when i was young

This picture was taken on October 17, 1986. It showed up as a random wallpaper on my computer, and I started thinking about all the details in the photo, and thought to post the picture here and look at them more closely.

compuserve contest

OK, upper left. I don’t remember where I got the DANGER sign … probably from the factory I had quit two years earlier. I’m guessing Robin made me the valentine. Next to the valentine is a Gandalf figurine from/by/? Royal Daulton. My mom gave this to me; she mistakenly thought I was a big Tolkien fan. I don’t know where this thing is today, but I see it sells for around $175 online. Oops, guess I should find it.

Underneath those items, left to right, I see a turntable atop a receiver, then a dual cassette player with a few tapes on top, a cabinet that held vinyl records, and a calendar from Major League Baseball (I think).

There’s Robin, obviously … she had just turned 33, which is how old Sara is now (when this picture was taken, Sara was 8). Then me, also 33, still with hair, and the remnants of the physique I had after ten years of hard labor as a steelworker. I’m not sure from this picture who the person is in the bottom right, but I have another picture from a different angle that would answer that question, if I felt like finding it.

On the wall, upper right, there are a couple of collector’s plates, a collector’s doll, a bare light bulb, and three mementos from my Spanish grandmother: a mixer, a washer, and a dryer (I believe the latter two were salt and pepper shakers). On the wall beneath those items is a San Francisco Giants calendar.

On to the desk. The monitor is a color one made by Commodore. There is a calendar on top of it, probably word-of-the-day, since that’s what Robin usually got me in those days. She still gets them for me every year, although the theme is different at times (this year it’s the Word Origin Calendar, and today’s “word” is “monkey wrench”). There’s a spray bottle of something … I’m guessing screen cleaner.

Ah, the screen. I am pointing at a trivia game. CompuServe had a nationwide trivia contest, and somehow, I made the finals. The event commemorated in this picture is the finals, me against some other guy I didn’t know. The match went into overtime; I lost on a Beatles question, as I recall. I wasn’t working for CompuServe yet, so I was paying to play in this tournament.

You can see floppy discs underneath the Giants calendar. On the bottom right is the printer, dot matrix I’m sure, sitting on a box with paper hidden inside it. I love the “I’M A WRITER” sign. At that time, I was in the second semester of my junior year at Cal, and had probably finally quit taking writing classes from the invaluable Marcy Alancraig. Not sure why I thought I needed the sign … I’ll leave it to you to decide if I ended up being a writer or not.

The books in front of the printer box are a baseball stat book (no Internet stat sites yet), a one-volume encyclopedia (no Wikipedia yet), and an atlas (no Google maps yet). I assume I had them to help with trivia questions, just as I had my friends with me to help, as well.

Finally, there is the gawdawful computer setup. Start with a basic Commodore 64. In the back of the C-64 on the left is the modem … might have been 1200 baud. That white line stretching from the modem to the bottom of the screen is the phone cord … the phone was on the wall on the other side of the room.

The cream-colored rectangular thing behind the C-64 on the right was the floppy disc drive. It wasn’t the right model … for some time after the C-64 came out, there was no disc drive for it, so we bought a drive made for the PET, a Commodore computer that preceded the VIC-20 and C-64. This particular drive wasn’t totally compatible with the C-64. Copy protection didn’t like it (not that we had many protected programs), and it had some trouble communicating with the computer. The flat thing lying between the C-64 and the hard drive was a circuit board (is that the word?) that contained software which allowed us to use the “wrong” drive. The white stripe underneath the board is probably a couple of books of checks … the board had a tendency to sag, which made it work kinda crappy, so we always had to stick something underneath it to prop it up, and checkbooks were just about the right size and shape.

One last note: doesn’t Robin look lovely?


kindle fire, first thoughts

The Kindle Fire is a piece of ideological machinery.

I suppose I should explain what a Kindle Fire is, for those who don’t know. The Kindle is an e-reader from Amazon that is very popular. There are now many models of the Kindle for you to read your books and newspapers on. The Kindle Fire is something like a tablet: it reads books and newspapers, and magazines, and plays music, and shows movies, and plays games, and … well, you get the idea.

I said “something like a tablet” because it’s nonsense to compare it to “real” tablets like the iPad. It doesn’t have a camera, or a microphone, or GPS. This, among other things, is why the Kindle Fire only costs $199, while the iPad 2 goes for $499.

That is the magic number, 199. If it was $299, I wouldn’t have bought it. I don’t really need a tablet, even a crippled one like the Kindle Fire. But $199 makes it an impulse buy.

And so I pre-ordered one, and it arrived Tuesday, which was pretty quick considering Tuesday was originally the release date. I turned it on straight out of the box … it knew my name, it knew what books I had bought for previous Kindles, it knew what songs I’d bought through Amazon along with all the songs I uploaded into the Amazon cloud, it knew what apps I had gotten for my smartphone via the Amazon Market. There is something cool about turning on a machine straight out of the box, and it already knows who you are.

I signed up for a three-month free trial subscription to Wired. When I opened it, there was an animation of curtains opening, and then the cover gradually “drew itself” until it was complete.

I listened to a song, “Alcohol” by Brad Paisley.

I read a chapter from a book, A Woman of Heart by my friend Marcy Alancraig.

I downloaded the Amazon free app of the day, Bejeweled 2, and played it for a bit.

I checked my email, played around a bit on Facebook, looked at my blog.

I watched a movie, Vengeance with Johnny Hallyday. The movie was free as part of my one-month free trial of Amazon Prime.

I probably did some other stuff. Then I went to bed.

So, why is the Kindle Fire an ideological machine? Because, while it allows you to do all of the above, it exists for only one purpose: to get you to spend money at Amazon. The magazine came from the Amazon newsstand. The song was uploaded by me to my Amazon cloud storage, but if I wanted more Brad Paisley, I could buy it from Amazon. The book was from Amazon. The game was from Amazon. The movie was from Amazon.

It took less than a day for hackers to start breaking down the Kindle Fire so it could be used for extra functions, but I’m not much for that (too lazy). Without those hacks, you have a machine that resembles a tablet, except you can’t play outside of the yard Amazon has created for you. It’s like a prison with invisible walls. You think you are free, but you are only free to buy from Amazon.

This isn’t a bad thing for a person like me, who already buys stuff from Amazon. I don’t need most of the things a real tablet offers. I use my computer for most things (I am on it a lot), and I use my smartphone when I’m out of the house. To say that the Kindle Fire is like a crippled iPad misses the point … you know the old line, “you say that as if it was a bad thing.” The Kindle Fire is simple, it does what I want it to do, and does it easily. There are things it doesn’t do, and if I cared about them, I wouldn’t have a Kindle Fire. If you decide to stick a Kindle Fire in a loved one’s xmas stocking because they want a tablet, that loved one will be disappointed.

It’s not a tablet. The Kindle Fire is a media machine that locks you largely into the Amazon world. The ideology of the Kindle Fire is that Amazon will give you what they think you want/need, and you won’t ask for anything Amazon doesn’t give you. (Unless you’re a hacker, or you know how to get the fruits of the hacker’s labor.)

In case it’s not clear, BTW, after two days, I love my Kindle Fire. I could complain … the glare on the screen is bothersome, the screen itself is only 7” (although I’ve gotten used to reading and watching movies on my little smartphone, so the Kindle Fire seems huge to me), and, of course, it is nowhere near being a functional computer on the level of a real tablet like the iPad. But, like real tablet owners, I now have this little machine that lets me read books, listen to music, watch movies, play games, check my email, hang out on Facebook, read magazines and newspapers … you know, the stuff you do on a real tablet … and it cost $199.

One last note: it took me less than 24 hours to start treating the Kindle Fire like just another tool lying around the house. The thrill wore off by the time I woke up Wednesday morning. It’s fun to have around, though.


random hackers, rubio begonias

I trot this out every once in awhile. It’s from 1988:

sportstats

It’s hard to read, I know. It’s a list of the “Champion of Champions” standings from fantasy baseball leagues running on CompuServe. The team with the highest percentage of their league’s possible points was the Champ of Champs. I came in second. More importantly, I won my league, the first time I’d done that.

I also bring this up because I’ve started reading Steven Levy’s fascinating new book about Google, In the Plex. And I was reminded that back in the day, Levy used to play fantasy baseball on CompuServe. That’s him near the bottom of the list of leaders … his team was called the Random Hackers (his invaluable book, Hackers, was written in 1984).


annual boring fantasy baseball post

I know these bore most people, so I don’t bother with much text. I just list my team. This is the 25th year I’ve played fantasy baseball. There were times when I helped run dozens of leagues. Those days are thankfully gone, and the main remnant, outside of some continuing friendships, is that I don’t have the energy for much more than one online league a year. This year, though, I ended up in two, because my daughter called a few hours ago and asked me to be in her league. So I have two teams.

The first was an automated draft. My biggest mistake was that I didn’t set an upper limit for how many outfielders to draft, so I ended up with 9 of them. Only 6 can play at any one time, so I have some trading to do. Here is that team:

  • C:   Jorge Posada
  • 1B: Ryan Howard
  • 2B: Tsuyoshi Nishioka, Mike Aviles
  • 3B: Edwin Encarnacion, Chris Johnson
  • SS: Yunel Escobar
  • OF: Ryan Braun, Carlos Gonzalez, Jayson Werth, Jay Bruce, Chris Young, Nick Markakis, Rajai Davis, Dexter Fowler, Ryan Raburn
  • SP: Dan Haren, Jered Weaver, Javier Vazquez, Jake Peavy
  • RP: Joe Nathan, Jonathan Broxton, Chris Perez, Matt Thornton, Brandon Lyon

Honestly, I don’t think much of this team.

The second team was a live draft. I had about an hour to prepare … maybe that was for the best. They don’t tell you the draft order until the beginning of the draft, and I was placed in the #2 slot. The first guy picked … well, I can’t remember who he picked, but the player’s name wasn’t “Albert Pujols” so my first choice was an easy one. My daughter picked next and grabbed Tim Lincecum. Here is my final roster for that league:

  • C:   Victor Martinez
  • 1B: Albert Pujols
  • 2B: Martin Prado, Brian Roberts
  • 3B: Alex Rodriguez, Mark Reynolds
  • SS: Rafael Furcal, Miguel Tejada
  • OF: Matt Holliday, Jayson Werth, Andre Ethier, Delmon Young, Torii Hunter, Marlon Byrd
  • UT: Omar Infante
  • SP: Josh Johnson, Jered Weaver, Max Scherzer, Ted Lilly, Shaun Marcum
  • RP: Francisco Rodriguez, Matt Thornton, Craig Kimbrel, Joel Hanrahan, Hong-Chih Kuo

I suspect this is a better team than my “real” one.


football manager, the greatest video game ever created

Brian Phillips explains to the rest of the world:

It's clearly the greatest video game ever created. On every page, at every moment, there's something odd or wrong, and yet the hours melt away like you're in an anesthetic sleep. The different phases of the game each seem to light up a different part of your brain, only it's as if the developers realized at some point that the entire human brain can be broken down into Shopping, Name Recognition, and Chess. What makes it feel real is that, within its insanely wide scope, it generates a weird, squabbly, unpredictable world, a world which — unlike in most video games — you have only a limited power to control. You tried pushing your wingers forward to steal a late goal, and the opposing left back shattered your guy's femur? See him in seven months. You want to sign a player, but his agent hates your personality? You are out of luck, forever. The story keeps unspooling and unspooling, and because none of it's scripted, and a lot of it doesn't even involve you, it seems to have its own rules and not to care very much how you feel about them. It's a database, but it wants you to think it's a millionaire.


just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water

The World Cup blog is back in hibernation, which, unfortunately for those of you who hate soccer, means my soccer posts will end up here again.

Many years ago, my sister Chris and I came up with a little friendly competition. We took a player at each position on a baseball team, tossed in a few pitchers, and looked at them after five years to see which of us had done the best job of predicting the future. After five years, we did it again … after five more years, we did it again (that’s the one we’re in the middle of now). I should add that Chris always wins.

Well, Sean, the masterful commenter of the World Cup blog, and I decided to do this for soccer. The format is a bit different, and the rules we concocted were so complicated I won’t bother repeating them here. Suffice to say, we both picked teams in nine separate soccer competitions, and will check back in five years to see who had the best prediction skills.

Here are the competitions, and our choices:

Competition Sean Steven
England Man City Arsenal
Spain Atlético Madrid Sevilla
Italy Roma Fiorentina
Germany Werder Bremen Hamburg
Champions League Bayern Munich Real Madrid
MLS Seattle New York
Mexico Cruz Azul Toluca
World Cup 2014 Brazil Argentina
Wild Card Copenhagen Celtic


2010 rubio begonias

A tough team to create, since I had the last pick in the draft, which meant things like not getting a pick until 9 others had chosen, and getting only 2 picks out of the first 29.

C: Mike Napoli, Buster Posey
1B: Derrick Lee
2B: Ian Kinsler, Howie Kendrick
3B: Ryan Zimmerman, Mark Reynolds, Alex Gordon
SS: Jose Reyes
OF: Grady Sizemore, Jason Heyward, Alfonso Soriano, Nolan Reimold, Conor Jackson, J.D. Drew, Josh Willingham
SP: Tim Lincecum, Ubaldo Jimenez, Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Gavin Floyd
RP: Jonathan Broxton, Carlos Marmol, Chris Perez, Jeremy Affeldt


every year about this time

I went back and perused some past Octobers, and it’s true … every year about this time, I post something about a particular obsession with mine, and each year, I say something about how I post something about this every year about this time.

Sometime on Thursday … I’m guessing around 6 in the evening … I’ll be able to download Football Manager 2010, the latest version of a game I’ve been playing since I was a grad student (which was a long time ago, if you’re keeping score … I played it while I worked on my dissertation, which probably explains why it took me so long to graduate). I’ve written extensively about the game and my relationship to it over the nearly eight years of this blog. Those posts never get any comments, and I don’t expect any for this one. But it’s only fair to point out that I’ll be even more of a hermit for awhile, come Thursday night.

What is Football Manager? One wiki explained it like this:

Football Manager (commonly abbreviated to FM) is a highly addictive drug, similar to heroin, hidden inside a football management simulation game. It was originally designed to provide couples with grounds for divorce, however it has unintentionally become more popular than food.

A couple of things. First, “football” in this case means “soccer.” Second, I’ve never figured out if this is just an urban legend, but stories abound that FM has indeed been cited in divorce proceedings.

Each year I try to offer a tidbit to show just how popular this obsessive game is. This time, I’ll offer up the existence of something called “Tactical Theorems ‘10.” According to the website, this guide has been “Translated into 12 different languages! Distributed to 60+ different countries!” The guide will be available for download at the same time the game itself is released. Last year’s version had 200,000 downloads. For a guide, not even for the game itself.


game theory

Not really … I don’t know much about the actual discipline of game theory. But it’s about games, and it’s a theory, or rather, a revelation.

I spent some time this evening talking to my wife about management strategies, and the next time I talk to my son, I’ll probably ask him similar questions, since the two of them are the most skilled managers I know. The impetus for my queries came from a game, Football Manager … a demo for the upcoming version has been released. My wife knows little about managerial strategies in soccer (that’s the kind of football were talking about here), but she knows a lot about management in the real world, and Football Manager is in the genre of games known as simulations, more specifically sports management simulations. To the extent the game is good (and it is very good), the management situations it simulates will have some similarities to the kinds of situations my wife or son deal with.

So … and you can skip this paragraph, if you haven’t already quit reading … the situation I presented to my wife was this. You have a project. There is a baseline strategy that will get the job done and nothing else; there is a hypothetical optimal strategy that will get the job done in the most effective and elegant way; and there are all the strategies on the continuum between those two examples. On the team you are managing, you will have workers whose work is baseline, or even lower … you have workers who are effective, creative … and a lot of people on the continuum between those two examples.

What I wanted to know is, how close to you come to the optimal strategies, and how is your answer to that question affected by the kinds of workers you have. Is it worth it to ask poorer workers to aspire to heights they will struggle to reach? Do you stifle the better workers in search of the security of the baseline that gets the job done? Do you give different people different tasks depending on their skills, and if so, how does this affect teamwork?

Robin’s answers are not important to what I’m saying here, although they were interesting. If I’ve got it right, she thinks you challenge people to go a bit farther than their comfort zone, while understanding that some people, for good reasons, are just picking up a paycheck while others are obsessed with doing it all.

Of course, the reason I was asking her these questions was so I could apply them to Football Manager. In the game, to give one example, if you decide to begin by managing a lower-level club, you won’t have any upper-echelon players, and not many who could even be called average. You’ll have players good enough to play lower-level soccer. And you won’t have much money to spend on better players. Do you concoct brilliant strategies that come close to optimal, but which ask the lower-level players to do things they aren’t much good at, or do you go with simple strategies that allow the players you have to operate within the limits of what they already do well?

None of this is interesting, I realize, and I wouldn’t bother making this into a blog post, if it wasn’t for something I realized. Most people, I imagine, play games just for the enjoyment they bring. If there’s anything larger, it would come from someone learning things in the game that they find applies to real life, the way some will argue that chess is good for you because it helps you learn useful thinking stills.

But me? I was asking about real life, so it would help me in the game. The game is what matters, the game is the point … real life is just a strategy guide.

Yes, I think this is weird, i.e. I am weird.


monopoly city streets

Played around with this new online game for a bit. Bought the street I live on, then grabbed as much of the old part of Nerja as I could. Makes me think … even though it’s only a game, when given the choice, I bought 7 times more streets in Nerja than I did in Berkeley. Granted, Acton Street cost me almost as much as all of my Nerja acquisitions, but still … perhaps I’m trying to tell myself something here.

It’s hard to tell if this game would have lasting power … I could imagine it getting boring and repetitious pretty quickly. I also may not have the desire to be cutthroat enough to do well in the game … I was given the opportunity to build a prison on someone else’s property, which would be v.bad for that person, and decided I didn’t want to piss anyone off.