A direct encounter with Oblique Strategies

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Oblique Strategies, how can I make headway on my book tonight?”

“Don’t avoid what is easy.”

“That’s what I like to hear! Don’t give me some mystical bullshit!”

(Actually, I like the mystical bullshit too.)


(Comments directly on the blog, please.)

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Weekend Writing Warriors, first visit

Found another group with whom to write in silence and solidarity. The Weekend Writing Warriors meet at Uptown Espresso in West Seattle on Sunday mornings. They are less social than the other group I attend, Waywords, which I rather appreciate.

Uptown Espresso is a good place to come write about imaginary games. The walls are lined with real ones. It’s like working inside the BoardGameGeek server cluster. Lots of copies of Cosmic Encounter here, whether opened for play, or for sale. A good sign, or “sign”.

What are the writing exercises like? Apparently writing for 10 minutes to a prompt at the very start of the session. I came late. No big deal.

We’re supposed to pick a goal for the quarter. My goal is to break 50,000 words by the solstice and keep going. After the session, I’m at 46,900 precisely. About 3,000 to go.

(Comments on the blog, please, not on Twitter or F*c*b**k.)

How I Spent Maai Weekend

My friend Tim Schutz and his malfunctioning robot Maai came over for our third Robot Sunday last weekend. (Robot Sunday one, two.) We’re trying to restore the robot, a Heathkit HERO-1, to full 1980s lustre. Maai was wearing a kind of clown mask Tim made to replace its protective faceplate, and an elastic belt to keep its panels on. On boot, the robot said “Low voltage”. (This was to be a recurring motif.) Then Tim demoed adjusting the pitch and speed of Maai’s voice.

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Last time, we hypothesized a couple of chips had to be replaced on the main sensor board. Tim had bought the chips for our proposed repair from Alphatronics USA in the Tukwila warehouse district near Seattle. Entering the store, he said, was like entering the twentieth century.

Concerned about the voltage, Tim checked it on the robot power supply: 5.3 volts, so probably OK.

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The robot was plugged into the wall, because Tim didn’t charge it the night before; he left the robot in the car all night…

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Bad robot, no chips. Well, OK, a couple – Tim yanked the sensor board, I replaced the analog-to-digital chip and one other, and Tim replaced the board.

It was now time for diagnostics, as many diagnostics as the galaxies in the sky. Fortunately, we had the arm and pendant (wired remote) this time, and Tim and I were both getting the gist of the diag routines through the sheer rotework of entering them in hexadecimal machine language over and over.

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We got through the initial diags to the first sensor tests (motion sensors), but then once again, no response. The LEDs were supposed to light up on motion. (As we worked on Maai, the robot intermittently complained of low voltage. Aloud.)

The main sensor board had light and sound inputs, so we tried those tests next. The light sensor worked a little, but didn’t display a full range of response to bright light, dim light, and darkness. The sound sensors also seemed not as sensitive as expected. Batteries low again, maybe. We were seeing excellent voltage jumps on the board, though, from 0.x to 3.x to 5.x – dark to dim to bright. Was it just that the robot’s display was busted? There was no voltage when we made a loud noise during the sound test. Problems with the sensor board and sound receiver? Mic disconnected? Conclusion: Whatever it was, it wasn’t the chips we replaced after all.

Many other things were kind of working. Sonar was, but it was raining outside so we could only test it for short distances. The pendant seemed to be working. The motion sensor and display were actually working perfectly on second examination. (We had been looking at the wrong board for the motion test. When we found where the right one was tucked away, the motion LED was blinking cheerily.)

The voice synthesizer worked. Tim wanted to do a spoken haiku demo where the robot would spin around afterward, but the drive motors were not working. There were also mechanical problems with the arm as well as electronic ones. Tim is going to strip the arm’s corkscrew motor and other parts down and rebuild them himself. He schooled me in the mechanics of the arm and its claw, but there’s so much to do on this little guy, and we only meet once a month.

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So what was wrong with Maai, at base? For one thing, the onboard battery might have needed charged, even though we had it hooked up to wall power the whole time. Some new capacitors couldn’t hurt, either. “They’re 30 years old. When they dry out, they tend to wreak havoc,” said Tim. He may replace the capacitors on the sense board before next time. (Moribund capacitors are a bane to all kinds of retrocomputers, from HERO robots like Maai to Apple IIs.)

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We thought of some future improvements:

  • Maai doesn’t have a serial interface, but Tim has the schematics, so we could build one. That would enable saving robot software on an external medium like a thumb drive, and expedite diagnostics, among other tasks.
  • Rare earth magnets to hold the side panels on instead of an elastic belt.
  • Various new masks for the front faceplate area, such as creepy humanoid eyes.

Moral if you want one: Debugging is harder than coding, and repairing something is so much harder than building it from scratch.

See you next Robot Sunday.


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Brainstormbringer, Eater of Black Moods

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First, let me say that if I were a good Stoic I’d be blaming the workman and not his – my – tools. That said, I’ve been trying to finish writing my third book (a book of fictional reviews of the board games, video games, and sports of a parallel Earth). I’ve been working in Emacs, and although I love many things about the program, I’ve come to think it’s not ideal. In fact, it’s too good.

I’ve gone through a couple of periods of creative block, and one of my initial home remedies was a browser add-on to prevent me from viewing my favorite websites during certain hours every day. It kept me from visiting those sites, all right – but I could still visit most of my bookmarked sites (I literally have 28,835 bookmarks at present) and I could engage in non-writing, offline computer interests such as interactive fiction (lately I’ve been fascinated by The Gostak).

Moreover, the Emacs editor itself has been too interesting – too tempting to tinker with and learn about – for me to write much in it directly. Now, the AlphaSmart Neo, on the other hand, is a limited-capability keyboard with a tiny screen they gave to children in schoolrooms ten years ago. What could be duller? It’s great.

To recap, the tragic flaw of Emacs is that it’s highly hackable and therefore intrinsically cool. That’s bad. You don’t want a writing tool that’s an end in itself.1 Your tools must be invisible enough, unattractive enough, not to draw you away from your work, or, Muse forbid, become your work. Emacs, like the slightly demonic mystery in “Step Right Up” by Tom Waits, will find you a job. It is a job.

That’s why tonight, after weeks of drought while trying to write in the excessively excellent Emacs, I completely shut down my Ubuntu laptop for several hours, broke out my Neo again (Marty has dubbed it Brainstormbringer, a much more exciting moniker than it deserves), and extended my manuscript substantially.2

What would you think of an auto mechanic you hired to fix your car but instead billed you for merely putting her toolbox in order? I’ve spent a lot of time messing around with Emacs, FunnelWeb, and Pandoc in my attempts to just write. This is the opposite of the “Fuck it! Ship it!” philosophy of Markdown I started with.

In conclusion, I frankly don’t care whether you fuck it. Just ship it, by any means at hand.

Footnotes:

1

WordStar is also powerful, and that’s why it has both plenty of fans (for retrocomputing software) and people saying they still get work done on it (as distinct from fans). It might also help explain why there’s a WordPerfect mode for Emacs. On the other hand, Emacs probably has Morse code and pizza-ordering modes too, so I shouldn’t find it remarkable it can emulate WordPerfect.

2

I used to get a lot done with boring old Gedit too – the Linux equivalent of Notepad.


What do you think? And hey, how about leaving comments on this blog, rather than on Twitter or F*c*b**k or wherever else you found this? Thanks.


Photo by João Pimentel Ferreira (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

The Time Cadet Keyboard

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A few entries ago in this blog, I used a photo of the so-called Space Cadet Keyboard, the keyboard shipped with the famous Lisp machines of the 1980s. Depending largely on whether you are an Emacs user or a vi user, the Space Cadet Keyboard was either the most brilliant input device of all time, or the cause of everything that has gone wrong in any field of human endeavor under discussion.

That photo attracted lots of attention, for certain very, very wee values of “lots”. My friend John Braley remarked on F*c*b**k, “My new mantra: Hyper super meta – meta super hyper.[repeat]”, referring to the special modifier keys present on the Space Cadet but not most other keyboards – unlike Shift, Control, Alt, and so on. Of course, the Space Cadet wasn’t only long on modifier keys, but on Greek characters, math and logic keys, and keys of dubious utility – Roman numerals, friends?

I was (briefly) a computer science major at Yale in the mid-1980s, when this bizarre beastie flourished. I remember typing my APL homework on a similarly baroque keyboard – they were in all the labs – but I wouldn’t swear it was a Cadet. In fact, it was probably a descendant of the IBM 2741.

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One thing I wanted to show in this post is that the Space Cadet was a lot more complicated than the first photo I included as a joke. As you can see up top, the keys are very tall – that is, high off the base – and they have room for even more characters on their fronts – the parts facing the user when she is facing the screen. (Closeup)

These characters can be Metaed, Supered, and Hypered until your carpal tunnel becomes inflamed. It says here that the Cadet could generate over 8,000 discrete characters. (Another large illustration.)

Space Cadets and Christianity (what?)

As an atheist, I am no friend of Madeleine L’Engle’s YA Christian propaganda A Wrinkle in Time and its four sequels, the “Time Quintet”. But I haven’t always been an atheist, and I’m pretty familiar with the books, especially the first two – I used to love them.

I’m sure that the Space Cadet Keyboard influenced the fourth book in the Time Quintet – Many Waters – just as I am that the board game Cosmic Encounter influenced William Sleator’s novel Interstellar Pig

Sandy stuffed another large bite of sandwich into his mouth, and left the warmth of the stove to wander to the far corner of the lab, where there was a not-quite-ordinary-looking computer. “How long has Dad had this gizmo here?”

“He put it in last week. Mother wasn’t particularly pleased.”

“Well, it is supposed to be her lab,” Sandy said.

“What’s he programming?” Dennys asked.

“He’s usually pretty good about explaining. Even though I don’t understand most of it. Tessering and red-shifting and space/time continuum and stuff.” Sandy stared at the keyboard, which had eight rather than the usual four ranks of keys. “Half of these symbols are Greek. I mean, literally Greek.”

Dennys, ramming the last of his sandwich into his mouth, peered over his twin’s shoulder. “Well, I more or less get the usual science signs. That looks like Hebrew, there, and that’s Cyrillic. I haven’t the faintest idea what these keys are for.”

Long story short, merely by typing into what I must refer to as the Magic Time Cadet Keyboard that they want to go somewhere warm and dry, the twins Sandy and Dennys are transported to the antediluvian Earth – the time of Noah himself – where they both fall in love with Noah’s forgotten daughter, and conclude that the people of Noah’s time are so unmentionably evil that it’s only right that God murder all of them. The Flood was good to the last drop!

Given its profound spiritual powers and the fact that it has not only math and Greek characters on the keys, but Hebrew and Cyrillic (what about Enochian?), I am forced to conclude that the Time Cadet Keyboard is to the Space Cadet Keyboard as the Space Cadet is to a random decrepit IBM Model M. The Time Cadet Keyboard is a must-have for the retrocomputing enthusiast who has everything. Five thumbs up!


I bet you didn’t think this post was going to swerve from the retrocomputing hobby to the history of board games to atheist apologetics, did you?

What do you think? And hey, how about leaving comments on this blog, rather than on Twitter or F*c*b**k or wherever else you found this link? Thanks.


Photo by Dave Fischer, Retro-Computing Society of RI (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons.

APL keyboard diagram By User:Rursus (APL-keybd.svg) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Avoiding the Yoyo Info Diet

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I’ve been spending far too much time consuming empty scraps of webpages lately and far too little on books and media that matter to me, not to mention this book I’ve been trying to write. I’ve decided to start one of those regimes called an “information diet” – a misnomer, because most literal diets don’t work, but this figurative one might.

My initial rules

  1. Purge my Pocket account, keeping only articles related to work and writing, and those of intense interest. Pocket articles are normally synced to my ereader and my phone, as well as available on my laptop.
  2. “Pocket Zero”: Only add more articles to Pocket when I’ve emptied the current batch.
  3. Create a “tbr” tag on Pinboard for articles I think I’ll really want to read later. Come back and see if I do.
  4. Stop skimming RSS feeds (more than 90 minutes a day). Take The Old Reader out of my browser menu.
  5. Stop surfing new book listings. Take them out of the browser menu too.
  6. Delete my perpetual “emacs” keyword search in Twitter. Replace it with a select list of Emacs glitterati (for example, Sacha Chua).
  7. Postpone starting any games that will consume a lot of time, no matter how fun they look. Examples: Hadean Lands, Dwarf Fortress.

My initial results

In my first Pocket purge, I managed to reduce the number of articles in Pocket by 90%, from around 2000 articles to around 180 (step 1). I also completed steps 2-7.

Thus, I was able to carry out every step of my plan, but it has only been a couple of days. We’ll see whether my new regime is nourishing enough that I don’t enter into that kind of counterproductive databinge/purge/binge cycle.

There is always ever more interesting and useful information than you can access. Where you stop is arbitrary.

For the (akashic) record, I started trying to quit caffeine this morning. Who knows? Perhaps the two efforts will potentiate each other.


Photo by Jorge Franganillo (Flickr: Information overload) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Job security nightmare

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I became gradually conscious I was doing some prolonged writing that amounted to repetitive text entry, and that I was strenuously arguing with someone. “Come on,” I was saying. “I can script this! No? At least let me set up a keyboard macro!” and so on.

I literally woke up in a sweat. I have had technical writing gigs where I had just this argument with management. Sometimes I lost the argument and was condemned to trudgery. Sometimes I won and automated myself out of a job.

There are other possible outcomes, but of the two, I usually prefer the latter. It’s more honest, and more fun.


Photo “Space-cadet keyboard” by Dave Fischer, Retro-Computing Society of RI (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons.