Mon, 07 Mar 2005

Config Files

I've been quiet here for a while, mostly because I haven't been doing too much that fits the focus of my blog. One ongoing project, though, has been the process of putting much of my home directory into a subversion repository. I'll write more about that when I'm done, but as part of the process I've split out my public config files and synchronized them with my web-accessible config files. There's still stuff that I should comment for clarity, but now you, too, can see how I configure the programs I use.

The MTA Sucks

Public transportation is a good idea, it really is. Maryland just happens to have implemented it in a rather sucky manner. And I get to deal with it.

I was actually up earlier today, so I figured I'd stop at Baltimore Coffee and Tea for chai and a bagel to server as my breakfast/lunch. I missed the bus I was aiming at, which was my fault because I was a little late and it was on time. I caught the next one, which was three minutes late.

Got on the Light Rail in Baltimore and off next to Baltimore Coffee and Tea, ten minutes later than scheduled. Well, I still had ten minutes before the next train, and it was probably going to be late, so I went and got my food. Came back ten minutes later to see the back of the train receeding along the tracks.

Now I made my big mistake. "Oh," says I, "I can just go catch the 8, rather than waiting twenty minutes for the next train." I walked for six minutes to the bus stop, then waited for another twenty-five. In that time, two buses were supposed to have gone by. None did. From past experience, I really should have known better than to trust the 8 when I needed to have anything resembling a schedule.

I ended up walking back to the Light Rail stop and taking the next train, which was only seven minutes later than scheduled.

All told, if I'd left right after missing the first train, I could literally have walked to work and gotten there sooner than I ultimately did.

Bah.

The Opte Project

Though only recently hatched, the Opte Project seems interesting. Basically, it's another map of the Internet, but designed to be generated in a matter of hours rather than months, which is what some similar projects take.

Update: Oh, bother. Looks like Slashdot mentioned it, which was probably a component in the path the URL took to get to me. Oh, well.

The Child that Books Built

I occasionally venture beyond my fiction readings into the realm of non-fiction, and I'm pretty sure it counts even if the book is itself about reading. I saw The Child That Books Built mentioned in a post on Neil Gaiman's blog and it sounded interesting enough, so I bought it the next time I was in a bookstore.

I found the book to be a rather mixed bag. There were parts that I, like Gaiman, found eerily similar to my own experiences--the way reading can blot out all that transpires in the surrounding world, the discovery of SF, reading The Hobbit, reading the Narnia books. (Though in my case, the Narnia series were the first "real" books I read with The Hobbit following shortly thereafter.) There were other parts that didn't necessarily resonate with my experiences but which I nevertheless found interesting--the discussion of lingual development in children, for instance. Some things were just there as autobiographical but didn't have echoes in my life--much of Spufford's childhood reading differed from mine, being separated by both distance and time, while there were books that interested him but not me, such as the Little House on the Prairie series. Possibly related to those were the parts where I felt that the book rambled without any clear purpose or result--the discussion of the primeval forest, or the exploration of small-town America.

Overall, I found it interesting but not really compelling. Yet another book tucked into the category of, "Huh? Oh, yeah, I've read that."

Newsmap

newsmap is a visualization of Google News. It gives you headlines in color-coded bands by category, sized by how many places are reporting the same story, and shaded by age. This is information pornography of the highest order. It uses flash. It may accomplish what even Strongbad and weebl and bob have so far failed to do -- get me to install Flash on my home computer.

newsmap comes from the same person who wrote social circles, which also looks interesting. I may see if I can put together something similar with Perl and Graphviz.

Camping Gear

I am, on the whole, quite pleased with my current set of camping gear, so I figured I'd share with the Internet at large. This particular set may not necessarily be to everyone's tastes, but it works well for me.

I like travelling light, and I enjoy backpacking. Thus, most of my gear was purchased with an eye toward backpacking. It, naturally, serves me well in other venues; the reverse would not be true with bulkier stuff.

Tent

Sierra Designs Clip Flashlight CD. The specs say that this is a two-person tent. Even allowing for the traditional "that's how many people you can fit crowded, without any gear", it's small for two people. It works well for just me and my gear. It'll handle two people if they put their gear elsewhere and are very close. The vestibule is nice, and has room for approximately two pairs of boots.

While I like my current tent, if I had to get another one, I'd probably go for the REI Half Dome 2. At the cost of about a pound and a half packed weight, I'd get a freestanding tent with a little more floor space, more vestibule space, and an attic. The way I camp, I'd be willing to trade off that weight. Well, I'm happy enough with my Sierra Designs tent, at least.

Sleeping Bag

<mumble>. Something I got at B.J.'s for ~$30. Rated to zero degrees, works for me. Nothing really special about it.

Sleeping Pad

Therm-a-Rest standard. Popular choice with campers everywhere. Relatively light, self-inflating, comfortable. I've got my eye on the Therm-a-Rest Fusion EX, for overkill in flexibility, but this one serves my needs quite adequately.

Stove

Coleman Xpert Stove. This is a wonderful little stove. Very light, but very capable. It's got very good stability with its four-legged, four-armed design. The flame adjustment is very nice, being able to go anywhere from a light simmer to a roaring flame. Its main disadvantage is that it only works with Coleman's Powermax fuel canisters, which contain a propane/butane blend. It does seem that Coleman will be continuing to make the things for a while, but the fact bears consideration. Somewhat mitigating the existence of the canisters is their recyclability; when you're done with one, you use the Coleman-provided "green key" to puncture the canister, then collapse it and toss it in with your aluminum recyclables. Set at full burn, it took the stove about an hour to go through one of the 300 gram canisters. More practically, I typically get about two and a half camping trips out of a single canister.

Pots

GSI Hard Anodized Extreme 5-piece Cook Set. I love this pot kit. It comes apart into a large and small pan and a large and small pot. I generally use one or the other of the pans as my plate. The main thing I like about these it the nonstick surface. Cleaning them is generally a matter of wiping them off, and even burnt-on high protein foods come off with a bare minimum of scrubbing. On top of that, they're excellent conductors of heat and can get a pot of water boiling faster that most other kits I've seen.

Utensils

REI Kitchen Essentials Lite. Nice, small kit. Contains enough utensils to cook and eat a meal for two, as well as providing some nicely sized containers for spices and similar things. I've supplemented it with a Backpacker's Pantry U.T.U. Spatula/Knife; the provided spatula had too much of a propensity to melt.

Lantern

Coleman Xcursion Lantern. This lantern is a nice compliment to the stove, running off the same fuel. It has its own reservoir, so you just connect the canister long enough to fill the lantern. Fully filled, the light lasts about six hours. The lantern is light and small, so nicely portable, and the light is very bright--brighter than some propane lanterns I've seen. The mantles seem pretty durable--upon burning the first one I put on the lantern, I shook, hit, and dropped the thing rather abusively and the mantle remained happily intact.

Smaller stuff

Pillow:
Therm-a-Rest Pocket Pillow. Light and useful. Uses clothing (which is what comprises my pillow anyway), but gathers it together into a softer, more comfortable form that's very pleasant to sleep on. Other companies make these, too; mine just happens to be from Therm-a-Rest.

Toothbrush: Clever Toothbrush. It's just a neat idea. The handle of the brush is a reservoir for toothpaste. Very convenient, and allows me to pack smaller and lighter.

Lighter: Zippo Lighter. Tried and true. This thing has seen me through I don't know how many years of camping. The penchant for the fuel to evaporate is probably its main problem, but it's minor compared to the durability and functionality of the thing.

Knife: Swiss Army Cybertool 34. I always carry this with me, camping or not, and some of its features, like the torx bits for the screwdriver, aren't really applicable to camping. But the whole thing is a nice, generally useful device. There isn't a single piece of it that I haven't put to good use at least several times over the years.

Knife: Spyderco Endura. I first got this thing for cutting rope. It's more of an explicitly-for-camping knife than the Cybertool, but while out there it's very useful. The one-handedness has been helpful numerous times, and the knife has been put to a plethora of uses.

Pen: Fisher Bullet Pen. Collapsible enough to fit in my pocket and durable enough to last through numerous camping trips and quite a few abuses of the pen to be a long-pointy-thing.

Store: REI. While not gear per se, REI is where I get most of my stuff. I've liked the store for a while, but one particular encounter sealed it as my store-of-choice. I'd been having trouble with my stove. I bought it at the store, got it home, and opened it only to find that it had been assembled with one set of legs backwards. I returned it for a replacement, waited for things to get shipped back and forth, and picked up the replacement only to find it had the same problem. I talked with a store employee and he agreed that I would probably be better off talking to Coleman directly. Barring that, he said, it should be possible to take the thing apart and assemble it properly. Regardless, he continued, REI would take it back and give me a refund, even if I disassembled it and couldn't get it back together. In other words, REI would back me up even if the manufacturer wouldn't and even if I broke the stove beyond all repair. That's the sort of place I like to spend my money.

Time porn.

What time is it? Well, no one knows for sure

Interesting discussion of different timescales (as produced by differing treatments of leap seconds) and possible consequences for the differences.

Lists of Bests

I've just discovered listsofbests.com. It's a website with lists of books, movies, and music that various people have deemed to be really good at some point or other. Mostly, I'm interested in the list of Hugo Award winners. It's been a goal of mine for some time to read every work that has won a Hugo, and this site will allow me to keep better track of where I am with respect to that goal. I'm not doing too poorly; I've read 29 of the currently 51 books on the list. So, here're my lists:

Two Days in a Row

Okay, I guess the snow gives them an excuse, but the same two buses failed to show again today. From 9:25 through 10:10, there was nothing. Oh, sorry. There was nothing except for the bus that drove by without stopping at 9:40 with a sign saying "Finished Service".

The fact that the Light Rail was 10 minutes late seems to pale in comparison.

Jeopardy Quoting

(Perhaps this should go in Links, but I might get around to writing some more original content here eventually.)

Rant from Simon Wistow about the practice.

RFC 1855, Netiquette Guidelines. (I'll sublink into the right section when rfc.net is back again.

How to get Outlook Express to bottom-quote. (Relatedly, How to get Outlook Express to send in text.)

A: Because it messes up the order in which people normally read text.
Q: Why is top-posting such a bad thing?
A: Top-posting.
Q: What is the most annoying thing on usenet?

Election 2004

I'll be using several resources to track the election results tonight:

The Diary of Anne Frank

Sometimes, it seems that everyone except me had to read The Diary of Anne Frank in school. (The fact that I probably got more out of the book because I didn't is a piece for another day.) While I was reading, I learned from a friend of mine that I was reading an edited version. Though it is not indicated anywhere in the copy I have, it was edited by Anne's father before publication. (This despite the declaration "unabridged" on the title page.) I am told Anne's father removed much about Anne that was specifically Jewish or related to her burgeoning sexuality. (The former because he wanted her to be a more religion-neutral hero, the latter presumably because he didn't want people reading that about his daughter.) So I suppose I'll have to read the fuller version at some point. Regardless, this one is quite good.

Anne Frank was a talented writer. She does a good job of expressing what her life was like during the two years of her family's hiding from the Germans. At times, I did feel that I was an interloper in someone else's thoughts, especially during the time when she was exploring her feelings for Peter, but that lends to the feel of the book. It tells the tale of a young girl thrust into a situation where she has little control over her life and how she manages to live with that.

I'm not sure what I think of the translation. Anne originally wrote in Dutch, which doesn't work well for a sadly monolingual American such as myself. The translation is very much one for a British audience--in addition to things like footnotes translating guilders into shillings and pence, much of Anne's translated language usage involved very British phrases like, "had a jolly good row with so-and-so." For the most part this was relatively unnoticeable, since the phrasing flowed very smoothly through my understanding, but occasionally I was struck by the contrast inherent in a Dutch girl being given a British voice. I understand the reasons for the mode of the translation, but I do wonder what exactly Anne really wrote. (For a real answer, I'd have to learn Dutch, and for a real answer, I'd probably have to grow up in Holland.)

What strikes me most is Anne's generally unflagging optimism throughout the whole book. In one of her final entries, she waxes very introspective, examining her thoughts and behaviors carefully. Near the end of that entry, she writes, "It's really a wonder that I haven't dropped all my ideals because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet, I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can't build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death."

Blogshares

Well, it appears that I'm listed on Blogshares, so I'll drop their icon into this entry to claim it.

Listed on BlogShares

"Happy Holidays"

Dear MTA,

Putting "Happy Holidays" on the front display panels of your buses is cute and all, but could you at least cycle them with the number and destination of the bus? Thanks.

Best wishes, Phil!

Waited nearly an hour for the bus on the way home, but that's probably the fault of the traffic diversions and general congestion stemming from the Christmas tree lighting. Doesn't really get the MTA off the hook for this morning, though.

Drinker of Souls

Drinker of Souls is, on balance, a fairly average fantasy book. While there's nothing particularly special about the story it tells, it is, at least, an interesting tale. The characterization is pretty good, especially Brann's. The writing varies. I found parts of the book rather difficult to get through (most notably the first section; fortunately, things got better), while others elicited eager anticipation. (Partly, this is because I have a weakness for performing art. I found the descriptions of the music and dancing of some of the characters to be quite compelling.)

I have several books by Jo Clayton. The others are from the 70s and have covers that tend to imply crappy hack-and-slash fantasy, so I decided to use this one as a litmus test for Clayton's writing. It's at least good enough that I'll give the others a go.

Archform: Beauty

A lot of critics seem to like Archform: Beauty, and I can't really disagree with them. It tells its story from five points of view, switching among them as it progresses. Despite the title and the presence of five narrators, I didn't really see much evidence of Bartók's arch form in the structure of the book. Beauty is, however, on the minds of the characters, though each has different ideas about what is beautiful.

Mostly, though, it's a detective story. Illegality has transpired, and the characters, variously, have committed it, are chasing it, or are affected by it. The different threads of the story tie together marvelously as events work their way forward.

Modesitt also gets points for a very well-developed world. Language usage has changed a bit in three hundred years, and the book is littered with new turns of phrase. It's not too hard to figure out meaning, though, and a short ways into the book I found the terms nonintrusive.

See more ...

Wow, ugly.

Yes, this page is looking pretty ugly at the moment. Next task is to clean things up and move to a more CSS-based setup. I can't guarantee things will come out looking good, but at least it'll be consistent.

The Wolves in the Walls

Very short read, but quite worth it. The artwork is astounding and the story, while simple, is very fun. The language is certainly on an order for children. I've read recommendations that say the content might be a bit scary for kids, but it doesn't seem so to me (though I'm not really a kid nor do I have any). Regardless, it should be a welcome addition to any adult library, if only for the artwork.

Bookstores I've been to can't seem to decide whether to put it in the childrens' section or with graphic novels.

allconsuming link

Godzilla vs. Mito Komon

A few years ago I came into posession of a video entitled "Godzilla vs. Mito Komon". Most people, I suspect, have heard of Godzilla, but not necessarily Mito Komon. Mito Komon was both the title and star of a very long-running Japanese TV show set in 17th century Japan.

The video itself was apparently done by an art student as a project. He wrote the script, directed the film, and acted all of the parts (including Godzilla, Great Majin, and several high-voltage electrical towers). I have been unable to find out who did the fansubbing.

Since I haven't found anyplace else to get it, I've put together a torrent of the video. Behold, Godzilla vs. Mito Komon.

Excel Saga, volume 02

allconsuming link

More fun with Excel and company. The manga is certainly distinct from the anime, with common threads, but it's still quite funny. I don't know what else to say about it, though. Parts had me literally laughing out loud, always a good sign. The footnotes are again excellent; you can tell that the translators are pretty amusing people, too.

Grandia Xtreme

Well, it's certainly not Grandia II. Grandia Xtreme took Grandia II's excellent battle system and improved on it. Unfortunately, that's the only thing it improved on. The plot is simplistic, the characters are unbelievable, the dialog is crappy, and the voice acting (with the possible exception of Kroitz, voiced by Mark Hamil) is horrid.

The main character is Evann, a Ranger with the ability to travel via Geo Stream. This allows you to teleport deep into various dungeons, after you've visited the destination the hard way, of course. In what appears to be an attempt to make the game longer, at various plot points the Geo Streams get reset and you have to go back through the areas if you want to reopen them. (Note that doing this is completely optional, for plot purposes at least. But really, you don't want to play this game for the plot.)

And then there are the corridors. At various points of the game, you must go through randomly-generated areas. Presumably the random generation is to enhance replay value. I found it annoying.

There are parts I liked. Junctioning eggs was fun for a while. Magic is contained within magic eggs; in order to cast a particular set of spells, you must have an egg that provides those spells equipped. You find eggs with only the barest minimal spells. You may then, however, junction them in pairs to get better eggs. Different combinations give different results, and the really powerful eggs are, understandably, difficult to create. (I ended up taking a chart of combinations out of a FAQ and writing a Perl script to list optimal recipes.)

I'll complain about the ending after the spoiler barrier. Just note that if you do stay with the game long enough to beat it, you should wait through the end of the credits, as with any console RPG, really.

Ultimately, I really can't recommend playing this game unless you're much more interested in gameplay than story, characterization, voice acting, and dialog.

See more ...

Software Hate

Yes, it's true. I hates software. (Though, as of yet, not very much.)

MTA Needs More Coordination

The Light Rail was fun this morning. Got on at the Convention Center stop as normal, then drowsed until reaching North Avenue. At that stop, we were informed by the driver that we would have to get off and take buses further north. There were two buses waiting and an MTA supervisor directing people onto them. I said I was going to Timonium and he pointed me at the first bus of the pair.

I was a little annoyed at this point because the service update board they'd put up were blank--this was not an announced outage. Upon reading the Light Rail service status page the MTA provides, I learned that this was unplanned. Still, they could have been more prepared, especially since they're planning to do this sort of thing regularly in the future.

It turned out that the bus I was on went directly to the Timonium area, skipping the more southerly Light Rail stops. This makes sense, since buses are slower than the trains. The driver, however, was unfamiliar with the area and had not been given driving directions. I had to direct her from the Lutherville stop to the Timonium Business Park and Timonium Fairgrounds stops. I only realized after going past it that she'd been told to only stop at the Lutherville, Timonium Fairgrounds, and Hunt Valley stops, so the Timonium Business Park one was a waste of time. I then gave her directions from the Timonium Fairgrounds stop to the Hunt Valley stop.

Neither she nor the supervisor communicated adequately to the riders what exactly was going on. It wouldn't have taken too long to say, "This bus is going to the Lutherville, Timonium, and Hunt Valley Light Rail stops," and that would have made things go a little more smoothley, I think. Several people (including me, though I was less affected) were confused by the stops the bus skipped.

Appropriate Error Messages

I spent some quality time with several MTA ticket vending machines today, much to my sorrow. You see, I wanted to buy a $64 monthly ticket. I pushed the appropriate button, fed in each of my four $20 bills, watched the amount remaining as displayed on the machine decrease by 20 for each bill, then, after I fed it the last bill, watched it display "Money Returned" and spit all the bills back out. Useful error message, no? I eventually determined that it didn't want to give me change form $80. Fortunately, a local bar had a bartender who was willing to give me change for a $20. Upon being given exact change, the machine happily supplied me with a ticket.

Then I proceeded to wait an hour for the bus. In that span of time, three different buses from the 19 route were scheduled to go by. Not one did. Thanks again, MTA.

New Writings in SF7

As far as I can tell, New Writings in SF7 hasn't been published since before ISBNs were adopted. (Hence, no allconsuming link.) It's a collection of short stories from authors that were, in 1966, "major new writers". Like many such collections, some stories are good while others are not. The collection is, on balance, decent.

The first two stories, "The Pen and the Dark" and "Gifts of the Gods" are typical science-driven stories of the era. The main characters are all male and serve merely to advance some particular scientific speculation. The third, "The Long Memory", I found to be too scrawny a story with a too-abrupt ending. From there on, things get better, however. "The Man Who Missed the Ferry" is probably my favorite of the set, with a just-slightly-surreal approach to things. "The Night of the Seventh Finger" is rather moving, and I enjoyed its characterization. "Six Cubed Plus One" was also good, if a little forced at times. "Defense Mechanism" was interesting in its depiction of a future Earth.

It's a thin volume, and I'd say that "The Man Who Missed the Ferry" alone was worth the time taken to read the whole book.

MTA Reacts Poorly to Problems

This evening, a pickup truck ended up on the Light Rail tracks around Northern Parkway. To say that the MTA didn't handle it well would be an understatement.

I left work at about 5:20 and arrived at the Light Rail stop a little before 5:30. There was already a train there, sitting with its doors open. I asked people what the wait was and was told there was some accident. I waited a while and eventually the driver announced that he would go to the Lutherville stop. No word on what was going on, just, "I'm going to Lutherville." When we got there (two stops down the line), the driver announced that he had to stop until he was told he could go. I considered taking the 8 bus from there, but figured that whatever shuttle system the MTA had set up would still be faster than the 8. Eventually, we got moving again, traveled to the next station, Falls Road, and the driver said we all had to get out. That was the extent of the communication from the driver. He was minimally informative and gave no indication of what the MTA was doing to cope with the situation.

At the Falls Road stop, I looked around for any MTA personnel so I could see what was going on. There were none. I pulled out my system map, figured out what buses I needed to take, and set out. On my way out I passed an MTA supervisor's car driving in, so I went back to see what was up. The woman assured me that there were shuttle buses on the way; she'd left at the same time they had, but she'd taken back roads impassable to buses. I was told that the buses would take us to the North Avenue Light Rail stop, at which point we could board a train and continue south. Replacement Light Rail drivers got out of her car, switched places with the drivers of the trains at the stop, and she and the old drivers drove off.

Roughly fifteen minutes later a bus arrived, disgorged its passengers and then closed its doors. When someone went to ask the driver what was going on, they discovered that the driver had been told to take people from North Avenue to Falls Road, but hadn't been told anything about bringing people back. She called her supervisor (a different person than I had talked with), who also didn't know anything about it, but told her to bring us down to North Avenue. On the way back I talked with the driver a little. She had been given only the roughest of directions on how to get to the Falls Road stop, and those had been given verbally; a passenger had supplied her with the necessary details.

By the time we got to the North Avenue stop, the tracks appeared to have been reopened; the first train to go by was northbound and went north past us. I waited about 15 minutes more before a southbound train arrived.

All told, I got home two hours later than normal. Given the circumstances, I could have understood some delay, but the MTA's mishandling of the situation led to even worse conditions.

A distilled version of this tale will be filed with the MTA as a complaint, not that I expect them to do anything about it.

MTA Plans New Management System

The MTA announced a few days ago that they would be implementing a new system to track and report on the state of their vehicle fleet. The Baltimore Sun has an article, and the Department of Transportation has some details. They say they'll be done by 2006; no indication on when they'll start putting things in.

It looks like this could be very nice and should address a few of my complaints about the MTA. The Next Train Arrival signs should nicely handle my complaints about not being notified when things go wrong and trains get delayed, while the Next Vehicle Arrival signs will do the same thing for the buses, a feat that's currently pretty much impossible.

They tout a public announcement system that "will provide audio announcements at Light Rail, Metro & MARC passenger stations." Of course, they already have this, at least at Light Rail and MARC stations--the MARC system even gets used. Perhaps they're just indicating that they'll begin to use the ones at Light Rail stops, too.

With the buses being tracked in real time, they'll be providing real-time trip planning, which will also be a nice added feature. This will be available via the MTA's website; with any luck, it'll be simple enough that I will be able to write a program to get an overview of my trips to and from work right before I leave.

The Automatic Passenger Counter should be nice for redistributing routes and schedules based on actual ridership.

And finally, they mention that the buses will be controlled via wireless LAN. I hope they've got good safeguards on those.

SO the new system looks good. It's at least got the potential to make public transit in Baltimore a little better. Just how much of that potential will be realized remains to be seen.

Spam This, Please

John McDonnell says he wants to get as much spam as possible to the email address info@microb.us. I'm assisting by putting it on a web page. Feel free to do the same.

All email sent there will by dumped to http://microb.us/info.php.

Playa del Fuego 2003

Yeah, I haven't even finished with my entry for Burning Man this year, but this PDF entry should be a bit shorter, so my lazy butt is doing it first.

This PDF was a bit different from previous ones, both in general and for me specifically. A lot of the planning for it happened at close to the last minute, but everything did manage to come together in time for the event. I also left my planning to the last minute, but I'm familiar enough with my camping gear that I can toss everything together pretty quickly.

I was only there from Saturday afternoon through Sunday afternoon; I worked on Friday and Monday. While I had arranged for a ride to PDF, I hadn't found one back on Sunday, a situation I will not allow again. It was simply too stressful looking for a ride on Sunday afternoon with the prospect of possibly having to call in to work and say I couldn't make it in on Monday.

Aside from that, the weekend was beautiful. This was a much more mellow burn than even previous Fall burns. At other times, I've had the feeling of a very active burn--go and do stuff and experience things. At this one, people set up their camps and proceeded to just hang out. I had a moment late Sunday morning where I just looked around the site and was nearly overwhelmed by how beautiful everything was. I felt forced to lay down and rest, for fear that I might explode with happiness.

I didn't really do a whole lot over the weekend. I hung out at the Gold Bar, a pastime I can easily recommend to others. I rangered a bit. I hung out at Primal Phred. I watched the main burn. I hung out in the pavilion. I had a great weekend with my friends.

And I made Jill very happy by finally consenting to a body shot. Yes, Jill has drunk a mudslide from my navel. She seems, oh, slightly pleased about it.

I'm very happy to have gone, even if for but a scant twenty-four hours.

The Two Towers: The Purist Edit

They gave me back my story.

Ever since I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in elementary school, I've loved Middle Earth. Like many people, I waited with anticipation and dread for the movies by Peter Jackson. Would he mangle it as horribly as Bakshi? Would they actually be good movies? The Fellowship of the Ring came out, and I was, by and large, pleased. Jackson had omitted some things and rearranged some others, but the result was good. There was Tolkien's work, on the big screen and amazing faithful to the text.

Then came The Two Towers.

At the time, I wrote up a page about what I thought of the movie. Though that writeup is now lost, it can be summed up pretty succinctly: I didn't like it. Jackson took great liberties with the story, adding bits that were never there and changing bits that were, sometimes for no apparent reason. It was bad in a very annoying way, because the parts that were right were very good. A lot of people had the same reaction as I did, and there was much complaining.

At least one person did a bit more than complain. The Two Towers: The Purist Edit is a reedit of the movie, in a similar spirit to The Phantom Edit. It removes the worst of Jackson's additions--Aragorn's warg battle, the dwarf jokes, the Elves at Helm's Deep, among others--and fixes some of the changes--the Ents now make the right decision, for instance. I can't emphasize how pleased I am with this edit. It's much closer to the books that I've loved for so long.

It's not perfect. It's from a screener copy from one of the big awards ceremonies, so it occasionally has "For your consideration" written across the bottom of the screen. Because it's essentially from the theatrical version, the editors didn't have all the extra footage in the Extended Edition to draw on, which was too bad in several cases. While a lot of the editing is pretty good, some causes feelings of abruptness and draws attention the fact that things were excised. In a couple of instances, people have their lines dubbed over. Since the lips no longer match the words, the dubs are painfully obvious. The editors did a good job of removing the elves from Helms Deep. That means that they cut out a lot of footage, though, and the battle doesn't have the same grandiose feel to it as in the original movie. It still works, but it's not the same. Because of all the various cuts, the Purist Edit runs about 40 minutes shorter than the theatrical release. And not everything was fixed. Fir instance, Helm's Deep is still won by Gandalf riding in with the Rohirrim, not by the Ents and Huorns.

But the Purist Edit is still a vast improvement, story-wise over Jackson's telling. It's a lot closer to the movie I wish he'd made. Thank you, whoever you are, for making this edit.

Chernevog

This one's a worthy successor to Rusalka. More that's familiar Cherryh style, including characters worrying over their choices and not knowing which characters to trust.

Spoilers below.

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Excel Saga, volume 01

allconsuming link

I'm a fan of the anime series and I saw the first two volumes of the manga in the book store, so I decided to give it a read. I like it.

This is the first manga I've really read that went right-to-left. It is arguably more true to the original format (no reflections or rearrangement needed), but it can be harder for americans to follow. I found myself adapting to the format much more quickly than I thought I would, however.

I like the footnotes supplied in these manga. The American editor decided to leave many of the sound effects in the manga, which is not too surprising given the fact that they're often as decorative as they are descriptive. In lieu of translation, there are gootnotes for all of the sound effects. Much of the time, you can get the gist of the soungs from other context, but it's nice to be able to look to the back of the book and see exactly what's going on.

There are also general translation notes, mostly noting places where American idioms or similar things were substituted for Japanese concepts. It's a tribute to the editor that I barely noticed most of these; the story flowed well.

According to notes in the volume, Excel Saga was a doujinshi that went pro. Didn't realize that was how it started.

Discussion of differences between the anime and manga occurs below.

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Players at the Game of People

Finished it yesterday. Not too bad.

Light Rail Double Tracking

According to a recent announcement, the southern portion of the Light Rail will open completely on December 5th. No more shuttles, at least in that direction.

On the other hand, they're closing the northern portion (everything north of North Avenue) on January 3rd. And the shuttle bus system they have set up is confusing, to put it mildly.

From what I can tell, there will be three shuttle routes, designated 'A', 'B', and 'C'. 'A' shuttles will go to Falls Road. 'B' shuttles will go to Timonium Fairgrounds and Warren Road. 'C' shuttles will go to Lutherville, Timonium Fairgrounds, Gilroy Road, McCormick Road, Pepper Road, and Hunt Valley. No shuttles will go to Timonium Business Park, Mount Washington, Cold Spring, or Woodberry. Users of any of those latter stops are expected to use buses that run nearby. (Light Rail riders often use the trains to avoid those buses.) The Light-Rail-served terminus of the shuttle routes is not North Avenue (as one might expect), but the Cultural Center stop.

Confused yet? There's more. The 'C' route is a general service route that will run roughly the same hours as the Light Rails does: 5am to midnight on Monday through Saturday and 10am to 8pm on Sunday. The 'A' and 'B' routes are limited-time express routes: the 'A' will run from 6am to 10am and 2:30pm to 6:30pm; the 'B' will run from 6am to 9:30am and 2:30pm to 6:30pm. Both express routes will only run on weekdays.

They don't say what the more specific time constraints are. (Does "to 10am" mean that the last bus will start its last run at 10:00, or that the last bus will arrive at its final destination at 10:00?) They don't say how often the buses will be running. (Probably because there's either no set schedule or because the schedule won't be enforced at all; either would fit the behavior of the southward-running buses this year.)

Neither the MTA's website nor the Double Track Project's website has any mention yet of these changes.

Otakon is Over

Well, Otakon 2003 is over. Lots of good stuff there; I suspect most people had a good time. I managed to see "Otaku no Video" (finally), Mystery Anime Theater 3000, the AMV contest (easily my favorite part of the con), and the T.M. Revolution concert.

Oh, and the dealer's room. I picked up Princess Prince, a plush Nyarlathotep, a plush Kuro Neko-sama (that one was a gift), a small pin with Utena on it, and another pin with Ryo-Ohki.

Had fun at the raves, spinning glowsticks. There were a couple other people there who were quite good. I talked with them a bit over the course of the evenings, not that I remember their names now, of course. One showed me an interesting variant on the weave that he called a hyper loop. Has to be done with shorter strings/chains, as it has a component that's between the arms, in front of the body. Is also quite tricky. Will have to play with it and see if I can duplicate the thing. I think it might work with fire, too, though certainly with much practice beforehand.

I again enjoyed working the con. Security (correction: "Special Operations") was again much work, though the work was generally rewarding. Got to talk to lots of people, and no severe problems occurred that I had to deal with.

And now it's back to the real world. Work today, followed by a trip home (where I haven't been since before work last Thursday). With luck, I'll have time to start grabbing copies of the AMVs I liked before I fall asleep.

Zodiac

Zodiac is one of Neal Stephenson's earlier books, and it shows. A lot of the writing style that went into Snow Crash is there, but it's rougher. It's hard to pick out specific examples, but the whole book didn't feel to me that it flowed as well as it ought to have. On the other hand, the story was a decent one, and had several nice moments of chemistry geekiness that reminded me of the mathematically-geeky side trips in Cryptonomicon.

Surprisingly (at least to me), I liked the ending. I haven't really been happy with the endings of Stephenson's more recent books; I prefer something with a sense of closure. All three of his books that I've read (Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, and Cryptonomicon) had endings that felt unfinished. (Note that I don't mind endings that deliberately leave things open-ended, but I do like to feel that the main story has been resolved.) Regardless, Zodiac's ending did have closure, and I was happy with that.

So, it's a decent read, especially if you like Neal Stephenson's writing, but not really something I'd recommend going out of your way for.

A Fire upon the Deep

Not for nothing did A Fire upon the Deep take home a Hugo. There are just so many things about it that are good. The universe within which the story takes place is carefully crafted and very interestingly conceived. Several alien races are presented, two of them in detail, one of which (the Tines) had been very elaborately created. The story is huge and compelling, while the writing draws you onward. And the Usenet-like communications setup is an interesting concept.

Probably one of the things that stands out the most in this book is the structure of the Tines. Vinge does a good job of explaining by showing, and the details of the race were enough to make my head hurt as I imagined their ramifications.

The writing was well-paced. It's a long book, and some parts felt slow-moving compared to others, but they were never uninteresting. During the more active parts, especially the climax of the book (and the other climax right before it) I was so immersed in it that I couldn't stop reading. And the image at the end was echoingly haunting.

Simply put, buy this book. It's eminently worth it.

Slashdot seems to have a review of a recently-released special edition of the book. It has notes by Vinge and those who helped him with his book and is apparently only available in electronic format. If I had a working PDA, I'd consider getting it, since the annotations would be very interesting to read, but I'd much prefer a more open format (mostly so I could read it with Weasel Reader).

Baltimore's MTA is not an option so much as a last resort.

I recently had the use of my sister's car for almost a month. During that time, I didn't rely on the MTA for my transportation needs, and I was reminded again just how inadequate Baltimore's public transportation system is.

I like the idea of public transportation. It's a more efficient method of travel, in terms of energy expended and pollution generated per person. I like the idea of settling back to read a book while someone else drives me to my destination. I even like walking from place to place, provided it's not too far. ("Too far" varies depending on my level of interest, but generally runs between 10 and 30 minutes of walking.)

In an ideal city, public transportation would be a useful way to travel around, smoothly moving you from place to place without inconveniencing you as you traveled. The city would have a subway or elevated train system with several lines that connected disparate portions of the city. Traveling within the city would generally be as simple as walking a few blocks to a subway stop, changing trains once or, at most, twice, and walking a few more blocks to your destination. Buses would fill in what gaps were left, as well as servicing the outlying areas that didn't have a subway extension or light rail nearby. Naturally, those trains and buses would have reasonable schedules that provided frequent and timely service while the organization running things would keep signs and scheduled up to date and inform riders of any problems with the service.

I don't live in that city. I live in Baltimore. Baltimore has one subway that allows people to travel between Johns Hopkins, Lexington Market, and Owings Mills. It has one set of Light Rail tracks (on which it tries to run three different lines) that will take you anywhere you want, as long as it's BWI, Linthicum, Howard Street, Timonium, or Hunt Valley. Most of the city is only accessible by bus, and those buses are frequently off-schedule. In some cases, such as the #8 route, the schedule serves only to give a rough idea of the travel time between two points; the buses are so erratic that the schedule cannot be relied upon to indicate when one will arrive.

The city is also bad at communicating with its riders. Light Rail passengers are occasionally forced to wait through several scheduled train arrivals for a vehicle, with no feedback from the MTA on what the problem was or when service would resume, despite the presence of public-address systems at every stop. (Not to mention the mailing list, where the timely and useful messages from the MARC division arrive in stark contrast to the mute silence from the Light Rail devision.) Bus routes get diverted without any effort to update the signs and schedules along the affected portion of the route. I've waited and I've seen others wait at stops that declare buses from such-and-such route will be by at so-and-so time, only to be disappointed, enraged, and disheartened when bus after bus fails to show.

I used to declare that when I got a new car I'd eschew its use for day-to-day purposes and continue to rely on public transportation, giving me time to relax and read while allowing me to spend less money per month (a monthly bus pass costs less than a month's worth of gas for me). Much as that would be a good and ecologically sound idea in an ideal city, it's one that's far too annoying in a city as inconvenient as Baltimore.

Now with blog.

So I decided to go and weed my webspace, including cleaning up my pages a bit. While I was at it, I set up a simple blog, which is what you're seeing now. I figure I'll at least play with it and see how useful it is. Mostly, I expect it'll be used for comments on books I'm reading and the inevitable propagation of URLs to stuff I think is interesting. I also don't expect to update it all that often, so my website should, on the whole, remain just as boring as ever.

Weather Porn

NOAA seems to be adding some nice features for Internet-based weather information. I like all the info available from the Baltimore/Washington Forecast Office, especially the text forecast and hourly short-term forecast grid (also text-based).

Poor MTA Communication...

...but who's surprised?

Bus stop for the 31 at Howard St. and Lombard St. The 31 schedule was changed on February 1st, sixteen days ago. Announcements were made, new schedules drawn up, and so on. The scheduls at the stop is still the one from September of last year.

Convention Center Light Rail stop. The double tracking message board has two items. The lefthand one describes the change back to two light rail lines, effective as of February 1st, 2004. The righthand one has a diagram of the three lines. On the opposite side of the board is a schedule from 2002 that predates any of the double track changes and is, of course, wildly incorrect. Not sure whether the presence of dates on the three documents offset the fact that they all convey conflicting information, especially to readers that don't look closely enough to compare the dates.

Times Without Number

Times Without Number is a time travel story set in an alternate-history Earth. (Yes, the implications are pretty obvious. I won't comment on them until after the spoiler barrier.) The book was originally three separate short stories. For this publishing, Brunner reworked the stories to create one narrative from them. Nevertheless, the book breaks easily into three different sections, each following a particular event in the life of "Don Miguel Navarro, Licencate in Ordinary of the Society of Time". (The alternate-history is that the Spanish Armada successfully invaded England and Spain, instead of England, became the colonial empire of the West.)

The setting seems reasonably well-thought-out, if a bit chauvinistic. Women are second-class citizens, though that's generally presented as a bad thing. There are slaves, which exist and are never commented on. Native Americans are all referred to as Mohawks, though some do express indignation at this. Time travel is the sole dominion of the Catholic Church; the creator of the original device didn't think anyone else would behave properly with it. This book is probably not for anyone who would get offended at any of this. (It was written 1969; the original stories are from 1962. All well before political correctness came into vogue.)

Within the story are some reasoned explorations of various aspects of time travel. The Society has strict rules governing the use of the technology; naturally, the stories tend to hinge on the breaking of various of those rules. For me, this is the main reason to read the book. There isn't too much here that hasn't been explored in other time travel stories, but this one probably predates most others. Beyond that, the writing is decent, but not excellent, and it feels a bit dated.

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Thoughts for my next Burning Man visit

Remember to drink water before going to bed. A couple nights I didn't and woke up with a very dry, uncomfortable mouth.

Bring more costumes! Also, more playa-wear. Even jean shorts without a shirt felt a bit pedestrian at times. The loincloth worked well. Sarongs?

Go shirtless earlier in the week. My forearms tanned more rapidly than my back and shoulders, meaning that I had to deal with sunscreen over a longer period of time.

Either get sunglasses or a pair of goggles that fit my face better. I don't normally wear sunglasses, but the sun on the playa was bright.

Bring more food. Most sites said I'd eat less than normal when I went out there. I ate more. (Probably as a result of being very active and walking a lot.)

Relatedly, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are simple to make and reasonably non-perishable. Would make good lunches. I should still bring power bars for portable lunches away from camp.

Cereal is good for breakfast, though I don't like eating it dry. UHT milk needs to be referigerated after opening. Does Rice Dream?

Get a bike. I liked walking everywhere, and I walked a lot, but bikes are a faster means of going places.

Finally, Everything Works

I've finally gotten emacs working just the way I want with respect to UTF-8.

For entry of non-ascii characters, I most like RFC 1345. Emacs doesn't have such an input system, and I don't feel like writing one. screen, on the other hand, has support for digraph input, which will do the digraphs from RFC 1345 with the help of a little patch. (The same digraph input will also do any Unicode character if you know the hex for it, via the "U+xxxx" syntax.) Using screen instantly gives UTF-8 input support for pretty much every program I use.

The problem with this and Emacs is that if Emacs gets characters with the high bit set, it treats that high bit as a meta key. This, of course, breaks any method of inputting UTF-8 into emacs from an external source, including cut-and-paste. I had to 'M-x customize-variable keyboard-coding-system' and set the coding system to utf-8. That made UTF-8 work, but broke the meta key, since that was indeed how xterm was sending it.

To fix xterm, I set this in my .Xresources:

XTerm*metaSendsEscape: true

to change the way Meta keys were sent (this also made meta work with a couple more programs, notably irssi). I also added this to my .xsession:

xmodmap -e "keysym Alt_L = Meta_L Alt_L"
xmodmap -e "keysym Alt_R = Meta_R Alt_R"

so that Meta would be bound to my Alt key. (It's an IBM Model M keyboard--Alt is all I have. When I had a Windows key, it was bound as Meta.)

Zero for Two

Following in Friday's footsteps, the MTA gave me troubles getting to work this morning.

The bus I caught going into the city (bus #8877) was stuck on a hill for some time, because the transmission wouldn't shift into forward. (I'm not sure how long we were there, since I didn't think to check my watch, but I missed two Light Rail trains, so it was at least half an hour.) The driver tried a number of variations on "roll backwards and then gun the engine" but nothing seemed to work. Eventually, something caught and the bus crept up the hill as people held their breath.

The driver said that she had called for a replacement bus several hours previously (apparently, this had happened earlier today, too), but nothing had been forthcoming.

From a UI design article.

UTF-8

Last weekend I was feeling both bored and geeky, so I did something I'd been meaning to do for a while: I switched to UTF-8. I'm running Debian unstable, and the transition was relatively painless, though I did run into some problems.

Markus Kuhn's Unicode page proved invaluable for both theory and practice, as did his UTF-8 example files. Also of use was Radovan Garabik's Debian howto for switching to UTF-8.

I got rid of gnome-terminal, sadly, and went back to vanilla xterm. There were some aspects of UTF-8 that gnome-terminal didn't support (combining characters, notably), and there wasn't a good Unicode font that it could use. (The only monospace font with any sort of reasonable coverage was FreeMono, which looks horrible. Terminus was actually decent in the Latin-1 sections, but I'd need more than 1152x864 to use it the way I'd want. The fact that gnome-terminal refused to use traditional X fonts is a separate rant.) I'm using xterm as xterm -fn '-misc-fixed-medium-r-semicondensed---120-----iso10646-1'.

screen supports UTF-8 nicely. I merely set defutf8 on in my .screenrc. Debian has a separate package for mutt with UTF-8 support; it's mutt-utf8. Once installed, it diverts existing mutt binaries to mutt.ncurses, so just typing mutt works. irssi happily handled UTF-8 without any intervention from me. In order to get w3m working, I had to compile and install w3m-m17n.

XEmacs seems uneasy with the whole thing. I'm using xemacs21-mule and I have

(require 'un-define)
(set-coding-priority-list '(utf-8))
(set-coding-category-system 'utf-8 'utf-8)

in my startup files. That enables UTF-8 support and autodetects files that already have UTF-8 characters in them. I still need to figure out how to open other files as UTF-8 (default translation still seems to be ISO-8859-1). I also need to look at the displaying of Unicode characters. XEmacs is running in screen in a UTF-8-aware xterm, so things should display properly, but most Unicode characters are displayed as tildes. Finally, it appears that the easiest way to enter Unicode characters is to call the function insert-ucs-character and type in the decimal (not hex!) number of the Unicode codepoint. Addendum: XEmacs does seem to actually mess up some UTF-8 characters. Sigh.

I played a little with other editors to see what I could do with them. yudit seems the best of the lot, but it's GUI-only. qemacs doesn't look too bad, but it had some problems detecting UTF-8 documents, which led to munged characters when I saved. And apparently vim has excellent UTF-8 support. Figures.

zsh does not support UTF-8. (Though it's one of two items in the TODO list.) It passes things through literally enough that you can paste UTF-8 into a command line and have the app handle it, but you can't edit Unicode on the command line. It also doesn't deal properly with the size of UTF-8 characters, so no UTF-8 in my shell prompt.

Just for the fun of it, I switched the blog pages here over to UTF-8. I might switch the web server as a whole, but that could break some of my text files. It doesn't really matter, because I generally use the HTML entities for non-ASCII characters, anyway. Why type "àéîõü" (UTF-8) when I can use "àéîõü" (HTML entities) and be much more portable? Of course, UTF-8 does let me put in things like "ᚠᛁᚢᛖ᛫ᚠᛟᛏ᛫ᚻᛁᚷᚻ᛫ᚦᛖ᛫ᛞᚩᚱ᛫ᚨᚾᛞ᛫ᚦᚱᛟ᛫ᛗᚨᚤ᛫ᚹᚨᛚᚴ᛫ᚨᛒᚱᛖᚨᛋᛏ". }:>

Other Subways

From IRC:

    <vees> http://www.fakeisthenewreal.org/subway/index.html
<knarphie> ya know vees, I really should send the guy a one cm diagonal line to be included as the baltimore subway

Sad, but true.

The Time of The Dark

The Time of the Dark opens with a woman dreaming of events taking place in another world. By the second page this book, published in 1982, has already described something as "cyclopean". I, having read that description, was busy being depressed about the story, fearing that Hambly was aspiring to some Lovecraft-styled tale. (This would be a problem because most such imitations are bad ones.) Fortunately (so to speak), it's merely a run-of-the-mill fantasy story from the early '80s.

The book does carry a fairly obvious Lovecraft influence, mostly in the descriptions of ancient architecture and of the Dark, a not-terribly-nice race which is encountered early in the book. There was one particular description of some ancient ruins where I was enjoying some nice echoes of Lovecraft's style until she actually used the adjective "Lovecraftian". Oh, well.

So the descriptive writing wasn't too bad. The plot was, unfortunately, pretty standard stuff. People (a man and a woman) are transported from this world into another one where magic is possible and some great danger threatens. These two become instrumental in saving people from the danger. I was somewhat pleased to note that it wasn't completely textbook--the two did not fall in love with each other. On the other hand, the woman, a medieval scholar, discovers an innate talent for sword-based combat, while the man, a sometimes-biker and itinerant artist, finds that he can work magic and falls mutually in love with the widowed queen.

This is the first book in a series. I want enough to know what will happen that I'd read the next books, but if they're similar to this one, I'll probably be sighing at the clichéd fantasy conventions as I come to them.

Impressive LEGO structures

Andrew Lipson's LEGO Page has some pretty impressive constructions made from LEGO bricks. The mathamatical models are nice, but some of the reproductions of Escher drawings are just amazing. (Even if he did cheat a little on "Waterfall".)

Grandia II

Wow. Grandia II is now probably one of my favorite video games.

Let's see... It's a console (Dreamcast) role playing game, one of my most-preferred genres. While the gameplay is rather overly linear, the battle system is at least interesting, and the characters and plot development are both excellent.

Linear gameplay, yes. There's pretty much none of the wandering off to do side quests that other console RPGs have, nor is there much real exploring to do. You'll see pretty much everything in the game because you have to go through it to progress. There are branchings in the paths available, but almost without fail, one branch is a dead end resulting in some treasure while the other proceeds onward.

I won't describe the battle system; there are certainly enough other places that do. Suffice it to say that it has an interesting design that I found useful and reasonably fun, both of which are important in a console RPG.

Ah, the characters. Ryudo is the main character, and he's got an attitude. He's not shy about letting people know exactly what he thinks, and he generally put things in amusing (if not necessarily so to the recipient) ways. I've a host of screenshots of amusing dialog, including stuff like, "Well, I guess you'd better get back to praying with yourself," and, "I'm sorry. Were you waiting for me to give a damn?" Many of the other central characters are equally good. Milennia is a very fun (and cute) embodiment of evil; Elena is probably the blandest, though still likeable; and Mareg's blending of rough demeanor with verbose eloquence is usually interesting. The only one I didn't really like was Roan, mostly because I found him rather annoying.

There is also a host of minor characters, most of which you don't even have to interact with (villagers, onlookers, etc.) Nevertheless, the game designers wrote several different dialogues for each one. Unlike many console RPGs I've played, it takes a number of conversations with someone before you've exhausted their dialog, and this is true for everyone you meet in the game.

And the plot. I'll try not to spoil anything until I get below the spoiler barrier. The initial presentation seems simple enough: ages ago, there was a battle between Darkness and Light. Light won, but only sealed away the Darkness. Now the Darkness is gathering again, and the heroes must gather the power of the Light to stop it. (Even if Ryudo despises the church and is only doing it because they're paying him a lot.) As things progress, however, the plot takes a number of rather unexpected twists, some of them rather unconventional for a console RPG. I played through the last eight or so hours of the game continually expecting that I was just about to the end.

All in all, a very worthwhile game, and one I am immensely glad to have played.

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Final Fantasy Tactics Advance

Summary: good gameplay and game mechanics, sometimes-annoying interface, silly plot.

I played and loved Final Fantasy Tactics for the Playstation. So much so, in fact, that FFTA was the main reason I went out and got a Game Boy Advance. (And that ownership of a GBA and FFTA is what has kept me from reading anything, which is why the site hasn't been updated as much.) So it is that I kept comparing FFTA to FFT. And while FFTA is a good game, there were things I liked better about FFT. But I'll get to those.

So, gameplay/game mechanics. As with FFT, most of your time in the game is spent doing battles on isometric grids. Most aspects of the game revolve around these battles in one way or another. The overall mechanics of the battles are pretty much the same as in FFT, though it seems that many of the calculations are much simpler in FFTA. For example, the success rate of most things (physical attacks, ranged attacks, spells, etc.) seems solely dependent on the target's evade score and which way they're facing relative to the attacker. (Yep, even spells are more likely to hit if the target can't see you.) No additional considerations of zodiac/sex compatibility, Brave or Faith, mitigating abilities, relative differences in speed, or different calculations for different sorts of attacks. All abilities that reduce the effectiveness of attacks (such as Reflex, which is pretty much the equivalent of Blade Grasp) simply reduce the chance of the attack hitting to zero (compare to Blade Grasp, which reduced it to a small percentage based on your Brave). This leads to silly things like enemies walking up and hitting you, even knowing that they'll miss.

The changes to the job system are interesting. There are again job classes, but there are also five races. Different races have different available jobs, with only a few jobs being available to multiple races. Different races also have different strengths, so, for example, a Nu Mou mage will generally be better at it than a Moogle mage. Job abilities are also learned a little differently. In a manner similar to Final Fantasy 9, pieces of equipment provide the user with abilities for his or her class. Each ability has an Ability Point cost; once the user has earned that many AP toward the ability, he or she has mastered it and will always have it available to be equipped. This means that it's much more advantageous, especially early in the game, to have your characters rotating through their various classes, so they can continue learning things.

Many familiar classes have returned, including White, Black, Blue, Red, and Time Mages, Summoner, Archer, Thief, and Ninja. Some new ones have been added, such as Hunter (cross an Archer with a Mediator), Sniper (an advanced Archer with a little Ninja in them), Assassin (just fun), Illusionist (spells that target every enemy on the map; fun, but not as much so as FFT's Calculator), Gadgeteer (abilities that randomly hit all allies or all enemies), and others. (What, you thought I'd list them all?)

FFTA takes a slightly different approach to specialist classes than did FFT. In FFT, there were characters that had their own, unique, classes in place of the normal base class, Squire. (And Ramza got extra abilities as a Squire that no one else got.) These characters were often useful for their special abilities, but they could otherwise progress normally through the job hierarchy (sometimes with amusing results, like the dancing Agrias). In FFTA, there are no player-controlled characters with special abilities during the normal course of the game. Marche and Montblanc are the only special character, in that they don't change their appearance depending on their job class, but they each have exactly the same classes available to any other member of their respective races. After you beat the game other special characters can join your clan. At least one (only one so far for me) is a special class, but he comes with all of his abilities mastered, he cannot learn new abilities (there aren't any items that can provide them), and he cannot change jobs. All of which combine to make him pretty useless, especially since his unique abilities aren't special enough to warrant putting him in a battle where I could use someone more flexible.

Experience gained works pretty much the same as FFT. AP (the FFTA equivalent of Job Points) are earned only at the end of a battle, and everyone involved in the battle gains the same, fixed amount. You can also do things in battle that earn Judge Points (thanks, Square, for changing the meaning of "JP"), which are used for combos (someone uses the Combo command to initiate a combo on an enemy, everyone else with a combo range that includes that enemy joins in, and the resulting damage is much more than the sum of their regular attacks) and totema (race-specific summons that hit the entire battlefield; the only requirements for a totema are that you've unlocked it and have 10 JP).

Sorry. I'll try to cut back on the parenthetical comments.

I mentioned Judge Points, which, by their name, imply the existence of judges. A big departure from FFT is the addition of laws. In any battle, there is a set of laws governing the engagement and a judge to enforce them. Each law has two parts; something that's forbidden and something that's recommended. There's tremendous variety in each: weapon types, abilities for a particular job, abilities from several different jobs, specific colored magic, any colored magic, any non-colored magic (e.g. time magic), anything that targets the whole battlefield, anything that targets an area, damage to a particular race, damage to animals, specific status ailments, any status ailments, specific elements, specific status enhancements, doing the same thing as the last unit that took a turn, and so on. If you do something that's recommended, you get one judge point. Killing someone also gains a JP, though each character can gain a maximum of one JP per turn. If you do something that's forbidden, the judge gives you a card. It's usually a yellow card, which is a warning, but if you've already gotten a yellow card or if it's a high-ranked law, you get a red card and the offending character is immediately removed from battle and sent to jail. In addition, breaking a law subjects the violator to a fine after the battle. Depending on the severity of the law, the fine could be anything from forgoing the monetary reward for that battle to a permanent reduction in one of the character's stats. At the beginning of the game, there's only one law per battle. As things progress, that number increases to three, which gets very annoying.

The gameplay is less linear than FFT's. You can go to a pub in any town and get a list of missions available. Some are dispatch missions, which work like the missions in FFT (except that character levels and abilities actually have bearing on their success this time around), while others are battle missions; you accept the mission, travel to the appropriate place, and fight whoever's there. Some of the missions advance the plot when completed; you do eventually get to the end of the game.

Which brings me to the plot. Anyone expecting a plot as intricate as FFT's will be disappointed. The basic premise is that kids from the modern world are suddenly transported into a magical world that appears to be based on a computer game some of them have played, named "Final Fantasy". The characterization isn't too bad, but some of the characters (most notably, the main character) are annoying. The main character, Marche, ends up bent on destroying the magical world so he can go home. Upon being confronted with arguments like, "I like it here, and if you destroy this world all of these people who are here will die," his response is, "This is all wrong and I want to go home." Fortunately, you'll spend much more time in battles than in worrying about the plot.

While the plot was my main complaint about the game, I have a number of issues with the game's interface. Many things have been carried over from FFT, and I felt that, by and large, the designers did a good job of compensating for the fact that the GBA has fewer controls than a Playstation controller. I did still occasionally miss the ability to rotate and tilt the map, but the designers did a good designing the maps so they didn't need to be moved around to see almost everything.

FFT also used the cells on the map grid to more effect than FFTA does. During many commands, FFT colored the squares under characters to indicate whether they were friend or foe. In FFTA, ally and enemy classes are colored slightly differently (so a friendly assassin looks a little different than an enemy one), but it's a subtle difference and take more time to learn. FFT also showed the area of effect of abilities. You'd pick an ability, it would show you the range of that ability, you picked a square as the target, it showed you the area that the ability would affect. In FFTA, you see the range, but when you pick a target it only shows you what units will be hit by the ability; you don't get to see the ability's full range. This is somewhat simplified by the fact that all area-effect abilities are a simple plus sign around the target square, but you still have to know the the ability is an area-effect one, which (as far as I could tell) cannot be learned except by trial and error. There were a couple of "Target Area Forbidden" laws I violated because I didn't actually realize that it was an area-targeting ability.

In general, the descriptions on a lot of abilities were lacking. In FFT, you could see the range, area, height tolerance, and elemental attributes of any ability (assuming they applied). FFTA shows almost none of those. Ranged weapons indicate their range, but spells and abilities don't. Nothing mentions area or height tolerance, and elements are only mentioned haphazardly. On at least one occasion, I violated a law forbidding a particular element because I didn't realize the ability had that element (the Illusionist ability Star Cross is Holy elemental; based on that, I suspect that Stardust is Dark elemental).

Both FFT and FFTA have the property that obstacles (buildings, trees, other people, etc.) can block missile weapons. (And arrows can be arced over some obstacles, but bullets cannot.) If something blocks the path in FFT, the game shows the success percentage as 0%. FFTA has no such luxury; the shot will still be blocked, but you can't tell that it will be.

Because of the nature of learning abilities and the fact that all action abilities are learned from weapons, I ended up with a lot of weapons. It took a significant amount of time to scroll through the entire list and finding particular weapons was somewhat daunting. (Though not too hard, really, thanks to automatic sorting of the list.) This is really a minor complaint, since there's really no way to avoid it and the interface does a good job of compensating.

Final stats. At the time I beat the game:

Note that the game continues after you beat it. You can save game clear data to your save game and things continue after that. I'm still working on this part, but there seems to be a little more plot and there are actually other characters that have joined my clan.

Overall, I'm very happy with the game. It works very well on a GBA and has provided me with many hours of gaming fun. I wish the plot had been better, if not as good as FFT, but it's a good game despite that.

Postscript: There's lots more that I'd like to mention, like the ability to change equipment, abilities, and jobs while placing people onto the battlefield; the fact that you can see the battlefield before placing people; the obtaining and placing of lands that works so much like Legend of Mana; and a bunch of other things that I wanted to put in, but this will do for now.

Inversions

Not surprisingly, Banks plays a bit with the form of the storytelling in Inversions. He tells the stories of two people in different kingdoms, alternating between them for each chapter. Not unique, to be sure, but not a simple, straightforward tale, either.

Honestly, I wasn't terribly impressed with this one. The story was average; not one I found immensely gripping. I did enjoy piecing together the surrounding world from things mentioned in passing by the characters, and figuring out things about Vosill and DeWar via the same methods, but there wasn't a whole lot of depth the the information derived thereby. Nor did I really feel the characters were all that interesting.

Banks has certainly written books I liked more. This was a decent read; not bad, certainly, but nothing special either.

Just a brief note or two below the spoiler barrier.

See more ...

Heroing

A completely run-of-the-mill fantasy story, Heroing probably isn't worth your time. I found it annoying to read and only finished it because I forgot to put anything better in my bag. Be warned that I'm not bothering to put a spoiler barrier in, simply because I don't care enough. You're not going to read this book, right?

Actually, some of the story is interesting in concept, like the Jiana/Jianabel split personality, but the execution is horrid. The characterization is particularly bad; I had a difficult time believing in any of the major characters, especially in the professed love between Jiana and Dida.

And the afterward reveals that the author had a pro-feminist goal for the book (which was published in 1987). Good books with political or social subtexts are fine--such things can enhance a well-written volume. Bad fiction written to advance a particular viewpoint is often among the worst writing around.

Mostly Bike-Related

Bikes are a popular way to get around, and should compliment public transportation. A recent Baltimore Sun article about Critical Mass has some rather discouraging comments about bike riding in Baltimore. Amy wrote a rather scorching response.

In other news, the Light Rail has reopened the segment between Camden Yards and Linthicum. The Convention Center stop (at least) still has posted notices saying that everything south of Camden Yards is closed. It also still displays a schedule from before the double tracking started.

Rusalka

C.J. Cherryh is a very good author. She writes very believable characters, and those in Rusalka are no exception. Each has his own reasons for his actions, and no one completely understands the others. In other words, standard Cherryh. :) I quite enjoyed the book, and the words describing the climax, especially, echoed in my head when I read them.

I'd certainly recommend this one to others for reading.

Perdido Street Station

While Perdido Street Station certainly falls under the broad-reaching umbrella of "speculative fiction", it's hard to pin it further than that. Like the city of New Crobuzon and many of its inhabitants, the book is a blend of several things; there are fantasy aspects and steampunk aspects and horror aspects and probably half a dozen other sub-sub-genres scattered throughout.

There are many good things about the book, but the most immediately obvious is Miéville's writing style. When he's being descriptive, his prose drips adjectives, each chosen for just the right shading of connotations. As I read, I could almost feel the sludge-filled river or the miasma of smoke above the industrial sector. And after I stopped reading, my mind would race along thought passageways, seeking to maintain the same dense, rapid flow of words to which it had become accustomed. Many scenes left me breathless with their coiled tension, the languor of subsequent events providing some relief.

The world in which New Crobuzon exists is well thought-out and very detailed. It's obvious that Miéville has put significant effort into fleshing things out. All of the parts hold together, which is important, because part of the enjoyment derives from exploring this whole other world, with cactus-people and insect-headed women and demons and causal-spinning spiders and well, you get the idea. Many of the details presented tie back into the story eventually, but plenty of things exist simply because they would be there in a complete world.

The story itself is good, as well. There are too many branches and joinings to describe succinctly; you'll have to read it yourself to learn of Lin and Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin and Too Too Abstract Individual Yagharek Not To Be Respected and everyone else.

In short, it's a well-written book with a beautiful, distinct writing style. Go read it.

An Ode to screen

Just a listing of the many ways that screen is indispensable to my way of using my computer.

The biggest thing is, of course, the fact that screen is detachable. Start screen, start a program, detach screen while in the middle of doing something, log out, login later, reattach, program is just as I left it. This works at a distance, too. I can leave my home and go elsewhere (work, friend's house, etc.) and be able to ssh to my home computer, reattach screen, and pick up exactly where I left off.

Second only to detachability is screen's multiplexing capability. A screen session can contain many different windows, each running a different program. This allows me to have an entire workspace within screen. I can have an editor in one window, working on some source code; a shell in another window, where I might be doing trial runs of the program; a web browser in a third window, which could be looking at some documentation; and so on. My normal screen setup has 15 windows, which I use for various purposes.

I can specify what programs to run from screen's config file. So when I start screen, my default workspace is already seeded with all the programs I use regularly (text editor, IRC client, web browser, mail client, etc.). I use this capability just to start some programs that I never even interact with, for example SETI@Home. Running it within screen ensures that it's running at all times (I always have a screen session running) and only one instance is ever running (I do everything within one screen session).

I can attach to the same session multiple times. So my customary graphical workspace is three xterms, all attached to the same screen session. This gives me more visual real estate, while allowing me to be very flexible. The windows displayed by each of the xterms change depending on what I'm doing at the moment.

Screen understands several different character encodings. I run all of my programs in UTF-8 mode. When I'm attached to my local xterms, screen passes the UTF-8 characters straight through, because the xterms can handle it. On friends' computers, screen translates the UTF-8 into ISO-8859-1, showing all the characters it can and filling in question marks for those it can't. Likewise for my serial terminal, which uses a CP437 charset. (I'll admit that that last took some work on my part.)

I can also input most Unicode characters via screen's digraph support. Press the right escape characters, enter an RFC1345 digraph, and whatever program I'm currently using gets a UTF-8 character. (This also took a little work--I had to patch screen to get digraph support for non-ISO-8859-1 characters.)

Screen keeps a separate scrollback buffer for each window. I have it set to keep a very large number of lines, which has come in useful on several occasions, especially since you can search through the scrollback buffer. ("What was the exact output of that command?" ::search:: "Ah, that was it.")

I've used screen's monitoring capabilities a lot. It can watch a particular window and notify you when there's new activity ("Oh, something happened in that log file.") or when it's been silent for a time ("Oh, that long-running compile is done.")

Screen supports having a caption line across the bottom of the screen. I use it to give me an omnipresent clock, as well as showing me info on the current window. The capability also exists to run arbitrary programs and put their output in the caption. On my laptop, I do this with information on the current state of its battery.

Instances of screen can be password protected, to prevent others from getting at your programs. I find this feature useful when using screen in a semi-public area where I might need to leave the computer for a time.

There are some features that, while not mind-blowing, are just nice to have around. Normally, when the last program in a window exits the window closes. With zombie control, the window remains, and you can restart the program with a single keypress. Very useful for windows dedicated to particular programs.

While I don't use it regularly, screen's multiuser support has been useful on a couple of occasions. When doing some collaborative programming, I created a single, multiuser screen session, and all of us connected to it. It proved very useful for sharing information among the group of people. ("Just go over to window 7, where I'll show you how feature X works...")

There are, of course, plenty of other useful aspects to screen. These are just the ones that I rely on or have found myself relying on. I encourage anyone who uses a command line regularly to give screen a try.

For further information:

August Mail Stats

(A couple of days of September snuck in, due to a cronjob that didn't trigger.)

Folder delivery:

  Total  Number Folder
  -----  ------ ------
10439575    1153 /dev/null
2402886     701 lists/void
5764083     621 spam
2883185     588 lists/otakon-staff
2379299     541 lists/baltwash-burning
2266470     385 lists/bugtraq
2427716     228 /home/phil/mail/inbox
 799786     215 lists/umbclinux

Spamassassin (was not collecting data for the full month, so the count is low):

spam:
Cnt: 1572
Max: 46.9
Avg: 13.3732188295165
Dev: 6.59919668513267

The bayesian rules in SpamAssassin kicked in midmonth. Before that, the average score was running just under 12. Should be even higher next month, with bayesian for the full time period.

UTF-8 Test

For aggregators (and we'll put some in the first sentence for summary-only ones: UTF-8(äéîøùñÞÐ∰ち) XML(äéîøùñÞÐ∰ち)).

          .0 .1 .2 .3 .4 .5 .6 .7 .8 .9 .A .B .C .D .E .F
     160.  ᘀ  ᘁ  ᘂ  ᘃ  ᘄ  ᘅ  ᘆ  ᘇ  ᘈ  ᘉ  ᘊ  ᘋ  ᘌ  ᘍ  ᘎ  ᘏ 
     161.  ᘐ  ᘑ  ᘒ  ᘓ  ᘔ  ᘕ  ᘖ  ᘗ  ᘘ  ᘙ  ᘚ  ᘛ  ᘜ  ᘝ  ᘞ  ᘟ 
     162.  ᘠ  ᘡ  ᘢ  ᘣ  ᘤ  ᘥ  ᘦ  ᘧ  ᘨ  ᘩ  ᘪ  ᘫ  ᘬ  ᘭ  ᘮ  ᘯ 
     163.  ᘰ  ᘱ  ᘲ  ᘳ  ᘴ  ᘵ  ᘶ  ᘷ  ᘸ  ᘹ  ᘺ  ᘻ  ᘼ  ᘽ  ᘾ  ᘿ 
     164.  ᙀ  ᙁ  ᙂ  ᙃ  ᙄ  ᙅ  ᙆ  ᙇ  ᙈ  ᙉ  ᙊ  ᙋ  ᙌ  ᙍ  ᙎ  ᙏ 
     165.  ᙐ  ᙑ  ᙒ  ᙓ  ᙔ  ᙕ  ᙖ  ᙗ  ᙘ  ᙙ  ᙚ  ᙛ  ᙜ  ᙝ  ᙞ  ᙟ 
     166.  ᙠ  ᙡ  ᙢ  ᙣ  ᙤ  ᙥ  ᙦ  ᙧ  ᙨ  ᙩ  ᙪ  ᙫ  ᙬ  ᙭  ᙮  ᙯ 
     167.  ᙰ  ᙱ  ᙲ  ᙳ  ᙴ  ᙵ  ᙶ  ᙷ  ᙸ  ᙹ  ᙺ  ᙻ  ᙼ  ᙽ  ᙾ  ᙿ 
     168.     ᚁ  ᚂ  ᚃ  ᚄ  ᚅ  ᚆ  ᚇ  ᚈ  ᚉ  ᚊ  ᚋ  ᚌ  ᚍ  ᚎ  ᚏ 
     169.  ᚐ  ᚑ  ᚒ  ᚓ  ᚔ  ᚕ  ᚖ  ᚗ  ᚘ  ᚙ  ᚚ  ᚛  ᚜  ᚝  ᚞  ᚟ 
     16A.  ᚠ  ᚡ  ᚢ  ᚣ  ᚤ  ᚥ  ᚦ  ᚧ  ᚨ  ᚩ  ᚪ  ᚫ  ᚬ  ᚭ  ᚮ  ᚯ 
     16B.  ᚰ  ᚱ  ᚲ  ᚳ  ᚴ  ᚵ  ᚶ  ᚷ  ᚸ  ᚹ  ᚺ  ᚻ  ᚼ  ᚽ  ᚾ  ᚿ 
     16C.  ᛀ  ᛁ  ᛂ  ᛃ  ᛄ  ᛅ  ᛆ  ᛇ  ᛈ  ᛉ  ᛊ  ᛋ  ᛌ  ᛍ  ᛎ  ᛏ 
     16D.  ᛐ  ᛑ  ᛒ  ᛓ  ᛔ  ᛕ  ᛖ  ᛗ  ᛘ  ᛙ  ᛚ  ᛛ  ᛜ  ᛝ  ᛞ  ᛟ 
     16E.  ᛠ  ᛡ  ᛢ  ᛣ  ᛤ  ᛥ  ᛦ  ᛧ  ᛨ  ᛩ  ᛪ  ᛫  ᛬  ᛭  ᛮ  ᛯ 
     16F.  ᛰ  ᛱ  ᛲ  ᛳ  ᛴ  ᛵ  ᛶ  ᛷ  ᛸ  ᛹  ᛺  ᛻  ᛼  ᛽  ᛾  ᛿ 
          .0 .1 .2 .3 .4 .5 .6 .7 .8 .9 .A .B .C .D .E .F
     220.  ∀  ∁  ∂  ∃  ∄  ∅  ∆  ∇  ∈  ∉  ∊  ∋  ∌  ∍  ∎  ∏ 
     221.  ∐  ∑  −  ∓  ∔  ∕  ∖  ∗  ∘  ∙  √  ∛  ∜  ∝  ∞  ∟ 
     222.  ∠  ∡  ∢  ∣  ∤  ∥  ∦  ∧  ∨  ∩  ∪  ∫  ∬  ∭  ∮  ∯ 
     223.  ∰  ∱  ∲  ∳  ∴  ∵  ∶  ∷  ∸  ∹  ∺  ∻  ∼  ∽  ∾  ∿ 
     224.  ≀  ≁  ≂  ≃  ≄  ≅  ≆  ≇  ≈  ≉  ≊  ≋  ≌  ≍  ≎  ≏ 
     225.  ≐  ≑  ≒  ≓  ≔  ≕  ≖  ≗  ≘  ≙  ≚  ≛  ≜  ≝  ≞  ≟ 
     226.  ≠  ≡  ≢  ≣  ≤  ≥  ≦  ≧  ≨  ≩  ≪  ≫  ≬  ≭  ≮  ≯ 
     227.  ≰  ≱  ≲  ≳  ≴  ≵  ≶  ≷  ≸  ≹  ≺  ≻  ≼  ≽  ≾  ≿ 
     228.  ⊀  ⊁  ⊂  ⊃  ⊄  ⊅  ⊆  ⊇  ⊈  ⊉  ⊊  ⊋  ⊌  ⊍  ⊎  ⊏ 
     229.  ⊐  ⊑  ⊒  ⊓  ⊔  ⊕  ⊖  ⊗  ⊘  ⊙  ⊚  ⊛  ⊜  ⊝  ⊞  ⊟ 
     22A.  ⊠  ⊡  ⊢  ⊣  ⊤  ⊥  ⊦  ⊧  ⊨  ⊩  ⊪  ⊫  ⊬  ⊭  ⊮  ⊯ 
     22B.  ⊰  ⊱  ⊲  ⊳  ⊴  ⊵  ⊶  ⊷  ⊸  ⊹  ⊺  ⊻  ⊼  ⊽  ⊾  ⊿ 
     22C.  ⋀  ⋁  ⋂  ⋃  ⋄  ⋅  ⋆  ⋇  ⋈  ⋉  ⋊  ⋋  ⋌  ⋍  ⋎  ⋏ 
     22D.  ⋐  ⋑  ⋒  ⋓  ⋔  ⋕  ⋖  ⋗  ⋘  ⋙  ⋚  ⋛  ⋜  ⋝  ⋞  ⋟ 
     22E.  ⋠  ⋡  ⋢  ⋣  ⋤  ⋥  ⋦  ⋧  ⋨  ⋩  ⋪  ⋫  ⋬  ⋭  ⋮  ⋯ 
     22F.  ⋰  ⋱  ⋲  ⋳  ⋴  ⋵  ⋶  ⋷  ⋸  ⋹  ⋺  ⋻  ⋼  ⋽  ⋾  ⋿ 
          .0 .1 .2 .3 .4 .5 .6 .7 .8 .9 .A .B .C .D .E .F
     300.     、  。  〃  〄  々  〆  〇  〈  〉  《  》  「  」  『  』 
     301.  【  】  〒  〓  〔  〕  〖  〗  〘  〙  〚  〛  〜  〝  〞  〟 
     302.  〠  〡  〢  〣  〤  〥  〦  〧  〨  〩   〪   〫   〬   〭   〮   〯 
     303.  〰  〱  〲  〳  〴  〵  〶  〷  〸  〹  〺  〻  〼  〽  〾  〿 
     304.  ぀  ぁ  あ  ぃ  い  ぅ  う  ぇ  え  ぉ  お  か  が  き  ぎ  く 
     305.  ぐ  け  げ  こ  ご  さ  ざ  し  じ  す  ず  せ  ぜ  そ  ぞ  た 
     306.  だ  ち  ぢ  っ  つ  づ  て  で  と  ど  な  に  ぬ  ね  の  は 
     307.  ば  ぱ  ひ  び  ぴ  ふ  ぶ  ぷ  へ  べ  ぺ  ほ  ぼ  ぽ  ま  み 
     308.  む  め  も  ゃ  や  ゅ  ゆ  ょ  よ  ら  り  る  れ  ろ  ゎ  わ 
     309.  ゐ  ゑ  を  ん  ゔ  ゕ  ゖ  ゗  ゘   ゙   ゚  ゛  ゜  ゝ  ゞ  ゟ 
     30A.  ゠  ァ  ア  ィ  イ  ゥ  ウ  ェ  エ  ォ  オ  カ  ガ  キ  ギ  ク 
     30B.  グ  ケ  ゲ  コ  ゴ  サ  ザ  シ  ジ  ス  ズ  セ  ゼ  ソ  ゾ  タ 
     30C.  ダ  チ  ヂ  ッ  ツ  ヅ  テ  デ  ト  ド  ナ  ニ  ヌ  ネ  ノ  ハ 
     30D.  バ  パ  ヒ  ビ  ピ  フ  ブ  プ  ヘ  ベ  ペ  ホ  ボ  ポ  マ  ミ 
     30E.  ム  メ  モ  ャ  ヤ  ュ  ユ  ョ  ヨ  ラ  リ  ル  レ  ロ  ヮ  ワ 
     30F.  ヰ  ヱ  ヲ  ン  ヴ  ヵ  ヶ  ヷ  ヸ  ヹ  ヺ  ・  ー  ヽ  ヾ  ヿ 

Skillchains

There are so many descriptions of skillchains in Final Fantasy XI, and none of them really made sense to me for the longest time. Through the help of a skillchain discussion and two skillchain charts, I finally made sense of it all. This is an explanation of that understanding; hopefully others will benefit from it.

Skillchains are the result of doing weapon skills in a particular order, with precise timing. They unleash a significant amount of additional damage. [There appear to be rough calculations on how much, but I can't find reliable numbers.] There are three levels of skillchains--the higher levels do more damage. Every skillchain has at least one elemental component--if a mage casts an elementally-appropriate spell at the same time that the skillchain occurs, you also get a magic burst for more additional damage.

Level 1 Skillchains Let's start with level 1 skillchains. There are eight types of level 1 skillchains: Transfixion, Liquefaction, Impaction, Detonation, Compression, Scission, Reverberation, and Induration. I don't beleve that there's anything inherent in most of those names; they're just what they're called. Almost every weaponskill has at least one of those types as an attribute. There are certain pairings of attributes that will create a skillchain. See the chart at right for a graphical layout. From that chart, you can see that, for example, Impaction leads to Liquefaction. Thus, you can create a level one skillchain by chaining together, say, Flat Blade and Burning Blade, in that order. The skillchain created is named after the attributes of the final weaponskill, so this example would make a Liquefaction skillchain.

The items in the graph are also color coded to indicate their elemental attributes: Transfixion is Light, Liquefaction is Fire, Impaction is Lightning, Detonation is Wind, Compression is Dark, Scission is Earth, Reverberation is Water, and Induration is Ice. The above example is Liquefaction, so you could magic burst with any Fire spell.

Finally, some weaponskills have multiple skillchain attributes. For each skill there's an order of priority. An example is Spinning Axe, which has, in order, Liquefaction, Scission, and Impaction. If you have two weaponskills with multiple attributes, the first skillchain's priorities are more important. Let's chain Spinning Axe with Shadow of Death, which is Induration and Reverberation. The first priorities of each weaponskill are checked first, but there's no Liquefaction -> Induration skillchain. So the game goes down the list of the second weaponskill, trying Liquefaction -> Reverberation. Nothing. Now it goes to Scission on Spinning Axe and starts over with Shadow of Death, checking Induration. There are no Scission -> Induration chains, so it next checks Scission -> Reverberation. That is valid, so the two will form a Reverberation skillchain.

Skillchains themselves can be chained. You can go Scission -> Reverberation -> Induration, which will make a Reverberation skillchain followed by an Induration skillchain. When you do this, the damage multipliers are higher; the Induration skillchain would do more damage than if it had been created separately.

That covers level 1 skillchains, and is really most of the hard stuff. Now we go on to level 2.

Level 2 Skillchains Level 2 skillchains are more powerful than level 1 skillchains. In addition, each level 2 skillchain has two elemental attributes; you can magic burst with either of those elements. The level 2 skillchains are: Distortion (Water and Ice), Fusion (Fire and Light), Fragmentation (Lightning and Wind), and Gravitation (Darkness and Earth). You can see the paths to make level 2 skillchains in the graph on the right. Since the graph is not entirely clear, let me clarify a bit. Certain combinations of level 1 skillchain attributes will make a level 2 skillchain: Liquefaction -> Impaction creates a Fusion skillchain. Also, some of the highest-level weaponskills have level 2 attributes; Swift Blade, for example, has Gravitation. You can put together level 2 attribute to make a level 2 skillchain in a manner analogous to the level 1 skillchains. Fusion -> Gravitation will make a Gravitation skillchain.

As with the level 1s, you can hook together multiple level 2 skillchains. You can do things like Liquefaction -> Impaction -> Gravitation, which will make a Fusion skillchain followed by a Gravitation skillchain.

Level 3 Skillchains Finally, there are the level 3 skillchains. There are only two of these, and each has four elemental attributes. Light skillchains are Light, Fire, Lightning, and Wind, while Dark skillchains are Darkness, Earth, Water, and Ice. Level 3 skillchains can only be made by putting together two level 2 attributes, as illustrated by the chart on the right. Note that these are essentially pairings; the same two level 2 attributes will give the same results regardless of the order in which they are executed. Since at least one of the weaponskills in a level 3 skillchain must have a level 2 attribute, these are restricted to the highest-level characters in the game. The earliest that these weaponskills come available is at level 65, and some classes don't get them until 67 or so.

The usual rules of chaining apply; you can make, for example, a light skillchain with the sequence Liquefaction -> Impaction -> Fragmentation, which will first make a Fusion skillchain followed by a Dark skillchain.

Insofar as anyone knows, there are no level 4 skillchains. Following the logic from lower levels, there would only be one level 4 skillchain, and it would have all elemental attributes. It would be made by putting together a Dark type and a Light type weaponskill (possibly in the other order). It would require weaponskills that had Dark and Light type attributes, which none seem to. In short, not only do they not exist, as far as anyone can tell, they cannot exist in the game as it currently is.

For your edification, here's a full chart of the links to form the various skillchains:

All Skillchains

I don't know of any complete, up-to-date list in English of weapon skills and their skillchain attributes.

"Too much free time."

I get annoyed by the phrase "too much free time". People use it when they see something that they deem to be useless and a waste of time--certainly nothing they'd do in their spare time, oh no.

It bothers me because it's effectively one person telling another that that person's work is a waste of time, with overtones of dictating how they should spend their free time. Generally, the things that people do in their spare time are things they find worthwhile or at least interesting. If you don't like what someone else is doing, go do something useful yourself, but don't complain about them wasting their own time.

AMC Owings Mills 17

This is the current name of the movie theater located at the Owings Mills Town Center (also known as simply "Owings Mills Mall").

In December of 2001, I went to see Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring at this theater for a 12:01 am showing on opening day. While things went well for most of the movie, one reel near the end of the film was played with the audio extremely desynced from the video. After several minutes of this, the theater stopped the film, fixed it, and played it to the end. They offered vouchers for a free movie at the theater to everyone at the showing.

In December of 2003, I went to see Lord of the Rings: Return of the King at the same theater, also for a 12:01 am showing on opening day. Approximately an hour after it started, the film began displaying images upside down and running backwards; presumably a reel had been threaded in backwards. When the problem persisted for more than a minute, a friend left the theater in search of someone to notify of the problem. He found no one but a security guard. Several minutes after that, the film was stopped. About a minute later, a manager entered and apologized for the problem, stating that we would all receive vouchers for a free movie as we left.

Five or ten minutes later the manager returned and asked everyone to leave so they could hand out the vouchers. Several people objected, desiring to finish seeing the movie. After a minute or so, he returned, saying that they would be about twenty minutes in restoring the film, but they would do so for anyone who wanted to remain. Most people remained and at 2:08, the movie resumed. (I believe it stopped sometime between 1:00 and 1:15, but I'm not sure of that time.)

That alone is enough of a problem, but the women next to me in the line out said that they'd had problems in 2002 when seeing Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers at that theater. I didn't get details on what had happened.

I will probably not return to that theater, except to use the voucher. I will certainly not spend any more money there, nor can I recommend that anyone else do so.

Icons

Yep, get 'em all out of the way in one common place.

I hope that's all clear now.

Quicksilver

Quicksilver is probably one of the dullest books I've read in some time. I can see that it might be interesting to someone with a deep interest in European history of the late 17th century, but perhaps not even then.

Quicksilver is the first book in Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, a trilogy of historical fiction novels covering European history of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, focusing specifically on the political maneuverings of the time and the development of science as we know it today. It involves such people as Isaac Newton, Gottfried Liebnitz, Robert Hooke, Charles II, Louis XIV, and William of Orange. The main characters are, however, completely fictional: Daniel Waterhouse, Jack Shaftoe, and Eliza. (Readers of Cryptonomicon may notice the reuse of family names. Also reappearing are Enoch Root and Qwghlm.)

As I mentioned above, I found the pace of the book to be exceedingly dull, despite the fact that I actually have an interest in the history of science in that period. (And no such interest in that period's politics, so the science was merely dull, while the politics were excruciatingly dull.) That's really my biggest complaint. I do feel that the book could have been more interesting if it had been edited down a lot.

Still, I did gain some things from the book. For one, I have a lot clearer picture of the history of the area (and, as far as my research can tell, the history in Quicksilver is quite accurate). But I can't really bring myself to recommend it to anyone other than raving history fans. Almost everyone I know found the book very tedious, and most never managed to finish it.

Steganography and the ending below the spoiler line.

See more ...

The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages

Oracle of Ages is one of a pair of Game Boy Color games. The other is Oracle of Seasons; each can be the sequel to the other, depending on which you play first. I started with Oracle of Ages, finished it, and got a password to enter into Oracle of Seasons. When I did so, I got a continuation of the story as the introduction to Oracle of Seasons. Apparently, there will be several points where people will give me passwords to transfer back and forth between the games, to synchronize my actions between the two. It's an interesting system.

Gameplay-wise, Oracle of Ages is much like the other Zelda games I've played (Zeldas I, II, and III). From what I've read, it has more in common with the N64 Zelda games, in terms of puzzle solving and so on, while Oracle of Seasons is more old-school. I suppose I'll see.

There were a lot of puzzles to solve, and a number of the bosses were more puzzle-based than skill-based. Many were of the "hit it with a sword and don't get hit yourself" variety, though.

One big complaint I had was that the format of the game didn't really lend itself well to the Game Boy format, mostly with respect to saving. Saving worked like the console Zelda games I've played--if you save within a dungeon, when you restore, you start back at the beginning of the dungeon. Actually, it was worse than other games, because if you saved in the overworld, when you restored you'd be back at whatever point you entered the overworld, which could suck if you'd spent some time working to a particular area. The specific reason that this is bad is that the Game Boy is a portable system--there are many cases where you might need to save and exit it quickly. I play primarily on the bus and train, and I have to stop when it gets to my stop. That sometimes meant losing some of the progress I'd made.

Oracle of Ages also contained my first real exposure to Zelda's trading games. My roommate informs me that they've been doing this a lot in more recent games, but I don't remember much along those lines from the earlier games. In order to get the Master Sword, you have to run all over the world trading key items for other key items in sometimes bizarre ways. Get old mail from someone or other. Give the mail to someone in the toilet and receive a stinky bag. Give stinky bag to someone with a stuffy nose and get something else. And so on. I did have to resort to a FAQ for a couple of the trades, sadly.

So it was a reasonably fun game, but with parts that marred the experience, especially on a Game Boy.

The Return of the King

So, yeah. Being the giant Tolkien fanboy I am, I went to see the third Lord of the Rings movie at 12:01 am on opening night. Despite some setbacks, I did manage to see the whole movie.

It rocked.

In my eyes, at least, Peter Jackson has redeemed himself for all the changes he made to The Two Towers. (I'd link to my thoughts on that movie, but they got deleted by accident and no one had a cache of them.) The plot details were all right and beautifully executed. Almost all of the stuff I wanted to see was in there: the Balttle of the Pelennor Fields, the Paths of the Dead, Shelob, Mount Doom (duh), and so on.

I'll discuss some details below the spoiler barrier.

See more ...

The case of the 500-mile email

One of my favorite networking tales is The case of the 500-mile email, now happily ensconced at ibiblio.org.

The Fifth Elephant

allconsuming link

Yet another Terry Pratchett book. Specifically, another City Watch book, though much of this one takes place in Überwald. No witches are visible, though there are plenty of werewolves, dwarves, vampires, and Igors.

There is, as usual, a good story. Being a City Watch book, it's largely a detective story, with the details swirling around the coronation of a new dwarven king, a very revered piece of dwarf bread, and the politics of the region, including the involvement of Sergeant Angua's parents. And, of course, plenty of very funny bits; Pratchett has a tendency to make me laugh out loud while on the bus.

I had worried that Terry Pratchett was losing his plain humor in being overly satirical, but The Fifth Elephant is merely a funny, well-told story with satirical elements running through some of the details. (Well, "politics" is a pretty big detail, but still...)

Yet another Terry Pratchett book I'm happy to add to my collection.

Book-Related Websites

I was doing a bit of browsing today and ran across several websites that I figured I'd record for later reference.

Princess Prince

Very amusing shoujo manga. In the kingdom of Gemstone, the king is father to twins: a princess and a prince. Prince Matthew is every inch the bishounen and all the girls adore him. Princess Lori is actually Prince Lawrence, but has been raised as a girl due to a prophecy made at the twins' birth.

Princess Lori and another girl have fallen for each other, but she doesn't know the Princess's true nature. And Brandon Walsh, a thief sent to the kingdom, has decided that Prince Matthew is really a girl and has fallen for him.

Naturally, many complications develop, and the book is a very entertaining read.

September Mail Stats

Folder delivery:

   Total  Number Folder
   -----  ------ ------
17882995    1913 /dev/null
12268067     810 spam
 2217635     641 lists/void
 2406290     526 lists/baltwash-burning
 2414109     446 lists/otakon-staff
 2676164     428 lists/bugtraq
  383989     391 cronjobs
 1317429     370 lists/mutt-users
 1469172     334 lists/burningass
 4234167     228 /home/phil/mail/inbox

High cronjob count was because of a couple of power outages that left some hosts running, but without nameservice. Thus, the uptimes project client that runs every eight minutes left error messages complaining about not being able to resolve hostnames.

spam:
Cnt: 2536
Max: 46.1
Avg: 14.0206230283912
Dev: 6.2294772771236

Burning Man

I'm now off to Burning Man, for what will be my first visit to the desert. (Note to potential burglars: the martial artists are still in residence.) will see everyone when I return.

Odds and Ends

I was googling around the other day and came across this bus rider's guide. It's got a lot of useful information in it, especially for people who aren't familiar with transit systems.

The same session also netted me a set of good practices for transit web site design. Guess who falls flat on almost all of them?

The MTA's been rumbling about implementing a fare system called SmarTrip, which, I gather, is to be similar to the system DC has, where you pay varying amounts of money for the distance you travel and the services you use. The MTA's website now links to http://www.marylandsmartrip.com/, which is a completely useless website where almost every page is blank, save for the sitewide dressing and an "under construction" graphic. Completely aside from the fact that it's not 1995 any more, perhaps they should have held off on putting the site up until they could be useful with it?

Power Problems at Simplex

For about the last week, Simplex has been plagued by electricity problems. Which is why I'd been off the 'Net for a while and why aperiodic.net was unreachable for that period of time. In the interests of archival, here's the timeline:

Wednesday, Jan 28th, night

I'm playing Simpsons Hit and Run with Leah when the power flickers. The UPS with a bad battery just barely manages to keep the computer and PlayStation 2 alive. I learn the hard way that you can't save in the middle of a mission, right before the power cuts out entirely and the game goes bye-bye. We figure it's an area problem and that BGE will fix it. The power continues to flicker on and off throughout the night, so we just shut off all of the computers.

Thursday night

The problems persist. We realize that everyone else seem to be doing okay, so I resolve to call the leasing office in the morning.

Friday morning

The power is mostly on, but keeps flickering off and back on. I call the leasing office after I get to work. They haven't heard from anyone else, so it's probably just us. They promise to send out someone to look at it.

Friday late afternoon

A maintenance person goes to the townhouse. Ray is home at the time. Naturally, the power works while the maintenance person is there. He's got other calls, so promises to return on Saturday and look more closely.

Friday evening

I get home and note that the electricity is still having problems. Ray's already left, so I don't know about the visit from the maintenance person. I call the emergency service number and leave a message. When I don't get a response, I call BGE. They have an automated menu system that works me though the symptoms that I'm seeing. It ultimately tells me that this sort of thing is usually internal to the house and not something they can fix. It offers to set up a service call, but warns that if the technician determines that the problem is not something BGE can fix they will charge me $80. I call the leasing office again.

Friday, about 11:00pm

The power flickers off and back on again for what will be the last time that night.

Friday night

The maintenance person calls back. I talk with him for a while, giving him some more background on what sorts of things are happening. He says he has a pretty good idea of what's going wrong and will be in first thing on Saturday morning.

Saturday late morning

The maintenance person arrives, looks at the circuit breaker panel, and says he has to leave again. I'm left with the impression that he'll return; Ray is left with the impression that he won't. Regardless, he doesn't. Power works all day.

Sunday night

Power problems manifest again.

Monday morning

I call the leasing office to report the continuance of the problems. They say someone will be out to look at it.

Monday evening

I return home to find that someone came, more or less just looked at things, and left. Ray was home at the time and was told that they'd get someone more knowledgeable out there.

Tuesday, 3:30pm

I call the leasing office to see how things are going. I'm told that an electrician has been called, but has not yet responded.

Tuesday evening

I get home to find that no one has yet been in.

Wednesday, early afternoon

I call the leasing office again to see if they've actually done anything. I'm told that the electrician is currently in the townhouse.

Wednesday, late afternoon

The leasing agent calls back to say that the electrician had been in. Naturally, the electricity did not misbehave while he was there. Going on what he'd been told about the problem, he rewired several of the circuit breakers.

Wednesday evening

I get home, verify that the power seems to have been working continuously, and power up all of my computers. It has now been a week since we first started having problems.

Lucifer's Hammer

Put very simply, Lucifer's Hammer is a book about a comet hitting Earth. The book takes 640 pages to do this; there's a lot of detail to the story. The first couple hundred pages are all pre-comet and set the stage, introducing all of the characters. (There's a dramatis personae at the beginning of the book; I found myself referring to it frequently to see which characters were which.) The strike itself occupies about another hundred pages, with the balance of the book dealing with the aftermath.

As might be inferred from the spacing of events, the book proceeds at a somewhat slow pace, ramping up so gradually that I didn't notice the tensions in some scenes until I had to put the book down and realized that I was nearly breathless wondering what would happen. The aftermath is where the meat of the conflicts occur, but the preceding half of the book is pretty necessary to lay the groundwork for later developments.

The science in the book is also good. Niven and Pournelle spent a lot of time working out the details of a comet strike such as the one presented in the book, and it shows; the science is very thorough and believable. This was somewhat surprising given how long ago the book was written: 1977. Much other SF from that far back tends to be very dated, a fate Lucifer's Hammer seems to have escaped, for the most part.

There were some instances where I was reminded that the book was taking place three decades ago. Racial tensions in the book are a lot higher; while the civil rights movement had succeeded, many people still weren't accustomed to it, and a couple of the black characters have to deal with some uncomfortable situations. The technology isn't as good as that which we have today; while I can't remember any specific examples, there were some things that I noted would have been different if the story had taken place in our present. And someone makes reference to NASA's perfect record of not having any deaths during their missions, a record that, sadly, has been broken a few times since then.

All in all, it's a very good book, especially for fans of either SF or disaster stories.

Postscript: The copy I read was one I got from a used book store. It's the third printing of the Ballantine Books paperback edition, printed in 1985. The inside cover has the following written on it:

Dec. 21st, 1990

To: Mr. Senior
After I saw that film on meteors I remembered this book. You can look it over during the holidays.

Best Wishes,
Bob Vandervoort

I haven't found any more information about who the people named are.

The Route of the 31

Herein is contained a very oblique sort of rant, and it's boring too. Just skip over this entry. You'll feel better about yourself.

The MTA runs a number of bus routes. Each one is numbered. I regularly ride the 31.

The 31 runs from Penn Station to Halethorpe. It goes down Cathedral Street, proceeds from there to Lombard Street, to Wilkens Avenue, runs along Maiden Choice Lane, through UMBC, and along a couple of other streets to its destination. Oh, except that it doesn't always go through UMBC. Sometimes it just goes past it. Oh, and sometimes it takes Leeds Avenue instead of Maiden Choice; this also skips UMBC. The buses do have signs that indicate which way they're going, except that they rarely mention whether or not they're going through UMBC; you get to guess. And half the time, the signs are broken or so dim that they can't be read.

And did I say that the buses went to Halethorpe? Well, sometimes. Sometimes they go to Halethorpe Industrial Park, which is the same route, but goes a little further. And sometimes they go to Beltway Business Park, and sometimes they just stop at UMBC and turn around there. Mostly, this is indicated on the sign. But when they go to Beltway Business Park, sometimes they turn onto Sulphur Spring Road and sometimes they head through Halethorpe and up Washington Boulevard. The signs give no indication which of those it is.

So, the bus signs could say: "31: (UMBC|Halethorpe|Halethorpe Industrial Park|Beltway Business Park) via (UMBC|Maiden Choice|Leeds)" and they still leave out information.

Oh, and the schedules? They indicate which subroute is being used by leaving out times. Not going through UMBC? No time in that column. The bus that goes to Beltway Business Park via Leeds and Sulphur Spring has a schedule that reads: "[5 columns] <time> - - - - <time>" Yeah, all those blanks are really useful for the people catching the bus in the middle there.

And there's stuff I don't understand after over a year and a half riding the bus. I don't know what to make of the one line that has a time for UMBC, but not for Leeds and Maiden Choice. There are footnotes on some of the lines. "A - Via Goodwill" There's one line with that footnote, and it skips every column between Wilkens & Caton and Beltway Business Park. If you're on that route, better hope you catch that one bus. "F - Via DeSoto Road" Goes that way southbound in the early morning and northbound during the mid-afternoon. I don't know why. "C - Cathedral & Franklin" "D - Charles & Saratoga" Apparently, sometimes the bus doesn't go all the way to/from Penn Station. Again, I don't know why.

So that's the simple approach adopted by the MTA. I regularly see people confused by the plethora of meanderings that the buses can take, and I can't really blame them. I don't have a useful alternative, and I can only assume that there are reasons for the current setup, but neither of those stops the status quo from being just the tiniest bit sucky.

Kingdom Hearts

I approached this game with some trepidation, for as much as I like Square, I hate Disney. (I won't go into deep reasons for either of those here. Suffice that the feelings exist.) As such, I refused to buy it, because money would make its way from that sale to Disney. I ended up playing a copy owned by a friend of a friend.

Said playing only annoyed me further, because it's a good game. Square made a good game, and Disney did its best with its characters. So we went and visited Halloween Town and Hundred Acre Wood and many other places where the lands and characters were exactly as Disney had made them. (For good or ill; Pooh was as lovable as he has been with Disney, and Tarzan was as annoying as Disney has made him.)

There are plenty of side quests in addition to the main events. You can search out all 101 dalmations, lost among the various worlds; find all of the (often hidden) trinity points to gain treasures and unique items; fight wave after wave of enemies in the Coliseum; spend time building a spaceship to fly around in (which is solely for fun--there's no bearing this has on anything else in the game); and several other things I can't think of right now.

The plot is decent. Honestly, it's nothing really extraordinary, but it was interesting and I've seen much worse.

And then there's Donald and Goofy. You play Sora, a young boy who lost his friends when his world vanished. You have to have Goofy and Donald with you as you travel around. These two are some of the most annoying traveling companions I've run across. Of the pair, Goofy's actually the intelligent one, which doesn't stop Donald from shooting his mouth off every chance he gets. And they're largely useless in battle. They tend to flail away at enemies, doing useless amounts of damage until Sora walks over to actually kill the thing. Donald likes to cast magic spells, occasionally to useful effect. And if you ever want to get rid of any items, like potions or megalixirs, just give them to Donald. Apparently, to his AI, "only use items in an emergency" means "please use up all of your items as quickly as possible".

One of my favorite sounds is the "wawawawawa" sound Donald makes when an enemy hits him.

So there's a lot of good stuff about this game, and it's a worthwhile one to play. But, even aside from my dislike of Disney, I wouldn't go out of my way to get it. Borrow it from a friend or wait a while and pick it up from some store's used games bin.

MTA Proposes Route Changes

I recently discovered that the MTA is considering shortening several of its bus routes, including that of the 31, the one I use most often. Unfortunately, I didn't hear about it via the MTA's email announcement system, nor is it listed anywhere on their web site that I can find. I read about it in an article in the Baltimore Sun.

For the 31, they're planning to eliminate the portion of the route that runs between the Inner Harbor and Penn Station. I have an issue with this because I use that portion. I do things at night along Charles Street (which is one of the city's more active regions). Having a single bus to catch only a block away from my location is something I consider a good thing. Without the 31 running through there, I would have to catch a different bus down to the Inner Harbor (and have to worry about inter-bus timing late at night) or walk several blocks (through Baltimore late at night) to the Light Rail (and then worry about train-to-bus timing).

I will admit that, at that time of night, the bus isn't heavily used, but I'm never the only person that gets on in that segment of its route, either. There are also generally a good number of people on the bus in the mornings when it passes the Convention Center and starts heading north. That portion of the route is used, and cutting it out will only cause additional hassle for the many people that use it.

I have sent a message to the MTA regarding this. I'll have to see what sort of response I get.

Trainsched Schedules

In order to use trainsched with the MTA's schedules, I had to write my own programs to parse the MTA's HTML schedule pages. The results of that work are now on this website. Share and Enjoy.

More messed up MTA with no communication.

I haven't had problems with mass transit in a week or two. So I was about due, right? Right.

Went to catch the Light Rail on my way home from work. Based on the timing, I figured I'd catch the 6:24 scheduled train from Timonium Fairgrounds. From a distance, I watched a train go through at 6:19. Based on the track signals and the fact that trains are almost never that early, I figured it was just really late and that another would be through shortly.

This turned out to be true; another one ran by a 6:34, presumably the 6:24 scheduled one. I was assisting a couple of out-of-town women with directions and they hadn't finished buying their tickets, so I said, "Oh, there should be another one in ten to twenty minutes." (Reasoning that the next scheduled train (6:44) probably wouldn't be more then ten minutes late itself. More the fool I.)

Over the next twenty minutes, three trains went by heading north. At 6:57, another one same by going south. It drove right through the station without stopping while sporting a sign that said "not in service". Another train went by heading north at 7:12. Finally, at 7:18, almost an hour since I'd gotten there and running 45 minutes behind the last train, another train finally came by to pick us up.

At no point was there any use made of the loudspeakers at the stop, nor does there appear to have been any announcement made via the MTA's website or mailing lists. The transit police officer at the station didn't know what was going on. (Though the delays didn't stop her from doing a fare check once the train was underway.)

Ilium

After the tedious Quicksilver, Ilium was a welcome change. It's a wonderful blend of science fiction and Greek myth.

As Simmons' Hyperion was infused with Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, so Ilium works from Homer's Iliad. One of the central events of the book is the siege of Troy. In Ilium, however, the gods are more science fiction than fantasy--they accomplish their majestic feats via nanotechnology and quantum manipulation. And the events in the Iliad are only a rough third of the events in Ilium.

The book opens with the words of a twentieth-century Homeric scholar, in a very deliberate reference to the opening of the Iliad. That scholar has been resurrected by the gods and sent to observe the unfolding of events that shaped the Iliad. The following chapter introduces humans living on Earth several thousand years past the 20th century, in a world largely abandoned--the "post-humans" meddled with the planet, cleaned up some of their mess, and left it to the old-style humans, whose lives they continue to regulate. The third chapter sets the stage for the third storyline, involving sentient organic/inorganic machines that live and work among the moons of Jupiter.

Into all three storylines, the reader is dropped without much backstory; the shape of the world in which the characters live must be gleaned from details in the story's telling. And the threads don't tie themselves together until a distance into the book.

The single best thing about the book, however, is the writing. Simmons does a very good job of taking these disparate threads, blending them together while painting the backdrop for the story, and weaving a thoroughly engaging tale.

Ilium certainly deserves its Hugo nomination. I can't speak to whether it should win, since I haven't read most of its competitors, but if it does, I'll not be disappointed.

Throwaway Email Addresses

Mailinator seems a nice service for disposable email addresses. Use an @mailinator.com email address, and view the received emails on the web. Note that there is no privacy for received email.

I've used a service like this in the past. It can be useful for situations where you need a single email from someone and don't want your real address being harvested.

Verizon's Web Site

I recently tried to set up a new account on Verizon's web site. In order to do this, you have to choose a login and a password. Reasonable enough. The page says that the password must be "Minimum 6 characters with at least 1 number". I run my password generating script (dd if=/dev/random bs=1 count=6 | uuencode -) and get VB3:Q-0". Seems reasonable, so I enter it. No. "The password should contain one number, only three repeating characters, no spaces or email addresses and no other special characters. Please try again." Grrr. So I run the program a few more times, get a password that's just numbers and letters, randomize its case, and enter it.

And go on to create my account? No. Verizon's is also one of the many websites that refuses to acknowledge the validity of the plus sign in an email address. When submitting my email to a site, I usually use phil_g+sitename@pobox.com, just to track usage of that address. Many stupid sites don't like that. Bah. And the page was SSL, so I couldn't easily mess with the parameters to see if they put their trust in client-side validity checks.

Now, of course, I've attempted to log in and the page is sitting at a "please wait" box. Probably only works with IE anyway. I'll have to go through the site and try to find a contact email address to yell at.

Verizon sucks. (Like everyone doesn't already know that.)

Excel Saga, volume 3

Excel Saga 03 continues along the path set by volumes one and two: weird situations, not-so-smart Excel, not-so-healthy Hyatt, not-so-successful Il Palazzo, some satire, some plain funny stories, and so on. The excellent footnotes make their return, with comments about The Prisoner, Astro Boy, Blaise Pascal, and many other wonderful things.

Now I have to wait for volume four to be translated and published.

Foucault's Pendulum

I liked The Name of the Rose, so when I saw Foucault's Pendulum at the bookstore, I decided to grab it. Unfortunately for me, it's a rather different sort of book than The Name of the Rose.

The Name of the Rose is essentially a detective story. It's set in medieval times and is told in a wonderfully baroque manner, but with all the descriptive flourishes pared away its story is relatively straightforward. Foucault's Pendulum is more of a surrealist book--the journey matters more than the destination, and the book's climax is just a single element in the tapestry of the narrative, a fact for which I was not completely prepared.

The pacing of the book is also rather slow, and not always in a good way. In, say, A Fire Upon the Deep, the pace is slow, but there's a feeling of grandness, of something gradually but inexorably building as the story progresses. I often felt that Foucault's Pendulum was dragging along without necessarily going anywhere, especially during the elaboration of the Plan, where the characters just keep piling details on details seemingly without end.

I should not that the edition I read had an annoying synopsis on the back cover. It claimed that the main characters put facts into a computer that drew connections between apparently disparate facts. In the book, those events don't take place until about two-thirds of the way in, and the actual details are somewhat different than those which the synopsis implies. At least it didn't completely give away things, like the summary text at the beginning of my copy of Archangel.

I'll discuss the ending below the spoiler barrier.

See more ...

Website Code

Just as reference for later perusal:

The Alleluia Files

This book forms the third in Sharon Shinn's Samaria trilogy, being preceeded by Archangel and Jovah's Angel. I still think Archangel is the best of the set, though The Alleluia Files is a fairly decent book.

The Alleluia Files again contains many trappings of romance, though there are two romances this time, and consequently neither is as well developed as previous books'. For me, the one in Archangel is still my favorite, which I realized is probably because of the way Shinn weaves music throughout the romance and the rest of the book. It's still a very important part of this book, but not to the same degree as in Archangel.

I'm afraid I'll have to do the majority of my discussion of the book below the spoiler barrier, since I don't want to spoil either this or Archangel for those that have not read them.

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Missing, late buses.

The MTA had been behaving itself for a couple of months (inasmuch as it ever behaves--the 8, on the occasions I've had to use it, has been as bad as ever), so I suppose it was due for something.

The 31 scheduled for 6:58 at Liberty and Baltimore never arrived. I waited until roughly 7:20 before a 31 came by. (The next scheduled arrival was 7:24.) The bus then sat at the Arena stop for roughly 15 minutes as the driver waited for a replacement. None was forthcoming, so he eventually drove on, despite the fact that he was supposed to have been relieved. I got home a bit over an hour later than I ought to have.

Post-PDF Dump

Originally from an email sent to the baltwash-burning mailing list:

(Not that sort of dump, Dale.) :)

I typed all of this up for my diary then figured I might as well send out to the list (with some of the more personal bits removed--sorry).

As a result of being at PDF, I'm now very used to walking anywhere and running into friends. Now, of course, I expect this to extend into the rest of the world, so I keep catching glimpses of people and I get all hopeful for a moment or two. "Is that Dale over there?" "Hey, that looks like Sean!" "Red hair, hey it's Suz! Oh, just a red hat." Of course, at PDF, I almost goose--er, said, "Hi, Rob" to several people in orange hats.

I love my tent. I stayed nice and dry, at least when I was in it, and all my gear remained dry and mud free, despite the location of the tent in a river of mud. (It's a Sierra Designs Clip Flashlight CD. Only really sleeps one person with gear, but it works quite well for just me.)

Rob's radio station rocked. If I didn't like the current music, I could just pop in the earphones and listen to something I liked, especially if Rob or Dale was spinning at the time.

The main burn was beautiful. Declan got a great shot of it, too:

http://www.mccullagh.org/image/10d-3/the-burn-2.html

Once it was going well, I liked the view from the side, with the internal red glow coming through the gaps between the still-unburnt logs on the outside. And the fire team did an excellent job just getting it lit in the first place.

The wet ground was conducive to the "spin white gas onto the ground at your feet then light it" effect, though I was successful in not emulating Sean. (i.e. I didn't set the fuel dump on fire.)

I like Alex's (dancingmantis) poi. Three wicks, short, long life even with white gas, and metal rings for handles to facilitate movement of the poi. Now I need to make a set of my own like that. I think I'll work on my planned single wick monkey fist poi first, though.

I did burn myself with Alex's poi, though. (I wasn't quite familiar enough with the handles to have attempted an over-the-head thread the needle.) It's probably the worst burn I've had from poi (some blistering, which mostly subsided by morning) and also the most fun I've had burning myself. :)

Helping quadgirl lose her fire virginity was fun. And she looked good with the staff, too.

There was one particular woman spinning that had a very beautiful spinning style. I didn't get to talk to her afterwards and see who she was, though. (Too much other stuff going on.)

Many thanks to Tanya for lending me her pink wig, pink lipstick, and glitter on Saturday. They all went well with my pink dress and pink umbrella.

http://www.mccullagh.org/image/10d-3/camp-hon-1.html
http://www.mccullagh.org/image/10d-3/camp-hon-2.html

Once again, PDF Iron Chef was a blast. Many thanks to Leah for running it a second time. This time around it was vegans versus carnivores, with a theme ingredient of tofu. The vegans managed to win over the judges (even though the carnivores had sushi with eel; I mean, eel sushi, c'mon :) ). I wish I'd been able to taste more of the dishes. (In particular the vegans' oatmeal-fruit-tofu pie looked very good.) I was busy making sure things were coordinated (or micromanaging, depending on how you look at it) and by the time I got to taste the food, most of it had been eaten. But the vegans added more tofu to their curry, Magorn had a lot of chicken dish and sauce, and Suz saved me a piece of sushi. So I had some things, which was an improvement over last year.

The Gold Bar was again fun. I like just hanging out there, talking to Whiskey and company, and chatting with people as they drop by. It's too bad they were down a couple of people (having a baby right before PDF, how silly :) ) and that they packed up early and left on Saturday.

I was also sad to see Dale and Sara leaving Saturday evening. And while I'm missing people, I was disappointed not to see Alicia or Laura there. Silly people, moving away from Baltimore. :)

Primal Fred was fun, though a bit distant. Jill's body shot bar looked fun for those participating. Not really my thing, though. I'm too private a person (and too shy) to do body shots in public.

I think I'll camp in the general camping area next PDF. While I liked the theme camps, it's a good hike to get out there. And they can be loud (especially the DJ who set up across the way from Psychedelic Shamans; I probably should have tried to talk to him, but I was far too tired, even if I couldn't actually sleep very well through the loudness). I also like hanging out in the pavilion, which is really the hub of PDF.

There were so many other things I loved about this burn. You're all wonderful people and I'll see you at the next one!

The Truth

Another element of the teeming horde that comprises Terry Pratchett's Diskworld novels, The Truth would probably be grouped with the subset featuring Ankh-Morpork's City Watch. That's not entirely accurate, because the story really revolves around William de Worde's newspaper, but the Watch is involved to a large degree.

I'm not entirely sure what to think about this book. The whole thing is very Pratchett, with plenty of sections that left me literally laughing out loud (sometimes to the concern of those around me). On the other hand, there were parts that I didn't feel really worked, such as Mr. Tulip's manner of cursing ("Too ---ing right"). I'd say that, on the whole, the book's satirical bent tended to interfere with the storytelling. It was good in pieces, but not necessarily in large chunks. Still, it's quite funny. Go ahead and give it a read.

The MTA's New Website

The MTA recently launched a new website, one with which I'm quite happy. It addresses many of the complaints I had about the old site, and is, in general, much more usefully laid out.

The most obvious change is the new layout of the front page. They've replaced the old static navigation with a table showing the current status of each area of service: bus, subway, light rail, MARC, commuter bus, and paratransit. For each of those, there's a color-coded button indicating the general health of the service, followed by a brief line of text giving an overview. If additional detail is available, there's a link to the full description. (And that link is a normal one--no opening in a new window and no javascript. I'm pleased with that.)

Finally, the table has links down the righthand side to the schedules for each service area. The schedules are arranged nicely, with HTML and PDF available for everything.

Also of note is the removal of the trip planner from the site, a move that was long overdue. They say they'll put it back up if they can get it to work. (The MTA used nicer wording than that, of course.)

No Buses on Route 31?

It's been a while since a bus failed to show up at all0; the MTA appears to have attempted to balance this by today skipping two buses in a row. Neither the scheduled 9:28 or the scheduled 9:47 bus came through Arbutus today; I had to wait nearly an hour for the 10:11 bus.

Grumble.

0 Showing up late is another story, but they've been showing up eventually, at least.

Endless Nights

Endless Nights is another book from Neil Gaiman in the world of The Sandman. It contains seven stories, one for each of the Endless. It is ... impressive.

Each of the stories captures the personality of one of the Endless. Possibly the weakest of them in that respect are Death's and Dream's, but they're also probably the most prominent characters in the Sandman series, so the lapse is forgivable, especially since Dream's gives some very nice backstory for the Endless.

Probably my favorites from the set are Desire's and Destiny's stories. Each is a succinct encapsulation of its respective Endless's personality, combined with some stunning artwork. Death's, Dream's, Delirium's, and Destruction's are all good stories, with excellent artwork of their own. Despair's story is probably the one most different from the others, and while it's very well done, I can't say that I enjoyed it, largely because it isn't really meant to be enjoyed. I'll say simply that it is very well executed, contains superb artwork, and I had to rest for a while after reading it to recover.

If you're a fan of Sandman, buy this book. If you're not familiar with Sandman, a lot of the point of this will be missing. It's probably still worth reading for the artwork alone, but the Endless are what really drive this book.

For my part, I'm very happy to place this book on my shelf beside my other Sandman novels.

UTF-8 and XEmacs

In order to display Unicode characters properly, I also had to set

(set-terminal-coding-system 'utf-8)

in my startup files. For input, I found set-input-method, which is bound to C-x RET C-\ (which is extra fun, because C-\ is my screen escape character; well, at least it's not a command I'll be using over-frequently). I found I liked the latin-1-alt-postfix input method. Latin-1 characters are entered via magic two-key sequences such as "a'" for "á". It indicates candidates for replacement by underlining them and showing the possible second characters in the minibuffer. (That's the "alt" part. Normal postfix doesn't prompt.)

No real support for general Unicode, aside from switching input methods among the various charsets. Reputedly, XEmacs 22 will have much better Unicode support. With luck, it'll include an RFC 1345 compliant input method.

Addendum: XEmacs still has a habit of trashing some characters when saving files. (The characters get replaced by ASCII question marks.) This happens to a lot of characters. Plain old GNU Emacs gets almost everything right. I did have to do the same thing with set-terminal-coding-system as with XEmacs, but that appears to be the only necessary config change. About the only thing I see wrong is that it's using strlen() (or its equivalent) to determine line lengths, so lines with UTF-8 characters get wrapped prematurely. When selecting input methods, it seems to want to default to one named "rfc1345" (yay!), but there's no method by that name (boo). Perhaps it's in another Debian package.

Next geek project: See how well my carefully-customized XEmacs environment transfers to GNU Emacs.

Jingo

There are so many different Discworld novels that it becomes difficult to write separately about each one, due to the similarities among them. I don't mean that in a bad way; the books are certainly distinct from each other, too. It's just that the things that keep me coming back to the series--the characters, the storytelling, the humor--are present in all of the books.

Nevertheless, Jingo tells its own story. In this book, Pratchett has set his satirical sights on war, with the assistance of Ankh-Morpork's City Watch. As usual with a City Watch book, there's a crime to be dealt with (two crimes, if you count the war itself), specifically an assassination attempt. Chasing these crimes leads Vimes and his men out of Ankh-Morpork, past the newly-risen island of Leshp (gotta have something to fight over, after all), and into the wilds of Klatch, which is certainly not based on the Middle East. :)

Home From Burning Man

And I've returned home. I filled up several pages in a spiral notebook with my diary and various notes about the event. After I get all of that typed in, I'll extract the fit-for-public-consumption bits and put them up here.

Code Change

I decided I liked the design of Blosxom better than weblog. So I switched. Have to wait and see if I decide to stick with this one, though I think I will--it's flexible enough for me to do most of what I want with it.

Phở Ðạt Thành

Had dinner at Phở Ðạt Thành last night. Very good Vietnamese food. (Well, the food was very good, and it's a Vietnamese restauraunt. I would have to leave it to someone more familiar with that cooking style to judge its authenticity.) It's good food, and it's Columbia. Go there. They have a huge menu. Go there a lot.

(Really, I just made this entry because I could put the full name of the place in Unicode. I'm a dork. But the food's really good.)

Self-Immolation

I probably won't type up most stuff from this weekend, but I figure I'll add an entry describing my bout of stupidity for later perusal.

This was on Saturday night. I'd finally decided to wear my loincloth, so that and my boots were all I had on as I headed up to the fire stack. We were burning a bunch of pallets and I helped several others carry them from their location to the fire area. When the stack was about halfway done, Rob dumped a bunch of white gas over the fire to prepare it for being lit.

We finished adding pallets. I put a bit more white gas on, fearing that much of the previous stuff had evaporated, and we were pondering ways to light it. Troy was going to use a fire staff, but I said I'd light it myself. I failed to remember the volatility of white gas, thinking of the manner in which kerosene-soaked fires light.

Troy handed me his lighter. I went to the fire, crouched down, and extended my right arm, placing the lighter up to the piece of wood that was sticking out most from the fire.

I then remember three distinct things. All of a sudden, there was fire all in front of me--the vapors in the air had ignited--and my sole thought was, "Away!" I pushed myself away from the fire and it followed me as I moved backwards. The next thing I remember is lying on the ground on my back, some distance from the fire.

Several people came over to me and asked very anxiously, "Are you okay?" I mentally checked myself, realized that my whole right side was hurting in a manner that suggested it had been burned and said, "No. Is there a wet towel?" There wasn't, but Rob and someone else got jugs of water, which we proceeded to pour over my body to cool it off.

(I was later informed that several of the women, among them Suz, Amy, and Christie, found the sight of people pouring water over my loincloth-clad body while backlit by the fire very sexy.)

I talked with someone about first aid stuff in the area, concluded that there wasn't any in the immediate vicinity, and set out with Suz toward my tent, with my first aid kit and its burn cream. We got down there, I got out the kit, opened it, and dumped out everything. I barely wanted to use my hands, because flexing my fingers hurt. Sean (Burning Sean) cut open the burn cream packets and I applied them to the places I felt most burned. Suz then used Sean's spray Bactine over everywhere I felt burned at all. I noticed that I had at least one blister on my left index finger, and it had already burst. I felt like my lips were blistering and had Suz (and, later, other people) check it, but everyone said it looked okay, just red and swollen.

After finishing the initial first aid, I felt my body feeling a lot weaker and realized that the adrenaline had just worn off, and said as much to Suz, as I sat down. When the dizziness and nausea continued, I realized that my body was starting to go into shock, so I went and lay down on the bench of one of the picnic tables. I kept babbling to Suz and Rob and Troy, who were there by then, just to make sure I stayed conscious and had something to focus on. Rob and Troy dressed the blister on my finger while I lay there.

At this point my memories blur together a bit. I remember seeing the bright orange glow from the fire reflected off the trees around me. I remember getting up and walking with Suz to see the thing (it was very big and very bright). I remember apologizing to Suz for being hurt and worrying her and for her having to essentially ranger me. At some point, Rob, Suz, and Troy left while Jill arrived. I recall having Jill check my forehead temperature, which was closer to normal when she checked than when Rob and Suz had (so I was coming out of shock).

That's most of the tale. After that, I tried going back up to the fire, but even at a distance the heat was causing my burns to hurt more, so I went back down. I sat around for a bit, just breathing and half-meditating to lessen the pain. Other people showed up, and I talked with them. As the night progressed, the burns hurt less and less, and after a number of hours (four or five?) I could wear a shirt without it hurting too much. A bit after that, I went to sleep, which my body gladly welcomed.


Phil! Gold