicators might have been a step towards DNA and cockroaches and Eddie Izzard, but that's not even necessary. It's enough that now I can see how atomic forces I understand can make replicators that can mutate and select. In fact, I already knew about it, it just hadn't occurred to me that crystal growth is replication. So now I feel better about the idea of amino acids (which I know spontaneously generate very easily, and which I know are far more complex than crystal lattices) might do the same thing. If I had the time and motivation I could probably look at amino acids and figure them out and then understand how they could replicate and mutate. It'd be as difficult as writing that C compiler in assembly, and no point since someone else already did, but I'm glad to know that now I understand enough (I think) that I could.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Trolley in a box

The ultra-brief summary of the premise of the new movie The Box reads as follows:
What if someone gave you a box containing a button that, if pushed, would bring you a million dollars… -- but simultaneously take the life of someone you don't know?
Presumably the movie just uses this as a starting point to launch into all kinds of action and twists and suspense and whatnot. I have no idea if it's going to be any good. I'm intrigued.

But as to that question itself, that is the kind of moral dilemma that's never seemed that bad to me. Let's assume that the deal being offered is just as it appears (though in real life one would of course be highly suspicious, but let's assume that's been allayed, as it usually is in things like the trolley problem, which is really what this boils down to.) And let's assume that the person who'll die is randomly selected, not maliciously selected to have a disproportionately big impact, or to affect me personally, etc. (as it probably turns out to be in the movie).

My reasoning is, how many people can I save with a million dollars? If I can find three people who would definitely have died but who I can ensure definitely live because of my application of that million, I press the button. There, done.

Why three? Because I want a nice wide margin of error. What if I save a 50-year-old woman who has heart disease, and the box kills a young woman with a long life ahead of her? Obviously, we're playing the odds no matter what, and it could go either way. If it were one random life for one random life, it's not worth the risk. If it's two for one, it probably is, but I'd want to make sure, so three.

Sure, maybe the person the box kills was going to be a nurse who saved a hundred lives, and the three people I save will turn out to be greedy bastards. But it's just as likely to be the other way around. In fact, given that I have some oversight over who are the three people I save, the odds are on my side here. (Unless the box is actually going to be malicious, not truly random.)

And with a million dollars I have no doubt I could save at least three lives, probably a lot more than three, and have some left over. Maybe the money would be better spent on more infrastructure-supporting things: better to buy something that will help a hospital save a hundred lives than just definitely save five. But the indirectness of buying a new MRI machine, never being sure that it actually made the difference, means I'd rather make sure I saved three lives unequivocally and then use what's left on more indirect help. (Plus a little bit for me, to buy some new toys or something. I'm not wholly unselfish.)

That some random person is going to die because of me is not a problem. The fact is, we may remain blissfully ignorant of it, but every day, there's a chance something we do could lead to someone's death. If you read that someone got hit by a bus and died this morning, maybe that bus was in that precise spot because of traffic that you were a part of, and if you'd driven a little slower or faster, it would have been a few yards farther ahead or behind. Every effect has a million causes at various levels of indirection, and while we imagine that (in addition to intent) the amount of indirectness is what matters in dulling the ethical imperative, it's usually just the (correlated) amount of ignorance we have of our effect. Life's just like that: every choice you make (or refuse to make) might be leading to things you can't foresee, so what else can you go on but measuring the effects you do know and can evaluate?

But while that would be no comfort to the person the box killed, neither would it be any comfort to the three people that you didn't save with that million if you chose the other way.

I can perfectly well understand why people would recoil from how cut-and-dried I'm being, how I'm treating lives like lines on a ledger. I wouldn't disrespect someone else for not making the same choice, for the idea that the guilt over that one death would haunt them forever, for instance. But this is still my conclusion. Net gain of two lives or more, plus a little cash for me to buy some toys. That's almost a no-brainer.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Halloween at the blood drive

I'm happy to report that at the blood drive yesterday, while one of the phlebotomists was in costume, none of them went for the groaningly obvious ploy of being a vampire. (The costume I did see would probably be titled "gypsy" though I can't be sure.)

The number of people at the blood drive was unusually high, which is doubly unexpected for a holiday and also for it being a very nice day out. This is particularly good at this time of year, since donations drop during the holiday season (blood drives have days off, people feel too busy, the cold weather doesn't help, etc.) while demand tends to rise (more auto accidents, plus all the holiday-related injuries). So while it's always time to donate blood, it's even more important now.

I just started on my sixth gallon (this was pint #41) and it went without a hitch. The phlebotomist even remarked on my six minute fifty-seven second turnaround time which is unusually quick. Siobhan got to the last step before being turned away since her vein dodged, which is really unfortunate: she got all the waiting and all the pain (and then some) but still didn't get to give any blood.

My next drive will be some time after Christmas (my next eligibility date is the day after but there probably won't be a drive that day so I'll have to wait for the next date to be announced).

And that's about the entirety of my Halloween celebration, apart from Siobhan watching It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! out of curiosity about how it holds up to the passing of years. (It just feels scattered and stretched.) I've never really been into Halloween. Just doesn't do anything for me. I wonder why.