Friday, December 2, 2016

Acquiring a Staff

UPDATE 12/12/16 - changed info on finding hardwood dowel, added staff URLs.

I’m using this post to distribute some information to folks who are going to start learning a Tai Chi Staff form from me in January. I’d have done it with an Acrobat file on Dropbox, but that turns out to be painful if recipients aren't already on Dropbox. I've discovered that you don't really have to join, but it's a pain.


I worry that I'm making this too much of a big deal. A staff is a smooth stick 4-5 feet long. Not complicated, not a big deal.

For the first few classes I will bring in a few staffs I have, so if you like you can try them out. But please do plan to acquire one. You can make a staff – which is really easy and cheap– or buy one. Some things apply whichever you do:

  •  The major rule about staffs in this class:

    No staff will be allowed that is more than 5 feet long; 4 feet is very much preferable.

    This is a safety rule, and I have to be strict about it. No exceptions. I’ll be saying more about safety in the first class, and repeatedly after that.

    I am actually allowing 5 foot staffs only because I repeatedly said in class that 5 is allowable. That was an error; I mistakenly thought mine was 5 feet. It's not. I'll be happier - and you'll be safer - if everybody has a 4 foot staff.

    My wanting to use shorter staffs in class is one reason this document is heavy on making your own. I haven't seen any 4 foot staffs for sale on the web. 
  • The best diameter for your staff depends on your hand size. When the staff is held in your palm, you should be able to grasp it comfortably with your thumb wrapping all the way around to your fingers. Overlapping your thumb on your fingers is fine.

For the record, my own staff is hardwood, 4 feet long, and 1¼ inches in diameter.

Making a Staff 

Making a staff is easy. Here are three ways, in order of simplicity:

  1. At a hardware store, buy a broom or mop handle. Cut it down to 4 feet, or at least cut off any threading on the end. Sand off any rough edges on the end where you cut it. Done.

    However, a mop handle is OK only for people with small hands, since such handles are skinny.
  2.  At a hardware store, buy a wooden closet pole, the kind you would put clothes hangers on. They’re in the lumber department. They’re plentiful, cheap, and thicker. You can find someone who will cut it off a 4 foot length for you. Then:

    a) Sand it down. You will be sliding your hands on the staff all the time, and you don’t want to get splinters or even have it rough. This isn’t much work; you’re not doing fine woodworking, and it’s not hard wood (it’s pine).

    b) If you think the raw wood looks less than beautiful, stain it to some color you prefer. Buy a tiny can of stain, and follow the directions; it’s easy. This is for aesthetics only, but hey, who wants an ugly staff?

    Be sure to use stain, not a shiny polyurethane finish or the like, just stain. Those finishes all seem to produce a non-slip surface, which you do not want. I did used a poly finish on mine before I knew what I was doing, and you’ll hear the squeaks of my hands sliding on it in class.

    Both the closet pole and the broom handle make lightweight staffs. This is OK, but not ideal. It’s preferable to have slightly more weight so you learn to use your hips/legs/dantien to produce power. So:

    3.     Get a hardwood dowel of the right length and diameter. Then do the same sanding & staining described for the closet pole.

Unfortunately, finding a hardwood dowel is easier said than done. I decided to verify what Home Depot said online, but when I went to the store that same SKU was on pine dowels, not hardwood. Lowe's has Poplar, which is better, but not quite as heavy as it should be. Ace has only pine. The guy in Lowe's offered to special order a mahogany one, saying it would be a lot more expensive. I didn't. Finally, after two more stops, I found:
     Consolidated Hardwoods
     11900 Vance St, Broomfield, CO 80020
     (Corner of Vance and 120th)
Where I managed to buy an appropriate hunk of dowel that they cut into three 49" lengths for me. I have one left, if anybody's interested. $6. 1.25" diameter, round, cherry wood.

Cherry was the best they had. It's not as heavy as oak, but noticeably better than pine. By the way, when I asked about hickory, he said nobody mills that; it's too hard.

Consolidated  is also an SOB to find, since it's right in the middle of the construction on 120th/287, and all the streets my Nav system said to take were blocked off. 

Buying A Staff

Staffs are available from martial arts stores online. I Google'd "tai chi staff for sale" and "staff weapon for sale," and Elizabeth also Googled something similar. We came up with

STRAIGHT HARDWOOD BO STAFF - this one explicitly says all the right things: straight staff, hardwood, 1 1/4 inch diameter, comes in the right length (50"). It says "bo" (see below), but also says straight (see below), so I'm assuming straight is it. It should be fine, but without handling it I can't be 100% sure. If you get it: 50" length, please.  $18.86.

Wooden Weapon - Hardwood Jo Staff - seems a little skinny, 1" diameter, but if you have small hands that may be good. It doesn't explicitly say straight. Maybe that's what "Jo" is, or maybe that's a typo. $17.18 (including added $1.99 for 50" length).

Purpleheart Armoury - you can get what appears to be a good one one, optionally engraved with your name and a Yin/Yang symbol (Taijitu). $47+ for 5" laminated hickory, engraved. He tests them for breaking strength; all testing out over 500 lbs.

Some things to watch out for when you search:
  • You’ll see many mentions of “bo staffs” or just “bo.” Wikipedia says this is Japanese (or maybe Okinawan) for "staff," and says bojutsu is a thing. Eh. For me this is questionable, since it also says "bang" is Chinese for staff, and I've used a "bang" in Chen style. It's not a staff. Not even close. They probably all mean "stick." Ignore the word "bo" and look at the detailed description.
  • It seems many bo staffs are tapered; that's not the kind we use. You want what seems to be called a straight staff. Be careful about that.
  • Many staffs I've seen online are too long, like 6 feet or more. If you get one of those, it’ll have to be cut shorter to use in class.

If you find any good links, or maybe a source of hardwood dowels, let me know. I’ll update this to include it.

That’s all, except for one OCD Grammar Nazi issue: I’ve consistently (I hope) used “staffs” as the plural of “staff” above, because what I suspect to be the real plural – “staves” – sounds affected and would probably confuse everybody. When I tried to check how bad I was being by using a Google search, I found myself in twisty little passages having to do with the use of singular and plural collective nouns. Bah.

(Purpleheart Armoury uses "staves." It also uses "Armoury," with a "u".) 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

History In a Muddle. And a Planner, and a Conniver, and even a Dali

Jason Self Wed, Nov 11, 2015 at 3:35 PM

Hello, are you the Greg Pfister that worked on Muddle (MDL) back in the
day? Here's hoping you are and that this email address works when I
click on Send... :)

Greg Pfister Wed, Nov 11, 2015 at 7:05 PM
To: Jason Self

Yes, that's me.

However, I didn't really work on the language or its implementation; rather, I documented it. Some did think that was the bigger feat, since it was rather huge had kind of just grown without documentation of any kind.


Greg Pfister
Sic Crustulum Frangitur
Quidquid latine dictum sit, altum videtur.
[Quoted text hidden]

Jason Self Wed, Nov 11, 2015 at 8:25 PM
To: Greg Pfister

> However, I didn't really work on the language or its implementation;
> rather, I documented it. Some did think that was the bigger feat,
> since it was rather huge had kind of just grown without documentation
> of any kind.

Documentation seems to be all that survives today. Perhaps it is enough.

A group of people (3 or 4 counting myself) are looking into the possibility of reimplementing Muddle on modern systems (GNU/Linux.) It seems an interesting technical challenge. I have learned from [4] that Muddle was ported to UNIX at some point, but sadly none of that code seems to have survived to the present day. I've also learned that MIT had an extensive Muddle library on a machine called mitajax (or perhaps just ajax) but it seems to have been decommissioned and no one knows what happened. Just a few PDFs seem to be all that's left, and those cover much but not everything [0] [1] [2] [3]. Those PDFs refer to other documents which I can't seem to find, like EDIT: The MDL Editor and etc. I'm wondering if you might have additional information on Muddle or know where it could be found? For example: I've learned through my research that Muddle had a machine independent virtual machine but no documentation of it (bytecode, etc.) seems to exist or at least I've not been able to find it if it does.

And there is always the "you don't know what you don't know" aspect
too - so I'm not interested in just EDIT and the virtual machine but anything can be learned.
And even if you have no further information, thanks for taking the time to listen to me. :)

[2] programming/mdl/manuals/MDL_Programming_Language.pdf
[3] programming/mdl/manuals/MDL_Programming_Environment.pdf

> Quidquid latine dictum sit, altum videtur.


Greg Pfister Wed, Nov 11, 2015 at 10:01 PM
To: Jason Self

I think your best bet is to try contacting Dave Lebling.

After leaving LCS, where he worked in the same group I (and Muddle) was, he founded Infocom, creating Zork. And Zork, I was told, was written in a port of Muddle (very sure of that) which was made machine & OS independent (less sure of that; it's obviously desirable for a game, just hard) (and would explain the VM).

Who knows, best case maybe he kept a copy for old time's sake.

Dave should be fairly easy to contact; he even has a Wikipedia page. He also had (has) a phenomenal talent for creating really good games.

Hope this helps! Let me know how things turn out. Muddle was fun.

(And it will always be Muddle to me. "MDL" was "Oh #$&% we're going to lose our DARPA funding for a funny name" from a fearful administrator.)


[Quoted text hidden]

Jason Self Thu, Nov 12, 2015 at 12:29 PM
To: Greg Pfister
Greg Pfister wrote ..

> I think your best bet is to try contacting Dave Lebling.

Thank you. I am in contact with Dave Lebling.

> (And it will always be Muddle to me. "MDL" was "Oh #$&% we're going
> to lose our DARPA funding for a funny name" from a fearful
> administrator.)

Do you know where the Muddle name came from or how it got started or
what it was supposed to be about or whatever?

Greg Pfister Thu, Nov 12, 2015 at 2:13 PM
To: Jason Self

On Thu, Nov 12, 2015 at 12:29 PM, Jason Self wrote:

Greg Pfister wrote ..
>> I think your best bet is to try contacting Dave Lebling.
> Thank you. I am in contact with Dave Lebling.

Good. He's sure to know something.

>> (And it will always be Muddle to me. "MDL" was "Oh #$&% we're going
>> to lose our DARPA funding for a funny name" from a fearful
>> administrator.)
> Do you know where the Muddle name came from or how it got started or
> what it was supposed to be about or whatever?

The backronym was "MAC's User Defined Data and Language Evaluator." But that was well after the fact. I don't recall, if I ever knew, where the original name came from.

"MAC" was from "Project MAC", the original name for the MIT lab where Multics (and other things) was developed. It stood for "Machine Aided Cognition." That name was changed to LCS shortly after I left. During a visit back there just after the name was changed, I noticed that the men's room door to the 9th floor (AI lab) had acquired the label "Lavatory of Computer Science." (Hackers don't usually respond favorably to what they perceive as unnecessary changes to their environment.)

There may have been a name connection to Carl Hewitt's proposed language Planner, for AI, since there certainly were other connections. Muddle follows Planner syntax very closely. It also follows the simpler parts of Planner semantics closely, like notions of evaluating an array or other data, and arrays, strings, etc., being first class objects (unlike LISP at the time). It didn't try to do his automatically enabled backtracking, though. That was insane.

An aside: I seem to recall that I was the author of the first inline editor/debugger written in Muddle for Muddle. I also wrote -- or rewrote; there may have been a less fancy one before I started hacking it -- nearly all of of the first pretty printer. That's rather necessary if you want to save changes you made in the debugger. It helped that comments were also first class objects that stayed with the program during interpretation, although prettyprinting them was a bitch.

Other general background, a.k.a. Giant Aside:

Making up new languages was in the air those days. I now consider that a big mistake, and believe nobody should even consider creating a new language until he/she has written at least 100,000 LOC in at least four other languages, each. Of course none of us had done that, but we didn't know better at the time. I made up one myself, called Dali (a name I cringe at now), for writing animations of objects in computer graphics. It was based on what now would be called objects with closures, several years before objects hit the scene. (Closures were all over the LISP language world.) Object closure execution was triggered on events like a request to move or resize an object, so, for example, trying to move a ball would make it bounce and trying to move a human figure would make it walk. (This was a Long Time before OOP.) Anyway, Dali and Planner and Muddle to say nothing of dataflow languages were part of the "new language" trend.

Planner, with its automated backtracking, got a huge boost when Winograd used a simple Planner LISP extension to implement his "blocks world" AI microworld, which was regarded with awe in the AI community. Planner as a result was the kickoff of a "procedural embedding of knowledge" fad in AI. (A few years after all this, I spoke with another AI grad student whose thesis title was that phrase, asking him what he found out. His answer: "Don't embed knowledge in procedures." A somewhat shortlived fad.)

Hewitt responded to the reflected fame by developing syntax and semantics to beat the band, leaving LISP syntax far behind. Muddle might well have began as an informal attempt to implement part of it; it was never explicitly funded at its start, and even was done in a group with a different funding contract.

Hewitt kept on adding features and filigree to Panner until it was getting ridiculous, IMHO, and its description, his thesis, kept getting longer and longer.

Eventually Gerry Sussman – who was then a grad student in the AI lab, along with Hewitt; I was a grad student in MAC – got seriously fed up with Planner. Exactly why, I'm not sure; he certainly considered it bloated and rococo, which it definitely was at that point. He also wanted something usable (and implementable in finite time) in which to program his own thesis. Or maybe it was Hewitt's newfound predilection for wearing ascots.

So Sussman defined and implemented another language which he called Conniver, explicitly referring to it as "the Jewish Planner."

(Hewitt was 100% blond WASP, from Texas I believe; Sussman was NYC Jewish, with one of his goals being to get an airplane pilot's license before a (car) driving license).

Conniver was lean and mean. It just added closures to LISP, with a very few primitives to manipulate them. His manual was short, decorated with entomological insect pictures (bugs, or course) and his crowning touch was a one page implementation of Planner in Conniver.

Well, that one page at least implemented the entire backtracking core of Planner, which was the main thing anybody really ever wanted.

I believe Sussman used Conniver for his thesis. All I recall about that is he had programs which looked at whether other subprograms were failing, and modified them to do better. The reason I remember that: Minsky seized on it to proclaim that programs were now conscious! They examine themselves! Gack.

I don't know if Planner ever got used for anything significant other than the blocks world. I seem to remember that people didn't like it because it was too uncontrollable; once it started backtracking you couldn't tell why things happened.

Muddle, of course, went on to be the implementation language of Zork.

I implemented Dali as an extension of Muddle. Dali never went anywhere either, although when I ran into Alan Kay (of Xerox PARC and computer graphics fame) at a conference many years later he acted very happy to meet me and said he was using the principles in Dali as the core of the latest thing he was doing. So maybe it had some impact.

Can't leave this out: The person who deserves the credit for implementing Muddle at MAC is Chris Reeve. The last (and only) email I have from him puts him in AMD. I've no idea where he is now. Before AMD, he worked in France for a compiler company whose name I don't recall.

Dang, this got long enough that I think I'll copy and publish it in my "Random Gorp" blog.


Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Dinner Install: An Exercise in Frustration

Hopefully this will be funny to a number of folks out there of a semi-geeky/techie nature. Many have probably been in similar situations. My apologies if it embarasses anybody else. All quotes are approximate, and names have been avoided where possible. Everything recounted below actually happened, of course. It was just so surreal I had to write it down.

    * * * * *

On arrival at relatives' home for dinner, I am greeted by

"Oh, Greg, we can use your expertise."


But of course I have to help. Not a problem. Relatives. See what I can do.


Now, you have to imagine all of this taking place in the middle of an informal dinner get-together of about eight people including two 5-6 year old girls. Everything, every question, every event, is an interruption to some conversation, and the girls are in constant motion, continuously emitting extremely high-pitched sounds that may or may not have any meaning.

"Can you get this to work on our Sonos system?"

"This" is a floating waterproof speaker for a hot tub. So naturally the first thing I do is look at the directions. Yeah, I'm weird that way. Those only talk about pairing with Bluetooth. Sonos is WiFi. I look at the box. It says "Waterproof Bluetooth Speaker."

"Sorry, this doesn't work with Sonos. That's WiFi, this is Bluetooth. Two completely different things. They don't talk to one another."

"Oh. I suppose we could return it. But it was a Father's Day gift. Is there any way to make it work?"

"Well, it can probably work with your phone. Can you play the Sonos on your phone?" She has a somewhat elderly iPhone that is having problems.

"No. The phone has a Sonos controller, but not a Sonos player."

"Well, we can still play music from your phone."

"I don't have any music on my phone."

"Actually, you do. iTunes has iTunes Radio." I pull it up on her phone, and start scrolling through the stream choices.

"Does it have smooth jazz?" Of course not.

At this point my wife chimes in with "Oh, you have to get this great app, Fit Radio. I use it all the time. It's free! And it has almost no commercials."

Never mind that Fit Radio is for workouts, and not everybody wants 140 beats/min songs pumping them up in a hot tub. It's my wife. It must be installed.

"How do you get it?"

I open the app store, find Fit Radio, click to install.

"It wants your Apple ID password. Could you enter it?"

Oh, no. The rabbit hole just opened. Wide. Because, of course...


"Ummm. I'm not sure. Try [xxxxx]. We usually use that around the house." Doesn't work. "Try [yyyy]." "Maybe [zzzz];" This goes on until... 

iTunes says "Your account is disabled."

The choices are 1) Reset password. 2) Answer security questions. Of course nobody wants to go near the security questions.

So it's reset time. "OK, what's your Apple ID? Not the password, the email address or whatever you used."

"My what? I have no idea. Let's text . I think he keeps track of those things. Maybe he knows."

Text sent, so I get time to drink a swig of beer, but that's about all, since his response is quick.

"I think the ID is aaaa@bbbb. And password is yyyy."

We're past the point of the password, of course, but it was one of the ones we tried, and it didn't work.

A step forward! aaaa@bbbb works! Now we wait for iTunes to send email to that account.

Wait. Not there. Wait. Not there. Wait. Not there.

"Are you checking aaaa@bbbb?"

"Huh? Oh. That email account. Let me look... there it is!"

One step forward again. Click on link, reach web page saying to pick a new password.

"What do you want for a password?"


"Try [argle]." I enter it twice, carefully, and hit "next". 

iTunes says: All passwords must contain a number.

"Try [argle]08." I enter it twice, carefully, and hit "next". 

iTunes says: All passwords must have an uppercase letter.

"Try [Argle]08." I enter it twice, carefully, and hit "next". 

iTunes says: You can't have used the same password in the last year.

"Try [Bargle]08." I enter it twice, carefully, and hit "next". 

iTunes says: Your password is not complex enough.

I give up and make up a *&^%ing password myself. It contains words expressing my frustration, but is not unsuitable for work. Relatives, remember. It gets through iTunes' tight-assed checks. Of course it has no mnemonic value for them, so it gets written down on a piece of paper which is put in a kitchen drawer, probably never to be seen again.

Now we're back in the App store, and again try to download Fit Radio. Which is free. So obviously

iTunes says "You need to verify your payment method. Cancel/Continue".

I hit cancel, thinking, silly me, that we're not buying anything, so I can skip that step. Naturally, that cancels the download. Of a free app. So I try again, and this time hit "continue."

"I'm sorry, but they are saying there's no credit card on file. Yes, they insist on it even though the app is free."

"Well, yes, not having a card on account was deliberate, as I recall." Smiles.

"Have you ever downloaded an app?"

"Actually, well, no."

I wonder where the other apps I see on the phone came from, but keep my mouth shut.

"Do you really want to keep pushing on this, or just call it a day?"

Hands me a credit card.

So I enter it and all the other information, and it bounces back with invalid number. But I can't see where it's wrong because the space to enter it on the form is too short for all 12 digits.

After much fumbling with iPhone's sadistic cursor control I find the wrong digit - which had scrolled off to the right, of course -- and fix it.

OK, now we can download the free app. I do so. It downloads and installs.

WAIT WAIT WAIT... yes, they do have a late enough version of iOS installed to use it. Whew. Yes. Not the most recent release, but good enough, by like one sub-release.

Almost had a little moment there.

So I crank up the app, and... It's free, but it wants you to create a new account. At this point I've had it. I hand the phone to my wife, saying "You did this for yourself, right? Do it for them, please." She gives me a nasty look because this is obviously less important than whatever she was talking to someone about, but I just grab my now-warm beer and go outside, where folks are sitting around and talking, just as if they were normal people.

A few minutes later, my wife comes over and says it won't play.

We fuss with it. We get the commercial - &deity forbid the commercial shouldn't work - but no music is emitted. I kill it and restart it. This time I say I have no idea, because I don't.

But a few minutes later I feel guilty. So I download the dang thing on my own phone, start it up, And I have to create another dang furshlugginer account, probably my 267th. At least it doesn't have iTunes' tight sphincter about passwords. For me, it works. 140 bpm music is indeed emitted. So it's probably nothing in their WiFi or whatever.

I go chase down her phone again, and try again. Still no noises are emitted. (Other than the commercial, of course.) I try iTunes Radio. No noises there, either. Hmm. That was working before; I tried that back when finding out it didn't meet the Smooth Jazz Requirement. (Neither does FIT Ratio, but...) What the heck?

Just for grins, I try the other part of the job, which originally was the only job: pairing bluetooth. I start up the Waterproof Bluetooth Speaker, and it proceeds to emit a long, bizarre series of beeps and boops and flashes which, the instructions inform me, mean that... it's paired! I look at the Bluetooth settings, and gol-dang, the phone agrees. So why no noises?

OK, so reboot the phone. I do that, and get the message

"You have less than 20% battery left."

Wonderful. Well, that should be enough to try...

Nope, it just did an auto-shutdown.

A charging cable gets found somewhere, the phone is plugged in on the kitchen counter amid the party wine glasses, and it reboots.

Once it's going again, I think well, whatever, it's plugged in, so let's try. Among the wine glasses I go to iTunes Radio, and noises come out! I go to Fit Radio and... more noises! After the commercial!

So I bring the Waterproof Bluetooth Speaker over by the wine glasses, but my wife has put a thing down where I need to be. I go to move it and hear "What are you doing? I put that there to remember to take it home." "I need to try the speaker, and it has to be over here where the phone is charging. How about putting it over there instead." "I suppose." Another dirty look.

Finally. I turn on the Waterproof Bluetooth Speaker. It boops. Then the phone stops emitting noises - they're coming from the speaker! Oh frabjous day! Caloo! Calay!

So I tell everybody it now works! It works! Hooray! Even the new app works with it!

"Good. It's time to eat."

So they can now get 140bpm songs under water in the hot tub, or whatever. I don't think they'll ever use it. But they can tell whoever gave it to them that they got it to work, and oh, it's so great.

And I have a new app, and Yet Another Account, that I am never going to use and I know Apple will never let me get rid of. (I've tried. They come back on restore from backup.)

And I know they're going to lose that password.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Nexus 7 Notes and Impressions

I’ve been using a Nexus 7 for a week or two now, and have decided to write down some of my impressions. Here it is:

The display is simply beautiful.

The processor is swift; launching apps is really fast, and games play smoothly.

After viewing a tutorial or two, I now know my way around Android sufficient for my purposes – personal use, not development. It wasn’t hard, but probably too geeky for, e.g., my wife. Too many “hidden” (invisible) commands – like swiping down from upper left for notifications, upper right for settings. It’s also more incomplete than iOS out of the box; for example, there’s no weather (need to add an app), it only does pdf in Chrome (had to download Acrobat reader), and won’t recognize .mov (Apple movie) files until you download an app for that. You can actually find – it’s not instantly obvious – an actual file system, and stash things there.

Category of weird: I always have the damndest time finding the &^%$# power switch. And the volume control. They’re over the lip, on the side; that cuts in under the slab, making them essentially invisible, and they’re recessed, making them hard to press. I actually spent 5 minutes trying to turn the thing on when I initially opened the box. I kept pressing the front-facing camera lens, thinking it was a power button. Having a cover that automatically turns it on and off when opened and closed has been a wonderful thing for me. Obviously nobody did a “walk around with this thing using it” review of this design before it was shipped.

No tablet is great for creating content, and this one is no exception. However, I find the keyboard better than Apple’s on iPhone. In part this is simply size, but I like Google’s choice of what keys are available without a shift/keyboard replace. In particular, period, comma, question mark and exclamation point are right there all the time. If apostrophe had made it, I’d be in hog heaven. I also like the way it does word prediction, with three choices shown at all times; this gives many more hits than the single choice on iOS. There are lots of complaints about the “awful” Android stock keyboard, but I don’t see the point. Just advertising the replacements, I guess. Maybe I’ll try one at some point, just out of curiosity.

You have to have drunk the Google Kool-Aid to use the Nexus effectively; this probably applies to any Android device. It wants a Google ID login when you initially boot it – a must-have; if you don’t have one, you get to create one – and many things are geared to Google services. Google Drive is always a top-level option for keeping things, for example, and “Try Google Now” is a permanent ad on searches. I do use Google stuff, but not all of it. I really don’t want to keep all my photos on G+, for example, and it seems always to be pushing me there.

I’m a bit disappointed with the apps. Nearly all of the necessities of life – my life, anyway – are there: Twitter, Facebook, mail, calendar, Feedly, QuickOffice, Kindle, Evernote, Flixster, etc. The calendar (Google, of course) is pretty good, and Tweetcaster (not standard; I installed it) is the best Twitter app I’ve seen; it’s not complicated, just nicer to read than the official one. Most apps are ports from a phone app, and so don’t utilize the larger screen as well as they could, but they work. Some – not all – are more buggy than I’ve seen on iOS. The Facebook app, in particular, has a problem bringing up the keyboard for comments, doesn’t send most notifications to the system notification area, and doesn’t synchronize with the web app as well as it might; notifications cleared on the app, for example, don’t show as cleared on the Facebook web page.

I really feel the Gmail app – of all things! – could use a bit of love. Refresh often doesn’t, and there appears to be no way to get a wider display of an email body; rotating brings up a two-column view that actually reduces the space used to display email content. I don’t see others complaining about this online, so maybe there’s something obvious I’m missing.

Chrome, too. It doesn’t return to the same place on a page when you go back. Bizarre.

It’s a great solitaire machine.

Other games, well, I’ve not yet found one that really grabs me. They are mostly side-scrollers, puzzle games, racers, and first-person-shooters, none of which are my cup of tea. Where are the RPGs with good FPS-level-realism graphics? I can do an RPG that looks like an early Zelda, with graphics obviously aimed at 12 year old boys. There was a version of Ultima I could play on my iPhone, but that screen was too small for it, and I can’t find it for Android, not to mention Nexus 7. Grump. I’d pay regular PC RPG prices for a good RPG.

UPDATE 3/7/14: I just discovered "The Bard's Tale," and am downloading it now. This is the kind of thing I was looking for. Yay!

It’s a better alternative than my iPhone for messing around sitting on the couch, and especially for taking on trips. It fits nicely into a small shoulder bag I have, letting me ditch the backpack I’ve been using to hold a laptop. That’s essentially what I bought it for, so overall I’m adequately happy. I do wish I could find a game I like, though.

Friday, April 6, 2012

CSU Futurevisions Agenda

CSU's biennial Futurevisions conference is on Thursday, April 12, 2012 at the Lory Student Center at Colorado State University. They have a number of interesting speakers and sessions this year, including David Pogue of the New York Times, and David Ferrucci of IBM's "Watson" (Jeopardy! champion).

Since I couldn't find a schedule anywhere online, here it is, at least as of March 28.

Note: There is no charge for attending.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Lenovo Y470p Initial Impressions

I made some updates on 3/19. They're all in this color.

After looking around for several months for a laptop to replace my ailing Vaio, I finally ordered a Lenovo Y470p. I almost got an HP Envy 14, but just when I was about to pull the switch, HP split the Envy 14 into two machines: One without the fairly heavy (for a laptop) gaming graphics I wanted, and one with a big red “b” for Beats Audio on the back. Yuck.

Then the Y470p was announced, and a good “weekly deal” was available, so here I am.

As I write this, it’s 5 days since the box arrived. That’s about a month earlier than the shipping date Lenovo quoted in my order, and a couple of weeks earlier than the shipping date they claimed when I was going through ordering, so, well, whatever.

I’m still settling in on this machine, installing programs and setting options the way I like them, so what I write here is what I can tell so far. Some things are excellent, others are marginal, but overall I think I’m going to be happy. That wasn’t always the case over the last few days. The trackpad nearly drove me nuts. See below.

I should mention that in addition to getting on this hardware, I’m also moving from Windows Vista to Windows 7. As a result, some of my impressions may be colored by the fact that Vista was an abomination that I spent several years hating. I think I spent at least half of those years waiting for right-click to show a menu. L

Build Quality

Overall, it’s fairly solid. It’s not a Thinkpad, but I don’t need one of those any more. (I used them for many years before retiring.) Doesn’t flex, lid opening and closing smooth, everything fits with everything else. Looks pretty good, too.

The wide space below the keyboard lets you rest your whole wrist there, which feels good.

Above the keyboard and towards the right side are some small indentations with symbols in them that you need a magnifying glass to read. Well, I do, anyway, even with reading glasses. I haven’t gotten out a magnifying glass, so I still have no clue what those symbols are.

Symbol-blindness or no, it turns out these are swipe-over buttons. You can press them until your finger comes off and nothing will happen; but a quick, easy swipe makes them react cleanly. Kind of neat. (Pressing does work. Don't know why it didn't for me back then. I like the swipe, though.) One of these swipeons is mute on/off; useful. Two near that one are volume up/down, not so useful in my opinion. There’s one for switching some kind of display mode, and I haven’t the foggiest idea what it does.

The rightmost swipeon, though, is a total winner: Thermal control. You could that read as “fan control.” There are four settings, three of which make sense to me: standard; super-silent; and dedusting. Dedusting! What a wonderful idea! Probably blows the heck out of it (I’ve not tried it yet). If my Vaio had that, it’s possible I’d still be using it. Sucker clogged up, and getting in to clear its throat would have been a 15-step process that disemboweled the machine. Didn’t do it.


Awesome. The Radeon HD 7690M does a fine job. I haven’t put Skyrim on it yet – I’m going to – but I have run Oblivion, and for the first time ever, I can run in “ultra high quality” mode with every possible feature wide open – distant everything, self-shadows on grass, etc. – without the frame rate suffering at all when in deep grassy areas. That was always a huge problem for me on every previous system I’ve had. (OK, I’m an Elder Scrolls fan.)

Nothing more to say here. Just awesome. I’m happy.

(Skyrim is cool, too, also with high quality. Haven't tried ultra-high.)

The LCD screen? It’s a screen. Could have a few more pixels, but I’m good with it. Nothing special. Bright enough. Works.


Seriously, this box has the best audio I’ve ever heard come out of a laptop. That’s not to say it’s an audiophile’s wet dream, but rather that I’m actually willing to listen to it. Not tinny at all; it actually has some bass to it – not as if you had a subwoofer, but actually listen-able. This puts it above and beyond any laptop I’ve heard before. I only need to use headphones to avoid bugging others now, not to actually hear something decent. Little JBL speakers, about 1” x 3” each, probably have something to do with it, but I’m not a worshipper of brand names.

If you get one, do play around with the Realtek audio effects. (You get there from “Realtek” in the control panel. God forbid they should name it something like “audio” that you could recognize.) Those settings make a big difference in what you hear, and clearly what you like will depend on your taste. I kind of like the “mountain” setting, myself.


The trackpad is clearly the weakest piece of this system. I was almost ready to re-box it and ship the thing back until I spent some serious time messing around with the Synaptics trackpad settings.

With the factory settings, I couldn’t even navigate reliably to checkboxes. The cursor would bounce all over the place, randomly try to turn on zooming in or out, or go into some kind of unusable scrolling on areas that weren’t scroll-able. Finally I got it sorted out, and in the end it’s perfectly usable.

The necessary settings are somewhat hidden. The path: Control Panel à mouse à Synaptics tab, the tab with the bright red funky blotch on it à easy-to-miss settings button just below the list of devices, on the right side.

When you click on “settings,” you bring up a new window (it’s too small and can’t be resized) with a deeply nested navigation pane on the left that contains all sorts of things you never knew existed: tap sensitivity, palm check, momentum, muti-finger gestures, etc. I knew to look for this only because such a thing existed in my prior Thinkpads.

The very first thing you should do is completely turn off all multi-finger gestures. They don’t work. None of them do. They screw up the trackpad. It was their being triggered at random that caused most of my problems. So you can’t use two-finger scrolling. Dang. That one I wanted.

Three things that do work well for me are right-edge mousewheel-like scrolling, chiral scrolling, and momentum.

Mousewheel-like scrolling by swiping down the right edge of the touchpad can be made to work well. This is a first for me; on no prior laptop of mine has it worked worth spit. To make it work, you have to do two things: First, set the mousewheel increment (back in the regular mouse settings, not the Synaptics settings) to 1. Higher makes it move too fast for me (see chiral scrolling below for long-distance scrolling). Second, put your finger down “fat” with the middle of the finger on the red dotted line on right side of the touchpad. Staying to the right of that line doesn’t seem to work. That seems to reliably cue in scrolling, and scroll, without danger of being accidentally triggered.

Chiral scrolling: When you swipe down (say) to scroll, you may run out of room on the trackpad before you’ve scrolled as much as you want. Slide your finger a little to the center, then around, up, and down again, repeatedly making little circles. This keeps the scrolling going. The faster your circle with your finger, the faster the scroll. Reverse the circling, and you scroll back. As I said, this works well.

Momentum: This is cool. Have a long way to move the cursor? Flick your finger in the right direction, raising your finger off the trackpad at the end of the flick, and the cursor sails across the screen, like you whacked a hockey puck. It stops when you touch the trackpad again, so you can aim at something and stop when it gets near. Play around with the “glide distance” in the Synaptics options until you get what you like in the distance moved per flick.

I hope you stuck with me up to here, because I’m about to mention something the settings don’t fix, as far as I can tell. It’s a very bad thing for gaming with the trackpad: It doesn’t work at all when you’re simultaneously pressing a key on the keyboard. This is a total bummer for mouse-look WASD navigation in games: When you’re holding down W to move forward, you can’t change direction! You have to go one way, stop, turn, go another way, etc. This makes going around any corner a chore. If there’s a “keep walking” key that you press just once, you can then use the trackpad to change direction while moving; but that’s it. It’s a trackpad problem, since the same game that exhibited this for me (Oblivion), doesn’t have the problem when an actual mouse is used. (I had to dig an old mouse out of the bottom of a junk drawer and replace the batteries to try that. Grumble mutter grumble.)

To end on a positive note: Thanks, perhaps, to the palm check logic, the cursor doesn’t go flailing all over the screen randomly selecting who knows  what while I’m typing. It just stays put. Hallelujah, and Praise the Lord. That was a major failing of my previous Sony Vaio system (never getting one of those again).

Hm. I wonder if that good thing is related to the “can’t use trackpad while holding down W” problem. Darn, I bet it is.

(Verified, soon after posting, in fact; see the comments. If you set the "palm check" to zero - leftmost setting - effectively turning it off, then you can use the trackpad while pressing keys. Aaaand the cursor goes flanging all over the screen when you're typing. :-( So it's one or the other. And I've not found a convenient way to switch between them. Oh, well, mouse works well with games.)


The keyboard really feels rather good. There’s just enough travel, and the keytops are nicely rounded down and indented. I can already tell just writing this review that this keyboard has really restored the accuracy and fluidity of my typing. I hadn’t realized how much I was suffering with the Vaio. Good job.

Not quite so good a job on its noises, though. A little noise is OK; the issue is what the noise sounds like. It sounds, well, cheap. Like each key is a bit too small for its hole, and slops around in it. After a bit of use I’ve decided I don’t mind it, though. On this one, I’m nitpicking a very small nit.

I almost forgot one major disappointment: No illuminated keyboard. Dang, I really wanted that, and thought this system came with one, but it doesn’t have it. Going back to the specs, I don’t seem to find it, so I guess I was wrong at order time. Very sad.


The Y470, and in fact the entire Lenovo Y series, has no fingerprint reader.

Instead, you are supposed to register your face with something called “Veriface.” Then, at the sign-in screen, Veriface uses the system camera to stare at your ugly mug, decide it’s you, and let you in.

This could conceivably be cool, at least to demonstrate to friends. However, I don’t know, since it doesn’t work. I can’t register my face. Maybe it looked at me and broke.

I have seen a pile of posts in the Lenovo support forums about this, though. Apparently the inability to register is a common problem, and the recommended action is to uninstall Veriface and reinstall. I haven’t done that yet; want to get a few more setup items done first. If it really works, I’ll modify this post accordingly.

(Doesn't work. Got rid of it.)

Lenovo USB File Transfer Cable

It’s recommended when you order this system, so I ordered it, having used one before and gotten great bandwidth for moving my files to a new system. Royal PITA. Windows “Easy Transfer” would not recognize it. I think the problem may be the “pc2pc” crapware Lenovo loaded on: That offers to run when you plug the cable in, and does work – but as far as I can tell, there is no documentation of it anywhere, and I couldn’t figure out how to make it navigate to anything off the older system’s desktop. So I used my home network. 144Mb/s Wifi, 46.8 GB of data, 6 hours. The “Easy Transfer” stuff did manage that, sucking everything over, restarting the connection a few times, but never dying. My hat’s off to it. That was the simplest file transfer I’ve ever done, albeit rather nerve-wracking waiting those 6 hours.

I feel I wasted my money on that cable. I guess YMMV, but for me it was a solid failure.

Apropos of nothing in particular, just to mention it, I’d say Lenovo put only a moderate amount of bloatware on the system. They really seem to love their own “ooVoo” IM system, which I never heard of. (Does anybody actually use IM anymore?) I’ll uninstall stupid ooVoo soon. The four or five other things that showed up on first boot were easily avoidable and deletable.

Still haven’t found whatever it is that occasionally goes back to Lenovo and looks for updates to drivers and the like. Have to get that going.

(Still haven't found it.)

Also: Don't freak out if your "Y470p" arrives with the badgeing of just a "Y470." Mine just says Y470, even on the SN sticker on the bottom. I was a bit worried initially myself, but it's OK. It has all the "p" gear, including the AMD Radeon graphics. Just Lenovo not getting its act together.

Battery life: Quite decent. Many people are seeing about 5 hours on the standard battery. That is what's reported on this thread in NotebookReview forums, which you should check out if you're interested in the Y470p/Y470. My battery life seems consistent with that. Don't expect that much for heavy gaming on battery power, though.

Also, the system stays cool according to my thighs (plugged in), and the fan noise is just barely perceptible, even when gaming.


If you want a laptop that is good at graphics-intensive games and lets you type fluidly, you could do a whole lot worse than a Y470. That’s what I wanted, and I’m becoming quite happy with it, so far. But they should take the jerk who specified the factory trackpad settings out behind the barn and give him a whuppin’. Problem is, there probably is no such person; random bits just got set.

Oh, yes, also, it’s also got eight – count ‘em, eight! – processors in its i7 CPU chip. I’ll be very interested to see if anything I run on this ever uses more than three of them at once. I have seen three running when restarting Chrome with about six open tabs. (Chrome puts each tab in a separate process.) Each was at about 3% utilization. Maybe Skyrim will crank them up. Maybe I’ll get my act together and write some parallel Haskell. (Hah. Already took a stab at that. No joy yet.) We shall see.

(Turns out those eight are actually four CPUs with two threads each, which is not the same thing as far as performance goes. The usual rule of thumb is that a CPU with two threads has the performance of about 1.2 processors, so performance-wise it's 4.8 procs. The "eight" above is what Windows Task Manager says. Sorry about that. Oh, and by the way, Skyrim uses exactly 1 thread. They could have done better than that!)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Dead Man's Chili

Yesterday, as this was written (11/5/11), I ate Dead Man’s Chili at a funeral, for the first time.

I’ve had it many times before. Serving it is a Christmas tradition on my wife’s side of the family, always accompanied with an explanation of the name: It’s the chili traditionally served at funerals.

Dead Man’s Chili is seriously good eating. It’s a red chili, made with shredded beef, the chilis used in ristras (the hanging garlands of red chilis sometimes used as wall decorations at Mexican restaurants), and undoubtedly a number of other things I don’t know that contribute to making it delicious. Like all good chilis, it takes a long time to make, and (aside from cooking the meat) begins by making a roux – yes, like gumbo. If you’re thinking chili with beans in it, stop right now. You put this on mashed potatos, or really just about anything, as if it’s a sauce or gravy.

What you find by Googling “Dead Man’s Chili” is not the Dead Man’s I know, since those all seem to include jalapenos, and I don’t recall any of those. The one I know is mild, but very flavorful; Googled versions referring to it being hot enough to raise the dead have nothing to do with it.

The technique for making Dead Man’s is a family tradition. My Uncle-in-law (about my age, as is his wife, who went to school with my wife … think about it) learned to make it by hanging around in the kitchen while my great grandmother-in-law made it. After hanging around for several years, he was finally allowed to help, and after a long time was eventually shown how to make it. I wouldn’t bother asking him for the recipe, since I know it includes quantities specified like “Make sure you add enough salt. But don't add too much!”

The method for making it is, however, spread rather widely around that side of the family. It must be since, again traditionally, a collection of people all made it independently for the funeral reception, and all their handiwork was served just mixed together. As far as I could tell, nothing of the taste was lost or altered in the mixing.

The occasion for serving it was the funeral of Uncle Ben. That’s how he was known by everybody, just "Uncle Ben." Officially he was Benito Martinez, but I only found that out at the funeral. The family members I normally interact with used to think he was “Benjamin.” He was my great-grand-uncle-in-law on my wife’s side.

Uncle Ben passed away at the age of 104. Longevity is a feature of that side of the family; many of them make it to 90 or more. (Hope my kids inherited that.) Uncle Ben was the last of his generation, though.

I really didn’t know him. I was introduced at a couple of family gatherings over the years as a new relation, but that’s all. I do know, since it was hard to miss, that his trademark was a monster bushy white Zapata-style moustache and a white cowboy hat. He wore that hat constantly, and came by it honestly: He had worked as a cowboy back in the 1920s, on ranches his father owned in southern Colorado. According to an article in the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News published when he turned 99, somewhere there’s a picture of him, in his younger days, on a rearing white horse. Asked the horse’s name, he said it was just a white horse. “Horses don’t have names; names are for people.” He also drank a shot of whisky every day “to keep the juices flowing.” At the funeral, one of his grandchildren spoke of him taking out his teeth and chasing the kids around the house with them. All this adds up to his being a great character right up to the end.

The picture was scanned from an old copy of the Rocky Mountain News article I mentioned. Bad picture.You can barely see his moustache.

It was sad to see him in his casket with his moustache shaved off. I don’t know when that was done, or why; we speculated that it was to allow use of some medical breathing thing.

He did have his hat with him during the service, though, in his casket.

However, at his gravesite, the casket was opened and his sister took his hat. I don’t know how I feel about that. On the one hand, clearly she can remember him by it, and what use is it to him now? On the other hand, well, it was his trademark, always with him. I can’t see him going through the pearly games, or entering the light, or whatever, without his hat on. Presumably, though, if such things are needed he’ll be provided with, say, pants; so why not a hat, too? I really didn’t have a close enough relationship with him to justify an opinion, but heck – he lost his moustache and his hat too? My grandfather-in-law did, though, whisper to me at the graveside that they should have left his hat with him.

Farewell, Uncle Ben. We’re eating Dead Man’s in your memory, and after that drinking coffee with condensed milk, not cream (another tradition).

And I’ll knock back a shot to keep the juices flowing.