Saturday, March 25, 2017

How Far I'll Go

This is just a preliminary check-in on Mass Effect: Andromeda. I'm still very early in the game, but am enjoying it so far.


  • It looks GORGEOUS. The science-fiction design and artwork has always been a hallmark of the series, and continues to shine, from the gleaming spaceship interiors to the nebulae and black holes you encounter while flying.
  • I'm really digging the voice acting so far. I miss Jennifer Hale, of course, but Ryder sounds great, and the rest of the cast is really solid as well. Particular shout-outs to bureaucratic Salarian Kumail Nanjiani, sweet doctor Natalie Dormer, and lilting Suvi.
  • Combat feels really good. I'm still finding my feet, but the jetpack adds a great new dimension (literally!) to movement and strategy. I'm also happy that tech and biotic powers now have synergy with one another, which gives more flexibility in team composition.
  • Some excellent writing, particularly in drunken email messages.
Things I miss from the original trilogy:
  • Whenever I talk to SAM I think about EDI and get sad at the comparison.
  • So far, no character is filling the Joker role.
  • The Vortex feels like an incredibly pale imitation of the awesome clubs in the earlier games. I'm hoping that either it upgrades over time or other entertainment outlets open.
Early complaints:
  • No screenshots! I feel more stunned than upset about this. I can't believe that in the 21st century I can't easily show off a video game I'm playing. There's no built-in screenshot function (although there is a "Screenshots" folder), and Origin doesn't have a Steam-style capture option. I've been investigating some third-party alternatives (FRAPS,  Ansel), but they have limitations that crimp my process (FRAPS captures in BMP, Ansel doesn't work during conversations or cut-scenes). I suppose it's a benefit to readers of this blog, though... no more albums filled with hundreds of photos! The main thing I regret is I can't show off my Ryder, who I think looks pretty good.
  • Some of the dialog is groan-inducing... but that isn't really new for the series.
  • Multiplayer randomly crashes to desktop without any error messages. Which is a shame, because I loved the ME3 multiplayer and have been enjoying Andromeda's when it actually works.
  • Inventory management whyyyyyyyyyy. They fixed this after the first game! It's my pet peeve about RPGs, and I hate spending tons of time sorting through items in menus instead of actually playing the danged game. The fact I have to do it at all is irritating; actually processing stuff is even worse, since you need to move between multiple physical locations to equip/unequip items, remove mods, and sell items. The carry limit is so low that you need to do this after every major mission. Ugh.


That's it so far! I'm sure I'll have plenty more to say later, but in these early hours I'm really digging the game.

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Bard

Oh, yeah! I read multiple books while on vacation. Short-ish reviews:

I’ve been waiting for well over a decade for the first George Saunders novel. I never thought we would get one, but now we have! It’s really good. Lincoln in the Bardo feels stylistically different from earlier Saunders, but is absolutely rooted in his moral sensibility, the aspect of his writing I appreciate most.


The overall conceit of ghosts hanging out reminded me slightly of Doug Dorst’s Alive in Necropolis, but Lincoln in the Bardo is more clearly literary. The structure feels a bit unique: each chapter is a series of sections, most just a couple of sentences long. These are typically either fictional historical excerpts (quotes from letters, journals, or from supposed history books), or else attributed statements. The statements are usually from ghosts. (I kept thinking of them as “ghosts,” although that probably isn’t technically the best term for the bardo inhabitants.)

One interesting aspect of these statements is that they’re always outward-looking. We don’t learn much about the minister from the minister himself: we learn much more about him from the printer. And, if the printer and the minister are talking, you’ll see all the printer’s lines reported by the minister and vice-versa. It’s a small but interesting inversion: visually, much of the novel actually looks like a play, but rather than each character saying their own lines, they’re writing the lines that they have heard from the other characters.

The single most important work in describing Saunders’ work is “empathy”, and I think that’s part of the reason for this stylistic choice. The characters aren’t just important for the content of what they’re saying. It’s significant that they’re actually getting to know one another, to understand them, to realize what drives them, their hopes and fears. This extra layer of mediation is technically unnecessary, but thematically core to Saunders’ mission.

The most compelling character in the book is also the most famous: Abraham Lincoln. He’s such a larger-than-life figure in the real world that he must have been very intimidating to take on here. Saunders does a few clever things to help get at him. One is quoting a wide and contradictory set of sources describing Lincoln, from his admirers and detractors, who vehemently disagree over whether he is kind or distant, idealistic or ambitious, even the colors of his eyes. These don’t really get resolved when we directly inhabit Abraham, contributing to the sense that, like any one of us, he is a complex person.


The other major element is that we’re just seeing one particular slice of his life: a very important and gut-wrenching slice, but his mind is almost totally focused on grieving for his dead son. This private, intimate experience isn’t the sort of thing that would get written down, so it feels like we’re peering into an obscured corner of the real man’s life.

Grief dominates his thoughts: even when his mind briefly turns to politics or war, it’s colored by the tragedy he’s experiencing. The novel ends up making a very powerful and passionate statement, which I think is particularly poignant coming from someone like Saunders with strong pacifist convictions and a devotion to equality. Lincoln powerfully feels the loss of Willie, and, as he contemplates the still-burgeoning Civil War, he imagines his grief being multiplied hundreds of thousands of times. Each Union soldier he sends into battle may be killed, leaving behind parents and lovers to mourn the loss; every Confederate killed under his orders will likewise leave behind survivors, whose hearts will break even as his own is breaking.

This seems like a clear formula for indecisiveness, to pull back from the brink and take any means necessary to end the suffering. And yet, he emerges determined to stay the course, and even accelerate the war to its final conclusion. The evil of slavery is so great that it demands action to stop. Tellingly, he doesn’t conclude that the casualties will be justified or absolved by the outcome: they are still wrong, still painful. He takes that guilt upon himself, holding the simultaneous and incompatible beliefs that killing is wrong and killing is necessary. I was reminded of one of my favorite Bonhoeffer quotes: “When a man takes guilt upon himself in responsibility, he imputes his guilt to himself and no one else. He answers for it... Before other men he is justified by dire necessity; before himself he is acquitted by his conscience, but before God he hopes only for grace.”


This is a short post for such a great book. I don’t know whether we’ll get any more novels from Saunders in the future, but this was a pretty fantastic debut!


Another book that I really enjoyed but don’t have a WHOLE lot to say about: Absolutely on Music. This is the latest book from Haruki Murakami, but is very different, not just from his novels but from his other non-fiction. Unlike his pseudo-memoir on running and his reportage on the Tokyo subway sarin gas attacks, this is pure dialogue, a transcription of a series of conversations between Murakami and Seiji Ozawa, a celebrated director who conducted the Boston Symphony and many other world-class orchestras.

I’m not a music expert. I grew up in a very musical family, I was exposed to a great deal of music (including classical), and all of my family members play musical instruments, but I was never good at playing and quickly abandoned that pursuit. I do really enjoy listening to music, though. In recent years that’s been much more directed towards modern electronic music, but that early grounding in orchestral and choral performances helped give me a lot more context for the topics Haruki and Seiji discuss.

That said, I’m pretty sure the book doesn’t require any particular background to enjoy. They talk about music, but in a very accessible way: Haruki presents himself as a musical amateur (although Seiji’s afterward seems to strongly admire his breadth of knowledge), and he often has Seiji work through concepts in simple form, drawing analogies and adding color to the items they’re discussing. I really love the tone of their conversations: Murakami will posit a theory or observation, Ozawa will sometimes say “I’ve never thought about it that way before, but you are correct”, and other times say “No, I don’t think of it that way”.

Like all great conversations, this one is rooted in something concrete, but uses that as a launching pad for a variety of other topics. One particular idea that Haruki keeps coming back to is an East/West division: the challenges and opportunities of a Japanese man conducting American and European orchestras, performing European symphonies. He seems much more devoted to this idea than Seiji, who seems interested in it but not particularly reflective. But both of them do note how older Eastern concepts seem to be arising in Western performances, particularly the concept of “Ma”, a sort of deliberate silence with a long tradition in Japan.

The promotional copy for this book plays up the idea of Murakami tying together the act of composing with the act of writing, and making observations on his experience as an author. Frankly, there’s very little of that in the text. Every once in a while he will bring up something from his writing experience, but almost always as an item to contrast the conducting experience, which he seems far more interested in exploring; for his part, Ozawa is the interview subject and not the interview, and doesn’t really press Murakami with many questions of his own. They do find some common ground in their schedules - both rise early and do much of their work early in the day - but Murakami seems much more aware of their contrasts. When he writes, he leads a monk-like existence, isolating himself and working alone in pursuit of his work. In contrast, Ozawa’s profession is inherently collaborative: the whole point of a conductor is working with other people to create something together. It’s a far more social existence.

That said, the last section of the book does get at some more generalizable principals that more clearly transcend the topic of music. As Haruki observes a group of young musicians come together to rehearse and perform a series of string quartets, he makes some very poignant and insightful observations on craftsmanship, talent, ambition, humility, collaboration, and pride that seem like they would be applicable to any other artistic endeavor, or, really, any act of creation.

So, uh, yeah! This is a really enjoyable book… not especially Murakami-esque, but a great example of his personal voice, and a really fun and engaging read on its own terms. Worth picking up, even if you’re not particularly interested in classical music or Murakami.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

What I Did On My (Southern Hemisphere) Summer Vacation

I rarely post about travel on my blog, partly because I rarely travel and also because, when I do, I tend to just annotate a photo album as a retrospective. However, my recent excursion to New Zealand had enough planning and non-photographed elements that I thought it merited at least some narration. I am still doing the albums, which are at the bottom of this post and contain the bulk of coverage of my trip; the post body is more about logistics and stuff that didn’t make the captions.

So! Starting off, planning. I booked everything back in October of last year for this trip from late February through mid-March. The Milford Track (called “the greatest walk in the world” and accordingly popular) was already fully booked, but everything else was available. I actually moved my vacation dates to accommodate this, as my initial mid-to-late-February window had several filled dates on the Routeburn Track. Apart from the Great Walks, everything seemed to have enough availability, although accommodations in Queenstown looked a bit tight, and some of the best AirBNBs in Wanaka were taken during the week I was planning (although I was still very happy with where I ended up in both spots).

For packing, my checklist was a hybrid of my personal California backpacking checklist and the invaluable Young Adventuress blog post on tramping in NZ. Her list is gold and I enthusiastically recommend it. A few items in particular that I wouldn’t have brought otherwise:
  • Merino. Merino is great, and layered merino is kind of magical. I would often start the day snug in two layers, both zipped up like turtlenecks; open both when the day heated up in order to stay cool; and continue to adjust necklines and sleeves as I moved in and out of alpine elevations, All without ever donning or doffing another garment! It’s a nice upgrade over my previous layered approach, and I’ll probably be using it for other longer hikes going forwards.
  • Ear plugs and a sleep mask. I haven’t slept in a communal room in AGES, and these really helped me quickly go to sleep in the tramping huts. They don’t block out everything, but soften all the distractions, which, combined with the natural exhaustion of a full day of walking, did the trick.

Here was my high-level itinerary:
Day 1: Arrived in Queenstown. Dropped off my bags at my lodging, spent the day wandering the city and acclimating. Vehicular and pedestrian traffic moves on the left. Jetlag helps me go to sleep early.
Day 2: Pick up my rental car, drive to Te Anau, pick up my Kepler Track hut passes from the Department of Conservation in Fiordland National Park Visitors Center, eat lunch by the lake, drive to the Lake Te Anau Control Gates Car Park, walk to the Luxmore Hut.
Day 3: Walk from the Luxmore Hut to Iris Burn Hut.
Day 4: Walk from the Iris Burn Hut to Moturau Hut.
Day 5: Finish the Kepler Track, drive to Tuatapere. Check in to my lodgings, shower, eat some nice meals, pick up the Hump Ridge Track pass, scenic drive to Riverton.
Day 6: Drive to the Rarakau Car Park, walk to Okaka Lodge.
Day 7: Walk from Okaka Lodge to Port Craig Lodge.
Day 8: Finish the Hump Ridge Track, drive back to Te Anau, check into my AirBNB, pick up the Routeburn Track hut passes from the DOC at the Visitors Center, pick up my Easyhike car relocation lockbox, shower, have a nice meal, do laundry.
Day 9: Drive up to Milford Sound, stopping at a few scenic spots along the way. Cruise in the Milford Sound. Drive back down to The Divide Car Park, walk to Lake Mackenzie Hut.
Day 10: Walk from Lake Mackenzie Hut to Routeburn Falls Hut.
Day 11: Finish the Routeburn Track at the Routeburn Shelter. Retrieve my relocated car, visit Glenorchy, drop off the lockbox, eat a nice meal, drive to Wanaka, check in to my AirBNB, shower, visit the farmers' market.
Day 12: Walk to Roys Peak and Mount Alpha. (If I’d had one more day, I would have tried to squeeze in Rob Roy Glacier or some other Mount Aspiring hike here.)
Day 13: Have a massage, relax, read.
Day 14: Drive back to Queenstown airport, depart.

I was super-happy with how everything worked out and don’t have any major regrets. Logistically, it might have made more sense to do Hump Ridge -> Kepler -> Routeburn to minimize driving, but there wasn’t that much overhead, the scenery was nice, and it was kind of a treat to have the Hump Ridge’s more comfortable accommodations at the midpoint of my trip.

I do kind of wish I’d spent more time investigating rental-car alternatives. Apart from airfare, the car was my single biggest expense of the trip, which seems dumb since it spent most of the time sitting in car parks while I was off backpacking. I did really appreciate the flexibility of arriving and departing when I wanted without needing to worry about shuttle schedules. But, if I were to do this again, I’d look a bit more to see if there are any other options available, like private car service to/from the trailheads or something.

I didn’t meet many other Americans during the trip (except while on the Milford Sound cruise). On the Great Walks, I’d estimate that roughly 1/3 of the walkers were Kiwis, 1/3 were Australians, and 1/3 from the rest of the world, with France and Germany particularly well-represented. I’d felt like two full weeks on vacation was a bit of a splurge, but everyone else reacted with horror after asking how long I was visiting for. “That’s much too short!” they would all exclaim. Most people I spoke with who visited from Europe had come for six weeks, and some were as part of even longer trips. Which is a very long and round-about way of saying that I probably would have planned and executed the trip differently if I’d been there for so long. Spending a single day managing shuttle busses at the end of a one-way hike wouldn’t be as big of a deal in a month-plus vacation as it would be in a two-week vacation. I’m probably reading too much into this, but it’s tempting to generalize: Americans, with higher productivity but lower vacation time, are happier to spend more money to maximize their leisure time, while Europeans are content to simply take more time.

One nice aspect of the driving, though, was prolonged exposure to even more beautiful parts of New Zealand. My routes were incredibly scenic, often driving through long narrow valleys, alongside rolling fields and small farms, with occasional flocks of sheep grazing in the near distance, while mountains dramatically rise just beyond them. I do regret not taking photos during this time (I was too busy driving!), but it was a definite highlight. This video gives a pretty good idea of what the terrain looks like:

Prior to the trip, I was mildly worried about driving, having never operated a vehicle on a left-side road before. It ended up working out really well, for a variety of reasons. I was glad to have included a buffer day between getting off an airplane and hopping behind the wheel of an automobile. The roads in New Zealand are very well maintained, with smooth asphalt and no potholes that I encountered. They’re also a lot simpler than the roads I’m used to… this might be different in larger cities, but even in Queenstown, the busiest street was only two lanes wide (total), and I encountered almost no stop lights (only two in Queenstown). After leaving town, traffic grows even sparser, and it wasn’t unusual for me to drive fifteen minutes or more without encountering a single vehicle in either direction. There aren’t any passing lanes, but, again, traffic is so light that it wasn’t a problem: just wait for a clear stretch of road and then pass on the right. (There are also occasional pullouts for slower traffic in twistier / more mountainous areas, and people are pretty good about using them.) It felt a bit weird to adjust to sitting on the right side of a car, and early on I tended to overcompensate by driving too close to the left edge of the road, but after a day or two I had pretty much subconsciously adjusted my understanding of the car’s footprint under me.

There were a few unique challenges to handle. New Zealand’s roads are very narrow, without any breakdown lanes, and outside of town not even a shoulder, giving even less margin of error for uncertain drivers. Also, several of the specific trailheads I drove to were at the end of longish unsealed roads, so a fair amount of driving was over gravel. This probably isn’t a novelty for folks who grew up in more rural areas, but for a city-driver like me, it was a little nerve-wracking at first.

Again, though, the fact that traffic is so light alleviates all these issues. Even some of the “problems” end up being kind of fun. For example: sometimes roads (even highways) will just close down while ranchers herd their stock across in order to graze on another pasture. The thought of doing this in California seems INSANE to me, but was kind of delightful when I encountered it here: even at the end of the closure, I’d be one of just one or two waiting vehicles, so it isn’t like things get madly backed up.

I won’t recap any of the commonly-available info about visiting New Zealand, but here are a few random logistical things I had wondered about ahead of time and confirmed after arrival:

I’d been planning on picking up a SIM card for my stay, but it turns out that my T-Mobile plan worked there. After landing in Auckland and turning on my phone, I got a text message from T-Mobile welcoming me to New Zealand and stating that my plan would give me free unlimited texts, free unlimited 2G data (with an option to purchase faster data), and phone calls at 20 cents per minute. In practice, I was always roaming (with Vodafone) and never had access to data, but that was fine… the whole point of this trip was to unplug! I had my phone turned off for most of the trip, but on the few times I turned it on in town (Queenstown, Te Anau, Tuatapere, Wanaka), I always had coverage.

I splurged on Air New Zealand business class seats, and was super-happy with them. I was able to sleep, which I’ve never been able to do on an airplane before. (You can learn more about this and other tips in my upcoming new book, “Privilege: Life Gets Easier With More Money”.) The crew was friendly and attentive, food and drink excellent. The seat comes with a little comfort bag; on the way over, it included lip balm, skin moisturizer, a small sleep mask, and a toothbrush (but no toothpaste). On the return flight, it swapped out the toothbrush for an ink pen. Business class tickets grant entry to the Air New Zealand lounges. I didn’t use these on my flight over, but did on the return. Surprisingly tasty and generous food and libations in there, along with fast wifi.

One thing I’d been a bit unclear on was the whole card/chip/pin situation. My ATM/Debit card just has a stripe, not a chip, but I was able to use it in an airport ATM without any issues. I took out 200 (New Zealand) dollars, which ended up being way too much… I think there was only one place I went that didn’t accept credit cards (their reader was down), and other than that would have just wanted some coinage for laundry and donation boxes. If I were to do it again, I would have just taken out 50 and broken it early on; as it was, I made an effort to do all my purchases in cash near the end of the trip, and still had a good amount left over for American-style tipping.

Both of my credit cards have chips but not PINs. Almost everyone used the same model of reader to take cards, and it was really straightforward: I would insert the card, press the button that says “CRD” (usually the third option). It would print out a receipt, which the merchant would have me sign. Boom, done! I’m really looking forward to the US converting to the whole chip-plus-PIN system, but in the meantime, it looks like the cards are interfacing fairly smoothly.

A lot of New Zealand operates on the honor system, which is really sweet to see. One small example: while walking down the street of Te Anau, I passed a box lying on the lawn next to the sidewalk. I casually looked in, wondering whether someone had left out some rubbish, and kept on walking. A few seconds later, a delayed message bubbled up in my brain. “Are… are they selling fruit?!” I reversed course and peered into the box. Yup - there was a nice little handwritten sign and neatly-written prices on a variety of jars and ziplock bags. $5 for homemade plum jam, $2 for a good-sized bag of fresh plums. Feeling almost guilty (that was a crazy good price!), I dropped in some gold coins and picked up a bag. They were DELICIOUS, possibly the best fruit I had on the trip, and lasted me for much of my final week: smallish, but wonderfully sweet, with a very slightly tart aftertaste. I was still amazed that the owner would have just left out a box filled with money all day long on a decently-well-traveled street… but I guess the culture there is secure enough to not need to worry overmuch about theft!

The Great Walks huts that I stayed in were all booked in advance, but, as I learned from my last hut warden on the trip, there are a LOT more huts in the country, the vast majority of which are first-come, first-served. The normal process is that people will purchase Hut Tickets in advance, then put them in the “honesty box” at the front of the hut when they arrive. Most huts don’t have wardens, so it’s largely up to the walkers to police each other. As he told it, though, other New Zealanders were the most likely to try and skip on paying for their hut stays… and Australians are the best at calling them out on it. I dunno, I found that amusing.

So, yeah. There were a ton of highlights on the trip, but one unexpected highlight were the nightly chats with the wardens. Everyone who was staying in a hut would gather in the eating area after supper, and, around 7:30-8-ish, the warden would address the group. There were a couple of constants: they would always discuss fire safety and and give an update on the following day’s weather forecast and track conditions. But what impressed me most was just how different each of the talks were. They varied tremendously in length and topic and style, each one very obviously reflecting the passions of the speaker. A quick recap of my experiences:

My very first stay, at the Luxmore Hut, may have been the best overall talk. Our warden was Peter Jackson (!!), a terrific older gentleman who reminded me a little of John Muir. He gave a long and discursive talk that included information on identifying various local birds (with impressive reproductions of their birdsongs with his flute); environmental challenges in the area; human history, and so on. He used a surprising number of props and was very funny, but not at all zany: he had a wonderfully dry, understated sense of humor.

The skies that evening were perfectly clear, and he offered to lead a stargazing session with his laser pointer later that night, which I eagerly joined. Viewing the Southern Hemisphere constellations had been a secondary but still important goal of my trip. As we waited for dusk to fall, I wandered around outside the hut and spotted Peter further up the hill, playing his flute as the sun set. Odd and beautiful. Around ten o’clock, a dozen or so of us laid out on the ground and stared up into the sky as Peter used his laser pointer to indicate areas of interest: constellations, galaxies, nebulae, more. It was cool to finally see the Southern Cross (it looks different than I’d imagined!), and I was surprised to realize that constellations are reversed below the equator - we had a good view of Orion, but he was standing on his head. This talk was also very interesting as well, with commentary about the distance of various bodies, how long it took light from those stars to reach us, and any significance they had held for early navigators or other humans. The eventual, gentle thesis he laid out was that, while the universe is a beautiful place, Earth is really the only planet that we have access to. We need to take care of it, because we can’t just leave and find a home on another star.

The next night, at the Iris Burn hut, our warden was Robbie, a very friendly if slightly harried man who was leading a desperate defense against an onslaught of kea. Every single ranger we met obviously loved birds, but Robbie might have been the most passionate, and the bulk of his talk was describing the specific birds that lived near the hut. (Not particular bird SPECIES - individual, named birds). I grew to really love the rootedness and sense of place with these huts… Peter has been a hut warden at Luxmore for 25 years, and Robbie at Iris Burn for 15, so they don’t just know the areas well, but can also speak to the history of changes in the area.

Robbie’s most compelling anecdotes revolved around those entertaining, exasperating kea. These are alpine parrots, the only ones in the world and only found on the South Island in New Zealand. They are endangered, but are also extremely clever and have totally figured out humans. They have learned how to operate zippers on backpacks, so people who leave their packs unattended might return to discover that they’ve been robbed. Robbie told us about one tramper who was sitting down eating a snack when he saw a kea just a little ways ahead of him. He got out his camera and approached. Kea have figured out that people like taking pictures of them, and this particular one hopped back just a short distance. The man followed, hoping for a better shot, just to have the kea move slightly further out of range. Then, after determining that the man had been led far enough away, the kea flew up and over his head, snatched his bag of nuts, and flew away.

Another time, two people were sitting on a bench near Iris Burn, eating their lunch when they saw a kea doing a little dance for them. They were so enchanted by the jig that they failed to notice the kea’s accomplice sneaking up behind them, stealing their food while they were distracted by its friend.

Kea aren’t just hungry: they’re also mischievous, and will mess with things just for fun. Robbie’s current struggle was a nightly invasion from kea, who would pick up the boots that trampers are required to leave outside the huts and tear them apart, leaving people to walk out in their stockinged feet or sandals the next day. So, we all needed to tie our bootlaces together and hang them from coat hooks on the outside walls. This was apparently effective in thwarting the kea, although the relief might be short-lived: Robbie was distressed to have heard that, on the Milford Track, kea have even learned how to get boots down from those hooks.

I didn’t make this connection at the time, but in retrospect, hearing this ongoing saga of escalating wildlife encounters reminded me of the similar struggle with bears in Yosemite and other California parks. Like kea, bears have learned to view humans as a source of food; for our part, we’ve eventually learned that we need to adapt human behaviors rather than try to control bear behaviors, and have gone through a series of preventative measures (locked containers, suspending food between trees) that bears have eventually overcome (smashing, sending cubs through the canopy), before eventually landing on a solution that seems to work (bear cans). Obviously, bears and parrots are physically very different, but black bears and kea both have intelligence roughly equivalent to a three-year-old human child, which can be quite a lot when they want something you have.

I never did see a kiwi bird on this trip, but greatly enjoyed Robbie’s description of the kiwi who live in the vicinity of the hut. One of them, who he calls “Grandma”, has lived there for many years; she used to have a partner, but, Robbie theorizes, he might have run off with a younger woman. There are also two younger males who live further from the hut but occasionally hunt in the area at night.

The third night at the Moturau hut we heard from Headley. His talk was shorter, since we had all heard the safety spiels from the previous two nights, but it was still really interesting: it focused on Lake Manapouri, the beautiful lake near the hut, which was the flashpoint for massive protests back in the early 1970s. As part of a hydroelectric power scheme, there was a proposal to raise the level of the lake by some thirty meters, which would have covered much of the land we had traveled through. This sparked a significant environmental movement, protesting against the proposal and other perceived threats to New Zealand’s natural beauty. Headley told us that many of the “old-timers” in the Department of Conversation got started as activists back then.

Eventually, a compromise was reached: the lake level still rose, but only by about two meters instead of the proposed ten. The hydroelectric station was built and still provides (clean, renewable) power to much of the country. A lot of the activists became rangers and hut wardens, safeguarding the environment from within the government rather than fighting for its defense from without.

It was an interesting story, and felt particularly resonant to me in light of the blooming protest movement in the US. One thing that occurred to me is that there really hasn’t been any indication of acceptable compromise from either side: both on the policy-making and the protesting side, the situation is always framed in extremely stark terms that don’t allow for the possibility of mutual agreement. I’m not saying that they necessarily SHOULD - I personally don’t feel like women’s rights or freedom of religion are the sort of things that should be negotiated away - but it still struck me as a big difference between the two situations. It did make me wonder whether this is primarily a reflection of the difference between American and Kiwi culture, or a sign of the increasingly polarized global times, or something else. Or nothing else!

The Hump Ridge track was interesting: it’s technically run by a private charitable trust, and not by the Department of Conservation, but mostly lies within Fiordland National Park. Trampers stay at lodges instead of huts, and the lodges were noticeably more comfortable: they even provide pots and pans and other cookware, along with comfy couches and seats in the common areas. There wasn’t an equivalent of the “hut talks” here, but I had much more interaction with the lodge managers than with the hut wardens: they would hang out in the common area for much of the time, chatting with the trampers and answering any questions we had.

At the Lake Mackenzie Hut, Evan gave a great talk, which was also probably the longest of the trip (which he announced in advance, giving people permission to leave after covering the essential safety information). He described himself as the “oldest apprentice” in the park service: he’s been the hut warden at Lake Mackenzie for fifteen years, but his counterpart has served for twenty-five and shows no sign of retiring. Like all the other wardens, Evan was passionate about birds, but he was also spearheading an effort to help save them. He comprehensively described the immense damage that invasive mammalian species have posed to native birds: we’d heard bits of this before, but Evan was particularly detailed and vivid in his description of the threat. He contrasted Captain Cook’s historic description of the symphony of birdsong heard in New Zealand hundreds of years ago with the almost total silence one hears today. After being posted on the Routeburn Track, Evan fought for the introduction of more traps to capture and kill predators: thanks to generous donations from trampers like me, he has been able to expand the program, creating a defensive ring of traps from the treeline down to the river, and has been delighted to notice a small but gradual increase in birdsong in recent years as the population slowly recovers.

It was really cool to hear such a passionate first-person account. I was reminded of a New Yorker article that I’d read years before about New Zealand’s passion for eliminating mammals from their lands. At the time it had put me in mind of the “Whacking Day” episode of The Simpsons. Actually being in New Zealand gave me a newfound appreciation for the immensity of the task, and the benefit it would bring.

The last day, at the Routeburn Falls hut, we had a relatively green hut warden - I don’t remember his name, but he was from Tasmania (officially part of Australia, although he said he felt a greater affinity with New Zealand). He gave a shorter talk that was more focused on the services offered by the DOC and the specific duties of hut wardens (including distressing tasks like retrieving items improperly flushed down the toilet and pumping out waste for extraction and disposal).

The hut facilities themselves were nice and made for a notably different experience compared to the California backpacking that I’ve done previously. The biggest change is just bringing less gear along: you still bring a sleeping bag (and probably a pillow), but can skip the tent, pad, and ground cover. They also have gas burners, so you don’t need to bring a stove, but honestly this didn’t make that big of a difference… modern stoves and isobutane fuel is really compact and lightweight. I actually found the gas burners a bit confusing and frustrating to operate, until some kindly trampers demonstrated the proper technique to me after a few days. There are written instructions in the kitchen, but I thought they were underwritten, so here’s my version.
  1. Follow the propane pipe from the back of the burner to the wall. Most stoves will include levers here to control the flow of fuel. If there is one, ensure it is turned parallel so it points in the direction of the pipe. When you’re done, you can rotate it 90 degrees to cut off the flow.
  2. Press in on the knob. Important: Continue holding down the knob through all of the following steps!
  3. Light your lighter or strike your match.
  4. Rotate the knob 90 degrees so the dot is pointing left. This puts fuel at the maximum output level. You may or may not hear a slight hissing at this point.
  5. Move your lighter near the burner so the flame is a couple of inches from the output.
  6. Wait a few seconds.
  7. The stove should ignite. Remove the lighter and extinguish it if you want, but do not let go of the knob yet!
  8. Continue holding in the knob. 10 seconds seems like a good interval.
  9. Release the knob. Hopefully the flame will remain. If it goes out, restart from step 2, but keep holding it in even longer.
  10. If you continue having problems, just move to another burner - some don’t seem to work as well.
  11. Adjust the intensity of the flame by making minute adjustments to the knob. The flame will go out well before you turn it all the way down, so be careful. I think the ideal is to adjust the flame radius so it’s just slightly smaller than the base of the pot you’re using.
  12. (Etiquette): Once you’re done, check if there’s anyone else in the vicinity who seems like they might be preparing to cook, and offer to transfer your lit burner to them - this is always appreciated! Also, if you’ve been boiling water and don’t need all of it, you can offer it to neighbors. Otherwise, turn off the flame by turning the knob back up to the 12 o’clock position, and optionally cut off the fuel by turning the lever.

The above instructions are for the most common type of burner I encountered. A few huts will have some newer burners, with larger knobs on the side of the range instead of at the front. These are self-lighting! You can turn the knob all the way to the end, which will start audibly clicking as it tries to light (almost exactly like lighting the burner on a gas stove). I really like these burners and used them whenever available; the one slight problem is that it isn’t very clear which knob corresponds with which burner, but it’s easy enough to move a pot.

One hut had larger and more old-fashioned-looking burners, with dark black ridges to support pots instead of the more common aluminum grills. These have larger knobs below the burners. These mostly work like the standard gas burners, but will actually produce two “rings” of flame. When lighting, you want to ignite the “outer” ring, closer to the edge of the burner; if you only ignite the inner ring, near the center, it will go out after releasing the knob, no longer how long it burns.

Okay! That was a ridiculous number of words to spend on “how to make food hot”, but if it helps even one tramper fill their belly with a nourishing meal at the end of a long day of walking, I’ll consider it worthwhile.

As long as I'm covering boring hut stuff, though: this is probably old news to people who have spent a lot of time in hostels or backpacker cabins before, but since it was a new experience for me, I quickly developed and refined an unpacking and packing system. The goal was to minimize annoyance to fellow travelers and optimize the ease of getting to sleep at night and up in the morning. Here's the system that I ended up with:
  1. Claim a bunk as soon as you arrive. You don't need to sign up right away, just dump something on it to show that you've taken it. But in practice, I usually go ahead and set everything up right away, so I won't need to worry about it later.
  2. Dump everything out of my pack. This is essential, since my sleeping bag is on the bottom. I usually found it easiest to dump everything onto the mattress, but when sleeping on the top bunk with limited overhead space, it might be more convenient to do it on the floor in front of the bed.
  3. Roll out the sleeping bag onto the mattress. I would also fashion my pillow, which I do with a lightweight pillowcase and various items like dirty clothes and a bunched-up camp towel.
  4. Sort all items into three sections: items for tonight, items for the morning, and everything else.
  5. Things in the "everything else" category can just go straight back into the back. They'll need to be dumped out again in the morning (because of putting the sleeping bag back in the bottom), so I don't spend any time or thought in their position.
  6. My personal "Tonight" gear includes a mouth guard, sleep mask, and earplugs. I started off with these in a plastic bag, but later transferred them to a drawstring bag since it was a lot quieter to open and close. I also lay out my toiletries, which I keep in a ziplock bag that includes toothbrush, toothpaste, and deodorant.
  7. When I get the opportunity, I'll swap out my hiking briefs for sleeping boxers and my hiking long-sleeve for a sleeping short-sleeve. Even the colder huts get very warm when 30+ people are sleeping inside, so lightweight is good. I would typically change right in the room - people are super-relaxed about changing, even in a coed sleeping situation. I'll continue wearing my hiking pants and possibly my fleece, but this way I can easily just strip off those outer garments and crawl right into my sleeping bag at any time.
  8. Food supplies deserve a special mention. Most of the Great Huts kitchens have a significant amount of shelf space available (often under the burners); if so, I preferred keeping my pots and food in there. That didn't just save me from carrying things back and forth, but also prevented the inevitable clanking of pots when fumbling around at night or in the morning while others are trying to sleep. In a few huts, there was little enough space in the kitchen that I didn't want to take it up, in which case I would lay out the dining gear below my bunk.
  9. "Morning" items include the next day's clothes (underwear, shirt). Possibly also oatmeal (if I'm not storing that in the kitchen).
  10. All of the above are sorted in a place where I can easily remember and locate them in the dark. For example, evening might be under the bunk near my pillow and morning midway down the bunk. The pack can go anywhere.
  11. That's it! It will now take just about 5-10 seconds to get into bed at night, and about 30 seconds to get up in the morning, without any peering through items or rustling around. By the time I've finished breakfast and my morning ablutions, enough other people will have stirred that I can commence repacking.
  12. Repacking is, well, just the same as how you packed in the first place. Again, I find it helpful to dump everything on the mattress and put everything in the pack, building up from the bottom to the top.

This was an awesome trip, and I still can’t claim to “know” New Zealand. I basically spent the entire vacation inside or near two national parks (Fiordland and Mount Aspiring), really just seeing the southwest corner of the South Island. And during that time I mostly encountered other tourists, with just a few native Kiwis encountered. That said, I did really enjoy getting to know folks and getting a better ear for their outlook and language. They use many of the Britishisms with which I am familiar, but I also picked up on a couple of phrases that seem fairly unique to them.
Right Around (“Right ‘round”): Frequently used while giving directions, describing a movement from Point A to Point B. Often but does not always includes a turn.
Friendly (“Frindly”): Same meaning as in American English, but heard much more frequently. Always used in a positive sense.

And FINALLY, here are the pictures! As long as this post is, the photos are the real heart of the trip documentation, covering the best elements of my journey. Quite a few have captions, but even more stand securely on their own.


Te Anau Part 1

Kepler Track, Day One (Control Gates to Luxmore Hut)

* Kepler Track, Day Two (Luxmore Hut to Iris Burn Hut)

Kepler Track, Day Three (Iris Burn Hut to Moturau Hut)

Kepler Track, Day Four (Moturau Hut to the Control Gates)

South Coast (Riverton and points west)

Hump Ridge Track, Day One (Rarakau to Okaka Lodge)

* Hump Ridge Track, Day Two (Okaka Lodge to Port Craig Lodge)

Hump Ridge Track, Day Three (Port Craig Lodge to Rarakau)

Te Anau Part 2

* Milford Road 

* Milford Sound

* Routeburn Track, Day One (The Divide to Lake Mackenzie Hut)

* Routeburn Track, Day Two (Lake Mackenzie Hut to Routeburn Falls Hut)

Routeburn Track, Day Three (Routeburn Falls Hut to Routeburn Shelter)


Roys Peak and Mount Alpha

Asterisks indicate my favorite sections. I think they're all good, but I'm biased!

Bonus: A couple of videos for true 360 views from two of my favorite peaks.

Conical Hill on the Routeburn Track. WARNING: Mute your sound before playing! It was very windy up there, which apparently drove my camera microphone insane!

Mount Alpha near Wanaka.

Friday, March 17, 2017


This is the first of two non-video-game-related posts. But the new Mass Effect comes out next week, so expect a return to form shortly!

I was fortunate enough to catch a preview performance of Hamilton’s national tour, shortly before the official opening in San Francisco. I’ve been fairly obsessed with this show since the cast recording was first released, listening to it a frankly ridiculous number of times. This was my first time actually seeing a staged production, although I’ve devoured tons of info from the original broadway cast including all promotional clips, award show appearances, #Ham4Ham shows, talk show appearances, etc.

While this was officially a preview, it seems to be running really well already. (Which makes sense - I know this cast has been rehearsing for quite a while.) I think there was one point where Burr’s microphone was just a fraction of a second slow in getting turned on. Stuff like that just reinforces to me how crazily tight and intricate this show is - it’s incredibly dense, and while it doesn’t call attention to its technical underpinnings, it’s a huge feat to just keep everything in sync: the sound, choreography, cues, chairs, lights.

Bottom line up front: I loved the show! I couldn’t help comparing it to the OBC, and much of the below post will be my reflections on this. It’s definitely a different beast: the actual lyrics and (from what I can tell) set and staging are identical, but each of the principal characters are owning and remaking their roles anew, which can significantly shift not only the feel but the underlying message of the show.

The most obvious change is definitely the title role. Michael Luwoye is a totally different take on Hamilton from either Miranda or Muñoz. He is INTENSE, raw ambition: he displays a strong hunger to be recognized, to leave a mark on the world. Miranda is a bit like a puppy dog, awed at what he discovers and eager to make friends. Muñoz is the “sexy Hamilton,” charming and gliding his way upward. Luwoye is focused, driven.

One side-effect of this is that the romantic relationships seem paler. I didn’t sense a whole lot of chemistry between him and the various women he encounters. The strongest tie is with Angelica, and you get the sense that that’s driven very much by her wit and prospects, not so much her (substantial) beauty. The encounter with Maria Reynolds is still powerful, but he seems stunned by what’s happening rather than lost or drawn astray. And the Laurens tie seems to have been dropped altogether (which, to be fair, isn’t really present in the script and relies on direction and actors anyways).

On the other hand, I much more strongly felt Hamilton’s tie to Philip here. There’s genuine fondness, and I also think it makes sense if you think of this Hamilton as being primarily obsessed with his legacy: Philip literally is that legacy, the part of him that will continue into the future. Likewise, Hamilton’s tie with Washington felt particularly important here.

Isaiah Johnson as Washington was INCREDIBLE. I enjoyed his first entrance during “Right Hand Man” (which might be my personal favorite song of the show). My initial reaction was, “Huh, he sure has a different voice from Chris Jackson. He’s more raw and powerful, not as polished and smooth as Jackson. It’s still a great voice, just doing something different.” And then, once “History Has Its Eyes On You” started and buttery notes began emerging from his throat, I realized: “Oh! He can sing any way he wants to!” It was really fantastic, and one of the parts that elevated this above the OBC for me - don’t get me wrong, I love Chris, but this was such a cool dramatic tool and journey. When we first meet Washington, he’s desperately trying to keep the country alive and bound together with his pure strength of will and presence, so of course he has a rougher and more commanding voice. Later, as he transitions from soldier to president, he exchanges his military skills for political skills, growing smoother and sweeter. It gets better and better throughout the show, reaching an apotheosis in a jaw-dropping performance of “One Last Time”. I found myself desperately wishing that there was more Washington in the show - for as important as he is in the story, he isn’t actually on stage all that much, and I loved his charisma and voice whenever he appeared.

Another principal who may have elevated the original was Emmy Raver-Lampman. She was an ensemble member in the original cast, and is now the touring Angelica. Keep in mind that Renee was probably my favorite member of the OBC (along with Daveed), so it means a lot when I say that Emmy might be even better than her. Satisfied was… transcendent. I got chills. She nailed her own, new notes, ending in a crescendo that left the whole audience amazed.

One fun part of actually SEEING the musical is coming to realize just how involved everyone is throughout the show. Cast members who do not sing are still present in many scenes: the Schuyler Sisters observe Hamilton and his crew as they gallivant about New York City, and Washington has his eye on Hamilton as he starts agitating against the British. Angelica continues to observe events from across the ocean, and even King George takes note of the Election of 1800.

The one role that felt like a step down from the OBC was Lafayette/Jefferson. There's nothing wrong with the new guy - he's probably a better technical singer than Daveed, and was able to pull off all the raps, including the crazy bars in "Guns and Ships" and "Washington On Your Side." I think Daveed is just a remarkably original charisma, and it'll be really hard to find anyone who compares to that.

I should probably stop comparing everyone one-by-one... in general, I thought everyone was fantastic, trying to do something different and creating something good. Rubén Carbajal was shockingly sweet and believable as little boy Philip. Joshua Henry as Burr and Solea Pfeiffer as Eliza both seemed more introverted than their originators: they both come across as reserved and somewhat unknowable early on, which makes their eventual emotional outbursts all the more striking. Amber Iman was a GREAT Peggy, and also a terrific new Maria; this interpretation is much more clearly a woman in trouble who needs help, not a seductress (which, again, is a much more powerful figure for this version of Hamilton, so much more concerned about his impact on the world than his personal happiness). Mathenee Treco was FANTASTIC, another member who I thought might have elevated the original: his Mulligan is still really funny, but also a lot more slick and charming; his Madison seems more of an equal with Jefferson (albeit still sickly) instead of being a toady. Oh, and I thought Rory was fantastic as King George III - I'd heard some mixed things after he joined the Broadway cast, but he OWNED this role, reliably cracking up the audience and pulling off really funny moves in each appearance.

So: One major aspect of this production, as I keep noting, is how each of the principals were clearly doing their own thing and not just imitating the OBC. This includes their physical appearance: not just body shape and complexion, but also hairstyles; the iconic ponytails from Broadway are nowhere to be found. Given this, I was slightly surprised to see that, within the ensemble, they seemed to be recreating the looks of specific individuals from the original company. You could see clear doppelgangers for Carleigh Bettiol, Betsy Struxness, Thayne Jasperson, and other OG dancers. Same body shapes, costumes, haircuts, etc. Even Emmy, who is now a principal, had her own mini-Emmy. I'm definitely not complaining, just thought that was interesting.

The audience was terrific: rapt during the show, giving enthusiastic applause at the appropriate times but not, like, singing along or anything uncouth like that. (One other small semi-technical thing: I'm pretty sure that they cut out the record scratch after "Immigrants: We get the job done!", or else maybe people were a bit slow in reacting, but the audience response definitely stepped over the next bar or two of lyrics.)

I hung around the stage door after the show. More than half of the principal cast came out, led by Rory. Everyone was very generous, making a real connection with people, answering questions, and gracefully joining in selfies when asked. I was a little disappointed that Emmy didn't make the rounds, since she was the person I most wanted to meet, but still: I got to spend a few seconds with Hamilton and Washington and Peggy and Eliza and George and Philip and a few folks from the ensemble, hooray! (I think one of them was Jennifer Geller, but can't quite make out the signature - whoever she was, she was a particularly great dancer!) There weren't too many people hanging around for autographs; I'm curious if that's just not as much of a thing in SF as in Broadway. Personally, I haven't ever done it before, but was really glad to have stayed and met the actors... it's a different thing, but I think I've been somewhat prepared by my attendance at author signing events, so I now prepare a nice, short, specific compliment for each person. (I was NOT prepared enough to bring a Sharpie, though - fortunately most actors have their own, and other people in the crowd were happy to share theirs.)

So, yeah! This show is awesome. I'll be seeing it at least once more, and expect to pick up on even more the next time around - I'm still struck by just how dense it is, not only lyrically but in staging. Tickets are, of course, ridiculously expensive, but I've been really encouraged to see that they're continuing the tradition of putting on shows for public-school students and also reserving the best seats in the house for $10 lottery winners. I'll be entering daily!