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August 28, 2008

Handy Some More

As I mentioned in a previous post, I put together and needed to figure out how to install a bathroom cabinet. Well, I happened to have two large bolts left over from a previous project, so I salvaged them. I bought a stud finder (and, yes, it got a hit on me almost immediately!) and found myself the stud that happens to be almost centered above the toilet (not quite, but close enough I think). I then did some quick measurements, drilled some holes, and used my largest ratchet to drive the bolts home into the solid wood stud.

I doubt it will be going anywhere any time soon. That being said, as with all things attached to the wall, we will want to refrain from overloading it.

Here's the finished product on the wall.

As you can see, we bought hardware that matches the remaining bathroom fixtures. I had to drill for those, and followed the rough guideline of all the other cabinets in the bathroom and house in locating them on the doors. Seems to have worked pretty well.

It turned out pretty well and pretty level for a one-man job. I'm pleased. Now we can move some stuff into it and reorganize the bathroom a bit.

August 26, 2008

Being Handy

I've been allowed to be more handy since moving in with my wife. One of the things I disliked about apartment dwelling was that I didn't feel like I could do much; the apartment wasn't mine and any changes I made would have to be undone before I moved out.

At the house, however, M needs a few things done that she just can't do. I'm not certain I always can, either, but I am willing to risk it and dive in and give it a shot. Other things I am capable of, if very, very rusty from long-term apartment living.

For example, I am nearing completion on a 7 foot tall, 30 inch wide, 9-shelf DVD/CD shelf unit that will go in our front room (more on this in a separate post to come). With the help of our good friend Stew, I installed a new satellite dish to the side of the house. I've put together and need to figure out how to mount a bathroom cabinet. Switched out a shower head for a different shower head. Am working on a better solution to our screen door staying closed issue. Was part of the crew that helped rewire and put in a new networking solution (my part was small, but I did help on more than one occasion). I've cut kindling for our fireplace for the winter.

I still have more to do on my honey-do list, as well as we bought me a new desk to use which I need to put together and make work/fit in the room.

It has been fun, interesting, and a little frustrating doing so much. Fun in that I get to do these tasks again. Interesting because I get to figure out how to do them. Frustrating because I know I had the experience and the ability to do many of these tasks at one time, but I seem to have forgotten or lost those skills over the years since I was doing stuff like this regularly.

Sparkling Lemonade

A long while back, mom introduced me to a "new thing" she had discovered-- sparkling lemonade. This is, in essence, carbonated water mixed with yellow lemonade. Sort of like 7-Up, but with more of a lemonade flavor to it. Anyway, I loved it. It was incredibly refreshing and thirst quenching.

However, I was only able to get it for a couple of years before the stores around me just stopped selling it. I put in requests at the stores I frequented but, as usual, heard nothing back and the product didn't reappear.

While M and I were shopping after church a week or more ago I happened to see Sparkling Lemonade for sale as we were checking out. Picked some up and it was every bit as good, refreshing, and tasty as I remembered. M has since bought me a few more and I enjoy it immensely when I want something to actually quench my thirst (most sodas don't really quench my thirst no matter how tasty they might be going down).

August 25, 2008

A Small, Dumb Little Thing

We bought a cabinet for over the toilet to help with our bathroom overcrowding issues. It is a nice cabinet, white, and we got hardware to make it even better match the existing cabinets. I put it together today. It looks good.

However, the doors did not come pre-drilled to accept the hardware that comes with it, let alone our hardware. So I'll have to drill holes for that. And it doesn't come pre-drilled or with any hardware whatsoever to mount the damn thing to the wall. Which I find even odder than the doors not having holes for the hardware.

Luckily, there is a stud almost centered above the toilet. I'm going to get some good-sized wood screws, drill some holes, and mount it to the stud. That should be more than plenty to hold it up safely.


DirecTV provides a good product. However, M and I have found that their people are taught to lie, manipulate, and obfuscate the truth in a variety of ways.

Lie 1: When I was in SoCal, I both called the DirecTV support line and spoke with a person there as well as speaking at length to the rep at the store I went to about what M and I would need in order to have the "local stations" (i.e., the main networks as a local feed) as well as the appropriate DirecTV feeds of the "cable" channels and other items. I was told by both representatives that I did not have to install the system now, or activate it, that it would be no problem to do it once I was at my location and that I would have both the local feeds and the standard package with no difficulties.

Truth: Turns out, that was true-- only if I immediately set up my DirecTV receiver and card in SoCal, so that, when I moved back east, we would be "grandfathered" in and continue to get the local feeds. You see, DirecTV was in the process of switching local feeds to a new satellite. Everyone who was already getting the local feeds prior to the new satellite being turned on would continue to get them until they upgraded their hardware (then they would have to switch to the new satellite), but anyone who did not have them would have to go through the new satellite -- which is an HD satellite.

Lie 2: We were told that our existing setup, an older model satellite dish and a standard receiver, was fine for receiving local feeds and we were repeatedly assured it was "okay."

Truth: Since the local feeds in this area are only sent via the HD satellite for new subscribers, regardless of whether you are paying for HD channels, a non-LNB 5 dish cannot get and decrypt the channels and a standard, non-HD receiver does not even give you the option of "looking for" the two HD satellites and testing signal strength.

Lie 3: On what became a very rancorous phone conversation with a DirecTV representative while trying to get this all set up, the representative claimed to us that our dish and receiver somehow "talks" to the satellite. This was the most out-and-out lie, as the communication is one way. As my friend Stew said, "You would need a transceiver the size of your garage to allow your dish to send a signal back." I told her that was a lie and that communication was one way, and she insisted. I asked to speak with her manager and she said okay, only to then not transfer us to the manager.

Truth: The system that DirecTV (and any other satellite TV system) uses is unidirectional-- the beam goes from the satellite to the dish and that is it. Your receiver or dish has absolutely no way of communicating with the satellite. What actually happens is that, if and when you plug your phone line into the receiver, the receiver communicates with DirecTV through that connection. Even then, the communication is minimal.

Lie 4: We called back and I verified with a new representative that the only reason we were not getting the local feeds that we were paying for was because of our old dish. The local feeds are beamed using mpeg-4, which the older dish could not read, receive, or send to our receiver. I asked a number of times and in a number of different ways whether our standard receiver was going to be a problem, or if it was just the dish, and was assured repeatedly that it was only a matter of the dish itself.

Truth: It is not simply a matter of the dish. While the old dish could not receive the mpeg-4 format, and the new dish can, we still do not have our local feeds. See Lie 6 for more.

Lie 5: I asked for our free upgrade dish (wrangled from the previous conversation) to be sent to our PO Box so we could install it and was immediately told that DirecTV cannot send this to us without sending an agent to install it. I explained that we didn't want installation, we didn't want one of their agents coming to our property, and that all we needed was the dish so we could, according to her, start receiving our local feeds. I told her I would take full responsibility for the installation and that she could mark in our file that I did and that I would pay for services at any time if it was deemed necessary (I failed to install it correctly). She absolutely would not bend (a common trait to all DirecTV representatives-- they have not been taught that the customer is always right), so we canceled the local feeds for now and ordered a satellite dish from a separate vendor (something else she told me I absolutely could not do-- yeah, right, ever heard of eBay?).

Truth: The company can and, in certain circumstances, will send individual components to individuals. They can also refer you to local DirecTV representatives in your areas with whom you can work to get these products. But she didn't offer any of that to me.

Lie 6: As I mentioned above, we were told that it was all a matter of the dish as to why we were not getting or seeing our local channels. M picked up the dish we bought from a third-party vendor and activated the local feeds again, and then I got busy figuring out how to install it. Once installed, we went to the three different sets of channels our guide showed us for various local affiliate network stations-- and we got "Channel not purchased" or other error messages on every set of them.

Truth: M found online on (through much searching) that only an HD receiver can be used to get these feeds. Why didn't this DirecTV representative have this same information available to her? Why was it so hard to find/discover this little bit of trivia?

In the end, this huge hassle is my fault for having paid attention to and believed the two DirecTV representatives who told me I did not have to set up the service immediately. Had I done so in SoCal and then told them of my move, they could have grandfathered us into the system when the satellite switch occurred and we would, like M's dad, be getting our local feeds via the standard receiver and standard satellite dish we have. Because I didn't, and because DirecTV has repeatedly and consistently lied to us every step of the way, we are now in a situation where we need to buy an HD receiver, get that set up, and then set up our new dish again to point at the HD satellites in order to get the local feeds. So, basically, I spent $70 on a standard receiver that was made useless about a month and a half after buying it and we are plunking a lot more money into it to get the feeds and channels we want. At this point, if there were other options available, I would likely be going with them. But we are somewhat locked into DirecTV so have to muddle through.

The good thing is that, with Stew's help, we got the new dish installed onto the house and aligned with the existing satellite without all that much difficulty. Our picture is a bit clearer and brighter than before, so we have not lost functionality. However, we need to plunk down another $100 or so to get the HD receiver, and then call DirecTV back and get them to cancel the existing standard receiver and enable the new HD receiver, that will make everything, hopefully, work the way we want it to. And then get all our current electronics (TiVo, VCR, Tuner, etc.) all talking to each other again.

August 18, 2008

One Last Hurdle Leaped

I got a letter from Service New Brunswick/Canada stating that I am now approved for Medicare services in Canada and providing me with the appropriate many-digit number to use. Service starts September 1. It is valid until 2010.

One more thing down. I'm practically a Canadian now.

Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition

This weekend I got together for the first time with my new DnD group in Canada. Not all the members could make it, but four of did. We didn't do an "official" game, as I'm new to the group, the aforementioned couple of people who couldn't attend, and this was my first foray into using the new 4th Edition (4ed) rules published this year by Wizards of the Coast. Until now, I'll I had done was read through the books, create a few characters, and do some mock battles on my own.

While talking about it afterward, I brought up and then Dave clarified it by saying that our knowledge of the 3.5 ruleset actually is a hinderance to learning 4ed. For example, during a combat one of the player characters (PCs) knock one of the antagonists down. It took us a few minutes of discussion and looking up the various rules about Prone and Standing up from Prone to determine what, if anything should happen when the villain tried to stand up. In 3.5, you see, standing up from prone was a move action that provoked an "attack of opportunity." I assumed, as the erstwhile game master (GM; alternately dungeon master or "DM") of the session, that would be true still. However, we could find no rule indicating such in 4ed. Someone coming in fresh would have just taking it on faith (i.e., "I didn't see anything that said anything bad happens doing this, so he stands up") while we were/I was stuck having to question it because our/my previous knowledge interfered (i.e., "This used to cause an attack to trigger, does it still in this edition?").

One nice aspect of the rule book is that, very early on, it tells you that the player's handbook (PHB) and dungeon master's guide (DMG) provide the general rules for the game environment. It then explains that any specific rule trumps the generic. So, for example, the rule book might say that you can only attack one time in a round. But your character may have a specific ability that says it can be allow you to attack twice in a round. The specific exploit you have overrules the general rule and yours wins. The rules are also primarily based on allowing rather than restricting. It actually has a section where it extols the value of a GM saying yes to the players, allowing them to try things even if they seem kooky or dangerous, assigning bonuses and penalties as seems appropriate, and letting the dice and the player's actions determining the outcome. As this is how I like to GM, seeing it in print is a welcome sight. The books also provide a decent amount of examples and sample numbers (straight numbers and suggested bonuses and penalties) to aid a GM in determining what those target numbers can be.

Creating characters is slightly easier in some regards, as you don't have to pick as many individual feats, skills, etc. for your character and many things have been "rolled up" for easier game use. However, although the magical "talents" (called exploits) that each class receives and uses regularly comprise a smaller list per level, the ramification of taking one over another is far-reaching. So you want to spend time looking for coordinated abilities and synergies with attributes, skills, and other powers.

For example, I chose to create a Warlord (one of the new classes introduced in 4ed). This class is a "Leader," meaning that his skills are primarily based around helping the party in various ways (healing, buffs, tactics, etc.). There are two paths that you can choose to follow; Inspirational (charisma based) or Tactical (intelligence based). Or, of course, you can choose not to pick one and instead just follow your gut. However, if you choose one of those paths, certain of the exploits that you receive have special bonuses as a synergy with the path. So it is in your best interest to take those exploits that provide a synergy as, even on a miss or failure, you might still get an advantage (for example, one skill provides that a Warlord can give his entire party a 1+INT modifer bonus to attack rolls against his target if he hits. If he has the appropriate synergy with Tactics, even on a miss, the party all receives a straight +1 to attack rolls vs the target. So the chance for a large bonus on a hit, or a small bonus on a miss. Without that synergy, on a miss you get nothing.)

One nice feature of 4ed is that they built "respecification" (or respec) right into leveling. In an overly simplistic explanation, at every level you can trade one exploit out for another if you find it isn't working as you hoped/wanted. There are limits and rules on this, but it is very helpful so that, if you take on exploit that you thought would be "killer" and you find you have hardly used it, you can trade out for another and hopefully find the right fit for you play style and the party you are in.

Much has been said in blogs and chat boards about the four character "Roles;" defender, controller, striker, and leader. Some argue that these make the game "more like a computer game." I find this a little humorous as these roles have always existed, all the way back to 1ed-- they just weren't defined and written into the rules. In 1st, 2nd/Advanced, 3.0/3.5, etc., the warrior classes defended the rest of the party from damage by being "meat shields." The rangers, thieves, monks, and others primarily used their high movement, lower defense, and larger damage quotient to strike at specific enemies while hiding behind the warriors to keep from being killed. Classes with high charisma and a variety of support abilities were leaders by buffing the party, healing, and helping out wherever needed. And those with good crowd-control abilities, group debuffing abilities were primarily used to control the villains against which the characters fought. And problems occurred when you were in a group where the, say, Cleric refused to cast healing spells (or didn't even memorize any!), the Fighter used light armor, no shield, and had really bad hit points, etc. I'm not saying that you, as a player, couldn't choose to go against the grain and still be successful in your chosen field. I am saying that, if you are the Cleric in a party with no other person with the ability to heal or provide buffs, and you choose never to use those spells/abilities, they better know it going in so they have a plan to work around this "hole" in the party's skill set.

Having these roles better defined allows you to more fully embrace what you character is supposed to be doing during (and out of!) combat and helps new people to the game better understand how the pieces fit together. In the party we made up yesterday, we had my Warlord (Leader), a Cleric (Leader), a Wizard (Controller), and a Ranger (Striker). So we went in knowing we did not have a true "defender" class to keep the attention of the enemies, but we had two with the ability to heal, the warlord was a decent, medium-armored fighter as his secondary skill set, and we worked around that absence by playing to the strengths of the party-- controlling the crowd to get easy damage, lots of healing to make sure everyone stays standing, tactical advantages and shifting, and high damage output to take out the enemies quickly.

The exploits are pretty fun. You don't get many to start (two "at-will" (use every round, all the time), one "encounter" (can only use once per encounter maximum), and one "daily" (can only use once per day or after a six-hour rest)), but they are designed to be used often and in concert with your other party member's exploits. And as I explained above, there are rules in place to allow you to switch them out whenever you level so you can fine-tune what you do and how you do it.

Creating enemy groups (mobs) to send against the party is a bit easier. As well, the monsters have suggested tactics and their exploits are designed to be used together as a party against the PCs. So, for example, if you have a party of 4 first level characters, you want to generally have 400 xp worth of enemies (or enemies and traps) to send against them. This may be, say, 8 goblin minions worth 25 xp each, it may be 6 goblin minions and one goblin warrior, it may be 4 goblin strikers, or you may find one creature worth 400 xp by itself that would be a challenge. As each mob has its own exploits and tactics, it is easy to scan them over and then have them fight effectively; minions want to gang up on one character and use their exploits to give each other advantages. A goblin warrior wants to strike out at the "toughest" PC and take him out as quickly as he can. A goblin skirmisher wants to stay back, use his distance weapons primarily and not engage in melee. Zombies have the tactic of wanting to gang up on one character so that one attacks and the other uses a grab exploit to keep the attacked PC from fleeing. Once a PC (or mob) is grabbed, additional rules come into effect which make it easier to strike the character, providing bonuses and penalties in various ways.

One of the biggest difference I felt after reading the books and that I can see from my limited first playing experience, is that 4ed only defines the basics of the world. They provide the foundation on which you play the game, and nothing more. I always felt in previous editions but 3.0/3.5 especially, that WotC defined everything so concretely that you basically knew everything you could do and couldn't do. If it wasn't in the rules, you couldn't do it. Even people who normally wouldn't go down this path had to become "rules lawyers" in order to get something slightly out of the ordinary done. And this included, to a large extent, even how you role-played your character. Classes, alignments, races, and such were pretty set in stone and could cause issues for the entire party or the players if people strayed from the rote path.

In 4ed, I feel a real "can-do" attitude in the rules. How you role play is primarily left up to you and the GM to decide; there are limited rules and a few suggestions, but nothing so concrete that you can't come up with a reasonable explanation for variation. It is all about allowing the players to try what they want and giving the GM all the power to allow it, learn from it, and keep the game fun and fresh.

The group plans to get together again soon and create some slightly higher level characters and do another impromptu session of just "in location X, fighting monster Y" to continue to see how the rules work and get our comfort level set with 4ed. And then we'll make an official game, role up real characters, and start an ongoing campaign or two. Can't wait!

August 11, 2008

Someone Who Gets It

With all the Favre news lately, reading this quote in Peter King's MMQB article put a smile on my face:

"I don't have hard feelings. The great thing about being a fan is you can have an opinion and you can express your opinion. I'm glad we live in a country where we're allowed to express our opinion and say what we feel is on our mind. A lot of people don't have that freedom and don't have that opportunity. I don't have any regrets. I don't have hard feelings toward anyone. It's a game. Sometimes we forget that, but it's a game. It's a game a lot of us played as kids and enjoyed so much that sometimes the business side of the game ruins that. I've always tried to keep that first and foremost.''
--Classy former Jet quarterback Chad Pennington, after being fired so the Jets could bring in Favre to be their quarterback this year

I like Pennington. He's a talented QB who happens to have injury issues. When he can stay on the field, and when he has a front line that can protect him, he is a quality QB who can get the job done. This quote also shows that he understand that what he does for a living is a blessing, and not one that many people get. Shows that his head is on straight, which seems to be true for far too few of those playing in the NFL (or any professional sport, for that matter). Here's hoping he can do some good for Miami.