Catching up before I go.

Jul 14, 2008

Work's had me running around a bit more than usual lately, which has put a serious crimp in my time to write, let alone keep up with current events. I don't know how much time I'll have this week because I have wedding-type running around to take care of, on top of getting ready to travel to the city that never sleeps - good old New York City to attend what could be the last HOPE conference organized and thrown by 2600 Magazine. As one might expect, available time allocated to sleeping, resting up, or getting other stuff done has been in short supply.

Those of you who know how I act while sleep deprived may commence snickering.

Due to a major foul-up on the Orange Line of the DC Metro which no one seems to know the origins of (Metrorail seem to have gone out of their collective way to not tell anyone what the hell happened at rush hour on Friday afternoon) I didn't get home until after 1900 EST5EDT Friday evening. I was on my way home from work when the train I was on stopped at the West Falls Church station and offloaded the lot of us in one fell swoop. The scratchy PA system on the platform informed us that there had been a power failure at the Vienna Metro station and that the Orange Line was being taken out of service pending repairs. Much to my surprise, the train we'd just been thrown off of closed its doors, changed its sign to the OUT OF SERVICE text, and sped away down the track in the general direction of Vienna, Virginia.

If there was a power failure, how did the train start moving? I must confess, I don't know a whole lot about how the Metro works, but that seems counter-intuitive to me. Not too long after that, Mika called my cellphone: she'd been contacted by Hasufin, who'd been offloaded two stops east of my current location on the Metro. She offered to drive to West Falls Church to pick me up, and then we'd swing by to get Hasufin. Rather than climb aboard the shuttle buses that were causing a traffic jam in the rail station's parking lot, I sat on the curb and read a book while waiting for Mika. I think it was a solid half-hour or so before she fought her way through the traffic jam to the middle of the lot, but resorted to calling me because she couldn't get any closer (tip to drivers of hotel shuttle buses: leave room for other traffic to pass by. it's in everyone's best interest, really.) Then we had to figure out where Hasufin would be because he started hoofing it by way of a couple of shortcuts to our general neck of the deck, which didn't help us any because neither Mika nor myself knew any of the landmarks he was referencing. Ultimately, we intercepted him cutting through a parking lot next to route 7 in Falls Church through sheer chance because we were searching for a particular Pho restaurant along the main drag. Thence back to their place to rest for a few, then back to the West Falls Church station to pick up their roommate Cindy, then back to their place so everyone could change for dinner and sparring practice that night, then back to my place so I could drop off my field kit and get changed out of my work clothes...

As one might imagine, I was approaching falling over tired by that point and really didn't feel up for sparring practice at Orthaevelve's place that night. Still, Lyssa and I had promised Orthaevelve that we'd go to dinner with her at the California Pizza Kitchen of Tyson's Corner that night, so after everyone assembled at our apartment, we set forth for House Eclipse to organize everyone. Jarin met up with us there and we stormed Tyson's Corner in search of food.

The down side was that we were told that we'd have roughly a half hour wait before a table for ten freed up. I was running on reserves by that point, so Jarin and I hiked the length of the mall to Barnes and Noble, about the only place that we could get a decent cup of coffee to keep me conscious. As luck would have it, we made it as far as the escalator going upstairs when my cellphone rang - the party had been seated early and could we please come back and join everyone?

It never fails.

Picture a table full of strangely dressed geeks passing books around, discussing the finer points of Aztec astrology, and waiting for their food to arive. One of them has all but done a faceplant into his silverware, clutching a mug of coffee in a white-knuckled fist. Another seems to have more ink than skin and the beginnings of a fine looking mohawk. Salads and pizza arrive and are distributed, and the table really comes to life with all the unusual combinations of toppings. Our waitress was remarkably patient and obviously working hard (everyone and their backup had packed the place on Friday night), so we made sure to cause as little direct trouble as we could and made it worth her while.

When everything was said and done, Lyssa and I passed on sparring practice and went home to rest after an annoyingly long day.

Saturday: grocery shopping, mad scientist coffee, Mage night
Lyssa and I ran a few errands on Saturday morning - she had to pick up some clothes for her sister's wedding in a couple of weeks and I nosed around Radio Shack a bit to see what kind of parts they still had stocked in their physical stores (it seems to be true that the stores that aren't in malls have better selections of both tools and discrete components) and catch breakfast at Manhattan Coffee next door. Manhattan Coffee has two things going for it: good bagels and good coffee. Unfortunately, their disposable coffee cups are prone to leak when you least expect them and pour hot coffee all over whatever happens to be directly below them. I leave what happened next as an exercise to the reader, but suffice it to say that while I enjoy the music of Frankie Valli, I have no desire to sing like him.

Lyssa and Laurelinde decided to sit out Mad Scientist Coffee on Saturday afternoon. I showed up late because I had to stop at the bank to take care of something and then fax out a stack of paperwork at Kinko's. While at Kinko's, I discovered something interesting about their outlet: they've installed extra hardware to make it easier to pay for what you use, namely, credit card readers are attached to every fax machine and copier, and they've upgraded their pay-for-play net.access to use the same mechanism. As luck would have it, I'd forgotten a fax number so I decided to give their Lapnet service a try (which is where you jack your laptop in, boot up, and pay $0.10us per minute for net.access). After connecting the ethernet cable to Windbringer and booting up, I discovered that while the local firewall/router would dole out IP addresses (192.168.0.0/24) and associated configuration information, you also have to plug the USB cable zip-tied to the ethernet cable into your laptop to run their Lapnet software application. I did so and discovered that Linux reads it as a USB CD-ROM drive that can be automounted. There are two Lapnet applications stored on this disk, one for Microsoft Windows and one for Apple MacOS that you have to execute before they'll let you outside of the local network. A bit of poking around revealed that they seem to have a switched network (I could only see network traffic that Windbringer was directly involved in without having to pull any dirty tricks) and that the local firewall/router will reject any and all traffic destined for the outside unless you've paid (I tried accessing sites by hostname and IP address but got nowhere). The Lapnet software runs perfectly under Linux using Wine - slide your credit or FedEx/Kinko's smartcard into the slot, run the Lapnet software, and minimize the window. I was able to not only hit Google but use Thunderbird to get the fax number I needed out of my work e-mail. Total time: four wallclock minutes. Total cost: $0.40us. Not bad.

I left Mad Scientist Coffee early because I had to head home and clean off the dining room table for Mage night. Lyssa had made burritos for dinner, so she, Laurelinde, and I had a hasty dinner before I started pulling sourcebooks from the shelves on the off chance that I'd have to refer to them during the game. We wound up starting later than expected because some of the players went out to dinner beforehand, which gave Lyssa and Laurelinde a chance to go on a munchie run and me a chance to straighten up a bit. We didn't finish the current adventure as I'd hoped because we ran short on time, so we'll have to wrap it up next game. I'll probably have to start another adventure at the same time using some of the plot hooks thoughtfully provided by the players which will be thoroughly abused. Maybe an action-type adventure would be a good change of pace...

Much of Sunday was spent at Laurelinde's place relaxing and generally having a good time. I spent a good bit of the day laying on the couch writing and reading, and going out for groceries for a bit with Bronwyn at some point that afternoon. I also did some troubleshooting of an older Alienware desktop machine which didn't require the doctor's bag of gear I'd packed but a simple screwdriver, and hacked around a bit on Bronwyn's laptop to install Wine and Civilization IV. Installing Wine under Ubuntu Linux was easy; getting Civilization IV to install was also easy; getting Civ IV to play, however, proved to be a trick. I hadn't realized that, like many Windows applications, I should have installed the manufacturer's patches to fix the problems I ran into. If it's anything like Diablo II, that's all you need to waste spend many a happy hour playing. Tori, Kate's daughter who's moved to the DC metroplex, was kind enough to make dinner for us last night (Thai spring rolls and vegetable stir-fry), and Bronwyn made strawberry shortcake for dinner.

If there's one thing about the House of Leaves, everyone there can cook wonderfully, and it's assured that you'll go away happy.

I don't write about this often, but one of the things that I greatly enjoy doing is making clothes and props, for costumes and for other reasons. In preparation for Saloncon and my wedding at the end of October, I've decided to move away from making clothes for a bit and get back into electronics. In other words, I've decided to build a steampunk sonic screwdriver.

I've been wrestling with designs for about two weeks now, and I think I've settled on something that I can assemble without a workbench or a full workshop, though shopping for most of the parts is going to have to wait until after HOPE and Lyssa's sister's wedding in a few weeks. The biggest problem I ran into was figuring out what kind of circuit I should use to make the sound effect that would actually fit into a wand-like device about an inch in diameter. Many of the sound generator kits you can buy on the hobby market are on the large side (a few square inches, to make them easy to put together), so I opted to purchase a toy sonic screwdriver and gut it for the circuitry inside.

It's clear to see that this was designed as a children's toy because it's sturdy as a rock and difficult as hell to take apart. If you follow the instructions for installing the batteries you can separate the two halves (outer and inner, which actually holds the guts) but going any farther is going to require tools (and probably a Dremel) and a lot of destroying plastic to get at the good stuff. The actual sound generator is a blob of microcircuitry about one third the size of the nail on my pinky finger, with an amazingly loud piezo speaker, an LED, and a very tiny momentary pressbutton (which came loose from its associated wires within seconds of extraction). Freeing all of the wires took about two hours of nibbling with pliers and diagonal cutters, I'm sorry to say. I think I'm going to need to get a much lower wattage soldering iron to fix the pressbutton and replace the LED with a true ultraviolet LED.

I also gutted a spare USB key and a keychain laser pointer from Radio Shack so I can add additional functionality to my favorite toy (after all, who'd have sonic?). I'm thinking of using a couple of momentary rocker or paddle switches instead of pressbuttons to turn the effects on (and turn them off again after the user lets go), and possibly adding a reed switch that will cut the power unless a magnet is brought into proximity (just for fun). I might have to go with plastic tubing or coils of copper wire insulated inside to make it look like something that Nikola Tesla would be proud of.