The Laboratorium
September 2005

Exercise in Applied Chemistry

Why does a combination of activated charcoal, iron poweder, sodium chloride, sodium thiosulfate, and water provide hours of relief when exposed to air?

My first guess was right in substance, but wrong in many of the details.

Webley on the Road

Sometimes, a musician will read your mind. I saw Laurie Anderson when I was in college, and she closed her performance by playing “Muddy River,” perhaps my favorite of her songs and the one thing I most deeply wanted to hear her perform. Jason Webley did it to me on Friday.

The context, insofar as is herein relevant, is that I got into Webley when I lived in Seattle. Where he still does. He’s started touring nationally in the summer, now, but it’s still very hit-or-miss—he didn’t come close to anywhere that I was at a time I could make at all in the last few years. So I was pretty psyched to see that he was playing an internet cafe about an hour away.

Unfortunately, I was pretty unpsyched to learn when we arrived that the concert promoter had put him on second, and that we’d just missed him. Back where I come from—a.k.a. “civilization”—the headliner hits the stage last. He gets the longest set; if you only want to see him, you get there late. We didn’t even get there all that late—we caught the entire third performance, as well as the one in the last slot. (And, let me tell you, those two bands were nothing to write home about. Except, perhaps, in tears and agony.)

Apparently, though, we weren’t the only ones to be lulled into a false sense of temporal security. Some other folks came out just to see him and missed his set entirely. (They were pretty easy to spot; the other bands all appeared to be local high-schoolers, and the Webley fans were a good five-ten years older than pretty much everyone else there. Other Seattle exiles, and their confidants, I suppose.) Mr. W. was kind enough, though, to pull out his accordion, gather us round, and play two songs for us. Song-for-song, it was the best live set I’ve ever seen.

Someday I’ll see one of his deathday or rebirth shows. Someday. But for now, it’s amazing how far two songs will go when there’s tickling, stomping, and raucous accordion-work involved.

On Wastes of Time

The other day, Metafilter pointed me to DROD (see also and especially also), a marvelous old-school puzzle game.

It’s rarely that I see a game that has what I consider a genuinely innovative set of gameplay mechanics that are actually fun and remain so for longer than the first fifteen minutes of poking around with the demo. DROD (short for “Deadly Rooms of Death,” which gives you an idea of the mock-hack-n-slash attitude of the game itself) is a turn-based grid-based game in the Theseus-Minotaur (see e.g.) family. DROD takes the inspired step of giving your character a sword which takes up a grid square of its own. If a monster hits you, you die; but if your sword hits a monster, the monster dies. Each turn, you can either move in one of the eight (!) cardinal directions or rotate your sword 45 degrees to the left or right.

It may not sound like much, but these tweaks turn out to put the game in a sweet spot for satisfying complexity. Pure Theseus-Minotaur mazes are a little too insistent on precise move-by-move correctness and get more complex without ever really requiring you to learn new kinds of clever. But the hero+sword system, when combined with a few basic kinds of monsters, creates a remarkable variety of puzzles. The richness of the system reminds me a bit of ZZT (no links; none of the sites really give you the right flavor), which is, for those who know how ZZT worked, really saying something. The game engine can be used effectively to simulate a lot of other genres of puzzle games (e.g. the use of mimics recalls some of the Heaven and Earth subgames), but the core new dynamic of DROD—learning when to engage in close-in “swordplay” and when to seek safer ground—is effective in its own right.

There also appears to be an extensive DROD community in place, complete with loads of do-it-yourself shared level designs. Would this be an example of Long Tail gaming?

Research Resources, Comma, Scarily Effective

I am continually impressed at the ability of the Internet to supply reasonable answers even to horribly ill-posed questions. For questions I can at least frame properly with the right subject heading, Wikipedia now almost always supplies a good first start (and often links to more detailed sources). For questions on which I know a few distinctive keywords, the search engines can often do a pretty good job.

Still, I continue to believe that some concepts remain too vague and confused to permit effective search. While I still believe this, my confidence in the proposition that there will always be a significant corpus of unsearchable questions is dropping. Another one of my standard examples has fallen.

Years and years ago, I saw a couple of episodes of some awful sitcom in syndication. I didn’t remember the title, the names of the characters, the plot of any episode, or any dialogue. It starred two guys, one of whom looked pretty goofy, and they were somehow linked so that each one experienced the physical sensations that the other should have. Also, I think some inept government agents were chasing them.

I don’t care about seeing it again; it was awful. I’m not even sure why I remember it—my best guess is that I felt sorry for the inept feds. The empathic link and the government agents suggested some sci-fi theme, either escaped experimental subjects or aliens, but beyond that, I really thought I had nothing to go on. Even the occasional keywords I tried—“aliens,” “telepathic,” “sitcom,” “inept,”—would bring up lots of other stuff that covered up the show I was looking for. Lots of search results for ALF and for Star Trek: The Next Generation, for example.

Well, the Net has proven me wrong. We dug it up last night. It’s a sign of how tenuous the find was that I can’t today reconstruct the keywords we used to turn up the first critical link that gave me a title. Still, the wonder is not that such ill-defined searches are done well, but that they are done at all.

One Brief Two Brief Red Brief Blue Brief

When cases go up on appeal, the different briefs are color-coded. The appellant uses a blue cover; the appellee uses a red cover. Thr practice makes it much easier to keep track of the relevant documents when you’re going through the filings in case. It also sets up some odd synaesthetic associations. The other day I had a Matrix moment.

You read the blue brief and you think you know how the story goes. You go to oral argument and you believe whatever you want to believe.

You read the red brief and you stay in Wonderland as it shows you how deep the rabbit hole goes.

For most civil appeals, the colors don’t really line up correctly, but for criminal appeals, it’s actually not a bad image.

A Toast I Didn’t Give

Ben and Kathy asked their friends to entertain them the evening before their wedding. I was hard up for inspiration, but fortunately they had something specific in mind for me. I was to recreate a dramatic reading I gave about seven years ago of a poem entitled “The Great Christmas Tree Slaughtering Ground.” (Ed: coming soon in exciting online form!) I’d performed it back at a coffeehouse in college, and Kathy had been in the audience. This was back before the two of them fused into one super-intelligent entity, making it one of the earliest times that I met Kathy.

The past is a long time ago. It’s dark there. In my case, this was four computers ago. So I had to do some digging to find a copy of the relevant WordPerfect 5.1 (!) file. I went poking through the various poorly-labelled backup directories on my laptop, without much success. It wasn’t, for example, in the copy on the laptop of the contents of a CD I made to mirror the contents of a zip disk that I backed up my account on the research server that backed up the files on the student computing society that contained a copy of the directory on my desktop computer where I kept my data from the university servers.

I decided to go back to the horse’s mouth. I pulled my college computer from out of the basement and plugged it in. After I finished marvelling that I had a Windows 95 computer with a joystick port again (Do you realize how many old games I can’t quite get to run properly under XP? Especially frustratingly, I can’t get the sound settings on SCUMM games to click, as it were.) I started looking for the poem. And couldn’t find it.

It was odd. I had a few classes’ worth of papers and a bunch of archived mail, but surprisingly little of anything else. Even the desktop was less cluttered than I remembered. Plus the file dates and email dates didn’t seem to be showing much of anything before September of my senior year. Odd. I had some vague memory of clearing off cruft, uninstalling played-out games, and straightening up the desktop as of around graduation, but where had I moved all my data.

Then I remembered. It was all gone. At the start of the summer between junior and senior years, I’d hit the wrong button when pine started up for the first time in a new month and erased three years worth of email. That wouldn’t have been too bad, on its own (I POP-ed a copy of all my email down to my computer), except that I had a catastrophic hard drive failure later in the summer, which took away the rest of my bits. The manufacturer had given me some spectacularly bad tech support that might have made things worse, and even the raw disk image I took of the drive didn’t yield anything reconstructable as my stuff.

As I remembered the story, I remembered also that after a few days of intense frustration, I’d resigned myself to the loss and moved on, a little sader, a little more paranoid. Now that I remembered that three years of my electronic life were utterly gone, well, I took it pretty hard. Mortality, loss, nostalgia, self-criticism, you name it.
It wasn’t the only data I’ve lost irrevocably, but most of the rest was stuff that I knew was fleeting when I created it. (There was this Temporary Autonomous Zone of a newsgroup I posted some stuff to …)

Now, actually, I did find the poem. I’d written it in high school, and so I had copies that had been propagated forward independently of Umberto (the computer) and Abulafia (the hard drive). But in the search, I remembered other poems that I was pretty sure I didn’t have in harder copies, and many many emails to Ben, and all sorts of other goodies that I really kinda wish I had around again.

Oh well.

And so to my point. Marriage is a bit like backing up your data. When you’re young and invincible, making backups seems like something that older, more “responsible” but less interesting people do. You lose stuff sometimes, but you don’t sweat much over it.

But then there comes a day, perhaps it sneaks up on you gradually or perhaps you realize everything all at once, there comes a day when you’re emotionally invested in your files. You’ve poured so much of your heart into them that to lose them would be to lose a part of yourself. You never thought you could feel this way about data, but now you do. These data are special. You back up not because it’s the “responsible” thing to do, but because you do not want to contemplate what it would be like to lose them.

Marriage, too, is the formal recognition and the most profound protection of an emotional bond beyond all else.

So here’s to Ben and Kathy, and long may your bond endure.

Therefore Congratulations

I am lately return’d from the Wedding of Miranda Gaw & A———, which I am pleas’d to report was passing Joyous & much Affecting. The happy couple was much toast’d by the assembled Guests, who were in some cases themselves quite pleasntly toast’d. All were agreed that no finer occasion could have been wish’d for, & that it was the veritable Apogee of the Season.

The Grand Procession was led by two Pages in the green-&-gold Livery of Her Etherial Majesty the Queen of Mercia, who remembers well the remarkable Services the estimable Gaw rendered her in the late Crisis. The Couple follow’d, well escort’d by a company of Venerable Guardsmen in the service of the Duke of the Alpine Marches, who has ever been A———‘s great Friend & Patron. All were impress’d at the kind display of these two Noble Personages, when there came a cry and a flock of Starlings rose and wheel’d overhead.

When the attention of the company was return’d earthward, it was seen to much wonderment that the Couple were wreath’d in a gentle mist that flicker’d as the evening’s first starlight, & upon the gentle Miranda’s brow was set a wreath of gold-thread’d leaves of alder and rowan. (Such are describ’d by Julian of Lyme, but ‘til now, the good Julian’s account has been unfairly doubt’d as Exaggeration.) Before them stood the Autumn King with his three attendants, who bow’d gravely.

Then, all was as before, save that Miranda’s radiance was yet undimm’d, & A———‘s high dignity almost Palpable in his Noble carriage. They spoke then their Vows & the hearts of all were mov’d greatly with Pride & Love. Feasting & Dancing follow’d, until too soon was rung the hour of Departure from that Blessed place.