The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

December 16, 2014

The Joy of Collecting Pointless Data

Filed under: Random Stuff — Brian Lutz @ 12:28 am

Over the past couple of days, I have learned that the hot water in my apartment runs about 125 degrees.  And that the freezer seems to be somewhere around -8 degrees in the back.  I also learned that the temperature in my apartment varies by several degrees from the outside of the building by the windows to the part that faces the inside of the building.  None of this is really all that surprising to me, but thanks to an impulse purchase off of Amazon last week of a cheap infrared thermometer I bought off Amazon on a whim last week when it went on sale for $12 with free Prime shipping (currently it’s $19, but still a relative bargain.)  Granted, for that much money you’re not exactly looking at a top-of-the-line model, so you’re not exactly going to get scientific grade accuracy out of it (if you need that, be prepared to spend at least a couple hundred dollars)  but for any purpose I might use it for around the house it should be more than adequate.  It’s actually something I’ve wanted to pick up for a while, but the last time I looked at these they were still somewhere around $40, which is a little bit on the high side for a random impulse purchase.

Still, regardless of what I plan to actually use the thing for (I’m still kind of trying to figure that part out myself) it’s kind of a neat thing to have around the house.  Need to figure out how hot something is on the stove or in the oven?  Grab the infrared thermometer.  Need to figure out where a draft is coming from?  It does that too.  Not that I’d actually fix anything if I did find a problem with this, but it’s kind of interesting to know these things anyway.  Just in the course of our normal everyday comings and goings we have a tendency to generate a whole lot of data.  Naturally, for the most part we don’t even pay any heed to this as this data comes and goes, never to be noticed for more than a few seconds at a time.  Then again, over the course of the past few years, it seems that people have taken a lot more notice of this data, as the concept of the “Internet of Things” has taken hold.  For example, about a year and a half ago I got a Nest thermostat installed in my apartment, which not only makes it ridiculously easy to set up timers on the heat and AC (at least compared to some of the notoriously convoluted “programmable” thermostats I’ve used in the past), but it also includes all sorts of tracking information, and sends a monthly e-mail to tell you how your heat/AC usage compares to other months.  To be honest, after I did the initial setup I haven’t really done much tweaking to the schedule at all, but it does allow me to see how things like outside temperature affect energy usage.  It also has features that allow it to automatically adjust the schedule based on my history and other factors, but in practice I have found that it doesn’t seem to do a whole lot of that.

And that’s just one example.  These days, it seems like just about everyone you see on the street is using some sort of fitness tracker.  I have yet to join in on this particular craze, but these have started popping up all over the place lately.  I can see where it might be useful though.  After all, the toughest part of the whole diet and exercise thing is actually remembering to do it, so if nothing else one of these things would remind you to actually do it.  One of the main attractions of these fitness trackers is that they collect quite a bit of data as you go along, which you can then use to see what how many steps you’ve taken during the day, what your heart rate was at any given time, how well you slept (I’ve always been wondering about that one myself, although I suspect the answer is probably “not as much as you should”) and other things like tracking of runs and other exercise.  It’s all sorts of information that could be useful if you made it useful, but I suspect a lot of people who use the things don’t necessarily do so.  But at least you know how guilty you’re supposed to feel at the end of the day, right?

And those are just as couple of the more obvious examples.  Pretty soon, you’ll see people trying to integrate things like smartphone integration and data monitoring all over the place, and I’d be willing to bet that most of it will get applied to stuff that has absolutely no use for it whatsoever.  Right now, the most egregious example of this I can find is a Crock Pot slow cooker that is Wi-Fi enabled to allow it to be controlled by a smartphone application, all for the low price of only $129.  Last time I checked, a Crock Pot typically has one control knob on it with three settings (four if you buy one of the fancy ones) so I have no idea what the point of one of these things is supposed to be, even if it does allow controlling virtually every aspect of my Crock Pot remotely instead of having to walk twelve steps to the kitchen to do it.  That’s definitely got to be worth an extra $80 over one of those other (sort of) fancy Crock Pots where you have to actually control it by hand.  On the other hand, I’m pretty sure I have no idea how the heck I’d enter a WPA password onto the not-so-fancy one.

For better or for worse, technology has started finding its way into places where we don’t particularly need it.  And as a result of all this, prepare to have all sorts of new and exciting sources of information at your fingertips that you didn’t even know you needed.  And in most cases you won’t actually ever need it after all, but I suppose it’s still neat to have it anyway, right?

November 25, 2014

Going Around the Table, 2014 Edition

Filed under: Family, Holidays — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 1:32 am

Well, it’s just about time for Thanksgiving once again, which is always one of the nicer holidays out of the year.  In many ways, I actually like Thanksgiving better than I like Christmas these days because aside from the occurrence of the holiday itself people don’t really make a big deal out of it the way they do for Christmas (although the creep of Black Friday into Thanksgiving itself does seem to be something of a worrying trend.)  That leaves us free to enjoy it for what it is: a time for the family to get together from its scattered  and give thanks for the blessings in our life, enjoy the traditional Thanksgiving feast (and the now traditional complaints about we keep having turkey every year) and watch certain people get way too worked up about the Cowboys game.  Also, as I’ve previously discussed on this Blog a number of times, one of the Vanderhoeven family traditions that we follow is that in one form or another, we all take some time on Thanksgiving to talk about the things that we are thankful for.  Although the format has changed over the years, the notional idea of “Going Around the Table” still remains, so I continue to stick with that.

As I’ve done each year since 2008, I like to take this opportunity to discuss some of the things that I am thankful for in my life.  And although the idea may admittedly seem a little trite these days, I still find that these posts serve as something of an annual checkpoint for me as to where I am with my various life goals and accomplishments, dubious as they may be sometimes.  To be perfectly honest, I really try not to write too much about my personal life here on my Blog, mostly because I’m pretty boring.  That said, I do feel that on occasion it is necessary to write at least a little bit here and there, partially because every once in a while something interesting does actually happen that’s worth sharing, and partially because I do keep this Blog as something of a personal record, and it can be useful to go back and have some of these things available to read again later.

Generally in these Going Around the Table posts I do try to talk about where I am and what I’m doing at any given time, but I do have the tendency to keep things vague, mostly out of respect for the privacy of the friends and family members who might not want me plastering their lives all over the Internet (and I can’t say I blame them.)  Nonetheless, when I go back and read these posts, it becomes pretty clear to me where I was at the time, and what was to come.  And although I generally try to keep these posts (and my Blog in general) fairly upbeat, there have been times when I can go back and read these posts and see that I was clearly struggling with one thing or another at any given time.  There used to be a time when I was incredibly cynical about…  well, just about everything really.  It’s a bad habit to get into, and even now I find myself falling into it every once in a while, but at least I think I’ve managed to get better at not showing it over the years.  Nonetheless, I’m pretty sure it manages to sneak in every so often.  Nonetheless, it’s still instructive to see where I’ve been and where I was going at the time (hindsight, of course, is 20/20.)

That said, I really don’t have anything to complain about right now.  Even if I don’t see them nearly as much as I used to these days as a lot of us have gone off in whatever various directions life has taken us in, I’m still grateful for a loving and supportive family that I know I can rely on if I ever need them, and which has seen the addition of a niece and a nephew over the course of the past year.  I’m also grateful to have friends that share my offbeat sense of humor (I have to say that we both do a surprisingly good job of putting up with each other’s antics, all things considered) and whom I can trust to be there when I need it.  I would be the first to admit that I tend to be slow to get to know people (some of that is me having trouble putting names to faces sometimes, and some of it is just me occasionally being a little stubborn) but I truly believe that the friends I associate myself with are there for a reason, even if it may have taken me a bit longer than it should for me to realize that.  I just hope I can do for them what they have done for me.

I’m also grateful for the job I have, even if it has been a challenge at times.  I’ll admit that the first six months or so that I spent at my current employer were a particularly challenging time for me, as the project I was working on didn’t seem to be going well and there were people I was having trouble getting along with.  Ultimately I stuck with it, and over time things have gotten better.  That’s not to say that there aren’t challenges, but I think I’ve grown into it reasonably well, and it does come with some nice perks, not the least of which is getting to mess around with a lot of the new phones when they hit the market, and I get to (occasionally) drive a really nice car as well without having to pay for the gas.  All in all, it’s actually a pretty good place to work.

I’m also grateful for the ability to travel, and the traveling companions that accompany me on my various adventures.  This year has not offered quite as many opportunities to visit new places as last year did, but we did still get a chance to see Alaska for the first time (which reminds me that I still need to finish up the post about the second part of my Alaska trip at some point) and next year should have some interesting things planned as well.  I know that eventually I will have to settle down and raise a family which will presumably put a damper on my ability to do so, but in the meantime I consider myself fortunate that I have the ability and the means to do so.

I do still have my challenges, and I do still have my shortcomings (who doesn’t?) but ultimately, I do think things are headed in the right direction, and I’m grateful for that.  And sometimes, that’s the best thing you can hope for.

November 9, 2014

How Sicky-Sweet It Is

Filed under: Food — Tags: , — Brian Lutz @ 9:51 pm

It has now been about a month and a half since me and my friends got back from the cruise we took back in September.  Since that time, we have been making an effort to try to eat healthier, partially to offset any potential weight gain that may have resulted from a week on a cruise ship, and partially because we just need to get into some better eating habits in the first place.  For the most part, we are following what is generally known as the “No white food” diet, which means avoiding refined sugar as much as possible, as well as other processed carbohydrates (depending on who you ask milk may be off limits too, but I have heard mixed opinions on that one.)  We also have weekends as our designated “cheat days” since it can be tough to stick to something like this 100% of the time.  To be honest, the part about avoiding white carbs is where I have trouble with this one, but as long as I can plan ahead I can do a reasonably good job.  On the other hand, one thing that I wasn’t expecting when I started this was that sugar has proved a lot easier for me to avoid than I expected it to be.

Of course, it’s impossible to completely avoid sugar.  When you start looking at nutrition labels more closely you find that it’s virtually impossible to find anything that doesn’t have sugar in one form or another.  Just about any fruits and vegetables have at least some amount of natural sugar in them (although in most cases the amounts are relatively small.)  The same goes for milk and milk products.  If for some reason you decided to live entirely off of meat you might theoretically be able to avoid sugar, but the nutritional deficiencies resulting from such a diet would far outweigh whatever benefits of avoiding sugar.  In spite of this, I have found it surprisingly easy to avoid the obvious stuff (for the most part, I may or may not have been eating a Frosty while I was in the process of writing this) which actually came as a bit of a surprise to me.  One of the things you realize when you’re doing something like this is that it is very easy to casually snack on sugary stuff without giving it a second thought.  I don’t know how it is for other people, but typically when I eat sugary stuff I find that it leaves an aftertaste that can be annoying, which means that more often than not I tend to regret it fairly quickly.  I think it is this tendency that has made it easier for me than it would be to other people to just stay away from the sugar.

One interesting side effect I have noticed from this is that in eating less sugar and trying to avoid it, I’ve found that you start to notice it more when it’s there.  Even things you wouldn’t think of as being sweet start to taste a lot sweeter than you remember them being.  And it’s not always a welcome sensation to realize it.  Even small amounts of sugar (as little as 1 or 2 grams per serving) can end up seeming like a lot more than that.  Eventually you get used to the fact that you can’t get completely away from it and you just focus on avoiding the obvious pitfalls, but you can still tell that it’s there.  Gradually, as you go along, the cravings for sugar seem to gradually taper off, to the point that even when you can eat it you tend to eat less of it (at least that’s what I keep telling myself.)  In particular,  I know that soda can be a big problem for a lot of people, and sometimes it can be hard to avoid it, especially when it gets included with your food.  I also have the first-world-problem of having a soda fountain literally 12 steps from my desk at work (yes, I counted)  but even that I just haven’t been all that interested in.

As for results, it seems like this is doing something.  Exactly what it’s doing I don’t know for sure, but I imagine that even if I have trouble with the rest of the stuff that a diet should entail, at the very least cutting back on the sugar should do something.  Exactly what that is I’m not quite sure, but I guess I’ll figure it out when I get there.

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.  In 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 to be something of a joke (which is in fact what “Scherzo” translates to from the Italian) but these days even the less serious stuff would be considered high culture.  I don’t know if that speaks more to the decline of culture these days or if the stuff is just that good.  Probably a little bit of both really.


  • 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?

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