Thursday, April 30, 2009

Texts from last night: if you thought I was above enjoying this...

I know you thought I was far too cultured to deeply enjoy this blog of purported drunk text messages, but you were wrong. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

NPR cooking for 4 for under $10 series

I was in the car yesterday, got to listen to a rare NPR tidbit, and they're apparently running a series right now about $10 meals. They had a chef on, Ming Tsai, to talk about his fried rice recipe. This guy was clearly a TV chef, he told great stories. And the recipe sounds fantastic.

How to ruin Battleship

So one day I was trying to entertain my son in the car, and after we exhausted mental tic-tac-toe we tried playing Battleship using only memory.

We started off using really small grids, to make it easier to remember plays, and we also reduced the ships to single cells of the grid, for the same reason.

After we did that, it occurred to me that there wasn't really any difference between imagining the game as a grid with locations like A1 and H10, and imagining it as a single row of cells. And a single row, with cells identified solely by numbers, makes it much easier to remember the plays.

The simplest version of this we tried was with each player having just one ship in a sea of 10 cells.

You can see where I'm going here. Once you do that, the game amounts to taking turns guessing a number from one to ten.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

An excuse to finally buy an Arduino, from 100 days of writing

I didn't set out, exactly, to write for 100 days straight. Instead, I tried to write every day for a month, one month at a time. Then when I hit around 80, I realized I was getting close to 100 and that was a motivator. 

But my very next thought was that I ought to come up with some way to reward myself. At first I didn't have any ideas for this, and I thought I wouldn't do much of anything. But that didn't last. After all, once I had this idea, I was basically scooting through the world with a built-in justification for anything I wanted. The purse strings were definitely loosened. 

So  when Make Magazine's Maker Shed announced a sale ending April 30 and I realized their inventory included a bunch of Arduino items, it was a perfect match. I bought a copy of Making Things Talk last year, and have been intending to get an Arduino board or seven and get started making electronic things. 

So right now, a DC Boarduino and a Meggy JR RGB are headed my way. Now, I would have certainly bought some flavor of Arduino before too long, but although I've been wanting a Meggy, it seemed too much money for my unproven electronics hobbying.

Arduino boards are programmable controller boards with open-source hardware and software. You can write the code in a free development environment on your PC and then download it to the board via USB. 

The DC Boarduino is a version of the Arduino designed to be dropped onto a breadboard for easy prototyping. I figure this is a good thing for me to start with. My past history is of hacking small things together, playing with them, and then taking them apart to try something else. 

A Meggy is a very simple game platform. It marries an Arduino programmable board with an array of three-color LEDs, a sound system, and some buttons. It allows you to do fun stuff without too much work, which is great, but it can't do high-quality graphics. Of course, I'm not going to devote the time to write code for high-quality graphics, either. It's a different approach to Arduino, because it has actual useful things attached to it, where a regular Arduino doesn't DO anything by itself.  But simple arcade game things are something I get a kick out of messing with, so this too seems like a good way to start with electronics. 

Monday, April 27, 2009

Speaking of memory

Since I recently posted about a memory trick, I bumped into someone else's post about memory work. Did you know there is a US Memory championship? The Skeptical Hypochondriac talks about a recent winner. This guy doesn't just remember lots of data, he can memorize it quickly. Like the positions of all the cards in a deck after studying it for 1.5 minutes.

_Stumbling on Happiness_ by Daniel Gilbert

I was attending some lectures on happiness, a series for alumni and students at UT, and math professor Michael Starbird recommended this book, so I got a copy from the library.

The title of the book isn't very revealing. The book is much more about how our minds work than anything else. It's about cognitive illusions and fallacies and about how we construct the future in our minds.

It begins with a great little bit about how all psychologists have to write something, eventually, that starts with -- I'm quoting very loosely here -- 'the thing that makes human beings different is' and then answer that question. His answer is our ability to predict or imagine the future.

And then he goes on to explain all the ways we can get that wrong.

The book is a fun read, full of great ideas; here are just two that I noted down:

  • We think and judge things in relative terms. This is not always good. For example, we'll drive across town to save $50 on a $100 stereo, but not on a $100,000 car. But you can't spend relative dollars; you can only SPEND absolute dollars, so this is a rational choice. Offer almost anyone that choice, though, and you'll get the same answer. But you in both cases you save $50, that's $50 in your bank, that you can spend on anything, and the effort to save it is the SAME.
  • The best way to predict something, it turns out, is to find someone who is experiencing it right now, and ask them. We reject this because we feel we are unique, but we are nowhere near as unique as we think, and our ability to imagine the future is hampered by several fallacies...enough so that picking a random person who is having an experience, someone who is of course different from us in many ways ...their results are a better predictor than our imagination. This is counterintuitive but convincingly explained in the book.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

How to remember ten things: the number rhyming system

Here's a simple system, the Number Rhyming system, you can use when you don't have a way to write something down. Me, I'm always getting ideas, for stories, superpowers, jokes, evil pranks that end up being too much work, you name it.

I got this technique from Make the Most of Your Mind, which is a great little book about memory, but it predates the book. It's pretty simple. Like many memory techniques, it relies on making striking images. However, for this one, you also use the numbers one through ten, and rhyming words.

For each number, there's a rhyme:

one bun
two shoe
three tree
four door
five hive
six sticks
seven heaven
....Ok, I never get past seven, so I don't have rhymes for that. You can use these rhymes, or any rhymes you like.

One way to use this is to remember short lists of things. So, to remember something, you create an image involving the rhyme word and the thing you want to remember. If you want to remember how you had an idea for a book about aliens eating Austin, maybe you imagine a hamburger bun, and when you bite into it, it opens up to a bug-eyed alien that's taking a bite out of the capitol building.

Well, that's what I'd do. You do what you like. Apparently people use this to remember number sequences, like a phone number. I don't do sequences that way at all, but here's a page with a set of rhymes and some examples. Seems to me it's easier just to repeat the sequence a lot, than to create a bunch of different images. But I like this system for when I have five ideas and I'm afraid I won't remember them long enough to write them down.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Bugs in the Arroyo, short story by Steven Gould

I liked this story. It's hosted on the Tor website. It's about a future where metal-eating bugs terrorize the American southwest, and one small situation resulting from that.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Vin Diesel likes D&D

This is true. But that's not the best part. The best part is then Penny Arcade did a comic about it.

YouTube vids of Vin Diesel talking about D&D here.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Craphound, by Cory Doctorow

I'm rereading "Craphound" by Cory Doctorow this week. It's one of my favorite stories. I've kept a download of it on the file tree that I tote around with me, for a long time now.  Like most of Doctorow's writing, it's available for free download. Here's a site that offers a bunch of different free eBooks; this link is to the page with Doctorow's stories on it. 

"Craphound" is about a conflict between two friends in a changing world, but one of the friends happens to be an alien and a big source of the changes is the arrival of aliens to our world. 

"Craphound" has a terrible name. It's hard to tell someone about a story with a rude name and expect them to read it. And crap isn't THAT rude of a word. In the story, "craphound" is both slang for a junk buyer, and the nickname of one of the characters. 

I'm rereading the story because I'm doing a writing exercise where you retype a book. I thought I'd start with a short story, so I picked "Craphound"; doing a whole novel was too much of a commitment. I can credit my mother-in-law Karen with the idea; she sent out some notes from a writing lecture she attended, and it contained this idea: that you should start your writing sessions by retyping a paragraph from a favorite book, and over time study those paragraphs one by one. 

I'm liking it. It's very similar to a clone project: another exercise I've wanted to do, and which I've started and stopped over time, is to take a book and write a scene-for-scene analog of it, with different characters but using the exact same structure. The problem with that project for me is that when I pick a favorite book and sit down to analyze it on my own time, I get caught up in the story all over again. Or I get bored with trying to break it into structural components. But retyping para by para has a very similar feel, and can be done piecemeal because you're not trying to infer the higher structure. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Greebly ship model idea

Here's an idea I haven't gotten round to trying out yet, for simple spaceship models that I think would look good. This idea is based on musing about ways to make a model without too much finicky work.

The model would be anchored by a smooth upper hull, made of sheet plastic or foam. The upper hull will be mostly smooth plastic and should have some curves to it. Options for this include:
  • Make a form and use a vacuformer to shape a curvy top hull.
  • Use an airplane or boat hull as a starting point.
  • Carve polystyrene foam to make the top.
  • Glue sheet plastic to a few curved spine pieces, as if making one surface of a model plane wing.
To this top hull add some material underneath, perhaps a piece of dimensional lumber or some foam.

Cover the lower surface with greeblies: random leftover bits from various models, along with pieces of sprue and junk from your recycling bin.

Prime the whole thing in white, then paint the upper hull in a light color, and use a darker one for the underside.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Biking progress towards 200 NODRIVES

I would say that I'm doing pretty well, here. I'm at 67 NODRIVE days now, and I'm keeping up an average of 17 rides a month.

There are about 50 weekdays left till June 30, and I need 43 more rides to hit 100 by June 30.

The Order of the Stick gets serious

"The Order of the Stick", by Rich Burlew, is a consistently funny webcomic that rises far above its humble origins as a Dungeons & Dragons-themed comic. I mean, I hesitate to even mention that it has a gaming premise, since I feel like that prejudices it. It's so much more than that.

Oh, yeah, it uses stick figures for the graphics. That works out a lot better than it sounds, too. Something about stick-figure character fighting stick-figure monsters works out great. You wind up anticipating the next crazy monster to be rendered in stick form.

Yes, gaming conventions are played for laughs. But that's often just an excuse to break the fourth wall.

Interestingly, when the D&D ruleset changed recently, the author decided not to make that an issue in his comic, recognizing that it's not tied too closely to a specific ruleset. I mean, it ought to have been obvious that it didn't matter, but I guess if you're going to write a gaming comic you feel obliged to cater to a few rules lawyers.

One of the things that sets this comic apart is its long run and well-developed characters. It's a long-format comic: each episode is about the size of a comic book page, and has many panels; and every episode has its own gag. But together they aggregate to an ongoing story that just gets better and better.

The episode that made me want to post today is one from earlier this month, episode 642, has one character, an elf named Vaarsuvius, racing home to save family -- I'd say his family, but actually a running gag is that the character's gender is never made clear, so the children refer to their parents merely as "Parent" and "Other Parent".

We learn he's been gone for six years on his adventures with the other characters of the story. Suddenly the idea of someone going off on lengthy adventures is taken in a different direction: what about the people left behind? A character who has often been on top of the world is now forced to make terrible choices. It's good stuff, but if you're a new reader, you'll want to go back to the early days to get started. I recommend the Wikipedia page for a guide to where to begin if you don't want to go all the way back to the beginning....but I also can't see why you wouldn't do just that. That's what's great about webcomic archives, you can go back to the very beginning.

Monday, April 20, 2009

When Superman meets Lyle Lovett....

Given his experiences with his high school girlfriend (Lana Lang), his adult flame (Lois Lane) and his arch-enemy (Lex Luthor), Superman must be in a quandary about Lyle Lovett: date him or fight him?

Friday, April 17, 2009

100 days of daily creative writing

I'm always either writing every day or trying to write every day. I'm always in the middle of some self-motivation scheme to get me to write pretty much daily. At various times in my life it's worked better or worse.

But not writing hasn't done me any good, so I always return to the writing. :)

Of late, I've been doing pretty well. Today is the one hundredth consecutive day where I've worked on my creative writing.

I'm not where I'd like to be. I wanted to be farther along on my novel by now. But at the same time, I'm exactly where I hoped to be: working daily on a novel, and also working on short story projects, and I have several stories in the mail right now.

This is eternally the way of it: things seem to take a long time, but if you work on them steadily, you can look around one day and find you've made great progress.

So yea me!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The economy leads to some strange decisions

You heard how a lot of monasteries are strapped for cash and a lot of brethren have left as a result, right? In California, many of them have ended up working for the highway patrol, where their dedication and attention to detail are appreciated.

Yes, the CHiPmonks have really reduced highway crime these past months.

(What? It's no stranger than most episodes of CHiPs...although, to be fair, there were 139 episodes, so it would be strange if they didn't get a little strange.)

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Are you turning your taxes in today? Ha, suckers, I already got my refund

Seeing as this has never happened before, I feel justified in gloating, just this once.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Time traveller's t-shirt

Dinosaur Comics is great, but even greater is the joy I felt when seeing the creator of that comic offer a shirt that will save your bacon if you ever go back in time. I'd go right now, but I don't really feel like I'm done here.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

How chameleons change their colors

I was reading about chameleons (for research for the reptilian fauna of my fantasy world, indulging the inner child who read every book about animals in the school library, use whatever rationalization you like) and I ran into this page by the San Diego Zoo, which includes a great short description of how they change their colors. Really, it's more wonderful and complex than I imagined:

Chameleons have four layers of skin: the outer, protective layer called the epidermis; the chromatophore layer that contains yellow and red pigments; the melanophore layer that contains the dark pigment melanin and can create brown and black colors or reflect blue; and the nether layer, which only reflects white. Nerve impulses and hormone changes cause the color cells in these layers to expand and shrink, and the blending of the different layers creates the colors and patterns that we see.
I guess this page is aimed at kids, but I wouldn't be the first to notice how useful material designed for kids is when you want to get an initial handle on a topic. My goal here was to find some info on the unusual aspects of chameleons -- the fun facts -- so a kids' page was perfect. I can always get more detail, now that I know some of the variety that's available for chameleons.

I think I mentioned chameleons earlier. Oh yes, here. The chameleon idea came from my nine-year-old daughter Chloe. They're to be domesticated riding animals. I'll have to change their feet. Maybe they'll have three horns and you can tie reins to the horns.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Hugo award logo design contest

The Hugo awards people are having a contest to design the logo for the contests. They're offering $500 to the winner, and some swag.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Hail photos

We had the most amazing hail last week. You just don't see hail like this in Austin much. I've never seen it in my life. 

Everyone in our neighborhood has to get new roofs. 

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Just for Karen, a shot of Olie

Olie takes a ride in the two-wheeled bike cart. I took him to the groomer's this way, biking about 4 miles.

Doug tells stories

This has got to be my favorite post ever from Doug's One Hand Clapping blog. Doug talks about how we talk about our lives, how we shade the truth:

As I was bagging my groceries, the cashier asked me about how my Mom got started playing the guitar again. I made a spot assessment: age, hairstyle, the part of the country I live in, and a little necklace with what I thought was a cross on it. The obvious answer became: "She plays every now and then with a group at church." Now, while I'm not a churchgoer, my Mom does go sometimes to a very open-minded church, and she's a friendly, warm person, so I could picture her doing this--though if she picked up the guitar again I suspect she'd be more likely to try to play along to Ottmar Liebert.

Heh. This is why the guy can be entertaining for hours. But let's hope we never see him in front of a congressional committee.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The girls, at the Home Depot

This is from 3/29/09; Lily and Chloe. 

26 monkeys, short story

Wow, this short story, 26 Monkeys, Also, the Abyss, which you can read in its entirety online, is a good one. Found it on the Asimov's web site. It got nominated for a Nebula award, and you can see why. It has: magic; and monkeys; and mystery.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

How to cook pasta in less water

Yeah, I'm on a how-to kick lately. This article from the New York Times struck my fancy, as the author explores how one can cook pasta using less water and get energy savings and a tasty recipe ingredient as a result.

Maybe it's just that I think pasta is important. Well, it is.

Monday, April 06, 2009

How to understand risk

Here's a neat short piece about a good way to translate percentage-risk statistics. It'll help with thinking critically about news items, and it would be nice if some news organizations would review this kind of idea.

How to understand risk in 13 clicks from BBC News Magazine.

Friday, April 03, 2009

How to generate random numbers in batch files

I bumped into this last week. There's an environment variable in Windows XP that returns a random number. You use it like this:

echo %RANDOM%

produces a 4-digit random number.

You can control the range of the number by specifying the order of magnitude...using a rather odd syntax:

echo %RANDOM:~-3%

produces values from 0 to 999;

echo %RANDOM:~-1%

produces values from 0 to 9.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Making a Hot Wire Foam Cutter, Revisited

I wasn't happy with my previous post about making a hot wire foam cutter, so I'm going to try again. This time I'm going to cover:
  • Why you might want to make a hot wire foam cutter.
  • Why it's so easy.
  • What I learned from it.
Why to make one. Styrofoam is a great craft material. I'm not talking about the white beadboard you find as packing material. I'm talking about the big sheets used for insulation. They're strong and lightweight. They're all the rage in model train circles. But they're not easy to cut without making a huge mess. A hot wire tool makes fine cuts in foam, with a smooth edge. The tool is a lot like a scroll saw, if you substitute toxic fumes for the noise and vibration of a saw. It's a worthwhile trade, aaaaand the dancing unicorns agree with me on that.

Why it's easy. So, a hot wire cutter is really just a piece of resistive NiChrome wire that you run a current through. The only trick is to find some way to keep the wire tight. The Make magazine version is exceedingly simple, and suspends the wire above a small table, for smooth cuts. Finally, you can use a train transformer for the power source, which gives you adjustable DC power.

What I learned. Well, it's not perfect, and it takes practice. I've had trouble getting the wire tight enough to stay where I want it. And I've broken the wire a couple of times already. I'm not sure if that's expected or not. And there are the fumes. Styrofoam's cells are full of toxic gases. You really don't want to breathe that stuff.

Here's what's involved in this project:

The only special part you need is some NiChrome wire. I got mine at a Hobbytown, as a replacement part for a Woodland Scenics brand foam cutter, for a few bucks.

Construction involves just a few steps.

You cut a square of pegboard and put a couple of boards under it to raise it off the table.



Then you bend a 90 degree angle in a piece of aluminum bar stock, and drill a hole for it in one of your support boards. Then drill a holl crossways through the board and the aluminum bar, and run a nail into that, to hold the aluminum in place.

Use a hacksaw to cut a slot in the end of the aluminum, tie your nichrome wire to that, and tie the other end to a bolt with several nuts on it; tighten the nuts to the wire to hold it in place below the pegboard. Now you have an arrangement to hold the wire tight. Supply some DC current to the aluminum rod and the bolt and you've got a cutter. You do that by running wires with alligator clips from a model train power supply or something similar.

All in all, I managed Make's 5-minute project in about ten minutes. Not bad.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Hey, cool, Wired mag noticed Settlers of Catan

Wired magazine just noticed Settlers of Catan. That's awesome.

Heh. This is actually a neat tracing of the popularity of German games, and includes the interesting tidbit that Teuber, inventor of Settlers, more or less playtested the hell out of the idea with his own family, for four years. So, you know, no wonder it's a good game.