Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Just a few minutes a day

When I go to my follow-up with my urologist, he's going to give me a list of foods to avoid or increase in my diet. And it's right that he should. I came to him asking how to reduce the likelihood of more kidney stones, and if that's the answer, that's what he should say. But there's going to be an annoying, almost disingenuous, tone with the recommendations and advice that one gets from all sides, which drives me crazy.

Everywhere you turn, someone is suggesting something you should be doing, or not doing, on the basis that it only will take a few minutes, or cost a few pennies, or something. Every one of these recommendations makes sense in isolation, and everyone pretends it really is that simple. But when you put it together... well, just consider all the things that I ought to be doing every time I choose a food item to buy. And this is only a small part of the full lists, if I had time to compile them; I bet you can think of items I'm missing from each list.

Is it good for my nutritional and health needs?
  • Will it give me enough protein for my gastric bypass malabsorption?
  • What about my lactose intolerance?
  • How might it affect my predisposition to reflux?
  • Does it contain the wrong things for kidney stone formation?
  • What about saturated fats, cholesterol, caloric intake, tannins, antioxidants, vitamin levels, sodium content, roughage, and so on, and so on, and so on?
  • Is there currently an E. coli scare around it? How about any other contaminants or diseases?
  • Is anyone blaming it for the "obesity epidemic" and if so are they just scapegoating or is there something to it?
  • Is the portion size reasonable, considering the changes in portion sizes over the years?
  • Is it made with overprocessed or overused ingredients, and if so, what's bad about that?
But what about environmental impact?
  • Is it being sustainably harvested?
  • Can I buy it produced locally?
  • If it's an animal product, is it being produced humanely?
  • Are toxic pesticides being used?
  • If genetic engineering is involved, is it being handled responsibly?
  • Is production and distribution causing pollution or contamination?
  • Is farming of this product causing problems with genetic diversity?
There's also social impacts to consider.
  • Is production based on exploiting workers?
  • Is the store selling it currently supporting gay rights and other social issues?
  • Are immigrants or overseas workers being treated unfairly?
  • Are the businesses involved driving other businesses out of business?
  • Am I supporting the economy by buying this?
  • If it's imported, am I supporting repressive regimes or terrorist organizations by funneling my money there?
Food's not just a means of sustenance, though, it's a part of my culture.
  • Am I exposing myself to international cultures enough, rather than being a stereotypically myopic American?
  • Am I paying sufficient homage to my own heritage while also exploring others?
  • If life is something to be enjoyed and celebrated, or else what's the point, am I celebrating it enough, rather than nickel-and-diming my own reasons to live to death?
I also have to consider the cost and my budget.
  • Every penny I spend on this, I'm not spending on charitable giving, or saving for my retirement, or reducing my debt load, spending more on socially and environmentally responsible products in other categories, or leisure and luxury items that help me avoid becoming stressed to death. Would a cheaper version be just as good?
  • But is a cheaper version just padded with fillers that won't satisfy my hunger or nutritional needs?
  • Am I doing more to support my local and national economy by buying this product than another?
But money's not the only or even most important budget I have; time is.
  • If this is a prepared food, should I be buying raw ingredients and making my own foods instead? It only takes a few more minutes.
  • Brushing my teeth well only takes a few more minutes.
  • Staying informed about world events only takes a few minutes.
  • Stopping to smell the flowers only takes a few minutes.
  • Keeping my car's tires at the proper inflation, and thus reducing pollution, dependence on foreign oil, damage to the road infrastructure, etc., only takes a few more minutes.
  • Having some "quiet time" to keep stress levels down only takes a few minutes.
  • Recycling only takes a few minutes.
  • Putting on a helmet only takes a few minutes.
  • Being kind and smiling at people to make their days brighter only takes a few minutes.
  • Being a 'go-getter' at work for the good of your career only takes a few minutes.
  • Ensuring my smoke alarms work only takes a few minutes.
  • Taking the more scenic route only takes a few more minutes.
  • Planting flowers, so someone else can stop and smell them, only takes a few minutes.
  • Getting enough exercise only takes a few minutes.
  • Keeping close with the people in my life only takes a few minutes.
  • Driving at a safe speed only takes a few more minutes.
  • Giving someone a hug only takes a few minutes.
  • Making up your own mind about the issues of the day only takes a few minutes.
  • Keeping the kitchen clean so the mess doesn't build up only takes a few minutes.
  • Taking the time to listen to other people only takes a few minutes.
  • Voting only takes a few minutes.
  • Becoming exposed to art and culture only takes a few minutes.
  • Being wary of cons and trickery only takes a few minutes.
  • Getting out into the outdoors now and then only takes a few minutes.
  • Staying in touch with distant relations only takes a few minutes.
  • Learning something new every day only takes a few minutes.
  • Making sure your exercise includes enough of different kinds of activity only takes a few more minutes.
  • Being sure you're treating everyone fairly only takes a few minutes.
  • Keeping an eye out for suspicious and possibly illegal activities, and informing the authorities if you see anything, only takes a few minutes.
  • Carpooling only takes a few more minutes.
  • Taking the time to do whatever you're doing the right way instead of the cheap and quick way only takes a few more minutes.
  • Spending some time on the things you enjoy, so that you feel it's worth it to get out of bed in the morning and you don't end up looking back on your life wondering why you bothered, only takes a few minutes. Maybe a little more.
And it might be nice if, somewhere in there, "it tastes good" or "I like it" had something to do with something, but really, who can still afford to even consider that?

In the end, if you tried to do everything that individually you really ought to do, you'd spend 36 out of every 24 hours, and $1.50 out of every $1 you earn, on obligatory things, not even accounting for working, eating, and sleeping, and there'd be no room left in your life for anything that's fun or joyful or that makes it worth doing any of it. But every single one of those things is justified in isolation; every one of them is worth the tiny amount of time and money it costs.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Capital punishment

Is capital punishment just state-sponsored murder, petty revenge, an example of hypocrisy in that we say "don't do this" and emphasize the point by doing it ourselves? There's certainly something to that, but it's also a vast oversimplification.

There are no absolute, situation-independent, context-free rules. Not even "thou shalt not kill" -- consider living wills and doctor-assisted suicide for counterexamples, as well as the bigger one of "that man is about to press a button which will blow up a billion people and we can't stop him any way but by killing him" (maybe you wouldn't pull the trigger, but I would, and sleep fine that night). So it's making things way too simple to say that we can't say "you're not allowed to murder" (where "murder" is a much more specific thing than "cause a person's life to end") means we can't ever have cause to end someone's life.

The question is, does capital punishment serve a purpose great enough to justify it? Clearly we can't be killing people merely for the satisfaction of seeing that a bad person got his comeuppance; that's mere vengeance. What, then, is the real purpose of capital punishment?

The best answer is deterrence. If people know that the stakes are as high as death, they are, it is theorized, less likely to commit certain crimes. Research about this factor is extensive but often inferential -- a particular crime is less common in one jurisdiction with capital punishment than another without, but that doesn't mean it's not because of many other differences, or that if capital punishment were used more consistently the crime wouldn't even out (assuming people are going to do it with or without the punishment, but just bring it to where the penalties are less). Anyone who wants to argue either side can certainly bring evidence and reasoning to bear. I think on balance the preponderance of evidence suggests there is a non-trivial deterrence factor. But so long as we can't really say with certainty how effective a deterrent it is, it's hard to argue whether it's sufficient to be worth the cost.

The trouble is, you can't really do systematic, exhaustive research on this. You can't create a realistic but artificial situation, where you can control for other factors, due to both ethical and practicality concerns. So all you can do is infer from lots of real-world data and try to gather enough to eliminate for the other factors like cultural differences. Trouble is, even if you can come up with something pretty statistically certain, you'll never convince the average person with it. Data like that is unconvincing to most people because they don't understand the statistical methods used, so they cling to anecdotal cases where those techniques failed, and don't trust them.

However, I think we can safely say that those who claim that, by "sending the wrong message," capital punishment can encourage murder, have no real evidence behind this claim. That's just the kind of specious reasoning that posits that all killing is equal and then concludes that all killing is equal, which was already discussed.

Until there's such a heavy preponderance of statistical data and analysis that it weighs so firmly on one side or the other of the deterrence question that we have to agree with it, we're never going to get to a point where we can be sure. That's why I don't take a firm stance either way. But even when that day comes, the majority of people arguing will be arguing based on irrelevant oversimplifications, so it won't matter to them. The inferential nature of the research will simply give them the thin end of a wedge that's sufficient for them to brush aside the conclusions no matter how certain they are, allowing them to go back to their oversimplifying analogies.

Pity, too. Some of the people most prone to that are the same people who have the most energy that they could be using to make the world better, if they weren't wasting it pursuing whichever side of the illogical counterarguments happen to have caught them first.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

What else is in Warehouse 13?

While they don't make a big point of it at first, it gradually becomes clear that in Warehouse 13 (the corny but fun SyFy [sic] television show) artifacts get formed by a person of surpassing talent and genius, and tend to reflect something about that person's genius. The oldest artifacts, which date to ancient times, usually have an unknown provenance; presumably some brilliant prelate, engineer, or whatever made them, and then they picked up the power of that brilliance by whatever typically-unintended process makes artifacts. For more recent ones we often know who made them, and the show writers have a lot of fun with this, making references to Escher, Carlos Santana, Man Ray, and other people they'd like to honor with a declaration of genius-level talent.

It occurred to me while stacking wood the other day that, somewhere in Warehouse 13, there has to be a pair of Neil Peart's drumsticks, and using them has to cause one to temporarily gain the ability to do six things at once with your arms and legs. Maybe that'll come up in the show one day, and wouldn't it be just so cool if Neil also had a brief cameo when it did? (Boy, would he be slumming to be on a show like this, but if it were funny and self-deprecating, he might do it. Remember Geddy Lee's appearance on the Bob & Doug Mackenzie single "Take Off"?)

Thinking this one thing alone made me wonder how good Warehouse 13 might be as a setting for a roleplaying game. Okay, now, I realize how around-the-loop I've gone on this. The show's premise clearly can be traced to that final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark (the show even recently hung a hat on that fact with a reference to the location of the Ark of the Covenant), and that scene has had lots of impact on the world of roleplaying games (most obviously in the name of Steve Jackson's "Warehouse 23"), and one might even surmise that the creators of Warehouse 13 might have been influenced by those games. (It's not too crazy. The fact that the crew in Leverage seems so much like a roleplaying game group turns out to be because the creator plays them.)

But one could just rattle off ideas for things that should be in Warehouse 13 given its premise, by thinking of geniuses throughout history who might have had their genius "rub off" on something, and each one of these is a seed for an adventure. What does each artifact do? How can that turn out to go wrong -- either by working against the person using it in a way they don't immediately realize, or by being misused? How can that be brought to the attention of the warehouse staff? And bang, there's your adventure.

Probably the writers do this sometimes, but sometimes they clearly think of the story first, then figure out the artifact and associated genius to go with it (and sometimes they don't even talk about the genius or the artifact's provenance at all). And that's probably good -- it keeps the show from being too formulaic. A concern that probably wouldn't arise for running a roleplaying game, though.

The show's probably not popular enough to warrant a license being sold to Margaret Weis Productions, and if it ever were, there wouldn't be that much to be worth including in the book -- a few notes on how to come up with artifacts, some stats for the Tesla and Farnsworths, and the same old core rules system with a few things strapped on, and that's about it. No, this is the kind of game you could start playing tomorrow with any old system you liked. The whole setting is just the real world (which you hopefully already know) plus the artifact-of-the-week (which works precisely however you feel it has to -- there's really no need to design them with a "point buy" system or anything). So all I'd need is some time to do it and some players who wanted to do it.

Oh well, put that idea back on the shelf. I don't even have time and players to run the game I'm already running, let alone ten others.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Order and chaos in solitaire games

Almost all solitaire games can be seen as an effort to impose order onto chaos. While there are exceptions, in general, any move which sorts, collates, or organizes the cards or pieces is usually a positive move. Getting cards of the same color, or suit, or number, to be together, is usually the end goal and very often it's also the intermediate goal. Even in games like Klondike where you have to make opposite color combinations, you're still imposing order onto randomness, just a slightly different pattern of order.

The reason that almost all solitaire games work this way is almost obvious. The games always start from randomization and disorder because that, resulting from shuffling the deck, is the only means readily available to ensure that you get a new game each time. Playing against another player, you don't generally need a random factor as certainly; games without one, like chess and checkers, are still eminently entertaining. (Though games with less tactical complexity often need a randomizer, like dice, to avoid the game coming out the same every time, when the winning tactics are more clear.)

There are a new breed of solitaire games that run on computers, notably some of the "PopCap" games and other web-based Flash or Java games, that have turned this on their head. If you see a game where the object is to create just enough order to cause something to disappear, making more room for new pieces, then you've found one. A few examples include Bejeweled and Bubble Breaker. In these games, while you are sometimes trying to arrange order, your overall score also depends on the constant infusion of more randomness, so sometimes you have to choose a strategy in order to encourage more chaos which you can then use to score more points.

I can't readily think of any examples of non-computer solitaire games in which an important tactic is to increase randomness in the pieces. There must be one somewhere, despite the fact that creating randomness is a key tactic in designing a solitaire game, but none occur to me.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The neighborhood of mathematicians

Siobhan mentioned a neighborhood she'd known once where the streets were named, not for trees, but for mathematicians. But the only street names she could think of were Euclid and Pascal. We then discussed what other mathematicians could have been used, and how few mathematicians there are whose names would be recognizable by the general public. We added to that list only Newton, Pythagoras, and maybe Euler, Möbius, and Fermat. We should also have come up with Archimedes but it didn't occur to me at the time. We wondered whether Descartes should be on the list -- or, for that matter, how much Pascal really deserves to be there.

If you were going to make a neighborhood with, say, ten streets, and name them for mathematicians, it seems like you'd get very different lists if you wanted to pick names people would know, or pick people who really deserved to be there. Poincaré, Goedel, Riemann, Mandelbrot, Gauss, Cantor, and Lagrange should probably be there, and I've no doubt there are dozens of others and one could have a vigorous argument in the math department of any university (an argument that I'm sure has happened many times). But the average person probably hasn't heard of any of those, or if they have, they wouldn't know they were mathematicians. Besides, some of the most recognizable names, like Newton, are probably better known for other things.

I guess if mathematics is an abstruse field to most people, the history of mathematics is thus doubly abstruse (or perhaps I should say abstruse2). So if you're going to name a neighborhood that way, why bother to try to make it recognizable? Make it an in-joke. To most people, "Fermat Avenue" and "Poincaré Place" would just seem like street names of no particular significance, and the theme would never occur to them. In fact, go farther: make Möbius Way a loop road, Goedel Drive a cul-de-sac, and use Mandelbrot Boulevard a big central byway which has smaller roads off of it that are the same layout as it, and have smaller roads off them that have the same layout too.

I think if I were a city planner, my city would be dreadfully boring to almost everyone, but would make one person in a thousand cackle madly. I'll have to make sure to include an asylum in my city plans.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Exceeding the work that made your mark

My Lusternia character, Lendren Starfall, is arguably that world's best-known playwright. Though he's written in produced several dozen plays over the years, many times more than anyone else (the next highest number is four), and though he's accomplished so many other things, he's still often thought of as just "the guy who wrote Nifilhema's Tear", the first play he wrote. Sometimes I wonder if anything he does can ever get past that.

Nifilhema's Tear is a good play and I'm proud of it for a lot of reasons. At the time I started writing it, no one had ever done theater in Lusternia, and there was no coded support for it. There's an incredible amount of behind-the-scenes work I did to make it possible to put on a play within the limitations of Lusternia as it existed then, things like the lack of props, that you can't see a costume unless you think to look at it, limits in what constitutes a "room" in Lusternia, etc. I had written into the script hooks to let the characters find reasons to say each other's names since the audience would have nothing else to establish who was playing what. I had arranged a team of illusionists, along with a secondary team of people able to help them heal the mana drain from casting illusions in such a way that the audience wouldn't see them healing it and be distracted, to do the effects. There's dozens of things like that I had to prepare, and some of my solutions were quite clever. In essence, I had to invent theater for Lusternia, work out everything from the format of a script to the way actors would deliver lines within the medium of a MUD.

Unfortunately, I was never able to get that version of the play performed, though I got pretty close a few times. It just took too many people. However, the play itself inspired Estarra, the head producer and Creatrix Goddess of Lusternia, to get a theater system implemented that handled things like effects, costumes, entrances and exits, etc. and recorded the performance for later replay. Tear was the first play ever produced with that system, and its premiere performance was attended by dozens of players as well as Estarra and two other of the gods, an occurrence that has never been matched since. The cast and crew got the blessings of those gods for doing it as well.

I'm also proud of Tear for the content. It's a history, depicting events that happened earlier in Lusternia, which involved huge quantities of research and interviews with people, even some spying to obtain a few bits of information that were kept secret. But it's a fictionalized history, and I'm very proud of how it hews to what actually happened but condenses and modifies things to convey those events better than a literal retelling would do, as well as more entertainingly. It's on a large scope, three acts and nine scenes, and with a cast twice as large as anything made since. It's a tour de force of theater as it exists in Lusternia, and that's even true now, despite various advancements made since its production (such as the addition of new tricks to the stages). And generally, I'm pleased with the writing; there are, of course, things that I groan at, but that's true of anything I write when I go back to it later.

But for all that, it's not, by any means, my favorite of my works, or the one I think to be best. I've done so much since then. I've done bigger works, smaller works. I've done avant-garde and experimental works. I've done histories, tragedies, comedies, illusion shows, speculative fiction, bedtime story fables, action adventure, even a Bollywood-style musical romantic comedy. I've done lush highly realistic effects (even ones that fool audience members into thinking that things are happening in Lusternia instead of in the play), and plays on a bare stage where you can see stagehands working with props. I've done so many things that, by comparison, Tear seems very straightforward, mainstream, plain.

And amongst them, there are two plays in particular that I think are far better. One is a history, and the third part of a trilogy, but it's also a bit of a... there's a word I want to use here that's probably worth censoring, but it starts with "mind" and the second half rhymes with "truck". The play is pretty dark (though one of the scenes has some of the dryest comic relief I've ever written) and grim, and the people who lived through the events it depicts have agreed (privately; they can't really say this kind of stuff in character) that it's an evocative and realistic depiction, in spite of or perhaps because of how surrealistic it is. Long after I wrote it, I still think it's my best work ever. It also was the first work I ever wrote that won all three of the awards it could win, simulataneously. And yet few people know of it and no one ever thinks of it when they think of Lendren.

The other one is the Bollywood-inspired musical romantic comedy. Let me note that I don't generally like Bollywood movies, or musicals, or romantic comedies. And anyone who does would probably be highly dubious of the idea of one of those presented as a stream of text in a text-only medium; conveying large-scale production dance numbers and lyric-opera-style songs that way is very challenging. Nevertheless, of all my plays it's the one I most enjoy re-watching. And there's a lot in it of which I am proud, including most notably a few bits where game mechanics are adapted not just to the play form but also to musical form. (There's a game mechanic for debates, which are like battles of will wrapped around a two-layer rock-paper-scissors game, that I managed to depict accurately as an actual debate that's done in song and dance, and if you study it closely you can figure out what commands the participants were using at what points, but if you don't, it just looks like an actual debate being done in song, and it works perfectly well on both levels, I think.)

I'm very gratified by the respect and recognition I've earned for my writing in general, and for Nifilhema's Tear in specific, but at the same time, I feel like no matter what I do I'll never escape it. And that's also true of things other than plays; Lendren has tried to make a mark in many other areas, some more successfully than others, but to most people he's nothing more or less than that guy who wrote that one play. I shouldn't complain, of course, since many people would envy the recognition I do get, but I sometimes wish there was a way to direct it to the more deserving works. It's not so much that I feel bad for me, as I do for the plays themselves. It's not me that's not getting the recognition I deserve; it's the plays that aren't getting the recognition they deserve.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Bursitis therapy

Monday was my first physical therapy session for my bursitis resulting from my March injury, and will be the first of four, on Mondays and Wednesdays. I was expecting a lot of "homework" (exercises I would have to find time for) but this seems to be the one time that they have a treatment that they do, not just one I have to do. The only homework I have is to ice it, both as needed for soreness, and about once a day to help the fluid to recede.

The therapist considered the whole thing a fairly minor case and was surprised at how little it affected my movement. In fact, I think she thought (but didn't say) that the orthopedist could probably have just drained it with a needle and that would have been that -- she certainly wondered why he didn't drain it. My sense was that after these four visits I will probably be back to nearly full function. (To think I've been that close for more than five months now!)

All she's doing is about ten minutes of ultrasound on my knee -- I can barely feel it -- followed by twenty minutes of iontopheresis. That's using ionic charge to cause a medication to be transferred from a patch into my skin; the medicine is negatively charged, so applying a negative charge to it forces it to push its way into the skin. It tingles and is a little hot, but it's nothing too bad, and you can read while it happens. The whole treatment is pretty simple and it's no problem for me to ride my bike to the appointments. (In fact, bike-riding is just the right kind of exercise she would have suggested anyway, as long as I can do it comfortably, and I'm even doing it the right amount at a time.)

Once the fluid is encouraged to recede and the swelling has gone down, the impression I get (though she didn't come right out and say so -- no one ever wants to commit to a prognosis) is that there will be little or no additional effects, because the bursae isn't actually significantly damaged, it's just swollen with fluid and the pressure is causing my symptoms. I hope that's right because I'm looking forward to being back to normal.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Dresden Files RPG

I've been reading the Dresden Files roleplaying game, which just finally came out in print. (I had rights to the PDFs, but didn't find them very readable save when printed, and that's way too many pages to be worth trying to print.) And while I'm interested in using it, I'm not sure where I would. My existing game group doesn't meet that often as it is, and I doubt they'd want to set aside the Uncreated dimension-hopping game for very long; besides, at least some of the members haven't read the Dresden books.

So one idea is to try to do something online. This would let me get a few players involved who don't live nearby but with whom I'd like to roleplay. But even games that are easy to jump into and use familiar systems rarely succeed online. And I don't know how well this game would translate to email or chat styles. Thinking of the books, I don't see any reason to think it'd work better or worse than anything else.

I've also been thinking about the city creation step. The Dresden Files RPG treats this as a much bigger and more important process than the "select a setting" part of most games. Instead of being something the GM decides when preparing a campaign or adventure, it's something the whole group does collaboratively, and in doing so, they're effectively choosing what kind of campaign to run. The city isn't just a backdrop; it also determines, by the selection of stuff that it offers and the hidden (to the general public) significance of most of it, what kinds of stories are happening there.

One common choice is to play in your own city, but those of us who live in the country have to consider this more closely. Even the largest city in Vermont, Burlington, is probably not suitable. I expect the Burlingtonians to object, as if this is some kind of slight, but it's not. There's no reason why you couldn't play with a few "urban legend" and supernatural elements of Burlington: the prevalence of hippies concealing (barely) earth-goddess cults who might be being manipulated by the fey, the question of what Champ really is, the Abenaki artifacts suggesting the presence of ley lines, the history of Freemasons and others mixed with French influences dating back to the 17th century, and of course all the "back woods" stuff that Lovecraft plumbed.

That sounds like a lot, and it would be for many games, but for a Dresden game, it doesn't quite add up to enough. You'd have to shove in some organized crime or something equivalent, something for the various vampire courts to be doing, and enough other stuff to make it make sense for a Warden to be assigned there. And then every time you needed a location or setting, you'd be hard-pressed to invent one if Burlington didn't happen to have it, you'd be out of luck. The old used bookstore? Easy. A museum? Well, we have some nice old churches, and the Echo Center, but... Anything to do with colleges? Got lots of that. A neighborhood where people who walk through it at night might disappear? Umm, well, some of the North End is kind of dirty... Waterfront? Sure. Shady parking garages where secret deals are made? Well, there's a three-story garage, but it's kind of well patrolled... Illegal drugs? Presumably. A police department big enough for a "special investigations" officer, let alone department? Well, there's probably someone who helped that time one of the cows got loose from the university farm...

By the time you've added as much as you'd want for a really Dresden-like story, you'd have two problems. First, it wouldn't feel much like Burlington anymore. You'd've lost the sense of place that's why you picked Burlington in the first place. About all you'd have left of that is some convenient scene-setting ("So, the creature turns onto Church Street" is both quicker and more evocative, for those of us who immediately can imagine Church Street, than "So, the creature turns onto a pedestrian mall converted from a city street, cobblestoned, lined with some statues, and..."). Second, suspension of disbelief on the idea that all this stuff is going on below the surface, but the people of the city are blissfully unaware of it, would be hard to maintain. It's too small a town and its people are too likely to be clued in to things like this to buy that you can have building fires, strange creature sightings, disappearances, and wild animal attacks in downtown, and think nothing of it. Sometimes that's a strain even in Chicago in the Dresden books, where the author can play with the "living in a big city" trend of keeping your eyes down to avoid getting mixed up in anything.

On the other hand, Boston seems too easy, somehow. It's got all of that big city feel that lets you justify there being a billion things going on below the surface, and people going out of their way to avoid noticing it. It has museums, skyscrapers, colleges (geez, but does it have colleges), a waterfront, seedy districts, old bookstores, parks, organized crime, big police presence (complete with a convenient "Irish cop" stereotype), plus a big political importance. Plus it has history going back to pre-Revolutionary times, Native American history before that, all the left-leaning stuff I mentioned for Burlington, and a rather lengthy history associated with witchcraft (and Salem's a short hop out of town). On top of that it's one of the biggest hubs in the world for big companies, especially technology companies, second only to California and the Seattle area, really. And that's just off the top of my head. It's frankly an embarassment of riches. (New Orleans would be similarly too easy.)

The book includes a setting for Baltimore, which somehow completely fails to engage me. I know virtually nothing about Baltimore; if I've seen any movies or TV shows set in it, I don't recall anything about the city from them, and I can't bring a skyline, an accent, or even any notable landmarks or famous people to mind. It feels like learning Baltimore is almost going to be more work than doing city creation on a city I am familiar with. I sympathize with the authors and their decision: the city seems like a badly underutilized setting that could therefore be fresh. But it doesn't seem to quite work.

Of course, if I don't get to run it, that's all moot. I hate to put another game unplayed on the shelf though.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Springer Tips

The Springer is a great tool for exercising a dog. It clamps to your bicycle and lets you safely ride with her on a short leash extending from the bike on a spring; the spring absorbs the force if she veers, so she won't tip you over. But the instructions that came with it don't tell you a lot of things that you really should know to get the best use of it. Here are the things I've learned.

Installation: Follow the directions to see how many of the plastic inserts to put inside the clamp, and choose the highest number they say, then add two more inserts. (They'll send you extras if you need them.) If the clamp feels like it won't quite close all the way, that's perfect. They're going to compress and it'll fit fine later, without you having to disassemble and reassemble it to put more in.

Tightening: Leave the wrenches out when you're done with assembly. You're going to need to retighten all the bolts after every bikeride for the first couple of dozen trips. Then you'll still need to retighten, just less and less often.

Right Angle: During use, the Springer will tend to get tugged to a position off of a right angle, usually back, and you might be tempted to pull it farther back to avoid it interfering with your foot. Don't. It'll least interfere with your foot if it's at a perfect right angle, so keep readjusting it to that. It doesn't seem that way at first, but that's how it turns out.

Extra Parts: Yes, you need to buy a set of extra breakaways and clips. Also, bring the leash to the hardware store to buy a few yards of flagpole rope of the same size. Cut an extra 18" leash and knot it with an extra clip and breakaway, then tuck this into the fanny-pack or whatever else you're using on your trips. That way, when your dog breaks off the Springer, you'll be all set to get her back on quickly.

Separate Leash: You may be tempted to keep a second leash running to your dog so when she gets loose via breaking the breakaway or something else going wrong, she won't be able to run off and get lost. Don't do this. This completely subverts the safety features of the Springer and can lead to grievous injury. You're just going to have to be ready to find her and lure her back the old fashioned way if she gets away -- and if you can't do that, you can't use a Springer.

Clipping: Every time you get your dog to come over to the bike and get clipped to the Springer, give her a treat. You want to encourage her to like coming over to the Springer, and while "we're going for a ride!" might be a good start, it won't always work, and you also want her to be just as eager to get back onto it when it's time to go home. You'll be glad you started this right from day one.

No Tipping: After she's clipped on, do not ever step away from the bike, or even move to anywhere where you can't steady the bike instantly. If she moves even a few inches while the bike's on its kickstand, for any reason, she'll tip the bike over onto herself. She probably won't be hurt, but she'll become terrified of the bike and the Springer, and you'll have a very hard time getting her onto the Springer thereafter. Be sure you're completely ready to go before you clip her.

Steady Pace: Once you're riding, keep up a steady pace. As long as you're moving at a reasonable speed, her instinct will be "keep up with the pack," so she will run along with you and the ride will go smooth. Once you slow down to a certain threshold speed, suddenly her instincts will switch to "I have time to check out smells and sounds and still keep up with the pack", and then she'll be pulling the bike back or to the side, which slows you down more and makes the whole trip far harder, plus it's worse exercise. If you have to slow down temporarily, it's better to stop.

Don't Go Too Fast: On a steep downhill, you can probably get going so fast that it will be uncomfortable for your dog to keep up, especially if she's small or old. But she won't complain; she'll work herself to any extent necessary to keep up with the pack, even to the detriment of her own health, because that's how her instincts work. (In the wild, a dog that gets separated from her pack is in worse shape than one who wears herself out keeping up.) For a healthy young large dog, it'll be hard to go too fast even on a steep hill (sometimes when I think I'm going too fast, a moment later Socks sniffs something ahead and is suddenly going faster than I am and pulling me forward), but for smaller and older dogs it might be easy.

Electric Assist: If you have a hard time keeping up a speed that keeps your dog going forward, you might find an electric-assist bicycle to be a great solution. For me, it's because of living in a hilly area; I have no trouble keeping her engaged on the flat stretches, but going uphill I slow enough that she's now pulling back, and suddenly a short stretch of road becomes a nightmare. Prices vary widely, though. I've seen electric-assist bikes, or add-on kits, for over a thousand dollars, but I bought my bike new for just over $200. Note that you might find yourself using the electric assist on a low setting even on stretches of road you could easily handle, because the weight of the battery and engine, and the slight drag of the transmission, will make the electric bike a little harder to pedal than a regular one, but the motor can easily make up the difference.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Eken MID -- the not-an-iPad

I've written before of the tremendous difference between the Kindle (and other eInk-based eBooks) over normal computer screens in terms of usability for reading. Current firmware on my Kindle has some very strong PDF viewing capabilities (despite the unsuitability of the PDF format for eBooks), but they tend to fall down on anything with a lot of color -- either because you can't see the color and need to, or because it makes the text muddy and hard to read.

And unfortunately many of the RPG products published these days make heavy use of color even when it doesn't add anything to the content: consider the strikingly beautiful but also very heavy-handed art of the Dresden Files roleplaying game as perhaps the high end of the spectrum. Which is a shame, for a few reasons. First, a lot of good RPGs are available as PDFs these days, due to companies not being able to justify big print runs or digging out old out-of-print materials as eBooks. Second, the notoriously poor indexing of RPG materials lends itself well to the advantages of full text searching and bookmarking. Third, going to a con with ten pounds of books is always a back-aching endeavor, and sometimes forces one to choose which things to bring and which to leave behind, but if one device can have all the supplements (including the ones you know you'll need and the ones that you didn't expect to need but which unexpectedly came up during the game) and weigh a pound, that would be lovely. And fourth, the possibility of throwing in some software that helps you do the gruntwork of the games on the same device is compelling.

That's why I've thought, if the price on an iPad had been around $100-$150, I might buy one solely to be an RPG-eBook-reader with possible expansion into being an RPG software development platform. But at $450 plus the chance of being tied into a monthly service plan for Internet access, on top of all the usual "being caged inside Steve Jobs's idea of where and how one should do stuff" that comes with most Apple products, it's so not worth it.

Recently, though, I heard about a similar device being sold on eBay at a much more reasonable $100 postpaid. When I say "similar device" of course the iPad-lovers will certainly start to scream. It doesn't have 3G, only Wi-Fi; it doesn't run the iPhone OS; it's a bit smaller; and it lacks other features the iPad has (though it does have some the iPad lacks, notably a camera).

But it certainly has the bits of the iPad experience that are germane to my RPG-PDF-reader idea. It comes with PDF-reading software (Documents To Go, which also handles Office stuff), and the usual Android OS stuff including a solid browser and email client. Sure, it's got the multimedia software (though a few quick tries at playing AVIs and YouTube video didn't work but I haven't really tried yet), a few games (and more available online), social network software, and a pretty typical set of PIM applications. All of this is as solid as any Android phone, both pretty and functional. But I don't expect to use this a lot for those things.

(Though it did occur to me, on seeing Rover running on it, that mounting one on my wall might make a lovely "home control panel" for my home automation system. I'd probably make a variant of Rover that was more finger-friendly first though. I will seriously consider the possibility.)

Now Siobhan has to knit a sleeve for it. And I have to start learning what's out there on the market for Android. Maybe I'll even learn how to code for it and write my own software for it.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

MAME cabinet bill of materials

With the MAME cabinet controller board here and my plans far more fully developed, it's time to start buying the supplies and materials for my MAME cabinet. I'll be doing a shopping trip today to Big Lots, WalMart, Allen Lumber, Aubuchon Hardware, and Radio Shack, and meanwhile I have a few things on order. Here's my bill of materials.

Computer System

  • Computer (~$200): Asus Eee Box HD 1006 Nettop PC. Includes a wireless keyboard/mouse combo and a mounting bracket, along with integral Wi-Fi and an HDMI output. Compact, quiet, and low on power usage.
  • Monitor ($165): Vizio 22” 720p LCD HDTV. A good size for 80s arcade games with good resolution. Has lots of inputs, in case I later want to hook up a Nintendo, Atari 2600, etc.
  • Controller Board ($500): MAMEroom Classic Controller. Yeah, I could design and build my own for less, but that's pushing my electronics skills and possibly also my carpentry abilities. My chosen configuration: CCBAAAAAAC-BBBAAAAAA-CFFFDDDDD-FFF000HEC-0O (no pinball buttons, yellow T-molding, a very colorful layout but no decoration). Another advantage: it can be set on a desk and used as is, doesn't have to be built into a cabinet.
  • Speakers ($6): I ended up buying a cheap set because they had a flush front face so they could be mounted within the case better than the ones I had lying around. The monitor has speakers built in too, but I want to have more than that.
  • UPS ($30): A basic APC UPS which I'll be setting on the inside floor of the cabinet. Should provide some protection against power flickers while also serving as a "power strip" so I have just one power cable hanging out the back.

Lumber and Trim

  • Melamine ($138): Three sheets of 4'x8' ¾"-wide black satin finish melamine. Getting it in black saves me having to do any painting (which makes assembly a lot simpler since I can mount things in panels before installing the panels) and will provide a shinier finish. (And if I ever get side art, it'll stick better, too.) Technically if I add up all the wood needs of my plans I need only two sheets, but just barely. So I'm getting three because something always goes wrong. (I didn't end up needing it, but it'll end up used in some other project.)
  • Two-By-Four Scraps ($0): A few scraps of lumber I have around the house which will serve as a mounting block for the monitor, and supports for the monitor shelf.
  • T-Molding ($31): ¾" yellow molding to install on the exposed edges of the side panels and along the horizontal joins above the monitor. Bright yellow (matching the T-molding on the edge of the controller panel) has that shockingly bright quality against the black that screams 80s. Routing the groove for it in the edge of the wood is tricky; I might just cut off the stem and hot-glue the molding on. I ended up needing about 30' but it comes in 20' rolls.
  • Marquee ($0): I took a MAME logo I found online, prettied it up a little, and scaled it to the aspect ratio I needed, then got it printed on a high-resolution color plotter (a friend was able to do this at the office at no cost).
  • Marquee Glass ($20): I bought a few cheap poster frames at Wal*Mart and the cut the thin, but nicely transparent, plastic cover material to size. Two sheets at 8½" x 22" will sandwich the marquee and will sit in grooves in the melamine.


  • L Brackets ($15): A couple of dozen L-brackets will be used for holding together lots of parts of the cabinet for additional strength. Two will be affixed to the outside on either side of the shelf on which the controller board (which is much wider than the case around it) will sit.
  • Pegs ($1): I plan to buy a few small pegs that I can screw into the bottom of the controller board which will sit in the holes in those L-brackets. This way I can drop the controller board into place and it'll sit securely, but I can just lift it right out when I want to. Update: turns out sheet metal screws are perfectly sized. Update: this whole plan didn't work, the pegs didn't really fit, so I went with a different approach that didn't need any parts.
  • Hinges ($4): Most of the back of the case will be hinged doors so I can get access to everything inside. No door pulls, though; I want everything flush, so I'll just jigsaw cut out little finger-notches.
  • Door Latches ($4): So that when the doors on the back close, they click closed.
  • Drawer Railings ($9): There will be a drawer under the controller board in front, hopefully mostly concealed, in which the PC keyboard and mouse will sit so I can get to them when I need to do system things, but keep them out of the way the rest of the time. The railings will let it glide in and out.
  • Feet ($3): Not sure if I want wheels or just coasters. This case is going to be heavy and will not move often so it'll probably just be coaster feet with levellers.


  • Case Fan ($27): A 120VAC ventilation fan to mount in the top to help keep the inside of the case cool. Hopefully it'll have a grill or cover, though since it'll be on top, that's not absolutely necessary. An ordinary PC case fan would work except I need to be able to plug it into the UPS instead of installing a whole power supply just to power this.
  • Fluorescent Light ($11): To be mounted behind the marquee. A cheap utility room light should be fine as long as it's short enough to fit and has an ordinary power plug. This just makes the marquee light up.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Eee RAM upgrade

While my Eee is perfectly adequate to most of the things I do with it, there are times when its slowness starts to really bug me, particularly when I'm using it as my main computer, such as when travelling. To a large extent the "low power" thing is intentional and by design: it's what makes it possible for the netbook to be small and light yet still have a long battery life and run cool without fans. You're not supposed to be running six applications on it, and even when I'm travelling, I try not to. But it can get laggy even doing a few things.

A lot of that isn't due to processing power but due to disk swapping, and that in turn is largely caused by the rotten way they've set up the two solid-state hard drives. Instead of one 12G drive, there's a primary 4G partition on which Windows lives, and a faster 8G partition for data. This ends up being kind of backwards. Even after you do everything possible to move stuff onto the second drive, the 4G drive is barely enough to keep up with Windows itself, and often runs out of space and needs to be pruned. Unfortunately, that's where swap space also lives, which means it lives on a small, crowded, slow drive.

Generally speaking, one of the best ways to improve a computer's responsiveness and speed is always upgrading RAM. Most computers ship with less than they can benefit from, and RAM is cheap and easy to upgrade. That's even more so when swap space is slow and scarce. So it should have been an obvious thing to try, but strangely it didn't occur to me. I never even looked into whether it was possible. But it turns out it's not even difficult or expensive.

It only takes two screws to open the panel on the back, then the old 1G card pops out with two clips and the new one pops right in. Simple as that. The 2G cards only cost $45.

So far the computer has been a lot more responsive. It's not so much that it does any particular thing faster, as that it doesn't grind to a stop and become unresponsive for ten seconds every so often. Even when I do a few other things at the same time it comes out pretty good.

So I don't intend to look at upgrading anymore. My Eee will be fine for a while yet to come.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Freeloader tip for the Kindle

One of the cool things I got for Christmas is a Freeloader: a solar charger for cell phones and other small electronic devices. It has an internal battery so it can store up charge from either a USB power supply or from sunlight gathered from its included solar panels, and use it to charge your devices. It doesn't gather enough power to charge a smartphone as fast as you use it, but you can let it soak up power for a while and then recharge when you need it to get some extra runtime out of your devices. It's very light and small.

It comes with about a dozen different tips letting you plug it into any of countless smartphones, MP3 players, and other devices. Of those tips, only one works for me: the standard USB mini plug that's becoming the most common connector on phones and other devices. The other devices I would like to charge are my Archos, which uses a very proprietary connector, and my Kindle, which uses the up-and-coming micro-USB connector. I can still charge those by using the clunky and bulky approach of carrying around the USB cables for those devices and using the Freeloader's female-USB tip, but having the right tip would be much more compact.

The trouble is, the Freeloader is made in the UK and its accessories are not widely available. I can buy them for £4.99, but shipping to the US triples the price. So while I was in the UK a few weeks ago I thought it'd be a good idea to try to find a shop that sells the tips. But there weren't any in the area. So I went through some painstaking efforts to ensure I could receive mail delivery at the rented apartment and got the tip delivered there during the week. This was inordinately complex because of the way the apartment handled keys and post, and my troubles with Internet access, plus the fact that Google Checkout refuses to let me specify where to send its emails and insists on sending them to a GMail account I no longer use. So the purchase kept getting denied and cancelled without me having any notice of that fact.

But I finally got the Kindle tip. Only it turns out it wasn't the right tip. The people who make the Freeloader don't actually advertise any of the tips as being for a Kindle as they don't have one to test on. So I'd gone by the pictures and descriptions, and I struck out. So frustrating.

Well, I had one final chance. Janice is heading from the UK back to the US today, and it's the last time we know for sure that someone will be heading from there to here. So I did some research last month and found what I'm 99.5% sure is the right tip, ordered it, and had it sent to Janice's house. She could pop it into her luggage and bring it over with her, and finally all would be well.

Google Checkout screwed me again by cancelling the order without warning me, sending an email to that unused account saying "warning, log in and fix this in 15 minutes or your order will be cancelled". I found out a month later, with only four days until Janice's departure. I placed the order again, watched it closely, and sent a separate email to the company asking them to make sure it'd arrive by Wednesday so she could have it when she left, and they said it would be there, but it wasn't. (The people I've spoken to there have been unfailingly helpful and generous, and I don't even know if it's their fault it didn't arrive when they said it would. I don't mean to sound like I'm slamming them.)

When I look back at the ordeal, it's clear I've spent several hours and now £10 on trying to get the tip and still not getting it, all in an effort to save £10 on shipping on something that only cost £5 in the first place. If I had it to do over I'd just have paid the damned £15 and been done with it. Instead, I'm just going to give up in frustration.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Change your diet

Imagine this scenario. You're in your doctor's office and he hands you a sheet of paper with two lists of food on it. "These foods on the left are things you should avoid or reduce to help with your condition," he says, then adds, "and these on the right are things you should increase or add to your diet."

Without knowing anything else, what items are on the list?

If you've been to doctors a lot, you are probably thinking the same things as me. The left side says fats and fried foods, sweets, red meat, baked goods, salt, sugar, alcohol, coffee, soda, and maybe a few other things. The right side is mostly about vegetables (especially the leafy and bitter-flavored ones) and possibly fruit and fish. And this is true no matter what the condition is. Any specific condition might add one or two other things to one side or the other, but almost anything you have to talk to a doctor about will include that same list.

So imagine the pleasantness of my surprise when I got what may be one of the only exceptions in the history of medicine. If you form calcium oxalate kidney stones, the list of things to avoid includes nothing about meats, sweets, or fats. Instead, it includes a long list of vegetables including kale (eat less kale!), swiss chard, eggplant, spinach, squash, watercress, and collard greens. Well, gee, Mr. Doctor, if you really insist, I guess I could lay off the okra a bit. After all, health is very important.

The list also includes some things I like, including a number of fruits and berries, but almost nothing that makes me sad to contemplate losing. Of course, I still have to do the urine test and then get specific recommendations. Somehow, I'm sure it'll all turn out to be about cookies and spicy food eventually, but at least for now, I just have to ease up on the rutabaga. Oh, whatever will I do!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

I've got to... get away!

With the dog safely boarded at Random Rescue, we packed a dufflebag of stuff and headed out early Sunday morning, planning to take advantage of reasonably good weather (not hot, but not cool, and the rain not expected until Monday) and the state holiday (meaning we'd have the day off anyway, but outside Vermont, no one else would, so it wouldn't be too crowded), to squeeze a brief stress-burning vacation in for minimal cost.

Unfortunately the great Mexican restaurant we visited once (actually twice) before, though their website is still up, has recently closed, so we had to settle for fast food for our first lunch. After that it was straight to the beach. We had to pay $15 for access to Hampton Beach, which seems pretty steep for a day-use area in a state park, but at least you can come and go all day for that. When we arrived around 2pm on Sunday the beach was pretty crowded, with the various "base camps" maybe ten feet apart and the crowd running the entire length of the beach (farther than I could easily see).

I don't know what it is about the sea that's so destressing. Often with things like that, it's not so much about the place as the fact that the place forces you to do other things: for instance, often when I go to a class, it's not that I have a teacher that makes me learn better than from a book, it's the fact that when I'm in a class people stop bugging me and let me focus. Maybe I'd get the same effect from sitting in the woods, or by a lake, or in a mall, as long as I made myself stop doing anything more taxing than reading or lazing, and what the sea really does is get me to do that. Maybe there's more to it than that.

In any case, all we did is watch the tide come in and then go back out, doze, and occasionally walk on the sand. I went in the water only up to mid-thigh; it was a bit too cold (though plenty of other people were swimming) and, once you settled down, the breeze off the water made it chilly enough that the last thing you needed was more cold. I did a bit of reading (and got to proselytize the Kindle to an interested passerby), but even that didn't last and I went to napping soon after.

As the tide was going out and it was getting on towards suppertime, the crowded beach thinned out remarkably quickly, even though it was still just as warm and sunny. But having spent about four hours there, we took off to look for someplace to eat, and someplace to sleep. Having no plans, we weren't sure where to go or whether to stay near the shore or further inland, since the next day's plans would be inland at Funspot NH. So we just decided to head in that general direction looking for restaurants that seemed promising.

However, the GPS software prefers to route us along major highways, which don't tend to have nice restaurants alongside them. Nothing promising showed up in Hampton Beach and then we were on the highway. I used the feature that highlights restaurants within a distance from the route in my GPS software, but without knowing anything but their names and locations, this wasn't too helpful. One restaurant it led us to no longer exists. We ended up already coming up to Lake Winnipesauke and getting pretty hungry, so we stopped at the first place we found that seemed vaguely promising. As we were now well into the resort community area, restaurants tended to be a little more overpriced and a little more pretentious than their decor and food would warrant, and Shibley's at the Pier was no exception, but it was pretty good and we managed to keep the costs down by avoiding their fru-fru entrées.

It was getting dark by time we were reaching the Weirs Beach area, and our listings of available motels were not much more complete than restaurants -- we had still not found a single spot of available Internet -- so we found one that claimed free wi-fi and was not far from Funspot, and called ahead. They gave us directions but too fast to record, but we had them on the GPS and what little we caught seemed to match, so we headed there, only to find no motel. Turns out they're not where the GPS says, and the directions to where they actually are sound almost the same as the directions you'd give to where they (I'm guessing) used to be.

It turns out they do indeed have free wi-fi, with the caveat that it doesn't actually reach the rooms. And our room wasn't even that far from the office, it was kind of in the middle. By this point Siobhan was so tired we just said "okay, we'll take it anyway," even though the free wi-fi had been (half-jokingly) the primary reason to go with them. Apart from that, it was a very nice place, with a well-appointed room, a charming central area with a fire, a hot tub (unfortunately closed), a dock with swimming and boating areas on the lake, and other amenities.

In the morning we set out for supplies at a local CVS and a serviceable if unspectacular breakfast at a local diner, then on to Funspot. This place is essentially everything Pizza Putt wants to be when it grows up. Okay, to be fair, Funspot doesn't have laser tag, and their indoor mini-golf is pretty lame (even compared to Pizza Putt's greatly scaled down mini-golf). But they have a real bowling alley, not just a few lanes of miniaturized bowling; about 10 times more modern video games and racing games (boy, are racing games popular!); an outdoor miniature golf course; about twice as much of everything else; and, most importantly, the American Classic Arcade Museum, which is why we were there.

ACAM claims to be the largest video arcade in the world, but my picture here, and the pictures on their website, really don't make it look like that. That's mostly because there's no angle from which to take a picture that makes clear how many games there actually are. Think of a classic arcade game, and odds are it's there (a few exceptions include Q*Bert and Joust, though they did have Joust 2 and Q*Bert Cubes). And next to it will be ten others you've never even heard of.

Unfortunately, quite a few of the most promising ones, including Tempest, Star Castle, and Star Wars, were out of order. (I want to take that oh-so-rare Tempest machine home and fix it!) A few others weren't in great shape; the Time Pilot had a screen so faded you couldn't make out the bullets, and the Make Trax screen kept flashing in an ominous way. Others had controls that could use some maintenance. But most of them are quite playable, and it's very easy to while away hours playing game after game after game, with hundreds to choose from. (Plus a wall of pinball, which I don't really enjoy, and of course all the rest of Funspot as well.) You can mostly focus on the games you remember (like I did) or explore games you never saw before (I did a few of those too -- found one very cool driving game that way) and either way pass a whole day easily.

Often when I see other arcades, they play monkey business with costs. You buy tokens that make it seem like you're getting a lot, but most everything costs two or more. At Funspot, almost everything was one token, with only a very few exceptions (Dragons Lair, for instance, and oddly enough, Gyruss). And at a base price of 100 tokens for $20 that's cheaper than the games were originally. But wait, there's more! Widely available coupons make that 150 tokens for $20, which is just over half what they originally cost. Which means you're getting hours of entertainment for a very reasonable price.

That it's also a "museum" is a bit of a goofy element that is probably some kind of tax dodge. They have one display with an old Colecovision, an Atari Throwback, and some Simons. And about a dozen of the games have one-page historical briefs on them, but not even the most historically important ones: there's one on Tempest, but nothing on Pong or Space Invaders. Still, if it makes them happy, as long as that means you can get to the games to play them I don't mind.

It's got me even more jazzed about finishing the MAME system. Also, their hits of the 80s soundtrack made me think I should also plan to make a "jukebox" for the game room. A lot of coin-op fans also have a similar nostalgia kick for actual jukeboxes, and make MAME-analogue jukeboxes that look like the old-fashioned kind but actually have MP3 libraries inside. Me, I'd be happy just hooking up a playlist to some speakers. But I think I'll want to put some dedicated speakers and a suitable playlist in there (though I won't limit the speakers to that playlist all the time).

We didn't see much more of Weirs Beach, though enough to see that massively kitschy boardwalk-arcade-resort-community feel must keep it positively swarmed with people all summer. I'm sure the lake as a whole is a lovely destination, though probably a bit more crowded and expensive than other lakes we could go to just as easily for a weekend getaway with Socks. We spent the whole day at Funspot otherwise, and then left around suppertime, stopped along the way in Bradford for dinner at Hungry Bear, and got home around 8pm.

Now that I'm back at work I can't shake the feeling that I had a day off and everyone else was here, and I have to keep reminding myself that this is the first day back from a long weekend for everyone. But while work is picking at the edges of my calm, I'm feeling like the weekend accomplished what it was meant to accomplish. Feeling much more composed and ready to face the challenges of the day.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Who plays the villains?

In multiplayer games like MUDs and MMORPGs where there is an affiliation that's clearly the "bad guys", is there any trend in who tends to join it?

So before I launch into anything potentially inflammatory let's start with the disclaimers. Anything one says about a general trend about a large group of people cannot be applied to any individual member, particularly as regards motives. There's gobs of room for an individual to deviate from a loosely-correlated trend. There are lots of reasons why one might choose one side over another, including interesting skills or tactical opportunities that might exist in one side, having a friend in one side, and many others, which will on an individual basis easily overwhelm any small predilection. Those who play multiple characters are particularly prone to trying every side out. Some games use "good guy" and "bad guy" as the thinnest of veneers and don't really bring along with them very much baggage about how one behaves or what motivates the characters, so this hardly matters there. And in a short-term or one-shot game the other factors, including a desire for variety or a new challenge, easily outweigh any predilection.

So with that out of the way... from my experience, those who play the bad guys are substantially more likely to be jerks. By "jerks" I mean the kind of players who are more likely to selfishly pursue their own enjoyment at the expense of other players, instead of finding ways to help contribute to the benefit of the whole game and all its players. They're more likely to rationalize bad behavior or go too far.

Sure, in any given "bad guy" organization there are plenty of people who care. And in any given "good guy" organization there are plenty of people who are jerks. And in either one, there are people who are one way but claim or pretend to be the other (and may well believe it themselves). But there does seem to be a small but significant skew, where more of the jerks find their way to the side where being jerkish is an appropriate thing to do in character.

This is hardly that surprising, since in any given group of roleplayers, most of them will be mostly playing themselves in fancy clothes and with superpowers. This is particularly noticeable when it comes to characters you're going to play for a long while (years, in a MUD, for instance). I can easily enjoy a character that is unlike myself in key ways for a long time, but when it comes to playing characters who are mean-spirited, evil, cruel, or hurtful, I can only enjoy that in short doses. (I once played a wife-beating escapee from a prison for the criminally insane for a few hours at a con, and enjoyed the challenge, but I wouldn't want to do that for even a few sessions.) But it seems that some people can, and I think that might tell us something about what they're like inside, or what they would be like if they thought they could get away with it.

This is sure to be an unpopular opinion as it comes off as judgmental, and I am sure that the desire to proclaim the exceptions loudly will tend to outweigh and drown out the correlation of the rule. But I think that, for those who know what "slight but significant correlation" really means, it's a potentially significant fact.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Kidney stones of the future

While I got a referral out of my doctor primarily to find out what I can do to reduce the likelihood of further kidney stones, and whether my calcium supplementation is part of the cause and should be adjusted, I also intended to ask about the third stone that showed up on my CT scan and which my doctor said might pass one day or might never pass. But I wasn't too focused on it.

The urologist I visited was really great at explaining things and talking to me clearly, neither patronizing nor so jargon-laced I was straining to keep up, and telling me just what I needed to know. And while he certainly addressed my question about how to prevent future kidney stone formation (in a properly scientific way -- I'm going to be doing a urine collection test that should tell us what I need to do to reduce the likelihood of their formation) we actually spent most of the appointment talking about the other issue.

While the CT scan was ambiguous and the followup ultrasound is harder to trust, it seems I have a 5mm stone, approximately, lurking in my left kidney. (The pictured one here is 2-3mm, the same size as the two I've already passed.) While people have been known to have 20mm stones and larger (and there's a whole kind of procedure for those), the usual limit on the size of a stone that they can feel sure will pass is 4-6mm, so I'm right on the edge of where it might make sense to let it pass on its own (and endure one more day of excruciating pain when that happens), knowing that it might get stuck and refuse to pass and require a procedure; or just get the procedure preemptively, so that I avoid the pain and get to choose the date.

I'm leaning towards the latter. The odds are that it is not going to stay in my kidney, so if I do anything else, the one thing I'm sure of is a lot of pain. It might be a few days of pain, or it might be a few days of pain followed by a procedure anyway. Either way, it happens when my kidney wants, not necessarily at a time convenient for me. The only "advantage" in waiting is the chance I might not need the procedure, but as the procedure doesn't sound too bad -- it's not a surgery and it's not likely to be terribly painful -- that's likely only a big factor for people who are terrified of such things.

Actually there are two possible procedures. The totally non-invasive one seems unlikely to work though, due to my size and the fact that my stone is the hardest kind that people make, a calcium oxalate monohydrate, so I'd probably go straight towards the scope approach. (A description of what they do in that one might make the males in the audience cringe too much, so if you're curious, go look it up. But it's done with anaesthetic and such, naturally.)

I'm supposed to be thinking through my options (and I guess in writing this post I've been doing that, or at least crystallizing them -- no pun intended) while we wait for me to do the urine collection and the results to be analyzed in the lab. I wonder how long the lead time is from then to the procedure. It'll probably happen in the autumn -- in between the vow renewal and the holidays would be perfect.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Pick up and go

This summer has been stressful at work again. Sometimes I feel like I'm turning into one of those people who has stress at work all the time but always talks as if it's an unusual thing, because I'm currently having my third bout of work-stress in a row. Last summer there was the crushing pressure of a huge project that was going bad, and probably the worst round of stress I've ever been through. Over the winter there was another round that was a sort of "aftershock" from that, a bunch of legal wrangling over settling some obscure points of a contract. This summer has been mostly about the increasing pressures that come from us having more duties, a lot more bureaucratic and accountability overhead, and fewer resources than ever -- including a 20% reduction in personnel covering the increasing workload, and pay cuts.

There's lots of stress-busters, but most of them are either unattainable or things that come when they choose to come, not when I choose to have them. One of the few things that's a big boost of destressing but that I can cause to happen is a visit to the seashore on a sunny day. I don't know why, but it does. Even better if it's a warm day. Last summer we spent a weekend in Ogunquit just as the crush of that summer stress-party was peaking, and it made a big difference. Our trip to San Diego included a little time on a beach, which helped defuse the stress from that legal tussle.

At one point it looked like we were going to get to spend a couple of hours on the beach while in England, but we had so much we were doing in England that it didn't seem like a big deal, and then when it fell through it didn't seem worth making a fuss about. And I could certainly get through without another visit. I've gone two, three years in between trips to the sea before, admittedly in less stressed times, but even so, I can go a half-year.

But I was also thinking recently about how the drive to the shore from here is about three hours, which is comparable to the drive we made to the disappointing Rush concert, and we did that as a day trip. So there's no compelling reason why it'd be impossible to make a day trip to the shore. Then again, if you're going to spend six hours on the road, it seems like it'd make sense to have more than two hours there, so an overnight's still more compelling.

With us already planning to go some weekend to FunSpot NH to visit the world's largest arcade, I thought it might make sense to extend that trip to a visit to the seashore. However, I never got farther than thinking that it might be nice to watch for a good weekend with good weather, because the appeal of the seashore depends so much on the weather. (Yes, a rainy day on the seashore is lovely and destressing, but if that's the only time you get to spend on the seashore, it's not nearly so nice as having that and the nice weather after it. Plus getting there is messy and cold.) So I didn't want to plan it too much, just pick up and go. This weekend seemed possibly ideal, because it's not just a three-day weekend, but the third day is only a holiday for Vermont; so we won't be fighting holiday crowds. Plus summer's rapidly running out.

Only when I brought the idea up, it became clear that we can no longer just "pick and up go" even for an overnight. A long day trip would work, but even a single overnight becomes more of a planned thing just because we either bring the dog -- thus limiting our motel and entertainment options considerably, and likely making the whole trip more about her than anything else -- or we need to board her. She can't be left alone for an overnight trip's duration.

Fortunately, we can board her on short notice and for a reasonable cost. We just have to plan our timing a little more than "pick up and go" suggests. But we are looking quite likely to hit the road Sunday morning for a day on the shore, visiting beaches, restaurants, shopping, and anything else we feel like; an overnight somewhere cheap; and Monday at FunSpot. Hopefully I'll come back refreshed, destressed, and relaxed. (At least as much as a two-days-one-night can do.)

Friday, August 13, 2010


When I had my bike crash back in March, by a week later I was mostly recovered from the scrapes and cuts, but my left knee was still very sore and stiff. My knee had a sort of "bubble" of loose-feeling skin which would "wobble" a bit, and this bubble was uneven and had striations in it. The skin felt kind of numb there. And the whole area was terribly sensitive and got stiff easily.

My primary care physician said that what I had there was a sort of a blood bubble, a pocket where internal bleeding had accumulated, and that while she could drain it it would probably fill back in. She recommended hot compresses, rather than the ice I'd been using for the swelling, to help the blood get reabsorbed. And she said it could take as long as a month or more for it to be reabsorbed and everything to be back to normal.

Four months later, nothing much had changed. Hot compresses seemed to give me some temporary relief from the stiffness, but the bubble was as big as ever, felt as lumpy and numb as ever, and my knee was as prone to getting stiff as it had been three weeks after the injury. So I asked my doctor about it again and got a referral to an orthopedist. It took another month to get in, then an hour in the waiting room for about three minutes of his time, which led to another referral, but at least I have a diagnosis now.

Bursitis. About which I knew little more than, in movies, old people complain about it in their joints. But having read some summaries about it, I can see how it matches everything. And how hot compresses were the wrong treatment all this time. (I'm not sure if a more timely diagnosis might have helped treatment be more effective, but it would at least have made it more timely.)

While it's likely that my knee will never be "good as new" it seems likely that with some physical therapy it will be able to get a lot better than it is, to almost as good as it was before. Maybe when I'm older, the onset of chronic bursitis there will be earlier and stronger, but at least for now, this acute bursitis should be able to be minimized.

The only problem of course is that I have zero spare minutes in my day, particularly at work, so where am I going to fit in two physical therapy sessions a week plus whatever "homework" they assign?

So a lot of bad news: it won't be good as it was, I have to go through lots of stuff I don't have time for, and I don't know how cross I should be at my PCP. But I have to look at the silver lining: I will soon be on the way to where I don't have this stiffness, soreness, and sensitivity.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs

It's surprisingly how good animated kid's movies are these days, as adult entertainment. It makes me feel good to know that kids who are falling in love with these movies will get to go back to them when they're grown-ups and find that they're just as good as they remember, or better, the same way The Phantom Tollbooth was for me (and A Wrinkle In Time was disappointingly not). Even so, I didn't expect that much from Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs since the premise seemed thin (and it turns out to come from a very slender book), and the trailers were only mildly promising.

I was quite surprised by how clever and inventive the movie actually was, and how often it was able to catch me unprepared. I'm not exactly a jaded moviegoer, but I'm certainly an experienced one; I usually see jokes, plot twists, and character traits coming well before they arrive (but still appreciate them when they get there, which is why I'm not jaded). Even the most amusing and well-done children's movies, like Finding Nemo, rarely surprise me. But Cloudy caught me totally off guard many times with jokes I didn't expect, connections between plot elements that didn't seem likely to connect, and reactions I didn't expect to have.

One good example that won't spoil anything is that the entire story is set on a tiny island that is hidden under the A in "Atlantic Ocean".

There were some bits that didn't work that well. The movie engages in a bit of ham-handed (pun intended) moralizing about overeating that could have been better done as a general theme of "sometimes having it too easy too good isn't a good thing" -- and they flirted with that aspect, but too often they went for the cheap-and-easy shot instead. While they usually did a great job with using the incongruity of random pieces of food falling out of the sky (and everyone being blasé about it) to punctuate other scenes, there were times when it got out of hand. There was a "former child star" character who almost managed to become a good object lesson for the hero (giving him a chance to see his own future fate), but instead, just got to be a cheap joke and a not-particularly-potent, and fairly predictable, storyline at the end. A few of the actors seemed underutilized, compared to others who got used more than seems warranted by either the quality of the actor, or the potential of the character. Once or twice the pacing felt off.

But in between those moments was an entire movie full of great visuals, engaging characters, enough (admittedly hokey and predictable) action sequences to keep the plot moving, clever gags, a few nice lessons, and a lot of really funny moments, many of whom come at you from around a corner when you're not prepared for them. So I definitely recommend the movie.

(I didn't see it in 3D, and I don't know how well that would have worked, how much difference it would have made.)

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Surprisingly good drumming

I don't get to play Rock Band drums as often as I'd like, so sometimes while I'm sitting in the car passenger seat I'll listen to the drums closely -- deconstruct the song, as it were -- and try to figure out what it'd be like to play it by mimicking the movements. Playing air drums, that is, as uncool as that must look. The trick of it is getting the movements of various limbs to work independently as needed, so that's as good a way to practice as any other I can do in that much time and space.

When you think of great drummers a few names come deservedly to mind, but what I find most interesting is when I find a song that never would have come to my notice as having interesting or challenging drums, but that does. I don't mean something like "Radar Love" -- that it has great drums is obvious to anyone paying attention, even if you have no idea who Golden Earring's drummer is (I don't) and wouldn't normally list him as a leading drummer. I mean something where even listening to the song wouldn't make you notice the complexity of the drumming unless you actually stop to listen to it, to deconstruct the song.

I've previously noted being surprised to find several songs by the Steve Miller Band struck me that way. Today in the car I noticed the Patti Smith version of "Because The Night" was like that. The drumming isn't revolutionary or anything, but it's far more complex than you'd initially expect just from listening to the song or giving it a thought. (I wonder if the Bruce Springsteen original shares that quality.)

I can only imagine drummers would find my rambling thoughts uninformed and naïve, hopefully in an amusing, not annoying, way.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

What if we looked up?

Any street sign with an arrow on it indicating the direction of travel always points up. But when you come down to it, that's arbitrary. Up is at right angles to forward, just as much as down is. So why do we use up-arrow for forward, universally? Is it just cultural?

I think it's a consequence of our biology. If you imagine looking at a map, where is the map? It's either in front of you, straight ahead, in the same orientation as the sign; or, it's down, in your lap or on your desk, below your head, so you have to turn your head downward to look at it. That's because your head easily pivots to look down or forward, but not as easily or naturally to look up. And that, in turn, is because if you're trying to make a living in the world, the most important directions to be looking are forward (at where you're going), and down (at the ground, where food, danger, and clues to navigation are).

Flounders live in a different environment. Looking forward isn't even important to them, and looking down is all but useless, but looking up is essential since that's where everything they need to see is, and since that's where the light is. Flounders, however, lack sapience and manipulative appendages.

But if there were a species somewhere that looked up and forward with the same ease we look down and forward, the way something that evolved in similar situations to the flounder might, but which had manipulative appendages and sapience suitable for making artifacts, eventually they might make maps. And they would, naturally, hold the maps the same place they held other tools: above them.

The direction a flounderperson is heading would still be indicated by the "forward" direction, same as for us (though on the bottom, not the top, of the sheet of paper). But when the flounderperson rotated its eyes, and frame of reference, from the map to the "forward" direction in its environment, this would suggest that the arrows that flounderpersons put on their signs would indicate forward with a downward-pointing arrow. And they would find this just as natural and intuitive and inescapable as we would about up-arrows, and find ours just as contrary and weird.

Otherwise, though, their signs and maps would be easily comprehensible to us, save only that if we found their maps we'd probably misinterpret them (by placing them on a table and looking down at them) and get our left and right reversed.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Shifting priorities

Lately at work the biggest frustration is the shifting of priorities. There's always shifting priorities; it's a natural part of life. Things are constantly coming up that have to interrupt whatever else you were working on. And everyone always seems to want everything to be the highest priority, which of course means nothing is. Under the best of circumstances the shifting of priorities is a source of constant stress. But lately it's gotten so much worse.

Part of it is the source of the interruptions. More and more, they're not even someone else in my office having some project they think is more important than all the previous ones. More often, it's something being imposed from outside, some arbitrary, often bureaucratic, requirement, the execution of which affords us no actual benefit. So many one-size-fits-all "standards" that get in the way or don't help. I know that in most of the business world this has been the norm for a while, and it's only beginning to stick its insidious fingers farther into my employer's world. The more we talk about being nimble, the less nimble we are, as we obsess with accountability and best practices and process re-engineering and sigmas, far past the point where they help and well into where we're choosing them over the actual nuts and bolts of making and doing whatever we make and do.

Ultimately when you step back and look at what my office really needs, or can most benefit from, or most tellingly, what offers the best ratio of cost to benefit, they're always things that are on my to-do list somewhere but have been pushed far, far down. Instead, I'm doing quick fixes to tide us over until we can do the quick fix that's supposed to tide us over until we can do the real, scalable, extensible, efficient solution that I can't work on because I'm busy with all the quick fixes. Only I can't even do that quick fix because I'm busy recertifying a contingency plan for standards compliance with accountability protocols that really don't make any sense for an organization our size that handles the information we have, but which is universally required regardless of applicability.

The other half is that I now spend more time on "churn" than actual work. It's hard to express this concisely without making an analogy to operating system design. When a computer multitasks, what it's really doing is quickly switching back and forth between tasks; it's still only doing one thing at a time, but it's "time slicing" by giving each task a certain amount of time and then cutting to another one. But the process of switching from one to another isn't instantaneous or cost-free; there's a certain amount of time spent on saving the state of one and then restoring the state of the other. This is sometimes called "churn" and in some situations, a computer can end up spending most of its time churning (for instance, if it needs so much memory for all the programs that it's not just saving a few registers, but also swapping memory out to disk on each switch).

When I am working on trying to code a Sharepoint website and the phone rings, by time I'm done with the phone call, I might spend ten seconds saying "Now, where was I?" and getting back into the swing of things. That's like the churn on a well-balanced, efficient system. But when I spend four hours on the site and then have to set it aside for three weeks to do twelve other tasks that keep interrupting one another, and when I get back to it, I can only spend two more hours before being interrupted for another two weeks, churn is now taking up most of the time I have available. It's more than ten seconds to say "Now, where was I?" when the project has been on the back burner so long I have to remind myself how the development environment even works, let alone where I was on the project. I can take good notes on the project to reduce this, but they won't eliminate that much of the time is spent on getting back into the flow of the project, and the process of taking and updating those notes adds some churn too.

It's reasons like this that convince me that, without exception, every single effort being made by my employer, and probably by every other employer in this country, that is supposedly oriented towards "making us more efficient," is actually making us less efficient. And we're reaching a critical point where the inefficiencies are self-compounding and going to snowball. Not only is business brittle, prone to big failures from small causes, it's also paralyzing itself.

What I long for now is a chance to just work on one thing for a whole day and then be able to say it's done. What would be even better is if, whatever that was, it was something I had chosen to do because it was of benefit to the office. But I suppose I'll have to settle for a three-day weekend, and a chance to see some project through to completion at home, instead.