Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Galaxy Far, Far Away


Following is my first draft of a list of cards for a Space Opera version of Once Upon A Time, for people's comments.

Characters

Alien
Android
Artificial Intelligence
Bandit
Bureaucrat
Captain
Child
Emperor
Engineer
Guard
Magistrate
Mentor/Student
Merchant
Overlord
Physician
Pilot
Prisoner
Rebel
Robot
Soldier
Ambassador (Interrupt)
Mechanic (Interrupt)
Rogue (Interrupt)
Saboteur (Interrupt)
Smuggler (Interrupt)

Aspects

Ancient
Armored
Bloodthirsty
Broken
Cutting-Edge
Cybernetic
Dying
Exotic
Gigantic
Greedy
Lizard-Like
Long-Lost
Man-Eating
Mutated
Naïve
Of Alien Origin
Scheming
Souped-Up
This Can Fly
Wealthy
Contraband (Interrupt)
Faithful (Interrupt)
Jump-Capable (Interrupt)
Multi-Purpose (Interrupt)
Telepathic (Interrupt)

Events

Betrayal
Breaking In
Capture
Chase
Death
Escape
Explosion
Firefight
FTL Travel
Injury
Powered Down
Purchase or Hire
Pursuit
Rescue
The System Crashes
Time Travel
Deep Sleep (Interrupt)
Orbital Insertion (Interrupt)
Upgrade (Interrupt)
Vehicle Crashes (Interrupt)

Places

A Factory
A Desolate Asteroid
A Remote Settlement
An Airlock
Deep Inside Hyperspace
Engineering
Floating In Space
Hydroponic Farms
In Cyberspace
Medical Center
Power Plant
Space Station
Spaceport
Starship
The Edge Of Known Space
The Bad Side Of Town
A Barren, Hostile Land (Interrupt)
Ice Planet (Interrupt)
Mines (Interrupt)
The Marketplace (Interrupt)

Items

Alien Artifact
Blaster Rifle
Countdown Timer
Data Crystal
Fightercraft
Food and Drink
Grenade
Hologram
Hyperspace Gate
Money
Security System
Toolkit
Doomsday Weapon (Interrupt)
Long-Range Transmitter (Interrupt)
Unknown Language (Interrupt)

Endings

A few in the more remote outposts survived.
Across the whole planet there were celebrations late into the night.
After this truth got out, nothing could ever be the same again.
And then she was back as if she had never left.
And so a new frontier was opened for exploration.
And they all hailed her as the one who had been foretold.
And years later they declared that day an official holiday.
And so the captain regained control of his ship and crew.
And to this day there they remain.
As one, the populace was befuddled and didn't know what it meant.
As the last of them left to points unknown, a terrible silence was left behind.
At least they could use the reward to repair most of the damage.
Automated systems kept working for long after there was no one left alive.
Finally the doorway slowly opened.
He found what he had truly lost.
Hunks of slowly cooling rock settled into new orbits.
It took days for the fires to burn out.
It was an entirely new form of life, unlike anything that had been before.
It collapsed into itself and vanished forever.
No matter how many treatments she got, she would never be truly human again.
Once the story was out on the network, change was inevitable.
So the cities lay in smoking ruins, but life would find a way to return someday.
So she revealed her true identity and they were reunited.
The long, arduous process of rebuilding had just begun.
The formula was finally perfected.
The ecosystem collapsed, and millions died.
The new alliance faced many hardships in unity and harmony.
The election results came in: it was a landslide victory!
The destruction was nearly absolute.
The jury-rigged repair held... long enough, at least.
The ship slowly disappeared into the inky darkness of space.
The answer to the mystery was something no one had predicted.
The rebellion was crushed.
The door sealed behind him, leaving him alone in darkness.
The ripples of this change in reality itself would take years to understand.
The threads of reality finally settled back to a stable formation.
The way there was lost forever.
The treaties were signed and ratified.
The discovery led to an age of plenty.
The secret was too dangerous, so they agreed to hide it once more.
The plot was stymied, but was it part of a larger scheme?
The creature's death meant they were safe once more.
The people's cries for change were finally answered.
The life support system wheezed back into life.
The power came back on.
These new discoveries would force the researchers to start over.
They earned promotions and a new security clearance.
They would be on the run forever, but at least they were free.
They weren't who he expected them to be.
They made this their new home and lived out all their days there.
Though they repaired most of the damage he could never fight again.
What new forms of life might arise there, scientists would speculate for decades.
With their new powers, they could ensure justice would prevail.
With her new-found wealth, she was finally able to build it.
Word about the cure was disseminated to all the worlds.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Stowe Soaring

Today I got to take my glider lesson and flight that was my big surprise Christmas present. It was originally scheduled for my birthday, yesterday, but gliding is very weather-sensitive, and a low cloud cover forced Stowe Soaring to reschedule for today. The reschedule didn't work out right, they double-booked, and I had to wait over three hours for my flight. (We spent that time relaxing in Morrisville.)

The flight was preceded by ground training. They'd said it would be an hour, but it was maybe fifteen minutes, and was spent at the glider, and also included the pre-flight checklist which was going to happen anyway. Fortunately I'd already finished reading the book that came with it. The book is very dense, very dry, and very hard to learn much from because there's no chance to make each thing sink in before you're on to something else. It's really intended to be used in parallel with practical training that makes each bit real. However, while I hadn't learned a lot from the book, I did get the ideas into my head, so even the hurried training was enough to get me acclimated to the glider.

The towplane pilot wasn't their usual towplane pilot, but someone who flies DC-10s regularly, and isn't a glider pilot. So the tow up was a little bumpy, and my teacher, John, told me that he was going to handle the tow, and that it's the hardest part. I believe it. I could feel his work on the controls, and there were always three things going on, faster than I could follow. This was the only part that was a little bit scary.

As soon as the tow separation ended and we were on level flight, John told me to point the glider at a particular point and fly it. Just like that. Bam. My first few minutes trying to fly the glider were uneven at best; no matter how many times you read the advice that you work the controls with small movements, just how light the pressure should be is something you can't feel until your hands are on the stick.

It was so late in the day that almost all the lift was gone. We circled in a few thermals (columns of rising air caused by sun heating on the ground, which gliders use to gain altitude and thus prolong the flight) but while the lift had been great earlier in the day (another pilot had been up for four hours on a single tow), even my trainer couldn't get more than a hundred feet out of any thermal, and each flight came to just under a half hour. That I was flying wasn't helping much either.

By the second flight, I had gotten a much better grip on coordinated turns -- that is, working the stick (aelirons) and pedals (rudder) together so that the plane banks without yawing (slewing to the side) -- and pretty much never had the yaw string off center. This was both in straight-and-level flight, and while maintaining a bank of 30° while circling in a thermal However, I never got even close to getting the hang of using the pitch control (tilting forward or back with the elevator) and trim to maintain airspeed of 65 knots. At best, I was managing a pilot-induced oscillation of about 10 knots either way -- I would correct, overshoot, and have to correct back, and overshoot again. That was at best; at worst, I was correcting in the wrong direction, because I didn't have it down to muscle memory how it works, I had to stop and think through, every time, "I need to increase airspeed, and diving increases speed at the cost of altitude, and nose down is diving, and pushing forward is nose down" (or the reverse) instead of just getting "push forward for more speed". (Another minor issue is that I couldn't comfortably pull back since the stick was hitting my stomach, and I couldn't use trim enough to adjust for that because I never had time -- at any given moment I am supposed to watching the sky and horizon, the yaw string, the variometer, the altimeter, and the airspeed indicator, all of which were partially obscured by the pilot in the front seat, while working the stick and rudder pedals).

So I got a total of about 10 minutes of actual flying time. (And that's what my logbook says.) I didn't do anything during either the tow or the landing (not even the approach). All I did was the very simplest stuff, high up in clear air without any other traffic or significant weather. And I didn't even get to the point where I was able to do that. But I was only flying it for ten minutes, so I'm pretty pleased with the fact that in that much time, I got to where I could do banks, fly straight, and aim for a spot and reach it. Another flight and I could probably get to where I could do the pitch in those conditions, and then I could get better at feeling lift on another flight, and so on.

Even so, it's kind of amazing to imagine that anyone can keep all the things in their head they have to in order to fly -- let alone fly and also talk to some annoying guy in the back seat. What's even more amazing is thinking of people doing that in 1928, with planes that barely held together, and hardly anyone to teach you because no one else knew either.

If I had a few extra lifetimes, there are a half-dozen things I would love to spend a lot of time learning, like playing drums. Flying is one of them. Since I don't have an extra lifetime, nor even the basic courtesy of being independently wealthy and eligible for retirement, I probably won't do anything more with this other than playing with Flight Simulator X (which has a glider!). But I can say that, once, I flew a glider.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Stymied and frustrated with the dog fence

I'm very frustrated that we're 90% of the way through training Socks to the dog fence, but now we're at a dead standstill, and there doesn't seem to be anywhere I can turn for help. Every time I try to seek help, it seems the whole thing gets brushed off or not taken seriously.

The fence system's manual has a detailed set of instructions to go through over a few weeks. We've gotten through most of it. Right now, Socks is very hesitant to approach the fence boundary, enough that we don't get chances to reinforce that reluctance because she won't go near it, so we can't reward her for coming back from it.

However, twice so far, she's seen something really tempting outside the fence on the road, and each time she blew through the boundary at the end of the driveway moving so fast that the collar never had time to beep. There's a series of steps in the manual to cover this, but it is entirely predicated on the idea that you can arrange suitably tempting distractions that, despite the reluctance you've built up in previous steps, she'll get to the border, while you have her on a line so you can control the situation. This lets you repeat the previous instruction, only now saying, "even when something tempting is outside, you still can't go".

The manual suggests other family members, favorite toys, or neighbors with their pets can serve as the distraction. However, the few times Siobhan and I have tried to do this, it doesn't come anywhere near close. One of us having her on the leash, the other one is not enough temptation to get Socks even slightly interested in going to the end of the driveway, let alone running full tilt down it. While she likes toys, she has no particular favorite, and her taste for toys comes and goes very quickly. Neighbors and their animals come and go at their schedule, not ours, and it seems a bit much to ask a neighbor to come stand at the end of the driveway three times a day for a week or two. I'm concerned that even that wouldn't be enough temptation for the lesson.

I tried arranging to where Socks can be outside on a line on her own and still be able to get to the end of the driveway, in hopes that the random passings of neighbors and their vehicles might be enough to give her a chance to teach the lesson (since I can't spend 12 hours a day waiting with her on the line for those moments and hoping to take advantage of them). But even with an expensive, super-long line and a newly mounted place to clip it, it's not long enough to cover our lengthy driveway. I've never seen a 100' dog line, but that's what it would take. Even if there was one, I hate to pour that much money into a line we only need for a week if it works, when I don't know if it might work.

So we've poured a huge amount of time and money and effort and pain into this system, we're 90% of the way to done, and it feels like we're stuck, totally stopped. Every day that passes while we don't do anything, as if some miracle's going to come along, is a day that the previous training gets muted a bit, and she's not getting her exercise. It feels like, five or six days ago, we gave up, and I just didn't realize. If we can just find a way over this last hump we're done.

Where can I turn to get new ideas, assistance, or any other way to make progress? I don't even know who I can ask. There aren't any experts on hand for this. People who I know don't seem to have any ideas, if they've even really trying. My post to the SportDog forum goes unanswered. Maybe I should just be trying to hire someone to stand at the end of the driveway for us. Where do you hire people for jobs like that? I am really desperate for ideas here.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Denver food

Denver is not a foodie city. It has no particular signature dish, except perhaps the Denver omelet, but let's face it, the Denver omelet is not particularly unique. (Oddly, I saw more places selling Philly cheese steak sandwiches than Denver omelets. I wonder if Philly's full of Denver-omelet-specializing diners?) Most of our meals were not exceptional, or were things that were unusual for us only because they don't have that in our area (and sometimes when we travel, we slum it at a place like Wendy's just because we can't get that at home). Plus, the hotel we stayed at for most of the trip (after the convention was over) had a free breakfast, and not just a muffin and a banana, but a full buffet with an omelet station and everything; so a third of our meals were that. We also had a couple of times when a lunch had enough leftovers to become dinner too. So in the end, we only had a handful of meals that were of any note. And of these the two most interesting were the most, and least, expensive meals we had.

The honor of "most expensive" easily falls to The Fort. This is a pueblo-style building in the red rock area southwest of Denver, but if I tell you that it has a sort of cowboy frontier theme, you will get entirely the wrong idea. You'll probably imagine some mocked-up Wild West town where people in ten-gallon hats and six-shooters are either yelling "yeehaw!" or having quick-draws at high noon, accompanied by sagebrush. The Fort is certainly historical, but not quite that histrionic. It's more focused on the pioneer period, which covers the wagon-trains heading west during the gold rush, and the ranchers herding cattle through the prairies. The staff are in vaguely period garments, but not costumes; it's more subtle than that. The women wearing long skirts and shawls, the men in puffy-sleeved shirts, for instance. The building has a pebbled courtyard and lots of timber inside, but it does not have a steer-head skeleton, a Colt 45, or a cactus everywhere you turn; it just has period building materials.

The food tends to focus just enough on period meals to be interesting, without being either Hollywood or realistic to an extent that it wouldn't also be tasty. For instance, I had a prickly pear beverage which is approximately the sort of thing they would have been drinking in the area 150 years ago, but it was neither slavishly historically accurate (so much that it might not please the modern palate) nor cinematically goofy. (Even so, I didn't like it too much. But that's just because it turns out that while I love the prickly pear lemonade Bolthouse used to make -- why did they stop!?!? -- I don't really like prickly pear on its own.) They also use a fair amount of "game" meat, though they don't actually hunt buffalo, they buy it from sustainably-run local farms that raise buffalo, quail, and the like for that very purpose.

Siobhan had a game meat platter, while I had a pork belly and campfire beans dish that I eventually realized was basically the precursor to "pork-n-beans". I also tried an intriguing appetizer: pickled jalapeños stuffed with honey-sweetened peanut butter. They had a nice heat burn, but the combination didn't work as well as I might have liked. In all, the food was good, and the experience interesting and enjoyable (and I'm not even referring to how good-looking the hostess was in that), but I don't know if it was worth the huge bill. Still, I am not much of a fan of game meats, so I'm not really the one who should judge.

On the way to Roxborough State Park we had no lunch plans, but Google Maps showed there was a Sonic and a pizzeria in the village of Roxborough Park on the way to the park proper, so we figured we'd grab something on the way in, but we didn't decide ahead what it would be. We got to the one shopping center that is the village center, and pulled in, but before we could alight upon Sonic, to what did our eyes appear, but a little strip-mall-type restaurant called Tamale Kitchen. We later learned it was one of a small Denver-area chain, which had started by some people selling tamales door-to-door. But you wouldn't know it by visiting; it just looks like any little strip-mall restaurant run by locals.

I suppose technically the meal we got was not the cheapest in total dollars, but it was certainly the cheapest in dollars per amount of food, and since it ended up making three generous meals, it was easily the cheapest per meal. We stared befuddled at the menu as we read about "family pack #1" which had:
  • 12 tamales (red, green, or a mix)
  • 12 tortillas
  • 1 pint of beans
  • 1 pint of rice
  • 1 pint of chili
  • a two-liter bottle of Pepsi or Diet Pepsi
for $21. Back in Vermont that would be a fantastic price; I would expect to pay twice that much. And restaurants in Denver were uniformly much higher in price than back home. So this deal was just amazing. They had several other platters which mixed in tacos and/or burritos, at similarly amazing prices.

The chili was actually chili sauce, and it was good chili sauce, and way more than you needed for everything else in the meal. The tamales were also very good. Not the best I've ever had, but certainly closer to the best than the worst. The green ones were a little skimpy on filling, but the red ones were quite generous on filling, so it evened out. The rice was nothing special, but the beans were very good.

We both had lunch from it, then I ate more for dinner, and well into the evening. It was too good to let any of it go to waste. I even used some of the chili sauce to dip hush puppies in (don't knock it, it worked really well). All in all, it was very good. Not fine cuisine good, but for $21 for that much food, you'd expect it to be awful and still cost a lot more, but it was darned good. If I could buy a package like that at home, I think we would cook half as much as we do.


There were some other meals that I'm sure Siobhan has documented extensively on Chowhound or Yelp or something, and some of them were good, but they were the kind of good you might expect to find in any city. We had a fairly good deli, but nothing to even sit in the shadow of Carnegie Deli; we had some all right Mexican, but not really a lot better than even the Mexican we can get in Vermont; and so on.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Denver activities

Most of what we did in Denver can be divided up into two categories: window-shopping, and visiting parks and wilderness. The former leaves me very little to talk about, because Denver's shopping areas were dreadfully dull. You know how the local mall is like 90% clothing stores? Denver's malls are like 98% clothing stores. The first mall we visited, if you took out the clothing stores, jewelry stores, and restaurants, you'd have about three things left. One tiny Lego shop, a chocolatier, and a Microsoft store. The other big mall, and outdoor shopping area, weren't much different. There were a couple of kitchen shops, a huge store that sells nothing but containers for other things, and multiple Starbucks in the same mall... and those were the highlights. The 16th Street pedestrian mall was even worse: pretty much nothing but chain stores.

About the only store that was much fun to visit was a Guitar Center. Though not as much as it might have been if it had been possible to buy stuff there! There was also a tiny shop called The Pilot Shop we kept seeing signs for on the way to our hotel (at the small regional airport), so we stopped in one day just to sate our curiosity. (About half the store is kitschy things like model planes, T-shirts, and bumper-stickers, of interest to people who fly; the other half is specialized things like headsets, ILS charts, and FAA regulation books and checklists.)



So we spent most of our time visiting the various nature areas, parks, and wildernesses that happened to be convenient to our location and the weather. Weather wasn't always with us: it was chilly, threatening to rain, and cloudy a lot, and in fact, after a late winter in Vermont where it was wet and cold the whole year, it finally got warm for the first time right after we left, at which point it was cold in Denver. Even so we got a fair amount of sunlight.

Our first stop was the quaint village of Manitou Falls, in the Colorado Springs (or, as the signs all say, Colo Spgs) area. It's not just a charming touristy town. It's a CHARMING TOURISTY TOWN at the top of its lungs. It makes Stowe look reserved. It makes Ogunquit seem organic. It makes Port Jefferson seem sincere. We didn't linger very long, though; the deli we were getting lunch at didn't open until pretty much when we had to run to make our reservation, so we got our food to go.

The main thing Manitou Falls has going for it, apart from small, cutesy shops selling things no one needs, is being the base of the Pikes Peak Cog Railway. This is a pretty expensive ride, but it's really quite incredible. Unfortunately due to high winds we couldn't ride to the top (and graciously, they reduce the exorbitant ticket prices accordingly... to still exorbitant, but less so, prices). We only got to Windy Point at 12,000 feet. The views were still spectacular, and the ride well worth it.  The conductor does a great job of keeping the trip entertaining.  Still would have been nice to be able to say we got to the very top (14,100 feet or so).

After this, we went to the Garden of the Gods.  This is a pretty big park that is mostly notable for having some amazing, huge rocky formations, mostly of that strikingly red rock native to the area.  Some are huge, some are balanced, some are oddly shaped, and all are pretty breathtaking.  In between is an awful lot of arid wilderness, along with some nicely designed trails and roads.  A light walk of a couple of miles got us amongst and alongside the biggest of the rock formations, and gave us great views from all directions, both of the rocks and of the crazy people climbing them (despite the many, many signs saying not to do so unless you were a professional with a license), plus an exposure to the wilderness itself (though we didn't really see any wildlife apart from the occasional bird).  After the walk, a set of roads lets you drive through the rest and see most of the remainder of the great views, rocks, and wilderness, which provides a nice balance: you get to see everything in a huge park even if you're not up to doing huge long hikes.  Anyone who visits the area should give Garden of the Gods a few hours; best of all, it's free.

Back in the Denver area we visited Cherry Creek Park, which is referred to as Denver's backyard.  This is the kind of park that's mostly focused on activities: picnic areas, fishing, boating, swimming, and the like.  Which is not to say there wasn't wilderness and trails, but given that it's mostly a big open area with very little vegetation taller than your knee, it's really more suited to activities than feeling like you're out in the middle of nowhere (you can still see Denver from pretty much all points, even though it's many, many miles away).  Some of the activities are a bit unusual, such as a shooting range.  The most interesting was a model RC airplane field: space set aside by the park, and then maintained and equipped by a pair of local RC plane fan clubs.  No one was flying the day we went due to high winds, but that let us get a better look (since technically we weren't supposed to be allowed into the area).  It's incredible how much stuff they have, including runways wide enough to drive a minivan down.  These people are serious.  (So much that RC cars are entirely banned, because, after all, those people are just playing with silly toys.)

Roxborough State Park was a bit more wilderness-park-like.  No camping, but lots of hiking, and it was hilly enough that you couldn't see the whole park from any single point.  We took one of the easiest trails, and it was just about as much as we could do -- though in warmer weather we might have felt a bit more comfortable on it, but even so, we probably wouldn't've been up to the challenge of any of the other trails.  The park had a few "learning about nature" signs that were really strikingly self-congratulatory and effusive, but once you got away from the visitor center, it was just a lovely park with interesting plants and rock formations and a nice sense of isolation and quiet.  Also a lot more vegetation than we'd seen elsewhere, though even here the trees were short, stunted, twisted oaks.  No tall pine forests like we might have imagined (that, it turns out, is more common on the other side of the Rockies).  The picture here is a ground-clinging cactus growing at the foot of a twisty oak, a juxtaposition that seemed unusual.

We didn't end up driving up into the mountains and over them (or through them, as there's a tunnel on one of them), largely because the weather never quite seemed right for a drive like that.  Some other time we need to see the Colorado Plateau, the land on the other side of the Rockies (that includes a lot of Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico), where there are both the tall pine forests, and the kind of dry arid land that you can call "desert" without disclaimer.  All in good time.



We didn't do a lot of museum-like stuff. We intended to visit the Denver Mint, because, how often do you get to tour a U.S. Mint? But it turns out they only offer a small number of tours each day and you have to book far in advance, and we let the window of opportunity slip away. We had also considered the Molly Brown House, but it wasn't open the one day we were looking to go to it.  So in the end the only place we visited was the Denver Firefighter's Museum. Which was pretty cool, really. It's not too large, only took an hour and a half or so to visit, but it was also reasonably priced (more so since we got a Groupon coupon for it), so it was a fairly good deal.

I think it was more fascinating for Siobhan because she has less exposure to firefighting and its history than I have. My parents were in the volunteer fire department in various capacities, and so I went to any number of open houses, picnics, firefighter's competitions, and the like, as well as some time hanging out at the fire department (I remember playing Atari 2600 on the (for that time) huge TV they had in the rec room). I even took some first aid, CPR, and babysitting courses there. Looking at plaques with pictures of firefighter training towers isn't as wowing if you've actually climbed up in one, and hearing about how the response system works isn't as amazing if your mom was a dispatcher and you had a CB in the house for years picking up the calls.

Even so, there was a lot for me to learn and be impressed by. Particularly interesting was the early part of the museum which covered the history of the fire alarm process -- from the time when it was someone shouting "Fire!" and everyone running for their buckets, through the installation of dedicated telegraph wires and cog-wheels with coded locations making ticker-tapes in various departments, to the modern computerized systems, and everything in between. There were also some fascinating historical tidbits about Denver's history with firefighting. And no matter how exposed you are to firefighters, you can't help but get a bit moved by some of the accounts of their bravery, sacrifice, and dedication.

Be forewarned, though. While there are a lot of activities for the kids, including a chance to try to get into gear quickly, a model house to practice fire drills in, and a truck you can climb into, there is not a pole you can slide down. There are several poles, of course, but there is no sliding.

The museum's definitely worth the time and money. Even if you don't find the subject matter interesting, I suspect the museum would serve to make it become interesting for you.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Denver

Over the month's end we spent a week in Denver, because of Siobhan having a work conference there, and extending it a few days. The first couple of days Siobhan was in her conference, and I mostly just goofed off in the hotel room -- I looked into things I could do near the hotel, but none of them were more compelling than just relaxing. I'll do a few blog posts about our adventures in Denver, on various subjects. This one will be overall impressions.

The most striking impression of Denver is that it's flat. You look on the map and you get the idea that, sure, it's in a valley, but it's in a valley in the Rockies, it's a mile up, it's got to be at least hilly, and feeling like there's mountains nearby. But it's not just a valley, it's a huge, huge, huge plateau. You can get in a car and drive for an hour and never once cross a hill of any size, or feel like the mountains are nearby. It feels like you're in Iowa or Kansas. There are distant mountains on the horizon but they are so far away that you can't see them if there's even a single story building in the way, and they don't ever seem to get closer. They feel like they're in another state. For all that you're up high in the mountains you will feel like you're on the plains. Heck, Long Island feels hillier.

I also got the impression in my head that there'd be woods, and Siobhan got that even more. Isn't that how you picture it? But when you're there what it really looks like is a midway point between the scrub-covered deserts of the southwest, and the open prairie of the midwest. It's dry, rocky, and almost entirely devoid of trees. Everywhere.

That's not to say there isn't natural beauty. Once you get out of the city, into the parks and wilderness areas, there's an austere beauty, a combination of the vast (incredible-sized red rocks, huge open vistas) and subtle (the low-key life of the arid almost-desert). It just wasn't the kind I imagined it would be.

People talk about the "Mile High City" altitude effects, and we were even warned to bring some extra painkillers for the headaches, but I never really felt it. It's hard to be sure if there was ever a time I wouldn't've been as out of breath in lower altitude; a few times I did a fairly long hike, including almost three miles to a supermarket for supplies (the second half with a backpack full of heavy stuff), once on a trail in the hills, and I don't think I got more out of breath than I would have back home. Of course, up Pikes Peak, I felt it, but that's a whole other ball game.

Another thing I didn't know about Denver was that it had a sizable Hispanic/Latino population. I suppose I didn't have any preconceptions about its ethnic mix. I didn't give it any thought, but if someone had asked, I would likely have guessed it would have the same kind of mix that most any big city would have. I didn't expect any particular ethnicity to be more prominent than any other. One of the nice things about this particular surprise was a great dinner, but I'll save that for another post.

One particularly odd thing is that, on three separate occasions, we saw rabbits. And not even out in the wilderness, in the city. Once, at our hotel, there was one on the grass who didn't even run away when we pulled up in the car and then walked past him, not more than a few feet away. Another time there was a group of three of them in a tiny patch of grass in between a giant office building and an under-construction Ikea (which of course was far, far bigger). I don't think I ever saw a squirrel, though. I suppose rabbits do fine in dry, treeless climes, but I was still surprised to find them in the city, and so much more fearless than anywhere else I've ever encountered rabbits.

Denver's people were uniformly polite, especially on the roads, where virtually no one ever sped, traffic tended to move in an almost uniform block, and it was quite rare to have trouble changing lanes or making your turn. It occurred to me that the legendary standoffishness of New Yorkers is, in a way, a sort of courtesy. When you live in a massively crowded crush of people, personal space, privacy, and isolation are valuable things, survival necessities. Not making eye contact and not being chummy with strangers, the things people from other parts of the country take as being cold and distant, are a way of respecting other people's space, not intruding. When a city is more sprawly (and good lord but Denver is sprawly, on account of that whole "huge flat area" thing I mentioned), a certain level of cordiality becomes the mark of courtesy, because no one needs to cultivate their isolation, since they can always get some if they want some.

Upcoming posts will talk about the things we did in Denver, the places we went, the travel itself, and of course the food.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Earth

On a recent flight to Denver, I found that my new tablet was not cutting off sound to its internal speakers when I plugged in headphones, which meant that everyone else on the plane could hear it. So I stopped using it and switched over to the Kindle, where I was about 85% of the way through the lengthy 1990 novel Earth by David Brin. I finished it during that flight.

I've been reading this book a chapter or two at a time for several weeks now. At first, it had that sprawling quality that some of Brin's novels have, where it's hard to keep track of all the different characters while it's not yet clear how they'll relate to one another, or what the central storyline is about. (Not all of Brin's novels are like this; Kiln People has a fairly straightforward narrative, for instance.) This was even more true because Earth tackles the incredibly challenging task of doing a near-future prediction, being set about fifty years into its future, so it spends a lot of time exploring that setting and establishing it. Every chapter, for instance, ends with a little snippet from the world -- a posting to a Net forum, a transcript from a TV show, a news article, etc. Few if any of these are central to advancing the actual plot of the book; some reflect it, but many aren't even related to it, and they all are primarily there as a way for Brin to show us his imagined version of the world. While these are fascinating stuff, early on they tend to further the sense of the story being fragmented and hard to keep track of. (I suspect this would be felt less if I had sat down to read it a hundred pages at a time, instead of a dozen pages every few days.)

It doesn't take long for the storyline to start to coalesce -- that is, for one of the various things going on to rise to prominence as the central plotline. That said, that central plotline starts, by about a quarter of the way through the book, to seem like it's going to go a certain way, and then near the halfway point it seems like it's on its way to resolution, and then it turns out that was just part of what the story was about. That keeps happening until eventually you get to where you're no longer even trying to figure out what, at the end, you'll have said the book's story was about. You're just going along with the narrative, which is more like what real life is like -- you don't exactly look at the events in the newspaper and wonder how the story will end; while one incident might "end" for a while, it's still just part of a larger tapestry of other events that go on, and don't necessarily have an ending lined up.

And yet the story does indeed build to one of the most powerful and compelling finales I can think of in any science-fiction novel ever. And while some out-there stuff happens, it's not like Kiln People, where the end starts feeling like an essay at times, trying to get you to buy into a premise that's so busy being mind-blowing it has no time left to be whapping you in the face with impact. The mind-blowing bit here is quick, and has been set up for so long that it's both surprising and totally out of the blue, and yet perfectly ready for you to accept. And it doesn't slow down the "oh my god" of the surrounding stream of events and twists.

So the book, in the end, has three things going on. First, a really compelling, rich, plausible yet surprising, and insightful vision of a possible future. (Brin gives us a short essay at the end which helps explain some of how challenging this is, and why it ended up the way it did, which only enhances my appreciation of the task and how well he did with it.) Second, a broad spectrunm of interesting characters, situations, and occurrences, some of which end up central to the main storyline, some of which are more incidental, but almost none of which end up going quite where you'd guess. And third, a storyline that builds up so much intensity that by the end it's hard not to end up laughing and crying at almost every page.

The book also is striking in how much of it is really very visual. This is way, way too big to make into a movie. But given a big enough budget -- and it would really need a very big budget -- it would make an incredible three-year TV series. Except of course that there's absolutely nothing in here that would serve as the ending of each episode or season. What I'm imagining is just a sixty-hour-long movie, which I mostly want to see because I would love to see so many of these visuals realized. And because, unlike many novels, very, very little of it is the kind of thing that you have to strain to convert to a visual medium. There's no great need for voiceovers of internal monologue (there's some, but not as much as a lot of books that live and die on it) and not a lot of stuff that you couldn't see (though one long scene set in a pitch-black cave complex would be tough to translate).

Much to my surprise, I find myself asking the question, do I like this better than, the same as, or not as much as Startide Rising? I have loved Brin's work enough to consider him one of my top two or three sci-fi authors, but even while I've loved to bits so many of his books, I didn't expect to see anything threaten Startide Rising. But this might be it. I'm not quite decided, and I probably won't. It's enough to say it's in the same area -- which makes it one of my favorite sci-fi books of all time.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

BP Safety Awards

Sometimes you see a news story that makes you stop and say "wait, am I reading the Onion?" and when you realize you aren't, you figure, "I bet John Stewart's eyes just lit up, he's got material for a week, easy." A recent news story about how BP's safety people got bonuses and recognition for a year with an exceptional safety record was one of those. What a public relations disaster.

I don't know anything about how they came to the conclusion that they had a better-than-ever safety record for the year. It seems quite possible that, as John Stewart ended up saying, they have some kind of skewed rating system in which the entire Gulf oil spill counts as "one incident" and thus the same as someone cutting his finger -- well, maybe not quite that skewed, but certainly an unrealistic rating system.

But I did find myself thinking, hey, it'd be nice if we actually knew their methodology. More than that, I felt bad for the affected people, at least potentially. I don't know what really happened, and I'm sure we never will. But it's entirely possible that, somewhere in the vast expanses of BP's corporate structure, which employs thousands of people all over the world, there's a group of people who actually, really, did spectacular work this year on safety. But all their efforts and successes, and any attempt at recognition for them, will always be tarnished by the fact that some completely different group of people, who they never met and over whom they have no authority, perhaps on the other side of the world, happen to have really fucked up in an amazingly bad and amazingly public way. If that's what happened, wouldn't you have to feel a little bad for them? I mean, what if it were you, who'd busted your ass trying to improve safety and ended up achieving unprecedented success in your division, only to find the whole thing has to be brushed under the carpet because of someone ten thousand miles away who has nothing to do with you other than having the same logo on your letterhead?

Even if that's really what happened, even if the people who got this recognition actually did deserve a pat on the back (and I'm by no means saying that's the case, just that it could be), it was a colossally stupid blunder for BP to let their recognition become a public matter. Then again, the only really safe way to make sure it didn't become the public relations debacle it became is to not do it; anything strictly-internal still can come out. Alternately they could have tried to be explicit about justifying it, but really, would that have had the slightest chance of working? No. So ultimately, their only safe choice would be to deny those people any recognition.

I suppose injustices like this happen all the time. I know that there've been times at my office where, even though we're a small shop and out of the public eye, someone deserved recognition that they couldn't get because of how it would look because of something that someone wholly unrelated had done. In a huge international corporation it seems almost inevitable that it's going to happen more. C'est la vie.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Shawshank Redemption

After the last few movies I've watched, the beginning of this classic prison movie had me worried I was in for another round of grim gloom. Certainly things start dark and get darker. But I was hoping that the title's promise of redemption might brighten the tone before the movie was over.

Incidentally, in terms of brightness, I hadn't really realized how dark Taxi Driver was in the cinematographical sense until the sharp contrast. Nearly every scene, even the daytime scenes, in Taxi Driver has a sort of dark and jaundiced quality, because that's the visual style they were going for. (Either that, or I just got a bad rip. But I don't think so.) Even though there was a lot of gloom in The Shawshank Redemption, the imagery was crisp and usually well-lit -- even in the dark you could see stuff.

I don't think there's a single thing about The Shawshank Redemption with which I can find fault. A friend, who'd read the book, said that the pacing in the movie seemed wrong. I can well imagine that it might be different from the book, and therefore wrong in that it conveys a different feel or a different story from the book. But taken on its own, I didn't find any problems with the pacing. Nor with anything else. Well, once or twice it's a little cloying, but in a very minor way.

The movie also managed to pull a switcheroo on me that was surprisingly effective. It was clear something was going to happen, and it was clear that we'd been seeing things that were setting it up, but it was also clear that the movie was telegraphing a direction for the story that it just wasn't going to go. This was a decoy; no one was fooled, but it did distract enough so that the actual way the story went, despite having been visibly set up in front of us all along, was not obvious.

The subject matter does somewhat circumscribe how great I can find the movie, and this is not something I'll ever feel a great draw to return to; but within those bounds, it's a solid, appealing movie.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Only the survivors get to be nostalgic

Those were the good old days, when people weren't so dumb or weak, back when we were kids. Parents disciplined their kids instead of coddling them, and we were stronger, and we didn't have all this technology in the way of everything, and so on. You know the drill.

It's awfully compelling, tears off into easily digested chunks, makes us all feel better about ourselves and our lives, and that's all on top of the natural endorphin-release of nostalgia. But it's also a load of hooey.

Were we better disciplined? Certainly there are some things that they do these days for kids that seem ridiculous and overwrought. Does that mean that everything that has been figured out in the last forty years is completely wrong-headed? Certainly not. If you're the kind of person who came out okay in that style of child-rearing, and that leaves you well-balanced enough to be able to pontificate nostalgically, that doesn't prove anything. Are you sure that everything about how your generation was raised is perfect? After all, the world you're in right now is the world that was created by the way we were raised. Is the world you live in right now perfect? Is everyone well-adjusted, happy, rational, well-informed, and emotionally balanced? Maybe there was room for improvement after all. The fact is that you only are in a position to make self-righteous statements because you were one of those ones who did well enough to make them -- and that's even assuming you're totally content with yourself, and how everything about your life turned out.

Were we tougher because we weren't coddled? Sure, there's some evidence that some of the ways we protect our kids from exposure to some things might prevent them developing some resistances, and that there's some overprescription of some drugs, and other things like that. But that's a small factor compared to the number of kids in our generation who didn't get a fair break. People with special needs, or people whose health didn't do well because of exposure to things we can avoid now, or people whose illnesses are treated better now. Despite a world where, for largely economic and ecological reasons, disease spreads faster than ever, kids are healthier than ever. Was everything about how we were raised really that ideal, that lacking in room for improvement?

The common theme of all those bits of nostalgia that are just repeated without being thought through, in addition to the white-washing of how wonderful your own life really is, is the fact that you have the luxury of being able to pontificate about it because you did all right. But there's all the other ones who didn't. The real question is whether there's more of them now than then, or less.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Hot tubs

One of the things we thought about spending some of the frivolous money from the inheritance on was a hot tub to put out on the deck outside the bedroom. Turned out to cost more than we wanted to spend on frivolities, which made us ask, will we ever get one? As Siobhan put it, if we're not going to get one when we come into money, when would we ever?

Well, I was looking at the prices and I figure if we really decided we wanted one, I could start socking away a bit of money and probably get one in a year or two. But I really don't think I'm going to. Not just because it's money that could be put to better use, though. On thinking more about it, even if someone gave us one free, I don't think we'd keep it.

The problem is the ongoing costs to run the thing -- not just in dollars but in environmental impact. Think about it. You've got two choices. Keep the heat running all the time so it'll be hot-tub hot whenever you want to use it, and pay a huge, huge fortune in electricity costs just for the few times you actually get to use it. Or wait until you decide you want to use it, and then turn the heat on, and wait. Depending on the type of hot tub, it either takes a few hours, or a full day, to get to full warmth. When are you going to want to use a hot tub and not mind waiting hours or a day to do it? That kind of takes the fun out of having one.

A hot tub might (might!) make sense to run in a place like a hotel or health club where a lot of different people can benefit from it, so it can be useful for most of the time it's heated up. But there's just no way we could actually use it for more than a tiny fraction of the time we were heating it. Not with just us.

So even if someone handed us the hot tub it wouldn't be worth plugging it in. In fact, even if someone handed us the hot tub and paid our resultingly huge electric bill in perpetuity, I think I couldn't justify having it turned on, just because of the wastefulness of all the energy used for so little benefit.

And that's not even considering the amount of time we'd spend on taking care of it, all the water-cleaning and maintenance. Probably that would add to more time than we would actually spend in it, considering the weather in Vermont. It's just impossible to make it worth having. It'd be nice to have a hot tub available once in a while, on those nights it'd sure be relaxing to sink into one, but there's just no way to make privately owning one work.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Has Morgan Freeman ever made a stinker?

Michael Caine is a talented, well-respected actor who has done scores of different movies and different types of movies. He's been involved in some great movies, but he's also been in a fair number of stinkers -- movies that aren't just bad, but are almost universally reviled. In his case, it's apparently because of his work ethic; for a while he felt it was his obligation as an actor to take whatever jobs he got.

Sean Connery has a similar career, but not a similar excuse -- at least so far as I know. He just seems to have a knack for taking really bad movies along with really good ones. And his really bad ones are, in some cases, really really bad.

Think of any actor who's been around long enough to do movies of a variety of types, and then try to think of a stinker they've done. In nearly every case, one comes to mind rather quickly. No matter how good an actor is, they all seem to have run across a film that turned out terrible.

While watching The Shawshank Redemption, I found myself thinking that maybe Morgan Freeman is an exception. I haven't really gone over his filmography with a fine-toothed comb, but even giving it a fair amount of thought, nothing stands out. Closest I can come is Evan Almighty, but while it was a disappointment and certainly not a modern classic, it's not exactly a total groaner, it's just not that great. Maybe there's a stinker that I don't know, though. But even if there's an obscure stinker he's done, that still puts him head and shoulders above just about any actor with a career as long and varied as his.

The really tricky thing is to think of other actors about whom you can say the same thing. Who else has managed to avoid the stinker trap?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Taxi Driver

A lot of the movies that are amongst the best movies of all time, according to this or that authority on such things, make me feel at the end like "okay, so, now what?" Is that the mystery ingredient that makes a movie great -- the failure, at the end, to have any clear sense of a story having been told with a particular point or conclusion?

You might be thinking I disliked Taxi Driver even more than I've disliked a lot of the other "must see" movies on my list, but that's not really true. There was a bit more to like about it than some of the movies I've watched this way recently. There was more suspense, more eagerness to see what would happen next, and the fact that it didn't end the way it seemed inevitable that it would maybe contributes to that.

On the other hand, the way it did end felt entirely unsatisfying. The final twist seems to be nothing more than "it happened that way because the writer says it did" and since the explanation for how it came to happen that way happens off-camera it never has to be justified. Saying it seems implausible doesn't buy much, because we know so little about how it could have happened. But it is implausible; and the fact that this gets hidden behind a big blob of ambiguity only makes the sense of being dissatisfied with the ending that much worse.

You know what else is weird about it? In a way, it almost feels like a Hollywood tacked-on happy ending. Okay, it's not exactly happy ending material in the usual sense. But compared to the tone of everything else in the movie, it's wildly unjustified in how positive it is. Is that, in fact, the point of the movie: that by the end, a fairly miserable and lonely existence can seem like an implausibly positive outcome? If so, it was only achieved by unvarnished trickery.

I also have to admit that I don't see what's the big deal about the famous "You talkin' to me?" scene. Maybe it's just gotten diluted from overexposure. But in the context of the movie, it was just one scene out of dozens with the same tone and feel and content, and I'm not sure why that one, and not one of the others, is the one everyone makes a fuss over.

In the end, the only reason I'll remember the movie is because it's been made such a big deal out of that I felt obligated to pay close attention and remember things, but even given that, I bet most of it melts away in my memory. What is there about it to stick with you? Clearly, something, for a lot of people, but I don't know what. About the only thing that grips is that twist -- and that twist feels entirely like the filmmaker yanking my chain, not the story taking me by surprise, so that's not going to haunt me. Anyone can write a story in which the rules suddenly change near the end, in which there turns out to be a gun on the mantle that we never saw in the first act, but that doesn't make it art.

Maybe it's just one of those movies that is powerful for sending a message that I already got. I don't know if that's enough explanation, though. Plenty of books and movies have felt powerful for me despite me already feeling familiar with their themes or messages. Maybe it's just that there's nothing there but the message, so if you haven't gotten that message before, you feel the impact of the message and then give credit to the whole movie for it, but if the message isn't new to you, the movie turns out to have not much else to offer. Whereas other movies might have a message but also have other stuff going on, so even if the message doesn't take root, the movie can still be an incredible experience.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

North by Northwest

The next in my series of movies I watched because I should was North by Northwest, an Alfred Hitchcock thriller about a case of mistaken identity. In truth, I have seen precious little Hitchcock, so a few more of his movies are on my list.

Given how so many of those "must-see" movies have turned out to be not much fun to watch, as my previous reviews have documented, and given that this was a dip into an older movie than most of those, considering how little I usually enjoy older movies, I wasn't expecting much. So I was pleasantly surprised to find it mostly engaging, one of the few to make me look forward to the next block I could watch. This sounds like an obvious thing in hindsight: Hitchcock is famous for suspense, after all. However, lots of well-respected actors, directors, and producers are famous for lots of things that just don't resonate for me, so I didn't take it at all as a foregone conclusion that his movies would be suspenseful for me.

There were a few things about the movie I felt weren't all that great. A surprisingly large amount of the movie feels a little rambling, in that there's a lot of time spent that doesn't particularly advance the plot, but simply keep whatever current piece of the plot is going on going on. That's not really a cricitism, as all of that stuff does work, but it is an area where one might draw a line between a good movie and a timeless classic.

I can't be too critical about the unnecessarily elaborate schemes that the villains attempt to use to kill off the protagonist, for which there is little or no explanation offered (you can stretch "try to make the murder look like an accident" only so far, nowhere near far enough for some of these schemes), because Hitchcock clearly also noticed the same thing, since he has the protagonist take the time to hang a lampshade on it in one scene -- he asks the villain what the next elaborate murder attempt will be, dipping him in molten steel? (Sorry, Mr. Thornhill, you're no T-1000.) I guess if the movie's going to make fun of itself on that point, I can't really hold it against it.

Some of the innuendo-laced flirtation between the male and female leads seemed to go on far longer than I had a stomach for. This is just one of those things where movies were just done differently back then, and I don't have a taste for it. (That doesn't mean I always prefer everything about how movies are done now. For instance, I prefer having cameras to be steady and cuts to be far fewer than modern filmmakers do it. But ten solid minutes of clumsy-seeming double-entendre makes me say "oh, get on with it!")

I found some of the action sequences a little less believable than I might have liked. The famous (infamous?) cornfield scene confounds not just with the impracticality of the method of assassination but also the coincidences required for its end. The climbing-chase near the end seems wildly unlikely for skilled climbers in proper gear, let alone people in business suits or high heels carrying monkey statues. There were a couple of others, but they were fairly minor.

And I still don't see a good reason for the title. About all I can guess is that the action mostly takes place in the northern part of the country -- some in the northeast (New York), some in the northwest (South Dakota), and some in between. I guess it doesn't have to have any better reason for the title, but I feel like I would have been happier if it did. Maybe I'm just missing it.

And, okay, Cary Grant is a very handsome man, even by today's standards, let alone by those of the time. Even so, the movie treats him like he's Adonis. It's very glib about the idea that every female who sees him immediately lusts for him to such an extent they'd actually take action on the feeling if they could. This is most striking in a very off-hand scene where he's making an escape through, of all things, a hospital room, and the woman in the hospital bed, in the space of a couple of seconds without dialog, makes clear that despite being in a hospital bed presumably because of illness or injury, she wouldn't mind if he lingered a little while and joined her. It seemed affected to me.

All that is fairly minor, though. The meat and potatoes of this movie is the plot, and by and large, the plot does the two things it needs to do: it holds together (in that everything in it, in hindsight, makes sense, but wasn't always obvious beforehand), and it drives the action (making you want to know what's going to happen next). There are exceptions but they are minor (the unnecessarily elaborate methods of murder being the largest one, already mentioned).

There's one thing that I felt was missing, but I'm sure it's intentionally missing. Given the real nature of Mr. Kaplan, there's no good reason I can see why Vandamm's men would have mistaken Mr. Thornhill for him at the start of the movie. Sure, it's plain why later in the movie his actions corroborate their suspicions, against his intentions; but what got the ball rolling? I'm sure to Hitchcock this question was of no more importance than what the MacGuffin is, but I feel that there should have been at least a little hint of some excuse, just because the agency had every reason to ensure that no one would ever seem to be Kaplan, and Thornhill certainly wasn't doing Kaplanesque things, and didn't even fit Kaplan's fake clothes. About the closest thing we get is the chance that he's physically in the hotel Kaplan's supposed to be staying at, but is not staying at that hotel, is simply meeting some people in its lounge, the same as scores of other people are doing that day.

My last observation about the movie is to wonder if, in one scene near the end, Hitchcock is trying to hint-without-saying that Vandamm and Leonard are or were gay lovers. No single one of the things that make me think this is suspicious on its own. Once, Leonard makes a reference that seems out of nowhere to his "female intuition", another time, Vandamm accuses Leonard of being jealous of Vandamm's tryst with Ms. Kendall; and there are a couple of others that are all similarly innocuous enough that they're easily brushed off. However, they all happen in a very short period of time. (And it doesn't hurt that Vandamm was played by James Mason, who can come across a bit effete even when he's being a ringleader.) I find myself thinking, if Hitchcock had it in mind that they had been (or still were) lovers, that's precisely the only way he could have tried to telegraph it to those of us who might notice it, without drawing an unhappy reaction from everyone else (in 1959, even Rock Hudson couldn't be gay on screen). Or am I just reading too much into it?

In all, I enjoyed the film more than most of those in my recent efforts, and I've added a couple more Hitchcock to the list -- though I'll space them out amongst ones I don't expect to enjoy. (Next up -- in fact, I'm about 1/3 of the way through as of this writing -- is Taxi Driver.)

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Stick your head out the window!

Automobiles are very unnatural. Nothing in the evolution of animals really prepares any animal for it, or gives any animal a context in which to make sense of it. Instead, aeons of deep-seated instinct tell every animal that certain sensations, as of motion, mean certain things, and should be responded to in certain ways, because those ways lead to survival. The normal reaction to something as unnatural as an automobile ought to be instinctual reactions that make transporting an animal by automobile a difficult proposition at best.

There is, of course, one exception that is provided for by the nature of automobiles: mankind. It is easy, if one makes an effort of imagination, to conceive of forms of locomotion that mankind might have tried to invent, but which he could not have put up with because they were too disorienting, ran too counter to his survival instincts, and so which he never bothered to invent, or to try to invent. Actually, that's not true: it's not that easy, because we are conditioned not to think of those possibilities. You have to find the preconceptions we don't usually question (such as the fact that we look forward and down, but rarely up) and then question them. But it's certainly possible. The point remains: the methods of locomotion we invent are those which are suited to us, or we wouldn't've invented them.

So when you think about it, isn't it really a handy coincidence that the vast majority of dogs, one of mankind's most domesticated animal companions, not only tolerate but actively enjoy riding in a car? They stick a head out, loll their tongues, and savor the wind blowing through their ears. Very few dogs have any problem with it, and most of them seem to delight in it.

There's nothing about the circumstances of how dogs got to be one of mankind's first and best domesticated animals that really selected for this. Nothing mankind was doing with early dogs had any correlation to the form of locomotion that humans would invent tens of thousands of years later. In fact, most of the other animals that humans domesticated don't like car travel, with reactions ranging from displeasure to an actual need for blinders or sedation, even when their involvement in it is nothing more than sitting on the back seat and not really having to see it happening. Even in those circumstances, where the awareness that the animal even is in a car seems remote, there's enough frisson between instincts and situation to make cats howl, and most animals get at least nervous, if not panicky. But dogs revel in it.

One can't help wonder what odd little juxtaposition of instincts is playing out in their heads. Their simple joy makes you think they're thinking, "I'm running so fast, and I don't even feel tired!" That's a glib and amusing thought, but no animal dumb enough to not be able to tell what running feels like could last very long, particularly one whose primary method of getting food is running it down. It's just too vital a process to be affected by that big a disconnect.

The more you think about it, the more impressive a happy coincidence it is that dogs are comfortable in, and even happy in, cars. Then again, if they weren't, it wouldn't change much. We take our cats to the vet in cars even though they, guided by quite sensible instincts, hate it, and say so repeatedly and volubly. If our dogs disliked it similarly, we could just keep them on short leashes, only take them out when we had to (as we do with cats), use operant condition to train them to tolerate it quietly, and at worst, use a sedative. But every time my dog is loving the heck out of being in the car, I'm glad for her sake that the wild coincidence, that the thing we invented for ourselves also happens in some completely different way to suit them too, just worked out.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Why do we tip waitstaff?

Okay, I'm not really asking about the history of how we got to where there's a tipping tradition. But it seems just about everyone dislikes it. The waitstaff seem to be far more full of complaints about it than happy about it -- sure, they might get a really good tip sometimes, but they're more likely to get stiffed, and they depend on those tips since they're chronically underpaid. While some people like having the chance to express something with the amount of their tip, most people either resent having to pay them at all, or feel more motivated by wanting the waitstaff to get a fair shake. Who's really happy about it? One might suggest the restaurant management, but what they really think is, they don't want to have to pay the waitstaff more, or raise prices, but they're not really married to the particular way we accomplish those things. They are just, generally, cheap. (I suppose the non-cheap restaurateurs don't last very long, though.)

Consider how almost every restaurant in the world has a policy where parties of more than some particular size (often six) don't get to leave a tip; instead, 15% is added to the bill, and they pay that, no choice in the matter. What if we changed it so that is what we did for any party, any size?

Would the waitstaff hate that change? I'm sure some people tip more than 15% and others less. My guess is the average comes out pretty near 15%, or less. More importantly, I think the waitstaff would probably rather be able to count, somewhat, on their income, than to run the chance of getting a bigger tip. (Of course, their income still depends on how much business the restaurant does, but that's probably less unreliable.)

Would the customers hate it? I bet more people would be glad than upset about the change, if only because they didn't have to worry about it. For my part, assuming I was sure the waitstaff were glad of it, I would be too. I want my waitstaff to be able to count on being able to pay the rent. I virtually never short-tip -- waitstaff have to be really awful for that, and even then I usually tip at least 10% -- but even so, I only let the tip vary because I feel obligated to by social convention. No one expects me to tip the guy at the hardware store based on his level of service, but we still expect them to give good service, and we still have a way to reflect our opinion if they do or don't -- by shopping somewhere else, most notably. There's no particular reason restaurants have to be any different.

So who would actually be put out by simply changing that "six" to a "one"? There must be someone, because if there wasn't, some restaurant would just go ahead and do it. (Restaurants are always ready to buck trends and do something different, and get away with it, in some markets.) Maybe some of them do, but I've never heard of it. So why do we perpetuate this? Must be someone thinks it's a good thing. But who?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Lord of the Rings: the boardgame

As I wrote recently, I have a bunch of games I've never even played. Recently, we gave one of them a try. It's been sitting on my shelves for years, so long that I forgot now who gave it to us. It wasn't too long after the Peter Jackson movies, so this Lord of the Rings boardgame was based more on them than on the books; you can see this in some of the production factors. On the other hand, it wasn't oblivious to the books; the art on the cards seems more reminiscent of the illustrations in some editions (and certainly not at all reminiscent of the movies), and there's references to things that didn't get into the movies (such as the rather forced option of a fifth hobbit for a fifth player, based on a passing reference in the books).

Like Pandemic or Defenders of the Realm, Lord of the Rings is a cooperative game, which only makes sense; you're playing the various hobbits, so you're working together. Though it follows the general flow of the story, it wildly ignores a lot of sequencing, and never forces the fellowship to separate, instead playing a story where the four hobbits stay together all the way to Mordor. The rest of the fellowship are reduced to cards you can win and then spend, and are no more important than incidental characters. In fact, at the rate that cards get consumed, they barely even get noticed as you collect them.

The game play is exceedingly weird and has a lot of seemingly unnecessary complexity that doesn't appear to add much. In the end, though, most of it comes down to races. You get some cards, then everything that happens takes them away. You try to spend cards to advance on no less than four different tracks at a time in different ways, and you have to advance on all of them, but you barely have enough cards to break even and occasionally advance a little bit. Most of the times you get to make a decision, you have no way to know why you'd choose one way or the other. But fortunately, most of the time, you have little or no choice to make.

It's a really elaborately produced game with lots of pieces, well made, slick and glossy, but it seems like they fell a bit short on the gameplay itself. Which is really a pity. Given how long the game takes, I can't imagine wanting to spend that much time on this instead of something else.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Being a good manager

The true test of good management skills is when your people are being difficult. It's a lot less challenging and demanding to supervise a group of good, motivated people. It's only when the chips are down, when there are conflicts, resource limits, and similar strain that the real challenges of management come to the fore.

Blah, blah, blah. Everyone who has ever written anything about management has said something like this. And despite the fact that it's been said a million times, there are always people who need it to be said again. And it's all true.

However, while managing a good team might not be the gut-wrenching, talent-straining thing that so few people can do well, like managing a bad team is, it is nevertheless a skill. Yes, most people can be at least okay at it, and there are more people who are good at it, but there is still variation, and some people are excellent at it. What's more, in my experience, someone who's good at the one kind of management is not always good at the other. There are people who are great at dealing with the strain of a team that argues and resists, but who are really not that great at getting the most out of a team of motivated, happy people.

A good manager for a good team may not be great at finding ways to resolve conflicts, or to force people to do what they need to do without them feeling forced. But someone who is good at those things might not be good at finding the best organization of skills and talents to jobs, of fitting people's efforts into one another's like puzzle pieces to minimize gaps and maximize efficiencies, or at understanding the "big picture" without losing the details, enough to be the one that brings all the details together harmoniously.

No one gets much credit for being a good manager of a good team. They maybe shouldn't get as much credit as being a good manager of a bad team, but they should get some. More to the point, as long as we act as if "good manager" is a single thing in both cases, we might be missing the ball, missing a chance to improve how we do things. If you can't find that rarest of jewels, a manager who is great at both, you might be better to find ways to dovetail the talents of two people than to just settle for one. For some teams, you might be better off with a good-team-manager than a bad-team-manager, in fact. And in any case, understanding how to improve management skills needs to be based on understanding what they really are, which means understanding that each of these facets is important in its time.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Hackers

I wasn't expecting a lot from this old movie, mostly notable for having a bunch of actors you know in it, but before you knew them. I can't decide if I'm surprised pleasantly or unpleasantly.

The thing is, somewhere in this mess, there's a story that is hackneyed and overdone, but actually sort of okay. They did a pretty good job with setting things up for later payoff, and while the conflict is formulaic (and particularly evocative of movies from ten years earlier -- I kept thinking of parallels with bits of the story of Real Genius) it's still serviceable.

But the movie is just trying way too hard, all the time, about everything. The characters might as well be standing around holding up megaphones shouting "I am cool!" at the camera all the time -- and it wouldn't change one bit how cool they are if they did. Pro tip: did you know all hackers are expert roller-skaters?

The movie is doing the same thing, too; worse, it actually has a megaphone and spends a lot of time shouting "I am cool!" at you when it could be doing things like having a story or characters. There's these lengthy visual sequences that are apparently supposed to convey, in an exciting and visual way, what hacking is like -- which is always a problem, since hacking is neither exciting nor visual to watch. So naturally we have to see three-dimensional images representing systems and files which we swoop around, and worse yet, these images on the computer screens of the hackers keep shining out onto their faces so crisply you can make them out in reverse. Often, this also takes the form of a music video, in that there's some kind of throbbing and wholly inappropriate music, and lots of visually corny superposition imagery of the characters spinning through other things for no clear reason.

You have to sympathize. Plenty of other movies have tried and failed at the same challenge. Hacking is just not visually interesting, so the only way to make it visually interesting is to make it something completely other. The only movie that occurs to me off the top of my head to be exciting and compelling, but also realistic, about this subject is Sneakers, and it manages it by keeping the actual hacking as a MacGuffin while focusing the action on the flesh-and-blood world around it. (Though even they fell for the temptation of one visual depiction of program code that was a bit goofy.)

It's not that Hackers is being technically unrealistic. (Okay, they are, wildly so, egregiously so, but that's okay.) It's that they're going to so much heavy-handed effort to tickle those of us who know a thing or two with wink-wink-nudge-nudge demonstrations that they got some real tech consultants. There's a scene which serves no purpose whatsoever during which they recite, with laborious excess, the various "color" books that were once the standard reference library of computer types everywhere, and get them right, as far as I can remember, for no other reason than to say "see, we did our research." There's dozens of things like that, but none of them actually end up informing anything about the actual plot. They're just call-outs by which the movie screams at us, "we, who made this, are one of you! and we're just as cool as you!" Then it promptly gets back to a plot that bears little or no resemblance to anything computers actually are used to do.

One last complaint: the only problem with the villain is that his tiny little mustache is way too small to twirl. But he makes up for it with aplomb. I hope the actor used his paycheck to buy something nice. He certainly won't be able to look back on this movie as a positive experience in any other way I can think of. I suppose there was originally a scene where he strangles a puppy with his bare hands, cackling maniacally, and they had to cut it in order to get that "no animals were harmed" statement, so they told him, "you're just going to have to find ways to be more absurdly over-the-top evil through, you know, that acting stuff you actor-types are always on about."

I think if you took out all the set pieces designed solely to establish how cool the movie is, and then added a few more twists to the plot to make up the lost time, you could have made a pretty good movie out of this. But as it is, the best thing to do about this movie is go watch Real Genius or Sneakers instead. Most of what's good here is better there.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Defenders of the Realm

We recently attended Spring Meltdown, a game day at the community room of the Isley Library in Middlebury, hosted by Green Mountain Gamers. It was a pretty long drive and we had a few errands to run before it so we didn't get there until after lunch (taking the opportunity to lunch at a fairly ordinary diner in Middlebury, named Rosie's). As I was pretty tired from a week of lost sleep and the exhaustion of moving cubicle panels and furniture on Friday, I only lasted until dinnertime; we went to dinner at a local Indian restaurant (I learned I like lamb shahi khorma) and then home.

In between, we really only ended up playing one game. We arrived just about when a lot of other people had left for lunch, so the only games going on were all already going on. We spent a while waiting for another game to open up, and also set up a game we knew (Ticket to Ride) in case people wanted to accrete around us, but neither happened. We passed some time playing a game of Bananagrams (it's very different with two players -- you do a lot more disassembling and rebuilding your crossword and less adding onto it), and eventually, some friends came back from lunch and joined us. (So we ended up playing in a group of which 4/5 were the people we knew back home, but at least we were playing a game none of us own, so we were still exploring something new.)

The game we ended up playing is Defenders of the Realm, a cooperative game very reminiscent in its mechanics of Pandemic. It seems to be calibrated a bit more in favor of the enemies than Pandemic is; that is, your group will probably win less often. (That could probably be tweaked a bit, but honestly, I'm not sure which is better. In cooperative games, you probably will feel like you had the most fun if you win a fair amount of the time, but you don't want it to be a foregone conclusion or have no challenge. I don't have enough experience with them to know where the "sweet spot" is.)

In Defenders of the Realm you choose characters based on AD&D-like archetypes: sorceress, ranger, dwarf, paladin, wizard, rogue, cleric, or eagle rider. (The analogy to the various job types in Pandemic is clear, with similar kinds of special abilities.) Meanwhile, four Big Baddies -- an orc chieftain, a demon lord, an archlich, and a dragon (or something like that) -- start in various places on the board, along with lots of their minions. (These are entirely analogous to Pandemic's four diseases, except that they have slightly different powers. For instance, orcs are easier to kill but spread faster.)

Then you each take your turns moving around, killing off minions, trying to complete quests to gain special powers, trying to counter various ways the baddies can advance, and building up to congregating on one of the baddie bosses so you can kill him. The players can win only by killing all four of them, but the baddies can win in a jillion ways: by tainting too much of the land, by spreading too many minions, or by advancing to the capital city, each of which can be done by many paths. There are a few mechanics that directly mirror Pandemic things: the way "outbreaks" work (too many minions in one space spreads to adjoining spaces), the way the stakes get raised as you get closer to victory with the spread of the enemies quickening, and how, once you defeat a particular one of the four, you can effortlessly defeat it thenceforth.

Yet there are definitely a few things that don't, like quests, and a lot of other differences in things like special action cards. I think it ends up being a few notches more complex than Pandemic and thus perhaps a little more intimidating, in the sense that it'd be harder to get someone who isn't a dedicated player of modern board games interested in it, without them zoning out as you tried to explain it. I'd probably use simpler games like Ticket To Ride or Carcassone as a "gateway drug" before building towards things like Pandemic and then eventually to Defenders of the Realm.

So we'll probably eventually buy a copy, but at $55, I think we should probably wait until we've actually used the copy of Pandemic we bought months and months ago and have never actually used. Plus, someday, I want to try original-recipe Settlers of Catan, but since everyone else moved on to other games long ago (or at least the eighth expansion of the fourth sequel of Settlers), I'd probably have to buy it myself, and then start it with a bunch of newbies to Eurostyle games. I don't need more games, I need more opportunities to play them.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Which train gets where you're going?

Turns out the old Mac-versus-PC war is nowadays an iPhone-OS-versus-Android war, taking place both on the smartphone and tablet platforms. You can't really talk about either of them in mixed company without provoking a deep vein of defensiveness and argumentation, no matter how non-partisan you are. Anything you say tends to get taken by one side as a statement of being on the other side.

I recently ran into this when I had to take down a Facebook link about an unimportant bug that showed up on the iPhones with daylight savings time. My purpose in posting it was just to share my amusement, most particularly at one thing: that Apple is normally so very, very good at avoiding those kinds of embarassing gaffes that plague virtually everyone else, so the one time they suffer one, they go all out and make it one that even Windows CE and most VCRs can handle. This is both an embarassment for Apple, and at the same time, a testament to the fact that they do everything else like that so well that they create for themselves a higher standard. It's news when Apple screws up like that, but when Microsoft does, no one even notices.

Is that a partisan statement about which is "better", iPhone or Android? Funnily enough people on either side tend to conclude that, by posting the link, I'm declaring my undying support for the other side, and feel compelled to trot out defenses and arguments.

My smartphone runs neither Android nor iOS, and I have no particular objection to either one -- my limitations are primarily concerned with hardware (and iOS suffers there only because it only comes in one hardware format, which lacks one key feature I need). Some future phone of mine will probably run one or the other -- I'm not looking forward to buying all new software when I make that change, of course, but provided I can do the few things I feel I need, I won't particularly care which one I get.

I happen to have an Android tablet at the moment, but I have no particular loyalty to Android on it. An iPad would have been equally good for my limited purposes, so the Android won on price. Does that mean the iPad isn't "better" enough to warrant the price difference? Every Apple partisan who reads this is currently forming a list in their head of the reasons why it is, or at least reciting a familiar list, but notice that I said "for my limited purposes". The iPad having 10,000 apps doesn't help if I only will use three, all of which are just as good on the Android.

Which is really why the entire Mac-versus-PC and iOS-versus-Android argument has always been moot to me, and should have been moot to 90% of the people who get so intense about it. Most of the people who are choosing a computer are choosing on based not on its OS, but on whether it can do the specific things they need to do. The only sensible decision is to buy the one that does what they need to do, for the best balance between price, reliability, lifespan, etc. And for many many people, there's not much overlap between what one computer or OS or platform can do, and what the other can't. For the vast majority of computer users (admittedly a smaller majority now than in the past, but even so), they don't really have a choice: they need the computer that interacts well with whatever and whoever else they need to interact with, period. To put a fine point on it, for most people, 95% of the things they need to do can be done on either computer (and nearly equally well), but that other 5% means they really have to choose one or the other.

Most of the arguments I see between the partisans of one side or the other come down to arguing about whether the train heading to Chicago is a better train than the one heading to Philadelphia. Sure, there are a few people who just want a nice train ride. But for most people, the destination is the point. It doesn't matter if the train to Philadelphia serves the finest beverages and has sumptuous furnishings; if you're heading to Chicago, you take the train bound for Chicago.

People have long been predicting and advocating various changes in the computing infrastructure which would erode the distinction between OSes, and this is finally happening -- smartphones really started to push the "thin client" world that everyone had talked about and no one had ever really made significant inroads towards, and tablets are building on that. This change is still getting its feet under it, and has a long way to go. But while this change is going to be the first time we really can start to debate which kind of computer to get, because any computer will get us to our destination -- when the analogy is more like cars than trains -- it's also the change that makes the question increasingly irrelevant, because what computer you use won't matter that much if you're just using it to access web-based cloud services.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Just like that river twisting through a dusty land

When we adopted a pair of cats, brother and sister, we renamed them to Simon and River, in honor of the Tams.

It occurred to me that this isn't the first time I've had a male cat named Simon. Long ago, a friend picked up a stray cat, a girl, and this being 1982 or 1983, I suggested the name Rio, after the album of that name by Duran Duran. Turned out she was pregnant, and had five boy kittens. So there wasn't really any choice: the kittens got named Simon, Nick, John, Roger, and Andy. It seemed quite fitting.

Of course I can't just call the current Simon "Simon"; I have to elaborate. One of the names I've given him, due to what a little upstart troublemaker he can be, is Simón Bolívar, which then gets mutated to Señor Bolívar.

So calling him by a Spanish language name, I naturally considered the idea of calling River by her Spanish equivalent, which is, of course, Río. Which would bring me full circle, to having a pair of related cats with the same names as another pair of related cats.

As insignificant a set of coincidences as can possibly be imagined, but it makes me wonder. The link between the names Simon and River existed before Firefly; is there the slightest chance that Joss did that on purpose?

Naaaaaaah.