Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Monday, November 24, 2014

Notes from the Mad Science Lab: Bulletproof Squirrels

On the way home from dinner last night -- in a perfectly ordinary car, after eating at a perfectly ordinary restaurant; one must keep up appearances, after all -- we found a squirrel in the road. It had obviously been struck by a car, but it hadn't been killed outright. Instead, it was sort of dazed and staggering around.

My son is now twelve, and I fear he has grown a bit... sensitive. He asked me to save the poor beast. It was easy enough that I didn't mind indulging him, so I pulled a Collector from the trunk and sent it scuttling over on its spidery robotic legs. It unfolded its collecting unit, boxed the the squirrel up, and brought it back. Naturally, when we reached the house, my son took possession of the beast and carried it down to the secret lab.

I had meant to oversee his work, but my assistant, Cara stopped me on the way in. Apparently the Crypto-Zookeeper was having trouble with some sort of fungal outbreak. It didn't turn out to be terribly difficult to resolve, but these things do have a way of getting out of hand if you don't deal with them immediately. So it wasn't until a bit later that I was able to catch up with my son.

The squirrel had not only survived its experience, it was moving around and chittering quietly in a brand-new cage at one end of the Mortal Sciences Laboratory. My son was happy to see the beast restored to life, awareness, and energy; and for my part, I was pleased by the sophistication of the repairs he had made to it. Cybernetic limbs are tricky to manage on a human scale; for something the size of a squirrel, it requires a precisely calculated design, and delicate touch during the augmentation. He'd managed it, though: a tiny metal foreleg, fully articulated and under the beast's control (through a liquid crystal neural interface, he tells me; not terribly novel, but there's something to be said for using a classic approach, and the small scale was still impressive). He'd also reinforced the spine, using a nano-mesh sheath to hold everything together without any loss of flexibility.

I asked him why he hadn't gone for a full cybernetic conversion, and he said: "Well, then it wouldn't be cute and fluffy anymore." Definitely sensitive. He added some additional reasons, though: in its current condition, it could still live on its regular diet, it wouldn't have to re-learn balance and movement, and the odds of it going completely insane and trying to kill us were much lower. And I must admit, those are all valid points. It's just that I'm quite certain that for my son they ranked considerably lower than "cute and fluffy".

This would all be nothing more than an amusing anecdote, another milestone in my son's development that I could chuckle over with my colleagues and perhaps even share with the boy's mother, except... Well, one of the neighbors stopped me yesterday. (I was collecting the mail, and she was walking her dog.) She asked me if I'd been having any trouble with, yes, squirrels. I explained that I had not, and asked after what sorts of troubles she had in mind. She told me that a squirrel had chewed its way into her attic, but apparently she was far from the only one having difficulty with them.

Our neighborhood, it seems, has been infested with a new and hardy breed of squirrels. They're every bit as fast and agile as regular squirrels, or close enough; but they've begun to chew through vinyl siding, sheets of tin, and one of those metal no-kill cages that our local Animal Services department loans out to people who need to get rid of pests. One neighbor, a fellow up the street, swears that he ran over one of the animals -- it darted out in front of his car, as squirrels sometimes do -- and it shrugged off the impact, bit clean through the tire, and then zipped up a nearby tree... where it sat and threw acorns at his head (with, apparently, somewhat alarming accuracy) while he tried to change the flat tire.

They aren't hostile (yet), but they're definitely a nuisance. I fear my son has been at it again, and I'll have to ask him what he's done when I get my time with him this weekend.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

You know what? Let's toss up a Bible verse.

Exodus 22:21 - "Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt."

Seems like this one could use a signal boost.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Legal Affairs Department of the United States Treasury...

...Does not exist. Let me just get that out of the way first: there is no such thing as the Legal Affairs Department of the U.S. Treasury.

I mention this because I came home the other night to find a message on our answering machine from a "Sharon Martin", who -- in an accent so palpably thick that I honestly couldn't tell whether it was Indian or Jamaican -- claimed to be representing the Legal Affairs Department of the Treasury, and to be giving notice of a legal action being initiated against {Beautiful Wife's first name}. She then a gave a phone number, and suggested that if we were unable to call ourselves, we should have our attorney call them. It is, in other words, a message that was purpose-built to scare the living &*^% out of people.

Admittedly, it would have been a lot more terrifying if I hadn't had to play it back three times before I could manage to decipher the woman's accent.

Still, since this is the sort of stress that none of us need in our lives - especially at this time of year - and since the scam must work at least some of the time (or else they wouldn't be using it), I'd just like to point out a few warning signs that you should keep in mind if you get a call like this:
1. There's no such thing as the Department of Legal Affairs of the U.S. Treasury. Did I mention that?
2. Even if there were, the Treasury is not responsible for collecting taxes.
3. Legitimate legal notifications do not come from random strangers phoning you up, no matter how stern or authoritative they might sound. The legal system and the federal government are both inordinately fond of paperwork. Calling people up, not so much.
4. Even if you actually owe the government money, they will not demand that you pay it right this minute, or else LEGAL ACTION. No, not even in Obama's America. Despite what some people apparently like to believe, Teh Gummint doesn't work that way. They will have sensible methods to accept payments, which will not involve things like wire transfers or asking for your credit card number.
There seems to be quite a lot of this going around, so be warned and be wary.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

A scam within a scam...

So, every once in a while I'll post a little public-service message about some scam or other. For example: This is a Scam. Usually this is because I've run into the thing myself.

However, every once in a while I'm reminded of one of those older posts because someone... well... comments on them:

Yes. That.

Really.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Nietzche For The New World

"'Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.' Friedrich Nietzsche said that. It's good advice; anyone in the business'll tell you so. But when your best weapons against them are your claws and fangs, when your life depends on cunning and rage, when you barely even know what you're capable of, or whether it's you or the power in control, well... Freddy, old boy, that's easier said than done."

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Beyond These Walls 03b

"That seems... less than completely honorable," said Miledha, when Roberr had finished telling her about the voices he'd heard in the night -- the voices that almost certainly had not been a dream.

Roberr shrugged. "Scouting and even spying are acceptable under a truce. I have some of our men out scouting the enemy -- for all the good that will do us -- and I'm sure they have their own scouts watching us."

Miledha frowned. "What happens if your scouts stumble into their scouts?"

"They look embarrassed and back away," he said. "The terms of a truce forbid fighting, and scouts aren't given the authority to negotiate, so that's really about all they can do. Magic doesn't really change that; they can look, but they can't attack."

Miledha grunted. That seemed like the sort of thing that would only work if everyone followed the same rules, but she didn't say so. People, she'd found, tended to get upset when she pointed out that even their most treasured customs were arbitrary and negotiable. "Well... the Shadir adepts aren't subtle. They probably didn't do anything especially clever; they probably just called up enough power to push through the protections in the walls." She paused, thinking. "That's probably why it woke you up, and why you could hear them. If I'd done it, you'd never have known I was listening."

Miledha had a brief moment to realize that she probably shouldn't have said that she could spy on Roberr; that was exactly the sort of thing that nobles tended to find threatening, but the words had come out before she could stop them. That's what I get for thinking out loud, she thought.

Roberr didn't react to that, though. Instead, he frowned thoughtfully. "You could spy on the Westerners without their knowing it?"

He wants them as much as I do, she realized, and found herself unaccountably relieved. And he trusts me, at least a little.

"Yes," she said. "I know, because I have." She paused, then added: "Not today, though. I'm setting traps along the road."

He chuckled. After a moment, he said: "I'll leave you to it. I assume if you knew any way to stop them from looking in on me, you'd have said so already."

"That's... true. Unfortunately."

He wasn't bothered by the knowledge that her arts had limits, either. "Take care, then. If we haven't heard back from Boeringen by tonight..."

She nodded. "I'll be ready."

Monday, November 17, 2014

We may have to try this daycare...

Okay, so, Secondborn is perfectly happy where he is, but... well, after watching this, I'm wondering if Happy Dreams Daycare might not be a better fit, you know?

Friday, November 14, 2014

Recommendation: A Colder War

I've still got nothin' for today (though I have now had an extremely spicy lunch, so at least I can breathe through my nose again). Instead, why don't you take a look at what the Cold War might have been like... if cosmic horrors still lurked in the dark corners of our world. A Colder War by Charles Stross - go read it.

Blah.

So, Firstborn woke us up at about 3:30 this morning, with a 102.something degree fever. On a related note, my sinuses are trying to kill me. For the moment, that's everything I have to say.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Bed That Saved Our Marriage

It's a well-established scientific fact that houses get smaller the longer you live in them. This is particularly true if you're the sort of people who collect books and movies, and it's doubly true if you buy the house and then have children. After eight years and two kids, we were running out of room.

The traditional, all-American answer to this sort of problem is to move to a bigger house. So we loaded a lot of our stuff into a storage unit, threw out a lot of other stuff, and started trying to get our house cleaned and ready to sell.

Unfortunately, owing to combination of the local housing market, our work schedules, and the fact that small children can un-clean things much, much faster than anybody can possibly clean them, well... Moving didn't work for us. After a year of minimal progress and increasing frustration, my beautiful wife and I hit a tipping point: this wasn't working, and we needed to do something else. Specifically, we needed to make our current house livable -- not in terms of cleanliness or structural integrity, but in terms of having enough space and having our spaces arranged in ways that we could really use and enjoy.

One of the big obstacles to this was the master bedroom. There were two major problems there. First, because of the way the room was laid out, there was essentially no way to have a bed in there that didn't block off a big chunk of the room. Second, the bed that was there... had been taken over by our two elderly cats... who shed. A lot. As a result, we didn't use that room much, and that made our house even smaller than it actually was.

In order to get that space back, we needed a bed that:
A) Could be positioned in a way that didn't intrude on the rest of the room, and
B) The cats couldn't frolic on, and
C) Would fit in a room with an eight foot ceiling, which isn't all that high.

This is where Francis Lofts & Bunks came in. They build bunk beds (or, in our case, loft beds) for grown-ups. Real grown-ups. Heavy grown-ups. And they make them in grown-up sizes: ours is a queen. Even better, you can specify the ceiling height that your bed will fit under. And you can add other nifty options as well.

The bed we ordered was a queen loft for an eight-foot ceiling. In addition to the side rail that comes with the bed by default, we added a second side rail and another guard rail for the foot of the bed. Then we added the "bookshelf" option, which goes at the head of the bed. Then we paid our money, and waited for it to arrive.

We placed the order in late June. If memory serves, the bed actually arrived in late July. We assembled it immediately. Since it's now November, we've been using it for roughly the last four months. So, with that in mind, here's my review:

The Good: Almost everything. My beautiful wife and I were able to assemble the bed the evening that it arrived. The instructions were complete and thorough. The design uses exactly the same type of screw for everything, with the exception of (I think) the rail mounts... which are exactly the same width of screw, but slightly longer. The only reason we needed more than one hex wrench was so that both of us could tighten things at the same time.

Once assembled, the bed fit our needs perfectly. It's just the right height for our low ceilings. (Did I mention we have low ceilings?) It's frighteningly sturdy -- not only is the weight limit something like 2000 pounds, it doesn't move. I roll over, it doesn't move. I climb up the ladder and drop onto the mattress in a discombobulated heap of exhausted flesh, and it doesn't move. I swear, if we're ever caught in an earthquake, I am hiding under that bed. It's the strongest, most stable thing in the whole house. My beautiful wife has set up a little office-and-relaxation area under it, so that's more space that we get to use. The cats can't get up the ladder -- so far -- so the sheets aren't dirty mere minutes after we put them on. There's enough room on top of the bed to sit up or move around, and shelf makes a nice spot for alarm clocks, books, a flashlight, and a box of Kleenex.

It's also a very good-looking piece of furniture. We went with the black coloration, and it's... sleek. It's built of aluminum, so despite its stability there's nothing bulky or oversized about it. We haven't managed to get anything messy on it, but I think you could clean just about anything off it using just a washcloth and some warm water. The shelf at the head of the bed is basically just a shaped sheet of aluminum, but it works. It even has a small hole in the center, in case you want to run an electric cord up to (or down from) the lower shelf.

The Bad: The delivery was "curb-side service". To be clear (and fair), this was explained during the ordering process. That said, what happened was that the delivery trucked pulled up, set the entire collection of boxes in the street next to the curb, and squealed away -- probably with a cartoonish curl of smoke from the tires. Fortunately, one of the neighbors helped my beautiful (and strong) wife carry the boxes into the house.

Second, the instructions (while complete and thorough, as I said already) were a little less obvious than they could have been. Admittedly, if I'd sat down and read all the way through them before we started the project, I would have avoided a couple of "Oops, back up, we need to rearrange this" moments. (We were both in a hurry to start using the new bed, though, so we leapt straight into the assembly phase of the project.)

Third, while I think it could be assembled by a single person (given a certain amount of planning and patience), it's definitely a two-person job, and there are points where having a third person probably would have helped. That isn't so much a complaint as a consideration, though, since I can't think of any decent-sized piece of furniture that's actually, y'know, easy for one person to assemble alone.

Finally, the book shelf doesn't have sides. (Again, this is perfectly clear from the Francis Bunks site, if you even glance at the pictures before you order.) So if you're actually going to keep a row of books on them, you'll want book ends. Yes, this is the only other thing I can think of that might sort of vaguely qualify as a complaint, hypothetically. I'm just going to point out that since both my beautiful wife and I mostly read on our Kindles, it hasn't been an issue at all.

The Ugly: Nothing. Not a thing. The bed looks nice, works beautifully, and has gone a long way towards giving us back the master bedroom (probably a full fifth of our house). No, it isn't the only thing we've done, but it's been a huge part of the process. It might not have actually saved our marriage... but then again, it might have.

As far as I can see, the only potential problem is that with the cats gone, the boys may try to take over the bed:

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Fun, Random Dreams

I'm still not getting as much sleep as I should be - not as much as I need, I think.

So, yeah: I was at a sort of resort, and there was a girl, and we went swimming. I don't think there was anything romantic involved, though I wasn't married (or quite as old as I actually am) in the dream. Anyway, there was a lake outside of the resort, so we went down to the beach and went swimming.

I've dreamed about this resort before. It isn't quite the same - sometimes the resort buildings are the elaborate part, sometimes it's the lake itself with all its little islands, and in this case it was actually the little town on the far shore. (There weren't any docks this time around, and it was possible to swim all the way across, so maybe it wasn't the same resort... but it felt like the same resort.)

The town on the far shore was actually in another country; the lake was, I guess, on the border between two countries. I remember thinking that that was probably how the resort defended itself against accusations of helping people escape the country: it was such an obvious escape route that nobody would use it.

Anyway, we swam across, and sure enough there was a little customs office on the shore. (Though it was closed at that time of night - did I mention we were swimming at night?) So the next thing I know, I'm wandering around town looking for a place to put on dry clothes, and talking to a pair of older women who were trying to fix up their farm after a freeze had cracked the well. By this point, I'm pretty sure that at least one of them was the aunt of the girl I was with. There was going to be a festival the next day, and they were trying to get ready for that, too, but they were very nice to me.

That's when my alarm went off.

I don't think there was any particular point to the dream, but it's a nice setting and I'll have to work it into something, someday.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Veteran's Day, it seems...

...Let's have poetry to mark the occasion.
Warning: this is all going to be very, very depressing.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Beyond These Walls 02b

Roberr had just reached the porch when Miledha emerged from the barracks. The courtyard was still dark, but the first light of dawn was just touching the high corner towers of the inner keep. The morning shift of guards had gathered in front of Shift-Captain Dorell, not quite in formal rows but not quite a disordered mob, either.

He couldn't think of a clever greeting, so he just spoke her name: "Miledha."

She yawned. "These guards of yours get up early," she said.

Roberr grinned. "You look like one of them," he said. "Except for the hair. And a sword-belt, you'd need a sword-belt."

"Not for me," she said. "Though I was going out to help them."

"Oh?" He wasn't sure what he'd expected Miledha to be doing, but helping with the earthworks definitely wasn't it.

"Traps," she said, "along the road."

"Ah." That made more sense. "Good plan." He paused, considering, then said: "Can you set them so they won't respond to small groups? If the Shadir send another messenger..."

Miledha blinked and tilted her head. "Yes, that would be a problem..." She trailed off, then nodded to herself. "It'll be more difficult, but yes: I can do it."

Roberr grinned again. "I'll look forward to seeing the results. First, though, I need your help with something..."

Sunday, November 9, 2014

NaNoWriFAIL Addendum

So, it turns out that my writing speed increases drastically when I'm not being asked about Lego Star Wars, getting ice water with a straw and a lid, or being assaulted with toy lightsabers. This should surprise exactly nobody.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

NaNoWriFAIL

I'm not participating in NaNoWriMo, mainly because there's no way I can do that which wouldn't result in my entire family turning feral and scavenging through the neighborhood for food and clean clothing, before returning to the foul nest that our house had become.

But, if I were participating, here's what my numbers would look like:
Total time spent writing: Two Hours, Forty-Five Minutes.
Total Writing Accomplished: A section title and four paragraphs, totaling 249 words.
Seriously, it has taken me over two hours to produce four paragraphs.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Sartorial Speed of Sheep

"Okay, Firstborn," I said, "You need to get dressed."

"He's already wearing shorts and a shirt," my wife pointed out. She was right; he was sitting on the floor of his room, wearing shorts and a shirt, and playing with his Minecraft toys.

"Yes," I said, "but those are the same clothes he was wearing at school yesterday... and while he was helping my change your tire last night. He needs something clean." (Last night was a bit... busy.)

"Oh," said the Beautiful Woman.

"Change your clothes, Firstborn," I finished. I waited for a few moments, then added: "Did you hear me?"

Firstborn reached for the Minecraft sheep figurine and picked it up.

My wife reiterated: "Firstborn, did you hear your--"

"Oka-a-a-a-a-y" baa-ed the sheep.

I blinked. "Child, if I get out of the shower and find that the sheep is dressed for school and you aren't... rocks fall, everybody dies."

I swear, the things I never could have imagined myself saying before I became a parent...

Fortunately, both the sheep and Firstborn himself were dressed and ready to go when I got out of the shower.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Great Weapons: Beyond These Walls 01b

This replaces the original opening for Beyond These Walls (which is Chapter 2 of The Great Weapons -- which is, obviously, a working title, because yeah). My basic outline is still intact, it's just a question of getting through this section without A) getting too caught up in details, or B) writing myself into a corner.

Miledha woke early, feeling more rested than she had any right to. The sleeping area at the back of the barracks was broken into small cells, each with four bunks and four lockers. There wasn't room to do much more than sleep, but then there didn't need to be; there was a common room at the front of the building, and a covered porch outside. The older guard, Ishua, had pointed her to an empty bunk, and handed her a blanket. She didn't actually remember closing her eyes.

She pushed her blanket back and swung her legs off the bunk. Across from her, one of the guards -- a girl only a couple of years older than herself -- blinked sleepily and asked, "Are those the only clothes you have?"

Miledha shrugged. "I had a travel pack, but I lost it."

"Ah," said the guard. She turned and opened the locker at the foot of her bed. It was solidly built; all the woodwork here was. "I have some pants, and an extra tunic. You look like you're about my size."

"That's..." Miledha hesitated. She'd been about to refuse, but that was more reflex than sense. Her skirt and blouse needed washing, and the guard's outfit would be more practical if she had to do any sort of running or climbing. "Yes, that would be helpful. Thank you."

The guard smiled. "I'm Kierna."

"Miledha," she replied, and the guard bobbed her head with a quick Oh, I knew that already motion that made her look almost shy.

None of the guards had been at all hesitant about changing their clothes back here, so Miledha stood up between the bunks and stripped off her blouse and her skirt. She pulled the pants up and adjusted the ties so they sat comfortably, then slid the tunic down over her head.

"Not bad," said Kierna, as she buckled her sword-belt on over her tunic. "Why don't you hold onto those? I'm not likely to need anything but regulation wear any time soon. And you can leave your own clothes on the bunk. Nobody will touch them."

"...Thank you," said Miledha, again.

Another woman appeared in the doorway: Ishua, the older guard who had led Miledha to the empty bunk. "You ready, Kierna?" she asked. "Shift-Captain wants to say something inspiring before we go out to do make-work."

Kierna nodded. "Yeah, I'll come be inspired."

Miledha felt she should say something, but Ishua had already disappeared down the hall and Kierna was ducking out the door after her. Miledha took another moment to adjust the tunic, then pulled on her boots. She ran a hand through her hair, a mass of black curls that was probably tangled and lopsided after the night's sleep, and wished she had something to tie it back with. Oh, well. If I'm going to be doing witcheries today, at least I'll look the part.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Dad Metal

This is one of those things that's such an incredibly great joke that it really should exist...

Monday, November 3, 2014

So, how's your apocalypse?

I have a writing project[1] that I tend to come back to around this time of year. It has a pretty good opening scene, but I've never made it much past that; I don't know how to tie the rest of it together. But since I don't have anything else this morning, and since that's hovering around the back of my mind, I'm just going to toss it out here as a question: What are you doing as the world ends? Answer as much or as little as you'd like. Fill in whatever details you need - what kind of apocalypse? Who are you? What's happening? Make it as autobiographical or as completely fictional as you'd like.

[1] That's a technical term for "a novel I will never finish".