Tuesday, November 29, 2005

In which Christopher pays lip service to the importance of Thanksgiving before spending an inordinate amount of time writing about the games he plays

This is a busy time for me. Finished the bachelor party and Thanksgiving, next up are the wedding and Christmas. I'm regularly context-switching between two [fun] projects at work, one of which is currently crystalizing.

Thanksgiving was nice. I got to play some with Truman, our replacement for Sadie. It's fun having a young dog again, he has a lot of energy and love. I really miss Sadie a lot, but I also enjoy running around with a spry young thing.

Our family has developed a few traditions since moving to Illinois nine years ago. My favorite is our pre-dinner walk. Every year we go to a new park and go on a mini-hike. This year it was incredibly cold, very high winds, and yet we bundled up and trundled off with the dog. Just gave us one more thing to be thankful for when we got back indoors. Another is the late-afternoon movie. In past years it's been Harry Potter; this time it was the first Wallace and Grommit flick, Curse of the Were-Rabbit. I've enjoyed the earlier W&G shorts, this one was just as good.

I think it's odd that I see my family two or three times a year, and two of those times are within a month of each other. Does that happen to anyone else?

The day I got back from Chicago, I continued my Civ 4 game. I was on the verge of abandoning it - I had overexpanded and had to deal with a hostile England on my borders - but I found that the patch had come out and wanted to test it. I ended up beating the game late last night. Following are yet more thoughts on this game.

  • First off, the patch is great. Version 109 completely removes the stutters I experienced in wonder movies, so I can now enjoy them. The game feels like it's running more smoothly overall.
  • This was my first cultural victory. I identified three promising cities (Paris, Orleans and Lyon) and made sure they had enough cultural improvements in place. Then, around 1820, after I had discovered Biology and Mass Media, I switched my science down to 0% and culture up to 90%.
  • The big thing with a cultural race is that you need to be most concerned about the city that's farthest behind. In this case it was Lyon. I made sure all my other cities had lots of gold improvements (grocer, bank, etc.) and put my biggest cities (including Paris) onto building wealth. I generated massive amounts of cash, which I used to rush units for some wars, but more importantly rush improvements for Lyon.
  • Improvements that multiply culture are HUGE. You want Broadcast Towers (or, in my case, the Eiffel Tower), Broadway, Hollywood, Rock & Roll, and cathedrals. I didn't figure this out until too late, but you can build one cathedral (in my case, Confucian Academies) for EACH three temples you have. I'll definitely do this earlier in the game if I try for culture again; I rarely built temples because I didn't need the happiness. (Note that only temples in your own civ count.)
  • I also came to really appreciate the value of Free Religion. I was going to ignore this because I didn't have any cities with more than 1 religion, and didn't need the science boost. However, when you don't have a state religion, religion no longer affects your relationship with other civs at ALL. Wiping that -4 off my chart allowed me to stay at peace with two large other civs.
  • However, it also works the other way around. Late in the 20th century most other civs had also switched to Free Religion / No State; I then switched back to Confucianism and Pacifism to boost my Great Person birth rate and get those Great Artists.
  • The game can move REALLY quickly late in the game when you aren't at war and are going for culture. I had no units to move and most cities were building Culture or Wealth, so I just kept hitting Enter (and occasionally F4 to keep up on my neighbors' status).
  • However, it drags when you're at war. Late in the game I fought against Germany and Mansa Musa. Neither ever posed a serious threat to me; I took out their navies early and then would spend 20 or 30 turns blockading their major cities and reducing their defenses to rubble. I also fought a few land skirmishes against Germany, and for the first time ever got a unit up to Level 4.
  • I didn't win until 2010 (shortly after Alexander built Apollo), so my final score was pretty mediocre. However, there IS a victory movie for a Cultural victory. Either there wasn't one for Diplomatic or I totally missed it.
  • I've enjoyed playing as Hugh Capet (i.e. Louis XIV), but I'm thinking I'll pick someone else for my next game. I picked both Frederick and Louis specifically for their Cultural trait, but I now think that this isn't as powerful as I'd initially thought. It is EXTREMLY helpful in the early portions of the game, since your cities almost immediately grow their radius, and the cheap theater gives an even more powerful boost. However, it is almost useless later in the game; the extra 2 culture a turn are almost nothing, and the theater is cheap enough anyways that the boost isn't too helpful. (The Colosseum is pretty useless anyways on lower difficulty levels as you probably won't need the happiness.) I'm thinking Mao next turn, I believe he's Industrious and Philosophical, which would combine the other two traits of Louis and Frederick.
I'll be taking a little break from Civ until at least after the wedding; my co-workers talked me into buying World of Warcraft last week and I want to give that a shot before giving up on it. No chance in heck I have time for both that and Civ, and Civ doesn't charge me $15 every month. Right now I have a Gnomish Rogue named Cirion on WindRunner, and a Night Elf Druid named Seberin on Khaz'goroth. If you happen to be on either server, say "Hi" if I'm ever on.

From what I've heard, WoW changes a lot the higher up you get, so I won't let my present boredom with the game prevent me from playing at all. I'll probably shoot for reaching level 20 by 2006 and see whether it's fun yet. Right now it's incredibly rote - you just fight over and over again, with just a few other quests thrown in. I'll save my thoughts on WoW and MMORPGs for another post.

Back to Civ: I know of one other person who has the game (Hi, David!) and a few others have mentioned that they might be picking it up. I'm serious about wanting to try an MP campaign sometime. Please let me know if you decide to grab the game, and we can start discussing how to make this thing work.

I'm leaving on Thursday. I will wake up at 4:30, walk out of my apartment at 5:30, take a series of trains (VTA, Caltrain, BART) to get me to SFO by 7. I will get on a plane at 8:30 AM PST and get off around 7:00 PM EST. But 2.5 solid days of fun with old friends and new will follow, as we all recognize with joy the union of Wade and Bernie. May their love grow ever stronger and their lives ever longer!

Monday, November 28, 2005

Because you asked.

... okay, nobody asked. This is entirely on my own initiative.

Saw an interesting exchange over at Roger Ebert's "Answer Man" feature. It's the third letter, about the artistic potential of video games. This happens to be a topic I've put a lot of thought into, and since Ebert's position seems entirely reasonable (albeit wrong), I took a little time to compose an unsolicited response. Following is the text of my email.

Dear Mr. Ebert,

I have enjoyed following the discussions in your "Answer Man" column about the artistic potential of video games. I'm sure you're receiving piles of mail regarding this issue, but I wanted to raise a few thoughts of my own.

First, when considering video games, I find it more helpful to compare them to visual arts or theater rather than film or literature. In the first two art forms, the eye is controlled by the viewer. People stand closer to or farther from a painting, they decide which of several events or characters on the stage to focus on, and so on. The artist uses several techniques to guide the viewer's attention, but what they are really doing is creating a tiny world and letting the observer engage with it.

In contrast, literature and film give much more power to the artist when determining how the world is experienced. A reader can only rely on whatever narrators the author supplies, and the watcher cannot see anything beyond the lense's edge. This gives the creator far more powerful tools to control the experience and make persuasive statements, but it also enables passive engagement and gives less freedom for the viewer to establish their unique relationship with the work. Of course, no art form is inferior to the others, they operate using different rules and have different strengths. I think that simply comparing video games to film isn't sufficient; while film is far better at some things, those aren't necessarily the goals of a video game.

Secondly, it's important to remember that we're in the infancy of video games. There have been only a few decades in which to experiment, innovate, criticize, and build on the works of others. Compare this with over a century for film, several hundred years for novels, and thousands of years of plays and visual arts. It can be very difficult to see the potential of a new medium; even the Lumiere brothers said "The cinema is an invention without any future." Perhaps no one can find a game that compares with Citizen Kane simply because it has not yet been created yet. Then again, it might be right under our noses, and we won't know it until video game criticism evolves to the point where we can identify and appreciate the works in their own idiom.

Sincerely yours,
Christopher King

Sunday, November 20, 2005

"I'm sick of it."

Time for another largely autobiographical post. "Yay!"

Writing about The Colbert Report and Arrested Development set me off on a train of thought, leading backward from my current stable of shows to my earliest encounters with the tube. For the sake of posterity, I will rearrange these thoughts in chronological order and present to you how I became the conneseieur I am today.

My parents, in a decision I will always love them for, decided that we would be PBS kids. I grew up with only non-commercial programming, Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street; later 3-2-1 Contact and Square One. As far as I remember the only exception was on Saturday morning we would get to watch classic Looney Tunes for an hour.

Even now, people I tell this to sometimes react with amazement. They rattle off all the cartoons I should have been watching, vast swaths of pop culture that passed me by. As perplexed as they seem, I'm more perplexed at their perpexion. I really don't feel like I missed out on anything. When I happen to catch children's programming now, I'm stunned by how mindless much of it is, and how aggressive and manipulative the advertising. I have good memories of Mathnet and King Friday and don't feel I missed anything else. The only time I did was during one conversation in fourth grade when two kids asked me what my favorite shows were and laughes when I said "Square One."

I entered the world of commercial television very gradually. It all started during a sleepover at my friend Justin's house, probably during eighth grade. Like usual we played a lot of computer games and stayed up really late drinking caffeine and watching movies. Late at night, when my resistance was weakened, Justin popped in a videotape of recorded Simpsons episodes. Under ordinary circumstances I would have protested. Everything I had heard about that show made it sound evil and cancerous, a slimy half-hour of animation that directly attacked moral fiber. I'd never have watched it of my own volition, but I felt drained and accomodating.

Granted, I was in a receptive mood, but even so, the experience was surprisingly moving. The episodes were the one where Flanders goes crazy and "Streetcar! The Musical." There might have been another one in there too. I was blown away by the sharp humor, intelligent references, and rapid-fire pace of jokes. Not being steeped in pop culture, many allusions went over my head, but enough punches landed for me to laugh long and hard.

After that, I was hooked. Now, The Simpsons were still clearly Persona Non Grata in the King household, so my viewing would be on the sly, at friends' houses or late at night. I was jumping in after many seasons, so I had little sense of continuity and only gradually came to identify with the cast of characters. The more I saw the more I appreciated and the more I wanted to watch.

I could do a long post on just The Simpsons, but the purpose of including them here is in their role as gateway show. The next one I started to watch was the X-Files. This was during the peak of my fascination with the Illuminati and conspiracy theories, so this show's elaborately paranoid plots delighted me greatly. This is another show that gradually crept into my consciousness; I'd read about it in the paper years before I saw my first episode after moving to Illinois.

After leaving for college in 1999, the theoretical limits on television were lifted, but since Brad and I did not have a TV in our dorm room, my viewing schedule remained largely the same. I would go down to the projection TV in the building lobby on Sunday nights to watch the Simpsons, and that was basically it. When living in a suite with some other friends my sophomore year, we acquired a TV and the watching began to take off.

Shows from this period were almost exclusively Comedy Central pieces. Here is where I first encountered the Daily Show, which I still am devoted to. I would also catch classic episodes of Saturday Night Live, from the golden years of the early 90's and the dredges of the middle 80's. Beyond these staples, I kept up my Simpsons viewing and would occasionally catch stuff others were watching, mainly Discovery Channel documentaries and the like. I still didn't feel like I had embraced television, just that I'd found some things worth watching.

During this period I developed some survival skills for dealing with commercials. I never went into the living room without some homework or reading material, and made sure to keep busy during the filler. It was a small gesture, but one that allowed me to convince myself that I wasn't really wasting that much time.

This pattern of TV viewing continued through the rest of my college years, with the lineup changing (I found I could no longer stay up until 3AM watching SNL) but my habits remaining largely the same. We became slavishly devoted to TDS and would attract others who came just for the show. We discovered some gems on the International Channel - the original non-subbed, non-dubbed Dragonball Z, which Brian would halfheartedly translate for us while we stared at two battling characters who would pause for ten minutes between punches. Later came the Irresponsible Captain Tyler, to this day one of my favorite anime. Family Guy left. Iron Chef made a huge splash for a while. Dan developed a weird fascination with Bill O'Reilly. Win Ben Stein's Money was mildly amusing and then left. And there were regular parades of heavily edited-for-TV movies like Billy Madison. Oh, and every football game, generally with a crowd of enthusiastic Fantasy Football spectators.

I haven't had cable since graduation, which has changed things but not in the way you'd expect. While in downtown KC I could get grainy network TV and so I valiantly kept up Simpsons viewing (for a little while; it was around this point that I ceased caring about that terribly influential show) and Sunday football. There was a much better TV in the basement, and when working out I saw episodes of "Friends" and "Seinfeld" for the first time of my life. They were amusing, Seinfeld was definitely better but I can see why some people would like Friends.

Other than that, I was totally fine with not having cable, up until the 2004 campaign started. At this point I started getting some serious jones for the Daily Show. I missed Jon's incredibly trenchant commentary and the articulate political guests they were getting; even worse, I was reading in the paper about what a force the show was finally becoming. After some digging, I found ShunTV, a private Bit Torrent network that posted Daily Show episodes almost immediately after they aired. It became yet another ritual: I would start downloading the previous day's show in the morning, then watch it when I returned from work.

At first ShunTV was extremely focused and did almost nothing but TDS. As time went on, they added more shows, still generally hewing to the comedy lineup. I got my first taste of The Office (BBC) from them, as well as Drawn Together and some other edgy cable fare.

Watching TV in this way was a revolution. I was finally free from commercials, and found myself enjoying great programs even more; you get in a good mood after a few minutes of TDS and can keep it going for the whole 20 minutes without being interrupted by Levitra commercials. I felt some initial guilt about "stealing" my TV this way, but largely resigned myself to it. I still don't download software or movies, because there are clear and easy and legal ways to acquire them. I haven't downloaded an album since I got iTunes, because I'd rather pay a few bucks for a legal album than muck around on the Internet hunting for it. But content is shown on TV for free anyways; someone else has simply taped it for me and removed all the commercials. And I do support the shows I like - I bought the Firefly DVD set after downloading some episodes, I will pick up Arrested Development later this week, and even own the "Indecision 2004" box set from TDS. I just don't like commercials, and I like watching shows when I want to.

Anyways. Despite my occasional forray into other programming, I remained pretty focused on TDS and Fox animation. That changed last year when, for the first time ever, I got hooked on a network drama. Two, in fact.

Hugh Laurie has been my favorite actor for most of my life. I have many fond memories of watching him and Stephen Fry in "Jeeves and Wooster" (on PBS, natch). I've cheered him on as he gradually gets more US movie roles, and was elated when I learned that he had landed the title role in Fox's new drama, "House." I've been disappointed way too many times to give myself much hope, but I wished that Americans would finally realize what a great actor this guy is.

Much to my surprise, they did. Fox did an excellent job promoting the show and it really took off. I dug it, too. I saw the pilot based solely on Hugh Laurie's name. It hooked me from the opening notes to the title theme, brilliantly adapting Massive Attack's "Teardrop," one of my favorite songs. It sealed the deal with the excellent closing sequence, set to The Rolling Stone's "You Can't Always Get What You Want." What was in between was good - as I told people at the time, it would be an OK show on its own (fairly routine medical procedural), but Hugh Laurie's amazing performance takes it to another level. The character is fascinating and well-written, but Hugh is one of the only actors who could pull it off convincingly.

(Incidentally, the show has gotten even better. I need to pick up the Season 1 set at some point and re-acquaint myself, but I think it follows an interesting evolution. The first few episodes felt like they were written as "C.S.I. meets E.R.!" Then there was a stretch where it felt in danger of becoming a soap opera. It really found itself with the Volger arc, which featured several sequential episodes developing an ongoing plotline while further exploring the principles' motivations and abilities. "Three Stories" rightly won an Emmy for Best Script and should have given Hugh a statue as well. I've been swallowing up Season 2 so far, they're still letting the show evolve and give us more depth while not stinging on the excellent House-isms that drive each episode.)

In the case of House, I caught each episode when it first aired, commercials and all. In my new apartment, I don't get any Fox signal at all, so Bit Torrent rides to the rescue. (ShunTV got shut down, so I now use mininova.) Being able to do this keeps me hooked on the show and will mean more of my dollars in Fox's pocket when all is said and done.

The other show was "Lost." I was attracted to this for the same reason I was to House, pure name recognition. In this case it was Dominic Monaghan, Merry in Lord of the Rings, who was prominently featured in all the promotional spots for this show. I missed the pilot and the first few episodes, though, and had mostly forgotten about it. But then I started reading some criticism about how popular the show was, and how it was really good, and thought I'd give it a shot. Now, with a serial adventure like this, I never would have jumped in at episode 6. As it was, though, I could download the shows I'd missed, watch them, and decide that it really was a good show. Now I catch each new episode right when it airs, and fortunately I do get an ABC signal here.

These two shows finally convinced me that it's possible to get really high quality programming on television that rises to the level of movies. Sometimes better, even. TV shows have the advantage of an open-ended format and long running times. The latter allows a good show to do much more with character development, allusion and thematic exploration than a work with a 2-hour time limit. The former allows some exciting creative possibilities, as they are essentially redesigning the show while making it. I still think most TV is dreck, but I no longer think it has to be.

I'll probably look back at the House/Lost combo and identify this as the point when I really got into TV. Now I have so much on my hard drive I don't always get through it all in a week. I'm regularly viewing the Colbert Report, the occasional DS, House, Lost, My Name Is Earl, Arrested Development (don't kill it, Fox!), The Office (NBC), Everybody Hates Chris, Stella, American Dad, and Family Guy. They're great shows that ingest a dollop of humor or thought (or both) into my life and leave me with some extra energy, rarely thinking "Well, that was a waste of time."

Of course, nothing lasts forever. It's possible I'll get sick of staring at the screen so much and return to my hermitlike existence, only occasionally venturing out to grab a box set. Or we might be in the midst of a short-lived golden age, that will produce a flurry of good shows and then die off, leaving us with the next America's Funniest Home Videos. My personal hope is that digital methods of content distribution will ensure that people like me, who like my kind of shows, will be able to directly give financial support and ensure we continue to get our shows. Hopefully there won't be any commercials.

I like guys who got five deferments, never went to war, criticizing us who've been there

Time for another Civ IV update.

I've been playing as Louis XIV recently. (I always rename him - one game was William III of The Netherlands, another Hugh Capet of France). His attribues are Creative and Industrious, which fits well with my playing style; Creative gives me an early boost to culture which lets my borders start expanding immediately, while Industrious lets me build wonders more quickly.

One thing I really need to get better at is building up my military. I always have other priorities when not at war, and when war does come the enemy is always ready and I'm not able to ramp up in time. I usually am far enough ahead technologically that I can build more advanced units than my opponent, but the new combat system in Civ IV really flattens this advantage (as mentioned in a previous post), so producing, say, a Machine Gunner will not be able to stand against four Horse Archers. In my current game, I was stunned when Caesar (who has a +6 disposition towards me and shares my religion) abruptly declared war on me and advanced on an undefended island city of mine. I was only saved because I happened to have a galleon nearby and was able to sink his galleys before they reached me.

So, yeah. In the past I've been able to defer building up a military for a long time, then rush-build a few high-powered defenders when needed. That's just not viable any more (you can't even rush-build until late in the game), and I really need to break this habit if I'm going to get through a game without constantly re-loading.

I think I've found the world style that agrees best with me. I'm playing my Hugh Capet on a Large Archipelago map, which provides the perfect rhythm to the game. Every civ starts on an island by itself or with one neighbor, so you're able to pursue your goals early on without worrying about land-hungry neighbors beating you to crucial resources. Once you discover Sailing, which can come pretty early on, you will be able to reach nearby islands and most likely discover one or two other civs. By now you're each somewhat established and it's nice to deal with mature civs; you can trade techs without worrying that they'll immediately turn against you. Once you hit the Rennaissance, you'll discover Optics/Navigation and cross the ocean, finally meeting everyone else. Anyways, this gives the game a really nice pace that allows you to plan ahead instead of constantly reacting to whatever your neighbors are doing.

Firaxis is publishing a patch sometime next week that should fix the technical issues people have been facing; I hope this will finally remove the stuttering from my wonder videos. They also will lower the volume on the "pillage" sound effect, which will help lessen my irritation somewhat at that annoying maneuver. (I've recently heard that pillaging gives the pillager some gold, which makes me a little more understanding of why the AI does it, though I still don't plan to join them.)

What else... I need to get better at balancing my cities. My William III game was pretty good in this respect, where my capital was good at research, another city was a big naval center, another could churn out military units, etc. Now, my Hugh Capet game is a lot like my first Frederick game, where the capital is the best at everything. I've been planning to try for a cultural victory, but my next two largest cities are so far behind in production that it'll be extremely hard to raise them to Legendary status. My current plan is to have my capital produce Great Engineers, which I will use to rush cultural wonders in these cities, and Great Artists, which will directly boost culture. Hopefully it'll work, but I might end up shooting for the Spaceship Victory. If so, I can practically guarantee that every single part will be manufactured in Paris.

Oh, and in other video-game news, I finally beat Katamari Damacy last night, six months after I started it. It isn't hard, I just kept getting distracted. In the last level, you create the Moon by rolling up what seems like all of Japan, and are treated by a reward video that's even more colorful, cheerful and bizarre than the introductory video. It was a lot of fun, and I'll probably pick up We Love Katamari sometime.

AND, just to avoid creating yet another post, GTA: Liberty City Stories is really amazing. The game is really tight and entertaining, definitely better than GTA3. The programmer in me is stunned that they were able to cram all this stuff into a tiny 2GB disc. I really like the protagonist, he's not as charismatic as CJ from San Andreas, but is probably the second-best character from the series. You do a series of missions where you try to gain your mother's approval (by killing Triads and taking lewd photographs and turning one guy into sausage), but she thinks you aren't tough enough and sends waves of hitmen after you. Utterly delightful, and about as far from Katamari Damacy as you can get.

Rhythmic Hopping Revolution

This is one of the first posts I'd promised way back when I started the blog. Last night I played DDR for the first time in almost a month, which got me thinking about it.

It's hard for me to pinpoint exactly when I first became aware of DDR. I probably first read a reference to it on Slashdot. I know I'd seen it discussed on Penny Arcade, and probably saw it in action for the first time during a trip to Dave & Buster's. It also had gotten some play in the press, with the angle generally being how this crazy game from Japan was actually getting kids OFF the couch for a change.

At first the idea just seemed weird to me. I doubted whether it could even be considered a real game. The more I considered it, though, the more attractive it seemed to me. I realized that I needed to start making exercise part of my routine - I've been blessed with a youngster's metabolism and coasted on that for a long time, but I can't rely on that forever. I knew I wanted some exercise to control my weight, and also to help out with my heart, where there are some hereditary concerns.

The problem is, I hate exercise. I hated gym class in school, hated running, hated competitive sports, anything at all. I hate the way all exercise ends with me feeling tired and miserable; I'd much rather sit down and read a book. There are very few forms of physical activity I enjoy, which are either too easy to be of much use (walking) or difficult to do in my current living situation (bicycling).

In the fall of 2003 I was living in a loft in downtown KC. Every day I would put in 30 to 45 minutes on a stationary bike in the workout room in the basement, and I hated every minute of it. Though I loved cycling growing up, being on a stationary was just not the same. I kept it up because I knew it was important, but kept on wishing there was another way.

I don't recall if it was pre-meditated or not, but in December of 2003 I went into a mall Electronics Boutique and walked out with a used copy of "DDRMAX Dance Dance Revolution" and a soft dance pad. (And some other game as well, I'm sure.) That night I hooked it up to my TV and began to play.

I mention this time every time I describe the game to someone, but it bears repeating: "Dance" is really a misnomer. Playing this game will not teach you how to dance, and watching someone play DDR is nothing like watching someone dance. Rather, DDR is a rhythm game that happens to use your body as a controller. The goal is to stomp on an arrow at the correct time, generally fitting with the beat of the current song.

It takes a while to get used to DDR, but it has a gentle learning curve with varying difficulty levels. Each song has different sets of "steps" for the different difficulty levels, so you can enjoy the same music while your game is improving.

Looking back, I am amazed at how much my game has improved. When I started I would flail wildly around, often slipping off the mat or bumping into things. I would gradually get better and better, then bump up the difficulty and start looking comical again. After doing it for about a year, my original dance mat was getting pretty torn up and I decided to bite the bullet and get one of the high-quality "Ignition" pads from Red Octane. It set me back by $100, but I've had little cause to regret it. The mat is much more stable and slips far less; it also provides a lot of cushion so I can play for a long time without my feet hurting. Now, for most songs, my upper body remains virtually stationary, with only my legs hopping from arrow to arrow.

I have played two of the DDR games, "DDRMAX" and "Dance Dance Revolution Extreme." Both of these games have their own sequels that I will pick up at some point; these games age extremely well so I'm content waiting for prices to fall more. While mastering the 80 or so songs on these two discs I have gotten to a point where I can beat almost everything on "Normal" difficulty. I keep meaning to move up to "Hard" mode and have occasionally done so, but that tends to wind me after just one or two songs. I still feel like I'm getting a decent workout on Normal; I'm usually sweating after the first set and after a half hour I feel tired but, amazingly, not miserable. For this reason DDR holds a special place in my heart.

In the end, the important thing to me is that DDR is fun. Any responsible person will tell you that, when choosing an exercise program, the single most important thing is to pick something you can stick with. It's far better to go for a walk every day than to run twice and then quit. And when it comes to DDR, everything about the experience is fun. I enjoy the music, which is all over the map but particularly heavy on european-style electronic music. I enjoy the bright, flashing lights. I enjoy the challenge/reward system that is intrinsic to any video game. I think this last piece is particularly important, because it gives me more reasons to keep going besides the health benefits; I also want to unlock more songs, characters, missions and reward screens.

It feels weird to be writing about how easy it is to stick with DDR when I haven't played it much at all recently. There's a couple reasons for that. First, having recently moved and living on the second story, I've been cautious about making too much noise. Again, I'm definitely pounding the floor a lot less now than when I started, but it's hard for me to gauge how noisy I'm being. Secondly, living in California has prompted me to spend more time doing things I couldn't do in Kansas City. My Saturday hike is a ritual now, as are my walks through the neighborhood and around work. (It's mid-November here; the skies are perfectly clear and we got up to 78 degrees today. I love this place.) It'd be better if these supplemented DDR rather than replace it, but given the choice I'm opting for the one that involves natural light and less chance of disturbing neighbors.

Many people have an additional motivation for playing DDR: public approval. Modern arcades are practically anchored by DDR machines, which provide a free show to people walking by. That's never been particularly attractive to me, but I have practiced on the arcade machines a couple of times. I'd definitely do it again; it's a very different game. Besides the more public setting there's also a very different lineup of songs, a far sturdier dancing surface, and way more bright flashing lights and sirens. I do feel self-conscious and goofy, since these machines reveal how the games skew younger than me, but it's also a bit of a rush.

While DDR doesn't teach you how to dance, it is surprisingly effective in teaching you to feel rhythm. When I went to my friend Josh's wedding earlier this year, I danced for the first time since New Year's Eve 2003, and while I'm still a poor dancer I felt that I could immediately find the beat in any song and do something with it. A small victory, to be sure, but small victories are what I live for.

Thursday, November 17, 2005


I'm trying to get better at condensing my trip/visit reports. In case you've been curious, the reason I do this is just to try and fix things in my own mind. (Well, that's the primary reason; I also want to let y'all know what I'm up to.) Our family would go on great vacations when I was a kid, and they had a big impact on me, but I'm stunned by how little I can remember when I try to recall specific vacations. Part of this is because I don't have any photos in front of me, so I'm not able to prompt those memories. Since I never take pictures, I'm a little concerned that ten years from now I'll have absolutely no recollection of all the fun stuff I did right after moving to California.

The flip side, of course, is that if I spend an hour writing about what I did, that's an hour I'm not actually doing something new. So I want to write enough to spin up my mind in the future without necessarily putting down every detail.

So: this past weekend, I flew out to DC for Wade's bachelor party. Wade is getting married the first weekend in December so a group of his high school and college friends went to give him a night on the town. Josh, Nate and I represented from Wheaton North; Dave and Earl (and someone else whose name escapes me but was only there for the beginning) carried the VT banner. I arrived a bit before 5 and met up with the others at the ESPN Zone. We drank huge glasses of beer and watched a variety of televised college football games. Good times.

Oh, right.... it just now occurred to me that we're not supposed to go into a lot of detail about what happens at these things. I guess I'll use code for the rest.
* Went to see the H at the DCI. Nobody went up but it was an awesome S. Best moments were "Booie" and Disneyland.
* Went B-H at AM. Extremely crowded but still fun.
* Returned to an IP for the rest of the night. Nate met an "I" m.
Wow, that made it REALLY short! Cool.

Friday, November 11, 2005


I'm really enjoying The Colbert Report. I saw every episode the first two weeks because I was worried it would be canceled soon - I love Colbert, but am always pessimistic about my countrymen's taste. I found out that he's retaining like 86% of his Daily Show lead-in, though, which is AWESOME - I would have been happy with half. Especially when you consider that Stewart is just up against the local news, while Colbert needs to compete against Letterman and Leno.

It's been really interesting witnessing the birth of what could be a very long-lived show. There's a ton of talent going into it, but it's a show that's still obviously trying to find its legs. Some of its flaws seem technical (Stephen sometimes has trouble with the teleprompter), others are more conceptual (I have yet to see a really satisfying interview on that show, although some have been decent). So I'm planning to hold on to my episodes so I can compare what the show looks like a year or so from now; I imagine it will look very different.

The stuff that works on the show is rock-solid. One of my biggest fears coming in was that Colbert's central persona, essentialy his Daily Show character of an incredibly egotistical and misinformed do-gooder, would wear thin with constant exposure. I still think he could stand to share some more time, but the writers have done a great job at fleshing out his personality in new and entertaining ways. So, while he generally cheers on the Bush team, he can still take potshots at Libby because of his entanglement with bears (#1 on the Threatdown!) It's also really smart to avoid being simply an impression of O'Reilly; he takes good cues from O'Reilly but also is free to go down other paths that wouldn't seem natural for a straight-up impersonation.

For all that I love about the show, there are two personal tics Stephen has that are really obvious. One is the way he audibly inhales through his teeth after delivering a punchline. Another is the way he constantly adjusts his glasses. Both of these are actually things I do too, so I shouldn't complain, but it does make me wonder. Do most people not notice these? Or does Stephen just not care?

If you haven't already you should check out his unofficial fan site, Colbert Nation. Not as good as the show but it has some really funny stuff, including fanfiction about Stephen Colbert and an excerpt from his self-published novel, "Stephen Colbert’s Alpha Squad 7: Lady Nocturne: A Tek Jansen Adventure."

In other TV news, Arrested Development looks like it might be getting the axe after an aborted season. This makes me sad. Not counting animated shows, Arrested Development is definitely my favorite sitcom of all time, it is amazingly clever and funny and whimsical and creative and innovative. If you haven't had the pleasure of watching it yet, I highly recommend it; it takes an episode or two to get into its rhythm and start collecting references, but the payout is well worth it. If you already have watched it and share my disappointment, and feel like doing something, check out this post which collects some relevant information.

I'll be out of town this weekend doing this and that, so please play nicely.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Tonight's Word

I apologize for the delay - I meant to post my "final" recommendation regarding Civ IV last Wednesday. Various preparations and schemes prevented that from happening in a timely fashion.

So, here we go. Should you buy Civilization IV.

My answer is "Yes", with the two following caveats:
1. You have bought a desktop computer within the last 2 years OR a good laptop within the past year OR are willing to spend a little extra money on upgrades if the game doesn't run well out of the box;
2. You have played and enjoyed at least one of the first three canonical Civilization games.

My personal bottom line is, this is the best Civ yet. I never really paid attention to previews that talked about the "streamlined interface," because the old interface never bothered me; it wasn't until I started playing that I appreciated the magnitude of what they've done. It's been reminiscent of my experience playing Civ 2, when I realized that they had solved problems which I hadn't realized existed. The pace of the game is much quicker now from turn to turn, because you aren't flipping through a dozen city screens in the late game, and as a result you can actually keep track of your strategy and the big picture you're trying to accomplish. There are more times than I care to admit when I would spend 10-15 minutes on a single turn in Civ 2, keeping my cities happy and moving units, only to stare at a transport in the next turn wondering where I meant to take it.

For more information, look at my earlier posts. The new features all work. (I still can't speak for the multiplayer.) There are already some really exciting things going on with mods, which of course kept Civ 2 going for a long while. They've removed the specific things that made Civ 3 occasionally infuriating and brought back the fun empire-building of earlier games. (That said, if all you know is Civ 3, this will feel familiar and even better to you.)

Again, my earlier posts contain quibbles, some of which will probably be fixed in patches (stuttering wonder movies and the civilopedia), others of which will probably stay (modern units that fail to dominate over older units), but the only thing that is likely to cause real grief is if you spend $50 on this game and then can't play it on your computer.

And what if you haven't played Civilization before? Well, I'm surprised you're reading this blog for one; virtually everyone I know has gotten sucked in at one time or another. Civilization is, simply put, the best turn-based strategy game ever, so you'll like it if you've enjoyed other games in the genre like Master of Orion, X-COM, or Worms. And if you don't know turn-based strategy games? Think board games, basically. You have a board and you move pieces around on it, competing against others to reach your goals. It's more complex than that, of course, but in a way it's just a very advanced version of Chess or Monopoly. The best thing you can do is find another reader of this blog - because I can guarantee they will have played Civilization. Get them to buy the game, then watch them play for a little while, then play some yourself on Settler or Chieftan mode. If you're able to crush a rival civ or start building spaceships, you'll feel an irrational boost of self-esteem and be hooked as well.

I'm rambling now. (As opposed to normal, when I run an extremely tight and focused blog.) Once again: if you've liked a previous Civ game and have a decent computer, buy this game. You will not be disappointed.

It's you. It's you

I need help.

I can tend to be a little obsessive when I find something I like. If I fall in love with a new author I'll tend to devour all their books, one after another, until there's nothing left by them to read. When I find a wonderful new video or computer game, my nights and weekends vanish. (I'm sure this will surprise readers of this blog.)

What's especially dangerous, though, is when there's no obvious stopping point. I can get to a point where I say, "I have read every published work by Kurt Vonnegut," and move on to something else. Something like Civ is trickier, in that you can win a game, but its near-infinite variety and replayability causes me to dive in over and over again. Closer to this second pattern is the way I approach music. I'm not happy once I've bought every album by a band; I'm happy once I have completely absorbed, analyzed, memorized and evaluated every song they have done. Of course, it's impossible to do this without getting something stuck in your head.

I have been blessed with access to a collection of Sigur Ros albums. Prior to this, the only album I'd heard was "()", which was recommended to me by Amazon.com. (Don't laugh - their recommendation system is far from perfect, but I owe many wonderful discoveries to their prodding; without Amazon I might never have read Catch-22.) () amazed me, and has been in regular rotation for a while, but for whatever reason I never crossed over and listened to the rest of their stuff.

Now I have. Over and over and over again. Basically, I get to work around 7-7:30 AM, turn on my computer, and plug in my headphones. Sometime in the next hour I'll realize I've opened ITunes. I'll start playing Von or Agaetis Byrjun. It doesn't really matter which, because I'll listen to them each two or three times over the course of the day, along with () and an assortment of their live music and b-sides.

If you've listened to Sigur Ros, you know that it's the sound, not the lyrics. (Though the lyrics are cool - they tend to sing in Icelandic or an invented language called Hopelandic.) It's just an amazing, often cool (in the sense of distant or removed), complex, almost orchestrally electronic wash of sound which laps at your mind. Actually, that's a good metaphor - much like a river, it feels like this music is actually cutting new channels into my brain so it can more easily flow through.

It has totally taken over my life. Civ IV is only a tyrant when I'm at home, but Sigur Ros is now a part of me. This weekend was wonderful, but there was hardly a single event during which my brain was not loudly playing "Svefgn g englar" or "Hun Jora" or any one of many other songs. Which is nice, I guess, since I love the music, but I can't help but feel that it's crowding other stuff out.

Of course, this too shall pass. Similar things have happened to me before. I've noticed it most with electronic-sounding pieces - recent Radiohead and R.E.M.'s "New Adventures in Hi-Fi" and "Around the Sun" have been the worst offenders to date - but I'm not sure if that's because my brain resonates with that kind of music or what. I've learned that it's useless to fight it or drown it out. I'll cheerfully surrender large portions of my brain for the next couple of months until the next thing comes along.

June 16th

Another great weekend. My parents came out to celebrate my Dad's birthday, and I reveled in another opportunity to entertain and explore. They were on their own for Thursday and Friday, and we joined forces over the weekend to form the King Squad, a ragtag group of misfits with superior powers of reason and humor who conquer everything in their paths.

The bullet points for the visit:
  • Went to Scott's Seafood on Thursday Night. By far the fanciest restaurant I've been to in... well, I was going to say San Jose, but quite possibly ever, not counting weddings and such. Unbelievably good food.
  • Went to hear the San Francisco Symphony play in the Flint Center Friday night. Wonderful concert. I haven't heard live classical music (not counting Christopher O'Riley) since going to my brother Pat's Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra concerts back in the day, and realized how much I'd missed it. The program featured pieces by Britten, Stravinsky, and a composer named Oliver Knussen. The whole show was good, but I particularly enjoyed the selections from Britten’s “Peter Grimes.”
  • Saturday morning had breakfast with my aunt Fran, cousin Jenny, and... um... cousin's daughter (so is she my grand-niece? second cousin?) at Jenny's house. It was a really fun, relaxing, enjoyable time. Great to get caught up with them, and fun to hear the adults interacting.
  • Drove up to Millbrae and took BART downtown. Mom was On A Mission to check out a huge fabric store called Britex. Dad and I discovered Union Square, which I'd never seen before, spent some time there, then walked around a bit and checked out "Cody's Books," which is in the process of opening a store just north of Market.
  • Took the N line out to Golden Gate park and had lunch in a good Mexican restaurant called "La Fonda."
  • Walked into Golden Gate Park. Made a detour into the botanical gardens that turned into a really long and pleasant stroll. There's an amazing variety of plants and trees in there, we saw a lot but I'll need to come back sometime.
  • Walked up past the Japanese Tea Gardens to the new De Young Museum. Explored the sculpture gardens, admired the building, and speculated on some construction occurring nearby.
  • Swung down a road to a nifty lake near the park's center, with lots of paddleboats and a large hill rising in the center. We found a bridge and crossed over. After about ten minutes of ascension and crossing a waterfall we got to the top, and were rewarded with pretty impressive views of the bay, the ocean, Golden Gate Bridge (I bet this is the only place in the park where it's visible), and much of the city including the Transamerica building.
  • Caught the N line back downtown, and reversed routes to return home.
  • They cooked a really excellent meal - Beef Stroganoff, which I haven't had in a darn long time.
  • I educated Mom and Dad on "The Daily Show" (though I picked the wrong episode, definitely not Jon's best) and "Sealab 2021" (the hilarious robot episode).
  • On Sunday went to PBC, a church that colleagues of both my parents have recommended, and crashed their Missions Sunday.
  • Went hiking. Got sort of lost. With Mom's superior map-reading powers we were able to reorient and get where we were headed. Found yet another really spectacular vista point with a great view of the Santa Clara Valley.
  • Went for a drive. Mom treated Dad by renting a red Mustang convertible for the weekend. We stopped at Erik's for sandwiches, took the top down, crossed the mountains and motored along the Pacific Coast.
  • Stopped at a really cool beach and hung out. It was definitely too cold to swim, as always, but many people were out walking or lying on the sand. The beach looked impressive because it was shaped like a semicircle, with high cliffs on all sides (with two slopes you could scramble down) and the cliffs extended out quite a way into the water. There were some impressive breakers thrown up when the waves crashed against the cliffs. While sitting down we met a man who was walking with his bird (I thought it was a parrot but it wasn't, I don't recall the species now) named Jonathan. Really friendly guy, we talked a lot about his bird and what it was like raising him. Later on Dad and I went exploring along the ridgeline and discovered a cabbage field that extended all the way to the cliff's edge. Very cool.
  • Drove back home, picked up some Mr. Chau's Chinese Fast Food (same place I ate at before, they were slightly more polite this time) and rented "A Beautiful Mind," which Mom and Dad have wanted to see for a while. My reaction was largely the same this time around as the first; I really enjoy the bits where [SPOILERS] he's crazy and thinks he's a spy. Some really cool shots, especially the crazy magazine walls. But the movie totally loses me at the end with one of the worst lines in all cinema, something like "It is only in the mysterious equations of love that we can discover true logic and reason," which is not only clunky but also amazingly, infuriatingly, absolutely wrong. Anti-right. It is the antithesis of 25 years of my personal experience and I refuse to entertain the possibility that it is correct. (But I still enjoyed watching the movie.) [/Spoilers]
  • And that's it! They flew back home today. As always I loved having visitors, and having them in particular was a lot of fun. I didn't miss playing Civ IV once the entire weekend (and believe me, that is saying a LOT.)

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Pre-war intelligence

I had my second guest out to San Jose this past weekend when my brother Pat took a few days off work and ventured west. I've been looking forward to this for a while, and did my standard pre-visit thing of looking up possible activities and starting to think through itineraries.

I was a little worried about the airport pickup; just the day before some fellow Rocket Mobilers (Mobilites? Mobilians?) had run into nasty traffic en route to the airport and missed their flight. I had smooth sailing all the way up, though, and got to chill for several minutes before he came in. One nice feature about SJC is the "Cell Phone Parking Lot," a little strip separate from the airport where you can park, turn off your car, and wait for a call from your arrival. This is an awesome idea - you don't burn gas constantly circling the terminals, and the traffic at the airport is lighter because the only people driving are the ones currently in the process of a dropoff or a pickup.

I had to go back to work so I deposited him at my apartment. Apparently he has made the same terrorist list that I have; he wasn't allowed to check in online, and so he had to leave for Midway at an ungodly hour. I advised him to sleep and ventured back to work.

Our first night was pleasant and pretty low-key. After chatting a while and catching up, we decided to get some food. Here the adventure began. I poured over one of those "100 Best Restaurants" lists, picked out the cheapest places, and asked Pat what looked good. After some discussion and analysis we decided to try a nearby barbecue restaurant, which is a tricky proposition - we both love BBQ, but I've been trying to avoid it, just because I've lived in KC recently and feel certain that the Bay's offerings cannot be as good. Still, at some point I'd need to see just how they stacked up, and I knew that this particular place came recommended by some folks at work. So we piled into my car and headed out.

We circled around the street a few times, unable to locate it. Rather than spend another two minutes to go home and double-check the address, we went to downtown San Jose to check out Zhang, a pan-Asian restaurant. The food was quite good, the decor was attractive and the diners were casual.

Back home we realized that I had remembered the completely wrong address, hence the absence of barbecue. Pat introduced me to the series "Deadwood," which I'd heard a lot about but never seen. As always he showed his good taste; I'd need to see more to get a better feel for the series, but just the pilot was stunning and surprisingly dramatic. We finished off our TV-themed night with "My Name is Earl" and "Arrested Development."

Saturday we hit up the Tech Museum of Innovation, a San Jose landmark. En route we found a great little Mexican restaurant, one of those wonderful cheap-and-tasty spots that serve an incredible volume of food for a few bucks. We also spun around downtown a bit, I showed him the new City Hall (sadly no longer open to visitors on the weekend) and the library (second-best view from the city, though this day was a bit too hazy for a good shot of the mountains), then we ambled over to the bright mauve museum

The main attraction at the museum was "Game On!", an exhibit that started in London and is making the rounds. Game On! is a great look at the history and art of video games. It contains venerable artifacts, including an original PDP-1 on which the game "Spacewar" (arguably the first video game) was written. The bulk of the exhibit was made up of playable games, which was incredibly cool. Pat and I competed in "Pong" hooked up to a huge screen. (I will neglect to mention who triumphed and who suffered crushing defeat.) All of the classic arcade games were represented, as well as some old ones that are not well known. The exhibit wasn't restricted to arcade games, though. Every console had a few games shown, all the way from Atari up through the XBox. Even PC games were represented, and we were both delighted to see Douglas Adams' Infocom game "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" included.

The atmosphere here was great. Everyone was enjoying the games, but nobody "hogged" any of them; people would play for a few minutes, remind themselves how fun (or frustrating) it was or experience it for the first time, and move on. Any game that supported two players would have two controllers hooked up, and both friends and strangers worked with or competed against each other. And while everyone enjoyed the games, there was still a lot of interest in the primary source material and other artifacts on display. I was particularly wowed by a large replica of the design board used by the "Grand Theft Auto III" team. There were also several listening stations offering full tracks of video game music, from the synthesized wails in 80's games like "Ghosts and Goblins" through licensed music in the latest games. While there was certainly a "gee-whiz" factor in seeing the advance of technology, one didn't walk away from the show feeling with a sense of constant progression; there's an undeniable charm to the earlier works that still holds up decades later.

While Game On was the highlight, there was a ton of other stuff at the museum. Some was a little hokey; I felt weird walking through an exhibit on The Internet. I'm glad it exists, but after taking advanced college courses on networking, it's a little disconcerting to see those same concepts show up again, heavily glossed as cartoon characters. Still, it's definitely aimed towards non-experts, and I appreciate the effort.

Other exhibits were more interesting. There was a large exhibit on space exploration; another on engineering, including an earthquake simulator; robotics; quite a few on biology including DNA mapping and generic engineering; vehicles; "invention" and several smaller ones scattered around. There was also a daily Segway demonstration and a scary theater show we didn't dare enter.

Pat had gotten in touch with a friend of his earlier; David is pursuing a Master's/PhD at Stanford. He was attending the football game earlier in the day. We got another call from him later after we'd headed to Fry's Electronics (the most amazing electronics store I have personally seen) and decided we'd touch base later. After perusing the motherboards (Pat is considering an upgrade) and looking at the LCD HDTV monitors (again, Pat is considering an upgrade), we split for the movies.

We'd determined to either watch "Capote" or "Good Night and Good Luck." As luck would have it we hit the theater a few minutes after GN&GL started so we headed in. It's been on my list since it came out and I was not disappointed; excellent flick. Shot in black-and-white, this movie is a dramatic look at the historical confrontation between Edward R. Murrow and Senator Joe McCarthy. What had attracted me were the eerie parallels between this movie's events and our present situation, where powerful men use the specter of a shadowy enemy to silence their detractors. The movie stands up well on its own, I think in large part because the source material is so strong. As Pat remarked afterwards, over half of the script is either actual footage (of McCarthy, Eisenhower, the hearings, etc.) or verbatim reenactments of actual broadcast transcripts. This story is just incredibly compelling. I vividly remember the days we spent on McCarthyism during my senior year class, "Cracks in the Republic: Civil discontent, dissent and protest 1955-1970." We watched entire hearings and McCarthy's entire rebuttal, and while the film does a phenomenal job of capturing the tenor of these events, the actual footage is just as compelling. Those were dark times, and it's amazing that in at least one instance the powers of media were turned against villainy in government.

I've long wanted to try "Pizza My Heart," which my co-workers assure me is some of the best local pizza. As luck would have it, there is just such a restaurant in the lobby of this theater. As luck was against me, they were out of pepperoni pizza. We were faced with a dilemma: wait 8 minutes for the next pie to finish, or spend half an hour driving to an "In n Out Burger"? Obviously, we opted for the latter. We're young, and need to feel like we're in constant motion.

Before he came, I'd asked Pat to pick out some stuff he'd like to do. The only definitive thing he came up with was going to an In n Out Burger. I didn't remember having ever heard of it, but as he reminded me, this is the burger joint in The Big Lebowsky. In n Out is a quintessential California restaurant. The owners take pride in their freshness - nothing is ever frozen or nuked. They slice the potatoes right in the restaurant. The menu is simplicity distilled - they sell burgers, fries, and shakes. (Yes, that's it.) We were both enchanted by this utopian ideal of a relatively healthy and worker-friendly fast food place, so off we went exploring.

It took a little longer than I had planned. If I'd thought to stop at home first I could have picked a better route, but instead, inspired by my Google experience a week earlier, I attempted to navigate using only directions I got on my cell phone. We eventually got there, reassuring each other as we pulled in that surely, considering it was past 8 at night, the place would be dead. We were rudely dissuaded by the long line of cars wrapping around the building. Pulling the old midwestern gambit of walking inside to beat the line, we ordered. I was shocked to see that in addition to being fresh and wholesome, the food was also cheap, barely more than McDonalds.

We had to wait a few minutes for our food and were amused by the antics of the staff. It was a scene of bizarre, beautiful chaos. There didn't seem to be any manager, nobody was in charge, everybody was doing their own thing and switching from job to job, and yet everything was getting done. We got our previous bags and went back to the car, determined to make it home before the food got cold.

Which we did. We popped on the previous "Colbert Report" while eating, delighting in the antics of Stephen. This episode (the fourth) was not as solid as the first two but still darn entertaining. I expect to see some changes in the future because, frankly, some of it could use improvement - the interview needs to either be cut or drastically refactored - but the underlying sensibility is solid.

Soon David swung by. I realized once he arrived that I'd actually met him before; he sat in front of me when I went to watch Pat's production of "Landscape of the Body." He's an amazing guy, an engineer who wants to work in developing third-world nations, and was able to squeeze into the theater department at Northwestern. Now he's trying to decide on a faculty advisor and an area of research for the next seven years of his life. David talked about how he was trying to decide between a project that studies how lizards can climb walls and ceilings and try to develop robots to do the same thing; and a project working on... actually, I forget what the other project was. There's a lot of interesting work being done in robotics, and he told us about a team at MIT that's working on developing robots that can recognize human emotions and react appropriately. (The idea is that, as robots become more ubiquitous in our lives, they'll increasingly need to interact with humans to accomplish their tasks.) Pat commented that the congruence of these research endeavors disturbed him: "If I walk into a room, I don't want to worry about, first of all, whether there's a robot on the ceiling, and secondly, whether he's angry at me." We laughed about how one day we'd be telling our kids that there was a time when we thought it would be a GOOD idea to give robots MORE powers than they had before. "And that's why we're locked in this toolshed."

I was also fascinated by David's inside account of Stanford culture. I've had this vague idea that Stanford is basically an ivy-league school that happens to have wonderful weather. From his stories, it's also where weirdos from around the world congregate. Their marching band is infamous for their antics, and is actually forbidden from several other stadiums because of actions like urinating on the field in unison during halftime. They don't have a band uniform, and instead everyone dresses with salvation army-type castoffs. Tuba players decorate the inside of their bells with portraits of George Bush, Chairman Mao, etc. At graduation, they don't have a stately processional like other schools. Instead they have the "wacky walk", a twenty-minute period in which students amble into the yard, start playing volleyball, sunbathe in a bikini or otherwise let it be known that this really isn't a very important event. At the end of the time everyone eventually makes it to their seats, at which point they become Stanford graduates.

I probably shouldn't recount the rest of the conversation, even the interesting deviation into where Lot pitched his tents. David headed out and we stayed up a little later before crashing at the end of what felt like a very long day.

Sunday we chilled, played Pirates! and perused the Mercury News. Pat's friend Cameron lives in San Francisco, and another friend Anne was in town this weekend to visit, so we decided to head up to The City and socialize. This probably would have been a perfect time to practice driving there, but fear triumphed over greed and we caught a Caltrain headed north. This can be a slightly aggravating experience on weekends because of how long it takes (over 90 minutes), but it's easier when you have someone along to chew the fat.

Pat enjoys good used bookstores, so our immediate destination was Acorn Books, a spot several blocks north of the Civic Center that was well-reviewed online. By now I can navigate SF without a lot of help, though I did bring along my pocket map to see if any cool sidetrips would prevent themselves. We took the Muni to Civic Center and then hiked - literally uphill - to Acorn.

It's a unique store. I couldn't help but compare it to Bloomsday Books, my favorite used book store in Kansas City. That store (before they moved) rambled over two stories, filled with bookcases of varying heights, as well as several open bins of movies and such. Acorn, being a bookstore in the heart of an extremely crowded city, decided to build up instead of out. Massive stacks towered above you everywhere in the store, and it was difficult to walk down an aisle if even one other person was there. Ladders offered access to the upper reached, though I mainly contented myself by craning my neck and squinting.

Their collection was certainly impressive. They focus on rare and first edition books, but contain the usual assortment of titles you would find in a quality used book store. No cheap paperbacks or romance novels anywhere, just slightly musty, well-loved books. You could also tell it was a city bookstore by the prices. I'd grown used to bargain-basement deals on good books at Bloomsday; here, even an unremarkable regular edition of a small book would sell north of $10.

I was tempted by a few titles, from my fanboyish longing for an out-of-print REM book to my nerdy desire for some classic Time Magazines. In the end I was content to just browse. Pat picked up a collection of Mamet essays and then we met up with his friends.

Cameron is one of the many, the proud, the brave: the San Francisco drivers. I've always been frightened of bringing my Saturn into the city and nothing I saw this day changed my mind: streets are crowded, hills are scary, and parking is nearly impossible to find. Still, I was extremely grateful for her expertise as we fought our way north. Our destination was Ghirardelli, the (in)famous confectionary. While driving I enjoyed hearing Pat catch up with his old pals. Anne is working as a political reporter for CNet, and was in town to attend some sort of diversity training program. Pat has lost none of his ability to make people crack up.

The stars aligned and after an extremely illegal U-Turn and the tightest parallel park I've seen, we snagged a spot. It was a few blocked to Ghirardelli, where a massive and imposing line dissuaded us from our original plan to get ice cream. Cameron, showing her native street-smarts, demonstrated that the store portion is entirely separate from the restaurant, and boasts free chocolate to boot. We wandered briefly, like young adults in a chocolate store, marveling at the variety and attractiveness of all the premium chocolates on display. Then it was back to the car.

Intent on providing us with a positive ice cream experience, Cameron chauffeured us to the second-best ice cream in the city, which was indeed delicious. I had what might be the most delicious sundae I've ever tasted. I tried to ignore the Vikings losing while eating.

From there it was a meandering shot to the Haight. Cameron drove us by her house and pointed out some local landmarks, including Charles Manson's house and the house from... um... Saved by the Bell? Maybe?

We eventually alighted in (well, a few blocks near) the Haight. It's been on my list of neighborhoods for a while; once the epicenter of SF Hippie-dom, it's now a center of commercial counterculture, a gleefully embraced oxymoron. We just saw a small slice of it, but it was pretty groovy. Colorful stores, tons of people, very vibrant atmosphere.

Our sightseeing finished off at Amoeba, a massive music store. I mean really, really massive. It was a warehouse. I wandered in shock for the time we were there; anything I could think of, they had. It got to the point where there was so much I wanted to buy that I couldn't buy anything.

Cameron and Anne bade farewell and Pat and I headed for the L line. For the third time, I made it back to the Caltrain depot having missed the train by a few minutes. Having been in this situation before, though, I knew what to do. We wandered through the neighborhood and cut down behind SBC park to the pier, which was, once again, totally deserted. After mocking the names of sailboats in the marina, we completed the circuit back to the station and caught the next train home.

I grabbed an SF Guardian (the venerable alt-weekly) and read it on the 90-minute trip back. Interestingly, it contained a long article totally blasting the area around the station, which we had just walked, as being the antithesis of San Francisco: it wasn't a neighborhood, it didn't encourage people to walk around and meet people, it had no families. I thought it over and decided I agreed; while the area directly along King is very nice and feels safe, it also feels insular and, like the article said, you could find the exact same kind of street in any large American city (which can't be said for most of SF's other neighborhoods). So that made me a little sad, and I wondered just how many more times I would find myself in the Caltrain station with an hour or two to kill.

Other than ice cream, Pat and I hadn't eaten anything since breakfast. Since it was now past 9, it was time for Mexican! We returned to the very same place I had eaten at the day I moved in and grabbed a variety of food. We took it back and devoured the burritos, nachos, and flautas while watching "Annie Hall," my second-ever Woody Allen movie. It was amazingly good, and immediately jumped into my Top Ten list. I especially enjoyed the portion late in the movie when the tension between New York and Los Angeles becomes a major theme; I've only lived here for a few months but am already supremely comfortable in hating Southern California. Beyond that, the humor was incredibly sharp, the film had a slightly surreal flavor that I loved, it had some amazing cameos (the earliest appearances I know of Christopher Walken and Jeff Goldblum), and it had some really solid thoughts on relationships and the way we humans seek to connect with one another while maintaining our identities.

Of course, all good things must come to an end. We bade each other good night, and the next morning I returned to work; a few hours later, Pat flew back home. It was an awesome weekend for me, a great chance to play host and explore still more potions of this area that I'm growing to learn and love.