I am now a true American

I now have a mortgage. And a home to go along with it. But by dollar amounts, mostly a mortgage.

The Voltman Cometh

When Renee and I had the idea to do a double date with Ryan and Jenny, Renee thought we should do something extremely weird or extremely clichéd. I managed to come up with an idea that was both: going on a clichéd dinner date with them within a role playing game.

Renee recruited Peace to run things for us, without whose help that night wouldn’t have been possible. He prepared a one-shot Minimus campaign. The player’s handbook for Minimus is a mere two pages long, and character generation can be done in five minutes, allowing us to surprise Ryan and Jenny with our plan when we showed up at their door.

Well, character generation can theoretically be done in five minutes. We spent a good hour and a half on it.

The first step of character generation is picking a name, a role that fits the setting, and five major life events. Since the game was in a modern, non-fantasy setting, magic and the like were right out. Peace revealed that time travel would be involved, so I wanted a character whose skills would be useful in that world.

Thus was born Stan “The Voltman” Voltronski, rogue electrician. The initial inspiration came from Harry Tuttle in Brazil, although as his character was fleshed out he became more of a mad scientist than a hero, using his unlicensed electrical work in pursuit of his goals of developing an over-unity circuit.

The Voltman’s major life events, taken from his character sheet:

  1. Childhood train set shorted out city’s power supply. Through him.
  2. After getting no date to prom, electrified the dance floor and got thrown out of high school.
  3. Put on UL‘s lifetime blacklist after successfully using a soda can to replace a little league stadium’s fuse box.
  4. After The Man shut off Chalice’s [Chamberman, Renee's character, a Harvard-educated slumlordess] power supply, was hired to tap into the grid on the down low.
  5. After Chalice tried to chain him down, told her no one can keep The Voltman grounded.

The Voltman didn’t want to get tied down in a relationship, on account of being on the run from his nemesis, Reg Phillips, the chief enforcer of the American Society of Electrical Engineers [because I apparently forgot about the IEEE and thus came up with a fictitious organization]. After all, The Voltman’s big secret was his home address (and the fact that his previous residences all burned down in mysterious electrical fires).

Minimus’s character generation involves passing character sheets around to have other players assign things to your character. Renee came up with The Voltman’s set of skills, again quoted from the character sheet:

  1. Electrician
  2. Sneaking
  3. Knowledge (lovemaking)
  4. Climbing
  5. Shopping (specifically for clothes, but overall good too)
  6. That Hebrew fighting style that is badass
  7. Steampunk

I’m not sure how steampunk abilities fit in with being a rogue electrician, since it’s all about steam-powered technology rather than electricity-powered technology, but I gave The Voltman ranks in it anyway, because it’s still awesome.

For their part, Ryan’s character was Steve Montana, a pro football player whose solution to everything appeared to involve donning his uniform. Jenny’s character was Joanna I-didn’t-write-it-down-in-my-notes, Chalice’s sister and a cheerleader-turned-sideline-reporter trying to keep her nascent relationship with Steve secret to avoid scandal and eventually get promoted into the press box.

Once we finally got into the game itself, things began with our four characters on a double date, when Steve got his drink drugged by a former football player he knew and Chalice got her car stolen. While leaving the back way, they got attacked by a group of taser-armed thugs who easily wiped the floor with them. Joanna and The Voltman both got knocked out in the first round before they could attack — I’m still not entirely sure how The Voltman fell to a mere taser. Chalice lasted a bit longer before being overpowered.

They woke up strapped to tables and got sent back in time to the year 2000, in what would turn out to be the villain’s plan to dissociate them from the timeline and turn them into his team of chrononauts.

You’re going to be my chrononauts.
I’m sorry? What? What was that?
The Voltman
It means “time-nauts.”

They had two hours to do whatever they wanted in the past before returning to the present and, from there, into the future.

I found it interesting that Renee and Jenny used the opportunity to have their characters seek revenge, whereas Ryan and I tried to make a profit. Steve tried to put together some convoluted scheme involving sports betting and memorabilia that I’m pretty sure Peace accepted because he didn’t want to try to figure out just what was going on with that. “OK, fine, you have a poster with the wrong person’s autograph.”

The Voltman helped Chalice get revenge on her abusive father by booby-trapping a remote control with one of The Voltman’s experimental super batteries, powerful and dangerous enough to electrify plastic. (One battery to injure, two to kill.) With that done, it was The Voltman’s time to shine.

In 2000, Stan Voltonski hadn’t yet been booted from the electricians’ community, so he was still operating legitimately as an apprentice under his real name. The Voltman looked up his number in a phone book and hot-wired a pay phone to make the call. This despite that:

  • Pay phones only cost 25 cents
  • Chalice had lockpicking skills and could’ve opened the pay phone’s coin box
  • Chalice had grabbed a fistful of change when leaving her father’s house anyway

Anyway, The Voltman called past Stan Voltronski and gave him the instructions for building the experimental super battery. The idea was for The Voltman to give Stan the outcome of his previous ten years’ work, letting Stan Voltrinski get a jump on things and making advances more quickly. Once The Voltman would suddenly remember the new advancements built upon the super battery thanks to how he hoped the rules for time travel worked, he would then give that information to Stan too, and so on until running out of time in the past. Had the loop worked, The Voltman could have abused time travel to accomplish decades worth of research and experiments in mere minutes.

Of course, The Voltman kind of came off a little crazy, what with not wanting to try to explain the whole time travel thing to past Stan. The Voltman’s warning to Stan to keep his experiments secret to avoid losing his legitimate job didn’t help much either:

The Voltman
You have to separate Stan Voltronski from The Voltman!
Who is this?
The Voltman
I know what you’re doing! If they find out, they’ll be after you!
dial tone

Yeah, it didn’t work. In the end, Stan’s was the only past that hardly changed, since The Voltman wasn’t able to hurt Stan in any way that Stan wasn’t already going to do to himself. Besides, all that traveling back from the past accomplished was to bring them back to an alternate present where they didn’t belong. Not that that mattered too much to The Voltman; he was more interested in the chips that had been implanted into each of their brains that let the villain immobilize them and send them through time. The Voltman wanted to figure out how it worked so he could hack it; had we not called it a night before getting that far, the first thing he would’ve done in the future was get a brain scan done so he could start reverse engineering the chip.

Also, given that time travel was accompanied by an immobilizing sense of euphoria, one not entirely dissimilar to the train set incident from The Voltman’s childhood, apparently the chips operated based on Buddhist time travel, sending people through Nirvana into the past or future.

Apparently the broader plan for the campaign was for our characters to be send through time to find and hide historic artifacts like the Q document so they could be “discovered” in the future and used to fund development of time travel, which itself happened in the future. (Obviously you couldn’t just bring the artifacts with you into the future, since then they wouldn’t carbon-date correctly and would be considered frauds.) On account of us spending an hour and a half on the five-minute character generation, though, we never got past the prelude of the campaign.

One might question the wisdom in role playing a dysfunctional relationship with the person you’re in an actual relationship with. Or in coming up with a double date idea that involves the introduction of a fifth person. Or in coming up with such a ridiculously nerdy idea for a double date to begin with.

Well, it seemed to work out pretty well anyway.

Public service announcement

If you have an upstairs neighbor, do not store anything important in your laundry room. Sooner or later, their washing machine will break, and your building’s construction is not 100% waterproof.

Luckily, I avoided learning this the hard way — I mostly had old junk in mine, and the few important bits were near the top and not directly under ground zero. Er, ceiling zero. You know what I mean.

I hate snow

No, seriously, I hate snow.

Fun fact: do you know what a car buried under two feet of snow looks like? Pretty much like anything else buried under two feet of snow.

NaNoWriMo 2009

I’ve signed up for NaNoWriMo this year in hopes of pulling off a repeat of last year’s effort. As you know, NaNoWriMo, aka National Novel Writing Month, is where a bunch of people try to write a 50,000-word novel(la) entirely in the month of November. In other words, an average of 1,667 words per day for 30 days.

And even though it’s not a requirement to “win”, I once again plan to post one 1,667+-word chapter a day every day during November. Why? Because I can. Plus, I clearly have no compunction about foisting hastily written unedited rough drafts upon you.

This year’s effort will be science fiction, which really isn’t that different from fantasy — as long as you replace magic with sufficiently advanced technology, most people can’t even tell the difference. I haven’t written an outline, but I’ve got a bunch of jumbled-up ideas about stuff that happens. Renee can confirm I do have a premise for the A plot, at least. And even though I think the better chapters from last year were the ones where I deviated from the outline and winged it, I still need one to make sure the story keeps moving in the right direction, if only to make sure it ends at Chapter 30.

Oh yeah, I need to figure out how it’ll end. I know for sure how it’ll begin, and the stuff in the middle needs to be sorted out some, but the ending is still up in the air. I haven’t even decided whether the main character will last that long.

Deciding on a title would also probably help. At least I know one of the characters is named Dave.

But I’ve got a good 10 days or so before I need to worry about any of that. So is anyone else giving it a go this year?

Cold war

While everyone is worried about swine flu H1N1 S-OIV and its newfound pandemic status because they don’t understand what the term actually means in a scientific context (see also: theory), allow me to share with you a recent first-hand medical discovery so terrifying you’ll run out to stock up on plastic sheeting and duct tape.

I recently caught a cold. While not a frequent occurrence, I’ve had enough colds over the years to have a pretty good understanding of the progression of symptoms as I experience them: first the sore throat, then the runny nose, then the stuffy nose, each lasting about two days and all accompanied by a general feeling of being mildly run down. At the end there’s a restless night involving a half-awake, half-dreaming state as the infection makes its last stand against my immune system, and in the morning it’s all over.

Thus, when I came down with a sore throat on Monday, my reaction was one of annoyance rather than concern. Tuesday the sore throat started to go away, and Tuesday night I experienced the nocturnal endgame, leaving me feeling pretty decent on Wednesday with no nasal difficulties to be found. Naturally, I wrote it off as a 24-hour-ish bug and figured that was that.

But then on Thursday I got a pack-of-tissues-a-day runny nose without warning! What happened?

Brace yourself, for I can think of only one possible explanation.

The common cold has learned insurgency tactics.

Knowing it couldn’t win a fair fight against the superior might of my immune system, the infection feigned defeat in conventional warfare, instead striking without warning once I had declared victory and let my body begin reconstruction efforts. While my T- and B-cells were busy establishing democracy in my throat, insurgent viruses littered my nasal packages with improvised mucus devices. After a period of mounting civilian casualties (Kleenex are civilians, right?), my immune system revised its rules of engagement and surged in response, apparently successfully.

This is truly a terrifying development in the world of infectious disease. This is partly because our immune systems have not learned the lessons of 9/11 and expect to be able to fight the next disease using conventional tactics. (By the way, there’s actually only one lesson of 9/11: invoking 9/11 makes you automatically win any argument on defense policy. It’s like how the phrase “in these tough economic times” makes you automatically win any argument on economic policy, and the opposite of how invoking Nazis or Hitler makes you automatically lose your argument.)

No, the truly terrifying thing is this: in this strained analogy, my brain is represented by George W. Bush.

TV or not TV

Lately I’ve been seriously considering dropping my cable TV subscription. The impetus of this is my Schedules Direct subscription — the service providing TV listings to my MythTV box — coming up for renewal.

It’s hardly as though the $20 for another year is going to break the bank or anything (the banks seem to be doing a good enough job doing that themselves these days), but it does highlight the fact that my TV viewing habits of late have decreased from their already fairly low levels. (Judging from the date of my last post here, so have my blogging habits, but I digress.)

The “dump it” argument is pretty straightforward. The only two shows I really wouldn’t want to do without are The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, and both of those are available on Hulu for free. There are a few other shows I also have my MythTV box set to record, but it’s only a handful. Is it really worth the $56/month charge on my cable bill for what I get out of it? With the savings, I could easily bump up my Netflix subscription (current queue length: 148) and watch most of the shows once they come out on DVD that way. As an added bonus, being able to power down the MythTV box for good would also probably take a chunk out of my electricity bill.

The counterargument, however, is that The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are the only two shows I regularly watch that are readily available online. (Excluding BitTorrent, of course.) While it’s obvious to me that the broadcast model of TV is inherently doomed, we’re still a ways away from the everything-available-online-on-demand world that will inevitably replace it. Not everything shows up on DVD, and even then there’s a fairly significant delay before they’re released. Plus, I’d pretty much lose the ability to watch something live, in the rare event I want to do that.

Besides, for the time being, “online streaming video” is de facto synonymous with “Flash”, and performance of Flash on non-Windows platforms is notoriously awful. As in, unable to play videos off of Hulu full-screen without skipping even on a recently-acquired laptop, when even my five-year-old former laptop could play non-Flash videos full-screen without having to step up the CPU speed. (YouTube videos might play fine, as long as you don’t do anything else while it’s playing. Like move the mouse at all. Seriously.) That’s assuming, of course, that the Flash plugin doesn’t crash in the first place. You know how Firefox these days runs plugins in a separate process? Yeah, you can thank the Flash plugin’s stability for that.

On top of all that, I just know that if I call the cable company to cancel my TV service, they’re going to jack up the charge for Internet service with the excuse that the rate I have now is part of a package deal.

What I’ll probably end up doing is renewing Schedules Direct and keep doing what I’m doing now, but keeping an eye out for any changes that might shift my decision the other way. Unless someone can come up with a convincing argument in the comments to do otherwise.

Irrefutable proof of economic recovery

After a blissful several-month absence, unsolicited credit card applications are now appearing in my mailbox once again.

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On the skillfulness of Maryland drivers, or the lack thereof

I may have the perfect anecdote to describe the average Maryland driver’s complete inability to handle any winter precipitation on the road, despite how getting snow or ice isn’t that unusual during winter.

This morning, there was maybe an inch of loose, powdery snow on the ground. On my commute, I had to change lanes to avoid a car jutting halfway into the right lane after having failed to allow for adequate stopping distance. Just before I passed, said car was in turn rear-ended by another car who likewise had failed to allow for adequate stopping distance.

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New Year’s Resolution…

… is going to be 1920×1200, thanks to having bought a new laptop.


Apparently I haven’t posted anything since finishing this year’s NaNoWriMo. I guess after all that I ran out of words for a while. Or got lazy. Whichever.

I bought a laptop to replace kryten, the tablet PC I had gotten after learning how to B.S. my way through computer science and mathematics. (That is what a B.S. degree means, right?) Four and a half years later, it’s rather underpowered for some of the things I want to do. So I bought a new laptop and, following the naming convention I’ve used thus far with my computers, named it queeg. I’ll write more about it later once I’ve finished putting everything on it through its paces. Maybe.

And though I’m not in the habit of the pointless tradition of making new year’s resolutions (aside from the occasional cliché monitor joke seen above), it is about time for me to get more serious about the software development I do in my free time. I let far too much time lapse between Music Applet releases, and I still have yet to set up an actual bug tracker for it. Which is still more than I can say for efforts like Wallace, Old Lady, or Dennis, none of which I’ve so much as touched recently. And even that’s still more than I can say for other stuff I want to write, like an online Tron game, or an OpenID provider that uses client-side TLS certificates for authentication, or other things I can’t think of at the moment but that I know I’ve wanted to make.

So in 2009, I’m going to push at least one of those vaporware projects to completion. But first, get Music Applet 2.5.0 finished and released.

In other words, I resolve to be way more productive in terms of software development in 2009 than I’ve been in 2008, even though I’ll have precisely 24 hours 1 second less time at my disposal.

Blogging? That will remain as sporadic as ever.


I finally got around to cleaning off all the bird droppings on my deck. I learned a few things in doing so:

  • Over time, the piles of bird droppings form a histogram of where the birds like to perch.
  • Birds prefer hanging out on the rafter above the north end of my deck.
  • Individually, bird droppings don’t have much of a smell. En masse, they do. Here, en masse means about one and a half dustpans’ worth.

Now you know.

Great portrait, or the greatest portrait?

Portrait of Stephen Colbert

This weekend I went to the National Portrait Gallery to see the famous portrait of the only man more patriotic than George Washington playing baseball while duct-taped to Abraham Lincoln: Stephen Colbert. Or, more specifically, the portrait of him standing in front of a portrait of himself standing in front of a portrait of himself, hung above his totally-real fireplace during the second year of The Colbert Report.

As fans of the Report know, after being rejected by the National Museum of American History (like anyone really cares about a pair of red shoes), Colbert’s hackey sack skills persuaded the director of the gallery to display the portrait in no less a place than the restrooms just outside the Hall of Presidents:

I can assure you, the portrait is every bit as magestic in person as it was on the Report, with the added benefit of ready access to indoor plumbing. The portrait itself is ridiculously popular — apparently the NPG’s attendance has doubled since it went on display — and is in a comically bad location, with the walls of the lavatorial nook blocking any lateral visibility of the portrait. But that’s not stopping thongs of Heroes and It-Getters from flocking to see it and, naturally, have their picture taken while standing in front of it. Or at least, trying to do so before someone who’s entering xor leaving the restrooms unwittingly walks into the shot.

If you want to get in on the magesty yourself, keep in mind you have until April 1. No joke.

Fun fact: the portrait of Benjamin Harrison on display in the Hall of Presidents is on loan to the Smithsonian from Purdue University’s Harrison Hall.

In bed

What does it mean when your fortune cookie is empty?

Bad Cephalopod

This weekend Phil Plait (of Bad Astronomy fame) and PZ Myers (of Pharyngula fame) were in DC for an Americans United meeting, and during their down time Saturday night had a meet-up for readers in the area. There were probably around two dozen or so people there, crouded around a chain of tables of such length as to probably not be favored by the local fire codes.

I know it’s somewhat cliched to point this out, but PZ Myers is vastly more quiet and reserved in person than one might expect from reading his blog. I mean, he hardly even killed any kittens while I was there, though he was sporting a shirt I’m nearly covetous of. I did learn, however, that he may be at risk of becoming the god of zebrafish religion, what with his zebrafish ascending to a tank called “heaven” after their role in an experiment is over to live out the rest of their days.

As for Phil Plait, he was at the opposite end of the table chain from me most of the evening, so I didn’t hear much of the conversations he was involved in, aside from complaining about the baggage handlers at BWI and the lack of direction coming from the upper levels of NASA. He was signing copies of his old book, and PZ was signing (or maybe defacing) them too, for no reason aside from not having published any books himself. (Had I had a copy of the bible handy, I would’ve asked PZ to sign it, if only to see what his reaction would be, considering.)

I also learned there’s still a fair number of people on the Metro even at 11:30 at night.

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Ghost of NaNoWriMo Past: Save Point

NaNoWriMo 2002 Winner

Renee asked for it, and guess what I found lurking in the depths of holly’s hard drive? (Where by “depths”, I mean in a clearly named subdirectory under $HOME.) The novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo 2002!

How long ago was 2002? I wrote the novel in StarOffice, of all things. This was back before OpenOffice.org existed to any great degree. Fortunately, I had generated a PDF version of the novel too. Unfortunately, the quality of the PDF was atrocious, since I think I printed to file and then converted the resulting PostScript to PDF via ps2pdf; and I did that because StarOffice’s native “Export to PDF” feature looked even worse.

Fortunately, the current version of OpenOffice.org has a usable “Export to PDF” and can open StarOffice files. Unfortunately, I had uninstalled OpenOffice.org some time ago, probably to free up a good 300 MB of disk space and because I almost never used it. So guess what got reinstalled on kryten to make a legible version of the novel that you’d actually be able to open?

Sheesh, the lengths I go for you people.

I also kept a log of my progress as I wrote. Look on my writing speed, ye mighty, and despair:

Nov 01:     0 today;      0 total
Nov 02: 1,834 today;  1,834 total
Nov 03: 2,314 today;  4,148 total
Nov 04: 2,062 today;  6,210 total
Nov 05: 2,400 today;  8,610 total
Nov 06: 2,431 today; 11,041 total
Nov 07: 2,093 today; 13,134 total
Nov 08: 2,402 today; 15,536 total
Nov 09: 2,013 today; 17,549 total
Nov 10: 2,455 today; 20,004 total
Nov 11: 2,093 today; 22,097 total
Nov 12: 2,403 today; 24,500 total
Nov 13: 2,824 today; 27,324 total
Nov 14: 2,018 today; 29,342 total
Nov 15: 2,101 today; 31,443 total
Nov 16: 2,141 today; 33,584 total
Nov 17: 2,055 today; 35,639 total
Nov 18: 2,141 today; 37,780 total
Nov 19: 2,269 today; 40,049 total
Nov 20: 2,031 today; 42,080 total
Nov 21: 2,005 today; 44,085 total
Nov 22: 2,173 today; 46,258 total
Nov 23: 4,330 today; 50,588 total

For the adventurous, you can read Save Point in the new collector’s “legible PDF” edition. Be warned, though, that I myself have never read it, let alone edited it any, so there’s no assurance of any quality whatsoever. But seeing as how I was posting it on the Internet as I was writing it back in the day, any possible embarassment has already been done.

For those two lazy to read 50,588 words, here’s the four-word synopsis of the plot: “Self-inflicted Groundhog Day“.