Monday, 30 June, 2003

Why fantasy worlds need rules

Jeff Duntemann's diary entries for June 25 and June 29 helped me put my finger on something that has bothered me, but that I was unable to clearly identify.  Specifically, that fictional worlds must have limits and rules.  My case in point is Leo Frankowski's The Cross-Time Engineer series.  The story starts out with a time travel incident, but I'm willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of setting up a story.  A young man trained as an engineer is transported—inadvertently—from the 20th century to 13th century Poland.  His ensuing adventures are great fun, until the author starts helping our hero out of tough spots with things from the future.  By the end of the second book, you just know that Sir Conrad never has to worry about getting hurt, because his cousin (or uncle, or whatever) from the future won't allow it.  Once I figured that out, I lost some of my interest in the books.

Beyond the help-from-the-future idiocy (which gets worse as the series progresses), the books have one other glaring problem:  the author's absurd preoccupation with young girls.  Okay, we get the picture.  In 13th century Poland, a nobleman having sex with 14-year-old peasant girls was commonplace.  That's made clear in the first couple chapters of the first book.  There's no reason to slap me across the face with it every other chapter for six volumes.  Don't get me wrong:  the books aren't porn.  The author doesn't describe sex acts in detail.  But still, mentioning the perks of nobility once or twice would have been quite sufficient.  I don't need the name and vital statistics of every serving wench the guy beds.

Saturday, 28 June, 2003


Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus came to town.  The Frank Erwin Center (University of Texas basketball stadium) isn't quite the big top, but the circus was still a good show.  Debra and I went with my brother Jerry, his girlfriend, and his mom (my step-mother).  I hadn't been to the circus in at least 30 years.

The circus is overwhelming and vaguely disappointing.  Oh, I enjoyed the show, but there was just so much going on that I missed at least as much as I was able to see.  And there are so many different acts that some get short shrift.  Still, what I did see was quite good:  elephants, horses, zedonks (a cross between a zebra and a donkey), tigers, assorted other animals, clowns, acrobats, more acrobats, and even a strong man show.  I was sitting too far away for my camera to get good shots (only 7 or 8 of my 80 some shots were any good), but I did manage to get a 5-second movie (2.3 megabyte AVI) of the human cannonball's flight.

The kids sure seemed to like the show, though.  Me?  I'm going to get a front-row seat next time.  Or at least wait until I can see the show in a smaller venue.  And get there earlier so I can juggle with the clowns before the show.

The Iraqi Information Minister (dubbed "Comical Ali" by some) resurfaced this week, telling Arab television that coalition forces had detained, questioned, and released him.  The U.S. Central Command, though, says they haven't talked to him yet.  Not too surprising, I guess, considering that this is the same guy who, with M1A Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles visibly advancing in the background, reported that U.S. forces had been defeated and were fleeing Baghdad in terror.  What does he have to say about his laughingly erroneous reports?  "The information was correct, but the interpretations were not."

This guy is priceless.  He could make a killing on the stand-up comedy circuit here in the U.S.  Check out the fan site.

Thursday, 26 June, 2003

A funny cartoon

On the few occasions that I actually pick up a local newspaper, about the only section I can stand to read is the comics.  Imagine my surprise when I saw today's Non Sequitur, which fits in nicely with last Saturday's rant.

Tuesday, 24 June, 2003

Microsoft's anti-spam plans

In Toward a Spam-Free Future, Bill Gates describes Microsoft's anti-spam initiatives, including MSN and Hotmail filters, upcoming filter technology for Outlook, Outlook Express, and Exchange, and proposed or suggested legislation.  For reasons I've outlined before, I disagree with legislative attempts at controlling spam, but I have to applaud Microsoft and other companies (AOL, Yahoo, Earthlink, and others) for finally taking a stand and actually trying to do something about the problem.  I still think that the most effective method of controlling spam would be to design and implement a new email protocol, but our industry leaders lack the backbone to take that big of a step.  In this respect they're like Congress—wring your hands, complain about the problem, and pass meaningless resolutions to make it look like you're doing something.

I don't know if the third paragraph of the article was intended to be humorous, but I laughed out loud when I read it.  The thought of somebody spamming Bill Gates with offers to get out of debt or to get rich quick sure tickled my funny bone.

It's starting, just as I knew it would.  A U.S. House of Representatives panel Thursday held hearings about a proposed law that would protect the fast food industry from lawsuits by people blaming the industry for their obesity.  Full story here.  I predicted this in my entries for January 22, 2002 and August 26, 2002.  Why is it that I'm right about the stuff I really wish I was wrong about?

The good thing is that any such legislation, even if enacted (which is quite unlikely), would be irrelevant.  This is a form of prior restraint that any judge worth his gavel would set aside without a second thought.  But then, any judge worth his gavel would throw out any law suit claiming that a fast food purveyor was responsible for making somebody fat.  Advocacy groups say restaurants need to more clearly document the fat and calorie content of their foods, and reduce portion sizes.  I say that people should take it upon themselves to control their own eating habits.  I'll say it again:  nobody at McDonald's is shoving that Big Mac down your throat.

What really bugs me here is that "advocacy" groups don't tell you that it's not so much the kind of calories that you consume, but rather the amount.  To a very large extent, calories are calories regardless of where they come from.  Your body breaks them down into pretty much the same thing and then stores them.  More calories in equals more calories stored, regardless of whether you're eating Big Macs or organic produce.  If you're consuming 6,000 calories a day you're going to gain weight.  Especially if your daily exercise consists of  running from bed to bathroom in the morning, and operating the TV remote in the evening.

Do I expect people to suddenly start taking responsibility for the consequences of their poor decisions?  Not any more than I expect Charlie to sprout wings and fly.  I expect that lawyers and lazy judges will continue to whittle away at the fast food industry until sooner or later a jury of fat assed couch potatoes awards some other fat ass a million dollars worth of Burger King's money.  The sad thing is that the fast food industry will bitch and moan but eventually accept these idiotic awards as a cost of doing business in the same way that the tobacco industry has.  It's a curious sort of willing submission to cannibalism that disturbs me in some deep fundamental way.  I'll have to chase that one down.

Friday, 20 June, 2003

The movie people are in town

The crew for the movie Chrystal, starring Billy Bob Thornton, has been in town for a month or more.  My understanding is that the man himself is around, although I haven't seen him.  I had drinks with some of the production crew the other night, though.  Their take on the small town life here is quite humorous.

When I got back to my truck yesterday after my ride, I found that the production crew had taken over the parking lot near the ball fields.  They had rented part of the park to shoot some scenes, and the parking lot was filled with all manner of trucks:  rolling bathrooms, catering trucks, lighting dollies, and who knows what else.  Those folks were busy!  I walked around the encampment once to see what was going on, but tried to stay out of the way.  They weren't too happy when I pulled out my camera, either, so I refrained from snapping any pictures.  I guess I could have stuck around to watch the filming, but I figure movies are like laws and sausages.  I probably don't want to see how they're made.

Besides, I had some ticks to remove.

Thursday, 19 June, 2003

Mountain Biking at Lake Leatherwood

Lake Leatherwood is a 1,600-acre municipal park a few miles east of Eureka Springs.  I learned about it yesterday when somebody drove by while I was cranking up the hill here in town and asked if I was looking for some trails.

The park has about 20 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails, well maintained but not excessively groomed.  That means that low-hanging branches and impassable barriers are cleared, but smallish rocks and tree trunks that provide moderate challenge to hikers or mountain bikers are left alone.

The park brochure separates the trails into "valley" and "ridge" trails, and gives the ridge trails a slightly more difficult rating.  The ridge trails, what I saw of them, had more hills, but were less technically difficult than the valley trails.  Both were enjoyable, though, and the park was very sparsely populated.  I ran across two other mountain bikers and two people hiking in the entire two hours I was out there.

The park brochure also warns of ticks and other biting insects and recommends that you use insect repellent in spring and summer.  Heed the warnings.  I brushed uncounted ticks off my body and clothing while I was on the trail, and later this afternoon had to remove a half dozen of the things while I was in the shower.

Saturday, 14 June, 2003

World Juggling Day

Jay had a bunch of paper work to catch up on today, so Jerry and I left him alone and walked the mile and a half into town.  Today is World Juggling Day, so we took my juggling balls along.  We loitered in front of shops and in the park, juggling and making stupid jokes, talking to the tourists as they walked by.  Several stopped and asked to practice their juggling skills, and I even got to give a few ad-hoc lessons.  We had a good old time joking about juggling for food, talking to people, and generally just being goofy.  It was good to get away and just waste the day having fun doing nothing in particular.  The walk back up to the house was more difficult, though.  They really should have built this town on flat ground.

Thursday, 12 June, 2003

Climbing the tower

This Canon PC-Cam is okay for most things, but it's terrible for distance shots.  The tower you see to the left is an old Forest Service fire watch tower that now sits in the middle of Pine Mountain Village—a little strip mall development adjacent to the Pine Mountain Jamboree here in Eureka Springs.  From the top of this 100 foot tower (132 steps, by my count), you have a commanding view of the area, and even a good view of the Christ of the Ozarks statue I mentioned the other day.  I could see the statue clearly enough, but this silly camera didn't do a very good job of picking it out.  It's better than one of those throw-away vacation cameras, though.  I also tried to get some pictures through the telescope up here at the top of the tower.  Yes, you guessed it.  If you don't get the camera perfectly aligned, all you get is a picture of the telescope's insides.  In the dark.

Do you have any idea how much cell phone reception improves at the top of a 100 foot tower?

Tuesday, 10 June, 2003

Passion Play / Christ of the Ozarks

The Great Passion Play is a nightly drama show here that relates the story of Christ's last days.  It's the oldest show in Eureka Springs, dating back some 30 or more years.  I haven't had a chance to see the show, but from all reports it's quite good.

The Passion Play grounds also contains the New Holy Land—a re-creation of the Middle East from 2,000 years ago.  I wandered around a bit to get the gist of it.  It's colorful, but I wonder a bit at the historical accuracy.

Finally, there's the Christ of the Ozarks statue.  This statue, erected in 1966, is visible from many places in Eureka Springs.  It, too, sits on the Passion Play grounds, on a ridge overlooking the "old town" part of Eureka Springs.  The grounds around the statue are nicely manicured and well kept.  It's a fine place to sit and meditate, although they could turn down the music a bit.  It's soothing enough, but just a bit too loud.

Monday, 09 June, 2003

An airport in the middle of nowhere

My sister Marie has been here for a little over a week, taking some vacation time from her newspaper job and helping Jay with his recovery.  She took over for Mom, who was here for the entire month of May.  Today I took her to the airport.  Understand, Eureka Springs isn't in the middle of nowhere—but you can see it from here.  The airport is called Northwest Arkansas Regional, symbol XNA.  It's a few miles down some hick farm road off of I-540 north of the big town of Springdale.  All told, about 70 miles by road from Eureka Springs.  I don't know who decided to build an airport out here in the middle of this weed patch, but there it is.  You'd swear, when you take exit 73 there from I-540, that somebody was playing a joke on you.  Ain't no way anybody would put an airport out here, right?  I was worried that the airplane was going to be a Piper Cub and the airport a grass strip with a tin shed and a single gas pump.  Good thing I got good directions, too, because the signage is nearly non-existent.  I guess the area needed better air service, but you'd think they could have improved the Fayetteville airport.  Probably some county commissioner had excess land that he conned his cronies into having the public pay for.

Sunday, 08 June, 2003

Eureka Springs

Eureka Springs looks like a 70's hippie colony that turned into a tourist town.  For a town of less than 2,500 people, it has a surprising number of hotels, motels, bed-and-breakfast, and RV parks.  There are many more trinket and curio shops than I remember Durango, CO having, and Durango is much bigger and easier to get to.

We went to brunch early this afternoon, and then my brother took us on a brief guided tour of the area.  Saint Elizabeth Catholic Church is unique in that you enter the grounds through the bell tower that's at the top of the hill.  The sidewalk down to the grounds is flanked on one side by white marble statues of the 12 Stations of the Cross.  The grounds themselves are beautifully landscaped, with many statues placed among the plants.  The church is stone, rather small inside, but very nicely appointed.  It's been a while since I was inside a Catholic church.  I was surprised and pleased that the figure of a crucified Christ wasn't the central feature of the altar.

Thorncrown Chapel is a privately-owned glass and wood chapel in the hills just west of Eureka Springs.  The chapel is nestled among the trees a short walk from the parking lot off Arkansas highway 62.  Pictures cannot begin to capture the chapel's beauty, and the feeling of sitting inside this building, listening to the quiet music and just contemplating...whatever.  The word "tranquil" comes to mind.  I will have to ride my bike out there in the morning when I have a little more time to sit and meditate.

Saturday, 07 June, 2003

Driving to Eureka Springs

Austin to Eureka Springs, Arkansas is approximately 550 miles.  That's 550 miles of mostly nothing once you get out of the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex area.  There's a lot of beautiful country, though, through central Oklahoma and western Arkansas.  Most surprising to me was that I had continuous digital phone service for the entire drive.  I had Sprint coverage until I headed east from Springdale, AR.  Here in Eureka I'm on digital roam, but have a very strong signal.

I'll be here for two weeks helping out my brother while he's recovering from his recent heart surgery.  My younger brother Jerry came along for the ride up, but will be taking a flight back to Austin a week from Monday.

I finally took the time to install my game TriTryst on Windows 2000 and Windows XP systems, and take some notes.  I've put those into a presentable form and published them here.  There's also a page that describes some of the cheats and Easter eggs that are in the program.  Hopefully, those pages will help those people who've been having trouble with the program on their new systems.

Monday, 02 June, 2003

Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded

I picked up Simon Winchester's new book Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 while I was browsing in Borders last week.  (Seeing what it's going for on Amazon makes me wish I would have ordered it there.)  Winchester is the author of The Professor and the Madman, which I reviewed here in November 2001.  I found the new book a much more engaging read.

The book examines the events leading up to and following the massive eruption of Krakatoa with an eye on the social and political goings-on of the previous three centuries.  There's a very good discussion of the geology involved (Winchester is, after all, a trained geologist), but that isn't the primary focus of the book, and in fact could probably be easily gotten from other sources.  I found two central themes in the book:

First, the news of Krakatoa's eruption was broadcast throughout the world within a matter of hours by telegraph.  This was the first time that a major event like this was so widely known so quickly.  In addition, the recent (at the time) development of reasonably affordable recording barometers and similar devices allowed people all over the world to see real evidence of the explosion.  For the first time, people could see the effects of events occurring on the other side of the world.

Second, the native peoples of what was then called the Dutch East Indies were, to put it mildly, unhappy with Dutch rule and were increasingly turning towards a more militant form of Islam.  The explosion of Krakatoa in 1883 fell nicely into a prophecy of disaster, flood, and death that was to signal change, and served to hasten the rebellion of 1888.  It would have happened eventually, I think, but there's little doubt that the eruption sped things along.

Winchester writes with an engaging style, with some humor and copious footnotes (I wish all authors would use footnotes rather than endnotes).  He manages to explain complicated geological concepts in layman's terms without over-simplifying them, and he well supports the themes that he introduces.  The book is an excellent read.  Highly recommended.

Sunday, 01 June, 2003

Juggling Thingies

I've been using the same juggling beanbags since 1984.  Since I'm getting more interested in the hobby, I figured I'd go crazy and buy myself some new props.  These beanbags are hand-made to order by John Nord.  They're approximately 2-1/4 inches in diameter and weigh about 3.5 ounces.  They're leather, more easily caught than cloth beanbags, and feel great in the hand.  If you're interested, check out his Juggling Thingies.