Instant Replay Sucks

There’s Professional American Football going on on screens all around me, and once more I’m reminded that the modern instant replay rules are terrible. Theoretically refs have 90 seconds to review close plays and get the call right.

It’s never 90 seconds before the game starts again. Never. The other night there was a delay of almost thirteen minutes to move the ball one foot but otherwise have no effect. Tonight we sat through a long review to determine that it didn’t matter what the review showed, the whistle had blown. That took about five minutes, during which I was treated to images of SUV’s with big red bows on them.

When a coach throws out a flag to appeal an inconsequential play, that coach instantly earns an extra hate point in my book.

Lexus, I think, is pretty much in favor of the rules as they stand. By extension, the people Lexus gives lots of money to also like things the way they are. Pretty much everyone except the people who watch the game like things the way they are.

An aside… There’s a guy on the sidelines of every NFL game who wears a pair of optic orange oven mitts. His entire job: Hold a mitt up while the network is showing a commercial, so the refs don’t accidentally start the game.

If I was king of the NFL, I’d suspend all the instant replay bullshit until we could get down to this: Overturn the call on the field in thirty seconds or the play stands. The league can go to a minute if they pay every fan in the country a dollar.

Extra Bonus Rant: Speaking of keeping the clock moving, spiking the ball at the line of scrimmage to stop the clock is intentional grounding, and time should be run off the clock.

Man I miss hockey.


Real Men Know Colors

Long, long ago, a female friend of mine told me excitedly that she finally owned a car. Back then, that was a big deal. What kind? I asked, getting swept up in the excitement. “It’s yellow!” was her response.

Then I bought a car of my own, and I was bemused when the first question by many of the females around me was, “what color is it?”

Really? I mean, sure I care what color my car is, but that comes way behind a lot of other considerations. As I age the other parameters reshuffle, but color remains pretty low on the list.

And we all know the woman who wins the office football pool based on the colors of the team jerseys. Aye Caramba.

But men know colors. A grizzled old farmer tells his grizzled old pal that he bought a tractor, and if it weren’t unthinkable that grizzled old pal wouldn’t already know the answer, he might ask “what color is it?” Because with big tractors there are two colors. Green and orange. John Deere and Massey Fergusen. If it’s a smaller tractor it might be red. You will never see green and orange on the same farm. Hell, you’ll rarely see both in the same town.

Real men know their colors, where those colors matter. They can tell Makita Teal from Bosch Blue; at a glance Milwaukee’s red stands out next to DeWalt’s Yellow and Black, which is totally different from Stanley’s Black and Yellow. Bonus points if you know Northern Industrial’s Maroon and Gray, and the occasional less-than-tasteful neon green of Kawasaki.

If I were to go to a financier and ask for money to start a tool company, I would fully expect one of the first questions to be “what color are they?”

As I perused a tool catalog to make sure I’d got my colors right (and to look at tool porn), I noticed that both Klutch and Wel-Bilt are going for silver and black. Sorry, guys. Craftsman is predominantly black but has gold highlights, and they own that space. Silver and Black just says you don’t want to be noticed. When a carpenter is trimming the end of a 2×4 with his silver-and-black circular saw, no one will think about the brand of saw he’s chosen for the task. While I find Kawasaki’s color choice brash, there’s no doubt that their tools are not afraid to strut on the worksite. If you’re selling a tool, at a glance everyone who matters around the worksite should know what brand your happy customers chose. Money can’t buy that kind of marketing. Which do you think sells better:

“Bosch has great roller bearings.”
“Joe uses Bosch, and Joe knows his shit.”

How do we know Joe uses Bosch? Bosch Blue, that’s how. And it’s nothing like Makita Teal.


Pinhole Fever

My favorite camera lens is a marvel of technology, an almost perfect example of science serving art. But lately my imagination has been captured by the other end of the lens spectrum: the pinhole.

The idea took root when I saw some russian plastic pinhole lens go on ebay for actual money. The sales pitch was, “recreate the look of this crappy old camera with your modern DSLR!” I agreed that would be a fun thing to do. We put distortion into electric guitar pickups and we dig lo-fi pictures.

But that’s selling the pinhole short. Last night I experimented with the lenses in my stable, determining the smallest details I could hope to resolve. I don’t have a true macro lens, but here’s the thing. A really good macro lens (hundreds or even thousands of dollars) will give you the ability to project images onto your film or digital sensor at a 1:1 ratio – if the thing you’re photographing is 1cm, it will be 1cm on your sensor. With a modern camera, that translates to a whole bunch of pixels.

But wait! With a pinhole, at the cost of maybe two dollars (10 bucks for better image quality) you can get a magnification five times that. Obviously not with the same fidelity, but seriously, five times the magnification means that you can still resolve some amazing details in your subject.

I think a pinhole would also be a better lens for observing the sun than any I currently have in my arsenal.

All that on top of cool vintage-looking shots in the “normal” range. Your subject has to be able to hold still for a while; the pinhole allows much less light through than a typical glass lens. You could argue that the primary function of the glass in lenses is to allow you to have a much bigger pinhole and still be able to focus.

And here’s a fun fact: All those numbers that we use when talking about a lens are actually based on pinholes. When we say a lens has a 50mm focal length, what we mean is that it acts like a pinhole 50mm from the film. The other numbers are similarly derived.

For a given focal length, there is an ideal pinhole size. (OK, that’s not exactly true, but there is an ideal pinhole size to optimize the shot for different preferences.) The goal is to have the light that comes from a specific point on the subject strike a particular point on the sensor. As you can probably imagine, the smaller the pinhole, the smaller the dot of light on the sensor from any given spot on the subject. (This dot is called, rather poetically, the “circle of confusion”.)

So the smaller the better, right?

Not so fast, Sparky! Just when you least expect it, light starts behaving like a wave, and the smaller the pinhole, the more pronounced that effect becomes, until diffraction causes the light from that single point outside the lens to turn into a bright central dot surrounded by fainter rings. The trick then is to minimize the distortion caused by both a too-big and a too-small pinhole, and find the happy balance. Others, happily, have done the math, though they don’t all agree.

I have a plan. I’m going to create two pinholes of different sizes, and mount them on the kind of cap you put on your camera body when you don’t have a lens on it. The caps are already made to attach the same way the manufacturers lenses do. I also intend to make an extension tube that mates with the camera at one end and with a lens cap at the other (using the cap that goes on the back of lenses for storage), and have myself a macro/zoom pinhole. The little pinhole can either go directly on the camera for a 46mm focal length, while the larger pinhole one goes on the end of the tube for telephoto. With the small pinhole on the extension tube, you’re ready for serious macro photography.

I’m fascinated now by the question, “what can a really well-engineered pinhole accomplish?” Besides just getting the size of the hole right, there are the challenges of getting the hole nice and round (irregularities will play hell with diffraction) and shallow. If the hole is too deep (drilled through too thick of material) the corners of the picture are cut off. The camera will quite literally have tunnel vision.

I intend to spend some hours in Father-of-Sweetie’s workshop, experimenting with drilling holes in metal. (I priced out copper sheet and then realized that drilling holes in money (pennies) would be much cheaper.) The first thing to discover is whether it’s merely difficult or completely friggin impossible to get a drill to stop when its tip is 0.09mm through the metal (for the smaller hole, assuming the standard 118º point angle of the drill’s tip), and if the resulting hole is round enough. If not, then micro drills are going to be required.

While I don’t mind spending a great deal of time building the thing, I’d like to come up with a process that can be repeated fairly easily. Because if people are willing to pay for a little plastic piece of poo, there might be a group of hobbyists interested in the Ridiculously Over-Engineered Pinhole System. If I can drill the holes efficiently, it might make a nice little cottage industry.


In between the time of writing and the time of posting, there was a time of doing! Here are some results with Quick and Dirty Pinhole 2 (pinhole 1 didn’t pass quality checks):

A few notes:
What I set out to do this morning was discover if I had any way to measure the size of the pinholes, and to see if they were actually round. I don’t have a fancy loupe, and the ones that can measure down to things that tiny are quite expensive. I do have a camera, however, and I figured if I could get close enough I could use an image to measure the size and shape of the pinhole.

I made a couple of pinholes in tinfoil. I used my fisheye lens to get down as close as I could to the pinholes (laid on top of a ruler app on my phone) and was able to roughly estimate their size. The first was definitely too big, the second seemed only a little bit too big. So I drilled a hole in a Canon body cap and taped in Quick and Dirty Pinhole 2.

Most of the exposures you see here are thirty seconds, at pretty high ISO to boot. the f-number for QDPH-2 is something like 48mm/0.3mm ≈ f/150. Remember how giddy I was to get a lens that went to f/1.2? Yeah, this is the opposite of that. Such is the way of the pinhole. The side effect of that is that just about everything in the universe will be in focus, including things that are really really close.

Yep, the best tool I have for measuring pinholes is… a pinhole, and the marks on the measuring stick are the pixels of the retina display itself (12.8/mm). I am stoked.

In the last macro shot of QDPH-1, you see some ghosting. I’m pretty sure that was caused by light bouncing back and forth between the two pieces of aluminum foil. In shots of the display only, there is no ghosting.

But, my sweetie asked this morning, what’s the point of all this? My answer: It’s fun, and also I think we can get some great vintage-feeling shots. As you can see in the still life, the focus is pretty soft – not appropriate for all the hard-edged items in the shot. I’ll be taking some self-portraits later to see how that goes.


Why Being Fat and Indolent is Good for the Environment

I did some very rough calculations, once, about the actual mass of the fuel I burn when I exercise. It occurred to me today that the output of my exercise is greenhouse gasses.

Yep, each month I’m putting 2kg of CO2 into the atmosphere in my selfish desire to be healthy. And that’s nothing compared to my sweetie. She’s practically a terrorist with all the carbon she’s exhaling.

The Two Lines of Commitment

I’ve been on the exercise machine regularly again, and that feels great. I read much of the time (currently enjoying Kipling’s Jungle Book), but toward the end when I’m huffin’ and blowin’ it’s just too difficult to concentrate. So as I’m grinding out the last few minutes of my regimen I’m watching numbers. Minutes and seconds ticking down as estimated calories burned increases. I increase the resistance at the end, to make sure the final push takes all I have.

Watching the numbers as I slog along leads to negotiation. Make no mistake, during that last five-minute burn I want to quit. Two things keep me going: the line of shame and the line of pride.

If you quit before the line of shame, you are a lazy bum who half-assed his workout. If you exercise beyond the line of pride, you can high-five yourself as you collapse to the floor in a quivering mass. As you lie there you can’t help but smile, and dream of the day when today’s line of pride becomes tomorrow’s line of shame. Crossing that line makes anything seem possible. Between the two lines is the “that was an OK workout” range.

Recently I upped both lines. I did it in the middle of a workout. The line of shame went by so easily I had to push it up, and the line of pride as well. That was a good day.


Genius Loves Beatles

My fruit-flavored music-playing device has a not-quite-as-intuitive-as-it-should-be feature called “genius”. The theory is simple. When you’re listening to a song you like, you touch a little fifties-era atom symbol and the machine will find twenty-four more songs that the genius inside believes are similar, so you can keep the mood going.

My first attempts with the genuis mix button were frustrating. I had the FFMPD set to play random music while I worked out. A song came on that helped fuel a second wind, so I hit the genius button. It glowed under my finger and returned to normal when I released my touch. The song ended and another came on, not dissimilar. But I couldn’t tell – was it geniusing? Another song came on, also similar, and I concluded that there was a decent chance that my music player was indeed genuising, but there was nothing in the interface presented to me to indicate that fact.

Then the player went from Blink 182 to a Beatles song. “Elanor Rigby”, if memory serves. Nope, I concluded, my music player was NOT geniusing; there’s nothing that song had in common with the one I had asked it to base the list on.

I went back to a particularly racous, up-tempo tune that had gone by (unsteady hands poking at the screen as I chugged along), and tried the Genuis button again. Three songs later I was treated to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

Don’t get me wrong, I really like that song. Good for listening to in the dark, illuminated only by the glow of the stereo while sipping whiskey and wondering what the point of it all is, on those nights of doubt where inertia is your only guide. Not so good for working out, though.

“Fine,” I thougt, poking at the screen. “I’ll go through the interface and choose a particular song, while not on random play, and see if it geniuses for me.” Stabbing at an iPad while working on an elliptical trainer is not ideal; if you move your finger while touching the surface the machine assumes you mean to drag something. Which under any other circumstance is correct. I jabbed and poked until I came upon a tune (if I recall correctly, which honestly isn’t that likely) by Mudhoney, and pushed the little atom. “Not enough information to make a genius list,” I was told. Same story with Drill (whose eponymous and only album I once picked up used and remains one of my faves of all time). Maybe I should have started with L7.

My workout ended before I got a satisfactory answer to the genius problem.

Of course, I could have fiddled with the device while not working out, and possibly have found the answer sooner, but that’s not how I roll. After a little frustration at the start of the next workout I decided to turn to a playlist I’d already defined. There right next to it, was a Genius list based on “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” by Nirvana. “Sweet,” thought I, the genuis button had worked after all. I fired up that mix and started my toil.

And… after a few tunes had been pumped into my ears, a Beatles song came on. It was “Come Together,” which, yeah, I can see working with Nirvana. Nice work, Genius! I wouldn’t have gone looking for that one. A little Queens of the Stone Age, then Black Sabbath, followed by “Blackbird” by the Beatles.

What the hell? That is nothing like Nirvana.

I viewed the songs in the genius-created playlist. Three were by the Beatles. Out of curiosity, I geniused the Ravonettes. Three Beatles songs. Green Day? Three Beatles songs. I tried some other bands, sticking to what I thought the mainstream might be. Three Beatles songs each time. When I genuised ‘Holiday in the Sun” by the Sex Pistols, there were only two Beatles songs.

So it turns out the genius feature was working all along. It just wasn’t telling me it was, and it has a boner for the Beatles. It should be noted here that the Genius ex Machina has more than 10,000 tunes to choose from.* I promise you that fewer than 10% of those are by the Beatles.

The question, of course is, “Is this a conspiracy? Does the Genius get a kickback on Beatles albums sold?” Or are Beatles tunes the automatic fallback filler when the database that guides the genius is confronted with too much unknown?

You know where this is going, of course. I’m going to be hitting the genius button a lot, looking for The Tune That Has No Beatles Matches. I’ll keep you posted.

* I miss the unlimited legal downloads back when eMusic was young, which was when they hadn’t cut deals with major record labels yet. That might be part of the problem; my library is skewed strongly toward indie labels and obscure bands that I discovered by spending an afternoon sampling the used CD bins at Wherehouse. I contend that the only difference between a popular band and an obscure one is the marketing budget.

That is how I found Drill, sitting on a stool, headphones on, operating a CD player in a suburban music store. I had a system. I’d listen to the first track, and if it seemed to be going well, I’d skip to maybe the third or fourth. Also good? Sweet. Vocal power is absolutely required to get past this stage. Skip forward in the song. Does anything change through the song? Good musicians know how to find strength in softness as well as noise. The final test: skip around through several songs. If there’s not variety, then that sound they do every time better be awesome.

My original copy of Drill was badly damaged when I loaned it to a friend, and it took a couple of years on the waiting list at for me to find a replacement. Should I become president, I will track down the members of that band and have them play at my inauguration.

How many other Drills are out there? The chances of me stumbling on that band were remote, which suggests that there are many more waiting for me to discover them.

But the point of this giant footnote is that the genius don’t know Drill. Can we teach the genius? Broaden its horizons past RIAA-sanctioned muzic? I aim to find out.


A Brief Drama about Testosterone and Armpits

I am a fairly frequent visitor to sports-oriented Web sites. In some cases I think this is because the writers are more interesting than the sports they write about. While actually watching an NBA game would be insufferable, reading an entertaining account of the silly things players and coaches do is still quite fun.

Not surprisingly, the advertisers that bring me my sports commentary are skewed pretty strongly toward a male audience. Today I have been assaulted with orange and gold banners promoting Axiron®, the only underarm testosterone treatment (emphasis theirs).

At last this all-too-common exchange is a thing of the past:

DOCTOR: Well, Dave, looks like you’re low on testosterone.
DAVE: Oh, no! Whatever shall I do?*
DOCTOR: No problem, Dave, I’ll prescribe some pills.
DAVE: But doctor, have you forgotten my… special problem? That I can only take medication through my armpits?
DOCTOR: Curses! If only there were some way to administer testosterone through the armpits! Think of the lives that would be saved!

* This is how men talk when they need testosterone.

Well, now that happy day has arrived and those poor afflicted souls who must absorb their chemicals through their armpits can get their heapin’ helping of man-hormones to start the day.

Thank you, science, and thank you Axiron®!


Progress Report from the Pits of NaNoWriMo

I had set a goal for myself to cross the fifty-thousand line tomorrow. It’s going to take some serious typing to make that happen. I’m not optimistic. A couple of days ago I told the light of my life that when I crossed the 50K threshold I’d drop this steamer in mid-sentence and get back to what I should be working on.

My pace has slowed the last couple of days, and it’s a good news/bad news situation. The bad news is that this is still a steaming pile of verbiage and I should be dedicating myself to words elsewhere. Slowing down means another day or two writing words that no one will ever read. The good news is that I finally wrote a scene that measures up to the opening. It needs to be tightened, but I like it.

If you read the little starter bit I posted some time ago, you will recall a character who is lost and alone, known only as Jane Doe. She has no memory of who she is or how she came to be in the hospital. All she knows is that she’s somehow different than the people around her, although common sense dictates that she’s not all that different.

One thing I surprised myself with was how little of the story I’ve told through her point of view. I think the alien is sometimes best expressed through other’s eyes. By moving the frame of reference she becomes more of an enigma. (I don’t think this applies so much in movies; in film we are always observing from outside.)

A couple of nights ago I grew tired of the blah blah blah as people yapped about what to get at the store tomorrow just in case the spinach wasn’t satisfactory (not really but close enough), and I thought about the key moment of the story, when our strange specimen must make a choice. It turns out she was the architect of her own dislocation, so she could be bait and trap both to kill the Really Bad Guy.

But like all elaborate plans, this one doesn’t work out quite the way is was drawn on the chalkboard, even as she must admit that the Really Bad Guy has some valid points. So the other night as I grew weary of steamy Angel-on-Demon sex (actually, there is none of that, despite my best intentions – and now I think I need to have ADD sex and cut away in the middle) and thought about just how this choice Jane must make would manifest. I got an idea that made me happy (it takes about 60 seconds to fall 14,000 feet) an off I went, writing (at last) a scene I could be proud of.

There’s a pretty major gap in the narrative right now, what with them being imprisoned in a house in a nice suburb of Hoboken one moment and falling to their deaths the next, but that’s how things go sometimes. Oh, yeah, there was a dead body on the floor back in Hoboken.

Now I just have to wrap it up with a sweet metaphor and go back in and add 7000 words of steamy sex (or grocery shopping) and 50K is in the bag. Maybe not by tomorrow, though.

The i’s Have It

Just saw an ad for the Lexus ILX. That’s not a roman numeral, it’s an abbreviation for iLexus. They’ll never admit it, but I know it’s true. i sells. In a boardroom somewhere, guys in suits batted around ways to whisper in consumers’ ears with a silky sexy voice: iLexus. ILX was the answer.

The Attraction of the Procedural

There’s a general rule in writing, one that probably should go without saying but it is violated regularly. It’s simply this: Everything you write should advance the plot and build your characters. When I criticize my own writing on this metric (which I should do more often), I chunk things by paragraph. Did that paragraph move the plot AND develop character? No? That paragraph’s not working hard enough then.

If Robert Jordan had had a decent editor or some ability to see his own work objectively, his Wheel of Time series might not have spiraled into unreadable disaster, filled with entire chapters of fluff. As the books got thicker, the number of things that actually happened decreased.

Of course, during NaNoWriMo, that metric is thrown out the window. This is about quantity, not quality. It’s perfectly all right to have non-performing paragraphs in a first draft; that’s what revisions are for. Over the last week and a half, I’ve written a lot of non-performing paragraphs. I’m even giving Jordan a run for his money.

I had no intention of writing a procedural, but it turns out I’m writing a lot of scenes that fall into that category. In a procedural, the author liberally sprinkles long passages through the book that are merely lists of things people did. In my case, the procedures are usually medical. First the doctor did this thing, then that thing, then another thing. It’s all very technical and makes the author sound like an expert, but it doesn’t move the story. It’s filler. Filler that procedural fans may enjoy if done well, but the only thing the story would lack without all that detail is page count.

(I’m pretty sure my long scene in which the doctor inserts a tube into the lung of a pneumonia sufferer is ludicrously inaccurate.)

In my limited exposure to procedurals (mostly on TV), all that stuff is used to make a story fit in the expected size. A novella becomes a novel (with a novella-sized plot), a 30-minute drama becomes a 44-minute drama (with 14 minutes of test tubes and music).

Or, in the case of my NaNoWriMo effort this year, 10% plot, 30% procedures, and 60% aimless drifting and tedious conversations about things not germane to the story. (Some of the conversations are interesting, I think, they just aren’t connected to anything.) Not my best November effort. Not by a long shot.

Max Access

I just saw an ad for the Craftsman ‘max access’ (if memory serves) wrench, which seems to be, if the pretty promotional video is any indicator, a supremely clever and useful device for tightening or loosening damn near any bolt of any size, and fuck the metric system we’ve got that covered, too.

*blink* Here’s a funny thing. When I first started typing this episode, I fully expected it to be a pure expression of tool lust. My only problem with the device was the amount of room required around the nut to allow the ingenious device to fit. Once it’s on the nut and sized right you flip a switch and it locks down and is every bit as good as a box wrench.

And there’s the thing. I already own box and crescent wrenches in both archaic and metric denominations through the whole gamut that Max Access covers, and they can access places Max Access can’t. (Was that really the name? I’m doubting myself now.) I still love the idea of Craftsman’s new tool, it seems an engineering triumph, and the ingenuity of it is truly impressive. It just wasn’t good enough to survive critical thought long enough for me to hit the publish button. If I could type faster, this might be a different episode altogether.

Hey! I Know Her!

I popped over to the Science Fiction Writers Association site ( because my link to the Turkey City Lexicon was out of date, and there was my pal Kij Johnson right in the banner! A fun way to start the day.

Then I typed Kij into the Goog and after I typed the ‘j’ the second suggestion was ‘kij johnson ponies’ and I had to laugh. That story is messed up. And also a Nebula Winner, so there you go.


NaNoWriMo Update

Lately it’s been a tradition for me to post the first batch of words I excrete in pursuit of NaNoWriMo glory. I don’t think I’m going to do that this year. For one thing, there’s already a similar story beginning in these pages (although I rewrote it), and, well, it’s just not gaining traction.

I had decided to do Topstar, a lo-tech adventure on an exotic planet, but at the last moment I switched to Gravity, the story of a woman with no past, who just knows she is not like the people around her. At 11:59 Halloween night, it just resonated better. So off I went. The problem with the latter, however, is that although it’s got one really good character, that’s all it has. I’m ahead on word count, but I’m still circling the plot like a prizefighter who has yet throw a punch. Not so great for the audience. So far I’ve been making up characters and throwing them in there to see if magic happens. Nurse: nope. Team of three doctors: nope, nope, nope. Private investigator: nope. There’s still an outside chance for the quiet and thoughtful latino gang leader, but in the end all hope rests on the Biker Cliché Who is Not What He Seems. Because there’s never been an urban fantasy with that guy before.

Words are flowing, however, at a pretty good rate, and that’s the point of this exercise. Get writing momentum back and turn it on Munchies. I’m writing scenes I normally would have trashed mentally before committing them, with a “see what happens, you can always delete it later” attitude. So after 50,000 words I can set this jumble aside and turn my new-found energy back onto the target that really deserves it.

Last night the beer was flowing as well, and I realized at the end of the night that my stacking instincts had kicked in. This photograph may be the most artistic thing I did last night, though the placement of the bottles is too symmetrical for my taste.

Perhaps the most artistic result of NaNoWriMo so far.