Sunday, July 29, 2012

Why Computer Games Stress Me Out and How I Deal with It

I recently started playing computer games again. I often go through spurts where I'll play them frequently, and lay off for a month or two. This weekend I started up again, but mostly as a stress relief on my feeble attempts of replacing my brake master cylinder on my Taurus.
"!@#!@" I'd yell as my wrench slipped off the nut.
"&*^#@" I'd scream as the new master cylinder shot pressurized brake fluid over my transmission case and engine.
"!@#!@" I'd holler as the old master cylinder sprayed fluid all over the inside of the hood and my coveralls.
"You already used that one!" Lara would helpfully add.
I gave up and tightened one of the nuts on the master cylinder and drove to a garage going 15 miles per hour with the added excitement of Death riding shotgun.
Lara brought me back and for this afternoon I've been fitfully turning from my book on Arnold Rothstein to playing a Star Wars game that I'd bought two years previously.
The game is essentially one big capture-the-flag between two large teams with explosions, Storm Troopers, weapons, and Wookies. That in and of itself isn't bad, and a person would think it's a good way to relieve stress, or at the very least relive dorky pre-teen fantasies.
But there's a slight problem with the AI (artificial intelligence) in the game.
I'd often sneak up behind the enemy and get in a good position to wreak havoc on them, only to be undone by my imbecile fellow soldiers.
"HEY! Get out of here! This is my hidey hole!" I'd yell to the blocky soldier who proved to understand what I was saying a little too well and shoved me out into the open where I was easy pickings for the insidious Storm Troopers. I began conconcting back stories to explain this whenever it would happen which usually involved me winning a large sum of money in a poker game the night before from the jackass who shoved me out of my spot. Or, I'd been sleeping with his wife and he'd found out about it and was biding his time until he could seek his revenge. Or he'd soiled his pants and just needed a private place to change.
As you can see, this happened pretty often as the game went on, and I ran out of backstories and just accepted that there was a self-preservation aspect of the AI with the weird quirk that all the other soldiers viewed me as expendable. That's understandable.
But then the dunces just started randomly walking into my line of fire. "Darth Windu? More like Darth Windon't!" I'd cackle as I'd unleash a hail of hurt on dark Jedi and Imperial goons only to be interrupted by the lone moron Republic soldier slowly, ploddingly walk straight into my sights, while the rest of the soldiers with brains went around or behind me. At first I took a sympathetic approach. This soldier clearly had heard about the Rebellion all his life, idolized it, and lied about his age to enlist, and with dewy-eyed innocence, marched straight into battle. Perhaps he was mentally revisiting all the amazing worlds that he had seen after enlisting, while being utterly oblivious to the one where I'd accidentally shot him.
"HEY! Get out of here you dummy!" I'd yell to the computer screen to try and wake the soldier up out of his daze. But either due to shellshock or some sort of deathwish, he'd veer straight into my path of blaster fire. The second time it happened, the dewy-eyed innocent I'd imagined was now just a buck-toothed Star Wars version of Gomer Pyle who went around the battlefield, drawling "SHAZAM!" and after I shot him, "GOLLLEEEEE!" The third time, I imagined that this particular soldier had some strange unexplained magnetism to blaster fire, and imagined him bouncing back and forth between sides like a pinball all the while screaming, "IT'S HAPPENING AGAAAAIN! OHHHH NOOOO! LAY DOWN YOUR ARMS! LAY DOWN YOUR ARMS!" But with the fourth happenstance, I assumed they thought I had superpowers which included a reaction time of .0005 seconds and could clearly see them in time to avert fratricide.
They thought wrong.
This incident quickly devolved into just running out into open space in full view of the enemy and then...running in place. Meanwhile, the Storm Troopers would mercilessly mow the calisthenically oriented soldier down.
The answer was pretty clear. The Storm Troopers had done their homework and watched a lot of Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons and had gotten a big barrel of oil marked ACME, and proceeded to slick down certain patches of terrain. "Hah! Those rebel scum won't know what hit them!" I pictured them saying to themselves while hiding in the inky shadows.
But then I wondered if my soldiers were to blame for this nonsense. I could just see them now, huddled behind a big rock and trying to come up with a plan, "Alright, men, I'm all out of ideas except for one...we run out there...we get within five feet of 'em, and then...WE START RUNNING LIKE HELL IN PLACE!"
When I witnessed the initial event, I tried pushing the stuck/desparate soldier. This only made him start running into circles ("I'm getting dizzy! I'm getting dizzy!") so I attempted to push him again and was promptly rewarded for my efforts by him giving me a full dose of thermal detonator which made me ponder just how many soldier's wives I'd slept with in this stupid Star Wars game or if I was a really good card shark.
This is all compounded by the fact that throughout the game there are various vehicles strewn about which you can commandeer or fly. The controls to work these are rather difficult, and instead of swiftly dealing punishment to Storm Troopers while flying loop-de-loops, I drive like a little old lady with her foot on the brake pedal and the right turn signal on. "Whoops! I think those wing things were extraneous anyway," I'd murmur as I'd plow straight into the ground with my snow speeder. "Where is everybody?!" I'd wonder, as I'd attempt to turn around and slam into the ground, destroying my X-wing. "GET OUT OF THE WAY!" I'd scream as I carromed straight towards a bridge inhabited by Storm Troopers who would heed my warning and beat it, only to be replaced by my stupid soldiers, most likely screaming, "WE CAN'T HEAR YOU!" right up until I'd crash into the bridge blowing myself up with most of my stupid soldiers.
Right now I'm letting my blood pressure drop back down into the triple digits and giving my hoarse voice a rest.
But what can you do? With stupid soldiers like the one in this game, who needs enemies. And with a stress relief like this game, a difficult job is a task I would gladly turn to.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

How Would Rock 'n' Roll Sound without Fender Guitars?

Because I was unable to fall asleep thanks to a late afternoon nap, I checked the news and was kind of dismayed to read about Fender not proceeding with its Initial Public Offering (IPO). Not that I wanted them to go through with it (heck, I didn't even know they were going public), but it made me wonder why they were going public in the first place. The only reason I could think of is that they need the money for one reason or another.

But as I got further into the article, I read that a private equity firm owns a pretty good portion of Fender which could be good or bad depending on how you look at it. This much I know after listening to three weeks' worth of NPR's Planet Money:  private equity firms generally work by people in the firm establishing a private equity fund. This fund is created by borrowing money from banks, money put up by investors, and also some of the firm's own money. The private equity firm will figure out what the problem is with a company, buy all of their stocks, fix the company, and then have an IPO to recoup their own investment and to repay the borrowed money to the bank. Prior to the IPO, the firm will usually go around to other investors and describe why they should own stock in the company. I think the analogy NPR used was flipping houses. It's pretty similar.
This is all fine and gravy, baby, but there's only one catch. When the company is bought by the firm, the company essentially takes on whatever debt it cost for the firm to acquire them and if nobody wants to buy their stock they go bankrupt or are sold off bit by bit.
So with all the musicians and rock fans in the world, why wouldn't Fender want to continue with its IPO?
Well, if you can't find anybody to buy your stock, that would be a pretty good reason.
CNNMoney reports that Fender chose not to continue after several investors claimed that the company was overvalued and that they didn't see a lot of growth for the company. But it could also just be that the stock market isn't that great right now and that they're holding out for the right time. Then again, their guitars that are made in the USA are a tad pricey which would be hard to justify in this economy. Who knows? Fender makes their own brands, but they also make Gretsch and Jackson. Maybe Fender can start selling off some of its lesser assets until it's just a big custom shop in California with another manufacturing plant in Mexico.
But if they do go bankrupt that would be the death of an icon for the music industry. Think of the reaction if General Motors went bankrupt. Oh wait, they already did. But think of it as if General Motors just shuttered everything, paid off whatever debt they could, and just quit making cars.
Fender guitars are the most well-known guitars all over the world, and that's no lie. Buddy Holly played a strat. So did Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, John Mayer, George Harrison, Bonnie Raitt, Eddie Van Halen, Mark Knopfler and lots of other musicians. Strats started off with the burgeoning of rock and roll in the 50's, tripped through the weird, experimental 60's, continued through the 70's with its hard rock bands, marched smartly through the 80's, grunged out in the 90's, and they're still being used to this day.
How would rock and roll sound without a Fender?

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Shady MacDougal

The Shady MacDougal

There, once upon a midnight quaint, I paced around my septic tank,
over a cur'ous punchline of a joke I'd heard from the night before.
While I plodded, fingers snapping, soon there came a soft tap-tapping
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my own front door.
"Tis some hooligan," I murmured, "knocking at my own front door-
I'll grab the garden hose and run them off like I did before."

Oh yes how I can remember, it was not yet cool, dark November,
And yet the hooligans were already limber; out for Halloween,
dressed up like heroes from days of yore.

I remember encountering a shady macdougal, while I myself was perhaps too frugal,
on a kerchief sale in the department store, of the morrow before.
While I browsed the Chinese silk, the macdougal man of mischievous ilk,
crept behind me and offered to buy the kerchief at a price higher than the store's.
"Shady Macdougal, you should be frugal! There are plenty of kerchiefs to be had, and at your price, for four!"
Quoth the shady macdougal, "Nevermore!"

The macdougal man's gall caused me to think,
which caused my face to turn from tan to pink,
and my brain to screech, rattle, and clink,
as I dug through my verbal swordplay repertoire
"I find it odd a man can be as devil-may-care and full of esprit, especially when these times do deem, that man be as frugal as never before."
"That may be," the shady exclaimed, "but I received my money through ill-gotten gains, I fill my bathtub up with purple rain, and have Prince sing to me through the closed bathroom door!"
"That is preposterous!" I yelled aloud, "Is your head up in the clouds? I refuse to believe your lies that abound all over this department selling floor."
"It's not a lie, it's the stone cold truth! That's how I live my life, forsooth! I wouldn't even talk to you if you were rummaging through the free hand out booth!"
"Oh! Is that so?!"
Here we departed much post haste, from that multi-store marketplace. I thought of turning around and saving grace, but I told myself, "Nevermore!"

Late that evening after my meal, I sat down with a book and my mind began to reel from the happenings of that day, as my eyes fell upon the shiny pergo floor.

The phone rang and my heart did jump! I ran up to get it and did bump the receiver end off the hook and onto the faux hardwood floor.
"Hello? Who is this?" I did declare, and as I listened an evil air did permeate throughout the room as I heard a voice say "Nevermore"
"Shady MacDougal!" I heard myself say, "You better stay the hell away! I have mace and a baseball bat to keep you at bay!"
To which shady did say "Nevermore!"
My mouth began to spit and sputter, my heart began to twitch and flutter, my mind raced through the proverbial gutter, in short I began to turn into a nutter, with my mouth forming the words "Nevermore!"

Now I sing Prince to myself, but at least I'm in the best of health, I dance constantly to his records I keep on my shelf, and from whence I shall stop Nevermore!

Saturday, July 7, 2012

An Empty Sanctuary

It was damn near midnight when I experienced that sudden thrill that rushed from my stomach up to my spine and into my scalp. I was going over expenditures of the company, namely the costs burdened by transportation of raw materials from my province down to the ports in Bangladesh. A simple glass of port was by my left which I used to refresh my flagging spirits. The crimson hue of the liquid would continually parry my thoughts from the task at hand and thrust to the conversation I’d had previously in the day between a colleague and myself regarding rumors of gems in his province.

His province, located mostly in Rajputana, was located some 80 miles northwest of my post, but seeing as to how he had matters to attend to in the most southeastern portion, he had written me and asked if it would be agreeable to meet. I had readily agreed as I enjoyed his company, and it was tiresome to hear the native tongue from the rising sun until hot dusk. As we sat down to supper that consisted of niceties from Britannia, Reginald, who went by Reggie, made a passing reference to gems in his irrigation dam, and I implored him to continue on with his story.

“We began surveying a new outpost with the hopes that it might contain minerals or metals. Zinc and copper were found, but in such small amounts in the region that it would not be profitable to extract. Cotton or tobacco would be well suited for the place. I was called upon to finish my project in Jodhpur and to commence west for the building of a rather small irrigation dam. We began shortly I arrived, and the workers would do the damndest things imaginable with the soil. They would often take goodly sized rocks, set them aside, and strike them open with their shovels only to find more of the reddish stone inside. And often I would see them putting pebbles in their mouths to clean them, only to take them out and inspect them. I asked one of them why they were splitting the rocks open.

After a few pleas of ignorance in a simpering manner, the worker explained that the gold comes down from the mountains and that they were hoping to find some, of course with the expectation that they would be sharing part of it with the company and myself. I saw their grinning brown faces cracked wide from ear to ear when I‘d look at them, only to turn into a grimace of anger when I’d turn my head. I suspected that they were searching for something, yes, but not gold. But what then? The soil was a good mixture of dirt with clay leading down to a solid bedrock capable of supporting the irrigation dam. But the assayer and myself noted nothing extraordinary with the soil. Any precious metals would have been noted in the initial assay and extruded out.

Well, I was bemused by their behavior. I discussed the matter with my manservant during supper the second night who told me that it was sort of a local legend that centuries ago there existed a beautiful city of sandstone that was completely destroyed by the goddess Kali. Shiva upon seeing her destroying the city, unsuccessfully attempted to stop her total destruction, but in the process injured her. Her drops of blood hardened into rubies wherever they touched the sandstone as she fled into the mountains. Upon hearing that, I was ameliorated. My workers were simply believing just an old legend of some large deposit of rubies buried underneath the dirt. My mood did not last long. The next morning, the third day, the workers began digging up what I recognized as corundum and hessonite. In my line of work, you gain a knowledge of minerals…in case you discover a rich vein or pipe that had been missed by the assayer. The corundum was a dusty reddish color that they quickly tossed aside as soon as they pulled it up. The hessonite was far more valuable to the workers than the corundum, why I can’t possibly fathom.” Here I interjected, “Possibly for jewelry? If they could cut and polish it correctly…” “It would appear to be a ruby. Yes, I see what you mean. I haven’t heard of any man exporting hessonite, however. Perhaps the natives hold some value to these stones. Nevertheless, I took some of the corundum and hessonite to the mineral assayer and the surveyor. The assayer said that the corundum was practically useless, too many impurities, but he said the hessonite was of a good quality, albeit rather small. I was guaranteed a finder’s fee if the company ever decide to attempt mining in my region which I was told would be highly unlikely. They’d discovered a belt of garnets just the other year to the south east and seeing as to how it was still producing, it would be some time before they continued onto my present location. That curiously red granite’s the only thing worth being pulled out of the ground where I am anyhow.

But there it was: the end of the day, and a quite regular interval of hessonite and corundum every fifteen paces which extended the length of the dam. The workers had just finished and were running pell-mell from interval to interval running through the piles of stone and cracking them open with such a fury! A fight broke out over a large piece of a rather reddish hessonite. Something is afoot with that area around the irrigation dam and I sense there might be some truth to that lost sandstone city with its crimson rubies. At the very least, there‘s quite a substantial amount of hessonite and corundum with no geological evidence to support that it‘s a natural deposit.”

And with that the conversation quickly shifted over to the old staple of damning the heat and wondering how one could live in it. I bade Reggie farewell at a quarter past eight o’clock and rode back to my dwelling. All of the major well-kept roads passed through my station and checking in with my office was both a courtesy and a necessity. Often company men needed reimbursement for their initial traveling costs and financing for further transport of their goods. There were several ledgers I kept and if any one had found noteworthy gems or precious metals that had passed through my region, I would have annotated it. I knew a sufficient amount about minerals mostly through inspecting portaged goods and inquiring as to how one goes about finding such things. From this I knew that most corundum taken from the Rajputana region was already crushed and sifted, ready to go to work as an abrasive in some distant factory far from this country. And from this, I also knew that as of yet no one had found a pure enough piece of corundum to be deemed a gem. No, the company decided that it was best for this area to plow, harvest, and grow. Gem and precious metal mining were left to other areas that were far more conducive to placer mining. I suppose the garnet belt discovered was rich enough to be worth the company’s investment, but I had yet to see any of the garnets pass through my district.

When I reached the ledgers I was looking for, I thumbed through the entries taking note of the contents when the “from” location was Rajputana. However, most of the contents were red granite, cotton, tobacco, a few half-tons of crushed corundum and endless bushels of wheat and grain. Nothing could be gleaned to give a possible indication that immeasurable wealth was hidden anywhere near that irrigation dam. It is possible that had gems been found that they were smuggled past me, but the roads through my region were the quickest way to the ports. And besides, any gem in the rough would have been quickly driven down to one of the major cities on the coast and measured and cut and word often spread quickly to the company‘s ears about valuable gems. Several smugglers had been caught using these roads, but their contraband consisted of opium and hashish. Besides, holding on to large gems was foolhardy.

Violence had a tendency to follow them, and I as I took another sip of the ruby port I vaguely recalled hearing of a young prospector who began digging near one of the company’s sapphire claims. The claim had produced an extraordinary 22 carat purple sapphire, and a fortnight later, the young prospector was sifting through deposits right next to the company claim in the hopes of success. His labors were so successful that natives soon heard of it and butchered him like a hog in his pup tent and made off with the stones. The natives were caught and then hung in a just fashion, and the matter was taken to the court with the company declaring that the sapphires belonged to them as the young prospector had stepped over his claim’s boundaries to find the diamonds. The company was awarded the sapphires but the whole incident made bloods boil and soon it was common sight to see prospectors carrying their equipment with double rifles and carbines slung over their shoulders and often one would hear of claims disputes being settled outright by bold violence.

So no, if any gems existed in Reggie’s region, they had yet to be discovered.

I turned the matter over in my mind, thinking about the best way one could go about it, and decided the whole venture foolish and continued onto reviewing the latest transportation expenditures for the week. But every so often, a spasm would run through me at the thoughts of discovering a sandstone city with crimson rubies spilled and scattered about.

When I first came to this country, my post was quite literally in the jungle. It was originally described to me as sort of an outpost job where I would be responsible for compiling all manner of goods and arranging transportation down to the ports. I enquired as to the manner of goods and was told that procurement of precious metals and gems was preferred. However, when I arrived at the post and asked how much precious metals were pulled from the jungle, most thought I was making a jest with them. Rarely a man would come across a few small grains of gold or silver in the streams and certain parts of the rivers, but these findings were infrequent and so small that I suspect these grains were simply used in place of currency with the added reassurance that there would be no hesitation on the merchant’s behalf on accepting this form of currency at the bazaar.

The jungle was an unusual place. No law as far as I know existed in that isolation and it seemed to have a curious effect on most men that came there. No matter the color of their whiskers or the shape of their faces or the manner of their speech, there were always two types of men that existed in the jungle: those that accepted the jungle, and those that refused to accept it. The men who accepted the very fact that the jungle is hostile and forever restless developed a healthy respect for it and seemed to be the most successful. They and the jungle would continually circle each other, anticipating each others’ moves so that neither could deal a blow to the other. The men who refused to accept the jungle would either stumble fool-hardy into an early death, be blind to the fact the natives were composed of flesh and blood who would subsequently kill the white man for his prolonged unusual cruelty and arrogance, or after an extended stay would be whipped all hours of the day by demons no other man could see.

I took another sip of port and watched the blood-red drops slide from the rim of the glass down to the bottom. I sighed, breathing in the hot, dusty air.

I knew the dangers of empty idols. Men coming to my post were often told the same lie of searching for precious metals and were eager to start. I would offer to retain all their placer mining equipment in one of my storerooms while they searched for good deposits, and they would all laugh and shake their heads. But after a week of discovering nothing, some would come back to deposit their equipment and head back to the jungle and commence harvesting huge teak trees and rosewood with decent sized boles. The rest would come back and insist that I tell them were the nearest deposit was and would tower into a rage when I’d inform them that no such deposits exist in my region. They would always storm off into the jungle which gladly accepted them forever.

I changed into my pyjamas and went to bed.

A fortnight went by with no further though of lost sandstone cities with ruby spires, when I received another post from Reggie asking me to dine with him again. I readily agreed.

We met at the same bungalow and began discussing the summer monsoon season that had just started further south of us when the conversation soon turned back towards his dam and fabled lost sandstone city.

“And what of it?” Reggie asked, “The very fact that I’m still here in this country means that we haven’t uncovered priceless hundred-carat rubies in our dig.”

“But the regular intervals of hessonite and corundum? Surely that’s indicative of some sort of civilization or people living there in the past?”

“Oh, I don’t doubt that. But shortly after I left you, the workers became worse in completing their work for the day. I had to sack nearly a quarter of them because they refused to obey me after fighting over a bit of plain dusty red glass. They refused to believe that it was glass until I took the butt of my revolver and smashed it to shards. At that moment, most of the workers glanced at the shards and continued their work at a steady pace, very rarely picking through the dirt to pick up a slim beauty of hessonite. But the small remainder put up such a howl that I had to sack them, like I said. And I’d heard later from some of the local policemen that they got into a brawl over the same damned stones with one of them ending up crippled. There could very well be some precious stones hidden under that dirt and sand, but the only money I can see from where I stand is my commission being paid out once the dam is finished and starts irrigating the cotton fields.”

“It’s sadly reassuring that people don’t change,” I demurred, “Would you care for a glass of port?”

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