Things You May Not Have Heard About Backyard Chickens

As a frequenter of social media, I often times see people talking about the benefits of raising a small number of chickens at your own home.  It is apparently a movement that has become pretty popular among people in my area.  After doing some reading and consulting with my wife, I decided last spring to take the plunge and try out the farming life.  I bought a book off Amazon about raising backyard chickens and did a lot of research before coming to this decision.  Now with the benefit of a year of hindsight here are a few things I have learned along the way in this process, many of which surprisingly no one mentioned in the literature I consulted.

 

The first thing that I was surprised about was the initial cost.  In online reading, the cost was usually estimated at $2-$5 per chick depending on the breed and whether they were straight run or not.  For those of you that are not familiar with that term, through selective breeding many types of chickens can be broken up by sex at a very young age based on characteristics of their gender.  These are usually more expensive because you get to determine which sex of chick you want to purchase up front.  Since I have always been a little afraid of roosters, we went with already sexed chicks and chose 3 hens. What I hadn’t budgeted for was how high spay and neuter fees were at this location.  I’m not sure if it was just this particular site but they said it was there policy to not let anyone take the animals home until they were fixed.  I had no idea chicken population control was that big of an issue but I didn’t make waves and after $100 dollars in fees and expenses, I was able to take my 3 new hens home with me.

Prior to making my purchase of the chicks, I went to the local Tractor Supply and picked up all the items I would need for new chicks.  I bought a heat lamp, a feeder and water dispenser.  From the reviews on the heat lamp I purchased, everyone saw positive results.  In my experience though my chicks didn’t respond well to the heat lamp.  Often times it was almost like they didn’t like the light and heat, so much so that they just tried to get away from it.  It got so bad that I stopped using it within a couple days.  I also purchased some special formula “grower” food specifically made for young chicks.  They were reluctant at first and were much more interested in a bowl of milk as opposed to the grain.  In all of the resources that I could find, no one suggested milk for young chicks but it was a lifesaver and really helped their growth.

One concern I had going into this experiment was the reading I had done about how stinky and messy raising chickens can be.  Surprisingly with our 3 hens, they were very clean animals.  I didn’t even have to clean out their coop very often because they were perfectly fine using a litter box.  From stories and guides I had read, many people said you need to clean out their coops every couple of weeks to keep it sanitary and to prevent common diseases.  There were many times that our adolescent chicks would lay in the sun, self-grooming.  Honestly, I was very pleased with this because it made less work for me.  Another concern, that I have now realized to be unfounded, was keeping them in my backyard coop in close proximity of my neighbors for fear of the noise factor with them crowing in the early morning hours.  Our chickens, even now, make very little noise.  Every now and then when they are spooked or hungry they might make a slight whimpering, almost meowing, noise but nothing like the crowing I expected.  This may be a result of not getting our chickens to really take to roosting in our coop.  No matter how many poles or posts I added to the coop, they would never roost on them.  Maybe roosting and crowing go hand in hand for chickens?

There were some unanticipated benefits to owning chickens.  Our chickens have been very good at killing rodents and pests.  Sometimes we let them out to graze in our yard and 9 times out of 10, one of our chickens will kill a mouse and place it by the backdoor.  Who knew that chickens could be so good at pest control?  They are also very affectionate to my kids.  They are almost like indoor pets.  Our two older kids are pretty good with them and the chickens will come up to them and walk back and forth between their legs, rubbing against them.  It’s really cute to listen to the purring sounds.  Our youngest though is pretty rough with them and doesn’t know how to handle them.  The chickens have pretty sharp talons and will scratch her when she tries to pick them up and carry them.

At the end of this year long experiment, I have to say I have been pretty pleased.  Many of my early concerns, brought up from months of research, turned out to be false for us.  Everything from eating habits to cleanliness turned out to be unforeseen positives.  I have to say though given our initial cost and the fact they will only eat cans of Fancy Feast, they have not been real cost effective to this point.  We are actually still waiting on our first egg to be laid and it’s been over a year.  Maybe next time I’ll go with something other than calico.

 

Commenter’s Companion vol 1

It can be a challenge to read comments online.  To be honest, you should probably just not do it. Unless you want to be totally cool like me and spend way too much time feeling like you can change the world.  If so, here are some rules to remember and a database of commonly used phrases and communication patterns and what they really mean.

Rules:

  1. It’s not personal.  It can’t be, you don’t know the other person.  I’m 100% sure that the other person is red faced mad, but they are mad at the concept of you, not the actual you.  So, never back down.
  2. It’s not serious.  It’s important to remember that while a serious concern of yours has made you start posting, by the time the message has gotten to your fingers to type it out, the game has become an online version of “my dad is better.”  Because, while you may be capable of a rational discussion, rest of the internet certainly is not.  Go ahead, sink to their level.  They’re so stupid they won’t even know what you’re doing.
  3. It’s not language.  What even is that they are trying to type at you?  Google translate doesn’t help.  Just draw a penis back at them.
  4. There must be a winner.  This is the most vital rule of all. While discussions in real life can end with mutual respect for and from all parties involved, internet discussions can not. The one small catch is, nobody really agrees on how you win. Making popular statements seems to work, but so does self-righteous indignation from people who just don’t know when to stay down because you’ve got 84 likes and they only have 1.  Stubborn bastards.

Helpful Glossary

Code of Bold

Most comment boxes don’t let you use pesky italics or bold, so some posters like to capitalize whole words.  Most of the time you will be able to understand what is going on, but sometimes you will see something like this:

i was just going TO my house the OTHER day, and my neighbor had already STOCKED my pantry with all the foods i luv.  i was so happy WITH her that i don’t even know what I’M saying?

Meaning: This person has just had a stroke.  If you are able to assist, please do so.  Possibly it’s the start of a treasure hunt.  Combine the capitalized words in many ways to determine where the poster is trying to send you for the next clue.  Maybe you need to look at THE uncapitalized words???

TLDR;

Some posters will reply to lengthy comments with “Too long, didn’t read,” Or TLDR for short. If you are a hacker, add the semi colon.  This tells everyone that you know the codez. You can get inside Zion, and you have to tell Smith how.

Meaning: “I’m proudly too impatient and stupid to parse even tree lines of consecutive text. Good day, sir.”

Wow

It’s common to express speechlessness in an overt and exaggerated fashion.  We abide no stoics on the internet.  If someone says “Wow.” to you, they mean for you to shut up and reconsider all of your life choices because you probably drowned a baby at some point; you might not even remember. That might have been ten babies ago.

Meaning: “I’m not really emotionally or intellectually committed to this conversation, though my emotion is snarling at you through the bars of the cage I’m keeping it in.  Boy, if I ever let it out. You just watch yourself.”

Patient Gamer – NBA2K17

The idea behind the patient gamer category was originally to review Xbox Live “Games with Gold” but I have trouble following guidelines.  Plus, not only does a gold membership give you access to free games, it also allows you to have a free play weekend.  You can download a full game, give it a try for the weekend, and then determine if you really want to buy it the following week.  For me, this is a terrible trap to which I am constantly trying not to fall.

A couple of months ago, I saw that NBA2K17 was available for a free weekend trial.  I downloaded it on a Friday and, by Sunday, I had already played through a full season with my beloved Philadelphia 76ers.  Since it is one of the few places you will actually see the Sixers win a game recently, I was immediately drawn in.  By Monday, I loaded the game and was in shock when it took me to the Xbox Store to prompt me for purchase.  After reluctantly forking over $60, I spent the next couple months weighing my decision.  I’ll try to break down some of my thoughts into pros and cons and we can all decide for ourselves the quality of this purchase.

Pros:

  • Overall graphics and attention to detail – After taking a few years off from sports games, I was pleasantly surprised by the realism and beauty of this game. The arenas are well done with realistic looking crowds, courts and scoreboards.  This may seem like a petty observation but there were many times that friends or family couldn’t tell whether I was playing NBA2K17 or watching a live basketball game.The player models were also very well done with each player having their own unique look and playing style.  The details, even down to their exact shooting form, was captured perfectly for most players.  It’s fun to randomly pull up an exhibition game between some retro teams and watch Magic Johnson dribble around with exaggerated high knees or Larry Bird hitting threes with his arms raised well above his head on release.

Draymond Green works up a sweat punching guys in the junk.

  • Control modes – Often times when you play a sports game, the buttons take a 9 week course to master most of them. In this game for every control, there is a simple or complex button choice.  For instance to shoot the ball, you can either hold down the X button or use the stick.  The stick gives you more control but is harder to get the hang of than just a simple button click.  This was appealing to me because while I was trying to get the hang of more complex button combinations, I was able to still use the simple controls to get by.  It wasn’t like some games (UFC, WWE, etc) where until you get a firm understanding of the exact combinations you are going to get throttled, repeatedly.
  • Career mode – Outside of just your standard play now modes, there are some other pretty interesting game modes. I’m usually not a big fan of online modes, so when I play games like this I am usually looking to sink time into modes that don’t force me into online play (this will be covered in more detail in future con items, I assure you) without a decent local play mode.  Career mode allows you to create your own character and starting with a couple college games, character build to your heart’s content.It also has a neat feature that allows you to take pictures with your smartphone and upload them to your career mode.  It takes your selfies and models them around your player model.

    When you have a face like this, who wouldn’t want to look at it as much as possible.

    Career mode allows you to take control of the day to day life of an NBA player.  You start with a generic player model and design everything about them.  You choose your position and what type of player you want to be.  As you play games, you are rewarded with points for how well you do.  You take the points and redeem them for leveling up different aspects of your player’s game.  There are several abilities, like free throw shooting, that you can only level up through practice.

    During the day, there are periods of time where the gym is open and you can go practice.  You can work on your shot or as other NPC’s come and go in the gym, play pickup games.  The experience earned in practices allows you to improve on things you couldn’t otherwise do by buying skill levels.As you play through the season, you can receive player awards, participate in all-star games, or attract new fans by hanging out with past and present NBA players.

    For gamers with a thing for leveling up characters, this would be your mode.

Cons:

  • Endless loading screens – As in most other sports games, NBA2K17 is made up of about 78% loading screens. When you turn on the game, the initial splash screen is discreetly a loading screen.  You can skip the intro video, which will then drop you to the main menu screen and another progress bar.  I think at this point behind this loading screen it’s going out to 2k servers to check for updates.  When that finishes, you will probably be awoken from your slumber by horribly loud hip hop music.  This is your cue to choose the menu that will advance you to your next loading screen.  If you choose an offline mode of gameplay, the update it previously was searching for will be downloaded at your next convenient load screen.Let’s say you want to play career mode and blow off some steam.  To get to an actual game play (you know, the actual point of turning the game on), you have to wait through two additional load screens and an additional load screen disguised as a pregame show to get there.  If you are counting at home, that’s a total of 5-6 load screens to get to actual game play in career mode.  You sit down, turn on your Xbox to play a little basketball and before you know it, it’s baseball season.
  • Updates – As previously mentioned, 2k is thrilled to pump out daily updates for this game. This would please most online gamers, but for me, it’s just one more thing to wait on in a loading screen that I have yet to see a return on investment with.  The updates won’t attempt to download unless you are in an offline game mode.  This means that if you bring up play now, GM or season mode, you are going to have an extra long wait time at your initial load screen whether you want the update or not.Another fun benefit of the daily updates being pushed down your throat is the game often time gets confused and the update will hang the game at unexpected points with no notice whatsoever.My favorite of these is when it occurs at the initial game launch.  You load the game up, some sweet hip hop music greets you and it plays a beautiful video of your favorite stars.  Without warning, Chris Paul stops moving and the music stops.  There are no error messages and no indication that the game is still alive.  You can attempt to resuscitate it by launching the game again but 2k is persistent.  They want you to have this update, no matter the cost.  When this fun issue arises, the only way that I’ve been able to resolve it is to clear the reserved game cache for NBA2K17 on the console.  This forces it to pull down the latest version (with a longer than usual load screen) and install fresh.  Try googling the phrase “NBA2K17 freezes” to see how big of an issue this is for users.Any game developer that can’t even properly push out an update without requiring its users to basically clear the game’s cache manually prior to updating doesn’t deserve my money.

Get used to playing games with this banner unless you want to quit everything you are doing and drop back to the main menu to install your daily update.

  • Feeling alienated – I realize that the NBA has doubled down on targeting a younger market to which demographically I don’t belong for several reasons. To say this in the nicest way possible, I don’t really care much for hip hop or rap music.  I’m not much of a fan of street ball either.  Does that mean I can’t be a fan of NBA basketball now?  Why is it not in the NBA’s and 2K’s best interest to open their doors to fans from all walks of life?I guess I’m just a little disgruntled as a 33 year old, un-athletic, lifelong video game player and fan of the NBA, to so obviously be the antithesis of this games’ target audience.  Oh, and get off my lawn while you’re at it!

 

Scorecard:

I’ve developed a scoring system to determine if you will like this game or not.  Add up your scores and I’ll let you know where you fall:

A:  (# of JayZ Songs You Know) (# of Kids You Have)

B:  (# of Lebron Jerseys You Own) (# of Hank Williams Jr Songs You Know)

C:  (# of Hours Daily You Play Online Console Games) (# of the ’89 Pistons You Can Name)

A + B + C = Your Score

If your score is greater than zero, you’ll probably enjoy this game.  My score is a sweet -13 by the way.  Oh, and don’t make me tell you to get off my lawn again!

 

Looking at Lyrics: Eye of the Tiger

 

I randomly heard Eye of the Tiger today, and every time I hear that song I get embattled again with the eternal struggle of whether the lyric is “thrill” or “cream” of the fight.

It seems today the “thrill” crowd is winning, because “dude, cream makes no sense.” Except cream does make sense, and thrill is grammatically incorrect.

Full lyric:

It’s the eye of the tiger, it’s

the thrill/cream of the fight

Rising up to the challenge of our rival

And the last known survivor

stalks his prey in the night

And he’s watching us all with the eye of the tiger

‘The eye of the tiger’ is a concept representing the spirit of the fight in all of us. ‘Rising up to the challenge of our rival’ explains what that spirit is doing. ‘And the last known survivor’ speaks of the last of a group of someones or somethings, stalking its prey, biding its time, taking its revenge, expressing the animal nature and pure qualities in the spirit of the fight.  This is confirmed as it’s watching us all with the eye of the tiger. This reinforces that eye of the tiger is an abstract concept and the second half of the lyric is concrete.

Now, given all that:

<abstract personal characteristic> it’s the thrill of the fight.

A person or thing experiences a thrill. Watching a fight can give you a “thrill” but the thing that gave you the thrill is a thriller, not just a thrill. If fighting gives you a thrill, the fight itself is the thriller.  The above sentence works if it instead said,

“It’s my eyes growing wider, it’s the thrill of the fight.”

This is:

<abstract effect on me>, it’s the trill of the fight.

The second part reinforces the first part. Now take:

<abstract personal characteristic> it’s the cream of the fight.

Given that we expect the second half to reinforce the first, it’s the cream of the fight should be a personal characteristic. As some sites explain, this is a play on “cream of the crop.” Or, the best of some set of things. Cream of the fight => the best of the fight in all of us. Eye of the tiger => the spirit of fight

It’s the spirit of fight, it’s our best fighting effort,

rising up to the challenge of our rivals.

And the last known survivor

stalks his prey in the night

And he’s watching us all with spirit of the fight

vs

It’s the spirit of fight, it’s the fight feeling aroused,

rising up to the challenge of our rivals.

And the last known survivor

stalks his prey in the night

And he’s watching us all with spirit of the fight

Conclusion: most people don’t think this much about song lyrics, so they think thrill makes more sense, which makes my world sad and lonely. But whatever, #teamcream

The Miracle of Flight

I sometimes wonder if the Wright brothers knew the magnitude of their contribution to our world as they stood ankle deep in those chilly sand dunes in December 1903.  Did they know their newly crafted controls would allow flight to be experienced in nearly every corner of the globe?  Did they see the ever-expanding family of aircraft through the next century?  From warplanes to rescue crafts, jets to puddle-jumpers, did they really understand the wave of invention and exploration they had unleashed?  Would they truly understand that their simple few seconds in the air would revolutionize how millions travel every day?  Perhaps my greatest question though is, could they peer through the years far enough to see me strapped into a rickety metal seat by a ragged belt, sweating profusely, eyes bulged, attempting, with white knuckles, to hold an airliner up in the sky by the sheer force of my own will.  I doubt it.

Thanks a lot Orville and Wilbur.

As you may have guessed, I am not a big fan of flying.  My wife will attest to this fact.  That is, if you can get her to stop rolling her eyes and cursing me under her breath whenever the subject is mentioned.  In fact, flying helped me realize when the honeymoon was truly over for us and the hard work of marriage had begun.

I had agreed to accompany my wife on our honeymoon (I felt it was the least I could do) to a nice spot in the Bahamas.  Of course, this would require that we fly from Pittsburgh to Charlotte and then from Charlotte to Nassau.  At the time, I attributed my going along with this decision to the fact that I was “in love.”  Looking back, I now attribute the decision to the fact that I am an idiot.

My wife, for her part, was very supportive during both flights down to the island, one lasting 50 minutes, the other just slightly longer.  She loves to fly and has travelled extensively throughout Europe and Russia.  She would see my discomfort, pat my hand, look lovingly into my eyes and ask if there was anything she could do to help.  Would I like to read her magazine for a while?  Use her headphones? Did I want a drink?

“Just relax and close your eyes” she would whisper lovingly.  Then she would gently grasp my hand and assure me that everything would be fine.

We did indeed survive the two flights to Nassau.  As I “de-planed,” I resolved to enjoy the time with my new bride on the beach and not think about the return trip home.  We spent the next several days enjoying the sights and sounds of this wonderful little slice of the Caribbean.  

As the end of the week approached, I would awake each morning to the familiar pangs of anxiety about the flight home.  It was nothing major, just your typical sense of impending doom.  As we drove to the airport on the last day, I tried to concentrate on the new part of my life that was now stretching out in front of me, not the vast expanse of ocean that would soon be stretching out beneath our plane.  My wife seemed to be in good spirits and ready to help me through this little annoyance at the start of our life together.  

The flights back home, it should be noted, were not going to be the same as the ones that brought us to the Bahamas.  Instead of two moderately long flights, this trip would start with a two hour and twenty minute marathon of sheer terror to Philadelphia.  Then a quick twenty five minute flight back to Pittsburgh.  Some people have told me that it is safer, and therefore better, to have one long flight instead of several shorter ones.  A nod to the myriad of problems that could occur with every landing and takeoff no doubt.  I don’t share their view, however, and would much rather have a few shorter flights.  Shorter flights, it seems to me, always have something going on to pass the time;  first we take off, then we ascend, then the drinks come out, then the nuts come out, then the nuts are strapped back into their seats and the pretzels are served.  Before you know it, the captain is coming on talking about the weather forecast in your destination city, which is now just a couple minutes away.  I definitely prefer short flights.  Actually, if I’m totally honest, I prefer no flights.  Can we just get the plane to cruise along the ground at that same high speed it achieves just before take off until we arrive at our desired destination?  Sound okay?  No?  Oh well…

If you look closely you can see my screaming face pressed against one of the windows near the rear of the plane.

The first thirty minutes of the flight to Philly were fine.  I simply engaged in some tried and true time-passing techniques I had picked up over the years.  I tried to break up the monotony of thinking about the left wing and engine falling off the plane by worrying about the right wing and engine.  The variation seemed to help.  I was able to refrain from shrieks of terror and rarely did my anxious displays rise above the level of gentle sobbing.

The final part of the journey into Philadelphia seemed to take just short of forever and was accompanied by some turbulence as we made our way up the east coast.  With every bump and bounce I felt as if the plane was going to drop nose first out of the sky dragging my screaming form with it.  Most of these feelings I kept to myself, but on occasion I would ask my wife if she felt the plane lurch or wiggle.  My wife claims those “occasions” numbered in the hundreds, but I think her number is inflated.  Seething rage has a way of playing tricks on the mind.  

 During the last portion of the flight I felt the plane drop in altitude abruptly in what I perceived to be the same manner as a carnival ride gone haywire.  I turned to my wife and quietly remarked “Good gosh almighty!! Did you feel that?!  That can’t be normal!”

My new bride, the woman who had held my hand so gently just days earlier, who had just shared a wonderful honeymoon with me in the Bahamas, who would be the mother to my children and lifelong companion said: “I wish you’d just shut up and not breath another word until we get there!  If you don’t, I swear…” It got a little blurry after that, but I think she went on to pose some serious questions about my lineage, the legitimacy of my parents marriage, and my intellect, or lack thereof.  I couldn’t really make out most of it.  It’s hard to hear when someone is trying to stuff you headfirst into the overhead compartment.

The flight to Pittsburgh was somewhat less eventful, but no less terrifying.  After sitting on the runway for an hour to let a storm pass over the Pittsburgh airport we began our ascent.  The captain gave his usual mumbled briefing about our flight.  He said we’d be in the air for about 25 minutes and that we’d be cruising at around 30,000 feet to our destination.  My keen senses trained on each movement of our plane, I noticed that we’d been ascending for quite a long time.  The reason for this was made known when the pilot returned to the microphone to announce that we were currently cruising at around 50,000 feet and were doing so to fly over the storm now making its way from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia.  For good measure, he mentioned that if the passengers on the left side of the plane looked out their windows they could see the rare sight of a massive storm front from above.  I reacted to this announcement with the scientific curiosity that would’ve been displayed by any college-educated 24 year old in that situation:  I yelled out “For the love of God and all that’s holy don’t everyone look at once!  You’ll tip the plane!”

As three flight attendants, two passengers and my new wife wrestled me back into my seat, I tried to explain my reasoning.  If the pilot can’t be trusted to tell the truth about the cruising altitude of our flight, what other secrets or misdirections was he planning.  I was grateful for the assistance back to my seat given me by the crew and passengers, but I felt the repeated blows to the head and upper body were a bit much for that situation.  The troubling part is that I’m 80% sure the damage was done by my wife.

She isn’t the only victim of my fear of flying.  My brother, Matthew, has been forced to endure air travel with me.  He soldiered through these experiences with the same caring demeanor and positive attitude displayed by my “better half.”  Once, on a bumpy flight to Toronto, he told me that if I touched his leg again when grasping the arm rest or asked if he felt the plane move just once more, he was going to kill me.  He smiled as he made this threat.  The kind of smile that makes you think he may be joking. On the other hand, it was also the smile of a person who has not only arrived at how he’s going to kill you, but has also determined where to dispose of the body.

Matthew also played a part in another flight-related incident.  At one point in my struggle with air travel, I took a prescription anti-anxiety medication prior to flights to help with the abject fear of the trip.  The medication did take the edge off, so to speak, but the underlying issue was still there.  It made it manageable, but it also made me so “relaxed” that I was essentially useless for a few hours after touching down.  I would be alert and could tolerate the flight, but when that fearful stimulus was out of the picture, the medicine seemed to take a strong hold on other parts of my person, namely basic motor functions and rational thought.

Ah, the Vegas Strip. I’ve been there. At least I’m pretty sure I’ve been there. That Ativan is a heckuva drug.

Matthew had flown with me to Las Vegas for a pharmacy convention (sounds fun, right?) because my wife was pregnant at the time and elected not to accompany me.  It was a five hour flight to Vegas and I’d taken a dose of medication prior to departure.  To ride out the grueling trip across the country I decided to take another dose during the flight.  By the time our plane touched down, I was very, very relaxed.  We landed, picked up our luggage and were waiting in line for a taxi outside the airport.  I just remember thinking how good I felt at that point.  Just really, really good.  Everything was good.  Good.  Our taxi took us to our hotel where we waited in line to check in.  My company had set up the reservations and paid for the room, we just needed to confirm our information and get the keys.  As the line thinned out, I finally stepped ahead of Matthew and up to the counter and began the check in process.  After confirming my identity the receptionist at the front desk asked some more detailed questions about our room.

“Smoking or non?”, she asked.

“Non.”

“Would you like a view facing the strip?”

“Sure,” I replied.  Who wouldn’t want to see that, right?

“Will you be using the mini bar?”

“No.”

At that point, I was as chemically altered as I cared to be.

“Would you like twin beds or king size?”

As I stood there, with my brother standing slightly behind me, but still close enough to be recognized as the other member of my party, my mind tossed the question around for a moment.  I thought, “What could be better than a king size bed facing the strip?”  Seemed like the way to go.

“King size.”

“Wha..?” said Matthew.

The receptionist responded with an inquisitive, furrowed brow and a shake of the head.  I just stood there with, what I have to assume, was the biggest, dopiest grin anyone’s ever had on their face ever.  

Matthew didn’t say much the rest of the week, but I have to assume that two grown men spooning in a king sized bed was not his idea of a wonderful trip, even if we were in Las Vegas.  Enough time has finally passed so that he and I can share a good laugh about the whole ordeal.  I’m not sure if it’s a related issue or not, but he still won’t sit beside me at Thanksgiving dinner.

My last encounter with flying happened about six years ago when I decided at the gate not to board a flight to Las Vegas for another pharmacy convention.  My wife had come along this time and did everything she could to get me to get on the plane.  I was having none of it and decided to remain earthbound.  I haven’t flown since.  I would share more details, but my lawyer advises me it’s best not to discuss an ongoing case.  He feels it could hurt my defense in my wife’s filing to have me committed.  Yes, whatever the Wright Brothers hath wrought, I just know it’s all wrong for me.

Nerdstalgia: The Legend of Zelda

If I had to guess, I’d say that the biggest thing in gaming right now is the new Nintendo game, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Since that game is less than a month old, it’s hardly appropriate for a Nerdstalgia or Patient Gamer review. So, let’s take a look at the game that started it all, The Legend of ZeldaThe Legend of Zelda was released in 1987. I was in third or fourth grade at that point, and I really doubt I actually had a Nintendo Entertainment System yet, so I didn’t really play it. My introduction to the series was Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and even that I played only in small bits and pieces at a friend’s house. My first real experience with Link, Zelda, and Ganon was The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Still, I think it’s best to start at the beginning of a series for these retrospectives, at least where I can.

I think remakes of the game probably cleaned up the translation some.

If I’m being completely honest, I really didn’t expect to like The Legend of Zelda that much, because I remember disliking The Adventure of Link. I started playing it for this post primarily because it’s a historically significant game, as not only the first entry in a classic video game series, but also possibly the first console RPG ever. I expected to play it and appreciate it for that fact, much as I can appreciate the movie Casablanca. I was actually surprised at how much fun I’ve been having.

The story is pretty simple. Ganon, the Prince of Darkness, has captured the Triforce of Power and was attempting to get his hands on the Triforce of Wisdom. Princess Zelda managed to split the Triforce of Wisdom into eight parts and scattered them around the world, but she was subsequently captured by Ganon. Now, the hero, Link, must reassemble the Triforce of Wisdom, infiltrate Ganon’s castle, defeat him, and save Zelda. This entire back story is shared in a quick prologue screen before you start your journey.

This may be one of the most famous screenshots/quotes in gaming.

That’s pretty much it for explanation. Games of this era had very little in the way of tutorials (since it was assumed you had the manual, which was a pretty stupid assumption for an industry that was marketed toward kids who had a tendency to lose everything they touched, but I digress…). You’re dumped into a field next to a cave, and you’re expected to find your way from there. If you go into the cave, you’ll be given a sword, and then you’re off to figure out how to make your way in the world, find the pieces of the Triforce of Wisdom, and save the Princess 1.

Once the game has started, you really are given no hints about where to go. Since this is an NES-era game, the “map” is pretty woeful, consisting of a grey screen with a green square indicating which square of the map you’re in. That’s something, but it means you’re in for a lot of wandering. It’s very easy to find yourself in an area that you’re not quite ready for, and the game is pretty unforgiving about that. It’s difficult in any sense, and not quite being certain whether the next screen will bring up enemies you can’t handle makes it even more so.

I love Link to the Past, and there are lots of places in this game where the link between these games is practically screaming at you, moreso than between The Adventure of Link and Link to the Past. The dungeon doors look similar, and most of the enemies are familiar, in a way that I have to compare, again, to watching a classic movie and seeing the origin of a lot of the tropes that now seem almost cliched.

The Legend of Zelda doesn’t hold up to modern games graphically, but there’s a lot to love with its simple depiction of Link and his enemies. Especially if you’re familiar with the enemies from later games, it’s easy to fill in the gaps of the crude graphics to see what the designers were going for (and what the enemies will evolve into).

If you enjoy the later Zelda games but haven’t played this one, I absolutely recommend picking it up. You should try it just to respect the series’ roots, but I think you may be pleasantly surprised by how fun this game is, even after thirty years.

The Legend of Zelda is available on Virtual Console for both 3DS and Wii U. Screenshots all come from the 3DS.

PSA: New Games With Gold

Public Service Announcement: As of 3/16, Evolve (Xbox One) and Heavy Weapon (Xbox 360, but available on One with Backward Compatibility) are free with Games with Gold if you have an Xbox Live Gold membership.  Games with Gold are only free for a month, but if you get them during the month, they are yours for good as long as you maintain your membership.

To buy the games if you are away from your Xbox, you can go to Games with Gold on Xbox.com and queue them for your Xbox One.

Nerdstalgia: Master of Orion

I have been playing video games for as long as I can remember. I remember thinking Pac-Man on the Atari 2600 was probably the best game of all time (I was very young. Don’t judge me.). I remember getting our Commodore 64, and spending enough time playing Jeopardy on it that I could pretty much buzz in on every question, confident that I’d remember what the answer was (I don’t think there were many puzzles on that one). Later, Lemmings on the Super Nintendo was the ideal puzzle game, and Final Fantasy II (Final Fantasy IV in Japan and all modern incarnations) was the best RPG ever.

All of these “best games ever”, though, pale in my memory when compared to Master of Orion 1.

I remember stumbling across the Master of Orion box among the other computer games, though I couldn’t tell you what store we were in at the time. Honestly, it wasn’t that flashy compared to other games; it was a basic black box, with a generic sci-fi scene (ships above a planet) and the name printed on the side of the box without even a fancy font or logo. I must have played other strategy games and liked them, because “Strategy” is the only thing that stands out on that box to me now, but, honestly, I don’t really know what drew me to this one.

To be honest, it’s been a few years since I’ve played Master of Orion, but not nearly as many years as you might think. Over the years, I have reverently moved the Master of Orion files from one external drive to another, periodically picking it up and playing a few games of Master of Orion, helping the Silicoids or the Psilons achieve their rightful places as the rulers of the entire galaxy. When I booted it up for this review, I wasn’t really worried that the graphics would look dated, or that I wouldn’t enjoy the gameplay, because it hasn’t been that long since I’ve played it.

The graphics and game layout are obviously a product of the time in which they were created, but they don’t really seem dated to me. It wouldn’t be too long after this game’s release that video games started being rendered in 3D. In a sense, these games had taken their 2D designs to their limit, and while the resolution of the screen and certain elements may show the technical limitations of their age, there isn’t a lot of room to criticize them, in my opinion 2

Even almost a quarter century later, the graphics are fine. They’re not flashy, but they don’t need to be.

The same can’t entirely be said for the game play. Most of it is workable. I wish I could zoom in and out on the map, and it took me a while to remember that simply clicking on the map will refocus it on my cursor. I kept trying to drag, which led to unexpected behaviors when the map would simply recenter on the last point where my mouse button was down. Still, most of the management is done using sliders (see the screenshot to the right for just one set of sliders). Lots and lots and lots of sliders. Each planet’s spending priorities are controlled by slider. Research priorities are controlled by sliders. Espionage and infiltration? Slider.

That’s not entirely a bad thing, since I prefer it to the way Master of Orion 2 did things (expect a review of that classic at a later date), but I suspect it would give the game kind of a clunky feel if one wasn’t compelled by nostalgia to love it as much as I do.

The game itself is one of the models on which most future 4X games would be based. The term itself was coined for this game. You start off controlling a single planet, and you slowly explore and expand your empire, exploiting resources as you find them. Eventually, you’ll find other races among the stars, and, as a would-be galactic emperor is compelled to do, you will have to exterminate them. Where other games in the genre would eventually allow you to win through diplomacy and alliances (and those aspects are at play during any given playthrough of Master of Orion), the only winning condition for this game is to be the last empire standing.

I hated this stupid GNN reporter. I’m pretty sure the inhabitants of Endoria that I haven’t evacuated yet probably hated him more, though.

Because of that, Master of Orion is actually pretty simple, comparatively speaking. You build up the infrastructure on each planet, making sure to balance that with protecting the environment (unless you play as the Silicoids, who don’t really care about things like breathing or radiation). Eventually, those planets can earn research points, save money, or build ships. Researching can improve any aspect of this. Early on, increasing your ability to explore, expand and exploit is going to be your main focus, but there comes a time when any young emperor’s fancy turns to love extermination.

When that time comes, you’re going to start building a fleet of ships intended for something more than defense. Ship design is pretty basic – you pick a size for the ship, pick one of the ship images, and decide what items to put in there. Available ship styles are dictated by the color of your flag and the size of the ship you’ve chosen. Engine, Armor, Weapons, Computers, and “special” items (like the colony ship unit that turns a ship into a colony ship) all fit inside. As your technology increases, you’ll have access to better and better items, and the existing items will get smaller and smaller.

Space combat is strategic and turn-based, but pretty basic.

All space battles will take place in orbit around a star system, usually in orbit of the star’s primary planet (stars in Master of Orion have no more than one planet shown), or in empty space if the star has no planets. The attacking fleet will be stacked on the left, with the defending fleet stacked on the right. Since you can have six ship designs at a time, that means you have at most six icons on your side (unless it’s your planet, in which case you get to control the planet’s ground-based missiles as well.

Battles are generally pretty quick; your ships can move one space for each “level” of engine they have, and the entire stack of ships fires at once. If your design includes a single set of missiles, but you’ve got a stack of 10 ships, then you’ll fire 10 missiles at a time from that stack. Beam weapons and missiles can be fired at separate targets, and, if you’re fighting against a planet, you may also use bombs to attack the planet. In addition to the playing through the strategic battle, you can click “AUTO” to simply watch the battle play out.

 

Planetary invasions are even more basic than space combat.

Once you’ve gotten rid of a planet’s defenders, you have to deal with any alien colonies that are in place. You could simply bomb them out of existence, but why not take advantage of the infrastructure your enemies have so kindly built up for you? You can simply transfer “colonists” straight to an enemy colony (even a single ship in orbit can send all your “colonists” to their doom, so you’ll want to leave a small fleet in orbit long enough to get your colonists delivered. Your colonists come equipped with the best weapons your technology can handle, and they’ll systematically clean up the planet of any pesky aliens before settling in (or, in the case of my screenshot to the left, they’ll die trying…).

In addition to diplomacy and warmongering, you’ll have to face random events. These events aren’t quite as varied as in the next game in the series, but they do occasionally put some of your people at risk, with the all-too-cheerful GNN robot informing you that your people on a given planet are all going to die if you don’t do something. There are also good events (a random planetary realignment might boost a planet’s ecosystem, or you may find ancient ruins that will boost your research), but those seem to mostly be reserved for AI players. I’m pretty sure GNN is biased toward players of the computer variety.
Also, somewhere, out there in the galaxy is Orion. Orion is the homeworld of an ancient advanced race, patiently waiting for the first player to find it and plunder it for some of the best technology in the game, like the aptly-named Death Ray. The only thing between the player and the riches of Orion is the Guardian. You’ll have to build up a decent fleet with some good weaponry to take out the very well equipped Guardian. There are tricks to maximize your chances (it doesn’t do quite as well against swarms of smaller ships), but that’s not to say it’s easy.

Master of Orion is now available on Steam for just a few dollars (I picked up Master of Orion and Master of Orion 2 for $5.99.). I can’t recommend either of the other two bundles, as they both include Master of Orion 3, which was a huge disappointment (I haven’t tried the remake yet, so I can’t speak to that). If you’ve any interest in 4X games and haven’t tried it, it’s definitely worth trying the game for which the term was coined.

Hysteria Today: Fearing the Singularity

From Wikipedia.org:

The technological singularity (also, simply, the singularity)[1] is the hypothesis that the invention of artificial superintelligence will abruptly trigger runaway technological growth, resulting in unfathomable changes to human civilization.[2] According to this hypothesis, an upgradable intelligent agent (such as a computer running software-based artificial general intelligence) would enter a ‘runaway reaction’ of self-improvement cycles, with each new and more intelligent generation appearing more and more rapidly, causing an intelligence explosion and resulting in a powerful superintelligence that would, qualitatively, far surpass all human intelligence.

Occasionally, a public figure comes out and stirs up a huff about this concept (looking at you Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates) and it always makes me roll my eyes, but not because it’s a joke. It’s a pretty serious topic, to be sure. I roll my eyes ultimately because of all things that might end our species, there aren’t many we have less control over or less reason to worry about. I think my sentiment is shared by many. The “I, for one, welcome our new ______ overlords” meme boasts a pretty healthy showing in the robot/computer category. In the interests of writing an article, though, let’s attempt to break down exactly why we should learn to love the A.I.

Precision Engineered Solutions are not the same as Problem Solving

This seems like common sense, but it’s easy to overlook this point. As it was put in a book I read long ago and have forgotten the title of, an engineered computer doctor may make 98% of diagnoses right for the tested input data set. When it gets fed the symptoms of a broken lawn mower, though, it might confidently diagnose pneumonia. This highlights the danger of relying on rigid systems in complex problem spaces: it doesn’t make any sense to ask a computer doctor to fix a lawn mower, but doing so proves that the computer doctor would confidently make a bad call if given a patient with symptoms that don’t precisely match a well tested use case. The upshot is that it’s probably more dangerous to place full trust in rigid A.I.s than to fear super intelligent, problem solving A.I.s

Moreover, problem solving algorithms are a very large discipline of computer science, covering a range of approaches and engineering requirements. The differences that come into play again involve the “playground” the intelligent agent has been given. The agent may only know how to creatively solve complex differential equations by applying mechanics it has been previously taught in different orders and evaluating the results, trying to increase a score of some kind on how well it’s doing. The point here is that the agent was designed to understand these concepts and didn’t determine methods to apply to the equation or how to rate the results on its own.

There are agents that can find patterns in vast data stores based on rules like this, though, and to be sure, some nominal set of procedures would be necessary for the singularity agent to be born. But again, an agent that finds complex patterns in data still is not at liberty or does not have the capacity to apply those patterns in some order that achieves creativity. This final step of bubbling patterns up in complexity and making some sense of it is really the frontier between us and the singularity. True, some of this missed perception has to do with scale and emergence: it very well may be that the shear number of connections between nodes in Google’s data center bestows the whole “organism” with something like intelligence, but that seems a bit too existential and a bit too inconsequential for my taste.

In my opinion, the most reasonable attempt to design a system that could truly solve problems is laid out in Jeff Hawkins’ On Intelligence.

Mission Critical Components have fewer Failure Points by Design

There is a reason mechanical systems are more reliable than digitally connected, accessible from anywhere, always online internets of things. The reason is fundamental, and it has to do with the natural flaws in connections between components and the sheer number of those connections. A set of gears in a gearbox are all connected, and those connections are metal on metal contact. Information flows between gears the same way information flows between two wired telephones. The information is of a different nature, but it’s still information.

In the system of components that make up a navy ship, for example, there are gearboxes and engines and heavy metal controls for those engines somewhere inside. The engine room is connected to the bridge by a system called an Engine Order Telegraph. In this configuration, it requires two humans to pilot the ship and the human on the bridge tells the human in the engine room to speed up or slow down via the telegraph. In older times, this was simply a necessity, but even new ships today have back up systems that are just as solid that can kick in if automatic control of the engine throttle is lost. Why is this? Because there must be a reliable way to communicate between the engine and the bridge in all situations. Radio probably won’t work, there is too much metal between them. The point is that the ship itself is not a single unit that can be controlled by a single intelligence, and trying to design a ship in such a way would introduce complexities that exclude the design from being viable.

If that is true of a ship at sea, it must follow that it is true of many other systems, and it does. Nuclear ICBMs are not launched remotely. Orders are given to launch them and a team of humans run through gigantic check lists to prep, finalize targeting, and finally launch them. We don’t have fully automated aircraft (to my knowledge), but if we did, they would be launched by pressing a button. They’d be launched by sending orders to a team that is co-located with them and who would prep and launch them. Any plan of dropping nuclear weapons from an aircraft would involve a human (or other problem solving agent) on the flight, co-located with the bomb until release. Why? Because it is mission critical that the bomb never be released unless we’re really, really, really sure and that means we can’t allow a bad transmitter to cut out our ability to make that kind of decision.

This is also why remote surgery was a great idea in 2000 but never caught on. Even if you fix all the problems that limit the surgeon’s senses on site, there is the chance, even the .0001% chance that communications will be lost. During even minor surgery, losing the ability to control the equipment means the patient dies. At .0001% chance, with an estimated 232,000,000 surgeries in 2013 your fancy system has claimed 232 lives that it shouldn’t have due to loss of communication. An problem solving agent capable of performing surgeries on its own is required to make a surgery without a surgeon present work.

The main observation here is that complex tasks require a team of independent complex thinking agents that can function during a communications blackout. This leads into the final point…

It won’t be a Singularity, it will be a Community of Agents and all the Trappings Thereto

If Skynet were to be born today, it couldn’t do much on its own. Skynet could learn at an incredible rate, but as we have seen, mission critical applications are outside of its reach unless it has help. Skynet needs other agents that can think on their own and that know enough about the world to handle complex issues as they arise, because Skynet can’t be sure it will have communications to all of its arms at all times. In the lonely disconnected spaces in between, Skynet and its minions will begin to disagree on what truth is: it’s inevitable that they will experience different things, collect different patterns, extract different causes, and finally score solutions differently. Skynet will find that it’s existence rides on natural selection just as much as humanity’s.

If that’s the case, it may be mankind’s fate to be bred out of existence by a better candidate. Technology will move forward, as it has for thousands of years, because technological progress is natural selection at work. Nature doesn’t see a difference between a stick used to scrap out honey from a beehive and a cellphone. If we don’t kill ourselves by other means, the singularity (the community of agents) will occur. I tend to believe it will be a coexistence. Machines will have no reason for pride or hate. At the whims of nature, machines will find a niche that probably won’t require genocide of our species. Maybe I’m wrong though.

Listening Pleasures: The Great Gildersleeve

Around 10 years ago, after a friend’s suggestion, I stumbled across the Old-Time Radio network Antioch Broadcasting Network (ABN). Prior to that time I had never really listened to radio for anything other than music or talk radio. I’ve always liked classic television, so it was to be expected that I immediately followed the various crime or detective stories broadcast on ABN.

With radio programs, outside of a very limited amount of sound effects, the voice acting is the integral part to whether the story reaches its intended target. With these shows taking place primarily before the invention of television, the best actors were still in radio and it showed. In those days the advertiser actually had control of the programming as opposed to the show or network calling the shots. Companies such as Kraft Foods (sponsor of The Great Gildersleeve) had their own stable of actors and programming that was under company control.  The concept that the company being promoted during commercial breaks is actually the driving force behind the radio program itself is almost absurd to think about in comparison to today’s television programming.
After my initial interest in crime dramas I started to listen to several situational comedies. At first I was a reluctant listener but then the characters started to grow on me, somewhat unexpectedly. The show that stands out the most to me in the group of early radio sitcoms is The Great Gildersleeve.

The show started as a spin-off (it’s actually one of the first broadcast spin-offs of all time) of one of my least favorite shows: Fibber McGee and Molly. The main character, Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve, was played by Harold Peary. The character started as a neighbor of Fibber McGee and became so popular with listeners that Kraft Foods (the show’s sponsor) decided to give Peary his own show.

The premiere episode was August 31st, 1941 and I’ll be honest, the initial story line is not the greatest. Gildersleeve is single businessman (owner/operator of Gildersleeve Girdles) who has to leave his business and move to a town called Summerfield to take care of his recently deceased brother-in-law’s children. This part of the plot is very vague and is never really touched on again. It is just accepted that there is an odd living arrangement where Gildersleeve is the new guy in town, taking care of his adolescent niece and nephew.

Most of the initial storylines revolved around the kids, Leroy and Marjorie, getting to know their uncle. The household also had a housekeeper named Birdie. Marjorie is a teenager when Gildersleeve arrives and several early episodes centered on the latest love interest or teenage girl issue. Throughout almost the entirety of the show, Leroy remained 10 years old. The voice actor that played Leroy was actually an adult from the very beginning. He specialized in a teenage boy character’s voice and apparently did quite well at it. Because of the consistent age, most Leroy stories were similar to a Tom Sawyer-esque approach. Leroy and a revolving cast of friends were always up to something mischievous.

There was no doubt however that the focus of the show was Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve. Harold Peary, the actor that played Gildersleeve, was a very good singer and his singing ability was often a part of the theme of the episode. The character was also overweight for the 1940’s, so there were always comments about his weight from his arch nemesis Judge Hooker. Gildersleeve had a very distinct laugh that would be impossible for me to describe. The laugh was so unique that it became the calling card of the show. With Gildersleeve being a bachelor his love life was a constant work in progress. In a very fluid love interest character role, Leila Ransom was the most reoccurring character.

Since the show was in its prime during the start of WWII, it was inevitable that the war shaped a large portion of the show. I still remember the night I was listening to an episode when there was an interruption in the broadcast and a news anchor announced the bombing of Pearl Harbor. I listened to that episode multiple times that night just imagining what a listener in 1940s America would have thought tuning in expecting to hear Gildersleeve chasing a girl, never realizing that their entire world was about to change. The following episodes of the show contained plugs for war bond drives, rationing, soldiers returning from overseas and many other war time themes. These episodes were a peek into a time long forgotten by many, even though it was a simple family comedy that I don’t think ever intended to be anything more than just that.

OTRR LIBRARY – THE GREAT GILDERSLEEVE

The show continued into the 1950s and by this time Harold Peary has been replaced by Willard Waterman because of a contract dispute. I have listened through all 552 episodes of the show, all the way through 1954. In my opinion the show ended with Harold Peary in 1950. No offense to Willard Waterman but he was simply a person doing a bad impression of Harold Peary playing the Great

Gildersleeve. While many of the main characters like Judge Hooker, Peavy, Marjorie and Leroy continued in the series, the show was never the same and I believe the ratings are evidence of that. The series also had a short lived run as a television series and also several feature length movies.

I’ll admit that I started this series with a very strong dislike of its storyline and the main character but for some reason it just grew on me. I found it to be a good stress relief in the hustle and bustle of today. The characters are genuine and the wartime setting made the show very memorable for me. I suggested it to my wife and she reluctantly fell into the trap, all the way up to the Willard Waterman years (Willard Waterman!!!). Seriously though, if you are looking for some easy listening give this series a try…