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    Thursday, August 21st, 2014
    11:19 pm
    L5R Fiction
    For centuries, the armies of the Crane have gathered in the mountainous valleys north of Shiro Daidoji, well away from the spying eyes of its foes.

    Daidoji Uji, daimyo of the Daidoji family, sat on top of a raised platform with his closest advisors, watching the whirling ebb and flow of the battle lines on the valley floor beneath him. This day, as morning crept into afternoon, and then late afternoon, the armies practiced delaying tactics. The defending Iron Warriors, armed with blunt wooden spears and in their full armor, practiced holding off opposing armies four times their size, blocking mountain passes with adroitness, and even in field battles as long as they had room to constantly fall back from the flanking assaults led by countless squads of light infantry. But time and again, they would eventually be surrounded, and the Iron Warriors would collapse into a defensive circle that would inevitably be bludgeoned down by the masses surrounding them. They would be 'slaughtered' to a man, only rising after the shirekan conducting the exercise raised his fans, ending the fight.

    Daidoji Uji nodded to the rikugunshokan of the Crane army seated next to him. "Chomei-san, the Iron Crane are fighting well... and the plan we developed shows some situations in which it could work... but I feel that today's exercises show that they will not be able to delay an army long enough to warrant the casualties that their units will take. We will have to find another strategy for dealing with a much larger army."

    Doji Chomei tapped his fan on the railing overlooking the battlefield below and frowned. "As Sun Tao once wrote, the only way to defeat a superior foe is to divide their army and concentrate your forces in the areas where you outnumber them. But if we do this," he nodded at the valley floor below, "Even our best defensive troops will not be able to stop their armies long enough to keep our army from being outflanked. It should work in the mountains, if we can block a pass. But what if there is no convenient terrain nearby?"

    Uji began speaking, "Well, we can use forests, if we have time to make deadfalls. And there are places where you can use rice fields to flood roads..." when he noticed one of his advisors quietly signalling for his attention. "Yes, Eizo-san?"

    Daidoji Eizo well past retirement age. But as he was doing a capable job of administering Ichigun until Nayoko came of age, nobody in the family had any interest in seeing him retire. He slowly stood up and bowed. "Sama, if I could be given tonight to prepare with my men, I might have a solution for you tomorrow? We have been working on something that might be useful to these ends."


    Early the next morning, the daimyo took their seats again on the raised platform. Sipping tea, they watched a small force of thirty Iron Warriors deploy in a triangular formation with two layers - six men on each side on the outer layer, five men on each side in the inner layer, and a single man standing in an open space in the middle.

    "A bit unorthodox, Eizo-san," noted Daidoji Uji, "But formations never last long in war, and it appears you are just asking to be surrounded."

    Eizo slowly inclined his head.


    Turning back to the battlefield, Doji Chomei signaled for 90 light infantry to begin the attack. They quickly moved to encircle the Iron Warriors. Each time they would dart past a spear to attack, however, one yari would intercept the attack, and another would gently punch the infantryman in the face with a blunt spearhead. Within minutes the light infantry were all playing dead on the battlefield, and the shirekan signalled for them to clear the battlefield.

    "Again. More this time," commanded Uji. Chomei signaled for 180 men to attack. Again, the Daidoji troops were surrounded, but as they could not be flanked in their formation, every attack could be spotted and countered by the net of spears the defenders wove. Though it took much longer this time, the result was the same, and the formation remained unbroken.

    Eizo explained, "Uji-sama, the Daidoji train the most skilled yojimbo in the Empire. It is our humble belief that if we can set them to guard one another on the battlefield, we can form the ultimate defensive unit. With just a hundred men, we can stall a legion, even on open ground."

    Uji looked dubious. "Well, at least they didn't break formation and go hunting for glory like most samurai would do. Their training serves them well. But they're merely holding off light infantry. How will they fare against cavalry? Archers? A squad of Matsu Berserkers?"

    Chomei asked, "Shall we try to find out?" and ordered a hundred Daidoji Scouts to take to the hills on one side of the valley, supported by a hundred light infantry drawn up in front. With a shout, the Scouts all loosed arrows at the same time... and with a snap that set the banners in the valley flapping madly a small cyclone sprung up around the Daidoji Iron Warriors, scattering the arrows harmlessly around the valley.

    Uji blinked. "There's an Asahina in that squad? How did you manage that, Eizo-san? The last time we tried to get them to join the army, they all threatened to seppuku together."

    "Ah, he's one of us, sama. The Doji arranged a marriage for a Centipede priestess to marry his Daidoji father, back before they joined the Mantis. He's sworn the Asahina Oath to take no human lives, but he will still take to the field to protect the lives of our soldiers."

    Suddenly, the formation darted forward. With a short prayer, the ranks of light infantry slowed, as if stuck in mud, and the triangular wedge of heavy infantry crashed right through them and into the archers behind. Before the archers could take more than a few steps away from the wedge, a sharp gust of wind knocked down half the archers, and then a second later the other half, scattering their arrows over the hillside. Moving quickly, the heavy infantry scattered the disarmed archers and then reformed their formation on the hill top before the light infantry finally caught up to them.

    "Send in more, Chomei-san, if you will," Uji murmured.

    With a few gestures from his war fan, Doji Chomei ordered an entire legion to begin marching on the formation, including elite Kakita duelists in front, followed by hundreds of heavy and light infantry behind, flanked by mounted archers.

    The Asahina murmured prayers while the Iron Warriors dispatched the Kakita duelists. Right when the bulk of the army was about to engage, however, a massive fortification sprung up on the hill top, manned by apparently hundreds of Daidoji. The army hesitated for a second, and then charged. As their katana passed through the new Daidoji harmlessly, it became clear that they were illusions... but they couldn't tell which Daidoji were real, and their counterstrikes still hit home just as well. Even with the legion's overwhelming numbers, it was clear that the Iron Warriors were holding the day. The priest darted from man to man inside the formation, using the winds to protect his soldiers and rebuff his enemies.

    But when the illusion finally cleared, the hilltop was empty.

    Doji Chomei hesitated, still holding the war fans in the air for an attack, but unsure what or where to signal, exactly.

    Uji looked at Eizo. "A retreat covered by illusion? That solves the problem of our squads being eliminated at the end of their delaying actions, I suppose. How many times per day can your shugenja pull off that trick?"

    A voice from behind him spoke. "Three, Uji-sama."

    Spinning around, Uji drew both of his blades. Encircling the observation platform stood the priest with the squad of Iron Warriors, who knelt and placed their yari into the ground, close on the right hand side.

    The priest bowed very deeply and spoke again, "And, apologies, lord, but this was not a retreat. With the enemy leadership fixated on the illusion, and their entire legion committed, our bushi would be able to surround and destroy the enemy leadership and then retreat under invisibility before their troops realized they were just fighting phantoms."

    Daidoji Uji slowly nodded. "Eizo-san, I think your plan has merit. How many more men can we train in these techniques?"

    Daidoji Eizo scratched his chin. "The yojimbo? It takes a season to train them in our maneuvers, but they otherwise learn everything they need from our dojo, so we shouldn't have any problems on that end of things. It's finding the Asahina willing to participate, and training them that will present the biggest problem. Unaju-san here had to develop his own techniques to protect a squad."

    "Very well." Uji turned his eyes to Unaju. "Let us talk about what you will need, Unaju-san. For [i]we[/i] will need more shugenja."

    Current Mood: Heroic
    Friday, July 11th, 2014
    10:55 am
    On Character Optimization in Pathfinder Society
    There's different levels of optimization. (I'll ignore Pun Pun, since it doesn't work anyway. In the Forgotten Realms, only AO can elevate gods.)

    1) At the highest levels, it makes the game un-fun, because it removes all challenge - and hence, dramatic tension - from the game. When you can one-shot Orcus, you no longer have to struggle to win, and instead of spinning an epic story of overcoming evil, it becomes a sort of comedic farce.

    I used to run a campaign called Living Planar. For one of WOTC's CO challenges, I took a list of most of the stuff I'd banned in my campaign, and put it together in a single build. At 20th level, he could kill a Hecatoncheries (a +37 CR combat) by taking a nap in front of it and letting it try to kill him. When attacking, he'd deal 648 damage + 16 con damage per turn, had a 71 AC, 40s in all saves, 1500hp against melee attacks, plus a ton of other nonsense.

    These builds are called Theoretical Optimization, because you'd never actually play a character like that in practice.

    2) At the next lower tier, there's things that completely exceed the expected power curve of a character at that level. It doesn't even need to be something sketchy, using poor rules interpretations. Leadership, just by itself, breaks the action and resource economy of D&D. And sometimes they will print things (like the double hackbut) that when you optimize around it allow you to kill everything at your challenge level in a round.

    So these are bad, too, and I am glad that a lot of these options are banned in PFS.

    These are usually called broken or bent (if they're not quite broken) mechanics, because they break the expected power curve of the game.

    3) Then you get into the territory of what is called practical optimization. Good, solid choices that you feel good about recommending to people to use... rather than guilty.

    If you're a wizard, take Emergency Force Sphere! Though it'll trap you in a hamster ball, it's better to be trapped than dead. Plus, you're a wizard. You can always teleport out of the ball or whatever.

    If you're a monk, buy potions of mage armor! Even though some people might think it's cheesy, because monks were balanced around the notion of not having an armor bonus, monks are naturally sort of weak, and this puts you squarely into the good, but not broken, category of armor class.

    And so forth. This is the level that I like to play PFS at.

    4) Bonekeeps. And then, moving back up a notch, there's occasional games like The Siege of the Diamond City and the Bonekeep series which are designed to be unfair to you. Like, massively unfair. For those games, I think it's fair to pull out all the stops, burn thousands of gold pieces on consumables and buff spells, and have a good time throwing everything you have at the module, because you know the module is going to throw everything right back.
    Sunday, April 20th, 2014
    9:49 pm
    Weapons in L5R 4th Edition
    I like the L5R 4th Edition RPG, and I really like the Heroes of Rokugan Living Campaign. I fell into it by accident (I booked a trip to Gencon before realizing the RPGA wasn't offering any games I could play), but since I played a bit of 1st Edition L5R, I thought I'd give it a try. And it was an absolute blast. It really scratches an itch for me that can't be met by any other Living Campaign I've played - personal character development, modules that always (at at least one point in each game) make you think really closely about ethics/Bushido and how your character would react to such a situation, and an actual focus on roleplaying. In Pathfinder Society or the RPGA, your fellow players would look down at you for killing a captive that had information you needed, or voluntarily dying for various roleplaying reasons, but in L5R/HoR, these sorts of considerations come first. It's a different mindset to get into for some players, but it's a great selling point. I think the explosive growth it has seen in recent years is due to this.

    That said, I've spent enough time with the system, building a dozen or so characters for myself and others, and playing with tens to hundreds of other players in HoR, that there's some things that I'd change if I was in AEG's shoes.

    1) Weapon diversity. There's too many weapons that are basically identical to each other. Should I fight with a Jo (0k2 damage medium stave) or a Machi-Kanshisha (0k2 damage medium stave)? Probably the jo, since it is 1 bu and the Machi-Kanshisha is 20 koku. Why would I ever use a tanto (1k1 small knife) over a jitte (1k1 small knife) or sai (1k1 small knife), when the knives mastery skill only gives a bonus for sai and jitte? Why is the signature ninja weapon, the shiruken (1k1 small ninjitsu weapon) twice as expensive as a tsubute (1k1 small ninjitsu weapon) which has a longer range?

    To continue this point, far too many weapons have completely dominant options. The Nagamaki is a large (even though the description says it's supposed to be one handed) 2k3 polearm that is a stick with a sword at the end. The Bisento is also a large stick with a sword at the end, but it does 3k3 damage. Even if we ignore peasant weapons (which are supposed to be inferior, which is fine), most of the samurai weapons are completely outclassed by other options. The katana and scimitar by the nodachi, the naginata by the bisento. And so forth. Every category of weapons has some weapons that have no reason for anyone to take them, except heavy weapons.

    2) Weapon balance. Assuming that the point of playing a bushi in this game is to kill things with pointy things, pretty much any weapon that deals only Xk1 damage should never be used. A samurai (3s in all stats and skills) with a knife in this game would take approximately 8 hits to drop a single peasant wielding a spear. This peasant (2s in everything) would need only two hits to do the same amount of damage with a yari (though he will only have a 30% chance to hit the samurai, vs. the samurai's 97% chance to hit the peasant; no armor on either side). This holds true for all such weapons (armor piercing arrows, unarmed strikes without boosts, *all* chain weapons except half of the kusarigama, the hankyu and the war fan). It would make sense if you could feint for tons of damage with these weapons, but you can feint with a nodachi just as easily.

    Furthermore, even Xk2 weapons are probably too limited in damage at higher insight ranks. 10k2 deals only 24 damage on average, whereas 10k3 does 50% more at 32 per hit. The katana stays relevant by allowing the expenditure of a void point to take it up to 4k3 damage, but void points are usually hoarded for damage reduction, to avoid going into wound penalties. Shiba Bushi can explode one or two persons a day using a katana alpha strike, but other than that, the nodachi is completely superior. Which is a shame, since katana are the signature weapon of Rokugan, so people like to use them for roleplaying purposes. This is why Kaiu Blades are so damn popular - they're katana that hit like nodachi and bypass reduction like tetsubo. You can have your roleplaying and eat it too, as long as you don't mind being a Crane running around with a sacred weapon for another clan.

    Speaking of sacred weapons... The Dragon gives a benefit that will literally never come up across an entire campaign, the Crane gives a reroll on dueling damage (which means it will literally have no benefit in 90% of the duels a Kakita will be in, as you are trying not to kill people generally), the Mantis (well, it's decent, but it still means using kama that are worse than a katana and don't get the knives 5 mastery benefit), the Scorpion gives a benefit that rarely gets used, and the Spider weapon is, well, evil and will probably get you killed if you're caught with it. The Crab is uber, the Phoenix is really useful (katana damage on a wakizashi, and counts as jade), the Lion has nice synergy with some abilities, and the Unicorn takes their primary weapon up to nodachi levels of damage, with a nice flat damage bonus.

    3) Weapon categories / mastery. The game system really wants to push everyone into using one of three schools of weaponry: bows (using fleshcutters, always), heavy weapons, or swords. Spears and polearms have some nice options (lances and bisento, respectfully), but the mastery abilities of these weapon categories are just completely inferior to those of the big three. Polearms get a very situational +1k0 to damage. Kenjutsu gives a +1k0 to all damage rolls. Swords can be quick drawn at rank 5 instead of rank 7. And instead of getting a one-round initiative bonus (which isn't terrible), they get the very powerful ability to explode damage on 9s and 10s, which is essentially worth an extra kept die of damage. Heavy Weapons also get the uber 9s and 10s explosions, as well as basically a flat +2 to damage against anyone with armor on, and useful free raise on knockdown. Bow Mastery abilities are pretty boring, but bows are tactically exceptional, being the only ranged weapon in the game worth anything. Spears mastery abilities are just terrible, and only the lance is a competitive weapon. And it breaks. Stave mastery abilities are not bad, but they mainly just undo the terrible drawbacks the weapons already have. Ninjitsu is the same way. War Fans are the very worst weapon category in the game, having only a single weapon in it, and a 0k1 weapon at that. 15xp to get +1 to ATN? 28xp to get +3 ATN? Great. Thanks. I'd rather raise my reflexes from 3 to 4 and get +5 ATN and a host of other benefits instead. My character uses war fans, and doesn't bother putting ranks in it, or attacking with them, they're that bad. Chain weapons all deal next to no damage, and provide small bonuses to three different maneuvers. Knives deal next to no damage, and the mastery abilities for it don't even work with half the weapons in the category.

    So yeah. There's a reason why pretty much everyone is heavy weapons, kenjutsu, or kyujutsu, with the occasional polearms or spear fighter.

    I think that if they ever release a "4.5", or just an errata for it, there should be a balancing pass made over the weapons. Let peasant weapons remain terrible; that's what they're there for. But don't so severely penalize a Mantis with Knives 5 for using a pair of kama, or a Hiruma scout for using a hankyu. They don't all need to be the "best" weapon, but they shouldn't be as bad as they are right now. At least make the higher level mastery abilities turn the weapons into something vaguely competitive with heavy weapons and swords. A peasant with 10 ranks in staves, for example, should be terrifying to a samurai swordsman. Not a relief.
    Thursday, May 9th, 2013
    12:45 am
    Omnibus Update
    Since Ada was born, I went slogging through House of Chains (a Steven Erikson novel). Great book, but it took me seven weeks to finish it. I started worrying that my book-reading mojo had tapered off with the birth of my kid, but then I looked back on that time period and realized I'd read two Scalzi novels in a day each, and then moved on to doing a Brust a day since as well. (Just finished the whole series to date.) Ok, so yeah. Erikson writes 100% pure unadulterated awesomesauce, but damn. His books take forever to work through. Long, complicated, and awesome. I'm currently working through about one per month.

    Our one real trip since Ada was born was in October 2012 (she was only 2.5 months old at that point) to the Great Western War. I got to fight with the SCA heavies for the first time a war setting, and it was a total blast. Macy had a beautiful Hanfu that she wore when walking around camp. Allison, Katie, and Katie's friends all went with us too. Allison qualified for tournament archery, and I got to play the viola for Katie and her friends - mostly Irish music. (It was far more challenging playing the viola in the dark, after fighting all day, than I had thought it would be. But they were gracious.) Macy cooked a variety of delicious dishes when we were there - it was really quite nice being in a relatively cool, fly-free RV for the trip.

    My viola studies are still going well, though my progress has slowed down since switching from twice a week to twice a month. Still, I like to think I'm still advancing a bit.

    Our bookshelves have filled up once again, so ordered two more, and spent a couple days reorganizing our library and my office. Donated a couple boxes of books to the library, and let the redoubtable Book Nook used bookstore have a chance at them first. It looks a lot nicer now. My fencing and SCA gear is off the floor, and the boxes of stuff left over from the move (what? two years ago?) is finally getting unpacked and put away. Good times.

    Looking at the books sitting around on the shelves, waiting to be filed, here's a comprehensive review of some of the books I finished in the last year, along with a couple video games:

    Brandon Sanderson - Emperor's Soul, set in the world of Elantris. Good novella. A-. Also have Legion to read, another novella. Sanderson writes good short stories. Plus, he's a really nice guy. I ran into him again at Gencon this year, and he offered me a spot playing magic with him. Ended up sleeping instead, though. A Memory of Light was also awesome, with only a couple places where it felt cut too short. (Ironic, I know, for such a long book.)

    Joe Abercrombie - Best Served Cold. Everything Ambercrombie has written I'd give a serious A to. His books are sort of a depressing commentary on human nature (imagine Gandalf with a massive grudge on his shoulder against Sauron, so big that he'd sacrifice everything in order to achieve victory, and you have an idea of Joe's characters), but really really good anyway.

    John Scalzi - "The speaker for geeks". His bleeding heart sort of annoys me on his blog - his love letter from "a rapist" to the Republican Party was just appallingly horrible and in ill taste, for example - but he's a very solid writer of sci fi. With the exception of Zoe's Tale (which was just a repetition of an old novel, told from a new perspective), everything he has written has been B+ to A level. Redshirts (A) was a postmodern look at Star Trek. Fuzzy Nation (A) was a mix of lawyer adventure in outer space and eco-something or other. Android's Dream (B+)

    Brent Weeks - I thought The Black Prism was one of the best fantasy books of 2010, and I'd almost say the same about The Blinding Knife, except the reveals aren't quite as dramatic, and the "Magic The Gathering"-like magic system in The Black Prism turned into Weeks playing MTG for the first time in real life, and then putting it into the second book. Which is pretty jarring, at least for someone like me that has played MTG a great deal. Solid A-.

    Libiromancer: Jim Hines Libiromacer is another solid A-. It is riotously funny, and reads like nothing less than a love letter to fantasy nerds everywhere. The conceit is that you have these "Book Mages" that can pull out items from any book ever published. You need a lightsaber? Better have a copy of a Star Wars novel on hand, and so forth. The writing style isn't quite as advanced as a master's (like Sanderson, Weeks, or Scalzi), which is the only reason it isn't a solid A+. It is much much better than the Spellwright series by Blake Charlton that tries roughly the same conceit. Spellwright and its sequel were just painfully bad to read.

    Year Zero: I read this right after Libiromancer, and have to say that while Libiromancer was funny, this book is really one of the most hysterical works ever written - at least, if you're like me, and follow the problems with Copyright Law. If you don't, it might miss its mark a little bit. The premise of Year Zero is that aliens have pirated Earth music (to them, our music sounds like sonic crack), and only later on realized they owed more in fines for piracy than the either GDP (GGP?) of the galaxy. So some aliens are trying to work for a compromise, others just want to blow up the Earth. Enter a lawyer with the same name as a Backstreet Boy, and hilarity ensues...

    Black Masters, by Johnson and Roark: I first came across this book when on a field study to historical sites in South Carolina around 2005, when we visited the house and grave of a guy named William Ellison ( who was a former slave in SC that became a cotton gin engineer, and rode the cotton gin wave to owning his own business (including many slaves) and becoming one of the richest people in the state. Rags to riches in the extreme, it also digs into the issues of race and slavery in the antebellum South, and how the boundaries were not always as defined as we think they were. You were white if you held yourself out to be white, and nobody challenged you. If they did challenge you, all you had to do was show that the community treated you as if you were white, and they owed you a $500 fine. Ellison didn't hold himself out to be white, but he did get to sit in the white section of church, was good friends with a lot of white landowners in the area, and married his kids off to their kids. Fascinating story: A+. (I also recommend Black Slaveowners by Larry Koger for a more comprehensive study of black slave ownership in the south. In Charleston, they owned slaves at the same rates as whites.)

    Jim Butcher: Well, everything by him. The Codex Alera series is over now, but it was wonderful (even with it running off the rails by the end), and the Dresden Files keep knocking them out of the park. A+

    Red Cliff: Woo's recreation of the famous Three Kingdoms battle is a great Wuxia epic. (And it is epic - it's really, really long.) While not precisely true to the story, the characters, or the history of the battle, it's still a great yarn and enjoyable for any fan of the Wuxia genre, or Chinese history in general.

    Video Games -

    Diablo 3: Played it a fair bit with Ada sleeping on my chest when she was only a couple months old. I was very proud of how she could sleep peacefully through all the mayham coming out of my speakers. The game itself is utter crap, though. Fun enough and shallow enough for one playthrough, it forces you to repeat the game (with the same stupid story) *four times* to reach the real challenge: inferno mode. And then when you're there, it's really more about playing the Auction House game than the game itself. If you're good at making trades, you end up with gear that gives you an order of magnitude more survivability than what you'd get if you just played the game on your own. Blizzard fell on its face with this game, and it fell hard. I will never pre-order another Blizzard game - their reputation is ruined.

    System Shock 2: In preparation for Bioshock Infinite coming out, I finally got around to beating System Shock 2. The neat thing was that it was re-released by Good Old Games, which made it playable on new systems. With a couple mods installed, it actually became a reasonably modern looking game, graphics wise. Gameplay-wise, well, it makes me miss 1999. Modern games all seem to take softballing to extremes. I didn't die once in Bioshock Infinite, but SS2 was... brutal. But never unfair. Great game, great story, and it tied in closer to Bioshock Infinite than I thought. Essentially (spoiler alert) Shodan is Elizabeth from an alternate reality. They both can warp in things from different parts of the multiverse, they both are imprisoned by inhuman jailors, they both have a love-hate relationship with the protagonist... it was only missing a lighthouse to make the analogy more clear.

    Bioshock Infinite: Beautiful game. Absolutely stunning environment - at least early in the game. At about halfway in, it turns into yet another blood-soaked shooter, which was a bit of a disappointment. The light, sky, clouds, ziplines that you can travel around on, etc., all made for a wonderful backdrop against the plot of the game. Which, all critics aside, was brilliant, and perfect. Only downside was that the game was far too easy, and that it basically forced you to waste way too much of your time digging through trashcans looking for coins. If it had a cheat available to just give you some money, I'd replay it in a heartbeat on the most difficult setting (aptly called "1999 mode"), but as it is, thinking about having to look again under every bench and bush for a spare coin... yeah, the replay is never going to happen.

    Blood Dragon: I bought this game by accident. Not because I didn't want it, or regret buying it, but because it is an Ubisoft game, and I have resisted buying Ubisoft games for many years down, as a protest against their draconian DRM. When I ran it and saw I needed to install their broken, unusable UPlay crap, I debated getting a refund. But, what the hell - so I played it anyway. It's a short game (Took me about 10 hours to get all achievements and beat it) but absolutely riotous. It takes all of the tropes from the 80s and mixes them together into one beautiful melange. Everything is spot-on perfect: the deliberately cheesy dialogue, the music that could have come straight out of Robocop or Terminator, the nonsensical plot. Everything. It's a perfect satire of the decade, and it's just about the right length - you can easily run a joke too far. But I found myself taking screenshot after screenshot of the various jokes in the game, because they're that good. It is also a good mix of linear story and sandbox gameplay, which I found very pleasantly surprising. A+

    AOE II HD Edition: KJ and I went through our years living together playing AOE II, the best RTS ever made. It just got re-released with support for modern computers and modern networking, and it's still just as fun as it has ever been. The only trouble is calling it an "HD Edition". Just like with "Baldur's Gate HD", it's not actually _H_igh _D_efinition. The graphics are essentially unchanged, and still look pretty bad on modern systems. While I understand that they lost the original art assets so they couldn't remaster them (in both cases, I think), when I buy a game called a high-def upgrade, well, I expect exactly that.
    Saturday, September 29th, 2012
    9:04 pm
    So yeah, we had a baby
    Ada Karen William Kerney was born on the morning of July 25th, 2012. In the two months that we've had her, she's turned out to be a pretty good kid. Mellow, intelligent (she was repeating each of the vowels back to me today - A E I O U), and good-natured. She smiles a lot, and laughs when you smile back at her. She occasionally gets days in which she cries a lot, and needs to be held and walked around, but those days have been pretty rare.

    Her favorite things are (in order): lights, ceiling fans, her parents and grandparents, drinking milk, and trees.

    She hates (in order): being hungry, being dirty (not one drop!), and that one baby in the mirror that looks just like her (though she's trying to play nice now). The first time she saw me in the mirror (about a month old), it melted her brain... she kept looking back and forth between my reflection and me, with her eyes wide, wide open.

    Pregnancy for Macy was rough in parts (morning sickness lead to hyper-emesis), but she was a pretty active pregnant lady. She went hiking in Yosemite with Allison, Olivia and me at a bit past nine months into the pregnancy. Ada was taking her time, though, and we waited about a week after her due date to induce pregnancy. 12 hour induction, followed by 18 hours of labor, followed by a C-section. (Ada was too big by that point to come out, I guess.) Ada was born 8 pounds 5 oz, 20.5 inches long. Pretty healthy, and very hungry - she hadn't been getting much food from Macy during that long process. It took Macy a while to recover from the C-section, but she's doing a lot better now.

    Overall, Macy and I feel pretty blessed with the kid we ended up with. Ask us again in 16 years.
    Monday, January 2nd, 2012
    1:06 am
    May Canada Trip
    Well, it's 2012, now, might as well finish this one -

    Flew direct from Fresno to Seattle, one hour stopover in Seattle, and then on to Vancouver, arriving on the 5/10/11.
    Spent three days in Vancouver, staying at the Empire Landmark hotel in downtown Vancouver. Has a rotating restaurant up top. (Which wasn't very good, it turns out.)

    Downtown Vancouver was a pretty interesting place to stay. Unlike most dense urban areas, Van has a city ordinance regulating the amount of open/green space that is required to be built alongside any skyscraper. The result is a skyline that looks like New York, but at ground level is filled with flowers and benches. It's a nice effect.

    Vancouver has a large Chinese population (a lot of Hong Kong folks moved there after HK's return to China) and so naturally Macy and I ate a ton of Chinese food. There was a really fast Chinese food place right next to our hotel (orders placed on smartphones carried by the waitresses and instantly beamed to the different chef stations around the place) and, naturally, Chinatown was full of good stuff. We were eating probably five meals a day. Best meal was at a Dim Sum place in Chinatown that was decorated to the teeth with GO CANUCKS banners, jerseys (which were amusing on 80 year old Chinese women), and signed photos. When we got sushi later in the day (at Ebisu, up on a second story) the rather upscale place had as many people in jerseys as in suits, and the place offered free appetizers as well as a bonus pitcher of beer if your player scored a goal (assigned randomly by playing card when you bought a pitcher).

    The Vancouver Hockey Riots of 2011 ( made a lot more sense to me than if I hadn't seen all the mania beforehand.

    Our first main event in Vancouver was a day trip to the Capilano Bridge. The Capilano Bridge ( is a suspension bridge built over a deep gorge filled with mist, with a river running beneath. It also has some lakes with fish in it, and a treetop hiking area. A++, highly recommended.

    We spent a fair bit of time at the Chinatown there (Vancouver is 1/3rd Chinese now), and eating at various Chinese restaurants before we left. The food was uniformly good, and they had some interesting museums we visited, including the Sun Yat Sen memorial, which was a replica scholar's house, built by hand by Chinese craftsmen, of the late Qing dynasty. Very pleasant. The neighboring lake and park were pretty sweet, too.

    The next day we did a day trip to Whistler. I had the opportunity to go skiing at Whistler in my second year of college, but I decided not to go since the bus ride was 28 hours each way. Eh, pass. Even the bus ride from Vancouver took a while, and this was with a new freeway built for the 2008 Olympics. Our bus driver was a Native American / First People / Indian / whatever, who told us a number of interesting stories about growing up on a reservation nearby Vancouver, and stopped at a bunch of nice places, including a giant waterfall, and several overlooks, along the way up and back. Whistler itself was very nice - very well developed ski town, and it was still running even in May. Macy and I decided to not go up the mountain, instead doing a 5 mile circuit hike through and around the suburban part of town. Rivers, trees, birds, snow, etc. Very beautiful stuff. Talked to my parents in the middle of nowhere in the forest while they were traveling to the East Coast of America. Technology is fun.

    The next day, we got dim sum again and waited in some ridiculously long line to board. Vancouver simply doesn't have the port facilities to handle more than one cruise ship boarding at a time, and they were doing three while we were there. (F- Vancouver. Would not repeat.) It took about 4 hours to get on board, with a pair of Chinese women ramming their wheel luggage into our Achilles' heels every step of the way. We kept looking at them, and the Sisters of the Immaculate Luggage simply didn't care. After the 4th or 5th time they did this, when they rammed it into my heel, I accidentally intentionally back-kicked their luggage and immediately turned around an apologized that I didn't know their luggage was so close. I then held my umbrella tucked under my arm with the point facing back toward them. They kept their space after that.

    The Cruise itself was decent - I gave Princess a B-, Macy a B. I got seasick for the first time in my life on it (not enough to puke, just enough that I didn't feel like dancing or moving around very much), so I spent most of the first two days either sitting on or staring out over our balcony. In retrospect, we didn't need a balcony, and could have saved the money, since being outside when its 20 degrees is a time-limited event. But even still, some of my best memories from the trip come from grabbing a steaming cup of coffee, and then sitting on the balcony, watching the small islands of the Inner Passage drift by in the mist. Also saw a whale.

    The food on the cruise ship was surprisingly bad, something I'd never experienced before. I'm hardly someone who sticks up his nose at food, but this really was bad. Saran-wrap sandwiches, with a thin slice of meat between two dried slices of bread? My lord, man, I can get better than that at a 7-11! And that's the only protein in the whole buffet? At dinner, none of the dishes were especially good, and many were especially bad. They served hot soup cold, and the servers never could really be bothered to come by with water. Which would have been fine, except I bought the bottled water, and they don't leave it on your table so you can even serve yourself. We ended up just paying for food on the cruise (which I suspect was their point all along) - all the for-pay stuff on the cruise was excellent. They no longer give coffee or tea for free on the cruise, but when you do ($20 for the whole cruise), it was *excellent*. Likewise, Macy and I had one of the best meals of our lives on the sit-down Italian place (20$ upcharge per person). Was something like a 20-course meal, all of which were good, that took place over the course of 3 hours. You don't order - they just bring you out dish after dish, and you point at the ones you want them to serve you. We shared the meal with an older couple from Australia (a beach town outside Brisbane) that we'd met on the Whistler trip. The conversation was also pretty interesting.

    Every night on the cruise, Macy and I would go down to the wine bar, order a drink (virgin for Macy), since each drink came with a plate of sushi. Again, since we had to pay for it, it was excellent. We'd sit and listen to a string quartet (the Midnight Cafe Quartet), who were really, really good. They'd play everything from classical pieces to movie themes.

    Ok, the cruise itself:
    Juneau - We got off the ship, took a quick bus around a circuit of the town (it's a really small city for a capital) and then headed off the AJ Mine / Gastineau Mill, which was located in the wonderfully-named Thane, Alaska. Here's my review on Yelp: "If you get a chance to visit Juneau, I highly recommend checking this place out. The people who work the place are all miners, or relatives of miners who own this functioning gold mine. They give you a very nice and detailed talk on the history of the mine, and how it operated, and then take you around to the different bits of machinery in the area where the ore was mined, transported, crushed, and processed. You're then taken into the mine itself (which had been operating as a training mine for new miners, so a lot of the equipment is still inside, and functional), where a gold miner will teach you even more about the experience, and actually operate a power drill and a ore scooper for you. You know a tour is going to be good, when they hand you a hard hat and earplugs. =) At the end of it, you can tour more of the facilities, and try your hand at panning some of the gold from the mine tailings which still sit on the beach there. Warning: it's really cold inside the mine. My wife got a migraine from it (she doesn't deal well with cold temperatures on her forehead) and spent the next day puking and quarantined on the cruise ship. Overall, though, highly recommended. The people are wonderful, and it has a feeling of authenticity you don't get from the "Gold Rush" theme parks experiences elsewhere in the region."

    So, yeah, long story short - it was awesome, but it took Macy out for a day. The cruise ship quarantined her even though it was a migraine causing her to become a Pukachu. Fun fact - they have a different and healthy menu for people who are quarantined, and the food on it is actually really good. Ask your doctor!

    Skagway - Awesome historical town, if you're a person who likes history and/or trains. We went to a garden there that used to make big bank selling greens to the miners up in the Yukon during the Stampede. (Let's pause here and let you review for context.) It's now a decorative garden, where they still grow food and serve tea and biscuits or crumpets or whatever they're called. Would have been nicer if the plants there all didn't think it was still *winter*, and were hibernating. Still, the tea was really good, and I got to talk Portal 2 with a kid who was working there for the season, up from Orange County.

    Macy then bowed out of the rest of the day, still not feeling good from the migraine. She went on a historic tour of the Red Onion, I think, which sounded kind of interesting. Her husband instead went on a train ride on the White Pass & Yukon line, which was amazing. They'd built it to service the gold miners up in Dawson, but the gold had been mined out by the time that they'd really completed it. Likewise, in WWII the Army had expanded it, but then never really used it. So it's basically just a train through some of the most amazing terrain on the planet that doesn't really go anywhere. (If you're backpacking, you can hop off the train at any point, go hiking, and then hike back on a later train coming back.) Saw a grizzly bear (we saw one on the bus ride to the mine in Juneau, too, and like that one, it was an adolescent with no mother) about 20 feet away from me, while I was hanging off the side of the train. There's a neat old high-altitude bridge (, a couple tunnels, and a narrator sitting inside of each train, explaining what you're seeing, and what happened back during the stampede. I kept alternating between hanging off the side of the train, and going back inside to listen to the lady whenever she started speaking.

    Fun fact: You have seen those photos of the pour folks climbing up the icy hillside? Look at this one: Chilkoot Pass

    Now look at those people on the right hand side of the photo. See them? They're sliding back down. Why? Because the Mounties wouldn't let anyone cross into Yukon Territory without 1000 pounds of supplies, and so people had to make multiple trips up the Chilkoot. As in: about 40 trips per person. And after each trip, you get to pay someone to watch your stuff, and slide on your ass back down the mountain, and do it all again.

    That's just to begin, too. Then you get to do the 40 mile hike up the mountains into Canada (this is what the railroad was basically built to bypass - and before the railroad, there was a toll road an enterprising man built. Though the miners tended to get off the trail and bypass the toll stations whenever the geography allowed it. The toll road builder still made a profit, though) until you get to a series of lakes. Then you get to build a boat (yourself - hope you know what you're doing) after which you get to sail hundreds of miles downriver through a series of dangerous rapids to Dawson. Many people's boats sank in the rapids, since *they built them themselves*. Then you're in Dawson, home of the gold rush, where everything is ridiculously expensive (all food needs to be hauled in the same way), but you have a chance of striking it rich. Alternatively, you could take a steamboat up from Seattle, around Nome, and up the Yukon River until making it to Dawson ( Which, while it sounds safer, wasn't the preferred method of travel.

    More fun facts: 10% of people struck gold in significant amounts in Dawson. 10% of those struck massive gold deposits, and became fabulously wealthy. And if your claim wasn't paying out enough? You could work for $7/day on the claims of the people that did strike gold, which was a lot of money in 1898. It cost less than half that to live there, so you would make bank there even if you didn't get lucky. And those were actually pretty damn good odds of making it big.

    After the train ride, I cruised around the town for a bit, got a bite to eat in a Skagway tavern (they make their own beer there with spruce tips - high in Vitamin C, since the miners got scurvy - and very delicious), and checked in on the internet for the only time on the cruise.

    Glacier Bay - The next day was entirely at sea, in Glacier Bay National Park. Rangers came onboard to explain the nature to a bunch of hunched-up, miserable tourists on deck. As the first cruise of the season, it was still really, really cold on deck. Macy took one look at it, and with her forehead still iffy from the gold mine, promptly retired to watch from the cabin. I spent some time on deck chatting with the ranger, watching the glaciers calve off into the sea, nervously watching the cruise ship run through a sea of icebergs (I talked to the navigator about this - anything smaller than a bus, they simply run into it at a very low speed, and it gets pushed out of the way. Anything bigger than a bus, and rocks, they avoid. They also have lookouts posted all around the ship to avoid a Titanic), and tried without success to spot any life in the area other than some birds. There's supposed to be seals, etc., but my guess is they just packed it up for the day. It was really, really cold. The fact that Native Americans not only lived there, but hunted the seals in kayaks there is just amazingly impressive. After an hour or so, even I (who has a pretty good cold tolerance, and was in full ski gear) had to pack it up to the sky bar with Macy, and watch the scenery go by with some hot chocolate.

    With nothing much else going on, we played a bit of ping pong, and got schooled by the older Chinese ladies playing nearby.

    Ketchikan - Ketchikan is a nice little city, that I really wish we'd had more time to explore. With it taking an hour to get on, and an hour to get off (it's things like this, Princess...) on a 4-hour stop, it basically meant I had to scrap my plans to go hiking there. We ended up just taking a Duck Tour around town, and then out into the bay (it's an amphibious bus). Highlight of the tour was cruising around on the bay with amphibious planes landing one after another on each side of us. I got some photos of it.

    I also saw where the famous Bridge to Nowhere was supposed to go - basically, Ketchikan is in a really rough mountainous area, so they can't built an airport there. Its airport is on an island nearby. When the seas are rough, or they're getting a lot of weather, people can't travel to and from the airport. The bridge would have made it an all-weather airport, and opened the region up to more reliable tourism. The tour guide was sort of philosophical about it though, saying weather is just one of the prices you pay for living in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

    Victoria - Victoria was another 4-hour stop, which meant by the time we got off the boat, and took the bus into town, we didn't really have time to see what I wanted to show to Macy (the Butchart Gardens), and it was getting dark anyway. So we walked around beautiful Victoria, which brought back a bit of notalgia to me, as the bus dropped us off on the harbor right where my family had spent some time in the summer of 1991 - I still remember how pleasant it was in '91, with the lights through the darkness, some musicians playing on the waterfront, and all my family there and reasonably happy. So I took Macy there, held her hand for a second, and then went to get some Chinese food in its Chinatown. We wandered around the street scene for a while (it really is a charming and beautiful old town), bought some books at the bookstore (Macy was burning through the Simon R Green Nightside series on the trip), and then went back to the boat. A+. Would visit again.

    The last bit of the trip, as the short stops show, was mainly at sea. I did a lot of jogging around the ship's mid-level observation deck. I think I did about 5 miles a day, which is quite a bit higher than my average day of zero miles. But I was eating a lot, and getting anxious from lack of exercise. Macy and I did do a 30-minute class in the gym, which was pretty crazy intense, but since it was about half burpies, I did not go again. Like with most cruises I went on, I was actually pretty good about exercising every day, and came back from the trip down a few pounds. Though I have to attribute the poor quality of the food on the trip to some of this weight loss, as well as the fact that since I've been restricting my sugar intake, there wasn't a whole lot of options for me, anyway.

    Seattle - Disembarking from the cruise was every bit as bad as every cruise disembarktion, with this one compounded by the fact they mistagged/lost my luggage. So I had to hunt through every pile of luggage coming from the ship for about 2 hours until I found them all. After that, Macy and I went on a brief tour of Seattle, which included a trip to the Space Needle, and a nearby museum which was running a BSG exhibit. The highlight of the tour was passing by Boeing Field, and seeing a prototype Dreamliner ( take off right next to us.

    Overall, trip was great. Canada is an awesome country - Macy and I have done trips there about three years out of the last five - and full of wonderful people. Princess Cruises, a cruise line that I went with because of the high marks it got on its food and service on the Alaska trip, was... disappointing. I doubt I'll go with them again. Originally, our plan had been to go to Japan in May, but due to the tsunami and earthquake, we rebooked to this trip instead (losing about $1500 in airfare, bleh), but looking back at it, I'm glad we ended up going to Alaska instead of Japan. Other than Massachusetts, It's the one state I've really wanted to go to in my life, and going by cruise really is the best way of seeing this stuff - Glacier Bay Nat'l Park, for example, is only open to cruise ships. Getting wine and sushi with Macy each night, while listening to an amazing string quartet, while watching the waves and islands roll by out the window, was a great experience.
    Monday, February 21st, 2011
    5:46 pm
    The Runelords Series
    I really wanted to like this series. The world is well crafted, with a fascinating magic series, and a fast-moving plot. But as I worked through the first and now the second books, I found myself reacting more and more negatively to it. So I started taking notes as I read it, trying to figure out why. At the end of the book, I settled on four major issues with the series that really sabotage its potential:

    1) The magic system is abhorrent, and aside from some idle musings which the main character later rejects, *nobody in the entire world seems to notice this.* Sure, the Runelords pay lip service to the fact that they're essentially stealing peoples' eyesight, grace, strength, or whatever ("always mindful of the sacrifices" say the 'ethical' ones). But they all ignore the sheer perversity of a system in which people *volunteer to commit suicide*, in order to allow a runelord to be able to dance like a ballet dancer for a few years - i.e., until the dedicate dies a horribly painful death. Why do the peasants put up with this? Why are the runelords oblivious to the enormity of a person volunteering their grace to a newborn baby? Is it really worth a human life for a baby to be dexterous for the first 3 to 5 years of their life? After which the dedicate dies, and another one must be found?

    Everyone in the world possesses a complete, giant, blindness to the evil of the system. Only the southerners, in which these attributes are stolen by force or compulsion, is the world even slightly believable in this regard.

    2) Compounding #1, the main character is a self-righteous, sanctimonious little man. He's a badly written Jesus-analogue, with lines like, "Give up alcohol, and you may follow me!" And he's the only person in the world that even toys with the notion that endowments are evil, and yet after arguing this with his wife, he lets her convince him (in the span of a paragraph) that it's better to do evil anyway.

    Most of the northerners have what you'd call traditional family values - and yet they live in a world and actively participate in something worse than human slavery. It's a very jarring combination, as if the good characters from Narnia were living in a George RR Martin universe.

    3) #2 has but one example of Farland's complete inability to write character development or growth. In one page, a character will be introduced as a womanizer, an alcoholic, a rapist, a political saboteur, and so forth. In the next chapter, they're suddenly devoted family men, teetotalers, bodyguards to the women they were going to rape, and ardent supporters of the person they were going to sabotage. *With no convincing explanation why* - no inner struggle, no internal monologue, nothing. It's always too facile: "Oh, well you made fun of me for drinking, so I gave it up." Said the alcoholic.

    It is utterly maddening reading Farland's characters, as they make massive personality changes at the drop of a hat, with no motivation why.

    4) The time span is too short. While this was something I liked originally, and appreciated as something a bit different, trying to force each of the books into a 48 hour time period makes for utterly ridiculous situations sometimes. In the first book, the main character asks a noble (who has already sent out his army) to come up with some shields. The noble says that if he were to scour the neighboring countryside, he'd be able to turn up, oh, say, twelve thousand shields. Let alone the improbability of an army's worth of shields being found in the neighboring hamlets, the most ridiculous thing is the amount of time it'll take the noble to gather twelve thousand shields from the countryside - one hour.

    This book continues that unfortunate trend, with Farland's shallow attempts at doing character development (see #3) oftentimes being made ridiculous by the short time span of the books. For example, in this book a secondary character says that she knows the main character "stays awake at nights worrying about his subjects", which is ridiculous since 1) She met the guy like 12 hours before, 2) He fell asleep the one night she knew him for, 3) He'd been a king for just a couple days anyway, which is a bit too soon to have a routine to fall into. But this sort of thing is found throughout the book, as if Farland originally wrote it taking place over several months, and then missed all the references to routine left in when he changed it into an episode of "24". 4) A character tries to learn archery one day, and is horrible at it. Then the next day, she's thinking to herself, "I can't take the shot at further than 80 yards..." and manages to kill an epic monster with two arrows. It's completely unbelievable.

    Minor issues: Finally, there's lot of small errors in the books that sort of leap out at you, too. In one chapter, a wizard says he's 450 years old. Two chapters later, the guy he told it to thinks to himself, "I don't know how old Binnesman is, exactly, but I know he's old!" Or that in order to push the plot in a short time span, characters are constantly warned they're going to kill their horses, but the horses never seem to run out of gas. Or that the main character, despite only having one magical power (Earth Sight/Choosing/Telepathy) refers to his "powers" as still developing, but that he absolutely knows he can't command dust to move out of the way on a march, without even bothering to see if he *is* able to do it. He's just very complacent with his one special ability, until the author decides he needs new powers. Or that the green lady can be commanded with a secret password - which every character shouts out loud every time they get a chance. Or that every time Spock, Kirk, and Ensign Ricky go on a mission together, you know exactly which one Farland is going to kill off... he has a rotating series of tertiary named characters whose sole role is to get named so that they can die in a variety of stupid fashions. Or that "The Brotherhood of the Wolf" has absolutely nothing to do with the book, and is just an unmotivated throwaway scene at the end of the book.

    Is the book all bad? No, not at all. I'd really like to like this series - the fast pace keeps the energy levels up high, while the battle scenes and humor are generally well executed. But I'm going to finish book 3, and if it's as flawed as Books 1 and 2, that'll be the end of it for me. There's not many fantasy series that I start and never finish (Terry Goodkind, I'm looking at you), but this unfortunately looks like it's going to be one of those. For someone who teaches writing workshops, there's just too many glaring problems with these books.
    Saturday, January 1st, 2011
    2:35 pm
    2010 in a Nutshell
    Here's 2010 in a nutshell:
    1) Married life continued very happily with Macy. We've settled into a routine which basically involves me buying food to surprise her when she gets off work late at night, and she does the same for me. Her days off we spend most of our time together, except when I have work (which happens pretty often). We're looking to have a kid in 2011, so that'll probably mix things up.

    2) Lots and lots of travel. I drove the San Diego to Fresno route a couple dozen times, and went out to the Bay Area a half dozen times in 2010. Flew across the country three or four times, and lots of trips as well to Indiana and elsewhere. Mostly business this year - no big trip like in 2009 (when we went to Europe and Japan both) - my only long vacation in 2010 was to Gencon, though I did a few weekend trips with Macy.

    3) On that note, bought a new car. 170k miles on the XV (1998 Buick Regal) meant that it needed a few thousand in maintenance in 2010, and I began getting paranoid it would break down on the way to one of my workshops, which would be rather unprofessional. So I bit the bullet and got a new car (2011 Altima Hybrid), which after doing the math with the number of miles I put on a car each year, was the mathematical winner. It also had dual climate control (what Macy calls "Marriage-saving AC") and no moonroof. Moonroof = no head space for Bill, and they're becoming unpleasantly common on all makes and models of cars these days.

    4) Best book of the year: The Black Prism by Brent Weeks. Brandon Sanderson had two massive books come out this year (and an Alcatraz), but surprisingly I gave them both 4 stars on Amazon - they both needed to be more harshly edited by himself and Harriet. I also finally read the First Law series by Joe Abercrombie, which was excellent. It's not in many bookstores, but it's well worth picking up from Amazon. I also read a lot of other novels, which I should probably get around to summarizing some day.

    5) Best video game of the year: Fallout New Vegas by Obsidian. I've become sort of a junkie for open-ended video games, and I find myself rather spoiled by all the possible ways of playing through a game such as Fallout or Way of the Samurai when I play something like Fable 3. I couldn't take Fable, though Macy beat it a couple times. However, I did manage to beat Way of the Samurai 3 two minutes before midnight on New Years Eve 2010, so I barely made it by the deadline. I also enjoyed Civ V a bit, though it's a very flawed game, and played through the single player on Starcraft 2 (I have no interest in competitive play these days, so the main point of the game is lost on me). In 2010 I played a lot of cooperative games with Goon and Gavin. Halo: Reach, Gears of War 2 (still), and so forth. Also bought a couple games involving the Second Punic War, which let me play out Hannibal's campaign over the Alps. We were going to go to the Alps in the summer, but buying a house put the kibosh on that.

    6) Bought a house. Macy and I have been saving up for a long time now, renting small apartments, and with the housing market as it is now, we were able to afford a nice house at a reasonable price. One of the real benefits to living in Fresno. However, it's 22 years old, and the previous owner rented it out and didn't care much for maintenance. So we've had to spend a lot of time and effort fixing the place up. At least we've finally finished unpacking. I mostly know where my stuff is now.

    7) Best Music of the Year: The soundtrack to Red Dead Redemption.

    8) Best Movie of the Year: None of them really interested me.

    9) Best TV Show of the Year: Tower Prep

    The computer I built in 2004 is still going strong. This scares me.

    Current Mood: good
    Sunday, September 26th, 2010
    10:40 pm
    I was going to do a mega-post on all the events that have taken place since June, but I just had a wonderful evening with Macy, talking about a number of different things, but all linked together.

    One of my favorite TV shows of all time was called Connections, by James Burke. Let me give something similar shot. What do the following have in common:
    1) We bought a house
    2) Going to France in May 2009
    3) Went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art yesterday (9/25/2010)
    4) Seeing a Chinese art exhibit in San Francisco this morning (9/26/2010)
    5) The Iliad and the Aeneid
    6) Eleanor of Aquitaine
    7) Going to Italy in Summer 1999

    So, where to begin...

    We bought a house. On a lake, needed a lot of repairs, and we also bought some new furniture for it. Our bed set we picked up from Macy's was called the Du Barry ( At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, they had the original and most famous portrait of Du Barry herself (, who was the official mistress of Louis XV, rival of Marie Antoinette. She was beheaded during the Terror, but otherwise seemed to be a charming enough person. Though a bit airheaded. ( Du Barry and Marie fought for influence in court. This transitions nicely into a parallel story several hundred years earlier between Henri II (, Diane de Poitiers (, and Catherine de Medici ( Diane, who is one of the most fascinating females in French history, used her influence to edge out a Medici from holding any power for twenty years, while running her own businesses, renovating Chenonceau ( which I visited in 2009), while being an avid huntress and guardian of the Crown Jewels of France. Among many other things - her biography is well worth reading.

    Anyhow, backpedaling a bit, that whole situation was caused by a couple major factors:

    Francis I of France (Henri's father) fought a war (well, a series of wars - with Siena and Venice and the Pope against Florence and the Holy Roman Empire and England and the Pope. (Isn't European history fun? The Pope fought on both sides.) Florence eventually wins, destroying the Republic of Siena, immortalized in a gigantic painting 9 I saw on the wall of the Palazzo Vecchio when I visited Florence in 1999, but that's skipping ahead to Henri's days. The French also lose 30 years earlier at the Battle of the Pavia, and the King (Francis I) gets captured. He ransoms himself by sending his two kids as hostages to the Spanish, and then since he doesn't have any money to ransom them, leaves them stuck in a castle in the middle of nowhere in Spain for four years.

    Henri II was stuck in a castle for four years, with nothing to read but chivalric romances, kissed on his departure to be a hostage by Diane. He goes on to try to live a life of these knights, treating Diane as the ideal noblewoman, and himself as a knight-errant, eventually dying 20 or 30 years later in a jousting accident. Diane was assigned to teach him courtly manners when he was finally ransomed (at the age of 12), and even though she was 20 years older than him, he had a thing for her. She used all her charm and wit to take the position of power in the court that the Queen normally has, leading to a rivalry with Catherine de Medici (though they were relatives, and Diane supported Catherine (preventing the king from divorcing her) de Medici who was born and raised to be a master politician. For example, Catherine de Medici, as we learned at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, parlayed her small stature from a point of weakness to an advantage, by not only inventing high heels, but also by declaring that all women larger than her in a corset (a 12" waist) were "fat". Leading to hundreds of years of European women forcing themselves into corsets to meet her standard of beauty. (Clever, eh?)

    Diane spent a lot of her time and money working on Chenonceau, but after Henri died, her influence vanished (Catherine blocked her from attending Heri as he died in agony, even though he was repeatedly calling out for her...) Catherine got herself named regent (remember, she was a Medici!), exiled Diane from court, stole Chenonceau from her, and proceeded to remodel the Chateau in her own style. He tore out a lot of Diane's crescent moons (her adopted symbol - she saw herself as Diane of the Hunt). He couldn't rip out the DP/H symbols she'd put everywhere, but she did vandalize them to turn the D's into C's. She also left Diane's wonderful garden, but built her own next to it as a way of showing she could outdo her. Diane's is flowing and organic, Catherine's is linear and brutally organized. So when you visit today, you see marks of Diane, Henri, and Catherine scattered in various places throughout the chateau. Fascinating stuff, and the audio tour at the place only barely touches on a fraction of all of this great story.

    Transitioning from there to a discussion with Macy of the historic conceptions of romance, we talked about the troubadors of Eleanor of Aquitaine's court, how Eleanor chastised Richard the Lionhearted in front of his troops for not making an heir before heading off on crusade, and then talking about ancient stories, such as the conversation Scott and we had about "romance" (or lack thereof) in the Iliad, and comparing that to the Aeneid (which had a romantic love story between Aeneas and Dido) and ancient Chinese stories about romantic love.

    Connecting that to San Francisco Airport. SFO's United terminal has a fascinating exhibit of the meaning of symbols in Chinese artwork. I have a book on the subject (The Meaning of Chinese Symbols), which is intended to help with giving and receiving gifts from Chinese people, but since it is almost entirely devoid of illustrations, it is kind of useless. This exhibit actually references that book, but has dozens of works of art demonstrating how the symbols are used. A hundred fat babies, lotus pedals, etc. indicate a wish for lots of (boy) babies. A pair of ducks represents fidelity in marriage (which is why you, uh, eat ducks during a traditional Chinese marriage reception). Four cranes represent longevity, as does the fungus of immortality, and many other symbols. They also have a ton of puns to convey meaning, using words which sound like "fu" (luck) to represent luck, words that sound like money to mean money (like Koi/Carp), and so forth. Fascinating exhibit. I took lots of photos for Macy to look at.

    Anyhow, enough for now. I'm worn out from Philly. I'll update about my summer later.

    Current Mood: ecstatic
    Wednesday, September 8th, 2010
    11:31 pm
    The Way of Kings Review
    Review of The Way of Kings ( by Brandon Sanderson (

    Normally I don't give criticism to a book I really enjoy for "being too long" - after all, most of us wish our favorite books were a little bit longer. However, in this case, there was probably 200-300 pages of material that could have been safely cut from the book, as many chapters were essentially duplicates of previous ones. A chapter about a character worrying about going crazy, or suffering as a grunt in an army is interesting. Having multiple chapters that are in essence identical to each other is... too much. It's possible that I've been spoiled by Sanderson's short stories, in which he's able to convey epic breath and scope in stories only 20 or 30 pages long, complete with world building and interesting character development. Sanderson himself spelled the solution to this problem in his Alcatraz books - you can either dedicate 200 pages to tediously talking about how a guy crossed a desert, or you can just say "he spent months crossing the desert." I honestly think this book would have been tighter with multiple chapters from each of the viewpoint characters chopped and combined.

    Now, criticism out of the way, the book is excellent. By the end of book, the reader is going to be treated to several very delicious plot points, which will undoubtedly lead to lots of speculation on theoryland websites until the next book is finished. Even though this book is just the first in a series, with nothing really resolved with any of the viewpoint characters, enough significant plot happens to each of them that you feel satisfied with the wait.

    Even more interesting is the moral system Sanderson is creating with this series. Besides a nebulous "Odium" figure which we never meet or see (a devil-analogue, perhaps), there's no villains in the work. The "voidbringers" that are responsible for nearly destroying the world a hundred times over fight with more honor than the "good" kingdoms that mainly squabble amongst themselves and oppress the poor. Likewise, there's no truly good characters in the book - the poor 'freedom fighter' is consumed with hatred for the rich, the rich (even the 'perfect general') brutally use the poor as slaves and cannon fodder, the 'honorable assassin' and his employer are highly moral that follow a strict path that results in complete atrocities, the 'helpful sailor' is a cheat at dice, the young 'good king' is a compulsive paranoid, the 'good brother' tortures animals, and so forth. You find real darkness in every 'good' character in the book.

    I find this interesting as Sanderson's typical heroes are a bit flawed, but essentially good characters at their core (cf Elantris, Mistborn, Alcatraz) that eventually assert their heroic nature and triump. In this book, the characters all have actual evil tendencies or nightmarish actions in their past. It will be interesting to see what he does with this different breed of character.

    It's an outstanding work of epic fantasy, and I can't wait for the next installment.
    Friday, May 28th, 2010
    4:12 am
    Naked Drunk Attack!
    Headed down to SD and going to be out of own for over two weeks, so making a quick update before I go.

    Looking back on my schedule, we've done some interesting stuff in the last few months:
    1) Went to the Sakura Festival in SF's Japantown with Macy. Had a lot of good times there.

    2) Played a few Shadowrun games, which had let me experiment a bit with running sandbox-style roleplaying games. Harder than it seemed at first, but I'm happy with the amount of freedom the PCs have in the game. It does involve reading a lot of background information on the world, so that when the PCs arbitrarily decide to find an expert on blood magic, I know about this one immortal elf chick in the Tir...

    3) We're buying a house in Fresno. So far everything has gone smoothly. (This is when an ominous voice says, "...Too smoothly.") I actually like the house - most of Fresno architecture seems to involve really pretentious arches and pillars, which is just not my style. This house would fit into a San Diego suburb, except it's on a lake and such. There's a certain amount of work that needs to be done on it, but I think we got a reasonable price, and the seller is fixing a lot of the problems as it is.

    4) Travels. In the last few months have been to: New Jersey, San Jose, Indianapolis, Vegas, LA for a gaming con (and going to one today, in fact), and a bunch of trips back and forth between Fresno and San Diego. Nearly weekly from February through April, which was really draining, especially when combined with the 100 hour workweeks and stress from grant season. Those months were not fun this year, mainly because when grant season ended, we immediately started working on more grants - I normally need about a week off after grant season ends to unwind, and I never got it.

    5) Read a fair number of books. The Night Angel series was pretty good (was the series Royal Assassin should have been). The Dies the Fire series was pretty bad (but still enjoyable - the SCA takes over the world after electricity and gunpowder stops working). Black Ships was a retelling of the Aeniad that was worse than the original. Been reading a fair number of Terry Pratchett books, which are like eating humorous popcorn. On the non-fiction front, I've read a fair amount of physics books, especially on relativity and cosmology, and am now moving into Cold War history, especially on the Venona transcripts and Russian espionage. Pearl Harbor was at least partially the fault of Russian agents provoking a war between the US and Japan, so as to get Japan off their eastern border.

    6) Games. Played some good video games recently. Tried a couple of the indie game bundles that came out recently, with sort of mixed feelings about them, with no real standouts. I do like Mound and Blade Warband, which is a sort of non-magical fantasy world sandbox, in which there's no overall questline or story beyond objectives you set for yourself. (Dwarf Fortress is sort of the same way, but I haven't climbed the learning curve for that yet.) Mount and Blade has some of the best mounted combat ever though - when you put together a warband of 40 heavy cavalry and go charging with your lances lowered towards a bunch of vikings on foot... you just end up feeling bad for the poor guys. It actually does a great job simulating the feel of medieval heavy warfare. The trouble is, it's done by a small team, so there's really not a lot of stuff to do in the game after a while, so once you've deposed your king, married a princess, and brought war to the other nations of the world, that's sort of it. I'm looking forward to mod packs, though.

    Dynasty Warriors: Strikeforce is fun and ridiculous all at the same time - it's sort of an RPG set in ancient China, except an ancient China where people fly around the battlefield launching magic missiles at each other. And at giant robotic tigers, undead Lu Bus, and phoenix guardians.

    God of War III was good, and about what you'd expect - over the top carnage, and ridiculous awesomeness through and through.

    Got back into Magic Online. Pro: I miss playing Magic, and being able to play multiplayer magic 24/7 is a huge selling point for me. Con: You need to invest about $400 into cards before you have anywhere near the card stock necessary to start building good decks. You also can't buy older decks (they have cards online going back to Mirage), which means you need to spend large amounts of time trading for things even as basic as Counterspells and Dark Rituals (because they don't exist in the current format).

    The best game to come out recently, though, is Red Dead Redemption, which is essentially a sandbox Western based generally on the films of Sergio Leone. It has a brilliant soundtrack. I listened to it all the way out and back to San Jose on Monday - coming home, sun setting behind me, painting the hills of the Pacheco Pass in brilliant gold, cows ahead of me grazing beneath a tree, while listening to the soundtrack... awesome.

    7) Red Dead Redemption also got me into the mood for the Fresno Field Trip I went on last Saturday. We had a Native American and an anthropologist take us around the county to various historical places, where they showed us 6000 year old rock art (just on some rancher's field), old Indian camp grounds (where they'd dig for roots to make baskets), an old cemetery (where Bill Coate had done work researching a former slave who came to America before the Civil War, but died in the late 1880s with $15,000 left to his wife) and a Vulcan aggregate mining site, where the foreman went off on how environmentally conscious the company is. And to his credit, it looks like he's right. Every mining area they have there has a reclamation plan, and the reclaimed areas look no different than normal grassland in the area.

    8) I taught a class on global warming for Goon's economics class again this year. Did it on Earth Day; not a single kid carpooled (except a brother/sister team). It went well, and hopefully expanded their minds a bit on the subject. At the end of the year, half the kids in the class talked about my lecture in the things-they-learned, so that kind of warms my heart. (Of course, it was mainly on mistakes Al Gore made in An Inconvenient Truth, but whatever. =)

    9) Got attacked by the Naked Hmong in my apartment complex. Was trying to find parking at 2AM on Sunday after getting some Denny's with Goon (as we're wont to do from time to time) and saw this guy passed out in a pool of his own urine in a parking stall, wearing nothing but his underwear. He was shivering badly (it has been cold in Fresno recently), and looked unconscious, so I stopped my car and asked him if he was okay. He came to, looked pretty dazed, and started yelling "Alex!" over and over again. He then got up, stared at me, and started charging me. (With all the speed of a man with so much alcohol in his system he'd passed out, which is to say, not very fast at all.) I used my 15 years of martial arts training to dodge out of the way as he came at me, speaking in a foreign language I didn't recognize. He looked Hmong, but I could be wrong. I kept telling him, loudly, "I'm trying to help you, dude. Do you have a home around here? GO HOME!" But he wasn't really understanding me. I kept my hands up to fend him off when he got close, but I didn't really feel like beating the crap out of him, so I just kept backing away as he came at me.

    He then noticed he was wearing urine-soaked underwear, and took them off. I said, "Dude, I really don't want to see that" - and he laughed, then he started coming at me again. I said, ok, I'm out of here and got in the car. He CAME IN to the car after me, and started buffeting me around the face, and threw his underwear on my windshield.

    I'd had about enough at that point, so I got out of the car.

    Now, I should pause for a note here. There's a lot of ways of describing an attack of a naked guy on you, from the humorous (naked dude running around drunk), to the quiet terror of a pseudo-zombie clawing at your face from your car door, to a cautionary tale to be told to your daughter before she goes off to college, but honestly through the whole process up to this point, I was mainly just concerned about the guy, since he looked like he could have easily died of exposure, lying naked on asphalt on a cold night, or by choking on his own vomit, but when he came into the car after me, I had a brief moment of panic (because I couldn't dodge) and then got a bit annoyed.

    So I got out of the car, told the guy to take his damn urine-infested underwear off my windshield, which he promptly didn't understand. So I repeated myself about four time, motioning with my hands. He finally got it, took his underwear, yelled an obscenity (he obviously knew some English), and threw it across the alleyway. I then got back into my car, and locked the door this time. He tried breaking the window after me, and tried coming into the backseat, but again, it was locked. I drove off, and he tried running after me, but he was so drunk he just sort of staggered around.

    Could be a good parable for a zombie attack, I guess. Actually, that same day, I saw kids in the neighborhood playing Zombie Hunters - they were running around declaring various adults to be zombies, and pretending to shoot them. It warmed my heart to see the next generation brought up so properly.

    Anyhow, I drove across the street, parked, and called 911. They got a cop there within a minute or two, but the guy had vanished. I walked around looking for the guy (because I was still worried about him dying), and the cop drove around the complex with his floodlight on, but the guy was gone. Which, hopefully, means he made it back into his house safely.

    Current Mood: good
    Wednesday, April 14th, 2010
    2:55 pm
    Nationalism is a very interesting phenomenon. What makes people want to get their own country? What makes people happy to live in a country with "another" race/people/culture? There wasn't much ethnic Nationalism before the late 1800s. The Lithuanian nobles in the Lithuanian/Polish empire only spoke Polish, until they suddenly discovered their Lithuanian-ness at the same time that everyone else did, and then they praised the peasantry for preserving the "true culture", or whatever.

    Likewise, in Belgium to this day there is tension between the Flemish people in north Belgium and the Walloons in south Belgium. Belgium! Some people in the UN have said they'd be surprised if it lasts another 10 years. Who'd have thought it?

    According to Scott, the Ukranians are intentionally moving their language away from Russian. Not that I blame them.

    And like I said before, I'm friends with a Catalonian who wants independence from Spain, as does 40% of the people in his province (and the rest aren't Catalonians). They could always move to Andorra (an independent Catalonian microstate in the Pyrenees), but it's not very convenient for normal life, so they don't. They have their own national anthem (which is pretty good), which is basically about Catalonian farmers chopping the heads off of Spaniards. However, unlike the Nationalistic movements early in the 1900s, people like my friend seem quite unmotivated to set off bombs, or assassinate Archdukes, or whatever, in support of a self-deterministic country. These problems obviously still exist, though, in numerous countries, especially those who had their boundaries very poorly drawn after WWI or WWII, such is in the Balkans, the Middle East, and Africa.

    Woodrow Wilson was a big proponent of self-rule. They were part of his 14 talking points, which got mostly ignore at Versailles, except by one Ho Chi Minh, who asked him if "A free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims, based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government whose title is to be determined" meant that he'd support the Vietnamese people's claim for independence against France. Which Wilson promptly ignored, because he was (most likely) a racist. It does make one wonder what southeast Asia would look like these days if Wilson had supported the colony breaking away in a more peaceful fashion than what ended up going down. (Or vice versa, if the British Empire had never broken itself up.)

    Contrawise, there's a number of groups that don't want their own countries. Aztlanists aside, which are "considered outside the political mainstream" by La Raza (if the wikipedia article is to be believed), and so forth, there's a number of groups in America who are not asking for their own land. It probably is related to the notion of an ancestral homeland, which most Americans don't believe in. The Civil War was the only similar event in our history, and that had more to do with slavery and related issues than Nationalistic sentiment.

    Anyhow, I have no conclusion about the issue, just musing out loud. What makes a people want to be independent, and what makes them want it so much that they're willing to fight for it? Nationalistic sentiments rose like a wave in late 19th Century Europe, and now have mostly settled down... even Northern Ireland is supposed to be better these days. What causes these phenomena? What controls what a people consider to be possible or not possible? Even with all of our current partisan in-fighting, I don't know a single person that would want to form their own Tea Party Land, and yet people in the South voted against independence in the December after Lincoln got elected, and yet they all went independent a couple months later after South Carolina voted for independence. It doesn't appear to even be a possibility in our modern times, and yet Texas is moving toward greater independence of the federal government right now. I doubt there'll be another Civil War (unless something goes horribly wrong), or anything like that, but how our society will resolve this tension between the red and blue states remains to be seen.

    Current Mood: good
    Friday, April 2nd, 2010
    2:53 am
    Primary Sources
    Whenever you work on a subject too much, or for too long, it starts coloring your world outlook. When I was really into physics, I saw all the equations at work - while skiing, I'd note the charging of potential energy on a lift, and would time the snow falling to determine my height. A cup sliding across a table, coming to a sudden halt, was a perfect example of dynamic and static friction.

    One of the side effects of working on so many history grants is that in recent years I've started looking at current events from the point of view of a hypothetical historian looking back on these days from a hundred or a thousand years divide. How much of our current media will survive? How much of the internet (where so much of our social life is found) be preserved? Almost all portrayals of the use of the internet (and computers in general) are appallingly inaccurate, but movies like Hackers might be the only thing that survive into the future. Whenever you look at artifacts from the past, you see that people always assume that everyone understands the current context of the world around, so to Mr. Future Historian - computer science people do not actually look like Angelina Jolie. And if you don't know who that is, she's a pretty girl with big lips.

    In part, that's the reason I keep this journal, so I can record my thoughts to look back at, at a later date. I keep a local copy on my computer, too, just in case dies.

    In particular, the current debate over health care / Obamacare, the recession, and the Tea Party interests me from a future historians point of view. It's always very hard to tell what events will be historically important, and what details merely seem important, but will only be known to the few future historians studying the decade. If you look back on the number of trials dubbed "trials of the century" during the last century, you'll see what I mean. Most have been forgotten. But I do think, at least, our wars will be remembered (Gulf War I & II, Afghanistan, maybe the "War on Terror"), since historians always seem to fixate on wars. But unlike WWII or whatever, the presence of the wars has had a marginal impact on the daily lives of most Americans. Whereas WWII was a nation-wide movement (and made intentionally so by the government, by doing things like rationing items and encouraging recycling when they didn't need it, to bring it home), these wars only affect the people who have family or friends directly in the war. One of the masters at my TKD school has been to Afghanistan a couple times, and while it's still a big deal, it's not like "going off to war" was in previous years, when a person would be gone for years, and casualty rates were significantly higher.

    I'm tempted to think that the Tea Party movement will be studied in AP US History classes akin to how the Bull Moose party is studied today. Except there's yet to be a leader to emerge to lead it - Sarah Palin is the closest thing the Tea Party has to an icon, but she's got a snowball's chance in hell of actually running for president herself. In other words, there's no Teddy Roosevelt. The Republican Party has been running rudderless since the 2008 election, and they've been gamely trying to capitalize on the Tea Party's success, not realizing that they're almost as much a target for the anger as the democrats. The Tea Party's main concern is reckless spending, and Bush, McCain, and the rest of them were just as bad as Obama & Co. Well, perhaps not quite as bad, but pretty bad nonetheless. Of course, the Democrats have been pretending to be afraid of imaginary violence from the Tea Party, with Nancy Pelosi (future historians: current Speaker of the House) famously crying on television because she was so pretend-afraid. But the media has been running with this angle, so we'll see how it gets written down in future history books. It's also interesting how the facts are portrayed - when surveyed if people agree with the Tea Party on the issues, 14% agreed strongly, 45% agreed strongly or slightly, and 36% disagreed. So the front page of the LA Times today said "only 29% of people agree with the Tea Party" (using a different study), leaving out the very important statistic of how many people disagreed - thus giving an impression of a 2/3rds majority against the position, instead of a slight majority for. But a future historian could easily miss that, as could modern-day readers.

    I'm personally a bit ambivalent on the health care bill. There's three points that are really, really bad about it, and a few things that I somewhat like. Bad Point #1) The CBO estimates the cost of a bill by doing a 10 year projection; in a bit of accounting fraud that would make Enron proud (future historian: it's a company that used creative accounting to hide monetary problems), they tax for 10 years but start payments 4 years out, so it appears to be budget neutral, when it's really not. Bad Point #2) Has bribes. Bad point #3: Will encourage people to drop health insurance, and pick it up again when they get cancer. Good point: does something (at least) about health insurance companies and how they handle coverage. While it may bankrupt the companies and lead into socialized medicine, the current way they do business is borderline criminal. And insane: they won't even sell insurance to a large group of people that want to buy it (while I disagree with GRRM on a lot of things in this post, his anecdote about group insurance is something everyone should read: The current system really is designed just for employees of big corporations, and leaves individuals and small businessmen in the dust; the new system will hopefully fix this.

    As someone who voted Libertarian in the last election, this will sound really weird at first, but let me explain: I think we should extend medicare/medical to illegal immigrants. (That sound you hear is my dad having an apoplexy right now.) See, the thing is: we already provide free health care to them. It's the law: if a pregnant illegal immigrant crosses the border and shows up at a UCSD Medical Center Emergency Room, they have to deliver the baby, free of charge. So we already are giving away free health care. Except the health care isn't free - it never is. What happens is that other patients at the hospital have to pay extra on their bills to cover the health care of people that show up and demand free services. When the ratio of indigent patients to paying patients rises, the hospital has to end up charging so much that the normal patients go elsewhere for their treatment, and the hospital closes down. In the poorest areas that need hospitals the most. Hospitals have been shutting down at a very rapid rate in Southern California, but even the report on why they are closing refuses to study the subject beyond "financial difficulties" ( The EMTALA ( Law is what makes hospitals give out free service, without reimbursement. 55% of all ER visits are now uncompensated. This is horrendous.

    So, in other words, we already kinda sorta have socialized medicine. Half of all medical dollars are spent by the government, and this is not counting the wave-the-magic-wand "free" treatment that people get from EMTALA. It's just a haphazard, nonsensical system that puts hospitals out of business by mandating they have to provide free service to anyone who asks.

    I also support the notion of allowing anyone to buy into Medicare at cost. (If it's done at cost - I suspect that the taxpayers will end up paying for it anyway.) Medicare costs something like $650 per person per month. I say that if anyone wants to pay this, they should get the outstanding medical coverage one receives through Medicare (future historian: that's sarcasm - Medicare is horrible). There's a bill in Congress right now for this, though I doubt it'll pass. Also, with the health care bill slashing Medicare payouts, it's likely that even if you have Medicare, you'll have a hard time finding a hospital willing to take you. Given that something like half of all Medicare payments goes into fraud, you'd think that they'd institute a little better oversight of the program. Because, you know, it'll save about 10% of the federal budget - easily enough to pay off the extra debt we've accumulated through all this extra spending.

    But I doubt it. Though not well publicized, Mr. Future Historian, we're getting a tax raise across the board in California and at the Federal level as well. Does letting a tax break expire count as a tax raise? Yes. Yes, it does. And we're all *very* excited about doing our patriotic duty.

    Current Mood: good
    Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010
    12:10 am
    Ideation. Jan - Feb 2010
    The new decade has been coming along swimmingly. I've been doing a lot of thinking recently, on a couple different topics:
    1) Wavefunction Collapse, and what exactly it says about reality, and related topics in physics. I'm halfway convinced that the universe is non-locally real, but I want to do more reading before hand-waving tachyons all over the place.
    2) Issues with the legal system. We've institutionalized cowardice in our society, but I don't see any easy ways of fixing it. I kinda like some of the ideas here:
    3) Building optimized D&D characters (, just recently hit my 2000th post!
    4) Various topics in education and technology.
    5) What success means. Gladwell thinks you're successful if you make a billion dollars and/or win the Nobel Prize, but not if you get married and live a happy and fulfilling life.
    6) Various issues with climate change.

    Events in the Jan-Feb time frame:
    1) Got to play some D&D RPGA games again for the first time in a year, which made me happy. My team, the Amnish Carriage Drivers came in second place in a battle interactive, and Amir and I were not playing with a preset table (like the winners did). It was good to see a lot of old faces again... some people there hadn't played any RPGA games since the old Living City days. My warforged barbarian is a game away from 11th, and I've been dithering on what paragon path to pick for him. He's rolling pretty strong right now. Amir and I were chewing through all the enemies, including the bonus reinforcements we picked for each mission, and still made every target at "Total Success" except one (and that was due to the DM not really explaining what we should be doing very well).

    2) Had a brief trip to Vegas. Ate some food, looked at the City Center / Aria. Kind of bland and sterile... the decor is "A la UCSD". The buffet there looks just like the Muir Cafe on campus.

    3) Grant Season is again upon us. I won't have much life until March 22nd rolls past. However...

    4) Been doing a ton of workshops and evaluations. I've been up and down the state almost every week. Been exhausted really, but I've been really enjoying all the events. Got to offer advice to Chinese teachers (!) on how to teach Chinese, which was exceptionally bizarre, and got to listen to a great lecture by Kevin Brady on WWII. He focused on things like Stalinism, which was great - too many people know next to nothing about the evil things that guy did. EETT, TAHs, FLAP, PDAEs, all good times.

    5) Got to wrestle with Royce Gracie. Lasted 30 seconds without losing! (Someone else tapped out on the map, so he rotated past.) Got promoted ("definitely give this guy a stripe"). Woot!

    6) Been doing a lot of personal training sessions recently. I've been trying to exercise up to 6 times a week now, and I've been feeling a lot better than my normal 3-4 days of exercise. Though doing dual PT and Jiu-Jitsu (as I did tonight) led to me being sore as hell for skiing.

    7) Went skiing with Nick, Derek and David Pham. Snowed a lot, took forever to get up there. My goggles fogged and I was skiing blind, so I called it after just a couple runs. Got a bit of experience skiing in fluffy powder, but I'm still not good at it. Fell. David fell too, and got stuck in a drift up to his ears for about half an hour till he floundered his way out. Was nice having Pham visit us for the weekend. Now I just need to get Brian Park to come up at some point.

    8) Life with Macy is excellent. Been watching a lot of Fringe and Blood+. Macy refuses to finish BSG, and Dexter Season 3 is on hold with just a few episodes to go. Macy doesn't like finishing things, because then they're over.

    9) Got to do a belated Chinese New Year with Macy's family. Visited her grandfather in the nursing home, ate a delicious feast cooked by her mother. She made hairy mushrooms, but took the hair off half of them because she was afraid I wouldn't like them (she's very thoughtful). Her father cracked open a 70s-era bottle of wine he'd been saving for a special occasion. Delicious, with very interesting flavors in it. I think he wanted to drink it at our wedding, but Macy decreed that our wedding would be dry. Went to their church (Evergreen SGV) which lectured on success. (Success is putting God first, and having good relations with one other, NOT money, power, or prestige, Mr. Gladwell.)

    Current Mood: good
    Tuesday, December 29th, 2009
    3:27 am
    Year 32
    Just got back home after an invigorating 32nd birthday. As we've done now 3 years out of 4, we played a giant game of Civilization using the updated rules and map made by the now-defunct Civ Project (archive still up at Spain/Dad launched a blitzkreig raid into Carthage/Macy and had her on the ropes for a while until the Celts/Amanda filled up their low-agriculture provinces and came pouring down into northern Iberia. He got crushed and quit the game. Rome (the Celts' husband), Africa and the Celts divvied up Spain peacefully and didn't fight at all the rest of the game. In the east, Turkey/Me and Assyria/Jason fought a very bloody war for a long time. Crete/David invaded the tip of Asia Minor but otherwise left me alone. I also had conflicts with Greece/Katie and Egypt/Bree which left my civilization marginalized for the first half of the game (I had to keep my Civ small so that I could go after Jason), but I managed to cripple Jason as well. By the end of the game, though, it meant I, Jason and Rome (who got incredibly unlucky in terms of calamaties in the game, twice losing all of his cities, causing Backslide) were fighting it out for last place.

    Jason and I finally signed a peace treaty (and I signed one earlier with David as well), and so we all went after the farmland in the Levant, which was exacerbated by Egypt/Bree quitting due to pain in her leg from sitting on the ground. Crete/David and Hellas/Katie were leading most of the game, so David backstabbed Katie (thankfully putting a stop to her invasion of northern Asia Minor) and burned half her towns, along with a disastrous flood which wiped out four of her provinces. David and I got into a minor conflict, which resulted in him attacking me along the Levant, so I burned two of his cities in the last round, leading to a surprise upset victory with Macy taking home the trophy. Having both Spain and Egypt quit on her, along with her development of agriculture, meant that she was able to boom 9 cities and not have any natural enemies in the game. Kate only had 4 cities at the end, and was 3 points behind on the final score (cities are one point each), so David's backstabbing and the flood made most of the difference there. David finished 10 points behind. If I hadn't hit him with a reprisal for his Levant attack, he'd have progressed on the AST (5 points) and had 2 more cities (2 points), which meant that even if he'd have been able to pull off a few more civ cards (1 point each), he'd still probably have not been able to make it.

    Year 31 was pretty good for me. First full year of being married to the wonderful Macy, which has been a very peaceful and happy relationship-year. To recap the last year:
    1) Two large trips. England/France in May with my mom, dad, Katie and Kayla, and the Japan Honeymoon (10/12 - 10/20/09) which I still haven't finished my LJ for. Well, for either. They take forever to write.

    2) Three smaller trips to Vegas this year, including the one on my 31st birthday, John's wedding in April, and one in July with Macy. Saw KA, went to the shooting range, and otherwise had good times all round.

    3) Went to Florida for the first time for Wendy and Andrew's wedding in September. Want to go back for the salsa dancing, which we skipped due to jet lag.

    4) Went to Manhattan in January and DC in December (12/7/ - 12/11/09) for the national TAH conferences. New York was great (got to see Fuerzabruta with Reshma and Rohit), in DC I went for the first day and then spent the rest of the week sick, coughing in my hotel room.

    5) Visited Scott in San Francisco a number of times to run Shadowrun games, which I've been enjoying quite a bit. Scott and the rest of the guys came out to the No once for SR as well. Also visited Grace in November - her place in the Presidio has an amazing view of the mouth of the San Francisco Bay.

    6) Went to Philly for the AIHE Meeting of the Minds conference, and got to see a lot of stuff there, including a guided tour around Independence Hall and the Constitution Center. Went back to Christ Church, and visited the Quirk Publishing offices of Price and Prejudice and Zombies fame.

    7) Got to be a Storm Leader for Brandon Sanderson in Half Moon Bay, and got to eat dinner sitting next to Harriet Jordan, who is a wonderful and gracious human being. Brandon was reaching the end of his rope by the end of the tour, but you could tell he's an amazingly tolerant and nice guy.

    8) Work has been really picking up, so lots of flights to places around the country - went to Indiana several times for Fred Granger and the Mt. Vernon people - got to visit Crown Hill Cemetery, which was a fascinating experience with Tom Connors leading the field study. Drove to other places, like Imperial County and San Jose.

    9) Got injured back in April (tore the tendons in my ankle) and damaged my rib cartilage in February (which repeated again in August), but otherwise had a lot of fun doing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu this year, and learned a great deal. I did a year of BJJ back in '97, then switched over to Judo and Tang Soo Do/Tae Kwon Do through 2005, when I switched over to BJJ, but still doing TKD in San Diego. They're all a lot of fun, actually.

    10) Did a lot of stuff at Comicon this year - got to see KJ at it. Went to two Battlestar Galactica concerts (one with Kevin Mak and Phrosty of Custom TF fame in LA, the other with Amir and Allison at Comicon).

    11) Got dinner with Amir a lot of times this year, but saw KJ less this year, due to my tendency of driving through LA only late at night to avoid traffic. (Last night it took only 2.5 hours to get to Santa Clarita from SD, and that was with an accident shutting down the I-5/I-10 merge for a while.)

    12) My niece is growing up well, and my sister and brother-in-law produced another kid in the form of Brian. My family has been wonderful as always. (This year they twigged onto my wishlist - which I maintain for myself - so all my presents were perfect.)

    13) Haven't been doing hardly any RPGA gaming at all - just Strategicon in February. Have been doing a lot of home campaign gaming with Goon and the Fuchs brothers. Not liking 4e very much. I've been spending a lot of time thinking about what could be done differently in the system, but I think it just needs to be scrapped and replaced with a 5e.

    14) Played a fair amount of video games, a lot with Goon online, since he's driving over to my house less. Mostly Gears of War 2 with Gavin, but a bit of other games as well. Still playing the occasional Civ 4 game, too.

    15) Macy joined Bally's in May when I was in Europe, and we've been going to a personal trainer weekly since then. Macy lost some weight, and it's been helping me a lot with my cardio conditioning, which has always been my weak point in BJJ. Unfortunately our outstanding trainer, Jessica, quit to do insurance sales, but our new guy is the PT manager.

    All in all, a great year.

    Just beat Dragon Age (76 hours to beat!), which was a pretty good game overall. Though it started hard, it got a bit too easy by the end, and while I like the overall dark feel to the world, a lot of it is derivative. Leilanna is Joan of Arc. Morrigan's storyline is from Being John Malkovich, Ogren is Drunken Dwarf #24 - it's almost like they should have just put what trope each character or plotline was supposed to be, and be done with it. A lot of it doesn't make sense either. Darkspawn blood kills you even if you get a little in your mouth, right? But to become a grey warden, you have a drink a cup of it (mixed with archdemon blood?!). Your dog companion you save from the blood poisoning because of this, but at any point in the game, you can ask it to lick off all the darkspawn blood on you? What the hell. Likewise, lyrium overexposure is the reason dwarves can't do magic and why templars are magic resistant, but templars go crazy (I guess) because they eat it and dwarves go crazy if they even get a little in their blood, but mages drink lyrium potions to restore mana? And walk around with giant balls of the dust? And surface dwarves who have never even seen lyrium still can't do magic? Yeah.

    Been listening to a lot of Led Zeppelin recently. I'm not a huge Led Zep fan, but I'd thought I'd heard most of what I'd consider their AAA songs. Then driving to BJJ a few weeks ago, I heard Achilles Last Stand on the radio - which is amazing - and have been exhaustively going through their discography ever since, trying to see if there's any AAA songs of theirs I've missed. Found quite a few bluesy songs that I really like, actually. In order to keep myself awake last night through the fog, I was blaring it while Macy slept (sorry dear), which helped quite a bit. It was actually kind of amusing discovering a new favorite song (Achilles Last Stand) from a group that broke up almost 30 years ago, and it's a great travel piece.

    Current Mood: good
    Sunday, October 25th, 2009
    7:45 am
    DC 10/6-10/7/09, Nephew 10/20/09
    My briefest trip to DC was on the 6th and 7th of this month. Essentially, I flew out, ate, slept. Went to the conference the next day, took a taxi back to the airport, and flew home without getting a chance to really see anything in DC. The conference was ok - the focus was on evaluation, so it was up my alley, but there wasn't too much other evaluators were doing that I don't do already. It did however, convince me further there needs to be a better way of sharing results and best practices - regardless of our current system of reporting to the Feds and presenting at conferences, I guarantee you that almost every new grantee will start over from scratch. Ah well. The only really interesting part was the taxi ride back - the guy was from Ethiopia, so I asked him if he'd been keeping up with all the stuff going on over there. Turns out to be a bad question to ask of a taxi driver in DC - he was probably the most politically aware guy I've ever met. He told me stories about people drafting legislation in the back of his cab (one, a lawyer adviser to Maxie Waters apparently used the N word, which he found to be doubly ironic, given that he's black as well as the person he works for) and about some FBI guy hassling him over immigration issues (even though he's legal) - his wife apologized, and the driver very courteously escorted the wife out while the FBI was trying to get Dulles airport security to investigate the cabbie or something. He was upset when I told him about how students can't wear crucifixes in France (he's Coptic), but he said, "Well, that's why we wanted to come to America. Land of the Free!" His story was pretty amazing, too - during all the troubles they were having, his family fled cross country "up mountains, down valleys, with robbers and wild animals everywhere", ended up getting asylum in Vatican City, and then emigrating to Denver, which, he said, had the absolute nicest people to him ever. At the age of 18, he was invited over once a week to play the violin at the local rich guy's get-togethers, which gave him free food and a bit of spending money for life in America. He said moving to Atlanta to do community organizing was the worst mistake he made - while people would tip their hats to you, he said, the attitude of the city was so much less friendly than Denver he couldn't stand it. Since he loved politics, he ended up moving to DC and doing grassroots work there, and driving a cab... which he's been doing for the last 30 years. He hangs a ribbon with the Ethiopean flag on it from his rear-view mirror, hoping to provoke people into discussions about his home country ("Have you been home" his passengers always ask, he says. "No, because of these problems...") and considers himself something of an ambassador from his country. Fascinating guy, fascinating stories to listen to through the snarl of rush hour DC traffic.

    Brian Kerney, my 1st nephew and my sister's second kid, was born on 10/20/09, at over 11 pounds and 22 inches. He's a big kid. I don't know where he got it from - the rest of our family is quite small. Grats, Katie and Jason!

    A week after DC, I spent four days in SD trying to get our paperwork organized. It's rough living and working in two cities, and makes doing things like tracking receipts and invoicing a lot more complicated than they really need to be. I've bought a bunch of new filing cabinets and have been mixing it up in my home office, so hopefully I'll be able to get these sorts of things done a lot more quickly from here on out. I also bought Quickbooks 2010 which integrates with my online banking, which makes expense tracking a lot more simple, as well.

    I haven't updated the list of books I've read in a while. Lesse:

    • I re-read the Tripod Trilogy by Christopher, which was a trilogy I read in middle school. It holds up very well, with it being a very intelligent example of how to write to young adults and present ethical and moral issues without dumbing it down for them. I recalled the death of the main character's master as being sort of poignant (his alien master wanted to be his "friend") but Christopher spares no pity for the alien, saying that friendships only work when they're equal. The series is real short, but encompasses a pretty epic story arc, and conveys a very realistic sense of this futuristic world, that has regressed into a sort of feudalistic society. I recall a friend of mine (it was either Jason or Eric, two brothers that lived up the street) having read the first book, and speculating on events that happened in the second: "Ozymandius returns," he wrote, "and takes the kids on further adventures around the world." I, being a bit more unspoiled about spoilers in those days, told them they were wrong, and ruined the second book for them. =)

    • I'm almost done with The Forgotten Man by Amity Shlaes. It's a historical account of the Great Depression, focusing not on FDR so much as the progressives that ran his administration under him. It gives a very persuasive argument that FDRs ongoing and continual experimentation was just as bad (if not worse) than if he'd done nothing and let the country recover on its own. He'd send advisors to Europe to negotiate exchange rates with their currencies and with gold, and then change his mind and yank them back out of the talks, and then send someone else out, then yank them back, etc. He vacillated on the gold standard issue as well, removing gold as the basis for our currency, then re-establishing it, etc., which had massive consequences, since many long-term contracts specified their value in gold dollars, not dollars, so he essentially voided contracts between two private entities in order to push his changes through. He'd raise the value of gold by 21 cents, since 21 "was a lucky number", and so forth. Many of the advisors had gone to the USSR to see how they were doing things, and Tugwell was even granted a long interview with Stalin himself. FDR read Walter Duranty excessively, who won Pulitzers for such glowing articles as "Red Russia of Today Ruled by Stalinism, not Communism", which is rather unironically and apparently to be preferred. While most of it is exciting to read, the book gets a bit too longwinded at times, and the huge cast of characters is often hard to following without reminders of who each person is, but it is a fascinating tale told mainly from the actual people's letters and memoirs, with a minimum of commentary from Shlaes.

    • I've finished up all the Vampire Earth novels to date, with Winter Duty being the most recent. Essentially, they're kind of a depressing story about an Earth ruled by these aliens that eat people (the Tripods, at least, didn't eat people), told in a sort of war-story format. EE Knight is a decent enough writer and storyteller, but he doesn't seem to be any closer to bringing the series to a conclusion than he was when he started.

    • I've finished Super Freakonomics, the followup to the horribly pretentious and overrated Freakonomics, in which a "rogue economist" took on issues outside the traditional scope of economics. (If he'd called himself a rogue statistician, that would have sat with me better, because his "economic techniques" are generally nothing more than the same statistical inferences that everyone else in other fields also use.) It also didn't help that it was written by two people, so that it could be self-congratulatory without... well, actually it did sound very self-congratulatory. The points Freakonomics and Super Freakonomics makes are interesting (albeit often wrong), but I'm personally more interested in the data they use and research they do. For example, I've read about the Dictator game before, but in this book they present new data points, such as "What if the dictator was taking money from the other person instead of giving it to them?" Their conclusion (that altruism doesn't more or less exist) is wrong, even given their data points earlier: we give 2% of our GDP to charity - and no, it's not about getting a tax break... I've never once claimed a donation on my taxes. Claiming the "warm fuzzy feeling" we get from donating somehow makes it non-altruistic is also risible. (And for me, I'm Scottish enough that I never feel good about giving money.) But the journey they take you on is fun, and thought-provoking.

    • I think I've gone over all the Simon R. Green, Jim Butcher, Brandon Sanderson and the Webmage series before, so I'll just say I recommend them all highly (except the Webmage series, which I'd just recommend to computer science people who like reading fantasy novels.)

    • Read a number of roleplaying game sourcebooks. I own pretty much every D&D sourcebook published since 3e, but I've been picking up Shadowrun books to browse through now that we're running a California-wide game.

    Current Mood: good
    Tuesday, October 6th, 2009
    3:24 am
    Mid-Autumn Festival and Civil War Re-enactment 10/4/09
    Here is my Flickr album for the trips I took in September and (so far) in October. Including shots of our upcoming Halloween costumes. I was testing out my new camera (an SX200IS) with a lot of those shots (it has a nice zoom lens), and I think overall I'm pretty happy with it. Here's my amazon review. The camera does have a smaller sensor than my previous camera (an A620) and a higher megapixel count, which accounts for the much higher noise levels I noticed in its shots - however, the noise is usually only noticeable if you really zoom in - even at 1900x1080 resolution on my TV, the noise isn't noticeable except in really low light shots, which the A620 would have just punted on and made very blurry.

    Zhong qiu (中秋節) the mid-autumn festival was this weekend. Macy and I had a really wonderful time, with lots of full-moon viewing, cool weather (this week the weather suddenly dropped from the 100s into the 60s) combined with a 4-day weekend she just happened to have off. We ate some Chinese food, but didn't eat mooncakes. We did work out with Jessica, our personal trainer, who is quitting Bally's to go work for an insurance company. Was our first aerobics class together, and I'm not ashamed to admit it kicked my ass. Now Macy is sick (100.5 degree fever), so her weekend might get even longer. :/

    Yesterday we went to a civil war re-enactment, which is held each year in Fresno (the biggest re-enactment west of the Mississippi). This year was the 20th anniversary of the event. Lot of people there - both participating and observing. Food booths, dancing the night before we went, etc. Guys running around on horses, lots of guys in uniforms shooting guns at each other... it looked like a lot of fun. Cannons are a lot louder in real life than in the movies - it feels like somebody is thumping your chest when they go off, even from a distance, and they had 20 or so cannons, as well as some mortars and field artillery. At Shiloh, the confederates alone had 50 guns trained on the hornet's nest. I couldn't begin to imagine the sound or feel of it. Macy had to leave the event because the sounds of the cannons made her feel very uncomfortable. Personally, it just made me realize how little I'd want to be on the receiving end of one of those things. However, it did look like the cannon crews were having great fun firing the things. I got a great shot of a mortar right when it went off. You can even see the wrapping foil they used to hold the gunpowder charge flying up through the air.

    We sort of ended up just doing a circuit around the place (which took about an hour), including the gift shops and food stands they had set up, and then went home. I'm not sure if I'd want to participate in one of those things. I'd want to win. Not just re-enact. =)

    After that, Nick (a friend of mine from BJJ who also works with Macy at her pharmacy) came over and we played Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 for a few hours. It has a surprisingly good storyline (the first one's sucked pretty bad), but its character development system is pretty minimal. By and large you can just set all the heroes to autolevel and it works out well enough.

    Heading out to DC now. Sucks to be leaving Macy while she's sick, but that's work, eh? The last time I flew (oh... last Tuesday?) I had a pair of interesting people next to me on the flights. From Indy to Phoenix, this guy called Asa Mayo (Ace!) and I talked for a while. He was an engineer for McDonalds, and worked on remodeling and/or building 10 or 20 McDonalds each year in Phoenix, Vegas, and neighboring states. I learned a lot about the corporate culture of McDonalds from him - they give all their corporate employees 7 or 8 thousand dollars a year for self-improvement, and encourage employees to move around inside the company to keep things novel. He says most of the people there have been there for 20 or 30 years, and there's a high degree of employee satisfaction within the company. He was coming back from a McDonalds conference in Indy, where he'd done some work on a diversity panel that he'd found to be satisfying. We chatted a while about my PSP, as he'd just won one at the conference, and was going to give it to his kid (lucky kid!).

    On the Phoenix -> FAT leg, I sat next to a guy named WOLF. I was kind of bitching about US Airways (I was on a US Airways flight... only way of getting me home to Macy on the same day), and the guy seemed pretty knowledgeable about it. I told him the flight from IND->PHX was leaking hydraulic fluid on the guy sitting in front of me (and why didn't he move? That's what I want to know... it ruined his white dress shirt), and Wolf said, "Sounds like a pressure leak". Then he told me his flight in from Austin had something similar happen (I can't remember what now!) Our flight my light was not coming on (Wolf: "Probably burned out. Old planes.") and there was this horrible vibration when taking off (Wolf: "Tires aren't inflated properly.") I then regaled him with my US Airways flight from Vegas to FAT (plane next to ours caught on fire, and the railing came off in flight and whacked the lady on the head. They put it back up, and it whacked her on the head again) and joked that "At US Airways, maintenance is at least our 4th or 5th priority" and Wolf started talking about the fierce competition between airlines right now, and while it was safe, there were a lot of things lacking. He personally only flew Delta when given the chance. I said it sounded like he was a pilot, and he said he was. What airline? Delta. So either he's well informed, or showing some home-town bias. But that doesn't change the fact my light was burned out, hydraulic fluid was leaking on the previous flight, the seat belts were worn and tattered, and the plane sounded like it would shake itself apart on takeoff. So I believe him. He's a Fresno resident, too, and (like the last two Fresno-based pilots I've ridden next to) encouraged me to learn to fly. He was a cool guy, too - we chatted most of the way to Fresno, with him mostly asking about the world of grantwriting (he's moving to Texas, and is interested in getting training for the teachers out there). I still haven't gotten any emails from a Wolfgang... maybe I could get him the hookup in exchange for some flight lessons. =)

    Flight leaves in 3 hours... staying up all night so I can sleep on the plane out.

    Current Mood: good
    Sunday, October 4th, 2009
    6:05 am
    Indianapolis 9/28 - 9/29/09
    I flew out to Indy for a one-day workshop evaluation. I got into my hotel room at around 1:30AM, and it took a while to unpack and get my various electronics happily recharging. I'd recovered from my cold I picked up from the trip to Philly just in time to go on another trip. (This time, though I seem to be fine.)

    The workshop was great. Bill Ross and Robbie I'd seen before, but there was this Tom Conners guy from the University of Northern Iowa that was my first time observing. He gives lectures on graveyards, and the history of graveyards and cemeteries. All sorts of really fascinating information in that lecture, and it tied together all the different strands of history within one common sort of place. After the lecture, we took a bus to Crown Hill cemetery, where we got a guided tour from one of their docents. She took us around the place, and told both the history of the people buried there, and the history of the cemetery itself. In the field study, we visited the graves of: Benjamin Harrison (President), 3 vice presidents (under TR and in that time period), Dr. Gatling (inventor of the gatling gun), John Dillinger, James Witcomb Riley (the Hoosier Poet, whom I had never really heard of... and got some disbelieving looks from the docent when I told her that... I knew The Raggedy Man, I guess), the guy who brought the Colts to Indianapolis, and a lot of Civil War vets (from both sides - there was a POW camp there) among other people. Lots of interesting stories, like a judge who has a mausoleum there, but isn't buried there. He was a friend of Lincoln's, and his widow hid the body to keep it from getting desecrated while the mausoleum was built, and one thing led to another, and they never did find it. There's also a couple generals buried there, one killed by some Native Americans in northern California (the professor pointed out to me the local connection). I also learned that Jim Morrison is buried in the premiere cemetery in the world (both in terms of being the first built and the most prestigious), and since his grave became such a mecca for dopeheads and other addicts, who would paint signs on other graves (with an arrow and "JIM" underneath), which tended to bother the other families there, they have a full time guard sitting next to his grave. Also, Forest Lawn, the place where Disney is buried (in Glendale, near Brian's house), has some very Disney-esque sound and light shows, with a Cecil DeMille voice coming from the heavens ("BEHOLD THE LAST SUPPER!" Actually, Cecil DeMille is buried kinda near there.) Michael Jackson was just buried there. I definitely want to take Macy there the next time we go down to LA.

    If that sounds creepy, I agree - I used to be creeped out by all that. But when I visited Christ Church two years ago, and saw that people were buried in the aisle of the church (so that the parishioners could walk with them in Christ), it sort of flipped my thinking on the whole thing. Also, cemeteries used to be places where families would go on Sundays to picnic and visits the graves of loved ones (and would take care of the place). We've sort of lost that in our current time period. As Dr. Conners said, the Victorians had a huge vocabulary about death (they had long, formal, ritualized ways of dealing with death, and grieving), but wouldn't ever talk about sex. Nowadays, he argues, it has been reversed - we do everything we can to avoid talking about death in our current society, and try to distract ourselves by living only in the now.

    Flew out late on Monday, turned around and flew back late on Tuesday. Macy is getting tired of all these trips, but they need to be done. Katie's going to pop any second now, so both she and mom are (rightfully) out of commission for the next bloc of events.

    Audiosurf is a fun $5 game I picked up for no other reason than it came with the Orange Box soundtrack. Turns out to be one of the best arcade-style games I've bought outside of Shadow Complex (which, clocking in at a Xbox-limit-busting 1GB, is arguably too large to be lumped into the "arcade" category). There's a few different game modes in it, with the upshot being that you load a level by loading one of your MP3s off your computer - the game analyzes the music (quite well, really), and generates a roadway based on the music. You then drive a sort of rocketship down the track, either collecting colored boxes at ridiculously fast speeds, trying to make 3 of a kinds, ala various puzzle games, or dodging walls and collecting colored boxes for points, while the song plays in synch with the track. Slow bits are slow uphills, fast bits are fast downhills, etc. Easy and medium are pretty reasonable, and even hard difficulty is manageable on slow songs, but thrash metal and some high-BPM techno songs are so ridiculously fast that it gave me a headache from concentrating so hard on piloting a course down the track. But perfect clearing an elite difficulty fast song does give you a real sense of accomplishment. =) For the last couple days, I've just been messing around with this cheap game to the exclusion of all else - if nothing else, it lets me look at all of my favorite songs from a different angle.

    And I do think it has been letting me see more of the details in the songs - one tends to just gloss over the individual parts in a song and listen to the comprehensive whole, but when individual drumbeats and instruments can be represented by walls that you might crash into, you do start noticing a lot more of the details in the songs. As a test, I loaded up Freebird, which starts off slow, and gradually builds up faster and faster as the song goes on. The analysis was perfect, with a long slow uphill part, followed by a long fast downhill, and a couple big waves that synched up perfectly to the "And this bird you cannot chaiaiaiaiannnnge..." It also has caught on to a lot of unique features of various songs, like the strong drum beats in When the Levee Breaks (represented by massive up and down waves in the track) as well as psychedelic interludes in The End and Kashmir represented by loops or inverted parts of the track. There's not a huge amount of variation in the courses it generates, but I've been spending hours going through all of my favorite songs to see what it does, and have been overall very impressed with the interpretation it comes up with.

    Luca Turilli is definitely the hardest artist I have in my collection. One Disturbed song is nearly as bad in places, but yeah. Trying to get the 11 minute elite difficulty perfect clear achievement on a Luca Turilli song is not recommended. I did manage to get the trophy on The New World Symphony (Part 4), which I'm kind of proud of. (No song is easy to perfect clear on elite difficulty.) Here's an example of a Luca Turilli song in the game, which should give you a bit of context to what I'm talking about: It's not as easy as it looks there - the parts where you have to cut diagonally through a line of grey walls is always prone to mistiming (especially when they're bouncing around due to drums), and the colored blocks you collect right ahead of a wall can also cause you to crash occasionally. Not often, if you have gotten the timing down, but hitting just one wall is enough to cost you a perfect clear. Tempo changes also make it bloody difficult to perfect, since the human brain has a lot of trouble predicting the motion of hesitating objects. Here's an example of it at the beginning: It's really annoying when tempo changes occur throughout a song. That's the funny thing about this game - it's made me really come to hate some of the songs for how hard they make the course. =)

    I ran through my favorite Disturbed songs tonight (got a couple high scores on elite solo difficulty, which I'm kinda proud of, though not as much as my Luca Turilli perfect clear). Playing through the songs in Audiosurf lets you sort of reflect on the lyrics and their relation to the music being played at the time. I gained additional insight into The Night, which has sort of an ambiguous Nietzschean Will to Power thing going on, with the lyrics proceeding in stages with a person running from life, through letting tradition and honor fall away, to being encouraged to embrace the Night. The Night being a source of "power beyond containing" as long as the person is willing to forsake things (trivial things, like ethics) that contain the person. It asks, do you want to remain a slave for the rest of your life? The chorus repeats after each step of the progression, with a different sort of meaning implied based on the speed of the chorus following each verse, representing, IMO, the seduction of the person to the dark side, as he transitions from hesitation to wholehearted acceptance.

    More evidence that Verizon is filled with idiots. From my Terms of Service: The speed of the Verizon Wireless data network is measured in Kilobits (kb) per second. However, the amount of data transmitted over the Verizon Wireless data network is measured in Kilobytes (KB), Megabytes (MB) or Gigabytes (GB). Bit: A unit of information that respresent a single character. Not only is it bad grammar, but represents a technically impossible data compression scheme due to the amount of entropy in the English vocabulary. (They go on to say that a byte is 8 bits, so they weren't confusing a byte for a bit.)

    Things have been going really great in the daily life. Been exercising with Macy a fair amount, and have been watching Dexter most nights with her after she gets off work. It's a great show, amazingly well written, though more than a little appalling. I'm enjoying it more than HBO's Rome, which, while amusing, made so many historical errors that it really annoyed me that I had to end up looking up everything in the show to find out what was real. Showtime's The Tudors has the same problem, with the show taking fairly massive liberties with the history. I mean, they thought Henry having two sisters would be too complicated, so they combined the two sisters into one, and then gave her a plotline that mixed the stories of various other persons in with her own (her story in the series is historically impossible). They also utterly mangled the history of the Tournament of the Field of Cloth of Gold (which I'd read about this May while in the Tower). But, you know, there's still historical facts in there somewhere, so I guess I shouldn't beat it up too much.

    Current Mood: good
    Thursday, September 24th, 2009
    1:53 pm
    Philadelphia 9/16/09 - 9/21/09
    More Hannibal NerderyCollapse )

    Anyhow, Philadelphia. (It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia?)

    Wednesday 9/16/09 - flew in. Mary, Sue and Lisa (the Fresno people) were on my flight out from LAX, which was nice. We got to check in together, then went for a long hike around the historic district of Philly. (The hotel? Right next to the Christ Church Burial Ground - where Ben Franklin is buried, as well as Dr. Benjamin Rush and Bainbridge, the commander of Old Ironsides. Crazy awesome.) We went past the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, the Constitution Center, Washington Square, and the 2nd National Bank of America / The National Portrait Gallery. I ended up repeating this hike on Saturday, but guided with a historian from the AIHE, so more commentary on everything. We ate at a place called Eulogy, which was a very Belgian (as in the owner was super Belgian patriot #1, and a Belgian Knight to boot) bar. It looked like a bar, but the food was pretty damn awesome. Actually, it was a bar, with something like 300+ beers available. I took a photo of the beer list - it's nuts. We tried various (Belgian) beers there, one of which is my new favorite bottled beer: Kasteel Rouge. Guinness still takes the cake for draft, though. After that, we went over to a place owned by the same guy - the Benelux Tasting Room - and ordered a flight of cheeses and chocolate fondue. Some of those cheeses were crazy good, though I can't remember their names now.

    Thursday - First day of the conference. The AIHE talked about various changes they were making, especially to their scheduling system (which is, IMO, a good thing), and I presented a bit on evaluation topics later in the afternoon. I quite possibly insulted the entire crowd by claiming teachers kinda like to complain, but, you know, it wouldn't be public speaking if something interesting didn't happen. During lunch Lisa and I snuck out and went around the block to the Christ Church Burial Grounds, and got to talk to one of the volunteer guides there for a while. I somewhat surreptitiously videotaped a lot of what he had to say, and he answered a lot of our questions about the various styles and effects on the graves and gravestones - apparently, all the people are buried under the earth, even those that ostensibly have sarcophagi. Some graves looked like tables, which turned out to be a reference to the Eucharist. Some only had bare wedges of stone left, but this was not because they had worn down (the marble used there was very soft, which eliminated a lot of the writing), but because they had sunk. Occasionally someone pays the church to raise a tombstone and restore it. Other times they put up a little tour guide sign showing who was buried there. That evening, we walked around the historic district some more, and went to the Betsy Ross house (apparently her house came with a gift shop and beer garden four times the size of her actual house) and to Christ Church again (I got us all lost on the way there - damn airplanes, they kill my direction sense). A lot of what the docent said at Christ Church was the same as what I heard before, but I learned some new facts, as well as clarifications on stories I'd heard previously. It was fun getting to sit in George Washington's pew again. Next door to Christ Church was Quirk Publishing, who did Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I walked in and fanboy-ed a bit with the staff there (turns out the owner did the Worst Case Scenario Guide as well), who didn't seem to mind too much the interruption. (Betsy Ross was then after this, but it fit better into the narrative above.)

    Friday - Second day of the conference. It sort of dragged a bit, with even their best speakers (Anthony Fitzpatrick and Yohuru Williams) blitzing through so much information it got to be a bit overwhelming. I got dinner with the nice folks from Citrus, and talked about the evaluation efforts for the upcoming year. I think I ended up eating at one point or another with all 4 groups of people on the six TAH grants I'm evaluation with the AIHE. They're all good people, which I'm quite grateful for - two grants have had insufferable project directors, but luckily both of those grants are finished by now. Dennis Denenberg spoke both on Friday morning and Thursday at dinner, and did an outstanding job as usual. He does this bit on Heroes: he has decks of historical heroes, and was giving them out to people that could answer questions about them - Chuck King, from Borrego, got like three of them, then picked up a couple decks for his son. We had to pair up with someone we didn't know and trade our favorite heroes. I picked Stephen Decatur, since I think more people should know his amazing story, and my partner picked Teddy Roosevelt. She turned out to be a ranger from Valley Forge, which was pretty neat, since I got her business card. I also met the education director for the International Spy Museum, which has got to be one of the coolest museums of all time - they have events where they lock kids up in the museum all night and make them go on secret ninja espionage missions. I'm going to try to visit it when I'm in DC - either in October, or in December.

    Saturday - I'd signed up with the walking tour of Philly with the AIHE, so Ken Gavin (their old scheduler, and new field study manager and all round nice guy) took us on a walking tour of the Constitution Center (which totally and completely rocks), past the Liberty Bell (monument to American Engineering?) and through Independence Hall (I've twice walked past it, but never gone inside - it does look just like in all those famous paintings). Macy, when viewing the photos, wondered why we can't do architecture like that any more. While the fake doors (apparently there to give proportion and balance, a Georgian conceit) sort of turn me off, she does have a point. While UCSD's architecture is interesting, it's not as inspiring as buildings like that. Afterwards we walked to Washington Square. Unlike the previous days, which were gloomy and rainy, on Saturday the weather was absolutely gorgeous and perfect. Sunny but still cool, with a wonderful breeze blowing in from the river and rustling the leaves in the trees... mmm. I ended up videotaping Washington Square just to try to capture that wonderful tactile feeling...

    Afterward, we briefly went to the National Portrait Gallery, which had a number of famous paintings you'd recognize from history textbooks. A lot of famous individuals there had their portraits painted by the same guy, Charles Wilson Peale, like Henry Knox, one of my favorite heroes from the Revolutionary War. Afterwards, we went to the City Tavern, which was a recreation of a historic tavern from the 1700s that burnt down in the 1800s - it's where the founding fathers went for a banquet after finishing the Constitution, and likewise Washington picked the place for his inaugural celebration in Philly, calling it the most genteel tavern in the town. All the food there is from historic recipes, and the serving staff all wear historical outfits (bonnets for the lasses, and knee-high pants and hose for the lads). The architecture was impressively historic for a reconstruction (the floor and some of the pieces of furniture in a couple rooms was about all that survived the fire), and the food was amazingly good. The crab cake was delicious, and was the size of my clenched fist - apparently, back in the day, crab and lobster were so cheap they used them as bait for other fish. =) We then went to Elfreth's Alley, which is the oldest continuously inhabited streets in America - it looks straight out of Harry Potter. It was originally an upper class neighborhood, with people owning the houses and running artisan shops and taverns out of their ground floors, but by the 1800s became a lower class neighborhood, that urban-filled in the open courtyard in the back with more houses, and was eventually surrounded by factories, making it a lower-class and not very healthy place to live. By the early 1920s, though, the residents decided to clean up the place and turned it into a sort of living museum. While we were there, a couple guys came walking up to their house in the alley carrying a 24-pack of beer and some other bachelor groceries. Very neat place - I didn't get as much time to tour there as I liked, since I needed to catch a train to New Jersey.

    I made my train - the Amtrak Station in Philly is amazing - but, it being Amtrak, the train was 30 minutes late. Reshma and Rohit picked me up in Metropark, NJ, and showed me around the neighborhood in which they live. Very verdant, very pleasant neighborhood. Their apartment overlooks a park that is part of the neighborhood community college. We went to get sushi at some place nearly an hour away (passing through interminable amounts of trees, houses, and strip malls, like most of New Jersey - it's eerie how similar and entirely filled-in the state is). The sushi was amazing, and like I told Reshma, Macy's head nearly exploded when she saw the photos I took of the place. Everything they had there was amazingly delicious and fresh, which was kind of surprising for an all-you-can-eat buffet.

    It was a lot of fun hanging out with Reshma and Rohit - it's one of those things, I guess. Wendy and Reshma, Macy's next-door neighbors in Fresno during their rotation year, were amazingly wonderful individuals, but along with Grace, Macy's roommate, have sense moved to all corners of the world. Since I'm something of an introvert, I tend to be lazy about maintaining friendships, but I really hope that they'll stay friends with Macy and I across the long run. It just sucks, letting great people like that sort of drift away.

    The next morning, I woke up at 0530 PST, Reshma and Rohit took me to the NJ Transit station, and by 0030 the next day, 9/21/09, I was home. All that traveling, sure enough, right on schedule, I've come down with a head cold. It actually didn't need to take that long, since I showed up 6 hours early at the Philadelphia Airport, but I was hoping United would be somewhat reasonable and allow me to travel on an earlier flight out. They wouldn't. Or, rather, they would, but for a $150 rebooking fee - the whole round-trip ticket was only $330 in the first place, after taxes! Ugh. And that was after making me wait at an empty ticket counter for half an hour, while the other ticket agents, with no customers, just kind of glanced at me from time to time. They couldn't help, you see, since they were not in front of the "Additional Services" line. And the only "Additional Services" guy took off for half an hour to "meet a plane". The other people in line with me joked that that was United's "5-star" service in action. I'd have gotten mad, but I've come to expect crappy customer service from every American airline now. United, US Airways, American are all pretty bad. I have had good experiences with Southwest, Continental, and Northwest... even during trying times, they've impressed me. British Airways probably gets my top ranking though - they bumped my entire family up from coach to business class on a transatlantic flight after we complained about the conditions in coach on the way over.

    Best part of the way back, though, was this woman on the flight LAX to Fresno. They needed to move some passengers back in order to make the small plane balance. I took it with my trademarked equanimity, since, after all, it is better to be moved back 8 seats than to not arrive at all. The lady next to me, though. Wow... I've never seen someone maintain such a towering, mountainous pique of such long duration and high intensity. She was shuddering with rage when she was moved back, and it just built and built as the flight went on, ignoring requests for a while to turn off her electronics, just muttering over and over "This sucks, this sucks" in a voice that sounded like she was about to start crying from the sheer injustice of the situation. (She was about 25, too, well past her terrible twos.) And it's not like it really delayed her getting off the plane - there were only 10 people on the entire flight, after all - I think it really just came down to her being unable to accept not getting what she wanted. When the plane finally landed, her rage was still in full swing (which amazed me - she much have taken the Extend Rage and Extra Rage feats several times to pull off a barbarian rage of such duration) and she yanked her luggage off the overhead rack (clipping me on the side of the head) and stomped off the plane. Like, literally stomped. She stomped the entire way through the airport. She then had to wait for a rental car, and got out of there at about the same time as I got my checked luggage - I don't know if her rage served any telelogical end, or even made her feel better... all I can say is, I feel terrible for whoever she ends up with. I used to be an angry kid, but damn, she would have even scared my younger self.

    Current Mood: sick
    Monday, September 14th, 2009
    6:06 pm
    Miami 9/4 - 9/6/9
    Long update, so I'll try to keep the individual bits short. Nutshell: Miami was great, but I left my camera on South Beach. :/

    Visited the family around the end of August. The annual report deadline for the TAH grants fell on the same day I had a meeting on an Arts in Education grant, and so it occurred to me that having email access while out and about might be A Good Thing. As far as techy stuff goes, I try to minimize the number of gadgets I buy by limiting myself to things that have demonstrated their need in the past (as opposed to guessing their need in the future). I held off on getting a cell phone until my car broke down in a canyon and I had to hike to get to a phone (ok, it was Rose Canyon, so it wasn't that far - and I guy saw me and loaned me his cell, so it wasn't much of a hike either). I held off on a GPS until I had to navigate across multiple states (including a lot of local highways) using Google Maps. I hold off on new CPUs and video cards until they fall into a reasonable price range, and didn't get an all-in-one copier/scanner/fax until I my business really forced me to. Hell, I never even owned a printer until 2005, and didn't buy my first TV until the end of 2007. (2007!) The only thing I really splurge on, techwise, is bandwidth - and the DSL offerings here are so slim, I have been forced to get the basic DSL package until now (which has been so flakey, it drops my internet connection about once an hour). Hopefully that will change tomorrow - AT&T claims they'll send a guy out to wire me for 16mbps fiber optic. I'll believe it when I see it. (Current results: ping 68ms, 1.2Mbps down / 320kbps up. Check back tomorrow.)

    So to come back to my original point, it occurred to me that with a 2PM deadline on the APRs, I wouldn't know if something had gone catastrophically wrong on one of my grants. I mean, all the APRs were done, and I emailed my phone number out to them all just in case, but still I worry about everything going in on time. So I go to a Verizon booth at the local mall. While my mom shops for dresses with some gift certificate, I talk to a good-looking Filipino girl at the Verizon booth, and she steers me away from the Blackberry Storm (she hated it, and says it's the most-returned phone they have right now). So I look at a Blackberry Tour, and she says they also have a 2-for-1 deal on Blackberries right now. So I'm kind of interested (since even with a service plan they're still 200-ish dollars), but then the Verizon Greed(tm) program kicks in - not only do you have to pay sales tax on the free (so to speak) Blackberry, which works out to $80 or so - nearly the cost of a new old iPhone (with contract), but also that they charge $30/month per phone for data access, and tethering (which I'd use on one phone), would be another $15/month. She helpfully pointed out I could just enable tethering whenever I hit the road, and cancel it when I get back, but since (and I asked) there's no easier way of doing it but by going through customer-service hell each time which, as Scott pointed out, would make you go through an interminable upsell process each time you try to cancel, did not sound very appealing. I pay $120/month for two lines (Macy and myself) - doing this would kick the cost up to $180/month, or $195 with tethering on one of the lines. Nearly doubling the cost of my phone service for a marginal utility gain. Sorry, Verizon. But even your four-way oligopoly with Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile doesn't mean you can charge whatever you'd like. I still might do it with a single Blackberry, especially if I can get a cheaper data plan.

    And yeah, seeing my family was great and all, etc. One of the reasons I came down was for Katie's baby shower (the last time turned out to be quite a bit of fun, as Kelly R. and I chased down a bunch of balloon thieves in my car), but this time I was told there wouldn't be any other men there, so I opted to work instead that Sunday.

    The next weekend (9/4/9 - 9/6/9) Macy and I headed out to Miami for Wendy Ha's wedding. Wendy and Reshma were Macy's schoolmates from UCSF who lived next door to her during their rotations in Fresno. They were really cool people, and I'm still kind of sad they're no longer around. Reshma is in New York with Rohit (they got married right before graduation last year), and Wendy just married her longtime fiancee, Andrew Chi. Both Rohit and Andrew are great guys, so I was really happy for all four of them in their respective nuptial arrangements. Andrew was working at a VA in Miami as a Urologist of some flavor, and so Wendy moved out there to do her pharmacy thing near him. We hadn't seen them in a bit more than a year, so it was good to hang out with them the night before the wedding (they had a get-together in their apartment tower's common area). Macy and I went out on the town Friday night, and good times were had by all. Saturday they did a Chinese wedding tradition called the Door Opening games, in which the groom has to prove his worth to the bride by competing in a series of challenges set by a bunch of giggling girls. I think he had to down four shots of various liquids (coffee and sweet and sour sauce? I don't remember), compose some alternative lyrics to Rio by Duran Duran, and some physical challenge or other that left Andrew doing pushups and situps and soaking in his own sweat. The final challenge was to give five reasons why she should marry him (various wags in the audience - perhaps myself, but definitely others - shouted out that he was a doctor with a Porsche, but the lady MC said Well, that's why YOU should marry him, not Wendy.) He said, "Well, I'm loving, kind, peaceful..." and went on for a while. The lady MC said, "Ok, that's one. Give me four more." But it all ended happily with Wendy coming out in her bridal outfit (some other wag - ok, myself this time - said that Wendy owed us some pushups, which promptly got me cuffed on the back of my head by Macy).

    After that, there was a little party in their apartment - which was crazy - 23rd floor, and panoramic views looking east out over Bodega Bay and Miami Beach (I wish I hadn't lost my camera so I could show you). Andrew told me he'd practiced a bit since Macy savaged his dance skills back in Fresno (and yeah, she was waay too harsh on the guy - she said later he reminded her of someone she didn't like in high school), and at the wedding later on, he actually did an awesome job dancing with Wendy and his mom. The wedding itself took place on a little island in Miami Bay, at a place called the Rusty Pelican. I slept through the early part of the reception there (and slept through a lot of the afternoon before the wedding as well - jet lag sucks), but the place was very nice. Like - very, very nice. Big glass windows overlooking water and then downtown Miami (think looking east from Coronado). They had a rose-petaled carpet, an ice sculpture, and a nice dance floor. The service went really nicely, and the reception afterwards was also quite fun - we got to talk with some of Macy's old classmates from UCSF, and met some of Andrews doctoral buddies. There was a lot of dancing, and Macy and I therefore got to go salsa dancing in Miami, which is something we always wanted to do (though we didn't get the opportunity to go to an actual salsa club, unfortunately - I was so tired we just went to sleep instead of going out on the town with Reshma and others). Macy and I both danced with a lot of people there, and we got a lot of laughs for our Baby Got Back dance (think the gnome's dance from WoW). They also had a photo booth set up, which was pretty hilarious as well.

    The next day, we went to South Beach in the morning, saw Versace's house, and ate at one of the restaurants along the main walk near the beach. Macy got a seafood piaia (Piaea?), which was food she always wanted to eat since her AP Spanish class. I got a Cuban sammich - so we were both able to check off our quest to "Eat Cuban Food (1/1)". We then walked along South Beach, went up to the Atlantic, dipped our dirty little toes in. This turned out to be a mistake, since my wet sandals sucked up dirt like a magnet, so I stopped at the shower on the edge of the beach to wash my feet off. I took my camera out of my pocket in order to keep it from getting wet, then rinsed my feet thoroughly. I couple guys were waiting for me to finish, so I hurried off when I was done, apologizing to them. It wasn't until I got back to Fresno that I realized I'd left my camera there. About four events worth of photos on it too, including shots of Macy's birthday (Sept 1st), where I got her (at the suggestion of Mary Janzen) a fruit bouquet, which we proceeded to pick at and devour like a pair of monkeys. (The mango slices were amazingly tasty.) argh So yeah, no photos of Wendrew's wedding, though I'm hoping they'll post them online so I can replace at least some of the shots that went missing. The trip back was otherwise uneventful. Though now I need to shop for another bloody camera. The Canon A620 was an awesome point-and-shoot.

    Other topics:

    Health Care - I've been doing a lot of research on health care costs recently. The national debate interests me, so I've been doing a lot of digging on my own. I don't trust secondhand sources of information or conclusions, and finding primary sources on health care costs is nearly impossible. I'll post my analysis on it at a later date. I do think it should be possible to cover all Americans for the same amount we're paying now.

    New Car - Finally did our first fill-up on the new Civic Macy and I bought. It was weird having a car with 2 digits on the mileage after driving my 160,000-mile Buick so much. Macy's parents repo-ed her '93 Integra (I think her mom was comfortable driving it), so we did some car shopping and settled on that one. Took about six hours of test driving and haggling, and I'm not entirely convinced we got an especially good price (it was $500 below their "invoice price", and $400 above Edmund's dealer price excluding destination fees). Spent an extra $1000 for a seven year bumper-to-bumper warranty, which seemed relatively reasonable to me (they wanted $1,750 for it originally). They had some interesting game-theoretic tricks when selling the warranty, like knocking the price down to $1,500 but with a guarantee on it - if you don't use it, you get a refund at the end of the seven years. See where the trap is? If you have a $300 repair on your car, which is the ballpark for most repairs, you have to decide whether to use the warranty (and thus breaking the guarantee, and possibly never getting more than $300 out of the guarantee), or pay for it out of pocket (keeping the guarantee, but possibly gaming yourself out of much more than $1,500 in repairs down the line). Tricky guys. I ended up getting the salesman down to $1,250 on it (without the guarantee), which I still refused. The finance guy took another shot at selling it to me, and I took him up on it at $1,000. That's $142/year in repairs, with insurance against big expenses. Like I said, it seemed fair. So, yeah. Macy and I have a new car. The fillup clocked in at 35-ish MPG. =) Oh, and they said they'd give a free car wash and fillup to the car, so I waited a week and a half before taking it in for that. Powergaming the dealer on the gas expense. =)

    Mom got a new LCD monitor for her computer, so the next time I'm at their house, I'll pick up the old one (which I think I bought for them out of pocket), which is a quite pretty 19" LG Flatron. I'll stick it on Macy's computer. Hopefully I can get her to play D&D Online with me.

    Macy's Birthday was otherwise pretty quiet. She and Goon (his bday was yesterday) don't make big deals out of their birthdays - I think it's a Chinese thing. Traditionally, in China you don't celebrate a birthday till you turn 60, at which point they throw a big party for "winning" at the game of life and everyone eats little pastries shaped like peaches. Peaches of course being the symbol of eternal life, since that's what you have to eat in order to become an immortal, by Chinese tradition. See also: the Monkey King. The Chinese Calendar is on a 60-year cycle, so hence that is the cutoff date for winning. This explains a lot of the customs, including the inexplicable fact that you can have a two-day old baby who is two years old:

    Shadow Complex is a great game. Probably the best Metroid-style game since the original. Awesome graphics, great storyline (the progressives are taking over the country!) and fun challenges. As an XBox arcade game, it's not even that expensive when compared with a real game, and I'm 10 hours into it and still only about 75% done. Theoretically you can speed run it at 100% completion in under 3 hours, but it's impossible if you're trying to do it via the normal progression, or on your first time through.

    Just finished all of the Ravirn books available. I left the third book in the series in Mt. View when I visited Scott (this "leaving of things" problem I've been having would worry me if I didn't actually have a pretty good memory under most circumstances), so I rebought the third on Amazon, as well as the fourth. Macy stole the third book from me when we were in Miami, and so now she's reading the series, too. Essentially, the premise is Greek mythology is all true, but the various dimensions have become too complex to administer, so the gods have all gone digital, and magic and such is all regulated by high-powered mainframes. The main character is a hacker, and gets into a variety of situations over his head. Think: doing a Shadowrun trying to break a soul out of Hades. It's good stuff. The first book is kind of weak, but Kelly McCullough finds his (I thouight Kelly was a chick at first, which made all the Linux references and stuff very confusing =) stride by the second book. A very amusing series, though by no means high literature.

    Just finished reading Hannibal: Enemy of Rome by Cottrell. It's a strange book, sort of a cross between a modern commentary on the man, a biography, a military history, and speculation of events that are lost in history, but probably fascinating stories in their own right. He's not writing in an entirely dramatic fashion, but you do get an amazing sense of the passion and drama that went into the Second Punic War. I actually feel pretty strongly about this, so I'll use boldcase: if you have any interest in military history at all, read this book. Hannibal's story is amazing, more suitable for a full length movie than most works of fiction. Americans have a fascination with the real: witness the success of reality TV - dramas with real "drama" are more interesting to use than fictional drama, since at a certain level we know that a doctor falling into a coma on General Hospital is being coma-ed by the writers, not his own actions. Why is it that Hollywood is mentally unable to make a movie that leads off with the words, "Everything that happens in the film is true"? Why doesn't the American Historical Society into a partnership with film companies to certify events in the movie as being accurate to the limits of our historical knowledge, like what the American Humane Society does with certifying films with animals in it? It's truly a shame that only the History Channel does shows like this, and even they break things into bites so small it misses the overwhelming sweep and drama of the Punic Wars. And with actors straight out of a Ren Faire.

    Discourse on HannibalCollapse )

    For Scott, here's a quote from that Derek Smart guy I saw the other day. PR is not his middle initial. Derek Smart: Yes, it is a tad too much. Especially for that hollow clam shell most gamers have fooled themselves into thinking actually has a brain (probably the size of a pea) somewhere in there.

    Been reading some Mark Chadbourne. Lord of Silence is a standalone novel that came out this year. Romance-novel-cover aside, it's actually a very interesting fantasy novel. The twist? The world is overgrown with a very large, very hostile forest. Cities can only trade with each other under extreme danger, and only the areas protected by city walls are really safe. So even the farmers pack inside. Elves can be pretty poor losers, sometimes. =) Also working my way through World's End, which I'm sort of struggling with. I dislike fantasy with immovable objects and irresistible forces, since it ultimately means Deus Ex Machina for any major plot points. This one is no different. The story is kinda interesting, involving the old celtic legends all coming to life and destroying modern technology. Sort of slogging my way through though, as it's unnecessarily grim.

    I recently also picked up the four great Chinese classics, the Romance of Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West, Water Margin, and the Dream of Red Mansions. I'm reading the Water Margin right now, which I am having fun with, since I played a game based on it back in the day, called Bandit Kings of Ancient China, one of the greatest and most challenging of all of KOEI's games to date. Essentially a collection of stories about 108 heroes who all come to live on a mountain, they're all quite lively and interrelated to each other in different ways. Some are heroic, some not so much. It's based a little bit on reality, but is mostly fiction.

    Thought for the Day: Can humans ever be happy when they have both a powerful need for stablity in their lives, and a powerful need for novelty?

    Thought for the Day #2: We think of Progress as being ongoing and continuous, but we don't have anything like the intellectual salons of France during the Belle Epoque, the strength of character that the senate and people of Rome showed during the Punic wars (not since WW2 at least), nor even in our video games do we have anything that can recreate the experience of physically going to an arcade and challenging other people there at Tekken 3. At B&N today, I talked with the guy about playing Magic (he saw I'd just picked up the new Shadowrun sourcebook), and we were lamenting the downfall of the MtG subculture where you could (at UCSD) just pull up a table in the Price Center, take out a deck, and someone would sit down to challenge you within 5 minutes. This time has come and gone....

    Thought for the Day #3: It's amazing how many connections we have to people if you really think about it. I dated a girl (Aliza) who had a minor role in one of Angelina Jolie's movies back before Jolie became really famous. Aliza said she was incredibly professional, and a very talented acress. So when I read an article today about some of Michael Bay's crewmembers flaming Megan Fox for not being professional (and throwing up Jolie as a counterexample), I knew they were probably telling the truth. Two points of separation from me to Jolie. Likewise, KJ's ex-girlfriend Jenny (and my friend, too) is the personal assistant to Felicia Day, of The Guild, and one of the top nerd-chicks in America right now. (She has, what, a million followers on Twitter?) And then this last Saturday I go to a new MMA gym with a friend of mine (Nick, pharmacist coworker of Macy's), and a guy called Koscheck comes in and works out before his fight in UFC 103. So Nick and I go back to my place, I pop in my UFC 2009 video game, and sure enough, Koscheck is one of the playable characters. Nick even kicked my ass with him.

    Thought for the Day #4: Perhaps the story about Rome could be a lesson on why cultural homogeniety is a good thing some of the time. If those Roman colonies (who were not full-fledged members of the Republic) hadn't stayed faithful to the idea and promise of a republic, Rome would have fallen to Hannibal's onslaught. What makes America great is the very belief that America is great. A country is more than a place to live - it is an idea, held in common by the people of that state. When immigration comes too quickly for cultural assimilation to happen (and cultural assimilation is a dirty word these days with the PC crowd, though it doesn't mean what they think it means), you get things like the Lebanese Civil War - a country that had been at peace with different religions for a really long time opened its borders to immigration, and the immigrants unbalanced the political situation, destabalized the country, and ruined the very idea of Lebanon as the cosmopolitan Paris of the Levant. When we think of Beruit now, we think of not-quite-so-lauditory things.
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