Thursday, September 29, 2005

We built this city on rock and roll

In this post, I will first reminisce about the impact Sid Meier's Civilization series has had on me, and then I will share my thoughts about the upcoming Civilization 4.

Civ wasn't my first love in computer games, but it came close. I'm sure that it was the first time I had spent that much on a game; up until then (circa 1992) all my games were hand-me-downs, gifts, or the occasional $5 cheapie demo disc from Software, Etc. Looking back, I'm curious what made me decide to buy it. I hadn't really dabbled in strategy games before, with the exception of "Castles", and all of my favorite games were Sierra-style adventures. I do remember getting an enthusiastic recommendation from a childhood friend, most likely Doug Hawkins, that moved me to purchase it, even though I don't think I'd ever seen it being played before.

My memory is actually pretty bad, but I can still vividly remember the visceral joy I got out of opening the box. This was in the good old days of PC game packaging, when they didn't cut corners in putting together attractive packages. It may not have had a cloth map like Ultima, but it had a beautiful manual with one of my all-time favorite covers, a black-on-black painting that showed a modern skyline with a pharaoh lying below it. There was also the Tech Tree, a long and sturdy poster showing the process of human knowledge. The contents of the manual were also great, filled with academic trivia and nuggets of political theory.

For those of you who haven't played Civilization before, let me fill you in. The slogan of the series has always been "Build an empire to stand the test of time." You start as the leader of a civilization, such as the Greeks or Chinese, around 4000 BC. At first you are nomadic settlers; you quickly found your first city, which begins to grow. You have complete control over the direction of your civilization, and can produce city improvements (like granaries, banks, and airports), military units, and settlers to found new cities and expand your empire. You eventually come into contact with other civilizations (from here on called "civs") that you must deal with, either through trade, diplomacy, or conquest.

The best part of Civ, at least for me, has been the progress of science. Early on you discover simple technologies, each of which opens up still more advanced knowledge. For example, you might first discover Bronze Working, which allows you to develop Currency, which in turn opens the door for Trade. Each technology allows you to build new improvements and units, so the range of options open to you are constantly expanding.

Civ is a turn-based strategy game, which means you always have the time to decide what actions to take: issuing orders, setting improvement goals, and moving units. After you are done, every other civ moves, and then it's your turn again. Some people find this tedious, but I love it; it appeals to the boardgamer in me, and allows for much more intricate gameplay than is possible if you're racing the clock. Fortunately, Civilization moved pretty quickly, and before you knew it your warriors had been replaced with Knights, and then with tanks, and then nuclear missiles.

I learned a great deal about strategy as I played. For my first three or so games, I would play on the Earth map as the English. I would found one city, London, and then never ever leave the few squares that made up my island. My "strategy" was to be isolationist, and put all my resources into building one super-city instead of spreading myself thin. It took me three games to discover that this just wouldn't work. I was playing on the easiest level, and at first would rapidly advance past the other civs, gaining technical superiority and building massive Wonders of the World (the Hanging Gardens of London! The Colossus of London! The Great Pyramids of London!) Somewhere around my middle ages, though, other civs would catch up to me, and quickly leave me in the dust. On my third game, I finally built a transport ship around this time and went to establish a colony. I discovered that the Zulus had conquered all of Africa and Europe, had tons of cities everywhere, and didn't like me putting a foothold in Africa. They obliterated me completely. My next game was on a random map, playing as the Elves, and from that point on things went better for me.

The first real game as the Elves (a custom civilization) was interesting. First off, I discovered that the game would simply chop off the last letter in the name to come up with the adjective. For example, as the Romans, the game would say things like "The Romans have build the Great Wall" or "Roman scientists have discovered The Wheel." For me, it would be "The Elves have wiped out the Russians" or "Elve scientists have discovered Chemistry." Besides that, things went better. I had learned to make new cities, earlier in the game, and my fear of being surpassed by the Zulus made me focus my resources on research. True to my name, I made the Elves a peaceful civilization. The two real ways to beat Civilization are to conquer the world or to build a spaceship for Alpha Centauri, so I elected the latter course. I built my spaceship while the other civs were still building wooden boats, and was elated in my first victory.

It has just occurred to me that I could waste hours writing about notable Civ games I've played, so I'll briefly address the very next game and then move on. For my next game, I decided to pretend that I was playing as the descendents of the Elves on Alpha Centauri. I bumped the difficulty level up from Chieftain to Warlord and decided to play a more aggressive game this time, again in keeping with my race's stereotype I dubbed them the Orcs. Once again I expanded and focused on science, but this time, when I entered the endgame, I instead built a vast army of tanks and battleships and went off in search of conquest. I wiped out the last of the Romans, and then discovered that the game was making things more difficult for me by respawning civs. Right next to me a settler unit for the Russians appeared; I declared war and wiped them out before their first city was founded. I continued to blitz through the world, rejoicing in the thrill of dominion, but was upset to see no acknowledgement once I had conquered the world. Viewing one of the information screens, I noticed that the Russians were still listed as a civilization, although they had no cities. I combed through every square of the world but they were nowhere to be seen. I had discovered another bug, as the game apparently didn't realize civilizations were dead unless you had conquered a city. Chagrined, I built another spaceship.

From this point on, through all civs, I played at the Prince level or higher, and had a lot of fun. I would occasionally try new strategies, but the core of my philosophy remains that which was drilled into me in those five first games: expand and research, and don't start wars you can't finish.

My devotion to this game took on an almost religious fervor. I was extremely attracted by the fact that all of human history was contained within a few floppy disks. I credit this game with sparking an interest in history for me, and I think it did a lot to help me through Mr. Bachtold's World History class; even though events in the game obviously did not parallel reality, it was so well researched and informative that you couldn't help pick up facts about a great range of history and sociology.

1996 saw my family's move to Illinois, and it also saw the release of Civilization 2. I was apprehensive about what to expect. This was before I frequented the Internet, and so I was surprised to see it one day on the shelves of Software Etcetera, seemingly springing fully-formed into existence like Athena. I was still playing Civilization on a regular basis; I would pick up other games and enjoy them, but even years later I would find myself hankering for some Civ and starting yet another game. Not yet having a job, I was reluctant to spend what seemed like a lot of money when the "old" version was serving me well enough, but it went on sale and I was sufficiently intrigued to pick it up.

When friends would ask me about my thoughts on the game, I would say, "The original Civilization is the best game that has ever been created in the history of the universe. And Civilization 2 is even better." That sounds pretentious, but it's true, at least the second part. I had been expecting a graphical update and the new Fundamentalist government, but saw a plethora of changes that only served to enhance the underlying game while not detracting from its core appeal. They had fixed so many of the things that had irritated me before, like the ultra-restrictive diplomacy options and the many small bugs. And there were many more things added that I had never considered but made the game far better, like enhanced espionage options and the ability to build airbases. They had added new units and improvements and technologies that made your options still richer. New "scenarios" would drop you in the middle of an interesting historical period, such as the rise of Rome or World War II. I wouldn't come to realize it for a while, but the best feature was that virtually all of the content in the game could be modified by users. Rather than hiding everything in binary files, simple text files described unit statistics, the names of city improvements, and the dialog from other leaders. It pleased me to modify this to make my exchanges with these diplomats more pointed and rude than before, or obsequious if my mood demanded. There was also some purely fun items that were added, like movies that would play when you build a Great Wonder, or your advisors who would counsel you on your progress. I still vividly recall the lines I would hear most often. "Give me more soldiers, noble leader, so I can strike fear in the hearts of our enemies!" "All of the world marvels at our superior intellect! I'm off to grease my abacus!" "The people? They can't get enough of you!"

My only real regret about Civ 2 was the music. The original Civilization had some of the most haunting, emotive theme music I've heard in a PC game, especially when played on a real Roland sound card. Each civ even had its own national anthem that would play at crucial times. By contrast, the music in Civ 2 was generally ambient and utterly forgettable. The one solace was that you could stick in your own CD and have it play that music instead.

Other than that complaint, I've never been tempted to return to the original Civilization.

I played Civ 2 in 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2001. Expansion packs were regularly released and immediately snapped up. These tended to focus on adding additional scenarios, although there were also some noticeable improvements to the game engine itself. (Remember, this was before everyone was always online, so not everyone could just download a patch.) Most of the scenarios were just good for a single play, although a few held my attention. A very innovative one was based on the world of "XCOM: UFO Defense". While still using only the Civ2 engine, it did a fairly good job of emulating a completely different game, where you used soldiers on an alien planet to hunt down and destroy hostile life forms. There were two that stood out even more, though. One, the most difficult one I played, is set in an alien invasion of Earth. Three human coalitions are all left against the incredibly advanced technology of the invaders, and your only hope is to survive until you discover a breakthrough technology that will allow you to mount an effective defense. It took me many tries before finally lasting until that tech was reached, only to see my two allies fall and me needing to carry the fight alone against the invaders. I loved the way that this scenario cast you with dependable allies who would support you in a common cause without the ubiquitous backstabbing found in every other scenario. The other good one was an open-ended game set in a post-apocalyptic future, when tribes of humans and mutants try to rebuild from radioactive ashes and reestablish civilization.

Inevitably, I began to dabble in the scenarios. My first contribution was a map of Middle-earth, painstakingly transcribed from the official MERP map I had bought from Iron Crown Enterprises. I created the world, set the starting locations for the Elves and Orcs and Numenoreans and Men and Hobbits and more, and then let the game proceed normally. My most ambitious project, though, was a scenario set in Raymond E. Feist's Midkemia. I had loved his Riftwar saga but was disgusted by the Serpentwar follow up, so I decided to recreate the world from the beginning of those events and let it proceed naturally. I spent months on this, proudly building up Krondor and the other cities, modifying the game files to create the necessary units, figuring out how to give each civ the appropriate starting view of the map. In my proudest moment, I figured out how to simulate the dangerous storms in a strait (barbarian sea units with 0 movement, recreated every 20 turns) and even create impassible terrain (invisible barbarian bombers with 0 movement). Every faction from the book was present, and I played some games to get the strategy right. The most enjoyable were the Western Kingdom or the invaders (I forget their name), but the other five were enjoyable as well. Sadly, the whole scenario was wiped out in a hard drive crash. No, I never back up my files. You should, though.

If anything, I played even more Civ 2 once I left high school for college. One of the nice things about Civ 2 was that it ran as a normal Windows program, and so it multitasked extremely well with everything else. I developed a habit of coming home from class and firing up my Emacs editor for CS101, my email client, AOL Instant Messenger, a web browser, and Civ 2. I would switch between the five of them depending on what was the most fun at the moment. And yes, I did fine in all my classes.

I also was pleased to come into contact with a community of Civ 2 players. I might have been the most fanatical of them, but the others were also well versed in the game and we had fun swapping strategies and telling expansive stories of our most memorable games. (Believe me, the stuff I've been writing here feels brief in comparison to the epic tales I could be telling.)

I think it was late in high school that the ultimate expansion came out, "Civilization 2: Multiplayer Gold Edition." The text files in Civ 2 had contained intriguing hints of multiplayer abilities, and there was a definite hunger for players to finally be able to take on one another. I'd even downloaded cracks before that would allow you to play a sort of hotseat multiplayer game, though I didn't have much chance to use it. With the multiplayer game, though, it was finally a reality. Sadly, the vagaries of dial-up connections made it less satisfying than I would have hoped. I did enjoy playing a three-player game with two distant friends in Minnesota, but the regular disconnections were trying. (Some of the most fun of that experience was simply chatting with each other, and I really wish I'd saved those logs because I'm sure they're full of neurotic and passive-aggressive statements. I was the strongest of the three, and one person had barely played before, so we made a pact to not attack each other so we would stay friends, but it still engendered some jealousy when I constantly eclipsed their cities.)

In the end, doing multiplayer just required too much planning to coordinate schedules, and it became a pain to need to WAIT while the other players slowly took their turns. But there was a hope on the horizon - Sid Meier, the creator of Civilization, had founded his own company, Firaxis, and had announced that they would be releasing the next game, Civilization 3.

I am an optimist at heart, and I'm the sort of person who enthusiastically suspends disbelief in search of entertainment. This time, I knew that a new Civ game was coming, and I eagerly devoured every scrap of information coming my way. It all sounded great. The screenshots and art looked wonderful. I began salivating, and pumped up my fellow Civ devotees with tales of its splendor. Now the game would have real borders! Culture! Civs with unique traits! Great leaders! The game could not come quickly enough for me.

The release date was finally announced. We all piled in to a car together and drove to the mall. I paid the extra five bucks for the Special Edition, which came in a collector's tin and included a "making of" CD and a tech tree (no longer present in the standard packaging). We raced home, installed and began playing.

By ourselves, at least. Shortly before the release, Firaxis had announced that Civ3 would be released as single-player only. I was more confused than upset, but since most of my time had been spent single-player, I reasoned it wouldn't make that much of a difference.

It took me several weeks before I finally admitted that Civ 3 just wasn't as much fun as Civ 2 had been. Much like Alpha Centauri before it, on paper it sounded like it should be superior, and I found it hard to quibble with the new features they had added. Ultimately, though, they had crossed some threshold, reached a critical mass where they had too much of a good thing: too many good features made for complexity, and the game began to drag.

Besides the pace, it felt like they had gone out of their way to come up with little things to annoy me. The freedom Civ 2 offered your desktop was gone; claiming that they wanted to make a more "immersive" experience, Civ 3 could only be played full-screen. Goodbye multitasking. They used the same excuse to get rid of most of the humor in the game, including the advisors and wonder movies. An infuriating copy-protection aspect required you to have the CD in the drive every time you played, even if you had done a complete install. I hate flipping discs, plus that kept me from playing my own tunes.

They also made some fairly radical changes to the gameplay. I don't particularly mind that they messed with my strategy; in order to curb the enormous sprawl of Civ2 games, they increased the effect of corruption, a preexisting concept that discouraged you from building large empires far from your capital. What did bother me, though, was the unrelenting aggressiveness of the AI, which would STILL settle every open square on the map. Their corruption would shoot through the roof and they would not be able to produce either, but they would hem you in and keep you from moving. That's probably the thing that irritated me the most, once I realized that the AI was not programmed to advance its own interests, but primarily to oppose the player's.

There were enough good aspects about Civ 3 that I kept playing it; in particular, the borders and culture were appreciated features. This time, though, the game didn't enter permanent rotation, and this time, I would find myself playing the previous Civilization on occasion. My game CD went missing a few years ago and I haven't really felt the loss that much.

So this brings us to this year. When I heard of Civilization 4, I was more cautious this time. My first instinct was to stay as far away from the publicity machine as possible: don't allow my hopes to be raised, and just wait for the reviews before deciding whether to pursue it or not. I was good for a while, and to their credit Firaxis has been much more controlled this time around at giving out information. Recently, though I've finally caved and started doing my normal scorched-earth information-gathering campaign.

I am still a little skeptical, but optimistic. It really does sound like they've listened to the concerns of fans and have taken them into account. They are particularly making promises about AI behavior that people will appreciate. One particular highlight is that, unlike in previous civs, other nations will not even be able to enter your borders without declaring war. (This is in contrast to earlier games, where if they violated your borders you would need to speak with the leader and demand that they withdraw their troops.)

They are also making changes to appeal to new players, and I believe these will be more controversial. The combat system is more simplified, with each unit now having simply "strength" instead of separate Attack and Defense values. (In some ways, this makes sense; however, it seems to actually make things more complicated. Since you don't want to encourage, say, crusaders to defend a city, certain units now get bonuses to attack or defense, so you end up getting the same result through a more complex process.) The pace of the game is supposedly much quicker now.

The big Civ 3 innovations are sticking around, although in slightly tweaked form. Resources are staying, borders are improved, culture is changing (makes enemy cities unhappy instead of "flipping"), and great leaders are improved (now there are non-military Great Persons). There are some radical changes going against even Civ 1 standards: no more pollution cleanup (just unhealthy people), no more civil unrest (just lack of production).

Perhaps most encouraging to the hard-core fan base is the level of customization. Civ 3 was relatively hard to tweak; in Civ 4, all the game data can be edited in simple XML files, and Firaxis is even providing scripting tools that will allow more substantial modifications. For example, you could create an outer space mod that would use your custom designed windows, menus, and so on. Firaxis even promises to release an SDK next year that will allow for total conversions of the game.

Somewhere along the line I came to the realization that I'm totally going to buy this game. After trying, and failing, to get some fellow civers to talk me out of it, I'm even considering preordering (which would give me the "Special Edition" for the standard price). I'm not at all convinced that this game will be better than Civ 2, but it's been so long since I've really played Civ that I need to recapture some of that feeling. And even if it's not as good as Civ 2, it sounds like it has a lot of potential. They're promising to make non-military strategies more fun and rewarding than ever, which pleases me greatly since that's the way I've enjoyed playing in the past.

October 25th is when the game comes out. I'm letting you know now, because there's a very real chance that this game will swallow me up and you won't see me again for months. If so, you'll know that I'm having a blast.

PS - Remember, Serenity comes out tomorrow! Tell your friends!

Post-Confederate Gravy Eater

Before he was famous, Neal Stephenson (one of my all-time favorite authors) wrote novels under the pseudonym Stephen Bury. Now that he has ridden the bestseller charts and won critical acclaim, these earlier novels are being reissued, now with his name prominently featured on the cover. I recently finished the novel "Interface" and decided to share my thoughts.

There are two main reasons I love Stephenson: his unapologetic love of words, and his deliberately bizarre plots. I've long thought that The Baroque Cycle was a perfect name for his most recent series, because he does work in a Baroque style, constantly adorning his stories and his sentences until they burst at the seams. Sometimes the result is ponderous and weighty, as in the Cycle; other times it makes his books feel kinetic, as in Snow Crash. So I was happy to see that, despite the presence of a co-author, both of these traits were very much in evidence here.

The language is certainly not as advanced as it would become by the time of Cryptonomicon, but you can certainly feel him paying attention to it. Stephenson enjoys mixing up his narrative forms, a la Melville, and, for example, late in the book much information is conveyed in the form of irate Letters to the Editor sent by a psychopath to the Washington Post. Most of the story is told in conventional third-person attached narration, with each chapter following a certain character. The dialog is frequently funny, and many of the names are very Dickensian. The primary opponents for the GOP nomination, for example, include Rep. Nimrod T. O'Neil and the Reverend Doctor Billy Joe Sweigel. As always, Stephenson is unapologetic about his names, inviting the reader to just smile and enjoy the ride.

The plot's direction feels more like Stephenson, although the subject matter is not. It is an interesting mish-mash of political thriller and science fiction tale, with some interesting Cryptonomicon-esque business drama included. The core of the story starts out simple - hugely popular Illinois governor William Cozzano wants to run for President but suffers a stroke that leaves him aphasic - and from there branches out into a whole universe of people influenced by his situation. This includes his daughter; an angry Indian neurophysician who drives a monster truck; a high-tech entrepreneur; a telegenic bag lady; the leaders of a secretive cabal of superinvestors; and many more. The broad outlines of the plot become predictable after the first few chapters; what remains surprising are the new characters roped into the plot and how they advance it. This includes the most offensive focus group meeting ever, as well as a shooting rampage that leaves you cheering for the serial killer and some incredibly cynical (yet more believable than ever) negative attacks in the campaign cycle.

Stephenson is notorious for writing bad endings, or not even having endings in his books. Those who have read him before will be pleasantly surprised by the amount of resolution in this book; those who have not will probably find it abrupt. One thing I found interesting is that, while I personally found great shades of grey throughout the book, it felt like there was a very artificial black-and-white judgment forced on at the end. You can tell which group of people are supposed to be villains, but some of them are so likeable and funny that it feels a little shocking when they got their just deserts. Not all the "good guys" make it out all right, either, but that's to be expected. As with many of his books, you arrive at the end with a pleasure at the story and writing that carries you past the sadness at unpleasant things happening to characters you've come to like.

I certainly wouldn't recommend this to someone who hasn't read Stephenson before, simply because it isn't his best work. If you're curious, I'd personally recommend Snow Crash (skip the chapter with Raven and YT). Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle (starting with Quicksilver) are arguably better, but you won't want to invest the amount of time those books take until you've made up your mind about his writing. I also love The Big U, another fun and easy read, but am in the minority on this, as Neal himself now hates that book.

I always have trouble coming up with "conclusions" for these posts. My five-paragraph-essay indoctrination demands that I wrap things up. Interface is well worth checking out if you're a fan of Stephenson's books, and don't be too surprised if it turns into a movie one of these days.

UPDATE 9/30/05: Oh, I almost forgot the strongest point in which this book excels over Mr. Stephenson's others. Unlike all of his other books (well, except for "In the Beginning... Was the Command Line," "Interface" does NOT include a freaky and psychologically distressing sex scene. That fact alone may prompt some to put this in the "Best Neal Ever" slot.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Dear diary: Today I was pompous and my sister was crazy... Today we were kidnapped by hill folk, never to be seen again. It was the best day ever.

The movie "Serenity" comes out this Friday, September 30th. I would strongly encourage you (yes, YOU) to go see it. It's a great flick.

I actually got to see it back in June in a special advance screening. I'm trying really hard to avoid giving away any spoilers. I will confine my remarks to just two: (1) You will be able to enjoy this movie whether or not you saw Firefly; Whedon neither demands prior knowledge about the universe nor spends a lot of time in exposition. (2) You will especially enjoy this movie if you thought Han Solo was the best thing about Star Wars.

Now for some more in-depth thoughts, based on my three-months-old recollections. There are NO plot spoilers here, but a bit more information about the thematic elements than some people will want to have, so I'll conceal it anyways.

*** Start of pseudo-spoilers ***

For those of you who have seen Firefly, this movie is most similar in tone to "War Stories," the episode where Mal and Wash are tortured. There's no torture in the movie, but it has the same sort of extremely dark mixture of anger and violence. There's still some trademark Whedon humor, but those who were hoping for another "Jaynestown" will be disappointed. So be prepared for darkness and you probably won't be surprised.

In some ways, I feel like Firefly virgins may enjoy the movie even more than the veterans. I won't go into why until after the movie comes out, but Joss loves breaking the rules, and you won't be as upset about some of the stuff he does if you weren't already familiar with the rules. Plus they'll be having that "gee whiz!" reaction for the very first time. And I'm sure that most people will happily dig up the Firefly box sets after falling in love with the movie.

I had been worried beforehand that the universe would be too constricted, since Whedon only had 2 hours to deal with here instead of about 13 in the series. In contrast, the universe felt even more expansive, and for the first time I got a sense of the relationships between planets.

Make no mistake: Serenity will appeal most to people who enjoy science fiction. I think there's a strong hunger out there for people who may have enjoyed Star Wars, Star Trek or the Matrix and are looking for another franchise. For these people, Serenity will more than fit the bill: cool spacecraft, violence, interstellar conflict, the works (well, minus aliens). But because Firefly/Serenity is built around the relationships of the crew, I hope it will also appeal to those who merely tolerate science fiction. The dialog, acting and themes are more than enough to carry the movie.

I am curious what the reviews will be like. I get the feeling they'll be evenly divided between "Serenity is the clear successor to Star Wars" and "Meh." Whedon seems to inspire either slavish devotion or contempt, and there will certainly be some reviewers who get hung up on the Western aspect of the universe, or feel that the plot is too busy. Still, I hope most will judge the movie in comparison to other sci-fi fare, and conclude that it is superior to much else that is out there.

*** End of pseudo-spoilers ***

I'll probably post a more substantial review after seeing it again this weekend, one with REAL spoilers and more thoughts on the content of the movie and the many, many allegorical readings of it.

Oh, and just for fun, here's a shot I accidentally wandered into at the preview screening of Serenity. I'm in the background on the left, dressed as Wash.

You can't stop the signal!

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Kill Vivec

I "beat" Morrowind last Thursday. Hooray! Thought I'd put down some thoughts while it's still fresh.

This is the first Elder Scrolls game I've played. I heard a lot about Daggerfall when it came out but never played it; I remember hearing that it was a huge, long game and you could become a werewolf. More recently, I was kind of surprised after Bioware released Neverwinter Nights to hear almost all RPG praise for the year directed towards Morrowind. Finally, I saw my friend David play it for a little while when I visited Minnesota this July, and was sufficiently intrigued to pick up the game-of-the-year edition from Best Buy.

"Immersive" is certainly a valid word to use. The game is incredibly broad and deep. When you walk into a house, you can interact with individual spoons, pieces of paper, and so on. Beyond the physical world, though, the mythology of the game is incredible. They didn't just create a fully-realized culture; they created a plethora of cultures, coexisting on the same world. As you progress through the game and move the plot forward, you also come to understand how Vvardenfell (the large island the game takes place on) came to be this way, and eventually come to absorb the history of its migrating peoples, the cultural differences between rural and urban Dunmer that led to their disparate (though still familiar) religions, the present political influence exerted by the Empire, and so on.

In the Ultima games, I always loved going to libraries and reading through the books. That kind of backstory really helped the world come alive for me. Here, I only read the books I was really interested in. Once again, the sheer volume of material feels overwhelming. All of it related somehow to the Elder Scrolls universe, but only some has any real bearing on your life. Still, every book was well-written and fairly self-contained, even though it might spill over in five or more volumes.

One of the best examples of the richness of the game backstory is coming to grips with the Tribunal. This collection of three gods dominates the course of Vvardenfell, but there is a surprising degree of dispute and interpretation over even the factual aspects of their rule. As you continue in the game, you encounter written records and oral traditions that paint vastly different impressions of Vivec, Almalexia and Sotha Sil. Different factions believe fervently in their own accounts; many citizens of Morrowind do not know exactly what to believe, but revere or despise them anyways. Late in the game you actually encounter Vivec. I was expecting to finally get the straight story, but as he recounted the story, it was obvious that I was still getting just one interpretation of events. Much like in "Rashomon," it is impossible to arrive at the absolute truth of an event.

Now, this isn't really broadcast as a "point" or a moral, but rather this sort of sensibility is what gives Morrowind its sense of authenticity. You're left with the impression of a vast, complicated world, one that you can move around within and influence, but never come to absolutely dominate.

In this regard, it reminded me of my favorite RPGs, Ultimas VI and VII. This is in contrast to Square style RPGs like Final Fantasy, which tell incredible stories but limit you to acting out within that story; you inevitably become the single most important force in the universe by your actions. It also stands in contrast to the excellent Bioware RPGs, which feature incredibly intricate plots and characters and offers the same scope of freedom offered by Morrowind, but not the same level of detail or history. In the Ultima book, Richard Garriot describes how whenever they created a new Ultima, they would first build the world, and then create the characters, and only then worry about the plot. Morrowind is the successor to this legacy, and once again demonstrates that by building a solid world you imbue everything happening on that world with much more import. Tolkien taught this lesson well, and people would do well to follow.

Moving briefly on to complaints. I've been spoiled by the Baldur's Gate games, but I would have liked better-written characters in this game. It often felt like the characters written down in those books were much more interesting and unpredictable than the many quest-givers in the game. They weren't bad, exactly, and there were some bright spots (I especially liked the de Medici-esque manipulations of House Hlaalu), but many of the side quests were completely outshone by the enormously creative quests in Baldur's Gate. Most of the quests involve finding and returning an item, killing a certain person, or talking to someone. There was enough variety within these broad categories to keep it from becoming a grind. Still, I think I've been spoiled by the incredible array of quests in games like, say, GTA: San Andreas.

The graphics are so obviously poor they're hardly worth discussing. Beyond that, though, the art design felt lacking. I did appreciate the incredible variety you see in different parts of the world, from architecture to foliage, yet so much of the world is dark and ugly. I don't want the whole world to look like the Ascadian Isles, necessarily, but I'd have liked for that level of beauty to be present in the parts of Vvardenfell where you spend a lot of time outdoors. I think of this as the "Alpha Centauri" problem, after a great game that was almost single-handedly done in by its ugly color scheme.

Dialog was annoying as well. Again, the story and background was great, but the designers populated the world with thousands of individual characters without bothering to differentiate them. Every scout, everywhere, tells you exactly the same thing about every topic. It got especially jarring when, for example, you would ask a Khajit about a unique topic relating to your quest, and they answer it with the idiom and pronunciation of their race. Then you would ask them about a more common topic, like "Balmora," and they would answer in perfect Imperial English, with the exact same words as everyone else in the entire game. Variety, folks! It amazes me that they went to such great lengths to come up with different cultures and then lost their differentiation.

This is a common complaint for RPGs, but the money system is messed up. You don't have enough money early in the game for anything decent, and late in the game you'll have so much that it ceases to have any real meaning. Still, I have two complaints about money that are unique to this game. First, the game is filled with artifacts that are valued at 50,000 GP or higher, and yet few shopkeepers have more than 2,000 GP on them. I fail to understand the point of bothering to list something as being so valuable when nobody on the whole continent will buy it for that amount. This would lead to annoying contortions where you would gradually sell Creeper 45,000 worth of stuff over a month so that you could buy it all back so that he'd have enough money to buy the 50,000 item. Again, though, by late in the game you won't bother because you'll have enough money for everything. EXCEPT enchanting. Enchanting is something I got into late in the game, it's a theoretically cool system that allows you to create customized versions of items with their own unique powers, but you need to either do it yourself or pay someone else. Paying someone else will cost you more money than you have (which is a LOT of money, enchanting is the one truly expensive thing in the game). Doing it yourself is impossible - for a high-level item, even with a maximized Intelligence statistic and Enchanting skill, I was unable to do it after ten tries. Quite frustrating.

My final complaint is the enemies. Again, with so much detail in the rest of the game, it's just puzzling that they only bothered to come up with ten actual monsters, and that fully 90% of your battles late in the game will be with Cliff Racers. I don't really mind the simplistic combat system, I just want to look at something else once in a while.

The definition of a good game is not a game without faults, and Morrowind's good aspects more than overcome its many deficiencies. One feature I particularly liked was that if you join one of the great houses, you will get to build your own stronghold. This was also one of my favorite aspects of Baldur's Gate II, and it was fun to go through a similar process. In my rise in House Hlaalu, I first purchased the land, then secured permission to build. As it grew bigger I strengthened my estate by establishing mining operations and clearing bandits out of the area. The whole process was fun, although the end was somewhat anti-climactic. You're left with a cool-looking house and your personal retainers, but unlike in BG2 it does not generate any revenue for you, and at least the Hlaalu one is located so far away from everything else that it's not practical to visit or use as a much-needed item storage location.

Oh, that's a complaint I forgot to mention: travel. Early on, it seems very cool that it takes fifteen minutes to walk between two cities. Later on it becomes deadly aggravating. You come to make use of the various forms of fast transportation, including teleportation, boats and silt striders, but these can only drop you to a limited number of locations. The really annoying thing is that with just one minor tweak, they could have made travel far less annoying while preserving the sense of scope. The game already has a "recall" spell that can take you back to a previous spot you have "mark"ed previously. If they had only allowed you to mark even two spots, it would have become practical to shuttle between two points on the map and saved a great deal of time and aggravation.

Like so many RPGs, at the end of Morrowind you need to Confront an Ancient Evil. The main plotline borrows heavily from the car'a'carn story in Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time," while the finale is straight from Lord of the Rings. Despite the broad arcs feeling like plagiarism, though, the game as a whole has a strong integrity of its own.

What is the message of the game? It doesn't broadcast its ideology in the way that, say, a Final Fantasy game would. It's much more content to let you glean your own meaning from the mass of events within it. I take Morrowind to be a story of the importance of humility. In all of the various versions of the truth you receive, the problems always start when someone overreaches their bounds, whether it means seeking after immortality or wanting new lands or seeking dominion over others. The role you take on as the Nerevarine is ultimately not one of claiming power or building a better society. It is ultimately a negative role, as you tear down those who have risen higher than they should.

I do feel a sense of accomplishment from having beaten it. I have not yet started either of the two expansions, Tribunal and Bloodmoon. I'll likely at least start one of them soon, though if my experiences in Morrowind are any indication, I will not be close to beating them before Civilization 4 comes out on October 25th. And once Civ4 comes out, my life as I know it will cease to exist.

Oh, my final standings in the factions are as follows.
  • Ashlanders: Hearthfriend
  • Blades: Agent
  • Fighters Guild: Master
  • House Hlaalu: Grandmaster
  • Imperial Cult: Primate
  • Imperial Legion: Knight Protector
  • Mages Guild: Arch-Mage
  • Morag Tong: Grandmaster
  • Temple of the Tribunal: Adept
  • Thieves Guild: Master Thief
That means I have more ranks to go in the Blades, Imperial Legion and Temple. I'm not sure how to advance further in the Blades, if that's still possible. I should also mention that my character's name is Cirion (duh). I play a Wood-Elf (Bosmer) with a custom class that's sort of like an Agent with skills in Mysticism and Alteration. I wear glass armor, with the Cuirass of the Savior's Hide and Boots of the Apostle. I wield a Daedric Wakazashi with a glass shield, though more often I pick off enemies with my Dwarven Crossbow. My most common spells are the Mysticism teleportation spells - Almsivi Intervention, Divine Intervention, Mark and Recall. Out of all my factions, I consider myself closest to Hlaalu, Thieves Guild and the Morag Tong.

If I were working on this game, my single biggest suggestion would have been to enhance the quests. In particular, I feel there were many possibilities with the strongholds that were not explored.

The three things I most hope to see in Oblivion (the sequel out later this year) are: more believable individuals, a better transportation system, and more dynamic realignments between factions (alliances, guild wars, etc.). Basically, keep it the same but make it better.

Monday, September 26, 2005

True Love Waits

As I mentioned earlier, I was really excited by the chance to hear Christopher O'Riley in concert. It was held in the recital hall on the campus of the University of California, Santa Cruz. I decided to head down early because I haven't spent any time in Santa Cruz before and wanted to see what it was like.

Answer: it's all right. First I checked out the downtown. This is one of those long and narrow affairs, basically a stretch of Pacific Avenue. I don't know what I was hoping for; it ended up being like any other trendy retail area. There are two museums in the area, which were both closed, and besides that it was a mixture of shops. I'm always able to spend an indefinite amount of time in places like this, because invariably I'll find a music store and/or bookstore. In this occasion I wandered into a good used music store with a larger-than-normal collection of electronic music. I picked up a new (for me) Future Sounds of London album and Up, one of a few holes in my REM collection. Besides that I wandered Pacific, feeling like I'd been here dozens of times before.

I broke away and next headed to Neary Lagoon. This was better; the lagoon is surprisingly quiet and peaceful considering that it is (1) in the heart of Santa Cruz and (2) immediately next to a wastewater treatment facility. There was a good collection of wildlife and a few families with small children. All in all it was pleasant, although I wouldn't come back over the mountains just for it.

Unfortunately, a section of the boardwalk was closed for construction. Ever adventurous (and ever foolish), I decided to exit the park at the nearest exit rather than backtracking. (Backtracking is one of my absolute most hated activities, and I will go to unreasonable lengths to avoid it.)

I eventually got back to my car, although for the last twenty minutes or so I was beginning to doubt my navigational aptitude. All ended well, and I shot up to the campus.

Campus was odd. I've grown accustomed to tight, integrated college campuses. You've got your quad, you've got the cluster of engineering buildings, you have the pretty administration buildings up front and the uglier political science building tucked away in back. Student housing might be more spread out. Well, UCSC is a big campus, but more than that, it's a very spread-out campus. Extremely spread out. It took me nearly ten minutes, driving between 40 and 50, to get from the entrance to the music school. Along the way I drove through deserted sagebrush, grazing horses, forests, a plethora of campus bus stops, and the occasional cluster of university buildings. I eventually arrived at the music school, still about an hour early. I took advantage of the time to wander through the nearby buildings, housing the departments of music, art, and theater. It looked like they were constructed in the 70's, featuring lots of concrete, aggressively odd architecture, and few windows. They still looked better than Elliot at Wash U, though.

At 6:30 I finally headed in and took my seat. I was the second person in the auditorium. In all, it probably seated around 500, and it completely filled up over the next 40 minutes. It looked like roughly 3/5 of the audience were students (or perhaps, like me, young adults deliberately trying to look like students). Most of the other people were distinguished-looking ladies and gentlemen in their forties or older. From catching snatches of conversation, I could tell that at least some of the people here were already familiar with O'Riley's work, which was encouraging.

There was the usual chain of introductions. First on the stage was the head of the "Arts & Lectures" program, a yearlong series of which this concert was the first event. She mentioned some of the upcoming highlights, including an address by Robert Kennedy Jr. and some relatively famous musical groups whose names escape me at the moment. She also mentioned that this year they were starting a rush tickets program, where students could grab open seats for $5 before the show.

She then introduced the chancellor, who was a shockingly poor speaker. Fortunately she was also brief; she mumbled her introduction in a monotone while leaning back and forth before saying, "Without further delay, it's my pleasure to welcome Christopher O'Riley to our stage."

Thunderous applause as Christopher took the stage. He took a microphone near the piano and gave several minutes of introductory remarks. It's the first time I've ever seen or heard him; I know he has a popular classical music program called "From the Top" but have never caught it (at least not that I know of - I think it might not be carried on the stations I've listened to the last few years). So it was pleasant to hear him and find what an easy and engaging speaker he is. His whole attitude was very open, self-deprecating and anecdotal. He's also very young-looking. From where I was sitting he looked a great deal like Bob Hubbard, my last manager at Cerner, especially when he smiled.

His introductory remarks mainly concerned the classical portion of his performance. He talked a bit about the fugue as a music form and why it's the most challenging style to create. He mentioned the history of the fugue, from Bach up through Shostakovich, and told some funny stories about performers and composers showing off with fugues. He closed with a lengthly and touching account of his acquaintance with a great, little old Russian lady who was a virtuoso pianist (and whose name I cannot remember); it was obvious that their brief contact had a profound impact on him, and he spoke regretfully about all the knowledge that was lost with her passing. "I know every note of Bach," she told him once, and he had seen for himself how true that was.

He then launched into the program. It was as follows:

  • Prelude & Fugue in F minor, Op. 87, No. 18
  • No Surprises
  • Prelude & Fugue in E-flat Major Op. 87, No. 19
  • (Some song by Elliot Smith)
  • Like Spinning Plates
  • Prelude & Fugue in C minor, Op. 87, No. 20
  • Paranoid Android
  • (Intermission)
  • Prelude & Fugue in B-flat Major, Op. 87, No. 21
  • Punchdrunk Lovesick Singalong (this is a B-side, get it if you haven't heard it)
  • Knives Out
  • Prelude & Fugue in G minor, Op. 87 No. 22
  • Not Half Right (Elliot Smith)
  • Let Down
  • Prelude & Fugue in F Major, Op. 87, No. 23
  • 2+2=5
  • Prelude & Fugue in D minor. Op. 87, No. 24
(He also performed Exit Music For A Film as an encore.)

The printed program was slightly different. As he explained before the program, while he was on tour he was constantly working on new material and adding or dropping items as new pieces became ready. The original program would have had "Talk Show Host" in place of "Like Spinning Plates", and "Gagging Order" (a live, unrecorded song) in place of "Punchdrunk Lovesick Singalong."

The concert was, of course, amazing. The variety of music within the program was incredible - not simply the contrast between the two artists, of course, but also the difference between pieces from the same source. The first Prelude & Fugue came out to a powerful, roaring start that commanded attention; E-flat Major was very intricate and pensive. He was a delight to watch as well, becoming incredibly contorted as he pounded through the most complex portions of the arrangements.

As I knew I would, I found the Shostakovich pieces extremely rewarding and stirring. Some of the Radiohead arrangements, though, brought lumps to my throat. His live performance of "No Surprises" was even more starkly beautiful than the version on the album, the stunning clarity of the right hand's endlessly repeated notes only growing more pure the more involved the left hand's part became. Paranoid Android, besides being a wonderful arrangement was one of the most driving, adrenaline-rushing performances I've seen and brought the audience to their feet in a roar at its abrupt conclusion.

The mood of the concert goers was buoyant during intermission, with clusters of people excitedly praising what they'd heard. I wandered outside, passed through the smokers, and stared out into the cool dim night sky, gradually seeing more of the sage as my eyes adjusted to the light.

Back inside, the second half went just as well as the first. I had not previously heard any of the arrangements on this side (other than Let Down) and it was a pleasant surprise to hear for the first time how he was approaching them. Elliot Smith was an interesting addition as well. Before the show he had repeated a statement I'd previously heard him make on NPR, claiming that Smith was the most important American songwriter of the past fifty years. The two songs of his included in this performance definitely held their own with Shostakovich and Radiohead.

I'm sure it was a function of my tiredness, but as the second half went on I felt like the walls between the composers were beginning to dissolve. I was no longer looking at my program, and increasingly I found that it would take me until well into a Radiohead piece before I recalled the original song's name, and the Shostakovich would sound incredibly familiar to me. It was all good music, and it washed over me.

O'Riley got two standing ovations after the concert and added "Exit Music for a Film," to the vocal delight of a particular female in attendance. He was gracious enough to stay afterwards for a lengthy question and answer session, and probably 2/3 of the people stayed for this. The first question was the one I'm sure everyone was anticipating: "Have you ever met any members of Radiohead, and do you know what they thought of your music?" He described going backstage after one of their New York concerts shortly after "True Love Waits" was released, and meeting with Ed O'Brien. He had a brief conversation with Ed, who knew of the album and was very curious what kind of reception it had gotten from classical music fans. Next he spoke with Jonny Greenwood, who has a strong classical background, and they talked shop for a while about the process of arranging. He then met Thom. Hearing Chris talk about this was wonderful, he played up his reaction as an adoring fan finally meeting his idol. He told Thom how much he loved "Gagging Order," and Thom's eyes bugged out. "Nobody's talking about that song!" he said. "Oh, you should check the message board online," Christopher replied. "People are saying it's your best song since 'Let Down.'" Thom was rushed off to a birthday party but seemed pleased to have made that connection.

To Chris's surprise, later that night Thom came back and sought him out. They conversed at length, and Chris says that in person Thom is one of the most self-deprecating, ego-less people imaginable. For example, Chris mentioned he thought "Pyramid Song" would be a great candidate for a piano arrangement, but he couldn't imagine a version of that song without Thom's vocals. "Oh, you mean without me screwing it up?" Thom asked.

Someone asked about what it was like to adapt the extremely electronic songs that are prominent on Radiohead's most recent albums. O'Riley described how he loved "Like Spinning Plates," but knew that it was impossible to adapt because of the electronics. Then he heard a live performance that included Thom Yorke doing a version of "Like Spinning Plates" on, well, the piano. "Oh, I can do that!" O'Riley thought, and using that as his inspiration he set about doing it. He says that he doesn't try to approximate the sound of the electronic elements; rather, he pays attention to the function that the electronic sounds perform. Are they building up tension? Are they establishing a rhythm? Do they contrast with the melody? Using the tools available to him, of harmony and texture, O'Riley will then attempt to find another way to produce that same sort of effect. I say he did a phenomenal job.

(I'm reminded of my anticipation of watching Radiohead perform on Saturday Night Live shortly after the release of Kid A. I was sitting in our common dorm room before the show, chatting with roommates and speculating about what the live performance would be like. "The problem is that so much on this album is impossible outside a studio," I said. "I mean, they could do 'Optimistic,' or maybe 'Morning Bell.' But there's no way they can possibly do 'The National Anthem.'" The show started, and Radiohead came out and did a version of The National Anthem that blew the album's version out of the water. Listening to Christopher O'Riley, I revisit that blend of humility, awe and delight.)

Someone asked about how long it takes him to transcribe a piece and get it ready for performance. On some songs, he said, he can get it down in a few days. When he first started he improvised; since he got serious about doing an album, though, he's written down all his arrangements. He'll put the music directly into Finale because it's easier to tweak and modify that way than doing it all in longhand. Even when a piece is quick to adapt, though, it takes him months and months to get it performance-ready, simply because they're so incredibly challenging. He's done some pieces which are just unplayable, though he's getting better. Every new adaptation he does is the hardest one yet; at the same time, he's also constantly revisiting and revising his earlier ones, adding to the complexity as he becomes able to play them.

He's excited about the Elliot Smith project. He laid down the tracks this summer and the disc should be out in the spring. He still loves Radiohead and will do new tracks if they grab him, but he thinks he won't release a third album of Radiohead tracks. He's been working with whatever interests him, which currently includes Tears For Fears, Nick Drake, George Harrison, Cocteau Twins, R.E.M. (Yay!), and more.

Christopher spoke a bit about Radiohead's musical background. They're really all over the map. Thom Yorke doesn't read a note of music. Jonny Greenwood is well versed in classical music and served for a year as "Composer in Residence" at the BBC. Colin Greenwood's background is in jazz. Ed O'Brien's background is more in dub and electronica. So there's a wide range in there, and that all contributes to the strength of the band. O'Riley said that, as a pianist, the two things that he finds most important in music are harmony and texture. He thinks that it is the unique composition of Radiohead, with five very talented persons each contributing a thread under the vision of Yorke, that gives it such an interesting sense of texture without being arty.

All of these questions (and more that I don't recall) were asked by individuals between the ages of 18 and 25. A grey-haired gentleman said, "Just to bring Shostakovich back into this, I found that the Radiohead pieces you played seemed very bright, while I think of Shostakovich as a very harsh composer. And yet, when you put these together, they sounded great together. Why do you think that is?" O'Riley said that he believes one thing both composers have in common is a certain sense of distance. With Radiohead, Yorke always has a strong sense of ironic detachment. The lyrics aren't a part of this performance, of course, but his lyrics tend to be in the form of conversations overheard, of sights seen far-off. For example, a song will tell the story of a broken-hearted love affair; but it won't be told from the perspective of the woman, it's from a person who's overhearing the woman talk about it on a bus. Likewise, because of the political conditions he was working under, Shostakovich had to use subtext and indirection to communicate his messages; O'Riley said Shostakovich was the first classical composer to use subtext in his music. This, he thinks is the trait they have in common, and it informs their music.

So, that was my Sunday evening. I got home pretty late, around 11, but it was certainly well worth it. I had high expectations going in and was pleased to have them met.

Your construction smells of corruption

Man, I have a lot of potential posts whirring around upstairs now (thoughts on Morrowind, review of Interface, anticipations of the next Civ). But I'm at work and actually am pretty busy. But, since I promised a list in my last post, here it is.

Five Most Liberating Feelings I've Had:
  1. Freedom to bicycle a distance from home in Burnsville, MN.
  2. Having spending money from my first real job at Frank's Foods.
  3. Going away to college.
  4. Living on my own during the summer of 2001 and working at an internship in my chosen career.
  5. Booking flights to Chicago and points farther away after graduation.
Of course, these aren't the BEST feelings I've had, but they've been accompanied by the greatest rush of liberating feelings.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Fedelheppers for Cozzano


Several months ago, my awesome parents helped me move between apartments in Kansas City. Dad was driving the van and I was riding shotgun. On the way back from my old apartment, I looked out the window occasionally and was stunned at all the stuff I hadn't noticed before. I'd driven along this stretch of highway every day for over a year, and there were factories, office parks and subdivisions that I had just never seen, because of the way I look at the road when I'm driving.

That was a bit of an eye-opening experience for me. I still pay attention to where I'm driving, of course, but when traffic is light, especially if I've driven a route before, I'll try and catch glances sideways. I was doing this last week when I noticed a path running to the left of Highway 17, maybe about 10 feet below the grade. A lot of people were bicycling there; I caught five in the fraction of a second I looked there. Now that I'd caught it, I paid more attention on the way back from work. It became clear that this was a longish path, one that presumably ran further north and south than I'd seen yet.

I began to make some hypotheses. I knew that one guy at work (the "other" Chris) takes Caltrain from San Francisco every day, and then bikes all the way from San Jose Dridiron down to our Los Gatos office. I'd always assumed he rode down on city streets, but now it seemed likely that for part of the time he took this trail.

I'm not a hard-core environmentalist, but when I have two roughly equal alternatives I'll try to take the choice that causes less damage to our resources. One of the nice things about moving to the Bay Area (that phrase again!) is that in addition to seeing Priuses everywhere, there is a large and strong bicycle community. I'd earlier considered buying a bike, but had concluded that I wouldn't use it enough to justify getting one.

Now I had an inkling of a motivation. I don't live that far from work to begin with; it takes me around 10 minutes to drive there. Granted, most of that time is on a freeway going 65, but it still isn't that great a distance. It looked like this trail might run close to my apartment; if so, it would be very doable to become a bicycle commuter.

Growing up, I loved my bicycle. I remember with particular fondness a 21-speed mountain bike that I used to go exploring. I'd gradually venture further and further from home, and my parents would gradually expand my boundaries. I could now go past Highland! I could now cross Judicial and bicycle around the pond! The sense of freedom I got was acute, probably one of the five most liberating feelings I've had in my life. (Hm, 5? I should attach a list to the end of this post...)

But I had stopped riding after I turned 16 and my family moved to Illinois. First off, I was now learning to drive, and both needed and wanted to get more experience behind the wheels. Secondly, it was a new neighborhood, and just didn't have the same thrill that my old haunts had. Oh, there was a great bicycle trail called the prairie Path that seemed to run forever and could take you to downtown Wheaton and points far beyond, but you had to wait to cross a very busy intersection to get on it, and ultimately it didn't excite me that much to ride down a dirt path between trees and occasionally cross a road. The bicycle stayed in our garage, and while I was nostalgic for the times I remembered, I didn't feel very compelled to pick it up again.

Oh, maybe I should also mention that my dad is an avid cyclist. He's an absolute machine. He enjoyed cycling in Minnesota, but has gotten in phenomenal shape in Illinois, going amazing distances whenever he can. Once he cycled all the way from Wheaton down to Urbana to visit Andrew at school... but that's another story.

Anyways. I liked this idea, so I shot my dad an email asking if he had any advice for me in purchasing a bike. However, I wanted to make sure this trail did what I thought it did, and that it would be accessible at both ends. So, in lieu of my traditional Saturday hike, today I decided to walk to work.

I found a map of the trail online, appropriately enough called the Los Gatos Creek Trail. It did indeed run within a few blocks of my apartment, although the marked entrances were further away. I picked one that looked interesting and headed out a little before 9AM.

En route to the planned embarcation point, I discovered an even closer entrance that had not been marked. Encouraged, I hopped on the trail and headed south.

The trail itself was good. Fairly clean, in decent condition. It's a mixed-use trail so I passed plenty of joggers, cyclists, people walking their dogs, and a single roller blader. There wasn't the same level of friendliness that you encounter in a deserted mountain trail, but several people smiled and said "Hi."

The trail goes through a lot of varied terrain. The least attractive portions run parallel to Highway 17. Most of the time, though, it runs removed from any roadway, and generally runs along one of the banks of the creek, which grows and shrinks at different points. In some sections you run along houses' back yards. Several parks and a lake also lie along the route, adding plenty of pleasant green space.

Once I got down to Los Gatos I realized that I would not be able to get off at the point I had wanted; there was just no way to get from the trail up to Los Gatos Boulevard. So I kept on going. At the next exit I wandered off, trying to figure out how to move north and west towards my office. It turns out that that particular exit dumps you by the athletic field of Los Gatos High School, so I got to see the marching band practice. The only street out took me east, and from there I cut north.

Here I passed some really nice-looking houses. Los Gatos is a premium community in a premium part of the country. Last year, developers finished a parcel of new $1.5 million homes, and because they sold them, the average home sale price decreased 50% from a year before. I'm pretty sure that the homes I was walking by now were those that made the $1.5 million look cheap. They weren't new, and not all were in that great of condition, but they had great architecture, large lots, and one prime California real estate value: location. Of course, location is important anywhere, but even more so out here. These homes were built along a ridge, and in California, you can measure a person's net worth by their elevation. Looking down at the road below, I wondered how I could return to the third-estate world I was looking for.

After too many wrong turns (the Bay Area despises the grid system of streets), I reached my destination. I decided that on subsequent trips this wouldn't be bad at all. The whole trip, I would only need to cross one signaled intersection, a relatively quiet one near my apartment. But the next time I did this would definitely be on a bike: it had taken me three and a half hours to get down to the office.

I'd originally planned on stopping in downtown Los Gatos to get lunch, but a few things made me head directly home. First, I hadn't planned on taking so long coming down and wanted to get home. Secondly, I wasn't positively sure how a pedestrian could get to downtown, and didn't want to spend more time wandering side streets to figure it out. Finally, nothing particularly sounded good to me, and Los Gatos is fairly notorious for being expensive.

The trip back went smoother. I even found a shortcut that shaved a good fifteen minutes off of my return to the trail; a hidden and steeply inclined dirt cutout that allowed me to scramble directly up to the expensive-houses-road. I'm not sure if this shortcut is at all encouraged or even allowed, but it was clear I wasn't the first person to take it.

It only took me three hours to return to my apartment. I found coming back that several other exits from the trail could bring me just as close to home without needing to backtrack at all. Slightly tired but feeling satisfied, I went inside and have been mostly sitting down ever since.

I now feel inclined to gradually move ahead with the bike-purchasing plan. The trail is definitely nice enough to take, and I'm encouraged by the relatively little time I'll need to spend on city streets. Having gone for nearly a decade with very little riding, I'm sure I can pick up the mechanics of riding a bike quickly but it will take longer for me to recapture the special blend of alertness, reflexes and paranoia that served me so well in the past. So anyways, that's the plan for now. I'll probably hold off until the spring, once the rainy season is over, so I can start doing it in nice weather.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

I can see my house from here!

I've actually been meaning to post some pictures for a while. Oddly enough, though, the ones I want to share are all print-only, not digital, and I don't have a scanner here, so it'll probably be 2006 or later before those go up.

Today, we had a rare company-wide meeting at work today, and Tom Seago (Director of Client Engineering and one of the guys who hired me) took advantage of the opportunity by taking a picture. Not everyone is in here - a lot of people were behind Tom or dove out of the way - but I'd like to share anyways.

I started to write a quickie description of who everyone is, but I got embarassed because there are a few names I still don't know. Anyways, they're a great bunch, every day I'm still more grateful to be working here, and working with all of them.

Knives Out

This has been hinted at in some of my previous posts, but I'll feel better once I make it explicit.

I change my mind. Not constantly, but somewhat regularly. Things I like today I dislike tomorrow, and vice versa. My political ideology has undergone a twelve-year Odyssey from traditional conservative through rabid libertarian to my current peacenik/statist liberal position. While I am utterly secure today in the correctness of my belief, it would be foolish for me to imagine that this is the last stop along my intellectual evolution.

One of my three all-time favorite quotes is this gem from Emerson: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little philosophers, statesmen, and divines." I think there's an attendent statement by him of Thoreau along the lines of, "Whatever you believe today, believe it with all your force, and promote it in the public sphere with vigor. And should you believe the opposite tomorrow, be no less robust in your new belief." I was leery of this thought when I first encountered it in eleventh-grade English, but I've become convinced that it is right.

In large part, current political events have driven me to that conclusion. The many mires currently swallowing up America (massive debt, foreign wars, endless ideological battles) have, at their heart, a stubborn refusal to learn and adapt. I personally believe that, if Rumsfeld and Rice and Wolfowitz had known four years ago what the costs of invading Iraq would be, they would have held off. Now, though, nobody involved in the decision is willing to publicly acknowledge the very real mistakes and problems that occurred. They keep on digging the hole in the hopes that it will somehow lead them out.

As an aside, I dearly hope that the American people will have learned after the last election that it's more important to adapt your position in light of new evidence than it is to be consistent. That still makes me angry, so I'll move on.

Where was I? Oh, yes, this blog. This will serve as your formal notice that I will unapologetically change my opinions as my mood shifts. Sometimes this will happen over a short period of time; in the long haul, I fully expect to start writing critiques of years-old posts to expose what was wrong with them. I'd prefer to issue new posts instead of trying to regularly update old ones to synch with my philosophy-of-the-day.

The immediate impetus for this post is that I was looking through my "top fives" list of video games and found some choices I strongly disagreed with. For example, while I do really enjoy Final Fantasy X, I find it hard to believe that it made it onto a Top 5 list. It seems a little soon to re-do the list, and even if I did it would just change again next week.

Same thing with my profile. I arbitrarily chose 5 movies and books, and did not list some of my favorites. I'll probably push it out to 10 so I get more of them in.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Dream On

My new million-dollar idea: a reverse recipe book. This would allow you to look up an ingredient, and it would then tell you what recipes that could be used in.

The impetus for this idea is my present quandry: I have half a tub of ricotta cheese in my refrigerator, with two weeks until its expiration date, and no idea of how to use it. I bought it for making lasagna, which is the only dish I know of that uses ricotta.

I imagine this is a common situation for people like me: single guys who enjoy cooking for themselves but don't have a lot of knowledge regarding foods. I have two great recipe books, which are wonderful if I already know what I want to make, but are rendered nearly useless in this scenario.

What might be even better is a computer program. You could create a mini food-database, feeding it with the stuff you currently have in your kitchen, and it would spit out the stuff you could make with it, sorted by cuisine and preparation time. That would rule. It wouldn't be too complicated to create, and after the initial setup it'd be a cinch to run. Maybe I'll do that next weekend. Oh, and as an option, maybe it could create suggested shopping lists... as in, "If you had this extra ingredient as well, you could also make the following dishes."

While I'm thinking about food, here's a great website for nerds: Cooking for Engineers. Take a look. It has a really innovative and (I think) incredibly clear way of describing recipes. The food sounds pretty good, too.

Thanks to my friend Jennie I have a new plan for tonight: Frittata! I don't think I've had one before but the description sounds good. Takes a little while to make, but that will give me time to ponder whether or not I want to watch the Emmys, after a three-hour tape delay, and with just one race (Best Actor) that I really care about (although wins for Lost and Arrested Development are certainly encouraged).

UPDATE: The frittata turned out well. I'm still almost certain this is the first time I've had one. Jennie summarized it as "like a baked omlette," which seems like an accurate description to me. My substitutions: Ricotta cheese for cottage cheese, ground beef for ham, and onion powder for chopped onion. The recipe I followed didn't say how many servings it made, but I ate a quarter of the result and that seemed about right. So, um, yes. Hooray for food!

Saturday, September 17, 2005

My Dinner With Aaron; or, Christopher's Continuing Adventures in Public Transit

As some of you may already know, during my recent job hunt I had to choose between two very attractive offers. The choice basically came down to, "Do I want the better job with more career opportunities, or the job in San Francisco?" Nothing against the South Bay at all - I love it here, I knew I'd love it here, and it's so much better than KC that the extra comparison to San Francisco really isn't needed. Still, I love San Francisco. It's my favorite American city, a beautiful place filled with wonderful people; it is safe, and easy to get around in, and has an incredible amount of resources considering its physical size and population (less than 0.75 million people in less than 50 square miles).

I had fun fantasizing about selling my car and living in the city. Ultimately, everything I read pointed me to the conclusion that, while visiting SF is a lot of fun, living there would just require too many sacrifices financially. I'm toying with the idea of living in SF and commuting down here, but not on my current salary. For now I'm content to live my life in San Jose, and occasionally venture north to explore.

Given the enormous pull SF had on me during my job search, it now seems surprising that I didn't go there at all in my first two weeks here. This is mainly because I was busy with my moving stuff. Also, going to SF really is a weekend venture... it takes at least an hour each way to get there, and to make that feel worthwhile I'll want to spend a good chunk of time up there.

In this particular case, I had the opportunity to do it on a weekday. Aaron, a fellow Computer Science major from my days at Wash U, is a SF native and had returned here after graduation. In a surprising turn of events, he was leaving SF for Cerner shortly after I left KC for Rocket Mobile. We decided to meet up in the city before he left to catch up and to let me pick the brain of a city insider.

I love public transportation, almost as much as I love walking. I plan to never drive into SF if I can avoid it. I live about 5 minutes away from the San Jose Dridiron station, the main terminus of Caltrain service into SF. (This leg will get even better in about a month when I'll be able to walk a block to light rail, then take the rail to Dridiron.) Trains leave regularly, and during rush hour Caltrain operates "Baby Bullet" trains that get you into the city in under an hour, as opposed to the normal 90 minutes. And SF may have the best municipal transit system in the US. I'm sure this is open to debate, but I've never been disappointed in it (even after my experiences on this fateful night). Streetcars whisk you to the most popular destinations, and a good bus sytem fills in the gaps.

After some coordination, I eventually decided I would catch a 5:30 baby bullet, which would get me into SF by 6:30. I would take the Ocean Beach line to Embarcadero, then transfer to any one of three lines that would take me to West Portal. From here I'd be a short walk from a Peruvian restaurant Aaron had eaten at before and had recommended. Each line would take me roughly 15 minutes, so I told Aaron to expect me around 7:15, thus adding some buffer time when waiting for a connection.

I left work around 5:00 PM that Wednesday, an early departure for me. I knew from experience that getting into San Jose would be a breeze, so half an hour would be plenty of time to navigate the unfamiliar station and find my train.

Well. Even the best roads have their hiccups, and 280 had a major one this early evening. It's the first and only time I've had trouble getting into San Jose, and I'm still not sure what the deal was. Based on the time, the heavy traffic should have been going in the opposite direction. For whatever reason, I crept along at about 5 MPH for most of the way there. I finally arrived at the station exactly at 5:30. For once in my life, I hoped that the train would not be running on time.

For the first time in my life, I failed to pay for my parking. It cost $1.50, which is a good deal, but the machine didn't make change and I wasn't going to give it a fiver - I'd rather risk a fifty dollar parking ticket, call me weird. I sprinted across the street and into the station.

I love technology. I really do. But when it doesn't work, it really doesn't work. I spent a good 5 minutes wrestling with the automated ticket machine. Fortunately, it accepted credit and debit cards; unfortunately, it didn't accept MY credit card. I tried over and over again, then eventually flipped it around and inserted it the other way. Of course, this caused the card to get stuck in the reader, and I spent another few minutes attempting to extract it. Finally I finished and, having paid for a "day pass" to Zone 1, moved into action.

Of course, I had missed the train I wanted, but another bullet was scheduled to leave in 25 more minutes. In retrospect I should have taken the time to make change and return to pay for parking; instead, I made myself comfortable. At last, we lurched off.

The ride itself went well - the tracks are smooth, passengers are quiet and polite, and while the train got full I got to keep my seat. Unfortunately, it's not a very scenic route - not exactly ugly, either, just a lot of strip malls and rundown fences. Still, I enjoy seeing anything new for the first time. Next time I'll bring my PSP.

Speaking of which, I definitely saw more PSPs used in public this one evening than I had altogether up until then. Mostly guys my age using them, first on Caltrain and later on the Muni. Makes sense - it's even more portable than a book, and it's hard to resist the combination of music, games and movies.

I debated whether to call Aaron letting him know I was delayed, and decided against it. Although I was arriving behing schedule, there was still some buffer built into it. Also, I figured I could take a few more minutes' lateness and claim to be "socially tardy" or whatever.

At first, things seemed to be going well. Even though I hadn't made the Caltrain / Muni connection before, I quickly figured it out and caught the Ocean Beach line right before it left. I picked a nice seat by the window and settled down. I had looked at the transit schedules the day before and worked it out - about 15 minutes to Embarcadero, then transfer to K, L, or M line, then another 15 minutes to West Portal. Simple!

Not so much. I am still not sure how this happened, but I missed the Embarcadero stop. I didn't know it at the time, of course. I listened to all the station announcements, and looked at all the signs, but completely missed it. For those of you who haven't used it before, for a portion of time all the streetcar lines move underground and become subways. I recognized that I was in the subway, and was pretty sure that Embarcadero was at the edge before the lines diverged and became streetcars again. So I waited and waited, as the car became more crowded, until we passed through the Castro and once again ascended to street level.

I was concerned. But, being the passive person I am, I didn't want to leap out of the car and take a line in the other direction. So I waited and waited, hoping that I had been wrong about the layout, that Embarcadero lay ahead and I just needed to wait a bit longer.

I gave up on my plan once we passed a sign pointing the way to Golden Gate park. Just then, a streetcar passed going in the opposite direction. "Crumb!" I thought. "Now I'll need to wait another 15 minutes for the next one!" I went ahead and got off at the next stop anyways, realizing I definitely wouldn't gain any time by continuing further in my errant path.

(The one redeeming feature of this whole mess is that I had seen that sign to Golden Gate Park, which would give me confidence in my next journey to the city. Please see the post entitled "Peace Love Music" for more details on this subsequent expedition.)

I only needed to wait for about a minute, though, until the next car came. It was nearly empty, which made sense given that the prior car had just come by. I made a call to Aaron, apologized profusely and gave him my updated ETA.

The annoying thing about my missed connection was that, even after having missed Embarcadero, I could have gotten off at any one of the next four stops and still made the transfer. Because I had mentally put Embarcadero at the wrong end of the subway, though, I had lost my chance. Now that I felt reasonably sure of where I was going, I resolved to get off at the first stop and do my transfer there.

From here on out, things worked fairly smoothly. I think it was the Hamilton station when I switched over to the L line. From here it was a straight shot to West Portal.

I disembarked and looked around. The streets are kind of funny in this area, but I oriented myself and walked the half block to Fresca, where Aaron was patiently waiting, more than 45 minutes later. We went in, chatted with the hostess, and began the enjoyable process of perusing the Peruvian menu.

Dinner itself was enjoyable, doubtlessly aided by the fact that I was incredibly hungry. I had a dish whose name I prompty forgot, it was a sort of roast beef thing with good potatoes and corn. Kind of comfort food, I guess. On rare occasions like this when I don't need to drive afterwards I always try to try new beers, and had a great dark stout that was surprisingly sweet. (Sweet as in sugary. Though it was also sweet as in totally awesome.)

It was also nice catching up with Aaron. He asked for and received some pointers on navigating the unique corporate culture at Cerner. I got some warnings and advice about the Bay area. At the end I handed over my copy of "Hiking KC," my lifeline for two years in the city. It was originally a gift from my friend Arline, and I'm glad that it will coninue to get use even after I'm gone.

We parted ways and I headed back to the subway. One thing that still bothers me about the Muni is the way some of their entrances work. Unlike, say, the CTA in Chicago, depending on how you enter a streetcar you will need and receive totally different passes or receipts, and I've yet to work out how they... well, how they work. You're supposed to be able to transfer to any other line within 90 minutes of paying a fare, but if you start on the street level you don't get a pass that opens the turnstiles, just a paper receipt. I assume there's some way to do it, but I have yet to work it out. In any case, I was past the transfer time anyways and so paid again, though I still want to figure out how it works. Probably should have asked Aaron. (If you know, please pass it on!)

I caught an M line back to downtown, then transferred to the Caltrain line. I was really nervous. The second-to-last train left at 10:00, and it was already 9:50 when I boarded. Again, I knew it was supposed to take 15 minutes back to the station, and again found myself in the odd position of hoping that the train was running behind schedule.

For the second time, no such luck. I arrived promptly at 10:05PM, and would have to wait until midnight for the last train. The depot is actually pretty nice, and I would have enjoyed waiting there, but I was too keyed up. I decided to get BACK on the streetcar and head over to Market Street - not to do clubs or anything, just to walk around and see it up-close at night.

I went back and re-boarded. I waited about 10 minutes on board and they still hadn't moved, so I got off. It was clear that the lines didn't run as often this late at night, and I wasn't relishing making a choice between heading back very early anyways or missing a departure and thus missing my last chance out of the city.

Instead I decided to walk around. The CalTrain depot is technically in SoMa, or "South of Market," which is generally thought of as one of the riskier areas of SF. From what I'd seen on the way down and back, though, it looked safe. I was in a spot near the harbor on the east side of the city, just a few blocks from the new SBC ballpark where the Giants play. I crossed the street and headed north.

There's a nifty memorial in front of the ballpark for the victims of the September 11th attacks. I walked past and admired the architecture. They made a good job of making it look nice, with lots of brick and good colors.

Further north, there was a nice, small city park. At the far end was an entry to the harbor. It looked like the sort of place that would be closed to the public, but there were no signs or gates opposing me, so I went on in. I didn't pass a single other person as I walked past all the private boats at anchor. The bay breeze was incredibly refreshing without making me chilly. I walked further in, then turned at a right angle to enter a pier. This jutted really far into the water. Eventually I reached the end, where I paused for a few minutes and did slow 360 degree turns. The city was beautiful and from here seemed utterly silent. I could see the awesome lights of the Bay Bridge still further north, and twinkling lights of little boats out at sea, and more city lights from the far coast. Everything looked perfect.

This was by far the most peaceful moment of my evening. Refreshed, I headed back the way I came and eventually made my way back to the street. From here I could have headed further north along the waterfront, but instead decided to cut across King Street and work my way back. There are some very new-looking and, I'm sure, unbelievably expensive condos in this region, many with names like "Ballpark Heights." You can also see the expected high-end restaurants and shops that thrive in such neighborhoods.

Foot traffic was light this late on a Wednesday night. I passed a few pedestrians, some walking their dogs. About halfway back to the depot I cut through another park further north, then worked my way back parallel to King. This was an area that, while still not seedy, definitely lacked the polish that the shoreline had.

I completed my circuit with about 30 minutes to spare. I picked up a copy of "The Onion" (America's finest newspaper), my first time seeing the local content in the San Francisco edition, as well as both independent tabloids. Thus armed with plenty of reading material, I boarded the train and made my way home again.

As Kingsley Adams once said, "It's an experience. Pity there had to be so much of it, though." I had a great time and would still have gone if I'd known of all the obstacles in advance. I like to imagine that, every time something like this happens, I'm building up good transit karma for the next time I need it.

The End.

Oh, but here's a postscript while I'm thinking of it. You Wheatonites may remember "Christopher's Adventures in Driving." This was my pitch for a soap opera, filled with comedy and tragedy, based on my experiences learning to navigate the streets of Wheaton. I moved to Illinois at the age of 16, and had never driven on a one-way street before. My fragile Minnesota mind had a difficult time adjusting to Wheaton, where things were generally laid out on a grid system, but with enough exceptions to throw you off when you were unprepared. Invariably when we would go out my Junior year, someone at point A would say, "Hey, let's all go to Point B!" I would grab one or two other people who were feeling lucky or masochistic. We would head out, and after a hilarious-in-retrospect series of missed turns, misreading of street signs, deliberate misdirection by my erstwhile companions, we would arrive at Point B half an hour after everyone else, whereon Scott Wyngarden would make fun of me for not realizing that Gary turns from a two-way into a one-way street. Fun times. Anyways, while I complained loudly at the time of how confusing it all was, I really do enjoy getting to know the layout of a new city. I do look forward to more Adventures in Transit in the next year or two to come.

As a final note, while I really do enjoy writing up these things, I'm finding it hard to justify the amount of time it takes to do these mini-travelogues. I'll probably just do highlights from now on - that is, not list everything that happens to me on a weekend, just the best thing every month or so.

Thursday, September 15, 2005


Oh frabjous day! Callooh, callay!

Got back home to find the Internet had been activated. Mmmm yeah. Still no static IP, sadly, but I'll tackle that tomorrow. Will there be bloodshed? Probably not, I'm in a good mood.

First order of business: catch up on the webcomics I've been missing and chat with my AIM buddies who only come out at night. This will probably be followed by some light surfing for more civ4 information. And then, back into Morrowind. (Incidentally, you are being addressed by the Imperial Cult Primate, Mages Guild Arch-Mage and Grandmaster of House Hlaalu. More to follow.)

I hope something similarly positive has touched your day as well.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Teen Angst

Still no Internet at home, sadly. I'm going to start wearing a hairshirt if it's still off tonight, just to get my mind off it.

I realized that I totally forgot to write about one of the sets on Saturday. Which is pretty odd, because it inspired my heading for that post. Saul Williams' set was probably the most hard-hitting and discomforting of the day. His music was incredibly powerful, but spoke directly to the anger and disaffection felt by many. His piercing opening song had the demanding refrain "Tell me where my ******* at," which reverberated, duplicated, overlaid itself until the lyrics were like a wall pressing out at the audience. Stirring stuff. Like J-Boogie and Spearhead, hip-hop colored most of his set, but again, his take on it was more brooding and challenging than optimistic and inviting.

He had some great moments. During one song he sang something like, "All these young brothers today, out doing weed, losing their minds. We should give them some magic mushrooms and open up their eyes." He also ordered people to dance, but got few takers.

On a totally unrelated note: after taking a break of several weeks after the move, I'm diving back into Morrowind. I'm getting close to complete on several of the guild tracks (Mages, Fighters, Thieves, Imperial Cult, Morag Tong), have already completed Hlaalu, and am at least halfway through all the other guilds (Imperial Legion, Temple). I think I'm entering the last stage of the main plot, too. I haven't even started Bloodmoon or Tribunal yet. I'm kind of racing through it now for two reasons. First, I'm getting increasingly excited about the upcoming release of Civ 4 (recently pushed UP to October from November). Secondly, the next Elder Scrolls game, Oblivion, is coming out later this year and I'd like to have wrapped this up before I start on that. The Elder Scrolls games aren't exactly sequels, and I wouldn't be spoiling any plot points if I jumped into Oblivion, but I get the feeling it'll be too frustrating to return to Morrowind's engine once I've tasted the new one.

Hope all is well with you!

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Peace Love Music

By now you should know that I'm enjoying being surrounded by lefties. This weekend I felt like I was finally a typical bay-area youngster, trekking into San Francisco for "Power to the Peaceful." This free concert, featuring various performers and speakers, is now in its seventh year. It started as an awareness event for Mumia Abu-Jamal, and has grown to a 20,000+ festival supporting a wide range of issues. This year the focus was on ending the occupation of Iraq and bringing the troops home.

I still haven't written up "My Dinner With Aaron; or, Chris's Continuing Adventures in Public Transportation;" that is a tale of comedy and tragedy that should be appearing shortly. Suffice it to say that I got all my mistakes out of the way and this time around it was smooth sailing. Caltrain left San Jose at 8:00 and arrived in downtown San Fran around 9:30. From there, the N line swept me out to the western portion of the city. I deboarded in the Richmond once I saw a sign pointing the way to Golden Gate Park, where the concert was to be held.

Now, as you probably know, Golden Gate Park is a huge park. Much like Forest Park in St. Louis, it is a mixture of green spaces and roadways that includes civic buildings, gardens and recreational lakes. I had a vague idea that I needed to go north and west to get to the concert site and figured that I could afford to amble over there. The event had started at 7:30 that morning with a yoga session, so I reasoned I'd probably missed a set or two.

Getting through the park proved more difficult than I expected. It is pretty densely forested, with fewer lawns than I expected, and the roads make lots of scenic twists and turns. Several times I realized I was now going south and east, and would retrace my steps to get back on track. Eventually, I saw a road blocked off from traffic. Moving closer I could hear an afro-beat soundtrack and made a beeline into the festival.

Although the event was free, they were asking for donations of "whatever you want to give" - I dropped in two Sacajawea coins. I then moved in to explore.

The space was at least ten times as long as it was wide, surrounded by trees on all side. Traffic naturally flowed through this chamber, surrounded on both sides by a variety of political booths. These tilted even further left than the ones I'd seen at Tapestry Arts, including "Solidarity International," "The 9/11 Truth Campaign" (which also had a huge presence in Kansas City), "The Socialist Party," and far more. They also had typical festival food booths, and some not-so-typical ones, including several vegan booths and one serving raw foods.

As I moved forwards I realized that the beat I'd heard was not coming from the main stage, but rather a smaller tent. Past that there was an open green filled with tall three-sided pillars. Each was devoted to a particular cause and had texts and images explaining its importance: Ending child labor, wiping out HIV/AIDS, ending world starvation, third-world debt relief, and more.

Moving onwards, the afro-beat faded and a new one took over. I moved towards the main stage, on which an awesome band named J-Boogie'’s Dubtronic Science was performing. The crowd was a little mellow, mainly lying on blankets on the grass. In these situations I tend to feel awkward if I'm by myself; I don't want to plop myself down between two large groups if I'm clearly alone. So I picked out a space a bit further back and sat down on my shirt. (Side note - I love that it finally makes sense to dress the way I've enjoyed dressing since high school [jeans, sneakers, t-shirt covered with flannel]. Layered clothing is absolutely essential here. It was chilly when I got off Caltrain and quite warm by the time I made it to the festival.)

Second side note - Garrison Keillor is totally rapping on Prairie Home Companion now. About Kansas. This is REALLY freaking me out.

Anyways. I was really getting into the mood of the set, and it was starting to bother me that I was too far from the stage to really see the performers. I saw that there were some people standing on the left side of the lawn; for whatever reason, I don't have the same hangup about standing somewhere by myself that I do with sitting. So I crossed over and moved closer to get a better look.

J-Boogie really was phenomenal. Their sound is hard to describe; the lead singer comes from the reggae/dub tradition, but the underlying sound is more like contemporary funk/hip-hop expressed through smooth house. The instrumentation was eclectic but it really worked. There was a great groove going, and I was a little disappointed that people weren't dancing. Actually, I was disappointed in the crowd size overall; it was a decent turnout, but in that huge of a space it felt overwhelming. Still, the music itself was all I needed to keep me happy.

It just so happens that I was standing behind a couple of young guys sharing a joint. I still haven't been here long enough to become inured to the sight of public drug use. (Yes, I am aware that this happens at concerts all the time. Still, because of the location, this felt very much like an open space, and they were totally visible from the walkway.) Still, I don't really mind it, so I hung around. At one point one of them caught my eye, came over to me, and sort of extended his hand so it jutted out a little bit at waist level. He didn't say anything, so I shook his hand, smiled, and said "Chris." He smiled and said "Ray." (Not his real name. Not protecting him, I just forget what he said.) He pointed at my shirt and said "Like your shirt." For the first time in ages I'd donned one of my high school standards, the 1998 Illinois Economics Challenge shirt with the cool Illuminati logo on the front. I laughed, and he went back to his friend.

Later, I came to wonder if there's some special handshake or something that drug people use. I felt kind of like he was seeing if I would do or say something special. Or maybe he was just buzzing and wanted to be friendly. Either way, it's cool. (If you have any light to shed on the topic, I'd appreciate your comments.)

J-Boogie finished their set to a lot of applause. In retrospect, they probably played the best music of the day, and it's a shame more people weren't there to hear it. I moved back into the sun when the speakers came on stage and walked around a bit. Throughout the day they had a good selection, including Robert Greenwald and the founder of Code Pink in addition to local activists and poets. I was impressed by the quality of the speeches; they were always brief, forceful, and on topic. Lots of people referenced the tragedy in the gulf coast, butGreenwald was the only person to really convincingly address the issue, talking about how it was revealing the morally bankrupt priorities in our country.

The next performer (who I believe was named Jean Grae) was unable to appear on account of a broken foot, but her DJ came and spun some tunes instead. It felt a little surreal - I don't know much about hip-hop, but recognized all but a few of his selections because they were featured in GTA: San Andreas radio play (Playback FM and Radio Los Santos). I didn't need stage access for this so I picked out another spot on the lawn and lay down. It was well past noon by now and the place was filling up. A couple of Asian girls put down a blanket on my right, and some older women on my left. In front of me were three generations of Studefellers (at least that was the name on their cooler), who listened to the music, laughed, ate, drank, and passed a bong around. There were dogs of all sizes, including a large, friendly Golden Retriever and two young chihuahas (sp?). All ages were in evidence; while the crowd as a whole skewed younger, some old-school hippies were in evidence, and many families had brought along their infants and toddlers (thoughtfully providing them with earplugs).

After the next round of speakers came the only band whose name I recognized, Anti-Flag. They are, as Dave Barry would say, "Very loud." Founded in 1988, this traditional heavy-metal band powered through a set of high-voltage songs. They didn't exactly turn on the crowd, but they got applause at the end of every song. They tried really hard to connect with the audience; at one point between songs the lead said, "You may have different musical tastes than us, but there's one thing we can agree on: George Bush is the worst president in the history of the United States!" THAT got lots of applause. They may have been the most courteous of the bands, regularly thanking the show's organizers and volunteers. After a strong finish they headed out and the show speakers reclaimed the stage.

It was about now that I realized I'd been under the sun, without any clouds, lacking sunscreen and a hat, for an almost uninterrupted four hours. Just last weekend I picked up a bad burn while at the beach and didn't want to face another week of peeling. I got up and went in search of shade, and was shocked to see that while my back had been turned half of San Francisco had descended on the park. When I had sat down there were maybe four rows of people behind me; now the crowd stretched all the way back to the social agenda pillars. Impressed, I carefully stepped past everyone and looked for relief.

I found it on a hillside closer to the entrance, under the shade of several large trees. From here I could see the mini skate ramp and could hear some extremely smooth beats coming from the tent I'd passed at the beginning. I spent about half an hour on the hill, reading through all the various literature I'd been passed and hoping I'd averted a burn. (No luck.) When I felt ready, I headed over to the music tent.

The scene here was excellent. The tent itself was very shallow, only holding the DJ and his sound system; in front of it, a sort of grass dancefloor had been marked out in rubber tubing, and a great cross-section of the Bay Area was grooving inside it. I'm pretty sure the music was House, but even if it wasn't, it was great. You couldn't help bouncing around. The floor was surrounded on three sides by rows of people (including me) looking at the dancers doing their thing. Every once in a while someone just entering the festival would wander into the floor, look startled, then smile and make their way to the other side.

I could have happily stayed here the rest of the day, but I knew the festival was drawing close to an end and wanted to at least hear the final band. Once more I trekked down the green to the main stage.

Here, I was greeted with a surprising sight: people here were dancing, too! Everyone was on their feet, and at least in the front, you could see bodies moving, hands thrown thrust skywards, and that infectious vibe spread through the audience.

The final set was by the headliners, Michael Franti and Spearhead, who founded the festival and are the primary organizers. The final hour is hard to describe in words, but I'll do my best. I've never been to a Grateful Dead concert, obviously, but I imagine it looked a lot like a lower-energy version of what I was seeing. Franti has long hair and is an enthusiastic force on the stage; every couple of minutes he would yell "I WANT TO SEE EVERYBODY JUMPING!!!" or "PUT YOUR HANDS IN THE AIR!!!" Occasionally helping out with vocals was Radioactive, a beatboxer and rapper who was on stage on crutches, having just left the hospital after a run-in with a drunk driver. About halfway through the set Marie Daulne, fresh off a plane at Mineta Airport, came to help with singing and dancing. They were backed by a multi-ethnic, multi-genre, extremely talented group of musicians. Franti played electrical and acoustic guitar. Several DJs kept the beats rolling. A free-form percussionist assisted with cymbals, bongos, whatever was handy. A bass, violin, and keyboard rounded out the band.

Often times, you'll hear the word "stage show" used to describe the lighting, props, and gimmicks that a band uses to enhance their overall performance. I can't use that phrase here, though, because the real show was happening out in the audience. I'm not sure how much was planned by Spearhead and how much came from outsiders, but enough was coordinated that you could discern an intelligent design behind the spectacle. Yes, there were beachballs and bubbles. There were giant Pogs, with the faces of famous people (Einstein, Gandhi, MLK, Margaret Mead, etc.) opposite their famous, pro-peace quotes. Giant dove puppets, each operated by five people, wended their way through the crowd. Several dancers elevated themselves on mobile platforms above the crowd and grooved for all to see.

The show nearby was fun, too. I was right on the periphery of the most enthusiastic group of people, so there was a mixture of individuals who were really getting into it and those who merely tapped their feet and swayed. As I gradually worked my way closer (a technique I've largely perfected in other standing-room-only events), the joy grew even greater. This is where I wanted to be. Of course, you can dance anywhere, and you can jump up and down whether the people around you are doing it or not, but at heart I'm a conformist and it's when I'm surrounded by such people that I can relax, forget about what others might be thinking and just have fun.

The jam just kept on going, each song bleeding directly into the next. The music never stopped; even when Franti wanted to talk about something like Katrina ("A message from our Mother Earth that we need to listen to."), he would keep on strumming or let someone in the background keep up a simple beat. Like all great frontmen, Franti has a voice that is an instrument itself.

It felt to me like there were three parts to the set. The first you could call "Joy": lots of energy, constant exhortations (cheerfully obeyed) to dance, and a voluminous outpouring of information, challenges, creeds and ideas. The second you could call "Peace": while still encouraging people to move around, it felt more subdued, and the drive was more towards reflection than expression. In one song, Franti chanted "We all got freedom of speech, but we're not listening to each other." This was a time for calm and recharging. The set ended on three phenomenal pieces that I call "Love": he directly addressed our love for family and friends, love for the earth and all mankind, that needs to power us. The music fit this part as well, returning to a more upbeat tempo but seeming to grow more radiant and warm. Towards the end of the second-to-last song, he said:

"Everyone who came here with a family member or a friend, put your hands in the air. Now take the hand of that person and hold on to them. Let them know you love them. And if you're by yourself, grab hold of someone near you, because we're all in this together." The bearded young man next to me (who had a dog that looked exactly like Ein from Cowboy Bebop) grabbed my shoulder and pulled me in. I put my arm around him and everyone swayed as we sang "Don't Fear Your Best Friends". Yeah, I know, corny. But it was a sweet gesture, and seemed heartfelt. When the song ended we smiled at each other and moved back apart as Franti launched into the final song.

As with all great experiences, I didn't really want it to end. Still, it was an incredible feeling and it's still with me now, twenty-four hours later. The sense of community remained intact once the music ended. Power to the Peaceful was a leave-no-trace event, and everyone spent a minute picking up all the trash (plastic, cigarette butts, cups) from the lawn and placing it all in the right container (compost or recycling). People gradually filtered out through all the exits.

At the festival they'd been promoting the Power to the Peaceful Afterparty. I was sorely tempted to go; held at 1015 Fillmore, it would run from 9pm-4am that night, featuring three levels of music including concert performers. I was most attracted by the upstairs, which was to feature a DJ Showdown between local House and Breakbeat artists. I'm pretty sure that House is my second-favorite sub-genre of electronic music (though, as I've observed in an earlier post, I'm not always sure whether what I'm hearing is actually House or not). Plus I was in a mood that I wanted to prolong. In the end, though, that would have meant going until 4am and then waiting another four hours for a train back home. Also, I didn't know where 1015 Fillmore was, or how to get there, or what kind of neighborhood it was in. So I regretfully decided to make my way west, towards the ocean, to pick up the end of the Judah line.

Going out was just as confusing as coming in. I eventually hit the southern end of the park and decided to just walk through the Richmond rather than re-navigate it. The streets were rather quiet with just the occasional car going by. While the houses in this area weren't beautiful like the Victorians further east, everything looked well-maintained and livable. I trekked generally westward, occasionally cutting south, until I reached the end of Judah street where three streetcars were lined up.

Having some time to spare, I decided to keep on going, and got my first proper look at The Pacific Ocean via San Francisco. WOW. You cross a busy street (that will be familiar to anyone who's played San Andreas... heck the whole city will be familiar to you) and walk up something that's not even really a hill, just a bump in elevation. Then, BOOM! You're at The Ocean. No development as far as you can see, just sand and water and sky. Even more impressive is the wind; I walked into a gale stronger than anything I'd ever felt in Chicago, just an enormous force ripping eastward off the water. I'd donned my long-sleeve after the concert, and almost had it ripped off my body again by the force. Everyone was enjoying it, though... nobody was swimming, obviously, but you could see people running their dogs, folks lying down and talking, or just strolling near the surf. The sand was blowing everywhere, but never rising more than a few inches. I just marveled at it for a while, then turned around and headed back to the streetcar.

The ride back home was pleasant. I was happy to notice that I wasn't the only person to give up my seat for a woman when we entered the busy stretch between Castro and Embarcadero. I reached the Caltrain station with ten minutes to spare, and had some pleasant cell-phone conversations while taking the ninety-minute journey back to San Jose.

In all, this was yet another fantastic outing. I got to hear great new bands that I didn't know existed, had a warm and fuzzy shared experience with many fellow human beings (crowd estimate was between 20 and 50 thousand), saw a good chunk of the city up-close and personal, and ate a really excellent gyro. Good time, and something I'll definitely look for next year.

UPDATE 9/13 8AM PST: I'm posting this on Tuesday after writing up on Sunday. As mentioned in my previous post, I'm having Internet issues. I'm not as angry now, though. Turns out that I wasn't being singled out for particular abuse; nobody in my entire complex has Internet access. I actually saw the Space Age technician and chatted with him a while last night. Sounds like SBC screwed them over... they need to travel over an SBC trunk, Space Age fried a piece of equipment, only SBC will sell a replacement, and they can't get it until later this week. So, while that stinks, I now have an explanation and can continue doing what I do best, thinking bad thoughts about SBC. I'm HOPING that, once they fix this, my static IP will magically start working; most likely, I'll start my pestering cycle over again.

On a note more related to this post: I think that, if it wasn't for my expensive taste in electronics, I could happily live life as a hippy. Oh, and if you're curious, Spearhead has posted a video with clips of last year's Power to the Peaceful. You can also check out tracks from J-Boogie via the link in the story above; as with most of these bands, though, you really need to check them out live to get the experience.

Also, a friendly warning: Don't use Blogger's spellcheck if you're using Firefox! I just found that out the hard way, it messed up my post. Apologies for any messiness I haven't found.