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


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?


Thursday, March 24, 2011

Like the back of your hand

How well, really, do you know the back of your hand? Make sure you can't see it, then try to describe anything about it that wouldn't be precisely the same description as anyone else of your gender and approximate size. Can you say any more about the proportions, the distribution of hair, the location of veins and arteries and tendons, the particular lines and creases around the knuckles, or anything else that distinguishes the back of your own hand from anyone else's?

The phrase really doesn't make much sense if you take it at its word, even more than the one about taking candy from a baby, or talking behind someone's back. But I wonder if that's just because of what we do nowadays. Maybe way back when, when more people spent more time doing physical labor with their hands, labor that was often stultifying (and not even eased by the distraction of Walkman headphones), people tended to get to know the backs of their hands very well. Perhaps the phrase originates in a time when it made sense, and we just lost the sense, but didn't lose the phrase. Is it really just a fossil phrase, not nonsense?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Apocalypse Now

It took a long time, sliced into 14-minute pieces, but I finally finished watching Apocalypse Now, the next in my series of movies I feel I ought to have seen, as a culturally aware person. For the record, I watched the "Redux" director's cut, so I realize that anything I might say about the pacing is affected by that. But I certainly didn't want to watch both versions, so I thought it better to pick this one. Yes, I'm going to spoil, but this is a thirty year old movie, so this is all the warning you'll get.

I know that, at the time, Martin Sheen was nowhere near the star power of Marlon Brando, so I can kind of understand how Brando got top billing despite being in the movie for about ten minutes out of three hours, while Sheen's face was in front of us for pretty much the entire three hours. But of the various posters and cover art, pretty much all of them either depict no one, or depict just Brando, as in the one I used for this post. And maybe half of Brando's on screen time, you couldn't even see him, he was just a blur in some shadows, or a shaved head. Was Brando's performance extraordinary? I don't know. I didn't feel like we got much from him. When the Captain voice-overs to us that Kurtz wants to die, my reaction was, he does? Where did you see that? Was it just too nuanced for me, or was there really something that rose up out of the soup of madness to suggest that specific conclusion, or was Willard just convincing himself? Obligatory liberal arts major answer: "Maybe you're supposed to be asking yourself that." Well, I appreciate the value of intentional ambiguity, but that doesn't mean every bit of ambiguity is good, or even intentional.

In the end, I'm not sure what I am supposed to feel the movie was for. Unless it was another exploration of "war is hell" only amplified to the extremes of stupidity and chaos we saw there -- pretty much every military installation we saw was mismanaged or unmanaged to an extent that cannot readily be exaggerated. There wasn't really a single example, except perhaps the boat's pilot, of someone who reflected well on the military, not even in the way Radar O'Reilly did. Even the angry French seemed savvy compared to the comically (tragicomically, really) inept Americans.

I suppose that Kurtz and the mission were really the pretext for a journey up the river and all the incidents along the way. It's a road movie as much as it is a war movie. Pretty much every scene on the river could have been cut without changing the overall storyline or significantly affecting any of the other scenes. For instance, the USO show with the Playboy bunnies wouldn't really significant affect any other scene if you cut it out -- not even the successor scene that featured the same bunnies. But as you cut things, you'd be cutting away the mood or tone, so I wonder, is that what the movie was meant to be about? I suppose so, but for me, at least, I find myself thinking, did I really need this whole movie just to get that mood? Is that just a matter of timeliness -- would that have meant more to me in 1979? (But this movie is accorded a timeless classic.)

So many of the characters appear very briefly. It's weird to think that this comes very soon after Harrison Ford was a breakout star in American Graffiti and Star Wars, but he gets about one minute of screen time, none of it really requiring much.

Dennis Hopper's role is also small, but perhaps has the most impact compared to its length; I found myself wondering if Brad Pitt's performance in 12 Monkeys might owe something to it, or if they're just both drawing on the same inspirations, but some of the echoes were striking, including intonation, diction, and physical mannerisms. It's probably easy to use that kind of approach to convey "crazy," particularly compared to how Kurtz is depicted, but I still found it far more effective. Generally speaking, to me the most challenging part of playing crazy is making the craziness seem seductive, like there's something to it and you can really see how the person got there and stays there. I've seen "quiet crazy" done that way, but I didn't really get it from Kurtz. All I got from the photojournalist was a sense of being caught up in a cult of personality, which would work fine, if I saw in Kurtz the kind of personality that could form that cult, but again, I didn't really get it.

So now I've finally seen the famous napalm quote, and now I know that it's always being quoted in a highly abbreviated way -- there's a whole bunch in the middle that's always left out. Curiously, I found the quote less compelling in context than how it's usually quoted. I know it's supposed to be kind of absurd, and it is; but the kind of absurd it is, turns out to be a much less interesting kind than the kind it always came across as.

When all is said and done, I come away with a kind of "blah". For as little as I took away from the movie, it could have been half its length. I don't know if it's fair to say I was dissatisfied because I wasn't really expecting anything. But I suppose while I wasn't expecting anything I was nevertheless expecting something. Some sense that it all came out to mean something. That there was a reason for any of it -- and I don't mean a reason for what Willard or Kurtz or Lance or anyone else did (though there were so, so many times I would have liked one of those, too), but a reason for what Coppola or Sheen or Brando did. I guess there probably is; probably every single instant, every shadow, every whisper, every time some glaring question went unanswered (why didn't the airstrike get called in, for instance), all contributing to something. And that something just doesn't register with me.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

There's a hole at the bottom of the sea

You know the song, don't you? I learned it in elementary school, and my wife, who grew up a thousand miles away, also learned it, so I assume it's pretty widespread. (Apparently, Danny Kaye did a recording of it, and it was performed on Captain Kangaroo, but I bet neither is the original source, which is probably lost in time.) If you don't, it's one of those songs where each repetition it gets a little longer, so you end up memorizing a list of things. There's a hole at the bottom of the sea. There's a log in the hole at the bottom of the sea. There's a bump on the log, and so on.

But I think what exactly there is on the bump on the log tends to vary. I wonder how much. When I told my wife what we sang when I was a kid, she didn't recognize some of the later elements, and instead pointed out that flies don't get pimples. For the record, the penultimate repetition of the version I learned was: "There's an atom on a molecule on a pimple on a fly on a hair on a wart on a frog on a bump on a log in a hole at the bottom of the sea." Her version agreed up to either the fly or the hair (she wasn't sure about the fly).

The version that the artist who drew the pictured shirt learned had a few extra steps. His final version: "There's a smile on the face of the flea on the hair on the wart on the toe on the foot on the leg of the frog on the bump on the log in the hole in the bottom of the sea." I like the smile on the face bit, but the toe and foot seem unnecessary -- even by the standards of this song where it's all unnecessary.

I said that the atom on the molecule part was the penultimate repetition of our version, because we learned one last line: "There's a BOOOOM!" and that's it. You didn't go on and repeat the list, it just ends with the biggest, loudest boom the class could make. Why? I certainly didn't know in the first grade. I think I was in about the eighth grade before I thought back on this and realized that, in a sly way, my teacher was alluding to splitting the atom. Talk about a long setup for a joke. I wonder how many of my classmates never put it together.

So how did your version of the song go? My guess is most people learned the same first few repetitions at least, but the farther you get from that log, the more it diverges. Probably some of the later repetitions were made up by a specific teacher or student (like, I'm guessing, the "boom!" verse we learned), and then get repeated and embellished farther, so like a branching tree diagram, the variations on the song get more diverse as you add more verses. Someone probably did a doctoral thesis on this by now.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Narrating for your pets

Do you ever do the talking for your pets? Say the stuff you think they should be saying? No one admits to it, because it seems really silly when you say it out loud, but just about everyone does it. Heck, my grandmother used to do it, and I can't think of a single silly or frivolous thing she ever did.

If this is a nearly universal experience, I wonder if one could use it as a way to explain roleplaying. Because if you think about it, that's pretty much what you're doing. You take what you know about your pet's personality and fill in the gaps, to create a character out of your pet, and then you roleplay that character's statements in whatever situation the pet is in. It doesn't seem like a comparably complex thing, but it is really a simplified version of the central concepts of roleplaying.

But even if you can get over the differences, I don't think you can really make much use of the similarities, if only because of how people consider it so frivolous that they probably wouldn't admit to doing it. Pity, too. So many people who don't know what roleplaying is, and so can't enjoy it or appreciate it or join the rest of us; and most of them are unwittingly doing it every day, in a very limited form.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Rover v3.0

Now that I have a nice wall-mounted touchscreen for my home automation system, I need some software that's suited for it.  My own product, Rover, is a stripped-down but fully functional client that works in any web browser, and it's almost, but not quite, ideal for it.  The only problem is that it's not very fingertip-friendly; it mostly uses links and small icons.

Well, I've been meaning to make a version 3 of it for a long time, so this is finally what's got me working on it.  I hadn't done any coding in ASP for a long time, but it came back to me quite quickly, and in just a few hours, I was able to make huge strides towards v3.0.  Most notably, changing the software to display big friendly buttons in a grid layout:

One of the design decisions of Rover is that I avoided using Javascript, or even depending on tables.  It will run on a copy of Lynx for ancient versions of Unix over a dial-up modem connection quite effectively.  However, this required the means of getting from one room to another to either take multiple page loads (slow!), or to use lots of small links (not finger friendly).  So for this application, it seemed like I could take a step into very simple Javascript, by making it optional.  That row at the bottom replaces a long string of tiny-text links, and depends on Javascript, but is quite finger-friendly.  In Android, it pops up a nice big menu, in fact.

That Weather link isn't hard-coded into Rover, but it's something I configured into my copy. All it is go to the NWS page for my area:

The problem with this, of course, is the only way back is using the back button; everything in Rover lets you get around using the links shown.  One thing I want to do is make a Home page that has basic at-a-glance info like a big, live clock, a quick summary of current and upcoming weather, and a few of the most necessary home automation controls.  It would then have a link into Rover, and vice versa.

The other big improvement I want to see in Rover is something I call "tricks", in the sense of, "you can too teach an old dog new tricks" (Rover, dog, get it?).  Right now, Rover lets you see all the devices in a specific location, plus any set of other events or other links you choose to add for that location.  But it still means you have to organize your locations either for Rover, or for your main HomeSeer interface, and sometimes you can't make it work for both.  A "trick" would be a customized, virtual location, which contained any set of devices, events, and links you choose, arranged in whatever order you wanted.  While Rover is free, I might charge a buck or two for the program that lets you make and use tricks.  As of this writing, I haven't started on this, beyond general ideas of design.

Once that's done, plus some beta testing, I'm going to release the first new version of Rover in over two years.  It's a pretty well-liked program (despite the HomeSeer folks always giving me a hard time about it, due to favoritism towards the maker of a competing product) so it should be interesting to see how many people are still using it.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Home automation touchscreen

I had 7" touchscreen running Android left over. I'd bought it to experiment with PDFs, but it wasn't that good for that; too small a screen, and not enough processing power for any but the simplest PDFs. I gave it a try as a multimedia player to watch movies when my Archos died, but the old OS didn't support most of the codecs, and very few things could play on it. Eventually, I bought a new 10" tablet with a later version of Android, which works wonderfully for both movies and PDFs. So what to do with the leftover tablet?

This is only a little jury-rigged.  The hardest part was running a power cable to it.  I already had a hole in the wall, and a wire running down from it to the basement, and I could see both ends of the wire, yet I still couldn't fish the wire through very easily.  The wire that was already present (left over from an old thermostat install) is apparently tacked down somewhere, so I can't pull the new cable along using it.  I tried a lot of things, and eventually, had to buy a proper wiring fish tape, and even then it was quite a struggle due to the size of the power plug at the end. I ended up mashing it up a bit and having to reshape it with pliers to make it fit.

The brackets are also not quite the right size and ended up looking a little bit jury-rigged, particularly the screws.  I might replace them with something more suited if I can find something.  But it's not too bad.

I also had to tweak the settings on the tablet a bit.  First, disable all power saving features.  Second, delete all the email and calendar accounts I had set up -- I don't want it beeping when it happens to see me get an email.  (Getting email on this would be cutesy, but not practical; I already get it on my phone.)

The plan is for it to pretty much always run the software I'll use to control my home automation system.  But the touch screen software that comes with HomeSeer is pretty lame:

So I guess I'll have to work on Rover to make it better for this application, more suited to fingers.

It would also be nice to be able to run a few other things, like this:

But there's no easy way to switch between that and the home automation system that can be done without having to learn how to do it, and my aim here is something that's so obvious anyone can walk up and just start using it.  Maybe I'll just make a "home" web page that looks like this, and flips back to my home automation system quickly.

Friday, March 18, 2011

How is Thunderbird doing?

I already wrote about how Thunderbird's great win over Agent is its IMAP support, the reason I'm looking to move to it. And I've written about the biggest place where it loses, the way Agent handles mail routing to folders so intelligently. What about everything else? Well, it's a really mixed bag.

I'll give Thunderbird credit for doing HTML rendering far better than Agent. That I can compose HTML emails might be useful, though I don't intend to do more of than than I have to. One thing that Thunderbird wins on is kind of embarassing for Agent: with a simple plugin, it minimizes to the system tray, easy and perfect. Agent could only do that with the addition of third party programs like TrayIt, all of which had one flaw or another. It's embarassing because, given the development system they programmed Agent in, it's about ten lines of code to add minimize-to-tray, and I even emailed them the code. There's no reason for them not to have added it.

Thunderbird apparently wants to make it easy to move from another client to Thunderbird, provided the other client is Eudora. (Though from what I see on forum posts, even that only works half the time.) It's trying so hard to be so smart, that it actually is broken, and seriously, "what the hell were they thinking" broken. First, it won't import any standard mail formats like the most basic of all, the raw email dump defined in RFC822, where email was invented. Not even newer standards like XML. Not even widely-used proprietary formats like .msg files. No, it only wants to read four formats, from four specific programs. Second, it won't let you tell it where the mail is you want to import. It insists on trying to figure that out for itself based on the registry keys that some versions of some other email programs have installed -- but not even all versions of those programs. It can't find the files unless you figure out how to trick it into looking where they are. Third, even if you fake up those registry keys, it can't import them most of the time anyway. It's so dependent on some very specific setup of some particular versions of some particular programs that it can't just import the mail and be done with it. It's too smart for its own good.

I eventually figured out a long, byzantine series of steps involving exporting one folder at a time, closing Thunderbird, dropping the export into a specific filename, reopening Thunderbird, then moving the messages on to their final destination, then repeating the whole thing. In the end I've spent hours on doing what should take seconds. If it just would give me an Open File dialog and then import whatever I say, I'd be done by now.

I don't deny that Agent is still mired in the past, and the loss of development makes it a dead end. I don't deny that IMAP is a necessity. But it's a pity that someone couldn't take the brilliant things Agent was doing, instead of doing the same things everyone else did (like IMAP), and steal those ideas. They really are good ideas. And I wish Thunderbird would stop trying to be smarter than me in areas where it isn't and can't be. Sure, have an Import From Eudora wizard, but don't cripple all your importing with the wizard format. Help or get out of the way, Thunderbird.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Fear of flying and nuclear power

Everyone knows that the statistics say that flying is far, far safer than driving. And yet almost everyone has at least a tiny hint of fear at flying, more than they do at driving. Why? Because of the sense of helplessness. If you're in a car, you have some control over your fate. Yes, it's entirely possible for a fatal crash to happen you couldn't possibly avoid, and yes, sometimes you're a passenger, and yes, the illusion of control is mostly an illusion, but it's enough. In a plane, if something goes wrong, there's not a thing you can do about it; it won't be your fault, and it won't be something you could have fixed or prevented. And that difference is far more important in people's minds than the actual facts of the matter, the actual threat that logically ought to be the determining factor in levels of fear.

It's way too early to tell how many deaths, injuries, and illnesses will result from the combination of the Japan earthquake and tsunami, and the nuclear power plants affected by it. But you couldn't tell by the level of fear, and that level of fear is going to, inevitably, have a devastating effect on the entire nuclear power industry -- which in turn will further destroy our attempts at environmental recovery and a sensible energy budget.

But while we can't guess how many deaths, injuries, and illnesses there are from any factor, I think I can safely predict this: the number of deaths that results from quake + tsunami + nuclear power will be far, far less than the number of deaths that result from quake + tsunami + bridges. Or quake + tsunami + churches and temples. Or quake + tsunami + gas stations. Or quake + tsunami + factories that manufacture CDs. Or quake + tsunami + almost anything else you can think of, that no one is even beginning to speculate proposing we shouldn't be building.

And of course, it'll all be trivial compared to the number of deaths from the big combinations: quake + tsunami + cars, quake + tsunami + tall buildings, and quake + tsunami + liquid fuel. Those will ultimately be responsible for thousands of times as many deaths as quake + tsunami + nuclear power. The same will hold true for injuries, and for illnesses.

But nuclear power is going to be, is already being, singled out as the only thing people feel we should reappraise. In essence, they're taking an existing fear, that is not based on the actual safety statistics or even an understanding of what nuclear power really is, and using this to amplify it. Because at its root, what they're really afraid of is that, if there's a nuclear power plant disaster, it will be just like that plane crash: totally out of your control. Whereas, if you're in a quake in a tall building, you can at least imagine that you could have done something about it. It's only an illusion of control. It's enough that someone could write a movie about the guy who survived despite being in the building that was falling, whereas, no one could really write a movie about the guy who survived despite being in the path of fallout of a major nuclear accident. Nevermind which one is actually more likely.

I'm not saying that there aren't important lessons to be learned about how the nuclear power plants in Japan were built and prepared for these kinds of emergencies, what kind of backups and redundancies they didn't have but should have, whether they were built in the right place. I don't even mean that nuclear power was necessarily the best solution to Japan's power needs -- I know that I don't know enough to judge that. I just mean that, whatever actually comes out of this will not be informed by any of these logical considerations. It'll be driven almost entirely by the combination of ignorance about nuclear power, and the irrational fear of things based on whether they're out of your hands, not based on what level of threat they really represent.

A few days after I wrote this, xkcd posted this chart, which elaborates on the actual measurements along with some surprising revelations. Note, for instance, that an airplane flight from NY to LA is about 11 times as much exposure as being near the Japan reactor "disaster"; and how the amount you get from living within 50 miles of a reactor for a year is equal to eating a single banana, and a third of what you get living near a coal power plant. Fascinating stuff.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

An energy budget

Rising gasoline prices are pinching the economy just as it's starting to inch towards recovery, and most people don't realize how pervasive that one factor is. The fact is, every product or service you spend money on is directly, and potently, impacted by energy costs. Energy is the most fundamental of all costs in our global economy, even more than labor is now, because even things made by robots are still consuming energy to be made, transported, operated, and disposed of.

When you think about this, if you take a big step back and look at how we, as a country, as a species, as a society, use our energy, it's immediately striking that we are totally and utterly insane about it. There is essentially nothing about what we do and don't spend energy on now that is any different from how we did when it was, in a very real sense, "unlimited" -- that is, there was more of it than the whole human race could expect to use up.

At any given moment, you aren't just using up energy to power a light bulb and a TV (which itself might be seen as kind of frivolous). You've also got a pantry stocked with foods that were grown 5000 miles away, probably by methods that used a lot of energy to manage temperatures and such, and then was packaged and transported to you. That transportation in turn necessitated a whole industry to pave roads, stock gas stations, build and repair vehicles (most of which are vastly underutilized), and keep the roads clear of obstacles and the effects of weather. You aren't just keeping your whole house (including the rooms no one is in) warmer than the manor of a spoiled medieval lordling, you're also filling that house with products manufactured on the other side of the world from materials produced even more thousands of miles away.

Pick any single thing around you right now, and try to add up every way that energy was expended in the process of getting it to where you have it, from the extraction of the raw materials, through manufacturing and distribution, to the packaging it came in, to the costs that will eventually accrue when you throw it away and it has to be carted through the waste disposal infrastructure. Now multiply that by the millions of other things you and everyone around you has. Do you feel like we're using energy in a way that makes sense, for the whole planet, the whole human race? If you could start from a clean slate and design a world with the same number of people and same amount of resources, and try to make it efficient in how energy was used, would this design have even the slighest resemblance to anything we actually have?

If the world had to look at an overall, worldwide energy budget, and treat its total amount of energy the way you (hopefully) treat your gross income, deciding which are the most important ways to spend the energy it has for the most benefit without going over the amount of energy it can gather sustainably, there is essentially nothing in your life that would be even remotely the same as it is now. Instead, we spend energy like a drunk frat boy who stole his mother's credit card. No, that analogy is way too tame; even a drunk frat boy probably realizes that the credit card has a limit, and there will be a reckoning, and even if he doesn't, he probably won't start buying high-end brandy just to lubricate the bar with so the bartender can slide beers down it. But the way we spend energy, worldwide, is even more profligate than that. If there's still a human race in 200 years, they will undoubtedly consider us far, far, far stupider than we consider the doctors who used to bleed patients to death. What's worse is, those doctors didn't really have enough info to realize how wrong they were, but we have no excuse. We're just too used to living like medieval aristocrats to really think about what we're doing. At best, we say "turn down the thermostat and put on a sweater," as if that's really what the world needs.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Missing Agent's mail routing

The process of trying to move from Forté Agent to an IMAP mail client, Thunderbird specifically, has been a really mixed bag.

The process of setting up Thunderbird to handle my email, replicating my folders, and setting up identities (the equivalent of Agent's personas, though not quite as rich in features) only took an hour or so. And with that, I'm getting my email, and having it synch with my phone just fine.

However, it's really hitting home how limited other clients are at handling some things Agent is brilliant at, and the most painful of these is mail routing. If you haven't used Agent, you probably think that whatever your client does to route mail into folders is perfectly fine -- you're just so used to having to do things that your computer could do better that you don't think about it. I am spoiled rotten, it turns out. And so should everyone be.

I'll use my friend Joe in my example of how Agent handles mail routing. I first met Joe through my roleplaying group, so the first time I ever got an email from him, it was about roleplaying. So I dragged it into my Roleplaying folder. Agent immediately asked me whether I wanted to just move the mail, or remember that mail from Joe goes to the Roleplaying folder in future (which is what I chose), or if all mail from the entire domain should go to that folder. So basically, by doing something I was doing anyway -- dragging a mail into a folder -- I gave Agent a chance to learn how I wanted things done, without me having to think about filters or anything. But wait, that's just the start.

This got associated with Joe's entry (automatically created and populated) in my address book. Agent is now smart enough to know that when I send mail to Joe, it should go into the Roleplaying folder, unless I say otherwise. When Joe changes his email address, I don't have to remember to change it in several places, just in the address book. But wait, it gets better.

Later, Joe was playing in my Uncreated game, for which I have another folder. One day he sent me an email about that. Agent put it in the Roleplaying folder, but I immediately moved it into the Uncreated subfolder. Agent then asked me what to do. Just do the move, or replace the previous routing, or add to it, which is what I chose. Now Agent knows emails from Joe can go into either the Roleplaying or Uncreated folder.

So what does it do when an email comes from Joe? Well, it has previously used Bayesian analysis on the text in all the emails from Joe in both folders, so it knows what words and phrases tend to appear more in one or the other. It analyzes the incoming email the same way. If it finds words that give it a sufficiently high confidence that the mail belongs in one or the other, it puts it there. If not, it puts it in a default. If it guesses wrong, and I move the message, or indeed if I move any message for any reason, it recalculates the analyses. The more emails I get from Joe, the smarter it gets at knowing where to file them automatically. And at no point do I have to do anything to make this happen, or keep it happening as things change, except for occasionally move an email to the folder it should have gone to.

If I poured way too much of my time into making very smart filters, I could never hope to achieve anything comparable to this in Thunderbird. More to the point, why should I be the one spending the time to figure the filters out? Agent is essentially making, updating, adjusting, and reoptimizing its internal filters constantly, saving me tons of time. And it's doing a better job than I could have. That's how software should be. But as long as no one expects their email software to do this, and everyone takes for granted that we all have to make filters and live with their limitations, or just file our own messages, no one's going to do what Agent did again.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau

Has any other sci-fi author had more of his stories adapted into major motion pictures than Philip K. Dick? Admittedly the adaptations often deviate so hugely that you can barely recognize the premise, but there's sure been plenty of them, and many of them have been great movies. The Adjustment Bureau certainly is no Blade Runner but it's a solid, enjoyable movie. Spoilers follow.

The premise of the movie is easy enough to glimpse the basics of from the trailer: there are people moving around us making small "adjustments" to our fates. But the people who made the trailer did a great job of not giving away too much of what the story is actually about -- enough to lure you in, but not so much that there's not still a lot to learn at the theater. Like who they actually are, and what they actually do, and why.

Another thing that's not obvious from the trailer is that, while there are a few chase sequences and some action, it's not really an action movie. It's a mix of character study (particularly of Matt Damon's character), a romance tale, and good old-fashioned speculative fiction -- exploring a 'what if' without really feeling a need for the answer to always be "things explode".

The romance part might take some people by surprise, but I have to hand it to them, they pull it off without any problem. That thing that everyone calls "chemistry" (and usually gives all the credit to the actors for), whatever it really is, Matt Damon and Emily Blunt have it, in every scene they share. Their romance is absolutely believable on a human level, not larger than life. And this is a good thing, since the movie really depends on this, more than you'd expect.

The actual adjustment bureau are played very nicely, with a really great style. I particularly liked how their hats (which later became a plot point!) and clothes, and the style of their building, seemed to harken from Philip K. Dick's time -- as if they simply haven't been modernized while the rest of the story has. Which is appropriate: if you were a being that lived centuries or millennia or maybe forever, you probably wouldn't update your sense of personal style until you had to, until it finally stood out so much it got in the way of the work. (That's probably also why they use words like 'chairman' and 'bureau,' affecting a sort of corporate or governmental feel; in past times, they probably took on other terminology that let them fit in, and they only change that when they have to.) It not only makes sense, it helped give the film a more atmospheric feel.

My only quibble with the bureau is the unnecessary telekinesis. We see them have this power a few times in the movie, but they don't really need it, and it's kind of boring, the minimal way it's used. We see Harry make David's coffee cup burst on the bus, but this mostly just seems to be there to establish they have this power, it doesn't do anything in the story; it's just placing Chekov's gun. Richardson uses it to trip David as he tries to escape, but that could just as easily have been done by him having placed something there in advance, since he knows -- and makes a point of it, right there in that very scene! -- that David was going to run and need to be tripped just there. And then, in the only time it was necessary, Thompson uses it to make Elise sprain her ankle. That's really it. Their ability to foresee, anticipate, and head off people's decisions is interesting; their means of travel through doors is compelling; but TK just for that is boring. It's putting way too big a power in for way too little use.

It would have been far more compelling if they had done these things through foresight. Harry could have slipped into the coffee shop and switched the cup with a faulty one (or that could have been simply struck from the story). Richardson could have set up a trip bar or other trap where David was sure to run. And Thompson could have previously weakened a spot on the floor, or made a light loose to swing and catch Elise in the eye, or any of a dozen other techniques that depend on knowing what was going to happen before it happened -- and otherwise being mundane. I think that would have been a stronger storytelling device.

One final thought about the movie: in a way, isn't it the same story as It's A Wonderful Life? I'll leave it to you to draw the parallels.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Maybe moving to Thunderbird

IMAP IMAPI've been using Forté [sic] Agent since it was in beta back in 1994 or so. Back then, Usenet was more important than email, and Agent was a news reader that had an email client built in. As Usenet faded in importance, and email skyrocketed, Agent got smarter and smarter at email, and now includes a lot of features that no other client supports. But at the same time, it's still tied to some underlying design decisions that made sense back in the days when POP3 was it for email, which makes implementing some features that are now standard in email, like IMAP, harder than they could be. Unfortunately, with email clients typically selling for $0 and Usenet clients all but extinct, Agent isn't really a selling product anymore, so Forté isn't doing more development. They kept it going long past the point it didn't make a lot of sense, but they seem to have hung it up.

IMAP's main claim to fame is that your email and folders live on the server, in addition to (or even instead of) on your client. That way, you can see it with multiple devices and they stay readily in sync. This isn't really done perfectly -- it still uses a nested-folders approach instead of a tags-like approach, for instance -- but it's good enough, and it's now the standard. Just about every email client, including those on smartphones and other portable devices, supports it. Thus, you can do some email management on your phone and have it be reflected when you get home to your computer.

With POP3 the best you can do is have two computers get the email (by using the "read" flag as a cheap way for them to keep in synch), but if you have folders, they are on the client, so you have to have the two computers handle the folders identically. And you can't get to a third client this way. And not all clients even support this kluge.

For a lot of people IMAP was a must-have ten years ago, because they had multiple computers (home and work, or more), and especially because they had portable devices with network access. But I haven't really needed it. Phones with data plans were rare in Vermont, where most of us still have to choose a provider based on which one has signal at our house. And I have been using the same computer at home and work for many years (and if I hadn't, I'd've been using a thumbdrive or SDcard for my email data file anyway -- as I am already doing with my Eee).

But I have a smartphone with a data plan now, and sometimes I get annoyed at forgetting to shut Agent down when I'm away from my computer, and finding my phone can't show my email. And of course I can't delete, file, or do much of anything with email on my phone and have the changes reflected when I get home, like I can when my phone hits my work email. I don't even get copies of my sent messages unless I BCC myself. I've also dabbled in accessing my email from my tablet from time to time, so that's even more clients.

All this is pushing me towards making the move away from Agent. Word is Thunderbird is the client of choice for Agent expatriates. So I'm going to look into how well I can make it work for me.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Arguing about politics

Lately I have had to do a lot of screening of my participation in, and even exposure to, what passes for rhetoric. It feels like the culture war going on right now is reaching a turning point, where even smart people are falling for the disinformation and manipulation being promulgated by the neocons.

People who normally argue for the importance of the rights of the little guy and support labor are reciting falsehoods about overpaid teachers and the public sector. People who are behind civil rights, balanced budgets, and healthcare one day are advocating extreme liberatarian ideals bordering on anarchism the next. The news is full of unthinkable atrocities: laws that would make a miscarriage manslaughter, strike down hard-earned basic rights for women or minorities or labor, and loony-bin politicians (not just the really obviously wacked-out ones like Palin or Huckabee, but a lot of more insidious ones) spewing the most inanely ignorant things -- and then people who are first in line to criticize them, unknowingly repeating the lies they originated, days later. All while the most telling results about the results of the decades-long campaign by the rich to return us to a time when their tax rates were absurdly low and the gap between rich and poor was at unthinkable levels. What could be more disheartening than seeing the same people who, just two weeks earlier, were calling out Sarah Palin for her latest head-up-ass statement, now roundly condemning fat-cat teachers, and remaining stubborly oblivious to the actual numbers?

Under the best of circumstances, I find these subjects mildly stressful, even slightly sickening. If I really stop to think of how thoroughly hoodwinked we are, how hard our country seems to be working at following in the footsteps of every once-mighty, now-fallen power in history, and what easily-disproven absurdities are getting parroted around, it's really painful.

But the worst of all is trying to argue with people about any of it. There is no correlation, or a negative correlation, between people who understand rhetoric, and people who want to join these arguments. The more ignorant, the more deceivable, the more unwilling to look into the facts, the more likely someone is to pontificate. One particularly damning lie: because you can lie with statistics, ergo, all statistics are lies. Because you can lie with numbers and distort facts, therefore, facts should be dismissed. Because you can reach different opinions, all opinions are equally valid, even those in contradiction of simple fact. This particular folly is like deciding that if you want to be the best baseball player in history, just sneak out onto the diamond in the middle of the night and run around the bases three thousand times. It's the same thing Hank Aaron did, and he took years and years, and didn't even get that many!

Ultimately I find the whole experience to be physically and emotionally stressful. I find myself forced to avoid participating. I just don't get involved in the conversations. When they happen in chat rooms, I just clear the screen. When they happen in Facebook, I resist the temptation to post links to the actual numbers that refute the underlying assumptions, or the Snopes articles which debunk whatever absurd nonsense is going around, because then I'll keep having the frothing folly fill up my notifications bar. It just ends up making me miserable. Sometimes I even get a hollow feeling in my chest, when I've succumbed to the temptation to join in, and then see someone's responded to something.

It's not just me. But a lot of people haven't realized that it's making them miserable, too. They have that ache to correct the lies and mistakes, based on the idea that not responding means you're tacitly agreeing, allowing the record to remain, and so they get sucked in. It's a hard one to resist. But ultimately, joining in really isn't going to change anything other than make you miserable too. When one side has convinced 150 million people to vote for cutting their own rights and undermining their own economies, and to do it with idealistic fervor, a few posts on a forum aren't going to dent that.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Things to do in Denver

...but not when you're dead.

At the end of April, Siobhan's going to a conference in Denver, and as we did last year in San Diego and in January in New York, we're both going, plus we're staying a few days after the conference. We just finally got approval to book the travel this week, so the trip, which has been on the back burner for a couple of months, is now officially on the schedule.

So we're trying to decide what we want to do while we're there. The city has the usual assortment of museums, theaters, historical sites, and parks. The science museum doesn't look like a good prospect, but we'll probably tour the U.S. Mint, the Firefighter's Museum, and maybe the zoo, botanical gardens, and aquarium. There's also an improv theater we might go to.

If you know Siobhan, you can imagine that she has a list of restaurants longer than the number of days there, and detailed analyses of the pros and cons of each, but I won't try to go into that. When we travel, I tend to take the food as if it were divine providence. Every time it's time for a meal, there's a place she's picked, and either I'll like it or I won't, but there's no point in worrying about it in advance. As long as we don't go to Casa Bonita.

We also intend to get outside the city. At very least, we'll do a day trip up into the mountains, perhaps heading towards Breckenridge, but we haven't picked any specific spots to go to. We might also head down towards Colorado Springs and Pueblo, and visit the Garden of the Gods, if we find other things in the area that seem interesting enough to make the day trip worth it. This is where our plans are fuzziest.

I'll have some time to spend while she's in the conference, but I don't know how much I'll try to get out and do. There probably aren't many attractions that would interest me and not her. One thing I might do is use the bike rental system; it's a very nice system where you can pick up a bike at any of dozens of automated stops, and drop it off at any other, but the rates are better suited to using them to get from place to place, than for touring. Lots of short trips can be done all day for $6, but one longer trip shoots the price up quite a bit. So it'd be more useful as a way to get specific places than just to ride around the parks, and since I don't likely have specific places to get to, it might not be that useful.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Making progress feels good

I think it was last summer when I first started spending time on a new big project at work in earnest. We have a long-term strategy to eliminate an ancient, legacy system piece by piece, and as we go, replace it not just with state-of-the-art systems, and the associated better business processes, but also with systems that are maintained and programmed by someone else. This is because our staffing cuts and the changing IT industry make it impossible for an organization like ours to keep working with in-house software.

(Incidentally, this is stupid. The amount of money we'll pay out in annual software support fees will easily exceed the entire salary and benefits of the positions we'll have eliminated, and then some. But just like the centralization/decentralization pendulum, the insourcing/outsourcing one seems determined to swing through the sensible balance point only briefly before charging on to the misinformed extremes.)

I started by doing research, talking to vendors, having a number come to demos, and coming up with a plan. The next step would be to write an RFP, which is essentially a lengthy legal document, mostly built from boilerplate verbiage but with a few dozen pages of my own text. The RFP has to be vetted by a large number of people to make sure it serves its purposes: to help vendors determine if they could do the work for us, to help us determine which vendor proposals are good, to become the backbone of the statement of work that will form the resulting contract, and to protect everyone involved from unanticipated (and anticipated) legal problems. But underneath the tons of legalistic parts, there is, at the heart, a statement -- hopefully complete and well-informed -- of what work you want done.

However, there were a large number of other things that were more urgent, because we are still short-staffed, with more to do than ever before and fewer people to do it, plus I have had a lot of staff outages for various reasons during the last few months. I've also had to spend a disproportionate amount of time on administrative issues, about which I cannot freely speak. And there was the holiday season, which is always a strain on any retail operation. Thus, I never got to do that writing. I did go to New York City for a few days to attend the National Retail Federation trade show, as part of my research and preparation, but otherwise, what little time I could spend on this got eaten up by handling the frequent "just touching bases" calls from eager vendors.

In the last few weeks, I've had a domino effect of good progress which has been really encouraging. A few times, notably this week, some of the ugly things that had been getting better have backslid, but notwithstanding that, I've been able to accomplish some things that feel very good -- though at the same time, the fact that I didn't get to do them six months ago is kind of agonizingly, embarassingly awful. Notably, having finally put the new help desk into production, gotten my new cubicle wall systems designed and ordered, and knocked out a few other projects, I finally got to start writing the RFP. And in less than a week, I have the second draft beginning the rounds of reviews. (It'll probably be minimum a month before it gets issued, but at least it's off my desk.)

Of course all the days spent talking to people, reading up, seeing demos, visiting vendors, etc. contributed. But when I finally was able to start writing, it took only a couple of days. So how sad is it that it took me six months to find a couple of days I could just write, without being interrupted, without something more important to intrude? I sometimes think I should work out a deal with my boss where I tell people I'm taking a vacation, but I really just go home and work on things like this, and that way I can get a lot done before anyone catches on.

It's also disheartening to think about how projects like this can't get done due to the overwhelming crush of things that we have to do, and too few people to do them, just to keep the place working day to day. That's because completing projects like this is what will ultimately fix the problem of having too huge a pile of things to do day to day. We spend 99% of our time keeping the old systems and business processes working that are wearing us out and demanding too much for the resources we have available. So we can only spare 1% for the long-term investments that will eventually get us out of this hole.

As much as the idea that it took this long to do this much is sad, I am overall feeling pretty good about making this progress, and feeling like things are moving in a forward direction again. Six months of holding pattern, two weeks of progress. Sure, it's heart-rending that that's the proportion, but when you're in those two weeks, it feels great. Got to savor it while it lasts.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011


The idea of practicing steganography in images has fascinated me since I first heard about it. The idea is that, if you don't know that there's supposed to be some hidden message encoded in something, you could look at it and never suspect; but it's right there, right in front of you. It doesn't even have to be enciphered.

One simple but powerful way to do this is to have two successive frames of video that appear to depict the same image, but there's actually very subtle differences in the color values, too subtle for the human eye to readily detect. However, compare the numerical values of all the pixel color values. Whereever the one in the second image is higher than its partner in the second image, write a 1. Wherever the second is lower, write a 0. Where they're the same, don't write anything. You can hide thousands of bits in a pair of tiny images with no way a human eye could even realize anything was there to find.

Listening to Siobhan talk about how this or that knitting pattern is "knit 1, purl 2, then knit all", it occurred to me that one could probably use a scarf as a form of steganography. Simply encode a message in binary, then start your knitting, doing a knit every time you see a 1 and a purl every time you see a 0. Siobhan assures me that the result would be fairly structurally sound (though if not, you could easily reserve a few stitches and rows at the edges for non-signal structural stitches) and wouldn't look like anything particular -- just a randomly-speckled scarf surface. With 30 stitches per row and several hundred rows, you can store a page or two of information just using 7-bit ASCII; if you use a Huffman encoding with a predetermined dictionary you could easily double that, or even more, if your dictionary didn't just encode letters but also common words or phrases.

Of course knitting is pretty slow, so it's hard to think of applications that wouldn't be impractical, or at least cinematic. I can easily imagine this coming up on the TV show Chuck. Imagine Morgan walking in on Sarah knitting, and being surprised that a kick-ass spy knits, only to find that she's really encoding a message that will be delivered to some underground rebel group in a police state through a dead drop -- it'll simply be put up for sale in one of the street markets. Imagine Doctor Who (the Tom Baker iteration) revealing that he keeps secret plans on that huge scarf of his, so that even if is captured by the Master, the secret won't fall into the wrong hands. Silly, but quite apropos to those shows.

Realistically, though, would there ever be a situation where something like this could be useful? Probably not. There are simpler but equally effective ways that don't require so much time or equipment. Siobhan suggested someone spying on a conversation and recording key facts without arousing suspicion by simply appearing to be knitting, but why not just have a recorder in your pocket? Maybe the best possibility would be using it to store some important information in such a way that, even if someone searches you or your apartment, they won't recognize or confiscate it.

The idea is ultimately too goofy for real life, but compelling enough to use as a plot device in an adventure or story. (Then again, a lot of goofy-seeming spy techniques have been used somewhere in the real world. I wonder if this is one of them.)

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Learning fake real guitar

A few weeks ago I tried out the You Rock guitar in Pro mode on Rock Band 3, but I only had an hour or so, just to prove it worked and get a taste. I did one quick lesson and then got right into playing, and didn't do that well.

A few days ago I decided to give it another try, having a few hours to really do lessons. However, try as I might, I couldn't get the guitar into the Rock Band pro mode. In fact, the control panel was totally non-functional. I could change sounds with the plus and minus buttons, and play as a real guitar, but nothing else. I tried everything I could think of but eventually had to submit a trouble ticket. To my surprise, they were able to solve the problem easily: I just had to unclick and reclick the neck. I've had to do this a few times since (seems like something about the MIDI connection and Rock Band Pro mode makes the neck electronics get confused periodically -- hopefully they'll fix this in a future firmware update) but never in the middle of a song.

I went through all the basic lessons. This is definitely a lot more of a learning curve than anything, even drums, has been before in Rock Band. And I already know I've barely started, because I tried playing a song on Medium and there were whole sets of symbols and techniques I haven't even seen yet. Even though I have learned some guitar before (admittely 25 years ago), I had more trouble finding the right string to finger and pluck than I had finding the right fret. But over the course of about an hour, I was able to get through the basic lessons and then play a few songs on Easy mode successfully.

In actually playing songs, the one thing that I find hardest about the Rock Band interface is that, if you're holding your hand at frets 1 to 5, and there's a change coming that needs you to be playing frets 7 to 11, the only warning is when that first 7 comes down at you. This is actually harder than playing normally because your eyes are on the screen, so you can't really glance over at the neck to position your fingers. What would be nice is if, scrolling down the screen, there was a little advance warning when you needed to change your fingering position. This would help make up for the disadvantage of having to look at the screen instead of the guitar. (In fact, that question of where your eyes are is a lot of why I had trouble finding the right string, too. Maybe I need to sit at a right angle to the TV so the neck of the guitar is in the same field of vision as the screen.)

Drums still remain my favorite instrument for Rock Band, and I'm still idly thinking of getting a MIDI drum set (so I can have better response and reliability, particularly with the kick drum, and since my drum kit is starting to have some trouble with the snare drum cover bubbling a little bit). I just wish I had more time so I could do all of it.

Monday, March 07, 2011


The question of how to make our educational system better, and how good or bad it is, is very complex. There are many factors it's way too easy to ignore or trivialize, like what teachers have to do to balance the needs of many students, how funding is handled, which subjects need attention, the pros and cons of standardized testing, the changes in what skills people need and what life they can expect after leaving school, etc. It's the kind of subject that you can't really speak informedly about unless you spend a lot more time on it than most people who pontificate it even dream of doing. Instead people seize on one aspect, like how American students are uncompetitive in the world market and this is helping to weaken our economy, or how much education costs have risen, and build the entire armchair-quarterbacking argument based on it.

Having worked in education for a few years, I feel I know just barely enough to know for certain that I don't really know much of anything. When people cite the "obvious" arguments on one side or the other of any given point, I can at least suggest what the other side of the coin is, but actually weighing both sides is too much for almost all of us.

But there's one thing that really stands out for me, from my experience in the education sector, and that is the passion of teachers.

If you think about the life of a teacher, it seems really obvious that they ought to be bitter, resentful, unmotivated, and cranky. They get paid very little and invariably are expected to take their work home with them. They get almost no appreciation; their relationship with parents and students is generally either neutral or hostile, and society as a whole doesn't value them or what they do. They have to deal with an incredible range of issues, far larger than the actual subject matter that they're supposed to know. They not only have to deal with kids of varying talents and interest levels and attitudes, they have to deal with them all at once, and without ever showing favor to anyone. They have to pour on even more hours going to recertification and retraining, and many of them put in even more time on extracurricular activities, which spill into evenings and weekends as a matter of course. Heck, many of them go to work every day afraid someone's going to be carrying a knife or gun. And does the public ever adulate them, or even appreciate them? Generally, they're treated like dirt.

I'm sure there are teachers out there who are cynical, jaded, and bored, and are just doing the minimum to cash their paychecks and go home, and who can blame them. But I have never met any of those or even heard of them second-hand. Without exception, every single teacher, administrator, or staff involved in the educational system who had a hand in the mission of teaching kids, was startlingly enthusiastic, driven, positively excited about it. No amount of being dumped on, taken advantage of, or unappreciated ever seemed to dent that. They would spend hours talking about how they could do a better job, and even when they were dispirited by another round of budget cuts or another parent chewing them out for not doing the parent's job for them, they still always had their passion firmly showing for what they were there to do.

I suppose when you mistreat a profession as badly as we mistreat teachers, there's a selection process at work; anyone who wasn't positively obsessively excited about the work would leave in short order. But that doesn't diminish how amazing it is that teachers can still be so upbeat about what they do. It's a miracle we have as many of them as we do.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Is this a turning point?

Any moment in history, at least in modern history, is full of momentous things. Can you name a year that didn't have something hugely important happen in it, in the last two decades? And I suspect the same would be true if you went back through the last few centuries; but when we look back on the 20th or the 19th century in hindsight, there are the things that people felt were important (and that were important) in each year, but there were also years when a bunch of those things came together into something even bigger, a perfect storm that that changed the world.

The most obvious examples are the world wars. Doesn't virtually every history book start a new chapter somewhere around 1912 or 1913, with its first few pages talking about a series of events that, at the time they were happening, some people recognized as a turning point in history, but others might well have thought were just more of the same kind of stuff that always happens? To put it another way, the people who read in the news about the Sherman Anti-Trust Act might well have realized it would be in history books, but in the months before the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, did people reading the news realize that not only would the things happening there be in the history books, but also be on the first page of a new chapter in the history books?

As I look at the news now, I get the feeling that maybe we're in one of those, but it's too soon to be sure. All the revolutions going on in Africa and other places certainly seem like a trend; doesn't it remind you of the chapter in your history book about the late 18th century, the age of revolutions in long-established powers? The culture war in the United States between the rich and poor certainly feels like it's hitting a boiling point, with the forces of the rich suddenly being smug about doing things that seem inconceivable, unabashedly, and publicly (though there are also signs of progress on other fronts). The struggles between oppressor and oppressed characterize a dozen different stories every day. No one wants to use the tired phrase "energy crisis" since we wore that one out in the 1970s, but what's happening to oil prices and how that is poised to cripple economic recovery worldwide in all sectors certainly seems to be setting the stage for a major shift in power.

But I have to caution myself. Had I asked this question in September of 2001, wouldn't we all have concluded that a new chapter was beginning? Certainly what happened then caused many other things, which caused many other things. Wasn't 9/11 a step on the way to the ascendancy of the oppressor in the United States, a turning point in international relations, and sowing the seeds of the economic collapse, amongst other things? And of course, if you go back a bit, many things, like Russia's invasion of Afghanistan, the Reagan administration's actions in the Middle East, and a dozen other things, were setting the stage for 9/11. It's like a continuous tapestry of events influencing one another -- it's like the middle of a chapter. With not even a decade between, we can already see that 9/11 wasn't so much a turning point, just one moment in a string of events before and after. In the history books written a century from now, it won't be the first page of a chapter; it'll be in the middle of a chapter, an important moment in that chapter, but nevertheless, in the middle. Yes, the world changed, and maybe a lot more than on an average Tuesday, but I don't think it turns out it was one of the top 20 most world-changing moments in the last millennium.

If the present is the beginning of a new chapter, I don't think I'm going to like being in the chapter that's about to begin. When I think about the future, most of the time, I end up hoping that the stuff that seems likely to come will just hold off long enough for me to finish out my life. Selfish, I know, and the kind of selfishness that is not available to people with kids, but it's a survival mechanism. I'm doing my part, but when you watch things like what's going on in Wisconsin, or in Libya, or some of the so ridiculous you have to double-check if you're watching real news or parody news stories out there, it's impossible not to conclude that "my part" isn't going to cut it.