Friday, December 28, 2012

The Christmas [Blank] - 2012

My wife and I were going to skip the Christmas story tradition this year since our new baby has kept us pretty busy, but my brother wrote one, so I went ahead and added one too. My sister also contributed a story, increasing the range from “silly to weird” to more like “silly to pretty messed-up”. Also, I reformatted the ebook version so the text isn’t part of the pictures, and so that the pictures are small enough to allow a few more years’ worth of stories before I hit the Smashwords size limit on the file.

You can get the free e-book in various formats from here:

Monday, December 10, 2012

Military Feng Shui

I have this really, really great idea. As I understand it, Feng Shui is about positioning objects to channel chi in a way that is beneficial to the people it flows around. (I know the official spelling is “qi”, but I’m a fan of phonetic spelling when possible.) So what if we tried using it for purposes other than home furnishing? Imagine lining up your tanks and cannons and soldiers (and couches, if you want) in such a way that all the chi in the area flows around them and gives them a tactical advantage. Or even in a way that forces a bunch of chi forward in a concentrated beam – a chi laser! You could also trick your enemies into maneuvering into a formation that seems to give them a tactical advantage, but then all of a sudden all their equipment shuts down or falls apart. You cannot tell me that this is not a fantastic idea. (Hopefully I am not spoiling any national secrets by suggesting it.)

Organized Religion

I talked a while ago about how it seems to me that a belief in morality seems to imply a belief in God. Well on a semi-related note, I recently saw a Facebook comment that drove me crazy, although I didn’t reply because I don’t know the person and it would have come across as being argumentative. The original post (from someone I do know) was a quote from Martin Luther King, saying this:

"Any religion which professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the social and economic conditions that scar the soul, is a spiritually moribund religion only waiting for the day to be buried."

Fair enough. I’m not sure what religion doesn’t care about those things, but I assume he was telling people that political issues can also be moral issues that people are obligated to become involved in. Then someone replied to this by saying that “this is precisely why all ‘religion’ fails”. WHAT?

Aside from the huge jump in logic involved in trying to take a comment about religions’ obligations to suggesting that all religions fail (at what?), the quotes around the word “religion” make me think this is an example of a common, yet inexplicable, attitude: that religion is good, but organized religion is unnecessary or even harmful. Proponents often cite various world problems (wars, etc.) that have been caused in the name of a particular religion. But the existence of a misguided religion (or even thousands of them) doesn’t mean that none of them are valuable. (Besides, people have a way of waging war even if they can’t use religion as a justification.) But aside from that, let’s consider the fundamental claim here. If religion is good but organized religion is bad, then that means that there is a God, and he cares what we do, but that he definitely does not want to tell us what he wants in any organized way. It’s pretty hard for me to imagine why God would require people to practice disorganized religion!

It seems to me that this is just a weak way around the cognitive dissonance between atheism and morality I mentioned before. But it really is weak, because any set of values you care to pick can be traced back to prophets delivering a message from God – the most fundamental form of organized religion. And of course, if you believe that it’s important to listen to authorized messengers from God, my obligatory next question would be: why not expect God to keep delivering messages to us today in an authoritative, organized way? (hint ☺)

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Zelda Chronology

[mild spoiler alert]

A while ago my brother and I came up with what we considered to be a very plausible timeline of the Zelda games to date, which went up through the Oracle games (before Wind Waker). Since then, Nintendo has stated that there are three timelines, each spawning from a different outcome of the events in Ocarina of Time, which, for better or worse, involves changing the course of history through time travel – always an iffy plot device even in the coolest story. That’s fine except for one thing: They got it completely wrong.

The Wikipedia article has a diagram of the chronology. It starts with Skyward Sword and goes down through Ocarina of Time without anything objectionable, other than the fact that it includes Four Swords Adventures, which I don’t think should be considered canon due to its lack of Zelda-y-ness (and the fact that I haven’t really played it). After Ocarina of Time, it splits into three branches:

  • Link fails in his mission. This, according to Nintendo leads to the classic series. In other words, they’re claiming that Ocarina of Time doesn’t exist in the same continuum as what I consider to be the best games in the series.
  • Young Link timeline. When Ocarina of Time ends, Link goes back to the past, where Gannondorf is still out there and Zelda is still in hiding. You’d think this would mean that he eventually conquers the world, since there is no Hero of Time to stop him, but Nintendo is saying that young Link warns the King of Ganondorf’s treachery, and this sets up the events of Twilight Princess. That’s fine, I guess, but not ideal from a story perspective. (Obviously, Majora’s Mask is also in this timeline.)
  • Adult Link timeline. You know, the one that’s the whole point of Ocarina of Time – where Link successfully defeats Ganonndorf and the Sages imprison him. According to Nintendo, Gannondorf later breaks out, and Hyrule’s deities flood Hyrule, leading up to The Wind Waker. Now to be clear, Wind Waker definitely happens in a post-apocalyptic setting in which the expected Hero did not appear. In fact, this game pretty much ends whatever “timeline” it’s on as far as Hyrule is concerned, and since I’m not interested in the DS games that follow it, I see it as a stand-alone game (cool though it is). But what Nintendo is saying is that all that trouble you went to to save Hyrule in Ocarina of Time results in the total destruction of Hyrule – in other words, Link would have been better off not beating any levels after encountering Gannondorf and just warning the King instead, then letting other people handle things! This is absolutely ridiculous! You can’t just nullify the value of one of the core Zelda titles just to cram all the others into a neat chronology!

So how should it go? Well first of all, I don’t really see the need to put all the titles together into one continuous story. But if you want to try, then I think the proper ending for Ocarina of Time is for the Sages to keep their memories of the Adult Link timeline when he goes back at the end, and for the seal on Gannondorf to take effect immediately when he returns. Incidentally, I think A Link to the Past needs to go after Zelda 1 & 2, not before.

For details on our interpretation of Ocarina of Time, see our original explanation: [here]

Oh, and one other thing: In Link’s Awakening, I believe that Marin is a real person who was shipwrecked and taken into the Wind Fish’s dream just like Link was. Mabe Village was created out of her memories, just like other areas are reminiscent of places Link had been in the past. I believe that when Link defeats the Nightmares and the Wind Fish wakes up, Marin is also released from the dream, and she and Link return to Hyrule together. This might seem like a lot of artistic license to take, but consider the following facts:

  1. Marin is the only person on the island who dreams of leaving.
  2. If you beat the game without any game-overs, you see Marin flying above the “The End” screen. This could be taken as canonical proof that she exists outside of the dream.
  3. Marin is a lot like Malon in Ocarina of Time. Although just about every girl Link meets in that game flirts with him, Malon is the only one who seems compatible and sensible enough to be a match for Link. (Zelda seems to be his sister, although that’s not explicitly stated.) Since major characters keep popping up in each critical generation (Zelda/Link/Impa), supposing that Link and Malon hook up would also point at Link and Marin being a couple in their own era.
  4. The story is just too depressing if Marin vanishes when Link wins.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Shirt Pins

I had to get some new dress shirts this week, which meant that I was subjected to the ordeal of navigating the gauntlet of packaging the use for those things. It’s not enough to wrap them; it’s not even enough to stuff them with plastic and cardboard to preserve the collar shape. No. They have to put little pins all over the place so that wrinkles don’t appear, because evidently that would create an abomination out of what once was an innocent shirt. So first of all, you need to be sure you find all the pins, because if you don’t, you’re going to get poked by them later. And even if you do get them out, what are you going to do with them? You could throw them away, at the risk of someone else getting poked before they reach the landfill. But I have a hard time throwing away something that’s made of metal and technically is still capable of the functionality it was designed for. After all, people use pins, right? Well, seeing these new pins join the existing ones on my wife’s hand-made pin cushion, I had to admit that there are probably more pins there than anyone in my family will ever use. So I guess we’ll just be stuck with these dangerous artifacts of the process. Someday, in the distant future, I hope that someone will find a better way to package shirts. It would mean so much to the world.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

I just finished playing The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. (The bigger news is where I found the 60-ish hours to play it – mostly it was while I was holding our new baby so my wife could sleep. But that’s outside the scope of this blog, so you get to read about the game instead.)

It was very satisfying. I had been expecting (somewhat apprehensively) a departure from the standard Zelda format, but it turns out that’s not really the case; you still explore an overworld to find dungeon entrances, find items, etc. It is kind of linear in the sense that there is generally one way to go forward toward the next level (or even within the levels), but that is to be expected these days. It also suffers from “central open area with access to isolated regions” disease just like all the other 3D Zelda games – in this case in form of a sky area with portals down through the clouds to the surface. This is actually less annoying than, say, Hyrule Field in Ocarina if Time, because you can fly between portals or the various floating islands pretty quickly. So it’s still not as cool as the older games that let you explore freely or expand to new territory from the borders of what you’ve gotten to so far, but overall I was okay with it.

The coolest thing is probably the way you use your sword. With the Wii Remote’s “motion plus” thing, the sword follows your motion (in general), so you can slash in various directions, jab, spin vertically or horizontally, etc. This made for some very interesting boss battles. You can also use your shield more actively, but because that involves thrusting your left hand forward and because my left arm was generally busy holding my sleeping daughter, I didn’t make much use of it. (Also your shield will break if it takes too many hits without your use of active deflection techniques, which may discourage use. Eventually you can get a shield that regenerates automatically.)

Speaking of stuff I didn’t make much use of, this game had a lot of elements I didn’t really go into. You can collect bugs that can be used to upgrade potions, and while I did catch a lot of bugs, I didn’t use any until before the last few boss battles, and then it was just for health refill potions. You can also collect various “treasures”, which can be used to upgrade items. I only upgraded my bow and (right before the end) my shield. I also didn’t spent much time on the various minigames, which meant I missed out on some heart pieces no doubt, but it also meant I was spared what’s always the most annoying part of a Zelda game.

I wasn’t really a fan of the Pouch, which is a container for certain items: bottles, shields, expansions for limited item weapons (arrows, bombs), and medals (which give you special powers while you wear them, like making money appear more frequently when you defeat enemies). You start with four Pouch slots and can expand that to eight. If you have more eligible items than slots, you have to pick the items you want to carry at the moment and leave the rest behind at the Item Exchange. You can always return and swap items in and out, but that still means that you will spend most of the game not using a lot of the items you have found.

I also wasn’t a huge fan of the controller layout. Whereas other games gave you three buttons that you could set to whatever item you wanted, this one has the A button do everything, and you have to use the B and Minus buttons to pick something from the Item or Pouch screen (respectively) for the A button to do. It’s confusing, it takes time to do that during battle, and it’s just a hassle to have to keep switching like that when you want to use more than one item in an area.

[Spoiler alert from here on]

The game’s geography was cool. The surface is divided into three main areas – forest, volcano, and desert – each with two levels. In particular I was a fan of the “sand sea”, which is an area that was a harbor in the past but is now filled with impassible sand. You ride around on a boat with a Timeshift Stone, which creates a circle around you that exists in the past – so as you move, the sand gives way to shallow water with nifty coral and stuff underneath.

There weren’t any catchy or memorable tunes, which is something I miss from the old games. The ending does feature a remix of the original theme song, which was nice.

The other big thing about the game was its plot: evidently it is intended to be a prequel to all other games, even the ones on wacky spin-off timelines. It kind of explains the phenomenon that a hero named Link and a girl named Zelda are repeatedly called upon to defend the Triforce from the forces of evil as the generations of Hyrule come and go. The ending feels like a nice transition to the rest of the series.

And finally, I was happy to not see the character Tingle in this game… until I got into Zelda’s room and found that she has a Tingle doll sitting on her desk. At least it doesn’t talk or move around like the real Tingle.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Proverbial Small World (the idiom, not the ride)

So I got an e-mail notice of a comment posted, but it doesn’t show up, so maybe it was deleted, so I won’t repost it – but evidently there’s someone else with the same name as me and enough in common that his friends keep thinking this is his blog ☺ Pretty cool, huh?

(I guess maybe I should update my photo to be a real one, since this blog links to other stuff that has my photo. But then I’d have to come up with a new description too. So not  yet.)

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Whole “Marriage Definition” Thing

This is probably as politically-incorrect as one can possibly be these days. The usual disclaimers apply – what I’m saying here doesn’t represent any organization, just my opinion.

This whole definition-of-marriage thing is pretty distorted in the media and online “conversation” (to use the term loosely). It’s held up as a step toward civil rights, and maybe that’s understandable, since people with same-gender attraction have definitely been discriminated against historically and even persecuted. I don’t think anyone is happy about that fact. If you look at the country today, most people are all for treating people fairly and with respect. So then people ask, why the objection to re-defining marriage?

What it all comes down to for me is that it’s not about an adult’s right to have his or her lifestyle sanctioned by the government. No one has that right. Of course we can choose our lifestyle, but I don’t get the government to give me special treatment because I like video games or because I serve in my church calling. People who like to skateboard or hunt or smoke or play basketball or party all night don’t get to have laws passed to guarantee them equal exposure in the media or school literature. The law should preserve people’s rights to choose lifestyles, but it shouldn’t institutionalize them.

So what about marriage? Well, that’s not about lifestyles. It’s about brining human beings into the world. Creating a physical body for the children of God. Granted, not everyone believes that last part, but society as a whole considers human life sacred (even most atheists), so we have laws about that. In other words, laws about marriage are not about adults’ rights at all; they are about children’s rights. A child has a right to a mother and father. A child has a right to not be introduced to sexuality in Kindergarten by a government employee. (Having a mom and a dad in a text book doesn’t present a sexual issue because it’s just about families – kids get that. A dad and a dad brings up the notion of why, and how the child got there – subjects kids deserve to hear first from their parents, and when their parents decide they’re ready.)

That is why the law needs to preserve a proper definition of marriage. Children have a right to the kind of family that will give them the best chance at success in life. Of course, marriage isn’t just about children. But the parts that aren’t don’t really need government support. If people want to live together without being married, or if insurance companies want to cover a domestic partner, or even if they want to file taxes jointly, I’m not complaining about that.

And finally, to make sure this is clear: This is not about civil rights! There are already laws to preserve safety and freedom. There are no socially-accepted lynchings or people trying to make separate schools for people who are attracted to the same gender or to restrict votes. Trying to compare this to the civil rights movement diminishes the importance of that movement. And ironically, the people pointing that finger are often themselves the ones making hateful comments at huge groups of people. But that’s fine, they can talk all they want. The point is that no one’s civil rights are being violated here. Except, arguably, the children, whose schools and other government institutions are going to force them do deal with issues they shouldn’t even have to think about. We need to leave them alone and let adults pursue their lifestyles on their own time.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Debt and Taxes

Okay, time for another political rant.

Say you’re a parent, and you’re low on money, but your kids want cell phones. No problem, you say, you’ll just borrow some money. So you take out a loan and get them cell phone plans. You take some of the kids’ money to help pay for the plan, but you also have to pay back the loan. They kids are happy, but soon they tell you they need text messaging added to their plan. It seems like a good idea, since not getting it could cause them to rack up insane bills, so you take out another loan and buy a text plan. You take more of their money but also have to pay off the loan. Now they need data plans, so they can browse the web and use GPS and stuff. Again you take out a loan. Again, they’re happy with what they have, but at this point you have some tough decisions to make. You don’t have the money to pay off all these loans, and the charges never end because the kids will always expect their phone and data plans. So you can keep taking out loans until your credit is so bad no one will give you money, at which point you lose everything, including the phones. Or you can take away the phones. You’ll still have the loans to pay off, and the kids won’t be happy, but at least the charges will stop. (Of course, not getting the phones in the first place was an option too in the beginning, but it’s too late for that now.)

The analogy here is, of course, government spending and the national debt. We want the debt to be smaller, but anytime someone proposes to cut spending, they’re treated like heartless monsters who want to destroy people’s lives. But there really aren’t a lot of choices. We can cut spending, even to worthwhile projects, or we can keep taking out loans (which just increases the problem, obviously). There’s always raising taxes, but that’s not really a solution either, because from the citizens’ perspective, having money taken away isn’t that much different from having money depreciate due to the debt. In the case of a family instead of the government, there is also the chance of increasing income. But the government doesn’t produce any wealth; it’s a cost center. So the only way to reduce debt is to reduce spending. Which means cutting stuff that’s valuable but doesn’t have to come from the government.

Needless to say, raising the debt by a third in four years makes me very unhappy.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Plasma Master – Audio Book

I’ve had an interesting hobby this year. At a friend’s suggestion, I made an audio recording of The Plasma Master and submitted it to So all those folks who prefer their gratuitous science fiction in mp3 form can go to the book page and download it for free. Hooray!

In other news, after redoing a couple of chapters in the in-progress sequel, I think I’m committed to pushing through to the end. Hopefully it won’t take another 15 years.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


A couple of situations lately have spawned one of those internal conversations I mentioned in the “about this site” page, this one about trust: what kinds there are, why you need it, and how to get it. It’s not intended as a lecture – more like a reflection on why I can’t deliver all the lectures I’d like to. Or something. So here it is, so I don’t have to mentally explain this again.

Sometimes people assume that they’ve been insulted if someone doesn’t trust them. This might in fact be the case, but the question “don’t you trust me?” may be pretty presumptuous, depending on the context. First of all, there are two different kinds of trust – character trust, where you believe a person will do the right thing in a given situation, and competency trust, where you believe that a person can accomplish a particular task. The concepts are orthogonal; for instance, you might trust your nephew to babysit your kids, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to let him drive your car.

The level of either type of trust that you give someone is based on circumstances and experience. Let’s consider the character type. Some people are more trusting than others by default, but everyone has a certain level of trust that they give random people in a given situation. This trust level could range from trusting someone to not attack you to trusting them with your social security number – or trusting them to help raise your family. (Or, like in the case of God, to override your personal preferences in how you live your life. If we all trusted God that much all the time, most of our problems would go away. But that’s a different topic.) The situation is important, because when you pass a stranger in a dark alley, you might not trust them to not attack you, whereas if you pass the same person in a grocery store, you probably trust them at least enough to not sabotage the groceries in your cart when you turn your back. After you start spending time with someone, the trust level goes up or down as people confirm or deny the assumptions you have made about them, and as you give them a chance to “try out” at a higher level of trust. But the important thing here is that it takes time.

It especially takes time to reverse the effect of broken trust. The gospel teaches that we should forgive everyone, but it doesn’t say that we should withhold consequences, and I think that a lack of trust is a legitimate consequence for some things. Like if someone robs a bank and later repents (and gets out of jail), you may be able to befriend them, but you probably won’t let them housesit for you. It doesn’t mean you hate them or don’t forgive them; it just means that they haven’t earned that level of trust with you. There’s nothing wrong with that. Of course, there’s also nothing wrong with not trusting someone with your home if they haven’t done anything particularly wrong, which again is the point: trust has to be earned – and proven.

So, some implications:

  • Delivering constructive criticism: If someone doesn’t trust your motive, you can’t really help them by pointing out something they could improve. If they think you’re just being a jerk (even if you’re trying to be polite), or if they’re so embarrassed that they can’t imagine that you still respect them, they might just end up focusing on being mad or offended or hurt or apologetic instead of making the needed improvement.
  • Fake relationships: I’m thinking online stuff and text-messaging-intensive friendships here. If you don’t interact enough to prove reliability (both in what you do and how you react to what others do), you can’t really develop the trust that it takes to form a deep relationship.
  • Teasing/Sarcasm/In-jokes: Lots of relationships use this kind of thing as an expression of closeness, but if you try to pull it off with someone who doesn’t feel close to you, it will probably come across as offensive.

… to name a few. I guess the corollary of all this is that it can be important to develop trust broadly, so that you can say what you need to say when the need arises. And that could mean going out of your way to be helpful, compliment people, and just being friendly in general. And of course learning skills and finding ways to use them, so you can have the competency kind of trust too.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Flick’s Great Idea

[Spoiler alert for The Sword of Shannara]

I recently wondered whether the Mythbusters might have a problem with a scene in The Sword of Shannara. The scene is this: The company from Cullhaven have been traveling through the Wolfsktaag Mountains, and a group of Gnomes has spotted them and set fire to the forest. The group hurries forward and makes it out of the trees, but the path behind is cut off, and the Gnomes are presumably not far behind. They make their way to the Pass of Noose, where they expect to cross a rope bridge, which they could then cut and leave pursuit behind. But when they get to the pass, they find that the bridge has already been cut, on their side. It dangles from the cliff face on the far edge of a (relatively small) canyon. It looks like they’re trapped.

Suddenly, Flick has an idea – one of them can fire an arrow with a rope attached to it into the wooden planks (or ropes, or whatever) of the bridge on the far side, then haul it back into place so the group can cross. Fortunately, the shot is successful, and they haul the bridge into place, just in time to tie it off, cross, and cut the ropes on the other side.

So here are the issues that have me a little worried:

  1. The rope would add weight, causing the arrow to lose altitude. In theory, you could compensate for this by aiming higher.
  2. The rope would have to be fed out pretty fast, or it would pull back on the arrow as soon as the slack was gone. I supposed you could toss the coil over the edge before firing, so there would be nothing to unwind.
  3. The rope would prevent the arrow from spinning, which would make it very hard to aim, not to mention the additional drag from air resistance that you’d get the moment it stopped pointing straight forward.

#3 seems like a big problem. I don’t remember exactly how wide this gap was, and I guess you might not have to be super precise – if the barbs on the arrowhead could be made to catch among some rope, that might be enough to let you pull it back up on the other side. And if the rope were thin and light enough, maybe the arrow could even spin for a while before the rope became over-wound. Let’s just tell ourselves that and call it good. After all, the group made it through, so it must be possible, somehow.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Morph Ball & Subspace

I have a theory about how Samus’s Morph Ball works. First of all, I don’t think she actually rolls around inside a metal sphere – that would be crazy. I think the Morph Ball exists completely separately from Samus’s armor and is stored in some parallel plane of existence. When you activate it, Samus switches places with it and observes it from “subspace”, or whatever. So in the Prime games, when you are in Morph Ball mode, the game is still in first-person view; you’re seeing what Samus sees as she steers the ball around. And of course, because the Morph Ball shares whatever shielding protects Samus’s normal armor, damage to one damages the other.
Now about how she steers while doing repeated somersault jumps… I don’t have an answer for that.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Laser Rooms and Password Screens

I’m a big fan of lasers. They look cool, they do cool stuff, and the word even sounds cool. (Did you know it’s an acronym?) Maybe that’s why it kind of bugs me when they are misused in supposedly-realistic fiction. Like in movies and TV shows, where there’s a room full of lasers protecting a room or a vault or something. Here are my complaints about that:

  1. Lasers are light beams, so you can’t see them unless they hit something. If you could, you’d see sunlight coming out of the air, and you couldn’t see anything at all because of the glare. So unless there’s dust in the room, if you can see the lasers in one of those laser rooms, you already know that the movie or TV show has screwed up. (And if you can see dust without the intruders putting it there, that’s fake too – why would you want the lasers to be visible if you’re the one they’re protecting?)
  2. There’s always a path through them, for someone athletic enough. Why? Given the number of lasers in these rooms, you could easily just make a dense grid, instead of spreading them out across a wide area, creating person-sized gaps.
  3. When they move, that looks like added security, but it’s also totally fake. Laser sensors work because a sensor in the wall is continuously picking up the laser light. When you step in the way, the signal stops, and the alarm goes off. If the laser is moving around the room, you’d have to have the sensor moving around the room too, which you couldn’t do (and which is clearly not happening in shows that do this).
  4. When the lasers cut stuff, that also feels a little off. Of course lasers can cut things, but it would take a lot of power to have them on, and of course the “sensor” on the other end would have to be absorbing the laser energy somehow. It would be a lot more efficient to have the lasers just be sensors, and then have guns mounted in the wall that fire when the sensor goes off.
  5. In movies and TV, these elaborate security devices never, ever work. Have you ever seen a laser room in a show that the person trying to break in didn’t get past? I didn’t think so.

Speaking of things that never work, I just remembered something else that always happens in fiction that bugs me so much that I added it to the title: People logging on to other people’s computers. I’m not talking about someone’s house, where there’s no password at all. I’m talking about folks guessing a one-word password, or just glancing over at the screen of some employee who has been lured away from his or her desk. No self-respecting corporation lets its employees leave computers unlocked or pick passwords that are a single word from a dictionary. Sure, you could probably crack most people’s passwords with brute force software (that is, guessing thousands of times in quick succession). But a human guessing words? Not a chance. But it happens all the time in even the most “serious” tech-fiction.

There. I’ve said it. I feel better now.

Monday, June 4, 2012

“Pro” Singers in Congregations

We do a lot of singing in church. Abilities range widely, and of course that’s not an issue at all. I figure the main value from hymns is the message behind them, plus the sense of unity that comes from singing them together. And it invites the Spirit.

There’s one thing that bugs me though. It’s when someone feels like they’re so talented at singing that they need to belt the hymn out so loudly that you can’t focus on anything but them, and – this is the worst part – when they add that operatic pitch-fluxuating “flair” to their voice. I’m sure works fine on a stage, when the audience is supposed to be listening to one person (or a group singing in a predetermined harmony). But when you throw that kind of thing in with a hundred other voices, it just sounds bad. I’m sure the people who do this aren’t consciously trying to draw attention; they probably just think they need to put their “best” into it because after all it’s sort of a prayer. But come on, “best” doesn’t always mean “most elaborate.” I learned this in eighth grade choir – when you’re singing in a group, your goal is to blend in with the group so that no one notices your individual voice. You just hit the note and call it good.

So let the reader beware, lest you inadvertently drive the folks around you crazy next time you’re sitting in church. Thank you.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Blood Donations

It was a long time before I started giving blood. I had convenience as an excuse, and of course the idea of being stabbed and feeling the life drained out of me wasn’t exactly inviting. But they have blood drives at work, so when it’s like a five minute walk and I can be done before most people even show up at work, I figured I was out of excuses. The first time, I nearly passed out when I sat up. I think it was because I hadn’t eaten recently or something, though. When I’ve had enough to eat and drink, it usually goes okay, after the initial stabbing and after I manage to distract myself from the feeling that my life is draining out of my arm. (This last time, they got the needle set up wrong, and I ended up with a nice bump which has since gone down and been replaced with a huge bruise that’s the size of my hand and has icky lines crisscrossing it, showing [I guess] where the wrinkles of my sheets are when I sleep. But I digress.)

So, the following isn’t intended as a public service announcement or a moral discourse or anything; it’s just the thought process I use to make myself go and get stabbed, etc.

There are soldiers out there, fighting to keep the country free and safe. Some of them end up being killed for it, and others are severely injured. Imagine you were given the option of taking a bullet for a soldier, with the condition that after a few hours, you will have no lasting injuries. If you refuse, the soldier will die. Would you take it? Of course you would. You’d pretty much have to, seeing that you already owe him or her your safety. The pain wouldn’t even be a consideration because you’d see it as paying a debt.

Now, repeat that question, but not with a soldier this time. Just a regular person. You’d still probably accept the offer. Maybe you don’t owe a debt, but the tradeoff is obviously a good one. (And of course, you’d want someone else to make the decision if you were the one who were at risk.)

Okay, so lest this sound preachy, I have to admit that on the before-mentioned, most recent donation attempt, while I was lying on the table with my blood leaking not into a needle but into my arm, while I could feel my pulse in my elbow and my consciousness slipping away, burning with fever and a little nauseous, the above argument lost all weight and I was having a really hard time wanting to go back to my office and set up another appointment. All of a sudden the no-consequences clause in that hypothetical agreement seemed a little shaky. But, while I still have an impressive bruise, I guess the life-draining-out experience was still just an hour or so, so I guess I’d better go set up that appointment. Sigh.

The Hunger Games

I wasn’t really interested in The Hunger Games, mainly because I find the whole gladiator motif very unappealing. But I figured it’s a useful thing to be able to talk about, so I read it. (Plus my wife said I should, and she is very wise.) So here’s what I thought about it.

Stuff I liked:

  • Surprisingly, the book doesn’t go into what turns me off most about gladiator stuff – the idea of turning basically good people into murderers by threatening them. It happens in the real world, like in gangs and terrorist groups and stuff. But it’s a very distasteful topic in fiction. In this book, all of the good people who die are killed by bad people (that is, by people who are okay with killing innocent people). So you don’t have to worry too much about the moral corruption of the “heroes”.
  • It presents an interesting world, and it’s interesting to see the main character’s impression of her fate unfolding, mostly beyond her control. (The book is told in first person, present tense – unusual for an action-y story, but it works here.) In particular, it’s interesting how the author throws out a lot of science-fiction ideas in a very casual, matter-of-fact way. They’re not novelties; they’re just there. (Not that the opposite is bad, but this way is unique.)
  • It’s pretty fast-paced, engaging and all that.

Stuff I disliked:

  • While the descriptions of violence are not overly graphic, there’s some pretty gory stuff going on, especially near the end. The whole torture and mutilation thing puts a dark cast over the story. (Not surprising, but also not exactly uplifting.)
  • While again it’s not described in detail, the author makes sure you know each time Katniss isn’t fully clothed, which is quite often and usually in front of men and/or a camera. So you kind of have to keep your mental camera averted.
  • The end isn’t very satisfying. This is understandable since it’s part of a series, but from what I hear, the series goes downhill from here, so it would be nice if the first book gave you more closure.

Monday, April 30, 2012


The professor of my computer architecture class talked about “career-defining moments.” A career-defining moment is when someone in charge points out a need and asks you to do it without making it a requirement, and you say no. It’s not insubordination, but I think his point is that it marks you as someone who is not the go-to person for that thing, which by extension means that when they need something else done, they won’t go to you for that either. You avoid work but also lose out on an opportunity to be seen as someone who adds value to the company. (Of course, if you decline with an explanation that you have a higher-priority thing you need to get done, that’s a different matter, because in theory you are showing that you are doing something even more valuable than what was being suggested.) Anyway, the imagery stuck with me.

A while ago I was mowing the lawn and for some reason I started thinking about the concept, and I came up with a set of categories that rank the ways people tend to approach work. In the interest of saving myself the trouble of having to re-think the matter during a future lawn mowing, I’m writing them down. Note that these apply to pretty much any organization you can think of: family life, careers, church callings, volunteer organizations, whatever.

1.       Initiative. Everyone will love you if you proactively find things that need to be done and then do the work without being asked.

2.       Volunteering. This is when someone else points out a need, and you offer to do it without having to be individually asked. This is almost as good, especially if the leader already has a clear set of goals. The other good thing about this is that if you’re in the habit of volunteering for stuff, you won’t look like a slacker if you keep quiet about an assignment you’d rather avoid : )

3.       Cheerful compliance. This is when a leader gives you a specific assignment, and you agree to do it without causing any trouble. I’m thinking here about my time in an elder’s quorum (that’s a group of men who hold the priesthood). There are lots of assignments that the quorum gets, and various programs you need to implement. You wish people would just volunteer when they were able to do something so you wouldn’t have to go inconvenience people, but that just doesn’t happen. Still, if people would just say yes when given an assignment, leaders wouldn’t really have any room to complain.

4.       Reluctant compliance. This is when you have to be guilted or incessantly reminded before you will follow through on an assignment. No one likes this.

5.       Rebellion. Of course, this is asking for trouble, assuming that the person making the assignment has valid authority in the matter.

So anyway, I have definitely found that the higher levels have more satisfying results, even though they might result in work that you wouldn’t exactly seek out. And if nothing else, I think I’ve managed to avoid any “career-defining moments.”

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Video Game Legacy – Crash Course

Due to various factors like getting married and stuff, my relationship with video games has changed a lot in the last several years. I have to carefully prioritize which new games are “must play”, and replaying old ones pretty much doesn’t happen. I haven’t introduced my kids to them, largely because I want them to develop their own imaginations and learn to manage time and stuff first. But I kind of hope they eventually discover the awesomeness of classic video games. The thing is, the games of today just aren’t the same. Even the cool additions to the classic series don’t necessarily capture the nostalgia of the originals.

So how does one introduce a new generation (or interested parties in the current generation) to the legacy of where video games came from? The most straightforward method would be to sit someone down and have him or her play one game after another. But there’s a problem with that, even if you ignore the time it would take and the modern standard for graphics and sound quality: those old games were hard! There’s no way to save in Mario 3, for example. (Of course, there’s the All Stars version, but then you miss out on the old graphics.)

So I had this great idea: I’ll set out a set of “tasks” that someone can go through to get a taste of the stuff that made me love these games, without devoting days of effort and without the frustration of getting past the really hard parts.

The list is on my SkyDrive site. Take a look if you need some cultural enlightenment!

Sunday, April 8, 2012


I have a quick Easter message. If you think about what it means to be a “hero”, there are a few definitions that come to mind:
  1. Someone who displays exemplary qualities.
  2. Someone who singlehandedly defeats a universal enemy. This is extremely common in fiction and almost non-existent in real life.
  3. The original, Greek definition: Someone with one mortal parent and one immortal one.
The first definition is the most commonly used one, but it’s only meaningful because of the image we have in our minds about the other two. If you try to think of someone who fits all three definitions, you will quickly see that there has only ever been one Hero: Jesus Christ. He possesses all virtues and no faults; He overcame death and hell, alone; and He is the Son of God. What’s even more impressive is that His sacrifice was motivated not just by a sense of what is right, but by a personal concern for each person, individually. It’s really pretty amazing.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Fortune Cookie Morality

For Valentine’s Day at work there was a morale event where they served, among other things, fortune cookies with white frosting and sprinkles. This in itself is a very strange idea, since fortune cookies don’t actually taste good. But what was even more disturbing was the “fortune” I got:

The value lies not within any particular thing, but in the desire placed on that thing.

Okay, first of all, that’s not a fortune. But no fortune cookies have “fortunes” anymore, presumably because they don’t want to get sued by people who follow them. That’s not what’s annoying.

I assume that what they were trying to say was that the amount of value we place on things isn’t necessarily tied to its intrinsic worth – for instance, a diamond ring can’t keep you alive, while food can, but we put more value on the ring.

What we have here is an equivocation – in the literal sense of trying to use two definitions for a word at the same time. The word “value” here carries two different connotations – “perceived value”, or the amount that people value a thing, and “actual value”, the potential benefit a thing can have.

If by “value” the cookie makers mean “perceived value”, then they are not really saying anything at all; they are just stating the definition of “perceived value” – they are saying that perceived value is based on how people perceive something. Duh. That’s so obvious that even fortune cookie designers wouldn’t bother writing it down. So that’s probably not what they meant.

But the only other thing I can imagine they meant was for “value” to mean “actual value”. But then if we use that definition, then what they are actually saying is that perceived value determines actual value. If you believe that, then a car that everyone likes has more worth (actual value) than a person that nobody likes. So with this ostensibly “feel-good” message, you actually end up with an argument that could be used to justify all sorts of horrible acts. And while I don’t think anyone would actually base a moral code on a close inspection of a fortune cookie message, this mentality is actually not that foreign to a lot of modern thinking. You know, the notion that believing something is right makes it right for you.

So who knows – maybe this fortune cookie really is part of a worldwide plot to undermine the moral integrity of humanity. Just in case, please think twice before making a decision based on anything you read in a cheap dessert.

Friday, March 23, 2012


When I first heard about Pluto not being called a planet, I didn’t care much, but it did seem like an instance of scientists getting overly picky about technical terms for colloquial concepts. (This happens all the time in biology – like trying to distinguish between “true spiders” and other spiders. Like it matters – they’re all evil monsters [or as my brother would say, “pure darkness”].) But after listening to the professor in one of the introductory astronomy classes I took in college, I’m convinced. It’s not a planet. It shouldn’t be called a planet.

The beginning of the argument is that there are all sorts of icy rocks like Pluto orbiting the sun beyond Neptune (or crossing its path like Pluto does). They have weird orbits and sometimes become comets. Pluto is the biggest of these Kuiper belt objects, but that’s not really that special. What really convinced me, though, is the matter of Ceres. Have you ever heard of the planet Ceres? I didn’t think so. See, a while ago they discovered a big rock between Mars and Jupiter, roughly spherical and maybe even with some atmosphere. They named it Ceres and classified it as a planet. Then they discovered another rock. Then another one. Then another one. And pretty soon it became clear that Ceres didn’t count as a planet because it shared its orbit with all sorts of random little rocks. The fact that Ceres is bigger than the other rocks doesn’t make us want to call it a planet. It has hydrostatic equilibrium (an awesome way of saying that is has enough mass to smash itself into a sphere), but it hasn’t cleared its orbit of similarly-sized objects. So we don’t call it a planet.

The thing is, Pluto is just like Ceres, only a little bigger and a lot farther away. Yes, it has a moon, but so do some asteroids. So unless you want to lobby for calling asteroids “planets”, you pretty much have to accept that Kuiper belt objects don’t count either.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Fun Size

I have recently had an epiphany about fun size candy bars. To my shock, they may not be as bad as they seem.

Of course, like probably every kid who ever had the privilege of eating candy, I was not swayed by the obvious propaganda of calling smaller packaging “fun size.” Not only do you get less candy per package, but you also have thinner chocolate walls on the candy bars. This was of particular interest to me, since I tend to eat candy bars in pieces, isolating as much chocolate as I can, leaving the inner layers to also be eaten separately. (Of course, on some bites I’ll get all layers at once, for variety.)

My wife, on the other hand, prefers the fun or even mini size of certain candy bars, due to the proportions. And I’m starting to see her point. They’re definitely not just smaller; they really do have significantly different proportions of chocolate, caramel, nougat, etc. And if you think about it, the question never was about amount per package. If someone gives you a “fun size” candy bar, it’s not like they were going to give you a bigger one and then just changed their mind. If it wasn’t the fun size candy bar, it would have been some other small thing, or nothing at all. And if you are buying a package, you can get a few large items or many small ones. It’s about amount per volume, or per dollar, not per package.

So to my shock, I suppose I must admit that the term “fun size” might be more than just blatant propaganda. (It’s blatant propaganda also, of course. But maybe not just that.)

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Christmas [Blank]

You know how there are a zillion Christmas movies, books, and TV specials with titles like “The Christmas” plus something else? It occurred to the authors that the formulas used in these stories could probably be applied – or shattered – using just about any noun in a title like that. So we came up with a new tradition.

The rules are simple:

  1. Open a Christmas book and point to a random spot on a random page.
  2. Scan along the text until you come to a noun.
  3. Write that story.

So a few of us did this last December, and I finally have them formatted and published as a free e-book.

This collection currently contains three entries:
* The Christmas File: a pseudo-romantic pseudo-drama
* The Christmas Hamburger: a children's story
* The Christmas Head: A brilliantly weird picture book... I don't know how else to describe it.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Food Texture

Some foods have a gross texture; that’s just a fact. Once in a while I’ll hear someone deny this fact, usually in condemnation of someone else who doesn’t want to eat a particular dish based on its texture. “It all ends up the same once you swallow it,” the complainer might say. Or at the very least, they point out that it has the same ingredients as some other food. I must say I’m a little surprised about this argument. To anyone who finds himself or herself raising such a complaint, I offer the following challenge: The next time you are about to eat your favorite meal, put it through the blender first. If you enjoy it just as much, you have clearance to complain about others’ pickiness about texture all you want. But if you don’t, or if you can’t bring yourself to do it, then I think you’ll be forced to agree that it is perfectly legitimate to hate food based on how it feels.