Friday, April 30, 2010

Husband, wife, spouse, or partner

Sometimes when I'm talking to someone I know online, but to whom I don't care to reveal any more about my personal life than necessary, I might refer to Siobhan as my "partner" instead of "wife". Usually when this comes up, it's someone who doesn't even know if I'm male or female (though they might very well have an assumption on the subject). Maybe this makes them assume I'm gay or lesbian, which is fine with me.

It makes me wonder if gay and lesbian people feel constrained about what they can say. If talking to someone with whom they choose not to reveal their sexual orientation, for whatever reason, they can't make completely innocuous comments (like "I was late for work because I had to pick up my husband") without running into the sticky situation. Saying "husband" (if male, or "wife" if female) definitely reveals something, and in places where gay marriage isn't legal or accepted, it's also likely to lead to confusion. Saying "partner" seems to strongly imply the same thing (though at least avoiding the legal quagmire where gay marriage isn't yet legal). So you either avoid the issue by not saying anything, or you have to lie, or you have to reveal something.

Someday, anyone will be able to say either "wife" or "husband" without getting even a second thought, but we're a long way off from that day, it probably won't be in my lifetime. Maybe "spouse" will become more widely used (right now it feels forced and stilted since we only encounter it on things like forms generally). But until then, would it be good if we all tried to get in the habit of saying "partner," whether gay or straight, legally married or deprived of the legal right? Partially as a show of solidarity, but more to try to help arrange that everyone can speak freely without it revealing anything.

I suppose it's unlikely for enough people to adopt the habit for it to make a difference. But I still wonder how gay and lesbian people in committed relationships would feel about the idea. If enough people did it for it to make an impact, would that really help, or would it be going the wrong direction? And if not enough people did it, would it still be appreciated, even if only as a token gesture of solidarity, or would it instead seem like I was trying to co-opt something to which I am not entitled? I always find inclusion/exclusion terminology questions like this hard to predict.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

At least I was wearing pants

I had a dream last night in which Siobhan and I were at a con, probably Carnage (the venue seemed right). We were at one of the tables as other people started showing up, but I wasn't sure what game we'd signed up for, or what game system it would use. It turned out to be AD&D.

(When I told Siobhan this, she said "yuck," but it didn't bother me; a con is just the sort of place where the amount of exposure to AD&D would be approximately right. Although it must be noted that the only AD&D I've played at cons around here always sucked on a level unprecedented in the annals of con roleplaying, but that's more a statement about the person who runs it than the potential of the game, and its associated nostalgia.)

Compounding my sense of disorientation at not knowing what game we were signed up for, or what system it used, my reaction to this was simply to be upset that I hadn't brought enough dice. I only brought a single set of Chessex dice (my yellow/orange "Gemini" set, which I call "sunburst"), and the first thing we were doing is rolling 4d6 for character creation, and I already knew I would need to roll 2d8 later for combat damage, and I felt so unprepared and caught flat-footed.

This is obviously an echo of a minor incident at the last Carnage when, playing The Committee for the Exploration of Mysteries, I found I had nowhere near enough d6s, which is an odd thing for me as I have jillions of dice and usually have far too many of everything. Maybe the memory was jarred loose because I recently read those rules, but it was a few weeks ago, so it took a while for it to bubble up.

Still, the dream seems pretty obviously a parallel to the traditional "I didn't know we were going to have a test" and "I didn't wear my pants" dreams that symbolize feeling unprepared for something. I don't know what I feel unprepared for, though. I'm just amused that my geekish brain translated the standard dream to a roleplaying con and being short of dice, of all things. How nerdish can you get.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Talents out of time

I have a natural talent for computers and computer programming. It's just something that suits the way my brain works. In a way I was very lucky to be born when I did: I got to learn about computers when they were brand new. I was 10 when I had my first exposure to the very primitive computers of the time (printer-terminals on a PDP 11/8e that the school district was using for administrative purposes) and it was the perfect time in my development to discover what would be my career.

When I think about that bit of luck, I wonder, if I'd been born five years earlier, how different things would have been. But people five years older than me sometimes still work as programmers. What about if I'd been born 20 years earlier? Even less likely, but still possible. But why stop there? Think of poor Ada Lovelace, who we know had the talent, and never got to explore more than the tiniest corner of the possibilities; had she been born a century later she might not have become famous for it but she sure would have enjoyed her career. And think of the countless others born at her time, or earlier, who never got to even realize they had a talent for something that hadn't been invented and wouldn't be in their lifetimes.

Which invites the obvious mirror image question. How many people today have no idea that they have a rare natural talent for something whose merest existence we don't yet imagine? Sci-fi often posits such things -- a rare gift that enables a handful of people to understand hyperspace dynamics enough to be required for FTL ships, for instance. Maybe you're one of those few hyperspace-savants, and you'll never know, because hyperspace travel won't be invented for another two hundred years. So instead you fall into whatever line of work you fall into, never learning of the talent which would have let you shine and be appreciated as a genius in your field.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Building up a buffer

I took my own snarky criticism to heart and have been building up a buffer of blog posts. As of this writing, I'll have five completed and two partially-completed posts in the can, plus this one is itself being written in advance.

It's sorely tempting some days to just publish a previously-written one, but I am making an effort to keep the pipeline moving by writing a new post each day, so that I keep my buffer up. The main thing I'm doing is, when I have an idea, I try to write the post as soon after as possible, even if it won't get published for a while. Ideas often seem more worth writing at the time I have them than when I come back to them as an item on a list.

Of course there are always "timely" posts that have to do with whatever is going on in my life that day, which means the less timely posts can afford to wait. Even those I've found I can write partially ahead. For instance, I was adding to a post about the progress on my plumbing woes as I went, and published when I felt like it was enough.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Our puppy's past

Socks came to us from Random Rescue at an age of about one year old, and all we knew about her was that she'd been with Random Rescue for about a month (as I recall) and before that had come up to Vermont from Mississippi, where her previous owner was an older woman who had to give her up because she was going into a care facility. We're not even sure what her breed is: visually she looks like a black lab, period, but it's been speculated that she's a mix of that and something else, perhaps Australian shepherd. (Since there's no clear visual indication, we only pretend to be more certain than we really can be.)

After we'd had her for a couple of months, I contacted Random Rescue to ask if there was any way to get word back to her previous owner. I figured that if it were me who had to give my dog up to a rescue agency, I'd want to know how she did, and would be delighted to receive word that she'd found a healthy, happy home. And in the age of the Internet, there's no reason we should be unable to get in touch with the right people in Mississippi. Heck, it should be fairly easy to send photos or even video. About the only reason that should stop it is if the other person prefers not to be contacted, or isn't able to be contacted due to health concerns.

However, my efforts went nowhere. Random Rescue referred me to the agency in Mississippi from whom Socks came to them, who didn't respond to their email for a while, but when they did, they seemed to think it was a great idea, and promised to try to get in touch with the previous owner. They didn't tell me anything about her, which is as it should be -- it should be up to her to decide whether to let herself be contacted. But then we never heard back. I sent off one more "hi, did this fall through the cracks?" email, but when that didn't get answered, I dropped it. No way to tell if the rescue organization just was too busy, or if the former owner couldn't or didn't want to be contacted.

So not only can't we get word to her (though it's possible the rescue people did at least get to say "she's in a good home in Vermont" at least), we have no chance of finding anything about her past. Was she a city dog or a country dog? Did she have other dogs she lived with? What came of her litter? For that matter, what was her birthday, what's her actual breed, things like that? I wish we could find these things out. But I guess we'll just have to be content without knowing.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Plumbing woes continued

The continuing saga of my plumbing woes with the water softener:

Sunday: Al and I cut into the pipe and tried to clean it out with lengths of sturdy wire and a plumbing snake. We didn't get any obvious clots out, but the snake was going far enough in that it seemed to be getting into the main pipe, so we figured it might be clear. We reaffixed it with a collar and then forced the water softener to flush, and nothing came out, so we were hopeful, but we left cardboard under it so if it leaked later we'd know.

Monday: The cardboard was soaked and there were puddles over a fairly large area of the basement, so it must have flushed again later and this time spewed water. So I reopened the collar and used my wet-dry shopvac to pull out the standing water and kept working it, along with the wire, to try to loosen and suck out any clog. I got a bunch of thick yellowish stuff that probably shouldn't be investigated very closely (at least going on the smell), but again, I can't feel confident I cleared a clog, since I didn't pull out anything really definitively cloggish, like a knot of hair. Tried flushing the water softener again but it didn't push out water, probably because it had just been flushed, so I have to wait for its next regen (Tuesday night) to see if it spills again.

Thursday: Though I forced another regeneration on Wednesday night, still no new water. I don't know if that means I got the clog, though. When I did the regeneration on Monday, it skipped the "purge" cycle and went straight to "fill", which makes me wonder if it isn't doing that part now even when I force a regeneration because it did it recently enough to not have anything to purge. I think I'm not going to know if it's fixed until a week or two has passed without any more spills.

Sunday: Still no spillage. Dare I assume it's fixed?

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Compact fluorescents

You probably already know some of the advantages of compact fluorescent bulbs. They use far less electricity for the same amount of light, so while they cost a little more, they'll easily save more than that over their lifetimes. And they last a lot longer. All that means less cost to you, and less environmental impact on their manufacture, distribution, and disposal (though some of that last factor is eaten away by the fact that they're harder to dispose of safely), as well as the environmental impact from the energy that makes them glow.

When your light fixture is hard (or at least non-trivial) to get to, like a ceiling-mounted one, the fact that they last 5-10 times longer starts to add up to another advantage, too. This is especially so when the fixture is really a pain to reach, like the overhead lights on the cathedral ceiling of my great room, which are about 14' off the ground, and inside glass globes. My ladder, fully unfolded, just barely can get me up there, and it's nerve-wracking to climb up every time. So the last thing I want is to have to go up there every six months.

There's one advantage that might not have occurred to you, though. Most lamps have a maximum safe wattage. This could be because of the electrical wiring, but it's more likely to be because of heat. That's the case for those great room ceiling fixtures: the glass globe can't safely play host to lights with more than 60W before there's a danger of the heat building up inside that glass globe and causing such dangers as broken glass, electrical problems, and even fire. 60W might seem like a lot, but when it's 14' off the ground, and illuminating a large area, it's not very bright. They are conservative in their estimates, and many people put 75W or even higher into those fixtures, but it's not safe to do that in the long term.

Compact fluorescents provide a perfectly safe and acceptable "loophole" to these rules, since a CF bulb that gives off the equivalent of a 100W light is only about 24W. So it's more than safe in a fixtured rated to 60W, since it's really only drawing 24W of power, and only generating approximately as much heat as a 24W bulb would draw, even if it's giving off as much light as a 100W incandescent. (Not exactly, but near enough.)

Since there are now CF bulbs that are dimmable or three-way, and which come on pretty much instantly, and which produce a very natural tone of light devoid of the "flicker" that the long tube designs create, and which only cost around $10, there's not much reason not to start using them. We've been replacing bulbs with them as older incandescent bulbs burned out, and most of the bulbs in the house are now CFs, except the ones in specific shapes I can't yet get as CFs. Gradually I intend to switch everything over. Today, I replaced the bulbs in the great room overhead lights, and I'm very pleased with how the new 100W-equivalent bulbs are working.

Can't wait for the next generation that's coming, LED lights that use even less energy, produce even more natural-like light (more so than even incandescent), and last even longer. They're saying we'll have those ready for our light fixtures within a couple of years. So by the time these CFs are dying, I'll have a whole new generation of lights to replace them with.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Better luck with robots

I'm happy to report that my previous bad luck with robots has been resolved. Unfortunately, it was resolved at some cost to my bank account, but at least the robots are cheerfully hard at work.

Scooba unfortunately had to have most of it replaced (the actual robot, just not the batteries, charger, walls, etc.) and with a model one model down. It just means I can't run it as long between charges, though; it still does the job. Scooba's replacement happened first, so I've had to run her without Roomba going over the floors first, which is tricky; I have to empty the screen more often, and change batteries more often, and watch her more closely.

Roomba's replacement part came Monday night and was surprisingly easy to install. Now Roomba's hard at work doing the living room, which gets way too muddy and sandy (with so much traffic, including dog traffic) for Scooba to be able to clean on her own. (Roomba's battery still could use replacement, though. It's a great disappointment that the newer models use a battery you can't swap in and out so you can't run Roomba on one while another charges, like I do with the Scooba.)

I used the bachelor nights to try to catch up on Roombaing, to get it done when the noise wouldn't bother Siobhan, but I didn't quite finish so I'm doing more today during my work-from-home day. Good to have the robots back at work and better able to take care of themselves.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Vitamin D[3]

After our last bloodwork, the folks in North Carolina at the surgery where we had our bariatric surgeries went into Panic Mode about our Vitamin D levels. They called with some pretty extreme directions: go back onto a double-sized megadose (50,000 units not once but twice a week), plus a daily regular dose (2,000 units a day, though they made a point of that being D3), plus sending Siobhan to an endocrinologist.

This was a big surprise. Our new doctor had gone over those results with us and wasn't alarmed at all. Admittedly, she's not a bariatric surgeon, but she described my D levels as "low normal" and Siobhan's as just below low-normal. In both cases, they were higher than they'd been back when we were originally put onto the single megadose (50,000 units once a week). So why the big fuss?

We figured it out. They'd put us onto the 50,000 a week dosage, and after a while, when our levels were getting back up, they took us off it and told us to go to a regular, non-prescription level of 2,000 a day. However, they seem to have forgotten they changed it. So when they saw our levels dropping back to low-normal, they thought we were still on the megadose, in which case a drop would be alarming.

You'd think that once we reminded them that they'd dropped us to the 2,000 unit dose, they'd retract their panicked reaction and just put us back onto the 50,000 unit dose. But, for no reason we can determine, they didn't. Even after acknowledging how they'd gotten mixed up, they simply kept us on the huge dose (50,000 twice a week, plus 2,000 a day, which seems really arbitrary). The only thing they withdrew is the need to see an endocrinologist.

Can't make much sense of it, but I'm not about to argue when it's only vitamin D, so it's not like we're dealing with bad side effects, seriously alarmed about what it might be doing to our bodies, or paying a lot for it. So easier to just do the super-duper-mega-dose and live with it. It does mean we have to ride herd on the North Carolina crew a bit more closely to make sure they don't get themselves confused again, though. This mistake was fairly benign, and one assumes if they were prescribing something riskier they'd be more careful, but it's still not confidence-raising to have mixups like this (or at least like what it seems to be -- maybe they've got some reason they're not bothering to explain) in our medical care.

Incidentally, I went to the store to buy some Vitamin D3, only to find the regular Vitamin D I had been taking already was D3. Oh well, it won't go to waste.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Sings, plays guitar, writes songs, and is sexy too?

I was just listening to some Orianthi during my bike ride and found myself thinking about her particular variety of talents. Her best of course is as a guitar player; she's still young, but great for her age, with promise of being a real notable figure in the field eventually. You'd think that would be enough to get her secure in the music business, but it doesn't work that way.

She's also a fairly good singer. When I say "fairly good" I mean by the standards of the music industry. If she were just one of the girls down at the local supermarket she'd probably be one of the best singers you know, if not the best. But compared to the other singers you're hearing on records, she's only serviceable, nothing special.

As a songwriter, she's nothing special. Her songs are a little clumsy and derivative, the words ranging from trite to bland, the melodies and arrangements solid but never unexpected. One hopes she'll mature in this (or if not, let other people write songs for her; this used to be very common, but it's less common these days, and while I appreciate the virtues of the singer-songwriter, there were also virtues to employing the people who write better than they sing, and sing better than they write, like we used to do).

But she also just happens to be fairly hot. Not "top ten list" hot by any means, but if she were walking down the street, you'd look. She's got a pretty face and a fairly curvy body, at least. And for a female, it's nearly impossible to get by on talent, even when you've got three different ones (guitar, singing, and songwriting), unless you also happen to be at a minimum pretty, and ideally, also sexy. This is a lot less so for a male; certainly, being sexy is a very helpful thing for a male musician, and can substitute for a lot of talent, but male musicians ranging from gangly to butt-ugly get recording contracts all the time and even are allowed to make videos. With females, there are very few exceptions to the "must be hot" rule (though we will let an older female who used to be hot have a pass now and then). There are exceptions, of course, but so few that they tend to prove the rule (and even then, they are often relegated to the fringes of popular culture, condemned to being labelled in one of the various "alternative" or "indie" subsets, or forced to rely on more gimmicks like outrageous clothes.

I can't help wonder how many really good singers, guitar players, etc. we're passing up. Plenty of people have bemoaned this. The big fuss about Susan Boyle last year even brought the question briefly to the forefront. But it's not just, how many great guitar players out there we never hear of; it's also, how many people are out there that would have been great guitar players, but never even pursued their inborn talent because their looks would never have worked out for them anyway. If you assume that talent and looks are more-or-less randomly distributed and uncorrelated, it stands to reason that for every ultratalented person who was also in the top 1% of looks, there would be 99 others who weren't. Odds are high therefore that the most talented guitarists wouldn't also be the most attractive people, and so we're often losing out on their talents.

Then again, is my assumption faulty? If both beauty and musical talent have some genetic component, or an environmental one, or both, they might correlate just because a tendency to bring beautiful and talented people together might concentrate talent amongst their offspring, while in the rest of the population, talent would be randomly distributed and less likely to increase by concentration over the generations. If this is the case... maybe we should stop letting ugly but talented guys become rich and famous! Imagine how much more beautiful the next crop of pop stars would be if we stopped tainting the rock-star gene pool with the likes of Mötley Crüe.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Bachelor nights

I took Siobhan to the airport yesterday, and will pick her up on Thursday, so I'm now into my three-night-long bachelor interlude. Though it's not so much of a separation; Siobhan's been chatting with Socks (and sometimes me) via Skype regularly. (Okay, to be fair, it was mostly me. Socks was intrigued at hearing Mommy's voice and came over to look at the screen for a minute, but soon lost interest. The computer doesn't smell like Mom.)

I decided to plan my three nights of cooking all at once. Last night I cooked a largish amount of seasoned ground beef, and had tacos. The leftover beef will make good nachos tonight, and burritos tomorrow night. Three meals out of one package of meat means I don't have to adjust for the quantities of our packages being suited for a meal for two, and lets me get some of the gap between my appreciation for Tex-Mex and Siobhan's to be made up. Plus those are all easy meals. And I can easily keep up with the dishes. (I emptied the dishwasher and loaded it last night, so since I can load everything as I use it, the house will end the week with no dirty dishes.)

The house isn't really quiet: on the contrary, there's constant music. But it does feel a little empty. Fortunately, Socks has enough energy for everyone.

Had hoped to get a head start on my regular activities of the week but got sidetracked last night by a lot of things so I'm now a day behind. Plus, I have some desks to pick up tonight and assemble, which wasn't in my original schedule for the week.

Monday, April 19, 2010

On the benefits of being good-tempered

Socks is the most even-tempered, enthusiastic, and generally positive creature ever. She has three moods: sleeping, bored, and excited, and she spends most of her time in the last one. Almost everything is wonderfully fun and happy-making. Absolutely the only bad thing is idleness in excess of that required for dozing.

Today was a great example of how this works out well for her. Yesterday, we had company over, and that was the best thing ever! Today, we had a long drive to the airport, which was the best thing ever! Afterwards, we had a walk around the parking lot near Moe's and Petsmart, which is full of smells, and which is therefore the best thing ever! Then she got a side order of "extra meat" from Moe's to eat, which was the best thing ever! Afterwards, a long ride home with some chances to stick her head out the car window, which is the best thing ever! Then we got back to her familiar, comfortable home with a soft sofa to lie in and her own dedicated spot thereupon, which was the best thing ever!

I wonder if she realizes that whatever happens next will probably also be the best thing ever, and thus appreciates that life is always getting better. Probably not. Everything seems to be wonderful entirely on its own, whether it's a surprise or the fulfillment of well-worn routine.

She has a good life in many ways. (A lot of dogs don't get a bowl full of greasy burrito-meat in the middle of a long car drive.) Of course, she also has a lot of time home alone with no one to play with, and in the winter she doesn't get as much exercise as would be ideal. But in all, she has a very good life. But her general sense of being happy almost all the time seems almost independent of that. She's not happy because of the sum total of all the good things in her life: she's happy about each thing, taken on its own, in the moment.

The life lesson there is kind of obvious and not necessarily helpful if taken too literally, as it would be on a bumpersticker or in a Cathy comic strip; but if not taken too far, it's certainly illustrative. There are a lot of good quotes about this, but this one is my favorite:
"Happiness is always a by-product. It is probably a matter of temperament, and for anything I know it may be glandular. But it is not something that can be demanded from life, and if you are not happy you had better stop worrying about it and see what treasures you can pluck from your own brand of unhappiness." - Robertson Davies
Roberston's probably taking it a little too far too if you take him literally, but the quote is nevertheless telling, and insightful.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


I know the reasons why passwords have to be starred out while you're typing them. Someone could be looking over your shoulder and catch a glance at it, blah blah blah.

But I have to type passwords dozens of times a day into many devices, and often these have to be complex, difficult passwords, case-sensitive, with punctuation and digits. And if I mess up my system will freeze and not let me try again for a while. 99% of the time there's no one around who even could be catching a glimpse of my screen. Not even with binoculars from a distance.

Even worse, typing a password on a cell phone is usually starred out, even though obviously no one can see it, it's in my hand. And typing passwords on a cell phone is even harder since you've got a tiny keyboard at best (a numeric keypad even worse, and an on-screen keyboard worst of all). To be fair, sometimes when I'm entering a password on my cell phone I get to see the last character I typed, but once I type another one, the first one goes to a star. But there's no point in any of it being starred out.

It feels like a policy that made some sense (in the "better safe than sorry" mindset) 20 years ago has become de rigeur and carried forward to today without anyone asking if its costs still outweigh its benefits, given how many more passwords we have now, how much more often they change, and how much more complex they are. Wouldn't it make sense to make every password box at least have a toggle between hidden and shown? You could even make it default to hidden, but give us a quick toggle click or keystroke to make it shown if we know no one else is behind us, and there's no security cameras (though really, a security camera that could read it off your screen can probably also read where you fingers move on the keyboard).

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Plumbing woes

Back during that week in early mud season when the ground was at its peak saturation, we got a bit of water in the basement. Nothing unusual about that: if you live in Vermont, no matter how you build a house, water's going to come in if you happen to be in land that carries it, and the only way to avoid it completely is to be somewhere else. (And as the dry land all got sold off years ago, there's not much to buy to build on.) So you just keep things that can be water-damaged off the floor, and for a few days in March, your basement has puddles.

This year, this was complicated a bit by the fact that our leachfield and septic system was in need of pumping out. To what extent this is caused by the leachfield being saturated generally, and to what extent it's normal, is uncertain to me. Everywhere I have ever lived with a septic system, someone who pumped out the tank thought that the septic system was filling in too fast and might need to be rebuilt, and someone else who built them said it wasn't. Sometimes I wonder if it's more of that issue of wet versus dry land: the only land you can build on these days is wetter, more ledgy, and generally less able to support good drainage than the land that the old-timers are used to. But maybe not. No one ever really knows for sure. So I just get the thing pumped out every 2-3 years and that's that. We got it pumped out about a week after the puddling.

In addition to the normal puddling there was one place where water came from above, from the point where the water softener's regeneration and purge circuit pours out into the outgoing septic line. This only happened one time, it hasn't repeated, so it seemed certain that it was caused by the septic system being full.

Yesterday, we had our regular annual servicing on the water softener, and the instant the guy started flushing the pressure from the system, it started to spill out of that same pipe, quite vigorously. After talking with him for a while, he concluded that there must be a clog in the trap where that pipe feeds in, and that every time the water softener regenerates (every few days), it'll pour water out onto the floor like that for hours. He's so certain of this that he disabled the regeneration for now.

However, it has been doing that regeneration normally all along, and it hasn't spilled at all, so far as I could tell. I'm not down there every day, but I've been down there several times, and there wasn't even a moist spot, let alone the kind of puddle that would be left from the huge spill he predicts. So it's one of those cases where a perfectly functioning system happens to be fatally flawed in a way that was there all along, but only noticed the moment you get routine maintenance done.

What's worse, the trap in question is all affixed with glue, with nothing that can be unscrewed, so the only way to even confirm there is a clot, let alone clean it, is to cut into the pipe with a hacksaw, then put a collar in when done to reaffix it all. No idea yet if I can add in a collar that lets me unscrew it for the next time, but I doubt it (seems like we'd have to cut into it in two places for that to work).

This is a typical plumbing experience for me. If there was ever a bit of infrastructure I want to fade into the background and never think about, it's plumbing. Most of the time it does, but when it doesn't, it always insists on being in complete defiance of logic, for maximum frustration.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Posts in the pipeline

One of the webcomics I read every day is Schlock Mercenary (like a lot of other people). There's never a day when there isn't a comic for that day (barring server failures, and even then, I think he's always gotten the comic up before the end of the day). By contrast, Real Life, which I also read every day, has a "no comic today" day every few weeks, because of the creator being out of ideas, having no time, being ill, etc.

So how does Schlock Mercenary do it? Simple. He's not working on tomorrow's strip today. He's always a few weeks ahead. If he gets sick, his buffer of strips will drop, and when he's better, he builds it back up. The Real Life guy, by contrast, does one strip a day, and has no days ahead.

Whenever I see one of his "no strip today" posts, I have a moment of feeling very uncharitable as I think, "if you just got a week ahead, that wouldn't happen," and then I berate myself: the guy's not making a living on this, and I'm not paying for it, and if he misses a day now and then, that's fine. Sure, it's not very professional, but that's okay because by definition he's an amateur, in the dictionary sense of the word. (Schlock Mercenary did buffering long before he quit the day job and made the strip his job, though.)

Some days, I barely get a blog post in, because I feel drained of good ideas (and don't have any on my "blog post ideas" pile that inspire me), or because I get busy and run out of time. When I travel, sometimes I can't get posts in. While a blog is often more "timely" (maybe a third of my posts are on something that happened that day or the day before), there's no reason I can't heed my own berating advice and start writing a few posts ahead. It'd just take a few days to write a few extra posts, and then I'd have a buffer; after that, one post a day would still keep the buffer the same size, so it'd be no extra work after that initial burst.

And yet the idea just doesn't grab me. The idea of coming up with a week's worth of blog posts ahead of time seems too daunting. So while I grumble about Real Life not doing the easy thing they could do, I'm not doing it either. Curses! Foiled by my own snarkiness.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Getting back on the horse

Each night after work this week I've taken Socks back out for a short, easy bikeride. We're not going that far, I'm letting the electric assist do more of the work, and I'm being less inclined to let her decide how far we go on the walking part so as to not overexert myself or strain my knee, which is mostly better but still a little stiff at times and occasionally sensitive to being jarred or jostled in the wrong place or direction. (The swelling from the blood bubble is still there, barely visible but not gone yet. It's likely to take a while.) I've also been starting up doing exercise on the recument bike at work this week and will probably go back to the regular bike next week.

My rides with Socks have been a bit nerve-wracking, more so than after any other bike accident I've had, perhaps because of how close this last one was to being far, far worse. I'm tense, wary, alert to every sound and shift, and having to stop myself from thinking through worry-scenarios. The fact is, the cause of that accident (and of the previous one, actually) has been remedied: I'm not using the retractable leash to counteract the safety features of the Springer anymore. So an accident like that is now scarcely any more likely than on any other bikeride. But I'm still going through that "getting back on the horse" phenomenon, and it's still a little nervous. I've never really gone through this before, that I can recall.

It feels good to be getting back into exercising, since I'd been just beginning to emerge from the torpor of winter when the accident set me back another three weeks. And I suppose the nervousness is starting to fade a little, and is likely to continue to do so.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


On the way in to work this morning, on a back road, we came upon a fresh accident scene. There was a youngish guy standing by the side of the road, and behind him, an SUV had been flipped and totally trashed, surrounded by bits of debris. The car wasn't just totalled; the entire passenger compartment was pancaked flat. I immediately started thinking if there was someone still in there we'd have a hard time getting them out, but I also realized that there wouldn't be much left to get out -- no one still there would have much chance of having survived. But thankfully, there wasn't anyone in there.

What I can't figure out at all is how the driver escaped. Maybe the driver's side wasn't as flattened as the passenger side, but that seems very unlikely. He has to have gotten out before the car flipped somehow, and lucky for him, there wasn't a scratch on him. But if he'd been in the car it'd be a corpse they were pulling out of the wreckage.

He was understandably shaken, though considering, he was calmer than I'd expect. He was calling 911 even as we pulled up, and told us the accident had only just happened. We were trying to figure out if he needed us to stay when someone coming up behind us, in military camouflage, briskly took over the scene, checked the guy out, and waved us on. So we left.

The more I think about it the harder it seems to imagine how he could have gotten out of that without a scratch. I wish I'd taken a picture (as crass as that might have seemed) because without a picture you might not be imagining the level of damage to the car as being as great as it was, and thus, his miraculous escape as the unlikely feat it must have been.

When I was a kid my parents were in the volunteer fire department as ambulance crew, so there were a few times that we came upon an accident and pulled over to help. We carried a first aid kit in the car, and dutifully enough I still have a first aid kid and emergency kit in my car, but have never used it. If there had been anyone hurt in this accident I wonder how well I would have done with my long-rusty first aid skills and minimal kit.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

RealTime as an eBook?

A few times I have thought about whether my roleplaying game RealTime would be a good independent press RPG. It's an unusual game that's just about far enough from the mainstream core to fit into the indie presses, and can be expressed in a short enough book. And while I place little stock in my own ability to promote it, I think it's a good game that does something unique, so the independent press is a great place for it. However, each time I think about this, there are three roadblocks.

First, I have so many things I want to be spending my time doing, that doing a big rewrite of the game is not easy to find the time for. I'd do it only if I felt pretty sure that something would come of it -- if the other obstacles could be overcome, and I felt there was a fair chance I'd get some interest.

Second, even in the modern age of print-on-demand and PDF sales, setting up a small print run would require me to invest a bunch of cash up front with little assurance of recouping it. The smallest run would still be a fair chunk of change, and while it's nice to dream of making a profit, it's just as likely that, after all that, no one would buy the game. After all, while it's a given that free games never get looked at unless there's a famous name associated with them, even games with a cost don't always make an impression on the indie game customers.

Third, and this one is usually the clincher since it's largely out of my hands, I can't get an artist who'll do logos, a cover, character sheet work, borders, and tone-setting art for it, and without that stuff a game goes from looking "indie press" to looking "made in some guy's garage" with zero chance of getting noticed. But artists don't usually work for a slice of the profits even when there's a good chance of there being profits. At best, they'll work for a slice of the gross; at worst, for up-front money. RealTime wouldn't need as much art as some games due to the setting being modern-day, but I can't go anywhere without some.

Today it occurred to me that I might be able to revive the idea by simply removing the "printed" part entirely and targetting eBooks exclusively. There's nothing about RealTime that would really need the large page size of some roleplaying books (no big tables or maps, for instance), and the only bits that would need to be printed are the character sheet and some materials from the sample adventure, which I could certainly make available separately.

How would this help? On roadblock one, the time it'd take to do a rewrite, it would help a bit only because formatting an eBook -- and here I mean one intended for reading on screen, not paper -- can actually be easier. The actual composing of text would be the same, but less fiddling with pagination and wrapping images and page composition to worry about. There's a little extra work if I wanted to make it available for multiple readers, but not much: a simple HTML document is the default for the Kindle, and easily enough converted to other formats for things like the Nook and for PDFs. (Even formatted more for the screen than the printer, a PDF will require more work than the other formats, especially since PDF isn't designed for screens and can't really reflow margins to fit screens like a real eBook, so it takes a lot more work to make a PDF that will be readable despite its limitations. But PDF's still too big a market to ignore.)

Roadblock two pretty much vanishes. If I had the text written right now I could probably have it up for sale on my Kindle within a day without investing a penny. I could get a PDF up for sale on any of various sites without any up-front investment too. I've not looked into the Nook licensing but I would be surprised if there was more than a nominal account setup cost.

Roadblock three is only somewhat minimized. I still have the same issues of artists not wanting to work for a share of sales, though the distinction between gross and net becomes less muddled since the up-front costs are eliminated. I need less art, and it's less important, because a typical eBook on the Kindle is mostly text with art used only for illustrations and the occasional accent; the aesthetic we're comparing to is more like the paperback novel, where text is king. Roleplaying game books have become big production numbers with splashy full-color glossy paper and art on every page, so even the indies have to have lots of art to not look "cheap," but I think that expectation is likely to be less of an issue on an eReader. Mostly I'd need a front cover, a distinctive logo, and a snazzy character sheet. A little bit of internal art and maybe borders would help (particularly for the PDF version) but I could get by with a lot less (and some of that could be modern clipart or photography).

I'm sure by now someone's released a for-purchase (as opposed to free) roleplaying game specifically as an eBook formatted only for reading on such devices, but I haven't heard of it. The few roleplaying game books I've seen on the Kindle store are all adapted PDFs with minimal effort put to making it look good and work well on the Kindle. So if it ends up being the first eBook-only RPG release, that'd be cool too. (It's already the first roleplaying game played in real time, and since it's set in today, having it use the technology of today seems appropriate too.)

So I'm making overtures to artists again, and this time I think I'll try to pursue responses more assiduously. If anyone knows any artists who might enjoy a job like this, send them my way.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Rock Band Network

I'd like to take a minute to grouse about Rock Band Network not being available for the PS3.

Admittedly, most of the tracks on RBN now are things I would be very unlikely to buy; true to intent and expectation, RBN is mostly populated so far with bands not widely known but interested in making a mark, who are now struggling with selling a $2 game version of a song when they have trouble selling the song itself for $1, both because people don't know the song well enough to know if they want to pay. Free samples of the song/game are harder to get on RBN -- you could open a browser and go listen to a sample of the MP3-for-sale on iTunes/Amazon/whatever if you want, but it's not integral to the buying process. (They should perhaps make a system where you can download a song for free but it only lasts for three playings or an hour, or something.) Nor do RBN tunes tend to cost less than the main Rock Band songs, which is surprising.

But there are a few RBN songs I'd like to buy, and I would like the opportunity to explore others. And I have hopes other bands we probably won't ever see from Rock Band directly (like They Might Be Giants) would be obvious candidates for RBN (being geeks, technophiles, and great fans of using technology to get people involved in music).

However, with RBN up for almost two months now, there's still no RBN for anything other than Xbox. The reason apparently is that the Xbox network's architecture (XNA) includes a bunch of functions to make it really easy for data files to be exchanged between game players and developers, and Microsoft doesn't charge for the bandwidth. That made it simple for Harmonix to deploy RBN using the existing network, and to keep licensing agreements simple since the only parties (other than the customer) are the band and Harmonix. Deploying to PS3 and Wii requires not just the conversion process (assuming, as some people claim, the file formats require any significant conversion process) but also dealing with the distribution system in an entirely different and more complicated way, plus paying Sony and Nintendo a share for the slot in their stores, which complicates the legal issues of licensing agreements with the bands.

So it was expected this would mean Xbox players would get all the tracks first, and then only the ones that did well would migrate on, about 30 days later, to the PS3 and Wii. But so far, there hasn't even been an announcement about PS3 or Wii offerings, or an update to the months-old statements that came out when RBN itself was first announced. All I could find were a few semi-informal posts on forums, apologizing and insisting it's all much more complex than you'd expect.

I can't believe that when Harmonix was drawing up legal terms to offer developers they didn't include multi-platform licensing up front. That's hardly something that might have slipped their minds. At worst, they have to tell the bands they get one rate when the track sells on one network, and another rate on another platform. Big deal. I don't buy that that's a real obstacle, unless Harmonix completely had their heads in the sand for some reason (in which case they should own up to that, and then fix it -- their lawyers can probably draft up terms to fix it in a few days).

Which leaves technical issues. Putting the tracks in the Playstation Store can't be a big challenge, since they are already putting their other tracks up every week, and so far the RBN tracks are offered by precisely the same mechanism so it can't require different procedures or software. Sure, Sony has a more rigorous quality assurance testing than Microsoft ever dreamed of, but they're already pushing tracks through that process every week.

Which leaves only file format conversion, and I can imagine that could be a lot trickier than people expect, but why isn't Harmonix fessing up that that's the real roadblock? And why didn't they work on making it so the developer faces that hurdle by building it into the SDK? The whole point of RBN is to shift the burden onto the bands.

It's bad enough we'll never get most of the RBN tracks. Right now, we don't even know if we'll ever get any of them. An announcement would really be a nice good faith gesture.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Clash of the Titans

I'm not one of those people who watched the original Clash of the Titans movie over and over. I saw it a few times, and I barely remember any more of it than a few impressions and a handful of memorable elements. So I went to see the new Clash of the Titans in 3D based on the trailers making me think I might enjoy it. Having seen it, I think I'd just as well have waited for the DVD.

Sure, on DVD I couldn't see it in 3D, but this is really a testament to what James Cameron is saying: converting something that was neither composed for, nor filmed in, 3D, is only going to give 3D a bad name. At best it was unimportant; at worst, distracting. Rarely did it really add anything. At least we haven't slid back to the days when 3D movies meant people poking things towards you all the time (though the people who made Step Up 3D haven't heard, judging from the trailer... then again, there wasn't enough in Step Up to make one movie, let alone three, so what else are they gonna do? But I digress.)

A movie like this is mostly about the action scenes, and often I found myself thinking, hmm, this looks like a good fight scene, I wish I could see it, or tell what was going on. Frequently, you could tell the outcome of an action sequence only because the characters told each other what resulted, or because you already knew how it had to end, but you couldn't tell how they got there. How many of those things were there? Who was where? How did he end up there? I think you're not supposed to care. Take it too far, though, and they might as well just film blurry things for 10 minutes moving in random directions and show us that.

There were also a lot of characters that must have seemed like a good idea, but ultimately, the movie would have been the same without them. I suspect there's another movie's worth of material on the cutting room floor, and a lot of actors who are irked at their roles being boiled down to nothing. We were meant to care about a bunch of Argosian soldiers, but we never even got to know most of their names. Even so, a few of them managed to get personalities -- the old veteran with a morbid sense of humor, the green and nervous tyro, and the gruff but brave commander -- in spite of themselves.

They fared better than most everyone else. A pair of hunters were given a big buildup, then maybe five minutes of screen time, all of which could have been deleted with no change in the story. Most of the gods don't even get any lines, and only two get identified by name (though you'd have to be pretty oblivious to not recognize Apollo from his one line). Andromeda was probably lucky to get three or four minutes of screen time doing something other than being in distress, but she can't hold a candle to expositIon, the real heroine of the story, who got more lines than even Perseus, I think.

The film was choppy and in too much of a hurry to ever do anything all the way, causing my interest to sometimes drift. Maybe the plot held together better than the first, but if so, only because the first didn't try to hold its plot together. To be fair, it had some good laughs (and I only mean the intended ones), and a few of the smaller roles got fairly good acting (though the major ones only got scenery-chewing), and the production values were mostly solid. It'd make a perfectly good light entertainment action movie for an evening at home on Blu-ray. But don't waste your cinema ticket price, especially not the 3D premium.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Correcting people's spelling

I can't help that my mind naturally and automatically notices spelling errors, but I can certainly decide what to do with the observations when I have them. There are times when it's clearly right to point them out, like when someone asks you to look over something they wrote. And there are clearly times when it's wrong, like when they're just chatting. (Occasionally, you can point them out then in the form of making a pun, but you have to be careful.)

The in-between times are surprisingly common for me, though. There are any number of places where a person has written some kind of text that is going to be seen repeatedly and indefinitely, but where a spelling error doesn't really matter, per se. For instance, the signature appended to someone's emails or forum posts is going to be used over and over, so it makes sense it should be right; but if it's wrong, it's not like you're going to make a bad impression with a potential employer or someone else who it really matters to impress. How about the message your instant-messenger shows when you're away from the computer? If something's wrong, most people won't notice and most who notice won't care, but does that start to shift when you've had the same spelling error in it for a year?

In these kinds of cases, I think if the person himself (or herself) noticed the error, he might want to fix it, might even be very mildly embarassed by it. But there's no way to draw their attention to it that might not come off as critical or even insulting. Yet the error keeps jumping out at me, over and over. I can't tune it out.

This must be how Siobhan is with sounds.

Friday, April 09, 2010

My first CD player

When CD players were a brand new thing, back in the middle-80s, I wanted one so badly. The first generation cost thousands of dollars and were agonizingly primitive. Only heavy-duty audiophiles had them, and the number of CDs available was so small you could make a list of them, but there was a lot of buzz.

This was before the vinyl backlash. The first generation of CDs weren't remastered at all; they were just dumped to CD. The problem is, studio engineers had been mastering their recordings specifically with vinyl in mind for years. If the medium is going to introduce a particular hum, you mix your music accordingly so it will sound good with that hum. Move that mix to a medium without the hum, with a nearly perfect reproduction, and it sounds cold, and people go back to vinyl, while uttering vague, inaccurate mumblings about "digital". Once people started remastering CD releases (and later, composing and mixing them originally with digital fidelity in mind), that issue faded away and became a relatively marginalized interest group.

At the time I had a fairly inexpensive all-in-one stereo system I'd gotten for my 13th birthday, with a dual cassette and phonograph along with the obligatory AM/FM. I was desperately eager to get a CD player, so I started saving up. A friend, whose family had more money than mine, happened to get an early CD player without even trying. It loaded the CDs on top like a phonograph, complete with a plastic lid you swung back down over the unit. It had no LCD display: all it had was fifteen LEDs for the first fifteen tracks, and woe be unto you if your CD had more than fifteen tracks. They made a huge deal of the opportunity to reprogram the order tracks played in -- back then, that was vaunted as one of the world-changing features of CD players, but no one ever used it -- but with nothing but 15 LEDs, you couldn't even tell how you'd reprogrammed the order even if you wanted to.

Still, it was a CD player. He bought a half-dozen CDs (that's about as many as they even had at the store) and we listened to them over and over and over. Meanwhile, I stared at my bank account balance as it crept up, and I worked extra hours when I could, and I kept visiting the store that had the system I'd picked out. As I recall, it was around $700, which was a boatload of money for a teenager going to school and trying to save money out of a Taco Bell paycheck, especially back then, so it took forever. The system was cube-shaped, with a dual cassette deck on the bottom, a very sleek and modern style, and the front top half being almost totally blank except for the CD drawer and a few buttons. Yes, the CD player took the entire top half of a big cube-shaped stereo system about 18 inches on a side back then.

When I finally got it, I loved it to bits, except I soon discovered one odd thing. There was no rewind or fast-forward. You could skip full tracks, but no moving around within a track. At all. Even then, that seemed weird. I kept going over the manual looking to see if I'd missed something, and holding down buttons in different combinations. Even my friend's phonograph-style first-adopter CD player had fast-forward. And I was listening to a lot of prog rock then with 20 minute songs. You don't want to have to go back to the beginning of one of those because you can't fast forward.

The lack of those buttons haunted me to the extent that for many years, even long after I got rid of that system, I had dreams about it. In the dream, I would finally discover some odd combination of button presses that worked as fast-forward and rewind, or some switch I had to flip to enable them, or something. I would have this dream as often as once a week, for years and years. In hindsight, I suppose it was a very, very specific version of a house dream.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Bad luck with robots

For the last several months, using my Scooba floor-mopping robot has been increasingly demanding. In the front of the robot is a bumper with sensors, so when it bumps into a wall, it knows that and turns to go away from it or follow its edge; but one of the two sensors in the bumper on the Scooba has been failing, so more and more often, it would hit a wall, keep pushing against it, and eventually stop and beep the "uh oh!" tones while flashing the "I'm stuck!" light. A nudge with my foot to get it away from the wall would get it going again; but some days I would have to nudge it every five minutes, and when it's that bad, the robot's barely helping.

I finally decided to contact Roomba to see what my options were for repair and replacement. Since their web-based support primarily consists of a system that tells you to call in for support, and they were closed one hour before their closing time the first day I tried to call, it took me several days to get through, only to find they don't have a repair option. Instead, they'll sell me just the chassis of a new Scooba for a greatly reduced price, so I have to use my existing batteries, charger, tank, walls, etc. The only downside is the only chassis they'll sell me is one model down from the one I have, so it won't run as long before I have to go empty the tank.

Scarcely a few days after that I'm trying to run the Roomba only to find that its brush-turning mechanism has failed. It only runs a short time before stopping, and barely picks up anything. The iRobot website's troubleshooting points to a problem that requires me to send in a request for service, which I have just now, but I bet they make me call... and since the robot is one month out of warranty, I wonder if this is something that can be repaired. Darned thing is only a bit over a year old!

I hope they can send me parts to repair it, or something like that, because I don't want to have to buy another one. I've had a lot of Roombas over the years and none has failed on me this early, so I hope it's just bad luck.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

What would Ford drive?

If you think of many of history's inventors and innovators, and imagine how they would react to see today's wonders, in many cases you have to assume they'd be amazed. Imagine Benjamin Franklin getting to see what we know about and do with electricity today, or the Wright Brothers looking at an F14 Tomcat doing a roll at five gees, or Robbert Goddard watching the space shuttle launch, or Thomas Edison watching the 3D version of Avatar.

But I can't help think that Henry Ford would be disappointed by what's going down the highway today. While the improvements between his cars and today's cars are many and important, I bet he would have expected there to be much bigger changes between then and now. He'd probably be more impressed by a tractor-trailer than by a Lambourghini or Camry or Prius; his reaction to those would probably be to say, sure, they're a big improvement over my Model T, but they're the same thing, just better. In a hundred years couldn't you make them different? (I wonder if he'd hang on the same "flying cars" idea that the 50s held up as a sign of the future, and we now use as a sign of the future that never came.)

I wonder if he would be amused to know how much of our world we have shaped to the particular proportions he chose for cars, which in turn were based on the proportions that worked for trains. Nowadays, entire cities are designed based on the wheel base and nose-to-tail length of cars that he picked mostly because of having parts in those sizes readily available (and the tools to shape and work on those parts).

I mentioned this to Siobhan, and she pointed out that while cars themselves might not wow Ford, the automation in factories would absolutely bowl him over. And really, that's as it should be. We think of Ford as a guy who helped make cars part of our world, but his real contribution wasn't the car, but the assembly line that makes them efficiently enough that we can all have one. Ford would be at once pleased at how many of the ideas he pioneered are still at the center of factory technology, and how widespread they are, in every industry from candy bars to tanker ships; and at how much they've advanced, with machines able to do some very complex things, and even some hazardous things, with little or no human intervention. While you or I might get a bit worried at the replacement of human workers, Ford would probably think that's just peachy-keen.

But if Ford were alive today, seems to me he'd be more likely to be driving a Camry than a Tesla Roadster.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The word of God

If you are a person who believes in a creator God, then there's a lot of room for argument and discussion and evaluation concerning the various holy books which purport to be the word of God. The more you learn about the history and provenance of these books, of the parts left out and who chose them, the vagaries of translations, the editing, the more the idea that the book is absolutely divinely inspired becomes harder to credit. Throw in the many ways that the various books, and their claims to eminence, contradict each other, and even themselves, and it becomes very hard to ascribe to any book or group of books an absolute divine provenance. People can argue for centuries about the finer points of literal versus interpretative reading, so that not only can't you be certain which book to use or how human-written versus divine-written it is, you can't even be sure what it's saying.

But there's something you can be absolutely certain of. There's one thing whose provenance has to be entirely divine, wholly untouched by the influence of human writers or editors, wholly free from uncertainty about literal versus figurative interpretation, entirely reliable and trustworthy. The one thing you can be sure was created by your God. That thing is the universe itself. And the word for the study of God's creation is science. "The profoundest act of worship is to try to understand."

Brought to you by Catherine Faber's poem "The Word Of God", and Kathy Mar's song based on it, about which I have previously blogged.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Building a MAME system

A good MAME system gives you the experience of all the arcade games of your youth (or at least of my youth) in the comfort of your own home. Arcade games are a pursuit where seemingly-small deviations can make a big difference in the experience, so simulating as much of it as possible is a generally sensible idea.

At its heart, a MAME machine is basically an ordinary PC which has MAME and a bunch of ROM images (probably pirated) installed on it, configured to run automatically on startup and take over the machine, possibly with a pretty front end (since generic MAME is just a long list of ROMs). In fact, I occasionally play MAME on my laptop.

The biggest gap is the controllers. A mouse and keyboard can't even simulate badly most of the controllers from most of your favorite games. Using a mouse as a trackball for Centipede is hopeless; even using a trackball intended for PC work with it is not great. A modern joystick suitable for playing a flight combat game is bad for Time Pilot, worse for Pac-Man, and hopeless for Robotron. And there's nothing in the world that'll do for Tempest other than a proper spinner. (I have a standalone Tempest spinner, but the problem is, you need the button, too! And it has to be in the right place.)

You can buy arcade-style joysticks and buttons and spinners and everything else you can imagine, and build your own control panels. It can get pretty complicated and expensive, though. Building your own panel that can control everything becomes a complicated act of wiring since you don't want every device to have its own USB connector. Most MAME enthusiasts spend as much time on collecting and building their machines as playing them, but my goal is to take a middle ground; I'd rather spend 1/3 as much money and do some building, but I don't want to be building at the component level. So I'll buy a pre-built, everything-in-one control board like this one. You can even just hook that to your PC and start playing. It's a little crowded (a panel which you could swap out controls from would be ideal, but no one makes a prefab one) but the arrangement looks quite workable for just about every game.

Going from there to a dedicated machine in an arcade-style cabinet is probably not as big a step in achieving the playability part of the arcade experience, but it's still a big step and one I hope to take this summer. Again, you can build your own case from plans you can get online, or your own plans, or you can buy an assembled case, or a kit. The latter is probably how I'll go, once I work out some details about how the controller mounts on the case, what kinds of monitors I could use and how they'd mount, and what components are required and which ones are just "jazz" or just simulations of the arcade that don't matter to me -- like the lighted, and possibly working, coin slot door -- I'm not in this to collect quarters!

I don't know if I'll get to do this this summer as planned: the summer itself is going to be busy with travel and other projects, and my budget is likely to be tighter than I anticipated due to the travel and a few other purchases. I should at least get the control panel, but not sure yet about the case. Unfortunately the act of figuring out what I'll need has gotten me excited about it and I want to do it now! Oh well.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Dog digging troubles

In the flurry of housework and yardwork that kept me busy almost all day yesterday, there was an unprecedented amount of dog-dug holes to fill in. She'd done a lot of digging before the ground was wholly frozen I didn't get to counter last year, and then has been digging urgently since it thawed this year, while I couldn't do anything about it due to snow and ice, and then due to injuries.

Sometimes I wonder if I should bother. Our lawn being pocked with huge holes is not the end of the world. It's ugly, it makes walking around difficult, and it's a pain when mowing the lawn, but is it worth it to counter that by constantly filling the holes in only to have her dig more the next day?

On the other hand, the holes she digs under the deck alongside its support posts, or against the foundation of the house, seem more threatening. Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems like it can't be good to leave big gaps there. This is more certain in the back where there's a propane line against the wall; it's highly doubtful she could break the line, but it's certainly better to keep it covered.

This time, I found not only three or four places where the propane line was exposed, there was also in the front under the deck a trench against the house's foundation big enough that I could lie in it and be unseen from outside. That one was especially hard to fill in since it's under the deck with so little clearance I couldn't even sit up, which makes it hard to work a shovel or rake. (Especially with one still-sore knee.)

Dog trainers and books have very little advice about keeping dogs from digging beyond these two unhelpful statements: "don't let them outside unsupervised" and "keep them too busy to dig". So I'm working on ideas to keep her from digging in the particular places in question.

I am considering trying to put in hammer-in garden edging like what's pictured here, against the wall, hammered in at an angle so that the top edge is up against the foundation of the house. However, even if I get edging that can go in deeply enough, will she just dig to the edge of the edging and then pull it up? If I still have to go fill in the holes, I'm not sure if I've accomplished anything.

Another idea: dig up the whole area myself (and that's a huge, huge amount of work, particularly under the deck), forming a trench along the edge of the house about a foot wide and deep. Then I'd create a ribbon of wire weld fence the entire length of the trench, curled into a quarter-circle, so the top edge is horizontal against the house foundation and the bottom is vertical against the edge of the trench away from the house. Then fill the trench back in, effectively burying the fencing completely. Now once she starts digging she hits the buried fencing, and hopefully stops, but she can't dig up enough to actually pull out the fencing. I'm not sure if it would work, and gosh, but that's a lot of effort to do it.

Anyone have any other ideas? I really would love to not have to go fill in those holes at all. I could really use some ideas here.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Nottingham and Pandemic

Siobhan and I had company over last night (I know, weird, right? We're going to lose our membership to the Hermits Antiassociation at this rate), Kaye and Bob (with Vaughn), for an evening of board games. It was a pleasant and relaxed evening, despite me being a little sore in the knee from the work of giving the house a thorough cleaning beforehand. We played two games, Nottingham and Pandemic.

Nottingham is a fairly lightweight game that's easy to pick up. It strikes me as a pretty social game, the kind of game you'd play while also chatting with friends. It's a card game with a Robin Hood theme (obviously) which is primarily about building a hand and gathering sets of related cards to score. There's relatively little you can do to each other, and not a lot of choices to make at any given moment, which keeps it quick and easy. There's a lot of luck involved, though, not so much that there's no tactics, but enough that there's a limit to how much you can optimize to win.

Pandemic's most striking feature is that it's a wholly cooperative game: you're not playing against one another, all the players are playing to win together or lose together. (We lost.) The production values are excellent: the game board's imagery, the pieces coming in petri dishes, and the card graphics are really striking and evocative of the game's subject, the fight against global epidemics. You play a team of CDC staffers fighting against a set of epidemic outbreaks, traveling the world to try to halt their spread while working to develop cures. The game we played included a few of the expansions from the On The Brink add-on, but not most of them.

Later, I played a computer solitaire version with just two players (me playing both, of course). This Java version is basically just a game board, you still do all the play yourself, so if you don't already know all the rules and what all the cards say, you can't really use the role powers or the card abilities, which is very limiting. Even so, I was able to win, perhaps because it was an easier setup, and because of better luck on the card draws, but also because I had a better idea of the strategy. It also makes me think a two-player version of the game might be quite viable, but I'm not wholly sure about that.

I was very impressed with the game in general and would definitely like to play it some more, so it's on my wish list now. I'm not sure where I'd find time to play it, of course; that's the big limitation on all these games. I haven't even managed to play Rock Band more than two or three times since Christmas!

Friday, April 02, 2010

Skype and roleplaying

One thing I always meant to play with since I got a T1 line is webcam stuff, and since my Eee has a webcam built in and Skype preinstalled, it only made sense to try it there. It only took a few minutes to set it up, and last night I got to test it out with a friend, and it worked very easily (even if she had to comb her hair before she'd turn on her webcam!).

One thing we talked about is how this might be used for roleplaying games. The friend in question lives a long way away. She's visited a few times and gotten to roleplay with us, but that's the only roleplaying she's done apart from some games at cons and online games like MUDs. (She's just too busy to find or found a group in her area.) She'd like to join in our group, but she's far too far away. (Realistically, if she were nearer, I bet she'd still not have time, but anyway...)

So could she play with us via Skype? Certainly, trying to play with us by text chat is not viable. Chat is too slow even when everyone's chatting; playing via IRC is possible, I've done it a few times, but it's slow enough that it's a qualitatively different experience. But if most of you are talking you can't possibly keep up with one person who is chatting. Voice fixes that, but I wonder how much webcam adds. In practical terms, not much: the camera's not fast or clear enough for me to hold up visual aids, nor could she see a combat map or figurines with it, without a lot of fiddling. These things would be much better handled by sending images, or using a cooperative website for mapping like ScreenMonkey. So what would webcam really provide? Mostly an emotional sense of presence and involvement, which is probably important.

I'm imagining having my Eee sitting at one end of the table so the person on Skype can see the rest of us, and vice versa. Wonder if the audio could be made to work well enough in that configuration. But I wonder how practical it would be to have more than one person brought in that way. Assuming the network connection and processing power could handle it, I'd certainly need a lot more screen real estate. Might be that the Eee is not up to the task there, and I'd have to get a webcam for my laptop (and HDMI it up to the TV perhaps). Plus I'd have to figure out a way to integrate some kind of combat map and visual aid sharing method. And then there's my player display: how could I make that visible to the remote player(s)? Seems like doing it really right demands a custom application that combines ScreenMonkey with Skype and other stuff... which would be great, but who's going to make it?

If anyone else has already tried this, I'd like to hear how it worked, and what you'd suggest about making it work better.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

The Oreo Effect

Minor gross-out warning.

Many kinds of foods have coloring agents, and few of these have any noticeable impact on one's bowel movements. But something about the coloration used to make the cookies in Oreos so dark has the same effect on what one produces at the toilet after eating them, even if one has only had a few Oreos after eating a lot of other foods. The same isn't true of other similarly-colored foods, even other cookies.

In fact, there's only one other thing that has the same effect, and it isn't just not the same color as Oreos, it's decidedly not, since it's vivid, eye-searingly pink. That's Pepto Bismol. It does, inexplicably, the same thing to bowel movements as Oreos do.

Kind of makes Oreos seem a little more sinister, somehow.