Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Mercy, the largest goat, has just had triplets! Our naming tradition is that goats are called for virtues we wish them to possess; my votes are for Candor, Pudor, and Eustochia.

UPDATE: Prudence has had twins. Thoughts?

Friday, May 25, 2007

Checking In

A few images from our recent travels and environs, viz. a small farm on Colorado's west slope.

An excellent roadside attraction (you can feed them like ducks):

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison:

A Roguelike creation tutorial.
In this tutorial we will look at the process of making a really simple (yet really cool) RPG dungeon using ASCII art (letters, numbers and symbols [^$%&()”$:@~}{P<>] put together to make pictures).

The game will be inspired heavily by an old freeware ASCII RPG called Rogue that, despite being a bit basic on the graphics front, was perhaps one of the most fondly remembered games I’ve ever played… In fact one of the top on my list of games I’d love to have made…
It's for C++.
If you ever want a demonstration of the inevitable failure of Maxwell's Demon, try getting two chickens out the garden gate while denying entrance to the rest.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Man er ikke rigtig sømand før man har sejlet på det Røde Hav. You are not a real sailor before you've sailed the Red Sea.
In which I destroy Western Civilization. We all have our faults, and mine is being wicked obsession with roguelike games, among others less mentionable. A roguelike game is, of course, a game which is like Rogue. You are a brave amphora, sent forth into dungeons (generally) to slay monsters (generally) and gather treasure (always). Rogue spawned a host of imitators, most much better than the original. NetHack is probably the best known; I cut my roguelike teeth on Moria, illicitly installed on my school's computers.

So many games have followed in Rogue's ASCII footprints because, foremost, Rogue is fun. There's a lot of re-playability in the random generation of each level, treasure, and swing of the possible sword. Also, they are easy to create. There's a quasi-annual contest called the Seven Day Roguelike, in which various developers create a playable game in a week. If yours truly can write a sorta kinda maybe workable game, anybody can.

But even with such randomness within each game, the genre was growing stale. Crawl and ADoM are both excellent, innovative games--but if you've seen an white @ bump a red D for 2d6 damage once, you've seen it enough. GearHead took Rogue and added giant robots. I am firmly of the belief that giant robots make anything better, and this is no exception. But lately only one game has haunted my days and chilled my dreaming nights: Dwarf Fortess.

Dwarf Fortress lets you command a scrappy, half-trained band of dwarves out to form a new colony, delve deep into the mountains, and discover things better left undisturbed. The controls are not particularly intuitive, and you'll probably find that the first ten games or so are lost to some freak of the rules you didn't know (like "don't tease the mandrills" or "if you put that floodgate there you will drown" or "yes, dwarves do need to sleep"). One grits one's teeth are recites the mantra of the developer: Losing is Fun.

And by some intellectual sport of nature, it is. The first time your dwarves correctly take out the garbage, you'll cheer. They make friends, and pets, and take lovers. You control a great deal of their lives, but never them directly. They will disobey when they want; take a smoke break; get angry and break things; wander off; go mad. But they'll also build a surprisingly functional little community, if you guide them.

Anyway, if you are the compulsive type, as am I, I cannot discommend this game more. Prepare to lose sleep over it, wondering if your carpenter needs mangrove, specifically, or if any decent wood will do. If your Hammerlords can hold off the kobold archers until those useless Marksdwarves can get from the barracks to the Great Gate. If your sparkling stained glass window and elaborate sculpture garden will stop your dwarves from needing to go outside, where the elephants are waiting. Oh, Axe and Maul and Hammer, the elephants.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Evidence for a once wet Mars.
"This is some of the best evidence Spirit has found for water at Gusev," said Albert Yen, a geochemist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. One possible origin for the silica could have been interaction of soil with acid vapors produced by volcanic activity in the presence of water. Another could have been from water in a hot spring environment. The latest discovery adds compelling new evidence for ancient conditions that might have been favorable for life, according to members of the rover science team.
I will just note that the reasoning used to speculate about Martian 'terrain' is precisely that used by Lyell.
This is one of the few cases where the term 'sixth sense' is not entirely misused.
Reporter Quinn Norton, who had a magnet implanted into her finger to allow her to 'feel' magnetic fields has finally had it removed - returning her to the normal world of the 'five senses'.
Very cool, but wouldn't something external have worked as well?

Via Eve Tushnet.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Lloyd Alexander is dead. I spent a great deal of my youth in the Marshes of Morva.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

A public service announcement. Somehow we have avoided commenting on the efforts of various outbreaks of penis-stealing. I meant to say something in March, but life was going on and now the Nigerian Daily Independent article seems to be down.

"But Odious," I hear you say (yes, the devices I had installed have audio), "what on earth can you contribute to this issue, so vital in our troubled times? If true, can you prevent this atrocious supernatural crotch-yeggery? If false, what else can be said on the subject?"

You've got some nerve, mister. And anyway, you're wrong! As an eternal Scarlet Letter on the breasts of those who claim that a liberal arts education, particularly a truncate one, is useless, I can reliable reassure the victims that privy-pinching is only an illusion.
There is no doubt that certain witches can do marvellous things with regard to male organs, for this agrees with what has been seen and heard by many, and with the general account of what has been known concerning that member through the senses of sight and touch. And as to how this thing is possible, it is to be said that it can be done in two ways, either actually and in fact, as the first arguments have said, or through some prestige or glamour. But when it is performed by witches, it is only a matter of glamour; although it is no illusion in the opinion of the sufferer. For his imagination can really and actually believe that something is not present, since by none of his exterior senses, such as sight or touch, can he perceive it as present.
Straight the horses'... mouths of Messrs. Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger. Let the Malleus Maleficarum be your guide, gentlemen; let not this genital jiggery-pokery bring you anxious days and restless nights. This sort of thing goes on for pages.

The Hammer, by the way, is among the worst reading material I've ever come across. I take a pretty sunny view of the Middle Ages (so far as centuries of heterogenous human existence permits of summary judgment), but the Hammer is the sort of thing that makes me reconsider. Imagine Aristotle on an off day, writing justifications for Stalin. That's the Hammer. The Papal Bull (oh! I faint for aptness!) that begins it does not bring ease, either.
And although Our dear sons Henry Kramer and James Sprenger, Professors of Theology, of the Order of Friars Preachers, have been by Letters Apostolic delegated as Inquisitors of these heretical pravities, and still are Inquisitors, the first in the aforesaid parts of Northern Germany, wherein are included those aforesaid townships, districts, dioceses, and other specified localities, and the second in certain territories which lie along the borders of the Rhine, nevertheless not a few clerics and lay folk of those counties...are not ashamed to contend with the most unblushing effrontery that these enormities [straying from the Catholic Faith, abandoning themselves to devils, incubi, and succubi, by incantations, spells, conjurations, and other accursed charms and crafts slaying infants in the womb, calves, grapes, beasts of burthen, orchards, meadows, pastureland, corn, wheat and all other cereals--you get the idea. O.] are not practiced in those provinces....
Thanks for clearing that up, Innocent VIII. People claim there aren't any witches around here? The effrontery!

Friday, May 18, 2007

Wolves, at Querencia.
It seems an article of faith in American environmental circles that wolves are harmless. While (until recently) there was no record of modern North American wolves harming anyone, a bit of research shows this to be an anomalous situation. Wolves of the exact same species preyed on humans in Europe and Russia; wolves even smaller than ours eat humans in India to this day.

The recent death of a young man in Canada raised the possibility of wolf- human predation. Eminent mammalogist Dr. Valerius Geist was charged with investigating the incident. His conclusions, soon to be released, are not comforting.

Do not misunderstand me here, or Val. I believe that wolves are wonderful top- of- the- food chain predators, and ecosystems are healthier for their presence. I can thrill to a howl in the night. But attitudes must be realistic, and wolves should be hunted to keep them wary of humans. Wolves that become habituated, that hang around humans and their livestock in broad daylight, are a disaster waiting to happen.
Steve was kind enough to send me some of Dr. Geist's work. I'll have more to say after I've given it another read-through. I will, however, say that the case he makes for the potential for wolf-on-human predation is quite convincing.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Darwin's correspondence, online.
Darwin exchanged letters with nearly 2000 people during his lifetime. These range from well known naturalists, thinkers, and public figures, to men and women who would be unknown today were it not for the letters they exchanged with Darwin.

Darwin's correspondence provides us with an invaluable source of information, not only about his own intellectual development and social network, but about Victorian science and society in general. They provide a remarkably complete picture of the development of his thinking, throwing light on his early formative years and the years of the voyage of the Beagle, on the period which led up to the publication of The Origin of Species and the subsequent heated debates.
Via Tinkerty Tonk.
Neal Stephenson got me thinking about phosphorus; and the Internet was there for me.
As is before shewed, take Urine well putrefied in a Tub, exposed to the Air for seven Weeks, all one as you do when you're to make a Spirit of it; the Spirit being drawn, or rather the whole of it being evaporated to the consistance of Honey, in which lies the Fosperus; but the Art is somewhat difficult to get it from thence, in two cases, the one is in making choice of a proper Agent to be mixed therewith, and the other is the exact regiment of the Fire.
I cannot, however, track down an online edition of Boyle's The aerial noctiluca: or some new phoenomena, and a process of a factitious self-shining substance.

Please don't try the last experiment on the above website. There exist easier ways.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Axolotl Pie

Axolotl pie, O
Axolotl pie,
Tastier than chicken and
Warms you up inside
If there is a Heaven and
I go there when I die
I'm asking for a slice of
Axolotl pie

O there was a time, and
Shamed I am to fess it,
I wouldn't touch a piece
However Mama dressed it.
I didn't know how tasty
Those sweet external gills were
Nor that they were possessed of a
Unique aquatic filter.


In vain she did insist that
The Aztecs did ingest them
I shut my mouth, and shook my head,
And wouldn't even test them.
They were added to our diet
To break up monotony
But I wouldn't touch a critter
Noted for neotony.


Finally I had a taste
Of axolotl pie.
The moment that it touched my lips
It opened up my eyes.


Wednesday, May 09, 2007

On to other things! I've been watching some minds fail rather spectacularly to meet lately, and got to wondering why that was. I decided after some thought that at least one of the parties had reached a sort of fundamental opinion--something that simply couldn't be disbelieved because it was one of the first principles of their thought. I suppose that good philosophers, at least since Descartes, try not to let these have their way, but I was never much good at philosophy anyway. It did get me thinking about what my own first principles were, however.

I was also at the time thinking about this post at Querencia, and musing on those really excellent joyous evenings referenced. This in turn took my mind back to any number of meals. In Paris, mussels in beer. A tiny vegetarian Indian restaurant, rolling up neat spheres of lentils. Santa Fe, eating out at 315 with Peculiar, starting with Gruet Blanc de Noir, working our way through a bottle of Beaujolais as I ate tuna that had only just met the grill for a moment (I'm sorry, Peculiar, but I can't remember what you had!), duck confit, and finishing with a really excellent creme brulee (hey Ari, what did you decide about who had the best? 'Cause my vote remains 315) and hot, sweet espresso. Steak Dunigan at the Pink, many many times (sometimes even paying for it!). Actually, a number of things at the Pink: lamb chops, very rare, with butter melting on top of them; Chilean sea bass crusted in walnuts; Armando's personal salsa ("Don't cry, primo; be a man"); Brandy Alexanders on the boss's dime; Ladera '01 merlot, a bottle of which I chose as a parting gift over Dom Perignon, and have never regretted doing so; hell, popcorn and gin and tonic at the end of a shift.

I could go on like this for hours. In fact, I'm going to. My wife makes chocolate chips cookies the size of my hand, full of dark chocolate chips, walnuts, and oatmeal. In the mornings I get up and have two eggs from my chickens. My eggs are not regular eggs. Regular eggs explode in my hands now when I try to crack them, so used am I to the thick shells of real eggs. And my yolks stand up almost hemispherical, and the deep orange of Betelgeuse. In France when I was there the summer after I graduated from high school, I would drink kirs after riding from town to town on my bicycle, and they still taste like Provence to me. At Steve and Libby's, eating lamb stew with garlic yogurt on top.

Reminiscing further, I found that all the most enjoyable moments in my life had a really, really good meal within twenty-four hours of them. Even as a kid I liked the idea of eating with friends. The saddest part of Wind in the Willows was always when Mole realized that he didn't have anything to feed Rat; the only redeeming feature of the execrable Redwall books was the description of the feasts. I always thought that drowning in malmsey sounded like a sensible way to go. Reading M. F. K. Fisher or Brillat-Savarin or Dumas' cookbook always cheers me up. One of my favorite conversation topics is last meals, planning them course by course (champagne to start and finish, of course). Contrariwise, the nadir was also the time when I lived on Snickers bars I got from the vending machine at 3:00 am, when I could be sure that no one else was around.

At a recent job interview, I was bs'ing about how much I liked feeding people. It's only now that I realize that it's true. When things are bad, I want to eat, and when other people are having trouble, I want to feed them. I told this to a psychology major who responded that I had confused food and love. This is utter nonsense (I am in no danger of eating my wife or son). Food makes things better. Things are always worse on an empty stomach; only after a seriously good meal, and some good drink, and good company, is life manageable.

Which is why efforts to take away food always piss me off. From NYC's ban on transfats ("The hardest one for us was the croissant. We replaced butter with palm oil. From my perspective it’s not a croissant any more. It’s lost all its lamination and flavor.") to attempts to reinstate Prohibition--apparently thinking that this time we'll get it right, which reminds me of John Keynes comment on Betram Russell: "on the one hand he believed that all the problems of the world stemmed from conducting human affairs in a most irrational way; on the other hand that the solution was simple, since all we had to do was to behave rationally" to efforts to reduce agriculture in America to a mono-culture of Large White Turkeys and shit-fed chickens, all in a greasy HFC sauce--it all makes me angry all out of proportion with the actual danger. Food is not something I can be rational about, since to me it is connected so vitally with existence as human beings. You are what you eat, they say, and I think we are how we eat, too. We eat fast these days, and poorly, and alone. Food should be something that people gather around, prepare together, eat lots of, and so should drink (my beer comes on well; so does my kombucha). It's no accident that breaking bread and drinking wine together is a sacrament.

So, apparently one of my first principles is that there is nothing on Earth that cannot be fixed with good food, good drink, and good company. I suppose I should hope for something more spiritual, or philosophically unassailable ("Something's going to happen"? "Cogito ergo sum"?), but this is up with what I came. At least I'm in good company: "If you offer Plato a dish of figs, he will take them all."

UPDATE: I forgot the best story! When I was between two and three years, my parents were celebrating Christmas Eve by cooking lobster in their apartment. They had put me to bed, but I woke up and toddled out to the kitchen. They gave me a little taste, and then sent me back to my room. At the kitchen door I turned around.

"I'm coming back for a snack later," I said. "And it better be lobster."
A bit late, but sensible talk about gin is always timely:
Before we discuss the findings, though, we need to clear up a little matter. It’s come to my attention that some people believe martinis are made with vodka. I hate to get snobbish about it, but a martini should be made with gin or it’s not a martini. Call it a vodkatini if you must, but not a martini. Gin and vodka have as much in common hierarchically as a president and a vice president. Vodka can fill in for gin from time to time and might even be given certain ceremonial duties of its own, but at important moments you need the real thing. Vodka generally makes a poor substitute for gin in a martini or any other gin cocktail.


Indeed, gin is more of a thinking person’s spirit. Vodka is neutral in aroma and flavor, which is also how gin begins life. But where vodka stays neutral, gin is infused with botanicals — a witch’s pantry of roots, berries, herbs, dried fruits and spices — dominated by the piney, breezy aroma of juniper berries. Other common botanicals include angelica, cardamom, coriander, cinnamon, lemon peel, licorice, fennel and ginger. It is the closely guarded combination of botanicals that makes each gin distinctive.

Precisely. Also, take a look at the empires each spawned. Would you rather be a British colony, or a satellite state of the Soviet Union?

Via Three Martini Lunch.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

A few years back, one dreadful boy ran up to me and said, "Mr. Bradbury?"

"Yes?" I said.

"That book of yours,
The Martian Chronicles?" he said.

"Yes," I said.

"On page 92, where you have the moons of Mars rising in the East?"

"Yeah," I said.

"Nah," he said.

So I hit him. I'm damned if I'll be bullied by bright children.