Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Review: Portal

If I do many more reviews, you'll probably notice that I am unlikely to be particularly negative about the title being reviewed. This is mainly because I can't really justify spending much money on entertainment, what with a family and a mortgage, and I don't have a whole lot of time to spend on them, anyway. So I tend to be pretty selective in the entertainment titles I do pick up; I want to be pretty sure that I'll like it.

I received several items this Christmas that I'll review here and there. First up is Portal. Portal was initially only available as part of a pack called The Orange Box, which I was not interested in because it involved paying a bunch more money for titles I had no desire to own, namely the first-person shooters Half Life 2 and Team Fortress 2. Fortunately, Portal is now available as a very inexpensive standalone title.

An aside about first-person shooters: In general, they don't particularly appeal to me because they are typically full of gore and more interested in tossing in the latest eye candy fad (Let's see, we had specular highlights, then bullet time, light bloom, ragdoll physics, parallax mapping...) instead of focusing effort on, say, the story and gameplay. I also enjoy playing games that involve some actual thinking instead of just twitching one's trigger finger at anything that moves. If a game is going to be played more with the brain stem than the cerebral cortex, I might as well be watching TV.

Granted, Portal sports a fair amount of graphics eye candy (inherited from Valve's Source engine) and can be loosely categorized as a first-person shooter, in that your viewpoint in the game is first-person and you shoot (although you're shooting portals rather than bullets), but the similarity ends there. The fun of Portal is from the clever story and the even cleverer gameplay. Not that the story is particularly original; it's your standard “artificial intelligence becomes sentient and kills everyone” plot. And it's not that the portal concept is particularly new to gaming, either; the previous year saw a game titled Prey that also featured portals (though the player could not create them for themselves). It's the way these things came together into a memorable gameplay experience that is the attraction.

A basic overview of the plot is in order: You wake up in a futuristic cell as a computerized voice informs you that it is time for testing to begin. A portal opens up in the wall, through which you can see yourself from outside the cell through the translucent wall. You quickly discover that the portal is connected to another portal outside the cell, and that passing through it causes you to emerge from the other side, allowing you to escape the cell. The computerized voice guides you through a series of tests in which you must use the portals to navigate various test chambers. Soon, you acquire a portal gun which allows you to place one side of the portal on most flat surfaces; later, it's upgraded to allow you to place both ends at will. As you proceed through the facility, it becomes clear that something isn't right. The test chambers become more dangerous, and you begin to see evidence that the testing is not as controlled as you might have thought.

Perhaps most memorable is the antagonist, GLaDOS, the artificial intelligence who speaks to the player over a P.A. system for almost the entire game. While her voice is coldly electronic and she at first serves as a helpful guide through the facility, there are hints of an actual personality that become more apparent as time goes on, and that personality is decidedly unbalanced. From her casual attitude about the possibility of injury to her test subjects, to her disjointed and sometimes manipulative comments about your progress, to her odd sense of humor and obsession with cake, GLaDOS is a really interesting character. Her complete control over the player's circumstances and her callous disregard for the player's well-being causes your progress to feel less like beating test chambers and more like beating GLaDOS at her own game. Thus, it's very rewarding to hear her dismay when you seize the opportunity near the end of the game to break out of her carefully controlled environment.

The game's effectiveness at “sucking you in” is illustrated well by an event that occurs in the latter part of the game. Throughout the game, the player can pick up futuristic-looking crates (referred to as cubes) and use them to form steps or to hold down large buttons to operate devices. Late in the game, GLaDOS gives you what she calls a “Weighted Companion Cube,” which is identical to the normal cubes except for the cheery pink heart painted on each side. GLaDOS instructs you to “take care of it,” and throughout the test chamber alternates between anthropomorphizing it and emphasizing its inanimate nature. At the end of the chamber, GLaDOS requires you to toss the companion cube into an incinerator in order to proceed, and upon compliance, praises you for “euthanizing” it faster than than any previous test subject on record. Many players, despite the undeniable fact that the companion cube is an inanimate object, felt emotional at being forced to destroy it and even more determined to defeat GLaDOS.

The voice acting is top notch. There are really only two voices in the entire game, that of GLaDOS herself, and that of the automated turrets you encounter late in the game. Yes, talking turrets. Amusingly, the turrets have rather childlike voices that chirp “Hello!” before opening fire, call out “Where are you?” or “Come over here,” if you take cover, and cry “Why?” or “I don't blame you,” if you disable them. Both voices are performed by Ellen McLain, who does a terrific job of balancing GLaDOS's synthetic timbre with hints of emotion and nuance.

The other delightful aspect to the game was the sheer enjoyment of figuring out how to use portals and the devices found in the test chambers to proceed. The levels are very well-designed in order to teach you the concepts you'll need to understand in order to make progress, usually without explicitly being told how it works by GLaDOS. The puzzles are clever, and sufficiently challenging without causing you to tear your hair out. If you prefer hair loss, there are “advanced” versions of some levels which have been made more difficult, and “challenge” levels where you try to minimize the time, number of portals, or number of footsteps used to complete the level. The game also tracks achievements you fulfill in the course of gameplay, to satisfy the completionists.

I only had a couple of minor gripes about the game. One was that you couldn't shoot your portal gun through a portal. This is understandable, as it opens up way too many complications in designing puzzles, but it was a tiny disappointment. The other nitpick was that it was short. This is not a bad thing, really. For one thing, the game is inexpensive. For another, the designers could easily have made it drag on far too long, allowing the novelty and enjoyment to wear off and turning it into a chore rather than fun. (A few games have somehow managed to convince some players that turning a game into a second job is somehow fun. I'm looking at you, RPGs.) So they leave you wanting more, which is a good thing, but on the other hand, well, you're left wanting more.

The big problem I have with the entertainment industry today is that too many in it are afraid to try something different that isn't proven to make money. Portal is an example where they took a chance and it worked. I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good single-player puzzler with an intriguing story.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

You Ruined Everything

So I know that I said I probably wouldn't post in the next couple of weeks, but I wanted to share a thought I had. Yesterday, we got a babysitter and went to my company's Christmas party. We don't get out much since having kids, even more so due to my daughter's autism. We found ourselves out to dinner, without the kids, but as is common with parents the world over, we ended up talking a lot with others about the kids.

The thought caused me to reflect back on life with Gorgeous Wife before the kids. We stayed up late on the couch to watch movies together. Or we went out to watch movies together, or dance, or eat out, or whatever. We had more energy and less stress, more time and fewer bills. Yet, like most parents, we'd have the kids all over again if we had the choice.

Ronnie Shakes once said that to know if you loved somebody, you simply had to ask yourself, “Would I mind being destroyed financially by this person?” Nerd musician Jonathan Coulton wrote a song about the subject with regards to kids, with a chorus that just about perfectly describes the sentiment: “You ruined everything/In the nicest way.” His background info on the song is a tongue-in-cheek description of that strange transition from living your own lives to being at the beck and call of a little diapered dictator, yet somehow being okay with it:

I was having a conversation with a friend who had recently become a parent, and she reminded me of something I had forgotten about since my daughter was born. She was describing this what-have-I-done feeling - I just got everything perfect in my life, and then I went and messed it all up by having a baby. I don't feel that way anymore, but the thought certainly crossed my mind a few times at the beginning. Eventually you just fall in love and forget about everything else, but it's not a very comfortable transition. I compare the process to becoming a vampire, your old self dies in a sad and painful way, but then you come out the other side with immortality, super strength and a taste for human blood. At least that's how it was for me. At any rate, it's complicated.

Keep ruining everything, kids. For some strange reason, your parents don't seem to mind.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Merry Christmas!

So I probably won't be posting for the next couple of weeks. We've got Gorgeous Wife's mom and grandma coming late tonight, and with the holiday I imagine I'm just not gonna find time for blogging.

I'm sure you're all screaming “Noooo!” at your monitors right now. Fear not; I'll tide you over with a picture with adorable kids in it:

(My son wasn't actually smiling in that picture; I cut his head out of a different picture where he was smiling and pasted it in there. Thank you, GIMP!)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Long Day, Good News

I took Monday off work to take the kids places they'd rather not be. I got up at early o'clock in the morning to take my ten-month-old son to an MRI appointment at 6:30 a.m. All things considered, he behaved remarkably well. He even smiled and cooed at the nurse while she was prodding him during the pre-scan evaluation. He only started crying when it was time to hold him down to get the IV put in, and that didn't last long. The hardest part was the administration of the sedative and his insertion into the machine. I held him as they gave the sedative. It acted surprisingly quickly, and it was only about 30 seconds before I had to support his head to keep it from flopping back like a newborn's. He fought to stay awake, but within a couple of minutes he'd gone limp.

Then I had to stand on a mat in the control room, just outside the scan room, and watch through the doorway while the nurses took him from me and placed him on the scanning bed. The noise of the machine was enough to make him wake up and cry a bit, so they had to give him an additional short-duration sedative to keep him asleep. They attached monitors that would ensure that he was not having an adverse reaction to the sedatives (pulse, blood pressure and oxygenation), and an oxygen line, since the sedatives cause his breathing to be more shallow. When they returned, I had to leave and wait in the sedation recovery room while they curtained off the control room and performed the scan.

As irrational as it is, a parent can't help but imagine the worst while waiting during a procedure or test, no matter how minor. The scan itself really only took about half an hour tops, but the minutes seemed interminable as I sat in a chair next to an empty hospital cradle. I soon gave in to temptation and began pacing the room. Finally, the nurses pulled back the curtain and brought him out. With them came the radiologist, who told me that he still needed to do a thorough reading of the scans, but from what he had seen they looked normal. The nurse laid him in the cradle and again attached monitors to him, along with a saline drip to keep him hydrated, since he was required to be fasting for the scan and had not had anything to eat or drink since he went to sleep the previous night.

Thus began the 90-minute wait for the sedative to wear off enough to wake him. This was almost as nerve-wracking as the scan, thanks to the list of things we'd have to watch for over the next 24 hours that the nurse gave me. If we can't wake him, call 911. Make sure you don't allow his head to droop during the ride home, since it can impede his airway. Don't let him curl into a ball while sleeping or otherwise position himself in any way that could constrict his chest or airway. Watch him carefully while awake, since he may have trouble holding up his head or maintaining balance while crawling or sitting. Keep him on clear liquids for several hours, since the sedative can make him sick to his stomach. If he throws up, try to prevent him from aspirating any vomit, as that can cause pneumonia.

I kept checking his breathing over the 90 minutes, even though I knew perfectly well that a monitor would start screaming bloody murder if he stopped breathing. It seemed unnatural that he was so still. He somehow looked smaller, sleeping with a pre-warmed blanket over him, almost as if he were a newborn again. Perhaps I was unconsciously recalling the last time he was in a hospital cradle, just ten short months ago.

At last it was time to wake him. Fortunately, he woke up readily and immediately started protesting that his tummy was empty! He greedily chugged down 14 ounces of juice and gave a vigorous burp, to the amusement of the nurses. After that he seemed pretty happy and fairly normal, except for his head being a bit wobbly. He was discharged and I drove us home while he napped.

That afternoon, I took my daughter to the school district headquarters to be evaluated, in order to determine whether she is eligible for special education services. For most of the two-and-a-half hours that we were there, she was inconsolable. Something about the place just set her off and she screamed like someone was killing her. My time there was mostly spent answering long questionnaires about her behavior with my right hand while holding her in my left arm and rapidly going deaf in my left ear.

Eventually it was determined, to nobody's surprise, that yes, she does indeed have autism and yes, she is qualified to receive special education services. A good thing, since I was not really wanting to get into a big battle with the school district should they have taken it into their heads that she didn't need the services. As soon as I took her hand and told her that we were “going bye-bye” she immediately cheered up, smiled and waved at the people she'd been screaming at the whole time, and literally skipped out of the building.

Final note: Yesterday, we received word that the final reading of my son's MRI scans showed no abnormalities. This leads the pediatrician to believe that the most likely cause of his strange manner of crawling is simply preference for the right over the left, and that with time it should straighten out. Good news, but it does mean that we now have to wait and see if that pathetic-looking crawl of his really does work itself out.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Fourteen Minutes Left

I spent one of my fifteen minutes of fame yesterday. I told a joke to thousands of people nationwide. A lame joke.

I don't listen to Dr. Laura on the radio much, as her show is typically on when I'm at work. But yesterday I had taken the day off, and I was heading to the store to pick up some potatoes for the garlic mashed potatoes that we are going to have today, as we had underestimated how many potatoes we'd need. I flipped on the radio and there was Dr. Laura. I enjoy listening to her show. Maybe it's because she tells it like it is and actually gives good advice, but mostly I think it's because I get some sort of perverse amusement out of listening to her rip into someone who's causing all of their own problems and blaming it on everyone else.

Anyway, she was having her annual “Corny Joke Day;” every year on the day before Thanksgiving, people call in to tell her a corny joke, the cornier the better. Those who get on the air get a prize. So I said to myself, “Self, you know a lot of corny jokes. Why not call in?” In fact, my company had recently published some joke and quote books to give away at trade shows (which you can download for free if you like), so I had plenty of material from which to choose.

So I called. The line was busy the first few times I called in, but on the fourth attempt I got a ring on the other end. After about two minutes, the screener picked up and asked to hear the joke. I told it, and she responded with an odd sound somewhere between a groan and a snort. Either sound is good for a corny joke, I suppose, unless it was a snort of derision. Apparently it wasn't, though, because she took my info and put me in the queue.

I spent the next ten minutes or so listening to the show through my phone, and heard several other corny jokes:

Q. What did Tarzan say when he saw a herd of elephants coming over the hill?
A. “Oh, look, a herd of elephants coming over the hill!”
Q. What did Tarzan say when he saw a herd of elephants coming over the hill wearing sunglasses?
A. Nothing; he didn't recognize them
Q. Why did the mother hen bring her chicks to the eye doctor?
A. To check their peepers.
Q. Why is a blonde's brain the size of a pea in the morning?
A. Their brains swell at night.

Then, before I knew it, I was on:

Q. Why do gorillas have big nostrils?

As she sometimes does with the jokes, Dr. Laura made an attempt at a serious answer, something about allowing them to smell the breeze more easily. But of course, that wasn't the answer.

A. Because they have big fingers.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

It Just Keeps Raining...

My son has finally started crawling. Sort of. While he does have use of his left side, he doesn't use it much when crawling; he sort of drags it. We've already had a therapist coming to see him because of gross motor skill delay. She was concerned about it and suggested that this should be evaluated by his pediatrician. So yesterday the doctor looked him over and said that muscle tone on his left side is less than his right. There could be many different reasons for this, anything from simple preference all the way to a prenatal stroke. He's got an MRI scheduled for December 1, so we'll see.

Gorgeous Wife also had a doctor visit yesterday and was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. As there is no cure, she will have to control it with exercise and medication for the rest of her life.

Cross your fingers for our boy. He's the only hope this family has left for having at least one member that doesn't have an incurable medical condition.

Monday, November 10, 2008

I am a User Interface Snob

What follows is a rant on a geeky topic that most normal people probably don't give a lick about. You have been warned.

One of my pet peeves is a poorly designed user interface, not just for software or web sites, but in physical objects, too. A common example is door handles in public buildings. The two kinds you encounter most often are the vertical handle and the horizonal bar that goes across the entire door. A person encountering the former will automatically tend to feel that the door should be pulled to open it, while the latter causes people to want to push it open. Yet sometimes, you encounter a vertical handle on a door that has to be pushed. They have to put a “PUSH” sign on it so that people will know they have to push it, and you will still be able to see people trying to pull it all day. Instead of putting up a sign, why not just use the right handle?

I ran into another one just now, when scanning a file with the AVG virus/malware scanner. It's nice that it scans for both viruses (Why aren't they called virii?) and spyware, but the results screen leaves something to be desired. It basically says something like this:

Infections found:0
Infected objects removed or healed:0
Not removed or healed:0
Spyware found:0
Spyware removed:0
Not removed:0

Every time that screen comes up, my brain has to sit there and figure out where I'm supposed to look to tell whether it found anything or not. The screen ought to look something like this:


Then there's that recorded voice that tells you, “You must first dial a 1 before calling this number.” Why doesn't the phone system just pretend that you dialed the 1 and connect you? I mean, we have computers now! The system clearly knows what you meant, so why not just do it?

The best interface designers understand how to make things that just do the right thing with a minimum of hand-holding. They don't clutter up an already busy amusement park by putting up a sign that reads “Don't sit on the railing;” they just cover it with bumps or pokey bits that make it incredibly uncomfortable to sit on. They don't write software error messages that just tell you that it didn't like what you did for some arcane, programmery reason; they write ones that tell you what to do about it, or if feasible, make it impossible for you to make the mistake in the first place.

So what do you wish was better designed?

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Vote Early and Often

I am so happy. Today is the last day that I have to see political ads.

Seriously, though, if you haven't already, for heaven's sake go vote! I voted early this year, and the lines weren't nearly so bad the news was saying. I spent maybe ten minutes in line. It was a pleasant experience compared to the Driver License Division. Today will be a different story, of course, but please, do your civic duty and vote!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Thrash Thrash Gasp!

I've fought my way to the surface to report that we've finally had our software release at work. This is one we've been working on for a long time and are glad to finally have it done. I'm looking forward to getting more time with my family.

The new house is coming together. Almost all the boxes are unpacked and things are mostly in their places now. There are still some projects to take care of, but that kind of got put on hold this weekend since we all got sick. We're all pretty much over it now, except for my son, who ended up with a double ear infection. With that and five teeth coming in simultaneously, he is thoroughly miserable.

Some long-overdue photos:

“Hello, computer.”

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Life is Good. Really.

Overall, this hasn't exactly been a red-letter year for our family. There's been a lot of stress and a lot of bad news. So I've had occasion to get a bit mopey at times. Now, I personally think that occasional self-pity wallowing isn't a horrible thing. It can even be somewhat therapeutic, particularly if accompanied by some comfort food and “me time.” But too much indulgence in the “why mes” is bad for you. Too much comfort food, for one. But mostly because you end up with this almost palpable black thundercloud hovering over your head wherever you go, and people start not wanting to hang around you. A friend's recent blog post reminded me of the need to manage my expectations in order to keep the storm clouds from gathering.

We recently moved. The new house is wonderful, but actually getting into the house proved to be a nightmare in all sorts of unexpected ways (mostly due to a lot of apathetic corporate foot-dragging). Gorgeous Wife and I earned a bunch of gray hairs from it the hassle and occasional, genuinely frightening oh-my-gosh-what-do-we-do moments.

During that time, it was easy to think “If I could just get A, B and C to happen, then I'd be happy.” The problem with this kind of thinking is that happiness doesn't come from what happens to you, it comes from deciding to be happy. Then A happens, and you don't feel happier, so you assume it must be because of D. And the cycle continues, where you forever push off the time when you will allow yourself to be happy into the future instead of waking up, looking around and being grateful for and happy with your situation now. C. S. Lewis summed it up pretty well in his book The Screwtape Letters. The following quote from the book is instruction on temptation from the devil Screwtape to his nephew:

We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow's end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the future every real gift which is offered them in the Present.

When I really stop to think about it, life is good. I am married to a beautiful, wonderful woman. I have two amazing kids and a great new house. I have everything I need and a lot of what I want. Watch out for the “why mes” and “if onlys.” Decide to be happy now.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Email Disclaimer

I was faced today with the prospect of writing an email regarding a sensitive subject. The identity of the recipient and the subject in question are irrelevant; let it suffice to say that I had things I needed to explain without upsetting the recipient. However, email is notorious as a medium for making it easy to be misunderstood. There are no gestures, no facial expressions, no tones of voice to help communicate the intent of the message.

So why not just call instead? Because a live discussion requires you to think on your feet, and that can be dangerous, too. I prefer to analyze what I want to say, then say it. There is no such luxury in a live conversation.

So what does one do? I resorted to prefacing my email with this:

As email is a notoriously bad medium for having a conversation about sensitive subjects, let me just preface this with a disclaimer: If anything in this email can be interpreted two different ways, and one makes you sad or upset, I meant the other way.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Paid to Campaign?

I don't plan on talking much about politics on my blog, mainly because thinking about it too much makes me want to take a shower. But one thing that really grates my cheese is this whole business of campaigning while in office. Take the two current major presidential candidates, for example. Both McCain and Obama are senators, so they are supposed to be representing their respective states in the Senate. Right now, though, they're spending very little time actually doing the job for which their constituents voted them in (and for which taxpayers are paying them). Am I the only one bothered by this?

So a question: Say you're basically phoning it in at work because you're too busy looking for your next job. How long would it be before you'd be fired?

Thursday, September 18, 2008


T-minus nine days until the move. The blog has been rather quiet (as my time has been taken up with work and moving preparations), but I thought I should give people an update on my daughter. She's been progressing rapidly, to the surprise and delight of her parents and therapist.

Her favorite subject right now is letters. She knows them all; show her the alphabet and name any letter and she'll point to it. She has a set of cards which show letters of the alphabet on one side and an object beginning with said letter on the other. You can lay them out in front of her, letter-side up, say the name of one of the objects on the opposite side, and she will pick up the corresponding card and turn it over to reveal the object. She can do it in reverse, too; put them object-side up and say a letter, and she'll give you the right one.

Even more exciting is that she's beginning to say the names of some of the letters verbally. Some are clear as a bell, such as A, F, M or T; while with others she tends to say the sound rather than the letter (like B). She's also enchanted with Wheel of Fortune. Recently, she watched as a contestant called out the letter M, then she turned around, looked me straight in the eye, and said “Emmm.” Then she turned back around and pointed to the letter when Vanna revealed it and said “Emmm” again. (She also applauds along with the audience, spins in place whenever she sees the wheel spinning, and quite sensibly refrains from laughing when Pat Sajak makes a lame joke.)

A really interesting incident happened yesterday: Gorgeous Wife saw her pointing in the general direction of the top of the refrigerator. Since she likes to point at things to get you to say their names, Gorgeous Wife thought that perhaps she was pointing at the kitchen timer and said, “Clock.” She looked confused for a bit, then signed “Red.” As it turned out, she was trying to say that she wanted some Doritos, which were in a bright red bag sitting on top of the refrigerator. She pointed, but when that didn't get the desired results, and she didn't know the word for the thing she was pointing at, she circumlocuted. Maybe not a big deal for a typical kid, but from what I understand, it's huge for kids with autism.

Anyway, so things are looking really positive for her. The therapist has been astounded by how well she's been doing. (She resorted to using full-sheet note forms instead of the half-sheets; there was just too much progress to document!) Now that she can communicate somewhat better than she used to, she is a lot happier and seems to have a voracious appetite for learning new things.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

It's Not the Principle of the Thing, It's the Money

If you haven't already heard, we've managed to get an acceptable offer on our condo, and we've had our offer on a new place accepted. (Insert plea for moving help here.) The new house is really nice and I think we got a very good deal on it. It certainly helped that the banks were falling over themselves to get us to select them for our mortgage. We have excellent credit, and Gorgeous Wife had the lenders clamoring to one-up each other to get us the best deal.

It reminds me of a certain mortgage broker that runs ads that say, “When banks compete, you win.” Those ads conveniently omit the fact that the banks are competing already, whether the broker exists or not. It's not that hard for a reasonably intelligent person to do what the brokers do, without having to pay the middle man.

Anyway, with the economic climate the way it is, the banks are desperate for someone who is a good credit risk, so Gorgeous Wife had the mortgage agents eating out of her hand. (Well, if you can call begging someone to fork over thousands upon thousands of dollars of interest over the next thirty years “eating out of one's hand.”) In the end, Wells Fargo dug the deepest, even though they could no longer offer us the employee discounts that we got with our current mortgage, when Gorgeous Wife still worked there.

We're not rich. I don't make six figures, not even close. We've not inherited lots of money from wealthy relatives, nor experienced any windfalls from investments. Yet I get the impression that some people think that I go home each night, dump a briefcase full of benjamins* on the floor and roll around in them. They seem surprised that we have no consumer debt, or that we bought our car outright with a check instead of with credit.

We aren't financial geniuses. We just follow a few common sense guidelines that keep us out of trouble. They're nothing revolutionary or earth-shattering, but I'll share them here, since they might be useful for others. (This would be a good time to point out that I disclaim any responsibility for the results of following this advice. I can't see any reason why it would be harmful, but I'm not a finance professional.)

  • Pay God first. Seeing as everything you get comes from Him anyway, it'd be rather miserly to not be willing to tithe. You'll need His help to make sure you get through the tough times, so make sure that you put Him first.
  • Know where your money went. Track every dollar you spend, including cash transactions. If you use a credit card, treat that transaction as if you already spent the money. Always take receipts, and log them in religiously. By doing this, you will be able to tell how much money you have available at any time.
  • Know where your money will go. Make a budget. Figure out how much money you need for each category of expenditures, before you spend it. (This is easy to set up if you've been keeping track of expenditures.) It might seem onerous, but it's not so bad once you get into the habit, and it's positively liberating to actually be able to make financial plans and be reasonably certain that the money you need for those plans will actually be there. There are many software packages (some of them free) that can help you organize your budget, but it's not difficult to bang one together yourself if you've got some spreadsheet chops.
  • Prioritize expenses. I generally divide expenses into four groups: essential, important, useful and frivolous:
    • Essential expenses are those that are required to feed, shelter and clothe your family, and attend to their medical needs. As will all the categories, you may be able to find (and should look for) ways to reduce these expenses, but they generally cannot be eliminated. These expenses must always be paid first.
    • Important expenses are required for your continued financial well-being. They're only slightly less important than the essential expenses, in the respect that they won't matter if you're dead, but if they're neglected, you may wish you were. Insurance and debt payments fall in this category, as would expenses that directly affect your ability to bring income (car-related expenses, for example). Money put into emergency funds or other important savings accounts are also considered important.
    • Useful expenses are practical but technically optional. They may include purchases that will reduce your future expenses (a new water heater, for example) or provide a significant benefit to your family (such as repairing or replacing an ailing vacuum cleaner).
    • Frivolous expenses serve no purpose other than enjoyment or convenience. Most electronic gadgets and decorative items fall in this category, as do movies, eating out, cable TV, fancy clothes, etc. Things in this category are generally the first on the chopping block when cutting expenses.
  • Take a hard look at where you spend money, and figure out what you can cut. You should try cutting costs in all categories, but generally frivolous expenses should be cut first. It can be something of a morale killer to cut out fun money completely, so some discipline may be needed. If you can make the numbers add up and still keep one small frivolous expense, it may help to use that as a reward for “being good.”
  • Cut expenses until you spend less than you make. This would seem obvious, but since many people don't track their expenditures or make a budget, they don't really know how much they are spending, and therefore have no idea when they're hemorrhaging money. There may be months where you might spend more than you make, but in a well-run budget, this should be the exception, rather than the rule. Ideally, there should be money left over in your budget to save or throw at debt.
  • Avoid using credit cards. Credit cards make it far too easy to spend money you don't have. Find some way to make sure you don't use them casually. This takes some discipline which you might not have initially, so you may have to resort to more creative/drastic strategies, such as simply cutting them all up. Some people, who can't bring themselves to shred every card (ostensibly for use during emergencies) prefer freezing one, literally. Having to go through the effort of thawing the card (microwaving ruins it) makes some people think again about whether they really need the thing they want to buy with it. (Of course, this doesn't deter online credit card usage, so your mileage may vary.) If you do feel that you should use a card, don't spend more with it than you can pay off that same month.
  • Save for large purchases. The desire to have something now leads people to use credit for large purchases. But using credit instead of saving means that the interest is working for your creditor instead of for you. Missing payments quickly causes significant problems, whereas there is no such risk when you save. It may mean you'll have to do without something you want for a while, but the long term benefits are typically worth it. Writing a check for our car instead of getting it on credit was one of the best financial decisions my wife and I ever made, even if it meant we had to save for months and deal with the inconvenience of taking our groceries home via light rail.
  • Create an emergency fund. Now that you know how much money you have, how much debt you have, and where your money goes, the first step towards changing your situation is building an emergency fund. Having a bit of extra money in the bank makes you more tolerant of unexpected fluctuations in your income or outgo, and eliminates the need to resort to exorbitant “quick money” services. Start by working up to $1,000. Once you've eliminated your debt, increase it to cover at least three months of expenses.
  • Throw every cent you can spare at debt. If you have debt, it will be sapping your financial strength every day that it still exists. Now that you've got your emergency fund, it's time to attack debt with extreme prejudice. I'd suggest paying the minimum on all debts except the one with the highest interest rate, and throwing everything you've got left at that one. Some people, such as Dave Ramsey, advocate attacking the debt with the smallest outstanding balance first. While this may not be the best thing to do mathematically, an early victory may be the morale boost you need to help you stick with the program. Once a debt has been cleared, take the money that you were using for that one each month and throw it at the next one. Continue until you are debt-free.
  • Save for retirement. Once you're debt free and have a good emergency fund, you'll be breathing a lot easier. Now it's time to make sure you'll have money for retirement. Pretend that you're never going to see a penny of the money you're paying into Social Security. (With all its problems, that may well be true.) If your work offers a 401(k) (especially if they will match your contributions), start contributing to it. If you can afford to contribute more than the 401(k) plan allows, put the balance into an IRA.

If these tips make sense to you, I'd suggest listening to Dave Ramsey on the radio. He has many great ideas for increasing your financial freedom, such as his “Baby Steps” program, some of which is incorporated into what I wrote here. It's a little discipline and a little common sense that adds up to mastery of your money instead of money mastering you.

* It took a fair amount of effort to figure out whether the term benjamins ought to be capitalized. Wiktionary eventually resolved the dispute to my satisfaction.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Note to Self: Better Name for Next Blog

So I'm using Google Analytics to track traffic to my blog. Not that I'm terribly concerned about it, but I already had an Analytics account for traffic monitoring at work, so I thought, “What the heck, might as well make a separate profile for my blog, just because I can.” The code for it is actually located just above the “Dashboard” link on my sidebar.

Anyway, it wasn't long before I noticed something strange. The reports from Google Analytics include a listing of search terms that people have used to reach your site. I was mildly disturbed to discover that several people arrived here via search terms that used the last word in my blog's name with less-than-innocent intent. (I imagine they were probably somewhat disappointed.) There hasn't been anything that made me want to claw my eyes out yet, but I'm thinking that witty title may not have been so great after all.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Gold Medal Riffs

“Welcome to the men's Rock Band finals here in Beijing. We've had some pretty exciting qualifying rounds, and it's down to eight great teams. Tell us who to watch in this event, Keith.”

“Well, Bill, the Americans of course have a long history of producing the greatest rock legends ever seen, but those skills don't necessarily transfer to Rock Band the game. This event doesn't test your artistic ability so much as your capacity to slavishly duplicate canned performance instructions, and rock legends aren't exactly known for going by the book. But raw singing ability and sense of rhythm do help in this event, and the American team certainly has that on their side. Their team also has last year's world Guitar Hero champion on lead guitar, which should help them a lot.”

“Do the Americans have any significant competition in this event, Keith?”

“Sweden has some serious death metal chops, so they're a real threat to the U.S.'s gold medal aspirations. And then there's Japan, whose karaoke experience and sheer ability with controllers of any kind makes them decidedly dangerous.”

“Karaoke? Really?”

“Absolutely! Don't forget, there's no panel of judges in this event. It's all scored by a game console, which has no real concept of performance quality as humans perceive it. All it knows is whether you hit the right note at the right time. You can have a voice like fingernails on a chalkboard, but if it's on pitch, the console will score it highly.”

“That's fortunate, since this is a new event and there really aren't any experienced judges for it.”

“Not that judging quality was ever really that important at the Olympics.”

“Point. Oh, it looks like the American team is about to take the stage. Yes, they've taken up the controllers, and the drummer is scrolling through the songs... Unlike most events, we aren't told about their routine in advance, and teams typically practice at their dorms in the Olympic Village rather than in the arena. So we find out what they're going to play when you do. Oh, it looks like they've selected ‘Highway Star’ by Deep Purple. Tell us about this song, Keith.”

“Well, as is fitting for the finals, they've selected a Tier 9 song; in fact, it's Tier 9 for all components except for drums, where it's Tier 8. ‘Highway Star’ is one of the hardest selections in the Rock Band song list; probably the only one that's harder is ‘Run to the Hills’ by Iron Maiden. It's a very, very high tempo song with a long guitar solo. It should prove to be an interesting choice.”

“And they're off to a very solid start, it seems. The CPU is judging them very highly so far.”

“Yes. It should be noted to viewers who may be unfamiliar with the event that the console judges on the fly; you can see what it thinks of their performance as they perform, rather than having to wait until the end to get any indication of its opinion.”

“Last year's world champion is doing very well on lead guitar, and the drummer is just spot on. The vocals are a little shaky, but not too bad. He seems a bit nervous.”

“Understandably so, seeing as he's performing in an arena chock full of people when he's more accustomed to singing in his living room.”

“And here's the guitar solo... oh, that was very well done. The computer loved that!”

“Yes, and the audience is rising to their feet and applauding as the song approaches the end. I'm not sure whether they're reacting to the performance itself or simply the high marks.”

“And there's the bow to the officials... wait, they're not leaving the stage. What's going on?”

“It looks like there have been a number of calls from the audience for ‘Free Bird.’”

“But if I understand right, ‘Free Bird’ is not an available selection in Rock Band.”

“No, it's not; it's available in Guitar Hero II but not Rock Band. They're selecting something new from the menu. The officials don't like it, but they don't know what to do.”

“Well, you don't exactly see encores in the pole vault.”

“Oh, they're doing ‘Roam’ by the B-52s!”

“And the crowd loves it! Look at the officials! What are they doing?”

“I believe they're holding up lighters, Bill.”

“This is a very special moment here in Beijing, folks.”

*sob* “I love this song!”

(Idea for this post came from here.)

Monday, August 18, 2008

Finally! A Buyer!

So it looks like we've got a buyer for our condo. It's not certain yet—the buyer's loan still has to be finalized, for example—but this is very encouraging for us. We aren't getting quite as much as we would have hoped, but in this market, nobody's paying asking price. Maybe we'll make that up on the buying side. Anyway, assuming all goes well (knock on wood), we should be closing on September 25. Now we're scrambling like mad to find and buy a new place!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Turn Left at the Burning House

Not what you'd expect to see when using Google's Street View feature (larger view):

In case Google replaces the image, here's the original:

Here's what I want to know: How many people, upon confronting this image, think it's live and click the “Help” link?

Update: For a less depressing Street View, how about this Google employee's creative idea? (larger view)

Original image:

Monday, August 4, 2008

Jamie Wants Big Boom

And now, for your viewing pleasure, animals which bear a striking resemblance to one Jamie Hyneman. Click any of the pictures below to enlarge. First, for comparison purposes, an image of the great beret'd one himself:

Puppy Jamie:

Hyneman kitty:

Here's one I screen captured from one of my daughter's animal DVDs. Ladies and gentlemen, I present Jamie the Emperor Tamarin:

By the way, if you don't already watch MythBusters, you're really missing out on a great show. Go check it out.

Monday, July 21, 2008

I Smell Bogus Emails

I've become well-known at the office as the guy who, upon receiving one of those forwarded emails from a co-worker, will immediately go hit up Snopes to find out if it's true. Of course, one might question the reliability of Snopes itself, but in all seriousness, if it's been in a few hundred inboxen and the truth of the matter can be found, Snopes will find it.

It astounds me that anyone could get a few of these emails and not start to develop a healthy case of cynicism about what shows up in their inbox. Not long ago, I heard a co-worker (who will remain unnamed to protect the guilty) ranting about how members of Congress have a taxpayer-funded pension system that pays a full cost-of-living adjusted salary for the rest of their lives, and that they don't have to pay into Social Security. Knowing Congress, people readily believe this, but it's bunk. He'd never admit it if he was confronted directly, but in a little, unexamined part of his brain, he's saying, “I know it's true! I read it on the Internet!”

So I'm here to help. I have a simple, straightforward rule that correctly determines whether or not a personal email is bogus 99% of the time—way better than weather forecasters or stock market analysts. Here it is:

If an email's subject line starts with “FW:”, it is bogus.

I am completely serious. Follow that rule, and you'll be right so often that in many peoples' minds it will border on the supernatural. But if that person you're thinking of right now that just can't help but hit the forward button would like a bit more detail, here are some additional things to check:

  • Does Snopes say it's a hoax? I've occasionally ran into something that wasn't already covered by Snopes, but usually they've already done the grunt work, and they always provide authoritative sources.
  • Does the message urge you to forward it to everyone you know? This is the whole point of the hoax. Why legitimate messages are less likely to do this is explained further on.
  • Does the email claim that someone can tell if you forward it? There is no reliable way to count the number of people to which you forward a message, and nobody's going to pay anybody else because you forwarded it. Bill Gates didn't get rich by throwing money away, so you can bet he isn't going to be sending you a check because you spammed your entire address book. The Red Cross isn't going to donate money for a sick child because you forward an email, either, even if they could tell that you did. Charitable organizations like the Red Cross receive donations.
  • Does the message properly cite sources? Political and virus emails, in particular, are notorious for spewing facts and not backing them up with reliable sources. That doesn't mean just name-dropping, it means giving you a link to the official web site of the source where you can confirm the information for yourself.
  • Is the original author anonymous? If someone stands by their claims, they put their name to it.
  • Is the (alleged) original author famous? Famous people don't do these things by email because email isn't authoritative. They put what they want to say on their web site. So if you get an email that says that political candidate A said X and Y about political candidate B, you can almost guarantee that candidate A has already posted something on their web site refuting it. An email can come from anywhere, but if candidate A's web site says something, then candidate A is saying it. That doesn't mean candidate A isn't deluded or lying, but at least you can confirm the source. Besides, candidate honesty is a whole separate issue.
  • Is the email vague on the specifics (names, dates, places)? It may seem like a waste of time to you and me, but hoax emails don't just materialize from the ether. Someone decided that they had time to sit down and write it. However, they usually don't take the time to make the story believable beyond the first glance. Authoritative stories will give names for those involved, say when and where the described events happened.
  • Does the email stress that its contents are “completely true,” “perfectly legal” or “not a hoax?” If they have to say it, odds are, it's a lie.
  • Does the message claim to give information that not many people know, or that some organization doesn't want you to have? This is just a hook to get you to believe. After all, who doesn't like to be “in the know?”
  • Is the message unprofessionally written? Hoax authors are notoriously bad writers. If you see spelling errors, ALL CAPS, or multiple question/exclamation marks in a row, it's a hoax.
  • Does the message warn you about an unusual way to die, become injured or contract a horrible disease, or give an unorthodox solution to preventing it? Fear of death and pain are strong motivators, and are therefore effective ways to get people to buy in on what you're saying. You may have heard of the practitioners of this method in the real world; they're known as quacks.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Prince of Persia Trailer

Screenshot from the new Prince of Persia game

Just saw the new trailer for the latest Prince of Persia game. It's so pretty... (drool) I hope they go for a game more like Sands of Time, which was charming and thoroughly delightful, and less like their subsequent PoP games, where they decided to go for the M rating to attract the critical teenage male segment of the market.

Any other Firefox users finding that the official PoP site (the second link above) crashes their browser? Maybe it's an extension I have installed.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Talk to the Hand

My daughter has learned a fair bit of sign language to help her overcome the communication barrier due to her autism. By itself, spoken words give only one sensory “bridge” between the word and the concept; signing gives her three: auditory, visual and kinetic. It seems to be (slowly) working, as the few words she does say vocally are the ones that she's been signing the longest.

Just like spoken languages, you encounter local variations in ASL. It's been kind of frustrating to look up signs on the Internet and discover different sites teaching different signs for the same concept in ASL. Anyway, after some searching I ran into Lifeprint.com, which at least tries to document the variations and give you an idea of what's the most common.

Anyway, below are some signs my daughter knows. She doesn't always spontaneously make the signs when she wants something, but she will usually make them if you say the word or show her the corresponding object. Try them out on her the next time you see her!

  • Mom and Dad (She tends to just point at the top of her head for “Dad.”)
  • Baby (She rocks her whole body back and forth instead of just her arms.)
  • All done
  • Milk (Easy: Think of squeezing a cow's udder.)
  • Eat
  • Drink
  • Cup
  • Cereal
  • Water (She loves this sign. If she makes it, it's not because she's thirsty. It means she wants you to turn on the faucet so she can play with the water!)
  • Potty (Not potty trained yet, but she understands the sign.)
  • Sleep
  • Please
  • Thank you (Still working on this one!)
  • Help
  • Stop (She doesn't really understand this as a command yet. Signing “stop” and “go” is mostly a game at this point.)
  • Go
  • More (We're teaching her to use this one in conjunction with “Please.”)
  • Cat
  • Dog (Multiple variations on this one; the one she knows is slapping the thigh then snapping, although she doesn't actually snap.)
  • Bird
  • Duck (She just uses the first two fingers and the thumb.)
  • Cow

Friday, July 11, 2008

Calvin and Hobbes

Picture of Bill Watterson

The funnies just aren't the same after Bill Watterson took his ball and went home. The reclusive artist's strip Calvin and Hobbes, along with Bill Amend's FoxTrot and Gary Larson's The Far Side (who have also ceased their comics, except for FoxTrot's Sundays), formed a trio of comics page kings that no other strip could rival. Not a day went by that I didn't get my Calvin fix.

At the end of 1995, Bill Watterson decided he was done. Who could blame him? Given his history of contention with newspaper editors regarding the Sunday format, I'd imagine he would have found it liberating to no longer have the deadlines and restrictions that come with drawing a daily comic strip. While he wasn't nearly as wealthy as he might have been if he was not vehemently opposed to the marketing of his characters, the wide distribution of his strip probably ensured that he would have little worry about money. He'd been drawing the comic for 10 years at that point, so why not end on a high note?

Had Watterson started his strip 20 years later, it might have been a webcomic. His dislike for working under the rules of the syndicate and the restrictions of the comics page format would make web publication a natural fit for him. The only problem would have been his unwillingness to license the characters. It's hard enough for a webcomic to make it even with an online store selling related merchandise. Perhaps it would still have been popular enough online that sales of books alone would have sustained it, but it'd still have been pretty dicey.

It would be nice if Bill Watterson would consider creating a webcomic. He could bring back Calvin and Hobbes, or not. He could do full color every day, use whatever layout suited his purpose, and generally do things that would make a newspaper editor blow a gasket. Having already secured his financial situation, he wouldn't even have to worry about whether he was making money, either.

I don't think it's going to happen though. In fact, I doubt Watterson even has a computer. But if he does and on the off chance that he happens to read this (or someone prints it out and gives it to him), I'd just want him to know that I loved Calvin and Hobbes, and I'd love to see what he could do with an infinitely large, 32-bit color canvas.

Thursday, July 3, 2008


My 2½-year-old daughter stands in front of me, arms stretched out from her sides. “Huuh,” she says.

“Huuh” is special. A “huuh” is a hug, and it's one of the few things she actually asks for. In fact, it's one of the few things she can express verbally, because my little girl, standing there with her arms stretched out for a hug, is autistic.

We've suspected something like this for a while. We'd become increasingly concerned about her reluctance to talk, as well as other behavior, such as not responding well to her own name, some compulsive/ritualistic behavior and selectivity about food. Our pediatrician and a speech therapist have evaluated her, and have come to the consensus that she is mildly autistic. I know that the term mildly ought to be comforting, but it's hard to feel that way right now.

To some extent, I understand what she will have to deal with as she grows, having myself grown up with attention-deficit disorder. The frustration of struggling with things that come so easily to others is something to which I can definitely relate. To this day, I must take extraordinary measures to remember things like appointments or tasks, or to make sure that I don't lose things. If I am given a task, I am strongly inclined to just do it right then and there, because I know that the odds are high that I will otherwise forget it. For about a year when we moved into our new home, I had to maintain a ritual of tethering my keys and wallet to my belt until it became a habit to always put them back in my pockets instead of just leaving them in some random place. It's upsetting to see other people able to do these things with far less effort.

Fortunately, the prognosis for our daughter seems fairly good. She doesn't talk much, but she does say a few words, and she's slowly learning more. She also understands some sign language, and there are a number of common autism difficulties that are mild or absent in her. Nothing is certain at this point, but it seems that, despite some struggles, she will likely be able to live a relatively normal life, much like myself.

I look at my little girl, and I can tell there are thoughts and feelings trapped in that little head that she wants to tell me. I want to come home and have her tell me about what she ate that day, or the funny thing that Elmo did on Sesame Street, or the game that she played with Mommy. It may be some time before that happens.

But what she can tell me is, “I love you.” She stands in front of me, stretches out her arms, and says “Huuh.”

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Bug Free!

I write code for a living, so the bug list is part of my daily life. Every day, I have a list that stares me in the face, reminding me of things that just aren't right. It's kind of like having a list of all your flaws in front of you every day. Some people might find that motivating, but the longer the list gets, the less motivating it seems.

The list tends to get very long when you're most of the way through coding a software release. It swells like a stream in late spring, full of the runoff of coding new features before you've had the opportunity to work out the bugs yet. Then the features are complete, and it's time to start hacking away at that list.

Of course, there are bugs and there are bugs. Most bugs are too important to allow the release to go out while they're still present. However, all software of any significance has bugs. To think otherwise would be like expecting gymnasts never to stumble. And sometimes you know about a minor issue, but for one reason or another the decision is made to release anyway. Usually, it's because the bug only inconveniences ourselves, not our customers, and the benefit of releasing outweighs the problems caused by the bug. But the bug sits on the list, waiting to be fixed.

The end of the release, when the bugs are supposed to get fixed, is often the time that someone decides to say, “Hey, did you guys know that Customer X needs Feature Y?” And so I get tasked on a new feature instead, and those annoying minor bugs continue to sit at the bottom of my list.

Not today, though! After weeks of hard work, today I can look at my list and see... no bugs! Of course, we're about to go into another round of testing, so we'll see how long that lasts.

Making some changes on the blog, trying out a different template and hosting options. Please excuse any template weirdness while I work it out.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Download Day Off to a Slightly Rocky Start

I downloaded Firefox 3 yesterday. It was slightly rougher than expected, though. Like many people, I assumed that “Download Day” would start at midnight GMT, or even midnight Pacific Time (since they're in California). Turned out it was actually slated to start at 10 a.m. Pacific. Maybe they wanted to have breakfast first.

I'm in the Mountain Time Zone, so it was after 11 o'clock before I attempted the download. The download link was for Firefox, not 3.0. Oops! I did some URL hacking and figured out the address to download the 3.0 version. Out of curiosity, a little later I refreshed the page and version 3.0 showed up. Guess someone noticed. Due to the mix-up and a bunch of load-related server problems, Download Day didn't actually officially get started until 11:16 a.m. PDT. I was pretty sure my download started before that, thanks to my hacking the URL instead of waiting for them to fix the home page, so I downloaded it again today to make sure it counted. (They'll cancel any duplicates.)

Installation and setup was another little adventure. With the various tweaks I've made over the course of time to my Firefox 2 install, I wanted to start fresh. So I made copies of my data, dumped a list of my extensions, etc., then wiped Firefox completely off my computer and before I installed the new one. That went fine, but when it came time to reinstall the extensions, I found it difficult since a lot of them are hosted on mozdev.org and it was also having server problems, presumably due to the heavy load. They were able to straighten out the problems after an hour or so, so I've got them now.

Fortunately, since then it's been pretty smooth sailing. Many of the new features will matter only to developers, but there are other changes worth noting. One of the best new features in my book is actually pretty small: Previously, when you submitted a form with a password, Firefox would pop up a window, asking if you wanted it to remember the password for you, and wouldn't actually submit the form until you answer. The problem is, sometimes you're not sure you entered the right password, so you'd rather not make the decision until you see if it actually worked. In Firefox 3, the question appears as a thin banner at the top of the page, and the form submits without waiting for your answer. Yay! Bookmark and plug-in management is better, too, and the new rendering engine seems to work fine.

Friday, June 6, 2008

It's, Um, Well, You Know, a Problem

I like to think that I can speak well most of the time. I have a good vocabulary and a voice that carries well. Sometimes I feel it's a bit more nasal than I'd like, but that's not horrible. (You ever notice that your voice sounds far “cooler” in your head than when you listen to a recording of it? In my head, I'm Dennis Haysbert, but everywhere else I'm Gilbert Gottfried. Not really, but you get the idea.)

What I really have trouble with is thinking and talking simultaneously. If I already know what I'm talking about, the words come out pretty easily, but if I'm thinking about it as I go, I tend to stumble and say “um” a lot. It really bothers me, particularly when I'm talking about something technical at work in front of several other co-workers. How do you avoid using filler words when you talk?

Thursday, May 29, 2008

I, For One, Welcome Our New Monkey Overlords

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University have successfully trained monkeys to use robotic arms... with their minds.

Download Day 2008

Download Day 2008

The Mozilla Foundation, creators of the amazing Firefox browser, are attempting to set a Guinness World Record for the most software downloaded in 24 hours. “Download Day 2008,” as they're calling it, is slated to coincide with the release of Firefox 3. Here's hoping their servers can survive the onslaught!

If you haven't tried Firefox yet, the release of Firefox 3 is a good time to give it a spin. I highly recommend it.

Update: I should note, in case it wasn't clear, that Firefox 3 is not out yet. It's supposed to be released in June. Also, it seems the Mozilla Foundation is pretty much guaranteed to get the record, since according to the Guinness World Record site, no such record exists yet.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Art of Manliness

I told Gorgeous Wife the other day that I had recently started following a blog titled The Art of Manliness. Her automatic response was, “Isn't that some sort of oxymoron?” It was spoken in jest, of course, but the sentiment gave me something to think about: When did “manliness” stop being a virtue? I contend that it never did, but that the public's opinion of men and their idea of what manliness is has changed. In fact, I think most people spend so much time soaking in what society tells them about masculinity that they don't really think about how their own true feelings on the subject might differ.

Part of reason that manliness is looked down upon, I feel, rests with the feminist movement. In the laudable desire to correct wrongs against women, society has now swung the other direction and demeans men. Just as an example, how many modern sitcoms (say, in the last twenty-five years or so) regularly portray the husband as dim-witted and clueless, while his wife rolls her eyes and valiantly compensates for his idiocies? Lots of them. How many frequently show the reverse scenario? Maybe they exist, but I can't think of any. A sitcom which attempted to do so today would probably be criticized as being sexist. It seems that, as a society, we have come to believe that if you make fun of women, it's sexist, but if you make fun of men, it's humor.

The other reason that I feel that manliness is scorned today is that the accepted definition of manliness has changed. “Manliness,” for some reason, has become synonymous with machismo and boorish behavior, but this was not always so. Manliness, as it ought to be defined, is a positive trait, and is just as positive as and is complimentary to womanliness. The idea of masculinity and femininity both being positive and complimentary traits is not new; in fact, it is present in Asian philosophy and is one aspect represented by the Taoist taijitu (☯). (Not being a follower of Taoism myself, I welcome correction in phrasing from any actual Taoism adherents.)

Unfortunately, there are a lot of men who are also deluded in their understanding of the meaning of manliness, and whose behavior only reinforces the misconception. That's one reason why I was so pleased to run across the aforementioned blog. Not only does it set straight what manliness really means, it tries to help men who may have the wrong ideas about masculinity to change their behavior and stop reinforcing the stereotypes. I'd encourage the men out there (and women, too!) to take a peek at The Art of Manliness and see what it really means to be a man.

Just as an example, they've recently been doing a series of articles about Benjamin Franklin's Thirteen Virtues, and just a couple of days ago they did a post about the last one, humility. After the discussion of the topic, the article presented ways to practice humility in everyday life:

  1. Give credit where credit is due.
  2. Don't name/experience drop. (Don't be constantly talking about how great you are.)
  3. Do what's expected, but don't make a big deal out of it.
  4. Perform service and charity anonymously.
  5. Stop one-upping people.

If these aren't the antithesis of what is popularly considered to be masculine, I don't know what is. I was particularly amused by the video at the end that talked about one way to stop the chronic “one-uppers:” become an astronaut and walk on the moon:

Edit: Video no longer available. Bummer.

Anyway, this is my first post where I rant about a topic of any real weight, so I'd encourage you to share your thoughts. Drop me a comment.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Anyone Looking for a Condo?

So I'm moving. At least, I'm reasonably certain that I will be moving. It is, of course, dependent on my selling my current home and purchasing another one. I've got great credit and a great Realtor, so I'm pretty confident that it will happen before too long.

I think that getting a mortgage may be the most frightening thing I have ever done, and now I'm lining up for a bigger one. (“Please, sir, I want more!”) I don't deny that it's probably a good idea for us to move at this point in our lives, seeing as we're kind of outgrowing our current home, but the whole experience fills me with an irrational trepidation which I somehow twist into a more rational caution.

We aren't moving very far, by the way, in case you were worried (or maybe relieved) at the prospect of us leaving the state. We're still planning on staying in the Salt Lake Valley.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Balancing Life

My friend Camille posted in her blog about how she felt bad that she'd neglected some household duties to help a friend. She asked her readers how they take care of their responsibilities and help others. I'm no expert, but here are some thoughts:

  • Accept that you won't get everything done. There's just far too much to do in life for the time we have. This is hard for some people to do; the thought of anything being left undone grates on them. Letting go of the fantasy of “doing it all” can be difficult, but if you don't it will drive you nuts.
  • Accept that some of the things that won't get done are worthwhile. This is even harder. You might feel bad that you didn't get time to organize your sock drawer, but that pales in comparison to not being able to volunteer at the soup kitchen. There are so many worthwhile things to do that we can't do them all; we must pick the ones that mean the most to us and focus on them. Worthwhile causes will be better served by a few devoted individuals than a lot of people who are spread too thin over many different pursuits.
  • Accept that balancing priorities is difficult. Even doing your best, you will inevitably neglect something that you shouldn't. Such is life. If balancing life was easy, Stephen R. Covey would not be a millionaire.
  • Learn to say “no.” This is very hard for me. Of course, we want to be able to say “yes,” and we should when we can. But when we're asked to do something, and it just doesn't leave time to do that more important stuff on the priority list, we have to work up the gumption to say, “I'm sorry, but I just can't do that right now.”
  • Don't let one aspect of life monopolize you. We all have facets of our lives that should get attention: God, family, self, serving others. We should prioritize them, of course, but no one aspect should go completely ignored forever. For example, we sometimes tend to put off having time for ourselves indefinitely because there are more important things to do and we don't feel we can justify putting them off for “selfish reasons.” But the longer we go without recharging ourselves, the less effective we become at doing those more important things. It can be hard to say, “You know, I'm not going to [insert worthwhile activity here] because I need to take a nap or read a nice book,” but sometimes it's just what you gotta do. Yes, work before play and all that, but not to the point that you never, ever play.

On a metablogging front, I'm experimenting with comments. Feel free to leave a comment, should you feel so inclined, and please excuse any weirdness in my site template while I work it out.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

I Promise, I Hardly Ever Do This

So I doubt that there's anyone who reads this who doesn't know me personally, but on the off chance that there is, allow me to introduce myself via the time-honored Internet tradition of answering a bunch of random questions about one's self. This particular list comes courtesy of Sister:

Do you like blue cheese?
Do you own a gun?
No, unless projectile vomiting infants count.
What flavor Kool Aid is your favorite?
Do you get nervous before a doctor appointment?
Not usually. The only time I can remember was just before getting an MRI.
What do you think of hot dogs?
Sometimes yummy, always unhealthy.
Favorite Christmas movie?
Just about every Christmas movie I've seen stinks to high heaven. So I'm gonna have to go with It's a Wonderful Life.
What do you prefer to drink in the morning?
Moo juice.
Can you do push ups?
Yes, but not as many as I should.
What’s your favorite piece of jewelry?
The only one I own, my wedding ring.
Favorite hobby?
No one favorite. Reading, writing software, playing computer games, playing chess and swing dancing with Gorgeous Wife, though I have little time for any of it ever since I got kids.
Do you have A.D.D.?
Riddled with it, in fact.
What's your weight?
Kinda personal for an online questionnaire, aren't we?
Middle name?
Personal again!
Name three thoughts at this exact moment.
I really should stop blogging and get back to work. I ate a bit too much for dinner. I wish I was home instead of at work.
Name three drinks you regularly drink.
Milk, water and (too much) soda.
Current worry?
When I die, will my kids know whose funeral they're attending?
Current hate right now?
Working late.
Favorite place to be?
How did you bring in the new year?
At home with a very pregnant Gorgeous Wife and our daughter (whose blogging code name I have not yet invented).
Where would you like to go?
Mexico, Puerto Rico, the UK, Italy, Hawai'i. I could come up with others if you twisted my arm.
Name three people who will complete this.
Sister already did. Camille probably will. I have very few blogging friends. *sigh*
Do you own slippers?
Gorgeous Wife's sister got me a pair a while back, and they're very effective at keeping feet warm. Too effective, in fact. Unless it's really cold, I can't wear them for very long or my feet get hot.
What color shirt are you wearing right now?
Do you like sleeping on satin sheets?
Can't say I ever have, so I don't know whether I'd like it.
Can you whistle?
Favorite color?
Blue. Used to be green.
Would you be a pirate?
I'm not too big on pillaging, swilling grog, or disemboweling people, so I guess I wouldn't make a very good pirate. I do enjoy talking like a pirate, though. Matey.
What songs do you sing in the shower?
Ugh. The shower has horrible acoustics.
Favorite girl's name?
Gorgeous Wife's name, of course.
Favorite boy's name?
My son's name. (He needs a blogging code name, too.)
What's in your pocket right now?
Handses! Actually, my wallet. And a hole.
Last thing that made you laugh?
Probably my son making toothless gummy smiles.
Best bed sheets as a child?
Uh, don't remember my childhood bedsheets. Who wrote this thing, anyway?
Worst injury you’ve ever had?
Five stitches under my chin.
Do you love where you live?
It's very nice, but I'd like a standalone house better.
How many TVs do you have in your house?
Only one in active use. We have a little one that's sitting in a closet, and a portable DVD player that gets used on occasion.
Who is your loudest friend?
Probably Camille. Not that I mind. Loud friends are some of the most fun. Loud neighbors, on the other hand...
How many dogs do you have?
None. I'd like one someday, though.
Does someone have a crush on you?
Gorgeous Wife, I hope!
What is your favorite book?
No one favorite. I do enjoy J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Ken Jennings.
What is your favorite candy?
Butterfinger, Twix or Twizzlers.
Favorite sports team?
Not really a sports fan. I used to follow the Utah Jazz, before John Stockton retired.
What song do you want played at your funeral?
Probably “Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me.” Though what will actually get played is probably something like “Let's Get This Party Started.”

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Seven Glasses is Okay. Really.

So (ideally) you learn something every day. Today I was flipping around radio stations on the way to work and came across a segment about the conventional wisdom of drinking eight glasses of water a day to help your body purge toxins. Now, I've never felt particularly strongly about it, but I had no concrete reason to believe that it wasn't true.

Turns out, it's bunk. This page gives the gory physiological details, but the short of it is, you really don't need to worry about drinking a specific amount of water. If you drink when you're thirsty, you'll be fine. In fact, for some people, drinking that much water will actually reduce the effectiveness of your kidneys slightly. Imagine that.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Review: Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac

Sister read my review of Aquaria and told me that I should do more reviews. She even went so far as to accuse me of having good taste. So I thought I might go ahead and review the book I'm reading, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac.

In case you were living under a rock during 2004, Ken Jennings entered the public consiousness with a 74-game winning streak on the syndicated game show Jeopardy!. Of course, when he got done making approximately $34,000 an hour, he was approached to do the obligatory cash-in-your-15-minutes book about his experience. Instead, he wrote Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs, which is only partly about his experience, and partly about the world of trivia fanatics in general. (A great read, by the way. Maybe I'll review it as well at some point.)

In the course of writing Brainiac, Jennings unsurprisingly accumulated even more trivia. He figured he'd write another book, this time a full-fledged trivia book, and get all that stored-up trivia an outlet. (He calls it a “trivia enema.”) The result is the Almanac. Each page is devoted to a day of the year, giving one or more events that occurred on that day, followed by a bunch of trivia questions relating to that event in some way. The blurb on the back cover explains it better than I can:

For example—February 21: In 1912, on this day, Teddy Roosevelt coined the political phrase “hat in the ring,” so Ken Jennings fires off a series of “ring” questions. What two NFL quarterbacks have four Super Bowl rings each? What rings are divided by the Cassini Division? Also on this date, in 1981, the “goth” music scene was born in London, so here's a quiz on black-clad icons like Darth Vader, Johnny Cash, and Zorro. Do you know the secret identities of Ivanhoe's Black Knight or Men in Black's Agent M?

The title of each quiz section is often pretty clever and funny. One of my personal favorites appears at the head of round of trivia on mediocrity: “It's Raining Meh.” Anyway, I'm still slogging through October, but it's one of the most enjoyable slogs through a book that I've ever had, and back in the February section I'd seen enough to heartily recommend it.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Breaking Radio Silence

Sorry for the lack of updates. As might be expected, life got a lot busier after our son's birth. You may have heard that at his two week appointment with the pediatrician he was believed to be experiencing tachycardia, but when he had an electrocardiogram on Monday his heart rate seemed normal. We're still waiting for the official word from Primary Children's Hospital regarding the results, but it looks hopeful.

The other reason for the recent neglect of my blog is the fact that I have been spending a lot of time the last couple of weeks working late and muttering curses at web browsers under my breath. Turns out it's quite difficult to make an audio player widget that 1) works in Internet Explorer 6 and 7, Firefox and Safari; 2) detects Windows Media Player or QuickTime and uses either; and 3) can be dynamically added or removed from a page.

The infuriating thing is that this shouldn't be my job at all; the browser ought to be smart enough that I can just hand it some audio content and it will just figure out how to play it. The W3C and WHATWG finally got their heads together on the HTML5 standard which supposedly makes embedding media easy, but I'll probably be dead before support is widespread enough that I can actually use it.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Creature Descends on Salt Lake City

picture of a baby

SALT LAKE CITY — Reports have surfaced of an unusual creature which showed up at Intermountain Medical Center at Salt Lake City early yesterday morning. It seems to have a strange effect on the minds of those who see it: almost invariably, they begin to talk about how small or cute it is. Occasionally it has been heard to emit sounds which immediately provoke a sympathetic reaction in those who hear it. Experts from the hospital theorize that these may be mechanisms that allow the creature to survive and infiltrate a society.

It permitted itself to be examined by scientists. They found it to be male creature weighing 6 pounds 9 ounces and measuring 21 inches in length. A woman who came to the hospital complaining of abdominal pain apparently discovered the creature during her stay and decided to take care of it, as it seemed quite helpless. She and her husband intend to bring it into their home, although hospital officials have warned the couple against possible effects, such as insomnia and negative reaction from the couple's toddler.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Review: Aquaria

If you want the short review, here it is: Stop reading right now and go download the Aquaria demo now! (Windows, Mac)

Aquaria is an independently developed adventure game for Windows, Mac, iPad and Linux. You play as Naija, a young undersea dweller who does not know who she is or whether she is the last of her kind and sets out to find answers. Little bits of the intriguing story are revealed here and there, but most of it comes at the end. Even then, the ending (especially the full ending for those that find all of Naija's lost memories) seems to leave the player with more questions than answers. Perhaps a sequel will elaborate.

Some things set this game apart from others produced today. Probably most notable is the fact that Aquaria is a 2D game. Not in the 8-bit pixellated old-school graphics way, but in the “you move up, down, left and right” sort of way. The gaming world has become so fixed on 3D that it tends to forget the possibilities of 2D entirely these days.

Secondly, Aquaria is freakin' gorgeous. The graphics are beautifully hand-crafted, giving the whole game a painterly feel. Check out the screenshots and videos at their web site to see what I mean. The visuals by themselves make the game world worth exploring.

That brings up another thing: The game world is enormous. You would expect a game that was basically put together by two guys would not be nearly so expansive. Even in the demo, the world is large enough to give you a good two hours worth of exploration and gameplay. (With most demos, you're lucky to get half an hour.) A big part of the game is exploration, discovering new areas and finding new things to see and do. In this sense, it is similar to the Metroid games.

Sometimes you'll get new abilities, which may allow you to reach areas that were not available to you before (swimming against strong currents, opening doors, finding your way through the dark, etc.). Because of this, there will be some backtracking involved. That isn't for everybody, I know, but the great scenery makes it worth it, and the game does provide a mechanism for moving rapidly to other parts of the world.

Another remarkable thing about the game is the great voice acting. Voice acting tends to be hit-and-miss; even major gaming studios put out games with mediocre voice acting. Not so with Aquaria: Naija's voice perfectly complements the game. Naija is voiced by Jenna Sharpe, and she does a great job of lending some real emotion to the character.

A nice thing about the game is that it isn't chock-full of violence like many games today. Yes, there is combat in the game, including boss characters, but it is handled far more tastefully than seems to be typical in mainstream games these days. There are some genuinely creepy parts to the game, so I wouldn't go so far as to let very young kids play it without being there with them, but if it were rated by the ESRB, I would imagine that it would net an E10+ rating.

Probably most compelling for me was the level of craftsmanship that is apparent in the game. For example, you will often encounter areas of the game with creatures, plant life or other elements that serve no purpose in the game plot-wise, and that appear nowhere else in the game. They just serve to make each place unique and to give little rewards to the player for exploring. You just don't find that level of craftsmanship in most games; they just don't “waste” much time on that sort of thing. It's a shame, since little touches like that are a great benefit to games, especially ones which focus a lot on exploration.

I highly recommend Aquaria. Really. Go get it.