Wednesday, October 22, 2014

I spent six whole hours of my life in Lowell this past weekend. Unless you have some sort of fetish for former industrial mill towns, I don't recommend you ever do this. It's a collection of old, rusted-out hulks being slowly overtaken by a collection of slightly-less-old hulks that haven't quite completely rusted out yet, broken up by a brief section of town that is being restored by a bunch of hipsters to a condition where it appears to be in the process of rusting out, but isn't. I understand there are people who enjoy this, in the same strictly-intellectual way I understand that there are people who enjoy living in the Sonoran desert. I am very much a city mouse, so mainly what it looks like to me is civilization giving up in its senescence, settling into a grayed-out state of minimal survival while it waits to eventually die.

The signs on the Commuter Rail fascinate me. They don't quite match the newer signs on the T. The typeface is subtly different than the one they use now. It matches best to the few signs downtown that were missed the last time anything changed, like the one that says the outbound Red train is 'to Harvard' rather than 'to Alewife'. They've been there for thirty years, at least.

I look at those signs sometimes and I wonder if they were the same ones my parents saw when they lived out here. I checked the CR lines while I was en route -- they have wifi on the train now, although their definition of 'service' when it comes to internet can be as loose as when it comes to bus schedules. When my father stayed out late with his buddies, the train my mother complained so bitterly about him missing was the Commuter Rail line out to Haverhill. And he would have been missing it from North Station. The platform at Porter looks like it may well have been there for forty years, but the subway station was part of the Red Line Extension and wasn't finished until after we left.

I don't think either of them have ever seen the current station at Harvard. There used to be a much smaller station there, when it was the end of the line, which is mainly gone; while they were blasting out the cavern that exists now, there were a couple of temporary station platforms that popped up at various places around Harvard Square. One of the station exits was in front of the Holyoke Center, and given the layout now and the fact that there's still a huge grate in the sidewalk, it's probably ventilation for the offices on the first landing. You can still see the temporary platform, if they leave the work lights on in the tunnel; it's got purple tile in an offset pattern, like in Central Square. They even left the ad poster frames up, although they're empty now.

The city changed a lot over three decades. The main things are the northern end of the Red, and the Big Dig finally being finished. I remember hearing about that when I was a wee little science-obsessed nipper in early grade school. I'm actually a little sad that I missed the elevated expressway through the city -- I know people on the ground loathed it, and the drivers on it weren't too crazy about it either, but I've read too much science-fiction to not be enchanted at the idea of a highway swooping around, high above the surface streets of the city below.

Characteristically, when they finally demolished the supports for the former Central Artery, they made the space into a string of parks. It's very Boston. I was following a treasure hunt on Something Awful Forums once when someone decoded a bunch of clues in a way that suggested the whatzit was buried out here, and naïvely asked if perhaps there were any significant parks in the city? The local goons laughed themselves stupid. The City of Boston proper is something like 15% greenery by area; if you add in the metro area, it's probably closer to 20%. Basically, whenever they find they have a plot of land and no plans for it, they check into filling it with either plants or train tracks, and plants are usually cheaper.

I suppose I'll have to be content with living out by the one section of I-93 that still is an elevated expressway. They're not likely to change it any time soon; several layers of it run directly over Sullivan Square Station in Charlestown, which has not only the subway tracks but also a Commuter Rail right-of-way, and the last el section of the Orange Line runs between the pylons until it dives underground south of Bunker Hill Community College. There's quite a view from the sidewalk outside of Sullivan, with I-93 flying by overhead as you look out over the lower terrain of the West and North End into the high-rises downtown, Charlestown to your left, and the Bunker Hill Bridge just out of sight beyond the station and highway supports to your right.

The Leonard P Zakim Bridge -- which I had to learn from Google Maps, because hand to God I have never heard anyone here call it anything but "the Bunker Hill Bridge" -- is enormously cool to drive through. I know it's just a regular cable-stayed bridge, and I realize that these things exist all over the world, but there's something about being in the middle of the fan of cables, passing under the tower at freeway speeds, that makes it a visually fascinating trip. The lighting is rather theatrical, and makes for a dramatic picture at night.

I am probably just easily amused by the trappings of civilization. Laugh if you want, but sit down for a second and figure out, if this wows me so much, what it must look like in Arizona where I grew up. Phoenix Metro has a population of 6 million, give or take, which is not far off from the population of Greater Boston. It's just spread out incredibly thinly, with the main goal of letting people avoid each other as much as possible.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Dear Facebook:

I do not think you are good at this computering thing.

I have a droidphone. Your app is on it. This is a native Android app whose purpose in life is to send and receive fairly small amounts of ASCII or Unicode text, plus sometimes some tiny-to-medium sized pictures.

I also have an app called SCUMMVM. This is a homebrew project. It purpose in life is to run games. The way it does this is by pretending to be an x86 architecture CPU (it isn't; it's a Qualcomm chip) running MS-DOS (it doesn't; Android has its own operating system) taking input from a PS/2 keyboard (no external keyboard; you can bring up the on-screen buttons if you need them) and a serial mouse (no mouse; it captures motion from the touchscreen and maps it onto a phantom 'touchpad'), and sending output via a set of DOS IRQs (that don't exist) to a SoundBlaster-compatible MIDI instruments table and FM sound chip (which is translated in software and passed to the speaker) and a 640x480x256 VGA video card (which is downscaled to 480x320 for the screen and mapped to the phone's native palette).

Emulation is notorious for being very buggy, and to blow through processor cycles like a bureaucrat trying to get rid of his budget surplus at the end of the fiscal year, because -- as you can see above -- whatever is running the emulator has to pretend to be a whole lot of things it isn't, on top of constantly talking to itself. It is also notoriously crash-prone, as programs tend to assume things about the state of the physical hardware which are not necessarily true if the hardware it's expecting doesn't physically exist.

SCUMMVM just ran flawlessly for the three hours it took me to get through The Castle of Dr Brain. The Facebook app, when it doesn't crash directly to the 'force close' dialog as soon as I tap it, is only capable of animating the loading ring, and then losing the connection. It is so crap that when it is working, I spontaneously lose bars of signal from both the wifi and the cellular gauges in the status bar. I didn't even know that was possible.

In a contest between "I send text and pictures back and forth" and "I am pretending to be all the parts of a completely different computer system in order to coherently run an arbitrary game my owner has fed me from a directory on my SD card", this second thing should not be winning.

Friday, October 3, 2014

State of Affairs, Part III

I've gotten back into performing again. I'm doing my second show with a troupe called the Post-Meridian Radio Players, who do this sort of hybrid of live theater and radio plays. The actors are in some kind of costume, and we have a live audience, but the only blocking is 'move from this mic to that mc', and the shows are written to be understandable to someone who hasn't got the visual cues. Much of the fun comes from watching the Foley people do their work live, at a table downstage left.

This year's Halloween show is built around the works of Edgar Allen Poe, which is convenient, as the city is unveiling a statue of Poe down by the Public Garden this weekend. I'm in a very loose adaptation of "Masque of the Red Death", not that there could really be any other kind -- if you've seen the original story, it reads like Poe was scrawling down a capsule summary for his editors, making sure to include the one really cool line of dialogue that popped into his head while he was coming up with it. The gist is 'rich asshole gets tired of seeing people die of plague, throws enormous party to distract himself, instructs bouncers to keep sick people out of his house, plague gets in anyway, everybody dies'. Our scriptwriter expanded about a page of text into almost half an hour of creepy things, and it came out quite well.

I landed the role of Only Sane Man, sort of. I spend the entire piece being panicky and paranoid and insisting we're all going to die, and because we're doing Poe here, I'm right. I suspect this happened because when I'm asked for a melodramatic stage scream, I don't use a realistic-sounding one, with all the jaggedy rough edges to it; I produce a very high-pitched, very piercing, very loud sound that probably makes dogs in New Hampshire sit up and look around every time I get to that bit in rehearsal. I have been instructed never to do it directly in front of the microphone. Our scriptwriter snarked that I'd become the PMRP's 'scream queen', and I suppose it's true -- my whole function in my first show with them was to be murdered, complete with clean, clear, ear-busting shriek of terror. Not really something I ever counted as a talent, but hey, if it's useful.

The PMRP is an interesting group. Not that I'm particularly shy about telling people what I'm selling for Circlet, but when I got into that conversation in the green room, one of them pulled out her phone and bought a copy of The Viscountess Investigates while we were still talking, which was a first. They're interested in trying to do audio adaptations of some of the Circlet stories -- apparently seriously, despite the round of jokes this sparked about most of the Foley effects being variations on the sound of pants hitting the floor.

I trucked in a bag of samples for one of our later performances, which was particularly amusing, because our performance space was a church. Before and during shows, the stage manager will come into the green room and call things like 'ten minutes 'til house opens' or 'five minutes 'til first act goes on'; the correct response is for everyone in earshot to sort of sing-song chorus, 'thaaaank you, (whatever number of minutes)', to make sure it's sunk in. If the stage manager calls 'ten minutes 'til house opens', you get back, 'thaaaank you, ten'. If she calls, 'five minutes to costumes for the first segment,' you get back, 'thaaaank you, five'. And apparently when the stage manager points at your tote bag on the snack table, adding, 'and [Arabella] brought porn,' you get back an entire room full of actors deadpanning, 'thaaaank you, porn,' in perfect unison.

I seem to have found them an artist for this show instead. "Masque" is set, reasonably enough, at a masquerade ball. We were talking about raiding the craft store and getting together to make our own masks, but I went on a casting call for something totally unrelated and ran into a lady who specializes in crafting elaborate half-face masks out of dyed leather. The first thing out of my mouth, of course, was, "Would you be willing to lend some stock to our production?" You ask this question a lot, when you do runway shows. No one in their right mind would buy jewelry and accessories for a dozen women to wear for ten whole minutes -- model gets to wear her own underwear, sometimes her own shoes, the designer's showcase dress, and you borrow everything else. I suppose if you're not used to the dynamic, it does seem ballsy and weird to basically ask someone who's selling designs or artwork, 'Hey, can we play with some of your expensive labors of love that we're totally not going to buy?' but nine times out of ten, the artist is thrilled that you want to use their stuff in a thing that other people are going to see.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

State of Affairs, Part II

I'm also still working for Circlet. We did more mailing this week. You know, after the last time, when we stuffed envelopes and sent out seven hundred little 'order some paperback smut!' pamphlets to bookstores across the country. (A few went up into the Democratic Republic of Canuckistan.) Collecting that list was my job. Even a list of seven hundred sex shops gets really boring really quickly when you have them in a spreadsheet, and need to convert them into mailing addresses.

I left a 25lb box of meticulously-packed pornography sitting on Boss Lady's dining room table, waiting to be sent out to a burlesque troupe in Nashville, for their Halloween show. I was uncertain what reaction I'd get to the suggestion that we ship four dozen books to Tennessee gratis, but it turns out that this seems like a perfectly sensible idea when you bring it up after the Editor-in-Chief has herself devised a plan to clean out the basement stockroom into other people's swag bags. I went spelunking for thirteen 30ct boxes of Through A Brazen Mirror, to be sent out to a very large fantasy writers' conference, which will be followed up by another 400 copies of something called The Drag Queen of Elfland and other stories as soon as I finish hauling them up out of the basement. I keep losing Sherpas down there. Although, in compensation, I am getting to know the local spiders quite well.

There is a once more a loud whirring noise coming from the server-rack end of the basement again. This is reassuring, seeing as our website has been down for several weeks, on account of too many volts. I am not kidding. Cambridge had a series of awe-inspiring thunderstorms a while back, which wrapped up in the G├Âtterdamerung conclusion of a lighting strike that fried both A) the actual webserver and B) the machine that was meant to be our backup, in case of A. We sent the disk off to some sort of digital voodoo priest in the mid-Atlantic area, who has mercifully established that the platters are fine, but that all the magic smoke has been let out of the controller. Brain transplants are much easier on disk drives than on humans, so we'll have it back eventually. This is excellent news, particularly since I have a pretty good idea of who would have been responsible for the data entry if we'd had to rebuild the store from scratch.

We've started using a service called If This, Then That to bounce things around on social media. I detest the tumblr dashboard interface. It's so obstructively "friendly" it's like trying to type wearing giant Nerf gloves. IfTTT will take things I post to the actual main blog page at circlet.com and echo it to a bunch of other social media services, without me having to mess with Wordpress plugins or crosspost things by hand. It's not perfect -- the most notable hole is Google+, because Google, in its infinite wisdom, has decided that they don't like third-party clients, official APIs, or telling you how to post via email, even though their 'post via text' service goes through an SMS-to-email gateway behind the scenes. There is a way to outwit this and get them to give you the supar-sekrit email address you need to do it yourself, but it involves signing up for a Google Voice number, routing your GVoice SMS service back to email, and intentionally triggering a bounce error. It does not work with T-Mobile prepaid plans, which is what I have. No, I don't know why. A wizard did it.

I also set up IfTTT for a bunch of my things, which you have all probably noticed if you decided to follow me on tumblr. I have no problem with using tumblr as long as I don't have to touch the damn thing, so I have it set up to echo all my blog posts immediately for your reading pleasure. I also, in a fit of procrasti-boredom, set it up to echo a lot of completely random things to the tumblr queue, to be posted a few per day, in case any of you were suffering from a fit of crippling procrasti-boredom yourselves. It's not quite "reblog everything I've looked at for more than fifteen seconds", but it's as close as I can get without owning a pair of Google Glasses.

I drew a little chart of all the things the Circlet account bounces around and where they go, in case I contract the Venusian Death Flu and can't take care of it for a week. I tried to draw a flow chart of mine too, but it turns out that my flow isn't planar. Oops. Well, it all makes sense in my head. I do that fairly regularly. I used to loathe when instructors required flow charts for papers/story plots or those brainstorming cloud diagram things; mine were always desperately incomplete or completely indecipherable, because in order to connect everything up properly I would have needed to start drawing arrows that looped sideways through the table. Or possibly through time. One of the two. It drove me so crazy once that I submitted a (college) research paper on CD-R so I could hyperlink everything.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

State of Affairs, Part I

My life has become a whirlwind of activity lately. I'm still working for Nokia, in a QA role that is rather akin to evaluating the sanity of something that is closely along the lines of Google Map's Search Nearby function, only it's specifically for Nokia phones, and occasionally the gaps in its reasoning systems are filled in with Insane Troll Logic. It is my job to review the queries people submit in juxtaposition with the answers our map search app gave, and then to explain, with citations and links where appropriate, why someone who is standing in Singapore and searching for "coffee" is not going to be happy with an answer pinpointing the town of Coffee, GA, USA.

When it's thoroughly confused, it tends to default to picking a nearby answer off of what I am beginning to believe is a list of every pharmacy and post office on the face of the Earth. Other times, it just jumps off into East Hyperspace. This occasionally involves a foray into Wikipedia articles on things like Polish grammar, as the app accepts queries in any language you can enter into a phone and, like Google, will translate generic category nouns into the local equivalent if you happen to be asking in a foreign tongue. I spend a lot of time playing "Different Case Or Different Word?" in languages I technically don't speak. It has lately combined this with its sometimes-overzealous fuzzy-logic typo-detector in a tour de force of nonsense, where someone will ask for "Point (something)" in a francophone area, the app will decide they really meant to type "Pont (something)" in French, translate that back into English ("pont" = "bridge"), and then will proudly present the user with a nearby bridge, which is named a thing that is almost but not quite entirely unlike "(something)".

I also once pointed out that its return of an ice rink in New Delhi to a query which was genuinely for an ice rink, but from a user somewhere in Indiana, was the most useless possible answer we could have given them short of leaving the planet. My supervisors, thankfully, think I'm funny.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

FYI, I figured out how to propagate my blog posts to tumblr. I hate the interface there with the firey passion of a thousand burning suns, so I'm using IfTTT, which just loves to redirect things from one feed to another. You can follow me at arabellaflynn.tumblr.com.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Hi, my name is Arabella, and I'm an Ace Attorney addict...

Ace Attorney Investigations 2: Prosecutor's Path has eaten my brains. No, you didn't miss an English-language release of Gyakuten Kenji 2 -- Capcom inexplicably decided not to do one. A fantranslation group put out a patch in Xdelta and BEAT formats a few months ago, and I finally got around to trying it. I'm not giving you any of the files, on the grounds that if you can spell at least 50% of the relevant search terms correctly, it'll come up in about 20 milliseconds on Google. It works flawlessly on an early revision Japanese DS Lite with an R4 flashcard running Wood 1.27.

(Not that I would know anything about any of these questionable third-party products, nosireebob. I don't have any family history of clever media conversion, and I certainly did not just convince someone to buy a DS emulator for her droidphone so she could play the original Ace Attorney games that Capcom inexplicably only released for iOS. And I would never dream of spending several of my more tedious classes in college misusing my Palm IIIc organizer to play a shockingly perfect port of Pac-Man.

I probably shouldn't admit to missing Infocombot, either, or all the time I spent MUDding in a computer lecture class that was not only boring but a complete waste of my time. All liberal arts majors were required to take a class that was essentially Intro To Turning The Computer On And Off, and they refused to give me a bye even though I worked for the university helpdesk at the time. So I carried a flashdrive with the portable version of Remote Desktop to class, brought my home XP desktop up on the lab computer, and reclaimed the telnet window I'd left open with the MUD in it. the MUD was technically for a class, and it was run on spare server capacity leftover from DragonMUD, but Uncle Jopsy's Story Time is a tale for another day.

If they had been smarter they would have excused me from the class, which was what my junior high tech teacher did when she realized I was failing their typing exercises because a Mac Classic is a bear of very little brain, and I was hitting the keys so rapidly I was overflowing the keyboard buffer. But I digress.)

I probably could have gotten through the game in the original Japanese, but it would have taken forever. Let's just say Edgeworth's propensity for sounding like a dryly wiseass dictionary is well-translated. It is, if anything, less pronounced in English than it is in Japanese -- in the original, whenever Mitusrugi loses his temper in court, he does this thing that I can only describe as plummeting through half a dozen levels of linguistic formality, whacking himself squarely in the face with each and every one over the course of the exchange, before finally landing at the part where he growls out sentence fragments while grinding his fist into the prosecution desk.

(Note: If you are at the point in your language learning where you're trying to absorb vocabulary from context.., don't use Gyakuten Saiban games. The whole point of these puzzles is to turn context upside down halfway through the story. I tried it with the first game, once, and gave it up when I realized that, unless I someday have a vacation go very wrong, I am never going to need to know how to spell the word for 'wiretap' in Japanese.)

Visual novel puzzle games steal my soul. They're a little dangerous. The last time I got a new Latyon game, I forgot to sleep until I finished it. AAI2 is not an exception. It took a sincere application of willpower not to walk home from Sullivan with the DS held in front of my face the other day. The translation took a while, but it came out brilliantly. It's slightly less loopy than the official ones, but not by much -- at one point, someone shouts THE GOGGLES DO NOTHING! Debeste's "the Best" puns spew forth almost as readily as Franziska's 'foolishly foolish fool' phrases. I'm pleased with the voice actors they picked, too. Edgeworth and Franziska and Gumshoe had their English HOLD IT! and OBJECTION! stings ripped from AAI, I presume, but the new VAs blend in quite well.

Spoiler-free notes:

Edgeworth gets kicked right in the feels a lot in this game. He takes it remarkably well. It's a shame they decided not to translate this one officially; it goes a long way towards explaining why he's gotten so mellow in his old age -- well, his 30s -- in Dual Destinies. He also has a positively frightening sang froid when the feels-kicking isn't directly happening to him. More than once, Edgeworth ends up in a room full of people going OMG OMG OMG A MURDER WHAT DO WE DOOOOOOOOO?, and just spends his time frowning calmly and introspectively at a large puddle of blood.

You will spend about half of your time going, OH GOD NOT YOU. Several people reappear from cases in previous games, and exactly zero of them have gotten any saner with the passage of time. Some of them have passed their insanity on to others!

There's a new mechanism in this game, Logic Chess, that roughly parallels Phoenix's Magatama and Psych-Locks. The main differences are that instead of presenting evidence you gather elsewhere to break a lie, you have to drag clues out of the current conversation to throw back at your opponent, and that your life bar technically serves as a timer, although the amount of time you start with is so generous you'd almost have to try to run out. Edgeworth also sometimes gets the option to 'wait and see', i.e, give his opponent a very pointed look and say nothing until they blurt something else out.

True to form, the mechanics of the game play accurately reflect the characterization in the visual novel segments. Larry shows up once, because of course he does (not a spoiler -- neither Phoenix nor Edgeworth are lucky enough to go five consecutive murder cases without tripping over their old pal), and you win one round of Logic Chess with him by flat asking "What were you doing here?", then crossing your arms and glaring for four consecutive turns while he babbles.

(More on Logic Chess down in the spoilerrific section.)

The Logic thing still pleases me. I find it a very accurate representation of how I actually figure stuff out. You have a field of semi-random facts, and you start just taking one and seeing if it has anything in common with the others. Get it right, and Edgeworth has an epiphany. Often it's just a couple of things at a time, but I seem to recall that at the end of the last game Edgeworth ends up collecting about a dozen observations together and then in three lightning rounds of fact-collision reduces them all the way down to the one answer he needs to solve the case.

I would also note that it is possible to brute-force both Logic and Logic Chess, which is why I like them a lot better than the Perception system in Apollo Justice. Ace Attorney games are remarkably good at avoiding moon logic puzzles, considering how surreal the setting can get, but it's still possible to get stuck. When you're working with Evidence in the court scenes, with Psych Locks (Phoenix) or with Logic/Logic Chess (Edgeworth), if you really can't figure out what the engine wants to open up the rest of the dialogue tree, you can usually break it with meta-gaming and figuring out where the lie is and what widget it wants you to bring up to disprove it, even if the reasoning isn't clear. (The following dialogue will usually explain it pretty well.) If it's absolutely necessary, you can just sit there and press every statement, present every piece of evidence, or try every conversation option until you hit the trigger, reloading whenever you run out of life bar to lose. You can't do that with Apollo's Perception; his whole schtick is that he can pick out liars even when their stories hang together, which means there's often nothing in the text to tell you which statement he's supposed to break, and the actual trigger is pretty much a game of hunt-the-twitchy-pixel.

(Yeah, I FAQed my way through Apollo Justice. Still took a ridiculously long time. I even do roughly equivalent lie-detector-y things in real life, and I had no idea what the hell the game engine wanted from me.)

Logic Chess is breakable by brute-forcing the conversation tree, although it would take you a boringly long while -- a nice balance between motivating you to figure it out properly and giving you a way to just smash buttons until the plot started up again.

(Spoilery things below.)