Monday, January 31, 2011

Rock Band Pro Guitar with the You Rock

At long last, I have gotten to use my You Rock guitar to play Rock Band 3 in Pro Guitar mode. I only played one song, twice, before I had to give up the TV, but that was enough to get an idea for how much of an adjustment it will be.

The song was one of the easiest in the game, I Love Rock 'n Roll by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. And it's really surprising how little there is to do. If you think of the song, you probably figure it wouldn't be hard to play -- and I bet it's not -- but on easy mode, you're playing about one note out of every group of chords. The song goes two chords, pause, two chords, pause, one note or chord; then repeat. In all of that, you play three notes, and in most cases, they're open-string notes, so you don't even need to finger a fret.

Even so, it was a bit challenging. Part of that was how I just jumped in with no more training than a single play through the very first lesson. A bigger part was how, after a whole song of playing open strings and fret 2, the solo suddenly threw me to fret 9, and I hadn't even counted out to see where those were. Though on my second try, I didn't do any better -- in fact, I got 87% on my first try and 84% on my second.

Having played guitar before, though never well, I think that's probably pretty good. I would never expect to be able to just pick up a guitar and play even the simplest song without going through it once slowly, at a very minimum. So while it's kind of a letdown not to have at least been strumming both of the two chords that come in pairs (would that have really been much harder?) at the same time it's really amazing, when you think about it, that you can pick up a guitar and do anything even distantly approximating just playing a song, in real time, on the first try.

In a way that shows what a challenge it is for Rock Band to make this an enjoyable experience. It'd be quite easy for them to make it so that it's too challenging to be enjoyable, and to lose the interest of those who just want to dive in and start playing, and for whom the idea of having to practice a song before they can play it well is off-putting. But of course those people can just play non-pro mode. But even for me, will I find it more challenging than enjoyable?

Ultimately of course I am going to focus on drums. But I do want to also try the other instruments in pro mode. I've heard that, on the You Rock, if you plug in to an amp you can hear what you're really playing as you play the game, and that in Expert mode, you get pretty close to actually playing the song. I don't imagine I'll ever have enough time to spend doing that -- I'm only up to Medium on drums as it is, and dabbled in Hard once or twice, and my lack of talent is far more pronounced on guitar than drums, and I've spent a lot more time on them -- but it's nice to at least be able to aim in that direction.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Committee for the Exploration of Mysteries, completed

It took us four sessions, but we finally completed our expedition in Committee for the Exploration of Mysteries. Along the way, our intrepid heroes dealt with Chinese Tongs, rival academics, Nazis, yetis, a femme fatale, a drunk sherpa, snow leopards, time travel technology, a head cheese sandwich, bureaucracy, and shambling zombie Nazis, before discovering the ultimate secret of Shangrila: that it's really an alien research center, drawing humans via time travel from many times in history for study, and trapping them there with the promise of a paradise that makes one forget everything else.

It was, at times, rocky going. My group includes a number of people who Robin Laws would classify as "casual gamers" who are more there for the social interaction than the game, but games like this really work best if everyone there is really eager to be engaged and involved and proactive. And it was a very different style of playing. Most of the time the biggest thing holding them back was them worrying about being unable to do it -- once they stopped worrying about it, they did great, but they never believed they were going to. In the end I think everyone mostly enjoyed it (so they said) but also found it too demanding, and wouldn't want to do something like that very often. Maybe after a while we might try again (or dabble in another storytelling game), but for now we're going back to other stuff.

The rules say you're supposed to use a timer, and I think if we had, the whole game would have felt really harsh, tense, and un-fun. We felt pressured enough without a timer, and the amount of time they give is so small. It might have been good to have some time element, but not a relentless ticking of a clock with only three minutes on it.

We also had a hard time at times remembering to stay in the premise, where everything is in first person past tense, relating what happened previously, not interacting with the action in present tense. Sometimes we struggled with getting everyone into the action -- everything was about the person whose turn it was, and their Opposition, and the rest of the table was uninvolved. It often felt like we weren't on the same page about the kind of feel we were going for, or the genre tropes we wanted to pursue. Sometimes it felt like one player would set something up and then another player would quash it immediately, or close off possible avenues for the story, leaving those who followed less to work with. And it was really hard to capture the style the book depicts in how everyone talks, the whole grandiose tone. We dabbled with it, but it always felt like a strain.

But I found it really fun to stretch to try to make a story out of all the elements everyone was dropping on the table, and find ways to make it all come out like it was planned. One thing I realized partway through, that I hadn't really seen in playing at LoreCon, was that a common thing to do was to come up with a bit of storyline where you had to have a plan for where it was going to go, what it would turn out to mean, and yet you had to be ready to let it go and turn out to be something totally different. Almost everything you play in the game might turn out to be something different than you intended when another player grabs it, and that's a perfectly good thing. You have to be completely ready to let your ideas get reshaped, and still go to the effort of forming them. That's part of what some people had trouble with, though they may not have realized it. They were hesitant to put too much of an idea onto the table that someone else might have to change it, and hesitant to do anything with other people's ideas for fear they were changing it too much.

In all I consider it a success, slightly qualified, but a success. But we probably won't dive into another storytelling game for a while.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Spam texts

Another unsolicited text message problem, but unlike the last ones, this isn't just some idiot with a mistake in their address book and a strange unwillingness to consider that possibility. This is a more ordinary problem: spam.

This one is some service which spams people with "inspirational messages" and then charges them for it. In addition to the dime-a-message I pay for texts (and which, infuriatingly, I get charged for receiving them as well as sending them, even though I have to pay extra to block numbers from sending to me) they want to charge me $9.99 a month for the "service". Where they get my number from in the first place is anyone's guess; I certainly did not, as their message suggests, "request" this service, nor did any of the other people I found online who got hit by this spam. The spam promises you can stop it by sending STOP back, but this seems to rarely work and if anything induces more messages.

So now I have to call AT&T which is always an agonizing experience for me -- I hate having to call anyone, let alone a customer service representative with whom I will probably have to argue. I have to try to avoid getting indignant too much despite that I have absolute cause to do so -- why is the burden on me to opt out of unsolicited spam, and then have to pay for the service of doing it?

I wonder how companies like this are allowed to continue to exist. (Just to be clear, I mean the spammers, not AT&T, though one could probably make that case, too.) How can they sign me up for some service (and add their fee to my phone bill) without my consent, let alone my explicit action? That should be against some kind of rule or law somewhere.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Movies on the go

Two years ago I got an Archos 605 multimedia player, to stream music and movies to via my WiFi from the server. At least that was the idea. It turned out that streaming was never very reliable; plus the model I got first, the 4GB one with SDcard support, was plagued with problems, so I exchanged it for the 80GB model. That did mean I had to keep synchronizing my music library, but thanks to the free SyncToy software, that's not that hard.

Recently, I've been using the Archos during my exercise runs to watch movies, instead of reading books on the Kindle, just to get through a list of movies I felt I should have seen. I've also been using it with my noise-cancelling headphones on airplane flights. I still have about a half-dozen movies on that list, but in the last few days, the Archos has simply died. When I boot it up, it says the hard drive is screwed (it uses the more euphemistic "error code 102" way of saying it) and offering to repair or format the disk, neither of which work. This error can mean a lot of things and there are a lot of fixes for some of them, but if it never comes out, and it never becomes visible to the PC when plugged in via USB, what it seems to mean is that the hard drive failed. Some people have saved Archos units in this situation by reseating the hard drive, but that didn't work for me. One person reported recovering it by hooking the hard drive directly to a PC, but even then, it only delayed the inevitable by a little while.

Replacing the hard drive doesn't seem sensible, when a new unit would cost about the same as finding a drive of just the right size and capacity to work in this unit, and then having to fight with installing it. And while the Archos is a nice unit, modern ones are lighter and have better software and screens.

In fact, I have that cheap Android pad that would be pretty good for this, except that it runs an old version of Android, somewhat hacked together, and I have had little luck getting any video at all to play on it. I have one more thing to try: maybe I can get a better video player through the SlideMe marketplace that'll handle the various AVI and MP4 files I have (without me having to transcode the heck out of everything and waste hours thinking about codecs only to end up with a file that still won't play, or is only audio or only video).

I've tried the same with my cell phone, though its size and form factor are really not that great for watching movies (it's smaller than the Archos). On the other hand, its support for Bluetooth wireless stereo headphones is nice, but on the other other hand, that means it won't work with noise-cancelling headphones. Ultimately, though, it falls into the same trap: no video file I have just works. Maybe if I fiddle with alternate viewers and transcoding and stuff, I can find a solution, but it'd still be a hell of a lot of work.

But it's certainly tempting to simply buy something new. Archos has a very nice 7" Android tablet that is like what my cheap aPad is, only with modern software, some actual support, better capabilities, and a real company behind it, and it's not too expensive (about $150 right now). This would be a good way to explore a tablet for roleplaying as well as a better multimedia player than the Archos dedicated one was. I'm having to hold off the gadget-lust right now and try to make that cheapie pad do the job before I go buying the shiny pretty clever little gadget that keeps telling me "buy me!". I will be strong!

At least until tomorrow. When the aPad fails me, I will probably cave. Oh well!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

More credit card fraud

Geez, you'd think we'd had enough trouble with credit card fraud, but no. Every time we travel, we seem to have a problem.

Okay, that's not fair. The first time, after we went to San Diego, we came back to find that we'd had a fraudulent PayPal transaction; but it had already happened before the trip, and we only found out about it afterwards. And besides, the PayPal account in question had nothing to do with our travel. The second time, after our trip to the UK, the fraud was on the same credit card we'd been using in the UK (our Amazon Chase card), but again, it had happened back in the States before we left, and it was just coincidence we found out after getting home. (And this created a lot of extra problems, since closing and reopening the account cut off my access to the online activity report, which I needed to get all the UK-to-US currency amounts.)

This time, though, the fraud definitely seems to be related to the travel. We went to New York City and again used the Amazon Chase card for most of our expenses (since many of them will be reimbursed by my employer, as it was a business trip). About a week after we got back, I got a call from Ticketmaster asking about the two sets of season tickets I'd apparently purchased on that card. It's very nice that they double check, because the guy who called immediately reversed the transactions. I was suspicious of the call -- wondered if the call itself weren't a scam, trying to get the rest of my card number or something -- but he didn't ask for any more information. Even so, I waited on it, checking online activity, and for a few days, nothing showed up.

This morning the ticket purchases showed up, and the cancellations. They were for teams that a New Yorker might want to see (NJ Nets and Boston Celtics), so it seems likely that someone in New York who took our card wrote everything down and then got my zip code and phone number from other sources to do fraudulent transactions -- or that someone we did business with, in turn, had their systems compromised.

Chase, naturally, tried to blow it off as being just a mistaken key entry of a card number, as they always do. I know that mistaken entries are not that easy -- the sixteenth digit is a "checksum" so if you transpose numbers, or mistype one digit, the odds are very tiny that the resulting number will be valid, and if you make up a random number, there's only a 1 in 10 chance it'll even be a possible number (to say nothing of the odds of it being a real account number). But more than that, whoever did these two purchases also provided enough information to bypass the Visa checks (that includes my zip code at a minimum) and also enough information for Ticketmaster to get my cell phone number (either by giving Ticketmaster my number, or giving them enough information for them to find it themselves). There's no way that can be a simple data entry error.

Even so, the burden is on Chase, not us. If more fraudulent transactions appeared, it'd be their problem. But after talking with them, we decided to go ahead and, once again, close the card and get a new one sent to us.

I wonder if any of the credit card companies offer a service where they create a temporary credit card number and card, and send it to you to use while you travel. The new card would have a different number, but would still go into your usual account like purchases on the main card; the difference is, it would only work during the days of your travel, and would immediately stop working afterwards. This would be good for the traveller: more peace of mind about not having to deal with fraudulent transactions (because even if the cost falls on the credit card provider, it's still a hassle, and what if you end up maxed and can't use credit you need in an emergency until it can be cleared up?). And it would be good for the credit card company (less fraud they're going to end up paying for). And that means it's good for all the customers (since ultimately we end up paying for the fraud in the form of higher rates). I've seen something like this for online transactions (you go to a website and get an account number that'll last for just long enough for your one transaction of a set amount, and won't work after it), but not for a physical card, which you'd need to have for travelling. If no one offers this service, they really should. It'd be a win-win.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

I can't name that many movies

After the demise of the various trivia games in the area, Jen is now running a Name That Movie game weekly. The timing is really inconvenient: Friday at 5pm, which would be pretty good if I worked at the office on Friday, but since I work from home, it cuts the day in half and forces me to get dressed and Siobhan to drive all the way home and then back into town. Plus the timing nudges us towards eating out.

Not very surprisingly, I turn out not to be very good at it. Out of twenty movies, I've gone from a low of being able to name three, to a high of eleven. But in all the times I've gone, there've been only two or three times I knew a movie but no one else did. (Ironically, the two of these I remember, in neither case was it a movie I'd actually seen.) That's even true when there's no one there but Siobhan and me.

It's still moderately fun, more so when other people come so it's a social thing. But it's a lot less so than trivia was. The game is so monolithic: there's only one thing, so either you're good at it or you're not. Trivia encouraged team playing because no one was good at all the categories, but generally, Siobhan alone will be able to get almost all the movies our team gets. Joe, when he comes, does the same, and between them, they're unstoppable. (The one time we had both of them we got a 19 out of 20, blowing away everyone else.) I already liked trivia far better when we had a team than when it was just Siobhan and me, but this factor is even more pronounced at Name That Movie because most of the time I have nothing to do.

I hope that we get a trivia game eventually, or something that affords a bit more spread of subject matter and skill base.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The fandom niche

Those of us into science fiction or fantasy, and the related culture of geekish pursuits, are used to thinking of ourselves as a niche market, because Hollywood insists on treating us that way and telling us that's what we are. But are we?

Sure, at any given time there's usually one class of TV show that's more popular than our shows. Right now it's procedurals (Law and Order and CSI plus a lot of ancillary shows), though "reality" shows are still huge. So we're not the biggest market they have. But that doesn't mean we're a niche market. If you add things up, our movies and TV shows and books and other products are a market at least as big as any other, and perhaps bigger. This is more noticeable at the movie theater, where almost all the blockbusters are our movies, than on TV, though even there, what was the biggest TV show of the last decade, with the biggest amount of buzz around its finale? Yes, a science fiction show, though one that didn't admit that's what it was for about a whole season.

And that's really where they get away with treating us as a niche market. It has nothing to do with how much size, or power, or money, we have. It has nothing to do with how important we are to keeping Hollywood in business. The reason is much simpler and much more insidious.

Hollywood takes for granted that we're already sold. Whenever they make a comic book movie or a movie involving spaceships, swords, or people blowing each other up, we're going to be there. Maybe for one movie we'll go five times and buy every version of the DVD, while for another, we'll only go once, or just rent it. But we're sold. They don't have to court us, woo us, try to persuade us. To Hollywood, we're the sluts they can always get whenever they want us.

So when it comes to marketing stuff, they typically ignore us, or treat us as a niche market, specifically because they don't need to court us. Instead, they play up their movie or show as being "not just sci-fi" in hopes of luring in all the other people, the people who need courting, many of whom really don't have any particular type of show or movie they like, so they're ripe for convincing. It's simple math. Market a show as sci-fi and you only get the people you probably had anyway. Market it as something more "mainstream" and less "niche" (the way first season Lost was sold) and you'll get us and a bunch of other people.

That's how they almost lost us with Big Bang Theory, now one of the most popular shows on TV but when it started almost a loss. They marketed it so heavily to everyone-but-us that they actually almost lost us, and we are its best fans, its core audience. I remember the early ads made it seem like it was going to be a show about this mainstream girl and her friends, and oh, they also have some wacky geek neighbors to make fun of. That's why I didn't watch the first season until later when a friend told me to give it a try. Judging from the talk on some TV fora I visit, this was a common experience for us fandom geeks.

Of course, sometimes they don't bother to go for the "mainstream" audience because a show is just too unavoidably sci-fi. Once they decide there's no point in going for the other audience, then they pander to us extra hard. Instead of treating the sci-fi elements as if they're embarassed of them, they run them out and focus on them, and on the explosions and gadgets. If we were really the unimportant niche market they like to make us think we are, they wouldn't even make shows like that, but they do. That's because, even if those shows are typically a lot more expensive to make, they still make a profit. Because we are a big, big bunch of people. We're a powerful force in the market. Just look at a list of the top grossing movies of all time and you'll see how much of it is us. We should stop acting like we're the freaks on the fringe. We're one of the most important markets that exists -- maybe the most important, since we're reliable.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Going back to work

Today's my first day back at work after taking a week off, and before that, I was at the office only one day the previous week due to my business trip to NYC.

I've been keeping pretty close tabs on what's going on at the office, thanks to both my email, and the help desk system we put into place recently, which is working out very well (I think). On the other hand, I'll have two out of three of my employees out, and will also on Tuesday have a kick-off meeting for a big project. So I'm expecting to be buried and swamped, and probably to not get to spend any time working on the RFP I've been wanting to start on for a while.

Despite all the time off I have actually had my blog's buffer erode down to just a few posts, so I hope I have a run of ideas for post topics soon, or else we might return to the time when I don't have a post every day.

Here's hoping my return is more smooth and less tumultuous.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

How to ruin sexy

There are a few ways that a sexy woman can totally ruin the sexiness for me. Most aren't complete showstoppers, just big minuses that cancel out some or all of the sexiness. But they're alarmingly common.
  1. Smoking: This one is a complete showstopper. It's not just that it's so big a minus that it cancels out all the plus anyone can bring to the table; it's irrationally more powerful than that. A woman who smokes automatically has a zero in sexiness no matter what she looks like to me, so there's no positive for the considerable negative to counter.
  2. Piercings: I don't mind ears being pierced no doubt because of the cultural exposure, and I am not too turned off by the less visible piercings. But some of the people I see around make me think, unfairly I realize, that they should be on a poster labelled "Give generously to help the victims of industrial accidents" and that is a real turn-off; a woman would have to be really, really sexy to overcome that. What I see more often lately, and even on soccer moms, is a single little pinhead that looks like an artificial metal pimple near the lip or on the nose. I don't understand those at all. If they had a pimple they'd pay anything to get rid of it, but instead they install a metallic pseudopimple. I don't get it, and it is definitely a minus for me.
  3. Unnatural Hair: I don't mind a woman having dyed or bleached hair that's still a color that is natural for hair. I'll even make a small exception for some artificial red hair colors that are not too wildly unnatural but still not quite real red hair colors. But unnatural hair colors are generally a turn-off. A sexy enough woman can still be sexy enough to overcome it, but it's a minus.
  4. Tattoos: The idea of someone getting a tattoo is very much a turn-off, but the actual result of getting a tattoo not nearly as much. A small, tasteful tattoo is only a small minus, but it is a minus for me.
I suppose the same would apply to men, though I am less prone to noticing if males are attractive or sexy by their appearance.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

CMUD versus zMUD

The process of trying to get the mapper in CMUD working took far too long, and I don't just mean the couple of months when I had to put the project aside and work on other things. I spent a few hours on it yesterday and didn't quite get it working. More importantly, I just got too frustrated with really basic instability issues.

Just to be clear, at this point, I don't have anything near a system set up in CMUD. All I have is a few triggers (manually made there) and the Rainbow Queue system, which is a few triggers and a few aliases. That's it. And yet I still have some troublingly basic instability issues. Notably:
  • I gave up on importing zMUD settings. Even importing from a very bare-bones zMUD file created for the purpose with nothing in it causes CMUD to lock up, 100% repeatably. What could possibly be unusual about my system to cause this?
  • Clicking on any of the other tabs on a trigger causes it to lock up. You can't even test if text matches it. This is not 100% but is highly repeatable: it seems any trigger in the form {some text|some other text|a third possibility} stands a good chance of doing it, though if I delete and recreate it sometimes the new one works.
  • Right now, whenever I try to run CMUD from the Start Menu shortcut, it simply beeps and closes down without any other action. I can see it appear in Task Manager and then vanish. This is true even if I delete and recreate the shortcut. Double-clicking on the actual EXE works, though. Bizarre.
I'm not happy about abandoning CMUD. The promise of working on Windows versions later than XP is a big one to lose. The improvements, small though they are, in the programming language are nice. The chance to use ATCP or GMCP, and the hope of future versions using these for the mapper (and using that XML imported map) are huge. But if, in version 3, after years of people saying "too unstable" and Zugg saying "no, really, I've done a lot of work on stability this time", I can't even get the program to run from a shortcut, or examine a trigger in a bare-bones settings file, the fact that I might be able to work around these and make a usable system is not sufficient. I'd be having to fight with CMUD, instead of work with it, ten times more than I do with zMUD. And that's saying a lot.

Technically I'm not saying "never" because, who knows, CMUD version X.Y might actually be serious about fixing the stability issues. However, at this point, I think I can hope for MUSHclient or Mudlet to take seriously the shortcomings in their mappers faster. So I suppose that means, disappointingly, that I have to stick with zMUD and try to make my Rainbow system in it after all.

So now I'm cranky about all the time I wasted on CMUD. From the fact that months have gone by and I've been able to put in about one week's work on this, you can conclude that time is a significant factor. (Even when I take a whole week off from work, inevitably I get given a lot of chores to do and half of it gets used up before I can start.) I dig into working on Rainbow reluctantly, worried that that effort will all be wasted too, because Mudlet will have gotten usable before I can finish. But I've got to do something. Waiting isn't working either.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Make A Wish

It seems like the Make A Wish Foundation has started a new advertising campaign. Either that, or it's a coincidence that, right after seeing lots of ads for them in New York City, I saw one on TV. (There are certainly ads for a lot of things in NYC I don't see ads for back home. The USA network in particular was saturating the billboards and buses with ads for their shows, for instance.)

I feel for the kids that Make A Wish is helping, and I certainly don't object to their mission. But I've never chosen to give them a contribution, and I don't intend to. Why? Well, an answer to that runs the risk of the budgeting fallacy. Taken on its own, in isolation, you could easily argue that the Make A Wish Foundation does good work, and therefore, deserves to be funded. But you can't take it on its own, in isolation. Every dollar that goes to the Make A Wish Foundation is a dollar that is taken away from some other charity. (The exception: people who give to Make A Wish money that they would not have given at all otherwise.)

Ultimately, and I know it seems callous to say so, what Make A Wish is doing seems superficial, shallow, and unimportant to me, compared to other charities. That doesn't mean it's meaningless, that it's nothing. But I would much rather see the money and effort spent on something that actually makes the world better in a lasting way.

If someone's wish is to see a celebrity, and the celebrity is amenable, and the whole thing can be arranged through a few people donating some time plus some paltry travel expenses, that's fine. But some of these wishes are elaborate and expensive. Ultimately the Make A Wish Foundation has a large budget and that money is going somewhere. What if you could take half of that money (and thus deprive half of the kids getting wishes of getting their wishes) and use it to buy medicine that would save one tenth of that many kids from dying? Because there's no question that that much money could easily save that many lives if it were directed to one of the many charities that helps people in immediate need for whom solutions already exist but just aren't available -- food, clean water, medicine, shelter, and safety being the main things that can be provided but aren't.

That doesn't mean I think we should gut all other charities in favor of immediate needs. Some of my charity money goes to feed the hungry and bring medical care to the needy, but some of it goes towards longer-term sources of hope, like environmental protection efforts, and developing technology that may take centuries before it can help what I think is humanity's biggest problem (overpopulation). But it's all aimed at making the world better, bringing hope of real improvements. Sometimes this can be very indirect: for instance, money spent on encouraging the arts is also encouraging the kind of intellectual development that leads to the kind of good changes in the world we need, so while buying tubas for schoolkids isn't saving lives, it does contribute to doing so in the long run.

I'm sure one could make some very tenuous and indirect path by which Make A Wish does that, too. But I think it'd be hard to defend that it is making, even in the long term, a difference that even remotely compares to money spent buying watershed land or funding space exploration, let alone sending doctors and antibiotics to Africa. Am I missing something about what the Make A Wish Foundation does, or is it really just putting sentimentality ahead of true benefit to the world, because no one has the heart to say to a dying child, "that's not really a good way to spend our resources"?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Whiskey stones

One of the things I got for Christmas was a set of whiskey stones. These are simply cut stones, made here in Vermont, of a size similar to an ice cube, and intended for chilling whiskey.

I don't drink whiskey, or alcohol in general, but I thought they'd be useful for the beverages I do drink: mostly things like soda and lemonade. I am perpetually seeking a perfect solution to keeping these cold. I drink a lot, and I like to bring a pretty big glass of whatever to my desk so I'm not up getting refills every twenty minutes. But I like my drinks cold.

Ice cubes are good for making a drink cold, but not for keeping it that way for any length of time. They melt which not only means they aren't helping keep it cold anymore, they're diluting the drink. I used to use glasses that had a layer of ice inside the glass itself, but while that didn't dilute the drink when it melted, it still melted fast, and then wasn't keeping the drink cold anymore. Making ice cubes out of whatever beverage you're drinking is also good for avoiding dilution, but it still doesn't have a very lasting effect, and if you're drinking different things it's a pain to keep ice cubes for all of them handy. At work, since I pretty much only drink lemonade, I just have two cups and at any time one cup is about 1/5 full and in the freezer, forming one huge ice cube, which lasts a lot longer at keeping my drink cold; but even that's not quite as long as I'd like, and it wouldn't work well for soda, even if I drank only one flavor at a time.

So far the whiskey stones are a better solution than any of those for soda, but they're still not ideal. They do hold their coldness longer than ice cubes, though still not as long as I'd like (larger stones might work better for that). One of the things that makes them good for whiskey is that they don't make the drink as cold as ice cubes would, but that isn't as good for soda. I wonder if there's anything that's as cold as ice cubes, but longer lasting, and not anything that would dilute the drink. I wonder if there'd be a significant market for such a thing.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Being there at the end

When a relative or friend is dying, there's a lot of complex emotions that get tied up with a lot of cultural mores, and most of it is hard to consider rationally because it's not necessarily rational, it's emotional. So when I say I don't really understand it, I can't tell which parts are supposed to be understood and which aren't. And it's too sensitive a subject to ask about without fear of treading on people's feelings. It is with awareness of that that I, hesitantly, ruminate on this question.

If a person is ill or old and is likely to die at some point, there's a sense we have that we should be there "at the end" to visit with them. I think this sense derives from a time when most people lived in the same village as their relatives. It was also the case that most people who took ill would progress to their end in a fairly short period of time, measured in days. But nowadays, many people live hundreds or thousands of miles from their relatives, and people who take ill often end up in a situation where they might get better, and relapse, and spend months or years in a state where they might die and they might not. The idea of needing to be there at the end persists, and remains a strong sense of obligation, even as its vagueness makes it increasingly impractical to carry out.

When my grandmother started her decline, there were several times over the course of a couple of years when I was told she could go at any moment. And those times were probably true, she probably was very close. On a couple of those I did drop everything and go to visit (in fact, it was a side effect of the last such visit that exposed the problems that led to my expulsion from my family). As it happens, she lived for several years after the last of those. (And by time it happened, I was persona non grata so much that no one even told me.)

So even if I hadn't been invited out of my family, when would have been the moment I should have visited? Some might say I should have visited every time she took a turn -- some might even go so far as to say I should have never moved away from Long Island in the first place. (I would like to mention this as an example of the absurd extreme, but I think that there are some in my family who honestly feel that way.)

Sometimes it seems like you're playing a game where you need to try to get as close as you can without going over (like The Price Is Right), showing up as close as you can to the final moment but not missing it. If you can be there at the actual moment of passing, so much the better.

It seems like we're applying a uniform social obligation to the situation regardless of the specifics, in such a way that one wonders what it's even intended to accomplish. In a hundred movies we see that moment, always coming just in time, as the moment when closure is achieved (some long-standing disagreement, rivalry, or bad blood is put aside), or where significant comfort can be given -- either to the dying person or the relatives preparing to grieve. But in real life, even when there's no issue needing closure, or no chance that it'll be reached, and no particular comfort that'll be there by visiting at one particular time rather than another, we still have the same sense of obligation.

Those same movies are also full of countless times the opposite lesson is taught: that maybe a visit earlier might have been better after all. (Usually this is described in terms of how the flowers might have been more appreciated by someone while alive than after death. But the same applies to visits.) As with many sentimental messages, movies and stories often tell a mismatched message and make no attempt to reconcile the conflicts.

I wonder at times whether we're not just taking these ideas too much for granted and applying them even when they don't really apply, even when they actually create guilt and pain instead of easing it. Sometimes, perhaps, it would be better for everyone if we focused on all the times we did see that relative or friend, and the good memories, instead of beating ourselves up about not going just one more time, closer to the very end. It's not really about being as close as possible to the final date. Not always, anyway.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Seal of Beauty

Every January and February, Lusternia has a series of ten contests through which many awards are given out, the ultimate one being that someone is ascended to a form of godhood that is almost unattainable otherwise. There are nine contests associated with the nine fundamental spheres of influence (Chaos, War, Justice, Nature, Knowledge, Beauty, Life, Death, and Harmony), and the winner in each can compete (supported by his or her allies) in the final battle. Of the nine battles, only one is explicitly about player combat (War), but many of the others boil down to it (Chaos, Life, Death, and Harmony) since you can kill other people to prevent them from progressing or even take away their scores. The final battle is very explicitly player versus player.

I might participate seriously next year (assuming I've been able to work on my combat system by then) but this year, as in the past, I'm only making a few casual entries which are mostly taking the tone of "why not join, it can't hurt". I participated in Justice (a contest of the game's debating system) that way, and if I happen to have nothing more pressing to do at the time, I might try Knowledge (a trivia contest); but Knowledge, like Nature (a treasure hunt), really depends on you being actively involved in every new area and every new event, which I don't do, because... they always come down to lots of player versus player combat.

However, Beauty is the wildcard because anyone can win even if they're first level and have no skills and no curing. The way to enter Beauty is to create an interesting design for something in the crafting system, then get it submitted and approved, and finally, get the cartel in which it was created to choose your design as their single entry. There's only one way, other than writing and designing talent, to boost your odds: and that's to own a lot of cartels of your own, or have friends who will let you use their cartels for their designs. Of course, even then you have to come up with ideas in each cartel.

This year, I have thirteen cartels available to me, which is quite a lot, perhaps more than all but a handful of people. One of those, I'm submitting someone else's design, so that leaves twelve. If I were really seriously interested in doing well, I'd be doing all new designs specifically intended for the contest. The type that tend to do best are ostentatious, complex, and heavily Lusternian in theme (for instance, including allusions to Lusternian history or myth), and so, are typically explicitly created for Beauty rather than being normal parts of one's design catalogue made to sell to customers. But I'm not seriously competing this year so I will probably use a bunch of existing designs I already made.

Or that's the starting plan. I went through the cartels at my disposal and picked out the best design as yet unsubmitted for previous Beauty Seal contests. A few of these I really like, but some aren't quite that great. However, several cartels were left that I hadn't developed anything in, so I've been trying to work on new designs in each of them, designed specifically for Beauty. If I finish those, then I'll try to make new designs to replace the weaker ones, but if I don't get any, no big deal.

As of this writing, I have five designs submitted, and two more just waiting approval to submit. I really like many of those, but I doubt they've got much chance. I always try to come up with a way to be elaborate without being gaudy, so that my design will stand out from all the "pile everything on" ones. Sometimes I go with a design where the actual product isn't that special, just the way it's described (for instance, a humble loaf of bread), but while I might be able to do a great job of designing it, the judges are still unlikely to be impressed. But it's a gamble: maybe after a list of twenty designs that are all extremely luxuriant and made almost solely of obscure synonyms for colors (you have never seen the words nigrescent, aureous, or viridian so many times in your life), a humble loaf of bread will jump out and catch someone's eye. But every year, the designs that win tend to be ostentatious more than elegant or evocative, at least to my tastes, so I probably won't do well, as I haven't every previous year (including one year where I spent many, many hours pouring my soul into a dozen designs).

What I'm stuck on right now is finding more jewelry designs. My character inherited five jewelry cartels from his mother, and it's really hard to come up with new ways to make jewelry interesting, when everything's been done. I've dredged a few good ideas out of my inspiration, but I'm still two designs shy. If I can get those, I have a tailoring cartel where I have a lot of designs I like, but none nearly fancy or complex enough for Beauty. I have several that are pretty good, but nothing that just shouts out Beauty Contender.

I don't really think I could win, because, even though many in the game consider me one of the best designers, my style doesn't seem to suit the judges as well as some others. Maybe it's just luck, maybe I'm not as good as all that, and maybe it's just that I don't want to do gaudy enough things. It would sure be nice to place, just for the recognition. Winning would almost be worse, since I'm not actually ready to be in the final competition and would feel obligated to do so. (Thankfully I wouldn't have to worry about being Serenwilde's primary contender since another Seren has already won a seal, so I'd just be supporting her. If I were ready to seriously compete, I might be able to garner more support than her because of my character's loyalty to Serenwilde -- she has left it several times. But she'll get the support for being a better combatant, period.) Mostly, though, it'd be some killer bragging rights, and possibly good advertising.

But right now I just need two more jewelry design ideas. Argh!

Monday, January 17, 2011


Even though I spent almost all of last week out of the office in New York (Sunday through Wednesday attending NRF, plus one extra day for snow cancellations), leaving only one day at work, I'm taking this week off. I'm not going anywhere, though; it's a stay-at-home vacation to relax and get caught up on things. The primary motivation is a familiar one: because the workload at my office really doesn't permit me to take much time off (the work is always still there when I get back) I always end up with so much leave piled up that I reach the cap after which I start losing leave, and I can't bear that. So I'm burning off a week's leave. (Actually only four days; I accidentally picked a week that has a state holiday in it.)

I'll probably dork around some of the time doing nothing very productive, playing games and the like. I also will probably get some progress on a few hobby things of minor importance:
  • Writing the rest of my designs for the Seal of Beauty in Lusternia
  • Building up a buffer of blog posts, since I'm down to just a few
  • Getting CMUD working and making the final decision about where to develop my Rainbow system
  • Doing some game prep for Uncreated for when we finish running Committee (or give up... I'm not sure if my group is enjoying it)
  • Maybe making some progress on Rainbow
  • Rebuilding the MAME system once I get the computer back from RMA
  • Maybe starting on my second Lusternia character's next research project
But while I certainly would like to see some progress on a few of those things during the coming week, I'm not going to let myself feel pressured. This is an opportunity to burn off some of the stress that situations at work have been building up again (if it's not one thing, it's another!) so if I spend many hours just watching movies or banging on the simulated drums that's all time well spent too.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

It's unfair that Serenwilde is right

Lusternia's design includes six (so far) separate nations each of which embody a different set of principles (and associated symbolism). While they are set up in pairs which are opposed to one another (and complex relationships between each and the four others, allowing for shifting alliances), there's almost nothing that's clearly "right" or "wrong". Even the obvious "bad guys", Magnagora, have a little more to them than just being evil; they have enough reason for their choices that you could present a cogent defense of their viewpoint that would be fairly compelling. Each nation also has its blind spots, and each nation has a pretty solid argument that can be made against it. The idea is that you can play a character who stands firmly behind the ideology of any one of them, while at the same time realizing that in some ways, their ideology is "wrong", and makes some mistakes. And each nation has a litany of explanations of the mistakes made by each other nation (and their denizens are often happy to recite them to help reinforce the disagreements).

But there's one flaw in this balance: Serenwilde's ideology happens to actually be right. They're not really bogged down by a real blind spot.

Naturally any Lusternia player reading this is probably going to conclude that I'm just having a failure of roleplaying. Plenty of players who aren't that good at IC/OOC separation will indeed start thinking one side -- typically the one their main character lives in -- actually has the right of things, and everyone else just rolls their eyes at the failure of imagination. And while I've been spending a lot more time on my Hallifax character lately (Hallifax is the city of order, science, and structure), my primary is still my Serenwilde character (Serenwilde is a forest commune based around nature spirituality and ecological principles).

But if you look at the history of Lusternia, one thing that stands out is that time and again, all of creation is threatened by the same two threats.
  1. The Soulless: These are the ultimate bad guys, flawed creations determined to destroy and devour. They are a lot like H.P. Lovecraft's Great Old Ones in the way they lurk as an unseen, insanity-inducing horror. However, unlike in Lovecraft, the Soulless aren't ancient, alien powers on a scale as far beyond mortals as they are beyond bacteria. The Soulless are essentially "equal" foes to the Elder Gods, and mortals are just shards of Elder Gods, who can aspire to becoming minor godlings. An individual mortal can't fight a Soulless the same way a soldier can't fight a tank, but the mortals have Elder Gods on their side sometimes, and in some situations, can even beat Soulless. In any case, mortals can understand the motives of the Soulless, and are nearly as smart as Soulless.

  2. What Man Was Not Meant To Know: Sometimes but not always tied back to the Soulless, there is a strong theme, particularly in later Lusternia history, where each terrible threat to all creation is caused by the meddling of mortals in the pursuit of knowledge or power accidentally releasing terrible side effects. That might be the Soulless or their byproducts, or it might just be terrible energies, environmental catastrophes, powerful creatures, breaks in the time-space continuum, etc.
So consider defending Hallifax. It's all about the pursuit of wisdom, structure, and order, through arts and sciences. Technology is far advanced beyond everyone else due to a rigorous system of rewarding reason and creativity, and promoting the talented within the caste system. It's like the promise of all egalitarian and communist manifestos, but without the negative sides (notably, people really can and do move through the caste system, and this is almost totally based on merit, not the circumstances of birth or rampant corruption and abuse of power). Everyone else really are uncultured barbarians. And yet the blind spot is easy to notice: Hallifax regularly engages in the kind of experimentation that frequently threatens all of creation. They wilfully twist the fabric of time and try (and often succeed) to tap into eldritch energies of incalculable scale. Many of history's greatest disasters come from them stubbornly insisting on trying again at things that caused terrors before (because that was just bad luck -- and you can't really blame them; their ideas do make sense, they just happen to be in a world where the writers need excuses for terrible dangers on a regular basis).

You can do a similar analysis for each nation, but when it comes to Serenwilde... Serenwilde was the first nation founded. The ravages of the wars between the Elder Gods and the Soulless left the newly-formed mortals to try to survive in a world totally destroyed, little more than a post-nuclear wasteland, with poisoned soil and water. A few of the survivors banded together and happened to find ways to get the nature spirits to help clean and heal the land (and thus the nature spirits), and from this, Serenwilde was formed with the explicit mission of saving the world against the ravages of the Soulless.

Later, cities were formed, and immediately started doing things that unleashed terrible disasters on everyone, over and over. Serenwilde got the idea -- and this is as near as it has to a blind spot -- that the reason that cityfolk keep making these mistakes is that living in sterile cities, cut off from the natural world and the nature spirits, they forget how to tell what's important, and become willing to sacrifice everything that really matters in exchange for some short-term profit, usually in the form of power. Ultimately, because of the recurring theme that civilization does continually prove to be the source of threats, but rarely (and only in part) the solution for those threats, Serenwilde is right on both counts. It was founded saving the world, and continues to save the world, over and over.

It's true that maybe there is a way for civilization to be a useful thing in the world, a source of good works and culture, and they might be rejecting too much by insisting to live in the woods. On the other hand, most of the things that make living in the woods hard (poor agriculture, disease, weather, etc.) are not simulated in the MUD, so they really pay nothing for eschewing civilization. Serenwilde has even been the cultural center of the Basin more often than not, suggesting that hippies strumming lutes in the woods and putting on plays in a field can be the equal of grand symphonies and operas -- which may or may not be, that's a matter of taste, but there's got to be some benefit to the grander scale.

But if a Seren wants to sit around smugly talking about how Serenwilde has saved the world more times than anyone else, and has, to date, never actually been the source of anything that threatened to destroy it (while pretty much everyone else has), he really could get away with it, and really far better than anyone else could. I suspect that the game's creators intended this to be more even, where no one could actually turn out to be any more "right" or "wrong" than anyone else, and they've done a great job, but they didn't quite get there. Sometimes when I pontificate about this from my Seren character's point of view (his job is explicitly to pontificate about this kind of thing, and inspire people with it) I almost feel bad about not having, in my back pocket, a clear refutation for everything I'm saying, like everyone else does, and like I do in my other character.

But if it's unfair, at least I can take comfort in knowing it doesn't at all matter. People don't join any side because of whether it's right or wrong, and Serenwilde has been both preeminent and the Basin's whipping boy (it has been the latter for a very long time at the moment) regardless of consistently being the most right ideology the world has. People aren't more interested in participating in things based on that. Even if anyone cares about who's more right they can easily use each nation's blind spot to avoid realizing that they're not it. It's not going to change anything that Serenwilde is right. But not only is it amusing, it's amusing that it doesn't change anything.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

It's a hell of a town

I spent most of this week in Manhattan. It wasn't a vacation, though; I was there for the National Retail Federation's trade show at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, and thus, it was a trip mostly paid for by my employer. (I say only 'mostly' because the travel reimbursement rules are nonsensical. You can only claim a portion of most expenses and then only if you can get a receipt. Per diems are so low they don't even cover anything better than fast food at a Vermont restaurant; in Manhattan, they barely cover tips.)

The trip got off to a bad start when the shuttle company we'd made reservations with (prepaid, in fact) to take us from the airport to the hotel was terrible. They kept us waiting almost an hour, then piled us into an almost-full shuttle. They then shoved two more people in, forcing us to rearrange seats to fit them since I take up too much of a bench seat, which was both inconvenient and a bit embarassing. The ride then took us through a zillion parts of the city that weren't on the way, so all told, it took us two and a half hours from disembarking to get to the hotel. We literally could have walked faster, and the customer service was awful. The guy actually hoped for a tip, too. He didn't get one.

The show itself was productive but exhausting. I visited hundreds of retail suppliers offering everything from receipt printer repair to business analytics consulting services. Along the way I spoke to several companies about the ERP and POS systems we're looking at doing at my office, our methodology and plans and needs, and what kinds of systems exist. I also attended a few informational sessions. The result is, I have a better idea of what kind of things people mean when they talk about what an ERP system does, and I made a lot of contacts with vendors who will help with doing it, or bid on it, or provide information I can use in writing RFPs. I also got a better idea about what the major ERP systems are like and their relative merits and fit to our needs, though that's just a vague sense that won't pay off for a long time. Along the way I also gathered a ridiculous amount of swag, mostly pens that I collected on behalf of a friend who is obsessed with free clicky pens.

The show was crazy huge, filling the entire Javits center, and often it was a solid mob of people and you couldn't get through the hallways. And nearly every single person was dressed in the same drab clothes. On the first day all the women were in boring black too, so that the very few who wore anything else really stood out. Even the "booth babes" (not quite as egregiously so as at things like CES, but still, it was obvious how many of the women working in the booths were chosen not just for tech savvy and salesmanship but also for their looks) were all in drab black on the first day. On the second day, color crept in a bit more, perhaps because a "booth babe" with a hint of blue tended to catch eyes a lot more in that crowd than one who happened to be salaciously curvy yet drably dressed.

I also, for the first time in my career, got feted, wined, and dined by a company, and got to be "the prospect" brought to a fancy restaurant. It was originally going to be a largish dinner with several prospects, but it ended up just three representatives of the suitor company, and me and Siobhan. I went in a button-down shirt and die and with cologne on, but I forgot to take off my hat. They must be wondering about that. The venue was Keen's, a very historical restaurant with good reviews and a nice ambience. The mutton chop was at least a half pound of lamb, of which I ate maybe a fifth, and it was very good lamb. I don't dislike lamb but it's not my favorite thing either; so, really good lamb, maybe the best lamb I ever had, is still only a pretty good meal. But at least now I've had some of the best rated lamb in the world and can safely say, when I say I find lamb to be "eh, okay", that it's not because I haven't tried the good stuff.

Generally speaking, the meals we've had have aimed for the goal of being "stuff we couldn't get elsewhere" and, for me at least, as much about having an experience I wouldn't otherwise get to have, as about the food. A few times we let that slide a bit in favor of being exhausted and taking the easy way out, getting delivery. I actually had fewer chances for good meals than the trip's length might suggest: the hotel had a free breakfast (and a pretty good one, though the scrambled eggs were industrial, but it was a real, hot breakfast), and lunches at the show were quite limited (the food court was terrible, so the second day I packed in a sandwich from a local market), so after you count the two days we were tired and got delivery, and the meal at Keen's, the only remaining full meal was at Empanada Mama -- good empanadas, especially the beef chilli in corn -- and one at Carnegie Deli, about which, more later.

There were also a few smaller nibbles and snacks, but nothing really noteworthy. There was a surprisingly nice hot chocolate with salted peanut butter in it at Shake Shack -- I didn't expect to like it, but I really did. Oh, and speaking of hot chocolate, the one we had at Pigalle was itself nothing special, but the fact that the only other customer in the entire restaurant was Zachary Quinto, dining with two older redheaded women who might have been twins, is certainly noteworthy. Spotting celebrities in NYC isn't totally unusual, and most of the time, most people leave them be -- it's very uncool to be all gushing at them or intrusive. The poor guy was just hanging around having a slice of pie, and I'm sure if I were him I wouldn't want every gawking tourist to be bugging me. So we left him be.

We were scheduled to fly back in the afternoon on Wednesday, but New York was due for a foot of snow, so we were expecting to be delayed. But in the morning we found the storm hadn't been quite as bad as expected. Many flights had been delayed or cancelled, but not ours. However, it seems the brunt of the storm that missed New York hit Vermont, so our flight still ended up being cancelled. That means we're hit right in the purse for the cost of another day in New York, which my employer probably won't cover, so we're stuck with it -- and can't really afford it. (We're still paying off the vow renewal!)

But the good part is, we heard about it before the shuttle came to take us to the airport, so we were able to salvage most of the day. We got another room at the same hotel, then headed out for a half-day on the town, giving me a chance to see a few sights. Siobhan had been out doing shopping and tourist things the whole trip, but I'd been tied up with the show, and it had left no time for doing fun stuff. So while we can't really afford the extra day, at least I got to spend it doing NYC stuff.

That meant a visit to Carnegie Deli, where we split a knish and a Woody Allen (a huge, and I mean like two pounds of meat, sandwich of corned beef and pastrami). Then we walked through Central Park. In my many visits to the city I'd never gone more than a few blocks into the park, but this time we walked all the way from 59th street to 77th on the west side. Winter isn't the best time to see the park, of course, but at least I've seen some of it. Then we went to Zabar's, where Siobhan strangely didn't buy anything. Finally we took the subway back to the hotel and ordered in Chinese.

Of course, everyone kept telling me, when I speculated on what I might do while in NYC, "go see a Broadway show!" Okay, I get it, to a lot of people that's the best thing you can do in NYC. And our hotel's even in the theater district, a few blocks from Times Square. But almost all the shows in town are big, glitzy musicals, and not a one of them particularly interests me. If they took a couple of hours and were cheap, sure, maybe. But they cost a fortune, and take a ton of time, and dealing with crowds. I don't need that when I'm exhausted and have to get up early. I might do it anyway for something that was amazingly good to me, but just to see an overproduced La Cage Aux Folles? Not for me.

Then there's the museums. Some of them are great for me -- I always like the Museum of Natural History, for instance, and would have loved to have visited the Hayden Planetarium, which I haven't been to since I was a kid -- but all the art museums really don't do it for me enough to be worth the time and energy. And that's even under normal circumstances. Thanks to recent trips to DC and England, I'm museumed and historied out.

But the trip has made me eager to come back to visit NYC on my own terms, maybe in the summer. Do the midtown walking tour, bicycle around Central Park, go to the planetarium, do some shopping, eat a lot of really cool things I can't get anywhere else, visit some of the more off-the-beaten-path places. Maybe we'll put that farther up on our list of short, less-expensive trips when we can't afford the big overseas trips we've been looking forward to for so long (and just barely made our first foray into last year).

Friday, January 14, 2011

The power of repetition compels you

My recent trip to New York included a lot less time in transit, so I covered a lot fewer movies on my obligatory list. In fact, only one: The Exorcist.

Amongst horror movies, I can think of a few I have found entertaining, but only two that even approached being scary. I don't count the moment's jolt when a sudden, unexpected loud noise surprises you as fear; that's just being startled. A scary movie should have you tense and something akin to frightened while it's happening, or later, or both. The two movies to get me that way: Alien and The Omen. Many people mistake the former for science fiction (it's that too, but it's primarily horror), but everyone categorizes the latter as horror. And The Exorcist is usually the film most likely to be ranked alongside it in terms of scariness.

Well, I don't see it. The movie felt boring and flat to me. There was a lot of shock value and a lot of really horrible things being said, but the only sign of a real threat was one off-camera death. Generally speaking, I never got any sense that the demon had any goal, or any idea what it could or couldn't do, so I didn't feel like there was any real threat being made. It just seemed like it wanted to be really awful and horrible, but not really to do anything.

It was suggested to me that maybe it's scary only to people who believe in that sort of thing. But The Omen ultimately derives its sense of ominous danger from belief in the same general stuff, and I didn't feel any more need to believe in the Bible to find it scary than I need to believe in warp drive to enjoy Star Trek. If the movie really does have its impact only on people who believe in demonic possession, I think I'll make a new horror movie about someone who has to help a friend recover from a disk crash, and the friend didn't make backups.

Otherwise, it just felt like it dragged on and on, with minor moments of things that were shockingly awful, but not really scary, to sustain us between long periods of nothing particular happening. I actually found the most interesting parts to be watching the younger priest go through his backstory -- which is not to say that that was interesting, but it was more so than watching the mother get more and more worn.

I get the sense that the people who made the film (or the book) found medical procedures terrifying, too, because the treatment of medicine was at once very strikingly true -- I was very impressed with how the doctors were depicted -- and depicted in a stark way that made me think they expected the audience to be cringing at the diagnostic procedures. I bet some people were. But again, that's not enough to make a good horror movie.

When the movie started I found myself wondering if I had the wrong film for a bit, since I had never heard anything about there being an archaeological expedition involved. Wait, is he going to open some clay jar that the demon was trapped in? Surely it's not that sort of movie. Then an hour goes by without the slightest reference to the whole opening scene. When we finally do get one, there seems to have been no reason to actually have seen it. It, like the mother's acting career, seem like an attempt to round out the characters that falls flat and ends up feeling like stretching the movie out.

The ending felt about as anticlimactic to me as the film had felt flat. So the older priest just got scared into a heart attack, is that it? And then the younger priest got the demon to go into him -- why would the demon do that? -- and then committed suicide -- why does that make the demon "lose"? I know that the point of the movie isn't to make a complete system of rules for how possession works: leaving it vague is supposed to help make it scary, the same way not seeing the xenomorph much helped make Alien scary. But this is more than just being ambiguous: it reaches over the line into meaningless. The threat and resolution just feel arbitrary and muddled. It's not like the xenomorph being only partially seen; it's more like if the xenomorph was so ambiguous we weren't even sure if it wanted to kill anyone, and then at some point it got persuaded to leave the ship because it didn't like the song about the lucky star.

We see the police lieutenant a few times, but nothing much ever comes of his inquiries. I suppose they're mostly there to help provide a reason for exposition. But then we see him at the end, and it seems this forces the question the filmmakers might prefer to avoid: how the heck does everyone brush off all these deaths without the law at least taking an interest? There was already one suspected murder, and now two more deaths -- admittedly one by natural causes -- in the same place, and one of them almost as suspicious as the first one even if you don't consider the whole "the same cause from the same place in the company of the same person" part. But the lieutenant just wants to go to the movies.

Once again I wonder if I'm missing something, or if it's just a matter of taste, that there are things in the movie that are frightening to a lot of people but not to me. And as always, if so, I wonder what it is.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The party of the people

It's really amazing what a great job the Republicans have done in hornswaggling America and undermining democracy. Sometimes we forget what they're really doing and assume they're 50% of the country, fair and square, and that we've got a genuine cultural divide going on. But it's really just the biggest scam in modern history.

When you look with anything more than the most superficial appraisal at the Republicans it is immediately clear, from who their leadership is, from what their policies are, that they represent the rich. They are the aristocracy. They consistently support pre-democratic ways of things being done, and the concentration of wealth and power. And yet, they have built up an impression amongst certain people that they are the party of the people.

Ultimately what they really stand for is inherently anti-democratic. Democracy, at least as it's practiced in the United States, is based on the central premise that every vote is worth the same as every other -- every person, however rich or poor, has the same influence. Sure, there are disparities, notably that power and wealth provide more means to get your message out and persuade other people, but that is not on its own enough to overcome the sheer weight of numbers. Without some kind of trick or scam, a party that represents a small percentage of people can't possibly win against a party that represents the rest.

So what the Republicans have done as a means of subverting and defeating the central premise of democracy is this. They found a very large group of people with three key traits. They are numerous; they are fairly powerless; and, most importantly, they are naïve, ignorant, and thus, highly manipulable. The Republicans then figure out what those people think they want and promise it, even though they generally have no intention of actually delivering it. Family values? They make long speeches about it in between getting divorced and having affairs in public restrooms. They sell fear in every possible flavour and promises of addressing it while simultaneously promoting its causes. They use massive backing from corporate sponsors and overseas interests to methodically build "grass roots movements" and fool the very people in these movements into believing they're part of something that grew spontaneously out of indignation or determination. They push the idea that awareness and education are "elitism" as a means of perpetuating the ignorance on which their plan depends.

The end result is some 49% of Americans are consistently voting for their own worst interests and don't realize they're doing it. And not only have they been getting away with this for decades, and getting steadily better at it, they're so good at the scam that even the liberals tend to forget that's what they're doing from time to time, and treat them as the "opposition" as if they really did represent half of the nation's cultural divide, as if they really earned their place. It's bad enough we can't rescue the duped, ignorant 49% who don't realize they're selling themselves out, over and over. It's even worse that, from time to time, they fool us, too.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Why is the USA the world's greatest superpower?

If you ask people why the USA has, for a long time, been the world's most powerful nation, you're bound to get a lot of vapid answers about "can-do spirit" and "the American dream" and other things that don't even try to answer the question. At best, they push the question back one step: so why did the USA get that spirit more than everyone else? At worst, they don't even attempt to answer the question. A real answer doesn't just say why the USA did what it did, but why no one else did quite as much.

So why the USA more than anyone else? Naturally there's a hundred contributing factors but I think there are two that stand out more than any other. They're the things that got the momentum going to the point where it became self-reinforcing and self-sustaining.

Resources: At the time when the colonies were forming into a new nation, most everywhere else on the surface of the Earth was either at least a little hostile, or unpopulated, or had been stripped of much of its resources. The lands that became the United States were an unprecedented trove of natural resources. Vast areas of fertile, welcoming land that could provide crops to support an amazing amount of growth. Lots of land for people to live in, and very little of it was jungle, mountain, desert, tundra, or otherwise very harsh. Tremendous amounts of timber -- it's easy to miss how crucial this was, but Europe had been stripped of most of its timber long before, and wood was the main building material for almost all industry for a long time. Plenty of game. Mineral resources undreamed of by Europe: metals, coal, and everything else a growing country needs. All of it pretty much just there for the taking.

We always imagine the frontier was harsh, and certainly if you dropped me into 1804 I wouldn't last long outside the cities, but it was harsh in a totally different way from, say, Canada, or Australia, or Brazil. There was a living to be made; and if you engaged in unsustainable practices, there was always another forty acres west of you that could be exploited. (That didn't run out until the 19th century, giving the country centuries of time to spend profligately and build up a nest egg.)

The nation started out rich. All that wealth was more than just a big pile of capital in its pocket. It encouraged industry and made risky ventures and large, complex projects (like the Erie Canal) viable. It attracted the sort of people who would take on projects like that. This is the genesis of that "can-do spirit," I think: things were comparatively easy enough that people could do stuff, and thus, people who did stuff came, and were encouraged to keep thinking they could do more stuff.

Inventors: When we think about the founding of the nation, we always think about the politics. Freedom of religion, checks and balances, stuff like that. Those are certainly important stuff. But there's one important thing that we don't think as much about. At least two of the three most important Founding Fathers embodied not just the enterprising can-do spirit but also the Renaissance Man's fascination with discovery and invention. Thomas Jefferson remained a student of science and an inventor his whole life, and left behind a considerable legacy of both inventions and the academic support for fostering the sciences. Benjamin Franklin is of course famous for being a scientist and inventor almost as much as he was a politician.

And while Adams and Hamilton were making important decisions about the role of government in the life of the citizen, and Franklin and Jefferson were involved in that too, they get a lot less credit for helping to promote the idea of scientific inquiry and industry. It's not just things like helping to set up the idea that led to the patent and copyright systems (explicitly intended to foster further invention and creativity by protecting the rights of creators, while also allowing their words to spur others into doing more), or standing as a good example. They imbued the very idea of an appreciation for scientific inquiry, for examining the world around them, for industry and determination, right into the fabric of early American culture.

When you think about it, it's really remarkable, even in the era of the Renaissance Man, that two of the most important politicians that happened to be in the center of everything that shaped the newborn nation, should also happen to be such excellent examples of the scientist and inventor. The Continental Congress was full of people from many disciplines. Many of them were businessmen, or economists, or historians, or tacticians. Some are really essentially politicians and nothing more. If the dice had fallen another way, maybe the most important people would have happened to be Caeser Rodney and John Hancock instead of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, and even the tiniest differences in their attitudes, magnified by repetition over decades and centuries, might have shaped the country in a very different way.

Once these things got America's can-do spirit, and the American dream, started, it becomes self-sustaining. The plentiful resources provided enough to allow projects to be undertaken which would provide even more resources (a fertile farmscape supports a large mine; a plentiful supply of timber provides both the wood needed to build a canal and the justification to make it worth its cost; a great supply of coal is needed to build a dam that will help provide energy when coal isn't enough anymore). A culture that believes it can do big things will take risks, and then reward people who do big things, and thus encourage more people to do the same. And so on.

If these are indeed key factors in the shaping of America's preeminence, then they also show why that preeminence is fading fast. When westwards expansion reached the Pacific, there were still new frontiers in all the land that didn't get exploited on the way west, but by now, our wealth of available, exploitable natural resources is scarcely more than an average nation of our size and comes nowhere near to meeting our needs, which have continued to grow on the same runaway expansion curve that used to be no problem because there was always more land to exploit. And in the last century, even as our preeminence in technology crested with the birth of the computer age, we've succumbed more and more to a wave of illogic and a repudiation of science, and allowed our place at the forefront of science and technology to progressively erode.

We still act like we are the biggest and best, and we consume as if we still had an endless supply of everything. Little by little we notice that we can't continue our reckless expansion, because the things that used to make it work are gone, but we don't react by becoming what we can afford to be, in a sensible way. We don't change the habits of excess. We keep the same voracious appetite for resources that we had back when there was plenty to sustain it, and when science reveals to us that there isn't anything left to sustain it, that we're running out, we demonize science -- even though it's the only thing that could have found us a new frontier, a new way to get back the growth that could sustain (for a while) our unsustainable appetites. We want to have our cake and eat it too. And as we keep pinning ourselves between these impossibly opposed problems, we let slip away the only opportunity to preserve part of our place as a superpower, because we won't settle for the part we can keep, so we lose it all.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Miracle on 34th Street

It's one of those classic movies you can't escape, yet hardly notice since it's so familiar, but the 1947 movie has a few striking things about it if you stop to look. One good and one bad.

On the good side, Maureen O'Hara's character is a picture-perfect example of a positive portrayal of a woman in a time when even the attempts to depict women as the equals of men are uniformly tinged with patronizing undertones or trying too hard. No one in the movie ever treats her in the slightest bit differently than they do any of the male businessmen, neither positively nor negatively. No one expects her to get coffee, looks down on her for working while raising a child, or expects that her work will be in any way less than that of her colleagues. No one feels a need to accomodate her femaleness in any way. She's precisely this: a competent, hard-working business professional who happens to be female. Even positive depictions of female business professionals done in movies twenty or thirty years later are still tinged with inequities, patronizing tones, or overcompensation (and of course such things still exist in both the movies and real life).

However, as much as that's a positive, the movie ultimately irks me because of the bad light in which it casts rationality. The entire conflict of the film is predicated on the main character's false dichotomy that rationality and imagination are mutually opposed, but nothing could be farther from the truth. That false dichotomy is used throughout the movie to cast rationality as a bad life choice, one which deprives you of the joys of life and makes you miss what's truly important, through the rhetorical trick of claiming it is opposed to imagination, then showing how much joy comes from imagination.

I know, it's "just a movie," and a fantasy one at that which no one really expects should be taken literally. But the attitude is insidious and it's what the entire movie is built around, it's the central lesson, the moral, the very premise. Rationality is something to be triumphed over from the very first scene. You can't give them credit for reinforcing a cultural principle in their subtext in one place without giving them blame for reinforcing a damaging one everywhere else.

The fact is that rationality embraces imagination, and nothing about being rational even intimates that one should never engage in imagination or fantasy. Kris Kringle would certainly never be caught dead encouraging Susan to actually believe she is a monkey; he's only telling her it can be an important part of a full life to be able to imagine and pretend she is. Implicit in that is that Susan must also know which is pretend and which isn't. Rationality embraces imagination both for its own virtues (the ones Kringle exhorts) and for its utility as a tool of rationality, but never repudiates it -- it only repudiates the same thing Kringle would if pressed (but carefully never has to say out loud in the movie), the inability to tell it from truth.

How much better a lesson Kringle could really have taught Susan if she'd been shown that those who engage their imaginations can be very well balanced, rational, sensible people who get all the joy Kringle speaks of, and all the virtues her mother speaks of, at the same time, and not only aren't those opposed, they're aligned. Doris Walker is merely a straw-man of rationalism set up for Kringle to knock down. Too bad. They weren't far from a really uplifting conclusion, instead of an ultimately self-destructive one.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Human Target

I know almost nothing about the TV show Human Target: Siobhan watches it and sometimes I am in the room and hear a bit about it, but not much. I know even less about the comic book with which it shares a name, but which I have heard very little else. But one thing I did notice from the show, which apparently didn't get used much in the show, is a premise that I think would make a great roleplaying game. That was simply that the lead character didn't merely protect someone but actually stood in for them, pretending to be them long enough to both prevent the assassination and find out who was behind it long enough to stop it.

As a roleplaying game it has a number of nice features. First, there's a lot of variety of adventures that you can set up without any strain finding excuses for people to go on them: they get hired, and the number of reasons someone might contract a hit on someone else is legion, as are the number of ways that the story can backtrack from the victim to the perpetrators, the reason, and the ways it can be resolved.

Second, it encourages you to have a group which automatically gets to share spotlight time. You need males and females, party members of different ages and races, enough so that any given client can have someone in the group that can look like them (with the help of costuming and disguise). Everyone has to get a chance to be in the "point man" role because everyone's going to be the one who looks closest to the next client. Also means everyone has to have enough combat chops to take that position, but there's also tons of room for further specialization (disguise expert, demolitions, detective, etc.), so no one ever ends up being left out when the scene gets to the inevitable action and combat scenes.

Those scenes would have great reasons to have not just gunfights but also hand-to-hand (since the "target" would often have to be unarmed) along with concealed weapons and most of the clichés of the action genre.

Plus it lends itself very well to an episodic structure. You wouldn't have a lot of "arc" -- you'd have mostly individual adventures, making it easy to pick up and run with it, even after long periods of downtime. You could certainly have recurring "villains" in the form of a group of assassins that periodically are hired to hit the people that our heroes end up protecting -- you could even have one of their members be a particularly slippery and cocky hitman who crosses horns with the characters regularly, with a final resolution of the conflict never coming up -- they could even have a sort of "gentleman's rivalry" relationship. But while that'd get you a lot of the fun of a longer story it wouldn't tie you down to one.

About the only problem with it: if someone is hiring someone to kill you, how many ways can the bodyguards contrive not only to protect you for now, but to eliminate the threat indefinitely? I can think of a bunch of them. (Keep them alive long enough to give their deposition, or for the paperwork to clear. Figure out why the hit was arranged and then find out who really is responsible. Find the drug lord who set it up and finally get them caught up with by the law. Etc.) But it might be a strain to keep finding reasons why the hit wouldn't just keep having another hitman ordered once the last one didn't make it.

Sunday, January 09, 2011


Winning many Academy awards and lots of critical acclaim, Unforgiven is often cited as Clint Eastwood's best Western or perhaps his best film, so I added it to my list. Ultimately, it felt mostly unsatisfying.

Part of that is how long things go before much happens. When it's done and you think back on what transpired, there's just not as much as it seems the movie's weight and length would justify. I suppose that might be a trait of many Westerns, though I certainly never felt that way about, for instance, 3:10 To Yuma (I only saw the more recent version).

The larger part is perhaps the Clint's character's arc. I can't really say anything about this without spoiling stuff, so that'll happen after the spoiler break.

The acting was solid across the board. Saul Rubinek in particular brings a really nice contrast to the other characters. He's playing a character he plays a lot, a somewhat nebbish type, but he does it really well and with subtle undertones. I don't think he gets enough credit as an actor. The production is also flawless. There are some nice little details thrown in about characters that keep them from being one-dimensional, like Little Bill's poor carpentry. All the pieces of the movie seem solid, it just doesn't feel like it all comes together into that much.

Spoilers Ahead

Through the entire movie Clint keeps putting lampshades on the central internal conflict (hard to call it "internal" when the character never misses a chance to talk about it) of the character. He used to be a bad man but he's not anymore, and he needs to resist any temptations to lapse into his old behavior, even if the circumstances are dire.

When the conflict finally comes to a head, it just sort of fizzles. He doesn't struggle with the transition: he simply gives in to all his old demons, all at once. Then there doesn't seem to be any price for this. The movie ends soon after with an epilogue in text which seems to imply that he didn't have any problems with the results of this.

Perhaps we're meant to take it that the real conflict isn't him resisting his old demons, but rather, it was that he was spending the whole movie struggling to make the "right" decision to let them out, to go back to drinking and shooting people. Even then, it's odd that, a few minutes later, he sets those impulses aside again (as far as we know) and that's the last we hear of the whole issue. Besides, other scenes -- the fate of his long-time partner, and the reaction of the young up-and-comer to his first kill -- make clear the movie doesn't intend to be glorifying those actions, quite the contrary. So it's odd that ultimately they seem to have no cost for him. Or if they had a cost, it was easy to miss.

I also wonder what the repurcussions were on Big Whisky and on the whores. It seems that a realistic take on the situation does not likely lead to the girls being safe and free to continue pursuing their trade after the bloodbath; someone's going to fill that power vacuum and the girls are an almost certain scapegoat for all that happened, since they're in no position to defend themselves, and there's no one else left alive to take the blame.