Saturday, July 26, 2008

Reapers of the Park (part 1 of 2)

On last last Friday (July 18th), Eden and I drove to Niagara Falls, ON for a meatspace get-together with her gaming guild, The Reapers. Although I'm not a member, I was able to use my connections to secure one of the highly coveted invitations.

The drive to Canada was uneventful except for when we got lost. Not once or twice, but three times. Two of those times I can blame on Google Maps' overly simplified directions, but the third had something to do with an adult novelty shop and a construction site. Having lost only an hour, we passed through what I hope was the worst part of Buffalo and over the Peace bridge into Canada. We were a bit concerned that things might have changed in the eight years since we last crossed the border and that we would have a hard time explaining the cooler packed with dry ice. However, the Canadian border guards were still as cool as before, even when I fumbled the standard questions.

We met up with the gang and headed to Clifton Hill and the falls. Niagara Falls is the quintessential tourist trap. Core attractions ringed with eateries and souvenir shops and surrounded by a sea of motels. I couldn't seem to find the Wonderfalls store although I'm sure it must have been there somewhere. I did, however, see a liberal sprinkling of Cuban cigar outlets, gentlemen's clubs, adult novelty shops and massage parlors. The place really speaks volumes about the American tourists' interests. As sketchy as this all was, I only found one element distasteful. A street performer was there, all clad in gold with a golden Elvis mask. He was neither an Elvis impersonator nor a human statue, but he was doing a steady business exchanging golden beads and photo opportunities for donations. Have some pride in your work, man! We walked through the carnival that is Clifton Hill and took in the fireworks over the falls before turning in for the night.

On Saturday, we readied ourselves for the full Niagara Falls experience with a free continental breakfast and the raspberry pie that I had secreted across the border packed in dry ice (thanks to Ben and Chris for helping with the berry harvest). We started with the tropical butterfly conservatory. It was surprisingly impressive. I had expected to see some pretty butterflies, but I had never before seen butterflies of such size or number. After an accidental stroll through the botanical gardens in the rain, we refueled with some of Lisa's delicious poppyseed muffins. I'm sure they looked great before being smashed in our packs. I also briefly considered the scenario of being drug tested at the border. I'm sure it would have ended with a cavity search.

Our hunger satiated, we then headed to the falls to ride the Maid of the Mist. The idea of riding a boat near the falls to get sprayed with water from Lake Erie seemed a little corny, but the experience exceeded my expectations. When the falls are consuming your full field of vision, the magnitude of the spectacle is overwhelming. As we were pelted with stinging droplets, we debated whether it was advantageous or not to have glasses.

Finally, we did the walk behind the falls. Although not as impressive as the Maid of the Mist, it was still a sight worth seeing. I was a bit disappointed with the portals behind the falls. Somehow, a window onto a wall of grey water wasn't as exciting as I had hoped, but what should I have expected to see behind a gigantic wall of water if not a wall of water?

We wrapped up the day with dinner at Tim Horton's and washed off the stinking residue of Lake Erie before hanging around and grilling some burgers. Eating at Timmy Ho's might not be the apex of fine dining, but I was pretty stoked to finally try an icon of Canadian culture. I thought it was totally sweet to get soup and a donut served on real plates and a silver platter. Overall, I had a great day at the falls. I got to meet up with old friends, eat pie for breakfast and see a natural wonder. I passed on the Cuban cigars.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Good riddance to Cereality™

I read in the Daily Collegian that Cereality, the cereal bar, is closing up shop in State College. I was filled with a great sense of Schadenfreude upon hearing of their misfortune. I assure you that my spiteful feelings are not due to Cereality's cutesy image or laughable prices. In fact, my scorn is due entirely to the companies use of their asinine business process patent applications to hinder their competitors. In my opinion, they are symptomatic of the US patent system.

The Cereality patent applications (11/119,336; 11/518,374 and 11/078,686) describe systems that will seem very familiar to anyone that has ever been to a college dining hall. Some of my favorite claims include:
4. The quick-serve restaurant of claim 1 wherein the carry-out containers include leak-proof, paperboard containers.
6. The quick-serve restaurant of claim 1, further comprising a self-serve milk station configured to dispense at least two different types of milk.
11. The quick-serve restaurant of claim 1, further comprising at least one viewing screen configured to show animated cartoon features for viewing by the customers.
Of course, there is one claim that seems genuinely novel:
12. The quick-serve restaurant of claim 1, further comprising a cereal bar maker for making cereal bars containing customer-selected ingredients.
but, as far as I can tell, that isn't the one being used to intimidate competitors.

Ultimately, I think that their expansion will be hampered by a weak business model as shown in the Collegian article. They're leasing retail space just like any other restaurant, but their product is strongly perceived as a breakfast-only food. Also, once the novelty wears off, who is going to pay restaurant prices for a bowl of cereal? Unlike a traditional restaurant, it seems that it would be trivial for any person to reproduce their products at home.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Isn't it ironic?

One of my pet peeves is the abuse of the term "ironic." Sometimes I'm not even sure if I or anyone else really knows exactly what irony is. However, when I saw this article in The Record from Mahwah, New Jersey, I was hopeful that we could all just get along.

"A malfunctioning smoke detector started a fire Thursday in a Franklin Crossings condominium, police said... "

Of course, the beautiful thing about the English language is that if people misuse a word enough, it takes on that new meaning. It's a self-correcting system.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Dark dungeons

For the past few weeks, I've been listening to a weekly podcast from Wizards of the Coast in which Scott Kurtz, Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik (writer/artist for PvP, Tycho Erasmus Brahe of Penny Arcade, and John "Gabe" Gabriel of Penny Arcade, respectively) play a game D&D with a professional dungeon master using the new fourth edition rules. Scott and Jerry haven't played in a long time and it's Mike's first D&D game, but the DM is a total pro and leads them along smoothly. I'm having a lot of fun listening to them cracking jokes while they learn to crack skulls in the new rule set. It's almost enough to make me want to break out my dice and play again. I had some good times playing D&D back in college, but things got weird and I gave it up. I guess it all depends on finding a good group to game with.

The first six segments are online now and the last two should be up in the next two weeks. There's some salty language, so these may not be safe for work.

Episode 1
Episode 2
Episode 3
Episode 4
Episode 5
Episode 6
Episode 7
Episode 8

Friday, July 04, 2008

Blood, sweat and tarts

Today, the fourth of July, can mean only one thing: wild raspberry picking. Eden and I spent three hours in Walnut Springs Park picking delicious black raspberries. The wet spring weather has led to an excellent berry season and today's weather was perfect for picking: cool and overcast. So while the rest of America scarfed beer and hot dogs, we were neck-deep in thorns and brush. By the end of the day, we had collected two liters of berries and turned one of them into a delicious pie. We plan to go back in the next two weeks as the rest of the berries ripen and our arms heal.

Sweeps week

July sweeps week is upon us, but with a difference this year. Our home was picked as a Nielsen ratings home. It's a bit like television jury duty and a wonderful opportunity for me to keep obsessively detailed records about a trivial task! Seriously, I enjoy this sort of thing. I used to keep spreadsheets of all my income and spending down to the change that I found on the street. I eventually gave that up when the resulting graphs started making me depressed. Hooray for grad school?

The Nielsen people sent us $30, cash, to keep a log for each television and record who, when and what was watched. It even has a column to mark if the television is on with nobody watching it. They've been super serious about making sure that we fill out this little book. Before it arrived, I got a post card telling me that it was about to arrive. Then, after it arrived, I got a post card reminding me to start recording on Thursday. Then, on Thursday, I got a call from a representative reminding me to start recording. I'm starting to wonder if they'll send some hired goons over to check on my progress.

My only reservation about the system is that it doesn't really reflect the way that I watch a lot of programming. There is an akward way to note that a show was time-shifted with a VCR or DVR so long as recording and viewing take place within the week of interest. However, there is no way to indicate that I watched a show if I didn't get it from the local cable/broadcast provider. For example, if I was a huge fan of American Gladiators and wanted to also watch Gladiators UK and Gladiators Australia I would have to download it from the BitTorrent network. There is no way to indicate that I'm trying to watch shows that are not available from my local provider. The same thing applies if I were to use BitTorrent instead as a DVR. Also, the instructions say that I shouldn't write down any shows that I watch using a computer with a tuner card, but that I should write down when I use my television as a computer monitor. All this strikes me as asinine and leads me to believe that Nielsen is in some way responsible for the schizophrenic/ignorant/anachronistic approach that big media is taking when dealing with the internet. For example, Viacom is letting people watch the Daily Show and South Park for free on their website while simultaneously suing YouTube for one billion dollars for not screening out those same clips. Madness.

Nielsen also has a rating program for the record companies. Don't even get me started on those monsters.