Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Penn State at FedEx Field

I was - well, not dragged, exactly, but persuaded to see Penn State play Indiana at FedEx Field (the Washington Redskins' home stadium) on the 20th. It was technically a home game for, er, Indiana; the Redskins, wanting to increase the number of college football games played at FedEx Field, paid Indiana $3 million to move the game. Despite no doubt annoying thousands of students, who were deprived of one of six games this season, the school took the money. Needless to say, the Penn State fans in the stadium crowd outnumbered the Indiana fans about 10 to 1.

I don't go to these things often. It's not that I don't like [American] football, or enjoying the great outdoors for a few hours. The problem is that it's a long slog to get to a stadium - roads are not built to accommodate an additional 80 or 90 thousand fans trying to get in and out - and, once there, one has to endure loud music over the PA system, obnoxious and often drunk fans who feel they've paid for a license to behave badly, and, often, given the season in which football is played, cold and/or wet weather.

Somewhat miraculously, none of the above occurred. The drive to the stadium was slowed by a number of accidents, but the delays were minor. The weather was lovely - sunny and quite warm. And the fans, for the most part, seemed to behave themselves.

We had decent seats, in what is called the "club level." (This is distinct from the suites, in which the seats are sheltered from the weather, with windows that can be opened or closed - don't want the high-rollers having to watch a game in the cold and/or rain - and which have waiter service for food and drink.) We had a higher ratio of bathrooms to ticket holders, access to a wider variety of food - though, at $8 for a hot dog, who could afford it? - and better booze. It's outrageous to charge $8 for a Bud Light, though, not being a beer drinker, this wasn't affecting my life any, but one could have a Guinness draft for only a dollar more, which seems like a no-brainer to me. Naturally, most everyone was drinking the horrid stuff. There was also a full bar, though I didn't want to ask the prices.

There were also nice seats and couches in the concourse. What really floored me was that several young people seemed to be sleeping their way through the game. I assume they had a little too much good cheer in the parking lot beforehand and were now sleeping it off, but at the prices charged they could have gotten rip-roaring drunk for a lot less. I don't understand people sometimes.

Despite a game that was tied at 24 midway through the third quarter, the good guys (well, from the crowd's perspective) won the game, blocking a punt for a touchdown and scoring again - see the extra point try below.

The biggest annoyance was that we had a constant reminder that this was, in fact, an Indiana home game: an announcer whose favorite phrase was a bellowed "First down, HOOOOOOSIERS!" Ah well.

And, still coaching, the one, the only, the legendary, the man of 400 wins, Joe Paterno:

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Ways of the Spammer are Mysterious, My Child

I take the point of view that if I want something from other people, I should make it as easy as possible. I like comments - hey, it's nice to know that someone actually reads these meandering entries - so I got rid of the need to type in the blurry, slanty word to prove that you're a machine that can read blurry, slanty words, and not a human being who can't read blurry, slanty words. Or something like that.

From others' experiences, I knew that there were such things as blog spammers - automated thingies that put links to male enhancement products and such into unsuspecting blogs' comments - but I figured there wouldn't be an intolerable number; after all, you lovely people are in a special minority even knowing of the existence of these scrivenings. Because Blogger tags most of these as spam, the comments usually don't show up on the blog even for the day or two it would take for me to remember to check and take them down.

For the most part, that hasn't been a bad assumption. I seem to be averaging one or two spam comments per post, which is easy enough to clean up once or twice a week. I haven't regretted turning off the slanty, blurry feature. What gets me is that anyone finds this technique to be effective. I've had what appear to be links to er*tic sites in German, and something completely incomprehensible in Cyrillic. I've had comments that were obviously spam, but entirely nonsensical - did those comments contain a nasty virus that was stripped out by Blogger and/or Gmail, so it appeared to me as plain text nonsense? Who clicks on these links? Who reads my Caledon blah blah blah and then decides that a male enhancement product is just the thing? Haven't these people heard of targeted marketing? We're living in a world of increasingly targeted advertising - your cell phone can send you come-ons for the coffee shop you're about to pass - so why don't the spammers do a little targeting themselves? I wouldn't find it nearly so bothersome if the come-ons were for Steampunk jewelry on etsy, or a promotional piece for the Clockwork Cabaret.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Second Life in a Browser; or, the Unwanted Guest

I greeted with mixed emotions Linden Lab's announcement that they were beta testing a way of logging into Second Life through a browser. On the one hand, it's not always convenient or even possible to load the full Second Life client onto a computer, and it would be worthwhile at times to be in-world even in a limited way. On the other hand, a stripped-down version that allows users to interact but not create seems like another step along the journey away from "Your World" to "Our World," from fabulous user creations to just a chat room with avatars. Nonetheless, I decided to try it out.

Point your browser to http://interest.secondlife.com/beta, wait for an ad to play while some magic occurs in the background (and, in my case, while a Java program is installed). When it's done, the screen says "Second Life is waiting for you" and prompts one to enter an email address to create a "guest" session. If successful - and I don't know the criteria for success; is it the PC's horsepower, memory, graphic card, or something else? - you have a temporary account that lasts for an hour, an a user first name of letters and numbers and the last name "Guest." There are about thirty locations in which to start; you can't teleport from any of them, but you can walk or fly across sims. For example, Winterfell Anodyne is one of the possible choices, but not Caledon. If you can discover which direction is south (no easy feat, as there is no minimap), you can fly to Caledon Cape Wrath. You are given a default avatar, but can easily change it to one of the other choices; as far as I can tell, no other editing options are available.

I was given the avatar of a macho male, with rippling muscles, cropped hair, beater T-shirt, dog tags, and camouflage pants. Fair enough. From my initial location in some sort of swamp, I switched to Winterfell, and from there flew to Cape Wrath and walked to Brigadoon, whereupon I met sister Kathy.

We had a special surprise, because the village of Brigadoon had appeared!

Below, the rare White Stag, Kathy, and Miss Guest, i.e., me.

Here is one of the female avatars, a biker chick of sorts.

The grand experiment ended a few minutes later, victim of a browser crash.

This is clearly beta software, but it's an intriguing start for running Second Life in a browser. Still, Winterfell is now overrun with "Guests," many of whom seem to be closely related to someone already in the Steamlands. Mindful of the adage that guests, like fish, begin to stink after three days, Linden Lab have limited their stay to an hour.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

In Steal Head's Lair

Mr. Antfarm kindly reminded me that he not only writes imaginative stories with multi-person role-playing, but he illustrates them as well. Having enjoyed the "Steal Head" saga, I paid a visit to the late Ya Yiwama's watery grave.

Below, the ruined rail car - or what remains above water in Steelhead Shanghai:

The car under water. (This required some tricky swimming and innovative camera work, I say without false modesty. :) )

And inside the lair... with some of his victims still in evidence.

I'm certainly glad the Steamlands are rid of that particular evil!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Steampunk Apocalypse: Abney Park's The End of Days

Abney Park is back with a new album*, The End of Days, and it's another marvelous collection of Steampunk-themed rock music.** In contrast with the band's previous album Aether Shanties, which was inspired by sea shanties of yore, the theme here is one of post-apocalyptic survival (perhaps incorporating the do-it-yourself ethic of at least part of the Steampunk movement - see the album review at Trial By Steam).

I missed Captain Robert and Kristina Erickson appearing (via IRL) in Steam Sky City for the album release party that Mrs. Fogwoman Gray-Volare and Mr. Lucien Brentano arranged, but I didn't miss ordering my copy of the album on its release day. Here are some thoughts about the individual tracks:

1. "The End of Days" - The album kicks off with a Middle Eastern-inspired rhythm and a Nathaniel Johnstone violin solo before the vocals start. The song sets the post-apocalyptic scene: Captain Robert sings of "ruined empires of days long gone" where "survivors of men... pray that the world will be theirs again one day."

2. "Neobedouin" - This time the keyboards help create the rhythm before another violin solo. The song is a post-apocalyptic tune you can dance to, in which "we survived this global scar...our members thinning every day."

3. "The Wrath of Fate" - This song could be an Aether Shanties outtake, as it combines the sea shanty style with a hard rock beat. The song tells the story of the airship (presumably the Ophelia) being damaged in a storm (and by sabotage?). "But the crew stayed at its post" except for one: "The traitor did jump ship/And left the blazing falling corpse." Although the vessel crashes into the sea, the airship became a sea ship: "The mast was charred but still so strong/ So sails we did raise/ The windows gone above waterline/ The water quenched the blaze/ With lightning bolts quite far aloft/ And gentle wind below/ The Captain's crew and battered ship/ Sailed into sunset's glow." Everyone likes a happy ending.

4. "I've Been Wrong Before" hearkens back to earlier industrial/goth style of the band, and contains a litany of things Captain Robert doesn't believe in, including "UFOs and little men from Mars," and "we should stop thinking for an oath we swore." In the chorus, he sings "I don't believe a lot of things, but I've been wrong before" but the punchline is that "Half this crap has turned out true" so keep an open mind.

5. "Inside the Cage" - A brief (20 second) instrumental segues into...

6. "Fight or Flight" - A rocker with a martial beat, and lovely 1980s synth fills and guitar work. Sisters of Mercy without the obscure references to poets. The song seems to be about living life on your own terms: "They want you to think it's possible to live a life without their chains/ But...if you go to far, you'll find they're pulling on your reins." "I fear what they'd do if they find I've escaped" the regimented corporate world.

7. "Victorian Vigilante" - The longest song on the album, this has a burlesque/cabaret music feel to it, complete with muted trumpet and banjo (a very Steampunk instrument, it seems to me). The narrative of the song is exactly as the title suggests: in Victorian times, a vigilante rights wrongs, taking the unnamed ne'er-do-well from "the palace" to the "riverside." No points for guessing the outcome.

8. "Chronofax" - A brief (30 sec) with old-time radio noises and a spoken word intro to...

9. "Letters Between a Little Boy and Himself as an Adult" - With synth chords and piano providing rhythm and a substantial vocal contrib from new vocalist Jody Ellen, the boy sings "Dear Mr. Brown/ One day I'll be you and/ Although I'm only eight now/ You need to hear my rules/ Never stop playing/ Never stop dreaming and/ Be careful not to/ Turn into what I'd hate." But the adult Robert Brown talks about the chores of adult life - thankless job, long hours, and taxes. The boy says that can't be right : "What you're describing doesn't seem worth the time," which leads the adult to "steal[] back my soul" and live a more fulfilling life.

10. "Beautiful Decline" - Another Middle Eastern-inspired intro that segues into thudding bass and "harpsicord" fills. This is a song about entropy: "Rust forms, bringing it all down/ Wood rots, and into the ground/ Flesh falls; life's decomposed/ Then nature's again exposed." The Circle of Life, dystopia style.

11. "Off the Grid" - More burlesque/cabaret-inspired music about making one's own way in an interconnected world. "But how safe is it to make a man with dreams beyond what he's allowed to choose?" Amen.

12. "To the Apocalypse in Daddy's Sidecar" [I'm not going to spell it "Daddies"; sorry, Captain Robert] - With a prominent bass line and synth lead, we return to the end of days theme: "Got shotgun shells and 12 cans of beans/ And an old stuffed doll coming 'part at her seams/ Your little lace dress you've worn for too far/ As you watch the apocalypse from Daddy's sidecar." If you have to go, you might as well go in style.

13. "Space Cowboy" - The album closes with a blast into space. Musically, the song drenches the guitar with so much reverb it sounds almost like surf music, but to a minor key, as if the Cure made an album with Link Wray. Lyrically, we head to the stars: "Fly on, cowboy of the stars.../ Rusty bolts hold rusty walls/ If it unscrews, the whole world falls" and a guitar solo takes us to the end of our journey.

As a (former) (lousy) keyboard player, I appreciate the varied use of keyboards across the album. TEoD also seems to have a more varied musical palette than previous albums, with bouzouki, banjo, flute, and brass, along with more traditional instruments and Captain Robert's darbuka (the small hand drum he often uses).

Even more so, I appreciate the effort the band takes both at the attention paid to lyrics (something often sadly neglected) and in challenging themselves and their listeners with new sounds and new instruments. Captain Robert cultivates his image as a perpetually-drunk slacker, but Abney Park shows that this to be an act.

* Hmm, people don't say that any more, do they? A new CD? A collection of songs that one could order piecemeal through various digital music download sites? By gum, there was an order to the universe when one bought "albums" or "singles." And backups? We didn't need backups; we just had to be careful not to put a scratch in the vinyl, or wear out the grooves. It was an analog world back then...

** I've read complaints that Abney Park doesn't make "real" Steampunk music because the band uses modern instrumentation and writes songs in a modern rock style. Pother. I'm a proponent of the big tent view of Steampunk. At any rate, if you don't agree about the label, ignore the label and just dance along with the rest of us.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

In the Big Easy

I spent about four days in New Orleans, the Big Easy - or, as Cletus Purcell calls it (in James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux novels), the Big Sleazy. The city always seemed to have a rakish charm, Old Money rubbing elbows with Young People out to have a good time. This is not to ignore the poverty that surrounds the affluence, or the winos and drug addicts nodding along to their own rhythm. Crime is a terrible problem, unless one is a crime novelist, but the casual tourist usually sees little of the truly dark underside.

Eating and drinking seem to be the two most popular pastimes, and I will most assuredly come back to those in a moment, but there are other attractions. The World War II Museum, on Magazine Street just a few blocks from Canal, provides a good overview of the war from the American perspective. Part of the museum's recent expansion involved a large theater that plays a 48-minute film, "Beyond All Boundaries," that provides a synopsis of the war.

New Orleans, by virtue of its high water table, has unusual cemeteries. St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, just north of the French Quarter, is perhaps the best known, and includes the tomb of chess champion Paul Morphy and, supposedly, that of voodoo queen Marie Laveau. (Given the size of the cemetery and its location, taking a tour is strongly advised for one's safety.) This trip I visited Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, in the Garden District, just across the street from Commander's Palace restaurant, more on which below. This is a smaller site, in a better neighborhood, but we decided a tour was possibly the better part of valor, as well as educational.

Our guide was a crusty Cajun and history buff who has been giving cemetery tours for over 20 years. This tour was more history than graves, and ran nearly twice the estimated one hour time. I can attest that, even in November, the Louisiana sun can be hot at noon. (The guide made a plea for CNN to stop showing pictures of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: too many CNN addicts would say in wonder: "I thought this area was still flooded!" To his credit, the guide also had boundless contempt for Hollywood, and noted the whiny behavior of Tom Cruise on the set of Interview with the Vampire some years ago.)

The grave below - never used - illustrates a typical tomb design: space for two coffins, above and below, and a dropoff behind. This allowed the tomb to be reused, removing the remains from the coffin, pushing them to the back and past the dropoff, and the coffin discarded, leaving room for the next decedent. One such tomb had a record of 65 different interments, with an unknown number lost to history. (You have to hope you like your relatives to spend eternity cozied up like that!)

We did not neglect the eating and drinking aspects of the city. Below, Commander's Palace, dating back to 1880, and one of the top dining destinations in the city. The mansion is divided into a number of rooms, both upstairs and down. Dinner there was as good as ever, though I badly needed a soothing drink after the cab ride that, thanks to some unexpected street closures, took us across Rampart Street through some dicey neighborhoods, once again showing that wealth and poverty live side by side in New Orleans.

One cannot go to New Orleans without eating beignets at the Cafe Du Monde, near the French Market by the river in the middle of the French Quarter. Beignets - puffy doughnuts, essentially, and usually served covered in powdered sugar - come three for a little more than $2, and are the only food served. People wait in long lines, though coming early or in the middle of the day is helpful. (Or, one presumes, in the middle of the night - it's open 24 hours a day - though I've never tried that.)

Two other local specialties that I can't leave without sampling are the oyster po' boy (fried oysters on a long roll of crusty French bread) and crayfish etouffee. It's hard not to gain weight here.

Just as the food options range from down and dirty to elegant, so do the drinks. At one extreme is the spectacle of Bourbon Street, home to randy frat boys whose goal seems to be to get as drunk as possible as quickly as possible. If the evening does not end with vomit in the gutter, it was not a success. Bars serving $3 frozen daiquiris in tall plastic containers are prevalent and, thanks to Louisiana law allowing open containers of alcohol, can be carried in the street. Many bars have live music played at ear-bleeding volumes. Punctuating these watering holes are places that advertise women on display or, in at least one case, cross-dressers. One can hear the random "woots" several blocks away. This is Boys (and some Girls) Behaving Badly territory.

At the other extreme there are lovely, quiet watering holes, such as French 75, a small bar attached to Arnaud's (another old-time restaurant in the French Quarter). If one can get past the astronomical drink prices, one can have a more civilized, adult time. (In talking to a regular at French 75, I discovered he spent several years working in the small town in which I was born. Small world sometimes.)

I couldn't help but take the picture below. I wondered if they had regular poetry slams in which projectiles were thrown, but chose not to ask.

I traveled about the time that the press became heated with TSA's excesses. Both Baltimore and New Orleans had the infamous nekkid machines (at least, that's what I think they were), but neither was operational. In Baltimore, a TSA employee insisted that not only shoes but belts had to come off before going through the magnometer, creating interesting challenges for passengers whose belts were not just ornamental. I'm certainly willing to put up with security hassles for the sake of safety, but it's not clear that the long lines, partial disrobings, pat-downs, and manhandling infants is really making the skies safer. Creating the illusion of safety is one thing if it's costless, but TSA ignores the huge costs on passengers. I don't fly much, so it's less of a concern to me; if I flew regularly for business, I would likely be mighty steamed.

(As an aside, I find my fellow passengers to be more annoying than the bureaucratic hassles. Yes, I'm talking to you, Mr. Touchy, who decided that taking the shared armrest was insufficient and raised the darn thing to invade more of my limited personal space. And if you need to get the seat belt extender, madam, you might want to reconsider your lifestyle. And if you have trouble counting to two, the number of carryon items permitted, you are either seriously math-challenged or insufferably rude; you choose.)

Thomas Wolfe famously wrote that you can't go home again. New Orleans was never a home, but I enjoyed the charm and was able to ignore the riffraff. Age seems to have made me less tolerant to the latter, so the former is less effective, and that saddens me. Still, if one cannot have a passably good time in New Orleans, one is not trying very hard.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Mr. Hax Reviews the Female Form

In sculpture, that is. Another set of pictures that has been sitting in the Difference Engine for far too long and yearned to be free.

Mr. Denver Hax, at the intriguingly-named Parody Plaza in South End, had arranged an exhibit of sculpted ladies.

Some were fairly abstract, while others were quite lifelike. I asked these ladies directions and I thought they chose not to answer, until I realized they were not alive. On the bright side, the dog did not sniff my ankles as though I were a particularly interesting tree.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Sequels vs. cliffhangers: Blackout, by Connie Willis

The sequel has a long, distinguished history in novels, dating at least as far back as Melville and Omoo, a sequel to Typee, both now known mainly to crossword puzzle affecianados, and Little Women/Little Men. The novel series also has had a lengthy career, particularly in genre fiction. Chesterton's Father Brown mysteries, or Christie's Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple mysteries feature recurring detectives. More recently, the trend in fiction series has been to maintain some narrative continuity across books so that, although each book may be read independently and the new reader need not be familiar with the baggage of prior books in the series, the long-time reader can know the main characters more deeply than is possible in the constraints of a single novel. In Ian Rankin's work, we keep up with the evolving relationship between Inspector Rebus and DS Clarke, as well as the complex relationship between Rebus and mobster Big Ger Cafferty, over the course of many books. Still other works have multiple sequels but are not open-ended series; for example, James Blish's Cities in Flight tetralogy, which ends with the death of the universe, making yet another sequel problematic. (Don't worry, it's a cycling universe, so life goes on. Maybe. Sort of. Your IRA is dust, though.)

The point is that books have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and that end is important even if there will be one or more sequels. Everyone knows that Star Wars ended with a delightfully large explosion of the Death Star, and a viewer who left the planet for a solar system so distant that The Empire Strikes Back has not yet reached it would not live out his days pining for the film's release. Even though Star Wars was planned as the first film a trilogy (or beyond), the movie stands alone. To do otherwise would be to cheat the viewer. (One can argue that middle works of trilogies often do just that, as the narrative arc has to leave things looking dire after the middle work. But by then the reader or viewer has committed to the full project.)

All of which brings me to Connie Willis's Blackout. I don't consider it a spoiler to say that I felt cheated at the end. Around page 450 of the 500 or so pages, I had a hard time seeing how Willis was going to wrap this up in the number of words left in the book, and she didn't. The book ends with an annoying "Find out how things end in the next book, out in Fall 2010" notice. (The continuation, All Clear, was published Oct. 19.) Yes, the second book is even longer, at 656 pages, and a single novel of close to 1200 pages would be unwieldy. Let's face it, though, it is a single novel, and to read the first one, with no resolution of the conflict, is to feel cheated. I saw a claim on Amazon.com that this was her publisher's idea, which I believe, but still, it's a bad idea.

Having said that, part one of the book - that is to say, Blackout - is quite good. Willis returns to Blitz-era London (also the subject of Fire Watch) by way of her time-traveling Oxonians from 2060. Various students are traveling to observe different parts of World War II, among them Mike, who wants to observe the aftereffects of the Dunkirk evacuation; Polly, who wants to see the effects of the Blitz on Londoners; and Merope, who wants to see how the children evacuated from London during the Blitz fared in the English countryside. Each arrives at a time slightly off from that planned - "slippage," in their term. Events seem slightly different from the historical record they all studied. Mike finds himself not just observing the soldiers who returned from Dunkirk, but traveling to Dunkirk itself and helping rescue a number of soldiers, something that should not have been allowed to happen under Willis's complicated rules of time travel. (Travelers are not allowed to go to "divergence points," events where potentially small changes can have large historical effects.) Merope, employed as a maid in an aristocrat's country manor, finds herself in the midst of a measles outbreak and then in charge of taking three children back to London, and is trapped in 1940 when the portal back to 2060 will not open. Polly is trapped in London during the Blitz, her own portal damaged in a bombing raid. Each of the three stories is well-told. Polly's, in particular, gives the reader a flavor of the nightly terror of Londoners and the terrible conditions - and shared sacrifices - they made. Although the book doesn't have the impact of Willis's masterpiece, the Doomsday Book, or the humor of To Say Nothing of the Dog - both using the same conventions of time travel as Blackout, she tells a good story. Just be sure to have Part 2 on hand.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Renovated Thistle Hill Market

When Mr. Onyx Plutonian announced he was departing Caledon, it seemed that his creation, the little shops of Thistle Hill Market in Oxbridge Village, would similarly disappear.

Fortunately, Miss Autopilotpatty Poppy stepped in and purchased the market and renovated the entire site. The new Thistle Hill Market is open for business and, after finishing some business in Oxbridge, I decided to see it for myself.

Starting from the end nearest Oxbridge, the first row contains Majorca (rented by Miss Bianca Namori), Zero (Japanese-inspired merchandise, rented by Miss Silly Hallison), and Bennelong (jewelry by Mr. Preston Gravois).

Flora Prims occupies a central spot, and is rented by Mr. Vlad Bjornson.

Around the corner are Miss Arundelain Dumart's Arundel Designs, selling Victorian clothing, and Miss Destany Laval's Unzipped, which sells a variety of costumes, including some Steampunk clothing of which I am very fond.

Making one's way up the hill one finds the new home for Poppy's Place Galleria, Miss Autopilotpatty Poppy's exhibition space.

I wish the new Thistle Hill great success, and cheers to Miss Poppy for keeping this corner of Oxbridge Village alive!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Away Again

I depart for an extended weekend to one of my favorite cities to visit: New Orleans. (I interviewed for a number of jobs there - not that the jobs were in New Orleans, merely the interviews - none of which were offered to me, but I don't hold that against the city. Still, I continue to associate the city with a nervous knot in my stomach nearly twenty years after the fact.) Good food and drink, unusual architecture, history, and did I mention good food and drink?

This is my first visit back since the Unfortunate Events of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 - indeed, I had airplane and hotel reservations for the week after Katrina hit which were hastily cancelled. It will be interesting to see how the city has changed.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Steelhead Nevermoor

The latest addition to the growing Steelhead footprint is Nevermoor, which Mr. TotalLunar Eclipse describes as "Dark forest fantasy gothica meets art nouveau." He and Miss Tensai Hilra are hard at work putting the finishing touches on the sim.

By the way, in the above picture, although it's too small to make out, that was a flying pig, so Pink Floyd was likely yet another influence. :)

Ancient statuary, crumbling stone walls, and battered gates are dotted among the trees, thick and misshapen.

When I visited, Miss Hilra was working on the piece below, which is being adapted from the Steelhead "Alice" build from the 2010 Relay for Life.

Just outside Nevermoor is a small church and cemetery, and I was taken by the romanticism of this grave:

Monday, November 8, 2010

Eridu Society - Burn2

A bit of a late post here, but Mr. TriloByte Zanzibar and Miss BlakOpal Galicia created the wonderful build below for Burn2. They dubbed it the Eridu Society, which Mr. Zanzibar describes as "a steampunk adventurer's club for travelers from some sort of imaginary future."

It was easier to get to the top of the tower than to get back down. Well, looked at another way, it was very easy to get back down...just not comfortable. Fortunately for visitors below, signs warned of the landing zone.

Lag prevented me from exploring more of the Burn2 builds, but I enjoyed the outpost of the Steamlands!

Saturday, November 6, 2010


From a mention on Miss Orr's blog, I decided to see what Dive was about. Miss Orr described it as "a haunted event" with "puzzles to solve and gifts to acquire," put on by SN@TCH and other designers.

It takes place in a decrepit hotel. You are investigating...well, something - the narrative isn't crystal-clear - having to do with a series of deaths over the years. You begin in the hotel lobby, ascend an elevator, and walk into a hotel room. Each room contains clues and gifts, so click on everything. Some of the clues are narrative: a newspaper clipping, or an old letter might give you a sense of what happened in the room long ago. Other clues help you navigate: to get to the next room (most of the time), you must enter the correct code on a keypad, which then opens up a map with coordinates for the next location.

Much of the action is in the same room, only at different times as you slowly work your way to the present. This hotel has a very unhappy history!

Some parts are creepy, with plenty of blood stains and the occasional corpse, but much is done without obvious violence, the atmosphere of the sad room conveying a great deal.

As the hotel moved down the long slope from reputable to seedy, its clientele went downscale as well:

Although most travel involves teleporting from location to location, at times there is a need for more direct and less sanitary modes of travel.

The puzzles are sometimes easy and sometimes a little challenging, but nothing that could not be worked out in a few minutes. I took about an hour and a half to get through the entire thing, and a brighter person could cut some time off that. It's time worth spending, in my view. Dive goes through Nov. 14, I believe.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Working with the iPad

After some soul-searching (and a not-inconsiderable amount of budget-searching), I purchased an iPad. I thought it might be useful for anyone on the fence about buying one, or buying a different tablet computer, for me to describe some of the reasons I made the purchase, and the good and bad I've discovered so far. I'll start by admitting that I have a low boredom threshold. Combine that with a lengthy commute often made lengthier by unexpected delays on the rails and we have a recipe for a very irritated bureaucrat. My morning routine had been to take the Washington Post with me, and the forty minutes or so I had between waiting for the train and sitting on the train was just about the right amount of time to skim the major articles, read a few completely, look at some headlines, and do the crossword puzzle and Sudoku. I became increasingly irritated with the Post - between politicizing everything* and raising the price of the paper while simultaneously reducing the quality** - and cancelled everything but the Sunday paper.*** I tried substituting a free tabloid-sized newspaper, but the thing was woefully short of news. And the crossword puzzle wasn't as good.**** On the way home, I'd read a book and listen to music. Perhaps I'd throw a magazine in the bag for variety, or in case of a delay. Books, magazines, MP3 player, newspaper, food, and the usual assortment of junk created a very heavy bag. Consequently, one of the main motivating factors was a way of amusing myself while commuting.

A second factor in the decision was the potential for using my personal device at work to use the Aetherwebs for purely personal purposes. At work, while my employer graciously has a de minimus personal use policy for the Aetherwebs - essentially, small amounts of Aetheric use are tolerated, provided that the sites visited do not involve gambling, gaming, naughty pictures, or file-sharing - I find myself constrained in where I can click. Some innocuous sites, such as Dame Ordinal's Aetheric journal, are blocked for no comprehensible reason. Various SL-related sites, including the discussion forums, are blocked as being "gaming" sites, even though one cannot actually play a game on them. I worry that sites such as the Steamlander forums will eventually be blocked.

Related to the above is my increasing inability to transfer files from home to work. Sites such as Dropbox are blocked, so, for example, I can't work on a blog entry at home and finish it at work during lunch without resorting to emailing myself the files (annoying) or putting the files on a flash drive (even more annoying, and technically prohibited at work).

Third, having the ability to work anywhere without having to tote a laptop seemed like a plus. Even the lightest laptop seems heavy after lugging it through an airport, or standing on the subway, or walking several blocks with it slung over a shoulder.

Having said all that, the specific reason I bought the iPad when I did was my trip to Alaska. I wanted to be able to back up my photos, and the iPad plus the Camera Connection Kit (which takes SD cards, or connects directly to the camera via a mini-USB port) is a great deal lighter than a laptop computer. This worked perfectly, and my the end of the trip I had 800+ pictures of widely varying quality on the device. I also paid for small amounts of WiFi access in order to download email (using the default Mail app) and my RSS feeds (using Reeder).

Does it work the way I envisioned? A qualified "mostly."

The screen is a delight, and the size of the screen makes the iPad a much better alternative than a mobile phone for nearly any application. Web pages are legible, email or tasks can have multiple columns, videos are watchable, and even screens that are mostly text are easier to see on the bigger screen.

The iPod app works fine. Having hardware buttons to change the volume is an improvement over my ancient iPod Touch. On the downside, I haven't been able to drag and drop music from iTunes into the iPad; I can only choose to transfer specific playlists or all music from specific artists; the latter is a non-starter for certain artists whom I've been collecting for years. Still, it's a workable solution, if I can fight the urge to place the iPad on my shoulder as though it's a boombox from the 80s. This is one application where bigger isn't necessarily better. In some ways, my old Nano was the perfect music player: it could go anywhere, it was easy to access and easy to store, and the controls were intuitive and didn't require a lot of movement. However, sacrifices must be made to reduce the number of gadgets I tote with me to and from work.

Both Kindle and iBook work well. I've been using Kindle more than iBook only because the former has far more titles. The iPad is a little heavy to hold for long periods, but it's easy enough to hold in one's lap or on a desk. As good as the screen is, I find it a little tiring on the eyes to use the screen to read for an extended time. Still, it beats throwing a book or two in the bag just to have them for the occasional down time.

Web access is very good over WiFi and so-so over AT&T's network. (I've discovered all the dead spots on the train line.) Safari works just fine, and the 10" screen is a pleasure to use, rather than squinting at a cell phone screen. The downside is that the cheaper data plan (250MB) doesn't last long when viewing web sites, such as the Washington Post's, that are graphics-heavy. As a consequence, one of my main plans - read the paper on-line while on the train - has been scrapped. The 250MB limit doesn't seem to be a constraint for downloading email, using Twitter (I have the TweetDeck client, mainly because I use it on the Mac and PC, so I don't have to remember yet another interface), and occasionally downloading my RSS feeds when I forget to do so at home via WiFi.

Speaking of RSS feeds, Reeder works great. It syncs automatically via WiFi when it's first opened, so I only need to remember to do so before I leave the house and I have the previous day's feeds with me. I can't leave a comment while off-line, so I use Reeder's "favorites" feature to flag posts I want to deal with later, when I'm on-line.

The virtual keyboard is good, at least in portrait mode. It took some getting used to, and I can't touch-type on it, but I've gotten reasonably good at two-fingered hunt-and-peck typing. I wouldn't want to use it for writing a report, or the Great American Novel, but it's fine for dashing off a tweet or a short email or blog comment. It's possible Santa Claus will provide a physical keyboard for use in the office; if so, we'll see how that goes.

The other indispensible app I have on there is 1Password. I have the Mac version, and am trying the PC beta version, and bought the iPad app as well. 1Password syncs to Dropbox, which also has an iPad version, so I no longer have to remember all my passwords when I'm away from home. My earlier solution was to use the PC program eWallet run off a U3 flash drive; the U3 business allows me to get around my locked-down work computer, to which I lack Administrator rights. (Don't tell my IT department, as merely connecting a non-approved flash drive is a no-no.)

Perhaps the biggest annoyance is the lack of an easy way to move files on and off the device. Apple's solution is to do it through iTunes, which requires a physical cable. This is not only incovenient even at home; it's a non-starter when on the go. A work-around is to email the file to one's self, but that's an inelegant kludge. Dropbox-friendly apps that have both Mac and iPad versions are a big help - in addition to 1Password, I have Simplenote on the iPad and Notational Velocity on the Mac, with the two accounts linked through Dropbox. I'd like more apps to do that.

I have the feeling that the iPad, as useful as it is, would be even more useful with some minor tweaks: better file I/O, less weight, improvements to the iPod interface. If I had to do substantial work on the go, a laptop would probably still be a better solution. For what I need, a laptop is - usually - overkill, and the iPad works just fine. And keeping down the number of devices that travel with me is a big plus.

* The crowning moment was when the editors managed to work a picture of the First Lady into all four major sections: a campaign-style photo op in the front section; discussing fat children in Metro; a gratuitous photo in Style in an article largely about something else; and a photo in Sports, throwing out a baseball at a game the night before. But I digress.

** The photos have become enormous, leading me to believe that the paper pays by the photo, not the size of the photo, so having more picture and less text on a page is a cost-cutting move. A year or so ago, the Post eliminated its Sunday book review section. This year, the weekly TV guide became a separate fee. The number of typos and cringe-inducing phrases has increased, suggesting they laid off too many editors. The paper also let go most of its reporters not based in the Washington, DC area, choosing to rely on wire services and affiliates to gather news.

*** Last footnote, I promise. For those whose political orientations may lean left, just imagine that your only full-fledged form of print news was owned by Rupert Murdoch. Oh, I see the nods now. Okay, we're on the same page.

**** So I lied. I also enjoy doing the Sudoku puzzle, which the tabloid newspaper carried, but its version violated the symmetry that a Sudoku is supposed to have (i.e., if the upper-left box of nine had a single number in it, in the center, then the low-right box of nine must have a single number in the center).

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A Stroll Through Tamrannoch

I realize I have been remiss in my reports about Caledon. While I putter about the Downs regularly, noting various changes that occur, I have not been as assiduous in traveling elsewhere. Living next to Tamrannoch, that sounded like a good place to start.

Starting in the northwest corner of Tamrannoch, I first encountered the estate of Mr. Ralph Doctorow, which has no building on it at the moment. Staying north of the train tracks and moving east, the next property is Calli's in Tamrannoch, owned by Miss Callipygian Christensen, the noted artist, and the gallery displays some of her work.

Next, Mr. Binyamin Blogfan has extensive holdings to the east, including a vacant parcel, a CAT tower, and, pictured below, Biny's Lowballers Inn, a charming red wood building.

On the northeast side is Poppy's Place Galleria.

Following the train tracks south, I encounter Mr. Blogfan's residence and then the Blogfan Building (pictured below), a large brick structure that contains the Caledon Oil and Gas Light Co. on the ground floor and the improbably-named Men's Pregnancy Centre and Hospital on the third floor.

After a brief fainting spell, no doubt brought on by contemplating such an event, I continued south along the tracks, coming to Miss Elgyfu Wishbring's Tin Teddy Textures.

Behind it lies the Falling Anvil tavern and beer garden.

Next is the White Horse Garden, pictured below, and owned by Lady Rhode. Across the street is Professor Nikola Swindlehurst's residence. The Professor resides next to the Sky Shop Hair Resort, on the former site of the Tamrannoch branch of the Caledon Library.

Nearing the border with the Downs and moving west we come to Madeline's Music Box and Music Box Park, where my neighbor Miss Munro sells her wonderful music boxes.

Next is the Royal Society for the Advancement of the Natural Sciences (pictured below), run by Professor Kate Nicholas, and Miss CrystalShard Foo's garden.

A great deal of empty land lies on the southern border; I believe this was owned by Mr. Alix Stoanes, Governor-General of Austral. To the north stands the imposing gates of the Tamrannoch Sanitorium, then Miss Veleda Lorakeet's Emphatic Eccentricia shop and Captain Somerset's Reliquary. Finally, having come nearly full circle, I arrive at a series of plots owned by Mr. Iason Hassanov, home of the great Steam Elephant which, in the picture below, appears to have caught something in its tusks.

This little tour reminded me how tiring covering an entire town could be!