Thursday, December 20, 2007

Ticketmaster Finally Gets Told Off

About time!

Wait... no... you still have to pay their outrageous 'convenience' fee, or their Internet fee to recoup the expense of us printing tickets on our own printers. But at least now you don't have to agree to be spammed by them and their friends, just to buy a ticket. I've been stung by this a couple of times, and I'm glad they are finally being told to correct this blatant violation of Canadian law.

Friday, November 02, 2007

You have to be kidding me!

The VERY NEXT DAY after I get off travel lockdown, the USCIS announces that they are eliminating the requirement for I-485 receipt notices, essentially making the receipt I waited two months for useless.

It was certainly the right thing to do, but come on, seriously, couldn't they have done it back in August???

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Travel Lockdown is OVER!

It's true; I hold, in my hands, all the required implements of international travel. Canadian passport (old and new), I-485 receipt, employment verification and status clarification, H-1B documentation. Nothing stands in my way between me and the world!

And by the world, I mean probably just weekend trips to Vancouver.

2.5 months lockdown... much less than the 6 months I had last time. Not bad. Hopefully I won't have another lockdown for a few years, if at all.

I am planning to go to Vancouver this weekend, mostly to get my I-94 transferred to my new passport and to remind the Irishman's liver that it has to make up for the time it's had off.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Kingsgate is Mine!

What, do you ask, is Kingsgate?

THAT, my friends, is Kingsgate!

Yes, though I've been hinting at it for awhile, it's just been finalised today. I have just "closed" on the transaction, and now officially own this two-bedroom townhouse in the Kingsgate region of northern Kirkland. Since the name is cool, I will just refer to the townhouse as 'Kingsgate' from now on.

First off, I would like to thank three people, without whom this would not be possible.

First, of course, my darling Amber, without which any abode would just seem empty.

Second, my real estate agent, Mary Dobson. While she sent us dozens of potential listings, Kingsgate was actually in the very first set she sent us. She showed us lots of patience while we we reviewed listing after listing, and helped us navigate the tricky waters of American real-estate. Drop her an email - she can help you buy or sell your Puget Sound home I'm sure!

Third, my mortgage broker, Jeff Keeney from Golf Savings Bank. I think the most telling experience was when he dropped house renovations on a Sunday afternoon to drive to the nearest coffee shop with Wi-fi, to generate a new estimate for me to look over. He was friendly, helpful, and extremely knowledgeable in the field. I can't sing him enough praises. Oh, and of course, he got me the best deal on my mortgage too with no hassle.

In terms of Kingsgate's vitals:
Built 1982. 1280 sqft, 2 bedrooms, 1.5 bathrooms. A large master bedroom upstairs, and a neighbouring second bedroom/office and a bathroom. Downstairs has a large square kitchen with some dated countertops, but a new stove. Living room facing the rear. One car garage, attached. Fully fenced back yard with patio. Attached to one neighbour on my East wall.

It is technically a townhouse, with a homeowners association, but it is what is known as a Planned Unit Development. Basically, the HOA only exists to manage a few small patches of common space and to regulate the interactions between attached neighbours. Otherwise, it's pretty much hands off - I own the place, inside and out, and can do what I want with it.

Over the next few days, I'll be moving small collections of stuff over, and preparing for some minor painting I want to do over the weekend. The movers will move the furniture on Monday, and then we'll work on finalising the whole project.

For those of you who are curious (and aren't using Facebook for some reason), here's the photo highlights.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Canadian Passport is Here!

Though I've been holding my first British passport for several months now, I now finally received my new Canadian passport.

On one hand, I appreciate the Canadians' personal touch - when one of my references' phone numbers was disconnected, a nice lady from Ottawa called me to ask what was up. Similarly, the Canadian consulate in Seattle was friendly and cheerful. Never once did I feel like I was being processed by a computer or an Indian call centre.

But why on earth did it have to take so long? Two months before it was processed [FYI: you know it's being processed because they charge your credit card when they start]. Another two weeks for them to mail it to the Canadian embassy in Seattle.

Why mail it to the embassy? Simple. They need to cancel the old passport. But in the current US immigration climate, you'd have to be stupid to let your passport out of your hands even for a second.

After all this, I still only get a five-year passport. WTF. You'd think they'd make a ten-year passport for those outside the country, especially since non-residents don't qualify for the passport renewal program. Thanks for the help - way to help those that need it the least!

Of course, with a day off work, some train tickets, and some clever fast-talking, several Microsofties have discovered how to get Canadian passports SAME DAY! Cheapens my accomplishment a bit. Email me if you want to know how these clever individuals did it.

BTW, this does not mean that my travel lockdown is over. The Nebraska Service Center has been processing some early August applications, so I predict that it will be another month before I can travel.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Top Five Things That You Screwed Up In Your House Ad

I'm tired of seeing flyers, pamphlets, Craigslist ads, and even MLS listings that are meant to sell me on a multi-hundred-thousand dollar purchase, but end up feeling like they weren't even worth the three seconds of consciousness I dedicated to looking at them.

Without further ado, the list of reasons why your house ad sucks, created solely by my unenlightened inexperienced homebuyer self. Oh wait... it's "a great starter home for first time homebuyers"? Maybe you should listen to me.

  1. Your photo sucks
    Practically every home ad includes at least (sometimes only) one photo. Why on Earth would you use that photo to take a picture of the complex welcome sign? Could you not just use words for that? Is that picture of four words really worth a thousand words? If there's only one photo I get to see, it had better be a shot of the front of the house! Or, if there's something truly impressive (ie. newly remodelled kitchen, or stunning view), then maybe that, but it had better be gosh darn impressive.
    Collary: the rest of your photos suck too!
    If you're using a website, you can generally include lots more photos. THEN DO IT! Why only include two or three? Digital cameras are cheap, webspace even more so. Anyone who can afford your house has broadband, so don't worry about my poor overworked Internet connection. And lrn2photos, people! I admit openly interior house shots are difficult to photograph well, but at least try to get a few with decent lighting. And it really isn't that hard to maintain the aspect ratio when you upload them. Oh, and take at least one picture of every room - if you leave one out, I'll assume you did so for a reason.
  2. Location, Location, Location!
    Sorry, I don't care how nice your house is, if it's in Tacoma, and I work in Seattle, I'm not buying it. Plus, this tempers everything else you say about the house - price can vary heavily by region. And no, the county is not enough! I *must* know the neighbourhood of the city in which it is located. Ideally, I want the exact address, but I acknowledge that this may not be appropriate for some venues. Thankfully MLS listings always seem to require exact addresses.
  3. Size matters.
    It may be newly remodelled and be in the best school district, but I'm not spending my life savings just to close a deal on something smaller than my bachelor apartment. This applies to all the main statistics: square footage (both the house, and if applicable, the lot), bedrooms, bathrooms, floors. If you don't tell me, I assume it's because the numbers are bad for the price you're charging.
  4. HOA / Community Issues
    While not always applicable, or simply not enough room, if you can, I need to know about the community. HOA dues are good to know, but what do they cover? What about the inevitable pain the nearly pervasive HOAs around here inflict? Pet policies? Restrictions on modifying unit exteriors?
  5. It's Nice?
    Come on now, you have a text box to sell your house with. You should really fill it with key selling points, and avoid duplication or fluff. This is the 21st century; I don't need you to tell me that it's minutes from the highway - I'm looking at the satellite imagery of you on your front porch as we speak! If the stats are elsewhere, don't repeat them. I want to know about the sweet upgrades, your buyer bonus, how you get complimentary room service for life, and how it's peaceful and quiet. Oh, and it's "luxurious, modern living at an affordable price?" Strange, so were the last three!

Now people are wondering two things, I'd bet.

First, do people really do nooby things like this?
Go visit Craigslist, and take a look. Next question.

Second, some may be of the opinion that leaving out details can make sense. Build the curiosity, convince the potential buyer to call to find out more. Then the magic seller agent can weave the web of salesmanship from which the hapless buyer has no chance to escape.
Sorry, no. Maybe in a hot market you can get away with that, but when I'm seeing a dozen listings a day for potential purchases, let me tell you that I'm not wasting my time on your crappy ad. Anything I don't see I assume the worst about, and that'll quickly get you cut from my shortlist.

That's my rant. Carry on.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Dead Rising

I got the chance to borrow Dead Rising the other day, and have played it a significant part of the way through (partway through 'Overtime').

After playing for awhile, I'm left bewildered.

How on Earth could such an innovative, creative, diverse replayable game be released with such obvious gameplay flaws?

Let me give you a bit more. You're a freelance photographer/reporter, in a mall, filled with zombies. Your objectives are to:
  • Survive.
  • Reach the helipad in exactly three days of gametime, for your ride out.
  • Reveal "the facts" about how zombies ended up in the mall, as dictated by a set of chained quests.
  • Rescue a variety of survivors hiding in the mall, desperately avoiding both the zombies and a variety of psychopaths.
  • Killing psychopaths and zombies.
  • Gain "prestiege points" (read: XP) by doing varieties of the above tasks, as well as taking photos for later publication.

All of these (except survival) are optional, and in fact, it would be exceedingly difficult to satisfy them all simultaneously (I think there are at least 5 main endings based on combinations of above). This automatically means heavy replayability, but is further augmented by unlocked game content, including a continuation "overtime" day following one possible ending, a free-play mode, and plenty of fun Xbox achievements.

And, in the end, you get to rummage through an entire mall, taking whatever the hell you want from it, and using these objects to kill zombies, and perhaps take pictures afterwards of your handiwork. Oh, and the graphics are great.

But one must wonder where their test team was on for all this. Such a great game is completely ruined by several fatal gameplay flaws.

  • Controls. Every single button on the controller is used, normally in unintuitive ways. Plus a series of special moves for which they do not describe the controller combinations to activate.
  • Control utility. When your weapon durability expires (yes, all weapons do this), it automatically switches to the next item (no you don't really control ordering).... if you're wildly swinging a bat, congrats, you've quaffed all your healing potions before you realize it. If you get a radio message, it beeps intermittently until you answer, locking out all combat controls; unless you get attacked, in which case it cuts you off, then you get chastized for interrupting the speaker. Your guns are practically useless without targeting, which takes forever to manually perform (no Z-targeting!). Likewise, action shots are not enabled for your camera, and even if they did, taking any 'good' photos basically means you're going to get hurt.
  • Difficulty. The game is hard... very hard. Without an FAQ, most are just going to get frustrated and quit when you encounter your *first* psychopaths which outnumber you three to one, have the game's most powerful weapon, and a jeep, before you've even really seen much more than your first handgun!
  • Unforgiving. Most games these days seem to have a "no stuck" mentality - ie. you can never play yourself into a dead-end. This game explicitly counters this - the main plotline is heavily time-sensitive, and offers no outs. You can only make one save game, so you can screw yourself easily by saving with too little time left or with too little health to survive an encounter.
  • Quirky human fights. Fighting hordes of zombies works gracefully. The human fights are downright lame - they're pattern fights at best, and at worse simply require you to exploit pathing and clipping bugs to make possible. This gets even worse when they start loading the mall with humans with full automatic weapons.
  • Heavy zoning. Come on, if WoW can have an entire continent with seamless transitions, one should expect a single group of mall stores without 15 seconds of loading time.

Seriously, how can anyone with any experience of enjoyment of games justify all of these as non-critical issues?

Game companies just make me mad sometimes.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Penny Arcade Expo, Saturday

What happens when a simple nerd webcomic becomes so popular that they gain more street credit than the former de-facto standard for gaming conferences?

Penny Arcade Expo!

Myself and Einin took the opportunity to go to this up and coming video game and tabletop gaming conference. Unfortunately we had neither the time nor money to do all three days, but we did Saturday afternoon and night.

It seemed very popular, with many thousands of attendees (yes, mostly young caucasian men). However, the Seattle Convention Center is huge, so it didn't feel crowded. The floor was impressive; from the US Army to Rockstar Games, to t-shirt sales, to boardgames; everyone was present. And, as a differentiator from E3, very focused on the games (less than a dozen booth babes through the whole place, and less lewt). Rooms throughout the convention center ran tabletop gaming, video game free-play, and even tournaments. Lounge areas allowed for people to play challenge matches on their Nintendo DS, which practically every attendee had, on beanbag chairs.

From the main floor, the main thing I noticed: everyone is making MMOs! We saw demos of Warhammer Online and Pirates of the Burning Sea, and a sadly rather unimpressive EVE booth (side note, CPP apparently have merged with an Atlanta, GA outfit who are working on a new 'Vampire' MMO of some sort). Lord of the Rings online. A new game, Fury, focused on PvP. The sad thing - they all looked *exactly the same* (except EVE online of course). While they may seem different when you get into it, the basic UI and gameplay is the same across all of them, as if they were just the same game rebranded. A fair number of them were even free, which says something about the level of competition.

And yes, despite his keynote being the day before, Wil Wheaton was still hanging around, socializing with the crowds.

The only really crowded areas were the sessions, and the free-play rooms. I wasn't able to see any of the sessions I really wanted to; which is fine, since the sessions were in fact a bit dull. "Design a game in an hour" became "We actually PROGRAM a game in an hour". Anyone who programs knows it's kinda fun to do, boring to watch.

To end the evening? A concert of nerd music fare. Johnathon Coulton opened, basic comedic fare accompanied by an acoustic guitar. Second was MC Frontalot, a white guy thinking he can rap (he couldn't... and it sucked... hard). But, the headliner for the evening, none other than the Minibosses!! Making complex metal medleys based on classic Nintendo games (and of course, Excitebike a few dozen times ;) ). They were of course, amazing. It was funny to see more Nintendo DS's than lighters during the slow songs.

As a final reward, our badges had a 50-ticket value. I think they really misthought the value of the tickets; 120 tickets for a DS, of which I am now a proud owner. I don't think anyone else noticed, since they had tons of lewt left.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Valhalla Awaits

Now, we chose Sounds of the Underground because Amon Amarth was playing. We chose Portland because it was closest. Yes, we are truly that dedicated to the Viking Horde (we even have the t-shirts to prove it!)

The high point of Portland, without a doubt, was the restaurants. Bridgeport Brewpub and Bakery, in downtown Portland, was easily the highlight of the city. It was a happy place, with a variety of food, friendly staff, and the best in-house microbrews I've ever tasted (including a barely wine). And CHEAP! We did not get a chance to sample the bakery, which we will definitely have to give a try sometime. Another fun place was the Three Lions Bakery, a cute little bakery with tasty baked goods and coffee.

And of course, one cannot forget, the worship of Odin; Amon Amarth! Despite it being a very short set, it was worth every second of wait. Death in Fire just touches you when played live. And, seeing how crazy we were going on the balcony, Johan Hegg looks right at us, smiles, and gives us metal.

The low points. Well first off, they moved the show from the convention center to the "Roseland Theatre". The negative reviews are well-deserved. The layout isn't horrible, but their staff is downright cruel. I swear, they were worried more about preventing people taking pictures with their cellphones than the safety of the crowd. As much as I love flashlights being shined in my eyes (after all, flashlights aren't exactly pinpoint instruments at 60ft), I really could have done without it during my favourite bands.

And, in the end, most of the Sound of the Underground tour... well the bands kinda sucked! From Christian Screamo to the most tuneless of thrash, we heard many varieties of suck at high decibels. There were maybe two bands I'd even consider noteworthy in quality. Even GWAR, a staple of my childhood, while their sets and costumes were of course as wonderfully overdone as always, played music to match the tour's other bands.

But, in the end, it was worth the time off, the six+ hours of driving, the expense, and the damage to my eardrums. Easily!

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Travel Lockdown... again.

Been awhile since I posted. I know, I'm a slacker. So, I reawaken teh blog with the following FAQ:

Q: WTF? Travel lockdown again?

Short Answer: Yes. From mid-August (aka. the lawyers saying SoonTm) for several weeks.

Long Answer.....
Hum.... this is really long.

Let me explain how US green cards work.

Step 1: A worker applies for PERM "labour certification". This basically is a bunch of paperwork to ensure that you're not stealing some poor American's jorb. When this is done, you get a receipt back saying that you're not stealing someone's job. The date you filed your PERM is your "Priority Date".

Step 2: You file an immigrant petition - an I-140. Basic paperwork.

Step 3: You wait. You wait for your priority date to become "current". Basically, for each category of immigrant (and each country), there's a limit on the number of visas per year. So, when they run out, nobody else gets greencards until next year (the year starts in September or October for the US government). They process them in order of priority date - when they advertise that they're ready to offer visas for your priority date, you're current.

Then you get to file an I-485, which adjusts your status to permanent resident. You wait for them to process it, and then you get your green card.

It's an unpleasant process. Involves photos, tons of paperwork, and even a full medical exam! They want to make sure that you're not a sexual deviant or psychopath (I'm serious!), or if you have TB (they inject crap into your arm!).

Now, my priority date is in April 2007 sometime, at which point the monthly bulletin advertised the current date as August 2002! So I shouldn't have to worry about this, right?

Well no. The US government bungled. Big time. They, on their July bulletin, advertised ALL dates as caught up to the present. Why? It's theorized that they wanted to clear a backlog of "easy" applications. But, there's a big loophole - if you file your I-485 while your priority date is current, they can't reject it, even if they run out of visas! So they hold it in limbo, but this gives the applicant special rights for travel and the right for their families to get jobs (and for the original applicant to change jobs). They were not happy with everybody getting these special rights, so they posted a "revised" bulletin that, despite the old bulletin, they'd in fact accept NO APPLICATIONS from anyone!

Well, this made people mad. They'd moved their families; cancelled travel; fought for very scarce government doctor appointments. There were lawsuits. Against the government. Lots of them. And lots of bad press. In the end, they decided to avoid the lawsuits by posting a revised revised bulletin, saying that the original July bulletin would be legit until August 17th (but that after that, things would be unavailable again).

But, Lownewulf, you've not answered the question! WTF does this have to do with travel lockdown?

Well, since my priority date is current for the next few days. I'm applying for my green card! It will be years before a visa number is available, but the application will remain pending until then.

Herein is the crux of this new travel lockdown: you have to be in the country to apply for adjustment of status! If you leave the US, they will deem you to have abandoned your I-485. In fact, you can't leave the country until you receive an "Advance Parole", which is one of those special privileges of the application process I mentioned. This can take awhile. Thankfully, there's a rule that says that H-1B holders like me can leave without AP, as long as the H-1B is valid, and as long as you have your receipt for the I-485.

So, I have to wait, in the US, until I get the receipt for my I-485. Who knows how long that will take.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Heaven and Hell

On Sunday, I was privileged enough to catch the first show of Heaven and Hell, a union of Ronnie James Dio, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, and Vinny Appice. Yes, THOSE guys. Playing together again for the first time in fifteen years. These guys can literally be credited with inventing entire genres of metal. We expected much.

Also in the lineup, popular New Orleans band Down (credentials, surprizingly include ex-Pantera and Corrosion of Conformity), and mainstay of thrash metal, Megadeth. Due to ferry issues from our Comox vacation, we only caught the finale of Down. This, incidentally, was the last anyone heard from them for awhile, as their next several dates on the tour were cancelled.

Megadeth didn't really bring any surprizes - they know their music, and they do it well. Sadly, the same couldn't be said of the sound engineers, who had the mixing ridiculously off, and triggered a great deal of feedback. Still, sound quality aside, a solid show, and a welcome introduction to live Megadeth for myself.

Then, Heaven and Hell. Wow. When was the last time you saw sixty-year old men go on stage and kick your ass four a couple of hours? Well let me tell you, their age does not show; neither in their playing nor in their setlist. This stuff was heavy, evil, and played with full energy. Dio still has one hell of a set of lungs, and he lets you know it. Their stage: amazing. They took this classic graveyard scene, and then could adjust based on some minimal adjustments and lighting. The effect was spot on, even way at the back in our seats.

Heaven and Hell will trigger a new Golden Age for Metal. Need proof? Just watch the cellphone recordings. You won't be able to disagree.

Vacation Time: Mt. Washington

What better way to escape the working grind than an epic vacation?

Having no good answer to this, myself and The Irishman planned out exactly such a vacation for ourselves and the ladies (Kyna and Popple). First, Kyna headed up to Seattle, so that I could take some time to show her the sites (aka. wine and dine her). Then we headed up towards The Irishman's for an evening of boozing and partying.

(as a note: in both directions across the border, they were very insistent on seeing Kyna's full papers, including proof of citizenship. Gone are the days where a driver's license would suffice to get you across the border. You have been warned.)

After a day or two of adventures, slackination, and Maplewood hockey and beer (mostly me drinking, gotta love Cowen scoring twice in a game), we headed over to Comox, the little town neighbouring Courtney; itself a somewhat bigger town an hour North of Nanaimo. We were staying in the Vineyard Cottage suite at Restless Winds. A lovely little getaway on the coast, with a wood stove, a complete kitchen, lovely decor, and even TV for those nights when you just want to curl up in front of the fire and veg. They get my first recommendation of the night.

Comox itself is a cute little town, but except for the air force base (lots of tourist stuff around that), and a very cute SPCA shelter (where the kitties just use the entire complex as their personal playground), it's not going to win points for adventure spot of the year. Courtney was more of your standard urbanised town, and had more amenities, though less focused on tourists. We found a lovely cheese shop and a few nice coffee places to amuse ourselves. Top points to the shopkeepers in Courtney and Comox for the worst puns for innocent stores: "Wood in Hand", "All Wet", and "I-ho's" take the medals.

Skiing was lovely. Mt. Washington is a high quality drive-up mountain, with a comprehensive selection of runs, from a whole region of the mountain for beginners to a pure double-black back-country. Prices were certainly not cheap, but more affordable than some other mountains. Ample rentals, and a cozy cafeteria to rest on. Where this mountain loses points is its hours - afternoon skiing ends at 3:30! There is night skiing, but it only includes the green runs.

For our final night, myself and The Irishman took the ladies out for a nice dinner at Tomato Tom├Ąto, a cute little restaurant in an old heritage house location. This place takes top spot for recommendations for this trip. Without a doubt, this is the best restaurant I've ever been to, and I've been to a few very nice restaurants. The drinks were tasty and boozey, the appetizers mouth-watering, the entrees perfect in every way, and desserts so tempting that even completely stuffed, we couldn't resist. All with a warm friendly decor, and excellent service. If you are ever in Courtney, go there.

Of course, then we headed home. You'd think, with all the effort Microsoft put into the Daylight Savings Time fix, that I of all people wouldn't forget. But sure enough, we thought we were doing great getting back right up until we pulled into a Nanaimo gas station, and saw we were an hour late. But, heroes that we are, we found an alternative route down to Tsawwassen, and still made the upcoming epic concert. But that is a story for another post.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Women in Metal

Blabbermouth linked me a great article today: Woman in Metal. Discussing yet another article, published in print, "The 13 Sexiest Chicks in Metal".

Basically, this magazine interviewed Lacuna Coil, among others, and did a photo spread of sexy female metal musicians. Some applaud the obviously clever play to the male audience's insatiable need for eye-candy. Others deride the obvious appeal to appearance over musical talent. Even others take a tangent to that idea, observing that metal chicks are generally getting typecast into the "sexy goth vocalist" role these days.

Personally, I applaud teh sexy metal. Seriously, if you got it, show it off! Yes, metal should be about the music... but the second you step up on a stage, the second you make a music video, a promo shot, you're becoming more than just a musician. You're a performer. There's a reason why Metallica has huge pyro at their shows. Why Heaven and Hell (separate blog coming on that one) construct wickedly creative sets. Why Iron Maiden burns giant wicker effigys, complete with virgins, on stage. Hell, would you be as impressed showing up for an Amon Amarth concert, and instead of a long-haired viking badass, being greeted by Wierd Al screaming from the bowels of his lungs?

Anyways, for the record, in live concerts, I've seen more floppy man-wiener (the Shitty Dwarves nightmare, forever scarred into my mind) in concert than I've seen woman titty. I think the women of metal owe me one...

While there are still a few asshats that can't get over the girls in metal bands, there have been plenty of bands who showed that women can be respected for their metal, and not just in the stereotyped roles either. One of my favourites was Drain STH, a distinctly doom band with hard rock overtones. A band that purposely avoiding letting their image get out, so that their music would be respected before people discovered they were four smoking hot Swedish bombshells.

Sadly, in recent years, a lot of the women have been herded into the Goth metal role. Not that this is a bad thing! It has produced some amazing goth metal bands, including Lacuna Coil, Nightwish (with Tarja), Evanescence (hey! Just because they get radio play doesn't mean they can't be heavy sometimes!), Within Temptation, and dozens of others. However, I really wouldn't mind seeing a few girls breaking out of goth. Especially as vocalists (since, yes folks, most women sound different than men), and in other roles too. That was part of why I was so eager to hear samples of Missy K in Stratovarius... not the same sound to be sure, but it'd have been novel, and I always appreciate something new in my metal.

Hell, if they sound good, I won't even care if they're hot or not. Though I certainly wouldn't complain if they are...

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Diet Pop Challenge!

A challenge to try every diet pop available in Microsoft's refrigerators. Furthermore, to attempt to go through a few full workdays, drinking no full-sugar pop.

A few reasons. Admittedly, on some gentle prodding from The Irishman, bringing up the many health benefits of avoiding high sugar intake.

First, the obvious one - sugar, without the matching exercise, is going to immediately translate into fat. While I'd like to gain some weight, I'd prefer it to be thick muscle mass that makes a fine lady swoon, and men cower in fear. I am not overweight, but I could lose 10lbs in fat without any serious detrimental effects on my health (and certainly don't want to gain any at all at my current point).

Second, diabetes. A few friends have pointed out that high sugar intake can lead to risk for type-II diabetes. I don't like drugs, having to see doctors, needles, or having to significantly curtail my diet. Diabetes could mean all of that.

Finally, my Mountain Dew tower just scares me. I'll take a picture soon.

Not Covered:
Home time, meals out. This is purely workday. My leisure time, I will have my sugar. I like my sugar, thank you! Also, no caffeine-reduced drinks. I know of no serious health issues around regular caffeine intake unless you take huge amounts (forming a moderate physical addiction), or do not keep hydrated (caffeine is a diuretic). I also like my caffeine.

I got to try a variety of sugar-free pop; as far as I know, the full selection available in my building. I drank everything that had a diet variety, including caffeine-free if there was no caffeinated version.
  • Diet Mountain Dew
  • Diet Pepsi
  • Diet Coke
  • Diet Coke Cherry
  • Diet Dr. Pepper
  • Diet Mug Root Beer
  • Diet Sprite

I was going to review these, and comment on the overwhelming taste of aspartame and relative flavourlessness of each of them. But, having just had a second Diet Mountain Dew (after cycling all the pops, where Diet MD was also my first), I realize something. I've become desensitized to the taste of aspartame, in just three days! I hated my first can of Diet Mountain Dew. Loathed it even. But after a few days of drinking these sugar-free drinks, it doesn't bother me much at all.

Still, Diet Coke Cherry comes out on top for pleasantness. Also Diet Mug and Diet Sprite take a prize for being a bit truer to the taste of their sweetened counterparts, but they have no caffeine so are therefore not important to me.

I've done three full diet days, and a few mixed days (it's been a rough week). I'm at the point where it is something I can drink subconsciously as I work.

On a side note, on suggestion of The Irishman and Popple, I gave Coke Zero a try at home (they don't seem to have any at work). I must say, it was the the closest to something I found with any real flavor, and I found myself chugging at it pretty aggressively. It still lacks that distinct boldness that corn syrup provides to a decent pop, but definitely a good substitute if you're going to be drinking a lot.

Given conditioning, one can in a very short time become accustomed to diet pop, even growing to like it.

Given this revelation, am I likely to switch to diet full time? No. However, I am definitely going to find one kind I like enough to drink regularly (the Diet Coke Cherry, I think), and start replacing at least some of my workday's consumption with it. I'm also going to drink a bit of Coke Zero at home, but only for those long nights of Warcraft. Probably with alcohol.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Vista voice recognition

I saw an interesting movie on YouTube today, which shows a programmer struggling to enter Perl code using Vista voice recognition. It took him 10 minutes to enter a simple five line program in notepad. While obviously not designed for the rigid needs of a programmer, it seemed to recognize the things that he did say quite readily. This inspired me, as an avid Vista user, to give the Vista voice recognition a try for myself.

I must admit, I'm quite impressed. Especially in applications set up for dictation, such as notepad or Internet Explorer, the performance even with minimal training is exemplary. In fact, the voice recognition probably spells better than I do with a keyboard. When the occasional mistakes are made, the dictation interface is extremely powerful in terms of its correction commands. While it is more difficult to talk to an application that does not expect dictation, such as Windows Live Messenger, you can still operate largely with your voice ( albeit a bit slower ). It even knows to scan things like emails and other data on your computer to build a dictionary of words that you might want to say.

In fact, my biggest problem I'm finding is that I can type my thoughts far better than I can articulate them. For some reason, it's harder for me to come up with what to say when I actually have to say it out loud.


To prove my point, the above paragraphs were dictated entirely with Vista voice recognition in notepad, copied, and then pasted into a Blogger window [including website navigation] using nothing but my voice. I was going to start typing at this point, but both voice dictation is actually staring to be kind of fun for me. Not fast... At least not yet. But still cool.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Eight Hour Workday

Sometimes I just read something online that says something so perfectly, so well-researched, that rings so true, that I couldn't hope to add anything to it. So, I submit to you the following.
(credit to Cryponomicon for sending me the link)

An interesting discussion of the relation of the length of the workday and the work week as it applies to productiveness and quality. The ten-second summary: for more or less 100 years now, all the greats of organizational design have known that the 8 hour x 5 day work week produces the best level of productivity out of people for a large selection of activities.

Of course, he ties this in with the "ea_spouse" scandal, and how in many technology companies, the lessons of the past have been forgotten.

Read it, you'll enjoy it. Though I hope it does not ring too true for you.

I have to wonder... those 5 hours a night I often do... perhaps when I feel frustrated at my lack of productivity or ability to work through a problem, perhaps I'm just drunk on fatigue? It sure would explain a lot...

Thursday, February 01, 2007


Well, I got my wish. In the past twenty-four hours, I've been hit by two cops. First, at night, an instant-on K band in Kirkland. No warning - BLAM! My little radar device goes nutsy and I brake ASAP. The next morning, heading off to work, turn a corner..... ALARM! Lasered!

So, there's some good news to all this.
  • I've experienced the two most common forms of speed trap that I'm likely to encounter (instant-on K band radar, and stationary laser trap), and know what to expect.
  • Both warnings were very obviously true positives from the sort of signal I got. None of this wishy washy echo crap.
  • I was driving legal speeds in both cases, and thus didn't get pulled over. I'd feel EXTRA bad about getting a ticket at the 156th St cash grab, which they do to shake up money from Microsofties weekly.
  • My detector had no trouble picking up the laser signal, even at close range. This is actually a non-trivial task.
But of course, the downside being in neither case did the detector save me since I wasn't speeding. More to the point, they wouldn't have saved me even if I was speeding! The laser and instant-on gave me no warning before I was hit. Sure, at least for radar that may not always be the case, but it certainly could happen.

So yeah... you're never really safe....

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Radar Detector on a Test Drive

I finally did it. After a year of driving, and hearing of the nightmares my colleagues go through with speeding tickets, I went and bought a radar detector.

(note: today, I'm just expressing my experiences with my new unit; the post where I ponder the philosophical question of whether I SHOULD have one is mostly written and coming soon. In the meantime, take it for granted that I have accepted the necessity of it, and move along.)

I purchased a brand new Beltronixs RX-65 Professional Series. Before you gasp at the MSRP, keep in mind these things are generally marked up signficantly from invoice. You can generally get these, much like I did, for about $200 as long as you're willing to forego the factory warranty (most resellers that go this route provide their own warranty in its place) since Beltronics refuses to allow its official retailers to sell on eBay or below MSRP. I got mine from i-Net Distributors, an eBay retailer with over 10k feedback (99.6% positive currently). Their process was heavily automated - I never dealt with a human in the entire transaction. Which is a good thing because the automated process got me the thing faster than any human. It was well packed, and new (sans shrinkwrap, since they take the serial).

I chose this particular model at the suggestion of Snowstorm, perhaps the only guy I know who could get more excited about awesome new toys than I could. But as a further justification, check out Speed Zones, which pits the various detectors against each other. This one does quite favourably in most tests - detecting all the radar modes at long range, and even getting the occasional laser detection right.

Simple stats. This guy does X band (not used much anymore, mostly in gas stations and stuff), most of the modern K-bands, front and rear laser detection(1), and safety radar, all with only minimal leakage for detection by radar detector detectors(2). It has voice alerts, and a decent amount of configurability. It's a sleek windshield-mount unit, with a mute button on the cigarette lighter power source.

(1 Laser is very precise, and generally instant-on. This means even the best laser detectors, if you're lucky and the cop doesn't aim well, will generally only give you a warning after you've already been clocked. However, laser is more difficult to use, and doesn't work in all environments - in particular, you can't use it from a moving cop car! There are laser jammers on the market, and they are generally legal since the FCC doesn't have jurisdiction over the near-visible light portion of the electromagnetic spectrum IIRC, but the units are generally stand-alone and require mounting on the front of your car.)

(2 Most radar detectors (RD) can be detected by a radar detector detector (RDD). This matters a lot for truckers, who generally are not allowed RDs, and in the (very few) locations in the US where RDs are illegal. Practically all detectors can be detected, though generally at varying ranges. One notable exception is the Beltronics STi Driver, which has practically no measurable emissions even at mere centimeters away! Of course, since radar detectors are legal in B.C., Alberta, Washington, Oregon, and California, I have little to worry about!)

Well, moving right along.... I gave this bad boy a try, with a few days of city driving, followed by a camping trip up in Squamish - a 200 mile marathon each way. Despite having my new toy, the trip was made entirely at safe and (well.... almost) legal speeds. Sadly, even with the detector, the trip took me four hours, despite my previous musings, which would have led me to estimate it at three.

I can't say I'm unhappy with the unit. It dims well, its controls are intuitive, it has voice alerts, and the auto-mute makes longer warnings very pleasant. But, in the end, I was actually quite disappointed with the whole "radar detector experience", in a way that probably had very little to do with the Beltronics itself. I will iterate my reasons in a second.

The Beltronics definitely had some good reliable detections. In town at 156th and Bel-Red, you can pick up a consistent X-band signal from the gas station (this is quite common), as well as what I call an "echo" (single bar of K band) of a far away speed-detecting sign. On highway 99, we didn't detect the speed signs that far off... but I got K-band echoes even on the other side of a massive cliff face! That made me very happy. But by far the best true positive I got, was passing a pulled-over cop. Sensed echoes two blocks away while his radar gun was pointing sideways while he was ticketing someone, with a massive K-band signal as I passed his car.

I got a few cases that worried me though. Passing an RCMP officer obviously monitoring traffic, not so much as a blip, and he was definitely holding a radar gun - though it's possible he was using an instant-on mode (POP mode) and just ignoring our heavy wave of traffic. I saw another cop car in a speed-trappy position, but nothing. Still, I didn't see either move at all, I can hope those were true negatives.

I have not seen any laser, safety radar, Ka or Ku yet. I suppose this is a good thing, though I'd like to see detections for those at least once to see them in action.

I got a couple false positives even on the highway from particularly powerful store transmitters. And a few mystery signals - K-band echoes that lasted huge distances. I suspect that I was following an undercover cop who was radaring from his car, but never got close enough to take the full force. In the city, there's tons of X band and a fair bit of even K band. The "modes" of the detector didn't make much difference with the 'City' mode only lowering the voice warning trigger level for X band a bit. I have no idea what 'Highway' actually does, but I'm generally going to leave it on 'AutoScan'.

But, in the end, I wasn't happy with the radar detector experience in general. And here's why:

You simply don't get to use it enough. For a variety of reasons, you simply don't have a need for a detector.
  • Stupid Washington drivers who don't know what "State Law: Keep right except to pass" signs mean.
  • Stupid B.C. drivers who think reaching speed limit is something to aspire to one day.
  • Stupid Everett, which is always bloody backed up and sloww.
  • In-town - really, if you have to stop every two blocks, why would you want to build up enough speed for it to matter?
  • Highway 99; there are sections of that highway where I'm quite comfortable driving at the speed limit, thank you!
  • Traffic - you move with the traffic at their speed. Not much to be done about it.

False positives. As any security guy knows, avoiding false positives are critical. In town, they're everywhere. The highway isn't bad, but even then you'd get the occasional warning that's obviously wrong. The reason is simple - even if your false positive rate is very low (say 1%), by the sheer fact that most of the time you're not getting radared, that means that even the 1 in 100 signals false positive are still going to show up more frequently than the actual getting radared by a cop. This is described well in a intrustion detection paper I read once long ago.

The more false positives I get, the less the detections will worry me. Which you can obviously see will lead down a path that is going to result in me being unhappy. Even putting that aside, the alerts are annoying - you generally only want one when there is a genuine need, and that certainly didn't feel like the case for me.

Human perceptions. People react differently when they see you have a radar detector. They must wonder if you're a compulsive speed freak, or fighting the system, or simply trying to scam your way out of obeying the rules. Well I have no idea if people think that, but I still find myself putting it away around officials (ie. border guards), even though it's perfectly legal to have. There is also a genuine and broadly-held belief that if you have a radar detector, cops are going to be disinclined to let you off with a warning (not that cops here do that much from what I hear).

Fellow speed-freaks without detectors. You get a detection, you're going too fast.... you slow down! That is essentially the point of these things. Of course, how do you communicate that to those around you, who are irritated by your change in speed of travel? Even worse, what if it's a false positive or one of the many "quasi-positives" (heh, yes I made that up) like radar speed signs? You then look the fool for going slowly.


So, will I keep my radar detector? Probably. I have it, and I suspect one day I'll be glad I got it. Plus, like any toy, it's better to have it then not have it when you need it. But I'm still considering whether to use it on a day-to-day basis, or just save it for those extra-long highway drives where the last thing I want is to stop and talk to an officer at the side of the road.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Compy at Ludicrise Speed


Now there are many sounds that computer people don't like. High-pitched whines. Sizzling. Crunching. Grinding. For a few both lucky and unlucky few, even dripping. But without a doubt, silence is the worst.

Every modern PC over a certain level of computing power has moving parts. Hard drives spin. As do fans. Especially fans. So any time you don't hear something, there's a problem. A big one. And for awhile, my computer, post upgrade, was not making a single sound in response to pressing the power button. But, thankfully, after replugging half the motherboard, I got the beast to power up.

Well, everything worked. Relevant enhancements were the increase of my CPU multiplier from 9X to 12X, (1.8 GHz to 2.4GHz), and an improvement on my RAM timings to (2.5-3-3-5, 2T rate - strangely the RAM, despite having a 2.0 CAS, advertises itself as 2.5), of course, with twice the RAM as well. Even at that point, the speed difference was quite noticable, in boot, in WoW, and elsewhere. Sadly, my second core wasn't detected, but a quick BIOS update to 3.A and suddenly dual core is realized.

Of course, that's not enough for me though. The RAM was not even running at spec. So a quick update to 2-3-2-5 1T. Big difference? Well about an 8% improvement in memory latency says PCMark, but for actual real-world tests, not a big deal.

Then, lets take a look at the Front Side Bus speed. Stock is 200MHz. 210. 220. No problem. 225... still going. My processor is now running at 2.7GHz. I stopped at this point, noticing an observable increase in heat levels, though the processor took an hour of Prime95 (the premiere 'torture test' for CPUs) without any issues. And let me tell you, when it comes to making your computer faster, FSB is where it's at. EVERYTHING is tied into the FSB, so every bit you get out of your FSB is pure speed bonus. The speed increase is substantial, with major improvements in PCMark test scores across the board.

Right now, my CPU runs idle at about 42C. Heavy stress across components (Prime95 + WoW) boosted that to a warm 52C. Certainly not cool for this processor, but definitely nowhere close to tolerances; anything under 60C is generally considered a safe margin, and they're rated up to 70C. As a side note, my video card idles at 55C and got as hot as 72C in 3DMark.

Well, I've been pretty conservative of course - my 3000+ went as high as 240MHz FSB. But why stress the system unnecessarily? My plan is to wait until the peak of summer, then squeeze a few more MHz out of it. There I'll know how the heat is under worst case Seattle weather.

As a reminder, those interested can check out my compy page, where I'll post the actual stats; if I ever get off my lazy ass and update it. :D

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

New Compy Toys

With the coming of the much anticipated World of Warcraft: Burning Crusade expansion coming out next week (yes, I've preordered at GameStop already), I need my computer in tip top computing shape. But sadly, the pride of my company, Windows Vista, desires to thwart me. As I've mentioned previously, the one thing Vista gobbles up more than anything is RAM. Warcraft shares in that lust, and thus, unless I want to reboot to XP, performance in Warcraft is varies from excellent to unbearably thrashy.

So, I sucked it up, closed my eyes, and typed in my credit card number.

When combined with my new video card and some liberal overclocking, my computer shall again be a powerhouse.

Not that I expect anyone to want it, but please email me if you are interested in my old processor or RAM.
  • AMD Athlon 64 3000+ Socket 939.
  • 1GB of OCZ Gold EL RAM. Technically DDR400, but with overvoltage, reaches DDR500 at crazy timings (2-2-2-8 if I recall).

I'll accept the best offer I get for either of these. I'm also selling my EVGA E-Geforce 6800 GT PCI-e, but I suspect there's something wrong with it (overheats too easy), so it's totally as-is.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

It's so cold here...

I'm back! My long exile from technology over, returned to the freezing cold that is the Pacific Northwest.

Bali was great. It felt even warmer than Singapore. We were staying in a small villa (pic) in Canggu, a rural village on the coast, a ways Northwest of the tourist hub of Kuta. Very small town, with only (pic, pic) as neighbours. The nearby beach, while not suitable for splashing around, was a popular surfing beach (pic).

While it was mostly just lounging in the pool at the villa, we also got to see a few neat attractions on the island. For example, the monkey forest in Ubud, literally crawling with monkeys (pic), which were very close since they were used to humans. One of the most exciting days was a trip down a river rapids, as we watched the jungle pass us by, as well as a quarter-mile of cliff face intricately being carved in traditional patterns by the locals (sorry, the camera didn't make it to that leg). While the family otherwise was too lazy to join me, I even took it upon myself to learn a bit of surfing at the local surf school (pic).

... and yes, though far away from our homeland, we still had a small taste of Christmas in the tropics (pic).

Overall, the locals were very friendly and eager to please... in some part because they know their mealticket depends on tourists, in part to make the next sale, but also simply because they're friendly. I was reminded many a time that all my Canadian and American friends need to come visit the island, and if you are in the region, I certainly do recommend it.