The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

October 25, 2014

Random Thoughts: Una Discussione Molto Vivace, and Responsibility, What’s that?

Filed under: Random Stuff — Tags: , — Brian Lutz @ 11:10 am

I know I still need to finish up the trip report on our Alaska trip last month, but lately work has been keeping me busy so I haven’t had time to do that.  In the meantime, a couple of random thoughts from the past couple of weeks…

  • Currently stuck in my head:  This MxPx song.  It’s not the type of music I normally listen to (it’s actually one of my brothers that listens to the stuff) but I do have to admit I’ve been tempted to think along these lines every once in a while lately.  n theory, by the time I’ve reached the age I’ve reached, I’m supposed to be some sort of mature responsible adult.  For the most part I can at least impersonate one occasionally in a pinch, but I do have to say that sometimes the whole thing can seem to be more trouble than it’s worth.  Responsibility also has a way of creeping up on you at times, as I’ve seen at work recently as various organizational changes have left me and a co-worker in charge of much larger portions of the project I’ve spent nearly the last two years working on than we have been in the past.  In some ways it can be nice to have more day-to-day control over the project and to basically be handed the keys to the car (in this case literally, although the opportunities to actually drive it are rather limited) but at the same time it can also feel a little bit like getting tossed into the deep end of the pool.  The other day I made a comment to one of the co-workers who recently got reassigned off of our project (but who still sits in our area) that things were so much easier back when we had him going to all the meetings and dealing with a lot of the administrative stuff for us and we could mostly just stick to the technical side of things.  One thing that comes with this is responsibility for managing (sort of) a couple of testers we currently have on our project in China.  This isn’t the first time I’ve done this (it’s one of the things that I did for a while when I worked at Motricity a couple of years ago) but it does tend to result in a fair number of late-night Skype conversations to keep them on track and make sure they have what they need to do their jobs (fortunately the late night bit isn’t a problem for me…)   All of this can definitely be a challenge, but to be honest, I have little to complain about where I am right now.  There’s plenty to keep me busy, I’m getting good pay, there are a few nice perks, and it does feel like I’m making progress on my long-term career path.  That doesn’t mean I’m not occasionally tempted to just go off the rails and hoon golf carts around every once in a while, but I suppose that’s how we end up at Disneyland taking ridiculous ride photos on Splash Mountain.

  • Also currently stuck in my head:  Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Second Movement (Scherzo: Molto  Vivace – Presto).  Last weekend I had the opportunity to see a live performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony put on by the Ensign Symphony and Chorus at Benaroya Hall.  I do have to warn you that the Ninth Symphony can be a bit of a slog to get through (and that’s just being in the audience, I can’t imagine what it must be like being in the woodwind section) but it’s definitely worth hearing live at least once.  Obviously the Fourth Movement (by far the most famous part) gets all the attention and I’m sure virtually anyone would recognize it when they hear it, but interestingly enough I think I like the Second Movement better overall.  Having never heard all of Beethoven’s Ninth all at once before, I was a bit surprised to hear this particular piece and instantly recognize it as something that gets used often in various forms of media (in particular, the intro seems to be used as a bit of stock “creepy” music for some reason.)  Of course, when you’re listening to it live it all moves so fast you don’t have much time to process it (this particular movement is one of the fastest parts of the whole symphony) so it really takes repeated listening to really catch all the intricacies.  Not that I profess to know a blasted thing about the subject of music (in fact, I had to go to Wikipedia to figure out what a Scherzo is supposed to be, and even after reading the article I still don’t have a clue,) but I have to say that even if it’s less well known than other parts of the symphony it’s still quite the piece of music.  It;’s interesting to note that back in the day pieces like this were considered


  • Ever have one of those days where you just can’t seem to focus on anything?  Well, I… Wait, I forgot what I was going to say here.  Oh well, I’ll probably think of it later.

October 8, 2014

We’re Quickly Running Out of Frontiers Here: A Week in Alaska by Sea, Part 1

Filed under: travel, Wanderings — Tags: , , — Brian Lutz @ 12:00 am

As much as I suspect a lot of us would like to have it hang around a little while longer, it looks like Summer has just come to an end.  As always, this is roughly when you start looking over what you did over the Summer and trying to make sure you didn’t waste it.  In my case, I have to admit that it just didn’t feel like I’ve really done much.  Until a couple of weeks ago, I don’t think I had been more than about 50 miles from home at any given point this Summer, and in fact hadn’t really traveled anywhere since the last Disneyland trip me and my friend took back in April just before our Annual Passes expired.  A lot of this is due to the fact that our big vacation for the Summer got scheduled for just about the last possible time we could have scheduled it, set to end just two days before the Autumnal Equinox.  To put the situation into football terms (I hear football is kind of popular around Seattle these days,) it’s basically a matter of being down 28-3  with a minute and a half to go in the fourth quarter, and trying to get down the field for a garbage time touchdown just so it looks like you didn’t get completely blown out.

Then again, much of the reason that we didn’t do much this Summer was because we had this particular trip planned.  Admittedly, in spite of the fact that I’ve done quite a bit of cruising over the past few years, Alaska has never been all that high on my list of possible destinations.  As I believe I’ve said here before, to me it seems like Alaska has the type of weather than I go on vacation to get away from. Then again, it was my friends who were planning this particular trip, so in a lot of ways I was just along for the ride.  Not that there was much of a ride involved anyway (at least not until we boarded the ship.)  One of the nice things about cruising to Alaska is that a lot of ships use Seattle as their homeport during the Alaska season.  For two Summers I have worked in Downtown Seattle just off the waterfront, which means that if I look out the window in some of the conference rooms at the office I can see the ships docked at either Bell Street Pier about half a mile away, or Smith Cove several miles beyond that.  It certainly makes the prospect of just hopping aboard one sound a lot more tantalizing when you can actually see the ships in port.  If nothing else, it’s kind of nice to take a cruise and not have to fly across the country twice to get there in back (nothing against Fort Lauderdale, which is a perfectly nice place to get away from the weather, but a quick 12-mile taxi ride to the pier is, shockingly, a little easier to deal with than a flight of 2,800 miles in each direction (not to mention a fair bit cheaper.)

The itinerary for this particular cruise would be a 7-day roundtrip out of Seattle, making stops in Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan and Victoria, as well as a day spent aboard the ship as it cruises slowly through Glacier Bay National Park (other ships with a similar itinerary may omit Glacier Bay in favor of Tracy Arm Fjord.)  Since I had been to none of those places (except for Victoria on a previous cruise) before, I didn’t know a whole lot about what to expect.  The ship, on the other hand, was in large part a known quantity, as if you’ve been on one Grand-class Princess ship you should have little trouble finding your way around any of the other ones.  The Golden Princess is one of the older ships in the fleet (she first sailed in 2001,) and is a sister ship to the Grand Princess and Star Princess.  Although these three ships were originally virtually identical, over time a number of renovations have taken the three ships in significantly different directions.  Nonetheless, even with the various changes between the three ships you are going to find that the passenger experience is pretty consistent across the Princess fleet regardless of which ship you happen to be on.  All in all, it’s not a bad way to go.

After the jump, a look at some of the highlights from the trip.


September 17, 2014

Live from the Lido Deck: Slightly Colder Than Usual Edition

Filed under: Random Stuff — Brian Lutz @ 11:38 pm


Date and Time: September 17th 2014, 10:40pm Alaska Daylight Time
Location: Aboard the Golden Princess somewhere south of Glacier Bay National Park en route to Ketchikan Alaska, Not really sure about specifics since the voyage info channel on the TV seems to be broken
Weather:  Foggy and somewhat cold, a bit of a running theme on this trip
Visibility:  Pretty much nonexistent

To be perfectly honest, even though I’ve done a fair bit of cruising over the years, a cruise to Alaska has never been particularly high on my list of priorities.  Part of this is because I have plenty of other places to go on vacation, and part of it is because I’ve always been under the impression that an Alaska cruise has the kind of weather I go on vacation to get away from.  After having spent the last several days in Alaska at the end of the Summer cruising season, I don’t think that assessment is entirely false, but at the same time the weather has actually been pretty reasonable considering the circumstances.

Granted, we’re not necessarily talking Summer weather here, but at the same time it hasn’t been unreasonably cold here either.  During an afternoon spent wandering around Skagway (an 1890s Gold Rush boomtown gone bust, then eventually turned into a tourist trap) I just left my jacket behind and was perfectly fine.  The weather in Juneau was fairly nice as well.  Today’s visit to Glacier Bay (you stay on the ship and the rangers from the National Park come aboard the ship and narrate as you go through the bay and stop at several of the major glaciers) was markedly colder, but just my usual Winter jacket was sufficient.  Given the scenery that we got to see, I think it was a reasonable tradeoff.

This is actually the last Alaska cruise of the season for the Golden Princess, which will be heading South to warmer climates once we return to Seattle on Saturday.  One of the interesting things about my current workplace is that the windows on the North side of the building face Seattle’s cruise terminals, and in one or two of the conference rooms I can see the big cruise ships in port.  On various days of the week during the Summer there are Princess, Carnival, Norwegian, Oceania and Celebrity ships that make Seattle their homeport during the Alaska season (quite a few ships homeport in Vancouver as well, mostly for one-way iineraries that are legally prohibited from departing from a US port.)  Being able to see the ships on a regular basis has made thr prospect of being able to hop aboard and take a cruise sound more attractive than it was previously, but ultimately it was my friends and frequent travel companions who put this one together.  Originally our plans called for an Alaska cruise at the beginning of the season in May, but various cirumstances resulted in cancellation of that booking in favor of one later in the season, which is where we are now.

On most of the cruises I’ve taken I have traveled with various members of my family, both immediate asnd extended.  These cruises have been enjoyable and memorable experiences, although as anyone who has spent enough time around the Vanderhoeven Machine knows, we can definitely take a little bit of getting used to.  This time around I’m basically traveling with someone else’s family though, which would probably be more of a culture shock than it already is if not for the fact that I’ve spent so much time with my friends.  Not that it doesn’t take some getting used to, but in many ways it’s a similar experience.  Fortunately we all have very similar (and in many cases rather unusual) senses of humor, and seem to have independently picked up a lot of the same quirks long before we ever met each other.  I’m sure some of the other people on the ship are wondering about us.

Anyway, we have two more days remaining before we return to Seattle on Saturday (a short morning visit to Ketchikan tomorrow and a short evening visit to Victoria on Friday) and since the Internet packets around here seems to be carried back to the mainland by sled dogs, I’ll have more to post when I get home.  Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s kind of cold out here right now.. 

September 9, 2014

Yeah, I’m Pretty Sure I’m Still a Nerd.

Filed under: Games — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 1:48 am

Gratuitous pinball table shot for no apparent reason.

Once again we’re coming up on the end of the Summer and the inevitable slow descent into Fall, Winter, and the time of the year where Seattleites tend to just steadfastly try to pretend the weather isn’t bothering them.  And with this past weekend came PAX, and the vast array of unusually uninteresting sights and sounds that come along with it.  To be perfectly honest, after last year’s PAX I actually found myself on the fence ab out whether or not I would go this year.  Part of this was the fact that tickets have become increasingly more difficult to get over the years, and part of it was the fact that there just didn’t seem to be all that much I was really interested in last year.  Ultimately I decided that I would get myself tickets if I could get a hold of them, but wasn’t going to go out of my way for them, and if I was not able to get tickets it wouldn’t be a big deal.

And when tickets did finally go on sale I was in a meeting at work.  By the time I was even aware that tickets had gone on sale they were already sold out in the space of less than an hour.  Even so, I wasn’t quite ready to give up on it.  Last year I was able to get through the long queue for tickets and buy Friday and Saturday passes, and then managed to end up with a Monday pass through a friend (which, to be honest, I wasn’t really expecting.)  And there were a couple of years before that where I had managed to miss out on ticket sales, but managed to find tickets later on.  Either way, if I missed out this year I wouldn’t be all that worried about it.  But sometimes things have a strange way of happening, and it happened that a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend had some extra tickets he was no longer using, so I was able to pick up tickets for Saturday, Sunday and Monday (I sold the Sunday ticket to someone else since I don’t go on Sundays.)  Of course, I didn’t even know I was going to be able to go until pretty close to the last minute, so I found myself having to do a bit of scrambling to figure out what I wanted to do there.

The tricky part is that even though PAX has become so massive that even with an increasingly difficult to acquire 4-day pass you wouldn’t have enough time to actually see and do everything.  Show floor exhibits have massive lines, there are panels and presentations going constantly in seven different locations, there’s about half a zillion different tournaments for games you don’t play (and a couple of games you do play but are shockingly terrible at) and just about half a zillion different things going on all at once at any given time.  Basically, you just have to pick and choose how to use the limited time you have available.  This is all part of the experience, and is nothing new.  The problem with that is that even with all that’s going on at PAX, for some reason this year there just didn’t seem to be nearly as much to be interested in as usual.

Now part of this may just be me getting cranky in my old age (OK, I don’t think I’m quite that old just yet, but let’s just say that if someone made a game that realistically simulated chasing punk kids off your lawn I’d probably pick it up if it was 50% off on Steam)  but for some reason, I just couldn’t get all that excited about PAX this year.  I think part of this was that with all three of the current-generation consoles now on the market, a lot of the major publishers are still trying to figure out what to do with them beyond their initial launch titles.  There were a few things being shown that looked interesting, but I think that I could probably count the major upcoming AAA titles from the major publishers that I’m interested in on my fingers (and if you took Nintendo stuff out of the equation you could probably knock that down to one hand.)  As a result of this, I think there just weren’t a lot of games to be interested in yet, at least on the console side.  At the same time, even the indies (where most of the interesting stuff seems to be coming from these days) seemed a bit lacking, probably because most of the stuff I’d be interested in on that side is stuff that’s already showed up in Steam Early Access, and if I really wanted to try a lot of them out I could pretty much do it without having to wait in any lines.

Even with all of that taken into account I still think PAX is worth the trip, especially if you’ve never been before.  After all, it’s the type of experience you just aren’t going to find anywhere else, and even if you can’t find things you want to play, there’s always plenty of people watching that you can do.  Nonetheless, I don’t think I need to spend three days there next year.  Just one will probably be sufficient, assuming I can actually manage to get the tickets.

August 24, 2014

The Billionaire and the Blimp – A Short Story

Filed under: Short Stories — Brian Lutz @ 12:34 am

(Note:  This is a short story (more of a joke really) that I wrote about a year ago on Shmups Forum, one of the boards I read which is devoted to the topic of 2-dimensional shoot-em-up type games.  If it makes absolutely no sense (for most people who read , context is provided at the end, but don’t read it until after you’ve finished the story.)


There was once an eccentric Brazilian tycoon who traveled the world in a luxurious airship. No expense was spared on this craft; Every space was luxuriously appointed with the best that money could buy. He had fifty servants aboard who catered to his every whim as he flew around the globe attending to his business. Nonetheless, he never seemed content with what he had, and he was constantly remodeling and adding new things to his airship. Oftentimes, even his servants wouldn’t know just he had been up to until they showed up to make preparations for another journey.

One day, the tycoon was preparing to depart for an economic summit in America. Unfortunately, his personal chef got stuck in a traffic jam on the way to the airport, and was very late in arriving, so much so that he barely had time to board before the airship was set to take off. Fortunately, there were several hours before it would be time to prepare his master’s evening meal, so instead of heading for the galley, he took the time to get settled into his quarters and take a nap as the airship began its northward flight over the Amazon rain forest.

They were well underway by the time the chef was ready to begin cooking. He made his way toward the galley, but before he could get there, he was surprised to find his master waiting for him there.

“Ah, I was wondering when you would get here. Come now, I have a surprise for you.”

They both proceeded toward the galley, and when the chef opened the door, he saw that it had been completely remodeled since the last time he was there. There was gleaming stainless steel everywhere. Any appliance you could think of was available. There were convection ovens, fryers, griddles, Sous-vide machines, kettles, mixers, blenders… You name it, it was in this kitchen. The chef didn’t even want to know just how much his master had spent on all this shiny new equipment.

After the chef had taken several minutes to take it all in, the tycoon finally asked, “Well, what do you think?” The chef just stood there staring, unable to come up with a reply.

Sensing the shock on the face of the chef, the tycoon replied, “Well, I see you’re a little surprised by the changes, so I will leave you to it. If you wouldn’t mind, I think I would like to have some fish and chips this evening. I believe you will find that the fryer has already been pre-heated for your convenience. Please let me know when dinner will be ready.”

The chef continued to just stand there, staring at the newly remodeled kitchen. He never expected to see a kitchen this luxuriously appointed on land, much less on an airship. The tycoon, seeing that his chef had been staring transfixed at the new galley, finally tapped him on the shoulder and asked, “What’s the matter, is there something wrong with all this?”

It took some time before the chef was able to respond. Finally, he turned around, looked at his master, and replied:

“I never thought I’d be frying over a jungle.”


(If you have no idea what I’m talking about, take a look at this bit of butchered English from a video game released a number of years ago.)

August 7, 2014

I Have Absolutely No Idea How Much Phone I Really Need.

Filed under: Technology — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 12:59 am

It has now been a little bit more than two years since I bought my current smartphone, an HTC Evo 4G LTE. There’s nothing particularly unusual about that (I’m led to understand that the HTC One X and its variants were pretty popular back in their day, even if they were thoroughly overshadowed by the Samsung Galaxy S3) but in my case, it’s the “More than two years” part that’s rather unusual in this case.  With my last couple of phones, by the time my two-year upgrade rolled around I was pretty much ready to jump onto the Next Big Thing as soon as I could.  In both cases, the new phone was a clear upgrade from the old one, and represented a pretty significant leap in technology.  Fast forward a couple of years, and at this point, for various reasons I find myself in far less of a hurry to upgrade than I normally would be.

That isn’t to say that I couldn’t use an upgrade about now.  My current phone, in spite of the fact that it’s held up surprisingly well given what I’ve put it through, is definitely starting to show its age about now.  Battery life is still surprisingly decent most of the time as long as I don’t do something to aggravate the thing, and for the most part everything works the way it should, but for some time now it’s had a habit of rebooting itself at inopportune times (less now than it used to once I figured out that I was pushing down on the power button if I tried to tie a shoe with it in my pocket) and lately it’s taken to quarreling with the local WiFi in my apartment, to the point that it quickly drains its battery banging its proverbial head on the proverbial wall if it can’t connect.  But the most obvious issue that has cropped up recently is the fact that somehow, my phone has gotten bent.  I have no idea how it happened, but at some point the top portion of my phone managed to actually develop a slight kink in it, as you can see above.  Interestingly enough, it doesn’t seem to impact functionality at all (nor does the display appear to be affected in any way,) and for the most part I don’t even notice it unless I actually take the cover off and look at it.  Nonetheless, even if it’s not actually doing anything it just makes the thing look weird.

Of course, if you’ve been keeping up with the latest trends in smartphones, you’ll know that curved displays are one of the things that shockingly large quantities of R&D money has been poured into, and as a result of this a couple of smartphones with these curved displays have shown up on the market (the Samsung Galaxy Curve and the LG G Flex.)  In spite of the fancy new display technology, both of these phones seem to be decidedly middle-of-the-pack on specs, and the reviews on both seem to be pretty lukewarm.  Of course, given the fact that large quantities of R&D money has presumably been spent on the displays, someone had to make them, right?  I actually got to spend some time messing with an LG G Flex at work the other day (one of my responsibilities at work is to run interoperability tests against our head unit with a number of different models of smartphones roughly once per quarter) and in spite of the unusually large screen and the allegedly fancy curved display, I couldn’t shake the feeling that in spite of the bells and whistles there just wasn’t much to distinguish it from any of the other nine Android phones I have tested to date in the current interoperability pass.

Which brings up the question:  Just what distinguishes one phone from another these days?  Basically, what it boils down to is that you have roughly three or four flavors of phone OS out there depending on who you ask (While I was writing that it took me a minute to remember that Blackberry somehow still exists, which says something about just how far and how quickly they’ve fallen off the radar lately.)  In terms of most mainstream users you’ve got iPhone flavor, Android flavor and Windows Phone flavor.  The iPhone side isn’t all that difficult to figure out since you have just one manufacturer and a handful of models to worry about.  On the Windows Phone side your choices won’t be all that much more complicated (over there you pretty much have Nokia and a few miscellaneous devices from the likes of HTC and Samsung, and not much else.)  Then you get to Android, and things get a lot more complicated in a hurry.  On the current round of interoperability testing I’m working on at work (which is unusually large because it accounts for two quarters worth of devices) there are only four iPhone models (basically the four most recent ones, barring whatever Apple happens to announce in early September) but there’s also twenty different Android handsets from eight different manufacturers.  Granted, Samsung accounts for eight of those by itself (and there aren’t any HTC models on this particular round of testing,) but that’s a lot of testing on a lot of different handsets that seem largely identical, at least on the surface.  Most of the ones we’re testing run some variant of either Android Jellybean or Android KitKat, and even with the various customizations that most handset manufacturers seem all-too-willing to paste all over the stock Android, in the end the only way I ever seem to notice any of that is when the custom UI does something that breaks my standard workflow.

Anyone remember when people thought the iPhone 5 was going to be too big? Me neither.

So far, out of the handsets I’ve tested during this pass, the only one that has really stood out (at least for reasons other than bugs filed during the tests) would be this one, the Sony Xperia Z Ultra.  Yes, apparently you’re supposed to carry one of these things around and use it as your phone.  And while it is possible in theory (in a pinch, I’ve found I can actually cram an iPad Mini into a pocket of my jeans, not that I’d recommend it) but you’re going to look awfully silly doing it.  I suspect the idea is that you hire some guy to follow you around carrying your phone.  in spite of the apparently impressive size of the screen, when it all boils down there really isn’t all that much to distinguish this from a lot of the other phones on the market.  Which seems to be the problem that just about everyone has these days.  Sure, you get different cases and a few scattered gimmicks here and there, but by and large when you start using a lot of different Android devices it becomes clear pretty quickly that there really isn’t a whole lot to distinguish any one of them from another.

Which, ironically enough, makes it harder than ever to shop for a phone.  If you read the two posts I linked above, you can see some of the thought process that went into my last couple of phone purchases, but in each instance the choice was pretty straightforward, and the devices that I replaced my then-current one with were pretty significant upgrades over the previous one.  But now when I look at the choices I’d have available, it’s not really all that clear that I’d really be gaining all that much by replacing my current phone.  Sure the new one would be new, shiny and presumably not bent, but it seems that it would be an incremental upgrade at best.  And aside from a couple of rumors about some of the Nexus devices we might get later this year, there isn’t really anything that sounds interesting on the horizon.  I suppose I’ll eventually figure out something, but to be perfectly honest I’m not in a big hurry.  I suppose if I really wanted a change I could go for an iPhone, but I’ve just never really been all that interested in using an iPhone.  I have one at work I use as a test device on a regular basis, and I don’t really have anything against them (which might shock some people who have been reading my stuff for long enough) but they really don’t fir into my workflow as well as Android phones do.  Which is basically a fancy way of saying that I prefer the other brand.  It’s really just another Coke/Pepsi situation these days, only the cans cost several hundred bucks and you usually only drink one every couple of years.

I suppose in the end, the problem with having used smartphones before using smartphones was cool is that at some point you get bored of the things.  And it’s up to the manufacturers to try to figure out how to convince you that you aren’t bored of the things.

July 30, 2014

Trying to Make Someting Of Myself

Filed under: Art, Random Stuff — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 1:32 am

This past weekend saw the arrival of the annual Art Fairs in  Downtown Bellevue.  Although there are a lot of things I like about living in Downtown Bellevue, this particular weekend is one of the times I really enjoy living here, as it’s always interesting to go wander around the three different art fairs and see all the cool stuff people are making that I can’t afford.  To be honest, I’m not really sure why they need to have three separate art fairs put on by three separate groups when it seems like it would be easier to just have one big one, but that’s beside the point.  Either way, it doesn’t take much looking to see that there are people with (usually) a lot more more creativity than myself who have managed to come up with some really interesting stuff.  And in a lot of cases, it is things that are well beyond my skill level.  For example, I seriously doubt you’ll see me making fabric-like sheets of woven glass anytime soon, and I think the last time I tried to paint anything was somewhere around fourth grade.  On the other hand, as I wander around the various booths and see the various things people have made, every once in a while, something jumps out at me when I’m browsing around.  Not necessarily because it’s an expertly crafted piece of art (with a price tag that I can’t afford, no less), but because it’s something that, if I put my mind to it, I could most likely make myself.


To illustrate this point, let me show off a couple of somewhat recent acquisitions in what passes for my art collection these days.  The box you see above was purchased from a craftsman on the island of Dominica during the Caribbean cruise I went on with a friend last December.  If I recall correctly, I paid about $50 for it.  On one hand, you have to be somewhat wary when purchasing souvenirs when cruising because there’s a good chance that 75% of the stuff you see in the various flea markets on the islands pretty clearly comes from China (if you’re lucky the sellers will at least have the courtesy to take the “Made in China” stickers off before they sell the stuff to you,) but in this particular case it was clear that this one was hand crafted, as the person selling it was busy working on another piece when I paid a visit to his stand near the cruise dock in Rouseau.  As far as Caribbean islands go, Dominica isn’t exactly the most touristy place you’ll find (I’m pretty sure that particular competition is neck-and-neck between St. Thomas, St. Maarten and Aruba)  but in a way that makes it a more interesting place to shop for things like this, because you’re a lot less likely to be overwhelmed by shockingly large quantities of overpriced jewelry stores and Prada bags, fake or otherwise, and more likely to find someone making a modest yet honest living turning out surprisingly beautiful pieces like this one.  In particular, the detail of the bird carved onto the top of the piece shows someone who knows his way around a scroll saw.  The fit and finish of this piece is also very well done, and indicates that a fair bit of effort must have gone into making it.  If someone was selling something like this at one of the Bellevue Art Fairs, I suspect the price would be far higher than the $50 I paid for it.

And yet, with a bit of effort, I think I could try to make something quite similar on my own.  Granted, I have a lot more tools at my disposal than would be available to a craftsman living on a tiny island on the Windward side of the West Indies, but I suspect that even with all that I’d have a hard time matching the quality, and given the most likely approach I would take to this (using a laser cutter, something I have a bit of experience with) my own version would get far more expensive in a hurry, and would also come with the added drawbacks of leaving scorch marks from where the laser makes its cuts.  I would probably also need to work at a smaller scale, as the laser cutters I have worked with tend to not handle thicker pieces all that well, and even if I do laser cut all the pieces I’d still need a router to do all the edges anyway.  Even if I doubt I’d be able to match the original piece nearly as well as I’d like here, I would still like to try this one out, if for no other reason than to see if I can actually come close to matching this one.

This piece, on the other hand, was purchased at the Bellevue Art Museum Fair last year, from an artist by the name of Christine Hausserman.  Although I don’t necessarily want to disclose how much I paid for this particular piece, I will say that it cost considerably more than the wooden box discussed above.  And yet this was one of the rare pieces at the art fair that stood out and came with a not completely shocking price tag.  When it comes down to it, this is ultimately just sheet metal and Dichroic glass (confession time:  I might be something of a sucker for Dichroic glass) and yet the end result is something I enjoy being able to look at whenever I want.  This too seems like something I could make myself if I was sufficiently motivated to do so, but I get the sneaking suspicion that the management in my apartment building might have some issues if I started messing with a plasma cutter in my apartment (that plus the fact that setting the place on fire seems to be a good way to lose your deposit.)

That seems to be the big limiting factor in all this:  Lack of proper tools.   Sure, there are places I could probably go out and find a lot of this stuff if I needed it for some reason (that’s what hackerspaces like Metrix Create:Space in Seattle are good for) but ultimately I’d love to have some of this stuff to mess with on my own.  To be honest, I’m nowhere near as mechanically inclined as either my Dad or my two brothers, but even so when I get to the point where I buy a house of my own I’d love to build some sort of a workshop so I have somewhere to mess with this stuff.  If I’m ever going to make something of myself, doesn’t that mean that at some point I actually have to make something?

July 17, 2014

At Least I’m Going Somewhere

Filed under: Cars — Brian Lutz @ 1:17 am

Is it just me, or does it seem sometimes like owning a car can be more of a hassle than it’s worth?  Of course, being able to move around freely whenever and wherever I want (traffic notwithstanding) is nice and all, but the things have a pesky tendency to generate shockingly large quantities of various expenses when you least expect it.  My current car is a 2007 VW Rabbit/Golf (for some reason they decided to bring back the Rabbit name for a couple of model years before switching back to the customary Golf name) that was purchased new right around the time I started this Blog (I think either the second or third post I made here was about buying the car.)  For the most part, it’s actually been pretty reliable, and I haven’t really had any major mechanical problems with it in the 7+ years and roughly 73,000 miles I’ve had it for.   And yet, even without any major repairs to deal with, the thing still has a way of throwing shockingly large expenses at you on a regular basis.

Granted, I am driving a German car, an actual Wolfsburg-built car, not one of the notorious “Actually made in Mexico” ones that made a shockingly large number of people swear off Volkswagens forever back in the MkIV era.  Even though it’s not a particularly fancy or expensive car (by German standards at least) it still comes with some of the infamous German parts and maintenance costs.  The short version is that every 20,000 miles or so the scheduled maintenance is somewhere in the range of $500-600 (at least based on the prices at the dealer, your mileage may vary) and even the lesser services run you somewhere between $75-100.  And that’s assuming nothing goes wrong.  If something breaks or needs replacing (currently my car is due for a water pump replacement, which isn’t an overly expensive part but is a rather involved installation) then things can get even more expensive in a hurry.  Fortunately, I haven’t had to deal with any of the really big repairs… yet.  Oh, and did I mention that I’m just about due for a new set of tires?

Of course, it’s not just the maintenance and repairs that will get you.  There’s also insurance, which will put a nice little dent in your wallet every six months or so.  And that’s assuming that you never have to actually use it for anything.  Unfortunately, “stuff” has a tendency to be unavoidable at times, especially when you have a car that spends a lot of time in narrow parking garages.  A couple of days ago I managed to accidentally scrape one of the concrete posts I park next to while trying to pull out of my space, resulting in this lovely little gouge on the right rear quarter panel.  The good news is that insurance will cover it, the bad news is that based on my past experience with auto body shops they’ll figure out some way to make this a $1,500 repair job, even though I’d only be on the hook for a $500 deductible plus whatever rate increase they decide to throw at me for the next three or four years.  Either way, it means that I’ll be without my car for a few days, and just in time for the nice little trafficpocalypse that WSDOT has planned for I-90 next week when they reduce the whole thing down to a single lane for a whole week right in the path of every possible bus I might take to work.  And working from home isn’t really an option for me either, since 95% of my job requires having access to the very specialized hardware I test on.  The ironic part is that even though the stuff I’m working on is intended for use in cars, unless it’s actually installed in said car it isn’t exactly the most portable thing in the world (you should see the ridiculous lengths we have to go to if for some reason we need to test the non-navigation model under driving conditions.)  So basically, it’s going to be a serious pain to get to work for the next week or so.

And it’s not just getting to work that’s the issue either.  I think that for the most part I’ll probably be able to make it through the weekend without too much trouble (I’ll be with my friends for most of it, and there’s a good chance someone else will be doing the driving) but it does mean that I will most likely need to walk to church on Sunday.  Fortunately I’m close enough that it’s an option to do so, and if I can get past that I can probably hold out until I get my car back, whenever that happens to be.  One of the advantages of living in the Downtown area is that there’s quite a bit within walking distance, and a lot of other things aren’t too much further away.  Even so, you don’t realize how much you actually use your car until you have to go without it for a few days.  Either way, I don’t recommend scraping concrete posts with your car.  It seems to be a bad habit to get into.

July 4, 2014

Random Thoughts: Summertime, and the Living is Surprinsingly Complicated

Filed under: Random Stuff — Brian Lutz @ 1:08 am

Well, tomorrow’s the Fourth of July, and as usual I’ve pretty much gone overboard on the fireworks.  There’s been plenty going on around here lately, both in and out of work, but I figure I better try to get in a post here while I still have all my fingers handy (not that I’m planning on losing any of them, but I’m just making sure.) So here’s a few random thoughts from the last few weeks:

  • After nine months of slogging through whatever crummy weather nature decided to throw at us, Summer has finally arrived here.  And it seems that everyone is determined to cram as much summertime stuff as they possibly can into it, which means that there’s no possible way you can do it all.  This means that you have to pick and choose how you spend your days, especially on the weekends.  This past weekend, for example, was spent mostly dealing with various fireworks-related tasks (including picking up most of the stuff for the Fourth of July,) although me and my friends did also find time to make a stop at the Nisqually wildlife refuge near Olympia along the way.  In the meantime, there were about six or seven other things I could have done if not for the fact that there was just no time to do any of them.  July is looking pretty booked as well,  I’ve been meaning to have some friends over to my place for dinner one evening, but so far there doesn’t seem to be a convenient day to do it until at least the end of the month, if not later than that.  And August is probably going to get filled uppretty quickly too, although the one thing that didn’t make the schedule for me this year is PAX, since I happened to miss out on the roughly 45-minute window where tickets were available since I was in a meeting at work at the time.  At this point I may try to go for one day if I can find a pass that’s at least semi-reasonable, but I’m not sure I’m interested in more than that anymore.  Then again, that’s another story, presumably for another post I’ll never get around to writing.
  • Last week, one of my co-workers was leaving the company to pursue a different project for a different company.  He is one of the guys on the team who has been around for quite a while, so naturally there were a number of various going-away events and get-togethers on the way out.  I attended one of these after-work gatherings one day last week, which took place at one of the trendy bar-and-grill type places you seem to have a ton of around around here these days.  I suspect that I probably don’t need to describe the place in too much detail, because you can probably imagine it.  Some vaguely fancy looking place in a trendy neighborhood with sky-high rents, half a zillion different types of beer (which is presumably great if you actually drink beer, kind of pointless otherwise), and in spite of the word “grill” featured prominently in the name, half the menu is sushi and the number of menu items for which a grill would actually be required could be counted on one hand.  The lights are dim, and the music is loud, but you can’t really hear it anyway because the ceilings seem to be designed to funnel every single conversation in the restaurant straight to your ears all at once except your own.  And somehow, all of this is supposed to somehow be conducive to socializing.  Who’s bright idea was this anyway?  Yes, I can see the point of creating a certain kind of ambiance to improve the overall experience, but between the dim lighting, loud background noise and mediocre food (I guess they figure that by the time you’re done with the Wall ‘O Beer(TM) you’ll be too drunk to really notice) I’m just not sure exactly how this type of place is supposed to be a good place for socializing.  And yet any time I go to a place like that it seems to be packed nonetheless.  Maybe the fact that I might be the only customer in the whole entire place who isn’t drinking, but I’ve just never seen the appeal of these types of places.

  • Currently stuck in my head right now: the music from the first level of Ikaruga, a once-obscure shoot-em-up that’s gradually become far less obscure over the years, which I’ve made a few poor attempts to play that generally failed miserably.  As I’ve been in the process of getting everything figured out for the Fourth of July this year, I’ve been doing a lot of research and watching a lot of YouTube videos to figure out what to get.  At the same time I’ve been seeing all sorts of elaborate pyromusical productions, and it’s occurred to me that it would be fun to do one of those someday.  Obviously I have a lot to learn before I can get to the point of being able to do stuff like that, but one of the things I’ve been thinking about a fair bit is songs that would be good to synchronize a fireworks show to.  This seems like one of the prime candidates, assuming I ever manage to get the stuff to do something like that (which involves things like electronic fire systems, software to design the shows, not to mention the large quantity of fireworks you’d need for that type of thing.  I’d definitely like to try it someday, but something tells me I’m going to need a little more space than I’ve got.

  • My fireworks tomorrow night won’t look anything like this, but I was fortunate enough to attend a pyromusical performance put on by the people who run Sky Wizard Pyro up in Monroe (which is also where I got a good chunk of my stuff for tomorrow.)  In addition to running one of the best-stocked fireworks tents in the area, these guys are pros, and put on a number of the professional shows in the area as well.  This was the pre-4th of July show they put on last Saturday, using all products that are (theoretically) available to the consumer.  In particular, the mine and comet effects were amazing to see in person, although some of the effect was lost when someone apparently unplugged the speakers halfway through and the music cut out (it was fixed for the video.)  I don’t even want to know how much they spent on this stuff (even at wholesale prices that stuff has to be freakin’ expensive) but that is easily as impressive as any show I’ve seen using professional display shells.  Now I just need to figure out how to do some of that stuff…

Regardless of how you’re spending your Fourth of July, keep it safe and (at least somewhat) sane.


June 18, 2014

A Tale of Smoke and Accordions: A short story

Filed under: Short Stories — Tags: , , — Brian Lutz @ 11:02 pm

Image credit: Flickr user Bernat Casero, Creative Commons


Based (very loosely) on a true story.  This is another one of me and my friends’  random conversations over dinner a few nights ago taken to yet another ridiculous and absurd conclusion.  There will be a quiz later.

It was on a gloomy Friday evening that me and a couple of friends found ourselves in front of the old Italian restaurant.  Neon beer signs glowed in the windows on one side of the building, and the decor of the place seemed to suggest that Julius Caesar himself probably ate here at some point, and they hadn’t bothered to do much remodeling since then.  Still, you never know when you might find a hidden gem in a dive like this, and I figured it was worth a shot.

As we approached the front door, the faint sound of accordion music began to emanate from the inside of the restaurant.  Instantly I recognized the tune as one of the standard cliché songs  you hear any time someone on TV needs something to sound Italian.  As I opened the front door, a pair of singers could be heard from some back corner of the room.  A quick look around confirmed that the place might have looked reasonably fancy at some point, but the decor inside looked almost as shopworn as the exterior, and yet the place was surprisingly busy.  Nobody was at the front counter, so as I waited I grabbed a menu and took a look.  It quickly became clear that the only thing luxurious in this place was the prices on the menu.  But before I could look up, a waiter in a dinner jacket and bowtie appeared in front of me.

“Can I help you?”

“Yes, a table for 3 please.”

“Would you like smoking, or non-smoking?”

“Non-smoking, of course.”

“And would you like accordion or non-accordion?”

The place wasn’t exactly all that huge, but I figured it’s tough to carry on a conversation with an accordion blasting in your ears, so slightly less accordion might be a good thing.

“Non-accordion please?”

“Ok then, you’d like the non-smoking, non-accordion section.  You will have to wait a bit, but if you’d like I could get you a table in the smoking accordion section.”

“No, we’ll… Wait, what?”

“The smoking accordion section.  It’s one of the loveliest corners in our fine restaurant.”

“That may  be, but why is it a smoking accordion section?  Did someone accidentally light their accordion on fire?”

“Of course not, that would be absurd.  You see, many years ago there was a great master accordion craftsman in the Italian village of Castelfidardo by the name of Giovanni Carini who crafted some of the finest accordions this world has ever seen, but he so enjoyed smoking his pipe that he could not bear to be without it.  One day in 1879, he got a brilliant idea to build an accordion with a pipe built in, so he could play his accordion and smoke his pipe at the same time.  “

“OK, so…”

“Soon he carried his accordion everywhere he went.  Everywhere he went, people praised his fine smoking accordion, and soon everyone wanted one.  He always wanted to make people happy, so he made sure each of his children, and each of his grandchildren got a smoking accordion of their own.  One of our accordion players has one of these fine instruments, which sounds a bit different from a regular one.  And yet, some people prefer the sound of the normal accordion, so we offer different sections with each one.”

“But didn’t I say I wanted the non-accordion section?”

“Ah, you see, we don’t have much room here, so you may have to think of our non-accordion section as more of a less accordion section.”  This was starting to get just a little bit confusing.

“Well, OK…  The non-smoking accordion section, I guess.”

“And would you prefer the smoking accordion smoking section, or the smoking accordion non-smoking section?

“Didn’t I say I didn’t want to be in the smoking section?”

“So you’ll want the non-smoking accordion smoking non-smoking accordion non-accordion non-smoking section then?  Very well.”

“Wait a minute here, what’s all this about smoking accordion smoking?

“You see, our accordion player isn’t the only one here with a smoking accordion.  Many of Mister Carini’s grandchildren immigrated to this area over a hundred years ago, each bringing their prized smoking accordions along.  They have now been passed down through generations, and the great-great grandchildren who own the prized smoking accordions are now some of our most loyal customers.  As with Mister Carini himself, they too travel everywhere with their smoking accordions.  But not all of them smoke their smoking accordions, so we need to have a smoking accordion smoking section and a smoking accordion non-smoking section.”

“Ah, I see,” I said, even though it was pretty clearly a lie.  “But what if I don’t want to be near any smoking accordions, smoking or otherwise?”

“Oh, then you’ll be wanting the non-smoking accordion smoking accordion non-smoking smoking section then?”

“Wait, I…”

“Or was it the non-smoking accordion smoking accordion non-smoking non-smoking section?  I’m sorry sir, I seem to have forgotten what you wanted.”

By now I might have been getting just a little bit impatient.  “What if I don’t want any freakin’ accordions anywhere near me?”

“That depends, sir.  are you looking for the non-smoking accordion non-smoking accordion smoking smoking section or the non-smoking accordion non-smoking accordion smoking non-smoking section?  There shouldn’t be too many accordions in either of those I should think.”

“Well, I’ll…”

“Actually, now that I think of it, I think we might have had to put a smoking accordion smoker in the non-smoking accordion non-smoking accordion smoking non-smoking section tonight.  I’d have to find out if he’s smoking his smoking accordion in order to figure out if it’s the non-smoking accordion non-smoking accordion smoking smoking section or the non-smoking accordion non-smoking accordion smoking non-smoking section right now.


“Or I just had a lovely little table open up, but it’s in the smoking accordion section next to some smoking accordion non-smokers…”

“Oh, you mean the smoking accordion non-smoking accordion smoking non-smoking section?”

“Actually, I believe it’s in the smoking accordion non-smoking accordion smoking smoking section.  Unless the smoking accordion has switched places with the non-smoking accordion, in which case it would now be the non-smoking accordion non-smoking accordion smoking non-smoking section… Or was that the non-smoking accordion non-smoking accordion smoking smoking section?  You’ll have to bear with me sir, I occasionally have trouble keeping track of these things.”

“Gee, I wonder why.”

“Either that, or it appears I also have a table in the non-smoking accordion smoking accordion smoking non-smoking section…  But the smoking accordion smokers don’t smoke their accordions much there.”

“Actually, I was hoping for a section without any smoking accordion, without any non-smoking accordion, without any smoking accordion smoking and without any smoking accordion non-smoking.”

“Did you mean the non-smoking accordion non-non-smoking accordion non smoking accordion smoking non-smoking accordion non-smoking smoking section or the non-smoking accordion non-non-smoking accordion non smoking accordion smoking non-smoking accordion non-smoking non-smoking section?”

“Um…  Whichever one of those has the most non-smoking in it, I guess.”

“Unfortunately, we’re all booked up in that section, but if you’d like, I think the smoking accordion player should be off by 9, and the smoking accordion non-non-smoking accordion non-smoking accordion smoking non-smoking accordion non-smoking  smoking section should be a non-smoking accordion non-non-smoking accordion non-smoking accordion smoking non-smoking accordion non-smoking  non-smoking section, assuming there aren’t any non-smoking accordion smoking smokers in that area by then.  Would that work?”

“Um…  On second thought, do you happen to do take-out?”



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