A Tale of Two Treks

Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down. Antz and A Bug’s Life. 30 Rock and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Sometimes 2 movies or TV shows with the same premise are released at the same time. Some people say that it’s the result of the zeitgeist. I believe that they are usually a coincidence since there is so much media. Either way, it’s the perfect setup for a head-to-head comparison, and unless you traveled through the wormhole to a desolate planet (or maybe just aren’t a trekkie), then you should know that we are witnessing the greatest TV show fight of all: The Orville or Star Trek: Discovery?

The internet has already done plenty of comparison, but I’ll add my short version as well. Continue reading A Tale of Two Treks

Lessons from Hosting Thanksgiving: 2017 Edition.

It only took 6 tries, but this year, I finally served a Thanksgiving dinner on-time, and more importantly, I felt totally relaxed. Although I have prepared gantt charts for the past several years, I always ended up behind schedule and needed to draft additional sous chefs to finish dishes while I was carving the turkey. This year, I was actually ahead of schedule, and like years past, I learned a few things that made it all happen.

So, here’s what your Thanksgiving could look like following my chart and the lessons below.

1. Prepare the space beforehand.

Continue reading Lessons from Hosting Thanksgiving: 2017 Edition.

The Many Appeals of The Elder Scrolls Online

Despite having faithfully played PC games of many genres since I was 4, I never played an massively multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMORPGs or MMOs) until Julie and I picked up The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) at the recommendation of a friend. I could say that my self-restraint kept me away from extremely addictive MMOs, but in truth, I didn’t play any growing up because they required monthly subscriptions paid via credit card, and I didn’t have a credit card. These days, many MMOs only have a one-time upfront cost, which is how ESO got us.

Most people have heard of World of Warcraftthe most popular MMO with a population on par with a small country. In a MMORPG, players take the role of a heroes in a massive, shared world where you can run around, kill monsters, and complete quests while gradually making your character stronger. It is called an MMO because thousands of players all inhabit the same world running on a shared server where they can group up or perhaps fight each other. It’s like real life, except the words “+5 Experience Points” appear in the air when you squash a spider.

Prior to starting ESO, I had only a rough understanding of what you can do. I had heard about raids and crafting and just assumed there was only a binary appeal to it. However, I was surprised by how ESO (and presumably other MMOs) can appeal to players in different ways. Not only are there many reasons why people play video games, there are many reasons why people play MMOs. Continue reading The Many Appeals of The Elder Scrolls Online

My Life on Shiny, Spinning Disks

When Julie and I got back from our road trip from Oregon, we still had a few chapters left on The Golden Compass audiobook. At first, I figured we could finish it inside while we were unpacking, but when we took out the CD, I immediately recognized a problem. It’s 2017, and the only CD drive that we own is in the car stereo.

Although it left us on a cliffhanger, the backup plan was straightforward: I borrowed an external drive from work the following day and brought it home to finish listening over laundry. When the iTunes CD tracks screen appeared, however, I again realized how long it had been since I used it. Since I stream all of my music now, my collection of CDs are probably most useful as coasters.

We still managed to finish The Golden Compass

Continue reading My Life on Shiny, Spinning Disks

Running a D&D Murder Mystery

This last week, I ran my first murder mystery adventure for my weekly Dungeons & Dragons group. I have designed many adventures, written a handful of mystery stories, and critiqued many mystery book, but I had never quite combined those into writing a mystery adventure.

When I started planning for the session, I didn’t intend to write a mystery. The adventure idea started with the party traveling to Elturel, a city where a magical orb shines brightly above the city and wards away undead. The party had other business on the main storyline, but I wanted a side quest in town related to this magical orb. The direct effect of the orb was obvious (no zombie hordes), but in a real world, it would have other, surprising effects as well. What is an unintentional consequence of the magical orb that could seed an interesting adventure?

Amongst the ideas I worked through, the Cleric spell “Speak with Dead” wouldn’t work if spirits were also affected by the orb. Typically, player use “Speak with Dead” to discover how someone died, and city guards would do something similar. Without “Speak with Dead” available, Elturel guards might know that it was harder than usual to track down serial killers. Therefore, I had a guard become a serial killer.

For the guard’s motivation, refugees were trickling into Elturel from the surrounding area to escape raiders, who were the main focus of the players. Elturel locals might not like the influx of foreigners. A xenophobic guard begins murdering refugees to scare them away.

I had my core mystery done and worked out the adventure from there. During the session, my players enjoyed the game and successfully solved the mystery. However, I learned several things from the experience. Continue reading Running a D&D Murder Mystery

Is Time Estimation in Software Engineering a System 1 or 2 Task?

Software engineers are notoriously bad at time estimation. When they receive a new bug report or product feature to work on, engineers are often asked by their project manager to guess how long it will take. It’s a very reasonable request. For example, if your website goes down, public relations needs to know how long it will take to put together a response. If you’re working on the next version of your app, product management needs to know what features are possible before the ship date.

Unfortunately, engineers are bad at time estimation. A “one line fix” can become a rabbit hole when that one little change has massive implications across the rest of the code. A big project might be very simple to complete if a lot of the pieces were already lying around. This mismatch between apparent and actual complexity makes estimation. However, engineers often don’t even know what they will find until they are deep in the code. And by then, they will have already committed to a bad estimate.

Engineers have plenty of tricks to avoid blame. They make a real estimate then immediately double it, just in case. “Under-promise, over-deliver” is a popular strategy. However, both of those hide  the original problem of making a good estimate. These tweaks only work if you’re original estimate within an order of magnitude. If your estimate is wildly off, then your fluffed estimate will still be wildly off.

If you’re looking for a solution, I don’t have it. However, I realize that there’s tension in how have been explaining and using time estimation on my team. That tension is rooted in the difference between Daniel Kahneman’s “System 1” and “System 2” in how humans think. Continue reading Is Time Estimation in Software Engineering a System 1 or 2 Task?

My Life on a News Diet

Like many liberals, the last presidential election really forced me to think about my own role as an American citizen. In the month or two afterwards, I ended up writing a list of over 50 things that I could do to make this a better country. Of that, I ended up actually doing somewhere around 10 or 15 of them. I’m more engaged with my community in various groups and have met and engaged with people more different from myself. Julie and I have regular donations to community organizations that we think are providing valuable services. Of those changes, I am proud of most of them. However, one that really backfired was trying to become more informed.

Continue reading My Life on a News Diet

The Policy Bubble

For the 4 years, I have been out of town for the 4th of July, and each time was for completely different reasons. In 2014, I spent the 4th in Indianapolis for a college friend’s wedding. In 2015, I spent the 4th at a friend’s cabin in Minnesota. In 2016, I spent the 4th in Ireland for my honeymoon. And in 2017, I spent the week around the 4th in Washington DC visiting my sister.

In true American fashion, we saw fireworks 3 times during the week. Surprisingly, the fireworks over the National Mall on the 4th weren’t my favorite, though it might have been because we watched it from across the Potomac. I preferred the fireworks in Alexandria for Alexandria’s birthday the following Saturday, which included live music from the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra and real cannons firing for the “1812 Overture”.

This picture does not convey the sounds of explosions going on

Other than watching lights in the sky, we saw the big monuments and museums all around the National Mall. With all of our stories about what we saw and did, however, the most common question I got from my friends after the vacation was, “Did you see Trump?”

I definitely didn’t see Trump. In fact, even on our visit to the US Capitol, we didn’t see any notable politicians since most congressmen take the long weekend to go back to their home districts. Despite their absences, I don’t think you mistake being anywhere else in the world because it was a bubble where everything was about politics.

Continue reading The Policy Bubble

How to Avoid or Save Unintentionally Flat Bread

Behind many great works are stories of vision and foresight. Others are credited to incredible hard work and deliberate effort. And yet other creations, both great and and maybe just slightly pleasing, come out of desperation from abject failure. Like this coffee cake.

And they were none the wiser

The week prior to this creation, I had excitedly baked up a strawberry bread recipe using some of the first strawberries of the season and real buttermilk. After being convinced that my milk and lemon juice substitute was a bum deal, I ponied up for real buttermilk from the grocery store and was excited for it to change my baking forever. And it might have if not for one small mistake.

Continue reading How to Avoid or Save Unintentionally Flat Bread

5 Foods I Don’t Like

I consider myself an adventurous and unpretentious eater. I don’t eat at my favorite restaurants more than once or twice a year because I would rather go somewhere new. I eat Dominos, and I eat fancy Neapolitan pizzas. When presented with an array of desserts or pastries, I will find a knife and take a bite-sized piece to try everything, within the boundaries of courtesy but usually beyond the boundaries of my appetite. As important as it was to get a Cronut on my trip to New York, I also like Oreos and deep-fried Oreos. And even though I don’t quite understand picky eaters, it usually don’t bother me since I’ll find a way to like whatever they like.

However, I do have preferences, and although my threshold is low, there are a few foods that fall below the line, which I will avoid if possible.  Continue reading 5 Foods I Don’t Like