Thursday, December 28, 2006

Up against the wall, Google!

A quick note for those of you who frequent Timmy's House of Incandescent Sprinkles: It's taken longer than I expected, but I've finally hit the limit of 250MB of storage for photos. I'm still too cheap to pay the $25 annual fee, but other than that I'm happy with the service, so I'm going to start clearing out older albums to give myself more room. I think I'll be taking down albums from my hikes older than a few months, since even more than other albums those are really created for my own edification. Over the long run I'll probably start taking down non-hiking albums as well, though I'll try to keep those on as long as I can.

I'm going to keep a single image from each album up just so I can easily remember what albums I have without opening Picasa.

I keep full-resolution originals of everything on my PC, so if you ever want to see something I've taken down or would like an image for a wallpaper or a print, just let me know and I'll shoot you a copy.

The Most Boring Blog Post Ever

Yesterday, I performed not one but two minor acts of near-handiness. It really doesn't take much at all for me to feel pleased with myself and start puffing up. I have (with good cause!) a very low opinion of my skill at accomplishing practical tasks, as opposed to, say, setting up a network. I almost never have occasion to do anything more complex than change a light bulb. When something does come up, I'll often spend an inordinate amount of time poring over any available reference material before I begin tackling it, and then will patiently work through the chore at the same speed we usually associate with glaciers.

So what were these tasks? Honestly, I'm embarrassed to even talk about them, not just because they're so simple but because their very existence indicts me. The first thing was replacing a windshield wiper blade. I should probably point out that my car is three and a half years old, and this is the first time I have ever replaced a blade. It has needed to be done for some time now. In fact, I actually bought a blade over a year ago, but it has been sitting in my trunk until I felt properly motivated. (It rarely rains in the Bay Area, and I make frequent use of the free windshield cleaner at gas stations.) I squinted and cursed at the unhelpful illustrations on the back of the wiper case, then scrutinized the existing wiper, carefully disconnected it, then snapped the new one into place. After a few practice wipes I declared success. I'm still a little concerned that some day I'll turn it on in the middle of a storm and watch the blade go flying off the car, but for now I'm feeling proud as can be.

I did this after coming home from work (after the Longest Day Ever), and when I walked over to my mailbox, I saw an enormous window screen lying on the ground. "Huh," I thought. "I hope that isn't mine." There was sort of a funky smell in my apartment when I got back from my Christmas holiday, so before leaving for work in the morning I had opened up all the windows. While taking my typical strolls around the building, I had noticed that it was unusually windy outside, and with the events of the previous 24 hours I thought it would be entirely fitting if the one day I had kept my windows open was the one day the winds were strong enough to rip the screens out of their frames. I went upstairs and found out that I was correct, although I'm uncertain whether that should make me feel smarter or dumber.

I grabbed the screen and brought it up. After only about 5 or 10 minutes of wrangling, I was able to mostly get it back into the frame. There's one particular corner which isn't very secure, and short of bringing up a ladder so I can force it from the other direction I think I've done as much as I can. Still, I'm going to call this a victory, since with all the torsion I was applying to it I should have permanently damaged the screen.

And so it continues. Small victories in fields where I make no claim to greatness give me enough confidence to keep on going, inordinately pleased at my range of abilities.

The Further Stories of Chris's Adventures in Transit

Have you ever had the experience of making a decision that you initially thought was smart, but turned out to actually be bad? Yeah? Me, too. The most recent example I can think of was planning my trip home over the Christmas holiday.

I had been hounding our HR person since August to find out what days we would have off. I fly Southwest and have accumulated some Rapid Rewards, and wanted to be able to use them for the flight before the rewards seats were all taken. Despite my repeated badgering, I didn't find out the time until October. By then I couldn't use my free flight, but I went ahead and booked immediately, because tickets only become more expensive with time.

Because of an upcoming vacation I wouldn't be able to take off any additional days, but I wanted to maximize my time home. Flying east is always a pain, due to the time zone changes, so travel generally eats up an entire day. I know from prior experience, though, that the day before Christmas vacation is generally slow, so I arranged to fly out that afternoon. On the return, I wanted to squeeze in one more family meal before coming back, so I picked an 9PM flight that would get me back to Oakland around 11:45.

I should briefly discuss the airport as well. I prefer flying out of San Jose because it's closer, smaller, and best of all I can take public transit there and back. However, the last few times I've flown to Chicago I have travelled out of Oakland. Southwest offers several nonstop Oakland-Chicago flights as opposed to just one from San Jose, plus it is generally cheaper. Oakland is close enough to be a feasible airport for me, as is San Francisco. The system I have developed is to drive up to Fremont, park in the BART lot for a dirt-cheap $5 a day, then take transit in to the airport. All considered, this is a very inexpensive way to fly, but one that requires a fair amount of time.

I ended up having disappointments on both ends of the trip. On the way out, we were notified in late November that that Friday night would be the company's holiday party. I was pretty bummed by that... I'd had a wonderful time at the previous holiday party and had been looking forward to it. However, I wasn't looking forward to it enough to pay $600 to move my flight back to Saturday, so I reluctantly decided to keep my existing itinerary. Then we found out a few weeks ago that on Friday afternoon we would be having the white elephant gift exchange. Once again, that was something I'd enjoyed doing last year, and in retrospect I probably could have attended and still caught my flight, but with holiday traffic on 880 I was concerned enough that I skipped out early.

The actual vacation home was wonderful. This is a post about bad things, not good things.

Oh, another complaint: in both directions of my trip, I checked in for my flight about 22 hours before it took off, and in both cases I got a "B" boarding pass. I really miss the good old days of Southwest where this was a secret that not everyone knew about.

Now for the big one: right before leaving Chicago, I started to worry about my schedule for getting back home. When I'd originally booked, my thoughts had been along the lines of "Well, 11:45 is pretty late, but for one night I'll be good to drive it." I'd completely neglected to take into account the fact that I was relying on other transit to get back to my car, and a quick check online showed that the BART shuttle only ran until midnight. Suddenly things looked very grim. Even if I arrived on time I'd need to dash to make it outside before midnight, and the odds of the last flight on the day after Christmas arriving on time felt very slim.

Getting to the airport was a breeze. I started to worry when the flight before us was late leaving the gate, putting us behind schedule even before we were done boarding the plane. I needn't have worried, though, because even if we'd boarded on time we would still have been late. I love Southwest, but I have come to discover that they adhere to an iron rule of travel: "Never delay one flight when you can delay two flights." A connecting flight into Chicago was running late, and in order to help those travellers catch this flight, they held the whole thing until it arrived.

All that considered, I wasn't surprised at all that I was late arriving in Oakland. (The trip itself was fun - I created a few islands in Me & My Katamari and read an entire Terry Pratchett novel.) The pilot teased me by saying that we would only be arriving about 5 minutes behind schedule, but I eventually realized that he was talking about our scheduled flight duration, not the scheduled arrival time.

It was after midnight when we touched down, but I headed out anyways. I had an irrational (and doomed) hope that, what with It Being Christmas Time, BART would be running an unscheduled extended shuttle service. No such luck. I next thought of grabbing a taxi - it would be more expensive than my parking, but if I got to the station soon enough I could still catch the last train. However, there were about fifty people in front of me in line, and it was moving slowly enough that I could tell I wouldn't be able to make it in time. So, with heavy heart, I went back into the airport.

I actually had heard a story on NPR just the week before about an airport in England which is used by Ryan Air and has become an unofficial hostel. People arrive the night before so they can take the super-early, super-cheap flights. Like the reporter in that story, I needed to contend with the janitorial staff dragging belt sanders across the floor, tiny cushioned chairs, and other minor indignities. Obviously, I couldn't go through security again, so I spent the night in the area by the baggage claim. (And I was not alone - other flights, surely delayed, were still arriving as late as 3:30.) I can't sleep sitting up, so most of the time I read "Zodiac", but it got to the point where I was doing the little blackout-and-tip-forward-then-wake-up thing.

All in all, it was a pain, but not the worst night I've had.

The shuttle starts up again at 5AM, although it only runs every 20 minutes until 6AM. I headed out there early, because (1) hope springs eternal, and (2) I am a fool. I figured that maybe they started the shuttle early at the airport so it could get to the station by 5AM, and I was in a hurry to get home, and I didn't want to wait 20 minutes if I missed the first pass.

So, I ended up waiting 30 minutes - as I should have anticipated, the shuttle starts at BART (there are more people flying out at that unpleasant hour than arriving), and doesn't arrive at the airport for a while. Which wouldn't have been bad, but Wednesday was an unusually cold, blustery day. I started off in just my jacket, but by the time the bus arrived I was decked out in full Chicago regalia, including scarf, gloves, and hat, physically shivering in the cold (though I guess my lack of sleep may have just been giving me shaky legs).

I boarded and went back to the station, and felt grateful that I had spent the night in the airport instead of this open brick sculpture. I went to the platform and discovered - surprise! - that there had been an accident and my train to Fremont was delayed. I sat down on the cold bench and briefly lost consciousness a few more times.

In the end, the train did come, and I had enough time to go home and shower before driving in to work. I usually don't drink coffee, and an advantage of that is days like Wednesday. Two cups kept me going throughout the entire day until I went home, went to bed, and slept the sleep of the dead.

I want to end with that note, but I won't. Closing thoughts:
First off, I'm still astounded that, with the general high quality of public transit in the Bay Area, only one of the three airports is directly on a rail system. The other two are so close to a station that I can only shake my head in wonder and frustration at why they were passed over. I think this is one of those classic things where even if it only saved a few minutes off a trip, the psychological impact is so great that far more people would take advantage of transit to the airport.

Second, I really want to see BART come to San Jose. After a night like that, I'd like to just ride all the way home instead of squeezing behind a wheel for part of the time.

Third, I need to be a better planner. I'm generally good, but I just dropped the ball on this one. (On the bright side, I know I won't be making this particular mistake again.)

Fourth, I'm kind of impressed at what a huge cheapskate I am. At no point during the night did it even occur to me to take a taxi back to San Jose. (I'm also incredibly shy. It didn't occur to me to give anyone a call at 3 in the morning to see if they would give me a ride.)

I guess that's it for now.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Shaking all over?

So I apparently had my first Northern California earthquake last night. Only problem is, I didn't feel anything. Don't know if that's a product of me living on the second floor of a building or what. I have to admit that I feel a little bummed... I've been living here for almost a year and a half, and feel vaguely cheated that I still don't know what an earthquake feels like.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Give me some credit

I first got credit reports back in the ancient, pre-free-annual-report era. I was planning on buying a car after graduation, and knew it would be a good idea to make sure my credit was clear before applying for the loan. I hit up all the credit agencies separately. Where they offered it, I just got a report without a score; for at least one of them, I needed to get the score as well.

I realize this isn't a contest, but I was a little pleased to see how much credit history I had, considering I was just 22 years old. I had a single credit card by that point and a line of credit from my bank, plus some history from a Best Buy finance I had done for my PC. My Fair Isaac score fit into the "good" range, which made me happy.

That car was the biggest purchase I've made to date, and while I've continued to be interested in my credit, it's more out of a concern about identity theft than needing to worry about my score. I don't see any major finances coming up until I buy a house (which should occur sometime around the year 2060), so I can afford to relax about it.

That said, I'm fascinated in looking at stuff like this, and when Congress mandated the free annual credit report, I popped online the first day it was available in the Midwest and got all three. Or at least, I tried to. The Equifax and TransUnion ones came through like a dream, all pleasantly delivered online; it was interesting to see how some items would only show on one report, it was a little like getting two different witnesses to the same series of events. For some reason, the Experian report couldn't be delivered online; they asked me to send in a printed request for the report, but I blew it off. If there was any problem with my history, I knew it would've shown up in one of the other two agencies' reports.

After reading an article later, I came to the conclusion that I had probably made a bad choice by splurging on all three reports at once. You're entitled to one free report a year, but nothing says that all reports need to be retrieved at the same time. If you space them out four months apart, you can monitor your credit throughout the year, and get a bit more advance warning if any suspicious items start appearing.

So, I waited a whole year, and then started on the new system. First up in April was Transunion. Everything looked great. Next, in August, was Equifax. No problems there. Now, in December, was time for Experian.

Once again, I couldn't get the report online. All agencies work more or less the same - you fill in your name and SSN, then they challenge you with a few questions about your credit history. This is more challenging than it sounds, because the actual names of companies that you deal with are different than you might thing. For example, I had a "GM" credit card, but the actual bank name was "HSBC". So when I couldn't get my report online, I figured it was because I flubbed one of these identification things, but still went ahead and sent in the hard copy. It had been a few years since I'd seen Experian, and I wanted to make sure it was still in synch.

The report arrived last night, and my jaw dropped when I opened it. It was 18 pages long, and filled with item after item that I'd never heard of before. Kansas Credit Counselors? Affiliated Accep Corp? I apparently had a loan from Honda that was way overdue. I thought at first that I'd gotten someone else's report by mistake, but only because all the negative items were up front; once I got farther in I started to see familiar accounts.

The problem became a bit clearer when I reached the "Personal Information" section. Here too were many items that did not belong to me, but these made a bit more sense. Among my many aliases, apparently, are "Christopher S. King" and "Chris S. King". It listed two social security numbers that I've never seen before. Evidently I got married at some point to someone named "Danny." And there were a large number of addresses in Kansas and Missouri where I have never lived before.

At this point several things clicked into place: I had a doppelganger. This isn't exactly a new thing for me. There was another Christopher King who went to my elementary school in MN, was a grade ahead of me, and occasionally our information would get mixed up. At one point my medical records were swapped with another Christopher King. More recently, when I got auto insurance after graduation, I had to untangle the unpleasant fact that another Christopher King had stayed at my address before me and had amassed a bad driving record... untangling that mess was unpleasant. And for almost a year I was included on the FAA's No Fly List - or rather, someone with a name close to mine was, and I suffered the consequences. As my mind turned, I thought of credit rejections that I had never worried about because they were so minor - a card from Fry's and a charge card from Kohl's. When I had thought my credit was clear I was sure these were due to my recent move or some other external factor, but suddenly I realized that my pristine credit history wasn't so pristine.

While I like Christopher King, sometimes I'm not a big fan of Christopher King.

I was greatly annoyed, but once I figured out what was happening, it became easier to deal with. I was glad to discover that my identity hadn't been stolen, just confused. I'm by nature a problem-solver, so the question became, how to solve it?

Experian has a handy web site for disputing credit information, but it didn't really fit what I needed. The online tool is more oriented towards basically correct reports and allows you to challenge individual items which you believe to be inaccurate. In my case, I didn't think that the items were necessarily inaccurate, just that they didn't belong to me. As much as I dread using the phone, it seemed like my only shot at unraveling the tangled story of Christopher C King and Christopher S King.

I called soon after I arrived at work this morning - I usually arrive around 7, two hours before most people start coming in, and wanted to deal with everything while it was still quiet. Experian has an automated system that uses one of those annoying voice recognition things, where you need to actually speak in order to navigate through. My biggest complaint is that it doesn't work very well; even for simple things like "Yes" I often need to repeat myself. Even if the software got better, though, I'd still hate it because when I'm in an office I don't want to speak any more than necessary. It disturbs others, and I'd much rather press buttons than say my social security number out loud for all to hear.

Some of the stuff I could handle directly through the menu; it let me divorce my spouse and change my birth year. But for the crucial items - names, addresses and SSNs - I needed to speak to a live person. And - SURPRISE! - representatives are only available from 9AM-5PM local time. I cursed a little; since I figured the service representatives were probably in India anyways it seemed really arbitrary to not let me talk with them until business hours started in California. Still, whatever. I was in process now and willing to wrap it up.

After 9 rolled around I called again. This time the voice recognition was even worse than before, which ended up being a good thing - it got frustrated when it couldn't understand my inscrutable pronouncements ("Yes"), so it gave up and let me use the keypad instead, which is what I wanted in the first place. I raced through the same items as before, and ended up getting patched into their live support network.

Did I have to hold? Of COURSE I had to hold. But it wasn't the worst hold I've had... maybe about 20 minutes to reach the first tier, then another 5 minutes for the second tier. It did get me to thinking, though. For most companies out there, it's in their interest to provide at least a basic level of phone support. They need to balance that against expenses and as a result may have poorer support than one would prefer, but if it's very unsatisfactory people will ultimately take their business elsewhere. The credit unions are an interesting case, though, because they make their money from businesses, not the individuals who would call support. As much as I might like to, I can't cancel my Experian account; if I was on hold for an hour, I would be infuriated, but would have no tools at all to show my displeasure. So, why do they provide any support at all? As I see it, there are only two possible reasons: government regulations and the threat of government regulations. Either they are required (by the US government or perhaps by their corporate clients) to provide a certain level of support, or they are afraid that if they sufficiently alienate individuals, an outcry will erupt (much like that which led to the free annual credit report) and the clamps will come down.

Be that as it may. The first person I talked with was articulate and pleasant and on the phone for all of 30 seconds. I started explaining everything that was wrong, then she transferred me to someone who could process my entire report. The second woman wasn't quite as nice to talk with, but was extremely efficient, which I definitely appreciate. We spent about five minutes of me reading off addresses, accounts, and more stuff which I had marked off on my report. After each one she would say "I have removed that from your account. What is the next one?" I was half-expecting to need to challenge and explain each one, so it was nice to breeze through them. I guess that she could probably check them to see who they were opened by and see that it was the OTHER Chris King.

After that all went through, she sort of summed up what was going on. They had removed all the inaccurate stuff from my personal section. In order to avoid any problems in the future, she recommended that I always use my middle name when opening accounts. All of the bad credit items were instantly deleted, except for the Kansas Counselors one, which were opened by "Christopher King" without a middle initial. In that case they will contact the lender and hopefully that organization will shift it over to the real culprit.

I'm glad to see that it's mainly over now. Dealing with this is kind of a pain, but at the same time, it's kind of nice to have an explanation for a few things which hadn't made sense before. It also makes me a little curious and paranoid about the exact identity of my doppelganger. I sort of imagine that the bad information that I have is a composite of different mistakes, but what if they all fit one person? I am fascinated by the thought that there is a Christopher S King who was born on July 5, 1978, and who lived at 501 W 8th St #311. If that was the case, then I'm less upset at Experian for confusing the two of us, and correspondingly impressed with Equifax and Transunion for keeping us straight. And wouldn't it be wild if this was the same person who used to go to my elementary school, and who landed the two of us on the No Fly List?

Be that as it may. There are just a few small hurdles left to overcome, and I'm hopeful that once they're through, my record will have fended off the intruder and will once again be mine alone.

UPDATE 12/30/06: Huzzah! I just received mail from Experian containing my updated and corrected credit report. It looks good - all references to any negative incidents have been deleted, leaving only my pristine good name intact. There's one single thing that doesn't look right; it looks like they deleted my Kansas City address instead of his, so it still shows me as having lived in his apartment. Sigh. I need to decide whether or not to call them again about this, but I probably won't... it was far enough ago for both of us that I doubt it will cause more problems in the future. Anyways, it feels great to have my life back!

Monday, December 11, 2006

24 Hours in the Valley

I get to break two hiatuses (hiati?) within the span of a few days - the long gap in blog updates and the longish gap in visitors. In order to kill two birds with one stone, here's the quick story of Dan's Adventures in San Jose.

Dan is one of my good friends from college. We were apartment mates my senior year, but have shadowed each other since we were on the same dorm floor freshman year. Dan was unique in a lot of ways - a rare Mac enthusiast in our crowd, a scarily intelligent person even in our group of hyper-achievers, and one of the most athletically inclined among our crowd. He was accepted into the prestigious Wash U Medical School, and as a soon-to-be-graduate, is now making the rounds of respected hospitals for his residency program.

He is considering Stanford among the dozen or so schools he is looking at, and this past week came out for an interview. He stayed with a friend closer to the university earlier in the week, and apparently had a very successful interview. After some heated negotiations, I agreed to meet with his hosts over Dim Sum on Saturday for the handoff.

I still look at visitors as a great excuse to get out and hit more restaurants, and it was nice to find another place to add to my list. I don't even remember the name of this one, though I think it was something like Pan Tao; it's on the opposite corner as Cupertino Village, an impressive Asian mall that includes the other Dim Sum restaurant I've eaten at. I managed to embarrass myself slightly to the three Chinese people at my table - first by failing to properly eat a fried chicken foot, later when I couldn't even pick up a broccoli spear with my super-slick chopsticks - but it was tasty, so I wasn't complaining.

Dan and I had been looking forward to hiking, but the forecast that day called for lots of rain, so we had to find another plan. We decided to do the trip over the Santa Cruz mountains to visit the ocean. I took the more scenic Highway 9 on the way down, and we got to enjoy equal portions of nature and mountain civilization. One of these days I'll actually stop in Boulder Creek and see what's there.

By now I've pretty much settled on that one beach my mom and dad found as my showcase, so I headed directly over there once we reached Highway 1. I just really like it... it's private and secluded while still feeling impressive. The water level was higher this time than on any other trip I've made, with all the sand in the cove wet and the rocky outcropping surrounded by water. So that was cool; an entirely different look for a very familiar location. It was also a very windy day with choppy waves. I scrambled up the rocks and we spent a good amount of time staring at the encroaching waves and chatting. Once we were almost frozen through, we went up to the headland to check out the ocean from higher up. The crops had been harvested, so the field was more barren than I remembered.

After a quick trip back up on 17, I did the speedy driving tour of downtown San Jose, including my first-ever circumnavigation of the SJSU. I learned that it's much less attractive from the east and south than it is from the north and west. We also got stuck in traffic around Plaza de Cesar Chavez; the holiday extravaganza was in full swing and spilling out onto adjoining areas, so patience was required to get through.

We briefly recuperated in Casa de Cristobal by catching up on the previous night of Battlestar Galactica, which we had both missed. It's always fun to share some camaraderie with a fellow fan. So say we all!

Dan had eaten at a ton of Chinese restaurants by now, and we decided to experiment with some non-Asian cuisine. I took him out to Rico's in downtown Campbell. This was my second trip there, and I was as impressed as before - really fresh-tasting food, pleasant atmosphere, prompt service, all you could ask for. I decided that from now on I'll always order a taco al pastor for all of my visitors. It's so amazingly tasty, it is a revelatory experience. I went seafood this time with a shrimp platter, while Dan found the beef in carne asada. An excellent meal, and enough for me to decide that Rico's will be my go-to restaurant for guests.

That night was Video Game Madness. Dan, while a very intelligent person, has been sadly deprived in his video game exposure. I broke out Rez, and he enjoyed it even more than I expected. From here we continued the music theme with an introduction to Guitar Hero. Dan just blew me away - I had to ask him a few times if he had played before. He played all the way through the first two venues without failing a single song, and managed four stars on most of them. I was quite impressed. Next we went old-school with Ico, where Dan experienced anew the wonderful experience of running around a room for five minutes while trying to figure out how to open a door. The night ended with us both staring bleary-eyed at Civilization IV.

Dan's flight left on Sunday morning, but there was still time for a trip to Southern Kitchen, the one absolutely obligatory item on my guest itinerary. He had Eggs Benedict for the first time in his life and apparently was quite taken by them. I feasted on the weekend special of Kiwi, Strawberry and Banana Waffles, one of the most decadent-looking dishes I have ever seen, complete with a separate pot of whipped cream. I concluded with a super-compressed tour of Los Gatos (just the Silicon Valley Auto Group and my office), and then we were speeding northward to the airport.

Dan isn't even to the halfway point yet for interviews - he does University of Washington today, travels to the East Coast on Wednesday, and has even more later on. Still, he seems to have liked what he saw of Stanford and the Bay Area. Needless to say, I am pleased - while I love playing host, I think it'd be even better if all my friends relocated here. More fun for me, a better life for them - everyone wins! I'll just keep the California Love growing until my dreams come true.

Monday, November 13, 2006


It was a bit of a marathon, but a very rewarding one: I have finally finished David McCullough's excellent biography "Truman".

It's been on my list for a few years now. I never really took notice of Truman until fairly recently; he and Eisenhower sort of ran together in my mind as bland Presidents who served between Roosevelt and Kennedy. My interest began to wax when I moved to Kansas City after graduating from school. KC is close to Independence, Truman's hometown, and while people are certainly not obsessed about him, he does come up in conversation there more frequently than he does in other parts of the country. For a while I'd meant to visit his presidential library in Independence, which I've heard is quite fine, but sadly I did not get around to it before leaving.

Honestly, the single biggest thing which kindled my interest in Truman was when Howard Dean named him as his favorite 20th century President. He quickly rattled through a list of his accomplishments - "He oversaw the rebuilding of Europe, and he integrated the armed forces. He took positions which he knew were unpopular because they were right." As someone who idolizes Dean, I scarf up all information related to him, and decided that if Howard thought Truman was great, he was worth learning more about.

"Truman" is a darn long book, though, so it became one of those things that sits around on my to-read list without getting tapped. I made my first stab during the family reunion, but ended up immersing myself in Charles Williams instead. More recently, after being spanked by Gravity's Rainbow I was determined to prove that I could still read "big books," so I got it again and embarked. This was a few months ago - I have renewed it multiple times and steadily plug away at it. When I started I would read a chapter or two out on the balcony when I got home from work; now it is dark when I get home so I do some reading before going to bed.

McCullough is a great writer... he makes the subject very interesting without making you feel like he's sugarcoating or exaggerating anything. He lets Truman's warts show, which adds to the believability of the book and also to Truman's essential character as "the common American." The book is strongly sourced throughout, and McCullough regularly quotes from diaries, letters, newspapers, memoirs, whatever he can get ahold of. Often times these serve to make a great point or demonstrate what people were thinking; other times I felt like McCullough just felt like he needed to demonstrate the research he'd done.

While the writing is great, it isn't perfect. He does occasionally repeat himself (which is forgivable in a 1000-page book.) Sometimes he tosses out statements without really justifying or explaining them - towards the end of the book he mentions the gradual reconciliation of the estranged Truman and Eisenhower, but he does not actually give any instances of friendship between the two and leaves the reader uncertain of what their relationship was at the end.

In terms of the actual writing, I think I prefer "1776." This is not a fair comparison - 1776 is by definition much tighter, more story-oriented, and packed with action. Given the larger constraints of Truman, though, McCullough acquits himself nicely. He spans nearly ninety years of history, focusing on what merits focus without neglecting the broader picture, and gives an impressive sense of how his actions changed America and the world.

For the rest of this post, I'll be talking about Truman instead of "Truman."

One of the first things that struck me was how lopsided his life was. The last long biography I read was Ron Chernow's phenomenal "Hamilton," and in that book I was struck by how this precocious boy struck out at an early age and accomplished amazing deeds at a young age. Reading "Hamilton" was exhilarating, but also made me feel a little guilty, like I had been caught slacking off. In contrast, Truman's political career didn't start until he was in middle age. The book sort of rushes through his early life, not because McCullough is in a hurry to get to the presidency, but because there just isn't all that much to right about. Other than his service as an artillery captain in World War I (interestingly, Truman's sole military role is the same as Hamilton's, though Hamilton comes across as more confident), his early life was filled with the local concerns of small-town Missouri: courtship, farming, and embarking on several failed businesses. In all that he does early in life Truman comes across as extremely likable and determined, but not all that bright or talented.

Truman had a brief career as a county judge, where he gained distinction by embarking on a successful building program: he got the work done, on time and under budget, and everyone was pleased with the results. From here he was catapulted into the US Senate, with the help of the corrupt Pendergast machine of Kansas City. I find this one of the most intriguing aspects of Truman's life, how a man who would do more than anyone else in rooting out corruption and waste owed his political existence to a big-city machine. A Christian, his personal morality kept him from sliding into the world of graft that lay within his reach; at the same time, being a lifelong committed Democrat, he was loath to attack any of his fellows, even when he saw them acting improperly. I suppose this is the dilemma facing all modern politicians: if you go to Washington and work only with people who have pristine ethics, you won't be able to get things done; at the same time, you need to maintain your own ethics and not compromise on the essentials. What I think is remarkable about Truman is how he didn't engage in the ethical horse-trading that we often see; he would compromise to get his way, but when he was convinced that something was right he would not back down.

Prior to reading the book, the thing that I admired the most about Truman was his work during World War II to expose and eliminate gross fiscal negligence in military spending. What's great is the way he (very rightfully) linked spending with the war and patriotism: he exposed how taxpayers' money was wasted, and more disturbingly, how military contractors were turning out shoddy equipment (from firearms to ships) that risked the lives of serviceman, and how these two trends combined to weaken America's military capability and thus helped the Nazi cause. Honestly, this has particular resonance to me because of my own frustration with the current war. It's getting better now, but in the early stages of the war anyone who questioned Halliburton's obscene overcharging or KBR's inadequate equipment was branded as anti-American and anti-military, when I think it's clear that Truman had it right: it is American to question, it is American to hold suppliers accountable, and the people truly hurting America are those who seek to extort the country, not those who want to stop them.


Anyways. The other thing I liked about Truman was how he didn't seem to really want the presidency - he didn't seek out the vice-presidential slot, and he didn't hope for Roosevelt to die. In this book I got a bit more nuanced picture of what happened. He loved the Senate and never really considered a run for national office, but when others approached him with the possibility he didn't flee from it. His hesitation was more specific: he only wanted to the job if Roosevelt wanted to give it to him. Possibly the most bizarre part of the book is the description of the the search for a running mate in 1944. FDR, who was such a masterful politician and so involved in everything, acted very strangely during this process, privately assuring multiple people that they were his preferred choice, seemingly agreeing with everyone in private but unwilling to make any public stand. I'm really curious why this was; McCullough doesn't speculate, but personally I have to wonder if maybe just a tiny little bit of dementia was started at the end of Roosevelt's life, or if he was unwilling to think too deeply about it because the decision was by definition linked to his own mortality. In any event, Truman was persuaded to run for the secondary slot, and after a lot of maneuvering (and very little help from FDR) he was on the ticket.

Truman was shut out of FDR's cabinet, and when Roosevelt died and Truman took over, he was thrust into one of the most critical periods of history. I feel like just not messing anything up would have been an impressive accomplishment; instead, Truman hit it out of the park with a series of controversial decisions that, in hindsight, were absolutely correct: strong support for the United Nations, massive spending for the rebuilding of Western Europe, standing up to the Soviets in the Berlin siege without triggering a third World War. Not to be too melodramatic or anything, but I feel like one of Truman's biggest legacies is the fact that we're all alive fifty years later. The doctrine he pursued, of firmly opposing the USSR while resisting all temptations of direct military confrontation, saved the world from Red domination and nuclear annihilation.

So what's there to dislike about Truman? Some of his personal attributes were either improper or colorful, depending on your perspective: he occasionally cussed, he enjoyed a drink of bourbon with breakfast, and he associated with some unsavory characters. All of these were things his opponents could point to as deficiencies in character, while to his supporters they demonstrated his ordinary character and connection with mainstream America. On a policy front, I think he was really solid on the whole, but he did fall short in a few areas: he instituted the first "loyalty oath" against communism, seized control of the steel industry, and permitted the Republicans to seize Congress in 1946. (His see-sawing popularity was amazing, matching or exceeding that which GWB has encountered in his presidency, with amazing highs at the end of WWII and the 1948 elections, and stunning lows in 1946 and during the Korean war.)

Another interesting issue was his oversight of the military. The US rapidly demobilized after WWII, and Truman did little to stop it. He had three good reasons for doing so: first, the move was wildly popular; second, he wanted to bring the budget back under control; and third, he and others felt that the US monopoly on nuclear weapons made conventional militaries obsolete. These were all fine motives, but when the Korean conflict began the military was not in a good position to meet it, and it's possible that the USSR may have been emboldened by the seeming weakness of the US. As an avowed pacifist I can't fault his mothballing of the army, but at the same time I can't help but wonder how history might have been different if he had maintained higher troop levels after the way. It might have been worse, I'm just curious.

The Korean war dominates the end of the book, and I found myself curiously affected by the sweep of the book. I have a hard time describing any war as just - some are worse than others, but there's always innocent death and they have a habit of spiraling out of control. Still, if one were to compare Korea to, say, Vietnam, it looks quite good in comparison. Again, part of this is just me being swept up in the book - after spending hundreds of pages getting inside the heads of these men, coming to understand their world and their goals, it's natural to identify with them. From their perspective, they were not only demonstrating a willingness to stand up to Communism, but also were defending against a fierce and unprovoked attack by a ruthless enemy that was causing massive civilian casualties. I can't say that I condone Truman's decision to go to war, any more than I can say I condone his decision to drop the atomic bomb, but it's a defensible decision. And having made it, I do admire the way he stuck by his decision to keep it a limited war, denying MacArthur's request to drop nuclear bombs on Manchuria even when MacArthur was far more popular than the president.

Throughout the book, but especially once he's in the presidency, two qualities of Truman really stick out for me: his vitality and his candor. This man whose career started so late in life seems to have kept the stamina of a younger man, and I was regularly impressed with descriptions of his physical activity. He lived to be 88 years old, and remained energetic until near the very end. As for his candor, Truman was truly plain-spoken, friendly, unpretentious and humble. His mouth got him into trouble plenty of times, but he always cheerfully apologized when he was in the wrong, and to me that's a great mark of character... not weaseling out of bad situations you've put yourself into, but instead facing them head-on.

I seem to be averaging about one biography every three years, and I think that's a pretty good pace for me. I'm pleasantly surprised by how real life can be as strange and exciting as the world of a novel, and it's great to have a ready store of anecdotes in case I ever get invited to a cocktail party. More seriously, it's good to be reminded that the world we live in was created by real people, and that the actions they take are extremely important. This is especially true for those of us fortunate enough to live in a democracy. It is my belief that we as a society are collectively responsible for the actions of our leaders. Every person who voted for Truman bears some responsibility for the freedom of Europe and the civil society of America; they also bear some responsibility for the nuclear age and the hundreds of thousands dead in Korea. The choices our leaders make today are every bit as momentous, and if we make poor decisions in the voting booth (or neglect our obligation to vote), our own legacy and our conscience will feel the consequences.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Never Winter in California

It's raining! We had a little drizzle of almost-rain a month or so ago, but yesterday and today are the first "real" rains of the year. I really don't mind. Sure, I miss being able to ride to work, but it is very liberating to know that I have a reasonable expectation that I will have days of sunshine and warmth in the months ahead. I'm not like Persephone descending into the underworld.

Colder weather and shorter days means that it's that special time of year, when video game companies release their best titles to grab a slice of the lucrative holiday season. Fortunately, they've gotten a little smarter about spreading around release dates more - someone eventually figured out that you're in better shape if you're the only gorilla in May than if you're competing against dozens of must-have titles in December - but it's still an embarrassment of riches. Case in point: this week saw the release of both Final Fantasy XII AND Neverwinter Nights 2. Two sequels to greatly loved RPG franchises arriving on almost the same day... craziness!

Not only that, but I'm amused to see Neverwinter and Elder Scrolls once again dropping major new games in the same year. I remember when Neverwinter Nights came out in 2002, and everyone thought it was going to win all the Game of the Year awards, but Morrowind ended up wowing everyone and walking away with a good chunk of them.

This week I overhead co-workers talking about going to Fry's to pick up NWN2, which got me all nostalgic and thinking about how excited I was when the original came out. In case you haven't noticed yet, I don't exactly have great breadth in my video game interests, but I am fanatically devoted to a few top-notch franchises. In the case of Neverwinter, I'd eagerly been awaiting it for well over a year, for a couple of reasons. First of all, it had been announced that it would ship simultaneously on Windows, Linux and Mac, and I was in a phase in my life where I felt a moral obligation to spend money to support Linux gaming. More than that, though, it had been six years since I had left Minnesota, and in that time I hadn't played any pen-and-paper roleplaying games. I really missed the humor and camaraderie and creativity of sitting down with some good friends and adventuring for a few hours. Even more than the game itself, Bioware was hyping the dungeonmaster tools it would ship with, and I dreamed of being able to campaign once again. As I've previously noted, I'm not a big fan of MMORPGs, but roleplaying with friends seems like just about the most fun I could have.

While I didn't feel betrayed by NWN, I was disappointed on multiple fronts. First of all, the promised Linux support got pushed further back and back; the client wasn't released until 2003. Furthermore, the dungeonmaster and mod creation tools were underwhelming. The game has spawned a robust creator community, but the reality of the toolset did not match the lofty expectations Bioware created. I was dreaming of a system where the game would handle all the tedious aspects of being a DM while leaving you all the open-ended gameplay; in reality, you had to choose between a practically non-existent DM and one who needed to exert superhuman efforts.

I was still glad to have the client, and I do enjoy RPGs. The first chapter was only OK, but I'd been told that the game got better later on. The final straw was when I upgraded the game and found that all the quests were broken... I would gather the item or something that an NPC needed, and they would act like we were meeting for the first time. In a rage, I uninstalled the game, and other than a brief multiplayer game with David hadn't touched it since.

Hearing talk of NWN2 made me think that I should try it again. After some effort I reinstalled the game, upgraded to the very latest version, and reloaded one of those old old games. I played for an hour or so, only to find that the quest was STILL broken. I guess I wasn't that surprised - future patches probably fix bugs in the game itself and don't correct savegames that have gotten into bad states - but it was still a deflating experience. I need to decide whether to keep going or not. The good things I've heard about the game and the expansions tempt me to keep at it, but memories of the incredible amount of time it takes to beat an RPG cause me to hesitate. (This problem is exacerbated by my preferred play style - I'm a rogue, and sneak everywhere, lure enemies away one by one to finish them off, and exhaust my conversation options with every NPC.)

What's kind of funny is that I now have a much greater love for Bioware than I did in my original play of the game. I didn't start playing the Baldur's Gate games until later, particularly the phenomenal Baldur's Gate 2. In some ways, returning to Neverwinter Nights makes me disappointed for what they left behind. Sure, the graphics are far better, and I think I prefer the third edition rules, but I really miss the great party system of the Baldur's Gates games. Particularly in the sequel, I was just as interested with the relationships NPCs had with one another, their own progress and evolution, as I was with the main plot of the game. Planescape: Torment was just as strong in this regard, with incredibly fascinating and rich characters that you came to know and care for intimately. And in NWN? You get exactly one henchman who you can hire to follow you around. That's it. Do you want a sorcerer and a thief? Too bad, you just get one companion. Granted, the individual henchmen have interesting stories, but they lack a lot of the complexity that came from having a large party.

At some point I need to decide whether I want to get NWN2 or not. I keep flip-flopping on this. My first thought was, "Oooh! Bioware RPG is good!" Then I realized that Bioware didn't actually make it, just some company called Obsidian. Then I realized that Obsidian was made up of ex-Black Isle folks, the guys who actually made Baldur's Gate. Then I realized that I would need to worry about system requirements again. Then I realized that NWN2 gives you an expanded party to play with. And then... well, I sort of started wondering whether I'd be better off beating the first game before playing the second - you can't import your character, I'm just wondering if I'd be missing on some of the plot and story. That just circles back around to the problem of time - I'm not sure if I have time to play the game I already own, so why drop $50 on a new game I won't have time for?

I ended up deciding to defer the decision to my next upgrade. My current thinking is that in the first half of 2007, after Spore comes out, I will upgrade my computer and get Spore, Oblivion, and maybe NWN2. On the bright side, by then the worst bugs should be squashed and the mod community will have had a crack at the game.

PS: Anyone who has a blog on Blogger, it's worth switching to Beta just for the vastly improved spellchecker.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

All Things Go, All Things Go

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 20, 2006

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

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

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

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

Other, unrelated thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Lappy 486

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Average of Second Life and Half Life

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

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Genghis Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unrelated news:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Burn This Blog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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