Friday, March 31, 2006

Words on Snakes on a Plane

I'm late to this meme, but thought I'd toss it up anyways.

Snakes on a Plane.

That's the title. That's really all you need to know, really. It stars Samuel L. Jackson.

For sick obsessives like myself:
Snakes on a Blog
NPR's Fresh Air: Snakes on a Plane
Wigu: Snakes on a Plane
And doubtlessly many, many more.

Happy Frackday!

As I've mentioned before, I have an overly strong tendency to identify with characters in works of fiction. I'll regularly think, "Oh, he's just like me!" or "Man, I know exactly how he feels." This excessive attachment sometimes influences my reaction to the works - I feel more distressed about something bad happening to "my" character than I do if an unfortunate event befalls someone else.

Still, not every work has a Chris in it. This is particularly true for Battlestar Galactica, which sort of surprises me - the cast is so large, so good, and so varied that it seems like there must be a Chris there. But there really isn't. Of course, I'd most likely have died in the first wave of assaults, so my absence shouldn't be surprising. For the most part, the remaining humans are those with very strong survival instincts, which generally manifest as ruthlessness or physical prowess or adherence to a strong hierarchy. None of these really apply to me.

While I lack the one-to-one correspondence I generally see, I still can see a few aspects of myself in several characters. In Billy, Rossalyn's aide, I see my shyness around women, my quietness, and my idealism. In Lt. Gaeda, young officer on the bridge, I see my work ethic, my desire to please, and my technical aptitude. And Gaius is an interesting person, who embodies a handful of my attributes (casualness, meticulousness, general strangeness) while embodying even more of the traits I most despise (arrogance, selfishness, grandstanding, insensitivity).

MEGA SPOILERS for Season 2 around episode 16 (I forget the exact number)

I gradually came to the realizations in the above paragraphs, but even that was more analytical. Usually when I come to an identification it hits me all at once - so many things seem to match up that I immediately buy the whole package. Here it was more a process of, "Hey, Gaeda really wants Gaius's approval. Hey, I know how that feels. Huh." I sort of mentally checked things off without making the emotional connection.

That finally changed, though, in the episode I saw last night - season 2, I think episode 16 or so. I'd sort of had a sinking feeling before about Dee and Billy - I wanted so badly for them to succeed, Billy's fumbling and earnest affection feels so similar to my own that I crave validation that it can work for someone in the universe, but the way Dee was looking at Lee, my gut told me there were rough times ahead. And, once Dee actually rejected Billy, my identification with him was complete. I felt so sorry for him because I feel so sorry for myself.

That feeling just built throughout the whole episode. The way Billy is more wounded than angry, the way he saves the life of the man who took Dee away from him, all the emotion burning inside him that he can only express in civil and polite bursts - "Wow," I thought, "I'm looking at myself."

And, of course, once I figure out who I am in this show, he has to die. Pretty much the second he was shot, I figured that Billy wasn't going to make it. (This in a show where someone takes two bullets to the chest at point-blank range and pulls through.) It might have been the music that made me think that, but it seems more likely that it was just the fact that Billy seemed like an awfully nice guy, and nice people don't do so well in desperate situations.

I guess that's it for that. I don't have as much to say on the topic as I thought, I'm just bummed that I finally find someone to relate to on the show and they're immediately offed.

In keeping with the tone of the post, here are some random thoughts on the show, circa Season 2 Ep. 16:
  • They really need to back off on the flashback episodes. They didn't have any first season (at least that I remember); lately, there have been a whole string where they'll start in media res, then say "48 hours earlier..." and spend the next 40 minutes getting back to that point. When done right this can be a neat technique, but they're not doing anything useful with it; it serves exactly as much purpose as showing an advertisement for the episode before the people see it.
  • Whoever is capping my episodes is a lot looser than the people who capped Season 1. At first I thought the show had gotten rid of the cool drum-roll-sneak-peak end of the title sequence since the first few episodes didn't have it, but now that they're back I'm thinking the cappers were just snipping them off. A few episodes had a brief clip of what looked like a pro-life advertisement that got clipped off at the start of a commercial break; this last episode had the whole thing, and I saw that it's the freakiest advertisement for Battlestar Galactica that anyone could have imagined.
  • Now that I write this, there's a very strong possibility that my Season 1 came from the DVDs and not the original broadcasts, which would explain everything.
  • And, yes, I am going to buy the DVDs. I'm waiting on Season 2, though - they're doing a weird half-season thing right now. Once I'm caught up, I'll probably start following it via iTunes - 1.99 an episode is not bad at all, and I'm hoping they'll do a MultiPass thing like The Colbert Report does.
  • I have mixed feelings about the super-topical feel of second season. It feels really reactive... there's episodes about abortion rights, about terrorism, about torture, about detainee rights. All that stuff was in first season too (well, besides abortion), but for whatever reason it's bothering me more now. As I've mentioned before, I feel like the show manipulates me into picking sides opposite what apply in real life. Which is fine - this is fiction, after all, and the context is completely different (the human race facing annihilation is worlds different from a global superpower invading a third-world country), but part of me worries that I'll become too comfortable with the decisions they make.
  • Man, I like Rosalyn, but she has to be just about the worst politician ever. She managed to arrive at a lose-lose situation with the abortion issue, and, what made my jaw drop, when Gaius declared himself she SAID NOTHING, then TURNED AROUND AND WALKED AWAY. Absolutely unbelievable. She's going to lose in a landslide.
  • I don't actively dislike anyone on the show. Well, except for the witch-hunting person back in first season and Cat in second. That said, I think that in real life I would have a serious problem with Lee. Influential people with tempers bother me, and the way he blatantly benefits from nepotism would rub me the wrong way. Still, this is fiction, and the fact he's generally in the right carries the day.
  • He hasn't been featured much in the last few episodes, but Helo is another person who I find much more enjoyable on the show than I probably would in real life. Helo seems like a stereotypical jock in a lot of ways, and is someone I'd never hang out with, but in the context of the story he's incredibly sympathetic, and he might be on my list of five favorite characters right now.
  • Well, speaking of which, let's do it. Bill Adama, Gaius, Dee, Zarek, the Chief. I guess Gaeda would be six, Helo would probably be seven, and Boomer eight. (And I do like Helo's Boomer WAY better than Chief's Boomer. The old Boomer was always whining and killing people. The new Boomer suffers and redeems.) (This list excludes deceased persons, for obvious reasons.) ("Favorite" = I enjoy watching them, not that I approve of their actions or would like them in real life.)
  • Sometimes, it feels like season 2 of Battlestar Galactica is trying to copy from every successful current television show. "24"? Yeah, we've got terrorists and counter-terrorists too. "House"? Yeah, we have an irrascible and grumpy doctor too. "Lost"? Yeah, we've got mystical mysteries too. "The West Wing"? Yeah, we have political intrigue and spin-doctoring too.
  • We can't afford to make the same mistakes the colonies did. I'm going to invent a Cylon detector this weekend. All prospective dates and friends will need to pass it before I associate with them. People may call me paranoid, but they won't be laughing when I'm the only one left alive, talking to someone only I can see! Hahahahaha!
And that's it for now. Just a few more episodes left to go, this will probably be my last BG post until I start on Season 3. Good hunting!

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The Enigma of Completion

I think all of my interviews at WeatherNews went well. As usual I felt strongest when I was fielding technical questions or talking about design and architecture, but even the more personal ones felt much more comfortable than I usually feel. One I was most nervous about was with Mr. Vincent Zinck, who as a company VP was the highest-ranking person I spoke with. In person, he was one of the most friendly and personable of the bunch, and quickly put me at ease with some amusing anecdotes about his experiences with the company. At one point he asked me what I enjoyed doing in my spare time; this was the second time that day I'd been asked that question, and once again "reading" was one of my responses. As before he asked who my favorite authors were. In my first conversation, with the project manager (who is in his thirties) I had responded with, "Have you ever heard of Neal Stephenson?", which led into a great discussion about our thoughts on his work. This time, when Mr. Zinck (who is probably in his fifties) followed up, I responded, "I like a lot of things. My favorites are problably the modernist British authors."

Now, both "answers" (though the first one took the form of a question) are true; there's a huge group of authors whose works I enjoy, and I'd be hard-pressed to say whether I prefer Aldous Huxley over Neal Stephenson. I hope I can be forgiven for focusing on different areas of interest based on what I expected my interviewer would find interesting.

It paid off, though. Mr. Zinck had also studied English in college and remained an enthusiastic fan of British literature. We talked a bit about Conrad, and he sounded surprised that I hadn't read anything by V. S. Naipul. "If you enjoyed Conrad, you really should read 'The Enigma of Arrival,'" he said, and I dutifully wrote the title down in my notebook and thanked him for that.

I ended up turning down WeatherNews's offer and moved to the South Bay. I put "The Enigma of Arrival" on my Amazon wish list, where it languished for months and months. Finally I had an opening to tackle my reading list, and since that book was available at the San Jose libraries, I grabbed it along with "I Married a Communist." Even as I did so I felt like I was making a mistake - these were both major works by serious authors, and these days I tend to stagger such works with lighter reading in between.

It ended up going fine, though. I read more than half of "Enigma of Arrival" while flying to and from Chicago two weekends ago, and have handled the rest of it in my brief snatches between work and sleep. Once I gave up on trying to find any plot, it became a very enjoyable book, the sort of thing that makes me wish I was still taking literature classes so I could discuss it with others who had read it.

Somehow I doubt many of you will be reading this. Just to be safe, though, I'll block off the section below for MINI SPOILERS. Just so we're clear: the reason that these aren't "major spoilers" is not because I don't discuss the big shocking twist at the end of the book; it's because this is one of the most plotless books I've ever read and there really is nothing to give away (in my opinion, at least). The important part of the book isn't what happens, it's what the narrator thinks about his life.

Okay, so we now officially enter the

As much as I enjoyed this, there really doesn't seem to be that much to talk about. I guess I'll just jump around a bit and tackle things I thought about.

Strike that. Let's turn this into an essay on entropy.

I forget whether he ever uses the word "entropy" in the novel, but regardless, if this book is about anything it's about that. Now, when I hear the word "entropy" these days my thoughts usually jump to Pynchon, who explores that subject with a wonderful, crazy, kaleidescopic vision of change and chaos. When Naipul addresses it, though, he's more interested in the sense of decay than disintegration. Pynchon focuses on what entropy produces, Naipul focuses on what was lost.

The narrator of the novel shares many biographical characteristics with Naipul, and the final chapter seems to talk about him writing this very book, so I'll act like the narrator is Naipul... it's easier to write about, and the narrator is never named anyways.

The narrator's obsession with decay is immediately obvious and, frankly, a little annoying. He has this romantic, idealized vision of how grand and pure everything used to be, and the whole novel is a lament of loss: loss of people, disintegration of the manor, coarsening of society, and more. Sometimes he is personally witnessing a decline, other times he adopts a concern that predates his life. Even when he finds something to enjoy, he is either thinking of how much better it was before or how quickly it will cease to please.

There's an interesting device Naipul uses where he will suddenly introduce an object, refer to it several times in different contexts over a few pages, and then just let it go and possibly never bring it up again. I first noticed this with his description of the artillery ranges, whose noise torments him; he keeps bringing them up, over and over, just reminding us how much he dislikes them and how they intrude on his thoughts, but without giving any new information about them. One of the last times is when he discusses a particular painting (I forget the name) as representing a particular sort of European moral belief.

What purpose do these repeated interjections serve? I think they are successful because, first, it's a good approximation of how our own minds work; when I think of something, I'm more likely to use that in speech or conversation than something I haven't thought of recently. Looking back over my old blog posts, I'm sometimes surprised to see me using a particular phrase, like "I don't buy it" or "Leaving those aside" several times in a single post, even though it's a phrase I rarely use. I'm generally compelled to edit and put in a fresher phrase instead. By keeping these elements intact, Naipul helps us feel like we are really getting inside of his head, not just reading what he has decided to put down.

Another purpose they serve is to act as a sort of exemplar of his overall relationship with the world. Naipul's primary instinct is to hold on to things as they are: he resists and fears change, and wants to keep everything the way they are. That isn't the way the world works, though, and inevitably things slip away from him. In the same way he seems to treasure and hold on to these phrases of his, keeping them around longer than most authors would think wise; but eventually they can no longer fit the story and have to be reluctantly discarded.

This general motif of the problem with resisting change is a prominent one in literature. When examining the tone of Naipul, the closest match I can make is not Pynchon, but Tolkien. Undergirding The Lord of the Rings is a tremendous sense of loss; everywhere the heroes go they see ruins of great cities, relics of great warriors, traces of great magic. Everything is slowly falling apart, and many people finish that book with a strong melancholy: the heroes may have defeated the villains, but even in their victory the Elves are forced to leave Middle-earth, and one feels that future generations will lack even more than this one did.

Another similar story comes, oddly enough, in the latest Sandman I read: "Brief Lives." Here Gaiman explicitly addresses the question of change, primarily through the character of Destruction. In the past, Morpheus has hated and resisted all changes; over the course of this story and the series, he gradually begins to adapt (though at the end of this book he is still denying it). The choice is given in rather stark terms: one must either change with the world or die.

Ultimately, all three books agree, change is inevitable. Any mortal creature can create little enclaves where they may resist the forces of entropy for a time, but eventually it will be overwhelmed and cannot last. Children grow up, houses shift on their foundation, streams change their course, smells lose their intensity. In the long run even the stars move in the sky and languages are forgotten.

I would argue that, since change is inevitable, the one thing we can control is our reaction to it. We can either be like Naipul and see in every change a little death, or by like Pynchon and in every change see a little birth. Whenever something changes we lose the old and gain a new; by finding the good in the new and praising it, we can increase the pleasures in our life.

Of course, not all changes are good. I'm not suggesting we should all brainwash ourselves into thinking that all change is progress. But we should be conscious of the inevitability of entropy, and instead of asking "Why couldn't this stay the way it was?" we should ask "Could this have been any better? Could it have been any worse?"

Naipul is a spectator who watches but never acts. We, though, do have the ability to affect our world, and we should take advantage of the chances we have to guide the form a change takes. The Democratic party will never again look like it did in the 1940's. We can either weep over that fact and try to reunite the coalition of liberals, southerners, labor unions and minorities; or we can look to the future and think of what the next coalition will look like, and work to make it look like that instead of something uglier and more desperate.

I get the feeling that Naipul the author agrees with me, even though Naipul the narrator is stuck in his mourning mindset. One of the most poignant stories, alluded to early on and explained towards the end, is of a ninety-year-old woman coming to visit her childhood home, only to find that Naipul has remodeled it so she can no longer recognize it. Naipul is horrified by what he has done, seeing the way he has destroyed the past and replaced it with something unfamiliar. But if he had not made the changes, his house would suffer the same fate of the manor. All who saw the house would think of how far it had fallen. By remodeling, Naipul has actually created something new from the old, and chosen to take control of entropy instead of accepting stagnation. In the book he regrets his action, but I think this is the best path Naipul shows us, acting within our means to guide the things which are most important to us.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Sticks and stones may break my bones...

This past Saturday I was blessed with an overcast, rainy day. Not one to let such a thing go to waste, I spent the day powering through the final quarter or so of Planescape: Torment. I thought I'd share my thoughts here now that the game has finished.

I'm wondering how spoiler-aware to be. This game is such a relic (created in 1999, commercially unsuccessful, no sequel coming) that I'd expect me to be one of the last people who will ever play it. That said, at least two readers of this blog have expressed interest in playing it, so I'll try and be considerate. Overall impressions first, and the meaty reaction inside a spoiler block.

I've gotten at this a bit before but I would like to reiterate: this game is incredibly dark. First of all, it is dark in visual design. Virtually all the characters, environments and items are mixtures of brown, black and grey. The overall feeling is one of squalor and filth. Secondly, it is dark in tone. There is almost no humor here, and what little humor there is usually deals with decapitation and dismemberment. Finally, it is dark in philosophy. The game is pretty nihilistic, and the things you're motivated to do are very different from things that motivate us in ordinary life.

Let me expand on that last point a bit. Often times, the motivation in a fantasy game is the same as a motivation we would feel in our own lives, but magnified to a grander scale. For example, we tend to value family, and in some games you need to rescue your relatives from the Dark Lord; we value country, and in games you need to save it from annihilation; we value truth, and in games you need to solve the Big Mystery. In Planescape: Torment (henceforth Torment), the player character's motivations feel wholly alien: he seeks annihilation, oblivion, the ending of things.

Almost all this post will be about the plot and philosophy, so I should address mechanics before I forget it. The controls are pretty annoying. It's stuck between BG1 and BG2, and unlike BG2 there isn't a convenient way to discover the containers on a screen, so you'll need to mouse over each and every barrel before finding if any of them have stuff inside. Combat is fine, though the party AI is weak. I was generally much happier with combat earlier in the game; when you get party members with ranged attacks, your melee fighters no longer charge enemies, so there's a lot of micromanagement of positioning to keep your weak characters from getting slaughtered.

One bright visual spot is the magic spells. I don't think I cast any offensive magic until about halfway through the game, and when I finally did, I was extremely impressed. The animations are wonderful, looking far more impressive than the rest of the game.

In a way, it's almost a shame that there isn't more combat. I mean, yeah, it was nice to play for days and days without ever needing to fight, but when you did fight (with magic) it seemed so colorful (brilliant red fire, stark blue lightning bolts) that it washes away the drab white-text-on-brown that fills half your screen for the majority of the game. The story is awesome, I love it, but once I had a couple of epic battles I realized how starved I was for color.

Combat is pretty much an afterthought. There are some places where you can fight, but if you really tried, you could probably get through the game only killing 5 or so enemies. You wouldn't be too penalized for that, either. Individual kills will often net you around 65 XP, versus the thousands of points you get from finishing quests or, heck, just talking with people. In that regard, this game curiously felt more civilized than most RPGs, the subject matter notwithstanding.

There is an unbelievable amount of conversation in this game. That's one of the only things I'd heard about Torment before starting, and I was still surprised. Virtually everything you do requires finding people and navigating through elaborate conversation trees to extract every bit of information.

That said, this is a place where their interface could have been improved. It's still basically the BG1 engine, which was fine for the conversations in that game, but can get unwieldy here. The text window takes up half the screen, and you still need to click every paragraph to advance. When choosing your response, your options can go up to 20 or more different topics, requiring some awkward scrolling to find what you want. The content is good enough that it feels worth it, but it shouldn't have to be an obstacle; Bioware should have invested in a new conversation engine for this game, even if they kept everything else.

A point of occasional annoyance is the quest log, which shares the same big problem that Morrowind has. When you get a quest it tells you who gave it to you, but not where they are; therefore, once you finally finish it, it can be really hard to remember exactly where to go to finish it. Even worse, in Torment sometimes the quest will be marked as "completed" and removed from your active log once you do what you were supposed to, even though there might be additional XP and items waiting once you report back to the person who gave it to you.

The character selection is good. Each NPC is unique (both in personality and in ability) and interesting. Like BG2 they occasionally talk with one another, and some especially like or dislike others. They also are frequently involved in your conversations with non-party NPCs, and might open up new conversations or provoke them to attack. You can develop relationships with them; I got in the habit of periodically chatting with them about our quest, and found that they often had a lot to say. This isn't just good for the fun of it; by doing certain threads you can increase their abilities or otherwise help them out.

The music is pretty good, nothing spectacular but nothing embarrassing either. There's only one theme that I really like, which you can hear early in the game and is later repeated. For the most part the music is atmospheric and moody. In a lot of places there isn't music at all, just background noise.

Hm. I think I've covered my bases here. Now, for the next section I'll be talking about things you find out in the game, but which don't directly address the main plot. A lot of it is probably old news to people who play D&D. So, I will call these


The metaphysics of Torment are kind of fun, and I'd like to go into them a bit. As far as I can tell this is based off D&D books and not original to the game. If any of you are more familiar with it than I, please forgive any mistakes I'm making in describing how everything fits together.

There are many dimensions. The first of them is called "Prime," and roughly corresponds to what we would call "The Real World." It is populated by mortals who are born, live, and die.

Beyond Prime, you have the Planes. Where Prime is a mottled place with clashing emotions, beliefs, cultures and motives, each Plane is a more unified place that represents a principle or orientation. For example, one plane is "Limbo," and is a manifestation of the "Chaotic Neutral" alignment. Limbo is filled with chaos, with matter appearing and disappearing, and whorls in the ether regularly sweeping away anything which is built. Opposite of Limbo is Mechanus, the manifestation of the "Lawful Neutral" alignment. Mechanus is filled with gears and levers and machines. Everything is orderly and logical. The main race there is the Modrons, perfectly logical robots who oversee the order of the plane.

The planes are separate universes, and so one cannot, say, fly a space ship between them, but they are still capable of influencing one another. The beliefs and actions of those living in Prime influence what happens in the Planes; in turn, the Planes can affect what happens in Prime. For example, if enough people in Prime believe in a god, that god will be created in the Planes. The more people who believe in him, the stronger he will become; if, over time, they change their idea of what that god is like, he will change to fit the belief. The god's strength is greatest in his own realm, but with enough followers, he will be able to influence events in other planes, or even on Prime itself. To kill a god, one could travel to his home and fight him in full glory; or, one could simply convince enough people to not believe in him, and, like the monster under the bed, he will go away.

Powerful magics can actually move people between planes. If you've played BG2, the company of Players are very clearly from the Planes. In Torment, such travel is usually accomplished by means of Portals, wormholes that stretch across space and even dimensions.

This isn't just background; this philosophy has a huge impact on the game itself. The power of belief is extremely potent and should not be ignored. I read an FAQ after beating the game and learned that, if you lie enough times in the game and say "My name is Adahn," enough people will believe in Adahn, and later in the game a new character called Adahn will actually appear. This sort of thing is realistic here on the planes, far from Prime, and makes all sorts of strange events possible.

Besides belief, the setting of the game means you'll encounter tons of archetypes, and unlike in normal games, they don't feel cheesy, just natural. I mean, if you met a single-minded champion of Justice in, say, a Final Fantasy game, you'd be a little disappointed if there weren't any other complications in his character. But here, yes, he actually is a MANIFESTATION of JUSTICE itself, the avatar of an abstract principle. This isn't to say characters are all one dimensional. Some of the most poignant characters are those who struggle against their natures and try to become something else, or whose experiences have changed them from what they were. But even when something is one-dimensional, it is that is such a stark and uncompromising way that it is enjoyable.

Changing gears slightly: without giving too much away, I'd like to give some general gameplay tips to people who are thinking of playing the game and would like to avoid making bad decisions.
  • Save early and often. After the first section of the game I didn't run into many gameplay bugs, but you don't want to risk it. And with conversation so important in the game, you'll probably want to have a game to go back to if you accidentally offended someone or otherwise messed up a quest.
  • You control your alignment in the game. Probably 99% of this comes from your conversations. Lying makes you chaotic, telling the truth or making vows makes you lawful. If you say something like "I will help you" it'll make you good, if you say "What's in it for me?" it'll make you evil. If you do a lot of good stuff early on, you can do some evil stuff later and retain your alignment.
  • More on alignment: mostly it's just what kind of character you want to play. There are a few things that are only available to certain alignments, but nothing crucial for the game. Being Lawful Good allows you to use one of the best weapons in the game. (If you'd like to do this, give yourself Edged weapons.) Being Evil gives you some other good weapons. There's one faction you can only join if you're Chaotic, but it's not really worth it. I was Neutral Good for most of the game and ended it Chaotic Good. It seems like your alignment should affect your relationship with NPCs but it didn't seem like it did; Lawful members didn't seem to care when I became Chaotic.
  • There are two points in the game where you are teleported to another Plane using an item in your inventory. In both cases, you will be able to find and invite another party member, but when you do so you risk abandoning one behind; if you do this, I think they're lost forever (well, once you go back to Sigil). You MIGHT want to only take four NPCs with you in these cases, though it's possible you'll need all five. Don't stress out about this too much - no single NPC is indispensable.
  • You can increase your stats whenever you level up. Wisdom is definitely the best (I wish I'd figured this out first) - it opens more conversation threads, helps you recover memories (which give you more experience), and gives a bonus to all future XP you receive. Consider getting your Wisdom all the way to 25 (either naturally or with tattoos and other items) before you invest in other stats.
  • It's often better to have one really high stat than a bunch of mediocre ones. Consider raising either your INT or your CHR really high instead of splitting between them. A high INT will sometimes let you logically persuade a person, while a high CHR will let you emotionally persuade them, but a medium of both will get you nothing. This doesn't apply often, but for really important things, you'll want a high stat.
OK, those are the big gotchas. One more topic to cover before hitting the plot.

Names in this game are fascinating. In keeping with the general metaphysics of the planes, everyone has a name that indicates their essence. There's a zombie called Post where people hang notices; there's a skull called Morte; there's a criminal printer called Scofflaw Penn. Sometimes it gets absurd; obviously you won't believe something Lyra tells you. It's less clear when names are given in a non-Common language, but even then, if you can find the name's translation you'll have an excellent idea of what the person is like.

Given all that, it's fascinating that your player character is called The Nameless One. I think there are a lot of ways to consider this. First, one can think that he is unchained from destiny; not having a name, he is free to make his own choices and determine his nature. It feels very significant that you are the only person whose alignment can shift. Secondly, so much of the game is about wanting to KNOW who you are; in this context, it's unfortunate that you are Nameless, because that leaves you with no information about your self, no sense of history or purpose... no YOU.

There are other cases where names make me really curious. The big example I'm thinking of now is Falls-From-Grace, a reformed Succubus. I've been trying to parse that almost since I met her and cannot. She is no longer in the Abyss, but wouldn't she be better called "Rises-From-Damnation"? Or is the name more about what she DOES than what she IS? One can consider the name ironically, I suppose... "grace" being considered a pure or natural state. Still, this game doesn't seem real big on irony. I just don't know. Without this very complex and faithful system of names, though, her particular example wouldn't grab me nearly as strongly.

All right, time to tackle the plot. We now enter the territory of


This is FAR from the first game to use amnesia as a major plot device. I can well understand why it is so tempting to developers; amnesia gives you the best of both worlds, both identifying the player with the character (because, heck, neither of you know what's going on) and giving you a rich and vibrant backstory to explore (because the character did a lot before getting amnesia).

Each game, though, uses amnesia to different ends. Final Fantasy VII uses a very localized kind of amnesia which pays off in the second-biggest shock of the game. The Metal Gear games exploit amnesia to heighten paranoia.

In Torment, your amnesia is probably the single most important thing in the game. It's not just an obstacle to get around; it's something you explore and pursue. For most of the game you just want to know why you can't remember things. This pays off in the game, too; regaining a memory you had previously lost is surprisingly satisfying.

The overall effect is wonderful, sinister and ominous. I think the best example of this is Ravel's question, "What can change the nature of a man?" By the time you actually hear it, late in the game, you (the player, not The Nameless One) will have spent a lot of time pondering that question and turning it over. The echoes of your previous lives both reveal and obscure, giving you little snatches like this question without providing the context you need to make sense of it.

Ah, and a quick side note on Ravel: how cool is her name? You first hear murmured references to her early on, and as the story continues you begin to realize just how important she is, perhaps even thinking that she might be the Final Boss. But it wasn't until I started talking with her that I finally "got" her name, which sent me off on a kick about the English language. If we can talk about unraveling, why not raveling? I love the mental image she conjures up, like a spider, tying things together.

Topic hop: I was pleased to see them continuing (or, I suppose, beginning) the romance tradition from BG2. I wooed Annah in my game; I'm guessing Falls-from-Grace is also a potential lover. That said, BG2's system felt far more satisfying. Here you just had a couple of conversations past a certain plot point. In BG2, it took a long, long time, with conversations initiated both by you and your lover, and the resolution of some special events and plot points to bring to a conclusion. Anyways... yeah. That's a fun aspect, and I wish more games would take advantage of it. It's those little touches that make you feel like it's a ROLE-PLAYING game and not a "kill monsters and loot their gold" game.

My party at the end of the game was myself, Vhailor, Annah, Ignus, Nordom and Falls-from-Grace. As always I wish I had more slots in my party. I reluctantly left Dak'kon behind on Carceri (right?) to get Vhailor; Dak'kon was one of my favorite characters personality-wise, but he just wasn't that good of a fighter or a mage, and wasn't doing much for me in combat. Annah had similarly felt like a dead weight for much of the game - there are far fewer locks and traps for a thief to contend with here than in the BG games - but around the time I got Vhailor I had finally come to realize how useful she was as a scout, and even an assassin. My standard combat technique was to put The Nameless One and Vhailor in front as shields, with Nordom and Ignus behind as artillery and Fall-From-Grace in the backfield for relief. Annah would go stealth, find a group of enemies, backstab one, and then lead the rest on a chase back to my main party, which would mow them down. Sometimes she could do this a few times before our forces collided, and it wasn't unusual for me to resolve potentially lethal conflicts with hardly any damage on my side.

The other name that isn't there is Morte. He was fairly amusing; I gave him up to get Ignus, because he seemed to overlap too much with The Nameless One in combat purpose. Still, he had his qualities... he was the only Good-aligned character, the only one with a sense of humor, and did a lot of the intra-party chatter that I enjoy.

I was briefly very excited when, near the end of the game, I met some earlier incarnations of mine. This all felt very Freudian and clever. There was the "Practical Incarnation," who was obviously plot-focused; there was also the "Good Incarnation" and the "Paranoid Incarnation," the latter of who was obviously crazy. I thought at the time that this was probably the result of the way I had been playing, since I was Chaotic Good by this point; I figured I was speaking with aspects of my personality. I read the FAQ after beating the game, though, and was disappointed to learn that you always meet those three incarnations no matter what. Pity.

And for the very ending of the game... wow. You know, like I was talking about before regarding motivations in RPGs, there also seems to be a limited number of acceptable endings. There's the Dragon Warrior I ending: "Congratulations, you have defeated the Dragon Lord and saved us all! You are Now the King of the Land!" ending. There's the Zelda ending: "Congratulations, you have defeated Gannon and saved Hyrule! Now you can go back to being a pig farmer again!" There's the Ultima ending: "You have shown us all the path to enlightenment! Now you can return to Earth!" In each case the ending is something the player would want, whether that is power, peace or normalcy.

But, geez, the ending of Planescape: Torment? "Congratulations, you have recovered your mortality! You are now damned to spend all eternity in Hell!" I mean, wow. I'd sort of been mentally preparing myself for just dying at the end of the game, since that seemed to be the direction things were going in, but it ended up being way worse than I had thought.

So that kind of got me thinking. Why did I still feel so good after beating the game? The mere thought of going through a fraction of what my character went though was horrifying, and the end of the game just magnified all that to an even more gruesome extent. Part of it is likely because I've been programmed well by video games, and automatically produce a rush of endorphins or whatever when I defeat one. In that case it's the fact that I have "won" which I'm celebrating, not what actually happens within the text.

In another respect, though, it's not the victory that's important, just the fact that it's over. I'm used to playing games in fantasy worlds that are more attractive than my own: even though they may have aspects that are horrifying, the worlds themselves almost always feel elevated above my own: more exciting, more clever, more colorful and magical. My experience playing Torment was the exact opposite: in every conceivable respect I enjoy my own life more than the one portrayed in that game. Oddly enough, I still tended to feel better after playing it, but I think for very different reasons. In a typical RPG I get on a certain high in the game, connected to my admiration for the world it presents, and that pleasure stays with me once I end the game. Here, I felt like a man being led out of a cave; the contrast between the dismal world I was playing in and the wonderful world I am living in was so great that, in an odd way, the game made me appreciate things more. No matter how bad a day I have, at least people aren't ripping out my internal organs, killing my friends and refusing to let me die. Life's pretty good out here.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Meanwhile, on Cylon-occupied Caprica

I finished watching Season 1 of Battlestar Galactica this week. Wow. Just Wow. I'm now comfortable declaring this one of the best televised sci-fi series ever. (If I had to choose, I would declare a trinity of BG, Firefly and ST:TNG, each included for completely different reasons.) Surprisingly, the series gets increasingly different from the miniseries the further it continues, both in tone and message. Anyways, I wanted to chatter a bit and set down my thoughts before I start in on Season 2.

The performances are top-notch. Everyone is at least as good here as in the pilot; some, like the President, are much improved. You don't see a lot of evolution in the characters - everyone is too busy just surviving - but there is a lot of change in their relationships. The humans are adapting to their new circumstances with varying degrees of success, caught between trying to hold on to their old ways and building a superior future.

There's no noticeable dropoff in effects quality from the miniseries. Not every single episode has a spectacular outer-space battle, but throughout the series you'll see plenty, and the ones that don't still have plenty to enjoy. Caprica is always gorgeous, and the other ships in the fleet you get to see have their own charm as well.

For me, the coolest parts about the series are the characters. Returning again to my crutch, they're a fascinating blend of ST:TNG's archetypes (The Experienced Elderly Guy, The Angry Warrior, The Logical Robot) and Firefly's subverted archetypes (The Cute Engineer, The Sensitive Pilot, The Honorless Hero). As the characters here are fleshed out further from the pilot, they become increasingly interesting. Most of them feel archetypal, but they interact in unusual ways, and it's often difficult to predict how people will act.

I want to go into some more details. Let's call these

I had a ton of things I wanted to discuss, but now it's been a few days and I've forgotten a lot of it. I'll hit what I recall and may update this post or make a new one if I remember more.

I loved the ambiguity of Tom Zerek's (Zarek? Xarek?) character. Man, I need to stop saying "ambiguity" so much, I think I've massively overused it in recent posts. I'll probably use it again when I finally write up "The Enigma of Arrival," too. Still, there's a reason why I keep bringing it up: it's just so much more interesting to puzzle things out for yourself than have it all handed for you on a platter. In real life, there's hardly anything that can be accepted in a straightforward manner. Are Republicans better than Democrats? Perfectly reasonable people can come to opposite conclusions. So I think it's both more realistic and more engaging to push those equivocations into fiction; if nothing else, you get much more interesting discussions out of "Tom Zarek is a terrorist!" "No, he is a freedom fighter and the only true democrat in the fleet?" than everyone saying "Man, I sure hate that Zarek guy."

All that being said, I think that Zarek is ultimately a villain, but a very charismatic one. He had flaws and limits that keep him far from being as bad as the Cylons, but from what we see, he does often seem disingenuous. His calls for freedom and change reek of self-aggrandizement. Regardless, though, I think we can see the kernel of the man inside, and you can make the argument that however bad he is now that he left prison, he may have been a good man when he entered.

The show also pushes you in uncomfortable places. I haven't seen "24", but everyone talks about the scene where Jack needs to torture a terrorist in order to prevent a bomb from going off in an hour, and that scenario has even influenced the debate over torture here in the US. Similarly, a liberal like me gets a little uncomfortable at some of the conflicts between the civilian government and the military. I found myself rooting for Adama's position in the majority of his clashes with the President, even though in "real life" I would always recoil at the thought of military intervention in setting policy. Of course, the reason for this is that the situation depicted in the series (human race on the brink of extinction) is so far removed from our own.

Oooh... mega-tangent here. I haven't been getting into Iraq on this blog much; that's a huge topic that will need to wait. But I want to chime in on this whole question of whether the invasion was "worth it." This usually boils down to, "Well, it's better in that people have freedom, but it's bad in that they're more likely to get raped, robbed or murdered than under Saddam." Any time I hear this debate I think of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Basically, the idea here is that there is a series of wants that humans have, and we can't advance to the next one without satisfying the lower ones. For example, we have a need for companionship, but we won't worry about filling that need until after we have satisfied our needs for food, water and shelter.

So, I don't know about you, but I would much rather be safe than free. That sounds like a horrible thing to say, but it's absolutely true. Given the choice between never being able to vote but being able to walk in the street at night, versus the freedom to vote and demonstrate but needing to worry about getting stabbed, I wouldn't really hesitate to pick the former.

Of course, the real world doesn't work like this. The ideal situation is to have both safety and freedom, and so I would most likely pick the first and then work on increasing political freedom. But in the second situation, people will be so worried about the essentials that they won't be able to fully participate as citizens.

Segueing back to BG: that's how I justify my lionization of Adama. The commander is directly concerned about the survival and safety of everyone; the President also has those concerns, but is willing to take some risks in exchange for greater freedom, participation and a robust civil society. Those things are all well and good, but when they infringe on the core question of survival, I can't help but get upset.

Gaius is still one of my favorite characters. I know he's supposed to be annoying and despicable, but he's just so interesting. His "hallucination" has remained amusing. I didn't totally get behind his jump into politics, that seemed very unlikely, but once he was in there it was fun to see yet another side of him. I tend to think (archetypes again) of The Scientist and The Politician as being totally opposite to one another, but in his megalomania Gaius brings the two together believably.

The religion angle is kind of cool. They sort of mumbled the words in the miniseries but here they actually go into what the beliefs are. From what I can tell, the overall metaphysics of the BG universe are the same as the Wheel of Time or Finnegan's Wake: everything that happens, has happened before, and will happen again. It's fun to think that that's how prophecy "really" works - it's a history, not a prediction.

So given that, what roles do the human gods or the Cylon God play? I get the feeling we'll find out that the Cylons are right and the human gods are just aspects of God (though I may be letting my monotheistic prejudice get in the way here). But still, WHAT is God? I don't think it's a crazy person at the center of the galaxy like in Star Trek V. Suppose for a moment that my assumption is correct, and time is cyclical. Does God then exist outside of time? Does he guide the direction of people in the universe? That doesn't seem necessary, if everything EXACTLY repeats itself (though I suppose we don't know for sure if the repeat is a true repeat. Seems like it should, though). More likely God is a classic Watchmaker type who just sets up the universe and hits the auto-repeat button. So then, why is it so important to the Cylons to "know God?" Why is Love so crucial? I personally think of this as meaning that one must give up struggling against fate and accept that everything that must happen, will happen. But again, I'm letting personal thoughts cloud my science fiction judgment.

Moving on, the Cylon ship was pretty nifty. I've been curious for a while now how the process of making a Cylon works. First there were the classic machines, which presumably got some human DNA or whipped some up in the lab, and have been growing and cloning humans since then. (To me that's the most interesting idea: wetware hacking, how one "programs" biologically.) So humans can create machines, and machines can create humans. How exactly does one create a human-machine hybrid? I wonder if they do it like Cyborgs, first creating a biological entity and then grafting on the exoskeleton and turrets and all. Or maybe they Frankenstein it, with metal and lots of stem cells. Either way, it'll be interesting to see if they feed fanboy obsession and ever show us the creation process.

Oh, and how about that climax, huh? That's almost certainly the most intense cliffhanger I've ever seen. At least, I can't think of another one that shocked me more. I can't imagine how bad it must have been for people who were following the show at the time and had to wait almost a year for the resolution. (I still haven't started the second season, but just knowing that I can helps soften the sting.)


There. Shorter than I'd planned, but it's written. Bottom line: BG is cool. If you're interested, definitely start with the miniseries; you can probably quickly figure out what's going on if you jump into season one, but you'll have a few surprises spoiled that way, and the series doesn't give quite the same room for character development that we got in the miniseries.

UPDATE: Oh, yeah, I forgot to talk about the title sequence. Way cool, again, and really innovative. Every episode opens with the same sequence: first a stock sequence that basically recaps the pilot, then the opening scene from the episode, then the standard titles and theme music. And during that same time, they shift into a rapid-fire series of clips from the show; not of previous episodes, but of the one you're about to see. It reminds me of those "Next week..." things at the end of anime episodes, but obviously here they may as well be saying "This week..." The clips are just a second or two long so you can't really gain any context about what's happening, but it has the pleasant effect of giving you deja vu throughout the episode. For the first few episodes I thought, "Wow, that's very stylistic and cool, but it seems like they're doing it for the sake of being cool... it really doesn't add anything to the show or make a thematic point." I should have had more faith. A few episodes in I finally started making the connection between the opening and their religion. Yes, these were events that hadn't happened yet; however, they were also events that had happened before. It's a combination clip show and preview. The show exists as an entity, you glimpse it from ahead or behind, but the show itself does not change.

And, it's fun to think of this philosophy in terms of Battlestar Galactica the show. "This has all happened before" - yes, in the 1970's movie and television show. "This will all happen again" - yes, in syndicated reruns for years to come. I can't help but wonder if the series creator was thinking of his sort-of-remake when he came up with this framing device.

Still topic-hopping... the Game Developer's Conference is taking place right now here in San Jose. I'd love to crash it. All the cool studios are representing, and there's a good mix of technical tracks and business stuff in the mix. They have some cool keynotes, including more info on the PS3, Nintendo's president, and tomorrow is a presentation from Will Wright on "What's Next on Game Design." There was one odd point, though: thrown in among all those industry mavens is Ronald D. Moore, none other than the architect and creator of the new Battlestar Galactica franchise - he's the one who came up with the idea for the "remake," sold it and made it.

So, what's a TV producer doing in this conference? The capsule summary is surprisingly apt: "In this keynote, Moore describes his process of taking the Battlestar Galactica IP and successfully re-imagining it into a compelling and engaging experience." In case you aren't plugged in to the gaming press, the single greatest issue now is the question of sequels and franchises. When I started gaming it was feasible for a few college kids to make a living both writing and publishing their own games; now, the cost of production (art, graphics, multiplayer, licenses, and more) regularly pushes prices up to $25 million or more for a new game. Because of the high price tag, companies increasingly rely on proven franchises. Civilization IV is guaranteed to sell a certain number of units, as are Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, GTA: Liberty City Stories and more. You take a risk when you put out an original game, like Sid Meier's Dinosaurs or Fallout. If they succeed, great, you've got a new franchise; but most new games fail, and publishers no longer want to risk tens of millions of dollars on gambles when they can place much safer bets.

The problems this situation cases are manifold. First, aesthetically, most programmers would rather create something wholly original and put their own stamp on it than carry the flag forward. Soren Johnson, the lead on Civ IV, is brilliant, and would do a great job on any game; in a way it's a shame that he's still following (albeit in an engaging, innovative manner) subject material first plumbed by Sid Meier 15 years ago. Secondly, there's a real financial risk. It only takes one really bad game to kill off a franchise, and if companies aren't starting new series, they may end up killing their geese and not have any golden eggs left. In the short term it makes good sense to pursue franchises, but in the long run that strategy will lead to shrinking returns and stagnant market growth.

All that being said, Moore's situation is much more applicable than it would seem at first. The majority of people working in the gaming industry now are working on a sequel, a spin-off, a remake or a re-imagining of an earlier work. In almost all cases, the people working on it aren't the ones who did the original. So the question is, how do you make it fresh? How do you really make it your own? I think the ideal situation is to end with a product with a name that will attract previous customers, and feel attractive to those who enjoyed the original, but will have its own sensibility and FEEL like a different work than the first. I haven't seen the previous iterations of Battlestar Galactica so I can't comment on this series's faithfulness or innovation, but I can see that Moore worked with an existing framework, inherited characters and technology and plots, and came up with a product that feels amazingly exciting and new. It's a tough trick to pull off, attracting new fans while retaining your old, and I'm sure many people will listen closely to what Moore has to say tomorrow.

Business Development

Hi folks. I was going to apologize for taking so long to post an update, then realized it's only been four days since my last one. It feels a lot longer than that, but an apology probably still isn't necessary.

Very, very busy at work the last four days, but today it calmed down quite a bit. I took a risk and cycled in to work today - it would have been bad if it ended up being another in-until-10pm workday, but I lucked out and should be able to split in a few minutes. Probably before I finish this post!

Can't talk too much about what's going on, unfortunately... hopefully I'll be able to let you know around August, by which time nobody will remember anything ever happened. Still, I console myself by thinking that it's better to be too busy than not busy enough; I'd rather lose the occasional weekend than my job.

I had fun last night. Some folks from Cerner are in town for the Eclipse conference, which is held in the Santa Clara convention center. I got to see Chad Moats (my architect and mentor for much of my time at Cerner), Brad Reynolds, Frank something, TJ Virdi, Amber Beerends (sp, probably) and one other person who I hadn't met before and whose name I promptly forgot. I swung by their hotel after work and picked up Chad and Brad. We drove to downtown Mountain View while Frank, Amber and the other person took the VTA.

We chatted on the way down, and I was pleasantly surprised to hear Brad might be interested in moving out here. Apparently he moved to Colorado several months ago; he's still working for Cerner as a remote associate, but now is thinking of getting a job by where he lives now or even heading for the coast. We talked a while; I love this area as much as when I first moved here, and now have some knowledge to go along with it, and it felt good to be able to answer his questions about the job market, housing situation, weather, and all that good stuff. Chad sounded generally envious of my situation but isn't going to be moving any time soon; he and his wife (Brenda? I always forget her name) recently bought a new house out in the country.

I've seen downtown Mountain View from the train on several occasions, but this was my first time on the ground. The main stretch is called Castro Street, and there's a great variety of restaurants and interesting stores there. We walked up and down while waiting for the train to arrive, eventually settling on an Italian place that seemed conventional enough to satisfy Brad.

The others showed up and we all got re-acquainted. Amber is pregnant again, still looking lovely. I really enjoyed my conversation with all of them. It sounds like things have calmed down a lot since I left; there's a more deliberate process in place and less frantic scrambling. Plus they're no longer trying to replicate a Win32 application inside a browser, which is good. There's been a lot of turnover, both at the top and the bottom. Most of the big names on 2004/Web Experience/Whatever have left Cerner or been re-orged; there's also a lot of froth among new hires, with the result that some people are becoming Architects at Level Six. (It may be a consolation that I would probably be among them if I'd stuck around.)

Overall, everyone seemed happy and satisfied with the way things were going, which I was glad to hear. Though I'm no longer there I still have a great deal of fondness for the people and the company, and it's good to see them doing well.

Oh, and we polished off a pitcher of Guinness.

When it was over I drove Brad and Amber back to the hotel, then headed home. I realized I'd enjoyed the whole evening without worrying about what was going on at work, so that was a good feeling. It's always pleasant to reconnect and socialize, and even if none of them follow me out here I'm glad we can stay in touch.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Happy National Hangover Awareness Day!

I'm sitting in my office writing this post. Last night I got a call from Scott, our VP of Engineering, asking if I would be available to pitch in over the weekend. I eagerly accepted.

That sounds weird, but it does feel good, on a couple of fronts. First, I'm delighted that I've worked here for over six months without having a fire drill like this; I think that says a lot for this company's project management abilities and overall competence. (This is only the second Saturday, period, that I've worked here; the first was a purely voluntary effort to get caught up on some low-priority tasks that piled up when I was out of the office the prior week.) Compare this to my stretches at Cerner where weekends were mandatory for months at a time, and it's hard to feel sorry for myself.

I'm also glad that, if it had to happen, it happened this weekend. Last weekend I was back in Illinois for a cousin's wedding; the weekend before that my parents were visiting me here. This time, all I'm giving up is a planned hike in Coe State Park which can be easily moved to next week.

And it's nice to feel like I have a chance to stand up and be noticed. While I appreciate the non-panicky pace of development here, it's good to let management see that you can be counted on when the chips are down.

If I'm really lucky, Wayne will buy us lunch today.

One thing that does feel a little odd is how similar today feels to a normal work day. At Cerner, it actually felt kinda nice to show up to work in jeans and a T-shirt. Here, it's my uniform. I came to work 90 minutes later than usual but am still the first person here. Ah, well. I'm not complaining, it's just different.

I suppose I should actually start working on these bugs now. Hope you all have a wonderful Saturday!

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Dorset Perception

Yet another CD has raided me. Like the recent Sigur Ros insurrection, this is a CD I've owned for a while now, but just recently has come crawling up through my brain to manhandle any and all attempts at productive thought. This time around it is "Involver" by Sasha, an arrangement of several electronic pieces. I had enjoyed it, but gone for months without listening to it; one night, as I was lying in bed, the bass line from the opening track came from out of nowhere and filled every available neuron: "Buh duh duh duh, duh duhduhduhduh, duh DUH duh duh buh du... duhduhduhuh." I was a wreck. After an hour or so I got up, stumbled into the living room, and spent several minutes flipping through my CDs to find the offender. Only after I put it on could I finally fall asleep.

This is the second Sasha album I have heard. There was a huge gap between the two; the first was "Airdrawndagger," which I have had on my hard drive since Sophomore year in college (or thereabouts). Airdrawndagger is a beautiful work. My tastes in electronic music skew heavily towards IDM and trip-hop; I love the soulful voices that warp and warble over the unearthly tunes, and don't care as much about the insistent dance beats that drive trance and techno. But something about Sasha's beats really grabs me. I can't define what it is, but even without any lyrics I still feel like he's saying something. I'm not sure what Airdrawndagger means, but I always think of that scene in Macbeth where he sees the dagger floating in the air before his eyes. One of many things I love about that scene is that Shakespeare doesn't make it clear whether there really is a dagger there or not, so any company who stages the play has a profound choice to make. Do they put a dagger there, in which case Macbeth is a profound victim, drawn to slaughter and death by the machinations of supernatural energies? Or does the audience see nothing but air, in which case Macbeth is crazy, inventing divine signs to justify his bloodlust? I love the way an ambiguity in the text vanishes once it reaches the stage; to me, Airdrawndagger retains that original ambiguity, carrying weight and importance without revealing its intentions.

I don't clearly remember when I picked up Involver, but it might have been something I grabbed immediately before leaving Kansas City for California. I vaguely remember stopping at a Borders where I picked up a Lupin manga, and I think the CD might have been my other purchase. If so, it's one of those CDs that will become linked to a particular moment or experience in my mind.

I had been expecting something "like Airdrawndagger," and initially was slightly disappointed. Further research has revealed that Airdrawndagger is actually a bit of an anomoly in that it is an original work by Sasha; like Paul Oakenfold, he is far better known as a DJ, and Involver is one of his compilations. Still, that doesn't mean it's at all bad, and as I listen to it more I increasingly appreciate the selections, both in their own right and the way they feed off one another.

I took the unusual step of actually taking the CD to work with me and ripping it for iTunes. My productivity has shot back up now that I can satisfy the senseless howling of my brain for that music. Here's hoping it will be satisfied soon and I can go back to listening to Sigur Ros and Radiohead.

In other pop-culture news, I finished reading "Fables and Reflections," the something-or-other-th collection of "Sandman." I wasn't planning to write about it until I finished the series, but this seems like as good a spot as any; I already have the next book but will probably not read it for another week or so, and the library is missing the one after that so it will be a while before I finish up. Besides, as good as it has been, I don't think it'll suffer if I wait a while before finishing up. Original readers had to take, what, over ten years to read the whole thing?

So: Sandman. I have the first book if you'd like to borrow it, but I can't really recommend it. Gaiman really flexes his creative muscles early on, switching between a lot of different story styles (gothic horror, adventure, traditional horror, and more) without really claiming one as his own. It isn't bad, it just isn't terribly original and isn't indicative of his later mode.

He really hits his stride with the last story in that first book. From that time on there's at least a thin (albeit often dark) vein of humor in his stories. Better than that, though, is a very malleable sense of existence. The abstract principles are much more real than the minutiae of dreary physical life; you can probably imagine how much I appreciate that.

Let's see... I guess I'll sort of summarize what I remember of the last few months of off-and-on Sandman, and give my reactions. Let's call these


"Preludes and Nocturnes." Dark, dark, dark. Depressing and morbid. We don't really get to know Dream/Morpheus much; he is a silent prisoner first, then a weakened and vengeful echo of himself, then a Man With A Mission. I love Dream, he's probably my favorite character in a series full of colorful characters; he is distant, amused, curious, insensitive, and vain. None of these characteristics really come through during his trial, though. Still, I guess you really do come to know and possibly love his appearence. Again, I'm hardly a comics expert, but I love how distinctive and yet ordinary he appears: just a little too tall, just a little too white, face just a little too long, but otherwise ordinary... except for his eyes. Oh, and my favorite image from the entire first book comes towards the end, with him sitting on the fountain, mumbling "Just feedin' the birds."

But, yeah, the stories. I dunno. I still get a little uncomfortable about trips to Hell. The Constantine story was interesting, but the pictures of his girlfriend made me almost physically ill... actually, that happened a lot during this book. I enjoyed his sojourn in Dreamland; it's even cooler re-reading that after the later books, once the characters have been fleshed out more and you get a better feeling for just what had been lost. The Ruby mini-arc, though... man. It was weirdly compelling, one of those things I hate myself for liking. Dr. Destiny's naked sadism and madness suck you into the story in a way nothing before has.

The next book is "The Doll's House," and is the first one I really enjoyed. It has a good, strong narrative that drives the stories as Morpheus tries to find and recapture dreams which have left the Dreaming in his absence. The bit with the Corinthian felt most similar to the horror-heavy first book; even that was superior, though. You had the incredibly dark humor of the Cereal Convention (a joke I suddenly got several weeks after I finished the book); the Corinthian himself had a lot of style that gave him a Doctor Dee sort of fascination. The first book often made me feel sickened; this second book made me feel glad I don't get nightmares.

The characters got a lot better in this book, too. The girl in particular whose name I'm blanking on was wonderfully written, an odd combination of heroine and damsel. This book was especially cool because for the first time I realized how much Gaiman called back to earlier stories and/or was planning these stories when he first wrote: little things that I had assumed were throwaways in the first book, like those whose lives were interrupted when Dream was captured, suddenly became important. That's been one of the best things about reading Sandman, the way that later issues don't just get better, they also make previous issues better as well.

Dream Country was sort of cute. It's the first of two (so far) books that are just collections of standalone stories that aren't part of a larger arc. I think this book proves that the characters and writing are strong enough to stand on their own, interesting material even without a compelling plot. Calliope is the first explicit trip into Greek mythology, which seems to be becoming more important the longer the series grows. The cat story was kind of dumb, but whatever. I really dug the Shakespeare piece. Did you know I've actually never read or seen Midsummer Night's Dream? It's true! I know enough about it to track what was going on; despite my previously noted indifference to Shakespeare's comedies, I'll need to check it out one of these days.

Season of Mists gets back into the standard pace of the series, once again taking an obscure incident from the first book and building a whole arc around it. Oh, and I think this is the first time you see all of the Endless, so that was really cool. Well, I guess you don't see ALL of them, but it's the first time five are together. The story itself is FASCINATING, probably my favorite plot so far. When Morpheus announces he is coming to Hell, everything Lucifer does predicts a war; the whole time Lucifer is showing Morpheus around, you're expecting him to spring the trap. And... I guess he does kind of spring a trap, sort of, but until the end of the story I still didn't believe that he really didn't want to rule in Hell any longer.

The section back in the Dreaming was also interesting, not least because of all the mythology bumping around. Having read "American Gods" before any of this, it's really interesting to see a slightly difference Gaiman perspective on the gods, especially the Norse ones. The storyline here felt like something very unsuited for a comic book, which made it all the more impressive when Gaiman pulls it off. As with "The Council of Elrond" in "Fellowship of the Ring," what is essentially a committee meeting becomes terribly interesting and dramatic. The resolution caught me slightly off guard; I was expecting him to get Lucifer to take it back, or to shut it down permanently as the faeries asked. It was a good choice, though. One of the most chilling parts in the story is towards the end, when the sinner says, "You... you don't understand. That makes it worse. Much worse." Once again I am reminded of C. S. Lewis's excellent quote:

Of all tyrannies a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience

That's what's so frightening about the end of this story. Hell was already bad enough, and one would think nothing could be worse than its sadism; but the moral fervor of its new masters will never slacken. Even worse, and I think this is what the sinner is getting at, it reminds them of their failures while eternally denying them redemption. It reminds them that they alone are responsible for their torment; they are both oppressor and victim together.

A Game of You was interesting. I really enjoyed its fantasy atmosphere; Gaiman shows his chops for a genre he hasn't explored much up to this point. It's much more "Willow" than "Lord of the Rings," more a collection of striking and unusual images than a world unto itself. The overall arc of the story was just fine; the framing bit with Barbie's apartment buddies didn't feel like it had enough payoff for what was happening, but the dream itself was solid. And The Cuckoo is one of the best villains yet in Sandman. I just love the incredibly ominous, chilling shadow The Cuckoo acquires long before we meet her. Once we do find her, it gets even better. There were some strong parallels between the Cuckoo and what we learn about The Guardian in Ultima IX, which made the story simultaneously familiar, freaky, and foreign. This felt a bit anticlimactic after Season of Mists, but overall probably one of the better books.

And the one I just finished was "Fables and Reflections." All library copies had been lost so I ordered a copy online; I'm very glad I did, because it turns out that this is the one with the story that inspired me to keep reading past the first book, the tale of Emperor Norton. That was hands-down the coolest story in the book. I sort of wanted there to be more, of course; that's the way I've always felt about Norton, the more I learn the more I want to know. I should probably be impressed that they fit in as much of his life as they did - his descent into madness, his proclamations, patronage of nearby businesses, defense of the Chinese, and more. More impressive, though, is their capturing of the spirit of the man, at least as I imagine it. That's what's so valuable about his temptation; what at first I thought was a red herring (and is decidedly ahistorical) turned out to be a really beautiful exploration of how deeply fulfilling Norton's madness was. I love that short and eloquent line, "His madness kept him sane." It sounds like an oxymoron, of course, but it's absolutely true: he finds comfort in his fantasy, and that comfort sustains him through situations that would otherwise crush him. I can't help but feel like I do this a little myself, and feel like there are far worse ways to deal with stress.

The rest of Fables and Reflections, while not as cool, were still good. The final story with the king of Baghdad was probably the most poignant. The type was annoying to read, of course, but the story was incredible, and the coda at the end made me (soft-hearted liberal that I am) kinda tearful. The long arc with Orpheus was well-written, and it made me understand the myth in a way I never had before. The REAL tragedy isn't just that his love is denied a return to mortality; it's that Orpheus's greed and impatience keeps him from accepting a few years apart from her, and punishes him by an eternity of loneliness. That's awfully sad. (Though I'm not sure if Orpheus's immortality is part of the original myth; if not, it's a good addition.) Let's see... hm. The Rome one was another interesting story, though both too cliche and too... I dunno... shocking for me to really enjoy. The werewolf story was really good, though once again I didn't enjoy the framing device nearly as much as the story itself. Having that big revelation of "Oh and by the way I WAS THAT BOY!!!!!!!111!!!" really didn't add anything for me. Except, I suppose, it makes it more interesting that the grandfather vacillates about whether the items were really magical or not. I do appreciate that part, the open acknowledgement of our inability to understand even things that happen to us. And I guess I like the climax in the bedroom for the same reason. Now that I think about it, that might be one of Gaiman's greatest strengths as a writer: the ability to embrace ambiguities without feeling compelled to resolve them.

So, consider that my report on Sandman. I think I'm a little over halfway through now; I'll report back if there's something worth writing about later on.

Friday, March 10, 2006

I'm LinkedIn!

Yet another Social Networking thing, this one courtesy of Josh. LinkedIn is a professional networking site; it operates a lot like Friendster or the Facebook, but is geared towards professionals. You create a work history, list skills, and connect with current and previous co-workers. The goal, again, is much like other social networking sites: it isn't so much who you know, it's who you know knows. The hope is that if I'm looking for a job, and Josh's employer's former CEO is looking for a mobile developer, I'll be a stronger candidate if I can say "My friend works for Steve" than "I saw your job posting on"

I appreciate the flexibility the site gives you when signing up. Contrary to my above example, I'm not really interested in other opportunities at this time, so I can just uncheck the fields which allow other people to contact me about opportunities, while leaving checked the fields that let other people find and network with me.

Bottom line, it's yet another networking site, but a pretty interesting and well-designed one with a good focus. If you're interested in professional networking, this is a good way to do it, especially if all your previous jobs were thousands of miles away. Feel free to add me to your network, even if we've never worked together.

After an initial flurry of activity on Facebook, I've largely settled down, now just checking in every few weeks to see if anything interesting is happening. I get the feeling this would be a lot more important if I was still in school; as it is, though, people seem content to just set things up and then leave them alone. I'm not necessarily disappointed or anything. When it comes to Facebook, I'm thinking of it as more of a semi-static registry than an active content site. It's more a way for people I've lost touch with to find me again than anything else. (Why would anyone WANT to do that once they've succeeded in shaking me off their trail? That's a question for the scholars.)

There's a fair amount I like about Facebook. The "Pulse"/trends section is the single neatest thing on there - you can track what's currently popular at your school (or geography) as opposed to the national average. The week-to-week tracking provides slick indications of rising and falling popularity. In some ways, I feel that this objectively demonstrates how Wash U is a superior school, in that Arrested Development is far more popular there (#6 versus non-ranking), The Beatles get their props (#1 in music instead of freakin' DMB), they show good literary taste (Catcher in the Rye, Great Gatsby, Catch-22, 1984, Ender's Game all in the Top 10; though not The Bible or, oddly, Lord of the Rings), etc.

One thing that's been a little weird is wondering who to Friend. One of the first things I did was flip through my class year and see who was already on there. (I'm way more likely to make connections with someone who's already on one of these sites; less likely to convince someone to sign up who isn't in already.) Some people were really easy to Friend; other times, I hesitated. Was just knowing someone enough to consider them a "friend"? What if I went to their party but never really hung out? What if we shared a class and chatted there but never spoke outside? I ended up choosing the "cautious" side and not initiating anything. This seems really absurd on its face; the only logical explanation is that I'm afraid of rejection, and it's especially silly since it's all done online and in any case I probably won't see any of these people again. Part is just confusion over what people consider "Friends", both on this site and in general. I want to go with the flow and not weird anyone out by claiming a too-close relationship, or offend anyone by seeming to ignore them.

In the end, it has all worked out in that pretty much everyone who I did not initially Friend has by now Friended me. I noticed that, almost invariably, these people have much larger networks than me or the people I directly Friended.

And that's extremely cool, because it made me realize that the Facebook is basically a live, interactive version of Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point." His whole thesis is that there are a small number of people, Connectors, who are responsible for grouping together a large number of people who otherwise would have nothing in common. Where most people probably have (picking a number more or less at random because I don't have the book here) around 10 people who they would consider good friends, these few can easily have more than 100. They are the people who chat with strangers on the first day of class, who stop by the new guy's cubicle, who know when everyone's birthday is and make sure to do something special. These people love collecting people the same way I love collecting books or remixes of "Dreaming".

That dynamic is totally visible on Facebook. The networks are a bit larger, because people seem more comfortable Friending acquaintances, but if you browse your network you will probably find one or two people with networks an order of magnitude larger than your own. (Or an order of magnitude smaller, in which case you yourself are the connector!) Most likely you don't feel as close to these people as you do the others on your list, but because they know so many people they expand your network more than everyone else combined.

That same dynamic is true on LinkedIn. One of my contacts, Josh, has 9 other connections. Two more, Wade and Nate, have 2 (namely Josh and me - it'll definitely grow if they decide to actually fill this thing out). And the fourth, Pramod Shintri, has over 500. Pramod actually invited me to LinkedIn several months ago; he is a recruiter for Google Mobile. I passed, mainly because I wasn't interested in a job and wasn't too clear on what LinkedIn was, but the invite was waiting for me when I finally signed up so I went ahead and accepted it. Now, granted, Pramod probably doesn't remember me at all or know me from Adam, so in a way those connections are almost useless. But it powerfully demonstrates the great ability for connectors to sweep people into their circle. It's probably safe to say that every mobile software developer in Silicon Valley is within two or three degrees of Pramod, and that's incredibly useful for someone in his job.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

"Well, that's it for the Report. See you in hell."

Two minor things some people may find of interest:

First off, thanks to David for pointing out Will Wright's video presentation on Spore, his latest open-ended nontraditional game. I'd initially learned of this game in a rather negative context, but after watching the video I think it looks quite cool.

I think that last paragraph used up my quota of links for the week.

The thing is, I really hope that the cool idea translates into a cool game. I keep thinking of Black & White, which had an incredibly neat idea and deliciously open-ended gameplay, but which failed to hold people's attention long. One of the risks I see here is also one of the game's advantages, namely the sheer variety of gameplay modes exposed. On the one hand that's really cool; on the other hand, you have a variety of game modes (Will Wright identifies arcade games, platformers, RTS, Civilization, and more) which will not be universally attractive to all people. What if I really enjoy the Civ-style game, but hate having to run around on the land first? It sounds like they're going to focus on the endgame, so hopefully if you like that you'll enjoy the whole experience, but I can still imagine some potential frustration.

So, we'll see. This'll probably be a game that I'll wait for a month after it comes out before deciding whether to get it. His previous games (Sim City, the Sims, etc.) have been ones that I've had fun fooling around with but haven't felt much desire to return to. Let's hope this one breaks through.

In other news, did anyone else see that the Daily Show and the Colbert Report are now available on iTunes? You can buy individual shows for $1.99, OR you can get a "Multi Pass" that will give you 16 shows for $9.99. I've just gotten a pass for the Colbert Report and thought I'd share my thoughts.

First off, the interface is pretty slick. It's integrated directly into iTunes, so you can navigate like normal, and you can watch thumbnail previews of an episode. I'm not sure yet whether you can browse and purchase past episode; there's just one episode displaying now, but that might be because this service recently launched.

My favorite part so far is the download. When I grab a Colbert Report or Daily Show off mininova, I generally let it download overnight; unless I'm lucky and get some super-seeders, it always takes over an hour. I didn't exactly time my download, but it was less than 15 minutes. Granted, some of the disparity may be due to my ISP throttling my Bit Torrent ports, but the end result is still an impressive download speed. Oh, and the file was just a tad over 100MB as opposed to the 170 I tend to see on mininova, so they're still moving most of the data.

Video playback is pretty good. When it starts playing it's in a little corner of iTunes, I guess so you can continue to browse and shop while watching it. The effect is like picture-in-picture, and frankly it's a little annoying. Clicking once will open the video in its own window which can be dragged around outside of iTunes. You can double-click in the picture to pause and resume playback. To switch to fullscreen you need to right-click inside the video and then choose "Full Screen." I'll experiment to see if you can set a preference so all videos immediately start playback full screen; that's the way I always want to see them, and it's a little annoying to require three clicks to switch it over. Image quality is fine, not great but for this show certainly adequate. It looks really sharp in the window; once I expand it to fullscreen on my 19" LCD, it's a tad grainy.

I'm looking forward to using this service, but I kind of doubt I'll continue it once my pass runs out, for the simple reason that the videos won't play on my Linux media box and therefore not on my TV. To do that, I'd need to choose between running a long cable from my PC over to my entertainment center or buying yet another PC (or Mac Mini or something) to handle MC duties. I don't really mind watching this on my monitor, but I'd prefer to patronize a service that gives me more control over my playback options.

Still, I was very pleased to see this. As I described in an earlier post that I'm not going to bother looking up now, I'm very optimistic about the long-range potential for online video delivery. Something like this is going to be even more impressive to a person who has previously only seen TCR or TDS on cable: imagine watching an entire show, on your schedule, with no ads. Given that there are hardly any cable shows I want to watch, it would make sense to pay around $20 a month to get quick, easy, full access to every episode of the few shows I do watch. Best of all it's all downloaded content that I can archive, burn, and otherwise store for posterity. We're seeing the future here, folks, and while it isn't perfect, it's already much better than what we had a few years ago.

UPDATE 3/10/06:
For those of you who are interested in the game, be sure to check out the official site. I think it's cool that the Flash intro is basically the 30 minute presentation compressed thirtyfold, though you won't necessarily understand the significance of what you're seeing without watching the video.

Also, there is a fine Wikipedia entry that provides some additional information. Included in here is a projected release date of Q4 06, which I'm guessing means a bit before Christmas. Honestly, the very long delay between what we're seeing here and the release date makes me extremely suspicious of what we see in the video; the demo was probably very narrowly designed to only show a happy path, and my guess is that if someone really went in cold and started fooling around it would break. That said, what they have looks really cool, and if they can get everything working before the ship, well, that's a plus. (And kudos to EA if they are letting Maxis finish this game for real before rushing it into stores.)

Finally, a MINOR SPOILER regarding "His Dark Materials":
Almost as soon as I saw the creature emerging from the ocean in the video, I began wondering whether the game would support the creation of creatures like those found in "The Amber Spyglass." You know, the ones with the wheels. I kind of doubt it, mainly because it's such a close symbiotic relationship between two disparate species, and also, modeling that would be almost completely different than the modeling they've done for things like running. As a final note, in the book Pullman explicitly says that these creatures wouldn't have evolved without the land's unique terrain, featuring "pavement" over smooth landscapes. So, it probably won't happen, but who knows. If it's possible, it will almost certainly be because some Maxis engineer specifically thought of that book.

The empire expands

This weekend marked another milestone: my first three-time visitor. Mom has now come down thrice to see me, and Dad has done it again. It's been fun having them, but also encouraging to my psyche. It feels like the first time someone visits, it may be out of obligation. The second time, it may be out of pity. But the third time, it's probably because they enjoy it. So that's nice. I love where I live, and doubt I'll ever tire of showing it off.

Their flight got in Friday night; by now I have airport navigation down pat, and we whisked away to downtown San Jose. Once there we wandered the chilly streets a while before settling on a well-reviewed Vietnamese restaurant called 19 Market. It was a little on the loud side; as we learned later there was a party of 80 people in the back. The food was excellent, though, and our waitress very considerate. I kind of liked the simple decor; I probably won't rush back here, but it'll be worth a repeat visit sometime. From what I've read most local Vietnamese restaurants are very simple holes in the wall, this looks like a good one for entertaining company.

That night we relaxed and decompressed. In the morning we got up and headed east to the Diablo range. Over President's Day weekend I had discovered Joseph Grant park; unlike a lot of the Diablo trails I've done, which are mainly on the Santa Clara Valley-facing slopes, Grant is tucked away in Halls Valley, a really beautiful and secluded spot. It has a good variety of trail lengths and difficulties; we selected one that brought us a good way south in the park, through some meadows and forests and across a couple of streams. The streams are probably dry much of the year, but were wide enough after the recent rain to make fording them slightly challenging. For the first one Dad and I scrambled across on a fallen tree trunk; my mom took the saner route and forded in bare feet. Fortunately it was a sunny and fairly warm day, so we had time to dry off before pushing onward. The whole experience was very pleasant and quiet; we didn't pass anyone on the trail until towards the very end.

It was afternoon by the time we finished so we headed down towards Blossom Hill and stopped at an In 'n Out burger, which was tasty as always. We stocked up on a few necessaries and then headed back north. With a few hours of daylight left, we stopped in downtown Campbell and walked around for a while. One of the first things we ran across was a quite nice used bookstore; everything was in great condition and they showed excellent taste, including what looked like every "Bloom County" book ever written, a plethora of interesting books on California history, signed books by renowned fantasy author George Martin, and more. Recipients of a bibliophile lineage, the three of us spent a fair amount of time there, leaving with the addition of "Surviving Your Dog's Adolescence." The remainder of our daylight was spent looking in at various shops, including a few that had been vacated and displayed ominous earthquake warnings. We did a driving tour of some more of Campbell and then returned to Chez Chris for a rousing viewing of "The Mouse That Roared."

Sunday morning we went into San Francisco to attend a church named, appropriately enough, City Church of San Francisco. Jay Thomas, one of my dad's colleagues and a Bay Are native, had recommended it. So, for the first time in my life, I actually drove into the city. By now I've gone close to a dozen times, always by train; on this occasion, though, I reasoned the traffic would probably be light on an early Sunday morning, plus the church offered free validated parking. We made excellent time, making it all the way to the church in about 45 minutes and beating Google Maps' estimate by a good ten minutes.

The church is located in the Western Addition, a little south of Pacific Heights. They currently worship in the Russian Center, a cool-looking cultural edifice that has been around for decades. It had that great urban church vibe that I love so much; as my mom commented, it's very similar to Holy Trinity church in Chicago. We came early enough to catch the musicians at rehearsal, and were seated well in advance. In a strong display of synchronicity, my parents spotted a couple they knew from College Church, who happened to be leading a contingent of Wheaton College students in a San Francisco service project and happened to have chosen this church and this service to attend. That was very fun to see.

The service itself was really good. The music was a mixture of hymns and praise songs, led by a guitar and a nice string quartet. The church is affiliated with PCA and has some nice liturgical touches... a doxology, a creed, other little rituals that appeal to me. They served real wine for communion, a fact I didn't realize until I actually swallowed it. I remembered that the tray had contained little cups with red liquid and others with a white liquid, and thought it was hilarious that a church would offer parishioners their choice of wine for the Eucharist. I later learned that the white liquid was juice, unfortunately.

The sermon was good as well. The topic was sin - the preacher opened up with a story whose punchline was, "It's about sin - I'm against it!" The actual text was from... Jeremiah, I think, and he did a nice job of walking around the verses and digging into them. Preaching is always the litmus test when I'm evaluating a church, and he certainly passed it. Of course, since it's so far away it won't become my home church, but I'd very likely visit again if I was in the area on another Sunday.

The service got done around 10:30 and we headed out. The forecast had predicted rain, but so far we were doing fine, with dry skies and a decent amount of warmth. I love walking in cities, and Mom and Dad at least tolerate it, so we decided to take a leisurely stroll down to the water. This first took us through Pacific Heights, supposedly the most exclusive neighborhood in San Francisco. I don't think we were in the golden section that houses people like Nicholas Cage, Danielle Steel, Diane Feinstein, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Larry Ellison and more; but we still saw some really nice houses, including some beautifully maintained Victorians. Along the way we strolled through Alta Plaza park, which includes some good elevation and on this day featured well over two dozen dogs, off their leashes, frolicking around with owners and other dogs. The view was incredible - both in the park, and later as we descended the street, we had commanding views of the Bay, Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, and much of the city on the other side.

From Pacific Heights we descended into Cow Hollow, then on to the Marina district. As we went the buildings became less attractive, but still certainly fine-looking. It was cool to go from such a great view of the water, to not being able to see it at all, to being right on top of it again. Once we reached the Bay we started a really nice, long stroll from the Marina district to the edge of Fisherman's Wharf. Along the way we caught several parks, plenty of strollers, runners, and dogs, and a plethora of other attractive diversions.

My dad's keen eye spotted the sign for Ghirardelli, whose original factory lies close to Fisherman's Wharf. We swung over there to pick up some free chocolate, and then pay for even more chocolate. Then, back on track, we continued to the wharf. We found a really pleasant and classy restaurant right off the dock whose name I forget but which served a tempting array of seafood at very reasonable prices. We headed in and indulged - white clam chowder for Mom, red clam chowder in a sourdough bowl for Dad, and some snapper for me. We relaxed and enjoyed the leisurely lunch, then went back outside shortly after it began to rain. We survived the few blocks back to Ghirardelli's
and had an incredibly delicious desert of huge, tasty ice cream creations.

I had done some planning the night before and found a good way for us to return to our vehicle without walking uphill all the way back to Pacific Heights. Armed with my newfound confidence at navigating the Muni bus system, we caught the 30 (which I have ridden twice as much as all other lines combined) and took that our to the Marina, then transferred to a 22 back down to Sutter street. A few more blocks returned us to our vehicle and off we went.

I tend to hate driving in cities, but it would be a lot more tolerable if I usually had someone to navigate. The directions for getting out of the city included five or six turns and streets changing names, all of which I would ordinarily have needed to memorize, but with my dad's guidance the regress was a breeze. We were running a little late to fulfill our original goal of getting to Santa Cruz in time for their "Jazz on the Wharf" program, but with the rain it would probably have been a sorry affair anyways. However, we did decide to keep the scenic drive in, and so I had another first as I drove on Highway One from San Francisco down the coast to Santa Cruz.

Unlike city driving, I love highway driving. This route was particularly fun because of the terrain; it included lots of twists as it ascended and descended hills, some stretches through forests, a few narrow bridges, scenic towns, and usually a great view of the ocean. It rained most of the time, not enough to obscure visibility but enough to make the choppy waters look impressive. Most of the time Highway One is a two-lane road, which some may find frustrating, but if you aren't in a rush to get somewhere it's far more interesting than a standard interstate highway.

We rounded into Santa Cruz and then headed directly north into the mountains. Highway 17 is a pretty decent road, you can keep up a good pace while maintaining a challenging grade, and truck traffic is generally light. We returned home, enjoyed some home-cooked chicken breasts, and then watched "Winchester 73", a Jimmy Stewart Western I had given my mom earlier. It was really good... I've hardly seen any Westerns at all so it's hard for me to compare it to other works, but it combined an exciting story with a bit of mystery and a powerful feeling of fatalism. Oh, and the performances were excellent, with many of the most colorful characters (Wyatt Earp, Waco, the Indian trader) given only slices of screen time that they used to excellent effect.

Monday morning saw the fulfillment of a long-deferred dream as I took my parents to Southern Kitchen. This wonderful little restaurant/diner is the site of our weekly Eggs Benedict run, and I had a feeling they would appreciate its charm and excellent food. We arrived there around 7:30 and found it much lighter than I usually see it at 8:45, with just a few tables occupied. I felt real warm and fuzzy when our waitress recognized me and remembered that I took a small glass of orange juice. We perused the menus before making a decision; my mom got the "light breakfast" (as she commented to our waitress, "it really doesn't seem very light," to which she responded, "yes, I know, it comes with one less sausage"), I went for the Belgian Waffle, and my dad continued the tradition with Eggs Benedict. It was very good; if it wasn't for the pull of peer pressure, I'd be tempted to switch over to the waffle, or at least work it into a rotation.

They dropped me off at work and then headed out. I had a good but busy day; a few hours into it, I got a call from my dad, who was checking in from Carmel-by-the-Sea. Once again they had predicted a rainy day, but once again we were treated to almost nonstop sun instead. As I learned after work, they had gone right on to Highway 1 and picked up where we left up the day before, continuing on down the road which, in my dad's words, becomes a lot more interesting the further south you go. (Evidently, at one point my mom grabbed the dash when my dad took a tight turn, to which he said, "You know, you can sit in the back if you want.") Carmel-by-the-Sea sounds like a nice town, with a great big public beach that allowed them to, once again, witness a plethora of dogs frolicking. After a brief stay there they headed down to Monterey, then onward to Big Sur, which Dad had thought would needed to wait for his next visit. They enjoyed a leisurely lunch and another beach outing before ambling back to San Jose.

I had to stay later than I'd originally planned, but managed to leave shortly after six. At home my folks regaled me with tales of their adventures, then we headed out for our last meal of a calorie-intensive vacation. When Pat had visited me last year we stumbled on an excellent, casual, small Mexican restaurant called Muchos; with our stated goal of making Pat as jealous as possible, we'd resolved to wrap up their vacation with a stop at Pat's favored San Jose eating spot. Like my previous visit it was quiet inside; I'm guessing it gets a lot more traffic on weekday lunches than other times. We did our standard strategy of ordering and sharing a variety of foods: my dad grabbed the Chile Verde burrito, my mom went for the chicken enchiladas, and I got the Super Quesadilla. We loaded up with a variety of red and green hot sauces, then soon rushed to avail ourselves of the free water dispenser. It was amazingly good food, just like I remembered it. Dad remarked that Pat has an incredible nose for restaurants.

Safely home, Mom commented on my Guitar Hero controller, which prompted me to show off the game to them. I was delighted when Dad agreed to give it a try. The first few tries through "I Love Rock & Roll" he was booed off the stage. Then I remembered to tell him about the tutorial, which I had strongly relied on when starting out on the game. He played through it, then on his very next try cleared the song with four stars, then immediately followed that up with "I Wanna Be Sedated" with three stars. Mom wouldn't play.

And that was more or less that. The next morning we had a much saner breakfast then left for the airport. Once again the weather had fun with us; it was raining most of the way there, at times fiercely, but there was still visible blue sky almost the whole time. Obviously, we still would have had fun even if it had rained every day as they originally predicted, but this felt like yet another wonderful case of exceeded expectations, and we certainly appreciated the extra sunshine we were allocated. In the future I probably won't RECOMMEND early March as an ideal time for a visit, but even at its worst it's still more pleasant than most places I've lived before.