A Surreal Cab Ride at GDC

So we’re heading out from the convention center, popping up to The Stinking Rose, a garlic themed restaurant in North Beach, to celebrate a great GDC showing. The driver starts off, and innocently enough, asks if we’re in town for a convention. When we mentioned games, he started going off about how games were ruining children and society. From his rant and appearance, this guy looked to be a gold mine of ‘far end of the bell curve’ sample data; a type of fellow I rarely get to use as a data source. I challenged his view on games. He was receptive when I pointed out people were playing more games and reducing their TV time, and that games were a social interaction event versus the solitary experience of the television. But he then got on the ‘computers in general were bad’ rant. I asked him if he had a computer and to compare his TV time versus surfing around on the web. He looked pensive and shrugged “alright, fair enough. I spend a lot of time surfing around, and I learn a lot each time.”
Now that I knew I had an interesting person to talk with, I was concerned about the short interview window; the restaurant was perhaps 15 minutes away. So I started digging in with some questions. He tended to ramble a bit on his answers, so as soon as I had what I needed out of one answer, I would politely cut him off and throw in the next question. It was a ton of fun! I learned a lot and the guy seemed cool; overall, fantastically successful cab ride. So I over-tipped him, we smiled and shook hands and I turned to the two guys I’d ridden up with, as the taxi drove off. Kris stomped his foot on the ground and said “Oh my God! That was the most terrifying cab ride I have ever had!!” Brian explained matter-of-factly, “I thought we were going to die. Several times.”
I was quite surprised, pulled back and looked at them. What could have been the issue? I thought it was a great ride, one of the best ever.
Kris said, “Well, I was a little worried that you would get us killed by challenging this crazy guy’s worldview, on his turf. But you convinced him that he was looking at the problem the wrong way, and I started to think we’d get out of there alive.” Brian interjected with “but the real problem was that he was a totally insane driver.” Brian continued, “then I saw you drop into scientist mode, and I knew it was all over.”
I knew immediately what Brian meant. I live for that sweet spot when you are totally immersed in a problem. And it’s true, sometimes I lose track of time and space, but I was shocked that the three of us could’ve had such a radically different experience in the same cab ride! I pressed for details and they rattled off incident after incident: driving through lights; driving through stop signs; driving without hands; driving while eating; driving while turned around in his seat and talking to me, etc. They had a pretty extensive list of some pretty valid complaints!
I paused and went to the mental videotape; slowly stepping through the cab ride conversation, and trying to observe the situation, not just the data. And sure enough, the guy was completely whacked! He had a big Styrofoam container of noodles that he would hold in one hand, while driving with one knee, and using the other hand to scoop noodles into his mouth, all while speeding down the already crazy streets of San Francisco. He would also do this while turning around and looking at me, regardless of the current traffic situation!

To help deal with this sort of problem (zoning in and missing what is going on around me), I have a little helper thread to track the overall environment; the only tricky part is remembering to feed it cycles frequently enough to catch such problems! As a little test thread, I’ve been forcing myself to take a guess at the current time, then I check the clock to see how close I was. After several months of this, I can now reliably feed background processes — at least, some of them — even when immersed. And it has also improved my tracking of time in general, leading to a much improved on-time behavior!


Butting Heads with a Butthead

I’m the type of guy who plays hard, within the context of what the rules allow. Wrestling and rugby are not violent games per se; there is a strict set of rules to follow that minimize chances of damage. Which is not to say nobody’s getting their bell rung a few times, just that it should only happen accidentally.
Until you meet up with some Schmuck who decided to expand the role set, presumably towards his advantage.

Enter the wrestling schmuck. A very few wrestlers will try to screw with your brain; intimidation tactics, designed to throw you off your game in either confusion or anger; the point is to disrupt the player, and usually outside the context of the rules. One guy I was matched up with seem to have had that concept as the only move in his repertoire.

Right from the opening whistle, he stepped way into me, leading with his head. Now you can’t immediately assume somebody that has had butted you is automatically guilty of being a jerk. Sometimes accidents happen, even with the most skilled opponent. Or he could simply be clumsy; poor body control combined with bad coaching explains a lot of the unnecessary contact in high school wrestling. So no harm no foul; I just took a step back and shook it off then moved back in. Thud! Exact same move, exact same result, except louder. I could actually hear our heads ringing.

Now I’m a little wary at this point. Regardless of the guy’s intent, two resounding head butts in under a minute is indicative of something, usually that the guy has no business being out there. Either he’s a jerk, or has so little body control that somebody’s going to get hurt. So you take a little extra time to focus on exactly what’s going on. I close again and like clockwork, Clunk! He’s clearly driving in with his head to make contact, either to wear me down or to intimidate me. I took a few steps back and gave the referee the classic shrug and “what the hell” expression. The ref looked even more bewildered than me; his return shrug indicated that he knew the guy was doing it deliberately, he just couldn’t think of a particular penalty that he could use to stop the behavior.

So when somebody’s wants to up the ante, that usually leads to me shrugging “okay” and playing with within the context of the new rules that he’s just established. I didn’t have a plan of what to do about it, but the ref made it clear that head butts weren’t going to be a called penalty. So the next time the guy stepped in leading with his head, I grabbed him by the shoulders and swung my head back and forth once (Thwack!), twice (Thud!) and thrice (Goonnggg!), using the ridge of my skull against his forehead. It was getting to me a little, but it had clearly taken the other guy out of his game, mentally and physically. His intimidation tactic wasn’t working, but more importantly I think I just could take more head-banging than he could!
He more or less slid matt-wards; all I had to do was follow him down and flip him partway through the process. He smacked down to the mat, shoulder blades first. An excellent takedown and even in my somewhat befuddled state, it was easy to hold on for the pin 😉

An even worst thug existed in Calgary’s Rugby circles. The little sociopath seemed to actually enjoy inflicting damage outside the rules! He was a known bad egg who was eventually banned from the league, but not before I played him several times. One of the many times I was at the bottom of a ruck pileup, the little shit came over to my side. He carefully looked around for the ref and then started to kick me in the head, over and over!
My arms were trapped in the ruck so all I could do was shift my head around to distribute the damage. Things were looking pretty grim until one of the guys saw the kicking. He jumped free of the ruck and flattened the little thug, which finally brought the ref into the equation; problem solved.

Agile engineering in gardens

When I left the family farm behind for the big city University life, I swore a mighty oath that my hands would never touch dirt again. Fifteen years later, I had to reverse my stance after Michelle and I bought our first house together. We were doing the home renovation thing, and as part of that, we re-factored the gone-wild planting beds into something attractive. And we both fell in love with sculpting living things into art. Michelle’s the best color arrangement and plant placement of the two of us; I do more on the hardscaping, line of sight issues and usability analysis. Then we geek out in the middle on aesthetics. Sometimes I’ll enhance the look and feel, sometimes she’ll make a usability improvement that I hadn’t thought of.
The more I worked incrementally improving our garden, the more it reminded me of software engineering in a rapid prototype environment. Yes, I am that geeky! But most of all, it reminded me of trying to design and build a game. You have to have the full user experience available before you can immerse the user in it and evaluate their actions, likes and dislikes. So when you’re building something complicated that costs a lot of money, it’s really hard to come up with a schedule and a plan for something that is, by definition not truly understandable until it is already up and running!
Our Walnut Creek garden is the best of our efforts. A complete, Desolation of Smaug piece of crap when we started the overhaul. With a moderate amount of hard work, and a large amount of lazily lounging and evaluating potential design decisions in the comfort of our wonderful garden, we came up with some pretty nifty designs!

Here is the process we used, and before/after pictures: http://maggotranch.com/walnut_creek_garden_page.html

There is always an interesting effect as we broke in new sections of the garden. Basically, our rule was is that whoever paid the price in time and sweat to recondition an area for a mini garden got to completely control the implementation. In other words, if you dig up the ground, you get to decide what to plant! We filled in the different mini garden areas, and an interesting secondary effect came up; what do you do about the seams between, say, a new Larry project area that borders a Michelle project with a different theme? This turned out to be perhaps the most exciting piece, where we got to riff a bit off of each other’s ideas, and incorporate the view of the different mini gardens into the overall line of sight plans. And even on my pieces, she’ll grok something I missed, leading to further bouncing delights 😉
We have, I think seven mini gardens? A mini garden I define as a reasonable sitting area that provides a different look and feel from the other areas, and different patterns of sun and shade. Across the aggregate, you could be outside in the sun or shade anytime of day, any season of the year, just by moving your chair to a different seating area. And to Chris Kosmakos’ unending delight, I grew tired of dragging chairs around, and simply pre-populated all the sitting areas with chairs. Chris and I did a lot of software design work for The Sims project in the garden, as well as just kicking back and having a lot of intriguing conversations on software, people and whatever else came up that day! Chris was also outrageously surprised one day when he commented on the number of fruit trees that we planted, saying that we clearly love fruit. Well, I explained, I actually don’t really like fruit at all. And Chris righteously squawked: “What! Then why do you have so many bloody fruit trees?”
I do make a lot of fruit juice themed drinks, but the primary purpose of the fruit trees is the citrus scent in the aroma therapy sections of the garden, with the secondary benefit of hummingbirds loving to dance in and out of the shapes. Also, there was an existing lemon tree, near death in the garden we took over. It had some gnarled twisty shapes that I was able to slowly reveal with pruning and training the tree as years went by. Essentially, imagine an eight foot high bonsai tree. I loved the crafting process, so I added more fruit trees to shape. The third purpose is privacy; their density of leaves, year-round, greatly contribute to our privacy screen. But the biggest reason was I guess just the sheer coolness of being a Canadian with fruit trees in your backyard and not freezing in the winter, plus if you consider them flowers, their unusually large color blossoms that stay on the tree for very long period of time, adding color and depth to the yard. So as it turns out, we do highly valued the fruit trees, just not on the same variables that Chris does 😉

Details and pictures of the processes: http://maggotranch.com/walnut_creek_garden_page.html


wrestling in Golden Gate Park

Lost my first wrestling match in 30 years last week. I mean, I haven’t trained in 30 years, but still, I feel terrible about it. He was too quick for my ankle lunge, too strong for the pull-by, and I didn’t think to try any strategy moves. Like when my coach crushed me with the Russian Duck-Under whenever I was feeling my oats. I tried a muscle-over throw; got pinned in under 2 minutes. Should I drown my sorrows, or start training tomorrow? He was just out of a college wrestling program, but still, my performance was terrible…

Metrical Metaphors (1 of N)

You can live without metrics in the same way that you can live without bottled water, in a land where Montezuma still seeks his revenge.

It will be cheaper than buying bottled water, at first. It’ll also be very distracting. It’ll also be painful, and you’d be working in a squalid, smelly mess each and every day. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that you’ll not get much effective work done each day as you run back and forth, eternally trying to avoid a Chernobyl event in an essentially chaotic system. Your schedule will become longer and unpredictable. Your recurring costs for cleaning and maintenance will skyrocket; your friends will make fun of you.

Sure, you’ll live. And sure, you saved short-term money by not buying bottled water, that ‘unnecessary frill.’ You’re already used to unpredictable schedules and your friends already make fun of you, so who cares?

But do you want to increase time, money and risks by guessing blindly at what needs doing next, all the while working under the distraction of smelly pants and suspiciously stained chairs?

Give your team a break. Metrics can be used to focus your efforts, quickly find problems, help clean up the production processes and add predictability.

You’ll get more done in less time.

A New Yorker in D.C.

John Challice came down from Manhattan for a weekend of Washington fun. The highlight was definitely the night we saw Lyle Lovett, Rickie Lee Jones, and a pretty wild, literally right under your nose crime!

It started as one of those nights where the summer heat of Washington DC was more than just bearable, it was flat-out beautiful. We’ve gotten lawn tickets for Wolf Trap, the national outdoor theater. Wolf Trap is amazing! The grassy slopes of the amphitheater were perfect, combining an excellent view with wonderful sound, plus stargazing and lightning bugs for flavor. I’d gone to see Rickie Lee Jones and I was quite impressed with this Lyle Lovett fellow that I had never heard of.

We got back to this corporate apartment I was renting in the upscale suburb of McLean, Virginia. I had just moved down to the East Coast to help open the government research branch for Jade Simulations, and this place was close to the office; useful until I learned the area and found something interesting. We grabbed a couple of beers and hung out on the second-story balcony; two Canadians enjoying the beautiful weather and the feeling of being outside at night without having to worry about frostbite 🙂

Then a large group of kids appear out of nowhere in the parking lot, all urban youth dressed. John cracked a joke, “well, there’s a crime waiting to happen!” We both laughed at the thought of a crime in this painfully tony neighborhood.

Then we were quite literally shocked into silence. The kids circled around a pickup truck, directly below us, and started beating the absolute crap out of the truck with baseball bats! John and I were just dumbstruck. We looked at each other, we looked back at the poor truck, and yup, sure enough, they’re beating the truck up with baseball bats, spitting distance away.

As the kids calmly walked off, John and I looked at each other, literally not knowing how to deal with such a bizarre situation, especially right out of the blue like that. So I dialed 911 and the operator answered “this is 911; do you have an emergency?” I replied, “well, I’m not sure. There’s a group of kids in the parking lot, beating up a pickup truck with baseball bats. Does that count as an emergency?” Without dropping a beat, the operator calmly replied “yes sir, that does qualify. What is your location?”

A couple of police cars rolled up, very quick quick. But John and I been so flabbergasted by the sheer brazenness of the bizarre, truck-beating crime that we couldn’t really give the police any decent descriptions.

And I wouldn’t be surprised if, even to this very day, John Challice still tells the story to his Manhattan crew of how he was in DC for less than 24 hours before he saw his first violent crime 😉

Postscript: it turned out that the pickup truck belonged to the maintenance man for the apartment complex. Apparently there has been a heated exchange at some bar earlier that night, and the kids tracked him down to make the truck pay for his words.

Bookworm to Sports

At work the other day, A friend noticed I was wearing a rugby jersey. Shocked, he said “but Larry, you’re a computer, zen type guy!” True now, but I’ve bumped a few heads in the past 😉

Sports have had a tremendous impact on my life.

When I entered high school, the guidance councilor took one look at my physique and immediately signed me up for the school’s wrestling and rugby teams. But not because I was a promising athlete, in fact, I was anything but athletic. I was a pathological bookworm: a scrawny 98 pounds, pasty white, and, how shall we say, withdrawn from the real world. I had a serious jones going: I read a couple of books a day and avoided people like the plague.

What the councilor thought – and for which I thank him – was that sports would certainly get some meat on my bones, but more importantly, they would also get me interacting with people, not just books. He had flipped through my junior high gym records and saw that I had done well in the wrestling and rugby classes, and just signed me up. Rather totalitarian when you think about it, but hey, I love the results.

My initiation into sports began exactly as you’d expect when a bookworm is thrust into the land’o jocks. Culture shock on both sides! There’s this amazing picture from that era that I’d love to track down: it was in the sports display case at school for years. It showed me in probably my first rugby practice. Imagine the scrawny, long-haired bookworm sitting cross-legged as he looks intently up at the coach, in a pristine clean shirt and sneakers, surrounded by the hurly-burly young thugs of the rugby squad in muddy, torn rags and metal cleats. It was the sort of photo that gets that double-take as you walk by: the feeling that something just doesn’t fit.

Rugby is one of the greatest sports ever invented. Ever play “kill the guy with ball” when you were growing up? That’s essentially rugby. The unnecessary rules and equipment from other sports are abstracted away: our team’s bodies and skills against yours. The high school coach started me as a fullback, I think on the grounds that that position was the furthest removed from the contact. But I quickly developed into one of the best tacklers on the team, and I didn’t have enough sense to stay out of the rucks and mauls, so the coaches moved me into the pack. As the whole “meat on bones” thing was starting to work out, I ended up as wing forward: kind of a free-roaming “seek and destroy” role combined with a “get the ball at all costs” role. Wing forward rocked 😉

Some people thought I was more than a little crazy: I took a lot of chances diving into some dangerous plays. But I think my total lack of sports background helped here: I had no idea that things could be dangerous or hard to do! I had the body control to pull off sprinting to a loose ball, barrel-rolling to scoop it up and continue sprinting, and the lack of common sense to do so in traffic 😉 My teammates rewrote my player tourbook description to include “Larry is a ball-hawking maniac who has the distinction of once injuring three teammates in one unopposed practice”, which is at least partly untrue.

I played rugby for over ten years, mostly for the Calgary Saracens. We toured Hong Kong, Singapore and New Zealand, but mostly played in Canada and the USA. I took several ‘top player’ game awards and played for the Calgary Selects, but my one big sports regret is that I did not pursue rugby further. I turned down invites to the Alberta Selects camp, and I had an offer to play for a New Zealand team. My reasoning seemed valid at the time, but opportunities like that don’t come along that often, and only when you’re young.

My most vivid rugby memories include, ironically enough, waking up from my first concussion. A better one is a practice session where we running a touch-only scrimmage. I laid out and just barely tagged a guy with both hands. He was pissed and started ranting something along the lines of I had missed entirely, and even if I hadn’t missed, wimpy little slap tags shouldn’t count. So next kick off, I muttered to the kicker “hang a high one over Viking boy” and I sprinted in for the kill. He caught the ball just as I launched myself into a flat out dive at his rib cage. At the last possible second, I turned myself sideways and grazed by his side, loudly slapping both of his hips as I went by, shouting “TAG!” and scaring the absolute shit out of him. A good example of unconscious thinking; I had no actual plan, just a notion of pointing out tag is not so bad, and that he shouldn’t call me a liar. As I ran towards him, the world faded to black and the next thing I know, I’m about to crush his ribs and had to adjust, literally, on the fly 😉

Wrestling was equally as interesting as rugby, and is a similarly abstracted form of combat: you, against me. Enough rules to minimize damage, then skill, strength, stamina and body control decide the match. Check out the bloody nose story for some wrestling fun!

Pongo the dorm guy is one wrestling story I’ll add later.