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Albertan Yearning [Jan. 21st, 2010|09:33 pm]
Thick raindrops pelted the freshly green grass, the temperature barely warm enough to keep the rain from turning to snow. A few hundred meters away, a sheer mountain rose up towards the gray clouds, proudly crowned with freshly driven snow. But the entire valley was brilliantly green, a stark contrast to the mountain's white snow, and untouched by the worries of humankind. Here and there bunches of yellow and purple-blue flowers clung to the rocky sub-alpine landscape, shivering in the cold mountain wind.

As weather in Alberta is ought to do, the rain went as quickly as it came, with gray clouds turning to white mist. White mist then eventually yielded to the bold, solid blue of sky, blinding sunshine beaming down upon the green Earth.

Amongst the foliage, an oddity stuck out from the rest. One of a kind, the flower was angel-white rimmed with soft tinges of pink. It bended towards the sunlight ever so slightly, instinctively. A fat drop of rainwater rolled off of the petals and smashed into a piece of slate underneath it. And, with that unspoken ritual, Alberta's first Wild Rose christened the beginning of spring.
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Alea iacta est [Dec. 10th, 2009|07:02 pm]
Wish me the best of luck tomorrow morning. I'll need it.
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High Fantasy [Dec. 2nd, 2009|09:14 pm]
I finished book twelve of The Wheel of Time, the first book written after Robert Jordan's death. It's written by Brandon Sanderson, a young, up-and-coming fantasy author. The million dollar question that everyone is asking is, "was the book any good without Mr. Jordan writing the book"?

The answer is yes. Book twelve is in contention as perhaps one of the best in the series. But, with that being said, there is one glaring, very annoying flaw:

The characters speak plainly. That is to say, they tell each other exactly what's going on. Robert Jordan was famous for taking the opposite tack: forcing the reader (and the characters themselves) to read between the lines of what was being said. There is also the occasional slip, a modern phrase or two inserted here or there, or a mis-spelling. I'm not sure if this is because of a hasty edit, or because of Sanderson's youthful age, but it's very glaring to someone familiar with the series.

However, the storytelling is absolutely fantastic. The plot lines move along swiftly, and there were a couple hours of lost sleep here or there. Sanderson makes it very clear at the beginning of the book that he doesn't intend to emulate Robert Jordan. That he considers the book as a movie that is essentially the "same story, but different director"

Robert Jordan was taken from this world far, far too soon. His writing style, his wit, his ability to tell a story, and his knowledge of human nature will be sorely, sorely missed.

Speaking of great writing, I've had a chance to play Dragon Age over the past month or so. It was very timely, coming out just after I finished Fallout 3, which was one of the best RPG's I've played in the past ten years.

The storyline in Dragon Age is surprisingly adult. It's also very, very detailed. I don't know how one person can swim through all of the information that Dragon Age throws at you. There are these books that you can pick up in-game, and each of them explain a little more about the world's history. After a while, I had to just ignore them, otherwise I'd be spending a year or longer reading the entirety.

The gameplay, however, grated on my nerves a little. I tried really, really hard to enjoy myself, but it just wasn't coming together. It could be because I was playing the Playstation 3 version, and the game really is a PC game at the core, so the controls were a little clunky. But Fallout 3 didn't have this problem despite being a PC game as well.

The framerate on the PS3 was also disappointingly low, with stuttering throughout. Why they didn't choose to lower the graphics quality in the name of a smoother refresh rate is beyond me. At least offer an option to lower the resolution. No doubt this added to my displeasure.

But the biggest issue I had was with the gameplay. I think it has to do with the AI-controlled characters. Your party is generally four people strong, and you only control one character (usually the main character) in battles. There's no way to control each character in turn manually, because the battles are in realtime and not turn-based. Given my history of hatred for AI-controlled characters (think Final Fantasy Tactics on this one), it's not a surprise that it gave me grief while playing Dragon Age. I'm a micro-manager when it comes to RPG's, and Dragon Age just doesn't give you that much control.

A big part of RPG's for me is statistics management. But it's hard to be engrossed in the statistics when battle consists of how fast one can hit the 'cast damaging spell X' button between heals. As is typical with Western RPG's, the rewards were very sparse. I'd slaughter a house full of vagrants and be rewarded very thinly for it.

But it *is* a good RPG. I swear it is. The story is amazing - of Lord of the Rings proportions, even. I tried my best to enjoy it, and I might even go back after a while and give it a second go. But the gameplay just frustrated me despite my best efforts to enjoy the game.

Compare this against Fallout 3, where I'd gladly play it over again if I wasn't up to my neck in unplayed RPG's.

One of them is Demon's Souls, an action RPG from Atlus. Unlike Dragon Age, Demon's Souls' frame rate is seamlessly smooth. The action is fluid. But the game feels 'cheap' somehow, the story disjointed. It feels more like a 'Gauntlet' game than anything else, and there's a quality to that kind of thing. It just failed to catch my attention after a few hours of play.

Has Fallout 3 really spoiled me this badly?

The sequel to Eschalon Book I, which I played a year or so ago, should be out very soon. This is an independent Western RPG done in the classic Might & Magic / Ultima style. Book I completely engrossed me for about a month. Now *here's* a Western RPG done right. Turn-based battles, deep strategy, statistics management, fascinating story, colorfully bright graphics, and mood-setting music. I can't wait for Book II.

Meanwhile, Introversion Software, makers of Uplink, Darwinia, and Defcon, seem to be tanking. They seem to be stuck in this rut where the only thing they can put out are versions of Darwinia. This is a shame, because they were one of the most respected independent game studios out there. It seems that a contract with Microsoft has locked them into putting out the same thing over and over again. What a shame. I hope that their latest endeavour, Subversion, is a success. Otherwise, that'll be the end of Introversion.

Chris Delay was at PAX 2009. Damn! Had I known he was there, I would've made a point to go at least shake his hand and thank him for making Uplink. Chris, next time, post on your blog *before* you go, and not after, mkay?
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The Witching Hour [Nov. 22nd, 2009|11:37 pm]
It's the year 2071, or somethin' like that. Nobody really keeps track anymore. It's amazing how what was once important becomes irrelevant when every day is a fight for survival. I pick up the shotgun laying on the dusty office desk and make my way through the facility. The throaty hum of 60hz is loud enough to make my ears ring, but that's just fine by me. My work here is done.

An hour ago, I found an iPod in some old mechanic's toolbox. Man, these things are vintage! Still in the leather case and everythin'. The music on it is garbage, but hey, it's not like there's an orchestra anymore, y'know? You take what you get, and that's just how it is. Back in the day, a person woulda squirmed at the idea of wearing these filthy, used earbuds. Music playing in my ears is worth more than solid gold -- that's the way I see it. Someone else's earwax on these things is the last of my worries, now.

I grab the handle of the large, metallic door, and it doesn't budge. Fuck. At least someone had the decency to spray-paint "EXIT" in bright orange. Probably was whatever color they had left over. It was tough to find your way out without electricity. It's not like the guys who built this place ever thought there wouldn't be any electricity *inside* the building itself. Flashlights? Dude, we live in the dark ages now. A camping lantern is worth a small fortune these days. More than a house, even.

The bass of some kind of electronic music thumps in my ears as I try the handle again. No dice. Fuck it. I raise my leg up and deliver a kick to the handle, and the door flies open, forcing me to shade my eyes from the blazing sun. I've been inside too long. Shotgun over my shoulder, I walk out, bass still thumpin' away.

It's gonna take about an hour to get back to base, but I don't care. It's a beautiful day in the wasteland. Thirty fuckin' degrees Celsius in the middle of January. The bass of the music drowns out the chirping of my geiger counter. I don't even give a shit about how many rads I take anymore. You gotta do what you gotta do, ya know?

I walk slowly along the well-worn path, the countryside a mix of dirt, shelled out buildings, and exposed rock. High above me looms what used to be a transmission tower. It still stands because it hasn't been taken down for salvage, yet. Could you believe that they used to transmit electricity through *power lines*? Man, don't make me laugh! These days, you gotta build your shit nice and sturdy, like. Like the railway. Now there's a fine piece of 21st century engineering.

It's a railway, alright, but sideways. Rails are excellent conductors of electricity, and sturdy, too. Convenient that an old railway ran from the generating station back to base. We just took that thing and put it sideways. The raiway ties, well, they're made of concrete, right? You just slam one of those puppies into the ground vertically, and notch it so that the rails fit in better. Far more durable than that fuckin' wire they used to use back in the pre-war days. Man, people were so *spoiled* back then. Replacing wire whenever you wanted? Please!

I bet you there's not a single locomotive running on this whole God-forsaken Earth. What use is a railway in the ground? May as well use it to feed electricity, right?

A quarter of an hour later, and I'm walking over a low ridge, the wind kicking up dust everywhere. The railway is to my immediate right, like a fence with two tiers. I glance down at my EM Monitor in my right hand. Good. The station is still transmitting power. I can feel a blister forming on my right foot, and my jeans are filled with wasteland grit. Even Ed, the best tailor on the base, can't make stuff as comfortable as they used to be. Man, people were *spoiled*.

Something out of the corner of my eye catches my attention, and I stop and squint. The shimmering air mixed with blowing dirt does nothing to help, so I continue on. The music continues to throb in my ears, and maybe someone would stop the music to pay more attention. Fuck it. Who knows when the battery on this thing is going to die. Who knows if it'd start playing, again! Music is just *that* important.

Ah, there it is again. Shit. I hastily shove the EM Monitor into my back pocket and fish around in my front pocket for the mini telescope binocular. Resting the shotgun on my left shoulder, I look through the binocular and focus with my right index finger. Nothing but fuckin' haze and dirt. I scan the horizon some more, and like somethin' out of an old pre-war science fiction film, a figure emerges from the murk. It's still a good twenty minutes away, slowly shambling forward.

Fuckin' zombies. Who would've known that an early 21st century obsession would come to life? Nobody knew what this much radiation would do to the human race, but now we know. It would almost be enough to make someone double over with laughter at the irony of it all. If you weren't busy surviving, that is. I shrug and put the binocular back in my pocket, and continue on as if the zombie means nothin'. But my step is quicker than it was. Nobody wants to get stuck out here with a zombie by themselves. Nobody.

Zombies are just as brainless as those old movies and books say they are. This one just keeps moving forward, making a bee-line right for me. The shortest route between two points is a straight line, right? Well, this thing was living fuckin' proof of *that* little bit of truth. Sure enough, by the time I get over the last ridge, base in sight, I can smell the zombie's stench on the air. The music keeps on thumping in my ear. Man, this guy *really* loved his electronic music.

I stop and climb up atop a rocky outcrop just behind me and wait. *whomp*whomp*whomp* the music goes - I can't even hear the wind howling throughout the wasteland, but I *can* hear my heartbeat. Man, I wish I had a cigarette. Those things are about as valuable as camping lanterns, y'know? Maybe we'll get a Benson & Hedges factory up and running next. Can't be as difficult as getting a whole fuckin' power generating system online.

I don't even bother to crouch behind a boulder for cover. I just stand atop it and bob my head to the music, shotgun clutched in both hands, and wait. Waiting is always the worst part. The music keeps me company though. Man, where is that little fucker?

On cue, the zombie's head peeks up over the ridge opposite me. He slowly shambles forward, scraps of clothing torn to a million pieces by the wind or something else. That's where those science fiction authors got it wrong, though. These guys make no noise. None at all. They just stare you down like you're playing a game of cards or somethin'. They stare at you with those empty eyes, and move forward.. silently.

I raise my shotgun up, and aim smoothly. The music helps me to relax. It's like I'm high on somethin'. iPods and other music players actually fetch more cash than drugs these days. Who woulda thought? I shake my head and get back to concentratin'. Funny, the things you think of at times like this. Finger on the trigger. Easy.. steady.. just squeeze the trigger, and the little fucker's done.

There's a loud *BOOM* that penetrates the rhythm of the music. It's followed by a loud crackling and sizzling noise. The zombie begins to howl, and I shiver. It's the only time zombies make noise, when they die. It's like some of that human survival instinct is still within 'em, and they know that their time is up. The zombie's limbs jerk and jitter around as they should, after all, the little fucker walked right into the railway. I can see where bits of its flesh have fused themselves to the rail. A couple thousand volts will do that to a person.. or a zombie. The rotten smell of cooking zombie meat fills the air.

I hop off the boulder, and continue on my walk to base as if nothing happened, rhythmic thumping continuing in my ear. You don't really think I'd waste a shotgun shell on a *zombie*, would you? Ammo is fuckin' hard to find, these days! Besides, there's an auxiliary reason we built up the railway sideways.

I walk on, and a couple of minutes away from the base, the music finally dies. Battery finally let out. I let out a long sigh, and take out those filthy ear buds. Just another piece of electronic junk, now. Besides, I can hear the guys celebrating, even from this distance. Good ole' Tom must be playin' the piano again - I think I catch a few notes of the Alaskan Rag carried over on the breeze. Bringing electricity into a whole base ought to cause some excitement, y'know?

My name is Teldin Ostkreuz, and I'm a railway engineer.
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Meanwhile, back in the 1990's... [Sep. 29th, 2009|09:08 pm]
Land of Devastation
By:  Thomas Matthews

Before I had the chance to attack, the Giant Newt leapt at my arm with its teeth gnashing.  I tried to dodge, but the beast took a small chunk out of my arm.  I threw it off me and pulled out my ElectroBlade.  With one swipe, I cut the Newt into two pieces.

My team-mate, Cyan Garamonde, looked over towards me and said with a smirk, "It bit ya, eh?"  Breaking into a giant smile, he continued, "I guess we'll have to get Dark on our team to help us with those nasty creatures!"  I laughed because I knew that last remark was a joke, Dark was the lowest ranked soldier to walk the wastelands.  Reaching into my pack, I pulled out a medkit and started patching my arm.  While waiting for me to finish, Cyan pulled out his RazorLance and started polishing it.  Staring at his weapon, he asked, "Torke?"

I simply responded, "Yeah?"

"Man, we need to get better weapons.  I hear Defs Sacre got a Slicer-Dicer and a Torpx Cannon."

"Yeah," I replied, "Us with our puny close-ranges.  Hell, we don't even own a decent long range.  Oh well, we ain't the best soldiers in the wasteland anyway.  We could be just like Defs Sacre, Troy Hadley, and all the rest of 'em.  All we gotta do is survive in this desolate old place."

"I agree with ya there, pal."  Cyan said.  Changing the subject, he asked, "Do ya think we should head back to the fort?  It's gettin' kinda late."

"Nah ... see what I mean?"  Without waiting for a response, I said, "Let's go kill off a Scavenger and get you an ElectroBlade, and us possibly a Clip Pistol.  If we wanna get our ranks up, we can't just sit around on our asses all day."

Cyan remarked, "Right.  Let's get goin' then, shall we?"  I put away my medkit and Cyan holstered his RazorLance.  In silence, we walked over to the Freedom Zone.  The Freedom Zone is like a whole new country or province.  There are new things to be explored, new enemies, etc., etc.  We haven't crossed the border because we aren't strong enough.  Hopefully, that'll soon change.

We stayed in the Sacre Zone and looked around for a Scavenger.  After killing off some Ant-Men, Rad Hounds, and a couple more Giant Newts, we came upon a Scavenger.  As always, the creature was collecting discarded items from the wasteland.  Cyan whispered to me, "He looks strong, do ya think we can take him, Torke?"

I whispered back, "No problem, Cyan, both of us can do it."  Either I whispered too loudly or the Scavenger has great hearing because it looked over at us.  Immediately, it pulled out its Clip Pistol and started shooting at us.  A bullet grazed Cyan in the shoulder, but I remained unscathed.  Pulling out our weapons, we charged the Scavenger.  The creature aimed his Clip Pistol at my head and pulled the trigger.  Luckily, there was no more bullets left in the gun.  Struggling to reload, I leapt at the Scavenger and cut off his hand.  The Clip Pistol clattered to the ground.  Distracted by the gun, I fumbled and swiped at its knee.  As I expected, it was a mere scratch.

The Scavenger looked right into my eyes with a sadistic smile.  With all its might (and with only one hand), it swung its ElectroBlade at my neck.  Quickly dodging, I rolled away from the battle.  Cyan took his turn and drove his RazorLance into the creature's leg.  Obviously in great pain, the creature screamed thunderously.  Jumping back into the battle, I swung my ElectroBlade around to the Scavenger's neck.  Both his head and body fell to the wasteland.  Not an easy kill, but it was worth it.

Picking up the Scavenger's ElectroBlade, I threw it over to Cyan.  As he admired his new weapon, I searched the bloody heap.  Grabbing the Clip Pistol from the ground and the ammo from the body, I stood up.  I reloaded the gun and put it on my belt.  I sighed, "Finally!  A long-ranged weapon under our possession.  Cyan, old friend, we are getting somewhere."
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Reading Between the Lines [Sep. 25th, 2009|10:23 pm]
November 19th, 1987.  Vegreville, Alberta.

I'm sitting in the basement, watching the title screen of "The Castles of Doctor Creep" on my Commodore 64.  The game itself is good, but I'm more interested in listening to the music playing along to the title screen.  The SID chip continues to play its rendition of Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 5.  I'm completely mesmerized.  I don't know it, but this is my first exposure to classical music - through a computer. I won't know the title of the tune until more than a dozen years later.

September 16th, 2009.  Gilsland, England.

It's been two hours since the lady running this bed and breakfast has trapped me in the common room.  She babbles on in her north English accent, but I don't hear a word she's saying.  My mind is miles away, and yet, I continue to smile, nod, and make the appropriate noises at just the right moments.  My legs are on fire from walking for several hours on end, and all I want is a hot bath.  My iPod is safely tucked away in my room, along with my luggage.  I could pull it out, close my eyes, and pretend like I'm somewhere else for a few hours.  I resist the temptation.

March 22, 2008.  Bingen, Germany.

I'm in a dark room surrounded by hundreds of electronic and computer artists.  I've never felt so at home, and yet, so alien.  I turn my head to the right, and someone's playing Elwood's "Stompin' Little Scouts".  To my left is Purple Motion's "Starshine".  Near the front someone plays a chip tune on their Commodore 64.  At the back, "Remark Music" blares out on some large speakers hooked up to yet another Commodore. 

June 17th, 2009.  Highway 2, Alberta.

Demoscene music pours out of the speakers in my Jeep as I fly down the Queen Elizabeth II highway at 120 klicks.  The person in the passenger seat calls it "garbage", which causes my hands to tighten on the wheel a little.  I keep the peace by switching to some 80's pop.  She begins to sing along to "Der Kommissar".  This annoys me to no end, but I say nothing, and my grip on the wheel tightens a little more.  I pay the price for my silence a month later.

May 14th, 1996.  Grande Cache, Alberta.

I sneak out of school early, just before the lunch bell, to run home and get ready.  Ian, Thomas, and Stephen will be over for lunch, and it's important that everything's just right for their arrival.  I take the steps downstairs two at a time and flip on my old Heathkit amp, turning the volume up to 75%.  The four speakers in my bedroom crackle to life as I turn on the PlayStation, the deep bass of the opening sequence surely causing some form of hearing loss.  Instinctively I choose track 31 from the audio CD selection screen and then run upstairs to get the food ready.  Soon after, Ian walks in the door with a big grin on his face.  "Man," he says, "I could hear Ken's Theme from all the way down the fucking block!"

August 3rd, 1998.  Berkeley, California.

I'm in a dorm room at the University of California.  There exist no MP3 players and the 486 subnote laptop I brought with me hardly has the disk space or the processing power for my collection of modules.  I bought a discman from the local Radio Shack, only because I under-estimated how important my ability to listen to music really was.  On my desk sits a stack of CD's from the used CD shop down the street.  The choir of Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana" sings through my headphones.  Years later, someone will tell me that I'm full of myself for posting some of the latin verses. 

April 5th, 2009.  Edmonton, Alberta.

I'm listening to a performance of Carmina Burana live at the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, and my jaw hits the floor.  At the end, the performance and its 150-strong choir receive a unanimous standing ovation from all who attend.  The conductor looks shocked - I've never seen or heard the like before.

December 24th, 1998.  Grande Cache, Alberta.

I'm sitting in the living room with Ian at his parent's place, watching End of Evangelion.  Komm Susser Tod is playing through the final sequence, and I'm hearing it for the first time.  It is one of the most beautiful pieces of music that I've ever heard.  Later, someone will tell me that the film was "a whole lot of nothing". 

September 25th, 2009.  Edmonton, Alberta.

Music has always been a way to demarcate significant events in my life.  One such event happened months ago, and yet, I have yet to find a piece of music that fits.  Then, all of a sudden, it hits me like a ton of bricks: St. Elmo's Fire.
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Repairs [Aug. 16th, 2009|05:19 am]
The server that runs RRX  has been in the need of some repairs, lately.  One of the drives in the RAID6 array failed, both CPU's were hitting their temperature thresholds way too early, and the kernel needed to be patched to fix the sendpage() vulnerability, among a few other things.

Since work has decided to bless me with a wonderful start time of 2:00am on Monday, I decided to switch up my sleep schedule last night so that it wouldn't be as much of a blow to my system.  Thus, I was up at Midnight, and brought down the server at around 3:00am to do a variety of repairs.

The first thing I regretted was not getting a can of compressed air.  No doubt part of the problem with the temperature thresholds was that dust caked the fins of the heat sink, causing the air flow to be less efficient.  I took those puppies outside and blew on them until I was blue in the face.  Unsurprisingly, the old thermal compound between the CPU and heat sink was dry and cracked.  So, I removed that with some isopropanol and q-tips, and re-applied some fresh Arctic Silver.  

I had always been a little afraid to take the CPU assembly apart, since server boards can be a little trickier to disassemble than desktop boards, but it turned out to be pretty simple.  The fans needed a good blowing out as well, what with thick dust collected on the insides and along the fan blades.  Many a q-tip was sacrificed to clean those.

My 3ware RAID controller was beginning to creep out of the PCI-X socket, too.  With that re-seated, I fired the machine up.  There's always a small risk that you blew something in the disassembly, or the reassembly, so powering up is always the most exciting part.  All it takes is just a bit too much downward force on a CPU, or some isopropanol dripping where it shouldn't, and I'd be going off to Memory Express to buy a new motherboard as soon as they opened.

Fortunately, the machine just worked.  Next was a quick patch and recompile of the kernel, followed by the removal and replacement of the bad hard drive.  After that, I finally organized the RAID hot-swap bays to be in alphabetic order (i.e., sda at the top, sde at the bottom.)

It felt good to get all of these little maintenance items done in one go.  This server still has a ton of life left in it.  RAM, CPU, and disk usage are all below 25% on average, so it's going to be a few years yet before it needs to be replaced.  Considering I bought the thing four or five years ago, that's not bad value for money at all.
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Hikes '09 [Aug. 10th, 2009|10:49 am]
So, having conquered the breadth of Liechtenstein (all 10km of it) by hiking, I decided to do the same to a somewhat larger country: Great Britain.

Hadrian's Wall was built around Emperor Hadrian's time, and demarcated the northern boundary of the Roman Empire. The wall spans about 134km from Britain's eastern seaboard to the west, and is still largely intact through most of the route. This plays very well to my fascination with borders and interesting hikes in general.

My hike starts on September 12, and ends September 19. That gives me seven days, at about 20km per day, to hike the length. After I'm done, it will mark the second sovereign country I've walked its breadth from east to west.

Walking days are as long as 25km (about five hours) or as short as 13km (three hours). The most I've ever hiked in a single day is about 40km (from Hof, along the old East German border, to the Czech Republic). But, never the less, I decided to go on as many "training hikes" as possible in July and August to prepare myself for seven days straight of walking.

So, I bought an annual Parks Canada pass, which gives me unlimited access to any national park in Canada.

The first series of hikes I went on were in Elk Island National Park. These were a series of very short runs, about 3.5km each for a total of about 10km. The first hike took me around some old beaver ponds, since abandoned by the beavers in the 1980's. No doubt this was due to the human activity in the area. The second hike was more interesting, taking me along the shores of Astotin Lake, a few bogs, and forest. These were not challenging hikes at all, so I hiked some more around the Astotin recreational area. There were plenty of people on all of these trails, and the weather was warm.

During the Heritage Day long weekend, I went to Drumheller. The temperature was about 32 degrees; decidedly more hot than it would be in Northern England in September. A few little walks took me around the Tyrell museum area and Midland Provincial Park for a total of 5km. Again, these were not challenging. I thought I might have some time to visit the museum, since I hadn't been there since I was a kid, but the lineup out the door discouraged me from attempting that.

I had reserved a campsite at Dinosaur Provincial Park, and the hikes there were far more interesting and challenging. It's amazing how different the badlands landscape really is. I hiked up along the wall of the Red Deer Valley, down into the valley again, then around a ring road that brought me to a series of different hikes. Two of these hikes showed off dinosaur bones still in place, a quarry where dozens of dinosaur remains were recovered and put on display the world over, and the gorgeous badlands landscape. The total hiked in the park was 10km, for a total of about 15km that day (between Drumheller and Dinosaur Park).

That night was the night of the ferocious thunderstorm front that killed a woman in Big Valley, and a little girl in Calgary. The temperature dropped ten degrees in under an hour, and the lightning was constant. I was also eaten alive by mosquitoes while I slept.

After stopping in at Brooks to buy some much-needed insect repellent, I made my way to Waterton National Park. I parked in the town site and decided to take another unique 'border' hike: a stroll to the 49th Parallel. This hike took me 7km from the Waterton town site, to the 49th Parallel, and then back along the same trail. This was a challenging trail thanks to the severe grade up and down the side of a few mountains. The hike brought breathtaking views of Waterton Lake.

It took about an hour and a half to reach the border, clear cut along its length. There were two border stones there, marking the Convention of 1818 and the Treaty of 1846. The US Department of Homeland Security had a very stern sign up, warning that all visitors remaining overnight must check in at a ranger station 7km further south. There was also a dock on the US side, stretching out into Boundary Bay. It was on this dock that I decided to rest before hiking back.

After a few minutes, a black bear and her cub decided to meander on over (on the Canadian side), near the border stones. They didn't know I was there, so I started to make a racket on the dock. This surprised the mother bear, who took off back up the trail on the Canadian side. That left me in the rather uncomfortable predicament of having to hike back up the trail by myself with a black bear and her cub in the area.

As a compromise, I decided to wait until one of three things happened: it became three o'clock, a boat offered to pick me up, or another group stopped by and I could join them going northbound. As it turned out, just before three, a couple stopped in (along with their pet dog), and I accompanied them on the way back.

Dogs have an incredible sense of smell, and it was no surprise when we reached the point where the bear crossed, that the dog had to be practically dragged by its leash to continue on. We couldn't see any sign of the bear, of course, but the dog could sure smell it. We also ran into another hiker on the way back, who let us know about another black bear further up. Waterton Park is just packed full of 'em.

Oh, and this couple was from Pincher Creek, so that made for some nice conversation on the way back.

So, to the United States and back; about 14km.

Yesterday, it was back to Elk Island Park for a 13km hike around Moss Lake. There was practically nobody on the trail, except for one group stopped for lunch in the middle of the trail. At one point, there were quite a few bear droppings on the trail, which surprised me. Because of that, I started making more racket than usual, which I think surprised the group having lunch. At one point, there was a bit of a 'meaty' smell on the trail: whether from something dead, a bear hidden in the brush, or otherwise .. I don't know, but I got the hell out of that area pretty quick.

I did the entire loop without having to stop more than 60 seconds, in 2.25 hours. I could easily do the loop again, and only had a little blister on my foot from the trouble.

My longest walk during the Hadrian's Wall hike will be 25km, over mostly flat terrain. When you consider that there will be plenty of things to stop and see on the trip, I feel like I'm more than ready for the hike. The only unknown question is, will I be able to endure seven days straight of hiking?

Come September 12, I guess I'll find out.
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Video Game Economics [Jul. 2nd, 2009|11:02 am]

An article on VGPG showed that the value for Michael Jackson's "Moonwalker" game on the Genesis rose from $15.00 to $200.00 in a matter of hours. Moonwalker is rated "3" on the Digital Press rarity scale, which in human terms means "somewhat uncommon but not hard to find." The value has since started to trickle back down.

My theory about video game pricing goes like this; all video games follow a curve. The price starts out high on release day, then slowly falls down towards zero as the game and associated system go out of vogue. There's a time when the game reaches its "sweet spot", the cheapest it will ever become, before it slowly starts climbing back up in value as it becomes collectible. The "sweet spot" is when the game is in clearance bins and the like. Earthbound for the SNES, fetching prices of $100 and above at local flea markets, at one point could be found for $9.99 or less in bargain bins across the country.

Along a game's journey upwards to collectability, there are a few anomalies affected by outside factors. It's like landing on some of the good squares in Monopoly. Final Fantasy VII became very expensive thanks to Advent Children. Moonwalker became expensive due to Michael Jackson's death. Super Mario RPG has been falling in value since it was released on the Wii's Virtual Console.

Brian Hughes has a different theory. He figures that because the trend in video games is moving towards an all-online distribution model, all games can do nothing but drop in value. He envisions a world with stacks of NES games worth less than five dollars a piece, since they can all be had online for a few bucks. This is an interesting world view for someone who runs a video games store.

I've always been fascinated with the concept of rarity. A game that is 1 ("R1") on the Digital Press rarity scale had millions of copies printed, and is thus far more common than one that is 7 ("R7"), which probably only had a print run of a hundred thousand or so. But yet, we see common games at high prices because of the demand. Zelda II: The Adventures of Link, is dirt common at R1. Because there are millions of copies of this game out there, the game should be practically worthless. But, the popularity has ensured that prices like $25 are common at the local flea markets.

On the other hand, VGPG shows that the value of The Adventures of Link is steadily dropping. Brian might be right; its release for the Wii's Virtual Console has probably helped to depress the price.

I have a different theory. I believe that rarity will ultimately determine the price of an item. It only makes sense. Something that is rare is more valuable than something that is not. This is why an ounce of gold is worth far more than an ounce of copper. Paying $25 for The Adventures of Link makes no sense, because the odds of finding a copy for $5 or less (say, at a garage sale) are far higher than finding a copy of Secret Scout (R7) for the same price. (Secret Scout, by the way, has done nothing but rise in value.)

Rare games are also not likely to be published on the likes of Virtual Console or Sony's Playstation Store. Rare games like Secret Scout, Tengen Tetris, and Cheetahmen II are unlicensed. Stadium Events was rebranded as World Class Track Meet. Nintendo World Championship is unlikely to be re-released online due to the specific nature of the game (it's more of a competition cartridge than a "game".)

It's going to take a while to get there, of course. Current demand still results in ridiculous prices, like $40.00 at a local flea market for a loose copy of Burgertime for the NES, despite the average price on eBay being $2.50. On the other hand, since rare games are usually not desirable, you can pick up some rarities for a bargain. A list of SNES games that I own shows that the rarity distribution is weirdly lopsided. I'm closer to completing full collections of rare games than commons. This is because a lot of vendors still price their common SNES games very high ($10 or more) despite being about as common as dirt.

So, I figure the market will correct itself slowly. Common games will become cheap, as they should be. They're also most likely to be re-released for online distribution. Rare games will become more expensive as time marches along. If this theory is correct, then the time to buy up rare games is now, before they rise in value, and then fill out with commons later, after they become cheap.

I've been working on VGDB for some time, and have struggled with a useful pricing model. There exist a few "states" that a game can be in: loose (game only), complete (game, box, manual), new (factory sealed, never opened), or somewhere between (game, manual, but no box, for example.) I've always tried to maintain two sets of prices: a "loose" price, and a "complete" price. This is further complicated by the fact that some systems tend towards loose games (like the NES, SNES, or Game Boy) while others towards complete games (Genesis, 3DO, Saturn.) Most of the time, if cardboard boxes are involved, most games on the market will be loose. If the boxes are made of some kind of tough plastic, then most games on the used market will still be available with their boxes intact.

This makes maintaining a database of relevant pricing data rather difficult. How do I present data that represents a sale of a game with manual, but no box? How do I authenticate that a certain sale is, in fact, of a sealed game?

I think the answer lies in moving to a flat pricing model. To simply poll all prices, and present the viewer with a minimum, a maximum, an average, and the boxing trend for that particular system (i.e., are most games on this system loose, or complete?) It makes it easier to process.

For example, let's say you see a copy of Super Turrican 2 for the SNES at a garage sale. This game is very rare, and priced at $15. The minimum pricing data on VGDB is $18, and the maximum is $39. That makes it a no-brainer: this is a steal of a deal. But let's say it's priced at $30 at the garage sale. The price is now on the higher end of the pricing spectrum. Maybe if the game is complete with box and manual, it's worth it. If the game was priced at $60, regardless of condition, it's likely too much.

That's the power of a min/max/avg "scale" system, I think. It allows you to easily make a decision based on the game's completeness, condition, rarity, and any other number of things you could think of. It's hard for a computer to determine these things for you, but easy for a human. It's easy for us to say, "values at the top end are probably for a complete game in good condition, while values at the bottom are for a loose game, maybe in rough shape."

I haven't started converting VGDB over to that kind of a system yet, but I think it's the best way to go. It makes it easier to dump pricing data into the database in bulk, since I don't have to categorize it first. There aren't as many numbers for your eyes to look at, making it easier to process in a situation where you're reviewing many titles at once. It gives you a broader outlook of what the pricing situation for that game is.

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Lessons Learned [Jun. 28th, 2009|09:41 am]
So, Stephen and I decided to go to the top of Grande Mountain in Grande Cache for amateur radio Field Day.  I figured, since HF performance was so great in the town itself, it *must* be great atop a mountain that almost doubles in elevation from the town site itself.  More sky coverage, less RF interference.

I took advantage of a firm subsidy and purchased a solar panel, some deep cycle lead-acid batteries, a charge controller, and a DC power bar.  The firm subsidy reimbursed me 50% for this equipment, which meant that we could put it all to use atop Grande Mountain.  The sun, which stays visible until 11pm during this time of year, would power the batteries, which in turn would power the radio and laptops.

Stephen cooked up a plan to use a WiFi antenna to shoot some wireless Internet up to the mountain.  I bought a G5RV antenna, good all the way down to 80 meters, and figured we'd make a mini camping trip out of it, fire and all.  Except that there would be no sleeping, what with Field Day being a 24-hour event.

The big decision was whether I would operate at 100W, full power, and risk depleting the batteries early.  Or at 5W, and conserve battery life, but risk it not being enough power to "get out" and be heard by my fellow hams.  At the end of the day, I took the 5W option.  I figured that the elevation would give us a huge height advantage, and the lack of power wouldn't matter so much.

I left Edmonton at about 8:00am, with a plan to be in Grande Cache by noon, when Field Day officially started.  It was completely overcast in Edmonton, with the forecast for Grande Cache promising "clear skies" and "increasing cloudiness" as the day wore on.  After passing Edson (including a 30 minute wait at Tim Horton's), the sky completely opened up, revealing a fantastic view of the rockies just after Mount Obed.  If the day was going to be anything like this, then everything would be fantastic.

That's my way of saying that just after I turned north onto the Grande Cache Highway, the sky became completely overcast again.

I picked up Stephen at his home in Grande Cache, where he was in the middle of getting ready to move in July.  We then stopped in at Super A to pick up supplies: snacks, drinks, and hot dogs for roasting over the fire.  Despite the cloudiness, it was going to be a good twenty-four hours.

My new Jeep Patriot is only two wheel drive, unlike my old Jeep Cherokee, which had authentic four wheel drive.  The Cherokee was also higher off the ground, and I instantly missed the Cherokee as soon as I grounded the Patriot going up the first hill on the Grande Mountain service road.  The Grande Cache highway was still visible behind us, where we turned off. We hadn't gone 100 meters without getting stuck already.

This was my first time off-roading.  I remember the service road being in a lot better state of repair than it was.  Potholes as large as a small car riddled the road.  Years of rain runoff carved deep ruts into the road, sometimes diagonally, or along both sides of the road.  Steering too far over to one side or another would guarantee a ditched vehicle.

Needless to say, I got a quick crash course in how to off-road properly.  Aim the wheels for the highest point.  Attack sharp bumps diagonally.  Gain velocity *before* a long, steep hill.

One particularly hairy moment involved setting rocks behind the back wheels while on a steep hill, to prevent the Jeep from rolling back.  Previous attempts resulted in a smoking right front tire, from where the tire was spinning uselessly against a rock below it.  My Patriot's tire pressure, 62 PSI, was meant to achieve maximum fuel efficiency on the road.  My old Cherokee's tire pressure, 32 PSI, was built for maximum gripping ability. 

Eventually, the Jeep lurched forward.  I dare not shift it into second gear, lest it stall.  Then it jerked over to the right, right towards a rut that promised a wrecked vehicle.  So I counter-steered frantically, just like you would in winter to get out of a skid, and the Jeep jerked towards the dangerous rut to the left.

These ruts were at least two feet deep, so digging out of one of those would take all night.  If it could be done at all.

Stephen was outside at that point, left in massive clouds of dust as he yelled frantically for me to steer this way or that.  The massive bumps were causing my cargo of lead-acid batteries, solar panel, and radio equipment to bang around like it was experiencing the worst air turbulence ever.  Would my stuff even work after all of this?  The sensitive solar panel was going to be cracked, for sure.

Meanwhile, the tachometer was showing 5,000 RPM and climbing.  The oil warning light came on.  The Jeep was throwing me around like something out of Little Big Planet, but I didn't dare stop.  The end of the hill was just a few more meters ahead, a nice flat in the road.  The tachometer was up to 6,000 RPM now, practically at the red line.

I stopped the Jeep on the flat and looked back.  Stephen was invisible in that massive cloud of dust.  I half expected to see my batteries tipped, acid pooling all over the insides of my vehicle.  But, by some miracle, everything was still intact.

It took us about an hour to get to the top of the mountain.  As we were unloading everything, I noticed that some of the hard plastic that makes up part of the inside of the Jeep had a hole punched into it.  A lifted the floor of the cargo bay, where the spare tire is stored, and the damaged continued on.  It seems that one of the huge, 70 lb. batteries lifted and then came crashing down with enough force during our ordeal so as to smash the hard plastic.  That was my fault -- the batteries should have gone on the floor behind the front seats. 

If that was the only damage my Jeep sustained, I considered myself lucky.  The service road was in a lot worse shape than I remember it being.

The weather was still overcast, with no sign of letting up.  It was extremely windy at the top, but we had expected that.  Setup was a quick affair.  First, the power system.  Fortunately, the solar panel generated 12.8V despite the cloudy sky, enough to keep the batteries charged up.  Second, the antenna, which we strung between the two radio towers.  This required me to climb up one, tying it off when I felt too nervous to continue upwards.

I powered up the radio, and tuned around on 20 meters.  Plenty of stations on the air.  I tuned the antenna to the band, and tried contacting a few stations.  Nothing.  Eventually, I was able to make a contact with a station in Alberta -- an embarrassing state of affairs on 20 meters.

Meanwhile, Stephen wasn't having any luck with his wireless gear.  I made a few more contacts on 40 meters, but nothing impressive.  I could hear hundreds, if not thousands of stations across the bands, but none could hear me at my miniscule 5W.  This was the opposite problem in Edmonton.  There, everyone can hear me, I have no problems with the signal getting out.  But the ambient RF noise of the city is so loud that it kills my listening ability.

I was averaging one contact every 30 minutes.  An embarrassing result compared to my experience working with the New Westminster club years ago.  Back then, I'd rattle off four or five contacts per minute.

Stephen built a fire, and we roasted up some hot dogs.  It was about 6pm now.  We enjoyed what we could, but now it was time to assess our options.  It looked like a rain front was moving in from the west.  We had no wireless Internet like we had hoped.  The cloud cover made me worry about how long the batteries would last.  The number of contacts I was racking up was decidedly less than impressive.

So, we made the decision to pack it up and head back into town.  The original plan was to stay up on the mountain for the full 24-hours of field day.  But with things looking so bleak, we'd just have a lot more fun back in town.

That's when I put my Jeep through its second challenge of the day: leaving it in first gear for most of the way down, to help reduce wear on the breaks.  The engine whined at a constant 3,000 RPM as we snaked our way down.  Without gravity fighting us, and with my earlier experience, it was a lot easier.  We didn't get stuck, either.

Next year, I might just operate from home.  The benefits of going up a mountain are just too little to justify putting my Patriot through another beating.  Instead, I think I'll spend the next year trying to improve the noise issue at home.  Then, I can operate utilizing solar power only. 

Alas, another Field Day in the books.
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