Thursday, July 31, 2008

the hall o' corpses

We've got new neighbors at the Artsgarden offices. They're pretty quiet, though; they're dead. Our new friends across the hall are part of "Bodies: the Exhibition", a collection of interestingly-arranged preserved corpses in varying degrees of intactness. I haven't been through the exhibit yet. I'm not squeamish, but it really just doesn't sound that interesting. And, it's a bit of a mass-market product: there are apparently twenty or so similar exhibits by the same company touring around the world. It's not so much a science exhibit as a roving cash generator for Premiere Exhibitions. They're a bit sneaky, too; the Indiana State Museum is hosting a similar (though older, less controversial, and more scientifically legitimate) exhibit called Body Worlds in a few months, and Premiere apparently rushed this exhibit here to beat them to town. They didn't even look at the space until the museum had already announced their run dates. The museum can't really advertise their exhibit at all, until the current one leaves; there's no good way to build buzz for a show, when a nearly identical show is already running....

There's a bit of a controversy about the exhibit, mostly concerning the source of the bodies. The company acknowledges that they get the bodies from China, and for years they claimed that they had consent from all of the donors, as well as a death certificate that said, "natural causes". But when they hit New York a few years ago, the attorney general made them show proof, and it turns out they didn't have any. New York believed the bodies came from the prison system, and it's well documented that at least several of them did. It's believed that the bodies were those of political prisoners, victims of torture. It's also been suggested that the bodies were custom-ordered -- that someone at the body works would call a friend in the Chinese police and ask for, say, a middle-aged, thin, heavy smoker, and they'd generate a corpse from the prison system to match. The exhibit has seen protesters almost everywhere it's gone, though we haven't had any in Indy yet, or at least not that I'm aware of.

So, potential protesters in front of my office! Woo hoo! At least they're saying that the smell isn't actually the bodies, but the cleaning chemicals they used to get the space ready for the exhibit.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Dark Knight: it rocks.

We finally made it to see The Dark Knight. It was the best movie we've seen all summer: dense, interesting, complex, thoughtful, and action-packed, all at once. The acting was excellent, too. Really uniformly excellent; even the guy who played Cop #2 was good at it. This is probably a sign of a good director.

Everybody who's seen the movie, and quite a few who probably haven't, have talked about how good Heath Ledger was as the Joker. They're all correct. He's a much better Joker than Jack Nicholson, and that's a high standard. The character's written well, too, but Heath Ledger really made him a spectacular villain. Plot is all about conflict, and nothing defines conflict in a movie as well as a really good villain. The most watchable action movies are defined as much by their villains as their heroes, and it's given some excellent actors a chance to really shine. Alan Rickman in Die Hard; Gary Oldman in The Professional (and The Fifth Element!); Ian McKellen in X-Men; even crappy Steven Segal movies like Under Siege and Marked for Death were made better than they should've been by high-quality bad guys (Tommy Lee Jones and Basil Wallace). All this is a long way of saying that Heath Ledger's Joker helped make this the excellent movie it was.

Laura wants to see it again; I can't remember the last time we saw a movie twice on the big screen. I wouldn't mind seeing it again, either.
I'm curious to see it in IMAX. I heard that six or eight scenes were shot in IMAX, and I bet I can guess which ones. I don't think I've ever seen an IMAX movie, and this might be a good one to start with.

The film wasn't perfect; I was a little annoyed with the final plot development. [spoiler text in white; select it with your mouse if you've already seen the movie] Batman says that all of Harvey Dent's work will be undone if his criminal actions come to light, so he says he'll take the blame for everything. This makes no sense; you've got a horde of bad guys in the movie to pin the blame on, not least the Joker. Sure, the Joker's still alive and can say he didn't do it -- but he also knows Batman didn't do it, so there's no reason he can't blame Harvey anyway. It was the only real instance of bad plotting in the entire movie, and it was unnecessary. Other than that moment of stupid movie logic, the story was great.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Buckell/Scalzi trip: thwarted!

I just read Scalzi's list of upcoming appearances, and was a bit disappointed to see that he and Tobias Buckell won't make it to Don's Books in Kokomo. I really enjoyed their last signing (for Ragamuffin and The Last Colony, as I recall); I was really hoping they'd make it back to Kokomo again, since they've once again got new books out at the same time. Both Sly Mongoose and Zoe's Tale look like they'll be a lot of fun. I was even looking forward to the long bicycle trek up to see them; I was going to make a mini-vacation out of the trip, cycling down the morning of, hanging out at the signing/reading until the authors left, then getting a hotel room and reading the books that night before cycling home the next morning.

Their next-closest stop is in Columbus, Ohio in early October, which is a bit out of cycling range. Shame. And now I'm really lamenting missing InConJunction this year. No live Scalzi for me this year, I guess. And I'm also going to miss seeing Tobias Buckell; he's also a fascinating guy and a great writer. I've already put the books on hold at the library, and I'll read them when they come in. I know I'll eventually buy copies, but I'd prefer to do it when a bookseller has them for a signing. It's important to support booksellers who think author visits are a good idea....

Organically grown vacation plans

Laura and I decided to take a little vacation. Not directly, though; we worked our way around to deciding to take a little vacation. We listened to the last CD of the audiobook we started on our trip back from Virginia last Sunday, and while we were talking about how much we liked the driving-while-listening experience, we decided to take a day trip, just driving around on country roads while listening to a book on CD. Then we decided it would be even better to stop somewhere for the night at a Hampton Inn (our favorite chain hotel) and make it an overnight trip. Then we started looking at interesting destinations a book's distance away from here. We found a town in Ohio whose primary industry seems to be renting cabins-in-the-woods to vacationers, and found a non-booked remote cabin for two. Then we decided it looked so nice, it would be a shame to just stay one night and leave. Over more discussion and planning, the trip extended to four days and three nights, and now includes an in-cabin massage for two. We're really looking forward to the trip.

One of these days, we'll take a real Laura-vacation: a whole week (or more), somewhere with a beach and an ocean and sand and waves and sunsets over the water. But for now, this sounds like a great way to spend a few days relaxing out of town.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Toaster moment

I mentioned to Laura over breakfast that our toaster slots are too deep, or possibly our bread too small; I usually end up having to use a fork to get the toast out. She gave me The Look, and indicated that if I electrocuted myself by sticking a fork in a toaster, she would be distinctly nonplussed, possibly even minussed. I wouldn't be happy either, believe me. And every time I fork bread out of the toaster, there's a little tiny part of my brain that says, "you might be about to end up on FARK." But I'm really not worried. I do wiring; I'm good enough at it that people pay me to do wiring. I could probably take the toaster apart and repair it without unplugging it, if I had to. I'm pretty safe sticking a fork in it. And, it's a modern toaster; as long as the coils aren't hot, there's no electricity in there. If the toaster's off, you're (almost) as safe as if it were unplugged.

Still, to make Laura happy, I might switch to a plastic toaster fork.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Info: the lightbulb ban

I'm curious to see what will happen with light bulbs in eight years, after we've all (theoretically) made the switch to compact fluorescent bulbs. Congress is mandating the switch, banning the most common incandescent light bulbs starting in 2012, and phasing out other bulbs by 2016. This will promote energy efficiency, make consumers more planet-friendly, and piss off a lot of people. But it's good to know about, so here's a summary of our upcoming light bulb issues.

First, the ban itself. As far as I can tell, the ban applies to standard screw-base lamps from 40 to 150 watts (technically, 310 to 2600 lumens). It does not affect three-way bulbs, large globe lights (like I've got above my bathroom mirror), candelabra-base lamps up to 60 watts, colored lights, rough-service bulbs, and plant lights. The ban apparently doesn't affect halogen bulbs either, but I can't find confirmation of this.

Second, the short list of actual problems with compact fluorescents:
  • They don't work in the cold.
  • They don't like being on for short periods of time.
  • They're a miniature toxic waste spill when they break.
  • They're not natively dimmable.
  • The special (more expensive) dimmable fluorescents suffer from problems; they don't dim fully, they're choppy, and they're not as bright as their wattage rating would suggest. And, while I've heard about them, I haven't seen them on the shelves of any local hardware store.
  • They flicker. I've got proof of this -- I was using a die grinder by the light of a CF worklight, and I saw strobe effects on the spinning cutoff wheel. The flicker is worse immediately after you turn the light on. And they say the flicker causes eye strain.
  • They're picky about lamp orientation and ventilation. Deviating much from the ideal can scrap your bulb in a hurry (or, fast enough that it no longer saves you money).
  • CF reflector lamps suck by design. An incandescent bulb's filament is a relatively small light source, so its light bounces off of a mirrored reflector in pretty uniform ways. CFLs produce light from the entire surface of that spiral tube; putting it inside a reflector housing doesn't produce a nice bounce pattern, and the resulting light output is neither pretty nor directional. And this is a matter of optics, not design; they can't fix this problem.
  • You can't throw them in the trash.
Next, the short list of things people complain about that aren't actually problems:
  • Cost. CFs pay for themselves in extended lifespan and energy savings.
  • Light quality. They now make CFs in a bunch of color temperatures, and the warm whites (I've seen Sylvania's in use) look nice.
  • They interfere with AM radio. Come on -- it's AM radio! Wake up and live in the new millennium!
And, a list of issues you'll have when you upgrade to CFLs:
  • Because CFLs don't like the cold, your incandescent porch lights will have to stay incandescent, or switch to low-wattage bulbs or halogens. Ditto, your attic light.
  • Unless dimmable CFLs become a practical, aesthetic reality, you'll have to replace your dimmer switches with standard switches or put up with bad dimmable CFLs. You shouldn't put a standard CFL in a dimmed socket, even if you only ever switch it to FULL or OFF.
  • If you've got can lighting or track lighting that takes incandescent reflector lights, try a CFL reflector bulb while you can still buy incandescents. If you don't like the look, stockpile some incandescents.
  • They sell CFLs with the fluorescent helix encased in a smooth plastic housing; they look remarkably like incandescents, and I'd recommend them for anywhere you can see the bulb (like tulip-glass sconces on ceiling fans).
  • You'll also need these faux-incandescent bulbs if you've got lampshades that clip onto the bulb.
Finally, a list of predictions:
  • The people who'll really be hosed by the transition: small-business owners. That extremely trendy Soho clothier that just opened uses about 600 light bulbs, half of which aren't esthetically replaceable with CFLs.
  • Restaurants, too; I can't remember the last time I was in a non-fast-food restaurant that didn't have most of their lights on dimmers.
  • Cheating. Adapters that let you put a candelabra-base lamp in a standard fixture will be hot sellers, since the ban doesn't kick in until roughly 60 watts for lamps with a candelabra base.
  • More cheating. At least one manufacturer will make bulbs that are just below or just above the lumen-output cutoff points (40-watt bulbs are about 30% above the cutoff).
  • LED lighting will become the new cool thing for commercial and residential lighting in 2012, just like it was the new cool thing for theatrical lighting a few years ago. Color-changing LED ceiling cans with convenient wall controls will drop in price to the point where they can be used residentially, not just in extremely high-end restaurants and clubs. These will, of course, require new wiring.
  • No presidential candidate will in any way reference any potential problems with the CFL switchover.
  • In 2012, we'll start to see news articles about illegal bulbs being brought across the border from Mexico and black markets in banned incandescents.
  • We'll also see hand-wringing news articles about people blatantly disregarding the package labeling (and the law) by tossing old CFLs in the trash. And a news flash-mob when a 90-year-old grandmother on a fixed income is slapped with a $800 fine for inappropriately disposing of her old CFLs.
Thus do I predict. We'll see what happens. In a lot of ways, this looks a lot like the last time I remember Congress banning a whole class of home fixtures: the high-capacity toilet ban (links are to Dave Barry's columns on the issue). For a while, the low-flow toilets were a serious step down from their predecessors. Then competent designers started working on the problem, and now low-capacity toilets work (mostly) as well as the old ones did, and we're saving well over a billion gallons of water a day*. I suspect the light-bulb ban will be similar: a rough transition period, followed by actual efficiency and energy savings.

In the meantime, for me, switching entirely to CFLs will require rewiring our house; dimmable CFLs suck, and every non-dimmed light fixture in our house already has a fluorescent in it. And I'm not rewiring; by dimming my incandescents and halogens, I'm already cutting energy use and extending lamp life. I've heard much talk about efficient incandescent designs that will meet the new energy-saving requirements, but none are available yet. If none are available by 2012, I suspect I'll buy a case of bulbs to store in the basement before the ban goes into effect....
________
* Math based on 300 million people, each flushing three times daily, saving 1.5 gallons per flush.

Random spam observations (with potentially British porn)

While digging through my Yahoo! mail spam trap, I found a subject line promising "Arse-shagging tarts". I'm not sure why, but I found the extremely British verbiage amusing. The spam trap was pretty porn-laden this week; normally it's all 419 scams, Viagra ads, free laptops, weight-loss products, and penis-enlargement spam. I had a few zingers; in addition to the Brit hos, I also had subject lines that said, "Oprah says only hot singles here!" and "find your topless soulmate". It's like someone took two different spam messages and combined them into one surreal message.

It also seems like all the cool spammers are using accents and umlauts on lots of words in an effort to bypass spam filters. It doesn't work; the only place I've seen text that looks like, "We nééd peöple to try this néw phöné téchnolögy!" has been in my spam trap.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Word-nerd comedy

From novelist Steve Perry's blog, two lists: the Washington Post's Mensa Invitational, in which contestants change a modern English word by one letter, and supply a definition for the new word; and the Post's annual contest winners, wherein the entrants supply alternate definitions for standard words. Both lists are hilarious. My personal favorites are Sarchasm (the gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the Person who doesn't get it) and Ignoranus (a person who's both stupid and an asshole).

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

I Am Officially Old

I just got an online invitation to my 20-year class reunion, which, along with knee pain and worries about my hearing, is yet another sign that I'm officially No Longer Young. The reunion committee set up a web page with a list of our classmates, and I registered and created a generic info page. You can view profiles and pictures for everyone who's signed up already, about 25 or 30 people so far. I checked profiles of the people I vaguely remember, and they're all adults now. It's a bit odd -- what I remember about them from school doesn't even vaguely match up with where they are now. I'm probably less of a shock, having transitioned from being on stage crew in high school, to being a professional techie, sound guy, and roadie as an adult. My important changes are all non-career changes; for one thing, I'd like to think that I'm much less of a self-centered asshole than I was in high school.

I doubt I'll go to the reunion. I haven't kept in touch with anyone in my high school class; the closest I've come is my friend Doug, but he was a year behind. And, while I'm curious to see what some familiar people are up to these days, none of them are people I know. And, just as I've changed a lot, I expect everyone else has too. We're essentially strangers of the same age, who spent time together twenty years ago. I doubt people remember me; I suspect I was just one of the nameless horde, not particularly memorable.

Worse would be if people actually did remember me from high school. As I mentioned, I was a jerk when I was younger. Looking back, my grade school memories are universally about suffering low- and medium-grade traumas at the hands of my classmates; my clearest high school memories are mostly about mean things I did or said to others. Neither is a set of experiences I'd like to spend much time dwelling on....

Monday, July 21, 2008

Cool rental car

For the drive to Virginia, Laura and I rented a car. The Jeep gets pretty bad mileage, it's not comfortable for long trips, and it's old enough that it seems to need major repairs after every big trip, so it's easy to justify the expense of renting a car. Or, in this case, an SUV: a Toyota Rav4. And it rocks. It handles and accelerates well, the sound system is nice, the seating is comfortable for a long drive, and it gets surprisingly good mileage (around 21/28 according to the manufacturer, or 22/30 according to Enterprise Rent-A-Car). It's very well designed, packed with little clever or ergonomic features. I was extremely impressed.

I admit that some of the impressed might have something to do with the fact that I'm extremely easily impressed by vehicles. It has a motor, after all; I've had some running around to do today, and I've enjoyed not being on the bike for a change. And, really, the Jeep Wrangler is neither a particularly practical nor a comfortable vehicle. I don't know how much of my car-crush on the RAV4 is just because it's such a huge improvement over the Jeep. And, I've tended to drive older, crappier cars. I've never owned one with power windows or locks, and I've never owned a car with one of those cool remotes with buttons you can push to lock and unlock the car. So I suspect that a lot of what I find so nice about the RAV4 is stuff that I'd find nice about any car made in the last decade.

Still, though, it's been a blast to drive. I'm not happy about having to turn it in tomorrow!

Back in town

Laura and I spent the last week or so in Virginia, visiting her family. Not much to say about the trip, really -- it was family time, which is good, and I enjoyed seeing Laura's mom, my brothers-in-law, and my niece Sarah and nephew Ashton. I also finally got to meet Laura's old friend Bruce; after eleven years with Laura, I'm impressed that I'm still meeting cool friends of hers for the first time.

Unrelated: it's extremely weird, being without internet access for more than a day or so. I also didn't realize how much I read online in a week until I came back and tried to catch up on it in a day. And, the list keeps getting longer. I probably can't go a whole week without finding something new online I'd like to keep up with. This week: Tor Books launches a new, cool website featuring what looks like a few thousand words of interesting content daily. I'm approaching the saturation point; soon I won't be able to read anything online without eliminating something else from my reading list....

Monday, July 14, 2008

An update on Zombie Cat

I recently mentioned that one of our outdoor cats is recovering from grisly wounds. Thanks to some advice from an anonymous reader, and the link to the wildrun feral cat blog, I decided to hunt Thor down and check him out. Plus, Laura got a passing look at the wound and it was freaking her out a little. It's a good thing I checked -- he had problems. I did what I could for him (description in the comment thread of the original post. Be warned, it's a bit creepy and graphic). I've got high hopes, but he might not make it. I'll be thinking him happy kitty thoughts.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Wild Robot Dog

I'm extremely impressed by this video of Boston Dynamics's newest DARPA-funded experiment. Dynamic balancing is a complex problem to solve, and it looks like they're making great strides. Especially impressed by its handling on ice, and its recovery after the guy kicks it. It's somewhat scary that this sort of technology is universally a product of the defense department, but I'm glad the research is being done. The dog is equal parts cool and creepy, but that might be because I play all the wrong video games.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Striking "I deserve a treat" from my vocabulary

I'm trying to reduce my discretionary spending to zero so we can get debts paid off faster. I'm doing okay so far. I only buy clothes when I absolutely need them, according to the "will I wear this all the time?" rule; my last year's clothing purchases consist entirely of socks, underwear, and work pants. I can't remember my last video game or music or DVD purchase, and I've fought the urge to buy new glasses, even though these are ten years old. I'm spending no unnecessary money on the bike, either. I've been needing a $20 fender for my bike for a year, but I haven't been able to justify the expense. And still no rack or saddlebags. I've gotten extremely comfortable with the idea of not buying stuff.

But I can't resist the temptation to spend too much money on food. I eat out at work way too much. And I keep treating myself with food. I can justify buying myself a $4 mocha at South Bend if I've had a good day. Or if I've had a bad day. Or if I just Deserve A Treat. This is my universal rationalization for spending money on junk food or fast food: "I deserve a treat!" I need to stop telling myself this. Or replace the paradigm: exchange "I deserve a mocha today!" for "I deserve to be debt free, and spending money on expensive coffee doesn't help!"

Cat of the Living Dead

One of our outdoor cats, Thor, lost a fight with a raccoon last week. He spent some time looking like a special effect from the set of Pet Sematary 4. I mean, really: Zombie Cat. He had chunks of flesh hanging off of his face, and his head is now an odd shape due to the missing chunks. I'm surprised he kept his left eye; he's got a gash that stripped off most of the tissue around and behind it. On the plus side, the festering stage seems to be done now, he no longer smells like he's rotting, and it looks like the wounds are healing. Still, he looks a bit fragile and very damaged. We're hoping he survives; he's semi-friendly, for a feral cat, and he's very cute.

I'm at a loss about what to do when our feral cats get injured. In this case, I really don't think a trip to the vet would do anything. And, even if a vet could do some kind of face repair, we're not affording it. I feel a bit cold and jaded when I place a dollar value on one of our cats, but a moderate mortality rate is one of the givens of a feral cat colony. I'm not happy to see any of them die, but our high kitten mortality rate has gotten me somewhat used to the idea.

Still, I'm hoping for the best with Thor. He's a good cat, he's been here a while, and he's Tommie the cat's best kitty pal. I'd like to see him stick around for as long as possible.

**************
UPDATE: The comments contain some highly graphic descriptions of what, exactly, happened to Thor and the aftermath. Be warned.

Friday, July 11, 2008

New record time!

Made it to work this morning in 14:42, door to door, which beats my old record by a minute and a half. I doubt I'll be able to top this time anytime soon. For one thing, I took the shortest possible route (almost exactly four miles). For another, a total of eight seconds of my entire trip was spent stopped at a light. Not only this, but I also pedaled my ass off. You can't overestimate the importance of this. To get a better time, I'll either have to find a shorter route (which might involve a tesseract of some sort), be in significantly better shape, or have a good tailwind. The wind was the only thing working against me this morning; I had a 10mph headwind for the entire trip. But I doubt I'll be able to shave much more time off of the ride.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

World's Dumbest Protest

So, we've got a protest on Monument Circle this afternoon. A bunch of people are protesting against the idea of people breeding dogs for profit. The general concept is that the wholesale eugenics happening in the professional dog-breeding world produces unhealthy dogs in miserable conditions. They're right, of course. But it's an extremely minor issue. Really. I can't imagine someone looking at tax issues, police corruption, political corruption, the shaky economy, the ongoing occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, declining air and water quality, gas prices, urban blight, suburban sprawl, Indy's lack of efficient public transit, and the rest of the heaping mountain of problems facing us as a city and nation, and decide that we most urgently need to address the conditions in dog breeders' kennels. It somewhat boggles my mind.

On the other hand, it fits nicely with the maxim, "Pick battles big enough to matter, small enough to win". Because it is an issue, but it's an extremely safe issue. Protesting against dog breeders won't land you on a no-fly list. You won't be threatened with arrest or have your phone tapped. Teamsters won't trash your car. You can protest and raise awareness, and it only costs you time, with no risk to your peace of mind or safety. It reminds me of the old joke: why are animal-rights activists more concerned about fur than leather? Because it's safer to throw paint on old ladies than motorcycle gangs....

Road-raging against cyclists

Just read an article in the LA Times about a creepy road-rage incident. Short version: a guy speeding on a mountain road got irritated with a pair of cyclists (who were, incidentally, following the rules of the road). He pulled in front of them, cut them off, and slammed on his brakes. Both cyclists hit the car; one went through the rear windshield. The less-injured guy needs surgery and will be out of work for months. The windshield guy lost his front teeth and has 90 stitches in his face, plus assorted other injuries. The driver was arrested, and the police are treating it as vehicular assault instead of as a traffic accident. A car and driver matching the same description ran two other cyclists off the same road recently; it's unknown if police will be able to connect the two. Interestingly, the LA Times didn't pick up the story until two days after it was first reported on LAist.

This kind of story makes me a bit nervous. I've seen scary drivers, but mostly because they were radically inattentive or distracted. I haven't yet had an encounter with a malicious driver, and I hope I don't. As a rule, if a guy in a truck decides to hurt you, you get hurt. There's not much you can do about it. My closest call was with a speeding idiot at night, driving without his lights, which is so far into dangerous that it probably counts as malicious. Otherwise, my rides are pretty uneventful. I'm hoping I never need 90 stitches in my head after a ride....

The Glover-Mountjoy household goes dark

I mentioned recently that using a Palm Pilot as a word processor has difficulties, but that it has the advantage of extreme portability. I just learned of another advantage: it works even during a long power failure. We're going on two hours with no electricity so far, and I've done all the storm-damage abatement I can at the moment, so I'm taking a moment to sit down and write (I'm blogging to warm up my hands and brain).

It was a heck of a storm, too. It blew in quickly and dumped an inch and a half of rain in 90 minutes, accompanied by a zillion pretty lightning strikes, one of which apparently took out a substation somewhere. I can't see any lights on anywhere within five blocks of here, so it's got to be something big or important that got hit.

We've got water pouring in the basement, and while I was looking around down there by flashlight, I discovered a bit of leftover trauma from the last hard rainstorm: one of the buckets of paint I had stored on the floor rusted through. I've got almost a full gallon of Kilz white primer in a big pool on the concrete floor. I thought all the paint stored on the floor was in plastic cans, oops.

I'm also noticing an odd habit of mine. When I walk into a dark room, even though I know the power's out, even though I'm carrying a flashlight to see by, I still reflexively flip the light switch. Then nothing happens, of course, because the power's out. So I feel a little stupid. Then I walk into another room, and I hit the light switch, and once more nothing happens, and I feel a little more stupid. I do this every time. Unless I'm consciously aware of not flipping the switch, I make the futile gesture and feel progressively dumber each time.

One cool thing about a power failure: Laura does a really beautiful job of lighting the house with candles. We can see well enough to get around, and if we light the candelabra she set on the table, we could even read by candlelight. I'm using the flashlight for spot lighting only; I even showered and did dishes (not at the same time) by candlelight. And, while she lights candles on a regular basis, we've usually got electric lights on too. It's nice to see how the house looks when the only illumination comes from artfully-arranged, well-placed candles.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Writing tools: word-processors

As an utter distraction from my unending quest to solve my problems with writing dialogue, point-of-view, and action, I experiment with new word processors. I know that the tools are the least important part of writing well, but writing is such an uphill battle for me that I'm constantly looking for tools that will make it even the barest bit easier, both to write and to organize what I write. So I'll occasionally fiddle around with different word processors.

I've got a lot of software options, but they tend to lock you to a specific piece of hardware. And none of them are cross-platform. But here's what I've played with:
  • AbiWord: small, easy to use, and even available as a PortableApp for PC, so you can run it on a thumb drive. Really, it's pretty well-featured for its small size. Nice auto save, which leaves your working file intact; it saves backups as often as you specify, as often as every minute, with a different file extension (one you specify) in the same directory as your working file. Nice if you crash, and also nice if you change something you want to restore. But otherwise not really a noticeable improvement over any other decent word processor.
  • OpenOfffice.org word processor: a complete replacement for MS Word. Much better coded than the M$oft behemoth, it's smaller on disk and uses much less RAM. Also available as a PortableApp.
  • Dark Room: this is the PC version of Mac's WriteRoom, and it's the software word processor I use most often. It's a full-screen text-only word processor, and I mean text-only. No formatting, just pure ASCII. Your only save format is .txt. But it also autosaves frequently. You can make the background and text colors whatever you want, and it's got nice font options. And, since it doesn't let you use italics, it helps me curtail my excessive italicizing. If only it disallowed 75% of semicolons and dashes, it would really improve my writing. It's a single executable file, so it can be run as a portable app as well, but your computer needs to be running the MS .Net framework. A version that runs on AIR is in the works, but not available yet.
These are all decent, and the portable apps are nice -- you don't leave anything behind on any public computer you're using. On the down side, none of them work on a Mac, and they require that I've got my flash drive with me whenever I want to write. More portable, and completely cross-platform, are the web-based word processors. I started using Writely a few years ago, and it's since been bought and turned into Google Docs. GoogleDocs is a nice toy, and only a web browser away from any computer you use. It saves frequently, it organizes nicely, and it's a friendly, familiar interface. Maybe better is Zoho Writer. Free, friendly, and a nicer interface than Google Docs. And Zoho's also got a bunch of other web-based apps: notes, personal wikis, organizers, and other cool toys (I'm in their private beta for ZohoMail, though I rarely use it). I'm using Zoho for my current work, and I haven't seen any problems yet. And because I pay foolish amounts of attention to metrics, I like that it gives me a word count.

My most portable software is TakeNote for my old Palm IIIxe. It's much simpler than Documents To Go, and it came free with my GoType keyboard. It's very basic -- you type, and the words appear on the screen. It saves when you close the document, with no autosave, but I've never had it crash. It's a bit labor intensive to get the text out of the Palm Pilot, though. I need to sync it, during which it automatically converts to a .txt file in a directory of my choosing, which I then need to open and paste into a document online or in a word processor. But as a word processor it's a kind of convenient, because I've always got the Palm and my folding keyboard with me. No computer or wi-fi required. I even take it with on the bike; it's always in the bottom of my cycling backpack. It's not necessarily for serious writing, but it's great for notes or for when I really have to get something down. And, did I mention the cheap? You can get a Palm III for twenty bucks at Fry's, and you can pick up keyboards without dropping much cash -- the GoType is twenty bucks (with software!) on Amazon, and the folding Palm keyboard is ten or twelve.

So these are my word-processing options for writing. I've seen a lot of software billed as specifically for writers, but I've never tried any. It seems like all of the functions they promise, like outlining and note-taking, are just as easy to do with any standard word processor. I might give some of them a try some day, when I start having the actual problems they purport to solve.

On a related note, I'm having some organizational problems with my texts. I've generally got a few docs going for a project: a rough outline, a pile of notes, and the actual text, at the minimum. And at the moment, I've got a short story and a longer work in progress, and a pile of notes for another project. Switching between an online word processor and a software-based word processor isn't hard, but it seems like I spend too much time keeping all the docs synchronized. Adding the Palm to the equation doesn't help....

Sunday, July 06, 2008

InConJunction: the taunting!

Scalzi's taunting me about not being at InConJunction this weekend. Well, you know -- not taunting me personally. He's taunting everyone who couldn't make it. But I feel the sting, yes I do. I really wish going to the con would've been the best way to spend my holiday weekend. Mine was spent well. But it included almost no science-fiction-ish fun of any kind. I'm sure that later in the week he'll publish some kind of recap, tormenting me further with my extreme lack of geeky-coolness. Next year's con is going on my calendar, and it'll be carved in stone.

The portable writing platform

I keep playing with the idea of picking up a new word-processing toy with which to [attempt to] craft fiction. It's in the back of my head every time I look at the laptops in a Best Buy ad: if I had one of these, would it make a good writing tool? The criteria are pretty simple: nice keyboard, friendly display, and excellent battery life. I keep seeing small laptops that look like they'd make for fun typing, like Sony's SZ series or Dell's 13" XPS. MacBooks are at the top of the pack. Small, light, portable, decent battery life, nice keyboard, and, best, no Vista. They're not crash-proof, but they're orders of magnitude more reliable than PCs.

I was also fascinated by the OLPC laptop. I've never seen one in person, but they look like they've got all the ideals too, coupled with being sturdy and light. And, recently, a whole host of subnotebooks (I've seen the term "netbooks") are either in development and hitting shelves. They're designed to be small, internet-connected, and cheap, and so far they look cool. HP's MiniNote has gotten good reviews, and people generally like the EeePC, especially the bigger ones.

I also like looking at dedicated writing tools -- things that aren't PCs and don't really do anything but write. At the top of this list is the AlphaSmart. I played around with an old AS3000 a few years ago, and I was amazed at it's complete lack of bells and whistles. You typed, it displayed the text. No wireless access, no built-in calculator, not even a spell checker, just a text-based word processor. They don't sell the 3000 anymore, but its replacement, the Neo, is much the same. It's got the same 700-hour (!) battery life as the 3000. It's also got a calculator, thesaurus, and spell checker, but otherwise it does nothing other than let you type on a 4-line display. Their higher-end model, the Dana, is essentially a wide-screen Palm Pilot with a full-size keyboard. It's got the advantage of allowing you to save your work to an SD card; the older ones require you to sync with a PC to get your text out. The Dana's battery life is only around 20 hours -- still excellent, but much less so than the simpler models. And they're all extremely rugged. I saw a 3000 bounce down two flights of marble steps, and the only damage was a few missing keys (which snapped easily back on when we found them). It didn't even lose data. These look like fun toys to have.

Of course, I don't really need any of these. When I'm at home I've got the old desktop computer. I've got my Acer TravelMate tablet to lug around with me. It's six years old and the battery life is waning, but it's still cool and has an extremely comfy keyboard. And, for the ultimate in portable, I've got my old Palm Pilot. It's a PalmIIIxe, and I've got two portable keyboards for it. No backup system, but also no distracting internet access, and 40 hours of battery life on two AAA batteries. I think I keep looking for new hardware for two reasons. One: guy. Toys. Shiny. And, two: I think I believe subconsciously in some kind of talismanic magic with writing tools. It feels like, if I can just find the right writing tool, the wordsmithing will suddenly become easy and totally not like work....

Friday, July 04, 2008

Still more crooked cops

For those of you keeping track, in the last three weeks, four Indianapolis police officers have been arrested. Two were arrested for stealing money and drugs from suspects (and possibly from the evidence locker) and selling the drugs on their own. One was arrested for selling firearms to convicted felons. And another was arrested for running a prostitution ring. This is not helping my already-slim confidence in the police. Police officers are a little scary; if they're corrupt, they're an enemy you can't defend against. Even if they're clearly in the wrong, they tend to win all the fights -- and even if they lose, they make fighting the fight not worth the trauma you'll suffer.

I'm already at the point where calling the cops is no longer an automatic response to crime; instead, I do some mental calculus to determine if it's the kind of crime they care about at all, if there's any chance they'll arrive in time, and if their presence will help or hurt. And I suspect I'm not alone in this reasoning. I imagine it was comforting for people of my parents' generation to believe that the police were generally the good guys, but my generation has no such comfort. We've got a pretty realistic appraisal of what police officers are: occasionally nice guys, occasionally bullies; sometimes honest, sometimes corrupt; rarely lifesavers, more often part of the problem. They're in my mental category of People To Avoid.

No Inconjunction this year.

Bummer -- Laura and I just looked at our schedules, and it's unlikely I'll make it to InConJunction this year. Or, at least not for the parts I really wanted to see; eight of the events I was most interested in are all today. There's a chance I'll make it for a bit of tomorrow, but I don't know how likely that is. I really wish I would've started planning this sooner. It snuck up on me, since my subconscious is still having trouble believing it's July. This puts a lot of pressure on Mr. Scalzi to make an appearance at Don's Books again. :-)

I'd like to go next year, though. I'm curious about these conventions, because I've heard so many authors and other folk talk about how much fun they are and all the cool people they meet. On the plus side, I'm pretty sure I'm clear for GenCon again. This year I'll try to do more of the actual events, instead of my usual wander-around-meeting-people.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

InConJunction

I'm debating going to Indianapolis's local sci-fi/fantasy convention, InConJunction. It's this weekend, at the Sheraton Hotel at Keystone at the Crossing. I've never been to one of these before. I've done GenCon a few times, but never the smaller, local cons. I've never even been to Starbase Indy. The conference schedule looks good; some of the panels sound interesting. Plus, John Scalzi will be there, and he's always fun. I'm curious to see the crowd that comes to this sort of thing. And I think I might like the atmosphere of this sort of con. If I go, I'll try to have as few preconceived notions as possible -- again, I've never done one of these before. I've still got time to decide; the first panel isn't until 2pm tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Twists in movies

I've enjoyed the twists in this summer's movies. I'm generally surprised by them, because that's one of the reasons I watch movies. I immerse myself into the world, and I really enjoy being taken in by the story, the characters, the wit, and the action. I love it when sudden turns take me by surprise. The twists get me, because I'm in the flow of the film.

I've met a few people recently who take an inordinate amount of pride in never, ever being surprised by a movie. For these people, it seems like the entertainment value isn't in the characters or dialogue or action, but in pitting themselves against the filmmakers, watching for any hint of foreshadowing, trying to guess where the story's going next, never letting the filmmakers pull a con on them. If a plot twist surprises them, they feel like they're losing. And, in all likelihood, they'll never admit to being surprised; they've got a lot of ego wrapped up in being "smarter" than other filmgoers.

Yeah. Whatever makes them happy, I guess. But it seems like they're missing the point of going to a movie. You're supposed to enjoy them, not engage them in a battle of wits....

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Summer movies, so far

Laura and I haven't been religious about seeing movies this Summer; until this weekend, we had only made it to the theaters for Iron Man, Indiana Jones, and The Hulk. Yesterday we snuck out to Wanted, and we just got back from the early-release screening of Hancock (where, surprisingly, we only had a dozen people in the theater with us). We're impressed with how good the movies have been so far, and we have high hopes for The Dark Knight, the only movie left on our must-see list.

Iron Man and The Hulk were very similar movies, so it's safe to discuss them together. Both were much better than we expected. Both featured surprisingly good performances from their lead actors, and some excellent actors as foils, enemies, and love interests. Both had a good mix of story and action. Best, both films were true enough to their comic-book roots that comics fans accepted and enjoyed them, without being self-contained enough that newcomers could enjoy them without knowing the backstory. I'm curious to see what the rest of the Avengers movies are like.

Wanted and Hancock had something in common, too: neither was the movie you expected after seeing the trailer. The trailers were very well made, in that they contained enough of the film to get you interested and in the theater, but they managed not to give away the important twists of the story. We assumed both movies would be bad but entertaining; imagine our surprise when they both turned out to be interesting as well as entertaining, action-oriented as well as (somewhat) thoughtful and clever.

Wanted
was sold on the basis of cool stunts, good action, and Angelina Jolie being hot; it delivered on all counts. But it was also a character study. We watch our hero evolve and learn, eventually moving closer to discovering who he is. Other characters aren't necessarily who we think they are, but Wesley Gibson is constantly changing, growing, and maturing as the movie progresses. It's odd to talk like this about a movie with so much gunfire and blood, but I suspect that if the same character's journey were filmed a few decades ago, without special effects or quite such a high body count, it'd be talked about in film school. Some of the action scenes seemed to be lifted directly from Equilibrium, which is a compliment. And, I should mention: cool, wildly implausible stunts and effects, fun action scenes, and hot Angelina.

Hancock broke my recent run of missing Will Smith films. I haven't seen anything of his since Bad Boys II (which I saw on DVD); I wasn't particularly interested in Hitch or Pursuit of Happyness, and I haven't found time for I, Robot or I Am Legend (I hear both of these share almost nothing in common with their source material, both of which were excellent stories). And Hancock was pretty good, and it's not really about what the trailer leads you to believe it's about. The cast was excellent, and Laura and I found the story thought-provoking. I liked the mythology they built, and the story was paced well. Plus, every time I hear Jason Bateman being funny, a part of my brain flashes back to Dodgeball: "It's a bold strategy, Cotton. Let's see how it pays off for them."

The only real disappointment was the Indiana Jones sequel. I know this is an odd criticism to level, but it was unrealistic. Remember Raiders of the Lost Ark? You never stopped in the middle of the movie and thought, "that can't really happen!" It was plausible action. The newest one, though, was full of wildly improbable -- or downright impossible -- moments that do a fair job of taking you out of the movie experience. I'm all for giving movies suspension of disbelief, but this pushed it too far, too often. The plot was thin and a bit stupid, and the writing was like a film student's attempt to recreate the Lucas/Spielberg style, with none of the warmth and humor.

The somewhat wild party

We hosted the fifth annual Geezer Party this weekend. Laura and her friends Mike and Kerry all have birthdays within a few weeks of each other, so we have a party for the three of them and a pile of friends. I'm not sure how many people came; we had 60 or so RSVPs, but I never counted actual attendees. Everyone had a good time, met new people, and caught up with old acquaintances. Laura was a wonderful hostess, and we both had a good time.

One thing I forget from year to year is how much energy the party takes. The event is Saturday night, but it occupies every minute of my time between Friday after work until sometime Sunday afternoon. We do a thorough house cleaning, I weed the garden, we cook and marinade and shop and build the barbecue pit and borrow lawn furniture and a whole host of odds and ends to make the party happen and help the guests enjoy themselves. After everyone leaves, we clean everything up; I think the party ended around 2am, and I finished dishes around 3:30. By the standard of some of the parties that happen in our neighborhood, we finished awfully early....

One of the Geezers, Kerry, now lives in Michigan and generally only makes it to Indy for the party every year. It's nice seeing him and his wife, Beth, and we all enjoyed meeting his new son Johnathan. I don't think I've seen them since I helped them move, so I'm glad they were our temporary house guests. Also nice to catch up with some of the people I see on a fairly regular basis, but never have a chance to talk to.

Now we've got an entire year to forget how much trouble the party is. Hopefully we won't start remembering until the invitations go out next year!