Sunday, February 26, 2006

No, more like: BattleSTUPID GalactICKY!

This started as a comment on Pat's blog in response to his post about Battlestar Galactica, but was growing way too long, so I posted what I had and figured I'd round it off here. I wrote this up and then marked up the spoilers; if you're interested in the topic but don't want to learn too much, this post follows the form ABCBA, returning to "minor spoilers" and "no spoilers" after the central spoilerific section. As always, very little of this post is actually about BG, more about things that popped in my head when I started writing about BG.

I just downloaded and watched the series pilot - it's very cool. I agree with Pat's analysis, it's great to have a series that's AWARE of major issues without necessarily being ABOUT them. To me, it feels more like a conversation than an agenda.

Minor Spoilers
In my favorite example, we have that moving speech from Commander Lewis Black in which he very eloquently says, "What is wrong with us? What if humanity isn't worth saving? What if the Cylons deserve to destroy us?" I was thinking, "This is a good speech, but it doesn't fit what Pat was saying about the show treating topics laterally - I mean, he's directly talking about humanity's evil here." And yet, soon after giving this speech, he shows absolutely no hesitation at all in fighting against the Cylons, and is the strongest voice in favor of trying to destroy them rather than flee. Now, that doesn't necessarily mean that his speech was wrong, but it does show that we only have the luxury of thinking about these things from a position of safety. Right now in the US we have a great dissent movement that's critical of our government, but that would evaporate over night if we suffered a land invasion.

It'll be interesting to see where things go from here. The pilot/miniseries was such a unique beast, I'm curious how it will translate to a hour-a-week (or whatever it will be) format. I get the feeling it will inevitably lose some of the sweep of the pilot, and then the temptation will be greater to say, "This week is about Redemption!" or "This week is about When It's Okay To Lie!" Still, if they continue to do it with the style and intelligence I saw on display here, it won't be a problem.

My favorite characters are the Commander and the Chief Engineer, although Dee is incredibly cute. I'm really bad with names, obviously. Corporal John McCain is deliberately unlikeable but an interesting, useful character. If I remember year-old chatter on the Internet properly, Starbuck was a man in the original series, and it sort of shows. I'm kind of adrift on the President right now, but whatever... I feel like they're trying to cram too much into one character without giving her enough screen time, so a series might help. Oh, and Gaius is cool, a great character with a lot of potential.

I admire the show's willingness to use older actors. Ever since seeing U-571 it has infuriated me when movies or shows feature captains in their 20s, leading people even younger than themselves; not only is that terribly inaccurate (especially for sci-fi, where in the future technology will help keep old bodies strong but will not be able to provide experience to the young), but it's dramatically disappointing as well; there's a whole world of experiences and situations that only apply to people old enough to be parents or grandparents, and too many productions are cutting themselves off for that in exchange for a hot young star with box-office draw.


I'm sure the answer to this will be known to everyone who has watched the series, since it's too big a piece to let go, but I'm terribly intrigued by the slip of paper the Commander holds at the end, which said something like "THERE ARE 12 MODELS OF CYLONS." My questions boil down to, where did this come from, and when did it arrive? To have access to that kind of information, it seems like the humans must have a spy of some sort in the Cylon nation. The alternative is that it came from Gaius, who has somehow figured this out by examining the Cylon artifact, but this seems unlikely to me. But if it is a spy, either the Commander has some secret communications channel only available to him, or, what I think is a far cooler and more chilling possibility, this message predates the Cylon invasion. It's possible that the fleet knew of the Cylon doppelgangers, and ensured that only a few trustworthy people at the top knew about it so the Cylons wouldn't discover there was a spy in their midst. This could explain how the Commander figured out the "smuggler" was actually a Cylon.

And the bit with the Asian pilot being a Cylon. I thought that was well done. When I saw her at the end I went, "whoa," then I thought back to the scene where she and the refugees are taking off from the planet. She's chatting with the young boy, and says something like, "both of my parents are dead too." It seems like that would be the perfect way to plant a sleeper agent, whether they're aware or not: find a place where some people have died, create an "orphan" and send it in. I'm guessing that Gaius is right and some Cylons might not even be aware that they are Cylons; if so, I bet there will be an episode where she needs to make a choice. Oh, and that discovery also raises the question of how long they have been infiltrating. Up until that moment I'd assumed it had just been a year or two; I figured the pilot's opening scene was meant to establish that the Cylons had finally perfected believable humans and so that was why the invasion was starting now. But if a Cylon can make it all the way through flight school and into the ranks, this must have been going on for a while, and their infiltration might be even deeper than I had thought.

Something that didn't ring true for me: the odds that two of the twelve Cylon models would be on the Galactica and that particular transpot ship. It's probably safe to assume that at most only a few copies of each model were sent to infiltrate; the fleet would get suspicious if too many identical-looking people were running around. I can buy the Galactica getting one, but why would they waste one on a transport carrying someone who is 36th (or whatever) in the succession line for President and which has no combat capabilities? The rationalization might be that they realized, given the Commander's distrust of networked computers, that the Galactica would be a tougher nut to crack and so had additional agents in the vicinity, but still, I'm not buying it.

Also, the fleet was inside the cloud for a decent length of time, so why didn't the pilot start to get sick? We don't know exactly how long it takes, but I would expect to see something, given the relatively little time it took the "journalist" to get sick after he was cast off.

Let's see, what other nits can I pick... this isn't a complaint, but I'm wondering about Gaius's hallucination-or-chip dilemma. At first I thought that the fact she continued to manifest after he entered the cloud meant she was a hallucination; we know signals can't penetrate it, so it seemed likely that he was making it all up. (In fairness, if I knew I was responsible for the extinction of humankind, I'd probably go a little crazy as well.) But now I'm not so sure; having a chip doesn't necessarily mean that it has uplink capabilities, or that it can't function in the absence of communication with a base station. The stranded Cylon continued to function autonomously, so the chip theoretically could as well. Actually, from the ending scenes I feel fairly confident that it can't communicate, or at least not over a broad range, or else they wouldn't be talking about spending decades hunting the survivors down. If there is a chip, it'll be interesting to see whether it's a ROM or an EEPROM; in the latter case, I bet a part of the series will be the chip adapting to Gaius even as he adapts to having the chip, which could be a very cool situation.

I want to write about some stuff that might be of interest to people who haven't seen the series, so I think I'll break back into Minor Spoilers in a bit. Just so we're clear on code words: when I'm talking about "you gotta have faith," I'm talking about the Commander's Earth speech; and when I'm talking about networking vulnerabilities, we're talking about the Gaius/Cylon navigation system as well as the Cylon penetration of the defense computers. Okay? All right.

Let's break back into
Minor Spoilers

Hi again - I want to talk about some things that are loosely based on things in the miniseries but not really ABOUT the miniseries. (Sound familiar?) Continuing to read from this point will clue you in to some general events or themes, but they're not that huge in the story and I won't go into any details here. Fair enough? Let's continue.

First, something that irritated me: the pilot ends with a rousing message that says, essentially, "It's important that people have faith. It doesn't matter what they believe in, but they need to believe in something." This is a theme that's increasingly present in creative works I've encountered recently, and while it's not necessarily a bad sentiment I think it's a false one. I'll just sort of ramble and rant for a little while.

First off, this thought is generally given to someone who doesn't actually practice what they preach. The Commander offers something to believe in, but he himself knows it to be false. He's not schizophrenic, just lying; from a position of authority he is encouraging others to accept the falsehood for their own good. So the platitude is obviously incorrect here from the very beginning; the Commander doesn't have faith, and he's still determined to continue. Faith, therefore, is not a prerequisite for endurance. This is just sheer intellectual arrogance; the Commander knows that he is strong enough to continue without belief, but thinks that everyone else needs a crutch to lean on.

Secondly, I don't buy the message that belief is superior to skepticism. I first thought about this when reading "The Life of Pi" last year, which was a really good book, but advanced this idea that the most important thing was to believe regardless of what you believe in. I don't have the book here so I can't quote it, but Pi says something along the lines of the atheist being far superior to the agnostic, because the atheist believes in an absence while the agnostic has absent belief. I have trouble buying this either on a large scale or a small scale. Skepticism is what fuels a search, that forces someone to go out and investigate for themselves; in the process they may discard old beliefs, acquire new ones, and strengthen ones that previously existed. Now, an agnostic who says "I don't know so I won't bother to think about it" isn't a true skeptic and may be deserving of Pi's scorn, but one who says "I think I believe in God, but it's hard to know for sure, and there are so many different ideas out there, I need to look at this more carefully" is in a far better position than someone who says "I know there is no God, I believe it with all my being, and I never need to think on the matter again, only to repeat my belief." Or think of a smaller situation. In my office, there are some people who always go to lunch at the exact same place because they like the food there; they believe it is the best. Others regularly try new places they've never been before. Sometimes the latter group pays too much or has food they don't like, but I think that in the long run, their nondogmatic approach to good food earns far greater dividends than those who find something they like and stick with it.

Finally, I don't buy the underlying idea that having belief is more important than the object of that belief. There are all sorts of things one can believe in - that Jesus Christ is the risen Son of God, that a Flying Spaghetti Monster created the world, that a secret society has controlled human history for millennium, that the United States is the best nation in the world, that the white Aryan race is superior to all others. Are we really supposed to admire racists for the strength of their belief? I think some things are better to believe in because they have more truth; other things are better to believe in because that belief leads to good outcomes. Belief doesn't exist in a vacuum, it controls our entire worldview and may be the single greatest component in determining our actions. Returning to BG, the Commander's proposed belief has determined a course of action for the survivors, one that will propel them to a lifetime of endless movement. What if, instead, he had instilled in them a belief that humanity was cruelly treated and must seek revenge? Then they would find a suitable location for a base and begin constructing weapons. Or what if the belief was that they were safe from the Cylons and could begin anew? Then they would look for a suitable planet and reestablish civilization. My point is, it's foolish to deny that faith has consequences, and while it's true that providing a faith can move one to action, a bad faith can be far worse than no faith at all.

Enough of that. On to another quibble I have with a lot of popular entertainment that was manifested in the BG pilot: the idea that networked computers are inherently vulnerable to malicious operations. This is a relatively minor plot point in BG, but is the same idea that is more excitedly explored in sci-fi movies like The Matrix and the Terminator movies. The scenario that keeps being recycled is that all computers and machines and robots are connected to the Internet, then the Internet becomes corrupted, so all machines everywhere are taken over.

As a programmer, this is one of those things that sort of irritates me. Not because there isn't a threat, but that the threat they describe isn't exactly the real one, and they gloss over the reason why there is a threat. Just thought I'd write about it a little. Feel free to skip over this if you've taken a networking course because you've already figured all this out.

When two computers communicate (and remember, a computer these days is basically anything with a chip, so in a decade this will include our refrigerators and other stuff), they are just sending pulses to each other. In order to do something useful, they need to be able to interpret these pulses. This is handled through what is called a "protocol stack". Suppose I want to send you an IM saying "Hi". In this case, the payload is the binary code that translates as "Hi". Now, if just "Hi" arrived at your computer, it wouldn't know what to do with it; so we use an application-layer protocol which adds extra data to the payload which translates as "This message should be delivered to port 67823", which is (theoretically) the port where your messaging program is listening for messages.

But how does my computer know where your computer is? If we're both on the Internet, I can use a transport-layer protocol which adds some extra data to the payload, saying "Deliver this to IP address", which is your IP address. Other computers can understand how to direct this message even if they don't know the precise location of your computer.

Anyways, that should give you a basic idea of what's going on. Ultimately we have two applications that are communicating, with extra information that facilitates their communication. The "network" is the connective tissue that joins computers together; the "nodes" are the computers themselves. Now, without the protocols, all you have is pulses being transmitted between nodes; the only way those pulses mean something is if the receiving computer has a program that can receive these pulses, interpret them, and then act based on what the pulses say.

What I'm getting at is that the network itself is not the problem or the source of a threat, any more than the postal service was responsible for the Unabomber. Even if al Qaeda were to "take over" the Pentagon's network, they wouldn't be able to do anything with government computers, UNLESS the computers were designed to respond in a certain way to information al Qaeda sent them.

Too often, the media portrays networks as being push-oriented, with any given node able to act on another. This is analogous to the way humans interact, but is simply not how computers work; it always takes two to tango, and prior to any interaction, the computers must both be able to understand a protocol and act on it.

So, returning to BG, the problem isn't that navigation systems were networked; the problem was that the navigation PROGRAM was corrupt. The solution to the problem was not the commander's, which isolates his ship from the network; the solution is to fix the program. I felt frustrated watching this because they got so close to showing how security really works, but the commander's jargon puts the blame in entirely the wrong place.

Moving on to some real-world examples, the reason why there was an explosion of viruses in the mid to late 90's wasn't because so many more people went online; it was because so many more people went online with Microsoft operating systems that contained programs which would do pretty much anything anyone told them to. Early examples were the most egregrious; if you downloaded an email with a script file that said, "Run me automatically, and mail all this guy's .doc files to this email address", it would. And to this day they're still doing it; for over a year Microsoft left unpatched a feature that allowed any computer to take control of yours through their "PC Sharing" program.

Fortunately, people have been catching on that bad viruses and security breaches aren't an inherent problem in any network. Unix and Apple have been almost entirely immune. In Apple's case, it's because the company very narrowly defines and promotes a handful of methods available for interaction, as opposed to Microsoft's shotgun approach to creating as many "features" as possible. Unix/Linux offers far more open channels than even Windows, but it benefits from a strong tradition of peer reviewed programs and academic scrutiny of protocols, as opposed to Windows' notoriously closed and inscrutable offerings.

Now, I don't want to give the impression that we don't need to worry about massive crippling threats being delivered through the Internet, only to clarify that such threats need to be recognized as the fault of individual operating systems and programs. We need to change our overall mindset towards security, a shift that's been underway for a while in the Unix world but is only slowly catching on elsewhere. Remember, when ARPANET was first created, only a handful of universities were able to access it. Security just wasn't that big of an issue; nothing too critical was going on, and you could control physical access to the dozen or so computers that it consisted of. Because of this, security wasn't the overriding concern of early programming; rather, people focused on reliability and speed and robustness. With the explosion of nodes in the network, though, the odds of there being a malicious person somewhere trying to get on your computer have skyrocketed, and security should now be the first thought, both for new programs being developed and as we re-examine legacy ones.

The most obvious shift that needs to happen is the default security policy. For much of history, if you didn't do anything to your computer when you got it, that policy was "default allow." In other words, if another computer wanted to say something to you, unless you had specifically instructed a firewall or something to block them, it would be allowed to talk. Or take executables: unless your antivirus program knew that this specific file was a virus, it would let you run it. That meant that people were caught in an endless cycle of patching and updating; as new vulnerabilities were discovered and new viruses written, they would need to update their firewall and antivirus, hoping that they were caught up to the threats. But it was always a game of catch-up, because the people opening new exploits were leading the race.

The alternative is "default deny," which forbids anything to happen unless it has been specifically approved. We're starting to take a few halting steps in this direction in Windows, and it has been standard on Unix for a decade now. This philosophy is just the opposite: unless a program has been specifically authorized to do what it is doing, deny it. This makes life harder for programmers (part of the reason why this model has taken so long to catch on), but pays unbelievable dividends in security. Now, rather than leading the field in exploits, malicious coders are tied down to a finite number of possible openings, which have hopefully been vetted against infiltration.

Like all good ideas, default deny is being corrupted by Microsoft. You may have heard of their "trusted computing platform," an end-to-end system that will link together hardware, operating system and software and only run if all elements have been approved. This is incredibly dangerous, not because the underlying philosophy is bad (more scrutiny is better), but because the model is being narrowly defined by parties with vested interests in the outcomes. We will get the worst of both worlds: corporations with billions in revenue will buy market entry for their unsecure products, and talented open-source programmers with airtight code but no funding will be shut out. It will be a system that looks secure but isn't, and worst of all, in a uniformly designed ecosystem with all nodes speaking the same protocols, any virus that is released will spread with lightning speed and infect all nodes.

What needs to happen instead? We must convene a working group of talented, impartial computer scientists to design the framework and protocols of a trusted computing system. This will take a while, and Microsoft won't get that first quarter profit boost they're hoping for, but when the best minds of the academy have hammered this thing out and it has been peer reviewed, the system they describe will be as close to perfection as we can get. Producers will then be able to create trusted products, which will be compared against the authoritative protocol and given the seal of approval if it passes. At the end of the day, consumers can just look for the label and know that what they buy is secure. We'll get more variety in the marketplace, a more robust computing ecosystem, and will ultimately help even the likes of Microsoft by removing the stigma of unsecurity they have acquired.

The take-home lesson: secure computing IS possible, the nightmare scenarios of Battlestar Galactica and The Matrix and The Terminator don't need to happen, but for us to get there, we programmers need to put security concerns first, and industry leaders need to stop favoring profits over security.


I really enjoyed watching Battlestar Galactica. The mixture of exciting fight scenes, dramatic confrontations, and philosophical musings are what sells me on science fiction; without those elements it just wouldn't be as much fun or so interesting to watch.

For most of my life I've been a fantasy guy, but before I descended into the world of wizards and warriors I was a hard-core science fiction buff. I devoured Asimov and Bradley, loved Lewis's Space Trilogy, became enamored with Ender's Game (even enduring the first two sequels), was one of the only people to survive all the way until "God Emperor of Dune", and read far more marginal authors whose names have escaped me. I just couldn't get enough. Like a lot of young boys I fantasized about travelling in outer space, meeting strange alien races and playing with cool technology.

Most of my sci-fi interaction was with books, but I enjoyed other media as well. The Star Wars movies were an early influence; I was forbidden from seeing the early movie until I reached a certain age (I no longer remember what it was), and of course making something forbidden just increases its glamour. I loved the whole trilogy. I liked the other, cornier movies I occasionally saw, like Short Circuit. The Star Trek movies didn't grip me quite as much as Star Wars but were still enjoyable; my favorite was number four ("The Voyage Home"), with number six ("The Undiscovered Country") in second place. I don't remember ever watching any of the original Star Trek series, except for "The Trouble With Tribbles" during a New Year's Eve party; on the other hand, I was a big fan of The Next Generation, and probably saw most of the episodes at some point during syndication.

Once I discovered Tolkien there was no going back, and my sci-fi reading almost entirely dried up. A lot of it was good books driven out by bad; in retrospect I wish I had spent more time with Asimov and less time with David Eddings. Once I left I didn't really look back; I loved fantasy with a passion and don't remember really feeling the urge to return to the sci-fi world. I occasionally dip back in but it's usually for some specific authors on the fringe of sci-fi: Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Heinlein (Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land), Neal Stephenson, William Gibson, maybe one or two others.

Outside of books, though, I continued to enjoy sci-fi. It's no secret that there are far more sci-fi movies than fantasy movies, and of generally higher caliber. Particularly once I graduated to the PG-13/R realm of movies I was regularly impressed with the offerings. Many of my all-time favorite movies (Brazil, Blade Runner, Twelve Monkeys, Serenity, even arguably Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) are sci-fi, and I love them for the same reason I loved reading sci-fi books: adventure, cool technology, and a veneer of philosophy. Sci-fi creates improbable situations that are perfect for exploring whatever issues may concern the filmmaker, be they racism, authority, memory, death, loyalty, whatever.

And a TV series can steal my heart, as the sublime Firefly did. TV is better at some things than movies, and while they don't always have the fireworks you can see on the big screen, their extra-long canvas provides time to flesh out characters, deal with more dramatic themes, and do some good old-fashioned relationship plays. I can't think of any series between ST:TNG and Firefly that really held my attention, but from a distance I admired Babylon 5 and ST:DS9 for the way they bravely sloughed off exploration and instead focused inwards. Most sci-fi is ultimately about the characters anyways, and it seemed like these series could just focus on that without making pretenses about strange new worlds.

Oh, and let's not forget anime. I'm far from well-versed in the genre, but I like what I've seen so far. Cowboy Bebop and The Irresponsible Captain Tyler are wonderful, slapsticky adventure-comedy-sci-fi shows that
play with convention and reward viewers for their effort. Neon Genesis Evangelion is one of the most subversive works I've seen in any medium, a dark philosophical treatise concealed inside a show about fighting robots. Serial Experiments Lain may be my all-time favorite anime, and I think that considering the subject matter ("The Wired" network, virtual reality games, neural networks, etc.) it's amazing that it doesn't really feel like sci-fi. In some ways anime feels like a beast apart from the other channels of sci-fi, its concerns and tropes are different, but feel no less rewarding.

Of course, there are science fiction video games as well. Here's another place where I started out rooted in sci-fi but have since shifted to fantasy. It's been here almost from the beginning; anyone who has played the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy text adventure has experienced a hilarious slice of history. Sierra's Space Quest games were another spoofy blast. There are dozens of Star Wars games but I've never played any of them for a long time; same deal with Star Trek. In some ways the video game world seems the opposite of the movie world: there are more fantasy options to choose from, and they're generally of higher caliber. Oh, but let's not forget Half-Life (and, for that matter, most other FPSs): the pull of that game was incredible, a fascinating and sickening descent into annihilation. Deus Ex was a Chris Killer, combining cool futuristic stuff with the Illuminati. And you have those weird fantasy/sci-fi hybrids like Final Fantasy VII, which I enjoy greatly but have trouble acknowledging as "real" sci-fi. Science fiction is chronically underrepresented in the RPG market where I spend most of my time; one of these days I need to get "Fallout," about which I have heard only good things. There are plenty of other games I've played at one time or another (Starcraft, Enemy Nations, Worlds of Ultima), but few that I have stuck with long enough to beat or master.

These days, I always welcome quality new science fiction experiences, in whatever medium, but no longer actively seek them out as I once did. I rely to a huge degree on the advice of friends and general chatter online; the former is what led me to Battlestar Galactica, and the latter showed me Firefly. I'm no longer so interested in the "genre fiction" that makes up a sizeable chunk of this market, but have a keen appreciation for those who use sci-fi settings to do something good and interesting. As with any form with its own conventions and rules, it's easy for a work to get trapped by the "requirements" of the genre, so I have extra admiration for those who are able to subvert the genre's customs, as Firefly did, or transcend them, as the new Battlestar Galactica appears to be doing.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Tour de Awesome

Mini-post time.

This week is the inaugural Amgen Tour of California, a pro cycling race held in California and modeled on the Tour de France. I've been surprised and pleased by the amount of press it's been getting locally. In modern times, cycling only was treated as a sport in America when Lance Armstrong started winning tours, and even then coverage tended to be spotty at best. For this tour, though, I first started reading about it a month before it kicked off this past Sunday, and the week before it it felt like there was a story almost every day in either the San Jose Mercury-News or the San Francisco Chronicle. Since it started coverage has continued to be strong, at its fullest during the days when the tour passed through the Bay Area, but still respectable now that they've moved further south.

On further reflection, there are several reasons for this. First of all, the Bay Area thinks of itself as a mecca for cycling. This is more true in some places than others; Berkeley has more bicycles per capita than anywhere in the US, but you won't see them as often in Santa Clara. Still, the Bay Area is a place that prides itself on its athletic, outdoorsy spirit, and cycling is one of the activities generally supported in public; I've seen far more bike lanes and the like here than anywhere else I've lived. There's a symbiotic relationship: the more people cycle, the easier it is for governments and businesses to support items that help cyclists; and the more cycling-friendly an area is, the more people will choose to ride their bikes. The result is that there are quite a few riders around this area (the generally temperate weather helps this too), and so both the tour's promoters and local media can make the reasonable assumption that the local cyclists would be interested in such an event.

Besides that, there's some good old-fashioned boosterism at play. The Tour is a financial gain for the host communities; in exchange for paying several officers overtime to direct traffic and close roads, the cities get to sell hundreds of hotel rooms, food and entertainment for the entourage, and collect tax on all that activity. Beyond that, the tour serves as a sort of advertisement for California itself; they're getting a free hour on ESPN2 each night, and I'm sure that at least a few people watching short-sleeved riders on sun-soaked pavement are wondering, "This is February? Gosh, I'd like to be there right about now!" Plus it's the sort of event a city can put on its web site or whatever to show how popular it is.

Also, events such as this can be a big draw for communities. Later AEG, a major organizer for the tour, has been boasting that the tour is the largest-attended sporting event in California history. That sounds kind of funny, when you see the spectators it doesn't look like a group as large as what you'd find in a football stadium, but the hundreds of miles of track provide plentiful opportunity for spectators to gather; the estimated total attendence by day five was 680,000 people. Some staked out spots on remote mountain roads; many more converged at the starting and finish lines with thousands of other people. Cycling's kind of a funny spectator sport - people wait an hour before seeing the riders arrive, and ten seconds later they're gone - but also a charming one that puts more emphasis on conversation and community while waiting for them to arrive. It's been especially fun to read about the schools and other communities that turn out in force to watch the racers go by.

One cool aspect of the race has been, oddly enough, its website. Google (based in Mountain View) and Adobe (based here in San Jose) sponsor the race, and the form their sponsorship takes is a darn cool web site. It incorporates Google Maps showing the day's route, live video feed of the race shot from a chase cam, a personable play-by-play box (way better than the type you get for NFL games), and all sorts of other goodies. It had a few glitches at first, but since those were the result of the surprising popularity I don't think people were too upset, and it's now become my favorite crutch to follow the race.

I had hoped to catch part of it while they were in the area but failed to do so. In retrospect my best chance was during the Prologue last Sunday in San Francisco. I slept in too late to catch the start, and ended up deciding against going up to catch the finish. I wish now that I had done so, it turned out to be a beautiful day and had some of the most compact crowds of the tour. Monday was another possibility; since I had the day off for Presidents Day I could have driven up to the North Bay and caught some of it, but I elected to go on a long hike instead. I don't feel so bad about that choice, though in retrospect I wish I would have called up my Aunt Fran (who lives in Santa Rosa, the finishing city) to see if she wanted to do it together; that would have been fun. My third good chance was on Tuesday, when I technically could have left work and caught the end of the leg in downtown San Jose; that would have been fun, but I elected to ride to work that day instead of drive, and so didn't really have the opportunity to cut out for that. Ah, well... it would have been fun to be there for part of history, but it sounds like the tour is successful enough for them to bring it back next year, and I may try to catch it then.

This is probably a coincidence, but I've noticed way more cyclists on the trail this past week than before. It's actually been an ongoing trend. When I first started riding in mid-January, it wasn't unusual for me to cross only a single cyclist during my 7-8 mile trip down to work; now, I easily pass a dozen each way. It's probably for rather mundane reasons... it's gradually getting warmer and sunnier, so more people feel comfortable spending a chunk of time outdoors. Still, who knows... perhaps there are a few people who ran across the Tour coverage, thought "Oh, that looks like fun," and hopped out to do some riding of their own. That would be cool, and would really complete the circle for the Bay and the Tour.

My own riding has come along pretty well, I guess. Ever since that first day I haven't had to stop en route between home and work. I have my route pretty much figured out now, and it provides an optimal mix of speed and lack of imminent death. The bike came out of my crash in awesome shape, far better than me; I took it in for the one-month checkin last week and they didn't find any major problems. It now takes me about 45 minutes to ride in the morning and 30-35 to return in the afternoon, depending on how tired I am and how heavy foot traffic is. It's been fun, I'm feeling good, and will probably keep it up for the forseeable future. Still no real temptation to take it out for a long spin on the weekends - I'm still a hiking guy when it comes to purely recreational exercise - but maybe that will come with time.

Oh, and for the morbidly curious, my wounds are mostly healed now. The face sealed up really quickly in the first few days; there's a scar on my shoulder that may be permanent but the rest of that area has closed up; and the scabs on my hands finally fell off today, that area's still pinkish but looks pretty solid. You can best understand the depths of my joy by listening to They Might Be Giants' song "The Bloodmobile".

Guitar Hero: Torment

I've been playing two radically different games lately. I often try to join them together, playing one immediately after the other, because otherwise one mood will dominate the other. It's like, I dunno, pairing a sweet wine with a sour cookie or something.

The first game is Guitar Hero. It's sort of been on my radar for a while, mainly due to the pumping it's gotten on Penny Arcade. For a game like this which falls outside of my normal genres and points of reference, I'll usually wait a while so I get a chance to hear second opinions, later reactions, broader reviews, and hopefully a drop in price. The last element didn't look like it would be coming soon, but all the former ones were present, so I figured, what the heck? It sounded like a fun game and would add some welcome variety to my RPG-heavy library.

For those who aren't part of the VG news circuit, Guitar Hero is a game built around a peripheral. When you buy the game you get a plastic guitar, with some buttons and stuff where you would normally find frets and strings. You then use this guitar to "rock out" with the songs in the game proper; you're playing the guitar part, obviously, while the rest of the "band" handles the rest of the music.

These sorts of games are very popular in Japan. I've heard cool stories about how these games can actually be linked together. You know how, in an arcade, if you have four people starting a race together you can race on the same track against each other? Imagine that, except it's in a virtual rock club, and two of you are on guitars, one on drums, and another singing. It's kind of like that. This has never really caught in here in the States, but the folks at Red Octane (who create what are bar none the best dance mats for DDR) and Harmonix (who did Frequency and Karaoke Revolution) figured out that the time was right; the market has been sufficiently penetrated by "rhythm games" and the like that it no longer seems COMPLETELY absurd that people will pay money to play a fake guitar.

At first I was struck by the similarities in gameplay between DDR and GH. In both cases you have blocks falling down the screen, and need to hit the button when the block reaches a certain point. The main difference is that, in DDR, you're hitting a spot with your foot, and in GH you're touching a fret button with your finger (while strumming with your other hand). Now that I've played the game way too long, though, I'm just as struck by how many differences there are, which are the result of the fact that dancing is very different from playing guitar. One of the most common things in DDR is when you keep one foot in a certain spot while moving around the other. There's nothing analogous in GH, just because people don't play like that - you have chords and long notes, but you never switch chords in the middle of a long note.

The music is just amazing. A lot of it is harder than what I prefer to listen to, but it's wonderful to play with. The lineup is stunning - Black Sabbath's "Iron Man," Jimi Hendrix's "Spanish Castle Magic," the Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated," "Take Me Out" by Franz Ferdinand, "Sharp Dressed Man" by ZZ Top, "Texas Flood" by Stevie Ray Vaughan... actually, look up the game if you want a full list, it's really solid. I appreciate the variety between old and new songs, and they all definitely rock.

The feedback is impressive, too. In DDR, when you miss a step, nothing really happens besides a word popping up. If you do it too many times, people begin booing you. Here, though, missing a note means that you just don't hear the guitar play during that part; it's really obvious and sounds bad, which is a big incentive to do it right. My one complaint is that I'd like more variety in the "messing up" sound; it always sounds like a non-electrified plink, when it should just sound like a wrong note.

Every song is great, but the most fun for me to play is probably "Cochise" by Audioslave. I'm actually not a big Audioslave fan, but playing this song is really, really fun.

As is often the case for these sorts of games, it's the career mode that carries me away. You start off playing gigs in basement parties, and as your reputation increases you expand your set list and move into larger venues. In advanced modes, you get cash by clearing each song, and can spend this money on new guitars, new songs, guitar skins, and more. This provides a great sense of progress and accomplishment. You get more cash for higher scores, so there's incentive to keep trying that hard song instead of just barely beating it and then moving on.

There are different difficulty levels, and the change is HUGE. I'm reminded of the leaps in DDR, where going from Easy to Normal was traumatic for me. Here, on Easy mode you just need to manage three of the five frets. Going to Medium adds the fourth fret and a world of pain. I still haven't gotten used to it yet; you need to choose between using your pinky to (awkwardly, painfully) strike that button, or move your hand to use a stronger finger but risk losing your place on the neck. I'm struggling through, but just getting 3 out of 5 stars on most songs. I have one song left before I "beat" the game at this level - "Bark at the Moon" by Ozzy Osbourne - but I'll be spending lots more time trying to get higher scores and playing the bonus songs, and just having fun rocking out. There's a big chance that I'll never make it to Hard mode, and I'm perfectly fine with that. (I've never attempted Oni on DDR, either.)

I can't wait to try two-player mode. That's going to be AWESOME.

This game is one of those things that feels very frustrating to describe, just because it isn't something you like for its features; it's something you like for the pure joy of participating in the amazing music you hear. I love the freedom of pacing back and forth in front of the TV, hammering on the guiar, tilting it vertically and rocking out. There's nothing quite like it.

"Joy" is a good word to summarize my Guitar Heros experience. It is also the opposite of what you feel when playing Planescape: Torment. I'm on the third disc now, not sure how much is left to go, but I've done enough to feel comfortable writing a post, so here it is.

Some background: This game was created by Black Isle, the same people who did the phenomenal Baldur's Gate games. It is powered by their Infinity Engine, which powered those games, and was released in 1999, between BG1 and BG2. It is set in the Planescape multiverse; I'm not very well-versed in D&D, but I believe this is part of the D&D multiverse.

It's a pretty good game, despite some annoying technical mishaps. Apparently this is one of the big reasons why the game wasn't a success; it was simply buggy and nearly unplayable. Before even starting a game I patched it up, and even with that I'm regularly running across bugs. A bad one came in the very first minute: when I tried to open a door it removed the key from my inventory but didn't unlock the door, so I would have been stuck if I hadn't very thoughtfully saved my game immediately at the beginning.

There are other reasons why it didn't take off. One thing I like about it, but many others probably hate, is that it's incredibly text-heavy. Sure, you spend some time collecting items and fighting monsters, but virtually everything important happens in conversation, and it's through dialog that you gain the most important experience and abilities. A lot of the time it feels more like a mystery game than an RPG, and rather than saving before combat I now save before talking to anyone.

The first two strikes against the game, then, are its bugs and the reams of text to read. The third is its relentlessly dark and morbid tone. I'll get into this more below, but this is probably the darkest game I've ever played. This shows in the art, the character design, the plot, the dialog, even the weapons. And unlike a lot of other dark games, here it isn't undercut with humor or confined to a few dramatic situations. From the moment you start the game until... well, at least partway into Disc 3, you're surrounded by misery and suffering.

I don't want to scare you off and say that the game is bad - I'm still playing it, after all - but playing it is a pretty heady experience. It really does affect my mood, and after the first few sessions I'm now careful not to play it for more than an hour or two at a time.

Minor Spoilers

Your character is The Nameless One, and he's probably my favorite thing about the game. First of all, he has a fascinating backstory. You start the game with amnesia (which has been used in a few other games to good effect) and you, the player, try to uncover your past while you, the character, tries to do the same. One of the first things you discover is that you are an immortal. You're not a god or anything (at least, I don't think so); you simply cannot die. The game starts when you wake up in a morgue; unlike in Shadowrun, you really WERE dead, but you can't stay dead. You are covered with tattoes; this element reminded me of "Memento"; your character knows that the more he dies the more memories he will lose, so he tattoes the most impotant information on himself so he won't forget. That's one of the most dreadful things about the game; you come to understand just how long this has been going on, possibly hundreds or thousands of years. Over and over again the Nameless One (so called because he can't remember his name, though he may not even have one) comes close to finding whatever he is seeking for, then is cast down and starts again from the beginning. In his wake he leaves the tormented souls of those he has drawn around him in his quest. That's another plaintive element of the game: you've travelled in a party before, as characters do in all RPG games, and others died to advance your quest; and now you don't even know what that quest was.

Obviously, the background is pretty unique for an RPG. As David has mentioned, The Nameless One sounds like a villain, and in many ways your character looks like he could be (or, heck, IS) a villain. After being constantly killed and resurrected he looks like a zombie, with ashen skin and glazed eyes, wearing a loincloth and a sash of bones. The further you dig into your history you discover that in previous incarnations you basically WERE a villain, who delighted in torturing and killing innocents; in others you were heroic, acting kindly while pursuing your quest. And in this game, it's up to you: unlike the Baldur's Gate games you don't choose your alignment at the beginning, it is malleable based on your actions, and you have ample opportunities to move between good and evil, chaos and law. (My current alignment is Neutral Good, though I keep skipping between that and Chaotic Good.) Your class is malleable too; you can become a Thief by traning in it, and I think I'll be able to become a Mage later. Just to be clear, this isn't multiclassing or dual classing, you actually CHANGE your class. Anyways, it's unusual to have someone with so much power and such a dark background as the protagonist in an RPG.

Fortunately, the uniqueness extends beyond the background and into the gameplay. They aren't kidding when they say that you're an immortal. If you ever die in a fight, you don't need to load your game; your body falls, is probably dragged somewhere else (the morgue pays cash for dead bodies) and you wake back up with full health. This has really changed the way I play the game compared to other RPGs, in fact kind of the opposite of the BG games, where if your main character died the game ended but if companions die you can resurrect them. Here I regularly sacrifice the Nameless One to save the life of a wounded comrade, and almost never bother saving before fighting.

To keep the pace of analogies going, this feels revolutionary on the same order of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. That game included a remarkable feature that allowed you to rewind time, so if you attempted a tricky jump and fell to your death, you could rewind back to before you tried the jump. In both cases, the games change a longstanding game convention and come out with a new system that feels infinitely less frustrating than anything that came before. After playing both of these I wish that more games were like this; having that escape keeps frustration from getting too high and lets you focus on the fun parts of the game. But, in both cases, the escaping-death feature flows organically from the story of the game, so it isn't something that would feel like it fit as well in other games.

Oh, and this game is really morbid. Incredibly macabre. You regularly abuse your body, ripping out an eyeball, letting someone chew on your leg, ripping off your entire arm at one point. This doesn't have huge consequences in the game - as an immortal, everything regenerates and heals - but it's pretty stomach-churning to read about. Oh, and there's one scene where you have someone open up your stomach and take out all your intestines so you can find a key or something that was in there. That was pretty gross.

The companions are kind of odd, too. The first one you meet is a flying skull named Morte (get it?). He's basically a chipper version of Murray the Talking Skull in the Monkey Island games, except he can move under his own power and is a fearsome fighter, attacking with all his teeth. Both skulls are incredibly talkative, though. I don't know my next two companions as well - there's Dak'kon, an elderly mage/warrior, and Annah, a tiefling thief. There's a bit of the party cross-chat here that I loved so much in BG2, though it's rarely amusing.

There are smaller changes, too. There's no armor in the game, at least that I've found yet; the Nameless One still has an Armor Class of 8. No swords, either. However, there are plenty of axes, hammers, clubs, fist weapons, and some daggers. The game designers took evident pleasure in letting you use odd items as weapons: a scalpel can be wielded as a dagger, a set of antlers can be swung as an axe, and an dismembered arm (to be fair, YOUR dismembered arm) is used as a powerful club.

The game takes place in a city called Sigil which doesn't exist in the prime universe. It's on top of an infinitely tall spire, supposedly in the middle of the multiverse, and is filled with doors into other universes. There's no sun or moon, just an alternately dim and light sky. You never go "outside", to forests or fields or even caves or mountains; the entire game (so far) takes place in or under the city, and it's a grimy, messy, ugly city. Think Shadowrun, but more organic and less mechanical. This is yet another game where the art impacts my mood. Being surrounded by squalor and ugliness in the game constantly increases the feelings of claustrophobia.

As a side note, if you've played BG2, I think the actors you met in the playhouse are meant to have come from the Planescape game. It's been a while since I did that so I'm not sure if they are specific characters in this game or not.

In one way the game is closer to Morrowind than BG. Planescape has factions which you join much like you do in Morrowind; you do a series of quests and eventually are initiated, gaining access to that faction's special stores, healing and other goodies. Well, I've only joined one so far, but it looks like I may be allowed to join more later on.

I actually don't feel like getting into the specifics of the plot right now, even behind a "major spoilers" tag. I may summarize it once I beat the game. Suffice to say that as time goes on you uncover more of your past and learn more about what's happening in Sigil. I still don't know what my quest is, what I ultimately need to do. I know I've made powerful enemies and am curious if that was inevitable or if I could have acted differently. I'll keep poking away at this and will report back once it's all done. I'm treating this game the same way I treat a lot of books, "It might not be very fun, but it's interesting, and I want to see where it's going."

Saturday, February 18, 2006

To whom it may concern

Are you someone who has wanted to try LSD, but live in a country where it is illegal, or have concerns about its health risks? Well, worry no longer! Here's a foolproof way to get the mind-bending effects of America's favorite hallucinogen without the mess. First, wear glasses almost constantly for fifteen to twenty years. Next, adjust them* so that one lense is just slightly closer to your eye than the other.

The results will impress you. When you stare at a stationary object, it will appear to both approach and recede from you simultaneously. Objects will prove to be closer to or farther from you than you initially thought, leading to comical mishaps around the workplace. Final results are not yet in, but I'm hoping I'll get to hear disembodied voices soon.

Just finished reading the book "Thud!" Thanks to Brad for the recommendation. Terry Pratchett is yet another author who has been on my radar forever; I first heard of Discworld back around junior high and only in positive contexts, but never got around to reading it. Thud! was really enjoyable; at heart it's a comic fantasy, similar to Robert Asprin's Myth series which I enjoyed as a youngster, but with a very keen satirical edge.

What's most impressive about Thud!, at least to me, is its almost subversive handling of racial tensions in urban centers. Oh, here the races are dwarves and trolls, but ever since Tolkien wrote about elves and dwarves we've been comfortable understanding fantasy races as substitutions for real-world ethnicities. The book is mainly from the point of view of Sam Vimes, the Captain of the Watch, and despite the medieval setting he oversees what is clearly a modern police force, complete with audits and a diversified workplace and a media strategy. His careful and frustrated handling of mounting racial tensions accomplishes the goal of all great satirists, to tell us something about the real world while making us laugh.

I detest puns, and Pratchett relies on them a bit too much for my taste, but the overall level of humor is relentlessly strong here. He never loses a chance to slip in a parody or sniping conversation or humorous thought; many of the best laughs in the book come from things Vimes tells himself. There's also a sweet subplot regarding his relationship with his wife and especially his son, Young Sam, but it never overshadows the general humor of the story.

I picked up two books today that I will almost certainly not finish by their due date. One is "Enigma of Arrival" by V. S. Naipul; this book was recommended to me by a VP of Weathernews, my other Bay Area job offer, and what I've heard of it sounds interesting and quite modern. The other is "I Married a Communist" by Philip Roth. It's the sequel to "American Pastoral," one of the best books I read in college, and also received very good reviews (though not another Pulitzer). Anyways, both should be good, but neither will be as quick a read as Thud!, plus I just installed Planescape: Torment, so that will be eating away a good chunk of my life.

I haven't written about this yet (I think), but I'm slowly making my way through Neil Gaiman's Sandman comics. They're quite good. I've never really been into comics; I've read some manga and the "Bone" comic in recent years, but growing up I never bought any. That didn't stop me from being aware of the X-Men and Spider Man and more, of course; through sheer cultural osmosis they touched even a pop culture pariah like myself. Anyways, I really enjoyed Gaiman's "American Gods" and had heard good things about Sandman from a surprising number of sources.

Oh, slight topic hop. I'm really into Firefly and Serenity, as you probably know, and when I heard Whedon was releasing comics for Firefly, I decided to get them. I went into a comic store for the first time in seven years, and bought something for the first time in my life. I've picked up a bad financial habit, though, and feel weird about spending a chunk of time in a store and buying something that just costs a few dollars. So I looked around the store to find something sufficiently expensive that I wouldn't feel like I was wasting their time when I checked out. The first two issues were released while I was still in KC, and I picked up the two Ghost in the Shell books to complement them.

The third issue was released after I moved here, and after some looking around, I decided to pick up "Preludes and Nocturnes," the first Sandman book. It was all right. Even Gaiman, in his introduction, basically says it isn't very good; everyone agreed the story was just hitting its stride towards the end of that initial arc, when Death is introduced and Dream breaks away from a traditional arc to do some pondering. So I didn't regret getting it, but didn't feel compelled to rush out and buy the second book.

More recently, when I was talking with Chris about the Emperor Norton musical, he told me he had heard of Norton's story before; after some thinking, he remembered that it was from a Sandman comic. What he described sounded great, so I decided to go ahead and continue. The San Jose library system has most Sandman books, so I've worked my way up through the fifth one, "A Game of You." It's really good, almost custom-written to please me. I'm fascinated by dreams and dreaming and questions of reality and time and meaning, and Gaiman is unafraid to wander around that territory. Not every comic is ABOUT dreams, really, but there's a dreamlike quality to everything that isn't. It's all very literate and thoughtful, solid stuff all around. My only real complaint is that the character designs are a bit too 80's for my taste, but that's getting better with the more recent ones.

Unfortunately, book number six ("Fables and Reflections") is unavailable at the library; all the copies have been lost and billed. So I just ordered a copy from Amazon, along with my Serenity DVD. Once I get over this hurdle I'll return to the library for the rest. I'll probably post something more focused once I'm through all of them.

Happy Presidents' Day Weekend, everyone! Play safe!

* A variety of methods are available, although the author has found the most efficient solution is to ride face-first into a fence at high speed.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

TV Recap

Random thoughts on televised entertainment follow.

Looks like the Arrested Development folks don't believe they'll be surviving; the finale really does feel like a series' end. In a way that's nice; it feels much better when a series can wrap everything up neatly, and means I'll be able to watch my DVDs without the ache I always feel at the end of "Objects in Space." It'll be a pleasant surprise if they make it to Showtime, and there's definitely plenty of material left to work with, but even in that scenario I wouldn't be shocked if there were major shifts in the plotline and/or the cast.

I was pleased by the incredible breadth of the last four episodes. Oh, Major Spoilers. Based on the advance publicity I'd sort of thought that all four episodes would be about Nellie Bluth, when she really just got one (and very brief references in the rest). The material was fantastic across the board, bringing back many of my favorite elements (Franklin, G-M's slow burn, and more), filled with great jokes (Tim's post has some highlights, scroll down about halfway), and providing a startling number of conclusions. Great times all around. This has always been a show that rewards repeat viewings, and I'm sure these four episodes will get plenty.

House is still fun. I feel like it constantly skirts the edge of soap opera territory, but so far it has remained above water. The season-spanning Stacy romance arc didn't feel like emotional manipulation; at the beginning it really dug down into the core of how House got to be this way, its middle was a moving glimpse at House's analytical mind trying to "solve" the Stacy puzzle, and the conclusion was a heartbreaking reset button that reaffirmed Greg's essential masochism. My favorite bit from this whole arc was when Greg and Stacy share a hotel room, and he gets called away to consult on the case. Watching his mind immediately jump on the problem to the exclusion of the woman lying on the bed crystallized for me the way he ticks.

There have been several innovations since the series began that are helping it along. One big one is multi-episode arcs, which give the story greater stability; the Volger arc is still my favorite, but the Stacy arc and the Foreman In Charge one have been good as well. Another one is House's motorcycle; I never get tired of seeing that. And while it was there from the beginning, Wilson and House's friendship is one of my favorite elements of the show; it rings very true to me.

I feel like, ultimately, the show lives or dies on its dialog, and the script writers are still on fire. House gets all the good lines, and more than half of them are zingers. I can't help but wonder if Hugh Laurie contributes to the writing at all; he definitely has the background to do so.

Oh, and I want to see Stephen Fry guest star. Let's have the man with two limps!

Lost is cool. Now that we're heading into sweeps season there will probably be more crazy stunts and revelations. I'm honestly not quite as excited by this show as I was last season, but it would've been hard for them to keep raising the bar; I'm satisfied for this to be a consistently impressive show.

Pat hates Ana-Lucia with a passion. I might dislike her ordinarily, but the vehemence of his opposition makes me watch the show and think, "She's not THAT bad." I've complained before about the show's lack of villains, and honestly nothing would please me more than to see her emerge as a truly evil person. But for now the show's writers are doing their typical absolution-by-explanation thing and showing her as a much more sympathetic character.

I'm really excited by the Mr. Eko - Locke dynamic. Not sure yet what direction it'll go in. There have been a few times before when I felt like the series was setting up an archetypal division: Shore (Sayeed) versus Cave (Jack), Order (Jack) versus Chaos (Sawyer), Pacifism (Jack) versus Violence (Ana-Lucia), Rationalism (Jack) versus Spirituality (Locke). Jack's been at the center of all of these, but if this new dynamic (I'm thinking Orthodoxy [Mr. Eko] versus Mysticism [Locke]) takes off, it'll be a major sign that the show has moved beyond "Well, What Does Jack Think?" mode.

I'm sorta torn on the extra revelations we've had lately: black mist, The Others. I think it's inevitable we would feel let down when we actually see the Thing in the jungle; though it is cool, it's almost a shame to ground it in reality as a specific entity with a certain appearance. It felt better when it existed ony in the terrified faces of those who confronted it. That said, it would have felt contrived if they went the whole series without showing it, and I do appreciate the fact that it isn't a derganged giraffe or anything.

Current favorite characters: Mr. Eko and Locke. Ones I like but have seen far too little of lately: Sayeed. Used to be my favorite but have grown increasingly shrill and I think they're being set up to get killed off this season: Charlie. Most want to know more: the psychologist from the tail section. Most improved: Jin. Honestly not that sad they're dead, and in fact, if you'd asked me after the third episode first season to pick two characters to die, I would have chosen them: Boone and Shannon.

TCRThe Colbert Report: I feel kind of like this show is my baby, though obviously I'm far from the only person who enjoys it. As I've said before I wasn't expecting this to last long and I'm delighted to have been proven wrong. The show still has some hiccups but it's getting better on every front; even the interviews are now generally good.

This show really thrives on ego-building, and Stephen recognizes that. It's been wonderful now that a feedback loop has developed between the show and the mainstream media: Stephen says something, the press reports on it, Stephen brags about or attacks the report. Those are the moments where I feel like maybe we've gone over the rainbow, and now are in Comedy Heaven. It's the opposite of the Daily Show, which Jon always deprecates (from "our lead-in is fighting robots" up through "our audience has the intellectual capacity of a three-year-old"). There's this fully-constructed, deep concept of what the show is, filled with The Truth and championed by The Heroes, and that joke just isn't getting old yet.

The confrontational part is also getting better. It's a difficult line to walk, but I think its best expression can be found in Stephen's regular battles with Russ Lieber (brilliantly played by David Cross); the fact it's scripted gives Stephen the chance to just lay into the guy and get the perfect comic response. They did one debate on the set which was absolutely brilliant. I'd love to see more things in this vein. When Stephen attacks "real" people, it's sometimes funny, but often they're just bewildered. Colbert shouldn't be afraid to use fiction to get a better laugh.

The Word has always been the highlight of the show, and it's still good. Several segments which I had expected to get old (like Better Know a District) are still going strong and often are the second-funniest thing of the night. (Speaking of which, his intros to BKaD are excellent, and I wouldn't be that surprised if the fact he does them convinces at least a few congresspeople to take the chance of an interview. Oh, and I know it's hard, but he needs to start getting more Republican interviewees. Come on, they can see what he does to the Democrats, it's not like he'll treat the GOP any worse.) The whole parody format of his show means he will never run out of material; there's always a new crisis in the world for him to speak out on. Of his special segments, the recurring War on Christmas was probably my favorite. Ah, and let's not forget the Threatdown! I really enjoyed it last week when the #1 item was killer bees, but it turned out the REAL reason they were #1 was because he feared they were in league with the bears.

It's fun to see other characters getting pulled into the show, while Stephen remains at the center; did you know Bobby the State Manager is actually the head writer for the show? I didn't. That's another tricky bit to manage, since you lose the point of the show if you pull focus off Colbert too long. But as long as it's people interacting with him, that's great stuff which switches up the show's rhythm while keeping Colbert's ego in plain view.

Whoa, and I just learned that Colbert will be performing at the White House Correspondants' Dinner. That is INSANE. Wow. We live in wonderful times, folks.

Well, that's it for this roundup. I'm also enjoying My Name is Earl; the best episode so far was the wedding one. I liked Everybody Hates Chris but not enough to keep watching past the eighth episode or so. The Daily Show is still good, of course; Rob Cordry seems to be stepping into Stephen's shoes as Senior Senior Correspondent, and he's great; very different character, but just as amusing. And Jon is still one of the best interviewers on television (but not, sadly, great at doing impressions). Drawn Together is a funny show which I will never be able to recommend to anyone. Yeah. Hooray for television!

Saturday, February 11, 2006


So, this is... let's see. I think it's the third week I've been riding to work, and the first in which I rode all 5 days (man, I LOVE the Bay Area. Sunny with highs in the 70s? In early February? Yes, please!). I've come pretty far from my initial test ride, when I needed to stop at Vasona to take a breather. I'm now familiar with the route, have better endurance on the bike, and feel much more confident. It turns out that the third point isn't such a good thing.

I found out yesterday that Wayne, our CEO, was taking us all out for drinks after work, which is incredibly nice of him. However, since I had ridden to work, that raised some complications. I'm usually careful to hit the road soon after 5 so I'm not riding after dark; now, I would need to either make an incredibly brief appearence at the Los Gatos Brewing Company (which meant finding a ride who would also not be there long), or ride after dark, or head home even earlier than usual and drive back down, or bail on the whole thing and just go home. I really wanted to go out with everyone, so I decided I'd take my chances with the dark.

LGBC was a lot of fun, of course. This is sort of our default post-work hangout, and the second all-company thing I've been to there. Wayne paid for drinks and a great spread of food, which, again, is awesome. It was a really nice chance to talk with some guys I don't interact with much during the day, and I learned a lot about living in San Francisco, the counties of extreme northern California, and BREW 4.0. (Oops, probably shouldn't have mentioned that last thing. Or am I just making it up?!)

I left with Rajiv, my ride, around 6:30. It was already pretty dark, but with a full moon, and it didn't feel that bad. I went back to the office and had a brief panic moment when the side of the office where we keep our bikes was locked; fortunately, the back was not, and in a few minutes I was pedaling towards the freeway.

After examining my myriad options for getting to and from work, I've largely settled on crossing the freeway as my best connection from the trail to Rocket Mobile. It actually feels safer going home than coming to work, because I'm established on the road the whole time; the only tricky part there is merging across a lane of traffic to get to the shoulder at the end. In the morning, though, I'm doing it on the sidewalk, and because of the trees and the strong curve of the ramps it's hard to see a car coming until it's almost on top of you. But people are nice and I've even had a few wave me in front of them.

Anyways. This initial part is what I was worried about the most, since it dealt with drivers needing to see me when getting onto or off of the freeway. But it was fine, both because traffic was lighter at 6:30 than it is at 5 and because I have blinking lights for my bike. Yep, I definitely had the "be seen" thing down. Made it to the trail entrance in one piece and headed down.

I was struck by how quiet and lonely the trail was; there was nobody else around. It was dark, too; there are no street lights down there, and only a little light penetrated the forest and made it down the grade onto the path. It was a kind of eerie feeling, and I enjoyed it as I geared up and started making my way home in earnest.

Here's what went through my head at the crucial moment:
"Something's not right..."
In a second or two I deduced what had happened: I had ridden into a fence at a pretty high speed. Not my finest moment. I realized that I was at a point where the trail took a sharp 45 degree turn, and I had kept going straight. My unease was as not being able to see what was in front of me, which was perfectly understandable once I understood that what was in front of me was a chain-link fence separating the path from a bunch of trees.

I did a brief self-inspection and then checked out the bike. I kind of hurt, and my glasses seemed ajar, but nothing was broken, and the bike seemed in better shape than I was. Humbled, I resolved to take it easy the rest of the way home, and took the rest of the journey in a lower gear. As I rode I reflected on how I could have done something so stupid and came to some rationalizations and conclusions. Since I had just gotten off the freeway interchange, I was moving from a high-light area to a low-light, and so I didn't have my night vision yet. I was going too fast, obviously; for the same reason a car needs to go slow when it's foggy or rainy out, a bike needs to go slow when it's dark out... I can't see things until I'm on top of them and higher speeds give me less time to react. And while I "know" the route now, it's not like I can do it with my eyes closed, which is sort of what I was attempting.

As is often the case after a scare like this, I started thinking of all the ways in which it could have been worse, and eventually convinced myself it was good that I ran full-speed into a chain-link fence. I'd walked away under my own strength without needing to call 911 or anything. I was very grateful to still have a bike to ride; the thought of walking home for three hours didn't greatly appeal to me. And, really, it was good I learned my lesson about going slow early on. Later along the path I did start to encounter the occasional walker; it was hard enough to see them already, and I just hate to think of what might have happened if I'd run one of them over.

Despite the slower speed, it didn't take me that much longer than usual to get home, and soon I was examining myself in the bathroom mirror. It looked far worse than I felt. The right side of my body had obviously taken the hit: big ol' bruise on my cheek, a cut along my eyebrow, a massive but shallow wound on my shoulder, and a bunch of deep gouges on my hand that were painful to look at. I sort of marvelled for a while then started cleaning up. Soap and water to get the dirt out of everthing was my first priority. Then I took some rubbing alcohol and applied it to the cuts. OUCH. Man, that stuff STINGS! I gritted and carried on, though, and before long felt reasonably sure that the worst germs were dead.

I created a patchwork of band-aids for my hand. I wanted to cover the cut on my brow, but it would have either required me to lay some sticky stuff along my eyebrow or dangerously close to my eye, so instead I convinced myself that it had pretty much scabbed over already. The shoulder was tricker; it was just so large that I couldn't use a bandaid without touching a red area, and I didn't have any sterile bandages big enough for the whole thing. I ended up taking a clean handkerchief and sort of creating a makeshift bandage; not the best solution, but it kept it from being exposed.

So, here I am. Oh, and my frames are definitely bent and one lens has a thin crack in it; fortunately, I'm eligible for another VSP visit, so I'll try and do that early next week. I'm glad I didn't come out of this in worse shape, and hopefully I've learned my lesson now about riding after dark, and why it's best not to do it.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The tentacles of corruption

Quick-ish impressions on some videos I've recently watched and thought about. All of these probably count as Mega-spoilers.

Logan's Run

This is Dave's favorite movie, you know. It's more or less what I expected, a pre-Star Wars 1970's sci-fi movie with lots of social and environmental messages in a cheesy package.

One thing that makes this one sort of unique is that, while this future would probably be classified as "dystopian," it certainly LOOKS much nicer than the world we have now. There isn't the omnipresent pollution of "Soylent Green," nor the invasive fascism of "1984." It is, as the opening monologue tells us, a world built for pleasure, and other than the little matter of everyone being killed once they reach 30, it seems nearly ideal.

To me, this made the world much more interesting than Soylent Green, because it presents a choice. Granted, it's a rather cliched choice, of freedom versus comfort, but an interesting one nontheless.

It's a fun exercise to watch this movie and think of the protagonists as villains. They act unilaterally to destroy the base and force everyone to join them in the wild, whether they want to or not. And, when you think about it, the base served a valuable purpose. It was constructed because the world grew too polluted; by the time they get out, extinct species are still gone, but the air and water are once again clean. Letting the humans back out will start the cycle again, and before too long they'll probably be killing the planet once again.

Oh, and I personally felt that the plot about killing (erm, "renewing") people once they reached 30 was a theme much better addressed twenty years later in an episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation." That episode was almost certainly an homage to this movie, but I remember it being much tighter and more compelling.

This would be a good movie if you're interested in the history of socially conscious science fiction. Otherwise, not so much.

Cool Hand Luke

Yet another 70's (I think...) classic. I'm not sure when I first heard of it, but it's one of the favorite movies of Mr. Piro, one of my wonderful high-school English teachers. It's one of those cultural touchstones, and while watching it I suddenly got all sorts of references that had popped up in The Simpsons and elsewhere; at the same time, it was a bit of a letdown, as the movie itself just didn't feel all that exciting. It's really a classic case of having a movie that's revolutionary for its time and re-shapes everything that follows, to the point where later generations find it derivative of what came after. I'm sure Paul Newman's attitude was unusual and alluring at the time, but now, it's almost expected of a lead.

The interesting, and tragic, aspect of this picture is watching Luke's transformation. He starts as incredibly sanguine, equally complacent towards jail, the rules and his fellow inmates. He isn't a rebel like James Dean or Marlon Brando, he's more of a postmodern hipster who sneers at everything without deigning to fight back.

That changes after the extremely arbitrary and callous way that his captors put him in "the hole" after his mother dies. Ironically, though he was never a flight risk before, he becomes one once they treat him like one. This version of Luke is no longer content to drift along, and he takes surprising initiatives.

I thought it was an interesting choice of the filmmakers to always show Luke's escapes as they are happening, but to only hear about his recapture. This creates tension and aligns us with the chain gang, so we feel the same elation at his escape and the same surprise and despair when he is brought back.

The final act of the movie is actually painful to watch, as Luke is finally broken, then makes a last heroic run. It includes his bellowing roar, "Stop feeding off of me!", which for me is the most resonant part of the film... his fellow inmates won't let him be what he is, a loner, and all his attempts to establish individuality have been sort of tribally claimed by the rest. It's incredibly fitting that one of the last lines of the movie is Luke's taunting impersonation of the Captain: "What we've got here is a failure to communicate!" Hearing that made me realize that communication really is a two-way street, not just an acknowledgement of orders, so both he and the captain were really right on this point.

This falls into the class of movie that's almost inevitably disappointing, just because it's been built up so much over time. But, Newman's performance brings a lot to the table, and there are certain people you'll impress just by mentioning that you've seen this.

Oh, and I just looked it up: the movie came out in 1967. That seems more appropriate somehow, sort of an establishment of the counterculture, if that makes any sense at all.

Ghost World

All I knew when I picked this up was that Steve Buscemi played a record collector. I think I was subconsciously expecting something like "High Fidelity"; what I ended up with was a lot closer to Linklater's "Slackers" or Smith's "Clerks." Not that I'm complaining or anything, it was still good, but definitely one of those painful-funny rather than laugh-out-loud movies.

Buscemi was great, but I was impressed all around by the cast's qualities. The leads are Thora Birch, from American Beauty, and a still-to-be-discovered Scarlett Johanson. There is a brief, but terrific, cameo by David Cross. Even the actors I don't recognize are good across the board.

What's the movie "about"? On the most immediate level it's another paen to Generation X coming of age; the young leads graduate high school and struggle with what to do with their lives. One grudgingly conforms, getting a job and searching for an apartment, and ends the movie on the path to the grown-up world she claims to hate. The other claims to want all the grown-up stuff - living away from parents, economic independence - but is unable to mount any serious plan to attain these things. Her pattern throughout the movie is to want whatever she doesn't have, and when it seems like she might get it, move on to something else. Watching the movie I got the impression that what she was scared of was committment, but I'm far from certain that's the intended way to read it.

More generally, the movie is about identity. This is where Buscemi's character really shines: is he a geek through-and-through? Can he become attractive to women and still be the same? All the relationships in the film feel fragile, and when one character starts to change, their connections with others are broken. Read in this way, the movie is about Thora deciding how to define herself. She experiments with punk rock but doesn't like the reception she gets, so she tries something else. As long as she's trying on identities, she's in control and wants to move forward; however, when others start acknowledging her new identity, it becomes confining and she tries to shake it off.

In a peculiar way, I am reminded of Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials." In Lyra's world, every person has a daemon. When they are young the daemons are flexible and can assume any shape they want; when they grow up, the daemons become fixed in the shape best corresponding with their human. This is really the same thing that's happening in this movie: Thora doesn't want to stop shifting, and though she would vehemently deny it, she likes the lack of responsibility that a child posesses. She is being thrust into a world she claims to want but isn't ready for.

Kung Fu Hustle

What's to say, really? It's a kung-fu comedy movie. If that sounds appealing to you, you'll enjoy it. If it sounds strange or dumb, you won't.

I still need to see Shaolin Soccer, Stephen Chow's previous movie which some people (not all) think is better than this. This film is a mishmash of fighting scenes, broad parody and slapstick comedy. I was struck by how many homages it contains to American cinema, such as Gump's floating feather and quotations from "Gone with the Wind." What I'm getting at is that this isn't a coherent movie, and if you try to view it as a quest movie or a revenge flick or a love story you'll be disappointed. If you just want a good time, well, expect to find one.

I loved the fact there was actual choreography in ths movie. Usually in a martial-arts movie "choreography" just means stage fighting, but here we got to see some cool dance moves from the Axe Gang.

I really wish I had gotten to see this one in the theater; it was still a lot of fun to watch, but far less impressive on my TV than it would've been on the big screen.

This isn't knocking Kill Bill off its pedestal or anything, but it was still an enjoyable way to pass the time. Generally recommended.

A History of Violence

Another one I wanted to see in the theater, and had to settle for a bootleg copy on my TV. This was a phenomenal movie. Granted, I've only seen 2/5 of the Oscar-nominated films, but I think it's a shame this one didn't get the nod.

I saw this movie mainly because I think Viggo Mortensen is awesome. The uniformly good reviews and intriguing subject matter sealed the deal. Still, it was more or less a flop, and disappeared from theaters before I could make it in.

This is kind of another movie about identity. Joey has deliberately shed his old identity and built a new life as Tom. The whole middle third of the movie feels very existential to me: is Tom defined by what he DOES, or what he DID? Is there an underlying essence to Tom that he has somehow covered up? Basically, should we view a decade of good, wholesome fathering as an intrinsic part of his identity, or something he does alien to what he is?

The other theme is right there in the title, violence. When I first heard the title, I thought the emphasis was on "history". In other words, a sort of academic examination of past incidents of violence through human history. Several months later, while reading an unrelated story in the newspaper, I suddenly remembered that the phrase "a history of violence" is often attached to criminals in news stories. It's something someone HAS, rather than something they're IN. "Guido Marchusi has a history of violence" means that Guido has done violent things in the past.

When actually watching the movie, a third interpretation came to mind. It was closer to my first definition but more personal like the second, and puts the emphasis on "violence". Rather than "A History of Violence," it could be called "Tom's History of Violence," as opposed to his history of love. All those horrible things Johnny did are still there; you can change your future, but you can't change your history. All you can do is lie and cover it up, but it's still there and will continue to touch you.

The film isn't just about violence's potency; it also examines the nature of violence itself. I'd need to watch the movie again to be sure, but I think every time Tom acts violently, it's always in retaliation. He attacks the thugs after they've taken hostages; he hits his son after his son insults him; he chokes his wife after she strikes him; he kills the henchmen after they try to garrot him. There is something very primal in us that seeks to react violently when someone harms us or our loved ones; and of course, once we respond, the victim will become the attacker, and so on, until one party stops the cycle or one side is dead. And this seems natural to us; as the audience, our sympathy is with the victim, and we believe their retaliation is justified.

Anyone who watches movies sees this played out everywhere. Whenever the villain fights the good guy, he almost always starts off by hurting him. Once the good guy has been hit (preferably by an unfair shot), everything is fair game, and he can whale on the villain as much as he wants. But you need that initial trigger to get things going, or else the audience will feel uneasy about the hero taking the initiative in fighting or killing the villain.

The director is Canadian, and I can't help but wonder how much he thinks he is showing American attitudes towards violence rather than human attitudes. The excesses are distinctly American, even if the impulses are human. I think there's something in our culture that loves conflict; citzens of other nations may be just as violent, but we seem to celebrate it in a way many others do not. Other reviews have talked about this a lot, but one of the great achievements of AHOV is the way the movie causes the viewer to start thinking about their own relationship to the violence on the screen. We want to cheer when Tom shoots at the thug after being stabbed in the foot, even though we are repulsed by the sight of the man with his face blown away. This movie presents violence in all its gory splendor, much as Tarantino does, but lingers over the consequences in a way that builds unease. I think we Americans love to see guns shooting and punches landing, but are less enthusiastic about sucking chest wounds and torn tendons. We love violence but not sadism.

I think, though, that the movie gives itself an out: if you wanted to, you could watch it as the very thing it challenges, a gory mystery and revenge flick. It wouldn't take that much effort to turn off your mind and cheer Tom as he takes on the bad guys. However, people will be best rewarded if they question the movie while they are watching it. I highly recommend this movie, and am considering placing it atop my list for best movies of 2005. (Yeah, I didn't see that many movies last year. So what?)

Top 5
Just off the top of my head, and I may be forgetting something altogether. These are movies that were released in the US in 2005 whether I saw them during that year or not. Criteria is just that I think it was a "good" movie, as opposed to necessarily being "fun" or "enlightening."
1. A History of Violence
2. Howl's Moving Castle
3. The 40 Year Old Virgin
4. Good Night, And Good Luck
5. Sin City

Movies are good. I feel awkward about going to a theater by myself (did it for #2, #3 and #5 on this list), and I don't really have a group here to do movies with, so I end up seeing much less than I'd like. This does have some benefits - there are always enough good movies "on the list" that I'm never tempted to see a mediocre movie, so the quality of my cinematic experience is high, though the quantity may be low. I don't really have any specific plans to address this in the future. I trust my friends and several specific critics to make good recommendations, and try to make it to them when I can. Here's hoping for more good movies in 2006!

UPDATE 6/19/06: Agh, I just realized I left off Serenity! I'm sorry. That movie-going experience was probably #1 on the list - the preview screening crew was phenomenal, and it was a wonderful movie and a great coda to one of the best seasons of sci-fi ever. It terms of how "good" it is, I'd probably put it at #3 - nothing against the movie, it was excellent, but A History of Violence and Howl's Moving Castle were transcendent.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

There's a Bloodmoon on the rise

More than six months after I started playing Morrowind, I've beaten the final official expansion pack: Bloodmoon. While the storyline wasn't as compelling as Morrowind's main quest or Tribunal, it still offered some good gameplay enhancements that made it worthwhile.

Bloodmoon takes place on Solstheim, a Greenland-esque island mainly covered in ice and tundra. Incidentally, what is it with fantasy RPG franchises and snowy expansions? First we had "Baldur's Gate: Icewind Dale," now we have this. Anyways. On the whole the terrain looks more attractive on Solstheim than on the mainland, maybe because it's harder to mess up snow than to mess up mountains or trees (though Solstheim has both of these as well).

One big change for this was that, in addition to playing the expansion, I was also playing with several fan-created plugins. The Elder Scrolls series has a wonderful history of releasing its own development tools to the player community, and as a result, there's an incredible plethora of mods available for it. I'm not exaggerating; go to a place like Planet Elder Scrolls and look at the mods available for download: more than 3500 by my count. A lot of them are simple little patches, perhaps adding a new set of armor or a new race to the game. Many, though, are far more ambitious, changing the core behavior of the game or acting as standalone expansions.

The most impressive ones to me were "Better Bodies" and "Better Faces." I really, really wish I had installed these before starting to play the game in the first place, as it makes the inhabitants of Morrowind look much more like actual living creatures and less like hideous paper dolls.

What I liked most about the expansion was the strong Nordic flavor to it. The ebb and flow of the main quest is vaguely reminiscent of something like Beowulf, with mysterious monsters attacking from the darkness eventually being confronted in their lairs. There's also a continuation of the assimilation theme that is so common in all of TES; this time you must integrate with the Skaal tribe, an ancient clan of Nords who have held this island for generations. Again, this has a Northern feel about it; the plane between the physical world and the spiritual world is thin, and you prove your worth to the tribe by demonstrating your ability to face spiritual danger.

As always, there are more sidequests than main quests, though here the ratio is probably 2:1 rather than 5:1. (I've grown convinced that you could probably beat the main quest of Morrowind in a single afternoon if you cheated to give yourself all the stats, spells and items you need, yet it still took me several months of obsessive playing to rise through the ranks, gradually define and build up my character, investigate the living mythology and eventually confront Dagoth Ur.) The sidequests are pretty rote. There's a new faction here, the East Empire Trading Company. These quests are also of middling creativity, but what's really cool is seeing the EETC colony grow as you continue to help it out; it starts as just a few people standing around in the woods, and ends up as an impressively large, functioning community and mine.

Perhaps inevitably, the end of the main quest is a bit anti-climactic. (Spoiler alert.) After all, how do you top defeating Dagoth Ur and literally killing a goddess? The main villain here, whose name is something like Hircene, has a cool ominous background/prophecy, but is basically just a Daedra who appears once every age to, um, kill some people. It turns out that this time around he has his eye on you and three other people. So, either kill him, or you'll be dead! Which is a good motivation, I guess, but it feels pretty insular; you really aren't helping anyone besides yourself.

Now, it does do some stuff with werewolves. They're the only enemy in the whole game that actually impressed me. (Ascended Sleepers were a cool idea but impossible to take seriously.) They're fast and incredibly powerful. What's worst is when they hunt in packs; it's kind of chilling to hear a howl and then suddenly be attacked from four sides. There's a great attack/dream sequence, where you lie down in bed, then wake up surrounded by werewolves. I immediately pressed F and started swinging my mouse arround, but there was no response. It took a few minutes for my brain to register that they weren't actually attacking me, I was that strongly conditioned to fear them.

And the endgame is by far the most difficult part of the game. Well, not the literal final two battles; all boss battles are pretty easy because you can just do some summoning and carelessly drink all your potions. The two stages before that, though, were crazy hard; you navigate an extremely narrow maze filled with werewolves. The reason WHY this is hard is because you need to kill every single one of those beasts, since it's too narrow to sneak around them; each one probably takes 20-30 or so hits from a Daedric Wakazashi to kill; and as a result my weapons were almost totally blunted by the time I got through the first of the two levels. I was considering going way back to an earlier save just so I could stock up on everything before starting the endgame. This was the first time in any of the games that I've actually regretted not taking Armorer skill.

So, that's that. There are still a few EETC missions I could do, and I ought to report back to the inventor in Ald'ruhn about how his expedition went. I'm even more tempted to check out one of the highly-rated community expansions. Realistically, though, I think I'll declare this to be a good stopping point and will wait for Oblivion.

Which is another topic altogether. Now that the system requirements have been released, I'm going to need to decide how to approach getting this game. Not to put too fine a point on it, I'm about 1/3 behind where I need to be on all fronts: a 2Ghz CPU instead of 3; 768MB of RAM instead of 1GB; and a 6600 instead of a 6800 video card. A lot of people would point out that I could get an XBox 360 for less money than a top-of-the-line video card. Very true, but I have moral issues with getting a 360, plus Oblivion's the only game I'm really interested in for it, while a PC would let me do more stuff. Right now I'm contemplating doing something like I did for Morrowind: wait until 4 years after it is released, then pick it up in a cheap bundle and find that it runs effortlessly on my PC. Best of all, that'll give them a chance to patch up the game and the mod community will further buff out any annoying aspects of the game. RPGs probably age better than any other genre; I recently replayed FFVII since I never got Vincent the first time through, and was impressed again by the power that game packs. Oblivion is going to wow lots of people on the technical front when it is released later this year, but I'm content to wait and allow it to wow me with its story and atmosphere.