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Xiphias Gladius

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Making root beer, experiments so far [May. 26th, 2015|10:56 pm]
Xiphias Gladius
My eventual goal is to make a Moxie extract of some sort, but I'm starting with a root beer. Moxie is fundamentally a root beer which features gentian, a bitter root, as a major flavor component.

Looking through our 19th century apothecary books, which include soda recipes, it seems that there are a few general flavorings that keep showing up in root beer and Moxie recipies.

The main ones which I've seen are caramel coloring, sarsaparilla extract, sassafras, wintergreen oil, and, of course, gentian. With dozens of other flavorings showing up in this recipe or that one, but those are the major ones.

A basic modern-style root beer has three primary flavors, along with whatever else is added to the recipe by the particular manufacturer. They are caramel color, wintergreen, and sarsaparilla. Except, in the United States, "sarsaparilla" isn't really sarsaparilla -- there are several related plants around the world called "sarsaparilla", but none of them grow in North America. American "sarsaparillas" in the 19th century were usually based on sassafras.

So, for the time being, I'm just using an artificial "sarsaparilla" extract. It was made in a lab somewhere, but it is fine for this part of my learning process.

I started with the caramel color. Caramel color is actually a flavoring sweetener, not just a coloring. It's caramelized brown sugar, diluted in water, and I've been able to use that as the only sweetener. Then I added some of the artificial sarsaparilla.

And then I used the wintergreen extract.

Now, wintergreen extract is a VERY interesting substance. I have not yet been able to use a small enough amount of it -- I'm making only a cup or two of syrup at a time, and a single drop is too much for a cup. It smells LOVELY, and the smell of wintergreen plus sarsaparilla immediately says "root beer", even with nothing else.

Pure oil of wintergreen is methyl salicylate, and is a close chemical cousin to aspirin. Oil of wintergreen can itself be an analgesic and anti-inflammatory -- but it's not a good idea to use it that way, because your medically effective dosages are uncomfortably close to your dangerous dosages. A tablespoon of oil of wintergreen is, like, sixty aspirins -- which can kill you.

However, the amounts you use in cooking are orders of magnitude lower, and are fine.

Wintergreen, methyl salicylate, occurs in the wintergreen plant, of course, which is a forest groundcover plant, but also in birch bark. This is why birch bark is a possible ingredient in early root beer recipes, and, indeed, why one of the possible beverages is "birch beer". The birch gives that wintergreen flavor which is necessary for the stuff.

So, to summarize:

At this point, I've got a good handle on caramel coloring. It's a cooked brown sugar syrup which gives that lovely dark brown color in root beer and cola. I understand the concepts behind oil of wintergreen, and have a supply of chemically-manufactured wintergreen. At some point, I may attempt to make my own, from plants, since I assume that the plants will add other more complex flavors to the mix -- the oil of wintergreen I've got is just simply a solution of methyl salicylate, and I assume that wintergreen leaves and birch twigs would include other flavors and smells as well.

I don't have any idea about sarsaparilla, though. The artificial sarsaparilla flavoring I've got is presumably a mixture of flavors. So I'm making a tincture of sassafras root and will see how that goes.
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Too generally applicable to count as a spoiler for GAME OF THRONES [May. 24th, 2015|10:08 pm]
Xiphias Gladius
Boy, Cirsei really sucks at this, doesn't she? I mean, I think everybody except Cersei and probably Tomin saw that coming.
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Brief review of MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. [May. 23rd, 2015|10:04 pm]
Xiphias Gladius
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Catsitting steps backward. [May. 21st, 2015|03:49 pm]
Xiphias Gladius
Oh, well. Letting the cats be together has ceased to be a good idea.

I think what's happened is that small is now comfortable in our place -- so, now that she feels that it's her territory, she's begun being territorial. Fortunately, our place was recently two entire apartments, which means that there is plenty of room for her to live separately for the time being. We can drop back to original cat introductions and start over.

Annoying, but, well, it happens. Cats are little balls of anger and love.
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Quick update on catsitting: [May. 19th, 2015|03:48 pm]
Xiphias Gladius
Scritching that spot on small's ear that makes her back leg go THUMPTHUMPTHUMPTHUMPTHUMPTHUMPTHUMP never gets old.
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For my sysadmin, QA, and general troubleshooter friends: [May. 18th, 2015|08:28 pm]
Xiphias Gladius
"So, we can send email about five hundred miles, or maybe a little more, but we can't send it six hundred miles. Can you take a look at it?"

The case of the 500-mile email.
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Is it unfair that Larry Correia hasn't won any awards? [May. 16th, 2015|08:24 pm]
Xiphias Gladius
The first book in Larry Correia's MONSTER HUNTERS INC. series is available for free download for Kindle right now, and from what I've heard, it sounded like the sort of pulp that I enjoy. So I have downloaded it, with the intention that, if I like it, I'll go ahead and buy them.

And it's basically competent.

If he cut out about half the words, I think he'd be at about average for the pulps. There's nothing new in the first book, and it's a bit draggy.

Honestly, I think that if he took a Viable Paradise class from Macdonald and Doyle, he'd turn into a fantastic pulp author, but I think he really needs some editing, at least in the first book, to kick up his skill level.

That said, I'm reading his first book, which was six years ago, and he's written a bunch of books since then, so he may have done so by now.

But I definitely don't see it as the sort of thing that is award-winning. Not even within its subgenre: there's a fair bit of modern urban fantasy about monster hunters, and this is about average.
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Luxuries that I have that save significant money. [May. 15th, 2015|12:26 pm]
Xiphias Gladius
It's nice to have enough blessings to make it worthwhile to stop and count them sometimes. Among the luxuries I've got are time, money, confidence, and enough skill to make some sort of difference in my quality of life. And a neighborhood with competent, friendly businesses.

See, we have a refrigerator that Lis bought in 1993. So it's 22 years old. And it's never given us a lick of trouble until a couple months ago.

That's our first piece of luck: when Lis was barely out of college, she was able to research, find, and afford a fridge which wasn't fancy, but which was rock-solid reliable.

A couple months ago, the frost-free freezer started developing frost, and, at the same time, the freezer started only going down to 20 degrees Fahrenheit, instead of the 0 that one really wants for long-term storage.

That's the second piece of good fortune: even when things break, it only broke to the level that it was sub-par, not unusable.

And a third piece of good fortune is that, because we have a first-floor apartment that we are now using for ourselves, we have a second fridge, which we were able to plug in and leave some of the things we wanted to keep really, really frozen.

Today, I used a fourth blessing: there is a competent and family-owned appliance and parts and service store across the street from us, so I was able to go into the service department, and tell them what was happening and ask how hard it would be to fix. He said that it sounded like the frost-free mechanism was failing to frost-free, which would mean that the mechanism which actually cools stuff would have gotten frozen in a solid block of ice, which would mean that it really wouldn't be able to get stuff much colder than 32 degrees. And that it was really doing a bang-up job keeping things as cold as it WAS. But the particular model and manufacturer that Lis had bought 22 years ago had a frost-free mechanism in which the expensive bits are known to be very reliable, meaning that the part which broke on it was probably the part which is least expensive.

So, I've moved our food to the downstairs fridge, and have taken apart the inside of the fridge the way the technician suggested, and found the sensors and chilling unit frozen in a block of ice, just as suggested. I probably won't do the repair myself, but even calling one of those guys out to fix it for me, I'm looking at $200 instead of a new fridge.
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Compare and contrast: [May. 13th, 2015|09:53 pm]
Xiphias Gladius
One of these is a Saturday Night Live parody trailer. One is a real trailer for a real series.

Can you tell which is which?





Now, this one doesn't map as well, but, to my mind, it lives in a nearby neighborhood.

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I have a new local hero. "Lord" Timothy Dexter. [May. 13th, 2015|10:13 am]
Xiphias Gladius
You know how the difference between "eccentric" and "insane" is your net worth? "Lord" Timothy Dexter was an incredibly successful entrepreneur in Revolutionary-era New England, and, well, yeah.

He was born in Malden to a working-class family, but decided that he would become a great man -- or, well, a "grat man" -- he never actually figured out spelling or punctuation. Later in life, he actually wrote a book, called A Pickle for the Knowing Ones. It's got random capitalization, arbitrary spelling, and the first edition has no punctuation in it. For the second edition, in response to complaints that the first edition completely lacked punctuation, he added in a final page consisting of rows of punctuation marks, with the instruction that "fouder mister printer the Nowing ones complane of my book the fust edition had no stops I put in A Nuf here and thay may peper and solt it as they plese"

It's unclear if he was some sort of business genius, or just disturbingly lucky. He was ignorant, unpleasant, and intensely disliked. As far as I can tell, someone who was trying to make fun of him told him that he should "ship coals to Newcastle."

So he did. He sent a huge shipment of coal from New England to Newcastle, England, the world's largest supplier of coal.

It arrived during a miner's strike. Everybody ELSE in the port was desperate to buy coal to fill THEIR contracts. He made a killing.

He sent bed-warmers to the West Indies. Made a profit, as people bought them as ladles. He sent out a mixed shipment of bibles and cats. Which arrived at the same time as a whole bunch of missionaries and a rat infestation.

He originally made his fortune after the Revolutionary war. Over the course of the war, the Continental army had printed and paid its soldiers in its own unbacked scrip, which was now completely worthless. As a public service and a donation to the troops, some of the wealthier American patriots were buying up this scrip from soldiers, to try to get soldiers at least a LITTLE of the money they were owed. Dexter saw this, and realized that he could buy this stuff, too. And at lower prices than the wealthier Americans were getting!

He bought tons of the stuff, basically at scrap-paper prices. And then he held onto it, waiting for the market to turn.

As part of his work in trying to get the United States to be taken seriously as an economic power, Alexander Hamilton pushed through legislation to redeem Continental scrip for 1% of face value.

As he became wealthier, he wanted to get more into civic life and get more respect. He kept trying to get a position as a public official, to get some status in the community. Eventually, Malden created for him the position of "Informer of Deer", with the duties of announcing to the populace if deer wandered into the downtown.

(There was, at the time, no population of deer in the area, and hadn't been for twenty years. There are probably deer closer to downtown Malden TODAY than there were when Dexter was "Informer of Deer".)

Anyway, he eventually moved to Newburyport, where he built a mansion at 201 High Street. The mansion is still there, and, as far as I can tell, Prof. William G. Quill of Northeastern University lives there today. I'm under the impression that, over the course of the 19th century, though, a lot of its more excessive stuff was toned down, and I'd guess that it probably is today just basically a "normal" mansion, although I'm tempted to look up the professor's office hours to see if I couldn't go in and ask him what the place is like.

Right. "Lord". As you might have guessed by the fact that I keep putting "Lord" in quotes, he wasn't actually a lord of anything. But he decided that he was, so he started calling himself "Lord Timothy Dexter", and people just kind of went along with it. He was vaguely aware that lords have poet laureates, so he got himself one, a guy who he found selling halibut out of a wheelbarrow. The guy apparently decided that he'd prefer to write poems than sell fish, and Dexter needed someone to write poems about him, so it worked out great.

The only thing was that a poet laureate needs a laurel wreath, and they didn't have laurels, so he got a wreath of parsley, which was what they had at the time. Still, seemed a good deal.

After he stopped getting along with his wife, he started telling people that she'd died. When they'd point out that she was STANDING RIGHT THERE, he'd insist that, no, that was just her ghost.

There's more, but you all have Google and Wikipedia, too, so I'm going to stop there.
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Took small and our cats to the vet today. [May. 12th, 2015|07:01 pm]
Xiphias Gladius
Because it was time for our cats rabies and distemper booster, we were going to the vet anyway. And because it was ALSO time for small's, and keeping her up to date is a good idea, we included her in the appointment, too. So I brought three cats (in three carriers -- the two we own, and one of those eight-dollar cardboard carriers you get at Petco) to the vet. There was complaining and meowing in the car, but nothing unusual.

Once we were ensconced in the exam room, and were waiting for the vet (we got there early, so we had a bit of a wait, but the exam room was free, so we just waited in there), I let the cats out, separately. I mean, I let Nick and Nora out and gave them a chance to walk around and explore, then, when they hopped back into their carrier (as I expected, after they got a look around, they went into the same carrier together and left the cardboard one alone), I closed that door and let small out to explore. Eventually, I left both carriers open, giving each cat a defensible location to retreat into, but also giving them chances to explore and interact with each other.

When the vet tech came in, small made herself absolutely adorable. She is SUCH a human-centric cat. If there was any sort of difficulty in examining her, it was in her refusing to stop snuggling the vet and vet tech. She charmed the heck out of them. She complained a little bit about getting one of the shots, but not too much.

Nicky and Nora were also appropriately admired and snuggled by the vet and vet tech.

I also discovered that there is a spot on/in small's ear that, if you scritch it, her back leg goes "THUMPTHUMPTHUMPTHUMPTHUMPTHUMPTHUMP."

So, our next adventure is, we've made an appointment at Petco to get all three of them groomed. First, they all could use the remnants of their winter coats brushed out. Second, we do try to get our cats washed once a year or so -- as the old saying goes, "Cats aren't clean: they're just covered in cat spit." And third, and this is something of a longshot, but it couldn't hurt -- cats partially determine who is "in" and "out" of their family/tribe/clowder by smell, so there's a chance that bathing them at the same time will reset their scents, and give them a chance to develop a common scent and therefore a common group identity.

So, we'll see.
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We've got a guest cat in our house. [May. 11th, 2015|12:37 pm]
Xiphias Gladius
It's no secret that our friend thespian, Stephanie Clarkson, has been ill for a while now, and has been hospitalized. Her friends have been stopping by her apartment to take care of her cat, and the rest of the things that need attention, but her cat is the kind of cat that just needs people around, so it just makes more sense for someone to take her into their house until Stephanie can get back home.

Stephanie's cat is named "small", in the same sense of an Italian guy called "Tiny." I think small is bigger than both of our cats put together. And she is settling in pretty well. She's been here for just about two days, and has completely made herself at home.

Now, how she's doing with our cats is -- awkward. They're at the "wary but not really hostile" stage. There is hissing and growling when she gets to close to them, or they get too close to her, but the fact that she's not very athletic seems to be helping -- she can't follow them up to the top of the bookcases, nor can she squeeze herself into the narrow spots between the boxes under the bed. Our cats' having places from which they can watch small without small being able to reach them seems to help.

We've been shutting her downstairs overnight, but keeping her up here when one of us is home and awake, both because small needs human contact, and to give opportunities for the cats to get used to each other. We referee by standing in between cats when it appears helpful to do so, but there hasn't been any violence. Hissing, growling, and very, very poofy tails, but no attacks, and, indeed, no flattened ears. Definite wariness, definitely all keeping an eye on each other, but I think they'll be to the point of being okay ignoring each other pretty soon, and it's not impossible that they'll get to the point of playing with each other. Which I'd like -- I think a second playmate with be useful for Nicky because he tends to want to play more than Nora does. And I think small could benefit by a bit more active play with another cat; exercise is good for everybody, and she seems to get winded pretty quickly when playing with the feather toy. It could be that, when they get used to each other, chasing each other around could be fun. And, as small is very social, perhaps having some other cats to groom and snuggle would be good for her.

I hope so, anyway. But all I really expect is for Nick and Nora to be comfortable ignoring small, and vice versa. That's just fine. And we're really only a couple days away from that, I think.
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I think my wife and I are going to have to spend a WHOLE LOT of money really soon... [May. 7th, 2015|01:28 pm]
Xiphias Gladius
We've lived in this house for a good fifteen years. And a lot of our stuff may well have a fifteen year lifespan...

Our fridge, which is actually 22 years old, is starting to have trouble staying quite cold enough -- the freezer holds things at significantly below freezing, but not as far below freezing as you want, and it's started building up frost, which it never did before. Our washing machine is making noises on its spin cycle. Our stove needs a match to light the burners, which doesn't much bother me, but if we're going to be spending so much money that we'll have to take out a loan, we should look at. And our car is at 180,000 miles and has some sorts of harmonic hums at around 45 mph.

Nothing's BROKEN, yet, but everything is giving signals that it's probably about time to think about what we're going to do when it DOES break. Fortunately, things ARE giving us warnings.

Oh, plus, there's a whole bunch of home repair, like replacing siding, that we really ought to do.

This is going to be an expensive year. But, we're fortunate that we probably can handle an expensive year.
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Lis and I are almost caught up on ORPHAN BLACK. [May. 5th, 2015|08:19 am]
Xiphias Gladius
Wow. The inside of Helena's head is ... surprisingly pleasant. Pupik the Imaginary Scorpion is my new favorite character.
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The downside of cryptic crosswords [Apr. 29th, 2015|10:24 am]
Xiphias Gladius

In general, I much prefer the British Commonwealth form of crosswords, "cryptics", to American ones.  The primary difference is that cryptic clues are all puns and wordplay, mostly of a few specific forms.  The trick is to figure out what part of the clue is a pun, what's a definition, and so forth.  You end up doing a lot of anagrams, for instance.  There are a few other significant differences (American crosswords make it so every single letter is part of both an Across and Down, which means that you can often solve a puzzle without actually solving every clue, and Cryptics never cross more than half the letters, so you've got a lot more blank space, for imstance), but that's the main one.

As such, American  crossword clues tend to include more obscure-ish knowledge, while cryptics usually only require common knowledge.

The downside, though, is that "what everybody knows" is cultural.  So I just got a clue, "A very busy place is High Burnet!", and I had B?E?I?E solved.  Which, since you only get half the letters was the best I could do.  I eventually typed it into a crossword solver, and got "BEEHIVE" which is obviously a very busy place, but had no idea how High Barnet fit into it.  Or, in fact, what a High Barnet is in the first place.

I looked it up.  It's an area of London, and their football club is the London Bees, and their stadium is called The Hive.  If I lived in London, wherr the puzzle was from, that would be totally fair.

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Kitties were busy last night. [Apr. 27th, 2015|07:31 am]
Xiphias Gladius
Because I was playing on the computer and lost track of time, I didn't head off to bed until nearly 11:15, which is late for me these days. As Lis was coming out of the bathroom after brushing her teeth, she called me over --

"Did you hear one of the cats puke? The cats are looking at that bag on the floor weirdly, like they're burying puke or something."

I came over and watched. "No, I think that's what they look like when there's a mouse." And then I saw the mouse dart out. And Nicky just grabbed it and trotted off to the kitchen with Nora following.

Lis asked me if I wanted to rescue the thing, but my rule is, if a cat-prey type thing is dumb enough to walk into our apartment, the cats get it. It would be cheating and cruel to, like, BUY mice to give to the cats to play, but if a wild mouse gets in, that's ITS lookout.

That was about 11:30, and I went to bed, and heard it squeaking until maybe midnight. I figure it probably died around then. But the cats weren't done playing, because a dead mouse is THE SECOND BEST TOY EVER, right after a live mouse.

I was sleeping pretty lightly for the next few hours, because I was more-or-less aware of them throwing the mouse up and down the hall.

At about 3:00 AM, I felt Nick, at least, jump on the bed. I think it was just him and not Nora -- I think I only felt one cat, and he's somewhat bigger. And he spent the next half hour throwing the mouse around the bed. Eventually, he got tired and curled up to sleep.

Lis, fortunately for her, was sleeping in the other room last night, so she didn't have to deal with this. However, since she did realize that Nora didn't come to sleep with her until late, she was worried that the mouse had died somewhere inaccessible and the cats were staring at it, and we'd have to deal with dead mouse smell. She wasn't aware that Nora hadn't gone to sleep with her because she was still busy playing with the dead mouse.

I woke up this morning to find a soggy, sad dead mouse on the bed next to me, and Nick curled up against my legs below it.

They're good beasts. They do their job well. They kill mice, but they don't eat them (many cats recognize the movements of a mouse as OH YEAH KILL-Y TYPE PLAYTIME just instinctively, but they won't recognize them as food unless their mothers fed them mice as kittens), which means that we don't have to deal with mouse PARTS, and they are at lower risk for mouse-borne parasites. So I'm proud of them.
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You know what would be cool? (Teen Titans) [Apr. 16th, 2015|08:23 pm]
Xiphias Gladius
Lis has been looking through all her old Teen Titans stuff the past couple days. And you know what I'd love to see?

How about a couple pages written by Wolfman and Perez of the Teen Titans watching TEEN TITANS GO? I'd love to see how the "real" Titans reacted to seeing their silly chibi counterparts. Amused? Insulted? Both?

... and what if it was a TTG! which included Terra?
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What might have been, comic book movies. [Apr. 15th, 2015|07:17 pm]
Xiphias Gladius
In 2008, Frank Miller took a beloved character from the golden age of comics, and took him to the screen. Will Eisner's "The Spirit" was a groundbreaking comic which set a bar for art, characterization, and just plain fun which remains a benchmark to this day. I mean, there are some comics as good, even a handful arguably better, but it's still one to learn from, one which holds up today, and is beloved because it actually is good enough to deserve it. I mean, there's a REASON the most prestigious award in comics is the "Eisner", and The Spirit is a real big part of that reason.

Frank Miller's movie was savaged by critics who weren't comics fans, who felt that it was incomprehensible, the acting was terrible, the characterization was inept, and the dialogue was ludicrous.

On the other hand, people who WERE comics fans... hated it even more. It's got a 14% on ROTTEN TOMATOES from critics, general audiences didn't like it much better, and comics fans liked it even less.

It wasn't the first time someone attempted to bring THE SPIRIT to the screen, however. Back in 1980, a young animator named Brad Bird wanted to take a shot at it:



He didn't get to do that one, but he did eventually do THE INCREDIBLES, for instance.

So, yeah. There is a universe very very close to here in which we had a SPIRIT movie in the Eighties, written by the guy who eventually wrote THE INCREDIBLES, and looking like, well, like that up there, except, y'know, finished.

The story is here: http://herocomplex.latimes.com/uncategorized/the-spirit-that/
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Someone once asked how much training American law enforcement gets. [Apr. 13th, 2015|09:22 am]
Xiphias Gladius
A while back, a non-American asked, in the comments of yet another story of US police incompetence, how much training law enforcement gets around here.

And the answer is, "You wouldn't believe how much it varies."

Most police departments require a high school diploma (that's the basic level of education in the US, going until about 18 years old), followed by an entrance test, to apply for a police academy. You have to demonstrate no significant criminal record (sometimes you can be allowed a couple minor offenses, like perhaps getting into a couple fights as a kid, as long as you can demonstrate that you're not like that anymore), and "good character" -- if you can't get at least a couple people to vouch that you're a decent person, you're probably not.

Then you have to pass a five or six month course of study, which is intense enough to be the approximate equivalent of an associates' degree (normally a two-year professional certification). Then you are a rookie officer, working under the supervision of a more advanced officer, for some period of time.

The training period is shorter than that of, for instance, the UK (which tends to require a course of study which takes closer to a year, plus a longer probationary period), but it seems pretty reasonable to me.

The FBI requires a four-year college degree, plus several years of relevant work experience to be considered for application; the application is highly competitive, and then they have their own FBI police academy which, although it's not that much longer than most police academies, is highly rigorous. And, of course, because they need relevant work experience, many of them have already been through that previous police training. That is, as far as I can tell, about the top end of training.

On the other end, however...

In some places, the requirement to be a sworn officer is that the sheriff says that you can be. "Hi, wanna be a deputy? Okay, here you go."

Which might be survivable if a sheriff needed qualifications. But "sheriff" is usually an elected position: a sheriff is a politician, not necessarily a policeman. There are exceptions, places where deputies need as much training as any other officer, but the bottom end is that you can have a sheriff with absolutely no training or relevant experience handing out badges to other folks with even less than no training or experience.

And where do you think the majority of those stories of horrible incompetence come from? Yeah, turns out that if you don't require any degree of competence, you tend to get more incompetence.
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Just to pull out and separate my comment about Ferguson [Apr. 10th, 2015|06:44 am]
Xiphias Gladius
I'm pulling this out here, so that people can keep it out of the other thread, and this ought to make it easier for folks to ignore if they don't want to talk about it.

According to the DoJ report, the evidence tends to support Officer Wilson's testimony about what happened. From the independent report, it appears that the SPECIFIC action of the shooting was justified.

According to the SECOND DoJ report, pretty much everything else the Ferguson police department has ever done ISN'T. It's a corrupt system from top to bottom.

So there's irony that the thing that actually brought attention to how corrupt and unjust the department is was, in fact, not actually an example of how corrupt and unjust the department is. Nonetheless, it does explain exactly WHY the citizens of Ferguson assumed it was unjustified: because EVERYTHING the Ferguson cops EVER do is unjustified.

Except that. Everyone assumed that the cops shot Brown in the back and then covered it up, because that's the sort of thing they routinely do in Furgeson. Except this was the one time that they didn't.

Weird, hunh?
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On how "social justice" is painful [Apr. 9th, 2015|07:12 pm]
Xiphias Gladius
Why would anybody have a problem with social justice? We mostly all agree that right and wrong exist. We might say that they're culturally determined, and that right and wrong vary from culture to culture and time to time; we might say that they are universal. Some people say they are defined by a Deity, or can be derived philosophically; some say that they are simply put together by humans and have no external reality -- but I think we all pretty much agree that, at least WITHIN a society, and WITHIN a context, right and wrong exist.

And I think we all pretty much agree that "fairness" is generally a big part of the ideas of right and wrong, at least within the societies of everybody who is likely to be reading this.

For the most part, I think we can work on the assumption that "good is better than bad", "right is better than wrong," "fair is better than unfair", and "justice is better than injustice". There are, of course, individuals who put their own well-being above fairness, and we need tools of justice to deal with those people. Many people are going to disagree about exactly WHO those individuals are -- is using tax money to create programs that benefit people who are in trouble an example of individuals putting their own well-being above fairness? I say no, it's an example of fairness, but certain libertarian friends of mine would disagree.

Still, on the whole, we can generally agree that we want a society in which bad actions are discouraged, and good actions are encouraged.

And therefore, I think that we could mostly agree in principle that a system which condones bad actions is an unjust system.

Going back to my own religious tradition: do you know why Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed? According to Isaiah, it's because they had an unjust system. Not that they had individual unjust people, but that their system condoned injustice. We have Midrash that talks about how they had a legal system which discriminated against the poor. The cities were destroyed because their systems -- interpersonal, legal, and everything -- had injustice baked right in.

You'd think that this would make the ideals of social justice universal. Why would anybody ever oppose this? The majority of people like justice and fairness and goodness and stuff like that; the majority of people are against injustice and unfairness and badness and stuff like that. Yeah, we disagree on specifics about what a lot of those things are, but still. General agreement that good is good and bad is bad.

And therefore, it ought to be a no-brainer that, when you see a system that is designed to allow badness, it's a bad system.

That takes us to the backlash against "Social Justice Warriors".

Sad Puppies. Gamergaters. What is it that they are against? Why are they angry at people who are trying to change bad things into better things?

It's because social justice is painful.

See, the thing is -- when you're talking about a society-level problem, when you're talking about a systemic problem, when you're talking about a social justice problem, well, you're talking about a problem with a society and with a system.

And that's us. We are the society. We are the system. "We have met the enemy and he is us", as Pogo said.

And nobody likes to feel that. It is inherently painful to a good person to feel that he or she is part of a bad thing. And the first part of social justice is acknowledging that we are part of a bad thing, and that we are partially responsible for it. And that hurts.

There's no way around that.

It's much, much easier to deny the problem, and there are a lot of ways to do that. One option is to deny that the thing being pointed out even IS a problem: why should we care about the "women in refrigerators" trope in fiction -- it's fiction! It's not real, how can it be a problem? Another is to acknowledge that the thing is a problem, but it's not systemic -- "a few bad apples". Or that the action was justified: of course they had to kill that man; there's a possibility he was dangerous.

And sometimes it turns out that they were right ... looking at Ferguson, to the best of our knowledge, Michael Brown WAS dangerous and Officer Wilson WAS justified in shooting him.

On the other hand, in looking into that, a huge systemic problem was turned up. When the police consider the majority of the population to be criminals -- when you've got more arrest warrants out than you have citizens -- that's a systemic problem. That's a clear indication that there is something just plain basically wrong there. That's a social justice problem.

It's much easier to ignore that situation than to deal with it. Especially if looking at it turns up patterns that show up other places, not as dramatically as in Ferguson, but as patterns throughout our society.

We all want to ignore them when we can. And it's much easier to get angry at the people who point them out than it is to acknowledge that they're real, and that they're basically our fault.
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On the difference between "justice" and "social justice" [Apr. 9th, 2015|06:32 pm]
Xiphias Gladius
With all the Sad Puppies and Gamergate and so forth stuff going around, I've had this post rattling around my head for a while now, and have been intending to write it.

A few weeks ago now, Adam Baldwin tweeted something asking something along the lines of, "What's the difference between 'justice' and 'social justice'?" And he got an answer which was technically correct, but not actually all that helpful. So I decided to write my thoughts on it. If you agree with my definitions, feel free to link to this whenever you need to.

Baldwin made the suggestion, as I understand it, that "social justice" was just, y'know, "justice", and therefore we didn't need the separate term. In my mind, he's half right. Social justice IS a form of justice, but it's different than how we usually use the term.

Let me start with some thoughts on justice itself. Justice is related to fairness, to rewarding the good and punishing the bad. It's a moral concept, and is something that appears to be partially written into into our minds at a basic level: even some animals understand when other animals are being treated better than they are in the same situation. Learning how to expand that personal sense of unfairness to extend to other beings takes some training, however. We're naturally wired to be upset when people are unfair to us, but it takes some training to be upset when people are unfair to somebody else.

"Justice" can be thought of, in part, as the active enforcement of fairness. The metaphor for justice is a set of balance scales -- when things are unfair, the scales are out of balance, and justice is the act of re-balancing them.

It's also important to bring up the concept of "mercy". Justice requires that, when unfair damage has been done, an equal and opposite amount of further damage is done, to balance it out. Taken too far, this will destroy a society, and mercy is the process of tempering justice to destroy less.

However, TOO much mercy destroys justice, and ALSO destroys societies. And much of the work of maintaining a society is the process of finding the best mixture of mercy and justice for every situation. "An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind," but a lack of justice is inherently a lack of society.

There is a parable that says that, when G-d was creating the world, It realized that the universe could not survive under either pure justice or pure mercy. This is like a man who had a pitcher of boiling water, and a pitcher of ice-cold water, and a very delicate, fragile glass. If he poured the boiling water in, the cup would expand and shatter; if he poured the ice-cold water in, the cup would contract and shatter. So he mixed the two pitchers, and poured the middle-temperature water into the cup, and all was well.

This is a digression, but a vitally important one. Pure justice destroys the world through draconian harshness; pure mercy destroys the world through a lack of consequences for selfish actions. So, from this point forward, when I say "justice", imagine that I am saying "justice tempered with mercy", because THAT is the goal that we are working toward.

Indeed, that is one of the primary purposes of society.

Now, there are a lot of mechanisms of enforcing justice. When we think of justice, we most often think of the law, but the law is perhaps the least important method of enforcement we have. The law comes in only after all other methods have failed. Before that point, we have such things as social censure and peer pressure. If you're about to do something wrong, a good friend might pull you aside and say, "Dude -- that REALLY wouldn't be cool. Maybe you shouldn't do it."

Embarrassment can be a method of enforcing justice: if you know that people would think badly about you if they found out that you stiffed a contractor on a payment, you might not do it. And the reaction of others: if it got around that you usually stiffed people, you might never get anybody to work for you anyway. If all those methods fail, THEN the law can step in, but, for the most part, it's fear of what other people might think that keeps people just, more than fear of the law. (But fear of the law is important, too.)

But the MOST important part of enforcing justice is our own consciences. The most important tool that society has to promulgate justice is the way in which parents and other important adults teach our children right and wrong. Everything else we have is based on that.

The way it works is: most of the time, people take just actions because their own training and conscience impels them to. But a person whose conscience fails to draw them to right action may be impelled to because they don't want to be embarrassed in front of their friends, or don't want to get a bad reputation that would make people not want to deal with them. And if THAT fails, a society has laws that can be called into play.

"Justice" is found within the penalties that are paid for doing the wrong thing. Your conscience and internal moral sense makes you feel guilty even before anybody else is involved. If others find out, you can feel embarrassment. If it goes further, you can lose friends, and find people unwilling to deal with you socially and in business. And if things go even further, you can have consequences imposed by laws: loss of material goods through fines, imprisonment, and, in some places, even death.

And that's "justice". The tools, formal and informal, internal and external, which societies have available to enforce fairness and good behavior.

But. Here's the problem.

What happens when the source of the unfairness is the tools themselves? What happens when the formal and informal tools, the internal and external tools, enforce UNFAIRNESS? Enforce BAD action? When the tools themselves are unjust?

How do you deal with THAT problem?

And THAT is where "social justice" comes in. "Justice" is relatively simple. Not EASY, but at least conceptually simpler. Someone does something bad, and the rest of society reacts to it in some way to restore the balance. It's not necessarily easy to tell when someone's done something wrong, or to prove it if it requires the legal system to deal with, or figure out what sort of censure or response is appropriate for a particular action, but, in general, "do something bad, we've got systems that do something bad back" is something that we can understand.

And even when someone involved in the system does something wrong, we can deal with that. If a judge is corrupt, we can impeach him or her. If a police officer does unjust things, they can be punished administratively, kicked off the force, or tried as a criminal, depending on what the level of unjust thing is. Those aren't the signs of a broken SYSTEM.

"System" and "systemic" are real important concepts in social justice. "A few bad apples" aren't a problem, so long as they are rooted out and punished. However, showing too MUCH mercy to said bad apples IS a systemic problem.

As I've said, these tools aren't limited to the law. We can have broken SOCIAL tools, too. The way that we interact with each other is itself a social structure which enforces concepts of right and wrong. And we're all part of the system. We're part of society, so we're part of how society works, so we're part of how society doesn't work. It's inevitable.

And so, "if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the precipitate problem."

That's where the parts which are really hard to deal with come from.

If a racist act happens, and we all make sure that bad things happen to the racist -- not necessarily legal bad things, but bad things like people not wanting to be around the person, so they don't get invited to parties and stuff -- then that's not a systemic problem.

However, if a racist thing happens, and people get away with it without consequences, that's a systemic problem. And, since we are the system, that makes us the problem.

Nobody likes to be the problem. Ever. And it's a lot easier to convince yourself that you're not the problem than it is to stop being the problem, so that's what we do. And it's absolutely true that the person who actually DID the racist act is a BIGGER problem, but nonetheless, if nothing happens in response, then the rest of us have a degree of responsibility.

We don't want to feel that the society is broken, because WE are the society. If there is a "social justice" problem, if there is a "systemic" problem, that's on us.

And that hurts, and that, I think, is why there is a backlash against "social justice warriors".

At some point, I want to talk about the term "SJW", but, for now, let me just say that it is an AWESOME term, and I am completely happy with being called a "social justice warrior", and I'm not sure why the people who are AGAINST us gave it to us, because, well, it's, like, the best thing a person could ever be called. But discussing all of that is probably a post of its own, so I'll deal with that later.

In any case, to summarize:

You need "justice" to right wrongs that happen in a society. "Justice" is the set of tools that are used to re-balance the scales and make things fair again. If you do that 100%, society will break, so you need "mercy", too, and a lot of the time, when people say "justice", they actually mean "a workable balance of justice and mercy".

However, sometimes the tools themselves are unjust. And when the tools are unjust, you need "social justice" to fix those tools. That really hurts, since all of us ARE those tools, so "social justice" is painful, and a lot of people push back on it, because we don't like being hurt. However, it's really, really important to do -- if the tools are unjust, your society is unjust, and an unjust society completely misses the point of having a society in the first place.
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A few thoughts about the Hugos this year. [Apr. 7th, 2015|06:56 am]
Xiphias Gladius
I think there are three reasonable ways to vote for the Hugos this year. The first is to vote as usual, ignoring whether a work was on the Sad Puppy slate or not. There are a handful of actually competent awards and people on the Sad Puppy Slate, who, judging by skill alone, could deserve a Hugo. I mean, I wouldn't expect every voter to force themselves to read more than a sentence or two of works which they find they actually hate, but there are a couple works and people who aren't offensive, and may even be competent. For instance, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is a perfectly reasonable choice for Best Dramatic Long Form, and might have won the Hugo without any campaigning for it. Were I a voter, and absent any other considerations, it would probably be my choice.

In a completely related question, how the HELL did Jennifer Brozek end up on the Sad Puppy slate? This is not a rhetorical question. She is a member of Broad Universe, which makes her an SJW and the enemy by the Sad Puppy definition. What the hell?

The second option is to ignore anything on the Sad Puppy slate and only consider the remainder of the choices. As I suggested two paragraphs ago, this might cut out actually decent choices, but one could reasonably argue, and smart people I know have been reasonably argued, that voting for anything on a slate has a tendency to legitimize the very concept of a slate.

And the third option is to vote No Award on EVERYTHING, or at least everything that has at least one Sad Puppy on it, on the argument that the award is tainted. Because the slate voting pushed something ELSE out of consideration. It might be that the actual best work WOULD have been nominated absent the slate, but the slate broke the process irredeemably.

Like I said, I can see, have seen, and continue to see, good arguments for all of them.

And I hate ALL of the choices. They ALL either legitimize the Sad Puppies, or allow them to destroy the Hugos outright.

I don't have any solutions. Maybe require a short essay with each nomination explaining why you think it's worthy? With punishments for plagiarism, like revoking of membership, because, well, plagiarists suck?

That's a joke, of course. Unless you think it might work.
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This comic is deeply meaningful to me. [Mar. 24th, 2015|08:26 am]
Xiphias Gladius


I'm a pedant who volunteers at a crisis line. This comic is aimed at me.
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You can have cultural differences even within a family [Mar. 22nd, 2015|08:45 pm]
Xiphias Gladius
We went up to my grandparents' family cottage in Vermont because several of my cousins and aunts and uncles, including two from Australia, were up there for some late-season skiing. And obviously, we don't see the Australian branch of the family very often, so we make an effort to spend at least a few hours together on the occasions when any of them come by. And we had a lovely time.

But we noticed one interesting difference between a number of the folks in the family and us. Some of the people in my family prefer to have a television playing as background noise during social occasions. They don't want to WATCH it, unless there's an interesting sports event on; rather, they turn it to random Home and Garden shows or the like -- cooking shows, "how things are made" shows, home remodeling and interior design shows. They turn the volume low enough that you can hear that people are talking, but not what they're saying. I think they just like having extra human voices in the background, and don't like having big blank black rectangles sitting around -- they'd rather have some motion, color, and human sounds.

When we've been over at their house, they've had the Chromecast default screen on, which is a rotating selection of landscape and artistic photography. If they've got something like that, they don't need actual TELEVISION on the television; they just don't like having a visual blank.
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Conversations between my wife and me -- and our cat. Again. [Mar. 21st, 2015|09:37 am]
Xiphias Gladius
Yeah, I started typing that title into the subject field, and it autofilled. So I had to add "again".

(NICKY is batting the ball that we sometimes fill with treats around the house.)
(After a while, we hear a munching noise.)
LIS: Did you hear that?
IAN: Yeah, I guess there was still a treat in there from the last time we filled it.
LIS: That's the advantage of having the treat ball be a challenge -- it encourages him to entertain himself for WEEKS.

[... more time passes, and the ball-batting noises stop ... ]
LIS (from another room): Do you know where Nicky's ball went?
IAN (not standing up from the computer): No.
LIS: Did you even move?
IAN: You didn't ask me to move; you asked me if I knew where Nicky's ball went.
LIS: You're not actually required to TRY to get on my nerves, you know -- you're actually allowed to not be annoying if you want. I've got the cats for annoying.
IAN: So you want to go to the ball, then? [singing] "I want to go to the FES-ti-val"
LIS: [singing back] "I want to go to the VES-ti-bule] (just because "vestibule" and "festival" kind of sound alike)

NICKY runs to the front door and looks at it pointedly.

IAN: ... wait ... Nicky wants to go to the vestibule. How the hell does he even know the word "vestibule"? Have we even ever USED the word in front of him?
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Observation upon waking up [Mar. 18th, 2015|07:06 am]
Xiphias Gladius
For all that the house in my dream was grand, quirky, beautiful, and imposing, I felt relieved upon waking and realizing that I don't have to keep it tidy.
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(no subject) [Mar. 16th, 2015|10:17 am]
Xiphias Gladius
WD-40 FTW.

Just, y'know, in general. (In this case, I noticed that my front door lock was kind of sticking. Now it works like a dream. Well, not like MY dreams, in which locks generally stick, but a sort of GENERIC dream.)
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An observation from Lis [Mar. 16th, 2015|07:20 am]
Xiphias Gladius
LIS: Boston broke the snow record last night.
IAN: I kind of expected we would with this last storm.
LIS: So, it made me think about the Somerville Yeti
IAN: Oh?
LIS: It means that there was someone in Somerville who already had a Yeti costume which he kept around for this sort of occurrance. You couldn't go out and buy one after the storm started and everybody was housebound.
IAN: ... hunh.
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New England thriftiness [Mar. 13th, 2015|11:07 am]
Xiphias Gladius
To me, being a Yankee means chipping the mortar off of old bricks in order to re-use them, even though you're perfectly aware that new bricks are fifty-five cents at Home Depot.
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When I die... [Mar. 9th, 2015|03:55 pm]
Xiphias Gladius
When I die, I want people to remember the good times with me, and the good things. I want people to celebrate my life.

But FIRST, I want everybody to cry A WHOLE LOT. I mean, I want real wailing and misery. I don't feel like you need to go as far as hiring professional mourners, but I want genuine heartwrenching tribulation.

Okay? So, y'know, sure, go ahead and have a joyous party to celebrate my life. But be miserable first, okay?
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RIP Leonard Nimoy [Feb. 27th, 2015|02:22 pm]
Xiphias Gladius
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Let me explain what kind of day today has been... [Feb. 26th, 2015|06:53 pm]
Xiphias Gladius
So, first, I'm at home trying to deal with bureaucracies, finding all sorts of unexpected expenses, and otherwise being annoyed by that sort of thing.

And unexpected car expenses, too.

Lis, on the other hand, is at work, finding out that several of her projects are way more stressful than initially anticipated, even taking into account that she anticipated them being stressful in the first place.

I figured this was the sort of day where she definitely deserved a chocolate cream filled donut, so I brought one with me when I picked her up at work.

She sat on it.

Yeah, that's today.
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Answer for question 4248. [Feb. 20th, 2015|05:59 pm]
Xiphias Gladius
What are your thoughts on vaccinations? Do you personally believe they play any role in the development of autism or other chronic diseases? What diseases would you like to see a vaccine manufactured against over your lifetime?
*Sigh* First, vaccines have no correlation to autism whatsoever. Second, even if they DID, autism is way better than measles or mumps. I know too many successful people whose autism is actually a benefit to their research and their work to be scared by it. Sure, autistic people have some challenges that other people don't, but, well, who doesn't?

As far as what vaccines I'd like to see developed, the only real answer is HIV. It's orders of magnitude more widespread than any other deadly viral disease.

Well, if anybody could come up with category-based vaccines, that'd be cool, too -- one vaccine that protected you against the entire CATEGORY of influenza viruses, that would be cool. And a vaccine against the entire category of rhinoviruses would be convenient.
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The right tool for the job? [Feb. 19th, 2015|02:10 pm]
Xiphias Gladius
Ice dams.

I had to chop down massive chunks of ice that were blocking my gutters.

Ben Silver has a footman's pick.

Worked shockingly well.
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New life goal: [Feb. 16th, 2015|09:03 am]
Xiphias Gladius
Play FIASCO with Steven Brust.

... I think he was snowed in for an extra day to Boskone, but there are a LOT of people who he wants to hang out with, so I don't think it would be reasonable to try to pull him into a three-hour game, not when I don't actually KNOW him. However, if I ever find myself in Minneapolis/St Paul for a while, and actually hanging out and we happen to become friends, that would be hella fun. It seems like the sort of game he'd enjoy.
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Early examples of genres [Feb. 16th, 2015|08:53 am]
Xiphias Gladius
metahacker asked,
Hmm.

A good man, pushed too far by the world's wickedness, decides takes up arms.
A woman of questionable virtue. She doesn't need saving, but he's going to try.
A lone knight, in a futile battle against the underbelly of society, armed only with his fists and his dogged determination.

...Is Don Quixote the first Noir flick?


My response was that Thomas Kyd's THE SPANISH TRAGEDY was almost twenty years earlier. I haven't actually read or seen Kyd's stuff, but I'm given to understand that it really is a brutal noir plot.

But I'm also thinking about some of the other stuff that was coming out around the same time as Don Quixote: I think DQ was something like 1605, and then you've got Middleton's REVENGER'S TRAGEDY in 1606. And I think of those as "fiasco" plots.

As many of you know, my favorite cooperative storytelling game is Bully Pulpit Games' FIASCO, so I call the genre of works that it is based on "fiasco movies". I see the fiasco genre as a spinoff of the noir and heist genres -- except inverted. Fiasco movies are what happens when you put unqualified, inept, or perhaps just plain unlucky people into noir and heist plots. Masters of the genre include the Coen Brothers and Guy Ritchie -- think FARGO, THE BIG LEBOWSKI, LOCK STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS, ROCK N ROLLA...

But earlier works have elements... even the Ur-heist film, the genre-defining OCEAN'S ELEVEN (the 1960s Rat Pack one) takes a quick swerve and crashes into the brick wall of fiasco in the last scene, with what actually ends up happening to the money.

So, in effect, you've got people who grow up watching noir and heist films, and then create a comedic take on it creating the fiasco genre. And I think something similar was happening with DON QUIXOTE and REVENGER'S TRAGEDY. And maybe even KNIGHT OF THE BURNING PESTLE in 1607. They're shredding different genres: DON QUIXOTE is messing with courtly chivalrous romances, REVENGER'S TRAGEDY is taking down the revenge genre, and KNIGHT is -- well, I haven't seen it yet, but I'm told that it's basically screwing around with the entire idea of theater itself.

And, to me, they ALL seem like "fiasco-style" takes on their source genres.
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When did level grinding become a thing in computer games? [Feb. 12th, 2015|07:46 am]
Xiphias Gladius
So, Lis is grinding away at a game she's playing and was wondering -- when did grinding levels become a thing that can be done? You need to have a situation in which you become more powerful as you play, by levelling up, getting better equipment, practicing skills, or whatever, and you need to have the ability to replay lower levels so that you CAN keep doing things to level up.

Poking around on TV Tropes and Wikipedia, I'm seeing suggestions that the earliest grindable games was possibly WIZARDRY, in 1981. BARD'S TALE in 1985 and HERO'S QUEST/QUEST FOR GLORY in 1989 would be other early examples. But the roguelike games might be even a couple years earlier.

Can anyone think of anything earlier for grindability?
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Grey beard-ness [Feb. 11th, 2015|07:41 am]
Xiphias Gladius
Now that my beard is more than half white, it should take dye really well. So what color should I dye it? I've always intended to use henna someday.
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Dear future... [Feb. 11th, 2015|07:39 am]
Xiphias Gladius
Dear future:

Remember how I said that I really don't MIND the lack of flying cars, because if there were flying cars, I'd have to deal with idiot pilots as well as idiot drivers?

Okay, fine. Can I have a car that flies just a little, just enough to get it out of the snowy parking space without digging?
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My homework assignment: feel free to do it along with me! [Feb. 3rd, 2015|01:19 pm]
Xiphias Gladius
Stop and ask:

1. What am I doing right now?
2. Is my current action congruent with being or conducive to becoming the person I want to be, and congruent with having or conducive to gaining the life I want to have?

Repeat every half an hour to an hour, for the rest of my life.
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Let's face it: the "French Toast Alert" behavior is silly. [Feb. 2nd, 2015|03:02 pm]
Xiphias Gladius
I get that people have a sort of atavistic instinctive nesting response to oncoming bad weather. And Bostonians probably have it worse than most, because of our bone-deep trauma of the Blizzard of '78.

The thing is -- in the past thirty-five years, we've gotten SO much better at dealing with this stuff. We've had a couple snowstorms in the past couple years that were more-or-less comparable to '78 in terms of the actual weather events -- maybe not QUITE as bad, but still, in the same order of magnitude. Most of the real damage that '78 did was because of humans' poor reactions to the weather: jamming up the roads with cars meant that it couldn't be plowed, for instance, and just blocked travel entirely leading to knock-on effects as emergency vehicles couldn't respond to problems, and commerce and delivery was blocked for a week.

The snow itself was only the trigger for the problem: the hard-to-fix problems were caused by people jamming up the roads, and being unable to sort that out for a week.

On the other hand, we now have much better meteorological forecasting, as well as more trust in said forecasting -- one big problem in '78 was that the forecast said that things were going to be bad by 9 am, and, at 9 am, everything was clear, so many people assumed that the whole forecast was a mistake, and went to work. When the storm hit three hours later, people were stuck.

Nowadays, we'd be more likely to have better tracking, and be told that, even though it looked fine at 9, stay home because it's gonna get impassable at noon.

Further, our governors have been more willing to declare states of emergency and travel bans, which means that plows and emergency vehicles can actually do their jobs.

And it's also relevant that a significant number of Bostonians have the capacity to work remotely from home, meaning that many companies are much more willing to shut their offices.

So, honestly, it's now silly to run out to stock up on bread, milk, and eggs at the first sign of a storm. Having enough canned goods and the like to keep around for sudden emergencies makes sense. But for those sorts of things? Why bother?

... what I'm getting at is that we've run out of milk, eggs, and bread.
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Conversations between my wife and me -- and our cat. [Jan. 28th, 2015|09:01 am]
Xiphias Gladius
IAN: So, would you like pancakes or French toast for breakfast?
LIS: Whichever. I know, let's ask our cat!
IAN: Nora -- should we have pancakes or French toast?
NORA: Mew-wa.
LIS: That kind of sounded like "pancakes", but it also kind of sounded like "French toast".
IAN: Okay, let's try this again. Nora, mew once for pancakes.
NORA: Mew.
IAN: Mew twice for French toast.
NORA: Mew. Mew.
IAN: ... okay, that didn't help. Um -- mew three times for both pancakes AND French toast.
NORA: Mew. Mew. Mew.
LIS: ... this is getting creepy.
IAN: ... is our cat counting?
NORA: Mew. Mew. Mew. ... Mew
LIS: ... that was four, wasn't it?
IAN: ... yeah ... Nora? Can you do five?
NORA: Mew, mew mew. Mew. Mew.
IAN: I'm a little worried now.
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THE QUIET REGARD OF SILENT THINGS by Patrick Rothfuss [Jan. 18th, 2015|10:18 am]
Xiphias Gladius

There is a one-star review of this book on Goodreads which discribes it as "~150 pages of a girl rumning around the sewers doing Feng Shui and kissing objects."  This is, in fact, a completely accurate review except for the one-star part.

According to his Author's Forward, Patrick Rothfuss was worried about publishing this book, because he was expecting that response.  This is the sort of book which deserves a lot of five-star reviews and a lot of one-star reviews.

It's a week in the life of Auri, the odd/crazy/broken/innocent/holy girl who lives in the sewers under the University, whom Kvothe befrends.  Kvothe isn't in this book -- this is about seven days that are between visits.  And it explores what Auri does with her life.
One way to put it is that she spends her life playing what  jehanna taught me as "Elven chess" -- taking objects and figuring out where they go.

She spends her life doing the right action for the moment, judged by criteria that nobody else understands.  There is no significant plot, nothing happens that would seem to affect anything, except that she fixes a broken water pipe once, but, again, that's because the water pipe wanted to be fixed, and, if it had been happier leaking, she would have left it.

It has no characters.  It has no external logic.  It has no plot per se.

And yet, I was on the edge of my seat to find out whether the broken gear with the one tooth missing was going to find its proper place and purpose.

If that sentence makes sense to you, you will enjoy the book.  If you are familiar with the Kingkiller Chronicles, and don't understand that sentence, but are curious about how Auri would understand it, you might like it.  And if the sentence makes no sense and you have no interest in it, this isn't the book for you.  And that's fine.

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Music can lead to the hope for freedom. Literally. [Jan. 11th, 2015|12:19 pm]
Xiphias Gladius
In September 2010, the Columbian government wanted to let hostages held by FARC know that help was on the way.

A counteroffensive designed to attack FARC strongholds deep in the jungle, and rescue prisoners, both civilian and military, who'd been held there for, in a few cases, even more than a decade. They wanted to let the hostages know that this was coming -- but not let the FARC guards know the same thing

They did have a couple possible channels to get information in, the most plausible of which was radio. FARC camps had radios, and they listened to news, entertainment, and plenty of other things. There were even specific radio shows in which families of hostages could send short messages letting them know that they were still thinking of them and that they loved them. The Colombian government knew that they could send a message over the radio that the hostages would hear -- but that the FARC guards would also hear. How could you send a message that the hostages -- or, at least, some of the hostages -- could understand, but that the FARC guards wouldn't?

The following catchy song was played throughout FARC controlled areas.



The lyrics can be very clearly read as designed to give hope to hostages:
[VERSE 1]
In the middle of the night
Thinking about what I love the most
I feel the need to sing
What my heart has to give

I talk about those I love
About how much I miss them
I talk about pride and strength
Which beat inside my heart

[CHORUS]
A new dawn singing this message From my heart
Although I'm tied up and alone I feel as if I'm by your side
Listen to this message brother

[VERSE 2]
I want to keep on fighting
For my friends, my family, my children
We will soon see each other again
I'm sure better days are coming

[CHORUS x 2]


But ... that's not all of it. If you listen to it, can you tell what the other part is? Lemme ROT-13 it for you, so you can have the fun of trying to figure it out if you want to.

(If you don't know what ROT-13 is -- copy the weird-looking stuff and paste it into the text box at http://www.rot13.com/, then push the button, and it will decode it. Or encode it -- ROT-13 works both ways.)

Gur fbzrjung veerthyne flagu orng va gur zhfvpny cneg nsgre rnpu pubehf -- gur cneg qverpgyl nsgre "Yvfgra gb guvf zrffntr, oebgure" -- vf Zbefr pbqr sbe "19 YVORENGBF FVTHRA HFGRQRF NAVZB". "19 crbcyr erfphrq. Lbh'er arkg. Qba'g ybfr ubcr".

Zbefr pbqr jnf cneg bs genvavat sbe n ybg bs zvyvgnel naq cbyvpr. Ohg SNEP eroryf, jub trarenyyl unq yvggyr gb ab sbezny rqhpngvba, jbhyqa'g unir nal punapr gb pngpu vg. Gur zvyvgnel cevfbaref jub abgvprq vg cnffrq nybat gur snpg gb gur bgure cevfbaref jub qvqa'g xabj Zbefr.

Brilliant, no?
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In defense of the woman whose toddler got ahold of her gun and shot her. [Jan. 1st, 2015|08:37 am]
Xiphias Gladius
So, you may have heard the tragic story of a Veronica J. Rutledge, a nuclear research scientist who was out buying toys with her kids when her two-year-old managed to fool around with her purse, get into the zippered and concealed compartment that was holding her gun, and fire it, killing her instantly.

This is a story that has gained national attention for all sorts of reasons about American gun policy, but a lot of the discussion has focused on blaming the woman. By both sides. Painting Ms Rutledge as an irresponsible owner fits the narrative of both gun control and gun ownership advocates.

People who advocate controls on firearms point to this as what just naturally happens when guns are around. People who advocate gun ownership say that she was not practicing responsible stewardship of her gun, and that this is a story about personal negligence, not about firearms themselves. In either case, they are based on stating that Ms Rutledge herself made a mistake, either in how she carried her gun, or in choosing to do so in the first place, and it's therefore, to some extent, her own fault.

And this is a natural human response to a tragedy: to figure out a way to blame the victim or victims, because, if we can make it THEIR faults, then it means that WE aren't in danger, because WE would do something differently.

And that's the part that ain't necessarily so.

None of us want to think about the fact that almost everything we do is dangerous, and every action we take has risk. We want to pretend that our safety is in our control -- whenever we hear about something bad happening, we focus on what is different from THAT situation as from OUR situation, so that it COUDN'T have happened to us.

The truth is -- we can't protect ourselves. Not completely. All we can do is shift odds around. And we just can't shift odds enough to make ourselves perfectly safe at all times.

If you carry a firearm, there is a chance of an unintentional discharge that will injure or kill someone. Good training, good handling techniques, and good holster design will minimize that risk, but there is no way to get that danger to zero. There is NEVER a way to get that danger to zero. If you DON'T carry a firearm, there is a chance of being attacked by a person or animal that will injure you that you WOULD have been able to stop if you HAD carried a firearm. You can reduce that risk by staying in places where there are lower crime rates, or out of wilderness areas with dangerous animals, but that risk won't be zero.

One of the more terrifying memories I have from my childhood is looking at a raccoon out, at noon, a block away from me. In the suburbs of Arlington, Massachusetts, one of the safer places to live that exists. I'm not in the least scared of being mugged. But rabid raccoons terrify me.

If I DON'T carry a firearm, I am in more danger of being bitten by a rabid raccoon, or having a rib cracked by a goose that charges me. G-d help me if a wild tom turkey decides that my street is his turf, and that I'm a threat -- the suckers can crack bones with their beaks, cause disabling bruises with their wings, and have one-to-two-inch DAGGERS on their feet. I honestly think that I probably COULD defeat a tom turkey with my bare hands, but not without being hospitalized afterward.

If I DON'T carry a firearm, I have fewer options for dealing with a violent situation, against a human OR an animal.

We're human beings. We always look for reasons to believe that what we already believe is correct, and reasons to dismiss things that challenge that. And blaming Ms Rutledge does that from BOTH sides. We can believe that she died because of her poor choice in carrying a firearm in the first place, or her poor choice in HOW she carried the firearm.

But what I think is that she was killed by statistics.

She did everything right within the paradigm she was working, as far as I can tell. She had gun safety classes and training, she had a specially-designed carrying method that was designed to help her maintain control of her weapon, she wasn't doing anything negligent or show-off-y. She wasn't stupid -- rising-star-nuclear-scientists are rarely stupid. (Okay, fine, they're sometimes UNWISE, but there's no evidence of that, either.) And all that failed her, and she was shot.

Nobody likes the idea that bad things happen for no reason. But they do.

That's what we have to do with our choices. Me, I would have calculated the odds differently than she did. I would have calculated the potential dangers of accidental discharge related to me carrying a firearm as higher than the potential dangers of being unarmed, in that place, at that time. But maybe she knew things I didn't. She was the person on the ground who did the cost-benefit analysis for herself and her family. I would have made a different choice, probably. But that doesn't mean she was wrong.

It just means she was unlucky.
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And now I'm hooked on a series. Good thing there were only three seasons. [Dec. 31st, 2014|04:30 pm]
Xiphias Gladius
Man, Veronica Mars is really good, isn't it?
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Doctor Who theme song: how did they originally make it? [Dec. 11th, 2014|07:43 pm]
Xiphias Gladius
Lis and I have been listening to early Doctor Who episodes (the audio exists for almost every episode of Doctor Who, even though the video is missing from a lot of them, so there are a number of audiobooks which are the episodes with voiceover narration filling in the important visual information). And we have therefore been getting curious about various Whovian things.

The Doctor Who theme song is one of the longest-lasting theme songs in history, only exceeded by Coronation Street and James Bond, and is also one of the most distinctive. And I never really spent a whole lot of time thinking about how they created it. If I thought about it, I guess I figured that Robert Moog was involved somehow, with one of his early synthesizers.

Nope. The first episode of DOCTOR WHO aired a good six months before Moog got his stuff working. So, my understanding of the timing of stuff in the 20th century isn't bad, but it's off enough that that wasn't the answer.

Or I assumed it was something related to the Theremin. Also wrong.

The answer is crazier than that. Ron Granier is listed as the composer for the theme, but that's not the whole story. He sketched out the baseline and melody, and some ideas about what he wanted it to sound like, but then had to hand it off to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop for them to make it happen. And that's when Delia Derbyshire and Dick Mills started.

Let me string together a bunch of words that just plain shouldn't go together: handcrafted artesial electronica. Here's what they did. They worked out what tones they needed to make the theme happen. Then they recorded a sound -- a plucked piano string, for instance. A test-tone oscillator used for calibrating equipment for another instance. And took that audiotape and sped it up or slowed it down until it made the correct tone. The glissandos were done by turning the knob on an oscillator while recording.

Then they recorded that onto another piece of audiotape, and took all those audiotapes of different tones, and a razorblade, and tape, and cut them into a music line. They created a melody line, a base line, and a couple "sound-effects" lines, with whooshing and bubbling sounds.

Then they mixed those four lines into a single line.

But this was a couple years before multitrack mixers were invented. They had to mix them all down by hand.

The whole thing was done by hand, with human imperfections. The original DOCTOR WHO theme doesn't have metronome-perfect timing. It's therefore a charming mix of electronic and human.

I guess that's kind of thematic for the show, isn't it?
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The early reviews are in on Ridley Scott's new "Exodus" movie. [Dec. 9th, 2014|07:17 pm]
Xiphias Gladius
The consensus I'm seeing is that, as far as cinematic tellings of the Exodus story, the best is the Dreamworks PRINCE OF EGYPT, next is Cecil de Mille's THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, after that is probably de Mille's earlier version, then it's A RUGRATS PASSOVER, and then probably a few others, and eventually you get to EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS.

But it takes a while.
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Mood/energy tracking stuff [Dec. 8th, 2014|03:58 pm]
Xiphias Gladius
Because I have bipolar, I like to track depression-like symptoms here. The last several days, I've been sleeping a LOT more than usual -- crashing out in the middle of the afternoon, and thereby losing half-days I could be using to Do Stuff.

On the other hand, my other two depression markers, mood and motivation, AREN'T lowered. I'm ANNOYED that I'm losing half-days to sleeping, because I WANT to be doing things, and "wanting things", ESPECIALLY "wanting to do things", is one of the things that goes away in my depressive episodes. I also don't have any depressed mood -- I'm quite capable of enjoying things, and am not having any generalized malaise.

So, my working theory right now is that I'm NOT in a depressive phase, and am looking for other possible causes and solutions.

I have been thinking about nutrition, for instance -- more protein in the mornings might give me more energy over the long run. Or perhaps I should be using stimulants, such as tea or coffee -- I know that those are things that many people use regularly to control this sort of thing, and they're easily available, socially acceptable, and generally have relatively few serious side effects in the amounts typically consumed. Plus, I actually do LIKE tea and coffee.
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