May 21

May the phone be with you

The moment I noticed today’s date, I immediately said to myself, “Hmm, it’s the twenty-third anniversary of the premiere of The Empire Strikes Back.” Now, how did I know that? Sure, I’m a world-class geek, but I don’t normally have information that obscure at my fingertips. In fact, I can’t tell you the exact premiere date of any other Star Wars movie, even the one that came out last year. So what’s the explanation?
It’s the result of a clever marketing ploy by Lucasfilm. Movie studios are keenly aware that to maximize interest in a soon-to-be-released movie, their promotional campaign should gradually reveal tidbits of information about it as the premiere date approaches. Nowadays, the most effective way to do that is with an official Web site, but that wasn’t an option back in 1980. So the studio made use of another network: the telephone system. Lucasfilm set up a toll-free phone number that fans could call to hear plot teasers about The Empire Strikes Back, delivered in character by the voices of the cast. The messages were rotated on (as I recall) a weekly basis, encouraging the fans to call the number repeatedly to make sure they heard each one. And in a stroke of marketing genius, the phone number was the release date of the movie: (800) 521-1980. This ensured that, having memorized the number, Star Wars fans were also committing the date to memory.
I still have that number memorized, even though the line was disconnected over two decades ago. I can’t dial my wife’s office number without looking it up first, but I’ll remember Darth Vader’s phone number until the day I die. Such is the power of fannish obsession.

May 19

It’s dead, that’s what’s wrong with it

In nearly three decades of playing and working with computers, I thought I had experienced just about every way in which they can malfunction, from hard disk failures and faulty power switches (my Gateway Essential 550 did both of those) to chronic operating system instability (Windows 98, I’m looking at you). I’ve even dropped a Palm on a hard floor and heard the sickening tinkle of glass as its screen shattered. But my office computer surprised me today with a new variety of disaster.
Remember what happens on Star Trek when a decloaking Romulan ship attacks, or an overlooked gravitic mine detonates nearby? Sparks fly from the consoles on the bridge, and the air fills with smoke. It was like that. Well, okay, not quite that spectacular — but the computer gave off a bright flash and the snapping sound of an electric arc. As the air filled with the pungent smell of ozone, the computer went dead. Something had shorted out in the power supply, and now I had a rectangular beige doorstop. This computer is no more! It has ceased to be! It’s expired and gone to meet its maker — hang on, IBM is its maker. Well, anyway, it’s definitely an ex-computer.
My coworker in the next office submitted a repair request on my behalf (that’s normally done online, so I was certainly in no position to do it). The “doctor” will come to my office tomorrow morning, but we know the patient is dead and can’t be resurrected. The best prospect is a brain transplant; he’ll bring another computer with him (actually, I think his hunchbacked assistant will be carrying it) and will attempt to swap the hard disks, then channel a bolt of lightning through the lifeless body. (Isn’t that what happens when you turn on the switch?) The result will be a kind of zombie version of my computer, which will shuffle around the office making incoherent noises until a mob of my coworkers gathers, brandishing pitchforks and torches, and . . .
Sorry. Anyhow, the deceased computer should be either repaired or replaced tomorrow.

May 10

Brown paper bags

Ruth says that she plans to take some brown paper bags to the prom in case she and her friends get bored. This is an excellent idea. In addition to the “lookin’ at a thing in a bag” joke, the bags have lots of other uses:

  • Inflate a bag and then burst it to make a loud bang, causing the chaperones to call the police because the prom is being attacked by terrorists.
  • Walk up to a guy you don’t like, hand him a bag, and tell him it’s for his date to wear over her head. Then run.
  • If you get overexcited while doing these things and start hyperventilating, breathe into a bag until you recover.
  • Wear a bag over your own head (with eyeholes, of course) to avoid being identified while carrying out other pranks.
  • If there are any bags left when the prom is over, use them for the time-honored flaming dog crap joke on the way home.

I’m just speaking hypothetically here, of course. I’m sure Ruth won’t actually do any of these things.

UPDATE: Ben points out that Flaming Dog Crap would be a good name for a rock band. (It’s an excellent description of several rock bands I could name.)

May 09

Wrong, wrong, wrong

Instead of an essay on a single topic, I have several items to report today. However, these items do have a unifying theme, which is this: I was wrong.
First, an update on my experiment in moonlighting: it was a failure. “How hard can it be?” I asked here when I announced the idea. Pretty damn hard, as it turns out. I lasted a week. It wasn’t just the chronic sleep deficit, or not seeing my family, or the lack of time for anything other than work or sleep. What finally convinced me to give up was the realization that I had decided to try moonlighting for two reasons, and neither of them was valid. Reason one, you may remember, was that I didn’t want to leave Perigee shorthanded just when their workload was heaviest. But the workload actually peaked a week or two before I started my IBM contract, and Perigee was already starting to lay off temporary workers. By the beginning of this week, the night shift was down to just a few people, and the stuff I was being given to do was pretty trivial. They didn’t actually need me very much.
Reason two was that my family could use the extra money. But I found that because I was short of sleep, I was hitting the snooze button for longer in the morning, and arriving at work later. No one at IBM seemed to mind, because we have flex time — but I was still leaving on time at 5:00 in order to get to my evening job. I wasn’t putting in a full day at IBM. Since my hourly rate at IBM was much better than at Perigee, missing an hour at my day job in order to work an hour at my evening job was, to put it in mathematical terms, stupid. If I wanted to earn more, I would be better off working more hours at IBM. So this past Tuesday, I resigned from Perigee and went home to spend an evening with my family. My stress level has been declining steadily ever since.
What else was I wrong about? Pedestrian signal lights. On Wednesday, my IBM team went to lunch together at the shopping center across the intersection. And I discovered that I was mistaken about the signal light for crossing Six Forks Road — it does sometimes say WALK. But it had never done so for me — not once! Why? There is a very simple explanation. The push-to-walk buttons work just fine, but I was pressing the wrong one. Despite the signs indicating which button was for crossing which street, I had gotten them backwards. I was pressing the button for Millbrook when I wanted to cross Six Forks. How I escaped becoming roadkill, I’ll never know.
If you’re wondering, the restaurant we crossed the street to dine at was the Bull and Bear. Yes, the place that was rated dismal in the one review I had managed to find. Not only had my teammates not read that review, the restaurant is a favorite of theirs; they eat there all the time. Well, I couldn’t very well turn down their invitation, could I? I steeled myself for possible food poisoning and followed them across the intersection. Guess what? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the place. The service was excellent, and my bean-and-ham soup and chicken cordon bleu sandwich were entirely satisfactory. In this case it was the reviewers who were wrong (or perhaps they just visited the B&B on a bad day). But I accepted their assessment instead of checking the place out myself, so I was wrong, too.
As you can see, I was wrong about pretty much everything. But weblogs can be edited. If I were Michael Moore, I would delete the blog entries showing just how wrong I was and pretend it never happened. Well, I would much rather be like Rachel Lucas. I’ll follow her example and leave the record intact, proving to the world that I’m a moron and I don’t know anything.

Posted in Me
May 03

Creative jaywalking

My new IBM office is in a building near the intersection of Six Forks Road and Millbrook Avenue in northern Raleigh. Unlike the other IBM sites where I’ve worked, this one has no cafeteria — but that’s not really a problem, because there are plenty of restaurants and fast-food places nearby. In fact, some are within walking distance. A shopping center at this intersection includes a KFC/Taco Bell hybrid, a Subway, a Chinese place, and a restaurant called the Bull and Bear. (What kind of restaurant is it? A dismal one, apparently.)
Although it’s not far away, the shopping center is diagonally opposite the IBM site, requiring me to cross both streets in order to get there. Both crosswalks are equipped with WALK/DON’T WALK signal lights and push-to-walk buttons. After having made use of these crosswalks several times, I have learned something interesting: the signal light for crossing Six Forks Road always says DON’T WALK. I’m not exaggerating — you can stand there as long as you like, but WALK never appears. (Needless to say, pressing the P-T-W button has no effect.) The simplest explanation is that the crossing signal is broken, but I have another theory. I believe that the city’s traffic engineers studied the intersection and concluded that it is never safe to cross Six Forks on foot, so they installed a signal that won’t let you try it.
Of course I don’t let that stop me. Six Forks may be too dangerous for ordinary pedestrians, but I went to the University of South Carolina, where you either learn to dodge cars or you don’t live to graduate. USC’s main campus is located in the middle of downtown Columbia, and a major thoroughfare (Greene Street) runs right through the middle of the campus. This is by design, I’m sure — the university’s founders believed that natural selection should be a part of the curriculum. That also explains the Horseshoe, a large grassy rectangle dotted with trees and crisscrossed by brick walkways. There is no vehicular traffic on the Shoe, but on most days there are multiple impact sprinklers in operation. To traverse one of those brick walkways without getting wet, you must observe the timing of the sprinklers and then carefully choose the correct walking speed and moment of departure. It’s kind of like a live-action version of Pac-Man, and it helps you develop the skills you need to cross Greene Street.
The Horseshoe has a large squirrel population, which provides the opportunity for another entertaining pastime: Squirrel Bingo. The entire Shoe is your Bingo card, divided into triangular spaces by the walkways. The squirrels are your counters. If you can find a contiguous series of spaces, each containing at least one squirrel, that crosses the Horseshoe from side to side, you win. I lived on the Shoe for a year, and by the end of it, I could play Dodge The Sprinklers and Squirrel Bingo simultaneously. Compared to that, crossing Six Forks Road isn’t even a mild challenge.
UPDATE: Marie reminds me that Greene Street had gates that were used to close it to vehicular traffic and save students from being run over. True, but the gates were only closed during the daytime on weekdays; on evenings and weekends, it was back to Pedestrian Roulette. And in any case, the gates only protected a couple of blocks of Greene, from Sumter Street to College Street. If you wanted to walk to class from Sims (where Marie lived), or from the Presbyterian Student Center (where I lived during my senior year), you still had to dodge cars.
Marie also denies any knowledge of Squirrel Bingo, even though she worked on the Horseshoe at the South Caroliniana Library. That just proves that she was spending too much time on her job, and not enough time gazing out the window.
UPDATE: Bob reminisces about life on the Shoe.

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.

May 01


Readers of this blog may be starting to wonder: does this guy ever write about anything other than his job and/or lack of one? That’s a fair question. When I created this blog, I didn’t define a specific subject for it. The idea was to post whatever I felt like writing, on whatever topic happened to be on my mind. In recent weeks, that has been employment. But really, what else would you expect? The major events of my life have all been job-related lately: starting a temporary job, changing shifts, getting inquiries about IBM contracts, interviewing, receiving an offer, and starting the new contract. As I settle into my new job and it becomes just another part of everyday life, I won’t be so preoccupied with the subject and I’ll start writing about other things. I promise.
But not today, because I’ve embarked on a new occupational adventure: working two jobs at once.
First, a little background. When I started my temporary job at the healthcare company on March 10, I was asked what my shift preference was, and I said it didn’t matter. So they put me on the night shift, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. The reason was simple: the company’s office space was maxed out in the daytime, but they could bring in more people at night and put them in the cubicles vacated by the day crew at 5:00. As turnover created vacancies on the day shift, night people would be moved to the day. That’s what happened in my case; after a couple of weeks of working nights, I switched to daytime.
We temporary employees were hired to help the company meet a major deadline at the end of May, and it was made clear that our employment would end as of June 1. (I had no problem with that — a temporary job is much better than no job, and it gave me more time to find something less temporary.) Now, normally, when you are offered a new job, you have to quit the old one. But it occurred to me that in this case, I could overlap them. I could ask to be moved back to the night shift, and keep my temporary job until the end of May as originally planned. Was I insane to consider this? Perhaps, but I decided to do it for two reasons. First, my temporary employer had done me a big favor by hiring me when I badly needed the work, and I didn’t want to repay their kindness by leaving them shorthanded when they needed me. And second, my family can really use the extra money.
So now I work at IBM during the day, and when 5:00 comes, I drive to my other office and work until 10:30. This means that except on weekends, I’m always at work, in my car, or sleeping. I could never adopt a lifestyle like this on an ongoing basis, but I only have to endure it for a month. How hard can it be? Performing in Cinderella last fall was pretty grueling too, with rehearsals and performances almost every day for about six weeks. I got through that experience OK, and I think I can survive this one too.
My phone may have stopped ringing, but the demand for my services continues to outstrip the supply. I’m overemployed!