Am I Jonesing for the Internet?

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

I’m feeling a little agitated and jittery today. My internet access is down due to some nasty snow and wind. Are the two related? They might be. I know I’m certainly missing my twitter friends and feeling less in touch with the world.

How long is this weather going to hold? I can’t look that up. Sure, I could pull out a radio and listen in, if I had one. I might somewhere, but I’m at the mercy of the broadcaster to decide when to report the weather and how much of it to report.

Some argue that internet access should be a basic human right. Does this point of view hold water? I suppose it could be argued that since the internet allows us to draw together into a larger community that it is an essential part of improving the human condition. Its use in political organizing and to connect dissidents in repressive regimes can certainly help make the case for it as a basic human right.

Is the jitteriness really from not having the internet? My doctor did just increase my dose of modafinil, and my body might be reacting to the increase in alertness and stimulation. Last time I was off the net for a while I didn’t jones like this, so maybe it is indeed the medication. I’m not sure.

But am I just trying to justify an unhealthy dependence on the internet? Perhaps. I’m isolated due to my lack of driver’s license and rural location, however, and rarely have any sort of other connection to humanity. Apart from Sophie, that is. So is my reliance on the internet unhealthy? I can’t give you a real answer to that. All I know is that right now I feel a need to connect with good friends and inform myself about the world. I can’t say that that’s entirely unhealthy.

Empathy and Schadenfreude

Friday, December 11, 2009

Empathy is the ability to look at another person, see their emotions and experience a sympathetic emotional response. It’s an ability present in humans and chimps, and perhaps some of the other equally intelligent animals out there. It’s what helps us care for and about those in need around us and rejoice in their success.

It’s generally considered to be a female trait, but I think it helps to define us as human beings. An uncaring perspective, relegated to simply reacting to the emotions of others without understanding them, can lead to a worldview unable to take that dimension of the human condition into consideration.

It’s easy to see how empathy could have helped our distant ancestors. With the ability to care about the suffering of others they were able to see a need for compassion. This mutual support would have allowed for closer knit communities and more caring for those most in need.

Some studies have found that people with conservative viewpoints are less likely to have fully developed senses of empathy. It can generally be seen in calls to war, the subjugation of others and attempts to force personal worldviews onto the lives of others. Rejection of the importance of the emotional component of human life can make for an inhumane person that fails to sway any but the most angry and bigoted of people.

On the opposite side of empathy is schadenfreude, or taking pleasure in the suffering of others. It’s often associated with a desire to see someone punished for perceived crimes. For instance: a working class man chuckling when his boss gets taken to jail for tax evasion. Studies have revealed that this feeling is much more prevalent in men than women. Whether that’s a cultural phenomenon or endemic to the human condition is hard to determine.

Possible evolutionary explanations for schadenfreude are that it helped encourage the punishment of those who acted against the interests of the community. A troublemaker would have been a big problem in early human groups, as survival was a main concern.

Do schadenfreude and a lack of empathy make for a lack of humanity? Perhaps not schadenfreude, since in a sense it holds us together in the desire to punish those who make life harder for all of us. A lack of empathy, however, seems to certainly make a person less humane, but less human? Perhaps denying a person’s humanity is a stance that in itself removes our own humanity. But that could just be my empathy talking.

A Trip to the United Kingdom

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

I have never had the pleasure of traveling to Europe before. In fact, I’ve never left the borders of North America, having only visited parts of Canada and the US. In June 2010, it seems that this is going to change; my father will be taking me to Belgium both to visit relatives and see the sights. Realizing how easy it would be to simply take some of that time to visit the United Kingdom gave me the idea to have a few tweetups with my UK tweeples, and of course, see the sights.

My basic idea is to take a week of my European trip to travel through the UK. I’m planning to have stays in London, Liverpool and Edinburgh. There’ll be a plane trip from Halifax to London, then a train trip to Liverpool, followed by another train trip to Edinburgh, and finally a plane to Brussels to join my father in Belgium.

I’m planning to get to London between the 10th and 12th of June, with a departure from Edinburgh between the 18th and 20th of the same month. How much time I spend in each city will depend on what I end up planning for them.

Should I put Canadian flags on my luggage and backpacks? Is that still a good idea, or has our current government soured the world to Canada? Stephen Harper is an ass, and I’m terribly embarrassed that my fellow Canadians elected his party of knuckle-dragging, petroleum-guzzling, bigoted troglodytes. I also apologize for Céline Dion. I should have nipped that in the bud at the beginning.

There are some things I’d definitely like to do, but as for the rest of my time I’d like some input from people living in the areas as to what’s worth doing. Tweetups are a must! I have no objection to multiple tweetups in each city, and I’d encourage such behaviour. Hehehe…

Meeting famous UK tweeters would be cool. I have no expectations to meet Graham Linehan, Stephen Fry, James Moran, Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost or Robert Llewelyn, but I certainly wouldn’t object to it. Hehehe… I don’t know if that’s the full list of the UK twitter celebs I follow, since I’m without Internet access as I write this. Not sure where Neil Gaiman will be then, since I believe he lives most of the time at his home in the US.

If I could apologize to Douglas Adams’ widow in person for being an ass to him through email in the ‘90s, that’d be great. I pissed him off royally and have always felt bad about it. I’d think that he shared his frustration and anger with her, so I hope she wouldn’t try to kick me in the groin. Slap in the face would be acceptable, however, since I was an enormous asshole to him.

My general goals for the UK leg of the trip are as follows:

  • Meet my tweeples
  • Visit various structures, both historic and pre-historic
  • Enjoy the culinary delights of England and Scotland
  • See the countryside
  • See Hadrian’s wall
  • Experience English weather

My specific goals for London:

  • Visit the Tower of London
  • Visit the Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park
  • Get in a good bit of fish & chips
  • Take him out to visit the Queen, always shouts out something obscene
  • Maybe see Buckingham Palace

My specific goals for Liverpool:

  • Visit Beatles related locales (yes, I’m a Beatles fan)
  • Visit the port
  • Do something typically Liverpool (I’ll need suggestions)
  • Check out Manchester, see if I can find Claude

My specific goals for Edinburgh:

  • Visit Elliott clan related locations (I’m an Elliott)
  • Try some authentic haggis (Hehehe…)
  • Take in some traditional Scottish music
  • See the Scottish moors in moonlight and daylight

I’ll be staying in hostels while I’m there. If you know of any specific ones that have better reputations or have a good cost to benefit ratio, that’d be great. If you feel so inclined, I’ll also accept a camping mattress and sleeping bag in your broom closet.

There are a couple of issues I’ll have to deal with. First and foremost is that I’m not much of a driver. I may have my complete license by then, but I wouldn’t be comfortable driving on the other side of the road when I’m so inexperienced. Might try it out just for fun.

Trains and buses will be my main modes of transit, unless I can get into better shape and bike a bit. I don’t know the price of bicycle rental, but it may be cheaper than buses. I’ll need some input on that.

I can’t drink, so anything that requires drinking is out of the question. I wouldn’t mind visiting pubs, as long as I’m assured of non-alcoholic beverages. Anyone with me should feel free to imbibe to their desired level of inebriety. I may be happy to be a designated driver in that case. Me sober is definitely likely to be safer than someone drunk off their ass.

If I get into better shape, I should be fine. However, at the moment I tire relatively easily. That’s why I’d like a week; I can take things in slowly. However, if I do manage to be healthier it’d be great to see more rather than less.

Some sort of help from my local tweeples would be handy. Maybe someone available during the week days to help guide me to where it is I’m going, or someone to help plan outings the day before. I’ll try to look up as much as possible ahead of time online, but someone local usually knows the “hidden” spots as well, and company is always welcome. I’ll pay in kebabs and chips if desired. Hehehe…

Places that have free WiFi are very welcome. I’ll bring along my iPod Touch to tweet and blog. Probably cheaper and easier to find a UK USB charger over there when I arrive rather than look for one here. If I could find a way to upload pictures from my camera that’d be great. Not sure if my iPod could do it.

Now that this is in the works, I’m looking forward to it quite a lot. My mother’s side is all descended from Scotch and Anglo-Saxon lines. It’ll be interesting to see the Motherland. Hehehe… It’ll be a big bonus to meet my UK tweeples, since some of you have become really good friends. Hopefully everything will work out nicely and I’ll have a fantastic time!

Why I Follow the Tweeps I Do

Friday, October 2, 2009

140 characters is just not enough to do justice to the people I follow that make my Twitter experience so great. Either that, or I’d have to flood people’s timelines with many, many tweets. That’s just wrong... But if I forgot you, and you feel wronged by it, feel free to chew me out publicly in tweets. If I mess up the links to your twitter pages, I'm sorry. Beatings are encouraged.

First and foremost: @JardinDeSophie because she is my wife and the bestest. I don’t know where I’d be without her.

@betagoddess One very special tweep who will be silent forever. I miss my mother.

Good people: People who have engaged me in conversation, some of them have helped me through the hardest time of my life. @ladyloki @botticellirejct @mergyeugnau @bird42 @ram327 @WongoWoman @CS999 @doodledawne @KingBobulousIII @sundaeg1rl @M20Mermaid @damarisens @mr_craig @JulesHardy @Noadi @Angry_Atheist @happy_atheist @TheMadderHat @kpibca @Smithengarde @Scriblit

Atheists: These tweeps I follow because they don’t believe in silly things like sky cake. @theadividual @theonides @achura @AtheistDoug @almightygod @_SATAN_ @pzmyers @AthOnTwi @jref @AtheistInWA @ainajaharah

Facts and Figures: One reason I follow certain accounts is for the information they convey. These accounts always have great tidbits. @factlets @mindhackz @make @BioscienceNews @SpaceAstro @HowStuffWorks CBC Twitter Feeds @mashable @archaeology @NASA @whycenter @BadAstronomer @DiscoverMag @Discovery @qikipedia @sciam @Lifehacker

I’m not including celebrities, simply because I’m sure if you’re interested in them you’ve either found them already or will soon enough.

That’s it for this week. I might just use this every week, until I find other interesting tweeps, which I’ll probably just add here. I may add other categories for those that I don’t have up here yet.

If I Grow Up

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

I’ve figured out what I want to be if I grow up: a writer. In fact, by writing this I’m living the dream, aren’t I? I guess things have been building up to this my whole life; I’ve been reading since I could, and writing even when I didn’t have to.

Whatever my mood has been, as long as it wasn’t too severe, I’ve always written. When I was down, I wrote depressing poetry or prose. When I was up, I wrote whatever popped into my head. Now that I’m stable, I can take the time to write coherent, sensible articles.

What are you going to write? It’s a good question, and I like it quite a bit. I’m going to write articles here, like the ones I’ve written so far. I’m going to write for, with my first article there out just recently. I’ll always be writing emails. Sometimes I’ll write things down in my notebooks. If I feel like my writing is worthy of it, I might write a screenplay Josh Olson would enjoy reading. I wont bring it to him to read, though. If it’s good enough it might make its way to him.

What about your degree? It took me a bit longer to finish my computer science degree than most, partly because of my involvement with the co-operative education program I was in. I like writing software, and I like thinking and reading about it. The time I spent there I consider formative, and it will certainly help me out in my current endeavour.

What about the other things you enjoy doing? I’ll keep doing them, but with renewed purpose. The electronics projects I work on, my small programming projects and bits of art I produce will all be used to service my writing. When I make something, I’ll write about it. I’ll let the people who want to know hear about it. Anyone else can choose not to read it.

How are you going to make money? A good question, everyone needs money these days. I don’t need much, though. Apart from my love of gadgets, I have simple needs. Food, clothing, shelter. I have the love of my life to keep me well loved, I have my family, and more of that simply couldn’t be bought. I’d really rather be famous for my love of the craft than rich because my work sells well. I wouldn’t mind both, but we’ll see how it all turns out.

“If” you grow up? Never assume you are mature; it’s a very immature viewpoint. And to quote the Peter Pan musical, “If growing up means it would be, beneath my dignity to climb a tree, then I wont grow up, never grow up, not me!” Besides, if you stop taking joy in simple things, then what reason do you have to write?

What Kind of Games?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

I started programming when I was young, with the hopes of writing video games. I think a lot of kids start that way. When you like something, or someone, you try to emulate what you’re seeing. But how has that early dream turned out?

They tell writers to write what they know. It’s good advice. How can you write about life in the Serengeti without have someone to give you a first hand account or having been there yourself? You can always use your imagination, and that’s all you can really do when writing fantasy or science fiction. It works for writing video games. How can you expect to write a genre you don’t immerse yourself in?

These days I spend most of my gaming time playing casual games. I’m busy doing other things, and don’t want to spend long stretches just sitting at the console or computer. Recently I read an article about the kind of video games the most people tend to flock to. Typically they’re games that are relatively simple and involve sorting things in some way. It bears out in my own tastes.

In late 2008, I entered the uDevGames contest, and submitted a casual game for consideration. It didn’t do too well, but I hadn’t spent enough time on it. The graphics are primitive and my soundtrack stinks. However, I think I’m going to revamp it for an iPhone/iPod touch release. I’ve been working on better graphics, for one. The basic game play appealed to the people who played it, so that wont be changing. I’ll add a few more game elements, and a high score list, of course.

Another favourite genre of mine is the story-driven RPG or adventure game. This is by far one of the most involved type of game you can develop. I’ve started innumerable aborted attempts at designs, filling notebooks with my ideas.

As long as everything works out as I’d like, a new version of GnomeSpy will be in the works. It’ll satisfy my desire to write video games, while giving me a base to improve on. Maybe I’ll put in a bit more story, for a little extra flavour. Who knows, it might become popular.

Terry the Space Bum

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Here's a quicky I wrote trying to mix science fiction and horror a little.

It was always a bit cold in space stations, Terry thought. Sometimes it made it hard to sleep on the metal deck plating, but then again, beggars can't be choosers. He'd been waiting for a transport for weeks, so he could hitch a ride out of Titan Station, but strangely, none had come. In his experience, even remote research stations like this one tended to get weekly supply shipments.

There was no trouble keeping out of sight from the scientists on board, they were too consumed with whatever research they were conducting. Just as well, he thought, it gave him an easier time when dipping into the food stores. Not fantastic fare, certainly not 'an epicure's delight,' as the last transport's in-flight magazine had described his previous home's cooking.

But then again, there was no beating Mars colony's Advanced Flavour Enhancer 3000; it made even stale bread taste delicious. He had tried to sneak some out with him, but there must have been some kind of theft-prevention device that evaporated the stuff when he left orbit. It was a finicky substance even on Mars' surface, but they produced enough that even a space bum like Terry could snatch a bit here and there.

Thinking of the time since the last transport dropped him off here, he realized that this station didn't have forced day and night. He had been relying on the chronometers in the station to keep track of time, and they could be running on some standard the scientists had picked. The last few research posts and stations he'd visited seemed to keep different time standards, probably picked by the scientists there for some reason known only to themselves. But Terry still had his watch on those visits, and it was set to Earth standard. He had been able to tell how fast or slow the local time ran.

But it didn't much matter, the station was well stocked, enough for a year, given the number of scientists manning the station, and himself. He hoped that wasn't a sign that he'd be there quite that long, but the more remote stations kept larger stocks, 'just in case.'

It was into the second month that he started hearing the noises. Every station had its own set of creaks and groans, but these were different. Whispers around the corner in a corridor, rustling in drawers, the scrape of nails on metal, just out of sight. At first he thought it was the scientists, but the station computer kept track of them, and none of them were anywhere near his location. He had welcomed this feature when he first arrived, it allowed him to keep out of their way. But now, with these sounds, it was becoming a recrimination, as if saying 'you have to be crazy if you think you're going to survive here.'

The sounds continued into the next month, and he was becoming progressively more and more on edge. When he started seeing things, shadows flickering near the sounds, he started to question whether or not all those old science fiction stories dealing with space insanity had some kind of prophetic quality. Sure, the Sol Health Organization said there was no evidence that any could actually go space-crazy, but he had always wondered about that.

The shadows were mostly formless, but occasionally he'd catch a shadow of something pointed, like a knife. With all the new ways of killing people that had been invented recently, the knife was still a good old stand-by. Never runs out of power, doesn't get jammed, can be concealed just about anywhere. He was beginning to wonder why he didn't carry one.

By the fourth month, the sounds started getting more and more menacing. The whispers took on an angry tone, the scraping sounds became a little more violent. He couldn't reveal his presence to the station's crew, but at the same time he was getting very scared, and thought that perhaps the crew would be able to protect him.

In the fifth month, when he started catching glimpses of something making the shadows, he was almost about to pop into the main science lab and for protection. He was drawing near, keeping an eye on the computer monitor throughout to see where everyone was. Then the screaming started, horrible, pained screams, little splashes against the walls and dull thuds afterwards. The monitors showed the dots representing the scientists slowly fade, one by one, as they were apparently being slaughtered. One dot remained, and he heard pleading screams, "No, no, please god, no!" When he heard the scraping noise start again, and head towards him, out of the lab, he ran.

In his excited state, it took him a while to figure out what to do. There was, in case of emergency, a special craft designed specifically for returning the crew to Earth. He had to get to it and get back, so he could tell someone what had happened. Luckily it was attached to the station near the docking bay, where he had first arrived. It was in the opposite direction from the lab, and so that's where he went.

It took him a little longer to get everything set up, being this excited, but he did finally disengage the holding clamps and get the launch thrusters going. It wasn't until the station appeared as a distance dot in his rear viewport that he let himself start breathing normally again.

"Did you see his face?" one of the scientists laughed to the others, back, safe, and in the lab.

"Man, that was the most fun I've had all year!" another replied.

"But he just took our escape pod," said a third.

"And the resupply ship's already left Earth," added the fourth, "so we can't get it to pick a replacement up for us."

"Oh crap," said the first, "it looks like when the pod took off, it tore a crack in the station's hull. We're leaking atmosphere."

Losing a loved one, as an atheist

Saturday, September 12, 2009

When I was around 11 or 12, I started to question the received wisdom that there was a deity. I came to the conclusion that all signs pointed to no. Do I outright, unequivocally and without reservation deny the existence of such an entity? No. However, I don’t see it as a likely scenario, and until I’m presented with hard evidence, I have enough reason to say that there isn’t.

Some people take comfort in their religious beliefs, especially their belief in an afterlife. I have no interest in an afterlife, either for myself of my loved ones. In the past five years I’ve lost both my grandmother and mother, both of whom I loved dearly.

No amount of belief in an afterlife would soothe my pain. I mourn at the fact that they are lost from my life, right here, right now. I imagine it’s the same even for those who believe that the dead pass on to somewhere else. You can’t escape the fact that their tangible presence is forever gone from your life. Unless you believe in ghosts, but that’s a whole other can of worms.

I have my memories of them, and if I filter those memories, I can choose to only remember the good things. I can remember my mother’s kind words, my grandmother’s stolid support, and their love for each other. Aside from senility, nothing can take those memories from me, and I wont ever let anything try to. They’re mine to keep, and I’ll treasure them until I die.

I loved them both, and it’s hit me hard, especially my mother’s recent death. As a non-believer, I don’t have to question why a god would choose to take my mother away at 59. I don’t have to ask why they would let such a thing happen, if they hadn’t directed it specifically. Even if there is a god, I don’t care why. Our universe operates under certain natural laws, and I’m okay with that. Those natural laws brought me to life, and gave me a happy life with my mother’s constant support. Would I trade that in for false hope of an afterlife? Never. I wouldn’t dream of it.

To me the beauty of the natural world is that it is there in its own right. It doesn’t require any omnipotent fiat, it operates within a consistent set of rules, and it has brought itself to this complex state from incredibly simple components. Belief in some sort of deity would actually take away from the universe’s beauty; it would steal from it its grandeur and splendor. To stand on its own legs it demonstrates a quality of greatness.

Would my grief be at all assuaged by thoughts of an afterlife? No, I am certain it would not. I loved them, and they’re gone from my life forever. I’m not angry at anything for their loss. I’m left with memories to cherish, love in my heart for them still, and the knowledge that what they left behind came from themselves.

Living with Bipolar Disorder

Friday, September 4, 2009

Feeling down when something bad happens is normal. Feeling elated when something good happens is great. Bipolar disorder is neither. Previously referred to as manic depressive disorder, bipolar disorder consists of mood episodes ranging from deep, dark depression to the sense of invincibility and superiority that is characteristic of a manic phase. It disrupts the lives of those who suffer from it and all those around them. Luckily, however, with the right course of treatment it can be kept under control.

Bipolar disorder has been found to be linked genetically and physiologically to schizophrenia. A person suffering from bipolar disorder can experience the same sort of hallucinations and delusions as someone with schizophrenia. Both have a genetic component, with a number of genes interacting to create a pre-disposition to these disorders. The families of those afflicted often include others with one of these disorders, mood disorders or alcoholism.

Depression is a common symptom of many health problems. It can stem from difficult situations or simply an inability to cope with the stresses of everyday life. In the case of bipolar disorder, depression is a component of a mood cycle that can send the individual on a roller coaster of trouble. My own experiences with depression have affected me greatly. For 6 months in 2004, I had to leave work in order to recover from a severe episode. There were days I never left bed, others where I couldn’t even face leaving home to walk my dogs. It’s debilitating, but only one aspect of bipolar disorder.

The phase most associated with bipolar disorder, by the public, is mania. Mania can consist of impulsive behaviour, a sense of elation without reason, inappropriate behaviour, delusions and hallucinations. This phase is incredibly disruptive to the social community around the individual. It can lead to lost jobs, lost friendships, massive debt from impulsive spending or gifting, serious jail time and the contraction of STDs from high-risk sex. Luckily, in my case mania has not been a big component. It has surfaced, however, and has ruined at least one of my most treasured friendships. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

Hypomania, as its name implies, is a milder form of mania. It is often characterized by increased creativity, increased self-confidence and an increase in productivity. Persons in this state are often more social, displaying an unusual amount of charm. This phase is one of the reasons some people with bipolar disorder stop taking their medication. When the effects of hypomania are dampened by medication, many individuals stop their treatment in an effort to regain some of the benefits of this mood. It is, however, a symptom of the disorder, and should be regarded as such and treated accordingly.

An individual suffering from the disorder can also find themselves in a mixed state, where depressive and manic symptoms mingle to create a special kind of hell. Irritability, delusions, lack of energy and a short temper are a few of the traits that can be found in a person in this state.

There are a number of diagnoses within bipolar disorder that are characterized by the individual’s specific history of these different phases. However, I am not a psychiatrist, and if you think you are experiencing these symptoms see a qualified psychiatrist as soon as possible.

Treatment requires a number of approaches. From the pharmacological end, sometimes anti-psychotics are required. Mood stabilizers are a common prescription, since in most cases the extreme peaks and valleys need to be brought in check. Some individuals also require an anti-depressant to lift them up out of recurring depressive episodes. Medication is usually the front line of the battle, as it can be impossible to work with an individual who is hallucinating, delusional or otherwise unable to fully cooperate.

Cognitive behavioural therapy can help the person suffering learn how to rein in their mood. It’s been shown to be one of the few talk therapies that can actually help in the treatment of depression. There have been clinical trials demonstrating its effectiveness, and I can attest that it worked for me.

Symptoms can manifest themselves at a relatively young age. Occasionally children who later turn out to have bipolar disorder are diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The stimulants used to treat ADHD can often aggravate the child’s condition and make treatment down the road more difficult. It is always important to make sure you tell your child’s doctor, as well as your own, of any and all family history of psychiatric illness or symptoms similar to those of bipolar disorder.

My own history of bipolar disorder has sensitized me to the issues facing individuals with psychiatric disorders. Unfortunately, much of the population is unaware of the nature of these illnesses, and often attribute the symptoms to personal failings on the part of those suffering. A terrible stigma is attached to bipolar disorder and it can be difficult to shake.

An Open Letter to David Hewlett

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Dear Mr. Hewlett,

I’m writing to you in the hopes that you’ll read this and learn a bit about the great woman who was my mother and a big fan of yours. Helen died recently at the much-too-young age of 59. In April she found out she had pancreatic cancer; less than 5 months later, she passed away.

If you don’t read this, that’s okay, I guess, because it’s also a part of my grieving process. I think you’ll be touched by it, but at the same time, it’s helping me deal with the loss.

My mother as your fan

Every movie you were in, she wanted to see. She didn’t get a chance to before she went. I had wanted to buy her A Dog’s Breakfast for Christmas; I think she would have really liked it. I think Cube would have given her a bit of claustrophobia, but didn’t it do that for everyone?

She loved Atlantis. I think your performance was a big part of that. Joe Flanigan and Paul McGillion may also have had something to do with that. The episodes she watched of SG-1 were mostly the ones with McKay in them, because of you. Maybe she saw a bit of me in McKay, as I’m definitely a geek, and I’ve been known to have arrogant moments.

She was so excited to get the season 5 DVDs recently, but she never got to watch any of it. I think my dad is the one most saddened by that fact. They watched all of Atlantis together, sharing in the joy of watching an entertaining show. There were lots of shows they enjoyed together, and wont have the chance to anymore.

McKay, I felt, made Atlantis. I’m a big fan too, and have probably seen many more of the movies you’ve been in than she did. I’m sad she didn’t get to see more, since I’ve always enjoyed your performances.

There are other aspects of her involvement with fandom, and if you’re interested I can tell you about them directly. This letter is mostly about the other parts of her life.

My mother as a great woman

There are no monuments erected in her honour. There never are for the everyday heroes. But I think she would have felt a little uncomfortable if there had been. Her biggest failing was that she often under-sold herself. She was a great woman, and with more self-esteem she would have seen it, I think.

From a young age she instilled in me a love of reading. She’d read to me every night from any number of books. The Hobbit, the Chronicles of Narnia, E. B. White’s books, anything she thought I would enjoy. I started going through her collection of sci-fi and fantasy books before I left elementary school; big, thick volumes of Anne McCaffrey and Stephen King. While I liked watching shows like Reading Rainbow, I didn’t need them to boost my love of reading.

Literacy was an important skill to her. She volunteered at local schools, helping kids who had trouble reading. I’m sure her love of reading helped those kids along more than anything else. Her patience no doubt also played a role, but I think if an educator shows great enthusiasm for the subject, the student will pick it up at least a bit.

She was part of a women’s group in her area. I believe she was the youngest there, and many of the women didn’t drive because of their age. Along with another woman, she would drive those who couldn’t to and from their meetings or outings.

Her support kept me going through some of the hardest times of my life. If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t be here writing this. It might be that others wouldn’t have managed to pull through if she hadn’t been here either.

She was generous and caring, and helped those she could. She always looked out for the underdog, knowing that it was a hard place to be. The popular and successful deserve support as well, but it’s always the downtrodden who are elevated more by a helping hand.

I owe my creativity, intelligence and curiosity to her. She bought our first computer when I was quite young, and without it and her support, I never would have taken a degree in computer science. Without her I would have never had a minor in linguistics to go with it. I wouldn’t have the breadth of knowledge I do, or the desire to expand it. I know she was proud of me, and I hope that she knew how big a role she had in helping me to where I am now.

She’s had one funeral service already, shortly after she passed. There are another two scheduled in the next two months. Three services might be unusual, but I think she deserved the extra recognition and the opportunity for as many as possible to celebrate her life. She was a wonderful woman, full of life and compassion. I’ll never forget her, and while there’s no monument out there in her honour, there’ll always be the one in my heart.

Thanks for taking the time to read this, I appreciate it.


James Dessart

Change in tone

My next few posts will be very personal. My mother passed away last week, and I need to write in order to properly grieve. I want to share my thoughts, and I hope they might inspire or touch some of you.

Article interruption

Friday, August 28, 2009

I know I've been publishing an article every Tuesday and Friday since I started this blog, but there's been a death in the family, so I've been a bit preoccupied. I'll try to get a new article out soon, probably related to that particular situation.

SpaceRat - an exercise in game programming

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Almost entirely throughout my life, I’ve had access to computers. In most of that time I’ve wanted to write computer games. Most of my attempts have been aborted early on, before even getting code written. Stacks and stacks of paper have been used to sketch characters and scenery. One day in 2001 I decided to put together a small Space Invaders-like game named SpaceRat.

SpaceRat began as a set of graphics I had created for a friend’s clone of Space Invaders. I had drawn a “hero” space ship and some enemy ships. There were a number of enemy sprites that I did not use in SpaceRat, simple because they did not fit the look I was going for.

Starting off with pre-made graphics gave me the push I needed and gave me the opportunity to jump straight into programming the game. I was still in university, but was then employed in a co-operative education placement for discreet, a division of AutoDesk. Health problems prevented me from actually working at the time, and so to judge my ability to return to work, I decided that writing a game would be a good gauge.

Since I had been working at co-operative placements for my third year, and been a programmer before I had even entered university, I was able to develop a certain affinity for object-oriented design and clean code. It was with that premise that I set down the basic classes for the game’s mechanics. While the view and model aspects are not entirely factored out, the size of the codebase made that sort of thing overkill.

The game mechanics were simple from the start; rectangular bounding boxes for collision detection and a very simple physical simulation. You could say that it’s a trivial game engine, and you’d be right. I kept it simple so that I could concentrate on getting the entire project completed. While there is definitely room for expansion, with many tasks sitting in a TODO file, the basic engine is complete.

My favourite part of the completed project has always been the star field in the background. Many games with one simply scroll a static set of uniformly-sized stars at a set speed. I was never happy with that, and so I went for stars that varied in size, colour and speed. The result was a star field that gave a sense of depth and realism that just isn’t possible with a bunch of single-pixel stars all moving at the same speed. When I rewrote the engine to support Quartz, Apple’s Mac OS X 2D drawing API, the star field was able to take on an even better look.

I had originally written the code in Mac OS 9 using Carbon-compliant APIs. At the time I was using Metrowerks CodeWarrior, as it was the IDE I was most comfortable with. While the application worked natively under Mac OS X, there was no chance of porting it to x86 without a change of IDE and modifying the API used to draw the graphics and play sound.

The first hurdle I chose to jump was the XCode transition. This was pretty painless, since I had not used any Mac OS 9 specific APIs. The application would no longer be compatible with Mac OS 9, however, but this didn’t bother me at all. I was no longer using Mac OS 9, and many people were already making the move to Mac OS X.

The next step was to modernize the graphics. I had been using QuickDraw, Apple’s venerable drawing API. This was one of the APIs Apple was quick to drop in the move to x86, as it would have been quite difficult to port to a new architecture and didn’t support the modern features Quartz does. Given my simple rendering methods, it was almost trivial. I just had to flip the coordinate system and deal with the sprites as images files rather than icon resources. It also gave me the impetus to move from an integer based physics model to a floating point model. This allowed for smoother movement and smaller velocities than I had started with. The star field improved tremendously with that change alone.

The Quartz transition was good practice for me and gave me insight into Mac OS X’s graphics model. It’s a massive improvement over QuickDraw, which had still been based on a pixel-level resolution and didn’t support anti-aliasing.

One massive sticking point which has blocked me from making the complete x86 transition is my use of Apple’s Sound Manager. It too was dropped in the x86 Carbon transition, and I never took the time to find a fully suitable replacement. In any case, my sound engine had always been sub-par. When I do get around to making the change I’ll probably add 3D sound to give a more immersive experience.

The actual game is fun to play, but after the first level the levels repeat with no sense of real progress. There’s no high-score system, no real level structure and only one type of enemy. Definitely an area that’s seriously lacking panache. I’ve been lazy here, since my original goal had been reached ages ago. There’s certainly room for improvement, but I had never created graphics for new characters beyond what I already had when I started.

While the game itself is not all that fun to play, it does provide some entertainment value. It was certainly an excellent project for learning, and might be of use to someone out there to see how to make a simple game. I have left some of the QuickDraw code in the project, for comparison to the Quartz rendering methods. One good example is SRCgImageSprite versus SRIconSprite.

I can always hope someone will find the code useful, and perhaps the game a little fun. With luck, someone else will come along and fill in the gaps. I’m making the latest code available under the BSD license, so feel free to make modifications.


Friday, August 21, 2009

It seems comments weren't working, so I've fixed it. I think my template messes the embedded comment box.

The Sky

When you’re far away from the city lights, the clear night sky is a beautiful thing. The constellations shine brightly, the Milky Way stands out clearly, and the Moon can provide all the light you need to see by.

Living out here, I’ve had a chance to see wonderful things in the sky. Recently, the Perseid meteor shower provided my wife and I with a romantic bit of evening, with beautiful, astral accompaniment. We saw some spectacular meteors fall that night, and it was a welcome change from the cloudy night we had had previously.

In the winter, on a snow-covered night, with the full Moon out, the snow sparkles beautifully and you can see almost as well as during the day. The silence is stirring and inspirational, and you can stand there in your winter gear, relaxed and at peace, almost losing track of time completely.

To facilitate my Moon viewing, I wrote a small program called MoonPhase. You can find it where I keep many of my little projects at my main website. It shows the current phase of the Moon and lets you check out what the other phases look like.

One of my favourite pieces of astronomy software is Stellarium. Once you figure out the interface and set in your latitude and longitude you can see a view of the sky from your current location and time. Controls are provided to speed up the time of the display so that you can see what the sky will look like later on in the night. It helped me locate the Perseids this year and had me pointed in the right direction.

Cultures around the ages have looked to the stars and seen animals, people or tools in the patterns formed there. The names and exact shapes of these constellations vary, of course, but the human ability to make patterns lies at the centre of our creative ability to find a pattern and give it a life beyond its objective reality.

My father is an amateur astronomer and has a great telescope that he purchased with his retirement gifts. He’s a member of an amateur astronomy club (text in French, club meetings in French) in the Montérégie area of Quebec. The club has regular meetings where members give presentations on astronomical topics of interest. If you’re interested in joining one, there just might be one in your area listed here.

The night sky has many beautiful sights for the appreciative individual. When you next leave the city lights at night, look up and see if you can’t pick out a constellation or two. You can always make up your own; that’s how they first got their names!

KnitPicker - a knitting stitch counter programming project

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The art of knitting lace is an intricate process; it takes great skill with knitting and the ability to keep track of complex knitting instructions. One day, my wife Sophie was knitting a particularly complex pattern, and she complained about not being able to keep track of how many stitches she should have for a particular row or how many should be left in the next row. Enter the programmer!

I’ve been throwing together little utilities for myself for ages. Sometimes I want to calculate some value that would take too long by hand; sometimes I want to sort a list in some particular way. Other times I have trouble deciding what to have for dinner, so I’ll write up a list of options and then pop in a random number to pick from it. I have one such script from ages ago that I used regularly when living in Montreal.

It was clear to me that Sophie needed software to handle her problem. With instructions spanning up to a hundred stitches, it’s the sort of thing that’s hard to keep track of in your head, and would take quite a bit of paper to work out by hand. Computers are great at keeping track of numbers and even better at doing arithmetic.

Knitting instructions use a very simple notation: k1 means “knit one stitch,” psso means “pass slipped stitch over,” and so on. These simple steps are listed in sequence to form a row of knitting, and this is the sort of thing a computer is great at processing. The kind of software that does this sort of processing is called a parser. A parser takes a string of characters and breaks it up into individual components called tokens.

I’m not a great parser writer, but I knew of a handy bit of software called Lex. It can analyze different pieces of each token and easily extract numerical information. This made it the right tool for the job, and its ease of use was an added bonus.

I wrote up a quick bit of Lex code, threw together a quick UI with Apple’s Interface Builder, and made the text field update its book-keeping every time the user typed in a new character. This made for a live-updating stitch counter that a lace knitter could use as they worked their way through a pattern. And so KnitPicker was born.

There are some limitations to the software at the moment, such as the lack of support for patterns that contain instructions on repeating a particular section. I had planned to eventually add such support, but never got around to it. Sophie had stopped knitting lace due to problems with carpal tunnel syndrome, no one else was using the software and I had other things to concentrate on.

Had there been other users demanding such a feature, no doubt it would have been added. I did take some time to research the problem, and I’m confident it would not be a big deal.

You can find KnitPicker at my main website, along with other things I’ve thrown together. All in all it was a good learning experience, and for a short while provided Sophie with a useful tool. It’s fun when you can meld your partner’s interests with your own and work out something productive.

Interactive Fiction - Finding the Mouse

Friday, August 14, 2009

For as long as I’ve been using computers I’ve known of text adventures. Using your imagination and the words on the screen, you construct a world in your mind and then interact with it through the computer by typing in commands. The goal is usually to solve different puzzles in order to come to some sort of winning scenario.

Nowadays text adventures have given way to interactive fiction, or IF. Much like text adventures, there is often a goal to reach. However, some can be entirely freeform and offer the reader a variety of scenery and possibilities to explore. They still stick to text as their means of communication and rely on the reader to imagine the scenery. There’s still usually some sort of puzzle to solve, and this can provide a lot of fun for some.

The interactive fiction community is still going strong. There are plenty of archives out there for the curious reader to explore; the most prominent being the IF Archive. There’s a newsgroup at (Google Groups link) that’s still quite active. New tools for building IF works have been developed recently that can interpret a designer’s plan in descriptions close to natural language.

I’ve experimented with writing these sorts of adventures for a long time. Early on in my programming experiences I tried to write one in BASIC. The limitations of the platform I was using slowed me down, and my relative green-ness and lack of community to rely on caused me to give it up.

A few years ago I heard about a 1-2K text adventure challenge. The idea was to write a text adventure and its interpreter in 1-2K of executable code and data. I never got around to submitting my entry, as I still had some issues in compressing the text into a small enough space to allow for some code to actually run the adventure. Recently I decided to resurrect that little adventure and develop it with Inform 7.

It took a bit of work to get the adventure to work just right using the features available in Inform. It’s certainly no longer anywhere near as small 2K, given the rich set of commands that Inform gives each and every IF work it produces. These commands allow for more leeway for the player to express their actions.

If you’d like to play my adventure, you can find a Java applet to play it here. If you have a z-code interpreter already, you can download the adventure itself. The basic premise is to find your computer’s mouse so that you can surf the web. The optimal solution can be done with six turns, so the adventure shouldn’t take you too long once you figure out what to do.

I’m going to be updating it from time to time to polish it up, so if you tried it and it was a bit rough, maybe give it another chance later on. The web page makes the story’s modification date available, so you can see when I last updated it.

The news group community has been really great in helping me out with it, and I’d like to thank them here for their support. Guys, thank you so much!

The world of interactive fiction has grown since the days of the earliest text adventures. A certain maturity has given newer titles more depth and flavour, and new possibilities with recent development tools have given writers more time to spend on the story, rather than on the mechanics of dealing with the interpreter. It’s an interesting field, and well worth looking into for anyone who enjoys reading.

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