Monday, December 31, 2007

Atchoo

Either I have had a nasty allergic reaction to my parents' cats and/or dusty home, or I have a nasty cold. I feel kinda awful.

But, I'm back.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Stupid technology

My teammate and I played our weekly World of Warcraft competitive arena games, and we sucked it up a bit... we made 4-6. I'm using my parents' computer, and the keyboard sucks, the mouse sucks, the computer itself sucks, and their internet connection sucks. We'd actually have done very well were it not for those things (and corresponding technical problems on his side of things too), which is pretty darned frustrating. I'd estimate that we'd have gotten at least 7-3, if not 8-2, based on the fact that most of our losses were pretty close and partially due to specific computer-related problems.

Stupid technology.

Rhetorical tanglings

Is there a physical reason that, given about four seconds, any given wire will become tangled? Or is it just Murphy's Law? If it's the former, will scientists develop a solution to the problem before basically everything becomes wireless and wireless technology becomes reliable?


Suggested listening: Maroon 5—Tangled

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Conference

Today my mom took a dozen or so teenagers from the church to Topeka, Kansas for a Christian conference. It occurred to me that many of you probably have no idea what that means. Essentially, it’s extended “bonus” church, except that most of the attendees are teenagers, plus a road trip co-sponsored by the church and parents. The ratio of teenagers to adults there is generally about 10:1. The kids sit through several hours of lectures and singing and a likely-passable-but-not-really-good concert put on by a rock or pop band, and in exchange they get a free road trip and stay in a hotel with their friends for a couple days.

I went to a couple long ago. It was actually a pretty decent deal, since I liked most everyone my age that went to the same church as I did. At that age especially, when you may have limited mobility or freedom, going on a free trip with your friends is a pretty appealing offer, even if it means sitting through something that is long but thought-provoking at best, and tedious and awkward at worst.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas

I’ve made it to Nebraska with nary a casualty. Merry Central Standard Time Christmas to all, and to all a holy crap I’m tired.

On a jet plane

Well, here I sit in the Minneapolis airport. It’s 2:30pm Central time, which means that I got up about eight hours ago at 4:30am Pacific time. Travis on four hours of sleep is not a particularly happy Travis. They’ve got wireless access here, but I haven’t really decided if it’s worth the five bucks an hour to use it, and I’m not terribly convinced by the ad-hoc computer-to-computer unsecured wireless network with the tantalizing name “Free Wireless Internet,” so I’m staying away from that one. So, for now, I’ll just post to a Word document.

Initially I feared that I would not make it to the airport on time; I took the bus to the airport, which costs about an hour and saves about $55 on a taxi. I had a layover in Seattle, and the transit tunnel was closed, and the signage was less than clear. I walked for about half a mile around Seattle looking for a bus that could take me to the airport with another confused Asian man named Li. We made it to a stop with about four minutes to spare. I’m tired of getting to the airport a full two hours before my flight like they always tell you, and 4:30 was early enough to wake up, so I decided to try to get there by 8:00 for my 9:00 flight. Security wasn’t actually all that bad; there were only about twenty people ahead of me. I guess nobody is in the airport at 8:00 on December 24.

As I was waiting for the rest of the passengers to board (why is everyone so desperate to line up to get on the plane early?), I thought to myself that so far, I can’t recall ever having sat next to a truly huge person, or anyone non-white on a plane before. I’d sat next to a big football player guy once on a plane with two seats on that side, and we were pretty cozy, but I can safely say that I can scratch one of those things off now. The woman in the middle seat next to me easily filled a seat and a half, and if I needed to come up with a single word to describe her, I’d probably pick “colossal.” (A more tactful word would probably be “jolly.”) She was nice, and extremely talkative—but that was not a comfortable flight. I’m just now getting feeling back in my legs. She was an English teacher flying in from Japan, and after having flown across the ocean into the Seattle airport on a flight delayed for a day, she had to fly to Minneapolis to get to her final destination in… Montana.

And that’s about all I’ve got right now. My flight doesn’t board for another two hours, so I’m getting ever closer to that time when I finally cave and pay them for internet access so I can fuel my addiction. I’d like to think that I’m strong enough—that I can last a couple hours without being online. But I forgot to bring a book, and there’s only so much Hexic that a man can play.

P.S. My battery life sucks.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Stress relief

The stress relief portion of my vacation is nearly over. Next up is the stress-building portion, where I hang out with my family. Can't wait.

Season behind

On Monday I finished watching season one of Heroes with a couple friends, so now I'm "only" a full season behind on two shows: Heroes and Battlestar Galactica. I gotta say... I loved it. It has all sorts of things that make it a great nerd-pleaser: drama, action, special effects, twists and turns, a conspiracy story, plot arcs that last forever, never seeming to be resolved, and of course, lots of superpowers. Really the only fault I can find with it is that it seemed that some of the episodes of the first season were all about advancing the season-long storyline, with little to nothing happening at the episode level. I felt the same way about 24; it was much more engaging watching it from the start than right in the middle, but I found Heroes to be much more engaging than 24... I just got bored with 24 after a half dozen episodes or so, even though I was into it at the start.

A lot of my favorite shows reward long-time viewers even as they're occasionally hostile to newcomers—Star Trek: Voyager and Enterprise were, I imagine, pretty indeciperable to people unfamiliar with the series, and The X-Files was basically one big nine-season story arc that only sort of resolved at the end, even though many episodes stand alone very well on their own. And most episodes of Arrested Development, while still being quite hilarious solo, actually become better on a second viewing due to all of the references and in-jokes packed into each one. Heroes was the same way—the first episode I saw was the fourth or fifth episode of season one, and it wasn't really that interesting on its own. Not a lot made too much sense. But, I saw potential, and it seemed like the sort of thing I'd like, and everyone else in the world seemed to adore the show, so I bought the DVDs. I'm glad I did. I'd recommend it to you, but I'm pretty sure I was the last person in the world to see the series, so I'd be wasting my time.

(And TV is just so much better on DVD that I almost don't miss having cable.)

Friday, December 21, 2007

Oh clock

Oh, and as you can tell from the timestamp, I'm doing great at maintaining a healthy sleep schedule while on vacation.

Gattaca

Well, here I am, enjoying my vacation, and hardly bothering to sit down and write the occasional word here. How utterly selfish. Anyway, since I'm on vacation, I don't have much to talk about. I started on Wednesday, and the past two days I've accomplished next to nothing, which is exactly everything I'd hoped for. I do have things I need to do, though, so tomorrow I'll need to start on those.

Tonight I watched the movie Gattaca, and I think that it's a good movie that I didn't really like all that much. I think I just wasn't in the mood for it. I was interested in what was going to happen next, and it's a well-constructed movie, but I just didn't really enjoy watching it. It's an unsettling movie, really—disturbing because it's just believable enough to maybe be true someday, and I've always found the "somebody pretending to be somebody else" plot to be sort of creepy. Movies and shows in which someone pretends to be someone they're not often don't sit well with me for some reason or another. But I don't un-recommend the movie to, you know, normal people.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Gears

This weekend I finished Gears of War, and it's a pretty darned good game. It looks fantastic, the storytelling is good, characters act believably, and the system of taking cover and using it to your advantage is pretty unusual and very well-executed. You don't have to worry about your health, as you heal quickly between battles, and ammo is generally quite plentiful.

Not everything is perfect. It gets fairly repetitive by the end. On the lowest difficulty level, many opponents provide little challenge, which I'm generally fine with, except there are quite a few spots in the game where it's just "surprise! this unavoidable thing happened to you and now you're dead." I could live with that in general (Splinter Cell is practically based on moments like that), but there are no save games in Gears of War. There are only checkpoints. That's okay on a console because console gamers seem to like their games to be maddeningly stupid, but it's not okay on a PC—simply not acceptable. It's not a poor design decision; it's just broken. That said, the checkpoints in Gears of War are pretty well-placed, at least for the first two-thirds of the game or so. Checkpoints start to get further apart and awkwardly-placed toward the end. And, they're generally put before cutscenes instead of after them, which is extremely unfortunate as it really pulls you out of the game to see the same cutscene again and again. You can't skip them. There are a couple particularly challenging parts—the ones that come to mind are one part in which you're defending a mansion from enemy attacks, one where you're fighting this enormous Brumak beast (missing from the Xbox version I believe), and the final battle of the game—and for each one of those, the previous checkpoint was before a cutscene preparing for the battle. Each time an unskippable game cutscene plays for a second or subsequent time a kitten dies and Travis gets annoyed.


The difficulty curve of Gears of War.

Really, none of those took more than a few tries, so it wasn't the end of the world. Maybe a half-dozen attempts for the worst ones. But the final boss, General RAAM, is just ridiculous. He's far, far, far harder than anything else in the rest of the game. I abhor it when games do things like that. Yes, good work mister game, you've convinced me that I am fighting a powerful foe. I am playing you to have an enjoyable time, not to have it drilled into my head that I am fighting an enemy of unimaginable power. I get it. I got it from the cutscenes the first time. I got it from the cutscenes the twentieth time. He's a badass. Fantastic. Let me kill him so I can see the ending.

Sigh. I don't know. There's a big difference, to me, at least, between a game that presents a challenge and one that just has you die a lot for no good reason. I generally play games on nothing higher than the "medium" difficulty setting for a very good reason: to avoid unforgiving nonsense like a battle that takes about thirty tries to get right. After about twenty I looked on YouTube to see if there was anything I was missing, and just about every "strategy" video I saw explained that his script sometimes bugs out and he gets stuck in one spot, and the "strategy" is to exploit this so you can beat him. The script didn't bug out for me, so it wasn't much help.

(Also, seeing RAAM on those videos made me wonder if the PC version is harder than the console version. I read that Unreal Tournament 3, by the same team, is slowed down significantly on consoles because it was perceived to be too hard for console gamers.)

Oh well. It's over. It's still a good game worth checking out; it's just a couple specific parts that are frustrating, and if you're the sort of person who I stereotype as a "console gamer," I'm sure you'll think it's just fine. The story is amusing enough, the graphics are beautiful, the sounds and music are perfect, and the skirmishes are engaging. It's just sad, because with savegames and a couple retuned fights, it could have been a 10. As it stands... it's not.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Juno

I just got back from the movie Juno, and it was hilarious. It's witty and sarcastic and smart and cute, and the star Ellen Page is perfect. I was kind of expecting Michael Cera and Jason Bateman (George-Michael and Michael from Arrested Development) to be the upsides, and they were still funny, but I think that Juno and her parents outshined them both. Great acting, great writing, and a clever story.

Too bad it isn't playing in many theatres. We had to go all the way to Seattle to see it.

Friday, December 14, 2007

There is no need to hold the door

People will often hold the door for me when I'm entering the building on my Segway. This happens every week or two. The problem is that it's actually not any easier for me to enter or leave the building when someone is holding the door. I'm extremely used to entering and leaving buildings either on my Segway or having it follow alongside me—it's actually quite easy and not cumbersome. By holding the door for me, you're just throwing me off my normal routine, making things considerably more difficult. Now I have to pay attention to you, make sure I don't bump into you, and figure out how likely it is that you are going to let the door slip a little and hit my tires and confuse me even more.

It's not that I don't appreciate it. It's awfully nice of you. But really, unless I'm trying to carry something, it's not actually helping, so don't feel obligated to do it.

This has made me wonder whether I should hold the door for handicapped people. I assume that most people in wheelchairs have generally been handicapped for quite some time and have gotten used to it by now. Is it actually easier for other people to hold doors, or do they also just sigh and graciously accept the courtesy, not willing to look like an ungrateful jerk? Now, I imagine that someone who is genuinely handicapped is in a somewhat different situation than someone who rides a robotic self-balancing slave for recreation and eccentricity, so I don't know if my experiences transfer or not. But it's enough to make me consider not holding the door for handicapped people in the future. Maybe I'll just ask the person if it was actually helpful next time it comes up, if I can find a way to word it so it doesn't sound like I'm rubbing in the fact that I have working legs and yet still choose to ride a personal wheeled device around.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The joys of homeownership

It's probably best not to look at how little of my mortgage payments actually affect the principal on my loan. The payments on my second mortgage are $379.00 a month. Out of that, last month only $41.51 actually made its way to the principal. The credit union got the rest.

Owned.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Skeletons are silly

Sometimes I will start to write a post, and then I'll just save it around in draft form until I go back and finish writing it later, or decide I don't want to write about something. I'll also occasionally just type ideas for future posts into drafts, so I can fill them out later. I just noticed that I have a draft from 15 March 2005 at 12:53 AM saved that I never posted. I never did anything with it because it's an awful, awful post, but now that it's been sitting in my drafts folder for a quarter decade, it's funny in a what-the-hell sort of way. So, I thought I'd share it with you (perhaps "inflict" is a more appropriate word)—complete and in its original, unaltered form.

Okay, so here's an idea: first, buy skeletonsaresilly.com. Then, put up a page that explains that the site is all about hilarious pictures of skeletons doing silly things. But then, the twist: every page is just pictures of real dead people. Maybe even with backstories. It would be funny because it would be so horrifically unfunny, and not at all what people were expecting.

In my head

I remember a few interesting things from my dreams last night. I remember that I was staying in a house outside the city in a wetlands sort of area. I think I was renting it for a week or two. The house's architecture was strange; it was like a bunch of small cubic rooms that were attached, clustered together and connected like a honeycomb. The interior of the house was reminiscent of my grandparents' house, but the outside was strange. There was a mouse problem, which it turned out was because the previous residents had a lot of pet mice and left them there when they vacated, and the mice eventually broke free and took over the house. When I arrived there were many cats roaming around, looking for a meal. I installed some live traps because I didn't have the heart to kill the mice, and they were someone's pets once, after all. I was doing this when I got a phone call.

There was a friend of mine who has sort of disappeared for the past week. For a while we were communicating once a day or so, but I stopped hearing from him a while back. The call I got was from him; he was just calling to say hi and apologize for not responding to emails, but he hung up quickly and abruptly during the conversation. I learned on the news that night that he had been arrested and jailed a week earlier, and then had escaped that day. They never said exactly what the crime was, but he had left a bloody pair of gloves and his cell phone when he went to pick up his paycheck at the Burger King in the UNL student union, and that police were looking for the only person he had called after escaping, so they could question him... me. Crimes that involve bloody gloves as clues are generally pretty bad, right?

After finding out that the police were after me, I panicked, and I was up on the house's strange multi-level, geometric roof, fearing that the police would be there for me any minute now, and my best bet to stay hidden was apparently to be on the roof of the house where they could probably see me for a mile. The dream ended there.


I can pick out where most of the elements of the dream come from in real life. The whole "person I used to talk to has disappeared off the face of the earth" scenario is happening right now, though they don't work at Burger King, and have probably never been in Nebraska. I think the mice showed up because there was a cutscene involving a mouse in Gears of War, which I was playing right before I went to bed. The strange house in the wetlands setting has shown up in a few dreams recently, and I'm not sure why. I guess I technically live in a house bordering wetlands, but mine really looks next to nothing like what I've been seeing in dreams. And I don't know where the whole "watching the news" part comes from; who does that except in movies?

Dry spell

This might qualify for the longest I've gone on this blog without posting. But really, the silence is probably justified. The most exciting things that have happened recently are that my fridge seems to be dying (it's occasionally putting out these awful burning smells), and the sump pump in my crawl space is dead and there's water down there from the last big rain we had. For the most part, it's just been work. I've got a week and a half until I start my rest-of-the-year vacation, though, and that will be nice, even though most of it will be in Nebraska and probably won't feel like much of a vacation. I have a looming fear already that when I get back and start work again, I'm going to wish that I'd scheduled more vacation time.

Oh, and for all of those WoW-playing readers (zero?), I finished a big milestone and released version 0.7 of my mod Pawn, which helps you easily compare the relative qualities of items in the game and decide which equipment to wear. The new version has a lovely UI to use in-game so you can configure it as you go. Check it out if you're into the game's math and item stats as much as I am.

Twenty-six

Well, my birthday has come and passed, and I'm twenty-six now. That's thrilling. I decided to take my birthday off of Facebook and see how many people would remember... not too many, as it turns out. I celebrated with board games with people who took way too long to take their turns.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Microsoft points

Now that I'm an Xbox owner who has purchased something on Xbox Live (Carcassonne), I think I now have the right to say: Microsoft Points can go to hell. I'm all for Microsoft making you add money to your account in chunks so they don't pay 30% of every icon pack or song you buy to their credit card processing company, but making you buy imaginary currency that doesn't map 1:1 to real-world currency is madness. I think it's safe to say that they do it so that it's hard to figure out exactly how much you're spending on something. This was very clear to me as soon as I heard people first talking about it, but it felt cheap to complain that something was confusing before I'd had the actual opportunity to experience it myself.

Carcassonne was 800 Points. So, your first thought is naturally that it will cost you $8.00, because US Dollars are real currency that we're used to. But 800 Points actually costs you $10.00, and you can't buy just $10.00 worth of Points; you have to buy them in $6.25 increments. So, you have to buy 1000 Points for $12.50. If you never buy anything else (yes, that's unlikely), you paid $12.50 for something that vaguely looked like it cost $8.00. It's basically the same experience as buying things in foreign countries, except foreign countries aren't a mile down the street, they don't send me a paycheck, and it's more debatable whether or not they're trying to screw the tourists.

Just remember that the exchange rate is 100 Points = $1.25, which isn't terribly hard to calculate in your head... you just shouldn't have to.

[This is a fine time to remind everyone that I in no way represent Microsoft or its shareholders. For entertainment purposes only. Do not ingest. If you do, contact an internetologist immediately. I just don't want anyone to think that just because they pay me money I somehow believe that this system is not retarded.]

[In the original version of this post, I had the conversion ratio backwards and used $ instead of ¢, which practically proves my point.]

Green ring

Well, I'm now an Xbox owner, for one or more of the following reasons:

  • My birthday is coming up very soon
  • Christmas is nearly here and I didn't have anything else in mind to buy myself
  • I got a slight company discount so I felt obligated to wait in the ridiculous line that wrapped around the outside of the building that contains our company store
  • I was going to buy an Xbox wireless controller for my computer anyway, and the whole system is only like 1500% more, so it was practically free
  • It looks so sexy in my living room
  • All my peers have one so I felt strangely pressured to get one too
  • My previous media center and server's fans are dying and loud, and I want it out of my living room
  • My previous media center and server's DVD drive is on its last legs

Regardless of how the facts work out, I just paid half a grand to play a ten-dollar board game that I already own. Soon, though, I'll get my server set up upstairs, and I'll be able to stream TV and music to my Xbox downstairs, which should be fun times in the end. As soon as I find the time...

(I'm Hratli on Xbox Live, in case you haven't added me yet.)

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Endlessly

The short version:
Muse—Absolution: 8/10
The Bird and the Bee—The Bird and the Bee: 7/10
Cyril Morin—Western Pansori: 8/10

After liking Black Holes and Revelations by Muse so much, I picked up their earlier 2003 album Absolution, and it's also quite good. Black Holes is the stronger of the two, but both are great—Black Holes is a little bit more refined, with each track standing out just a little better. Anyway, there's still plenty of good stuff on Absolution, and if you liked Black Holes, you'll like Absolution as well, and if you like rock at all, there's a pretty good chance you'll like them both. My favorites here are Time Is Running Out, Endlessly, and Butterflies and Hurricanes. The disc is bright, energetic, and interesting, playing well from start to finish or as individual tracks. My only real complaint is that on both albums, the lead singer sounds pretty much the same on just about every song. He keeps doing these LONG, short short LONG, short short LONG sort of patterns ("thiiiiiiiiiissss is the waaaaaaaaaaaay that he siiiiiiiiiiiingssssss"), with the main difference being whether he's yelling or not. But, it's not so bad, and I've become accustomed to male vocalists not having as much variance and range as female singers.

Upon recommendation by a friend, I've been checking the self-titled first album from The Bird and the Bee, and it's pretty wacky. In fact, "wacky pop" is probably the best way I can describe it. It's not really popular music, but it shares some styles, and it's not rock or electronica or dance. It's got sort of a lounge feel like some Zero 7 songs do, but the sound is not really the same. It's a bit psychadelic and breezy and just... fun. My favorite songs on this CD are Fucking Boyfriend, Again and Again, and Because. There are also some lighter songs like I'm a Broken Heart which are fine, but not really "favorite" material. It seems that if you enjoy the artists Zero 7 and Brazilian Girls, there's a pretty decent chance that you'll enjoy this CD. If you enjoy only one of those, I'm not sure.

I've also been listening to Western Pansori by Cyril Morin and the Bulgarian Symphony Orchestra, which I found on Pandora. It's a beautiful, mostly-instrumental new age album. It could have been be a soundtrack to a movie, but it's not, and it uses that to its advantage. It's soothing without being boring, and as soon as it ends I often feel like starting it up again. The album sounds good if you play it in the background, or if you crank it up and get lost in it. The whole disc flows very well, but the tracks Beyond Windows, Western Pansori, and Superkids stand out on their own.

Meteorology

So, it snowed. I never saw more than about an inch, and it's mostly gone by now. Apparently two miles away people were getting five inches. How does a two-mile difference bring 400% more snow? Surely lake proximity cannot explain that all.

These are the mysteries I have to live with, because it's three o'clock and I'm going to sleep.