Archive for September, 2007

Bulwer-Lytton may be over for the year, but…

September 30, 2007 - 12:48 pm Comments Off

Jim stared grimly through the space shuttle’s windshield, clutching the cold, still uncomfortable AR-15 to his chest as the countdown marched inexorably to the dreaded “Ignition,” wondering just how in the hell he had been convinced of the reality – and more importantly, impending danger – of space coyotes.

Odd search of the day

Culling and other housecleaning

September 30, 2007 - 12:13 pm Comments Off

Any registered users who wish to retain their accounts (’cause they’re so hard to make after all) need to leave a comment on this post that you’re not a bot, or be deleted. I somehow doubt we’ll hear from “phentermine online,” but some of the other names are unique enough to make me hold off just hitting the nuke button. After all, some folks would probably think my main backup username, “rajoidea,” was just a random string and nuke it, so I’m not too inclined to call “bot!” unless painfully obvious. Since a few of you weirdos actually have things to do other than sit on the computer over the weekend, cleanup will be after 7pm mountain time on Monday the 1st.

On Guard Dogs, II: Types

September 29, 2007 - 5:23 pm Comments Off

squabble

Now that we’ve established that “guard dog” is a more specific job than is generally perceived, and that most dogs aren’t really suited to it, what dogs are? This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, and the groupings I’m trying to create don’t match that of any kennel club I know of; it’s mostly intended to illustrate the differences in mentality between dogs created to do certain kinds of guarding jobs, or to guard in addition to another, primary job. Many breeds may fall into more than one category; one good example would be the Catahoula Leopard Dog, a breed created as a sort of all-purpose American rural dog that is used to herd, hunt big game, guard, and possibly do the rancher’s taxes in its off hours.

(more…)

Saturday afternoon conversations…

September 29, 2007 - 11:07 am Comments Off

“Honey, why the hell is someone getting to our blog by searching for ‘jedi akita’?”

“He won Westminster a few years ago. Wait, why do I know that?”

“Ah, ok. And because you’re obsessive. *returns to puttering around*”

“No, I take it back. He came in second. And he was named ‘Return of the Jedai’.”

“Good grief, what the hell is wrong with some people? I mean, we’re kidding when we talk about naming Kang something like ‘Giant Steaming Pile of Shit,’ but no, they hauled off and actually did name their dog that. Some people are just beyond help.”

On Guard Dogs: I

September 28, 2007 - 4:07 pm Comments Off

watchful Kodos

Second to an armed homeowner, which is something that is typically not advertised nor necessarily believed by the intended targets of the warning, one thing that most criminals fear is dogs. “If you’re scared, get a dog” is a piece of advice often thrown out by shallow thinkers arguing that citizen ownership of guns is not necessary, or (condescendingly) to single women, on the assumption that she can’t handle a weapon and needs something large and loud to protect her, absent a man. Indeed, it is one of the oldest benefits of the dog-human alliance; many anthropologists think that the warning of intruders undetectable by human senses provided by wild canines hanging out for scraps at a human settlement was the earliest reason humans started encouraging them to stick around.

Unfortunately, as with guns, there is a metric ton of bullshit out there on guard dogs. For one thing, the vast majority of dogs aren’t, even if they ARE large and loud, and for another, what a good guard dog really is is often misrepresented. We’ll start with the first and most important problem, that of definition.

A watch dog is a dog that barks to alert you to a problem or potential problem. They bark when they see people coming, they bark when they hear odd noises, and burglars HATE them. (So do neighbors, if their owner doesn’t understand how to guide the dog’s barking.) A watch dog can be any size so long as it considers it its business to watch for potential problems and alert on them. Most dogs in general do; just about any mutt can do quite well at this job. The trick, usually, is teaching them what is and isn’t a potential problem- many dogs enjoy barking for the sheer sake of barking and may decide that any change, such as an unexpected falling leaf, is worth a good round of barking. Breeds that you should not tap for watchdog duties include most Nordic sledding breeds and sighthounds; although there are many exceptions, most individuals of these groups simply don’t consider approaching strangers a problem worth raising a ruckus over. Their jobs lie elsewhere. Just about all others qualify.

A guard dog is a dog that will alert you to a problem- but also try and deal with the situation itself. A watch dog might, in the frenzy of excitement, try something, but not reliably and it often may not have any idea what exactly to do, any more than a spaniel who has found a rat would have as clear an idea of what to do with it as a terrier. Guard dogs have strong territorial and protective instincts that give them the confidence to do something and some genetic idea of appropriate actions, which range from a strong threat display to knocking down and holding to an out and out mauling. The guard dog might seem more desirable- more bang for the buck- but the hitch is that dogs, being dogs, develop different ideas on what constitutes a “problem” than humans do. A dog has no idea of the difference between a trespasser and the meter reader who comes into your yard when you’re not home. With a dog whose only instinct is to bark (and many barkers will become friendly if the stranger is brave enough to approach and be friendly), this is not an issue; with a dog whose instinct is to do whatever it can to stop the intruder, it sure as hell is. Unless you are living somewhere truly remote, or in an anarchic region where criminals are more common and bolder than civil employees or stupid neighbors, the odds are vastly greater on your dog encountering a harmless stranger than a malicious one. Once upon a time, Americans in general regarded it as a matter of course that you deserved to lose a chunk of flesh if you trespassed and encountered an unfriendly dog, but this is no longer true. As it is, in many areas even having a “Beware of Dog” sign can be construed in court as an admission that you know your dog is dangerous, and put full liability on you if your dog bites someone, even if they were very obviously doing something they shouldn’t have. It is the responsibility of any owner of a guardian breed, cross, or random dog with a strong protective instinct to carefully socialize the dog, train it to be responsive even when agitated, and make sure that situations like the aforementioned meter reader don’t easily set themselves up. It is not a light one, or an easy one, and many dog-savvy folks who don’t live in an area with a crime problem prefer never to have any guardian breeds at all because of this. They prefer dealing with potential problems that are less likely to end in stitches, lawsuits, and euthanasia.

Let’s go back to “If you’re scared, get a guard dog!”. This is an extraordinarily bad idea for most people to whom the advice is given, at least if they are genuinely anxious about potential for harm from strangers, and especially if they are passive or anxiety-prone in general by temperament. Although there is a scale of softer to harder among guardian breeds, ALL of them are mentally and physically strong animals who need clear, calm, and confident leadership. They have to be, or they wouldn’t be able to do the job they were designed for. An anxious owner who may encourage all signs of protective or aggressive behavior can easily create a dog that not only makes the decisions about what a problem is, but feels extra pressure to be aggressive because it does not trust its owner’s ability to handle problems. A healthy guard dog puts its owner’s leadership and judgment first; an unhealthy one thinks the job is its alone. Worse than that, its owner having abdicated leadership in threat assessment and handling, many dogs will decide the owner is no leader at all and take the job itself. A dog that perceives itself as in charge may punish a subordinate that tries to override its decisions with its teeth- making the guard dog a bigger threat to its owner than the hypothetical criminal is. Most dog trainers, especially those in big cities with crime problems, are familiar with seeing elderly or timid clients who bring in guardian breeds they have neither mental nor physical control over, victims of the “If you’re scared, get a guard dog” line. Sometimes they learn to step up and provide the structure and authority the dog needs; more often they simply have way more dog than they can handle, and the dog ends up rehomed or euthanized.

Even after all that, a guard dog is often no match for a determined criminal: their weapons are short-range, their judgment of exact threat level presented by individuals is often questionable, and they are quite simply vulnerable to bullets, poison, and other weapons. They are no universal protection against goblins even when correctly raised and trained.

So, what good could they be, then? They still have senses that humans don’t, and they make excellent alarms, like their lower-power cousins the watch dogs. They are marvelous deterrents (though this also applies to any large dog without a reputation for universal friendliness). They can make the difference between a walk in the park being a pleasant, stress-free evening and an occasion for high-alert concealed carry. They are faster and more agile than humans, and in a truly all-has-gone-to-hell situation can be a huge help against the foe; just ask the military why they love their sentry dogs. A good one can corner a trespasser and hold them there, giving you time to prepare to deal with them and arrive before they can escape. They can be, in short, everything good a dog realistically can be- but they are not better than an alert, trained, effectively armed human.

In short, against humans they can be excellent assistants- NOT primary guardians.

Oh, niftycakes.

September 28, 2007 - 1:03 pm Comments Off

While I’m embracing linkery in lieu of sitting here until a wad of coherent ideas falls out of my brain, check it out, it’s Star Trek Weekend at National Review Online.

Star Trek- any of them- is pretty far away from the best television we’ve got on our DVD shelves. Now that I’m no longer thirteen, I can’t watch any Next Generation without some internal voice going “How did the Federation SURVIVE? This is STUPID!”. It’s often preachy, it often goes for fanservice over real interest, and yet the franchise has been successfully milking me for decades. Given that Next Gen reruns are the most consistently watched thing on our Tivo other than first-runs of shows we really like, this will remain true for more or less ever.

Which means I’m going to go read all of it, even if I find the politics ordinarily too boring for my wilted brain, because it’s Star Trek! Even better, it’s Star Trek stuff written by geeks like me who find themselves bound to the series despite both huge ideological problems and the recognition that most of it isn’t, technically, very good.

I’m pathetic, but I’m also happy.

Le sigh.

September 28, 2007 - 12:10 pm Comments Off

Sorry for the general lack of content, but I seem to be having one of Those periods.  I’ve actually lost track of the number of posts or comments I’ve started, then junked in total dissatisfaction over the last few days.

This oughta be fun.

September 28, 2007 - 12:09 pm Comments Off

Once upon a time, Fox ran a show called Brimstone. It was about a cop who’d murdered someone in revenge for his wife’s rape, been killed on duty shortly after, gone to Hell, and then recruited by the Devil to recapture escaped souls. It was a drama with a strong comic edge. It was cancelled, in the manner of Firefly, Keen Eddie, Kitchen Confidential, and I’m sure many other promising Fox shows, before it had had even half a chance to prove itself. We liked it very much.

Not quite ten years later, the CW (whatever the hell that is, never heard of it till now) has started running a show called Reaper, about a young man whose parents sold his soul to the Devil before he was born, and who must now work for the Devil recapturing escaped souls to fulfill the contract. It is a comedy with a strong dramatic edge. If it sounds very much like a close ripoff of Brimstone, that’s the impression we got, too. On the basis of some good buzz, the knowledge that Kevin Smith was directing the pilot (I don’t know if he’s going to be further involved, though I hope so), and some perverse desire to growl at the ripoff, we watched it.

We didn’t want to like it, but damn, it made us like it. A lot. If it keeps up at the pace the pilot set, it could be the next Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The actors are well-chosen and good at their roles, the writing is hilarious and offbeat without being self-consciously “quirky”, and the visuals are great. Especially if you are a fan of Dead Like Me or Buffy, give this one a shot.

Another class clown.

September 26, 2007 - 12:03 pm Comments Off

play-bow

We took Kang to puppy kindergarten for the first time last night. At this point we don’t really need lessons in how to train our dogs to a baseline of civil behavior, which is the level these classes are aimed at, but the socialization and work around distractions is invaluable. When the puppy owners are introverted hermits in a town full of other people who took jobs here partly because it represented an entire population of people more interested in their labs than each other, organized sessions so the DOGS can at least get a chance to meet a diverse sample of people and other dogs are valuable. The under-socialized scientists and techies are a lot less likely to react to a novel age, race, or outfit with fear-biting, although not as much as you might think.

Kang and Kodos are as different in this thus far as they have been in everything else. With the big red dude, I always went home from any kind of group class with a sore right arm, because the ONLY thing he was really interested in was the other dogs. He’s always bucked his breed standard in this (Akitas are supposed to be indifferent if not actively hostile to strange dogs), and before we had a puppy at home for him to play with all day he was obsessed with meeting any strange dog and playing with it. Over time we progressed from him being all but totally unreachable when around other dogs to him simply being very distracted, so the classes were again valuable, but I got used to wearing the dunce cap; even at the best of times he’s not a very enthusiastic worker when it comes to obedience. He respects us and does things for that reason, but it’s clear he gets no joy out of pleasing us by following apparently-arbitrary directions. That’s fine- if that’s what I really wanted I’d have some type-A herding or sporting breed- but it makes class a chore.

Kang surprised me last night by being different in that respect. Don’t get me wrong, she still spent most of the time while the instructor was talking trying to orbit my chair, whining, and doing everything short of starting up a one-dog band to get attention or play with the puppies on either side of us, but when I asked for her attention and a little work she gave it to me happily instead of grudgingly. She does at home, too, but I had expected her to be like Kodos and forget about me and food when noisy new dogs and people were around.

They’re not totally different, however. The instructor chose Kang to demonstrate a basic “leave it”-oriented exercise, probably because she’s big enough for the other students to easily see and looked confident enough to be interested in the food rather than overwhelmed with stress.

Kang understands training, or at least she understands it as a game whose end goal is a treat that is played by figuring out what contortion she needs to go through to get the human to part with it. For her, training is kind of like a game of Lemmings is for us. (Or she sees us as giant Skinner boxes.) She also understands that “sit” is her best bet, as we’ve taught both dogs generally that that’s the polite way for them to ask for something they want.

So, the trainer took Kang and went to the center of the room. The trainer had a bait bag full of very appealing-smelling treats, and took some in her fist… and then took time to launch into an explanation of the exercise, its execution, and its purpose, while gesturing with the fistful of treats.

Kang sat and gave the trainer her best shiny happy look. The trainer, still mid-spiel, ignored her. Kang skipped around front, sat, and repeated the shiny-happy whammy*. Still talking. Kang started stamping her front paws in place as though in a very small mosh pit. Nada, though the class was starting to titter. Kang discovered the rubber-mat flooring made a sound through the stomping routine, so she started sitting repeatedly, with increasing force each time.

“You want the dog to-” *thump*

“Have some boring treats, like kibble, and-” *THUMP*

“If she ignores the boring treat and waits for-” *thump-WHUMP!*

Around this point she started waving with one front paw as though trying to hail a cab in between sits.

“And then we will have a way to make the dog ignore-” *wavewave* *THUMP-WHUMP!*

Full stop for the class, the assistants, and the trainer to finish cracking up. The rest of the exercise, and the class, went fine.

Given that Kang theoretically has a conformation career ahead of her, I guess I’m happy that her first instinct when brought into the middle of a ring surrounded by strange dogs and handled by a stranger is to ham it up for the crowd. Still, it would be nice, just once, not to become known as some woman and That Akita on the first night.

*Do you remember Care Bears? Remember the Care Bear Stare? It’s a lot like that.

Game review: Overlord

September 25, 2007 - 12:33 pm Comments Off

Society has lied to you. Diamonds are not a girl’s best friend, and dog is not man’s. Anybody’s best friend, as it turns out, is a horde of manic little psychopaths prepared to carry out your every demand.

Overlord, for the XBox 360 or PC, is another entry in the “What if you were playing on the bad guys’ side in a fantasy series for once?” genre. I haven’t played Dungeon Keeper, which I’m told is the gold standard of this genre, so I have no idea if it’s any better or worse than that, but it’s a fair sight better than any of the others I’ve tried.

Up-front, the problems: There’s no overworld map. At all. If you, like me, have absolutely no sense of direction in-game or out of it, this will lead to a fair amount of pointless wandering around trying to figure out where the hell you are and where you need to go next. The nature of the game requires a lot of backtracking through areas, so this can develop into quite a sizeable pain in the ass until you learn to memorize smaller landmarks. The best way is often to backtrack using the trail of destruction you leave in your path (the environment is highly interactive), but that doesn’t do much good when the smashables and enemies have had a chance to repop, or when you’ve laid waste to the place and are just trying to find out where the nearest way back to your stronghold is.

Repetition: the game is moderately open-ended (which is to say, extremely compared to the traditional RPG model but not nearly as much as sandboxes like Oblivion), so you can end up wasting a fair amount of capital exploring and sticking your nose (or horde) in places you shouldn’t. Upgrading your gear leads to the same. This leads to some tedium with farming to rebuild your forces, but since I live with Stingray, King of Powerlevelling, I know what this can look like when it’s REALLY bad, and this ain’t really bad at all. If I need one of Stephen King’s longer novels to get through the powerlevelling phase of a Final Fantasy entry, I needed a moderately snappy mystery to get through this.

I’ve also heard some rumors of the game being buggy if you actively try and buck the broader order the game wants you to complete events in, but we never ran into any of these problems despite several such. The fact that NPCs have the same scripted lines and speak up if you just pass close by can get irritating if you’re trying to figure something out in a populated area, but this closes the list of unpleasant or tedious game elements.

The perks: Whoever wrote this game obviously loves the fantasy genre well enough to do a good job satirizing it. It’s not an over-the-top parody, but it’s definitely a twisted take on the usual Tolkienish tropes. The dialogue is witty without being strained, the various races are a few degrees off their usual stereotyped selves and act a good deal more like real villagers/miners/forest snobs than they tend to in books, and the plot actually manages to be a satisfying story. As long as you’re not getting the repetition problems mentioned earlier, it’s actually fun to talk to the NPCs, both in the villages and in your lair. The NPCs acting as player-nudgers also manage to do this largely without being annoying, which is a really nice change of pace, as is the fact that the game tells a story without becoming a movie that has occasional playable bits.

The game is moderately open-ended. There’s a corruption-level system which means you basically have a choice between being something along the lines of Machiavelli’s Prince and being a more traditional totally evil bastard. The consequences of your behavior are mostly in the titles you get, the treasures you get, and what form your spells take; go evil and you’ll get more riches but fewer helpful favors from NPCs, and your spells will trade off very high damage for some blood out of your own hide. Go good, and the opposite will be your reward. So far as I can tell, the game is pretty balanced; this is nice, as in most games of this sort I’ve tried, no matter what the programmers intended there’s usually one choice that’s objectively better than the other. (Case in point, Black and White, where all being good really netted you was extremely passive-aggressive worshippers.) You also get a choice in evil mistresses at one point in the game; one will encourage you to be- not exactly good, but pragmatic- and the other will encourage you to be as bad as possible. There’s also more than one way to accomplish most of your goals, ranging from the right spell for the right occasion to huge hordes to strategic use of a small horde to just powering up all your gear and bulling through on muscle. A word of caution, however: learn to use them all, because that last option helps but isn’t a workable solution in and of itself to the end-game, which is a really shitty time to have to pick up Intermediate Minion Management.

The best part of the game is the minions. They’re flexible (with a few slightly rougher spots, the controls on your horde are godly), endearing, and psychopathic. Sweep them around and they’ll smash whatever can be smashed, kill any non-friendlies in their path, collect items for you, and move obstacles. They come in four different flavors, each with specialties- basic smashy-smashy, ranged attacking, stealth attacks, and healing, and learning to use each kind well takes practice and experimentation but is well worth it. Best of all, they’re self-equipping; as they move over the landscape they’ll loot all the weapons and armor they can, drop worse items for better ones, and sometimes customize their stuff in amusing ways. This gives the minions some individuality; you can tell your “veterans” and when you spawned them by the kind of gear they wind up wearing. Eventually they’ll find better stuff and the horde will get more uniform in appearance, but for a long time it’s almost like having teeny little regiments. Plus, I dare you to resist their enthusiasm for killing sheep.

All in all, highly recommended. Perhaps not a reason to buy the 360 in and of itself, but it’s certainly a worthy entry to the library.