December 09, 2006

Neverminds never mind, ever

As anyone can see from a quick trip through my archives, I'm not much of a blogger. When I'm not grandstanding and patting myself on the back, I'm ranting and railing against the hypocrisy and injustice that serves so very well to keep the rich getting richer, push the middle class slowly and irresolutely into poverty, and keep the peasants feeling like peasants.

Before we get rolling this morning, let me warn you ahead of time that today's entry is not global-friendly. Today I am talking straight to my fellow Americans. If you are not a citizen of the United States of America, or if you feel America is too strong and needs to be brought down a few notches, then this entry is going to make you very, very angry.

Now then, let us begin:

My fellow Americans, it is not government policy that is eroding the moral and economic fabric of the United States of America, or at least, that is not the main problem. No, the real reason America is now a second-class nation and is irretrievably headed into third-world status is something far more sinister, far more difficult to change, and garaunteed to prevent this once great nation from reversing course: the problem is you.

You, whoever you are, wherever you are, and whatever it is you are now doing. You are the problem.

There is, however, something you can do about it. The first thing you can do is take a step back from your life a bit and rethink every choice you have made since you got up this morning. Let's start with your morning coffee, or tea, or juice, or whatever it is you were drinking.

Where was the plant that produced it grown? Do you even know? What kind of plant did it come from? Or was it milk? Did it come from a cow or goat? If so, where was that animal bred? Where was it raised? Where was its milk taken from it and how was it taken?

If you don't know the answer to these questions, then you really need to find out. Hawaii, for example, produces some of the finest coffee in the world. If you buy Hawaiian coffee you will keep hundreds of Americans working and paying taxes. Purchasing genuine, unblended Kona coffee will support American transportation workers, American packaging plant workers, American farm workers, and American retailers. Your personal tax burden will be lessened because it will be shared by hundreds of other people rather than a few dozen.

On the other hand, if you bought Rain Forest coffee of some kind from Starbucks, or Folgers, or Maxwell House, or some supposedly "helping the world's poor" psuedo-charitable source, then you have just cut down half an acre of primitive jungle, reduced the moisture curtain that brings rain to American farmland, added wealth to the bank accounts of an oppressive dictatorship disguised as a democracy, and increased your tax burden by eliminating American jobs and shipping them to Columbia, Malaysia, India, China, and half a dozen other countries.

Imagine the difference you could make just by changing your morning coffee! Now multiply that difference by every single decision you make as you go through your day. The hamburger you buy for lunch might be 100% American beef, or it might be 90% Mexican, Canadian, Australian, or even European beef. Do you know? Do you even know how to find out?

The gasoline you put into your car, where does it come from? From Venezuela which is run by a man dedicated to reviving an empire spanning the northern half of South America? Or is it from Brazil, which is dedicated to researching, developing and deploying environmentally friendly alternatives? Is it from Saudi Arabia, perhaps? An ancient aristocracy that prohibits the vast majority of their women from receiving an education, working in public, and walking around town without male escorts? Does it come from Alaska where the tax revenues it generates feeds poor American families, or from Iran where the tax revenues it generates is buying the means to produce a military intended to build a continent-spanning empire dedicated to eliminating democracy and establishing a primitive legal code requiring a woman to be stoned if she commits adultery?

The electricity that powers your house, the bread you serve with dinner, the chemicals that keep your lawn fresh and green, every single purchase you make has a direct and immediate impact on your ability to preserve or improve your current lifestyle and create a stable future for your children.

Think about these things. Don't buy something just because it's on sale, sold at Costco, or advertised on your favorite television show. Learn where it's made, who made it, and how the money you are spending on it will be used.

Your future depends on it, and so does mine.

November 19, 2006

Web comics as guardians of tolerance

I have spent the last month reading the entire archive for Something Positive.

There are a lot of famous (and infamous!) web comics. In the past I have linked to time-honored favorites with long running storylines such as Sluggy Freelance and GPF. For a short while I also had a link to Eversummer Eve, which remains one of the best drawn and most beautifully rendered comics in cyberspace. Sadly, Denise moved her archive to a "paid members only" webservice, leaving the rest of us out in the cold.

Once upon a time there was a comic known as Acid Reflux. For reasons still largely undefined, the two people creating it simply stopped updating and cyberspace lost one of its truly visionary comics. "Acid Reflux" remains my favorite among all the web comics I have encountered in over a decade of wandering through cyberspace. Its loss was a devastating blow to the artform and the community.

Something Positive, however, is the comic that has inspired today's entry. It ranges from grotesque to geeky and the main character is one of the most depressing folks you will ever encounter, but when the sum total of the comic is weighed and measured it is handsdown one of the most honest comics currently available. The writer has a jade eye and a sense of humor blacker than a tomb, but that is also what sets the comic head and shoulders above its peers.

I enjoy a comic that challenges itself and its readers to more closely evaluate their perception of reality. Most of the comics I maintain links to have that theme in common. Almost all of them deal with the personal and social issues we all encounter as we go through life while no two of them offer the same solutions to the problems we face. At the same time, not a single one deals with reinforcing traditional social roles. I guess in my old age the anarchist in me is begging to be allowed free rein.

You see, I have absolutely no quarrel with people seeking the freedom to live their lives as they choose, provided their preferred lifestyle does not condemn, damage, or destroy the chosen lifestyles of the people around them! With almost no exception, the writers and artists of the web comics I enjoy are using their skill and talent to communicate the same idea or something similar.

As always, it is the exception that makes the rule necessary. Our entire modern legal system is an attempt to put the ideas of fairness and tolerance into practice, but everyone knows how imperfect the modern legal system is. Where I grew up, for example, people believed it was only natural to respect the rights of other people to make their own choices, but at the same time, my hometown was also quite small which meant there were not many alternative lifestyles for any one individual to choose between.

After I left home the population of my hometown doubled inside a couple years. In conjunction with this sudden burst in population there came an explosion of illegal narcotics, race-related crimes, and bold condemnations of "social parasites" by the local newspaper editor. It was shocking to return home a few years later and hear stories of race riots in the local park where "hundreds of people" were arrested. When I later learned the real number of arrests was closer to forty, it still didn't lessen the impact of the event itself. The local park is so small that having forty people stopping in for picnics and barbeques would mean some of those picnics would have to be tailgate parties in the parking lot. I cannot imagine a "riot" taking place there!

Right from the day of her creation back in 1776, intolerance was the number one social blight in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Here we are, 300 years later, and not only is the same problem still widespread, in some ways it is worse than ever.

Please, whoever you are out there reading this, do yourself a favor and befriend someone you hate. Make an effort to look at life from their point of view. Consider for a time the very real possibility that what you feel such contempt for is not the person in question, but for what that person reveals about you. The person you hate, the monster you fear, the enemy you long to destroy does not live in the world around you. They live inside you, and that is the real reason you are so desperate to destroy them.

If you have no choice but confrontation and conflict then at least make an effort to respect the reality of their existence and their native birthright to oppose everything you stand for. It is always possible that the real problem is you!

November 13, 2006

Honestly speaking

Truth be told, I'm stupid. I don't mean "stupid" in the sense of sometimes making a mistake and saying the wrong thing, habitually showing up late for appointments, or something similar. I mean it in the way we use it when someone does something that gets us so angry we see red. I'm stupid in the way that destroys relationships, causes pastors to burn with righteous anger, and frequently gets me fired from jobs. There's a reason, you know, that people like me infuriate the rest of you so often. It's called, "hypocrisy".

Let me give you a real world example. A friend of mine just forwarded me the following story:

Shay and his father had walked past a park where some boys Shay knew were playing baseball. Shay asked, "Do you think they'll let me play?" Shay's father knew that most of the boys would not want someone like Shay on their team, but the father also understood that if his son were allowed to play, it would give him a much-needed sense of belonging and some confidence to be accepted by others in spite of his handicaps.
Shay's father approached one of the boys on the field and asked (not expecting much) if Shay could play. The boy looked around for guidance and said, "We're losing by six runs and the game is in the eighth inning. I guess he can be on our team and we'll try to put him in to bat in the ninth inning."
Shay struggled over to the team's bench and, with a broad smile, put on a team shirt. His Father watched with a small tear in his eye and warmth in his heart. The boys saw the father's joy at his son being accepted. In the bottom of the eighth inning, Shay's team scored a few runs but was still behind by three. In the top of the ninth inning, Shay put on a glove and played in the right field. Even though no hits came his way, he was obviously ecstatic just to be in the game and on the field, grinning from ear to ear as his father waved to him from the stands. In the bottom of the ninth inning, Shay's team scored again. Now, with two outs and the bases loaded, the potential winning run was on base and Shay was scheduled to be next at bat.
At this juncture, do they let Shay bat and give away their chance to win the game? Surprisingly, Shay was given the bat. Everyone knew that a hit was all but impossible because Shay didn't even know how to hold the bat properly, much less connect with the ball.
However, as Shay stepped up to the plate, the pitcher, recognizing that the other team was putting winning aside for this moment in Shay's life, moved in a few steps to lob the ball in softly so Shay could at least make contact. The first pitch came and Shay swung clumsily and missed. The pitcher again took a few steps forward to toss the ball softly towards Shay. As the pitch came in, Shay swung at the ball and hit a slow ground ball right back to the pitcher.
The game would now be over. The pitcher picked up the soft grounder and could have easily thrown the ball to the first baseman. Shay would have been out and that would have been the end of the game.
Instead, the pitcher threw the ball right over the first baseman's head, out of reach of all team mates. Everyone from the stands and both teams started yelling, "Shay, run to first! Run to first!" Never in his life had Shay ever run that far, but he made it to first base. He scampered down the baseline, wide-eyed and startled.
Everyone yelled, "Run to second, run to second!" Catching his breath, Shay awkwardly ran towards second, gleaming and struggling to make it to the base. By the time Shay rounded towards second base, the right fielder had the ball ... the smallest guy on their team who now had his first chance to be the hero for his team. He could have thrown the ball to the second-baseman for the tag, but he understood the pitcher's intentions so he, too, intentionally threw the ball high and far over the third-baseman's head. Shay ran toward third base deliriously as the runners ahead of him circled the bases toward home.
All were screaming, "Shay, Shay, Shay, all the Way Shay"
Shay reached third base because the opposing shortstop ran to help him by turning him in the direction of third base, and shouted, "Run to third! Shay, run to third!"
As Shay rounded third, the boys from both teams, and the spectators, were on their feet screaming, "Shay, run home! Run home!" Shay ran to home, stepped on the plate, and was cheered as the hero who hit the grand slam and won the game for his team.
"That day", said the father softly with tears now rolling down his face, "the boys from both teams helped bring a piece of true love and humanity into this world".
Shay didn't make it to another summer. He died that winter, having never forgotten being the hero and making his father so happy, and coming home and seeing his Mother tearfully embrace her little hero of the day!

Beautiful story, isn't it? Too bad not one line of it is true. It is a complete and utter fabrication meant to fill people like me with guilt at our callous behavior toward the rest of you. Well, it doesn't work that way. What it does is make me really, really angry.

I played football in high school. I was not a good player, but I put my heart and soul into the team, showed up for every practice, and spent the vast majority of every season watching from the bench. I still came to practice though, and I still did my best.

One day I was hanging out with some of the other guys on the team, all of them big stars with multiple awards and their fair share of direct mention in the local newspaper. We weren't doing anything important, just hanging out and throwing around a football. Another student happened by, watched for awhile, and asked if he could join in. I told him it would be no problem, but it turned out it was.

You see, the student suffered from some severe learning disabilities. At seventeen he was already a big guy, just shy of six foot and 185 pounds of mostly flab. His left arm was also half the size of his right arm and never hung straight. He had the emotional level, perceptive abilities, and communication level of a ten year-old, maybe eleven. He was everything Shay in the story is, and more. There was one big difference between the two, Shay was suffering from a terminal illness of some kind that the other kids apparently knew about and understood, the guy I knew had been the same his whole life and unless there has been some huge medical advance I am unaware of, is no doubt still the same today.

Like I said, I'm stupid. I treated him with respect, courtesy, and the same level of patience as I treated everyone else. I helped him with his homework, helped when he got lost on our tiny high school campus, cleaned him up when he accidently messed himself in the restroom, and so on. I befriended him when no one else would. So naturally, when he asked to join us in tossing around a football I readily agreed.

The other guys would have none of it, however. They called him names, cussed me out for inviting him to join us, and instantly treated us both like some kind of pariahs. Every single time I tried to invite my friend to join in on some activity everyone else was doing, almost no one agreed to have him along. They didn't want him to come along when we had our senior sneak day. They didn't want him along when we convoyed up to the Russian River for fishing, swimming, and a barbeque. They wouldn't even allow him to tag along if a group of us were going to the local theater to see a movie.

That's the real world. That's the world I grew up in. That's the world that calls me stupid, hates me, treats me like an enemy of some kind, and then turns around and circulates a story about poor little Shay getting coaxed into a fake home run.

Our world is sick. The choices we make every single day of our lives are what make it sick. For everyone like me who befriends a real-world "Shay" and tries to include him or her, there are tens of thousands of you who circulate Shay's story and pretend that shedding a few tears over a short fiction makes you honest. It doesn't. It makes you a hypocrite!

If Shay's little tale really moves you, then do something about it. Befriend that weird guy at school who wears glasses, reads comic books and plays funny games. Invite along that girl who always wears black, scowls at everyone, and carries around books about demonology.

Or not. You could always do the same thing the other smart people do. Forward the story to a couple dozen of your friends and feel like the hero you will never be.

July 01, 2006

Divining the virtual future

The best virtual reality inspired online game. What is it? Is defining such a thing even possible? World of Warcraft has a couple million regular users now, and not just in Asia. Guild Wars is rapidly catching up. Like World of Warcraft, Guild Wars has garnered huge numbers of players from many different regions. Something in these two games crosses cultural boundaries in a way no other online game has yet to match. Personally, I would place my money on two simple areas: playability and socialization.

Both Guild Wars and World of Warcraft feature iconography traditionally associated with Medieval European fantasy. With the new "Factions" expansion, Guild Wars has added a generous helping of Asian iconography as well, but the traditional symbols, power sets, and character roles were what got it off the ground and running. World of Warcraft requires a monthly fee while Guild Wars does not. Guild Wars is more colorful and has finer detail while World of Warcraft leans strongly toward cartoonish. Both games combine story-centric roleplaying campaigns with more or less open PvP battlefields, and yet both games go to great extremes to keep the PvP and PvE gameplay separate. Guild Wars keeps them entirely separate, even allowing the creation of a max-level PvP character right from the first moment you log on.

Regardless of whether anyone happens to like the idea, facts and numbers do not lie. World of Warcraft and Guild Wars are the future of fantasy MMORPGs. Every title currently out there and every title that comes out will have to contend directly against these two giants, both of which grow substantially every single day.

But are they the sum total of virtual life? Do they really represent the limits of online virtual roleplaying? I think not.

Enter Spore. It's not a MMORPG like Lineage II or City of Heroes/City of Villains, nor is it a virtual world along the lines of Second Life or There. It's not even an RTS like Age of Empires or Civilization. Spore is something so entirely different critics wind up giving it awards in widely disparate categories because it falls into all of them and yet fits none.

Personally, I have been waiting for Spore for well over a decade. From the very first moment I loaded SimEarth onto my very first home PC I saw the potential for combining it with SimCity and creating an all encompassing game that could touch on every area of life from the moment of it's unexpected quickening to the final entropic conclusion. A couple years later SimLife came out. Back then, the internet was a very small place, so Will Wright and several other designers had their e-mail addresses in the back of the manual. After a couple days playing SimLife, I fired off an e-mail to Will Wright and encouraged him to find some way to blend these three titles together and completely change the way we play games.

His response was basically, "I'd love to! But who will write the millions and billions of lines of code necessary to make it work?"

It looks like he finally found someone.

March 27, 2006

Misadventures in Programming

Once again I have taken up the arduous task of learning C++ programming. Now, I realize that some of you out there are mathematical geniuses and for you, C++ (or any other programming language) is not so much an exercise in learning as it is an expression of common sense.

I still get 5 when I add 2+2, which is why I need a computer in the first place. For me, there is nothing simple about learning programming.

Anyway, let's get this adventure rolling. Perhaps one of these days I'll have enough entries to warrant a special programming blog, in the meantime, I'm just going to add them to this one.

My first misadventure took place in getting everything set up. I had a pretty good (near top of the line!) computer, so I started by downloading half a dozen free compilers and experimenting with them. The first and most important of these was the Bloodshed DevC++ compiler and IDE. This is without a doubt the finest OpenSource program I have ever encountered. It is a modern, full-featured IDE based on the MinGW compiler. DevC++ is pure magic, easy to install and use, and completely and totally free under the GNU license. If you absolutely refuse to pay for a compiler, and you don't need more than one language or 100% Windows compatibility past, present, and future, then DevC++ will fit the bill.

Visual C++ 2005 Express Edition is a miracle. For one year you can use, free of charge or obligation, a fully-functional, near-retail quality Microsoft IDE and compiler. It has all of the core features of the very expensive Visual Studio 2005 including one of the fastest, most efficient optimizing C++ compilers on the market today. As far as I can tell, if you are serious about learning professional quality programming but do not yet have the resources to get started, this is the very best package you could ever hope to lay hands on. It is a beautiful IDE, it is ISO-compliant, and it is simply a joy to use, even for a rank amateur like myself. If you download and add the Platform Specific Software Development Kit (PSDK), then you'll also have the next best thing to the standard MFC libraries included with the retail version. Get it, fall in love with it, and learn once and for all why OpenSource might come close to the "real thing", but will never, ever truely surpass it.

I also downloaded and installed Cygwin along with all the development packages it has available. Gcc is an excellent compiler and well worth experimenting with, especially for beginners. It's free, and because it relies on command line functionality, it forces the user to learn their way around a computer without the ease and comfort of a graphical user interface (GUI) such as WindowsXP or the up and coming Vista. Once you learn how powerful command line computing truly is, you will wonder why anyone ever wanted anything else.

Well, that's only half-true, I suppose. People use Mac and Windows because it's easy, it's fast, and it requires very little thought. A good GUI transforms the computer from a complex machine into an almost invisible background tool. I must confess, despite my occasional grumbles, I do like using WindowsXP and I am looking forward to Vista. It sure does make it easier to focus on finishing the task at hand rather than fumbling around with finding the best way to get started.

Which brings me full circle. There I was with half a dozen compilers and a dozen SDKs installed on my hard drive. I ordered some books from and got ready to get back into programming!

Then my wife decided to buy me a new computer.

Quite suddenly, with no warning, I found myself placing an order for a Dell XPS 600.

Okay, now what? I'd just spent nearly a month getting everything installed and set up, and suddenly in two weeks a new computer is arriving at my door. Once I picked my jaw up off the floor, I got busy cleaning out all the garbage I'd just finished installing so I could pass the Sony on to my son. This also forced me to face the devastating truth that what I really needed was not a free compiler at all. No, like it or not, the time had come to invest in the "real thing". Once my new computer arrived, I got my games installed, then restored my data files. After my new books arrived, I went to Akihabara and ordered an English version of Visual Studio 2005 Standard Edition. So, now I have a new computer with ONE compiler installed. I also have three books on game programming to work my way through.

It took some time, and a decade of false starts (quite literally, I installed my very first compiler way back in 1994 or so, but never really mastered it), but I am finally in position to do some serious C++ study.

Which of course means C++ is on the way out. C#, it seems, is the future of computing. And well it might be. It looks to be a step up from C++ and goodness knows, C++ is getting old and starting to show it's wrinkles in rather obvious ways. On the other hand, COBOL is just as strong as ever in some circles, and it's been around darn near forever! So who knows, maybe some things never truly die. Maybe, just maybe, there will always be a place for archaic programming languages and the people who prefer them.

February 16, 2006

The Mythical Golden Past

A friend of mine recently tried to brighten my day by sending me a chain letter with a long list of things that were common a few decades ago but have now disappeared. A few of these golden moments were:

>> Remember when:
>> All the girls had ugly gym uniforms?
>> It took five minutes for the TV to warm up?
>> Nearly everyone's Mum was at home when the kids got home from school?
>> Nobody owned a purebred dog?
>> You could leave your wallet and shoes wrapped up in a towel on the beach and know that they would be there when you got back?
>> You'd reach into a muddy gutter for a penny?
>> Your Mum wore stockings that came in two pieces?
>> All your male teachers wore ties and female teachers had their hair done every day and wore high heels?
>> You got your windscreen cleaned, oil checked, and petrol pumped, without asking, all for free, every time?

Well, I replied with a few of my own:

I also remember three white boys ganging up on a black or latin boy just because he was different.
I also remember the mayor "adopting" a new mexican boy every year and nobody wondering why, or how.
I also remember policemen (no police women) telling women they could get off from a traffic ticket in exchange for a blow job and nobody complained.
I also remember male high school teachers keeping female students after class for detention only to wind up giving them "extra credit" for the quality of their work.
I also remember being able to slip $20 to the police chief (since everybody was on a first name basis anyway) in order to make a speeding ticket disappear.
I also remember the "urban improvement project" that used city funds to build a bordello where illegal immigrants were employed to entertain the city council and their friends.

Our world is a bloody mess. There is no doubt about that. A little time watching the daily news reveals a world filled with nations at war, nations sponsoring terrorism, nations that are corrupt from top to bottom, and nations with bureaucracies so incompetent they cannot deliver mobile homes across state lines to help a city filled with people made homeless by a hurricane.

The great illusion is the belief that somehow the world was better when we were children. It wasn't. In many ways, it was far worse. Instead of watching a soap opera this afternoon, or dropping down to the mall for a latte, try spending some time watching The History Channel.

Our world is a bloody mess for one reason and one reason only: we have not learned from the mistakes of our past! Greed, corruption, ambition, selfishness, power abuse, these problems have been with us from the dawn of time. Some Sumerian clay tablets record trials and punishments for crimes that are no different than what the evening news reports on every day of the week. Two of the first laws in the Code of Hammurabi were prohibitions against murder and rape, both still common crimes in the modern world.

Our world is a bloody mess because we are. Each and every one of us. Until we learn to accept the differences between us as natural, until the wealthy learn they are not the center of the universe, until we realize that the focus of our society must be on helping the underprivileged and those unable or even just unwilling to contribute, then we will do nothing more than perpetuate the myth of a golden past that never, ever existed.

I'm sorry, but until every individual from the most powerful among us to the most disenfranchised starts taking responsibility for the consequences of their actions our world is destined to endlessly repeat the mistakes of our ancestors. Not only is there no golden past, I strongly suspect there will be no golden future!

January 14, 2006

Traditionally cursed

I'm not superstitious, but once in awhile the coincidences do get to me. It was Friday the 13th, but I didn't let that stop me! I went to Akihabara, bought a GeForce 6600 video card made by Gigabyte along with 2 gigabytes of Buffalo RAM. I double-checked all the specs, cross-checked with the Buffalo reference book at the store, read the directions in all the manuals, then carefully installed the new components and fired it up.

I got an "Abnormal Fan condition" error, so I opened the case back up and looked around. Sure enough, a plug had come undone. Plugged it back in, put the case on, fired it up again, and had no further problems.

Took a little while to download the latest video driver, but I got it downloaded, updated it, and logged on to City of Villains. For forty-five minutes I had the most incredible gameplay experience of my online life. Fast, gorgeous graphics, incredible detail, and not a single stutter or skipped frame.

Then the power cut off without warning.

Reset the power breaker, fired it up again. Forty minutes later, it cut off again, and this time it refused to boot back up.

Did I install something wrong? Did I miss a connection? Did the short-lived fan error cause some deeper problem?

I don't know, and probably never will. Tomorrow I take the video card and memory chips back for testing, but I'm sure they'll be clean. Next week sometime I'll have to work through my wife (my Japanese ability is too poor to do it myself) to negotiate a test and possible repair session at Sony, or maybe not. I don't know.

Maybe it was just the traditional Friday the 13th curse come to haunt me.