Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Revolutionary Idealists

I first encountered computer gaming through text adventures. The state of the art has dramatically improved since then, and my tastes have evolved as well, but I still have a soft spot in my heart for the story-driven adventure game, and probably always will.

For many years I've meant to check out Radical Dreamers, which holds the seemingly impossible dual role as an entry in the Chrono series of RPG games, as well as a late entry in the text adventure genre. My ambition would prove difficult to accomplish. Not only was Radical Dreamers never released outside of Japan; even within Japan, it was only distributed via a custom satellite modem add-on to the SNES, and so had no "ROM" in the traditional sense.

I finally managed to assemble the necessary pieces to try it, and am glad I did so. It provided everything I was looking for, along with some pleasant surprises along the way.

I would have gladly played this game just for the music. Square is famous for their amazing composers, and Radical Dreamers doesn't disappoint at all in this regard. I continue to be stunned at the incredible sound that they could pull off with 8-bit and 16-bit chips. It all comes down to melodies, and they've crafted more amazing ones here. Much of the music in the game is subtle or ambient, but the themes they do have is incredible.

I was also shocked at how good the writing was, all the more impressive since the game never saw an English release. A group of fans managed to create a language patch that replaces all the Japanese text with English text, but this isn't some slap-dash Babelfish affair. The writing is quite moving, appropriately colorful without seeming baroque, with a wonderful cadence and style to it. All of the characters' voices are well realized as well, down to habits of speech and idioms that they favor.

Navigation through the game is pretty much the same as in any of the great old text adventures, except that instead of North, South, East, West, it's forward, backwards, right, left. That requires you to keep your orientation in mind in addition to your position; on the bright side, it increases your sense of immersion in the world and helps you really visualize the area. It might have been overwhelming on a larger map, but altogether the main game has... probably something less than two dozen rooms, several of which you will probably only visit once. It took very little time for me to become familiar with the geography, so I never did need to draw that map I was planning.

Combat is also oddly fun. For the few text RPGs that I've played, I've been used to very static types of combat: you have a few stock options, like "Attack," "Magic," and "Run,", that show up for each stage of each encounter. Here, the battles are done in storybook mode, "Choose your own adventure" style. For example, one section might prompt you with, "You leap back just in time, and the goblin's morning star smashes into the ground! He moves away from you, snarling. What do you do?" The choices might be, "Grab it!", "Throw my knife at him!" and "Chase him!" Some of the outcomes are random (for example, if you throw the knife, it may only hit him 50% of the time), but others are consistent. Therefore, the standard pain of Square-style random battles is alleviated, because once you figure out how to handle a particular encounter, you can win every time with minimal damage. And, yes, you can take damage. There's no visible health meter, but it's communicated through the text as your bandages grow and your breathing becomes ever more labored.

Before heading into plot spoiler territories: this game also has a really fun variation on Chrono Trigger's "New Game +" mode. You can replay the game after you beat it, but your future playthroughs actually unlock additional stories; since there's no XP, levels, or currency in the game, you can't really bring over any stats from previous runs through the game. I'll get into more detail on these additional stories down below, but I'll mention here that it's well done. All begin in the same manner, but based on some early choices you make, the setting and tone of the game shifts radically. This proves to be a great way to experiment and draw out the possibilities of the creators. Some are flat-out hilarious, while others are macabre and deeply disturbing. Setting each as a separate tale allows this game to cover a wide range of emotions without a jarring internal shift in tone. Think of a Final Fantasy game: typically you'll get some pathos, some drama, some excitement, and some comic relief, staged throughout the game. Radical Dreamers lets them break those elements apart, so you can play one game that's all darkness, and another game that's practically non-stop laughter.

Okay, let's move into spoilerville!


MINI SPOILERS

The relationship of Radical Dreamers to the Chrono universe isn't immediately clear. As best as I can tell, it's vaguely a sequel to Chrono Trigger - you eventually learn through backstory how two of the characters are related to major CT characters. However, it isn't really a prequel to Chrono Cross. This game was created prior to CC, and I guess you can see it as sort of a dry run at some of the ideas from that game. Two of the three major characters in RD, Serge and Kid, are the two main characters in CC. Kid's personality is largely the same in both games. Serge is the narrator of RD, and so has a bit more personality than the silent protagonist in CC, but they seem to be the same character.

In terms of setting, all of RD (at least the main story) takes place in Viper Manor, which the three heroes/thieves are infiltrating in order to steal the Flame. This setting was later loosely adapted into an episode within CC.

Thematically, both RD and CC deal with multiple, parallel universes, in much the same way CT dealt with timelines. This theme is pretty subtle in the main story of RD, only coming out during the endgame sequence. However, it can be seen as part of the whole point of the game, especially when it comes to the alternate stories told after the game finishes. Each of those is a story in another universe, with some similarities to the main one but still fundamentally different. Each has three people named Serge, Kid, and Magil entering the manor; in one, though, Magil is a lovestruck aristocrat who pines for the lost love of his youth; in another, Magil is an intergalactic bounty hunter who has been tracking a nefarious Martian villain.

I do like how the game puts the choice of universe into your own hands. It isn't that you're randomly or sequentially thrust into one and need to respond appropriately. Instead, your own actions determine your reality, including your past. This is a cool, up-to-date variation on the idea that our thoughts create our destiny, which is a nifty mental framework to have.

Back to the main story: it's a pleasant mixture of adventure game and RPG, and thoroughly story-driven. Even the main story itself probably deserves multiple play-throughs, since your choices help reveal more about the characters and their situations. Other than advancing through the plot, which largely centers around tracking down the Flame, the most important factor is your emotional connection with Kid. Serge has a crush on Kid, and the way you treat her (and other decisions you make) help determine whether she will reciprocate that affection. This isn't a dating sim; rather, Kid will be more impressed with you if you act more forthrightly, if you respect her opinions, and so on. Most of these come from one-time choices during the story's span, but you can also further your relationship during some of the random battles you fight.


MEGA SPOILERS

Boy, those Square guys sure can write, can't they? A lot of their plots can sound melodramatic on paper, but as presented within the context of a game, they become extremely moving. Given the short span of RD, its climax is surprisingly heartfelt. Kid sacrifices Lucca's gift in order to save Serge's (your) life; this essentially breaks the bond with CT in order to create a bond with CC.

Lynx's multiple personalities were intriguing, especially in the context of his eventual (re)appearance in CC. In the main story he is cold, calculating, arrogant, and violent. In "Magil: Caught between Love and Adventure" he starts weeping as he sees his daughter elope with "Gilbert". Probably the darkest portrayal comes from the darkest story, wherein he already died years earlier, and has created a cataclysm of suffering in his spirit's wake. I even enjoyed the pathetic, begging Lynx who appeared in Shea's story.

Oh, and since this is spoilerville: I loved Magil's reveal (in the main story) as Magus. Magus may be my favorite character from CT, and prepending that character's incredible story to Magil's mysterious actions here results in a highly compelling composite. From what I read online, the team originally had intended for Magil to also continue over to CC, and it's a shame that didn't happen.


END SPOILERS

I realize that text adventure's aren't everyone's thing, or even most people's thing, but this one is well worth checking out. It's a slight hassle to gather the necessary components, but once you do, you'll be rewarded with a relatively brief (especially in contrast with a typical Square RPG) game that's packed with story, great 16-bit synthesized music, and pathos. Stick around for the alternate stories once the main game is done.

Even if you haven't played in the Chrono universe before, you may enjoy this one. Most of this game has no explicit connection at all to the events or characters of those games, so you won't be missing out on any important plot. If you like what you encounter here, you should definitely consider picking up Chrono Trigger and/or Chrono Cross. CT was originally an SNES game, but has been modernized and redone as a Nintendo DS game; Chrono Cross is a PlayStation 1 game that is somewhat dated graphically, but still aces when it comes to story. Have fun!

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Animal, Vegetable, Metaphor

Man, it's been way too long since I've gotten through a real book. I did read the Perry Bible Fellowship collection, which was great, but probably doesn't count.

I've recently shifted from the San Jose public library system to my new home, the Millbrae public library. The library is a great place, with lots of light, friendly workers, a well-laid-out collection, and best of all, a few minutes' walk from my home. However, I've needed to adjust to the vagaries of the San Mateo County library system. I've gotten spoiled from San Jose's excellent branch system, which allows you to reserve a book from any library and have them deliver it to your own for pickup. They even offer free inter-library-loan borrowing for the few titles that aren't in their system. (Of course, their affiliation with the SJSU library means that they carry an impressive array of books.)

In contrast, while the Peninsula Library System offers reciprocal borrowing, placing a hold costs 75 cents. The rational part of my brain recognizes that this is still an amazing deal compared to the cost of actually buying a book, but the rest of my brain is busy sulking. I think that over time I'll get used to this new system. One advantage is that there's much less competition for holds; for example, right now the latest Robert Jordan book "The Towers of Midnight" has only one outstanding hold in the PLS out of 16 copies; in contrast, San Jose has 10 copies and 17 holds. Were I inclined to read this fairly new book, I could get my hands on it much more quickly in my new library system. That's PROBABLY worth three quarters.

Another difference is that other people are less likely to place holds on books that I've already checked out, which means that I can keep on renewing them with impunity. Which is good - I initially checked out "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" back in September, and finally finished it this week. It's a good book, and probably would be a fairly quick read for most people, I've just been much more distracted than usual of late, and have appreciated the extra time to get it done.

So: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle! I picked up this book after stumbling across it while randomly browsing (in person) through the Millbrae library's food section. I vaguely remembered having read good things about it before, and I've lately enjoyed reading the food-oriented books by Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, and Eric Schlosser. This seemed to be a similar work.

I think this book either kicked off or was an early entrant in the recent rash of "My Year of X" books. You know the type - first-person narratives about spending a full year living in one room, or living frugally, or not using fossil fuels, or whatever. Here, Barbara Kingsolver and her family spent a year eating as locally as they could: they moved to a farm in rural Appalachia, grew their own food, and bought what they didn't grow from nearby farmers.

The book ends up being fascinating. It's also extremely well-written. I haven't read any of Kingsolver's other books, but I'm now very inclined to check them out. She has a great voice, a wry sensibility, and a lot of intelligence that avoids showing off. She keeps things interesting, making the year sound like an adventure.

The book also includes contributions from her husband and a daughter. Steven weighs in with sidebars that cover the political dimensions of what Barbara describes, such as the role of the Farm Bill (which helps large-scale producers and not small family farmers), organic certification (a lot of organic food never gets labeled as such because small farmers don't need it and can't afford the overhead of certification), and so on. Camille ends most chapters with a collection of recipes and menus that describe how they ate, along with her own perspective on her family's meals.

There were a lot of interesting and unexpected moments in the book. The Kingsolvers are a lot less doctrinaire than I would have assumed. From the beginning, each family member is allowed to choose one food item from outside their local region that they can keep using. Steven chooses coffee; Barbara chooses "spices," which I would view as cheating. But their year includes a trip to Italy, where they sample that region's local food instead of their own, as well as a trip through the northeast United States and southern Canada. Towards the end, Kingsolver admits that they had also bought boxed macaroni and cheese, because some of her kids' friends refused to eat anything else. She doesn't view these exceptions as failures; instead, she chooses to focus on all the benefits of the majority of the time when they did eat locally. That strikes me as a very healthy attitude to take. We should encourage ourselves to eat better, and not disparage one another for failing perfection.

I was also surprised by the book's treatment of vegetarianism, veganism, and carnivorism. The Kingsolvers raise chickens and turkeys, and Barbara speaks with some affection about their animals. And yet, they eat meat, rather regularly. About halfway through the book she spends several pages giving an extremely lucid and persuasive defense of meat. Not from CAFO's - that's Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, one of the scourges of this book - but from small-scale, low-impact farms. She approaches this not just in terms of health and justice, but also brings in her background as an evolutionary biologist. Kingsolver debunks some of the commonly cited arguments in favor of vegetarianism, including the idea that you can feed a lot more people from vegetables grown on an acre than an animal grazing on that acre. (Basically, this is true for arable farmland, but untrue for the unworkable hills and mountains where most non-CAFO livestock are raised. That makes perfect sense for me - I regularly see cows grazing in the Diablo range, and would be hard-pressed to ever find a farm that could work in that rugged terrain.) Her arguments probably won't persuade many people on this emotional issue, but I really appreciated her perspective. It also helped me understand something that I had long thought was peculiar: many people become vegetarians because of their empathy towards animals, but have very little exposure to those animals; most farmers have nearly constant exposure to animals, and seem to never become vegetarians.

Wow, that was a long bit. Anyways, that's just one of the cool parts of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I'm looking forward to reading more from Kingsolver, and I'm also looking forward to finally returning this and reading another book.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

I'm Not Sick Of It

Television! I dig how we don't have seasons any more. New stuff drops at more or less unexpected times, and people go with the flow. Here are a few random thoughts on what I'm watching now. Each show should be treated as containing MEGA SPOILERS.

THE INCREASINGLY POOR DECISIONS OF TODD MARGARET

This is the funniest thing I've seen in years. Well, at least it's made me laugh harder than anything else. I'm not always proud of myself for laughing.

However much I might try, I can't help enjoying David Cross in everything he does. Mr. Show is still one of my all-time favorites, and his Tobias Funke was one of many brilliant aspects of Arrested Development. His standup can be abrasive, but his enemies are my enemies, so that generally works out all right.

Here, Cross is at his absolute peak. He absorbs and projects all the unpleasant aspects of unpleasant characters that he's played. And he does it all through the focused prism of contemporary British discomfort comedy. Like the original version of The Office, many scenes make you cringe, contorting in agony at the horrible things that he does.

This seems to be a relatively common character type these days: the utter incompetent. I've been trying to get a bead on David's variation. Some incompetents, like Ricky Gervais's David Brent, are utterly un-self-aware. They are completely convinced of their excellence, and cling to that belief with psychotic devotion no matter how much evidence to the contrary comes their way. Others, like Steve Carrell's Michael Scott, seem to be subconsciously aware of their defects, and constantly fight against acknowledging them; instead they put out an incredible amount of effort in an attempt to project the image they wish to have.

I think Todd Margaret is more of the latter. I'm pretty sure that there's a kernel somewhere, buried deep, deep inside him, that understands how badly he's messed everything up; yet, his higher brain won't allow him to admit any weakness, and so he plunges ever further into the void.

Wil Arnett is a hoot, too. His affect closely resembles that of Gob, but his id is so over-the-top that he makes Gob seem like a monk.

What I've been digging in the last few episodes is how it's gradually becoming clear that there's an actual story taking place here, not just a setup to a series of incredible gags. Recent example: in the last episode, Todd shows up to work, totally dejected and announcing that he'll quit. Dave tries to talk him out of it, but he's set. Then, a short while later, he gets a phone call ordering Thunder Muscle, and he decides to stay. Well... Dave was furiously texting on his mobile while he was trying to convince Todd to stay. It took a while for me to connect the dots, but it seems clear that Dave is angling to keep Todd in his position. Why? I'm sure we'll find out in the second season. My immediate guess is that he's in cahoots with the Turks, and they need him to stay around as a fall guy. Speaking of which, what ARE the Turks up to? They are so obviously terrorists, that they must actually be something else. We'll get a big reveal at some point and find out that they're actually... well, I have no idea. Can't wait to find out!

Man, the humor is all over the map on this one. The discomfort humor is a huge aspect: Todd says something incredibly inappropriate and everyone else reacts. A lot of humor is fish-out-of-water stuff, but it feels incredibly fresh. I choked during the scene where Todd tries to bribe a government official to procure a liquor license. Other humor is just out-and-out dirty... again, I'm not proud of myself for laughing, but neither can I argue with results. (Thinking here about, for example, Todd explaining how he got the cut on his forehead, or Alice's drapes for the kitchen - "Oh, that's her baby's blood.") Finally, several episodes close with go-for-broke slapstick. Watching grown men fall down and hurt themselves isn't high art, but it's a proven means for getting results.

Once again, the British smack us around when it comes to making comedy. And this time one of our own gets to share in the credit! Huzzah!

BORED TO DEATH


Okay, to be fair, there is plenty of good American comedy around. I found out about this show on NPR, caught part of it during a trip to New York (thanks, Ross!), got caught up on the first season, and now am hooked.

It's unique. Fresh. I like the voices of all the characters. They're so self-aware, and at the same time so ridiculous. The relationships are amazing. And man, this show has the best run of guest stars that I can remember.

I also get a kick out of all the pot humor. Again, I can't claim to be proud of this, but hey, if it makes me laugh, I won't complain.

THE VENTURE BROTHERS


I think this season is done? Or almost done? It's been awesome, and not just because Brock is now firmly back in the action. Even their side-shows and gimmicks are terrific. There was a great set of episodes on Hank and Dean's summer vacations. All the mythology around viceing and henching continues to pay huge dividends. We only catch a glimpse of King Gorilla, I think in two episodes this season, but it carries along an intriguing plot line that has spanned seasons. This show continues to grow more remarkable.

30 ROCK


The live show entertained me! And so have the others. I'm not as enthralled by the show as I have been before, but it consistently delivers good laughs.

DEXTER


Not so funny, huh? It's good, though. As of this moment, I think I'm enjoying Season Five more than anything since the second season. It could still turn - I had very high hopes at the start of season three, after all - but so far it's cruising along well.

Writing about this show, I'm realizing that it's really about sets of relationships. I think the strength of the show depends on how interesting those relationships are. This season has some winners and some losers.

The main one driving things for me is Dexter/Harrison. I don't think I've seen anything like it before, on television or in the movies. The combination of tenderness, affection, and raw honesty would feel completely wholesome... except that this is Dexter, and just how should we feel that he talks about his work with his infant son? Watching Dexter watch Harrison really tugs at the heartstrings. He desperately wants Harrison to escape the path that he followed; and, at the same time, he's ready to support him if he starts down it. "Did... did he just say 'die-die'?"

Dexter/Lumen: Even this far into the season, I still can't decide what to make of this one. I really like the idea, and I can't decide whether Lumen annoys me or not. It seems like they're returning to the early thrust of season 3, of finally giving Dexter a peer, an adult who can share in those very personal moments with him. But Lumen is totally different from Miguel Prado. She's vulnerable where Miguel was strong; she avenges on her own behalf where Miguel punished for a greater cause. Lurking behind all this is the fact that, well, she's a good-looking woman and Dexter recently became available. I'm very curious whether the writers go ahead and make them partner up. There was a great line in last week's episode: "This feels just like my senior prom." Good to see that Dexter is as unsure about the situation as we are.

Deb/Quin: Meh. The one nice thing about this is that Deb is driving a relationship; I've enjoyed watching her grow in confidence throughout the show's run. Still, I don't much care for Quin. It's really obvious that this relationship will explode like all of Deb's other ones. How can she stand it?

Angel/LaGuerta: Uber-meh. I really hate this subplot, they should just kill it off. Watching married people bicker isn't "edgy" or "real," it's just dull and annoying.

Oh, yeah, the actual plot: man, that Santa Muerte stuff is really over-the-top. I love it! It's hard to believe that Dexter can still shock after five seasons, but man, they've really raised the bar there.

I'm kind of surprised that the investigation into Rita's death has faded away. I'm guessing that it will come back, along with Quin's prodding and Lumen's presence, into a swirling maelstrom of complications. It seems like each season weaves a web for Dexter, and the last few episodes are devoted to him desperately trying to get out before it closes in on him.

I have a hunch that Esther and Cody are gone for good. It would be nice to see them again, though. Especially Cody.

Matthews is boring. "Blah, blah. Solve this case. Why haven't you solved it yet? Talk to the media. Don't use any resources. I'm a mean white man putting down two Latinos." I'm totally cool with having a villain within the department, but for gosh sakes, grow some stones and actually BE a villain, don't just complain about your subordinates.

I'm actually more interested in the Santa Muerte plot than what seems to be the main plot, Lumen's torturers. That may change as the season progresses. I don't see how those two could be related now, but I wouldn't mind if the writers found a way to link them.

THE WALKING DEAD


Holy cow... a zombie TV show? For real?

I thought the pilot was incredible. The second episode was good. I realized that the dialog was annoying me, and then I realized that the pilot had contained very little dialog, and now I'm worried that people will talk more and more and I'll like it less and less.

Still. That atmosphere is just amazing. I really dig that the emphasis is on the post-apocalyptic landscape; zombies are a feature of that landscape, but they don't define it. The images of a hollow Atlanta are just chilling.

Oh, and I usually don't talk (or, really, think) much about graphic effects on TV shows, but the ones here are incredibly well-done. That zombie crawling through the grass in the pilot? Ew! Awesome! The crowd scenes in Atlanta seem movie-quality. And they've consistently nailed the freshly dilapidated look of the world they've created.

Those are the highlights. I'm less devoted to the characters... but, again, we're only in the second episode, and I'm sure they'll grow on me. The main guy (sorry, I haven't learned names yet - the cop) is decent but not real expressive. The woman in the refugee camp may be my favorite so far - we don't know her story yet, or anyone's, but there are enough hints there to make her seem really interesting.

I hope this doesn't sound too macabre, but I hope that they start killing off characters. Not because I particularly dislike them (other than the racist), but because that's what you do in zombie movies. They've created great tension and fear so far, but if they want to sustain that over the run of a television show, they need to establish that people are not safe, and that will include killing (or turning) major characters.

END SHOWS


Mmmm.... I think that's it for now. I'm not currently following House; last season seemed to end on a decent note, and I figured I'd take a break for a bit. When I need my Hugh Laurie fix, it'll be nice to have a whole season to run through. Oh, and if you haven't already done so, check out "Archer" - it's really excellent.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Full Disclosure 2010

I absolutely love voting in California elections.  They're just so fascinating!

Having recently moved, I've been getting up to speed on local politics. San Mateo County isn't nearly as, um, colorful as San Francisco when it comes to local races and initiatives, but there's still plenty going on.

Without further ado, here's how I cast my secret ballot.
  • Governor: Jerry Brown. Brown's awesome. He's intelligent, thoughtful, curious, engaging... I have no idea whether we'll get the 1970's Brown or the one who's running today, but I think we'll get the right man for the job.
  • Lt. Governor: I held my nose and voted for Newsom. I was actually planning on voting for Maldonado up until a few weeks ago; I really admire his courage in breaking with his party, I tend to prefer moderates, and Newsom just rubs me the wrong way. In the debates, though, Newsom shows much better temperament and, more importantly, a stronger grasp of California's problems than Maldonado. So it goes. I kinda hope that Newsom goes back into business after this term.
  • Secretary of State: Debra Bowen. A good technocrat who's fulfilled her role well and should continue to do the same.
  • Controller: John Chiang. He's one of the few grown-ups in Sacramento.
  • Treasurer: Bill Lockyer. Yikes, I really didn't mean to vote a straight Democratic ticket, but that's how it came out. Anyways, like Chiang, Lockyer has performed admirable well with a Legislature that seems physically incapable of passing a reasonable budget, or doing anything in a decent span of time.
  • Attorney General: Kamala Harris. Harris is the only candidate who I donated to during this cycle, and she both deserves and needs it. She's in a tough race, I hope she pulls through... Attorney General is too important of an office to lose, especially in California.
  • Insurance Commissioner: Pass.
  • State Board of Equalization: Pass.
  • U. S. Senator: Boxer. Boxer's good, but Fiorina is just awful. As much as I love Brown, I won't get too upset if Whitman beats him - she'd do a decent, not spectacular job as Governor - but if Fiorina becomes my Senator, I'll throw a fit.
  • U. S. Representative: Jackie Speier. I'm a bit sad that I never got to vote for Tom Lantos. Speier seems to be doing a good job.
  • State Senator: Leland Yee. I'm actually pretty irritated at Yee - voting against getting a budget done is immature. Still, that isn't a firing offense, and I've liked him otherwise.
  • Assembly: Jerry Hill. I actually really like Hill; even before I moved, I was impressed at his level of engagement with his constituents, and he seems to be quite active in the Legislature. 
  • Judicial: Pass on all. 
  • Board of Supervisors: Don Horsley. He was the only high-speed rail supporter in the primary, and he has my full support now.
  • Treasurer/Tax Collector: Sandie Arnott. The Lehman thing totally wasn't her fault, and she seems to be doing a good job. I'm not super invested in this race, and won't be upset if she loses, but would be happy to have that stability in the office.
  • County Harbor District: Pass.
  • Prop 19: Yes. (Sorry, Mom and Dad!)
  • Prop 20: No. I would totally get behind this if it were done at the national level, but doing it just within California would significantly weaken us at the federal level. I'm a big fan of redistricting reform in general, but nationally, Congress is in much better shape than Sacramento.
  • Prop 21: Yes. Sure, it's fiscally irresponsible, but hey: I love my parks! And they really are hurting quite badly these days. I like the idea of carving them out of the budget.
  • Prop 22: Yes! California's tax system is the most Byzantine thing ever, and what's even worse is that when Sacramento can't pass a budget (which is ALWAYS), then NO city anywhere in the entire state can budget either. We just have no idea how much the state is giving or taking that year. Sacramento's fiscal irresponsibility shouldn't penalize well-run cities. 
  • Prop 23: No! AB32 is a national model, we need to keep those incentives in place to transform our economy.
  • Prop 24: I voted "Yes," but it's kind of a wash for me... it's undoing something that got a budget passed before, and if this becomes a habit, I can see it becoming even MORE difficult to pass budgets. If that's possible.
  • Prop 25: YES YES YES. The two-thirds requirement is insane. This should have happened ages ago.
  • Prop 26: Heck no! 
  • Prop 27: Nope! Like I said, I dig redistricting reform. I'm growing more skeptical that it will be the panacea we hope for, but we need to give it a chance.
  • Measure O: I was actually planning on voting Yes, but I ended up following the Daily Journal's recommendation and voting No instead. I'm really not plugged into the school system here, so I'll take their word for it this time around.
  • Measure M: Uh, sure, why not?
  • Measure U: Yeah. Not a big deal either way, but I can see why that would be better.

And that's it! Remember, election day is November 2nd, a week from Tuesday. Do like I do and research, then mail your ballot in now (have I mentioned how much I love voting in California?) so you can kick back and ignore all the political stuff for the rest of the season. Happy voting!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Watering Can

Another year, another Blog Action Day!  And hey, this time it isn't about climate change.  Yay variety!  Instead, it is a slightly related topic: Water.

I never used to think about water much before I moved to California.  It was just something that came out of a tap.  We would sometimes talk about Lake Michigan water, as opposed to other kinds of water, but that was simply a matter of taste.

I'm now living in a part of the country where it simply doesn't rain for about six months out of the year, and most of our rain occurs during a stretch from December-February.  This is a land that has rationed water use in the past, and may need to do so in the future.  It's a place where all the grass turns brown during the summer.  Water is a major political topic, and an incredibly complex one at that, pitching farmers, environmentalists, suburban homeowners, fishermen, power companies, and residents in the Central Valley all against one another.

The root problem is scarcity.  We don't get much rain, we don't have large sources of freshwater, and so we need to manage what we have.  During the rainy season, this isn't as big of a problem: local communities can collect rainwater in reservoirs and use that.  To keep hydrated throughout the year, though, we rely on the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountain range on the eastern edge of the state.  When spring comes, the snow melts, and flows in giant rivers into the Central Valley.  From there... well, that's just the question.  Local farmers want to use it to water their crops.  Residents in Southern California want to use it to water their lawns.  Fishermen want to make sure enough water remains in the river so salmon can swim back upstream to respawn.  Environmentalists want to make sure that, while diverting water to other uses, the dams don't kill off endangered species like the delta smelt.  San Francisco wants to make sure they get enough water to drink.  And on and on.

It's pretty amazing that we can even have this argument.  For almost all of human history, water was local.  People would move around to follow water: nomads would move on to another oasis when their present one dried up; tribes would move their camps during the wet and dry seasons.  With the invention of irrigation (thanks, Civilization!), we could move around water to suit our own needs.  Now, a city could be built away from rivers with dangerous flooding, and long rows of ditches would carry water where it needed to go to water crops.

The industrialization of our society made this change even more dramatic.  We can use millions of tons of concrete to build gigantic dams, with the ability to completely reverse the flow of a river.  We can use locks and canals to bring ships far inland.  Gigantic public works projects can create impossible cities, like Las Vegas and Los Angeles, which could not exist without carrying in hundreds of billions of gallons of water each year.

It's tempting to say that we need to stop what we're doing.  California is straining at the limits of what it can achieve by shuffling around the limited water it has.  Population has boomed, we've already squeezed out almost all the efficiency we can through technology changes like low-flow toilets and showers, and with the specter of climate change looming, it seems likely that we'll have less and less water to work with.  People talk about California needing to downsize, to stop messing with nature, to clear out of the places that require engineering to be livable.

I understand the impulse, but I have to disagree.  Probably the best example is the Central Valley itself.  Without the elaborate system of canals and irrigation created by the Army Corp of Engineers, this would just be a desert.  With that infrastructure, though, it's arguably the best agricultural region in the entire world, and provides the lion's share of our nations's vegetables, fruits, and nuts.  It's a calculation we have to make: is the investment of water worth the result we get?  I think the answer is "Yes".

We need to start getting better at asking that question, and better at picking our answers.  We no longer have enough water to meet all of our needs, so we need to prioritize those needs.  Is a green lawn nice?  Yes.  Are salmon nice?  Yes.  Well, suppose we can't have both.  Which should we choose?

There are no easy answers.  We can keep working towards future technological solutions like desalination plants and wastewater recycling, but those are incredibly expensive and may not provide a panacea.  We need to have honest political discussions about what to do with the water we have.  Inevitably, those discussions will become arguments, and politicians will make enemies no matter what they decide.  We, as citizens, should hold our leaders accountable: they should act like adults, be truthful about the situation we face, and clearly present the tradeoffs we can make.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Made Men

Let me get this off my chest first: No, I have no idea whether Cory Doctorow and E. L. Doctorow are related.  As I'm writing this, I have no Internet connection, and won't remember to look it up before I post.

Anyways.

I've been vaguely aware of Cory Doctorow for years now, while not being totally sure of exactly what he does.  Turns out that's because he does a bit of everything: he's a rather famous blogger, and also a novelist, and all-around tech muse.  I know him best from an awesome cameo he made on XKCD a while back.

I stumbled across "Makers" in the library one day and grabbed it.  I don't think it's his best-known book, though I don't know what is.  I don't think he does series, so it's probably fine to tackle them in any order.

That said, I get the feeling that his books are probably most enjoyable early on.  Makers is a little bit like Halting State in that it's a sci-fi book that's set only a few years in the future.  It was written in... 2008, I think? - and starts sometime during this decade.  The whole course of the book spans several decades, and it's pretty self-consciously proud that nearly all of the raw technology in the book exists today.  The Makers aren't creating new substances; they're arranging existing substances in ways that people haven't thought of before.

MINI SPOILERS


Makers starts out as a huge love letter to the Maker movement, as exemplified in Make Magazine and the Maker Faire.  I think they're most popular here in the Bay Area, but have a national presence.  Makers construct physical, tech-savvy do-it-yourself projects, which tend to be fun or quirky, occasionally filling a useful niche.  The physical products of makers look like something from a science fair, Jerry Lewis movie, or mad scientist's lab.  The ethos and spirit of the movement, though, draws pretty directly from the open source software movement.  Makers aren't proprietary or out to make a buck; they build on what others have done, inspire one another, publish all their designs, and continually improve on them.

The Makers in this book are Perry and Lester, a classical geek duo.  Perry is more charismatic and social; Lester is brilliant, huge, and more shy.  Or at least they start that way.  This is a big book, that spans many years and events, and their personalities also shift as they grow older.

Although Perry and Lester are the main characters, we don't meet them for a while.  The book starts out with Suzanne, a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News.  Let me stop here and say that I'm just amazed at how well Doctorow captures everything about the Bay Area: he totally nails everything, from our media to our geography to the culture to the companies to the food to the people.  He doesn't really flog it, but his easy mastery of the topic is impressive: he'll casually describe Suzanne's drive up 280, and I'll think, "I KNOW that spot he's talking about!", and he'll describe her house, and I'll think, "I've SEEN houses like hers!," and he'll talk about how she got the house, and I'll think, "Wow, everyone I know who has a house got theirs the same way!"

It's all so good that I got a little sad when the action shifted to Florida, where Lester and Perry are based.  Doctorow is probably just as accurate with that region as he is with the Bay Area, but I don't know it as well, so I can't appreciate it as much; plus, strip malls and shantytowns don't do much for me, whether they're accurately rendered or not.

Like I said before, the book is huge.  It's divided into three sections, but the second and third are rather contiguous.  The first part is the most fun: it's a straight-out, full-on optimistic geek-fest, all about excited people building cool stuff.  Doctorow has some amazing stuff in here, as he trots out nifty inventions that are totally possible today.  Some of these are incredibly useful; one of the best ideas is a two-compartment dishwasher, so you can load dirty dishes in one side before unloading the clean dishes in the other.  (At my office, this would save me all kinds of distress.)  There's also the universal organizer: tag everything with RFID, and place everything in receptacles.  Then, whenever you need ANYTHING, just say its name, and the receptacle glows.

Other inventions are useless and fun.  The most vivid is the Boogie Woogie Elmo Mobile.  This takes a collection of cast-off animatronic Elmo dolls, and then networks them: not via wifi or bluetooth, but via voice.  The Elmo dolls call out to each other, watch what they are doing, and then work together to drive a golf cart around.  Doctorow describes this so well that you can hardly keep from laughing.  Other awesome inventions include analog computers, such as one that accepts barbie doll heads, performs mathematical operations, and then dispenses the answer as a quantity of brown M&Ms.

Ooh, speaking of M&Ms... one of the most refreshing aspects of this book is how confidently Doctorow uses trademarks and company names.  Very few authors have the guts to do this.  Part of it may be out of a fear of litigation, but it's also considered very bad form: when I took a fiction writing class back in college, my professor only had two rules for us: don't use weather to establish a mood, and don't include any brand names.  Well, here, it totally works.  This starts out as a book about making stuff, but it's largely about companies and products and competition, and especially since it's set in the near-future, it wouldn't be at all believable if it skimped out on the brands.

And so we have them.  Not just named, but also judged.  In the first few pages, we learn that Kodak and Duracell have been hostilely taken over, due to their slumping stock price and inability to innovate.  Yahoo! is dismissed near the end of the book as a forgotten company.  And, starting in the second section of the book, Disney emerges as the primary villain.  This is delicious - Disney is infamous among copyright-reform folks for their single-handed chokehold on intellectual property laws in the United States.  Disney is a bit different here - the company has been taken over and then split apart into independent corporations, including Disney Products and Disney Parks. 

The second section of the book opens after the Maker movement (described here as New Work, which I kept mis-reading as New York) falls apart.  I never totally got the reason why - the money dries up, which is fine, but people were making stuff before they got any money, and it seems weird that they would stop.  I get the impression that people got fed up with the stuff people were creating, which, again, seems weird... it reminds me of the old saw about the Patent Office head declaring that all useful inventions had already been created.

The second and third sections of the book follow a more conventional narrative drive.  There wasn't really a villain in the first part, although there was some conflict and some unpleasant personalities.  The latter part of the book starts in a state of subdued depression: the economy's in a funk, people aren't inventing stuff, etc.   It largely chronicles Lester and Perry's resurgence, building on the ashes of the New Work movement, and in the process creating The Ride, a sort of physical wiki.  The Ride becomes a cultural phenomenon, which drives certain elements at Disney crazy, and hence is the conflict born.

This part of the book also widens the scope of characters a lot.  The first section was almost all Suzanne; when we see Lester and Perry, it's usually through her eyes.  Here, we get more people in their own voices: Lester and Perry, and also Sammy (a ladder-climbing Disney executive), Death Waits (a goth kid who is fired from Disney Parks and becomes a fervent believer in The Ride), Suzanne again (now remade as a European sophisticate), and more.  I think my favorite here was Kettlewell, the Silicon Valley millionaire who got New Work rolling in the first part of the book.  Kettlewell was always a fun, exuberant presence, but you never really got a feel for what made him tick.  Now, you can follow things from his perspective, and his character really deepens as a result.

It's harder to like the second part of the book, but I think that's part of the point.  There are very strong analogies with the dot-com boom and bust here: the huge sense of optimism and exuberance, followed by the crushing defeat and malaise, followed by tentative steps at rebuilding and, eventually, surpassing what came before.  I don't think that Makers is an analogy of the dot-com boom; rather, Doctorow sees it as part of the natural order of business and society.  We shoot for the stars, we get shot down, we rebuild and try something else, something better.

END SPOILERS


So, now that that's done, all I need to do is find myself an E. L. Doctorow book and start reading that.  Somehow I doubt I'll find as many robots and 3D Printers in there, but it should still be a good time.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Kinda Lame Reset

These days, I faithfully follow the CA High Speed Rail Blog.  I've gotten increasingly excited and agitated about everything going on with HSR in California, and the blog serves up great daily helpings of red meat, offering smack-downs to the NIMBYs along the Peninsula who want to kill the project, as well as some really cool and surprisingly in-depth pieces on the technical aspects of building the rail line.

Robert Cruickshank is the main writer for the blog, and a while ago he wrote a post about an article that riffed off a book called The Great Reset.  He later followed up on that post with one that clarified why he thought the book's HSR-related arguments were still sound even if one questioned its underlying thesis.  I was intrigued, and picked it up.

Richard Florida's main thesis is that what we're living through now, the period that people called "The Great Recession," is actually something much larger, deeper, and darker.  Unlike a typical recession that lasts a year or so as part of a standard business cycle, he thinks that we're at the start of a fundamental shift within our economy.  He believes the better parallels to our current situation are the Great Depression, and, even more so, the Long Depression of the 1870's.  His book offers both yin and yang: he thinks we're in for a long and painful ride, but that this time is necessary in order to transform our economy into something far greater in the future.

Historically, he sees the 1870's depression as the turning point where America stopped being a nation primarily of farmers and of small towns, and became a nation of cities.  This period saw an enormous collapse of wealth (much of it, as in our own time, based on banking misdeeds and real estate speculation), but also saw the rise of powerful railroads, industries, massive city centers, all sorts of production.  This wasn't just an economic upheaval but a social one as well: people fled their farms, and found entirely new lives as factory workers. 

What was the consequence of all this?  America shifted from being a majority of farmers, to only a fraction of farmers.  (Today, only about 2% of Americans live on farms, as opposed to much more than half in the 1860's.)  That freed up huge amounts of human capital, which we then used to build an industrial base.  The 1870's shift in American outlook laid the foundation for the 20th century of American supremacy, as a dominant manufacturing power.

He gets into a lot of other things that changed as well - the creation of the modern educational system, the land-grant university system, etc.  You get the idea, though: the Long Depression was painful, but it also led to great changes.  In the author's view, this happens in part because, during a Reset, a backlog of idea, social changes, and possibilities builds up.  Once the economy starts moving again, those ideas propel the country in a new direction, one better suited for the times.

Florida sees the 1930's as a similar Reset.  Here, the transformation was from an industry-centered economy into a consumer-centered economy.  Once again, people were freed up by mass production, machinery, and automation.  "Freed up" is horrible if you're a factory line worker; however, from a larger social perspective, it meant that we could produce many more goods, and make them far cheaper than before.  This was part of what transformed us into a nation of consumers.  And, in the same way that railroads in the 19th century connected industrial sites together to enable manufacturing, the highways in the 20th century opened up large swaths of the land where people could consume: buy big houses, buy big cars, buy lots of stuff to fill them up.  All that economic activity flowed back into our economy, propelling us through most of the last century.

So, what will this next Reset be like?  He doesn't think we can know, exactly; in the 1860's, who could have imagined Alcoa?  In the 1920's, who could have imagined McDonald's?  Using the earlier resets as a guide, he speculates that we're in for a long haul; it will probably take several decades for the economy to fully recover.  He thinks that we're moving from a stuff-based economy into an idea-based economy; this plays into his hobby horse of the Creative Class, the economic sector of artists, engineers, scientists, and others who deal mainly in abstract thought.  He ends the book by laying out some concrete suggestions for how we can ease this transition.  He doesn't think that the government is the solution, but they can encourage some beneficial behaviors, such as reform of our educational system (transitioning from rote memorization, which was helpful when creating docile factory workers, into encouraging entrepreneurship and creativity, which will help spawn an explosion of new industries); reforming our house-favoring tax system (financially encourage people to rent, so they can more easily move between economic hubs and find and keep great jobs); strengthen the service industry by empowering individuals and encouraging their contributions; and building high-speed rail networks to shrink distances, connect more people to the economic megaregions that he sees as the cornerstones of the new economy, and free up our spending so many resources on the auto so we can invest them in newer experiences.

Megaregions are probably the most important concept in the book other than Reset.  As he sees it, pre-1870's America was centered on the town.  A town was self-sufficient and fairly isolated.  1870-1930 was centered on the city, which had an industrial core and close-in workers.  WWII to today has been suburb-oriented, where consumers can live lives of leisure and consumption around loosely organized rings.  Our next step will be centered on megaregions, such as the Boston-New York-Washington, D.C. corridors, or the Bay Area in northern California.  In these regions, large cities have melded together and created social and economic personalities.  The megaregions support culture, excitement, and density, which young people are increasingly drawn towards.  He points to the well-known fact that, while the Internet enables software startups to begin literally anywhere, they still often set up shop in Silicon Valley, precisely because bright engineers want to be around other bright engineers.  He thinks that this Reset will find these megaregions deciding what their strengths are, how they want to define themselves, and what actions to take to become who they want.  He points to some surprisingly uplifting success stories, such as Pittsburgh's transformation from a failed industrial economy to one based on education and research.

So, how do I feel about the book?  Kinda indifferent.  I like a lot of the points that he made, but found myself playing devil's advocate throughout, and being unsatisfied with the answers he gave.  Ultimately, while I agree with a lot of the specific policy suggestions he outlines, and his vision of our our society needs to transform, I have a hard time buying his key concepts.

For example, I was never really all that satisfied by his description of Resets.  He describes them as periods of intense change and economic uncertainty, but things are always changing, and we regularly have economic problems.  Yes, you can argue that the 1870's and the 1930's were very transformative times; but so were the 1900's (radio, national newspapers, mass communication), 1950's (television, national culture), 1960's (space exploration, counterculture, sexual liberation), 1990's (computers, Internet), and so on.  It just seems a bit arbitrary to say that, for example, the Internet was the result of the Second Reset, or a harbinger of the Third Reset. 

Playing a mental game: what would have happened if there hadn't been a Second Reset?  Would we have never built Levittown, never gotten color televisions, never created the Edsel?  Does our society always need to make sharp, abrupt changes, or can we sometimes make smooth, gradual ones?  I'd argue that there have been HUGE changes in our society since the Second Reset was well completed - to pick just one example, we practically doubled our workforce by accepting women as full members of society.  If this had happened during a time of economic turmoil, or right afterwards, I'm sure the author would claim it as further evidence of his thesis.  He doesn't seem to view the fact that it occurred during a long, gradual period of general economic growth as countering the thesis.

What else... one thing he never got into was the question of specialness.  He lists exactly two Resets, which occurred sixty years apart in the same country.  Do other nations have Resets?  Do they occur globally?  Do all nations get them in the same sequence?  Were there any Resets before the 1870's?  If not, why did they just start then?  Is it possible that China will get the Third (or Fourth) Reset so we don't have to?

Similarly, while I dig the general idea of megaregions, and find it particularly helpful in explaining the Bay Area's properties, I was really unhappy with his treatment of the subject.  He probably rubbed me the wrong way by listing Chi-Pitts as a megaregion.  (Actually, over half of his megaregions are just the names of cities squished together, which I think says a lot for the lack of identity in those areas.)  I love Chicago, I spent my high school years there, and still have family and friends who keep me in the loop of everything that's going on.  I don't think that I've ever once heard someone in Chicago speak as though they considered Pittsburgh as part of their region.  I don't think I've ever heard someone link Ohio with Chicago.  Don't get me wrong, there is a large region around Chicago, which is variously called Chicagoland, Greater Chicago, and so on.  It's quite mega, too - it stretches from Wisconsin through western Indiana, and strikes out far to the southwest of the metro region.  Within that area, people have a shared identity, shared sports teams, shared culture, shared economy.  But, Pittsburgh?  Not a chance.

It's possible that a megaregion may grow between those areas some day, linked by high speed rail, but... I just don't know.  Why not an Upper Midwest culture that links the Twin Cities with Madison, Milkaukee, and Chicago?  We could call it NFC Northland.  It would be awesome.

Ultimately, I ended up feeling the opposite about this book as I did about Malcolm Gladwell's Blink.  I thought that Blink was a collection of wonderful anecdotes in search of a thesis.  The Great Reset is a collection of inadequately developed ideas defending a powerful thesis.  I'm not saying that it's wrong, just that he hasn't sold me yet.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Winding Up

I've just finished another sci-fi loaner from a colleague.  This one is "Look to Windward" by Ian Banks, the first book I've read from that author.  It's a good book... not a masterpiece, nor the most exciting story ever, but really solid sci-fi, with interesting characters, observations, and stories.

I think that with a bit of effort, you could come up with a decent grid that could briefly describe any sci-fi work (book, show, or series).  Such as:
* Are there aliens?
* Is faster-than-light travel possible?
* Is backwards time-travel possible?
* Are there multiple universes?
... and so on.  In this case, in contrast to many other sci-fi books I've recently read, there ARE many aliens, and faster-than-light travel is definitely possible.


MINI SPOILERS

The technical background of the book actually reminds me a lot of the Star Trek universe, although the feel is certainly different.  The main civilization in this story, the Culture, feels like a slightly more adolescent version of the Federation.  It's a sprawling galactic civilization, nominally dedicated to principles like freedom and peacefulness.  The Culture comprises several species, but seems based around Earth humans.  They spend much of their time and energy exploring or just kicking it, but also can fight wars against implacable foes when they need. 

Similarly, faster-than-light travel is possible in both worlds.  Here, it is actually a critical part of the plot, in a more literal sense than you might think.  The book is bracketed by the Twin Novae.  In the background to the story, the Culture fought a war against another alien species ages ago.  As part of that battle, they detonated two stars.  The war has been over for a long time, but the light from those exploding stars is finally reaching a particular residence called the Masaq' Hub, and the story deals with the events between the time the first and the second star's light arrives.

The Culture started out seeming like the Federation, but the more I read about the book, the more it seemed to be obviously, painfully, an analogy for the United States.  The Culture is brash, cocky, good-hearted, rich.  It disclaims any desire for empire, but feels compelled to meddle in other civilizations' affairs, projecting its own values onto theirs.  It desperately wants to be liked; when anyone indicates that they like the Culture a little, the Culture will eagerly do anything to make them love them even more; when someone hates the Culture, they'll try to do what they can to make them friends.  The Culture proclaims its guilt for bad actions it has taken, while in reality it will do anything to support its way of life.  The vast majority of Culture citizens spend their lives pursuing pleasure, purposefully oblivious to the political and military actions of their government.

Pretty indicting, huh?  Then I checked the copyright page - published in 2000.  Before 9/11, before Afghanistan, before Iraq II.  I gulped.  Banks seemed uncomfortably prescient.  Or, as usual, I may just be reading too much into my fiction.

The alien species in the book are interesting.  On a macro level, we learn that, while each is different, most follow a standard trajectory.  They start out primitive, and spend their early existence in an Age of Scarcity; even after attaining technical knowledge to travel between stars or communicate with other aliens, they are limited by their resources.  At some point, species overcome this, and join the ranks of the Involved.  Involved species are in control of their own destiny, communicate with other Involveds around the galaxy, and pursue their own values and goals.  Some Involved are peaceful, others warlike, many inscrutable.

Over time, new species join the ranks of the Involved, while others drop off.  Some destroy themselves in wars, either civil or standard.  Others become listless.  Many, though, Sublime.  Sublimation feels like a variation on Vinge's Singularity, although it seems more social than technological.  A species that Sublimes instantly disappears, with every member of the race vanishing; they leave behind their artifacts, but they themselves are gone.  Presumably they have quit this physical universe and gone somewhere else.

One of the prominent races in this book, the Chelgrians, provide the only exception to this pattern.  The Chelgrians only partially sublimed.  Those who left became the Chelgrian-Puem, and, unlike all other Sublimed species, they communicate back to those left in the world.  Furthermore, the Chelgrians, a religious race, decide to fashion a Heaven for themselves; based on their existing beliefs, the Chelgrian-Puem create an afterlife for themselves, and for all other Chelgrians, and so create a place for souls to go after they die.

All of this, of course, is considered unsporting by the other Involved, who are generally fascinated and slightly repelled by the idea.

Incidentally, not only organic life can Sublime.  Artificial intelligences play a large role in the book; although they are created by intelligent species, they generally become independent, taking on some of the personality of their creators while surpassing their abilities.  Over time, most AIs eventually Sublime as well.  This sort of equality exists throughout the book; two of the major characters, Hub's Avatar and E. H. Tersono, are both machines, and both are strongly independently minded and quirky characters.

Most other races only get passing mentions.  Kabe, a Homondan, is a great character, sort of a Horatio to Ziller's Hamlet, but his species doesn't seem too unusual.  On the other hand, the dirigible behemothaurs are fascinating.  A slight side-story deals with a scholar named Uegen Zelpe who studies these things.  They are enormous, incredibly long-lived intelligences, who float around a planet and think in terms of millennia.  Uagen may have been one of my favorite characters, although his endearing nervousness may have gotten annoying if he was around more.

The writing is solid for the most part.  Banks occasionally experiments with some interesting technique; in one of my favorite parts, he eschews all narrative and exposition, and does a chapter purely in dialog.  Not even "... he said" direction, just the spoken words themselves.  By then, you've gotten to know the characters well enough to completely track with what's happening, and it's an especially satisfying way to advance the story.

I haven't even gotten into the plot yet.  It's decent, but honestly isn't the main point here; for most of the book, I wondered when the excitement would start.  Most of the book focuses on laying out these really interesting characters, species, history, and mores, and the work towards the end feels rewarding but not necessarily essential.


END SPOILERS

All in all, this was a fine book.  I can't claim that it was the best sci-fi I've read in the past year, but it has a lot of competition, and was certainly good enough that I'll want to check out other stuff by Banks in the future.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Hooah! Good God, Y'All!

My cousin Paul is an inveterate reader... that is to say, he is a true King.  Every time we meet he has at least one fascinating new book under his belt that he is eager to discuss.  His interests bend more towards nonfiction, while mine bend more towards fiction, and as a result he is a great source of new works.

His most recent find is "War" by Sebastian Junger.  He went so far as to lend me a physical copy.  Here's a secret - I get recommended books all the time, I rarely am able to keep up with the suggestions, and the best (though still not foolproof) way to make me read something is to give it to me. 

It took me a while to get into it, and it was relatively slow going once I did.  That isn't at all a reflection on the author or the writing.  It's nonfiction, but it's exciting, emotional, compelling.  It was slow going for me precisely BECAUSE it was so compelling _ I felt overwhelmed as I went through it, and had to take regular breaks before diving back in again.

This book is primarily about a particular platoon of soldiers fighting in Afghanistan.  Junger does step back to give some larger context - we lean the hierarchy above the soldiers, some broader initiatives, and so on - but most of the book is almost claustrophobic in its description of the intense lives these soldiers lead.  We learn about their living conditions, their senses of humor, the violence regularly visited upon them and dealt by them. 

Junger doesn't really have a political axe to grind here; he does give voice to some of the soldiers' own opinions, but the book as a whole is neither pro- nor anti- the war in Afghanistan.  It isn't exactly neutral either, though.  The strongest impression I'm left with after reading this book is one of admiration for the infantry soldiers at the heart of the book.  It's even less sympathetic towards the Taliban than, say, "Where Men Win Glory" was.  Junger does briefly pause toward the end to mention how the young fighters in the Taliban must have felt similarly to the young American solderis, but he isn't really trying to equate the two at all.

He does give some voice to the divisions within the U. S. military.  I suppose that in a way, "War" is ultimately about chasms.  The largest is the chasm between soldiers and civilians; civilians just can't understand what soldiers go through, and that chasm makes it difficult for many to readjust to civilian life afterwards.  There's also a huge chasm between combat infantry and other military, though.  The platoon at Restrepo, who spend more than a year putting their lives on the line in direct line of fire to establish an American presence in a two-mile by six-mile-long valley, feel contempt towards the soldiers who never leave their Forward Operating Base.  Conversely, the Fobbits look down on the Restrepo warriors as uncouth and undisciplined louts.  The Restrepo soldiers feel (and rightfully so, one thinks) that they have earned the right to be respected by their actions, and simply cannot deal with the arbitrary rules imposed by people out of danger.

This is primarily a narrative book, but the statistics Junger does share are astonishing.  Only a tiny fraction of the enormous U. S. military force in Afghanistan ever sees combat.  Of those who do, just a tiny number of soldiers see fighting over and over and over again.  It's a very inequitable distribution that makes a lot of logistical sense (you want your best and most experiences soldiers in the toughest spots), but does not seem very fair.

Junger's psychological investigations are fascinating as well.  When you step back and think about what war is, it's pretty amazing, even aside from the obvious matter of life and death.  War takes a group of 20-50 males between the ages of 18 and 22, sticks them in one physical location, and makes them spend an entire year there without seeing any women, without good food or coffee, wakes them up almost daily when strangers shoot at them, hones them to instantly respond to stimuli without thinking.  War shapes these men, it forms incredibly strong bonds between them, and Junger discusses studies done by the US and Israeli militaries on how those bonds and those characteristics form something we can scientifically call "courage." 

All in all, this was a fascinating book.  It was tough for me to read, but I'm glad that I did.  One section opens with a quote from Churchill (or Orwell) to the effect that we can sleep soundly in our beds at night because we have violent men standing ready to punish those who would do us harm.  That isn't a sentiment that I particularly like, but it's also hard for me to argue against.  This book helped me catch a fraction of a glimpse into the lives soldiers lead, and helps me appreciate the incredibly debt we owe them.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Your Revolution Is A Silly Idea, Yeah

Have you heard?  For a brief 24-hour period, iPhone users could download Sid Meier's Civilization Revolution for FREE!  I eagerly grabbed it, and it occupied far too much of my time and attention for far too long.  Ahhh... the sign of a great Civ game!

It's definitely different than "traditional" Civ, whatever that means after four iterations and several expansions, but it still retains the characteristic addictive qualities.  In mobile format, that's especially deadly.  I'm well acquainted with staying awake too long trying to wind down a war, or reach a particular technological threshhold, or finish mapping out a new continent, but now, for the first time, I could do all these things in bed, tapping out additional commands while my eyes grew heavy and I sank closer towards sleep.

I like lists.  Let's start out with some basic enumerations.

What is Revolution missing?
* Real diplomatic states.  There are no more "Open Borders" agreements, so even if you're friendly with other civs, you won't be able to pass through their territory without triggering a war.
* Corporations (a la Beyond the Sword).
* Specialists.  (At least, I don't think you have them any more.  I'm not clear on what happens to your extra citizens beyond the number who can work the radius around your city.)
* Religion (a la Civ IV).
* Unit upgrades.  You know that Warrior you gave all those promotions to?  Yeah, he's useless now, since he's stuck as a Warrior and can't turn into a Legion or Pikeman or Infantry.  Only one single civ can upgrade their units, exactly once, by building Leonardo's Workshop.  (Helloooooooo, unbalanced Civ II wonder!  I've missed you!)
*No more workers.  I'm still torn on whether this is good or bad, but it definitely speeds up the game.  Instead of building them and moving them around, you pay cash to build roads (which only speed movement, like Civ III/IV, and don't give bonuses, like I/II), and build buildings to provide upgrades like workers would normally provide; for example, a Trading Post boosts trade in desert squares, and an Iron Mine quadruples resources from mountain squares.  Even better, some tiles get upgraded just by researching certain technologies... basically, what used to be a two-part process (learn a tech, then build an improvement on the resource) now becomes a one-part process.

What are the coolest things that Revolution adds?
* New victory conditions.  Economic requires you to make a bunch of cash, which is a great idea; commerce has always been second fiddle to the other axes in Civ, not something to pursue in its own right.  The new Cultural victory is very different from the Civ IV version - it's now based on the total number of wonders and Great People you produce, so while you can still drive towards it with a small civ, you can also get it from a broader one as well.
* Armies.  Revolution combines the armies from Civ III with the promotion system/XP from Civ IV, leading to even more complex and interesting strategies.
* One-shot bonuses.  These make the game WAY more fun, and are something I'm really hoping to see in Civ V.  If you're the first civ to research a technology, you gain a bonus.  For example, you might get 100 free gold from researching Currency, or a free Fighter for researching Flight.  You also get bonuses from other achievements; once you pass an economic milestone, for example (such as having 1000 gold in the bank), your cities might all get +1 population.  For my first play-throughs, these were surprising and a lot of fun.  Over the long run, I suspect that they'll become core pieces of players' strategies... someone might focus on investing in their economy to hit a particular bonus, then pursue a particular technological path neglected by the AI so they can earn bonuses there.
* More interesting barbarians.  Barbarians now have their own leader; you can't negotiate with him, but he'll taunt you and grudgingly admire you when you defeat him in battle.  Barbarian cities are now more closely linked to tribal villages, and both will give you rewards for taking them.
* Era bonuses.  Unlike Civ IV, which gave you all your bonuses at once (based on the leader) and a special military unit at a particular point in time, Revolution gives your civ an additional bonus with each era you enter.  These are interesting because they both encourage certain behaviors, and discourage others.  For example, I played as the Chinese; from the Ancient period, they get +1 population in each of their new cities; when I entered the Classical period, I would gain the Literacy tech for free.  Obviously, I didn't want to research Literacy during the Ancient period, even though I could have, so I pursued other avenues instead.  On the other hand, I did have a strong incentive to expand early, so I built more settlers than I would have otherwise.  I also knew that I'd be able to build half-cost libraries in the Medieval period, so I didn't build any until then.
* Named terrain.  Periodically you will enter a seemingly ordinary square, and discover, say, an especially fertile grassland.  You will earn a bonus and can choose the name of the location, such as the "Yangtzee Grassland" or the "Tibetan Grassland."
* Ancient Artifacts.  These felt kind of Alpha Centauri-ish, but more powerful.  You really want to explore early on so you can find them first, and each gives a powerful one-time reward.  There seem to be four in each game, but I'm pretty sure that there are more than four altogether, so you won't find each one in each game.  Finding Atlantis will give you a bunch of free techs.  The Knights Templar will give you a free Knights unit - if you find it early enough, you can crush anything your opponents field against you.  The Ark of the Covenant gives a free Temple in each city.  And so on... you won't know in advance what any artifact is, but they're always great to find.

I played my game as Mao of the Chinese.  I've always preferred primarily non-military strategies in Civ, and the Chinese bonuses seemed most conducive to that style of play.  I restarted a couple of times due to dumb decisions I made early on, and finally settled on a game that I liked.  In this one, I shared an enormous continent; I was in the south, the Russians were in the center east, and the Germans based in the north.  A smaller continent to the east had the Zulus in the south and the Arabs in the north.  Many islands filled out the space with some barbarian villages.

I got really lucky early on, with some bonus settlers from tribal villages.  I gradually expanded outward from my capital, trying to place each city to maximize the unique resources.  Unlike earlier Civs, you can't immediately work all 20 spaces around your city; instead, you start out with a Colonization-style small square, and can only expand out after discovering Code of Laws and building a Courthouse.  This led to some additional strategy - plant a city that can grow well now, or pick a site that can maximize long-term potential?  My choices were pretty good, except for Macao, which I stupidly planted in a spot with no hammers.  (The game will warn you if you try to build in a spot without adequate food, but apparently thinks no resources is OK.)  It grew fine and generated a ton of commerce for me, but I eventually had to pay a bunch of cash to rush build a courthouse from scratch.  After that, it grew fine.

Oh, I should have mentioned this earlier - resources are weird in this game.  (Resources in the sense of food, hammers, and trade.)  All other Civs have offered particular combinations of resources... plains have one food and one hammer, forests have one food and two hammers, sea has two trade and one food, and so on.  Here, each type of square only offers one type of resource.  Deserts only have trade, forests only have hammers, grasslands only have food.  However, with the proper resources, buildings, or technologies, you can either increase your existing output (such as going from 2 food to 5 food), or gain an additional output (such as building a harbor and getting one food in addition to your two trade).  I didn't particularly care for this setup - it seems arbitrary to limit initial output but not enforce it through improvement.  I'd rather stick with the slightly messier older system of mixed resources.  That said, once you get the hang of it, there's nothing wrong with the Revolution approach.

As usual, I dumped almost all of my trade into science.  Between my larger population base and my singleminded pursuit of knowledge, I soon reached a virtuous cycle.  I was almost always the first civ to research any tech, which gave me a bonus, which strengthened my civ, which let me focus even more on tech, which led to further bonuses, and so on. 

I also aggressively explored to get all the artifacts.  I ended up missing one - I suspect it was on the Zulu/Arab continent - but grabbed the others.  One key is to get a Galley early on.  I believe that you can build one immediately without needing any tech, and you can also get one from a barbarian village near the sea.  In keeping with their great philosophy of not making you do two things when you could just do one thing, each Galley gets a free land unit that you can use for exploration, perfect for exploring villages and claiming artifacts even though you can't attack anyone with him.  Anyways, I found one artifact on my own continent, and another on an island.  I saw Atlantis fairly early, but since it was in deep ocean, I needed to build a Galleon before I could claim it.

For most of the game, I wasn't sure what type of victory to pursue, so I just tried to play a strong all-around game.  My Cultural production was relatively low, so I didn't get any Great People for a while; on the other hand, I had enough cities that I could have one building a Wonder at any given time while the others focused on building buildings (or, occasionally, units).  (Incidentally, it took me a while to figure out, but I'm pretty sure that "happiness" and "culture" are the same thing - at least, I never found any in-screen indication of happiness despite some text referring to it, and no buildings claim to boost culture, so I suspect they are identical).

As previously noted, I focused my trade on science, but I still made impressive strides towards economic advancement.  Capturing enemy cities didn't get much money, but I collected a good chunk from all my science bonuses, named location discoveries, and other random events.  These all pushed me up the economic achievement ladder, and eventually I did build up some cities as economic powerhouses, collecting together the wonders, buildings, and Great People who would multiply my money.  (As with Civ IV, Revolution strongly encourages specialization, with each city focusing on a specialized role rather than trying to excel at all things.)

As with regular Civ games, I fought a lot of barbarians in the early years.  I captured their villages, collected rewards, and got highly promoted units as a result.  I avoided war with my civilized neighbors, though.  In one of my earlier aborted games, I learned the hard way that even well-promoted Warriors didn't have a chance at cracking enemy cities, which are almost always defended by Archer Armies.  Instead I made my peace, and tried to creep around their borders to find anything interesting on the other side.

After I finished my exploration phase and had mapped out the world, the game really sped up.  I settled my units in some strategic positions and kept tapping End Turn, with my decision-making restricted to build and research orders.  My lead over my rivals swiftly grew into an insurmountable gap.

Eventually, they got fed up with me and entered a long series of short wars.  Enemy leaders will often come to you and say things like, "We will crush you unless you give us X."  If you refuse them, they may have been bluffing and will leave you alone, or they may have been serious and will attack you.  Once again, I fell in love with the bonuses system.  I never built any military units, but still had a modern force thanks to my research rewards: I had one pikeman, one cannon, one rifleman, one battleship, and so on.  Since my cities were still relatively compact - I was based on the southern half of my continent, along with a single island outpost in Shanghai - I could move around my forces to where they were needed.  In the case of the Zulus and the Arabs, I parked my navy outside their coastal cities, and whenever they declared war on me, I started sinking their galleys and galleons.

I didn't really want to fight, so I gradually (and belatedly) build the Great Wall.  As with all other Civ games, it's supposed to force your neighbors to make peace with you, but it doesn't seem to work.  They would still attack me after I built it, and wouldn't always offer peace (other than on tribute terms) while we were at war.  The Great Wall usually becomes obsolete, so maybe that's what happened here, although I never saw any messages about obsolescence over the course of the game.  I suppose that the wall might just give you some option for peace which still can involve tribute - if so, it's a pretty dumb Wonder.

Since the Great Wall wasn't working so hot, I next researched Invention, and built Leonardo's Workshop.  Finally, all of my highly-promoted Warriors were true advanced fighters.  I stayed on good terms with the Russians throughout the game, but the Germans kept declaring war on me.  Each time I would beat back an attack from them, then take a city.  They would offer peace, I would turn them down, my Democratic government would veto the decision, and we would remain at peace for perhaps a dozen years until they attacked me again.  With this expansion I eventually captured all of the German cities except for Berlin, giving me dominance over the vast majority of my continent.

The Zulus and Arabs also regularly declared war, and at any given time during the last quarter of the game I was always at war with one or two other civs.  The Arabs and Zulus never managed a successful landing on my main continent, so it was purely a one-sided naval conflict; eventually, I did capture one of their coastal cities closest to my continent with a combination of cannon and infantry.  I just dug in there and waited out the rest of the game.

I could have won in any way, but the Cultural and Economic victories seemed most achievable.  I liked research too much to refocus on my gold, so I focused on building wonders and settling Great People.  After I had a total of 20 achievements, I started work on the United Nations.  I crossed the eighth economic milestone shortly before I finished construction.

I love winning Civ.  The final victory always risks a bit of a let-down; after you've invested several hours in a game, it has less than a minute to provide you with a suitable reward.  Revolution on the iPhone fares OK in this regard - the result isn't truly memorable like the video endings of Civ IV or the classic rundown of Civ I, but it's decent.


MINI SPOILERS

My biggest gripe is with the Great Leaders list.  This has been a staple of Civ since the first game, although it sometimes goes away.  Each presents a list of history's greatest leaders, sorted from best to worst, and shows you where you fit within that.  I think that the original Civ was topped by Solomon, then Charlemagne, then continued down through Eric the Red around 50%, and bottomed out with Neville Chamberlain, Nero, and Dan Quayle. 

Now, everyone's going to have their own opinions, and I'm not at all surprised or upset that the names on the list shift from game to game.  But the leaders on the final list are just WEIRD.  Churchill tops the list - OK, fine, he's widely admired in the US and did overcome a seemingly hopeless situation to help a declining British empire stand against an overwhelming military force.  Below him comes Thomas Jefferson.  I dislike Jefferson, but grudgingly concede that his Presidency was decent, largely because he abandoned his principles when it suited him, and in any case he's lionized here in the US, so fine.  But after that it just becomes bizarre.  Helen of Troy?  Really?  What, exactly, is she supposed to be the leader OF?  Paris's heart?  Ditto with Hannibal of Carthage.  If you were throwing together a great GENERALS list, then yeah, you might have a point, but I have yet to read a history about Hannibal's civilization, for better or for worse.


END SPOILERS

So far I've just played the one full game, but now that it's done, I know it's only a matter of time before I dive back in again.  I might try for a more aggressive game next time; Revolution does seem to promote combat over some other tactics, and it would be a good change of pace for me.

Civ V, though, looms on the horizon.  I'm extremely cautious about the game, though my caution this time is the opposite as for Civ IV.  When Civ IV was imminent, I worried because I still felt burned by Civ III.  With Civ V, I'm worried because Civ IV was so awesome.  They're talking about some pretty radical changes, and it'll be interesting to see how much it affects the game.

So far, people are talking most about the changes to unit placement and movement.  Civ V will finally switch from a grid system to a hex-based system, with 6 exits from any given space.  It will also only allow one military unit in any given space at a time: that's right, no more stacks!  In terms of troop movements, I think this will return the look of the battlefield to that in Civ I/II.  Those games allowed stacks, but since stacks were usually totally wiped out when any unit within them was defeated by an attacker, players would usually spread out their units, or pair a single defender with a single attacker.  Now, stacks won't even be possible.  This might be better than the current system, or it may be worse... we'll need to see the final product to see and formulate new strategies.

I haven't been following the development all that closely, and I'm sure we'll learn and see more as V draws closer to a release.  I hope that it turns out to be awesome and continue IV's trend towards impossibly better Civ games.  I'm not going to hold my breath for it, though... we'll see what happens.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Backpacking Memorial Day in Coe

Before the sands of my memory finish slipping through the hourglass of time, here's a record of my most successful backpacking trip to date: namely, my second backpacking trip.

I went back to Coe.  Why do anything else?  Coe is a gorgeous park, and I could easily spend a week or more in there and still not see everything. 

My motivation was largely the same as before: I had a nice, big 3-day weekend coming up and no particular plans.  I'd made a list of corrections after my previous trip and knew what I'd be doing differently.  Top of the list: bringing different footwear for water crossings.  Bringing sandals was a good idea, but I had stupidly brought leather sandals; they soaked up a ton of water on my first crossing and remained damp all three days.  This time I brought a pair of rubber flip-flops... no support at all, but infinitely more water resistant.

As it turned out, I never needed to use them.  I just had a few shallow stream crossings early on, all of which had sufficient rocks for me to hop across.  The lightweight sandals remained safely ensconced within my bag for the duration.

I'd called ahead again the day before my trip to check on conditions.  The friendly ranger said "Conditions are... well, perfect."  I began to giggle with glee.  Unusually late rainfall meant that the streams were still running.  The weather would be warm but not too hot.  I smiled, and smiled, and smiled.

Coe has three main entrances.  The majority of visitors arrive at the park headquarters, available from East Dunne Avenue in Morgan Hill.  Two other entrances, Hunting Hollow and Coyote Creek, are at the southwest of the park and are reached from an entirely different route through Gilroy.  Since my President's Day jaunt had struck into the northern center of the park, I decided to remain south for this trip.  Once again, I would focus on the deep parts of the park that could not be accessed other than by backpacking (or more uncouth forms of travel like horse or bicycle).  I would also take the plunge from designated camping to zone camping.

I started planning by looking at my good topo map and trying to figure out how far I could get in a single day.  I read some trip reports online, including one report of a loop through Redfern Pond, Kelly Lake and Coit Lake.  That sounded good, but he took two days to make it to Coit, and judging from the distances I was sure I could do it in one.  Coit seemed likely to attract more campers on what was sure to be a busier weekend, so I hunted around for a more out-of-the-way choice.  I eventually settled on the Fish and Game Pond, a water source very close to Coit Lake.  It was pretty centrally located, would be a good base camp for further hiking, would provide water, and just be a good spot in general.  Judging from the topo map, it looked like there was a flattish area near the pond, so I reasoned that I could pitch a tent there.  That's actually one of the hardest parts of zone camping, incidentally... without having been a place before, I don't have any idea where I COULD camp; I can see where there's water, but can't visualize whether the ground is decently level and has a good surface.

For planning, I was able to re-use all my gear from the previous trip, other than the aforementioned sandals.  I'd been really happy with my food the previous trip and so I repeated it, just swapping out for different flavors of Indian Fare.  I thought about getting other dried fruit as well, but nothing else looked as good as the dried apricots.  I did go with conventional, preservative-laden pita pockets from Safeway rather than the fresh and natural ones from TJ's; on my prior trip, the pitas had started looking a touch moldy by the second day.  I also picked up my first-ever bag of beef jerky, reasoning that it was the most rational way to add lightweight protein to my diet.  It turns out that (1) rational does not equal tasty, and (2) not EVERYTHING you eat on a backpacking trip tastes delicious.  I made myself eat a few pieces of jerky at meals, but didn't enjoy it.  I still have most of the bag left now, six months later.  Oh, and I also brought some chocolate.  That was a stranger reaction... I took a bite, and thought, "Mmm, that tastes good.  I don't want to eat any more."  Even though I could eat seemingly unlimited quantities of, for example, almond butter on pita bread.  I'm pretty baffled at the reason for this... I eventually decided that my body was trying to tell me something and I should pay attention to it, whether I understood it or not.

When I arrived in the Hunting Hollow parking lot, only four other vehicles were there.  Judging from the condensation on the windshields it looked like they had been there overnight.  The entrance wasn't staffed so I self-registered and paid with one of the envelopes, hoisted my pack, and struck off.

I hiked and hiked.  The first part was somewhat familiar to me, although I hadn't been there in years.  I missed my very first turn, up the Steer Ridge Trail, but fortunately there are a lot of trails in that area, and I could just pick up the next trail up the hills.  I kept diving deeper into the park, rejoicing silently with each new vista.  When I reached Kelly Lake I felt the weirdest sense of... I dunno, it felt like deja vu, even though I knew that, yes, I really had seen it before.  I just stopped and stared, drinking it in, remembering the excitement I had felt when I first saw it, and feeling the excitement I felt then.

I pressed on to Coit Lake, then took a right and headed to the pond.  I ran into a group of three fishermen hikers; we greeted each other, they asked where I was headed, and they pointed me up the hill.  I kept going.  "Oh, that can't be the Fish and Game Pond," I thought.  "It's way too small."  I kept going.  After a mile I had to admit that, yes, that had been the Fish and Game Pond, just like the fishermen had said, and so I returned.

I found a decent spot on the far side of the lake and set about pitching my tent.  It wasn't completely ideal - the spot was very visible from the trail, which I'd like to avoid, and the ground wasn't quite as flat as I had imagined - but it was still quite good.  I collapsed inside for a little while, then collected myself and headed out again.  Thanks to the longer daylight, I had more hours for exploring in the day.  I had resolved that, if I made it to camp at a decent time, I would check out Pacheco Falls, a landmark deep within the park.

I took a lot of pictures of the falls, but they don't begin to do it justice.  Wow.  "Edenic" is the word that I keep thinking of when I remember the Falls.  It's amazingly hidden, you don't have any impression of it until you enter the vale.  In there, everything is intense and peaceful and quiet and loud at the same time.  The water is incredibly clear, the vegetation impressive, the wildlife vibrant.  I carefully walked around to the far side, close to the waterfall, and soaked up the atmosphere for... I don't know how long.  When I felt full, I took a last, lingering glance around, then thoughtfully returned to camp.

My second day, I had an epic loop planned.  I would try to reach the park's eastern border, hiking along a ranch road down into a creek bed, even further east to the Dowdy Ranch, then swing back up and return to camp along (you guessed it!) a ridge.  It was a good plan, but it failed.  I missed a sharp fishhook turn when coming down to the creek, and ended up following said creek downstream for close to an hour before realizing my error.  By the time I made it back, I had to admit that I would be cutting it tight to continue my original plan.  I glumly ate lunch by the creek and then took a cut-off road back up to short-circuit my loop and get back on track, minus Dowdy Ranch.  Along the way, I realized that my originally planned route was an obscure trail, and not something I wanted to hike anyways.

So, on each trip to Coe, I vividly learned how to interpret a particular term.  On my first trip, that term had been "spring."  When I heard the word "spring," my mental image is of crystal clear water gushing from the earth or from a stone.  In reality, a "spring" in Coe is an awful, dirty, encrusted pit  that holds a stagnant collection of slimy water with hordes of bugs fouling the surface.  On this trip, the term was "obscure."  I had previously thought that "obscure" meant the road less traveled - a trail that didn't see as much traffic and so was overgrown.  In reality, "obscure" means invisible.  It's the trail that you think of, not the trail that you see.  Here, I had focused on the dotted line and imagined that I could, you know, walk on it.  Obscure trails aren't signed, so you can't know for sure where the trailheads are; similarly, there's no visible marking of a trail, so you need to bushwhack your way through if you choose to follow.  Obscure trails would be great if you were interested in orienteering, but for my style of hiking, they will be non-starters from now on.

One of the minor ironies of this leg was that, in order to account for my lost time and get back to camp safely, I ended up hiking up the hottest, steepest, least shaded portion of my entire route during the hottest part of the day.  I slipped into a minor state of delirium, my mind wandering everywhere even as my feet faithfully trudged higher and higher.  Eventually I reclaimed the high ground, and gladly turned back west to return to camp.  I came across an unsigned intersection that didn't appear on my map; I opted to take the right turn, which proved to not be the main trail but did act as a shortcut and so got me back more quickly.

This trip was much hotter than my previous one; I didn't have a thermometer with me, but I believe that it got above 80 each day, and the totally clear sky was gorgeous but did not provide even momentary cloud cover.  As a direct result of this heat, I focused much more on water, and was very glad that we had had so much late-season rain.  I couldn't be nearly as picky this time around, and quite often refilled from lakes and ponds.  With my water treatment kit, I didn't worry too much about the quality, but it still wasn't nearly as nice-looking as the fresh, cool, clear water that you get from the creeks and streams.

I took it easy that night, enjoying a full dinner and taking a slow walk at dusk between Fish and Game and Coit lakes.  I had a much better view of the sky than I had had at Lost Spring, but I felt so tired by the time the sun went down that I turned in without much star-gazing.

On my last day, I woke up at the dawn, struck the tent, and headed back out.  I dislike out-and-back routes and always prefer loops, so my return path was a bit more complex than the way out.  Along the way, I got to see virtually every water feature in the area that I hadn't already passed.  I followed the first part of my previous day's path, south along Wagon Road, then past Wasno Pond I did a little jog west and down to Tule Pond.  I took the Serpentine Trail steeply uphill back to my last ridge, then followed the Steer Ridge Road back west.  This time I stayed on Steer Ridge all the way back to Hunting Hollow, returning on the road I had originally planned to head out on.

Along the way I passed many more hikers and campers.  The second day of hiking into the park's interior had been almost entirely solitary, only crossing a few mountain bikers, but the first and third days near the entrance involved meeting many more people out for Memorial Day Weekend fun.  I didn't chat too long with anyone, but everyone seemed to be having fun... and I certainly can't blame them!

QUICK SUMMARY OF MY ROUTE

Day 1 Morning:
  • Park at Hunting Hollow
  • East along Lyman Willson Ridge Trail
  • Left up Middle Steer Ridge Trail
  • Right on Steer Ridge Road
  • Left on Willson Peak Trail
  • Left on Grizzly Gulch Trail
  • East on Dexter Trail
  • Left on Wasno Road
  • Right on Kelly Lake Trail
  • Left towards the outhouse
  • Right on Coit Road
  • Skirt the edge of Coit Lake and continue on Coit Road
  • Fish and Game Pond is to the right
  • Set up camp

Day 1 Late Afternoon:
  • East along Coit Road
  • Right on Wagon Road
  • Left on Live Oak Spring Trail
  • Left to visit Live Oak Spring, then retrace steps and continue north along Live Oak Spring Trail
  • Right on trail down to Pacheco Falls
  • Retrace steps to camp.  (Can return along Fish & Game Trail instead of Wagon Road, but this trail is obscure and you will pick up many burrs and stuff.)

Day 2:
  • East along Coit Road
  • Right at Wagon Road
  • Continue south past Wasno Pond and past Rodeo Pond
  • Left on Vasquez Road
  • Stay left to continue down Vasquez Road
(I accidentally went up Canada de Dormida creek for a long ways.  Keep your eyes sharply open - the road makes a sharp and unmarked turn to the right as you approach the creek, even though it looks like you can continue straight.)
  Following is the planned route that I did not take:
  •   Go northeast along Dormida Trail - This is an obscure road, so may be more difficult than I had thought.
  •   Turn right on Burra Burra Trail
  •   Turn left on Kaiser Aetna Road
  •   Visit Dowdy Ranch, to the right
  •   Return to the road and turn right to continue northwest
  •   Left on Hersman Pond Trail
  •   Left on Center Flats Road
Instead of the above section, I reached Center Flats Road by continuing up Vasquez Trail and turning left.  In either case, once you are heading west on Center Flats Road:
  • Turn right at Wagon Road
  • Left at Coit Road
  • Return to camp

Day 3:
  • East along Coit Road
  • Right on Wagon Road
  • Right on Wasno Road
  • Left on Tule Pond Trail
  • Left on Grizzly Gulch Road
  • Right on Serpentine Trail
  • Right on Steer Ridge Road
  • Continue straight down Steer Ridge Trail
  • Return to parking lot at Hunting Hollow