Marc Gallant

Hi, I'm Marc. I like robotics, software, science fiction, badminton, guitar, baseball, and teaching. I do not like mushrooms.

2023-11-26 Gear Acquisition Syndrome
2023-10-28 Going for Yahtzee
2023-09-23 Circle of Protection
2023-08-05 Level 7
2023-02-17 Defaults
2023-02-15 Algorithm Illustrations

Gear Acquisition Syndrome

Buying things is easier than getting good at something. And, at least briefly, it can sometimes feel just as good as well. Gear acquisition syndrome (GAS) is the retail therapy that fuels hobbyists to endlessly pursue the perfect camera, bike, guitar, tool, etc., or to just build up a "respectable" collection of these things. I am too young to know how much this inflicted hobbyists in the pre-internet days, but surely this is problem has been amplified by a constant barrage of blog posts, review videos, discussion forms, and social media where people show off their goods and congratulate each other on buying stuff.

My hobby is guitar, which sometimes feels like an entire industry fuelled by GAS.See what I did there. It's a retail attack from several angles at once: guitars, amplifiers, pedals, plugins. This is my first gear-based hobby where I have that toxic combination of some disposable income and my inherent "heavily research before you buy" attitude. So I got some serious GAS for a while there. I was wheelin' and dealin' on Kijiji. The local store knew me by name. The worst part is I spent much of the time I could have used playing guitar fuelling my GAS instead.

I finally got the GAS under control though a number of experiences and realizations:

  • I watched old videos of myself when I had vastly different gear and realized it sounded not so different compared to my current gear.
  • I want to sound like me. I was always adjusting new gear to sound like me.
  • I played in a live show and realized that most of the nuance of different gear doesn't really translate well in that environment, and the audience sure as hell doesn't know or care.
  • I went to concerts and felt like the range of gear that the musicians used didn't sound so different than mine. The players themselves made the gear sound good.
  • I saw one of my favourite musicians use pretty basic gear and sound awesome.
  • I realized I didn't want to be part of a system of unchecked consumerism.

So I've now been focusing on figuring out a way to produce my few core sounds as simply as possible for recording, practicing, and playing with others. I'm also not being too picky about live sound based on my experiences above. I'm nearly there, at which point I'm going to sell my excess gear then ban myself from certain websites that are GAS pumps. Then I will, you know, actually play my guitar.

Going for Yahtzee

My wife and I were playing Yahtzee when the inevitable decision arose. She only had Large Straight and Yahtzee left open and her first roll turned up

The tempation of Yahtzee (and a chance for the bonus Yahtzees) was too much for her. A misstep? Should she have kept 3-4-5 and gone for the Large Straight instead? Anyway, she went for Yahtzee but it was not to be. As she sketched that familiar zero on the scorecard, she pondered: "what if I just always went for Yahtzee?". Well, those who know us aren't surprised that it didn't end there. Let the great experiment begin!

Yahtzees are overpowered. Like the game-ending 150 points gained by catching the golden snitch, the glory and game-ending power of Yahtzees—especially bonus Yahtzees—is tantalizing. For those unfamiliar with the "real" rules of Yahtzee, a bonus Yahtzee not only nets you 100 points (single-handedly equalling a typical bonus-gained upper section in a single turn), but you also get to score in another box. Bonus Yahtzee of fours? Also put 20 in the fours row. Fours row is full? Feel free to mark 40 in Large Straight. Basically at this point you're Victor Krum.

So it's clear Yahtzees are where the big points are available. So why not go for Yahtzee every time? And how often can you expect to get them? To answer the former, it depends if you're playing to win or playing for the high score. Sure, you're going to crush it sometimes, but Yahtzees are elusive outcomes. Will your opponent just cruise to victory with a boring 272? There's only one way to find out!Well, no. You can use probability theory to solve this problem as well. But, that's not a family friendly activity. We approached this from two angles. First we recruited friends and family to gather the outcomes from as many trials of the following experiment as possible:

Record the number of rolls it took to get a Yahtzee. Always "go" for the number shown on the greatest number dice (i.e., switch numbers if necessary), re-rolling all the dice if they all have different values. Break ties arbitrarily.

Somehow we have enough friends and family that go along with our nonsense, so we managed 308 trials. But guess who has no choice but to do as many trials as we want? My trusty old Lenovo ThinkPad. I threw together some Python code to run some trials as well. And by "some" I mean one million. So were the human trials necessary? I mean, why are MLB umpires still used to call balls and strikes? It's a human thing. Anyway, here are the results.

Human Computer
Trials 308 1000000
Average rolls to get a Yahtzee 11.05 11.10
Most rolls to get a Yahtzee 50 82
Yahtzees on the first roll 0% 0.075%
Yahtzees in the first three rolls 3.25% 4.55%

So there you have it. If you go for it every time, your odds of rolling a Yahtzee on any given turn are about 1-in-22 (I'm trusting the computer's 4.55% on this one). Given that you only get 13 turns, the boring approach of filling the score card out the old-fashioned way is probably best if you're trying to defeat an opponent. On the other hand, screw that. Gimme some of those sweet, sweet, bonus Yahtzees!

Circle of Protection

The year was 1997 and I was unstoppable. My Serra Angel had been cast early thanks to the lucky draw of a Sol Ring. This majestic angel was alone in the skies above the battlefield, her aptly-named Holy Strength a pious omen of the imminent smitening to come. But the helplessness didn't stop there for my 11 year old opponent. A surge of adrenaline struck as I drew my secret weapon: Empyrial Armor. Let's see him deal with a 9/10 flyer coming at him every turn, making a mockery of his laughable fielding of a Pearled Unicorn and Prodigal Sorcerer. I bubbled with the smugness of a Video & Arcade Top 10 champion, for victory was all but assured. I could practically hear Nicholas Picholas (is that his real name?) awarding me a Toronto Blue Jays prize pack. But then my opponent did something unthinkable. He committed a major faux-pas that would reverberate through the hallway of the elementary school in which our battlefield was perched. He slapped down Circle of Protection: White on the dusty floor.

All zero people watching our duel gasped. How could he? A Circle of Protection? He was making a mockery of our sacred pact. Circle of Protections were banned.

Joe Posnanski once wrote that baseball is best when you're 10 years old. But it's not just baseball; for at 10 years old, my baseball was Magic: The Gathering. And I even played baseball at the time. Back then this was still the frontier of the card game and was barely a rung above Dungeons & Dragons on the keep that to yourself scale of nerd indulgences of the '90s. But at 10 years old, you're old enough for your first deep dive into an obssession that your newly lengthened attention span can support. It's a magical time when school, siblings, and taking showers are just a distraction until you can really live. For me, that was on the battlefields of dusty floors, carpet rugs, and kitchen tables. I planned decklists and combos in my mind and fantasized of pulling a Jester's Cap from my booster pack, as my Mom scoffed at me wasting my birthday money. I once bought a second-hand Royal Assassin for $10 and my Mom nearly fainted. ("$10 for a single card? Are you crazy?") I think many people can think back about whatever fascinated them when they were 10 years old and can relate to my burgeoning awareness of the pleasures in this world. Whether it was Polly Pockets, the Titanic, or Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, we all went all-in to the bewilderment of our, and in my case, boomer parents whose presumed childhood cup-and-ball obsession failed to draw the appropriate parallels. And, I think, we all try to capture the magic of this time in adulthood, We are currently nearing the peak of markets targeting millenial's chase for this feeling, speaking as someone who rocked a TMNT backpack. but can only grasp at wisps of nostalgia because baseball is best when you're 10 years old.

Level 7

While I was working in Germany, my workplace had a small English language library. It was mostly stocked with donations, containing what I estimate to be a few thousand books. Luckily for me, it had a sizeable science fiction section, with some authors dominating the collection (presumably favourites of the donors) and scores of out-of-print books from the 1950s to the 1980s. I had a lot of time to read, as I was living by myself in a foreign country and took the tram to work every day. So often on my lunch break, I found myself browsing through the science fiction section, essentially judging the books by their covers.

One thing interesting is the books never changed. Over a year of visits, there were never any new books in the science fiction section. I came to enjoy this lack of option paralysis. Books that I had earlier skimmed over quickly became prime candidates as I read my way through the section. As a result, I read many books that I wouldn't have given a second glance had I had access to the tome of a large public library. One such book was Level 7 by Mordecai Roshwald.

Level 7 is a speculative fiction novel written in 1959, not far after the start of the Cold War. It is about a military officer (whose nationality is never specified) that receives orders one day that require him to enter an underground complex. Shortly afterwards the complex is closed and sealed (to the surprise of the officer) and he is ordered to push buttons that he later learns was his direct participation in nuclear war. The whole war lasts about three hours and then the protagonist is faced with living the remainder of his life on the bottom (seventh) level of the underground complex.

This book is terrifying. I can't imagine reading it at the time of its publication, when its events were a very real possibility, at least more so than today. I can feel the claustrophobia setting in page by page, and with it, the anxiety of the inhabitants. As clues trickle in that reveal the state of humanity and the likely fate of the entombed survivors, it's clear that perhaps those who remained on the surface were the lucky ones.

Several years later I happened across the book at a used book store and bought it at once. Upon re-reading it, I fell into a kind of stupor that I recalled from my first time through. I don't know if I'll read it again.

In some ways this story gives the most realistic picture of nuclear war that I have read in any work of fiction.
Linus Pauling


When I first started developing in Linux, I went all in on the tools and configuration rabbit hole. I heavily configured my .vimrc with all the latest plugins. My tmux.conf had a clock and weather. My .zshrc was full of aliases and plugins. And the crown jewel of my setup was my heavily configured i3 window manager (sans desktop environment, of course). And so on. Everything was under version control and could be configured and installed via scripts. Based on countless reddit subreddits and blog posts, I certainly was not alone. I was zipping around the command line, window splits, sessions, etc.

My setup became more of a hobby then any sort of notion of productivity. That isn't to say I didn't enjoy it. Whether it was learning of new tools on unixporn or tweaking the colours in my .Xresources, heck I was having fun with it. So what if switching between monitors required a custom script or connecting to wifi required puttering around on the command line. Everything was so lightweight!

Eventually I was issued a laptop at work where I was a little more restricted as to what I could do with it. At the same time, I had moved onto other hobbies and wanted to try something a little different. I decided to have a go at really learning the default Gnome desktop. And by defaults I mean just that, I didn't tweak any keyboard shortcuts or any other settings. Rather I learned not only how things were provided out of the box, but also how the desktop was designed to be used (i.e., the Gnome philosophy). It was actually kind of enlightening. At first it was kind of like moving around with one hand behind my back. But to be honest that's what learning vim was like until I stuck with it. And there's something to be said with being able to hop onto anyone else's machine and feel right at home. And although I've toned down the configuration and plugins, I'm still right at home on the command line.

Now, several months later, here I am looking ahead at the new features and improvements in the next Gnome release.

Algorithm Illustrations

I often like to draw illustrations to help communicate an algorithm I am explaining, designing, or implementing. For example, perhaps I am teaching someone how a Kalman Filter works using the popular example of a one-dimensional robot driving towards a wall. For this task I want to use simple program(s) that can do the following:

  • Draw lines, arrows, shapes, and other simple geometries
  • Easily align the different geometries with snapping, guides, and distributing tools
  • Is not overburdened with many features and tools I'll never use
  • Label different parts of the illustration with mathematical symbols or equations, preferably using LaTeX
  • Edit the math/LaTeX after I've put it in the image to update symbols or fix mistakes
Here's the Kalman Filter illustration that shows the kind of detail I usually include.

Back when I was using a Mac for everything, my preferred solution was a combination of Omnigraffle and LaTeXiT, which worked wonderfully. But I've sinced moved on to Linux and prefer to use open source software when possible. A good illustrating solution eluded me until recently, when I found it in LibreOffice Draw with the TexMaths plugin (with which I made the above illustration). Success!