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Q&A with Larry Wall (body)

by rjbs, created 2015-04-08 21:48
tagged with: @markup:md journal perl yapc

At the Perl conference, YAPC::NA, there will be a ninety minute question and answer session with Larry Wall.

Larry Wall is the creator of Perl, rn, patch, and other revolutionary monstrosities. He's smart, funny, and full of interesting things to say. I will be acting as host, asking him questions. My goal is to have great questions that coax the most interesting answers possible out of him.

You can help!

If you've got a topic or question you'd like asked, file an GitHub issue or comment on an existing issue. If you'd rather I keep your amazing question close to my chest, or if you don't want to use GitHub, you can send me an email at rjbs@cpan.org.

notes on drawing programming for children (body)

by rjbs, created 2015-03-21 23:10
tagged with: @markup:md journal programming

Once in a while, my daughter asks me to teach her programming. We've done a number of little things together, including some Python, some Scratch, and other things. When I was trying to think of what I enjoyed doing with computers around that age, one of the things I remembered was drawing. We did turtle graphics with Logo in my school, and it was nice to get instant and visual feedback of what the program did. I thought this seemed like a fun idea.

I had looked at using Scratch for this, but it didn't seem likely to work out. Scratch is neat, in some ways, but terribly limited in others. I decided we'd stick to Logo. I downloaded ACSLogo, the only gratis OS X implementation of Logo I could find. At first, it went well. We drew some stuff. She drew a vampire girl.

vampire girl

I wanted, next, to show her how to do some of the more commonly-seen tricks, like rotated squares making a flower. This is simple: you define a function and call it in a loop. Then I realized that ACSLogo had neither of these things. Or, worse, it had functions, but they weren't defined in the program text. You have to bring up an inspector pane, edit them across several different GUI widgets... it's a mess.

Fine, I said, forget it. There are other languages specialized for drawing stuff! I decided to teach her PostScript. We'd already played with RPN calculators, so we were halfway there, right? She was a natural. I showed her this little box-drawer:

    250 225 moveto 275 225 lineto
    275 200 lineto 250 200 lineto
    250 225 lineto

...and she said "moveto, and lineto, but don't use goto!" I don't even know where she picked this up. Kids these days!

Anyway, she drew a skull, and it was awesome:

vampire girl

Those three squares were going to be a lesson. After we did one square, we could turn it into a square subroutine! Only as I began to say this out loud did I remember that like only the most backward of languages, PostScript routines did not have parameter lists. This is pretty obvious, of course, but I hadn't thought of it until I got there.

A routine to compute a²+b² would look something like:

/sum2sq { dup mul swap dup mul add }

If you wanted to actually get "a" and "b" to use, you'd write something like (and please forgive the fact that I will get this wrong, probably):

/sum2sq {
  2 dict
  /b exch def
  /a exch def
  a a mul
  b b mul

So, you declare that the next two definitions are local, then you define named routines that return the values you've popped off the stack, in reverse order, of course... this is not something you want to bother teaching a second-grader who just wants to draw a cool skull.

(It gets a lot worse, if you care about the program, actually. The above program re-alloctes a new local dictionary every time you call the routine. In reality, you'd want to move that definition outside the routine, then swap the routine's definition in and out of the dictionary stack. But then it isn't re-entrant! This gets easier if you're using Level-2 PostScript, but my reference is only for the original version with no garbage collection.)


I seriously considered writing a PostScript preprocessor to allow for something like:

/sum2sq(a b) { ... }

...but this was bordering on madness. PostScript has so many other drawbacks to begin with that I took this as a sign.

I looked for another version of Logo, found one, bought it, and found that it, too, had no procedure definition. I got a refund. Thanks, Apple Store!

Finally, I learned that Python's Tk system comes with turtle graphics. We'd already done some Python, so this was familiar! It was a lot easier to work with, we could write named functions, and the kid was pleased that TextMate had good syntax highlighting for it. She made the long-overdue flower:

vampire girl

Next up, I'd like to make it easier for her to run the program without a bunch of terminal nonsense and "hit a key to continue" stuff. Still, so far so good. She tells me that when she gets older, she'll be a better programmer than I am, because her programs "won't have bugs."

Ah, innocence!

RPG Recap: Beyond the Temple of the Abyss, 2015-03-14 (body)

by rjbs, created 2015-03-14 22:28

Saturday, 4th day of the Frost Moon, 937

Knash, Brenda, Mumford, and Wim — their host — connected the party's scrying screen to the village's antenna, and Wim got in touch with his superior: an androgynous floating head. Wim gave the head a quick summary of his situation, and they agreed that the likely solution would be to enact "the contingency plan." The head said it would communicate again in twelve hours.

Wim didn't really know what the contingency plan was, when asked. He just figured it would be something very likely fatal to the "atheist" who'd been hanged in the village center. He started packing up, and told the party they might want to do some looting.

The party did loot, loading up on food, dry goods, and a few expensive knick-knacks. They finally found a use for the heavy rainbow-colored coins they'd been carrying: a building in the village housed a machine that would process the coins into anything, it seemed, that could fit in its output space. They conjured up explosives, a magical staff, and healing potions.

They raided the library, and found a catalog listing numerous hard to find arcane librams (Hebram's Thesis on Abdesius' Commonplace Book, for example!) but almost all the books had been destroyed by Halewin, the hanged man. All that was left were some novels: Sense and Centurions, To Love a Wizard, Finnegan's Wake, The Cyborg's Lament, and other works of no interest to the adventurers.

In the library, and indeed all through the town, they found lifelike statues in various states of horror or surprise. Wim confirmed that these were the former villagers, turned to stone by Halewin's gaze.

While looking at the village graveyard, outside its walls, the gang saw that the scrying screen was pulsing, and fetch Wim. Wim came to communicate, but the call wasn't the floating head, but one of the goblins who'd expected the party to show up and fight the vampire. While he laid into the party, though, the floating head did contact Wim. With Wim out of the village, the plan was ready to be enacted immediately. The presence of other humans in the village didn't sway the head.

A dome of blue light began to form over the village walls, and the party members inside them hightailed it to, and over, the fence, while the horses struggled to make it to the gates, spurred on by bowshots from across the fence. Only Burdoc the cook, already weakened by an accident the previous day, didn't make it.

The contingency plan seemed to involve deploying a lumbering metal death machine, which emerged from beneath a pile of stones and engaged Halewin with powerful blasts of energy. Halewin was injured, but survived. The horses made it to the gate, but by then the dome blocked all but a few feed of the exit. Knash, then Rago, made daring rolls back and forth under the dome to salvage the party's bags. Quite a bit was left behind, but the most important things were saved.

A massive explosion occurred within the dome, and as the group regathered to decide how to proceed, it collapsed, and movement within suggested that Halewin had survived. The party fled east.

why I'm not sold on YubiKey OTP (body)

by rjbs, created 2015-03-07 14:19
last modified 2015-03-07 16:59
tagged with: @markup:md journal

[ update: I added a bit of an update at the end, in which I find that my fundamental worries were wrong, because the system is less convenient than I hoped! So it goes. ☹ I decided to post this anyway, because the thoughts were worth thinking, so maybe somebody else will find them interesting to see. Or not. Who even reads this thing? ]

Lots of people and sites now urge (or even require) you to set up two-factor authentication. This usually means something that emulates those old LCD RSA SecurID key fobs you used to see on the university administrators' keyrings, if you attended my college when I was there. (Have we met?) The idea here is, in part, that even if someone intercepts your login once, they will no longer be able to use it later. You may have one password (probably "kittens" or "123456") that you use over and over, but the other password — the second factor — can only be used once.

There's more going on here, but I think this is a safe simplification.

In reality, most sites use TOTP, so the password is valid many times, but only within a small window, usually between 30 and 90 seconds. A man-in-the-middle attack can get the full set of credentials, but they're only valid within a small period of time, so they can't be held in escrow for a delayed attack.

TOTP is built on top of HOTP, in which there's a counter that's incremented with each use. TOTP just replaces the incrementing counter with a timestamp. Otherwise, HOTP can be a bit trickier to use: the verifier needs to know the counter being verified, or at least the minimum counter not previously seen, to prevent replay attacks. TOTP just replaces the counter with the current time. Both are built on a shared secret which is shared only between the remote server and the user.

The hassle of TOTP, to once again grossly oversimplify, is that we tend to use a device other than our computer to store the shared secret. We put it on our phone, or a little keyfob, or the like. When we log in, we need to look at that, slide to unlock, find the site in a list, and then type in the six digits onto the web page. This is why we're often quick to click "trust this computer for a month."

A YubiKey is a little USB HID device that will enter your OTP for you. When you tap it, it emits a string of characters (because it's pretending to be a keyboard) and then enter. Those characters are your one-time password. You don't need to unlock your phone, swipe things, or any of that. You just tap your USB port. Great!

Now, there are complications. Since your YubiKey doesn't know what site you're logging into, it needs to use a single secret. It doesn't have a clock, so it uses (something analagous to) HOTP. Remember that when you're using counter-mode OTP like HOTP, you need to know the minimum unused counter to prevent replay attacks. To allow sites to synchronize their "last seen counter" data, there's a "YubiCloud" server. They way you're expected to verify an OTP string is to send it to this server, which will reply with a yea/nay. If the OTP is cryptographically valid, but for an already-validated counter, it will be rejected. Once you've verified the OTP, you can't use it again. This is secure.

The problem is that not everybody wants to use a server run by some third party as part of their system. This is a pretty understandable desire, and it can be met: there are several implementations of verification servers that one can run to do local verification without talking to the cloud. You can run your own server, and if YubiCloud is down, you can still verify. You can also feel secure that if YubiCloud's logs are leaked, no one will learn the usage pattern of your users.

See, your users could be identified, more or less, from those logs. Because your YubiKey device has a single secret, your "user id" is visible across all the sites where you use it.

So, now we've got a world where many sites are running their own local verification servers. This creates a new problem: they are not synchronizing their "last seen counter" data. Imagine that a user has accounts with two different services, A and B. They log into A every day and into B rarely.

If site A is compromised, the OTPs used to log into it can be held in escrow to be used against B later. The fact that they have been verified already won't matter, because A and B do not synchronize their last seen counter data. If, like many users, this user is using the same email address and password, then there is nearly no security present. (Remember, everybody: don't use the same password everywhere.)

As more sites run their own YubiKey OTP, the threat of having your OTP held in escrow increases. The precomputed attack on TOTP isn't mitigated by avoiding counters. It's avoided by having shared secrets on a per server basis.

I haven't performed a very careful reading of the specifications involved here, but from what I can tell, my concerns are warranted. I would be delighted to hear that I am mistaken. I don't think that this is a critical exploit that makes the whole system worthless, but I do think it indicates that per-server-secret TOTP is more secure than YubiKey. Of course, it's also less convenient. Isn't that always the way?

YubiKey devices now also support FIDO U2F. That's based on private key cryptography. The server issues a random challenge which the attacker must sign, so playback is of negligible use, given challenges over a large enough space. There's more to it than this, but it seems clearly to be a more secure system. Unfortunately, it's also more complex for services to implement. Isn't that always the way, too?

[update] I think what I'm finding is that since a YubiKey validation server is acting as a key escrow, you can't actually use one key against more than one server. You need to pick which one server you'll work against. This swings things back towards secure, but away from convenient. I will continue looking for documentation on the subject.

RPG Recap: Beyond the Temple of the Abyss, 2015-02-28 (body)

by rjbs, created 2015-03-06 20:42

Friday, 3rd day of the Frost Moon, 937

After a strange and gloomy day spent creeping through the elven woods, Argo had led the party to a clearing in which a small village stood. He fled, promising to return, but nobody believe that for a second. As night fell, they headed in without him.

They neared the gates and Brenda and Rago opened them and went inside. The place seemed deserted, although not ruined by any means. As the party moved forward, they were suddenly surrounded by a pack of stray dogs. They quickly put them down with minimal injuries, although Rago suffered a few broken ribs.

Through they melee, they'd been slowly approached by two torch-bearing men who were cirling the town's wall from the east. They claimed to be devotees of Ibrim, although they were a bit muddy on any details whatsoever. Knash interrogated the clerics, and a villager appeared from behind a building, carrying a dim red torch. He asked whether the group was entirely human, and when assured (especially about Brenda the Greenish), told everyone they could stay the night. He led them through the deserted street, past an occupied gallows. "Don't touch the hanged man," he said, the only instruction he gave. He left them at a small guest house. The group went inside, turned on the space heater, and got their first tolerable night's sleep in days.

Saturday, 4th day of the Frost Moon, 937

In the morning, the party made a slow circuit of the village. They saw a small bakehouse with a pile of many-colored logs beside it. There were several small houses, seemingly unoccupied; a reinforced and especially warm building; a few buildings burned to the ground to differing extents; a big pile of stones; a spiraling metal structure; a closed-up stable; and the large, high building in the middle of the town, where the gallows stood.

The man in the gallows (later identified as "Halewin") looked fresh, based on the pink flesh of his chest. His shirt had been pulled up over his head and tied to the noose. The party left him alone.

Eventually, their circuit completed, a few went into the bakehouse and there found their host, making bread, which he shared. He said that things were difficult because he was unable to contact his superiors, due to damage to their communication equipment. Knash suggested that the group could help, and the host was dismissive until he was shown that the party had a scrying screen. He immediately asked to use it, and he and Knash went off to connect it to the rest of the village equipment while the rest of the party enjoyed some fresh bread.

my "syntax highlighting as RTF" code is now on the CPAN (body)

by rjbs, created 2015-02-20 20:04
last modified 2015-02-20 20:07

In 2007, I wrote code to generate RTF that syntax highlights code, using Vim's syntax highlighting. I wrote about it in an earlier post or two. After that, I didn't think about it much, apart from fixing a couple things once in a while or running it once every year or so.

Earlier this week, David Golden tweeted a link to Joshua Timberman's blog, in which he was using a different tool, called highlight, for the same purpose: getting highlighted code into Keynote slides. He sounded pretty excited about it, so I thought maybe somebody would be excited about my program. (Over time, I've come to really appreciate having the same highlighting on my slides as in my editor!)

Rather than point at my GitHub repository in a tweet or something, I decided to make a proper CPAN release, which meant improving the code a fair bit and writing at least a very thin bit of documentation.

I've now released RTF::VimColor on the CPAN. You can install it and you end up with synrtf, a program that reads source code from a file and prints out RTF. You can (as Joshua points out) do something like:

synrtf lib/Awesome/Code.pm | pbcopy

...and then paste it into Keynote. Or whatever! Use it for printable code listings! Or do other cool stuff! Just have fun!

RPG Recap: Beyond the Temple of the Abyss, 2015-02-14 (body)

by rjbs, created 2015-02-15 12:05
last modified 2015-02-15 12:21

This guest entry written by Breno, Rago's player, who deserves great praise for doing so!


  • Brenda the Fighter (PC)
  • Rago the Barbarian (PC)
  • Perrin the Hunter (PC)
  • Knash Wiggl'Pops the Unseen (PC, player absent)
  • Hoyte the Soldier (hireling)
  • Dera the Sword (hireling)
  • Clem the Carrier (hireling)
  • Oresta the Healer (hireling)
  • Tucky the Page (hireling)
  • Burdoc the Cook (hireling)

After the plant-zombies fight, the party was really beat. Knash, having turned back into a human after reading his monster-morphing secret scroll, was completely unconscious but looked okay, just sleeping. Hoyte was convinced his fatal wounds were just a minor scratch, and had Oresta — our appointed school nurse — try and bandage it for him. Perrin, who was being carried away by a giant vine while also unconscious, was was slapped awake by Rago and was okay except for a broken left hand.

Perrin led the group away from that damned place to find safer grounds for some R&R. Knash was put on the cart and slept for the entire trip. Nightfall came as Perrin found us a nice-enough spot just outside the main road. We buried Hoyte (who was dead by now) and Rago and Brenda stood watch while the others rested.

Brenda's shift had barely started when she saw something moving up the forest canopy. She woke Rago — who can't see anything anyway but stood guard on the ground — put on her gear and went up to investigate.

As she got closer, she saw some spider webs and decided to burn them. Because she's the kind of bad-ass fighter who climbs trees holding a torch.

you know, kinda like this:


Meanwhile, down below, Rago heard some movement on the ground close to the party's cart, right where Hoyte had been buried. Axe in hand, the barbarian went to check it out. As he approached the site, he saw a horse-sized spider carrying a sleeping Burdoc off to who knows where. "Spider!", Rago belted as he charged to aid the poor cook. Brenda starts to climb down, and the spider is already too far away for Rago to reach with his axe. In a swift movement, he holsters his axe, picks up and throws a dagger which lands right in one of the spider's eyes. The beast shrieks in pain, drops Burdoc and climbs back to the canopy, away from everyone's sight. Brenda, now back with the party, throws a flaming arrow in the general direction of the spider and, although missing, is able to see some shadowy humanoid figures up in the trees, as if they were watching the whole thing. Could they be the wood elves?

As the group stands dumbfounded, a tiny man approaches from the road. Not very tall, terrible looking, with a giant beard and a crazy look in his eyes. He's barely naked except for some rags, and he's carrying a stick and a lantern attached to whatever he's using as a belt. He pokes everybody with a stick "to make sure you're real", and looks surprised when he realizes we are.

He presents himself as Argo Fallowel, sole survivor of the "Fallowel's Mysterious Menagerie", a caravan that was passing these woods and had... trouble.

  • "do they know you are here yet?"
  • "they?"
  • "it's them who owns these woods, you know."

He offers to help the party find a way out these woods through the east if we agree to have him tag along, since he needs a cart to carry his things and his caravan is in no condition to move. "But we're not lost!", says Rago. He looks down and smirks "Aren't you, really?".

We follow him and eventually reach a clearing. The caravan is indeed in pretty bad shape, its wagons rotten and eaten by the wood. Looks like Argo had stayed in this woods for way longer than he thinks - at least 3 years after Brenda's inquiry - but refuses to accept it. He says he'll be ready shortly, picks up a shovel and starts to dig behind one of the wagons.

Aside from the wagons, the party sees a huge glass box, with a humanoid shape inside, sitting on a chair in front of a table. We hear a ticking coming from a box that, on further inspection, reads "the next show will begin in 6492 minutes". Brenda removes some branches from within it, and the gears start moving quickly down to only 6 minutes.

  • "Um... Argo? What is this... show?"
  • "The amazing thinking corpse. He has a mind, a will, and cannot die."
  • "Don't you want to come and watch?"
  • "I've seen it."

As we approach two minutes left, we can feel a gentle vibration on the ground. Warm yellow light fills the place.


The figure on the chair rises. It looks like a person made of stone, metal and wood, and we get the impression that at some point there had even been flesh on it. It gesticulates, moves, bows. Then it looks at Perrin and makes a sound that could be a question. There's a lot of distortion on the sound. Perrin shrugs and it shrugs back at him. It looks like its eye sockets are starting to grow moist, some tissue forming, maybe. The creature continues moving to the cabinet, opens a drawer, pulls out three balls, looks as if its going to juggle them, but they are so rotten they just crack and fall on the ground. It looks at Rago and makes another question-like noise. Rago just stares back at it through the glass. It goes back to the cabinet, picks a knife and starts to do some fairly impressive knife play. Finally, it looks at Brenda, who makes a "no" motion with her head. It holds up one finger and the artificial voice comes up again. The creature grabs a pistol from the cabinet, opens the breech to show us the rounds, then holds the weapon to its temple and pulls the trigger. The creature falls, barren curtain-hooks close, box now reads "next show in 90 minutes".

The party doesn't really know what to make of it. Rago tries to break the glass to retrieve the pistol but his axe does almost no damage to the giant box.

Argo puts a closed chest in the party's wagon, and attaches a tapestry to it, containing a bunch of circus-like labels and titles, likely from his late friends. "I've seen the village at the east end, but I didn't trust them to help me", he says, claiming that as the party's way out. The party decides to follow through and see where the weird-eyed Tom Bombadil will lead them.

"We agree this is east, right?" says Argo. Perrin nods but has really no idea. The group follow the route for a few hours, occasionally looking up to check the tree canopies. Nothing. Suddenly, Argo asks us to stop. He says he forgot something and needs to go back to get it. If we keep on walking for about half an hour, we'll reach the village. He asks us to wait outside the village for him and runs back the trail. Perrin decides to follow him for a bit, but just as he comes to a fork on the road, a 3-foot long arrow hits the ground right in front of him, a clear warning from above the trees not to pursue Argo. Meanwhile, Brenda and Rago open Argo's wooden chest, only to find a bunch of lead coins, otherwise identical to real gold, silver, and copper ones. Once Perrin comes back, the party decides to keep going.

We reach the end of the woods and enter a clearing, where we can see at a distance two burning torches and a fence.

the gate?

todo for 2015? (body)

by rjbs, created 2015-01-16 22:35
tagged with: @markup:md journal

I wrote a todo for 2014, which I probably stopped thinking about roughly two weeks after writing it. Here's a summary:

  • write more prose and/or poetry: BARELY
  • write a Cocoa application: FAIL
  • write more programs for fun: DUNNO
  • spend more time with friends: FAIL
  • get my driver's license: FAIL
  • cook and bake more often: FAIL


I perennially fail at these things, with rare exceptions. I still think it's worth making a short list, but maybe, then, I should be forced to re-read it every week and write down what kind of progress I've made.

Here we go, I'll keep it brief:

  • write more
  • write some non-trivial programs in other languages
  • get my driver's license
  • read more (on Goodreads, I said I'd try to read 50 books in 2015)
  • work through my enormous backlog of games in my Steam library
  • get some home improvements done

That's it. I will attempt to report progress regularly, at least to myself.

The Great Infocom Replay: Planetfall (body)

by rjbs, created 2015-01-09 09:12

I am a lousy record keeper. I actually played Planetfall quite a while ago. August, if my filesystem is to be trusted! The problem is that I played it pretty hard, and tried to get to the end, but eventually I gave up. I knew I wasn't too far from the end, but I just didn't have it in me to work my way to the end. It's the same as with Starcross, actually! And, as with Starcross, I kept deluding myself with the idae that I'd really finish it, maybe by finding a walkthrough. I didn't.

I guess, in the end, there's less fun in using a walkthrough than in just giving up.

I was mostly really happy with Planetfall, though. The world was interesting, a number of the puzzles were fun, and it seemed to be on the better end of the spectrum so far… but the thing that everybody complains about is what I am going to complain about: the "you have to eat and sleep" problem. I'm not opposed to a time management problem. I really enjoy Pikmin, and I just love Suspended, but the basic "you have to eat or you will die" problem is just too frustrating and not at all fun. I'm not sure exactly why, but I think it's because it boils down to this: Your problem is to find a food object. If you don't find it, you die, and your last saved state might be useless.

It's like "find the key," except it doesn't open a door to a new area. It just lets you keep playing. And if you were X moves from the food and you saved the game with X-N turns left to live, your save is never going to be in a winnable state.

There are some patches you can apply to the game file to eliminate the hunger and sleep issues, and maybe someday I'll go back and apply them and try again, but eventually I just gave up on this one. Despite my long-lasting love of interactive fiction, I think I'm going to finally have to admit, at some point, that I don't really like puzzles. Or: I like the idea of puzzles, but most of the time, I get frustrated with them, in these sorts of games.

Good things in Planetfall:

  • the setting is interesting, including its backstory
  • Floyd, of course, although I don't think of him in as glowing terms as some do
  • the mystery of how to even win the game; can you escape? call help? fix the planet's problems?

Bad things in Planetfall:

  • starving to death, passing out
  • waiting for the elevator
  • the incredibly hateful "get the keycard from Floyd" puzzle
  • verb guessing

Next up is Enchanter. I've never played the Enchanter series!

I got an Xbox One (part one?) (body)

by rjbs, created 2014-12-31 23:28

I decided quite a while ago that I'd use some of my American Express reward points to buy a next-generation console, eventually. Once the intervals between my compulsive price-checking and review-reading grew short enough, I placed an order. This Tuesday, I received:

  • an Xbox One
  • a Kinect
  • download codes for:
    • Assassin's Creed: Black Flag
    • Assassin's Creed Unity
    • Dance Central Spotlight
  • Sunset Overdrive
  • Watch Dogs

I set it up, which was no problem, and then I started to use it. So far, it has been… a mixed thing.

I've played a bunch of Watch Dogs and some Sunset Overdrive. They are good. They are great-looking and impressive. If I have complaints about them, they'll come another time. I got the Xbone to play them, and that's fine. For everything else, though…

The Xbone UI is just a complete and utter mess. It is nearly incomprehensible, and I don't understand how anybody can use it without thinking so. The Xbox 360's navigation is strictly hierarchical, and the B button pretty much always moves back up one level of the hierarchy. Geting from one place to another is pretty easy no matter where you are.

On Xbone, the B button is more like a brower's "back." It goes to where you were last, even if that was in some other application. Even if it was as another user. At one point, the home screen was showing, in my color scheme, with a panel of apps in use by my daughter was shown in the picture-in-picture of "last active app." What? Is there more than one active login at once?

The only way to get to somewhere else reliably is to hit the home button… except even that's not so great, because the home screen dynamically redoes itself based on your usage. You can pin things to a small side panel, if you can figure out how. To find something you haven't used in a while, you need to get into "Games & Apps," which is something of a mess of "everything on the whole system."

It took me quite a while to figure out how to change my gamerpic, and when I had to find it again later for my daughter, it took at least a long. In theory, using voice commands should make this less painful, but the voice commands are a mess, too. Not everything is as addressable as I'd like, and there's very little leeway in what you can say. Xbox One's voice commands are certainly no Siri.

Kinect should also be dealing with login, but it continually fails to recognize me. I say, "You failed to recognize me!" and it brings up picture of the room. "Is this you?" it asks, pointing at my wife's elbow, in the corner of the frame. Eventually, after moving around, adjusting lighting, and trying to hold my hand in many different positions above my head, the Xbox says, "Oh, is this you?" Yes! Then I have to enter my Microsoft account password for the thirtieth time. On a d-pad.

When I try to use gesture control, imagining the frenetic gesturing we see in movies set in the near future, I spend most of my time waiting for Kinect to notice that I've raised a hand. Then, I try to move it to right place on the screen before my arm gets tired.

The Xbox One UI is in nearly every way a complete step backward from Xbox 360. If they'd taken the Xbox 360 UI and added voice and gesture control, they'd be a lot better off. It wouldn't be innovative, but when you innovate you need to avoid innovating yourself into the realm of unusability.

It is really baffling. I don't know how this was permitted to happen. Do people really find this … okay?

Still, in the end, I got the Xbox One to play games. The games are good. I just won't use it for anything else, and that will be fine.

Parental controls don't help (body)

by rjbs, created 2014-12-11 22:26
tagged with: @markup:md journal macosx

My parents recently got new computers, and my mother's old (but still pretty modern) Mac Mini has more or less become my daughter's. It's what she's been using to play Minecraft, as I mentioned recently. OS X has a "Parental Controls" system, and I figured it would be useful. I'd tell it to use its default anti-porn web blacklist, to have a list of (say) ten allowed applications, and to limit her instant messaging to a few approved people. It was a big mess.

First off, I enabled "Simple Finder." I remember this well, as we used it in the college labs on OS 8 when I worked at (while attending) Boston University. Then, it was pretty simple. You defined a list of applications which would show up in a simple launcher, and that was that. It's not that simple anymore. Minecraft wouldn't work because it would want to spawn Java, which wasn't approved. Other apps couldn't run, seemingly because they weren't properly signed. I turned it off and opted, instead, to lock the dock. That was a mess, too, and I couldn't even figure out what the point was, as far as "parental" control went. I gave up.

My daughter likes to search the web for stuff. Who doesn't?

I don't want to impose draconian limits on her web usage ("you can only go to cute-puppy-games.biz!"), and I don't want to have to limit her to only strictly supervised time, because I know that she really just wants to go read about Daria in every free minute, including when I'm not available. I just want to limit the chances that she will accidentally end up on some horrible, horrible page.

So, I turned on the Parental Controls option to "try to limit adult websitse automatically." I figured there'd be some Apple-curated block list, and that was probably some help. Well, it turned out that this block list included things like Akami and other content-delivery networks. Apple uses Akami, so the App Store stopped working properly, as did apple.com. I turned that right off, again. I'll stick to enabling safe search on Google and YouTube.

Parental Controls let you limit with whom your kid can correspond in Mail and Messages. I really didn't want to set her up to use iMessage, because it stinks. I'd end up getting messages on my phone all the time. Anyway, the few people I figured she'd want to talk to are instead on GTalk or AIM. I set up an AIM account for her to use (although I had to put it in my name as there are no children under 13 allowed). This was actually just fine. I had to put contacts in her address book for the people with whom she should be allowed to chat, and then mark them as approved contacts. Great!

I haven't yet set up a GTalk user for her because, once again, you can't get an account if you're under 13. I'll probably make one myself for her to use, although I'm really unclear on whether this is permitted. Still, she wants to be able to chat with her aunt and uncle. So there you go.

So, there's one winning feature. I really wish I could have let her use Adium instead, as its UI is much, much better. Unfortunately, there are two big problems. First, even though they were briefly considered a blocker for a major release, parental controls never got implemented and are now marked as "would be nice to have." Parental controls in IM are probably the ones I wanted most. I still get unknown and presumably malicious people sending me random instant messages. I can ignore them. I think my daughter would just like chatting, and I don't want to have to worry about it. Secondly, Adium can't use TLS to talk to AIM. It used to use SSL, but AOL disabled SSL after the Poodle vulnerability. If you use Adium, you have to authenticate in the clear.

Finally, there's Mail. To let her use some of my App Store purchases, I made her an iCloud child account attached to our family. That got her an iCloud mailbox, which I figured would be fine to just get started. The idea behind how Mac Mail parental controls work is good: you (the parent) limit correspondence to known contacts. If your kid tries to mail someone else, or if someone else tries to mail your kid, the mail goes to you. You can then mark the sender approved, or not. There are a few problems, though.

The biggest one is that it doesn't work. I was sent one of those approval messages, and it had a big "click here to approve" button displayed inside Mail's own UI. I clicked and clicked, but nothing happened. Gloria reported the same. So, now the only way to deal with updating the permitted senders is to edit the contacts on the machine. It's doable, but a much bigger hassle.

The other problem, of course, is that email isn't authenticated. If you know a kid's parent's email address, you can send them mail "from" the parent. This means that your kid might be protected from getting random mail, but they're still wide open to targeted nasty mail.

In the end, I'm not crazy worried about most of these things. I would like my daughter to enjoy her time using the computer, and I'd like her to be able to use lots of the cool things on the Internet, and that's my priority. I just don't want the many, many gross things on and about the Internet to show up and ruin her day. I don't think that's too much to ask.

Oh… one more thing.

She's been asking repeatedly for "some kind of music player." I really wanted her to have one, because she likes music, but I didn't want something that would be totally uncontrolled. I like Spotify, but its UI is really confusing. Our music library is available on the NAS on our home network, but I couldn't find any DLNA music players for OS X. I ended up installing the Synology iTunes Media Server on the NAS and pointing her iTunes at that. It's not a great solution. I also had to say, "You should ask about albums before listening to them." She's not thrilled about that, and I wouldn't be, either, but I have way too much stuff on there that isn't for her ears (yet).

I may set up Spotify, just because I know that mostly she wants to listen to Selena Gomez, and won't go looking for trouble. Searching around in my music, she'd be adrift, and there's plenty of trouble lurking. This is another place that I'd love a quick across-the-internet system that could say, "Your kid wants to listen to Li'l Kim. Allow or deny?"

In Soviet Minecraft, server op you! (body)

by rjbs, created 2014-11-29 09:50
last modified 2014-11-29 09:54


A couple weeks ago, my daughter became interested in Minecraft. She'd tried it before and thought it was interesting enough, but this time she seemed to have a more abiding interest. She did a bit more flipping through the Minecraft Essential Handbook and made a few things from it, and had fun, but was finding it just a bit tedious to have to gather all the resources she needed. Still, she built a simple house in the trees, explored some nearby caves and villages, and kept looking through the book… and then she found reference to creative mode. I showed her how to play in creative mode, and she was elated. She was even more excited when she found out she could fly.

We played some LAN games, which was fun, but I knew I'd want a server. I wanted to be able to muck about when she was not playing, and I knew she'd want to play when I wasn't home. To do both those things in one shared world, we'd need a server. I asked some friends, who said it was easy, but all of the instructions I found online had a bunch of steps, wanted me to add apt repositories, create system users, and so on. It just looked like a big drag, and I started to consider just using Minecraft Realms, Mojang's "we host your Minecraft world for you" service, but at $13 per month, it was enough to make me want to put a real effort into getting the service running on my Linode.

I read through the instructions carefully, and realized that the whole thing was a big complicated way of saying:

  • make sure you have Java 1.7
  • download the Minecraft server jar file
  • run java -Xms1024M -Xmx1024M -jar minecraft_server.1.8.jar nogui and keep it running

Well, I could do that! Once I realized that, I had a running server in a minute or two. Wow! I spent just a little time updating the server configuration, then rsynced the kid's Minecraft world files to my Linode, and it all worked!

The Teleport Network

I knew that sharing a Minecraft server with a seven year old might lead to angry times later, when one of us wrecked the other one's work product. I declared that we'd each have a big hunk of land where we'd be in charge. We could visit, but not build or destroy stuff without permission.

This led to an obvious logistical problem: how would we get from one place to another? Minecraft has a teleport command, and I could've left it available, but teleporting works by map coordinates rather than named locations. If I wanted Martha to be able to teleport home, she'd need to know the coordinates for her home. I could put them on a sticky note, but that would surely get lost immediately.

I decided to solve the problem by building a point-to-point teleport network!

You can build loads of amazing stuff in Minecraft by using "redstone" devices. This is sort of code for "electrical stuff," but it has its own physics, and you don't want to think of it too much like electricity or you'll end up deeply confused. You can't build a teleportation booth out of things you can mine in Minecraft, but there's something you can use as a bit of a cheat: the command block. It's a block that, when powered, executes a console command… like /teleport.

I build a pair of booths, each with a button. Push the button in booth A, and you'd end up in booth B. It worked the other way, too.

This was a good start. We had our own places, we stuck to the rules, and we had a good time. Martha started to ask about inviting some friends to our server, which led me to realize that booth-to-booth teleporters would not scale. I could build a targeting system, but that would become very complicated quickly. Instead, I built a hub.

Minecraft Teleport Network v2.0

I left the two booths in place, but now instead of linking to each other, they'd drop you at a floating platform at (0,0) on the map. This place, "the hub," was meant to have eight sub-platforms, each with a teleporter leading to a new place. I scouted out some locations and set up a few machines ahead of time, but not all of them, just enough to show how it would work. It worked great! Mostly!

Martha kept having weird problems. Parts of the network would work for me, but not for her. Then, it would all work. Meanwhile, I was struggling with spawn protection. This feature prevents users from editing the world near the spawn point. Without this, some jerk could fill the spawn point with lava, or solid stone, and when a new player joined, they'd be stuffed. I wanted to set the hub as the spawn point, and then keep it from being edited. It just didn't work.

Eventually, I realized that the problems were related. Spawn protection disables redstone inside the protected area, which meant that the teleport machine buttons didn't work. So, why did it only affect Martha? Because I was an operator, and could still use the button inside of protection. Why only sometimes? I really didn't want to have ops on myself, so I kept disabling it. When there are no operators configured for a server, spawn protection is disabled. Yow!

I didn't really want to make everyone operators, and I did want a protected hub area. I'd have to figure something else out.

The Stupidest Thing That Could Possibly Work

I did a lot of searching for solutions, and I found them. They were almost always in the form of "mods." Those are plugins to change how the Minecraft server behaves. As far as I could tell, they always worked by having you first run a modded server. That's a replacement Minecraft server which is, itself, a Java subclass of the base server. The most popular of these, Bukkit, was recently removed from distribution because of alleged GPL violations. Its whole situation is, to me, an unclear mess.

The new thing people seem to be using is CanaryMod. It's entirely unencumbered by any sort of GPL issues, but it (like Bukkit, actually) only supports Minecraft Server 1.7. We've been running 1.8, which is a big difference. Of course, there are some bleading edge nightly builds that are 1.8, but… I felt like this was going to lead to me spending time writing Java or hanging out on a phpBB, and this thought killed all my motivation. Surely, I thought, there is some stupider, easier way.

Well, here's what I did:

When you run that java command up above, the Minecraft server starts on your console. It prints out some status messages, then as the game goes on prints out logins, logouts, the results of various messages, and all of the global chat. Importantly, it's also an operator console. You can key in commands that get run with superuser privileges. Obviously, if I wrote a program that owned pipes into and out of the server, I could monitor what was going on and execute operator commands. It would be a grody hack, but it would work!

I thought about using Expect, but decided that I'd be miserable. I tried to remember how to write this kind of thing in Perl, but couldn't remember a few key bits about non-blocking I/O. I asked Dominus for a reminder and he said "Expect!" I didn't take the bait.

By the evening, I had a crude prototype working in pure core Perl, but getting there involved some annoying things. For example, I had to keep calling waitpid inside my read/write loop, and I knew that if I wanted to add more non-blocking behavior, it would just get worse. I needed an event loop. I had a look at using IO::Async, which I keep meaning to use in anger, but it wasn't immediately obvious how to proceed, and my goal was to deliver something (to my seven year-old) rather than to do something elegant and modern. I was already using Perl, right? Anyway, when I want to get something really cool done and I don't care what people think of me, I use POE. I use it badly. It worked, as usually, really well.

Basically, the setup is this: my POE program runs the Minecraft server with non-blocking a linewise event machine. When it gets lines from the server, it decides whether it cares about them. Mostly, it cares about chat. Occasionally, it cares about other status updates, but it mostly ignores those. As for chat, it looks for players saying commands, just like an IRC bot. Players can say !home to be teleported to their home, or !set home to decide where that is. They also have a "porch," and can !set porch to set that location. The porch is where another player goes if they try to !visit player. They can switch between creative and survival modes.

Setting home was a tiny bit interesting to implement. There's no command to get a player's location, so how could I save it? Well, if a player is teleported, their location is logged. Teleportation can be to a location relative to a player's current location. So, to set home, you register a callback for "do this when the player next teleports" and then immediately teleport them to their current location, plus a 3-D delta of (0,0,0). Ha!

Something I knew was important to Martha was the ability to skip night time. I could have disabled the day/night cycle, but I knew that it would also be nice to have it enabled sometimes, for adventuring. I added !sunrise and !sunset commands. This wasn't going to be good enough, though. When she invites friends, they will surely argue about whether to change the time, so I made it a voting system. As soon as one player casts a vote for a time change, the other players have thirty seconds to also vote. Whatever change is requested wins. In the event of a tie, nothing happens. Critically, once everybody online votes, the change happens immediately. This is most critical because if you're playing alone, waiting thirty seconds for opposition stinks.

Actually, I lied a bit. The voting doesn't end when everyone online votes. It ends when there are at least as many votes cast as there are players online. This can be a bit weird. Imagine:

  • currently online: players A, B, C, D
  • players A, B vote
  • player B logs off
  • player C votes

Now there are three votes (A, B, C), and three players (A, C, D), so the election is complete. Oops.

Getting the list of currently online players is easy, but not trivial. The list command prints out the current count of logged-in players, then their names. To gather that properly, I need to get the first line, then intercept the next n lines, then fire off a "updated roster" event. I haven't bothered yet, because I'm guessing it's just a bit more pain than it's worth.

A simpler solution, which I may implement if the server becomes popular with her friends, would be to notice logout events and immediately cancel the votes of disconnected users. I could also add some facility for speaking to the server over RCON, but… again, I'm guessing it's not worth the bother.

If I had any next steps actually planned, they'd probably be:

  • add an SMS interface to allow remote whitelisting ("Oh, your kid wants on? What's their user name?" // send SMS to whitelist)
  • an "alone time" mode where a player disables the ability of others to teleport to their location
  • refusal to let a player set their home/porch within some distance of another player's home
  • a way to say "if you want to join me or come to my realm, you have to enter the mode I'm in"

For now, though, I think it's good enough. I'll wait for its overwhelming success with the kids before putting more time into it.

Meanwhile, I have published the code. As I said, it's a hot mess. I barely know how to use POE, and I did not aim at all for maintainability. I just wanted it to work. I also have a bunch of code that's copied from POE documentation, and could really be rewritten to be better. The whole thing should be turned into a MooseX::POE class for my own sanity.

Whatever, it works, right?

Soviet Minecraft is on GitHub.

Email::MIME::Kit v3 will fix-and-or-break your code (body)

by rjbs, created 2014-11-20 21:47
last modified 2014-11-20 22:21

Ever since its early releases, Email::MIME::Kit had a big problem. It screwed up encodings. Specifically, imagine this manifest (I'm kinda skipping some required junk):

# manifest.yaml
renderer: TemplateToolkit
  - Subject: "Message for [% name %]"
  - type: text/plain
    path: body.txt
  - type: text/html
    path: body.html

The manifest turns into a data structure before it's used, and the subject header is a text string that, later, will get encoded into MIME encoded-words on the assumption that it's all Unicode text.

The files on disk are read with :raw, then filled in as-is, and trusted to already be UTF-8.

If your customer's name is Распутин, strangely enough, you're okay. The header handling encodes it properly, and the wide characters (because Cyrillic codepoints are all above U+00FF) turn into UTF-8 with a warning. On the other hand, for some trouble, consider Ævar Arnfjörð Bjarmason. All those codepoints are below U+0100, so the non-ASCII ones are encoded directly, and you end up with =C6 (Æ) in your quoted-printable body instead of =C3=86 (Æ UTF-8 encoded).

Now, you're probably actually okay. Your email is not correct, but email clients are good at dealing with your (read: my) stupid mistakes. If your email part says it's UTF-8 but it's actually Latin-1, mail clients will usually do the right thing.

The big problem is when you've got both Ævar Arnfjörð Bjarmason and Распутин both in your email. Your body is a mish mash of Latin-1 and UTF-8 data.

In Email::MIME::Kit v3, templates (or non-template bodies) loaded from disk are — if and only if they're for text/* parts — decoded into text and then, when the email is assembled, it's encoded by Email::MIME's usual header_str handling.

There's a case where this can start making things worse, rather than better. If you know that templates in files are treated as bytes, you might be passing in strings pre-encoded into UTF-8. If that was the case, it will now become mojibake.

Finally, plugins that read kit contents for uses as text will need upgrading. The only one I know of like this is my own Email::MIME::Kit::Assembler::Markdown. I will fix it. The trick is: look at what content-type is being built and consider using get_decoded_kit_entry instead of get_kit_entry.

I think this is an important change, and worth the breakage. Please look at your use of EMK and test with v3.

RPG Recap: Beyond the Temple of the Abyss, 2014-11-08 (body)

by rjbs, created 2014-11-18 23:06

Thursday, 2nd day of the Frost Moon, 937

After spending the night off the road, the party headed into the elven woods. They moved slowly, for a few hours, through the narrow road as it faded into a path and branched in several directions. In the canopy, giant spiders and other things leapt from tree to tree, ignoring the party.

Another small party, made up of wary insectoid creatures carrying lavender lanterns, passed them slowly by, pausing only to attempt to negotiate the purchase of Oresta. The party declined as best it could, lacking any common tongue.

After some time, they came to a clearing and, investigating, found a number of flat surfaces along the treeline. In one, they found a door, which Knash carefully prised open. The door led to a small room, in which was a small collection of overgrown rotten furniture, including a chair with an overgrown corpse. As the gang raided the room (finding a few weird coins, a pistol, and some bullets), the corpse tore itself from its chair and rushed outside, where it keened loudly, calling to the rest of its kind, similarly sealed up in the trees.

The party fought against the plant men, slowly losing ground. Perrin was badly injured and a vine dragged him toward the cabin. Hoyte was fatally injured, but fought on, making a desperate last stand. Finally, Knash uncased and read one of his scrolls: Imperial War Horror! Instantly transformed into monstrous form, he tore through the remaining plant men, rending them limb from limb and scattering their leaves to the wind. In the end, everyone — save for Hoyte — seemed sure to make it.

"Once he's dead," someone said, "let's check his pockets and get his wages back."

Horror Movie Month 2014 (body)

by rjbs, created 2014-11-11 11:19
tagged with: @markup:md journal movies

Last year, I forgot to write up our horror movie watching until about eleven months later. This year, I'm going to write things down while they're still fresh!

A Slow Start

October 1 - The Bay
October 2 - Truth or Die
October 3 - Outpost

First up, we watched a few random things from our list. The Bay was a found footage movie, which lost it a lot of points with us, I think. Found footage has its place, but its place is not "every single movie." I will also never forgive it for starting with the narrator's deep reluctance to review the horrible events of that day… to be followed almost immediately with "gosh, look at those awful pants I was wearing." Still, I liked parts of it. There's something to be said for the creepiness of being eaten from the inside out by bugs, I guess.

Truth or Die was fair. It reminded me, quite a bit, of My Little Eye, one of the other English horror movies I've seen. A bunch of young people are invited to a party at an isolated cabin where someone will extract revenge on them for their poor treatment of some guy at a party. It had its moments.

Outpost was just crap. It was Dead Snow all over again, but worse.

The Big Re-Watch

Before horror movie month began, Gloria and I watched Never Sleep Again, a four hour (!) documentary on the making of the entire Nightmare on Elm Street series, and Crystal Lake Memories, a seven hour (!!) documentary on the making of the entire Friday the 13th series. Gloria said, "Maybe we should rewatch those," so we did! We watched every one of the movies (and skipped the TV series) in the order of their release:

October 4 - Friday the 13th (1980)
October 5 - Friday the 13th Part 2
October 6 - Friday the 13th Part Ⅲ
October 7 - Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter

The first one is still probably the best, and worth watching if you like thrillers with some gore. It's not a great movie, but it's a good one, and sets up a lot of things to come, but will also surprise a lot of viewers, I think. The rest of the quartet ranges from mediocre to bad.

Did you know that Friday the 13th ends before A Nightmare on Elm Street even begins? Yup. You also might not know that it ends when Corey Feldman slides his head nearly in two with a machete. Jason's face slides down the blade, and the long cures on Camp Crystal Lake is over. Four movies and done!

October 8 - A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

...and then we get into the first Nightmare on Elm Street, which still holds up pretty well. It's not perfect, but it's good. The body bag scene remains excellently weird, Johnny Depp's bed still eats him, and John Saxon is still great as Nancy's father.

October 9 - Friday the 13th: A New Beginning

Wait? A new beginning? How does that work?

Well, somebody decides to dress up like Jason and kill people. It's not very good at all, but it might actually be better than some of the previous ones.

October 10 - A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge

Never Sleep Again had a lot of talk about how Freddy's Revenge is often cited as "the gayest horror movie ever made." I told Gloria that I didn't remember any kind of homoerotic subtext in it from our previous watching and she looked at me like I was crazy. On re-watching, I can see why. In my defense, while the actors and screenwriter say that it was intentional, the director and producer say they had no idea at the time. Bizarre!

Either way, it's a lousy sequel that really compromises the mythology. In fact, Gloria and I would go on to discuss how this was a big problem with the rest of the Nightmare movies. While it's easy to say that "Jason is a scary monster who just keeps coming back," Freddy is more complicated. He's some kind of ghost, and we see him soundly defeated in the first movie. Then in the second movie, he's defeated by another means. In the third, another. The series never quite settles on rules, and it becomes a big problem, because without rules, you don't know what to expect. The whole thing becomes a mess.

On the other hand, Freddy's Revenge has Clu Gulager, so that's cool.

October 11 - Friday the 13th Part Ⅵ: Jason Lives and A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors

This was a Saturday, and we watched two movies: one during the afternoon while my parents watched the kid, and once after she was in bed. I was please by how it worked out, because these are two of the best movies in either series. I really like part six of Friday the 13th. I think it has a great balance of scary to funny, it establishes "Jason can't die" much more firmly, and it looks great on screen. I will watch this one again and again, over the rest of my life, I bet. It really hits the sweet spot on my funny vs. gory plot.

Dream Warriors, on the other hand, mostly gets its "best of" ranking by virtue of being one of the least lousy. I don't think it's as good as the first one by half, but it does establish a fair bit of canon. It introduces hypnocil, the experimental drug that prevents dreaming, which I always liked. It also, unfortunately, introduces the idea that the dreamers can use their "dream powers" to fight Freddy. For example, if you often dream about being a ninja, you can fight Freddy in your dreams using ninjitsu. This leads to really childish scenes that just get worse as the series goes on.

October 12 - Friday the 13th Part Ⅶ: The New Blood
October 13 - A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master
October 14 - Friday the 13th Part Ⅷ: Jason Takes Manhattan
October 15 - A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child
October 16 - A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Final Nightmare
October 17 - Jason Goes to Hell

This is just a procession of crappier and crappier crap. Jason fights a psychic teenager. A kid who plays a lot of D&D goes to sleep and puts on his wizard robe and hat. Jason kills a bunch of teenagers on a dingy yacht before punching the head of a guy down by the river. Several movies add rape scenes, showing us that horror movies have begun to go from goofy to gritty. Finally, Jason is reduced to a slug-like parasite that's vomited from body to body, and Freddy is turned into a child by a stream of projectile vomit.

Skip these movies.

There is at least one tiny scene that I really liked, though. In Jason Takes Manhattan, a few teenagers have fled Jason and headed into the Manhattan sewer system. They run into some pipefitter who is horrified to see them. "We've gotta get out of here!" he cries. "Every night at midnight, the New York City sewer system is flooded with toxic waste, and that's in just a few minutes!"

Love it.

October 18 - Wes Craven's New Nightmare and Jason X
October 19 - Freddy vs. Jason

These movies rock. They are the light at the end of the tunnel. New Nightmare is brilliant, working in an extradiegetic framework where the previous Nightmare films were acting as an escape valve for some well of evil, which now begins to haunt the cast and crew of the first, and now next, film. It's creepy and intelligent, and that scene at Wes Craven's house, at his word processor? Good stuff.

Jason X is great, too. It's not cerebral by any means, but it's fun. It gives you all the things that made the horror movies of the 80's fun, but puts them in a space ship in the year 2450 because… why not? I have no serious complaints about this movie, and while I don't begrudge anybody their opinion, I think it's baffling that there are people who prefer the previous few movies to this one. Jason! In! Spaaaaaaaaaaace! Right?

Freddy vs. Jason was also a lot of fun. It did a good job of putting the feel of the previous movies — both series — into a modern setting. I was happy with the fight scenes, the characterization of the villains, and the tone. This movie could've been a complete wreck, and it wans't. I'm not in a rush to watch it for a third time, but it was good. Main complaint: one character is utterly and without question a total clone of Jason Mewes' "Jay" character. It's dumb, and a distraction.

October 20 - Friday the 13th (2009)
October 21 - A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

I was bummed to get to these. I knew it would happen, but it was still a downer. If the previous three movies were the light at the end of the tunnel, these two began a new tunnel. They rebooted the franchises, and in doing so took them out of the 1980's slasher tradition and brought them closer to the 2000's torture porn. There are already some gritty, unflinching movies worth watching. Freddy and Jason didn't need to join them.

A Nightmare on Elm Street keeps rubbing your face in the fact that Freddy was a child molester. That is not fun. That is awful.

Friday the 13th is shot to look like Texas Chainsaw Massacre. No surprise, given that its director, Marcus Nispel, also directed the 2003 remake of TCM. I think it's much closer to the originals than the 2010 Nightmare was, but its naturalism makes everything seem dirty and awful. I would've preferred a bit more Tom Savini, I think.

That concluded our big rewatch, which I doubt we will attempt again, at least until Martha is old enough to watch with us. I was happier with the rewatch than I thought I would be, though, if only because we got to re-watch some of the good ones.

The whole thing left me thinking that I could produce a better set of plots for both series. I spent some time on this and concluded that it would be much easier to do for Friday than Nightmare. Jason can come back repeatedly at various inconvenient times and places, and the story of how the public responds could be an interesting one. The Nightmare movies have to deal with the fact that "beating Freddy" is really hard to explain, and if it's some magic trick, seeing it over and over will be boring. On the other hand, the one good thing to come from the later Nightmare movies is the idea that Freddy wins, and finds himself with no more children to torment. The town is a ghost town and Freddy is powerless and bored. There's a good movie to be made out of that.

Back to the Queue!

October 22 - Bad Kids Go to Hell
October 23 - Grabbers
October 24 - (out of town visitor)
October 25 - Stage Fright and Resolution

Bad Kids was clearly intended as something like "Breakfast Club, but horror." It failed. It stank. It made me angry, because I really liked the idea. I think a movie like that would need to have a slow build of creepy events, maybe something like The Innkeepers. Instead, this was all over the place, and kept flashing back to events in the crowded school, totally contrary to how Breakfast Club works. As a big fan of Breakfast Club, I was predisposed to dislike this movie, and I disliked this movie.

Grabbers was a fun creature feature about weird tentacle monsters attaching an Irish town where everybody defends themselves by converging on the pub and getting wasted. I approve.

On Friday the 24th, I stayed late in Philly to have dinner with a friend. On Saturday, we watched two movies again, with Stage Fright as our "date night" movie. Woah. Stage Fright is a musical horror movie in which Meat Loaf murders Minnie Driver. It was pretty lousy, but I'm glad we watched it. As a proof of concept, it worked. You could, in fact, make a good musical horror movie. This just wasn't one.

Resolution was really good. A truthy summary would be "a young man tries to detox his friend at a cabin in the woods built atop an ancient Indian burial ground." It was creepy, subtle, and smart. The ending was maybe not entirely satisfying, but it was a solid ending for the story they told. Resolution would be on my list for best new movie we watched in Horror Movie Month.

The Final Week

October 26 - Cockneys vs. Zombies
October 27 - The Hole
October 28 - Castle Freak
October 29 - Oculus
October 30 - Grave Encounters

Cockneys vs. Zombies does what it says on the tin. I enjoyed it.

The Hole was made by Joe Dante, of Gremlins fame, as well as many other fine films. I enjoyed it. It was, in some ways, nothing special, but it was well made and enjoyable. I'm almost tempted to put it on the upcoming playlist for scary movies for Martha, but I think it's just a little too creepy here and there.

Castle Freak was really lousy, but had Jeffrey Combs, who is always a real joy to watch. I think there was an idea for a good movie in there, they just didn't make one.

Oculus was a good one. A brother and sister whose parents are killed in a haunted house return to the scene of the crime, ten years later, to destroy the evil entity. (I'm simplifying a bit, bit it's close enough.) They take precautions to avoid letting the haunting get to them, too much, but their precautions slowly fail. The ending of this one bugged me, too, but the rest of the film was pretty darn good. There were a few scenes that really impressed me with their clever creepiness.

Grave Encounters was another found footage film, but I forgive it. The crew of a "Ghost Hunters"-like show spend the night in an abandoned, haunted asylum. They all go in seeming pretty sure that it's not haunted, and probably that hauntings are bunk. They pay off the gardener to make up a story about seeing ghosts. Then, of course, the place really is haunted. None of this is interesting, but the way that the place torments them was really well done. It wasn't just bloody walls and jump scares. The place ground them down and panicked them over time. I was happy to see some new, or at least rarely used, ideas being put to use so effectively.

Leslie Vernon

October 31 - Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon

This was another re-watch. We saw this one years ago, very early on in the month, and it was so good that the rest of the month was jinxed. Nothing could live up to it. Behind the Mask is a clever deconstruction of the slasher movie, which ends with an extremely economical reconstruction. The title character, Leslie Vernon, is the killer, and he is great fun to watch. The film is a documentary, or rather, it's a a film about the making of a documentary. The subject, Vernon, spends a lot of the movie discussing how one prepares for a slasher spree, and while doing so he's energetic, funny, and charming. Later, he is not. The film is set in a world where Freddy, Jason, and others like them are real, but it's not a fantasy world. Why, the documentarian wonders, do people go on these killing sprees? "I can't explain," Leslie says, "I have to show you."

We'll almost certainly watch this one again in a few years.

Bonus Movies

Since October we watched two more horror movies, and I might as well make a note of them.

Detention was amazing. Just go watch it. Don't even read about it. Its structure is unusual, its tone is all over the place, and it doesn't worry too much about making a lot of sense. I put this on thinking it would be background viewing, but I could not tear my eyes away from the TV. Probably this is my pick for best new horror movie we watched this year. I hesitate to even call it a horror movie, but I think that if I have to classify it, that's where it goes.

Germ Z was lousy. It was a formulaic zombie movie with no new ideas of its own. It was poorly written, acted, and filmed. The only character who interested me, the doctor slash medical examiner slash party time deputy, was given only about five minutes of screen time. Ugh.

We already have at least 31 movies we could watch for next year. Probably they'll make a couple more between now and then. Here's hoping we pick winners.

RPG Recap: Beyond the Temple of the Abyss, 2014-10 (body)

by rjbs, created 2014-10-28 23:01

Wednesday, 1st day of the Frost Moon, 937

The party had told "the dwarf" that they'd do a favor for him and deploy some equipment below Gladwell's place, in exchange for some extra time before Epstien got the full report. Their attempt to follow through ended in disaster, though, and they headed back to town much the worse for wear.

With a growing sense that they'd be doomed in town, our heroes decided to take their money and go on the run from the law. To go on the run, though, they needed to be able to run. They decided to go look for healing. They asked Pastor Vieu about the theurge who had healed Perrin's leg, and were told that he'd headed out of town to investigate some travelers' stories of miracles. The party (or most of it) headed along that road, following it all the way to Bridgend, where the saloonkeeper disavowed any knowledge of the guy. He did, though, suggested that Billy Buford in Brideford could "fix" anything. They paid a heft toll of five sovereigns (each way!), and paid Buford twenty five more to run Perrin through his machine, which left him as good as new. They didn't have enough money on them to pay for the rest of the party's healing, and Buford wouldn't take a check.

Back in town, they decided to get a good night's sleep before putting their plan into effect.

Well, except for Knash. He'd been invited to the secret meeting of the mysterious organization he'd accidentally joined while completed drunk one night.

When he made it to the designated meeting point — just far enough out of town to worry the locals but not far enough to actually be particularly dangerous — he found a strange assortment of townspeople, all wearing animal costumes. Fortunately, Knash had thought to wear his fine goat-head cloak. The revelers drank, chatted, read bad poetry, played music, and discussed their fervent hope that one day, somehow, they could actually achieve the form their hearts desired. One of the brotherhood implored Knash to let him know if he ever found any relevant-seeming magic during his exciting adventures. Knash waited for the meeting's big reveal and, finding none, he snuck back to the village.

Thursday morning, the party went to the treasury to clean house ont heir savings. The bursar was made quite nervous by this, and kept back a small amount to cover any outstanding checks. "Don't worry," they promised, "we just want to have cash on hand for this utterly fantastic party we're throwing. We'll deposit whatever's left tomorrow."

Knash, Brenda, and Perrin staked out the town's three taverns and let the gold flow. They spent hundreds of soverigns shutting down the town's businesses and getting everyone drunk. When the gendarmes came to collect them for an interview with Epstein, they inveigled the guard with drinks and had the crowd on their side. When the moment was right, they fled out their respective back doors and went to grab their stuff... which was all already missing.

Rather than hunt down their gold, horses (and camel), and henchmen, they stole new horses and got on their way. The gang was delighted to find their crew already waiting for them several miles down the road, with their mounts and belongings. "We heard them talking about you," said Tucky the page boy, "so we got on the road ahead of you." Gratuities were showered on all the hirelings.

Lacking any particular plan, the gang spent a night in the woods and in the morning set off for the elves' forest on Friday morning.

I rewrote uni (body)

by rjbs, created 2014-10-21 10:49
last modified 2014-10-25 08:36

For years, I've used Audrey Tang's uni program for stupid things. It helps you find Unicode characters:

$ uni ☺

# Only on Perl 5.14+
$ uni wry

I've never been super happy with searching. All of the args to the program are joined on space and searched for. That means that uni roman five won't find ROMAN NUMERAL FIVE. I also used to like using Carl Masak's little HTML+JavaScript unicode deconstructor. This thing would let you type in a string, and it would display each codepoint. I've long since lost it… and anyway, I didn't want to use a web browser. I thought that maybe Tom Christiansen's Unicode-Tussle tools would have the answer, but nothing quite did what I wanted.

After fidgeting unhappily for about ten minutes, I realized that I could've used those ten minutes to write my own solution. I'm sure it's awful in some way, but I'm very pleased with it, and maybe someone else will be, too.

It has four modes:

Single Character Mode


This will print out the name and codepoint of the character.

$ uni ¿

Name Search Mode


This one will look for codepoints where each term appears as a (\b-bounded) word in the name. If the term is bounded by slashes, it's treated as a regular expression and is used to filter candidate codepoints by name.

$ uni roman five

String Decomposition


This prints out the codepoints in each string, with a blank line between each argument's codepoints.

$ uni -c Hey リコ


Lookup By Codepoint


This prints out the codepoint for each given hex value.

$ uni -u FF 1FF 10FF

My uni program is now on GitHub (update: and now on the CPAN) or, for those who are curious, but not curious enough to click a link, it's right here:

use 5.12.0;
use warnings;

use charnames ();
use Encode qw(decode);
use Unicode::GCString;

binmode STDOUT, ':encoding(utf-8)';

my $todo;
$todo = \&split_string if @ARGV && $ARGV[0] eq '-c';
$todo = \&codepoints   if @ARGV && $ARGV[0] eq '-u';

shift @ARGV if $todo;

die "only one swich allowed!\n" if grep /\A-/, @ARGV;

@ARGV = map {; decode('UTF-8', $_) } @ARGV;

$todo //= @ARGV == 1 && length $ARGV[0] == 1
        ? \&one_char
        : \&search_chars;


sub one_char {

sub split_string {
  my (@args) = @_;

  while (my $str = shift @args) {
    my @chars = split '', $str;

    say '' if @args;

sub print_chars {
  my (@chars) = @_;
  for my $c (@chars) {
    my $c2 = Unicode::GCString->new($c);
    my $l  = $c2->columns;

    # I'm not 100% sure why I need this in all cases.  It would make sense in
    # some, since for example COMBINING GRAVE beginning a line becomes its
    # own extended grapheme cluster (right?), but why does INVISIBLE TIMES at
    # the beginning of a line take up a column despite being printing width
    # zero?  The world may never know.  Until Tom tells me.
    # -- rjbs, 2014-10-04
    $l = 1 if $l == 0; # ???

    # Yeah, probably there's some insane %*0s$ invocation of printf to use
    # here, but... just no. -- rjbs, 2014-10-04
    my $p = $c . (' ' x (2 - $l));

    my $chr  = ord($c);
    my $name = charnames::viacode($chr);
    printf "%s- U+%05X - %s\n", $p, $chr, $name;

sub codepoints {
  my (@points) = @_;

  my @chars = map {; chr hex s/\Au\+//r } @points;

sub search_chars {
  my @terms = map {; s{\A/(.+)/\z}{$1} ? qr/$_/i : qr/\b$_\b/i } @_;

  my $corpus = require 'unicore/Name.pl';
  die "somebody beat us here" if $corpus eq '1';

  my @lines = split /\cJ/, $corpus;
  my @chars;
  LINE: for my $line (@lines) {
    my $i = index($line, "\t");
    next if rindex($line, " ", $i) >= 0; # no sequences

    $line =~ $_ || next LINE for @terms;

    push @chars, chr hex substr $line, 0, $i;


RPG Recap: Beyond the Temple of the Abyss, 2014-09 (body)

by rjbs, created 2014-09-30 21:44
last modified 2014-09-30 21:44

Monday, 29th day of the Leafy Moon, 937

Monday morning, the party arrived at the temple to take watch and they didn't like what they found. The usually boring and unremarkable ruin was overrun with cats. The guards awaiting relief were all on edge and eager to get gone. They argued amongst themselves about whether they'd actually seen or heard anything "down there," but clearly they'd had a worse time of things than usual.

Once they were gone, the party was agreed: there was no way that they were going down into the dungeons. They'd just lie about having done so.

This wasn't quite a solution, though! Captain Epstien had said he'd be sending an inspector to look into the problem of the missing mystical seals (which the party had stolen and tried to fence just earlier in the week). They decided to solve things more permanently by collapsing the dungeon entrance down into the dungeon. ("What about Drip [the guy who lives in the dungeon]?" asked one party member. "Yeah? What about him?" replied another. That ended that conversation.)

There was agreement on the best way to demolish the entrance: call in the goblins. After first scheduling their raid on the vampire's lair (for Saturday), they explained what they needed, and the goblins sent out a bomber. He sent the party away from the building and with good old goblin know-how, brought much of the foundation crumbling down into a heap atop the old stairway down.

The party returned to town to report the mysterious and unexpected collapse of the ruins. "It's just a good thing we weren't any deeper down when the rumbling started!"

Epstien was not entirely convinced. "Tell you what," he said, "you go back there and tomorrow I'll send over … The Dwarf."

Tuesday, 30th day of the Leafy Moon, 937

Tuesday morning, the dwarf showed up in a dune buggy, none to pleased to be dealing with this situation or the riff raff on the scene. He got the party's story and headed to the site to scope things out. As he did so, the cats grew more anxious, circling and hissing, until one grew bolder and attacked him. He tore the cat from his face, threw it into the weeds, and shot it with a small pistol produced from inside his jumpsuit. This marked the end of his inspection, and he asked the party whether they'd like to revise their story.

They declined, and he explained that he was going to have to tell Epstien what happened, and that the party should probably get in front of the story, if they wanted to save their credibility.

"Well," they waffled, "okay. We weren't actually inside. We were nearby. And we didn't want to get in trouble. But we definitely had no idea what might have happened."

The dwarf shrugged and was on his way.

"Huh." Dera was surprised. "I was all but sure we were just gonna kill that guy." Somebody wondered whether Knash's absence was related to the dwarf's unmolested exit.

After some further discussion, the gang decided to hunt the dwarf down … and talk to him. They mounted up and sped off toward Teak's Bottom, where some grizzled ex-adventurer in town said they might find him. In fact, they found him at Bridgend, halfway to Teak's Bottom, and got him to pull over and chat.

"Okay," they lied, "we decided we should tell you the new, revised version of our story."

The dwarf was tired of it. "You're in league with goblins and had one of them blow the place up while you stood out in the field." This put the party's situation in a new light.

The dwarf made an offer: if they'd agree to head into the caverns under the Gladwell place and do a little reconnaissance, he'd delay his report to Epstien a few days, giving the party some time to prepare their flight from punishment. They agreed to the plan and took the dwarf's equipment back to Edgwold.

Wednesday, 1st day of the Frost Moon, 937

In the morning, Perrin, Brenda, Rago, Dera, and Hoyte headed to the blasted magic tree in the woods south of the Astodan, planning to use the portal in the tree's upper trunk to enter the dungeon without alerting Gladwell or his men. They arrived in the dungeon, southeast of the complex junction, and made their way toward the mine tunnels. Only halfway there, though, they encountered two ghasts and immediately turned tail and ran. They reached the portal exit and leapt through, scrambling or falling from the tree. Several were badly hurt, but no one died, and the ghasts declined to follow them down.

Horror Movie Month 2013 (body)

by rjbs, created 2014-09-09 23:24
last modified 2014-09-09 23:26
tagged with: @markup:md journal movies

"Wait!" you cry, "you must mean Horror Movie Month 2014!"

Well, I never wrote up our month of horror movies last year, and now that this year is approaching, I better get it done, or we won't do it at all. What I should really do it harvest all my tweets about these movies from when we watched them, but I'm not sure I can do that easily enough right now.

Week 1

In the first week, we missed two days because I had other plans. We'd make those up at the end.

October 1 - (TPF symposium)
October 2 - Paranormal Activity 4
October 3 - Love Me Deadly
October 4 - Dead End
October 5 - (D&D game)
October 6 - Mulberry Street
October 7 - Martin

Paranormal Activity 4 was junk. Just let it die, people. Love Me Deadly was a pretty weird movie about a secret society of necrophiliacs. I'm not sure it was good, but it was strange and worth watching, I think. At least for a horror movie fan.

Dead End was pretty predictable, and generally not that good. I liked it in a strange way, though. I think it could be re-made without a ton of changes and be much, much better, and I think that's a sign that there's something good going on in it. Mulberry Street was something kind of like a zombie apocalypse viewed from a small scale, just a block or two in Manhattan. It was fine. I neither regret nor recommend it, although it had its moments.

Martin might have been the best movie we watched that month. It's George Romero, of Living Dead fame, and it was just really strange and interesting. It's about a young man who believes he is a vampire. I'm not sure we can say whether he actually is. It was good. It wasn't quite a horror movie, but that's okay. I definitely recommend it. Heck, I might watch it again sometime.

Week 2

8 - Terror Train
9 - World War Z
10 - Let's Scare Jessica to Death
11 - State of Emergency / Sea of Dust (ABORT!!)
12 - Come Out and Play
13 - The Ward
14 - American Horror Story: Coven

Terror Train was not very good, but was almost worth watching because it was such a directionless mish-mash. It had David Copperfield in it! World War Z was just terrible. Not only was it a lousy movie on its own right, but it was miserable as an adaptation of Max Brooks' much more interesting book.

Let's Scare Jessica to Death was interesting, too, but I'm not sure I remember there being much of a point. It definitely had a vibe that one doesn't see in a lot of other movies, if any.

State of Emergency, like Mulberry Street, was about zombies on a small scale. I liked it. It reminded me of the original Night of the Living Dead, which was obviously an inspiration. It had a lot of little touches that I liked. If you like these kinds of movies, this is one to like.

We watched State of Emergency after aborting our attempt to watch Sea of Dust. It was so awful that we just stopped. It seemed like it was filmed by some high school students who managed to get Tom Savini to hang out with them for the weekend. It was really bad. We don't give up on movies very often, but giving up on this was a no-brainer.

Come Out and Play was good, something like a Mexican Children of the Corn. On the other hand, it was seriously beset by "protagonist makes awful decisions" syndrome. Still, I liked it.

The Ward, as I recall, stank, despite a few good shots.

On October 14th, we took a break from horror movies to watch horror TV. It was the first episode of the third season of American Horror Story, and it was okay. I thought season three was better than season two and worse than season one. And I wasn't a huge fan of season one to begin with.

Week 3

15 - Kill Theory
16 - Bitter Feast
17 - Macbeth, Rise of the Reeker
18 - (DZ hacking)
19 - (DZ hacking)
20 - The Hitcher
21 - Dark Shadows

Kill Theory had an interesting premise, but the execution (so to speak) was lousy.

Bitter Feast, on the other hand, was sort of a goofy idea, but I enjoyed the movie. It was flawed in a bunch of ways, but the central conceit is "dude snaps, goes nuts, captures and torments someone." The dude who snapped was a lot of fun to watch.

On the 17th, we went to Allentown Symphony Hall and watched a filmed performance of Macbeth, with Kenneth Branagh and Alex Kingston. We enjoyed it, but it was just Macbeth. Macbeth is Shakespeare, but it's not one of our favorites. We thought that would be all we watched, but it turned out that we felt up to watching a movie afterward, so we watched Rise of the Reeker. Ugh.

Then came the weekend when David Golden and I fixed Dist::Zilla's handling of encodings. We declined to force David to sit through horror movies with us, because we're good hosts.

The Hitcher was really formulaic and shouldn't have been very good, but for some reason, it was. Actually, I'm pretty sure I know the reason: Rutger Hauer. For a bit more of a break, we watched Tim Burton's Dark Shadows. Eh.

Week 4

22 - Critters 2
23 - Hunter
24 - See No Evil
25 - The Amityville Horror
26 - Children of the Corn
27 - Zombie
28 - Laid to Rest

As far as I can tell, the Critters series is more like sci-fi than horror, despite often being shelved with horror at Blockbuster when I was a kid. It's not a good series, but at least it's got a sense of humor.

I have absolutely no memory of what "Hunter" is or was, but it's on my list of things we watched.

See No Evil was really interesting, and maybe one of our favorites. It stars Mia Farrow as a young woman, recently blinded, who comes home and finds that her whole family has been killed... but she doesn't find this out immediately, and first spends quite a bit of time walking around the corpse-ridden house wondering where everybody is. It set up a good atmosphere.

The Amityville Horror… well, I'm glad that to have finally seen it, but it wasn't good. Children of the Corn, I'd seen, but Gloria hadn't. This came up when we watched Come Out and Play. It was interesting to see it again, as I'd forgotten quite a lot of it. It's not a good movie, though.

I wasn't sure whether we'd ever watched Zombi 2, aka Zombie, but we hadn't. Now we have. That's all I have to say about that.

Laid to Rest, I'd heard, was bizarre enough to be worth watching. I think I agree. It was sort of in the "creepy car following us" tradition, but not quite. It wasn't great, but I enjoyed it. I'm generally in favor of movies with unexplained weirdness (but not always: see David Lynch), and Laid to Rest delivered that.

Week 5-6

29 - ChromeSkull: Laid to Rest 2
30 - The Innkeepers
31 - Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter
1 - 100 Bloody Acres
2 - (D&D game)
3 - Maniac (1980)
4 - Maniac (2012)
5 - One Missed Call

If Laid to Rest didn't have enough unexplained weirdness for you, the sequel will. I can only believe that the backstory added to it was done entirely after the fact, because it has nearly nothing to do with the first movie, apart from framing it… but I was entertained by it.

The Innkeepers wasn't great, but it had a really good quirky tone to it. If the ending had held together with the rest of it, I think it could've been one of the best things we saw. Still, it was worth watching for the first half or so, at least.

I tried reading Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter and found it too stupid to finish. The film was no better, although we did finish it. Fortunately, this isn't how Horror Movie Month ended, even though it was October 31. See, we didn't get our full 31 days in, so we had to go into overtime.

Next up, 100 Bloody Acres was a lot of fun. A pair of hayseed brothers in rural Australia discover that blood and bone fertilizer is even better when made from humans, and begin a tidy little business. It was fun and silly, but still horrific and gruesome, which is a combination that we see much less than we used to.

I don't remember Maniac very well. I seem to recall thinking that it was better than I expected it would be. Also, weird. The 2012 remake, starring Elijah Wood and filmed in the first person, was, as I recall, also strange.

One Missed Call wasn't very good, but it was somewhat more coherent than many Japanese horror movies or their American remakes. What I really would like to see is a sequel — and there is one, in Japanese. I doubt I'll be getting it onto the 2014 schedule, though. More on that, another time.

I bought a 3DS (XL). (body)

by rjbs, created 2014-09-02 18:36

Earlier this year, I started going through my old game collection and selling what I could on Amazon. This was remarkably easy (especially because of Gloria's endless help; she stood in line at USPS for me and send me snapshots of my tracking numbers; she deserves massive high fives) and surprisingly lucrative. My plan was to put the proceeds toward a next-gen system, but I found that nothing really was compelling enough to get me to buy one this year. It looks like 2015 will be the year for me. Instead, I started to think about getting a 3DS.

My first portable Nintendo was a GBA, which I really enjoyed. I played a ton of Wario Ware and Metroid while doing cardio at the gym, ten years ago, and the only complaint I had was that I could never beat Nightmare in Metroid Fusion. I've got it on OpenEmu now, and I hope I can do it, this time. Shortly after I started at my current job, I received a DS Lite (thanks again, Gloria!) which was great. It's still a great system, and I was playing it off and on up until recently.

There were a bunch of games I wanted to play on the 3DS, though, and I finally decided I should just take the plunge. I suggested to Martha that she could save her allowance toward buying a 3DS (or 2DS) too, and she was all over this idea, because it meant she could have her own Animal Crossing down and maybe get Tomodachi Life. She started saving and once she was pretty close, I ordered mine, in part to keep her excited. I got a black, refurb 3DS XL for $135, direct from Nintendo. This is an excellent price, about a third off, and still includes a full warranty. She'll be getting an original size 3DS, in pink, for under a hundred bucks. Nice! One annoying thing: you don't get Club Nintendo points for registering a system that you purchased refurbished, which means I'm down 320 points that I thought I'd be earning this year. I'm a bit miffed about that.

Before buying, I made a list of games I would be likely to play. Here it is:

"Probably" Games

  • Animal Crossing: New Leaf
  • Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
  • Pokémon X/Y
  • Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon
  • Fire Emblem
  • Pushmo, Crashmo
  • Mario Kart 7
  • Super Mario 3D Land
  • Resident Evil: Revelations
  • NSMB 2
  • Mario & Luigi: Dream Team

Less Likely Games

  • Paper Mario: Sticker Star
  • Tetris Axis

Animal Crossing ("ACNL") wasn't really a "possibly." It was a "definitely." If any one game was going to drive the 3DS purchase, it was Animal Crossing. I don't know why I like it so much, but it's just delightful. I especially like playing with Martha, now that she's such a good reader and writer. I've already bought two copies, which brings me to my first little complaint.

I bought ACNL before I even got my 3DS. My 3DS shipped as slowly as UPS was able to move it, so I sat there staring at that box, just wondering what it would be like to be mayor of my own little town. Finally, the system arrived, along with Luigi's Mansion, and I played both games. It was great! The not so great thing was carrying the game system in one pocket and the other game cartridge in another pocket. Then to change games I'd have to fiddle around with these little stamp-sized slips of plastic. Ugh!

Most, if not all, 3DS games are also available digitally. I bought the 3DS with money I made by selling my physical copies of old games, so I knew the value of getting the physical media… but now other portable systems (namely iPad and iPhone) have spoiled me on game carts. It seemed absurd to have to fiddle around with game carts, now. I considered switching to digital copies, even though I'd never be able to resell them, and even though they'd probably not be available to me for free on Virtual Console in the future. The real kick in the pants, though, was that I paid $24 for an ACNL cart on Amazon, but the digital download was going to cost 25% more! The physical media sometimes goes on sale, but as far as I can tell the digital downloads don't. You always pay MSRP. Maybe there are sales, but they're not easy to find. There isn't enough competition for the digital download. In fact, it gets weirder: Nintendo sells ACNL on its eShop for $29.99, but you can buy a "download code" from Best Buy to get the same download… for $34.99.

I just don't get it.

Finally, though, my discomfort with carts won out. I bought the ACNL download, and I'll give the cartridge to Martha.

The GBA had no visible operating system. You'd turn it on and be in your game. Game systems have had a lot more "user experience" added since then, starting, I think, with the original PlayStation. These days, they're pretty darn slick. Except for 3DS. It feels a little bit like webOS: lots of good ideas that have been weirdly executed. Lots of its UI reminds me of iOS or webOS, but without the affordances I'd expect. It's never clear when I can use which input methods. The mechanism for sharing screenshots is abysmal. It feels now, like it felt when the original Wii launched, like Nintendo is a company unmatched in making games, but they just can't be bothered to spend much time on the rest of the system.

On the other hand, that's not quite fair. What they don't do well at is the stuff that everybody else does well. They do other stuff that nobody does, and while it isn't always incredibly polished, the ideas are a ton of fun. The one that's really got my interest right now is StreetPass. It's a system by which two 3DS systems can, when near one another, exchange data without being part of the same 802.11 network. This data could be your Mii, or parts of your town in Animal Crossing, or your armies in Fire Emblem. StreetPass is function of the 3DS itself, and a number of games take advantage of it. There's a dedicated LED on the 3DS that tells you when you've been "tagged" on StreetPass.

I'm not sure whether I'm likely to get a lot of tags just walking around town. I briefly found myself wondering, "Where can I go hang out, where there will be a bunch of ten year olds playing video games?" Then I thought better of that. Still, I'm carrying the 3DS XL around, even though it's big and heavy, because StreetPass is such a fun idea. Even if I don't get tagged, the 3DS has a pedometer, and I get "game coins" for my steps. They can be traded for in-game content, later.

I'm probably going to get a number of tags every week anyway, though, because Nintendo has also set up "StreetPass relay" systems that pick up tags and pass them on later, so you can tag someone who has passed through the same area as you, even if they did it days or hours ago. The Philadelphia Greyhound station, which I pass through about six times a week, is a relay zone. So far, that's netted me seven tags in two days.

I mentioned that I'd bought Luigi's Mansion. It's great. I really enjoyed the first one, and the new one is at least as good. It's really funny, and it's fun, and it's not really like anything else. I'm so tired of variants on the first-person shooter and console role-playing game. I realize that's entirely personal preference, and that I'm then playing a bunch of even older game styles, like platformers and tactical combat games, but so be it.

I also picked up Tetris Axis and Pushmo. Every portable Nintendo system needs Tetris. Tetris Axis is adequate. I think Tetris DS was better, and I might just try playing it on the 3DS. I feel certain, though, that it wasn't so much better that it would justify carrying around the darn cartridge. Pushmo is another puzzle game, and I'm enjoying it quite a bit. I'm making my way through it slowly, with a bit of struggle. I'm not great at puzzle games, and often I get sick of them quickly. So far, Pushmo is keeping my interest. I'm glad I didn't start with Crashmo, the sequel, which I've heard is all around harder.

I'm not sure what game I'll move on to after Luigi's Mansion. Fire Emblem and Zelda are both very likely, but Pokémon is up there two, if only because Martha might enjoy playing it at the same time. I think I'll wait and see on that fornt.

My gut tells me that a dedicated portable device for video games is not something that will be popular for a whole lot longer, but I'm going to enjoy it while it lasts. The games on 3DS are, so far, very good, and do things that iOS games just don't. I hope that if the dedicated portable gaming console goes away, Nintendo forgets their promise to quit making games, and starts making them for whatever new hardware we use. A pocket without the Mario Bros. in it would be a sad pocket.

Books to strand your kids in (body)

by rjbs, created 2014-07-29 18:33
tagged with: @markup:md journal rpg

I made a vague offer to run an RPG for some of the kids in my family's younger generation, and have yet to follow through. I have no doubt that I could just wing a simple D&D adventure and we'd have fun. I will do that sometime. I should set a date.

I have another idea, though.

My plan is to run a game of Fate. The player characters will be winners of the lottery (think "draft," not "numbers racket"), conscripted into service troubleshooting for the Great Library. The Great Library's troubleshooters are in many ways ripped off of the Jurisfiction group in the Thursday Next books. If that doesn't help: they are fictional characters, living in a world populated by other fictional characters. The Great Library is an imaginary place where every revision of a book is shelved, and all of its characters are free to intermingle. The specifics of how all this works can be hand-waved. I may obsess over it at length, but I know the group of grade schoolers at the table will not get too nit-picky about everything… at least not at first, anyway.

Every character in the game will be a fictional character. The player characters, for example, will have a boss who is in charge of their assignments. This will probably be Albus Dumbledore. One early assignment may be to find out who has stolen the treasure from Long John Silver's chest and reburied it, thus threatening the integrity of the story. The thief may end up being Sir Harry Flashman. And so on.

The player characters will also be fictional characters, but the kids don't get off that easy. They don't get to pick Percy Jackson, Laura Ingalls, Jem, and Green Lantern (and yes, those are my predictions for the choices if they could). Instead, their character sheet will have a slot for the name of the book from which they spring, and maybe the name of the antagonist (or protagonist, if one cleverly asks to play the bad guy).

Apart from seeming just generally fun, this should be a way I can introduce some worthwhile stories or characters to the kids. They can help Sherlock solve a case, rescue a marooned Huck Finn, or deal with a reprogrammed Chip Carson. It should also be fun to play with genre-mixing, for both me and the kids.

What I need to do next is compile a list of adventure plots, or even just characters and books that would be fun to use — both ones that the kids know and don't know. Suggestions welcome!

I went to Portland (for OSCON)! (body)

by rjbs, created 2014-07-28 11:07
last modified 2014-07-28 15:33
tagged with: @markup:md journal

Last week, I was in Portland, Oregon for OSCON. I had a good time, as I generally do. Portland's a nice place, and when I'm there, so are a lot of friends that I see only once or twice a year. I got some tasty pizza with Piers at Sizzle Pie, had a really nice long dinner at Farm with Robert, got a milkshake with Andy, went to Le Piegon with Piers and John, Shirley, and Sonia, got Indian and ice cream with David, Julie, Ovid, and Vicky, and went to Base Camp with a whole ton of people. I've probably missed something in there. Sorry!

The conference talks and sessions that I went to were pretty good. I'll write more about that another time or place. Now that OSCON is following YAPC's lead and putting everything online, I'm going to be a bit less eager to get to as many talks. I think I want to sort of radically re-invent my OSCON.

When I get to OSCON, my slides are done. I don't need to hole up and finish them. I spent a bunch of time holed up anyway, though, basically sitting in the speaker's lounge and poking at this or that. I got very little of note done during this time.

I think that, instead of this, next time I will find a table to set up more or less permanent shop. I will make it very publicly known that I am available to hack on absolutely anything, to pair with anybody, or to do code review of anything where I might be able to help. I will also consider the occasional board game.

If nobody shows up, I will have a set of projects to work on, and I'll work on those. OSCON will be a hackathon for me. I'll take breaks now and then to be social, too, because half the point of going to OSCON is to talk to people, but when I'm not talking, I could be getting stuff done instead of wandering around like a drone. That's the new plan. I just need to remember it when next July rolls around.

learning some new languages (maybe) (body)

by rjbs, created 2014-07-16 22:44
tagged with: @markup:md journal programming

I wanted to make an effort to learn some more languages, old and new, more or less continually as time went on. I started with Forth and Go, and did a tolerable job at getting the basics of each down. I didn't do so well at writing anything of consequence, which isn't too surprising for Forth, but I'm pretty sure I could be writing a lot more Go to get things done. I really do mean to get back to that.

Although I feel like I'm only about 85% done with what I wanted to do with Forth, I'm thinking about what I'll look at next.

On one hand, Pragmatic Press is putting out Seven More Languages in Seven Weeks. The previous book covered Clojure, Haskell, Io, Prolog, Scala, Erlang, and Ruby. I thought it was just okay, but in part it was because I knew the languages well enough to see how the chapters could've been better. The new book is languages that I know, at best, by reputation: Lua, Factor, Elixir, Elm, Julia, MiniKanren, and Idris. Even if the book's only so-so, it's enough to get me going on a few weird-o languages. Also, from Forth to Factor? Woo!

On the subject of useless-but-influential languages, I just ended up with a pile of books on the matter. Stevan Little, Moose author and devotee of all programming languages past and present, is moving to the Netherlands, and couldn't take all his stuff. "You know who'd like a book on Algol-60?" he asked him self. "Rik!"

books from stevan

I'm not sure where I'll start. The Forth book isn't likely, as I've already got some. PostScript might be out for a while, since it's a bit Forthy on its own. Algol is a good possibility, or maybe Eiffel. (I just finished reading Smalltalk Best Practice Patterns, so I may be in the mood for more "here's how you do OO, kid" books.) I'm very interested in SNOBOL4 patterns, although I'll have to see if I can find an implementation I can run.

Probably all of this will have to wait, though. This weekend, OSCON begins, and I'll be taking in whatever I can there, rather than reading any dusty old books.

I went to YAPC::NA in Orlando! (body)

by rjbs, created 2014-07-09 22:26
last modified 2014-07-10 13:20
tagged with: @markup:md journal perl yapc

A few weeks ago was YAPC in Orland, Florida, and I attended! I already wrote about the amazingly great video recording of the conference. It was great, and I was amazed. I watched some of the videos just today!

I thought I'd write down a couple more things that I remember.

I ate good food.

I like good food, and lucked out finding places to eat at YAPC.

Monday, I found a little banh mi place, Banh Mi Nha Trang. It was great. One sandwich was about three bucks. I ate too much. Walt took a nibble of a pepper and declared it way too hot, so I ate the whole thing. Shortly thereafter, I was seriously considering whether I needed to request medical attention. I toughed it out, though.

On Tuesday, we got Cuban food at Latin Square Cuisine. I really miss having great Cuban food in Bethlehem at the long-gone Cafe Havana. Walt and I split halves of our sandwiches: one Cubano and one Pepito. The Pepito had potato sticks on it, which was a big deal when eating at Cafe Havana. I had a pineapple soda. It was great. (I was strong and avoided getting empanadas or tres leches, because I had to go right from lunch to giving a talk. It was hard, but I was strong.)

Wednesday, we got Asian/Mexican fusion tacos at Tako Cheena. It was the least awesome place, but I had no real problems with it. The water was a bit too cucumberry for me. I'd definitely go again, though. It seemed like a place worth going to try the specials every week.

Wendesday night was the big pay-off, though. Frew and Jerry Gay and I went to Cask & Larder, and it was great. The food was very good and the cocktails were great, and I would've loved to have stayed for another few rounds, except for the whole "alcohol is a poison" thing. I was especially pleased to have a drink that combined green Chartreuse and celery bitters, which I'd known in my heart would be a winning combination. It was!

I didn't get a shirt.

Oops. Frankly, that's fine. I rarely wear YAPC shirts, although the "Chicago flag with sigils" is an exception. That's a great design. I brough home very little swag from YAPC, and that's fine. As time goes on, swag becomes less interesting to me unless it's really useful. Best conference swag ever? Notepads. (OSCON's bookbag for speakers has also been a huge success.) Grant Street gave us USB batteries for charging phones (etc.) on the fly. I haven't tried mine yet, so the jury's still out. It could be a big winner.

I played Ogre!

Once again, there was a YAPC game night. I was taken aback (and flattered) by the number of people who approached me to try to get a seat at my presumed-certain-to-occur D&D game. I hadn't planned one! Whoops. Next year I better get back on the ball!

Instead, I planned to play and teach Steve Jackson's Ogre, a tank battle board game of some fame.

YAPC Game Night

It was a success! I think I lost every game, but I'm not sure. Anyway, I had a great time, and at least 2-3 games of Ogre occurred without me after I showed the table how to play. I realized that one problem with running a game at game night was that I couldn't try all the other cool games people brought, but that was okay. It was good to think that I may have created at least one or two new Ogre players.

I talked to other perl5 porters!

We had a little sit-down in the hotel bar and talked about what's been going on. I previewed the yet-unreleased-at-the-time civility policy and did not get any panicked abort instructions.

I'm not sure what else was discussed, anymore.

I saw some talks!

I did. I also skipped a bunch, knowing that I could watch them later. I finally started doing the "watch stuff later" part today, and look forward to doing some more of it tomorrow. Among other things, I want to see Jesse Luehr's talk on Rust and Scott Walters' talk on programming the Atari 2600, but I'm pretty sure that reviewing the YAPC playlist will remind me of other stuff I really wanted to see.

I did not attend an auction!

So, so grateful.

I stubbed my toe.

I'm really tempted to post a photo of my toe, which still looks just awful, but I will refrain. Nobody needs to see my nasty toe.

I got zero programming done.

Every YAPC, I head out thinking that I'll get a bunch of programming done. It basically never happens. Maybe next year, when I'm confident in the idea that there will be video, I'll just sit in one place and chat and code. This year… I don't think I wrote a single line.

I didn't meet enough new people.

When I wrote about going to !!Con, I said that it was hard to meet people when I didn't know anybody to start with, and that I wanted to try to meet more new people at YAPC. I didn't do a great job of following through with that, although I did better than I might have. It's very hard, I am reminded, to say, "I'm sorry good friend whom I see only once a year, I need to spurn your company to go meet new people!"

I'm not sure I know the middle route, here.

Maybe I can form a marauding band of friends who go befriend new people and continue the pillage until the entire conference is one mass of friendly mayhem.

Sounds good.

YAPC::NA is on YouTube (body)

by rjbs, created 2014-07-02 19:43
last modified 2014-07-02 19:47
tagged with: @markup:md journal perl yapc

I went to YAPC::NA! It was in Orlando, Florida, and I had a lovely time. I'll write more about it later. I wanted to say one thing as soon as possible, though, and I thought I'd say it in isolation from anything else, because I think it's a much more important thing than some may realize.

The immediate availability of YAPC::NA's content as streamable video is an incredibly good thing.

Many conferences have promised that talks would be available online, but in almost every case, I assume that this is not going to happen. It's been too often that I find out that only a few talks will actually go up, or that the only person with the video files has suddenly found a higher calling or… whatever. At YAPC::Asia, they established a great track record, but YAPC::NA didn't have one, so I had no hope.

Then, as each talk started, they were immediately available, live. Because they were streaming live to YouTube, it meant that there was no question about whether it would be uploaded later. It was being uploaded now!

First of all, this meant that people who could not attend the conference could view the material. I view this as a good thing, but I don't even care about selling that. You can think about how amazingly great that is later, on your own time.

What I found amazingly great is that the availability of recordings granted me immense freedom at the conference. There were two talks opposite one another, both of which I wanted to see. I could pick the one where I thought the speaker might want a friendly face, or where I knew I'd be more likely to have questions. Another time, I got into a conversation with Karen Pauley about Perl Foundation business just as a talk that I really wanted to see was beginning. I didn't even have to think about it: I stayed in the hall and finished my conversation, because I could watch the talk later.

The availability of the talks online later meant that I could spend much more time engaged in face-to-face conversations that simply could not happen any other time of the year. It is my great hope that the stellar performance of streaming this year sets a standard to which future conferences must adhere.

I feel like I must anticipate the objection that if all talks are streamed, some talks will get no attendance. I don't think it will really happen, and further, I think that if this is the case, I would suggest that the free market has spoken.

So, to recap: publishing the videos from the conference, and establishing up front the reliable expectation that it will really happen, is amazingly great. Thanks, YAPC::NA 2014!

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