Achievement Unlocked

You might have heard me complain about the ongoing gamification of, well, everything. But just because I don’t like it, you shouldn’t assume I don’t understand what makes it so appealing to so many people.

Which of these statements makes everyday life sound more interesting?

“I went to the drugstore and bought a battery.”

or

“Achievement unlocked! You have a battery!”

Yeah, exactly.

I’ll even go so far as to say there’s a place for gamification. But it’s just so easy to overdo it.

And there are some achievements that really, really shouldn’t be gamified.

Achievement unlocked! You have a screw-up!

Kinda sends the wrong message, doesn’t it? I have to admit it’s a fun award to give, though. So I’m officially giving one to Amazon.

It appears they have a database glitch. According to their website, The RagTime Traveler was released on Tuesday. I’m told they even sent emails to people who preordered it, letting them know that it was going to come out two months early. Oops.

No, TRTT hasn’t shipped. The release date is still June 6.

The book was originally scheduled for an April release, and several retailers initially listed it that way. And, honestly, I wouldn’t award Amazon a Screw-up Achievement if they had just gotten the date wrong. But after the initial error–which, again, was not their fault–they corrected the listing; until a couple of weeks ago it had June 6. So not only did they erroneously change the date (which nobody else has done) and send out those emails, but they’ve compounded the failure by putting the blame on the publisher. Instead of changing the date back, the order page now says “Usually ships within 1 to 2 months.” I suppose that’s accurate, but since that’s the same message they use for items that are out of stock, the implication is that it couldn’t possibly be a mistake on Amazon’s part.

Aside from the pleasures of playing the “Risk the Wrath of the Retail Rhinoceros” game, there is some good news. Preorders for TRTT ebooks are open. If you’ve been waiting for the electronic edition, now’s your chance. And even Amazon has the correct June 6 date for that release.

Links for your preordering pleasure (they’re also on the “About” page for the book):

There’s even more good news: Publishers Weekly, another of the big four names in professional reviews, has delivered its assessment of TRTT. And yes, it’s also a good one. “Lovers of Joplin and ragtime will enjoy this trip to the past.”

Now there’s an achievement I’m happy to unlock.

Happy New Year (2017)

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.”

Of course Solomon was a baseball fan.

I compare you, my love,
  to a well-turned 6-4-3 double play.
Your cheeks bulge with chewing tobacco,
  your neck with ire over a missed tag.

Something like that, anyway.

The point is that we’ve once again arrived at the beginning of the baseball season, and that means it’s time for predictions.

Over at her blog, Jackie has called on a panel of experts to help her select this year’s playoff teams and eventual World Series winner. I’m pleased and honored that she asked me to be a member of the panel.

But such predictions, made before the season even begins, are a matter of guesswork. And so, once again, I’m turning to SCIENCE! to make my own.

For the past two seasons, I’ve used a formula based primarily on margin of victory in the first games of the season. In 2015, I achieved 40% accuracy in picking the playoff teams; last year I upped that to 70%. I’ve made further tweaks to my methodology this year, and I’m aiming for 90% or better.

Until now, I’ve been vexed by having to deal with pre-Opening Day games giving some teams a longer track record than others, while other teams have had their first games rained out. That’s definitely hurt my accuracy.

Fortunately, this year all of the teams that played Sunday had Monday off, so nobody’s played their second game yet. Unfortunately, Monday’s Tigers/White Sox game was rained out. So we’ll use the results of today’s game instead. Assuming, of course, that it doesn’t get rained out too.

So, enough background. What are the predictions?

Let’s start with the National League this year:

  • East – The New York Mets are the clear leaders, thanks to their six run victory over Atlanta.
  • Central – The St. Louis Cardinals are the only NL Central team to win, and that was only by one run. Clearly, it’s going to be a slow year in this division.
  • West – The LA Dodgers are going to build on their 14-3 shellacking of San Diego and run away with the NL West.
  • Wild Cards – This prediction system loves the Colorado Rockies. For the second year in a row, it thinks they’ll grab a wild card, while the other slot goes to the Washington Nationals.

As for the American League, it looks like this:

  • East – Who would have thought it would be the Tampa Bay Rays taking the division? But a convincing 7-3 victory over the Yankees can’t be dismissed.
  • Central – The Minnesota Twins‘ 7-1 victory over Kansas City puts them in the driver’s seat. But with no games played by Detroit and Chicago, we could have a quick change of predicted victors here.
  • West – Many of the conventional predictions have the Houston Astros winning the West, and some have even penciled them in for the World Series. Thanks to their 3-0 clobbering of Seattle, my system also has them taking their division.
  • Wild Cards – The Cleveland Indians will take the first slot on the strength of their 8-5 win against Texas. Both Boston and Oakland had two-run victories; as in the past, we’ll use their preseason records as the tiebreaker. That means it’ll be the Boston Red Sox on the strength of an 18-14 record. Unless, of course, Detroit or Chicago rearrange matters to their liking.

Interesting, wouldn’t you say? The Cubs won’t get a chance to defend their title, the Giants won’t win the World Series* either, the Orioles will be on the outside looking in, and the Mariners will extend their “missed the playoffs” streak to 16 seasons.

* Not that anyone expected them to: the last time the Giants won a World Series in an odd year was 1933.

Forget that “aiming for 90%” thing. This year I’m in the peculiar position of hoping my system implodes spectacularly.

But I’ll go with the predictions as they stand, subject to correction once the White Sox and Tigers actually play a game.

Who’ll be the World Series winner? It’s too early to tell. Last year I took a week’s games as my baseline and that worked well, so I’ll do the same this time. Thursday, I’ll have something of interest for the hereticsnon-baseball fans, and my playoff predictions will go up next Tuesday.

Still a Way to Go

Rufus continues to acclimate to his new life.

Despite the traditional family humiliations heaped on him–see yesterday’s post for an example–and the continued misbehavior of Mr. AssholeWatanuki, Rufus is making longer forays around the house and looking more comfortable while he does it.

‘Nuki’s latest trick is to climb into Rufus’ bed.
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Once firmly in possession, he glares through the holes at the rightful owner.
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Who, for the most part, cheerfully ignores him. Rufus has figured out that if ‘Nuki is in the bed, he’s not in a position to prevent him from exploring.

Lately, he’s been hanging out at the top of the stairs. Yes, the stairs that are the nerve center of the entire house, and the spot where Rhubarb and Yuki generally hang out.
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Now, granted, that top step is roughly four Rufus-lengths from his “safe space”–that’s the door at the left–but it’s unquestionably a sign of progress.

And he does look amazingly relaxed, doesn’t he?
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Well, OK. Maybe not too relaxed.

Almost There

We’re almost there. The MLB preseason is just about over. Opening Day is Monday, though as usual, we’ve got Scheduled For TV games on Sunday–three of ’em this year.

As we all know, the beginning of the season means two things: cats are making predictions and this year’s baseball video games hit the shelves.

Let’s start with the bad news.

Check out this commercial for MLB The Show 17.

Assuming you haven’t fled, screaming in horror, let’s talk about what’s wrong with this.

For starters, did you notice that every single person in the commercial is “this guy” and “he”? I’m not sure whether Sony thinks that women don’t play video games or that there aren’t female baseball fans, but either way it’s a damned offensive assumption.

Then there’s the celebration of Manfred’s Kool-Aid. “Quick three inning games”? Are you kidding me?

And speaking of that guy–four jobs and twelve kids? Come on! As Groucho Marx once didn’t say, “I love my cigar, too, but I take it out of my mouth once in a while!” Maybe if the dude hadn’t dropped $300 on a PS4 and $60 on the game, he could afford to quit one of those jobs.

I don’t play video games–not even baseball games–but I’m tempted to buy a PS4 just so I can boycott MLB The Show 17. The only thing stopping me is that Sony makes the console too.

Moving on.

Of course we’ve begun indoctrinating Rufus into the household traditions. He’s seen some baseball on TV (about ten seconds worth of highlights), so we figured he was qualified to make predictions for the 2017 season.

On the other hand, he is new to the concept, so we decided to start him off with something straightforward: predicting the final standings for the American League West. We’ll keep working with him during the season, and if his predictions pan out, we’ll give him a shot at the playoffs.

He used a treat-based methodology to make his selections.

The final prediction:

  1. Texas Rangers
  2. Houston Astros
  3. Seattle Mariners
  4. Oakland Athletics
  5. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

It’s not the order I’d have liked to see, but it’s not completely unreasonable, based on the preseason predictions. For comparison, FiveThirtyEight has Houston, Seattle, Texas, LA, and Oakland.

Rufus definitely enjoyed making his picks.

He was, however, rather less enthusiastic about the obligatory Wearing of the Cap that followed.

Breakup

Briefly continuing the thought from last week:

Of course, being a pantser has its advantages, too. If I come up with an idea, I can start exploring it immediately without worrying about whether it fits into my existing plan for the book.

As it turned out, Thursday and Friday amounted to about 1,600 words total. That didn’t quite finish the material I had planned, but it did finish a chapter, so that was good enough. And over the weekend, I came up with a couple of evil notions to inflict on my characters, so I’ve got a path forward.

Moving on.

The Oakland Raiders have officially stabbed their fans in the heart, having received permission from the National Football League to move to Las Vegas.

Back in the deep reaches of pre-history, when I actually watched football, the Seahawks were in the same division as the Raiders, so they played twice a year. And it was one of the great rivalries of the sport. The Seahawks were pretty good for a while there, and a playoff berth for one or both of the teams often hinged on those two games a season.

Being a Seahawks fan, I naturally considered the Raiders fans to be a bunch of obnoxious, uncultured barbarians. Certainly, the only time I went to a Seahawks/Raiders game–in Oakland, sitting in the cheap seats–I didn’t see anything that would give me cause to change my mind.

But even so, those barbarians have all my sympathy today. Because losing your team is the absolute worst thing that can happen to any sports fan.

I stopped following basketball years ago–around the same time I stopped following football, actually. But even so, the news that the Seattle SuperSonics were moving to Oklahoma was horrifying. The only bright spot in that mess was that Seattle was able to retain the rights to the name “SuperSonics” and its derivatives, so the fans have been spared the pain of watching the Oklahoma Sonics. And, should Seattle ever get a new basketball team, it can pick up that forty year tradition.

Here’s hoping that Oakland can keep the name “Raiders” and all of the look and feel that goes along with it. Let the team play in Las Vegas under some other name, in uniforms that are not silver and black. Perhaps history will repeat itself and the grand experiment will fail, as it did after the Raiders’ move to LA in the eighties and nineties. If it does, Oakland might have a choice: restore the silver and black, reviving a tradition or make a fresh start.

As I said, Oakland Raiders fans, you’ve got my sympathy. If you need a shoulder to cry on, give me a call.

And remember: even though the Raiders aren’t going anywhere for at least two more seasons, nobody will blame you if you cut the team out of your life now. They’re solely responsible for the breakup of your relationship. It’s not your fault. Don’t let them try to dump it on you. And remember: this is not a trial separation. This is a divorce.

If the Raiders want you back in their life, they need to meet you more than halfway.

Balance

I try to keep my posts fair and balanced. In that spirit, here’s a shot of Tuxie doing his fence-walking act.
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The really impressive part–which I entirely failed to photograph–was him walking across the gate a couple of body lengths behind him.

In a different sort of balance, here’s a shot of Rhubarb, who hasn’t gotten much coverage lately.
24-2

The quizzical expression on his face is the result of me, Maggie, Kokoro, and Yuki all coming into the room at the same time. Rhubarb is wondering exactly what he did that warranted so much attention.

(And yes, this post is late. No excuses: I just plain forgot to prepare it last night. My apologies.)

Progress

I’m a pantser.

No, no, not that. Get your minds out of elementary school.

There are two approaches to writing, at least when it comes to fiction: Pantsers and Plotters.

Plotters plan their books in excruciating detail. Before they write one word of the story, they’ve created backstories for all the characters; outlined the entire plot, chapter by chapter; and know the final word count–within reasonable limits, of course, say plus or minus 250 words. Pantsers have no idea where they’re going; they just start writing.

That’s a generalization, of course, and like all such, it’s only semi-accurate. Most writers will admit that it’s more of a spectrum than a dichotomy. But more often than not, they’ll still place themselves at one or the other end of the spectrum.

So, yeah, I’m up there at the “pantser” end. I do plan. But rarely more than a chapter ahead. Usually as I approach the end of a chapter, I start to get some hints about what’s going to happen in the next one.

But not always, and that’s a problem. Like this: My daily goal for first drafts is 500 words. I don’t expect them to be good words, and I don’t get upset if I write less. It’s just a way to remind myself that words need to hit the virtual page. Those of you who know about my obsessive counting behavior may be surprised to hear that I don’t track my daily word count. I just check it at the end of the day and pat myself on the back if I’ve met my goal.

That said, some things are memorable. My best day ever was 3,300 words. Of course, the next day I only managed 450–quite possibly the worst day in which I actually got any words written. That may be why I don’t feel compelled to track the daily results: even my subconscious knows that it all averages out.

But back to the main thread. This week has been unusually productive so far: 1,200 words on Monday, 1,400 Tuesday, and 1,500 Wednesday. Each of those has been my best day since October.

Which is great and all, but it is a problem because the week isn’t over. If today or Friday–or, worse yet, both–continue the trend, I’m going to hit the end of my current plan by the end of the week.

And I have no idea what’s going to happen next.

That means I’m facing an indeterminate period of staring at the screen and nagging my characters to do something. I’ll probably have to force them to do something stupid–something they’ll hate me for and that I know will be cut in a later draft because it’s totally out of character for them–just to get the action rolling again.

But while progress on The As-Yet-Nameless Project is about to stop, The RagTime Traveler continues to move ahead.

Back in December I said “Reviews are critical to a book’s success”? In particular, professional reviews are what bookstores and libraries use in deciding what books to buy. And TRTT just got its first professional review.

Kirkus Reviews is one of the major sources of reviews* used by booksellers and librarians. A good review there can only help.

* Per the New York Times, the others are Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal.

And yes, it’s a good review. They say it’s “…filled with warmth and wonder and interesting music trivia…”

Ahh… Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. Suddenly, I’m less perturbed by Nameless’ approaching dead end.

SAST 3

More short notes, not because I have a short attention span*, but because I’ve collected a few items that just don’t warrant a whole post to themselves.

* Well, no shorter than usual, anyway. Yes, the flu is mostly gone. Despite the ongoing coughs, my lungs are still inside my chest, rather than splattered across the keyboard, and my temperature has been normal for more than a week.

Last June, NASA announced the discovery of a small asteroid, 2016 HO3, which orbits the sun on a path that keeps it near the Earth. Near in astrophysical terms, that is: it never gets closer than about thirty-eight times as far away as the moon.

The animation at that link is a little deceptive. It seems to show the asteroid orbiting Earth, but if I’m reading the story correctly, that’s not really true. It’s on a separate orbit around the sun, but because it’s sometimes closer to the sun than we are and sometimes further, it appears to be circling us.

What I find most interesting about 2016 HO3, though, is that I’m starting to see tweets suggesting that it’s existence means that Earth should no longer be considered a planet.

You remember the fuss a few years ago when the IAU redefined the word “planet” and demoted Pluto to a “dwarf planet”? If you don’t, pick up a copy of How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming by Mike Brown–actually, pick up a copy even if you do remember; it’s an entertaining read–to refresh your memory.

Part of the new definition is that to be a planet, a celestial body has to “clear the neighborhood” around its orbit, meaning that in the late stages of planet formation, it should either sweep up the smaller bodies near its orbit, incorporating them into itself; capture them as satellites; or shove them into orbits away from its own.

However, such neighborhood clearance is never perfect. The presence of 2016 HO3 is not going to get Earth demoted to “dwarf planet”. Sorry, Pluto-lovers.

Moving on.

A story out of Maine has been popular with those who feel strongly about grammar and punctuation. There’s a good writeup at Quartz; briefly, a court based its ruling on the lack of an Oxford comma.

Long-time readers know I love me some Oxford comma. But, happy as I am to see the question get some judicial notice, I’m well aware that one court decision isn’t going to make any difference. The AP isn’t going to change its stance on the use of commas. Neither is Maine’s style guide for legislation. But I can–and will–dream.

And finally.

One of the proposals being considered for speeding up baseball games is to start extra innings with men on base. I was dubious when I first heard about the notion. After seeing it in “action” last night, I’m completely revolted.

Yeah, it shortened the game. In an aesthetically impoverished way that sucked all of the joy out of what should have been a thrilling conclusion to the Netherlands/Puerto Rico World Baseball Classic game.

Consider how both halves of the eleventh inning started. Runners were plopped down on first and second. The first batter laid down a sacrifice bunt. The second batter was intentionally walked–yes, that same intentional walk that MLB is killing off this year because it’s boring. That brings it down to one less-than-thrilling question: will the next batter hit into a double play, or manage a sacrifice fly.

Sure, there are other possible outcomes. Never assume the double play–the throw to first could go sailing into the seats. The batter could get a base hit, even a grand slam. He could strike out. But those are all low-probability events.

Where’s the fun in watching where the strategic choices are so constrained that neither manager could justify a different approach?

If Commissioner Manfred forces this rule change down our throats next year, as seems likely, I predict a major dropoff in attendance.

Integration 2

We’re still working on giving Rufus the freedom of the house. He’s making progress, but it’s slow.

Part of it is on Rufus; he seems to have the idea that we don’t want him to leave his room. When we leave the door open, he waits until we’re not around, and then he sneaks out. As soon as he sees one of us–or even hears us approaching–he retreats to his turf.

We can’t even lure him out of the room to accept cuddles in the hall. He’ll come right up to the door, flop down a careful half-inch inside the room, and roll onto his back for a tummy rub. I’ve started carrying him one Rufus-length outside the door for pettings. He’s accepting it, but it’s too soon to know whether there will be any long-term benefit.

And Rufus is going further on his exploratory expeditions than he did early on. We’ve found him (briefly) in the front hall, two floors away from his safe space. So there’s hope.

The biggest part of Rufus’ failure to integrate, however, is named “Watanuki”. Or, as we’re calling him more and more often, “Mr. Asshole”.

‘Nuki misses no opportunity to steal Rufus’ catnip toys, hunt for scraps of food in his bowls, use his litter box, and generally take every chance he can to invade Rufus’ personal space.

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Note the “Will you get this schmuck out of here?” look on Rufus’ face and ‘Nuki’s “I’m not touching you. I’m not touching you.” expression.

We haven’t seen much in the way of violence, barring the occasional nose-bop, but the political slogan shouting has gotten heated at times.

I suspect the eventual outcome will involve somebody taking a claw to the ear or nose, before they both back down and negotiate a settlement.

Another Failure Mode

Oh, goody! A whole ‘nother way the Internet of Things is getting security wrong.

Last month, security researcher Charles Henderson wrote about his experience trading in his car.

Briefly, both he and the dealer wiped all of his personal information out of the car–phone book, garage door opener, list of authorized devices. And yet, months later, the car still showed up in the app on his phone.

It’s not that the dealer and the manufacturer were unaware of security. Henderson makes it clear that they took the correct steps. But the focus of the team that designed and built the app and integrated it with the car’s systems was obviously on the “first owner” scenario, and not enough attention was paid to the possibility that someone might want to sell their car.

And it’s not just auto makers who have that problem. Henderson mentions another researcher who purchased a used home automation hub and found that doing a factory reset only wiped the configuration on the device itself; it didn’t touch the cloud-based configuration which included, among other things, the list of devices authorized to control the hub.

Right: even after wiping the device, the original owner would still have had access to every light bulb, every thermostat, and every door lock connected to the hub.

Still feeling cheerful about your Amazon Echo or Google Home giving you voice control over your house? After all, you’re not planning to sell that device, are you? No? Well, what if something goes wrong and you have to send it in for service? Are you certain you’re going to get the same device back? How confident are you that your original device won’t wind up being refurbished and resold?

Let’s face it: this isn’t a new problem, and we should have seen it coming. How many stories have you seen in the newspaper about someone buying a used computer and finding porn on the hard drive? Henderson notes that early smartphones lacked a way to wipe them for resale, and it was only after many well-publicized tales of people buying used phones for nefarious purposes that a wipe command was added.

Nor is there a good solution. Even if every new IoT device was designed with security as the first consideration, there are still millions of gadgets out there that have no security and no way to upgrade them to add it. In many cases, the company that made them isn’t even in business any more.