Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy 2011!

Another new year's eve, another year. I don't drink or "party" or do much to celebrate the new year; it's actually something of a sad time for me, as it means that a) my next birthday is in a couple of days and b) that my holiday vacation time is coming to an end. Ah, well -- in truth I should be happy that I've got a good job to go back to.

That said, and on a totally different topic altogether, for awhile I've been thinking of some "interesting" follow-ons to some popular culture media that I'd like to see -- follow-ons that will very likely never happen unless I write them myself and publish them as anonymous fan-fiction (highly unlikely). Still, I'd like to make a note of them here:

  • Star Wars: The Droid Liberation Wars - Ever since the first Star Wars movie, I've been bugged at how the droids -- who for the most part seem as sentient as any of the organic characters -- are very much "second class citizens". Remember that scene in the Mos Eisley cantina where the bartender says "Your droids. They'll have to wait outside. We don't want them here."? I wondered if Lucas might move the series towards "droid liberation", in the end leaving the Empire to be more or less on par with Iain M Banks' Culture. To the best of my knowledge -- I'm not a big Star Wars fan -- this has not happened. But I'd sure like to see it.
  • Harry Potter and the Wizard-Muggle War - I mean, haven't you ever wondered? It'd sure be interesting if J. K. Rowling and Jack Clancy collaborated on something like this. Rowling has shown she's not afraid of getting very dark -- all-out us-or-them genocidal warfare could get very very very dark indeed.
  • Sookie Stackhouse: Dead During Wartime aka True Blood: The Human / Vampire Wars - As with the Harry Potter concept above, this could get really dark and "interesting". I mean: homo sapiens encounters a superior apex predator ... this is a situation that's gonna go downhill fast.
  • Invaders of Gor - Earth takes on the Kurii, Priest Kings, and alternative (and highly non-PC) human cultures of John Norman's Counter-Earth as described in his Gor series of novels (I think he's up to #30, God help us all). You may laugh, but seriously, this could be rather interesting. The non-human Kurii have this habit of kidnapping humans from Earth and transplanting them to Counter-Earth, so there could be a nice X-Files vibe to this.

    I once wrote up a short teaser on the concept (which reads rather like a mashup of Gor with Vinge's Marooned In Realtime); I may wake up in the morning regretting this, but here it is:
    Jessica Qin was born in 1960AD on Earth in a small town in a province called Illinois, located in the United States of America.

    Advances in medical technology -- especially the Big Breakthrough in the mid-21st century -- have kept her youthful and fit. Despite what you may think of her appearance, in 23rd century America, she blends in with the crowd. But in 2235AD, bored with life, she opted for a century-long solo mission to the star Wolf 359, 7.7 light years away.

    Arriving in the Wolf system 47 years later, Qin emerged from stasis to find herself under fire by unknown entities. With 80% of her defense capability down and drive severely compromised, she found herself free-falling on a tight hyperbolic path around an object that appeared to be a Tipler Cylinder. With no drive capacity, she had no choice but to bobble herself and her remaining resources into stasis and go for a ride.

    Emerging from stasis, Qin found herself with good news and bad news: the good news was that she was on the fringes of Sol system's Oort cloud, rich in raw materials and just half a light year from Earth. The bad news was that the open time-like curve she'd traveled had displaced her 277 years into the past, back to 2005AD.

    After her ship self-repaired, she headed back to the inner system, where she was amazed to find Counter-Earth, which at first glance seemed an ideal place to stay completely out of the light-cone of Earth for the next 277 years.

    Then she became acquainted with the local customs and the political situation.

    Shocked and appalled by what she saw, she thought long and hard and concluded that her most fruitful course of action would be to align herself with the Priest-Kings in their war against the Others, repairing and in some cases augmenting their decaying technology -- Ship engineering AI de-briefs on recovered Priest-King technologies invariably included terms like "idiosyncratic", "baroque", and "paper-clips and silly-putty" -- in return for concessions that would soften the harsher aspects of Gorean human culture.

    By necessity feared more than she is loved by humans and aliens alike, she is mad, bad, and dangerous to know. And yet unswervingly faithful to those few she considers her true friends. She has an unpopular cause but near-infinite time and resources to devote to it.

    And Jessica Qin is an extremely patient woman . . .

    The scary and difficult thing about writing this would be the necessity of having to ingest (and take notes on!) the 30 volumes of "reference" material in the existing Gor novels. I once inadvisably read all 6 volumes of Piers Anthony's Bio of a Space Tyrant over the course of a weekend and made myself sick. 30 volumes of purple-prose propaganda urging women to accept their place as loving slave to their Master ... that might kill me.

So there you have it. I notice that these all involve some kind of war. So be it -- most interesting narrative involves some kind of conflict, and war is about as big and in-yer-face as conflict gets. There's also a pronounced "what if God and Superman got into a fight?" flavor to the last three -- but That's Entertainment.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Holiday Movie Wrap-Up

For some reason I've seen a lot of new movies these past few weeks. Some capsule reviews:

  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 - It seems as if each successive Harry Potter movie is darker than the last. I expect that for Deathly Hallows Part 2 they'll finally push the saturation knob all the way down to 0 and it'll effectively be an audiobook that you listen to in the dark. Aside from that -- frankly, this was the most boring, angsty Harry Potter movie I've seen so far. I think that breaking the final book of the series up into "Part 1" and "Part 2" is a rather obvious effort on the part of the studio to extract every last possible penny from our pockets. Also -- I'd strongly advise not seeing this unless you have at least a passing familiarity with the rest of the books. My family made the mistake of taking my father to see this while he was visiting, and he didn't know what the hell was going on (and I was a bit fuzzy on some of the plot details myself).
  • Night of the Demons - Any movie that uses Concrete Blonde's Bloodletting as the background soundtrack to scenes of New Orleans debauchery automatically gets a +1 from me. But the rest of this movie was just pointless. It failed at least half of the rules Mark Twain laid out in Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses, primarily the one that mandates that the reader / viewer care whether the characters live or die.
  • TRON: Legacy - An expensive disappointment. And by "expensive", I mean I dropped $56 to take the family to see this in "Real3D DX" and it really wasn't very good. Frankly, it was like watching the original TRON re-rendered at 8x the resolution with .25x the plot. The Daft Punk soundtrack (and their brief cameos) were the real standouts. Visually, it looked like a Syd Mead wet-dream -- but somehow it still managed to be trite and forgettable.
  • Predators - As with Night of the Demons above, this was pretty much pointless from the beginning and totally lacking in sympathetic characters. There's a "surprising plot twist" near the end that I'm sure anyone with an IQ over 100 figured out 15 minutes in. There's one cool part where this Yakuza guy takes on a Predator with a samurai sword, but beyond that, there's pretty much nothing of interest here. Disappointing. I sure hope Machette is better than this.
  • Get Him to the Greek and Forgetting Sarah Marshall - I really enjoyed these movies (perhaps because I had low expectations). Forgetting Sarah Marshall was a pretty basic "boy loses girl" plot but I found myself actually liking the characters, and I enjoyed the quirky humor (for instance, Sarah is the star of the television show "Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime"). Also, I cannot lie, it was also nice to see Kristen Bell wearing a lot less than she ever wore on Veronica Mars. Get Him to the Greek is something of a spin-off, based loosely on My Favorite Year with Russell Brand's unflappable, burnt-out rock star "Aldous Snow" playing the part of Peter O'Toole's "Alan Swann" -- but with a lot more sex and drugs. Again, a lot of quirky humor (and a fun little cameo from Metallica's Lars Ulrich) and likeable characters. But beware: you don't wanna watch either of these movies with the kids.
  • The Ring - Again, I'm one of the last people in the world to see this. And I know a lot of people think this was just an awesome horror film. But it left me with a big "meh".
  • Scott Pilgrim vs The World - One of -- maybe the best -- movie I've seen this holiday season. And, oddly enough, my teenage kids enjoyed it too, and I had fun watching it with them. My only criticism is that they could have trimmed 15 minutes. But don't let that put you off of seeing this gem. I've seen a lot of movies that are based on comics--errr "graphic novels"-- but this is the only movie I've ever seen that managed to successfully pull off "graphic novel look-and-feel" in a manner that was fresh and original throughout the entire film. A fast-paced movie that's fun and sweet at the same time.
  • The Box - I'd read the short story and also seen the Twilight Zone version. The movie succeeded in taking a simple concept and making it, well, sorta stupid. It's the kind of movie where you get hooked watching it, trying to figure out WTF is happening -- and then at the end, it's like "oh". Visually, I'll give the movie points for capturing a genuine 1976 look-and-feel, and some scenes were a very effective homage to the whole 1950's Cold War / Bodysnatchers kind of alien paranoia (I assume this was on purpose).

So I guess I'm kinda hard to please. I could go on -- I've been working my way through a number of lists of "most disturbing films ever made" (which probably deserves a post of its own -- I'm finding myself surprisingly un-disturbable)(although Martyrs certainly left an impression) and also watching some mindless-but-fun action movies (2 Fast 2 Furious, District B13, the Transporter movies and some horror classics like Final Destination and Hellraiser).

That said, I watched a few trailers last night for upcoming 2011 features that look somewhat interesting:

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Guns! Guns! Guns!

So you want to know what kind of gun Wayne Newton used in The Adventures of Ford Fairlain? Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the astoundingly comprehensive Internet Movie Firearms Database.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


I was probably the only person in America who hadn't seen Inception, but Amazon delivered the modestly-priced "triple pack" (includes blu-ray, regular DVD, and "downloadable digital" versions) yesterday and so I figured It Was Time.

All-in-all, it's a pretty kick-ass movie. One that begs to be played *loud*, too: the soundtrack is quite a lot of what makes it all work, and Hans Zimmer, the composer, borrowed freely from Holst's Saturn and Don Davis's Matrix soundtrack for lots of those big, in-yer-face "brass explosions" and the result is pretty awesome.

Surprisingly, when I looked around for critiques and reviews of the movie, I was rather surprised that most people -- even people who professed to like the movie a lot -- seemed to find Inception a rather shallow piece of work. Which left me scratching my head; when the Matrix movies came out, there were all kinds of deep, philosophical discussions about the nature of reality, I remember someone put together an annotated transcript of the dialogue between Neo and The Architect in Matrix Reloaded, references were made to Plato's The Cave, etc. Some really deep shit.

I've been a big Philip K Dick fan for decades, so having characters moving willy-nilly between realities, sometimes losing track of what's really "real", is something I'm pretty comfortable with. And while the Matrix films had some awesome action / fighting sequences, Inception beats Matrix hands-down for plot and consistent world-building. So I was kinda surprised to see people talking about how Inception was really a metaphor for movie-making (say what!?). Personally I think there's rather a lot more there that Matrix-meets-Sunset-Blvd.

There appears to be some disagreement on what really happened at the end: some people seem to think it was all wrapped up neatly, with Dom Cobb returning to reality and they all lived happily ever-after. I've only seen the movie once, but I'm of the opinion (and I find it just generally more attractive to think) that it's more complex than that. Dom claimed that he knew inception was possible because he'd done it to his wife Mal when they were trapped in Limbo, persuading her that they weren't living in reality. Well -- what if Mal implanted a memory in Dom to convince him that they were living in reality? In other words: maybe Mal was right?

I know the totem is supposed to indicate whether or not one is currently in reality -- but the totem concept was Mal's idea, and Dom even uses Mal's totem after her death. I don't think it's impossible to wonder if totems -- or, at least, Dom's totem -- aren't as reliable an indicator as they're made out to be.

Ah well. Everyone's got an opinion, and mine isn't set in stone. But I guess I'm just not a fan of movies that wrap up too neatly at the end. I prefer a little ambiguity or subtlety in my narratives, where I have to apply some thought to "what it all means" versus being hit over the head with "the answers".

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Neat iPad / Stanza / epub feature

If you install the free Stanza e-reader app, and then someone emails you a book in epub format as an attachment, touch and hold the icon until the attachment is fully loaded -- you'll then see a prompt asking if you want to open the book in Stanza. Indicate in the affirmative and happy reading! (depending on the apps you have installed, you may be prompted with several choices of apps to "open" the book -- I had GoodReader as one of my choices, and it seemed like it tried to open the book as a PDF. FAIL. So make sure you choose Stanza to open an epub book). Oh, and yes, you can delete the email after you open the book in Stanza -- Stanza saves it in its Downloads area. I've only tried this with non-DRMed epub; it may work with MOBI or other formats but I don't know. Anyhow, this is a nice trick for loading a book onto someone's iPad without going through iTunes.

Monday, December 6, 2010

My Home Video Odyssey

originally published 15 November 2010

So I've had this dream for quite awhile of having a totally digital home theatre system with no moving parts. I'm happy to say that I made a significant step towards that goal this weekend -- I set up an audio / video "tank" -- think of it as a "digital jukebox" -- that holds all of my family's music, pictures, and videos, including about 350 (legally) ripped DVDs. All accessible via remote control on our television / home theatre system (and, also, on our iPhones, iPads, and computers).

If you're curious, here are the results of the research I did this weekend, and what I finally settled on:

First off, I had a few loosely-defined requirements:
  • It needs an on / off switch or extremely low power sleep mode when not in use. You'd think this is a no-brainer but the early Apple TV units were powered on 24 / 7 / 365 and supposedly got quite hot and weren't power-efficient.
  • Also -- instant-on or a very short power-on / boot time.
  • 1080p support.
  • No dedicated computer required. I don't want to boot a computer just to watch a movie, nor do I want to leave a computer running all the time.
  • Wide format support, including mp4 / m4v (which is how most of my video assets are formatted).
  • DLNA support (so it'll play content directly off of a NAS).
  • "Nice" UI, preferably based on something open source like Boxee or XBMC. Ie, I want something that wasn't just hacked together.
  • HDMI output -- I think this is the only thing that was available on everything I looked at.
  • Support for Netflix, Hulu, Youtube, and any other 'net-based content delivery.
  • NAS functionality, so we don't have to pass USB drives around to share content.
All that in mind, I hit Google hard and pretty quickly came up with the Major Players in this area. The following list of devices, pros and cons is not at all comprehensive, it's primarily the features or problems that stuck out enough that I remember them from Saturday:
  • Apple TV -
    Pros: the latest 4th gen version is low-power, and the device seems fairly reliable. This last is a not-insignificant feature considering all of the reliability complaints I saw about the other devices. Neat iPhone / iPad controller apps. Neat picture / slideshow features.
    Cons: it really doesn't do what I want it to do -- it seems to be mostly oriented towards allowing one to rent movies and television shows from the iTunes store. The latest version won't take an add-on external storage device, and while there's an external storage hack for older versions, it's apparently like a roach hotel for videos: they go in, but they can't come out (ie, no NAS functionality). Finally, and surprisingly: it's only 720p.
    (I also considered buying a Mac Mini and running something like Boxee software on it -- but the Mini is kinda pricey ($700US) and for that kinda money, it should read blu-ray discs. But it doesn't)
  • Google TV -
    Pros: 1080p and it's got Netflix and a variety of other media sources. Also, it lets you browse the web while you watch television, neat iPhone / iPad controller.
    Cons: so many it almost makes me cry: it's expensive ($299 and up), saw many many complaints about reliability and failures, some odd android fluke allows you to connect an external drive of up to 869GB (?), formatted as FAT32 (?!), many complaints about how the browser was painful to use, and the "remote control" is a full-sized keyboard (although you can buy an extra tiny keyboard controller for $130 or go with Sony's implementation which starts at $400), television networks seem to be lining up to block Google TV (FOX, ABC, CBS, NBC, and SyFy block it). Basically, at this point Google TV is pretty much a new "improved" implementation of WebTV from 1996.
  • Roku -
    Pros: cheap ($99), supports Netflix and a variety of other sources (Hulu "coming soon"), lots of built-in codecs, neat iPhone / iPad controller app.
    Cons: reliability issues, they recently stopped supporting PlayOn (an interesting content source that I may subscribe to in the future), I couldn't tell if the thing would function as a NAS or not. No DLNA support, so I'll need to buy a couple of terabytes of storage ($200) just for videos and I may or may not be able to use it as a NAS device.
  • WD TV -
    Pros: cheap ($99), NAS capability (sorta), Netflix support.
    Cons: can't connect to Windows 7 as NAS device (my wife's computer runs Win7), reliability issues, there's an iPhone / iPad app controller but it's not very good, I'll still need to buy a couple of terabytes of storage ($200).
  • Boxee -
    Pros: nice GUI (maybe - there were mixed opinions on this), Netflix and Hulu "coming soon" (but they still claim lots and lots of sources of media content), nice iPhone / iPad controller app.
    Cons: kind've expensive ($199 plus the cost of 2TB of extra storage), long-ish power-on time, reliability issues (and I haven't had good experiences with D-Link products in the past). No NAS support (I think).
  • Popcorn Hour C-200 -
    Pros: lots of keen features.
    Cons: expensive ($299 plus cost of extra 2TB of disk), notso hotso iPhone / iPad remote. Many, many, many complaints about reliability and support. Not sure about NAS capability.
So those are "big names" in this field. There are a number of lesser-known players out there and I suppose it's possible that I overlooked a device that would have been absolutely perfect. But I tend to think that if something truly awesome was out there, I would have encountered numerous mentions of it while I was researching these others.

To summarize: nothing I looked at did everything I wanted. Apple TV and Google TV just weren't what I wanted at all -- Google TV was especially disappointing. The Popcorn Hour box has great specs but there were many comments from buyers who had significant problems, I kinda got the feeling that they promised more than they really delivered. Similarly, the Roku, WD TV, and Boxee weren't quite "there". My overall impression is that there's currently quite a lot of churn in this market and it's going to take time for everything to settle down to where this technology is commoditized and reliable like, say, a CDROM drive.

And so ... I basically consigned myself to waiting 6 months or so and then surveying the field again. Although I decided that now would not be a bad time to "prepare the way" by buying a NAS device. And during the course of researching NAS I learned more about DLNA, and how well it works with the XBox 360 -- which is the device my family already uses to access Netflix.


And so I hustled down to my local Fry's and bought a Western Digital MyBook Live NAS device, which includes a very nice little DLNA media server called TwonkyServer.

It works like a dream.

And I have objective evidence for this: my wife and kids actually love it and use it (which is sadly not true of every high-tech gadget I've set up at home). There's currently no iPhone / iPad controller for the XBox -- but my wife's Harmony universal remote works great with XBox, and the XBox controllers themselves aren't bad.

I've got all of our videos, mp3s and pictures up on the NAS, and they're all accessible via the XBox 360's (arguably somewhat eccentric) UI. It's one of those things you have to experience to really get "teh awesome" of it.

It actually works better than I had hoped, because DLNA / Twonky allows us to stream videos onto our iPads -- there are several for-pay apps and one free one called MLPlayer Lite. And the XBox controllers themselves aren't bad -- they're RF, not IR, so I don't have to aim it.

So ... I'm almost there. I still have some moving parts, most notably the NAS disk drives. I'm not sure how long it'll be before SSDs are down to about $100 / terabyte, but it's probably just a matter of time. I'll probably never really get it down to no moving parts: switches and speakers will be with us always, I think, and also it's going to take quite awhile before the media industry switches from rotating disks to tiny cheap SSDs and / or totally network-based distribution of content. But this was a pretty significant step forwards.

NEXT: (I do not know when this will happen) will be the integration of some kind of recording ability into the setup, so that I can record and timeshift television shows onto the NAS and bypass the (rather unfriendly) DISH Network PVR. But that's a big topic and I'm not going to go into even my preliminary thoughts here.

Pad People

originally published 4 April 2010

So ... Mr. UPS showed up with the iPad at 11am on Saturday. I'd pre-ordered the 32GB Wifi version for my wife's birthday.

By 1pm I'm on the phone to the local Apple store: "So, if I came down there and wanted to buy an iPad, would you have one to sell me?" The person on the other end was somewhat amused: "there's a line, but probably so."

Long story short, I got a couple of the 16GB units for my kids and a 32GB unit for me. This took a certain amount of dedication on my part, as they had a "2 units per person" policy, and so I had to stand in line twice.

By now you're thinking "he's gone insane"[1] and / or "this guy obviously has too much disposable income"[2]. But you'd be justified in asking why I would do such a thing. And don't be mistaken: I'm not an Apple Fanboi by any means. Not since that PoS Apple ][e+ I bought when I was 19.

I think the watershed moment for me was when my wife used the iBooks store to download the (free) Complete Works of Shakespeare. She flipped to "Hamlet" (act III, scene 1) and held her finger over the word "bodkin" and a popup window gave her the dictionary definition[3]. It's not 100% -- it failed on "hurleyburleys" (although it offered Google and Wikipedia lookups). Shakespeare really doesn't get easier than this.[4] The iPad has the potential to be an educational device like something out of a science fiction novel (see below). My daughter picked up Gray's Anatomy, in color, for $0.99.

Also, I knew there'd never be any peace in the household until everyone had their own unit.

Oh, it's not perfect:

It doesn't charge while it's plugged into my notebook computer's USB port. And (like the iPhone) you really need a case of some sort to make it easier to hold on to. I think it was the C|Net review that noted that it's about the size and weight of a book -- but when the book costs $700 and is made of glass, you treat it a lot differently than a traditional book. And I miss being able to mount the device as an external filesystem like I can with my iPhone and iPod. And of course everyone is waiting for v2.0 that will have a camera so we can all (theoretically) videoconference with it. Oh, and if there is a Razzie Award for bad software UI design, iTunes wins hands-down.

But it's still pretty darned good. Comparing the iPad to the Amazon Kindle or the B&N Nook reminds me of the early days of the web, when there were many hard-line HTML experts who held that "HTML is a formatting language for displaying text and images on an arbitrary viewer", who would dismiss anyone who wanted to actually attempt to control the look / layout of the page. The Kindle is great for displaying books, sure. But the iPad let's you redefine the cncept of "book" to be something different and better. For instance, take a look at The Elements for iPad (an app which has been getting a lot of PR).

"This is the version you check out from the Hogwarts library," creator Theo Gray told BoingBoing. "Everything in it is alive in some way." Or, if you're a Neal Stephenson fan, it's like the Young Lady's Illustrated Primer from The Diamond Age.
No, most iPad books aren't this elaborate. Yet. But I can see an entire new "magic books" industry forming, dedicated to writing and programming "books plus" for this platform.

I suppose time will tell, but so far, battery life has not been an issue.

I'm also excited by the musical possibilities of this device. Create Digital Music has a really wonderful overview of some of the available and upcoming music apps. And I've got my fingers crossed that the JazzMutant people will adopt iPad as a platform.

I could go on and on -- all of the free news and media apps. NetFlix streaming. Cisco has a (free, as yet untested by me) WebEx app for the iPad, too. You've heard it all before.

Late breaking news: Apple iPad Already Jailbroken

But having played with one for the past 24 hours, I feel I can safely say: this thing rocks.

[1] My family thinks I'm reasonably sane. YMMV.
[2] None of your business.
[3] A needle, more or less.
[4] It strikes me that Scientologists (who I'm told are big on knowing the exact definition of every word they read) are gonna love the iPad. I bet it won't be long before Dianetics and Battlefield Earth appear in the iBook store.

Why Did That Man Call You "Jessica", Daddy?

originally published 17 March 2009

Something people wonder about (but don't always get up the nerve to ask me) is: "why do you have a female avatar?"

If you've spent any time in a virtual world -- heck, if you've spent any time on the Internet -- the entire phenomenon of RL males appearing as female (or RL females as male) probably doesn't even raise an eyebrow. With an AV in virtual space it's a bit more in-your-face -- it's a visual medium, so it's not just a name, you see them, too -- but gender-swapping is certainly nothing new.

But people who aren't used to it can find it a bit disconcerting. And -- let's be completely blunt -- people sometimes wonder if the RL person is gay or transgendered or if they have "gender issues", etc[1]. But in my experience, that's not always -- not even often -- the cause for the gender-swap.

Everyone has their own reasons for choosing their AV gender. For me, it was a few things all rolled into one:
  • The biggest reason is, simply, that I'm really bad at making male AVs. When I started out with all of this virtual worlds stuff 4+ years ago, I had a male AV. He looked awful. I received lots of independent confirmation of this. And I confess that I am vain enough that I want to look good, especially in a medium where creativity is so highly valued.

    The problem is that I'm a guy and I don't know what makes a guy good-looking. And I've talked to enough other men about this to know that this is a "guy thing" and it's not just me. I can make guesses and general observations ("he's nicely groomed (+1) and has a strong jaw (+1), but his eyes are too close together (-1) ..."), but I can spend all day looking at pictures of Brad Pitt, Heath Ledger, Mel Gibson, Sean Connery, and James Brolin, and I still don't know how to adjust the sliders or paint the skin to make a handsome face. Heck, the only reason I know Brad and Heath and Mel and so forth are handsome is because people have told me they are.

    But tens of thousands of years of evolution and decades of real-time programming have gone into the development of a neural net in my brain that allows me to appraise female attractiveness in under a second. This makes the entire "code / compile / test" cycle so astoundingly short that I can easily build an attractive female face simply by moving the sliders around and it's obvious what "works" and what doesn't. And so it turns out that having a female AV allows me to get in better touch with both my "feminine side" and my innate Male Chauvinist Pig-osity.[2]
  • I've always been curious about what it must be like to be female. If you think about it, all over the world, women and men are raised very differently and treated very differently from each other. Not that playing a female AV in SecondLife is going to give me the full authentic experience of blossoming into womanhood. But it can give me a small taste of it. For instance: the first time a male AV tried to chat me up for a date was a serious eye-opener. Get a clue, guys!
  • This has changed over time, but back in 2005, options for male AV clothing and accessories were abysmally few; jeans and a black t-shirt was "state of the art" and it was very hard to find prim hair for guys. It was simply easier and more fun to dress up a female AV. Although my fashion sense is still rather spotty: someone once told me that I dressed like a comic-book superheroine. Not a conscious decision on my part, but -- I think they got it right.
  • This is more a reason why I've kept my female AV: as mentioned in an earlier post, name and reputation and identity are all tightly intertwined. And over time, Jessica has developed a nice reputation as a good builder and scripter. I don't want to simply abandon all of that by moving to a new male AV with a different name.
All of that said, in the end I cannot lie: I like designing female AVs. It's fun and I seem to have a knack for it. It takes time but over the years I've developed about 35 different looks for Jessica, and I'll wear different ones as the mood takes me. Which drives some of my friends crazy, but oh well.

In the past I've done a little bit of static 3D AV work with DAZ and, while the resolution is much higher, the results seem simply lifeless. But the virtual world is a dynamic medium that allows for movement and interaction. It's more than just achieving "the look"; it's finding just the right walk, or just the right stand anim that makes her toss her flexi-prim hair just so. If you do it right, it's as if your AV comes alive on the screen. There is genuinely nothing else like it on Earth.

All of this is preface to the fact that I'm starting a new experiment: a magick faery plonked me on the nose and I now have a new AV named Jesse Qin, who will be my male aspect in-world. At least, that's the plan. I've only barely started working on him yet -- but I've learned a few things over the years plus I know the right people to ask for professional help. So I'm optimistic. *fingers crossed* I don't see myself ever giving up Jessica -- she is just too much a part of me now. But the future is certainly beginning to look interesting.
Jesse v0.1 alpha and Jessica -- I've got a lot of work to do 

[1] And I'd like to add that I'm happy I work for a company that has a longstanding, established policy that such things don't matter.
[2] This is a generalization based on personal observation and unsupported by any real data that I am aware of: men seem to have more "agreement" on what constitutes feminine beauty, while women tend to have a wider, more individualized range of different traits that they like in men. A psychiatrist friend of mine who has some personal experience with all of this tells me, simply, "women tend to be attracted to men that they perceive to be kind". But still, "kindness" is an ill-defined attribute. The only practical angle I can work out of this is that Smiling is a Good Thing. So I'm going to put some effort into making Jesse a smilin' kind of guy. This goes against the grain in SecondLife, where the vast majority of male AVs seem to go for that stoic, rugged, tough-guy image ala Clint Eastwood in The Outlaw Josey Wales.

"World Builder"

originally published 9 March 2009

I really love Bruce Branit's World Builder video. So instead of simply enjoying it, I'm gonna get all pedantic on it and ask: "so what the heck was going on there, anyway?"

I mean, why did the guy have only 60 minutes to build? Why did he hide from the girl? Why did the girl have only (apparently) a few minutes to experience the build? I mean, what's up with the girl, anyway? And why did the build go away after she left? Have these people never heard of archiving? (although to be fair, Linden Lab's never heard of it, either).

I know, I know: "willing suspension of disbelief". I loved it, holes and all.

One thing that I would like to point out, though, is that this is not, strictly speaking, a "holodeck". The Star Trek holodeck somehow managed to rez stuff in real Reality (and bend space and all kinds of other neat, impossible stuff -- the holodeck was built by aliens and if you watched the show it was pretty obvious that Picard and friends could use it but they really didn't have a clue how the thing worked, and neither do I).

The technology in World Builder is more like The Matrix -- or, at least, the direct neural interface technology that was used in the Matrix movies. I mean, the girl was (apparently) in a coma -- I do not see any way within the logical framework of the narrative that she got up out of bed and started wandering through the scene. It was all in her head. And his head, too. And if you haven't seen the video, you don't know what the heck I'm talking about, so you really need to watch it.

And while we're on the topic: one of the subtler things in the Matrix movies -- in The Matrix Reloaded, in particular -- was that awesome lovely clean and white Zion Control room.
Okay, this isn't something the Wachowski brothers called me up and told me about, but it seems obvious that it wasn't a "real" place -- it was a virtual world construct of some kind. Pretty cool -- I mean, if we really had direct neural interfaces, we'd for certain be using them like that.

Some Random Thoughts on Identity, Names, and Reputation

originally published 22 March 2009

Anyone who's spent some time in SecondLife (or any other 'social' virtual world) will tell you that having an avatar will twist your mind around a bit. Once you buy into the entire paradigm of having a visual proxy of yourself that's "somewhere else", you begin to identify with your AV ... and that's when things can get a little weird.

But not necessarily in a bad way. In the same way that the advent of the Internet expanded our minds and made many of us aware of the richness of the world, having an AV can be a positive, educational experience: I've heard people talk about how it can be a chance to 'start all over again'. And it can be that: our AVs may be tougher, or more sensitive, or more masculine, or feminine, than our real-world selves. And our RL selves can learn from the experience. I myself have more than once asked myself "what would Jessica do?" -- and sometimes her response is better than my 'natural' response would have been.

Alas, I know there are also people who have a few issues with their alter-ego, and take to dressing up like furries when they pop by the grocery store and other assorted whackiness. But I'll submit to you that there will always be people who can be pushed over the edge by anything: yes, there's a problem, but it's deeper than just identifying with cute anthropomorphic animals. Or heavy metal music. Or television violence.

But I digress.

One odd thing about identity is how tightly it is associated with something as simple and insubstantial as a Name. Names are tightly associated with Reputation -- and Reputation is one of the most valuable things in the world. This is just as true in Real Life as it is in virtual spaces. Here's a gedanken experiment: offer a RL celebrity the chance to start all over again from scratch at age 18, with a healthy young body and a different name. L$5 says they turn you down flat.

I think that Stephen King learned about the importance of Name and Reputation years ago with his "Richard Bachman" books: he had several short novels published under the pseudonym "Richard Bachman". They weren't half-bad -- but they didn't sell well until someone (the publisher? nawww, couldn't be!) leaked that Bachman was really Stephen King. Then they started to sell.

An interesting aspect of virtual worlds is that you really can start all over again from scratch. But even though you can create a new AV and tell people "Hi, I'm Robert Cinchring but I used to be " (and not get carried off to the loony bin) it's still very difficult. And it sounds pitiful, too. Offhand I can only think of one person who's ever pulled it off, when the sculptor Starax Statosky came back into SL as Light Waves.

In the course of my job, I've been involved in a number of large internal events that have been held in SecondLife, some of them large and involving Big Names. And one thing I've noticed is that people demand the use of their real names during real business events. Doubly so if they're a 'mover & shaker' with a Big Name and a Big Reputation. They'd also like for their AVs to look exactly like their RL selves[1], too -- but The Name is the important part. And I can't fault 'em for that -- it's simply The Way Things Are.

Thankfully, this is becoming easier and easier. Virtual spaces like OpenSim, Metaverse, and Forterra already allow the use of real-world names, and the new Nebraska "SecondLife in a box" units do, too. So -- no more screwy titler attachments (and good riddance to them).

Having said all that -- there are those of us who are simply more comfortable with their avatar name and identity. I'm one, and I know there are others. Perhaps my career would be a lot further along if more people knew me as "Craig" than as "Jessica". I'll never know -- I simply prefer to be Jessica when I'm inside of a virtual space[2].

[1] For certain values of "exactly", of course. A more accurate statement might be "... to look exactly like their RL selves -- but younger, slimmer, and with better hair". This is why building "realistic" avatars is currently more of an Art than a Science.
[2] And the whole topic of "Why do I have a female AV?" I will leave to a future post.

For The Kids, Silly

originally posted 20 January 2006

Not long ago, Roberta asked me "why do you keep that blog, anyway?" It's a good question. I don't get a lot of hits here. I'm not looking to make money with advertising, and I don't wanna be a pundit: in addition to lacking the Sports Gene, I also lack the Fame Gene, or whatever it is that makes people want to get on teevee or have newspaper articles written about them. And I know a pundit. He tells me it mostly sucks.

I think my answer surprised her. I do have stuff here for 'ego' and also because I like to think that sometimes I can offer something fun or helpful -- Stuart's comment on my Constructing A Custom Fortune Cookie post seriously brightened my day.

But most of why I do this -- at least in the last year or so -- is for my kids. And their kids. And their kids. And so on down the line.

Hi y'all :)

Barring disaster, I'm pretty much certain that all this stuff I put out here on the 'net will be archived somewhere and future generations are going to data-mine all this content for information about their ancestors. As a computer geek, I find it fascinating to imagine what kind of software will be developed to do this, and how subtle it may be. Will it pull out any obtuse Skinny Puppy lyric references? Will it tell you which pundit I know, and figure out oblique references I make to other people?1 Will it put things in historical context -- for instance, you there in 2100AD reading my Hope You Die, Denny Crane post may think I'm a barbarian -- but right now we don't have any effective treatment for psycho murderers or child rapists, and they scare the hell out of us, and this is the best we can do. You may or may not have one up the road, either (but I hope you do).

Do you still have fortune cookies?

Actually, a better question might be "is there anyone out there reading this?"2 I dunno. But genealogy is more than a passing fad, and who knows, maybe part of my family tree will turn Mormon. In all seriousness, if one of my descendents reads this and manages to pull me back to life several hundred years from now -- I'll owe you one, bigtime. Really.

But I'm not blogging in hopes of resurrection someday. I'm doing this mostly because I want Miranda and Aidan to know a little bit more about me than they do. Hi kids :) I love you more than you know. I hate to admit this, but as I write this I'm going through things in life where I am not the most loving and responsive father. I'm trying to snap out of it. I hope you'll go easy on me when you remember me. At this point I only have vague notions of what kind of people you'll be when you grow up, but I'm extremely proud of both of you now, and that pride shows no signs of diminishing. I'm sometimes tougher on you than I should be, Aidan -- some people tell me this isn't uncommon, that boy kids are 'harder' than girl kids -- but I want you to know that I love you every bit as much as I love your sister.

I hope you guys both get something out of this. The first order impression you get from reading anything here is usually probably mostly correct -- but if your software sometimes hints at something else going on, it's probably right -- I'm not always as happy or funny or intellectual or honest or good as I may try to portray myself. Please remember I'm human.

The thing I'd like to ask you to do is to remember this stuff over the course of your lives (oh, and tell your children about it when they're ready for it, too. Hi there, little ones. I love you, too; right now it's sort've abstract, I know, but I hope I'm around long enough to love you in the real) and reflect upon it at different times. One of the big things you start to notice about your parents is how you understand them more and more over the years.

I don't know if I'm ever going to be this direct again about talking to you via this channel. But I'll always be aware that you're there. If the software flags something as a reference that may relate to you, then there's a good chance it does.

I love you all.

[1] And God there's at least one that I'm hugely embarrassed about. Yeah, your software probably has it flagged with a huge blinking "99+%" or something like that. That's the one. *sigh*.
[2] And ya know, if you really think about the concept of eternity -- which, hey, some entity reading this might really have before them -- there is the very real possibility that they may at some point decide to crunch through every single piece of data they can get hold of. Including what they're reading right now[3].
[3] In which case -- pleased to meetcha! And, I gotta tellya, that resurrection thing is sounding more and more attractive the more I think about it, so if you've got nothing better to do for the next billion or so years . . .


originally published 29 March 2010

These FUTURESTATES videos are surprisingly good, kind've like Twilight Zone or Outer Limits, and with high production values. The central theme is the future of the United States -- a topic that I'm extremely interested in, but there don't seem to be many people thinking about it these days. Play (above)is really good -- strange, but good. Also Mister Green, Tent City, TIa & Marco, and PIA (all done in more of a traditional narrative form) are worth a watch.

I find Tent City is especially thought provoking, perhaps because I'm a father: would I have the courage to make that decision for my child?

"Hope You Die. Denny Crane"

originally published 9 November 2009

People who know me tell me I have a pretty good sense of humor. And this pleases me and I hope it's true, because we all like to think we have a good sense of humor, just like we all like to think we're honest, good drivers, have good people skills, &c.

But it's pretty hard to make me laugh. Sure, I'm prey to Robert Cialdini's "click, whirr" of Social Validation via other people's laughter at a comedy club, and I'm not superhuman: sitcom laugh tracks still work reasonably well on me. But if you can stand there and tell me a joke and genuinely make me laugh out loud -- you're Damn Good. Television and movies -- of the non-laugh track variety -- are the same.

Which doesn't mean that I am not often amused. And David Kelley's latest legal fantasy Boston Legal quite often amuses me, which is why I watch it whenever I can. But last night's episode had that rare magic moment that actually made me laugh out loud:

If you saw the show you will undoubtedly remember the scene, but here's a small amount of setup: William Shatner, playing the Alzheimer-addled but still brilliant Denny Crane[1], is summoned to represent an indigent defendant, a vile scumbag who raped and killed a 13yo girl. Crane is extremely unhappy about this. While interviewing said scumbag at the courthouse, after scumbag opines that he "saved the girl a lot of suffering" by killing her because he has AIDS and he "really worked her over, if you know what I mean", Denny responds with something like "well, there are a number of defenses available to us, then ..." as he opens his briefcase, pulls out a .45, and cranks out two bullets, one into each of scumbag's kneecaps[2].

To be truthful, I did not so much as laugh but cackle madly.

I know, I know -- it's merely a dark revenge fantasy, writ across the small screen. If I'm dumb for enjoying that so much, then mea culpa. But, while I believe in karma, it's often difficult to deal with being wronged by someone and never knowing how or if they ever truly get the payback they so richly deserve. So . . . maybe I laughed because seeing Denny shoot that child rapist / killer satisfied some deep-seated psychological need I've had to really see someone wail on a sicko like that. There really do seem to be people like that out there in the world, we've all been hearing about them and their crimes for years, and even when animals like this are caught, convicted, and executed -- there is very little sense of catharsis for those of us in the population at large. Public executions aren't a completely bad idea, ya know . . . yeah, there'd be people who'd probably wanna jerk off to 'em or something, and that's just -- ick. But I think there is something valid to the notion of catharsis as a part of justice.

H. L. Mencken, in his essay The Penalty of Death [3], writes:
The same thing precisely takes place on a larger scale when there is a crime which destroys a whole community's sense of security. Every law-abiding citizen feels menaced and frustrated until the criminals have been struck down - until the communal capacity to get even with them, and more than even, has been dramatically demonstrated. Here, manifestly, the business of deterring others is no more than an afterthought. The main thing is to destroy the concrete scoundrels whose act has alarmed everyone, and thus made everyone unhappy. Until they are brought to book that unhappiness continues; when the law has been executed upon them there is a sigh of relief. In other words, there is katharsis.
He has a real point. The problem today is that the community -- ie, the country at large -- isn't really getting a whole lot of that good cathartic feeling when genuine monsters are brought to justice. And what little we get is delayed by years of legal wrangling.

Finally -- through my home biz I have a lot of experience with a lot of law firms, and I know a lot of attorneys and other people who work with them. Which is why I call Boston Legal a "legal fantasy". As are I think every one of Kelley's 'law firm' teevee shows. Entertaining, yes -- realistic, no. You want a realistic taste of life in a big law firm, check out Opinionista's blog. Which may well not exist at the time you are reading this (if she's finally been outed and fired)(if you can, check out some of her older posts, from before she started getting a lot of attention).

Having said that, the one element of last night's show I did not find fantastic was Denny's ability to smuggle a .45 auto past security into the courthouse. In my experience, attorneys -- those who frequent the courthouse and are familiar to the security folks -- quite frequently get waved on past without a thought.

[1] IMHO it is Denny Crane, not James Tiberius Kirk, that is the defining role of Shatner's life.
[2] Of course, deputies come busting in immediately, guns drawn, but Denny has thrown down his pistol and has his hands in the air, saying (very calmy, with a look of utter wide-eyed innocence that only Shatner could pull off) "self-defense -- he attacked me" as scumbag painfully writhes on the floor.
[3] Please click the link and read it -- Mencken is one of the greatest writers in all of history. And funny as hell, too.


originally published 7 December 2004

One of my big pet peeves is when, in a financial transaction, someone attempts to slime a few extra $$$s out of the deal with an additional fee, and when I call 'em on it they say "but it's only ten dollars". Or five dollars. Or whatever -- the amount doesn't really matter. It's the "only" part that makes me crazy.

I have a variety of colorful responses to this remark, but they tend to boil down to one of the following:

  • "Okay, then give me ten dollars right now." As you might expect, this does not often result in the production of a ten dollar bill. But if nothing else it can be entertaining to push the point: "Oh, so if it's my money it's only ten dollars, but if it's your money, it's a big deal, huh? Why is that?"

  • "Oh, so it won't be difficult to waive this fee, then? Since it's only ten dollars?" Believe it or not, I once got a bank to stand down over an interest rate dispute with this approach (they made a mistake calculating the rate, which would have added "only" an additional $35 to the cost of the loan. No thanks).

If you're reading this thinking "wow, he's a real cheapskate", well, think what you want. But the truth is that I'm not cheap. What I am is an engineer[1]: my goal is to spend money as efficiently as possible, maximizing the bang per buck on everything I buy. If you see me standing in the aisle at the grocery store staring at the ice cream, no, I'm not stoned and admiring the "colors"; I'm doing math in my head figuring out the best deal. Which, if you've shopped for ice cream recently, you may have noticed is not as easy as it used to be, given the creative packaging techniques employed by many manufacturers.

And sliding in lower-cost items after an expensive item has got to be about the oldest sales trick known to man: for whatever reason, fifty dollar cufflinks don't seem like much when you're dropping $2500 on a suit. "They're a real steal at only fifty dollars."

Or sometimes when you buy a car, your perspective shifts even further: "It's only a hundred dollars."

But hey -- if you agree that it's only ten dollars, then do me a favor? Give that ten dollars to the next homeless person you see. 'Cause it's not much money to you -- but even given the lousy state of the dollar on the world market these days, ten dollars will still buy most people a pretty nice lunch with enough left over for a bottle of ripple.

[1] Scott Adams had it right, I think, when he wrote 'Engineers are notoriously frugal. This is not because of cheapness or mean spirit; it is simply because every spending situation is simply a problem in optimization, that is, "How can I escape this situation while retaining the greatest amount of cash?"'

Friday, December 3, 2010

Constructing a Custom Fortune Cookie

originally published 2002-09-17 13:26:37

People often ask me: "Craig, how do you build a custom fortune cookie?" Granted, there are places out there which, for a few hundred dollars, will make you a batch of 300 or so fortune cookies with your choice of fortunes loaded in them. But that's a lot of money if you only need one.

So I set about doing it myself. It's something of a challenge to do it well, and it's not something one can typically do overnight. Engineer that I am, the tasks break down to:
  1. Making the fortune

  2. Putting the fortune inside of a cookie

  3. The cellophane wrapper

Here are the details:

  • Making the fortune is easy: fire up Photoshop and put the words of your choice on an area 2'7/8" by 2/3" -- these measurements are available from the US National Bureau of Standards, where they've kept a prototype fortune cookie sealed under glass at 72F in a helium atmosphere since 1946. For authenticity, it's nice to put a yin-yang or some chinese characters down in the center as a watermark. For extra credit, do a double-sided print with some witty "lucky" numbers (I used my cellphone number grouped in double digits, ie: 51 24 26 etc) on the other side. Every fortune I've ever seen uses an Arial font, but there's no reason not to be creative. The one thing I haven't figured out is where to find that neat slick paper they use, but your standard white bond works just fine.

  • Putting the fortune inside of the cookie -- and dealing with the wrapper -- are both like that old SNL gag about the Change Bank of New York: "How do we do it? Volume!" The trick is to go out to lunch at least once a week to a chinese restaurant. When the cookies arrive, grab yours and instead of opening it, stick it in your pocket or your purse and take it back to the office. After not too long you build up a pile of cookies to work with.

    I guess a purist would say "hey, just make a fortune cookie! There are lots of recipes on the web!" And there's something to be said for that. But I simply went through all of my stolen-from-lunch cookies and found a candidate cookie that had a 'gap' wide enough that I could slide my own fortune into it. It was pretty much impossible to slide the custom fortune in from the side -- you sorta had to grab the ends of the fortune and slide the long edge into the cookie's center gap.

  • The cellophane wrapper was the trickiest part, and the part most dependent on <cue vox="Kevin Nealon"> "volume!" </cue>. Basically it involved attempting to pull apart a number of the wrappers along the "longitudinal" seam, ie, if you imagine the cookie wrapper has seams like this: |-|, you attempt to gently and oh-so-carefully pull open the "-" seam that runs from sealed end to sealed end. I've found that about 1 in 4 will pull open smoothly and without tearing. Extract the cookie, replace with the "loaded" cookie, and then seal with (and this took a bit of research) a thin line of superglue -- if you can find something that works better, I'd like to hear about it: I tried a number of different glues and nothing worked as well. In any event, the cellophane doesn't have to seal airtight, anyway.

And that's about it. For that extra-special touch, wrap the custom cookie in tissue paper and place it in a beautiful piece of antique Westmoreland milk-glass, and then have it delivered on That Special Someone's birthday. Then just sit back and await the restraining order.

Having done this once in the past for, ummm, "serious" reasons, it occurs to me that there are a lot of comic possibilities here -- given that I eat chinese weekly with my work friends, I've been wondering about palming a custom cookie onto the little check tray . . . oooh, evil person that I am, I have many, many ideas . . .

How about you?

I hate football

originally published 2004-09-18 01:46:44

aka My Modest Proposal To Make Football Interesting Without Having To Eat A Single Baby

I'm told it's football season. I was born without the Sports Gene, which is tragic. Or so people tell me; I really couldn't care less. When I bother to think about it, I'd guess that being a Sports Fan is something like being a Music Fan:

  Sports Music
Events: You go to games. You go to concerts.
Bullshit Media "News": "So coach, how do you think your team will play tomorrow?" "So Jimmy, what's this tour going to be like?"
Paraphernalia: T-shirts with team logos, bumper stickers, etc. T-shirts with band logos, bumper stickers, yadda.
Drugs: Beer, steriods and other performance-enhancement drugs. Beer, marijuana, Ecstacy, LSD, cocaine, heroin, glue-huffing, the list goes on and on.
Sex: Yes, and lots of it. Women tend to be in good shape. Yes, and lots of it. Less fitness but more variety, extra freakiness in bed.
Fan Talk: "Didja hear that Toledo is trading Namath to the Utah Packers?" "Didja hear that the NumbNutz are auditioning for a new guitarist because Joey Numb OD'ed?"
I Wanna Be Like Ike[1]: Form team, play in company league. Form band, play for free in shitty bars.
Practice Sessions: Go to back yard, toss the ball around a little, hope girls notice. Go to garage, power up amps, jam, hope girls notice.
Economic Potential: Mega $$$$$s - if you're talented AND the Magick Sports Faery touches you with her enchanted logo-emblazoned teevee network microphone. Mega $$$$$s - if you're talented AND you suck on the Magick Musik Fairy's enchanted "wand".

So I think I kinda got a handle on the sports thing: it's just like music but with fewer drugs. Although I actually like music. Whereas few things will make me leave a room faster than someone flipping on the teevee "to watch a little football".

But I have an idea for how to make football[2] interesting to me and others like me[3]: I propose the addition of a new player position called the Rifleback. I don't care if it's Defensive or Offensive, the fun part is that the Rifleback gets a .22 caliber rifle and a single .22 cal round per game, to be used whenever / however it is deemed necessary. It certainly would bring a bit of drama back to a sport that today is oft referred to as "a bunch of pampered millionaires running around on Astroturf".

In practice, I honestly don't think there'd be much in the line of bullet wounds to contend with -- I suspect that part of each and every play would consist of "taking down the guy with the gun". And even if someone takes a bullet, the damage from a .22 round in the bicep pales in comparison to a compound fracture (even I've heard about that Joe Theisman fellow's "snap heard 'round the world"). And hell, the players are probably already wearing Kevlar armor out there. Kevlar is "trendy".

So there you have it: my Modest Proposal To Make Football Interesting Without Having To Eat A Single Baby.

Whaddya say, America?

[1] Or whoever the fuck it was in that stupid slogan.
[2] American football, that is. Although this concept could arguably be adapted to any sport. Golf, for instance.
[3] And the simple fact that the Internet exists is all the proof I need to know I'm not alone.

What is a book?

originally published 19 August 2010

A friend shared an interesting link with me today:

It's a comparison of e-readers. I'm not sure why they didn't include a Sony and at least one current Kindle in the list -- cynic that I am, I think that sometimes magazine writers will purposefully write a 'flawed' article in order to generate lots of comments and discussion.

Still ... just the picture of all of the devices together is interesting, you can make a quick assessment of some of the trends and commonalities that are coming forth. Like: a dual e-paper/LCD display. Frankly, it sounds like an atrocious idea to me, but the Nook and the Alex e-readers both get high marks. So maybe it's one of those things you've gotta use to appreciate it.

I'm sort've finding myself drawn to the really small e-readers (like the Cybook Opus)("Finally, an e-reader that really is the size of a paperback") because as much as I love my iPad, it's heavy and even after decades of reading thick hardback books one-handed, my arm still gets tired holding the iPad. I can't wait until these things get down to like $39.95.

This is a great time to be alive.

"We have books here bound in the hides of echidnes, krakens, and beasts so long extinct that those whose studies they are, are for the most part of the opinion that no trace of them survives unfossilized. We have books bound wholly in metals of unknown alloy, and books whose bindings are covered with thickset gems. We have books cased in perfumed woods shipped across the inconceivable gulf between creations -- books doubly precious because no one on Urth can read them. "We have books whose papers are matted of plants from which spring curious alkaloids, so that the reader, in turning their pages, is taken unaware by bizarre fantasies and chimeric dreams. Books whose pages are not paper at all, but delicate wafers of white jade, ivory, and shell; books too who leaves are the desiccated leaves of unknown plants. Books we have also that are not books at all to the eye: scrolls and tablets and recordings on a hundred different substances. There is a cube of crystal here -- though I can no longer tell you where -- no larger than the ball of your thumb that contains more books than the library itself does. Though a [woman] might dangle it from one ear for an ornament, there are not volumes enough in the world to counterweight the other."

-- Gene Wolfe, The Shadow of the Torturer

Death Comes To Visit

Originally posted 2004-06-15 14:45:37

Some of you might think this is tasteless. Feel free to bitch at me for it -- but please do me a favor and don't clutter my blog with any 'sympathy' postings. I don't want anyone to feel sorry or alarmed for me or my family. We're coping with it all, and I'm reasonably sure I don't suffer from any pathological attention-craving disorders. And I'm also pretty sure I'm not one of those people who never have anything to talk about but their latest tragedy. But I feel motivated to write about this 'experience' because it's just so much different and stranger than my typical, relatively boring daily life.

It begins: -- Monday afternoon (yesterday) there's a knock on the door, my wife Roberta answers and comes to tell me "it's the police, they want to talk to you". This has happened before, but I've been reasonably law-abiding these past weeks so it was with only a soupcon of caution that I opened the door. A couple of officers are standing there and I ask ask "what's this about?" and they say "do you know John and Bertha B_____?" I looked puzzled and said "yes, they're my in-laws". They live in Arizona and in fact they were due to arrive in a couple of hours for a week-long visit. And the one officer says "I'm sorry to tell you that they were both killed this morning in a traffic accident in New Mexico."

Wow. This is like something out of a bad Lifetime channel movie.

Without going into sickening detail, it was a two-vehicle accident, a high-speed head-on collision: the other driver crossed into the oncoming lane. And apparently got away with only cuts and bruises while my in-laws were killed instantly. Do the vector sum 60mph + 60mph and it's like they hit a brick wall at 120mph. There is some possibility that drugs were involved, and so one of my attorney friends put us in touch with MADD. At this point no-one knows if the accident was the result of intoxicated driving, or simple human stupidity. I have to tell you: the amount of satisfaction we're deriving from the notion of possibly "nailing a goddam drunk driver" is like zero, nada, none, nothing. The situation just sucks, and I guess it would be nice to let some kind of 'vengeance attitude' take over. But it's not happening.

Some of you are aware of the fact that I did not get along well with my in-laws. Tasteless though it is, I keep flashing on a scene from one of The Simpson's Halloween episodes -- the one that's based on Ray Bradbury's short story A Sound Of Thunder, I'm sure you've all seen it -- where Lisa asks Homer "Are we taking the new Lexus to Aunt Patty and Selma's funeral today?" When this happens in real life it is, alas, not so fun. To quote a certain toy dinosaur: "Now I have guilt!" No, that's not really true; it's just that I'm in this 'uncomfortable spot' where no, they weren't my favorite people, but -- they weren't Nazis, either, and for all their faults, they at least loved my kids. I sure didn't want them to die. Jesus.

And so I've been Doing The Good Thing, being helpful and supportive and making all of the arrangements and just generally trying to 'drive' this entire affair through to completion.

Having spent the entire day speaking to medical examiners, funeral home directors, highway patrolmen, insurance agents, and persons of the cloth, there's really not a lot that spotlights the pointlessness of existence any more then going to Target to look at DVDs. But the need was felt for a little "shopping therapy" after dinner. Seeing the latest, biggest Hollywood blockbusters in all of their gaudy, eye-catching color and glory, with all the Big Big Stars on the covers, smiling or looking tough or sexy, really brings home the meaninglessness of it all. It's like: these are but amusements that we use in vain to try to help us put death out of mind.

If you're planning to die, here's some advice:

a) Don't. Or

b) If you really have to do it, don't leave a corpse. It complicates things for the people you left behind. There are advantages to being vaporized, or lost at sea, or dissolving after falling into a vat of H2SO4, I think. Just make sure all of your financial stuff is nicely organized and up-to-date and easy to find, thanks. But if you've got to be difficult and leave a body, then

c) Do it at home. The logistics of dealing with a probably totalled van full of valuables 800 miles away -- that's probably being pilfered at this very moment by the tow-lot people[1] -- plus arranging disposition of remains and transport of said remains to Arizona, plus arranging flights and lodging for family, is more than you want to inflict on your kin. Unless you wanted to piss 'em off, in which case feel free to contact me for further thoughts on the matter. I've been discussing this with people and it appears that the ultimate might be to expire in a highly bureaucratic foreign land where very few people speak English. China, for instance.

Right now it looks like I'm going to have to drive out to Roswell, New Mexico, to deal with the van contents. In other circumstances this could be a nice getaway: I'd love to ride Kitten out there. I've even got a very nice four-wheeled BMW I hardly ever drive; spend a little time burning some music CDs and it could be a fine road-trip. But instead it looks like I'll have to take the minivan, so I'll have room to carry stuff back. Yeah, I can just feel the vast waves of sympathy from y'all over this. But that's 1200 miles total in a vehicle that handles (and kinda looks) like a soviet tuna trawler. And I get to look forward to unpacking what I can of my in-laws wrecked van, while wretching constantly and freaking out over finding any 'bits' that the ambulance crew may have missed.

And I won't lie: it spooks me considerably that I'll be driving on the same road where my in-laws met their end.

In working to make "arrangements" I've learned some interesting things. One is that yes, you can email cremated remains (aka "cremains") via the US Postal Service. Somebody has to sign for them on the receiving end, but I was rather surprised: I thought for sure that this would be highly regulated and that only licensed entities would be able to take possession. But apparently not. I feel sure that there are some very, very sick jokers out there who could somehow use this to pull some very, very sick jokes. I'm trying not to think about it.

But perhaps people are, on the large, more decent than I had thought. One positive thing I can report about this experience has been the incredibly small (read: zero) number of Mean People I've encountered. I've talked to about 30 people today, and every single one of them has been sympathetic and helpful.

Another thing I've learned is that this is not the fast, streamlined process I had imagined it would be. The medical examiner came right out and told me "take all the time you need". The fellow at the funeral home was cautiously optimistic: if we got all of the paperwork filled out right away, we just might be able to get the remains to Arizona by the weekend.

I envy the kids -- within the span of two weeks they've lost their dog and a set of grandparents, and yet they're hangin' in there. For better or for worse -- and I'm not sure which -- they have an unquestioning, rock-solid belief in Heaven: it's as real as Disneyland or school, and that's where Jet-dog is, and that's where grandma and grandpa are. And no, despite my own personal lack-of-faith in these matters, I am not motivated to try to "enlighten" them. In fact, I'll punch the lights out of anyone who might try.

In case you're wondering: yes, all of this is costing lots of money. And just thinking about life insurance, wills, assets, inheritance, all that stuff -- my wife simply doesn't want to deal with it right now. I can't blame her. But this is going to run many thousands of dollars in travel and other expenditures, so I'm hoping and praying real hard that we'll at least manage to get all of that back. At this time it's all a big unknown. I'm not sitting here with my fingers crossed going "Please, please, just enough for an Aston-Martin! And a Dodge Viper!" But I cannot lie: I will be extremely happy if the kids' college funds get a good strong shot in the arm out of all this.

Oh -- in case you're curious: the cost may vary quite a bit depending on who you deal with, but it looks like cremation, including all licensing and postage, will run about $1000 per.

As I alluded earlier: I don't have any great faith in any kind of afterlife. I sometimes wish I did -- but I want to know the truth. But the "truth" I've arrived at -- that there is nothing after this life -- does not make times like this easier. The only thing that gives me hope is the thought of something like James Tipler's Omega Point theory -- that at some point in the far future, the existing intelligences of that era will 'reconstruct' every being who ever lived, essentially building Heaven from scratch at a time not long before the Big Crunch. As far out as this sounds, I can't help but hope for it to come to pass. Surely I am not the only entity who is disappointed -- or downright pissed off might be a better phrasing -- to consider that all of the lives, all of the experiences, of every entity that ever lived, is all nothing but "tears in rain". Given the frequency of new cosmological theories these days, I find myself subconsciously cheering for any that support the Omega Point. And I boo the ones that don't.

Is it too much to ask, after the insane horror that life inflicts on so many, that everyone and everything that has ever lived, suffered, and died might one day find themselves happy, and loved, and at peace?

My 'net access will be somewhat limited over the next week, so in closing, all I can say is this: hug everyone close to you whenever you can.

[1] What little experience I've had with people involved in the towing industry has not lead me to believe that they are individuals of exceptional integrity.

First Post (sorta)

I've been blogging off and on since 1999 or so. In the past couple of years, I've mostly restricted myself to blogging on the internal blogs at my day-job -- but I've been growing increasingly dissatisfied with that system and the way it ignores my formatting and also the low, low numbers of people who bother to read blogs there.

And so I'm taking a cue from my friend Suzy and setting up an external blog here. I'm not above recycling some of my older material here that I never felt really got much exposure -- but for the most part this will be all new stuff.