In The Aftermath Of The Storm


Maybe you saw there was a pretty major thunderstorm in mid-Michigan last Saturday, what with how they evacuated the Michigan State University football stadium and the game was delayed for over three and two-thirds years before completion. (I maybe wrote that down wrong.) A storm like that’s all good fun except for all the flooding, of course. But where it got personal was it knocked out our power. Not sure how long; after an hour of this we left to see if anything good was left at the Halloween costume stores.

The annoying part of this was having to go around setting clocks on everything again. Whoever heard of spending the first weekend in November fiddling with the time on all their consumer electronics? And I know what you’re thinking. But I use the time changes judiciously, letting the clocks know just which ones are important enough to get changed right away and which ones we don’t even notice and let slide until, like, February. It makes them feel uncertain about their use, which causes productivity.

No, the real pain is in resetting the answering machine, which we still have on our land line, which we still have because shut up. For some reason our answering machine needs these aspects of the time set:

  • Day of the week.
  • Hour of the day.
  • Minute of the hour.
  • The current year.

And … that’s it. Not the month. Not the day of the month. Hit the ‘time’ feature and it will tell you that it’s, like, ‘Wednesday, 4:12 pm, 2017.” It doesn’t report the year when giving the time a message was left, because who ever needs the year of a message except for the first workday of the new year? It’s the most baffling user interface choice I have ever encountered that isn’t related to how iTunes handles podcasts.

Meanwhile As I Scrutinize My E-Mail Like Every Five Minutes


I’m starting to suspect WordPress isn’t going to send me that “look how your 2016 was!” report with the animated picture of fireworks going off for every post and talking about how many people from what countries read my blogs. I hope it isn’t because of something I did, like keep on using the old-fashioned way of entering new posts. I tried, I really tried, using the new system but it’s designed the way web sites are done anymore, where everything is a bunch of floating loose islands and they’re all colored borderless rectangles and there’s no guessing what’s a button and what’s a label and what’s done automatically and what you have to find and press a button to do. I don’t want to sound prematurely old. It’s just that when I look at a web site and wonder if they’re trying to gamify my user experience I feel like I have to wash my hands. And I already do that like 260 times a day which should be enough except it never is and maybe I should go do it again. Anyway I liked the fireworks thing.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The Another Blog, Meanwhile index dropped back below 100 again, daring people to insist that it’s a psychological barrier or in fact any kind of barrier at all. “Ha, ha,” say traders, “we can go anywhere we want as long as it isn’t below 90 again,” and then curled up on the floor sobbing and declaring there’s no such thing as 89, there’s no such thing as 89.

99

2016 Called, It Wants You To Know Your Prescription Is Ready For Pick-up


We had a power failure. Not a major one. Just one that hit as we were getting ready to go to bed on the hottest night of all time, cutting the air conditioner. The power company’s automated line explained that it was an equipment failure and it should be repaired no later than 8:30 am. The power got back on maybe an hour later, just after we’d found two of the three little contact lights we got for this sort of contingency. Also just when I’d taken the batteries out of one of them to try putting it back in and see if that made the light better. I lost the battery.

Still this sort of thing’s always a good chance to remind our appliances just which of them are important enough to get the time re-set right away and which ones are going to have to perform harder if they’re going to have the time. One of the important ones is the answering machine, which we have because we have a land line, which we have because what if we need to make a phone call during a power outage, which we couldn’t do because it’s a cordless unit and the base was out of power. Still.

As per the custom for answering machines the time-and-date set is on the bottom, in slightly raised print on the moulding, the same color as everything else. This is because designers hate users, and can you blame them? Anyway, the answering machine asks for a couple things to be set: the day of the week. The calendar year. The hour and minute. And that’s all it’s interested in. Because “Sunday, 9:42 pm, 2016” is a reasonable date stamp for a phone message. I am honestly delighted, and delighted to rediscover this every time we have a power failure, which I don’t want to have again because it’s so annoying.

Also, oven clock, no, we have not been accidentally overlooking you. Step up your game.

Oh, *Honestly*, Grand Strategy Games


From the tutorial for March of the Eagles, a variant on Europa Universalis III that skips Ancient Rome and is all about the Napoleonic Wars, which I picked up because it was really cheap and why not?

It's a tutorial, and yet a box that says what you're doing is obscured by other boxes. Wild stuff, huh? Yeah, this was totally not a phoned-in daily entry.
I’m not sure what idea it is I’m even picking here, although I had clicked on “Naval Movement Ideas”, so I imagine it’s some national- and era-appropriate idea for the Royal Navy, like maybe having ships that move or something. Still, at least it has a nice reassuring ! to fill right margin.

So I expect the box there with the ‘OK’ button is supposed to be double-checking you really want to do this (which is pick a National Idea that gives you some benefits). But it’s hidden by the List of Ideas, which can’t be minimized or closed, and it can’t be brought in front of the List Of Ideas, and, oh, I don’t know. I guess that’s a picture of a guy with a bandage around his head on the top bar there, with a 0.88 underneath it, and not a water balloon being filled from a tap.

If you need me I’ll be over in Roller Coaster Tycoon III Platinum.

Why Grand Strategy Games Take Seven Freaking Years To Learn How To Play


From about the second tutorial screen to Europa Universalis: Rome, a grand strategy game variant I bought when it was on sale and only just got around to now that I got the mothership game done one time. And depending on how wide a screen you’re looking at this on it might be hard to see what I’m pointing to, so you might want to click on the image until it’s big enough you can read the text easily.

A panel tries to explain the menu bar items. There's four items in a vertical list, and they're connected to the horizontally-arranged items by thin white lines, most of which intersect each other. And the lines don't end at the correct points on the menu bar. Three of them point to *other* menu bar items not matching what's described in text.
I’m sure the interface won’t be any harder to understand than the ancient Roman calendar, in which you might specify that today was, say, the 22nd of June by declaring it was the “tenth day to the kalends of July”, or how you’d say that the 12th was the “first day to the ides of June”, because the ides are the 13th in most months and the 15th in a couple of months. And sometimes they’d just throw in an extra month between the 24th and 25th of February because what the heck, why not, and I’m not even making that up.

And I am just awestruck by the multiple levels of failure involved with this screen. I would like to know how they overlooked a few ways to make this even better, such as:

  • Make the text dark grey on a slightly less dark grey background, possibly one with a lot of very dark grey cross-hatching.
  • When you pause or unpause the game, have it shriek.
  • Make the images less directly representative, like, instead of a pile of coins for the treasury and money use a pile of salt, represented by a bottle of soy sauce, which can be quite high in salt; or perhaps represent research with a plain footlong hot dog.
  • Set the screen to occasionally strobe, and in the midst of the strobing effect, have the computer grab some manner of blunt instrument and poke you in the ribs with it, then punch you.

So in summary, I would like to note that when one of the trilithons making up Stonehenge fell in 1797, a report in the Kentish Gazette placed blame for the fall on the burrowing of rabbits undermining the wonder. (Pages 39-40). Thank you.

My Appropriately-Sized Rhode Island Terror


I just knew going in that describing the size of Rhode Island in terms of football fields was going to be a popular one, because it just had that certain xkcd-ish nerdly panache to it, by combining geodesy, sports, and things that other things get compared to a lot even if you don’t really know or care much about the things. So I was happy about all that.

But, and I know this is ridiculous: I was deeply worried about whether I would get this right. I knew that by giving stuff that could be not obviously wrong numbers I was potentially arousing the powerful Worldwide Nerdly Precision League. This is a shadowy group, communicating primarily by means of pun cascades and posts that convert things — any old things: speeds, fuel economies, lists of Vice-Presidents of the United States with their pets — into stupid measurements like “furlongs per fortnight” all the while trying to troll others into correcting mistakes they pretend to make. Rouse them and they will hound you past death, trying to pin down whether you meant the London firkin or some other non-London yet nevertheless English firkin, such as the Bristol firkin, and they will not accept that you could care less, an expression that they’ll also debate with you.

So in my quest to get the measurement of Rhode Island right I discovered there are no two sources on the entire Internet that agree about how big Rhode Island is. A lot of them just round it off to the nearest ten miles, even though that risks rounding the state down to a slender twig blown about in the strong wind. Some of them give up altogether: Wikipedia just describes Rhode Island as being “larger than three elephants standing end to end, but not much. Not those elephants, a different three elephants”. Finally I gave up and found the United States Coast Guard’s Geographic Information Services depository and got a map of Rhode Island that if the Coast Guard is fine with I can live with. I trust the Coast Guard to keep track of Rhode Island even though it’d save them a lot of craggly little corners if they lopped off the whole island and went with those pretty straight borders on the east of Connecticut and south of Massachusetts instead. I guess that might risk their running a cutter or whatever they have into Quonset but the people of Quonset have dealt with worse. I imagine. They’ve done a lot of stuff, what with making huts and not being Woonsocket, I guess.

But this set off a new problem because the best GIS software I could find was QGIS, which is open source. Open source software is different from professional software because, when you want to get a piece of professional software, you download it and then run it. With open source software, you download it, and then discover that to run it you have to download something else. When you download that something else and try to run it, you find out you have to download some other thing. That other thing you can download, but to actually run it you have to resolve some package dependency issue. You Google for that and discover one StackOverflow page with somebody describing what sounds like your problem, except that when you describe your problem there’s antecedents and verbs and the sentences parse. It seems close enough, though, so you follow what you think is the best answer, as it’s the one in which all the sentences parse even though the paragraphs don’t, and the settings it describes aren’t exactly in your version of the software but some things described with imperfect synonyms are, even if none of them are under the described menu options, which are different anyway, that the StackOverflow answer says. This works, except that every time you start the program it pops up an alert box containing nothing but an exclamation point and three buttons marked “OK”, “Dismiss”, and “Cancel”, all of which do the same thing if you click them twice, which is to go away and let you use the program, except every now and then the software switches the typeface over to I’m going to guess Korean and you have to delete the preferences and start over. But it’s worth it because if you complain about it someone tells you to pitch in and help fix the problem instead of just complaining.

It was easiest to measure the lengths not at all because while you can turn on a grid to make measurements of stuff in QGIS, it’s open-source software, so while you can do pretty much anything, there’s no guessing how except that it won’t be anything like you learned from any other program you ever used, ever. But when I found how — it required three sherpas and a gyrocompass — it was easiest to measure the state in kilometers and I was going to accept that, because I could convert the size of a football field into meters and just do the stupid division like that. I finished all that and scheduled the article to be posted and went off to play pinball all day.

Except. Right about when the post was scheduled to appear I thought: did I convert “120 yards into meters”, or did I screw up and enter “120 feet into meters” instead? Did I make Rhode Island three times as big as it should be? Or worse did I somehow make it one-third its rightful size? I did my best to struggle on with making a shiny ball bounce against a diverse set of things a lot of times, but I kept thinking of how I’d get home to face dozens of comments from the New England Chapter of the Worldwide Nerdly Precision League, and I’d have to flee my home and move to some other country where they don’t play American football. And not a small country either, something that would take dozens of thousands — literally, scores of great grosses — of football fields cricket pitches to cross. I swear, I spent hours thinking I might just be an idiot for having come up with numbers like “1772” or “1999” or even “788”. At least the “4940” I was pretty sure about.

Anyway, mercifully, I got back home and checked my notes and it looks like I was wrong about being mistaken, and I had not messed up calculating this bit of nonsense. So there’s that. You’re welcome, all.

As I make it out by the way Rhode Island is about 86.4 kilometers east-to-west, about 97.5 kilometers north-to-south, and about 247 meters top to bottom because nobody’s told me about any part of the state that’s dry land but below sea level, so if you want to figure out what that is in terms of Canadian football fields or cricket pitches or pinball table sizes good luck.

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