Sep 18

So far, so good

It’s intermittently windy with occasional strong gusts, but no sustained high winds. And it’s not even raining hard. According to the news reports, the eye has reached land. Isabel is 600-700 miles across, so that means we’re definitely inside it already. Perhaps conditions won’t get any worse than this. If so, we’ll be just fine here. No power outages to speak of yet (a fraction-of-a second flicker earlier this morning, but only the computers noticed).

Sep 18

Isabel 1, IBM 0

IBM has closed the Raleigh site for today because of Hurricane Isabel. Campbell University hasn’t canceled classes, but Marie is taking the day off.
There’s a light rain falling and a bit of wind, but nothing that suggests the approach of a Category 2 hurricane. However, the day is still young.

Sep 17

Brace for impact

Today has been surreal. The weather was as beautiful as anyone could ask for: bright sunshine, clear blue skies, and light breeze. As I cruised up Six Forks Road with the windows of my Eclipse rolled down, enjoying a perfect fall morning, I couldn’t even convince myself that there was a chance of rain, let alone that a hurricane with 100-mile-per-hour winds was bearing down on us. But at work, I looked at the latest weather reports on the Web and saw pictures like these:

As Rachel Lucas so eloquently put it, holy crap. All through the day, I looked at satellite photos of Hurricane Isabel and forecasts showing that North Carolina was squarely in its path, and I tried to reconcile this information with the calm and sunny conditions outside. “It will be here tomorrow,” I said to myself at least a dozen times. But it was just impossible to accept.

When I left work at 5:15, there were a few wispy clouds in the sky, but it was still a beautiful day. I intended to drive home, eat a quick supper, and then head into Cary for choir practice at 7:30. On the way home, I thought I would stop at the Cary BJ’s and refuel my car. (Marie had already filled up the minivan’s tank, but with a hurricane on the way, it wouldn’t hurt to have a second vehicle fully fueled.) 

My plan began to unravel almost immediately. Traffic was exceptionally heavy on Six Forks Road, and I ended up having to take an alternate route to Highway 1, which was also badly congested. (Was this caused by the approaching hurricane in some way? I couldn’t tell.) It was 6:00 by the time I got to BJ’s, but I forgot all about the time when I saw that every pump was in use, and a line of cars extended all the way out to the entrance from the street.

A gasoline line. I hadn’t seen one of those since the early ’70s. Obviously I wasn’t the only person who had decided that a full gas tank was a good idea. In fact, a tanker truck was busy topping off the gas station’s underground tanks. I decided that every other gas station in town probably had a similar line, and I might as well get in this one and wait my turn.

The whole process only took half an hour, which seemed pretty reasonable under the circumstances. And I was impressed by how patient and courteous everyone was about the whole business. But after all, we North Carolinians have been through half a dozen hurricanes since Fran hit in 1996. We know the drill now, and when we hear that another one is on the way, we react with grim resignation, not panic.

It was now 6:30 — too late for me to go home for supper and still get to choir practice on time. I called home on my mobile phone. Ben answered and informed me that the rest of the family had eaten an early supper so that Marie and Ruth could get to Raleigh Little Theatre by 7:00. (Right, they were working a performance tonight.) I told him I wouldn’t be home until after choir practice and went to the food court at Cary Towncenter Mall (a few minutes from the church).

When the practice ended at about 9:15, the sky had finally become overcast. But there was still no hint of rain, and no wind beyond the gentlest of breezes. I drove home. It was now time to make final preparations for tomorrow’s hurricane. Ben had already filled up the 30-gallon trash can in the garage that we use as an emergency water supply. (I bought it for that purpose after Hurricane Fran, and it has never been used for trash.)

When Marie and Ruth got home, we cleared as much space in the garage as possible and then brought in everything that the hurricane might try to turn into a missile: the swing, chairs, and ceramic animals from the front porch, the rolling trash bin, our potted plants, and even the extension ladder.

Were we prepared for a power failure? We had plenty of flashlights, and I had started charging our rechargeable batteries last night. Time to do anything else that required electricity while we still had it. We plugged our mobile phones and Palms into their chargers. I loaded and started the dishwasher, then sorted laundry and started that washing too.

Marie stocked up on canned goods this morning, and we have a propane stove and two bottles of fuel (something else I bought after Fran). We have two oil lamps and several bottles of oil. Ruth and Ben don’t have to go to school; the Wake County schools have already announced that they are closed tomorrow. IBM and Campbell University haven’t announced closings yet, but they probably won’t make a decision until morning. Nothing to do now but go to bed.

We’re ready. Bring on the storm.

May 01

Earthquakes and hit points

Listening to BBC Newshour on the radio this morning, I heard a report about the earthquake in Turkey. At one point, the reporter spoke with a British earthquake expert, and I realized that I know the guy. Well, sort of. I’ve never met him, and I was hearing his voice for the first time. But we actually exchanged e-mail messages a few years ago.
The reasons for this go back to 1979, when I was first introduced to Dungeons & Dragons by friends at the University of South Carolina. If you spent any time in game or hobby stores, you were familiar with a monthly magazine called The Dragon, published by TSR Hobbies (the same company as the D&D game itself). But there was another magazine, White Dwarf, that you could only find in a few stores because it was a British import (published by Games Workshop). Issue 15 (October/November 1979) contained an article called “How to Lose Hit Points . . . and Survive” by a British gamer named Roger Musson. I didn’t see that issue of White Dwarf, because the Columbia hobby shop where I was hanging out didn’t carry the magazine. But a few years later, while browsing in Silver City Comics (a much cooler store in Cayce), I stumbled across a copy of The Best of White Dwarf Articles II, a 1983 compilation of material from issues 15 through 30. I found several of the articles interesting and bought it. The Musson article was included, and I was particularly impressed by it.
Fast-forward to early 1997. A discussion of the hit point rules (and ideas for improving them) was in progress in the D&D newsgroup. I thought Musson’s article was relevant, so I posted a summary. To my astonishment, Musson himself responded, expressing delight that the article was still remembered two decades after he wrote it. I sent him a note praising the article and asking some nitpicky questions about it, which he was happy to answer. In the course of all this, I learned that he was now a seismologist working for the British Geological Survey. In fact, he seemed to be a rather prominent seismologist — at one point, I ran a Web search to see if he had a gaming-related site (he didn’t), and found numerous references to, and quotations from, his research.
So this morning, when a BBC reporter introduced an earthquake scientist named Roger Musson, I knew immediately who she was talking to. BBC World Service doesn’t seem to have an online archive of their radio reports, but this transcript of their report about Turkey’s last major earthquake (in 1999) includes some quotes from him. His remarks this morning were quite similar: he discussed the tectonic forces at work in that part of the world, and the Turkish construction practices that tend to exacerbate the death toll when a quake occurs.
Thanks to the BBC, a great many people heard Musson on the radio today. But how many of them know that he used to play D&D, have a copy of his article about hit points, and have conversed with him by e-mail? I’m such a geek.
(Note: The Dragon exists today as Dragon Magazine, now published by Paizo Publishing. White Dwarf is also still around, and is even still published by Games Workshop. But it’s now devoted entirely to miniatures-based wargames like Warhammer.)
UPDATE: You can listen to the BBC radio segment here. Dragon Magazine‘s print edition ceased publication in September 2007, but the magazine lives on as a part of the D&D Insider website.

Sep 11

The two towers

In this morning’s post, I overlooked a couple of aspects of 11 September 2001 that are worth mentioning.
Ruth and Ben did not have a good day at school. Their teachers had done what probably seemed like a good idea at the time, but was actually the worst possible choice: they abandoned their lesson plans, turned on the TV, and had the kids watch news coverage all day. This meant that the students were forced to watch airplanes ram into buildings and explode, buildings burn and collapse, and people die by the thousands . . . over and over. All day long. Whether they wanted to or not.
So when Ben and Ruth got home, they were understandably upset about the day’s events, but they did not want to talk about it or dwell on it in any way. What they needed was something to take their minds off the horrible things they had seen. Well, Tuesday night is movie night at our house, so I looked through my backlog of Movies To Show The Kids Sometime for something light and humorous. I settled on Rona Jaffe’s Mazes and Monsters, which I had been promising to show them for months.
If you’ve never seen this movie, it’s required viewing for any self-respecting D&D player. It’s very loosely based on the case of James Dallas Egbert III, an emotionally disturbed teenager who faked his own disappearance in 1979, tried to commit suicide and failed, was found, and eventually did kill himself in 1980. The news media, looking for a sensational angle and encouraged by the detective trying to find Egbert, seized on the fact that he played D&D. They attempted to portray the game as a dangerous cult that drove innocent teenagers insane, and blamed it for Egbert’s disappearance. Rona Jaffe wrote a novel called Mazes & Monsters that was essentially a fictionalized version of the press’s Egbert story, with a great deal of further exaggeration and distortion. In 1982, the novel was turned into a cheesy TV-movie that took even more liberties with the story. Among D&D players, the film is considered hysterically funny for its lame plot, low-budget production values, and ludicrously inaccurate portrayal of the game. Since Ben and Ruth were experienced D&D players by that time, I figured they would have fun laughing at it.
In the film, Robbie (played by a very young Tom Hanks) gradually loses his grip on reality and begins to believe that he is his D&D character. This leads him to drop out of college and go to New York City, where he wanders the streets in a delusional fog until his fellow players track him down. They do this by studying the written materials he left behind, including an elaborate map of a fantasy realm. The crucial clue is a prominent site on the map, which is labeled “The Two Towers.” Robbie’s friends first dismiss this as a Tolkien reference, but eventually realize that it actually refers to . . .
At this point I realized what an idiot I was. “The Two Towers” refers to the World Trade Center, and that’s where the climax of the film takes place. In an effort to distract my children from a disaster at the World Trade Center, I had chosen to show them a movie that actually was filmed there. Like their teachers, I had done what seemed like a good idea at the time, but was actually the worst possible choice.
I stopped the videotape, explained the nature of my error, and apologized to Ruth and Ben. They assured me that it didn’t matter, and they wanted to see the ending anyway. So we finished the movie. And they did find it highly amusing, but not quite as amusing as the boneheaded mistake their father had made.
The next day, September 12, was a Wednesday, which meant that it was time for the weekly Guys’ Lunch at the Prime Outlets food court, just across I-40 from Raleigh-Durham International Airport. This mall is just a mile or two from the airport and directly under a major flight path, so you cannot stand in the parking lot for more than a couple of minutes without seeing airplanes pass overhead — usually airliners flying so low you can practically count the rivets and the engine noise rattles your bones. But not on that particular Wednesday, because RDU (along with every other airport in the country) was shut down by federal order. It was eerie to stand in that parking lot under an empty sky, hearing only the whoosh of cars passing on the interstate. The scene inside was even eerier, because the food court was half empty. That food court is normally packed at lunchtime on weekdays — but a lot of those people work at the airport, and none of them were eating there on September 12. They had all been told to stay home.
As it happens, today is also a Wednesday, so I drove out to Prime Outlets for another Guys’ Lunch. As I passed through Holly Springs on my way to the highway, I saw flags everywhere: on mailboxes, on front porches, flying from passing cars, even on the construction equipment I passed where the road is being widened. And as I exited from the interstate and turned onto Airport Boulevard, right in front of me was a big, beautiful American Airlines jumbo jet flying low across the roadway, emblazoned from nose to tail with red, white, and blue stripes. As strange as this may sound, the shriek of jet engines was music to my ears.

Sep 11

One year ago

As airplanes began slamming into buildings on the morning of 11 September 2001, I was blissfully unaware of what was happening. I was driving to work, and because I was listening to a music CD (I don’t recall which one) instead of the radio, I didn’t hear any of the news coverage of the event. When I arrived at IBM, my officemate Saul informed me that the World Trade Center was under attack. By that time, both towers had already been hit, so it was clear that this was no accident.
I immediately turned on my computer and tried to look at various news sites on the Web, but of course they were all completely swamped. The biggest news story of my entire life was taking place, and I was deaf and blind, unable to follow what was happening. For the next couple of hours, my only source of news was Saul, who stayed on the phone with his wife, who was watching live TV coverage at home and relaying the details to him. It was a bizarre situation: the 21st century technology of instant 24-hour access to news via the Web, which I took for granted, failed me completely, and I ended up relying on news from a 20th century source (television), relayed via a 19th-century technology (the telephone). I suppose this was ironically appropriate on a day when high-tech security measures were defeated with knives. It was in this way that I learned that the Pentagon had also been hit, and that first one and then both towers of the World Trade Center had collapsed.
At about this point, Bob appeared in the doorway of my office. On a normal day, we would have been chatting via AIM off and on as we worked, but on this particular morning we hadn’t yet communicated at all — at first because we were absorbed in trying to find out what was happening, and then because (I suspect) neither of us could figure out what to say. He informed me that live coverage of the news was now being shown on the TV monitors in the hallways throughout our complex, and the two of us walked to the nearest one, where a small crowd of our coworkers were watching in silence. It was showing replays of the second tower being hit, both towers in flames, and both towers collapsing, over and over. After hours of being blind and deaf to events, I could now see — and it was unbearable. I couldn’t watch. I retreated down the hallway to a point where I couldn’t hear the TV and stood staring out the window, not seeing the trees and cloudless blue sky outside, until Bob came to get me.
The rest of the day is a blur. I remember that Bob and I walked around the complex for a while, struggling to comprehend the enormity of what was taking place, but I don’t remember what we said. I must have eaten lunch, but where? Did I go to the cafeteria or had I brought in sandwiches to eat at my desk? Did I have lunch alone, or with Bob, or with someone else? I don’t know. I do recall that it was impossible to get any work done, and that no one else at IBM was really trying. At some point in the afternoon, my manager told us to go on home if we wanted to, and I think I must have done so. I honestly can’t recall.
What I remember clearly is that I stayed up well past midnight, surfing the Web. The news sites were no longer overloaded, and I spent hours reading their articles about the day’s events. But although I quickly reached a point where I knew everything that was public knowledge, I wasn’t satisfied. I kept searching, but I wasn’t sure for what. Gradually it dawned on me that what I wanted wasn’t more facts — I had more of those than I could digest — but analysis and commentary. How was the country, the world, my life, going to be changed by September 11? Was this the beginning of World War III? How would the American economy and culture be affected? What did it all mean?
I didn’t find answers to those questions, but by the time I finally went to bed, I had found some better places to look. Frustrated by the lack of helpful analysis on the mainstream news sites, I sought out the Reason site, which already had some insightful pieces. And a link from Reason led me to the blog of Virginia Postrel, former editor-in-chief of that magazine and my favorite of all the authors who wrote for it. Virginia had spent the day writing exactly the kind of analysis I had been searching for, peppered with links to other commentary sites and news articles that she found particularly significant. This was my first exposure to a new medium: the news blog. (I had seen blogs before, but they were online versions of personal journals.) And Virginia provided a link to Glenn Reynolds, whose blog was far more prolific and had links to dozens of other anti-idiotarian blogs. In the days and weeks after 9/11, I found myself immersed in the newly emerging phenomenon of the Blogosphere, and was eventually moved to create a blog of my own, prompting several friends and family members to do likewise.
The extent to which our economy and culture were transformed by the terrorist attack is still subject to debate. But I believe the economic effects to be significant. When the Twin Towers fell, the collapse of the Internet bubble was already well under way, and the technology sector of the economy was particularly vulnerable to the economic shock generated by 9/11. Faced with uncertainty about the future, many businesses reacted by cutting back their spending, and one area in which they did so was computer equipment, software, and services. Technology companies began announcing declining revenues, and many began to slash their own expenses — which in most cases meant layoffs. IBM wasn’t immune to this, and on May 22 the phenomenon caught up with me. I lost my job in part because of the events of September 11, and have so far been unable to find a new one.
I think we’re still struggling, as a nation, to figure out what September 11 really means. We’ve fought the the first campaign of this new war, but Afghanistan was only the beginning. Since its birth over two centuries ago, the United States has had to confront a series of great evils that threatened its existence. The first, slavery, came very close to destroying our nation because in order to vanquish it, we had to tear our country in two and fight each other. But in the end, it was eradicated and the Union survived. The second great evil, fascism, was fought outside our borders, but the struggle to defeat it raged across the globe, and transformed the world forever. The third great evil, communism, could not be confronted directly by force of arms, but in the end we defeated it in a battle fought in the hearts and minds of the world’s people, who turned their back on the communist dead-end and embraced the culture and economy of the West. And with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world was transformed again.
Now we find ourselves confronting a fourth great evil, a poisonous hybrid of Islamic extremism and Arab nationalism. As with the first three evils, no compromise is possible. Our new foes will settle for nothing less than the destruction of Western culture and the establishment of an Islamic theocracy that rules the entire globe. We can defeat this new evil, as we defeated the previous three, but we must be honest with ourselves about what that means. This evil cannot be tamed or contained; it must be destroyed. And doing so requires the destruction of the barbaric, fanatical culture that drives it. At the end of World War II, we toppled the governments of Germany and Japan, destroyed their violent, repressive cultures, and built civilized, democratic societies in their place. So must it be with the Arab-Islamic world. One by one, the corrupt dictatorships must be defeated and their hate-filled, xenophobic societies rebuilt on the Western model. Only then can they join the civilized world of the 21st century. Afghanistan was the first, but Iraq must be next, followed by Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Pakistan . . .
Years from now, when I look back on 11 September 2001, I hope that I can view it as those who lived through World War II view 7 December 1941: not just as a day when the United Stated was caught unprepared and many people died, but also as the day when our nation realized it had a job to do, and began doing it, and didn’t stop until the job was done.

Apr 21

Do the math

When George W. Bush took office in January 2001, there were reports that the outgoing Clinton staffers vandalized the White House. These reports were denied by the Clinton administration, but have recently been confirmed by the GAO.
Here’s what has me confused: one of the examples of vandalism cited in the GAO report is that “as many as 75 computer keyboards had to be replaced ? at a cost of more than $5,000 ? because Clinton staffers had broken off the W keys.” OK, let’s ignore the “as many as” and “more than” qualifiers and assume that exactly 75 keyboards were replaced, at a cost of exactly $5000. That works out to $67 per keyboard.
Where is the White House buying computer equipment? Of the sixteen keyboards for sale on the Best Buy website, only the four most expensive have prices over $60. And that’s if you buy only one of them at list price. The federal government, which buys items like keyboards by the truckload, presumably pays wholesale prices for them, probably with a hefty discount.
So how does the White House end up paying $67 for a keyboard when I, a lone consumer, can get one for $12.99 at Best Buy (and for 99 cents at Computer Surplus Outlet)?