Sunday, January 31, 2010

Testing out T1

So far I've mostly just used the T1 to do the same things I usually do, only faster. I haven't even explored the question of whether there are settings I should change in Firefox or any other Internet programs to make better use of the speed.

In Lusternia, the T1's virtually nil latency means I can do things like hunt or map that I could never do from home. These were things I was particularly limited in since I could do them from work, but only with the specters of split attention and unpredictable interruptions looming over them. One can hunt in familiar and relatively safe areas that way, but it's not easy to explore new areas. Now I've been able to do some hunting from home and even a bit of long-delayed mapping (at least until some jerks interrupted it for no reason, but hey, part of playing Lusternia is dealing with jerks).

Combat was right out from work: you need full concentration, and I can't spend my work time on that, so it's not even something I could work on learning. Now that I have a T1 at home, I can start learning, but it's not something I've started yet -- there's a lot on my plate and that's not on the top of the list. (The dealing with jerks thing comes up here too, even more so; some people seem bent on dragging me into combat immediately, not when I'm ready, regardless of the fact that I've never done anything to them. Then again, these are the same jerks who even did that before, from time to time.)

Lusternia also has a few other topics to get into now, like reviving my aetherspace crew, mapping areas I haven't visited, maybe some of the quests, and perhaps even getting involved in events next time they come up. Right now, the Trials of Ascension are happening, but I'm not getting too involved in those. (Not combat-ready enough to compete, nor to get any support from my communemates if I tried; and I got burned pretty badly after trying very hard last year for nothing.) I might dip my foot in the water but I won't really be trying that hard.

I've gotten into SecondLife just long enough to verify that things work and do so fairly smoothly. Before, SL was painful if you were doing anything, but good enough for sitting around or chatting; however, it gobbled up too much of the monthly bandwidth quota so it had to be contained. Not having to think about that quota is perhaps the biggest relief! That said, I might get back into socializing in SL a bit but I haven't had time to kill doing it yet.

I've done some downloading and it's nice to see that go zippy-fast, but that's not glamorous. However, letting NetFlix Watch It Now on the PS3 pull down TV shows and movies straight to the HDTV is pretty spiffy.

I've also moved my old Wildblue site to a new Google site and redirected my URL ( to it, which is the last thing needed before shutting down the Wildblue account.

As time permits, other things I intend to explore include streaming Hulu and YouTube and such to the TV, other online games (like PS3 games, Earth Eternal, and maybe even MMORPGs), voice/video things like Skype and webcams, and I'm not really sure what else.

Saturday, January 30, 2010


I was listening to the Paramore song CrushCrushCrush and thinking, hey, this would be fun to drum, I wish they made it for Rock Band, and then didn't think about it again for an hour. Then I thought, maybe I should go submit it as a request, and again, didn't think about it for an hour while I was busy doing other things. Then I thought about it once more and I went to request it and thought, I should check first if it's there, and sure enough, it is. So I had to buy it.

(So far I've only played it on Easy because I'm trying to adjust to my cymbals and that requires retraining my twitches. But even on Easy, it is fun to play.)

The lead singer of Paramore, Hayley Williams, usually wears her hair in shades of red that do not occur in nature. She has delicate features that have an alien quality about them; she's pretty (despite having almost no figure) but yet she's not pretty because she seems too otherworldly. (And the red hair only exacerbates that.) It seems clear to me that she's a changeling, a fae child swapped for a human child. No surprise she shows musical talent.

If you're not convinced, consider this. Socks, our dog, usually shows no interest in the TV, despite being fascinated by people. However, when there's a dog on the TV she will run over and sniff trying to find it, often putting her nose right up to where the dog is on the screen. She'll respond to other animals though to a lesser extent, and if the creature is heard but not seen she might go to the speaker instead of the TV. Though she finds people fascinating in real life, she shows no interest in people on the TV. However, when I watch videos with Paramore in them, she almost always goes over to sniff at Hayley Williams.

(The exception is "Brick By Boring Brick," in which Hayley has blonde hair that looks distinctively human, and is wearing a dress of a style typical on a little girl; the video conveys some of the air of a fairy tale, and has odd coloration. Socks has no interest in that Hayley, only the redhead-and-variations Hayley.)

Friday, January 29, 2010

T1 is here!

Got home from work last night after an awful drive through terrible weather, debating whether to go back out to trivia and tapas at River Run, with only a few minutes before we had to get going if we were going, and a few things to do. One of them is my daily pilgrimage to check the T1 termination box for lights.

Lo and behold, lights. So I went back upstairs and grabbed my netbook, took it down, and hooked it up. Browsed. Whooosh, up comes Amazon's home page, faster than spitting.

Fairpoint isn't saying it's all done officially yet as they want to do more testing; in fact, that might happen today. So I am reluctant to unwire my Wildblue connection (since it'll be a real hassle to redo it if I have to switch back), and since I can't fit both wires up through the hole in the floor, I can't connect the T1 to my home network. So as a temporary workaround, I ran a pair of long cables, connected together, up the basement stairs and diagonally across the living room. I have to prop this cable up to keep it off the floor so my Roomba and Scooba can clean, and to ensure the dog doesn't chew on it while we're not around, but it works. There is T1-speed Internet in the cable just inches behind me right now, and everything I'm doing online has the kind of speed and responsiveness all you broadbanders take for granted.

Despite this rather amazing development, we still turned around and went out to trivia. Partially it's because I can't start doing all the official switching-over tasks until Fairpoint finishes their testing and says we're good to go, so all we could have done is sit around and try it out and say "oooooooooh!" at everything. And partially it's because we really wanted to try out River Run's new tapas menu (excellent!) and play trivia. (We kept up our team winning streak by tying for the win, and I feel good about being the only person in the place to get the "what's the common theme of these five songs?" question.)

I haven't started doing things that were formerly impossible, as I've been busy with my usual Friday things, but I have been reveling in how responsive everything is. Wheeeeee!

Thursday, January 28, 2010


It's always puzzling to me how Apple can take things that others have done and present them like they're a new thing -- no, that's not the puzzle, everyone does that, what puzzles me is how they get away with it. People sometimes say they take things that have been done badly before and do them well, or take things that were boring and do them sexy, but even that's giving them too much credit. Others have done the same ideas just as sexy, just as polished, and just as well. There's no explanation beside the sheer weight of reputation and marketing muscle, though admittedly that only works because they also go to such lengths to make sure they are always done well, and done sexy.

I find the newly-announced and already-overhyped iPad mildly interesting, but not significantly more so than any number of previous attempts in the same direction. What makes it intriguing is that it seems likely to be a lot lighter and thinner, and the price point is surprisingly good. But it all comes down to what you can do with it. A pretty web browser is a great thing in itself... but if you can't keyboard on it without clicking it into its keyboard dock (which ties you to a location and some extra cost) or laying it flat on a desk (making it ridiculously hard to view) or thumbboarding it (making it barely better than my phone), that eliminates way too many possible uses even for the web browser functionality, let alone any kind of productivity application.

So what does that leave? An overgrown PDA too big to fit in your pocket, basically. It might be nice to watch video on, though I doubt I'd want to hang onto it so that means I have to put it in a stand or something. But it'd be terrible for reading eBooks for the same reasons I've previously noted, that eBooks are one exception to the rule of convergence, since screens that are good for video or interactive content are bad for eBooks and vice versa. (Thus, the iPad is another threat to the advance of eBooks, since a lot of people will insist on using it as one, then bemoan that the eBook concept is flawed since it's uncomfortable to read them.)

The iPad looks like a solution in search of a problem. It'll all come down to the software, of course, and how quickly the massive army of iPhone app developers start making variations specifically for the iPad. But while there's a billion iPhone apps, once you subtract the ones that show a bobblehead of a cat which makes a chirping noise and does nothing, and similarly useless things, the number of apps that do something you actually need done is not that great. But there's just so many apps that you can always find something to do, and probably something to do what you want. How well will that adapt from your pocket, where all you need is a Swiss-army-knife level of quality and applicability to the task, to a tablet, where you need to have something better than your netbook or laptop to be worth it, and enough better than your phone to make it worth dealing with hauling it around?

It all keeps coming back to input methods. Multitouch is a nice gimmick, but like Graffiti, and voice recognition, and touch screens, and virtual keyboards, it's not the solution we need to take something like the iPad (or any other portable technology) into the indispensability that it wants to reach. The ugly truth is, QWERTY still rules only because we don't have anything better yet, at least not something you can put on a battery-powered device you can carry around and which can be manufactured at consumer-friendly prices. Every step we take towards portable technology will either ignore QWERTY at its peril, or incorporate it and thus feel like an incremental improvement only, until someone finally really beats it.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

No news is bad news

By now I was expecting to have been writing about the T1 for at least a few days, or maybe a week, but we're currently stuck in a hazy limbo of nothingness. Not only didn't they get it set up for the weekend, there was no movement on Monday. The card inside the termination box still has no lights on -- that one time I saw lights on Thursday morning was a fluke, apparently.

All we've heard is that they're looking to reroute to another facility to avoid the problems that are causing it to fail, which sounds ominous; yet our contact also seems to think they should have already done it by now, which suggests he thinks it's no big deal (and at the same time suggests that since it hasn't, maybe it's bigger than he thinks).

No one wants to talk ETAs, but no one's even raising the specter of the possibility of it not being possible, either. So we're just waiting to hear. Every day, at least once and more often twice a day, I check the T1 box in hopes of seeing lights, and if I do see them I intend to bring down the Eee and see if we have Internet (though even then I won't cut over the house until Fairpoint makes it official). And just waiting. Meh.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Transporter

After watching Night At The Museum 2 we moved on to the next Netflix queued DVD, The Transporter. I know everyone else saw this years ago but we just got around to it. I had no idea what to expect, apart from Jason Statham and action-adventure and Luc Besson; I didn't know if it was sci-fi, modern suspense, time travel, post-apocalypse, or what. And the title didn't afford many clues.

I liked the start. The character of the transporter was interesting in his precision and strength of will, and the very narrow focus of his service and his skills. And it seemed like an interesting setup for all kinds of ways to drag him into stories (though with the regrettable story element of him being unwilling to get into them and having to be forced -- an overused motivational twist that becomes increasingly burdensome the longer the sequels come).

And the resulting story was a solid action-adventure with all the expected elements, plus the usual Luc Besson bits of campy absurdity, such as the overchoreographed fight scenes with the most implausible twists. Somehow, it didn't quite come together for me, though. I never really got drawn in. This is something Luc Besson usually manages for me -- he puts all the ingredients onto the table, but it fails to gel.

It's not like I dislike when the action gets goofy and straddles that line between action and parody of action -- plenty of other movies that sit on that line, including the Die Hard movies, True Lies, and the campiest of all, Last Action Hero, are perennial favorites. I liked the lead character and the police investigator was also well-played. (The female lead was a cardboard cutout MacGuffin, but I expect that from Luc Besson, and the film can survive it.) The story was uninspired but serviceable.

It might have been nice if the transporter's unique skills and precision had proved more central to the movie: it mostly just got him into the plot and then was largely ignored while he was a generic badass action movie hero. That's the only thing I can point to that really strikes me as a let-down. (Though I couldn't help but notice so many similarities in one action sequence to a parallel one in the first Indiana Jones movie that it bordered on being an homage.)

All in all, I don't regret the time I spent, and I will probably give the sequels a try, but it's not going to be on my list of things to periodically rewatch.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Night At The Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian

While the first Night At The Museum movie was cute and vaguely amusing, and I didn't regret half-watching it, I probably wouldn't've bothered with the second one based on the reviews. However, after our visit to the Smithsonian I thought it might be more interesting to see the movie set in so many of the places we saw (and, as it happens, heavily promoted in those places). So I put it on the Netflix queue.

This was definitely a movie without focus, dominated by the urge to shove in everything they could possibly think of that might be interesting. The result is a number of cute and amusing moments, far too many of which are winking at the audience with the deliberately incongruous or the willfully smug. It's a movie made of cotton candy which melts away so fast you hardly realize you've been eating it.

So no surprises there. And no surprises that the glimpses of places I've been and things I've seen, woven into the movie (plus the chance to object that "that wasn't there!" and "that would never fit in that hall", as if those are the things one should object to!) were usually the best parts. Actually, "no surprises" is a good theme for the movie because the plot also had none.

The characters from the first movie were brought along in a largely perfunctory manner, many of them as little more than cameos that served only to slow things down. And it seems silly to say the new characters were two-dimensional farces since that's what they were in the first movie, but in the first movie, it was amusingly done -- they were, after all, animated statues, so why shouldn't they be farcical and simplistic? In this movie, it feels more an artifact of a scattered movie and scattered writers than something going on inside the movie's world.

Another objection that seems goofier than it is, is that they played too fast-and-loose and too arbitrary with the rules of the world. I know, if you saw the first movie you're thinking, what? They could hardly have been more arbitrary, and that was so beside the point. But it turns out they could, and in a way that shifts from "that's not the point of the movie" to "we just did whatever seemed amusing at this moment in the movie" (and ignored it later in the movie too).

On the upside, the locations are great, particularly the all-too-brief time at Air and Space (they didn't even look at the Udvar-Hazy Center so you'll have to settle for Transformers 2 if you want to see that in a movie) and the brief cameo from Apollo 13 in it. The depiction of Amelia Earhart was adorable (and made no effort to be realistic), and the moment when the Tuskegee Airmen thanked her was actually touching. Hank Azaria can't help stealing every scene even when he's been given godawful dialogue and bland mannerisms -- how does he do that? (To be fair, if Ben Stiller is your foil, it is probably not that hard.) Some of the things they do in the art museums are cute (though making Rodin's Thinker a vapid beefcake seems irreverent in the wrong way). And there are a lot of very brief but potent laughs sprinkled throughout.

The first movie was all style and no substance but at least it was cute. The second movie is all glitter and no style. But it's good for a few laughs. Watch it while you're doing something else, because otherwise you'll feel like you wasted two hours.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Rock stars

Pick any common male name: Peter, John, Robert, Joe, Matt, etc., anything that you wouldn't blink at, that you had a few of in your classes at school. Then try to think of some rock stars with that name. Odds are you will be able to think of a few right away, just tapping on the most famous ones, without even straining. Then if you start going over the names of all those bass players and members of less-famous bands you will be able to fill the list out generously.

I'm sure that if you really tried you could do the same even for the name Frank, but it'll probably prove a lot harder than for other names of comparable popularity, or so it seems. Perhaps if I knew more modern bands I would find the rock scene is now replete with Franks, but when I think of classic rock, there's almost no one. The drummer from ZZ Top is named Frank Beard. You can't neglect Frank Zappa, of course, the only real star with that name, but at the same time, Frank Zappa defies categorization so thoroughly he seems to own his own genre. (And surprisingly many people, even rock fans, barely know of him.) And after that... there's just not much. Or if there is, they don't leap to my mind.

I admit I'm being far from scientific, and if this happens to be one of those rare blog posts to get a response, I imagine it'll be people listing rock stars named Frank, most of whom I've never even heard of, with the implied conclusion that there's just as many of them as any other name. Which is probably true. And maybe there's lots of other common names that seem disproportionately uncommon on the rock stage, and I only noticed this one for the obvious reason that it's my name. Do other people even think about questions like this?

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Revenge of electricals

It took about three hours of trial and error, which I did on a Friday so that the lights could be out without bothering Siobhan (and while I could still see by sunlight), but I finally was able to remove the Z-Wave switches that I'd had installed to control my living room lights, and put the manual switches back in. Along the way I learned a lot about four-way switch wiring and how this particular circuit is wired, and I suspect that if I felt confident some four-way switch system would work, I could probably install it myself this time.

Of course I'd have to be pretty confident. Given that, after almost two weeks, ACT Solutions had not even responded to my email, I think I can safely say none of their products are going to be on the list to be considered. I'm not sure if other manufacturers are making a switch set like this, and if so, if they do better in either the quality assurance or customer service venues. I'm going to let this whole situation rest a while before I even consider it, though.

Figuring out the circuit was a bit difficult because there are two different ways a four-way circuit can be wired. But it turned out in the end that the difference is not significant for what I was doing. It would be for putting in the Z-Wave switches because of them needing power but not for the mechanical switches.

It turns out one of the biggest problem I had was figuring out which contact on the switch was which. The diagrams I was going on suggested they'd be in particular places physically on the switches but that was deceptive, and ultimately I needed to use an ohmmeter to figure out the internal wiring of the switch. That's the kind of thing any electrician would take so for granted they wouldn't even realize a consumer might not know, or might not even realize they didn't know.

I had a similarly obvious problem with the connections. These switches have screw terminals and also have a slot into which you can insert the bare end of the wire. It seems that using the slot is not that reliable. I know that electricians rarely use them, but I wasn't sure if they had a good reason for it or if it's just tradition. It turned out at least with these switches it's for a good reason; even with the screws tightened the slots weren't giving a good contact. I probably had the right configuration once or twice and dismissed it because something wasn't making contact somewhere.

When it finally worked, though, I was exultant and triumphant. It's the kind of job that would take an electrician ten minutes, and took me three hours, but I did it, by myself, without even any advice (not that I ever get useful advice when I ask for it about this sort of thing). And I learned a few things along the way.

Unfortunately I have had no such luck on the floodlight. Odds are I could replace either the lamp itself, or the motion sensor, though it wouldn't be easy for me to figure it all out -- particularly while way up on a ladder. But I am not sure how to tell which is the problem. I think I'll just let this whole problem sit until spring when it'll be easier to work on it, and then see if I can open things up and figure out which part is in need of replacement.

Friday, January 22, 2010

T1 for the weekend

The fixing of the last few problems with our T1 line is hanging up mostly because of the cold going around that's hit a lot of Fairpoint's techs, so even though we're escalated, it's still taking a while. Since as recently as last weekend I thought we were a couple of weeks out at best, the delay isn't too hard to accept, but at the same time... a few days ago we were inches away and in theory we're closer but we're still not there and that's frustrating. It would have been great to have the weekend to spend setting things up, but no such luck.

Actually, Fairpoint says we might have T1 over the weekend, it just wouldn't be reliable. Apparently there's rain coming Monday and there's some resplicing that will need to be done to make sure that the rain doesn't interfere with our connection. So they don't want to promise anything before the rain comes.

Yesterday morning there were lights on in the termination box, which was one of the problems that Michael described while he was setting the router up, solved. But the lights were back off when I got home and have been since. I assume that means the problem is still fixed but they're not still pumping signal through because of other things they're doing.

Even if the T1 becomes live today, I probably won't be able to cut over to using it network-wide because I can't run both the Wildblue cable and the cable from the new router at the same time, so I can't switch over until it's all done. Though there might be ways to fake it by using another cable temporarily.

Waiting... waiting... are we there yet? There are so many things to try!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Pistachios redux

After recently discovering I like pistachios I've had a chance to test out the question of how much of it was due to the quality of the pistachios, by trying three levels of pistachio quality. First, the Wonderful Pistachios which are top quality; second, bulk Kirkland pistachios sold at CostCo at a considerably lower price; and third, remaindered, and possibly slightly stale, pistachios at a cut rate at Big Lots.

My conclusions are that I like all of them, but I can definitely tell the different quality levels apart. I probably won't buy the Big Lots ones again because they're not enough cheaper to be worth the difference. The Kirkland ones are perfectly adequate, however, even if I can tell how the Wonderfuls are better.

I still can't tell how much of the difference is because of the overall quality difference between now and when I was a child. Back then, pistachios were polluted with awful green dye, and probably the best of them was worse in terms of freshness than the Big Lots ones today, so quality might still be a more important factor than the changing of my own tastes. I suppose there's no way to know, short of time travel. (And if I had time travel I'd have bigger mysteries than that to resolve!)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Close but not quite

The router is now configured and ready, the cables run (except that my cable from the T1 router to the WiFi router is still not run through the floor since the Wildblue cable is still in the way), and everything is set... except the T1's not quite up yet. The very friendly fellow from Fairpoint explained that there are still two issues to be resolved upstream, but that these will probably not require anyone to come back to the house. As of yesterday afternoon he said they might be done as early as last night (which they weren't), but if not, the issue would automatically be escalated to become top of the list today.

Of course while he was very positive, I'm prepared to hear that it's not quite ready and might be a few more days. Heck, there's still a part of me holding onto the "sorry, we can't give you a T1" possibility so it won't be such a crushing disappointment if it comes to that, though I think that's quite unlikely at this point.

But there's still a chance that when I get home tonight, I'll be configuring and running cables and stuff to get our shiny new T1 live. Maybe! And if not, then very soon. We're really, really close.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Sherlock Holmes

Overall my rating of Sherlock Holmes is a solid positive, eight, maybe eight and a half, stars out of ten. There's nothing wrong with it; if I list the elements and try to point at a "this could be better" or "this was missing" I don't find any flaws to highlight. The movie has everything and seems to have done a good job of putting it together. But somehow it didn't quite click into being an "ohmygod I want to watch it again!" movie.

I don't personally get hung up on the whole "Jeremy Brett or no one" thing that some people stick to. While I'm happy to compare one portrayal to another I never felt like one precludes the other, particularly when they're different stories -- watching Downey redo the classic Doyle stories would invite a lot of comparison to Brett (or your other favorite Holmes, whoever that is), admittedly, but a new story featuring familiar characters necessitates less comparison. Downey's roguish Holmes isn't quite Brett's clipped and fastidious one (though Downey's not nearly as roguish as the trailer wants you to think) but I think both of them are consistent with the stories to a reasonable and acceptable extent. (Though deviations from the books can also be fun to me. I've never been the kind of purist who would turn my nose up at the fun of Without A Clue, for instance.)

The trailer does tend to give a misleading impression in several ways and I'm happy to note that the movie did not succumb to the red flags in the trailer. The groaningly awful innuendo designed to play up the rascal side of Holmes is cherry-picked out of a lot of other stuff that shows the rest of Holmes, giving a false impression that hinted at a very shallow Holmes aimed at a least-common-denominator audience. The trailer made Watson out as a cranky second-rate foil to an extent that is not borne out by the movie, where he is fleshed out and sympathetic. The storyline promises to go in directions that don't fit Doyle's Holmes stories but (without spoiling anything) ultimately plays out as within the realm of Holmes (though with a few liberties taken with some of the familiar characters).

One thing that worried me in the trailers were the fight scenes. Not the idea of Holmes fighting -- while Holmes doesn't box in the stories, there are references to him having boxed and been good at it, and also having learned some Eastern martial arts, so it's quite acceptable. Rather, that thing where they switch between regular and slow-motion back and forth in the middle of a single movement, which has been trendy and annoying of late. For once, this technique is not egregious but put to a real, and effective, purpose in the movie, and we see it within the first couple of minutes. In fact, it turns out to be a brilliant solution to the problem of conveying the techniques Holmes is using as he fights.

For two hours twenty minutes, the movie crams a lot of story, a lot of mysteries to be solved, a lot of challenges to be overcome. There's enough here to make two movies easily (and I don't just mean the intentionally dangling threads intended to set up future movies -- just the storylines of this movie could have made two). A few of the mysteries have resolutions that feel a little pat, but only a little. Most of them tie up excellently neatly and in a very Holmesian manner (apart from there being a lot more action than in a typical Doyle story).

I wish I could put my finger on why the movie doesn't quite rise the last few notches from "very good" to "fantastic". Ultimately, I would certainly recommend it to any fans of either the mystery or action genre, but I wouldn't put it on the "must see on the big screen" list -- seeing it at my house will be perfectly adequate.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Electricals are my downfall

In addition to the problem with my four-way Z-Wave switches, I have also been unable to use the lights over part of our kitchen counters for months. It took a long time just to get the bulbs replaced, figure out that wasn't the problem, and conclude it must be the ballast, and then try to figure out how to open the unit up and give up for fear of breaking something. The electrician showed me what screws to undo -- as you'd expect it's terribly easy, but if you don't know, and you undo the wrong thing, who knows what'll come apart you can't put back together. Another couple of months before I could bring it to Home Depot to look for a matching ballast, which I did yesterday, only to find out they don't have them. Next stop is those small local electrical supply shops that are supposed to have more personalized service, but actually just tend to make me feel condescended to and unhelped because of not knowing enough to follow the jargon or ask the right questions.

I did manage to find a replacement bulb for my motion-sensor floodlight. However, I've just swapped it out, and nothing. I can't find an owner's manual for the floodlight, but it doesn't look like there's anything particular I could be doing wrong, or not doing. One of the contacts looks a little corroded but not badly, not enough to completely impede all functionality; I tried scrubbing it a bit, but it didn't help. Once again, I'm at a basic dead end on something that is probably a very simple issue.

Of course the floodlight itself is not a big deal -- I could buy a new one for $25, but could I install it, or would I need an electrician to wire it in at a cost that makes the fixture itself seem like nothing? I can't even be sure that the fixture is the problem. Maybe it's the motion sensor. Maybe I'm putting the bulb in wrong. How frustrating. My multimeter shows no voltage across the contacts.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

ATM fees

Once upon a time, ATMs were a new thing, and lots of people were resistant to them, so the banks kept trying to push people to them, with advertising campaigns and incentives. Back then, it was clear to most people that ATMs were for the benefit of the banks. ATMs were invented specifically to save the banks money on the costs of tellers, and the infrastructure supporting them, and the errors they sometimes make, and the security and safety issues associated with them. ATMs were a boon for banks more than worth the investment of developing and installing them. That they let us get to our money in evenings and weekends was a secondary benefit that the banks used as a selling point to lure us to do what was best for them (not us).

Nowadays ATMs are so ubiquitous that anyone who doesn't consider them the primary way of doing everyday transactions, and tellers as a secondary approach usually used only for unusual transactions. We're entirely used to the convenience of weekends and evenings -- imagine telling a teenager today that we used to have no way to get out cash on a Friday night and see how close it sounds to saying that you used to treat cancer with leeches.

So I almost feel like a curmudgeon to be annoyed at the idea of ATM fees. It just burns my bottom that the banks are charging us to forego tellers, which costs them more. They're counting on the fact that we've forgotten that ATMs are far more for their benefit than ours.

We were considering buying tickets for Sherlock Holmes online today but they charge an extra dollar for it. Again, for whose benefit is this? Sure, it's nice for me to have saved ten seconds -- maybe, since we can't pick up the tickets without going through at least one of the lines at the theater anyway -- and I get to know I have a seat, not that there's really much chance of a sold-out show. But the real point of it is reducing the movie theater's labor costs, and letting them have your money a little sooner. And yet they charge us for the privilege?


Saturday, January 16, 2010

T1 planning

My blog is probably going to be pretty technogeekish for the next little while, as the hopefully imminent T1 is going to occupy my attention.

I ran a network cable from the location where the Cisco router will be, to the hole leading up to the Linksys router. I can't fit the end of the cable up through the hole yet so that will have to wait until I can unwire the Wildblue cable. This is unfortunate; I'd rather have both hooked up at the same time. But I should be able to confirm everything is working on the T1 from downstairs, so I can unwire one and wire the other, and could switch back if necessary. Having both hooked up at once is not worth drilling more holes.

I need to stop at my office and pick up a few things: some brackets to mount the Cisco router, and an RJ45-to-serial cable, which I'll need to configure the router. The Fairpoint guy might be bringing the latter, but better to have one in case he doesn't. I'll also make sure my laptop is ready to be a serial client.

Once he's here, we'll hook the T1 to the router's CSU/DSU and he will configure the router. We can use my laptop (or my Eee) via a network cable to confirm all is working. Once that's done, I will unwire Wildblue and wire the Linksys through, and confirm that it's getting DHCP and working, or if not, change its configuration. That should get us to where all our outbound communications are working.

After that, I have to look at inbound. We have a few inbound things, but none are high priority. I'll get HomeSeer set up and move it to port 80, having to update my bookmarks accordingly. I also have port forwarding to let me get to my Unix system from outside on port 22, and a few other forwarding things set up for file transfers and torrents which I'll want to update. Those have to be set up on the new router to match how they're set on the old router.

I'll also need to force DynDNS to update itself, which it should do automatically, so my entry points to the right place.

After that, we'll have everything working as it does now, just far faster. Some things to consider later:
  • What kind of file transfers will I want to start doing?
  • Will I want to look into webcams or VoIP?
  • In MUDs I play I might consider getting into combat.
  • I wonder how SecondLife will work from here.
  • Do I want to change settings on programs that are currently set to minimal-bandwidth but could be better configured?
  • Do I have any interest in PS3 gaming online?
  • What other Internet applications are there I have always avoided that I should reconsider?

Friday, January 15, 2010

Network plan

When the T1 goes in (currently scheduled for Tuesday, crossed fingers!) the router will be installed in the basement. I will need to decide how to run networking from there on to our computers.

Right now we have the Wildblue modem going into my Linksys wireless/wired router in the living room, and all computers connecting on to that. The simplest solution with the T1 would be to let the T1 router just replace the Wildblue modem. I'd have to run one cable from the basement to where the Linksys router is, and then the Linksys would be a client of the T1 router, and all my PCs would be clients of the Linksys. This would be easy to install and require minimal configuration changes. We could be up and running very quickly. And it preserves having the wireless part of the network which my laptop and both of our Eees use. In addition, it means we're all still protected by the integral firewall in the Linksys.

The only disadvantage to it, though, is that it means we have two routers in between each computer and the Internet. This not only means two points of failure and two (very minor) latencies, it also makes certain kinds of port forwarding complex. Those are very minor concerns, and do not seem to come anywhere near outweighing the pros of this approach. But it feels like, if I were to start from scratch, I would never design a network with two stacked routers, so evolving to that is a bad idea. (What I would probably do is have a router which included the wireless and firewall functionality I want, but also had a T1 DSU/CSU. But since I can't put those functions all into one router, I have to have two stacked.)

So one thing I plan to do today is see if I have a long enough network cable, and if so, run it between the two router locations, so it'll all be ready when the T1 goes in. That way, once we know the T1 works, I can switch us to it immediately, hopefully. That'll get the majority of our stuff up and running. Later, I can go back and configure port forwarding on the T1 router to mirror the forwarding on the Linksys, so that requests from outside go to the right place (notably my HomeSeer system and my MUD development system which I access from outside).

But maybe one day I'll reconsider this and put some systems inside the T1 router but outside the wireless router. Or not. I'm torn on the subject.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

T1 termination box

This morning Fairpoint contacted us with some details about the T1 line including a note that it would be a couple more weeks while some final construction things were done. They also got us our IP addresses and we planned to set a time for them to help me set up my router.

Unexpectedly, a pair of Fairpoint guys showed up to check out where the lines could come in, and ended up installing the termination box for the T1, pictured here. That they could get in and do this was sheer happenstance: no one ever told us anyone was coming around today, so no one planned to be home, but I happened to be home sick.

When they were done, they said they were running self-tests overnight on the line, and if they all passed, they wouldn't even need to be back; otherwise, they might be back tomorrow. I contacted the people back at the office who'd said a couple of weeks, and they said that now, maybe in a couple of days, we can set a date.

It's hard not to be too hopeful, but if things go the way they're talking about, we could have T1 Internet next week some time.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Coming down with another cold

The last four or five winters I haven't had any colds or flus, but this year I already contracted a nasty (possibly swine) flu at Carnage, and now I'm getting a cold. Symptoms are a cold sore, sniffles, sneezing, coughing, and headaches, but no fever, aches, or other indications of flu (no surprise, I had the full round of vaccinations). Not fair since I already was down a week with flu!

At work me and my team comprise four people. One of them has been out all week, another one was out Monday, and the third is out today and probably will be the next few days. I really should be home today and plan to be tomorrow, but that's likely to leave my section with just one person. And it's already quite a crush for two of us. It's going to be hard on her tomorrow without me, but I don't think I'll feel up to coming in -- I already don't.

I hope I'm feeling better in time for the blood drive on Saturday, not to mention a boardgame day, and then shopping and a movie on Sunday. Being sick is dumb.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Descartes and metaphysics

Descartes' seminal treatise of metaphysics, Discourse on the method, contains several somewhat famous arguments which range from philosophy to sophistry, the best-known of which is "I think, therefore I am" (so well-known that countless people can parrot it without having ever wondered what it means). Many people who've done a bit of reading about Descartes know summaries of his arguments which are paradoxically both accurate and misleading.

Generally, his arguments are a tough slog, largely because of the difference in writing style between then and now, and partially because of his own style, not to mention the subject matter. So often, an argument that takes many pages and veers through a number of corrolary issues will be summarized as a few sentences. This "abstract" of the argument is usually accurate, to the extent that, if you've read the original, you'd have to agree the abstract summarizes it, reflect it, and is really what he argued. But it's also deceptive, because it tends to lead people to imagine that a refutation of the abstract is also a refutation of the argument, when it is usually not quite that easy.

Even if you hear the abstract and then go read the original, your understanding of it is likely to be colored by what you are expecting it to say because of the abstract, and the refutations or analyses you come up with will often be more similar to those envisioned by people who only heard the abstract than by those who read the original work.

The "I think, therefore I am" argument isn't the best example of this. If you take the abstract of that argument, and decide what he's saying, you will probably bring up criticisms of it that are mostly but not perfectly on target. The biggest falling-down point is the question of what "I" represents. Descartes doesn't conclude, with that sentence, that there must exist a human being named Descartes. He only concludes that since the thinking exists, there must be an agent that is doing the thinking, which he calls "I". He concedes that it might not be what he imagines it to be (at least until later in the book). The typical first reaction to this bit of philosophy is to assume he means differently and then refute the assumption. But that's a simple error and not going to confuse anyone.

When you get to the argument for the existence of God, Descartes does a similar thing but the typical reaction to the argument, from people who heard only the abstract, is farther off the mark. The way the abstract was presented to me in a freshman college philosophy course is this. "God is by definition that which is entirely perfect. It is more perfect to exist than to not exist. Ergo, God exists."

This just screams out "sophistry" and begs for refutation. The easiest refutation: "The Wonka Scrumdiddlyumptious bar is, by definition, the perfect chocolate bar. It is more perfect to exist than to not exist. Ergo, The Wonka Scrumdiddlyumptious bar exists." But this really doesn't add up to a refutation of what Descartes argued. Even though the abstract is an accurate summary of Descartes' arguments, it misleads you to a refutation that doesn't apply.

Descartes actually does something similar to the "I think, therefore I am" argument here. "God" is not (at this point) necessarily the Creator, or the Christian god, or even a thinking being. "God" is simply the label for "a perfect thing" he uses for his argument. He does not yet at this point speculate about what God might be, save only the question of whether, whatever it is, it exists, and he concludes it does. Later, he builds on these two facts (that some "I" exists to be doing the thinking, and that some "God" exists that is perfect), and uses them to systematically rebuild all of existence -- as Douglas Adams would put it, to infer the existence of taxes and rice pudding. But his early steps are very basic since he's starting from nothing.

Because he chose heavily loaded words (which would turn out to be well-chosen only later into the argument), taking these arguments in abstract form easily leads to assumptions about what he meant that are not applicable, which cause refutations that are not germane. Refuting the logic of his argument for the existence of God is far from trivial. Not saying it hasn't been done; just that it tends to attract cranks with over-simple refutations the way Einstein attracts cranks who can prove that the speed of light isn't an absolute limit with ideas about spaceships with headlights.

Monday, January 11, 2010

A home automation odyssey (or perhaps iliad)

The following is an email I'm sending to ACT Solutions, which summarizes pretty well what I want to write about, so I'll just quote it in its entirety.

First, to establish the scene for those unfamiliar with these subjects:

Z-Wave is a home automation system where you install special light switches that control your lights both by tapping them, and remotely via a controller or from a computer running software like HomeSeer.

ACT Solutions makes the HomePro line of such switches, including the ZDW103 master switch and AS101 slave switches, which together replace the multiple switches of a three-way or four-way circuit (where multiple switches control one light). They also make the ZTW103, which looks like a switch but is actually a transmitter to send signals to other switches, allowing you to simulate a three-way circuit by putting in one real switch and one or more transmitters keyed to control it, without the usual ways electricians wire three-way switches.

Without further ado, here's the email I just sent them.

More than a year ago I purchased a ZDW103 and two AS101 switches to add to my Z-Wave system (with HomeSeer at the center) to automate the four-way switches controlling my main overhead lights in the living room. These switches have failed me so thoroughly and cost me so much time and money in the process that I feel I must draw this to your attention in hopes you can suggest a satisfactory remediation. I suspect that most of these purchases are well outside warranty (through no fault of mine), and at best I'm out shipping both ways on the remainder (again through no fault of mine); so I'm not sure what, if anything, you're willing and able to do. But you should be aware of the nature of my extreme displeasure with these products.

I am no electrician, I'm more of a software guy, but I am still on the savvy end of "consumer" when it comes to electrics. I've installed dozens of X-10 and Z-Wave wall switches, motion sensors, magnetic switches, and other devices in several houses over the last ten years. So when I heard about the ZDW103/AS101 combo, and read the descriptions on various websites and the HomeSeer forum, I expected to stand a good chance at being able to install them. My house, built in 2004, had Z-Wave switches in all the single-switch circuits installed during construction, but as there were no three-way solutions available at the time, the three-ways and four-ways were left unautomated, and this was a big gap in my automation. So I ordered a set.

However, my attempts to install the ZDW103/AS101 switches were fruitless. The instructions were abysmally unhelpful. Time and again I would make an attempt, then report my results on one or another forum, or to one or another friend, in hopes of getting useful advice. Time would pass while I waited for answers, and I'd try again. At one point I downloaded several documents from your web site at the recommendation of someone on the HomeSeer forum who I think identified himself as an employee of yours, but I don't know for sure who it was. None of this helped, and lots of time passed, enough time that the warranty probably had expired, and I still never had the switches installed.

Finally I gave up and hired an electrician, at considerable cost, and adding another considerable delay while I waited for an opening in her calendar. She came out in late November and found the directions just as baffling as I had (which actually seemed kind of reassuring to me!). She called your offices and spoke with someone who said he was the one who had written those directions, and who agreed they were very badly written. Based on his advice on the phone, she was able to get the switches installed, and all seemed well.

But within minutes, a problem surfaced. Randomly, the lights would just turn themselves off. Not abruptly; they'd ramp down through dim to off just like they would if you tapped the button. I hadn't even added the unit to my Z-Wave remote yet, but over the next few days, I systematically tested and eliminated every software-related issue I could find. I reset the unit, I left my HomeSeer system unplugged, I took batteries out of my remote, all to no avail. There was no pattern to when it happened, either.

Meanwhile, our main living room lights were turning themselves off over and over. You can't imagine how annoying that is. Sometimes they'd stay on an hour; other times they'd turn off every few minutes or even several times in a minute. I created HomeSeer events to keep forcing them back on, but that just meant our lights are constantly flickering. This is no way to earn Wife Approval Factor!

The people on the HomeSeer forum reported that many others had had this problem with AS101s. According to them, while the Z-Wave signal itself is well protected against the kind of noise that used to cause false triggering on X-10 switches, the AS101 can be triggered by electrical noise into sending a correctly-formatted Z-Wave signal to the ZDW103. This seemed suspicious to me; a five-year-old house is not likely to be a source of as much noise of any sort as the quantity of flickering I was seeing. But it fit the symptoms. On their advice, replacing the AS101s with ZTW103s would solve the problem and should be something I could wire in easily, so I dug out the credit card and poured more money into the system by buying a pair. Meanwhile, another few weeks had passed getting these answers, and more passed while I waited for the backordered ZTW103s to arrive, all the while my lights flickering maddeningly.

It turns out that ZTW103s do not simply wire in place of AS101s; there is no one-to-one correspondence of where the wires in one go to on the other, and my boxes might not even have readily available the power sources the ZTW103s need, but if they do, I am not up to the task of wiring them. So more weeks have passed while I tried to figure out a way to get the ZTW103s in before I gave up and placed another call to the electrician.

Despite a general lack of help, I was able to figure out how I could temporarily remove the AS101s from the circuit entirely, giving up the ability to turn the lights on from the front or side door (where we normally need to turn them on) to eliminate the maddening flickering, until the electrician could come in. To my surprise, even with the AS101s unwired and getting no power, the light keeps doing the same thing. The flaw must have been in the ZDW103 all along, not the AS101s! (Though at this point I wouldn't be surprised to be told all these switches have flaws of one sort or another.) Which means the $100 I spent on those two ZTW103s, and the additional cost of electrician time to install them, will be for nothing.

I am now more than a year and a half into the project, having invested several hundred dollars and scores of hours of my time, and all I have to show for it is two months of my living room lights flickering on and off so frequently people are joking that we live in a disco. And after all that time and money and frustration poured in, when the electrician finally arrives, I can think of nothing to do but to ask her to reverse what she did previously and put the manual switches back in, so I will have wasted all of that for NOTHING. All this, in an attempt to install a supposedly consumer-ready switch system for a single light.

Perhaps if you have some very, very compelling idea for how I can have her do something that is going to work, and you can offer some solid assurance that I won't just be signing up for another similarly agonizing, costly, and futile odyssey, I will end up with one light automated. But I certainly won't take that risk unless your certainty is profoundly convincing. I hope that there is something you can offer me to make up for the remarkably thorough way in which your products have failed me. But all I really want at this point, other than my money back for those parts of the system that can't be made to work, is to get this light automated already. Ideally without spending hundreds more dollars hiring electricians and buying switches with terrible directions and faulty functionality.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Cool pillowcases

Even if it's winter and the house is cold and I'm piled under a number of blankets, I still find myself turning over the pillow to try to find a cool spot. The pillowcase I have now isn't as good at having cool spots as other ones I've had (but it has other virtues).

I've heard other people do the same thing, but what I don't know is why. What is it about pillowcases that makes it nice to have a cool spot even when you're cold? What is the appeal?

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Free calendars

There is a pale spot on the wall in the living room where the wood hasn't aged and yellowed as much as the area around it. It's rectangular, taller than it is wide, and has a nail right at the top. It's like that because there has always been a calendar there, but since we very rarely used it (we usually use the calendars on computers or smartphones) we never paid for one, we just put up one of the free ones that we used to always get.

Years ago when the house was new, we got nice free calendars from the Nature Conservancy, or from local organizations, usually with nicely picturesque imagery. But each year it was harder and harder to get a free calendar, we found it later in the year, and we had to settle for less attractive subject matter. Last year, at the last minute I found a free calendar of images of wild ginseng from some organization which exists to promote wild ginseng. (I didn't know it needed promotion. And a year later, I have to admit I still don't.)

But this year I found nothing, no one at all offering free calendars. I can't decide whether to bite the bullet, pull out the nail, and let that spot try to catch up aging, or if I should fork over a buck to get a cheap calendar at Big Lots.

So tell your Congressman to allocate some of that stimulus money to free calendars to help restore our economy to what it once was! Free wall calendars are what made America great.

Friday, January 08, 2010


When I was a kid I didn't like pistachios at all (and pistachio ice cream even less). For Christmas, I bought Siobhan some big bags of Wonderful Pistachios, but after she opened it, she said she liked pistachios but that they're not her favorite by any means, and she hadn't had any since she was a kid. I pointed out to her what I had read on the Woot discussion about those pistachios: that back when we were kids, pistachios you got in the supermarket weren't very good because they were typically very very stale, and also, were messed up with being dyed that bizarrely overstated green which many people say changed the flavor. (All that on top of the ever-present "our tastes change as we age" factor.) Plus these were supposed to be high-quality pistachios.

So I encouraged her to try them, and she did, and reported that they were really very good. Somewhere along the way I realized that everything I had said applied to me too, so I dutifully gave them a try, expecting the change to be from "ewww" (as a kid) to "well, they're all right, but I wouldn't go out of my way" (now). To my surprise, they were super-yummy. So much that I have to keep myself from gobbling them all down. We even bought more at the supermarket so I wouldn't feel so bad about eating some of her Christmas present (even though she offered).

If those come up on Woot again, I'm going to buy three pair of bags! Until then, whenever they're on sale at the supermarket we'll stock up. Heck, I like them so much, I might even pay full price for them.

So many other "our tastes change as we age" experiments have been fruitless; anything I didn't like as a kid, I pretty much still don't like. But at least now I have one absolutely unequivocal complete about-face. I wonder how much of it is my tastes changing and how much is pistachios being so much better now.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

What if there were proof?

Siobhan told me of a dream she had in which the Pope called to deliver firm proof of the existence of God and the doctrines of the Catholic Church. This being a dream, the proof offered was suspicious but not really logically rigorous -- it might be enough to prove some things, but nothing as extraordinary as Catholicism. What exactly would be proof not just of a god but that very specific God and all the specific doctrine to go with it, that's a good question. But the question Siobhan posed was, what if you had that kind of proof, would you want to believe it and live your life accordingly?

Pascal's Wager never felt very convincing to me, mostly because the "choice to believe" is far from a zero-cost option as Pascal describes it; it also shapes your life, your decisions, your morality, your options, and the character of all of it, the way it makes you feel. And it doesn't take a very big cost before the wager becomes a losing proposition. Just like the lottery: sure, the payoff is huge, but the odds of winning are so tiny that the smallish cost of entry is more than it's worth.

But once you have proof, the terms of Pascal's Wager change completely. The cost of entry, all those effects on your life, may be kind of big, but now you get a 100% chance of the prize, and it's a big prize -- it fills an eternity. So there's no question anymore. How could anyone choose otherwise? No amount of inconvenience, discomfort, deprivation, or even agony in life could outweigh that.

But that's the kind of thing irrationalists are prone to quoting out of context. It presupposes not the kind of proof that they mean when they say "proof" -- some writing that proves a guy named Jesus lived, or the Virgin Mary imagined in a tortilla, or someone recovering miraculously from an antimiraculous bout of cancer. No, it presupposes real, absolute, unshakeable proof. I think those people don't really understand the difference (which is how they got to be the kind of people they are) and thus don't even realize they're quoting out of context.

So no one really talks about that variation on Pascal's Wager. Which is just as well. It's so hypothetical as to be asymptotically approaching irrelevancy.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Making lemonade

I drink a lot of lemonade and I make it very simply: one cup lemon juice, one cup Splenda, and then water to two quarts. This is barely more work than a powdered mix (it's three steps instead of two), and if you get the lemon juice at CostCo, it's cheaper than sugar-free lemonade powders. (If you prefer sugar to sugar-substitute, it's not really cheaper, but it's not really more expensive, either.) It tastes better, and you get to control the sweetness to your taste. Plus it's probably healthier. It's one of those things where I wonder why people use the mixes... but probably it's because if you buy lemon juice in the supermarket it's a fair bit more expensive, so they don't re-do the math after considering CostCo prices.

Today, in the kitchen at my office, I was mixing some of it up while my boss was microwaving his coffee, and he asked me what I was making. He wondered if it was very sour. I had to explain to him that it was just lemonade, not some obscure beverage he's never heard of, not some weird meal-substitute plan, not some unfamiliar medication, but ordinary lemonade. Now, my boss is not some 21-year-old who thinks that Peter Jackson ripped off J.K. Rowling; he's older than me and usually one I expect to know how things "used to be done". How he could not recognize the most basic recipe for lemonade is beyond me.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Rug Doctor

You know those rental carpet deep-cleaning things you can get in supermarkets and discount stores? The big red display with all the bottles of various cleaners and the vacuum-like machines.

When you think about it, isn't Rug Doctor a terrible name for them? It's not like they work to correct or prevent problems with your rugs. And they don't cost a fortune (nor do you have to argue with insurance companies).

If anything, shouldn't it be Rug Dentist?

Monday, January 04, 2010

Deconstructive surgery

Today was the appointment to speak with a doctor about reconstructive surgery, and having spoken with him I am fairly sure I don't want any.

At first the doctor seemed to take for granted that I came in already having my mind made up I wanted the surgery. Understandable, but a bit time-wasting. He was focusing on giving me the reasons I can't get the surgery yet and selling me on what I'd have to do to get it -- namely, lose a minimum of 65 more pounds. Oi!

So I eventually stopped him and told him I wanted to go over the pros and cons, because frankly I wasn't sure what the benefits were to make the surgery worth getting. The cons are very clear:
  • It costs a lot of money and getting Cigna to cover part of it will be very challenging, if at all possible.
  • It's a minimum of six weeks off work recovering. I have plenty of leave time, but not a lot of "nothing needs to be done" time.
  • Lots of pain. He didn't talk much about that, but I've heard and read that plastic surgery is one of the most painful kinds, both in intensity and in duration (weeks of it without surcease).
  • Substantial risk of infection and other complications.
  • And now, on top of all that, the need to spend another year or more on an agonizingly strict diet.
I figured all of this might be for some significant health benefit, but really, he has nothing to offer. About all we have for benefits:
  • Looking better.
  • Better balance and poise, which would make me better able to do some athletic or acrobatic things.
  • Reduced (though never completely eliminated) incidences of fungal rash. (Note, this rash is a minor inconvenience at most, just a little itch which I readily control with over-the-counter generic clotrimazole cream.)
  • Maybe it's easier to buy clothes to fit, though not as much as you'd think, particularly since they don't usually tuck thighs (it doesn't work that well).
I don't mean to suggest that these things are nothing. I wouldn't mind looking better. While I don't feel like my balance and poise stop me from doing things I want to do, maybe I'd appreciate the improvement if I got it. Etc.

But all of these pros put together don't seem to outweigh any single one of the cons. They're not even on the same order of magnitude. And all of the cons put together, that just blows away the idea. So this ends this chapter of my healthcare saga.

(Oddly, it seems that for many people, the big downside of the surgery is the scar. Whoopdedoo.)

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Throwing snow

The snowthrower I bought back in August (on sales tax amnesty day) finally got started up for the first time today, due to the foot and a half of snow we got in the last day or two (and are still getting). And I am pleased as punch with it. Whoever invented snowthrowers deserves a big wet sloppy kiss.

First observation is that electric start is a wonderful thing. Since the snowthrower comes with oil already in place, you just fill it with gas, plug it in, prime it, and press the start button, and voom, you're ready to go. Second observation is that the chute control, which turns it side to side, doesn't quite work; in the spring I'm going to have to see if I can do anything to adjust it. And the third observation is... holy cow, is this easier than shoveling.

It just cuts through deep heavy snow like nothing. The only place it didn't just chop through it was alongside the shed, which I was clearing so I could pull the snow down from the shed roof; there, I had to put it in slow and move up at an angle to cut down some of the piled-up snow in a first pass before removing more in a second pass. (Then pull more snow off the roof and then plow that away too.)

I also discerned that I definitely need heavy winter gloves for this. I used to have some and I think they may still be around somewhere, but I never use them because they're too bulky and I rarely need the extra warmth. But this is one job that requires it.

It'll be no trouble to keep a path to the shed and propane tank clear, as well as to the front door and around the deck where Socks's line reaches (so we can untangle it -- she just loves romping in snow but she always loops around the deck posts).

Saturday, January 02, 2010

And she dances on the sand

Back in my teenage days, when I was mostly listening to a mix of classic rock and the hard rock that was popular at the time, and exploring a lot of other stuff, but I had a guilty pleasure listening to Duran Duran, at the peak of their popularity. I even saw them in concert once. Even then, though, if you'd asked, I would have said they were just a flash in the pan, some pretty-boy musicians doing something fun and light, style over substance. I would have guessed that, if I still listened to them ten or twenty years later, it would be out of nostalgia only, and probably the embarassing kind.

And I do still listen to them (though I must admit most of what they did after that time I don't like as much... though maybe that's just because I didn't give it enough of a chance). But it occurred to me today that when I listen closely, it really holds up remarkably well. Musically, it might be a little dated to its period (though is that really so bad? You can tell Mozart's music by its period too!), but it's well-constructed, and more musically sophisticated than I realized at the time. Don't get me wrong, Rush is in no danger, but I was surprised at how rich and tight and in some cases even sophisticated it is. The harmonies in "New Religion", for instance, are really complex. They often use layered rhythms, even syncopated ones, and there's a lot of stuff going on in any of their songs. The lyrics are not exactly gems of poetry but they're not awful either; worse things have been vaunted before.

It's just, in a way, Duran Duran's misfortune that they were very pretty and very bubbly at a time when the new medium of MTV started to favor flash-in-the-pan bands that happened to be very pretty and very bubbly, regardless of any actual musicianship. So it was easy to assume they were one of those, and I did then, and still did decades later. Plenty of their contemporaries were all-style-no-substance. Why not assume the same about them?

I guess they probably are irked to be dismissed that way. But then again, I bet their contemporaries are, even the ones with no meaningful amount of musical talent.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Trivia Smackdown

Last night was the Trivia Smackdown, the first time our regular trivia game was played for cash money, and it also involved some new rules. But we didn't get told the new rules beforehand... or even during the game, which meant strategizing was nearly impossible. Until the key moment.

The game started with six teams of six members, with a $10 per person buy-in (and all $360 in the prize pool to be split up amongst the winning team). The wrinkle: at the end of the first round, each team had to "smack down" one of its members, sending them off to the corner to form a new team. This is one of those ideas that sounds good on paper: shake everything up, force a different kind of strategizing, and get people to interact with people outside their circle of friends.

In practice, it goes over poorly. People want to spend the evening with their friends. They formed this team carefully balancing their areas of expertise. The strategizing is impossible when you don't know what topics are still to come, and you haven't had the rest of the rules explained to you. And no one likes picking which of their friends is expendable, or being that expendable friend.

Nearly everyone came away from this with a bad feeling in their mouths, which got worse when after each subsequent round we had to "smack down" another player, causing the smackdown team to grow to absurd proportions (far too unwieldy to collaborate effectively, or even to fit into the space available), while the remaining team members just felt bad about still being there, plus felt more pressure about earning the place they'd kept.

By the end of the fifth round, the original teams were down to two members, and sure enough, someone had to be smacked down, leaving just a single member on each team, and 30 people on the smackdown team, and that's when the inevitable but unpredictable twist came. By this point, the smackdown team was in third place, and our team was near the bottom of the rankings. I was the last person on my team to be smacked down. And then the last rule change was announced.

Each team's remaining member could choose to recall none, some, or all of its members, but they had to make that decision in secret from the other teams. If you won without recalling your members, you got the whole prize pot for yourself... (as if anyone wouldn't then split it with their friends anyway!). As it happens, nearly every team recalled all their members, perhaps just because everyone hated being separated from their friends. One team recalled all but two (don't know why).

And our one remaining team member, being a good student of game theory, realized that being near the bottom of the rankings and already mathematically eliminated, while the smackdown team was in third and within reach of the prize, it made more sense not to recall anyone. This was the key point on which the whole game ended up resting, this point of game theory. Because he was totally right.

Though it did also take a handy coincidence that the final round (which was also a Silver Bullet round, double points for right answers, but lost points for wrong answers) had a topic that was great for us. We scored a solid eight out of twelve possible in that round, but most teams, playing risky, actually lost points. And in the end, the smackdown team won.

There were seven of us by this point, five out of six of the original Browncoats team, plus the two members of another team that got left behind. So we took 5/7ths of the prize pot and then split it six ways (to include back in our sixth member, who if anything should have gotten a larger share for making the winning call, so certainly shouldn't've been excluded).

Despite this largely tactical win, I still don't like these rules. I wouldn't mind playing for money occasionally (though hopefully not too often) but I hope that we can keep our team together. The rules might not be so bad if we knew ahead of time what we were doing, but even then, I'd rather not go that way, and I think enough other people agreed that we won't see that particular combination again.