Sunday, December 21, 2014

Merry Yule

Today is Yule.  This is the darkest night of the year, the night when the Great Mother will give birth to the new Sun King.  I hope you all are lighting your yule logs tonight and gathering around them with your loved ones to wait out the dark night of our souls and welcome the spark of thew new year.  The Lord of Light shine on you, and the Goddess bless your ways.

Tonight we’ll light our yule log and a few candles, say a few words, and eat some soup, and perhaps watch a holiday movie.  (There aren’t any good Yule movies that I’m aware of, but I’m sure we can come up with something appropriately festive.)  Hopefully this is the start of some peaceful times which can last us into next year.

Today I’ve mostly been wrestling with CD burning software, and mostly losing.  For some reason, I’ve had horrible luck with GUI programs such as K3b or Brasero.  Either they don’t have all the features I want, or they can’t easily deal with my playlists, or they just don’t burn properly (which admittedly could be more of a hardware thing).  So I’ve moved on to fiddling with the command-line burners, primarily cdrdao.  Now I’ve discovered that they hate me as well.  I’ve been fighting with cdrdao for two days now, and I finally managed to produce a CD with it, but I didn’t get the CD-Text, which was one of my primary goals.  Still, I’m starting to think I need to be happy with what I’ve got.  Perhaps I can gradually improve my functionality over time, as I get a little more familiar with how all this stuff fits together.

The CD I managed to burn, by the way, was a copy of my Yuletidal Pools mix, which I developed 3 years ago and which (unlike most of my mixes) hasn’t been changed since.  I’ve been very happy with it over the years.  And while, in that introductory post, I claimed that “only 3 of the songs could even remotely be considered serious,” I find that, over time, I can get just as choked up over “Christmas Wrapping” as other people can get over “O Holy Night” or “The Little Drummer Boy.”  I mean, come on: that is a 5-minute nugget of Christmas miracle going on right there.  How can you not be inspired by that?  And while Run-D.M.C. does advise us to “give up the dough on Christmas, yo,” they also give us “one you won’t believe: it’s better to give than to receive.”  Truly, can’st thou gainsay such instruction?  And, as for “Oi to the World”, it practically makes me tear up these days.  If the punks and the skins can get along, then surely there’s hope for the rest of us.  Go back and listen to it again, and really listen to the words.  Then you too can rappel down the roof with the rest of your turban and go back to the pub and buy each other bourbon.  ‘Cause that’s what the holidays are all about.

Wishing you and yours safe and happy.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Obstreperousness as a Virtue

I am sometimes a giant pain in the ass at work.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not always a giant pain in the ass.  Often I’m quite pleasant.  Sometimes I’m even agreeable.  But occasionally I lock into stubborn mode and I won’t let go of a point of view, even when I’m hopelessly outnumbered.  When one is younger, one can look upon one’s obstinacy as persistence, can see refusal to compromise as being a bastion of integrity.  Of course, as one gets older, one realizes that they’re really both the same thing.  And, once you realize that every good quality you have is also a bad quality, sticking to them no matter what because they’re “the right thing to do” doesn’t fly any more.  You need better justifications than that.

Thus I keep examining my own motives in an attempt to figure what makes me tick, even though I know that’s doomed to failure.  In fact, on this very topic I’ve already waxed authorial not just once, but twice.  I’m not saying either of those posts are wrong now ... just that I continue to look for something more, even more to help explain my behavior.

The first time I concluded that I hate seeing people make what I think is a mistake, and that’s a part of it.  Maybe a smaller part than that post made it out to be, but it wasn’t a completely useless observation.

The second time I talked about my number one source of frustration in the corporate world.  That’s still relevant too; in fact, at work this week I trotted out that very same story to tell my coworkers.*  But I still think there’s more to be teased out here.

After quite a bit of reflection, I’ve come up with this:  I figure if you’re going to hire someone like me—by which I mean someone with this much gray in their beard who is this much of a pain in the ass—then you do it for two reasons: you want my experience, and you want me to be vocal about it.  If you didn’t want my experience, you could hire someone younger.  And if you didn’t want me to be vocal about it, you could definitely hire someone who was a lot easier to put up with.

Hiring someone for their experience means hiring them for their mistakes.  As a popular quote tells us:

Learn from the mistakes of others.  You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.**

So, if you’ve hired me, and you’ve kept me around for a while, and you genuinely seem to value me, then I assume that you want the benefits of my mistakes, and you want me to let you know in no uncertain terms when you’re about to repeat one of them.  And to keep on letting you know if you continue to keep on trying to make that mistake.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying you always have to agree with me.  In fact, I think it’d be pretty disastrous if everyone always agreed with me, or always agreed with anyone.  Difference of opinion, as I am fond of saying, is what makes the world go ‘round.  Which is to say, the world would be a pretty boring place if we all agreed on everything.  And how would we ever learn anything without other people challenging our assumptions?  No, if I’m saying that me disagreeing with you is a good thing (which is what I seem to be saying, if I’m saying that my pointing out that a plan of yours may be a mistake is valuable), then I have to accept that you disagreeing with me must be an equally good thing.  In the big picture, I mean.  On any given point, I’d really prefer you stop disagreeing with me and just do as I advise.  But, overall, I can accept that, some percentage of the time, you’re going to disagree with me, and, some percentage of the time, I’m going to lose that fight, and, overall, that’s good.  But I think there are different ways to disagree.

For instance, if I say “if you do this, things could go wrong” and you (“you” in this scenario are my boss, remember) say “yeah, they could, but the rewards outweigh the risks” ... well, that’s a tough argument to beat.  Maybe we can debate the value of the rewards a bit, or the seriousness of the risks, but in general if you know the dangers and you’re willing to risk them for whatever the upsides are, I can’t argue with that.  Business requires risk.  Opportunities have costs, and sometimes you just have to pay them.  You roll the dice, pray the worst never comes, but, if it does, you just deal with it.  Because it was worth it.  If you don’t take risks in business, you get left behind.  Rapidly.

On the other hand, if I say “if you do this, things could go wrong” and you say “nah, I don’t think they could,” or perhaps “well, they couldafter all, anything could happen—but the chances are so low it’s not worth worrying about” ... if you say that, then I may just have to dig in.  Because what I’m telling you is, here’s a mistake I’ve already made.  I’m not talking about some theoretical consequence here: I know it can happen because it already happened to me.  I’ve lived through this, at least once (and, the older I get, the more likely it was more than once), and the resulting unpleasantness is burned into my memory, and I’d really prefer not to suffer through it again, thankyouverymuch.  This is why I also tend not to accept an answer of “yes, that could happen, but that’s okay; we’ll just deal with it.”***  ‘Cause, trust me: if it was no big deal to “just deal with it,” I would not be doing my giant-pain-in-the-ass impression.

Now, let me stress that I’m not unhappy with the way the these sorts of debates are unfolding at my current job.  In fact, curiously, the fact that the discussions have been so reasonable has been the impetus for my meditation on why I get so stubborn.  In past jobs, the pain of beating my head against a brick wall has somewhat dulled my capacity for self-reflection.  In this job, I have some confidence that the folks who hired me can and will take my obstreperousness in the spirit in which it is intended.  Still, I think it’s worth exploring why I feel so passionate about some of these positions, and examining which circumstances trigger my response and why.  Even it’s only for myself.  Because I think that understanding ourselves is one of the hardest things to get right, but one of the most worthwhile endeavors we can undertake.


* If they would just have the good grace to read this blog I keep telling people not to read, I wouldn’t have had to retell the story.  But one can’t have it all, I suppose.

** Like many quotes floating about the Internet, this is attributed to a bewildering multitude of people, including Martin Vanbee, Sam Levenson, Hyman Rickover, John Luther, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Groucho Marx.  Most of whom I have no idea who they are.

*** This was the favorite tactic of my previous boss.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Perl blog post #37

Today I’ve done a technical post on my Other Blog.  Check it out if you’re into Perl.  Elsewise, check back in next week.  Or don’t.  That’s your perogative.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Thanksgiving fallout

Well, Thanksgiving was lovely.  We had plenty of deviled eggs and cornbread stuffing with cranberry sausage and we sat around and told each other what we were thankful for.  The 2-year-old happily proclaimed she was thankful for “DINNER!!”  The rest of the holiday weekend has been predictably lazy.

While I haven’t done the writing necessary for a full blog post, I have managed to eke out a few bits and bobs.  I replied to a comment on one of my old Perl blogs, and, if the Time Gods are willing, I’ll yet have a chance to post on my Heroscape forum about the marthon game my kids and I just finished up yesterday.

If you are visiting my page from the US, I hope you had a lovely Thanksgiving.  If you’re from a different country, I hope you had a lovely ... Thursday.  And Friday.  And whatnot.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Taking a week off

This week I have a sick child, a new puppy, and a lot of work to catch up on.  So I’m taking a week off of blog posting.  This is different from when I normally post an excuse about how I ran out of time, in that I pretty much knew from the get-go that I wasn’t going to be able to make a post this week.  Of course, either way you get nothing to read, so I suppose that’s not particularly different from your perspective.  But I feel better about it.

This is the part in a post like this where I tell you to tune in next week and I’ll have an actual post for you.  Of course, next week is Thanksgiving.  So it occurs to me I’d better not make any promises I can’t keep.  In my mind, I think that I’ll have two extra days off, so surely that means I’ll have even more time than usual to compose a post ... right?  Unfortunately, what happens in my mind and what happens in reality rarely coincide.  So we’ll just have to see how it falls out.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Perl blog post #36

Today I returned to Perl blogging with some actual code this time.  Even less useful for those of you not technically inclined.  But fun for those of you who are.  I hope.

Check it out.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

An excuse and a pondering ...

As I mentioned two weeks ago, this is my birthday weekend.  You were lucky to get a real post last week, if you think about it.  It was Halloween-on-a-Friday, a moderately rare occurrence, and we did lots of Halloween activities and collected boatloads of candy (although less than I’d expected).  But I still found time to write my roughly 1,500 words for your perusing pleasure.  What an awesome fellow I am.

And now this awesome fellow is another year older (yawn) and he am celebrating by ordering his family around and totally letting the power go to his head.  Also eating terribly.  Also also I forced my children to help build a rather large Heroscape map.  And watch silly movies with me.  And there’s more to come today.

So I’m much too busy to spew forth a chiliad and a half of lexemes for your oblectation.*  But next week you may score, so tune back in and try again.  After all, birthdays are fleeting, as are all measurements of our span on this earth.  So let me wallow in my sorrow over the inevitable passage of time for just a bit longer; I’ll get back on track next week.

* Look ’em up.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Between the Lightning Bug and the Lightning

There is a German word that I’m quite fond of: Weltanschauung.  It means, roughly, “worldview,” although it’s both a little more specific and a little more general than that.  More specific in that, technically speaking, it is a term used in German philosophy with a very particular meaning.  But also more general in that we’ve somehow watered down the meaning of the word in English.  That is, “worldview” is a calque of Weltanschauung, so it really ought to mean the same thing.  But, after we borrowed the phrase, we started interpreting it literally (in English, that is), so that nowadays “worldview” often means (or is taken to mean) the way a person views the world.  But that’s actually too specific for what Weltanschauung means (or can mean, when used outside of its technical philosophical sense).  Weltanschauung, according to Wikipedia, “refers to the framework of ideas and beliefs forming a global description through which an individual, group or culture watches and interprets the world and interacts with it.”  That is, not just how you (one person) views the world (the physical planet you live on).  But how any person, or even an organization, or a nation, sees and interprets not only their physical surroundings, but also the social and emotional context in which they are living.

This is related to what I learned of as “the fishbowl effect.”  Nowadays, Google will tell you that the fishbowl effect is a feeling of constant scrutiny, experienced mainly by astronauts and reality TV stars.  Which does make a certain amount of sense, particularly if all you know about keeping tropical fish is those little bowls with goldfish in them that you win at the county fair.1  Slightly less sense if you understand that keeping fish in a small enclosed area with no cover terrifies them so badly that it cuts their life expectancy by an order of magnitude.  But, anyway, my point is this: when I learned about “the fishbowl effect,” it meant something else entirely.  It was the idea that the fish in the fishbowl has no concept of what a “fishbowl” is.  To him, it’s just the world.  You need to be outside the fishbowl in order to comprehend that it is a bowl at all.  For me, “Weltanschauung” encompasses all the connotations of that: that your worldview not only frames your entire outlook, but also limits it in certain ways.

Similar to how it’s difficult for people to understand a concept that their native tongue lacks a word for.  Like how English doesn’t really have a word for “Weltanschauung.”

German has a few words that we don’t have in English, so we just stole them.  “Weltanschauung” is my favorite, but ”Zeitgeist” is also good, as is ”Schadenfreude.”2  These are great words, and remarkably useful.

The other day I came across an online article outlining ten more German words that there really ought to be English equivalents for.  Sort of like the German version of sniglets.  I find very many sniglets to be remarkably useful: I have a friend who’s afflicted with bovilexia, and how can you tell the story of the guy who invented bumperglints getting 10¢ for each one and therefore becoming a millionaire without the word “bumperglint”?3  And the number of times I’ve committed the act of carperpetuation at this point in my life is pretty ridiculous.  So I’m perfectly fine with coming up with new words to paper over cracks in our vocabulary.4  So much the better if they happen to already be real words, just in a different language ... right?

So this list of ten German words was pretty entertaining, in my view at least.  None of the ten are are as great as the big three I mentioned up at the top of this post, of course, but there were some keepers there: who hasn’t wanted a word to express the excess weight you’ve put on from emotional overeating (“Kummerspeck”), or, possibly even more useful, a word to describe the feeling of depression you get when you contemplate the world as it is compared to the world as it might be (“Weltschmerz”)?  Two of the words in particular stand out as pretty damned useful.

The first is “Fremdschämen,” which is defined herein as “the almost-horror you feel when you notice that somebody is oblivious to how embarrassing they truly are.”  This words rings a rather large bell with me.  For years now I’ve been experiencing this exact feeling without knowing what to call it.  Because of Fremdschämen, I can’t watch reality TV, or shows like Springer.  And there are entire avenues of comedy that are closed off to me: I can’t listen to the Jerky Boys or their ilk, I didn’t make it through even a single episode of The Office, I regularly have to fast-forward through Stephen Colbert’s “Better Know a District” series ... hell, I couldn’t even properly enjoy a recent rewatching of Fawlty Towers on Netflix because of constantly feeling embarrassed for Basil.  Also, fully half the comic ouevre of Ben Stiller.  Have you ever noticed that Ben Stiller comedies fall into two groups?  On the one hand, he does some great movies where he plays a wacky character, like Zoolander, or Tropic Thunder, or Mystery Men.  Then there’s the other half of his movies—such as There’s Something about Mary, Meet the Parents, and Along Came Polly—where the entire movie is about him doing stupid, embarrassing things, and we’re supposed to laugh at his misfortune.  I’m sorry, but I just can’t find amusement in the pain of others.5  So sue me.

The other great word here is “Torschlusspanik,” which the article defines as “the fear, usually as one gets older, that time is running out and important opportunities are slipping away.”  I live in an almost-constant state of Torschlusspanik.  There are many reasons for this.  Probably the biggest one is something I’ve alluded to before: as you get older, your ability to judge the passage time slows down, resulting in time appearing to go faster.6  And I’m pretty much right at that point in life where most men my age have already snapped and gone out and bought a motorcycle or a Porsche, or quit their job to pursue their lifelong dream of being a rock-n-roll drummer or performance artist.

But there are other reasons as well.  I’ve never been a very organized person.  My mother’s side of the family is populated with people who overplan everything, and I find it annoying.  Going on vacation with my grandparents on that side of the family was a nightmare of schedules, itineraries, and lists.  Aren’t vacations supposed to be relaxing?  How are you supposed to relax with all that rushing around trying to make your schedule?  So I never subscribed to all that organizational crap.  Which wasn’t a huge burden when I was younger, although I find that the older I get the more I regret never having put much stock in it.  I’ve tried various techniques for keeping track of my todo list(s), but so far I’m pretty terrible at it.  Which only exacerbates my feelings of Torschlusspanik.

There are lots of things I want to do.  Of course I have a family, including 3 lovely children, and I want to spend time with them.  I want to do my writing: not only my ongoing novel, but this blog of course, and my Other Blog.  I have a few CPAN modules that I’m responsible for, and other programming projects that I want to work on.  Then there’s my hobby, and my other hobby.  And my job takes up some time, which of course I don’t mind at all because I love my job, and there are holidays and birthdays and things to do around the house or things to fix on the car and all the ordinary little things we have to do just to keep on functioning in life.  So sometimes I feel like I’m being pulled in many different directions, all of them desireable, surely, but one still can’t do everything at once.  Sometimes I sit down at night, knowing I probably ought to be working on something, but unable to properly fixate on which something I ought to do first.

So I do my best to spread out my activities.  Being someone who puts so much faith in balance and paradox, I believe one should try to do as many different things as possible, and also sieze any opportunity to do several things at once (like playing Heroscape with my kids, or working on one of my CPAN modules for work).  And I try to fight through my feelings of Torschlusspanik so that I can still enjoy things like finding German words for concepts we don’t have in English.  Or deep philosophical ponderings.  Like wondering if euneeblics are really just trying to overcome their Weltschmerz.

1 Although, technically, goldfish aren’t tropical fish.  Probably you don’t care about that distinction.  But I mention it so that I can prove I know the difference in case I’m verbally attacked by aquarium nerds.

2 German nouns are always capitalized, in German.  There is some debate as to whether German loanwords should be capitalized in English.  You can see which side of the debate I come down on.

3 Fair warning: I’m pretty sure that story is an urban legend.  But still a good story.

4 Remember: “sniglet” itself is defined as “any word that doesn’t appear in the dictionary, but should.”

5 Hey, look: Schadenfreude!

6 I really ought to write a whole blog post on this.  I keep referring to it, but a longer exploration of this interesting scientific theory is probably in order.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

In Between Days

Yesterday I got so old, I felt like I could die.  Possibly that’s because I finally noticed Facebook’s alert that my best friend from high school had to have a cardiac ablation.  No, I didn’t know what it meant either.  On the plus side, I pay so little attention to emails from Facebook that, by the time I noticed that my friend was scheduled for this scary procedure, he had already returned home, safe and sound.  So that’s some suspense saved.  But, on the other hand, it’s a bit sobering to realize that people you went to school with are now old enough to be getting strange ailments you never heard of.  How old does that make you?

By which I mean me, of course.

This weekend is the one between National Heroscape Day and Halloween, and two weekends before my birthday.  It’s the first full weekend of Scorpio Season ... a surprising lot of my friends are fellow Scorpios, including the aforementioned best friend from high school and my best friend from my last job.  Also another of my best friends from just-after-high-school, and my best friend from just-before-moving-to-California.  Also a former business partner, a former office manager, and any number of roommates, friends of roommates, friends of my brother, former workmates, former employees.  I suppose it makes sense, if you think about rationally: one-twelfth of all the people you meet in your life are going to have the same zodiac sign as you.  Of course, my feelings towards astrology (which I touched on ever-so-briefly when discussing balance and paradox) are anything but rational.  Rationally, it’s probably not particularly meaningful that four out the five people I’ve considered my best friend at various times have been Scorpios.  Still, I continue to see a bit of meaning in it.  I know I was wrong when I said it was true ... still ...

So this week is a little bit of in between days.  A bit of a respite from the busy schedule, but not so much that I really have enough time to devote to a full blog post.  I rather thought I would have enough time, but after going down a couple of blind alleys and not really making any progress with anything, I ended up here.  And now I’ve drug you along with me.

Halloween will likely be fun this year.  Our littlest is two and a half and is planning to be a unicorn with pink wings.  I didn’t know unicorns had pink wings, but apparently they do.  The the Smaller Animal (who gained that moniker, recall, when he was the younger of two) will be Tree Rex, which is a thing from a video game—if you have an eight-year-old, you probably know what I’m talking about.  The demonspawn (that is, our eldest, who gained his nickname before he was even born) is of course too old and jaded to be trick-or-treating, but he has a costume for attending parties: sort of an evil jester thing.  When he was the only potential trick-or-treater, Halloween was a very meh holiday.  He’s mildly anti-social and not particularly motivated by candy, so he never had much patience for the whole thing.  OTOH, the Smaller Animal is completely motivated by candy, and the newest one is motivated by anything edible (or anything she can perceive as edible, which is a disturbing distinction to have to make) and she’s very social on top of that.  This year I’m imagining that we’ll have to drag the two of them back home kicking and screaming.  Almost made me shudder just now, thinking about it ... I got so scared I shivered like a child.

And then another birthday.  I’ve reached the age where, when people ask me how old I’ll be, I have stop and do math.  The Mother keeps asking me what I want to do for my birthday ... I dunno.  I don’t want to have to be in charge of thinking about anything, mainly.  Holidays in general are so stressful for us, because everyone has expectations, and they’re generally conflicting, and we get ticked off at each other when we keep the other folks from fulfilling their expectations because we’re so busy trying to fulfill ours.  And in the end it’s not worth it.  I think we spend too much time trying to plan life, but we always seem to be happier when we just let life happen.  Too much time worrying about trying to have a perfect birthday—it froze me deep inside.

Anyway, that’s my completely long-winded excuse for why I didn’t write a full blog post this week, when most likely you couldn’t care less.  But feel free to ignore me.  Go on, go on, and disappear ... see if I care.  Other than the fact that it would mean I now owe all that royalty money to Robert Smith for nothing.  Ah well.  Maybe I can owe him a battle against Mecha-Streisand or something.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

National Heroscape Day 2014

It’s been a busy weekend for us, since it was once again National Heroscape Day.  So I can’t say that I have time for a proper post.  But here’s some references to what the hell I’m talking about:

And some references that may only make sense if you actually play the game:

You may recall (from very recently if you just read through some of those links up there) that, two years ago, I brought my eldest, his analogue in our Sister Family, and the Smaller Animal (although he and I played together as a team).  Last year, the Smaller Animal was sick, so I brought the eldest, his analogue, and two of his other friends (these four don’t have a formal name yet, but I often refer to them as the Merry Men ... which I suppose you could consider sexist of me, since one of them is female, but that’s not intended, I assure you).  This year, it was all those people, plus the Smaller Animal’s sister family analogue as well—they played together as a team, but without any adult supervision, which I consider a major advance.  So I provided 6 of the 10 participants in the tourney, and provided all the armies for 7 of the 10, which on the one hand makes me feel like I’m almost single-handedly keeping the game alive in our area, but then again I’m glad it’s still alive no matter how.

I think everyone had a great time.  The Smaller Animal (and associate) came in ahead of his older brother, which he was pretty jazzed about, especially since that came about primarily because they were paired together in the second game of the tourney and the two younger boys beat the older—I think he got cocky and played a bit too recklessly.  My middle child isn’t terribly competitive yet, certainly, but he’s no fool either, and he knows how to capitalize on any bit of luck that swings his way.  I myself had a bit of luck in my second game, when I was paired with the fellow I thought sure would win the day.  The dice weren’t going his way, definitely, but I was able to capitalize on that by playing very conservatively and forcing him to come to me while I shored up my position and shot him from afar.  In the last game, I lost on points by a measly 7 (that’s out of 520) to the other guy who was a real contender, thus securing him the tourney victory.  But I came in fourth, which is the best I’ve ever done.

The real Cinderella story here, though, is my eldest’s close friend.  This was his third tourney, and only his third time playing the game: he hasn’t been playing outside of our once-a-year event at all.  By being very low-key and seeming like he wasn’t a threat at all, but playing smart and fairly conservative and going for small gains instead of big flashy moves, he won 3 out of 4 games (including one against me, where he beat me far more badly than the fellow I considered the bigger threat) to place second overall.  It was seriously cool to see a relativele newbie do such fantastic work.  He did have a bit of luck, but I’d say his skill was the more decisive factor.

After the tourney was done, my eldest and another friend played one more game of Heroscape.  She had done decently (seventh out of 10) with her elf wizard pod and never touched her backup army (which was a Wolfpack build), so she wanted to try it out.  In turn, the demonspawn hadn’t done that well with either of his armies (as mentioned above), so he took her elves to see if he could beat her with her own army.  She dismantled her former champions with brutal efficiency, having the wolves take out the offensive powerhouse first, and then immediately slicing up the defensive bulwark.  In the end it came down to two figures on either side, just beating each other senseless back and forth, but finally the elves were able to eke out a phyrric victory.

Then we moved on to Monty Python Fluxx, where the second game went on so long and we were all drawing so many cards at once that I had to reshuffle the discards 3 times.  Finally someone won pretty much by accident and we had to head off to get everyone home.

As always, we must thank our gracious host, whose apartment complex’s rented-out rec room has served as our headquarters for the past 4 or 5 years, and the folks who brought and assembled the rest of the maps we played on, and everyone who participated in making this one of our best and most fun tournaments in quite a while.  Some of our normal diehard fans couldn’t make it this year, but I hope that doesn’t turn into a trend.  And I hope that our newer players are all firmly hooked on this great game.  And, finally, I hope we don’t end up waiting a whole ‘nother year to get together and play.  There’s no excuse for that.  This is just too much fun.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Chapter 21 concluded

Johnny tightened his grip on the railing, and he saw Aidan do the same.  Welly and Larissa hustled over to join them, and Bones gave an unholy squawk and shot back towards the rear of the ship.  Johnny’s brain was still trying to figure what to be most afraid of when there was a jarring thud as they hit the beach.  The Sylph didn’t stop when it hit the sand though—there was a grinding scratching that vibrated the hull and the great wooden airship just drove itself right out of the water.  Johnny waited for the wailing of metal that would indicate that the ship’s rudder was scraping along the sand, but he never heard it; Roger must have done something to hoist it up out of danger.

Their momentum could only carry them so far, of course, and there was only about five feet of torn up beach behind them when The Sylph gave a final shudder and came to a sudden stop.  Roger appeared almost immediately afterward.  “How long do we have?” she demanded of Aidan.

Aidan shook his head as if to clear it.  “Hard to say,” he admitted.  “I couldn’t get a definite fix on it while you were bouncing us around like juggler’s pins.  But I’m guessing no more than two or three minutes, if that.

Roger spat.  “Goats’ bollocks!” she cursed.  “Bones!  Get yer ass up that thar tree!”  She pointed to the obligatory palm tree in the center of the barren island.  Bones magically appeared from somewhere and lept off the forward edge of the flying bridge, gliding all the way to the trunk of the palm, where he scampered around it in an upward spiral until he reached its leaves.  Once there, he shaded his eyes with one hand and looked out over the water behind them.  Johnny could hear his beak clicking furiously.

“Welly!” Roger barked.  “Yer the opener, ain’t ye?  Get ta openin’!  Right in front of the boat, mind, so I don’t have too far to chuck crates.  I hope it don’t come to that, but I ain’t yet sussed out how we’re gonna get my girl unbeached.”  She turned back to Aidan.  “Priest!  Sorry to have to ask this, but I need ye down on the beach.  Ye’ll have to hold it off singular while we get supplies through.  Elsewise we’ll end up just as cadaverous on the other side as if we stay here to be monster chum.”  Aidan nodded and scrambled aft where the rope ladder was.  Roger turned to Johnny and Larissa.  “Swabby and missy!  We need to start shuffling around crates.  Prioritize food and warm clothes, and get ’em all up in the bow and clear of any lines or beams.  Hop to, like yer life depended on it, ’cause by damn it just might.”  She turned and strode off to the crates, whipping out her knife to cut lines.  She never bothered to look back and see if any of her orders were being followed; she knew they were.

As he started pulling crates towards the bow, he could see Welly down on the sand below.  He was tilted at an impossible angle, like a mime walking against the wind, but motionless.  Johnny couldn’t see why he didn’t just fall over.  His hands were in front of him, back to back, fingers stiff, as if he were trying to force open invisible elevator doors.  From the rear of the vessel, Aidan’s liquid chanting began to drift towards them; he must really be belting it out if they could hear him with the bulk of the ship between them.  Johnny glanced back and discovered that Aidan wasn’t directly behind them, though: he was facing the lagoon, with his back to the rear corner of the deckhouse.  The ship had hit the beach at a bit of an angle, Johnny saw now, and it looked like the sea monster was cutting across the corner their path made when they’d changed course while trying to outrun it.  Assuming Aidan knew where it was and was facing in that general direction, that is, which Johnny felt confident was true.  Roger caught him woolgathering and flicked his ear.

Johnny went back to lugging crates.  Larissa wasn’t a lot of use in pushing the large boxes around, but she had a knack for knowing exactly where each box had ended up and could reel off the contents of anything Roger pointed at, which Roger somehow knew and was taking full advantage of.  Once Roger had everything identified, she sent Larissa back to the deckhouse for “paraffin caulk” (which Larissa promptly objected was neither paraffin nor caulk, but she knew where it was, so she did her objecting while walking away).  It seemed like it must have been more than three minutes at this point; Johnny paused again to check on his shipmates.

Welly actually did have his fingers in the crack of a door, it seemed: a glowing blue line had appeared in the air in front of him, and he was trying to widen the crack, his muscles straining with the effort.  Aidan’s chants were booming out over the water and rolling around the island.  As Johnny watched, it actually got darker, for the first time since he’d stepped through the strange round door into the swampworld.  Startled, he looked up.  The clouds overhead were getting thick and menacing.  It was impossible to guess if they were blocking out some of the light, or absorbing it, or not reflecting as much ... without knowing where the light source was, there was no way to know.  But it was definitely darker—not much darker, but the difference was noticeable.  A wind was starting to swirl around too: just a slight breeze so far, but it was gaining momentum.  Aidan was standing with his staff upraised in one hand, his other flung out to the side, his back ramrod straight, and his voice continued to peal those liquid syllables.  “Shallédanu,” Johnny heard, and “tisharallein” and “loralleilaray” and “whellenaisharenn.”  And not only were the clouds and the wind responding, but the usually calm lagoon was growing choppy, and waves began to form off the coast of the island.  Then Bones gave out a high-pitched shriek and Johnny’s eyes were drawn out to the water, where he got his first glimpse of the creature that had chased them here.

Johnny’s first fleeting impression was that it looked like a huge puddle of dirty milk.  But the dark streaks were too regular; they almost seemed to make a pattern.  As it oozed toward them, the image suddenly clicked for Johnny: it was something like cerebral grooves, only barely peeking above the surface.  In fact, now that he had seen it this way, the whole thing looked more like an alabaster brain coral that had somehow melted into a gelatinous ooze, like that old monster movie The Blob, and it was now slowly coming to eat them.  And, indeed, when the first long, white limb shot out, Johnny could see that it was less tentacle and more pseudopod.

That limb went straight for Aidan, and Johnny felt his breath stop in his throat.  But Aidan merely flicked his staff out to meet it, and, where they touched, blue sparks shot out.  The feeler diverted course and floated toward the ship.  Another pseudopod came at Aidan, but he deflected that one as well, and it too moved towards The Sylph.  Once they reached it, they attached to either side.

“Bloody hell!” Roger grated.  “Bloody priest is going to let that thrice-damned goatsucker pull my bloody boat right off the bloody beach!”

But when the monster finally managed to move the ship, they actually pushed forward a notch.  Roger’s mouth fell open.  Johnny blinked.  “I don’t get it,” he said finally.  “What’s ... ?”

Roger’s voice started out as a whisper, the words coming slowly, but they rapidly increased in both volume and speed.  “Our ... mad ... priest ... is getting ... the bloody monster ... to DELIVER THE SHIP FOR US!”  She whooped and pounded Johnny on the back, knocking the wind out of him.  “Forget the crates, Johnny me boyo, just get everything that might go overboard tied back down.  If Aidan can pull this off it’s like to be a bumpy ride.”  She strode over to the forward rail and leaned down to call to their opener.  “Welly, my lad, ye’d best open yer openin’ a mite faster, else ye’re liable to get a ship up yer backside.”  She cackled with glee and headed back to the wheelhouse.  Bones was back on the ship now, and Larissa had reappeared with a wooden box about the size of a large cigar box.  She looked around for Roger, and gave Johnny a raised eyebrow when she couldn’t locate the captain.  Johnny shrugged, and he could feel the stupid grin returning to his face.  Bones settled the issue by snatching the box out of Larissa’s hands and scrambling off with it.

Then it was just tying knots and pulling ropes taut while Welly Banks ripped an ever-widening hole in the air and Aidan de Tourneville mentally wrestled a giant sea monster into submission.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Chapter 21 continued

After that, they couldn’t do much other than hang on.  Welly disappeared back into the deckhouse.  Johnny rejoined Aidan; they held fast to the rails and tried to keep a lookout for further monstrous tentacles.  Roger didn’t reappear, but her voice continued to issue colorful pirate curses through the speaker.  Bones appeared to be scrambling around, running errands for Roger.  Only Larissa seemed calm: she stood, near the railing but not holding it, swaying easily with the motion of the ship, absently stroking the snake around her wrist and just ... observing, Johnny supposed.

Johnny’s mind was working desperately.  “Maybe the flare gun again ... ?” he asked Aidan.

Aidan shook his head.  “Trust, me: that thing is much too big to care about a little flare in its guts.  Even if you could hit its guts.”

Well, Johnny thought, you wanted some excitement.  He bit back a laugh, which he felt sure would contain more than a note of hysteria.  “Can’t you do something?” he asked Aidan.

“Not at this speed,” Aidan returned, maintaining his grim hold on the rail.  “As long as we’re moving this fast, I can’t stay stable enough to do anything significant.  Of course, if we were to slow down, then I might not have time to do anything significant.  So I fear we’re parched either way.”  Johnny’s brain translated “parched” as “screwed.”

“Just a tick,” buzzed Roger’s voice from the speaker.  “I think we’re gaining a bit of headway.  Aidan, can you still feel the bugger back there?”

Aidan rolled his eyes, but didn’t bother to complain.  “Johnny, come help me.”  He turned around to face out over the water again as Johnny stumbled the few steps to join him and regrabbed the top rail.  “This is an uncomfortable thing to ask,” he said apologetically, “but I need you to put your arms around me, grab the railing on either side, and press me up against it.  Tight, so I can let go and still not jostle about too much.  Can you do that?”

Johnny shrugged.  “Sure,” he said.  He didn’t think it was that uncomfortable, actually.  Although once he tried it, he could see Aidan’s hesitation: like riding behind someone on a motorcycle, it was practically impossible to do without inadvertently grinding your crotch into the other person’s butt.  But, compared to getting eaten by a sea monster, that didn’t seem all that worrisome.

Once Johnny was in position, Aidan let go and leaned out, and Johnny knew that his grip was all that was keeping the water priest on the ship.  With one ear pressed against Aidan’s back, he could hear the man’s breathing and his heartbeat, and he could see Larissa staring at them in that dispassionate way she had.  As Aidan started to chant once again, Johnny felt a buzzing vibration settle into his bones, and the sounds from Aidan’s lungs began to sound more like waves crashing on the beach.  Aidan seemed like he was glowing, in the same way that the door into the swampworld had seemed to glow—there was no visible light, just a perception in Johnny’s other sense that seemed to connote glowing, somehow.  It was warm, and oddly comforting.  Rocketing along an ocean-like lagoon in a giant wooden flat-bottomed boat, in danger of being eaten by an unknown monster while they ferried a blue-skinned boy-man who spoke in corny comedy routines and sighs to an unknown location so they could retrieve a mystery object, Johnny still couldn’t help but feel like everything was, suddenly and unexpectedly, okay.  He closed his eyes and breathed more slowly.  “Shallédanu lei shonta,” he said softly, almost unaware he was doing so.

Then all that was drowned out by a freezing blast of cold that nearly froze his otherworldy sense solid.  He gasped, and he actually saw steam coming out of his mouth.  Larissa opened her mouth, no doubt to tell him that it was condensed water vapor and not actually steam, but he didn’t wait.  “Go tell Roger we’re almost there!” he shouted at her over the rushing of the wind.  “Tell her to turn just a bit to the right ...”  Johnny stopped as he realized he couldn’t point without losing his grip on Aidan.  “Like two marks past one o’clock,” he said finally, hoping Larissa would know what he meant.

Apparently she did.  She strode over to the speaker, thumbed the brass button, and said “42 degrees to starboard.”

“Aye, aye,” came Roger’s reply.

The boat turned ever so slightly, and now Johnny felt like his heart had been replaced by a large chunk of ice.  It hurt to breathe, and he began to shiver.  Aidan stopped chanting and turned around, which was good because Johnny’s grip was slipping.  He slumped into the priest’s arms, and he heard Aidan whispering to him, but it was hard to make out over the howling winds blowing through his core.  He looked up at Aidan’s face, and he realized the man wasn’t whispering—he was shouting.  Johnny couldn’t hear anything, but he could almost read his lips ...  Off? he thought disjointedly.  Is he saying “off”?  Oh, yeah ... turn it off.  That’s probably a good idea, now that you mention it.  Only ... how do I turn it off?

Aidan was shaking him now, but it was very distant.  Then he felt the older man grab his head between both hands, index fingers pressed into his temples, and a strange sensation, like warm water trickling over him, started at the top of his head and slowly seeped over his entire body.  The arctic winds began to quiet, and he didn’t feel so cold any more.  Gradually his shivering stopped and he unclenched teeth he just now realized he’d clamped shut to stop them chattering.  Aidan was staring into his eyes, chanting quietly.  He stopped as Johnny exhaled and blinked up at him.  “Better now?” he asked, smiling.

“Yes,” Johnny tried to say, but found that his mouth was completely dried out, like he’d been holding it open in a blizzard.  “Um hmm,” he managed finally, rubbing his tongue back and forth to try to work some spit back into his mouth.

When he got back to his feet, he found that Welly had returned to the deck and was eyeing him speculatively.  “You look like a talent scout for a cemetery,” he said, but his gaze was weighing Johnny.

“Henny Youngman,” Larissa said under her breath, as if she knew no one really cared but couldn’t stop herself from saying it anyway.

“Thanks,” Johnny said to Aidan.

“You have to learn to control it,” Aidan said, still holding him by the shoulders and looking into his face.  “It’s not like seeing or hearing.  It’s more like touch: you can choose how much pressure to apply.  When you get this close to something this big, you need to just barely brush it with your fingertips ... you follow me?”

Johnny nodded.  “Dial it down a notch,” he said, still a bit shaky.  “Check.”

Aidan grinned and clapped him on the shoulder.  “Yes, exactly.  Otherwise it’s going to overwhelm you, like it did just now.  Are you okay now?”

Johnny massaged his chest to try to get some bloodflow back into it.  “I think so.  What did you do?”

Aidan smiled.  “All I did, son, was to quiet your mind.  That made it easier for you to ‘dial it down,’ as you say.  Or turn it off altogether ... is that what you did?”  Aidan moved his head, as if trying to get a better angle to see into Johnny’s mind through his eyes.

Johnny nodded.  “Yeah, I guess I did.  Not consciously, but ...”  Johnny stopped, then shook his head, losing whatever tenuous grasp he had on how to complete that thought.

Aidan squeezed his shoulder.  “Don’t worry.  We won’t need it again for a while, I’m thinking.  Seems like we’re pretty close at this point ...”

“Land ho,” Welly said, deadpan.  All eyes turned to him.  “That’s the proper expression, right?”  He pointed directly ahead.  Another cartoon desert island had sprung up out of the distant mists.  They were headed directly for it.

“Shit,” Johnny said.  Aidan’s comment was not in English, but it sounded very similar in character.

Larissa thumbed the speaker.  “Island, twelve o’clock.  Sandy beach, no visible rocks.”

Roger’s voice sounded grim.  “Well, better hang on to something, then, missy.  ‘Cause we canna stop now.”

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Chapter 21 begun

To the Edge

Johnny ran to the bow and looked, but could see nothing.  “Where?” he called up to Roger.

Roger was sliding down the ladder (which was boatspeak for “short set of narrow, very steep stairs”) in that casual way she had: boots hooked around the outside edges, gloved hands gently resting on the inside edges, let gravity do the rest.  She could go from flying bridge to deck in about a second and a half.  “Submerged,” she said shortly, striding purposefully toward the wheel.  “But we’ll be changing course withal.”

Johnny naturally turned to Larissa.  ”‘Withal’?”

“Nevertheless,” she replied.

“Ah.”  He paused.  “Where’s Aidan?”

Aidan was right behind him, as it turned out.  “Yes, I heard.  Let me see if I can get a fix on it, at least.”  He leaned out over the railing, and began chanting his liquid chants while stretching his arms out as if to embrace something.

For a long time, nothing changed.  Then Aidan’s eyebrows turned downwards and somehow he managed to mutter under his breath without stopping the fluid chant.  “Shallédanu lei shonta ...”  His tone was one of disbelief.

“What?” Johnny asked.  When he got no answer, he turned a worried eye to Larissa.  “That didn’t sound good ...”

Suddenly Aidan straightened and called out “Hard to port!”  Bones screeched and flew-glided back to the stern.  Seconds later, The Slyph turned sharply ... at least, as sharply as her bulk would allow, which was still enough to make Johnny grasp frantically at the railing to keep his balance.

Welly appeared in one of the doorways to the deckhouse, blinking sleep out of his eyes.  “What in the name of Witt and Berg ... ?” he mumbled.

The boat was now listing hard enough to make the deck feel more like a steep hill, so Johnny didn’t have time to look at Larissa.  She started to answer anyway: “Bob Witt and Cy ...”  At that moment Roger did something which caused the back of the boat to hunch down in the water; The Sylph straightened, but now the deck was slanted aft to fore instead of port to starboard.  The flat-bottomed boat surged forward, like a draft ship cresting a wave, and then the world shuddered as they tipped in the other direction and hit the water with a jarring thud.  They were all immediately soaked as water crashed over the rails.  So Johnny never got to hear about Bob Witt and Cy, presumably Berg.  It was a safe bet they were old comedians, and Johnny figured he had more important things to worry about.

Larissa was briefly sliding towards the front of the ship, and Johnny felt a moment of panic for her before he realized he should save all his panic for himself.  The railings were parallel to the deck, with about 2 feet between the bars, so there was plenty of room for someone on their back to slide under the bottom rung.  Larissa was already in that position, and Johnny felt his ass hit the deck and knew he was almost there as well.  He flailed out with one hand and felt his fingers brush Aidan’s boot, which the water priest had apparently flung out for Johnny to grab.  Out of the corner of one eye he could see Welly clutching desperately at the doorframe.  But most of his field of vision was full of Larissa’s small body, spinning and sliding slowly towards the rail.

She didn’t seem concerned.  She flung out one hand behind her head and it seemed like a blue whip shot out and grabbed one of the crossbars of the railing.  A disoriented thought flashed across Johnny’s consciousness (was that the snake??) and then time seemed to slow down.  He knew he’d missed his opportunity to grab Aidan’s foot, but he felt his hand grasping at the air anyhow.  Ahead of him, Larissa’s arm pulled taut, and her legs swung down towards the nose of the ship, which was just now starting to come back up ... too late to stop the inevitable slide.  Suddenly a crate spun sideways across Larissa’s path.  She kicked it hard with her black and white sneakers, using its bulk to push herself back towards Johnny.  The crate changed course too and fetched up hard against the forward rail; it cracked with a sharp splintery noise, but didn’t come apart.  Johnny suddenly realized he was aimed right for it and managed to get his boots pointed in the right direction before he struck it.

By this point the ship was righted, if still a bit wobbly.  Johnny got to his hands and knees, huffing “lucky” under his breath, over and over.  Larissa sat up calmly; the little blue water snake uncoiled its head from the railing and resettled itself on her wrist.  Aidan, slumped against the railing a yard or so up the deck with one arm still hooked around a crossbar, stared at the snake with fascination, or perhaps disbelief.  Welly let out a long breath and said in a small, quavery voice: “If at first you don’t succeed ... so much for skydiving.”  Larissa looked at him, but refrained from supplying the attribution.

A tinny voice came out of the closest brass speaker.  “Sorry, mates,” Roger called.  “I was just ..”  Her voice was cut off by a deafening crack, like the bullwhip of a giant.  A pale tentacle, white like the underbelly of a corpse, was waving in the air behind them, tall enough to be seen clearly over deckhouse and flying bridge.  Johnny felt his mouth gape open.  “Trying to avoid that,” Roger finished in a tight voice, and The Slyph shot forward as if someone had shoved a rocket into its rear.

section break

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Tourney prep

Today I’ve not found time for a normal post because I’ve been working on getting ready for National Heroscape Day.  If you need a refresher, you can read my thoughts on Heroscape itself, read about my involvement with the customs group known as C3V, or about our experiences with NHSD for the past two years.  Executive precis: Heroscape is a game that combines building battlefieds out pieces that interlock much like Legos, and then fielding genre blender armies that you compose yourself.  Thus, you see, the two major areas that require preparation are map construction, and army building.  So, this weekend I’ve done a little of both, in an attempt to be ready for the upcoming tourney (which will be held on October 18th this year).

First, the map.  For the longest time, I had this monstrosity up.  Oh, it’s pretty to look at, but not very practical to play on.  So, to get some reasonable practice in, we needed pick a couple of new maps, tear down the existing one, and build the new ones up.  I got all but the very last step of that done.  I picked two BoV1 maps: Quasatch Playground and Burial Marsh.  The Littles2 and I tore down the whole big map.  And we rather quickly slapped together Quasatch Playground.  The other map will have to wait for next weekend, or possibly Wednesday.

Secondly, the armies.  I’ve been experimenting with several ideas, most of them based around my favorites among the custom units that our group has come up with.  One of my current favorites is also one of our newest: the Crypt Guardian.  The main idea behind him is to help out one of the worst units in the official game, a sort of mummified medusa figure.  With her Stare of Stone power, she can kill just about anyone ... but only if she gets lucky: she has a 20% chance of killing a hero.  Now, true: she has a 70% chance of killing a squad figure (meaning one of the cannon-fodder guys).  But only one every turn.  If you’re facing a giant mass of, say, zombies, or maybe orcs, it’s going to take you around 10 turns to kill 2 squads’ worth.  And that’s assuming you don’t use anybody else.  That’s pretty terrible.  Plus her average defense combined with averge-low life means she ain’t gonna last that long.

So she needed some help, and we thought it probably ought to be another mummy that gave it to her.  But of course we didn’t want to create a unit that did nothing but prop up one bad unit.  So we gave our Crypt Guardian two powers: one which helps undead units with a d20 power (which Sudema is), and one that helps heroes which are either guards or queens (which Sudema is).  So it helps quite a variety of units, but there’s only one unit that can benefit from both powers, and it’s the one that needs the most help.  Sort of clever of our designers.3  One of the funnest things is that many of the other units that are helped out by the Crypt Guardian (specifically, the short list of guard heroes) are also units that don’t see a lot of play.  So you can take three or four units that normally people think of as easy pickin’s and forge them into an army with a decent shot.

One of my other favorite units is a sort of forest sprite type thing called the Eilan Sidhe.4  This is a bit of a harder unit to place into an army, as it doesn’t have any obvious synergies, so I’ve been playing with a few different ideas.  One odd but intriguing pairing would be with the bugbears.  The sidhe can use the trees on the map (if there are any) to get into great position, and then the bugbears can use their “Barge into Battle” power to swap places with them and lay the beat down on some folks.  Of course, on a map with no trees (or few trees, spaced too far apart), you’d be screwed.  Plus you’ll need some ranged support.  But it’s in interesting idea.

The Smaller Animal is interested in trying out or newest dragon, affectionately referred to as “Big Blue.”  She’s a beast all right, but also a unit that doesn’t have too many obvious synergies.  We could bond her with the lizard men, of course, but they’re on our restricted list,5 and I’ve personally made the argument that Big Blue should be on the restricted list as well, which would mean they couldn’t be paired.  You can also bond her with giant spiders, but quite frankly they’re not that exciting.  So we’re still working on that.

So that’s how my weekend has been going.  And I see that, despite my initial pronouncement of not writing a real post this week, this one is nearly as long as a normal post anyway.  So count yourself lucky.  Unless you really don’t give a crap about Heroscape, in which case I suppose you’d best count yourself unlucky.  But then again, in that case, I’m sure you didn’t read this far, so I’m not really talking to you anyway.  As always, refer complaints to the masthead.

1 “BoV” stands for “Battlefields of Valhalla,” and it means maps specifically designed for tourney play.

2 This is a term invented by our Sister Family to mean the kids below age ten.  We each have 2 in that category; ours are 8 and 2, currently.

3 Full disclosure: I’m not one of our designers.  I’m an editor.

4 Note that “sidhe” is a Celtic word pronounced “shee.”  For instance, the proper Irish spelling of “banshee” is actually “bean sidhe.”

5 Many Heroscape tournaments maintain a “restricted list,” which is a list of units that most people consider a little too good in a competitive setting.  Each army is allowed only one unit off the restricted list.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Worth Striving For

A few days ago I was talking to the CEO of my company about why I love this job so much.  I found it hard to put into words ... the best I could come up with was that I had finally found a job where I was allowed—even encouraged—to fix things.  At my last job (and at many of the companies I’ve worked for, both as employee and contractor), if you wanted to fix something that was broken or ugly, you had to have meetings about it, and you had to present business cases for it, and you had to prove to someone that it was going to make money (or save money) in some way.  At the new job, if something’s broken (or ugly), we just say: fix it.  And no one tells you how to fix it.  They just trust that you will do it the best way you know how.

Trust, you may recall, is one of the three cornerstones of what employees want, according to the Barefoot Philosophy.  So that’s a big part of the attraction, certainly.  But this is a bigger issue, touching on the concept of craftmanship that I brought up before, but only scratched the surface of.  I’ve also made a business case for why crap needs to be fixed, but this is a different side of that coin.  And I wanted to expand on this topic, partially because it would be nice to tie all those disparate thoughts together, but mainly because I was frustrated by my inability to capture the gestalt of this idea in that extemporaneous discussion with my chief executive.  But of course I’m not good at speaking off the cuff.

Then again, that’s why I have a blog.

Perhaps the easiest way to explain it is with an extended analogy.  Imagine software developement as being like building a house.  Now, there are different aspects of home construction.  Obviously the most important aspect is functionality: you need working plumbing, a sound electrical system, structural integrity, and so forth.  But never discount æsthetics.  Nobody wants to live in an ugly-ass house.

Of course, the vast majority of the coding that we programmers do is not building a new house—it’s renovating.  The house is already there when we show up; the owner just needs some repairs, or perhaps a new bathroom, or maybe even a whole new wing added on one side.  It’s often said (even by programmers) that programmers prefer writing new code to maintaining old code.  There’s some truth to that, of course.  But not as much as it seems on the surface.  There’s nothing wrong with working to maintain a beautifully built, solidly constructed old house.  Sure, you can’t go crazy and go all Frank Lloyd Wright or John Lautner on it.  The basic layout is there, and there’s only so much you can do to it.  But the popularity of home improvement shows—from modern reality TV shows like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition to the public television classic This Old House, which is still on the air after 35 years—shows us that fixing up an existing structure can be interesting, challenging, intellectually stimulating ... all the things you could ask of a construction project.  I’ve worked on a few old codebases that were still a lot of fun and gave me plenty of opportunity to exercise my creativity and leave my mark, including the one I’m working on now.

But most of them aren’t like that.  Most of them are a kind of horror show train wreck.  Which is something we all end up slowing down to watch, with a guilty sort of fascination, but it’s quite another thing to be inside it while it’s happening.  Is it any wonder that most of us are desperately trying to rewrite parts of—if not the entirety of—our old codebases?  And the reason most of them are so awful is because of this very issue that I’m trying to explain.

See, working at my last job (and, as I say, for many of my previous employers) was a bit like doing a renovation for a homeowner who tells you “Just make sure the toilets flush, and the lights come on when you hit the switch, and the walls don’t fall over.  We don’t really care if it looks pretty or not.”  Which doesn’t sound so bad until you start getting into the details of it.  “Just patch the pipes with duct tape,” they tell you.  “Yeah, we know it’s not waterproof, but a few little puddles here and there are no big deal, and actually replacing the bad plumbing would take too long and be too expensive.”  And then they say, “You know what? just leave those exposed wires there.  We’ll put up some signs warning people not to touch them.  Actually patching the drywall is too much trouble, and we’ve got other stuff for you to work on.”  And then it gets to the point where they’re trying to convince you to prop up the walls with old two-by-fours from the backyard that still have rusty nails sticking out of them.  You can probably imagine how scary it is to walk into a job like this.  But what many people forget about is how utterly depressing it is to be the guy who let things get this bad.  Not by choice, of course.  But, if no one will let you fix anything ...

Part of the reason this is so frustrating is that some of this shit is actually dangerous.  Show me a programmer who hasn’t been told to ignore a bug that they knew was screwing over customers and I’ll show you a programmer at the start of their career.  Every business makes that choice, and I will even admit that it’s not always the wrong choice.  A bug that only affects a few customers but will cost many engineer-weeks to fix is not a sane thing to tackle.  But it’s one thing to make that call one time, and quite another to make it over and over again.  And let’s not dismiss the soul-crushing anguish of the raw ugliness of it all: you’re embarrassed to admit you were a part of the crew, and you’re constantly apologizing for your part in the mess.  Hell, it doesn’t even stop when you quit: at my most recent conference, I was still apologizing to employees that had been hired by my ex-employer after I left.  “We tried to make it better,” I would say, eyes downcast.  “But we just didn’t have the political capital.”  That’s a polite way of saying “our bosses wouldn’t let us fix anything.”

So it may sound a little weak to say “I really love my job because they let me fix things,” but try to understand it from the opposite point of view: I really hate a job where they won’t let me fix things.  It’s depressing to have to work in that environment day after day.  And, if there are any businesspeople out there reading this, let me try to put this into terms you can appreciate: this is a question of retention.  When you refuse to let people fix things, you make them miserable.  Oh, I can tell you that there are direct fiduciary benefits to a culture of improvement (and that’s true, although they’re notoriously hard to measure), but the real gain is that you keep your best, most productive employees happy, and you make it easier to hire more of the same, and if you can’t see how that is going to help your bottom line, then there’s nothing more I can say.  Here’s a great quote attributed to Hosea Ballou:

No one has a greater asset for his business than a man’s pride in his work.

I suspect this is how my CEO views it.  I don’t know for sure, because he hasn’t told me, but I’m guessing that he thinks to himself, well, my tech team always delivers when I ask them to, and sometimes even when I don’t, so if they want to go off and fix things I didn’t ask them to, and that makes them happy, then, more power to ’em.  As long as we keep doing the things that make him happy, and make the company money, he’s happy enough to let us take a little pride in our work.

And that’s what it comes down to, in the end.  I consider myself a craftsman, as I said—perhaps I should go even farther, as did web designer Richard Glover, and call myself an artisan.  I take great pride in what I produce, and I need to be producing things I can be proud of.  Give me a job that allows that—nay, encourages it—and I’m all yours.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

To Vegas, Baby

You almost got a post this weekend.  I actually started a post ... I was this close to finishing it up and posting it.*  Unfortunately, we’ve got a lot of preparations to do this weekend.  We’re heading off to Vegas for a family vacation tomorrow.  The Eldest is turning 16, and that nets you more than a birthday weekend—you get a whole birthday week.  And I’ve never personally been to Vegas, so it should be fun.

Perhaps there’ll be time to finish this post during the week and you’ll get to see it next week.  If you’re lucky.

* I know you can’t actually see my thumb and forefinger, but trust me: they’re only millimeters apart.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

March of the Virgos

This weekend kicks off our Virgo birthday season, so we’re doing things that The Mother wants to do.  One thing she does not want to do is sit around while I spend a few hours coming up with ways to entertain you, persistent reader.  Which is fair, really.

If you need to refresh yourself on what a birthday weekend entails for us, go back and read about the March birthday season.  We have two birthdays in March, one at either end of the month.  Then we have two birthdays about 10 days apart, centered around Labor Day.  This year will be the eldest’s 16th, and we’ll be spending a week in Vegas.  So there’s every possibility that you won’t get a decent post next wekeend either.  We’ll see, but don’t hold your breath or anything.

Not that I thought you were going to hold your breath for an entire week.  Or any lenth of time over this crappy blog, really.  And I’m okay with that.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Format Bores

Last week I posted the latest chapter of my ongoing (some might say never-ending) novelThe Mother decided to take this opportunity to post a notice on Facebook so that my friends might be reminded that yes, I’m still writing the damn thing.  And one particularly good friend of mine asked if he could read my novel on his Kindle.  Which I suppose he could, if I turned it into a PDF.  Which of course I can.  So I did.

So, down towards the bottom of the page, you’ll find a link to a PDF representation of the novel as it stands thus far.  And hopefully I’ll be able to keep it updated on an ongoing basis so that the link will always point to however far along we currently are.  One word of caution though: the formatting ain’t pretty.

Of course, that might not be all bad.  I hope that, one day, I’ll actually finish this book.  And, when that happens, the logical thing to do would be to try to put it out in e-book format and try to get some exposure for it.  So it might occur to you, tenacious reader, that I might want to discourage people from downloading a free PDF so that I can charge money for an e-book someday.  But that’s not true.  Let me explain why.

As a software developer, I use use thousands of lines of open source code every day—undoubtely millions of lines, over the course of my career.  Without all that open source code, I’d get very little done on a day-to-day basis ... even at my paying job.  With millions of lines of free, quality software out there, any company (particularly a small company just getting started) would be foolish to ignore all that software.  Paying for something when you could get it for free (and when the free version is often of higher quality) is a pretty poor business decision.  Spending time to rewrite something from scratch when you could get it for free can sometimes make sense ... but not often.  So my entire profession is built on the concept of giving away valuable stuff for free.  It would be somewhat hypocritical of me to balk at offering a free PDF.

In fact, my intention is to keep these blog posts up as well, even after the e-book is out (assuming, of course, I ever get that far—much of this musing is just pre-hatch chicken counting, and I recognize that).  Hey, if people really want to read my book for free, on the interwebs, more power to ’em, I say.  I feel like the e-book will be a lot more convenient a format, and I hope I’m able to get some artwork (at the very least a front cover pic) that will probably be available only via the e-book, and there may even be one last editing pass for the e-book that doesn’t make it back to the blog.  So hopefully there will be some small reason to shell out some small amount of money for the “official” version, once we get that far.  (And the amount will certainly be small.  From everything I’ve been reading about e-book self-publishing, an unknown author should be pricing their e-book at under $6.  Probably well under $6.  And I’m okay with that.  I don’t need to support myself as an author—I have a day job which I love and am in no hurry to quit—and it’ll be much more about getting maximum exposure than achieving maximum profit.  At least at first.  Maybe I’ll change my mind when it comes to later books.  Assuming there are later books.  But that’s my hope.)

But, point being: I think there will be plenty of reason that many people will prefer to get the e-book version, once such a thing is available, without me adding artifical barriers to reading the thing for free on the Internet.  So why then, you may ask, is the PDF version formatted crappily?  Did I do that on purpose?

Well, yes and no.

My master copy of the novel is a Google document.  Once upon a time, Google documents looked a lot like Microsoft Word documents.  This is unsurprising, since Word has become the de facto standard for word processing docs.  There are very good reasons for this.  I hate Microsoft as much as the next self-respecting programmer, but one can’t argue that they’ve done a few things very well, and Word (and Excel) are among that small group.  I’ve used Wordstar and WordPerfect, text formats galore, HP Word and Abiword and probably many other more obscure programs that I can barely recall, but Word was the best, I have to admit.  Now, the more modern versions of Word became hideously bloated as marketing began to drive the feature set more than actual utility, but happily there are Word clones aplenty these days to fill the gap.  There’s Libre Office, for instance, which is nice if you happen to be using Linux.  But undoubtedly the best word processing solution these days is Google Docs.  It’s free, it’s available everywhere, on every operating system, and you can have multiple people edit the same file at the same time and nothing explodes.  And it works pretty much like Word.

Except for one thing.  They keep making changes to Google Docs.  Now, on the one hand, it’s free.  So you don’t really get to complain about it when they change things.  Except I’m going to anyway.  Because somewhat recently (relative to how long Docs has been around, at least), they rolled out a new “improved” version of Docs that changed the way your document looks on the screen.  It’s now paginated like it will be when it prints.  They no doubt felt this was a useful change.  Except it’s not.  This is the modern world we live in: the Internet Age.  When do we ever print anything?  This particular Google Doc gets downloaded to my laptop as HTML, which is then converted to an intermediate markup format that I typically write blog posts in, which is then converted to the pseudo-HTML that Blogspot understands, which is then posted back to the Internet.  And, now, I’m going to be converting the Google Doc directly to PDF, which people will then suck into their Kindle or Nook or what-have-you.  At no point in any of these processes does anything ever get printed.  And yet Google thinks it’s a good idea to do the knockoff-Word equivalent of locking me into print preview mode.

Now, the fact that this is useless and pointless is philosophically annoying, to be sure, but that’s not why I’m pissed off about it.  If that’s all it was, I might have an inner mini-rant and call it a day.  But the fact of the matter is that this moronic decision on the part of the Google team screws me in a far more concrete fashion.  Because, you see, in the old days my text went from the left side of my screen to the right side of my screen.  But now it does not.  Now it goes from the left side of the “page” to the right side of the “page” ... and not even all the way there, because of the margins.  So there’s huge, unused portions of whitespace (well, technically, grayspace) on either side of my text.  Which is visually annoying, but that’s still not the actual problem—if that were all it was, I could just increase the size of the font and be done with it.  No, the real problem is, I don’t have as much text on the screen as I used to.  I’m a writer: all I care about is the words.  I don’t give a crap what the “page” looks like, especially when there is no real page.  I want to see as many words as I can, all the time, with a minimum of scrolling.  The more I have to scroll, the more work it is.  And there’s just no good reason.

Now, I have tried to figure out how to turn off this “page mode.”  So far I’ve come up empty (if anyone here knows how, my eternal gratitude awaits if you will kindly leave me a comment explaining how to do it).  So I do the next best thing I’ve been able to figure out.  I go into “page setup,” and I find the paper size that is the hugest there is (I just recently discovered a new one called “tabloid,” which is 11” x 17”).  Then, since paper is always longer than it is wide, I put it in landscape mode (i.e. turn the “paper” sideways).  Then I set my left and right margins to be miniscule: just enough to keep the letters from physically touching the fake page borders.  This, believe it or not, still doesn’t eliminate all the wasted space on my screen ... but it’s much better.  Unfortunately, when I download as PDF, those settings are retained.  Now, I suppose I could reformat it every time I wanted to download the PDF and then reformat it again afterwards so I could go back to writing.  But, let’s face it: I’m lazy.  I’m not going to do that.

So, yes, it’s formatted crappily on purpose in the sense that I could make it not so crappy if I wanted to.  But, no, it’s not formatted crappily on purpose so that you’ll be more likely to get the e-book version once that’s available.  It’s just me not wanting to bother.  Or, if you’d like a more you-focussed reason, I feel that whatever time I might spend reformatting my document constantly is likely much better spent writing more fiction for you to read.  Or, to combine the two: there ain’t a nickel’s worth of difference between lazy and efficient.  Somebody famous probably said that.  If not, they really should have.

So, as promised, your link:

        The Diamond Flame (PDF version)

I may also add a link to this post on all the chapters.  But that’s a lot of work, so I also might not.  I’m terribly efficient.