Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Movie Review: Year One

A colloidal suspension of one-note jokes in a mythogenic solution, but not a complete waste of time.

Starts out pretending to be Prehistoric Animal House and ends up wanting to be Life of Brian Lite, but never really earns either mantle. Meanwhile, there's quite a bit of History of the World, Part Uno in act two, but Mel Brooks did it better.

If you've got a gap in your Netflix queue, check out the "Leroy Jenkins" special feature on the DVD. I wouldn't say that alone justifies the rental, but it is probably the most amusing single thing I saw tonight.


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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

SnoutCast #7: Dungeons, Dragons, and Dealin' With It

Longest. Podcast. EVER So far.

[ Download mp3 - 59 MB ]

0:00:00 - Disclaimer, à la Better off Ted
0:02:14 - Belated trivia answer: Corby sculpted the final DRUID case design
0:02:59 - How is Dungeons & Dragons like The Game?
0:05:05 - Dragon Age: Origins (speaking of dragons...)
0:08:45 - Role-playing in different types of games (and Games)
0:11:00 - Debating stargate physics for no good reason
0:14:05 - Adjusting a game experience on the fly
0:17:46 - The meta-rule for D&D, when no rules are specified
0:18:32 - "Never have a door that's not actually a door"
0:20:48 - When is a clue not a clue?
0:25:15 - Curtis is an uncle!
0:26:03 - Why we always confirm our solutions
0:29:13 - One way to deliver semi-automated hints (Wonka, 1999)
0:30:45 - Why Team Snout prefers phone hints
0:32:19 - Just like clinical trials in the medical industry!
0:33:59 - Newspaper headlines lie!
0:36:57 - On not giving too much of a hint
0:40:09 - Funny stories about telephone problems
0:41:31 - Recording of the infamous "Tri-PEZ" call (Note: first dispatcher is Andrew, not Jeff)
0:45:09 - The Game is more than just puzzles; editorial considerations
0:48:33 - Plug: GC Summit 2010
0:49:20 - Info: Brooklynite seeks puzzle hunt interviewees
0:50:21 - Plug: DeeAnn at Ignite Portland 8 (March 3rd)
0:52:36 - Plug: Curtis published in 100 Stories for Haiti (March 4th)
0:54:23 - Plug: DASH 2 (April 24th)
0:54:53 - DeeAnn is quite contrary
0:56:13 - Steal this idea: The Accountant Game!
1:01:30 - Steal this idea: The Sports Draft Game!
1:03:32 - THE END

Music: instrumentals from "Code Monkey," "Chiron Beta Prime," "You Ruined Everything," and "The Future Soon" by Jonathan Coulton

[ Subscribe to SnoutCast / iTunes link ]

CKL DeeAnn

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Thursday, February 04, 2010

Book Report: Tales of the Dominion War

If you're not a Star Trek fan, you can stop reading right now.

Tales of the Dominion War is, as you might imagine, an anthology of short stories set in the Deep Space Nine universe. Or, more accurately, in various parts of the Star Trek universe during the last two seasons of DSN. By that time, crossover between Trek series had become pretty common, and as a viewer, it was pretty exciting to see more of the fictional universe being fleshed out.

Media tie-ins are always tricky to do well. On the one hand, you want to include enough "real" or "canon" elements to show fans that you understand the setting; on the other hand, you don't want to just name-drop a bunch of characters without saying anything new or interesting about them.

That, in a nutshell, is why many of these stories didn't work for me. Writing aside, a lot of them seemed to aspire to be nothing more than the caulk of continuity--i.e., filling in storytelling gaps left by the TV series. If you think of the Dominion War like an actual, real-world conflict--say, Vietnam or WWII--there should be plenty of stories to tell about all sorts of different people who were involved. And since this is all fictional, it should be easy to make up some really compelling stories, right?

Maybe so, but this anthology didn't quite hit the mark for me. It's generally a bad sign when the introduction to a story has to explain that the pivotal character you're going to read about was featured in a different tie-in novel, and describe that character's connection to Trek canon--as if the editor knew that otherwise, the story itself wouldn't carry much weight. I skimmed through two or three of these stories because I knew I wasn't going to care much about their contents.

I do have to give props to my favorite piece, "Mirror Eyes," which manages to balance the elements I mentioned above. It's written in first person, as a series of journal entries, and brings the protagonist to life without veering into Mary Sue territory. It's also set between two seasons of DSN, so it doesn't suffer from episode-adjacent syndrome (in which a short story set immediately before, after, or during an existing TV episode inevitably begs comparison with same--and usually comes in second).

Finally, I have to mention that three of the featured authors--Heather Jarman, Michael A. Martin, and Andy Mangels--live in Portland, Oregon. 'oS! (That's Klingon for "represent.")


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Monday, February 01, 2010

Small, Medium, and Large

My three mobile computers, left to right: a smartphone (overpriced Apple iPhone 3G), a netbook (refurbished Acer Aspire One), and a laptop (piece-of-crap Lenovo Thinkpad T61p).

Lest you think I'm one of those ultra-early adopters who just has to have the latest shiny new gadget, let me point out that I acquired each of these machines for very specific reasons.

The iPhone (left) I got last May, right before our trip to Europe for Jeff and Marina's wedding. My old phone wasn't quad-band or GSM-capable, so I couldn't use it internationally; but that was also a convenient excuse to upgrade. My former employer had issued me a Blackberry for a couple of years, and I'd enjoyed having a "smartphone" to check my e-mail and calendar. For the record, the apps I use most these days are any of three Twitter clients (to access different accounts) and Google Maps--the latter especially for traffic updates, which our Prius' 2005 navigation system doesn't have. It's helped us on more than one Friday afternoon, when deciding whether to drive back from Portland during rush hour or wait it out somewhere.

The laptop (right) I got in early 2008, right after leaving my aforementioned former employer. I'd been using my work laptop, a very reliable IBM Thinkpad T43, for over four years, and I decided to stick with the same make. Or so I thought. Turns out that after Lenovo bought the Thinkpad brand from IBM, their products pretty much went to crap. I've griped and ranted about this before--the motherboard's already died once, as has the battery, and Lenovo's problems with wireless networking are well documented. But it did cost me a pretty penny, so I plan to run this clunker until it literally starts falling apart, and then I'll replace it with something better.

The netbook (center) is a recent acquisition from Woot. It's refurbished, but hasn't given me any problems yet (knock on wood). I got it for two main reasons: 1) to have a separate, dedicated webcam server; and 2) to have a backup portable unit when I need to take the laptop in for repairs again. (I fully expect that to happen at least once more before I retire it. I ponied up for the two-year extended warranty, and I'm going to get my money's worth, dammit.) Actually, there's also a third reason: to see if netbooks are actually usable in the long term. I played with an XO laptop a couple of years ago, and was not impressed with the interface, but the idea of a small portable that's actually useful continued to be compelling.

The funny thing is, the netbook has at least as much memory and processing power as both of my desktop machines (not pictured): a 2003 Dell PC and a 2005 Mac Mini (PowerPC, not Intel). They're both still creaking along, but playing full-screen video or running more than three applications at a time will bring them to their knees. I'm not looking forward to upgrading either of them, because it'll mean transferring a lot of data, reinstalling a whole mess of software, and probably a lot of cursing when things go wrong.

I like using technology. I'm not so excited about having to maintain it.

Finally, to answer the inevitable question: What do I think of the iPad? Meh. (Though it's been great for inspiring sarcastic hipster commentary.) As shown above, I don't really need yet another mobile computer right now. And especially not one that costs twice as much as my netbook did, but is only marginally more useful than my phone.


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Friday, January 29, 2010

Book Report: SuperFreakonomics

I don't generally read a lot of non-fiction books, but I enjoyed Freakonomics a lot, and the follow-up, SuperFreakonomics, did not disappoint.

Unlike some writers, who like to draw lots of conclusions based on sometimes slim or anecdotal evidence (coughMalcolmGladwellcough), Levitt and Dubner love data--the more the better. Their stories concern macroeconomics--the study of complex systems with large populations--and they like to highlight "natural experiments," in which some happenstance holds certain conditions constant while varying others.

For example, they examine the effect of television on children's behavior--specifically, violent crime rates in cities which got broadcast TV at different times during the 1950s:
[D]id the introduction of TV have any discernible effect on a given city’s crime rate?

The answer seems to be yes, indeed. For every extra year a young person was exposed to TV in his first 15 years, we see a 4 percent increase in the number of property- crime arrests later in life and a 2 percent increase in violent- crime arrests. According to our analysis, the total impact of TV on crime in the 1960s was an increase of 50 percent in property crimes and 25 percent in violent crimes.

Why did TV have this dramatic effect?

Our data offer no firm answers. The effect is largest for children who had extra TV exposure from birth to age four. Since most four year-olds weren’t watching violent shows, it’s hard to argue that content was the problem...

You can read the relevant excerpt from that chapter, "Unbelievable Stories About Apathy and Altruism," online at

As you can see above, the book isn't all charts and graphs, though it does include some relevant visual aids. My favorite is the mathematical expression PIMPACT > RIMPACT. You'll have to read all of chapter one to understand why that's so amusing.

And the epilogue, which recounts a totally freaky experiment involving monkeys, is unforgettable and hilarious. I first heard Levitt and Dubner tell that story when they gave a talk at my former employer in 2005, and I wish the video were online so I could share it. You'll just have to settle for reading the book.

ADDENDUM: You can read the complete monkey experiment story online in "Monkey Business" (New York Times Magazine, June 5, 2005).


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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Workarounds, Hacks, and Pillows

We didn't go out today, which meant we were able to spend more time sitting with Tye, so I didn't turn on the webcam until later in the evening:

That little red netbook on the counter is the new TyeCam station. I'm also trying out Copilot, which lets me access it remotely.


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Monday, January 18, 2010

TyeCam is Offline

Aside from my problems with the webcam software crashing about once a day, Lenovo computers are shit. I know that comes as a surprise to no one, but I just had to get it off my chest.

Last night, after a bunch of research and then cleaning up my Windows XP registry to fix a problem with my power management profiles not working, I also updated the power management drivers and utilities on my laptop. Today this hunk of junk kept going into standby mode--even though I explicitly disabled that function, because it kills my wireless networking. (No idea why. Started happening in 2008. Repair shop couldn't fix it either.) Now I've uninstalled all the Lenovo crap, and explorer.exe has started crashing.


Maybe it's time for that Windows 7 upgrade after all. I didn't want to go through all the trouble of reinstalling a whole damn operating system before, but at this point I'm just about ready to salt the fucking earth. I know, I could install Linux, but that would just be a different set of maintenance headaches. And I wouldn't be able to run most of the software I want.

Some days I really hate computers.


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Thursday, January 14, 2010

Book Report: Star Trek - The Collectibles

This was another "impulse buy" at the library. I know they have at least one volunteer who is active in local sf fandom; I wonder if she's the one sneaking these books into their rotating displays.

I used to fancy myself a bit of a collector, when I was younger; I suppose every child goes through that stage at some point, and either grows out of it or goes pro. I enjoyed the little stories that went along with some of the items in this catalog, about why they're so valuable or the author's memories of acquiring them, and even got nostalgic when I saw pictures of some of the stuff that I used to own. (Most of it is probably still packed away in my parents' garage, but there's nothing really valuable there. I was never a mint-in-box kind of guy; if I got a toy, I wanted to play with it.)

These days, I'm not a big believer in the "collectible" mentality. Maybe it comes from years of working with computer software, which is eminently disposable, but I feel like if you're buying something only to put it on a shelf and look at it, you might as well just take a picture. It's a little embarrassing to realize how much people are willing to pay for a hunk of plastic just because it happens to be shaped like a particular spaceship or fictional character. I know the perceived value is in its history and such, but I just can't get behind it.

If you ask me, there's already too much real scarcity in the world--food, clean water, vaccines; I could go on. Purposefully doing "limited runs" of a mass-produced object in order to make it "rare" and thus drive up its price in the market seems somewhat Ferengi, don't you think?

And now, a link to "Printcrime."


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