Saturday, January 31, 2009

Browser Games

As several of you are interested in making games, you might want to look at the Building Browser Games blog, which contains a number of interviews and articles that may be of interest. I'm also grateful to it for pointing out a clever little game, Booze Quest. In it, you play an NPC -- a bartender, in fact, who gets to hand out quests to passing adventurers. It seems intended to be very lightweight (you shouldn't spend more than a couple minutes per session on it) and has lots of little jokes and surprises. I'm very much looking forward to seeing it develop.

Another one I've been impressed with is ForumWarz. You know those jerks you see on various forums, who seem like they're intentionally trying to ruin the internet for everyone else? In this game, they kind of are, and you play as one of them. It's in turns obscene, profane, and very funny. Gameplay revolves around going into randomized forums and posting, for example, insults and random garbage to disrupt and then "pwn" the forum. They also have an interesting way to raise money: you can play through "Chapter 1" for free, and continue playing with the resources and community content that makes available, but you have to pay something like $10 to have access to Chapter 2, with new forums, online shops, and items.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Working At Home

Here at the end of January in New Hampshire, in a lot of ways winter is just catching its stride. Winter here has followed a fairly predictable pattern: slush in November, confused weather in December (some deep cold, some snow, some days above freezing) then a period of bitter cold in January, followed by snow through February in March. As February approaches, the weather is getting warmer, and I'm seeing more and more snow in the forecast.

I took the unusual step this past year of buying snow tires, and so I am more confident when driving on snow, but it is still unpleasant. Yesterday I wound up driving home before the snow got too bad and working at a little desk upstairs. It took me a while to get into working mode, but I got a lot done. It's gotten me thinking, though, about what I need out of a workspace.

Sadly, I need an internet connection. When writing network management software, this is frequently useful, but my research also requires it for a stupid reason: I'm currently using Matlab as an experimental tool, and the license manager has to phone home periodically. I'm looking into writing a few tools in Java that will let me do what I need, but there's a LOT of vector math and I use the graphing routines in a weird way, and I don't relish the thought of either writing my own routines or learning someone else's idiosyncracies.

I also need coffee, which you wouldn't think would be a problem. I own about a dozen different methods of preparing coffee: several drip-brew systems, two press-pots (one glass, the other mesh), a cold-brew system, an espresso machine, a moka pot, a teabag sort of thing, several instant coffees and espressos, and I'm sure I'm forgetting something. However, I find that there is some difficulty there. I've got to balance making it easy enough that I don't lose my train of thought, but not so easy that I drink a whole pot in a single morning. I've toyed with the idea of getting one of those Keurig machines, but they're so wasteful. On the other hand, BJs has started to carry the k-cups in bulk for a price of less than .50 per cup for Green Mountain coffee and Newman's Own, both of which have dark-roasted coffees I enjoy.

Most of the other things are incidental: paper, pens, dwarves, sticky notes, a trashcan. This post is already pedestrian enough without going into these things. It does make me curious, though -- surely a number of you have home offices. What do you find that you can't live/work without that I might not be thinking about (and thus may not have next time I'm snowed in)?

Oh, and for anyone else spending time inside and needing some good books to read, let me suggest Charlie Stross's science fiction, or Margery Allingham's Campion mysteries.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Great Minds...?

On a recent Slashdot thread (I nearly said "discussion". Hah!) posters reacted to HR.414, which purports to protect children from camera phone-wielding "predators" by forcing all new camera phones to make a noise when a photo is taken, which noise cannot be muted or turned down. ... Yeah.

Well, at one point (read: many points, repeatedly, but I only noticed one at first) someone asked about dead victims. I replied, " Clearly in addition to a piercing shriek (to alert the merely hard of hearing), the flash should be required at all times." and then added, "Oh no! What about the deaf *and* blind?!" (What? Don't you judge me, it's Slashdot. We don't evaluate etiquette independent of its context at this here blog. I bet you do lots of things at the orgies you habitually attend that we might snicker at over coffee)

Where was I? Anyway, the point of admitting that I post to Slashdot is to bring up the fact that right now fully half of the replies advocate the use of tasers. Looking elsewhere on the thread, where many other people made similar points, this is the commonest response. Now, those of you who know Slashdot understand that this is not mere agreement: posters there rarely even read the articles, let alone the mostly-invisible responses of their fellow posters. It's fair to assume that most of those people came up with this little gem on their own.

On the one hand, I think tasing strangers is funny. On the other hand, why tasers? Why not projectiles or a flame thrower? There are other suggestions in there: One AC suggested simulated flatulence. Shouldn't we expect to see a broader range of suggestions, if they're all independent? Is there some cultural element of the Slashdot mind that predisposes them to think of electric shock before all else?

I don't know, but I shall be thinking about it. At least until I bring myself to turn off emailed comment notifications. (Damn it, there's another one)

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Pleasant Surprise

It was pointed out to me earlier that President Obama has set up a page for publishing executive orders, and has pledged to put them up.  And, just like all the middle-aged folks I'm suddenly seeing at the gym, so far he's keeping that resolution.  I'm glad, too, because there was a real gem posted yesterday.  Note that bit at the very end, noting that Executive Order 13233 is revoked, and I'm under the impression that this will mean the release of a number of Reagan-era documents -- like, say, those involved with Iran.  Note also that it explicitly refers to Vice-Presidential records now.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

New Toy

I dithered a long time about what to get myself with money given me for Christmas. I like those Keurig machines, not so much because they do indeed make decent coffee, but because I've found that my schedule gets me up way too early in the morning to both make a single cup of coffee and drink it. But the waste gets to me, as does the use of counter space. Besides, I've gotten into the habit of brewing a pot of coffee when I get to work, which makes everyone happy.

I wound up getting a Wacom Bamboo tablet. Of all the peripherals I've had over the years, I've never had something quite like this, and the idea intruigued me. I do a lot of UI work these days, and have a couple projects in mind that might benefit from the ability to draw more easily. Naturally, I thought of getting a scanner, but I have access to one of those, and it would not be as portable.

The tablet arrived today, and I've had a little chance to play with it. The first thing I wanted to try was Apple's Inkwell handwriting recognition. It... might be helpful for taking notes, but at this point I type faster than I handwrite, and it drives me nuts to see typos on the screen and not correct them immediately, a task at which Inkwell does not excel. Given its lack of prominence in documentation and the broken links on Apple's website, I suspect that the project is no longer being pursued.

Drawing is going to take some getting used to, but it's already fun. It comes with a couple programs, one from Adobe and the other from Corel, each of which apparently deals well with the Wacom's input, which includes a measure of force (plus hovering over) and information about which end of the pen is in use. The hardest thing to get used to, oddly, is the fact that the pad is intended to represent the entire screen. Tapping the very top will not get me to the top of the page, but rather to the menu bar. There may be a way to change that, but it also might prove to be convenient once I get used to it.

Drawing itself takes a bit more force than I'm comfortable with, right out of the box. I'll need to practice, but it's fun so far. In the meantime, I can sign this post,

Monday, January 19, 2009

Good Eats

At long last, Netflix has seen the light and gotten a season of Good Eats. For those of you who have not seen this show, take a look at the coffee episode. Even if you don't like coffee, it's interesting and entertaining. (Or maybe not; I don't actually have any idea what it's like to not like coffee. I might as well be saying, "Even if you have three heads and see X-rays, it's interesting and entertaining." Watch it anyway.)

In some ways I feel like I've moved on from the show. I really enjoy watching it when I can, and I feel a great deal of affection for the series. But Food Network has done such a poor job of making new episodes available for those of us who do not get cable, that I've moved on to other sources of cooking education and entertainment. Most of these sources are books, but if you like Indian food, I recommend Manjula's Kitchen. (She's totally revamped her site, by the way, and made it much more useful)

While I watch Good Eats when I can, then, I find that I almost never make the recipes in them anymore. There are a lot of factors in that. Having found other sources is one factor. The other major factor is that I don't cook for myself anymore, and so I don't really have the luxury of sitting at home to watch an episode, and deciding that that's what I want for dinner that night. My waistline has thanked me for this change, but planning means relying increasingly on a smaller set of recipes liked by everyone involved. I find that a lot of the recipes on the show, while they require planning, do not often survive planning for too long: it's hard to tell what we'll be in the mood for, or how tired we'll be.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


I'm not sure now who sent me this, but it looks pretty darn tasty... just so long as we're talking a week's worth of meals here, and not just one.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Will Work For Degrees

My little weather widget tells me that we have run out of degrees, and now owe 23 degrees.  I had hoped that this was Celsius, but no, it's Fahrenheit.  I know times are tough and you don't think you have many degrees of your own, but the donation of just one from each of my readers will help tremendously.

Otherwise we may see something unpleasant, like that scene with the tauntaun in Empire Strikes Back.  Just saying.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Glass Jawing

I recently was pointed to an article from the middle of last year on the subject of glass.  Glass is interesting stuff in a lot of ways, and after complaining about a science article in a previous post, I thought I ought to give an example of an article I liked.  I complain a lot that science articles are dumbed down in a way that, say, book reviews aren't.  It sometimes seems that these articles are written under the assumption that the reader neither knows nor particularly cares about science.  The glass article, on the other hand, strikes what I consider a reasonable balance: it seems to assume that the reader does not have a particularly sophisticated grasp of science, but does have some familiarity with terminology, and does care.  I find, too, that The Economist manages to strike this balance more readily than the New York Times, but I'm never too confident linking to Economist articles, as it's not clear to me when and for what reasons they go back and forth from "premium" to freely available.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Making games

To the extent that I know that I'm not the only one reading this, I know that I'm not the only one reading this who is interested in learning how to program games. I highly suggest a recent post on Tales of the Rampant Coyote: Learning to Make Games

I experimented earlier with a (partly-failed) seven-day RogueLike, and have also played around with interactive fiction. I've found a number of the available toolkits to be somewhat lacking, though, like RPG Maker. (Which, admittedly, I haven't tried in some number of versions) I'm not exactly unskilled at scripting, but I have almost zero artistic ability for making tiles and sprites, and have yet to have a really good idea from which to start. Still, it's something I'd like to play with in the future, so the above link is as much for me to remember as for anyone else.

How Many Words?

If you are reading this post, then the chances are that you have a pretty good vocabulary. You know lots of words and can use them. I was talking to a coworker today about the uses of vocabulary analysis, and he talked about the fact that while we may have large vocabularies, we don't use the whole thing. What if, he asked, you needed to figure out what someone's active vocabulary is, through conversation?

In ordinary conversation, I (and most people) use a relatively small subset of the words that I know. How long does it take me to have said, say, 10% of my active speaking vocabulary? (Let's define it as the set of all the English words I've spoken up to now) 25%? 75%? It will plainly go to infinity well before hitting 100%: there are some words that I will simply never say again. If you plot the curve of conversation time versus percentage, it's going to look like a boomerang: it will rise very quickly, and then level out.

Talking this over with ratatosk, the subject of specialized vocabularies and context came up. A lot of my regular vocabulary revolves around computers and networking, and use terms that I would not use when talking to, say, my grandmother. (Actually I use a lot of words I wouldn't say in front of my grandmother, but that's another point entirely) Furthermore, the existence of acryonyms and slang will prevent (or at least delay) the use of other terms: why say "deoxyribonucleic" when "DNA" rolls off the tongue? That graph, then, could look very differently depending on who you're talking to.

Now, why was I talking about vocabulary in the first place? Well, you can talk about a vocabulary of words, including favorite words, unusual words, and words you don't use anymore, but you can also talk about a person's vocabulary of places in much the same way. If you watch me for a week, you'll quickly discover some percentage of my vocabulary: my offices, my home, my girlfriend's home, the pub up the hill, a grocery store or two, and a handful of parking lots and streets. Watch for a month and you'll see more grocery stores and restaurants, one or two friends' homes, a couple bookstores, etc. But you could be watching for years before I go back to visit West Virginia, and (though I hope not!) decades before I go back to the Acropolis.

Now, let's say that you picked a dumb private eye to tail someone. He catches sight of my car, decides that's the one he wants to follow, and follows it for a random couple of non-consecutive days -- can you figure out from his reports that he's not following the person you hired him to follow? What about if you hired him because this person's habits abruptly changed? Can you figure out that it's me in particular?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Feed me!

Those of you who prefer reading through LiveJournal can read the syndicated feed, thanks to Kirin.


Well, I've changed a number of settings, fooled around with comment preferences (notification, captchas, etc) and a poll (see bottom) and I think I've just about got this thing set up the way I think I'll like it. Let me know if there's anything you think is horrifically ugly.

Illinois Politics

I have to admit: I'm fascinated by would-be Senator Burris, though I'm not sure I envy him. What must Blagojevitch have said to him to convince him to embrace this unenviable position? My guess is something along the lines of, "You'd be a good Senator [always start with the butter] but you don't have a chance in hell if you don't take my offer. Go and be squeaky-clean and make a lot of noise and you might just pull this off."

I'm a little surprised that Blagojevitch picked a Democrat at all. It seems to me that he would have been in a much better position to protect himself and achieve some legitimacy if he'd picked a moderate Republican (maybe he couldn't find one?) and then let the G.O.P, desperate to be able to filibuster, fight his battles for him.

But then, the only constant in this whole thing is that Blagojevitch never seems to think things through. His strategy so far appears to be of the greedy sort -- not in the money sense, but in the "immediate reward" sense. It results in fireworks, lots of apparent minor victories, but in the long run the best he can hope for is a stalemate.

Which brings me back to Burris. I don't know what Blagojevitch gets out of this appointment. Is it supposed to prove that he didn't sell the seat after all, and by implication never intended to? Is he just trying to reward what little personal loyalty he can still find, or trying to create some? (If the latter, creating loyalty in an irrelevent forum is a little odd) Edit: The Economist thinks that it knows: it views the appointment as a trap, and pointed out that Burris would be the only black Senator. Getting the Democrats to accept his nominee would be a symbolic victory for Blagojevitch, and might be helpful to him in court, but would not save him. At best he can embarrass those who (rightly) did not stand by him.

In summary, I still think he should have picked me. I'd be an awesome Senator, and I even know where Illinois is, now.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

On Teeth

So, here's an article that is both interesting, and full of things that piss me off. The upshot of the article is that dentists expect to be able to regrow teeth from adult stem cells (you kept your wisdom teeth, right?) in 5-10 years. Some discussion of the recent history of tooth loss and fluoridation. It's an interesting read, go ahead and read it before I tell you what pisses me off about it.

Done? OK. First of all, I detest the style in which it was written. It is becoming more common, which leads me to wonder whether newspaper editors have been the victims of a very quiet serial killer. (And really, who would tell us if they were? The journalists themselves would just sit and smile.) Lots and lots of one-sentence paragraphs, with a whole lot of white space and an apparent inability to hold a thought for long enough to write a real paragraph. It's ugly. It's lazy. Stop doing it!

Second, the level of science reporting is somewhat poor. There's not much effort to tell the audience about the science or engineering itself; the closest we get is a basic description of the composition of a tooth, and some basic discussion of how far one group is getting. And that's nice, but surely at least one of the doctors, dentists, or professors interviewed would be willing to talk in-depth about what the challenges are and what works or doesn't. Some explanations would be nice, too, of a few of the factoids tossed out -- stem cells are abundant in wisdom teeth, you say? More so than the neighboring molars? Why is that? How long does it take Prof. Shi to grow a root? How about you drop the explanation of the plot of Dr. Strangelove and spend a sentence exploring some of these things. Or at least give us a link or two if we're interested in following up on our own. You have plenty of room for ads, throw us a bone here.

Last, the cheap shot on West Virginia. All right, it's backed up, but come on. The article style is way too breezy (I can forgive the pun in the title, though, because puns are always forgivable in journalism, especially the truly odious ones), and the writer comes off as kind of a douchebag. "Slacker"? Really?

All told, it's a lousy article, all the more so because it could have been a great one.


I'm pondering moving from LiveJournal over to Blogger.  I've got lots of reasons for and against, but I may not have a choice in the matter.