A static thought

So I have a new hard drive and I’ve been reinstalling everything.

One thing I haven’t done yet: Flash. And you know, it’s really rather relaxing. No pop-up ads, and sites like Slate or CNN load fast.

I’ll have to give in eventually, so I can watch Zero Punctuation. But not quite yet…


Looking at awesome things

My friend spinn once had a feature that took dumb webcomics and added a new final panel to put back the funny.  It looks like one Dean Trippe had the same idea: he turned a meh slideshow called “A History of Obama Feigning Interest in Mundane Things and turned it into a really funny one: Barack Obama Looking at Awesome Things.

The expressions really make it. You just know that when Obama tours that huge warehouse to look at the Ark of the Covenant, he looks just like that.

Customers who read this page also read…

I’m fascinated to see what Amazon puts on the LCK page— especially the “frequently bought together” and “customers who bought this item also bought” sections.  Mostly people who buy the LCK have very good taste: Comrie, Everett, The Mythical Man-Month, Futurama.

Arika Okrent’s book seems a popular pairing. And if you look up her book, there’s a section called “What do Customers Ultimately Buy After Viewing This Item?” which lists the LCK.

Plus the sponsored links are fun— all related to actual building.  Why not create a conlang and a house?

Edit: Looks like I picked a great time to try to be an author.  This is irony.  I’m really saddened that one of my favorite authors (that would be Susie Bright) is desperate for money to live on.

Dragon Age Origins: A glimpse

So I bought Dragon Age Origins.  I was torn between that and Mass Effect 2, and ultimately decided a) I wanted something different, and medieval sounded like just the thing; and b) I had reservations about ME1 anyway, which will fade if I just wait awhile.

And then my damn PC hard drive fried itself.  Again.  So all I got through was the origin story.

That was pretty good, however.  I actually welcome having to redo it once the PC is fixed, because I got caught up in the active quests and didn’t take the time to explore the castle.  That’s a good sign about the story, I guess— the fact that when the NPCs express urgency, I feel like I have to go do it, forgetting the cardinal rule of RPGs: there is never any hurry.  If there’s an orc at the door or giant rats in the cellar, they will just stay there until you find the leisure to attend to them.

So far I mostly agree with Chris’s complaints about the combat system, though I’d put it another way: it’s almost pure KOTOR, only more annoying in that the default behavior of characters is to do nothing once they’ve killed someone.  How is that good default behavior?  Plus the whole system seems dumb when many titles, such as say ME2, show that you can incorporate the exciting mechanic of “aiming”.  Oh well— KOTOR combat got more interesting once you got more options, and I imagine this will too.

More RPG brand silliness (and a mild spoiler): at one point bad guys burst into the PC’s bedroom while she’s sleeping in her very un-medieval underwear.  And you can change into your armor before attacking.   Missed gameplay opportunity, I think.  Most of the time the convention that you can switch items in your inventory instantly is good, but sometimes it would add worthwhile tension and realism to require it to take in-game time.

Anyway.  I wish I could be playing it rather than writing about it.  Stupid PC.

Also: back up your files, kiddies!  Annoyingly, I lost a bunch of Hammer maps, including the Uytainese streetscape I was working on.

Word: Software development/devolution

So, the Uyseʔ grammar is up.  While doing this, I tried to be all 21st century and produce the HTML directly from a Word docx file.

It was awfully pretty… also awfully bloated… 1.1M.  I redid it the creaky old 20th century way; it’s about 200K.  Word’s HTML is full of crap, things like references to every font in your system, plus lots of information that is presumably there if you want to re-import it as a Word file.  Why, after all these years, isn’t there a “slim export” feature?

I still do most of my writing in Mac Word 5.1, dated 1992.  Partly this is because I’m so used to it I don’t have to think about most functions, but also because it’s blindingly fast.  Some of the newer Words were unusably slow.

I got Mac Word 2008 so I could write the LCK using Unicode.  On the whole it’s really good– it does such good PDF outputting that I didn’t need Acrobat; its indexing and cross-reference functions were a great time-saver; it can read Illustrator files; zooming in is very valuable.

At the same time, it’s a few steps forward, a few steps back.  The fact that it crashes occasionally is worrying.  It’s also slow, especially once you start using a lot of those advanced features.  And it just has a number of perverse features:

  • an “element gallery” bar you can’t turn off (my eyes aren’t what they used to be, I want to see a whole page as big as I can get it)
  • no overstrike mode that I could find (Word 5.1 had this)
  • Unusual Unicode characters appear in some random font; there seems to be no way to say “always use Gentium”, much less “if I insert a Gentium character ‘cos the default font doesn’t support it, that doesn’t mean I’m switching to Gentium throughout”
  • No options to nudge a picture; in general picture handling is clumsy (e.g. just getting one centered is tricky since when the cursor is in a picture it replaces the entire formatting pane, including the “center” control)
  • Word can’t do incremental saves any more, so saving a large document is slow

There’s a lesson here for software developers, but it’s probably so narrow that it doesn’t apply to much beyond Word.  Where do you go with a word processor?  Maybe every few years someone comes up with a killer feature you really want to add, but that’s not enough to get the masses to shell out $125 every three years.  So they have to keep redoing it anyway, changing the interface, adding stuff most people don’t need.  And along the way stuff that used to work just fine gets lost or broken.

(This probably doesn’t apply to most systems because there are always too many real features to add.  Though the point is similar to Joel Spolsky’s advice not to rewrite all your code as you’re dying to.)

Obamacare = Romneycare

Jonathan Chait has an excellent dissection of Republican claims that health care reform is extreme or even unpopular. 

The Obama plan is essentially the same as Republican Mitt Romney’s, except with more cost savings; Timothy Noah even has an amusing piece challenging readers to identify whether 10 pro-reform statements were made by Obama or Romney.  Chait even digs up a book by right-wing talk-radio host praising a key aspect of Romneycare: the individual mandate to buy insurance.  Got that?  The mandate was praised by Republicans in 2007; in 2010 it’s suddenly unconstitutional. 

As for Republican bleating that the people reject health reform, that turns out not to be the case.  Gallup finds that Americans find it a good thing, 49 to 41%.  (The other 11% had no opinion, the slackers.)  Chait points out that earlier polls showed significant opposition from the left– about 12% feel the bill doesn’t go far enough.  The Repubs don’t get to claim those folks as opposing reform.

People are going to start getting a lot of actual information about the plan now, and the tendency has been that as they learn more, people like it.  And that’s bad news for the Republican strategy of lies and obstruction.

The sole rational Republican

David Frum addresses health care in two interesting pieces.  They overlap, but this piece addressed to his own readership is more direct about the GOP Tea Party’s own purposeful obstructionism:

At the beginning of this process we made a strategic decision: unlike, say, Democrats in 2001 when President Bush proposed his first tax cut, we would make no deal with the administration. No negotiations, no compromise, nothing. We were going for all the marbles. This would be Obama’s Waterloo – just as healthcare was Clinton’s in 1994.

Only, the hardliners overlooked a few key facts: Obama was elected with 53% of the vote, not Clinton’s 42%. The liberal block within the Democratic congressional caucus is bigger and stronger than it was in 1993-94. And of course the Democrats also remember their history, and also remember the consequences of their 1994 failure.

This time, when we went for all the marbles, we ended with none.

while this article from CNN includes some ideas where the Republicans could work to improve the bill… if they chose.

Why are Republicans so crazy?  Follow the money, the journalists say.  Frum clearly explains where the vitriol comes from– talk radio and TV– and why they have no real interest in their own side winning:

If Republicans succeed — if they govern successfully in office and negotiate attractive compromises out of office — Rush’s listeners get less angry. And if they are less angry, they listen to the radio less and hear fewer ads for Sleep Number beds.

Frum is the voice of the rational opposition party we might have in a better alternative universe, or maybe what we’ll have in 20 years.  But don’t hold your breath: there is nothing that is pushing the Tea Party Frumward.  Anyone too moderate is forced out by the extremists; no one in Congress dares stand up to Rush.  Consistent losing could force the Tea Partiers out, but it’ll probably take at least those 20 years.

Good reporters also check the math, as I didn’t last night, but Matthew Yglesias did: there are not enough Senate seats up in 2010 for the Republicans to repeal health care reform. 

For lots more from the punditosphere see Andrew Sullivan’s roundup.  Perhaps the best so far: the Democrats discover their base.  We have a base?  Cool!

Omigod finally

I’ve been nervous all week, but good Lord, the Democrats did the right thing.  For once.  Despite the vindictive Republican resistance, the Democrats control both houses, so if they couldn’t do it, it would’ve been their fault.  But victory makes a lot of complaints moot.  As with the election itself, Obama’s strategy looked risky and sometimes head-shakingly improbable… only it worked.  So maybe he knows what he’s doing more than the pundits think.

The argument isn’t going to end now, so you may want to re-read Unca Zomp’s previous summaries:

And don’t forget that the health care reform was not passed with reconciliation.   The Senate passed it already.  The second bill, to adjust the bill more toward the House’s original law, was what went through reconciliation– which is just a majority vote, and something Republicans very happily used when they were in power.

We’ve probably learned a lot more in the last year than we ever wanted to about how major legislation gets passed.  It’s not a pretty process– though from what I’ve heard the bill is a lot more coherent and less porky than, say, the stimulus package (which was vitiated by bad ideas like tax cuts… whatever the good of tax cuts in general, what we needed to avoid a depression was spending, and than tax cuts aren’t the best at producing that).

What’s sad, though it shouldn’t be much of a surprise, is how much the Republicans have degenerated.  It’d be possible to make a case against health care reform.  It wouldn’t look very nice (“the uninsured should face health disasters and financial ruin”), but it could be done.  But the Republican position has been “HELL NO BIRTHER TEA PARTY BUGS ARE CRAWLING ON MY SKIN AAAAAAH CTHULHU RL’YEH FHTAGN.”  It’s worked pretty well for them up to now.

But I’d venture to say that they’re not going to accomplish much more with it.   They’ve lost their best weapon: the fact that the bill was in process.  The many versions of the bill made it hard for supporters push it; and it’s always easier to oppose something that’s not done yet.  They’re going to talk about repeal, but for that they’d need 2/3 of both houses– not the most realistic of plans.  Unfortunately, there’s no longer anything pushing Republicans away from craziness; brace yourselves for much more of it.

The long tail in action

It’s hard not to look at the sales page for the LCK every hour, but that way madness lies. But a bunch of people have ordered it; I love each and every one of them.

It’s interesting to see this on the Amazon listing:

Amazon.com Sales Rank: #1,974 in Books (See Bestsellers in Books)

Popular in these categories: (What’s this?)

#5 in Books > Reference > Words & Language > Linguistics
#5 in Books > Nonfiction > Social Sciences > Linguistics
#42 in Books > Nonfiction > Education > Reference

#1974 out of 2 million sounds pretty good, no?  And #5 in linguistics!  Sure enough, the bestsellers in linguistics page shows the LCK right there, beating out books by Noam Chomsky, Daniel Everett, and Mortimer Adler.  What this shows, however, is that Amazon must calculate these things with sales per day or something, and that we’re in a pretty small niche, with sales in the double digits.  (It also seems to show that what the Amazon public clamors to know is E-Z Spanish… four of the top six sellers are aids for Spanish learners.)