Categories: all aviation Building a Biplane bicycle gadgets misc motorcycle theater

Sun, 16 Feb 2020

Thoughts on the Reality of Fantasy

Starting last year, I suddenly got back into role-playing games after a nearly 25 year hiatus. In college, I played all sorts of RPGs (all this is the tabletop variety, not videogames), and dropped the habit once I got into the "real world," on the presumption that no one would have the time for it.

In any case, I now find myself DMing a campaign of Dungeons and Dragons, and playing in another, both of which came together more or less because I waved the "I want to play RPGs" flag on Facebook, and got a huge response.

One of the things that's come to my attention is that we apparently experience events from the games as being in some way real. I have operated on this assumption as I run my game and play in the other, but it had remained an abstract thought until this last weekend.

In the game where I'm a player, my character, Cass, is a 17 year old half-elf who has lived her last ~4 years as a street urchin, after escaping from an abusive home siutation. Half-elves are generally outcasts, being neither fully human nor fully elven. A couple years ago, she realized that she was developing magical powers, the source of which is completely unknown to her. In game-mechanics terms, she's a wild-magic sorcerer, which means that her spellcasting comes from within, and may occasionally spark chaotic, unexpected magical effects.

Critically, she's quite small: under 5' tall, about 90 lbs (with a healthy weight of about 110, which she'll probably reach with sufficient food), and not terribly strong, with a strength score of 8 on a scale of 3-18, where 10 is average.

As I play her in the game, I've been doing what I felt was a reasonaby good job of getting into the mindset of someone who is not at all like me, in temperament, physical presence, or outlook. What would an Ave Rat do? (For readers not from Seattle, Ave Rats are the homeless teens who hang out on the street near the University of Washington campus, colloquially known as "The Ave.")

In yesterday's session, we found ourselves at liberty in a new city in our fantasy world (a homebrew world that my co-DM Jordan and I are creating together). We spotted an urchin who looked like they were being chased, who disappeared into an alley, but no one was chasing them. Curiositiy piqued, Cass followed, but found the dead-end alley empty. Nyx, Cass's friend and fellow street urchin, found a tunnel that they may have disappeared into, and we followed it, popping out into a storeroom. We didn't find anything, but made a mental note that we might want to check it out further.

Later in the day, with fresh mysteries to solve, Nyx and Cass decided to go check out the storeroom again, to try to find any clues our previous urchin may have left behind. At Cass's insistence, we kept the remainder of the party away, so as to be more sneaky and quiet.

Sneaking in was trivial, and once inside, we rolled terrible Stealth rolls, and pretty much immediately someone came to check out the noise. A man unlocked the door and walked in, spotting us as soon as he was in.

With the heart-racing feeling of a cornered animal, Cass darted forward and attempted to hit the man with a shocking grasp attack, which, if it hits, delivers a surprising amount of force -- this is the only spell she's confident she can cast every time. Her plan was to surprise him then dart away down the tunnel, hoping to forestall any attempt to follow them.

The attack missed. The man grabbed her and she squirmed and tried (and failed) to shocking grasp him over and over until he completely immobilized her. He didn't realize what she was trying to do, taking it to be normal attempts to kick or punch rather than a magical attack.

During this time, Nyx fortunately kept her head, and persuasively argued that we weren't trying to steal anything, and had in fact been trying to help the urchin we'd seen before, who seemed to be in distress. Cass was enveloped in a fully-developed fight-or-flight response, and utterly unable to move. The man, and moments later, his boss, were willing to listen to Nyx, and after Nyx tried to calm Cass a bit, set down the struggling girl. Cass and Nyx demonstrated the previously-unsuspected tunnel into the storeroom, and the shop owner took us to her office.

The discussion was brief, and essentially consisted of "Don't break into people's shops, please." She let us go thanks to Nyx's silver tongue, and we were escorted to the store's front door, passing the varied goods present in any general store.

This sequence of events, at the slightest remove, was patently stupid. I, a 40-some year old man, would never, ever act in this way. But in the moment, with my mind placed as firmly as possible into the brain of an imaginary 17 year old street urchin, the choices were clear as day: the man was a threat, she knew she was caught where she wasn't supposed to be, and her only thought was how to escape right now. She was overconfident about her ability to use shocking grasp, sure that it would fire off every time she tried to use it, forgetting that you also have to hit your target for it to work.

After we were released from the shop, Cass was shaking with reaction, the immobilization by the shop hand the absolute worst response he could have made, from her point of view -- it recalled her pre-urchin past, and dropped her into the horrible mental space that called into being. She had to sit down in the street and let it all wash over her for a few minutes, before she could really continue on.

We stopped the session shortly after those events, out of time for the day. I went off to my next event, a friend's birthday party. As I sat waiting for others to arrive, having gotten to the bar early, I realized: I was shaking. Not a lot, but I was not my normal steady-feeling self.

I thought back on the past hour, and realized that I'd also had tensed shoulders as my character was being restrained against her will, and was feeling that shaking even then. I had described the character's physical reactions because I actually felt them in myself. Only an echo of the character's reactions, to be sure, but I felt them. Somehow, I had experienced a trauma trigger reaction even though I, the player, never had the trauma in the first place, and didn't experience the triggering event "for real."

As I self-consciously examine my memories of the event, the mental image of Cass, caught up in the arms of a comparatively burly shop hand is much clearer than the sight of my DM or the other players, at that moment. I don't see through her eyes; it's a disembodied memory, as if I were watching a movie, but the slightly dusty storeroom, his leather apron, Nyx's pleading voice, the sense of mindless, wild-animal panic: these are all more "real" than the reality that was in front of my eyes.

This is hardly a revelation, of course. I linked a study above that suggests empirically that this is all fairly common among RPG players. Even so, it hints at the awesome power latent within role-playing situations. We have the opportunity to become heroes in a way the real world does not offer, except on rare occasions (magical abilties aside, of course). We can experience crushing defeats and bounce back. We can be the people reality doesn't allow us to be.

Dungeons and Dragons is experiencing a resurgence at the moment, and I suspect that an element of that newfound popularity is this very ability to do heroic things that reality denies us. There are many factors, of course, but the chance to experience things that are otherwise unaccessible is surely one of them.

Posted at 18:59 permanent link category: /misc

Thu, 16 Jan 2020

Ohm's Law, You Trickster

I'm nearing the final phase of my garage refurbishment, which means that I now need to mud the drywall. Nothing fancy, just plugging up the cracks to complete its ability to resist fires. However, this means that I need it to be at least 55° F inside the garage, and to maintain that for roughly 24 hours while the mudding compound dries/cures.

Of course, the weather in Seattle just took an Arctic turn, and the first half of this week was entirely below freezing, with many (largely unfulfilled) threats of snow. However, it's still been in the 20s.

Clearly some supplemental heat was called for.

I have a 1500 watt milkhouse heater, though I know from past experience that it doesn't do a whole lot for even a one-car garage sized space in the winter. Imagining that it would help with a two-car space with an uninsulated roof (that's a project for a different day) was ludicrous.

So, I loaded up the website of my favorite big box store, and started trolling through reviews of 4000-5000 watt 240v heaters.

I noticed an odd trend: every heater would have a surprisingly large proportion of reviews that read roughly like this:

This heater is worthless. Turned it on, and it barely blows any warm air at all. Save your money.

After reading enough of these, along with some other reviews that suggested maybe the complainers were plugging into 120v instead of 240, I found my curiosity piqued. Surely, thought I, if you plug a 240v heater into 120v, you'd get half the performance, right?

Then I remebered: Ohm's Law is a tricky bugger. What if it was a quarter?

Ohm's law explains the basic behavior of electrical circuits with resistive loads, such as our heater. It says that the voltage (in volts) is equal to the current (amps) times the resistance (ohms):

V = I * R

You can rearrange this to figure out any of the terms. So I wanted to know what the resistance of my chosen unit was. I knew it was a 4000 watt heater, that it ran on 240v, and that the spec sheet said it consumed 16.7 amps of current at 240v. Plugging those numbers in to Ohm's law to figure out the resistance, we get:

R = 240 / 16.7

R = 14.37 ohms

Cool. So now, what happens if we know the voltage and resistance, but want to find out the current? This is important because power (watts) is determined by the voltage times the current. This will determine if the power in watts is halved at 120v, or does something else.

So, calculator out, and we figure:

I = 120 / 14.37

I = 8.35 amps

Oooh, lookie there! It no longer draws 16.7 amps, instead drawing just half that amount. The resistance of the heater hasn't changed, but half the voltage actually pulls half the current. That means that indeed:

120 volts * 8.35 amps = 1002 watts

Compared to its full-voltage spec, the massive 4000 watt heater will only put out a thousand watts when plugged into a normal 120v circuit. Less than a hair dryer, and there are probably real-world inefficiencies that make the 240v heating element even less effective at 120v than the pure math would suggest.

And this is why you always check the specs of the thing you're buying, and don't just wire up a new outlet to fit the weird plug of this big appliance you just got (I can virtually guarantee you every reviewer who complained of lackluster performance made two trips to the store: one to pick up the new heater, and another grumbling and cursing to buy the funny-shaped outlet the new heater demanded, stupid heaters).

Posted at 15:22 permanent link category: /misc

Sun, 26 May 2019

The New-House Contractor Shuffle

As previously related, I found a new house to live in after a few months of searching. I can no longer complain about that being too long, having run into someone who was looking for 2 years before she and her boyfriend found their new house.

Anyway, my new house (provisionally named Brinkley Manor, so I don't have to constantly refer to it as "the new house I just moved into") was not without faults. Particularly, much of the interior paint was patched with the odd bit of spackle and generally looking well-used; the main floor bedroom (which I was planning to occupy as bedroom and office in one) had some quite dingy beige carpet in it; and the main floor bathroom's floor was acceptable but uninspiring vinyl.

Now, I know what happens when I approach this kind of project: I plan things out for way too long, when when I finally overcome the mental inertia to get started, discover that I completely failed to plan for 20% of the stuff I should have known about, and then I can only work on it evenings and weekends. It's probably better now than it has been in the past, but either way, I decided that as long as I was splashing around money like a drunk with his Maddog 20/20, I'd hire contractors to do the work for me. This way it would get done quickly, and well, and wouldn't involve 20x more trips to the store than I had previously considered feasible. And, I could actually move into my new house in a reasonable amount of time.

I knew all this more or less as soon as I saw the house the first time, and I discussed the possibility of getting my contractors in to prepare bids ASAP, ideally before we closed, which was still a month or more in the future. Normally, you can ask the seller's agent if you may have permission to let contractors in to do this kind of scoping-out of work once you're under contract -- after all, they're not touching the house, just figuring out what needs to be done. Since this was a vacant house, there was no complication of asking the residents permission. Easy peasy.

Alas, no. The seller's agent was remarkably hard-nosed about the whole thing, and refused to even consider letting my contractors in before closing.

We had one opportunity where it could happen whether the seller wanted it to or not, which was the walk-through. This is where the buyer gets to check out the house to make sure it's still in the condition promised, and that no one kicked in all the doors out of spite (I assume this kind of thing is a possibility when a rental house is sold, since the renters are getting kicked out and may be unhappy about the situation). So, we scheduled the walk-through date, and I invited my two contractors. I was fortunate with floors and paint, as I had contractors I'd worked with before, and liked: Reliable Floor Coverings in Edmonds, and Juan Hernandez.

The walk-through date came, and a third agent (my agents were out of town, I think it may have been Spring Break for their kids) and I walked through the house. The staging stuff was all over the place. Somehow, the wires had gotten crossed. I couldn't inspect the house when there were tables and rugs and stacks of framed art piled against the walls, and I wanted to see the house after the stagers had gotten everything out. Still, the contractors were called, so we waited until they both had their chance to walk through and we could talk through the work to be done.

The process ground forward, and with interior floors and paint covered, I tried to figure out the garage floor situation. There seem to be a zillion nearly-identically-named garage floor companies in Seattle with a variety of nearly-identical floor coverings they specialize in. I ended up settling on a company that would put down a polyurea base coat, grey vinyl chips, and a polyaspartic top coat for a mere $6 per square foot.

Anyway, on April 24th, I took possession of the house, and I had a mini party with a few friends where we sat on the floor in the dining room with paper towels and ate delivery pizza. It was glorious, of course, but only marked the beginning of the next phase.

Enter, the Contractors

Juan was able to swoop in and get started on the paint right away. He started on Monday the 29th, and was done before the end of the week, having done a great job. I had imagined paint might take a while, so that was very gratifying.

Flooring was a different question, and the bathroom tile didn't start until the following week, though it wrapped up quickly once started.

The initial carpet removal for the bedroom was actually done very quickly, only a few days after possession, but we ran into a snag. My hope was that we'd be able to save the 1921 era vertical-grain fir flooring under the carpet (I'd dramatically slashed a big gash in the carpet with my friends over, so we could see what the fir looked like -- ah, the liberties you can take when you own the place). It looked to me like it might be possible, though my contact at Reliable was pretty sure it was a lost cause. It was covered in paint from what I could see, but looked good other than that.

Sure enough, once the Reliable guy came out to remove all the carpet, it wasn't really salvageable: the room had clearly once been two rooms, and a wall had been removed to make it one big room. Where the wall had been, some previous owner had had to fill in the missing flooring, so they jammed some plywood in to make it all level when they installed carpet. Patching that seemed pretty unlikely, so I reluctantly made the call to replace it with new oak. Of course the price more than doubled compared to the initial refinish-the-fir estimate. Sigh.

The other thing that happened with the new oak plan is that oak had to be acquired, and allowed to acclimatize to the house for most of a week. By the time all was said and done, the oak installation was scheduled for May 15, and the person scheduling it with me said it would last from that Wednesday through the following Monday to get all three coats of the finish down. That would put it out to about Wednesday the 22nd before I could be in the house again -- Swedish finish is awesome in a lot of ways, but it's viciously toxic-smelling while it's curing, so I wanted to give it a day or two to air out.

Then came the question of movers. A friend had turned me on to what sounded like an awesome deal: union stagehands doing work on the side as movers. I was in for that action, for sure. Scheduling with them took longer than I expected when my first email went to the wrong gmail address (and of course whoever got it didn't reply to tell me they had no idea what I was talking about), and I didn't follow up until a week later to see why I hadn't heard anything yet. Then was the interminable and increasingly anxiety-producing wait to schedule the exact date -- mostly because by the time the moving date was scheduled, it was less than a week away, and I was having visions of having to wait another month or more to schedule with a different company, in June, the very height of the everyone's-moving-now season.

I popped my head into the house on the Tuesday after what I had supposed would be the final day of floor finishing (wearing a respirator, because I enjoy having brain cells). It was with some consternation that I spotted a couple of dead flies on the floor that had been there on Saturday as well, indicating that the putative third coat had not happened. I tried a tentative breath without the respirator, and sure enough, no evil smell (or at least not enough to fuss about). I called the flooring place to figure out what was going on -- it turns out that either I misunderstood or the scheduler misunderstood, and we had reserved time for one more coat of finish than I'd been quoted. Most frustrating about that was it left me thinking I couldn't really be in the house until Wednesday, when in fact the previous Sunday was fine. I could have been moving then, dammit!

My agents had offered to bring in a cleaner as a closing gift, and that was the final thing to schedule before I could start moving in fa realz. I'm glad I waited, they did an amazing job, even cleaning inside kitchen cabinets and drawers, and cleaning up all the masses of cobwebs in the basement.

Then, finally, on Thursday last, I was free to actually move into the house I'd bought so very long ago. I know I brought on the delays myself, and they were totally worth it (the paint and floors look great!) but I was very ready to be moving in already!

Fortunately, the move date was Saturday on the long Memorial Day weekend (this year I will be remembering our nation's fallen soldiers by unpacking boxes and arbitrarily deciding this cabinet will be the snacks cabinet and that one will hold the plates), and went well. We got most of the stuff out of storage, and most importantly got all the things which absolutely require two people to move. Naturally it started pouring rain for our second trip from the storage unit. I greatly enjoyed working with my stagehand movers. We are cut from the same cloth, which made working together very natural.

I am even now sitting in my new bedroom, surrounded by boxes and arbitrarily-placed furniture while listening to music from an Android tablet, but at least I'm here. As of 10:15 tonight the final curtain rail is hung in the bedroom, so I can actually maybe sleep in tomorrow a tiny bit. The important stuff is available: a bed for sleeping, a shower so I don't feel completely grimy, and a somewhat assembled kitchen to prepare bachelor-chow (Now With 10% Fewer Rat Parts!™).

The contractor shuffle is done, and now it's up to me to get it all done. I've only been to the store five or six times in the last two days. Not bad.

Posted at 23:54 permanent link category: /misc

Thu, 09 May 2019

The Great House Kerfuffle

As 2018 descended from summer into fall, it became apparent that the living arrangement my partner and I had wasn't working any more. As winter started up, it became clear that it was working poorly enough that I should probably start packing my stuff. It was unfortunate, but these things happen, and better to part on good terms, which we did.

I had built myself a neat little shop at Hogsmeade Hollow (our shared house), though it was a bit on the small side due to lack of real-estate. It had many electrical outlets (one every 3 feet or so), it had lots of light, with skylights and more LED shop lights than you might have thought reasonable. It had a very cool set of swing-out doors, so there was no overhead track, and there was a smaller wicket door in one of the bigger doors. That's where I was building my biplane.

Of course, when it came time to pack up and move out so we could sell the house, the biplane project had to get packed up as well. Even if the new owner could be persuaded to let me keep working there, I wouldn't want to, since it would invariably be a trek to get there from wherever I ended up living -- no way could I afford to live as close in as Hogsmeade Hollow on my own.

So, it all went into storage, and I moved in with some friends who were willing to let me rent their spare room for a few months while I looked for a new house. Not quite living out of a suitcase, but not that far from it, either.

Then commenced the house hunt. For weeks and weeks and weeks I looked at houses. Starting in January, before I'd even moved out yet (which wouldn't be until the end of February), I was looking at houses. There were some... interesting ones, but nothing that really grabbed me.

I saw houses that were in a great location, but too expensive and with no way to have a shop (a full-stop requirement so I could continue building the biplane). I saw houses that had a perfect shop, but the house itself was so dreary that I could never imagine actually wanting to live there. I saw one house near Aurora that had an amazing dream shop that was also plainly illegal and unpermitted, in the zone of rapacious condo developers who would turn in the owner of such a house in roughly 1.3 heartbeats. I saw houses that were a fine combination of house and shop, but far away from where I wanted to be. I saw one house that had clearly been slowly expanded over the decades by an enterprising owner who really didn't know how to design living spaces, so it was a warren of little four foot tall rooms and improbable doors. I would have had anxiety dreams of finding new, weird little rooms for the rest of my life if I'd lived there.

Finally, as spring started to spring, I started to see more promising houses. I had moved out of Hogsmeade Hollow, and was living with my friends, with a 10x25' storage unit packed in a towering cliff to the edge of the door, and I found a house that was genuinely interesting.

It was built in the 90s, and was grey, situated on an odd little square lot deep in the middle of a block, three houses from the road on a private driveway near but not too near Lake City Way. It was the home of some famous session musician, who'd played with the Beatles, and had framed LP covers all over the walls. It had a pretty large 2-car attached garage, and a kind of funky four-bedroom-and-living-room situation upstairs. It was, attractively, about a 5 minute walk from Fred Meyer and some unexpectedly fast buses to downtown.

But. When I thought about it, my approach to this house was, "Well, it checks many of the important boxes on my checklist of Things I Gotta Have in my Next House." It was, simply, acceptable. The price was decent. It had enough rooms for what I wanted to do. It had an acceptable but not great shop space, with potential to be pretty good (but not great). It was, in my mind, a kind of acceptable grey, much like the color of the siding. I totally could have made it work.

That, however, is not a great way to approach a ¾ million dollar investment that should keep me happy for the next 20+ years.

I dithered. I talked to friends and parents and my real estate agents for hours and hours trying to work out if this was a good idea or not. I simply couldn't decide, since my emotional reaction was absent, and my logical reaction was 95% in favor of the place. A noticeable part of me knew it was the wrong choice, but the months of searching had worn me down, and it was ever so tempting to just get it over with, even if it wasn't the perfect house.

Still dithering, and still poring over real-estate listing websites like my life depended on it, I marked out a few more houses that looked like they might be promising, but almost certainly would let me down somehow in person. Agent in tow, we went to look at them, stopping first at the grey house again to see what I thought of it on second inspection. No different, as it happened.

The second house on the list for that Saturday trip was in North Seattle, about 10 blocks north of my previous house on Dayton -- that had been my starter-house, and I'd planned to be there for around 5 years, but ended up staying for 15. This North Seattle house was listed as being a bit over 3000 square feet, and over my maximum price, so I figured it would be a fun lark then we'd move on. 3000 square feet is far too big for just me, though the photos looked pretty good.

I'd taken to bringing along a GoPro style camera that I wore on a forehead harness, so I could record what I was seeing as I walked through all these different houses. They started to blend together something fierce; having a recording of what I'd seen was great for keeping them apart in my head, and occasionally helped me understand some factor I hadn't been paying attention to the first time through. I only made it the length of this North Seattle house before you can clearly hear me say on the video, "You know, I think this is The One."

This house (which I am provisionally calling Brinkley Manor in my head, after the country house of Tom and Dahlia Travers, Bertie's sole good aunt in the P.G. Wodehouse stories of Bertie and Jeeves, which country house is called Brinkley Court -- I think my grandfather would find this funny, if he were around to hear my Wodehouse reference) has a wide front porch with a swinging bench on one side. The front windows contain cut-glass tulips in lead framing, an elegant touch you don't find on modern houses. It has a large living room with a fireplace insert, an unexpectedly open dining room, and a spacious though outdated kitchen with a generous eating nook off the back end. It has four bedrooms, the first of which is on the main floor, and is an odd oversized, elongated shape. Upstairs are three bedrooms and a full second bathroom. And in the back yard, sitting unpretentiously and awaiting my attention, is an oversize 2-car detached garage which is (just barely) wide enough to accept a fully-rigged Marquart Charger biplane, and long enough to (comfortably) accept a fully-rigged Marquart Charger biplane. This house, this provisional Brinkley Manor, has a full basement in which I can stand comfortably upright nearly everywhere. It smells of wooden floors and old-house, an aroma which I find nearly irresistable.

It is, in short, The One.

Of course, it has downsides. The price is the big one -- the listing price was nearly twenty thousand over my maximum price, and had been dropped repeatedly since it was first listed, a discouraging sign. It is possessed of a surprisingly large lot, most of which is covered by lawn, which requires far more care and maintenance than I want to put in. Every single appliance in the place is at least 25 years old, and all appear to be near the end of their lives. It needs a surprising amount of maintenance on the brickwork, which has been let go for too long. It is, frankly, several bedrooms too big for one guy and his biplane project.

However, it only took me about 20 minutes of thinking to realize that I wanted to put an offer in. We called the seller's agent and got the story that there was a previous buyer, but they were first-time buyers and had been utterly freaked out by some heavily-charred floor joists in the basement (properly reinforced and stronger than when the house had been built), presumably in addition to the looming dollar-signs over every appliance and some of the less well-maintained aspects of the house. The price had dropped more than fifty thousand dollars since it first listed, and it had gone pending, then come back on the market. Both of these things are enormous black eyes in the current Seattle housing market. It went on the market in Feburary, in the middle of a giant snowstorm which kept pretty much every potential buyer off the streets and out of open houses, and had been on the market for over a month (another black eye).

All of this added up to the idea that I could offer less than asking price, and be reasonably certain it would be accepted. We actually got Hogsmeade Hollow under similar conditions, with a previous buyer who backed out on the inspection, doing the house a noticeable injury in the market.

We had the previous buyers' inspection report for this Brinkley Manor, and I pored over it carefully: it's a 100 year old house, and had a modest set of 100 year old house problems. Plus it's got a bunch of old appliances that will need to be replaced soon. That's what's wrong with it. All acceptable to me, so we prepared a no-inspection-required offer and submitted it on a Thursday evening. It was countered the next day, within 12 hours: the price was accepted, but the seller (we suspect actually the seller's agent, not the seller himself) required a zero-day inspection period for the title documents.

This still seems a little petty to me, but they stuck to it tenaciously. It seemed to be a reaction to the previous buyers backing out -- they wanted to give me as few outs as possible. The practical effect was that I needed to carefully review the title documents (which should have all been present and available) before saying yes. Presuming I didn't find anything objectionable, we could proceed.

There followed the most stressful weekend I've spent in quite a while. Of course I tried to look over the title documents on Friday evening, and of course one of them was missing. It appeared in the title report as a link, and when I clicked on the link, the resulting page said, "This document has not yet been received from the county." The title report was dated August, 2018, about 6 months beforehand. That document was not going to be arriving from the county. The missing document was the Conditions, Covenants and Restrictions document, arguably the most likely place for Unacceptable Hijinks to appear, so I was very reluctant to just wave my hands and say, "Yeah man, no worries."

But, naturally, the title company was closed for the weekend. My agent pulled some strings, and suddenly in the middle of Saturday, a title report appeared in my inbox for a neighboring lot. Weirdly, the recording number for the document I wanted to see was identical to the one that was missing from the other report. I read it over, and found nothing objectionable (but definitely hilarious: 1. no house worth less than $2000 may be erected on the lot, 2. no barn or other nuisance will be permitted on the lot -- apparently people were moving far from downtown to make little farms in 1921). But it wasn't for my lot, so it didn't really help. There was some back-and-forth about the identical recording number, but that was inconclusive.

I put together some moderately legalistic language for a counter-offer, which basically said, "I'm 100% into this house, but I need 6 hours after receiving the missing title document to make sure it doesn't require me to host a boarding house for evil clowns or something," and we floated it past the seller's agent. No dice.

Then, equally suddenly, on Sunday morning, I received a new title report, dated February 2019, and, hallelujah, it had a working link for the correct CC&R document. Same restrictions. No problem. No clowns. A quick docu-sign session, and suddenly we're under contract. The open house that Sunday was still held, but we presume that anyone who tried to make an offer was told the house was already under contract.

Everything from then on flowed in a pleasantly clockwork-like manner. The loan came through in record time (only about a week), and a few weeks later, I was signing a giant stack of papers asserting that I'd be paying a lot more in rent every month, but I'd have a pretty sweet place to lay my head each night.

On April 24th, 2019, I ditched work early and went to the real-estate office to pick up an improbably bulky envelope full of keys, and take possession of my new house. If I'm very diligent and pay my bills every month, it'll finally be all mine in 2049.

The putative Brinkley Manor; click for gallery

Posted at 00:21 permanent link category: /misc

Thu, 15 Feb 2018

The Manliest Man Competition

A 30 Second Script

Casting note: no race has been specified for any actor except MAN #3, with the intention that any suitable actor can play a given part regardless of their skin tone. In order to reach the intended audience, we should unfortunately stick with men on stage, and mostly women in the audience. MAN #3 should be white to maximize the impact of the message.

Editing should be very tight. Total length of this piece should be around 30 seconds.

SCENE: Exterior, day. A beautiful sunny day in a rural county fair setting. 4H stalls, Elephant Ear stands, portable merry-go-round, calliope music in the background, etc. Mixed crowd doing the county fair thing, walking with cotton candy and oversized teddy bears from the ring toss, etc. Colors bright and saturated, almost super-reality.

PAN TO wide shot of the main stage.

DOLLY PAST a sign with the stage schedule. "Manliest Man Competition" should be a prominent entry on the list. A sizeable crowd of mostly women has gathered to watch. Eager anticipation is evident.

Slowly ZOOM IN to a stage-wide shot of:

EMCEE: ...don't forget, the Bovine Beauty Contest is happening at the Hewitt pavilion in twenty minutes, by the sign of the smiling cow. And now, what you've all been waiting for, the Manliest Man Competition!

A group of MEN run on to the stage. All are gorgeous body-builder types (IRL the actors will all be gay, of course) with appropriate props in hand.

EMCEE: Without further ado, contestant number one, show us what you've got!

CUT TO close up of MAN #1, who is holding a football. He picks an AUDIENCE MEMBER at the edge of the crowd, and urges them to go way back.

CUT TO close up of AUDIENCE MEMBER running into the distance: they know what MAN #1 is capable of.

CUT TO close up of MAN #1, who winds up and throws the football.

SFX of a jet engine spooling up as he winds up, and an explosive take-off noise as he throws.

VFX the football disappears into the distance.

CUT TO a wide shot from the back of the crowd, overlooking crowd and stage. The crowd erupts in applause. MAN #1 smiles winningly and bows.

CUT TO a close-up of the EMCEE.

EMCEE: Wow! Contestant number two, beat that!

CUT TO a close-up of MAN #2 who is, if anything, even more dashing and handsome than MAN #1.

MAN #2 beckons to one of the ladies in the AUDIENCE, who is attractive, but not petite. Our AUDIENCE MEMBER could be another man, but this might distract from the message for the intended audience of this piece.

CUT TO a close-up of the AUDIENCE MEMBER doing a silent, flattered "Who, me?" routine.

CUT TO a wider shot showing our AUDIENCE MEMBER being easily lifted on stage by MAN #2.

CUT BACK TO a close-up of MAN #2, who rips off his shirt, places the AUDIENCE MEMBER on his back, and proceeds to do one-handed push-ups with effortless grace.

SFX: A subtle thudding noise at the bottom of each push-up, as if MAN #2 is making the ground shake.

AUDIENCE: Ooooooooh.

The AUDIENCE applauds gently, awed by the feat.

CUT TO a stage-wide shot as MAN #2 gracefully hands the AUDIENCE MEMBER back down into the crowd to applause that ratchets up to being thunderous.

EMCEE: Contestant number three!

CUT TO close-up of MAN #3 who is somehow even more ripped and beautiful. He smiles winningly at the crowd, and pulls a tacti-cool AR-15 rifle from out of nowhere, Bugs Bunny style. It is equipped with numerous accessories like a bayonet, scope, laser, foregrip, etc.

CUT TO wide shot encompassing audience and stage, again from the back of the crowd. There is a beat of silence as everyone takes this in.

AUDIENCE laughs uproariously and humiliatingly. Pointing and jeering. Booing. MAN #3 visibly deflates, and slinks off stage. MAN #1 and MAN #2 look after MAN #3 with pity and mild scorn, shaking their heads at his misguided attempt.

ZOOM IN on an AUDIENCE MEMBER, who is lauging and wiping their eyes. They turn organically to the camera, and interspersed among the laughter:

AUDIENCE MEMBER: He thought a gun would make him manly? What a dupe! [more laughter]

FADE TO black.

SFX: Audience laughter continues into the black, taking on an echoing quality.

Do not add any titles or VO at the end. The viewer should be left with ringing laughter in their ears and nothing else.

Posted at 14:49 permanent link category: /misc

Sun, 12 Nov 2017

The Feeling of Being Prey

There's a lot of good discussion going on right now around sexual abuse. It's finally becoming acceptable to call men out for their terrible actions.

Along with that has come a certain amount of disbelief (particularly from men) that surfaces as "But why didn't you just leave/kick him in the groin/scream?" The implication is that by doing the one thing (leaving, fighting, etc.), the situation would be defused, and the person being abused could walk away with their head held high and no more the worse for wear.

But that's not how it works. It's not that simple. It's not a fire-and-forget solution to kick the guy in the balls and stalk away like an action hero in a movie walking cooly away from a giant fireball.

Allow me to relate an experience I had back in college. To be clear, I'm male, white, a shade over 6' tall, and reasonably large. People seem to avoid bothering me on the street, not that I would offer them any harm.

I was living in Scotland for a year abroad. I was walking down the sidewalk on my way somewhere, with my bookbag, and as far as I can tell, I looked like a typical somewhat impoverished college student. For the last several weeks, I had received an occasional calls from the back of a truck, "Hey, mate, you want to buy some speakers?" The person who would ask this of me had a look about them like a pub brawler: someone who was trying to turn a quick buck (or quid, in this case), and I had no doubt about how stolen his speakers were. I said "No, thanks" and kept walking.

Remember Begbie from Trainspotting?

Finally, I was stopped again, by another feral-looking guy leaning out of the back of his box truck, asking if I wanted to buy some speakers. Something in me snapped. I stopped in my tracks, looked at him, and said, "I don't have any money, why would I want to buy any fucking speakers! Leave me alone!" He straightened up, suddenly alert, and said, "What did you just say to me?" I could see the look creeping up his face, looking forward to teaching this long-haired idiot a lesson in manners. I felt a cold flush wash over me.

In fraction of a second, I realized this was one of those situations that would result in a "Stupid Student Badly Beaten in Stolen Speaker Scuffle" headline, with a one-column-inch story about what an idiot I was, maybe with a tiny picture of me, black and blue and lying in traction gear. Trying not to grit my teeth, I replied, "I said, No thank you, I am not interested in buying any speakers. Have a good day." "That's better," he replied, standing down, but with a look on his face that suggested he was still considering whether I was worth a fight. I quickly walked off, thankful that my outburst hadn't made things worse than it did.

In that moment, I knew that there was only one choice: I could give this thief the respect he felt entitled to, or I could expect a quick sprint to turn into at least a beating, but possibly also a knife between the ribs. I was prey, and he was a predator, with a pack of predators around him, ready to enforce my status. Any show of strength, any continued lack of respect would be met with swift and unhappy violence to me. If that happened, and for some reason they didn't beat me up, you can bet that my face would suddenly attract more attention from the brawler set around Edinburgh. I could be assured that any report to the police (which I didn't even consider at the time) would be received with a barely covered scoff and summarily consigned to the circular file.

Now, if you're female, you're likely nodding along, saying, "Yep, that's how it works." If you're male and reading this, there's a chance you're saying, "I don't get it, how are these things related? That speaker guy was clearly a criminal..."

The thing is, my interaction with the speaker thief and every woman's iteraction with men they don't know is about the same. That potential for violence is there. That feral gleam in the eye is all too easy to see. It's impossible to know, to really know, how a man will act once they're alone, so every man is suspect.

If you don't really get the equivalence of my story to all the accusations that are coming out now, I encourage you to think about it for a bit. I've given you a minor tool you can use to bridge the gap between a male experience and that of the women around you. You can substitute your own tool: a time you were bullied, a bad experience at a bar, hazing at the frat house, whatever you have to draw on. Remember that feeling of being trapped and cornered and not knowing if you were going to get out of this alive. Remember that your presence may be having that effect on women you meet, particularly the first time you meet them.

With that in mind, imagine how you would want a might-be predator to act around you. If you have the courage, check in with your lady friends about your behavior, and really listen if they tell you things (they may not: see above about Men, Predators, Likeness to). Accept that some of how you normally act might be misinterpreted, and be prepared to change that behavior once you see the problem.

Above all, THINK and LISTEN. Put yourself in other people's shoes and try to see things from their perspective. You have a huge power to make life better for everyone by making minor changes to your behavior. It costs you almost nothing, but the positive change can be enormous. You have that power, but it's you that has to act on it.

Posted at 14:31 permanent link category: /misc

Tue, 10 Oct 2017

Random Memories

Back in the Good Old Days™, I used to call bulletin board systems (BBSes) with my TRS-80 Color Computer -- the first version, though heavily modified. I had a Hayes Smartmodem 1200, and when I started calling in perhaps 1981 or 1982, I would usually connect at 300 baud. It was a rare sysop who could afford 1200 baud (we only had it because it was a loaner from my dad's work, nominally so he could call in and use the VAX remotely).

When calling either Miranda Surface Station or Tranquility Base, I would see the normal connection messages scroll by, and then just before the command prompt, I would see:

* You have a secret communique

I never figured out exactly what that meant, or how to find my secret communique. I wonder to this day what was in my secret message.

The BBSes are of course long gone, remembered on the internet only as listings of access numbers that will certainly not answer with the 2100 Hz v.8 bis handshake tone if you call them, and more generally in the BBS Documentary.

It was, in the grand scheme of technological time, a fairly short epoch. Starting around 1980 and ending around 2000 (though a few are still online and available on the internet), when landlines were king and internet access was impossible or rare, BBSes were a brief preview of what was to come from connected communications.

Posted at 10:23 permanent link category: /misc

Thu, 14 Sep 2017

Looks like your Google Account can't go here

This was the enigmatic error message that we fought with all evening long:

"Looks like your Google Account can't go here"

But what could it mean?

The Background

My partner and I were trying to figure out how to set up an email account on the ubiquitous Gmail platform for her 10 year old son. The 10 year old part is important -- Google won't allow you to have an email address under its normal terms unless you're 13 year of age or older. The solution they offer is a thing called Family Link, which allows you to give your child an Android device with limited access to most Google services.

What Google doesn't make particularly obvious, and what their phone support agent also didn't know (he hadn't even heard of Family Link, which is apparently a new service this year) is that the only way to make it work is on an Android device. You may not use a Mac, or a Windows machine, or a Linux machine, or an iOS device, or even a Chromebook that runs Android apps (as some of them do). It needs to run Android as its base OS, or it just won't work.

My partner had acquired a Chromebook that runs Android apps, thinking quite reasonably that this would be sufficient to the task. Her reason was sound: school is teaching on actual computers equipped with keyboards, so that's the most sensible thing to have at home. Only after re-reading the descriptions very very carefully, and spending half an hour on the phone with the aforementioned clueless but engaged phone agent, did we figure out what the problem was.

Great, Just Tell Me What the Error Means

The bit that probably brought you here, though, is that useless error message. We kept running into it, everywhere we tried to go with this new Junior Google account. Log into Gmail? "Doesn't work here" Log into YouTube? "Doesn't work here" Log into Docs? You get the picture. The key is, we were trying this from regular computers, and not from the one and only one blessed Android device.

I finally pulled out my recent Huawei 8" tablet (which thankfully runs Android 7, about which more later), created a new user, and was able to finish the process, activating the Family Link account. We both breathed a sigh of relief: after claiming the son's name as a Gmail address 8 years ago, then losing access to it due to changing email accounts and overly-cautious account recovery algorithms, we were not eager to burn this slightly longer one as well. (Apparently, even if we could recover the originally-camped address, existing Gmail accounts can't be converted to Family Link accounts in any case.) She hoped to secure him a reasonably respectable and neutral Gmail address -- leave it to him to come up with a quirky and convention-defying address once he knows what he's doing online. Nothing like having to live down a parentally-inflicted as you enter professional life.

Google's Family Link has some specific requirements you would do well to keep in mind. Particularly, that you need an Android device for your child which runs Android 6 or 7 (Marshmallow or Nougat in Google's increasingly-annoying versioning nomenclature), with a very small list of v5 (Lollipop!) devices also being compatible. Go hop on your favorite Android shopping portal and take a look at the devices that run 6 and 7. You may not be pleased at the prices (see Update below for further discussion). At least as of right now, these are decidedly not the hand-me-down phones and tablets I'd expect most parents to pass off to their under-13 children. Give it a few years and we'll be ok, but for now, Family Link is only for those families which can afford a several-hundred-dollar hundred-dollar-plus device for young Bobbo the Cute.

The insistence on the device running Android also means that kids are incapable of experiencing the internet as much of the adult world does: as a mixture of mobile and desktop interfaces. At least, as regards Google's services. Now that we have the account set up on my tablet (a non-ideal solution, since the son and I may well have conflicting schedules of use), Gmail and other things are available. But only on the tablet. If you try to browse to on any browser except the one on that particular tablet, you get the inscrutable error message which appears above.

Finally, the Actual Answer

So, to answer the question you probably came here to find answers for: the "Looks like your Google Account can't go here" error is more or less what's printed on the tin: you're using an account that's limited in some way, and according to Google's rules, the limitation prevents you from going to the place you're trying to go.

If you're using a Family Link account (internet searches suggest that this is the main way to get this error right now), go back and find a (very expensive) recent Android device and either do a factory reset on it, or create a new user (usually buried deep inside the Settings app on a phone or tablet), and follow the directions on the Family Link app on your own phone. Log in with the child's new account (Google's overuse of the word "kid" was jarring after the second instance -- a kid is a baby goat, and will never be a particularly respectful term for a young human) on your Expensive New Device That You Wouldn't Normally Hand to a Child (ENDTYWNHC), and it should Just Work.

Keep in mind that the only way to access those Google account services is via that one ENDTYWNHC, and you'll be golden. Forget it at home and need to check your child's email? Tough. Google's compromise account for children is sufficiently limited that you might be better off just fibbing on their age and getting them a normal Gmail account with some other, more flexible parental control software.

Update to the Original Post

September 15 Update: I was wrong about the versions of Android that support Family Link: it's only v7 (Nougat) devices that all support it, with a small number of v6 (Marshmallow) devices on a list. There's no support of any v5 devices, which I had incorrectly said above.

The market for inexpensive Nougat devices isn't quite as dire as I'd seen on my first glance -- we were able to find a $130 Acer 10" tablet that will do the job well, and paired with a $30 keyboard case, it'll very nearly look like a laptop. That's still a lot of money to spend on something to hand to a typical young human, but at least it's (just) under $200.

We were also pleasantly surprised to find that any number of devices could apparently be set up using the restricted child's account. After all the run-around we'd been through, it would have been logical to find that there was literally only one device the account could exist on, but that was not the case.

Posted at 11:19 permanent link category: /misc

Thu, 29 Jun 2017

Imagine A World...

Scene: INTERIOR DAY, a corporate restroom, clean but not conspicuously so.

Establishing shot of a men's restroom sign, with a small icon figure of a man on it.

SFX: The sound of urine splashing into a toilet bowl.

CUT TO slow dolly shot past several empty urinals. Brief CUT TO tasteful but slightly flickering flourescent lights above.

V/O: [In the style of super-dramatic "In A World..." preview voiceovers] The year is twenty-seventeen. [PAUSE] And we still haven't figured out how not to piss on the seat.

CUT BACK TO slow dolly, which stops on a sit-down toilet. A man of average build, dressed in business casual, facing away from the camera, is standing in front of it, relieving himself. The seat can be seen beyond his legs, and it is down. Close-up of him zipping up his zipper and fastening his belt as he turns away to leave. We never see his face.

SFX: Footsteps and door close as he leaves without washing his hands. Different footsteps approach.

Semi-wide handheld shot showing the toilet from average man height, as if we are coming to use the toilet. A few yellow droplets are scattered on the seat.

CUT TO close-up of a man's face slightly from below, which goes from blank to mild disgust.

MAN: Ugh.

Fade to black.

VFX: Black-background with white lettering: Don't be that guy.

Posted at 14:13 permanent link category: /misc

Wed, 05 Apr 2017

Rust-Oleum RockSolid Initial Impressions

I'm nearly done with building the garage that will house my future airplane-building shop, and one of the final steps was to finish the floor. For this job, I decided to use Rust-Oleum RockSolid Polycuramine floor paint. It was reasonably well reviewed, and seemed to be at least as good a choice as straight epoxy, but allowed a much wider lattitude of temperature for application, which appealed to me as the Northwest weather has not been warm.

I prepped the garage, taping off the bottom of the walls, and over the threshold for the big door. The citric acid etch was reasonably easy to apply and deal with, although I suppose I won't know how well it worked until I've been beating on the floor for a few years. Certainly once washed off, the floor was completely clean.

The paint itself was easy to mix, and the "burst pouch" that holds the paint made mixing quite straightforward. I squished around the paint as directed, both before and after mixing the two sections together, and the first coat seemed to go on reasonably well. I bought the two-car garage kit, intending to put two coats of paint on the floor (and there wasn't a one-car kit in the store that I could find, so why not).

Unfortunately, the instructions about working in a series of 4x4' sections were hard to follow, as the first time I set down the pouch full of paint, it fell over and spilled paint into a three-foot puddle before I glanced over and noticed the problem. Of course, that puddle was at the back of the space, far from the door I'd eventually be exiting, so I ended up painting in two long strips with a clear path down the middle so I could get back to the paint puddle to refresh my roller. Ironically, that may have saved me some trouble on the first pass that I only encountered on the second pass.

The first coat; click to embiggen

The results of the first pass were decent, but far from perfect: lots of pinholes in the paint, and a few patches of discoloration where some contaminant was clearly present. Even so, when I looked in on the paint the next day (when it was clearly done curing, assuming the instructions could be trusted) I thought it was still wet, it was so shiny. A touch confirmed that it was cured, though. Impressive! Pity about the pinholes, but the finish quality was amazing.

I let the floor sit for a couple days while I waited for time in my schedule to apply the second coat. It's ok to wait up to 7 days for the second coat, so I was well within the recoat time limit.

I had noticed on the first coat that the foam roller cover they supply with the kit was pretty terrible at staying on the roller frame -- it would worm its way off the frame as soon as I started rolling, and I pushed it back onto the frame at least fifty times over the hour that I was putting on the first coat. It was even worse on the second coat.

For the second coat, I got clever, and dropped the paint pouch into a 2 gallon bucket to keep it from flopping over and repeating the paint-puddle experience. This worked perfectly, and I recommend it as a good practice with this kind of paint container. I was able to follow the directions, and put down a ribbon of paint every 4 feet, trimming in the edges with a cheap-as-possible chip brush, after the nice synthetic brush I'd used the first time completely failed to clean out with mineral spirits as they suggest. I threw that brush away, as it was clear I'd never get the epoxy out of it, and it would be (ahem) RockSolid in a matter of hours.

Unfortunately, the ability to follow the directions made it harder to finish on time. I would have been better served by keeping a roller tray full of paint, as the ribbons from the pouch were hard to spread, and resulted in thick lines that took a lot of time to smooth out. I was rushing toward the end, to avoid working past the rated pot time of the paint (one hour for the temperature I was working at).

Unfortunately again, the roller cover that liked to inch off the tool continued to do this, but I must have tapped it too hard at some point, trying to re-seat it, and the cardboard tube, soaked in paint, just turned to mush and started shedding pieces into the paint as I rolled. This further increased the time I was taking to cover the floor, as I kept stopping to pick out shreds of roller cardboard. The shredded roller cover, in addition to losing pieces of cardboard into the paint, soon lost structural integrity, and a large flap of loose foam was flopping around as I rolled into the final quarter of the job.

There's no question in my mind that my technique was at least partly to blame, but I don't think I'm unusually incompetent among the target market for this paint. The decision to make the roller cover based on a cardboard tube was no doubt a very good one from a cost standpoint, but it made the resulting experience for me pretty frustrating. A fiberglass cover (even the super-cheap latex roller covers are based on a fiberglass tube) would be less likely to inch off the roller, would not be at all susceptible to decomposition in the paint, and would add a dollar to a $200 kit, a price I would gladly pay to not experience the aggravations I went through last night.

It appeared, from my painting last night, that the first coat was surprisingly prone to scuffing. I'm not sure what was doing the scuffing, but I came across a number of scuffs on a floor that I had literally only walked on gently, in carefully cleaned Converse hightops, for a few minutes. Hopefully I'm wrong, and I was seeing wet paint that I misinterpreted as scuffs, but that's not consistent with how I was spreading the paint. I'll know in the next week or two, and hopefully the paint will cure and get harder over time so I'm not just walking around on a two-hundred-dollar scuff-fest. It won't be the end of the world if that does happen, but it will serve to invalidate Rust-Oleum's claim that this stuff I just laid down is "20x stronger than epoxy."

When I peeked in this morning, I was surprised to discover much stronger patches of discoloration than I'd seen in the first coat. The roller marks were still pronounced (I'd been hoping the second coat would be smoother than the first, where I was flustered from the spilled paint at the beginning of the job), and the pinholes were no better than they had been on the first coat. I followed the directions carefully, and did what they said, though I can only assume the problem is in my technique and not in the product. Perhaps I didn't mix the paint thoroughly enough the second time around, after the first time worked out pretty well.

Based on what I know at this point, having not yet walked on the second coat or given it more than a cursory look, I'd make the following recommendations to anyone else wanting to use this product (some of which are probably standard practice that I'm deducing through my mistakes):

I don't know yet if the final coating is any good or not, though I don't have any reason to suspect that it will be bad. The wide application temperature seems like a good thing, but I wonder if painting onto a 45° concrete slab, despite being inside the stated temperature range, might have contributed some to my problems.

The kit was overkill for how I used it. If I could have bought the etch and paint separately, I would have been happier to save money on the paint chips I decided not to use, the second bag of etch I didn't need, and the terrible, disintegrating cardboard-based roller covers. I'm sure the company is happier to sell me a kit than individual pieces, since they get the profit whether I use the whole thing or not, but I found myself annoyed at the wasted money and materials.

I'll put up an entry in a few weeks or months and report back on how the floor covering is working out at that point.

Posted at 11:40 permanent link category: /misc

Mon, 06 Mar 2017

Calling the Bet

The following story is true, to the best of my knowledge.

A group of pilots were sitting around shooting the breeze one morning recently. The coffee was hot, the room was warm, and the sole politically liberal pilot was sitting with a group of Trump supporters. This took place a week or two after the 9th District Court of Appeals returned a preliminary ruling upholding the stay on Trump's travel ban executive order.

The conversation turned, as conversations do, to the subject of politics. One of the Trump supporters eventually made the assertion that, "80% of the decisions handed down by the 9th District Court of Appeals are overturned by the Supreme Court." After mulling this over for about 2 seconds, the liberal pilot looked at the speaker and said, "No they aren't." The Trump supporter was quick to defend his position: "Yes, they are. I read about it on [a right-leaning news website, the name of which I've forgotten]. It's absolutely true."

There was a round or two of "No they aren't" and "Yes they are," then the liberal pilot cut this useless tactic off with, "I'll bet you a hundred thousand dollars you're wrong." This caused the conversation to pause. His tone clearly indicated he wasn't kidding, and in a group of retired people who can afford to own airplanes, it wasn't outside the realm of probability that he actually had $100k to back up his bet. The pilot who'd suggested that 80% of the 9th Circuit's decisions were overturned (an obvious falsehood on its face -- there are only a fraction of 9th Circuit decisions which go to the Supreme Court, much less than 80%) eventually responded, "I can't do that," his tone suggesting he was just a trifle hurt the bettor would make such a suggestion.

Then why did you say it in the first place?! railed the liberal pilot, to himself. He didn't say anything out loud, though, for the point had been sufficiently proven.

The following story, as far as I know, is also true (and to be clear, the terms Seattleite and Montanan are only used for identification purposes, with no negative sentiment expressed):

A 30-something Seattleite was visiting his old stomping grounds in Montana, and was in conversation with an old friend who had stayed in Montana, when the topic of the upcoming election (this was several months before the November 2016 election) was raised. The Montanan said, with absolute sincerity, "You know, there's going to be some kind of a false-flag terrorist attack around the election, so that Obama can declare martial law and install himself for a third term, and eventual dictatorship."

There was that familiar pause, and the Seattleite said, "No way." "Definitely," responded the Montanan, explaining briefly the somewhat convoluted logic which supported this view. The Seattleite extended his hand for a handshake and said, "I'll bet you a thousand dollars that won't happen." The Montanan demurred, but the Seattleite persisted, "Come on, you just said this is guaranteed. This is easy money, why won't you take the bet? I'll give you a thousand dollars when martial law is declared in November." And yet the old friend from Montana wouldn't take the bet.

These stories, to me, suggested a new and interesting tactic to combatting the kind of false news and conspiracy theorization which seems to be running so strong on the right side of the political spectrum these days. It's not a tactic that will work with a group. It's not a tactic you probably want to try on social media (betting is illegal in most jurisdictions, so leaving hard evidence around that you're engaging in it isn't the best idea). But one on one, with people who have a sufficient level of trust to honestly place this kind of a bet, it seems foolproof:

When someone makes a clearly absurd assertion that is easily disproved and yet they seems to stick to it, call that bluff. Make the wager, and make it big enough to be a scary amount of money (or whatever commodity may be offered) if they lose. If they take the bet, you (seeker of the truth that you are) get their money. If they don't take the bet, then you get to have the conversation we're all itching to have: Then why do you persist in this madness if you don't really believe it?

Posted at 09:12 permanent link category: /misc

Thu, 09 Feb 2017

For All Your Pink Slip Needs

Should you find yourself wanting to send a message to someone, perhaps the person currently infesting the White House, perhaps on March 15th, 2017, I have generated some useful files for you.

Download the appropriate PDF files here:

Pink Slip front
Pink Slip back
Pink Slip front and back

The "front" and "back" files are single pages, allowing you to print with just about any printer -- do a sample print to see which way you need to turn the paper when flipping it into the printer's feed tray. The "front and back" file is both pages in one file, to facilitate printing on duplexing printers.

When printing, print onto pink cardstock. Any cardstock should be fine, but to strictly qualify for the 34 cent postcard stamp, it should be between .007" and .016" thick.

I highly recommend US Flag postage stamps for those of you mailing through the US Postal Service.

Posted at 21:16 permanent link category: /misc

Thu, 26 Jan 2017

The Time Has Arrived

I must, regrettably, break my long, long streak of not discussing politics on this journal.

With the arrival of Trump as President (I still shudder when I associate those words together), there is no more time to pretend it will all be ok. We're only five days in, and already he's issued executive orders to:

He continues to natter on about voter fraud, for which there is no evidence. He has repeated on live TV that he thinks waterboarding and other torture methods are acceptable, and should in fact be used by US authorities. The list goes on, and as time passes and this post ages, this will most likely look like a tiny drop in the ocean of evil that he attempts to enable.

The refrain I hear over and over again, and which I repeat myself, is, "But what can we do about it?" Fortunately for us, a group of people who lived through the Tea Party years has assembled a handy guide for us:

The Indivisible Guide (local cached copy, check the source site for updates)

I will be going through the Guide, and seeing what it has to offer. The time to sit back and let the politicians sort it all out is over. If we want to continue to have a country as we currently recognize it, you and I and everyone we know needs to act, now.

Posted at 15:07 permanent link category: /misc

Thu, 10 Nov 2016

Join me on Signal

The world is at once new and different, and the same as it ever was, but that's not the point of this piece. We're entering a scary new chapter in our story, which is the point.

tl;dr: Load the Signal app (Android link, iPhone link) on your phone. Our SMS and phone communications can be much more secure. We all need this, not just people who "need encryption."

What is it?

Very much like WhatsApp, Signal is a secure messaging app for your phone, that allows you to send SMS-like messages and make voice calls. Critically, it encrypts those messages from the moment you type them in, to the point where they arrive, and are decrypted by your recipient's Signal app. Same for voice calls. It's called end-to-end encryption, and what it practically means is that your communication is hidden from prying eyes.

There are longer articles out there on why this kind of encryption is good, which go into detail. A simple search on "end to end encryption" will yield them up.

Why Signal? Why not WhatsApp or one of the others?

A key facet of decoding communication between two or more parties is called traffic analysis. That's where you don't even look at the messages themselves (ie, no need to see what Bob wrote to Alice) you just look at the fact that Alice and Bob are communicating. You look at the times and dates on which they communicate, you look at the frequency with which they pass messages, you look (if possible) at the source and destination location when messages are sent.

This information, the information about the message, is popularly known as message metadata. Metadata is routinely used in courts of law as evidence. It can be used by hackers for a variety of purposes, as diverse as human creativity can allow for. It is certainly used by intelligence agencies and government security forces.

A very intentional point of Signal is that it doesn't record this metadata. Signal effectively blocks its ears and says "LA LA LA I CAN'T HEAR YOU," and records nothing about your communications. It just provides an anonymous conduit through which information passes. There's nothing to hack, nothing to subpoena.

The other apps (WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Google Allo, and others) that use Signal's encryption protocol certainly afford you well-encrypted communications. However, by saving your contact list, or recording the time and date of your messages, or other insecure handling of message metadata, compromise your security in non-obvious ways.

Finally, unlike the other apps, Signal is open-source (which means its code can be reviewed by security researchers; and it has, here (PDF)). It is not owned by a large corporation; it's actually supported by donations of time, effort and money.

Why do I need it?

Typically, the people who are thought to "need" encrypted communications are what you would probably classify as people you don't interact with every day: political organizers in oppressive regimes, dissidents, spies, terrorists, human rights activists, etc. If that mention of terrorists has you looking at me side-wise, let me remind you that the Charlie Hebdo attack in 2015 was coordinated entirely with burner phones (prepaid cellphones that are effectively untraceable) using plain ol' SMS and phone calls. It's very hard to track someone's phone number if it was activated yesterday, and discarded tomorrow. They had stacks and stacks of them piled up and ready to use.

Anyway, the point is that most of you reading this will not put yourselves in that same category, of people who need to hide their communications.

However, there are two powerful counter-arguments to that, which you can also find more detail about in other articles: first, your communications are definitely eavesdropped upon, right now, by your own government. They are almost certainly not targeting you, and even if they did, the shopping lists and cat pictures you send are unlikely to excite them. But your text messages and mine are being slurped up and analyzed by the NSA (if you're in the US; other agencies if you're elsewhere). This has long made me uncomfortable, but not quite uncomfortable enough to act, until now. More on that later.

The second counter-argument is that more traffic makes it harder to track the real targets of interest. We can probably all agree that people working for human rights in oppressive states are freakin' heroes, and desperately need to maintain a cover of secrecy so they aren't hauled in front of a crumbling brick wall and shot, or worse. But if it's only people in that kind of a situation using an encrypted communication channel, suddenly it becomes very easy to track down all the dissidents in your country. Just see who's chatting with the encrypted server. Doesn't matter what they're saying, you just know that if they're using it, they're against the regime. (If this all feels a bit too distant, remember that Black Lives Matter or people organizing protests against the new guy may be considered as just such a dissident organization in the US by some).

Now, if you and I sign up and start using it to send cat pictures and shopping lists to each other, and if thousands of our friends do the same thing, suddenly it's much, much harder to track down those same activists. If we all start using a system like this as our go-to app for messaging, the noise of our chatter makes it much easier for the high-risk users to pass their traffic along with more certainty and anonymity.

Ok, smart guy, why now?

As I write this, we're two days past the election of the United States' first openly tyrannical president. He hasn't telegraphed any plans to start rounding up the intelligentsia and have them build roads in Siberia, but direct parallels to this situation have led to exactly that outcome in other places and other times. We are now living in considerably more dangerous times, whether we like it or not.

I don't foresee myself actually having to organize a resistance movement; I don't think the country is that far gone, nor do I think it will be in 4 years. However, you would probably find a lot of intelligent, empathetic people saying the exact same thing in the early 1930s in Germany. It could easily happen here. Wouldn't it be nice to already have a means of communication set up that allows us to speak without the dread certainty that everything we say is being funneled straight to the security forces?

At some point, the theoretical tyrannical forces would shut down Signal's systems, but by that time, it will be far too late to do anything about it in any case. How nice to have those secure communications up until then.

What else?

If you really want to get serious about this, there are some excellent articles out there on how to secure your online communications and activities. Avoid Facebook like the goddamn plague. Use DuckDuckGo for searches instead of Google. Use the Tor browser for as much of your browsing as you can. Do these things routinely, to increase the amount of traffic the bad guys have to sort through.

I've been an advocate of encryption in routine communications for decades now, but only recently has it become easy enough to ask all my friends to do it. Now that it is so simple, I encourage you to use it all the time, for all the reasons stated above.

Posted at 22:37 permanent link category: /misc

Wed, 12 Oct 2016

Dear Cigna, or, A Phishing Vignette

PHONE: Ring-ring! St. Louis, MO calling!

MYSELF: Huh, who is calling me this early in the morning? [swipe to answer]

AGENT: Good morning Mr. Johnston this is mumble-mumble mumble-mumble calling. Could you please confirm your date of birth?



AGENT: I'm sorry, could you please just confirm your date of birth?

MYSELF: No. Who are you? Why should I be telling you this?

AGENT: This is [name forgotten] with Cigna Sleep Medicine? I just need you to confirm your date of birth.

MYSELF: I'm not in the habit of giving out that kind of information to random people who call me. Give me some piece of information, some thing that only you and I could know. I have no idea who you are right now.

AGENT: Well Mr. Johnston, I just need to get you to confirm your date of birth, since I have some information for you from...

MYSELF: No, I have no idea who you are. I'm not going to tell you anything... Look, I'm going underground right now, you'll have to call me back. [HANGUP BUTTON] [OOPS PARKING GARAGE]

PHONE: Call ended.

Dear Cigna: you need to work on your contact procedures. This is the textbook definition of a phishing call, and you're never going to reach me with this approach.

Posted at 11:07 permanent link category: /misc

Fri, 13 Nov 2015

Cello String Update the 2nd

The new strings performed quite well for my accompaniment of My Dear Miss Chancellor. I definitely don't regret leaving them on for the performance. One of the actors remarked that the cello that night sounded particularly rich and full toned. The other cellist who plays on nights I'm not there has a much quieter-sounding cello, so any comments about richness are received with a large grain of salt, since everyone just had the other cello in their ears.

I was very interested to note that when I was playing with a practice mute (and about half the show is done with a practice mute on, to keep from overwhelming the actors), the silver G string and tungsten C string have very different overtones, with the G being much more mellow, and the C being much more harsh. Without the mute, I can't really hear the difference. I assume the difference is still there, but overwhelmed by the primary tone of the strings so that over- and undertones are relatively much quieter.

Part of my attempt at bettering myself through practice was to try filming myself playing through one of the songs, to see if there were any obvious physical things I might be able to improve. This was a profound mistake. I watched the recording with the sound on, and was horrified at pretty much every aspect of what I heard: intonation off and wandering, squawking bow strokes, grating tone, and the sound was at least a quarter tone sharp of what I hear when playing.

This video abomination had one good effect, though, which was that I practiced more than an hour each of the following days, trying to tighten up the problems I heard in the recording. I discovered that my bow strokes were much nicer sounding with all the bow hair hitting the string (for years, I've been in the habit of holding the bow rolled toward me, so that only about half the hair hits the string). Getting myself to do that every time is still a challenge, but at least I'm aware of it. I think I started rolling the bow toward myself in an attempt to play more quietly, but that choice was made decades ago, when I was still playing on a regular basis.

I'm still getting used to my new cello, so my ability to solidly hit the 5th interval in 4th position is not yet there. On the other hand, I'm getting much more willing to drop into 2nd and 3rd positions to simplify string crossings, although my intonation is still on the shaky side, as it is anywhere outside 1st position.

I'm looking forward to all these new strings playing in, with the hope that their sounds will mellow out a bit. At the moment, I'm more pleased with the silver G than the tungsten C, but that may change as they wear in. I also need to remember to get a piece of parchment glued onto the bridge under the A string, since the notch is noticeably larger than the string diameter of the new Larsen.

So, overall pleased, but waiting to see what develops with some more use.

Posted at 11:33 permanent link category: /misc

Wed, 04 Nov 2015

Cello Strings Update

I pulled the new strings out of their immaculate packaging last night, and strung up my cello. The Larsens have what appears to be an actual sealing wax seal on their envelopes, which is delightful and goofy at the same time.

No problems getting the strings set up, although the Spirocore C was surprisingly unwilling to seat in the hole drilled for the purpose through the peg. It was perhaps too springy, and not grippy enough, so it kept sliding out as I turned the peg.

I then played about half an hour of scales, arpeggios, and some of the music from Chancellor.

The Larsen A and D are slightly more mellow sounding than the two-year-old Jargars, but are markedly less prone to the horrible-sounding false tone I would occasionally get on an open string. They seem to project very slightly less, although I'd want to confirm that with someone else. I have found in the past that my experience of the cello's sound is not the same as what you hear sitting a few feet away.

The Spirocore strings do definitely have a metallic undertone to them, as the internet had suggested they would. However, as long as the bow is putting energy into the string, it sounds pretty good, and not particularly objectionable. Once the bow is off the string, and it's just ringing, it's got a tack-piano tone to it, although it's not the predominant sound.

I found that the open G (I have the silver G, and the tungsten C) speaks more easily than the Jargar G did. It's not a huge change, but is definitely noticeable. The C string produces a most unpleasant tone when playing anywhere above G, but I basically never play there, so it's not a big deal. I also expect that habit to mellow out with age, along with losing the metallic undertone. The first position up to G sounds good.

Interestingly, the wolf moved dramatically with the new strings. With the Jargar strings, it was about B or B♭ on the G string; surprisingly low, but that's where I kept running into it. I tuned my New Harmony (probably 7g, but not sure) eliminator accordingly. With the new strings, the wolf appears at F on the D string, a much more common location from what I can tell. Reset the New Harmony weight accordingly, and it seems to be gone. However, the wolf was never very present on the F with the new strings, and I only occasionally hit it, particularly when a bit flat. With the old strings, when I hit the wolf, it was quite noticeable.

I can't actually explain the change in wolf location: the wolf is a characteristic of the resonant frequency of the cello's body, and although tension could shift the resonant frequency, I'm pretty sure it can't shift it that much. The change from B♭ to F is almost exactly a meter of wavelength (from 296.03 cm to 197.58 cm, according to this page). The cello's body is around 76 cm long. Neither of the notes is anywhere near an even multiple of that number, though examining longest dimension as related to resonant frequency is almost criminally simplistic, I'm sure.

Regardless of wolf mysteries, I was sufficiently pleased with the sound of the new strings that I abandoned my initial plan to replace them with the old Jargars (as being a well-known quantity) for the next performance of Chancellor.

I'll report back for my ~1.3 readers who are interested in this experience. I expect to have string stretch shenanigans to deal with, which will probably be the only thing that will make me reconsider swapping back to the old strings for performance.

Posted at 15:14 permanent link category: /misc

Tue, 03 Nov 2015

Cello Musings

Back in 2013, I took an extended vacation in Europe, and one of my longer stays was in Vienna. While I was there, I decided to buy a new cello, which I'd been thinking about doing for a number of years.

I gave myself plenty of time to try out a variety of different cellos, and ended up with one that I was quite happy with, as well as a bow that goes very nicely with the cello. Neither was expensive in cello terms, but I could have bought a decent used car for the same amount. From what I can tell, "good," professional-quality cellos start at $10,000 and go up. Mine was well under that. Surprisingly, I ended up choosing one that was basically the cheapest of all the cellos I tried.

Anyway, the point is that I gave myself lots of time to play with different cellos and bows, and was very satisfied with my choice. What I did not do was give myself any time at all to find a case. Obviously I had to have one: I was riding a motorcycle through Europe. The only reasonable choice was to ship it, but I had given almost zero thought to what happened after finding the right instrument.

So, standing there in Herr Ramsaier's shop, I more or less played a game of eenie-meenie-miney-mo, and picked a lovely-looking deep red case which had a price that wasn't entirely shocking. But it was a hurried choice, and one that has recently come back to bite me. I passed over a nice-looking Bam Hightech case as being too expensive.

Fast forward to a month ago. I had volunteered to play in My Dear Miss Chancellor at Annex. I found myself loading the cello in a car, and some of the weaknesses that had bothered me came flooding back. The biggest problem is that the case was a bit small for my cello. Not catastrophic or anything, but particularly around the upper bouts (the shoulders), it had no real space. Any impact would probably damage the cello, with no space for padding to dissipate the energy. Of course, the secondary weakness was literally that: in shipping from Vienna, the cello had actually cracked the case, damaging one of the corners near the cello's waist in the process. Not bad damage, and easily repaired once I was home, but it definitely illustrated the case's problems well. Add to that a suspicious mark on the case that looked like the cello's bridge was rubbing there, and the writing was on the wall (the bridge is the most vulnerable part of a cello).

So, I started looking for a new case. I visited Bischofberger as a very convenient location to the theater, and went through the options they had there. I settled on (ha-ha) a Bam Hightech. Still too expensive, but the shortcomings of the other cases they had made it the clear choice for me.

A week later, I noticed an odd popping sensation when lifting the case, and looked down to see the handle had one of its rivets all mangled-looking and (what it had not been before) visible. Fortunately, Bischofberger sprang into action, and the case will be headed back to Bam for a handle replacement this week.

Part of the process of getting myself in shape to perform publicly (which, if I'm honest, is still some distance away, but whee-ha, big cheap theater!) has had me examining where I'm getting a ton of false notes from. Bad technique, most likely, but I also started to suspect that the at-least-two-year-old Jargar strings that came with my instrument might be a contributing factor. Jargar strings seem to be fine, and I've used them happily for a while, but I decided it might be time to branch out and see what else was available.

Whereupon, more or less, my head exploded. There are so many different types of cello strings available. You can spend $80 for a set, or $500 for a set, and the general advice is to replace them every 6 to 12 months. If you pick the wrong strings, your cello sounds like a dying elephant seal. If you pick the right ones, it sounds like a soaring angel. Practically no one buys a set of four same-brand, same-model strings, infinitely increasing the permutations available. This all according to the all-knowing internet.

For once, no one's advice is worth anything, either. A given string setup may work well for one cello, and be horrible on another. Like, dying-seal horrible. Strings, once in place on a cello, are not returnable. So, it's a giant lottery with multi-hundred-dollar stakes.

So, I did the only logical thing. I found the majority consensus on what constitutes a good set, applied my own internet-researched opinion, and threw the dart. Even now, awaiting some free time, I have a set of Larsen A and D strings, along with a Thomastik Spirocore silver G and a Spirocore tungsten C. The most popular set is the Larsens and the tungsten Spirocores, but based on my playing, I figured the silver G would be a better choice. We'll find out if that opinion was worth anything in a couple months. The Spirocores apparently take quite a bit of playing before they go from sounding like a dying seal to something like angel song.

Just to add to the financial calamity that is keeping up a cello habit, I looked in on Bischofberger's bow selection last night. Of course, the one I liked best was the most expensive German wood bow, and the inexpensive carbon fiber bows felt horrible (my current bow, which I still like better than anything I tried last night, is a very inexpensive carbon fiber bow; no idea what mojo makes it so much better for this cello). It's not as if I need a second bow, but the idea of having a different but also-good alternative is interesting to me.

So now I know that the Jon Paul and CodaBow bows are not the thing for me. Unfortunately, my bow doesn't have any maker's marks at all on it, so I have no idea how to find more information about it. My mom, who is a much more active cellist than I am, made pretty sincere sounding remarks about how much she liked my current bow, so it would be nice to figure out how she could get her hands on one too. (Although, Google image search to the rescue, this looks very similar: Kinglos BY110C, no idea what retailers might carry it.)

This has been your collection of random cello thoughts that have been piling up for the last month or two.

Posted at 12:39 permanent link category: /misc

Thu, 15 Oct 2015

A Matter of Timing

I was just asked yesterday if I would be interested in photographing the Gregory Awards, but unfortunately I had to turn it down. It's the kind of thing that is a huge visibility boost for a photographer, and marks the kind of progress I'd generally like to have on my vague plan to one day conquer the world via photography.

This situation raises the point I've seen over and over in my recent life: ask early. As soon as you know even an approximate date and that you want a particular person there, ask them. Even just a "save the date" can be useful.

I've had the date of the Gregory Awards booked up since late Summer last year -- it's one of the tech days for Mad Scientist Cabaret at Annex.

We see this all the time at the theater -- we need a light designer, or a stage manager, or a director. We know the dates, we know the project and the work. We ask typically 6-9 months away from the start date of the project, and we're still routinely hearing, "Oh, sorry, I'm already booked."

Please, ask early.

Posted at 12:02 permanent link category: /misc

Thu, 24 Sep 2015

A Vignette

Scene: an engineering office in Wolfsburg, Germany. 2008.

Horst: Hey Günther.

Günther: Yeah Horst.

Horst: The boss is mad.

Günther: Mad?

Horst: Real mad.

Günther: Why?

Horst: Well... You know that diesel engine you're working on?

Günther: You mean my life's work? The Typ EA 189? The awesomest turbodiesel to come out of Wolfsburg, like, ever?

Horst: That's the one.

Günther: So what about it?


Horst: The emissions numbers came back. They're bad. Real bad.

Günther: How bad is "real bad?" Stop speaking in riddles, man.

Horst: NOx emissions up to 40 times higher than the US limit.

Günther: Goddamn US limit.

Horst: Yes, but we can't get around it.

Günther: Well... I suppose we could.


Horst: What do you mean, "we could?"

Günther: Well, I was thinking about it, and... you know how the testing always happens on a dyno?

Horst: ...Yeah.

Günther: Well, the requirement is that we "pass the test," right? And the test is on the dyno.

Horst: So?

Günther: What if the car knew it was being tested? Sounds like something like this map [does clickings with mouse to bring up a complex line chart with multicolored traces] might, well...

Horst: Might pass the test.

Günther: Maybe.

Horst: But that map is undriveable. The car would feel like it was powered by a pair of hamsters fed a starvation diet of rat feces.

Günther: But it would pass the test.

Horst: So...

Günther: It would pass the test. The boss would be happy. Customers will be happy, because they're not driving a hamster-powered rat car. The US testing people will be happy. Everyone wins.

Horst: Everyone wins. Hmm. [Fiddles with company-issued lab coat lapel]

Günther: Everyone wins.

Horst: You're an evil bastard, Günther.

Günther: Practical. I'm a practical bastard, Horst.

Horst: What'll I tell the boss?

Günther: Tell him I found a solution. What he doesn't know won't hurt him, right?

Horst: How long have you been working here again?

Günther: Same as you, about 8 years.

Horst: You've interacted with the boss, right?

Günther: Sure Horst.

Horst: You have encountered, then, the way they want to know everything? Willful ignorance, it is not so much a thing.

Günther: Then tell him. Everyone wins, right?

Horst: There's no other way?

Günther: Hamster-powered, Horst.

Horst: We couldn't, I don't know, install urea injection or something?

Günther: Sure, if you want to delay the launch a year and raise the price ten thousand marks.

Horst: Euros.

Günther: Whatever.


Horst: Shit.

Günther: Everyone wins.

Horst: He's not going to like this.

Günther: [shakes his head] He doesn't have to. But everyone still wins.

Horst: Right. Everyone wins. Everyone wins. Right.

Günther: That's the proper Teutonic spirit.

Horst: [as he exits] Everyone wins. Right. Everyone wins. This isn't even remotely a terrible idea with world-shaking consequences. Everyone wins.

Fade to black

Posted at 10:07 permanent link category: /misc

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