Me at a Masquerade

A new life

Long time no update.
The bad news is that with little industry work in Seattle, I had to leave everyone behind and move to the San Francisco bay area. I don't know anyone here.
The good news is that I've moved to working for a better company, the new job is better than I thought possible, and life is fantastic!

Still on the topic of work, the game we've been making has just hit the shelves, and so far it looks to be massively popular. Without further ado - Skylanders: Giants!

It was very rewarding to be a part of this production, and now it's very rewarding to see how much enjoyment other people are getting from it. Life is good.

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Me at a Masquerade

Seattle Snow and Ice

For my global friends, this is why snow in Seattle paralyzes the area, and why I've been staying at home (on paid snow days!) instead of at work the last couple of days :) Put simply, the problem is that Seattle isn't flat. You couldn't pay me to drive on these slopes! :)

(Notice that quite a few of these vehicles are four-wheel-drive, and/or have chains. Even the bus has chains. I didn't shoot the video, it's just one that was uploaded to youtube recently)

After my snow adventure, I thought it would be prudent to wash the car immediately even though it was midnight and the temperature was below freezing (which makes it a particularly unpleasant job. I actually had to start by washing the icicles off the wash-brush!) so that I could get the car under wraps and store it safely in case it snowed. Which it did - within hours of me finishing! The perfect timing vindicated the unpleasantness :)

In costume as Dread Pirate Roberts

Snow Adventure!

I'm officially awesome :)
Plan A failed - we got caught in a blizzard, in a sportscar. Adventure ensured right on cue!
With 4WD trucks sliding around (and off) the road, it wasn't safe.
After sensible backup plans were exhausted, it came down to spending the
night in the car under snow, or clear holes for the windows and trust my driving to
not only make up for not having a 4WD truck, but to succeed where the SUVs failed.


Vicky and I were going to a mountain / lake / hot springs resort for a getaway weekend.

Before we left, I checked the weather forecasts and the altitude of our route, and we weren't supposed to hit snow. But weather forecasting is a fuzzy thing, and as we approached Bellingham, snow had begun and was getting very thick. Then it was starting to stick. Then we were all but blind with all the snow swirling in the air. Then vehicles around us were sliding. The snow is compacting to ice as cars drive over it. Time to get off the road!
Within minutes of stopping, we were in a snow-cave - all the windows opaque with a growing layer of snow.

We had reservations at a resort, so spending the night in the car was not a very appealing alternative! (We would also be charged for the resort regardless of whether we made it)

We changed into boots, and headed off on foot, using phones and other people to find out if it was snowing for hundreds of miles, or if it was just localized, and also if we could acquire some chains... in the middle of the night... during snow... for a sportscar. By this time, there were no cars on the road, just trucks and SUVs. I located a place nearby that was open and seemed to have the odd-size chains I needed, but I checked the car manual just to be sure. The manual said "DO NOT USE TIRE CHAINS!", then went on to explain that there is insufficient clearance between tire and wheel-well on these sportscars for chains, and listed a range of catastrophic death-inducing things that happen if you use chains. So, no chains then. On the brighter side, it seemed like the snow was somewhat localized. I had planned for the possibility of getting trapped in the car, so we had all we needed, but... compared to a nice warm room in a resort? So... do I stay or do I go?

By now, the roads are deserted. That means less chance of another car sliding into mine if I drive. That's a good sign. Also, the locals clearly aren't braving the roads, that's a bad sign.

I'm going to try to make it. I get out, and shovel the snow off the windows. By the time I've cleared the last window, the first is covered in snow again. I decide to melt it off. Got back in and cranked up the heat. Eventually got the windows clear, and sliding a bit, I got back on the road.

Apparently it was only 3 inches of snow, but it seemed like more than that! But of course it was the ice under the snow that was the problem.

Working against me: Sportscar. Very low ground clearance, rear-wheel-drive (the worst for snow - you want 4WD or at least front wheel drive), wide tires (you want narrow tires that concentrate the weight and sink/cut through the snow to the ground beneath). No visibility (too much snow in the air). WAAAY too much power - in the low gears needed to go slowly, it can break traction on regular road, so on ice, even riding the clutch, it's very difficult to keep traction. The higher gears with less torque can't be used because to go fast enough to engage them would rule out stopping and turning, which you need! Our route has left the freeway for minor roads, so much more snow on them.

Working for me: Sportscar - active handling, stability control, limited-slip differential, the car is designed with the expectation of pushing traction envelopes. Nav system and HUD was fantastic for driving blind in the blizzard - on the nav map I can see the corners coming up in time to ease into them and stay on the road. (But the traction control isn't worth a damn because it's "sporty" and intentionally lets you spin a bit before kicking in. Yeah, thanks for that). Empty roads are a plus, and all-season tires.

I'm kinda awesome, but driving past trucks and SUVs crashed off the side of the road, hazard lights blinking, road flares, tow trucks, fire trucks attending, etc, I wondered if I was really up to succeeding where so many failed despite far more suitable vehicles.

We made it. And Vicky was impressed :) The car was still covered in snow when we pulled up to the resort. I had only just cleaned it the night before, it had been so pretty! Now it was a complete mess. A frozen slab of grit-laden snow and ice. :-(

Here is a pic, taken shortly before arriving. It's about fifty miles beyond the snow, but some of it is still clinging on!
Me as Mad Genius

Another glimpse into the future

When you can see the future, some people who can't often just call you an idiot, and by the time they've caught up, they've forgotten. So it's a thankless gift, but along those lines, I present to you part of the future of surveillance. The device I'm about to describe sounds far-fetched to some, even paranoid, but every part of this system either already exists, or is being developed, and if you look at the parts being developed and who is funding them, there is only one sensible way that they fit together; I call it the surveillance time machine, welcome to your future.

Slight tangent - there was a small kerfuffle recently when a guy found an GPS tracking device in his car. He posted pics asking what it was, then FBI agents then appeared and demanded the return of their property. People are upset because his car was bugged and his movements followed without any kind of warrant. Courts are split as to whether you even need a warrant to bug a car, because roads are public therefore you can't claim an expectation of privacy against government search, but the bug is more intrusive than just following a car.
Well, bugs like that will eventually be a thing of the past. They simply won't be needed. The new system will look like this:

High above a city, there will be an eye in the sky. Initially this might be an aeroplane, but that's a dumb way to do it. Eventually the task will be carried out by solar "stratellite" - a small unmanned electric blimp, solar powered, maintaining a GPS-fixed location and altitude. With no need to come down for fuel or food, the device could eventually become a permanent fixture in the sky.

The eye in the sky is like a digital camera, but its resolution is measured in gigapixels (current designs are just one or two GP), and it views at a lower frequency of light than the visible spectrum, thus it can more easily see through clouds and other weather systems. It takes a photo every couple of seconds.

So, quick summary:
1) A realtime google-earth view of the city (in monochrome, not colour), but otherwise about the same level of detail or better.
2) It is video, rather than a photo (low framerate)
3) The video is stored. You can thus rewind the entire activity of anyone and everyone in the entire city, fast forward, whatever. Thus it becomes a time machine.
4) This surveillance (of everyone, all the time) is already legal.

Intuitive-but-dumb objections include the idea that if you exit a building amongst a crowd of other people, there is no-way that you could be personally identified - you're just a few pixels, a little blob just like everyone else, so what's the point? But obviously, that's just failing to think it through - the Time Machine neatly solves the problem. Pick a random person of hundreds of anonymous people pouring out of a shopping mall on a Saturday afternoon. Want their ID? Fast-forward to where they go to their car. Rewind until that car arrives in that parking spot, follow that car backwards through time until it exits the driveway of the owner's home. Look up the address. Not only is the shopper identified, but it was a trivial task to do so. (Thus, computer automation will eventually do most or all of such identification).

Similar intuitive but not-thought-out objections are that people would get shuffled and lost as groups moved in and out of sight, or that clouds would block the view, or that storing so much data would be expensive, or that (hand-waving) because it just sounds too... science-fictiony!
(It's not science-fictionary, it's a very basic and obvious use for fairly mundane real-world technology.)

Once it is in place there are no need for GPS tracking devices because everyone has already been tracked, and when you want to investigate someone (say, to get the details of a random pretty girl you passed on your way to work, find out where and with whom she goes for fun, go to those places too, and just randomly happen to "meet" her, and just happen to share all her interests), you don't need to start following them, because you've already being following them for years, you can just rewind their life.

I expect the first of these devices will be deployed by the US military over cities in warzones or under tension, probably within 10 years, but since there is no legal reason to not set them up for domestic spying, and no shortage of police and agencies that will be crying out to set these up domestically, I'd expect to see them used domestically within 20 years.

And the best bit, of course, is that the omnipotence the time machines gives to its operators is illusionary - but many won't really be competent enough to act accordingly. Much like the prosecution of Iraq by going public with satellite images of Iraq's WMD, when there were none, if you meet a friend of a friend to drop off the cellphone they left at your place at the party the other night, that's going to make great drug-deal-going-down footage. Even as it helps solve some crimes, the time machine will exacerbate investigation incompetence and laziness, and vaporize privacy.

Even today, privacy is a myth, but it's a myth people still believe in, and something people will still fight for. When a generation grows up having never known that the world has ever been different, with no expectation of or experience with privacy, I think the concept will largely die out. Modern living will mean things like having electricity and internet and running water and other people being able to know what you do.

A lot of kids in America these days have their hobbies assigned to them according to what will help them get into a good college, so they're already living a partially fake life in order to have their lives look "right" on paper. A huge number of American's structure their activities so that their lives will look "right" to the surveillance apparatus of the almighty Credit Score. The internet is another one. As surveillance becomes more and more ubiquitous, a larger and larger chunk of the things we do will be the maintenance of a fake flaw-free life, done for show.

People having to put significant time and energy into this kind of non-productive keeping-up-appearances bullshit is the opposite of a vibrant and efficient society. It is the path to a burdened, wasteful, unhappy society. As these qualities accelerate within a society, it seems that either something has to give (like how in the 60's a rebellion started against the social constraints of the 50's), or else I guess the whole society slowly falls into decline.

I think the USA has plenty of other, more pressing reasons to slide into decline, so I'm not betting on a surprise comeback, but knowing how and why things are going to happen can at least allow me to be better situated for their effects.
Me as Mad Genius

Chevrolet Volt

Chevrolet just released a bunch of new info about their upcoming electric car, the Volt, because their patent applications were just awarded so they’re now free to spill the beans! It’s a very interesting design, and also has some people up in arms.

Basically, the Volt has an electric engine, a battery that will give the car a 40 mile all-electric driving range, and a 300 mile “range extender” – a diesel generator to automatically start recharging the battery if you run them flat but are still driving.
(A diesel generator powering a battery and electric motor driving the wheels can be more efficient than a diesel motor driving the wheels, because a diesel motor has to be able to cope with a far wider range of load and revs, and much more horsepower is required, so it’s bigger and runs less efficiently. In contrast, a generator can simply sit in its most efficient band, and can also be smaller and less powerful and still output the same average energy, using less fuel to do so).
But we knew all that. Here’s interesting new stuff:

The two parts of the diesel generator (the diesel engine and the electric generator) are not permanently connected, but are connect by a clutch. This means the electric generator can be disengaged from the diesel engine, and used as an extra motor. (If you turn the shaft of an electric motor, it generates power, if you put in power, it turns the shaft – this is part of why electric cars own gasoline cars on efficiency, instead of dumping your power through the brakes, an electric engine can put it back into the fuel tank instead, and re-use it later).

When the car gets above 70mph, the electric engine is operating at high RPM. The engine is more efficient at a lower RPM, so (here’s part of the patented cleverness) the volt diverts some of the power from the electric engine into the electric generator, using it as a second engine, and those two engines are geared together such that their speeds combine (instead of their torque), and the result is high RPM, but at high efficiency.


Now the bit that has people up in arms: What happens if the diesel motor is using the generator to recharge the battery and you drive above 70mph? Isn’t the car trying to use the generator as a second motor at that speed? Yes. So what happens is that the diesel motor, which is turning the generator, continues to turn the generator when the generator gets coupled to the car’s electric engine, and then the same thing happens as when doing over 70mph on batteries – the generator’s speed gets added to the engine’s speed.
Except now, the generator’s speed is coming from a diesel motor. It’s an elegant drivetrain solution that achieves high efficiency under all modes of operation yet uses few parts to do it.
That’s the controversial bit – there is a drive mode in which the diesel motor has a mechanical connection the drivetrain. People feel that this means it is really just a hybrid when it has been billed as an electric vehicle with an onboard diesel generator for range-extension in case you want to do a road trip.
People feel that it’s not as ideologically pure any more.

I’d agree with them if the car required the diesel to go over 70mph, but it doesn’t (as far as we know). It drives at all speeds on pure electric, but if you’ve flattened your battery and the range-extender kicks in, the drivetrain is designed to use all available components in alternative configuration to give you the most bang for your buck.

If the Volt is as described, then it might not be ideologically pure, but something better - great engineering.

(I currently drive a 2007 Corvette. My plan was that the Volt would be my next car. It’s going to be HARD to drop down from a lightweight 400 horsepower car to a heavier car with 230 horsepower, you wonder how you ever drove anything else, but there is a lot about the Volt which is exciting in other ways.)
Me as Mad Genius

How to get a phone in the USA, in several easy steps.

How to get a phone in the USA, in several easy steps.

I start by researching the phone that is right for me. It's not easy, and I have to sacrifice a lot of time to do it, but I find a clear winner - a phone designed for what I want, and is currently fairly highly recommended by the gadget sites. It was released a few months ago (with a lot of fanfare). It's also very expensive, but I'm desperate for a phone. I spend another few days trimming my bills for monthly savings.

I got to T-Mobile to buy it. "Oh, we didn't have this phone on in-store display, so not many people bought it. And then we stopped selling because not many people were buying it. But you can buy one directly from Google, and if you do, we can set you up with service for it!"

So I go home and got to Google. "Oh, we realised it was a mistake to dirty our hands selling our phones to customers directly, so we've switched off our online store. But you can buy one directly from our guy, Brightstar."

So I go to Brightstar. "Oh, we've stopped selling to the unwashed masses of the general public. We'll only sell to you if you are a registered phone developer."

I figure that I can probably set myself up as a registered phone developer, and go to find out the process. Reading the contract I'm about to agree to, I realize there may be a legal clash with my work visa (I'm not allowed to work other than for the company my visa is registered with), and that perhaps I should talk to an attorney.

(So at this point, just to buy a phone I need to consult an attorney. Trying to buying a phone in the USA is an amazing experience)

I do more research and decide that (a) it's most likely compatible with my visa, and (b) if it isn't, no-one will know. So, it looks like an Officially Registered Phone Developer I will be!

"Oh" says Brightstar, "It doesn't actually matter if you're a phone dev or not, because we don't actually have any phones to sell. But there is a chance we might be getting a small number of them sometime next month. If you camp out at our online store, maybe YOU could be one of the lucky buyers!!!"

I am defeated. US phone companies never really wanted my money, they just like to torment me. Nothing I do gets me a phone.
Wait... while I don't want to buy a phone from ebay (because later warranty dealings aren't easy), but maybe there is a local gadget store or Amazon or something?!

"Oh you poor man" says Amazon, "Come in from cold! We have phone! We sell to you! Everything good with Amazon! Exact phone right here. We do you special deal! Phone retail for $500, we give you good deal - for you just $900! 900 dollar and phone is yours!"

I budgeted for phone+service to top $1000/year, and I know dentists that give you a more pleasant buying experience for that money. Literally. Dentists! (Not to mention, at the end of the day, the dentist actually provides you with some dental work.)

I still don't have a phone.
Me as Mad Genius

Let's make a fort!!1!

One evening at work, I convinced my designers to help me build us a bamboo fortress without the rest of the team knowing, after they'd gone home. (The fortress is in theme with the project we are working on).

Sweetening the game, the entranceway to our new fortress environment is directly opposite the Environment Artist's area. Dude, you guys are the ENVIRONMENT ARTISTS - we're on your turf! Are you just going to sit there and take this?!? :-D

(I like to start arms-races)

Me at a Masquerade

The Matador

I finally got around to watching the bullfights on a matador documentary I have on DVD. They're very good. I was surprised.

The sword strike when attempting the kill is really something. It has speed and precision very similar to fencing, and incorporates lines and shaping as would a performance. I think that with my background of both fencer and dancer, I can't help but appreciate it.

I think I'll have to go to a bullfight while they still exist. (I don't think they're in any danger of disappearing any time soon, because they bring in so much tourist money, but they're a brutality, and in the big picture, the advance of civilization while slow, has generally been unstoppable.)
Me at a Masquerade

Faraway ruins behind walls of bureaucracy

I am currently trying to navigate dense layers of red tape from multiple country's governments to get the necessary paperwork to be able to visit the creepiest place on Earth. But there is a deadline. Deadlines and red tape don't mix... this might not work. :-/

There are some pretty creepy places in the world, including
- The Catacombes de Paris, in France.
- Centralia (AKA Silent Hill), in the USA.
- Auschwitz, in Germany.
- The Sedlec Ossuary, in the Czech Republic.
- Unit 731, China.
But most of these places are creepy because of a past that has passed.
There is another place, where the past casts its reach into the present.

They call it Зона відчуження Чорнобильської АЕС.
It describes a circular area of land 60km wide. Near the centre of it lay a bustling modern city of 50,000. About 20 years ago, in one sudden exodus, all human inhabitants fled the city and the surrounding area - almost overnight - and they never returned. There is an energy in the air and ground that sickens, and it is all around, invisible and silent. If you go there, you don't stay long.

Meanwhile, in a land without people, the city is slowly being consumed by the earth: