Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Doc Walter

I was surprised to find Doctor John Walter in the 1967 KCI Yearbook. Why? Because he was my art teacher at Waterloo-Oxford in 1989!

Doc Walter was a very imposing man. It was as though he'd spent his entire teaching career cultivating a massive personality that could crush you in an instant.

This is not idle speculation. One of the first things he taught us was that an artist must be able to stand up to cruel criticism, and to hammer this point home he would put all of our assignments on a table in the class and make us all stand around while he rated them. His ratings went from "excellent" to "crap," and we were forced to watch as our own prominently signed works were arranged in the crap continuum.

I'm not doubting Doc's rationale, but the problem was that not everybody took visual art because they wanted to be artists. Many of us -- me included -- only took it because we were required to take at least two art courses before we could graduate, and our options were visual art, music, or drama. I settled on drama after finding myself in Doc Walter's "crap" pile far too often.

Even so, I loved Doc Walter, and many other students did as well. He was gruff and frightening, but he was also totally honest and he didn't mess around, and I think most of us recognized that he was a talented man and a great teacher.

Anecdote #1: I had his class right after lunch, which was followed by a twenty-minute "reading period." Doc Walter actually USED this time to read, and what's more he would read short sci-fi and horror stories to us. Being an avid reader and a horror fan myself, I absolutely loved this time, and I even loaned him some of my horror collections to use.

I also remember that he allowed our highschool's Dungeons and Dragons club to use his room during lunch, though I don't think he thought much of the game.

Anecdote #2: Some students -- especially those who had trouble with authority figures -- hated Doc Walters. They particularly hated the fact that he insisted everybody call him "Doctor" ("He's not a real doctor!") Rumour has it that he stopped teaching at Waterloo-Oxford after a physical tussle with a student, which I can certainly believe.

Anecdote #3: Several years after graduation, a friend and I actually visited Doc Walter at his house. Doc had recently purchased an Atari computer and we brought some software for him.

I don't know if Doc Walter is still alive, but I'm sure that most students from Waterloo-Oxford who took his classes still remember him. I hope he knows (or knew) that even though the most vocal students found him impossible to deal with, the rest of us thought he was really damn cool.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Make Backups, Folks

After two friends lost all their hard-earned data in two separate incidents back in March, I was frightened enough to buy an external hard drive and start using the Macintosh "Time Machine" feature. Since then it has been making hourly backups of my entire system state, usually done so quietly that I don't even know it's happening.

I didn't think I'd ever need to USE the backups...until my house had a brief and sudden power outage yesterday morning. You know how some outages sound BAD, like they've involved some sort of surge? This one was like that.

Shortly afterward my Mac began to slooooow doooooooooooowwwwwn. Every action took several minutes to complete, and woe to the user who tried to multitask. I spent all afternoon trying to diagnose the problem...I ran hardware diagnostics, I repaired the hard drive. Meanwhile my poor belaboured computer was showing a "broken folder" icon every second time I tried to boot it.

I finally decided that the power outage/surge had scrambled my hard drive. Or something. I set the system to restore itself back to its previous good state, and three hours later here I am, with all my data still intact and a computer that seems healthy enough. If I hadn't had steady backups enabled I would have needed to reinstall EVERYTHING: the operating system (and updates), the hardware drivers for all my gadgets, the software I use constantly...I would have needed to LICENSE all that software again. And all my music, writing, and other essential projects? Gone.

So please let this post frighten you. Spend a bit of money on a hard drive, and if you've got a Mac, simply enable Time Machine. It will save your bacon someday!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Goat-Goo in Roman Plays

I've never had a sense of human history; other than Geography, History was the class I was LEAST interested in during school. But now I'm learning everything for the first time from scratch, and what fascinates me most about human history is how little we have changed.

It's for this reason that I'm thoroughly enjoying "Five Roman Comedies," a collection of Plautus and Terence plays translated into "modern verse" (eg., "the modern verse of Classical Studies professors in 1970").

It is really, really wonderful to know that we find the same things funny today that we did 2200 years ago: the irony of confused identities, the bumblings of a cocky idiot, the old routine of "Go quickly! And wait, don't forget what I told you to do! Now go, hurry! Wait, remember to be careful! Now hurry up and go! Wait a second, don't forget to be as quick as you can!"

Isn't this touching? Obviously our brains have changed little (if any) since Roman times, but neither have our joys and fears. And there is something ESPECIALLY touching that -- so long ago -- we had a theatrical system to entertain each other with, and that -- against all odds -- so many of these works have survived for us to read today.

Anyway, while reading these plays I'm torn between enjoying the "modern verse" translations and wishing they were a bit more literal. Like, I know instantly what "knucklehead" means to us today, but I sort wonder how the ROMANS had expressed such a thing. I'm currently reading the hilarious "Mostellaria," and the translator (Palmer Bovie) has really gone to town with the idioms. Here's my favourite section, which I hereby decree to be the best part of any play, anywhere:

Why don't you go up in smoke? I'll see you inhale first,
you halitosis garlic-green rotten excuse for a rustic
retreat, with goat-goo on your feet. I repeat:
You whiff of damp air, what's it like down there in your pig-sty?
Whew! What a combination of nanny goat and mongrel bitch!
That's great stuff! Then, as now, we've always found it enormously funny when two unlikeable people insult each other.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Ouch, Both Shoulders!

Regular readers of my more whiny and self-indulgent posts will know that I tore the labrum in my right shoulder last year.

Physiotherapists and sports doctors have assumed that this happened entirely as a fluke, because I'm not exactly the most active person in the world. It's a condition normally seen in baseball pitchers, except that MY restrictions -- inability to touch my back or chest around the middle of my torso, among other places -- are the exact OPPOSITE of the usual "pitcher's shoulder."

I've been on the waiting list for surgery and it will presumably take two more years before I even SEE the specialist, but maybe I can jump the line now, because it's happened to the OTHER shoulder too. The LEFT one. Being unable to do so many things with EITHER of my arms might place me in a new medical category.

There's no way this is simply a "fluke." How did I manage to tear the labrum in both shoulders in exactly the same unusual way?

Over the last few weeks I've formed a hypothesis that I think is a damn good one:
  1. I have weak shoulders in general. Due to my instant ability to build up shoulder muscles, and my desire to look "less male" in slinky gowns, I deliberately AVOID doing anything that would build upper-body mass.
  2. I localize stress by clenching my shoulders. They are constantly rigid while I'm at work, reducing blood flow through my shoulders and arms.
  3. The most important part: for twenty years I have carried heavy things around in shoulder bags. For the past TEN years I have walked to and from work every single day, usually with a thick and heavy book in my bag. To keep the strap on my shoulder I unconsciously tense it. Day after day after day.
My left shoulder began deteriorating while I was reading William T. Vollmann's 1300-page "Imperial," coinciding with some of the most stressful work weeks I have ever had. I think I'm right in assuming that there's a connection, although I can't find any online correlation between "heavy shoulder bags" and "torn labrums."

This hypothesis occurred to me last week and I've thrown myself into corrective measures. I only carry small books to work, and always on my right shoulder (which is now, paradoxically, the STRONG one). Three times a day I take a break from whatever I'm doing, lie on my back, and do some arm-raising and shoulder-rotating exercises that were approved by my physiotherapist. Then, at my desk, I use six feet of rubber tubing to strengthen my shoulders: I lift, lift, lift, lift.

In addition I've found ways to minimize the little injuries that are caused each day by getting out of bed, putting on clothes, and lifting coffee mugs. On a good day my shoulders don't start aching until noon, and a simple exercise and an ice pack can get them soothed again.

This was going remarkably well until last night's "Pride Prom" show. Here I am just minutes before an endless evening of agony and fear.

Drag shows are not good for my shoulders because they involve quick-changes and lots of flailing around. Still, over the years, I've trained myself to use my left arm for broad gesticulations and to keep my right arm within the range of motion that it's capable.

But this was the first time I'd done a show with my damaged left arm. After packing myself into the dress in the above picture -- which is now uncomfortably tight because of all those exercises I mentioned -- I performed the extremely demonstrative "Love and Truth" by Mother Mother...and halfway through the number I felt my left shoulder actually TEAR.

I've described this sensation before, but it wasn't the PAIN that made me fearful, it was the realization that -- in a few brief seconds -- I'd potentially caused irreversible damage to my shoulder cartilage. I'd taken another step towards serious physical disability. I don't live with anybody, so there is nobody around to do the things that are difficult for me: what happens if I can no longer change a lightbulb? Sweep the stairs? Dress myself?

The beginning of a drag show is not the time to elicit sympathy and understanding from those around you (though I did try). And now I can tell that the damage wasn't as catastrophic as it seemed: ice packs and a good sleep have reduced the pain and I can still do everything I could do before* (except lower a dress zip, for which I now use a length of fishing line).

There is one thing I DO know: I can't perform in any more drag shows until this problem is fixed, which might be never. They have always taken their toll but this toll is excessive. This isn't much of an issue because I don't do them much these days anyway, but it still makes me sad because there are events I love performing at...the Pride Prom is one of them.

* EDIT: Unfortunately that isn't true...my left shoulder is just restricted in a different way, I think. My right shoulder can't twist inwards in a horizontal way, whereas I think my left won't twist upwards. So much for learning semaphore!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

"Me and My Imagination" by Sophie Ellis-Bextor

Once a year (approximately) I hear a song that is Pure Ear Ecstasy. It "sends" me. It gradually seeps into my brain and possesses every waking hour. When I listen to it, I get covered in goosebumps. When I'm not listening to it, I'm hearing it in my head.

I can't pin down what these songs have in common, but I DO know that they all have a "soaring" quality -- like they're flying higher than anything else in the world -- but only in certain parts; during other parts of the song they are quite low-key. In short, they employ an emotional rollercoaster in perfect mix.

These songs are also musically complex, but they're still pop songs. And their lyrics are interesting. And the singers themselves have an expressive quality to their voices.

Past songs that spring to mind are "Living in Another World" by Talk Talk, "I Know What I'm Here For" by James, and "Ride a White Horse" by Goldfrapp. The most recent song is...

..."Me and My Imagination" by Sophie Ellis-Bextor.

I didn't care much for it the first time I heard it but now I can't get enough. It has the minimalistic dance element during the verses, and then the "soaring" chorus that employs a totally unexpected and almost lurching chord progression. The lyrics are fun and interesting. The thin disco-style strings perfectly complement the fat keyboards. And Ellis-Bextor has the most emotive, expressive voice around...contrast her "upbeat dance" delivery during most of the song with her "intimate, slightly broken, almost soulful" approach during the breakdown.

I'm in love with this song. Actually I'm falling in love with Sophie Ellis-Bextor in general, but this song especially.

Jobs: Drama Teacher

After I finished high school, I had an entire summer to figure out what I wanted to do in University. Little did I know that it would take another ten years for me to decide on a career, but at the time I was kicking around lots of ideas, and one of them was "something to do with drama."

I'd taken drama classes throughout high school, but I think the only lessons I ever learned were "How to enunciate strangely" and "How to feel mortified." These classes culminated in an absolute trainwreck of a show that I dare not mention for fear of litigation.

But drama WAS still on my mind in 1991, and when a job came up in New Hamburg -- where I was still living with my parents -- I blindly snatched it up.

I still can't believe I ever did this: I was hired as a sort of "summer workshop drama teacher" for children aged six to twelve. During the interview I confessed that I had absolutely no experience with children that age, and they promised me: "There will only be ten of them, and we're also hiring a person with babysitting experience to help you out."

Guess what. When I showed up at the big gymnasium to greet the children there were TWENTY-FIVE of them. And no babysitter in sight. For the rest of the summer it was just me and them.

I only remember brief snatches of the job itself. Every week we'd meet in my junior high's gymnasium -- and sometimes in the musty back room of the old New Hamburg auditorium, where a little Brownie mushroom always got in the way -- and we'd spend a few hours trying to get our show together.

My employers -- Wilmot Township, like, the ENTIRE township -- had suggested a book of age-appropriate plays, and we decided on one that was a pastiche of fairytales and scary stories: Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, Frankenstein.

Let me emphasize that I have no natural leadership ability. The children instantly recognized this and they ran amok, but they had a real desire to perform and they seemed to genuinely like me, maybe because I didn't talk down to them or sell them short.

One of my memories is of worrying about the single physically challenged boy in the class, who used a pair of arm braces to get around. There was a role in the play for a lurching "Egor" character, and I was afraid the other children would nominate him for the part. I learned a crucial lesson when he himself said he WANTED to be Egor, and he threw himself completely in the role, apparently relishing a task that allowed him to turn his disability into a performance. That kid stole the show.

Another memory is of playing music during lunch breaks. We had a tape recorder -- the same one we'd used for physical exercises when I went to that school -- and everybody was allowed to bring in tapes of music they wanted to hear during lunch. One day -- either because they asked, or I demanded, I can't remember which -- I played them MY favourite song at the time: "Over the Shoulder" by Ministry. The children declared unanimously that it wasn't music and it sucked.

We finally performed the play at a local nursing home, and all I remember are the children blanking out and forgetting their lines. I stood in the wings thinking "Holy cow, I've totally failed, this is an absolute embarrassment and it's all my fault." At the end, when the audience of parents and grandparents applauded, I seem to remember coming out and pretending to collapse on stage as though to apologize for what had happened, and all the kids ran out and dragged me off.

What I hadn't realized all along was that the play wasn't supposed to be GOOD. The play wasn't important AT ALL. This was really a CAMP where children learned confidence and socialized with other children with the same interests. None of this made sense to me until afterwards, when the parents told me how much their children had enjoyed the summer. I wish I'd understood this at the time.

Anyway, I finished the job and got paid, and though I'd never do it again it was still a fun time and a valuable experience for me (and hopefully some of the others too).

Plus I could put it on my resume.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Hack Your Dunjonquest

My "map the Dunjonquest games" project was going fine until I hit level 8 of Hellfire Warrior. Not only does it feature some tricky "room connection" puzzles in the middle of the Great Plain, but it does not provide you with any room numbers. Even though I knew I'd still be able to solve the puzzle, it reduced my chances of ever being even remotely certain that the whole level was mapped. What would be the point of a half-assed job?

Well yeah, there'd be a point, but it would still be discouraging. So tonight I dove back into the Hellfire Warrior code -- which is very similar to the Temple of Apshai code -- and made a few changes.

Here are the things I've learned by poking around (literally). Some of them are generalizations based on Hellfire and Apshai that I haven't fully checked, so take them with a grain of salt.

The Files

"Temple of Apshai" contains the following files:

TEMPLE.PRG - The Innkeeper program
TEMPLE.DUN - The Dunjonmaster program
TEMPLE.PT1 to .PT7 - Files .PT3 to .PT6 are the data for levels 1-4, but the other .PT files are a mystery to me: character set data? Treasures? Traps? I haven't looked closely.

"Hellfire Warrior" is a bit more complicated, but the main files are:

INN - The Innkeeper program
DM - The Dunjonmaster program
HELLFIRE.5 to .8 - Levels 5 to 8.

There also appear to be different character sets for each level, and perhaps colour data for each level (since the levels ARE different colours).

The Code

The Innkeeper and Dunjonmaster programs are written in ATARI BASIC, with a few machine language routines that I think are for loading the custom character set and drawing the dungeon.

Here are some important things to remember when looking through the code.
  • It's atrocious. Just sayin'.
  • Variables that start with the letter U are really constants that represent numbers...U1 represents the number one, U10 represents ten, etc. This was a common way to conserve program memory, because the ATARI BASIC interpreter tokenized variables but treated every number as a separate piece of memory.
  • The code is full of PEEKs and POKEs, because all character and level data is stored directly to memory addresses, not usually -- as you'd expect -- in variables. This allows the data to persist when the Innkeeper switches to the Dunjonmaster and vice-versa, but it's extremely difficult to untangle.
  • Variable KA represents the memory address where the level data begins, and KB represents the address where the character data begins. In "Apshai," KA is page 103 (103*256) and KB is KA+2251.
  • Much character data is also mirrored in variables, and the program swaps between the variables and memory occasionally, which might explain some wacky behaviour.
  • Each level contains sixty (Q) rooms, but not all levels utilize every room. Judging by the file sizes (identical) I assume that the unused rooms are just full of padding.
Important Variables
  • L: Character level (see below).
  • O$: A string of all the commands that can be entered.
  • MSTR: The line number for monster routines (7000).
  • KF: The direction the character is facing (1 = up, 2 = right, 3 = down, 4 = left, I think).
  • YA: The character's vertical position.
  • XA: The character's horizontal position.
  • TA: Fatigue.
  • WC: Weight carried.
  • PC: Wounds.
  • PH: Maximum wounds.
Experience Points

One of the more mysterious aspects of both "Temple of Apshai" and "Hellfire Warrior" is how experience points are evaluated. You are told the number of points you have, and the "Book of Lore" says that you will benefit from a greater number of points, but it's difficult to figure out HOW.

Here's some insight. The programs DO check your "level" during combat, and characters with a higher level definitely get an edge in the calculations. Some stats also go up when you return to the Innkeeper with a higher level than you previous had (in a circuitous and bizarre chain of statements that I haven't bothered looking closely at).

How do you know when you've gone up a level? That would be nice to find out, wouldn't it? For some odd reason the programs never tell you, but the number of experience points you need to have for each level is 1000 times the square of the level number. So:

Level 1 = 2000
Level 2 = 4000
Level 3 = 9000
Level 20 = 400,000 etc.

The highest number of experience points you can get is 16,000,000.

Note that certain things in the game (like potions) can silently raise your stats, which might APPEAR to be a level bonus but isn't really. Also, "Hellfire Warrior" (at least the ATARI version) seems to have a bug where the Innkeeper gives you different numbers for your stats when you arrive from the ones you see when you return to the dungeon, and this discrepancy persists, as though the arrival stats are unmodified and the exit stats are modified by bonuses. Weird.

Important Line Numbers
  • 5000: Parses input at each turn.
  • 5100: Movement.
  • 5300 and higher: Other actions.
  • 7000: Monster stuff.
Unfortunately, many other routines -- various drawing and sound stuff, for instance -- is tucked away wherever it would fit. Lots of it is in the first hundred lines and is GOSUB'd to frequently. Presumably it's there because the earliest lines run fastest in ATARI BASIC.

Hacking the Program

It's easy enough to stop the program during operation (just press BREAK). To get back to the normal character set:


To reposition the coloured vertical bars (the remainder of the P/M graphics which represent you and a monster):

POKE 53248,0
POKE 53249,0

After you've made your changes, continue the program nicely with:

GOTO 5020

Make Mapping Easier

Here are some changes you can make to the "Hellfire Warrior" Dunjonmaster program to make mapping easier.

To force it to always print room numbers (which it skips for all levels numbered 6 and 8):


To always reveal a secret door when you (E)xamine a wall:


To always reveal traps when you (S)earch:


The last two might work in "Temple of Apshai" as well.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Dr. Seuss and Flit: "Bugge Fatale"

I don't know about insects eating oatmeal for breakfast -- I suppose they'll eat anything for breakfast, actually -- but I'll say this for Dr. Seuss: he sure knew how to draw a va-va-voom bug!

Sunday, June 06, 2010

"Pearl" by Alysha Brillinger

I had a great time on Thursday night, helping to film the video for Alysha Brillinger's song "Pearl."

You'll be hearing a lot more about Alysha soon (if the Universal Music Group has anything to say about it), and hopefully the final version of this song will be one of the things you'll hear. Good luck, Alysha! May all your producers be productive. And may your next video have a budget higher than $0.00.

Friday, June 04, 2010

"Survivors 1975," Season One and a Bit

I had extremely low expectations of "Survivors," mainly because it was created by Terry Nation.

I associate Nation with some of the most plodding and formulaic Doctor Who scripts, usually involving some combination of killer virus, invisible monster, deep chasm, and cowardly-character-makes-brave-sacrifice. Nation's hack jobs for Doctor Who were notorious; the show's producers had a running joke about him just selling them the same Dalek script over and over again.

So when I heard that Nation had created a television series about -- you guessed it -- a killer virus, I just HAD to find out how the invisible monster fit in. But I'm sad to say that "Survivors" is anything but formulaic or plodding...in fact, for the first half, it's absolutely brilliant.

These are not your typical Terry Nation characters; they are complex, understated, and always interesting to watch. Sure there's a funny little Welsh tramp that you can laugh at...but then comes episode nine, "Law and Order," which is the first of two truly harrowing treatments of the "survival" theme: what do you do with a funny little Welsh tramp who isn't so funny anymore?

This theme is pretty simple: when almost everybody in the world dies suddenly, and the diverse survivors have to...well, survive...how do they live through the first few days when they can no longer rely on anybody else, let alone the creature comforts they've known since birth? How do they cope with their shock and grief? How do they find each other? What sort of communities can they form, and how do those communities relate to other groups who disagree with their philosophy? Who the hell knows how to make coal, and what will they do when the tea runs out?

That's the basis of season one, but it's so much more than that, because all of this is approached in a quiet way: no music, no big moments, no flash or spectacle. By contrasting the 1975 series with the new 2008 remake, the Outland Institute explains what is so wonderful and refreshing about this approach, compared to the way it would be (and is) done today. The 1975 series is has an almost documentary style, complete with atmospheric filmed outdoor footage.

Until halfway through the season, however, when things go downhill a bit. First of all, this was the transition period when the BBC was switching from film to "O.B." for their program inserts, and the outdoors look far less "real" when they start using videotape.

This is made worse by the simultaneous arrival (in episode seven) of Hana Maria Pravda, a woman who stands out from the otherwise excellent cast by turning all of her scenes into overwrought babooshka-stereotype cartoons. Combine her with the quietest bunch of cheerfully-prancing "feral dogs" -- especially in one scene when she must actually be ATTACKED by them -- and you get the first glimmers that things are going downhill.

And they do. The plots become more heavy-handed and deliberate, each episode involving the destruction of yet another hard-won and essential social advancement due to the stupidity of others, often the stupidity of the children whose sole purpose is Get Into Trouble or Get Others Into Trouble.

I also have to mention what I refer to as "The Tritovore Technique" (using convenient accidents to get rid of characters who would be too burdensome to keep around) and "The Lucy Saxon Technique" (using secondary characters to kill villains because the primary characters are too principled to do it themselves), which become more and more obvious as the show goes on.

I thought I'd give up after watching the first season, but the second season -- following a truly ridiculous Tritovore-style character-purge of last-season's dross -- has introduced Ruth, a character who harkens back to the complicated and interesting survivors of old. And the second story of the season ("Greater Love") is, once again, unpredictable and beautiful and terrible.

Here's to Ruth and Jenny and Greg and the rest of the survivors. May their wheat ripen, may their sheep multiply, may their babies survive and their horses never go lame. And may they never suffer the indignity of a crappy remake.

Oh, well that already happened.