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Tuesday, February 9th, 2016
11:52 pm - Arthur C Clarke Round 16: The Arthur Awakens
Into The Comet, 1960

A journalist accompanies a crew aboard a spacecraft that intercepts a comet and explores its core. The core generates massive electromagnetic interference (for some reason) that causes their computers to go haywire, buggering their calculations for the return flight, and they all believe they're stranded and doomed to starve ... until the journalist remembers that he knows how to build and use an abacus. He spends a couple weeks building an abacus for each crew member and they all crunch calculations by hand until they have a trajectory that gets them back into radio range with Earth, and everyone is saved; hooray!

Absolutely freaking ridiculous.

Security Check, 1957

A reclusive craftsman gets a job doing set design for a sci-fi TV show and starts turning in designs that are a little too accurate. Hijinks ensue. Amusing, but not memorable.

I Remember Babylon, 1960

Clarke gives himself a shovel-sized pat on the back for predicting the idea of a TV broadcast that cannot be subject to local censorship in this framed-as-nonfiction story, but he's buggered it up, because he's totally disregarded an obvious point: The Russians would never launch an unauthorized satellite into geosynchronous orbit over the United States, because it would immediately be seen as an act of war and all hell would break loose.

I mean, seriously, Clarke. First military chap who spots that rocket going up is going to assume the payload on the satellite is a big old dose of nuclear death. Before you know it, other rockets will be passing each other in the air. And you want to preach doom and gloom because someone might beam nudie pictures into American living rooms from space? Damn, you wrote this in the 50's for sure.

Summertime on Icarus a.k.a. The Hottest Piece Of Real Estate In The Solar System, 1960

A guy gets trapped on the dark side of an asteroid that has somehow remained close to the sun, like near the orbit of Mercury. Only a few hours before the asteroid rotates and the sun starts baking the planet. His robotic space-suit is hilariously crude, and there is no backup system to launch him on the return trajectory to his distant spaceship. Will he be rescued by his crewmates in time? Or should he just give up and depressurize his suit to avoid the torture of being burned alive when the sun rises?

Pretty exciting scenario, even if the numbers are all way off. But worth reading? Nah, skip it. Read the intro to 2312 instead.

The Songs Of Distant Earth, 1958

This was a long one, and I had high hopes for it going in, because the title sounded very familiar. Surely his well-known stories are his better ones?

It's a story about a young woman living in small city on a planet very far away from Earth, and a man who is an engineer on a space ship making an emergency pit-stop at the planet. Even though she's already in a relationship, the woman falls hard for the guy, and the guy falls not-so-hard for the woman, and the story is about how they deal with this doomed romance over a number of months while the engineer helps his crew to repair the ship and continue their mission to colonize another very-far-away planet.

As I was going, I tapped out four lines of notes to myself:

* No cities!
* Bees transported for orchards?
* World run by a computer brain?
* OMG the guy is a dick!!

Clarke has hypothesized that large cities would eventually vanish from Earth in several previous stories. His favorite justification is that once man invents an easy form of flight, geography won't matter, and so people will spread themselves out relatively thin just because they can. In a previous story it was the mass-production of the helicopter, and in this story it's a machine that can manipulate gravity directly. He glosses over all the other needs that might arise when living far away from others - food supply, energy supply, emergency services, ease of getting together in groups to work or play - by claiming that humanity either invented ways to supply them locally, or simply moved beyond needing them.

It's pretty obvious that he's projecting his own personality onto an entire global population when he makes this claim. There are many fantastic reasons for people to live very close together indeed, even in extremely large groups, and a good question to ask is one that turns Clarke's idea on its head: If effortless transportation can provide instant access to the outdoors whenever you desire, then why would you ever choose to live outside a major city?

Clarke doesn't actually propose it himself, but it's interesting to think of large cities as a kind of artifact of technology. Like, new technology has always given us ways to cram more people closer together with less waste and discomfort, but is there a new technology out there that would actually reverse the trend, and make everyone pine for the fjords? People often move to large cities to take advantage of the greater spectrum of opportunities there. Is there some future invention that would make the wilderness the go-to place for culture, employment, and socializing? I bet there were people in the late 90's who believed the internet was that very technology. Why live in a city when you can do all your work and play via telepresence?

Well, it turns out that telepresence is still an impediment to getting work done, for the vast majority of people and jobs. But that's just because the tech isn't refined enough, right? What about when we're all walking around in telepresence drones that look just like us, with senses just as vivid as our own? I'm pretty sure it'll still be an impediment, for a simple reason: Telepresence means people can get away with not paying their full attention, more of the time. And work will always suffer for it.

The next item on my list is about bees. Clarke declares that the orchards on the island where the woman lives are abuzz with bees transported from Earth specifically to enable pollination to occur and fruit to grow. He's making some gigantic assumptions about the ecology of the planet of course, the biggest one being that trees transplanted from Earth could actually grow at all in alien soil -- and that anything like soil would be there in the first place. It's pretty wacky, and it's not connected to the plot at all, so I had to wonder: Why is he throwing it in? Perhaps it's artistic, and he's trying to evoke nostalgia for Earth. The story in general is about how the vast distances in space travel can distort human culture and relationships. Yeah, maybe it's thematic. The bees are like furniture from an old victorian house: Evocative of a grander time, but a bit weird in your modern living room.

Next up is another Clarke favorite: The big computer in control of everything. He posits that the entire Earth is managed by a one giant artificial intelligence. This story is from the late 50's, after the invention of the first solid-state transistors, but a few years before the first MOFSET transistors and half a decade before the integrated circuits that would use them. So, Clarke was making a pretty big leap of faith that computers would be way, way more powerful than anyone knew.

He's a pretty smart guy for predicting that, and if computers had remained as expensive as they were (while still getting more powerful) we would probably live in a world closer to his vision. Computers would be instruments of large corporations and governments, and ordinary people would be acolytes tending them and subject to their whims. But instead, computing is cheap -- shockingly cheap. Nowadays we embed digital voice recorders in greeting cards for a laugh. You can make your own re-usable one for ten bucks. With computing power dirt-cheap and ubiquitous, the world is so much more complicated that one big artificial intelligence would have trouble just tracking everything, let alone managing it. Things have gotten even weirder than Clarke predicted!

Which brings me to item four on my list. I don't know if the humans of the far future are supposed to be callous, womanizing jerks, but the protagonist of this story sure is. He puts his pregnant wife into cryosleep, and a few weeks later (from his point of view) during an emergency landing, he spots a hot young woman - much younger than him - who seems to like him, and for months while he's repairing his ship and she's obsessing over his glamorous space-faring ways, he completely avoids telling her that he's already married, and already a father. Obviously he just wants to bask in this girl's attention and bone her a bunch of times, then ditch her when it's time to launch, returning to his slumbering, unsuspecting wife.

And that's exactly what he does. Ugh. I felt dirty after reading it. Along the way he decides to show his frozen wife to the woman, to drive the point home that she's just being used, and that they have no future together.

Now, I've certainly read stories about infidelity before, and had a whole range of reactions. But what got me here was Clarke's matter-of-fact treatment of the guy's behavior. He doesn't feel any shame, or even ask whether he should feel it, until the last possible moment before it's obvious he's dumping her. Likewise he feels no sympathy for her when he does - only for himself and how "hard" his pre-determined, self-inflicted ordeal is. No one else in the story has sympathy for her either, but I guess that's par for the course with Clarke, who wouldn't know how to construct a dialogue between two women even if he was taking dictation in a f*#@!% nunnery.

He apparently published several drafts of this short story - the second one no less callous than the first - before expanding it into a 280-page novel almost 30 years later. The novel has a similar doomed romance but hand-waves the jealousy and deception by claiming that the natives of the planet - including the girl - have a much looser sexuality and do not get jealous because they are not burdened by religion or poverty. Yeah, I dunno, Clarke. It's true I've met a number of people - men and women - who didn't seem to experience romantic jealousy. But they all either had obvious intimacy issues, or were psychopaths*. Not exactly the core of a new utopia.

(To the polyamorous: Please realize that I'm not bashing your category ... just those who are doing it badly.)

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Tuesday, February 2nd, 2016
2:45 pm - NZ Day 18: Riding In The Rain
We did a late checkout, deciding to leave Taupo a day early to gain some flexibility later.

The woman behind the desk apologized several times about being unavailable by phone the previous night to deal with the noisemakers. She was fine with our early departure, and made a lot of comments about how cool our bicycles were as we did final packing and rode away, downhill to the visitor center.

It was difficult deciding whether to wait for a shuttle with limited space, or start riding immediately for the city on the south side of the lake. The first bus that was going in the right direction was a double-decker with a very small luggage area, but the second was a conventional shape with just enough space, so we piled in and headed towards the the small town of Waiouru, intending to go clockwise around the Tongariro National Park by cycling the 15-mile highway connecting Waiouru to Ohakune, which was almost entirely downhill, and catching the other shuttle route up to National Park, skipping the nasty uphill portion of the ride. It meant skipping the hot springs near Turangi, but it was a lot more sane than our original plan to ride from Taupo to National Park via Highway 47 over three days, which was 70 miles and about 4000 feet of ascent with the Tongariro Crossing crammed into the third day. In retrospect that would have been a disaster.

Waiouru was a tiny fart of a town with a military base nearby. We had some crappy sausage and chips for lunch, eating next to a ragtag gang called the "Mighty Mongrel Mob". Yep, they're a real thing.


Don't mess with the Mighty Mongrel Mob! They might sit on you.

It was actually pretty interesting to run into this group. It made me thoughtful, as I ate my crappy sausage, about how so many of the cultural divisions in this world can ONLY exist because of the physical divisions that feed them. For example, if the members of the Mongrel Mob had easy, unrestricted, permanent access to the same physical space that the Justin Bieber Fan Club used for meetings, how long before the Justin Bieber Fan Club got beat up, robbed, raped, and trashed out of existence? Or would they harden and fight back, and quickly lose their taste for Beiber's vacuous music, and dissolve from the inside out? Afterwards we might have one unified large group, called the Mighty Beiber Mongrel Fan Alliance or something.

But that scenario can't and won't happen, because the Justin Bieber Fan Club - and other fluffy cultural groups like it - has enough open space and crowd anonymity that the Mongrel Mob would simply never be able to corner them.

To generalize the example, a group of aggressive assholes might believe they are dominant, and spend their entire lives declaring and believing it, while completely unaware that there are other, more productive, richer, healthier, less violent groups all around that are simply very good at avoiding them. Thus, a physical division created deliberately by one group can define the contents, and even the destiny, of another group that seeks no such division.

I find that very interesting, from an anthropological standpoint especially.

To bring it back down to Earth: Everyone avoids the Mongrel Mob because it's generally a bunch of dicks, so the Mongrel Mob festers and gets even more dicky.

Anyway, rain began to pour, so we wrapped up in our water-resistant gear. We didn't have to do a lot of pedaling since Waiouru to Ohakune was 200 feet of ascent and 1000 feet of descent spread over 15 miles. Instead we enjoyed the wind and the stinging rain as it pelted our bodies and made us go "whooooo!" and "awwww yeah!"


A dozen miles along we saw a huge stripe of carrots dumped in the field to feed the sheep. Crunch crunch crunch!


Then a few more miles after that, we encountered ... this ... (If you click on it it's a movie.)


In Ohakune we spotted a hotel built right behind a thai restaurant and went to check it out. The restaurant turned out to be closed but the hotel was decent, so we checked in and went walking around for a good meal. Ohakune is small - only about 1000 residents, spread thin - but the tourist trade is lively so we had at least half-a-dozen open restaurants to choose from.

The third restaurant we checked seemed okay, and the food tasted good. We drank cider by the fireplace and people queued up old 80's and 90's rock songs on the stereo, by walking up to a laptop wired to the wall and searching on YouTube. I queued up "Changes" by David Bowie and no one seemed to mind.

The matron of the establishment congratulated us on finishing all of our food, like we were good kids. That might not have been so praiseworthy, though, because by the time we got back to the hotel room it was clear that Kerry had food poisoning. She barfed in the bathroom for a while. Bees kept flying in the open window and accosting her while she concentrated.

"I learned an important lesson," she said. "I cannot digest an entire half-pound of milk cream in one night!"

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Monday, February 1st, 2016
11:06 pm - Obsolescence
Every couple of months, somewhere on the planet, some acolyte programmer or frustrated employer of programmers comes up with the bright idea that they could solve the problem of software development once and for all if they just built a set of software tools that management could use on their own, to describe their needs to the computer and have the computer do the work.

In the 60's it often looked like a telephone wiring panel. In the 70's the popular designs involved physical cards or cartridges that you could move around. In the 80's it was rudimentary wireframe gears and puzzle pieces, in the 90's it was drag-and-drop shapes that you connected with arrows, in the 2000's it was touch-based drag-and-drop shapes, and this decade it's the voice interface that just has a dialogue with you until it figures out what you want. Plus a zillion variations on all of these themes, drawn from contemporary sci-fi.

Despite endless attempts all over the world over the course of 50+ years, no one has managed to make programmers obsolete.

Instead, demand for them has exploded with each new leap in processing power. In the 60's computer programmers were a vague presence, somewhere in the depths of the largest buildings. Nowadays all middle-class parents nationwide worry about teaching their young children how to program so they aren't "left behind".

And that's what sets programming apart. If you want to be a programmer for any length of time, you need to keep learning. In a single season your skills could become half as useful as the next guy/girl, because you didn't notice some new advance in the field and learn how to leverage it. Programming is obsolescence-proof - because the obsolescence is built-in, and happening fast enough to shroud the whole discipline in a permanent blur. We are all like Lewis Carrol's Red Queen, running to stay in place.

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Thursday, January 21st, 2016
4:34 pm - NZ Day 17: Various Kayaks
Yesterday began with petting the local cat. Today begins with meeting some adorable ducks!


Then we launched a double-kayak out onto Lake Taupo, the first of two water excursions for the day, both scheduled 2 months in advance via the Taupo branch of Canoe & Kayak. The weather was overcast but we didn't mind - the important thing is that we didn't get rained out.

And then it just kept getting better...Collapse )

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Tuesday, January 12th, 2016
4:32 pm - Uncle G's handy guide to appropriate swearing

(Written for my eldest nephews, why may find it useful)

There are people out there who think that any swearing at all is wrong. There are people out there who can't help swearing all the time, and think any censorship is wrong. Most people are somewhere in the middle.

Personally, I think swearing can be a lot of fun, and funny, and fine stress relief. But I also know that without controlling exactly where and when I use foul language in society, I wouldn't have nearly as much success in work, travel, and personal relationships. So! Time to find that middle ground.

This applies to words you speak, but also applies to music or movies you're playing out loud.

  • The basic idea is to keep things classy. So, in general, swearing is reserved for private space with good friends, or by yourself. It's possible to use swear words in a classy way, by deploying them strategically in very specific moments, but you'll have to observe and learn for quite a while to figure out how that works. Best to avoid trying it until you're absolutely confident you know what you're doing - which will probably be sometime after college.
  • When you're meeting anyone for the first time, avoid foul language. Eventually if the person becomes a close friend, and you observe them swearing, you can swear right along with them, as long as you follow the rest of this guide. But not until then! Always be classy by default.
  • For future reference: When you're by yourself in the car, with the windows up, and some other driver bothers you: Go ahead! Just don't lose control of the car. The idea is not for the person to hear you, but for you to vent your feelings in a safe way, instead of venting them with your driving.
  • When you're in your own house, and you know you're alone: Go for it! Just not loud enough to alarm the neighbors.
  • When you're in your own house, with just a cat: Go for it! Just not close enough to freak out the cat.
  • When you're in your own house, with just a dog: Only in gentle tones - dogs can be pretty sensitive.
  • When you're hanging out with friends who also swear: Fine, with various exceptions:
  • When your friends are in public: Not fine. Filter the swearing out. This includes school, restaurants, parks, and even just walking down the street - random strangers will judge you and your group based on it, which can be important in unexpected ways.
  • When your friends are hanging around with your family: Also not good.
  • When you're hanging out with your friend's family: Nope. Even if your friend swears, their family might not!
  • When you're hanging out with some friends who swear, and some who don't: Lower the swearing to the minimum common level, so everyone is comfortable participating. If your friends are smart they'll all do the same. If they're less smart, you can lead by example and they'll usually subconsciously learn from you.
  • When you're on the phone with a friend who also swears: Fine, as long as no one can overhear.
  • When you're leaving a voicemail: Make sure it's going to a smartphone only, not one of those answering machines with a loudspeaker!
  • When you're at work or in a classroom, at any time: Nope, never good. Workmates and classmates can overhear and form ideas about you, just like bosses and teachers.
  • At Apple I did find one single exception to this rule: After three years, I could be in the computer testing room, with one or two co-workers that I knew very well, and I could say really foul things out loud to the computers and make rude gestures at them. I was venting my frustration in a funny way for myself and my close friends. Think about how specific this situation was: The lab had no windows, and was behind a locked door that only a few people could open, and I was secure in my job, and I trusted my co-workers, and I knew they also used foul language. Those are the kinds of things to consider, when you're considering an appropriate time for swearing.
  • When you injure yourself unexpectedly and painfully, go ahead and use a few custom curse words if you want. Don't overdo it.
  • Sometimes you'll encounter people who swear, but are not your friends. Co-workers at work, strangers in public, et cetera. Keep it classy. If they're swearing directly at you, trying to hurt your feelings, do your best to defuse or avoid the situation. This of course means you don't swear back at them.
  • A quote from George Bernard Shaw explains the idea here: "Never wrestle with pigs. You both get dirty and the pig likes it."
  • Swearing is easy and often fun, but learning when NOT to swear is extremely important, because it can determine your fate in ways you're not even aware of. By keeping it classy, you gain access to people, and invitations to places. You earn trust. People will trust you to speak for them, and even to speak publicly.

Swearing in written form:

  • On a school paper, or in anything having anything to do with your job: Nope. Duh.
  • When you're texting a friend who also swears: Risky - depending on whether their parents are monitoring - but generally okay. Make sure nobody is reading over your own shoulder too!
  • When you're on a group text with friends who also swear: Even more risky. Remember you need to verify in advance that everyone in the group also swears, and a record of the conversation is now visible on multiple devices, even if you erase your own.
  • In anything that can be seen publicly: Bad idea. This includes forums and blogs, like Facebook and Tumblr, where you write messages that people can view later. And in the chat console of games, with anyone who isn't a close friend.
  • Yes, other people in chat consoles like those can get pretty dirty and offensive, even beyond swearing, but if you yourself stay classy, you will come across as more powerful, and win more allies, and strangers will tend to take your side in a dispute.
  • To put it generally: Classiness can be an effective weapon sometimes.

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Monday, January 11th, 2016
10:12 pm - London school of Eco-GNOMICS!
Here, I bet you didn't know David Bowie recorded a song in 1967 called "The Laughing Gnome!"
I'll bet you didn't know he was the voice of the gnome as well!

Here's a half-speed version to prove it.

"Here, what’s that clicking noise?"
"That's Fred! He's a METROGNOME! Ha haaaa!!"

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Tuesday, January 5th, 2016
3:27 pm - Arthur C Clarke Round 15: Once You Go Clarke, You Don't Give A Quark

Hah! Thought I gave up on this, aye? (Well yeah I almost did.)

Hate, aka At The End Of Orbit, 1961

This is a story about a rather unlikeable brute of a man working on a sailboat, who recovers a downed space capsule and finds that the pilot inside the capsule is a representative of the government that destroyed his home and family. He decides to get revenge by murdering the pilot, and tells the pilot of his intentions while they are both isolated underwater. The pilot has limited oxygen and the man simply delays the salvage operation long enough to suffocate the pilot, returning to the water at regular intervals to deliver taunting speeches through the wall of the capsule as the pilot slowly expires. The pilot secretly records the speeches on tape. Once the crew of the boat pries open the capsule and finds the dead pilot inside, they pass the tape to the world media.

Probably the most relevant part of this story to modern times is the idea of an evil act being recorded and then broadcast worldwide to invite judgement and condemnation of the evildoer. Public shame campaigns have become a modern form of entertainment, driving network traffic and ad revenue, and it's all too easy for my generation to imagine the nasty fate that awaits this story's nasty protagonist. Give an ape a message box to type something self-righteous, and give them the impression that it's seen by others, and the ape will spend money to do it again and again, like throwing money into a fountain and hoping that increased social standing will come splashing out.

But that's building too much on what is actually a minor twist-ending to an otherwise unremarkable story. (It ain't even science fiction.)

Maelstrom II, 1962

This one starts from a good hook, and manages to get even better:

"He was not the first man, Cliff Leland told himself bitterly, to know the exact second and the precise manner of his death..."

A somewhat implausible chain of accidents in a moon-to-Earth transportation system results in a lone traveler doomed to crash to the ground in a set number of hours. Clarke's knowledge of orbital mechanics is on full display here, reminding us all that space doesn't need warp drives and transporters to be exotic, and in fact those things would make it less exotic than it really is. I won't spoil the story (like I do with most of these) just in case you decide to read it for yourself.

Love That Universe, 1961

A really weird one. Worldwide leaders convince the entire human population to perform a meditation exercise, trying to get everyone to express "love" all at the same time, in order to send a psychic signal to the alien civilizations around them, announcing their presence and asking for intervention to save them from a cosmic disaster. Conventional methods of communication all travel at the speed of light or less, but supposedly telepathic power is instantaneous, making it the only method that will work in time.

Not my cup of tea. I'm pretty firmly against the idea of depending on telepathy to do anything counter to the established laws of physics. That may sound like a strange way of saying "I don't believe in telepathy" but I'm being careful with my description because, after all, we live in an era of technology that's only a few steps away from surgically implanted low-power networking devices that could use the internet to send our thoughts around the world and back. At some point we're going to have to admit that "telepathy" is just the magical idea we can no longer distinguish from the sufficiently advanced smartphone.

The other thing that's always bugged me about telepathy is that it can supposedly transmit feelings - emotions - directly, as something separate from the physical signs and physiological symptoms of them.

Out Of The Sun, 1958

This one is a bit of a retread for Clarke. He'd already written a short story about an alien being with a very weird physiology emerging from the depths of the sun, and here he takes the same scenario but adds in a handful of scientists doing research on Mercury. They marvel at the emerging being, accidentally getting - and recording - a good view of its interior structure. Then it dies and there's some reverent eulogizing for it, like a professor might do of his favorite dead research project while raising a glass in the local pub.

I do appreciate the difficulty of writing, and I'm sure this story stands better on its own and not the way I'm reading it: Crowded in amongst its siblings and ancestors in an almost intolerably long family line. It's been a number of years since I started this task of reading every short story Clarke wrote, and that's given me plenty of space and time between stories, but sometimes it's still not enough space when the recycling is as obvious as it is here.

A Slight Case Of Sunstroke, 1958

For once, Clarke wrote a story that didn't feature a scientist as the protagonist, or scientific research as the setting. I kept waiting for some grey-haired gentleman in a lab coat to stroll up and introduce himself, and start explaining the big plot twist with flowcharts and a stick, or maybe some quaint anecdote about his aunt Fanny using a makeup mirror in bright sunlight and accidentally lighting her cat on fire; oh those silly women what bunglers they are. Thankfully, Clarke managed to suspended his jihad on women for the duration of this story ... but only by leaving them out.

I suppose I should explain the plot, since it was pretty good for a short story. A politician in a foreign country rises to power by forming a close relationship with the local military, and to keep the troops happy, he gets them all free tickets to a huge soccer game in a bowl-shaped stadium. He also has special playbills printed, and makes sure that each soldier in the stands gets a playbill. The playbills turn out to be highly reflective, and when the referee of the game makes a particularly offensive call, all the soldiers hold up their playbills to the sun and angle the reflection down onto the field at the referee. In an instant, he is burned into a pile of smoking ash. Revenge is sweet.

It was an intriguing idea, and I contemplated doing some research and some math to see if it could work. I would assume that the playbills had about two square feet of surface area, and reflected sunlight at 50% intensity, and just to make the calculations easier I'd assume that about 0.1% of that reflected light actually got to the referee.

Then the central question would be something like this: How much energy would it take to incinerate a man-sized object, and how much square footage of land in full sunlight would it take to match that amount of energy, times 1000?

If that square footage could fit within a quarter or so of the stands of a large soccer stadium, then the trick would work, right?

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Monday, January 4th, 2016
1:57 pm - Top-Ten reasons to be done with Skyrim. Also: Done with Skyrim! (Probably!)
Comedy Wolf insists I present:

The Top Ten Signs
I Have Been In Skyrim Too Long
  1. I stop at an Inn to quaff some snacks and harass the locals, then emerge and sprint deep into the forest. Two miles later, I finally realize I'm not riding my horse, which is standing back by the Inn lazily cropping grass.
  2. The only time I ever sleep, ever, is when I'm in town waiting for the shops to open.
  3. I'm repeatedly hurling myself into a spike trap, while perpetually casting a healing spell, because I want "one more skill point, damn it!"
  4. The beasties now are so tough that Comedy Wolf can only get in one or two good bites before I have to summon her again.
  5. Yesterday, I sat down on a rock and ate a wheel of sliced goat cheese, five heads of cabbage, ten raw potatoes, and a four-pound venison chop, then washed it down with seventeen bottles of Nord Mead - to make room in my backpack for a shiny broadsword I just found.
  6. I'm carrying around eight enchanted necklaces of "fortify two-handed", while I wait for all the shopkeepers in Skyrim to scrape more money together for bartering. I think at this point the delay must be because they need to mint more coins.
  7. One day, I picked up a skull in a dungeon because I thought it would look cool on my kitchen table. Now I can no longer sit at my kitchen table.
  8. I took an arrow in the face and didn't notice for two days.
  9. The game has taken out a contract on me.

and finally:

  1. I'm swinging a two-handed "legendary" demonic war-hammer that I forged myself, using ore I smelted myself, leather I tanned myself from a bear pelt, and a demon heart I carved from a demon I killed myself, then enchanted using my own tools so that it drains the souls of my enemies. It weighs over 30 pounds and I named it "Smooshinator".

Yes, I recently 'finished' Skyrim -- that is, I finally went through the main plotline.

In honor of the accomplishment (it only took me five years), I present the play-by-play of the last "regular" Skyrim session I played, just before running through the final quest. This is about three hours of gaming time, and a pretty good summary of a typical Skyrim session.

Thank you Bethesda, for all the fun!

Probably boring to everyone but me, so I"m putting it behind a cut.Collapse )

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Saturday, December 26th, 2015
12:18 am - The warp and the woof
In arguments between biologists and creationists, over whether a given object is evidence of "irreducible complexity" or whether it evolved, the subject of debate is usually a part of a body, and the aim is usually to describe the suitability of that body part to some task, in such detail as to overwhelm the ability of the evolutionary biologist to explain how it could have arisen.

What I find most interesting about these arguments is the question that must immediately follow all of them.

Take the example of the human eye. In the design versus evolution argument, the biologist needs to show that the eye consistently conveys some kind of advantage, whatever that advantage may be, all the way back through a series of intermediate forms until the eye no longer resembles an eye in function or complexity. In this way, the biologist links the current, later form of a body part with some earlier form in the past.

Of course, a creationist wants to show that no such series of intermediate forms can plausibly exist. But here's the part that's interesting to me: Let's assume that they are somehow able to prove this. Somehow they are able to conclusively prove that the human eye could not have evolved.

The question that pops immediately into my mind is this: "So why is the human eye shaped the way it is, complexity and all, and not some other equally complex way? Perhaps, even, a more perfect way?"

The process of evolution described by the biologist contains within itself an elegant answer to this question. The eye doesn't have to be perfect, it just has to be good enough to be a relative advantage. It also has the particular form that it does because of the particular path it took through evolution. Our eyes are not made of un-scratchable diamond, for example - even though that would be pretty handy - because there was no consistently advantageous and biologically possible path from the earlier forms to an un-scratchable diamond eye.

It's not just "how did it get this way?". It's a much more compelling question than that. It's "why is it this particular way and not some other way?". The creationist must still account for the question - and how can the creationist even begin to account for it without starting right down the road towards "survival of the fittest"?

They say that science cannot answer questions of "why", but in this case, they are wrong. Evolution actually explains why. I find that fascinating.

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Thursday, December 10th, 2015
4:16 pm - Starcraft II: The Third One, Part B: The Revenge: Electric Plasma Farts (A Rant)
Well, I blasted through the Protoss campaign and the epilogue in about a week. In the end, Kerrigan - the leader of the Zerg (think: space roaches) - meets a fat alien slug the size of Texas floating around in another dimension, and agrees to be transformed into a glowing yellow Tinkerbell fairy to fight the last bad guy again, in a senseless repeat of the final Protoss mission that just happened three missions ago.

Oh dear, I've totally spoiled it for you, haven't I! Well, when you play a Starcraft campaign you should know what you're in for:

A driveway-sized plate of exposition spaghetti, covered with Big Important Speech meatballs, and coated with a watery sauce made from "ancient legends" and vaguely Arabian-sounding names. You eat it with a shovel, chomping mechanically as you walk along the plate, and stare at the walls of the restaurant, which are covered with over-illustrated planets and over-complicated models and graffiti etched in by the developers. Some of it reads "help me I'm trapped in an office working on a Starcraft sequel."

I know Blizzard is notorious for developing huge stables of art and code and then dumping or canceling projects because they don't "measure up" to their own standards (apparently there is some deranged tax loophole that allows this abandoned work to be written off) but I think at some point in the last decade, during the long death-march of World Of Warcraft development perhaps, the very last brick slid into place and the production directors were walled completely off from any external perspective about their work.

How else to explain their own stubborn consistency? Yeah, the Protoss race has reverse-echoey dialogue, and they have no mouths or nostrils or eyebrows or pupils and they don't blink or breathe. But that's the character design we're "stuck" with, so we're going to go ahead and have you stare at the expressionless Protoss for minutes at a time, while they pantomime their way through dialogue that's got so much reverb on it you feel like your head is jammed inside a xylophone tumbling down a mineshaft. Meanwhile, we're going to give you three different customization options for every unit in the game, plus a bunch of extra units and buildings, because hey, after nine years of development, we couldn't make up our minds. Don't bother learning much about all this stuff because it will be gone when you go head-to-head with other players.

And honestly - would it kill those people to put an actual joke in the dialogue? Artanis is as serious as the grave. In the middle of making yet another ode to bravery and brotherhood, he should rip out a giant fart and have to adjust his pants or something. And can we have a moment of silence that wasn't less than 2 seconds long and interrupted by an explosion? I understand their basic problem; they have to pitch the campaign at the level of a distracted 14-year-old boy, because that's their most important market. At least, I hope that was their market - because that's where they pitched.

Not exactly a place to linger. I'm a bit relieved to be done with it.

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Wednesday, December 2nd, 2015
6:57 pm - Top ten most influential: Albums 2

Over the last year I've felt disconnected from my usual writing habit, so I decided to jumpstart things by writing about something fun: I've chosen the ten books, albums, movies, and games that were most important in defining me as a person, and challenged myself to explain why.

Some of these set my artistic tone or left huge imprints on my personality, others changed the course of my life or career. With each item I can say, "if not for this, I would be someone else right now." But why? It's a surprisingly hard question to answer. A strong feeling would compel me to put something on the list, and then I'd realize I had no clue how to unpack that feeling.

The remaining five:Collapse )

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Wednesday, November 18th, 2015
12:02 am - Top ten most influential: Albums 1

Over the last year I've felt disconnected from my usual writing habit, so I decided to jumpstart things by writing about something fun: I've chosen the ten books, albums, movies, and games that were most important in defining me as a person, and challenged myself to explain why.

Some of these set my artistic tone or left huge imprints on my personality, others changed the course of my life or career. With each item I can say, "if not for this, I would be someone else right now." But why? It's a surprisingly hard question to answer. A strong feeling would compel me to put something on the list, and then I'd realize I had no clue how to unpack that feeling.

The first five:Collapse )

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Monday, November 9th, 2015
1:34 pm - Top ten most influential: Books
Over the last year I've felt disconnected from my usual writing habit, so I decided to jumpstart things by writing about something guaranteed to be fun: I've chosen the ten books, albums, movies, and games that were most important in defining me as a person, and challenged myself to explain why.

Some of these set my artistic tone or left huge imprints on my personality, others changed the course of my life or career. With each item I can say, "if not for this, I would be someone else right now." But why? It's a surprisingly hard question to answer. A strong feeling would compel me to put something on the list, and then I'd realize I had no clue how to unpack that feeling.

The list of books:Collapse )

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Friday, November 6th, 2015
1:39 pm - Comedy Wolf has no respect!












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Friday, October 23rd, 2015
6:04 pm - The Creeping Coastal Horror!
Mold is serious business. A long time ago I met a cavalier young person who declared that mold was a harmless cosmetic issue, used by selfish California renters to avoid paying rent for perfectly good buildings. He was the son of a wealthy family that owned an apartment building. Gee, I wonder where he got his opinion from.

At the time, I was also young, and not assertive enough to do what I should have: Slapped him silly for spreading lies. Mold is serious business. Specifically, exposure to it aggravates asthma symptoms, and chronic exposure to it slowly degrades your immune system and your lungs. Chronic exposure is like a constant low-grade infection that your body never finishes clearing. Picture it: A moving cloud of spores, floating up from that patch on the baseboard near your bed, and going into your body, all night long every night. Your immune system cleans it up as it comes in, but the front lines - the alveoli of the lungs - never fully clear.

Here's a handy yardstick: If there's enough mold on something that you can stand across the room and still see it, you need to get rid of that mold. And possibly that thing it's on, too!

Last winter during the brief rainy season I was horrified to see this forming on my wall:Collapse )

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Wednesday, October 14th, 2015
10:13 am - Learning The Components (Plus a digression)
How often do you think about the ventilation system in a place?

IMG_5677

When you own the place, you need to think about it, because it needs regular maintenance. And if you haven't been doing it ... then surprise! No one has!Collapse )

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Monday, October 12th, 2015
7:20 pm - House adventure: Flora and fauna
My little cat Mira is bloodthirsty, as all cats are. Sometimes she brings in prizes for me, and her track record with eating them is not very good, making it feel especially wasteful, and making me feel especially hypocritical for enjoying nature while simultaneously employing a murderous psychopath to warm my feet at night.

IMG_6006

But sometimes her instinct to hunt is overridden by something else that I can't quite figure out. This little guy for example:Collapse )

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6:07 pm - Inner workings
So in the middle of my dream last night, I was entering this house. Tasteful upper-middle-class suburban place with lots of furniture in it.
I was going through the front door, intent on doing something, and my way was blocked... By MYSELF. Another me, wearing different clothes, including a shirt with a pocket in it, and pens in the pocket.
The other me had a serious, busy look on his face. He saw me, and was surprised for a second, then said:
"Oh, I know why you’re here. You’re going to manually control the filtering, to get a better neural packing order."
Then he stood aside, so I could enter the house. After that I never saw him...

2011-01-03_23-01-54-IMG_6825

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Saturday, October 10th, 2015
8:11 pm - Adventures in home ownership part 3,000,000: CURSE YOU, SQUIRRELS!
Ladies and gentelmen, I introduce to you, the critters that have been my nemesis for an entire year. Squirrel #1, and her two partners in crime, Squirrel #2 and Squirrel #3.

squirrel 1

s2squirrel 3


These photos were taken by a previous tenant of mine, a photographer with an excellent zoom lens. He realized there were squirrels afoot when he started hearing the sound of skittering animal feet behind the walls on the top floor. There's a couple of long triangular spaces up there, between the inside walls (which are vertical) and the roof (which is slanted). Humans can't access them, but critters can, especially if they chew their way in from the outside. So my tenant went outside one morning when he started hearing the noise, and stood in the driveway, looking up at the house, and pointed the camera at the eaves just below the second-story window. Pretty soon he had clear shots of all three invaders.

There are a few interesting observations to make here...Collapse )

So how much did the consultations and the repair work cost, altogether? The contract had other work mixed into it, so I can't give an exact number, but I'd say it runs around $4000. Curse youuu, you crazy squirrels!

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Saturday, August 29th, 2015
2:41 pm - NZ Day 16: Enjoying The Country
Start the day off right, with a visit to the local kittycat! (We found this cute fellow when we stopped for snacks at the thermal park, on the way out of the area.) It's a movie, but since this is LiveJournal, it won't embed, so you're gonna have to click. Sorry...


It was easier to stop at the park than to prepare any kind of breakfast at Hotel Waiotapu, since every item in their self-service area was broken and smelled faintly of fried electronics - including the kettle, the microwave, and the fridge. Clearly that place makes its money by being very conveniently located, not by offering anything close to decent amenities or service.

(As we checked out, Kerry and I noticed that even though our room was tiny, someone had found enough room in it to place a bible. Somebody - neither of us is willing to admit who it was - wrote inside it, "ALL THE PILLS MEANS ALL THE JESUS!" and put it back in the drawer.)

Anyway our task for today was to go 30 miles south from Waiotapu to Taupo, on the shores of Lake Taupo. Highway 5 is the main route between these two places, but the heavy traffic is not ideal for cycling. Fortunately Broadlands Road covers most of the same distance and is much quieter. (Nevertheless we still encountered plenty of big trucks, and had to pull entirely off the road for some of them.)

Along the way we found even more snacks, on a handy apple tree leaning over a farmer's fence:


I gathered five apples but I only ended up eating one, for reasons that will become clear later!


Check out this aged sign in front of a country residence. Can you decipher it?


The weather was glorious, yet again. We pedaled through gently rolling hills and flatlands radiant with a hundred shades of green and yellow, chatting on our intercoms and stopping wherever we wanted to take photographs or mess with our gear or pee behind a bush - or simply hang out. We had the entire day to go 30 miles, most of which was easy riding.


We saw lots of animals on the farmlands surrounding the road (and a few more animals squished onto the surface and baking in the sun) but the two that eventually tempted us enough to stop were these fine horses:


They loved the fresh grass we gave them from the other side of the fence, and definitely loved the apples that we tossed over for them to sniff out and pick up later.

(It takes a little bit of practice to feed a strange horse without being bitten.) (The image below is actually a movie! Please do poke it.)


We named these horses "Bully" and "Bieber". Bully is the domineering one on the right, of course.

The road rolled by, along with the sunny afternoon. Sometimes it felt like I was back in California, cycling around Moss Landing or Hollister. But then I'd see a logging truck, or something like the Ohaaki Power Station and remember where I was.


The flat eventually changed to a mild uphill with a slight headwind, which combined to make our progress extremely slow. We spent hours covering what seemed like only a few miles leading in to Taupo, and finally arrived at the top of a hill, where we paused for a break and saw a gigantic logging truck - the largest one either of us had ever seen in New Zealand - push out into the intersection and go chugging away. It was so epic we had to film it. (Yep, another video you'll have to click to see. Sorry...)


It has 42 wheels. Go ahead and count 'em! It took 1/3 of a minute just to roll across the intersection.

I don't think it's any coincidence that the opposite corner of the intersection is residence for a grave marker, identifying some sad highway accident from the recent past:


And not too far away: The gravesite of Optimus Prime?


After that it was almost all downhill into Taupo. The motel was easy to find and only a block away from the kayak place we needed to show up at the next day. We walked down to a thai take-out place and grabbed food, chomping it right there on the sidewalk on a tiny table, then walked back to the motel and crashed. Ka-bam!!

It was another great day, even though it was just a little too long in the saddle.

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