My short EVE Online experiment

Yeah, I tried another MMORPG, EVE Online. Fell for the claims that it was different, that it was good, has wonderful graphics. It offers a total sandbox approach where everything is pretty much player created, even bounty-hunter mission assignments, corporate powers and the economy. They offered a 14 day free trial and I, being a total sucker, gave it a shot.

I was done with it in one afternoon.

Okay, it was different. No first person shooter, just you piloting a space ship. Graphics are gorgeous. My big problems with it are: the camera, the interface, the learning curve, the general feel.

The camera: staring at my own ship during combat is annoying. Controlling the camera in space, when in galactic map mode, etc. was difficult and annoying. This is why I gave up on Homeworld: camera issues made combat almost impossible. In the future, there will be some kind of combat schematic optimized to filter the necessary info out of lots of useless data. In Homeworld and EVE, well, can't let info management get in the way of showing off cool nebulas.

The interface is just overloaded with information and trying to figure out which system you're in is a chore. I lost the intro tutorial when I entered a space station, only to realize it was waiting for me to do something before it continued. The learning curve is tremendous: you essentially have to memorize a skill and spaceship parts catalog where every item sounds/looks just like the last one. You have to learn how to navigate through space with warp and jumpgates and nearly impossible to read maps of routes between planetary systems. Plus, you spend most of your time watching your ship fly through space with nothing to do.

It all adds up to not being fun, which is the point. Why would a casual gamer bother? Why would a hardcore gamer make the time investment to figure it out?

In contrast, recently I downloaded MS Visual C# and Sql Server Express Editions to toy with related to an experiment at work. I was up and running, and knowing what I was doing, within minutes of starting each program. My actions produced understandable results and I could see myself improving instantly. Why can't video game designers shoot for the same result?

Trackball math class tracking update: another loss

An update on the continuing saga of Minnie Trackball's math class tracking. If you remember, we were concerned about the frequent cancellations of math class in 2nd grade and resolved to keep a count of how many school days included a math class casualty.

The first two weeks of school, there was no math. They were both four day weeks though. Every day since then, there has been math. And it's been good stuff.

Until today. Math was cancelled for disability awareness day. Wheelchair races, awareness raising, etc. I have no problem with that. But cancel something else. Even reading or language arts. Illiteracy is not the problem in a high-performing school, but there is a chronic math and science lag all across the US, in even the best schools.

So far, there have been 9 days of no math class, a lot less than we feared by this point.

Post-food, but not dead

In the past, I've mentioned that I am evolving to a post-food position. Post-food, like post-materialist, means that one is no longer obsessed or possessed by food. It doesn't command a huge amount of attention, or produce a large amount of excitement or interest.

Having said that, I should point out that this doesn't mean that I don't like food or ignore it. Being post-food means that quality is more important than quantity. Which leads me to the three objects of praise in this post: Trader Joe's, Let's Dish, and Wegmans.

Trader Joe's is the much heralded low cost, mostly healthy grocery chain that sells a lot of its own brand food. Everyone who has access to one raves about it and for years I wondered if the hype was for real. We finally got one in Columbia, and it has lived up to everything everyone has said. The food is great, unique and cheap. Plus shopping there is a different experience.

As people who lunch with me know, the Trackballs have been using Let's Dish a lot. Dr. Trackball spends 2 hours a month preparing about 8 meals at their place, which she takes home and chucks in the freezer. The food is very good: usually a meat entree (we favor the poultry and seafood) that is tasty and just needs to be cooked.

Finally, Wegmans. Wegmans is a super grocery store from back in My Shire that has everything. Growing up in the Shire, I disliked the store for reasons having more to do with the upbringing that didn't fit me than anything else. In the land of crappy Giant and Safeway stores, Wegmans is a huge step forward. Still waiting for it to settle in Columbia.

Bon appetit.

Read The Nerd Handbook

Thanks to Ron at Pint'N'Tome for this link to the Nerd Handbook written by Rands In Repose. A must read if you have a nerd in your life. (hey, I wrote a 2 line post!)

Two years later, Trackball still on track

For those who have read this blog for some or all of it's 2 year existence, you know that it started with a bit of a bang by bashing Thanksgiving and by laying down a sort of guiding philosophy for life - be true to oneself and it's how you live, not how long you have lived.

Put this all together, and I thought it would be a good exercise to reread that Thanksgiving basher from 2005 and see if it still held true. Had a good Thanksgiving this year, which was more of a dinner party at some friends' house, so I want to stick the hypocrisy meter in the wind and see what happens.

Result: I haven't deviated at all from my earlier take on the holiday. In fact, I've found that as I reread it that I am quite taken the post. I've found this when rereading other posts: I enjoy reading some of them and if it's been long enough, can surprise myself with an idea or a turn of phrase I forgot about.

Some people who review their own creations, whether they be cooking, writing, children, painting or woodwork, always turn away in disgust. Sometimes that happens for me, but I think it's because usually I can tell what of mine sucks or doesn't suck.

So I'm feeling some pride in my ability to self-critique, stay true, and of course, not have a bloat-out on the pigout holiday.

Playstation 3

Went and got a PS3 to upconvert DVDs and play Blu-Ray DVDs this weekend. I got the 40 GB with Spiderman 3 Blu-Ray disc for $400. This includes another 5 Blu-Ray DVDs for free as a rebate.

I had been contemplating upgrading the DVD viewing experience on my 1080p Sony TV and this was the right fit. I do a fair bit of DVD watching due to Netflix and it makes no sense to do that in standard def. Tested out the Cars standard def DVD and it looked phenomenal on the PS3. Now I just need to get my surround sound back online.

I don't plan on playing many (for now, any) games on the PS3. The Wii has it beat in the fun factors for a gamer like me. The PS3 games are also a lot more expensive. Supposedly it will take developers years how to figure out how to make games for the PS3, if at all. Currently, the PS3 is a bust as a console, trailing the other next gen models, but it is the best Blu-Ray player on the market. Sony is betting that once the game companies come around that they will have a system that will beat the other two for the next ten years. We'll see. The developers may just slink away and get caught kissing Nintendo and Microsoft's butts.

The PS3 is also a supercomputer, with a chip a dozen times faster than the highest PC processor. You can allow your unused PS3 to help do medical research or if you are an astronomer, use a series of PS3s to do your supercomputing.

A Kiss for HoCo Public Libraries

ToT has always been a big fan of public libraries. Until I moved from My Shire to Prince George's County, MD, I had no idea what a good public library was. In the Shire, I ended up checking out the same book on the War of 1812 for about eight years in a row because there wasn't much better to be had.

Now that I live in Howard County, MD, I have inadvertently treated myself to one of the best public libraries in the country. It was #1 in 2005 and is #2 in 2006 for areas with between 250,000 and 500,000 people. The parking lots and the shelves are always full and I can't walk out of there with less than three doorstoppers.

Tonight, we hit the central library branch with the little Trackballs in downtown Columbia and I cleaned a whole bunch of books off my reading list. The kids loaded up the canvas bag we use to carry them and Micro got himself into the pajama time story hour. Here's what ToT will be reading:

Thirteen - Richard K. Morgan
Innovation and Entrepreneurship - Peter Drucker
The Watchmen - Alan Moore
Art of the Start - Guy Kawasaki

When you come home from the library with an armful of must reads, it's like your birthday - but for free (or, for very well spent tax money).


For the less socially extroverted and networking averse, who shun happy hours, don't carry business cards with them to the grocery store and just don't have time, connecting and reconnecting with people can be difficult. For someone with writerly ambitions, it's even worse. Read, write or gab: guess which one loses out?

And then came the online social networking sites. While some might use them to socialize, for the rest of us, it's a great way of finding people who you have lost touch with. I have joined Facebook and found a lot of people that I know. There's some fun stuff on there and like-minded groups to join.

Yes, it was originally for the college (Harvard) set, but aren't most techy things? It's now expanded to more people (and so has Myspace and others). Even people older than Trackball are signing on in droves. The best part is you can stay within your circle or expand out. No awkward hems and haws or anything.

Who knows what the long term effect of this will be? Equality in networking? Face2face connections resulting from, say a common affinity for Firefly? Maybe an even playing field for this networking-fueled world we live in.

So come one, come all, and join the Trackball's circle of friends.

Another human has read the novel

Thought I ought to report that a volunteer reader of my novel The Crashpoint Cascade has finished it and has started feedbacking. And he is the reader that I knew would be the most detailed and picky and critical, which means I'm happy he finished first.

To all you others out there with a copy, you will no longer be first, but I eagerly await giving you second place. I need contrasting comments - that's always fun! What if First Reader leads me astray? Scifi can be a hard genre because it is a ton of subgenres with very loyal and picky fans. One genre failing is another's shining point (like long breathless dissertations on astrophysics - retch). Let's mix those comments up.

As usual, the comments coming in highlight many things that were nagging me in very quiet voices but I wasn't sure were legitimate. Now I know. So some fixing is underway.

In the meanwhile, there has been one short story and part of another novel (not a sequel) drafted. That may make the ToT sound like a writing machine, but keep in mind that 0 items have been submitted to anyone for publication, 0 things have been sold, and 0 have been published. And so it goes.

Math, for real

Minnie Trackball is now deep into the math groove. So far the number of days of math this school year stands at n-8, that is, every day of school except the first 8.

And it's real math, they're grading it, and progress is underway. Same is true for reading, spelling and a handful of other subjects. Won't be long now until report cards and teacher confabs come up.

Norv Turner's Ego, dammit

As the 49ers go down in defeat in another game where they have no offense, and the Chargers continue to self-destruct, one can only point the blame finger at Norv Turner and his ego.

He's a great offensive coordinator and was making some good progress in SF. He has two bad and badder head coaching gigs and of course, the huge offensive coordinator run in Dallas in the 1990s. During the head coaching moves offseason, he really wanted to stay in SF for a number of reasons.

So yeah, he takes the head job with the Chargers, who were as primed for the Super Bowl as any other team that didn't make it last year. And they're stinking up the place this year, even though they are virtually unchanged from last year, except for him.

Norv Turner's ego has managed to damage or destroy two teams that he works for. Beware the traps of letting one's ego dictate major decisions in life. It's not only embarrassing but it is dangerous to those around you. Please forward this to Fred Thompson, John Edwards, Paris Hilton, and George Lucas.

Time to start new coach talk in SF

All suffering 49ers have to wonder how the defense has massively improved but the O is still a zero. Much of the blame lays at the feet of Coach Mike Nolan, who likes conservative, non-existent offenses. Now that the 49ers have laid another egg, this time against Pittsburgh, where only one late game touchdown was scored and Gore ran for less than 50 (50?!?!) yards

The Niners loaded up at receiver last offseason and upgraded probably more at that position than any other team (N.E. did have decent receivers in 2006, mind you, the Niners had squat.)

The conservative, no-show offense was a joke when the team was 2-0 somehow. Nolan didn't give any indication of opening things up. Now, as the losses begin to stack up and the offense continues to sputter, people hopefully will start asking tough questions about the franchise that brought the Walsh Offense to the NFL and used to be considered an offensive powerhouse. Either the coach has to change, or it's time to consider changing who is coach.

Fantasy Football Fantasy

ToT is happy football season is back, but as usual, the experience is somewhat soured by two factors:
1. My 49ers are on the other side of the continent, and according to NFL rules must receive only 20% of the coverage that the Jets may get, regardless of how much the Jets have sucked since Nixon was Prez.
2. Fantasy football is back.

Before fantasy football, people rooted for teams in what still is a team sport. But now, the teams have been derivatized so that, as the Couch Slouch has pointed out, people now follow every tackle, sack, run, TD and towel wipe of individual players. This is the equivalent of going from investing in the S&P 500 to investing in just the interest payments from mortgages on houses on Richmond Street in San Diego.

This perversion cannot stand, man.

So let's make it worse. Let's have every fantasy footballer post their standings in a national database. Then fans of fantasy football could create their own fantasy team of fantasy football participants. After enough years of FF, these stat freaks should have reputation, winnings, etc. to keep score with. The FF fans could build portfolios by being able to pick between Chip, the unemployed fantasy seer who always finishes in the top three of the Beerswillers League, or MonkeyAss14, who has a proprietary formula for choosing the most underrated rookie to get the highest fantasy football score.

Why not have fantasy football leagues that aren't player focused, but offense and defense oriented? You could start the Colts offense and the Seattle defense one week, the Ravens offense and the Colts defense. How about an injury league, where you choose the team that will rack up the most injuries in a week? How about a fantasy football league that doesn't follow raw productivity, but productivity per dollar in the contract? You can derivatize everything if there's stats for it, right? You see, we need to have a large amount of investments, so you can diversify your fantasy football investment dollar.

That way, some moron will be rooting for Chad Johnson, Rex Grossman, Manny Lawson, Joe Nedney, the Packers D, the Arizona O, the Ravens offense to score low, the Raiders defense to get blown wide open and have no idea what he's doing. Then he'll have to hire a fantasy football broker to manage it all.

And actually watch the game for once.

Math: Day 1

After two abbreviated 4 day weeks of school, Minnie Trackball has finally had a math class - and math homework! That's 1/9 for those keeping score.

And unlike last year, it sounds like there are boys in this math class, about half.

We'll see if we actually find out about test scores, get forewarning on upcoming tests and other communications one might expect. We have our fingers crossed.

High expectations

So starts another year in the public school system for one of the younger Trackballs and the last year of private preschool for the other.

Athena help us.

The problem Dr. Trackball and I have is that we expect too much. Like quality, world class math instruction in grade school. Like some measure of efficiency in public schools. Like hanging on to a dynamite teacher who exceeds our high expectations in preschool. Like not having girls under 10 have to be blatantly discriminated against.

Well, the last one has already failed. And today we are 0/1 for school days of math instruction. That's right, this year, we're keeping count. In a school system that meets the 180 day minimum by stacking half days throughout the year and in a bunch at the end, every day counts, even the first. Not to mention that there are big time standardized tests in Minnie's grade.

What Renee Zellweger's character in Jerry McGuire said, "It used to be a better meal, and now it's a better life," now applies to education. So expecting a lot kind of comes with the territory and we don't see any reason to be reluctant in having high expectations.

Yes, this is a high scoring, well to do school system that is better than a lot others in the country and probably better than most of the rest of the world. We don't care. There are better ones out there, and those kids will have algebra in 9th grade, and plenty of AP and IB courses in high school. In the global market pool for talent, being a step ahead of Kansas creationistic science curriculum is not good enough.

Those who expect less get less, and those who are expected to provide less sense this and underperform a little more each year. That's fine at Giant supermarket (hellooooo Wegmans and Trader Joes!) but not fine with the Trackballs' education.

So, half-assed public school system, (motto: 'We coast on rich kids') you're on notice. Don't make us get involved with the math curriculum. Don't get us started on the lack of science and social studies curriculum. Don't enrage us with a communications blackout because teachers just don't want to communicate about upcoming tests, test grades, or anything at all. Don't make us start getting noisy about how in the early grades, nearly all the girls in a grade are stuck in the slowest math class. This has gone beyond the ability of trying to squeeze some special compensation for just our child when it's more than a teacher, it's the curriculum, the administration, the school board, etc.

Why don't you try to wow us? Just this once? Or as the op-ed in the Washington Post noted today, we might have to consider other options. And then only the lower expectation parents will be left, at least in this particular public school system. That pisses us off too.

It's those high expectations again.

Trackballs roll through San Diego

The Trackball family recently went on vacation to San Diego, where we caught the last day of Comic Con, geeked out at Legoland, saw tons of animals at the Zoo and Sea World, and generally enjoyed the super comfortable climate.

This was the first place I had visited in the real world after exploring it virtually in a video game. That was a bit surreal. Poring over paper maps, guide books and even Google Maps is not quite the same thing as racing around a city on the Xbox before seeing it for real. The sum total effect is for one to feel much more comfortable in spaces that are much less new and strange. I imagine this will become more and more common between Second Life type virtual manifestations and Google Maps becoming more and more sophisticated. And having seen several cities visualized in Lego means that those cities will feel much the same when I first set foot in them.

Representative wow points that speak to what excites the Trackballs:

Batmobile at Comic-Con

Lego San Francisco at Legoland.

Coronado Beach (little Trackballs loved it especially)

Balboa Park (this peaceful room in the Japanese Garden is a stylistic suggestion for the Lair)

The Truth about Harry Potter

The truth about Harry Potter is that it ended like it began, a fantastical tale with (mostly) lifelike characters with real issues, a story so fun that people took it too seriously. In the final analysis, all the analysis will lead the killjoys to scoff at the final book, and eventually, the entire series. Because the books are all of a set. The killjoys though, are usually too scared and insecure to rise above being overly critical. A good story is a good story if it's enjoyable to experience and one shouldn't be afraid of that happening.

Having said that, here are my thoughts about the final book and the whole series.

I didn't understand all the rules and bylaws that allowed the final confrontation to come out as it did. As someone who knows their way around a D20, if I couldn't follow the magic rules explained there, then it wasn't clear enough. It reeked of writing oneself into and out of a corner. The 7th horcrux bit was genius, but to use it and have an escape clause requires something clear and understandable.

Dumbledore was Gandalfian cool until he was turned into Tony Soprano in the final book; flawed, doubting, compromised and manipulative. Did anyone else notice the odd adult-like digression into giving good old Albus a needless complex? It was way out of character. This backstory never explained how an earlier trauma made him the wise mentor he was and it ran totally counter to the idea that runs underneath the wise mentor archetype: they have always been wise and good, it's not a cover or overreaction for old sins. General rule for the final book of a series is to not unload an entire backstory in the final reel. Everything should be set up, with only plot-advancing secrets revealed. Dumbledore got kind of mangled in the last book, and I think it undermined the greater conflict between him and Harry: which is why he kept Harry in the dark and how the heck could he know the future so definitively? Me thinks J.K. got a bit too tangled in all the narrative threads she was weaving, and that's something because she's a master weaver.

Snape, on the other hand, has been a brilliantly portrayed character from start to finish. In terms of most heroic and selfless, I think I might hand him the prize. He's the true long suffering hero and knowing his story, you begin to see Harry as a whiny Wesley Crusher who swoops into save the day without ever even losing his glasses. Severus is friggin' hurting for decades and unlike Harry, he does good things even though he hates it. However, as others pointed out, his finale and subsequent Pensieve episode happened too late in the book. It should have happened in the middle, and Harry should have been carrying around Snape's secrets the whole time, unable to tell anyone. Snape seems to be let off the hook too much by the good wizards for killing Dumbledore, and there's no emotional payoff when one finds out the real story.

Finally, the one character that I think has been way too underdeveloped, too shallow, too lacking in personality in every book is Harry Potter. All the other characters leap off the page but him. Yes, he's the audience's representative to a large extent, but after seven books, he's a blank. There's nothing there. His dead dad has more of a presence. His smarts only exist to expose plot points, his bravery is necessary to keep the action going, his angry outbursts keep the drama churning. This would be fine in a Dan Brown thriller where all the characters are kind of flat, but nearly every other character in the series is beautifully crafted. In the end, I didn't care if he lived or died: there was no emotional tugs to pull. The death of Anakin Solo was absolutely heart-wrenching because the author made it so damn tragic and noble.

Consider this: If Harry, Hermione, Ron and Hagrid all got on board a crowded Metro train, and Hagrid accidentally knocked over some frazzled commuter, what would each character say? I can instantly picture the general body language, tone and actions of each, except for one.

Applesauce Meter hits 50%

Yes, I'm raising the Applesauce Meter to a full 50%. Why? Not because of the iPhone, which I have no experience and very little interest in.

Nope, it's because of iTunes. I always thought it was inaccessible to those of us who don't go the iPod route, and it is. But if you burn the AAC-encoded songs to a disc and then rip them back to your computer as mp3s, you can put them anywhere. A pain in the butt workaround, but worth it. I tested it out by buying one song and it worked beautifully. iTunes even recognizes the mp3 version of the song alongside it's AAC formatted twin. Great.

And the iTunes store has a ton of music, more than I've seen elsewhere. (But where's the Led Zeppelin?) The software is simple to use, the music easy to search and try out. Apple can make very good software programs.

This is another case of Apple doing a terrific job, but at least half of what they're claiming. So, accordingly, with a Macbook and iTunes account, the meter has been adjusted to half water, half actual Applesauce.

Applesauce Meter Rises; will iPhone boost it more?

After some discussion with a friend of mine about Apple's pricing structure, I concede that it isn't completely overpriced. In fact, the higher end MacBook Pros are underpriced relative to something similar in the PC notebook universe. But the low end MacBooks still carry a price premium of a couple of hundred dollars.

So the Applesauce Meter moves from 5% applesauce to 20%. Still at 80% water, meaning 80% hype.

Now, many of you know that tomorrow is the 1st day of the Apple iPhone. Much hype has been thrown at it, a phenomenon well documented by my favorite journalism critic, editor Jack Shafer at Slate. It got a pretty upbeat but balanced review in the NYT from David Pogue and the WSJ's Walter Mossberg liked it too with some reservations.

You know that I am no iPod fan, and the iPhone looks like an iPod killer. That stupid scroll wheel concept is gone and the thing seems to look and act like the PADDs from Star Trek. So Apple is making some imperfect strides again. At least they are trying. But given the dearth of common cell phone features like txt msging and not being able to replace the battery without killing the device, Apple is still up to its old tricks: they wow you on the GUI and the body, but drive you nuts with odd limitations (only AT&T?) and lack of features (putting iTunes music on a non-iPod?).

It's becoming common knowledge that you don't buy 1.0 or even 2.0 of any Apple product. Only fanboys who will buy all the models need bother. This is unfortunate because Apple could expand its market share and polish its reputation even more if they didn't roll stuff out of their skunkworks prematurely to take another bite at your wallet.

The original iPhone, circa 2151?

Can't stop the signal

I can't attend, but there's a charity screening of Joss Whedon's movie Serenity, sequel to the beloved TV show Firefly, all around the world this weekend, Whedon's birthday. Money is being raised for Equality Now, his favorite charity.

Details are here.

Previous gushing by ToT about Firefly is here.

Be a big damn hero and participate at the Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse this weekend.

No chocolate cake for breakfast

Dr. Trackball is away on a business trip, rolling all over the country and leaving ToT with Minnie and Micro in his charge. I've been a single parent.

It's not easy, but not impossible. My biggest challenge, other than maintaining 1) my sanity, 2) a semblance of responsible parenting and 3) the house, has been to live up to the dad-is-in-charge stories of yore.

But I haven't let the kids have chocolate cake for breakfast.

I'm such a guy failure. The best I can muster is letting certain housework slide. There are no pizza boxes littered around the house, no massively fun outings that Mom would never attempt, no horrible dad slipups, like sending children to school with no lunch. There has been a Chuck E. Cheese run and a Three Stooges DVD Netflixed just to show that things are different without Mom around. I even cut the kids a break on a mental health day off that I took, the end result of which was driving myself crazy and cutting hours of me-time out of the day for no discernible benefit to the kids.

Parental martyrs, whom I already hold in low opinion, are even lower in my estimation given my brief brush with their kind of living. It can't be all about the kids because it's bad for everyone. The next day off the kids will be going to school on time.

So today, we're off to see Shrek 3, even though I'd rather see Pirates or follow my usual Sunday routine and bury my face in some video games or writing. Micro may ruin the whole thing, but Minnie hasn't been able to do much that she wanted given the depleted parental ability to take the kids to separate activities.

The obligatory Star Wars 30th Anniversary post

It's been 30 years since Star Wars came out. Rather than talk about what it all means to me and going on some nostalgic trip through Hollywood history from the 1970s, or recounting the history of the franchise, I want to do something different. Lets talk about the little hidden truths about Star Wars that have been drowned out by the cacophony of Lucas haters, fanboys and the press.

1. That the first movie was a blockbuster is not the point - it's that 30 years later people all over the world are still addicted to it, ToT included. Blockbusters come and go (how many Titanic expansion universe novels are there? none) but Star Wars has continued. Why? Because it's that damn good. How many of us have felt like they spent serious time in the Millenium Falcon? Or in a X-Wing/TIE fighter dogfight? Or on a speeder bike in the woods? Or fighting Darth Vader with a lightsaber on a dimly lit platform in Cloud City? Or trading lightsaber parries with Darth Maul in the bowels of the Naboo palace?

2. The merchandising is a distraction from an amazingly well-developed mythical action adventure. When you become a billionaire, everyone starts throwing the worst motives at everything you do. Lucas didn't develop Star Wars to sell action figures and toy starships. He didn't create the Ewoks because he could sell teddy bears; it was because he was making a statement about how overwhelming military might and firepower can be defeated, a la the US and France in Vietnam, Napoleon in Spain, etc. The hero's journey he laid out in the original trilogy and the bigger one in the six episode series is ancient and effective. Lucas is an artistic movie maker who loves to make homages and he is 'blowing a kiss' at the movies of his youth. And he did it incredibly well. He could have made Robocop, but he didn't.

3. Guys my age and the press in general crap all over the prequels and for the most part, it doesn't hold water. The critics can't be 8 or 15 years old again and they're blaming the prequels. Lucas couldn't repeat the initiation of the blockbuster phenomenon, which is the only thing the media cares about when it comes to Star Wars, and so the media panned the movies regardless of how well they did. But young kids love them. My kids, after minimal exposure to the franchise from me, took to SW like Mon Calamarians to water. But get this: they would much rather watch the prequels than the original trilogy. Yes, the prequels lack the grittiness that the original trilogy had, and Harrison Ford livened up the dialogue and acting in the originals. But these changes are the point of the story - how the Star Wars universe changed after the Empire took over. Little kids like Jedi battles, beautiful Queens on beautiful planets and really cool looking spaceships.

4. CGI. Computer generated images. Somehow, Lucas has caught a ton of flak for using lots of computer generated imagery in the prequels. People claim the acting is worse because they think actors can't act in front of a green screen. People complain that it's all a video game. Apparently they think that actors can't act without 360 degrees of realistic scenery, which DOES NOT exist on any movie or TV set or in a play, where 'real' acting takes place in front of an audience too boot. Apparently it's okay to insert immaculate matte paintings on blue screen in the original trilogy, but using hand-painted digital paintings and 3d modeling is beyond the pale. And it's impressive when Peter Jackson does the exact same thing (compare the battle on Naboo to the battle at Minas Tirith). Guess what, 30 years from now, no one is going to fault the prequels for having too much CGI. It'll probably be considered old-fashioned how it was not 100% CGI.

5. Artistically, the whole Star Wars phenomenon has opened up movie-making, story-telling and the sci-fi genre. Lucas refused to limit his vision because of technological limitations and gave everyone permission to do the same in all movie-making, from Spielberg to Cameron. No one would pony up the money for heavy FX films if it weren't for Lucas blazing the path. He also changed story-telling by bringing back morality tales that didn't lean on tired religious dogma for authority but came up with a cool moral code. Darth Vader's bust is not on the National Cathedral just for grins. Lucas also brought back many of the ancient myths, like the virgin birth, that Joseph Campbell identified as nearly genetic predilections we have for story-telling. And everyone was allowed to try everything in sci fi again.

Off to Balticon again

I'm off to Balticon this Memorial Day weekend, the Maryland sci fi convention. Hopefully I will meet old friends, make new ones and move the ball a bit on the whole sci fi novel writing project, formerly the Secret Project. Each year I get a bit recharged, get some new ideas and feel both pumped up and intimidated by the notion of being a sci fi writer.

I know, you might be thinking that a sci fi convention is all geeks, freaks, and freaky geeks. Yes, that's true: we pretty much form our own ethnic group. Only when we're all together does it become glaringly obvious how similar we are. The stereotypes are true to a large extent. These are the nicest, strangest, smartest non-conformers I've ever run into and I'm proud to be one of their number.

Balticon is not your typical sci fi convention, driven by TV stars, fanboy drooling and new product demos. It has a heavy literary focus, which is nice for us writerly folks. Yes, there are movies, video games and tabletop gaming going on for something like 72 hours straight, but there are also sessions on writing, podcasting, comic books, artwork, medieval dance and costuming. Plus straight up bona fide lectures on physical science subjects (physics, astrophysics, biology, tech, computer science, etc.). Not to mention the dealer room and art show and auction. (There's a masquerade ball and costume contest and live action role play, but I've not been to any of them).

My goal at this con, besides steeping myself in a weekend of sci fi, is to do a bit of networking, be a bit more social, maybe talk to authors, publishers and other wannabes like me. This is not easy for me. My first con two years ago, I was so awestruck by A.C. Crispin that I couldn't even say hi to her in an empty hallway. I mean, I had read all of these books of hers, and what the hell was I going to say that she might have wanted to hear other than incoherent fanboy gushing?

Last year I loosened up a little bit with some success. Networking or casually conversing with the rock stars of certain areas of life has always come very hard for me. I can't help seeing it at times as being fanboy gushing, or sucking up, or being totally phony. Plus, I suck at it, I think. I'd rather have relationships emerge naturally, instinctually, rather than an as a result of a Special Ops surgical strike masquerading as a random meeting. If one thing will sink the writing career and other possible career options, I fear, it is my uncomfort with this most basic level of business dealings. So this is yet another attempt to move the ball a bit on this front as well.


What You See is What You Get

For many people, this is more than a type of word processor, it's a code of personal conduct. I am one of those people and believe in it quite strongly. One of the key ingredients of being true to yourself is being yourself. And yet, it sounds like a radical concept, doesn't it?

I'm even a bit perplexed as to how one can act otherwise. The show ponies who pretend to be workhorses, the people who put on airs, the people who tack into the wind personally all strike me as being dishonest and self-crippling. They expend so much energy trying to be something they are not that they can't play to their own strengths or dwell on their home turf. And most everyone sees through their act anyway. Maybe it's part of their nature to be false, you ask. We're not going to get into a circular discussion though.

On the flip side, some people make a point of being themselves a bit too much. They walk around in a bragging kind of way stomping on any and all rules of decorum that interfere with them acting any way they feel. These people in actuality are really the same as those putting on a front.

I figure, be yourself and let the chips fall where they may. We're all characters in our own way, even the quiet, reticent ones. Yes, there are certain traits that we each have that one would rather not have at times (I talk too much). We can try to rein those weaknesses in where we can and where it's prudent but still be WYSIWYG.

Applesauce Meter Drops to 5%

The MacBook has gone in for its third hardware repair, and returned. (I'm typing on it now.) The problem this time was overheating: either the logic board failed, the fan broke or the whole thing never worked in the first place. The unit overheated on several occasions. In looking back at how little I noticed the fan, I suspect it never worked and just hadn't overheated until now.

Now, MacBooks have been known to run hot - they ventilate from the back of the unit and underneath, which is problematic given that it is, indeed, a LAPTOP. After the overheat happened the first time I installed some programs to monitor the fans, case temp and CPU temps. The thing would get near 200 Celsius before it shut itself down (Warcraft caused it to happen in about 5-10 minutes). When the Apple Hardware Test came up with a Windowsy-cryptic error code, it went to the Apple Store, which fixed it very quickly and again, under warranty.

So the Applesauce Meter, previously at 90% water (hype) and 10% applesauce (true actual goodness) is now at 95% hype and 5% applesauce. And here is why:

Apple used to be known for kick butt hardware and so-so software (because they wouldn't let other developers make stuff for Macs). Then they rolled out the iMac, the iPod, etc and it was all about this classy looking hardware. Except the hardware was glossy, easy to scratch, and had a very short service life.

Then comes OS X, the Mac operating system built on Unix. And Final Cut for filmmakers, like Steven Soderburgh. And Garage Band. And iTunes. So Apple is pumping out great software and pretty good if overpriced hardware (the Powerbooks and iMacs). Many people, including a friend of mine, claim that the Powerbooks were just about indestructible. That may have been the high point of Apple computing.

Then comes the MacBook. It runs hot, some don't like the razor sharp edge where wrists get cut, etc. The first batch had severe heat issues. Mine was in the second or third run and all that was needed was a firmware update to correct the overheating issue. Supposedly. Overall, the hardware seems kinda crappy. Bad battery, bad case, bad fan/logic board. No wonder the Apple Store can turn these repairs around so fast - they're doing a lot of them. Even Apple fanboys are not pleased. The Mac mini has also failed to really catch on.

Apple now seems hardware poor and software middle income (too little software, but it's good stuff). It's hard to see what the higher prices get you. Running through this all is a Henry Ford-like disregard for the customer. You'll buy whatever junk they dish out because you drank the cool-aid, is what seems to be the Apple culture. They must think their customers are so stupid that the shiny object in their hand will distract them from the lousy design and poor hardware performance. As I'm picking up my computer, there's an Apple guy at the iPod bar explaining to a customer how her iClod's hard drive is dead and hey, you may as well buy another. Oh, and if Steve Jobs gets bored with a product line, kiss it goodbye. (Remember the Apple II? Steve didn't when he pulled the rug out from under it when he rolled out the Macintosh).

Hello, iPhone. Goodbye Apple Computer Company. They dropped computer from the company name. They have also delayed the next iteration of their OS X to put more work into the iPhone. That may be a sign of things to come.

Maybe these 1st year hardware failures are just the shakedown period and this thing will crank for the next five years or so. But already I am disappointed. One more failure and this rig is going to be referred to as my MacBroke. And I may find out exactly how well Apple resell values hold up. If the iPhone is a hit, which I heavily doubt (remember the Newton?) Apple computers might become valued collector's items. So, the Apple Experiment is nearly complete and the cynical side of me may come out looking prophetic.

New Apple slogans:
"Apple: Always Premium Priced Low-quality Electronics."
"Apple, it just costs a lot."
"Apple, the Jaguar of electronics."

WoW, I'm back in.

This blog was born amidst the wreckage of my last experiment with the gaming genre known as MMORPG (massive multiplayer online role playing game). It was a Star Wars MMORPG and I got bored with it. Mostly it was because the Star Wars game failed to create a Star Wars atmosphere, in part because the MMORPG elements of the game (a player-created society with no actual role playing) failed to produce it. No one wants to be the extras in Star Wars.

But, as I alluded to in the last post, I've been itching to throw World of Warcraft on my Lazy Susan of things I'm doing. There has been some burning for some D&Dish sword and sorcery. I had played a trial version and found it fun and not as hardcore focused as Star Wars. Heck, you get rewarded for not playing WOW continuously. And it's just plain fun.

Plus, Dr. Trackball prohibited me from playing after reading an article about video game widows with WOW-addicted husbands who ignore their families. So I just had to get it.

What can I say, she's never banned me from anything before. I'm pretty sure she can't, anyway.

So I'm back in. Got the game, started a character. And it's fun. Like stepping into the wardrobe and poking around Narnia for a bit. Mini and Micro both love watching over my shoulder as I run around Azeroth, much to Dr. Trackball's chagrin.

"Don't kill the bunny!" Mini says.
"I'm going to get that wild boar threatening it," I say.

"Wonderful things you're exposing them too," Dr. Trackball says.

At least three of us are having a good time.

For those of you without the time or hardware, here's two more addictive web games that will kill some evenings.
Let's go lower now...
Desktop tower defense.

Happy gaming.

The Netflix Queue of Life

One of the downsides of being self-aware enough to know what you enjoy is that you can be overwhelmed with things you want to do. A lot of people are unfortunate enough not to have this problem, so I don't mean to be whiny, because it literally is a case of drowning in one's own riches. I look at my Netflix queue, with over 140 movies and shows, and I want to see it all at once. The same with fun stuff in my life.

Having a cornucopia of delectable activities to pursue makes the opportunity costs that much more acute. Experiencing flow doing one thing can be interrupted with thoughts about what else you could be flowing while you do. Or just trying to choose can be tough. But you can be relieved that whatever you choose will be something highly enjoyable.

A number of years ago, I decided to teach myself video game programming, in addition to writing a novel, playing video games, reading books, watching movies (and a few TV shows) and of course spending time with the rest of humanity including Dr. Trackball. Obviously, this was not going to work and everything else got less attention, especially the novel. So I had to jettison the project. It had a huge learning curve and the prospects for finishing anything were slim. (Most video games are done by experienced C++ programmers spending a ton of time on them.)

Woody Allen keeps making films in part to distract himself from the empty abyss he thinks that follows death. Not distracting himself just depresses the hell out of him. I have the other problem. I look at any reasonable length human lifespan and lament the inability to do all the really cool stuff one wants to do. My queue runneth over with things.

Currently, in addition to being papa and husband Trackball, I have the novel and other writing, reading books, blogging, working, watching things on my HDTV (Netflix and DVR'd goodies) and of course, playing video games. Oh, too many video games, too little time. And they just keep coming.

In the last bunch of months I've played Pirates, Civilization IV, Space Rangers 2 and Galactic Civilizations II and now am really into Star Wars: Empire at War. I could dive back into any of these. I have dozens more that have aged but not faded. I don't really have time to do all these. And there is one other game out there that has been calling me for months. I can't get it out of my head. Do I put it in the queue? Do I move it to the top?

Is the Queue of Life already overstuffed? Will I ever get to it all? This'll have to wait till next time because Minnie Trackball wants to read a book with me. See what I mean?

UPS and AVADirect: Great Service

The new computer arrived a little over two weeks after I ordered it from AVADirect, a custom computer builder. UPS kept me up to date on every step of the shipping, even down to the minute when they tried to deliver on a weekday, found no one home, and when they talked to my wife about dropping it off for us to pick up. They let me know all my options for retrieving the package, including picking it up at 8pm that night from a nearby customer center. Kudos, UPS.

The computer was packed in the computer case's box and all the documentation was in the box that the mother board came in, including the original CDs for Vista, etc. Talk about recycling! Hooked the computer up, turned it on and it was great. The only complaint I have is that in naming the computer account, they typoed it 'valued cusomer'. Not a big deal, except it is apparently impossible to rename folders in Vista, so even renaming the account to 'Dr. Trackball' didn't prevent 'valued cusomer' from reappearing on various folders. But that's a Vista problem.

Vista itself is pretty nice and the folder rename is the biggest problem. Games work well on it so far (gushing about Star Wars: Empire at War fits the positive comment thing but will bore you readers) and everyone's happy. The kids can fight over their own computer, we can share the new one and I am still smiling over great service once again.

That's service

I promised that I would make a bigger effort to highlight good, positive things when I came across them. Boy did I have some kind of positive day yesterday.

My Macbook had a crack in the case resulting from an improperly seated titanium screw. This caused it to snag the plastic case and created a hairline crack. I took it to the Apple store, where not only did they agree to fix it under warranty but to do the repair in the store to minimize my downtime rather than shipping it off to the repair depot. I just had to wait for the part (a new bottom case for the Macbook) to come in to the store.

When it came in, I got a call two days later saying, hey, it's been two days, we're only holding on to the part for another three. I called back Monday night and said I never got the first call. They were willing to extend the time the two lost days for me to get the Macbook in. Nice touch. Since I don't use the laptop on Tuesdays, I figured that I may as well start my downtime on the day I can't use it anyway and ran right it over to the store that night. Seven to ten business days is what you have to expect for us to get this back to you, they said. No prob.

Tuesday, I come home from work and they have left a message: the Macbook is ready. Less than 24 hours. I shoot over to the Apple store, tell them my name and they knew who I am (and this Apple store is quite busy on weekends). I pick it up and am home in about twenty minutes. It's fixed and I have had no downtime. Kudos to Apple on all around great service.

At the same time, we are getting a new computer because the kids have demanded their own PC. Our current one has a dying hard drive but is otherwise a 4 yr old Dell gaming rig that can meet their needs. I have ordered the new one from AVADirect, which does custom builds. They spend 3-5 days doing a 'burn-in' of the computer, once it's built, to make sure it works fine. They were very prompt in getting things underway once I ordered it. It is still being built so we will have to see how that all turns out.

The new computer needs a monitor and the old one needs a hard drive. So I, on the advice of a tech-savvier friend, went through Newegg, which has low prices, fast shipping and all the computer components you would want. I ordered the monitor, with free shipping, and a new hard drive on Sunday, hoping that it would arrive around the same time as the new computer. The Newegg order shipped Monday.

Right before I got Apple's voice mail, I pull in and see my Newegg packages waiting on my front step. One day for a monitor from Jersey and a hard drive from California to get to my house. Apple and Newegg have not only mastered the quick shipping and service thing, but they have gone the extra mile to make you happy. A whole ton of factors (manufacturers, distributors, shippers, websites, employees) have to do their jobs with care and attention to make this happen. Human organizations and systems can work perfectly when they try. It is awesome to behold.

Now if the new computer can show up soon, and everything work right out of the box, that would make this whole thing perfect. But so far, what service!

Dvorak beats Qwerty by aoeuhtns much

Last year I embarked on an experiment to try the Dvorak keyboard layout for typing to see if it was easier, better, and more comfortable. I'm a sucker for the contrarian method that is reputed to be better, faster and smarter.

Some background first. The Dvorak keyboard is just a keyboard layout that is designed to make typing easier, faster and more comfortable. It has been proven superior to the dreaded, contorted QWERTY. It is available on the keyboard that you are using right now. Here's a picture of the layout:

Learning it was easier than QWERTY and becoming a Dvorak touch typist was about ten times faster. I taught myself by using this website. Switching your keyboard to Dvorak, and being able to toggle between the two can be done pretty easily in the control panel for Windows (look under languages, not keyboard). Go ahead and play around with it. The letter placement is much more intuitive, the beginning steps are easier to follow than on the QWERTY. Note the home row keys (where your fingers rest on the center row of letters) for the two layouts:

asdf jkl;

aoeu htns

Look at the Dvorak home row, especially the two sets of four letters. Vowels to the left, consonants to the right. The other two vowels are on the left - 'i' is next to 'u' and 'y' is on the QWERTY 't', a short jump up from the 'i'.

Think of typing the word 'that' on this keyboard. Roll your right middle and index finger for the 'th', then left pinky for the 'a' and then the right middle for the 't'. No stretchy stretchy. On QWERTY, it would be stretch left and up to the 't', stretch left to the 'h', then 'a' and stretch up and left 't', and with the same hand.

After about a year of use, I can say definitively that Dvorak is much, much better.

Not only will I not go back to QWERTY, but I have found that I can't even if I wanted to. I've lost the QWERTY touch typing ability completely and when confronted with such a layout it is back to hunt and peck. A final knock against it - it doesn't stick in the mind when not used for a while.

So, like the trackball is to the mouse, the Dvorak keyboard is much better and easier to learn than QWERTY, which was designed to be a slow pain in the comma. I recommend that everyone learn it. It is available on every keyboard on every operating system. As a touch typist, you won't need to have the letter stickers on the keys correspond to what you get when you strike them. How many of you will be flexible enough to give it a try? Some won't want to throw away that long and painful investment in learning QWERTY, but Dvorak won't be as long or painful and you'll really crank when you are proficient.

The bigger question is what to do when the younger trackballs are ready to move on from the QWERTY hunt and peck to actual keyboarding? Do I let them join the elephant QWERTY touch-typist club or do I induct them in the enlightened cheetah club of Dvorak typing goodness? In the age of PC's and custom desktop accounts, the choice of keyboard layout is pretty much personal (but your computer support people may be surprised when they try to use it). Dr. Trackball may not like the Dvorak option, fearing that the trackballs will be outcasts, but if I convince her to switch over...

The Handy Headshaker

Picking up on the thread of a theme from earlier posts, I've been paying closer attention to criticism lately. Some think that I am too critical in general, but in a talk show world, anything short of glowing affirmation is often seen as a personal attack and insult. When I criticize, it's of something that to me seems avoidable or fixable and I am always willing to suggest an alternative. Having said that, I have retreated from criticizing people or things that are unwilling or unable to change.

I look like a grinning fool compared to one unique brand of critics. Have you ever noticed that handymen, plumbers, window, roof, flooring, other construction workers and other very blue collar guys have are always dumping on their colleagues' work? It seems like no job is complete until the expert-on-site puts his hands on his hip, shakes his head sagely. Then he will launch into one of these wry rants:

Whoever did this didn't know what he was doing.
Whoever did this didn't follow the building code (or other guidelines).
Whoever did this cut corners.
Whoever did this didn't know what he was doing, didn't follow building code and cut corners.
Whoever did (technical jargon) should never have done that with (other technical jargon that sounds vaguely irrelevant) like that.

Followed by: this should never have passed inspection and whoever did it should have been fired and you are lucky it didn't kill you. If it was done a long time ago, then a mini-lecture on the history of how bad things were done in the old days is forthcoming. If it was done recently, then they don't do things like they used to, how hard it is to hire good people and maybe a tablespoon of outrage. The Handy Headshake does not happen only in case of one having a problem and therefore inevitably inviting the guy to find some failing or error. This also happens when one is upgrading something or having work done on something that by all appearances is perfectly fine.

If you have not run into this often, turn on any home improvement show. They rip up an old floor and find incompetence and laziness. Inspect a roof leak and discover subterfuge and deception. Inspect a house and discover the results of alcoholic new construction crews. Apparently no one has ever built anything correctly ever and everyone else involved in building things is a complete moron. And building inspectors are all corrupt or too incompetent to breathe properly. I challenge anyone to mention an experience with a handy person who comes to do a job and marvels at the excellent worksmanship of everything. I bet Bill Gates has people fixing stuff in his ginormous mansion saying things like "I don't know what they were thinking when they installed this, but you never leave insulation so close to the can of a recessed light!"

Can you imagine doing this in your job? Shaking your head at every single piece of work that someone else has done mostly because you were not the one who did it? There are those who try to pull such things in office environments and other jobs, but it doesn't work because the other person is right there and often the complaints are bogus. For example, it would never work for the topping person at Subway to complain about the toasting job done on the bread, or the way the meat is laid out.

Now, some of this may be done just to boost the credibility and billing rate of the current expert-on-site. Maybe it's done to induce the customer to frantically throw money at the guy in hopes he corrects everything. Or maybe there really are no standards and these guys are all repressed art critics. Since they are usually agreeable and likeable guys, they are not the can't-be-pleased-everything-snobs, another critics group of note. And it's too prevalent to be some common personality trait.

Of course, often following on the heels of this wise dissection of the previous guy's poor workmanship (it's never the materials that fail, is it?) is the handy guy not knowing how to fix the problem, repair the damage, make right what once went wrong. How fast can a handy guy go from criticism to saying "let's see what happens if I do this" or "I don't know if this will work"? How can nearly all these guys can be genius enough to spot crappy worksmanship but clueless enough to not be able to suss out the proper remedy?

Once you notice the wry critic act about to begin, you will find yourself hard-pressed to not smile. The smart-asses amongst us may try to join in, or even pre-empt the headshaker by doing their own. Please don't do this. Also, don't call them on this little act: it's as impolite as snarling at salespeople that you have approached when they try to build some goodwill with you by making small talk.

Now, you might think that this post has come about because of some recent run-in with the handy type. Think again: I decided to do this when I have not any recent such experiences to make it more generalizable and to show that I do not have any kind of ax to grind. I actually find this complaining kind of adorable and reassuring. In fact, if one of these guys can't find anything to complain about, there is only one conclusion you can draw:

He's the idiot everyone else is complaining about.

Playing better is one giant leap for humankind

For those who accuse the ToT of being too negative, pessimistic, etc. I am going to keep throwing back at you some of the really positive things I notice in the world.

Today, I give you an advancement in playgrounds. New York City, a place I am gaining more respect for over time, is on its way to installing a better playground. A father and architect named David Rockwell is trying to make playgrounds more kid-friendly. The one planned in the NYC will have pulleys and foam blocks, allow you to move buckets of sand from one place to another, play with water and generally engage kids on a deeper level than the old standby of swings, slides and climbing equipment.

Some may ask: what is wrong with slides and swings? Aren't they good enough, it's just a playground after all. My response is: why not try to improve it? Don't we all remember being kids and wishing that the playground had more to offer? The monkey bars and sunken tires of the 1950s and 1960s era gave way to the wooden quasi-castles and rope bridges of the 1980s, and they were a huge improvement. Then the 1990s came with plastic tubes to crawl through, kid-size rockwalls and entire hideaway spots and neat surprises. As our understanding of kids and child development expands, why not keep up to speed with the playthings?

That is the sweet morsel at the heart of human advancement and humanism. We keep finding that our capacities are greater than we once thought and not only can we handle more and doing it better, we're better off handling more and doing it better. Kids are the epitome of this realization: they are savvy little scientists who use play, imagination and fantasy to deconstruct the world, examine how it works and doesn't work, and then put it back together. And have fun doing it.

Three year old Micro Trackball is always killing off his superheroes because it's how he explores the concept of death. He has no real idea of what it means, but he role plays it on pretend people (or pretends it happens to real people "when I die...") to learn what it means and what it doesn't. No amount of explanation from his parents or big sister substitutes for having Superman 'die' over and over again. Minnie Trackball, at seven, is doing much the same thing by 'fortune-telling' where she uses these silly paper things to predict your car, job, best friend, favorite color and a bunch of other odd things. She's play-exploring what it means to be grown up (and driving us nuts in the process).

The adult world is slowly waking up to the idea that kids are not stupid pets who have to learn to become smart - the smarts are there and they hit the ground learning, if only the adults wouldn't get in the way. This doesn't just work with the preschool set and older, but infants too.

Now the new playground may fail. The little people will vote with their feet and let the city know. But it's always worth it to keep trying. Someone will see this playground and will be inspired to improve on it. That is how progress happens. That is how Rockwell came to design this park. Every generation of parents should stand around and marvel at their kids' schools, toys and opportunities and say "I wish we had this when we were kids."

Now if someone would put effort into improving playgrounds for all us adults too, we could make the world better at a faster pace. The IDEO folks are doing it, but they haven't got to my office just yet.

Trackball's first annual snapshot

Resolutions are for the somewhat deluded. They at least are cognizant of the need to change, but are deluded enough to make a half-hearted attempt. If you need/want to make a change, you shouldn't wait for the calendar to flip to get started. Anything that has to be resolved will likely not take root, much like posting a mission statement on the wall: if it's not ingrained and omnipresent, a one-time declaration isn't going to make it happen.

Growing up in My Shire, the new year was always greeted with rounds of well meaning and ambitious toasts and promises and plans, none of which ever happened. It was ultimately depressing to hear the same fantasies from the same people year after year without any execution. It was almost like stating that some personal problem would be addressed was sufficient. Now I know that lots of people feel that the new year is the time to make a fresh start and they make an effort, but all that happens is they all clog up my gym for the next six to eight weeks. By March they will be back to where they were in December - on their couch watching Survivor.

However, at least they try. Some people have either given up on self-change or they no longer feel any pressure to do what is right in their lives. The idea of self-improvement has lost a lot of its luster recently, despite the ever increasing sales of self-help books and paraphernalia. (Maybe people believe that reading a self-help book constitutes all they need to do to self-improve.) People in their 20s and 30s, especially those with helicopter parents, aspire to be the same as their parents rather than to do or be something better. They just don't want others to expect much from them.

I hate that.

There is a growing feeling that one's shortcomings shouldn't be dealt with, not even ignored, but should be proudly displayed as means of self-identification. Obese, racist, misogynist, illiterate, mediocre, homophobic, mean, bankrupt, etc. have somehow morphed into integral parts of personality rather than hangnails to be dealt with. People use the victimhood culture to blame their problems on others, or the ceaseless parade of 'flawed' characters in popular entertainment --Jack Bauer-- or their increasingly placating religious beliefs to justify behavior they know is wrong ('everyone has to have a vice').

I hate that even more.

There's a dark and deep line between giving up on changing parts of oneself that are not changeable and eschewing any improvements as impossible just to let oneself off the hook. I realize that there are several parts of my personality and presence that need work. That work has been ongoing, and some of it may be ultimately unsuccessful as things that seemed changeable are really unchangeable.

Some have said that my intolerance of other's foibles (and my own) is a big failing of mine. As a humanist who believes that humans can improve themselves and their world, this is a religious belief not a failing. High expectations are not a sin in any moral code I subscribe to. Go ahead and try to ding me for thinking that you and I can be better and do better than we are now. I dare you.

With that resolution crap resolved, I do think New Year's is a good time to set down a time capsule of sorts on where one is and what is going on. Forget trying to leap the moon today, just reflect on where you are. Could be interesting to collect them over the course of years and see how things change. Here is where ToT is at right now:

  • Been using the Dvorak keyboard layout for a year now and feel comfortable enough with it that I am back up to my old typing speed but without the carpal problems.
  • Going to get laser eye correction surgery and dump the eyeglasses that have been on my face since the mid 1980s.
  • The HDTV has been procured and the beginning pieces of the Lair are ready to be assembled. (It will have a retro gaming center with TV, VCR, Nintendo and Super Nintendo.) Someday the Lair will have HD.
  • The first novel is in it's second draft and is awaiting feedback from its first readers.
  • The Mac experiment has produced some mixed results, but so far more good than bad.
  • Tried Aikido but it just wasn't for me.
  • Still manage to play: with the little Trackballs, with video games and with Legos