Category Archives: Nerdgasm

I’m a science fiction, fantasy, and horror nerd; I like books, movies, games, and conventions. These are entries where I talk about my nerdy interests.

Munchkin' Away

Over the past five years or so, my parents have built up a fairly respectable little theater company at their church, the Shoestring Theater Company. They’ve put on a number of productions, including Oliver Twist, Annie, and Godspell, in addition to smaller productions that are usually part of a church service or some such thing. This year, their production was The Wizard of Oz, which I think my father has been wanting to be a part of for years. Jennifer and her parents and I drove the 120 miles or so down to Los Gatos on Saturday to see the play, and we all had a grand time. My sister was fun to watch as the Scarecrow, my aunt was perfectly cast as the Wicked Witch of the West (no offense to my aunt, of course — so please don’t turn me into a toad!), and my dad, in my opinion, pretty much stole the show with his portrayal of the Cowardly Lion. On the whole, though, I really do think I enjoyed watching my little sister portray the Scarecrow the most. I am inordinantly proud of her; she’s recently graduated high school and has started attending a local junior college to take classes in art. I don’t think she knows what she wants do Do With Her Life yet, but that’s quite all right; at 18, you don’t have to know. I, personally, think that she ought to pursue the arts; she’s quite a talented artist, in my opinion, and I hope that she does something with that in the future. Whatever she does, though, I’m sure that she’ll do it well.

Jennifer’s mother was really impressed with the show, as she was with the Shoestring Theater Company’s production of Godspell last year. What really impressed her was the way the production company had included everyone who wanted to be included. "Everyone has a place at God’s table," she said. And it’s true that my parents have made a special effort to get as many people involved in their productions as possible. For the munchkins, of course, my parents cast dozens of the church’s children; and who, really, would be better for the part? The children very obviously had a great time in the show, even the one young boy who was either sick or too shy to take part in most of the dancing and sat on the step in front of Dorothy’s house, next to the withered feet of the Wicked Witch of the East.

Segue here. But I promise that I’ll bring some of these upcoming disparate elements together somewhere in here, somehow. Keep the faith.

My friend Evilpheemy and I are in the middle of designing a role-playing game system; we’ve only been gaming together for a few years, not even five years, so I don’t have quite the gaming history with him that other people do; but our minds work enough alike that we can work together on a large creative project without ripping each others’ throats out yet still have enough differences of opinions so that things can still get interesting. Evilpheemy’s concentrating on the development of the actual mechanics of the system, with some input from me, while I’ve been busily developing the overall milieu of the game setting, with some input from him. All in all, though, The Outer Darkness is primarily his baby.

The two of us represent two different styles of gaming. We’re not really opposite ends of the spectrum; Evilpheemy enjoys rules and systems and gaming engines much more than I do; whereas I think I’m a bit more prone to worrying about whether my storylines are clichéd or truly original, and making sure that my games are some sort of High Art, and I rarely know all of the rules as thoroughly as I should (in fact, when I spent three years of my life running a Vampire oriented Live Action Role-Playing Game, I had a number of assistant Storytellers whose role was to focus on the mechanics of the rules and rule interpretations while I built up the huge plots that really excited me). Naturally, neither style of play is better than the other. It’s kind of like the difference between the UI of Macintosh or Windows 9x; both are essentially the same, but both have fanatical adherents.

In gaming, though, there is a phenomenon which is often referred to as "Munchkin Gaming". The term "munchkin" is applied to those players who insist on a certain sort of high-powered gaming. These are the players in a Dungeons and Dragons game who really want characters that are half-dragon 28th level mages that can polymorph at will into an Elven fighter mage, or something like that. In Vampire: The Masquerade, they want to be the 6th Generation Brujah with Disciplines to rival any Antediluvian, plus several Master-level out-of-clan Disciplines besides.

If you’ve ever played Dungeons and Dragons or Vampire: The Masquerade, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. If you don’t, then you probably know the type anyway; Munchkins come in all forms and sizes and live everywhere. Outside of gaming, Munchkins are the ones who insist that they know more than the teacher, who refuse to believe it when the teacher is right; they’re the ones who always know more than you, who always want more than you, and who believe with all of their soul that they deserve it. And what’s more, they whine about it when they don’t get it.

I’ve been running role-playing games in one form or another for close to twenty years, and it’s quite a fair estimate when I say that I’ve probably run close to a thousand game sessions. In all that time, I’ve never met a player who didn’t exhibit some sort of munchkinism at one point or another. I’ve done it myself, even; when I play a character in someone else’s game, I frequently want to be the Really Powerful Mage or the Mega Fighter. I try to keep my whining down when my stats don’t quite make it to all eighteens, at least.

I can think of many ways that you can be a munchkin outside of gaming. The most obvious that springs to mind is to insist that you deserve a special set of privileges from life, and to whine about it when you don’t get it. Do you believe that you’re entitled to a particular job, a particular lifestyle, a particular income level, a particular set of circumstances in life? Well, okay, that’s fine. But how are you going to choose to respond to the fact that you probably don’t haven’t got that job, that income, that set of circumstances — are you going to whine about it, take your dice and your character sheet and go home, so to speak? Or are you going to stick in it for the long haul and see where you can take your low-level character over the next few months of the campaign? Personally, I think that the second is the more desireable option; if for no other reason than because you’ll probably have a lot more fun along the way.

The Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz are a fairly innocuous folk, happy and beaming and organizing themselves into groups with auspicious names like "The Lullabye League" and "The Lollipop Guild". I’m not sure how the term Munchkin came to be associated with the obnoxious practices in gaming that I’ve outlined above. Who knows, except that the term "munchkin" came to be associated with contemptuous behavior in general.

How do I continue to "munchkinate" in my own life? Well, there is certainly a part of me which would like to believe that I can have a career which I enjoy, in which I’m successful, and in which I can earn the respect of my colleagues for my skill and talent in that career; heck, I have this dream of being invited to lend my expertise in places all over the world. I don’t know if I’m ever going to achieve that, and at the age of 33 it seems unlikely that I’ll ever find such a career… and I’m not entirely sure that being another code jock in another cubicle will lead me there. I can respond to that situation by either whining about it, or taking the relatively low stats that I’ve rolled for myself, setting out at the beginning, and seeing where I can go.

The old adage says that a man’s reach should never exceed his grasp. However, there is a line from William Blake of which I’m very fond, which goes something like this: "A man’s reach MUST exceed his grasp; otherwise, what is heaven for?" And even Data, the "artificial life form" from Star Trek: The Next Generation had wisdom regarding this sort of thing; he knew that his quest to become truly human would never succeed, but he understood that sometimes reaching for such a goal is in and of itself important, because the journey itself provides its own rewards.

Meanwhile, here I sit, typing away on my computer, close to midnight. I promised Evilpheemy that I would have a completed campaign setting for The Outer Darkness finished up by the end of the month, which will be upon us on Saturday, and I’m not finished with it yet. So I guess I’d better get working.

Meanwhile, here is a picture of some of the cast from my parents’ production of The Wizard of Oz. You can see my sister dressed up as the Scarecrow, and my dad dressed up as the Cowardly Lion. It was a great play, and if you happen to be in the neighborhood of the Presbyterian Church of Los Gatos in the next week, I strongly recommend that you check it out.

In other news: after over two weeks of messing around and struggling, I’ve finally gotten my Linux box working again. The solution involved re-installing the proper kernel from the installation CD-ROM and updating my network configuration. There are still a few minor kinks to work out, but now I can boot my Linux box again and even get on-line without booting the other computers in our network off-line. I am so proud of myself that I could just spit.

Wherein Our Hero Discovers He's Been On Earth All Along

All in all, I think that Jennifer has probably made the transition from engaged to married more smoothly than I have. While I still find myself stopping dead in my tracks from time to time (inconvenient when I’m driving at eighty miles an hour down highway 80) and thinking to myself, "Wow! I’m really married now!", Jennifer says that she doesn’t feel all that different from when we were just engaged and living with each other. Well, okay, perhaps there isn’t that much different on a physical level — we still breathe the same air, live in the same house, and our feelings for each other haven’t changed. But on an existential level, there is a difference between being engaged and being married. I can’t really put my finger on it, but I’m sure that there is. Or maybe I’m just imagining the whole thing.

The hours leading up to the ceremony were hectic and stressful for me, and nothing compared to what Jennifer and her mother had to deal with, what with the seamstress running obscenely late (the ceremony was nearly an hour late because the seamstress was still sewing the groomsmen’s shirts at the last minute and trying to fix the bridesmaids’ dresses which had somehow become far too small between the last fitting and the day of the wedding). Fortunately one of the dancers from the dance troupe that came to perform at the wedding was well versed in Renaissance garb in general and helped all of us men put our outfits on and made sure we looked at least halfway decent wearing them. The only problem for me was that I wanted to take my groomsmen out to lunch before the ceremony, but between one thing and another we wound up having to go to a different restaurant than the one I’d wanted to go to in the first place, and then my best man and I ended up at the church with about one minute to spare.

I don’t remember all that much about the ceremony itself. I remember seeing the flower girl stumble her way down the aisle, upending her basket of flowers and spilling them all out on the floor and then deciding to take a nap midway down the aisle; I remember something about some vows that we exchanged; I remember Jennifer’s father coming close to tears; I remember my best man clapping me on the shoulder just before the ceremony when I confessed, "Now I’m nervous"; and, of course, I remember Jennifer walking down the aisle, glowing in her dress, more beautiful and radiant than I had ever seen her before. I remember standing up with the minister, holding Jennifer’s hand, and falling in love with her all over again.

As her wedding gift to me, Jennifer gave me a new computer, which her brother-in-law (which, I guess, she shares with me now) had put together and built for me. It’s got Windows 2000, Linux, and just about every bell and whistle that I could ever want. And it’s ironic that while I’ve probably spent more time in front of this computer than I ever did in front of my old computer, I’ve found myself with even less time than I ever did to post to this journal. I’ve been merrily learning about Samba and Linux networking to get my new box talking to the network that Jennifer and I have set up in our house, I’ve figured out how to keep our computers with static IP addresses even though our router is set up with a DHCP server, and I’ve even figured out how to use my old laptop computer as a primitive web server in addition to its duties as a file server and a print server. I haven’t yet figured out how to use Samba to print from my Linux box through the old laptop, but I’ve learned how to use my Linux computer to read files from Jennifer’s old Windows 95 machine. That part was easy.

And in addition to that I’ve been spending a lot of time playing this really cool horror FPS game called Undying. Far too much time, I suppose. All in all, I’ve been sleeping a lot less than I should over the past couple of weeks. I only hope that Jennifer hasn’t been feeling neglected.

Not, of course, that Jennifer is any less of a nerd than I am. For our one-week anniversary, Jennifer and I used some of the gift cards we’d gotten from Best Buy and picked up a Sony Dreamcast game station and a copy of House of the Dead 2. We’ve spent many a happy hour together since then shooting zombies and laughing at the cheesy voice overs and smiling warmly at the oozing green blood of melting undead creatures.

I tell Jennifer that her left pinky toe is corrupt and is bent on world domination, which is why that is the only part of her that I don’t love. She just looks at me strangely and says, "Yes, dear," in a strangely condescending voice.

Last night we went with some friends to see Tim Burton’s "re-imagination" of The Planet of the Apes. I can only hope that Tim Burton’s hands were tightly bound while this movie was being filmed, because it’s the first Burton movie that I didn’t like. Well, okay, let me amend that. When I first heard that Tim Burton was going to remake The Planet of the Apes, I thought, "This could be cool." But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I haven’t seen a single remake of a classic science fiction film that I thought was any good. I could give Tim Burton’s version two stars only because it didn’t suck as bad as I thought it was going to. I can only hope that the reason why Tim Burton made this film was because someone in Hollywood had decided that by God this film was going to be made, and Tim Burton stepped bravely forward and said he’d do it. Sort of like the guy who throws himself on a landmine so that other people can live.

The word "re-imagination" should be banned. It doesn’t mean, "A reinterpretation of the original source material." It means, "Not willing to go the extra distance to make the remake anywhere as provocative as the original." Tim Burton’s film was full of gaping holes, inconsistencies that make you question your very sanity, and unresolved plot lines that scream, "SEQUEL COMING!". And there was a twist at the end, but the twist at the end of this film carried none of the power of the twist at the end of the original. When I saw the last few minutes of this film, I wasn’t shocked or surprised or anything… Instead, I found myself laughing out loud. I couldn’t help myself. It was ludicrous.

If you’ve never seen the ending of the original Planet of the Apes and have no idea what it is (which I doubt, since it’s probably the most classic twist ending in the history of science fiction and has become a mainstay of modern American culture), go out and rent it right now. Go ahead, I’ll wait. I just don’t want to spoil anything for you.

Okay, so now you know that Taylor, Charlton Heston’s character, was on Earth all along. And isn’t that always the way it is? Just when you think that you’ve landed on another planet, you discover that you’re really at home after all.

Being married is kind of like that… only without the nuclear holocaust and the enslavement of humanity (though I guess some people might differ on that second point). It’s honestly not all that different from when we were engaged, I suppose, but still… something has changed.

And I’m finding it pretty damn wonderful.

The Death Throes of a Palm Pilot

Yesterday, I managed to crash my Palm Pilot. Not just any minor crash, where some minor bits of data are lost but all can be restored by pressing the "reset" button on the back and synchronizing with your desktop computer; no, I managed to get it to the point where it flashed the dangerous message:


on the screen whenever I turned it on. Resetting didn’t help. I contact Palm support and was told that what I needed to do was a "hard reset", which involved wiping out every bit of data on the Palm Pilot and deleting the entire applications database, except for the default appliations that were shipped with the device in the first place. So I did that, and then I spent the next hour rebuilding the database. Fortunately, I’d synced up just before I caused this crash, so I was pretty much covered. I just had to download and install one or two programs that weren’t restored with the backup.

"What did you do to your defenseless Palm Pilot?" I hear you ask. Well, it’s kind of a long story.

In my ongoing quest for new responsiblities at work — especially now that the recent reorganization has consolidated almost all development up in Portland but a quirk of organizational necessity and budgetary windfall has kept me and the other Sacramento office developer employed — I wormed my way, with all of the subtlety of Arnold Schwartzenegger in Terminator, into the Palm Pilot development project. As I’ve already written, it was pretty easy to get B–, the Sacramento lead for this project, to let me get in. So I installed Code Warrior and started playing around.

This past weekend, I also picked up a copy of The PalmOS Programming Bible, which is published by the same people who publish the …for Dummies books. I picked up this book instead of PalmOS for Dummies for two reasons; first, it was the only book that didn’t start off the introduction with the words, "We assume you’re an advanced C programmer" (it began with, "We assume you’re an experienced C programmer" — and, as I pointed out to a skeptical Jennifer, I am more "experienced" than I am "advanced"), and because the …Bible series is generally much better than the …for Dummies series. (A book like Vocabulary for Dummies might contain a paragraph like this: "Vocabulary is all about words. Words make up a vocabulary, which, as I wrote above, is all about words. Yep, words is what it’s all about. Lots of words. Words, words, words. Shakespeare wrote a soliloquy about words in Hamlet. Say, I introduced a Shakespearean non-sequitor into a book on vocabulary! Am I cute enough to kiss or what?" and so on.)

And so yesterday I figured out how to write and compile a nice inoffensive "Hello World" program in C for the Palm Pilot; I plugged it in to Code Warrior, compiled the program and linked it, debugged it in the Palm OS Emulator, and figured I was good to go. So I set my Palm Pilot in console mode, switched the target settings in Code Warrior to target my device instead of the emulator, and clicked "compile."

"Fatal Exception", my Palm Pilot told me. Even after I hit the reset button. Several times.

That’s when I started feeling that strange cold lump in my chest, the same sort of feeling that I get when my mother tells me that she’s had another wonderful idea for the wedding.

With some help from Palm, Inc., and some folks in our office, I was able to get my Palm Pilot functioning again. But one of the developers up in Portland asked me what, precisely, it was I was trying to do.

"Well," I said, "I’m trying to learn enough C/C++ to get up and running with the PDA project."

"Aren’t you already taking a class in Java?" he asked me.

"Well, yes."

"And talking to one of the other developers up here about XML?"


"And giving a presentation about PHP and access to Oracle in Portland in August?"

"What’s your point?"

"Well, don’t you think you’re sort of biting off a bit more than you can chew?"

Well, okay, maybe I am. But I think about it in this way: all that they’ve got me doing these days at work is HTML encoding (my co-worker and I have become maniacs at making sure that every HTML document we create fully validates, simply because there isn’t much else to do). Because I haven’t been involved in any PHP development at work anymore (that particular project has been handed off to someone else entirely), it’s unlikely that I’ll be giving my presentation in August after all. And when I spoke with B– this afternoon, he was pessimistic about the possibility that there would actually be any Palm development done at all in California for our company; the development manager up in Portland is continuing to consolidate all aspects of development up there. So there really isn’t all that much for me to do; encoding an HTML document takes very little time at all, even if you code it to XHTML 1.1 standards.

So I sit at my computer at work and play with Java and C/C++ and CodeWarrior and occasionally make a phone call or send an e-mail or an Instant Message to another developer up in Portland, asking to be involved in some project or another. My boss has been working on this as well, knowing that my fellow developer and I are starting to become frustrated, but he is unable to do much more than get us more HTML coding projects. When I told him last week that it was looking like my own career advancement probably lay outside the company, he looked disappointed but unsurprised.

Meanwhile, my Palm Pilot sits next to my computer, nestled in its cradle, seeming almost to glare at me cautiously with the glowing green charge indicator. "No more," it whispers fearfully. "Do what you want to the computer, but please, leave me alone."

Ha, I laugh to myself, and I launch another Code Warrior instance, preparing to write code that will beat my little Palm Pilot further into submission.

Code Code Code

This is the first computer-related class I’ve ever taken, this class in Programming Java from University Extension. Well, okay, I took a class in Pascal when I was in high school, but let’s be honest: who in the world ever programmed in Pascal except for high school proto-nerds like myself? First-year college proto-nerds, I guess, although now I understand that C++ is the beginning language of choice in college these days. When I was a freshman in college, my roommate, in one of his more lucid moments, told me that I really needed to take ECS 40, because it was a great computer class and you learned Pascal. I sniffed haughtily. "I already know Pascal," I told him. Smugly. "I don’t need to learn it again."

Now, said psychotic ex roommate is earning somewhere in the neighborhood of 25% more than I am without having ever finished his college degree, and I’m trying to figure out this Java stuff.

What’s bothering me at the moment is that I cannot figure out what the hell is wrong with this code, which I wrote for the second assignment. I’ve written more complicated code in Java in the past, but it can’t hurt to go over the basics one more time, right? This bit of code includes a class that I downloaded from the instructor’s website and which I compiled in the same directory as my code. I made sure to tell the compiler that the directory my code is indeed, God’s truth, in the CLASSPATH variable. And yet something is going wrong. Here’s the code. See if you can figure it out:

class Assignment_02
  int age;
  String inText;

    System.out.print("Enter age: ");
    inText = Term.input();

    age = Term.atoi(inText);
    if (age < 16)
      System.out.println("This person is under 16");
    else if (age < 18)
      System.out.println("This person is under 18");
      System.out.println("This person is over 18");

  public static void main(String[] args)
    Assignment_02 myProg = new Assignment_02();

I swear, the only thing that differs between my code and the instructor’s code is the class name. I’ve compiled this stupid thing a dozen times. It compiles fine, but when I try to execute the code, I get an error that reads, "Exception in thread main: no such class as Assignment_02, you idiot." Verbatim. My compiler doesn’t pull punches.

I know what’s going to happen. I’m going to fuss over this code all night while Jennifer happily bakes brownies in the kitchen and the cats chew on my socks, and I am going to go to bed convinced that I have missed some secret alchemical device known to the course instructor and a handful of Illuminati in Bavaria. And tomorrow morning I am going to wake up early, go swimming, and just as I complete my fourth lap I’m going to leap out of the swimming pool shouting "EUREKA!" and come running back to the house and log into my computer and fire up my editor and make a single change in the code, probably a single character somewhere, and recompile the damn thing and run it, only to have the same error come back into my face. "No such class as Assignment_02, asshole. You might as well practice saying, ‘You want fries with that?’"

This is just like dating. Except that when you’re in the dating process, you sometimes get it right. It’s my considered opinion that no one ever writes a Java program succesfully, it’s just that the compiler gets tired of fighting back.

I have a tendency to catastrophize. It’s not that I’m having trouble seeing where my error is in this code (and it might be as simple as having to recompile the stupid code with the instructor’s home-grown Term class); it’s that I’m the stupidest person who has ever walked the face of the earth and a Bushman in southern Africa who has no idea that Coca Cola exists, let alone platform-independent web-enabled object-oriented languages, has a better shot at building up their IT career than I do.

If I’d been thinking when I was living in the dorms with my psychotic roommate, I would have punched him in the face when he blathered about how wonderful Pascal was. I would have done it cheerfully (and I can actually think of a couple of people who would, to this day, happily hold him down while I did so), explaining, "This is for all those programs I’m going to write that are never going to compile!"

On a more positive note, things are actually looking up for me at work. I’ve wormed my way in to the PDA development project, thanks mostly to the fact that the local lead developer likes me. When I asked him what skill set he’d like to see, he replied, "Familiarity with Code Warrior." I explained that I’d never touched Code Warrior, although I’ve seen the box on the shelf. He replied, "Oh, that’s okay, we’ve got a spare license and can install it on your laptop tomorrow. So be sure to bring it in." It was a positive note for me. On the other hand, I have a limited period of time now to learn enough C++ to make a Palm Pilot application work (and in that same period of time I need to figure out how to deflect enough work from me and on to another developer so that I’ll have time to learn C++ and get involved in the PDA development project); and this will make my experience with Java a lot more interesting. And I’m committed to learning Java, for a lot of very good reasons. It just means that the next couple of months are going to be filled with a lot of time on my computer, trying to get Java to compile and C++ to work.

Want fries with that?

Hive Mind

"I tried to join the Borg hive-mind, but all I got were hives."

This past weekend, Jennifer and I went to DunDraCon, a role-playing game convention in the Bay Area. It had been a full year since I’d been to any sort of convention, and something like a dozen years before that. While I maintain that I am not any sort of nerd, I admit that I really enjoy these things. Even though I didn’t get to play in any games (both of the Call of Cthulhu games that Jennifer and I had signed up for were canceled, and the Fading Suns LARP that I joined didn’t work out very well for me), it was fun to see friends that I hadn’t seen for awhile and participate in seminars about the future of on-line role-playing games. One seminar that I was around for part of concerned the ways in which narrative structures are forced to change in response to "huge multi-player spaces". That is, on-line game systems which involve hundreds or even thousands of players. I had read a book, Hamlet on the Holodeck, a year or two ago which concerns exactly this subject; and even though I didn’t get to participate much in the discussion, I was fascinated by the subject.

It was a nostalgic weekend. Last year, some of my friends and I came to this same convention to playtest and begin marketing a role-playing game that we’ve been developing on our own. Unfortunately, we haven’t made much progress in developing the game, although when we play-tested it last year, it was quite a hit. And so this year I enjoyed seeing these same friends, looking around at all of the different games for sale, including Call of Cthulhu (one of my favorites), Dungeons and Dragons (now in its third edition), and more. Jennifer was less than impressed with the dealers’ room; the kind of weaponry that was on sale there was not necessarily of the quality that we would want to see on the groomsmen at our wedding. It made us glad that they’ll be able to provide their own swords.

Years ago, my friends and I used to play role-playing games frequently; in fact, there have been times when gaming was a constant activity in my apartment. At least three nights a week, for six or more hours each night, we would delve into our own imaginations and live schizophrenic lives involving paper, pencils, junk food, and dice. Lots and lots of dice. Lots and lots and lots of dice.

I miss those days.

The convention was also a nice break from work. In a way, in spite of the bronchitis and the hospital visit, these past two weeks have been rather nice. I’ve been able to avoid traveling up to Portland for work and just stay in one place. In fact, I spent more time working from home than from the office over the past two weeks. The stress level hasn’t dropped all that much, but it’s easier for me to cope with at home, surrounded by cats and even with Jennifer from time to time. But this week, things are closer to normal again. My doctor had told me last week that in light of my skyrocketing blood pressure, it might be a good idea to get a new job, with less stress. I’ve considered it, but it will probably be awhile before I think that’s really necessary.

The only really bad part of this past weekend was the hives that I broke out into. For three days, I was covered in itchy, red welts (I’m sure that I was a lovely sight). I’ve been combating it with antihistamines and cortisone, and that seems to be working. I spoke to my doctor yesterday, who took, I thought, a certain unprofessional glee in pointing out to me that among the many other causes and exacerbations of such hives, stress – particularly job-related stress – is high among them. He reiterated his suggestion about finding a new job, which does and doesn’t appeal to me.

One of the most exciting things I saw at the gaming convention was a demonstration of an on-line roleplaying environment hosted by a company called Skotos. I spent some time talking to some of the engineers and managers who worked for this company, and I found myself getting really excited by the fact that they’re using some of the same technologies that I’m using at my job and that I’ve been learning – PHP, XML, Oracle, Java, and so on. I had a long conversation with the CEO of another company which develops engines for such games, and learned that he knows the author of Hamlet on the Holodeck personally. I’ve taken some time and played in Castle Marrach, the current offering from Skotos, and while I was frustrated by the limited range of role-playing that their parser offers, I’m also excited about the potential of that company. They (as well as the other company I talked to) are essentially internet startups, and they’ve sought out funding from large entertainment companies, based on business models designed around revolutionizing entertainment and bringing on-line gaming venues to popular markets.

We’ll see if it works out for them. And I certainly hope that it does.
Jennifer has, on many occasions, told me that I’m a nerd. While I deny these false accusations firmly, I will admit that if I decided to leave the company I’m working for now to take a job with an Internet role-playing game company… Well, then, I suppose I would indeed be a nerd.

Muggling Through

It seems that every time something good comes along, something else comes along (usually in the form of a money-hungry lout or a misinformed idiot) to try to spoil it. The great comic book Spawn, for example, might be forced to cease publication because some football player took offense at the name used as one of the villains, and is suing for more money than Todd McFarlane can pay out without shutting down the title. That’s the sort of thing that I’m talking about.

Now, Jennifer has recently converted me to being a Harry Potter fan. I had gotten the first book from my dad as a Christmas present just this past year, and started reading it — but sometimes when I’m reading a book, I get easily distracted by other things, and I just sort of put Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone aside for awhile, intending to pick it up again later, and just never did. However, when news about the fourth book came out, Jennifer decided that she wanted to read the first three, and she thoroughly enjoyed them. And I couldn’t help but notice the Potter-mania that was going around, especially as the release date for the fourth book, Goblet of Fire, came closer. Then my sister informed me that my niece really wanted the fourth book for her birthday; and so on the Friday night before the release, I found myself standing with Jennifer at Borders, waiting for one of the coveted unreserved copies, while kids dressed up like wizards cavorted and adults — some looking exhausted, some looking enthralled — gazed eagerly at the counter and employees made periodic announcements about special giveaways that would be given out with the first fifty copies. It was actually fun, in a way. I had stood in line for six hours to be one of the first people to see Star Wars Episode I, and this was kind of similar. But this hype was for a book, not a movie, and I’d never seen this kind of hype for a book before.

So last week I picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone again and started re-reading from the beginning, not bothering to try to find where I had left off before; and over the next two or three days I read all three of the Harry Potter books, then borrowed Jennifer’s copy of Goblet of Fire and read that (that one took me four days, partly because of the length and partly because I found that I had very little time to devote to reading even while Jennifer was gone in Ohio for her family reunion).

The hype was worth it. The Potter books are certainly not brilliantly-constructed fantasy the way that The Lord of the Rings (or my personal favorite, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn by Tad Williams) is, but they are a lot of fun, and well written. And anything which encourages kids to use their imaginations, to explore the world around them with wonder, and simply read more books deserves high praise, in my opinion.

So, of course, some people have to try to ruin it. One author from the east coast is suing J. K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books, over an alleged trademark violation (you can read more about this at The Unofficial Harry Potter Fan Club); and the Harry Potter books are actually banned in some schools in at least thirteen U.S. states (more about that at Muggles for Harry Potter). The lawsuit kind of makes sense, if you squint in an intellectual sort of way (though I think it’s tantamount to A. A. Milne being sued over the use of the word "Piglet" as the name of a character); but I’ve never understood the reasoning process behind the desire to ban books. Okay, some books (such as The Turner Diaries) are deservedly jeered and most bookshop owners with an ounce of decency wouldn’t carry them; but what is the logic behind banning books like Harry Potter? The perpetrators claim that the books undermine traditional Christian values and that they promote Wicca and paganism (though I can also see how Wiccans and pagans could find elements of the Potter books that are offensive), but, again, you have to stretch to see it.

Part of the reasoning that I’ve seen for banning the Harry Potter books claims that these books teach children that the world around them is worthless, that people who can’t use magic are losers and not worth paying attention to; I have to disagree. Of course, all novels are escapist, to a point; but children don’t lose themselves in a novel and then despair that their world isn’t like that in the novel. On the contrary, children read novels about heroic deeds and create their own worlds to match. The characters in Harry Potter — especially Harry Potter himself and his friends — are brave and heroic and courageous, and I believe that these are values that we ought celebrate children learning. And the lessons that children learn while acting out their own stories as heroes are carried over into their own lives — at least, that was my own experience as a child, and that’s what I see in children around me today.

So my thought is this. Everyone knows that somewhere between childhood and adulthood, we lose the power to see or make magic in our world; some of us retain some of that ability, though it’s usually just a ghost of what we possessed in childhood. And some of us become so bitter at the loss that we can’t imagine that children still do have that power; so we deny that children have that power, and we try to bring them into our own world, just as bitter and jaded as we are, long before they are ready. "This is the real world," such people say, "and there is no place for magic or wizards or other fairy-tale nonsense."

But in reality, the world is a magical place, and full of wonder. Those of us who have had the misfortune to grow up can’t see most of the magic or wonder anymore, and so we have to Muggle our way through a world of taxes, difficult job transitions, broken cars, insurance, noisy neighbors, and so on. I’m glad that there are books like the Harry Potter books to remind me, at least, of what else could be out there.

It’s a shame that there are other people out there who feel like they have to spoil it.

Slipping to the Dark Side

Okay, I admit… I’m a fan of horror fiction and movies. I enjoy the genre, and I know it pretty well (to the point where I overhead a brief conversation between two co-workers and could tell, based on one single sentence, which movie they were talking about and which version). And when I worked at the video store, I took the opportunity to catch up on a lot of classic horror movies that I’d never had a chance to see before.

I’ve read a lot of horror novels, too. I like Stephen King a lot, as well as Clive Barker (Dean Koontz and Bentley Little are okay, but I will rarely bother finishing one of their books if I can’t do so in one sitting). I have a very active imagination, and I can envision what I read very well. My imagination has always been like that; in fact, my parents would not let me read a single Stephen King novel until I was 18 because they were afraid that I would scare myself too badly. I admit, though, that I cheated a sneaked a copy of The Dead Zone when I was 16 years old — and it had pretty much the effect my parents had predicted.

So last night a friend of mine and his wife went out to the movies. She took herself to see Pokemon 2000 while my friend and I went and saw Scary Movie.

God help me, I thought it was funny.

Granted, I had to turn off my good taste in order to enjoy it at all, but once I did, I found myself enjoying it and even laughing at the sickest jokes, in the same sort of way that I like watching South Park from time to time.

Scary Movie is unbelievably offensive in many ways. Some of the jokes are blatantly racist, some are outright homophobic, and some are unbelievably degrading to women. It’s not what I really had hoped for in a good parody of the horror genre (Young Frankenstein is probably the best for that sort of thing), though I thought it poked some good fun at the Scream trilogy and the I Know What You Did Last Summery films. And it had no plot, no honest character development, and no real point — but, then, neither did many of the other films that it parodied, including The Blair Witch Project.

Of course, it made jabs at a number of films that were well-done and well-made; the end, for example, spoofed both Dark City (well, I thought that was a good film, at least) and The Usual Suspects. And because The Sixth Sense is part of the recent revival of the horror genre, Scary Movie poked fun at that one, as well. Unfortunately, while many of the spoofs and jabs were pretty funny, the jabs at some of the others were just kind of dumb.

All in all, yes, I enjoyed Scary Movie. I’ll probably never see it again, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to any of my friends (and I wouldn’t rate it more than a 1 on any scale), but, yes, I laughed. I can’t help but wonder if perhaps my good taste just fell away completely, or if I’m just a lot sicker than I thought I was. I found myself asking myself these questions all throughout the movie, and thinking things like, "Oh my God, how can I ever respect myself now? How will anyone else respect me? That woman’s being beheaded, and here I am laughing about it!"

In the end, though, I gave up on trying to justify myself and decided to simply enjoy the film.

After the film was over, the three of us went to the International House of Pancakes for a late dinner and a game of Fluxx. I was still thinking about the movie when I got home, and felt an overwhelming need to take a long hot shower. I did so, and then I popped in The Sixth Sense just to reassure myself that yes, I could still enjoy a quality horror film. Seeing Scary Movie was cathartic, in a way; but still, seeing a film of good quality was sort of a cleansing experience.

Object Orientation and Object Obsession

The last time I did any serious computer programming (apart from playing around with macros in different Microsoft or Corel products) was when I was in high school. Back then, BASIC was spelled in all capital letters and lived on computers that ran CP/M as an operating system, and still had line numbers:

10 Input a$
20 Print "Hello, " a$
30 Goto 10

I owned a TRS-80 Color Computer 2 from Radio Shack, which had 64K of memory (only 32K of which could be accessed at any one time), with no hard drive but a dual floppy drive. It’s fun to point back at that little device and chuckle fondly, thinking, "How cute they were in their larval stage", but, really, those machines could often be deceptively powerful. I wrote a large program in BASIC on that computer which kept track of all of my appointments and contacts, had its own (very simple) scripting language, made advanced use of randomly accessing data from the floppy disk that served as the data disk, and built display screens "on the fly", like modern active webpage schemes do nowadays. Even though it was slow (and got slower as the appointment and contact databases got larger), it was, I think, pretty advanced; I had figured out how to write programs in BASIC that were "modular" such that the subroutines were generalized enough to be re-used over and over and over by different programs (even though every single bit of a program had to be loaded into memory instead of accessed in parts from a disk); I was treating my data as objects, more or less, and even borrowing some tips I’d picked up from working with Paradox with my uncle one summer and making my database more or less relational instead of completely flat.

In short, I was awfully impressed with myself at the time, and I still am, when I look back on that program and others that I wrote like it.

In college, though, for some reason, I decided not to pursue computer programming at all. I wanted to be a doctor, and thought that I wouldn’t need to deal with computers at all. Then when it became clear that I would never be a doctor (nothing will help cure such delusions better than doing volunteer work with sick people and realizing that you can’t stand the whining — that, and flunking a class in basic organic chemistry), I still didn’t go back to computers. I stuck with my philosophy major and never really gave a thought to programming or computers. I enjoyed working with them when I did, but I never really thought about computer work as a career.

But now that I’m looking at a serious career change, from the world of a Human Resources administrator to the world of a computer nerd, I’m starting the process of learning how to program all over. My experiences in recent months with HTML, DHTML, JavaScript, Perl, and Cold Fusion have reminded me how much I enjoy sitting down and bashing out something that makes the experience of using a computer more enjoyable and useful for other people.

But programming has also changed considerably since my high school days. Objects? Methods? Threads? Superclasses? Instances? Packages? Interfaces? Huh? What? I’m not worried about being unable to pick up these techniques and terminologies, and I’m pretty confident that I’ll be able to do so pretty quickly. In fact, object-oriented programming is much like the predicate logic and modal logic that I used to play with in college. I’m just going to have to get used to the idea that when I want to do something in a program, I have to create an object to do it with.

Cue segue into a cheesy metaphor between computer programming and human emotion.

Object-orientation can be both a good thing and a bad thing. In computer programming, object-orientation is good, because it really does make things easier to do, and it makes playing with information a lot easier (in fact, I have recently discovered that there’s a new breed of database design, "object-oriented database management", or OODBM, which tries to treat records of data like objects instead of relating everything to everything else). In life, object-orientation can be either a good thing or a bad thing. It depends on what object you choose to orient on.

Some examples:

My fiancé’s object-orientation and obsession is towards cats. This is fine with me; I like cats and am even willing to sleep in the same bed with one or two of them as long as they understand that they’re not to approach my face (I’m allergic to cats, you see).

I, personally, have an object-orientation and obsession towards my career. Actually, I’m worried that it may not be healthy in some ways. I’ve sometimes found myself so obsessed with my future hoped-for career that I get overly upset about my current job, and even find my self-esteem wrapped up in it. This is definitely not good, as I come home from a day of work to my fiancé and whine at her about how my job sucks and how bad my prospects for future career development are. Fortunately, Jennifer is wise enough to know that I am not defined by my career or by how much money I make; and she’s even clever enough to be able to convince me of that too, at times.

Then again, there is at least one person in the world whose object-orientation seems to be focused on making me appear bad in my fiancé’s eyes. I am not a wealthy man, and I have debts, and I freely admit that up front. However, I certainly have no intention of having my future wife pay for my debts, I will never borrow money from her (nor did I ever borrow money from this other person that was not offered to me and that I did not pay back within a day), and if the unthinkable happens and Jennifer and I ever get divorced, I fully intend to leave our house with nothing but what I brought in to it. People who know me, fortunately, know that I am responsible and mature enough to own up to my own debts and that I am determined to pay them off on my own without anyone’s help, and my fiancé and I have discussed these issues on more than one occasion. Unfortunately, this other person’s object-orientation and obsession seems to be focused not only on making me appear bad to Jennifer, but to outright slandering me in public (without even doing me the courtesy of leaving out my name, as I have left out theirs). It hurts me, but it also hurts Jennifer. It’s an instance in life where object-orientation is a bad thing.

Okay, I admit that this metaphor is stretching things a bit. Fortunately for me, I have never claimed to be a literary genius, which lifts from me the burden of making sense to you, my three or four devoted readers.

But I’ll draw forth another analogy here, which harkens back to my May 22, 2000 Letter to Jennifer; when I was 18 or 19 years old, I figured that I know everything there was to know about relationships and the human heart, just as I thought I knew everything there was to know about procedure-oriented programming. Nowadays, I know that, just as programming is a hell of a lot more complicated than I had ever thought it was, the mysteries of the human heart and its vagaries are a lot more complicated than I had even suspected back then. And now here I am, making a career change into a new field that I thought I understood, and making a significant life change — from single to married — in my own heart, which I also thought I understood. I don’t understand either programming or relationships as well as I thought I had, but I am enjoying the process of ex
ploration, discovery, and learning. All over again

Clear Cutting and Sweeping Away

Yes, I know that I used this very same graphic in my last journal entry; but I felt that it might be appropriate to use it once again.

This past Thursday — yesterday, in fact — was supposed to be a fairly normal day at work. Install a few applications on my users’ computers, do some routine maintenance on a couple of other systems, make sure that the database is up to date. That sort of thing.

I opened up my mail program and saw a virus warning. Now, I’ve been fed too many scare stories of viruses with names like "Good Times" or "PenPals" to ever believe a virus warning that comes to me via e-mail. This new one was called "ILOVEYOU" and was supposed to do all kinds of horrible things to your computer: zap your hard drive, wipe your memory, eat your processor, seduce your dead grandmother, all of the horrible things that viruses which spread themselves through e-mail do.

Surprise, though: the ILOVEYOU virus turns out to be real. Within fifteen minutes getting the first warning about this virus, I received eight copies of a single message — subject line, "I LOVE YOU" — from a co-worker who had received the e-mail, opened it, and run the attachment. And within seconds after that, everyone of my users, not to mention every computer in the building, had received the same e-mail from the same co-worker. Some had received it eight times, like me; others had gotten up to fifteen copies of the damn thing.

Fortunately, I’d trained my users well, and all of the other Technical Support Coordinators in Human Resources had, too. No one else opened the attachment, so while everyone received multiple copies of the e-mail, no other computers were actually infected. I have a vague memory of running from user to user, instructing everyone to shut down Outlook, until we had an idea of what, exactly, this nasty little program would do.

To add to the confusion, the University is actually between anti-virus software site licenses. About 18 months ago, somewhere in the arcane machinations which control the bureaucracy of the University’s Information Technology division, someone decided that Dr. Solomon was no longer good for the University, and every department had to un-install Dr. Solomon and install Norton Anti-Virus. Now, recently, NAV has fallen into disfavor, and we must now all switch to McAffee. Except that when ILOVEYOU hit, our licenses for McAffee had not yet been completed and our licenses for NAV had all expired. So getting anti-virus protection for our computers was an exciting experience to say the least. All I personally have to say is that I’m very happy that I am not in the position where I would have had to repair a broken Exchange server.

Which, in my opinion, is where the bulk of our own problem lies. The Human Resources division, like — apparently — just about every other major business in the world, including the English Parliament and the United States Department of Defense, is hobbled with the Microsoft suite of Office applications. We’ve weeded out any sort of diversity in our network, and replaced all of the sturdy independent applications — like Eudora, WordPerfect, Netscape, and so on — with Microsoft’s Juggernaut, the Office 97 package. This is sort of like clear-cutting an ancient old-growth forest in the Pacific Northwest and replacing it all with acacia trees all bred from the same stock. Yes, technically, you’re replacing the wood; but your new forest is obscenely vulnerable to a single attack. In a computing environment, it’s nice to be able to reduce your tech support expenditures by paying people just to learn a single package, but there’s a price to pay for such unnecessary functionality. Without locating and disabling the obscure default setting needed to make the system truly useful (a feature which all Microsoft products share), you make your system vulnerable to just this sort of malicious attack.

The lesson to be learned here, is the variety and diversity, whether you’re working with a forest or with a computing environment, is good.

Cue segue. I’m going to draw a really ugly analogy between human emotions and old-growth rain forests and computer networking environments. Wish me luck.

Sometimes, upon the end of a relationship, we find ourselves desperately wishing to get together with someone who was Just Like My Last Love: someone who acts the same, who looks the same, who does the same things… Genetically identical to our last love. We figure, after all, that if such a person made us happy once before, then they will again.

At the end of my last relationship, I spent some time doing just that. I wanted to find someone who was just as attractive, just as intelligent, just as sexy, and so on. I wanted my next relationship to be very similar to the last one, if not exactly the same.

But if all of your relationships are identical, you open yourself up to all of the same hurts and problems again and again. We’ve all heard stories of the women or men who enter abusive and dangerous relationships over and over and over again, never learning their lesson, and so on. I’ve never fully understood the tendency myself, but after watching computer networks fail all over the world because they were, well, genetically identical, I think I see the sense: if all of your relationships are the same, then you don’t have to learn new coping techniques or ways of communicating. And, sadly, if you’re too full of pain, then you probably don’t even have the energy to learn these new techniques. In a way, it’s simply a matter of economics.

But by varying your relationships — by keeping yourself open to all possibilities, even ones that you thought had slipped you by years ago — you keep yourself flexible, you can continue to grow and learn and enjoy, and you find yourself better able to handle your newer relationships.

This is the theory at least. Take it for what it’s worth.

On a more pragmatic level, there is a new relationship in my own life. There are some similarities between this relationship and the one that I ended just recently. The new woman in my life is very intelligent, very attractive, very sexy, but in very different ways than the last. I hadn’t intended to enter into anything new — in fact, I had planned to stay away from all hints of any new relationships for at least a year. This came as a complete surprise to me, and it has, indeed, been a very pleasant one.

Change is good. Diversity is good. I don’t want to imply that the last woman in my life was a bad person in any way, of course, nor that novelty is the reason for my feelings now. Hell, I don’t want to draw any comparisons at all, or analyze anything too deeply. I just wanted to point out the benefits of keeping yourself open to variety, change, and new — or old — possibilities.

There’s very little talk in the way of diversifying our departmental network. We’re sticking with the Microsoft behemoth, keeping diversity at a minimum, maximizing our exposure to deadly attack; and when such attacks come (because they inevitably will), we’ll be terribly vulnerable. By sticking to just what we know, we’re putting ourselves in danger.

Well, perhaps I’m stretching. All I can really say is that while my department’s computing environment has been clear-cut, I’ve been swept away. We’ll see who lasts longer.

Here’s hoping that it will be less than three weeks until the next time…