Sunday, February 28, 2010

San Diego

Tomorrow morning I'm to wake at 3am so as to head to the airport for an early flight to San Diego. (And what's worse is, this is the better-timed trip. The return voyage is an overnight flight.)

The purpose of the trip is a business conference for Siobhan, with me tagging along for no better reason than two can travel almost as cheaply as one. And I'm at that stage at work where I could use a few days off pretty badly (and also that stage where any time off will only make things far worse... but since staying wouldn't make things good, merely less bad, one must put mental health first when the time can make a difference).

Since she'll be busy much of most of the days at the conference, there's not much that I'll have to do. I won't be going to museums and zoos by myself, so I'll likely breeze away the time in the hotel. I'll have Wifi (though they charge extra for it, can you imagine such a thing?) and both my laptop and my Eee. The laptop because I might want to do some serious writing, or some Lusternian combat training, and the Eee's not up to the latter (and limited on the former). The Eee, because the laptop has chosen now to start going on the fritz -- the screen flickers and sometimes the left quarter of it goes pale red -- and if it dies entirely on me, I'd be completely without, since I'd have no external monitor to fall back on. (Arrangements are underway both to repair it and replace it.) Plus, the laptop will probably stay in the hotel room, but the Eee might go with me if I venture forth.

Some of the time, though, we'll have to go do stuff. Everyone says to go to the zoo, and there's one solid point behind it: when else am I ever going to be in San Diego? On the other hand, we just went to the National Zoo; and we probably won't have a full day, but how can you hope to assay the San Diego Zoo on a half-day? There's also an air and space museum, and again, so soon after visiting the National Air And Space Museum and the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center it might feel redundant.

We'll likely visit the USS Midway since it's only a few blocks from our hotel, and when else will I get to walk on an aircraft carrier? And we'll probably drop in on Ocean Beach, and Coronado Island. There's a list of restaurants planned for visits. Embarassingly enough, these include In-N-Out Burgers and Krispy Kreme, for while these are humdrum and mundane fast food, they are widely considered the best fast food in their respective categories, but in both cases, establishments we never have a chance to visit otherwise.

Still, if all I do is sit in a hotel lobby with a laptop, do some reading, and eat a bit of Mexican food in a place where snow is unheard-of (even if the locals are all wearing heavy coats!), that'll be more than enough.

I don't know how many days of blogging I might miss. Depends on when I get Internet, I suppose.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

What's the penalty to the tracking roll?

We have a 40' line that sometimes we put Socks out on so she can romp around the front yard since she gets bored with the fenced-in backyard area she can always go out into, and because the front yard is better suited for her playing with her neighbor-friend Holly. The other end attaches to an eye-bolt mounted in the end of our deck. Yesterday morning I put her out on it, at her request, and as usual, she went out to some trees and got tangled around them, so I had to put my boots on and go out through the 2' deep snowdrifts to free her. While doing so I noticed that the eye-bolt was a little bent and noted I should probably replace it soon -- I already intended to add a few more.

I'm not sure how much later it was when I noticed I hadn't heard or seen her in a while and went out to check, figuring she was just tangled up again. She doesn't bark much when she's tangled, she just waits for rescue. But when I went out to check, there was no sign of her, or the line, or the eye-bolt.

Figuring time might be of the essence, I didn't wait to get dressed, but just put my boots on and went out looking for her, but there was no sign of her. The thought that she was trailing a 40' red line suggested it might not be too hard to find her if she wasn't gone far. However, I barely even tried to find her trail because the whole area around her line is completely trampled from her rambunctious play with Holly, and the area around that is rumpled from the snowplowing and the fact that it's been melting and snowing again. So I decided to go for the most likely places, the neighbor's houses, where she usually wants to go.

It was very, very hard going. Trudging up a moderately steep hill on snow and ice, in wind and snow, in shorts and boots, is exhausting. I went up and down a few times, until I was out of breath, shouting for her and getting no response. (A few times there was some barking, but I couldn't be sure if it was her since there are many dogs of the same type of breed, and I couldn't pin down a direction.)

By this point I figured she could have gone pretty far as she might have been loose for a while, so I tried walking up and down the road, but I couldn't get very far on foot, in such terrible weather. I was getting exhausted, chilled, and a bit soaked. I tried using my electric-assist bike but the battery was very discharged, so I dug out the other bike, but the tires were mostly flat since it hadn't been being used or maintained all winter, and tires always get flat over winter. Still, it was just barely usable. I dragged it down to the main road, which was clear enough to ride on (our road was way too snowy and icy) and forced my way up the hill, then down, covering about a mile. It took forever on flat tires and it was so exhausting, but there was no sign of her. Coming back up the hill, I couldn't keep it moving, I was too sore, the hill was too steep, and the tires were too flat, so I got off and walked the last stretch. And during that stretch was when the weather changed to a hailstorm. Just because I wasn't already cold, wet, tired, sore, and unhappy enough.

By this point I was shaking not just from the cold and exhaustion and the pain in my knee but also with that distinctive flutter that reminds me of hypoglycemia, so I went back to the house, stoked the fire back to life, and made something to eat. Around this time Siobhan decided to come home early and help with the search (since having a car would certainly make it easier to cover more ground).

While she was on her way home, I rested and ate and warmed up, then I went back out to make another try at finding her trail, mostly because Tyler mentioned it in IRC and I had explained why I couldn't find it, but that made me realize that maybe there were directions I hadn't checked. It was a really long long-shot, but I decided to give it a try. In shorts and a T-shirt and wearing boots, I trudged around the edge of the yard in the 2' snowdrifts, just to rule it out. And to my surprise, and by sheer luck, I happened to find her trail.

I just started following it, but about 15 minutes later, I'd gone about as far as I could with soaking-wet socks. It was through ground that is very hard going under ideal circumstances: lots of downed trees and big rocks, up and down hills, lots of roots. Only now it had snow drifts that ranged from mid-calf to above the knee. I kept feeling like I was too far in to turn back but eventually decided I had to.

Siobhan got home while I was coming back so she went out looking up and down the road in the car, while I got pants and fresh socks, and we got walkie-talkies. Went back out into the woods more suitably attired and kept following the trail. I'd commented about hoping I had a plot point to spend to make sure I rolled really good on my tracking roll, so I was particularly amused when, time and again, Socks's trail came right to the edge of a patch of road where if she went that way I'd lose the trail, but each time she veered the other way.

After about a half hour of tedious slogging up and down and over and through, her trail came out... about two feet away from where it went in. I'm not exaggerating, it was literally so close I can only explain missing it by the fact that I was focusing so closely on one spot at a time to find the trail that I didn't look around. She'd gone on a grand tour of the woods in front of the house and then returned to where she started. But this time she veered across the front yard a different direction, so I kept following the trail.

It was only about five minutes farther in that I got to a steep bit of hilly, heavily wooded ground not even a hundred feet from the house where I could see her. She'd probably only been running five or ten minutes before she'd gotten to this point and got her line tangled. If I had looked in precisely the right direction from the house and kept staring to watch for movement I might have spotted her without even leaving, but of course, I had no idea which way to look. If she'd barked for me when I called her, I might have found her straightaway, but to her, this was just another time being tangled, and she was just waiting for rescue quietly, as usual.

She was very happy to see me. I alerted Siobhan via walkie-talkie and then trudged around to find her and untangle her. Coming back the way I'd come would have been a lot harder than continuing over the hill, so I asked Siobhan to go to the neighbor's house to pick us up, and led Socks on the line into their backyard. (Actually, I was wrong at first about which neighbor it was.) The neighbors ignored us completely. Socks, however, was having a blast. We were going for a walk! How fun is that! She wanted to go meet those neighbors but I didn't let her go and they just got into a car and drove off, heedless of the stranger trudging into their backyard from the hills and then through it.

I thoroughly soaked three sets of socks and two full outfits during the three or four hours I spent trudging after her, and got myself sore, achey, cramped, and deeply chilled. A hot bath helped me wind down, and I spent the rest of the day lethargic and drained. Socks, on the other hand, thought it was the best day ever, even if I did take a long time to find her. She wants to go out and do it again.

Friday, February 26, 2010

When the year changes

It used to be that, for the first month or three of a year, I would keep finding myself writing the wrong year when I wrote the date down, and having to cross it off (if I even noticed). And then I had an idea for how to address that. When the new year started, I would get out my checkbook and, on the first half-dozen checks or so, write in the year in advance. Every time I went to write a check after that, my pen would move towards the year, intending probably to write the wrong year, only to find the year already there. This would not only prevent me from writing the wrong year on the check, it would also remind me about the change in the year, which would drum the lesson into my head. Once I started doing that, I almost never wrote the wrong year again.

Only problem with this is that I go through maybe five checks in a year nowadays. Writing the year on the checks is not only dangerous (since I don't know how many checks I'll need in that year) but unhelpful (since it might be May before I write my first check). So what can I do now? I need another clever solution. I thought about maybe using timesheets, except I prepare timesheets on my computer, then print and sign, so I can't even do those in advance. They're one of the very few places I still write the date, and the only one that recurs, too.

Thursday, February 25, 2010


I think we got about two and a half feet of snow total during the last day and a half, and it's thick, heavy snow. Yesterday morning we opened the garage door to drive to work to be greeted by almost two feet in the driveway, not plowed out. Instead of going in and waiting for the plow, I fired up the snowthrower (after a few tries -- last time I forgot the on switch, this time I forgot the ignition plug). First time I ever did a whole driveway. Took about 15 minutes -- not bad at all, though by time it was done, I was chilled and sore and my hands were shaking from the vibration. Still, a very impressive run, cutting a swath through snow that deep.

We got home quite late but I went right back out to try to cut a path to the shed so I could pull snow off the roof, and I barely got it all done before it was too dark to proceed even with the outside lights on. The snow that came down from the shed roof was too heavy and dense for the snowthrower to move; I could only cut the pile down about halfway. I also carved a path to the propane tank, but it was far too dark to try working on the path around Socks's yard.

This left me soaked, chilled so bad my body was noticeably (and uncontrollably) shaking, and exhausted. Unfortunately, I barely got warm and dry before I had to go back out for a second round with a shovel trying to clear satellite dishes -- in vain, as it happens.

As exhausted as I was afterwards, the idea of doing that without a snowthrower is insane. I could have spent two hours shoveling out the driveway and not been done, but been too exhausted to keep going, and too sore to do anything else for the next few days. And the work I did in the evening wouldn't've been any better. Snowthrowers are amazing things.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Self-selecting communities

It's no surprise that, since the Internet allows us to form communities based on common interests rather than geographic proximity, these communities end up self-selecting. Not just because the express purpose of the community's creation starts it off with a certain commonality (for instance, a forum for users of a particular technology not only select for people who like that technology, but also for the kind of mindset, education level, income bracket, etc. that would have that interest in the first place), but also because, once a community gets going in a particular direction, it makes itself welcoming to people who fit it, and unwelcoming to those who don't, and thus progressively reinforces itself. Even a small and possibly accidental perturbation in a particular direction can become a mission statement in time. For instance, a forum about restoring classic cars might not start out with a firm leaning towards one side or the other of the question of whether to restore to better-than-new condition, or to preserve rust and signs of age. But once a small leaning emerges because of a few outspoken or highly-placed people, this can sometimes cause a gradual shift, as advocates of the other side feel excluded and leave, while advocates of the preferred side aggregate more of their friends.

As a result, any given Internet user might find himself in a dozen different online communities with a variety of different topics of interest, and still can happen to find himself almost always amongst people who think similar to him about many things, and have similar overall outlooks and backgrounds, without even realizing it. For instance, I am active in communities about various kinds of technologies, about roleplaying games, science fiction, and a number of other hobbies. Some are fairly disparate: there's not much obvious overlap between classic arcade game buyers and restorers, and fans of David Brin. And yet there is, inasmuch as members of both groups tend to be at least somewhat well-educated, of an income level that allows enough disposable income for such hobbies, and enough free time to pursue them.

This, perhaps surprisingly, excludes a far bigger swath of my countrymates than might be obvious just listing those attributes. What really drives this home far more than any speculation or cogitation can is when you find yourself in a community that does not select on these sorts of things.

Most of the communities I participate in are full of what seem to me to be poorly-thought-out, irrational, vapid, and even stupid comments. One feels as if one is soaking in dumb sometimes when one goes out onto the Internet. And yet, a little exposure to a group that doesn't share those commonalities will make the others seem positively brilliant by comparison.

One particular community I participate in keeps driving this point home to me. Nearly every post made in it is so insipid that it reminds me of the sorts of things that, five years ago, you got forwarded to your inbox by your grandmother, with ten screenfuls of FW: lists above it. And yet this is the stuff these people sincerely feel and are actually writing themselves. Sometimes I think of quitting (I even did once but came back) just because of how completely worthless 99% of the posts are. Everyone is so completely credulous, and so suffused with saccharine cheer and optimism, and so utterly convinced that anything that was good for them must perforce be good for everyone all the time. They're the kind of people that, when stand-up comedians make fun of their trite normality, you feel like they're exaggerating and no one can be like that, but they really are. They're good-hearted but you can't help realize that they can go days, weeks, even months at a time between times they have a thought that wasn't spoon-fed to them, or seriously questioned anything.

I don't want to say what group this is, for fear of offending. Suffice to say that what brings me into this community has almost nothing to do with my hobbies, education level, background, income bracket, or any of the usual things that contribute to bringing me to a community. The only factor is a particular action in my past, which, though voluntary and also associated with proximate causes correlated with certain cultural and societal factors, is not really strongly linked with the sorts of things that shape the way a person thinks.

But after a while reading their attempts to answer genuine questions, even the comments on YouTube videos start to seem erudite. Those people might be rude, illiterate jerks, but at least their minds are able to question things.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Burning paper waste in the woodstove

I've never been very comfortable with fire, and have never been very good at setting fires in the woodstove, though over the years I've improved a good deal at it. I've learned to appreciate the sight of the flames primarily for the reassurance that the fire hasn't died out, but I'm not the kind of person who can enjoy staring into flames. Fire for me is strictly a practical thing; I balance a mild fear of fire with a firm appreciation of the warmth it provides, but have no particular sentiment for the flame itself.

But I've noticed one somewhat irrational appreciation. Many things that would be paper or cardboard recycling at other times of year are, at this time of year, kindling. But I find I enjoy the act of putting paper waste into the fire beyond my ability to justify this as a source of fuel or kindling. There's just some satisfaction in having the boxboard left from the pantry, a used tissue or paper towel, or some scrap corrugated from a shipment, go into the fire.

When it's something that's recyclable, like the corrugated, I recognize this is something I should limit to what actually is useful for getting the fire started. (Corrugated is great for this, though. It burns readily even in a cold woodstove, but it adds lots of heat quickly, helping wood catch.)

But for non-recyclable paper products, like the waxy boxboard or used paper towel, I am not so sure if I'm being irresponsible. Is it good that I'm keeping it out of landfills, or bad that I'm adding more smoke to the air? (If it were good to keep it out of landfills that way, wouldn't they just burn it themselves? But they can't, really, because they can't sort it out from the other stuff they shouldn't burn.) Is the tiny, tiny amount of heat it produces (since it serves as fuel) anything at all, even when multiplied by the many bits of such trash I might burn over the season? Are there other reasons why this is a good or bad idea?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Really, really low

For those of you familiar with Lusternia, you might want to jump down over the next section, as this is a story that'll take a little background that some of my blog readers will lack.

Once per real-life year Lusternia has a big multi-layer competition that culminates in an Ascension, in which one contestant is elevated to the status of True Ascendant, the highest level possible in the game. The first step is a set of nine competitions, one for each of the nine domoths: Chaos, War, Justice, Nature, Knowledge, Beauty, Life, Death, and Harmony. These are nine different competitions, each reflecting (somewhat) the focus of each domoth. War is a team combat tourney, Knowledge is a trivia quiz, etc. The winner of each one gains a valuable artifact, a hell of a lot of prestige, and the chance to compete in the final battle. Runners-up in each competition win large credit prizes (and some prestige).

As with anything in Lusternia, some of these things are not dependent at all on combat skill, but more of them do than don't. Beauty stands out because anyone, even a complete novice, can win it, provided they have a talent for writing in a very particular format: designing objects that can be made in the various crafts in Lusternia. Specifically, those crafts are Cooking, Tailoring, Jewelry, Forging, Artisan, and Bookbinding. People can design and then make items in each of these trades (though each person can only craft things in at most one, they can design in others as well, provided someone who owns a relevant cartel lets them use it to submit designs, or that they own the cartel themselves). These designs are submitted for review (to check for grammar, spelling, compliance with the rules, etc.) before they can be made. One design per cartel can be submitted for Beauty each year, and these are judged to select the most beautiful -- the best written, best imagined, and most creative.

Here's an example of one of mine:
Item: Mandolin   Type: Instruments   Org: Milkweed
Commodities: wood 80 redtint 10 pearl 10
a scuffed mandolin bearing the stories of the road
Scuffed and battered, a mandolin discarded here tells the tales of its travels in its blemishes and bruises.
This mandolin must once have been proud and shining, its cherrywood body buffed and polished to a fine sheen, since in a few spots that gleam is still seen. However, most of the mandolin's surface is now scuffed with a variety of blemishes, each bump and bruise telling a tale to the observant eye of the mandolin's many travels, the roads on which it was carried and played, the weather it has endured and withstood, and the trials it has survived. A smudged spatter of several colours of paint on the top of the mandolin's bowl-shaped body clearly were picked up while its owner was painting something; careful examination shows the streaking resulting from an attempt to wipe the paint off before it dried, not entirely successfully. Below this, a gouge running diagonally across the instrument's back looks to have been carved by a blade of some sort, suggesting a day of danger in mortal combat. A bruise on the instrument's face reveals very fine grooves left by sand, perhaps a sandstorm in a visit to the desert; below this, a progressive wearing of grooves below the mandolin's sound-hole speaks of countless strums, suggesting the instrument has shared its voice in a lifetime's music. The fretboard is blotched and the neck slightly twisted by water damage, and coated in a fine patina of the dust of the road, though it's clear someone's made tiny adjustments to the frets to let the mandolin be played despite the warping of the neck. A notch missing from one of the tuning pegs is in the shape of an animal's tooth, though it's impossible to tell what kind of animal it was. Through all this history of danger and merriment, the instrument has been cared for, not to keep it from showing its history in its lines and bruises, but to ensure its song is just as sweet as ever it was in its youth, though perhaps deepened in timbre by some of the changes, lending its merry tune a note of the wisdom of time and travels.

The first year they had Ascension, I didn't participate at all. I wasn't even a crafter yet, and wasn't really interested in the other competitions. The second year, I decided to dip my toe in. I chose a few of my favorite designs that I'd already made to submit for Beauty, but I didn't do anything specially for Beauty; I also dabbled in a few other competitions and did well despite not having prepared much. But I didn't win anything.

Last year, the trials of January/February 2009, I decided to really try hard. I spent hours practicing things to compete in Justice and Harmony, even drove into the office on the weekends to compete using a good Internet connection. In Justice, I got to the last round where you could be eliminated and not win something, and then had a really unlucky draw and lost. In Harmony, I was in the lead for almost half of the hour it ran, but then enemies harrying me weren't met by allies defending me (they chose to back someone else) and I fell to about seventh or eighth place.

But my really solid hopes were in Beauty because I am a very good designer. For a few months before the trials I gathered as many cartels as possible in which I would be allowed to submit a design. In the end, I had thirteen designs to submit, each of them created specifically for Beauty, and in a variety of trades. I had designs of many different styles, so that if they happened to be leaning towards one kind or another, I would have it covered. I had designs in four of the six trades. So far as I know, I submitted more designs than anyone else in the whole game. Before the contest we had a smaller local "trial run" contest where people could try out designs to see how they'd do, and I swept it, soundly.

No, I didn't win, or even place, but that's not the story I'm here to tell today. (I later found out my mandolin design took sixth, but there are prizes only to five.)

A dear friend owned four jewelry cartels and wasn't going to be using her slots, so she agreed to let me use them. So I toiled for hours over those four designs. But when it came time to submit them, it turned out she really only had three she could use. I don't even remember why she couldn't use the fourth, but now I had a bracelet design and nowhere to submit it.

So I scrambled around to find a jewelry cartel that wasn't going to use its slot. I found one: it was owned by a god's Order, and run by that god's order head, who was also the leader of my commune. Thus, definitely someone "on my side" and someone who would want me or someone like me to win, because it would ensure one of the enemies didn't win. But someone who never particularly liked me personally. At the last minute, she agreed to let me submit through that cartel.

I sent her the bracelet design. She told me when it was submitted, then later told me that it had been approved, and that she was finally entering it into the contest. Well, it didn't win, and neither did any of my other designs. And I didn't give it another thought.

It's just more than a year later. (I did enter Beauty again this year, but once more I didn't bother to make any new designs for it, just entered whatever I liked that I'd already made, so wasn't surprised I didn't place. Designs have to be pretty fancy and overwrought to win Beauty; you can't win with 'simple elegance' in this contest.) And I decided that I wanted one of that bracelet for myself, so I checked around, and found a jeweler in that cartel, and asked them to make it for me.

They couldn't. There is no such design in the cartel.

It's not possible to delete an approved design, at least not without a god doing it manually, it's not something mortals can do. It used to be possible for a design to be transferred to another cartel, but hasn't been for a long time -- not sure if that's longer than since Beauty 2009 though. While I can't be sure, not sure enough to make an official accusation, by far the most likely explanation: it was never submitted, and the person in question was just stringing me along, intentionally (since how could she tell me when it was approved if it was never even submitted?). Letting me believe all the time I'd poured into crafting the design was not for naught. Reducing my chances of winning, and thus increasing the chances for someone in an enemy nation to win. All for, as far as I can tell, nothing more than petty spite. The kind of spite she won't show in public where it might affect her chances of gaining and holding positions of authority, but is happy to act on as long as those who think she can do no wrong would never see.

It's been more than a year, and it's very, very unlikely that if none of my other twelve designs might have won that this thirteenth would have -- it was definitely not the strongest of the thirteen. But it's still quite a blow to know someone could behave that low. I would not have imagined this person would stoop that low.

Incidentally, I submitted the design just so I can have one anyway. Feh.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Furies of Calderon

I've enjoyed Jim Butcher's Dresden Files books well enough. They're easy reading, engaging, and fun. They're not high art, and there's a lot about them that's cheesy, repetitive, even ridiculous. In the first two, the writing is pretty bad. The characters are often more annoying than sympathetic. And yet the stories are entertaining, funny in the right places, tense in the right places, rich with an embarassingly diverse spread of stuff going on. They're a cheap joyride. They're like David Lee Roth singing in Van Halen: no one's going to accuse them of high artistry, but they never disappoint in being precisely the flashy fun they purport to be.

But while Butcher has done a great job of making a world background for Dresden that holds up despite shoving so many things into it, the same tendencies have not served him well in his other series, the Alera saga, or at least in its first book, Furies of Calderon. The central premise is a fairly standard swords-and-sorcery world, but where the form the sorcery takes is primarily furies, which are elemental spirits. Everyone has the ability of furycrafting (with one Xanth-reminiscent exception), so the only differences are in how powerful are the furies you bond with, and how skilled you are at encouraging them to do things. (It's unclear at this point what the furies get out of the deal.) So far, the limits in what furies can and can't do has not been very fully explained; probably in later books it will be fleshed out.

The problem I have is one that I've seen in lots of swords-and-sorcery books, only taken to a far more extreme level. So often we see in a swords-and-sorcery story that some bit of magic is able to completely subvert and bypass defenses like historically-accurate castle walls, rendering them ineffective. And yet, no one in the world ever seems to have considered this in deciding how (and whether) to build castle walls. The effects that magic would have on the world are not limited to Tom's ability to use it: they should also be reflected in Jane's realization that Tom can use it, so that Jane prepares for it. The ability to manufacture or preserve food supplies would completely change war, as would many kinds of healing, as would many magical forms of transportation, as would many methods of magic-enhanced stealth. And that's just war: even bigger changes would affect economics, and through them, social structures. Yet most swords-and-sorcery books ignore this, letting the reader be surprised when a magic trick bypasses defenses by letting the world's characters be surprised.

You can get away with this when magic is very, very rare. It only makes sense that I'm not going to avoid building a castle just because there's a legend that somewhere there's a guy who can raise mists and disguise someone's face and thus let a troop of soldiers sneak right in, because that's unlikely to happen, and in the meanwhile, the world is full of bandits and savages and rival warlords against whom those castle walls would work just fine. But when everyone's got a court wizard, and everyone knows everyone else has one, there's got to be a point when someone asks, "what kind of attack can we expect from the other guy's court wizard, and how can we adjust our defenses so they're not wholly vulnerable to that?"

Alera multiplies this problem a hundred-fold because everyone has furies. Once in a while we see a sign that someone has adapted to this. There are a few defenses people use to counter other people's furies, for instance. But most of the time, the idea that the other guy is going to use a fury, or how he might use it, comes as a complete surprise to the characters. And a large part of the book repeats the traditional castle-seige scene where this is most glaring, because virtually every plot twist in that lengthy section of the book is made of someone using a fury in a way that the people of that world should have seen a thousand times before, but against which there are no precautions, not even the simplest precaution of enough foresight to expect it.

And Butcher uses these kinds of twists as the backbone of the story. It would be one thing if the story was interesting and solid, but plagued with this kind of "continuity error", so it was just a quibble on my part. But these kinds of plot holes are the bulk of the fabric from which the story is woven. Not only does no one ever expect anyone else's furycrafting, almost nothing in the story happens for any reason other than those failures of expectation. What's left once you take those away are mostly overused clichés (the swordsman that can cut through scores of foes, but eventually meets the other swordsman that can cut through scores of foes; people falling in love instantly and for no particular reason) that you can forgive when there's more behind it.

Lest I seem too critical, the book has some engaging characters. The more "everyday" a character is, the more engaging they are: Butcher does best with the young and naive character, and worst with the villains, who are trite and uninspired. The storyline has Butcher's usual momentum, though that's weakened by him breaking it up too much, so by the time you get back to one group, you've forgotten where you last left them. There are some very nice moments, and the book ends on one, which almost redeems some of the ham-and-cheese that preceded it. When he's doing humor, Butcher never quails at playing the tried-and-true, but he does it with enough panache that you're laughing even while you groan. And apart from the one big hole I mentioned, his world background is interesting, particularly the savage Marat and their unusual customs.

I don't regret reading the book, though there were times I had to give myself a little bit of a push to keep going. I will probably read the others in the series. It'd be ideal reading for a long plane flight. But I wouldn't put it high on a list of books to read. I do hope that in subsequent books, the world gets a little more used to itself, because that could really turn this around: if Butcher really explores what this world should be like, with the depth that made Dresden Files a great choice for a roleplaying game, Alera could become fascinating (and maybe even a better choice for a roleplaying game) and the stories can't help but become far better for it.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Burning the wood I cut

Soft pine isn't very good for the woodstove compared to hardwoods, particularly if it's old and dried out. It's great for getting a fire started because it goes up fast, but it burns quickly, and tends to leave creosote in your chimney. On the east coast the latter factor is usually why it's avoided, but it's not as big a factor as people make it out; if you burn hot once in a while, that'll be cleaned out. When we've had our chimney cleaned, it's always already been pretty clean. And on the west coast, they burn a lot of pine because that's what they have, and no one makes a big deal.

The first wood I cut wasn't just soft pine, but very dried out and old soft pine, so much so that it weighs a fraction of what a proper log weighs. It's not exactly useless as firewood, but it burns up fast. I cut it anyway because I was a rank tyro and it seemed like good wood to practice on, particularly since it was only going to go to waste. I tried to intersperse it with the hardwood I cut and the hardwood we bought, both to spread it out, and so it could be used primarily for getting a fire started and then switch to hardwoods after it's going (and especially for bedtime).

But I didn't spread it out as well as I wanted, because I didn't have the separate piles available at the same time to combine together. So I've gotten to the point now where most of the wood left on the pile is the soft wood. So there's nothing to do but to load the wood more often, save the hardwoods for nighttime, and savor the fact that all of the wood we're burning now (even the hardwood) is wood I cut from my own land.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Age and politics

It's a cliché that people become more conservative as they get older, which is why the right wing tends to have more old people and the left wing more young people. But it's almost obvious to speculate that it's not that people's attitudes shift to the right, but that rather, they stay steady, and the world shifts under them; that what was radical in your youth will be reactionary in your retirement, so the progression from left to right as we age is actually not a transition at all.

But I don't think that holds up to close scrutiny. The central principles we associate with the left and right wings today are very similar to what they were a hundred years ago, even two hundred years ago. Sure, we can all point to shifts. What was considered "civil rights" a hundred years ago are mostly things we take for granted now, and a new frontier of civil rights exists. When the Republican Party was founded, it was leftist and very different from what it is now. And so on. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule. Who espouses leftist doctrines changes; what they call themselves changes; what the current important issue changes; but the same central ideas are still there, year to year, decade to decade, century to century. And those are the same ideas that, as people age, seem to transition from left to right. (Not in everyone, of course, but there does seem to be a tendency, and again the exceptions prove the rule.)

The other obvious explanation is simply that as we advance through life we tend to go from less settled to more settled. In youth, our future is unsure, we don't have much, we haven't made a mark yet, we are struggling to get a foothold on life. As time passes, for most people, they progress from there to having a home, a family, a little security, a little certainty. Some people progress only a little and some a lot, but that doesn't matter: however little you go along that path, every step tends to become very important and in need of protection, because each step is hard-won. You might not even realize how strong a need you feel to protect each step towards stability you've achieved, because you take it for granted.

And yet that doesn't really well align with leftist and rightist ideologies as well as it seems at first blush. Sure, the rightist idea of protecting the right of an individual to preserve what he's earned is pretty central. But at the same time, the ideal of someone who worked his way up from nothing through hard work and ingenuity is something the rightists claim for themselves, and isn't that dream most potent for the young person who has nothing and wants to work their way up from it? The leftist ideal of protecting the individual from the abuses of those wealthier or more powerful certainly appeals more to the young who are usually neither wealthy nor powerful, but most older people are more, not less, vulnerable to having powerful organizations take away that stability and prosperity from them that they so strongly wish to protect, which is just what activist leftists are trying to stop by policing the abuses of power of big companies and organizations.

Then again, maybe the impression that people shift towards the right as they age isn't supported by the facts and is just an unfounded stereotype. I have seen some research which questions it. For instance:

I'm not ready to buy this, but I could certainly accept that if there isn't such a trend, we could get the idea there is because in a particular generation (like, say, mine), the older generation tended to be more conservative than us. And I was born in the Summer of Love, so that's no surprise. For my whole life, the older generations were those who saw the World Wars and the squeaky-clean 50s, and the younger generations were those who were rebelling through the 60s, fighting for civil rights, and inventing environmentalism. Am I just overgeneralizing the moment I was born in? While there's something to that, I think that the trend does exist over the long term (maybe smaller than it seems to my generation, but not nothing), even if I can't cite anything that spans a large enough time period to prove it.

I suspect that a lot more of this is about biology and chemistry, and a lot less about ideology and politics, than anyone would be very comfortable believing.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

It's never Virus.DOS.Lupus.532

Had a few moments of triumph in diagnosing and fixing some obscure computer problems the last few days that I felt like celebrating here. If you don't want to be geeked out at, skip this post.

The Unreported Symptom: One of the cash registers in an agency was malfunctioning in a moderately common way: it lost some of its CMOS settings. This happens once in a while and it's not something we can fix remotely or talk the customer through fixing, so someone has to go there -- ideally not me, as we have some people in Retail Operations who are the first point of contact who are able to handle this. Some agencies have it happen more often than others; in rare cases it can be written off as a random belch of fate, but when it happens more often, one suspects a failing CMOS battery, or dirty power. And this agency was one where it has happened a lot.

To fix it, you reboot the register, press a particular key to get into BIOS settings, and redo any missing settings. Normally, you're asked for a password first; this is to prevent the customer from messing the settings up. In this case, there was no password prompt; and then, when our man on the scene tried to change the settings, they wouldn't change.

At first we thought he was getting in via some kind of 'read only' mode by doing the password prompt wrong. It's hard to diagnose things remotely going only on the report of a person on the scene who might not be describing everything accurately. Well, let's be honest. Who is never really describing the problem accurately and completely.

There are a lot of other issues that can make it hard to change the particular settings that needed changing. We needed to change the IRQ that the modem and network cards used, but you can't change an IRQ on one device to something used on another device, or reserved; so sometimes you have to go through in several steps, changing one set of IRQs to get other IRQs made available. You can even have to do this in multiple reboots, and it can be complicated to tell which is the simplest path to get to the desired configuration. So sometimes if you try to change an IRQ and it won't change all that tells you is that no other IRQ is available for that device.

Talking through it on the phone for a while, and finding it impossible to change any of the relevant settings -- they all just stubbornly refused to change -- I started casting about. Sometimes when I'm stuck I just try to work on something else, so I decided to check to see if the system had lost all its CMOS settings by checking another thing. Turns out it had, so I talked him through changing those settings, and they changed -- thus confirming that we were able to change settings generally, which pointed to the more complicated IRQ conflict possibilities for the other problem. (This, by the way, is why it didn't ask for a password; that's another setting it lost.)

We went back to the IRQ problem and tried again, but still no change. In fact, we couldn't even make pointless but harmless changes. Somewhere around there, I had that epiphany that you'll recognize as coming about midway through the last act of any House episode. I had him go back to the first thing we tried to change, and told him, instead of using the spacebar to change it (which cycles through settings), to use the keypad minus key (which cycles the reverse order). Sure enough, the setting changed. The keypad plus key (which does the same as the space bar) also worked. The real problem all along had been that the space key was broken.

And the customer never noticed because in the course of a regular day, they won't even use the space bar. They would only use it if doing a search for a product or customer by name, or when doing things like month-end reconciliation, breakage reporting, or special orders, and not even often then. It's the classic unreported symptom (because it didn't seem either important or relevant).

Using the numeric keypad we were able to get the settings fixed and the modem working again in no time, and to arrange to have the keyboard cleaned and/or replaced.

How Would You Like To Not Run That?: Most of the things we do on our Unix system are done from the command line so there's no reason to go to the computer itself when you can just telnet. But those Xwindows programs that run in the GUI, CDE, require you to go into the server room and use the main console. About the only thing we do there these days is use the CDE account manager, dxaccounts, because it's a lot easier to unlock accounts and reset passwords there than from the command line, since it's all in one place. (This is only true since we changed to C2 Security, which happened recently.)

However, the version of CDE that runs on this version of Digital Unix has the bad habit of, if left sitting for too long (by which I mean months), getting wedged, so that you can click on icons to run programs and nothing happens. This is no big deal. We don't use it very often (or else how would it manage to get wedged that way?) and when this happens all you have to do is log out and back in; it affects nothing other than that rarely-used console login. So I never bothered to see if it can be patched or fixed. It's literally something I use a few times a year.

Sometimes when you run a program that requires root access, it'll ask you if you want to run it as root, or as who you're logged in as... which, on this console, is root. So it's a pretty dumb question. Two buttons saying "run as root" and one saying "cancel".

After a recent reboot done to try to clean up another problem (as yet unfixed), we found ourselves unable to run the Account Manager program. It would throw up the "run as root" question, you'd click either of the "run as root" buttons, and then... nothing. No error message, no task in the process list, no anything. It was a real dead end; there was no way to see why it wasn't running, it just didn't. Logging off and back on didn't help at all, unusually.

With a user clamoring to get online, and several other crises going on, I just turned to doing what needed doing from the command line, and left the problem to sit for a day. When I got back to it, I was staring at the brick wall of having no clues to go on. The program simply didn't run and didn't say why. I had tried deleting and recreating the icon, running it from other places, monitoring the process list while it failed to run, and nothing came up.

Generally speaking you can't run GUI programs from the command line, but it is possible to do so from within the command line that nests inside the CDE environment, so my flash of insight was to try that. First, I had to look at the "run as root" message to find out what program it was running, since I had no way to tell by looking at the icon, but fortunately that message shows the full pathname of the program. Then I ran the program from within a nested command line, and, lo and behold, an error message came up!

It wasn't very helpful in itself, and in fact, it was downright inaccurate and deceptive, but it was still the chink in the wall that made everything else follow. Searching on the error message online yielded a number of leads, which when further narrowed down led to the problem. A previous run of the Account Manager had closed incorrectly, failing to delete a lock file (/etc/.AM_is_running), and each new run saw the file and refused to open assuming another copy was running. Since this lock is handled in the form of a file, and that file survives reboots, this problem can even last through a reboot. Terrible design, huh? Deleting the file immediately resolved the problem.

Sorry for the self-aggrandizement. Some days I need to revel in my victories so as not to feel overwhelmed by my defeats.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Voicemail should be IMAP-like

Given how gee-whiz smart our smartphones are, with integrated messaging from a variety of sources, and enough computing power in your pocket to waste more cycles on animating a menu than the entire computer power of NASA during the moon landings, isn't it silly how voicemail is still a relic from the 1980s? The whole interface is an almost-robotic voice saying "You have six new messages." Then you can listen to them in order, with no indication who made any of them, no integration with your missed calls list or your address book, and a clumsy interface that requires you to keep taking the phone away from your ear and then back.

It's all because of the server-side nature of voicemail. You can't let voicemails go through to your phone or computer and let them answer it because half the point of voicemail is to catch calls when your phone is off, or out of range. But imagine if we let that same reasoning hold us back on email systems. Email has to be handled by the server for the same reasons, and yet our email experience robustly integrates with our address books, other messaging streams, and the full interface and data management capabilities of our computers or phones.

That's all possible because of server/client communication protocols like POP3 and IMAP. The server handles getting the mail and holding it. The client handles organizing and managing it. There's support for using multiple clients for your email: let your phone and your computer each get the email and handle it to their strengths (portability, or better data management and better user interface, respectively). There's support for the "last ditch" interface when you don't have a client (webmail, generally, though I remember the days when it was PINE in a telnet session).

Voicemail should be like this. The current "You have six new messages. Press 1 to listen to your messages..." system should be the equivalent of the webmail interface your ISP provides: something you use when you can't get to your own machine, but need to check your messages anyway. The rest of the time, your phone and/or computer should connect to the server regularly and download your voicemails, then integrate them with what they already have. Your missed calls log should be updated to show an icon that tells if a voicemail went with it, and thus the voicemails should also be tied to your address book so you know who the voicemails were from before you open them. Voicemails and missed calls could be listed amongst your other messages if you want. You could choose to listen to the important ones first. Attach them as a voice recording file to your to-do items or documents. Set filters to highlight voicemails from important people or block ones from annoying ones. Delete them from the server from your device, or only locally. Respond to a voicemail with an email since it's tied to their address book entry. Feed the voicemail through voice recognition to get the text (if your device is powerful enough for that). Forward voicemails as email attachments. And so on.

There are a few systems, mostly high-end and limited to within a specific system (usually a landline system), that do some of this, and even the iPhone includes a fraction of this functionality (largely as part of being tied to a single provider); but there's no technological reason why it can't be integrated to voicemail as fundamentally as IMAP and POP3 are integrated to email, and supported across many clients and many servers. It's just a matter of a standard protocol being promulgated and then developed around.

If you had all that and someone else had to use voicemail the way we nearly all do today, you'd look at them like they were living in the Stone Age. And if you had to deal with email the way you deal with voicemail you probably wouldn't use email. In the age of the iPhone and Blackberry, why do we live with voicemail systems that haven't evolved in two decades?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Streaming on the T1

I got to play around a little bit with streaming video to the TV over the new T1 line. For now, I'm using TVersity on my home server to stream to the big TV through the PS3, because I already have been using it to stream music, photos, and video to the PS3, the D-Link, and my Archos. TVersity promises the ability to stream things like YouTube and Flickr but I never explored that due to the bandwidth limitations.

There's also support in the Pro version for streaming Hulu, BBC, and a host of other services. The Pro version costs $20, which is less than the competitors, plus it's available in an unlimited-term trialware version. Download it, use it, and then pay when you feel like it. Don't know if it has nags or anything, but it keeps working.

I haven't installed it yet because I haven't had time when neither I nor the TV were busy, of sufficient time to do an install knowing I could safely fix it or get back to the free version in case it goes wrong, since the ability to stream what we already have is something we're used to and wouldn't want to lose.

YouTube tests have been promising but hardly spectacular. First, some videos don't work; it seems anything with embedding disabled simply won't add. Video quality is far more hit-and-miss than it is on YouTube itself (and that's saying a lot) but I don't know how much of that is because I haven't configured things in an optimal fashion. Playlists work but not all the videos in them; they also don't look like a list of videos, but a list of folders which contain files and other folders, so it makes a bit of a mess. TVersity has a bunch of features to see videos by user or tag, or lists like "Most Reviewed Today", but these seem not to work. But all this is probably stuff I can fix by tweaking settings. TVersity doesn't have great help though, so it's a lot of guesswork.

I was able to get my Flickr photostream to show up, but I can't get groups, like the Nature Conservancy, to show, which is a shame as that would be nice to browse. But maybe it's way too big.

When I get the Pro version installed I will have to try out Hulu, but so far I have still never even gone to Hulu on my computer, so it might be an uphill battle to figure out how it fits into TVersity.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Another electrical success

One of my several problems with electricals in the house has been an under-counter light near the sink in the kitchen. Replacing the bulbs didn't help, so after getting some help on correctly disassembling it, I went looking for ballasts. But it turns out the builders used an unusual light design which is impossible to get parts for around here. Not only didn't Home Depot have it, even Barre Electrical and Lighting didn't have it. They said they could special-order it but it would probably cost more than a new fixture.

Having seen the way that the fixture was wired up (since I had to unwire it to take it to the stores) I concluded I could put in a new fixture myself. So on Saturday I bought one at Home Depot and yesterday I installed it.

The only thing that didn't go great is that the length of wire I had available forced me to put it a bit more to the left, that is, closer to the sink, than the old one, where ideally it would have been best to put it farther to the right, away from the sink which is already covered with some very effective lights.

But I had no trouble following the directions and got it installed in about a half hour. And it works fine. So, hurray for me.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A product idea

Socks has her own bed in the bedroom, and as you can see if you look around the edges of her, it once was white but now is mostly black except at the corners.

You can't just toss something like this into the washing machine and hope the hair will come off. Hair is stickier than Krazy Glue. There's only one thing that'll get it off, and that's sticky-tape. Even that post-it-strength tape they put on lint rollers isn't strong enough -- you'd be rolling rolling rolling, then peeling a new layer, and rolling rolling rolling, over and over, just to clear one spot.

But on something as big as a dog bed, packing tape is exceedingly inefficient. What someone needs to develop is a huge roll of Scotch tape that's three feet wide, like the cellophane shrinkwrap they use to palletize things in warehouses, but sticky. It would take two people, one to hold the roll horizontally, the other to unroll a few feet of it and stick it down onto the dog bed, or any other furniture the dog uses. Then... rrrrrrrrrriiiiiippppp, peel back all that hair and leave a nice clean dog bed in one, or at most two, passes. I'd buy it.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Valentine's Day

We're not really celebrating Valentine's Day in any particular way, but perhaps because of that, we're joking about celebrating Valentine's Day almost constantly. Last night I heated up some frozen mini lava cakes and made a big production of it being for Valentine's Day, just as we did earlier in the week with other things even more mundane. Today while grocery shopping, whenever one of us put something in the cart that was specifically for one or the other of us, we'd say Happy Valentine's Day and point to it.

A number of times we took it to the next level of absurdity: one of us would pick something up from a shelf (usually something Valentine's-Day-oriented) and give it to the other, saying "Happy Valentine's Day," after which the other would return the same gesture, and then the item would go back on the shelf. And after all, doesn't that already get you 90% of what you're getting from the commercialized version? And it's a lot cheaper.

Friday, February 12, 2010

On youthful pretentiousness

The inexperienced youth can be the most pretentious of species, but somehow, sometimes, they can go far enough into pretentioustown to come out the other side. When you combine that ability of the very young, for whom something familiar is new, to imagine they know everything about it because they just discovered it personally, with their extreme earnestness, you can achieve something so adorably pretentious it's no longer pretentious.

For instance, ever read the poetry of a 15-year-old who just had his first breakup or religious experience or epiphany? These days no 15-year-old would be so naïve that he wouldn't admit that, sure, plenty of other people have written poems on those subjects. But you know that while he won't say it, somewhere inside he thinks his poem is still something unique, and no one else would really understand.

Could you possibly be more pretentious than that? Yet, if it's truly earnest, and it usually is, it becomes so laughably naïve that the pretentiousness itself becomes amusing and turns into its opposite. It's like an unintended parody of itself. You can't help feel a little bad for feeling so condescending towards it but what else is there to do?

So what I'm wondering is, when people who like the badness of bad movies are watching bad movies, is it the same thing? It seems similar in principle, though I don't quite get the sense of bad movies going so far into bad they come out the other side. But at least it might help me understand it if that's what it's like.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Trouble getting medical care

Ever since the complete turnover of staff at the family health center we've been attending for years, and the resultant change to integrative medicine that made me worried we wouldn't fit in, we've had trouble getting follow-up care from our bariatric surgery.

Back when we had it, the people at High Point (in North Carolina) tried to insist -- literally while we were driving to the airport to leave, a week after the surgery -- that we would need to visit once a year for a follow-up. Previously, we had been very clear that we weren't going to do this and they were clear that we didn't need to, provided our primary care physician could order the right blood tests and keep in good communication with them. But the doctor insisted that no one had ever been able to pull that off. We insisted we could -- if anyone's organized enough to get blood tests on a schedule and get them faxed to the right place, it's us -- and we certainly have, despite any number of bouts of selective amnesia on the part of various people.

The fact is, there's nothing that requires us to be physically present in North Carolina, not when blood tests can be sent anywhere and the questions the doctors need to ask are simple ones. The only technical thing here is the blood tests; the physical examination is basic stuff with no real special things to check for, and the questions to be asked are also straightforward. I think 90% of the big fuss here is because of all those patients who can't follow directions and don't pay attention. It's regrettable that there are people who play squash after major surgery, but we're not them.

Last year's annual checkup was entirely satisfactory to the High Point people (though since then they've lost the report and forgotten they got -- both remedied now). However, this year we've hit a roadblock. The complete turnover of staff at our local medical center means all the "integrative medicine" staff don't feel qualified to follow our case. They haven't gone so far as to say we can't be their patients but they're pretty close -- how much care can they provide us if they don't feel qualified to follow the results of this surgery?

Even the local gastroenterologist's office won't do it. Everyone's planning for the worst case patient instead of us, and won't even meet us long enough to learn we're not the worst case.

So we're going to have to try to get a bariatric surgeon at one of the hospitals an hour away from us to do our annual checkup, because the alternative is flying to the most boring city in the world (okay, maybe not the most boring, they do have that Giant Chest of Drawers... so second most boring) once a year. I hope those surgeons won't mind doing followup on a surgery they didn't do that's not precisely the same as the RNY they do (not that the differences are terribly relevant here).

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Three-day weekend coming...

...and I really need it. Stress levels are rising again at work, not because of any one thing, but a bunch of unrelated things coinciding.

First, there's this legal boondoggle that is a sort of aftershock tremor from the awful project that had me frazzled this past summer. It's a nightmare of contract agreements that were signed but not legally binding and weren't reviewed, and having to renegotiate things after they've been thought to be in effect for years. Not only does this involve attempting to get five people in different organizations to agree to everything, and put us in the situation of having to take a hard line renegotiating a contract that we in good faith already agreed to years ago, about software on which we depend now, meaning we have a terrible negotiating position; it also puts me personally in the position of being the person who signed things based on assurances they'd been reviewed and okayed, and who agreed to them based on that in good faith, only to find out I didn't have the authority, so wondering what might fall on my shoulders if this goes more sour.

Next, we have the fact that my section has about 50% more work than it used to have, but has lost one of its five positions, and the person in another one has a lot of sick leave. I'm being pressured from one side to have my people take on even more non-IT-related duties (such as answering phones!) while on the other side my people are getting more and more upset about how much is being demanded of them. My efforts to find efficiencies are constantly hamstrung by territoriality disputes and well-intentioned but misguided bureaucracy. We're being pushed to the breaking point and I'm trying to stand in the middle of it, defending my team, scoring political points, keeping up with even the stupid demands, and trying to sneak a few real efficiency improvements in when no one's looking. And the latter keeps threatening to upset people, because of the chance they'll be asked to do something differently (not necessarily even more, just differently) which stacks even more stress.

As these things have been coming to a head, I came in yesterday to find our most important server had crashed and its most important disk partition had mysteriously lost about 50% of its disk space. I spent all day yesterday trying to clean up the fallout and figure out what was wrong with that disk, and I never figured it out, even with two times I took the system down (much to the inconvenience of the rest of my office). Still trying to figure out what's going on.

In the thick of this, I got sat down by a coworker for an issue about which I should not speak here, but to say that it necessitates me acting with extreme delicacy concerning a particular person who is hypersensitive, selectively amnesiac, and prone to taking things to "official" measures on vastly inadequate cause. This person has already driven off one person this way and I don't intend to be the next.

And so, "three day weekend" is today's mantra. I've got a huge pile of personal things I want to be doing backlogged, and I hope to use the weekend to ease the pressure of some of those on me. And maybe even find time to do some stress-burning things as well. (Though there's also a lot of grocery shopping, so maybe I won't have time even with it being a three-day weekend.) But at least I won't be at work.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010


...and speaking of charging me a fee for saving you money, eFiling of taxes (both federal and state) should be saving the government a lot more time and money than it'll save me. Actually, it doesn't really save me anything. The work of preparing my taxes would take about the same amount of time either way. About the only carrot they can dangle for me is "get your return a few days earlier" which is nice, but chump change compared to the benefits for them: getting the data of my report in electronic format, making it no doubt tons easier to verify it and use it to update their financials and aggregate data. That's got to save a huge slice of their infrastructure costs once it's in widespread use.

So they should be pushing it, and they are. Every year the tax books extol the virtues of eFiling and push me towards it. And every year I check, and every year it turns out to cost me money to use it, and every year I decide it's not worth it. Even if it only cost a dollar, the time value of money for the extra five days of the refund in my bank account isn't worth anywhere near a dollar of interest. It's a fool's game.

It gets even sillier on the state level for me. I always download the fill-in PDFs from the IRS website and send those in; typing isn't easier or harder but it certainly produces a more easily read document which must be saving the IRS staff a little time -- the printed PDFs have to be far more reliable to OCR than my handwriting. Vermont also offers PDFs, but they're not fill-in PDFs, but that's not the bad part. The bad part is, they say if you use the PDFs instead of the ones in the booklet, there will be a significant delay in your return processing. Why this should be I have no idea, but essentially it forces me to do handwritten forms, which all but guarantees that someone at the Department of Taxes has to squint at my handwriting and key in at least some of the numbers into a computer at some point. They've got two different ways set up to avoid that -- eFiling and PDFs -- and then they've sabotaged both of them with penalties for using them.

For crying out loud, I want to help make your job easier, now stop charging me for the privilege.

Monday, February 08, 2010

I want to wash your car

It's that time of year when I can't help thinking, as I see dirty cars everywhere, how delightful it would be to have a pressure washer full of warm water, and to just walk around from car to car. A solid stream of water peeling away layers of built-up, caked-on grime, which swirls away in sheets of filth and flows off, leaving shining, pristine cars behind.

And not just cars. Signs, buildings, traffic lights, you name it. Anything covered in February grime.

The image of the filth peeling back and rushing away is sensuous, seductive, almost visceral in its appeal. Thinking about it makes me feel... dirty.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Plumbing help sought

The drain in my guest bathroom sink is very slow (not consistently but most of the time) and it could probably benefit from a cleaning. However, I can't snake it out from the top since the plug is fixed. So I tried to open it up below and have had no luck. Here's what it looks like (click for a bigger image):

The gray section of pipe is where the drain plug is (it attaches at the back, you can't see that in this picture), and the only connections that aren't permanent (glued, so far as I can tell) are at its top and bottom. Both of those are finger-tight and can be loosened, as they are in this picture. But there's essentially no give at all. I can't move it up or down even a quarter-inch, and I certainly can't move it enough to get it out of the trap below. So I have no way to get a snake in there to clean it out.

With things like this, probably it's trivially easy to detach something to make it all come apart if you know where to detach it. But if you just go detaching things, you'll break something. Can anyone give me any advice? (If you need more pictures or detail just let me know what.)

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Romance on Babylon 5

(Do I have to put spoiler warnings up on a show this old?)

I was thinking about Babylon 5 and noticed something odd and perhaps unintended by JMS: excluding the too-alien characters like the Vorlons and Shadows, every major character on the show had at least one romance subplot, except for all the Narn characters. We know that Narns do have romance, marry, and mate (from G'Kar's stories of his family), but none of the Narn characters ever show the slightest inclination towards romance or even refer to it in their past. (G'Kar shows plenty of inclination towards sex, but it's clear it's not romantic at all.)

For these purposes, my definition of "major character" is anyone we get to know well enough that we'd know if they had romance in their lives. Anyone who was in the credits counts, and a few that weren't might still count. Let's go through the roster.

  • Sinclair: His relationship with Catherine Sakai runs through all of season one, culminating in an engagement.
  • Sheridan: In addition to his backstory with Anna, his arc with Delenn is a central plot throughout the series. (His marriage with Lochley is mentioned but never discussed in any terms that'd make clear it's romantic in nature.)
  • Ivanova: Unlucky in love, she had a few subplots with a Home Guard fellow and a comedy of errors with Lieutenant Corwin, but her big romance stories were with Talia and Marcus.
  • Lochley: Since I'm not going to count her dates with Gideon in Crusade she almost manages to be the exception, but it's clear her relationship with Zoe (revealed when she meets her ghost) was clearly romantic in nature. (I could probably also count Sheridan, but as mentioned, we never know if there was any romance in that.)
  • Garibaldi: Despite his long-term campaign of badinage with Talia and a few encounters with Dodger, Garibaldi always found his way back to Lise.
  • Zack Allen: Poor timing ruined his ongoing infatuation with Lyta. (And he's so dumb it never occurred to him later to reconsider that encounter in light of what he eventually found out was going on.)
  • Warren Keffer: Despite being in the credits a whole season he really shouldn't count as a major character. But even he has a throwaway scene introducing his love interest back home.
  • Marcus: His tragic romance for Ivanova runs through two seasons.
  • Talia: One could argue nothing Talia did counted since it was all really the PsiCorps construct, but really, that construct is who we knew as Talia. And she had backstory romances with Matt Stoner (okay, not really a romance) and Jason Ironheart (definitely a romance), as well as her pillow-talk romance with Ivanova.
  • Lyta: Lyta was oblivious to Zack, but unfortunately (for us as much as for her), did not resist the charms of Byron.
  • Byron: Please don't make me remember.
  • Bester: Not really a major character, but even so, he managed to have not only a wife and children back home (though that might have been a lie) but a romantic interest in a telepath-cyborg-popsicle that became a plot point.
  • Delenn: See Sheridan above.
  • Lennier: His unrequited love for Delenn becomes a plot point through the final season.
  • Londo: While his relationship with his three wives clearly doesn't count as romance, his passion for Adira Tyree lasts through the whole series despite her only appearing in two episodes (plus a body bag in a third).
  • Vir: Almost the exception, but he did clearly have moon eyes for Lyndisty for most of an episode there.
Amongst the characters that I'm not considering major enough, since we don't get to know them that well despite their repeated appearances, are Neroon, Refa, all the ambassadors from the Non-Aligned Worlds, the ISN newscasters, President Clark, and a host of other minor but recurring characters. I am also not counting the Vorlons and Shadows, since they're clearly too alien to consider, and the minions of the Shadows, since they're clearly more tools of the Shadows than individuals (even Morden).

And yet, for as much as we see G'Kar go through many changes over his life, and while we see him express a sexual interest in human females, there's never a moment where there's even a hint he has the slighest inclination to romance, or any history of it. Na'Toth's history gets cut short due to losing the actress, and she spends quite a few years in prison, but what we see of her makes the idea of her being romantic seem alien, and there's no sign of it. Ta'Lon doesn't even indicate any romantic tendencies (though he's hardly a major character). I don't even recall any other storylines in which even single-episode Narns have romances, or any suggestion of romance beyond the mere fact that they have families.

I wonder if JMS did that on purpose.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Having children or being childlike

Sometimes when I'm walking around my house I find myself thinking for a moment something like, "hey, this is really nice, I'd like to live in a house like this" because on some level I still think of myself as a youngish person who has plans and ambitions. And then of course I laugh at myself to have been thinking such a silly thing.

I was wondering why, at an age when most people are having midlife crises, I'm still feeling young. I am certainly an organized, responsible person, who isn't spontaneous much, who has an exhaustive to-do list, and who makes sure things that must be done get done. Hardly the model of fun-loving and childlike. And yet hardly a day goes by where I'm not doing something that to most people in their mid-40s would be considered frivolous. I don't just play games, I still structure my life around games. Most of my Christmas wish list is stuff that a kid still in school might say "When I'm a grownup, I'll be able to buy that whenever I want" -- and I have made that true. I didn't just get a jigsaw puzzle for Christmas (a quite respectable and "old person"-compatible kind of fun), I also got some computer games, a children's science-exploration building kit, and a Hot Wheels racetrack.

An unblinking analysis of how I can be responsible yet childlike runs up against one fact: I don't have children. This is the kind of thing that's very dangerous to say: people who have children can get defensive about it quickly. But if you're brutally honest about it you can't help agreeing that, for most people of limited means, there's a choice between having children, and having a lot of other things, including the free time and money to spend on a lot of the silly and fun and childlike pursuits.

To head off some of the defensiveness, I want to say clearly that I certainly don't object to the decision of those who have children, nor do I diminish that their choice is, for them, fulfilling and important and wonderful and all that. I've heard all the statements about how it changes everything and makes everything else seem trivial by comparison. Maybe I'm the one who feels defensive: instead of having that experience that parents insist is transcendent and transformative, I'm playing with Legos and roleplaying games and a bicycle and Rock Band. Am I throwing away my life?

It's hard to defend my life without seeming like I'm attacking theirs, but I'm not. Sure, I didn't go have a child so I don't know if, having done so, I would be saying now "I'm so glad I did it because it's wonderful in ways I never imagined." But I don't think so. For me, I would have all the stereotypical bad parts of being a parent. I'd be stressed, frazzled, exhausted. I'd feel like I never had time or money to do anything fun. I'd be having that midlife crisis in spades, wondering where my life went and whether I'd ever get to do the fun things I want to do. I'd probably be the guy who comes home from work and is too drained to do anything, and who has so much to do around the house on the weekend that it's hardly any relief from work.

Having chosen not to have children is why I have this house, it's why I can spend some of my time on things as silly and fun as Rock Band, and ultimately, it's a large part of why I like my life. Maybe kids would have been transformative, but I think it wouldn't be worth the risk.

So yes, I suppose I do feel defensive because I have no way to refute the "you would feel differently if you had them" argument -- and because that seems to most people more persuasive than the "and you would feel differently if you hadn't had them" counterargument does (because of an analogy, false I think, with the "how do you know you don't like broccoli if you haven't tried it?" argument).

Plus I think society still has lingering traces of the ethical argument that used to make sense centuries ago, when families and nations needed numbers to ensure their survival and strength. (I don't think there's any ethical argument that still holds water now about having children or not, but if there were, it'd be on my side: not having children is probably better for the world than having children right now. Of course, that's countered by the idea that adopting children is certainly better for the world than not adopting children, but you can chase the tail of that argument forever and end up back where you started.)

All told, I'm not trying to convince anyone to adopt my life, but I'm glad that I chose it all the same. I'm not in the slightest bit embarassed about the idea that I play with Legos. I think of the stress-cracked midlife-crisis guy in a tie who passes out on the sofa every night, and I think, maybe playing with Legos is at least as healthy. For me, certainly healthier. So I'm proud to still be childlike. It works for me.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Greatest Hits Of Everyone

I wrote before of the idea that one-hit wonders have invested a whole life's worth of talent into one song, and the idea that maybe their one song is better than any single song of an artist with a whole career of great works. And how, tempting as that idea is, I wonder if it's really fair. An MP3-CD of the hits of one-hit wonders make a fantastic listen, with a great diversity of styles and with every song, even those very worn and familiar, popping out and catching attention. But would a CD of the single biggest hits of non-one-hit-wonder bands do just as well?

On the drive in this morning I was thinking about making that CD. For a lot of bands that are definitely not one-hit wonders, it'd be easy to pick their one song. But for a lot more, it would be hard. Not just because they have a lot of great songs, but because a band with a lengthy and successful career has probably reinvented itself and its sounds multiple times, has played songs in a variety of styles, and thus, defies picking a single song to represent its best.

If you asked someone who wasn't a Rush fan what should be their one song, half of them would say Tom Sawyer, and the other half would say one of a handful of other songs (Closer To The Heart, Spirit of Radio, New World Man, Big Money, etc. depending on their age). But Rush has practically been a bunch of different bands over the years. No one song of theirs comes even close to being a fair representative for the purpose of testing the hypothesis (that the one hit of a one-hit wonder is a better song than any single song of an accomplished band).

And yet Rush, despite being unparalleled for musicianship or evolutionary change over its lengthy career, is maybe easier to answer this question for than a lot of others. After all, while Tom Sawyer doesn't represent a huge amount of sounds Rush has had, and may not be your favorite Rush song by far, few Rush fans would say it's not a great song. In the same way, it's a heartache to think of distilling all of Led Zeppelin's career with just Stairway to Heaven, but it'd be hard to deny that that's a great song and would have a place on an album intended to test that hypothesis. But what single Who song could you choose? No single song stands out; the closest I can think of might be Baba O'Riley, but not really. What Fleetwood Mac song would you choose? What Chicago song? And this issue isn't limited to the "classic rock"; you'd have the same problem with Cole Porter, Glenn Miller, Alanis Morrisette, or the White Stripes, I think.

It's easy to lose sight of the purpose here: it's not about saying "this song represents a band's entire oeuvre" or even "this is my favorite of their songs" but just that "this song serves to test the hypothesis that the best song of a many-hits band is as good as the best song of a one-hit wonder", so we want the song that will stand up on a collection of similar songs, give the same spread of diversity of styles, and really pop despite being often-played and familiar.

Now I'm not so sure I want to try to make the disk. (Not like I have the time to do it anyway, but even if I did, I don't know if I can make the experiment work. Or if the time it would take would be worth it for the enjoyment of the resulting disk in the car.)

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Playing the drums

Back in my teenage years I really wanted to be musical, but I spent the time and energy I could spare on guitar, which I turned out to be not that great at. I would study and practice and get one song, and then forget all the others. Then I'd try to get a new one, and forget the previous one. I could only remember snatches and parts of songs. I might have done better if I'd put more time to it -- even then I had too many other hobbies and interests -- but I was struggling against a lack of native talent.

While playing fake instruments in Rock Band isn't music, I think my time on the fake drums has been enough to convince me that, had I spent the time on drums back then, I might have become at least passable. Being tone-deaf and having short fingers aren't big obstacles, while having a good sense of rhythm is a definite asset. Learning to make my limbs work independently of one another is challenging but probably no more so than for other would-be drummers.

I certainly don't have the time or energy to learn real drums at this point in my life, but I can fiddle around and enjoy myself with thinking about it. Often, when I'm riding along to or from work, I'll be trying to figure out the drum part in my head, sorting out the separate rhythms of the different drums and figure out which hands would work on which, and test them by actually pretending to play -- i.e., playing "air drums". This is a good way to pass the time when you're a passenger. (I don't recommend it while driving. Every time you play the bass drum, the car leaps forward.)

Attempting that this morning convinced me of something I was already pretty sure of: the best song in the whole universe for Rock Band that isn't actually available for Rock Band is Radar Love by Golden Earring. It's not only a great song, it's a great song where if you listen carefully and deconstruct the various instruments, each one of them is doing something that's impressive and fun on its own. Everyone should go to the Rock Band website and request it.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Area code optional

When you grab a phone and start dialing, should you specify the area code? The correct answer depends on far too many factors.

Are you using a cell phone? If so, the answer is easy: always yes, even if the other number is right next to you, on the same provider as you, with the same exchange as you, on the same plan as you, even on the same account as you. This seems an inconvenience, but it's not really, compared to the alternative.

Otherwise, the answer depends on whether the exchange happens to be local to you, a factor which can't be told by looking at the number, unless you have a list memorized which is long, changes every few years, and becomes increasingly confusing with the addition of cell phones that are not so geographically linked.

But the real problem is that the system gives you an error if you provide it information it doesn't need, by including the area code when it's not required. It should be considered optional. That way, you could just dial it all if you aren't sure if the exchange is local, and it would always work. But the stupid phone system throws an error instead of connecting the call just because you provided correct but superfluous information, by dialing the area code on a call that turns out to be local.

If it wasn't like this and someone suggested making it that way, you would consider it a bug. Maybe when switch systems were physical switches, there was some reason for this, but that's not been the case for ages. When I have to use a land line, I seem to get it wrong almost every time I dial an unfamiliar number. It turns out to be a cell phone that is inexplicably local despite the owner living in one remote area, and being currently located in another remote area. Or it turns out that a number that is a short drive away happens to be across some arbitrary boundary, but I didn't include the area code because I didn't want the extra delay of the "area code not required" error and having to start over.

There's no real excuse for this. We just put up with it because it's always been this way. Stupid phone company. Graaahhhr.

Monday, February 01, 2010

My first date

As I have no particular ideas for a blog topic today, I'm digging out an anecdote from my youth that might shed a bit of light on me. It's the story of my first date, and then, many many years later, realizing that it had been a date.

I was always shy and also I was two years younger than my classmates, due to being pushed ahead a grade in elementary school plus having a July birthday. Combine that with the usual social isolation of being the smartest kid in almost every class I was in, at least until high school where they started to sort the kids out into "gifted and talented" classes and the like (and even then being one of the tops), and I was pretty socially inept. (Those who know me are probably chuckling at the past tense in that sentence. Believe me, I was far worse then than now, as this story might help to demonstrate.)

In my junior year (I was 15) I and one other teammate on the Math Team (I don't dare call us "mathletes," as the term was then, since even then I knew how corny that was) had qualified for the state finals. Math Team was barely funded; all we got was some bus trips on weekends, and a bit of photocopying, and that's it. No coverage for state finals for either transportation or lodging; if we got that far, it was our problem to deal with it. And the same was true for math teams all over the state, so whoever happened to be hosting the finals tended to do all they could to accomodate their guests. That included getting teammates (and their friends) to ask their families to put up the visiting math team members for the couple of days of the competition.

David and I got billeted at the home of one of the local math team members and her family was even kind enough to invite us to their meals. Their house wasn't very large and fitting in two guests was a strain, more than I realized at the time, and I wish I could retroactively express more appreciation than I did then.

It seemed like more of the same hospitality when the math team member whose family was hosting us, invited David and I to go out with her and a friend of hers to some kind of party that was going on at the school that night. We certainly had nothing else to be doing, being on our own in an unfamiliar town. I remember thinking, maybe they're just getting us back out of the house, so it'd only be polite to go ahead.

We went to the school gymnasium where we listened to a band, presumably of students from the school, massacre a variety of classic rock standards. Their rendition of Baba O'Riley still haunts me as the worst musical performance I ever heard. There wasn't really any dancing, perhaps because of how out of rhythm the band was, or perhaps because there wasn't room. We hung out there for a while and chatted mostly about our schools and math team and the music. I didn't realize it at the time, but of the two girls, one of them (the math team member whose home we were staying at) kept standing nearer to me, while her friend stood mostly near David. If that even occurred to me then I would probably have thought it was because of heights (David was a little taller than me, and the two girls were about the same heights as us).

After the band had done as much damage to music as we could stand, we took off for a nearby Friendly's where we had some ice cream. It didn't even register in the tiny little "social niceties" part of my brain how the girls seated us in the booth in the same pairings as before. Being both oblivious, and pleasantly egalitarian, I reacted not at all to the coincidence of them being female: they were just math team peers, and there was no reason to treat math team peers differently based on gender.

When we'd sat and chatted pleasantly long enough and eaten our ice cream (each of us paying for our own) we were brought back "home" where we turned in for the evening. So far as I know, David and the taller girl didn't do any canoodling -- if they had, I might have realized right then that it was a date. But I didn't.

In my defense, those activities would have been perfectly innocuously appropriate things for peers to do to welcome other peers to their town and show some hospitality. If the people putting us up had happened to be boys and we'd done the same things it would have seemed entirely suitable (and I don't mean in the "homoerotic overtones" sense, but even to prudish folk). But those were also suitable activities to be a date.

Thinking back on it more than ten years later, what made me think it was actually a date is more the way the two girls managed to keep arranging to be standing near the same one of us, the shorter one near me, the taller one near David, and then arranged us to be sitting the same way at Friendly's. My memories of the night are hazy otherwise, with the blurring of time (I can't even remember "my" date's name, and can only describe her in general terms -- short, dark hair to just past the shoulders, pretty face, hazel eyes, not fully come into curves yet). But in hindsight, some of her physical mannerisms, where she looked, etc. seem like they might have been vaguely flirtatious or at least welcoming of reciprocal attention -- in a nutshell, that she was paying attention more to me than to us.

On realizing it was a date, I hoped my total obliviousness wasn't rude or hurtful or anything. I don't imagine "my" date was heartbroken or even upset; she probably never even gave the night another thought after it was over. (And how much investment could she have had in a boy she knew would be going back to deepest darkest Lawn Guyland in two days anyway?) But she might have been hoping for some kind of reaction or expression of interest or appreciation. If it's any consolation to her, had I had the slightest glimmer of the date nature of the night, I would certainly have frozen up in shyness and been completely non-reactive, or not have gone at all, so at least we had a pleasant evening between peers.