Thursday, September 30, 2010

Carnage GMing policy

My registration with CarnageCon was delayed while I tried to find out how much of a discount I got for GMing a game. As I recall, I was encouraged to do it both for the general principle of "we need people to GM" and the promise of a discount, which is fairly standard in gaming cons.

There could also be the element of enjoying GMing, but that is tempered by the fact that my endeavors in that regard have been a mixed bag at best. GMing is a lot of prep work, and a lot of pressure, and a little bit of performance anxiety; when it works out it's great, but when it doesn't, it's dispiriting. Anyway, in my regular (perhaps I should say "irregular") group, I do a lot of the GMing (almost all of it lately), so the chance to be a player is welcome, even if the thing I hanker for most is the chance to play a character for more than a one-shot, which a con can't give me.

Strangely, CarnageCon doesn't post their discount policy anywhere on their website or in their registration booklet, or if they do, I can't find it. So I was surprised to learn that GMing one game gets you nothing, but GMing two games gets you free admission. Even weirder, running a board game (which requires essentially zero prep, and the only work you do more than a player is being willing to explain the rules before the game) nets you precisely as much as GMing a roleplaying game, which is an order of magnitude more of an investment.

So it's not that I'm upset about the policy because the discount wasn't really a major motivational force. But by the same token I can't help but observe that it feels really unfair. Someone who grabs two board games off his shelf before heading out will get a $50 savings, but me spending many hours on prep and going through a much more exhausting and demanding job at the con gets nothing. Surely that's not fair.

But how could they be fair? If they tried to account RPGs as worth more than board games, they'd either need a big, complex scale where this RPG was worth this many points and that one that many (since it obviously takes a lot more work to write and playtest an adventure for a rules-rich system, make lots of handouts, or even prepare a light and sound background, than to grab an old AD&D module off the shelf and ask people to bring their own characters), and the same for various other kinds of games. And judging that would be both a nightmare in terms of time spent on it that they can't spare (running the con is already a thankless, unpaid volunteer job that eats up huge amounts of time), and an endless source of grief since everyone would object to the results no matter how hard they worked at making them fair. The result would probably be something that's less fair, because it's promising a level of fairness it can't deliver, and certainly something inviting a hundred times more upset and hurt feelings, and taking vast amounts of time. It's a bad, bad idea all around.

The trick is you can't even take one step towards it without running into that morass. If they said "run two games, or one RPG, for free admission" they might get way with that, but they might get a lot of upset people, too. Anything more than that, and they'd certainly get more upset than happy.

However, there are three things they could certainly do. First, they could offer some discount, maybe only 25%, for the first game you run. But I assume they have reasons why they don't do that. Second, they could figure out which categories they got too few GMs in last year, and offer the discount on the first game only in that category this year, and revisit each year. Third, and I can see no reason not to do this, they could post something about whatever their policy is on their website in some clear fashion. They probably have before, and just forgot, and no one's noticed because no one missed it since almost all their GMs have GMed before.

Had I known what the policy is, I might have volunteered a board game slot too. I would feel bad about "exploiting" the system, even though I could rationalize it -- I'm still doing more work than many of the people getting the free admission (even though I'm reusing an adventure I wrote for a different con), so why shouldn't I? But I guess I won't ever know if I would have done that since I never got the chance.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Bursitis conclusion

I've had my final physical therapy appointment related to my bursitis, and the results are a little befuddling.

After the first week of treatment, the swelling was shrinking and my knee's sense of stiffness and sensitivity had dropped off sharply. The PT and I were both surprised at how effective it had been and how quickly. By the end of the second week she thought I might be already to a point where it would finish recovering naturally, but just to be sure, we scheduled a third week of treatment. But by time I came in for the first day of that, the swelling had returned and my knee felt almost as stiff as it had before we started. We continued the same process and things were a little better at the end of the third week, but not as good as they had been.

My skin was also starting to react to the iontophoresis, so we skipped a week to give it a chance to recover, and had one last appointment scheduled. During that week, I kept thinking, boy, I miss what it was like when it was better. I felt like it was as sensitive as ever, and I had to be just as careful with not bumping it as ever, or maybe only a little less. It got stiff in only a few hours of walking around at Tunbridge. I thought when I went in we'd be wondering whether to start a different approach, or start over with the same one, or what.

But when she saw me, she looked at my knee and immediately concluded things must be much better, because both to visual and tactile observation, it seems much less swollen; in fact, the swelling is almost impossible to locate (and therefore to treat). I still have some numbness but she said that was normal; the pressure on those nerve endings had been omnipresent for almost six months, so they'll take a while to regenerate. We did some tests and my range of motion and strength are much greater than before we started, and I'm even able to kneel on it without much discomfort. By all measures it seems I should feel better than ever.

So am I just having my perceptions skewed somehow, and things really are much better? She wasn't sure. It could be that there is still some swelling but of a sort that's likely to recede on its own. It could be that I'm just as good as it's going to get, and I simply haven't finished adjusting to that. In any case, there's nothing more she can do with the treatments previously authorized, so if I feel that I need to do more, I'd have to go back to the orthopedist again and see what he thinks.

Probably I just need to adjust how I treat my knee, and get used to however good it is as being as good as it's going to be.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Simon and River

The cats formerly known as Hercules and Medusa have gotten their new names. Since they're brother and sister, and the older (apparently) brother is the brave one who takes care of his younger, more timid, and somewhat eccentric sister (she likes to crawl under the blankets on the bed and sleep as a lump in the bed completely enclosed), they've been renamed Simon and River. Which means Socks can also be called Jayne, I suppose.

So far, Simon and River are continuing to consider the back half of the house theirs. They are bunked down in the game room, but we put up a gate that keeps Socks out in the hall, so the master bedroom is also within their safe zone, and they spend as much time there. I had to reorganize my Legos to keep Simon from knocking the bins down, in fact. River sleeps in (not on) the bed, and both of them sleep under it.

Meanwhile, Socks spends much of her time in the other half of the house occasionally whining for a chance to meet and play with them. I have no doubt whatsoever she has no ill intent beyond play, and while she might be a little rougher (due to her size) than they'd like, she would not hurt them. (She plays with frogs when we go for our walks, and when she manages to get one in her mouth before I can stop her, she doesn't even hurt them. They hop out, terrified, and she stares them down until I can get her away, but they're never hurt.) Plus once they do play, a few swats on the nose, plus some familiarity, will calm her down enough to make them comfortable with her. (They'll always need a way to escape, of course, but that's why we built them one.)

However, she's so eager, and loud about it, and big, that they're scared to approach. So they're in a sort of deadlock that is eroding very, very slowly. Being denied access to them isn't making her calm down about wanting to see them, so she's almost as overexcited as the first day; and they're getting braver and braver, but still almost as shy of her as the first day. We've taken a few big strides in this regard by getting out her crate, having her spend some time in it, and thus allowing Simon's natural curiosity to bring him to where he can see her where she can't menace him. He's come out to stare at her a few times and even gotten pretty close. (Plus Siobhan brought him close a couple of times, and has the scratches to prove it.)

When we look back on this time from a year from now it'll all seem like a minor interlude that went precisely how it should, and this is indeed how it always goes, but right now it's nerve-wracking. Socks's whining, having to lug my sore knee over a gateway blocking the hall all the time, the loss of sleep from all the interruptions of animals, having minimal access to the game room, the time I have to spend on managing all this, and a general lack of exposure to the kitties that makes them feel like they're not fully members of the family yet, are all things I'd like to see over soon. (Plus there's the big expenses that go with getting animals that keep tugging on our strained budget.)

Monday, September 27, 2010

Hire and Salary at Carnage

After urging from several directions I decided to make a try at GMing something at Carnage this year. This'll be my first time GMing at Carnage, though I've GMed at LoreCon a few times (and way back when at I-Con). Judging from the schedule, this wasn't the year they really needed me to GM -- the roleplaying section has a lot more offerings than previous years, and every slot has many choices. I might actually not get to play any board games this year.

I'm a little nervous about whether the game will go off since I've offered games a few more times at LoreCon than I've succeeded in running them. Several times I got a slot booked only to have no one show up -- not even one person. This has to be at least in part because I have run games with homebrew and offbeat game systems. Not that that's a death sentence: Charlton Wilbur has made a name for himself running odd game systems and they usually fill up.

I will probably take a lot of successful sessions running more mainstream games before I have that kind of reputation, though. For that reason I considered running this session using the officially published Serenity Roleplaying Game, but since even that's not that widely known, it probably wouldn't've helped. Still, maybe one day I'll be able to run a session of RealTime at a con, but probably not for a while. I'm not going to try again any time soon, given how completely shut out I was the last two times (and how much work I'd put in to prepare).

The adventure I'm running is one I've run twice before, once at LoreCon (fairly successfully), set in the Firefly universe. I originally wrote it while the show was still airing; when we played it, we hadn't even seen Out Of Gas yet, let alone the movie. I will probably need to make a few small adjustments, but not many; nothing in it really depends on the things we learned in later episodes. Since there may (or may not) be reavers in it, I'll probably set it before the movie, but even setting it after the movie wouldn't change much.

I have made pregen characters this time. At LoreCon we made up characters, and with RTC that's easy to do really fast, but people seem to prefer having pregens, or at least they find the idea less intimidating. Plus it means more time for the story.

Even if the game doesn't happen, I won't have done that much work to prepare since it's an old adventure I'm dusting off and brushing up. And I'll still get the discount (once I can find out what that is) even if I don't get to do anything. I'll just go downstairs at that session and play a board game if no one shows. (There's an interesting variant on Ticket To Ride running that session with a homemade board that would be nice to get in on.)

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Calcium versus calcium

I'm happy to report that at my follow-up visit with my urologist about kidney stone formation, while we did talk about changing diet, the primary focus was on a much simpler treatment.

While I've been hesitant about using calcium carbonate (Tums) for heartburn, and even concerned about using it for dietary supplementation as directed by the gastric bypass surgeons, it turns out that what I need to produce fewer calcium kidney stones is more calcium. That's because my problem is mostly about my high oxalate levels, not calcium levels; and in fact, more calcium is the main way of keeping the oxalate from forming into stones.

When your oxalate levels are only a bit out of range, they might make some suggestions about dietary changes, some of which are unhappy ones, but most of which are eliminating things I don't like anyway (I need an "Eat Less Kale!" bumpersticker). And that would be annoying if I had to balance it with everything else I have to consider when choosing food. But my oxalate levels aren't a few points out of the range; they're four times as high as they should be. Drinking some cola might contribute, sure, but even a draconian diet wouldn't bring me down to anywhere near within range. It's more likely a consequence of my metabolic changes than my diet. So we'll start with the calcium, which is after all not a very onerous requirement -- calcium is cheap and the only side effect I've noticed is it eliminating heartburn.

Unfortunately that also means I'm putting off having that 5mm stone removed. I say that's unfortunate only because it increases the odds that the stone will move on its own and make for a couple of days of pain, plus a surgery that happens at a time that may be less convenient. Then again, since it's a month before we can talk about scheduling it, it's possible we're going to end up talking about doing it around the holidays, which isn't terribly convenient either.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Tunbridge World Fair

This year's fair at Tunbridge was far more crowded than previous years. The parking lots were super-full and there was a huge long line at the entrance gate. Siobhan thinks it's because we weren't early enough, but we weren't much later than last year. Each year it seems to be a lot bigger than the previous, and Tunbridge is going to have to make more room.

The fair itself was, apart from the crowds, about the same as previous years. I remembered only the day we were going that I intended to submit a couple of photos to the competition; maybe next year. I think the Lego part of the kids' competition area was increased. There weren't any of the mega-huge pumpkins this year; since I (vaguely, from work) know the guy who grows the biggest ones the last few years, I was wondering if I'd see the one he got in the news this year, but he doesn't usually take it to Tunbridge because you can only take those things to so many fairs. Guess everyone else in the huge pumpkin industry decided to skip it too.

I brought my netbook hoping to do some writing, and on the way up I'd made a few notes, but there was never a good place and time to take it out and work on it while I was there. (I did manage to write half the story on the way home, and the rest when I got home. To my surprise it turned out to be a comedy.)

Fair food was never as big a deal for me as for a lot of people; it's just greasy food to me, and while I like greasy food, fair versions just always strike me as too inconsistent. I think fair food's appeal is for a lot of people nostalgia, remembering a time (in childhood, I suppose) where that's the only place they got food like that. I didn't get that, so fair food for me is mostly just like stuff I can get elsewhere or make myself, only not as well done. For instance, the fried food is usually either too crispy or not crispy enough, or worse yet, too crispy in places and not fully cooked in others.

The price of the infamous "blooming onion" and the conclusion that it's really just onion rings has always kept me from getting one, but since I wasn't really in the mood for anything else I saw, I went ahead and got one just so I could say I'd had one. My conclusion: it's not even just onion rings: it's a lesser species of onion rings.

A blooming onion has one advantage over onion rings: it's a little neater to eat in a fair, when walking around, because it's a bunch of bite-sized pieces you break off one at a time, and the dip is neatly held in the center. It's like the version of onion rings you'd make if convenient eating was more important than good taste. But the price is that if the batter is well-crisped at one end, it has to be a bit soggy at the other, and the thickest part of each onion piece is a part that's barely cooked and not battered at all.

So I'm wondering why people actually would buy a special device to make blooming onions at home. Wouldn't it be better to just have onion rings, which don't really require special equipment anyway? Are blooming onions better in some way that the one I had didn't reveal? Is there some reason other people like them better? Or is it just nostalgia?

Friday, September 24, 2010


We'd planned to get cats for a long while, and finally decided we were ready to go ahead once the ramps were installed. Since it took several weeks to get approval to buy a dog, we budgeted for cats a few weeks out and submitted an application on Tuesday night, and I figured I would have plenty of time to make preparations like buying supplies, catproofing the house, figuring out how we'd get the dog and cats introduced, etc.

But the process has changed, and there's no longer a waiting period while they check references. And there were a pair of eight-month-old cats, brother and sister, that seemed nearly ideal for us: already dog-tested and approved, already familiar with going outside, affectionate and playful, and already coming as a pair. So we ended up picking them up Wednesday night, without having done any more prep than a trip to Walmart for supplies.

Things haven't gone that well since. The lack of time to prepare means that the game room, which I barely finished getting set up, has been taken over by the cats, forcing us to cover up and reorganize all the stuff I'd just gotten set up, and making it nigh-inaccessible. I'm worried that all that stuff I barely got set up will end up chewed up, knocked over, or trashed before we get past this stage.  I wish we didn't have to use the game room for that, but I don't have any better ideas.  If we'd had time, I might have come up with a better solution.

The rest of the house hasn't really been catproofed yet, and I think Siobhan and I have had some miscommunications about what needs to be done and who's going to do it, so I've been feeling pretty harried trying to do a lot of stuff I didn't expect to have to do and haven't even had time to think about. Hercules is very brave at exploring, has no boundaries, and has already knocked things down from shelves right at the ceiling, so I think we're about to discover we need to rethink a thousand things about how the house is set up to keep stuff from getting trashed, but we've barely managed to start. We haven't had a young, brave, boundary-less cat in a long time, and we've got a lot of cables that demand chewing, things on shelves that would break or make a mess if knocked off, etc.

Socks is positively desperate to meet and play with the cats, and has spent more than half of the time since their arrival either whining or barking. She's so rambunctiously overeager that she scares even very brave Hercules into retreat. They're slowly getting closer to the point where they might meet, but it's an agonizing wait while we listen to Socks whine all day and all night long. I got almost no sleep Wednesday night, and had to move to the guest room last night to get caught partially back up on sleep.

Hercules has been exploring the house little by little, though this tends to come in short spurts in which he gets into everything around him at a rate that leaves me chasing after trying to keep him from hurting himself, breaking stuff, or scaring himself, and maybe also getting a chance to teach him limits (like going up on the countertops). He's not afraid of the Roomba, or indeed anything but Socks. Medusa is far more timid and is leaving it to her brother to do the exploration, though by now she's willing to come out to meet us, but any sign of Socks is far too much for her.

Logically I know that, apart from us not having prepared the house well enough, things are going as well as can be hoped. Given how rambunctious Socks is, most cats wouldn't've come out half as much as Hercules has by this point. In fact, most cats would be hiding longer than this just from the new-house effect, without a dog in the mix at all, let alone a big, loud, scary dog.

I certainly feel better about it today having gotten most of a good night's sleep than yesterday when I was a fried zombie.  But I am feeling really eager for Socks to stop whining, very anxious about the house's level of unpreparedness and my own paralysis at figuring out what needs to be done and how to do it, and frustrated about how, if Socks would just be calm for ten minutes and let Hercules meet her, they'd be friends and this would all be over, but she's too eager to do that and I have no way to explain it to her.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Cat ramps

Having decided I'd done enough carpentry for the year, I decided to do one last bit of carpentry after all. These ramps are preparatory to us getting a cat (or more than one cat). It's intended to serve several purposes. First, to give the cats a way to escape from the dog; not because she'd be mean to them, but because she might be unrelenting in her desire to play and be too friendly. Second, to provide a platform (in the middle) where we can set the cat food so the dog can't get to it. And third, to be a sort of cat "jungle gym" like those $200 ones you can get at pet stores, but made for about $30 and in a couple of hours.

At the very top there's a perch which expands slightly on the shelf that's already there and probably big enough for a cat. The perch has some carpet on it, either for comfort, or scratching. Leading up to it are four ramps made of 1x12s (the topmost one is a 1x10) also topped with carpet. The feeding platform doesn't have carpet (that would just make it harder to clean), and has edges on two sides, to prevent the cat dish from being pushed off.

Compared to my last project, this was super-easy, particularly since it didn't need things to be measured precisely, cut perfectly straight, or lined up perfectly. I only had rough measurements to start with, to be sure I had enough materials. The angles aren't consistent, and aren't intended to be -- it's supposed to be for cats to run up and down, so there's a variety of slopes (though I feel sure a cat will have no problem going up any of them).

It was pretty much as simple as taking on-the-fly measurements, cutting the wood to length, sanding the ends, then laying it out on the carpet (on the back) and cutting the carpet to size. Staple the carpet down, then affix brackets and mount. I put the platform up before the piece leading to it, to make sure things would fit, and the same with the perch. (The perch needed a little shim due to the molding up there on the wall, which I installed on the fly on the ladder.) Even the walls for the feeding platform were a simple matter of cutting strips of wood to length, drilling holes down through them, and affixing with long wood screws; the important part there was sanding everything very well.

This is probably as good as, or better than, a $279 cat tree, and was mostly made with scraps of things I already had around. I'm quite pleased with it. I just hope that, when we get cats, they actually use the darned thing!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

MAME Cabinet, Step 12: Trim

At this point the case is looking awfully good, but there's still a lot of places where you can see the edges of the melamine, and probably lots of edges where it peeled at the cut, too. Fixing those will push the case over the edge from looking good and almost done, to looking fantastic and making you feel like it didn't really look that done before.

You'll need to use a lot of masking tape to apply the touch-up paint, but only a tiny bit of actual paint. I recommend removing the controller board entirely during this process. Anywhere you can see the white of the inside of the melamine, paint it black, with one exception: the actual surfaces that you'll be covering with the T-molding. When in doubt, err on the side of painting. Be sure to dab the edges of the wood where the melamine coating peeled or splintered, anywhere you drilled holes and exposed a bit of the wood, and edges that are only seen from the side -- walk around the case and look at it from all angles. The drawer and the hole around it will need a lot of attention here, as will the gaps around the speakers. Expect to do several passes -- what looks thorough at first will only reveal more white spots later once the other bigger white spots are cleared up.

The proper method of applying T-molding is to use a router or Dremel to cut a notch right down the middle of the edges to which it will be applied, then to press it into that groove. Even if you did this, you might want to hot-glue it anyway to keep it in place, particularly around the concave curves around the monitor. Even if you have a router, though, making sure that groove is right in the middle of the edge is very difficult. Jeff McClain, who is a far better carpenter than me, wrote on his Ultimate MAME page (from which I took a lot of ideas for my case design and implementation), that he could never get the router or Dremel to do the job quite right, and in the end, putting up the T-molding was the worst part of the whole project.

So I decided to skip that entirely. Instead, I used a utility knife to trim off the T part of the T-molding in every spot where I put it that there wasn't already a natural gap. (Maybe there's molding that comes like this already, but I wanted to use the T in a few spots, and ensure all my molding was consistent, so I just bought the T-molding and trimmed. It only took a few minutes.) Then I hot-glued it on. Where Jeff spent a whole day doing T-molding, I spent a couple of hours, and it looks just fine.

When the molding is done, the case is done. Clean up your workshop and put away your tools, then relax and enjoy the game!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

MAME Cabinet, Step 11: Electricals

The case is almost done, except for the trim, but it's time to hook up the electricals. You'll need at minimum a power strip, but I decided to go with a full UPS to provide some better protection for the computer equipment. I mounted this in the base by using the screw-slots on its bottom, so it wouldn't slide around.

However, this means I need a way to turn the whole thing off; you probably won't want the light on and fan running all the time, even if you shut down the computer, but unplugging the UPS isn't a good solution, since draining their batteries often is a quick way to kill them. I intend to use a remote switch inside the case so I can turn everything on from outside the case.

The computer I used comes with a bracket that is meant for affixing it to the backs of monitors, but I decided to affix it to the side of the bottom section. This keeps it up off the ground enough that it won't get wet in case of flooding, but in an area with a lot of room for ventilation and for the tangle of cables. If I'd used another computer I would certainly have ended up with it on the bottom, and probably still tried to get it up off the ground, but definitely firmly affixed so it wouldn't shift when the case is moved.

Then there's all the cabling, and all the stapling down the cables to make them secure. There's power to the speakers, the cord for the fan, the cord for the fluorescent light, and in my case a power strip for these since they wouldn't reach the UPS on the bottom. The video cable between computer and monitor, and the power cable for the monitor. Power for the PC itself. Audio from the speakers, which in my case went into an audio output on the back of the monitor. The main power cord from the UPS needs to be secured near the notch where it will leave the case, so the door won't pinch it. The cables from the controller also need to run to the PC, though these aren't being secured anywhere, since I want the controller board to be removable.

Once it's all hooked up, you can fire it up and give it a try, and deal with any problems. You will probably want to make sure in BIOS setup that turning AC to the computer on makes it boot up; most PCs don't turn on after getting power until you hit a button on it, which won't be convenient, but can be set to turn on automatically.

At this point, the cabinet is ready to be played. (Except of course for the software setup, but that's a whole other set of posts.) But there's still a lot to do to make it pretty as a picture! Even so, your friends will probably find it very impressive.

Monday, September 20, 2010

MAME Cabinet, Step 10: Doors

The last step of actual construction is the back doors. I designed the cabinet with both the top and bottom halves of the back as large doors, so that I could easily access all of it. In between was just a thin brace of about two inches, for strength.

The doors are just rectangles cut to size, and by "size" I mean about a half inch smaller than the space they go into, to allow room for the hinges and such. This is going to be in the back so you don't have to make it pretty, but don't neglect sanding the edges. You'll want to jigsaw out finger-pull notches, plus at the bottom, a notch for the power cable to come out of the case.

Then heft the door into place and screw in the hinges, being sure that you do so in such a way as to allow full freedom of movement. This is a two-person job, but I did it alone by using a bunch of shims and temporarily clamping pieces of wood into place to hold the doors up long enough to mark the points the hinges should affix, then affixing them. I was worried I'd end up off alignment too much this way, but it worked out fine.

Putting in the latches was a lot more difficult. If there's a trick to figuring out where to put them so that they line up perfectly on the inside of a cabinet when you can't be on the inside when it's closed, I don't know it. For me it was a lot of trial and error.

In the end, though, it wouldn't stay closed even when they were lined up right. The hinges had to be "wracked" -- closing them on a screwdriver to 'stretch' them a bit -- and then more tweaks, which I really didn't get to see, were done on the positioning, and in the end the latches still only barely hold.

Again, though, the doors will be in the back against the wall, so it doesn't have to be quite perfect. Just enough to discourage mice from moving in, really.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

MAME Cabinet, Step 9: Marquee

The original plans I'd seen used lexan or plexiglas for the marquee, but this seemed to add a lot of complexity. First, the timing of when to insert it would be trickier because of having to install it while the case wasn't really too secure yet, due to having to install it before installing the plates that held it up. Second, cutting it itself requires tools and skills I don't have. Third, the groove would have to be thicker and harder to route. Fourth, the whole thing would be very intolerant to imprecision. And fifth, it'd be more expensive.

By comparison, the thin, cheap, but perfectly transparent plastic that comes in cheap poster frames does the job just as well. It can be cut with an ordinary utility knife, and if you mess it up, just cut another one. It can be bent to slip it into place. It's not as heat-resistant, admittedly, but a fluorescent light isn't going to put out much heat; it's at least as heat-resistant as the plastic that the fluorescent fixture itself is made of. And it's much thinner, making the routing job a lot simpler.

I took a scrap of this plastic and cut it to approximate size plus a bit, then tried to fit it in, and kept trimming until it fit just right. Then I cut full pieces to the same size, cleaned them thoroughly with Simple Green, dried them, and then put them into place with the MAME marquee logo sandwiched between them. Unfortunately, the accumulated imprecisions of my carpentry meant that the height I needed at one end was just slightly higher than at the other end, so while it fit perfectly on one side, it tended to fall out on the other. No problem. More plastic frame material is a few bucks and it's easy to keep trying until I get it perfect.

The marquee itself I had printed at my wife's office on a full color plotter, but if you don't have access to one of those, your local Kinko's or Staples can do the job for a couple of bucks. I was worried the black background I used would let too little light through, but it seems to work okay -- it lets lot of light through the logo itself, which really highlights it. I went with a fairly clean logo; some people prefer to sprinkle the background with images from various games, but I found that too busy, and would rather use that theme for side art, if I ever get any.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

MAME Cabinet, Step 8: Monitor

Modern flat-screen HDTV monitors tend to have a fairly consistent set of mounting options which make it much simpler to figure out how to affix them into a cabinet. Mine had a stand which unscrewed with four screws, and also had a set of four screwholes farther up which would be the usual mounting point. But I decided to use the lower mounting block so I could affix the whole thing at one point. In practice I'm not sure if this was the right choice. It worked fine, but maybe using the others would have been easier. So I'll document what I did, but you might want to consider your own options.

My goal was to have it pretty much flush to the front of the cabinet, since the built-in black frame would look quite nice in the cabinet. So I cut a piece of wood to the right size to replace the plastic stand. At first I planned to just use a block of two-by-four, but I soon realized it would have to be so slender I could use the same screws through it, since I had no other screws I could be sure would fit securely. I ended up having to take a slice of melamine and slice it even thinner.

Once I had that, I screwed it into place, and cut a monitor shelf that was about eight inches deep, deep enough to go halfway through the cabinet plus some, but not so deep it would block cables reaching from the top to the bottom half. I brought them over to the cabinet and had someone else hold the monitor in place, centered and flush against the cabinet. Then I held the shelf in place and used a sharpie to mark where the mounting block sat on it. I took the whole thing out and used a bracket to affix the mounting block to the shelf.

Then I repeated the same process, with someone else holding the monitor in place, to mark where the shelf would go and where a set of brackets supporting its underside would sit. I then affixed those brackets, and finally, set the shelf on top of it and screwed it in both from the sides and from the brackets underneath.

This held the monitor in place pretty securely, but with it on an angle and only supported in its lowest few inches, I thought it wouldn't be a bad idea to add a bit more support at the top. So I put a few extra brackets in just to hold the monitor's top in place.

I'd left a little bit of gap on either side just to give me some slop, so I cut a few thin strips of melamine from scraps and mounted them to fill in those gaps. I had to use the Dremel to gouge out one of those to make room for the buttons that stick out one side. Some touch-up paint and that'll look like it was all part of the plan.

Friday, September 17, 2010

MAME Cabinet, Step 7: Controller

Many people building MAME cabinets design and build their own controller boards, and build them into the cabinet. Even if I'd decided to build my own, I would have favored building it as a separate unit so it can be lifted off the cabinet and replaced with other control boards as needed, and so it could be more easily accessed for repairs and such. Just as it ended up with the prefab one I bought from, in fact. But I decided that building that would have taken me a huge amount of time, with all the fiddling with electronics that are pushing the edge of my skill. Plus if there's anywhere I want things precisely machined into perfect alignment and positioning, where I will know it works just right, it's the controls. They're the heart of a MAME system, the real reason you're not just playing on your laptop. So I decided it was worth paying a bit more for a professionally done controller board.

The one I bought has everything made precisely to my specifications, with my choice of colors. I went for a vivid, 80s-brash color scheme that also serves to make it more obvious which controls to use. The yellow joysticks go with their primary buttons in yellow; the orange buttons cluster together for Asteroids, even though they're separated; the white buttons are what control the games instead of being used in the games; etc.

So for this step I was just making the shelves on which it would sit, and be held at the correct angle; and a means of affixing them. The shelves are just two plain pieces of wood cut to size, sanded, and then affixed just like all the others. There's also a notch cut into the bottom edge of the back piece, where the cables feed through.

My initial plan for holding the board in place while still allowing it to be easily lifted off and moved or replaced involved some L-brackets sticking out to the side, and panhead-screws drilled flush into the bottom of the control board which would sit in the holes in the brackets. But it didn't work that well. Making sure the panhead screws weren't so prominent that you couldn't still put the controller on a table meant they didn't hold well in the brackets. I ended up removing all of that.

Instead, I took one of the thin strips of edging that were included in the cheap poster frame I'd purchased, and cut it as long as the width of the cabinet. Carefully bending it, I drilled holes and then set screws to affix it to the bottom edge of the controller board shelf, positioned so the controller would sit snug against it when it was snug against the back shelf.

This was a somewhat provisional Plan B and I wasn't sure how it would work. Would I always feel like the controller board would slip over the edge if nudged too hard and end up falling off? So far it seems to hold pretty securely. If that plastic strip ever feels like it won't hold, I can remove it and replace it with something higher. But for now, the controller board sits securely, and yet can be lifted right up and off. Someday I might build or buy another board for racing games, and then I can just switch between them pretty easily.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

MAME Cabinet, Step 6: Speaker Plate

With the drawer done, things will get a little easier. Actually, each step will probably be easier than the previous one from here on out. Which also means each step will still include one tricky bit.

Cutting the speaker plate is easy enough. What's trickier is mounting the speakers. If you are using cheap PC speakers like I did, you'll want ones whose face is flat, but you will have to figure out your own trick for getting them mounted. I'll show how mine worked just because it might be illustrative.

The plastic cases for the speakers I used were held together at the top by a pair of screws. At the bottom, there was a hollow space on which they stood, into which the cables connected. These proved the methods for affixing them.

First, I traced them, then drilled and jigsawed to cut out holes for them. I made the holes too small, then spent an annoyingly long time trimming just a bit more, sanding, trying to make it fit, and repeating. This was necessary to make sure they fit as snugly as possible.

Once they were in place, I turned my drill as far on its side as possible and drilled through the hollow parts at the "bottoms" of the speakers (now, the faces turned towards the plate's center) into the wood. Some short panhead screws went in to hold the speakers in at that end.

The fit was so snug, I might have stopped there, but I didn't. I cut thin strips of wood, only a few millimeters wide, and longer than the speakers are wide. I removed the screws that held the tops of the speakers together, then found longer screws that would also fit, and drilled through the strips of wood to set those screws in place. The result was that each speaker had a brace across the top. I could then drill and screw it into the wood to secure the top end of each speaker in place.

The grilles I used are a little more grey and less black than I would have found ideal; it'd be perfect if the speaker grilles almost, but not quite, blended into the wood, so you didn't notice them at first, but when you did, they looked like speakers. But it's far more important that they be flush. And when you look at it, it looks like it's supposed to be just how it is. (In this picture, there's a bit more visible white wood edge, but that's covered up with touch-up paint later.)

The speaker plate is also the bottom edge of where the marquee will go, so I had to cut and route a groove for it here just as I did on the top, though at an angle this time. The process was pretty much the same despite the angle.

Once the plate is done, I installed it as I had the front. My design also has a 2" high "bevel plate" in between the speaker plate and monitor, which I also cut and installed at this time. That bevel plate serves no actual purpose; it just gives the front a little more sense of contour.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

MAME Cabinet, Step 5: Drawer

The drawer was almost an afterthought for me. It was just an idea that maybe it'd be a good idea to have a place for a keyboard and mouse for the times I have to access Windows stuff. While my computer came with wireless ones, I thought it might be nice to use a wired one, and save those for something else. Then I thought, plus, I can store an Atari controller in there and load the 2600 emulator. How hard can it be to throw a drawer in?

Well, it turned out to be the hardest part of the plan, and if I had it to do over, I would either have done it very differently, or not at all. Making a drawer is not that easy, and making one that comes as close as possible to disappearing entirely is even harder. I would probably have instead made a hinged door with a sliding drawer inside it, or something. If you have enough skill to make a drawer with a flush front, like the kind on kitchen cupboards, that would be ideal, but I don't know how it's done. So I'll document what I did, but keep in mind that the result doesn't look too great, despite being hidden by touch-up paint.

First, cut a front plate for the cabinet, with the top edge beveled at the same angle as the controller board. The plate should be shorter by the thickness of the boards you're using, so that when the controller shelf sits on top of it, it'll fit against that top edge.

You will want to build the drawer a few inches less wide than the front piece you just cut, and you'll need to put a few strips of wood inside to mount it on. Based on the thickness of those pieces of wood, figure out the dimensions of the drawer and cut the pieces to suit -- using the table saw! -- so that the front panel is all one piece. Jigsaw out a finger-pull in the front, and a notch for cables in the back. Sand all the edges as smooth as you can.

Next, you'll need to trace the front of the drawer onto the front panel of the case, and then jigsaw-cut out a hole to match. The ideal would be for it to be the same size and shape, so that the drawer is flush. But that's not possible. First, you need gaps for the drawer slides on the bottom on either side. Second, you need a gap on the top if you want to be able to lift the drawer out. This is where mounting the whole thing with a two-layer front like on kitchen cabinets would help.

Now you can mount the front plate, as you did the base, though you won't need corner clamps anymore.

Then follow the directions on the drawer slides to mount them. Expect to do a lot of adjusting, trimming, sanding, and rejiggering things to get them to slide evenly. Later you'll need to paint all the edges with black paint to hide the joins as much as possible.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

MAME Cabinet, Step 4: Frame

Once you have everything gathered, we'll start with the basic frame. By the end of this step, you'll have something that can stand up and look like the skeleton of the cabinet.

Using the design you did earlier, trace a cut-out template on a piece of thin plywood or the like. You'll need to measure out the lengths and angles you can easily do from either end, using the square to measure the verticals and horizontals before drawing out the diagonal lines, and then making sure it all meets in the middle. Go over this several times to make sure it all looks just right before you cut, and then cut with the jigsaw very carefully.

Once you have the template perfect, use your table or circular saw to cut the rectangles of the two side pieces. Whichever two edges are original edges should be the bottom and front, since they'll be guaranteed to be straight and at right angles.

Then clamp the template on and trace it with a sharpie, and jigsaw-cut out the matching piece -- if you're not sure about your cutting, err on the side of cutting too little. Once you've done both sides, lay them atop one another and look for any disparity, and if you see any, trim them to match with the jigsaw or sander.

Measure up the edges and make sure everything's about where it should be, and make any more trims necessary (being sure that they match on both parts) until it is. If the line where the speaker plate will go is too small, that's probably no big deal, but if the monitor line isn't big enough for the monitor, you have to adjust that now.

At this point, sand the edges. Where there are sharp corners, but less than ninety degrees, sand them well to make them rounded, so the T-molding can go on easier later (and to give the case a nicer look). Everywhere else, just get those edges smooth, and keep the sheathing of the melamine from breaking or peeling.

Next, cut the base and top pieces, plus the thin strip that will be the middle of the back (the bulk of the back will be the two doors). As these will all be the same width you'll probably cut one piece to that width and then cut off slices for each part. (Quite a few other pieces will be that width, too.) Give their edges a good sanding too (generally, you'll sand every edge you cut to keep from having sharp edges and to keep the melamine sheathing from breaking or splintering).

Before doing anything else, mount the feet on the base. It'll be so much easier to do now than later. You will have to fiddle around the feet somewhat as you move the case, but it's worth it.

Stand the sides up on their backs and position the base, so the entire frame looks like the case lying on its back. Use corner clamps to secure the base into place against the sides. Drill pilot holes, then use the Dremel to carve out a conical hole around each one for the head of the woodscrew to sit flush in, and finally screw them in. Add more strength to these joins with L-brackets inside the case.

The top plate also needs a lot of preparation before it can be screwed in the same way. First, position the fluorescent light and vent fan on it, making sure there's enough room for them both, plus room for the groove for the marquee, and the back door too. Trace the vent fan's circular profile and then cut out a hole using a drill and the jigsaw, then screw the fan and light into place.

On the other side of the vent fan hole, either affix the grille, if you have one, or if not, make your own by cutting out a square of screening material, folding over the edges, and then screwing that down. Since this will be on the very top of the cabinet, it doesn't need to be pretty, it just needs to keep flies from getting into the cabinet and provide some protection for errant fingertips.

If you have a router, you'll know how to use it to cut a groove in the front of the top for the marquee. I used a Dremel by clamping down a straightedge (my level), then cutting along it with a disc to make a thin line, then removing the level. I then deepened the cut a bit before applying a broader stone tip to widen the groove. I made it about 2mm deep and approximately even all the way along; it doesn't have to be too precise, though it does have to be straight.

Once the top is all finished, affix it just like you did the base (probably will only need one pair of brackets... and there will probably only be room for one pair). Then you can stand the case up and finally screw in the back brace piece, which will give the case enough stability to be moved around (carefully).

Monday, September 13, 2010

MAME Cabinet, Step 3: Tools

Here are some of the tools you will find necessary for building the MAME cabinet. If you don't have these kinds of things on hand, you might need to arrange to have them.
  • Jigsaw: You will absolutely need one of these for the angled cuts you'll be making for the sides, as well as cutting holes in sheets. This is probably your primary cutting tool for this job. Generally, I always learned about power saws like the circular saw is your primary tool, and a jigsaw is a specialized tool, but in practice I find jigsaws more commonly useful.
  • Table Saw: I didn't realize how useful these were until this project. The point of a table saw is making perfectly straight cuts on perfectly right angles. Seasoned carpenters can probably cut straight with a jigsaw nine times out of ten, but I can't. Even seasoned carpenters know not to count on that, though. They use the right tool to ensure straight cuts and right angles. I borrowed a table saw halfway through the project, and I wish I'd had it from the start. It'd be better if it was wide enough to do 22" cuts since that's the size I needed most often; every time I couldn't use it for a cut, I wished I could. If you can't get a table saw, a circular saw might help, or just use the jigsaw, but you'll find it hard to make everything line up, especially when it's time to work on the drawer.
  • Sawhorses: Strong enough to hold up sheets of melamine and your table saw.
  • Drill: A cordless might not be able to get you through the big cuts and long usage you'll need, unless yours has a better battery than mine, and more strength.
  • Palm Sander: You will need to sand a lot of cut edges. Be sure to have lots of coarse-grit paper for it. Finer grits won't be as necessary for this job.
  • Electric Screwdriver: Have an extra battery for it if you can, because you're going to run it a lot. Or put it in the charger whenever you're not using it, and I mean any time you're not using it.
  • Measurement Tools: Measuring tape, square, long straightedge, and level.
  • Sharpie: You can't just have a black sharpie for this job because most of the lines you'll be drawing are on black satin melamine.
  • Utility Knife: Sufficient to cut the plastic sheeting in your poster frame, and the T of the T-molding.
  • Hammer: Is there such a thing as a project that doesn't use a hammer?
  • Cable Staplegun: The kind with U-shaped staples, for stapling down cabling within the cabinet.
  • Dremel Moto-Tool: If you have a router, you won't need this to route the grooves for the marquee, but a router's expensive and a Dremel can do the job. You will also need it to sink holes for setting the wood screws, so that they will be flush.
  • Clamps: I needed clamps for a lot of things on this job. In particular, I needed a pair of corner clamps for initial assembly of the cabinet frame, as well as the usual C-clamps and spring clamps.
  • Flashlight: The fluorescent light I affixed in the case helped light the inside where I was working, but sometimes, I needed more pointed lighting.
  • Hot Glue Gun: You'll need this to affix the T-molding.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

MAME Cabinet, Step 2: Materials

I already published the bill of materials for my project, so I refer you to that for some ideas on the things you'll need. But your bill of materials will depend on your own design.

Start with the melamine. You can probably get black satin finished melamine in 4x8 sheets from a kitchen store for not much more than the white sheets at Home Depot, and you'll thank yourself for not having to paint it later. (But you will still need some matching touch-up paint.) You need sides, then account for all the other surfaces, including the back doors and middle brace, the front, the bottom and top, the panels between the marquee and monitor, the controller shelf bottom and back, and an internal shelf for the monitor to sit on.

For the hardware, trim, and electricals, following my list is a pretty good starting point. Add a bunch of wood screws if you don't have any -- I recommend black finish. You might also need hot glue sticks, and some extra tips for your Dremel moto-tool, if you don't have a router. Don't forget sandpaper, too! Also, some masking tape, a tiny can of paint to match your melamine's finish, and a small paintbrush. If you don't have a grille for your fan, you'll want some scraps of the kind of screening you use for window screens, too.

When picking out feet for the cabinet, leveling is important but strength is more important. You need something that can handle the considerable heft of the cabinet, plus the fact that as you slide it around, it's going to put a lot of torque on the feet due to the height of the cabinet.

You will also need something to cut out a pattern from. I used some 1/4" plywood I had lying around. It needs to be sturdy; cardboard might do, but it'd be tricky. It also needs to be big enough to enclose the part of the side that's cut out.

Buy extra of everything. You will not want to have to stop the project for some more wood screws.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

MAME Cabinet, Step 1: Design

This will be the first in a series of posts that step through the construction of my MAME cabinet, written after it was completed, serving hopefully as a guide to anyone who wants to build their own. Particularly those who have a level of handyman skill like mine: able to work a saw, but no expert on carpentry techniques.

Your first step is to design a cabinet. Most of the designs I've seen online, though very, very helpful, get things backwards on one point. They all assume that your monitor will be whatever they consider the default, and predicate the entire construction around that; so if you end up with any other monitor, you will have to adjust things and end up with something that doesn't look that great. I think you should figure out what monitor you want, then adjust your design around that.

Most of the plans I've seen online assume you're going to use a 27" CRT. Maybe if your coin-op heyday was in the 90s that size will seem appropriate, but to me, that seems way too big. The games I want to emulate had screens closer to 17" to 20". And nowadays, you can get a very nice HD monitor that will give you some beautiful displays in a size close to that, and for not that much money, so you'll have an ideal size to emulate 80s games. I think playing Burger Time on a 27" monitor would make me worse at it since I couldn't see enough of the screen at once!

So my first piece of advice is to choose and purchase the monitor you want first, then design the case around that, and your controller. My cabinet uses a Vizio 22” 720p LCD HDTV which I got for $165 on; in addition to being a great size, having lots of inputs, and a great price, it has a nice black case that fits in wonderfully with my MAME system plans. Anything along those lines should do nicely and probably can be had for a great price.

Once you know the monitor's dimensions, you can figure out everything else accordingly. The monitor's width sets the case's width (plus 1½" for the sides themselves). Using a flat-screen means the case's depth at the top is limited primarily by the depth of the marquee (with room for a fluorescent light and a vent fan); the depth at the bottom is limited by the size of the controller board. My case ended up 23½" wide and 24" deep (the control board hangs off the sides considerably, of course).

Actually making the design is best done on a piece of paper, or suitable software if you have it, by starting at the bottom front. Draw a line up for the front bottom, up to the height you want your controller board to sit at (about 32" worked for me). Then figure out the angle you want the controller board to sit at, and using its measurements and some trigonometry, draw the lines for its bottom and back. (If you're building your own controller board, this should still be the same, because you should probably still build that board separately, so it can be easily removed for repairs or replacement.) Then draw another line for the height of your monitor, tilted back at the angle you want it. Continue up from there with panels for the speakers (and a bevel plate between the monitor and speaker plate if desired) and the marquee, and you'll find yourself finally at the top front. Now draw the top and back, and you have the profile. Everything else follows from that, plus the width.

That's why there's no single standard for plans. You need to start with the sizes of your monitor and control board, your preference for the height and angle of the control board, and then everything falls into place from there. Using my plans as a starting point will only help if you adjust accordingly.

Friday, September 10, 2010

I'm, apparently, old

My office is down the road from the high school. Adjacent to my office is a bike path which I've been using for many years, walking some of the time and biking more recently, for exercise breaks during the work day. The bike path goes behind the high school sports fields, so as I go by, I regularly see the teenagers out doing whatever it is they're doing. Right now, there's a new year starting, and they're back after the summer.

It's easy to get the sense that it's just the same kids back after the break, and of course, 3/4 of them are the same kids. And as the years go by, it always seems like it's the same kids. Everything looks the same. They look the same, they dress the same, they act the same, they do the same things. It feels remarkably consistent.

So it's easy to forget that I've been going by that school for so long, that some of the kids I'm seeing there now could be the children of kids I've seen there before. That's the shocking conclusion I reached today: I've been working at this office almost 17 years, so if there's a 14-year-old I passed today, I might well have been walking by that high school the day he was born, and it's feasible he was born to someone who'd graduated from that school within the three previous years. Plenty of people have their first kids before the age of 21.

I feel pretty much like the same person I was when I started with the department, though. I don't feel like I'm in a significantly different phase of my life than I was then. So it's easy not to feel old. When I have realizations like this, or the far more common (and less impactful) ones that take the form "You weren't even born when <some important event in my life> happened" (it used to be "when Star Wars came out" but time has advanced far past that now), the only sense I get of being "old" is an intellectual, mathematical one. Logically, I know I'm 43, and that 43 is pretty old, and I'm supposed to be having a mid-life crisis and all that, but I just feel like I'm in the 18th year of my 25th year.

Not even realizing that the teenagers that stared disapprovingly at me today could be the children of teenagers that stared disapprovingly at me from the exact same spot really changes that. I wonder when things like that will start making me feel old, rather than just realizing I am old.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Scent memory

The link between smells and memory is poorly understood and very strong. While sounds, images, even touches can evoke memories, we've all experienced that moment when a smell we couldn't even describe (there are so few words to describe smells) immediately brings out a memory from long ago, with more force than any of the other stimuli. It's probably some vestige of our ancestry in animals that used scent more the other senses to make a living; we've adapted to use more of our brains for vision than smell, and our smell has withered away to a barely-working organ compared to other animals, but there's still some potent linking mechanism in our brains still firing.

No one really knows why some smells have so much power to evoke a memory and others not that much. But I wonder if we'd have to understand it fully to take advantage of it. Would it be possible to make a device that could 'tag' a moment with a unique, potent smell, and thus, reinforce how firmly that moment is committed to memory, and make it easier to bring back in full vivid recollection years later by repeating that scent? Would it be too hit-or-miss, where you couldn't tell which memory-scent-tags would "take" and which wouldn't? Would the intentionality of the act interfere with the process? Are there simply too few strong-but-unique smells they could deliver that way, forcing you to have to choose very carefully when to use it?

Surely, in a world full of desperate venture capitalists and entrepeneurs, along with millions of naïve customers with lots of disposable income and not much discretion, someone must have tried to make and market such a product. If not... quick, let me write up an IPO and someone come make me a millionaire before someone beats me to it.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Tomatoes are really a berry

How many times have you heard the one about how tomatoes are technically a fruit, not a vegetable? This is a great example of something that floats close to being an "urban legend" but doesn't quite fit into the pattern. The truth is, yes, tomatoes are really technically a fruit. They are also a vegetable, and furthermore, they're a berry. None of these things is mutually exclusive with the others.

When you walk down the produce aisle it's easy to assume that "fruit" and "vegetable" are mutually exclusive, and furthermore, that fruits are sweet, and vegetables are not. The word "technically" in the often-cited "fact" suggests that there is some authoritative definition which corroborates the idea that fruits and vegetables are mutually exclusive things, but allows one (and presumably only one) exception to the sweet/savory rule. (Some people even go so far as to imagine that tomatoes fit into fruit only because sometimes they are kind of sweet!)

The word "fruit" does have a technical definition, as supplied by botanists. A fruit is a particular kind of reproductive element of a plant: it contains seeds, and is derived from a flower. Fruits generally include a bit of matter, typically edible, which provide sustenance to the seeds after they germinate. It is common that this material should include sugars because sugars are easy for a plant to make, and a good way to store energy that the seed can use. So an apple is sweet. But most vegetables also contain sugars; they just don't dominate the taste as much, at least as human taste buds detect them, because the proportions and combinations of things that produce flavors are different.

By that definition, not only is a tomato a fruit, so are many of the things we normally consider nuts, and things which contain seeds but are not edible. Amongst the things that are fruit but aren't usually called fruit are gourds (including cucumbers and the various kinds of squash, though pumpkin seems to fall on the border of "fruit" in common parlance since it's often served sweet) and most grains (like corn, rice, and wheat, though admittedly those are pushing it).

Berries are a subset of fruit, in which the fruit is produced from a single ovary. Many things we don't call berries are berries, notably tomatoes, grapes, bananas, and watermelons. Contrariwise, some of our favorite berries, such as blackberries and raspberries, aren't actually berries at all.

The word "vegetable" is less authoritatively defined. In common parlance it just refers to a part of a plant which you can eat, and typically excludes sweet things, though sweet is a fuzzy concept -- there are plenty of edible plant parts which can be sweet or savory depending on how they're prepared or even how they're ripened. The nearest thing we have to a technical definition of "vegetable" is governmental standards regulating import and export, and while these vary from country to country, there's no question that a tomato is a vegetable by any of those rules.

So while people citing the "tomatoes are a fruit" thing are technically correct, the clear implication (sometimes explicitly stated with a clause like "not a vegetable") is incorrect, as is the tacit assumption that these are exclusive. Which means you can't really correct them, even though they're pretty much wrong... and even though it would be fun.

Well, I suppose you could correct them by writing a long-winded blog post about it that no one will read. That, however, wouldn't be anywhere nearly as fun.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

I don't get YouTube fads

Here's what I don't understand about those YouTube videos that "go viral" that seem to be entertaining primarily for their complete lack of anything entertaining in them.

Humor is the kind of thing that doesn't withstand dissection very well. If you look too closely at it, almost anything that's funny seems absurd, trite, or unfunny. Keeping that in mind, yes, I can see how it can be funny to watch someone trying to be funny and failing, in some very limited situations. It's a specific case of a general rule that watching someone fail can be funny. (To me, that's a kind of humor that can only be stretched so far. Clearly, the Internet is full of people who have a vast appetite for it. But I can still see how it's a valid form of humor, even if my taste for it runs to the very slight.)

But why does one particular instance of something completely lacking in entertainment value become a viral sensation and have lots of people crowing about it and repeating it and passing it around? The fact is, YouTube is full of thousands, maybe millions, of videos that have pretty much exactly the same quality of having only that entertainment value that can be derived from how awful and completely devoid of entertainment value they are. Why do people find one particular instance more worthy of passing on than another?

I wonder if there's some different quality to the complete failure to be entertaining in one video compared to the others that I fail to discern, which explains it. Or is it just sheer blind luck that one happens to get forwarded around enough to pass some critical threshold? Am I missing something, or is the only thing I'm missing the fact that I'm the only one who cares if he's missing something?

Monday, September 06, 2010

Always clean your workshop

When I was a teenager, a friend's father was a contractor, and once in a while during the summer he'd take my friend and I to do odd jobs on a job site for a little spending money. Time and again he harangued us to leave the workspace clean at the end of the day even if we'd be back the next day, insisting that it was important to making a good impression, but it just struck us as the kind of thing adults yelled at kids. He also insisted a swept floor was the single most important aspect.

One day, we arrived early on a job renovating a church, and did a bit of finishing up of things we'd been doing the previous day, and were expecting a delivery of tiles that we'd need to complete the next step of the project. It didn't come, and we ended up sitting around, and it still didn't come, and we went down to some nearby tennis courts and goofed around playing tennis and ogling the girls who were playing tennis, and then we listened to music a while, and still the tile didn't come.

When it became clear it wasn't going to arrive at all, instead of leaving way early, my friend's father insisted we spend most of the remaining time doing a very thorough clean. We groaned about it, but even so, we'd gotten to dork around most of the day and would still be leaving a little early, and the pay was the same, so we couldn't complain too much.

As we were leaving the guy who'd hired us happened to run into us on the way out, and took my friend's father aside, and complimented him voluminously on how well the job was going and how much we'd gotten done. He even commented specifically on how productive we'd been that day. Well, my friend's father crowed a bit about it on the way home, but he didn't have to -- a demonstration proved more effective than all his preaching.

So whenever I do work in my workshop, I try to always leave it clean, even if the project is still underway and I have to leave a bunch of stuff out to resume work the next day. And I especially make sure to sweep the floor. Whether I've been productive or not, I always remember: a clean workshop gives more of an impression of a productive workshop than a productive workshop does.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

You Rock Guitar for Rock Band at last

At long, long, long last, the PS3 GameFlex cartridge for my You Rock Guitar finally arrived, and I got to try it out. This was the first time playing Rock Band guitar in many months, since my old guitars stopped working due to changes in the PS3 firmware ages ago. So for my first try, I played a song I didn't know on medium -- bad idea, but it was unavoidable as I was still figuring out the controls used to select songs. It went okay anyway, though; I adapted pretty easily to the guitar.

Siobhan, on the other hand, found it quite tricky to adjust to fingering, plucking, and strumming strings, and couldn't get the timing right. She eventually decided she'd rather just sing until we get a conventional button-based controller. (I won an auction for one on eBay, but the seller seems to be cancelling it, so I might have to start over.) I wonder what the difference is; maybe it's because I've played guitar and she hasn't. But she has played stringed instruments, so that might not be it.

Game play isn't really that different, but somehow, playing "chords" -- which in Rock Band on medium or easy mode is nothing but two notes at once, and there's only five of them -- feels more compelling. I also found that my accuracy went up if I strummed when playing chords, but plucked when playing notes, which makes no sense: the guitar makes no distinction between them, but somehow, my hands did.

As a controller, the You Rock is solid, with good performance, but it has a few oddities. First, going into Overdrive doesn't work by tilting the guitar; instead, the mute bar is used, which is harder to do while also playing, and too easy to do by accident. Second, there's no PS3 button, which means you can't get out of the game, just into it; the odd thing is it's got tons of buttons, so why didn't they make one of them do that? Third, strumming only moves the cursor down, not up, which means you have to use the joystick for that instead; a minor thing, but it'd be easy (I think) for them to make it so an up-strum moves up and a down-strum moves down, which would be very cool.

Other mild irritants are how the guitar times out and shuts down if unused for a few minutes, forcing you to restart it, which takes a few moments. It'd be nice if it didn't time out quite so quickly. And before one song, it just dropped out entirely on me, and I failed out of the song, lost fans, and had to restart both the dongle and the guitar and repair them. Hopefully that was a fluke.

Apart from that, it has a very solid feel that just encourages guitar-player theatrics. It feels like a real guitar because in some sense it really is a real guitar. I feel sure that people who haven't played real guitar and try this as a controller will feel motivated to get an amp and play real stuff. Even more so after Rock Band 3.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Asexuality as a status symbol in online multiplayer game communities

In virtually all human cultures, as in those of other primates and mammals, sexuality is a status symbol. It's more visible for males, where bragging about sexual conquests is an obvious part of the culture. But it's just as important for females, where the largest focus is on sexual attractiveness as a means of establishing one's status within the group. Naturally, we are not monkeys exactly, and individuals often deviate so much you almost can't see the traces of this cultural element; but looking at larger groups, it's plain that it's there.

There are certainly groups where asexuality is a status symbol for solid, understandable reasons. For instance, a group which practices abstinence for religious or ethical reasons would naturally allow bragging about asexuality. But there's an obvious cause for it. It's innate in the intent of the group.

I've noticed that within the online community of players of multiplayer games, there's a curious variation on this cultural element. (Naturally I see this most in Lusternia since that's where I spend the most time, but I've seen it in other MUD and MOORPG communities, all of which cross-pollinate ideas anyway.) Players, when speaking of themselves in real life, are pretty near to the cultural average. However, when talking about sexuality as a possible element in the game worlds, or in any other part of the community (like ancillary cultural venues like a forum), bragging about one's aversion to sexuality serves as a nearly perfect analog to the opposite bragging done in the rest of life.

Clearly this is distinct in that they're not objecting to sex, but to the idea of sex being in the roleplay of the game world, and that's fundamentally a different thing. They're okay with sex, and just find it a bad thing within that context because of such things as the "every sexy 19-year-old girl is an overweight 50-year-old guy in real life."

And yet for as explicable as that difference is, it's striking how much the antisexual attitude perfectly parallels the way sexuality is used as a status symbol. There's precisely the same attitude of smug superiority when proclaiming one's aversion to sexuality as when people in other contexts brag about their sexuality. It's used in the same way to establish one's place within the pecking order; the more resolute you are about how abhorrent sex is, the more you can lord it over others. So striking is the parallel that it makes me wonder if the distinction, about how it's "not about sex" but about how it fits into the online setting, isn't just a veneer we place over a more primal attitude, inverted.

Of course, wherever sexuality is repressed, it tends to become more extreme and unrestrained. Once the basic act is deemed a perversion, it's no longer bound by the rules about what specific variations are considered perversions; there's no longer any reason not to go the next step. I wouldn't be surprised if, behind a significant number of those people who brag about their sexlessness in-game, there's an awful lot of sexuality that's going farther into unusuality than there would be in groups where sexuality itself was acceptable.

Friday, September 03, 2010

The budgeting fallacy

I don't have a lot of personal exposure to how policy is made at high levels, in legislatures and executive boards and the like. I'm sure that what makes it down to the press releases and news interviews is simplified a lot. Maybe this fallacy is something that the decision-makers always have in mind, and we just don't hear about it. But I bet it's not always. In the ever-churning cycle of influences that is society, even if the bigwigs started out with these things in mind, I bet they still soak up some of the general public's way of thinking and fall prey to the same fallacies.

The fallacy I have in mind is the idea of applying cost-benefit analysis in isolation. It's best explained with an example. "If everyone in the town paid an extra $5 in their property taxes next year, we could buy a new piece of medical equipment. There isn't one like it in the area, and there's a 15% chance you or someone in your family will contract the ailment that it is used for, and having it nearby will make treatment safer, more comfortable, and more effective. Is it worth it?" Naturally, we need more information about how bad this ailment is and how much more effective the device will be than the alternatives, but let's say for the sake of argument that the ailment is bad, and the device will make a big difference.

Most people would conclude, sure, $5 for a single year isn't much, it's worth it for that benefit. And it might well be worth it. (We're ignoring the cost of powering, maintaining, and eventually replacing that device, but that's not the fallacy I'm looking for.)

But we don't have anywhere near enough information to decide that yet. The problem is that we're taking this in isolation, ignoring the fact that the cost of buying this isn't $5; it's all the possible benefits of all the other things we might have spent that $5 on. If you sit around all day listening to proposals that are just as compelling as this one, you'll end up with a lot more Yes answers than dollars. Ultimately, you can't budget everything that deserves funding; you have to prioritize.

And we're used to the idea of prioritization as a given in most venues, we almost take it for granted. Duh! Of course you have to prioritize! And yet we seem to put that idea aside so often when talking about funding projects. Time and again the justifications given -- even by national legislators speaking in Congress -- for a project come down to a simple cost-benefit analysis in isolation, as if we had a limitless pool of funds and it's just a matter of being sure we're getting our value for it.

That's why I would hate to be in that job. There's no good way to say to someone, "Yes, your proposal has merit. Yes, it's definitely worth the cost. Nevertheless, we can't afford it, because other proposals for things wholly unrelated, which are nowhere near as important to you personally, are even more important, or give even more benefit for their costs." But that's precisely what the job of budgeting really is. Or at least should be.