Saturday, August 23, 2003

More bachelor days

Laura's in St. Louis with the American Legion, lighting our Dipshit-in-Chief, so I'm doing the bachelor thing this week. I rented guy movies (House of 1000 Corpses -- no redeeming features at all; Dracula 2000 -- better, but still bad; and Cradle 2 the Grave, which was exactly what you expect from a movie remake of Romeo and Juliet starring a martial arts star and a rapper). I've also been not eating. In my wild youth, bachelor days meant bachelor food: Kraft dinner with a can of peas in it; microwave burritos; refrigerator cookies. Now that I'm feeling my age (32 last week), and am more out of shape than I've ever been, I'm trying to eat less and slightly healthier. No more bad bachelor food; if I'm going to eat poorly, I might as well share it with Laura. So, since Laura left, I've eaten 25 Trader Joe's ginger snaps; a fish sandwich and fries from Champps, waffle fries from Chik-Fil-A, 3 glasses of coke, a bowl of Cheerios, and a tiny bowl of leftover pasta. That's absolutely everything, in 3 days' time. I haven't exercised yet, just eaten less.

I've found a new way to kill time since Laura left: Baldur's Gate II. It's my first PC-based role-playing game, and my first Dungeons-and-Dragons computer game since Curse of the Azure Bonds on my brother's Commodore 64. Baldur's Gate is lots of fun, and really hard. I save frequently but I keep missing important plot points so I have to go way back and almost start over. So far I'm not out of the dungeons yet; I don't know how much more there is to explore, but I suspect it's a lot more than I've seen so far. It's based on Dungeons & Dragons 2nd edition rules, which are unnecessarily complex. I remember my first Dungeons and Dragons game; it came in a box (pink, I think) containing two rule books, an adventure, some blank character sheets, and a dungeon master's screen. I later upgraded with the blue box, the Expert Set, which was a lot like the basic set but with cooler spells, meaner monsters, and newer weaponry. That was fun. Then they came out with Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, which was really top-of-the-line. It required that you buy a bunch of books: The Dungeon Master's Guide, Player's Handbook, Monster Manuals I and II, Fiend Folio, Oriental Adventures, the Greyhawk guide, a Forgotten Realms book, and Deities and Demigods. All you really needed were the first three, but the others were nice. It had absolutely everything we thought the game could ever want. Lots of individual gaming groups made their own modifications: new spells, new monsters, etc. All was right with the world.

Then, the people at TSR/Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro released AD&D Second Edition. This was a serious complication of the rules, and it occupied at least 25 books (that is, Borders had 25 books on the shelf last time I counted, and there were probably some they didn't have in stock), and you needed probably fifteen just to play the game. It still had a Player's Handbook, but it didn't tell you the specifics you needed to know--for those, you needed the books about rangers, fighters, monks, illusionists, psionicists, and the other dozen or so character classes, plus the books on weapons and equipment, plus the monster guides which you bought piecemeal, somewhat like trading cards.

When I gamed, we weren't strictly adhering to the rules. For instance, we never worried about spell components for magic users: "so wait...before I can cast Spider Climb, I need to find a LIVE SPIDER and EAT IT?!?" A lot of people did this: just played the game the way they liked it, and ignored the rules and systems they didn't like. The 2nd Edition rules seemed designed to thwart this, or at least to adapt it into part of the structure. Apparently, WotC has seen the light; they recently released 3rd Edition rules, which look a lot like the 1st Edition rules: a Player's Handbook, a Dungeon Master's Guide, and a couple tomes full of monsters. They also have a cool book I was flipping through last night at Borders: the Book of Vile Darkness. It's all about evil, and it's full of evil spells and magic items and monsters and other aspects of evil. It was thought-provoking, in a warped rpg sort of way. F'rinstance, a spell like Fireball, while it can be used to hurt and maim, isn't evil; it's just a big ball of fire. On the other end of the scale are spells like Blood Thorns, which make your opponents' bones spout pointy growths that rip them apart from the inside in 1-4 agonizing rounds. That's evil. And, if you're evil, special rules govern you. Shame the real world doesn't work that way; here it turns out that if you're evil, the rules apply to you even less.

My other observation at Borders last night: they have on shelf 54 books about running & walking. Wow. And to think I figured out both walking and running before I could read, and with only a modicum of parental input!

Saturday, August 16, 2003

Greg Palast

Just wanted to pass along a link for Greg Palast's column about the Blackout of 2003. Greg wrote the United Nations-published "Democracy and Regulation", a guide to electricity deregulation. He also wrote a book called The Best Democracy Money Can Buy. Good reading for times when the government starts scaring you a little too much.

I found something funny in the New York Times. It's advice from Iraqis about how to deal with a blackout:
"Do not try to repair the Northeast grid yourselves. Entrusting the job to Americans, Iraqis warned, would only result in more blackouts and endless excuses about 'sabotage' and 'neglected infrastructure.' Thamir Mahmoud, a retired clerk, said he was especially worried by President Bush's promise to fix the problem. 'If the American government is involved," he said, "you must be prepared to be patient. They work very slowly.'
Some Iraqis suggested inviting the United Nations to supervise the reconstruction, but others had a more radical idea. Put Saddam Hussein in charge of the grid. 'Saddam had the electricity back two months after the last war,' said Maythum Hatam, a computer-science student. 'With his methods, you would have electricity right away, but you must expect to lose some workers.'"
Sorry, no link available for the original article; it's a subscribers-only page at the NYT.

Saturday, August 09, 2003

More on Palm

I did some digging; the root of the Xerox/Palm lawsuit seems to be that Xerox claims to have a patent on single-stroke handwriting recognition. Not on a particular alphabet, but on the whole concept of having a single-stroke alphabet. This seems somewhat like's contention that they have a patent on one-click ordering. Not the name "one-click ordering", but on the whole concept. I'm amazed they ever got the patent through on either of these; this might be an after-effect of the patent office budget cuts. It's the tech equivalent of Lilly claiming they have a patent on the whole concept of antidepressants, instead of on a particular drug. Palm ended up caving because, even though it's a ridiculous patent, Xerox actually has the patent. So it's really all the fault of Xerox and the U.S. Patent Office.

Thursday, August 07, 2003

Pocket PC, maybe?

Am now fully disgruntled with Palm. Anyone remember the Apple Newton? Early portable computer with dismal handwriting recognition. The problem was that they believed their focus groups, who said that the most important thing was the ability to recognize normal handwriting. Palm learned from this and assumed that what users really wanted was high accuracy in handwriting recognition, even if they had to spend a while learning a different alphabet. So Palm introduced Graffiti, a really efficient handwriting recognition system. It works well, and was easy to learn. Now, in response to a (possibly groundless) copyright lawsuit filed by Xerox, Palm is replacing Graffiti with a new handwriting recognition system. If I'm going to learn a new handwriting system when I buy a new handheld, I might as well go to PocketPC. Newer Palms are in the same price range as PocketPCs, and none of my old accessories will work with the new Palms anyway. I won't be affording a new anything for a while, but when I do I'm going PocketPC. I know you've been reading my wavering on the issue for a while, but I'm at the moment pretty serious about switching.

I was also looking at PowerMacs the other day, believe it or not!

On a different note, I wanna whine a little because they just pushed back the release date of Buffy season 5 on DVD. Release was December 5, now it's unknown. They did this with Angel season 2 as well. Grr.