Sunday, March 27, 2016

Avarice: Chapter Nine

Abby’s first memory of her brother Emery was unremarkable. She remembered being three or four years old and walking hand in hand with him up a huge hill of dirt. At least, in the memory it seemed huge, as all things do when you’re just beginning to approach three feet tall.

She didn’t recall any words, nor did she remember why they were climbing the hill. She remembered the weight of the thick mud gathering thick on her feet. She remembered looking up to Emery as he pulled her upwards.

The day passed with the agonizing trepidation of a rainless summer.

The four of them spent the day in the kitchen and dining room, never straying far from the windows, always hoping that someone would see the smoke billowing into the sky and come help them. The hours went by and the fire slowly dwindled to ashes. They watched the tree line like hawks, but never saw any activity.

“Can you think of anything that might have made them think you had some gold?” Osman asked for what must have been the 10th time, stressing the word ‘anything’ like it might force a memory out of Vera like a nail pulled from a plank. “Did you begin to dress flashy? Were you suddenly eating well?”

Marietta glared daggers at him. “You know as well as I do that nobody is eating well these days. We’ve had armies from both sides marching through here for years, taking anything worth eating.“ She turned to Vera “Don’t listen to him, you’re family. I just wish you would have accepted our offer to come live here when Phillip joined up.”

“You’ve got a family to look after” Vera shrugged. “I didn’t want to get in the way.”

Something about this didn’t ring true to Abby. This house was huge. You’d have to try pretty hard to get in anyone’s way.

“That’s nonsense and you know it” Marietta responded icily. “We’ve got an entire half of the house waiting to be used.”

Vera’s voice rose. “If it’s just waiting to be used, why don’t you use it? I know what happened there. I know why you won’t step through that door.”

What happened there? What does she mean? Abby’s mind raced. Her first memory of Vera was many years ago. Abby was about 5 years old. She’d been running around the house with Emery, and nearly crashed into her mother and Vera as they embraced at the foot of the stairs. Abby remembered this scene vividly; it was the first time she’d see her mother cry. She remembered standing by the stairs, watching her mother and Vera walk up the stairs weeping.

Up the stairs and through the door to the West. Toward the bedroom.

Gears turned in Abby’s mind. She stretched inwardly, searching for the thread that tied everything together, and it clicked: Abby remembered her sister.

Glimpses came back, not in a flood, but like tears falling on paper. She remembered climbing the hill, holding onto Emery with one hand, and holding on to someone else’s with the other. She remembered the laughter of a two year old girl.

She remembered tickle fights. She remembered doing her best to help her mother care for a toddler, despite still being one herself. She remembered why that bedroom was untouched after all these years. She remembered the pain that her mother held deep inside, hiding it from Abby but unable to face it herself.

Abby began to cry.

“Go.” Marietta ordered Vera. “I don’t care where, just go”. Vera shrugged and walked out of the room.  

Darkness fell, and Osman insisted that they all sleep together on the floor of the kitchen. “I’ll take the first watch” he said.

Abby laid down and drifted into a fitful sleep. She awoke sometime later, and overheard Vera speaking to her father. “It’s been a few hours, and I can’t sleep anyway. I’ll watch for a while.” Osman nodded and laid down on the floor.

When Abby awoke next, the house was dead silent. She looked around, but could see no sign of her aunt in the moonlight streaming in through the windows. If not for the overwhelming silence, she never would have heard the slight creak of a footfall somewhere to the west.

Moving as quietly as she could, Abby arose and tiptoed through the kitchen into the main entrance hall. One of the double doors was cracked open. The next creak came from upstairs. “Vera?” Abby said softly. There was no answer. She tiptoed up the stairs, and began to walk down the hallway leading back toward the bedrooms where she’d scavenged for wood.

Suddenly a pair of hands reached out and pulled her into a bedroom. She tried scream, but the hand over her mouth muffled the sound so it was no louder than a cough. She heard the sound of someone striking a match, and watched as the match was brought to light the wick of a lantern. Light filled the room, and she found herself face to face with her brother Emery.

Chapter 10 -->
Copyright 2016 Tyler Smith

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Avarice: Chapter Eight

Update: The KickStarter for The Siege of Abigail Beson (Previously titled 'Avarice) is live!

<-- Chapter One
<-- Chapter Seven

Once the sun was up, Abby and Osman walked the perimeter of the house, looking for evidence of the intruder’s entry and hurried escape. They started in the back, walking past the dark windows where they’d boarded up the kitchen.

The shrubs were overgrown, so Osman had to pull them aside to inspect each window. Slowly they walked the circumference of the house. Abby watched for signs of their assailants while Osman inspected each window. None were broken.

“Isn’t this door locked?” Abby asked, looking quizzically at her father. They’d checked all of the windows and found nothing, which left them standing before the lone door on the western wall.

“To be honest, I can’t remember” Osman looked guilty. “It’s been so long since we did anything over here…”

Abby nodded, then grabbed the handle. To her surprise, the door opened easily. Abby took two steps in, then turned to look at her father.

“Looks like they came in this way” she said.

Her father frowned, then pointed to the floor at Abby’s feet. Her first step had left a clear footprint in the thick layer of dust that covered the floor. It was the only print on the floor. There was no way anyone else had come through this door in a long time.

“Could they have gotten in the front door?” Abby asked “I suppose, but it’s been locked for ages” her father replied. “At least, I think it’s been locked, though I thought the same thing about this door…”

The front door was actually a double door. It was in the middle of the northern side of the house. It had a single keyhole, and as far as Abby could tell it was still locked. She pushed and pulled on the handle, but couldn’t budge it. Osman produced a large iron skeleton key.

“This key’s a bit of a joke” he commented. “You could open this lock with any skeleton key, or even a tough piece of wood” He turned the key, resulting in an audible click. He stepped back.

Abby turned the handle and leaned into the door. It still didn’t budge.

“Getting it to open is a bit tougher” Osman grabbed a handle from each door, one in each hand. He lifted with his left hand and pushed down with the right. He then turned both handles downward, and the doors opened.

Abby shifted her weight back to her heels, anxious to follow her father and to see whether there was any evidence to be found.

Her mother’s scream cut short any further discussion. They sprinted back to the kitchen to find Vera and Marietta standing together.

“They took Glad!” Vera exclaimed. “I don’t understand it” Marietta started “He went out to start our signal fire, and - “ Vera interjected “I was keeping watch out the window while your mother got some dinner ready. Glad was just lighting the fire when suddenly two of them rushed him from the woods. I fired a couple shots, but it didn’t stop them from dragging him off.”

“What are we going to do” cried Abby’s mom. “They’re just going to keep picking us off one by one!”

“What kind of crooks are these?” Asked Osman “Even for a bar of gold, this is a lot of time and manpower to put into a stakeout.”

“I wish I knew” sighed Vera. “I told them I didn’t know anything about the gold, but they wouldn’t take no for an answer. All I know is we’ve really gotta stick together now. Stick together and hope that someone sees the signal”

Chapter Nine -->

Copyright 2016 Tyler Smith

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

A Day in the Life of a Software Engineer

I've discovered that many people don't really know what I do at work. Lots of people imagine that being a "computer programmer" (I prefer the term Software Engineer) consists of sitting in a dark room typing furiously at a computer.

Basically, Kevin Smith's character from Die Hard.

That's a long way from what I do.  First of all, it's really hard to get anything useful done in a dark basement. Secondly, a single person typing madly at for hours on end does not create useful software. Useful software comes from patient, well rested software developers who get plenty of sunlight.

A Day in the Life of a Real Software Engineer


  • Wake up
  • Feed the dog
  • Put on a tee shirt and jeans
  • Grab my backpack and lunch
  • Drive/bike to work



  • Chat with coworkers about an approach to a problem I'm facing.
  • Keep working on the task.


  • Attend team meeting
    • These generally are about sharing progress ("Here's what I've accomplished, here's where I'm stuck") and clarifying goals.
  • Get a big piece of paper to sketch notes and diagrams related to the task I'm addressing.


  • Get hit by flying rubber band (inter-cubical communication).
  • Go for a walk.
  • Design an icon for a button related to my current task.
  • Each lunch.


  • Discuss the downward spiral of M Night Shyamalan's career.
  • Brainstorm approaches to a tricky problem.


  • Switch to a different task.
  • Discuss status of ongoing office pranks.


  • Get more coffee.
  • Read documentation in an empty conference room (to avoid distractions).


  • Do pull ups.
  • Switch to standing desk to avoid getting too sleepy.


  • Take a quick nap.
  • Update notes on task progress.


  • Drive/bike home

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Personal Finance for High School and College Students

The following is a talk I'd like to give to high school and college age men and women about personal finance:

Yesterday I was talking to a student who asked about what kind of car I drive. I asked if he was planning to buy a car, and if he knew how auto loans work. He said no. This is a problem.

Everybody wants to take your money

Let's put that point out there in bold. Everybody wants your money. That's not to say everybody will steal it (though some people will). It's just to say that everybody wants money, and if you have money to spend, people will try to get you to spend it.

Buying a car is one of many examples, so let's dig into it. 

How Auto Dealers Try to Take Your Money

Auto dealerships know that the easiest way to part you from your money is to talk in terms of "your monthly payment". Given a $15,000 car, a $1,000 upgrade isn't going to make a huge dent in your monthly payment.  For that reason, when they're trying to sell you a fancy stereo or undercoating, they'll just tell you "it's only $20 more per month!"

Don't let them trick you into thinking this way. Imagine that you've already gotten a loan from the bank, and you have $20,000 in your hand. How much of that money do you want to spend? Would you rather walk out of the dealership with an extra $1,000 in your pocket or with chrome exhaust on your car?

The onus is on you to ask "What will this actually cost?" Ask yourself "if I was at an auto parts store, would this be a good price for what they're offering me?" Odds are, they're charging an enormous sum of money and hiding it behind financing.

How Department Stores Try to Take Your Money

The 'sale' has been a feature of department stores for years. In many stores, nearly every item is "marked down" from some arbitrary price. 

This is a trick

Just because a product is marked down does not mean that it's a good deal. It may be a good deal, but looking at the product's "original" price makes for a false comparison. You need to think in terms of the true value of the product.  That is, what would you actually pay for it. 

Here's an extreme example to drive this point home. I go to a store for some socks, and I see a pair of socks marked down from $150 to $50. This is NOT a $100 savings. Why? Because $150 is an unrealistic valuation for socks. 

I need to think in terms of "What would I actually pay for socks?" In this case, I'd probably pay $10 for socks, which means the "sale" price is $40 too high. 

Sunday, March 13, 2016

My Review Methodology

Update: I've moved all music review content to my new blog:

Assigning a numeric value to the 'goodness' of something is a deceptively difficult task, yet many of us base decisions on values arbitrarily assigned by strangers. Whether we're deciding what movie to watch or what to buy on Amazon, we're strongly influenced by how many stars, thumbs up, or points a product was given.

Since I've decided to review things, I think it's important to lay out my methodology for assigning 'goodness' values.

Some assumptions:

1. Most things are close to average. 
No matter what we're discussing, whether it's cargo jets or bowler hats, the majority of the offerings available are close to average as long as there's a big enough market and diverse supply.

2.  Ratings are almost always subjective.
Unless you're doing a quantifiable test for battery life, durability, or other measurable factors, a rating for a product will depend on your personality, preferences, and experiences. My ratings will be primarily subjective. When I have objective numeric data, I will provide it as well.

How I'll do reviews:

a. I'll consider the product in the context of its rolling genre.
The concept of a 'genre' suffers from instability - genres are constantly evolving and changing. In order to ensure a large sample set, I'll evaluate products in the context of the genre to which they would have belonged 10-20 years ago. For example: Heavy metal, speed metal, nu-metal, power-metal, etc will all be evaluated in the context of 'metal'.

b. I will aim for a normal distribution of ratings within the context of each rolling genre.
This means I'll have many more average reviews than outstanding reviews, but items from different genres won't be competing with each other.

From wikipedia

That means if I were to review everything available in a given genre, most of my reviews would be between 4/10 and 6/10, with 1/10 and 10/10 being extremely rare. 

c. I won't actually have time to review everything in a genre in long form.
I am going to be selective in what I take time to review long form. While I'm aiming for normal distribution of notional ratings, I won't actually write fifty times more average reviews than excellent reviews (because that would be boring). 

I am aiming to provide fifty times more average reviews than excellent reviews, but I will only write long form reviews of products I find particularly interesting. For the others, I'll just provide a single rating value.

Why I'm doing it this way:

I want a number I assign to a product to have meaning. When I look at a review, I typically look at the numeric value before looking at the text. I want anyone reading my blog to get as much information as possible from this value. If I gave every album a 9 or a 10, that number loses much of its meaning.  


I won't be providing numeric reviews for things created by people I know personally, because that feels weird.

Copyright 2016 Tyler Smith

Avarice: Chapter Seven

“Mom” Abby called, “They’re coming”.

Abby flew down the stairs and nearly crashed into her father as she rounded the corner toward the kitchen.

“Get back up there, we need to know where they’re coming from” Stay as low as you can. “Glad, you watch north and east, I’ll watch south and west.”

Abby, help Glad keep watch. Here. He handed her a hoe they’d found in the basement. Abby followed Glad to the corner of the living room next to a window. Glad slid the window open a crack and poked the barrel of his musket through the gap.

“Marietta and Vera, you guys call if you see anybody approaching.”

Abby knelt next to Glad. Together they stared out the gaps where the window wasn’t boarded up. She hardly dared to breath. Her shoulder touched Glad’s, but the closeness which would otherwise have felt awkward couldn’t have been farther from her mind.

There was motion near the tree line.

“Do you see him” Abby whispered. “Yes, but he’s too far out for a shot. Don’t let him out of sight.”

Abby’s knee began to ache. Kneeling on the wooden floor hurt, but she didn’t dare move.

Refusing to blink, Abby stared the the moving speck of darkness as it slowly grew. She was startled at how rapidly her eyes seemed to get dry, at how fast they began to lose focus on the her target.

Finally her eyelids collapsed like an exhausted runner. She opened her eyes again, but the little speck was lost. Frantic, she searched the tree line for any indication of motion.


A shot rang out in the distance. Then another.


Her father’s retort echoed in her ears. He was on the other side of the house, but the noise was colossal. The next few moments unfolded like an orchestral crescendo: First, a flash of light below the tree line, then a bang, then a crash as the window above her head shattered, then a roar as Glad’s gun fired in response.

Her dive away from the falling glass felt like an eternity. She watched each fragment as it followed its path to the floor. She watched her hands as they flew up unbidden to protect her face. Then she clenched her eyes shut.

Those two seconds felt like the longest of her life, which made the next ten minutes feel like it took forever. Osman held his finger up to his lips to call for silence. Abby’s right ear rang. Together, they watched and listened for any indication of their attackers. Her heart beat loudly in her ears.

Abby struggled not to cough. The blocked windows kept air from flowing, so the smoke from the musket lingered.

In the distance, she heard men yelling. She couldn’t make out the words; the wind had picked up, and they were far off. The voices got quieter and quieter. She let out a slow sigh of relief.

They were retreating.

Abby and Glad turned and sat together with their backs to the wall, exhaustion setting in as their adrenaline bled off.

Glad turned to her “So why does your brother call you Robin?”

Despite everything around them, Abby couldn’t help but smile. “Jealousy mostly. When we were little I had a way of convincing my parents to side with me any time we had an argument. He says it was because I was the only girl, we both know it’s really just that I’m much smarter than he is”. Glad looked puzzled “That doesn’t really explain the name…”. “It began with our older brother Jackson referring to me as a ‘Robber Baron’ - a title usually given to wealthy and unscrupulous landowners, because Emery was convinced I was bribing our parents to get the best of him. Eventually ‘Robber Baron’ got shortened to just ‘Robin’.”

Night settled on them with an agonizing slowness. Abby tried to keep her mind engaged, but with nothing to do but keep her eyes locked on the tree line, her mind was quick to wander. She would blink, blink again, and then suddenly she’d be diving away from the window again. Over any over she re-lived the roar of the gun, only to open her eyes without even realizing that she’d closed them.

Osman walked slowly around the house, whispering to each person in turn.

“Go up to your room and try to sleep, I’ll keep watching”.

Abby went to her room and laid down, for a time it felt like sleep would never come, but eventually she drifted off.

Then she was diving again. The gun roared, and she awoke, drenched in sweat and breathing heavily. She took several deep breaths, listening to the deafening pounding of her heart in her ears.

As her breathing slowed, the sound of her heart grew quiet. Abby closed her eyes again.

Then she heard the slow creak of a door opening. At first she thought it was just her father, walking through the house… but it was coming from the west. That must have just been the wind. She thought hopefully. “Click”. The sound of a door closing couldn’t be mistaken.

Abby pulled off her covers and tip-toed into the hall. It was a cloudless night, so she could see her path by the light of the moon. She could hear her father walking downstairs, but the noise had come from the second story. Abby wanted to call him for help, but she knew any noise would let the intruder know he’d been heard.

A crash disrupted her thoughts. It sounded like the intruder had tripped and fallen. “Who’s there?” Called Osman from downstairs. “Someone’s in here!” yelled Abby. A cacophony erupted as Osman raced up the stairs and the intruder fled. Osman yanked the door open and charged into the west wing. Abby followed, sprinting from room to room behind her father.

They found themselves totally alone. They stood in silence for nearly 10 minutes, hoping that the intruder would tip his hand and make a move.

They never heard anything. Too alert to go back to sleep, Abby took a seat in the kitchen and watched the sun rise over the trees.

Chapter Eight -->

Copyright 2016 Tyler Smith

Friday, March 11, 2016

Avarice: Chapter Six

Layout of the first floor of the Besons' house (north is up):

Abby dragged the wood into the kitchen, then sat down at the table. Her hands were covered in dust. Her father walked in carrying a hammer and a bucket of nails. He grabbed the boards and walked toward the kitchen window. He held them up, evaluating the best way to attach them to the wall.

As he was looking out the window. Glad popped his head up from the cellar “I found two old muskets, not in the greatest condition, but I think we can clean them.“ “Good.” said Osman. Glad set them on the table.

Abby made several more trips in search of wood and material to burn. At Glad’s suggestion, the two of them worked together to unhinge a few heavy oak doors and prop them up against the windows. It took quite a while to drag them across the huge house, and as the day dragged on Abby’s hands and arms began to ache with the effort.

After her first trip to the study, she had avoided the second floor entirely. As a result, Abby had barely seen Vera or her mother. Neither had she heard them. This was probably a good thing, since any alert from them would likely mean danger was incoming.

Abby and Glad dragged the last door they could find in the west wing into the kitchen and propped it up against a window. With a dull thud, the door fell against the wall and the light raced from the room, as if a lone lamp had been extinguished.

“Abby,”said Osman “Can you try to find me some more light”? Abby hadn’t noticed, but the sun was rapidly going down. “Sure” She replied. She started to head up the stairs toward her room, thinking she’d grab the lantern there. As she turned the corner at the top of the stairs, she saw Vera anxiously staring out a window

“See anything yet” asked Abby “Not yet” said Vera.

Abby sighed and looked out the window. The sun was almost down. In the fading light, at the edge of the tree line, she saw a slight bit of movement. Not sure what it was, she looked closer. It looked like there was a man pacing between trees. “Do you see that?” asked Abby. Vera just stared. Abby turned to ask the question again. Vera grabbed her shoulder and squeezed. Abby knew she saw too. “Let’s get downstairs” said Abby.

Chapter Seven --> Copyright 2016 Tyler Smith

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Avarice: Chapter Five

“Let’s find all the furniture we can and stack it in front of the doors and windows.
We’ve got a couple of guns, let’s get them cleaned and ready to go. We’ll get everybody away from the windows, get all of our food supplies ready… that’s about all we can do.”

“Marie”, he said, turning his head. “I want you to go over to the western wing and grab spare boards, chairs, and anything else you can find. Anything long enough we’ll use to board windows, anything smaller we can use for the fire.

“Glad, you to go the basement. I want to you find any axes, shovels and anything else we could use as weapons.”

He turned to Abby and Vera. “You two keep watch. Vera you look west and south, Abby north and east. You see any light or anybody coming you call us and come downstairs.”

As he spoke, his voice grew firmer. Giving orders had imbued some strength in him. He stopped shifting his weight between his feet.

“We have high ground, and a clear view of the tree line. If we’re lucky, they’ll be worried that we’re more heavily armed than we are.” He breathed deep and appeared to consider saying something reassuring, but just grunted.

Abby and Vera started toward the stairs. Mariette didn’t move. Abby stopped. Her mother and father met eyes.

“Actually - Abby, you go to the west wing. Mariette watch north and east”.

Abby didn’t like going to the west wing. She avoided it at all costs. Occasionally they’d get a bird or squirrel trapped over there. They’d ask her to go over there and shoo it out so it wouldn’t get into the good half of the house.

Mariette left the kitchen before Abby had a chance to protest.

The main door to the western wing was on the first floor. There was another door on the second floor, but it had been locked as long as Abby could remember, and the key was lost.

She went through the door. For a moment she stood in the threshold, holding the door open. Pale light streamed through the stained and dusty windows. There were cobwebs everywhere.  It was a warm day, but staring into the abandoned space made Abby feel cold.

The door slammed behind her and she jumped. She could no longer hear the voices of her family. She strained to hear their footsteps tapping elsewhere in the house, reminding her that she wasn’t alone.

The floorboards creaked as Abby stepped forward into the hall. There wasn’t much of value in here: all of the books, furniture, and toys had long since been moved to the eastern wing. The only items that remained were a couple broken chairs and a stool. Abby grabbed them and dragged them back through the doorway.

She walked further into the western wing and climbed up the stairs. She didn’t go up here very often at all. There were two more bedrooms and an old study. She went in the study first. There were some shelves mounted on the wall, and a single bookshelf standing on the floor. There were a few books on the shelf, probably from her brothers’ school work. She pulled the shelves off the wall, figuring that the broads would be good for covering windows. She kicked the standing shelf apart. It was dusty, but you could tell it was made of oak. It took a few kicks but she got the boards separated. She took them into the hallway.

The first bedroom was almost entirely empty. There was an old broken lamp sitting in a corner and a dirty rug on the floor. Not worth grabbing, even for the fire.

She walked into the second bedroom. She thought she’d been everywhere in the west wing, but she must have never bothered to go into this room. The bed was still made, there were lamps on either side of it. In front of the bed was a rocking chair, in front of them both was a large red and green checkered rug. There was a bookshelf by the wall, still full of books. A small rocking horse sat near the bed.

Abby closed the door and took the wood from the study back downstairs.

Chapter Six -->
Copyright 2016 Tyler Smith