Thursday, September 29, 2005


For a brief, blindingly wonderful moment, I thought that someone had made a game out of Dark Star. Alas, it turns out to be just some typical Teutonic space sim with a violently cliched science-fiction backstory.

If you haven't seen it, Dark Star is one of the crowning achievements of bad cinema. It's notable for being John Carpenter's student movie. As well, among its credits you will find Dan O'Bannon as "Pinback"--he would later go on to write the screenplays for Alien and also Blue Thunder, in a textbook example of shooting your artistic wad too early. Hey, at least he had a wad to shoot.

The band Pinback is, in fact, named after O'Bannon's Pinback.

Dark Star would make a great game, the more that I think about it...or maybe just a set of really strange minigames. Blow up planets in an attempt to relieve your existential boredom! Search for your pet alien that looks like a red beach ball with feet, in a 45-minute sequence in which nothing at all interesting happens! Surf suicidally into the atmosphere and burn up on reentry! Make friends with the Phoenix Asteroids and go with them on their 12.3 trillion year circuit of the universe!

Well, maybe it would be a good game if you were really, really baked.

The Future, I hardly knew ye

So...round about 1996, drunk on hype from John Romero (this was in the days when he was swearing up and down that the only weapon in Quake was going to be a hammer...would it technically be a first-person shooter, I wonder? Or a first-person bonker?), I began feverishly researching head-mounted displays. There was a lot of buzz, they were the Next Big Thing, it was clear they were the Wave of the Future, because...well, they were displays that went on your head.

At the time, there were a few HMD's available, but they cost about $12 billion and wearing them apparently felt similar to gluing a brick to your eyebrows, only less cool-looking and with worse color reproduction.

There was one shining nugget of promise, however, one glistening corn kernel of innovation in the turd of the industry's mediocre engineering. At the Human Interface Technology Lab at the University of Washington, somebody had come up with the bright idea of using a laser to paint a video image directly onto your retina. It was called the Virtual Retinal Display, and it was fricking sweet.

To my video-game obsessed, massively dorky self, it was like someone had told me the Philosopher's Stone would be available at Gamestop in 6-12 months. It seemed like the perfect approach: high resolution, potentially small and light hardware, plus it used lasers. LASERS, blasting uncut awesome right through your optic nerve. I was convinced that I should save up to purchase one, as they'd probably be available by 1998 at the latest. 1998, I determined, was the temporal point at which I'd shed my dull meatspace existence and live full-time in the Neal Stephenson fantasy dream world that I'd been promised. I'd devote my life to founding the first Shaolin temple in cyberspace, and go around on a Tron lightcycle porking Mags in between Recognizer encounters

Ten years later, what happened?

Well, the patents are owned by a company named Microvision. They've productized the awesome, made it concrete. They took that shining vision, that Platonic ideal of a completely immersive virtual environment, and they made it into an expensive Virtual Boy for the guys who used to beat me up in shop class.

No, there is no justice. Future, you've failed me for the last time.

Android weathermen

Human-obsoleting technology continues to penetrate into even the most esoteric careers.

Fox News doesn't even need to wait around for the digital weatherman to be perfected--they can improve their operations and achieve efficiencies using existing and well understood technology. They could just put a melon on a pole, staple a blazer to the pole, put lipstick on the melon, and play a loop tape that just says "WHY DO THEY HATE AMERICA?!?!" over and over again...cheaper and more reliably on-message than Bill O'Reilly.

Sorry, Bill, invisible hand of the market. Not fair, you say? Tell it to Leon Trotsky, I've got melons on set in five.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

What the Hell, People

Why is it that the United States is completely incapable of getting on board with any worldwide standard, no matter how much sense it makes?

For example...

Celsius: Used everywhere. Freezing water is zero degrees. Boiling water is 100 degrees.
Fahrenheit: Used in the U.S. Freezing water is 32 degrees. Boiling water is 212 degrees.

Metric: Used everywhere. The meter is a clearly-defined fraction of the Earth's circumference. The liter is derived from the volume of water contained within a cubic meter. The kilogram is based on a physical chunk of metal, known as The Kilogram, that is kept in Paris and is duplicated to provide a widely-available standard.
English measurement: Used in the U.S. A foot is...well, sort of the same length as some people's feet. A pound is...well, a pound. Don't even get me started on fluid ounces and hogsheads.

GSM 900/1800/1900 phones: Will work anywhere. You can purchase them as soon as they're available in Europe.
GSM 850/1800/1900 phones: Will work anywhere. You can purchase them about twelve months after the Finns have gotten tired of them and moved on to thumbnail-sized subvocal communicators with direct retinal displays that melt away body fat while you talk, and exude pheromones that make you irresistable to sexual partners of whatever gender floats your boat. Those MIDI Tupac ringtones don't seem all that great anymore, do they, Yankee boy?

This is my long-winded way of explaining that I'm REALLY CRABBY that there isn't even a release date for the Nokia N90 in the U.S.

Please to explain how the following makes sense:
  1. There is something being sold.
  2. I want this thing.
  3. I have the money to purchase it.
  4. There is no scarcity of this item.
  5. I am not allowed to purchase it.
On the other hand, I haven't had my fiancee, cats, and house washed away by a hurricane, so perhaps my yuppie dork complaining is kind of silly in the grand scheme of things.

Saturday, September 24, 2005


Now here is a damn fine piece of writing.

Read that essay, and then pardon me while I dabble in a bit of stereotypically-bloggy self-centered, self-absorbed, and self-indulgent blathering...

I've been thinking a lot about alienation, but I hadn't labelled it as such. Putting a name on the problem makes it so much more understandable. So much of our daily life is just reflex and rote.

The thing that bothers me a lot at this point in my life is that I can't keep in touch with my friends worth a shit. My closest friends I see bimonthly if I'm lucky. I don't know how it happens, exactly, except my schedule just runs away from me. I can only deal with so many commitments in a given week, and my job takes up enough time and mental energy that that commitment threshold has gotten pretty low.

I used to be so much more social. Part of it, I'm sure, is that I do have some responsibilities that I didn't back in the day. I have a fiancee who I want to spend a lot of time with. If I leave my cats in the house while I'm out all day, I feel guilty later on.

Mainly, though, I think it's the tyranny of planning. I don't have consistent free time, not a lot of standing gaps in my schedule, and everyone I care about has the same issue, so you've got to plan your time together weeks in advance if not months. That usually just seems like a gigantic pain in the ass, and often I find myself chickening out, because I don't know if a month from now I'm going to want to go drink beers with friends, or just sit in my living room and try to gather myself.

I don't know what the solution is. My fiancee and I want to have children, which is going to bring a lot of joy into our lives but will make this problem even more significant. We want to have a dog at some point, and then we'll need to come back to the house much more frequently to walk and feed it.

We've discussed the idea of both taking part-time jobs, which seems promising to me. I wonder if that will just serve to alienate me further from my friends with full-time jobs, since we aren't even on a similar schedule anymore...

How do we fix this? At what point did life start to be this way? Is it just time-of-life, or is it time-in-history? In 1900, did 31-year-olds feel like this? In 1950? In 1980?

I have a cell phone, and VoIP with free long-distance anywhere in the country, and I never call anybody. I'm on email probably 14 hours a day, and I never write my friends. I've been working on a short film for three years now, and just can't get the final bit of editing done. The idea of getting regular exercise is laughable. I want to be a writer, but I've honestly never been able to stick with it until I started this blog.

Is it that productivity has increased in the workplace to the point where we can't be productive at home? Or is that just an illusion, and are we much less productive these days?

How do we free our time enough to wander?

Friday, September 23, 2005

Whither Google Fiber?

Well, this is sure interesting.

Tons of computing capacity. An independent fiber backbone. Software for both voice and text communication. Search tools for web sites, comparative pricing, blogs. Satellite photo coverage of the entire planet. Software for playing video. Wireless access.

Not only are they looking to be the network, they're looking to be intertwined with all the data on that network--which means they have an even larger dataset on which to search.

At this point, they could be Microsoft and Ma Bell rolled into one. A desktop in the sky, accessible from anywhere, networked to everything, allowing every form of communication.

Or, maybe they just want to sell a bunch of mortgage ads.

Whither Google Wi-Fi?

This story has been bouncing around for a couple of days now. I haven't seen this story inspire a whole lot of crazy, baseless predictions yet, so I thought I'd try to fill the empty void with some unfounded nonsense of my own.

Wi-Fi just doesn't make sense for Google if they're doing it on a small scale--it's outside their core business and would be a waste of time and money--so I think we can assume that this is intended to go nationwide if it gets out of beta. So then, how does it dovetail with their core business on a big scale?

One way is that Google's business increases as Internet penetration increases, so they have a vested interest in increasing access. When more people are connected to the net more often, they do more searches and create more ad impressions.

Another is that ISP's can drive their less-tech-savvy customers to competing search engines like Yahoo and MSN, so by becoming the ISP, Google can do an end-run around the walled garden.

Another is that Google now provides voice communication, what with the beta of Google Talk. With widespread access, they could be a threat to Vonage and Skype.

I'm very curious to see how this all plays out. I don't know that it quite makes sense for Google to become an ISP or carrier, because there are a lot of headaches associated with that sort of business that Google doesn't currently have to deal with--customer service, in particular. At the same time, Google certainly has plenty of expertise dealing with networked hardware on a ungodly huge scale...

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Banh mi

What is it about really good banh mi? I could eat Pho Cyclo's pork banh mi every single day.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Nokia N91 delay

Lot of talk today about the N91 delay, and speculation as to why. It sounds like Nokia wasn't expecting to be able to get Janus integrated until much later. When they announced the phone, they made statements to the effect that Janus support would be not be available at launch, but that it would be available later via firmware upgrade.

Given what a monster pain in the ass it is to upgrade firmware, and given that Janus support (and the portable subscription support that it provides) will give them something to differentiate the N91 from the iPod, I think Nokia is being smart by delaying the N91 launch a little bit to roll in that functionality. Otherwise they'd launch a little sooner, but they'd lose a very useful feature. They also wouldn't be making as big of a splash; if you dribble out new features here and there, the press hardly takes notice.

Personally, I'm really looking forward to a music phone that might work with Rhapsody and Napster. Portable subscriptions are overly complex at the moment, but I really do think they're the way of the future where music is concerned.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Stupid vs. Evil, Part Duh

The most troubling thing about the Stupid vs. Evil metric is that, if you rate a bunch of companies according to this metric, and then you correlate that to public opinion of the company, you will find that the public generally considers Stupid to be worse than Evil. In other words, if you make shitloads of money, a little bit of bunny-boiling is acceptable.

It seems to me that this should be reversed. In particular, when considering a course of action, it seems that it should be more important to not be evil than not be stupid. Assuming that we live in an ethical society, wouldn't the right way around be to evaluate an action's evilness before you even consider whether it's stupid or not?

The classic example is the mandatory review quota policy used by such luminary corporations as Microsoft, Amazon, and Washington Mutual.

Basically, the system works like this: the employees are graded on a bell curve. In any given team, some percentage (we'll say 20%) MUST be given a bad review, regardless of performance.

In theory, this should result in the worst-performing employees losing compensation, while the highly-performing employees gain compensation. Eventually, the theory goes, the less-useful employees will head off for less-ambitious pastures, removing the dead weight from the bottom. More pressure will then be brought to bear on the higher-performing employees, incentivizing them to work even harder, and the organization will iteratively move toward a lean and mean ideal.

The problem is that this turns out to be bullshit. First of all, teamwork is out the window. Why are you going to help someone else if it means they'll get a better review and you'll get screwed? Better to spend that time kissing the boss' ass, talking shit about your coworkers, and avoiding any kind of difficult project.

Second, the people at the low-end aren't necessarily going to be shuffled off. The thing is, you need those people to stay around, because otherwise who will you stick with the bad review? Ultimately, that end of the totem pole will be filled with people who are plainly incompetent and despondent, lacking the strength of will to quit and tell the company to stuff it.

Third, your truly high-performing employees are not necessarily going to be mindless participants in this system. Some of them will consider this unethical, and look for jobs at companies that aren't so draconian. Some of them will develop friendships with people who get crushed by the system, and will lose morale as a result. Others may feel that they could be more successful at a company that truly compensated performance, rather than using a quota.

So, let's review:
  1. You're losing your elite employees.
  2. You're retaining the worst of the bad employees.
  3. You've structurally eliminated teamwork.
Your corporation is now just a collection of mediocre individuals, all working at cross purposes, even if they are under the same roof. Self-interest is the rule of the day.

It probably will take a few years for the damage to become clear, and in the meanwhile you'll have some cost savings, so the HR hatchetperson who came up with the policy looks like a rock star. They get a fat bonus, quit before the long-term debt comes due, and leave the squabbling masses to fight over the scraps as the ship goes down.

In other words, this plan is Evil, and it is Stupid. Now, it's not Stupid on the face of it. You can see why this plan would appeal if you didn't really think through the ramifications of it--it seems like it ought to get rid of bad workers and reward the good ones. But it is plainly, obviously Evil. People who don't deserve it are going to be screwed. That's how the plan is designed to work.

Given that, shouldn't someone in charge have taken one look and said, "We can't do this. It's Evil"? Even if it was the most brilliant plan in the world, it relies on being profoundly shitty to people. It conflicts with the most basic principles of human decency.

And, given that, what kind of sympathy can we have for these corporations? Stupid is forgivable on occasion; people make Stupid mistakes all the time. Stupidity is not intentional.

Evil only comes through conscious choice. And if a corporation consciously decides to go down the Evil path, only to find that that path was also the Stupid choice?

Well, then it's hard to have much pity.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Stupid vs. Evil: The Only Useful Corporate Metric

If you follow stocks and business news at all, you gradually develop a limited understanding of corporate metrics. EBITDA, ROI, etc...all just different ways to measure how a corporation has performed historically or is likely to perform in the future. Some are more esoteric than others, and there's debate amongst analyst-types about which ones really are useful and accurate.

In my opinion, there are only two important yardsticks for any corporation or corporate decision:
  1. How evil is it?
  2. How stupid is it?
The logic here is that corporations do evil things sometimes, and they do stupid things sometimes, and sometimes they do evil, stupid things. The goal would be to not do evil, and not to be stupid, and in particular not to be stupidly evil.

Allow me to provide some examples to help illustrate the point.

Enron: Evil, not stupid. Enron made money hand over demonic fist by completely discarding ethics and common decency. So, if you look at it in a Machiavellian sort of way, they were quite clever, but so evil that it boggles the mind.

Microsoft: Evil, not stupid. MS has had a growing stranglehold on the computer industry for 15 years, and have done plenty of evil things to get there. How do they sleep at night? "On a bed of money, surrounded by many beautiful women."

Ion Storm: Not evil, but stupid. They blew a staggering amount of money developing their games, and wrote hype checks that their product couldn't cash.

SCO: Evil AND stupid. They initiated a slimy and questionable legal action against the supporters of a free product that has contributed enormous value to the public domain. Their reputation was tarnished forever. They are now losing customers like mad, partly due to the rising tide of disgust over their actions, and partly due to customer concern over the continuing viability of the company, given their increasing legal fees and dwindling revenues.

The preferred method of applying the Stupid vs. Evil metric is to give the corporation or corporate decision a Stupid score from 1 to 100, an Evil score from 1 to 100, and then plot those scores on a graph with a vertical axis of Stupid and a horizontal axis of Evil.

The goal is to be as close to the lower-left-hand corner as possible. If you're in the upper right...

Corporations: Not As Smart As You Think

I'm not much of a business guy, but I've worked corporate jobs for the last nine years, and gradually some awareness of how corporations work has filtered through my protective force-field of disinterest.

It cracks me up to read stock boards and watch some day-trader in Nebraska try to figure out where a corporation is headed based on the few hazy nuggets of information that he can get from the news. It's sort of like the old joke about the three blind men and the elephant--you can see how they got to their conclusion, but it's just ludicrously wrong.

The thing that I think is really interesting is just how often the prognosticators will overestimate the company's abilities and plans, rather than underestimate. I suppose that at certain companies, for certain bounded periods of time, they are able to execute phenomenally well, surprise everyone, and keep it all secret. In general, though, even reasonably nimble corporations stagger along, work inefficiently, execute poorly, and succeed in the end through a combination of:
  1. blind luck
  2. sheer brute force of resources
  3. competitors that are similarly inept.
I'm not saying this is the case all the time, but it certainly is the case plenty of the time.

I personally had an experience, early in my career, where the company that I worked for was "caught" collecting data that could be tied to an individual user, without notifying them that this data was being collected. There was much outrage among our users and in the press, and quite justifiably so. It appeared that we had some nefarious corporate strategy to build up dossiers on our users, Big Brother-like, and use it for God knows what evil purpose.

The thing was, the probable reason that we were collecting that data was that some naive program manager had been working on a spec, and thought, "Hey, we should collect this data, that would be useful." The feature was granular enough and buried deeply enough that it probably never went through executive review. The developers were probably too overworked to spend any time thinking about the ramifications of what they were building. In the end, I would be surprised if anyone had ever even taken the time to look at the data.

In other words, this was not a corporate strategy, there were no plans to do anything nasty with the data, and probably no one even knew that it was there to look at. Once the story hits the media, though, nobody is going to believe that. There is no way for a corporation to prove its intent.

So in the end, we looked like huge evil assholes, when what we'd made was an dumbass mistake.

I should clarify that I don't intend this to be an apologia for my company; I'm specifically not using its name to avoid that. Generally, I think people are right to assume the worst of corporations, because there are plenty of examples of corporations doing truly vile things.

It's just sort of a bemusing situation when you know that you're not evil, but you have absolutely no way to prove that to anybody.

And this leads me to my next post...


I've almost worked my way through the entire box set at this point. Really interesting to watch the NO CARRIER segment (about the decline of the BBS and the post-BBS era) and hear a lot of the interviewees say the same things that I was musing about a couple of posts back.

There are a lot of ways in which the Internet is a superior communications technology to the BBS. There are a few BBS strengths that the Internet can't duplicate yet, though:

  1. Location restrictions (i.e. local calling areas) meant that it was possible for you to meet every person you were communicating with face-to-face
  2. A focus on public messages made it an interactive medium, rather than a passive one like TV
  3. The relative inaccessibility of the medium made you feel like you were part of a secret club--there was this dimension to your life that most people didn't have
Blogging seems like the closest Internet analogue, particularly if you're somehow aware of bloggers that are proximate to you in the real world (via geourl, or just tribal knowledge). It still doesn't have that sense of place, though. A blog feels like a local newspaper, whereas a BBS felt like a treehouse in someone's backyard.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

More mobile BBS goofiness

What if I ran Citadel...on a Nokia 770??????

Riddle me that!

Obviously I've stayed up too late. Move along, nothing to see here.

Further BBS musings

I'm continuing to work my way through BBS: The Documentary. When I first read about the project, I thought it was sort of a goofy approach. A bunch of video interviews just didn't seem like the right medium for discussing a community that was completely built from text.

My opinion on that has spun 180 degrees, though. Not only are the interviews an absolute treasure trove of information, an oral history that would have vanished if nobody had bothered to document it, they also add an in-person human element that was always there on the BBSes. Even if you never went to a Get Together, never met the other dorks that you talked to every day, there was still a real human face on the other end of the line. Probably the face of a flabby white guy between the ages of 14 and 34, but hey, that was how it was.

The movie is inspiring me quite a bit, and I keep having all these goofy ideas for projects flit through my head, these weirdly anachronistic ideas that would take that kind of dated-tech, very personal, home-brew duct-taped sort of model and shim it into the 21st century.

The one I keep coming back to, even though it's completely impractical and a throwback rather than an evolution, is--what if I wrote a BBS in Python for Series 60, and ran it on my mobile phone? People could call it up, it'd ring in my pocket, they could leave text messages on it that other people could read...

Yes, it's 95% retarded, but 5% awesome, no?

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The new new vast wasteland

Well, guess I'm 31 now. How about that. 31derful years, if you feel like getting all Baskin-Robbinsy about it.

I'm continuing to work my way through BBS: The Documentary. It's really interesting to think about how much that particular piece of technology influenced my life--I hadn't really considered it before. I don't think there's any way in hell I'd be in the industry I'm in if it weren't for the BBS fascination I developed in junior high.

There's a woman I met in Italy, who I've been friends with for years now. I remember she told me (this was circa 1995) that she didn't use the Internet much because she thought it isolated people. I thought that was bullshit then...not sure I'd say the same now.

Maybe it's just a time of life thing, I don't know. I was pretty actively nerdily social when I was in junior high and obsessively logging on to boards. These days I barely manage to keep in contact with my friends via email, when email is so much more centralized and simple. Back then I'd log onto a given board several times a day, maybe exchange several messages back and forth with each of dozen people. Now I just talk to people at work, and there's very little time for anything that's not directly task-related.

I guess the thing about BBSes is that it really felt that you were part of a group conversation. It was a small town, everyone had a sense of each other's personality, everyone was on the same level. Now it's more like reading, or watching TV. There are a very few people who generate content and information, which is consumed by a huge and far-flung group of people. The content generators are elevated to a certain level of nerdy celebrity, and the people who read what they write are completely invisible.

At their best, I think that blogs and the Web provide a similar sort of discourse to what there was in Newton's time; the best minds of the day responding to each other in published essays, shoring up or dissecting each others' ideas. A great deal of valuable understanding can come out of that sort of information environment.

It's not a conversation, though, and it's not much of a way to bring people together. There is no sense of place. The group isn't small enough for everyone to contribute, and so most people just disappear.

So how do we fix this? Is there a technological or procedural solution? How do you have a community when the population is so large?

Am I just being overly nostalgic for a particular piece of technology that popped up during my formative years? Was it just that it was such a revolutionary thing, whereas the Internet technologies that replaced it seem like an evolutionary improvement? Was it the location-based nature of the beast, whereas the Internet has no geographic boundaries?

Hard to know.

Monday, September 12, 2005

BBS: The Documentary

Finally got around to watching the first disc of BBS: The Documentary. I ordered it when it came out, got all excited about it, and then let it languish unopened in my basement for weeks.

What a strange little piece of history, and all the more strange because I lived through a chunk of it and had somehow managed to almost completely forget about it. When I ordered the discs, I went digging around the net to see if I could find out anything about the old Seattle-area boards I used to call, particularly any of the old Citadels.

Much to my surprise, there was still one running (Slumberland BBS), and it had been hooked up to the Internet via telnet. I logged in as a new user, using the handle I used when I was fourteen, and was staggered to find that there were some people on there who I remembered, and that they remembered me too.

The BBS was such a different kind of online community. I mean, it had a lot of the same sorts of issues, what with relative anonymity and 12-year-olds running rampant, but it had a much more personal feel, much more of a sense of place. If you were logged in to a BBS, nobody else could log in until you disconnected--you had it all to yourself. On the other hand, the sysop could sit at the console and watch everything you were typing.

It was so much more concrete, somehow. Obviously there are enormous advantages to being able to connect to any node on the Internet simultaneously with anyone else who feels like connecting to that node, but there was something nice about that tangibility.

There are so many groups and businesses trying so hard these days to build communities on the Web, and there's so much money being channeled into solving that problem. I wonder what lessons could be learned from the BBS model?

Sunday, September 11, 2005

You always remember

You always remember where you were when a huge historic event happens. People say that about JFK's assassination; I was trying to think of what events in my lifetime have had a similar effect on me. You might be amused by what events seemed important enough to my subconscious to merit a permanent place in time, space, and memory.

I was watching a Saturday morning cartoon starring Godzilla when Reagan was shot. I must have been about six, maybe seven. I remember being pissed, because the episode I was watching was the best one yet, and they preempted it to deliver the news. They finally went back to the cartoon--just as the credits rolled. I couldn't figure out who the hell thought that the assassination of the President of the United States was more important than Godzilla.

In sixth grade, I came in from recess briefly to get something out of my desk. As I was walking into the building, Jon Nichols stopped me and said that the Challenger had exploded. I thought he was pulling some kind of practical joke on me, and spent a few long moments trying to figure out why he'd make that particular story up. This is the first time that I can remember the feeling of disbelief in the face of tragedy.

Doom 2 arrived at the Carleton post office just before my Anthropology 110 class. I remember desperately wanting to skip class, but at the time I was failing it quite badly and couldn't quite muster up the bravery. I would ultimately squeeze out a B by writing an accidentally brilliant term paper over two days without doing a rough draft, but I had no idea that that was in the cards. I walked into class with the box under my arm and three guys looked up and said, roughly paraphrased, "Shit, Doom 2 is out? Where'd you get it? Why the hell aren't you skipping class?"

I remember when Quake finally shipped. I had just graduated college and was still living on-campus, doing summer theater, not working, just enjoying myself and delaying the inevitable transition to being a grownup and moving away from everyone I loved. My roommate Clark worked in the post office, and he called me at 6AM to let me know that it had arrived. I'd just gone to bed around 4AM, but he knew that I would get up for this. I staggered bleary-eyed across campus to get the package, went back and locked myself in my room to play. Twelve hours later, I came out for dinner, and I was almost completely unable to communicate with other human beings--something about the combination of game immersion and sleep deprivation, I'm not sure what exactly.

I remember meeting Laurel. She came into the theater with two other people that I knew and sat down right in front of me. I introduced myself, she said hello, turned around and didn't say another word. I had no idea how significant we'd end up being to each other.

So there you have it. A presidential assassination, a Space Shuttle disaster, two video games, and meeting my sweetie. I knew I was a dork, but I never realized quite to what extent.

Masters of Doom

Just finished reading Masters of Doom, by David Kushner. Great book. As one of the many who has followed iD since the Doom/Keen days, it was a great nostalgic trip for me, as well as serving to connect a lot of dots that I hadn't been able to before.

It's a great historical document, too. The Doom/Quake/Half-Life era was really a revolutionary period in computer gaming. It blows my mind to think of the amount of money and time I spent trying to squeeze every last bit of performance out of my computer in those days. At the time, 30 frames per second felt like the sound barrier, like the threshold of heaven.

Seems like it'd be similarly interesting to have a history of 3D acceleration in the same time period, although I suppose it'd be drier, given that the topic probably lacks the human element and is irreducibly technical.

God, I remember when my first 3dfx card arrived in the mail. I was just out of college, living with my parents, unemployed, had no clue what I was going to do with my life, and was burning through savings like mad buying new hardware so that I could ignore what a shitty situation I was in.

I remember plugging the card into an open PCI slot, running a passthrough cable from my Matrox Mystique into the 3dfx so that the 3dfx could take over all the 3D rendering, and firing up Tomb Raider. It was like nothing I'd ever seen before, it looked so incredibly real. I'm sure now it'd look chunky and choppy and crappy as hell, but at the time it was breathtaking. Then I got ahold of GLQuake, and I was completely sucked in, playing until 6am a lot of nights over my parents' 56K connection. Was it even 56K? Maybe it was 28.8, or slower.

Doom really was the earth-shattering game, though. Even though it was visually sort of a hack, lacking true 3D environments, it was miles more real than anything we'd seen before. Its immersiveness bred obsessive replay, which bred familiarity, which bred deeper immersiveness. I knew those levels better than I knew my own dorm; I had a perfect mental model constructed in my memory, total situational awareness. I don't think any game since has had quite the same hold on me, although I've certainly played some of them to death.


I've found that the kind of cooking I get really excited about is the Big Project style of cooking. Not in the sense of doing something really elaborate and sophisticated that looks pretty on the plate, but rather in the sense of doing something that takes a hell of a long time to cook. It's a lot of fun to cook like this, because it makes the meal feel really special and there's a lot of technique to learn, but it's not too practical in day-to-day living.

Homemade pasta was the first thing I got interested in this way; there's something weirdly satisfying about spending a couple of hours combining flour and eggs to make something that you can normally only get if you open a factory-sealed bag. Fresh pasta has a texture you just can't get with factory-made. Al dente has a whole different meaning.

Gumbo's another. All that roux and Trinity and everything takes a good long time to put together, and if you do it right (I still haven't quite got the hang of it) it's sublime.

More and more, though, I'm finding that barbecue really satisfies that cooking project urge that I get. Brisket in particular scratches that itch. There's just something so great about taking an inedible piece of meat and transmuting it into Holy Food by smearing spices on it and cooking it for 14 hours.

14 hours is a damn inconvenient amount of time to spend tweaking the vents on a smoker, though. Particularly considering that if you want to have it for dinner, you need to get it on the heat somewhere before 4 AM and monitor it for most of a day. So it's pretty great to have a few quick-smoke recipes in your back pocket that you can pull out when you want to smoke, but you can't plan two days in advance.

The current favorite quick smokes in our house are smokeburgers and chicken snaps.

Smokeburgers are so good I can't believe I'd never had them before this year. Grilled burgers suck by comparison--the patties have to be really thin or they won't cook well, and they tend to dry out during cooking. By contrast, you can pat together an incredibly thick burger patty (1" or so), smoke it for an hour, and it'll be cooked all the way through but still be super-moist and nicely smoky to boot.

Chicken snaps are just little slices of chicken breast that you put a dry rub on for 20 minutes and then slap in the smoker. They cook in 30-45 minutes and taste fantastic, although given how lean they are, there's more of a tendency to dry out.

It's possible to prepare a really tasty meal in about 90 minutes total with these two recipes, and they really couldn't be much simpler.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

The Funniest Thing

Friday, September 09, 2005

Dork time

Nice to finally see a step-by-step explanation of how to build Firefox extensions.

Developing Firefox Extensions with GNU/Linux : Page 1

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Technology fairies, free me from boredom

Every once in a while I notice some really silly behavior in myself, or just profound naivete, and I spend a little time reflecting on my own dumbassitude.

Take tonight, for example. I'm sitting around, too tired to get going on any of the four or five too-large projects that I've got on the permanent back burner, but I feel like being entertained in some way that doesn't require any effort besides clicking. I'm surfing around idly, and I notice that the Firefox 1.5 beta is out. WHOOPIE! Salvation! Something to do tonight! My whole life is going to change!

I download it, install it, runs great (in fact, I'm blogging from it right now).'s not any different, really. I mean it is, there's the faster forward/back behavior, apparently SVG support, redesigned preferences other words, my day-to-day experience is the same as it ever was.

There's this disconnect in my mind between potential and reality. Every time I install a new piece of software, I expect that my life will change dramatically, which is obviously a really ridiculous bar to be setting. In looking back over the last few years, these are the only pieces of software that have really made much difference:
  1. Firefox 1.0
  2. Bloglines
  3. Thunderbird
  4. Rhapsody
  5. Eclipse
  6. The Cisco VPN client.
And of those six, Bloglines is the only one that's really changed the way I do things. But for some reason, every point release of every app that comes out gets me all excited, and then...well, things are pretty much the same.

I'm even aware of this propensity in myself, and still it gets me every time. We're creatures of habit, I guess.

The Motorcycle Diaries

The fiancee and I watched The Motorcycle Diaries the other night. Really great movie, and somehow I failed to realize (not having read any background on the movie, not even the box cover) that this was Che Guevara we were talking about here, not some other random guy named Guevara who just happened to be driving around Latin America, getting pissed off about poverty and declaring that you can't have a revolution without guns. Felt a little stupid when I figured that out.

Watching it gave me a weird feeling, a feeling I've only had once before, and that was when I read Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. The film and book are both strange little time capsules; a message in a bottle from when communism was a philosophy that a lot of people took seriously and genuinely believed would solve the problem of the haves and have-nots.

I mean, you can't dismiss the fundamental idea. The economic imbalance in the world today is just ridiculous. We're taught when we're children that it's nice to share, but as we grow up we somehow forget that lesson. Bill Gates is worth, what, $28 billion at the time of this writing? Not to single him out or anything, and certainly he gives plenty away to charity, it's just bizarre that the limited resources that are available in this world can be concentrated in the hands of so few people. Makes a certain amount of sense to divide that pie up a little more fairly, doesn't it?

But then, on the other hand, communism sure hasn't been a raging success in the countries that have experimented with it. The Soviet Union, China, Cuba...all have ended up as dictatorships or oligarchies, and all more or less totalitarian. That's the thing that doesn't make sense to me, although after reading Catalonia I suppose it's not so mysterious--the Soviet Union actually undermined communists in other countries in order to promote socialism within the USSR.

It seems to me that the fundamental philosophy of communism is more suited to a true free democracy than any other economic system. Communism divides wealth equally among all; democracy does the same with political power. Why, then, instead of communist democracies and capitalist dictatorships, did we end up with communist dictatorships and capitalist democracies?

I suppose it comes down to human failure and inability to live up to ideals. What's particularly interesting (albeit sad and disappointing) is that you'd think these countries would have had a grace period, after their respective revolutions, when things would have been relatively democratic. You'd think that the lust for power would eventually undermine utopia, but you'd think that it would work for a while.

In each one of these cases, though, an autocratic ruler took over right from the start or just barely after (Mao, Fidel, Stalin, etc.). You'd think even just one of them would have been run by someone who could walk the walk, but no.

Maybe really what this tells us is that anyone with the force of ego necessary to overthrow a government is never going to give a rat's ass about anybody other than themselves. Say what they will while they're rallying the peasants to the cause, once they take the throne they're going to be as bad as their predecessors.

The meek shall inherit the earth, they say, but the cocky are going slap the meek around quite a bit in the meanwhile.

I'm certainly not anti-capitalist, I get the whole deal about the efficiency of the free market, etc. etc., but it just seems to me that there's got to be some middle ground between completely screwing the poor and completely removing the incentive to innovate.

Maybe the Scandinavians have it figured out--be capitalist, but tax the living crap out of everything. I guess I have the impression that the Scandinavian countries are doing really well, but that's not based on any actual numbers or anything.

Ah, well. If you haven't seen The Motorcycle Diaries or read Homage to Catalonia, I really do recommend them. There's an issue there that nobody really talks or thinks about in American public life anymore, and I think it's strange that we don't.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Well said

This pretty much sums it up.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The cat grows weary of his diet

My cat is so fat. HOW FAT IS HE?

Fat enough that he almost broke the 20-pound barrier. 12 pounds is considered the reasonable upper end of cat weight.

Fat enough that couldn't clean himself DOWN THERE, because he couldn't reach around his enormous gut and he'd just fall over when he tried to do it.

Anyway, we finally put both cats on a diet and they've lost close to 20% of their body weight, which is damn impressive. Makes me wish that I was some giant cat's pet and he'd just put me on a restricted calorie diet, ignoring my plaintive ape-mewlings for burritos.

The weight loss hasn't come without consequences, though. They never used to be scroungers; all they were interested in eating was their kibble.

A month into the diet, the fatter of the two started trying to steal bits of barbecued pork off of my dinner plate while I was trying to eat it.

Two months into the diet, he started jumping up on the kitchen counter to lick bacon grease out of the frying pan.

We're three months into the diet now, and this morning I heard him on the counter.

He was trying to eat dry pasta.

New Orleans

There are still a lot of places in the U.S. that I haven't been to, particularly in the East and South. New Orleans was at the top of my list for a long time, and I finally made it there for the first time in February.

It wasn't what I expected at all. I mainly thought I would have a food revelation, that I'd take a bite of etoufee or gumbo or jambalaya or a po' boy and look up with wonder, thinking "Ah. That's how it's supposed to be." I thought I'd hear some brilliant music.

I had some pretty bad expectations, too. I thought I'd feel pretty out of place as a Yankee honky, and I figured at some point I'd walk down the wrong street and get my ass whupped and my wallet stolen. The smell, I assumed, would drive me out of the city after a day or two, and probably the public drunkenness would get old right quick.

None of that was true.

I had some decent food, but nothing that blew my mind. As far as music goes, we wandered into a jazz club late one night and watched four musicians completely fail to gel into a band.

So, the positive expectations didn't pan out. But neither did the negative.

I never once felt out of place. New Orleans just felt like the right place to be. Sure, I felt like a tourist, but I didn't feel like an asshole. We wandered some bad-ish parts of the city, but in daylight, and it never felt that dangerous.

I guess really I'd expected to love certain things that you could find in New Orleans, and to hate the city itself. In the end, it was the city itself that I really loved.

There's something about taking a cab from the airport, driving past typical strip malls and trackless freeways, the shit you see everywhere in this country, and then your cabbie turns into the Quarter and you're just not in the United States anymore. At first you think you're in Europe, but it's not Europe either, it's just New Orleans.

There's something about walking down Bourbon Street and smelling a different aroma or stench every ten yards. The good ones make your mouth water. The bad ones make your eyes tear up and you just stumble out of the cloud of stink as best you can, coughing and giggling like a six-year-old who can't stop saying "poop".

There's something about a to-go cup, and this is going to sound laughable, but there's something so damn civilized about it.

There's something about wandering on wildly rolling, cracked sidewalks past blocks of abandoned buildings and old shotgun houses down to Elizabeth's in the Marigny for breakfast, and having the waitress bring you a Bloody Mary that you sit and drink on the curb while you wait for a table to open up inside.

For all I know, Elizabeth's is gone now. It was right down by the levee. I remember walking up to the concrete wall that morning and realizing for the first time that I was standing below sea level. I wonder if they'll reopen. Suddenly the pain perdu and praline bacon I had that morning, slightly hungover, seems just as precious as anything I can think of. That was probably the best food I had the whole time I was there. That sweet waitress who brought me the Bloody Mary, is she okay? The crazy gay waiter with all the piercings, who wore an apron that read, "want some PIE?"...did he get out?

The homeless-looking woman I saw standing on the corner on Bourbon, surrounded by the crush of drunken tourists, talking steadily to herself while her cat perched on her shoulders. Is there any possible way she could have survived?

New Orleans just isn't like anyplace else. What a God-damned wonderful town, and it kills me to see it like it is now, and to think that I just barely had started to get to know it.

It's's like if every day you saw the same pretty woman on the bus on the way to work. She doesn't look quite like anyone else, dresses in her own distinct style, and you find yourself staring at her from time to time, thinking, a woman like that would never talk to me. Then one day you say hello to her for the heck of it, and she flashes you the most brilliant smile you've ever seen and asks your name. You have a short conversation, but one with promise, and then she gets off.

The next day, the bus hops the curb and runs her over at the stop, and she's just gone.

All of a sudden, there's something huge missing, a huge potential unfulfilled, and it breaks your heart, but you didn't even know her, so you don't even really know how you feel. It just feels bad.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Gaul Is Watching

There are some things that just sound better in French. Even if you don't really read French.

Etat d’incompetence!


There's a disconcerting lack of Cruise in the celebrity news of late. Journalists of America?!? What the hell? Is he still porking that legal-voter girlfriend of his? Did they spawn already? Enquiring minds, etc.


So I'm playing a fair amount of Nintendogs lately, and there's a slightly disconcerting contextual element to this very sweet game, namely: I usually play it with my cat sitting next to me. So I'm basically ignoring this warm cuddly companion that exists IN REAL LIFE and spending my time playing with this pretend dog.

I suppose that anything can be outsourced. The digital dog costs me $30, I can have eight of them at once, and I get POINTS when I take them for a walk. The cat costs me probably $800 a year just in vet bills, pisses all over the furniture, gives me no points whatsoever.

Pokey, you need to look into this points thing. Right now the pretend dogs have you beat, at least with the metrics I'm using at the moment.