Sunday, October 31, 2010

Negative feedback in Lusternia

In game theory there is a concept referred to as positive and negative feedback (amongst other things) which is a key design element in any game design. The name is a little deceptive; it's nothing like the sense of the word 'feedback' one usually thinks of, that is, someone saying whether something you did was good or bad. Instead, we're talking about the kind of feedback where something reinforces itself into a vicious or virtuous circle.

Consider the board game Risk. Every time you gain more territories, you will start to gain more armies in each subsequent turn; this is positive feedback. Each minor victory along the way helps you with more resources or advantages that can be used to increase your chances of victory. And yet, at the same time, you have a larger border and more vulnerabilities, more to defend; these liabilities are negative feedback, meaning that the closer you are to victory, the more chances there are for someone to turn the tables. In Risk, as in most games, the positive and negative are balanced in favor of positive. Progress towards victory keeps making victory more likely, but this goes neither too fast nor too slow, or at least that's the idea. (In my opinion, the positive is just a bit too large, or the negative too small, because once someone gets a lead in Risk the chances of turning the tables drops too fast. Ideally, you want it to always be possible, so the losers don't just give up, but not too easy, so there's a motivation to try for intermediate victories.)

Note that this refers only to the mechanical advantages and disadvantages in the game itself. Any game always has a sort of equivalent to positive feedback built in which can't be easily changed (and probably shouldn't), which one might call "winning momentum". The most visible element of this is morale: when you're winning, it gives you more enthusiasm which makes you try harder, and when you fall behind, it can be dispiriting.

This factor is magnified many times over in a multiplayer game. The winning team attracts more participation and more players since a lot of people like to be on the winning team, or will play less on characters on the losing team. More players in turn means that the amount of work that's there to be done gets spread out more, which helps make everyone feel less strained by obligations, and able to spend more of their time doing things they want to do, rather than things they have to do, which further improves morale, creating another virtuous circle. The only thing that tends to break it is that some small subset of people will find progressively more assured victory boring, but this subset is much, much smaller than people generally believe; in fact, most people who would classify themselves amongst that group aren't really in it, at least not until the certainty of victory reaches pathological levels.

Amongst the many, many very good design decisions of how Lusternia is set up, there are a few bad ones, and an excess of positive feedback and paucity of negative feedback is one of them. Even if the game had no mechanical feedback at all, the "winning momentum" factor would be a very strong one, but the game is just piled high with positive feedback, where examples of negative feedback are very, very few. And over time the balance has tilted to more and more positive feedback.

This seems to come from the understandable, and not incorrect, idea that people should feel rewarded, not punished, for their victories. But that's oversimplifying. Negative feedback is part of the design; having some of it to balance some positive feedback doesn't mean you're not rewarded, it just helps to keep the reward in check. Plus negative feedback doesn't have to feel like a punishment at all: for instance, when it takes the form of "more stuff you have to do" (more obligations), it's generally not taken emotionally as a punishment, even though it still can contribute to cancelling out some of the positive feedback, getting you closer to the goal where the net feedback is positive but not nearly so overwhelmingly.

And the need for it to be less overwhelming is far more present in an indefinite-term game like Lusternia than it is in a game with a definite ending like Risk. If, in Risk, getting a lead of a certain amount makes you assured of a win, people will still play because two hours later the game board is wiped clean and everyone gets another chance. In a game that never resets, a cycle of never-ending, strong positive feedback means that the only things that can change the balance of power are essentially random factors outside anyone's influence, like important players quitting or changing sides. (Historically, that's the only one that has ever done it in Lusternia, though it's at least theoretically possible that game mechanic changes could do it too.)

One example of negative feedback in Lusternia is how villages cost more power to guard than they produce. But this one is very inconsistent. Many organizations have little need to guard their villages at all: if you own both sides of a conflict, don't care about the conflict, or are in a position of power so great no one would dare to raid your villages, and none of your opposition are of the government type that gives them reason to break in in a way that you need to prevent, a village becomes positive net power, whereas if you're unlucky enough to get stuck with one of the few badly designed villages where you have to place guards in two or three places, it becomes so insanely negative net power that no one would even bother to guard them. (Why they refuse to make the very easy fix to those is beyond me.)

However, that's one of only very few examples. Far more are overwhelmingly positive. Village feelings, though they have done many good things, have created another one: controlling a village makes it easy to build up its feelings for you and prevent everyone else from doing the same, which makes it almost certain that a lead in villages will be maintained, and being shut out keeps you shut out. This particular one would be trivially easy to fix, too: just make it so village feelings slowly drain away, but faster the more other villages you have, so you have to spend more time maintaining them, and when you get too many villages, the rate becomes impossible to keep up with. (You'd have to recalibrate feelings to be gained slightly faster to make up for the drain around a baseline of 2-3 villages, though, but that's also easy.)

Unfortunately, I don't see this issue being taken seriously. Worse yet, though I'm still saying the same things now that I said two years ago when my organization was on top and riding a wave of positive feedback, when I say it now, people tend to dismiss it as sour grapes, because whoever is currently the loser always complains like that, and so many people are hypocritical that everyone tends to assume it from everyone else.

The current imbalance is far longer in duration (already fully a quarter of Lusternia's entire lifespan), and far greater in disparity, than any previous one. Yet people still brush it off as "this has happened before" and thus conclude that a change is both inevitable and imminent. It is, in some sense, inevitable, statistically. But every passing day makes the amount of time before it will happen become longer. But all we can do is wait for it. And keep hoping that the administration will reconsider their attitude towards positive and negative feedback... or happen to slip some useful, effective negative feedback in by accident.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Time travellers with cell phones?

There's a video clip going around like crazy the last few days which purports to be "proof" of a time traveller spotted in the 1920s. The pros and cons of the "argument" are easily enough weighed, and doing so offers little disincentive to those who are the kind of people prone to believing such things. I won't repeat all that discussion here.

What I find intriguing is one point which I can't really elucidate in the short space that typically is all that's available in these discussions, and certainly not without coming off as combative, so perhaps this is a better venue.

The entirety of the argument for this person being a time traveller is the fact that her motions look familiar to a modern-day person familiar with cell phones. She appears to be talking while holding something up to her ear as she walks down the street, and that's something we all see every day, but which just 15 years ago would have seemed almost inexplicable. This is the key point: there is nothing else about this film clip that is purported to suggest anything other than the specific resemblance to today's cell phones. (Or at least their behavior. We never actually see what may be in her hand, we just see that her hand is near her ear and she's speaking -- which is far more easily explained using the hearing aids of the period, but nevermind that.)

Cell phone technology is probably the fastest-changing technology that an average person deals with today. Today's cell phones don't even closely resemble those of five years ago. Products are already on the market right now to disguise Bluetooth headsets as earrings or other innocuous items, and work is being done on various forms of implants. People are doing more texting than talking already, and that's even with things like Twitter in their relative infancy. It is a virtual certainty that, five years from now, the cell phone experience that this clip purports to show us will already be rare, and twenty years from now, the odds that anyone will be walking down the street holding something to their ear and talking are nearly nil. Yet we are certainly more than twenty years out from time travel.

When someone points things like this out (or the question of exactly what cell network this alleged time traveller is using back in the 1920s, and how many bars she's getting) people can come up with the most fanciful explanations. Perhaps they've invented some way to relay cell phone signals through time... and yet, it hasn't occurred to them to just use something other than cell phones? Perhaps somehow they've invented time travel yet coincidentally forgotten how Bluetooth works. Perhaps she's actually talking on an intertemporal walkie-talkie that just happens to look like a modern cell phone.

What all these explanations, if you can call them that, miss, is that the only reason we were even considering this clip as evidence of anything was the resemblance to today's cell phones. Once you have to propose a complex situation in which it's not even really a cell phone, or some unlikely scenario by which the time travellers of Star-Date Three Thousand And Something happen to use something that looks like a Nokia phone from 2007, you have already given up the only thing that made this clip noticeable in the first place.

I can certainly think of a fare more plausible explanation than any of those I've heard, and that is, if you're time travelling, perhaps you disguise your mission equipment as period-appropriate props, but this particular time traveller got stuck with a prop prepared for a 2007 voyage while on a 1920s voyage. After all, if you saw a clip of someone in 1925 holding a 1954 Regency TR-1 transistor radio, that's the story you'd come up with, not the idea that time travellers from 1954 were visiting 1925 and listening to their Amos 'n' Andy broadcasts via transtemporal retransmitters. (And yet, a 1954-model transistor radio is hardly any more unlikely for a time traveller to be using as her native equipment than is a 2007 Nokia cell phone.)

This is a thousand times more sensible than the idea that time travellers can erect temporary time-relay cell towers in hidden locations so that they can continue to use their vintage iPhones while visiting ancient times, and yet, it's still so incredibly unlikely compared to such mundane explanations as "she was using a hearing aid" that I can't understand how people can take this seriously.

Using this clip as a brilliant hook in setting up a roleplaying game or writing a story: good. Using it for some amusing exploration of imagination: good. Actually believing it's evidence of anything at all: precisely the kind of irresponsible insanity that we cannot afford in a time when potentially intelligent people are revelling in their ignorance and being shoveled more of it every day, and critical thinking is almost a forgotten art. Those of us who do the former should be far more careful than we have about making sure our imaginings aren't mistaken by the Unthinking Masses as evidence, because they won't know any better.

Friday, October 29, 2010


I'm not nearly as down on the idea of redoing existing stories in new forms as some people are. Sure, retreads can be pointlessly derivative, but so are a lot of "new" stories, and the same skills that help me figure out which ones are worth my time in one group work in the other. As long as you have something new to do with the old characters, settings, or plotlines, I'm willing to give it a try.

Stories that move Sherlock Holmes to the current day are nothing new. Yet as obvious as the idea is, virtually every example that comes to me either diverges greatly from the source material and characters, preserving only some aspects (such as House, which gave away its inspiration by having House's address be 221B in the early seasons, but which changes more than it preserves); or it translates the Victorian London Holmes to another time. Literally translating the existing characters and types of stories into the modern age, then adapting them only so far as necessary to fit the time, is much less often attempted.

The BBC has recently produced a three-episode season (only on the BBC can that small a mini-series also be a season!) of Sherlock, which does precisely that. In a world where, presumably, Doyle's stories were never written, but which is otherwise identical to ours, a young man by the name Sherlock Holmes lives at 221B Baker Street in a flat rented from Mrs. Hudson, and soon takes on a roommate, one Dr. John Watson. However, as this is taking place in the 21st century, Watson bears an injury from his service in Afghanistan and writes a blog, Holmes uses nicotine patches and has mastered the art of hacking the phone system, Mycroft's work for the British government involves the more modern issues of government's role in people's lives, and LeStrade has to struggle to deal with the press -- okay, that part's not as different as you might expect.

I watched the first episode last night and was considerably impressed. They've achieved that difficult balance very well. On the one hand, the characters feel entirely true to the original material, and on the other, they feel like they belong in the time in which they live. This is the Holmes and Watson that would have occurred had the same personalities and talents been found in people born in this era, and somehow found themselves led by fate to doing similar things. We can see the similarities -- Holmes's drive for mental challenge, his odd balance of agonizingly exacting discipline on things that matter to him with complete disregard and sloppiness on everything else, and his talents and their refinement, most notably -- and the differences -- the way his brusqueness and disregard for social convention play out in an era of mobile phones and the Internet.

They've also developed an interesting technique of using "pop-up text" both to convey the images on people's mobile phonesand computers (thus giving us a more natural view of the people reading the phone than the usual close-up on a tiny screen we get in other shows), and to show some of the inner workings of Holmes's mind as he searches for clues, which proves very effective: similar to, but entirely distinct from, the slomo/fast technique used in the Guy Ritchie movie.

The show felt engaging, exciting, new and yet familiar, and fresh. I will definitely keep watching if they can keep this up.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


Some people felt that the Dresden Files books had gotten into a rut, but I never felt that. Sure, there was a formula, but it was tapping into a field of possible storylines that was very broad and that I felt could be sustained a long time. In fact, I was feeling like it was time for Butcher to clean house a bit and tie up some of the loose threads. The ending (not necessarily forever, of course) of the Lasciel storyline just made clear how many storylines had left dangling plot elements that never got resolved.

Nevertheless, I loved Changes, the aptly-named thirteenth book in the series, despite the fact that it deviates from the formula. It's breathtaking to consider how many things that happened earlier in the series became relevant during this book; in fact, there are very few characters or plotlines, even back to the first book, that didn't show up in some form or other, often in surprising and shocking ways. Even more breathtaking is how much changed, and how many "holy cats, I can't believe that just happened!" moments there are. Sometimes you're barely getting past one when another one comes at you from around a corner.

One of Butcher's favorite story elements is piling on so much on the lead character that it gets crazy, while giving him almost no good moments (and those that do happen are almost immediately taken away again minutes later). Butcher's favorite movies must be the Die Hard series, since no one else's heroes take more of a constant battering. Changes doesn't discard this, but it makes it fuzzier. There are a lot more moments of something good happening -- but they're nowhere near enough to make up for the many, many, many moments of something even more terrible happening. More maddeningly, even the good things make you wonder how good they're going to turn out to be in hindsight -- and some of the bad things make you wonder how bad they're going to seem, too. It's a lot more ambiguous and complex than Harry's usual crap-storm.

There are a lot of little things that got brought up in this book in a way that makes them all sound like they were part of some larger, overarching, pre-planned story arc. I have no doubt that many of them were not planned that way originally, but Butcher does an exceptional job making them work out that way.

The tension level starts in the first sentence at about the already-high level he usually hits by mid-book and cranks up from there. It's established early on that anything you took for granted that would never change or never go away or never happen could very well end up happening. There are few if any sacred cows left in the book. This turns out to be key to the tension level building: as you start to see things that could never change changing, could never be lost being lost, the stakes increase and every interaction becomes loaded with more dramatic tension.

There are still plenty of laughs, probably about the same number as usual, but when they come, they're more intense just because of the contrast and the relief they offer.

I'd been warned beforehand that it ends on a cliffhanger in a way that no previous Dresden book has done, and that's certainly true, but I was worried that that meant the main story of the book would not end up being resolved, and that I'd end up wishing I'd waited for the next book to read them both together. I needn't have worried. The cliffhanger is more of a teaser of how the next story will start than an unresolved ending on the current story. I don't think this will spoil you any, because knowing that the story has its ending in this book won't give you any hints of what that ending will turn out to be -- far more than in any other of his books.

It's very intriguing to think what's going to happen next. (Not that we needed that cliffhanger for that to be true -- there are plenty of other things in this book that made "what the heck is going to happen next" come to the forefront.)

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Princess Of Mars

A definitive example of formative pulp science fiction, A Princess Of Mars certainly has some things about it that are shaped by its time, and seem a bit corny now, almost a hundred years after its first publication. I started the book wondering to what extent I might enjoy it, and to what extent I would find it awkward, clumsy, and more like something I read because I ought to have read it, because of its place in literary history. I was pleasantly surprised.

The literary style has that quality that seems, by comparison to today's writing, a little stiff and wordy, yet charming in its own way, that marks it as a product of its period. You can either enjoy this or you can't. Personally, I can enjoy small amounts, but in enough quantity I start to find it tedious, but not enough to prevent me appreciating a book if there's other things about it to like. Princess balanced some of the stiffness with some breathless enthusiasm, and it kept the style from being a big factor.

The plot depends, as was far more common in that time, on a remarkable quantity of coincidence. Everyone you meet, even if by the most random of chance from amongst a population of a million, will happen to be either the most unusual specimen of his kind, or connected to someone else in the story by improbable twists of fate, or otherwise of a remarkable level of importance. Every location stumbled upon in the dark will turn out to be crucially important either to the plot or the exposition of the premise. Even in this regard, the book does not fall as far as many of its period; sometimes an unlikely plan will fail (though only when it happens away from the narrator's sight; everything he endeavors succeeds despite how fragile the plan was), and sometimes expectations are turned upside down.

Most fiction, especially speculative fiction, of the time tends to have very broad analogies to real-world circumstances. Distressingly many of these works are little more than thinly-veiled retellings of, or commentaries on, contemporary political or social happenings, with only the slighest amount of effort made towards exploring what would really be different about the other places, times, or peoples amongst which the story is set. (The exceptions usually swing too far the other way, being nothing but a dry, academic exploration with no plot to hang it from. The best-loved books from the time are usually those which find the line between these.) Princess threatens to do this by speaking at length of the savagery of the "red men" of the southwestern United States, then immediately transporting the main character to the midst of a people that are notably savage. Many other opportunities for social commentary are presented throughout the book.

Yet while the author is not entirely free of the influence of his time and place, and dabbles from time to time in analogy and comparison, by and large the book is not driven by those analogies, and is as likely to skewer as embrace them. Better yet, it spends an uncharacteristic amount of time exploring what might be different about the world on which the story happens (Mars, if the title didn't make that obvious), but without getting so bogged down in it that there isn't time for a rollicking adventure.

All in all, while I wouldn't count it the equal to my tastes of the modern adventure stories that owe so much to these first steps, I spent far more of the book enjoying it than forcing myself through it for the sake of being a well-rounded consumer of science fiction and literature, and student of its history. While I've heard that subsequent books lose some of the feel of this one, and I can see how likely that is (so much of the pleasure in this one is in the exploration of the world which has already been mostly done), I may give another one or two a try.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Executive versus legislative

Most of us have probably learned in school about how the three branches of government, as defined in the Constitution, are intended to be equal partners with clearly defined roles. If pressed, many Americans could probably specify that the legislative branch sets laws, and the executive branch runs the government. But ask most Americans which is more powerful, or which is the leader of the nation, and everyone will immediately say the President. (The same will apply on the state level with the Governor, and probably anywhere else there's a legislative/executive split.) Even those who know better are still in the habit of thinking of it that way; and since everyone thinks of it that way, over time, it has become that way.

But the Constitution still spells out a design in which the legislative branch is the primary place where decisions are made about the direction that the "ship of state" will be sailing on. And the executive branch's primary job is not deciding where to go, but running the ship, making sure we get there and everything's still in ship-shape when we arrive. These roles are not wholly separated: how you do something shapes the outcome (hence the phrase "executive decision," the first word of which is not an accident), and you can't decide where to go in ignorance of how you can get there, but the roles are nevertheless distinct in intent.

While these roles have drifted away from that intended by the founding fathers, the original roles still have their impact: most notably, the executive branch is still responsible for running the ship, even if it's also expected to provide a lot of the leadership and setting of a course.

It seems to me that the Republicans gain more benefit than the Democrats do from this shift in roles. Time and again, the Republicans put forth a candidate who is clearly unqualified to run the ship, but no one cares, because everyone's forgotten that that's what the job is about. Instead, they're advanced based solely on the direction they intend to steer the ship, even without professing any particular plan on how to get there -- as if the plan is the job of someone else.

As a result, it seems every time we have an outgoing Republican executive branch, they always leave behind a terrible mess for their Democratic counterpart to clean up. Whether it's a devastated budget, a trashed economy, a mass of civil rights issues, a pile of failed policies, or most commonly a mix of all these and more, the messes they leave behind are solidly rooted in the "run the ship" side of things, not in the "set the course" side. Democrats then have to waste most of their time cleaning up the mess left for them, doing vitally necessary but unglamorous things, and getting little credit for it, especially since they inherit such a huge pile of neglected and sabotaged crap that no matter how much they get done they always look bad for how much more there is to do. Which sets the Republicans up for another victory since they provided the illusion of leadership while trashing the ship, but the Democrats provide the illusion of ineffectuality while cleaning up the trashing.

It's a masterful strategy, provided you only care about winning, not about making the country (or state, or whatever) solvent, strong, and able to deal with its problems. But it all depends on everyone remaining either ignorant of, or at least forgetful of, what "executive" is supposed to mean. Fortunately for the Republicans, strategies that require ignorance never fail to get all they need.

Monday, October 25, 2010

One problem with being a well-known writer in Lusternia

Actually, it's more than just being a well-known, and much awarded, writer in Lusternia. To make matters worse, I'm also a guild leader in a bard's guild, a teacher, in fact, the head teacher.

So it's inevitable and frequent that people come to me with their writing and ask me to preview it. I never know how to proceed. Nine out of ten times what they want isn't really my thoughts on their writing but my adulation, but let's be fair: at least 50% of what I get is below average, by the definition of "average", but no one wants to be told they're one of that crowd. MUDs are for many people a game of wish fulfilment: no one plays the boring, untalented schlub, because that's not much fun and we all get too much of that in real life already.

Worse yet, once in a rare while, someone really wants to hear how they can improve, but you can never tell. That someone says they want that is almost no indication, because the vast majority of those who say that, even ones who think they mean it, are still hoping to hear how great their work was and will be crushed if it wasn't.

I really don't want to be spending a lot of my time reading other people's writing for the simple reason that there's just so much of it. I only have so much time and energy and focus to invest, and like everyone else, I need to be choosy about where to spend it, because I have other things I want to do with it besides reading (like, most obviously, writing). Unfortunately, there's no way to be available for the kind of teaching and helping people along that makes the game better for everyone, without also being put into the position of people expecting you to read their every utterance. There's no distinction between these different kinds of teaching.

And when it comes to art, even if I try to give someone advice, it usually gets me into yet another dispute. We have this culturally ingrained idea that the best art is all wholly spontaneous, "from the heart," and untouched by the mundanities of technique. People who are studying in college degree programs probably got over that before they joined, or are gotten over it quickly, or drop out; but people who just think it'd be fun to play a minstrel in a MUD often still subscribe to this romanticized notion. Certainly, you must avoid becoming so distracted by technique that you lose inspiration, but technique has its place. And when it comes to giving advice, I can't really say, "be more inspired," I have to suggest things about what they write. It's bad enough having to say (or more commonly, find ways to avoid saying) "this needs a lot of work" without also running into the fact that the only advice I can offer is something they will dismiss with platitudes.

I don't think there's any situation more agonizing than "what did you think of my poem?" when it was really awful. And every time someone wants me to read something, and it's someone whose work I haven't read before, I'm filled with dread that that's the situation I'm about to be in. Am I supposed to just say "it's great" every time, regardless, and thus make the question and answer meaningless? I don't see what else I can do. But I can't bring myself to do that. I hate to contribute to the idea that words don't have meanings. There's too much of that in the world already.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Music for the game room

With the physical setup of the game room complete, the next thing to do was load up the Archos with appropriate music. I didn't stop there, though; it's got a complete copy of my entire music library, which can be accessed fairly easily with the touch-screen. But to suit the location, I've also made a specific playlist of early-to-mid-80s songs that attempts to capture the spirit of an arcade of the time. There's a lot of great music not on that list, even a lot of great music of the time period, because being too inclusive would make the list just feel like "some good music" rather than "hey, we've been transported back to 1984 and are in an arcade" which is the feel I was going for. Thus, I especially went for synth-pop and other distinctively 80s sounds, bands that were big only then (including many of the one-hit wonders of the time), and a definite focus on the upbeat and uptempo stuff they'd be more likely to play in an arcade.

I had to go out and find a few songs that weren't in my collection yet but needed to be in this list, chief amongst them Soft Cell's version of "Tainted Love" which was not in my collection for the simple reason that... I don't hate it, but the amount I like it requires me to hear it only as often as merely existing in this world makes inevitable. I never had to go seek it out to hear it just as often as I wanted. In fact, simply thinking about it would cement it earworm-style in my head so well that owning a copy seems superfluous. Still, it's just the kind of song that would be playing in an arcade, so it's on the list. I've got to (thump thump!) get away...

Getting it required me to go through a collection someone had made of "200 Biggest Hits of the 1980s." As someone who graduated in 1984, who was watching the minute MTV went on the air, and who listened to the radio more then than at any other time in his life, I figured I'd have no trouble at least recognizing the songs, including those I didn't like. And most of them I did, but while there were a few "oh, yeah, I remember this song, I haven't thought about this in ages" moments, there were surprisingly many "this doesn't sound at all familiar" moments too, perhaps 30-40 of them. Many of those songs I didn't recognize seemed so eminently signature examples of that 80s pop sound, that perhaps I don't remember them because they melted into one big undifferentiated mass of sound in my memory. But I usually have an excellent memory for songs, so that seems a cavalier explanation.

This playlist is not something I'd want to listen to over and over; it's only about 200 songs (I decided to avoid letting any one band, however much they typified the sound or were great, get more than three songs -- I think only Duran Duran and Tears For Fears got three, in fact) and a lot of the songs are kind of trashy, formulaic, or cheesy. But they are absolutely two things: fun, and evocative of a moment in history that this room tries to bring you to.

Now, I just hope the dog and cats start getting to be friends so I can get into it (and not have it strewn with cat litter and shredded cardboard).

I have one question. Is "Tainted Love" playing in your head now, too?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Finishing the game room

The game room started out as just a place to put the MAME cabinet, but soon evolved into becoming a dedicated room for all manner of fun stuff. The Asteroids Deluxe game in one corner and the MAME cabinet in the other are the anchors. But I also brought in an old air hockey table that had been languishing in the basement, an electronic dartboard suffering the same fate, and a shelving unit I filled with board games from Parcheesi to Pandemic. Heck, I even threw in a cheap little over-the-door basketball hoop I had lying around.

I also took down a number of bits of art we had up. Back when we were selling a house, we bought a number of bland and inoffensive bits of inexpensive art: pastoral landscapes, for instance. Mass-produced stuff of the sort you might expect to see in an inexpensive hotel, but perfectly adequate to dressing up a room for a sale without giving it too much personality. Rather than let these go to waste we'd put them up in the guest rooms to break up the expanses of wood walls. I took all these down from the game room, however, and redecorated.

First, there's a huge poster that was already up in there (for lack of anywhere else to put it) showing the history of the U.S. air and space program in a beautiful visual timeline. It's about eight feet long and two rows so it takes up a lot of space. To this I added a Tron poster, as well as a Powers Of Ten poster that had been up in the living room (and had to come down to make room for the cat ramps).

While the game room has been taken over by Simon and River for most of a month now, and as a result, both use and setup of the games has come to a screeching halt almost since the day they went in, I've managed to finish one last part of the setup of the room. The makeshift stereo I cobbled out of old stuff for the vow renewal is now in place in the game room atop the board game shelves. It's basically a tiny little Radio Shack amplifier that still puts out reasonable sound, a pair of speakers (from the first stereo system I ever bought with my own money, thus dating back to about 1983 -- which in a way makes them especially appropriate for the MAME room -- and still making surprisingly good sound), and my Archos multimedia player. Tomorrow, I'll write about setting that up.

Friday, October 22, 2010

More calcium for my oxalate

After a month on megadose calcium and another urine test, my oxalate levels are still elevated enough that I remain at risk for kidney stone formation. So my doctor has prescribed that I increase my daily calcium intake by 50% -- that's from 6000g a day to 9000g a day -- plus I'm getting a referral to a nephrologist. (The woman who called me felt compelled to explain what a nephrologist did, and no amount of trying to interrupt her to say I know what it is would stop her.)

Increasing calcium is thankfully about as benign a treatment as one could ask for. The pills cost a trivial amount compared to prescription medicine, and are widely available, even in bulk and generic. They don't even taste that awful (or maybe I've just gotten acclimated -- though the white or mint ones still taste awful and some of the tropical fruit ones are pretty bad, but the berry ones are fine). There's no awful side effects, not even mild ones. The nearest thing to one is that I get less heartburn!

Actually, there's one other thing that might be a side effect. You know how, if you miss a time brushing your teeth, the next time you do, there's a gunky taste that it feels like you're working loose and thus unleasing on yourself? Or maybe that's just me. Well, I wonder if that taste isn't the calcium that is in scaling and plaque, because nowadays, I get that even when I haven't missed a time. Then again, that might have nothing to do with the calcium.

Still, if 6g hasn't brought my levels down, I wonder if 9g will really do it. Perhaps the outcome is going to be "be prepared to spend a day or two every couple of years passing a stone for the rest of your life" -- which is pretty awful, but hey, a lot of people have a lot, lot worse.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Getting a new phone

By time this posts, I'll already have ordered and perhaps received my new phone. My current one is an HTC Fuze which I bought used, and it's suffering from old age syndrome; the keyboard is failing on me, there's a crack on the screen which so far hasn't caused problems, and I am having more trouble with battery life.

Two years ago, AT&T bought out Unicel, and soon after I was forced to transfer my contract over to them. This, I later learned, counted as a "re-up" (perhaps just because they also forced me to change phones) which meant I was not allowed, that summer, to buy a new phone at a reasonable price. Except for iPhones which you can always upgrade to, but until they make one with a hard keyboard, I don't want one. So I bought a used phone and moved my SIM into it, and got a data plan.

October 19th is when I am finally eligible to "re-up" and get a better phone at a good price (by virtue of extending my contract), and I'll be placing my order first thing. My next phone will be the successor to this one, the HTC Tilt2. It's very similar, but runs a slightly later version of Windows Mobile, has a slightly improved keyboard, tons more preinstalled software, and a few other minor improvements. I'm hoping it'll be about the same as my current phone but with some of the rough edges smoothed away, and the greater ease of use that comes from having the software pre-loaded for AT&T and preconfigured to my account.

I intend to get the extended life battery for it right away. The new belt clip I'll be getting is face-in, not face-out like my current one, so the extra thickness from the battery won't impede its use.

Now I need to figure out how to move over the essential software I use all the time on my phone, and the data, and the configuration. You'd think they'd've made that easier by now, but even iPhoneOS doesn't really handle that as well as you'd like.

Oh, yeah, and I should probably make sure it'll work as a phone, too, just in case I ever need that.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

My next MUD client

When I started playing MUDs, zMUD was the client of choice. It had a powerful mapper and a scripting language that was easy to get started in, but which could grow to the level of complexity needed to handle combat in MUDs like Akanbar or even Achaea. But its scripting engine wasn't very well designed. It was built from the bottom up, taking very simple things like aliases and then building them up to be able to do more, thus running into lots of scalability problems. No real subroutines, no scoping rules, no structured programming language benefits, minimal provisions for sharing scripts, and as scripts got bigger, serious problems with stability and performance.

By the time you get to a really rich and complicated combat system like Lusternia has now, you run into serious problems where you're fighting against zMUD all the time. It's possible to make a curing system for zMUD for Lusternia, but it's straining its capabilities. Developing a system smart enough to handle Lusternia combat is a challenge under the best of circumstances, and a huge investment of time. Doing it in a language that lacks things like scoping makes it much harder. Dealing with having to optimize it not just for function, but also for getting around zMUD's performance bottlenecks and instabilities makes a Herculean task nearly impossible.

My zMUD Lusternia curing system has some good things about it, even a few things no one else seems to have done, such as a smarter way of prioritizing potion and deepwound curing based on the class of your current target. However, it lacks other things that really should have been built in from the ground up to be effective, like illusion protection. It also is a bit of a hodge-podge since I have implemented it gradually and things that should have been integrated were not. Most damningly, it's ages behind; there are countless afflictions and situations I never got around to adding to it. Despite this, it's still far past what zMUD can handle; it gets unstable sometimes, despite me pouring way too much time into optimizing. It would get far more unstable very quickly if I tried to add all the missing stuff. If I stripped it down and rebuilt it from the ground up, I could do better, but it would still be limited by zMUD, and that would also be a huge, huge investment of time.

Just about everyone else has moved to another platform by now. MUSHclient is probably the most popular, and has one free system available for it which is just becoming unsupported, allowing me the chance to take over supporting it... and the burden thereof. There's a promising new system for Mudlet that looks quite impressive, but costs, and comes without source code, so you are dependent on the player keeping it up. Both of these have one great benefit: I can skip over the hundreds of hours it would take to fix up my system or build a new one, and use those hours (of which I have only so many to spare) on learning how to fight with the system.

However, these both have two big liabilities that are holding me back. And both of them are things that'll probably seem petty and dumb to most people familiar with these things -- at least until they give them a real try and realize what they've been missing.

The first: because MUDs date to the 1970s, they historically are on a black background, but there's nothing about them that requires it. It's a matter of a couple of minutes to configure any MUD client to use the white background that, for very good reasons, every other computer program you use switched to almost 20 years ago. It would be only a little bit harder to design your system to respect that setting, but no one has bothered, since almost everyone accepts the default black-screen background, and by time they are in a position to think about changing it, they're so used to it, they're unwilling to try out the alternative for long enough to get past that "but I'm used to it" into seeing how much it really helps your eyes follow the text as it goes by (so very fast in Lusternia combat, so it really matters). So no one bothers. If I took up MUSHclient, I would have to spend many hours, on top of the existing time I'd spend on configuring and updating it and learning to use it, recoding a lot of it to support white background. If I took up Mudlet, I might not even have that option.

The second, and much bigger one: the mapper. The mappers in MUSHclient and Mudlet are both very new, and fairly primitive. They have one screamingly big advantage over zMUD's: they can use an XML map downloaded from the MUD instead of making me map everything myself. This also brings a screamingly big disadvantage that could be easily fixed, if the developers prioritize fixing it early into the development (i.e., now): anything not in that downloaded map, even if you have a means to add it, will get lost every time you do a new download. Otherwise, every comparison comes down firmly in zMUD's favor: the map is far more flexible, and has a lot of features the others do not yet have, simply because it's been around for many years, and the others are both brand new.

The key thing about the mapper isn't the amount of work it'd take for me to address the shortcomings; it's the fact that I really can't, or at least shouldn't, be the one to do so, since the issues in question need to be addressed by changes in the underlying database. Even if I hacked the code to make my own version that addressed them, which is a bigger project than I really want to get into right now, I'd be doing so at the cost of making my version separate, so from then on I could no longer benefit from anyone else's work. Future improvements, bug fixes, adaptations to changes in the source data, etc. would all be my problem. If I'm not eager to start over on building my own curing system, even less do I want to build my own mapper, even from a head start.

The things I need from my mapper that aren't in there aren't there in part because the mappers are fairly new, but partly because a lot of people don't expect enough from their mappers. It's a case of "how did I ever live without that?" -- everyone who's used a map that works like mine is set up has concluded "oh my god, this is amazing, how did I ever get by without it," and yet most players live with so much less and have no idea what they're missing. It does tend to make it hard to convince people that the very few things I'm asking for at the heart of the mapper (since they really need to be done there) are worth taking seriously. They don't have it, so they can't try it and see how wonderful it is, so they never believe it'd be worth the time, so they continue to not have it.

This leaves me in a sort of limbo: I'm trying to scope out the makers of the MUSHclient and Mudlet mappers to see who's going to convince me first that the things I depend on my mapper to do might be in a future version (not too far into the future).

The guy who made the MUSHclient mapper pretty much dropped the potato on this: his answer seems to be, "sure, that's great, let me know when you're done," and he doesn't seem inclined to really seriously consider what I'm suggesting enough to see why some of it has to be done in the core product, not as some home-grown slapped-on modification, or why having just a few things added at the core would make all that home-grown addition stuff something I could (and would) do. As far as he can see, I'm just another person who is asking him to do all the work for me; he has no idea that I'm a seasoned programmer, and once I choose which horse to back, I'll probably end up contributing more programming and sharing it than 90% of the people using it, because all he can see is that I'm "quibbling" about getting him to do the few things that, as a matter of design, should be implemented in the core, instead of doing them myself. And that I'm using that as a test to see which horse to back.

The Mudlet mapper people have taken some of my ideas a tiny bit more seriously, but it's too soon to tell whether any of it will actually be done. Even there, I'm running into a little bit of "do it yourself" and the same attitude -- that the only reason for me to be asking them to do some things is laziness, not trying to decide which is the best platform (based, in part, on which one will require me to do more of it myself -- the time I don't have to spend doing basics is time I can spend doing cooler stuff). But even if they do go with my requests, it's likely to be a long time. And I really want to get moving on this project.

So what other options are there? I could stick with zMUD and try building myself a system from scratch. It would be a huge amount of work, but it would probably come out better than anything I could by further evolving what I already have. I've already done parts of such a system, just a few parts, for my second Lusternia character. But it would also run me into the limits of zMUD. And while I'd have its superior mapper, I'd also be committing to it; the MUSHclient and Mudlet mappers could easily become superior, due to that downloaded map factor, with a few improvements, and I would hate to miss out on that.

I could also move to CMUD, which is the successor to zMUD. The maker of zMUD finally realized he couldn't fix what was wrong with zMUD by evolving it, so tried a clean break, but only so clean; CMUD's scripting language is a compromise between backward compatability with zMUD (enough to import simple scripts, and to already know how to code in it from the start) with getting away from its limitations (it has some scoping and subroutine-like functionality). And of course it has basically the same mapper. I could use it to build a whole new system. However, previous versions have been plagued with terrible instability issues, which is why everyone else abandoned it. Seems like it should be better than zMUD on the stability and performance fronts, but it hasn't been. There's a new version now that might be, though. Might be worth checking out.

Of course, the people who make the two systems previously discussed are both eager to see me adopt them -- in one case, because it's worth money, and in the other, I think just because he is taking my assessment of how much work I'd have to do to make it meet my needs as some kind of criticism and/or a dose of that laziness issue (that I have unrealistic expectations of a package that I unzip and it's already perfect -- which is particularly unfair in his case because he knows firsthand that I am an experienced coder who's done plenty of stuff and thus will almost certainly do plenty of stuff in whatever platform I pick).

But no one wants it enough to convince me that they're taking seriously my ideas about what needs to be implemented in the core, and why. So I'm stuck in this limbo and eager to get on with it. I have time right now to spend on this project, now that the game room is on indefinite hiatus, and because my second Lusternia character is at that point in her career where she should be focusing on this stuff; and I can't proceed. It's very frustrating. All this over what probably amounts to one solid day of coding for whoever has the source code for the mapper, and a few hours more coding for the white-background issue. I need to find some way to proceed!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Designated parking

Little by little, with every passing year, parking lots are getting divvied up into more and more reserved parking spots. Each step on this path seems justified and sensible. Who would deny handicapped spaces? No one with any sense about them. And once we have them, it seems a small step to have spaces reserved for people with small children. Then let's reserve some for employees, and amongst those, reserve the best for the higher-ranked employees, and for the "employee of the month." And while we're at it, how about rewarding the use of energy-efficient vehicles with some reserved spaces? And spaces set aside for veterans, because of course we want to thank them for their service, and isn't one parking space the least we can do?

Not one of these seems unjustified or a bad idea. But in some parking lots, it's already the case that a quarter or more of the spaces are reserved. And you only have to wander around seeing lots of good spaces sitting unused for hours at a time while worse spaces are filled up (or worse yet, all the non-reserved spaces are filled up) before you see the problem. All this fragmentation reduces the versatility of the available space.

What would be ideal, of course, is if everyone got to park anywhere that was available, but anyone with a superior claim could somehow "bump" people out of the "reserved" spaces when they arrived. That way, if there were no veterans or handicapped people there, everyone else would get to use the parking available in an optimal way, and when there were veterans or handicapped people, they would still get the first claim on good spaces that they should have. You can almost (but not quite) treat bus seats this way: the seats up front are available for anyone, but if someone with a better claim comes along, they can kick people out.
But cars are not bumpable.

So whenever we are deciding whether to reserve another space or two for this or that worthy cause, we have to consider the budgeting fallacy: you can't go solely on whether it seems justified in isolation, but also, how it fits into the overall budget of your parking lot's space and how it needs to be used.

Monday, October 18, 2010

And Another Thing...

A couple of years ago I re-read the five books in Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide trilogy, back to back, something I'd never done previously. Like most people, I read them as they came out, at least the last few. On rereading them, I came to two conclusions. First, that the last two were darned good books, and any panning that they got relative to the earlier ones was largely undeserved. And second, that the tone and style changed incredibly during the course of the books. If you had the first book in your memory but several years old when you dove into the fifth, it feels similar; you'll note differences, of course, but nowhere near as much as reading them straight through. Douglas was practically a different writer at the end, because he wasn't writing for radio and then adapting, because he was exhausted and weary of that world and its characters, and because his style had matured in a lot of ways. The latter books were probably panned by people who wanted the punchy, madcap one-liner-filled momentum of the first books, and who weren't ready to give the latter books a chance on their own terms.

So when word came that another author was going to take over the series for a sixth book, I was dubious, sure, but perhaps more willing to give it a chance than many, because unlike most, I realized that we'd already had two books by a different author, effectively, that were damned good. Eoin Colfer (whose other works I'd never read) only had to make sure not to try to emulate the style of any of the Douglas Adams we'd met, but just tell another story in the same genre and setting, and if he was good, that'd be enough.

Reading it was delayed for a while since Hyperion was standing by Penguin Publishing's head-up-ass idea of how eBooks should be priced (more expensive than the paperback -- of course!) and I wasn't willing to pay that price. But unlike Penguin, Hyperion eventually lowered their price to just slightly below the dead-tree edition.

On concluding it, I can safely say I do not regret the money or time spent. I enjoyed the book without reservation.

I'll admit the beginning takes a little while to get into, sometimes the characters (especially Ford Prefect) don't seem quite like the ones we know (though Ford's role in the book is fairly slim so it's not that big a deal), and the story differs from the Adams books in one striking regard: there's a story that takes up most of the book and goes through a beginning, middle, and ending with resolution. (Not that Adams never dabbled in that, and not that And Another Thing was one coherent storyline on its own, but I definitely smelled a lot more literary structure than in other Hitchhiker books.)

It had as much comedy as the middle books in the series (that is, more than the latter, and less than the former), and as much interesting exploration of this universe, and of the characters we're familiar with. And most of the characters registered as true. Notably, Arthur and Zaphod felt entirely like Arthur and Zaphod. (Trillian too, to some extent, though Trillian's been reinventing herself every book for a while anyway, and continues to do so here.)

Colfer does the right thing: he writes his own book in his own style, with nods to Adams rather than imitation, and set in the universe Adams created but telling a new story. He also did a very good job of dealing with how thoroughly Adams ended the story at the end of Mostly Harmless (though this does mean the first few chapters are a little less engaging, which I fear will make some people get turned off before the book starts to get into more familiar ground).

I recommend the book to fans of the original series, provided they're willing to judge it on its own merits, for what it is. If you come to it that way, I think you'll find it a worthwhile read.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

How to write a blog

I bet there's hardly ever been a blog that didn't include some post about how to write a blog. But a few people who read mine (and I'm eternally grateful that there are any such, since I know my choice of topics is meandering and can't possibly interest anyone all or even most of the time) have asked how I can keep up the pace, particularly given how busy I am generally. So here's a few thoughts about writing my blog.

First, how to make sure your blog is interesting: I have no idea. I don't really try to make it interesting for any particular audience. I just try to make it interesting to myself, and hope that of the people who read it, at least some of it will be interesting to at least some of the people at least some of the time. I'm always surprised by which posts happen to elicit more comments; I can't predict it at all. If you are trying to write a blog with hopes of appealing to a particular audience, or, gods help you, monetize a blog, I don't know the secret either.

(But at least I know I don't know it. I suspect that most of the people with popular blogs who think they know why theirs are popular are deluding themselves; they just happened to get that "critical mass" that means that the sheer number of other people reading a blog is enough reason for each other person to read it. When it comes to popularity of creativity, I think far more often than we like to admit, talent is necessary but sufficient; luck isn't just more important, it has a "chaos theory" kind of importance, where there's a tipping point where popularity forms a virtuous circle and snowballs.)

Second, on keeping up the pace: a few months ago I switched from writing one post a day, and publishing it on that day, to writing posts whenever I had ideas, and queueing them to be published at a particular time each day. Since then, my "buffer" of posts has gotten as high as 25 days and as low as 3 days, and tends to hover around a week. This has proven to be the most useful thing I could do to keep my blog moving. Staring at a blank screen with no idea what to write may sometimes inspire an idea, but it dries them up just as much.

The most important thing for getting ideas is to capture them as they come up. Many of them come up when I'm near my computer so I can open the blog window, create a post, title it, write some notes to myself in the body, and save it. Later, when I have time, I go back and write these up. Often, ideas come to me at other times, and as soon as possible I note them on my smartphone. Despite doing this assiduously, I lose almost as many good blog post ideas as I capture, because they happen and slip away before I can note them down. As with any kind of creativity, the difference between people who have lots of ideas and those who wonder about how the others get them is acting on opportunity. Everyone has lots of ideas: you just have to get used to recognizing them for what they are, then capturing them for expansion later.

After that, it's just a matter of being able to write. I don't imagine my writing is consistently good, particularly on blog posts where, to maintain the style of stream-of-consciousness, I rarely reread and edit (where all my other writing gets edited and rewritten vigorously). But, for an amateur, I am a pretty good writer, and I have my moments. Apart from a grasp of the mechanics, the most important thing for being a good writer is being a good reader. That means both being an avid reader with an omnivorous appetite, and splitting your reading time between times you read things and just let them wash over you, and times you read things and analyze them to figure out how they work, why they were put together the way they did. (Doing only one or the other of these two things isn't enough; it takes a balance of both.)

That's really all I have. If you like my blog, that's all the advice I can offer for how you could do the same.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Jurassic Park

About a year before the movie came out, I read the Crichton novel Jurassic Park.  At the time, I had two things about it I didn't like.  One is simple: the character of the daughter had nothing to do and was totally boring.  (In the movie, they improved this somewhat by splitting up the traits of the son and giving half of them to the daughter.)  The other one I found hard to express, and when I tried, it never really worked.  So I thought I might make another try here.

Crichton does a fair amount of research into his subject matter before he writes, so he presents a number of interesting facts, so that while you're reading, you can even learn a few things.  But sometimes, and never as much as in this book, he uses this as a trick to make the made-up science that is the premise of the story seem more plausible.  He'll present a number of interesting facts in the text in a tone that telegraphs to the reader that these are real, honest-to-goodness, "you can look it up" bits of fact.  For instance, he talks about the number of bird species in Costa Rica, and tells a little about their status.  The reader definitely gets (correctly) the impression that these are real facts that the author researched before writing the book.  And then, without any transition (intentionally) and in the same voice, he slips into presenting his made-up, premise-of-the-book "facts" with just as much certainty, with a very real danger of giving the reader the impression that these, too, are real things.  It's a very effective technique for giving the reader the sense that the book's events are plausible, at the price of standing a very real chance of disinforming the reader.

When I describe this, everyone's reaction is to think I'm being absurd.  Virtually all science fiction does this.  There's always references to real facts mixed in with the made-up ones that are necessary to make the story go.  It's easy to take my criticism on the surface but there's a distinction that's harder to express that explains why Crichton is doing something that other authors usually don't do.

It's pretty subtle how it's done in most books, but there are subtle cues given about which things are real facts in the real world and which are invented for the book.  Sometimes it's as simple as quoting the pedigree of each fact: something attributed to Copernicus or Einstein is probably a real thing, and something attributed to Dr. Hans Freidrich of the University of New Berlin, Mars is probably not.  (In between, something attributed to "a long lost, forgotten paper by Einstein" is probably not real, too, and the reader knows this without having to think about it, it's just genre convention.)  In Golden Age science fiction it was very obvious due to the formula: in the first chapter, our plucky hero talks to the learned science professor, who explains the theory behind something that is going to coincidentally happen during the second chapter, and the professor spends half of his talk discussing the historical precedents (speaking of other scientists and their work) and the other half talking about his own personal theory, and the divide between real fact and premise of the story is made obvious.  In other books the distinction is far more subtly made using countless techniques that are somewhere below conscious observation, but which nevertheless serve to telegraph to the reader a usually clear divide between real world facts and ones the author made up for the story.  You don't notice yourself noticing, but when you come away from the book, if pressed, you could separate them out easily enough.

Since you don't notice yourself noticing, when Crichton deliberately (I assume) uses those same techniques to mislead you in the interest of making his books more gripping through a sense of plausability, you won't necessarily notice that he's done it.  And when you hear my criticism you'll think I'm being ridiculous, because you'll stick to the idea that every author juxtaposes real and fictional facts, but the real issue isn't that, but the technique (which I can't deconstruct exhaustively) by which everyone else separates them and he doesn't.

The book itself was entertaining and engaging (though inferior to the movie in almost every regard, in my opinion), despite this.  But I bet a lot of people came away from it thinking some things about genetics are true that are not, and more importantly, having no way to distinguish those from the real things they learned along the way.  Maybe this is no big deal.  Crichton never set out to teach a course on genetics.  So am I being a jerk for feeling like maybe he was doing the world a small disservice by muddying up the pool of scientific knowledge, so scarce already, possessed by the general public, for the sake of his own success?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Shuffle mode

Our car stereo is almost always playing CDs of MP3s I've made for the purpose. Like almost every CD player out there, the car stereo has a shuffle mode, and like almost every CD player out there, it sucks. Actually, I can't think of a single CD player I've ever seen that has a shuffle mode that works the way I'd want one to, so that it could be really useful.

The ideal shuffle mode would play every track on the CD once, and only once, in a random order, and then move on to the next CD. It would not use the same order on subsequent plays of that CD. And if you interrupted it in the middle of playing through a CD, such as by turning the car off, this wouldn't cause it to lose track of what has been played already and what hasn't; it would still do the same thing over many sessions of a few songs as it would over a single session of the whole disc. It would be okay for it to forget where it was if you took the disc out or changed out of shuffle mode, though.

It might be nice if it also allowed me to shuffle a whole disc, or just a subfolder of a disc, or shuffle across all the discs in the player.

This would allow me to organize the discs by artist, or genre, or whatever I wanted. My temptation is always to have the songs in some order on the disc, because you can always introduce randomness if you have order, but you can't introduce order if you have randomness. If the disc is sorted I can find a particular song or artist or album if I want to, but I can't if it's pre-shuffled. That's one reason the shuffle should work well: so I can use it.

But it doesn't remember what tracks it's played, so you can get one song ten times before you hear another one once. And it doesn't know when it's finished the disc, so once you shuffle a disc, all the other discs will never come up until you force it. I don't think it can even shuffle within a folder or across discs, though I'm not sure. So to get a reasonably good shuffle, I have to pre-shuffle -- burn the disc in a shuffled order, with all the tracks in one big folder, making it impossible to play it any way other than that one, single, shuffled order.

Clearly, the best solution would probably be a little MP3 player which I could load with playlists generated ahead of time. Pity that the Prius has its MP3 player auxiliary input jack located annoyingly inside the center console.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Heading off objections

Sometimes I treat conversations, particularly written ones, like one might treat a chess game. Not in the sense of "trying to win" or anything like that, but just in the sense of tending to try to think five moves ahead, anticipate the moves of the other person, and prepare for them or counter them now. Unlike in a chess game, though, this almost neve works. If someone is likely to misunderstand something about what you've said, trying to clear it up in advance usually doesn't prevent it, or at best, it shifts the misunderstanding to something else.

Why do I even attempt it? I'm not sure. I guess sometimes it's just trying to be efficient, and sometimes it's trying to prevent people from getting the wrong idea and thinking ill of me in undeserved ways.

For example, I asked someone in Lusternia to customize a particular item used by potentially several players including me, from a generic description, to one suited to us. However, that could come across as demanding, because this player has a lot of things to do on our behalf, and this request is potentially adding something to her busy schedule. So naturally I try to also be willing to suggest ideas or even do the writing myself, because it's only fair, if you ask something of someone, to be willing to do the same thing. However, it's also a bit presumptuous to suggest that my own ideas or writing for this are suitable to be used for her item, in a way a representation of her character in the game. So I'm caught between two problems. Asking for a customization can come off as "Hey, you, do this for me, right now!" (too demanding); offering my own can come off as "Hey, you, I know better what your thing should look like, so here you go" (too presumptuous). I try to figure out how to offer my writing (to head off the former) while also heading off the latter by being self-effacing, but it never quite feels like it works -- at best I feel like I've just split the difference by conveying some of both wrong impressions.

Obviously too much of this is a bad thing because all those caveats and provisos clutter up whatever I was trying to say in the first place. Sometimes it feels like I can't do any of it without making more mess than I prevent, but I'm sure there are times when the effort is paying off and I don't even know about it. Mostly I wonder if other people do this, and if so, if they do it better than me. Probably most people just let the wrong impression get made most of the time, having never gotten into the habit of trying to head it off because they won't have any problem fixing it later. I have a lot more difficulty with that; stuff that other people do by intuition I can only do by calculation.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Lady of the morning

One of the most famous songs by the band Styx is Lady, which is by any standards a ballad, a love song. The first half follows the formula to the letter. The song is sweet, despite banal lyrics, and soft. And it absolutely works.

Then, in the middle, the drums come in, playing a military march. If you have heard the song (if you haven't, where have you been the last few decades?) it may never have even occurred to you that that's what he's doing because, in the song, somehow, inexplicably, it feels entirely natural. More than that, it feels inevitable. He plays that because there's nothing else he could be playing. But if you haven't heard the song, or if you step back and think of how incongruous that really is, you may find it astonishing that a military march -- brusque, strident, unforgiving -- should fit into a sweet, tender love ballad at all. Let alone so well that it feels inevitable.

The mystery of why it works is a fascinating one, but to me the even bigger mystery is, how did the band know, as they were writing, performing, and mixing the song, that it would? What ever possessed anyone to even suggest the idea? What made everyone else agree to give it a try? Of all the things that the band could have done at that point, why that?

When you listen critically to pop music and deconstruct it, it's easy to identify things that work and imagine how you could put together a song using those elements. The moment in the beginning of the chorus where the music stops on a beat and is silent for one beat and then starts again -- check. A verse that starts with a stripped-down kick-drum and bass, then builds in more instruments to build to that moment of transition to the chorus -- check. Etc. You can easily take any five pop songs, pull elements from them, mix them together, and make another pop song. (Whether it'll become a top 100 hit is, as a friend has aptly called it, "sorcery", but whether it's immediately recognizably a pop song is almost a certainty. Heck, I could write a program that crafted them.)

But at any given moment when creating such a song, you have a wide variety of things you could put in at that moment. How do you know if this song merits a slow fade at the end, or another repeat of the chorus, or any of the dozens of other things you could put in at each moment? If you look at the history of the decisions made in crafting any big hit pop song, are there endless moments where a small change would have made the song fail, or was the song's success largely assured (because of a catchy melody, for instance) as long as the choices were competently made? Would Lady have been just another forgotten song on a little-known album if not for that incongruous yet seamless military march? How did they know?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Floor robot batteries

It seems my Scooba's batteries have died again, both of them at the same time.  I'm getting not more than ten minutes of run out of either of them.  One of them had been a bit weak, but the other one was going strong.  They're not that old, either.

My Roomba's batteries are also a concern but for a different reason.  All previous Roomba generations used an external battery you could snap in, the same as the current Scooba, and which could be charged outside the Roomba.  This was ideal: while one battery is in use the other one is charging.  That's really the only way to keep a steady pace of Roombaing going.  (The "returns to docking station"/"runs on a schedule" thing they put in is just there to appease those who think it's a good idea; once you have it you learn that it's pointless, since you have to empty the dirt bin anyway.)  But the current generation uses a battery that can only be swapped by removing five screws and a cover plate.  Not too hard, but harder than it needs to be.  More importantly, you can't charge them outside the Roomba.  So if you have two good batteries you can at most do two battery runs before you have to stop and recharge; no chance to keep the running and charging in parallel.  This is a big downgrade and for no reason I can think of.

I still love my Roomba and Scooba, but I've had them a long time and I start to get spoiled, so I only see the bad parts, while the good parts I take for granted.  And all the bad parts have to do with batteries.  The other big problem I have with them is the virtual walls running low and not working, but not telling me this in any useful way, until I find my robots wandering the wrong places.

(Actually, the amount of dog hair that clogs up the Roomba is a bit of an issue these days, but that's going to be the case for any floor-cleaning technology short of nanobots.  Though wouldn't it be great if the Roomba could convert the matter of the dust it picks up to energy, and thus, power itself?  If only we had consumer-grade, floor-portable cold fusion!)

When you come down to it, aren't most of the issues you have with most of the portable gadgets you use, from cell phones and laptops to power tools, problems with batteries?  Any decent sci-fi writer would have had someone invent battery technology two orders of magnitude better than what we have by this point in history, or broadcast power, or something.  To heck with flying cars, what we need is superbatteries.  (Actually, come to think of it, a big leap in battery technology would probably make flying cars feasible.)

Of course, the issue of good batteries is separate from the issue of good energy sources, though naturally related.  If you were going to write sci-fi, you might solve both issues at once by having someone invent an efficient, renewable source of energy that happens to also be able to be made in sizes tiny enough to fit inside robots... and cell phones... and each earpiece of a pair of wireless headphones... and RFID transmitters... and heck, let's go nanotech and let them fit into microscopic machines that can swim your bloodstream, too.  Then you eliminate the need for big power plants, and the distribution infrastructure of wires carrying energy around, and the power companies that run them.  Decentralization of energy generation is at least as game-changing a factor as the cheap source of power itself is.

But realistically if we do get these advances they'll probably be separate: one about cheap, safe power generation, probably still in centralized locations due to economies of scale; and a separate one for a rechargeable, environmentally friendly, energy-dense, light, small mode of including that energy in small devices.  This would have a lot more impact than just making your cell phone easier to use; it'd be like computers themselves, in how the ways it would be used would be far broader than you'd immediately realize when they were new.  The world of medicine alone would have hundreds of applications that would change (and save) countless lives.

Okay, I admit it, I'm stalling.  I don't want to have to buy more Scooba batteries.  Has anyone invented that something-better yet?  I'm ready!

Monday, October 11, 2010

National Coming Out Day

On the one hand, I certainly want to express solidarity with people of all sexual orientations, and particularly those who have to face prejudice and unfair treatment, loss of civil rights, and other abuses for theirs. On the other hand, I'm not entirely sure that stating my personal sexuality publicly really is the best way to do that.

It's not that I'm hesitant to mention it out of fear of repurcussions. (Though, with people being concerned about anything they post on the Internet becoming part of the public record forever, maybe I should be; and yet, nevertheless, I'm not: I'm bisexual. There, it's said.) It's just that that's not really relevant to what I want to say, which is that it just shouldn't matter. Your sexual orientation is as relevant to my opinion of you, or my estimation of what rights you should have, as is whether you prefer red or yellow apples. I'm not saying it's a bad idea for people to come out. I just feel that where we should be heading is to a point where no one even asks, and coming out is as relevant as any other statement you choose to make, or choose not to make, about yourself.

I realize the comparison isn't precisely fair, because even if everyone were suddenly enlightened, and didn't care what other people do in private where it has no effect on them, there are still public aspects to relationships: you are introduced to people and their families, you see them walking around together, etc. A person can choose not to disclose his preferred type of apple, but he can't entirely choose not to disclose what kind of partner he prefers, because you can easily go a lifetime never seeing your friend eat an apple, but you'll probably see who she brings to a party.

Then again, you can say the same thing about hair color. If my friend has a preference for redheads, he can't keep it a secret. He can't choose whether to "come out" about it; once I see he's bringing yet another redhead to a party, I'll figure it out. But that doesn't matter, because the odds that I, or anyone else, will hold against him his fascination with redheads is vanishingly slim. That is how we need to feel about sexual orientation. When we get there, National Coming Out Day will have become successfully obsolete.

(I'd also like to take this opportunity to direct you to an older post of mine about sexual orientation and civil rights. It is, for whatever reason, the most visited post in my entire blog's history, and I'm happy about that, because it makes an important argument that I think needs to be heard on a wider scale. I only wish I could find out where it's been linked from!)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The metrickiest of National Metric Days

The date being 10/10/10 isn't nearly as exciting as it seems -- since there's 12 months, we've had something like that each of the last 9 years and have two more coming, but that's just one of many similarly interesting patterns (1/2/3, 3/2/1, 10/1/01, 12/3/21, and so on), and if you add them all up, it'd be an odd year that something like this didn't happen, particularly early in centuries.

But 10/10 every year is also National Metric Day, so this is the metrickiest of National Metric Days. And that seems like a good opportunity to talk about metric. Not that I haven't railed about this before. But I can try to be more advocative than rantish. (And while I'm at it, why not post at 10:10? At least in my timezone.)

You can memorize the formulae to convert between Imperial and metric, and that's perhaps a necessary step, but no one will ever get to using metric comfortably that way. You can't get comfortable using kilometers until you can, without any particular effort (like converting), have a feel for what a kilometer is.

Why is Celsius uncomfortable? Because when someone says it's 26°, you don't know if that's warm or cold, without stopping to do some math. But if someone says it's 79°, you know what that means not because you can calculate it, but because you have hundreds or thousands of experiences with it being 79° and you know how that felt. In the same way, if someone tells you the thing you have to lift weighs 45 pounds, or the drive you have to make is twenty miles, or that you're supposed to drink a half-cup of some mixture, you don't do any calculations, you just know from experience.

So if I say to you, "boy, I was so thirsty, I drank a whole liter of soda!" do you stop and do a conversion in your head? Probably not. You probably picture a one-liter bottle of soda, or half of a two-liter bottle of soda, and you just know how much I drank. You're already ready to convert to liters. If tomorrow someone switched out your measuring cups and the text on your recipes and the labels on all the non-soda items at the store, you might not feel ready but you would actually be ready.

So how would we get the same kind of comfortable exposure to grams (excluding people who traffic in drugs, who probably already have that), meters, Celsius, and all the frequently used multiples and fractions of these? What would it take for us to do as pretty much the entire rest of the world has done, bite the bullet and do it? Is it merely that we aren't convinced of the benefits -- and if so, how many of us have not had to struggle with the math of 5280 feet in a mile, or how to multiply up a recipe and figure out how many cups is in some large number of tablespoons?

Saturday, October 09, 2010

The saga of an imperial architect

Of the many untold stories of the Star Wars universe, one I'd like to hear is the story of the imperial architect that designed the Death Star.

Okay, so obviously he already was doing a pretty bang-up job to be able to make a space station of such unprecedented size and scope, that it was sometimes mistaken, briefly, for a small moon, at least by scruffy nerf-herders. Doubly so that it was able to also include within it a planet-busting weapon of surpassing, and also unprecedented, power. And you probably can't blame him for the security flaws in the computer networks; that was probably an IT guy thing. Probably the revisions to security policies was held up in committee. About the only big problem with his architecture is his insistence that guardrails on catwalks just ruin the aesthetic. But every architect has to find some quirky way to "make his mark".

So imagine how crushed he was when he found out his masterpiece was destroyed because he forgot one little bit of protective baffling on an exhaust vent. And how it must have felt to think, oh, no, Vader's gonna be pissed.

But apparently he didn't lose his job (or his larynx), at least not right away. Instead, sitting on top of his greatest triumph, cruelly snatched from him, they gave him a job that made the previous one seem paltry and easy. Design a fully-functional Death Star that looked entirely like it was in mid-construction. It must be practically hollow, a bare, exposed skeleton, yet still able to withstand its own weight, still structurally sound. It still has to have working energy systems capable of operating the planet-buster, and worse yet, that has to be so well shielded -- despite the lack of a body to part of the station -- to appear non-functional. It even has to be able to defend itself. That would be like asking an architect to make something that looked like the Empire State Building midway through construction, all exposed girders, but to actually have an invisible but working elevator that could go sideways too, as well as hidden anti-intrusion alarm systems on all the wide-open faces.

Somehow, he managed it, too. What a triumph of engineering. And what did he get for his troubles? Probably nothing. At worst, he was on site overseeing construction when it went kablooey. At best, his boss lost his job and he was out of a very lucrative contract probably before he was paid for it, forced to beg the new regime for work. "Oh, well, Princess, yes, I was the guy who built that trap that your admiral so cunningly spotted, but hey, it was just a job, right? I can build traps for you now! No, no, I don't mean traps, I mean, spires to celebrate your... whatever it is you stand for. I don't care, I can build anything! Hey, come on, give a guy a break, I have droids to feed!"

I wrote this post a few weeks ago, and in the time since then, but before it posted, the show How I Met Your Mother made a similar joke. Feh on them! Wish I'd posted earlier.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Hearing from my sister

I wrote yesterday about my excommunication from my family partially because the story came up several times, in various forms, during the weekend at Seyon Lodge, and I thought it might be good to put it all in one place.  But while it was already on my mind because of those discussions, I got home on Sunday to find that, during the time I'd been partially incommunicado up at Seyon Lodge (I had Internet access but wasn't checking everything I usually check, or as often), I'd gotten an email from my sister.

As I said yesterday, all these years I'd had the impression she was part of my mother's "we" and that she was therefore just as upset with me as my mother (or at least enough to not speak to me), and thus, part of my exclusion from the family.  But she says that that's not entirely the case.  She didn't go into details, but part of it is that my mother didn't tell her the whole thing.  And more than just the "only hearing one side of the story" part that is inevitable in the circumstances.  And part of it was that she'd been pressured, and had decisions made for her.  She's not elaborating and I don't see a reason to push the question.  For whatever reason, all these years she felt that she couldn't or shouldn't contact me, or that if she did, I would be angry or upset, and her overture would be unwelcome.  Meanwhile, I never contacted her because I thought she wouldn't want to hear from me, and I was respecting that desire.

So we're now making a little effort to reconnect.  We've been filling each other in about what's been going on in our lives.  There could be some awkwardness since she's still in touch with our mother, who might not be totally happy to see this going on, but we'll see what happens if it happens.

This is unfamiliar ground for me and I am not even sure what I hope to see come of it.  I certainly wasn't expecting it.  And funny it should happen literally on the day of my twentieth anniversary vow renewal, when I found myself telling people about my family situation, and occasionally thinking about whether anyone in my family might have wanted to be invited (and concluding they wouldn't).  The universe waited a decade to pick that moment for this to happen.  Silly universe.  Maybe this is, after all, a sentimental Hollywood movie.  I wonder who's playing me.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

My expulsion from my family

I have written a little bit in my blog about the odd circumstances surrounding my expulsion from my family, but I haven't written much, because it's the kind of thing that probably won't be improved by being aired in a public forum -- even if my blog is only read by a handful of people, it's still nominally public.  I certainly don't want to belabor any of it with only "my side" -- even if I still don't know what the sides are, or what the disagreement was.

Suffice to say that for reasons I never understood, my mother got upset enough with me to cut me off from the family, essentially declaring that I was no longer part of it.  This went so far as to have her not tell me about the health and eventual death of my own grandmother, with whom I had always been pretty close, and who held no bad feelings towards me that I ever learned of (by the time all this was happening, she was well into Alzheimer's and wasn't aware of the fight, whatever it was).  Not only wasn't I invited to the funeral, I didn't even find out that she'd died until many years later.  (My mother even avoided posting an obituary since I could have learned about the death that way even from Vermont.)  I feel that I never found out the real reason, that there's something else in my mother's mind about me that I was never able to answer since I never was told about it.

What I did hear never made much sense; she seemed to be angry at me for the temerity of moving away from Long Island, which made me "think I was too good for the rest of the family" or something (I find it very funny to learn that she has since moved away from Long Island), and for the fact that, having spent many vacations and many thousands of dollars returning to Long Island for various visits, I wanted someone to come visit me.  (It only seemed fair.  Besides which, and maybe saying this sounds like more of that "too good for you" thing, it just seems to make more sense to me for them to visit a place they haven't seen, and thus get double value out of the trip, than for me to go see a place I've seen many times.  Plus I had guest rooms available so it wouldn't cost them anything more than the time and some gas.)  Does that all add up to enough to justify excommunicating someone from their family?

Anyway, when this all happened, it was conveyed to me that my sister, who also lived on Long Island, was part of the "we" in all the first-person-pronouns my mother was using.  And then I never heard from her, either, so I had no reason to doubt it.   I'd been told I was cut off from my entire family, and so it seemed.  A few times I heard from my paternal grandmother, but since I didn't know whether she was part of the "we" (she and my mother had gotten along well at some times and not so well at others) I never took that as meaning there was any change from the rest of the family.  And the few times I made some effort to reach out to my mother, the response -- or more commonly the complete lack of one -- showed no sign of change.

Some people, on hearing this story, dredge up the lesson from every sentimental family movie, and seem positive that I should find some way to reconnect with my mother.  But I don't think my life is a movie, or at least not that kind.  The way I see it is, my mother is the one who burned the bridge.  I don't even really know what she's upset about; she closed off so firmly as to refuse to even tell me.  (Either that, or it's nothing more than the moving-away and wanting-to-be-visited stuff, which seems ridiculous.)  And I have made a few overtures and she rebuffed them unambiguously.  So it's not really my place to be the one to "make things right".  To the best of my knowledge, I never made them wrong to begin with, and if I did, if she won't tell me how I can't really do anything about it.  If she wants to never hear from me, know about my life, or be reminded of my existence, then that's her decision, and what else can I do but respect her wishes?  To force myself into her life out of some sentimental-movie-inspired desire to "reconnect" would just be obnoxious and inappropriate and rude.

Would I mind if things got patched up?  No.  I am mildly upset and hurt with her for the way she brushed me off, but there's nothing in that to hold a grudge about, and I'm not a grudge-oriented person anyway.  If she contacted me one day and said, "hey, that was a big mix-up, here's what I was really upset about, let's talk it out and see if we can resolve it," I'd be entirely on-board.  (Though I think I would have to remind her that if I am resistant to telephone, it's nothing personal, I avoid using telephones with everyone.  And that, yes, I still don't want to use my travel budget to come back to Long Island every year, while no one ever visits me, ever.  But that is the extent of what would be on my side of the negotiations, and that doesn't seem like a lot to me.)  I'm more upset about her not even being willing to tell me of Nana's health and death, but again, forgiving that would be, after this much time, very easy.

But if we never do get patched up, I'm not going to be miserable about it, either.  If she prefers to not have me in her life, then so be it.  I will respect her wishes, and while I suppose I'll miss out on one person in the world who might have cared about me once, life is full of times when someone who cared for you once is no longer there, and we move on because the only alternative is to die a little bit.

I hope this post doesn't seem like I'm unfairly only airing my side.  I would certainly be airing the other side if I knew what it was, if I had the first glimpse of what my crime is supposed to be, if I had any confidence there really is, at its heart, any cogent and reasonable objection to my actions.  In fact, the fact that no one will ever spell out any such accusations seems suspicious -- it makes me doubt that there is anything at the heart of it, save something that is too irrational to be spoken aloud because it would crumble if exposed to the light of reason.  But maybe there's something there I don't know about.  I would welcome hearing it, if it were presented sanely and cogently.  But this isn't like a mystery novel either -- if there's never a parlor scene I won't be unable to get to sleep.