Yesterday, after work, I decided to go to a game store in Mount Prospect that I had found on the internet. I don't mean video games, I mean the other kind. Good game stores are hard to find. There's some kind of weird rule with game stores: just about every other kind of business or cultural phenomenon congregates to large cities, but game stores seem to avoid downtown areas and flock to the suburbs. I can't explain it.
To my surprise, Andrew decided to come with me. This is great, since he has a car (I was going to have to Metra it otherwise). Before we got to the store the sky went black, there was a tornado warning, and then the downpour started. Like, sheets of water coming down.
This store had EVERYTHING. Every board game, role-playing game, trading-card game, wargame, and miniatures game you can think of was there. They had, I think, everything Steve Jackson has ever published. The place was big. They also had a back room for people to hang out and play games. An intriguing possibility! Some guys were hanging around the counter and basically playing out the gamer geek stereotype by having an extended conversation revolving around the possibility that Orcs are a kind of fungus.
Andrew was kind of in shock. It's like I was introducing him to whole new depths of nerdiness that he didn't know existed.
I basically wanted everything in the store, but I had to restrain myself. I did get a box set of Robo Rally, one of the funnest board games EVER. The past couple of times that people have come over to my house for dinner or whatever I have been thinking to myself, gee, I ought to have some form of entertainment here for people besides me. Board games would be perfect. Ultimately I want to turn this apartment into a cool place for people to hang out and play games (the non video kind).
I AM THE BETA AND THE OMEGA
So, after a couple of months of working 12+ hour days, 6+ days a week, we finally sent out the Enso beta release yesterday. Beta relase, meaning we think it's done, but we're going to wait for more bug reports before we release it to the public. We have a functioning ecommerce website where you can put in your credit card number and give us money, and it gives you the software. I have tested this. We've got some way cool demo videos which explain how to use the product with an Aza style voice-over. After a couple weeks of beta testing we will finally show the public what we've been working on. It's very exciting.
And since we're through the worst of it, we are now cutting back to some kind of more normal working schedule, you know, like maybe only 50 or 60 hours a week. I haven't done Aikido for the last month because I've rarely been leaving work earlier than 9 pm. I am looking forward to getting back into Aikido and generally having a life outside of work again. This weekend we're all taking a three-day weekend actually. Three days!! At this point a two-day weekend sounds like an amazing luxury. Three days. Wow.
Aza's gone off to Caltech. His leaving was really the final deadline for our beta release; we slipped all our other self-imposed deadlines, but this one was the brick wall, and we made it, barely. I'm not going to be able to get used to not having Aza around. He did leave me a bunch of his stuff that he didn't have space to bring, including a Roomba and some remote-controlled planes. But who now will annoy us with terrible puns day and night?
The other very exciting thing is the Hackers conference coming up in November. It's an invitation-only weekend at an undisclosed location in the California mountains. Aza wrangled invitations for me and Atul. There is no set schedule for this conference and there is no distinction between presenters and audience. Everybody is expected to be doing cool things that they can talk about and everybody is expected to bring toys for show-and-tell. I will write more about the conference and my plans for it as it approaches. I have a feeling this is going to be legend.
What should I do with my three-day weekend? I'm going to visit my family first, then maybe I'll get my eyes examined and get some glasses so I can have depth perception. This is something I've been meaning to do for a while but I was always at work when the eyeglasses place was open. Then maybe I'll finish unpacking my boxes and setting up my apartment. Then draw some comics! Maybe paint some warhammer guys! Exciting!
Basu Gasu Bakuhatsu
I beat the bus tonight.
When I go to and from work, I can either ride my bike or take the bus. The bus takes longer, if you factor in the time I have to spend waiting for it. Also it costs money and is less fun. I'll ride it when it's raining or when I'm sick.
But since my bike ride and the bus route both go along the same street, I will sometimes find myself "racing" the bus.
I never intended to race the bus. It's just that getting stuck behind the bus really sucks. I hate breathing its exhaust fumes. If I could let the bus get far enough ahead of me it would be no problem, but since the bus is always stopping to drop off/pick up people, I keep catching up to it. Either I have to keep stopping every time the bus stops, or I pass it when it stops and then it passes me when it starts again. Getting passed by the bus is really scary, because I could easily be crushed between the bus and the parked cars on the right side of the road if the bus driver (who probably can't even see me) were to swerve even a tiny bit.
So, one solution to this bus dilemma is to stay in front of the bus. This is just barely possible, since it stops so much. It depends on the red lights. If a light turns red just after I pass through, the bus has to stop again and I can put more distance between us. But if the light turns red before I hit it, the bus will catch up to me. Aside from that, it's all a matter of riding as fast as possible, which means a sustained pedaling effort in maximum gear with no coasting.
In this way, I've beaten the bus to my destination three or four times now. It's kinda cool to be able to say truthfully that taking the bus would only slow me down. The drawback is that this leaves me completely exhausted for at least an hour afterwards. It's kind of John Henry.
A couple weeks ago, I was down in Hyde Park one night, waiting for the bus from the Garfield station to campus. This is normally the 55 bus, but the 55 bus did not seem to be coming this night. The group of people at the bus stop got bigger and bigger and more and more annoyed. Finally a mysterious bus, number 172 or 174 or something like that, very much not number 55, appeared. We were wary. Where exactly does this bus go? we all asked the driver. It soon became apparent that this was a brand-new route that is just getting started, and it was the driver's first time driving this route, which meant that he didn't know where we were going either. He had a written list of instructions, but he was obviously unfamiliar with the area. I moved up to a seat in the front and started talking to him. He had this attitude of "Oh, don't worry guys, I'll figure it out eventually", but he was trying to get to Woodlawn by going down Cottage Grove, and seeing as those two streets are parallel this was obviously not going to work. The one other person at the front of the bus was in the area for the first time so I had to be the one to give the bus driver directions. It was like a taxi ride or something. Very strange.
"Ha! You missed! And you won't get another shot! Certainly not during the time it takes me to speak all the dialogue in this panel!"
Yeah, I've been reading more Marvel comics. The "Essential X-Men" collection. This is the 1970s "reboot" of the X-Men -- so it's not the original version with Iceman, but rather the much better-known version with Wolverine.
So far I am not liking it as much as I liked the Fantastic Four. It's from that awkward time period in the development of superhero comics after they lost the innocence of the early stuff but before they gained the depth and self-awareness of something like Watchmen or The Incredibles. I would describe this particular version of X-Men as very adolescent.
What I mean is that it takes itself way too seriously, and it's trying to have more depth and maturity but it doesn't really know how, so it compensates with lots of violence and angst and cynicism and clenched-teeth attitude. Everybody either has no personality or they are a Bitter Angry Loner. (Just like Final Fantasy 7!) Whereas in earlier superhero comics, everybody either has no personality or they're Gung-Ho Defenders of the American Way. Which I find kind of charming in a goofy nostalgic way. Whereas the bitter angry loner thing has been done to death these days, and it just really gets on my nerves.
I've been having an e-mail conversation with my cousin about trends we hate in modern anime, and the Jaded, Sulking, Nobody-understands-me kind of hero is high on both of our lists. I'm not a teenager anymore, so I have no sympathy for characters like that. I kinda want to smack them around and tell them to grow up already.
Other trends that suck:
- Non-Sequitur Endings
- shows that try way too hard to be Edgy and Innovative (it usually backfires on them)
- remakes and sequels and anime based on video games
- shows that get so caught up in structural innovation that they completely lose the plot
- heroines who are emotionless killing machines
- comedies based on spoofing the cliches of a certain genre (this has been done so many times it is now a cliche in its own right)
- shows that try to get your attention with outrageous nonsensical gimmicks
I really want to watch an anime that is an original story with no gimmicks. Something that's just based on quality characterization and storytelling. Preferrably hard science fiction, but any genre is OK, really. And with no panty shots or gigantic boobs. That's all I want. Is that too much to ask, Japan?
I'm really looking forward to seeing this Haruhi Suzumiya show. Everything I've heard about it has been very positive.
Anyway, back to 1970s X-Men: Cyclops is a tool. Colossus and Banshee are embarassing ethnic stereotypes. Wolverine is the aforementioned bitter angry loner. Thunderbird is both a bitter angry loner AND an embarassing ethnic stereotype, but he dies after like two issues. Nightcrawler is kinda cool but has no personality. So the only characters I like are Professor X and Storm. Storm is admirable. She is calm, collected, competent (all words that begin with C!), self-confident without being arrogant, and there is plenty of misfortune in her backstory but she doesn't feel the need to angst about it all the time. Although she's from Kenya she somehow managed to avoid the curse of embarassing stereotypes that afflicts all the other ethnic characters. Yeah. Go Storm.
Random point of continuity: the X-Mens' uniforms are made out of the "unstable molecules" invented by Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic). That's right. Different superhero teams share technology. Also, the scene in The Incredibles where Edna shows off the special properties of the costumes she made is clearly an homage to Reed Richards' "unstable molecules".
One thing that totally boggles my mind about Marvel universe is that it seems to have been officially established that artist/writer team Stan Lee and Jack Kirby live there. They appear in the background of a New York City panel in X-Men saying something to the effect of "Stuff like this never happened when we had the book". Stranger still is the scene in Fantastic Four where Lee and Kirby are hanging around their studio trying to think up new villians for the Fantastic Four to fight. They talk about how they never should have had Dr. Doom get launched into deep space, because great villians like him are hard to think up, and then Dr. Doom smashes his way into the building and kidnaps both of them. What the...?!?! It's like a self-insertion fanfic collapsed in on itself and twisted the fabric of the fictional universe into some kind of Moebius strip!
Mumble mumble leatherheaded wizards
This is only exciting if you are a dork like me -- actually, only if you are in a certain subset of a certain subset of RPG geekery:
Wizards of the Coast is coming out with a set of Blood War miniatures which includes characters based on the Planescape factions as well as the expected angels and demons* and some really cool githyanki.
Still no modrons, though. >=`( Wizards of the Coast hates Modrons like Games Workshop hates Squats.
And if you understood that sentence, you might be an old-school gamer.
* = Wizards of the Coast is no longer afraid of the words "demon" and "devil" as TSR was temporarily during 2nd edition. It is interesting to note, however, that apparently depictions of human skeletons, skulls, and the undead get censored in China, which forces WotC to print alternate Chinese-edition artwork for like half of the Black cards in Magic the Gathering.
Who cares whether Pluto is a planet or not? Seriously?
Work is still devouring my soul, but I took a whole day off yesterday and wrote the following rant about Pluto.
So, first of all: Who the heck cares whether Pluto is a planet or not? Seriously? Apparently these people do:
"Pluto: Never Forget" T-shirt
"Honk if Pluto is Still a Planet" bumper-sticker
Also, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City has been getting "things that verged on hate mail from second-graders".
What the heck, guys? Why the emotional investment in the classification of an inanimate object? It's not like Pluto is going to lose its tax-exempt status if it's not called a planet. Pluto is still there. It's still exactly the same. It is not affected in any way by this decision. You can still put it in your solar system model. The Astronomy Police aren't going to come and arrest you if you do. Hey, wait a minute, Astronomy Police... maybe we should have Astronomy Police. They could go to Hollywood and arrest all those sci-fi filmmakers who make flagrant violations of the laws of physics. "Great idea Data, let's destroy the Crystalline Entity by beaming high energy sound waves at it... across empty space."
We've still got a space probe (the New Horizon) on its way out to Pluto. We're still going to learn stuff about Pluto. It's gonna be cool. But the probe won't tell us whether Pluto is a planet or not, because hey guess what it's not a scientific question it's just a question of language.
Ever read Usenet? Or web discussion forums? No? Good, don't start, they suck. Someday I'm going to write "Jono's Rules for Civilized Discussion" mainly inspired by all the counterexamples on the Internet. And one of those rules is going to be
"When you find yourself arguing over the definition of a word, it's time to move on."
However, I think the reclassification of Pluto to "double dwarf planet" (along with Charon) does reflect the truth about Pluto's weird status. It's a tiny and not all that interesting chunk of ice, with a moon almost its own size. There are, I think, seven moons in the solar system larger than Pluto. And Pluto's wacky orbit and icy composition are more similar to a large comet than to any of the other planets. And there are a lot more Pluto-like objects out there in the Kuiper Belt: probably hundreds of icy Trans-Neptunian Objects. We know of at least six sizable ones, one larger than Pluto itself (this is 2003 UB313, for which the name "Xena" has been proposed). The only special thing about Pluto is that we happened to find it first.
Either all of these pluto-like objects are planets, or none of them are! Until a couple weeks ago, an earlier proposed redefinition had Xena, Charon, and Ceres (the largest asteroid) all as planets, which would make twelve, plus an ever-increasing number of uninteresting plutons.
But about that solar system model... go ahead and include Pluto. And Charon. A double dwarf planet is a cool thing. And while you're at it, include the asteroid belt, and some of the larger moons! Ganymede, Callisto, Europa, Io, Titan... they're bigger than Pluto, so put 'em in, and your model will be way cool!
I am reminded of this one boss I used to work for, long long ago. He was into astrology. In fact he made up his own system of astrology from scratch. I think he got kicked out of the Astrologer's Union for heresy or something. He was my boss so I didn't want to say what I was thinking which was "THAT IS THE STUPIDEST IDEA I'VE HEARD SINCE THE FLAG PROTECTION AMENDMENT", so instead I would just politely change the subject. But anyway, sometimes he would call me up on the phone to complain about the fact that some astronomers wanted to stop calling Pluto a planet. (This was in 1997). He was taking it really personally because his made-up astrological system would lose its symmetry without Pluto.
If you think you can resist having your head explode from the mass of concentrated stupidity, read this article describing the controversy among professional astrologers over what "influence" Pluto and the other dwarf planets supposedly have on human destiny, and whether the reclassification of Pluto as not-a-planet can affect this.
(Wait a minute. If Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto have astrological "influence", did they have this influence before they were discovered? If so, doesn't that mean all astrology prior to these discoveries was inaccurate? Would any astrologer be willing to say that ancient astrology was all wrong because of this? Can any astrologer point at an increase in accuracy after these planets were discovered? Oh wait, they don't measure accuracy. And wait another minute, if astrological "influence" is not reduced to nothing by the tinyness or the distance of these objects... then why doesn't every object in the universe, including stars in other galaxies, also have "influence"? And another thing, given how slowly Pluto moves, I think everybody now alive has the same Pluto sign. So, um, how would Pluto make a difference anyway? Oh whoops, am I asking for logic from astrology?)
You might say it's pointless to even attack astrology -- it's like shooting fish in a barrel. Maybe you say astrology is just a bit of harmless fun so why even bring it up?
My answer is, there are people who make decisions based on astrology. This is very dangerous. If astrology doesn't work, it will lead to bad decisions. It's especially dangerous if they're in positions of power -- like Ronald Reagan!
And then there's India. Astrology is HUGE in India. They have a slightly different system, of course -- Vedic astrology (which ignores Uranus, Neptune and Pluto) -- but a lot of people over there takeit very seriously. India is on a course to become one of the major world powers of this century. And I hope they do! The birthplace of chess, the number zero, and Gulab Jamun, and the home of almost 1/6 the world's population, ought to be a major player. But there are certain parts of their culture that are better left behind as they modernize: the caste system, the concept of untouchables, sex-selective abortions, and astrology.
Silly beliefs can be divided into two categories: testable and untestable. An example of an untestable silly belief is reincarnation -- if you lose all your memories of a previous life, then there's no experiment we could ever do to check whether it was really happening or not. So it can never be disproven. But the other thing about untestable beliefs is that pretty much by definition, they don't matter. For them to be in any way relevant to anyone's life, they would have to have measurable effects, which would make them testable. So hey guys: you are welcome to your untestable beliefs, but since they don't matter and there's no evidence for them, I'm just going to ignore them.
But there are plenty of silly beliefs which are testable. If they are tested and pass, they are no longer silly beliefs.
"Q: What do you call alternative medicine that works?"
If they are tested and fail, repeatedly, they ought to be abandoned. But there are some people who will make excuses for the failure and cling to the belief because it makes them feel good. This is the silliest kind of silly belief.
Astrology is testable. Astrology makes predictions and those predictions can be compared to reality. Of course astrology makes its predictions as vague as possible, in order to weasel out of the reality test. This is a favorite tactic of oracles throughout history. (Oracle at Delphi: "If Croeseus attacks the Persians, he will destroy a great army." Oh gee, great prediction, it's true no matter who wins.) Nevertheless, astrology asserts that your personal horoscope is an accurate description of your life in some way. Accurate compared to what? They don't give standard deviations but the idea is that your horoscope fits you better than some random horoscope would fit you. If any horoscope could fit any person equally well, then that proves people are wasting their time making up horoscopes.
So we can do a test by generating horoscopes for a group of random people, using on their birthdays. Then we collect accurate descriptions of the people's personalities and lives, with the names and birthdays removed. Now we ask the astrologers who made the horoscopes to attempt to match the horoscopes with the people. Or we can hide the birthdays on the horoscopes and ask the people themselves to try to match themselves up with the horoscopes.
If we get matches more often than chance would predict we could say that there may be something to astrology, even if we have no idea what the mechanism might be. But if only get matches at the rate of blind luck, then we can say with some confidence that any accuracy people perceive in horoscopes is just a matter of creative interpretation and confirmation bias.
I used to propose this test to my aunt, who was an astrology hobbyist, when I couldn't convince her that it was nonsense. Anyway, it turns out that this test has been done. Many times. In many variations. All have come up negative. The studies, and their results, are summarized on this post on Skeptico. Skeptico ("Critical Thinking for an Irrational World") is a great site that I read regularly; you should check it out.
Anyway, why not forget about astrology and forget about the bogus Pluto controversy and read about a REAL scientific discovery? Check this out, this is way cool:
Scientists Confirm Dark Matter's Existence, so the article says, by looking at the gravitational lensing effect on the halos of two colliding galaxy clusters; the observed mass distribution shows two maxima: one is the gas cloud we can see, and the other is invisible but exactly where we predict the dark matter would be, slightly ahead of the gas cloud because it was not slowed down by friction during the collision.
THAT'S WICKED COOL!!
Also wicked cool: There is a type of planet called a "Hot Jupiter". We have found several of these in other solar systems. They are so named because they are very big and very close to their stars. This is no accident -- a Hot Jupiter is the easiest type of planet to discover, because its mass and closeness maximize the planet's gravitational influence on its star, and this influence is one of the methods we've been using to find these planets.
So, until recently we've been thinking that a solar system with a Hot Jupiter is unlikely to contain any Earth-like planets, because the Hot Jupiter's gravity would destabalize any orbit in the Hospitable Zone.
But a new computer simulation has challenged this assumption and seems to show that the Hot Jupiter's gravity could actually lead to the formation of large terrestrial planets with up to 100 times more water than Earth -- totally submerged waterworlds. THAT IS ALSO WICKED COOL!!