Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Our Rolling Vacation

This year, we decided to take a week off and travel across Michigan in an RV.

Actually, that's not entirely true. It was last year that we decided we wanted to take an RV vacation. However, the company that I was working for stopped paying me, so I had to seek greener pastures, and we had to put potentially-expensive vacation plans on hold. This year, the stars were right, and we rented an RV and headed west.

We got to see lakes and swamps and dunes; we got to sleep by the shore and listen to the loons; we got to play pinball and eat ice cream and watch a planet sail across the face of the sun.

Good vacation.


I've been asked what make and model of RV we were driving. I have no idea. Here's a picture:

It's a 25-foot RV with advertising on every available surface. It's not so much a camper as a rolling billboard you can sleep in. It's awfully nice of us to do CruiseAmerica's publicity for them (and sure enough, someone did come up and ask us where we had rented it, and we were able to tell them; we also gave the name of a competitor we had looked over as well, so take that, CruiseAmerica).

Here's a few pictures of the exterior and interior:

You can see that we had a small stove, a kitchen sink, a bathroom sink, a little bathroom and shower, a bed on the main level, a bed over the driver's seats (which we didn't use), a dinette (which theoretically could fold down into another bed), a refrigerator, a little freezer, a microwave, and all sorts of cabinets for stashing stuff. It was a fine size for two people; we were pushing it a bit by adding two dogs. Clearly it's designed to hold even more people, but I can't conceive of it. Mary Lynn and I had to coordinate our movements closely and keep aware of where our limbs were at any given moment to avoid collision or injury. With three or four people? Forget it. It would be a domestic violence incident waiting to happen.

Mary Lynn drove it. She's got prior experience driving a camper; I don't. I get flustered driving my Saturn at times, and I can see out the back of my Saturn. If we ever decide to get our own RV, I'll need to learn, but at least I'll have a good teacher.

What I can tell you for certain is that it's loud. You don't appreciate how much work goes into making a modern sedan drive quietly until you experience a poorly-maintained freeway in a 25-foot RV. It rattled and banged and made casual conversation all but impossible.

Gambit, our cocker spaniel, hated it. When he rides in our cars, he stands up and shivers the whole time; we were hoping that if he rode in a larger vehicle, where he couldn't see as much of the world flying by, that he might be more amenable to the experience. We were wrong. Some combination of the noise and the motion absolutely terrifies him. Fortunately, we had planned for this contingency, and we had made sure that no single leg of our trip was more than a couple of hours in the RV at once.


Cold Brook County Park was a kind of baseline camping area, a facility neither excellent nor abysmal in any respect, and thus useful for providing an experience that other campgrounds could be judged by.

The site we were placed at was in a well-populated area of the park; not full to capacity, but possibly two-thirds full. We were hemmed in by trees on all sides except the entrance, and so there was really nothing much in the way of scenery to look at. We had electrical and water hookups – no sewer, but there was a dump area we could have used while driving out. A building with bathrooms and showers was located just a few sites down.

And, of course, we had a fire pit. This seems to be mandatory at every campsite; there are several basic designs, but what they all come down to is a round hole where you can burn stuff. During the course of our vacation, we did see a few people using their firepits to cook by, but we also saw a few people that were just burning things for the sake of burning them.

It was a bit noisy; there were people walking around and chatting, and there were shouting children and an occasional barking dog. However, everything quieted down in time for park “quiet time” (a concept that I wish was a universal law) and so we had no difficult sleeping …

… except for our dogs, of course. Our dogs are extremely spoiled; one of the ways that we spoil them is that we allow them to sleep at night on the bed with us. We have a king-sized bed at home, so it's normally not an issue. The bed in the back of the RV, however, was only just big enough for Mary Lynn and I, without a square inch to spare for canines. As a result, the dogs were very confused and unhappy all night, and wanted to be up and active very early in the morning indeed. There wasn't a single night on our vacation that the dogs let us sleep past five or six in the morning.


Our one and only tourist stop for the day was Klassic Arcade in Gobles. I wish we had something like this near us; it's practically a museum of classic video and pinball games. You can enter and play all day for just $5, and while you're there, you can enjoy any one of many dozens of flavors of bottled soda pop, chow down on fresh-popped popcorn, or take home a growler of Klassic Arcade root beer. I'd come back every weekend if I could. Highly recommended.

These exterior shots of the arcade aren't very impressive; go to the web site to see the interior in all its flashing glory.

Our destination campground was Gile's Campground in Allegan (I've seen it spelled both "Giles" and "Gile's", so I'm picking one and sticking to it), which is a private campground, and by far the best campground we stayed at. Instead of facing a row of RV's or a dull wall of trees, we had a view of a wide, placid lake. We had water, electricity, and a sewer hookup, which allowed us to dump our tanks at our convenience. The rec hall building was immaculately clean, as were its restrooms and showers. When we were out walking dogs, we had our choice of surroundings: a bright grassy sward paralleling the shining lake, or a broad park normally reserved for tent camping (though it was unoccupied when we were there) or a tree-sheltered lane that provided glimpses of of a quiet swamp.

Here are a couple of photos of the view from our site:

And we had wi-fi. The campground has a nice, fat, secure pipe to the Internet, broadcast reliably through most of the grounds. The rec hall had an ethernet plug-in for those guests who needed real speed, but honestly, the wi-fi was plenty fast. The staff also take the precaution of changing the access password every few days; a wise choice, given how far their antenna was providing signal.

It's amazing just how much you can accomplish with an Internet connection these days. I was able to:
  • Check and respond to e-mail
  • Download the official Java and Python documentation packages, which I needed for a little project I was working on
  • Search for more campgrounds (and I could have made reservations at a KOA)
  • Connect to my Steam account and chat with a friend in Wisconsin (and, if I had so chose, I could have plunked down a few bucks and downloaded a shiny new game)
  • Connect to Mary Lynn's Netflix account (we didn't watch any videos, but her instant queue was right there, waiting for us, and we certainly had enough bandwidth to stream whatever we liked)


This was Monday, and we weren't due at Warren Dunes State Park until Tuesday, so we spent a full day at Gile's, with a brief trip away and back for groceries.

I probably shouldn't let that last bit go at half a sentence. With a 25-foot RV, one does not simply pop into town for groceries. We went into Allegan, a trip that was made complicated by several factors: the fact that we didn't exactly know where the grocery store was; a narrow bridge that indicated a four-ton limit (were we under four tons? All I know is that we crossed the bridge without incident) and a downtown district that was plagued by road construction. We found the grocery store, but getting into and out of the parking lot was a delicate maneuver each way. Clearly, on future RV vacations, better planning and storage of food ahead of time was required.

There was a closer store – just on the other side of the lake, in fact – but it was more of a convenience store that was grafted on to a hardware store and then merged with a hunting/camping shop. They didn't have the fresh produce we had our hearts set on (and thus had to go into town for) but they were able to sell us the special chemicals and toilet paper we needed to keep our RV's blackwater system happy, and they did sell us a Powerball ticket.

The campground was just as charming when we returned. I also want to mention here that we saw quite a few RV's that seemed to be there more or less permanently; they had gardens and patios and lawn ornaments and a variety of other improvements that had clearly taken a great deal of time to set up. Many of these long-term-stayers didn't actually appear to be present; their RV's were there, but the owners were nowhere to be found. One presumes they move their RV's in for the season (or longer) and just leave them there, coming to visit once in a while, on the weekends, perhaps.

Here's a shot of our RV (in the middle) looking quite small indeed between the untenanted juggernauts we were parked next to:


We left the sunlit shores of Gile's and proceeded due west to the edge of the state. Our first stop, at around noon, was at Sherman Dairy, which was a nice (if expensive) neighborhood ice cream parlor. The ice cream was good and came in generous helpings, along with optional innovations such as pretzel cones or chocolate-chip-cookie bowls. I myself had some Red Velvet Delight ice cream, which tasted nothing like red velvet cake, but was good just the same. We sat in the little dining room, listening to some dawn-of-rock-and-roll classics and enjoying our sugar buzz.

The main event was at Warren Dunes State Park. We not only stayed the night there; we watched the transit of Venus there.

About the park first: the campgrounds were mostly unoccupied. In fact, at our site, you absolutely could not see any other campers:

That's us, surrounded by nothing but trees and empty camp sites.

Our nearest neighbors to one side were around a tree-rich bend; to the other side, you could walk quite a ways before sighting another vehicle. We only had electricity – no water, no sewer, no wi-fi – but we had solitude in spades. Apart from that, the grounds were well kept up; the nearby shower/bathroom building was reasonably clean; and if we had needed it, there was a tiny little store near the park entrance where we could have bought some basic food and supplies, though probably at a premium.

And just a short drive away were the dunes themselves. One moment, you might be driving through the park, along an ordinary-looking road, with pretty but unremarkable scenery … then you come around a hill, and you find yourself staring at Lake Michigan, dominating the horizon to your left, and these giant piles of sand towering along your right. It's a striking sight, especially when you come upon it suddenly as you do. It's as if you've been transported to a different planet.

And speaking of a different planet: we had come to the dunes to join the Kalamazoo Astronomical Society for the transit of Venus across the face of the sun. We got there early, when there were only a few dozen folks, and perhaps half a dozen telescopes. As we got closer and closer to the celestial moment, more and more people showed up. The parking lot filled with cars, and a crowd spread across the sand-strewn pavilion. A long row of telescopes and binoculars were aimed heavenward, some attached to complex and expensive arrays of equipment. We satisfied ourselves with the three-dollar pairs of sun-proof eclipse-viewing glasses.

As six o'clock rolled around, it started to seem as if this would be a disappointment. Folks gazing skyward through their dark glasses could see nothing but good old faithful Sol, round and unmarred as usual. As the minutes passed, though, folks began to announce that they could see a nick taken out of the sun's disk, at about the one o'clock position. The serious astrophiles, with their high-powered, USB-guided optics, indicated that the transit had, in fact, begun. And by six-thirty, the fact was unmistakable, even to us folks in the cheap seats. When I looked up through my dark glasses, I could see a small hole in the sun, just as if some cosmic prankster had come up and run a needle through it.

(No photos of the transit. Sorry. We put the dark glasses in front of our digital camera and aimed it at the sun, and just got pictures of a bright spot.)

We retreated to our designated, neighborless site, and spent a quiet evening there; at least as much of it as the dogs were willing to let us enjoy.


This was a decision point for us. It was Wednesday. We wanted to be home on Thursday, so that we could take our time cleaning out the RV before we returned it on Friday. We had initially wanted to spend at least one day at a KOA to see if it was everything that the pile of brochures in our camper said it was. However, there were no KOA's at a convenient halfway-point between us and home. There were two KOA's very close to us on the west edge of Michigan (and very close to each other, these KOA's – was there sufficient tourism to support both of them? Or did the owners have a long-running feud, complete with incidents of sabotage and slander?) but a Wednesday night stay on the west side of Michigan would lead to a four-hour drive home on Thursday. This would have been the longest single-day trip we'd made.

In the end, the appeal of two shorter journeys overruled our curiosity to see just what puts the K in Kampgrounds Of America. On the previous day, we had located and made reservations at Rockey'sCampground, near Albion. Today we reached it, with a stop at a rest area along the way for lunch and to give the dogs some freedom.

I want to start out by saying that there was nothing outright wrong about the place, and I would not warn anyone away. We were able to park the RV, hook up to water and power, walk the dogs and enjoy the breeze. If you were to list the features in a series of bullet points, it would come out looking much like Gile's – but in practice, it constantly came up short of Gile's, in every respect.

There was a lake, but it was smaller, less impressive. There was a main building with an office, a laundry, bathrooms, and even a little store (which Gile's didn't have) except that the laundry was basically a couple of machines under an overhang on the side of the building, and the store was a cramped little cubicle, packed full of camping supplies, basic health, medical, and grooming products, a shelf of battered VHS and DVD movies, a couple of coolers with soft drinks and cold cuts, and a freezer full of ice cream. There was a game room in a separate building, which held a jukebox, a ping pong table, a few arcade games, and possibly another table game – I honestly can't remember for sure, because there was nothing about that room that made me want to linger. It was constructed of bare, cheerless wood, and choked with shadows from end to end. It gave the impression that the people who had housed these games here had never intended to return; that they'd fled as soon as they'd given the cabinets power, leaving the games to fend for themselves in this drab, soulless shed.

And there was wi-fi, but it almost goes without saying at this point that it was unsecured, with only enough signal strength to reach our RV when the wind was right.

But still, it was quiet enough (when they stopped mowing the grass) and it gave us the prospect of a short drive in the morning that would carry us home. And in the evening, walking along the lake shore, watching the the fireflies flare and fade in the twilight, it was downright pleasant.


So are we going to run out and buy an RV?

Not immediately. First of all, the dogs were less than thrilled with the whole setup. Logan endured it stoically, but Gambit, as previously mentioned, was a nervous wreck any time the vehicle's engine turned over, and they both wanted more freedom. So it didn't really solve our "how can we take the dogs on vacation with us?" question.

For a humans-only vacation platform, though, it was just fine. Staying at campgrounds was certainly more scenic than staying at hotels, and it was nice having our own little kitchen and fridge and what not.

Filling the tank wasn't cheap (when refueling an RV, don't look at the total price if you have a weak heart) and I imagine maintenance could get costly. I've never had to bring a vehicle into the shop to have its toilet repaired before.

Renting wasn't cheap, but the RV came to us clean and in good working order, and when we were done, we got to give it back. No giant vehicle looming in front of our house all year taking up parking space.

So if we win the lottery, then sure, we'll pop down to the dealership and score ourselves a nice rolling vacation home. But for now, we'll probably stick with our Saturns.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Our Own 3D Printer

Mary Lynn and I have finished building a Printrbot, which is a 3d printer that comes as an assemble-it-yourself kit. It's a pretty cool contraption, but I want to give a very important warning for anyone who reads this post and thinks it would be cool to build their own Printrbot:

This is not like a piece of Sauder furniture that anyone with an Allen wrench and an hour of two of free time can put together. The Printrbot kit is a nearly-complete set of parts that a sufficiently talented individual with all of the proper tools could probably put together and get working after several days of tinkering and adjusting and calibrating, with several trips to the hardware store in between. The online instructions are woefully incomplete. The kit doesn't come with enough screws or nuts, and some of the plastic and wooden parts are slightly out of true and will need to be modified. Furthermore, achieving a good print requires several modifications to the print bed, which include tape and glass and cleaning solutions and so forth.

So I would advise you to only go in for a Printrbot if you really want to get into a fairly involved and technical hobby. That said, if you're still willing, please take into account the following recommendations:

  • Yes, the Printrbot kits with the laser-cut wooden parts do look nicer, and the Plus version does have a bigger print surface, but you should really, strongly consider going for the basic model. The basic model (from what I can see) has fewer parts and is much better documented.
  • Be sure you know the hours of your local hardware store. You'll be going there frequently for additional screws and nuts, and possibly for new tools.
  • If you really have to have one of the laser-cut kits, be absolutely sure you spend some time finding videos and pictures of the various sub-assemblies. It's very easy to assemble some of the bits backwards, and you may not notice something is wrong until you've gone way too far to back out and reassemble without physically breaking something.
Here's a picture of our Printrbot, fully assembled, in the middle of a print:

What it's doing is laying down a thin layer of melted plastic in a specific calculated shape, upon which it's going to put down another layer, and then another layer, and so forth, until it has built up a complete three-dimensional object.

So far we've printed a wire guide, a six-sided die, and part of my company logo. We have future plans to print parts for Mary Lynn's aquaponics farm and parts for some of our games.

It's amazing to watch this thing in action. You start with a 3d model (possibly something you've whipped up in Blender) which you then convert to a set of pathing instructions. You feed the pathing instructions to the software that drives the print head, get everything to the right temperature, and let it go.

It's actually a kind of musical little device; the motors hum at different pitches based on their speed, and so when the motors are making a series of rapid tight turns, it sounds like it's playing a little tune. So it's functional and artistic!

Just to give you an idea about how complicated this thing was to build, here are some photos of the assembly process, as it occurred in our household:

Above, you can see all of the parts that came in the kit, fresh out of the box. Doesn't look terribly complicated, does it? Looks, in this case, are very deceiving.

Here's the base. We opted for the model with the laser-cut wooden parts, which still smelled faintly of scorched wood.

After adding some hardware to the base, and assembling the print head carriage and bridge, we had this:

Here's a closer picture of the bridge and carriage after we attached them to the base, with the hot end installed:

We actually built the carriage backward, left-for-right. The carriage is the thing that big gear is sitting on top of. Can't tell from the picture that it's wrong, can you? There's a slight difference in one of the two side pieces that is constructed to hold a screw that serves as part of the left-right end stop. We had it in the wrong place. Mary Lynn had to modify the end stop design to compensate.

Oh, and you see that spot on the gear where there's a black curve drawn in permanent marker? We drew that on the gear to help us resolve an issue caused by the fact that the gear wasn't printed quite perfectly. Some of the parts of the kit were actually printed by another Printrbot: basically any of the white plastic parts you see in the pictures. The gear gets threaded onto a big metal bolt; obviously the gear needs to ride perpendicular to the bolt in order to spin correctly. Our gear rested on the both at a very slight angle out of true, causing it to wobble slightly as it rotated. We had to sand down part of it so that it wouldn't rub against the housing, and then spent hours trying to modify the bolt and gear to get the angle correct. We never did get it perfectly perpendicular, but we got it close enough.

Speaking of problems with the plastic parts: the items printed by the Printrbot is reasonably solid and sturdy, but they're vulnerable to certain kinds of stress. Remember, they're built up of many thin layers of plastic. If you can get something in between the layers and twist, the layers delaminate and split apart. Normally this is not likely to happen, but some of the gears in the kit require you to insert a screw near one end, which you need to screw down in order to increase tension and hold the gear tightly to the motor axle. If you tighten the screw too much:

Can you see the split in the plastic, to the left and right of that little screw hole near the top of the gear? That's what happened when we tightened the screw too much. And, of course, the kit doesn't come with spares.

Fortunately, the ABS plastic can be dissolved and re-set with the strategic use of acetone. We applied a little to the inner surfaces of the plastic where it had split, clamped it down, and let it re-set overnight. In the end, the fixed gear looked like this:

You can still see the split, but the gear is holding together.

The bed, which holds the printed object as it's being constructed, turned out to be a whole project by itself. Here's what it looks like when just the parts of the kit are used:

That red square is a heated surface. It needs to be nice and hot so that the plastic will stick to it during construction. If it's not hot enough, the plastic doesn't stick, and will peel right off during the printing process, giving you a glob of plastic instead of a nice 3d model.

But temperature isn't the only factor. The bed needs to be fairly flat, and the hot end needs to start printing extremely close to the bed so that it "squishes" the plastic down onto the bed, and of course the surface needs to be nice and clean ... after some research, Mary Lynn wound up laying a sheet of glass on top of the bed, and then sticking a layer of blue painter's tape on top of that. If you go back to the very first picture of the Printrbot, near the top of this post, you can see what it looks like. She spent days getting this together, experimenting and adjusting and fiddling and so forth.

Mary Lynn has some good "action photos" of the Printrbot making various things on her Picasa page. You'll see various failures and successes there, showing what happens when the machine works the wrong way and when it works the right way. It's still not perfect; you can see in the photos where the plastic didn't stick down to the bed here and there, around the edges and corners, leaving the model looking slightly incomplete at those points. We never did get a complete print of that shark thing, but that was the first thing we tried printing; we could probably do that one again and it would come out fine.

Now that it's basically working, we're going to move it to a more permanent location downstairs so that we can have our kitchen table back. Then we'll have our own little custom manufacturing studio.

For anyone wondering what possible practical use this contraption will have, I recommend visiting the Thingiverse web site, which is a public repository of items that other folks have designed for printing on 3d printers. The items range from useless to artistic to "oh, wow, that's exactly what I've always needed!"

It's a long way from here to assembling our own robotic army for purposes of world conquest, but, you know, baby steps.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


I'm a short ways into Star Wars: The Old Republic now, and gosh, is there ever a lot of evil on the Sith side. And I don't mean the "we have an alternative but valid viewpoint" evil, or the "we're a misunderstood but honorable people" evil, like we get in some video games. SW:TOR has you torturing prisoners and purging the impure as newbie quests.

It struck me that if (in some alternate reality) I had kids, I would absolutely not want them playing a Sith character. You aren't just told to torture someone in SW:TOR - you are told to question someone, and you have the option of torturing them. It's a Star Wars form of torture - zapping someone with lightning bolts from your hands - but torture nonetheless, and it's a valid story choice. You get "dark side" points for the action, which is technically a reward in this game.

Somehow it feels to me as if giving you the option to do something horrible in a game is worse than just presenting it as an objective. Many, many games have you slaughtering your way through an endless series of living beings, but here in this game, based on a largely child-friendly franchise, you are put in front of a prisoner who is strapped to a table and asked whether or not you want to torture him.

The game is labeled "T for Teen"; is this a valid label? Is it worse to show naked breasts or red blood than it is to allow the player to practice torture (even cartoon torture)?

Monday, March 19, 2012

I heart conservatives

For those of you who know me well: I have not titled this post with any sense of irony or sarcasm. I am, however, choosing a very particular meaning for the word "conservatives".

I can sympathize with political conservatives, who believe that the role of the federal government should be restricted, and that more power should be at the state level. Different states have different needs: different industries, different resources, different demographics, different mindsets. It makes sense to assert that a state government is better able to address the needs of its constituents than a large, overriding federal government trying to please everyone at once.

I can sympathize with fiscal conservatives, who believe that federal spending needs to be reduced. I am quite certain that the federal government is wasting appalling amounts of my tax money, due to inefficiency, corruption, lack of oversight, or some combination of the three. I'm also absolutely certain that the government is spending a lot of money on policies that I am strongly opposed to.

What bothers me are the so-called "religious conservatives," which seems to be just another way to say "Christian hardliners." There are reasonable and interesting ideas coming out of the right wing, but they're being drowned out and tainted by the attempts of the religious right to impose their faith on the entire nation. The fact that religious freedom is one of the founding principles of America seems to have been utterly forgotten, and it's been forgotten by the same people who seem to keep stressing a return to Constitutional values.

Your faith is not my faith. You and I may have some congruent moral values, but you cannot expect to impose all of the trappings of your faith on me. Would you expect to pass laws enforcing fasting during Lent? Three hours of silence during Good Friday? Church attendance on the Sabbath? No? Of course not. That's a violation of the division of church and state, isn't it?

So stop trying to legislate your faith-based values concerning contraception, abortion, and homosexuality. If you have to go to the Bible to defend your convictions, that's a sure bet that you're endorsing something of religious origin that has no basis in our legal code. "Because I believe it's a sin" or "because God told me so" is not a valid reason for passing laws that must regulate the behavior of this vast, multi-cultural country.

I think the political landscape of this country would be much different if the GOP could divest itself of its evangelical baggage and concentrate on real political and fiscal issues. I think we would have a much more productive debate between the two parties; I think we could spend more time addressing the hazards of the 21st century, including the side effects of a global, information-based economy on the average person's financial health, and the side effects of an ever-growing industrial population on the health of our planet.

I wish for a lot of foolish things like this.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Sims Social

Due to a serious and common hazard of 21st-century life in America (I was bored and had access to the Internet) I recently clicked on an enthusiastic Facebook link inviting me to join "The Sims Social", which is the Facebook version of The Sims. I had previously heard this game described as an embodiment of the worst characteristics of Facebook games; a faithful implementation of the archetype that Zynga uses to stamp out their never-ending series of soulless timewasters.

After some play time, I do agree that yes, the game consists of little more than clicking your Sim, telling him/her to do stuff in order to gain resources which you can then spend to unlock stuff and get more things to click on so you can do more stuff, and so on. But then again, The Sims was always like this. From the beginning, it's basically been an interactive dollhouse with a few RPG elements built in. The Sims has never been about action or strategy or any real test of skill; it's always been a toy where you can click on stuff and stuff happens. So while there's not a lot of game to this game, in this respect, it's also being faithful to the original.

In order to Facebook-ize the game, they've implemented an "energy" mechanic which should be familiar to any of you who have ever tried to play a Facebook game. You get a certain amount of energy; when you want to do something meaningful in the game, you expend energy; your supply of energy replenishes itself gradually over time. This effectively limits you to a few short play sessions a day - unless you pony up some real-world cash to buy more energy. "I apologize, sir," the game tells you, wringing its work-calloused hands, "but you see how things are for us; you see what we must work with; we are just a poor Facebook game, and Grandmother, well, you know how things are with Grandmother ... so it is difficult for us, very difficult, but you are our friend, a good friend, so for you, perhaps, we can arrange something. Perhaps if you could help us with our expenses, just a trifle, just a small micropayment, then for you, our good friend, we will leave our doors open..."

I'm sure that this sort of thing helps to regulate network traffic and reduces the load on the servers, so that you don't have millions of Sims addicts clicking away 24/7 and bringing the game to a crashing halt. But the primary reason for the energy mechanism, obviously, is to get you to pay to play the game. Many of these games will even arrange things so that you get a fairly substantial amount of energy for free, right out of the gate, so you can get good and hooked on the game (they hope) before they start passing the hat.

The other way that games like this "help you" to get more energy is by persuading you to get your friends to sign up for the game as well. Then you can send each other "gifts" which you can use to improve your play experience. Again, this helps the bottom line of the game developers, since more players equals a greater chance that one or more of you will pony up for that free energy refill or that marvelous virtual hat.

The Sims Social stresses this latter mechanic (which should be no surprised, based on the name) by making many of the in-game tasks and quests either virtually or actually impossible to complete unless you have a large pool of friends who are also playing the game. They can't entirely ostracize the solo player, though - can't pass up an opportunity for revenue - so they help out social players by providing a free imaginary friend. The imaginary friend they provided for my character (and possibly for all players, or all male players, I haven't bothered to check) is Bella Goth.

It's probably not advisable to spend too much time thinking about the life stories of imaginary video game characters, but I can never seem to help myself, and so I find myself pondering the peculiar life of Bella Goth. First of all, although you would expect Bella to be, well, goth, she seems to be anything but. When I joined the game, EA was trying to get players to buy "Roaring Twenties" style furniture and clothes, and so Bella was dressed as a flapper, and her house looked like a speakeasy. Currently EA is pushing "Arabian Nights" gear, and so Bella has the best in "I Dream of Jeannie" attire and lives in something like a cross between a caravanserai and a Middle Eastern restaurant. So how did she get the name "Bella Goth"? One assumes it wasn't by choice, and that she was saddled with the name by parents who themselves had an unfortunate surname, and who had the tremendous bad luck to choose the name "Bella" for their daughter, leaving her to hit early adulthood right about the time the Twilight books started getting big.

Bella has two functions in the game; to help walk you through the tutorial by allowing you to practice various social actions with her, and to allow you to accumulate social points during the game even if you don't have actual friends to interact with. So you can visit her any time you like, and chat, and listen to her radio, and use her restroom (Sims have to use the bathroom a lot) and she's always happy to see you, and she doesn't mind if you leave abruptly.

So who is this Bella person, who likes to flirt, but who always keeps you permanently in the Friend Zone? Does she have a boyfriend she's saving her affections for? What does she do with her time? She never seems to work - how does she afford to completely renovate her home every two weeks? For that matter, even though your own Sim needs to eat and sleep, Bella doesn't ... possibly she's a vampire. Though it seems to always be light outside in the game, you never really see the sun, which makes some sense, since if there was a sun, it would go down once in a while. Is the entire Sim nation artificially lit, perhaps by some vast array of airship-mounted artificial lights? This would make the area the perfect choice of residence for a vampire.

She must really hate that Stephanie Meyer named a character after her.

As I was coming to the end of writing this article, I wandered onto a Sims wiki, and discovered that Bella actually appears in several of the Sims games, and that she actually has something of a backstory which has evolved over the many Sims iterations. Her life seems to have taken a number of disturbing and tragic turns which utterly belie her easygoing and cheerful appearance in The Sims Social. I think it's far more pleasant to continue to believe that she's just some cheerful, fantastically wealthy vampire, who wants nothing more out of her unlife than polite neighbors and the eternal artificial glow of the airships, circling far overhead.