The URI! Zone - 04/2012
I spent the entire weekend working, and have no updates for today. Perhaps you should visit Booty's homepage instead.
Random Picture Day
This is what my office looks like when I'm hard at work.
When growing nephews, there's a very short window of ripeness, during which they must be firmly plucked from the earth.
I have now worked 99 of the 100 days in 2012. The outlier was Farm Day. We should be wrapping up this week, after which I can reclaim my life-work balance for the rest of the year!
Memory Day: Ten Years Ago at FSU
The entries from the URI! Zone from ten years ago are a little bland -- starved for content, I was doing full week reviews of the music of Steve Reich, followed by a montage of young adult authors I enjoyed as a kid. Off the web, I was closing out my first year as a music grad student at FSU.
On the night of April 10, 2002, Kathy and I had our near-weekly ritual of Movie Night. The number of movies I went through while living in Tallahassee is astounding -- as if I was trying to stave off an end-of-the-world scenario of peak-DVD. Kathy came over to my "when you build it out of cinderblocks, it's like you're sleeping in a classroom" apartment at Parkwood, where we made two Totino's Pizzas (with assorted bits of unnamed meats, before their salmonella scare) and sat on the most uncomfortable couch in the world.
I actually couldn't remember the name of the movie we watched that night, but luckily, Kathy records every event she's ever participated in with a series of historical day planners. That night's movie was Zoolander, and the fact that I never mentioned that on my website or in my journals ("April 11: Movie Night was fun.") probably means that it had very little impact on my life.
On the Saturday that followed, I went out to celebrate the birthday of Angela, a fellow composer who once made some "special" brownies, only to lose them when her dog sneaked into the kitchen and devoured the batch (the dog was fine). I remember hanging out for an hour in some random restaurant with a really loud jazz combo before heading home to find out where everyone was (pre-cell-phone), only to find that they had all just arrived.
In the academic world, I was assistantship-less, since they forgot to build the electro-acoustic music lab I was supposed to administrate. I was taking Pedagogy of Music Theory (or the art of creating a binder full of outdated articles) and Fugue. I was probably putting the finishing touches on my final project, Le Fugue, a full frontal contrapuntal masterpiece.
This was also the final week before a concert performance of Badinage, a trumpet and piano piece which I decided to perform myself with Rob Kelley on the ivories (because performing your own piece is easier than meeting a good trumpet player). The piece was a highlight of FSU musical history, as exemplified by Professor Ladislav Kubik's post-performance remark to a seatmate: "Well, that was an ambitious piece..."
Chad Darnell's 12 of 12
5:53 AM: Up early, but not as early as Rebecca.
6:14 AM: Showered, but not shaved.
7:04 AM: Mexican standoff in the kitchen.
7:15 AM: Everything bagel for breakfast.
8:00 AM: Starting my "morning off" with a new game.
11:23 AM: House and bathrooms cleaned.
12:30 PM: Shells and cheese for lunch.
3:14 PM: On a conference call for work.
4:15 PM: Mowed and blown.
6:10 PM: Crafting yet another brief.
7:55 PM: Hoisin Explosion Velvet Chicken for dinner.
9:21 PM: Late, late dinner.
Cat Picture Friday
I'm hoping to take the rest of the day off, so I can experience the grueling life of these cats. See you next week!
I tried to have an extended weekend to make up for the insane amounts of work I'd done recently, but ultimately ended up working half days on Thursday and Friday anyhow. The attempted staycation began with a bang on Wednesday night, when I was leaving a suit-worthy meeting in McLean and my car was hit by a young girl who was texting while making a left turn across rush hour traffic. Fortunately, we were only moving about three miles per hour at the time, and though her car took the worst of it, she only managed to scratch up my hubcap and swivel my side mirror. The scuffs are so minimal that it really just looks like I loaned my car to a Maryland driver for an afternoon.
Since I needed my downtime to be as mindless as possible, I rotated through episodes of 24 featuring Kate "Incapable of Closing Her Mouth" Warner while on the treadmill, the nostalgia-inducing dungeon crawler, Legend of Grimrock, and the treadmill-like progression of Diablo 2.
On Saturday night, we went out to carefully-manicured Ashburn for seafood at Bonefish Grill. It was our first Bonefish experience and we came away quite satisfied. Afterwards, we played a new two-player card game called Jaipur, which is like Lost Cities with extra camels.
Sunday was full-on family time, with lunch at the Firefox Grill (nearly empty, as everyone had gone to the Chrome Grill) followed by a concert of the Annandale Brass at NOVA. Their "Afternoon of Americana" program opened with selections by Handel and Beethoven, so I'm guessing that our country has decided to claim them as our own.
How was your weekend?
As I look out across the Facebook wasteland of maroon and orange ribbons, the concatenation of 4s and 16s with no sequence of squares in sight, and the maudlin, pasted "Never Forget" status messages, I would like to respectfully disagree.
Please DO forget. It happened, it was sad, and it was five years ago. This event doesn't need reminders or anniversaries -- it was not a birth, or a wedding, or the time you got all of the achievements in Halo. Take a moment to honor the memories of the people you lost and move on with your day. Keep growing.
Your continued life and love of others is a far better tribute to those no longer with us than any collective Internet campfire song.
Memory Day: Snapshots
This picture was taken in 1993 when I was in 9th grade. I started out playing cornet because it was more amenable to the handspan of midgets. Our junior high band, the Francis C. Hammond Admirals marched in the GW parade yearly, but that was the extent of our outdoor activities.
Review Day: Rayman Origins (Wii)
There are no spoilers in this review.
Rayman Origins is a 2D platformer released late last year on multiple gaming devices. It is probably the closest experience you'll ever have to starring in your own Looney Tunes cartoon. Take the "anything goes because of a stoned Japanese game developer" vibe found in Wario Ware: Smooth Moves, polish and refine it to Disney-esque (and kid-friendly) levels, and you'll have a template for this game.
The gameplay is standard fare: maneuver through cleverly-designed worlds, collecting coins (lums) and dodging or smacking enemies. Thankfully, there are no Wii motion controls required, which automatically bumps this up over any Mario game in my book. I can't count the number of times Mario has died because I had to scratch my nose.
The controls and available moves are responsive, and the difficulty of the game is very challenging yet fair. If you die, there's a 95% chance that it's your own fault. I was never frustrated while playing this game, and this was abetted by the fact that you immediately restart at the nearest checkpoint after a death. Say goodbye to managing lives, GAME OVER signs, or having to return to your world map or spaceship after each death -- the challenge of Rayman doesn't need these artificial slowdowns. (Rayman also has underwater worlds that aren't annoying, which is a first in video games).
Because it's so easy to try again, some levels do require a bit of trial-and-error to know exactly where to be and when. I actually enjoyed these sections because I was able to get "in the zone" in a way that hearkened back to playing Life Force in elementary school. It also helps that all of the hardest challenges are optional.
The art direction in this game is perfect. Levels and characters are inventive and smoothly animated -- it's almost a shame that some levels barrel you across the world like Sonic the Hedgehog, because the environment is worth a second glance. This game also has the most musically cohesive soundtrack since Diablo 2, perfectly capturing the mood of each level with a mix of jazzy arrangements or nonsense scat, with common themes and motives woven throughout. Here are two of my favorite tracks:
- Under the Sea (a pitch-black underwater abyss, surrounded by iridescent fish)
- Food World (a kitchen filled with vengeful silverware and enemy vegetables soaking in hot broth)
Overall, Rayman Origins is a solid game purchase. If you are Anna or Paige, it is also a great spectator sport to watch from the nearest comfortable couch. I'm still only about halfway through the game, but this is more because of lack of time than lack of interest.
Final Grade: A
List Day: Things You're Expected to Know Without Explanation
- How to open a microwave popcorn bag
- What the acronym, "GOP", stands for
- How to write the cents on a check
- Which fast food restaurants want you to leave your tray on the table
- The number of the hair trimmer attachment for your crew cut
- How to open a milk carton
- When to clap during a classical music concert
- Whether to tip for carry-out
- Numbering or bulleting a document in spite of the Numbering and Bulleting options in Word
- How to use a revolving door
- Finding the soap in an airplane lavatory
- Why you run water in the tub before switching to the shower head
- How to start lawn maintenance machinery
- How Broil differs from Bake
- How to order food in Vapiano's
This weekend was open beta weekend for Diablo 3, which gave everyone the privilege of trying and failing to login to overloaded servers. I reconnected with some old friends who are still inexplicably playing World of Warcraft regularly. It brought back memories from twelve years ago, when I first started working at FGM (upon the release of Diablo 2) and my officemate, Rick, would open every day by itemizing all of the loot that he had gathered the previous night.
My plan to mow the lawn on Saturday was thwarted by the rainstorm. Rainstorms are procrastination personified -- they get you out of yard work, but then the grass is twice as high and harder to mow by the time the ground dries out. On Saturday night, we went to Frank's (of Frank and Amanda) birthday party in Oakton. Rebecca was amazed that most of the guys were talking about Diablo 3, so I had to give her a nerd anthropology lesson on how the previous game was released in the life sweet spot where all guys were majoring in social ineptitude in college.
On Sunday night, we ate three cheese pizza and watched another episode of Boardwalk Empire, yet another HBO show where all of the characters look the same and new ones continue to get introduced. It's entertaining so far, but it's no The Wire.
As part of this feature, which I started in 2007, I compose a very brief work (under 30 seconds) inspired by a randomly generated title from an online word generator or suggested by a reader. The composition can be for any instrumentation, and could even be a purely synthesized realization that might not be possible to perform in the real world.
I work on the excerpt continuously for an hour and then post whatever I've managed to complete, even if its a prime candidate for a William Hung Greatest Hits album.
Agleam: (adj.) Bright, radiant, or glowingMy Composition (0:30 MP3)
The first impression that came to mind with this word was a toothpaste commercial, with shiny teeth and plenty of primary background colors. It's written for harpsichord, glockenspiel, bassoon, flute, and assorted percussion.
Memory Day: Calculator Games
I enjoy rereading Steven Levy's book, Hackers, on occasion, but am sometimes disappointed that I was born just a few years too late to really appreciate the evolution of the personal computer. Though I probably gained some retroactive credibility by publishing my text adventure game (fifteen years too late), I never threw together a stick-figure game and sold it in a Ziploc bag -- my 1980s resume consists of reams of unfinished BASIC games and an MS-DOS batch file that I modified for Jack Wilmer so it would insult his sister whenever she tried to play Sierra On-line's Eco-Quest. There was only one area where I was ever legitimately a technology pioneer: video games on graphing calculators.
In 1993, graphing calculators were the laptop of a public school generation. Prophetic initiatives to get one graphing calculator for every kid in school were even accompanied by the worries that kids would steal them or sell them for cash (because Alexandria is just teeming with pawn shops). Even before No Child Left Behind, T.C. Williams High School was a "Harvard or HVAC" school, and you could make completely wrong assumptions about who valued their education by whether they owned the TI-85 graphing calculator or the cheaper "free school breakfast" TI-83.
At first, the TI-85 was merely a cutting-edge tool to facilitate cheating on math tests, not that anyone ever stooped to such a level. This all changed in March 1994, when classmate, Randy Reddig, arrived at school with a copy of Break-Out!, a classic game where you knock a ball around a screen with a paddle, breaking bricks. (I just looked Randy up, and apparently he went on to become one of the co-founders of Square, the company that lets you swipe credit cards on smartphones).
Being able to play a game during class was a novelty in and of itself, but I was more interested in how it was done. Over the next month, I used Break-Out! to learn how to program TI-85s (in TI-BASIC) and rewrote the game from the ground up. Ten levels became twenty (becoming my first and only application of a matrix as a data structure), the velocity of the ball would change based on where you hit it with the paddle, each level was decorated with fancy 2-color graphics, and you could even pause the game and hide the screen when a teacher walked around.
Writing games for calculators wasn't easy, because each came with 28KB of memory (and 4-5 KB had to be reserved for those pesky programs that did legitimate math computations for class). I resorted to all sorts of unhealthy tricks that would get a programmer fired today, like renaming the calculateBallVelocity function as a and stripping out all of the whitespace. In some cases, the code would write more code, so that static data could be unpacked while the game was running but then free up the space at the end.
After doing everything I could think of to Break-Out!, I decided to branch out with Battleship and Connect Four, notable only because the computer opponent had a bare minimum of artificial intelligence. I also started working on Whack-a-Mole before running completely out of memory. The games had the side effect of raising my profile with the popular kids, because everyone wants to know the guy who can get them games to play in the classroom. On the downside, most of the notes in my yearbook from cute girls assumed that I was predestined to become a calculator programmer, which probably doesn't appear in any Top Ten Jobs list.
So where are all of these games today? Well, sometimes when you drop a TI-85 on the ground hard enough for the batteries to fall out, the memory clears. This happened sometime around 1999 which means that if there is a copy of URI! GAME CALC floating around out there today, it belongs to someone I went to high school with who has treated their calculator with the utmost respect, and religiously replaced their batteries on a yearly basis.
There are no major spoilers in these reviews.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (R):
On the surface, this movie sounded right up my alley -- spies, intrigue, mole hunts, and British accents. Unfortunately, it now holds a place of honor on the list of movies I've fallen asleep in (the other being Kill Bill Part 2). There's nothing inherently wrong with this movie. It's just a very slow burn without any reason to care about the conflict or resolution.
Final Grade: D
Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto by David Kushner:
I've never actually played a video game in the GTA series because I tend to get bored in sandbox games very quickly. However, I enjoyed Kushner's previous book, Masters of Doom about the history of Doom and Quake. The story of GTA just isn't as interesting as the story of Doom. The main protagonists are from the company that published the game, not the creators themselves, and trying to keep track of which company is being discussed at any given time is tedious, given the number of main characters that float in and out of various chapters. A subplot related to the crazy lawyer, Jack Thompson, was more interesting than the creation of the game.
Final Grade: D
The Muppets (PG):
I was never a huge follower of the Muppets, and I get annoyed anytime Jason Segel whips out a guitar and starts making up songs. It's a surprise, then, that I liked The Muppets as much as I did -- a pleasant way to spend an evening that won't necessarily change your life.
Final Grade: B
Better Off Ted, Season Two:
The second season of this show (free with Amazon Prime, but not available on DVD) was a great refinement of the original season. The dialogue and whimsical plots worked on multiple levels, and I laughed out loud at least once per episode. Yet another show that would have been great to renew, were it not incomprehensible to its parent network.
Final Grade: A
Postscript: Anonymous online comments make me laugh.
Proof that I was a calculator hacker, and not just in my own mind. Courtesy of my sister, who obviously takes far better care of her calculator than I do.
The weekend, in list form:
- Had a steak burrito for dinner on Friday night, since the nearest Chipotle is conveniently and healthily next door to Rebecca's yoga studio.
- Watched stand-up routines of Craig Shoemaker, Mike Birbiglia, and Mitch Fatel on Amazon Prime's twelve free seasons of Comedy Central Standup.
- Did a mild amount of work-work which, thankfully, is no longer the norm.
- Went out to dinner on Saturday at "Taste of the World" in Herndon. Buried in an industrial park, this restaurant has an eclectic mix of Asian, Latin American, and Indian foods. Worth a return visit.
- Played Diablo 2 some more, until I finally got sick of it again and deleted it. Ready for Diablo 3.
- Cleaned out the shed for the coming season. Mice-free for two years, in spite of the big bag of birdseed on the top shelf.
- Took a test drive of the 2012 Honda Accord EX-L V6. Had to convince the salesman who was trying to find a model with the right colors that I wasn't test driving a color.
- Vacuumed several months of very small rocks and propeller seeds out of my car, increasing its Blue Book value by at least four cents.
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