Saturday, October 28, 2006

All Things Go, All Things Go

Few things are more fun than meetings that start at 5pm on Friday afternoon. Especially on days when I've ridden my bike to work, now that the days are getting so short that I need to worry about getting home before it's dark out.

It's not wasted, though. While I was initially nervous about leaving work so late, I was reminded of what a great experience it can be to see a familiar landscape under unfamiliar circumstances. I've ridden this route over a hundred times by now, but this was the first time I've done it in twilight. All sorts of things I've never noticed before were cast into sharp relief. For example, the Campbell water tower. I've never noticed it before, but it's lit up at night, and looks so large on the horizon that I'm surprised I never saw it before. Also, the mysterious building that juts right up against the path just south of Hamilton is no longer so mysterious: I finally noticed its sign, Alliance Title.

This is far from the first time I've had this experience. No matter how familiar a scene becomes to me or how much time I've spent staring at it, it seems like there's always something just waiting a particular mood or circumstance to jump to my attention. I think I've mentioned before that the whole reason I started riding to work was because I happened to look to one side while driving to work, and was amazed to see bikers riding down a trail which I had no idea existed under the highway.

Things wax and wane in my mind. I remember when I first moved here and was constantly amazed at the mountains on the horizon. As is natural, I gradually became accustomed to them... I still saw them, but didn't really watch them any more. Then, about a month ago, the Diablo range happened to catch my eye once again as I was riding home. It happened for no particular reason that I can identify; I was just suddenly and completely struck by its beauty and strength under the strong afternoon sun. Having made that rediscovery, every day since then I gaze at it anew, still feeling that surge of emotion.

It'll be interesting to see how things change next week when daylight saving time ends. On the bright side (ha!), I'll probably be able to start leaving for work around 6AM again. Lately it's been so dark in the morning that I've had to wait until around 6:45 before I feel comfortable hitting the streets. On the other side, I'll need to be even more disciplined about leaving work before 5. It may just be paranoia, but after three accidents I don't feel like taking any more chances than necessary.

In other cycling news: last weekend I made my second attempt at tackling the Hicks Road ride. I started relatively early and treated myself to a Southern Kitchen breakfast. Usually I feel guilty about their huge portions, but on this day I happily ate every bite - my entire reason for being there was to absorb a large number of calories in preparation for the ride. On the whole it went much better than my first attempt, and I didn't need to take a gasping-for-breath break halfway up Kennedy. However, I still wiped out at almost exactly the same spot as last time, when there's a killer steep, twisty incline a ways past Lexington Reservoir. So that was a little frustrating; I'd hoped to actually cross the 2000 foot park for this ride and cross it off my list, as it were. I guess this just tells me that I need to do more practice on forgiving slopes before taking this particular one.

Friday, October 20, 2006

If I Ever Meet You, I'll Ctrl-Alt-Del You

Wow... that took a lot less time than I had expected. I've been living in California for just over a year, and already I have lost my hardy Midwestern constitution. Lately I've been waking up when it's around 45 degrees outside and thinking, "Gosh, it's cold!"

I distinctly remember my amusement soon after moving here last year. I was constantly hearing complains from native Californians: "Oh, it's so hot!" "Oh, it's so cold!" As a lifelong resident of states where winters regularly dip below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, and summers can easily reach 100 of the same, the idea that anything within the 40-to-90-degree range was a trial was simply laughable. I took quiet pride in the fact that I never turned on my air conditioning for the first 10 months I lived here, and very rarely indulged in the heater.

And now I've lost it! Sigh. I haven't actually turned on the heat yet, but it's probably just a matter of time. Once I do, I will have admitted defeat, and my inexorable move towards becoming a soft and pampered Bay Arean will take another step.

Other, unrelated thoughts:

The November elections are coming up soon! The races I'm most excited about are elsewhere in the country. Most of my family is elegible to vote in the Tammy Duckworth - Peter Roskam race. Duckworth was actually my least-favorite of three Democrats in the primary, but I like her more and more as I find out more about her. She would be a really solid choice. On the downside, I'm pretty sure that the Earth will start rotating in the opposite direction once DuPage elects a Democratic representative to the House, so I suppose there are risks involved in both ends.

I'm delighted by the prospect that we will soon have a Senate without Santorum. He has a permanent seat of my personal list of Five Least Favorite Senators*, and the benefits of his removal are myriad: better policy, more civil debates, and fewer public insults to my religious beliefs.**

For the nation as a whole, I dunno... it's amazing that the Democrats have made such huge strides in catching up, and I will be thrilled if they actually pull off a big enough win to recapture one or both Houses. If they do, I hope that Howard Dean gets the credit he deserves - almost all of those wins will be in places that traditional Democrats had given up, like Tennessee and DuPage County. I'm not holding my breath, though. The GOP is great at playing hardball, and I won't be at all surprised if we see slime flying fast and furious in the next few weeks.

Closer to home, I still haven't decided who to vote for as Mayor. I think Cindy Chavez is closer to my political beliefs, plus she has a get-it-done attitude that, for better or worse, will keep things moving in San Jose. Still, I really do like Chuck Reed, and despite some recent mini-scandals I think he is the more ethical candidate. (As usual, both sides are exaggerating - neither is corrupt - but Reed has shown a deep-seated tendency to playing it by the book.) Plus it seems like he's the more cautious on growth, which may be enough for me to tip my vote his way. Honestly, whatever endorsement the Mercury News makes will probably be a huge factor in making up my mind.

(As an aside: Cindy, you aren't doing yourself any favors with all the glossy brochures attacking Reed that you're stuffing in my mailbox. It just makes you look mean, and does nothing to erase questions about your own conflict with openness. Focus on selling yourself, not smearing your opponent.)

There are too many propositions for me to keep track of. I will probably do the alternative energy one, and just check out the endorsements on the others. Oh, and I'm supporting Measure A, which adds more controls to land use in Santa Clara. As you know, I'm all ABOUT protecting our pristine hillsides.

I'm even more embarassingly uninformed for the smaller local races. City council, stuff like that. I always try to read as much local news as I can, but even so, it's hard to remember who's who.

In the other direction, pretty much everyone knows about the governor's race. I'm almost certainly voting for Angelides. Schwarzenegger is almost certainly going to win, and honestly, that scares me much less than it did a year ago. He has proven himself to be the consummate politician since his initiatives went down to defeat, strongly allying himself with progressive causes supported by most Californians, and as a result will most likely get another four years at the helm. Plenty of people decry him for cynical political posturing in a blatant attempt to win votes. I'm actually inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. After six years of Bush, it's quite refreshing to hear a politician say, "I was wrong, I hear what you are saying, and I will work to make it right."

I miss Westley. And Pandori. Kind of depressing that, in a mere eight years of voting, I've assembled such a long list of favored candidates who didn't make it past the primary.

Final unrelated note: like a lot of folks, I've listened to White And Nerdy way too many times recently. Oddly enough, though, the song has not gotten stuck in my head. What's constantly running through there instead is his excellent It's All About the Pentiums off the great 1999 album Running With Scissors. This earlier song is, in summary at least, virtually identical to White And Nerdy: Both parody aggressive hip-hop songs by changing the perspective to that of a technology-obsessed nerd. Both are also extremely funny, and I see nothing wrong with stealing from yourself. I've also been reminded of some of the amazing rhymes off that first song:
Hey Fella,
I bet you're still livin' in your parents' cellar
Downloadin' pictures of Sarah Michelle Geller
And postin' "Me Too" like some brain-dead AOL-er
I should do the world a favor and cap ya like Old Yeller
You're just about as useless as JPEGs to Hellen Keller.

In a 32-bit world, you're a 2-bit user
You got your own newsgroup,!

Good times. I'm amazed and delighted that Weird Al's career has lasted this long. He was the first popular musician I ever liked, and to this day far too many of my brain cells are devoted to retaining the memorized lyrics of virtually every song he has done.

* It's a rotating list, but currently, in addition to Santorum, it's Lieberman, Stevens, Cornyn, and Coburn. Wait, I take that back... Coburn gets off the list for the work he's doing with Obama on the deficit. I'll award his seat to Chambliss.
** As a Christian, I cringe every time Santorum's twisted views are depicted by the media as being representative of my faith. I imagine Muslims probably feel similar when Farrakhan is trotted out.

UPDATE 10/24/06: ... and, yesterday, I received a similarly distasteful mailing from Mr. Reed which brings up the Tropicana controversy and falsely implies that he has the Mercury News's endorsement. (Which he actually does, as of this morning, but that's not the article showing on the mailer.) The same rules apply for Reed: I know it's hard, but stop slamming your opponent and give me positive reasons to vote for you. If the two of you don't knock it off, I'm turning the election right around and voting for Pandori again.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Lappy 486

I'm not buying a laptop, I swear. The thing is, for a long time, I've wanted to get a laptop; but since I was first able to afford one (say, around 2003), I've had a work laptop. It's never anything close to what I'd buy for myself, but it's really hard for me to justify an extra purchase when I already have something that fills most of my needs on the very rare occasions when I need a laptop.

That said, I have the bug, and periodically get on these kicks where I check out what's available and daydream about getting one. On the last few cycles, Apple has been included in that dreaming. Ever since OS X came out I've wanted to play around more with Macs, and a laptop seemed like the best way to go about it, since they aren't very upgradeable anyways and so I wouldn't be missing out on as much as I would if my desktop was an Apple. (Does that make sense? Don't worry if it doesn't.)

Besides the Apple, the line I've had my eye on is Sony Vaio's set of laptops. There's a lot I like there: they're Sony, they're very thin and light, they have really attractive design, and if you can pay the premium, you don't give up very much power.

That said, on my latest kick, I was really struck by the huge marketing difference between the two brands. I'd checked out the Macbooks a week or two ago, and while I liked what I saw, I was a little frustrated by the lineup. They only have five models, each one of which is carefully targeted for a specific purpose. You can get the basic small one; the faster small one; the fast powerful one; and the powerful one with the amazing screen. My desires don't map too nicely onto that set; what I really want is their 13" model, with a faster processor, a smaller hard drive, easy video out, and upgradeable RAM.

So when I went to check out Sony, I was looking forward to the contrast. Traditionally, PC manufacturers have been all about customization and differentiation; they have incredibly long product lines, and can be confident that for any given customer, one of those offerings will hit their sweet spot between price and quality. I wasn't planning on buying a computer, but I felt confident that with only moderate searching, I would be able to locate the one I WOULD buy.

After over fifteen minutes of browsing their site, I was forced to re-evaluate my philosophy. Yes, Sony offers an amazing array of choice, but this makes it far more difficult to find something I want. They have nine different lines of laptops, with very helpful names like UX, FS, N, SZ, and FJ. There is considerable overlap between the lines; the TX series claims to be "Compact and durable for ultimate mobiliy", while the SZ series offers "The fusion of mobility, power and style." Within each product line, the sheer number of variables to consider can be overwhelming. Do I want the carbon fiber casing? Well... it looks stylish, and reduces the weight by about 0.3 pounds. How much is that worth to me?

I don't want to lay down a general rule and say "more choice is always bad." I will, however, bring up an interesting anecdote that I think I'm stealing from one of Malcolm Gladwell's books. Someone did a study in a supermarket where one week they offered one kind of jam, and the next week they offered several dozen. One would think that sales would be better the second week, because any given shopper was more likely to have the kind of jam they wanted on display. However, the opposite was true; people would become overwhelmed by the choices, and would leave without purchasing any jam at all. I think that that's similar to what I'm experiencing here. Especially for a major purchase that runs well over a thousand dollars, I'm not going to buy something unless I'm confident that it's exactly what I want; and if those choices keep me from being able to decide exactly what I want, I will never buy.

In my first semester at college, I took the Myers Briggs Personality Test, along with the other residents of my dorm floor. I topped the floor on Introversion and Intuition, but also scored very high on Perception. The opposite of Perception is Judging; those who are very high Ps are apt to expend a great deal of energy on gathering information and evaluating options, while those who are very high Js are more comfortable taking action and don't feel the same need to analyze every aspect of a decision. All that to say, the situation I experience is likely one shared by other strong Ps, but not necessarily the population at large. There are probably plenty of people out there who would flip through the various options, get a good feeling for what they wanted, get it, and - this is key - be content with what they received.

Still. All that to say, I have newfound admiration for Apple's marketing. It's much easier to make a selection from among five choices than from among a hundred, and frankly, I think our brains are better equipped when we're dealing with that smaller pool.

I guess what I'm really saying is, if someone just GIVES me a laptop, well, there's only one choice, and I'll be happy with it.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Average of Second Life and Half Life

Quickie alert: I'm thinking of checking out Second Life. I doubt it'll grab me any more than WoW did, but I am kind of interested by what has recently been written about it, and would like to at least check it out. Anyways, apparently there's a L$250 bonus for signing someone up, so if any of my readers already have accounts and would like the referral, let me know. Otherwise I'll probably be signing up this weekend.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Genghis Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!

I finally beat the Genghis Khan scenario; according to the final screen, I spent over 11 hours playing it. The good news? It was a lot of fun. Most amazingly, it felt incredibly different from the core Civ game.

I've played a lot of scenarios over the years, and while most of them have been good, only a few have radically changed the feel of the core game. Even my favorite Civ II scenarios, the apocalypse and the alien invasion ones, still had the same basic rhythm of balancing research, infrastructure and military production, albeit against more extreme circumstances than in the normal game. Khan, by contrast, actually felt closer to a turn-based version of Myth than Civ.

It took me quite a while to get rolling. As I've complained before, I'm woefully out of touch with Civ combat. I'm decent at fighting when I need to build a small army and seize a specific objective, but when my front is the entire world - well, that requires an entirely different perspective, one that does not come naturally to me. I'm willing to swallow moderate casualties if I plan to sign a peace treaty in the near future, but how many risks can I take when I have no cities left to produce more units? Is it worse to lose a quarter of my fighting force now, or to leave a hostile enemy on my flank?

The biggest structural change to the game is the much-discussed Camp unit. I really need to dig into the code to see how they implemented this; it doesn't seem like it would be that difficult, but it's quite impressive how it changes the game. Instead of having a stationary city that produces units, and the attending requirement to protect that city and establish supply lines between the city and the front, you can bring your cities with you and regularly generate new units. The difficulty of planning was difficult for me - you're never sure when you'll get a unit, or what type it will be - but the unexpected nature can also be fun, when a Mounted Swordsman spawns just when you need fresh cannon fodder.

I had thought that camps were your only option, but that's not the case; although you don't start with any cities, you can choose to keep the ones you capture. I never did this; I was planning to keep on moving, and felt that any contributions a city could make would be hampered by the time it would take to send its production to where I needed it. However, some technologies you get later on do require cities to leverage: specifically, the Chinese Cannon and War Elephant units can only be built in cities, not spawned in camps. I managed to beat the game without either unit, but certain battles would have been easier with them.

That brings up another point: the new "technology" system. In some ways this felt like a return to the classic Civ I/II system, where you get to steal a rival civ's technology when you capture one of their cities. In this scenario, every civ has one particular technology to take; sometimes you get it after taking two of their cities, sometimes just a single one. The technologies unlock new units (trebuchets, elephants, etc.), promotions (Siege Tactics, Encirclement Technique, etc.), or other interesting advantages (free Warlord unit, score bonus, etc.). Whenever you meet a new civ you are informed about the benefits of besting them, and this information can be crucial in determining your course of action. You can win the game without elephants, but it seems crucial to acquire trebuchets as soon as possible.

Oh, and Warlords? As in, the units? Tons of fun. Actually, quite crucial. You can only take a city by sacrificing a ton of units for it or by having very highly promoted units. Early in the game, that means Warlords are your only hope. Attaching a Warlord to a single unit will give that unit about five promotions, including access to some cool new unique ones (extra movement, better healing, etc.) Also, choosing promotions intelligently becomes essential.

In all, the Warlord unit makes you become more attached to your units, which is both good and bad. Good, because it makes them more interesting, allows you to differentiate them, and lets you experience higher abilities early on. Bad, because when your Warlord unit dies even though it had an 80% chance of winning the battle, well, that's just incredibly frustrating.

Over time, as you take more cities and spawn more units, the rest of your army gradually catches up. By the end of the game, some of my most experienced units weren't even led by Warlords. That's where the game gets really fun, in contrast to a normal game of Civ. It seems like in the typical Civ game, action moves quickly early on, but by the time you reach the modern age there's too much going on to move quickly. In contrast, in the Khan scenario, early on the game moves very slowly because your units are weak and it takes forever to gain experience, level up enough units, take a city, and heal before moving on the next city. Late in the game, though, your large and powerful army can pound a city under in a turn or two, and the wounded units can rest while the units in the rear leapfrog over them and move on to the next target. Not to mention the fun of splitting your army to pursue multiple targets, which I don't think I've ever seriously attempted in Civ before. Individual turns take longer at the end of the game, when you're moving 40 units instead of 6, but the amount of time between interesting actions is considerably reduced.

Reflecting back on the game, here are some thoughts. You might want to skip these if you haven't played the game yet and don't want any strategy pointers.
  • Javelins are key! I tried to build a balanced army early, but if I had it to do over again, I would have based everything around Javelins and Trebuchets, only using my horse units for reconnaissance and field skirmishes. Virtually every non-barbarian battle you take is against Spearmen fortified in cities, and javelins are the only units that stand a chance before receiving insane promotions. Add to that their amazing 50% withdraw rate, which can be raised to 75% with a Warlord, and that means they will continue to survive and gain experience.
  • On a related note, as soon as you're strong enough to attack the Chinese who give you Trebuchets (is it the Song? It's been a while), you should. That unit is necessary for capturing cities, and capturing cities really is what this scenario is about.
  • Choose your targets wisely. In my game I pursued scorched earth, where once I started fighting a civ I didn't stop until they were defeated. However, I think that in some cases you're better off capturing two weakly held cities, taking the technology, then signing peace (or not) and moving on, ignoring the capital with six fortified spearmen behind city walls.
  • That said, if you can destroy a civ, you probably should - I think the score bonus is worth the effort. But don't break your army doing it; there are plenty of other targets around. If you want, you can come back to finish the job once you have more promotions.
  • Geography is fascinating. I basically started by conquering Mongolia / the Ughiers, then took out the weaker Chinese kingdom, then the stronger one, then Korea. When I went west, I wasn't sure whether to go north or south by the Himalayas, so I ended up splitting my army in two. This proved to be a masterstroke, as the southerners conquered India while the northerners conquered more Asians, then the two prongs of the army recombined for a forceful assault on Arabia. That said, I didn't really need the elephants, so if your army isn't strong enough to split, it probably makes more sense to keep north.
  • Along the same lines, deciding where to move your army is an interesting decision. I wiped out everyone to my east, then swung south and west, leaving nothing behind. I did this because I thought I needed to wipe out everyone and didn't want to have to come back in a hundred years to finish the job. However, there were still quite a few civs left to conquer on the edge of Europe after I reached 3000 points, so I could easily have left some of my opponents untouched. All that to say, choose your targets wisely, and don't waste time if the payoff isn't worth it.
  • Another consideration is barbarians. By the end of the game they were just out of control; any units I left behind to heal would be attacked by a swarm of four or more Eurasian horsemen, so I got in the habit of bringing my wounded along with me. Your horse are faster than them, and your javelins are just as quick, so as long as you keep moving you should be fine. Barbarians are a great way for your green units to get more XP, but don't contribute anything useful to your seasoned units. This might be an argument in favor of leaving some nations or cities behind; the culture will keep barbarians from rising, and the ones that do appear will have someone to bother besides you.
  • Your mileage may vary, but I think you're better off attaching your Warlord to a lone unit, preferably a Javelin, than a unit in a stack. This is especially true early in the game, where you need a true city-killer unit rather than a set of decent units. Also, I always gave my Warlord units Leadership before anything else, and never regretted that.
  • Good promotions: I actually am a big fan of the straight Combat promotions in this scenario. Once your Warlord units get to Combat Six and an extra 25% strength boost, they're nearly unstoppable. It's tempting to give your horse units a bonus against melee, but unless they have lots of other promotions it won't be enough to have a shot at the city. Try to have at least two units with medic, one to stay behind and heal and the other to move ahead with your army. Don't waste medic on a warlord; just give it to a horse that gets lucky in its first battles, because it won't be getting any more promotions.
  • The description made it sound like you could make enemies your vassals, which I generally tried to do, but didn't have any success. I'm not sure why, but I'm guessing that the fact I didn't have any cities throws off the game's calculations for vassal threshold.
And that's it for now. I'm still a little stunned that I spent the equivalent of half a day playing this (not to mention the time writing this up), so it'll be a while before my next game. I'm actually thinking of a vanilla game, not a scenario; I'm feeling nostalgic for my old scientific builder game, and would like to play with the non-military toys included in this expansion. My next scenario will probably be that pre-Revolutionary War one. I've deliberately refrained from reading much about it, but the bits I've heard make it sound interesting.

One thing I miss from the old Civ II days is unbalanced scenario roles. Only certain civs are playable; in the Mongol Horde scenario, you can only play as Genghis Khan, not as the Indians or Song or Byzantium or anything. It has always been the case that only certain civs were meant to be playable, but it used to be that the only enforcement was some text advising the player which one to choose. I used to play a scenario once or twice the "right" way, but then go back and do something else. Like a WWII game where I played as Franco, declared war on France and seized part of it before Germany got the rest. Or when I was the Hodads and raced to see how quickly I could exterminate the human race. (Answer: about twenty times more quickly than I ever was able to exterminate the Hodads.)

Anyways. I knew that technically you can edit the XML and flip a flag to make anyone playable, but I'm worried that other players will be missing out on the fun. It always felt like squeezing the last bit of juice possible from a piece of fruit.

Unrelated news:

The fall television season is in swing again! And now I need to wait until November before seeing any more Family Guy or House. Curses! Both shows have been great, though. Laurie is as strong as ever on House (as an actor, I mean), and while I'm always waiting for them to run out of ideas on what feels like a constrained show, they haven't yet. And Family Guy continues to amuse, even though I now often think of the South Park episode about the show.

The first episode of Lost was good. I care less and less about the show as time goes on, but still enough to want to keep watching. It's probably a good sign that any time an episode focuses on one group of characters, I'm always wondering about what's happening with someone else.

My Cartoon Network viewing is expanding. In addition to Venture Brothers, my co-workers have also hooked me on Robot Chicken, whose archive I am currently plundering on YouTube. RC is the sort of show I would make if I was a TV producer, only much dirtier. Venture Brothers continues to be great; the serial aspect of it means the episodes keep getting stronger and stronger.

The cream of the crop, though, has to be Battlestar Galactica. I've only seen the first episode so far, but it's enough. That show just amazes me.
How sad is it that the single most relevant show on TV is a science-fiction show about humans battling robots? It totally is, though. What the show pulls off is amazing, putting its viewers (members of the wealthiest and most powerful nation on the planet) in the shoes of the poor, the desperate, the hopeless. The show not only displays the arguments for asymmetric warfare, it doesn't even apologize for what it's doing. Freely using words such as "Insurgency," "Occupational Authority," even "Civilian Police Force," the show makes it pretty hard to ignore the fact that the fantasy we watch shares a lot with the reality in our papers. I don't think any American can really understand the mentality of an Iraqi whose family was killed by an invading army, but we can understand the pain a blue-eyed, blond-haired man feels when his wife is killed by robots. Yes, that's a sad state of affairs, but I think anything which lets us exercise our empathy is a good thing.

Note for the easily angered: I don't mean to say that there's a 1-to-1 correspondence between the show and the occupation of Iraq. Nor do I mean to imply that Iraqis are justified in suicide bombing and other forms of violence. Personally, I think that both the real and the fake violence are unjustified. While I disapprove of the actions of the show's human characters, though, I whole-heartedly hope that more people will begin to THINK about what drives people to act violently, and maybe understand the person better while continuing to condemn the violence.

The show is great at evolving while continuing its strengths. One of the things that most struck me about it early on was the delicious paranoia. I remember those early episodes, wondering about who was human and who was a Cylon, and feeling the pang of betrayal as more were revealed. That paranoia, if anything, is stronger now that we need to worry about actual humans who collaborate with the Cylons. There's no magic test or anything to find out who the traitors are now.

I had to renew Truman from the library. I'm not yet quite to the halfway part. Roosevelt has died, VE day has been celebrated, and he's just about to meet Stalin for the first time. I have a bad feeling about this.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Burn This Blog

After going for over a year without any book-signings (at least that I can remember), it's a little funny that I attended two within the space of a week. This Tuesday night I had the chance to hear Neil Gaiman speak, which continues in the geeky vein of going to hear Steve Wozniak, while exploring a disparate channel of nerdiness.

Back in the day, such author events were, for better or worse, the highlight of my social calendar. If you ever read my old web page, you probably remember that about the only thing I bothered to write about was which authors I went to hear and what they were like. I was hugely indebted to Rainy Day Books, a great independent bookseller in the Kansas suburbs, which put on these events and brought great authors out to Middle America. I was delighted to hear Al Franken soon after moving out to KC, and over time he was followed by Ron Chernow, Azar Nafisi, Thomas Frank, and more. (If the list seems politically slanted, that's no accident. Missouri was a contested state in the 2004 election, and plenty of people wanted to make sure any liberals they could find would turn out for the election.) Anyways, I felt like that was my burst of culture out there in the heartland.

Since moving out here, though... I'm sure there are more author events than before, but the drive to attend has gone way down. Partly this is because there's always plenty to do. Not only in the sense of being busy with work, more that there are other interesting things to do besides go see authors: explore the city, climb mountains, attend cultural festivals, visit museums, etc., etc. I used to keep my eyes peeled for upcoming literary events; since moving here, I only hear about something if I happen to stumble across it. And even then, I'm more picky. I used to accept driving an hour to hear someone because it was that or stay at home; now, even if someone cool is coming to speak in, say, Oakland or Santa Cruz, I need to weight the coolness of hearing them against the other options I have.

This all sounds a lot like an excuse, and I guess it is. My intent, though, is more to say that, while I haven't gone to hear authors nearly as much as I did two years ago, it isn't because I enjoy it any less or find it less exciting. When it's someone I like, and is relatively convenient to do, I'll gladly make the trip to do it.

Pretty much my entire experience with Neil Gaiman, from start to present, has been documented on this blog. I started reading his comics after a casual comment from a co-worker, quickly became obsessed, and have devoured a huge chunk of his output, including nearly all Sandman comics and American Gods. Additionally, I'd read anecdotes about how entertaining he could be at book signings, and knew that his blog was supposed to be very good, though I don't regularly read it myself.

Tangent: Of all the authors I would like to see, Gaiman probably falls into the top quarter, on the basis of his speaking ability as much as his excellence. If I had to pick my top five... well, as of this minute they would be Neal Stephenson, Ron Chernow (again), Jon Stewart (as an author), Jim Wallis, and Barack Obama.

Anyhoo... this being the Bay Area, there are several major independent booksellers around, in addition to literally hundreds of smaller shops in San Francisco and elsewhere. The giants include Cody's, which until recently was headquartered on Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue, and Kepler's, in Menlo Park near Stanford. There was a scare last year where Kepler's went out of business when it was unable to afford the high rent, compounded by years of hammering from national chains, online booksellers and the tech bubble bursting. A huge outcry followed, the community rallied, and several months later a reinvigorated Kepler's, under the original management, re-opened its doors. I was impressed by what I heard during the media hullabaloo, so I signed up for their mailing list and occasionally scan it to see if there are any interesting authors coming. Still, it's up the peninsula, and I hadn't actually been there before. Once I read that Neil was coming, though, I resolved to make the trip.

So it was that, for the second time in a week, I was driving up to a Menlo Park bookstore to hear an author speak. There was a bit much importance attached to this visit, though. I spent a little time trying to decide which books to bring for him to sign. I'd read a lot of his stuff from the library, and bought things they didn't carry or that I was too impatient to wait for, so it's a bit of a hodge-podge. I ended up deciding to bring Preludes and Nocturnes (my least favorite collection of his, but the first one in the series) and Fables and Reflections (which contains my favorite single issue, the one with Emperor Norton). I'd mentioned the event to a few other enthusiasts at work and gotten a few nibbles, but ultimately left work by myself to make the trip up.

I'd technically been in Menlo Park before, but Kepler's is in a much more interesting area. Stanford's influence is definitely felt there, and just from the people and the bicycles and the sorts of stores, one gets the message that this is a college town. Which is cool - I like college towns. Parking tends to be a problem, though. I eventually found some spots on a back street and headed over to the store itself.

According to the event description, the actual talk would begin at 7:30, but from 6:15-7:15 there would be an open reception in the courtyard, where people could meet with other local authors and pick up tickets for the event. I got to the store a bit before 6 and found quite a crowd already there. I went into the store just a few minutes before they closed it, and hurriedly purchased Fragile Things (the book he was promoting) and Good Omens (which I've wanted to read for years). I'd chickened out and left my comic books in the car, just because as I was driving there I started worrying about whether, when the description said Gaiman would sign "One copy of Brief Lives purchased at Kepler's, as well as two additional items", if those could be any two other items or if they had to be two items purchased from Kepler's. Also, I've been careful to keep the books in good shape, and felt suddenly paranoid that they would accuse me of stealing their books and passing them off as my own. It turns out I needn't have worried - other people brought their own books and had them signed with absolutely no hassle at all - but I think I made a good choice anyways, for reasons which would become clear later on.

I was one of the last customers to exit the store into the courtyard, where I picked up my ticket for the event - number 353, meaning about 150 people had already come by. I also had the opportunity to feel foolish - after rushing to buy my book before they closed the store, I saw that they had an entire table set up outside with stacks and stacks of Gaiman books for sale. Ah, well.

I wandered around a little bit. Kepler's is in a really nice area, both its neighborhood and its immediate neighbors. There's a really nice open cafe directly next door, and a park very close by. After getting my fill of the scenery, I planted myself on a ledge and started reading the first pages of Good Omens.

As often happens with me, I quickly became immersed in the book. I was just a chapter or so in and already regularly smiling at the little witicisms and large blasphemies that peppered the book. I only vaguely because aware that there was someone standing over me. I looked up (after finishing my sentence) and saw Eric and Aaron, grinning. Eric is possibly the smartest of the many smart people I work with; Aaron left the company several months after I joined and used to sit in the desk I currently occupy. It turned out that none of us knew any of the others were coming, which is a little odd, but at the same time makes perfect sense. An event like this exerts an inexorable gravity in the geek universe, drawing nerds to its core, so it should not be surprising that three software engineers from the same company would arrive seemingly independent of one another.

We passed a good hour chatting and catching up, sharing war stories of other events (They Might Be Giants, Weird Al Yankovich, Ray Bradbury, Terry Pratchett, and more), talking about our current work, and otherwise shooting the breeze. As always, it was a relief to be living in a place where I don't feel like I need to apologize for my obsessions.

Our little party fragmented when they started letting people in - everyone had a number, and they were seating in blocks of 50. I managed to grab a seat that was a little ways back from the podium, but was on an aisle and had a great, unobstructed straight-on view. The audience was mainly people in their late 20s or 30s, but there were plenty of younger and older folks there as well. I sort of got the impression that some people were there more because it was a Kepler's event than because it was a Gaiman event, and I think that's a good thing. First, it's good because it shows the devotion people have to this bookstore and the trust they have that such readings will be worth attending; secondly, it's good because it keeps these events from becoming too insular. As much fun as preaching to the converted can be, it's much more exciting to expose people to something new, and I'm always pleased to see people willing to put themselves in that position. I should try doing it myself more often.

Someone who's probably an owner of Kepler's (I think it's a family operation) opened with a humorous instruction for the evening's protocol. I don't remember his exact words, but at one point he said something like, "Those who get into a line before their number is called will be fed to the Corinthian," which I thought was cute. Then there was a bit of silence, and then Neil came up, to rapturous applause.

He looks remarkably similar to the picture on his books: black hair, leather jacket, slightly elongated face (though nowhere near as long as Morpheus's). He also has retained his wonderful British accent despite years of living in the States.

Before he spoke, Neil was presented with an award from the Mythopoeic Society, which is "A non-profit, international, literary and educational organization for the study, discussion, and enjoyment of fantasy and mythic literature." The presenter spoke a little nervously, but the content of his speech was wonderful as he lauded Gaiman's words and worlds. This was actually the second award Gaiman has received from them; having previously been honored for Coraline, he received this year's award for Anansi Boys (which I still need to read). The award itself was a stone lion, modeled after the ones in front of New York's library, but also intended as an homage to the character Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia. The presenter explained that his organization wanted to keep alive the spirit of the Inklings - J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Charles Williams - by encouraging modern fantasy. (It takes about 0.001 seconds to decide that, between the three, Gaiman is most similar to Williams.)

With that out of the way, Gaiman launched into his talk. He was very relaxed, casual, and funny. He mentioned how Kepler's was very close to his heart because, on his last book tour (for Anansi Boys), every single day of the tour was booked. When Kepler's closed, his event scheduled for there needed to be canceled, and newspapers ran photos of young ladies protesting against the closed doors with signs saying "WE WANT NEIL GAIMAN!!!" So that made him feel good. Then, a few weeks later, when it was the day he had been scheduled to do Kepler's, his agent asked him if he wanted to do another event instead. He said, "No, that's all right," and enjoyed the one day of the entire tour when he didn't need to sign anything. So once again, he had fond feelings for Kepler's.

His casual disposition extended to being completely unprepared, which was very charming. When the time came to read, he had to borrow a copy of Fragile Things from the audience, then he rambled a little while as he was flipping through the book, looking for something appropriately short to read. He settled on an excellent, disturbing story which vaguely reminded me of The Third Policeman. ** INTRA-PARAGRAPH SPOILER ALERT ** As with several Gaiman stories, this one was quite dark, and was about a demon in hell who tortures a new arrival. He starts with the physical torture, then moves on to showing the victim all the evil he has done in his life. This is repeated, over and over, and each time it grows more painful as the human becomes more aware of his own failings. At the end of the story, the human is left alone in the room, and he sees another new arrival come in. Although Gaiman doesn't explicitly say so, it's pretty clear that the cycle is about to begin all over again, with the torturee now becoming the torturer; furthermore, although I'm not certain about this, I think that the person he's torturing actually is himself. All in all, a great creepy, tight, and thought-provoking story. ** END OF INTRA-PARAGRAPH SPOILER **

After the story, he started flipping again, but quickly settled on the poem he wanted to read. "At events like this," he said, "People often ask me what I believe. This poem is probably the closest I'll ever come to an answer." ** INTRA-PARAGRAPH SPOILER ALERT ** The poem was interesting, really more of a story, though certainly with a pleasing cadence to it. The poem describes him telling 'Goldilocks and the Three Bears' to his daughter, complete with all her interjections and his musings on the story. The story itself is completely familiar to everyone, but the poem shows how the act of telling or hearing the story is different for everyone, and how the same text can create different meanings. ** END OF INTRA-PARAGRAPH SPOILER ** After hearing the poem, I'm still really not sure what he believes... if I had to guess, I'd say that he believes in the power of fiction to communicate and bring people together, and the power of fiction in shaping our minds and relationships, but that's just a guess.

As the ritual demands, once Gaiman finished reading the story, it was time for him to answer questions. They were generally pretty good, as Neil commented at one point. "Cody's generally has good questions. I'm sorry, I mean Kepler's. Cody's questions are usually, 'What's happening with your next movie.' Was anyone here during the year of 'How Did You Meet?' It was the oddest thing. The very first question was, 'How did you meet Dave McKean?' And the next question was, "How did you meet Malcolm Jones?' And it went on and on, every single question being how I met another individual. And I finally said, 'We need to stop this, because this is really frightening me."

One of the first questioners asked how his Jewish heritage affected his writing and/or moral outlook on life. I had not been aware that he was Jewish, so that was cool. He gave a delightful and expansive answer that included multiple anecdotes, a long joke about a rabbi and his driver who switch places for a day, and impressions of his bar mitzvah instructor. His ultimate point was that he isn't very strongly rooted in his faith, but it gave him the opportunity to learn all sorts of weird, obscure stories that eventually found their way into his writing, such as the bit about Adam's second wife between Lilith and Eve.

Several times people merely offered him prompts rather than questions, including one woman who had seen him previously at Cody's and wanted to know what happened to the weird pants he'd been wearing. (Needing clean pants, he'd gone to an Armani store off Union Square, because "They sell pants, or at least they used to." He was looking for jeans, but everything they had was really weird with flashy colors or writing, and when he finally asked, "Do you have any black jeans?" they pointed out a pair with all sorts of rivets and things, at which point he gave up and just bought it. "But now I'm back in my regular jeans and feeling much more comfortable, thank you very much.'")

Another person reminded him to talk about the Coraline musical. He said that there are actually three adaptations of Coraline in the works: a stop-motion photography film; a puppet show (I believe he said in Scotland or Ireland) with life-size and extremely creepy puppets; and now a stage musical, created by Stephin Merritt, is in production. He seems quite proud of each project.

On the topic of adaptations, one person asked him why his experiences with Hollywood have been so much better than Alan Moore's. Once again we were treated to a great impression of Alan Moore: "That's quite all right, you do whatever you want, and send me the check when you're done." For the most part, Neil attributes the different outcomes to their different approaches: Moore is completely hands-off, and unsurprisingly unhappy with the outcome, while Gaiman involves himself more in the projects, both at the outset (shooting down scripts, working to get talent that he wants, etc.) and while it is in process, where he can warn them away from certain mistakes that might seem like good ideas to film people. He added, though, that a lot of it does come down to luck, and Gaiman just being fortunate in who he has worked with. He also shared some information about the upcoming film version of Stardust, and a funny story about how he learned from the costume department that casting was thinking of switching the roles of Primus and Septimus.

While most of the questions were good, one was interminable. It was one of those unbearable, long, self-important "questions" someone asks to make themselves look important. Really, it was a two-minute discourse on the significance of Gaiman's prose, and eventually Gaiman interjected with, "I'm going to need have you ask your question, because the people standing next to you are about to hurt you. You can't see it because you aren't looking at them, but they aim to do violence." The audience applauded. The very next words out of his mouth were, "So anyways, I'm reminded of a quote by Eugene Ionesco," at which point everyone groaned, and he defensively said, "It's my question, I'll ask it my way!" He eventually questionified his statement by asking Neil how much he felt his work was original, and how much was reinterpreting earlier works.

Neil's answer was great: "It is exactly 20% original and 80% reinterpretation." After a laugh, he said, "I don't know," and talked for a while about this thoughts on creativity and originality. He described his frustration at writing something that feels completely original and different, and then after it comes out, reading reviews where critics write about how it is exactly like the things he has written previously, and how there is a common theme running through everything he has written before. However, he doesn't think originality is necessarily the best thing, especially as he grows older, and he comes to appreciate the ability to tell a story well over telling a new story.

The final person mentioned that he was a teacher, and he knew of someone else at his school who had an assignment for their students to... I don't remember exactly what, but it involved some very specific artistic project that included characters from Neverwhere. He then asked Neil what was the most delightfully strange use of his work that he was aware of. Neil said, "That was it." People regularly send him links to odd adaptations and such of his stories, but right off the top of his head he couldn't think of anything stranger than whatever that project was. He did mention someone once showing him an enormous Discworld cake that included turtles.

With the questions finished, it was time for Neil to "sign until my arm drops off." Once again they called people up by numbers, so I had a while to wait before I would get my chance. There was no need to worry, though: as always, I can easily spend hours in a bookstore, especially a new one. Kepler's has a really good selection... it isn't as big as, say, the Cody's by Union Square, but it has a lot of charm in addition to a good range of books. Because of the way the line was set up I wasn't able to fully explore, but the bits I saw looked very solid. I mostly wandered, but spent a particularly long time in the California history section, just reading the back covers of the books and learning more about my adopted state.

After a while I sat back down on one of the folding chairs and resumed reading Good Omens. When my turn came, I dutifully stood in line. Even though he had already been through 150 people, Neil was still chipper and kind, chatting with people who felt like chatting and putting tongue-tied people like me at ease. He signed Good Omens with the command "Burn this book!" and Fragile Things with the command "Believe!" Feeling very good about him and life in general, I collected my bounty and headed out into the night.

Give 'Em Hell, Harry!

I'm up to page 235 of David McCullough's excellent 1100-plus page Truman, a biography of one of my favorite US Presidents. I just read an excerpt of one of his first Senate speeches, and it's too great not to share:

We worship money instead of honor. A billionaire, in our estimation, is much greater in these days in the eyes of the people than the public servant who works for public interest. It makes no difference if the billionaire rode to wealth on the sweat of little children and the blood of underpaid labor... We worship Mammon; and until we go back to the ancient fundamentals and return to the Giver of the Tables of Law and His teachings, these conditions are going to remain with us.
He gave that speech in 1937. The more things change, eh?