Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Cat on the Prowl

Since having a picture of your cat on your blog is the thing to do these days, I figured I'd jump on the bandwagon.

Our cat is named Cat.

That's not so surprising, since we tend to name our neighbors according to what's most memorable about them. At an apartment we lived at, there was Bird Lady (she had a really noisy bird), and Smoker Lady, etc. So our cat is named Cat.

Cat started out as a stray, hanging out in our yard and climbing our trees. Lisa put the time into making friends with her, and before you know it Cat's spending the days curled up on a chair in my office. We weren't sure we wanted another cat so soon after my childhood cat (Ziggy) had died, so we put Cat out at night, thinking that would keep her from getting too attached in case we decided against having another cat.

We finally decided that, no matter what we did about keeping or not keeping her, that we needed to have her spayed. Our neighborhood has a stray cat problem (due in part to, you guessed it, the Cat Lady), so we didn't want Cat to contribute to it. Well, after the operation, Cat needed to stay inside for a week or so. She took to our home like it was her own. In cat terms, she probably thought she was just leasing us the home in exchange for food and love.

Since Cat started as a stray, she's always been into being outside. We've gone through several variations on trying to keep her in more than out, especially after one of the other strays beat her up pretty badly. We finally ended up with letting her out when we were there to supervise, so we could chase the other strays out of the yard.

Then Lisa and I had a baby, and all of a sudden we have less time for supervising Cat, and she takes the opportunity to be out more and more. So we're back to having a stray Cat eat and sleep here, but otherwise she's enjoying being outside unsupervised for most of the time.

Curious how things come full circle.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Roleplaying with Kids: Shadows, by Zak Arntson

I'd posted earlier about live roleplaying with kids, and I've just started looking into systems for tabletop roleplaying with kids. My daughter is just about six months old now, so I have some time before she'll be ready, but I'm pretty excited about the idea.

I found a great system called Shadows that looks like it'll work great with kids. The basic idea is that each person has a good side and a bad side (the shadow). The good side wants to do good, and the bad side wants to cause trouble. So whenenver a character wants to do something in the game, the player has to say what the character wants to have happen, and what the character's shadow wants to have happen. They roll a six sided die for the good side and a six sided die for the shadow, and the highest roll tells you which side won.

Shadows allows a lot of player input into the story. For example, if a character hears a noise in the fireplace and goes to investigate, their good side outcome could be, "Santa appears", and their shadow's outcome could be, "Evil elves appear and steal the presents". From that point on, whichever outcome happens will affect the ongoing storyline.

While that might be a bit odd for people used to more traditional roleplaying games (e.g. Call of Cthulhu, D&D), it's great for kids because it encourages them to be creative and to think about the possible outcomes of decisions. Wonderful stuff!

You can find Shadows available for free at http://www.harlekin-maus.com/games/shadows/shadows.html.

If you're into roleplaying with kids, I also highly recommend the Kids RPG mailing list, at http://www.samchupp.com/kids-rpg.html. Lots of people there with great advice for introducing kids to roleplaying.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Video Games

Okay, I know this is my third post today. You'd think I would have better things to do with my time than inundate my blog with posts.

But I just ran into this site, and thought other people who have played video games in their past would enjoy it. The site is http://www.twingalaxies.com/, and it's a collection of high scores for pretty much every video game ever made.

Think you were pretty hot stuff in Donkey Kong when you were a teenager? Go to Twin Galaxies, and see what the real high score is!


We had a great Thanksgiving here.

We spent the day at home, not traveling. Normally we would drive about an hour and a half to be with one side of Lisa's family during Thanksgiving, but this year we decided to spend the holidays at home. Amelia's just about six months old, and not doing too well at long distance traveling yet, so we decided to have a peaceful holiday season, instead of a frustrating one.

We pretty much ate and napped all day...well, Amelia and I napped, while Lisa took the opportunity to watch some movies. We'd bought a turkey breast that was off the bone and precooked, so it only took about an hour to heat it through. It was tasty! And much more convenient than working with the full turkey, plus we still have leftovers.

We did not watch any sports today. I'll risk universal derision (well, at least Columbus-wide derision) by saying that we are not fans of the local college team, the Buckeyes. In fact, we don't care much for televised sports of any sort (okay, I think we're up to nationwide derision).

So we avoided watching any sports, and instead managed to work in some time playing cards. Amelia hasn't quite worked out the rules of the card game yet (Kings on the Corner), but she likes the feel and taste of the cards. I need to see if there are kid friendly cards out there, otherwise our current deck is going to look like it's been through the wash.

All in all, a great relaxing day. Just what we all needed! I hope everyone else had exactly what they needed out of their day.

A Wearable Video Camera

Some of you may remember that I have a new daughter, and a new digital camera.

That's a recipe for needing a lot more hard drive space in my next computer. But I didn't realize how much space I'd need until I started playing with the video mode on the camera.

Anyway, taking videos of my daughter is fun, and we like looking at them later. They'll be a great way for her to see what she was like when she was young. But, all our videos are pretty much setup pieces, since we need to have the camera ready and be prepared. And the person taking the video often doesn't get to enjoy what's happening until they watch the video.

So I did some web searching, and found a wearable video camera that allows "after the fact" recording (http://www.mydejaview.com/ ). The basic idea is that it is continuously recording on a 30 second loop. When you see something that you'd like to record, you take 10 to 20 seconds to enjoy what's happening, and then hit the button to record the last 30 seconds of the loop. The best part is, the camera is wearable (they have mounts for a hat or on glasses), so you always have it with you.

After having experimented with a non-wearable camera, this sounds like a great idea. Granted, if you're out in public people will probably wonder why you have a camera stuck to the side of your glasses, but at least you'll be able to capture whatever happens.

They have another version that allows continuous recording, but doesn't seem to allow the after the fact recording. So you either get an event in interesting 30 second chunks, or you get the entire event and have to edit it down. I'd love a version that allowed both continuous recording and 30 second chunks...or even better, one that recorded on a 30 second loop, so that you could start your continuous recording 30 seconds in the past.

I think I'll wait to purchase one of these until my daughter is a bit older. Maybe they'll have come out with the super deluxe version by then.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Writing Computer Games

I recently came across a cool programming contest for female college students (details available at http://g4g.cs.uiuc.edu/ ).

Of course, I encouraged all my students to get involved, and almost invariably they said something like, "Programming a game is too hard!"

So I took a close look at the software used by this contest, and I must say I'm extremely impressed. Game Maker was written by Mark Overmars, and was designed to allow non-programmers to make games. Game Maker succeeds at this task by handling all the fiddly bits like drawing graphics smoothly and detecting collisions for you, while you just say what happens as a result of the collision. You can find Game Maker at http://www.gamemaker.nl

The best praise I can give Game Maker is that, if I were to design a game programming tool to make game programming easier, I would have done it exactly like Mark did. I don't often find programs designed so well.

So, if you are a female college student, and think game programming is too hard, do take a look at the Game Maker tutorials (available at http://www.gamemaker.nl/tutorial.html ). You'll find it's a lot easier than you think!

Friday, November 18, 2005

Commuting to Work

I drive about an hour and fifteen minutes one way to work, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

Now, I know there are some of you out there driving longer distances, and doing it every day besides. But I'm a person who has always made it a point to live within walking distance of work, or at least within bicycling distance. Driving for long periods other than for pleasure driving on vacations is not my idea of a good time. I end up exhausted by the end of the day, and on the drive home tend to zone out, something that doesn't seem like a good idea in heavy traffic.

I took the job because it was too good an opportunity not to take. I'd been looking for a full-time teaching position for a while, and this was a one-year contract as a sabbatical replacement. That turned into another one-year contract to replace someone else. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it'll turn into something permanent enough to warrant moving closer to the college. Even without that, the experience looks good on my resume when looking for similar positions elsewhere.

When I first took the job, our two cars were a Renault Encore, and a GMC Jimmy. Both had the quality I like most in a car, they were paid off. :-) But neither one was in any shape for regular long distance driving, and the last thing I wanted was to be stuck on the side of the road either on my way to work or my way home.

So we went car shopping.

I hate car shopping. There are far too many choices out there, and everyone wants you to buy theirs immediately, and negotiating is expected. Luckily, we had a couple of criteria to narrow down the choices: first, the car had to be comfortable for me, and second, it had to be good on gas mileage.

Comfort was important, since I was going to be in the car for long periods of time. Unfortunately, I discovered that most of what the automobile industry considers comfortable (such as lumbar support) was hideously uncomfortable for me. I actually had to start looking for cars that got bad comfort ratings online in order to find seats that I could stand.

Gas mileage was important, not only because we're environmentally conscious, but because I'd be filling up the tank quite a bit. At the time we hadn't known that gas prices would rise quite so high, but fuel cost was still an issue. We looked at the Honda Civic Hybrid...in fact, we took it for about an hour's test drive to see how comfortable it was, and to see what the gas mileage really ended up being. Comfort-wise it wasn't bad...a bit too much support for my tastes, but adjustable enough to be okay. Mileage-wise, we averaged 45 miles per gallon for the hour, which was pretty darn good. The price tag on it was a bit steep, though, about $22K at the time.

That was more than we could comfortably pay cash for, even assuming the cash discount we could negotiate. We'd been debt-free (e.g. no mortgage, no car payments, no credit card balance, no loans) for some years, and had no interest in getting into car payments. So we went looking for cheaper alternatives. We test drove a lot of cars, and almost without exception they failed the comfort requirement. I'm not sure who does research on what sorts of comfort gizmos drivers need, but they clearly aren't using anyone like me as a subject.

We finally ended up at a Saturn dealership. We tried there for two main reasons: first, I'd seen that the Saturn Ion was rated low on comfort in an online review, and we'd heard several independent stories about people driving their Saturns past 200,000 miles. I would be putting quite a few miles on the car, and wanted one that would last. We test drove a new Saturn Ion, and finally found a seat that was comfortable for me, by virtue of not having any of the fancy ergonomic adjustments. We also liked the engineering of the car, the electric power steering was very nice (on a trip with the new car, we actually drove about 500 miles with an almost flat tire without realizing it, because the power steering compensated for it), and the dent and rust resistant side panels were also a good idea.

Unfortunately, the new Ion was also a bit out of our price range. I needed cruise control, since if I'm in charge of the speed constantly I usually end up quite a bit above the speed limit. I'd be driving enough that speeding tickets were not something I wanted to risk. To get cruise control we needed to get an extra package on the Ion, which put the price out of our comfort zone. Luckily, we found a used Ion on the same lot that had the package I wanted, and only had about 10,000 miles on it (it had been used by a rental agency).

Here's another trick to car buying...if you are buying a used car, look for cars that do not hold their value. That means you'll get the used car for a lot less than you might otherwise. For some reason Saturns don't hold their value well in the used car business, so we got about a $5K discount in exchange for 10,000 miles.

We've had the Saturn for about a year and a half now, and I've put another 30,000 miles on it. We haven't had any real problems with it. There was a glitch with the blinker which ended up being a capacitor that needed replaced, but other than that it's been a great traveling car. We've even used it for some long distance vacations instead of renting a car, and it's performed wonderfully for us.

As a side benefit, when we bought the car we noticed it came with all these child safety features. We weren't too excited about that, since we didn't have children and weren't planning on children anytime soon. Well, two months later we discovered we were going to have our first child the next summer.

Everything does tend to work out for the best.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Call of Cthulhu

Call of Cthulhu is an interesting tabletop roleplaying game.

For anyone who hasn't played a tabletop roleplaying game before, I'll contrast it with live roleplaying, described in a previous post. If live roleplaying is like improvisational acting, tabletop roleplaying is like improvisational storytelling. With dice used now and then to provide some unpredictability to the story.

Anyway, Call of Cthulhu is a horror roleplaying game. It's specifically inspired by the writings of H.P. Lovecraft. If you haven't read any Lovecraft, he basically dealt with "Things Man Was Not Meant To Know"...most of his characters went insane, died, or both after getting glimpses of these Things. Pretty depressing stuff, if you really think about it.

Surprisingly enough, a roleplaying game based on this sort of dark horror is terrific fun. Most people play their first couple of games pretty protectively, not wanting their character to go insane or die, but after a while they start to realize that half the fun is seeing the ways in which the characters can go insane, and the creative ways to die. The best Call of Cthulhu character has some sort of personality quirk that can be turned into a fun insanity.

The tendency toward insanity is built into Call of Cthulhu characters. Every character starts with a certain number of sanity points. Every time the character sees something that is outside their world view, each time they get a glimpse into how the universe really works, they can potentially lose sanity. Each point of sanity lost makes it harder to avoid losing sanity the next time, leading to a downward spiral.

Call of Cthulhu is also attractive because characters start out knowing nothing about the way the universe really works (namely that humans are insignificant, and would do well to avoid the attention of the beings who really do have power). It's only through the course of the adventure that they start to learn more about what's happening. It plays a lot like an old B horror movie.

We've been playing Call of Cthulhu lately, a bunch of one-shots (individual adventures that aren't related and all use different characters). In the first couple of adventures, the characters managed to defeat the evil and the survivors remained relatively sane (a side effect of insanity in Call of Cthulhu is that your insanity usually makes you more likely to die...for example, the police detective who went insane in one adventure decided that the monsters they were being chased by needed to be arrested and detained for questioning).

Our last adventure, though, had a more Lovecraftian end to it. The characters thought they'd defeated the evil, and attempted to resume normal lives (well, as normal as you can get with two of the survivors being insane), only to discover that the evil still haunted them for the rest of their lives. On the bright side, they'd managed to also avoid opening a portal for an invasion of the Earth by monsters.

If you have roleplayed before, but not tried Call of Cthulhu, I strongly recommend you give it a try. If you haven't roleplayed before, Call of Cthulhu is actually a reasonable first game to try, assuming that you get someone to run the game who is familiar with it. You might try your local game shops...they typically have boards where game masters (GMs) advertise for players. Players could also use those boards to advertise for GMs running particular games.

Have fun going insane!

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Fun With Digital Cameras

I've been using a digital camera for about a year and a half, and loving every minute of it.

I've always been attracted to photography, but the lack of immediate feedback kept me from really getting involved. A digital camera's ability to show you what you just took has helped me to get a feel for elements of composition and lighting, much more effectively than what I could with a long delay between taking the picture and seeing it developed.

When I bought a digital camera, I spend about $500 for a Canon PowerShot S1 IS. I just checked, and they're down to about $300 now. I'd call it a high-end beginner's camera...it's got a great 10x optical zoom, with a digital zoom on top of that, all with image stabilization technology that gives you a fighting chance of getting a clear picture at maximum zoom. Can you tell I love my camera?

The downside is that it focuses poorly in low light...but it has a manual focus mode that you can use in situations like that, or when taking multiple pictures of a stationary subject, or when trying to catch a quick moving subject. If it had a low-light mode for night photography, I'd probably be in heaven. The sepia-mode is great fun for taking old-fashioned looking photos.

Lately, I've been playing with the video aspect of the camera, taking videos of my daughter. It works remarkably well, considering that it's a digital camera, not a camcorder. The price of high capacity compact flash cards will need to come down quite a bit before I start taking long videos, though. A 512MB card can hold about five minutes of video...I've been eyeing some 8GB cards (about 40 minutes of video), but they're still priced way too high for me (around $600...that's what I spent for the camera!) Plus, video really eats up hard drive space on your PC to store them long-term. Guess it's about time to build that new computer with a couple of 500GB hard drives.

Before buying the camera I spent a long time reading user reviews, and discovered one thing...there's always someone who isn't happy with a product! Ultimately, I made my decision based on the image stabilization feature, something that, at the time, was only found on higher end cameras. I've been very happy with the entire camera, though, and would highly recommend it to anyone looking for a (now) inexpensive camera with plenty of features.

Eventually I'll get around to uploading some examples of my photography.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Live Roleplaying with Kids

A local school had a camp to get kids more interested in outdoor activities lately, and I got to participate. The camp organizers had contacted some friends, who participate in live roleplaying with me, and asked them to do a live roleplaying game for the kids. Apparently last year the kids started sword fighting with their marshmallow sticks, so this year they decided they needed an outlet for all that energy.

Quick intro to live roleplaying: take on a fictional character, and pretend to be that character and accomplish that character's goals. If you do this alone, you're called crazy, but if you do it with a group of friends who are all doing the same thing, that's live roleplaying. ;-)

So anyway, we had 26 kids, all between the ages of eleven and thirteen. They all took on the characters of people from a fantasy world (think Lord of the Rings), and were asked by elves to help return a sacred artifact that had been stolen from them. Friday night, they did a wonderful introduction to the game, where the elves used their magic to show them a flashback to the theft. I played the thief, and we'd used some flash powder to have the thief make a dramatic exit after stealing the artifact.

The kids loved the preview, and were talking about the game the rest of the night and the next morning. After lunch, the kids went out into the camp "in character" (pretending to be their fictional alter egos), searching for the thief. We'd scattered various clues around, including a scrap of the thief's shirt, footprints, and the thief's campsite, along with some non-thief related encounters, such as potion sellers and a monster in the woods.

Since the camp didn't want the kids swinging foam swords, pretty much every character was a wizard, so the kids had no trouble conquering the monster and getting his cache of dragon's eggs. While some of the kids were doing that, I played the Riddle Master, a monk searching for wisdom. So he'd ask the kids riddles before agreeing to help them. A successful answer to a riddle gained them the choice between information (basically, the way to the thief's camp), or treasure (more dragon's eggs, and a variety of magical items that would help them on their quest).

I'd prepared five riddles, figuring that'd be more than enough. I could have used three times that many! The first group of kids that came by got the riddle, "You are in a cold house. You have a match. There is a candle and a stove. Which do you light first?" They answered candle, and were sent on their way without information or treasure. The next kid had apparently talked to the first group, because upon being asked, "I appear in every minute, twice in a moment, but only once in a million years. What am I?", he answered "Stove!" The look on his face as he realized I'd changed the riddle was wonderful!

Another group of girls was fun...they were having trouble with their riddle, and were whispering about casting a spell on me to make me reveal what I knew, and had even come up with a strategy to combine their powers (by crossing their stick wands) so I wouldn't be able to resist. It was a wonderful idea, and I'd decided to let them do it, when they lost their nerve and asked for a hint to the riddle instead.

Since most of the kids were wizards, pretty much every encounter between groups of kids started out with them trying to paralyze each other, as a sort of aggressive defense. They were clearly having a lot of fun, even though they'd not been able to find the thief. Although, one girl was convinced that the Riddle Master was the thief disguised, since I was playing both characters.

Close to the end of the time for the game, the Riddle Master left the woods and the thief returned to his camp site. I'd intended to get a group of kids chasing me, but ran into a lone kid who'd been separated from his group. I at least made him chase me down...he tried casting a spell on me, but we'd decided it would be more interesting if the elvish artifact made the thief immune to human magics.

I tried bluffing my way through, and actually got about a hundred feet past him before he decided that I was the thief. He eventually caught me, and took me back to the elves.

The experience was great fun for me, as well as the kids. It really made me excited for when my daughter (now five months old) would be old enough to participate in games like that. In the meantime, I'll continue to help with events like this.

For anyone else who likes playing roleplaying games with kids, there's a great mailing list devoted to the topic, at http://www.samchupp.com/kids-rpg.html . Sign up and share your experiences with the rest of us!


Welcome to my personal blog.

This is a place where I'll put random thoughts and news from my life. As my interests include computer programming, computer gaming, roleplaying games, board games (okay, pretty much any sort of game), bicycling, teaching, reading, rock climbing, etc, etc, you can expect to see posts on pretty much any topic (although I tend to avoid politics, except around election time). My views on personal growth have been posted elsewhere, but you'll probably see them crop up here, too.

I'll avoid incriminating anyone else, but I'll try to be honest and open about what's happening in my life and my mind.

Hope you enjoy!